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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Peer Review: A Review

Posted by jlwile on September 29, 2010

The use of peer review is standard in most scientific journals. (Image Licensed from www.clipart.com)

Peer review is one of the most important concepts in scientific publishing. When I submit a scientific article to a serious scientific journal, it is generally reviewed by people who are experts in the relevant subject in order to determine whether or not the article is worthy of publication. These people are called “peer reviewers,” and it’s their job to determine whether or not there are any errors in the paper, whether or not the paper’s conclusions are reasonable based on the bulk of the data, whether or not the conclusions and/or data are novel or interesting enough to merit publication, etc. In short, the peer-review process is supposed to ensure that only “quality” scientific articles get published in the scientific literature.


I used the concept of peer review heavily when I wrote my award-winning science textbooks. Even though I have a PhD in nuclear chemistry, I don’t know everything there is to know about chemistry. Thus, in order to ensure that my chemistry text was accurate, I had other PhD chemists (and one high school teacher) review the book to catch errors so that I could correct them. As I started writing textbooks that were further and further from my field of expertise, I had to rely on peer review more heavily.

While the concept of peer review is an excellent one, the execution of it in modern science has been questioned in many different ways. Some scientists think that peer review tends to enforce orthodoxy, making it very difficult for new and revolutionary ideas to be published. Others see peer review as a way for the reviewers to keep people they don’t like from getting published. Others say that is a way for reviewers to punish their rivals.

Over the years, several studies have tried to address the validity of the peer-review process, and unfortunately, the results have not been very good.

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Well…It’s (Probably) Not Neutrinos

Posted by jlwile on September 26, 2010

Over the course of my scientific career, I have been drug, kicking and screaming all the way, to the conclusion that radioactive half-lives have probably not been constant over the course of earth’s history. Because of this, I have written about observations that indicate the half-lives of certain isotopes seem to depend on the distance between the earth and the sun. The essence of the story is that investigators have been measuring the activity of certain isotopes over several years, and there seems to be a periodic variation in their half-lives. The half-lives increase and decreased based on the season. In addition, when a solar flare was observed, a marked decrease in the half-life of one isotope was observed. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, I think the researchers have done a good job eliminating the possibility that the observed variations are due to some artifact of the experimental procedure.

So if the observed variations in half-lives are real, what is causing them? Well, the sun emits tiny particles called neutrinos as a result of the nuclear fusion that is powering it. The distance between the earth and sun would affect how many of those neutrinos hit the earth. The closer the earth is to the sun, the more neutrinos would hit the earth. In addition, the number of neutrinos hitting the earth increases during a solar flare. The observations indicate that in both cases (during solar flares and when the earth is closest to the sun), radioactive half-lives increase. In other words, radioactive decay slows down when the sun is hitting the earth with more neutrinos. Based on this reasoning, some nuclear scientists have proposed that neutrinos coming from the sun are somehow inhibiting radioactive decay.

The viability of that explanation was recently tested by a rather clever experiment, and the results of the test indicate that neutrinos are probably not responsible for the observed variation in half-lives.

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More Evidence Supporting The Young-Earth Theory of Earth’s Magnetic Field

Posted by jlwile on September 24, 2010

One of my “top five” reasons for thinking that the earth is only thousands of years old comes from studying its magnetic field. As I wrote in the post I just linked, the young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field (often called the ‘rapid-decay theory’) not only properly reproduces the magnetic fields of the planets, it actually predicted two of those magnetic fields before they were measured. When a theory can make predictions regarding unmeasured quantities and the subsequent measurements agree with the theory, there is strong evidence that the theory is true.

The young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field not only correctly predicted the magnetic fields of two planets before they were measured, it has made other predictions that were later confirmed by measurement. As discussed in the previous post, it predicted that rocks from Mars should show that Mars at one time had a planetary magnetic field, even though it does not have one today. That was later confirmed. In addition, it predicted that Mercury’s magnetic field has decreased since it was last measured in 1975. MESSENGER, the latest spacecraft to visit Mercury, did a “quick and dirty” measurement of Mercury’s magnetic field in 2008, and the measurement confirmed this prediction, albeit with very large error bars. I eagerly await MESSENGER’S more precise measurement to see exactly how close the young-earth theory’s prediction is to the precisely-measured value.

