I had just graduated with a PhD and had returned to do science in the developing country that I grew up in. I joined a laboratory that performed basic science research but that also had a service for screening of medical conditions called “inborn errors of metabolism”. These conditions occur when a child is born with a genetic defect in one or more enzymes, which are the proteins responsible for carrying out metabolic conversions of one chemical compound into another. When these enzymes malfunction as a result of a genetic defect, the chemical compounds that they act upon cannot be degraded and accumulate in the body at very high concentrations causing toxicity to many organ systems including the brain. Because my degree was in nutrition with a major in biochemistry, I was considered the “expert” in metabolism, and I was supposed to do consulting work for the service. Although I had never worked specifically in the area of inborn errors of metabolism, I was newly graduated and cocky enough to think that my general training in metabolism would be enough to allow me to make a contribution.
In developed countries, newborn children are systematically screened for these genetic defects, because early treatment can ameliorate the pathology. However, in developing countries which have scant resources, many people are reluctant to perform these screenings. Inborn errors of metabolism are rare conditions, and you have to screen thousands of children to find one that has a problem. The director of the laboratory where I worked, and founder of the service, faced an uphill battle to try to convince hospital administrators in the country to join the service and send blood samples from newborn children for us to analyze.
One day, one of the hospitals, which our director was trying to convince to join the service, contacted us with the case of a girl who kept having seizures despite being treated with virtually all anti-seizure medications that they had at their disposal. They were at their wit’s end and suspected that the girl could have an inborn error of metabolism. A blood sample from the girl was sent to our service and after analysis yielded the result that some chemical compounds were elevated in her blood. The director of the service contacted me and asked for my “expert” opinion. I armed myself with naiveté, picked up the textbook that I had used in my biochemistry classes, and looked up the compounds which were elevated in the girl’s blood. When I checked the enzymes required for the metabolism of these compounds, I noticed that a few of them required vitamin C as a cofactor. In other words, the enzymes required vitamin-C to function.
When an enzyme which requires a cofactor has its activity reduced due to a genetic defect, a very common strategy is to administer large doses of the cofactor to boost any residual activity of the enzyme. The diagnosis and treatment now seemed obvious to me. I thus stated that the girl probably had a genetic defect of one of these enzymes, and that therefore we should give her large doses of vitamin-C to maximize any leftover enzyme activity. My suggestion was relayed to her doctors in the hospital which proceeded to pump vitamin-C into the girl’s body.
A few days later the director of the service contacted me regarding my diagnosis and treatment suggestion. The girl had stopped having seizures and recovered! And not only that, the hospital decided to join the service and send blood samples from newborn children for us to analyze! My boss was impressed. My coworkers were impressed. I, the “expert”, had made the right call! Not only did my suggestion heal a girl, but it was instrumental in convincing hospital administrators to devote resources to working with us! Because of what I did, more children would be screened, and more children with genetic defects would be identified for early treatment, which would help them. And all it had required was me checking my book! It had been sooo easy. Veni, vidi, vici (I came; I saw; I conquered). For about a week I was on cloud 9, full of myself, walking on sunshine: and don’t it feel good!
And then it all crashed and burned.
When the real experts were contacted (people who had actually dealt with impairments of the enzymes that I thought were affected) they told us that the elevations in the concentration of the compounds we detected were not large enough to indicate a genetic impairment in the enzymes. Rather these experts stated that vitaminc-C is part of the body’s defense mechanisms against toxins (oops, I had not considered that). What probably happened was that the girl was malnourished (and therefore vitamin-C deficient) and she had been exposed to a toxin that her body was not able to clear and which caused the seizures. When we gave her the vitamin-C, her body was able to degrade the toxin, and she got better.
I was incredibly lucky. I had arrived at the right treatment for the wrong reasons. So I had to eat a very large slice of humble pie. Thankfully, when notified about the matter, the hospital decided not to pull out, and they continued working with the service. However, I learned a harsh lesson. Even though I had a PhD, I had only a “textbook knowledge” of the field with no practical experience. I was not a real expert, and I had failed to understand that fact.
If you are familiar with my blog, by now you have probably figured out what I’m getting at. Today there are individuals with no formal general training in science or practical expertise in any specific field, who are reading the scientific literature and interpreting it to support opinions and ideas which they disseminate on social media, blogs, and podcasts to thousands of people. I had been trained in science. I had a PhD. But because I was not an expert in a specific field, I screwed up. Why do these individuals feel they have the qualifications to do what they are doing? And why do others follow their every utterance as if it were gospel while ignoring what the real experts have to say?
The experts are called experts for a reason, and it is folly for people without training to try to replace them. Luck may not always be on your side.
Four leaf clover image from OpenClipArt by Firkin is in the public domain and has been modified.
The founding of the United States as a nation was based on a number of principles. And one of these principles is the avoidance of the tyranny of the majority. This is the fear that a majority of people would impose their will on minorities and put them at a disadvantage. To avoid this, several checks and balances were created as a compromise. For example, the representatives to the House in congress reflect the number of people in a given state, but in the Senate each state has two representatives regardless of its population. This prevents the most populous states from banding together and imposing their will on the least populous states. Another check and balance is the electoral college, which was conceived as a compromise between two extremes, one being that the president is directly elected by the voters, while the other is that the president is elected by the legislatures.
Some critics claim that this system has in fact worked so well that, enhanced by other phenomena such as gerrymandering and partisan primaries, it has resulted in a tyranny of the minority. However, many of the issues considered in the national debate depend on the political, social, and religious beliefs of people, and often are a matter of opinion. Consequently, many would argue that these issues should not be resolved in one way or another unless there is a clear political consensus involving a majority of people in both the more and less populated states manifested through their elected representatives. But what about issues that are not a matter of opinion?
