Journalists Must Also Cover The Mistakes of Science

Science Journalists Are Only Telling the Stories Which Make Science Look Good, But Science that Guides Public Policy Must Also Be Informed By the Lessons of Science’s Mistakes

The unspoken truth of modern science is that many of the ideas you are already familiar with today are rooted in remarkably un-modern concepts and propositions that became popular for the wrong reasons: prior historical mistakes. As those mistakes become recognized, scientists will tend to understandably react by applying a band-aid. In the cases where these fixer-uppers fail to subsequently prove their worth (i.e., make useful predictions), it’s a dreaded signal that the theorists erred in their decision against framing a new hypothesis.

None of this would be a huge problem if science journalists were already cultured into the habit of watching for these unsettled science signals. But, today’s science journalists seem to perceive their mission less like lighthouse keepers, and more in the spirit of attorneys representing and communicating established ways of thinking. There is no apparent sense from their activities that science journalists today share responsibility in the mission to keep science on track.

When neither scientists nor journalists take ownership of teaching the most awkward stories of our biggest scientific blunders, our culture fails to unpack the associated lessons. Were these stories more widely discussed – a problem we can solve right now – those historical mistakes would surely teach our nation to be more humble about what we think we know. And testament to the fact that these lessons were never learned, scientific beliefs amongst Americans across all sorts of big, open questions have become overtly arrogant, overconfident, and in some cases dangerously bordering on extremist.

A curious aspect of the human mind is that it does not permit a vacuum. If awkward context that is crucial for understanding how we have arrived at our currents theories is not honestly provided, then the human mind will attempt to make do with stereotypes, narratives and other inadequate lizard brain shortcuts.

This is actually the current situation which has played out in the space sciences, and on the current trajectory, it will one day become the story we tell our children about how science-based policy ran the American system into the ground. The American public absolutely requires access to the lessons of our former failures in science to inform our decision-making on current scientific debates. Science journalism which can be shown to leave out crucial, relevant history leaves the public vulnerable to manipulation, activism and deception.

The Tragic Path We’ve Taken to Get to Climate Change Begins in Space

The story I’m about to tell should humble us all. I’m going to show foremost that you’ve not been informed of even the basic sequence of events which led to this current historical moment in science. And in the place of that recent history, you’ve unknowingly filled the gaps in with the narrative that has been marketed to us every day by science journalists that the path we’ve taken to our current ideas has been fully intentional and planned out.

Our biggest problem in the space sciences has been that we’ve tended to form very strong opinions about what it is we are seeing with telescopes long before all of the data actually came in.

It wasn’t all that long ago that people thought that the Milky Way was all there was to the universe; that the space between stars and planets must be completely devoid of any matter; that the electromagnetic waves we can see with our optical telescopes are the only type of cosmic waves that exist; that Earth’s “sister” planet, Venus, should be about the same temperature as the Earth beneath its thick cloud cover; and that since rockets would have nothing in space to push against, that they couldn’t possibly fly in space – not even to the Moon.

Since all of these earlier conceptions of our surroundings have proven to be spectacularly untrue, it’s imperative that Americans start to ask questions and talk about the mistakes that have led to this current moment:

The First Thing We Botched Was the Invention of the Rocket

When Robert Goddard, a professor, suggested all the way back in 1920 that we could send a small explosive on a rocket to detonate on the surface of the Moon so that the feat could be remotely witnessed with a telescope, he was widely ridiculed. It seems inconceivable today, but Americans of all sorts – even scientists of various specializations – tragically decided that rockets were impossible and even a joke deserving mockery. Goddard was sufficiently offended that he basically disconnected from American society to create the rocket in isolation. Yet, he kept communicating for some time with Germans and Russians, and the Germans would learn enough from those exchanges to create the V2.

The German V2 was in a sense an American rocket, in that it had all of Goddard’s key inventions. The American public has never fully connected the dots on that: At a time when Americans should have been cultivating an incredible strategic advantage, the public was treating Goddard as a crackpot. By 1944, nobody was laughing. The joke had started to look more like a potential nightmare. That’s when the Germans started launching thousands of V2’s at Europe. These were the first man-made objects to travel into space. Goddard was decisively vindicated.

Once American and British politicians later became aware of nuclear bombs, there was a rush behind closed doors to judge that the Russians would not be able to launch such a large weapon into space. The proposed algebra that showed the difficulty of the task proved correct, but the perseverance of the Russians was underestimated.

