Science

Carl Sagan

Awesome Carl Sagan Quotes

I bought a small eBook recently chock-a-block full of Sagan’s best quotes. I wanted to highlight some of my favourites. I haven’t read all of Sagan’s books (some 30-odd) but I haven’t yet met a Sagan book that I didn’t like… a lot! If anyone was ever going to be my hero, Carl Sagan would be one of them:

On argumentation:

(1) – “The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.” 

On history:

(2) “You have to know the past to understand the present.”

On evolution:

(3) “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

On drugs:

(4) – “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

Misc:

(5) You are worth about 3 dollars in chemicals.

(6) We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

(7) The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard, who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by ‘God,’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying…it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.

(8) The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support libraries.

I man-love Carl Sagan…

Favourites? Mine are (1) and (6). Has anyone read more than one Sagan book? If so, which one of those are your favourites? I can’t decide between Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot. Both marvelous insights in science, skepticism, and astronomy with the added delight of them being beautifully written english.

The Lowdown on The Lowdown on GMOs

Who wants an update on my latest project? *crickets…* I’ll give you one anyway. 

The Lowdown on GMOs

I’m sure a few of my readers recall my Lowdown on GMOs interview series. The first, with a scientist, then with a family farmer, and finally, with the CEO of a biotech firm that will soon release a biotech fruit: the Arctic Apple.

The response to these interviews were huge (at least for me). My interview with a scientist, Kevin Folta, got 1,000+ shares on Facebook alone. So, I decided to combine them over at Medium.com into the The Fact-Based Lowdown on GMOs (arguably not as catchy). But still, I wanted to do more with it, and I got this idea…

There are plenty of succinct, authoritative, and accessible articles on GMOs out there that make the science and benefits clear. And I was of the persuasion that, as Mark Lynas put it at his speech in Cornell University that this subject has been one of the greatest science communication failures of the last half-century. So I had an idea: why don’t I collect those articles, with permission of course, and jumble them in with my Q&As into a GMO eBook. I, humbly, set it up so that I would receive a majority of the proceeds from the book; in true capitalist fashion, 90% of the sale price of each book ($0.00) will go directly into my severely stomach-inflamed, statistically significant piggy bank.

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Science Said Y X Years Ago, Therefore…

Science said Y, X years ago, therefore, >>insert non-sequitur here<<. This is becoming an increasingly familiar, and tiring, argument. First, let me use it in a few examples.

GMO foods are bad despite what the science says because science said cigarettes were safe for use 60 years ago.

Organic produce is healthier than conventional produce despite what the preponderance of scientific studies today show because science gave us nazi eugenics 80 years ago.

Got it? Well, it’s a non-sequitur; that is, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Here’s what it is, a red herring, a debate stopper; what it is not is a logical argument.

There are several points I wish to make against it.

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Bad Science

What do the Creationist & Anti-GMO Platform Have in Common?

Creationists and the Anti-GMO crowd (hereafter referred to as anti’s) crowd share a foundational base; one amusing to explore, no less. Creationism, or Intelligent Design (ID) as it is known in some circles where they pretend to themselves it is a scientific theory, has been notorious at setting up evolutionary straw men that they can then easily knock them down to the delight of other believers. (A straw man argument is where you intentionally misrepresent an argument so that you can take down the ‘straw man’ argument without taking on the actual argument to the benefit of your ego and ignorance of your audience.)

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GMO Pig

Pigs, GMOs & Bullshit

Again, the Internet contends with another negative take on GMOs, like Seralini’s rat-cancer study from last year. This “study” by Judy Carman involves following pigs fed GM and non-GM feed over 22.7 weeks and trying to find something, anything, wrong at all with the GM-fed pigs while ignoring everything that showed no effect or a positive effect. I don’t have time enough to go through the study, so I’ll briefly summarize the findings of Mark Lynas’ take on the study, as well as another from Weed Control Freaks to show you the pseudoscience indicators:


1st Warning Sign: The results were published in a journal not indexed by PubMed with a low-impact factor.

What this means: Scientists don’t take the journal seriously, it has no credibility, or both.

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science

Not All Scientific Statements Have Equal Weight

The title of this post: “Not all scientific statements have equal weight” was written by Carl Sagan in his brilliant book Broca’s Brain. It is a statement you should write on a post-it to keep by your monitor as you browse, if that is your cup of tea, the online intellectual fight on such nerve touching issues as the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO), evolution vs. creationism, climate change, and many other topics that are, at the end of the day, empirically verifiable. It should sound in your brain after each and every scientific claim you read on the Internet. (In Carl Sagan’s voice too.)

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biotechnology

Guest Post: The Insanity of Biotech

In my fervor to have my science book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticismreviewed by scientists (so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself), I reached out to Paul Little, a biochemist by trade. In our ensuing exchange, he offered to write me a guest post: The Insanity of Biotech. Here it is verbatim, you’ll find it very illuminating.


