Science reporting and science have something of a strained relationship. Whilst most scientists are modest and humble about the results that they produce the journalists who report on it often take the opposite approach, something which I feel drives the disillusionment of the public when it comes to announcing scientific progress. This rift is most visible when it comes to research that challenges current scientific thinking something which, whilst needs to be done on a regular basis to strengthen the validity of our current thinking, also needs to be approached with the same trepidation as any other research. However from time to time things still slip through the cracks like the latest news that the EmDrive may, potentially, be creating warp bubbles.
Initially the EmDrive, something which I blogged about late last year when the first results became public, was a curiosity that had an unknown mechanism of action necessitating further study. The recent results, the ones which are responsible for all the hubbub, were conducted within a vacuum chamber which nullified the criticism that the previous results were due to something like convection currents rather than another mechanism. That by itself is noteworthy, signalling that the EmDrive is something worth investigating further to see what’s causing the force, however things got a little crazy when they started shining lasers through it. They found that the time of flight of the light going through the EmDrive’s chamber was getting slowed down somehow which, potentially, could be caused by distortions in space time.
The thing to note here though is that the previous test was conducted in atmosphere, not in a vacuum like the previous test. This introduces another variable which, honestly, should have been controlled for as it’s entirely possible that that effect is caused by something as innocuous as atmospheric distortions. There’s even real potential for this to go the same way as the faster than light neutrinos with the astoundingly repeatable results being created completely out of nothing thanks to equipment that wasn’t calibrated properly. Whilst I’m all for challenging the fundamental principles of science routinely and vigorously we must remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and right now there’s not enough of that to support many of the conclusions that the wider press has been reaching.
What we mustn’t lose sight of here though is that the EmDrive, in its current form, points at a new mechanism of generating thrust that could potentially revolutionize our access to the deeper reaches of space. All the other spurious stuff around it is largely irrelevant as the core kernel of science that we discovered last year, that a resonant cavity pumped with microwaves can produce thrust in the absence of any reaction mass, seems to be solid. What’s required now is that we dive further into this and figure out just how the heck it’s generating that force because once we understand that we can further exploit it, potentially opening up the path to even better propulsion technology. If it turns out that it does create warp bubbles than all the better but until we get definitive proof on that speculating along that direction really doesn’t help us or the researchers behind it.
There’s an argument to be made that we should be in total control of everything that goes into our bodies and I support that idea to an extent. However when your decision can adversely impact the lives of others that’s when I support intervention which is why I wholly support compulsory vaccination. This also extends to my support of water fluoridation as, again, whilst there’s numerous arguments that can be made against it the fact that it will benefit so many at almost no risk to others means it’s a net positive for us as a whole. Of course this hasn’t stopped a vocal minority from claiming all sorts of horrific things happening due to water fluoridation the worst of which being that it’ll make you stupid.
A single article on Huffington Post usually wouldn’t warrant my attention, it’s not exactly known as the bastion of sound scientific reporting, but it came across my path not long after a similar post from a Facebook page called The Mind Unleashed claiming that fluoride in water lowered IQ significantly. Because I couldn’t help myself I spent a good couple hours tracking down the research and other articles relating to it. Just like most reporting on scientific discoveries this one is completely overblown and, when you dig into the details, doesn’t support the conclusions that many would draw from it.
I’d love to say that I was surprised by this but this isn’t my first rodeo with bullshit.
A review of water fluoridation studies done researchers at Harvard University concluded that whilst water fluoridation may affect IQ scores the levels that were detected in the study were at least 10 times higher than what’s found in artificially fluoridated water. Additionally the studies failed to control for other variables which are known to affect brain development and IQ scores like the fact that many of the studies were conducted in highly polluted areas in China. Funnily enough the control group in one of the studies were consuming water with similar levels of fluoridation to that of developed countries which shows pretty clearly that the current dosage levels work without the noted side effects.
