28 June 2011

Selective Evidence

Out of the blue this morning I received a phone-call from a man in Mississippi.  Months ago I had tried hard to answer a question from him, submitted to the USGS "Ask a Geologist" web-link.  He took my sincere effort to answer his question as sympathy, tracked me down, and talked long and loud over the phone to get me to agree with his theory:

That the Great Comet of 1811 was the cause of the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes.

Some background: 
1. The Comet of 1811 was a real humdinger, visible longer (March 1811 til Summer 1812) than any other comet until Hale-Bopp.  It came nowhere near the Earth.
2. The New Madrid earthquakes took place in the Mississippi valley where Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas touch. This point is apparently in the center of an ancient failed continental rift, where North America started to split apart (like the Red Sea), but then stopped after partially opening up the Mississippi valley. The first two New Madrid earthquakes were BIG: estimates from ground evidence (sand-boils, reversal of the river, etc.) put them in the Magnitude 8 range. That's comparable to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but these were felt far more distantly. Two large aftershocks hit the following January and February of 1812. Eye-witness reports indicate that the Mississippi River flowed backwards for about an hour, creating and filling Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, before returning to its normal course.

Basic fault physics, and the fact that the Great Comet never came within 10's of millions of miles of Earth, make anyone who spends 5 minutes following those links above discard any possible connection.

However, the individual on the phone told me that he has seen a sunken rim near his home, had found "thousands" of meteorites, and even "encased pieces of human bodies" on his property.  He also said a USGS seismologist agreed with him, but wouldn't return samples he sent her.

She was someone I knew, so I called her - and you probably would not be surprised to hear she had a very different story.  The sunken rim was an ox-bow of a tributary river to the Mississippi - something common with rivers in flat land.  The "meteorites" were a well-known regional sandstone formation.

I tried to ask this guy how he had dated the individual features to connect them - especially the meteorites and the "encased pieces of human bodies"?  He brushed past this and said that I must Google a topic - it would lead me to his website. He had built a website to support this theory of his.

[Early take away: treat everything you find on the internet with caution - even those Wikipedia links above - if it hasn't been vetted with a scientific peer-review process required by all reputable scientific journals. If as a scientist you based your hypothesis and subsequent scientific research on something pulled out of someone's ear, you can bet it won't get you very far - certainly not to the Truth.]

I work for the US Geological Survey, and have specific tasks I am charged with doing.  I'm not paid by the US Taxpayer to have fun and pursue what I might like to do, so responding to Ask-a-Geologist queries is something I do on my own time as a volunteer.  To stop the high-speed chatter from this man on the phone, I asked him to send me his important points in an email message.

The main take-away: as Federal scientists, these sorts of things are all too common.  We run into these all the time. There are two common denominators:

1. An individual has formed a strong opinion about something, and is frustrated that no one will agree with him.  They frequently say things like 'scientists are set in their ways', and 'scientists won't listen to an average guy if he's not educated.'
2. They do selective evidence-shopping: if something doesn't support their theory, they discard the evidence.

The first issue is understandable. They didn't work and starve for 10 years to get a PhD, and resent that someone with one asks inconvenient questions, or perhaps just blows them off. There are issues of kindness and respect here, and we all know brusque and impatient people, whether they have a PhD or not. It's probably understandable that someone who is busy on a project will have little patience with someone who didn't do their homework, and says things that make no sense to someone who has studied physics, or astronomy, or geology, or whatever.

The second issue is far more serious: selective evidence-shopping is the antithesis of science. It will never lead you to the Truth. That selective evidence-shopping in this case included mis-representing what a fellow scientist had said - he twisted his encounter with her to serve his needs. As you might imagine, neither she nor I wish to ever talk with this individual again, for fear that he will mis-represent what we way to someone else - that he will allege to someone else that TWO USGS scientists agree with him now.

It all boils down to integrity: if you're not honest, you will fail as a scientist. It may happen before or after you earn your degree(s), but you will fail. When people learn that you have been dishonest, they will never trust you, and won't waste precious time on you. Sadly, I've known people with enough brains to earn a PhD who can't seem to understand this simple principle. They never seem to understand why their careers dead-end.

SCIENCE REQUIRES HONESTY.  If personal integrity isn't important to you, don't bother to apply.


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