Warriors Against Claptrap

A couple days ago I received this note:

"There was an article in the Huffington Post not long ago about an extreme worst case scenario with the oil spill - that a giant methane bubble bursts through the sea floor, ignites, causes a huge supersonic tsunami that would wipe out all of Florida, followed by a vaporization tsunami.

I've heard this described as "disaster porn", and certainly, the scenario smacks of it. But, there have been extreme natural disasters in the past, and not being a geologist, I can't help but feel some alarm at this, as I'm currently a resident of Tampa. I have been trying to get a sense of the validity of these fears, but nearly everything I see only states that these are fears citing this article, and does not provide an in-depth critique of it. Could you or a well-informed colleague comment on this?"

A little quick research showed the epic-methane-disaster-theory to be spreading across the internet, blog to blog, in something of a viral fashion. Or at least a hyperbolic one, , if I go by titles such as "How the Ultimate BP-Gulf Oil Disaster Could Kill Millions." And posts such as "All Gulf residents LEAVE NOW."

If you look at these posts - and I'll start with the ridiculous one on Huffington Post - you'll notice that there's lots of references to "some geologists" warning of the risk, without providing any names of said geologists. There are so-called references at the bottom but if click on the one for "methane driven oceanic eruptions and mass extinctions" I only get an error message. And if I do further research on the subject I find a speculative scenario that doesn't any way resemble the current situation - it requires a body of water saturated with methane and then a handy asteroid event to ignite it.

Now granted, that reputable scientists have been saying from the beginning that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is also a massive methane leak. But the concerns related to that don't seem to be of the asteroid-ignited-explosion variety. I find instead worries about chemical reactions leading to depletion of oxygen and, thus, the creation of major dead zones. But none of this is direct response to the millions dead in the Gulf scenario; I can find no evidence that U.S. scientists or scientific organizations or science agencies have made any effort to debunk this nonsense, even with sometime as basic as explaining that the geology of the Gulf sea floor is not a hollow chamber that houses bubbles but a complex network of rock and sediment layers.

Which brings me to "Warriors Against Claptrap", a session presented yesterday at the Euroscience Open Forum in Torino, Italy. ESOF is a European version of the popular science meeting hosted every year in the U.S. by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Just to throw one more acronym into this paragraph, I've been attending as the North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).

The warriors session is not about on the efforts of journalists like myself to debunk pseudoscience. It derives from the work of a U.K. charitable trust, Sense About Science, which has the mission of promoting "good science and evidence for the public." Scientists affiliated with this program have publicly entered controversial discussions about everything from vaccines to climate change. The claptrap session was organized by the trust's wonderfully activist program Voice of Young Science, which bands together smart, articulate and dedicated researchers early in their careers - often a time when scientists tend to be extremely cautious - who wish to make a difference in public perception of science.

Regarding the methane claptrap being circulated about the Gulf oil spill, where-oh-where are the comparable U.S. scientists? I don't know why I continue to be so naive on this subject but after I received the alarmed e-mail, I went to the obvious government science agency sites looking for some rational information on the subject that I could pass along. Figuring that if people along the Gulf coast were unnerved, our own warrior scientists would want to reassure them.

At one level, of course, this is an irresponsible internet rumor. But at another - and even a journalist like myself can get this - it's a great opportunity to educate people about the real risks - such as dead zones - about methane itself, and about the kind of research now underway to understand those dangers.

We absolutely need more warrior scientists in the U.S. Because when we hide from these confrontations, when we pretend we're too smart for the discussion, when we presume that we exist best above the fray, we concede the war to purveyors of claptrap.

(ps more about methane in the next post)

More like this

I'm all for 'warrior scientists' (especially with regard to climate change), but be slightly wary of 'Sense About Science'.

Although they do some good stuff, such as their work on homeopathy, and they are fronted by straight-up sorts like Simon Singh, they also have problems.

