Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Evangelical Christianity, Only 3 Centuries Behind Science

April 14, 2014 Leave a comment


Pastor John Hagee, the well-known televangelist, is out with a new book and it looks like he’s trying to give Isaac Newton a physics lesson.

According to Hagee, God is “controlling the Sun and the moon right now to send our generation a signal,” which is why we have eclipses. That might have been a compelling theory, but Isaac Newton figured out that the Sun, moon, and all planetary bodies follow natural laws and aren’t actually celestial pegs in God’s Lite-Brite billboard. Granted, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a pretty dense book and Hagee may not have had a chance to read it. Then again it’s been around since 1687 so you think he might have heard about its lessons by now.

Helpfully we have Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot to let prophesying Christians catchup with three centuries of scientific advancement. Episode 3 takes on the issue of scientific vs religious prognostication specifically.

In an arduous tour-de-force of mathematical brilliance, [Edmund] Halley discovered that comets were bound to the Sun in long elliptical orbits. And he was the first to know that the comets seen in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one in the same – a single comet that returned every 76 years.

In a stunning example of true pattern recognition, he predicted it would be seen again within 50 years in the future. For millennia comets have been props for mystics who considered them to be merely omens of human events. Halley shattered their monopoly; beating them at their own game. A game that no scientist had ever played before: prophesy. And he did not hedge his bet. Like Babe Ruth predicting where his next home-run would land in the stands, Halley stated flatly, the comet would return that the end of 1758 from a particular part of the sky, following a specific path. There is hardly a prophesy attempted by the mystics that ever he even strives for comparable precision.


Newton’s laws made it possible for Edmond Halley to see some 50 years into the future and predict the behavior of a single comet. Scientists have been using these laws ever since – opening the way to the moon and even beyond our solar system.

In contrast we have Hagee’s prediction: a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.” It doesn’t really seem quite as precise. Maybe Hagee should pick up Newton’s Principia or Halley’s A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets Compared to the Bible, they’re practically new releases!

(image: Cosmos photo gallery)

The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

Vitamyth, ctd.

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Last October I wrote a post cautioning readers about the risks of vitamin supplementation. Mega-dosing vitamins pose health problems such as a higher risk of cancer. Based on oncologist Dr. Larry Norton’s advice I argued that daily multivitamins pose similar risks.

Looks like I need to take that last part back. A large well-done study has recently come out that found a statistically significant reduction in the number of participants developing cancer if they took a daily multivitamin.

Conclusion  In this large prevention trial of male physicians, daily multivitamin supplementation modestly but significantly reduced the risk of total cancer.

I asked health policy blogger and medical doctor Aaron Carroll (who I heard about this study from) what he made of the apparent discrepancy from past research on this topic:

That was also a cohort study. All kinds of biases, and there’s no way that it can test for causation.

Now I’m not dismissing cohort studies out of hand. But the results of the study you link to should make one pause and say, “There appears to be an association between MVI use and mortality. Maybe we should test that with an RCT.”

They did one. It’s the study I talked about. It showed that MVIs reduce mortality. This was huge RCT with years-long follow-up.

Just so everyone knows, an “RCT” is a “randomized controlled trial,” and, as Wikipedia notes, have “a superior methodology in the hierarchy of evidence in therapy.”

I also emailed the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where Dr. Larry Norton works to see if he had a reaction. Unfortunately, when they found out I didn’t work for a well-known publication they, apparently, didn’t feel the need to comment.


What publication are you writing for and what is your deadline?



I told her and she wrote back:

Hi Dan,

I’m sorry but Dr. Norton is unavailable to weigh in.



I wrote back asking if anyone at the MSKCC “has a position generally on whether it is a good idea to take a multivitamin daily?” I haven’t received a response.

Well, until we learn anything new it looks like taking a daily multivitamin is a good idea, but mega-dosing specific vitamins or supplements is still inadvisable.

Safety First Ladies

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Wired magazine provides a “how-to” guide to checking your drink for roofies:

Roofies [Rohypnol] were usually colorless but they were reformulated since February 1999, so that they turn blue in a drink to be noticed. Cautious spikers using the new version of Rohypnol can still serve them in blue tropical drinks so the color is disguised.


[GHB] usually is tasteless, but may be recognized at times by a salty aftertaste. GHB can be produced as a clear liquid, powder, or a tablet, but it is most commonly used as a liquid.

(photo from ginsnob)

Categories: Science Tags:

Universal Questions

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I got really busy with the holiday season and now I’m fighting a cold. Science always makes me feel better; here’s physicist Lawrence Krauss:

Finally, it is the “how” question that is really most important, as I emphasize in the new book.  Whenever we ask “why?” we generally mean “How?”, because why implies a sense of purpose that we have no reason to believe actually exists.  When we ask “Why are there 8 planets orbiting the Sun?” we really mean “How are there 8 planets?”—namely how did the evolution of the solar system allow the formation and stable evolution of 8 large bodies orbiting the Sun.  And thus, as I also emphasize, we may never be able to discern if there is actually some underlying universal purpose to the universe, although there is absolutely no scientific evidence of such purpose at this point, what is really important to understanding ourselves and our place in the universe is not trying to parse vague philosophical questions about something and nothing, but rather to try and operationally understand how our universe evolved, and what the future might bring.

