Archive | August 2014

Why Tabloid Journals Are a Threat to Science

GG mentioned Carl Wunsch’s renaming of Nature and Science as “near-tabloid journals” recently.  The context and the screed are worth repeating, so we’ll just quote the whole from the 2010 paper in which this appeared which, while discussing paleoclimate reconstructions, applies to many other parts of earth science.  It is well worth thinking about…

Some of the published exaggeration of the degree of understanding, and of over-simplification is best understood as a combination of human psychology and the pressures of fund-raising. Anyone who has struggled for several years to make sense of a complicated data set, only to conclude that “the data proved inadequate for this purpose” is in a quandary. Publishing such an inference would be very difficult, and few would notice if it were published. As the outcome of a funded grant, it is at best disappointing and at worst a calamity for a renewal or promotion. A parallel problem would emerge from a model calculation that produced no “exciting” new behavior. Thus the temptation to over-interpret the data set is a very powerful one. Similarly, if the inference is that the data are best rationalized as an interaction of many factors of comparable amplitude described through the temporal and spatial evolution of a complicated fluid model, the story does not lend itself to a one-sentence, intriguing, explanation (“carbon dioxide was trapped in the abyssal ocean for thousands of years; ” “millennial variability is controlled by solar variations”; “climate change is a bipolar seesaw”), and the near-impossibility of publishing in the near-tabloid science media (Science, Nature) with their consequent press conferences and celebrity. Amplifying this tendency is the relentlessly increasing use by ignorant or lazy administrators and promotion committees of supposed “objective” measures of scientific quality such as publication rates, citation frequencies, and impact factors.* The pressures for “exciting” results, over-simplified stories, and notoriety, are evident throughout the climate and paleoclimate literature.

The price being paid is not a small one. Often important technical details are omitted, and alternative hypotheses arbitrarily suppressed in the interests of telling a simple story. Some of these papers would not pass peer review in the more conventional professional journals, but lend themselves to headlines and simplistic stories written by non-scientist media people. One has the bizarre spectacle of technical discussions being carried on in the news columns of the New York Times and similar publications, not to speak of the dispiriting blog universe. In the long-term, this tabloid-like publication cannot be good for the science–which developed peer review in specialized journals over many decades beginning in the 17th Century–for very good reasons.


*Note, for example, that Stommel’s now famous 1961 paper [on thermohaline circulation] was apparently cited only once in the first 21 years after its publication–and that was by Stommel himself. Many important scientific contributions took years to be understood and appreciated. Scientists have also learned how to “game” the citation system.

Death of Letter Journals

Can we please just kill the letter journals now? You know, NatureScience, Geology? Because calling them scientific journals is increasingly a joke.

The typical article in these journals of late is an introduction, a discussion and a conclusion.  The data and methods?  Why those are in the supplemental materials. Editorials are written this way, scientific communications rely on the data and the methods used to analyze them. So it is time to strip these journals of the prestige usually accorded them and recognize them for what they are: collections of extended abstracts with controversial conclusions. Supplemental materials should be limited to large data tables and, occasionally, some specific details of data collection that do not bear on the analysis.  This is increasingly not the case.  Many papers published in these tabloid journals (following Wunsch’s 2010 naming) have supplemental materials that are longer than the published paper, and this is the growing trend.  So to really understand these papers, you have to read something 2 or 3 or 4 times the length of the thing that is supposedly the journal article.

This is too bad for those few true short papers (they do exist but are increasingly rare), but it is time to recognize that the age of the letter journal is past. We have a choice now between continuing to publish these extended abstracts and pretend that they mean something and simply moving on to restore journal articles to be complete entities as they had been in the past.  GG votes for real journal articles.

Flexing mountains

One of the curious problems in tectonics is seeing how ancient mountains worked.  You can look at the guts of such mountains and see faults and folds and such not, but figuring out the timing of these features can be tricky.  In contrast, next door to many mountains are piles of sediment that accumulate as the mountains grow.  Some of these basins are bounded by normal faults, which have their own problems, but a lot of them are bounded by thrusts and the basins themselves are considered to be flexural in origin: the weight of the mountains pushes down the plate, making a hole next to the load–a convenient place to store sediment being eroded off the mountains (the foredeep, a common feature of compressional mountains).  Plate flexure is cute in that while the stuff near the load goes down, at some distance farther away things go up (which is called the forebulge) and even farther out the surface should go down a little (the backbulge basin).