In the meantime, some geologists have come up with even more evidence for the validity of the young-earth theory of earth’s magnetic field.

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A Really Stupid Quote

Posted by jlwile on September 22, 2010

This quote seems to be making the rounds on facebook right now:

Saying that your vaccinated child is at risk of disease because of my un-vaccinated child is like saying I have to take birth control pills so YOU won’t get pregnant.

Of course, this is nonsense on two levels. First, it is a bad analogy, because pregnancy isn’t contagious. You can’t “catch” pregnancy from a person who is pregnant, but you most certainly can catch vaccine-preventable diseases from those who have them.

Second, unvaccinated children most certainly can spread disease to vaccinated children. For example, in 2005 an unvaccinated teen went to Romania on a missions trip and brought measles back to her church. 34 people in the church were infected, 2 of which were vaccinated. One of the 34 required six days of ventilator support in order to survive.

If you have been fooled by those who use misinformation to try to keep you from vaccinating, please learn the scientific data behind the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

The Amazing Archerfish

Posted by jlwile on September 21, 2010

I know…I know…I used “amazing” in my previous post. However, just as “amazing” is the best adjective to describe bowerbirds, it is also the best adjective to describe this fish. Let’s start with why it’s called the archerfish. It likes to eat insects, but rather than waiting for insects to fall into the water, it knocks them into the water by shooting them with a stream of water. You can see the amazing archerfish in action by watching the following video:

As the video tells you, the archerfish understands that gravity will cause the stream of water to follow a curved path, so it adjusts its aim accordingly. In addition, it compensates for the fact that light bends when it travels from air into water. This causes the target to appear at a different place than where it actually is. Nevertheless, the archerfish isn’t fooled by the optical illusion. It aims its jet of water where the insect actually is, not where it appears to be. If all of that isn’t amazing enough, wait until you read what some recent research has uncovered.

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The Amazing Bowerbird

Posted by jlwile on September 19, 2010

A Bower Built By a Bird (image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bowerbird_bower4.jpg)

Bowerbirds are incredible. They have a complex courting ritual in which the male builds a bower (such as the one pictured above) in order to attract a mate. The bower is often quite elaborate, and it is usually decorated with all manner of objects, such as flowers, shells, stones, feathers, and small fruits. Male bowerbirds will even include human-made objects like bottlecaps, coins, and pieces of glass in their decor. Females that are interested in the bower will watch the male put on his courtship display in the “court” of his bower, and she will also inspect details of the bower to determine whether or not the male is worthy of her. If she mates with the male, she will not use the bower as a nest. Instead, she will build her own nest to hatch and raise her young. Thus, the only purpose of the bower is for the male to attract a mate.

If the picture above doesn’t impress you with regard to the male bowerbird’s artistic prowess, consider this: In 1872, naturalist Odoardo Beccari was the first to record observations of a bowerbird’s bower. He thought it was made by a person, because he considered it too artistic and elaborate to be the work of an animal.1 Not surprisingly, as biologists have studied bowerbirds in more detail, they have become even more impressed with the artistic prowess of this amazing animal.

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Irony and Stupidity

Posted by jlwile on September 14, 2010

Marc Hauser is an evolutionary biologist on the faculty of Harvard College, which is (of course) a part of Harvard University. His research blends evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, and one of his areas of interest is the evolutionary origins of morality. In 2006, he wrote a book called Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and in it he argues that millions of years of natural selection have produced what he calls a “moral grammar.” Essentially, this moral grammar is a set of principles that are based on the causes of actions and their resulting consequences, and it allows us to build moral systems without reference to religion.

If you follow the news of science at all, you know that Marc Hauser took a leave of absence from Harvard, because the university began an investigation that eventually led to a declaration that Hauser was guilty of eight instances of scientific misconduct. While Harvard has yet to reveal the exact nature of the misconduct involved, it is related to both published and unpublished studies. One paper co-authored by Hauser has already been retracted, and there are widespread concerns about several other papers. According to the journal Science,

Hauser is the only author common to all of them.1

This, of course, is the “irony” referenced in the title. An expert in the evolution of morality has been found guilty of scientific misconduct, which (of course) is not exactly moral.

