Week 11-Addictions

Addictions involve automatic behaviours that attempt to return the body to a state of mental stimulation, easing withdrawal symptoms at the same time. So is sugar an addictive substance?

I’ve loved sugar from childhood up until around 2~3 years ago, when I felt dizzy and got a dry mouth and had frequent urination after eating way too many lollies. I consulted Dr. google, who came up with an answer that matched my symptoms perfectly- diabetes! During the time period between this epiphany and getting tested and confirming that no, I don’t have diabetes, I was able to lower my sugar intake, although it was a gradual decrease (over 12-18 months?). It was an interesting journey- I went from taking as many extra fruit bursts as I could, to being the person who rejected any offers for any kinds of simple sugar (I still ate lots of starch in the form of rice/noodles).

There weren’t many withdrawal symptoms (that I could recall), but some effective methods for managing the addiction were:

  • Being held accountable. I would tell people around me what I was doing (no sugar, because I might have diabetes), and this meant that it was difficult to consume sugar in the presence of others, because they would call me out on it. This stops the initial urges when there is sugar present.
  • Modifying the environment. Sure, I wouldn’t consume the sugar when in the presence of others, but when I was home, wouldn’t the urge have been even bigger? Sugar was everywhere in the house, in the form of lollies, chocolate bars, tea bags, nut bars, cereals, gum, drinks, fruits…. This had to change. So, less chocolate bars and lollies were bought, and new foods replaced them. Gradually, the pantry became less sugar-y and more savoury. Even if there was an urge, I couldn’t have acted on it.
  • Linking sugar to harm. I have always thought of sugar as a quick fix for my craving for it, but the fear of having diabetes helped me stay away from it. Whenever I did have sugar, I would feel bad, and there were also some ‘symptoms’, although these might have been present because I thought I had diabetes. After a while, the sight of sugar was associated with harm, and it was easier to stay away from it.

The above techniques will probably also be helpful for other addictions too- just swap out sugar for something else, although some things are much more highly addictive.

I am not proud to say I am on sugar again, but this time the consumption rates are less than a half of what it used to be.

So, is sugar an addictive substance? Yes, but it is probably only addictive for people who easily fall into addiction patterns. Let’s look at the marshmellow test. (If you’ve heard of it, then skip the video)

Although the end result for the children who wait is more marshmellows, which might be worse for them, I still think it is a valid test because it tests the ability to resist instant gratification, which is all that addicts want. It has been documented that those who waited longer to eat the marshmellow end up being more successful later in life, because in today’s society long term goals are more important than short term energy boosts.

It is sad that many aspects of life is designed around pleasing the instant gratification regions of the brain, instead of helping us achieve our long-term goals. Advertisers make their products extremely appealing and/or appear to be on sale, so we get rewarded when we buy their products; Games are amazing although they don’t seem to benefit us in ways other from entertainment; drugs/alcohol/porn can all trigger addictions; we procrastinate only to panic when an assignment is due in 2 days… As people grow older and more mature, they are better at delaying gratification and choosing less risky behaviours. I just wish the environment around us supported these aspects more.

One thing I love about science scholars, is that everyone is addicted to learning. Curiousity is the brain’s way of saying it needs more knowledge, because it feels empty without it. This is why we signed up to science scholars, right? To satiate our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Researchers don’t say “my job is x”. They say “my interests are x, y and z”. There are things we explore in science, and other fields, that don’t have practical uses- and people might ask “why do you do it?”.

Well, we’re addicts. And proud of it.

Relevant video below:


Week 10- GM plants, agriculture, and beliefs

This week we had a professor from chemistry, and a UC Davis Plant geneticist. What was interesting was the Plant geneticist had previously done a TED talk. Like a good speaker, her points were accessible even for those without much background knowledge. I had previously done an assignment related to plants and genetic modification, so I was familiar with the material. Her main point- instead of targeting the genetic engineering itself, it is better to focus on the agricultural aspect, and that of helping kids to grow up healthily (with genetic engineering as a tool to reach this goal).

