Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park

Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park
Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park, Photo by Roger Brucker

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Appendices 5, 6 7 The Scientific Method; Karst Model Ordinances; Eight Rivers Safe Development brochure.

5. The Scientific Method: Model for clear thinking under pressure from opponents (and confused supporters!) 

It is important to keep in mind how the scientific process works. This is because some developers and their consultants will make unscientific claims, while swearing they are “true science.” For example, a developer says he will drain a large parking lot into a scientifically safe, permitted Class V Injection Well. The implication is that the procedure is “safe” and “permitted” – so it must be a good idea. Wrong! A Class V Injection Well is nothing but a sinkhole, and the state water authorities may not monitor the drainage at all. They may even “lose” the permit!

On the other hand, overzealous opponents of development on karst may themselves make unscientific claims. “There is no way a building can be built on this karst land,” invites challenge as unscientific. The developer my sink pilings down to bedrock, conduct expensive studies to verify the absence of caves, or pour expensive reinforced concrete foundation beams to span known cavities.

Just because expensive remedies are the only means of avoiding karst hazards does not mean that construction on karst is impossible. Unscientific claims will destroy credibility, which is why it is a good idea to enlist scientific experts to accurately describe risks.

Thomas Poulson, Ph.D. (2009) describes the scientific method as the efficient way to find out how things work – what’s going on. It involves four basic steps: observations, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments. Observations lead to insights and perhaps the beginnings of understanding. Hypotheses are possible explanations (inductive reasoning). From these we use deductive reasoning to make predictions. Finally, we test each prediction with experiments. If experiments verify the hypotheses, we can sometimes
control the outcome.

For example, if we observe that a flashlight fails to work, we have a hypothesis as to why: the batteries are dead. We experiment by replacing the batteries. If the flashlight lights, we are done. If it fails to light, we discard the first hypothesis and move on to a new hypothesis: the bulb is burned out. If we replace the bulb and the light works, we are done. We can control whether the flashlight works by hypothesis testing.

The scientific process described above has been used during the past century by hydrogeologists and other specialists to learn how karst responds to active environmental pressures – the way it becomes weaker and collapses, how it causes floods when too much water exceeds  its drainage capacity, and how contamination introduced into karst conduits will not be treated by natural purification. Developers and consultants – through ignorance or deliberately – can raise false hypotheses about the why karst “misbehaves”, but science is not on their side. A single scientific dye trace can replace speculations with facts (Poulson, Thomas L., 2009. “The Scientific Method”, 2 pp. Unpublished, available from the author).

For example, a quarry operator wanted to develop a limestone quarry in a knob next to the Green River in Kentucky. A series of dye tests demonstrated that the quarry would drain underground to a spring discharging just upstream from an endangered mussel shoal. The map of an eight-mile cave nearby was further scientific evidence that the quarry would threaten unacceptable risk. Science – eventually – trumped business opportunity.

6. Karst Model Ordinances
(to come from Merideth Hildreth)

7. Eight Rivers Safe Development Brochure (link to come)

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