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Global Climate Models Fail AGAIN

Posted by jlwile on September 9, 2010

Dry earth in Mexico (Click for credit)

Much of the hysteria related to global warming comes from the predictions of computer models. As I mentioned previously, even the father of global warming admits that the currently-available data are not sufficient evidence for the hysteria surrounding global warming, but if you look at the “physics” (i.e., the computer programs that attempt to model climate physics), you see that more carbon dioxide means rising global temperatures. Indeed, much of the famous IPCC report that concludes “it is extremely likely that human activities have exerted a substantial net warming influence on climate since 1750″ is based on global climate models. That report further states:


Climate models are based on well-established physical principles and have been demonstrated to reproduce observed features of recent climate and past climate changes.

The problem is, when you test the models’ predictions, they generally fail. As I have already noted, model predictions regarding increasing global temperatures have failed spectacularly, and a lot of that has to do with how poorly those models take into account the negative feedback mechanisms that are a part of earth’s design.

Well, the global climate models have been tested again, and once again, they have failed miserably.

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Some Perspective on the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Posted by jlwile on September 3, 2010

Tugboats fight the flames on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
(Image in the public domain.)

The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was horrendous. Let’s make no mistake about that. Because not enough attention was paid to safety and environmental concerns before the explosion, an estimated total of 4.9 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons)1 were dumped into the ocean. The oil killed wildlife and will probably negatively affect parts of the environment for years to come. With that said, however, I want to look at the disaster from a scientific perspective. If nothing else, such a perspective will give you a deeper appreciation for the wonderful creation God has given us.

The first thing you need to realize is how much oil seeps into the Gulf of Mexico naturally. Probably the best estimate done to date was published by the National Academies Press. It indicates that about 140,000 tons of oil (about a million barrels) leak into the Gulf of Mexico each year due to natural oil seeps.2 So the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped as much oil as 5 years’ worth of natural seepage.

Now, of course, there are some big differences between the way the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled oil into the gulf and the way the natural seeps do it. First, the natural seeps release oil into the gulf much more slowly. Second, they release oil into the gulf over a wider area so it is not as concentrated. Third, since no one is trying to stop them, there isn’t all the pollution associated with engineers doing everything they can to stop a leak. As a result, the natural oil seeps do not produce the environmental devastation that the Deepwater Horizon disaster did.

However, because oil seeps naturally into the ocean, you would expect that the ocean has a way to deal with it, and indeed it does. What we have seen already as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster tells us just how well the oceans have been designed to deal with oil pollution.

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More Evidence for Variable Radioactive Half-Lives

Posted by jlwile on September 1, 2010

One of the foundational assumptions of the various radioactive dating techniques that attempt to measure the age of things is that the half-life of a radioactive isotope does not change significantly over the time period being measured. Even though we have been measuring half-lives for only about 100 years, those who want to believe that the earth is billions of years old are forced to assume that over those billions of years, the half-lives of various radioactive isotopes have not changed significantly. As I have pointed out before, this is a terrible extrapolation, and a careful scientist should avoid using it unless there are very good reasons to believe it is justified. As more and more data come in, it becomes more and more clear that there are very good reasons to believe it is not justified.

I previously discussed data that indicate radioactive half-lives are not constant, but over the past year and a half, some new information has come out that lends more strength to the claim. As I discussed previously, two independent labs noticed that the decay rate of certain isotopes were influenced by the distance between the earth and the sun. They produced a paper in 2008 reporting on their findings: the rate at which these isotopes decayed varied in perfect sequence with the changing of the distance between the earth and the sun1 Many in the scientific community blamed this on experimental errors such as environmental changes or problems with the detectors that were monitoring the isotopes. Studies published over the past year and a half, however, seem to have ruled out these possibilities and have lent even more credence to the idea that the sun influences radioactive decay rates.

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