Researchers may have found a way to reduce the environmental impact of air travel in situations when electric aircraft and alternative fuels aren’t practical. Wiredreports that Oxford University scientists have successfully turned CO2 into jet fuel, raising the possibility of conventionally-powered aircraft with net zero emissions.
The technique effectively reverses the process of burning fuel by relying on the organic combustion method. The team heated a mix of citric acid, hydrogen and an iron-manganese-potassium catalyst to turn CO2 into a liquid fuel capable of powering jet aircraft.
The approach is inexpensive, uncomplicated and uses commonplace materials. It’s cheaper than processes used to turn hydrogen and water into fuel.
There are numerous challenges to bringing this to aircraft. The lab method only produced a few grams of fuel — you’d clearly need much more to support even a single flight, let alone an entire fleet. You’d need much more widespread use of carbon capture. And if you want effectively zero emissions, the capture and conversion systems would have to run on clean energy.
The researches are talking with industrial partners, though, and don’t see any major scientific hurdles. It might also be one of the most viable options for fleets. Many of them would have to replace their aircraft to go electric or switch fuel types. This conversion process would let airlines keep their existing aircraft and go carbon neutral until they’re truly ready for eco-friendly propulsion.
In the Smithsonian Magazine online comments, I encountered these opinions:
“I think the Smithsonian should not have published such an extreme postmodernist and anti-science article.”
“This was an astoundingly bad article that a good science editor should have blocked. The author is clearly knowledgeable about his field but lacks a clear understanding of the scientific method … a series of anti-science and postmodernist rants have been passed off as fact …”
“Without the unnecessary anti-science it would have been a good article.”
“The Smithsonian has gone new-age and the anti-science, regressive Left is apparently thriving there …”
Criticism in academia is healthy. But there was nothing “anti-science” about my article, which asserted that Traditional Knowledge and western science are often complementary. There is nothing anti-science about my work; as an archaeologist, it is heavily informed by science.
It seems only western science can be championed as objective, reliable and neutral.
Emerging from the Enlightenment in the late 17th century, science has provided us with a powerful suite of tools — from quantum mechanics to astrophysics, from chemistry to geology — with which to understand the world and everything in (and outside) it. Broadly framed, science is a method or means to systematically study of the world, including the smallest bits of it, through observation and experimentation to find the best explanation. This description holds true regardless of the culture or beliefs of the scientist.
As an archaeologist, I research the intersection of western and Indigenous ways of knowing the world. I have found that these seemingly different knowledge systems sometimes complement and sometimes contradict each other. I have learned that Indigenous people’s understandings of the world include knowledge gained through scientific methods.
This anti-science attitude even extends to my field. The television series Ancient Aliens (now in season 13) explains ancient technologies and places with complete disregard for scientific evidence.
Good science should yield many new insights about, and even reverse theories. Medical ideas have changed over the years as to whether salt, eggs, coffee, alcohol, etc. are bad or good for you. Such shifts can be explained by new evaluative techniques or larger and longer studies.
Does what has been called the “Replication Crisis” mean that science is not reliable? Of course not. Occasionally, experiments are methodologically flawed or sample sizes too small. These findings reiterate that science is a human enterprise, sometimes prone to personal bias and political motivations.
It is also easy to neglect how quickly new understandings of our world replace old ones.
The methods and goals of western science have been challenged by Indigenous peoples, who have often been the unwilling focus of scientific research (especially in areas like genetics and archaeology). Academics have also challenged scientific methods and goals. However, a critique of science is not a rejection of science.
Indigenous knowledge often complements, but sometimes contradicts the results of archaeology. Why should different methods and different results be shunned when science by design is meant to be challenged? Hypotheses are proposed, tested, accepted or rejected in order to produce reliable and replicable results.
Indigenous knowledge can aid in achieving this in three ways:
1) It strengthens the scientific process by making it less homogeneous in terms of its practitioners’ values and interests, thus increasing objectivity.
2) It offers alternative ideas that serve as multiple working hypotheses (a central concept in science) and move research towards unanticipated results.
3) It helps to affirm that both “scientific explanation” and “oral histories” are products of historical circumstance and cultural context, and subject to controls that ensure accuracy.
Science requires multiple perspectives
Were some of the readers against my article misreading what I was saying about Traditional Knowledge? Or are they against the ideas of Indigenous Knowledge systems?
Do those readers perceive Traditional Knowledge to be an attack on science or western society? Or might some of them be reflecting racist attitudes towards non-Western peoples — even when Traditional Knowledge includes essential aspects of science, such as empirical observation and rigourous testing?
Ultimately, science is a dynamic enterprise that progresses through failure. The late historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “How many current efforts, now commanding millions of research dollars and the full attention of many of our best sciences, will later be exposed as full failures based on false premises?”
Science is a multicultural enterprise that benefits from and indeed requires competing views. Indigenous observations, perspectives and values enrich, not threaten, our collective knowledge of the world.