Posts from the ‘Press and Public Understanding of Science’ Category
April 8th, 2013
A roundup of articles related by the pejorative “pseudo:”
Last month Mark Thomas attacked genetic ancestry companies, claiming that “there is usually little scientific substance to most of them and they are better thought of as genetic astrology.” Martin Richards and Vincent Macaulay responded by defending genetic ancestry science: It is unfair to compare genetic ancestry testing to astrology. Once again astrology is the paradigmatic pseudoscience. And once again, what counts as science is anything but obvious and universally agreed upon—the comments introduce a third model of science built around the ideal of “lay Genetic Genealogists who do some A+ research.”
In the NY Times we read about the proliferation of “pseudo-academic journals” that charge authors to publish articles: “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too).” Open access, we are told, is the root of this pseudo-academic underworld of pay-to-publish and pay-to-present science. But page fees are common in scientific publishing and predate open access. Both reputable and disreputable open access journals charge authors to publish material. The “well-regarded, peer-reviewed” PLOS charges $1,350-$2,900 depending on the journal, with reductions for authors from less affluent countries. The journals and conferences referred to in the article may very well be pseudo-academic, but not because they charge authors to publish.
Finally, science sheds the light of truth into the murky world of snake oils and patent medicines: “What’s in Century-Old ‘Snake Oil’ Medicines? Mercury and Lead.” The chemist, Mark Benvenuto, directed the research that analyzed patent medicines from the early part of the century. They found that they contained mercury, arsenic, and lead. He is generous, however, in not condemning the makers of these medicines, perhaps a tad too generous: “Back in the day, this was a very trial-and-error kind of field,” Benvenuto said in an interview. “The stuff that we think of as dangerous now, though it was dangerous, was as cutting-edge as they had at the time.”
While Benvenuto’s work will add some detail to our knowledge of what these medicines contain, it is not particularly revelatory. In 1915 the FDA fined Dr. Tutt’s $300 for “misbranding” their pills. The judgement included an analysis of the pills:
Moisture (per cent): 04.9
Ash (per cent): 0.86
Aloes (per cent) about: 53
Wheat starch (per cent): 4.2
Total sugars as invert (per cent): 8.7
Mercurous chlorid (per cent): 26.94
Each pill contains 0.0448 gram, or 0.69 grain, mercurous chlorid (calomel).
Average weight per pill (grams): 0.166
That Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills contained mercury is not news.
March 27th, 2013
The authors of “Justices Flunk Math” worry that math—or more narrowly, statistics and probabilities—is being misused in the courtroom. After looking at a few examples, they conclude:
The challenge is to make sure that the math behind the legal reasoning is fundamentally sound. Good math can help reveal the truth. But in inexperienced hands, math can become a weapon that impedes justice and destroys innocent lives.
Inexperienced and experienced hands use math as a weapon. Let’s take, for example, the analogy they use in the article.
The appellate judge in the Amanda Knox case refused to retest the murder weapon for traces of the victim’s DNA. According to the article, the judge claimed that if there was too little material to provide a reliable result the first time it was tested, in 2007, then tests on less material in 2011 would be no better.
Although the authors claim that the judge “demostrated a clear mathematical fallacy,” they describe a simple flaw in reasoning and then use a misleading mathematical example to make their case. They are right. Repeated tests of the same material in comparable conditions can confirm or disconfirm previous results. And the greater number of confirming or disconfirming results should influence the conclusions we draw from those results. But their analogy, while superficially persuasive, doesn’t necessarily apply to the judge’s decision not to perform additional DNA tests.
Imagine, for example, that you toss a coin and it lands on heads 8 or 9 times out of 10. You might suspect that the coin is biased. Now, suppose you then toss it another 10 times and again get 8 or 9 heads. Wouldn’t that add a lot to your conviction that something’s wrong with the coin? It should.
According to the article, the judge’s decision was based on there being less material to test. How much less? We are not told. But less. So a better analogy might be (my changes are in bold):
Imagine, for example, you toss a coin and it lands on heads 8 or 9 times out of 10. You might suspect that the coin is biased. Now, suppose you then toss it another 3 times and get 2 heads. Would that add a lot to your conviction that something’s wrong with the coin? Maybe.
We can play with the numbers for that second coin-toss series, but a useful analogy here is not 10 tosses followed by another 10 but followed by some smaller number. How much the second coin-toss series will add to our conviction that the coin is biased will depend on how many times we toss it and how many times it comes up heads.
At first glance their math looks persuasive. The information they present in the article, however, does not allow us to assess the relevance of their analogy or evaluate the judge’s decision. We are being asked, on the strength of their mathematical analogy, to accept their criticism of the judge. In this case, their math distracts us from asking about why the judge made his decision and whether or not that was a reasonable decision. But this is nothing new. People hoping to achieve certain ends apply the math they think will be most persuasive. Math is always a weapon.