A quick look at Lobbywatch http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=151 or Sourcewatch http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Sense_About_Science shows their links to the particularly odd Living Marxism (which seemed to be far more about corporate libertarianism), via the Spiked website and the Institute of Ideas.
They hold very strong views about GM, and have very close links to the GM industry (who seem to supply most of their funding). Whatever your views on GM crops, its clear that SOS is hardly a disinterested party on the issue. A quick look at their website shows that on GM, nuclear, energy production, synthetic chemicals and food additives, you will get the company line. The list of corporate supporters is extensive and very much in keeping with this.

They might indeed be right on these issues, but look at their web page 'Energy Gap' (for instance). It declares that 'leading scientific institutions and learned societies in energy and related fields' have had a hand in putting together their report, and more information about them can be found by clicking on a link labelled 'nuclear information library'. You instantly know that this is not a group about to look at solar energy in a fair and balanced way.

They are extremely good at getting media coverage (the celeb science report being particularly effective), yet few journalists (apart from George Monbiot)wonder what their background or agenda is.

I remember the (extensive) coverage given to their climate change conference back in 2007. It all looked kosher, but yet it was apparent that the message that was being spun was that climate change coverage was guilty of exaggeration and 'Hollywoodisation'.

I think the idea of 'science warriors' is a great idea, but perhaps a little vetting might be no bad thing.

One starting point is to remember that anything posted on the Huffington Post is likely crap. If you read something there and cannot immediately verify the information independantly, it is made-up rubbish fit only for madmen (and madwomen). A good starting point is to simply never read the Huffington Post and when people tell you about things they've read there, laugh and say you have higher standards for your fiction.

By Lynxreign (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

Godamn it! When http://xkcd.com/748/ XKCD is no longer able to parody you, you've gone off the deep end of crazy. We were supposed to have until 2012 till the loonpocolypse

By Robert S. (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

Clown George Noory of coasttocoast.com only put Richard C. Hoagland on with his magical methane dog and pony show because Noory's war on science fits in with the Limbaughs and Hanity's on the same stations.

By Robert Rhodes (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

Agreed, and I really hate it. The Huffington Post started out with such promise and I used to blog for them occasionally myself. Did one of my favorite pieces there - "Why My Dog and I No Longer Watch CNN" after CNN fired its science reporting team: http://huff.to/Yphk
But HuffPo has never had a good science editor, as far as I can tell, and now it's the weirdest mix of occasionally valid analysis and far too often not. This dopey methane bubble post is great example of the not. And my Scibling colleague, Orac, has done a great job of showing them up. My favorite was a recent post he did on raw milk: http://bit.ly/aYm3cG

Agreed. My idea of a warrior scientist has not yet been achieved. But at this point, I'd settle for just some warriors in training in the U.S. (hopefully avoiding some of the pitfalls you cited). I don't know why American scientists are so shy on these subjects but I wish they would realize that it often harms rather than helps.

Deborah, we really enjoyed your blog post â much food for thought about how Voice of Young Scienceâs approach could translate into other regions and some useful insights into how a story spreads. Also very much enjoyed meeting you at ESOF.
Mike B, Sense About Science is not part of any other organisation, formally or informally, and never has been. Simon Singh is a trustee. The climate publication you refer to was written and presented by leading meteorologists and climatologists, including several who had chaired sections of the IPCC. SAS has never received funding from the âGM industryâ (which is of course the same industry as the âorganicâ or âconventionalâ industry), never mind âmost of its fundingâ. In the year to April 2010, the majority of our funding came from trusts and foundations, from professional and learned societies, from individual scientists and members of the public (over 1200 donations) and from research publishers. Donations from other companies were (sadly) less than 5% of our income. None of these were from agbiotech, pharmaceutical or energy companies. We would really encourage people to engage critically with the work that we do and the routes and barriers to the effectiveness of equipping the public to weigh up scientific claims in the media, policy and advertising. We work with over 4000 scientists to do this, and it is amazing what a voluntary network like that can achieve, but our resources remain tiny and stretched and we would love to see other organisations beyond Europe take up the challenge.

Thank you for responding to my email! I thought it was probably a load of nonsense, but appreciate you taking the time to look into it and comment.

This reminds me of a story I heard when Three Mile Island was happening, that a reporter asked a scientist/engineer what was the âworst thing that could possibly happenâ.

