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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.

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