In This Case, the Journal Science is Holding Back the Progress of Science

Sometimes, scientific journals hold back the progress of science.

***Please note that while political beliefs are mentioned in this post, it is NOT a political post and political commentary will NOT be approved.***

Science is supposed to be self-correcting. The history of science is full of mistakes, but over time, those mistakes are usually found, and the findings are communicated to the scientific community so that the mistakes no longer influence scientific thinking. Unfortunately, one of the main ways that findings are communicated is through scientific journals, and there are times when scientific journals are not interesting in correcting mistakes, especially when those mistakes reflect badly on the journal’s reputation. I recently ran across a story that illustrates this point.

Back in 2008, the most prestigious scientific journal in the United States, the journal Science, published a study that attempted to understand the root causes of political beliefs. They exposed several participants to images and sounds designed to evoke fear and correlated the participants’ response to their political beliefs. Based on their results, the authors concluded:

…individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

In other words, if you are prone to fear, you are more likely to be a conservative. If not, you are more likely to be a liberal.

The study was ground-breaking, and it has strongly influenced scientific research in the field. Indeed, at the time of this posting, the study has been referenced in 257 subsequent studies. There’s only one problem. It probably isn’t correct. How do we know? Because some researchers who were initially interested in expanding on the results of the study began doing some experiments, but the experiments didn’t seem to support the conclusions of the 2008 study. In an attempt to see what they were doing wrong, the researchers contacted the authors of the 2008 study so that they could replicate their methodology. They weren’t trying to demonstrate that the 2008 study was wrong. In fact, they were trying to use its methodology to “calibrate” their study so that they could get consistent results.

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MIT Professor Writes About Her Conversion from Atheism to Christianity

Dr. Rosalind Picard (click for credit)

Rosalind Picard is a Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is also a Fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, which is one of the highest honors that an engineer can receive. She even invented an entire branch of computer science called affective computing. She is obviously an incredibly smart woman who is a very successful in her field. She is also a Christian.

Several months ago, one of my readers on Facebook sent me an article Dr. Picard wrote. It describes her journey from atheism to Christianity, and I loved reading it. I really wanted to write about it as soon as I had finished reading, but every time I had a chance to blog, there was something else that I thought I needed to cover. Then I forgot about it. I was probably distracted by something shiny. That happens a lot. Recently, I was reminded of her story, so I want to share it, because in many ways, it is a lot like my own.

Of course, the best way to read her story is to just click on the link above, but I will add a bit of my own “color commentary,” just because I relate to so much of what she has written. For example, aside from the grade school part (it was junior high for me), the first paragraph of her story could have been written by me:

As early as grade school, when I was a voracious reader and a straight-A student, I identified with being smart. And I believed smart people didn’t need religion. As a result, I declared myself an atheist and dismissed people who believed in God as uneducated.

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More Global Warming Nonsense

A satellite image of the Great Lakes

One reason the public doesn’t take “climate change” (the disaster previously known as global warming) seriously is because the media report on it so stupidly. Essentially, any bad thing that happens in the world is due to climate change. Consider, for example, the Great Lakes. Their depths started to decline noticeably in the year 2000. In 2007, New Scientist ran a story entitled:

Global warming is shrinking the Great Lakes

This, of course, is exactly what you would think global warming would do. Increased temperatures should increase evaporation rates, causing lake water levels to drop.

Fast forward to today, when the Great Lakes are at record high levels. What could be causing this? Climate change, of course! As PhysicsWorld puts it:

So, what has changed and why have water levels fluctuated so wildly in less than 10 years? Drew Gronewold and Richard Rood of the University of Michigan argue that climate change has disrupted the balance between evaporation and precipitation in the Great Lakes region.

Of course, when one looks at the data (compiled by the NOAA), one sees that there has been no recent “wild fluctuations” in the levels of the Great Lakes. Their levels have varied over the past 100 years, but the variation has not become “wilder” in recent years:

Now I don’t think most people take the time to look at data like those I presented above. However, they do notice desperation when they see it. When the media take great pains to find ways to blame everything on climate change, it is natural for most rational people to start questioning whether or not it is causing anything.

