Category Archives: Science

Science marching away from its real problems

At Marchin’, marchin’: The experts are right, it’s the facts that are wrong, I responded to some comments and offer a linked version here:


johnnyb, Upright Biped, and rvb8, my principal concern is that people, including people in science, can’t better their game if they won’t address their weaknesses.

The Marchin’, Marchin’ for Science movement is dangerously deluded if it thinks that the public is against science, “hates science,” etc.

I’ve followed science stories for over two decades now. As so often, the answer is simpler, clearer, and less comfortable*:

Most people who do not work in science or follow science news interact with it in areas like medicine. Medicine matters.

Even if the Higgs boson were shown to be a fraud, it would be nothing more than the Piltdown Particle. Most people who didn’t care before won’t start to care now.

Cancer diagnoses, by contrast, get everybody’s attention immediately.

So here’s what really happens: People like myself who have dear friends fighting breast cancer find out that treatment drugs failed replication. But, worse, that replication is not usually even risked. Or else we find out stuff like this: Ideological nonsense around gender equality harms, possibly sometimes kills, women patients. Could that have played a role in the death of someone we know?

Anyone who thinks that people who want change are just anti-science should stay clear of public policy for now. Their blinkers will not do them or their causes any good.

Face your desk.

(On the other hand, if I don’t support the cause, maybe I should cheer them on.)

* People facing unaccustomed challenges resort to conspiracy thinking. In politics, for example, recent changes in leadership are blamed on the alt right,fake news, and various conspiracies when the reality is often that people who were trusted were asleep at the switch and didn’t give good answers or advice. Something similar is happening with the marchin’, marchin’ phenomenon in science.

See also: Marchin’, marchin’: The experts are right, it’s the facts that are wrong Reynolds: “According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Americans reject the advice of experts so as “to insulate their fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.” That’s in support of a book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which essentially advances that thesis.” Hmmm. Sounds like Nichols is another candidate for our Blinkers Award.

Blinkers Award goes to… Tom Nichols at Scientific American! On why Americans “hate science”

Was the exposed Piltdown Man fraudster framed?

Are polls scientific? Well, what happens when human complexity foils electoral predictions?

Reproducibility problem a serious threat to medicine

and

The high cost of marchin’, marchin’ for Science: If female, you could be road kill yourself It’s good that social sciences are not really sciences anyway. But seeing how their point of view has spread into medical sciences, which can actually help people, is disconcerting

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Marchin’, marchin’: The experts are right, it’s the facts that are wrong

Cover for The Death of Expertise Further to marchin’, marchin’ for science: From law prof Glenn Reynolds at USA Today:

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Americans reject the advice of experts so as “to insulate their fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.” That’s in support of a book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which essentially advances that thesis.

Hmmm. Sounds like Nichols is another candidate for our Blinkers Award. Reynolds touches on many topics, including some raised here, such as:

By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn’t been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: “With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers.” More.

Probably, but it’s best that the instincts consulted actually be ancestral instincts—and real grandmothers.

Any time now, the evolutionary psychologist will chime in with a pop science retro about why we evolved so as not to trust experts and what a shame that is. One can count on them not to even envisage the possibility that if we had trusted experts, most of us would be dead, not running the planet. For… they are Experts, right?

See also: The high cost of marchin’, marchin’ for Science: If female, you could be road kill yourself It’s good that social sciences are not really sciences anyway. But seeing how their point of view has spread into medical sciences, which can actually help people, is disconcerting

Shades of “Blinkers Award goes to… Tom Nichols at Scientific American! On why Americans “hate science”

and

“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”

Gene Editing: Promise & Peril

The traffic light you see ahead
is sometimes green and sometimes red.
The red on top means “stop, stop, stop.”
The green below means “go, go, go.”

“…I found myself thinking about yellow lights as I looked through the exhaustively detailed report, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” recently produced by an advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. In most ways the salient moral issues do not seem to me to have changed much from the last time I thought at length about these issues roughly a decade ago.

One thing, however, has changed considerably—namely, the development of what is called CRISPR/Cas9, a new method for “editing” the human genome. Attempts at gene therapy, although not terribly successful, have been around for some time. What CRISPR/Cas9 appears to offer, however, is an efficient and precise method for altering (both by addition and deletion) an organism’s genetic material. We stand on the brink of an age in which our capacity to modify the human genome may increase enormously. And not surprisingly scientists are eager to proceed with gene-editing research.”