A book published just this week repeats a by-now familiar pattern that Americans prefer to tell the story of the rocket starting with JFK’s inspiring speech. Since the book is titled Eight Years to the Moon, I presume that the mistake of Goddard’s ridicule is yet again avoided. The author has chosen to selectively tell the history that makes American science look good, and it’s time that we question the wisdom of this practice.

At Around the Same Time, the British Botched the Science of the Aurora

In 1908, a little-known Norwegian published a book detailing his own harrowing polar expedition to study the aurora. In this work, Kristian Birkeland proposed that the aurora is caused by charged particles emanating from the Sun. Sydney Chapman, a Royal Astronomer, reasoned that Birkeland could not be correct since it was widely believed at the time that space is an empty vacuum devoid of matter. So, whatever this fellow from Norway was trying to claim about a connection between Earth and the Sun was surely mistaken; only light and gravity can bridge the two bodies.

In contrast to Birkeland’s electrically connected solar system, Chapman’s Earth stood in splendid isolation – a worldview which is suspiciously similar to what we see happening today in the climate sciences.

Never mind that Birkeland had supplemented his expedition with experimental work which successfully replicated, at small scale, his claimed electrical connection. Chapman would later refuse to even look at the experiment when Hannes Alfven constructed a replica. And even well after Chapman’s mistake had become widely recognized, he continued to publicly disparage Birkeland’s work. Lucy Jago concluded her biography of Kristian Birekland with the suggestion that Chapman’s ideas unnecessarily delayed the progression of geophysics by a half-century!

Then American Astronomers Botched the Electromagnetic Spectrum

When radio waves from space were first observed by radio engineers in the late 30’s, astronomers initially reacted that it was either a mistake or a hoax. You see, they already felt even by then that they had a good enough sense for what was going on in the universe that there was just no need for radio waves from space.

Today, it is recognized that most cosmic radio is of the type known as “synchrotron” – which is what happens when electrons spiral through a magnetic field. In most scientific disciplines today, moving electrons are today recognized as electric currents. Astrophysicists and cosmologists, by contrast, have decided to consistently avoid the “electric current” label to describe this same phenomenon.

Then We Botched the Space Age

An undiscussed consequence of Americans ridiculing rockets all the way up to 1944 is that space theorists were given far too much freedom to imagine what space MUST BE like. Without any ability to take direct measurements, they – not surprisingly – imagined an empty vacuum; Earth essentially isolated from things happening in space; and gravity running the show at all of the largest scales.

What we learned once we finally sent rockets up is that not only is the space between stars and planets not completely devoid of matter, but it is also permeated by an electrified gas known as plasma (electricity being the only other force which can work at the largest scales). Although the fact is rarely reported by science journalists today, many college-level textbooks today do convey the conclusion that 99% of what we see with telescopes is matter in the plasma state, and that a gas can behave as a plasma – conducting electric currents, exhibiting collective behaviors and forming into complex geometric structures – with less than 1% ionization!

Even if the disruptive implications of these 99% and 1% figures are today widely ignored by academics, these facts are plainly suggesting a future direction for scientific discovery.

Einstein did not even live to learn about plasma’s importance to space; he died in 1955, and plasma’s dominance would not be learned until 3 years later, in 1958. Very few Americans are today cognizant of this instructional chronology – probably because many experts insist to this day that there can be no significant implications.

Since people cannot learn lessons from stories that are not told, the American public still does not understand that it helped to botch the discovery that space is permeated by an electric medium. Theorists have repeatedly patched up their gravity-based theories, with disappointing results now incredibly suggestive that this was a mistake. And now lacking any humility from those former mistakes, the public, scientists and science journalists continue to ridicule people who believe that electricity flows through space.

Yet, that is exactly what Van Allen discovered, and what he clearly described in his April 1963 interview with Popular Science. Gravitationalists can still only account for something like 5% of the universe’s matter, yet they remain absolutely convinced that plus and minus electric charges must always screen one another in space, such that the electric force’s role in space must be limited (a conjecture they’ve never sought to actually test). The historical treatment of this rule-of-thumb Debye screening conjecture as a law of physics should be deeply embarrassing for the astrophysics community in light of a variety of recent acknowledgments in various scientific journals that electric currents can observably span distances of kiloparsecs. Electric currents spanning such distances are not permitted by the Debye conjecture. Yet, there’s never been even a discussion, to date, that a mistake has been made. It’s no small matter, since this argument has been invoked countless times online to defend cosmology against the concept of an electric universe.