The person replied that the water level could drop, the fuel could become uncovered, the fuel could then melt down into a puddle and become hyper-critical and release enough energy to blow up and rupture the reactor vessel and breech the containment building, releasing the entire core's worth of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and then at that precise moment, a tornado could be passing by and could pick up that radioactivity and then travel up the Eastern seaboard dropping the precise lethal doses in the highest populated cities along the way.

The reporter was listening with eager glee, until the bit about the tornado, which the reporter knew was unlikely in the extreme and then got angry at the scientist/researcher for talking credulously about such an unlikely prospect. The scientist/engineer replied that you didn't ask about likelihood, you only asked about the âworst thing that could possibly happenâ.

I have noticed this problem for some time among academics. Tenure is granted to those who write articles and monographs with an audience of colleagues in mind. They split hairs on the finer points. This, of course, is valuable. However, judging from the three institutions I have worked at, academics are often hesitant to condescend and address more pedestrian challenges.

I saw this first-hand while trying to convince a few academics of the value of addressing the pseudohistorian, David Barton. They tended to disregard this uninitiated dolt as irrelevant. The problem is that Barton has influenced many prominent national politicians as well as the school board of Texas.

In the same way, while scientists cannot run around dousing every spark, they should address those that have developed into full-blown infernos. Their rarefied work will be less and less relevant, and frankly, in danger of the loss of funding, if they cannot convince the public that they offer the best methods of discovering truths. They must deign to address the public, or someone else will fill the vacuum. We have all felt the effects of scientific illiteracy coupled with political power.

You can breath a sigh of relief because, no, the Gulf of Mexico will not explode.If methane gas manages to make it all the way to the surface of the ocean, it could certainly cause an explosion in the atmosphere (which is what actually did happen), but not in the water or in the rock formation. There is no oxygen gas there.

It is always good to promote good public understanding of science, but you have to remember that to someone who is ignorant of basic science, whatever he ends up believing is going to be a matter of faith rather than understanding. If it comes down to deciding whether to believe some anonymous (to him) group of scientists or some movie star spouting about Scientology, more often than not he will pick the movie star. Need to recruit some "Celebrities for Science" to get anywhere, I think.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 09 Jul 2010 #permalink

I checked the density of methane and of air and methane is lighter. A vast bubble of methane, or a cluster of smaller bubbles might displace a significant amount of water, but the bubble(s) would rise rapidly into the atmosphere. There might be a tsunami effect but the bubble(s) would effect global warming more than anything else.

By tybee1112 (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

Thanks for following up - I had big plans to do more on methane and then got distracted by the recent kerfuffle (love that word) at Sb. And you are so right - the best analyses I've seen raise the global climate change issue as a far more legitimate concern.

Speaking as a geologist, I find this methane bubble scenario highly unlikely. I honestly don't think it is possible to almost instantaneously release that much methane in a single whallop and somehow ignite it when it makes it to the surface. The energy needed to ignite the methane would come from where? And there are oil wells that are active all over the deep sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and they haven't released these dreaded "giant methane bubbles" to wipe out California? This sort of nonsense is the equivalent of being concerned about an asteroid hitting Yellowstone, causing a giant "supervolcanic" eruption during an extinction-level impact. How this sort of stuff ever makes it into the news is beyond me - and no respectable geologist I know what ever support such an scenario saying that "anything is possible".

I get questions about outlandish volcanic scenarios all the time and I try my best to remind people about scientific reality, probability and that the planet is not run by Michael Bay. And if you're looking for reasonable geologists, you just need to pick up the phone and call one - not every question can be answered on the USGS website, especially when crazy scenarios get spread over the web.

If we do not yet have warrior scientists, then at least Orac should be considered the archtype for cloning.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

Dear Deborah,

Thank you for posting here. Sad to say, the fact is that HuffPo has an anti-science streak a mile wide, as evidenced by their support of the Vaccine-Autism conspiracy theory.