What if a majority of people, or even a minority of people empowered by the checks and balances of the political system, embrace a notion that runs contrary to facts and evidence and seeks to impose this notion on others? This would not only be a tyranny of the majority or the minority, it would be a tyranny of fantasy. If individuals are going to be subjected to political, social, and legal norms, don’t they have the right to demand that these norms be based on facts and evidence when applicable? Many would contend that what constitutes facts and evidence is itself a matter of opinion, but this is not true. That is why they are called facts and evidence. They exist regardless of what we want them to be. The interpretation of facts and evidence in a given context can, of course, be subjective, but how well any proposed changes in the laws or norms tally up to facts and evidence should be a prerequisite for their acceptance, no matter how many people vote for them or how many elected representatives support them.
Some would argue that that’s what the courts are for. If you don’t agree with any law or local norm, you sue and have the courts deal with it. However, the courts do not necessarily deal with what is aligned with facts and evidence. The courts often deal with what is legal. Thus when creationists tried to impose their views regarding the teaching of evolution, they were denied their wish, not because what they wanted to do was at odds with facts and evidence, but because it was unconstitutional. It violated the principle of separation of church and state. Our methods of governance seem to be designed not mostly around facts and evidence, but rather around the law and the will of the people tempered by the checks and balances of the system. A given law or norm may be approved not because it is moored in reality, but because it is legal, a majority of the people want it, and their elected representatives push for it.
Thus what are we to do when, for example, millions of people swayed by QAnon beliefs or 2020 election denial beliefs pressure their elected representatives to pass laws that affect others? The QAnon belief system or the notion that the 2020 election was fraudulent are not supported by facts and evidence. This is not an opinion. It can be demonstrated to be true. Is it therefore fair for people swayed by these unfounded beliefs to impose laws or norms upon others based on these beliefs?
I want to suggest that our political, social, and legal system is missing the most quintessential check and balance of them all. We should not only be asking whether the majority of people want it or voted for it. We should not only be asking whether it is legal or constitutional. We should be asking whether it is supported by facts and evidence. Now, I do not mean to imply that everything in our society should be viewed through these lens. There are clearly a lot of aspects of the way our society works that depend on local practices and values, which in turn impact the political and legal realms in our communities. But when important changes to our laws are considered which are based on specific notions or assertions about the nature of reality, then whether these notions or assertions are supported by facts and evidence should be a litmus test for their approval. And this test should trump the will of the majority or of that of their elected representatives.
I claim that I, as a citizen of this country, should be free from the tyranny of fantasy. I claim that this is one of my fundamental rights, and no majority of people, or minority of people empowered by the system of checks and balances, has any right to impose on me laws that make or are derived from specific claims about the nature of reality which are not supported by facts and evidence.
In this so-called “post truth” era, where large numbers of people with political and economic power refuse to yield to reason and accept reality, I consider that this new right is vital to preserve individual freedom.
What do you think?
The image, which is not related to the topic of this post and is a free download from pixy.org, has been modified and is in the public domain.
Do’s and Don’ts Regarding How To Assess Scientific Studies in the Age of the Internet and Social MediaRead Now
A positive aspect of the advent of the internet is that scientific studies can be made public as soon as they are ready to be published. However, these studies are highly technical publications that are intended for scientists to study and analyze. Thus, one negative effect of greater accessibility to the scientific literature is that individuals without the education and technical knowledge necessary to evaluate the studies can now gain access to them. As a result, these individuals may disseminate in their blogs, podcasts, social media, and other outlets erroneous claims about these studies either because they misunderstood them, or because they may have an agenda directed at favoring certain interpretations of the studies, even if these interpretations are not supported by the data.
I have lost track of the number of times I have seen someone on Twitter making claims about some issue by citing the latest published scientific article. Invariably the purpose of the individuals making these claims is not to discover or debate the truth, but rather to support their political or social agendas. I have tried to explain that truth in science is not established by one or even a few studies, even if they are published in peer-reviewed journals. Scientists have to debate the merits and flaws of each other’s studies, and this is a process that will take time. During this process scientists may make claims that they may later recant when more evidence becomes available, or a study that was heralded as a good study may fall in disfavor if it is realized that certain variables that turn out to be important were not controlled. But when scientists do these normal things that are part of the scientific process, they are accused of flip-flopping or selling out to special interests.
The above process is amplified by various types of media which reach millions of people and contribute to create confusion and suspicion when people see narratives change. I saw this happen with hydroxychloroquine. A study would come out indicating hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) had an effect against COVID-19, and all the HCQ proponents would brag about how the issue was settled and HCQ worked. Then another study would come out showing that HCQ did not have an effect, and all the HCQ critics would claim HCQ did not work. In the middle of the storm, certain responsible scientists or organizations would comment about the studies pointing out flaws or strengths, and they would be denounced by the pro or con side. Eventually enough studies accumulated, and they showed not only that HCQ does not work against COVID-19, but also why it does not work. However, by then HCQ had lost its appeal as a political issue.
I have seen this happening again with the drug ivermectin. A study came out of Brazil using a population of 88,012 subjects where ivermectin brought about a reduction of 92% in COVID-19 mortality rate. The pro-ivermectin crowd declared victory, bragged about how they had been right all along, and pointed out that the withholding of ivermectin had led to many preventable deaths from COVID-19. The truth, however, was very different. This was an observational study where the allocation of patients to treatments was not randomized, which can lead to serious biases in the data. And while a sample size of 88,012 subjects sounds impressive, the actual comparisons were performed on much smaller subsets. For example, the 92% result came from comparing 283 ivermectin users to 283 non-users. Additional problems involved the exclusion of a large number of subjects and the non-control of ivermectin use. Finally, there is no way that an effect of such a large magnitude (92%) would not have been detected when performing better designed and controlled trials, but that has not been the case.
