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Thursday, June 10, 2004

They were wrong before

The argument goes like this: Historical prognosticators who tried to predict a future oil crisis on a certain date, have been proved wrong time and time again. Therefore, any new prognostications should not be taken seriously.

Let me turn the tables and put this in the context of the previous MOBJ post; and of someone who has gotten it wrong many times before. A well-known scientist, Thomas Gold, pushes for a pet theory claiming inexhaustable oil supplies due to biochemical processes below the earth's surface. Gold is the someone who has gotten it wrong many times in the past.
  1. In the 1940s, early in his career, Gold developed the idea of a "steady-state universe"

  2. His suggestion that the moon might be deeply covered by very fine dust
Both of these theories are discredited, the dust one very objectively.

Gold has been around for awhile, and shares some eccentric traits with colleagues such as Fred Hoyle. Hoyle in fact pushes this one step further, getting something arguably correct, the "Big Bang" theory, but then dismissing it in his later years. (For a good read, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything covers scientific personalities with lots of humor. Hoyle gets good coverage.)

Apparently Gold has gotten some theories right as well. In fact, getting something right could be due to luck and/or opportunism (see Bryson again). However, in my opinion, scientists must have a very high batting average to attain real credibility. In relative terms, it is easier to spout off lots of front-running wild ideas, many of them wrong, than to diligently pursue rigorously provable ideas, both in theoretical and experimental terms.
Gold has an absolutely ridiculously bad batting average in scientific terms. Many good scientists bat nearly 1.000. Thomas "Flunker" Gold, please throw in the towel, you strike out way too often.

Turning the tables back, scientists perhaps have gotten the dates wrong on Peak Oil in the past. Still, this has no bearing on the basic idea, and further refined analyses and historical data will provide better estimates each and every day.

UPDATE: Thomas Gold is more a cretin than I initially thought. Here, described is his "experiment".
That's right. I arrived on a Saturday in Mallorca with the sample and I was alone in the apartment. So first of all I looked around in the neighborhood and there was not a single shop open. I knew the sample was oily - I could feel that - so I thought that maybe there would be some nail polish remover to use as a solvent. I looked through all the cupboards for nail polish remover but couldn't find any. Eventually I decided hot water and kitchen detergent would be my best bet. The sludge was like quite thick putty so I tried to dissolve it - it took a lot of doing. In the end I had a clear liquid, light gray, and I thought it was particulate. The grain size was so small that kitchen paper could serve as a chromatogram - diffusion would take the black stuff some way out through the paper, while the liquid went much farther. In such a case you think first of a metal. So I thought, Well, iron is common - is there a magnet in the house? There were magnetic door latches on the cabinets, so I unscrewed those and put some of my liquid on aluminum foil and immediately it made sharp lines between the poles. So it was most likely magnetite.

Poor, poor Mr. Scientist. He probably has no money for a mass spectrometer. Get out of the way, and let the professionals do the work. Heck, let the actors from C.S.I. get involved, at least they have an idea of the technology available.


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