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December 14, 2011

Book Review: Poor Economics

This is our first book review here at Scientifica, but I think it is long overdue. I'm not sure how often we will be able to do these but it something that I have wanted to do for some time now. Hopefully you will find some books that interest you and if you have any recommendations, please put them in the comments.

Poor Economics is not one of your typical skeptical book. It doesn't talk about ghosts or people who think the Earth is hollow. Instead, it dives into poverty and the solutions that people offer to the poor. As someone who is a fan of critical thinking and has done a fair about of service work, this book was the best blend of the two I have ever seen.

Humanitarian efforts are almost always run by people who really want to make a difference in peoples lives. Unfortunately, sometimes people get so caught up in trying to help that they never ask if what they are doing is working. It is easy to just go off anecdotes to justify your work and to some degree that is OK to do. However when it comes to putting in place programs that are really going to try to make an impact on social problems and increase peoples standard of living we should demand evidence. These programs are not free and like any consumer we should want the most bang of our buck.

Poor Economics does a really impressive job of reviewing the mixed and often limited data around poverty. Do people use a bug net that was given to them for free? Is a lack of food what keeps people poor? Are the poor one loan away form being thriving business owners? These are hard questions that have complex answers. Even if you don't read the book I strongly recommend you peruse their website. There is a lot of good data there as well a some resources for teaching about poverty.

The Bottom Line: This book is excellent. It doesn't matter if you know nothing about poverty or if you are engrossed in these issues. This book tries gives the reader understanding of why the poor make the choices they do and what can be done to help improve their lives.

As an aside, it is the end of the year so if you are looking for good charities I recommend you look at GiveWell.org and Foundation Beyond Belief. Give Well reviews charities that address lots of difference social issues. Like the authors of Poor Economics, they review the evidence for a charities effectiveness and rank them accordingly. Foundation Beyond Belief organizes secularists to donate to charities on a variety of issues. If you are able, please give back to humanity this holiday season.

December 9, 2011

Why Intelligent Design Doesn't Belong in a Science Class

I try to stay away from politics for the most part on this blog, but when it threatens science education I can't stay silent. For readers in other countries, the U.S. is currently in the middle of the Republican party (GOP) primary elections to see who will run against current President Obama in 2012. Last Thursday, the Huffington post reported on GOP candidate Michele Bachmann's stance towards evolution and intelligent design. In the video linked to by the article she equates not teaching intelligent design with "censorship on the part of government". Michele Bachmann is by no means the only GOP candidate that supports the idea of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools.

This idea that our students need to learn both intelligent design and evolution in their science class is wrong for several reasons. The purpose of a science class, especially in a K-12 school, is to give students an understanding of the best science we have and (ideally) an idea of how science works. By itself, that is a ton of content. I have yet to meet a science teacher who actually thinks they have enough class time to fully teach all the material in their curriculum. To give you a feel for how much content there is: when I was working in a middle school in Chicago, we were given the school year to teach our sixth graders all of Earth sciences. That may sound like a ton of time but consider that Earth sciences includes: the motion of the planets, the seasons, the lunar phases, the different types of rocks, basic tectonics, earthquakes, how pressure systems impact weather, reading weather maps, what is climate, and global climate change. All this while trying to teach them how science works and give them some experience using lab materials. So as it stands many teachers don't have time to give students a good understands of the most fundamental topics. There simply isn't time for controversial or fringe science.

This brings me nicely to my second point. Intelligent design shouldn't be taught in public schools because it's not science. It makes no testable claims that could ever falsify it. I am also not aware of any scientist who has made a discovery that stemmed from their belief in intelligent design. Any paradigm which makes no testable predictions and does nothing to further our understanding of the universe really can't be called science in any meaning full way. If it's not science, then clearly it shouldn't be in taught in a science class.

If intelligent design isn't science then, what is it? Religion. The first amendment of the United States says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This is in place to protect government from religion, and religion from government. So if intelligent design is religion, it cannot be taught in public schools without violation of the constitution. In 2005, this very issue came up in Dover, Pennsylvania. The judge John E Jones III concluded the following in the official decision "We have concluded that... ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." You have a right to teach religion, just do it in church.

I have no problem with intelligent design being a part of a comparative religions course. I also think it would be really cool if maybe some larger high schools were able to offer a course on evolution that discussed the specific claims made by intelligent design proponents. Students will make up their own mind on all issues and I don't think anyone wants to stop them from doing that. What I want is for them to understand what's science, what's not, and what the difference is. That way, they will be making up their mind in an informed way. Along the same lines, how important this issue is to how you vote is up to you. I certainly am not trying to say this is the only reason to support or distance yourself from a candidate. I just find it sad when the people who are asking us to let them run this country do not understand the facts behind such a widespread issue.

If you are now sightly depressed, want to learn more, or both I highly highly recommend this clip of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson from his interview with Sam Ogden of Skephick.

December 7, 2011

What is Science? - Skewed Views

"Evolution is just a theory."

As a paleontology student, I hear that argument a lot. There seems to be a common misunderstanding of the language of science. This video delves into the problems of arguing against science using emotion or by appealing to incomprehension.


If you found this interesting, we have written a whole series on what science is:

Hat tip to Steven G via Fraser Cain on Google+

December 5, 2011

Practical Science: Exercising to Sleep

 NASA astronaut Steve Lindsey, commander of STS-133
exercising on the International Space Station
Photo credit NASA via Wikimedia Commons
I write a lot about science that overturns everyday notions. More often, though, I find science confirms what most anyone on the street could tell you. Even if those stories don't make as catchy headlines, they can still be really important. Case and point, a new study to be published in the December issue of the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity has found that people who do moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week sleep better and feel less drowsy during the day. Not just a little more sleep either: a full 65% increase in reported sleep quality.

I have found this to be true in my own life as well. The nights I don't sleep well are when I am trapped inside all day writing a paper or watching videos on the Internet. My uncle is a rancher in Wyoming and says he has never has trouble sleeping. It is really nice to see a study like this to confirm my own anecdotal experience.

So, if you do have trouble getting through the night, try to find a half hour each day to ride a bike, run, swim, hike, lift, climb, whatever works for you.

December 1, 2011

Looking for Other Worlds

The search for exoplanets has gone from being an unlikely dream 20 years ago to being a booming area of research in astronomy and planetary science. The first true exoplanet discovery, according to NASA, was in 1994. Since then, 687 have been discovered, and more are being found all the time. This video from Cosmic Journeys takes you through some of the highlights of exoplanet discovery, particularly the search for Earth-like planets.