Soft Tissue Showdown

Soft tissue structures in a dinosaur bone that the authors interpret as biofilms left by modern bacteria (image from study being discussed)

Since Dr. Mary Schweitzer shocked the paleontological community with her discovery of what appears to be soft tissue in a dinosaur fossil, scientists rushed to find more examples of such soft tissue in fossils that are thought to be many millions of years old. They were apparently successful (see here, here, here, here, and here, and here).

Reactions to these finds follow one of three schools of thought. Some in the scientific community (like myself) beleive that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and is therefore evidence that the fossils are not millions of years old, since there is no plausible mechanism by which soft tissue can stay soft that long. Some believe that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and are seeking a means by which it could stay soft for millions of years. So far, those attempts have not been successful (see here, here, and here). The rest accept the seemingly obvious fact that soft tissue cannot possibly stay soft for millions of years and therefore argue that the soft tissue that has been found cannot be from the creatures that made the fossils. The results of a recent study at least partially support the view of those in the third camp.

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Science and Creativity, Part 2

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In my previous post, I shared a very creative lab report that I received from a physics student in one of my online physics courses. In this one, I want to share something from another very creative student. In order for you to appreciate it, however, a bit of background is necessary.

In my online courses, students take tests online while being supervised by their parents. The parent has a passcode for each test, and when the student is ready to take the test, the parent inputs the passcode into a website. This opens up the test for the student to take. Some of the test questions are multiple-choice (I call them “multiple-guess”), some are true/false, and some are short answer. That, however, is not enough to fully assess a student’s knowledge when it comes to science, so I also have a few “essay” questions on the tests. In physics and chemistry, they are usually long, involved problems that the student must work out.

In order to properly assess the student’s work, I must see all the steps that the student takes to come up with the answer. If the student were taking the test on paper, that would be fairly easy. The student could just write out the equations being used, show how the variables were plugged it, and go through whatever algebra is necessary. However, on a website, that can be tricky. The program we use has an editor that allows the student to write equations, but it is bulky and cumbersome. Student can do their work on paper and then upload an image of the paper, but that is also bulky and cumbersome. As I result, I simply tell students to explain the steps they took to get to the answer, and I allow them to use any method they think bests accomplishes this goal. Some use the equation editor, some use paper and upload an image, some give equations using just text, and some give me a narrative of what they did.

Eden Cook is an example of the latter. She gives me a narrative of her work, usually in the form of an amusing story. There are typically characters in her stories, and they each have their own personality, which adds to the humor. One of those characters is “Newton.” Well, in one question where she had to determine the electric field produced by two stationary charges (represented by one one black dot and one blue dot), she decided to forgo the story and write a poem. I.T. W.A.S. E.P.I.C.

(The star is a footnote where she shows the vector addition, and her answer was correct.)

Science and Creativity: Part 1

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If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that science is not my only interest. I write plays, perform in plays (musicals and non-musicals), and play the piano. When people who don’t know me well find out about these interests, they are sometimes surprised. They wonder how a scientist could possibly have a creative side. I have always been puzzled by the idea that science and creativity are incompatible. Science, by its very nature, is creative. I know lots of scientists who can write amazing poetry, play an instrument beautifully, sing a song magnificently, or perform onstage like a professional. However, none of my acquaintances from the arts can solve a differential equation, analyze the motion of a body that is influenced by friction, or synthesize a chiral compound from nonchiral components. In my opinion, science and creativity simply go together.

That’s why I love it when students decide to be creative with their assignments. I have two examples of this, which will take up two blog posts. They both come from the online physics courses I taught the previous academic year. In those courses, students must write lab reports, and I grade them. I don’t have the students write a hypothesis, discuss materials and methods, and all that nonsense. That makes no sense when it comes to a laboratory exercise, and it doesn’t really prepare the student for university lab reports. Instead, I have them write out their data, do any calculations that are necessary, and then write a summary of what they did and what they can conclude from their results. The summary and conclusions must be in their own words.

