Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Mathematicians sometimes employ the imagery of a three-dimensional landscape to represent the challenge of solving complex problems. Imagine such a landscape, replete with peaks and valleys, stretching to infinity. Now imagine we want to find the highest point on that landscape, but we can only see the points that we’ve visited.

We’re standing on the highest point we’ve found, but are we as high as we could be? Are we really on a molehill, thinking it’s a mountain only because we’ve not yet discovered what real heights look like? How can we explore this terrain without spending an eternity randomly trying new locations?

Mathematicians have conjured a variety of mechanisms for grappling with this problem. They deploy algorithms, for example, that search for higher ground. They grapple with not only “solving” the problem represented by the theoretical landscape, but of inventing methods that can solve a variety of such problems more efficiently than a random walk. [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 1

It’s one of those intellectual nuggets you tuck away for dinner parties: A recent psychological study finds that people are more likely to express politically conservative values after seeing a U.S. flag. And this one: People are more inclined to support inequality when exposed to money.

Throw these scientific factoids at your conservative neighbor during the next block barbeque. You’re reactionary because you’re bought and paid for, Harry. And these American flag napkins just reinforce your worldview.

The problem with both studies, however, is that other researchers have been unable to replicate them. Worse, this problem may extend to a great many findings from psychological studies.

If you doubt that this matters, consider that as I write this, major publications are gleefully reporting a new study by a Cornell psychology PhD who has found that casual sex can be very good for the emotional well-being of young people. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but I’m wagering nobody will bother to find out, which means you can choose to believe her findings if it suits you. [Read more...]

Science and the Death of Philosophy

My boy is a bit of a science geek. He subscribes to Discover and Popular Science. They are both styled after the fashion of other pop magazines in an attempt to appeal to non-scientists (“Cold Fusion: A Special Investigation”).

Popular Science focuses on technology. The past year’s issues have featured an invisible, invincible war ship, faster racecars, the ultimate scuba system, elevators with speeds of forty miles an hour.

And there’s the new no-pulse mechanical heart that has revolutionized heart replacement by running steadily at 10,000 rpm instead of trying to pulse like a heart made of muscle. This advance is making the old heart, “that mimics nature’s lub-dub… as comically shortsighted as Leonardo Da Vinci designing a flying machine with flapping wings.” People are now walking around, living comfortably, with no pulse whatsoever. [Read more...]


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