Hat tip to Ciro Villa on Google+

November 23, 2011

Child Scientists

For some, an interest in science shows up in college, or later. For others, it starts young. I was one of those very young science kids: if you mispronounced a dinosaur name around me, I would come right up to you and correct you. To this day, I still cringe whenever someone mispronounces Dienonychus* or Diplodocus**. As I've grown older, I've met lots of other kids who are excited about paleontology, like these two:




I love encouraging this type of interest in science in general, and paleontology in particular. Sometimes, though, I meet a kid who just completely blows me away with how passionate and excited they are. Thanks to the Internet, I've recently discovered several of these amazing kids. All of them are 7 or 8 years old, and how passionate and enthusiastic they already are about science blows me away.

 The first is Aaron, an 8 year old time traveler who, with his trusty computer pal INO, wanders through prehistory in search of his favorite dinosaurs and other creatures. He documents his travels in short podcasts, most of which focus on a particular dinosaur or other prehistoric animal. He takes time to share facts about each dinosaur as he tracks it, and to answer questions about paleontology, specific dinosaurs, and his own interests, sent in by other kids. His podcast story  is on its second season now, traveling through the Cenozoic instead of the Mesozoic. You can find him at Aaron's World.

Another is a vlogger, rather than a podcaster. Riley the Paleontologist is 7 years old, from Alabama. Much of the Southern U.S. could learn from him; he's clearly got the concept of "science" all figured out. He brings a miniature version of every dinosaur he discussed to his show, and discusses the basic facts paleontologists have found about each dinosaur. You can watch his first episode below, and find him on Youtube.




And the third "paleokid" I've discovered is Art, of Life Before the Dinosaurs. He is a blogger, and unusual in that, unlike many kids who love paleontology, his obsession isn't dinosaurs. Instead, he loves Paleozoic invertebrates, the weirder the better. This happens to be my favorite time period as well, and I learn something new with every one of Art's posts... which, considering this is what I'm studying in college right now, is quite impressive.

It's inspiring to find kids like these, taking initiative and, with their parents' help, sharing their love of science with the world. It gives me hope for the future of science. And these are just a couple of the paleokids. I am always finding other children and teens who, against the cultural norm, love science and spread that love to anyone willing to listen. If you know of any others, please send them my way!

Modified from my post at Teen Skepchick

Just in case you weren't sure how they were to be pronounced...
*die-NON-o-kus, not di-no-NI-kus
** dip-LOD-o-kus, not dip-lo-DOUGH-kus

November 11, 2011

New Comment Policy

We have had an increase in the comments we are getting. We are really excited by this and it made us realize we needed a clear comment policy. Hopefully it is mostly common sense, but you may want to take a look, here.

Happy Commenting.

November 9, 2011

Happy Sagan Day!

Carl Sagan was hugely influential in getting me interested in science and more specifically, planetary studies. His book "A Demon Haunted World" is still probably the best all around skeptical book I have read. If you haven't read it already, you really should read it. I think the book is a great introduction to critical thinking because he is able to give you the tools to think, without beating you over the head with them. There are so many wonderful quotes I could pick out of this book but here is one that I think gets to the heart of skepticism and isn't often cited.
As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track.
Have a great day and take some time today to look for that wonder in the world Carl was so magnificent at sharing.

 

November 3, 2011

Why Pluto Should Not be a Planet

Credit: NASA/ESA/SWRI
It was 2006 when the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto was no longer going to be considered a planet. Ironically, this was probably one of the best followed scientific controversies of my lifetime. Even now, my chemistry teacher proclaims in class that Pluto is a planet. I just want to set the record straight on this once and for all. Pluto is not a planet and it should stay that way.

The word planet means "wanders" in ancient Greek. If you are a careful observer of the sky, there are 7 objects that "wander" against the background stars. These first 7 "planets" were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun. As time went on, we realized that the Sun is really a complete different type of object than the others. The Moon is also unique on that list because it does not directly orbit the Sun, so we put it in a different class of objects. Now, let's look at the rest of the list. Before I go any further, go look at a image of the solar system to scale. There is a good image done by the team at Space.com below the break.

So have you looked at it? Good, because then you realize that really Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter, Saturn (and the later discovered Uranus and Neptune) are really 2 different types of objects. So, we break these up into the inner rocky planets and the outer gaseous planets. Then there are only a few other groups of objects. You have the moons of the solar system, some of which are bigger than Mercury. There is the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. I think to most people it is clear why even the largest asteroid, Ceres, is not a planet. Like the other asteroids, Ceres has a different composition than rocky planets and its orbit crosses with the thousands of other objects that occupy that part of the solar system.

So what about Pluto? Pluto is smaller than our moon, and like Ceres, it shares an orbit. Pluto resides in what is known as the Kuiper belt. Think of the Kuiper belt as like the asteroid belt, only with icy objects instead of rocky ones and a lot farther from the sun. Pluto may not even be the largest object in the Kuiper belt. Eris was discovered in 2005 and has a diameter of 2326 kilometers known to an accuracy of 12 kilometers. Pluto is somewhere between 2300 and 2400 kilometers. Pluto's size is harder to determine because sublimating ices on its surface can give it a little temporary atmosphere. So when it comes down to it, Pluto is a different type of object than the other planets. It is not a rocky world close to the sun and its not a massive ball of gas. Pluto is something else, a icy world that is interesting in its own right, but not to be confused with anything else.

October 16, 2011

On "Organic" and "GM" Food

While sitting in the dining hall the other day, several other students at my table were discussing their nutritional preferences. One of the guys, in particular, was adamant about eating organic food, and was disgusted by the poor nutritional value and supposedly cheap quality of the dining hall food. Now, I am not going to claim my dining hall has the most amazing food ever, because it doesn't, but it's far from the worst I've had. And so long as you vary what you eat and try to keep a balanced diet, it's not difficult to stay healthy and well-fed without supplementing the meal plan. But, at least in this context, that was not the point. This student was truly upset by the fact that the food was probably "GM" and definitely not "organic."

According to the USDA, foods labeled "organic" must meet a set of criteria, which basically boil down to not using synthetic products, such as fertilizers or pesticides, as well as attempting to farm sustainably and maintain the biodiversity of the farmland. On the whole, I don't feel this is a bad idea. Sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices are just smart: they allow the land to continue to be fertile and cause minimal disruption to the native ecosystem. The idea that no man-made products can be used is not a bad idea... I mostly see it as a silly one. All synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and other products used in agriculture are regulated by the EPA and the FDA, for environmental and human safety. Even in industrial farming, it is becoming common practice to use man-made products as a last resort, both to protect the health of the farm and the consumer, but also to help the products to retain their potency. Like antibiotics, if pesticides are overused, the target creatures will become immune over time.

