Archives For scientific research

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While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

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t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.

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exposed brain

If you recall the last post about those who mew that science just cheapens the world around us with its math and experiments, you may remember the book used as a prime example of these attitudes, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. I know, a sardonic riff on Dawkins, how original, right? Well, over the last month or so, White has been taking plenty of heat for his work and its thinly veiled disgust and contempt for the process of inquiry and trial and error which has taken humans to the Moon, doubled our average lifespan, and is now exploring the far reaches of the cosmos and the physical makeup of our minds. His reply so far? His critics just don’t get him or the reasons why he wrote what he wrote, claiming that pretty much everyone got everything he said so wrong, they might as well be reading a different book. That wouldn’t stick, so in his latest defensive missive to detractors, he trots out a new excuse for his nastiness; he was just kidding when he was making up nicknames for atheists and outspoken scientists of note. So come on, have a sense of humor and laugh with him as he descends into inanity. Or as he says…

But I don’t fault Feynman for playing the bongos [by referring to him as Bongoman]. I’d happily join him on rhythm guitar, and we’d snap fingers with the hepcats. I merely suggest that it is disappointing that someone who played the bongos also thought that everything about creation is explained by the spinning of atoms. I’m laughing at the incongruity.

What incongruity might that be? A scientist who understands a fundamental parts of how matter as we know it comes together and apart also likes music. So what? He should be entranced by the beat of his bongos so much so that he has an epiphany and declares that his work on how subatomic particles behave was all rubbish because, dude, this universe is like totally way too complex to really understand? Because that is what White is very strongly implying. His inability to realize that being able to explain how something works doesn’t rule out being inspired by it, or outright awed, makes his main thesis a worthless non sequtur. I understand how his browser will render a web page and can walk him though the mathematical tree of bytes that is the DOM (or Document Object Model) as it’s going to be rendered. Should I never tell him about this if I get a chance so he can just be ignorantly happy that some magic brings him web sites and refuse to believe that knowing how the web works lets you admire what it can be made to do?

Since White doesn’t understand that science is much more than providing technical notes on a natural phenomenon, he ends up arguing against learning past a point with which he’s at ease because he wants to have the freedom to wax poetic on life’s mysteries, and he’s incensed that an awful lot of people want to keep pushing past his point of willful ignorance. This is really what his message boils down to: "stop learning so much!" He’s so appalled by the notion that creative thought can be studied as a set of chemical reactions in the brain that he refuses to consider it as a viable area of research. Where the curious and the scientific ask what these chemicals are, how they react, and how did they come to be what they are and function the way the do, he just wants to run away and pretend that there’s no way those rotten eggheads can make him feel a little bit less special by figuring out how his brain works. Thankfully, few people seem interested in his love note to proud, glib obliviousness by choice, and that’s why White is so wound up. His call to discard facts and curiosity is going unanswered by far too many people for his liking…

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far future city

Ever since the New Atheists arrived on the scene, there’s be a loud, wailing siren from religious and humanities pundits decrying the idea that we could use science to explain the universe that we occupy. Generally their argument for why we can’t use reason and experiments to clear up a lot of mysteries and what makes us tick boils down to "how dare you say you can explain all this complexity and wonder in math and mechanistic descriptions?" And that’s really as far as it goes because their objection to using science to explain their pet topics in the language of formulas, statistics, and data sets is that it takes away a mystery they so desperately wanted to preserve for another sermon or tome of nebulous ponderings on the human condition. While researchers and engineers see the beauty in knowing how things work, science-phobic pontificators rush to the fainting couches, distraught that someone dare to explain their minds as sprawling networks neurons and accumulated experience alongside evolutionary mechanisms.

If you’re one of those people who needs to be a mysterious, delicate snowflake who is just way too complicated and nuanced to study, I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. Knowing how the world around us works in scientific, mechanistic language is how we build modern societies, land on a different world, send robots into deep space, and find cures for what ails us. If you refuse to see how knowing what makes the universe tick gives your existence even more meaning and a very enviable ability to modify the world to accomplish something, even to a small extent, that is your personal problem. Now, far be it from me to say that literature or religions never made profound contributions to humanity because they have. But what they couldn’t do was to find and confirm solid, experimentally proven, reliable answers to big questions about who we are and where we might be going. Science has given us a vast, complex, mysterious universe, and they’re upset that we can derive some algebra to try and explain how a few bits of it fit together?