I came here because some idiot posted this story on DailyKos. Said that the tsunami would go at most 600 mph, and then called it "supersonic." Sound moves at about 800 mph, of course... Teh stupid, it burns...

The major risk of apocalypse-woo is that it takes attention off the serious ecological damage that is actually occurring. Compared to an H-bomb-sized event, the actual impacts of the BP gusher on the Gulf ecosystems and public health don't seem so bad, do they? And that is exactly the point of spreading that crap. Always ask yourself, "who benefits?"


I'm all for science warriors, but please don't waste time chasing after astrology and suchlike obvious nonsense. The real threat is the religious right, because they have political power and a hunger for more. Keyword search "dominionism" and read up. See also Bruce Wilson's stuff about this on talk2action.org , he is a subject-matter expert on this and his work is meticulous.

Didn't this meme start as a parody on XKCD? The point was that the media wanted a sensational story, so they decided to ask Michael Bay about likely outcomes.

Life initates Art, it seems.

Love this example of the problem. Laugh out loud smart. Thanks.

There is excellent ongoing discussion of these wild disaster theories at The Oil Drum:
Their site features experts and laypersons, of many disciplines and persuasions, exploring a wide range of issues related to energy. Like ScienceBlogs, it is a model of the internet at its best.

Thank you for doing this - I keep receiving email from people panicked by this, and I was just at the "must write a post telling everyone not to flee" stage when I realized you'd usefully done it for me. Thank you.



Very nice I checked the density of methane and of air and methane is lighter. A vast bubble of methane, or a cluster of smaller bubbles might displace a significant amount of water, but the bubble(s) would rise rapidly into the atmosphere. There might be a tsunami effect but the bubble(s) would effect global warming more than anything else.

very nice Thank you for doing this - I keep receiving email from people panicked by this, and I was just at the "must write a post telling everyone not to flee" stage when I realized you'd usefully done it for me. Thank you.



One problem, methane bubbles have happened before in modern times, killing lots of people.
If you want to be " warrior scientists" then at the very least do a literature review.
Here start with this one Geology 31, 741 - 744 (2003), written 7 years ago. Read it before you all start feeling warm and fuzzy about the being good warriors of skeptical science.
What responsible person sits back, ponders the motivations, after the fact, while ignoring events might fit into scenarios that qualified people have already studied, for no other reason then they happen to be geo-physicists, writing a paper, 7 years ago. And there are other journal articles, but I'll let you guys find them, then you can figure out how methane will ignite, and the speed of an ultra sonic tsunami, ....... calculating the density of methane and such.
The most one can hope from you warriors is you stop looking for your quid pro quo.

One problem, methane bubbles have happened before in modern times, killing lots of people.

The article you reference has this title:

Methane-driven oceanic eruptions and mass extinctions

It discusses the possibility of a release of oceanic methane in anoxic basins (which the Gulf is not) and refers to the mechanism of the Lake Nyos disaster which was a carbon dioxide release that killed 1700.

So the hypothesis in this paper has nothing to do with the occurrence in Gulf, excepting that both are associated with methane.

I can find no documented fatal 'methane bubble' explosions, suggesting that you just made this up, perhaps conflating Ryskin's hypothesis with Lake Nyos. Here's a helpful hint - at least read the references you cite.

The most one can hope from you warriors is you stop looking for your quid pro quo.

This sentence does not even parse in English; are you sure your meds are up to date? Better check.

In short, don't lecture geologists about geology.

Thank you, thank you. Great answer right down the the last line.