So, overall, organic food is not something I have a problem with as a whole. There are a few things that rub me the wrong way, though, which I've discussed in the past. For instance, the term "organic" is a bit of a misnomer; in the chemical sense, basically everything we eat, with the exception of salt, is organic. Also, the scientific studies suggest that there's really no nutritional or health benefit of "organic" food over "non-organic" food. If you think it tastes significantly better, and don't mind the higher price, then go for it. But the hype about organic food seems misplaced.

The fear of genetically modified food, however, is even more peculiar. Humans have been genetically modifying food ever since we settled down into agricultural societies. That's how we turned wild maize into the corn, wild peafowl into chickens, wild bananas into something easily edible. The only difference is that, at that point, we used artificial selection. Farmers would take two plants or animals that had characteristics they liked- say, larger ears of corn - and cross-breed them. In as few at 10 generations, the whole crop could have this characteristic. And, they could do this well before Darwin or Mendel came along to explain how it worked. However, understanding genetics, heredity, and evolution allowed farmers to more successfully manipulate their crops. Farms also started, at least with plants, using clones. If you take a clipping of a plant and replant it, it will often grow into a new individual, with the same genetics as the parent plant. You can do this over and over again, and don't have to get a new batch of seeds, with variable genetics and thus variable characteristics. A farmer knows every single plant in his field will have the same characteristics, which allow it to sell well.

The only thing different about "GM" crops, then, is that instead of repeating this process by trial and error, we can now go into the genes themselves and make tiny changes that result in even more precise output. Instead of it taking ten generations to made the corn kernels sweeter, for instance, it will take one. And, instead of the added sweetness resulting in fewer ears per plant, you can maintain the same number or even add a few more. It's a blessing in disguise. And, as with non-organic food, there's no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are more harmful than the alternatives (which are also genetically modified, just in a more "natural" way). And, as before, they're highly regulated to make sure they do not harm humans or the environment.

Going back to the lunchroom conversation, I just can't see any scientific support for my classmate's claim that non-organic, genetically modified food is less good for you. If, for reasons of personal preference or ideology, he prefers to eat the "natural" alternatives, fine. There's no harm in them. But at the same time, it's unreasonable to hold the whole world to that standard. Because of agricultural innovations such as synthetic products and genetic modification, we are able to produce more than enough food to feed the rapidly growing human population (the distribution of that food is still an issue, but that's a topic for another day). The hype and fear-mongering is simply misplaced or untrue.

This post was written for Blog Action Day 2011.

October 13, 2011

Don't Trust Me

When was the last time you read a professional UFO website? What about a creationism or intelligent design website? If you're reading this blog, it probably means you agree with most of what we write about. If that's not true, good for you. There is nothing wrong with reading articles you agree with; in fact, you should do so. This is how we learn about the topics we are interested in. I think there is a problem, though, when that becomes all we read.

A few years ago I was having a friendly debate with a creationist who was a good friend of mine. As we got deeper and deeper into the various topics (dating rocks, mechanisms of selection, etc.) we began to hit walls at the edge of our respective knowledge. This alone is not a problem and I have found to be quite common in verbal debates. Something else I think we both realized though was the we were not really very familiar with each others arguments. That debate ended in what was the best conclusion to a debate I have ever had, we both recommended each other books. I recommended Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller and he pointed me towards The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. Even now, I have that book on my bookshelf and am proud to own it. So, why am I proud to own a book that I disagree with more often than not?

The skeptical movement prides itself on making decisions based on evidence. We promote evidence, rationality, and I think above all, an interest in understanding reality. The beautiful thing about reality is that it's there. It doesn't matter how many people believe something or hear of an idea, reality will still be doing its thing. When basically everyone on the planet thought the Earth was the center of the Solar System, that did not make it true. If we really want to understand this wonderfully complex and confusing universe we live in, learning about ideas you disagree with will only bring you closer to that goal. Just make sure you take all new ideas with a healthy dose of skepticism. Doubt, question, and ask what ideas are supported by the evidence.

There is another advantage to understanding the "other side" that I think is equally important. If you understand the reason someone else came to their conclusions you are going to be able to have much more productive debates. No one likes debating a straw man or characterization of their position, skeptic or not. If you understand what they are saying first, you are much more likely to change minds. Also, I think a lot of skeptics would be surprised at how much they have in common with people who may hold irrational beliefs. I have found that often the difference between skeptic and believer is a tiny difference in how they understand evidence or statistics. Again understanding this can lead to a much more enjoyable discussion for both parities even if you don't walk away in perfect agreement. So I challenge you all. Go read a book, a blog, or listen to a podcast that challenges you views. Try to come away from it more enlightened than when you went in.

October 3, 2011

Beauty and Science: The Sagan and Feynman Series

There can be something almost magical about the universe as revealed by science. Few human beings in recent time have expressed this as well as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. I stumbled upon this video series the other day and was blown away. Enjoy. 

September 29, 2011

Happy Banned Books Week!

Normally, I write about science and skepticism here, but I am a self-professed bibliophile as well. One cause that's near-and-dear to my heart, therefore, is Banned Books Week. Many of the most contested books are science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction; however, texts like Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species often also appear on lists of banned books. Plus, part of a complete education is reading anything one can get their hands on. So, in honor of that and the joy of reading... have a wonderful banned books week!

Cross-posted from Teen Skepchick
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Here in the U.S.A, the last week of September is always Banned Books Week. This campaign, started 13 years ago by the American Library Association, is designed to raise awareness about censorship and encourage everyone, particularly kids, to expand their horizons and read books that others find questionable enough to try and ban. It's a celebration of the right to read.

Every year, hundreds of books are challenged by school boards, religious groups, teachers, and particularly parents, often with the best intentions. These adults want to "protect" children from sexually explicit scenes, profane language, depictions of violence, descriptions of drugs, homosexuality, and things generally "unsuited to age group".

Turns out, though, that the most challenged books aren't always the ones you'd expect. Take And Tango Makes Three, for instance, the first book I ever heard of being banned. It's a children's picture book, about two penguins that successfully hatch and raise an orphaned egg. It's a sweet, heart-warming story. Who could possibly have a problem with it? Well, here's the twist: the parents in And Tango Makes Three are both male. And because of that, it has been the most challenged book for four out of the past five years, topped only by the ttyl series by Lauren Myracle in 2009.

