9.20.2014

I’m a Science Babe/Big Pharma Shill

Rob_SchneiderWhile I work on a more detailed post this week on the continued terrible job the media is doing on reporting science, I have been sidetracked by a little Facebook activism. While what I am doing might border on slacktivism, there are times when using similar tactics to the anti-science crowd (like the Food Babe for example) both feels good and might actually do something good in terms of getting out the message of science. So watch for my detailed post next week—for now I will tell you what I have been doing this week.

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9.18.2014

The Heisenberg Principle of Scientific Knowledge

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is one of the more misunderstood concepts in particle physics. The uncertainty principle says that we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other. The inaccuracy is not a function of the measurement, rather just an inherent property of wave mechanics at the quantum level. This is counter-intuitive to how we perceive the Universe. Practically, this uncertainty only exists on the atomic scale.

Scientific certainty is in one way, a lot like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. No matter how precisely science measures we will never achieve 100% certainty. Most people think of scientific knowledge and associate it with absolute certainty. Science is commonly presumed to be the final answer. Actually, science is a method to systematically answer questions using careful logic and precision. Most people’s superficial understanding is that science delivers answers with unequivocal certitude. Factually, this is just plain wrong. The scientific method is by far the only reliable method to understand the natural world, just never with 100% certainty. The media will often present every little bit of new scientific evidence as if it is 100% accurate and infallible. We see examples of this error every time the evening news promotes new research. Presenting the research as an unassailable new truth about the subject. Reports presented this way can lead people to assume that research is a fact to a 100% certainty.  Assuming that facts can only have 100% accuracy is a logical fallacy. That instinctual assumption that fact equals 100% certitude, makes the discovery of scientific uncertainty so troubling for people. / read more…

9.16.2014

EV-D68: The (Not) New Disease to (Not) Panic About

Spreading like a brush fire on a hot day, the virus jumped from place to place and person to person with ease, sickening people before they knew what hit them. Scientists struggled to figure out what it was and how to treat it, but even as scores of seriously ill children went to the hospital, they knew one thing: it didn’t have a cure.

Virus! Threat!

Virus! Threat!

Is it ebola? H1N1? Some kind of “Walking Dead” zombie plague? No, it’s the respiratory virus EV-D68, a rare form of the common cold that can cause severe breathing problems in children. It was first seen in Illinois and Missouri in August, and since then, the CDC has confirmed its presence in 100 patients across seven states as of a few days ago. Hundreds more young people in a dozen states have either been seen or admitted with unexplained respiratory problems, and numerous other states have sent samples to the CDC for confirmation. All of the cases have been in children, many of whom already have asthma or other breathing issues / read more…

9.15.2014

Jack the Ripper and the Mystery of the Smoking Gun

JacktheRipper1888Did you hear? Jack the Ripper was finally identified recently! Or maybe not. The press very quickly dismantled the claims about Aaron Kosminski, whose DNA was most recently said to make him definitely, absolutely the Ripper. For sure.

These sorts of bold declarations of “smoking gun” evidence for the identity of the Ripper come along every now and then, usually with a book in tow. The identity of the notorious Victorian London serial killer has long intrigued historians. Kosminski is just the most recent to make the news. In honor of this newest attempt to solve the great Victorian murder mystery, I thought it might be fun to look at a few of these “definitive” suspects identified over the years, just to see the company Kosminski has been placed in.

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Just a Joke … Or Is It?

YouTube kindly sends me an email each week with videos I might be interested in. The following is one that they recently featured; it promises to “triple your internet speed for free.” I was a bit skeptical, but hey, who doesn’t want that?

The good news is, it’s really entirely free. No products are sold (although viewers are given a shopping list for this purported “trick”), and you don’t have to pay to receive the “tricks” by ThioJoe. But that’s about it… Check for yourself.

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9.12.2014

How This Clinical Trial Went Terribly Wrong

As a lifelong asthma sufferer, I’ve always had alerts set up at ClinicalTrials.gov, a central clearinghouse for clinical trials. If a clinical trial for a new experimental drug came up in my area, I wanted to be notified so I could apply to participate. Even with insurance, asthma medication is expensive, and by participating in a trial I could not only get free treatment, I’d also get to contribute to the furthering of science. A true win-win for everyone.

