Monthly Archives: June 2008

myths, pseudoscience and the water powered car


I am perpetually amused by conspiracy theories and pseudoscience for several reasons. Most of it is good for a laugh. A tiny minority of it highlights some legitimate gap in scientific understanding. Also, I think it’s good mental exercise to try to understand a strange world view. Most institutions (scientific, religious) see a lot of danger in allowing yourself to sink into a false mode of thinking. But I take the view of Thomas Jefferson:

“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

There was an interesting narrative in the popular understanding of science: “the myth of the oppressed underdog.”
The notion is that scientists are dogmatic and refuse to tolerate new ideas. The article above does a great job of discussing this narrative and why it is false in most cases, but I would like to highlight one argument: most of the alternative, new ideas postulated by “oppressed underdog” scientists contradict each other. The implication is that ‘establishment’ science is justified in ignoring at least the vast majority of alternative scientists. But just because a theory is disprovable on evidence doesn’t mean it is worthless. It can be an interesting exercise. It can be a teaching tool. But I suppose it may be dangerous for the gullible.

Here’s my favorite example. Take water and electricity. Split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Burn the hydrogen and oxygen. Make water and generate electricity! It’s like an infinite circle. But like Escher’s infinite waterfall, it only works in the imagination. Philip Ball did a great explanation of why this myth keeps popping up.


myths, conspiracies and a little about the scary side of science

From the Berkeley Language Center – Speech Archive SA 0269: Huxley, Aldous. The Ultimate Revolution, March 20, 1962:

“We are in process of developing a whole series of techniques which will enable the controlling oligarchy… to get people actually to love their servitude… There seems to be a general movement in the direction of this kind of ultimate revolution, this method of control by which people can be made to enjoy a state of affairs which by any decent standard they ought not to enjoy.”

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932. Here are a few things in fairly recent news:

FDA Panel Backs Implant To Counter Depression –

CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drugs in U.S. –

Understanding individual human mobility patterns – Nature

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that people need to ‘conspire’. The memes of consumerism, quick fix, and the drive to power are going to have their effects irrespective of the existence of some shadowy cabal. But it’s hard not to see the parallels between Huxley’s Brave New World and the world we are all creating.


a bad day for mice makes the future a little brighter for humans

I read an article in Nature news about about a cure for palsied mice. It brought to mind a little quote a while back that made me chuckle. A researcher was asked how she felt about how close science was to a cancer cure. She replied “If you’re a mouse with cancer… I have good news.”


Joking aside, it is a lot harder to do medical research on humans. I read the original paper that inspired the news bit and I was struck by this graph. There are 3 lines: mutant palsied mice, identical mice injected with a placebo and identical mice injected with human brain cells. The mutant mice lack a functional kind of cell that surrounds and protects the other brain cells. These glial progenitor cells become cells that produce myelin. Brains without proper myelin produce symptoms like Multiple Sclerosis. If a mouse accepts the new, human cells, the mouse recovers. So why not just skip the mice and cure people? I imagine there are a hundred good reasons, but take this graph as one example.

The fact is that that if you are a mouse with Multiple Sclerosis, I don’t have very good news. The red line is your best bet, and even there you don’t have a great chance of ending up ‘cured.’ This will take a bit of work before it’s time to try this out on people.

But it’s a good step, and that’s what it’s all about. I am really impressed with this kind of work. Look at the scale of the X axis on that graph: that’s a year of someone’s life devoted to taking care of a population of sick mice. I think this understated fact is the really amazing thing about science. It is not about a smart loner spending a few weeks in a laboratory and then fighting the ‘establishment’ for recognition. It’s about year-long endeavors that, in the end, produce one graph. That graph represents a small, hard-won step toward a loftier goal. I find it more noble to work so hard for a small, steady step than to blaze brilliantly onto the scene with claims of a scientific revolution.  The fact is that most ‘scientific revolutions’ aren’t.


Are our fates determined by our genes? I doubt it. It’s not that simple even for worms.