We were told to choose and defend one of five stances regarding genetically modified organisms in NZ:

(i)    Research on genetically modified organisms should be prioritised and approved plants should be grown in NZ.

(ii)   Research on genetically modified organisms should be allowed but there should be no release of use of these plants.

(iii)  100% Pure NZ should have allow no genetically modified organisms at all.

(iv) The use of genetically modified organisms and organic farming are compatible.

(v) NZ’s future depends on replacing conventional farming methods with organic farming.

Most people went with the first choice (as expected of science scholars), but all the other statements had some backers too.

I chose to back the second statement for a few reasons:

  • As a country with large amounts of arable land and with agriculture as an important industry, research should definitely be done in NZ, so we can understand more about our crops and the land we plant our crops on.
  • GM plants shouldn’t be released, because of the possibility of horizontal gene transfer. If cross-pollination occurs, then herbicide-resistance or pesticide-resistance genes can enter the genome of species related to the original plant. An example is grass, which can form superweeds that are notoriously hard to control.
  • NZ, as a country, has an identity that is far from one that has GMOs. Additionally, there might be economic losses and complaints if we did start using GMOs. (Greenpeace has been opposed to golden rice for many years).

This was my stance before the talk, and this was my stance after the talk and after discussing with others in my group. At the end, a question was raised by Duncan, which was something along the lines of ‘Regardless of whether you changed your stance or not, are you willing to change your stance, if there was good evidence for you to do so?’

I didn’t put my hand up because I thought that I had pretty good evidence for my stance. However, so did the others- then why should I insist on my position over others? The fact that it came from me doesn’t make it better. I guess I am somewhat closed-minded.

As I read about the speaker today, I noticed that she had previously retracted two papers, because mistakes were made during the experiment, and these mistakes were only noticed later, when her group had tried to replicate the experiments.

Aren’t mistakes embarrassing and hard to recover from? If you bought some stocks from a new company, thinking it would rise in value, but it declines sharply, would you sell the stock then? Or wait till the season when the prices are ‘sure to rise’? Judging by my response today, I might stay stubborn and not sell the stocks. Humans are so loss-averse; while the money is truly lost when the lower-priced stocks are sold, there is potential for even more future loss by holding onto the stocks.

I think the article retractions by the speaker were respectable decisions, because while there is considerable short term loss (retracting a paper isn’t easy), there is long term gain (as a renowned research scientist, if the incorrect work remained published, the progression of science in plant genetics would be slowed). A good scientist doesn’t just strive for a good reputation; they do what’s best for science, and that is what gives them the good reputation, at least within the scientific community.

I still have a lot to learn, but being aware of my own weaknesses (eg stubbornness) is a good way to start improving as a person.

Thank you for reading!

(for more on her scientific retractions, read the Q&A with Pamela Ronald here).

Week 9- Clinical Psychology

I quite like this week’s session, because it was alot more interactive, and because of the subject. I also preferred the smaller group/pair discussions in contrast with the large group discussions we usually have.

The focus today was on how we perceive people with mental illness(es). 

What do you think of a depressed person? A person with severe anxiety? Bipolar? Anorexia? PTSD? Schizophrenia? Tourette’s? ADHD? Autism?

Each of these can be classified as a mental illness, although some are probably more harmful than others. We are familiar with these terms because these illnesses are commonly seen.

Personally, what I think of the person depends on how similar their situation to mine is. I have anxiety and mild ADHD, so I might relate better to those with similar disorders, and feel more empathetic to them. However, I have no idea what it is like to be schizophrenic, so I tend to be more fearful than empathetic of a schizophrenic person.

An issue mentioned today was the classification of something like depression as a mental illness. Originally, the purpose of this classification was to increase the awareness around something actually being wrong with the person, and that they are not just ‘imagining it’. However, the classification of having an illness is a two-edged sword: while it increases awareness, it also seems to increase the negative social stigma around those with mental illnesses. Before, the ‘normal’ people are trying to convince others, who don’t feel fine, that they are normal too. Now, with a category to put these people in, the ‘normal’ people can easily differentiate themselves from the group who are ‘ill’.