On the flip side there’s a lot of research that shows water fluoridation reduces cavities in children and adults by a significant percentage, even in those who already have access to it through other means (like toothpaste or as an additive in other food staples). Indeed if you’ll allow me to get hand wavy for a bit there’s evidence to suggest that the average IQ has been trending upwards for the last hundred years or so called the Flynn effect. If fluoridation had a significant impact on IQ scores then we should’ve seen a harsh dip around 1960 when in fact we see the exact opposite. Now correlation does not equal causation but it’s a pretty good indicator that the negative isn’t true.
I could go on but the fact is that water fluoridation works incredibly well as a public health policy, greatly helping those who are at risk at developing tooth cavities and even those who’d consider themselves not needing it. Therefore removing it would cause harm to those who can least afford it to happen to them and that’s why bad science reporting like this needs to be exposed for what it is. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here but I know how hard it can be to debate people who spout nonsense as fact and hope that you can use this as a reference rather than having to disappear down the research hole that I did.
Life is a strange thing. No matter where you go on Earth as long as there’s water you’re guaranteed to find some form of life there. Current scientific theory posits that the reason behind this is that after the initial conditions were met to instantiate life it then set about diversifying itself into many environments in order to out-compete its rivals and become the dominant species in its chosen niche. As far as we know it’s nigh on impossible for life to originate in some of the conditions we find it in and some are just so inhospitable that we don’t believe life could sustain itself in such conditions for any reasonable amount of time.
One such location is Lake Vostok a body of water that’s buried beneath some 4KMs worth of ice. Based on radar imaging of the ice flow we believe that this particular lake has been cut off from the outside world for some 15 million years although the water is probably closer to 13,000 years old, due to the flow of ice around it. The water at the bottom remains liquid due to the enormous amount of pressure bearing down on it from the several kilometre thick ice sheet above it even though its average temperature is about -3 degrees centigrade. The water there is also unlike any other water in the world containing about 50 times the amount of dissolved gasses (mostly oxygen and nitrogen) making it quite a unique environment.
It’s interesting for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is whether or not there is life down there. The conditions are extremely inhospitable since no sunlight reaches it, the temperature would kill most microbial life and due to its isolation from the outside world it’s likely to be very nutrient poor. Now it’s not like we haven’t seen conditions like this before and then proceeded to find life there (indeed there’s a whole classification dedicated to these types of creatures: Extremophiles) but the question of whether or not there’s life in Vostok is important due to its implications.
If we find life there, we have a few other places in the solar system which could be worth investigating.
This is why the scientific community erupted in a clamour of joy recently when scienticists from the Lake Vostok outpost announced that they had found life in their drill samples and it contained DNA that was only 86% similar to current life on Earth. Discovery of such an alien form of life would mean there’s a good possibility that the oceans under the surface of our gas giant’s frigid moons might also contain similar levels of life. It would then open the path to missions like Cryobot which, up until a discovery like this, were scientific long shots that have a hard time justifying the giant budgets required to make them a reality.
Unfortunately though the announcement was somewhat premature as the bacteria discovered has turned out to be a contaminant putting the kibosh on all the excitement. It’s an unfortunate symptom of scientific reporting as the results had not yet gone through peer review which is designed to catch mistakes like this. It doesn’t mean the work they’re doing there is all for naught though as it simply means that they need to be more cautious before releasing information lest they cause another stir like they just did. Problem is without public interest its hard to keep things like this funded which is what causes scientists to release early results before the proper peer review process can take place.
However even if they don’t find life down there that will still be something of major scientific significance. As I said before we seem to trip over life wherever we go on this planet and so the current upper and lower bounds on where it can exist are a little fuzzy. Finding a place on earth where life simply can’t survive would mean that we could focus our efforts on the search for life elsewhere and potentially not spend ludicrous amounts of money and time foraging for life in places which it simply would not be able to exist in. We’re still a fair way off from knowing either way on life in Lake Vostok but no matter the outcome it will still be worth pursuing.