Many of my all-time favorite books have been in the top 10 lists of banned and contested books from the last decade as well. For instance: the entire Harry Potter series; His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson; My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; and Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George.  There's several others that I've read as well. Nearly all of them are books I'd recommend, or that had a big impact on me growing up.

Banned Books Week 2011 runs until October 1st, so there's still time to start a new (or an old favorite) story from the banned books list. Go out and exercise your right to read, and feel free to tell us about your favorite banned book.

All images credit the American Library Association

September 26, 2011

Summer Intro to Paleo: Preparation and Curation

Here's the third video in my summer introduction to paleontology course. This time, we look at how to do field work. If you haven't seen them, you can watch previous installments.


For Further Information:
http://www.dmns.org/main/minisites/fossil/vertprep.html
http://preparation.paleo.amnh.org/45/tools-equipment

Leave any questions or suggestions in the comments below!

September 23, 2011

Particles Travelling Faster than the Speed of Light: Not So Fast

"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." -David Hume
The Internet is a-buzz as scientists from CERN research facilities in Gran Sasso National Laboratory, Italy are saying they have been observing neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Neutrinos are low mass particles that can literally pass through light years of lead without interacting. These scientists are claiming that the particles arrived at the detector 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have at the speed of light. That may not sound like much, but the scientists running the project say their measurements are accurate to within 10 nanoseconds. So, if true what would this mean?

The speed of light as a cosmic speed limit is fundamental to Einstein's theory of relativity. Relativity is one of the most successful theories in all of physics. Undermining the speed of light as a cosmic speed limit undermines the foundation of much of relativity. I'm not going to go into all the detials here but if you want a better understanding I recommend Why does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.

For me, it comes down to the David Hume quote above. As far as physics are concerned, this is a miracle. Could it be true, but before we accept it the evidence should be overwhelming. Right now we have a very interesting result. Also, I have to say these scientists are doing awesome work. This is not some crank on YouTube saying he proved Einstein wrong. I am really interested to see what happens as labs around the world try and replicate this effect. If the result is due to some error, we still learn something new; if not, physicists are going to have some serious work to do.

September 22, 2011

Ghost Hunting: How Not to Do It

In science, we look for multiple independent corroborating lines of evidence to prove any phenomena. We also want that evidence to of the highest quality we can get. Take evolution, for example. We have genetic analysis, morphological similarities, the fossil record, and biogeography (the distribution of living things across the globe) all pointing towards this one unifying idea. When it comes to ghost hunting, however these ideas on evidence seem to go out the window. Case in point is the Paranormal News article "Do It Yourself Ghost Hunting Part 1: Getting Started."

The first recommendation they have for finding ghosts is to get yourself a camera. The article says "The most important item would be a standard digital camera. Now, you don’t need to go all out and buy an expensive camera like a Canon PowerShot, most pictures that have evidence are from cameras that you can buy at any department store for a relatively cheap price." This statement should set off alarm bells galore. Why would you want to take a lower quality evidence? Of course, the author is correct to say that most ghost photos are from cheaper cameras. This is because most (if not all) ghost photos are due to flaws in the camera or mistakes by the photographer.

Next, they recommend you get an audio recorder. I have no problem with this suggestion as it stands, or even that maybe ghosts might somehow communicate to us by this means. To me, this is no weirder than ghosts existing the first place, but for both assertions we need evidence. Here is where we have an issue. If you record and listen to hours of white noise, it would be almost miraculous if your brain was not able to find something in that randomness that sounds like a human voice. We are wired to find patterns. So what might you do to separate out the noise?

Get more data!

For a moment as I read I thought this might be what the author was suggesting next. He says to bring a friend with you to not only make it more fun but also to build your credibility. This is a great suggestion. After all, if you could record the same voice at the same time on two different devices that is a much more interesting result. Imagine a ghost photographed from two different angeles at the same time. They may be on to something here. Oh wait...
There’s been some cases where we’ll have two audio recorders going on at once and they’ll catch two completely different results or one will catch something and another, running right next to it, will catch nothing at all. Cameras are the same way. When we were doing the investigation in Bethlehem, New Hampshire where Nicole caught the picture of the blue mist behind Nancy on the stairs (Photo on my website), I was taking photos as well, but where she caught something, I caught nothing on my camera.
What? I always understood that if you have two data points that contradict each other, that is a negative result. Taking a picture of the same spot with two cameras at the same time acts as a kind of control. If something is in one photo but not the other that screams of photographic error.

So if you want to go out on a ghost hunt, do it, but do it right. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) has a great article on this by renowned ghost hunter Joe Nickell that says...
The scientific approach to hauntings does not begin with the unproven, seemingly contradictory notion that entities are at once nonmaterial and quasi physical. Rather, in scientific inquiry one seeks to gather, study, and follow the evidence, only positing a supernatural or paranormal cause when all natural explanations have been decisively eliminated. Investigation seeks neither to foster nor debunk mysteries but instead to solve them.
 There are a lot of ways we can be fooled and we can fool ourselves but there are also still a lot of mysteries out there to solve. So get out there, have fun, and be skeptical.

September 20, 2011

Using Gaming for Good

Video games have become one of the go-to activities to kill time and fight boredom in our digital age. They come in all flavors and varieties; some prefer first person shooters, while others (myself included) would rather play exploratory RPGs. There are concerns and research on the effects of those games, but that's a story for a different day. Instead, let's focus on the purpose of video games. Most are just games, with no purpose outside of entertainment. But a few help progress science, such as one that modeled an HIV enzyme in just three weeks, where the best computer models failed.

...[A] microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that "unfolds" the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.

This is where Foldit comes in.

Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- using a set of online tools

....

Cracking the enzyme "provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs," says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

This to be awesome, in my opinion. I've played with Fold.It a little bit, but not enough to really give a review of the game.  But the fact that it is being used to do this sort of research is fantastic, and I look forward to seeing what other discoveries can be made with it, as well as what applications those discoveries may have in the medical field.

September 5, 2011

What Not to Buy: Critical Thinking Applied

Time Moneyland has put together a great list of "12 Things you should stop buying now." This is a great application of critical thinking and has something for everyone. The list covers everything from new college textbooks to super high SPF sunscreen. One of the things I also really like about the way this is put together is that it includes the exceptions to the rule. For example, they rightly point out that some people with really fair skin may need very high SPF sunscreen, however the difference between SPF 30, and SPF 50 is much less then most people think. My personal favorite, though, was probably number 1.
Homeopathy

The pitch: Fight back against the aches, chills and other misery-inducing symptoms of the flu with herbs or vitamin supplements.

The truth: We’ll let the CDC handle this one. From the agency’s website: “There is no scientific evidence that any herbal, homeopathic or other folk remedies have any benefit against influenza.”

