All posts filed under: Science

On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism

Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable. With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. …

What Does Science Tell Us About the So-Called Ferguson Effect?

American policing is in the midst of a challenge to its legitimacy. The police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in the summer of 2014 led to a firestorm of social media attention focused on police use of force against minority citizens. Social media and cell phone video fueled the viral spread of similar incidents across the United States in months to come, making police shootings a national (and international) conversation rather than one constrained locally to the jurisdictions where specific incidents occurred. Rather than speculate about the impact of so important an issue, solid research should guide our understanding and policy responses. Ferguson and related incidents resulted in civil unrest, microscopic scrutiny of police behavior, lawsuits, and officer terminations. Websites where citizens could post cell phone video of police-citizen interactions gained popularity, such as Cop Block and Reddit’s Bad Cop No Donut. This led some commentators, law enforcement officials, including the FBI Director, and politicians  to warn the American public of an impending crime wave. More crime was argued to be the result of …

Taking the Wonder Out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science. The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was. One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling. …

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest. In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy …

Good news on rain forests: they bounce back strong

When you cut and burn a tropical forest, you’re left with a barren plain of cracked red mud, incapable of supporting life – the opposite of the teeming, hyperdiverse array of life that was destroyed. Once the trees are gone, the nutrients wash away and the soil degrades into a dense, brick-like layer so hardened that plant roots can’t get through it. This was the vision of tropical deforestation held in the popular imagination for many years, but the reality is more complex – and more hopeful. In recent decades, researchers have found that tropical forests are remarkably resilient. As long as some remnants are left when the forest is cleared to provide seeds and refuges for seed dispersers, tropical forests can grow back with astonishing speed. In a paper published this week in Nature, lead author Lourens Poorter and a team of international collaborators, including me, found that forests in Central and South America can quickly rebound without human intervention on land that has been cleared for cattle grazing or growing crops. This finding …

Alice in Blunder Land

A review of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger. New York, NY: Penguin (2015), 352 pages. “Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”¹ Alice Dreger is a bioethicist employed, until very recently, at Northwestern University. The fact that she felt compelled to resign over a point of ethical principle just underscores the points she makes in the book. She has long been a champion of two things. First: that driving spirit in science – the Galilean one – that sees truth as a spiritual goal and raises a middle finger to those that disagree. Second: The just treatment of those typically marginalized and ignored because their needs are inconvenient to wider society.² Galileo’s Middle Finger³ is therefore a series of gripping detective stories exploring the various blunders of scientists who did not see what was coming when they published, of pusillanimous bureaucrats terrified of their University brand being tarnished, of the politically over-zealous, …

Gossip is a social skill—not a character flaw

Let’s face it: gossips get a bad rap. Smugly looking down from a moral high ground – and secure in the knowledge that we don’t share their character flaw – we often dismiss those who are obsessed with the doings of others as shallow. Indeed, in its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others. Studies that I have conducted confirm that gossip can be used in cruel ways for selfish purposes. At the same time, how many can walk away from a juicy story about one of their acquaintances and keep it to themselves? Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret. When disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions. In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but …