Nasa’s ‘holy grail’: Entire new solar system that could support alien life discovered

Scientists have found a new solar system filled with planets that look like Earth and could support life, Nasa has announced.

At least three of the seven planets represent the “holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers”, because they sit within the “temperate zone” and are the right temperature to allow alien life to flourish, the researchers have said. And they are capable of having oceans, again suggesting that life could flourish on them.

No other star system has ever been found to contain so many Earth-sized and rocky planets, of the kind thought to be necessary to contain aliens.

Peer review: Bad science justifies second-hand smoking bans?

From Jacob Grier at Slate:

We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans

For three anti-smoking advocates—local physicians Richard Sargent and Robert Shepard, and activist and researcher Stanton Glantz from the University of California at San Francisco—this sudden drop in heart attacks was proof that smoking bans usher in extraordinary benefits for public health. “This striking finding suggests that protecting people from the toxins in secondhand smoke not only makes life more pleasant; it immediately starts saving lives,” said Glantz in a press release sent out by UCSF.

Newspapers ran with the story, credulously assuming that the correlation had been truly caused by the smoking ban. “The bottom line of Helena’s plummeting, then soaring, heart attack rate is painfully obvious,” warned an op-ed in the New York Times. “Secondhand smoke kills.” The BBC projected that “[banning] smoking in public places could prevent hundreds of deaths from heart disease.” Wire services carried the result around the globe, and even the conservative Wall Street Journal cited the result as an important finding.

When the Helena study and its heirs were originally published, a few scientists noted that the results were wildly implausible and the methodologies deeply flawed. So did a handful of journalists, including Jacob Sullum writing for Reason (to which I am also a contributor) and Christopher Snowdon in England. Yet their criticism was generally ignored. Studies reporting miraculous declines in heart attacks made global headlines; when better studies came along contradicting those results, they barely registered a blip in the media. …

There were good reasons from the beginning to doubt that smoking bans could really deliver the promised results, but anti-smoking advocacy groups eagerly embraced alarmism to shape public perception. Today’s tobacco control movement is guided by ideology as much as it is by science, prone to hyping politically convenient studies regardless of their merit and ostracizing detractors.

This has important implications for journalism. More.

Yes, the winds were favourable for pom pom-waving, unfortunately.

Of course, if science communicators keep getting away with it, they will keep doing it. Science really can be high tech voodoo using numbers. And then it must be kept in place by fear, not trust.

On a personal note: I found the anti-second hand smoke campaign rolled out across Canada some years ago disturbing. One government-sponsored ad featured women who were dying of cancer, whose husbands had smoked. The clear implication was that the wife got cancer (implication terminal) because the husband smoked.

The problem is, we don’t usually know that. Smoking greatly increases a person’s chance of lung cancer but not all lung cancers are caused by smoking. And second-hand smoke damage necessarily depends on many factors, including how much time a person spends involuntarily inhaling how much smoke.

I have never smoked, disapprove of the practice for many reasons, and support smoking bans in public places, as well as crackdowns on sales to minors and smuggling.

But I am concerned about using science to pretend we know more than we do, using voodoo numbers. That could lead to later family problems: = Dad killed Mom because he smoked. Science PROVES it! = We hate Dad. = [that’s just great when Dad is old and sick and needs family support]

Please. The world is full of problems for which we have a much clearer trail of cause and effect. – O’Leary for News

See also: The skinny on salt, veggie oil,, skim milk, whole foods. Nutrition science is nearly baseless but it rules.
Sitting does not increase overall mortality risk.

Ten tips for spotting a fake science news story

From Alex Berezow at American Council on Science and Health, including,

5) The article is sensationalized; i.e., it draws huge, sweeping conclusions from a single study. (This is particularly common in stories on scary chemicals and miracle vegetables.)

9) The article is about evolutionary psychology. More.

The “huge, sweeping conclusions” problem is especially scandalous in fields like nutrition, which is already a mess.

And, as noted elsewhere, evolutionary psychology does not explain puzzling human behavior. It offers Darwinian explanations for conventional behavior, with no insight that exceeds the results of applying common sense.

