The Inquisition Strikes Again!

On August 4, 2004, an article by Stephen C. Meyer appeared in a rather obscure peer-reviewed journal entitled The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington,1 and it quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. Why? Did it contain fabricated data? No. That kind of thing doesn’t produce nearly as much controversy. One study, for example, says that 14% of scientists have observed their colleagues fabricating, falsifying, and modifying their data, and 72% have observed their colleagues engaging in questionable research practices.2 Did the article contain egregious errors? No. While the article has many detractors, their criticisms were leveled more at the fact that it was published than at the content of the work.

So what caused the controversy? This peer-reviewed article not only had the audacity to argue that the current view of evolution can never hope to explain life as we see it today, it actually dared to say:

An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate–and perhaps the most causally adequate–explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent. For this reason, recent scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate as biologists continue to wrestle with the problem of the origination of biological form and the higher taxa.

That’s what caused the controversy. This well-reasoned paper, full of serious data-based arguments, was an attack on the scientific orthodoxy of the day and dared to argue that intelligent design was a reasonable scientific alternative. As a result, the Inquisition was mobilized. In the end, the publisher of the journal released a statement repudiating the article, the editor of the journal was branded a heretic, and he was then targeted for retaliation and harassment. After the dust had settled, the biological community breathed a sigh of relief, because orthodoxy had been successfully enforced. Another editor would surely think twice before allowing a well-reasoned argument for intelligent design to be published in his or her peer-reviewed journal, regardless of its quality.

Well, it seems that biology isn’t the only scientific field where orthodoxy is enforced by the Inquisition.

About a month ago, I posted a discussion of a research article published by the obscure peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing. The first author is an expert at using satellite data to interpret climate, and the paper used some of NASA’s best data to form its conclusion. While it had some shortcomings (as I mentioned in the post), it was a serious, well-founded analysis of current climate models, and it demonstrated that (as we already know) the models have major shortcomings and should not be taken nearly as seriously as groups like the United Nations want them to be taken.

This, of course, is another attack on scientific orthodoxy. After all, global warming is considered “gospel truth” by the high priests of climate science, and one of their main arguments is the predictions of global climate models. This study used high-quality data to show that those predictions are far from reliable. Unfortunately (as I discussed in my previous post), some commentators went way too far, saying that the study blew “a gaping hole in global warming alarmism.” While such statements were clearly unwarranted, the problem remained that the high priests of climate science were rather annoyed that someone would publish such a direct attack on their orthodoxy.

So once again, the Inquisition was mobilized. In this case, it convinced the editor of the journal to resign with a very public apology. The editor says that the paper was given three high-profile reviewers, and the reviewers suggested one major and one minor revision. The authors complied with the suggestions, and the paper was published. Thus, there was no problem with the peer-review process. However, the editor thinks the three reviewers all happened to agree with the authors when it comes to the fact that global warming is not the big problem everyone makes it out to be. As a result, the reviewers didn’t see any need for the authors to include any dissenting opinions in their paper.

The editor then goes on to say this:

In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents.

So there wasn’t any scientific misconduct involved. The peer-review process went smoothly and correctly. There weren’t even any clear-cut errors in the paper. The problem seems to be that the paper didn’t include any mention of dissenting opinions. And for this terrible offense, the editor resigned.

The problem is, I haven’t read very many scientific papers that do include dissenting opinions. Generally, a paper discusses data and then discusses the authors’ conclusions based on the data. Some authors do mention dissenting views, but such papers are the exception, not the rule. How many peer-reviewed papers that claim global warming is real and human-induced include the opinions of the climate scientists who disagree with that claim? I can’t think of one. So when you follow scientific orthodoxy, you don’t have to include dissenting opinions. However, if you have the audacity to challenge orthodoxy, you have to include dissenting opinions, or the inquisition will come after you.

It’s truly sad that science has devolved to this level, at least when it comes to certain fields.


