Blinding You with Science

Happy New Year, Bored Surfer!

The passing of 2020 is not the only reason to rejoice. The first month of 2021 has a few of its own festive occasions worthy of note…

While the world is constantly spinning on its axis, January 8 is dubbed Earth’s Rotation Day. This is actually in recognition of French physicist Leon Foucault who, in 1851, used a large pendulum to publicly demonstrate the planet’s rotation.

Are you in the mood to celebrate the birthday of a Muppet’s bathtub toy? Then Rubber Ducky Day (Jan 13) is the perfect occasion for you.

Jan 18 marks the anniversary of the 1779 birth of one Peter Roget. Although he was a physician (not a paleontologist), he is best known for introducing the world to the word Thesaurus. I, for one, am abundantly beholden to his indispensable synonymicon.

Watch your step on Jan 28 because it’s National LEGO Day. There is a logical
explanation for why those particular pieces of plastic seem particularly painful when encountered by an unsuspecting lower extremity. Those sharp-edged little blocks are very rigid, so a lot of force is concentrated into a small area on the sensitive underside of your foot.

The explanation of the physics of the foot/LEGO interaction is just one of
the many scientific contributions that make our lives safer and more njoyable. In spite of this, the reputation of Science has become slightly tarnished as of late, and I feel the need to defend her honor. Currently, there seems to be an air of distrust of science in general, particularly in the US. Going back to the 1920s, this sentiment seems to have originated in fears that science was influencing culture in dangerous ways. Biology lessons about evolution and human reproduction, mandatory vaccination programs and psychological explanations of human behavior were (and still are) viewed as harbingers of the downfall of society. Science is construed as an amoral force wielded by secular professors at the expense of the upstanding citizenry. Thankfully, science is immune to such insults and will continue to provide a greater understanding of the world around us. It is also worth noting that even her detractors benefit from echnological advances and modern medicine.

According to Britannica.com, science is “any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.” This ponderous definition covers a multitude of specialties, which can be somewhat arbitrarily separated into a few large branches for the sake of convenience.

Physical sciences owe more to Sir Isaac Newton than Olivia Newton-John. These are the studies of inanimate objects and the laws that govern them. This category includes the disciplines of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

Earth sciences revolve around the planet itself, including its land, water and atmosphere. This includes the fields of geology, oceanography and meteorology. Volcanology can be included to provide fire to accompany the studies of earth and wind.

Life sciences, aka biology, is defined by britannica.com as the “study of all living things and their vital processes”. This includes the plants, animals and microscopic organisms (but not undead creatures) in such fields as botany, zoology and microbiology. Other applications of biology are the studies of genetics and medicine.

Social science is not limited to extroverted nerds. It is defined by Merriamwebster.com as “a branch of science that deals with the institutions and functioning of human society and with the interpersonal relationships of individuals as members of society”. This encompasses such fields of study as anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science and economics.

There is obviously some overlap between disciplines, and some areas could be classified under multiple headings. For example, medicine is quite beholden to chemistry, geology doesn’t work without physics and paleontology requires both biology and geology. Of course, if you think about it, without physics, everything falls apart…

Across the spectrum of specialties runs the uniting principle of The Scientific Method. This is the way scientists of all types make progress in their respective field. In general, this process involves making an observation, asking a question about said observation, gathering information to make a prediction and then performing experiments to see if the predicted event occurs. The results of the testing are then analyzed to draw conclusions. These conclusions usually lead to refining of the hypothesis and additional testing to confirm or refine it further. It is vital that experiments can be reproduced by other parties with the same outcome, not just happen one time in a secret underground lab. To this end, results are published so that others can confirm or refute one person’s conclusions. It also allows other researchers to build on newfound (confirmed) discoveries for the benefit of all.

At this point, it behooves me to mention that some words are used differently in scientific context than they are in casual conversation.

A hypothesis (per livescience.com) is “a suggested solution for an unexplained occurrence that does not fit into current accepted scientific theory”. To qualify as a scientific hypothesis, it needs to be testable and falsifiable. For example, the hypothesis that the moon is made of green cheese was definitively tested and proven false when Apollo 11 brought back decidedly non-dairy samples. Conversely, it is impossible to prove that something like an invisible flying spaghetti monster does not exist.

The word theory is used very differently in science applications compared to its usage by the general population. Dictionary.com calls it “a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena”. A scientific theory is a framework used by scientists to explain and interpret data that is observed and/or measured. This is a far cry from the common usage that refers to pure speculation without any supporting evidence. The idea that dinosaurs helped build the pyramids is not comparable to Darwin’s Evolution and Einstein’s Relativity.

With regard to science, the word law is used to describes a naturally occurring situation that always appears to be true. The reason for the happening is a different matter altogether; the law only states that it does indeed happen. In some cases, they can be represented by a mathematical equation. There are however, certain circumstances under which laws do not apply. This happens to Newton’s Laws of Motions when you are considering objects traveling at or near light speed and very small objects such as atoms and subatomic particles; it happens to other laws when the defendant is wealthy and well-connected.

In contrast to the methodical process of analyzing the outcomes of numerous controlled studies and fine tuning a hypothesis to account for all the resulting data is the practice of pseudoscience. The word is based on the Greek word pseudo (false) and the Latin word scientia (knowledge) and refers to beliefs and practices that present themselves as scientific in nature. Upon examination, ideas like pyrokinesis (a young girl starting fires with her mind) have no scientific basis. There is also no evidence that one’s mental capacity, character and future can be discerned from the contours of their hand (palmistry), head (phrenology), or buttocks (rumpology – no, I did not make that up). Believing in such phenomena seems harmless enough on the surface but there can be ramifications for both the individual and society as a whole.

