Recently in Intro Category

The Onion, America's premier source of fake news, reports that historians are recommending that before policy makers implement radical changes to our society, they ought to "Check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously...see if it turned out to be a good idea or not."

"In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues," Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. "And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not."

"It's actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen," Collins continued. "Did the thing we're thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it."

In addition, Collins carefully explained that if a past decision proved to be favorable--if, for example, it led to increased employment, caused fewer deaths, or made lots of people feel good inside-- then the nation should consider following through with the same decision now."

Should we add this to Lilienfeld's list?

Does Dr Who know about this?

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Screen shot 2011-09-25 at 2.58.56 PM.pngYou've probably already heard that physicists have measured particles traveling faster than the speed of light because communication on the internet also may travel faster than the speed of light. It's really awesome! But did you notice how five of the six principles of scientific thinking show up in the report that neutrinos travel faster than light.

First, characteristic of good scientific practice, there is well-established theory, Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, that proposes that absolutely nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This makes the theory FALSIFIABLE. Maybe it has been supported by a century of testing but find something that goes faster than light and...goodbye, theory! I've put up an image of Albert E. himself to remind us of the brilliance and solidity of that theory.

Next, the claim that neutrinos may go faster than light is EXTRAORDINARY and the researchers need to provide extradordinary evidence. So what kind of evidence did the researchers provide? "A total of 15,000 beams of neutrinos -- tiny particles that pervade the cosmos -- were fired over a period of 3 years from CERN toward Gran Sasso 730 (500 miles) km away, where they were picked up by giant detectors." and clocked at 60-billionths of second faster than light. I assume they checked the reliability of their clock, but measurement error is the first thing that occurs to me.

Third, being confident in their findings, having "checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements" the researchers are asking their colleagues to REPLICATE their findings. It looks like good science practice to me, and the world will be eagerly waiting for the next set of findings. Meanwhile, I am sure that physicists will be generating ALTERNATE HYPOTHESES to account for the the evidence.

For now, I'm a skeptic. The most PARSIMONIOUS answer is that the Theory of Special Relativity has not been falsified, that the finding, while real, is caused by systematic measurement error of some kind.

But, still, imagine we COULD travel in time! Where would you want to go?

Screen shot 2011-09-18 at 7.23.03 PM.png1) Obviously, first you need a photo. I've just gone to google images and found a photo of a young William James, founder of Psychology and the approach called functionalism. That's cool. [**Snap screenshot of James**]

2) When you click on the "insert image' link, you need to first "upload new image" by finding your image using "browse." Upload the photo and specify its size (try pixel width of 250) and where you want the photo to appear (left, right, etc.) I prefer left justified.

3) When the image is uploaded, you will see a stream of html code in your "create entry." Panic not! Preview to check the placement of your photo. If you like what you see, click on save. If you want to continue editing, click on re-edit.

4) SAVE when you are satisfied with your post.

TIP: You can cut the html text and paste it to vary its relationship to the text. For this post, I have pasted the code before the text.


Diabetes and obesity in America.pngI recently came across an article in the online magazine, Slate, which reminded me of the importance of using the principles of scientific thinking. The article describes a study that got lots of media attention--including an appearance for one of the authors on Stephen Colbert's TV show-- because its researchers claimed to have found that many behaviors--obesity, divorce--spread "like a virus" through social networks.

This claim that behavior is contagious is extraordinary, and, according to our textbook (page 22), "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In addition, not only was the claim extraordinary, people who looked critically at the claim found that the study had not passed peer-review or been published in a scientific journal; the researchers (it turned out) were using some questionable methodology. All the media attention came from a paper posted to an online website for papers in progress. So the scientific principle of "replicability" was also not met because, according to the Slate article, the results have not been replicated in other studies using the researchers unorthodox methodology .

One of the reasons that the study was trusted, according to the original article, was that the authors are respected scientists who have published in some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. I think a second reason would be "confirmation bias" (Lilienfeld, page 8). Even the article in Slate falls prey to this bias. It concludes, "One irony of the contagion battles is that even if their methods are suspect, Christakis and Fowler are obviously correct that peer influence exists and that it may be even more important than we realize."  The author of the Slate article provides no evidence to support this assertion, he is just asserting something that many people want to believe.

I think there is a third reason why the study was trusted, which seems to be related to confirmation bias. Right now, the media are obsessed with social media like Facebook and Twitter. In addition, obesity in the USA is a problem with huge consequences and costs, and people are desperate to figure out why. This was a novel, trendy explanation for a significant social problem, so people wanted to believe it. 

 I've posted a chart from a Harvard university medical journal that illustrates the obesity epidemic and its consequences. You can see the change in the prevalence of obesity (left column) and diabetes (right columna) between 1994 and 2005. We know that type II diabetes is caused by obesity; its rising prevalence is associated with rising health care costs. So American journalists were eager to embrace a study that explained a serious issue (obesity) in terms of a popular phenomenon (social contagion) and ignored the evidence that this was an extraordinary claim and not replicated. (453 words)

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