gemtiger: (Default)
gemtiger ([personal profile] gemtiger) wrote on April 29th, 2012 at 03:20 pm
Excuse me, I'm a scientist
So, I think about the xkcd comic sometimes when I read or hear comments from people that are so far removed from reality that I feel compelled to correct them:

Except this time, it's one of my dragonboat teammates, who posted a link to a high school science fair project about plants being watered with boiled and microwaved water on her Facebook feed. Long story short: plants watered with microwaved water die! We must stop using microwaves immediately!!! FOR THE CHILDREN!

I hope it's clear that from my point of view, this is a rubbish experiment based on faulty premise and its results are inconclusive at best. Not only that, it's also followed by a series of absolutely ridiculous "facts". So ridiculous, in fact, that I didn't think there was any way someone could take this article seriously. It soon became apparent that I was wrong.

I am tempted to post this Snopes link on this article in return, but ultimately I don't think I will since I don't think I'll really change her mind, and I don't want her to lose face, either.

This is the kind of scientific illiteracy that makes me really unhappy, because you don't really need to have studied science to see what's wrong with the experiment. It helps if you have, of course, since the scientific method becomes second nature after a while, but to get you started, here's what I flagged immediately:

1) Water was presumably boiled on the stovetop in a (metal) kettle. You can't use metal in a microwave, so what kind of container was used to heat the water in the microwave, and could that have had an effect on the results?
2) Why only the single trial? Reproducibility matters.
3) What were the heating/cooling times of the water? Could the water temperature when it was poured on the plants be a factor?

Note that none of these rely on any special scientific knowledge - just scientific common sense. (I'm also being quite generous here in assuming the experimenter actually wanted to test a hypothesis rather than prove one.) Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary data, and there's clearly none of that here.

(Side note: I don't like to use microwaves, but it has nothing to do with a fear that microwave radiation secretly mutates my food. Mostly it's because we didn't have a microwave growing up - my mother never liked them - but also because I don't like the texture of many microwaved foods.)

I am kind of unsure when 'science' became a dirty word.
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