1. Stephen C. Meyer, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117: 213-239, 2004.
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2. Daniele Fanelli, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data,” PLoS One 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738, 2009. (Available online)
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15 thoughts on “The Inquisition Strikes Again!”

  1. Dr. Wile,

    I saw a blog comment on this and wondered if it was you, so I come over here and see you have a whole post about it. My main understanding of this was that Wagner didn’t have to resign, he could have just retracted the paper if it was really that bad, right?

    I have another question for you about the whole “global warming” thing… Does the whole concept of average global temperature even make sense? I mean, I live in a major metropolitan area on the east side of the Rockies. The temperatures from one suburb to another could vary by 15 to 20 degrees, depending on the, uh, weather conditions. (I know, climate is not weather, or so those experts say.) If they were take the average of the temperatures in our area it wouldn’t really tell you anything about the local climate. So, how can a global average of ground temperatures tell us anything about the overall global climate? (I thought climate was local, anyway – you know, arid, desert, coastal, etc.)

    My other question is, is there really any true way to test these global warming theories? I mean, can you make an “atmosphere like earth and add more CO2 or more sunlight or less sunlight or more clouds” to test the hypothesis? It seems to me that you can’t really build a physical model of the earth to test these theories. So, it turns into things like origins “science” because there is no way to test the theories because we can’t go back to nothing existing…

    Anyway, random thoughts and questions from a home-schooling, skeptical, mom…

    1. Thanks for your comment, Trish. You are correct that the paper could have been retracted, but that is generally done if there are demonstrable errors in the paper that affect one or more of the conclusions. There are no such errors in the paper, so retraction doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, something had to be done to defend the orthodoxy of climate science, so the high priests extracted a pound of flesh in the form of a public apology and resignation.

      I do think that the concept of an average global temperature does make sense, specifically because weather is so variable from place to place. Since the local temperature depends on all sorts of local effects, it can’t tell you anything about overall climate trends. However, if you average things all over the globe, then hopefully those local effects get averaged out, and you are left with a much more meaningful trend.

      At the same time, however, I think that the idea of being able to construct global average temperatures using thermometers is absurd. First, there are lots more thermometers on the land than on the sea. Thus, any averaging that you do will be biased towards the land. However, the earth is almost 3/4 sea! Second, thermometers tend to be fixed, but cities (which collect and store heat) tend to grow. Thus, land-based thermometers are sensitive to land use trends as well as trends caused by global climate. This makes interpreting their measurements rather difficult. To get a good average global temperature, you need some sort of unbiased way of measuring global temperatures. In my mind, satellites give you that unbiased view of global temperatures, and even though they have been around for only 30 years or so, they show no long-term trend in global temperature.

      There is no true way to test global warming hypotheses (they are definitely not sound enough to be considered theories). You can’t build a physical model and then make changes to see what happens. Thus, you need to do two things: look at long-term trends in the data and test the computer models that can be made. So far, the most unbiased globally-averaged temperatures (those that come from satellites) show no trend in global temperature, and the computer models have failed most tests that they have been given. This is why I don’t see global warming as a real threat. The only serious evidence for it comes from computer models, and the computer models simply do not work (see here and here for two other studies that demonstrate this fact.)

      Keep on being a homeschooling, skeptical mom, Trish. Your children will benefit from both.

  2. Thanks for your response, that helps some… I was a computer programmer before becoming a mom, so I’m aware that you can make the computer models show anything you want if you’re not allowing anyone to look at the code… Which is why I have serious doubts about it all.

    It frustrates me that the MSM (main stream media) just spouts all this stuff like “the science is settled” on global warming, when it is not. We still don’t understand how the whole climate system works together. There’s all those ocean currents, there’s ocean oscillations, there’s the sun, and who knows what else. Besides, I think God would design it so the earth could handle a little extra CO2. He made the so-called fossil fuels, after all. We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for those.

  3. Dr. Jay, I have a few questions about a conversation that transpired in the comments section of your post about opal formation rates, but unfortunately the comments are now closed! I hope you don’t mind if I ask the questions here.

