Environment

Four of the Most Dangerous Fraudulent Scientific Theories That Must Be Confronted

Climate-induced earthquakes, bottomless pits of oil, pet dinosaurs and a miraculous energy source: For the sake of public policy, it's important to debunk the lies.

With threats of climatic disruption, food and energy shortages, epidemics, waves of extinctions, and other calamities looming larger every day, reports from the world of scientific research are getting plenty of attention in the media. But at times, scientific conclusions become garbled in translation, leading to widespread adoption of some bizarre beliefs.

Weird science can be entertaining, and we can often learn something by debating even the wackiest claims. But in the end, for the sake of sound public policy, it’s important to know what’s true and what’s not.

Five years ago, I made an attempt to separate fact from fiction (and found mostly fiction) in seven scientific beliefs widely held by America’s religious right, from the myth that condoms are full of holes to the “discovery” that prayers uttered on one continent can improve the outcomes of medical procedures on another.

Here, I’ll examine a diverse set of four more claims, involving abiogenic oil, paleontological hijinks, hemp's value as a biofuel and an unexpected consequence of global warming. This time around, the weird science arises from various regions of the political/religious map, but there are two common threads. All of the claims have some bearing on issues of energy and climate change. And as with climate change, the average person’s decision whether or not to accept a given claim often appears to be determined not by physical, chemical, or biological evidence but rather by political-social-economic beliefs.

There are also lumps of truth hidden within the hype. And how our society decides to deal with each of these issues is not a trivial concern at all.

1. Is climate change responsible for the recent rash of earthquakes?

Deadly earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, China and Indonesia in the past two years—as well as the recent Icelandic volcano that has covered northern Europe in clouds of ash—have provided a stark reminder that this can be a very hazardous planet. But what if such natural disasters are not wholly natural? What if stepped-up geological activity is somehow linked to human-induced atmospheric warming?

On its face, that seems an absurd proposition, and we can all have a good laugh when, say, a celebrity asserts that “earthquakes and tsunamis” are evidence of rapid climate change. But don’t be too quick to assume that climate and geology are totally unrelated.

This question contains two implicit sub-questions: 1) Have earthquakes really become more frequent recently? and 2) Can warming of the planet’s climate trigger earthquakes (or tsunamis or volcanoes)? Let’s take the second question first.

Strangely enough, mainstream science does recognize mechanisms by which climate change can affect geological activity. Layers of ice thousands of feet or even miles thick are extremely heavy, and their melting can dramatically alter the relative forces pressing down on land masses. Removal of that weight near a major fault could cause rebound and slippage, triggering an earthquake or volcano. If it happens in the ocean floor or near a coastline, a tsunami can result.

Over the past 650,000 years, the planet’s sea levels have varied by as much as 400 feet above or below today’s levels. According to Bill McGuire, professor of earth sciences at University College London, past episodes of warming have unleashed powerful forces beneath the Earth’s surface. When glaciers across the globe melted rapidly at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, volcanic activity spiked, and underwater landslides created massive tsunamis. At the same time, increased earthquake activity rocked Scandinavia, Scotland and North America. There is even evidence that much more ancient, and dramatic, climate changes could have led to the rise of the Andes.

Even under the worst of the current global-warming scenarios, scientists don’t expect that we’ll see anything like the extent of ice-sheet melting that happened 15 millennia ago. But the rate of melting in coming centuries could be as fast as it was after the last Ice Age, and that could be enough to trigger geological calamities.

Despite such dire portents, there is no evidence that climate change is responsible for any recent earthquakes or other geological events. Even the widely felt impression that a recent rash of earthquakes is part of a rapidly rising trend (as reinforced by publication of dramatic graphs) is unfounded. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says the number of quakes of Richter magnitude 7 or higher has not increased at all. As for the higher numbers of smaller quakes being recorded, USGS points to “the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications.”

Adding to the impression that seismic activity has increased are the realities of continuing population growth—which means that an earthquake, tragically, is much more likely to affect large numbers of people than previously—and of growth in communications technology, which allows news of a quake anywhere in the world to be disseminated almost instantly.

But why have there been several massive, destructive quakes just in the past year? According to USGS, the explanation involves no more than simple, boring chance: “While the average number of large earthquakes per year is fairly constant, earthquakes occur in clusters. This is predicted by various statistical models." As stars viewed from Earth are clustered in constellations, not evenly distributed, earthquakes can be grouped in time. A long quake-free stretch of time simply doesn’t make news.

So there's nothing to explain yet. No need to bring in climate change or other external forces, such as the far more creative one that cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedigh recently invoked to explain frequent seismic disturbances in his country, Iran: "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

The bottom line is that the overall frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis has not increased, and that there is no evidence that human-caused climate disruption has led to geological disruption in our lifetimes—yet. Climate fluctuations have set off eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes in the past, and they probably will again.