March 18th, 2013
What liberties should video games take with the historical record and who gets to decide? Or, as some of the people interviewed in “Are Video Games like Assassin’s Creed Rewriting History?” suggest, is there no meaningful historical record beyond the interpretations that we put forward?
A commonplace—“History is no longer a set of disputable, footnoted facts that lead slowly but inexorably to an authoritative version. It’s a set of facts surrounded by an even larger set of opinions and interpretations”—undergirds the next step, stated by Ubisoft’s Alex Hutchinson:
I think anyone who argues that history is objective or static is very confused…. I don’t think that there’s a single event that hasn’t gone through multiple interpretations or iterations in terms of what people believe even happened, let alone what was important about it, or what led up to it or what followed it
Rather than seeing this as license to do with the past as you will, I would like to see this as reinforcing the moral and ethical dimension of history. Earlier in article the authors points out
the proliferation of all media, especially the digital kind, has made it easier to propagate lies for political purposes: Think of the invented scandal of Barak Obama’s birth certificate or the “inside job” claims around 9/11 and the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Hence our collective nervousness about what’s supposed to be true, and who gets to say so.
That’s absolutely right. History is always political. That politics is perhaps less a question of lies and truths than a question of choices and goals. Why were particular events chosen as relevant? Which events were deemed insignificant, and why? What pieces of the historical record were considered evidence? Why were certain events, aspects, details, words, etc. placed in a series of other relevant events, perhaps implying a cause-and-effect relationship?
And what is the relationship between the form of representation—e.g., scholarly book or article, historical fiction, movie, novel, TV show, RPG or MMORPG game—and the standards to which that form should be held? For more on these questions, see Elly Truit’s Medieval Robots and her many posts on medievalisms.
(Thanks to my colleague Brett Mulligan for pointing out this article.)
March 15th, 2013
The Crossrail project in London is attracting attention lately for having unearthed numerous graves. Today reports claim the project has run into the tip of a plague cemetery. The Guardian states unambiguously:
Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.
Sky News was more cautious:
Archaeologists say 12 skeletons found beneath a building site in London could provide evidence of a Black Death burial ground.
Experts claim that the evidence suggests this was a 14th-century “emergency burial ground,” but other tests—e.g., DNA and carbon dating—are needed to confirm or disconfirm that these 12 skeletons were victims of the Black Death. Whether or not it was a plague cemetery may remain an open question along with how many bodies were buried there. What we have right now is 12 (CNN reports 13) skeletons. There may be another 49,988, as Nasser Saidi recklessly claims (he is not alone in making that claim), but we will probably never know—according to The Guardian, the Crossrail project does not intend to excavate beyond the shaft where the remains were found.
As interesting as the articles are the comments from readers. Many readers share an unalloyed faith in a science that has cured the plague. Some combine that optimism with a historically problematic condemnation of the church. One comment:
Science has now come up with a cure for this. These poor people relied on prayer to save them as science was being held back by the church. Next time you see a story on Sky where some celebrity is thanking god for saving them as they leave a hospital remember this photo. Science is ready to sure cancer and will one say be able to grow you a brand new heart.
At the time — due to ignorance, and belief in mumbo-jumbo — victims of the plague were considered to be objects of God’s Wrath (for sin, or whatever).
Today, we know better.
Equally common is the apparently real fear that uncovering these skeletons risks unleashing a plauge on London. Put most simply: “Is there any chance of the bacteria being able to regenerate now that bodies have been exhumed?”
It’s worth reading the comments to get a sense of contemporary fears, beliefs, and bugbears.
February 27th, 2013
Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.
In “A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science” Alice Bell offers a nice analysis of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Bertold Brecht’s Life of Galileo.
February 12th, 2013
This plaque commemorates a rather boring looking spot on 7th Street just off Market, marking another significant location in Philadelphia’s rich history of science (a few blocks away is the Caspar Wistar plaque). Apparently, “nearby” was a building where pharmacists from eight states met to create the American Pharmaceutical Association. What, exactly, is this plaque doing? How near is nearby? A few feet? A block? Does it matter? What does it mean to commemorate a spot near some historical location? Whose interests are served by this plaque?
This plaque joins 140 other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaques that commemorate some location “nearby.”
February 11th, 2013
“There is an unbelieveable amount of misinformation and misunderstanding out there, especially by those who are sort of Tesla advocates,” said Paul Israel, who wrote a biography of Edison and is the editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University. “And part of the problem is that even if you provide them with evidence to the contrary, if it doesn’t agree with what they already know, what they know is right and everything else is wrong.”
While I agree with Paul Israel’s comments, I wonder if he sees the irony in a Thomas Edison advocate accusing Tesla advocates believing “what they know is right and everything else is wrong.” A bit later in Brian Amaral’s Was Thomas Edison a Hack?, Israel claims that Edison “also basically invented the modern process of research and development.” Clearly, Israel is not a neutral voice in this debate.