As I have pointed out before, the politization of science creates a caustic environment where the work of scientists is mischaracterized or attacked by unscrupulous individuals, and this makes the process of science much harder than it already is.
To avoid all the problems mentioned above, I have put together a list of do’s and don’ts regarding how to assess scientific studies in the age of the internet and social media.
1) Do listen to what scientists have to say about the studies. They are experts in their field, and an expert is called that for a reason. They have studied many years and trained to do what they are doing. Do not assume you know more than the experts. Do not merely quote a study in your blog or social media to defend a position. Rather, do report on the debate among scientists regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the study and identify unanswered questions.
2) Do give scientists the time to evaluate and debate the studies and to reassess the studies as more information becomes available. Do not attack scientists for changing their minds.
3) To make up your mind, do wait for several studies to accumulate and for the majority of scientists to reach a consensus regarding the studies. However, this consensus will not be arrived at based on the total number of studies, but rather on their quality. One study of good quality can be more meaningful than dozens of low-quality studies, and the community of scientists (not a single scientist) is the ultimate arbiter regarding the quality of the studies.
4) Do not judge scientists or the results from their studies by their affiliations to companies or other organizations. The studies have to be judged on their merits. Do not make offhand claims that conflicts of interest have corrupted the science if you don’t have any evidence for it. Hearsay, innuendo, and ignorance are not proof of anything.
5) Success in science is measured by the ability of scientists to convince their peers. Scientists who have been unable to convince their peers and who bypass the normal scientific process to take their case to “the people” are a huge red flag. Do not blindly trust the renegade scientists who claim they are ignored by their peers. These scientists are often ignored because their studies are deficient and their ideas are unconvincing.
6) Do not defend and promote a scientific claim just because a celebrity or politician whom you trust or like has endorsed it. Endorsement by a non-scientist of a scientific claim without any hard evidence is irrelevant to the scientific debate. Science is not politics.
If everyone follows these guidelines, we can hopefully restore a measure of rationality to the scientific discourse among the public.
Image by Tumisu from pixabay is free for commercial use and was modified.
Dr. Fauci has been getting a bad rap lately. His critics claim that he funded the creation of the COVID-19 virus and profited from it. That he conspired with the pharmaceutical industry to discourage the acceptance of cheap effective drugs such as hydroxychloroquine. That he promoted the COVID-19 vaccines which have harmed and killed people. That he pushed for masks, social distancing, lockdowns, and other ineffective measures which caused unnecessary pain. And that while he did this he lied about his true motivations. His critics also point out that Fauci’s support of certain ideas and treatments and his cozying up to the pharma industry also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the AIDS epidemic. To sum it up, they claim he is an evil man who lies constantly and is responsible for untold deaths and suffering from which he profited, and that he belongs in jail.
Considering the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the science (and nonscience) behind it, I consider that Dr. Fauci in general did a good job of informing us about the latest developments and measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. And while I also think he made some mistakes (some of which he has acknowledged), I have often defended him in my blog against all the nonsense that people write about him out of either malice, ignorance, or design, including unfounded conspiracy theories and baseless claims. For example, the COVID-19 vaccines and the mitigation measures against the virus saved millions of lives, and hydroxychloroquine does not work against COVID-19. These are solid facts. Fauci’s support of vaccines and mitigation measures as well as his opposition to hydroxychloroquine were grounded in science, evidence, and reason.
But I realize that quite a number of people do not know who Anthony Fauci is. In fact, many think he is an uncaring bureaucrat with no specific accomplishments under his belt. In this post I will endeavor to set the record straight.
As a researcher, Dr. Fauci developed successful therapies against the fatal diseases polyarteritis nodosa, granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly Wegener's granulomatosis), and lymphomatoid granulomatosis. And in the field of AIDS he made seminal contributions to the understanding of how the disease works and the developing of treatments. By 2022 Fauci was the 44th most cited researcher in the world. In the field of immunology, he was ranked 9th out of 3.3 million authors, in the field of research and experimental medicine he was 22nd out of 3.3 million authors, and in the field of general and internal medicine he was ranked 715th out of 1.4 million authors. Dr. Fauci’s work has clearly captured the attention of his peers who often cite his work. In science this is one of the most common measures of success. Dr. Fauci also has won many prestigious awards such as the National Medal of Science, the Lasker Award for Public Service, and the Robert Koch Gold Medal, and he has more than 50 honorary doctoral degrees.
Dr. Fauci has been the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984, and he has advised seven presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan on matters of public health including working on the federal response to AIDS, Ebola, the Zika virus, Anthrax, and COVID-19. And while Dr. Fauci’s research contribution are important, some of his greatest contributions have taken place at the managerial level. For example, Dr. Fauci was the chief architect of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) launched in 2003. This program, which provided treatment for people with HIV, prevented new infections, and made possible epidemic control, saved more than 20 million lives. For this accomplishment, President George W. Bush presented Dr. Fauci with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But the accomplishment that best describes the type of person Dr. Fauci is, is that which involved the notorious firebrand AIDS activist Larry Kramer. Kramer criticized Dr. Fauci for moving too slowly in finding a treatment for AIDS, and said he was evil and represented a callous government. Kramer called Fauci a pill-pushing tool of the medical establishment, an incompetent idiot, a disgrace, and a murderer who should be put in front of a firing squad. Kramer compared him to a Nazi and even insulted Fauci’s wife. So what did Dr. Fauci do? He talked to Kramer and other AIDS activists, he listened to their concerns and ideas, he realized they had a point, and he pushed for changes in the way clinical trials were conducted, thus expanding access to experimental medicines, speeding up the process, making it more flexible, and giving patients a greater voice. He reached out to those who insulted him and worked with them to change medicine for the better and make history. Eventually, Dr. Fauci and Kramer became good friends. Fauci helped Kramer get medical treatment for his health problems, and Kramer made Fauci a character in one of his award winning plays.
