Archive for May, 2015

The Nautilus Weekly Science News Quiz – Facts So Romantic

May 31, 2015

Welcome to the Nautilus Weekly Science News Quiz. Can you tell your enzyme activity from your neurons? We’re putting your science news knowledge to the test!

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The Tricks Used by Pilots, Surgeons & Engineers to Overcome Human Error – Facts So Romantic

May 29, 2015

When Germanwings Flight 4U9525 crashed into the French Alps in March it did not take investigators long to determine the reason: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had been suffering from depression and crashed the plane as a means to commit suicide. But that doesn’t tell the whole story; investigators needed to know more. Why was he allowed to pilot a jet full of passengers despite his treatment for mental illness? How did he manage to lock the pilot out of the cockpit? What faults in the system allowed that fatal combination of circumstances to occur?

Such questions have become routine following major accidents. They reflect an understanding that in any complex technological system the human is but a single component, albeit a crucial one. People often blame human error for accidents when they can’t find a mechanical cause. But that’s too simple, as the investigators of Germanwings and other tragedies know; for mistakes rarely happen in a vacuum.

For most of human history, the notion of “human error” did not exist, in the sense of mistakes that cascade into technological accidents. Certainly our ancestors made their share of errors, but there was only so much damage that a slip with…

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Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking – Issue 24: Error

May 28, 2015

Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.

From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was…

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Why Do We Love #Fail Videos? – Facts So Romantic

May 27, 2015

If the Internet has shown me one thing, it’s my own astounding capacity to waste time. The rabbit holes online are deep and rich and usually absolutely fruitless. But I’m fascinated anything that’s addictive, and my personal black tar heroin is, without doubt, “fail” videos. You know the sort—a 10-minute compilation of six-second clips of people who are about to wind up on Tosh.0 but don’t know it yet. I love watching a bike jump gone wrong, or a girl burn off a huge chunk of hair with a curling iron. Skateboards, especially, seem to play a role in an impressive fraction of fail videos, and I would like to take this moment to thank their riders for remembering to film and upload their gnarliest errors to the Internet; it’s amazing that some of you can still operate a computer. And if the view counts on these YouTube videos are any indicator, it seems I’m definitely not alone in my addiction to the misfortune of others.

When 13-year-old Tori Locklear burnt off a chunk of her hair, she became a minor Internet-to-real-world celebrity.Tori Locklear via YouTube

It’s not like fail videos…

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Counting Animals Is a Sloppy Business – Facts So Romantic

May 27, 2015

In 1989, scientists at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Zoo published a study on migratory songbirds with alarming results. The study relied on 22 years of data from annual surveys of more than 60 neotropical species, birds that breed in North America and overwinter in Central and South America. And the numbers showed that more than 70 percent of these populations, many of which had been stable or growing only a decade earlier, were now plummeting.

Ted Simons was a young wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at the time. To help determine the cause of the apparent declines, his team conducted its own surveys, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Their methods were essentially the same: Groups of trained counters walked along backcountry trails, stopping at prescribed points to count all the birds they saw or heard. However, they included some additional data points, such as the approximate distance between the observer and each bird counted. This extra information allowed them to more accurately calculate the probability of detecting individual birds—a factor that could influence the final estimate. When they analyzed their data, they found reason to question the magnitude of the…

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How Science Can Learn From Writing That Is “Not Even Wrong” – Facts So Romantic

May 26, 2015

“…when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” –Nietzsche

For some people, this quote is very evocative. It feels important, and beautiful. Others feel like it doesn’t mean anything at all, because the idea of a deep hole looking at something is absurd. Many people have both reactions. What are we to make of passages like this?

By the middle of the 20th century, philosophy seemed to have split in two. The so-called analytic philosophers wrote in a way that was intended to be clear and unambiguous—almost an extension of the natural sciences. Flowery prose was discouraged. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, allowed itself to be more poetic and ambiguous, and had an approach more integrated with history, society, and the arts. Other fields started filling up with this kind of writing, including postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism. Scientists and analytic philosophers criticized these writings (I will refer to them as “abstruse writings”) on the grounds that they were sometimes so ambiguous as to be meaningless.

Immanuel Kant’s writing is famous for its flexibility to interpretation.