Sorry it took me a while I'm at work running between my office and the wet lab. This is pretty entertaining.
Ok ...
Yeah that was obviously a "great answer" but none of you still have done the literature review. I'll give you "warriors" another one to check out, the Norwegian Storegga slides. I believe they happened in the last 100,000 years. It was methane not CO2. Created a tsunami, not sure if it was super sonic or not. But you warriors want to spend your time criticizing other post, rather then reading and finding the articles in the science journals for yourselves. And when I give you the article to start with, you cut and paste it into your response? Fine. The article refers to gas being released in large quantities and the feedback mechanism that will cause the methane hydrates to reinforce its release in a geological instant. The saturation levels of CH4 are pressure dependent they don't care if there in the gulf, the arctic, a great lake (clue... here is the next one to look into), or a lab. That is the mechanism that is described, and the hypothesis. And instead of a thank you, the "geologist-warrior" asks if I'm off my meds? But you still haven't looked at this with a clear and unbiased scientific mind. So if you warriors want to some how be the bastion of scientific clarity for the masses, "the warriors" against apocolypto-science (go ahead poke fun of it I made that one up) then don't be guilty of the same things you claim occur on the other posts you hold in judgment. Your just playing the other side of the same coin.
But let's not forget it was a massive CH4 bubble that destroyed BP's blow out preventer from the well head, and that's a pretty big bubble. So its not like CH4 isn't blasting things around in the gulf, and once your accept the facts of this disaster, like this had never been done before as well. That article written 7 years ago isn't something to simply say "well he wasn't describing the gulf"

I'll rephrase "The most one can hope from you warriors is you stop looking for your something for something" (your quid pro quo).

Now since the "geologist-warrior" wanted to go off topic, and I'm too immature to let this go.. the only "ologist" I have ever seen that uses the term "as an ...ologist I.... (whatever)... is the one who plays an "ologist" on TV or with the rocks in his mother's garden.
DO THE LITERATURE REVIEW before you claim you know something about this disaster.....

Jo -

A tusnami caused by a local mass slump (as is the Norwegian case) is one thing, but if your hypothesis is that this can occur in the relatively flat depths of this blowout, then you'd need a bit of evidence. And I'd also have to point out that the impact of several kilometers of ice forming and then melting is a bit greater, in geological terms, than this relatively minor - in geological terms - oil leak.

The description that is was 'a massive CH4 bubble' that started all this seems a bit deceptive as well. It was an oil well blowout; these things are a hazard of the business (which is which they has a 300 tonne blowout preventer on the well). It's just that lax regulations meant that it wasn't up to the job.

Now.. if this was happening in the depths of the Black Sea - which really is a nasty anoxic basin - there could be some unlikely-but-nasty scenarios. But as far as the GOM goes, if you want me to believe that anything worse than a few million barrels of oil being spilt (bad enough IMO) is happening, then you will have so show a plausible hypothesis.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink

This drives me crazy. We have a massive disaster with huge environmental devastation, where people have died, and yet we can't seem to acknowledge it for it's real severity. Instead we must fear what else *could* happen, even though we are living in a "worst case" scenario. It's as if we are not capable of remorse, but instead we are a society that only understands fear.


...in the post that offers no references or links and conflates a well-characterized landslide with TEH METHANE KILLZ TEH GULF!!!!ELEVENTY111!!!!

As Andrew pointed out, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was due to (among other things) failure of a blow out preventer, not a massive methane bubble.

the feedback mechanism that will cause the methane hydrates to reinforce its release in a geological instant.

So, we agree that it would be over a few thousand years and not a few thousandths of a second as the apocalyptic e-mail posits? Then why are you whining?

And then there was this:

And instead of a thank you, the "geologist-warrior" asks if I'm off my meds? But you still haven't looked at this with a clear and unbiased scientific mind. So if you warriors want to some how be the bastion of scientific clarity for the masses, "the warriors" against apocolypto-science (go ahead poke fun of it I made that one up) then don't be guilty of the same things you claim occur on the other posts you hold in judgment. Your just playing the other side of the same coin.

followed shortly by:

Now since the "geologist-warrior" wanted to go off topic, and I'm too immature to let this go.. the only "ologist" I have ever seen that uses the term "as an ...ologist I.... (whatever)... is the one who plays an "ologist" on TV or with the rocks in his mother's garden.

I thought my snarky comment stood on its own, based on your earlier words, but thank you for making me look prescient.

The only information I have on this as a layperson is having watched this documentary on the Permian extinction:

bbc horizon: The Day the Earth Nearly Died

If I got what this docu was saying, the temperature of the earth was first raised 5 degrees C by a basaltic flow eruption (that apparently took 30,000 years to happen, so scratch the "day" in the title and replace it with 100,000 years, which is how long they think the Permian extinction actually took). The raised temperture of the earth apparently was enough to start releasing some of the methane deposits (from where I am not sure).

