Social Sciences

Last week, I wrote about how conspiracy theories have been flowing fast and furious about the Zika virus and microcephaly. Even if you didn't see that post (perhaps instead having seen this one), you've probably seen the news reports describing how last fall the observation of a large number of cases of microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head and delayed brain development, in Brazil led researchers investigating the problem to suspect a link to a virus. That virus, the Zika virus, as you recall, is a mosquito-borne flavivirus related to dengue virus and transmitted primarily…
There is a myth about how science progresses: great men have a eureka moment, and rush in to the lab to do the definitive experiment, often bravely and with the opposition of the Science Establishment, and single-handedly revolutionize a discipline. It's nonsense. I can't think of a single example of that kind of work that has gotten anywhere -- the closest might be Isaac Newton, who developed some great ideas working privately at his home in Woolsthorpe, but even he was tightly connected to a community of fellow scientists. Science is very much a communal and communicative endeavor, and is…
The stories about prominent harassers in the field of astronomy have been coming out a lot lately, and kudos to the field for taking steps to end a severe and chronic problem that impairs the advancement of half the members of the human race. But of course you knew the counter-reaction was coming. It's inevitable. Pointing out that prominent men have been doing bad things always leads to defensive shrieks of witch hunt!. So here it comes: a "group" called Underground Astronomy is very concerned about the well-being of harassing astronomers. The women they've chased out of the discipline, not…
I've been a big fan of David Bowie ever since high school. True, I didn't appreciate his less mainstream stuff as intensely as I do now until I had been in college a couple of years, but it's not an inaccurate to characterize the effect of David Bowie's art on my life as significant. Basically, I own pretty much everything he ever committed to CD or vinyl and have seen him in concert every time he's toured, starting with his Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983 and ending with his appearance at Madison Square Garden during his Reality Tour in December 2003. I saw him with Trent Reznor in 1995, and…
There will be an interesting meeting in London next fall, New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. The description: Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the…
Several years ago, Harriet Hall coined a term that is most apt: Tooth fairy science. The term refers to clinical trials and basic science performed on fantasy. More specifically, it refers to doing research on a phenomenon before it has been scientifically established that the phenomenon exists. Harriet put it this way: You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is…
If you own a dog you may agree that it seems as if they understand our feelings. While some may call this anthropomorphizing, you know ascribing human emotions to animals, new research may vindicate the feelings of many pet owners. A study recently published in Royal Society Open Science provides evidence to suggest that dogs can mimic the emotional state of their owners as well as their canine friends, a process similar to empathy called emotional cognition. The research team recorded the behavior of animals at a dog park in Palermo, Italy and noticed that the animals copied the expressions…
SteelyKid's second-grade teacher sent home a couple of books about kids dealing with the loss of beloved pets-- one of which, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is surprisingly atheistic. We read them at bedtime the other night, which was a little rough. After we finished, and moved her to her bed (when it's my turn to read to her, we do it in the master bedroom, because her bed is really uncomfortable for me), she said, sadly and quietly, "I miss Emmy." "I do, too, honey," I said, in a less than perfectly steady voice. "She was the best." That got a smile, and she said "I remember you saying…
One of my favorite television shows right now is The Knick, as I described before in a post about medical history. To give you an idea of how much I'm into The Knick, I'll tell you that I signed up for Cinemax for three months just for that one show. (After its second season finale airs next Friday, I'll drop Cinemax until next fall.) The reason why I'm bringing up The Knick (besides I love the show and need to bring it up at least once a year) is because an article by Malcolm Gladwell published earlier this week in The New Yorker entitled Tough Medicine, which is a commentary based on a new…
Et tu, Scientific American? A few of you seem to know what will catch my attention and push my buttons, because over the past couple of days a few of you sent me an article published in Scientific America by an internal medicine resident named Allison Bond entitled Sometimes It's Okay to Give Patients a Treatment with No Proved Medical Benefits. Yes, a title like that is akin to waving the proverbial cape in front of a bull. Of course, I doubt that Bond herself came up with that title; editors usually come up with such titles. Still, the title is a fairly accurate summation of what is being…
It seems like everyone's losing their minds about Islam these days. On the one hand there are many on the left who will accuse you of bigotry or Islamophobia if you criticize anything at all about Islam. Apparently we're not allowed to notice that there are fifty-some Muslim countries in the world, but you're hard-pressed to find a single one that is respectful of the rights of women or religious minorities. In fact, it seems like most of them are just despotic tyrannies with little respect for liberal values at all. In Bangladesh, for example, it has become fashionable to execute atheist…