The ‘normal’ people no longer try to protect those who they thought truly were in their group. The sense of disconnection increases the social stigma against those in different groups, and it’s difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced anything similar in the first place. If we see someone getting a major flu, then we will recall the times we were ill, how it felt, amplify then empathise. This is not the same case. The only clue we have as to how they feel, is how they describe how they feel. So, I guess we better believe them? No, but some people with mental illnesses are pathological liars. No, you’re stigmatising against them..

The third case study, the one I found the most interesting, describes a man with pedophilic tendencies, who is married with a wife the same age as him, but is otherwise unsatisfied in the relationship. This man perhaps finds it embarrassing that he should be attracted to mature women but he is attracted to children instead. He has not acted on his feelings.

How different is this person from a person who is homosexual?

If we look at the world now, at least in NZ, US and some other countries, gay marriage is legal, and there is less stigmatisation against people who are gay.

How about in russia? (turn on english subtitles)

I don’t think pedophilia is legal in any country, because the child is unable to consent. While gay or bisexual people have a sexual orientation towards specific gender(s) that is different from the majority, Pedophiles have a sexual orientation towards specific age groups, different from the majority. Are the two that different?

What was interesting was when some people in the class shouted at the first person who raised the suggestion that the two are similar cases. This was an automatic reaction, because ‘gayness’ is put in to an ‘accepted’ category, for most in NZ, and ‘pedophilia’ is put into a ‘taboo’ category. We have been trained all our lives to think that pedophilia is wrong, and this training is so effective that it can elicit a reaction without us really thinking. It is difficult to change one’s perspective on a situation once they have chosen a position. What if we were all trained, from childhood, to think of pedophilia as just another mental illness? Carrying on this concept, what if we taught the future generation in a way that reduces the social stigmatisation against mental illnesses?

For a neuroscience course I hope to do next year (MEDSCI 206), real-life patients are brought into the class. It would be interesting to see my change of perspective after meeting them.

Thank you for reading!

Week 8- Big Science

This week, we had a great talk from Jim Metson, Chief Science Advisor for the ministry of business and employment.

We were told to estimate the costs of things such as an academic’s salary throughout their life time, costs for the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider, and costs of the Marsden fund per year.

Although $5 million- the estimate for an academic’s pay throughout their working lives, seems like a lot, often times, large scientific research projects can use much more than $5 million in a shorter amount of time. While research projects can keep getting funded more and more in a short amount of time, the tenure for an academic only has a slow, steady increase, and some people never reach professorship.

It is always difficult to choose what projects to fund, and because we are a small country, sometimes participation in large-scale research projects is limited (although we do ‘punch above our weight’). Big science is always associated with big money and not always associated with big returns, so we must invest in things that will bring benefits in terms of research back to our country.

One of the big science projects that NZ is funding is the Square kilometer Array.

Here is a pleasant image of space for your viewing pleasure:

All credits to hubble telescope

Although ground-based telescope systems, such as the square kilometer array, may still have some light pollutions in their images taken, the optical aperture of the Square kilometer array of telescopes is so large that it can provide super-high resolution photos of space. ‘Square kilometer’ refers to the total collecting area of all telescopes in the array.

The numerous telescopes belonging to the array are going to be built in Australia and South Africa. This is a case where NZ participates in the big science (by providing funding, computational power, and expertise) without actually hosting the relevant infrastructure.

After introductions to projects such as the SKA, we were split up into two groups. Pretending we were the Danish parliament, we had to argue for or against the statement: “We should renew our CERN membership instead of funding more academic positions”. Both sides had good arguments (some people clearly had experience in debates!), although there were only so many points to be made.

It went something like this:

For: CERN is great, to be able to participate first-hand instead of relying on open-source data is important to inspire our scientists.

Against: Yes, CERN may be great, but teaching positions are more important for inspiring our young people, so they can stay in Denmark.

For: But CERN would provide inspiration for the teaching staff, which is important for keeping their students in Denmark!