A subject undergoing spirometric analysis of their breathing capacity. Photo by Jmarchn, via Wikimedia.

A subject undergoing spirometric analysis of their breathing capacity. Photo by Jmarchn, via Wikimedia.

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9.8.2014

Do Anecdotes Have A Place In Science?

What’s covered in this blog:

  • Anecdotes are not evidence.
  • Anecdotes are valuable to the scientific process, but they are not conclusions.
  • The number of anecdotes does not matter. They can, at most, serve as a basis for forming a hypothesis that can then be tested.

Why I wrote this:

Randi AnecdoteI don’t need to go on very long in this post, since fellow blogger Josh DeWald covered this topic really well last year in his two-part series on the topic of anecdotes and science (Follow these hyperlinks for Part 1 and Part 2). While Josh took a more detailed approach to various ways in which anecdotes are used in science, how they don’t fit into science, and why people still believe their anecdotes over science, I wanted to provide a summary because it seemed after using Josh’s links as an explanation, there were some that didn’t seem to get it. / read more…

Nut Allergies In Schools: Epidemic or Hysteria?

Shelled peanuts. Via Wikimedia.

With kids in the United States going back to school, parents are finding an increasing move towards “nut-free” foods in the public school system, as schools strive to eliminate peanuts and tree nuts from snacks and lunches. Many schools proudly state that they are “Nut-Free Zones,” the thought being that children with nut allergies are so prevalent and allergies are so dangerous that it puts children’s lives at risk. That risk is magnified at school since children without nut allergies offer their food to friends and classmates, unknowingly putting lives at risk. Some schools won’t even allow foods with nuts onto school property.

A common misinterpretation is that children are developing severe and deadly allergies to nuts of all kinds, and this allergy is so prevalent that protection at all levels needs to be taken. Medically speaking, is there any truth to any of this? Is there any evidence that nut allergies are increasing in number or severity? Are blanket bans on nuts and nut products the best answer? Similar to other public school health issues this is a misunderstood area of public health. Let’s take a skeptical look at the data and the precautions to parse out what is really happening.

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9.3.2014

How do you make an atomically sharp needle?

"Silicium-atomes" by Guillaume Baffou - Image de microscopie à effet tunnel réalisée au lppm à Orsay. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silicium-atomes.png#mediaviewer/File:Silicium-atomes.png

An early STM image of silicon atoms. “Silicium-atomes” by Guillaume Baffou – Image de microscopie à effet tunnel réalisée au lppm à Orsay. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the late 1980s, my friend Dan was a student at University of California, Santa Barbara and an employee of Digital Instruments, one of the very first companies to sell a practical commercial Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), the Nanoscope I. As I was a largely unemployed writing student in those days, I often drove my 1979 diesel Rabbit up to Santa Barbara to hang out at the lab.

STMs were the first microscopes to be able to resolve individual atoms (they have since been largely supplanted by atomic force microscopes). Atoms are smaller than wavelengths of light so they can’t be seen, but they can be detected. A tungsten needle, called a tip, was held above the sample not too differently from the needle in a record player. It was moved by piezoelectric crystals, which are sensitive enough to move the tips in sub-nanometer increments. The Nanoscope would oscillate the tip back and forth across the sample, scanning its whole surface; and every time it got close enough to an atom on the surface, an effect called quantum tunneling would occur in which electrons from an applied charge would “tunnel” through the space between the tip and the sample (that space is a vacuum, because there’s not enough room for air molecules). The topography could then be displayed in a 3D image on a computer screen.

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9.2.2014

Updates to Previous Posts: Iraqi Dinars and Banker Suicides

One quirk of applying skepticism to current events is that they often move very quickly. A blog post can go up and seem out of date within a few weeks. So I’m going to go take a look back at two of the more popular pieces I’ve written and check in with their more recent developments. Because a real conspiracy theory never goes away, it just mutates. / read more…