Natural History Museum Defends the Teen's Debunked Solar Discovery

The Atlantic
Natural History Museum Defends the Teen's Debunked Solar Discovery
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Natural History Museum Defends the Teen's Debunked Solar Discovery

The other week we, along with the rest of the media world, highlighted the achievement of a very bright 13-year-old, Aidan Dwyer, whose work on using the Fibonacci sequence in solar panel positioning won a Young Naturalist Award from the American Museum of Natural History. But then it turned out his data was quite flawed, as we also reported. But that made many wonder, how did the American Museum of Natural History not catch these errors? This week the museum posted their response, standing up for their choice because everyone learned some important lessons.

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Sure a million zillion blogs had written up the boy-genius, but isn't it curious that an institution of knowledge didn't notice the flaws before awarding him the award and writing up his achievements? After the media latched onto Dwyer's story, The Capacity Factor, which debunked the science, chastised news outlets for getting way ahead of themselves. "The news is to blame. All the usual suspects -- popular environment blogs, tech magazines -- blindly parrot the words of this very misinformed (not to blame him, he's an unguided 13 year old) kid." Yet, it's not like the information came from an unreliable source. It is a museum prize, after-all, argues TreeHugger's Jaymi Heimbuch. "We would trust that when a teen gets an award from the American Museum of Natural History, then he's probably right, or at least right enough, to write about."

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So what gives, museum? They argue the boy still deserves his honor, even if the methodology and findings don't add up, not only because of his creativity and clever write-up, but because he learned some very valuable lessons, that any grown-up scientists would make. First, he tested the wrong variable, a classic mistake, "in this case, voltage instead of power generated. A flawed experimental design, no matter how carefully executed, yields data that cannot be used to evaluate the hypothesis." 

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But the museum also, in a vague way, accepts their own error. "Although the contest judges did not recognize the error, Aidan’s interesting results—and his clear description of his methodology in his essay—led an electrical engineer to pinpoint the mistake in another process familiar to researchers: community review." Researchers are usually held up to the standards of their peers. In this case, the "community" was first and foremost the museum, who failed to properly review the science behind Dwyer's claims. They of course justify their oversight because it helped  little Dwyer learn a lesson. "In research, recognizing an error is an important step that leads to recalibrating an experiment or method."

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