What's the purpose of the moreorlesstrue site?

Our goal is to help the public, press and individuals appreciate the strengths and limitations of science. To make the best possible individual and societal decisions based on the best available knowledge. Because most people have a wildly inaccurate view of what is true, or false, in science.

What kind of inaccuracies?

Well- half the country believes Astrology determines their future, despite study after study confirming any affect is illusory. Fortunately, we do not teach Astrology in science classes, but we sometimes try to teach Intelligent Design as an alternate explanation for human origins- when it's not even a scientific theory. A bit like teaching engine repair in a music class, because music can't explain precisely how the first flute was invented.

Most people also don't know the meaning of "95%" confidence level when reporting statistical results- and so have no idea if water with 1 part per billion of a carcinogen is or is not dangerous. But they know it sounds scary. They hear two scientists on the evening news debate global warming, and might form an opinion based on who '"sounded" more plausible, rather than the preponderance of evidence.

Science can be hard, we're all busy, and we don't always like the answers. So its no wonder people prefer to make up their own conclusions, or simply tune out.

OK, what can I expect to learn from your site?

Three things. First, we discuss hundreds (137 and counting) of important scientific discoveries in clear, concise prose- emphasizing why these subjects are important to you and your community. Second, we expose the underlying story of discovery, debate and (often) resolution between competing explanations for the same phenomena. This process of scientific discovery is explained in a great essay on our site, but you can discover the process simply by reading though a few stories on this web site. And, finally we synthesize this understanding into a single "moreorlesstrue" ranking, the MOLTR (see RANKING link above). You can rely on a highly ranked subject being true, and should run from one at the lower end of the scale.

I read scientists disagree all the time in the press. Doesn't this mean the science is still uncertain?

Generally not. Sometime the press portrays two opposing sides of an issue simply to avoid the appearance of prejudice, and because conflict makes for more interesting copy (and even greater sales). But generally one side is vastly more likely to be right than the other, even though they receive the same amount of coverage. Sometimes, press reports confuse the scientific process of open debate with disagreement. Scientific debate is healthy- its how we make progress- but generally only the details are uncertain, not the fundamental insight. So while Plate Tectonics is one of the top 50 most important scientific insights of all time, you will still hear a vigorous debate over detailed mechanisms of how the plates move. But there is no doubt we are floating on a sea of magma.

And then sometimes there is a genuine disagreement when the idea is in the early stages of discovery. New insights can change the scientific landscape. That's exactly why we offer the MOLTR as a guide- so as a non-expert you can tell the difference between fact and fiction, and monitor progress over time.

Why don't you use scientific terms like "hypothesis" and "theory" and "law", instead of words such as "likely" or "fact", in your rankings?

Wish we could, but there is a huge, growing gap between the scientific meanings of these words, and how they are understood by the general public. Its a bit like the word "gay". Fifty years ago, gay meant a happy and carefree person, while today it refers to a homosexual. Similarly, while scientists recognize the word "theory" means a hypothesis which has been tested and confirmed by experiment, the colloquial meaning of theory connotes uncertainty, as in "ah, that's just a theory". Thus, opponents of the highly confirmed, brilliant work of Darwin demean his work by dismissing it as "merely a theory". When instead, the "Theory of Evolution" earns a MOLTR of 880 (Confirmed).

I just looked at a few topics, and not all the facts get the same score. Isn't a "fact" a "fact"?

Nope. For example Conservation of Energy and Plate Tectonics are both Facts. But, Conservation of Energy is vastly more fundamental, and better confirmed than Plate Tectonics. As far we know, Conservation of Energy is an unbroken rule applying everywhere in the Universe. But while we are sure Plate Tectonics fundamentally sculpted the Earth over the eons, we are still filling in many of the detailed mechanisms propelling the continents over a sea of magma. That's one reason Conservation of Energy is more highly ranked.

Isn't it absurd and misleading to try and cram a century of scientific knowledge into a single number?