Consider this. If you’re loudly and publicly rebelling against the scourge of "arrogant scientism" but you’ve ever tried something to find out what will happen and then repeated your experiment to confirm it, you’re a hypocrite. You relied on the scientific method to answer your question, not those nebulous "other ways of knowing." Come to think of it, what are all of these "other ways of knowing" we hear invoked so often by both a fundamentalist zealot with a mind wide shut, and a crunchy New Ager with equal zeal? Voices of an omnipotent deity? The universe telling you that we’re all connected in a creationist fantasy for left wing anti-intellectuals? That’s just your brain making shit up to put it bluntly. You can attend philosophical seminars and conventions of tweed suit-clad graybeards, huffing and puffing, and looking serious, saying "isn’t life so mysterious?" as Tim Minchin once put it, and rage against the fact that science can explain things that were once said to be off limits to mere mortals. It won’t change the fact that it’s our ability to explore, dissect, catalog, explain, and predict though science that makes us who we are.

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A long time ago, I shared one of my favorite jokes about philosophers. It went like this. Once, a president of a large and prestigious university was asked who were his most expensive staff to fund. "Phycisists and computer scientists," he replied without hesitation, "they always want some brand new machine that costs a fortune to build and operate, not like mathematicians who only need paper, pencils, and erasers. Or better yet, my philosophers. Those guys don’t even need the erasers!" Yes, yes, I know, I’m a philosophical phillistine, I’ve been told of this so many times that I should start some sort of contest. But my lack of reverence for the discipline is not helped by philosophers who decide to speak up for their occupation in an age of big data and powerful, new tools for scientific experimentation to propose answers to new and ever more complex real world questions. Case in point, a column by Raymond Tallis declaring that physics is broken so much so that it needs metaphysics to pull itself back together and produce real results.

Physics is a discipline near and dear to my heart because certain subsets of it can be applied to cutting edge hardware, and as someone whose primary focus is distributed computing, the area of computer science which gives us all our massive web applications, cloud storage, and parallel processing, there’s a lot of value in keeping up with the relevant underlying science. And maybe there’s already an inherent bias here when my mind starts to wonder how metaphysics will help someone build a quantum cloud or radically increase hard drive density, but the bigger problem is that Tallis doesn’t seem to have any command of the scientific issues he declares to be in dire need of graybeards in tweed suits pondering the grand mechanics of existence with little more than the p’s and q’s of propositional logic. For example, take his description of why physics has chased itself into a corner with quantum mechanics…

A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

As science bloggers love to say, this isn’t even wrong. Tallis and Wallace have mixed up three very different concepts into a grab bag of confusion. Quantum mechanics can do very, very odd things that seem to defy the normal flow of time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t know the general topology of a quantum system. The oft cited and abused Uncertainty Principle is based on the fact that certain fundamental building blocks of the universe can function as both a wave and a particle, and each state has its own set of measurements. If you try to treat the blocks as particles, you can measure the properties of the particle state. If you try to treat them as waves, you can only measure the properties of the waves. The problem is that you can’t get both at the same exact time because you have to choose which state you measure. However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states. In other words, measurement of quantum systems is very possible.

All right, so this covers the Uncertainty Principle mixup, what about the other two concepts? The biggest problem in physics today is the lack of unification between the noisy quantum mechanics on the subatomic scale and the ordered patterns of general relativity. String theory and the very popular but nearly impossible to test many worlds theory tries to explain the effects of the basic forces that shape the universe on all scales in terms of different dimensions or leaks from other universes. So when Tallis says that it’s still 40 years and we don’t know which one is right, then piles on his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on top of Wallace’s seeming inability to tell the difference between multiverses and string theory, he ends up with the mess above. We get a paradox where there isn’t one and scope creep from particle physics into cosmology. Not quite a ringing endorsement of philosophy in physics so far. And then Tallis makes it worse…

The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

Again, a grab bag of not even wrong is supposed to sell us on the idea that a philosopher could help where our tools are pushed to their limits. Considering that Tallis dismisses the entire idea that neuroscience as a discipline has any merit, no wonder that he proclaims that we don’t have any clue of what consciousness is from a biological perspective. The fact is that we do have lots of clues. Certain patterns of brain activity are strongly associated with a person being aware of his or her environment, being able to meaningfully interact, and store and recall information as needed. It’s hardly the full picture of course, but it’s a lot more than Tallis thinks it is. His bizarre claim that scientists consider some nerve pulses to be conscious while the majority are said not to be is downright asinine. Just about every paper on the study of the conscious mind in a peer reviewed, high quality journal refer to consciousness as a product of the entire brain.

