The American Need to Invest in Science and Technology

May 31, 2010

Right now, the American people are experiencing the worst natural disaster in the history of their country. A kilometer deep in the Gulf of Mexico is an entire natural reserve of oil leaking into the ocean. Over the past decade, America’s lead in producing scientists, engineers, and novel research has been declining compared to asian countries like China. The BP oil spill has exposed this achilles-heel by leaving the American government helpless. If anyone can stop this oil leak, it is the private companies who spend the most money on scientific research. During Obama’s most recent press conference, he said,

“What is true is that when it comes to stopping the leak down below, the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP.”

Maybe America’s obsession with terrorism and wars has caused its politicians to forget that America’s position in the world is due not only to its power and strength but also to its brains and scientific knowledge. This is certainly the case when it comes to public education, where children are taught hardly any science anymore, leading to the scientifically most embarrassingly  ignorant population in the Western world. As a previous elementary school science teacher, I will say that the quality of our elementary science education is pitiful. This leads most americans to learn the majority of their scientific knowledge outside of school! However it usually takes some time before such lag in education begins to affect the actual production of gadgets and research and so far we haven’t felt the  inevitable effects of this scientifically-illiterate population maturing.

Thankfully, a recent bill has been approved by the House of Representatives that is awaiting Senate approval and will grant $84 billion dollars to scientific research and technology. This bill has been derailed twice already by the Republican party (A.K.A. the party of ‘No’) but has finally been approved. It is a good start to overcoming the recent decline in the U.S.A.’s role as the world’s leader in technological research.

In the New York Times, David Brooks discusses how this recent oil spill is one of many areas in the fields of science and technology that is becoming too complex for people to handle. Steven Novella writes in his blog that one possible solution to this problem is creating robots to help combat situations where humans are inadequate to stop disasters. This is already being done with the Deepwater Horizon oil leak by using BP’s underwater robots to fix the leaking pipe. It is such robots that are missing in the governments arsenal for stopping the growing slick. If they had pumped more funding into research in this area, perhaps they would have some of their own robots to use. For now, the American people and America’s ecosystems are in the hands of BP because they are the only ones with appropriate robots at their disposal.

I hope that this environmental disaster proves to the government how important scientific research and technology is for us. If we want to help prevent this sort of occurrence in the future, we should be producing more engineers and scientists and we should do so from an early age, rather than attempting to fill our textbooks with lies and unscientific religious beliefs. That way the next time something like this happens we will not only have more scientists and engineers we can rely on, but also better tools for the job.


About Science

April 18, 2010

This blog mostly covers scientific subjects. It is my understanding from my own experiences that most people don’t grasp what science is and why it is so important. For example, people don’t realize the differences between acupuncture, or herbal medicine or chiropractic as anything different from science-based medicine. The fundumental difference between these modalities of therapy and, say, aspirin is that they don’t use science to support their claims and, if they do, it is lacking, flawed and never corrected.

Let’s start off discussing how stupid we are. We see ourselves as these incredible beings much greater than other animals. We are more intelligent but not by much. Primates (and birds) use tools, just like us. They can speak with sign language and use spears to hunt. Our brains are better adapted to these skills but we broke off evolutionarily not that long ago. A new discovery shows that at one point,three species of humans coexisted with one another around 40,000 years ago and a fourth lived on an island in the phillipines. Only our species remains, but it is closely linked with others. We only began to use metal tools 6,000 years ago and we were hunter gatherers until 10,000 years ago. It took a long time for us to create a society vastly different from how animals live.

We continue to believe that we are something extra special and smart. The problem with this is that we fail to realize how much our minds affect our observed reality. Time and time again, studies show that our memories are terrible at remembering facts, we observe what we believe (rather than vice versa) and we have natural tendencies to believe certain things. Even our most basic choices and behaviors are affected by our surroundings and circumstances.