Perhaps, but it's better than the alternative. Today, with advocacy journalism, twenty four hour news channels, and an exponentially growing base of knowledge, most people are paralyzed by the onslaught of information. Are breast implants safe? Will burning coal raise ocean levels? What do we know about embryonic stem cells? One purpose of the MOLTR rankings is to cut through this clutter, so people can stop worrying about settled issues. And, for the remainder, learn to balance decision making with uncertainty.

If scientists won't keep score and make the complex simple, then Congress and the court room will do it for us.

What is the role of government in scientific inquiry?

The government pays for much of our country's scientific infrastructure. And, by its many rules, regulations and agencies turns scientific knowledge into public policy. The government occasionally sets high, challenging goals that capture the imagination of a generation of thinkers- such as putting a man on the moon, or ending smallpox.

However, politicians often distort the state of scientific knowledge to suit their own ends. And this leads to further confusion and lack of confidence by the public. A better approach is (gasp) honesty. For example, rather than claiming the science on global warming is not yet settled to avoid deciding whether and how to reduce its effects (Global Warming's probably in the Confirmed Category), it would be better to agree with the scientific consensus, but state forthrightly the immediate economic costs are too high, or can be deferred for a few years.

Who the hell are you to set yourself up as the arbiters of scientific fact vs. fiction?

Just a bunch of concerned scientists who feel the gap between reality and mythology has grown dangerously large. We believe in open debate, but know that scientific understanding is not amenable to a majority vote. You can't fool mother nature, only your self. So eventually, the facts are separated from the fiction.

Oh yeah, how about a few examples?

Fair enough. Sometimes, new science is quickly confirmed and rapidly embraced. For example, in 1986 after decades of modest improvements, Müller and Bednorz claimed to have discovered a new superconductor made of a ceramic, not a metal and which worked at a high temperature above which most theories thought possible. Within a few months of publication, a number of groups around the world confirmed their discovery. Within a year, more researchers expanded the field by doubling and then doubling the temperature again. The field of High Tc superconductivity was born.

Conversely, in 1989 when Pons and Fleischman announced their remarkable Cold Fusion observations, hundred if not thousands of scientist tried to replicate their experiment. Most were unable to do so, and over the next few years in experiments more tightly controlled than in the original paper, the evidence melted away. Not out of academic jealousy or a "big oil"conspiracy, but for lack of proof.

And finally, it took nearly 20 years for the medical community to agree with two Australian physicians, that most ulcers are caused by bacteria (see this section for more details). Their perseverance in the face of derision is remarkable. And the system, perhaps too slowly, arrived at the correct destination.

The scientific method isn't perfect, but there are very few cases where good science didn't eventually win out.

So how do we know even today's best verified Facts, won't turn out to be tomorrow's Fiction?

One can never be sure. Still, we're never going to return to believing the Earth is flat. And, while Newton's Laws overturned millennia of sloppy or unsophisticated thinking about the motion of objects, it's wrong to believe Einstein overturned Newton. Instead, Einstein's Theories of Relativity expanded Newton's Laws to apply where gravity is very strong, or motion very fast. And that's becoming more typical - new observations expand on old science, and only infrequently replace that knowledge.

On a more philosophical note, there is no reason to believe our meager human brains and senses are up to the task of explaining the world around us. The universe is unimaginably large and complex. Our brains are not. Probably, if we can pose the question we can discover the answer- eventually. But, it is exactly those questions we are not smart enough to ask, which may be the most important. In which we'll live on in blissful ignorance.

Aren't these rankings partly a matter of opinion and intuition?


I disagree with one of the rankings- what should I do?

Every topic is presented as a moderated Wiki. You are free to edit any page, although the moderator is equally free to edit your suggestions consistent with best scientific practices and their good judgment.

The moderator won't listen to me- what should I do now?

Click on the submission link above. The submission form can be used to contact the moreorlesstrue review board. We will take your concerns seriously, and try to contact you in a reasonable period of time. Lunatic requests will be honored as well, but only once in a blue moon.





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