Archive for the Science! Category

Gravitational Waves Found

Posted in Science! with tags on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I’d been wondering how long it would take to find evidence of gravitational waves (assuming that they existed at all).

Unfortunately, if I understand the news reports about today’s announcement correctly, there’s still no direct observations of such waves.  All the detectors made to find them have failed.

Which is in itself odd.

But now we have observational evidence strongly in favor of the inflationary model of the Big Bang, in which the anomalous uniformity of the universe is explained by assuming the universe’s rate of expansion was initially quite large and then slowed.  I am personally excited about this because of the peculiar implications this has about the possibility of faster-than-light travel.  Yes, it’s a very distant and implausible horizon.  But finding a way to send anything FTL requires first demonstrating conclusively that a phenomenon involves effects that aren’t restricted by the cosmic speed limit.  And the expansion of space-time seems to be just such a phenonemon.


Posted in Doom, Science! on December, 2013 by melendwyr

Steve Sailer links to the following video:  A Private Universe .

Alas, it seems that the smarter, more educated people aren’t any better at understanding things.  But they are slightly more fluent at spontaneously producing nonsensical scientific statements.  What a hope for our civilization!

Certainly there may have been selection to find only the most absurd and ignorant responses.  But I have to wonder, given that students learn about the cause of the seasons by third grade of elementary school, what those Harvard grads majored in, what their fields of study were.

I also can’t help but wonder what would happen if you sat one of our political leaders down, presented them with three basic science questions and told they had to correctly answer at least one of them… then held guns to their heads and threatened to pull the trigger if they didn’t get it right.

Ban John Horgan

Posted in GIGO, Science! with tags on May, 2013 by melendwyr

Several people I know have previously expressed the opinion, which I share, that science journalism in this country has really gone downhill over the past decade-and-a-half or so.  I once maintained a subscription to both Discover and Scientific American, and possessed a modest archive of their back editions, so I have a reasonable understanding of what they were like.  By and large, they were informative and intelligent, taking developments in various fields and expressing them in articles that a layperson could readily understand.  If you then wanted to know more, you could go and find a copy of Nature or a similar journal that contained more formal and within-the-discipline articles.

But slowly, they became vapid and foolish, the equivalent of supermarket tabloids; fewer articles and larger photos, less comprehensive information and more flash.

How far have they actually fallen?

The long trend of decline is something best seen by taking a look at the magazines, but you can get an idea of what their standards are like by examining this blog post by John Horgan, author of The End of Science.  (I’ve read it, didn’t think much of it.)

The standard disclaimer, that the opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent those of the organization publishing them, isn’t going to cut it.  Not when the opinions involve the suppression of scientific research on politically controversial issues.


Immunological Horizons

Posted in Medicine, Science!, Things You Should Read with tags , , on November, 2011 by melendwyr

By now you’ve probably heard the news:  a team of researchers at MIT have developed a treatment which can target cells in which viruses are replicating and destroy them.  Which is pretty much the only way to deal with virus-infected cells, so it’s not as draconian a strategy as it sounds.

So far, it hasn’t been rigorously tested in human beings, and there are just tons of potential complications, obstacles to overcome, and hurdles to leap… but the potential is staggering.  This is the sort of thing which science fiction has only speculated about.  A few people have said this is like hearing about the initial research into penicillin.  They’re wrong.  This is way, way bigger.  Potentially.

There are some obvious possible drawbacks.  The therapy wouldn’t be all that useful for conditions in which the nervous system itself becomes infected, for example, not beyond perhaps the very earliest stages of infection.  And conditions in which immune cells are infected?  I don’t know that this would be useful for, say, HIV, once the infection is established.  The drug used has to diffuse throughout the body, which is going to require quite a dose, and I’m fairly sure it’s expensive.

But this could change the world substantially, in ways we can barely imagine.

It’s too soon to start breaking out the champagne and Nobel Prizes.  We should put a bottle on to chill, just in case.

Picking Battles

Posted in Politics and Society, Science! with tags , , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

From Ian Sample’s Guardian interview with Sir Martin Rees, who lately was awarded the Templeton Prize:

IS: What do you make of the approach to science and religion issues taken by Richard Dawkins and those of his ilk?

MR: I won’t comment on him, but I’m not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side. I admire them more than want to rubbish them. Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can’t have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.

My questions: if they would choose religious belief over evidence and reasoned argument, aren’t they already lost to science? What benefit accrues to science if people who would make such a choice believe it not to be necessary? Particularly as analysis quickly reveals that to be nonsense – the fork is very real and cannot be honestly avoided.

Does Resurrection Contradict Science?

Posted in Science! with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

This is the remarkable question asked at Why Evolution Is True, in response to an unusual column at the Huffington Post.

I won’t get into the idiocy of Matt J. Rossano arguments. It’s too depressing.

I will simply point out a very important, elementary, yet often overlooked fact about our attempt to explain the universe:

Before we try to generate an explanation for something, we need to make sure it’s actually happened.

Being able to explain anything – regardless of whether it actually happens – is a profound sign that our model of the universe is wrong, and wrong in a fundamental way that cannot be repaired. We can’t make predictions, because predictions require ruling out one class of possibilities in favor of another. And it follows from this that always being able to come up with an ‘explanation’ means we can never actually say anything meaningful about reality and how it works. If we can fit anything into our model, especially lies and errors, it’s not good for much. Except pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible people, of course, possibly including ourselves. But if we’re not interested in that? Forget about it.