Evo psych is big in pop science media precisely because it’s so easy. Just call your town Bedrock, build a story about it on some recent evo fluff, and suddenly everyone understands the place just like it was home… Hmmmm?

See also: Darwin’s wastebasket: Time perception, evolutionary psychology, and Donald Trump

Berezow’s own story: A scientist shares his cyberbullying story

and

Science writing in an age when we ran out of pom poms to wave

Oceanographer on the crisis of trust in science

Further to: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea, oceanographer Helen Czerski writes at Guardian:

Now, in the age of Google, the frontiers of knowledge are misleadingly comprehensible rather than inaccessible. Their very accessibility means that we may not see the complex context before arriving at each nugget of information and often, we don’t want to. One of the most contentious statements of 2016 was “Britain has had enough of experts”, but perhaps a more useful starting point for debate is “have people have had enough of complexity”? It applies to science as well as politics. The problem is that the world really is complex. And the other problem is that no-one has time to deal with all that complexity – it’s tiring and frustrating to try, and denial or straightforward trust are often the easiest coping mechanisms. Simple explanations are easy to remember, and satisfying to understand. But in the complex modern world (especially with topics like genetics, climate, nanotechnology and more), they may often be wrong. So what should we scientists do? Instilling confidence in the scientific landscape (by making science easily accessible) and honestly conveying the best judgement based on the available evidence seem to be conflicting aims.

We need to earn trust in the scientific system in a new way, one that is transparent and open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society, but not by inventing a new kind of lofty ideal. It’s simpler than that: this is about conversations. It means taking individual time to talk to others: our neighbours, our Facebook friends, and also the people we might normally shy away from – anyone who is part of the fabric of our society. And it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening, and responding in a respectful way. We need to put ourselves in places where we’re not comfortable, and let others judge the content for themselves. I’m starting to think that “media training” for scientists often misses the point, because it implies that there’s a difference between talking to an interviewer and talking to anyone else. What we need is to have confidence that strong positive dignified behaviour (in any and every environment) is what will make the world a better place. If you can do that with your argumentative neighbour, you can surely manage it in a radio interview. The same skills are important: not scoring points but honest evidence-based debate. Demonstrating good behaviour is one of the most powerful ways of instilling confidence in the scientific system. If we can’t convey every nuance of our protocols and analysis, we can at least convey the spirit in which we work. More.

In any event, one does not create more trust by saying, Believe me or else! Bill Nye, for example, would criminalize dissent from human-caused global warming claims.

If Nye’s “or else!” doesn’t materialize, he has no other argument. That is, it is very difficult to revisit evidence-based arguments with people after one has resorted to empty threats against them.

See also: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea An increasingly typical (but usually unspoken) response to “I Marched!” is, “Who cares?” Why not save the jet fuel by staying home and helping educate the community? Especially if your big thing is the environment?

In a free country, scientists can march, if they want. But they should really apply the scientific method to the question of whether that is the best way to reach people today.

Study Claiming Video Games ‘Train’ Players for Real-World Violence Retracted

A 2012 report on the effect of violent video games on players has been retracted by the publisher.

Communication Research has officially retracted a report entitled “‘Boom, headshot!?’: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy” by Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad J. Bushman. The report claimed that “first-person shooter” video games could have a lasting effect on players; for instance, that playing these games might be able to “‘train’ a person to shoot a gun,” and “influence players to aim for the head.”

The retraction is due to variable irregularities within the study, which suggest that the numbers therein may have been skewed toward the desired conclusion.

Natural selection making ‘education genes’ rarer, says Icelandic study

A study from Iceland is the latest to raise the prospect of a downwards spiral into imbecility. The research from deCODE, a genetics firm in Reykjavik, finds that groups of genes that predispose people to spend more years in education became a little rarer in the country from 1910 to 1975.

The scientists used a database of more than 100,000 Icelanders to see how dozens of gene variants that affect educational attainment appeared in the population over time. They found a shallow decline over the 65 year period, implying a downturn in the natural inclination to rack up qualifications.

But the genes involved in education affected fertility too.

What? Is no political party the “party of science”?

<em>Coffee</em> Tins New Republic intern Eric Armstrong thinks that no U.S. party deserves the crown, at any rate:

The time has come for Democrats to remove the beam from their own eyes, so to speak. Taking up the mantle of scientific liberalism—that is, adopting an evidence-based view of reality in pursuit of progressive policy—would serve both the strategic purposes of the Democratic Party in the menacing face of Trumpism, as well as the existential interests of humanity.* More.

