the purpose of the moreorlesstrue
goal is to help the public, press and individuals appreciate
the strengths and limitations of science. To make the best
possible individual and societal decisions based on the
best available knowledge. Because most people have a wildly
inaccurate view of what is true, or false, in science.
kind of inaccuracies?
half the country believes Astrology determines their future,
despite study after study confirming any affect is illusory.
Fortunately, we do not teach Astrology in science classes,
but we sometimes try to teach Intelligent Design as an alternate
explanation for human origins- when it's not even a scientific
theory. A bit like teaching engine repair in a music class,
because music can't explain precisely how the first flute
Most people also don't know the meaning of "95%"
confidence level when reporting statistical results- and
so have no idea if water with 1 part per billion of a carcinogen
is or is not dangerous. But they know it sounds scary. They
hear two scientists on the evening news debate global warming,
and might form an opinion based on who '"sounded"
more plausible, rather than the preponderance of evidence.
Science can be hard, we're all busy, and we don't always
like the answers. So its no wonder people prefer to make
up their own conclusions, or simply tune out.
what can I expect to learn from your site?
things. First, we discuss hundreds
(137 and counting) of important
scientific discoveries in clear, concise prose- emphasizing
why these subjects are important to you and your community.
Second, we expose the underlying story of discovery, debate
and (often) resolution between competing explanations for
the same phenomena. This process of scientific discovery
is explained in a great essay
on our site, but you can discover the process simply by
reading though a few stories on this web site. And, finally
we synthesize this understanding into a single "moreorlesstrue"
ranking, the MOLTR (see RANKING
link above). You can rely on a highly ranked subject being
true, and should run from one at the lower end of the scale.
scientists disagree all the time in the press. Doesn't this
mean the science is still uncertain?
not. Sometime the press portrays two opposing sides of an
issue simply to avoid the appearance of prejudice, and because
conflict makes for more interesting copy (and even greater
sales). But generally one side is vastly more likely to
be right than the other, even though they receive the same
amount of coverage. Sometimes, press reports confuse the
scientific process of open debate with disagreement. Scientific
debate is healthy- its how we make progress- but generally
only the details are uncertain, not the fundamental insight.
So while Plate Tectonics is one of the top 50 most important
scientific insights of all time, you will still hear a vigorous
debate over detailed mechanisms of how the plates move.
But there is no doubt we are floating on a sea of magma.
And then sometimes there is a genuine disagreement when
the idea is in the early stages of discovery. New insights
can change the scientific landscape. That's
exactly why we offer the MOLTR as a guide- so as a non-expert
you can tell the difference between fact and fiction, and
monitor progress over time.
don't you use scientific terms like "hypothesis"
and "theory" and "law", instead of words
such as "likely" or "fact", in your rankings?
we could, but there is a huge, growing gap between the scientific
meanings of these words, and how they are understood by
the general public. Its a bit like the word "gay".
Fifty years ago, gay meant a happy and carefree person,
while today it refers to a homosexual. Similarly, while
scientists recognize the word "theory" means a
hypothesis which has been tested and confirmed by experiment,
the colloquial meaning of theory connotes uncertainty,
as in "ah, that's just a theory". Thus, opponents
of the highly confirmed, brilliant work of Darwin demean
his work by dismissing it as "merely a theory".
When instead, the "Theory of Evolution" earns
a MOLTR of 880 (Confirmed).
looked at a few topics, and not all the facts get the same
score. Isn't a "fact" a "fact"?
For example Conservation of Energy and Plate Tectonics are
both Facts. But, Conservation of Energy is vastly
more fundamental, and better confirmed than Plate Tectonics.
As far we know, Conservation of Energy is an unbroken rule
applying everywhere in the Universe. But while we are sure
Plate Tectonics fundamentally sculpted the Earth over the
eons, we are still filling in many of the detailed mechanisms
propelling the continents over a sea of magma. That's one
reason Conservation of Energy is more highly ranked.
it absurd and misleading to try and cram a century of scientific
knowledge into a single number?
but it's better than the alternative. Today, with advocacy
journalism, twenty four hour news channels, and an exponentially
growing base of knowledge, most people are paralyzed by
the onslaught of information. Are breast implants safe?
