misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Kevin on Tor about Watson on Jeopardy

Kevin Gold has got two very thought-provoking articles on the jeopardy match-up between human jeopardy champions and IBM’s AI “Watson”, up on Tor’s website. Check them out here and here.

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New QC shirt

I’m not sure what to think about the new shirt from Questionable Content. On the one hand: Cat! Jet pack! Science! Glow in the dark! On the other hand: What does the phrase “Science is a verb now” actually mean? The blurb for the shirt, to its credit, actually does use “science” as a verb:

Pay no attention to the cat sciencing through space. She was sciencing where she wasn’t supposed to science and it is our hope that in the end her sciencing will help further the cause of science.

I’m all for sciencing to further the cause of science, but without that explanatory text (which, unlike the title of a certain story, does not appear on the shirt itself) I find the phrase pretty puzzling. When I first saw it, I thought it was perhaps refering to the idea that “verbs are actions; nouns are things”, which is a huge oversimplication, and which I therefore do not want to encourage. Speaking of which, here is a shirt I know I love.

But anyway, back to the QC shirt: am I overthinking? Does it really mean what it says? Does it mean something else entirely? Am I overthinking because OMG it’s a glow in the dark cat with a jetpack and SCIENCE!?


Unscientific America and the popular image of science

I was intrigued but ultimately left unsatisfied by this article on Titled “Why America is flunking science”, the article takes on the question of why so many Americans don’t know basic facts about science. But rather than repeating the same tired claims about the uneducated masses, they consider instead the image of science presented by Hollywood and by scientists themselves. They walk through a number of examples (the well-researched but still implausible plot of Angels & Demons, Michael Crichton’s denial of global warming, the supposed link between vaccinations and autism) to demonstrate that the problem isn’t always a lack of education:

Consider vaccination. An army of aggrieved parents nationwide, likely spurred in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., swears today that vaccines are the reason their children developed autism, and they seem virtually impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study on the subject comes out, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. They get their information from the Internet, from other parents of like mind, from a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, and perhaps most of all — as was much the case with Crichton and global warming — from a group of celebrities, most prominently Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who have made a cause of championing such misinformation and almost assuredly deeply believe in it.

Yet the parents who listen to McCarthy and Carrey — rather than the CDC and the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — tend to be well-to-do and highly educated. Calling them “ignorant” is hardly accurate. After all, they’ve probably done far more independent research on a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most other Americans have. Like Crichton, they may be misusing their intelligence, but it’s not as though they don’t have any to begin with. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

While I’m highly sympathetic to the take-home message that we should be paying more attention to the popular portrayal of science, I found the article incomplete in significant ways. Most importantly, I’m not convinced that the portrayal of science in Hollywood is as big a problem as they make it out to be. The spread of misinformation by celebritites, yes, certainly problematic. But to rail against the archetype of the mad scientist in fiction seems like an overreaction. The relation between this image of science, and the fact that even educated people are confused about science, seems more nuanced than the article presents. When we consider educated people who are being misled about scientific problems, isn’t the problem exactly that they do care about science but don’t know how to recognize reliable information? This is very different from the problem of avoiding science altogether because of unfavorable stereotypes.

While the article discusses some new institutions that are trying to tackle the image problem, it doesn’t give any concrete suggestions about what individual scientists can do to improve the image of science. Fortunately, the authors, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, have just released a book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, dealing with themes like those in this article. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might also want to follow Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog, The Intersection, where they are currently engaged in a high-profile debate with Pharyngula’s PZ Meyers.



Who doesn’t love science of the future? Today I’m linking to 7 Man-Made Substances that Laugh in the Face of Physics, which mentions several things which we are now able to create. Granted, most of them are still only produced in limited quantity rather than being ready for mass-market. And at least one (non-Newtonian fluids) I remember making myself as a kid out of flour and water. But overall, it gave me that thrill of reality catching up to science fiction. I love it when science advances sufficiently.


Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science

Sense About Science, a UK-based science outreach organization, has launched a campaign to prevent British libel law from being used to stifle scientific debate. The direct motivation for this campaign was a lawsuit brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh holds a PhD in physics and has written bestselling popular science books on a variety of topics. In April 2008, in conjunction with the publication of his book “Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial”, he wrote an article in The Guardian about the BCA’s claims that chiropractice can treat a variety of illnesses including asthma and ear infections. Singh denounces these claims as unsubstantiated and reckless.

The BCA’s response was not to provide any evidence for the efficacy of these treatments, but rather to sue Singh for libel. And this is not an isolated incident: British libel law has often been used to threaten journalists and other writers who aim to provide objective criticism of scientific or other topics. A variety of factors, including excessive costs and a “reverse burden of proof”, make such claims particularly difficult to defend against. (This article in the Wall Street Journal provides more details on the topic, including a discussion of how British law can threaten writers around the world, not just those in the UK.)

Although Singh’s situation is obviously upsetting, I’ve been impressed and heartened by the thoughtfulness and good spirit with which Singh and others have responded. Singh is fighting the libel case out of his own pocket: he explains in a statement that despite the immense financial risk, he finds the issue sufficiently important and feels a personal obligation to challenge this flawed system:

Moreover, the article was about an issue of public interest, namely childhood health and the effectiveness of particular treatments for some serious conditions. Hence, I was not prepared to apologise for an article that I still believed was important for parents to read, and which I believed was accurate and legally defensible.

The final reason for fighting on was that I knew that I was able to devote the time, money and energy required for a long legal battle. Most journalists would have been forced to back down and settle under the pressure of a libel threat, so it seemed that I had a duty to fight on in light of my privileged position. I knew when started, and I still know now, that this legal fight will be horrendously expensive and draining, but it will not destroy me.

Singh and Sense About Science have received an outpouring of support from the scientific community, and from science bloggers in particular. Within 24 hours, more than 2,000 people signed a statement published by Sense About Science calling for a reform of British libel law. In Singh’s statement, he writes touchingly about how grateful he is to the members of a facebook group created to support him, and to the numerous bloggers and journalists who have been following his case. Throughout, Singh has been admirably even-tempered, presenting his thoughts straightforwardly and without malice. Likewise, his supporters have been encouraging and optimistic, without being rude to those on the wrong side of the debate.

Despite the grief that Britain’s libel laws have caused Singh and others, I take heart in seeing how the scientific community has come together to productively oppose these unreasonable laws, how science blogging in particular has been used to quickly spread awareness of this issue, and how Singh himself has taken on the burden of standing up for productive scientific inquiry and debate.

free debate

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Blogroll: Mind Hacks

Today I’d like to direct your attention to a blog that I’m adding to our blogroll: Mind Hacks is one of my favorite blogs. It provides short, accessible, and insightful commentary on new developments in psychology and neuroscience. Much like the HRSFANS blog, it often provides links to longer articles, in both popular science and original scientific research. For the truly dedicated, following all of these links could provide you with a lifetime of reading material. But I what I particularly appreciate are the pithy summaries that accompany each link, so that, even if you don’t read the original article, the Mind Hacks post itself will leave you with a better appreciation of some interesting topic.

A couple recent posts are great examples of the range of topics that the blog covers:
“Symbol of remembrance triggers mass false memory” covers two experiments that demonstrate how surprisingly poor our memories are, and how susceptible we are to the power of suggestion in creating false memories. These findings are both at the core of the neurobiological study of memory, and immediately interesting for their implications about our everyday lives.

For the historically inclined, “Rendered frantic, crazy by unbroken concentration” discusses an 18th-century book which claims that excessive reading is dangerous, as it requires too much concentration. The blog post contrasts that claim with current fears that computers are causing us to lose our ability to concentrate, pointing out that there is no more evidence for the latter claim than there was for the former.

If you find these topics interesting, or if you want to learn about more funny tricks that our minds play on us, I highly recommend that you check out Mind Hacks!