(“A rose made of galaxies”)

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Christmas Coincidence

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s a fun fact about mistletoe to share at your Christmas parties. Mistletoe is a flowering (and parasitic) plant from the order Santalales. I assume that means Dr. Claus discovered and named the plant in his brief stint as a taxonomist.

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October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The average healthy person acquires all the nutrients the body needs in a well balanced diet. Numerous studies and meta-analysis research continues to suggest that taking vitamins is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine reports on two new studies that show high doses of vitamins may increase certain cancer and early death risks. Without strong evidence that vitamins help and more research that demonstrates they might hurt, Bailey labels taking megadoses a “superstition:”

A good definition of a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” As data accumulate, taking megadoses of vitamins looks more and more like a superstition.

Back in 2007, Dr. Larry Norton, a leading oncology researcher, gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival that described vitamins’ cancer link. Listen to it all, but the relevant bit starts at 12:20 in the audio.

If you look at the entire world’s picture of published literature, vitamin supplementation shortens your life. Unless you’re vitamin deficient – in which case you should replace the specific vitamin you’re deficient in. It’s pretty hard to get vitamin deficient unless you have a malabsorption situation.

To answer Andrew Sullivan’s question, “But a multivitamin a day?”

Eating a good healthy diet and also taking a multivitamin is at the very very least doubling the vitamin level in your body… Imagine you doubled the water you drink, you’d be pretty bloated all the time… In some cases some of these super-vitamins that are out there are increasing levels 10, 20-fold of what’s considered an optimal amount in a diet at the present time.

Cancer cells are your own cells. They’re just more metabolically active and can use those megadoses of vitamins to reproduce. As with many other myths, believing them can lead to dangerous consequences.

(photo by Garry McLeod)

Climate Deniers Appear Wrong Even At Speed of Light

October 6, 2011 3 comments

Manhattan Institute fellow, Robert Bryce, confirms the anti-climate science crowd is even wrong about what scientists say they might be wrong about.

The [climate] science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

I’ll leave aside the terrible logic of his analogy because Bryce can’t even be bothered to get the premise correct. Even if scientists demonstrate that particles can travel faster than the speed of light, that wouldn’t disprove Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Here’s physicist Victor Stenger, who researched neutrino physics for 30 years:

To begin, it needs to be made crystal clear that despite what has been reported in the media, superluminal motion in no way contradicts Einstein’s theory of special relativity published in 1905. Einstein’s equations fully allow for particles to travel faster than light — provided they never travel slower. Physicists have speculated about such objects for years. They are called tachyons. Many searches have been conducted, with no significant signals until now.

It’s not quite a law of nature, but any discussion of science on the Wall Street Journal opinion page stands a good chance of being flawed.


The Moral Landscape Released

October 5, 2010 1 comment

I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.

I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.

Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.

Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.

Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)

Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.

Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”

I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.

Confirming Things I Already Knew

September 9, 2010 1 comment

Jonah Lehrer shares with us research that should make most of us happy to hear.

Why Alcohol is Good For You:

Well, the anomaly has just gotten more anomalous: A new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 participants between the ages of 55 and 65. Once again, the researchers found that abstaining from alcohol increases the risk of dying, even when you exclude former alcoholics who have now quit. (The thinking is that ex-drinkers might distort the data, since they’ve already pickled their organs.) While 69 percent of the abstainers died during the 20-year time span of the study, only 41 percent of moderate drinkers passed away. (Moderate drinkers were also 23 percent less likely to die than light drinkers.) But here’s the really weird data point: Heavy drinkers also live longer than abstainers. (Only 61 percent of heavy drinkers died during the study.) In other words, consuming disturbingly large amounts of alcohol seems to be better than drinking none at all.

Sex is Stressful But Good For You:

The takeaway lesson is that sex is both stressful and good for the brain. The “hedonic value” of the experience more than outweighs the temporary surge in corticosterone levels, at least in rats. Although sex appears to get less stressful the more we do it – we pump out fewer stress hormones during the act – such “chronic sex” still promotes all sorts of helpful neural habits, such as increased plasticity and new dendritic spines. (Of course, these findings probably only apply to pleasurable coitus. If you’re not enjoying the act, then don’t expect lots of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus.) As I note in the article, these findings have led Gould to search for the additional molecules (let’s called them Molecules Y and Z) that modulate and mitigate the usually destructive chemistry of glucocorticoids, at least when we’re engaged in “naturally rewarding” activities. This data wouldn’t surprise Marvin Gaye, who sang so passionately about the benefits of “Sexual Healing”

Don’t worry both pieces are full of the requisite nuance. Of course the only lesson I’m going to take is get drunk and have sex… that’s the message, right?


Categories: Alchohol, Jonah Lehrer, Science, Sex Tags:
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