Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jill-the-Ripper and dinosaur farts

For all of my love of science, I do get frustrated with academia sometimes.  There seems to be a regrettable tendency with some researchers to do nothing more than come up with an idea, and reevaluate the data we already had in light of that idea, and then pretend that they've broken new ground -- when in reality, nothing is new but the concept.

Now, I'm not saying that approach can't be fruitful on occasion.  After all, that's basically how Einstein came up with relativity; by taking what other scientists had already found (that light always seemed to travel at the same speed) and saying, "Maybe we should just start from assuming that light always travels at the same speed, and see where that leads."  And lo, he ended up revolutionizing physics.

Sometimes, though, these conceptual studies just seem to me to be arguing in a near-vacuum.  There are two examples of that in the news right now.

First, we have this story, entitled "British Author Claims Serial Killer Jack the Ripper Was A Woman."  A British lawyer, author, and historian, John Morris, has written a new book claiming that the notorious London murderer was not only female, but he identifies her as Lizzie Williams, wife of royal physician John Williams, and that she was motivated by fury over her inability to have children.

That Jack the Ripper may have been Jill the Ripper isn't a new idea, of course; a few years ago an Australian forensic scientist, Ian Findlay, tried to support exactly the same conjecture by extracting DNA from a stamp on one of the letters Jack the Ripper sent to the police, but results were "inconclusive."  Otherwise, all we have is the same evidence that people have been poring over for years -- the police reports of the murders, the letters, and what is known about people who were associated with the victims.

In other words, all Morris is doing is playing "what if?"  From what I've read, the evidence in the case could point in one of several different directions, and I've seen cogent arguments made for the guilty party being one of a variety of people (one of which is Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, Queen Victoria's grandson).  Speculation about which one actually committed the crimes is as pointless as arguing over who wrote Shakespeare's plays -- it keeps the academics busy but doesn't really advance our knowledge a whole lot.

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the field of paleontology and paleoclimatology, and hit the news in the form of an article entitled "Excuse Me: Gassy Dinosaurs May Have Warmed The Earth."  This one takes what we know about methane production in cows and scales it up to herbivores the size of dinosaurs -- and then tries to estimate the effect that methane had on the Earth's climate.

The paper, which appeared in Current Biology and was authored by David Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University in England, suggests that herbivorous dinosaurs might have produced 570 million tons of methane annually -- equivalent to the output from all domestic livestock currently.  If so, he argues, it could have significantly warmed the planet, as methane is known to be a greenhouse gas with a more powerful warming capacity than carbon dioxide.

One thing that seems certain is that the world was warmer back then -- by some estimates, 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average.  But it very much remains to be seen if dinosaur farts had all that much to do with it.  For one thing, we don't have a particularly good idea of how large dinosaur populations were back then; and even if we did, drawing a comparison between digestive processes in cows and those in dinosaurs is a conjecture in the first place.  Even the information we have on what the climate was doing a hundred million years ago is based upon inference from a variety of proxy records that don't always agree with each other.  So to estimate the effect that unknown numbers of dinosaurs emitting unknown numbers of farts had on a climate eons ago whose behavior is understood only in broad-brush terms is kind of an exercise in futility.

I suppose this sort of thing is harmless enough, really, and I'm not of the opinion that all science needs to be deadly serious; but you have to wonder if "studies" like this exist mainly to result in new publication credits for the authors.  As such, they're a little like masturbation -- they keep your hands busy for a while, and you feel a nice warm satisfied glow afterwards, but in the long haul, they don't really accomplish much.

1 comment:

  1. My memory of reading about this in my youth (hence excusing me from all errors by dint of passage of time -- or maybe I was just involved in a teenage 'prank') was that the prince briefly identified as a possible perp had been in Scotland during much of the time in question, and thus cleared (although he was a very odd duck with scandals to his name).