The exception: Chicken soup, especially if it’s homemade. No, it won’t cure anything, but if it makes you feel a little less crummy, slurp away.
If you are unfamiliar with homeopathy, it consists of diluting a substance until none of the substance remains and then calling it a cure. Nonsense is nonsense, no exceptions. And really who can argue with some nice chicken noodle soup when you're sick?

August 25, 2011

UFOs and the 2%

Being an amateur astronomer, UFOs are close to my heart. I have been asked by countless people what I think of UFOs. On the Internet, it is not hard to find claims that UFOs are evidence of a hostile alien invasion, benevolent beings here to save us from ourselves, or that there are multiple species all here competing with each other for our loyalty. It is clear people are truly seeing strange things in the sky and others report first hand encounters. So the question is 'what should believe?'

There is no denying that people see strange objects in the night sky on a regular basis. Someone recently told me a story of a object he had seen with a group of people that reportedly would move in one direction, stop, then completely change direction and continue moving along. Even I have seen a UFO. I was just starting out as an amateur astronomer.  It was twilight, and to my amazement I saw a bright object hovering over a nearby lake. The object was flashing white red and blue. I was completely taken aback and at a complete loss for an explanation.

There countless stories like the ones above. Still, I have heard even dedicated UFO proponents admit that probably 98% (or pick your own number) of sightings and encounters are hoaxes or misidentified normal phenomena. It is those 2% of sightings that we can't come up with a explanation for, that they believe represent the real encounters.

The problem with this argument is that you are moving from an unknown (hence unidentified flying object) to an answer (aliens exist) without any further evidence. Scientists work with unknowns all the time. They may have a hypothesis that they are trying to gather evidence for, but without that evidence, it remains an unknown. Law enforcement does the same thing. If a case can't be solved, they simply label it unsolved. They don't assume that aliens did it.



With that said, I want to look to see if there is any reason that this small percentage of cases might go unsolved if aliens are not visiting our planet. Some of them probably are hoaxes or hallucinations. As Randall Munroe of xkcd shows above, it doesn't take many people misunderstanding something they seen in the night sky to make a lot of UFO stories. In may other cases, we just don't have enough information to find any answer.


If you want to say aliens exist you need evidence. UFOs, even those cases that are never solved, just don't cut it. Take my story above. I see no fundamental difference between mine and many others out there, except I found out what it was. I stared at the object over the lake for hours off and on. As it slowly rose in the sky, its colors settled down into the bright familiar glow of the star Sirius. The wild colors were probably caused by a nearby fire or other air pollutants. Still if I had reported it as a UFO, without some key details, no one could have ever proven what that object was. I doubt we will ever solve all UFO cases but that doesn't bother me one bit. What gets me going is the trill of finding an answer, one I can explain and defend, and growing my understanding of how the universe really is.

August 19, 2011

Quantum Nonsense

Alright, I am back from my summer hiatus. Sorry for the lull. I was poking around trying to figure out what I wanted to write about when it struck me. I think no field of science is used more often to justify nonsense than quantum mechanics. For me, this leads to some interesting questions.

Before I get into the science, I think I need to make a disclaimer. I am not (yet) a physicist. The information I am going to provide below is what I have gathered from the science I read, discussed with actual physicists, and heard summarized. Quantum mechanics is arguably one of the most difficult disciplines of science to understand because it is so counter-intuitive. With that said, the information I provide below is not the nitty gritty of quantum, but the more fundamental concepts. This is all that is really necessary to understand the flaws in most of the unscientific arguments that use quantum mechanics. Now on to the meat.

What is quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics at its most basic level is the study of the smallest particles and energies in the universe. A "quanta" is actually a measure of the smallest amount of energy possible for a particle to have. Quantum mechanics at its heart is a mathematical description of how the various subatomic particles behave and interact with each other. The thing that really sets quantum physics apart from classical or Newtonian physics is the uncertainty.

If you shoot one pool ball at another, you can predict with a extraordinarily high level of certainty (assuming you know the relevant facts) what will happen when they collide. You can figure out what direction the balls will go, with what speed and where they will come to rest. When you are looking at a quantum system that is not necessarily the case. Instead, in a quantum system you can give probabilistic answers of where a certain particle will be or with what speed.

What effects has quantum mechanics proven? 

The implications of quantum mechanics are one of the most interesting, and probably most misunderstood aspect of this burgeoning science. The important thing to remember is that quantum mechanics deals with the subatomic, so except for in very rare cases, these effects do not apply to the macroscopic world we operate in. With that said, here are some highlights.

Spectra
It was well known long before anyone was considering quantum mechanics that if you excite a gas, by say running electricity through it, it will give off light at very specific colors or wavelengths. Astronomers use this to tell was very distant objects are composed of. What quantum mechanics gave us was an understanding to this phenomena. At the most basic level, what's happening is that as electrons in the atom lose energy they give off that energy as a photon. Because electrons can only lose energy in discrete amounts any particular atom can only give off photons that have that much energy. The amount of energy each photon has corresponds to what wavelength it has.

Entanglement
Entanglement is probably the most bizarre and least well understood effect of quantum mechanics. When two particles are created from a process they can be paired. What this means is that now matter how far you remove the particles from one another they will be in some ways linked. For example if you split one photon into two, one of the photons will be polarized vertically and the other horizontally. This is a really strange effect that we are still working to fully understand.

When quantum goes bad


It seems for every cool discovery made in quantum mechanics, there are ten cranks misusing it. If you google "quantum healing" you get just over a million results and "quantum jumping" has over five million. While each company puts its own spin on the theme I have found most of the misuses of this science fall into one of a few categories.

Micro VS. Macro
Quantum mechanical effects do not (except in extreme cases) apply to the macroscopic world. If this wasn't the case, billiards would be a game of chance and we there is no way we could launch a spacecraft with enough precision to get to a planet that is millions or billions of miles away. The reason for this is that all of the uncertainties that exist on the quantum level essentially cancel each other out on the macroscopic level where we live.


Information Communication
Many psychics or remote viewing claimants will invoke quantum mechanics as a way they gather information either from somewhere or somewhen else. While at first glance, quantum entanglement can seem to provide a justification for this, however the illusion quickly fades when you look at it. The problem is that entanglement cannot be used to transmit information. At most, if you have some entangled particles you can gleam some information on the state of the paired particles, nothing more and nothing less.