This is the man Dr. Fauci is. He is not some cold-hearted bureaucrat. He genuinely cares about people and patients, and those who know him can testify to his empathy for others. On top of this, as I’ve mentioned above, Dr, Fauci is among the best scientists in the world in terms of his research. And finally, Dr. Fauci has achieved what the majority of scientists only dream of. His research and managerial skills have had a real-life impact on the world in terms of saving or improving the lives of tens of millions of people.
All of the above is why I will not put up with anyone slandering Dr. Fauci. Sure, we can discuss all you want specific mistakes he has made, and what he could have done better, but he must be treated with the respect he deserves.
The image of Dr. Fauci by NIAID is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
The universe is big, but this is the mother of all understatements. There are really no words to describe how mind bogglingly huge the universe is. It is beyond mammoth, cyclopean, gargantuan, colossal, titanic, monumental, and Brobdingnagian all put together. How immensely ginormous and humongously gigantic and vast the universe is may well be beyond the ability of our minds to understand.
Consider that unit of measurement, the mile. The moon is 238,900 miles away from Earth, and we regard placing a man on the moon as one of the greatest technological feats in the history of humanity. But astronomers don’t use miles to measure distances in the universe, they use light years. The distance light travels in one year, a light year, is 5.88 trillion miles. So by this token, placing a man on the moon, which is 1.25 light seconds away from the Earth, doesn’t sound very impressive. However, it gets worse (much worse).
Pluto, the furthest planet (yes, I maintain it’s a planet!) is 5.5 light hours away from Earth. The NASA New Horizons probe travelling at 36,400 miles per hour took 9.5 years to reach Pluto! Another probe, the Voyager 1 probe, is the furthest object that humanity has sent into space. Voyager 1 was launched 45 years ago in 1977, and is currently travelling at 35,000 miles per hour. The probe has so far covered 14.5 billion miles, which is 21.6 light hours. To put in perspective this “achievement”, just consider that the nearest star to Earth, Alpha Centauri is 4.24 light years away! But it gets worse (much, much, worse).
Our sun is one of the stars in a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way has several arms, and our sun is located in a minor arm of the galaxy about 28,000 light years from the galactic center. Within 12.5 light years of our sun, there are 33 stars. Within 250 light years of our sun, there are 260,000 stars. And within 5,000 light years of our sun, there are 600 million stars. All in all, the Milky Way galaxy contains a total of 200 billion stars and as many planets, and is roughly 100,000 light years across. The Milky Way, in turn, is surrounded by a number of the so call “dwarf galaxies” that orbit around it within a distance of 500,000 light years. Each of these dwarf galaxies contain only a few tens of millions of stars and take billions of years to orbit the Milky Way. Did I mention it gets much worse (much, much, much, worse)?
Galaxies associate themselves into groups of galaxies. The Milky Way is part of a group of galaxies called the Local Group which is made up of the Milky Way and two other large galaxies, Andromeda and the Triangulum galaxy, along with their entourage of dwarf galaxies. The Local Group of galaxies spans a distance of 5 million light years and encompasses 80 galaxies and 700 billion stars. But it gets…yes, you got it.
Groups of galaxies tend to associate into clusters of galaxies which in turn associate into superclusters of galaxies. The Local Group of galaxies is part of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies which contains 100 galaxy groups and clusters with a diameter of 110 million light years and harbors 200 trillion individual stars. But…you know the drill.
The Virgo Supercluster is but a minor lobe of an even greater supercluster of galaxies known as the Laniakea Supercluster which is made up of about 100 superclusters of galaxies containing 250,000 trillion stars and which stretches over 500 million light years. Superclusters of galaxies in turn associate gravitationally with each other to form the largest known structures in the universe which are variously called galaxy filaments, walls, or sheets. These walls, filaments, and sheets are separated from each other by large voids of space with few galaxies which gives the observable universe a honeycomb appearance.
The Laniakea Supercluster forms part of a galaxy filament called the Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex. This galaxy filament stretches 1 billion light years across space. To get a feeling for its size, just consider that the Virgo Supercluster, which contains the Local Group of galaxies, which includes the Milky Way Galaxy, which is where our sun is, represents only 0.1% of the total mass of the Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex!
And the Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex is but one filament among tens of thousands. Astronomers calculate that the universe visible from Earth is comprised of 10 million superclusters of galaxies, which are made up of 25 billion galaxy groups, which harbor 350 billion large galaxies and 7 trillion dwarf galaxies, which all together contain a total of 30 billion trillion stars!
The James Webb Space Telescope has been able to peer further back into the dark abysses of spacetime than any other telescope before it. The photo below covers an area of the universe equivalent to the area occupied by a grain of sand held at an arm’s length. There are galaxies here that are billions of light years away with the furthest one being a staggering 13.5 billion light years away. And even in this photograph there are faint smudges in the background that probably represent galaxies that cannot be resolved by the optics of the telescope!
There are simply no units of measure or descriptors of size in our language that can help the human mind to comprehend the size of the universe. I think that in order to truly be able to grasp the sheer enormous immensity of the universe, we first have to lose our minds.
So I will settle for crazy. The universe is crazy big!
The image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and is in the public domain.
Can something be False but Not Fake? Taking a Look at the Images from the James Webb Space Telescope, Geiger Counters, Your Brain, and the Amazing Realm of PerceptionRead Now
Many of us are were awed by the release of the first pictures taken with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The telescope’s crystal-clear images identified previously unseen galaxies, which formed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, giving a us a closer glimpse of the early universe. It also revealed many new instances of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein, where a strong gravitational field bends light. And it identified many stars in the process of formation enveloped in clouds of dust and gas exposed to titanic forces unleashed by galaxy collisions or the explosion of older stars.
