Archive for July, 2007

Jul 12 2007

Marketing Science

Yesterday’s post sparked a lively discussion in the comments, so I thought I would extend my own discussion of the topic, this time focusing more on selling science. Obviously, I strongly endorse promoting the public understanding of science. I have tried to make this a significant part of my academic career. It is why I founded the New England Skeptical Society, and now why I host the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. There are various strategies for promoting science, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. I do not pretend to have any expertise on this topic, so I will speak from my personal experience and opinion.

The discussion gets somewhat confused by terminology and the fact that it seems multiple related but distinct issues are confused. So I will try to separate out what I see as the key issues: 1) science education; 2) the public image of science and scientists; 3) the public acceptance of specific scientific claims.

Science Education

In a perfect world both a positive popular image of science and the public’s understanding of science would be achieved through excellent science education. I think the best way to get people to accept the legitimacy of science, to have a positive view of science, and to accept the claims of science is for the public to be generally scientifically literate.

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Jul 11 2007

Marketing Pseudoscience

A recent blog entry by Pat Sullivan blames the higher rate of acceptance for intelligent design/creationism (ID) over “Darwinism” on the superior marketing of ID. Sullivan’s arguments are weak and confused on multiple levels, but he does highlight the notion that it is much easier to “sell” nonsense than real science. Sullivan should no, since he sells all sorts of nonsense.

“Darwinisms” marketing problems

I think the real problem with public acceptance of evolution is not that evolution is not being marketed well, but rather that acceptance of evolution should not be a matter of marketing at all. It should, rather, be a matter of quality science education. Sullivan seems to think that “marketing” and education are synonymous – but they couldn’t be more different.

Marketing is about deception and style, not conveying facts or concepts. As the now old saying goes, “you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.” The implications are clear, you don’t need substance or genuine quality for good marketing, you just need the appearance of those things. The slick marketing of iPods is another good example – what is being sold is a lifestyle and an image, not a product (that iPods are actually excellent products is irrelevant).

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Jul 10 2007

Autism and IQ

Published by under Neuroscience

This recent study involving the testing of intelligence in autistic individuals raises many interesting and controversial concepts worthy of discussion – although I don’t anticipate arriving at definitive resolutions. The study involves comparing a standard IQ test, which is heavily dependent upon language function, to a novel test of intelligence that involves “inferring abstract rules and thinking abstractly about geometric patterns.” In the former case, many autistics score below average, even at or below the cutoff for “low functioning.” In the latter case the same individuals may score at or above average. What does all this mean?

What is Intelligence?

The first controversial question that arises from this study is the very definition of intelligence, and specifically how does standard IQ testing relate this intelligence. Cognitive scientists have struggled with this question for decades, and many classic definitions have been criticized for being too narrow, or even biased. In the extreme some argue that intelligence is impossible to measure because any measurement will be overwhelmed with subjective and cultural bias – often based in sexism and racism.

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Jul 09 2007

Salt Water Fuel? Be Very Skeptical

These news reports of Florida resident John Kanzius discovering how to use salt water as fuel have been circulating around the web and I thought it would make a good follow up to Friday’s post.

Kanzius, who claims to be working on a cure for cancer using radio frequency heat induction of nano-particles, now claims that he has stumbled upon the solution to the world’s energy problem. Incidentally, the cancer treatment (I would hesitate to call any treatment a cancer cure as if it cures all cancers) is a legitimate idea, but as far as I can tell not new or unique to Kanzius. He seems to be at least a competent engineer and built a radio-frequency induction device. When a test tube filled with salt water was placed in the field and ignited a yellow flame appears at the top of the test tube, as if the salt water were burning.

Local News Is Terrible

I never watch local news, unless it is in such a context, and increasingly that means on Youtube or a similar site. But when I am forced to watch a local news report I am reminded of why I never do – it stinks. I watched three different local news reports on Kanzius and his burning water and they were all virtually identical – gushing speculation about water as fuel, scientists are baffled, etc. There was no in depth explanation of what is actually happening, and not a hint of skepticism. They had a story to tell – an unassuming genius solves the energy crisis by making a simple observation – the facts were not going to get in the way of this story. It’s one of the few stories (thematically speaking) they know how to tell. Let’s see, story formula #6: Lone Genius; pull up the template, plug in the details, and we’re done.

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Jul 06 2007

Perpetual Idiocy

Published by under Pseudoscience

We do not and cannot know everything. We will never obtain 100% metaphysical certitude regarding any scientific question. But there are some aspects of nature that have been verified to such an outrageously high degree that, barring an equally outrageously high degree of evidence to the contrary, treating them as anything other than a rock solid fact is absurd bordering on insanity. Of course most often those who fail to acknowledge such laws of nature – the term reserved for such things – are usually just ignorant of the science.