Quantum Unknowns
The last way that is used by all kinds of pseudoscience is just to say that some effect is due to quantum mechanics with no justification. This argument often goes "quantum mechanics proves there is still much we don't understand, therefore X". This reasoning amounts to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. Any good scientist will tell you there are things we don't understand- that's how they keep their jobs. If you want to say any phenomena exists you have to the evidence for it, not the lack of understanding somewhere else.

Conclusion


Quantum mechanics is really cool science. The new discoveries coming out of it are amazing. I am excited to be able to watch this field grow over my lifetime. This is weird stuff and if you feel like you don't understand it, join the club. The idea that there exists something so counter intuitive that we can't even conceptualize it, is incredible. Still, this does not mean we can use it to justify magic or pseudoscience. As weird as it may be, quantum mechanics belongs squarely in the court of science. What quantum does prove is that science is an exciting and every changing endeavor that is willing to accept even the most bizarre ideas. Just make sure you have the evidence.

August 10, 2011

Turn on Your Brain


The other day, while working with some high school students, one of them turned to me and started a question, "You know how we only use 10% of our brains...?" I cut her off right there. If the assumption that we only use a small portion of our brains was a premise for her question, then the question couldn't possibly be valid.

The 10% myth is incredible pervasive, considering how silly it is upon further inspection. Have you ever heard a neurosurgeon say something like, "Oh, well, the tumor's in your inactive brain area, so we're not going to worry about it?" Of course not, because that's not how the brain works.

First of all, in proportion to body size, humans have the largest brains of any animal, with a 1-to-50 brain weight to body weight proportion. As with all physical characteristics, this was shaped by natural selection. We adapted to have higher intelligence, by having larger and larger cerebral cortexes, the region of the mind used for problem solving, language, and abstract thinking. The cost of this is that it uses a lot of energy. Humans have to eat a lot in order to power our big brains, or we'll die. If we only used 10% of this grey matter, natural selection would quickly get rid of it.

Brain Scans: ADHD Brain on Left, Normal on Right
We can also see how much of the brain gets used (source). Using PET or fMRI scans, we can watch a brain work. While not all of the brain is active all of the time, it's fairly active even doing the most simple tasks, like eating or sleeping. Even if all the neurons aren't firing, the glial and other support cells are active, and they make up a large percentage of the brain as well... far more than 10%. On top of that, damage to far less than 90% of the brain is incapacitating or fatal. Some proponents of the myth suggest that this is because only 10% of the brain is used for conscious functions, while the rest is subconscious. This isn't really supported by the data either, however; those same scans show that more of the brain "lights up" the more complex a task is occurring. Also, the idea that only 10% is conscious or active assumes the brain is very compartmentalized, that chunk of gray matter A does task A and only task A, and chunk B does something different. This isn't really accurate either. While some brain function is more or less focused in specific spots (the language center or vision center in the brain), it is not so black-and-white.

Besides simply being a major piece of misinformation, the 10% myth is important because it's a main argument of psychics and mediums. They flaunt this idea that the brain has huge untapped potential, and that scientists don't know how it works. Obviously, if you can just learn to turn on that unused portion, you too can have psychic abilities or superpowers. It's a comforting idea, to think that you can have more brainpower, in case of emergency. But from a scientific perspective, that's just not going to happen. The brain evolved to be used, not to sit dormant until magically being unlocked. The 10% claim is 100% myth.

This article was originally posted by me on Teen Skepchick, where I blog about science, skepticism, feminism, education, and more for the skeptical teen.


Image from Wikimedia Commons

August 1, 2011

Summer Intro to Paleo: Field Work

Here's the second video in my summer introduction to paleontology course. This time, we look at how to do field work. If you haven't seen them, you can watch previous installments.


For Further Information Links:
http://www.dmns.org/main/minisites/fossil/vertexc.html
http://www.museumoftherockies.org/Home/EXPLORE/Dinosaurs/LearnAboutDinosaurs/DiggingupDinosaurs/FossilExcavation/tabid/391/Default.aspx
http://www.wyodino.org/process/

Leave any questions or suggestions in the comments below!

Note: It may be a while before the next video is uploaded... I'm experimenting with a new way of recording these. The next installment, on lab work, should be in the next few weeks once I get that worked out.

July 27, 2011

Summer Intro to Paleo: Prospecting

Over this summer, I am teaching a six-week introduction to paleontology course to several interns at the paleontology lab I work at. As an experiment, I've been recording the classes as well, and uploading them for the viewing pleasure of everyone. Here is the first installment of that series:



July 25, 2011

Fossil or Not?

Identifying fossils is a more complicated task then you'd think. There are lots of different kinds of rocks, which can have their own unique patterns in them. Some of these patterns are the remains of ancient life; others are abiotic structures, chances of mineralization or later erosion that lead to pseudofossils. A reader emailed me a few weeks back with a question about some "fossils" he'd found.

While out hiking, he had found "some designs on rock that looked like fern frond fossils" or "like something bacteria have left." From just that description, I had some ideas about what these "fossils" could be, but asked for a photograph anyway. This is what he sent me:

"Fossil" from Nevada
This is actually a really, really common thing to find, so I recognized it right away. While these pretty, leaf-like designs look like ferns, they're actually not fossils at all. Instead, they are a type of pseudofossil, a manganese-oxide mineral stain. These stains almost always form this type of dendritic (tree- or fern-like pattern) in the bedding planes of the rock. They often occur in sandstone, as it does in the example above. For comparison, here is another examples of dendritic mineral stains.

From the Arkansas Geological Survey
While these aren't fossils, they're still cool. They form as water seeps through the sandstone. This water has dissolved minerals in it, including manganese or sulfides. As the water gets filtered through the pores in the rock, the minerals are left behind, precipitating into manganese oxide or pyrite (depending on the type of minerals dissolved in the water). The way these minerals crystallize, they form elegant branching dendrites along the bedding planes (lines within the rock, formed when the rock was deposited as parallel layers of sand) of the rock. In my own rock collection, I have quite a few dendrites, because they're one of the prettiest pseudofossils, and have such an interesting story behind their formation. 

Thanks to Claude A., for permission to use this example.

June 28, 2011

I Get Scam Mail: Domain Registry of America

As mentioned in our last post, we have been running this blog for about two years now. It wasn't too long after we started the blog that we registered our own domain name. The contract was for two years, so it I knew that the time to renew was coming up. Still I was surprised to get a letter that appeared to be from some government agency asking me to send in my money for my renewal. Then I read the fine print.

When I got this letter, I did some research. If you Google "Domain Registry of America," by the 5th hit you will see sites talking about this scam. Basically, their letter is worded such that, if you don't read carefully, it is easy to think you are required to pay them to keep your domain. In reality, by sending the form back to them with money, you are transferring your domain to them. There are two problems with this. First off, it is a sneaky way to steal another company's customers. Second, if I were to switch, I would end of paying 4 times more every year.