Against: But, costs better used elsewhere, like teaching!

etc etc. Although it was interesting to see who was good at speaking their points coherently and who was not (I would be in this group, although I was not picked), the debate lacked statistics to back up claims, and it was easy to make claims like the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ sides did, although they were not solid claims. How many teaching jobs can be funded? Is the issue of young people leaving Denmark really such a big problem? What does the country actually lose by not renewing its CERN membership? It would be great to see answers to these questions.

At the end, the class took to a vote, we were told to ignore the groups we were in before, but most people voted for the group they were in. I found this intriguing- why did I vote ‘For’, even though I wasn’t really sure either way? My guess would be because ‘For’ was the only viewpoint I considered, and whenever I heard an opinion from the other side, I had to think of rebuttal points quickly in case I was picked. All this made most of us biased- unless we have really thought of points supporting the other side- and when we’re not too sure, it’s easy to pick the ones we know there are good arguments for. To see a much fairer vote, we could’ve came up with 2-3 reasons ‘For’, and 2-3 reasons ‘Against’, so they can be weighed up against each other fairly.

Thank you for reading!

Week 7- Dihydrogen Monoxide

This week, we learned about a critically important substance- Water. While we can survive around 3 weeks without food, we can only survive around 3 days without water, as a general guideline.

Living organisms need water because we all evolved from aquatic life. Our internal environment is incredibly abundant with water- it is like we are carrying our previous habitat (the ocean) around in our bodies.

How much mass is in the form of water for each organ? From kangen water team

But how is water distributed around the world? While the majority of the world does have access to clean drinking water, the combination of arid conditions and lack of income means that certain countries (spread across mainly Asia and Africa) have little water to drink. Even if there is access to water, often they are contaminated with diseases such as cholera, which make the water undrinkable.

Although there is likely an adequate amount of clean water for every person around the world, it is not distributed properly. Is there anything we, as scientists, can do to solve this problem?

This is a difficult problem. A common theme across countries is if they lack access to clean water, then often they will lack access to the help we try to provide. In a hypothetical country, 20% are upper-class, 30% are middle-class and 50% are lower-class. While the upper class have permanent access to clean drinking water, the middle-class only occasionally get this access, and the lower-class almost never do.

Let’s say a solution is provided which provides clean water to an additional 30% of the total population. Who will be getting that water? I would bet that most of the water will be going to the middle-class (who can afford it) rather than the lower-class, who might not even know of the solution.

This is a case, like many other cases, where science alone does not provide a solution close to the ideal solution. Yes, as scientists, we can make recommendations to the governments of the water-lacking countries. But what if we are merely talking to the upper-class, who may be corrupt? What if the government don’t have the scientific knowledge to think of it as useful? There is a big gap between primary research and the actual global application of that research, and I have no idea how to bridge the two.

Thank you for reading!

Week 6- Eight Great Technologies

This week we got ourselves a new room for science scholars! On the third floor of OGGB, we were able to see the tennis court, domain and the harbour.

Aside from the great view, we also had a nice session. We were first introduced to the concept of ‘eight great technologies’- that is, the ones that the government are trying to fund and promote over the next 50-ish years. Then, we were told to come up with our own ideas to be funded in NZ.

Our group’s ideas are as below:

  • Cancer research
  • Obesity research
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Climate change
  • Computer Science
  • Agricultural & food science
  • Pharmaceuticals (already funded?)
  • Genetically modified plants & animals

One issue that came up during our brainstorm was the breadth/depth of our ideas- how specific do they have to be? Each of the ideas listed above can be split into many smaller parts of a whole. When do we decide ‘this is specific enough’ without being too specific?

For our ideas, the winning group would be getting 1 Million, so the depth of the idea would be tailored around what is realistic in terms of the funds available. From my perspective though, 1 million seems quite arbitrary, since I have no idea how much things cost in research, although it seems like everyone is fighting for funding, so the answer must be a lot of money, especially if everyone is looking to perfect their research.

I don’t like how it seems like funding is so difficult it turns academics against each other, but then it was also entertaining to see how funding panels function (criticise and poke holes in every project, even the best may not get their funding). It would be interesting to see if some small tricks made funding more likely- for example, font, colour, and even a shorter title for the project. Or I could just work on making the project itself better!

Thank you for reading!

