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A Short Story About Science

2017 November 1
by Dave
As today we see another skeptic being appointed to a Senior Role at NASA, I want to share a story …
When I worked in the laboratory doing standard testing for pharmaceuticals, I received some complaints about odors in the laboratory.  One of our Health and Safety authorities came to visit, and to demand that I do the test differently.
In this case, I was doing a titration with Sodium Perchlorate in Glacial Acetic Acid.  If you’ve smelled vinegar at home, Glacial Acetic Acid is an order of magnitude more offensive.  In other words … nasty!  Any acid can be corrosive, so you just take care to wear protective gear … and hold your breath.  No worries for a seasoned lab chemist!
So let’s get to the point:  This gentleman demanded that I perform my work in a “hood” … basically a super-powerful bathroom vent.  To me, I know what would happen if I followed his order.  That this stuff is super sensitive.  In any titration, you have a standardized solution which is sensitive to the environment.  My results would drift as the solution evaporated and the solution became more concentrated.  Even on the bench you have to perform the tests quickly.
Threats ensued.  He didn’t believe me … was “skeptical”.  Even wanted to take action against me.  Wow.  I’m just doing my job, following best practices and good common laboratory sense.
So I proposed an experiment.  I’d do my test on the bench out in the open AND in the hood, have someone watch, and let the data explain what I already knew to be true.  Get that last point?  LET THE DATA EXPLAIN.
The results?  As you would guess, the test in the hood came back completely out-of-whack.  Over time you could see results literally drift higher and higher as tested against a known standard.
There was no further argument.  In fact, even though he was annoyed you could see that it also earned me some credit.
I’m from Missouri (originally).  You know … the “Show Me” state.
My point is that It’s ok to be skeptical, to not easily be convinced.  In fact, it’s a lot more fun to challenge people and not just accept things blindly.  “Show Me”, however, is a command asking you to do follow through methodically, and with data to substantiate your position.  It’s often hard work too.
Coming full circle, my hope is that if authorities are going to stand up to be skeptical they must ask for, and even demand data to support or refute their position.  Climate change, for example, is one of those things.  You can say it’s fake, but we have a lot of data that argues to the contrary.
Be afraid of authorities who have an agenda that’s not driven by supporting data.
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