Such facts are a thorn in our methods of science. Experiments are bombarded with biases and confounders that we often fail to realize. One of the most obvious examples of this is the placebo effect. Take some ginkgo and go study. Surely you’ll think your memory is better when in fact it doesn’t do jack to help your thinking.

But the reason science is so great is that it incorporates this knowledge of our inherent biases and the ways that data can be affected through non objective influences and it controls for these factors. One of the greatest ways to help do this in drug experiments is by doing a double blinded study where neither the experimenter nor the subject knows whether he is receiving a true therapy or not. This prevents both sides from biasing the outcomes of the experiment.

Another way to help filter out bias is through the replication of experiments. There are many published experiments and studies that show benefits of medical therapies whose results have never been replicated by independent researchers. This implies that the experiments are flawed in some way. Supporters of sham therapies use these outlying studies to support their treatments. That’s why (and this is key) truth is based not on any single study but on the entire scientific literature.

Another important way of filtering out flawed studies is by subjecting them to a peer review before they are published. Anonymous experts on any specific topic are chosen to read and criticize every detail of a study before it is published. This makes it much more difficult for scientists with an agenda to publish a biased report after such rigorous inspection.

Furthermore, all published data is made available to the public, allowing for ongoing review and repeated experiments and observations by multiple researchers operating independently of one another. This is because science, unlike most everything else, is open to falsification if new evidence is presented. Want to know if something is based on proper science? Ask yourself this, “How much has this therapy changed over time?” If it is stagnant, like chiropractic or accupuncture, chances are it does not abide to science very rigorously and therefore doesn’t rely on actual proof of its benefit. Science-based medicine, on the other hand is always being re-examined and changed depending on proper objective data that has been acquired in ways that prevent bias and people’s beliefs from affecting it as best as possible.

One of my favorite ways of figuring out whether something is true is not by attempting to prove it but instead attempting to disprove it. There is a hypothesis and, more importantly, there is a null hypothesis that says something does not work. Before saying something has benefit, true science attempts to prove the null hypothesis (that it does not) as best as possible many times over. Only if experiments can not prove the null hypothesis is something considered to be valid. Homeopaths can cherry-pick some studies implying that homeopathy works but scientist sure as hell can prove that it doesn’t work more concretely. Thus it is labeled as pseudoscience.

Finally, I’d like to mention Occam’s razor as an important principle in science. Always expect the most simple reason for anything first. If there is a study that sounds too good to be true, like one that shows that accupuncture helps cure cancer, don’t believe it right away (like the media often does) but instead believe the more simple and obvious reason for this conclusion: the study was flawed! I recommend cutting away the nonsense and believing the more logical and scientifically-proven conclusions in life.

All of these things I am discussing can be shown in the general trends that pseudoscientific theories undergo in the published literature. Most adamantly-supported beliefs have small, poorly conducted studies demonstrating that they work early on. Then, as more proper and larger studies are conducted, the positive data starts to disappear. Finally, as the largest and most expensive studies are performed the pseudoscientific theories are shown to be false. Unfortunately, supporters of pseudoscience continue to cherry-pick the early studies to support their beliefs.

A current example of this is the anti-vaccination movement’s strong adherence to the principle that vaccines cause autism. Their hero, Andrew Wakefield, published a study showing that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Subsequent investigations showed no link and eventually the study itself was removed from the published literature because it was found that Wakefield was bribed by lawyers involved in vaccine-caused-autism lawsuits to change his data. Yet anti-vaxers continue to support him and refuse to change their stance on vaccines despite a mountain of evidence disproving their claims.

This sort of behavior is common in all aspects of society. Conspiracy theorists believe that the government caused 9/11, herbalists believe herbs can cure a plethora of diseases, politicians think Obama isn’t a US citizen, ghost hunters communicate with spirits, religious leaders claim their authority comes from a supernatural source, and so forth. What ties all these together is the lack of adherence to a scientific method before making their claims and forming their beliefs. That is why I love science so much: if conducted correctly, it is almost impenetrable to human bias.