To be fair, Amaral also cites scholars who are not trying to defend Edison, though they are often no less hyperbolic in their praise:
Edison was the one guy who could basically invent a better bulb, and figure out how to develop the companies and the distribution system you would need to get that product out there and in everyday life,” Carlson says.
Efforts to rehabilitate Tesla at Edison’s expense or to defend Edison, implicitly at Tesla’s expense, reveal how vested we are in particular historical people. So much so that we are comfortable in distorting the historical record to serve our purposes:
Inman – the Oatmeal, as it were – acknowledges some of the Forbes’ articles criticisms, but defends the overall thesis.
“I’m a comedian and I speak in hyperbole,” wrote Inman, who did not respond to requests for an interview. “If you sharpshoot my work you will find that I exaggerate for the sake of comedy.”
That’s the problem with worshipping heroes—whether for comedic purposes or to ensure a functioning democracy, as Roger Highfield justifies his hero worship—the exaggeration, myth-making, and distortion for the sake of some cause becomes morally acceptable.
Whether fabricated by comedians or journalists or scientists or historians or whomever, heroes distort the past with unfortunate consequences for the present.
February 9th, 2013
[Tesla] spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”
The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla and His Tower then laments Tesla’s lack of a “mind for business,” something his contemporaries apparently possessed and what allowed them to become successful. But the quotation seems to point to something else Tesla lacked: an ability to focus on real-world solutions to problems, even when they seemed unsexy. But then, who wouldn’t prefer to spend a day lost in flights of theoretical fancy with pigeons in park?
The entire article seems to illustrate something else too. Rebekah Higgitt points out that we frequently try to resuscitate certain historical figures who, we think, have been slighted by more famous people:
If someone usually held in high regard (Tudor monarchs, Shakespeare) is thought responsible for the oppression of a rediscovered, wronged hero, then identification with and emotional attachment to the story can become particularly intense. This is true of the mission to rescue Richard, and in history of science examples are Robert Hooke and Nikolai Tesla, seen as victims of Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison respectively.
What does our current frenzy of support for Tesla, $1.3 million dollars were donated to build a museum for the greatest geek who ever lived, reveal about us? How does it reflect our values and concerns? And how does our representation of Tesla’s adversaries—Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi, etc.—also reflect our values?
February 7th, 2013
Scattered throughout the Philadelphia are markers noting places of historical importance. The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission erects and maintains these historical markers in the city and all over the state. Of the 260 Historical Markers in the city, 48 are related somehow to science, medicine, or technology. Commonly, these plaques identify a former residence of some important person or the location of some important institution. Although I have never set out to find these markers, they are hard to miss. Previously I have stumbled across the marker for Edward Drinker Cope’s house on 21st and Pine.
Today I wandered by the former residence of Caspar Wistar at 240 S. 4th Street. Wistar was one of the more famous anatomists in early Philadelphia. He was professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and an early proponent of vaccinations. The American Philosophical Society has a nice collection of Wistar’s papers>.
If you think your location deserves a historical marker, feel free to apply.
February 7th, 2013
The recent Up Goer Five struck me at first as an interesting exercise in translation and in escaping the gatekeeping rhetoric used by so many disciplines to mark inclusion and exclusion (and I wondered how jargon I use would fail Theo Sanderson’s online text editor). Initially, the challenge to translate your technical jargon into common words seemed to bifurcate the world into experts and non-experts (FYI, expert is not one of the 1000 most common English words). I was uncomfortable with an implicit condescension in this challenge.
Henry Cowles’s “Up Goer Five and the Rhetoric of Science” prompted me to think about how jargon functions not just as a form of gatekeeping but perhaps also inhibits communication between experts within the same field.
Then Matthew Francis defended expertise and jargon, provided it was explained clearly and sufficiently, and was appropriate for the context and useful for conveying the content. Francis asks that we think carefully about choosing and defining our terms. On this model, language can be a mechanism of inclusion rather than exclusion.
The worry about communicating knowledge seems more common amongst the sciences, or at least a vocal minority of scientists (see the recently launched The Incubator: Hatching Conversations about Science), than it does amongst historians of science. What would happen if historians of science thought seriously about communication? To what extent does the rhetoric and jargon historians of science use inhibit communication not just with non-academics but with other historians? I think about how often historians of science have had to justify being called a historian. Do other historians—those who study politics, or religion, or culture, or literature, or whatever—have to defend their identity as historians? Could historians of science begin producing texts that invited smart, interested people read them?
“Up Goer Five” is no less opaque than “Saturn V Rocket” nor does not solve the problem created by “Saturn V Rocket.” Like all expressions, “Up Goer Five” and “Saturn V Rocket” require explanation and make sense only in a particular context and to particular audiences. Jargon itself is not the problem here. The absence of explication is the problem.