Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Treehugger is the place to go for BS science news

Based upon the drivel in their article "Could a Link Exist Between Super Moons and Erupting Volcanoes?" it's probably a safe bet that's science editor was dropped on their head a few times as a child.

The article features Donna O'Meara writing about Stephen James O'Meara. Gee, wonder why they have the same last name... The article is a fawning love letter to Stephen O'Meara that makes passing mention of him having a theory, but never provides any real indication that he has evidence to back it up. The "evidence" consists entirely of "Hey, this guy who photographs VOLCANOES thinks the Moon might make them erupt sometimes! He says he has some data too! He's really smart so you should believe him! Galileo! Einstein!"

The piece is peppered with pleading attempts to cast O'Meara as a luminary. Galileo is brought up as a comparison. There's also this bit of artistic license:

In 1985, Steve defied every written word about the limits of the human vision and became the first person on Earth first to visually recover Halley's comet on its 76-year return, using a 24-inch telescope and bottled oxygen at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

That's a breathless way of saying he went up really high and used new technology to see a comet, but his breathless biographer claims he "defied every written word about the limits of the human vision" by simply using new technology in the way its designers intended. You could say the same thing of the first astronomer who ever used the Hubble telescope. This of course assumes the claim is even true.

It's not until after a few paragraphs of irrelevant biography that you get to the actual claims hinted at in the article's title:

On a five day observing trip to Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica O'Meara's disciplined astronomy background led him to recognize a pattern in the volcanic eruptions that correlated with lunar tides and the Moon and Sun's gravitational pull. The 'Light Bulb' was lit!"

In the historic records a few people have noted lunar phases when viewing volcanic eruptions, but no one has ever investigated a serious link between the Moon and volcanoes and put it to a conclusive scientific test.

That's pretty much it. The article goes on to describe a few mechanics of tidal forces and further speculate on how the moon might impact volcanoes but never provides any evidence. Einstein is mentioned. A vague claim is made that the data exists, but no hint at what that evidence could be or when it is being published is ever offered.

It's clear the article writer doesn't really understand even the vague hints she makes as to what's being claimed. At one point the article points out that "In the historic records a few people have noted lunar phases when viewing volcanic eruptions". The problem with that is the actual PHASE of the moon isn't all that important to the theory. O'Meara's theory, such as it is, cares about the tides. The phase is merely the result of the Earth's shadow being cast upon the moon, not the gravitational pull the Moon is putting on that portion of the Earth at that given moment.

O'Meara's apparent incompetence as a researcher is highlighted, although unintentionally. Many volcanic eruptions are very well documented. If O'Meara is serious about proving his theory, why hasn't he gone over old eruption data and calculated the position of the moon in relation to those eruptions? The data to prove, or disprove, his theory is already recorded, all he has to do is process it. Why hasn't he? If he doesn't have enough confidence in his own theory to spend a few weekends doing rudimentary research to back it up, why should anyone believe him when he espouses it?

One of the final whimpers in the article comes in the form of a tired old chestnut popular among cranks, quacks and con artists.

new scientific ideas have been difficult, if not impossible, to prove to the prevailing scientific community.

People with no evidence often lament the pesky need scientists have for evidence. The bar can be high, especially when unseating an established idea, but it's this resistance to accept every new notion that floats to the top of a man's mind that keeps science grounded in fact and not fantasy. Anytime someone uses the boogieman of an entrenched scientific community as a way of defending their lack of evidence it's a red flag that can't be ignored. In the real world established theories are overturned on a regular basis. It's how science progresses and how scientists make a name for themselves. You don't get grants to re-prove something that's already established.

I have no issue with the vague details mentioned about the alleged theory. The notion that the Moon's gravitational pull could have some kind of vague influence on volcanic eruptions is, on the surface, plausible enough to warrant a closer look. My issue is with O'Meara pimping the theory using "science by press conference" with no data or research to back up his assertions. Supporting his claims with research would be more useful. Based on the claims made about his career in the article, O'Meara should know scientists need more than a smug smile and a few self-aggrandizing mentions of Einstein before they accept a theory.

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