However, not everyone was thrilled. A group of skeptics started arguing that the photos were fake, and the fact that the first photo of the JWST was unveiled by President Biden in a ceremony at the White House provided the politization element. Someone also pointed out that the name of the galaxy cluster featured in the first image, SMACS 0723 (which stands for Southern MAssive Cluster Survey), reads “SCAM” when spelled backwards. Conspiracy theories arose claiming that the fake images are a cover up and the telescope is really a spy satellite or a weapon of some sort. It also didn’t help that a scientist as a joke posted an image of a slice of a sausage and claimed that it was an image of a nearby star taken by the JWST. Additional confusion was caused by the information that the colors in the images were not the original colors (they were false colors!), and that the images underwent a lot of computer processing (manipulation, eh? nudge, nudge; wink, wink) before being released to the public.
So there you have it. A presidential photo op, hidden word messages, false colors, computer generated images, fake science, and conspiracy theories. It’s déjà vu all over again! Shades of QAnon, the 2020 election lie, the 911 conspiracy, and the moon landing hoax.
All this nonsense is of course, fiction. However, as it has been stated many times by many people, truth is stranger than fiction.
There is a process called “transduction” where a signal of one type gets converted to a signal of another type. A classic example of this is a Geiger counter, where the signals produced by radioactivity (ionizing radiation) are converted (transduced) into sound by the sensors and electronics of the device. Radioactivity obviously does not make a sound. The sound is a false representation of the radioactivity, but this does not make the Geiger counter readings fake. This is because the sounds produced by the Geiger counter are correlated to the intensity and timing of the radioactive emissions. Thus, with the Geiger counter we can detect a phenomenon (radioactivity) that otherwise we cannot perceive with our senses.
The same thing happens with the images from the JWST. The images we have seen were taken with the telescope’s infrared cameras. But the problem is that much in the same way that we can’t perceive radioactivity, we also can’t see light in the infrared range. If we were to look at an unprocessed photo generated from the data from the telescope, we would just see faint darks and greys. The infrared photos have been converted (transduced) to the visible range much in the same way that radioactivity is converted into sound by a Geiger counter. Colors have been assigned to these images in order for us to see them. So yes, the images we see are in false colors and have been processed by computers, but they are correlated to the realities that the JWST is imaging. Thus they are not fake.
And in case anyone remains skeptical about this, just consider that YOU do this all the time.
Yes, you, or I should probably clarify, your brain, transduces signals all the time. In other words, your brain constantly changes one type of signal into another. Let me explain.
The light we see, the sound we hear, the odors we smell, the flavors we taste, and the things we touch are not sensed directly by our brains. They are sensed by receptors at the level of our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. These receptors then proceed to convert (transduce) these light, sound, odor, flavor, and touch signals into electrical signals. These electrical signals then travel to the brain through specialized structures in neurons called axons, and millions of these axons make up the cables that we call nerves.
So when we are exposed to light, sound, odors, flavors, and things we touch, what the brain perceives is shown in the figure below.
Those spikes in the image represent the electrical signals travelling down the axon of a neuron in time (the horizontal axis). This is the reality that the brain perceives. Not light, sound, odors, flavors, or the things we touch, but rather millions of these electrical signals arriving to it every second.
Now, do these signals make any sense to you? Of course not! The signals have to be transduced.
The brain does something similar to what the Geiger counter does or what scientists working with the JWST do. The brain processes the electrical signals coming from our eyes, ears nose, tongue, and skin and generates the sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These sensations are as false as the sound made by the Geiger counter or the color representations in the images of the JWST, but they are not fake in the sense that they are correlated to reality.
So, for example, we cannot see the wavelength of the light that impacts our eyes, but our brain associates the wavelength of the light with colors in such a way that we perceive light of short wavelength as purple and light of long wavelength as red. This association of false brain-generated sensations with the realities around us also takes place for the senses of sound, smell, taste, and touch.
So to wrap it up, what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is false, just like the sounds a Geiger counter makes or the color of the images of the JWST, but not fake, because these things are all correlated to reality.
Welcome to the amazing realm of perception!
The image of the trains of electrical impulses belongs to the author and can only be used with permission. The image of the Cosmic Cliffs, a star-forming region of the Carina Nebula (NGC 3324), is by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and is in the public domain.
A while ago I saw a documentary entitled Murder Among the Mormons. The documentary is about the exploits of the accomplished forger Mark Homann who created many seemingly old documents that were able to fool even seasoned experts. Some of these documents seemed to shed light into the early days of the Mormon Church creating conflicts with church teachings. Eventually Homann’s schemes unraveled when he accepted money for forgeries he could not deliver fast enough while living a lifestyle beyond his means. In 1985, overburdened by creditors, he looked for a way out by resorting to a bizarre scheme where he planted bombs which killed a couple of people and wounded him too.
One of the things that caught my attention about the documentary was something that Homann did in his early teens. He had developed a technique for forging mint marks on coins, and he sent one such forged coin to the treasury department for evaluation. The department evaluated the coin and let him know that it was genuine! This for him was an epiphany that pretty much set him on his life as a counterfeiter. He reasoned that if the experts declared something to be true, then for all practical purposes, it becomes true. Thus, he also reasoned, he cheated no one when he sold a forgery, as long as the experts declared it to be true. Later on, he also came to understand the power of belief in determining truth. People are unwilling to give up their beliefs, especially if the acquisition of those beliefs has involved personal sacrifice. Thus, if the experts or leaders whom the people trust say it’s true, and if people believe it is true, then IT IS true. Facts and evidence become irrelevant. Beliefs generate their own reality, and as long as people keep living by their beliefs, this is the reality that matters.
We may tend to see this as a cynical view of life. We may reason that this is the sort of thing that only a sick mind like Homann’s, capable of deceit and murder, would come up with. Sadly, however, in my opinion this view of reality is often true. Homann may have been a criminal, but he was highly intelligent and talented. He grasped an important aspect of how the world works, and he used it to his advantage.