Scams really bother me. I think is is why I have written up so many of them over the last two years. Still, the thing that got me about this one was the way they presented themselves. The letter I got in the mail looked like government document. The font, boxy layout, and American flag under the logo all add to this effect. The back side of the letter is filled with the smallest text I have ever had sent to me. It is so small as to be on the edge of readable and makes my eyes hurt after a short time. If you read close, the letter does say on the front "Domain name holders are not obligated to renew their domain name withe their current Registrar or with the Domain Registry of America. Review our prices and decide for yourself." I am glad they put this on the letter. Still, I only caught this on my second read through of the letter. It is certainly not the letter's theme.

The Domain Registry of America uses underhanded tactics to try and steal customers from other companies. The Better Business Bereau has given them an F because of a large number of complaints filed against the company and their failure to resolve them. The Internet has a lot to offer and I am glad to we have our own domain. So, if you are looking to get a domain or renew one your already have, take your time, do your research,  and read carefully before you hand over any money.

June 20, 2011

Happy Birthday to Us!

Yesterday marked the two year anniversary of Scientifica Phenomena! A lot has happened since last year, in the world and on our blog.

In the World
On the Blog
  • We've made 48 new posts, bringing us up to over 200. 
  • We've had 10,881 unique visitors, totaling approximately 19,315 over the list of the blog.
  • We've been linked to be Cracked.com, as well as several other blogs and websites.
  • We've added several new features, including a better search, buttons to our Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds, our blogroll, a contact us form, and are in progress of adding new pages and updating our  existing ones.
  • I began writing for another blog, Teen Skepchick, about science, skepticism, feminism, and teen issues. I'm part of an awesome team there as well, so go check them out too.
Our last year started to put us out into the blogosphere. We hope to continue to be a useful resource, and plan to continue on for a third year, and beyond. If you have any comments, suggestions, ideas for new thing we can do or things we could do better, or questions about science or skeptical topics, please share. We love hearing from you! Also, as we said last year, we encourage to you write your own blog if you feel you have something to say. Blogging's an awesome way to learn new things, hone your language skills, and get feedback about your ideas. Both myself and my co-writer, Carver, are continually learning new things from this project, both about ourselves and the world around us. We'll continue to share those things with you.

June 13, 2011

Classifying Occlupanids

Biologists and paleontologists are tasked with a major challenge: looking that the diversity of life, and classifying it into groups based on morphology and genetics, in an attempt to determine what is related to what. While the details of this process, known as taxonomy, can be quite complex, it can theoretically be applied to anything. For instance, the little plastic things used to hold bread bags shut.

The purpose of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group is to classify occlupanids based on body shape, color, "teeth", markings, and several other characteristics. They have currently identified 6 main body plans, each of which constitutes an order on the Linnaean classification system, and have nearly 40 distinct species in the class "Occlupana".  They also keep track of mutations and mysteries, although none are currently displayed on the site. The "researchers" have also concluded that all occlupanids are parasitic, and are uniformly composed of a stiff, but flexible plastic.

The Occlupanid Collection:
The Occlupanid Collection
by Laser Burners, on Flickr
Now, this venture sounds quite silly: what's the point of classifying the bread bag thingies? In itself, probably not much. But it's a great introduction to how scientists classify real organisms. The class "Occlupana" is defined by several plesiomorphies, or ancestral characteristics: the parasitism, the plastic body, and the single "mouth". Orders, genera, and species are defined by synapomorphies, shared derived characteristics. For example, the species Pseudopalpis hayesi is defined by its green-blue color, its similarity to toxodentids (another order of occlupanid), and the fact it is only found on Thomas' English Muffins bags. This is similar to how a dinosaur fossil would be identified as a new species, although the list of characteristics studied would be much more complex.

I recommend taking some time to explore the website; it has details about how the occlupanids are discovered and classified, which serves as a great introduction to how real organisms are identified. They also have a call for contributions; if you want to explore the process of taxonomy in a hands-on, but fun way, this is a neat outlet to do so. This is a wonderful simplification of a very complex, important, and fascinating part of scientific research.

Cross-posted on Teen Skepchick

May 31, 2011

Reindeer See in Ultraviolet

Light is so much more than we can see. Human eyes have evolved over millions of years to be very sensitive to a very small sliver of all the different colors of light. Our eyes use those wavelengths of light that transmit well through our atmosphere and are most useful for finding food and predators. It is not surprising, though, that different animals that evolved in different environments than our own might have their eyes attuned to a slightly different set of colors than our own eyes. New research shows that reindeer may have just that ability.
"We discovered that reindeer can not only see ultraviolet light but they can also make sense of the image to find food and stay safe," said lead researcher Professor Glen Jeffery of the University College London (UCL). "Humans and almost all other mammals could never do this as our lenses just don't let UV through into the eye. In conditions where there is a lot of UV - when surrounded by snow, for example - it can be damaging to our eyes. In the process of blocking UV light from reaching the retina, our cornea and lens absorb its damaging energy and can be temporarily burned. The front of the eye becomes cloudy and so we call this snow blindness. Although this is normally reversible and plays a vital role to protect our sensitive retinas from potential damage, it is very painful."
Image Credit:Erik Christensen
Image shared via Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons
So reindeer are not only seeing a part of the spectrum we are blind to, but one which is actually harmful to our eyes. It is also some wavelengths of ultraviolet light that will give you a sunburn. Still, these animals have adapted some mechanism for using this high energy light. Future research may lead to a better understanding of how their eyes are protected from this high energy light.

I have always wondered what it might be like to be able to see in some of those other parts of the spectrum. Reindeer are literally seeing the world in a way only accessible to us through the use of special ultraviolet cameras. This gives them an advantage in spotting predators and finding food in an environment that makes us nearly blind. Studying this could possibly give us in ways of protecting our own eyes form ultraviolet radiation or a myriad of other potential applications we can speculate on. It is impossible to know exactly what future technology this will bring about, if any. Still it is research like this, the research that surprises us and makes us think, that pushes science forward.

May 25, 2011

Happy Towel Day!

Today, May 25th, is celebrated on our “mostly harmless” planet as Towel Day, in memory of Douglas Adams. He’s most famously known as the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (of 5 books), as well as the Dirk Gently series. He was also well known as an environmental activities, a radical atheist, and a technology enthusiast, as is exemplified by his essay “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” and by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game. And, he happens to be one of the funniest authors myself or my co-writer have ever read, so we recommend you give it a try. If you've ever heard someone joke about 42 as the answer to life, the universe, and everything, then you have to read these books to get the joke.