Week 5- The Perfect Storm

Sorry about the late post; the last two weeks were quite busy but everything is fine now.

In week 5, we learned about the mathematical and computational models that model the climate around the earth. The earth is split into separate grids, and each grid has its conditions (humidity, temperature, precipitation) modeled.

Below is a temperature map from NOAA (based on measurements, not models). The model that we learned about, the GCM, can make predictions into both the future and the past.

While New Zealand had around average temperatures for July (i personally found June-July this year quite cold), much of the world had above average temperatures and even record warmest temperatures. It seems like the world is tending towards not just a warm trend but also instability. This is not great because the weather extremes are harder to prepare for.

Typhoon Haiyan- an extreme weather event

In the West pacific basin, storms form much more frequently than cyclones form near South pacific (where NZ is). Since summer in the Northern Hemisphere is opposite to summer here, ocean temperatures are high between July-September. Warm ocean water increases the rate of convection and is great for forming powerful cyclones.

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan got to pass a strip of sea surface exceptionally warmer than normal temperatures, especially for november, which is essentially the start of a winter season.

All credits to scienceblogs for the diagram below.

So how strong was this storm? Here is a satellite photo of the storm at peak intensity (from wikipedia):

The country in the photo, the Phillipines, is approximately the same size as NZ.

This storm caused the deaths of at least 6,340 people, and the cost of $2.86 Billion USD. Incredibly scary..

Modelling for extreme weather events and climate change

So, you might wonder if there is a way to predict when, where and how such a storm could form. However, Climate models are currently trend-based, meaning there could be predictions as to how likely a region will be in severe drought or be flooded, but we can’t know for sure. This is similar to modelling climate change. While we will be able to estimate what the future will look like, a change in one factor could easily change everything. Thus, sometimes there exists a need for modelling based on different possibilities, the most known being the worst case and best case scenarios.

During the session, I was astonished how much computational power there needs to be to predict and model global climate systems, and even then, the confidence in each predicted outcome is not very high.

This all makes me wonder about the claims media make about the polar sea caps melting and the rise in sea levels due to this. Are they just taking the worst-case scenarios, adding some pictures of polar bears on melting ice rafts (although they can just swim away) to trigger some sort of alarm response in people?

Although climate change is, and will continue to be a huge issue, painting it in its worst colour will only trigger fear in more people and let others start to deny it (as it seems so extreme).

The problem with this issue is there is no ‘lab rat’ of the earth for us to experiment with, and we end up with the results of whatever we do to the one planet we have. I hope that if we can’t reverse what’s been done, then we don’t do any more harm. Like we blame the industrial revolution for causing climate change, perhaps future generations will blame us for not doing enough to stop it.

Thank you for reading!

Week 4- Critical thinking, Science, and Medical Ethics

This week the session was hosted by 2 philosophy experts- in fact, I attend the classes of one of them! Although I thought that his first lecture (in the class I take) was boring, I changed my mind after attending this session. He was able to talk non-stop for nearly 2 hours while keeping the whole conversation very entertaining.

Since I am writing this blog post 5 days after the initial session, I had a chance to read some of the posts by other science scholars- and they were all great posts about Medical Ethics. So I want to talk about something else covered in the session- one about the role of a critical thinker.

I listen to Freakonomics radio, a podcast which ‘explores the hidden side of everything’, such as the cheating in the professional sumo wrestling scene, and the link between legalised abortion and reduced crime rates. I highly recommend their podcast and their books. Here is their logo- a nice, crunchy, juicy ‘apple’:

One of the topics covered in a recent-ish podcast was the topic of Homo economicuswhich is a person who:

  • Is consistently rational
  • Uses the least resources and labour to obtain an optimal end, making them as happy as possible

A person acted out the role of Homo economicus. What he did was ask people on a subway (underground train) how much he needed to pay them for them to give up their seat for him. He got mostly weird looks, tired rejections, or an absurdly high amount of money requested. If Homo economicus was in excess of money and really wanted the seat, then asking others seems like the rational thing to do to maximise his happiness.

