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Challenging Scientific Myths


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Ornl Review Volume 41 Number 3, 2008

One of the most fascinating aspects of human behavior is the readiness of millions of people to believe with absolute certainty in ideas that have no basis in fact. Referred to by a variety of labels, depending upon their relative importance, these beliefs are unrelated to theological faith described by Christian doctrine as "the evidence of things not seen." Over time, they take the form of popular myths spread almost exclusively through word of mouth, often from generation to generation.

Many such myths are harmless, such as the belief that yawning is contagious, or that water in the southern hemisphere spins in reverse going down the drain. Unfortunately, the scientific community is confronted with another category of myths that on occasion can have far greater consequences for important public policy decisions. Perhaps the most famous collision of science and myth occurred in 1633, when Italian astronomer Galileo was interrogated for 18 days by the Papal Inquisition, incensed by his claim that Earth was not the center of the universe. Disregarding his scientific data proving that Earth actually revolved around the sun, the court put Galileo under house arrest until his death in 1642.

This issue of the ORNL Review is dedicated to research taking place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that hopefully will change public attitudes about a number of contemporary scientific myths. Articles about some of these myths, such as the undependable nature of wireless technology or the notion that only a person with a high degree of technological sophistication can operate a zero-energy house, are relatively light in nature and serve simply to help readers understand an interesting topic.

The implications of other myths are more serious. Over the past year, for example, a chorus of international criticism has challenged the environmental and economic benefits of biofuels, frequently without regard to the Department of Energy's investments in a new generation of biofuels that would require greatly reduced amounts of water, fertilizer and land needed for food crops. Likewise, pervasive myths about spent nuclear fuel, and the relationship of those myths to the expansion of nuclear power, might in time be reshaped by a greater understanding of new reprocessing technologies.

The Review does not suggest that these issues should now be closed. In fact, each topic would benefit from a spirited debate in which all parties relied, not upon popular myths, but rather on a rigorous collection of data applied to the highest standards of scientific review. Scientific myths are formed over a long time, and only through a sustained process of honest discussion can we hope to change them.In the case of Galileo, the Church formally accepted his theory in 1983, exactly 350 years after his trial. One can only hope that other myths will not be so enduring.


Editorial by Billy Stair

Communications & External Relations Directorate
Oak Ridge National Laboratory


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