In 2011, a group of researchers embarked on a national study to measure burnout among physicians. They found that 45 percent of U.S. doctors met the criteria for burnout, which manifests as emotional exhaustion, a loss of meaning in one’s work, feelings of ineffectiveness, and a tendency to see people as objects rather than fellow humans. Less than a handful of years later, the problem has gotten significantly worse. In a study published this month in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers report that more than half of U.S. doctors were struggling with professional burnout in 2014. More…
I originally wasn't going to write about this particular post, but the mass shooting in San Bernardino yesterday led me to change my mind. For those of you who either aren't in the US or were somehow cut off from media for the last 18 hours or so, yesterday a heavily armed man and woman dressed in body armor, who turned out to be a married couple, entered a conference center at Inland Regional Center, a sprawling facility that provides services for thousands of people with disabilities. There, at an annual holiday party for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department, Syed Rizwan…
First and foremost, depending on when you are reading this, TAKE THE TURKEY OUT OF THE FREEZER. But seriously, Thanksgiving is, to me, one of the more interesting holidays. It is a "feast." You knew that already, but what you may not have known is that "feasting" is a human activity found world wide and often studied by anthropologists. Feasting is not exactly a human universal, as it is rare in foraging societies. But whenever certain conditions arise, feasting seems to emerge as a part of normative culture. As a human, you may automatically think of feasting as a pleasantry, a fun thing…
“Science is the one human activity that is truly progressive. The body of positive knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.” -Edwin Hubble We really got into some wondrous stuff here at Starts With A Bang this past week, including: Can we see our galaxy's supermassive black hole? (for Ask Ethan), Averaging inanimate objects can produce human faces, A tribute to the greatest French nebula in space (for Mostly Mute Monday), Can we test dark energy using the Solar System?, The moon's two sides look so different thanks to 4.5 billion year old physics, and Happy birthday to the…
I didn't think I'd be discussing Dr. David Katz again so soon after the last time. In fact, when blog bud Mark Crislip (who clearly hates me and wants me to pop an aneurysm or have a heart attack, given how often he sends me links to articles as infuriating as this) sent me a link to Dr. Katz's latest article, "Cleaning the House of Medicine", published—where else?—in The Huffington Post, that home for "reputable" quack-friendly bloviation since 2005, when I first read the article, my first reaction was that Katz must surely be trolling supporters of science-based medicine. At first, I wasn't…
As a surgeon, I find Ben Carson particularly troubling. By pretty most reports, he was a skilled neurosurgeon who practiced for three decades, rising to the chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Yet, when he ventures out of the field of neurosurgery—even out of his own medical specialty—he routinely lays down some of the dumbest howlers I've ever heard. For example, he denies evolution, but, even worse, he's been a shill for a dubious supplement company, Mannatech. Worse still, when called out for his relationship with Mannatech in the last Republican debate, Carson lied through his teeth…
A recent study that is getting a lot of press suggests that the massive ice sheets of Antarctica are on average growing rather than shrinking, and thus, not contributing to sea level rise. (The authors of the study warn that this will reverse in the near future with global warming.) However, there is reason to believe that these conclusions are incorrect. Antarctica is the sleeping giant of climate change. Human activity, mainly the release of greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels, has been changing the climate rather dramatically for the last few decades, and the consequences of this…
I like to point out from time to time that arguably the most striking difference between science-based medicine (and the evidence-based medicine from which we distinguish it) and alternative medicine, "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM), or (as it's called now) "integrative medicine" is a concerted effort to change practice for the better based on science and evidence. In other words, in SBM, we are continually doing studies to improve practice. These studies take on two general forms: Comparing new treatments with old to determine if the new treatments work better and, as has…
I consider posts like the one I'm writing now to be public service, an obligation. There are times when I don't want to do them, when they become so sadly, depressingly repetitive in overall outline (and, unfortunately, likely outcome) that it takes an effort to begin. However, given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as a result these sorts of stories seem to pop out of the woodwork this time of year, I feel I must. It doesn't matter that I just discussed another one of these cases a mere month ago. This time around, the article appears (as is so frequently the case) in The…