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Amateur scientists vs. cranks

This is video of a talk given last year by David Dixon, assistant professor of math, science and engineering at Saddleback College in California. He used to work in the Physics Department at California Polytechnic State University, which, like many physics departments around the world, received loads of correspondence from non-scientists who thought they had come up with earth-shattering, game-changing hypotheses that needed to be shared.

Now, sometimes, laypeople come up with good ideas that should be explored. But many of these letters are better classified as the work of cranks — folks who had big ideas, cared deeply about those big ideas, but who were dead wrong ... and utterly impervious to the idea that they might be wrong.

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Stop homeopathic "vaccines" in Canada

The Canadian government has approved the sale of nosodes — homeopathic alternatives to vaccines. I probably don't have to explain to you all why giving children a sugar pill that works no better than placebo is a bad, bad, bad idea when the diseases you're trying to prevent are things like polio, measles, and rabies. Here's what you can do to help stop this racket. Maggie

Calling out Jane Goodall for a plagiarism and error-filled book

Jane Goodall's new book isn't just filled with plagiarism, writes Michael Moynihan at The Daily Beast, it also drastically misconstrues agricultural science and presents poor sources — for instance, books published by the Maharishi University of Management and written by people with no scientific training at all are probably not the best sources to use if you're trying to build a legitimate case against the technology of genetic engineering. Maggie

TEDxWTF

The Harvard Business Review has an interesting look at what has happened as TED Talks has expanded to ever-wider audiences and (in doing so) has lost control of its own brand. It's also an excellent object lesson in why slapping the TED logo on something doesn't make it true. Maggie

Fraud, failure, and FUBAR in science

Here's an issue we don't talk about enough. Every year, peer-reviewed research journals publish hundreds of thousands of scientific papers. But every year, several hundred of those are retracted — essentially, unpublished. There's a number of reasons retraction happens. Sometimes, the researchers (or another group of scientists) will notice honest mistakes. Sometimes, other people will prove that the paper's results were totally wrong. And sometimes, scientists misbehave, plagiarizing their own work, plagiarizing others, or engaging in outright fraud. Officially, fraud only accounts for a small proportion of all retractions. But the number of annual retractions is growing, fast. And there's good reason to think that fraud plays a bigger role in science then we like to think. In fact, a study published a couple of weeks ago found that there was misconduct happening in 3/4ths of all retracted papers. Meanwhile, previous research has shown that, while only about .02% of all papers are retracted, 1-2% of scientists admit to having invented, fudged, or manipulated data at least once in their careers.

The trouble is that dealing with this isn't as simple as uncovering a shadowy conspiracy or two. That's not really the kind of misconduct we're talking about here.

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How bad neuroscience can mislead us

If you watch or read much science fiction, you know that all it takes to suspend disbelief about fictional science is an explanation that sounds good on the surface and makes use of terms and ideas that your audience doesn't fully understand but does find emotionally compelling. It's why "radioactive spider" made sense in 1960s.

Apparently (and unfortunately) this effect is true for actual science as well.

This slide comes from a lecture given by Oxford University neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop. Basically, it's showing that an explanation of a psychological phenomenon became more believable if you added in some hand-wavey neuroscience and pictures of brain scans. Suddenly, an explanation of human behavior that's based on circular reasoning and poor logic changes from something lay people won't accept to something we're happy to buy into.

Bishop's entire, hour-long presentation on the science of bad neuroscience is available to watch online for free. If you don't have time, check out this summary of the key points at the Neurobonkers blog.

Via Mind Hacks