Up In Smoke

One of the November 2011 Discover magazine’s major articles is “Up In Smoke“.  The byline is “Fire researchers have have shattered dozens of arson myths in recent years.  So why do American courts still lag behind?”  The article goes on to relate how arson investigators have historically used a series of fire-scene indications to determine if that fire was an arson, typically started with some sort of accelerant.  These investigators were deemed by the courts to be expert witnesses, and a number of people were convicted (and even executed) on the basis of their testimony.  Now, it turns out, most of what these experts thought they knew about fires was in fact wrong.The article contains a box where 7 myths are listed and all of them are either flat wrong or highly compromised.  As an example, crazing of windows was always assumed to be caused by rapid heating, indicative of an accelerant.  But when tested in a lab under controlled conditions, no amount or speed of heating could produce this crazing.  It turns out that rapid cooling, like when a fireman sprays water on it, is the culprit.

How did these myths come to be so widely accepted?  They all seemed intuitively correct and over the years enough “experts” came to believe them until there was a self-sustaining critical mass of ignorance.  Nobody, until fairly recently, actually did the science to see if these indicators were valid or not.  The courts in turn don’t actually look at reality itself.  They rely upon “experts” to convey the reality to them.  And how are these “experts” selected?  Usually by their credentials which are presumed to indicate proficiency, not by any actual knowledge of the subject at hand – in this case, fire behaviour.

Here’s some passages from the article.

  • …researchers have been lighting rooms and houses on fire and analyzing the results with the kind of scientific scrutiny that has upended several deeply entrenched misconceptions about how fires behave.
  • The upheaval is more than academic. For generations, arson inspectors have used outmoded theories to help indict and incarcerate many suspects.
  • A lot of bad science has been applied to arson investigation.
  • It’s amazing to think how long it takes for basic science to be accepted.
  • The misguided notions that older arson investigators subscribed to seemed commonsensical, if you didn’t insist on seeing lab work to support them.

If you’ve read this far, first, thank you.  But what does this have to do with wind turbines?  Lots.  The wind industry understands this reliance upon “experts” very well.  If you read just about any wind industry materials, regardless of the topic (health, noise, CO2 savings, bird slaughter, whatever) you will find lots of “expert” opinion.  What you will find is very little actual data.  If you don’t believe me just take the time to visit AWEA or CanWEA and look through their “evidence” and even follow their references to see where their data comes from.  I think you’ll be surprised at how little actual data is ever presented.  I know I was.

Let’s take the example of the health effects of wind turbines.  There’s been an entire series of health “studies” that report something to the effect that there’s no scientific evidence of a direct causal health effect of wind turbines.  However, when you actually look at these “studies” you find that they are not studies at all.  Rather, they are literature reviews where a group of “experts” Googles around the Internet looking for evidence, never leaving their cubicles to wander out into the field where the problems, if they exist, are to be found.   The acoustical/medical “experts” are contributing to the same type of self-supporting critical mass of ignorance that the arson “experts” suffered from,  with similar destructive results.  One difference is that these experts often profit from their erroneous assertions while there is no indication the arson experts did.

Eventually someone will do the science and everyone will wonder why it took so long, with so many people harmed.  I also wonder why we always assume that we are not suffering from as much ignorance as our predecessors did; that somehow we are smarter than they were.  This is one more case of being doomed to repeat history.

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