2. Is the Earth continuously producing new oil—more than we could ever burn?

What if most of the oil deep below the Earth’s surface is not derived from biological material after all? What if the magma that seethes below the Earth’s crust is constantly creating new pools of petroleum? And what if we could pump from those pools, so that we'll never run out of oil?

That could be cheery news indeed, if only we lived in a world where the burning of fossil fuels did not threaten radical changes in the planet’s climate.

Ever since its original formulation more than a century ago in the Soviet Union, the "abiogenic oil" hypothesis has been capturing the collective imagination of energy optimists around the world. The roots of the hypothesis lie in a time when scientists had not yet discovered that petroleum was formed by compression of decayed biological material over millions of years. Once the development of new analytic techniques demonstrated oil’s biological origins, the abiogenic hypothesis was shelved by mainstream science.

But in the 1980s and '90s, Thomas Gold, a professor of astrophysics at Cornell University produced a long series of publications—culminating with a book, The Deep Hot Biosphere—in which he argued that methane (the main component of natural gas) and other small hydrocarbon molecules are continuously being generated deep in the Earth’s liquid mantle layer, and that they migrate through faults up into the crust; there, he wrote, they bond into the larger molecules that make up liquid petroleum.

Gold’s hypothesis has been shown to defy the laws of thermodynamics (pdf), but elements of it and other abiogenic scenarios persist on the fringes of the energy community—pumping up a belief in unlimited petroleum supplies, the existence of which is, in the minds of some, being concealed by big oil companies that want to keep oil scarce and its price high.

Belief in abiogenic oil is fed by several wells of evidence. Methane can come from mineral sources. It is generated, for example, in the rocks lining some mines. Most scientists who have examined such deposits have concluded that “resources of abiogenic energy gases in the Earth's crust are probably small and of little or no commercial interest.” However, some commercial gas fields are said to contain significant quantities of abiogenic methane (pdf).

A few oil deposits have been found in non-sedimentary rock layers where no deposition of biological matter would have occurred. But it has been shown that normal biogenic oil could have migrated through the Earth’s crust from its site of formation into those non-sedimentary layers. No significant reserves of abiogenic oil have emerged, and there is no reason to believe in the existence of reserves big enough to keep us driving SUVs far into the future.

In the sociopolitical geography of the Web, enthusiasm for abiogenic oil usually runs in parallel with denial of human-induced climate change. That is logical, considering that we are all susceptible to wishful thinking of one kind or another. There is widespread realization that as world oil production declines, life will become much more difficult, and who wants that? But a world with a virtually infinite supply of oil would be a dream come true only for those who refuse to acknowledge the role of fossil carbon in climate disruption. For the rest of us, it’s a nightmare scenario.

3. Was 'The Flintstones' a work of nonfiction!?

I apologize for this one, but no weird-science list would be complete if it didn’t include at least one of those fantastic claims commonly made by creationists.

Especially popular is the story that “humans and dinosaurs lived together, at the same time." In many such scenarios, our ancestors are imagined to have hunted dinosaurs, but it's not clear whether they also kept them as pets or used them for transportation.

(There is something of a link here not only to the belief that a perceived increase in seismic activity is a sign of the end times, but also to the abiogenic-oil question. Belief in the recent creation of dinosaurs often coincides with belief in the recent creation of oil, especially among “conservative, flag-waving, proud Christian Americans,” as one abiogenic oiler calls himself.)

One strain of “evidence” for coexistence of humans and dinosaurs is the claim that their fossil footprints have been found together in the same rock strata. Probably the most famous such mingled prints were found near the Paluxy River southwest of Fort Worth, Texas, starting in 1910. But had they been bona fide, the “human” prints along the Paluxy, at 15 to 20 inches long, would have had to belong to veritable Goliaths. Finally, in 1989, a team of scientists found conclusive evidence that the so-called “giant man prints” had actually been made by other dinosaurs.

Another debunked “discovery” involved the “Ica stones” of Peru, tens of thousands of small, rounded, apparently very old stones etched with fanciful figures. Some of those figures, it is said, closely resemble various species of dinosaur. When they first showed the Ica stones to outsiders in 1966, local residents claimed they had found them in a cave. But years later, they admitted they did the etching themselves, for sale to tourists. For artistic inspiration, they said, they had turned to “illustrations from comic books, school books, and magazines.”

Despite resolution of the Paluxy and Ica mysteries, the belief that live people coexisted with live dinosaurs persists. Even a certain ex-vice-presidential candidate from Alaska, citing footprint evidence, has proclaimed her belief in the kind of world where giant men might have taken their giant lizards out for a walk. And the spirit of Paluxy retains its tight grip on the state of Texas, where 30 percent of people believe the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, and another 29 percent aren’t sure whether or not they lived together.

In an election year, such beliefs could boost the prospects of politicians like a far-right primary candidate for Congress in Minnesota who has written a school curriculum promoting the idea that a Flintstones-like world of people and dinosaurs existed not long ago and believes that liberals want to “establish a ‘worldwide education system’ that teaches, among other topics, ‘global warming nonsense.’”

