27 September 2008

Junk Science 2

There is another interesting link between some climate skeptics and my old friend Jack Kenney, the heroic advocate of the abiogenic petroleum theory: Both like the term "junk science". I have already written about the "junkman" Steven Milloy, who seems to think that much of the health and environmental science and especially climate change science is junk. This is pretty bold, as he takes on large areas of mainstream science that are well established and usually would seem to be examples of "sound science", the term that Milloy and others use as a counterpart to "junk science".

Kenney's definition of junk science is a bit more sophisticated: In his paper "Science and Junk-science", he lists several examples of junk science that probably most educated people would readily agree with. Examples that he mentions are alchemy, astrology, phrenology, and yes, "creation science". I fully agree so far (especially with the latest, which cannot be stressed too much these days as a creationist is aspiring for highest powers in the US...). Then Kenney adds some more controversial examples: Freudian psychology, Marxist economics, feminist gender studies, and so on. Surely Kenney leaves the realm of natural sciences here, so I dare not comment too much. Whether one likes these theories or not seems to be more of a question of political views than of scientific rigor. Anyway, this is all just a prelude to Kenney's real attack.

Other than Milloy who takes on various branches of science, Kenney attacks only one established scientific theory: That of a biological origin of petroleum, for which he invents the nice acronym "BOOP". According to him, BOOP is a dogma, held and defended by the British/American "geo-phrenologists". It should be replaced by what he likes to call the "modern Russian-Ukrainian theory of deep, abiotic petroleum origin".

Based on my direct scientific experience I feel less competent to dismiss Kenney's claims than those about climate change made by Milloy. There are many arguments against abiogenic petroleum, but the only one on which I have direct expertise is the He isotope story. Yet it seems to be a robust and strong argument against a deep origin of hydrocarbons in many (but not all) cases. Quite possibly there are indeed some abiogenic hydrocarbons out there (at least methane), but almost certainly most of the petroleum is biogenic, despite Kenney's claims that a biological origin is impossible.

Other than knowing about He isotopes (and other technical issues) and having experienced how willingly Kenney twists the most clear-cut scientific evidence, how could one figure out if Kenney is trustworthy? In his case it is not obvious that he is being paid for what he says, quite in contrast to Milloy. His debate is a conflict between petroleum geologists, both sides obviously being somehow involved in this big business. So how then can the claims be verified? One indication is that Kenney's papers aren't published in the most reputable journals, which they should be if his revolutionary theory were deemed to deserve serious attention. But of course he would say that this is just because followers of the BOOP dogma suppress any non-conformist views. Such a claim is in itself an indication for bogus science.

But I think there is yet another indication: The style in which Kenney's papers are written, which in several points violates usual scientific standards. A typical example is the way he attacks the mainstream theory ("BOOP"). One of his papers is entitled "Dismissal of the claims of a biological connection for natural petroleum". He is not satisfied with describing and supporting his own theory, he spends much time on dismissing and deriding the opposite view, often in a rather pejorative style. Opposing claims are shown to be "without merit", "insupportable", or even "intellectual fraud". Very well established methods such as carbon isotopes are called "obscure", other evidence is called "spurious", and so on. Many terms used in the literature are given only in quotes, not to indicate a quotation as I use it here, but with a pejorative connotation. Important statements are highlighted by bold face or italics and are repeated over and over again, without, however, ever providing real detailed arguments and evidence in their favor.

This style reminds me quite a bit of Khilyuk and Chilingar, and it is a sure indication of "junk science". No scientific journal in its right mind would ever allow such botch to be published. No conspiracy of BOOP-activists is needed to detect this flaw in Kenney's papers and hence prevent them from being published. If you want to be heard as a scientist, you need not only to come up with real evidence for your arguments, but also to follow certain basic rules of conduct, both of which Kenney does not. Just as a chess player refusing to shake hands risks to lose his reputation, a scientist unable to keep the debate to a factual level becomes untrustworthy.

1 comment:

  1. One comment on language:


    Almost any time you find the phrase "sound science" in US political lobbying means rejection of the precautionary principle.