Now where this idea works really well is in the oceans. Loads from volcanic chains make beautiful moats around them. At trenches, where ocean floor is bent down under the overriding plate, we see the forebulge and get earthquakes consistent with the development of these features. But where this idea gets applied most in geology is in trying to interpret the foredeep. Issues with this are the subject of a new Geology paper by Guy Simpson

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A bit more methane…

new paper in Nature Geoscience documents a large number of seeps of methane gas emerging from the continental margin.  While it has been known for some time that there were large volumes of methane trapped in passive margin sediments, there wasn’t evidence that this methane was interacting with the ocean or atmosphere.  This paper (as the accompanying News and Views article helps make clear) shows that there is a substantial interaction and that most of the seeps, lying as they do at the very upper end of the range where methane ices are stable, might be sensitive to changes in water temperatures.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is another place like the Arctic where trapped methane is being pumped into the atmosphere.  The seeps observed are, in some places, clearly very long lived; whether modern rates are similar to the distant past or are accelerating will require more work.  This work does suggest two things: there are methane reserves near the point of destabilization in mid-latitude sediments, and because they are in areas more accessible and better characterized than the Arctic, study of these seeps might be quite useful in understanding the stability and possible instability of these systems and just exactly how they would interact with global warming.

Also see the USGS press release.

If you are wanting to watch the canary in the coal mine, though, you probably want to keep an eye on the Arctic…

Its Patently Ironic…

…that in the heart of the Mother Lode in California that a gold miner is being stymied, in part, by a vestige of the Gold Rush. The story, as reported by the New York Times (slumming if they are watching the left coast), is that the miner wants to reopen a mine but the people living on the ridge nearby are worried about losing their well water.

Why is this ironic?  Well, of course, the reason that the land nearby is privately owned is largely because of the Gold Rush and the change in mineral laws that swept in with the Gold Rush.  Prior to 1866, the law of the land was that mineral lands could not be entered and could only be leased (unless released for sale by an act of Congress).  This was flat out ignored during the Gold Rush and the matter was left up in the air until the end of the Civil War, when eastern legislators wanted to restore the old laws and recover some of the treasure spent to acquire land from Mexico.  Westerners argued that this would kill the mining industry (see?  this isn’t a new argument) and instead won codification of the mining law that had emerged in California.  Among the elements of that mining law was that a miner could eventually patent mineral land–that is, come to gain the title to the land.  

The land occupied by the San Juan Ridge taxpayers (the folks fighting the reopening of the mine) are mineral lands (in fact the photo on the website shows the exposed Eocene gravels bearing the gold). Had the old laws been in place, there would not have been anybody living up on that ridge. What is more, it sounds as though the aquifer being tapped by the folks on the ridge is these very same gravels.

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High Times for Hot Rocks?

A recent article in The Economist reviewed some of the issues with geothermal power; this follows an Ars Technica article about geothermal power.  These are both interesting reads suggesting there is a bit of a media initiative going on with geothermal power.  So what is going on overall?

First, this isn’t all that new.  The DOE’s history of geothermal power is interesting in part because it shows something of the diversity of uses: greenhouse warming in 1930, downhole heat exchanger to heat a house in 1930, residential space heating in Reno in 1940, electric power from the Geysers in California in 1960. Geothermal power generation originally was from steam-driven systems, then some hot water systems and, eventually, from hot dry rock.  There have been numerous problems.  Really hot natural fluids carry a lot of dissolved elements, including such interesting things as gold.  If you cool that water or steam, those things tend to precipitate out, clogging pipes and turbines (this was a huge issue in the Salton Sea area as geothermal was getting underway; such dissolved minerals are now being considered a target for exploitation). (Cooling of hydrothermal fluids is how you make most economic mineral deposits). Binary systems allow power to be generated from lower temperature geothermal resources (which have fewer of the dissolved solids problems). Original systems were designed to simply allow overpressured steam and water to rise up and cool; now most systems try to pump the used water back down to recharge the deep aquifer being used.

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Can you falsify an earth science hypothesis?

Answer: No.  Read on for why.

Science, they tell us in grade school and middle school and high school and often into college, has four simple steps: Observe, formulate a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, reject or accept that hypotheses (usually testing against a null). In this model, hypotheses should be falsifiable.  Is this done in earth science?

Consider the big mountain building hypothesis of the late 19th and early 20th century: geosynclinal theory. The idea was that parts of the earth’s crust would warp down, accumulate a lot of sediment, heat up and get injected with magma and deformed by thrust faults and rise up to be mountains.  One side was continental (the miogeosyncline) and the other we’d now consider to be oceanic (the eugeosyncline). Lots of embarrassing problems emerged: among them, fossils from one part of the geosyncline were totally different from those elsewhere in the geosyncline, so magical barriers had to be made (various flavors of eugeanticlines). Arguably many of these demonstrated that the theory was wrong, but instead scientists proposed ways that the theory could still be right.  It isn’t until plate tectonics overcame the objections to its predecessor of continental drift that geosynclinal theory was abandoned. It took a theory to kill a theory.

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