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Scientific Method

Scientific Method

Scientific Method

Last week I attended a workshop on "Induced Seismicity" as related to Oil & Gas operations at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. This was presented by professors of geology, geophysics, hydrology, and seismology along with researchers from Los Alamos National Labs. Pretty high brow stuff. I came away with some observations about the current state of the scientific method.
  • With one notable exception, the presentations were very careful to distinguish model output form measured data, and nearly every observation had error bands.
  • Computer models are used extensively to test hypotheses for reasonableness. Many models were discussed that failed to honor the data and these models were shown to be dead ends that did not help with assessing when and where Oil & Gas operations were impacting seismicity.
  • When the scientists did not know something, they seemed very comfortable with "my research has not examined that" or "the data does not support a conclusion on that topic".
  • The exception was the one guy who categorically declared that frac'ing was causing a massive increase in the rate and severity of earthquakes in Oklahoma (several others had strongly indicated that the data did not support a conclusion that frac'ing or production was related to seismic activity, but there was a correlation between produced water injection and seismicity). When he was cornered by experts, he did admit that out of 50,000 frac jobs in Oklahoma during his study he could only find 2 frac jobs that had a temporal and geographic coincidence with earthquakes, and both of those were measured on quite distant stations with low resolution and no ability to correlate with depth. It was clear to all in the room that his work was of a completely different quality and honesty than the rest of the workshop and it was further clear that he had carefully spun the data for a political agenda. The sense of the room was that his data does in fact demonstrate a significant increase in seismic events in recent years. Further, that no conclusion was supported in data.
I was very impressed with the researchers who were true to their data. I was quite distressed that a professor at a major mid-west university was willing to subvert his research to a political agenda. It seems to be happening far too much in far too many fields.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Scientific Method

Grabbed from the web where it may even be sourced back to wiki. Bolding is mine.

Karl Popper argued that absolute truth was alien to the scientific method. For example, 'all cats are black' is a theory that can never be verified because we can never observe all cats. However, it could be falsified by the observation of one white cat.
Thus scientific theories should not be said to be true: at best they can hope not to be proven false. Indeed this is the essence of a proper scientific theory - if it is not open to being proven false then it is merely pseudo science or even myth.
This is known as Popper's falsification principle.
When a claim is not falsifiable, you are dealing with an Immunised Hypothesis. Claims about the physical world that are based on immunised hypotheses are pseudo-scientific.
Examples of pseudo sciences that Popper became suspicious of are psychoanalytic beliefs such as those of Freud and political Ideologies such as Marxism. These theories can never go wrong, as they are sufficiently flexible to accommodate any type of new behaviour. No observation or test can show these theories to be false, as their proponents are able to invent "just-so" stories to account for any possible behaviour. These theories give the appearance of being able to explain everything, but in fact they explain nothing, as they can rule out nothing. Of course there are other pseudo-scientific beliefs we can easily include with the previously mentioned ones - intelligent design, astrology, fortune telling, tarot cards, etc.
So, 'Falsification' is a handy theoretical tool, but is does have some drawbacks. For example, it is only able to discriminate between scientific and non-scientific propositions. It cannot identify the truthfulness of those propositions. Just because a theory meets the falsification criteria does not necessarily mean that it is correct, it does mean that it can be refuted later however.
If the theory is eventually found to be completely lacking (the fundamental hypotheses are irreparably falsified), it can be usurped by a better theory which has greater explanatory power (Kuhn's 'paradigm shift').
For example; The development of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which overturned Lamarckian theories of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont criticized falsifiability on the grounds that it does not accurately describe the way science really works. They argue that theories are used because of their successes, not because of the failures of other theories.
They write; "When a theory successfully withstands an attempt at falsification, a scientist will, quite naturally, consider the theory to be partially confirmed and will accord it a greater likelihood or a higher subjective probability. ... But Popper will have none of this: throughout his life he was a stubborn opponent of any idea of 'confirmation' of a theory, or even of its 'probability'. ... [but] the history of science teaches us that scientific theories come to be accepted above all because of their successes."


Greg Locock

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RE: Scientific Method


Other than "that one fellow"...was any research presented that indicated that we oil & gas engineers should modify our frac plans to take any extra precautions against inducing seismicity?

RE: Scientific Method

The presentations did not suggest any changes to frac or production techniques.

On the other hand, a couple of them were concerned about target formations used for produced water injection. The easier it is for injection pressure to reach faults in the "crystalline basement", the higher the occurrence of induced seismicity. One guy said that if we only injected into sedimentary formations that were isolated from the basement metamorphic rock by a shale or other impermeable formation would reduce the induced seismicity to nearly zero (no one is going to say "zero" without qualifiers in that crowd). Injecting into basement rock was associated with a statistically significant increase in the number of seismic events.

Then another guy said that these magnitude 1 - 2 earthquakes associated with injection were a really good thing because they served to reduce local stresses and avoided very large earthquakes. His argument was fascinating. His data was kind of sparse so I'm not quite ready to climb onto that particular band wagon, but I plan to watch for how that hypotheses develops with increasing data.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Scientific Method

It really is a good article. The data in the "Environmental Concerns" box on page 4 is pretty even handed. The term "Super Frack" is a bit over the top, but they got it from Dr. George King who has always had a way with a phrase.

I think that they are a bit optimistic when they say that 10% of wells have microseismic monitors. I've been to several talks by the few companies that supply that equipment and their feeling is that it is closer to 0.1%, but that is still a few thousand data sets a year. Producers are struggling to understand the benefits well enough to convince management to spend the money. A colleague of mine at Amoco, Dr. Ian Palmer, is one of the leaders at interpreting this data and I saw a talk he gave last year that was fairly negative on our ability to sell this technology a lot further. It is just too expensive for the value received.

That is a pretty small quibble for a pretty far ranging paper.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

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