Also, and I can't remember the exact source I got this from, I have read that there are large (the biggest?) methane deposits locked up beneath the continental shelf off the coast of Siberia. I have read that if global warming continues to melt the permafrost in Siberia, that there may be a danger of methane release. I don't remember reading about this being an explosive event, but instead that since methane's 'greenhouse effect' is supposedly 15 times greater than CO2, the danger of this is that it causes a faster increase in the earths average temperature.

So, can you guys comment on what's accurate about the methane deposits, and what it would take to release even some of the Earth's methane, and what, realistically the effect would be (without adding in hypercanes and basaltic flows and other near-zero-probability events)?

The original post were I point to the original work from 7 years ago describes the mechanism as occurring in perhaps weeks. And yet still no one has read the article or done a literature review. I wouldn't expect a lay person to sit down and dredge through it, but surely someone here knows what a literature review is. The lay person who doesn't label scientific work as being porn or somehow flawed because they can't dredge through it, is the best we can hope for. Do your best to understand the work, email experts with your legitmate questions, they'll answer, rebuild your knowledge base so you don't have to join a warrior movement to feed your desire to know.

And for the record I find this entire event a disgusting display of greed, spin, and ignorance. The death and carnage this spill has caused infuriates me to no end.

Now back to the little bit of science we started.

The mass slump was caused by CH4 being released, which caused a tsunami in Norway. The tsunami was caused by the slide which was caused by the methane, we're splitting hairs.
The work in Geology from 7 years ago as applied in our present day scenario, raises the question will the oil field dome collapse from a rapid and accelerating release of CH4 as a result of the mechanism described in the article. There is nothing wrong with the article, it is a matter of scientific debate as to whether the conditions in the Gulf could precipitate into an event you warriors consider scientific porn. This is the debate we should be having, and if we don't have the technical expertise at least be listening to and trying to understand why it can not happen this way. Then judge.
Now the reports from BP, as to what happened to the well, was a methane bubble. So there is gaseous CH4 in large enough quantities to destroy the well head and BOP. It is a matter of opinion whether you call it a small bubble or I call it it a large bubble, let's not "split hairs" again, it was big enough to cause this event. Now the scientific jury is not out as to how large the methane bubble under the oil field dome in the Gulf is, that will be the stuff of future scientific debate and research, examined in the conference forums around the world, and in peer the reviewed journals. We should examine for our own and on our own all journal articles from years past which describe the mechanisms, which through natural causes, can create a chasm or slides, those which release stored gases in moments or years. Resulting in voids collapsing to create a tsunami of massive proportions.

I have laid out no hypothesis of my own, only defended the works I have read for myself and understood. Those of whom the "warrior" class of this forum didn't even spend the effort to investigate, before deciding the work is scientific porn, I have far too much respect for the scientific work of the science community to be so brass.

The questions are: can drilling into the dome under gulf of Mexico at its present depth and pressures create the conditions (saturation levels) for the event described in the articles, which we know can occur elsewhere in nature. Is the fracture growing, and is the escaping methane and oil blasting away enough rock and debris as to precipitate this?

I don't think working scientists of America, are shying away from being warriors they are just not into being part of a discourse that is so quick to disregard legitimate science before examining the claims, less they expose themselves to over simplifying matters, and being personally attacked for trying to have a serious scientific conversation. Not talking about whether there is a conspiracy theory driving this whole thing, not how underground methane can ignite in the absence of oxygen, not what the speed of a super sonic tsunami is, not banter about meds, not why huffingtons post is bad, not all this stuff; that has either very little to do with the original scientific work or none what's so ever. But to call oneself a member of of a warrior class sounds much more honorable. To me it just sounds like being a member of another uninformed group. A group not that into "science porn" as was stated earlier. I hope my statements don't fall completely on deaf ears. Thank you for reading my thoughts on this.
And yes I am totally guilty of being gingerly immature at times, this being a glaring example.