The Insanity of Biotech

Paul Little of Little eBook Reviews

In 1990(ish) I saw a film in the career department of my school that was simply called “Pharmaceutical”. It was a true piece of propaganda that I could not possible see through at the time. Men (and some women) in white lab coats drew chemical structures on the board and ‘designed’ the next new great drug. “Let’s just try putting a phenyl group here…” This is the biggest single driving quotation that I recall. There was simplicity in those few words. It seemed so trivial; all I need to do was learn to draw chemical structures and make bold suggestions and the world will be mine! Of course, from one end to the other it is nonsense. Chemistry is not as easily tamed as a humble white board. The word “just” is so misplaced when one considers the implications on a molecular level. How is it possible to persuade 6.022 x 1017 molecules (we often work on the millimolar scale) to dance to one’s tune? You cannot is the answer, they are not thought driven and they do not have what it takes to be persuaded. They follow the energy and do what chaos dictates: you get a mess, is what I am saying.

It took another eight years of chemistry training to be fully cognizant of the fact that molecules are more like cats than like dogs. You cannot train them, but you can make it seem like they are doing what you want by making the conditions right so that what they want is what you want, or will accept!

So “just” putting a phenyl group there can be a very lengthy exercise and need not ever actually happen!

Let us describe now the pharmaceutical development process: imagine for a minute that you are a molecule and you are eaten by a human, what do you see and where do you go? Imagine that you are supposed to make your way to a single receptor that sits on a particular cell type in a specific organ and you are to do one job, get out, do not get caught. It all sounds very ‘Mission Impossible’ and somehow it is. The human body is a magnificently complex place and there are huge challenges for Doctor Molecule wherever he goes. The good Doctor can get stuck in fat, or never make it out of the stomach, be chewed up by the liver or rapidly sent out to the bladder. Of course the other side to the story is Mister Chemical. All drugs are chemicals, all life is organized chemistry, but for the sake of this metaphor Mister Chemical could attack the body, or disrupt it balance, do more harm than good and even kill the body if enough friends are present. The pharmaceutical development process is the long road from the lab bench to the bed side where hundreds of studies are undertaken to assess the good qualities of Doctor Molecule and the bad qualities of Mister Chemical. If the balance is right and there is separation between the good side and the darker impulses than clinical trials begin and the lucky few will get permission to be marketed.

This few, this lucky few, this pharmacopoeia is the result of a huge effort. It is estimated that 95-97 % of all projects will end in failure, 80% or more of all medicinal chemists (the cat herders) will never work on a project that leads to a marketed drug. Some time ago it was often quoted that 10000 compounds were synthesized for each drug that is marketed. That number had grown substantially since the development of new synthetic techniques. Try to imagine 10000 struggles to “just” put a phenyl group there. Try to consider the huge amount of data that is published each day that goes into the hundreds of scientific journals covering every aspect of this crazy world. All of the data combined is used to make the best possible guesses as to which phenyl group should go where and what disease should be treated in which way. It is a mind-boggling pit of insanity to dive into and expect that one will succeed.

So why do we do it? The answer is the same as the lottery: to win, because the rewards of success greatly outweigh the insanity of the small chance of attaining that success. For some of us it is also the “because it is there” drive to do something unusual and to potentially make a big difference in people’s lives.

The biotech industry is the modern answer to the problem of this insanity, insofar as biotech is meant to mean small, highly focused companies with a very small number of projects. The point being that the individual drive of the people to make the individual projects a success is supposed to develop them faster, give them a higher chance of success or to fail faster and be cheaper doing so.

Why do I do this insane job of biotech? The answer is because I can. Somehow the last dozen years in this industry have given me the skills to understand that working for five to ten years on a project that can fail tomorrow is OK  The uncertainty is substantial, but when it works the benefits are enormous. Biotech is a business, and the only business I know that has to invest so much money, for so long without any certainty at all of any form of success. Which success stories should I quote to end this piece, to show that biotech has a benefit through the madness: it could be many: insulin for diabetics, cancer therapies that increase life expectancy, treatments for HIV infection, a whole pharmacopoeia of remedies that I hope that you will never need but is designed to be there in case you do.


Very enlightening, and Little’s field shows just how flexible, malleable, and amiable scientists need to be to accommodate to the changing nature of chemical science. Without chemistry, we wouldn’t have vaccines, medicine, fuel, and many other necessary, sometimes life-saving, products that make our lives easier. Thanks Paul, for being a scientist, and being generous enough to read my book, review it, and guest posting to my site.

You can check out Paul’s website, Little Book Reviews, where he reviews books. Additionally, my book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism was just released on Kindle and you can buy it for $0.99. It’s sitting at #13 and #22 for the Nonfiction “Science Reference” and “Science and Math reference” sections. (Help me reach #1, pretty please.) And, don’t forget, if you buy it and email me your receipt, I’ll send you Random Rationality: Expanded free. (My email address can be found on my author website here.)

Thanks for reading.