Monday, June 26, 2006

Scientific Regret

I was just reminded today of something by Nadine Stair I first read something like twenty years ago:

If I Had My Life to Live Over

I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I would take more chances.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day…

(The complete text can be found here).

Science has finally caught up with popular folk wisdom. A recent study showed that, as people get older, we do indeed regret more the fun things we did not do rather than the mistakes we made (at least the minor ones).

Just a reminder to anyone out there who, like me, tend to always be looking far into the future.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

More Evidence Against the Bush Administration’s War on Terror

A few months ago the Pentagon came out with a new anti-terrorism policy which admitted that nonviolent means of fighting terrorism were more effective than fighting. This was promptly ignored by the Bush administration.

Now more studies are coming out which support this conclusion. A study by the Oxford Research Group indicates that a policy of violence is counter productive because it exacerbates rather than corrects the problems which give rise to terrorism. This is supported by another study which showed that most suicide bombings are done as revenge for wrongs (perceived or actual) done against a group the bomber identifies with. So responding to these acts with more violence simply perpetuates the problem, just as many “peaceniks” have been saying for years.

Will any of these results change the Bush Administration’s policies? Don’t bet on it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Science sheds some light on medical malpractice lawsuits

After all the years of debate on medical malpractice lawsuits, it is nice to finally see some reliable facts on it. A nice article in Science News did a pretty good job of discrediting the claim that most (or at least many) of the lawsuits were baseless. In fact, what was found was that there were many more valid claims not paid than invalid claims paid. I guess this makes sense given that the insurance companies could likely hire more and better lawyers than the average medical patient.

The best part about this study was that the cases were evaluated by doctors themselves. I would expect that doctors, if anyone, would tend to side with other doctors and against the people bringing lawsuits against the doctors, but this was not the case. It is always reassuring to see people rise above their own self-interest to be honest with others. I wonder if the reaction of the insurance companies to these results will be so honest.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Corporate funded “science news”

One of the science blogs I used to recommend, but have since deleted is the impact lab. Too many of their science “articles” look to me to resemble paid corporate advertising or public relations rather than actual science. One example is an article named “Is thinking obsolete?” which claims that the increase in oil and gas prices is completely justified and that anyone who questions this is not thinking. Notice, however, that no actual facts are sited to justify this claim, just some vague statements and rhetorical questions.

OK then, lets take up the challenge and look at some quick facts, shall we? For one, the author implies (by means of a rhetorical question) that the profit on a gallon of gas is less than ten cents. I know enough of “creative accounting” and the methods such as shifting profits to wholly owned subsidiaries to realize that figuring out a large company’s finances can be a major undertaking even for the best accountant, but we can at least look at the overall financial picture:

The price of unleaded gas has increased about 28% or 64 cents/gallon in the last year and about 88% or $1.36/gallon in the past three years. (Prices from aaroadwatch). Meanwhile, the overall US inflation rate has been about 3.5% in the past year and 3% in the past three years. (From So someone is making over 50 cents more profit per gallon than last year and over $1.20/gallon more than three years ago. Any claims to the contrary are pure nonsense. Other costs (except medical insurance) have not risen significantly more than the overall inflation rate.

It may be argued that the suppliers have a right to make whatever profit they can from their product and I would be hard pressed to find a scientific argument against that. But when fake science and mathematics are used as justification, then I start doubting whether there truly is a valid excuse.

In any case, if you are looking for valid scientific information, bookmark the sources listed on the right. These people seem to do an honest job of presenting the most accurate information they can. Sciencedaily is an especial favorite of mine lately: I like the way they link to the original source when possible and also have good links to similar information. This makes researching a given topic much easier.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Children (or Possibly Parents) Believe in Science

There is a great article over on Livescience explaining how children find scientific explanations more believable than religious ones. I thought it interesting tha the explanation was thought to be because parents gave scientific explanations in a more matter of fact tone of voice versus more emotionally for religious explanations. Perhaps because they themselves found the scientific explanations more believable? It is pretty much a given that it is not wise to question another’s religious beliefs unless we are ready to deal with strong emotional reactions. I suppose the reaction is not that much different when the questioner is a child.
On the other hand, the researcher’s explanation for the difference in the children’s reaction does not agree with my own childhood memories. For one thing, I distinctly remember more of the religious explanations I was given than the scientific ones. The reason is that the religious explanations often did not make sense to me, so I spent considerable time afterwards puzzling over them. Also, the scientific explanations that puzzled me became clearer as I grew older, the religious ones continued to be puzzles. Which is why I eventually became a scientist, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Exporting American Values?

Now that the valid-sounding excuses for invading Iraq, like Weapons of Mass Destruction, or al-Qaida links, have been thoroughly discredited, the latest reasoning has been that we are “exporting American values”. Well, lets see just what ideas have been successfully exported to Iraq:

We read every day about more killing in Baghdad, not to mention the rest of Iraq. Since US cities have the world’s highest murder rates, sounds like this important “value” got exported all right.

What is the cause of this violence? Intolerance between the different religious sects, for one. Apparently differing religious beliefs are no longer tolerated in Iraq. Sounds like the values of Pat Robertson and the religious right have a firm foothold in Iraq now.

What is the Iraq government doing about this? Lots of words and no action. Apparently, they have more important things to worry about than the welfare of ordinary citizens. Sounds like a perfect copy of the Bush administration priorities.

