FDA approves prescription Placebo (Onion Radio News)

A recurring theme in my thoughts and work lately is psychological resistance to demonstrable facts. (See: Why facts will never be enough to make people believe). Sometimes that’s due to cognitive dissonance, emotional reasoning, or herd reinforcement. But sometimes it’s due to a plain lack of understanding of what science is and how it functions.

So this recent episode from The Onion Radio News reduced me to helpless giggles. Enjoy!

UPDATE: On a related note, science journalist Christie Aschwanden alerted me to this 2008 NYT story: Experts Question Placebo Pill for Children. Thanks! Brilliant! You just can’t make this shit up!

Why facts will never be enough to make people believe; and why journalists should learn to roll with that

Right now I’m reading Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus — a book about the bad science, bad science media coverage, and quirks of human psychology that fostered the anti-vaccine movement (by parents concerned that vaccines cause autism, despite the wealth of peer-reviewed science to the contrary).

I’m reading it because I’m fascinated and concerned why people (sometimes in large numbers) tend to cling to beliefs/positions fiercely long after they’ve been factually debunked/disproven, whether by science or by journalistic, legal, or other systematic investigation. (WMD, anyone?)

This kind of anti-fact, anti-science backlash tends to really confuse and frustrate journalists and scientists.

It sucks when you work really hard to do the fairest, most systematic investigation of a topic that deeply affects many people’s lives — but the very people who are suffering most from the topic of your research refuse to believe what you have to say, or accuse you of being part of some conspiracy to hoodwink them. And meanwhile, your less skilled or less ethical colleagues are producing their own research and reports designed to foster fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

That generates considerable friction, controversy, and conflict. And worse, it delays the discovery and implementation of real solutions.

Why does this happen — and what can journalists and scientists do about it?…

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The intersection of science and science fiction: Future Tense podcast

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. produces an excellent weekly science podcast, called Future Tense.

I just listened to today’s episode, Future Sci-Fi, which is about the intersection of science and science fiction — how they’ve influenced each other. I’ve heard most of these anecdotes before, but nice to have them pulled together into a well-crafted narrative.

Worth a listen.

Mars Phoenix Talked to Me!

I love starting the day with this kind of conversation:

I asked the Mars Phoenix lander...

Phoenix said....

Wow, that is so cool!

…Of course, I’m not talking to the real Mars Phoenix lander, but rather to people at the mission’s PR team who are tweeting as if they’re the lander — via the account MarsPhoenix. A June 12 FCW.com article explained:

Rhea Borja, Media Relations Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory… came up with the idea to create a feed on Twitter, a microblogging Web site, to help attract a younger group of space enthusiasts. …It worked. ‘The people who are following the Mars Phoenix Twitter, they’re people who don’t typically read air and space stories or follow missions,’ Borja said. ‘It’s like a whole new world for them –– literally.’

“The lander’s personality comes from Veronica McGregor, manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Media Relations Office. She set up the feed a few weeks before Phoenix, which was launched in August 2007, landed on Mars on May 25.

“The plan was to set up a blog to update people about Phoenix’s progress, but that involves a lot of people and can be very time-consuming, McGregor said. A blog was still set up, but Borja’s idea to use Twitter seemed like the ideal way to give people up-to-the-minute information, McGregor said. ‘The great thing about Twitter is that you don’t have to be in front of the computer to get updates. You can get them on your cell phone wherever you are,’ Borja said. ‘So, I thought, how cool would that be if you were out and about with friends and you’re having dinner and getting the countdown of the spacecraft [to its landing]?’

This is one of the smartest uses of Twitter for public outreach I’ve ever seen — giving folks a sense of a personal connection to this high-tech mission to find water (and signs of life) on Mars. (Some members of the Phoenix team are also blogging.) I especially like that Mars Phoenix is replying to questions sent in by its Twitter friends (like me).

Makes it all seem so much less… alien!

In the past, I’ve railed against “character blogs” as stupidly inauthentic. I think it’s counterproductive to maintain the ruse of a false persona in the blog format, unless posts are very short. But for a space mission, “character tweets” from the spacecraft seem like a brilliant fit.

I’m not sure why the difference in length of posts and the nature of the medium makes a difference, but to me it does. Need to mull this over. Thoughts?

Matching Science to Sci-Fi: Where’s a Good Tool?

San Diego Supercomputer Services
One way to envision dark matter; sci fi stories are another.

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone, but I’m a major science fiction junkie. I always have been. Forget space operas and epic Arthurian fantasies cloaked in spacesuits — I want the hardcore sci-fi. Where the science or speculative reality angles are integral to the plot and characters, not mere set dressing. Where aliens are REALLY alien, not just English-speaking bipeds with funny foreheads.

For me, sci-fi has been a key way to explore the concepts and possibilities raised by science; to consider what might happen, and why, if some remotely plausible twist of fate came to pass, in this universe or some other. For me, the concepts that form the premise of sci-fi stories, movies, and novels are far more compelling than the special effects.

Because of this, I’m getting frustrated.

Lately I’ve been intrigued by various possibilities of a couple of corners of science: epigenetics and dark matter. In addition to reading about research on the topic, I’d love to be able to easily track down sci-fi stories, novels and videos where those themes were key parts of the plot.

I tried SciFi.com’s wiki SciFiPedia — pretty lame results. Google searches and plowing through forums are chaos.

Here’s what I want: a database or wiki where people tag sci-fi works with keywords for the types of science involved. I’d like to be able to quickly find, say, a list of 10 sci-fi works that address epigenetics.

Have you seen something like that? Please comment below.