Even from within the humanities, abstruse writing received criticism. Art critic Denis Dutton held a “<a…

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How Science Can Grow From Writing That Is “Not Even Wrong” – Facts So Romantic

May 25, 2015

“…when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” –Nietzsche

For some people, this quote is very evocative. It feels important, and beautiful. Others feel like it doesn’t mean anything at all, because the idea of a deep hole looking at something is absurd. Many people have both reactions. What are we to make of passages like this?

By the middle of the 20th century, philosophy seemed to have split in two. The so-called analytic philosophers wrote in a way that was intended to be clear and unambiguous—almost an extension of the natural sciences. Flowery prose was discouraged. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, allowed itself to be more poetic and ambiguous, and had an approach more integrated with history, society, and the arts. Other fields started filling up with this kind of writing, including postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism. Scientists and analytic philosophers criticized these writings (I will refer to them as “abstruse writings”) on the grounds that they were sometimes so ambiguous as to be meaningless.

Immanuel Kant’s writing is famous for its flexibility to interpretation.

Even from within the humanities, abstruse writing received criticism. Art critic Denis Dutton held a “<a…

Read More…

The Simple Logical Puzzle That Shows How Illogical People Are – Facts So Romantic

May 22, 2015

In the 1960s, the English psychologist Peter Wason devised an experiment that would revolutionize his field. This clever puzzle, known as the “Wason selection task,” is often claimed to be “the single most investigated experimental paradigm in the psychology of reasoning,” in the words of one textbook author.

Wason was a funny and clever man and an idiosyncratic thinker. His great insight was to treat reasoning as an enigma, something to scrutinize both critically and playfully. He told his colleagues, for instance, that he would familiarize himself with their work only after doing his own experiments, so as not to bias his own mind. He also said that before running experiments, researchers—quixotically—should never really know exactly why they were doing them. “The purpose of his experiments was not usually to test a hypothesis or theory, but rather to explore the nature of thinking,” a pair of his students wrote in Wason’s obituary. (He died in 2003.) “His aim was to reveal a surprising phenomenon—to show that thinking was not what psychologists including himself had taken it to be.”

Peter WasonArmorer Wason, Peter…

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How the Biggest Fabricator in Science Got Caught – Issue 24: Error

May 21, 2015

In April of 2000, the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia published a letter to its editor from Peter Kranke and two colleagues that was fairly dripping with sarcasm. The trio of academic anesthesiologists took aim at an article published by a Japanese colleague named Yoshitaka Fujii, whose data on a drug to prevent nausea and vomiting after surgery were, they wrote, “incredibly nice.”

In the language of science, calling results “incredibly nice” is not a compliment—it’s tantamount to accusing a researcher of being cavalier, or even of fabricating findings. But rather than heed the warning, the journal, Anesthesia & Analgesia, punted. It published the letter to the editor, together with an explanation from Fujii, which asked, among other things, “how much evidence is required to provide adequate proof?” In other words, “Don’t believe me? Tough.” Anesthesia & Analgesia went on to publish 11 more of Fujii’s papers. One of the co-authors of the letter, Christian Apfel, then of the University of Würzburg, in Germany, went to the United States Food and Drug Administration to alert them to the issues he and his colleagues had raised. He never heard back.

Fujii, perhaps recognizing his good luck at being spared more scrutiny, mostly…

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Does Culture Really Evolve Like Organisms Do? – Facts So Romantic

May 21, 2015

It’s become common to think about cultural change the same way we think about biological evolution—so common that it may obscure whether the comparison really works. Though there remain many questions yet to answer about evolution, it’s a process that’s well-understood. We know, in great detail, how variations emerge, how they’re passed on hereditarily, and how natural selection and other forces push organisms toward change. Evolution is integrated with almost everything else we know about biology.

It’s been much harder to pin down the exact workings of how ideas change, which has led some scientists to wonder just how deep and literal is the connection between biological and cultural evolution. The greatest skepticism has been aimed at the idea of memes, ideas that are purportedly the individual units of cultural evolution, paralleling the role of genes in biological evolution. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme and proposed the analogy in 1976, in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Some researchers tried to extend the analogy, arguing that the study of memes was a bona fide field of science. But after many years, the study of memetics remains stuck at square one, unable to overcome some existential questions: What is…

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