    My first question is similar to Jason’s question concerning observations in stars that might indicate decay rates have been accelerated. Roger Wiens argues in Hugh Ross’s September 18, 2003 audio broadcast about the RATE project that our observations of supernovas show that radioactive decay rates have not changed significantly in the past. He says:

    “We see light from supernovae, and those supernovae and their light, which we see shortly after the explosion, is [sic] powered by radioactive decay. Supernovae 1987a…was the first time when we had spacecraft out there which could actually see and identify gamma ray lines from the radioactive decay. And so for the first time we were able to confirm that cobalt-60 and iron-55 were in fact decaying from these supernovae…These supernovae are a long ways away…160,000 light years away…So 160,000 years ago, in a nearby galaxy, we know that the radioactive decay of cobalt-60 was the same, exactly as it is now.”

    What are the implications of these observations to the accelerated decay hypothesis?

    My second question is about half-life changes in general. Does a change in half-life always require an input of energy high enough to overcome the forces in the nucleus? If so, is it true that whatever mechanism would be successful in accomplishing half-life changes on earth would also melt the rocks and reset the radioisotope “clock”?

    Also, regarding the formation of opals, the study you cited in your post does show that opals in a particular environment formed in a short time period, but does that necessarily mean that there aren’t other situations where opals still may require longer periods of time to form?

    1. Great questions, Dan! First, the discussion by Weins really has no relation to the accelerated decay hypothesis at all. I am not sure if he is aware of this, but the gamma rays that come from the decay of cobalt-60 are not really from cobalt-60. Cobalt-60 decays via beta decay to become nickel-60, which is a stable isotope. However, because of the beta decay that produced it, the nickel-60 has excess energy. It then releases that energy in the form of two gamma rays, which is what Weins is discussing. Although the gamma rays would not exist had cobalt-60 not decayed, they are not a probe of cobalt-60 or its rate of decay. They are a probe of the nuclear energy states available in nickel-60, which is stable and would presumably not be affected by accelerated radioactive decay.

      The iron-55 observations have even less to do with accelerated radioactive decay. This isotope decays via electron capture to manganese-55, and then that manganese-55 emits X-rays (not gamma rays) when its electrons decay to their new ground state. Thus, the X-rays observed are not even a probe of the nucleus of the stable manganese-55 isotope. They are a probe of the available electron energy states in manganese-55, and that, of course, has nothing to do with radioactive decay.

      There is something else to note as well. The accelerated decay hypothesis rests on the idea that radioactive decay was abnormally large during a discrete episode in the past. It does not assume that they have been constantly variable. Thus, even if you could probe radioactive decay rates by observing distant supernovae (and perhaps you can – just not as Weins describes), those supernovae would have to have occurred during that discrete episode to exhibit the accelerated decay. So had supernovae 1987a happened before the acceleration period started, or even a day after it was over, you would not expect it to exhibit any peculiarities when it comes to radioactive decay.

      I am not sure you understand the heat problem. It’s not that radioactive decay requires an input of energy in order to happen. It does not. You can certainly force it to happen by inputting energy, but that’s not how it happens naturally. A radioactive isotope will decay spontaneously without the addition of energy. However, radioactivity produces energy. The alpha and beta particles that are released (as well as any subsequent gamma rays) contain energy, and that energy generally gets deposited in the material through which the particles and rays pass. Thus, radioactive decay “heats up” the surroundings. If radioactive decay were to have been sped up at the rate suggested by the Humphreys study, there would be an enormous amount of energy released very quickly. I haven’t seen serious calculations, so I am not sure it would be enough to “melt rocks and reset the radioisotope “clock,” but it would make things very, very hot. Those who are involved with RATE are investigating possible solutions, but this is most certainly an unresolved problem associated with the accelerated decay hypothesis as it exists today.