For every true believer of fascinating-yet-unprovable phenomena, there is an opportunist ready and willing to exploit that belief. If taken to the extreme, this can be detrimental to one’s physical, mental and financial well-being. For example, a person with a condition that is routinely cured with medical intervention may decline such treatment in favor of Dr. Quack’s Miracle Elixir of Vibrancy. While it is indeed their personal prerogative to freely elect this course of treatment (if they are of age and mental capacity to make such a decision), friends, loved ones and medical professionals do have an obligation to steer the patient towards scientifically proven therapeutic options.

Purveyors of pseudoscience can be quite persuasive, so it is important to precisely ponder products prior to purchasing. There are some conditions that should raise suspicion that other sources of information should be consulted. Remember the classic adage – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Science, like a Xerox machine, relies on results being reproduced. If the results cannot be verified by someone uninvolved in the original study, the methodology is suspect at best. Good research is made public – if something is billed as a secret “they” don’t want you to know, you are probably better off not knowing it either.

If the results of a seemingly well-designed experiment are not compatible with the hypothesis, the experiment and hypothesis need to be examined more closely and reconfigured, not simply ignored in favor of results that support the premise. For example, if there were hundreds of studies showing topiary animals are inanimate, you should question that one report of them moving when one is not looking.

Good science also makes progress. New discoveries build on previously verified results in a logical way. Ancient cultures had different methods, but we have learned a lot since then, debunking much “ancient wisdom” in the process. If there are no recent successful trials of a particular treatment, proceed with caution, if at all. There is a reason bloodletting has fallen out of fashion.

Science can also be misused in attempts to take over the world (or at least the tri-state area), reanimate corpses and sell cigarettes. There is no shortage of faulty and misleading information that can be used to advance any agenda. It is important to consider the source of information, because results obtained from an allegedly scientific research group funded solely by SAGSEHR (the Secret Alliance of Giant Spiders for the Eradication of the Human Race) may not be reliable, and are most likely not in your best interest.

Anyone (myself included) can post random musings on the internet. Some things you read are solely sources of information. Some (like this blog) are meant to be both informative and amusing. Some are strictly for entertainment value. Most are trying to advance a particular point of view, often for educational or commercial reasons. Some stray into the vicinity of conspiracy theories – the speculations that there are no coincidences or random chance because everything is connected and being orchestrated by some nefarious organization. This preys on the natural human tendency to see patterns in events, even if one does not actually exist. Conjectures about the flatness of the Earth, for example, could seem plausible at first glance, but the logic does not hold up to basic observation, let alone serious scrutiny. If any and all contradictory information is summarily dismissed and no other possible explanations could be considered, you have left the realm of reason and entered the land of hearsay.

Medicine (including the veterinary variety) strives for an evidence-based approach when it comes to accepting new procedures and treatments. In accordance with that, there is a hierarchy (often depicted as a pyramid) that gives differing levels of credibility to various types of research. The lowest level consists of background information and expert opinion. Presumably “expert” means someone who works in the pertinent field and has experience using the treatment, not your uncle’s best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s cousin who works as a King Vitamin impersonator.

The next levels are observational studies. Of these, case reports are based only on results from a small number of patients who receive a treatment. Cohort studies provide better information by following two groups of patients, one which received the therapy of interest, and one which did not. To avoid tantrums, don’t tell the first group that others got something they didn’t.

Less common, but more convincing are the experimental studies. It is important to note that there are ethical standards for experimentation (that includes you, Dr. Moreau). In addition to doing no harm, researchers are expected to protect the identity of the subjects, seek informed consent from voluntary participants and give them the option to withdraw from the study at any time. After the passage of the National Research Act of 1974, experiments to be performed on human subjects need to be approved by an Institutional Review Board. This is to prevent repeats of the damaging consequences of such infamous inquiries as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Milgram Shock Experiment.

The design of the study determines the reliability of the results. The highest level of confidence is obtained from randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials. Subjects are randomly assigned to one of two study groups (for experimental purposes, not cramming for a test). One group receives the treatment being tested while the other group receives a similar treatment that does not contain the ingredient being tested (a placebo). The subjects and the observers are both “blinded” by not knowing which group someone is in during the course of the study. This is to meant to remove bias on the part of the subjects and the observers. If multiple experimental studies have been performed, a statistical process called meta-analysis can be used to combine the results.

While some studies seem quite ridiculous (hence the Ig Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research) it is important that people are constantly expanding our base of knowledge. Perhaps someday there will be a practical application for identifying narcissists by examining their eyebrows, using roller coaster rides to hasten the passing of kidney stones and knowing how reindeer react to seeing to humans disguised as polar bears. In the meantime, science will continue to improve our lives through advancements in medicine, communication, food production, public health, transportation, energy production, etc.

With so much information readily available to anyone with a computer, it can be hard to know what to believe. Exercise a healthy amount of skepticism, beware of conflicts of interest and look for multiple reputable sources of news. Also teach your children to think critically; the future of humanity depends on it.

No matter what 2021 brings, be excellent to each other.

Dr. Debbie Appleby