Saturday, February 28, 2015

This Idea Must Die

In 1997, John Brockman founded Edge ( a website and online salon, whose purpose is nothing less than to explore the edge of knowledge. It's slogan:  "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

Each year, Brockman poses a question to thinkers in a wide range of fields: psychology, theoretical physics, evolution, cognitive science, and more.  Last year's question was "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"  Brockman collected the responses to that question in the book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.  The book contains 175 short essays on ideas that should be discarded to allow knowledge to move forward.

Frequently scientific inquiry is spurred on by the realization that old ideas do not fit the data or otherwise do not work, whether it’s the four bodily humors, the geocentric universe, or the steady state theory.  These essays identified old modes of thinking that should be cast aside to allow exploration of new ideas.

In NPR's Science Friday last week, host Ira Flato interviewed theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and quantum mechanic Seth Lloyd -- two of the 175 contributors -- about their proposals for which ideas must die.  Here is that discussion: 

You can also read excerpts from the book describing the two proposals here, and vote for which ideas you think should die.


What are others' thoughts, both on the question of the desireablilty of jettisonning unhelpful scientific theories and on the question: if you were to kill off an idea, what would it be?  I'd especially like to hear from the scientist readers, Peter, Mike, Steve and Tom Nascenzi. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What, Me Worry?

Another note on how deeply Americans misperceive threats:
Be Not Afraid

Along the same lines, here's Louis C.K.'s classic "Everything's Amazing And Nobody's Happy."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The new Coen Brothers

I'm posting this for Francis and Michael, two budding filmmakers. Keep in mind the set design, voice-over acting, camera technique, music, sound effects, and editing. Of course, don't forget the special effects from their own studio. (Best viewed in full screen.)

Here is a preliminary short:

Here is the main feature:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

False Balance

Wikipedia describes the phenomon of  false balance as follows:
False balance, also referred to as false equivalence, is a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports.  Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may censor information which would establish one side's claims as baseless.
Classic examples of "false balance" in the media are the debates over climate change and evolution.  Frequently, the media goal behind false eqivalence is simply to generate sensationalism.  Producers hope that, by presenting a story as a contentious debate, it will attract more readers or viewers than a more accurate account of the issue.  Of course, in the process, the public receives false information, which interferes with its ability to make well-informed decisions. 

I made the mistake last night of tuning in to a news broadcast by a local CBS affiliate.  And the story was the continuing "controversy" over vaccinations, especially vaccinations for measles.  It was truly horrifying.  In this debate, they pitted Jeff and Jessica Murphy, parents of a two year old, against Dr. Craig Shrift, a Board certified pediatrician.  As far as I could tell, the Murphy's had no formal medical training whatsoever.  At one point, however, Jeff claimed as his authority his father, who was a chiropractor.

So intent was the broadcast on creating a controversy, it falsely presented a Mayo Clinic article on vaccines.  At one point, the reporter states, "These parents believe a diet of organic food will give their daughter natural immunity to fight disease much stronger than vaccines.  But is it true?  The Mayo Clinic says yes."  A quick review of the referenced Mayo Clinic report reveals that it says no such thing and, indeed, says nothing about an immunity advantage from eating organic foods.  

Rather, the article, Childhood vaccines: Tough questions, straight answers says this: "A natural infection often provides more complete immunity than a series of vaccinations...."  In other words, if you're lucky enough to survive a disease without any ill effects, your immunity may be stronger than one produced by a vaccine.  The article also points out that taking this route to obtain immunity involves considerable risk:

a natural chickenpox (varicella) infection could lead to pneumonia. A natural polio infection could cause permanent paralysis. A natural mumps infection could lead to deafness. A natural Hib infection could result in permanent brain damage.
Anyway, here is the grotesque broadcast:

The fact is:  these false balance reports about vaccinationcan be harmful .  The Guardian cites research that shows that stories about vaccines that include false balance are actually more dangerous than those that are purely anti-vaccine.   See Anti-vaccination activists should not be given a say in the media.. One author sugests that, because it is spread so easily, measles presents a more serious health threat to an unvaccinated population than ebola.  See Understand the Measles Outbreak with this One Weird Number .

Now, as many of you know, I am a big proponent of the notion that all knowledge is provisional.  So, probably, we have a lot more to learn about immunity.  But that does not mean that you don't go with the best you've got at the time, or that you give credence to clearly erroneous views.  We don't have the final answers, but we know a lot that are wrong.

Finally, just like the creationists, there's no value in attacking the anti-vaccination people as immoral or stupid or selfish.  As Scientific American points out, Vilifying Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Is Counterproductive.  While there's no point in criticizing the anti-vaccination people, a report suggesting that their view might be valid is irresponsible and, pure and simple, is not news. 

All Good Things Must Come to an End

We hear that all good things must come to an end, and I suppose that that's true enough.  Recently, two very good things drew to a close.

First, on February 1, 2015, Gene Shay for the last time hosted "The Folk Show" on Philadelphia's WXPN.  Gene Shay Shay was born in Philadelphia in 1935, and has probably done more than anyone in the last 100 years to shape the folk music scene there.  Back in 1962, he was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Folk Festival -- the largest and longest-running festival of its kind in the country -- and has been its emcee from the beginning.  He has produced weekly folk radio shows since 1962, most recentyly on WXPN Sunday nights from 8 to 11, and previously on WHAT-FM, WMMR, WIOQ and WHYY-FM.  The Philadelphia Inquirer has dubbed him "The Grandfather of Philadelphia Folk Music."

His early interviews with Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, John Denver, Tom Waits, Phil Ochs, Bonnie Raitt and Judy Collins are almost legendary, and Shay was the first to bring Bob Dylan to Philadelphia in 1963 for his debut concert.

Anyway, after five decades, Shay has retired from the DJ business.  He is 79.  I'm not sure how I'm now going to spend my Sunday nights.

And, to the dismay of Dishheads everywhere, Andrew Sullivan made his last blog entry on the Daily Dish at 3 PM on February 6, 2015.  See The Years Of Writing Dangerously.  Sullivan's blog ran for 15 years under various pubication names, The Atlantic, Time and The Daily Beast, and two years ago, it went indie.  Sullivan was one of my "go to" writers -- someone who was insightful, could write well and wasn't just a shill for some faction.  His by-line, "Biased & Balanced," was not too far off the mark.  

I assume that this is not the last we'll hear from Sullivan, just a change of format.  Let's hope so.  For more about the closing of the blog, see Andrew Sullivan Shuts a Door.