Despite being one of the largest suppliers of oil in the world, Iraq has been having severe problems supplying its own citizens with gasoline. Not to mention that billions of dollars worth of oil revenue has somehow disappeared. Remember Enron and so-called power shortage in California? Sounds like the “values” of corporate corruption and theft have found a home in Iraq as well.
So sounds like Bush has finally found a true justification for his war. The only question now is how to properly reward him for his efforts. Something like bringing him in front of the world court for crimes against humanity sounds good.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A god is within each of us?

What do we do when we have a difficult problem to contend with? Often, we pray, meditate, “sleep on it” and then wait for answers to come to us in dreams, or just out of the blue. These approaches have been successful for thousands of years. The old reasoning has been that god of one type or another has been supplying us with answers. But now science has been giving us a look into what has been going on deep inside our minds, where our consciousness does not go.

For one thing, our unconscious thinking seems to arrive at answers before our thinking mind does. One study showed that we start making correct choices before we realize what the correct choice actually is. So our unconscious mind is making our choices for us, then the conscious mind finally catches on and we understand why what we are doing works.

The unconscious mind also picks up on details that the conscious mind is too busy to notice. So often answers can pop into our consciousness that we did not realize we knew. Again, they were there all the time, but we did not realize it.

We are always unconsciously processing the things we learned, especially in sleep. As this process goes, on, the new ideas are integrated in with the things we already knew. So suddenly a new connection between ideas can be made and new understanding comes, apparently from nowhere. But all this processing does not necessarily good; we can also create false memories by the same technique. So our new understanding should be checked, not just unquestioningly accepted.

When it comes to emotional matters, it seems that letting our unconscious mind alone to do the thinking for us makes for more emotionally satisfying answers. But when our emotions can effect the lives of others, decisions made by our unconscious mind can lead to disastrous results.

On the other hand, our unconscious mind is not a critical thinker and can be easily influenced by extraneous information. So the process where the conscious brain “learns” what the unconscious brain has figured out makes sense: our conscious thinking weeds out the mistakes our unconscious mind makes.

So listen to your internal god, but check the answers for errors with your conscious mind. After all he/she is as human as you are.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

National Day of Prayer

May fourth has been declared a “national day of prayer” in the U.S., so this seems a good time to review the benefits (or otherwise) of prayer.

First of all, as mentioned previously, praying for others does not seem to do them any good. On the other hand, studies do indicate that praying can be good for oneself. The same or similar studies also indicate that the similar benefits can be obtained from things like exercise or meditation, including non-religious meditation. Meditation also required less than an hour a day to be useful, so an entire day does not have to be dedicated to this one task. What then to do with the rest of the day?

Being a blog about science, thinking certainly comes to mind. Fortunately, others believe the same, so I learned that some cool people declared May 4 to also be “national day of reason”. (Thanks Freakgirl!)

Verifying things people have told you is also a useful pastime, so you could check things out on the science sites listed on the right or do a Google search. Even if you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, you are bound to learn something.

On the lighter side, the benefits of prayer depend on what you are praying for, as shown by this old comment:
“When I was young I used to pray for a bike. Then I realized that God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.”;-)

Whatever you do, have a happy and productive fourth of May day.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Interpreting Scientific Results

While most aspects of performing scientific studies are pretty solid, interpreting the results of a study is still somewhat of an art, and one that I think could still use some improvement, especially in the case of psychology. Take, for example, a resent study where the subjects were asked to make a choice of betting money on one of two games: one where the odds were a fair fifty-fifty and the other where they did not know the odds. Before you read on, think for a minute or two about which game you would pick and why. (The why is especially important).

The results of the study were that almost everyone picked the fifty-fifty game. They also found that the part of the brain associated with fear was active when the subjects thought about the game with unknown odds. The researchers interpreted this to mean that people were afraid of ambiguity. (More information on this study can be found here).

If the only information available to make a decision was what people were told during the study, then I would tend to agree with the experimenters’ analysis. But people also have past experience to go by (sometimes called “common sense”). When faced with insufficient information, thinking back over past experience seems like a sensible thing to do.

So what has your experience been with betting games of unknown odds? Remember when you were young and some other kid came up to you and said “Want to bet…”? The other kid always won, no matter how safe the bet seemed to be, didn’t he? How about casinos and state lotteries? Ever seen one designed to give money out instead of take it in? Not me. So it seems like the people in this study were perfectly right to be nervous and distrustful of the unknown risk game and picking the fair one really was the best choice.

People who know me or have read much of my blog know I am a fan of the scientific approach to understanding reality. But that does not mean unquestioningly trusting the results of a single study. Using our own brains and experience is always a good habit to develop.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Embracing Reality

One thing that most religions have, but the secular world lacks, is a comprehensive guide to how to live one’s life. Sure, there have been philosophers (dating back at least to Aristotle) who have given their opinions on many topics. But these were the thoughts of individual people while religious texts were more often selected from many sources (note the current controversy over the recently-discovered Judas gospel). A secular version of this, a compilation of advice and thoughts from many sources has never been created.

A wiki web site called Embracing Reality is an attempt to do just that. It is intended to be a guide to living based on purely secular sources: scientific studies and independent observations and thoughts of the world around us. All based on reality. No need for myths or magic or the imagined.

Is this an arrogant and impossibly grand task? Perhaps. But what I think makes this possible is that it is, like Wikipedia, relying on the contributions from as many people as possible. People from many different backgrounds, all with their own experiences, expertise and understanding of life. One does not have to be a scientist or philosopher. These people already have places they publish. This is about getting these ideas and putting them together in a way that ordinary folk can use.

There is not much on the web site yet. As of this writing, it is just a day old. But I have high hopes. If enough people are willing to take some of their time to add something of value, then this could make a significant difference in people’s lives.

So make a positive difference in the world, contribute a bit of your knowledge today.