I feel the scientist’s pain on this one, I really do. On the one hand you want to do solid, valuable science that will be a major influence on future studies. However by the same token you have to generate enough interest in your area in order to secure funding to keep doing just that and that puts a lot of pressure on you to release results like this before they’re ready for prime time. Thankfully the scientific process works to ensure that inaccurate information doesn’t remain like that for long.
New scientific discoveries get me excited, they really do. After discovering the awesome Science Daily I found myself losing hours in research papers that show cased everything from new discoveries with great potential to good old fashioned applications of science that were already producing benefits for everyone involved. Of course it gets a whole lot more exciting when that science is being conducted on an entirely different planet so you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Curiosity had discovered something amazing, something that had could have been “history in the making”.
It’s one thing for space and science nuts like me to get excited about these kinds of things, we usually know what to expect and the confirmation of it is what gets us all giddy, but its another thing entirely for the rest of the world to start getting excited about it. You see what started out as a couple posts on my feed reader with a couple scientists on the Curiosity team eventually mutated into dozens and when I saw that Australian TV programs were covering it I knew that it had gotten out of hand. It’s not that this was wholly unexpected, the public interest in Curosity has been the highest I’ve seen since the Spirit and Opportunity first touched down on Mars, but I knew that this fever pitch over the potential ground breaking news would inevitably lead to public disappointment no matter how significant the find was.
To put it in perspective Curiosity has a very distinct set of capabilities, most of them targeted towards imaging and the study of the composition of the things it comes across. Much of the speculation I read about Curiosity’s find centred around the idea that it had detected life in some form or another which would truly be earth shattering news. However Curiosity just isn’t set up to do that in the way most people think it is as its microscopes are simply not capable of imaging microbes directly. The only way it could detect signs of life would be through the on-board laboratory using its mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and laser spectrometer and even then it would only detect organic compounds (like methane) which is a good, but not certain, indication of life.
Unfortunately whilst the scientists had done their best to try and down play what the result might actually be the damage has been done as the public’s expectations are wildly out of alignment with what it could actually be. It’s annoying as it doesn’t help the image of the greater scientific community when things like this happen and it’s unfortunately become a semi-regular occurrence. I can really blame the scientists for this one, they really are working on a historic mission that will further our understanding of Mars and many other things, but care has to be taken to avoid these kinds of situations in the future. Hopefully the media will also refrain from sensationalising science to the point where the story no longer matches the reality, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
For what its worth though I’m still looking forward to whatever it is they found out we’re still only in the beginning of Curiosity’s mission, meaning there’s plenty more science to be done and many more discoveries to be had. Whilst they might not be the amazing things that the media might have speculated them to be they will still be exciting for the scientific community and will undoubtedly further our understanding in many different areas. Hopefully this will be the only PR debacle of Curiosity’s mission as I’d hate to have to write a follow up post.
I recently made a comment about Newsbots and gave a brief definition of the term. Whilst that was appropriate in the context of the article I feel that the subject warrants a more further investigation into the culture of blogging, journalism and the ability for people to self-publish and re-publish news on the web. The last few years has seen an explosion of Newsbot type blogs, in both number and popularity. Whilst I generally feel disdain towards these types of news regurgitation machines they do have their place, as I will attempt to explore here.
First let’s consider the origins of the modern Newsbot. A great example of such a site, which has been around for many years, would be Slashdot. Formerly know as Chips ‘n’ Dip back in the pre 2000 days it quickly became a hub for the technologically inclined to gather and share news reports for one another. Over the years it formalized its reporting style and is now a giant news reporting site focused on generating (not always constructive) discussion between the geeks of the world. They are in the very essence of the term a Newsbot, as they seek out (or more accurately are sent) news from various sources which they then add their own little bit of flavour text to. Since this site is designed around this ideal and people use it as such I don’t consider their newsbotting a bad thing. I am in fact a daily reader and poster on the site.