And from the perspective of the person being asked, wouldn’t it be great if this Homo economicus person paid for their ride and all they had to do is stand? Or would it be too much of an effort?

A critical thinker is a rational person, and would a rational person do something like what Homo economicus did, or something else? I’m not sure, but I think that there are dangers to becoming a completely critical thinker, just like turning into Homo economicus.

  • Critical thinking can be practical for some decision-making processes, but may not be in others. For example, critically analysing your boss’s remarks may be treading dangerous waters.
  • Many people are not critical thinkers, and there will be a communication gap present between you and others if you follow the rules of critical thinking completely.
  • Life can be boring, because there will be no spontaneity, and every decision you make will be practical and great in the long run- but what about enjoying your life? It will be up to you to decide how much critical thinking to use, but I don’t think too little or too much is a good idea.

Thank you for reading! Sorry about the shorter post- I am getting quite stressed nowadays. I am trying different ways to increase my productivity, and it seems to me that a general rule is if I stay at home, nothing will get done.. I admire everyone who has the self-control and determination to study at home.

Week 3- Science In Communication

This week, we discussed why effective communication in science is so important.

Charles Darwin, as we all know, was the famous scientist/naturalist who came up with the theory of natural selection, which changed the world of biology. But while Darwin was on the HMS Beagle exploring the world and solidifying his theories, another person- Alfred Russell Wallace– was also working on a similar theory. Darwin and Wallace were co-authors of the paper: “On the Tendency of species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.”

Were long beards selected for in academia? Left- Darwin. Right- Wallace. Source: The Independent

So why is Darwin so well known today compared to Wallace? We were told that it was because Darwin was a better communicator, and I decided to do some research. I found that Darwin’s big break was not the scientific paper mentioned earlier, but his book On the Origin of Species. Although Darwin was already well-known in the scientific community before the publishing of the book, he became a household name after the publication. His theories were both based on evidence and against the common assumptions of how organisms came to be. A prevailing assumption was creationism– that life originated from specific acts of divine creation. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory opposed the beliefs of Creationists, and this created some controversy (although less than Darwin had imagined).

Darwin was frequently ill and unable to participate in public debates, which was an important form of communication, but some of his colleagues and supporters were fierce protectors of his theory.

After seeing the evidence, I am unable to say for sure why Darwin is so much more famous now, but my guess would be a combination of factors, including Wallace respecting Darwin, Darwin’s book and the controversy surrounding it, and Darwin’s colleagues and followers sticking up for him, not just because Darwin was a better communicator.

A more recent case

If Darwin was clearly a better communicator, I could’ve easily said “and that’s why communication is so important!”. This was not the case, and I am even going to argue that communication for scientists is much more important now than in the 19th century. This is because information can spread all over the world in one day, and if you say something that is not well-received, there is nowhere to hide.

Tim Hunt, nobel laureate, said this during the World Conference of Journalists in Seoul, June 2015:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!

Tim Hunt, Biochemist, Nobel Laureate. Taken from The Guardian, 2015.

He received massive criticism from this comment, losing many positions, including his Honorary professor role at University College London (UCL). And he has probably received many death threats because of his statement. This all goes to show how one single statement can change the perception of the world on one person, just like a great speech can change the lives of many.

It is difficult, because although you want to be careful what you say to the media, you also want to speak your thoughts and crack some jokes from time to time- and even then, what you perceive as something that will be well-received may not be, and vice versa. Although I can type, I don’t think of myself as a good communicator (for example, I have to work on my confidence, body language, etc.), but I think with practice I can avoid being a bad communicator.

Below are some of my thoughts on what Tim Hunt said and the responses he got- this may be controversial, so feel free to skip this part.

What he said was likely an exaggeration of a snippet of real life for him- if he has worked in labs in his whole life, then he will have personal experiences of him falling in love with girls and girls falling in love with him. A girl may have cried when criticised by him too- these statements are not factually incorrect. What I think he did wrong was he took perhaps the most notable three parts of his years of experience working with women in labs, and omitted the other parts. He defined them based on these parts of his experience, and this is stereotyping. I do not agree with stereotyping in this case, because it is not an accurate depiction of women in labs.

