The Art of Junk Science

I read an article in the local paper that a U.S. Senator had evoked the phrase “junk science” when explaining why Rachel Carson’s work should not be considered for an award in the U.S. Senate. He was speaking specifically about her work entitled Silent Spring, which used scientific findings to raise questions about the widespread use of pesticides. This U.S. Senator referred to the science in Carson’s work as “junk science.” And this senator has a background in medicine.

I checked the National Science Education Standards, and I couldn’t find any reference to “junk science” in the Standards, so I suppose that this term is not part of the Nation’s science education curriculum.

But it is a phrase some members of Congress use in certain circumstances, and there is a website called that Fox News would have you believe is journalistic. Except for the fact that Exxon-Mobile provides financial support to the web-master, a Stephen Malloy.

The term Junk Science is a recent one. For example the tobacco industry has used the term “junk science” to describe scientific research that demonstrated harmful effects of smoking and second hand-smoke. And indeed, they used another term, “sound science,” to direct your attention at corporate research that supported their position.

Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are supported by the scientific community. Junk science has been evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.

Now back to that U.S. Congressman that I mentioned at the head of this piece. It seems that a committee in the U.S. Senate wants to give an honor in memory of the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth for her contributions to science. The honorable Senator Tom Coburn had decided to block the resolution claiming that Carson used “junk science” to open the eyes of the U.S. public that pesticides were not a good thing to be using without looking into the effects on human health.

This topic is a very powerful one if you are teaching students about the nature of science. What is science? What are the characteristics of a scientific study that would be reviewed favorably by a panel of peers? What is “junk science”? And do scientists use the term “sound science,” and in what situations?

Some sites on the web that you might look to for planning a discussion might be:

Junk Science–An outline of the history of the use of the term, Junk Science, and some specifics on how the term is used.
Pseudoscience–A very interesting site written by Stephen Lower, a retired faculty member of the Dept. of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University Burnaby / Vancouver, Canada.
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science–A very good article published in the Chronicle Review of Higher Education.
The Scientific Method–A valuable site exploring the nature of the scientific method.

Project Green Classroom

This has been a year so far where the concept of “green” is moving into the mainstream, and is no longer relegated to “environmental activists.” However, we need to remind ourselves that it was the activists and the “gentle subversive” (Rachel Carson) who worked for years bringing environmental issues to the forefront.

Highlighted in this weblog entry is Project Green Classroom, an environmental science investigation. In this project, students investigate 6 elements of the classroom to answer questions related to the environmental quality of their classroom, and also as a way to inquire into the nature of environmental science.

Using very simple tools, students investigate the following elements: weather, air quality, the physical plant, populations, microbes, and trash. Observations are made and recorded on a data chart, and students are encouraged to compare their results with other classrooms and schools.

Project Green Classroom, can be used as a first step toward the exploration of things green, including the classroom, but the school as well. Links are included that take the investigators to green sites around the world.

Air Quality Awareness

This week is the EPA’s Air Quality Awareness Week. And it was a good choice of weeks to select as the ground-level ozone season has begun in Atlanta, and other cities, I am sure. I live in the Atlanta area, and yesterday and today, the pollution was very evident. Smoggy and getting warmer.

The quality of the air is a serious issue, and over the past 20 years, cities and towns across America have been subject to the Clean Air Act. The recent Supreme Court ruling faulted the EPA for its politically induced inaction on emissions. Now the EPA is required to enforce emissions, and this is a good thing for cleaner air in the future.

Project Ozone
If you are a teacher you might want to navigate to the Project Ozone website which is designed to provide teaching ideas on ozone. Here you will find a series of activities that you can do with your students, and links to websites that will expand their knowledge and understanding of ozone, what it is, and how to measure ground-level ozone. Project Ozone also deals with the upper atmospheric ozone, and ozone depletion.

You will learn how to monitor ozone in your home, school and community in Project Ozone by using a very simple, yet accurate monitoring system, the Ecobadge, which was developed by Gary Short of Vistanomics, Inc. I’ve used this monitoring system for over a decade with students and teachers from many schools, and have found it a powerful way to help students learn not only about air pollution, but how to conduct scientific research.

The Ecobadge: You insert a chemically sensitive card into the badge and after on hour or eight hours, you can determine the ozone level.

Here is a link to an EPA site that enables you to determine the quality of air in cities around the country. This is the EPA Airnow site, and it is a valuable resource for helping us understand the extent of air pollution.

This is a map from the AirNow site, which describes the air quality for the USA. The site has details for most major cities in the USA.

Airquality Webcams
And finally, you must go the EPA Webcam site, and use the images to see the air quality at sites around the USA. It is worth the time. Here is a scene from Boston, at dusk.

Boston air at dusk.

I hope these resources will be of value to you and your students.

Gliese 581c Inhabitants Visit Earth: Mission to the Blue Planet

As this week’s Newsweek article said, if you are Looking for Life? Try Gliese 581c. It turns out that astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Chile indirectly inferred the existence of an earth-like planet orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581. Slight movements (perturbations) of the star led to the discovery of Gliese 581c by the astronomers. These movements had to be caused by the existance of another body near the star. Astronomers released this information in April 2007.

ESO Observing Facilities

According to ESO astronomers, “We have estimated that the mean temperature of this super-Earth lies between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, and water would thus be liquid,” explains Stéphane Udry, from the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland) and lead-author of the paper reporting the result. “Moreover, its radius should be only 1.5 times the Earth’s radius, and models predict that the planet should be either rocky – like our Earth – or fully covered with oceans.”

Gliese 581 is a little more than 20 light years from Earth. It would take light 20 years to travel to the Earth.

This discovery extends the discussion on the possibility of life elsewhere in the Cosmos. As some have said, this is the first discovery of a exoplanet (a planet that exists in the Universe outside the realm of our sun) that appears to be in the “habitable” region. Astronomers at the ESO use a machine that is designed to detect exoplanets, and is the most sophisticated instrument of its kind. It’s called HARPS spectrograph(High Accuracy Radial Velocity for Planetary Searcher).

Now a bit of imagination. Suppose there is advanced life on Gleise, and not only have they developed a machine such as HARPS, but have figured out how to travel light year distances in Cosmos, and they have planned a Mission to the Blue Planet, which they discovered many years ago, and have spent years building the technology and space craft to make a peaceful visit to Earth using advanced “stealth” technology.

Visit the Mission to the Blue Planet website, and if you are a teacher, engage your students in a study of the Earth through the eyes of Gleiselings. All of the links and potential inquiries are included in the website.

What do you think?