The rest of his argument is just a meaningless, vitalist word salad. If brain activity is irrelevant to consciousness, why do healthy living people have certain paterns while those who had massive brain injuries have different ones depending on the site of injury? Why do all those basic brain wave patterns repeat again and again in test after test? Just for the fun of seeing themselves on an EEG machine’s output? And what does it mean that it’s a surprising fact that we can perceive matter around us? Once again, hardly a serious testament to the usefulness of philosophers in science because so far all we got is meaningless questions accusing scientists of being unable to solve problems that aren’t problems by using a couple of buzzwords incorrectly, haphazardly cobbling bits of pieces of different theories into an overreaching statement that initially sounds well researched, but means pretty much nothing. Well, this is at least when we don’t have Tallis outright dismissing the science without explaining what’s wrong with it…

Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication.

Here we get a double whammy of Tallis getting the science wrong and deciding that he doesn’t like the existing ideas because they don’t pass his smell test. He’s combining competing ideas to declare them inconsistent within a unified framework, seeingly unaware that the hypotheses he’s ridiculing aren’t complimentary by design. Yes, we don’t know how the universe was created, all we have is evidence of the Big Bang and we want to know exactly what banged and how. This is why we have competing theories about quantum fluxes, virtual particles, branes, and all sorts of other mathematical ideas created in a giant brainstorm, waiting to be tested for any hint of a real application to observable phenomena. Pop sci magazines might declare that math proved that a stray quantum particle caused the Big Bang or that we were all vomited out by some giant black hole, or are living in the event horizon of one, but in reality, that math is just one idea. So yes, Tallis is right about the confusion under the algebra, but he’s wrong about why it exists.

And here’s the bottom line. If the philosopher trying to make the case for this profession’s need for inclusion into the realms of physics and neuroscience doesn’t understand what the problems are, what the fields do, and how the fields work, why would we even want to hear how he could help? If you read his entire column, he never does explain how, but really, after all his whoppers and not even wrongs, do you care? Philosophers are useful when you want to define a process or wrap your head around where to start your research on a complex topic, like how to create an artificial intelligence. But past that, hard numbers and experiments are required to figure out the truth, otherwise, all we have are debates about semantics which at some point may well turn into questions of what it means to exist in the first place. Not to say that this last part is not a debate worth having, but it doesn’t add much to a field where we can actually measure and calculate a real answer to a real question and apply what we learn to dive even further.

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exposed brain

Psychology has occasionally been called "the study of college undergraduates" and while that would usually be a joke in the psych department, a few writers are raising red flags that it’s too common of a practice and might be affecting the quality of the science. The study they chose to highlight? A survey trying to make the link between someone’s first sexual experience and what sexual activity follows based on 319 heterosexual college students who started having sex only about two years prior to the study and were asked to describe their intimate activities with some very positive and some very negative adjectives from a proscribed list. While the critics ask why the population was so homogeneous and the responses were so limited, this actually makes a lot of sense. If you’re not sure of your hypothesis, you want to have the most uniform samples you can find and limit inherently qualitative feedback into more quantitative form. From there on, you can test if the theory holds for more sexually experienced and diverse populations. So why are science writers harping on a perfectly legitimate, well done hypothesis fishing study?

Probably because it’s recent and it found that the students’ first sexual experience tended to be indicative of how they’d describe their future ones. And when limited to the population studied, it does make sense. Many of them are still relatively wet behind the ears and having finally had a real sexual encounter, they’re wondering what others will be like and comparing it to their first as they get more and more experience because it’s usually one of their few points of reference. At the same time, however, as the first experience fades into memory, new highlights come to take its place and a terrible first time gets forgotten in favor of the last mind-blowing experience and that might go on to color future encounters. We could also wonder about couples who lost their virginity to each other and haven’t had sex with anyone else. So why didn’t the researchers take cases like this into account? Well, they’d be outside the scope of the study, which basically just points out the obvious that yes, there’s a mental link between what you thought of your first time and your future preferences and expectations, as it applies to the sample population.

And that last phrase is really the crux of the matter because while human sexuality is so diverse and complex that questions about it could easily fuel centuries of studies and experiments, the pool of people willing to be studied is limited and the external factors they’d bring into the study makes it complicated to tease out complex and minute differences that might hint at something more, something that merits further research. College undergraduates are easy to recruit, easy to find close to the researchers’ labs, and fairly easy to homogenize, so they make for a simple, convenient set of test subjects in pilot studies. They’re a classic go-to convenience sample, and if you want to study special populations, you’ll go and study those special populations when you have the resources to do so. It’s just not fair to expect a narrow study to account for everything and use it a s springboard to pontificate on the limited utility of convenience sampling in basic psychology published for the public. And here the media has to take some heat as well.