And what did many people do wrong? Many others read the statement, took it out of context, and used that one statement to define Tim as a person. Those people also stereotyped. Their view of Tim is based on their reaction to the statement, and it shouldn’t be. This would be judging Tim based on one of his worst comments in his 72 years alive, while disregarding the other good things he has done for others in all his life. For example, Tim has fought for years to get day nurseries established at some universities, and this has been successful in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Does that balance out your views of him somewhat?

It seems like humans are very good at forming judgments based on the information we’ve been given, and once this first impression is formed, it is difficult to change. In this case, most of the public have been fed scarce information, only covering a small part of who Tim Hunt is, and it is easy to form a strong negative impression of this person in an instant.

In controversies like this, I think many people like to choose a side because they like certainty, but I also think it is a good idea to wait and consider both (or more) sides of a discussion before choosing a side. I choose to stay neutral in this case because this means I avoid any conflicts :D.

Thank you for reading!

Week 1- A real life scientific controversy from the inside

We began the second semester with a general science themed session. In the first hour, we were introduced to the various types of science that spark controversies. In the second hour, we were given (in detail) the first-hand experience of a person who was part of the cold fusion project, which blew up in the late 80’s- early 90’s. The project received backlash from the rest of the scientific community, and the hype around it died soon after. If you’re interested in nuclear fusion at room temperatures, read the informative wiki post.

The cold fusion cell that was supposed to generate vast amounts of energy at room temperature. Taken from undsci.berkeley.edu

My post will be focused around the first half of the session, with some current examples.

The 3 types of science gone wrong

  1. Science that is wrong: The scientific method is correct but the idea/hypothesis itself is completely wrong
  2. Pathological science: The researcher is led to believe an incorrect conclusion based on his/her way of looking at the experimental outcome.
  3. Pseudoscience: Something that is not science being disguised and conveyed as science. Commonly seen in popular science!

Science that is wrong

This is the reason why we do so many experiments. When we attempt to come up with new ideas, many of them will be tested and proven wrong. And, in general, not being afraid to be wrong is good for science because we learn from our mistakes!

Although the next example may not be the creation of a scientific idea, it is motivating to see how a setback does not equal a failure, and the same applies to science.

One of my favourite stories is that of the invention of the Post-it note.

Motivational post-it note!!

The co-inventor of the post-it note was a scientist working at 3M. In 1968, While attempting to make a super-adhesive in the lab, he created a weak glue that did not hold things well together- they could be detached just by peeling gently. This was useless at first, but then he thought of making a bulletin board with this adhesive on it. Although this wasn’t commercially successful either, it was one step closer to the ‘right answer’. A chemical engineer, also working in the company, suggested that the adhesives be placed on pieces of paper, rather than on the board itself. The community that got free post-it notes loved it! This lead to the successful development of the Post-it note.

Pathological science

Is this molecule too negative? Try making it yourself.

A good example of this would be polywater– a polymerised form of water that has a higher boiling point, a lower freezing point, higher viscousity- meaning higher overall stability. In the late 1960s, it was developed by soviet scientists, and the British and the Americans learnt of this a few years later, leading to concerns that the soviets were ahead of the west. The material had capabilities as an anti-freezing agent, and there was fear that polywater was ‘infectious’- that polywater would convert normal water into itself.

Never heard of polywater? Do you want to make it yourself? Here’s my step-by-step guide to making polywater:

1. First drink a cup of normal water. Your body is used as a medium for the creation of polywater.

2. Next, you should enter the correct mental state to create polywater. You are reading this random blog, when you feel a small chill down the back of your neck.

Imagine a person behind you- what do they look like? What are their intentions? Only scroll when you have a clear mental image of this person.

… Your heart rate seems to have gone up.

… As quickly as you can, turn back and face that person.

… Nothing there. But you were frightened.

… Now look at your palms. You have created your own polywater- sweat.

(Sorry if that was scary!)

What happened was that the soviet scientist’s flask of water was contaminated with organic materials, leading to its unusual physical properties. The American scientist who debunked the myth of polywater was an avid player of handball. After a casual game in the lab, he analysed his own sweat, and it was surprisingly similar to ‘polywater’!