However it would seem that the popularity of such sites spurred others to try and mimic the success, often by blatantly copying the style. Just to see what I mean about this head on over to Google’s Blog Search and have a look at the technology section (tech people are often the worst offenders since they can set up a blog in minutes). When I went there not 5 minutes ago the top 10 results were about Skype coming to the iPhone or Blackberry. Searching through the blogs shows that probably half of them are just dedicated to reporting news (why is it a blog then?) and the other half add no more then about a paragraph onto the actual story itself, most of them just quoting it from another news site verbatim. It would seem that many of them are content to rehash news that anyone in the field would know about already, and hope that they will go to their site rather than someone else’s.
It’s this kind of low value reporting that adds to the noise of the Internet. When I first created this blog (and its many predecessors) I wanted to create an unique aspect on subjects that peak my interest. Initially I fell into the easy world of newsbotting, but I quickly realised that the people I was writing to (mostly my friends) would have heard the news from other channels, and my small bit of flavour was of little to no value. After struggling with the idea of providing original content for this blog I eventually found my muse in analytical education on my various interests, something which has proven to strike a chord with like minded individuals.
I won’t hide behind the fact that many times I’ve become inspired by a certain news article or other blog. However, when I do I try to find the unique aspect behind the inspiration and bring it out to explore on this blog. In these days of instant information it is so hard to find content that isn’t just rehashed or paraphrased from some other source, and I hope that this blog provides just one more bit of signal in the noise that is the Internet.
It would be ironic if this post was newsbotted, however flattering that might be 😉
It seems every other day we’re bombarded with promises of new technology or scientific breakthroughs that can revolutionize the way we work, live and play. Whilst there is a great amount of research being done around the globe which will in turn lead to tangible benefits for all of us it would seem that we’re always told of technology that’s “just around the corner” or “at least a decade away from practical implementation”. It would seem on the surface that scientists are spending most of their time 10 years behind where they should be, rather than working on something that will provide real benefits now.
However it is prudent to note that the media is great at drawing wild conclusions from even small scientific discoveries. The majority of them fell under the umbrella of wild speculation, and I’ve got a couple of examples to show you.
One of the best I’ve seen is Resveratrol. Here’s a quick blurb on what it’s effects are:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7nuENf5FuI
A quick googling of this term brings up over 3 million sites with 10 or so links for you to buy the product. Even though this is completely unproven we still have people heralding this compound as a cure for many human ailments. The main reason it has taken off so well is probably due to its life extending properties, which has only been proven so far in mice.
Twenty years to the day that two electrochemists ignited controversy by announcing signs of cold fusion at an infamous press conference in Utah (watch a video of the 1989 event), a separate team has made a similar claim in the same US state. But this time, the evidence is being taken more seriously.
Back in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah announced the tantalising prospect of abundant, almost-free energy, but their claims of fusion reactions in a tabletop experiment were dismissed by nuclear physicists, not least because such reactions normally occur inside stars. The few watts of extra energy they found were widely considered a fluke.
Now Pamela Mosier-Boss and colleagues at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego, California, are claiming to have made a “significant” discovery – clear evidence of the products of cold fusion.
Most people will read the top half of the article and not see the clarifications that come at the end. Whilst New Scientist usually does a good job of reporting on science discoveries articles like this are so easily picked up by regular journalists and turned into sensationalist dribble that only causes people to think that scientists are promising more then that can deliver.
If you read over the article you’ll discover that they in fact haven’t discovered anything to do with cold fusion, just evidence of energetic neutrons which are unlikely to be created in such a reaction. If it did turn out to be a cold fusion reaction I’d be among the first to congratulate them on freeing us from our energy constrains, but call me skeptical when I see something that doesn’t even actually generate power as being heralded as cold fusion. I would have much preferred to see this article under the heading of “Energetic Neutron Creation in Room Temperature Environments”, although that’s not as sexy or provocative as “Neutron tracks revive hopes for cold fusion”.
So to all those people out there who are wondering where our flying cars are or why we haven’t cured the common cold yet please remember this: The media is not a factual source of scientific information and any breakthrough you hear about has more then likely been sensationalised. There are many great people working on pretty much every aspect of our lives without us knowing about them, and it is they who will bring about real progress to the world.