The poster child for iron clad laws of science is the conservation of matter and energy – you don’t get something from nothing. This means that anyone who claims to have produced a perpetual motion machine, a machine that can generate free energy or that produces more energy than it consumes, is simply wrong. They could be misguided, scientifically illiterate, a hopeless crank, have a tenuous relationship with reality, or simply be a con artist knowingly lying. But chances are they are not, as they would have us believe, the lone brilliant scientists who have succeeded where all others have failed in achieving the impossible.

Despite this perpetual motion machine and free energy claims continue to pop up, occasionally gaining some degree of media coverage and notoriety. To no one’s surprise, none have panned out. But there remains a hopeless romance about such claims. They are typically couched in the latest techno-jargon to impress the public, and increasingly they are wrapped in the language of conspiracy theories and fear of big government, big science, and big industry.
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Jul 05 2007

Herbal Remedies and In Vitro Fertilization

A recent study correlates use of alternative medicine modalities in general and herbal remedies specifically with a lower chance of successful in vitro fertilization (IVF). The study, while not definitive, raises several important points.

The study was carried out by Jacky Boivin, a psychologist at Cardiff University, and found that women undergoing IVF in conjunction with a CAM modality (about half of which used herbal remedies) had on average 2.4 cycles of IVF treatment and a success rate of 45.2%. Women using only standard IVF techniques underwent 1.9 cycles of treatment with a success rate of 66.4 percent. These differences were statistically significant, and in absolute terms are very clinically significant.

The weakness of the study is that it was not a randomized prospective study. This means that the results are a correlation only and cannot be used to conclude causation. For example it is possible that women under more stress or who had previous failures might have turned in higher numbers to CAM therapies out of desperation. The study does try to address the other confounding factors, such as socioeconomic status, but these sorts of fixes only mitigate the possible effect of confounding factors.

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Jul 03 2007

Well, Does Echinacea Work for the Common Cold or Not?

The interpretation of clinical trials is very complex, even for practicing physicians who have to base medical decisions on such evidence. For the public, who rely heavily on media-filtered information about clinical research, the task is almost impossible. The result is general confusion.

The story of Echinacea, and whether or not it is useful for the treatment of the common cold, is a good example of the complexities involved – especially when dealing with an unregulated product marketed directly to the consumer. Echinacea has been marketed for decades as a cold remedy. Early clinical trials showed mixed results, but proponents cherry picked the positive studies to promote Echinacea to the public. Then a series of well designed trials all showed no effect, and it seemed that Echinacea would be relegated forever to the fringes of CAM.

Now, a recent meta-analysis of 14 studies involving the use of Echinacea for the treatment of the common cold  found that “Published evidence supports echinacea’s benefit in decreasing the incidence and duration of the common cold.” The press is promoting this as a new “study” that shows that Echinacea works.

Confusion ensues.

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Jul 02 2007

Breakthrough Science

Published by under Skepticism

In response to Friday’s post, daedalus2u wrote the following comment:

“I agree with you that the vast majority of advancement in science is incremental and comes slowly bit by bit. That is the type of science that is best evaluated by peer review, what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science”.

“Breakthough” type science is not well evalutated by scientific peers.

For example the idea that Helicobacter pylori causes ulcers was not accepted at first. The reason was because everyone “knew” that ulcers were caused by stress and too much acid. A bacteria hypothesis was implausible. Would researchers proposing such a treatment that was counter to “conventional” wisdom receive funding today? Probably not. A non-conventional treatment is considered extraordinary, and so requires extraordinary evidence to be considered worth funding. But attaining extraordinary evidence requires collecting data which requires funding. A catch-22.

My own experience in trying to get my nitric oxide research taken seriously is that potential new treatments can be ignored because people are too busy to evaluate them. Everything is easy to ignore until there is overwhelming evidence. Somethings are ignored even then, for example evolution.”

I tend to disagree with this basic conclusion – that in general truly novel or breakthrough notions in science are treated unfairly, are not accurately assessed by peers, or are simply ignored. The example given by daedalus is the most common recent example I hear, and as Dick Cheney (I am assuming this is a pseudonym) pointed out, it turns out this example is not true. My colleague Kimball Atwood did a nice review of the literature and found that the idea that H. pylori is an important cause of gastric ulcers was met with interest – not rejection – and both interest and acceptance increased right along with the evidence. It’s actually a good and well documented example of how science changes over time in response to new ideas and new evidence.

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