What I learnt from this is scientists are human and make stupid mistakes. In many cases of pathological science, the scientist makes an unusual observation, and rather than go for the most likely explanation (“There might be a mistake in the experiment”), they choose an explanation that seems to excite them more (“New discovery!”). It is this split-second of non rational thinking that drives them to cling on a false belief.

What is worse is if they are a well-known, distinguished scientist, then people will automatically assume that they are correct. Controversial statements spread like fire through the general population, and many will accept it as a fact without critically analysing what is being said.

In the case of polywater, a more well-known Soviet scientist had verified the work of the first scientist (showing that both had contaminated equipment), which lead to the general public of the UK and US believing it almost straight away.

In the case of cold fusion, a world expert electrochemist advocated for the project. Although progress in science is driven by remarkable original ideas, they can be a double-edged sword and harm the progress in science if the ideas cannot be backed up by evidence.

5 Crazy facts about pseudoscience- you won’t believe #6!

Did you know that..

all scientists practice pseudoscience?

most scientists prefer to use more pseudoscience in their lives, if they could?

– pseudoscience and Vitamin C combined is 75% more effective for treating colds than just Vitamin C?

pseudopseudoscientists should not be trusted?

– If you drop your pseudoscience course at your local university, you can still pick it back up and eat it if you didn’t drop it for more than 5 seconds?

Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams?

Unlike pathological science, there are too many pseudoscientific statements to count them all, and what’s concerning is that the general public have ‘facts’ of pseudoscience grouped together with science because they seem indistinguishable.

So how does one distinguish pseudoscientific statements from those that are scientific?

1. The source. Is what you are reading coming from a reliable peer-reviewed journal? Or is it a buzzfeed article shared by your facebook acquaintance who posts everyday even though his posts get no likes? Regarding information from the internet, common sense is good for distinguishing the good information from the dramatic fake ones. However, if the source is the people around us, oftentimes it is easier to accept what they tell us as facts. Next time a scientific ‘fact’ or piece of advice is given to you by a caring relative or an enthusiastic friend, I recommend that you ponder on it before accepting it as a fact.

2. The evidence. After a controversial statement, is there evidence or an explanation to back it up? Or is the reader left wondering? Pseudoscience may not have evidence because the writers know that there is no good evidence. Sometimes, in an attempt to provide evidence, a single, small trial (prone to statistical errors) by a relatively unknown researcher is referenced. In general, the more sources, the better, especially if they are from scientific journals.

3. The status quo- for the scientists. What do the majority of scientists think of the statement you have seen? Is there a simple reason to debunk it as a myth? Google searching a pseudoscientific statement can often come up with contrasting statements- the scientists claiming that it is false, and the attention-grabbing sites that actively promote the statement.

4. Your common sense and intuitive mind. If it is a subject that you do not necessarily know a lot about, you may be driven to believe the statement that ‘looks’ the most correct. But does it seem right? Common sense may be helpful. It may also be helpful to know more about the subject before you decide on what to believe in- or perhaps just hold your opinion on the specific topic.

5. Know the biases.

  • Experimenter bias: the scientist conducting the experiment cherry-picks the results to only show ones that have an effect. This misleads the media into thinking the experiment is more successful than it really is.
  • Publishing bias: the majority of experiments that report a negative result are withheld and those that show a good result are published. This means that the ratio of success-failure as understood by the media is different from the actual ratio.
  • The placebo effect. A new medicine is 20% more effective than no medicine? Giving a sugar pill may do the same, because people actually get better when they believe they have taken medicine, regardless of what they are taking.
  • Manipulating percentages– if your risk of serious injury or death from a plane crash is increased by 200% if you are sitting in the non-aisle seats, is that a major concern? Probably not, as the initial risk is lower than 1 in 2 million (source).

And that is my post for week 1. It got much longer than I expected- which is okay so far because I still have free time. As course work for the other courses start to pile up, the posts may begin to decrease in length- but I will strive to keep the posts at a relatively good quality level.

Thank you for reading!