How many pop sci writers just copy and paste the press release? How many of them wrote click bait headlines that sound as if an exhaustive study settled the question of just how special your first time is to you and what role it plays in your sex life? And how many of them trying their best to be contrarians put words in the researchers’ mouths and criticized them for making claims not actually made by the study? My guess? Quite a few. In fact, the links to a critical review of three other studies in the referenced critique were papers uncritically hyped by the media to become the viral stories they became. We can certainly argue about how much psychologists are relying on convenience samples of white, college educated students in the West, and what this does to the field as a whole. However, if the initial studies seem to be suffering from a bad sample or are way too limited to be applied outside of a very narrow socioeconomic group, the media klaxon is making the problem a hundred times worse. For writers to then wag their finger at the scientists, saying "tsk, tsk on your sampling techniques" without acknowledging that their colleagues have been running away with inconclusive and narrow studies for years is very disingenuous.

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microcosm

Really, the politicians in office today, science, and technology simply don’t mix. We have years and years of bills and their behavior proving this. From vapid remarks about science, to serious debate about an internet kill switch, to inviting woefully unqualified people to judge what should be funded by the NSF, it’s as if our lawmakers are trying to live the stereotype of over-confident managers who think they’re experts at all things because they can talk a big game. It would be amusing were they not in a position to actually change how science is being funded, and churn out ridiculous proposal after ridiculous proposal. The latest volley of this oblivious ineptitude is the bill from Lamar Smith (yes, R-TX, a real shocker, I know) which lays out what sort of projects the NSF should be funding and in the process basically discards anything that’s not an applied military or a medical project, negating the entire point of basic research and eviscerating basic research funding not obfuscated to look like a future treatment, weapon, or infosec system.

Basic science is done because we’re curious about something and we don’t know what sorts of applications or spin-offs it might have. Maybe there will be none. Maybe we’ll discover something as incredibly useful as lasers. Maybe there will be no direct benefit but in the process, we’ll build something that will change the world, like the world wide web being derived from a project meant to help particle physicists share data from particle collider results at CERN. We just don’t know, which is why we try to study all these things, and the results provide more than enough ROI as direct applications and spin-offs are commercialized. However, a lot of people will not see it that way, insisting that if something can’t be on the market within a few years, or used to kill bad guys half a world away, it’s a waste of money. And not only do they see it that way, they refuse to even try to understand how basic research and the scientific process work. They also do not care for, or understand scientists, deluding themselves with myths about their lifestyles.

And this is how we get the Lamar Smiths of the world. His constituents truly believe that a typical scientist could never make it in "a real job," and lives off of government welfare in the form of an enormous grant, handed over like a blank check from the NSF. The facts that scientists actually make something like $55,000 per year on average, have to deal with the NSF approving only a small fraction of all the grant applications they receive (below 10% in many fields and up to 20% in some others), and generally to already well established scientists, and that they can be fired for not being top of their field, do not register with them. It’s so sadly ironic that people who can easily out-earn scientists in their lifetimes and can keep their jobs if they’re at least mediocre, are deriding woefully underpaid professionals who can be fired for not being in the top 10% of their discipline and have to pay their own salaries through fundraising and political savvy. And it’s an insult to injury when said people turn scientifically illiterate politicians into their attack dogs.

But this is what happens when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to remain glib and as incurious as they please by politicians and public figures who rush to pat them on the back and give them a gold star for just being who they are. The current push to structure basic education around standardized testing rather than discovery, curiosity, and career orientation isn’t helping either. If we just let kids find out what fascinates them and feed their curiosity with key subjects that will let them pursue it further, they’ll learn the reading, the math, and the history involved to perform well on whatever standardized tests you’ll give them. After all, any field requires a solid command of basic literacy and mathematical competence to fully understand. But that requires the effort to restructure how the education system works, basically, giving a shit and trying to do something about it, to put it bluntly. However, by the choices a lot of people are making in their elected officials, and their support of said officials’ scientific illiteracy and hostility to science, I’m willing to bet that not a whole lot of the required shits are being given on average…

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alien bacteria

In a fair bit of science fiction, we see advanced alien species use some sort of shielding to walk around other planets or survive being ejected into space. Something around them flickers and a protective invisible bubble is raised, protecting them from a horrible death by dehydration as all the fluid in their bodies effectively boils away. As it turns out, that’s actually possible. So far it’s only been done with fruit fly and mosquito larvae, but we apparently know how to create a shield from extreme conditions, capturing water and necessary gases trapped in a field of electrons or plasma. All you have to do is take a specimen into an electron scanning microscope and send a shower of electrons or a plasma beam at your target. The electrons and ions envelop the living specimen, creating a little, almost skin-tight biodome that contains just enough air for it to move and otherwise keep very obviously living for about an hour. So, you might ask, electromagnetic spacesuits for everybody? Well, no, not exactly. There are a few really important caveats.