In honor of my love of the theater, one student (Riley Harro) wrote his last experiment summary and conclusion as an audition, and it was stellar! It contains a lot of inside jokes that resulted from the discussions we had in class and the common phrases I use while teaching. To give you some context, the lab is about testing materials to determine whether or not they are ferromagnetic, paramagnetic, or diamagnetic. In the end, the nail is ferromagnetic, the aluminum paper clip is paramagnetic, and the matchstick is diamagnetic. I hope you enjoy his report as much as I did:

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My Review of Exploring Creation with General Science, 3rd Edition

The cover of Exploring Creation with General Science, 3rd Edition

I wrote the second edition of Exploring Creation with General Science more than 12 years ago, so the course was due for an update. Marine biologist Sherri Seligson has written a new edition of the course, which was just recently published. Previously, I reviewed the second edition of her Exploring Creation with Marine Biology and enthusiastically recommended it to homeschoolers. Unfortunately, I cannot enthusiastically recommend the third edition of Exploring Creation with General Science. At the same time, I also can’t say that homeschoolers shouldn’t use the course. In the end, there are things I loved about the course, things I didn’t like about the course, and things I didn’t understand about the course.

Let’s start with the things I loved. From the standpoint of what is covered, this course is a better fit for students who took Jeannie Fulbright and Dr. Brooke Ryan’s elementary course, Exploring Creation with Human Anatomy and Physiology. That’s because in the second edition of Exploring Creation with General Science, I spent an enormous amount of time covering the human body. Fulbright and Ryan’s course does that as well, so there is a lot of overlap for students who have taken their course. This problem is compounded by the fact that Fulbright and Ryan’s course is the most difficult of all the elementary courses in that series, so it is usually taken in fifth or sixth grade, just one or two years before the general science course is usually taken. This new edition of general science does not dwell on the human body, so students will not have to sift through all that repetitive material. However, as I will mention later on, students will have to sift through repetitive material if they end up taking the next book in the publisher’s series.

I also loved the discussion of graphs and tables that takes place in Module 3. It is very well done, and it is something that will be extremely useful for students who are getting ready for high school science.

Another great thing about the course is that many of the experiments are novel and interesting. For example, there are several “standard” household experiments on the subject of density, but this course’s experiment on density (Experiment 1.1) is one that I had never seen and is very effective. Another great experiment is the Rube Goldberg experiment that ends the course.

In addition, I loved the way that Seligson makes science personal. She starts the course with a letter to the student and ends the course with another one. That’s a nice touch. Similarly, I loved the fact that the last module is made up of personal testimonies from several different scientists. They discuss how the scientists came to enjoy science, what they have done and are doing in their scientific field, and how they relate science to their Christian faith. That is an excellent way to end the course.
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Another Foolish Global Warming Prediction Falsified

A display at the St. Mary Valley Visitor’s Center at Glacier National Park (click for source)

My wife and I go to Montana almost every year to visit family, and we always make at least one trip into Glacier National Park. It is truly magnificent, and if you are in the area, I highly recommend that you visit it. However, be aware that global warming hysteria is presented nearly everywhere in the park. You can’t go into a visitor’s center (or even look at some of the trash cans) without being told that global warming is destroying the glaciers.

While I never noticed the silly sign pictured above, it was apparently in the visitor’s center at St. Mary Valley for several years, but this winter, it was quietly removed. It should be obvious why. The sign says that computer models indicate the glaciers will be gone by next year. However, it’s clear that isn’t going to happen, so they had to do something. Rather than owning up to their mistake and discussing the uncertainties related to global warming, they simply changed the sign. Apparently, it now says that the glaciers will be gone at some unknown time in the future, unless we act quickly to stop global warming.

Now, of course, you might wonder if this was just a mistake. Perhaps a couple of signs got made incorrectly. After all, some signs in Glacier National Park say the glaciers will be gone in 2030. I haven’t heard whether or not those signs have been changed as well. However, we know that it was more than just a couple of signs. It was a sermon preached by at least one of the rangers. Ginna Kelly writes:

During my stay, I talked with Park Ranger Jim Muhlhausen about why the glaciers are disappearing. The reason is climate change. Jim talked about what he sees on a daily basis. “It’s disturbing. You can directly see the effects. The change in vegetation, the reduction in habitat, and the melting of the glaciers.”

The evidence that the glaciers are melting speaks for itself. When the park was founded in 1910, there were 150 glaciers. Today, 25 exist. By 2020, none will exist.

The same nonsense has been reported by other news outlets, such as USA Today.

Of course, the glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting. They have been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age, which was around 1850. Whether or not this is because of natural cycles that have occurred throughout earth’s history, current human activity, or some combination of the two, nobody knows for sure. Thus, it is impossible to give dates for when they will disappear. In fact, it is impossible to know whether or not they will ever disappear. Indeed, my own observations of the glaciers in Glacier National Park (I see it roughly the same time every year) indicate that they have been growing over the past five years, but I am certainly no glaciologist.

