How your Science Fair Project can win you the Nobel Prize!

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Did you ever do a science fair project that turned out a disaster? I did. I tried to determine whether or not there was a statistical relationship between full moons and earthquakes. An interesting idea, I know, but the theory was that perhaps the position of the moon and the increased gravitational pull would somehow disturb the equilibrium of the crust and result in a greater tendency to have an earthquake. After poring through 120 years of seismic activity and full moons, I determined that there was absolutely no correlation between the two. My project was a complete dud.

Now this is hardly an acceptable way to conclude a science fair project. However, I noticed that if I removed a few of the data sets from the 1930’s, my correlation coefficient would increase slightly, and while the numbers were still inconclusive, I would have at least something to say. I could comment that “there seems to be a potential relationship that requires more exhaustive analysis than I could conduct in the last few months.” Translation: “I just put this together last night but will you PLEASE still give me my bonus points for science class?”

Now some people would brush this off as dishonest (I agree) or at least skewing the numbers (I agree), but I eventually learned that this kind of “science” could win me the Nobel Prize!

You see, science really isn’t very scientific at all. Sure, there are some purists out there, but science isn’t always about the truth. The history of science is filled with people who found the truth, but the truth was not according to their hypothesis, so they changed the numbers.

Need examples?

Einstein refused to accept the conclusion of his math that seemed to indicate that the universe could collapse on itself, so he just made up a number and threw it in the equation. People, this is EINSTEIN. The man who revolutionized the field of science. And even Einstein himself, when looking at the facts that were staring at him on a piece of paper, rejected the truth. His science did not support his pre-conceived notions, and so it was rejected, and new numbers were thrown in the equation to eliminate the inconvenience.

Another example? It turns out that some data was inconsistent with the theory of Global Warming. So what did the scientists do? They just eliminated the “messy” data. The data was inconvenient to their pre-conceived hypothesis, so they eliminated the data (just like me and my earthquake/full moon experiment) and continued to propagate a false body of knowledge. Does anybody else besides me see the great irony of a movie about global warming titled “An Inconvenient Truth”? The fact that Global Warming isn’t so conclusive is the great inconvenience here. The real data is the inconvenient truth.

I cannot reiterate how often this happens in science. A final example: I once sat in on a lecture at Notre Dame by a “distinguished scientist of great reputation from South America.” He was comparing the impact of El Nino to the spread of a certain disease. At the end, his results where summed up in a slide that had data points spread ALL ACROSS THE GRAPH. There was absolutely no statistical relationship between the two variables being compared. But what did this scientist do? He just drew a downward-sloping line, gave that line a correlation coefficient, and concluded, “So we can see that the increase in El Nino rains correlates to the increase of such and such disease.” And everyone applauded at the end. And I cried laughing because I was a 21 year-old college nobody who was more worried about boxing practice and watching movies, and even I knew that his conclusions were invalid.

Happy side note: In what truly was a great stroke of irony, my statistics professor was in attendance, and he raised his hand and basically told the “distinguished” scientist that he couldn’t do math. It was hilarious. But of course the scientist was already locked in his thinking, probably because his funding was tied to such erroneous data, and he just babbled nonsense and moved on to the next question. I knew exactly what it was like to be that scientist when a real judge at the science fair challenged me on my own data about full moons…

The point is this: if you want to be a scientist, DO NOT START AN EXPERIMENT! All you need to do is think up something that you want to believe, go find enough facts that support your idea, and then publish it in a scientific journal (or better yet, make a movie), and everyone will hail you as a genius. And if it is really a farce, and if you have enough people (not facts) behind your idea, you may just find yourself as a distinguished guest lecturer at Notre Dame.

I used to think that I learned nothing about science when I did terrible science fair projects. I thought that my poor investigative skills combined with “messy” data that I just manipulated to fit my conclusions was nothing like the real world of science. It turns out that this was the best preparation I could possibly receive for becoming a scientist. And if Al Gore is any indicator of the possibilities, this type of science could one day win me the Nobel Prize.
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Want to earn bonus points? Leave a comment and tell me about your science fair project that was the biggest dud. Did you fudge the numbers like a real scientist?