First and foremost, the specimens are being irradiated, and the more powerful the shielding has to be, the more radiation it requires to organize itself. Humans could get radiation poisoning as their suits are being beamed onto them, or at least risk extremly dangerous exposure levels. But if you think a little cancer is worth it, there’s the issue of being trapped with your air supply. With no scrubbers, your respiration would produce dangerous level of carbon dioxide and you would die of hypoxia after about 45 minutes to an hour or so, depending, of course, on your breathing and how much of an air supply you initially had. And now might be a good time to mention that a spacesuit created by nothing but charged particles wasn’t the original goal of the research, the idea was to insulate insects so their movements could be studied in the vacuum of the electron microscope’s sample chamber, so there’s not going to be a team working on these issues in the near or far future. But at least we now know that there really is something to the electromagnetic shielding we see in sci-fi all the time, even though it would make for a lousy spacesuit…

See: Takaku, Y., et al. (2013). A thin polymer membrane, nano-suit, enhancing survival across the continuum between air and high vacuum PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221341110

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darwin

Generally, we tend to associate powerful theories with the people who first proposed them and say that without Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, or all the other scientists featured in countless books as visionaries, our world wouldn’t be the same, and the knowledge we take for granted now would’ve never made it to us. Well, this is somewhat true. Change who discovered, say, germ theory and how it was proposed, and you’d have different criticisms and politics, and adoption curve by the scientific establishment of the day so the world would indeed be a different place. But when it comes to the knowledge, it would largely be similar. That’s one of the greatest things about science. Call physics "objectology" and change the variables in the formulas, and the body of work will still describe pretty much the same processes with the same mechanics because that’s just the way nature works. The differences would be in what bleeding edge ideas would dominate the debate among the experts and professionals, not the basics.

And so, a new book by historian Peter J. Bowler, argues that without Darwin, biology as we know it today would be virtually the same. Were the young naturalist thrown overboard during a storm as he traveled the world, compiling evidence for his theory, there were many scientists waiting to fill the role of evolution’s historical focal father. Wallace probably fits the bill best since it was his version of the theory that prompted Darwin to dust off his by then 20 year old manuscript. And if Wallace’s ideas failed to get any attention, the idea of natural selection was still in the air, it just needed a solid footing to really take off and fuse with genetics. If anything, argues Bowler, neo-Darwinian synthesis might have actually been expedited with Wallace because his theories had more developmental underpinnings, and would turn the field’s focus to complex genetics we’re trying to master to the forefront sooner. And of course there would’ve still been vocal creationist opposition to the idea in all forms. It’s basically a given, much like gravity and entropy.

Even the charges of evolution inspiring eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust would’ve still persisted because the people who were ultimately responsible for them were looking for any kind of excuse to reshape humanity to their liking. Considering that their understanding of selection was pitiful and their knowledge of hereditary mechanisms was non-existent, they weren’t exactly interested in the science. They just wanted a patina of facts to hide their bigotry and racism, and anything that sounded like it could be bastardized into serving their goal was used. Hundreds of years before them, religion was used to justify mistreatment of minority groups throughout much of the Western world, be it selective accusatory clauses from the Old Testament, or invoking the loathsome Deicide Doctrine to defend systematic segregation and prosecution of Jews. In fact, much of the legendary Witch’s Hammer reads like the furious ranting of a misogynist who would easily show up any self-appointed Men’s Rights Activist on the web, the 15 century male version of Andrea Dworkin. Would Kramer have abused evolution to fuel his misogyny? Absolutely.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Darwin’s accomplishments were trivial or that Galileo was simply stealing from Eratosthenes, or that the re-invention of the steam engine was no big deal. There was a good deal of research, work, and insight involved in doing what they did and being the first to have your work recognized and adopted so widely is still a feat. It doesn’t matter that others could’ve done it too because how nature works will always be there for someone to come along and discover. What matters is that they seized the moment and advanced our civilization, giving us new fields to explore. But Bowler’s exercise also proves an important point. Science is ultimately about the facts. The data comes first, the theory to explain why the data is this way is second, and the people who put it all together come third. And while visionaries deserve all their accolades, they are not completely indispensable At worst, their absence from history would’ve delayed a discovery. Nature didn’t uniquely open up to them to grant them insight Anyone can discover something new and fascinating, and sometimes something that can change the way we think about the entire universe. And that’s what makes science such a terrific endeavor.

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mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?

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