I have done some work with the C. Elegans model organism. They are fun little bugs, and the PETA doesn’t get all up-in-arms when you shoot their brain with a laser. Here are some fun C. Elegans Facts:

wikimedia commons: adult caenorhabditis elegans

They are about 1 mm long at maturity
They are transparent
They have about 300 nerves
Their genome was sequenced in 1998
They can hunt down food on a plate
They have forms of memory and learning

Here are some things I have noticed: When illuminated with a blue laser, they panic and squirm all over the place. When you use a UV laser to blow up a portion of their outer cuitcle, they practically turn inside-out due to internal pressure. Some of the strains available through the WormBank have single nerve cells that express fluorescent protein, so that not only do their brains glow, but only the part you might be interested in glows.

Why are these critters cool? Well, despite being really small, they share a lot of biochemistry with humans. Their neurons function in the same way and the cellular processes that allow the worm to grow from an egg into a larva and from a larva into an adult are all analogous on a cellular level to changes in human development. But if you do an experiment on a worm, you can see what happens in a few days instead of months (rats) years (monkeys) or decades (humans). Also, there are some ethical constraints with humans that don’t apply to worms.

Here’s a new fact just released in Nature: they seem to have a sleep-like state. “Lethargus is a Caenorhabditis elegans sleep-like state” by Raizen et. al. “Conserved effects on sleep-like behaviour of homologous genes in C. elegans and Drosophila suggest a common genetic regulation of sleep-like states in arthropods and nematodes. Our results indicate that C. elegans is a suitable model system for the study of sleep regulation.”

They sleep, they eat, they learn (sort-of), they have lots of sex with themselves (they are hermaphrodites) and they make eggs. And they do it all in 3 days. And despite the fact that we know the fate of every cell in its body from birth to death – where it comes from, what it becomes and where it goes – we still don’t know how it manages most of its behavior.

I’d like to point out that this leaves very little hope for a reductionist perspective on psychology.  We know every connection of every nerve in this worm’s body and the thing is still a mystery. I wrote a post recently about how foolish it is to make sweeping assertions about genetic differences. Just to reiterate the big upshot: even in the simplest case, our understanding of the causes-and-effects that make up psychology is limited.  To think that a human being is perfectly predictable is… well… just plain dumb.


the battle of the sexes: taking a look back at dating, roles and culture

I read an article the other day over at The Last Ditch. It concerns the notion that the sexes have different roles to play in the world. A lot of people would find it offensive, but not me: I’m not easy to offend. I think there are some nuggets of wisdom in there, and at the very least I can identify a talented rhetorician when I read one. In any case, the point he makes is this: the sexes are not identical and, to a degree, they are equipped for different tasks; that different equipment affects their economic roles. In these vague terms, it seems obvious. I hope it’s hard to argue with that framing.

The problem (and the place that people get offended) is that the people who ‘agree’ with the sentiment are agreeing for the wrong reasons, and the people who are offended are offended for the wrong reasons. Men who feel like victims of women will see this article as saying that women should have a role in society determined by their biology. Those who disagree will see another opresive man trying to determine womens’ future through control of the culture.

There are tendencies given to us by biology and culture, but neither determine us. There is plenty of evidence that Nature and Nurture both play important roles in the development of an adult human. Twins can have the same genes and very different personalities, even to the point of one having a terrible debilitating mental illness and another being spared. At the same time, identical twins separated at birth have been shown to lead remarkably similar lives in many cases.


What’s the answer? Are women determined by their two x-chromosomes to be homemakers? Of course not. Should they be required to be homemakers? Of course not. Is it shameful to consider the possibility that many women might be happier being homemakers than doing other things? I don’t see why. The big upshot is that one bias is as bad as the other. Being offended by a proposition that maybe families would be better off with a mother around is as foolish as asserting that women are irrational. Taking the position that the culture is wholly responsible for peoples’ lives is as foolish as assigning that responsibility to genes. All of these foolishnesses ignore personal choice. More on that next time.