Will burning coal raise ocean levels? What do we know about
embryonic stem cells? One purpose of the MOLTR rankings
is to cut through this clutter, so people can stop worrying
about settled issues. And, for the remainder, learn to balance
decision making with uncertainty.
If scientists won't keep score and make the complex simple,
then Congress and the court room will do it for us.
is the role of government in scientific inquiry?
government pays for much of our country's scientific infrastructure.
And, by its many rules, regulations and agencies turns scientific
knowledge into public policy. The government occasionally
sets high, challenging goals that capture the imagination
of a generation of thinkers- such as putting a man on the
moon, or ending smallpox.
However, politicians often distort the state of scientific
knowledge to suit their own ends. And this leads to further
confusion and lack of confidence by the public. A better
approach is (gasp) honesty. For example, rather than claiming
the science on global warming is not yet settled to avoid
deciding whether and how to reduce its effects (Global Warming's
probably in the Confirmed Category), it would be
better to agree with the scientific consensus, but state
forthrightly the immediate economic costs are too high,
or can be deferred for a few years.
the hell are you to set yourself up as the arbiters of scientific
fact vs. fiction?
a bunch of concerned scientists who feel the gap between
reality and mythology has grown dangerously large. We believe
in open debate, but know that scientific understanding is
not amenable to a majority vote. You can't fool mother nature,
only your self. So eventually, the facts are separated from
yeah, how about a few examples?
enough. Sometimes, new science is quickly confirmed and
rapidly embraced. For example, in 1986 after decades of
modest improvements, Müller and Bednorz claimed to
have discovered a new superconductor made of a ceramic,
not a metal and which worked at a high temperature above
which most theories thought possible. Within a few months
of publication, a number of groups around the world confirmed
their discovery. Within a year, more researchers expanded
the field by doubling and then doubling the temperature
again. The field of High Tc superconductivity was born.
Conversely, in 1989 when Pons and Fleischman announced their
remarkable Cold Fusion observations, hundred if not thousands
of scientist tried to replicate their experiment. Most were
unable to do so, and over the next few years in experiments
more tightly controlled than in the original paper, the
evidence melted away. Not out of academic jealousy or a
"big oil"conspiracy, but for lack of proof.
And finally, it took nearly 20 years for the medical community
to agree with two Australian physicians, that most ulcers
are caused by bacteria (see this section
for more details). Their perseverance in the face of derision
is remarkable. And the system, perhaps too slowly, arrived
at the correct destination.
The scientific method isn't perfect, but there are very
few cases where good science didn't eventually win out.
how do we know even today's best verified Facts, won't turn
out to be tomorrow's Fiction?
can never be sure. Still, we're never going to return to
believing the Earth is flat. And, while Newton's Laws overturned
millennia of sloppy or unsophisticated thinking about the
motion of objects, it's wrong to believe Einstein overturned
Newton. Instead, Einstein's Theories of Relativity expanded
Newton's Laws to apply where gravity is very strong, or
motion very fast. And that's becoming more typical - new
observations expand on old science, and only infrequently
replace that knowledge.
On a more philosophical note, there is no reason to believe
our meager human brains and senses are up to the task of
explaining the world around us. The universe is unimaginably
large and complex. Our brains are not. Probably, if we can
pose the question we can discover the answer- eventually.
But, it is exactly those questions we are not smart enough
to ask, which may be the most important. In which we'll
live on in blissful ignorance.
these rankings partly a matter of opinion and intuition?
with one of the rankings- what should I do?
topic is presented as a moderated Wiki. You are free to
edit any page, although the moderator is equally free to
edit your suggestions consistent with best scientific practices
and their good judgment.
moderator won't listen to me- what should I do now?
on the submission link above. The submission form can be
used to contact the moreorlesstrue
review board. We will take your concerns seriously, and
try to contact you in a reasonable period of time. Lunatic
requests will be honored as well, but only once in a blue