If you want a more general example of what I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph, look no further than the economic meltdown that occurred during the financial crisis triggered by the housing bubble in 2007-2008. Rating agencies were assigning excellent ratings to bundles of high-risk mortgages (mortgage-backed securities) that were all but guaranteed to default. Investors and bankers nevertheless trusted these ratings and poured a lot of money into the housing market which shot through the roof. The rating agencies declared the mortgage-backed securities to be sound, investors believed them and bought the securities, and the US economy nearly went to Hades.
So what am I getting at here?
Science is a highly technical and complex subject that is often only accessible to the experts. Average people, and even scientists in other fields, most of the time do not have the knowledge and training to figure out what is true or not within a given complex field. This is why we often rely on the word of the experts when accepting science. But with people questioning the safety or efficacy of vaccines, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efficacy of masks and other mitigation measures, the reality of global warming, or the accuracy of evolution, what is a non-scientist to do? Do we trust what the naysayers are saying about science, or do we trust the experts? However, if we trust the experts, how do we know that we won’t end up like the persons who bought Homann’s forgeries or like the investors who bought faulty mortgage-backed securities?
There are certainly no guarantees. Yes, experts can be fooled, or they can even be dishonest, but here it must be pointed out that while Homann fooled many experts, he didn’t fool all of them. Some experts eventually detected his forgeries and sounded the alarm. Similarly, several savvy investors figured out that the edifice of the mortgage-backed securities was nothing but a house of cards, and even regular folk who didn’t know enough about the matter figured out that all the crazy mortgages that were being offered could not lead to anything good.
All I can tell you is that science nowadays is a diverse endeavor. The scientists involved in research live in many countries and are funded by different funding agencies. And these scientists who have different beliefs, ways of thinking, life histories, and opinions get together at meetings, present their work, vent out their disagreements in public, and publish their results in peer-reviewed journals. There are bloggers, science writers, and journalists who follow what scientists are arguing about and cover the dissenting or skeptical views. Of course, there are dishonest scientists, and there are attempts to influence the scientific process ranging from the political to the corporate. But at the same time there are organizations, watchdog groups, and individuals who are on the lookout for these dishonest people and influences. This diversity and openness make it less likely that a “cabal” of dishonest experts will mislead the public about a key issue.
My advice is to listen to the experts, but keep up with the scientific debate regarding the issues that interest you. Review what the critics have to say and what the experts reply to them. Read what others including factcheckers have to say about the debate. Above all look for reputable individuals that communicate their opinions is a sober fashion in respected media outlets and avoid those people making sweeping sensationalistic claims alluding to vast unsupported conspiracy theories in media outlets notorious for pushing these claims.
Image by Nick Youngson taken from Picpedia.org is used here under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
We often hear about urban legends. These are stories of either a humorous or horrific nature that circulate in urban environments and which are claimed to be true. Many such stories have been debunked by science. But I have often wondered why we don’t hear about “country legends”. I guess this is because the term is normally used to refer to remarkable singers of country music. However, there are stories coming from America’s countryside that many people are not familiar with. Perhaps this is because over the course of little more than a century, the United States has gone from being a country where about 40% of the population was directly involved in farming or ranching to only 2% today. Nowadays many people in cities have never visited a farm or a ranch. Of course, most people know a few generalities about farms and farmers, but most are woefully ignorant of the how and whys of farm life and its lore. In this post we are going to check out some stories coming from the countryside and examine their plausibility.
Most farmers will just smile and shake their heads or laugh if you ask them about cow tipping, only to reluctantly add later that they know someone who claims they know someone who once did it. Cow tipping seems to have originated in the countryside when naïve city folks were asked by mischievous farmers to try to achieve something that is impossible. But what is cow tipping?
The quintessential cow tipping deed allegedly starts when a group of inebriated young men decide to head for the countryside at night and locate a field with cows. As cows supposedly sleep standing up, the men proceed to sneak up on the unsuspecting bovine and then rush it from one side pushing the animal and making it fall or tip on its side. The country lore is awash with cow tipping stories which have now permeated the internet and other media.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, all this is bunk. As any farmer will tell you cows do not sleep standing up and they are animals that have a keen sense of sight and smell. If you try to approach a cow, it will simply move away from you. Another issue is that cows are pretty massive animals. Some physics calculations indicate that even if a cow were to stand still you would require the force of two people to tip it and if the cow were to react quickly to your pushing as it most certainly would, you would need at least five people to tip the cow over. Cow tipping could even be dangerous if a cow decided to fight back or if the would-be cow tippers in their drunken daze mistook a bull for a cow. As of this date, not a single cow tipping event has ever been convincingly documented.
Peeing on Electric Fences
Now we come to a sensitive topic and not just for the obvious reasons. The question is: if you pee on an electric fence, will you get a shock...err..."there"? A few city folk and some from the country find the answer to this question by accident while relieving themselves next to a fence which they did not know was electrified. Of course these are just accidents, but there are some brave souls who actually do this on purpose out of curiosity, on a dare, to prove something, or just because they can.
Peeing on electric fences is attempted mostly by young men or boys. I say young men or boys and not young women or girls, either because males can pee standing up, or because they are more adventurous and daring, or just because young women or girls at this age are smarter and don’t do such things. Be it as it may, the answer to the question is "Yes". Urine conducts electricity. If you pee on an electric fence, as long as the fluid stream is unbroken, you will get shocked. Several YouTube videos document this fact, and the issue was also examined in episode 14 of the TV series "Myth busters" and was found to be true.