What I can say for sure is this: As more nonsensical predictions like this one are made, the less people will actually believe that human-induced global warming is happening. Indeed, past nonsensical predictions could be part of the reason that only a few people rank a candidate’s position on global warming as a major issue when deciding how to vote.

Not long ago, I wrote a post about ignorant people claiming that others are rejecting science. Well, if this is what passes for science these days, I can understand why some reject it!

Bethel McGrew, Homeschool Graduate and Mathematics Ph.D. Student

The universe is inherently mathematical. Many scientists have come to this realization, but one of the first was Galileo Galilei. In his book, The Assayer, he wrote:

[The universe] cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.

I have always been intrigued by people who dedicate themselves to learning this language, and I had the privilege of interviewing one such person last week: Mathematics Ph.D. student Bethel McGrew.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel was homeschooled K-12, and her experience produced a lifelong love of learning, whether the topic was literature, science, music, or chess (she has been a competitive tournament player but can now proudly say she is no longer the highest-rated among her siblings!) She didn’t do much with co-ops or group activities, and in some ways, I would say that her experience was that of a “classic” homeschooler. Her family used curriculum when it fit their needs, and when it didn’t, they found some other way to get the job done. For example, she said that her family couldn’t find a good course for geometry, so she just read Euclid.

In case you don’t know who that is, he’s the father of geometry. His treatise, Elements, was written around 300 BC and is considered one of the most important works of mathematics to this day. That was her primary reference for learning high school geometry! This was common in her homeschooling, perhaps because her parents (each has a Ph.D.) were so academically inclined. She read many primary sources as a part of her secondary education. For example, she read the works of Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) to learn more about the history of New Testament times.

While her homeschooling experience was quite classic, her higher education was more modern. She started with distance-learning courses from Christian universities like Patrick Henry College and Bryan College. She then transferred to Western Michigan University in her home town of Kalamazoo and continued living at home while she finished her undergraduate degree. She originally thought she would pursue a career in philosophy (the field of her father’s Ph.D. and her mother’s main professional research focus) but decided to double major in philosophy and mathematics, discovering an unexpected love for the latter when some professors helped her see the beauty of math. She was offered and accepted a teaching assistantship to pursue a Ph.D. there. As a TA, she has taught everything from algebra to applied calculus, adding occasional long-distance tutoring work on the side with Asian ESL (English as a second language) students. She has earned her master’s degree en route and is currently beginning work on her dissertation in graph theory.

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Did The 2016 Election Actually Cause Psychological Stress?

A woman screams when she hears who won the 2016 election that Donald Trump has been sworn in as President of the United States (click for video)

**** PLEASE NOTE **** This is NOT a political post, and political comments will NOT be tolerated.

One of the many problems associated with doing scientific studies on the psychology of people is that you have to ask them how they are feeling and what they are thinking. The problem, of course, is aptly pointed out by fictional character Dr. Gregory House: “Everbody lies.” How can scientists determine whether or not people are actually telling the truth in these studies? There are some techniques. For example, if the study is based on a survey, the survey can ask the same question in many different ways, and a model can compare a person’s answers to those slightly-different questions to see if there is a consistent pattern. However, I recently ran across a study that did something radically different, and I found it very interesting.

The scientists noted that many people said the results of the 2016 presidential election here in the U.S. caused them a great deal of stress and anxiety. As the authors of the study put it:

One therapist, Inger Burnett-Zeigler, wrote in Time, “In the weeks since the election, many of my patients have come to therapy with anxiety, fear, and worry…It’s obvious to me that this highly contested election is already having real mental health consequences.”…A full 72% of Democrats reported that the presidential election outcome was “a significant source of stress,” as compared to 26% of Republicans. (references removed for clarity)

The researchers wanted to see if this was really the case, so they decided to do something interesting: They studied how people searched the internet after the election. After all, in a survey, you are either responding to a person or filling out a form that you know a person will read. The fact that you know someone else is going to evaluate your responses might lead you to say things that aren’t really true, so as to look better to that person or to make a point. However, your internet searches are (supposedly, not really) private, so people might be more “honest” with Google (or in this case, Bing) than they are with people. As a result, if you really want to know how people are feeling, look at their internet searches.

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