Heroes of Science

I found the coolest list the other day (wow, that sounds so cheesy!), it is a site called Science Heroes. There is one page in particular that had me floored: the general gist of it  most important contributions to humanity via lives saved. (I know, I know, lists suck, but this one doesn’t!) The answers might surprise you.

Fritz Haber takes the list with 2.72 billion lives saved. How did he do it? Synthetic fertilizer. If I had to take a guess before seeing such a list, I would’ve guessed Edward Jenner, who came up with the concept of vaccination when he noticed that milk maids who had been exposed to Cowpox did not succumb to Smallpox. Jenner, it turns out, is number 5 with an estimated 530 million people saved. Haber solved, it turns out, a century-long problem that had vexed humanity’s growth: how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to be used in farming. It is safe to say that industrialized farming exists in a long chain of cause-and-effects because of this man. His successful discovery of this problem (later industrialized by Carl Bosch, #2 on the list) is what earns him the top spot of the greatest scientists list. The number of people that he saved is hard to understand at an emotional level: 2,720,000,000. Almost 40% of the population of Earth today! Or, 2.72% of all the humans that have ever lived in Earth’s history (100 billion people). Second, as I alluded to earlier, on the list, is Carl Bosch who duly shares in this discovery by mass-producing the process; something which Haber was not able to do. (It’s not all roses, however: Faber was instrumental in the chemical warfare that become the defining feature of WW1 on the German side, so there’s that.)

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The Beginning of Infinity: Untestable Theories & the Power of Explanation

In reading David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity, I finally came across a couple of simple reasons why untestable theories in science are a dead-end and why the explanatory content of a theory matters. It’s very common for me to harp on about empiricism and evidence to friends and folk I debate on subjects like God, heaven, homeopathy, alternative medicine and other realms where science cannot speculate, or has to no avail. I’ve never, however, managed to condense such lectures into conversational fragments that didn’t make them hate me by the time I finished. For that reason alone, I’m glad I came across Deutsch’s book; for my argumentative arsenal has increased.

Let me start by asking a few questions:

Q1 – What is the single factor that science, pseudoscience, and non-science have in common? (This is not a trick question).

A1 – The answer is that they started thousands of years ago, with the same base of information, which is relevant to the conclusion at the end of this post.

Q2 – Now, what differentiates science/pseudoscience, and non-science?

A2 – Testability*

Put it that way, A2 is obvious. As Karl Popper wrote: empiricism is the demarcation point between science and non-science (the criterion of demarcation). In other words, the testability of a hypothesis will tell you if it can be improved by experience. And, if it can’t, there is nothing to rely upon except authority and the rejection of authority is what allowed the scientific method to come into being. This brings us to Deutsch’s first science nugget:

Deutsch’s 1st Science Nugget: an untestable theory cannot be improved upon by experience

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A Simple Comparison

Several huge things have happened in the last 2 week in respect to science. Cosmos, the re-imagining of Carl Sagan’s science vehicle to jumpstart the public’s imagination debuted; gravity radiation (often called gravity waves) has been detected with a 5-sigma threshold from the Big Bang, which, if true, empirically extends our understanding of creation from one second to one billion-billion-billion-millionth of a second after the Big Bang; and, finally, not to mention rather depressingly, Mike Adams the Health Douche issued a public call to the host of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson to admit that mercury in vaccines is poisoning the population.

One of the above three things made me laugh: can you guess which? I implore you to read Mike Adams full screed on the mercury in vaccines that is making the population cognitively deficient, even though there is no mercury in vaccines, and keep a straight face. Seriously, I’ll wait here—and this post will make more sense if you’ve read it.

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From Anti-GMO to pro-science: A Layman’s Guide to GMOs

My latest article on biotechnology has been featured on The Genetic Literacy Project website. It is now featured on the home page. The opening paragraphs are below, but be sure to head over to the GLP the rest. Enjoy!

From Anti-GMO to pro-science: A Layman’s Guide to GMOs

Knowing whom to trust on the touchy issue of GMOs (biotechnology) is a thorny issue—especially on the Internet, where tensions flare to a 100 with an absence of nuance and body language. Leaning on an authority is, of course, a shortcut. Who has the time these days to understand a field as diverse and comprehensive as biotechnology? Very few of us; in that light, it is a perfectly reasonable shortcut—provided one seeks out the correct authorities, that is.

That is why appeals to authority are the main weapon on both sides of the e-divide on GMOs. However, in many ways, many such arguments fall flat on their face as they exhibit fallacious reasoning (often called the argument from authority fallacy). The trick, of course, is finding an authority one can trust and that is right—no easy task.

What happens if one picks the wrong authority and psychologically ties oneself to a person expressing an argument, rather than to the evidence—doing just that is a quirky trait of human psychology. Over the past few years, this is the dilemma that I faced. The authorities I trusted in were wrong. Thus began the project that led to my book.

Read more…

And don’t forget my latest project: The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science has been released as a free eBook featuring contributions from molecular biologists, plant pathologists, farmers, journalists, and authors on the what the evidence concerning GMO actually says. Go grab it.

You can read reviews of the Lowdown here, here, and here.

S3 v2.0 is out…WARNING: contains even more science!

If you have previously purchased S3: Science, Statistics, and Skepticism (thank you, by the way!), then you should soon receive the below email from Amazon informing you of the update. The updates to the book are substantial, so allow me to enumerate three:

1 – Whereas before S3 was some 15,000 words long; it is now 25,000 words

2 – Whereas before I hired a sub-par editor; it has now been edited professionally by the fine folks at Command + Z (seriously, they’re awesome!); difference is night and day (night and supernova might be more accurate)

3 – Whereas before some of the chapters contained far more information than others which disrupted the flow; all the chapters have been updated with more science, explanation, and content to even out the flow and distribution of information and balance

All in all, the differences between the old and the new almost make it an entirely new book. However, you have to opt into the update as it will overwrite any notes and highlights you have made.

If you haven’t bought it yet, the price is now $1.99 here. Alternately, if you buy the book and leave a review (positive or negative; 1-star or 5-star, I’ll give you your $1.99 back. (See conditions below.)

Thanks & Happy Reading!

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Differing Degrees of Evidence

There are two camps on the Internet when it comes to evaluating evidence. I’ll call them the uppers and downers. Both sides think they are on the side of science, reason, and logic. They both believe they base their decisions on data, scrutiny, and skepticism (especially the downers). Yet, for the most part, one side is right, and the other is wrong. (This does not mean that everything each side says is either wrong, or right—this will make a bit more sense later.)

Without knowing who or what the sides or what they stand for, what would the difference between the two sides be? Answer: accepting differing degrees of evidence.

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