      You are very correct that the study cited in the original post does not preclude the concept that opals could take longer periods of time to form somewhere else. However, it shows that the idea that opals require a long time to form is quite incorrect. Also, it shows how easily the assumption of “long periods of time” can distract scientists from finding the real explanation. Because scientists waved the magic wand of millions of years, they thought that exotic chemistry could explain the formation of opals. As a result, they didn’t look for other more reasonable explanations.

  4. Thanks for your explanations and answers to my questions, Dr. Jay. They are helpful, as always.

    My second question actually wasn’t about the well-known “excess heat” problem that is often mentioned in the context of accelerated radioactive decay. The issue isn’t the enormous amounts of heat GENERATED by accelerated decay, but about the energy that might be required to affect the nucleus in such a way as to INDUCE accelerated decay. In other words, does a change in the half-life always require enormous amounts of energy? I have been discussing this issue with someone who has studied physics more that I have, and he claims that any change in nuclear decay rates would require energy input “on the scale of the strong nuclear force,” which would affect molecular binding forces and melt the rocks. This is supposedly aside from (and in addition to) the excess heat generated by accelerated radioactive decay.

    To clarify, I never intended to imply that “radioactive decay requires an input of energy in order to happen.” Rather, I was asking if the ACCELERATION of radioactive decay requires an input of energy in order to happen.

    1. I am sorry I misinterpreted your question, Dan. The person with whom you are speaking is not correct. If I add energy to a radioactive nucleus, it can certainly speed up the radioactive decay. However, if I add energy to a radionuclide, that energy doesn’t heat up the surroundings. It goes into the radionuclide. You have to further assume that the addition of energy to the radionuclide is so inefficient that a lot of energy gets transferred to the surroundings. Only then does the wasted energy end up heating the surroundings.

      More importantly, none of the proposed mechanisms for the acceleration of radioactive decay deal with adding energy to the radionuclides. Instead, they deal with variations within another dimension, variation of the nuclear force strength, varying the mass of the pi meson, etc.

    1. Definitely not, Dan. In the Reifenschweiler experiment, the temperature was varied, but only from room temperature to 400 C. That’s not an amount of energy that is expected to affect the nucleus in any way. In the experiments that show half-life changes that seem to coincide with the earth/sun distance, there was no energy input. The sources were simply left to decay and monitored closely.

  5. Interesting. I didn’t think so, and that’s what I said to the person before, but he insisted that those energies were involved even in those experiments, without explaining how.

    1. Well, both studies are available online and neither of them make any mention of using such energies. If the person with whom you are speaking says otherwise, he obviously hasn’t read the papers.

  6. Hi Dr. WIle,

    I’m an Apologia student, and a great fan of your work and your blog. 🙂

    I must honestly say -your blog gives a very objective view on things, amongst many of the other Creationist magazines/articles. Like Creation Magazine, for instance, which seems to be pretty biased, facts aside.

    Um, also, there has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I’m try to gather info from several more reliable sources -mainly about Peak Oil and the are-we-really-gonna-run-out-of-oil-in-40-years question. 😛 Might you have posted something in your blog about the Oil-Shortage theories? Or if not, how seriously should it be taken? Are the very passionate, and typically hawked as scientifically proven, outcries really valid? Or, better yet, have you posted something on the topic before, that you could link me to it in this blog?

    God bless,

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Joshua. Unfortunately, I have not really looked into the Peak Oil issue. I do know that there is some evidence that oil is not necessarily a fossil fuel. While the evidence is far, far, far from conclusive, if it is true, it is possible that oil is actually a renewable resource.

      From a much more practical standpoint, my view is that if we are running out of oil, it will become more and more expensive. At some point, it will become so expensive that there will be a huge push to find an alternative. If history is any indication, someone will figure out a good alternative. Thus, I don’t give the issue much thought. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but that’s the reason I haven’t really looked into it.

  7. Hello there, I really like your blog. Is there some thing I can do to receive updates like a subscription or some thing? I’m sorry I’m not acquainted with RSS?

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