Understanding scientific theories can be complicated

Many fundamental scientific principles can be easily explained and understood. But some science, like so many other topics and perspectives, can be complicated.

While we have talked about this in the past, some recent developments and discussions should prompt us to revisit what separates science fact from true “junk science.”

It is similarly valuable to understand why scientific research and the theories which drive such research is important.

Research is driven by a desire to prove or support something which we are nearly certain is true. The connection between lung cancer and cigarette smoking is a perfect example of such research.

Unlike the immediate reaction that takes place with poisons like drain cleaner, some smokers do not die from cancer or other serious respiratory diseases.

The tobacco industry used this fact to cast doubt on the cause-effect of cigarettes and lung cancer, casting a shadow of uncertainty that persisted for decades.

Like so many other theories, a wall of proof was built one brick of research on top of another. While this cigarette/cancer wall looks solid in 2018, the tobacco industry and those making bundles of money from its sale kept trying to kick down the wall.

This became harder and harder to do as the wall of research became more massive and well cemented.

One of the reasons this happens is because theories are often found to be imperfect. But since most theories start with the observations of obvious facts, the basic premises of most of them prove to be true. Making detailed predictions can be difficult, however. This is why mid-range weather reports often talk about trends, rather than precise temperatures or precipitation amounts next week.

We should not discount an entire theory because the researchers miscalculated a detail. Especially when studying environmental challenges, many details have been wrong, but seldom has the larger scale conclusion been found to be much off the mark.

In the hope of shocking society into action, a number of environmental books from the 1970s predicted gloom and doom for the 21st century. Some made bold predictions about the collapse of societies, widespread depletion of energy resources, catastrophic food shortages, contaminated water supplies, and the mass exodus of people from dangerous or polluted places.

While such calamities have not been as widespread as predicted by Paul Ehrlich, Barry Com-moner or Donella Meadows’ forecast in their best-selling books.

They have all occurred in the poorest parts of the world. But since they don’t often happen to those we know or love, we disregard them because they are someone else’s problem.

Like these issues first raised in the seventies, contemporary environmental concerns are being discounted as “junk science” despite having gone through peer reviews and exhaustive research. While there will be inaccuracies and some forecasted details may not happen when and where predicted, the general points will likely hold true.

Climate change is difficult to deny. The pesticide chlorpyrifos is a potent neurotoxin to children exposed to it. Lead and asbestos exposure remain serious health problems. Gas guzzling vehicles produce multiple environmental challenges.

An overwhelming majority of scientists agree on all these points. We should question the motivation of those making millions from ignoring these risks when they tell us itís all junk science.

John Frederick (johnjfrederick.com) reflects on environmental issues every other Wednesday.

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