All posts filed under: Science

The Strange Truth About Alternative Facts

Facts are overrated in political and moral debates. They’re fragile and impotent. They don’t do the work expected of them. What follows is an explanation of why no one should be persuaded by most facts. This is not a rehashing of the well known inability of facts to persuade emotional beings. Nor is it a postmodern denial of truth. My point is that facts which are absolutely true can be absolutely irrelevant in overlooked ways. It’s obvious that facts can be irrelevant; everyone knows that. But some facts which seem relevant are not. For example, let’s say you ask me whether or not women face gender bias in grad school admissions and I tell you that hummingbirds can fly backwards. This is an obviously irrelevant fact. But if I told you that data shows female applicants were significantly less likely than male applicants to be accepted to grad school, that would also be irrelevant. How could that fact possibly be irrelevant? It seems like exactly the kind of fact that could help answer the question. But …

In Defence of Scientism

Nothing provokes widespread horror quite like science trespassing where it is said not to belong. This aversion is so powerful that it can unite the most disparate areas of the sociopolitical spectrum in a righteous fury. The extension of science into other spheres is typically decried as scientism, but the term is so broadly used that it’s often hard to pin down exactly what is being criticized. Applying science ‘out of context’ is too disenchanting, it is complained, too reductionist, too Western, too uncertain, too arrogant. Most of these objections are spurious. Science is not exclusively reductionist, nor uniquely Western, and its notoriety for disillusionment is as overstated as it is perverse. These objections are propped up by a litany of misconceptions about the scientific method and practice, and often make strawmen of themselves by attacking obsolete scientific philosophies. Turning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, we find scientism to be an inflated “trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (in philosophy, the social sciences, and the …

The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

Last year I was working on an article about the tech industry when I decided to interview a software engineer who writes for Quillette under the pseudonym “Gideon Scopes”. Gideon had mentioned to me in passing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild variant of autism spectrum disorder) and I wanted to find out more about the industry from the point of view of someone who is not neurotypical. I first asked him when it was that he knew he wanted to work in technology. He told me that he first knew it when he was five. His family got their first home computer and he was transfixed. Later, he would come across a brief introduction to the BASIC programming language in a book and proceed to teach himself his first programming language. He was only seven. As a child he taught himself programming out of books, mostly alone at home. He told me that his family were not particularly supportive of his hobby. His mother was not happy to see him focus so intently on one …

a Chemical Garden

Where Did We Come From? An Astonishing Hypothesis

“Where did we come from?” Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life tries to answer this question. He looks back to two moments in time: 1. When bacteria/archaea appeared on Earth about 4 billion years ago. 2. When complex life (eukaryotes) appeared about 2 to 1.5 billion years ago. Lane discusses both of these events. This article will restrict itself to Lane’s hypothesis about the first of these events: the likely emergence of simple cellular life (bacteria and archaea) from an alkaline hydrothermal vent located near a mid-ocean ridge. I shall also discuss recent research about the likely evolution of viruses. This indicates that the ancestors of modern viruses were independently replicating virocells that co-evolved with the bacteria and archaea, and all three of them – virocells, bacteria and archaea – had a last universal common ancestor (LUCA). Lane’s book does not have a detailed discussion of viruses. Nor does the virocell literature discuss where virocells may have evolved. But if Lane and virocell theory are both right, the first …

The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier

Richard Haier is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California Irvine and is the author of the Neuroscience of Intelligence published by Cambridge University Press. Over his career he has used neuroimaging to study how brain function and structure relate to intelligence, and the ways in which “smart” brains work. He is the editor-in-chief of the journal Intelligence and the past president of the International Society for Intelligence Research. I reached out to him earlier this year to ask about his new book. What follows is an interview conducted with Quillette via email. Thank you for taking the time to talk to Quillette Professor Haier. You’ve spent forty years studying intelligence and have compiled your knowledge into a new book accessible to the general reader called The Neuroscience of Intelligence, which looks fascinating from its précis. Firstly, can you tell us how you became interested in intelligence research, and how you came about studying intelligence through neuroimaging? When I started graduate school at Johns Hopkins in 1971, I was interested in social psychology and personality …

Should We Be Worried About GMOs?

After shaping life on earth for billions of years, evolution via natural selection is in decline and being replaced by intelligent design. For the last 12,000 years, the survival of species has been primarily determined by their usefulness, and vulnerability, to human beings. Now, finally, we have found a way to do away with even this vestige of our biological past and to design species from the top down, working out what traits are desirable and undesirable to us and genetically engineering organisms accordingly. How much should this worry us? For many, the answer is “a lot.” For instance, Nassim Taleb has made dire warnings about the application of GMOs, arguing that they “represent a public risk of global harm” given their potential to produce unrecoverable losses or “ruin.” According to him this justifies a highly precautionary response of “avoid at all costs,” unless and until GMOs have been proven to be safe beyond doubt. GMOs pose such risks, and justify such a response, because, Taleb argues, their impact cannot be localized or contained. GMOs …

Beaked Up Birds: A Review of Big Chicken

A Review of Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna. National Geographic (September 12, 2017) 400 pages.   People began cultivating plants and animals on a large scale about 10,000 years ago. Farming created a steady supply of nutrients, and acted as an insurance policy so that our ancestors weren’t constantly beholden to the whims of weather and the migration of animals. Of course, weather also affected crops, and farm animals sometimes escaped their pens or were killed by parasites. But settled agriculture allowed us to spread risk over longer periods of time and across more people. Agriculture brought with it enormous benefits, including a larger trading network, a greater division of labor, and even some genetic changes that we’re better off with than without. But it also exposed us to new risks, including a less diverse source of nutrients, and new pathogens (some of the genetic consequences of agriculture are a product of our new diet and new pathogens: those who didn’t adapt were culled by the invisible hand of natural selection). When we began to domesticate animals, …