But, you may ask, why towel day? Remember, “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels. A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value… More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value… What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

So grab your towel and remember, Don’t Panic!

More on Towel Day

May 23, 2011

Planets Wandering Alone in Deep Space

Many science fiction plots use the idea of a deserted world wandering through space completely separated from its parent star. This dramatic set is a good place for intense action, but is it realistic? Even those worlds were out there, could we find them? A NASA press release claims not only are they there, but these worlds may even outnumber stars.

A forming solar system is a violent place. As the planets form around the young star, they start gravitationally pulling on each other. These tugs can send planets careening through the solar solar system, colliding into each other, or ejected from the system entirely. It's the planets that escaped that a team of astronomers from New Zealand and Japan were looking for.

Planets are not easy to find. The biggest problem is how small they are. The Earth may not seem like a small place, but compared with the vastness of space it is nothing more than a speck of dust. Normally we look for exoplanets by seeing the planet affect the light coming from their parent star in some way. So how could astronomer find these roaming worlds separated from their parent stars?

 The team of scientists used a 5.9 foot (1.8 meter) telescope to get their data. However, I would be surprised if any telescope could see even a large planet separated from its host star, so the astronomers got some help from gravity. When light passes through a lens, the speed the light is traveling changes. That then causes the light to chage direction. When light passes by a massive object, like a star or planet, that light is bent around the object changing its direction. The bigger the object the greater the effect. This effect allows astronomers to used massive objects in space, or even clusters of them, as natural lenses. This is called microlensing. This allowed the team to watch discover these planets as they magnified the light of background stars.

I really like this study for several reasons. They found something very exciting in these wandering worlds. They gave us a starting point in trying to figure out just how many of these lonely planets there are. They also were creative in discovering them using a subtle and elegant effect. Finally, they had their results confirmed by another independent team of astronomers before publication. This is kind of science that gets me excited do research and teach each day.

May 16, 2011

Transcendent Science: Technobabble at its Finest

Surfing the Internet you will occasionally stumble upon a true gem, a website that makes you stop what you are doing and simply look on with awe. When I doing some research on ancient writing, I found a website that said nothing in more words than I ever could have. This was the website of the Institute of Transcendent Science.

If you travel to the "About ITS" page, you will find some of the finest technobabble I have seen. If you are unfamiliar with the term, technobabble is when someone using scientific language in a incomprehensible way. Here is a good example.
The contemporary Transcendent Analysis has evolved from and is revealed by the study and latest achievements of the sciences of Quantum-physics, Medicine, Psychiatry, Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, Linguistics, Anthropology, System Analysis, Methodology and others. It represents a central core in the emerging science, The Theory About Man - a basic tenet of Transcendent Science, which comprises the next level of development of all the modern branches of science in their multidisciplinary state of cohesion.
Any time you see that many unrelated fields of science brought together at once, alarm bells should go off. Scientists constantly bring in new ideas from related fields. At the same time though there is only so much one person can hope to learn in a lifetime. This is why scientists focus on one area of expertise and try to act as informed citizens in other areas. The other major red flag is the mentioning of "quantum-physics." They even expand on this later on the page.
As it is well known from Quantum Physics, the result of any scientific research platform and observation experiment, depends exclusively on the Observer in that experiment and its relative position and research definition. This means that the world which is being observed by a specific Observer, is quite different from the world, which is not being observed by the same Observer, and may become even “nonexistent” (in terms of the definition for “existence”) when no Observer exists, who could conduct an observation of that world!
Quantum mechanics (or as they are calling it quantum physics) is counterintuitive and confusing. I think even most scientists who work with quantum mechanics on a regular basis would agree with this. Still, that does not mean that you can use it to say anything is true. Without going into a deep explanation of the observer effect, I will just say they are wrong. Things exist all of the time without observers. Your refrigerator may break while no one is home to observe it. It is hard to see how it could break while it is non-existent. In astronomy we can also see events that happened before any observers could have possibly existed in the universe. You will see this misuse of quantum mechanics all over the Internet.

So where does that leave us? Apparently, you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. I do think this website is good training for anyone learning to spot logical fallacies or if you just want a laugh. There is a sad side to this as well. They are taking people's money by selling their books and promoting irrational thinking. Still. I think the most appropriate response to this is that of Thomas Jefferson. "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them."

May 11, 2011

Light Relief: Flashy Lights and Deceptive Advertising

We have all seen infomercials for products that seem silly, if not useless. I went through a phase where I would actually watch infomercials for the sheer ridiculousness of the advertising. The advertising of some products however I think can cause harm such as in the case of a product called Light Relief.

I think the best way to review Light Relief is to go through the claims they make on their website. First, however, I want to describe their product. Light Relief is is a hand held unit that contains 59 Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The majority of these LEDs give off visible light the same way any handheld flashlight would. 24 of them are emitting infrared light. Infrared light is just another color of light which we can't see, but which we sometimes experience as heat. I would be quite surprised if the heat coming off those 19 LEDs would even equal that of a heating pad. So with that foundation let's move on to the real question: does it work? Light Relief makes two main claims on their website. I want to look at each of these individually.

Claim 1: "[Light Relief] relieves muscle and joint pain, improves flexibility"
Anyone who has used a hot pad knows that heat can relieve minor muscle and joint pain. This is nothing new to medical science. Light Relief, however, is unlikely to even work as well as something like a heating pad. The reason is infrared radiation actually covers a wide range of wavelengths of light. In order to get the effect they are claiming you would need to focus the LEDs to specific wavelengths. I have not found any evidence that Light Relief has done this.

Claim 2. "[Light Relief is] safe, non-toxic and FDA-cleared"
This one is a little more tricky. The language used in this statement could confused just about anyone who isn't at least a little familiar with how the FDA works. The FDA approves products for two separate things, safety and effectiveness. Light Relief has been approved for safety but not effectiveness. How do I know? At the bottom of their webpage, in small dark font on a dark background, are the words "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent any disease." These words are a huge red flag on any product. Imagine if a new drug entered the market and admitted that they had not show the FDA the product worked. This is an equivalent admission by Light Relief. I have little doubt that their product is as safe as a flashlight, but if it doesn't work, why should we care?

So in the end I am left with one question. How is Light Relief (~$80) different from a standard LED flashlight (~$10) or a heating pad (~$20)? I know flashlights that do more and heating pads have actually been studied and shown to work. My advice, if you want to spend some money to make light, get one of these.