Oh, wait. No political party is likely to survive just taking an evidence-based view of matters. That’s supposed to be the role of science as such.

You know what they say about party policy and strategy: It’s like sausage; if you are going to eat it, best not to ask what all goes into it. One can at least hope that most of it can be swallowed, more or less.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s list of Democrat science fails reads like a list of all the subjects on which he is convinced that his view is entirely and unalterably correct, for example:

So, what’s the harm in entertaining anti-science views when it comes to so-called alternative treatments like homeopathy? After all, people should be free to throw their own money away. And since there are no active ingredients, homeopathy can’t really hurt anybody, can it? In fact, homeopathy is so ineffective at doing, well, anything at all, that science geeks across the world have staged massive collective “overdoses” of homeopathy in order to demonstrate its impotence. To date, not one person has been harmed—or healed, for that matter—from any of these mass ingestions. But the fact that it doesn’t work is exactly what makes it so dangerous. Many pharmacies sell homeopathic and other alternative remedies alongside real medicine. Consumers are entitled to a reasonable expectation that treatments sold in modern pharmacies have at least demonstrated a modicum of efficacy beyond placebo. Selling snake oil on the same shelf as real drugs betrays that trust. This is a consumer protection issue if there ever was one. Democrats should be all over it.

It does not sound as though Armstrong has ever heard of the placebo effect, one of the best attested effects in medicine (people start to get better when they feel better). One wonders how his party would justify cracking down on aromatherapy, etc.  Doubtless, wiser heads would prevail.

* Note: Please, political parties, just govern in the interests of your own constituencies in your own nations and leave the rest of the world to cope with the existential interests of humanity as we see them. Our tastes in a-crock-a-lypses may differ from yours and we can’t vote where you live.

See also: Nature: Scientists stunned by Trump victory Really? What does that say about the scientific method?

Parkinson’s patients learn to use placebos?

and

New Scientist’s about face on the placebo effect

Britain becomes first country to approve ‘three parent babies’

Britain’s fertility regulator has decided that “three-parent baby” treatments can go ahead, opening the way for parents to be treated as early as next spring. This landmark decision makes Britain the first country in the world to offer licenses for this treatment. Earlier this year, a baby was born in Mexico through the technique.

The board of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) had been tasked with deciding whether clinics should be allowed to apply for permission to carry out mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). “It is a decision of historic importance,” said Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA.

The evolutionary psychology behind politics

liberals-vs-conservatives

A thought-provoking explanation that’s worth reading twice – NM.

Welcome to the homepage of Anonymous Conservative. I know why you’re here. The world is getting weird. People betray their own and call it intellectual. Morality is now a mark of stupidity, and backward thinking. Strength of character is evil, while weakness and patheity are noble traits to aspire towards. Women are beginning to look like men, and men are becoming more like women. And people who wouldn’t last two seconds in a state of nature are telling us all that we need to destroy our society in a myriad of creative ways, yet nobody seems to notice. I see it too.

Something has gone bizarrely wrong, and you want to find out what it is. This site is dedicated to a simple theory in Evolutionary Biology which explains why all of this is happening in our society. Called r/K Selection Theory, this concept explains why we have two political ideologies, why productive societies will inevitably decay into immoral cesspools of failure and then collapse, and why we will inevitably rise again.

America Is Unprepared For The Bioterror Threat Of Gene Editing

For all its national security focus on terrorism, America is deeply unprepared for future terror threats that could come from emerging biotechnologies, says an Obama administration advisory committee.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently issued a public letter to the administration, calling for a renewed and expansive biodefense strategy. While noting that the world has had to contend with plenty of natural microbial threats, such as the Zika virus, the letter highlights the dangers in new, “exponential” advances in bioengineering if maliciously or improperly used. These involve everything from relatively cheap, speedy gene-editing methods like CRISPR to techniques that now allow scientists to create synthetic DNA from scratch.

The Real War on Science

The Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress.

My liberal friends sometimes ask me why I don’t devote more of my science journalism to the sins of the Right. It’s fine to expose pseudoscience on the left, they say, but why aren’t you an equal-opportunity debunker? Why not write about conservatives’ threat to science?

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about.