Saturday, February 27, 2021

Saturday, February 27, 2021 Virologist Maurice Hilleman and His Vaccines

I recently listened to the Radio Lab podcast below about Maurice Hilleman.  If you don't recognize the name, he was credited with creating vaccines for 9 diseases and saving around 8 million people EVERY YEAR, enough to actually add TEN years to Human life expectancy globally, one science writer said.  Many think he was the most important scientist in medicine in the 20th Century.  And behind his achievements is an interesting character, a personal story.

What caught my attention was the gap between his accomplishments, the impact and relevance of his work, and his apparent lack of prominence in public memory.  I had never even heard of him.  I thought that was kind of amazing, especially with recent attention on virology and vaccines.   Was I just ignorant (a real possibility)?  Or is he relatively unknown?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Here is an excellent article from PBS on the bogus study behind the rumor that millennials are "growing horns" from cell phone use.  It is worth reading the whole thing.  But these are the highlighted flaws in the study:

  1. The study doesn’t actually measure cellphone usage.  It relies on interviews and self-reported usage.
  2. The findings mean nothing for the general population because the sample is biased.  If you haven't been careful about who you are studying and how that specific population represents the general population, you can only draw conclusions about the individuals you studied.
  3. What they measured was a bone spur, not a horn.  A horn is made of keratin.  And even more importantly, they do not really discuss how important the finding is.  Apparently most bone spurs cannot even be felt and many disappear on their own.
  4. Raw data measuring bone spurs on all of the subjects was not provided.  Like so many other imaging studies, reducing complex images to a "score" is hard to do and their methodology needs to be considered.
  5. The study claims males have more of these bone spurs, but doesn’t back it up.
  6. The study also fails to make a clear connection to millennials.

Other than these flaws, however, it was fine science.  (Nod to Mark Twain).

The best part of the article, however, is how the media got this wrong in the first place... and really explains why this is so important.  It's a 5 minute read and highly worthwhile.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Life Cycle of Personal Data and the Personal Dataome

Caleb Scharf has written a pretty interesting essay entitled "The Selfish Dataome" in the October issue of Nautilus. In it he suggests that there is a systemic relationship between the data we produce and the lives we live. He observes that, as we live, we produce data. It's expensive. And there's a lot of it. How does it affect us? Is it worth it? How would we know? He asks the question: "Does the data we produce serve us, or vice versa?"

Interesting. Reminiscent of "The Selfish Gene". Perhaps our bodies, families and societies are only here to propagate our data as we are to propagate our genes?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fact-resistant humans are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life

Andy Borowitz reports that "Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life."


Actually, we DO understand the psychology of this phenomenon.  We know that human cognition which includes storytelling and logical thinking did not evolve to discern TRUTH but simply to enhance the probability of survival and reproductive success.  Right?  We are exquisitely tuned to detect inauthentic or flawed STORIES, not whether or not the stories are based on or contradict hard evidence.  On the contrary, to conserve energy under severe cognitive load, we basically delegate reasoning from evidence and first principles — which is HARD — to much more subconscious heuristics that are predisposed to select those stories framed to confirm existing beliefs and to filter out those stories which contradict them.  It’s called ‘confirmation bias.'

Borowitz is right:  shocks required to break through confirmation bias could include hunger, thirst or even respiration.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Remembering Carl Sagan and his Legacy of Critical Thinking

It's hard to believe that Carl Sagan died 20 years ago.  But it's worth remembering his death because it's worth remembering his life, his belief in and dedication to public engagement with science.  In this last interview with Charlie Rose he articulates the two arguments that motivated him throughout his life to continuously seek new ways to communicate science to everyone.  First, he reminded us that science is power, surely the defining power of our time.
We live in an age based on science and technology with formidable scientific powers.... If we don't understand it ... then who is making all the decisions ... that are going to determine the world our children are going to live in?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reason, Truth, Lies, Empiricism and Belief in the Age of the Internet

In the March issue of The New Yorker Jill Lepore posted an amusing rant on reason, truth, lies, empiricism and belief in the "Age of the Internet."

She asks a good question:  How do we know?  And what is the role of evidence?  Reason?

Lepore observes in this season dominated by the Republican debates and largely negative advertising based almost exclusively on unsubstantiated opinion and belief:
  1. "Tump doesn’t reason... He wants combat." 
  2. "Cruz’s appeal is to the judgment of God. 'Father God, please . . . awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss,' he preached on the campaign trail."
  3. "Rubio’s appeal is to Google."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is it Christmas Everywhere in the Universe?

Is it Christmas everywhere in the Universe?  

Dennis Overbye, one of my favorite science journalists, has taken a stab at this question in a light-hearted and fun way in this article in the Times, asking himself, "would an alien know it is Christmas?"  I love how he manages to stimulate our thinking by posing some interesting questions with a few answers but without writing a treatise on the philosophy of science and religion.  How exactly does he do it?