Can we demonstrate that any given person came back from a three-day period of metabolic inactivity, at normal temperature, after considerable decay? (Bodies decay rapidly in hot regions, which is why the traditional burial practices were and continue to be emphatic about disposing of corpses soon after death.) ‘Death’ isn’t so meaningful – it’s usually meant to indicate the point at which a person cannot be revived, and so the standards for evaluating it have changed as knowledge and technology altered the conditions which a person could endure and still be made functional. But decay?

There is no need to abolish all our standards in order to account for a counterfactual.

Phil Plait gets it wrong

Posted in Science! with tags , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

See A (very) smart kid and a solid theory

But when you start to approach the speed of light, or deal with masses that are very large, Newton’s math breaks down. It doesn’t work.

This is wrong, completely so. Newton’s math works just fine – it simply doesn’t give the correct answers, because Newton’s laws don’t hold over those domains. Newton couldn’t have known that – his theories were correct to the limits of measurement of his day – but he was, in fact, incorrect about how the world works.

Relativity may also be shown to be wrong. That would be quite impressive. But not through merely manipulating mathematics. It’s conceivable that a better mathematical description could be found, one that would clear up the problems of unifying General Relativity and quantum mechanics, for example. Every time we make an observation we admit the possibility that the resulting evidence may overturn existing ideas, though, and Einstein’s great work is not spare this standard.

It has been said that scientists must sacrifice their children if the evidence demands it. It’s not talking about human sacrifice, of course, but a very human sacrifice. As much as I love ol’ Albert, if the evidence shows his ideas don’t work in some domain, out they go!

I’ve had it…

Posted in Blogging, GIGO, Science! with tags , , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with Razib Khan’s combined failure to apply the standards of scientific reasoning and basic courtesy on his blog.

Recent posts, which ended once again in Mr. Khan’s closing of the thread, have annoyed me past the point of endurance.


Posted in Politics and Society, Science! with tags , , , , , on March, 2011 by melendwyr

TGGP‘s recent post regarding Will Wilkinson’s opinions of some of Gordon Gallup’s hypotheses regarding homosexuality and its stigmas – particularly, why being gay is so commonly viewed as bad across cultures, or why ‘homophobia’ exists – attracted my notice, and inspired some ire.

I posted a snarky remark about how awful some of the evolutionary psychological ‘explanations’ are. But it did make me think a little about what worthwhile explanations might exist.

Simple explanations – which require that we make fewer leaps beyond what we know and into what we might be mistaken about – are better, all else being equal. Are there any explanations for why people could be made uncomfortable by gays?

One aspect of human cognition which seems to be universal is that children go through a phase, soon after they recognize that there are two human genders, in which they are very concerned that they act ‘appropriately’. Whatever ‘appropriately’ is in their culture. But little boys obsessively ensure that they dress, play, and eat the way little boys are supposed to, and likewise with little girls. Being told that they behave like a member of the other group is an insult. Until after puberty, in fact, most children not only have little interest in doing things like or with the other gender, they actively desire not to do so. Girls/boys have ‘cooties’, and so forth. This facilitates learning more about the roles, in sort of the same way that young children want to imitate their parents’ actions. There’s a natural tendency to acquire adaptive knowledge, and in the ancestral environment kids who wanted to learn the things that they’d eventually end up doing to live would have obvious benefits over those who didn’t. (Evolution didn’t anticipate schooling, much less attending school well into adulthood.)

Although sexual orientation isn’t necessarily associated with the personality traits caught up in gender roles, it may be statistically linked with them, and people certainly believe they’re linked.

So: if we learn that a given person is of non-standard sexuality, isn’t it possible that we expect them to cross over the attitudinal and behavioral standards for their gender roles as well, and this violation of expectation makes us uncomfortable? I’ve noticed that people resent those who break a rule if they are themselves expending resources to ensure that they keep it – and the harder the rule is to keep, the more we are angered/annoyed/frightened by those who don’t keep it.

Why can’t homophobia simply be attributed to discomfort at violations of expectations to which most people force themselves to conform?

Wait a minute: maybe the CSI Effect is real after all…

Posted in Politics and Society, Science! on February, 2011 by melendwyr

…or at least, the reports of its demise are premature.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about a study which claims to show that the supposed ‘CSI Effect’, in which jurors have totally unrealistic expectations about the kinds of forensic testing that should be present in a court case (See this NPR story to see what I’m talking about) isn’t real.

Where’s the problem?

“What we decided to do was survey people called for jury service before they were actually selected,” he says.

Juror pools are not the same as collections of actual jurors, because in the American legal system lawyers are permitted to exclude a certain number of jurors for whatever reason they wish, with the result that each side tries to exclude candidates they feel will be unsympathetic with their arguments and include those who’d be sympathetic. In a mugging case, for example, the defending lawyer might ask the pool of potential jurors if they or any close family member had ever been mugged themselves and then ask that anyone answering in the affirmative be dismissed, reasoning that such people might be inclined to view someone accused of the crime with pre-judgment.

I’ve heard claims that people whose professions include training in standards of evidence or specific types of science likely to be involved in court cases are specifically excluded by lawyers – or more generally, anyone who would be inclined and capable of applying critical thinking to their arguments. To what degree this is true, I don’t know.

But the pool of potential jurors clearly does not accurately represent the population of actual jurors. A study on the attitudes of the former cannot be used to reach conclusions about the latter.