That said, the electric currents which connect Earth and the Sun are now uncontroversially and routinely measured by space probes. And the poles of our solar system’s planets have by now many times been observed to light up in infrared heat when these electrical connections surge. But the public, with a foot still planted in the former empty space worldview, is today none the wiser. And that is why, despite our incredible engineering achievements in space, we have nevertheless botched the Space Age: Yes, we’ve learned of one of nature’s deepest secrets, but the way in which this was done has completely stunted the discovery’s cultural and scientific impact. Most people still don’t even know what a plasma is, even as scientists acknowledge that it constitutes somewhere around 99% of what we are seeing with telescopes!

And Then Scientists Botched the Greenhouse Effect

And now we turn our attention to climate change’s untold history – a story which begins as an investigation into Venus. As previously mentioned, there was once a mistaken belief amongst the scientists of the world that Venus’ temperature must be similar to the Earth’s beneath its thick cloud cover.

The first bold claim that a mistake had been made did not actually come from a scientist; it came from a Jewish Bible scholar and associate of Albert Einstein who had observed repeated references in ancient documents across multiple cultures that appeared to conflate Venus with a comet using analogies like beards and long flowing hair. From these unexpected references, Immanuel Velikovsky proposed that Venus must actually still be remarkably hot beneath its cloud cover. His hot Venus prediction was proven correct using remote observations, and the scientific community’s reaction was to simply reject the validity of Velikovsky’s inference. It would later become revealed that some of his fiercest public critics never actually read his published arguments.

Around this same time, the notion of a “Super Greenhouse” effect had started to gain some theoretical traction and even promotion by the television scientist celebrity, Carl Sagan. If your conception of a planet is that it stands in isolation from its surroundings in empty space, then the greenhouse effect could make a lot of sense as an explanation for how a planet at a distance from the Sun comparable to Earth’s might evolve to become a hellishly hot world. The scientific community decided to put together a multi-probe mission whose stated purpose would be, in part, to test this hypothesis for Venus – the Venus Pioneer mission.

The record clearly shows that the first glimpse at the results years later greatly troubled scientists: All combined, the multiple probes were reporting back that Venus was releasing 15% more heat than it was taking in! The scientists knew that this was a huge problem for the greenhouse effect because the hypothesis assumes that heat in should more-or-less equal heat out (also known as thermal equilibrium). Data from the Venus Pioneer landers reported upward heat fluxes from the planet’s surface – as if the planet was cooling down from some former event. But, the data was not completely clean; there were anomalies which a critic could use to discount the results – perhaps unexpected events that appeared to affect the probes as they neared the surface.

The scientists decided that the data MUST be in error. The mission engineers were sent back to the laboratory to discover how the instruments MUST have failed. After considerable effort, it was decided that the dataset would be corrected to reflect the greenhouse effect’s requirements. The final papers announcing the mission’s results leave no doubt about this. A mission that was initially intended as a test for the greenhouse effect curiously ended with the greenhouse effect applied to the results as an assumption!

Confirmation that this was a botched decision came just a few years later when the Russian VeGa-2 Venus lander confirmed Pioneer’s original finding of anomalous heat emitted by Venus’ surface. Velikovsky’s original hypothesis has, despite the scientific community’s best efforts, been twice vindicated.

It’s Time to Broaden the Scope of the Climate Change Debate

The story of the botching of the greenhouse effect is one of the most incredible, untold histories in the sciences. But, when this story is told along with all of the other untold histories of science which preceded it, it seems just par for the course.

Now that scientists and activists have decided to seek dramatic changes to our public policies, it’s time to start honestly talking about the many awkward details which have led to this current scientific consensus. Defenders will predictably try to limit the scope of the conversation to just the parts which make climate science look good, but our public policy must root in the lessons of our prior (some still ongoing) failures.

By pivoting the conversation to this expanded scope, defenders of science who are dismayed by academia’s current fascination with doomsday can leverage this applied pressure of policy changes to motivate deep, lasting reformation in the sciences – and of course finally take the upper hand in this climate change debate.

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