Hearing the Corn Grow
Hearing the corn grow is something that many would label a "farming legend". The idea is that under the right conditions corn can grow very fast, and when it does so, it makes a particular sound. Thus you can "hear" the corn grow. I have asked a few farmers who have raised corn all their lives about this and most of them have ever heard any distinctive sound coming from their cornfields. Many people claim that the alleged sound of corn growing is nothing more than the rustling of leaves or ears of corn against one another as a result of small gusts of wind that make the corn stalks sway. However, I did get to meet one particular farmer who heard his corn grow. He said that one of the things he loved the most is sitting with his family on the porch of their house overlooking his cornfields after dinner and hearing the corn grow.
As it turns out, scientists have documented that when corn plants are in their phase of rapid growth, they make a crackling noise caused by fiber fractures as a result of the sudden release of internal stresses caused by turgor pressure within the growing stems. The sound is faint and somewhat akin to the sound of static.
Folks in the country sometimes prank people from the city or in general newcomers to their groups by getting them to hunt or search for imaginary creatures. One of them is the snipe. Although snipes are a type of shorebird that people do hunt, unsuspecting victims are told they are something else and given a set of complex instructions to track and hunt them down to the hilarity of everyone that is in on the joke. Another such creature is the famed jackalope, which is a rabbit with antelope horns. Mounted specimens of alleged jackalopes are a well-known taxidermist folly. But there is a condition in rabbits involving a virus that makes the animal develop keratinous tumors on the skin which look like horn structures, and this may be behind some reputable descriptions of horned rabbits in the wild.
Do you know of any stories from the countryside? Please leave a comment and let me know.
Photo of a mounted jackalope head by rocor is from flickr and is used here under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license. Photo of electric fence by Kevin Phillips from Public Domain Pictures is in the public domain.
A coincidence is when two or more events which seem to have some connection occur at the same time. Coincidences are devoid of any significance or causal connection. Nevertheless, some coincidences may seem to be associated in time and/or space with other things or occurrences in meaningful ways. Most of us have encountered coincidences in our lives and several examples have made it to the popular media. For example:
A person reported one day spending $7.11 in the store 7-11 at 7:11 AM.
A woman who hurt her chin got a fortune cookie at a restaurant that read “Time heals all wound. Keep your chin up.”
A woman found that her future husband appeared in a picture her family took while on a trip 7 years before she met him.
Most of us will chuckle at these examples but will probably not think much about them. Regardless of how remarkable they are, we nonetheless would consider that they fall within the realm of the possible. With millions of people shopping at 7-11, or unwrapping fortune cookies, or taking pictures, you figure that sooner or later this sort of thing is bound to happen to someone. Getting 10 heads when flipping 10 coins once is an unlikely outcome, but if a few thousand people flip coins, it is a virtual certainty that at least one will get that result. With billions of people on Earth performing the same activities day after day, it is statistically very likely that something unusual will happen to someone somewhere sometime.
However, when it comes to some remarkable coincidences, and more often than not those that involve life and death, some people wonder if there is something more behind the coincidence. For example:
Violet Jessop survived three cruise ship accidents: the RMS Olympic in 1911 (which did not sink), and the Titanic in 1912 and the HMHS Britanic in 1916 (which both sank). This led to her being nicknamed “Miss Unsinkable”.
A Dutch cyclist, Maarten de Jonge, escaped two fatal plane crashes in 2014 when he changed his travel plans at the last minute.
Tsutomo Yamaguchi survived the dropping of the atomic bomb in the city of Hiroshima and fled to the city of Nagasaki on which the second atomic bomb was dropped, and which he also survived. He is recognized by the Japanese government as the only person to have survived both bombings.
Faced with these coincidences, some people consider themselves “lucky”, while other may interpret that there is some force or deity guarding their lives. Some people in fact believe that God is behind all coincidences, and that coincidences are messages from the deity. Of course, this belief can be a double-edged sword. For example, as I have written in a previous post, Hitler survived many assassination attempts and this gave him the conviction that he had been chosen by providence to accomplish great things.
But there can be immediate and dangerous consequences to thinking that a coincidence MUST have an explanation, and this is especially true in cases of coincidences that occur within an emotionally charged environment. When this happens, people eager to find meaning where there is none can connect the dots to come up with far flung ideas or conspiracies and may even act on them. One remarkable example of this is the disappearance of Elisa Lam.
In January 26 of 2013, a 21 year-old Canadian student, Elisa Lam, visited Los Angeles and checked into the infamous Cecil Hotel which lies next to Los Angeles’ skid row section. This hotel has a reputation for being haunted due to the many deaths and suicides that have taken place in and around the hotel, as well as serial killers who have stayed in it. Lam was supposed to check out of the hotel on January 31, but failed to contact her family, who called the police. The police searched the hotel and its vicinity but didn’t find Lam. However, they found a disturbing recording of the woman in one of the hotel’s elevators which they proceeded to release to the public.
The video hit the internet like a storm, gathering millions of views, and unleashed a tsunami of speculation by people searching for clues trying to make sense of what could have happened to her. Two weeks after the release of the video, hotel guests reported that the water in the faucets had a funny color and taste. The hotel’s water tanks were searched and Lam’s lifeless body was found floating in one of them.
Several conspiracy theories and interpretations arose trying to make sense of some coincidences in this case.
The bizarre behavior of Lam in the elevator reminded many viewers of the so-called “elevator game” which supposedly originated in South Korea. The premise of this game posits that if you press the buttons of an elevator in the right order, it will take you to a different dimension and you will meet a supernatural entity.
Another idea revolved around a 2005 film starring Jennifer Connelly called “Dark Water” which involves a mother and her daughter who move into an apartment where dark water begins coming out of the faucets. The film depicts some creepy events in an elevator which the mother rides to the roof where she discovers the body of a little girl in the water tank. Based on this, people speculated that someone was trying to recreate some of the movie scenes using Lam as a subject.