Of the claims examined in this article, this bit of creationist fantasy is the only one that contains not even a single pebble of reality.

4. Could hemp be the ultimate solution to fuel shortages and climate change?

Legal prohibitions on the species Cannabis sativa are misguided and highly destructive; however, some of the groups working for the worthy cause of marijuana legalization are, in their enthusiasm, making exaggerated claims for industrial hemp, the non-drug version of cannabis that is traditionally grown for fiber.

Here is a typical plug, from the Seattle Hempfest 2010 Web site: “Hemp plant can be grown in most climates, requires little fertilizer and water and NO pesticides nor herbicides . . . It preserves topsoil and subsoil structure as do forests . . . and actually restores and replenishes soil nutrients.” The site hemp.org declares, “Hemp produces more biomass than any plant practical for farming, substantially more than corn, sugarcane, or kenaf.”

But as an energy crop, hemp is incapable of performing any such miracles. Its yields of seed (for oil to make biodiesel) or biomass (to make ethanol via processes that are still in the development stage) are anything but extraordinary.

Published research on hemp is sparse in the contemporary peer-reviewed literature, and for legal reasons, there has been almost no recent field research on it in the United States. But there are enough data to compare hemp’s biofuel potential with that of other species.

In a field trial conducted in Italy under relatively good growing conditions, hemp yielded a healthy 13.4 metric tons of dry biomass per hectare (a hectare being just under two and a half acres.) But that was a ton less than kenaf, only three-fourths as much as corn and scarcely half as much as sorghum grown in the same trial.

All plants require nitrogen and other nutrients to grow, and hemp is no exception. In a three-year field trial across sites in Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, hemp produced 13.1 tons per hectare when fertilized with a relatively heavy 100 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare. But it's capable of gobbling up a lot more fertilizer than that. Increasing the nitrogen dose to a truly extravagant 220 kilograms increased hemp's biomass yield by yet another 18 percent.

A survey (pdf) of fertilization rates recommended for optimum hemp production in countries around the world range from 50 to 200 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen and 30 to 100 of phosphate.

A crop of hemp, like most crops, can survive a dry spell without being watered, but it will be stunted and yield less than it would if it got plenty of rain or irrigation. Under optimum growing conditions in Canada (pdf), hemp achieved 13.9 metric tons per hectare but yield dropped to 8.8 tons on poorer soils without irrigation.

What about hemp as a source of biodiesel? Oils make up a substantial 35 percent of hemp seed’s weight; they can be pressed out and converted directly into biodiesel. But when the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (NSAIS: pdf) ranked 48 plant species worldwide according to their oil yield, hemp came in among the bottom ten species, producing only 37 gallons of oil per acre. That’s only 14 percent of the oil yield of avocado, and 6 percent of the number-one species, oil palm.

Hemp is, as advertised, highly competitive with weeds and can be grown without herbicides. But if no herbicides are used and things don’t go quite right (if, for example, the timing of planting is a little off), a hemp grower can count on having an awfully weedy field. Pesticides and fungicides are not normally used on hemp, but that doesn’t mean insects and fungi can’t hurt it. Three hundred species of insect are known to attack Cannabis sativa.

Expanding the production of any crop encourages pests, and creating the right environment for high yields creates a good environment for insects and diseases. An Oregon State University research bulletin (pdf) emphasizes that much of hemp’s freedom from pests can be attributed to the fact that it is not currently grown on a large acreage. That would change if its acreage were to increase.

Hemp’s greatest weakness, however, is one that no amount of good farming can overcome: like most of our basic food crops, it is an annual species. It lives for a single growing season, dies, and must be re-seeded the following year. Our most serious agricultural problems lie in the inefficiency, waste and soil loss that result from our dependence on annual crops such as corn, soybean, cotton and wheat (pdf). As an annual, hemp would have the same vulnerabilities.

For energy cropping in particular, the agricultural research community is virtually unanimous in concluding that long-lived perennial species, not annuals, offer the best hope of sustainable biomass production. And perennials aren’t just more ecologically friendly; they have greater productive potential.

In a large Illinois trial, the perennial grass Miscanthus yielded 30 metric tons of biomass per hectare, 59 percent more than corn in that study and 100 percent more than hemp’s maximum yields in other studies. As for biodiesel potential, it’s no surprise that in the NSAIS ranking of oil crops, 17 of the top 19 oil producers are perennial species, mostly trees and shrubs.

But there is one final note, and it is an important one. Even if we took all 350 million-plus acres on which U.S. food crops are grown and sowed them to hemp or any other combination of biofuel crops, we could not satisfy our current national level of vehicle fuel consumption. But that wouldn’t really matter, because we would all soon die of hunger anyway.

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If any conclusion can be drawn from pondering these four issues, it may be that whenever a claim seems too good or too bad, or just too weird, to be true—it may be all three.

Stan Cox's book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) will be published in June by The New Press.