The last place where Lam was seen in person was a Los Angeles bookstore called “The Last Bookstore”. Owners of the bookstore’s website list their address as a post office box in British Columbia, Canada, with the postal code V5G 4S2. When you input this into Google Maps, you get a location within the Forest Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, where Lam is buried. Thus, people suggested that this bookstore could be connected to Lam’s disappearance.
Another theory regarding Lam’s death was linked to a tuberculosis outbreak that occurred in the skid row area around the hotel while she was staying there. This notion arose because someone pointed out that the test used to detect the presence of tuberculosis is called the “Lam ELISA” test. This stands for “Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Many people considered that it was impossible that this was a coincidence, and all sorts of conspiracies began to be spun such as suggesting she was a test subject for a new tuberculosis drug, or a vessel for a bioweapon, or that she was killed for knowing too much about the tuberculosis outbreak.
And in case you think that all this nonsense is ultimately harmless conjecture, consider this last item.
A final theory concerned a Mexican death metal musician, Pablo Vergara, who went by the stage name of “Morbid”. He had stayed at the Cecil and posted about it (but in 2012, one year before Lam). He also had a song about dumping a corpse in a body of water while singing “I’m thinking China” (Lam was of Chinese ancestry), and his media featured a video of a woman running from a killer before getting caught. These coincidences and the way he looked and acted convinced many people that he was the killer, and they publicly denounced him. Vergara was investigated by police, his music and videos were deleted, his social media accounts were banned, and he began to receive deaths threats around the clock. Vergara descended into depression and tried to take his own life. He eventually had to check into a psychiatric hospital to heal.
So what really happened to Elisa Lam? She had bipolar disorder and depression, and she was taking medications which have to be carefully administered to avoid side effects. Other evidence which indicated that Lam was displaying erratic behavior also suggested that she was experiencing side effects from an uncontrolled disease, which explains her bizarre behavior in the elevator. Her death was ruled an accident.
Science cannot demonstrate that a given coincidence does not have an ulterior meaning or explanation, but science can alert us to the dangers of accepting unwarranted meanings in coincidences without solid proof. This is especially true in situations where people want to believe that there is something more to a coincidence than chance.
Science has been under attack recently by vociferous and often politically motivated individuals. But science is the best method we have to discover the laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy in our universe, which allows us to generate applications that work. This is not an opinion. This is a rock-solid fact. And if you want evidence for this claim, just look around you. Computers, cell phones, televisions, microwaves ovens, refrigerators, air conditioning, buildings, vehicles, airplanes, dams, satellites, space stations, telescopes, etc. Keep looking. Antibiotics, antivirals, antivenoms, hormones, erectile disfunction drugs, surgical techniques and science-based therapies, DNA sequencing, vaccines, etc. If science were not a successful method to uncover reality, none of these things would work.
When faced with this evidence, the people who attack science would probably clarify that what they are attacking is the scientists, not the principles of science. These people claim that scientists have been corrupted by powerful interests and/or by the need to obtain funds, which leads them to fake or selectively interpret the data. This claim, however, is quite startling. If what scientists are coming up with does not reflect reality because they are faking the science, then it should not work. But how are we to explain the list of scientific applications that work that I presented in the previous paragraph? One would have to argue that these discoveries were made in a pristine past when science was not corrupted, and that the corruption of science is a recent event.
Now please, if you really believe this, send me a message, because I’ve got a bridge I want to sell to you.
Not only is this not true, because there have been recent scientific applications that work such as, for example, the COVID-19 vaccines, but dishonesty and corruption have always plagued humanity. Institutions ranging from government, political parties, unions, and religious organizations, to neighborhood associations, clubs, and family businesses everywhere have experienced dishonesty and corruption. And because scientists are human beings, they are prone to dishonesty and corruption too, but those discoveries I outlined in the first paragraph were made despite the influence of dishonest and corrupt individuals. Although the methodology of science has several safeguards to insure that the science is right and free from dishonesty, the ultimate proof that science works is in the applications. If a purported practical application of science doesn’t work, then the unavoidable conclusion is that the science behind it was deficient.
Those that criticize science or scientists in the way I described above are missing the most important point. Our primary concern should not be that the science doesn’t work because corrupt individuals are somehow “faking it”. This way of thinking is divorced from reality and fails to recognize the main problem with science. The main problem with science is that it works, and that is what should scare us.
Let me explain.
Most of us are honest individuals who know that science will deliver for us and we use the applications generated by science in a lawful way. However, there are dishonest individuals who also know that science will deliver for them too, and these individuals are willing to pervert the use of the applications generated by science. This is especially true when there are strong demands for accomplishments, incentives for success, and millions of dollars in profits on the line. For example, pharmaceutical companies have paid billions of dollars in fines for engaging in off-label promotion of their products, paying kickbacks, and Medicare fraud. The most glaring example of misconduct in the pharma industry is the horrifying opioid epidemic that began with the lax FDA approval of the pain drug oxycontin from Purdue Pharma, followed by its inappropriate marketing, which led to millions becoming addicted and hundreds of thousands dying.
Thus the true and frightening power of science derives from the fact that you can be certain that it works, and that therefore, someone somewhere will misuse what science produces.
To counter this we need to exercise and demand vigilance. We need to pressure our elected representatives to police those charged with the application of science. We need to monitor our elected representatives and make sure they are not corrupted by bribes or favors. We need strong and independent watchdog groups and media outlets to keep an eye out for misconduct and conflicts of interest. We have to demand changes to regulations and procedures to ensure that the process of approval of scientific applications doesn’t become corrupted by political or corporate interests. But we cannot do this effectively if part of our energy is devoted to countering those that incessantly claim the science is “fake” or “junk” and that it does not work.
It's not fake science but the misuse of scientific applications that we should be concerned about.
The image of the Hand Holding a Sign from pixabay by geralt is in the public domain and has been modified.