Sunday reading list

By Grant Jacobs 16/05/2010


There is a difference to claiming that compounds have molecular properties and claiming that they have higher-level properties as a consequence. Similarly, observing that a substance is essential, does not necessarily mean that supplementation of it will be beneficial.

A recent double-blind controlled study of Omega 3 oil adds to the argument that Omega 3 oil does not improve cognitive function (’brain power’) in school children. Blogger akshatrathi294 presents a short report of the findings of the research study.

(This is in contrast to a video recently presented on sciblogs.)

hermit_crab_queueRounding out the very bottom of the alphabetical list of blogs at scienceblogs is Zooillogix. The posting there is infrequent, but when they write they have something really interesting to say.

When hermit crabs grow too big for their present home (shell), they look for a bigger one. Recent research reported at Zooillogix shows that hermit crabs queue up for their new home. If you’re a hermit crab looking for a bigger home, you shuffle up to a bigger crab and wait. You’ll be joined by a smaller crab waiting on you. And so ad infinitum.* At some point the big guy quits his home and everyone has a upgrading frenzy. (There is some suggestion that competition for homes may play a role; see the comments.)

Then there is photographing African wildlife up very close with a BeetleCam.

*Biologists will know I am making a feeble play on an extremely well-known passage.

One of the harder things to convey to non-scientists is that scientists spent a lot of their time dealing with uncertainty or, cast in a more hopeful light, determining the extent to which they can have confidence in a finding. (Related to this is Nature editor Henry Gee’s blog post title ’Science as a Religion that Worships Doubt as its God’, countering David Sloan‘s title ’Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God’ arguing that ’What science is all about, in contrast, is the quantification of doubt.’)

Related to knowledge, skepticism, and that general ilk, is how people do (or do not) cling to their beliefs on being presented with evidence that conflict with those beliefs.

Orac – he of the long tirades against natural health disasters – reviews a research paper that investigates the outcome of challenging someone’s pre-held beliefs by surveying comparing if people considered the science presented was able to address the question at hand or not with their beliefs. Basically, they tested if people tended to dismiss the findings if they didn’t match their beliefs.

True to his theme, Orac places this in the context of how marketing of many ’natural health’ remedies try replace the inherent tentativeness of science with a false certainty. He also looks at physicians (doctors) fall for the same failing in other ways.

He closes with Tim Minchin’s words (’Science adjusts its beliefs arguments based on what’s observed / Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved. …’*) and the thought that this all makes science a ’struggle against our own human nature.’

This reminds me that twice now on sciblogs I’ve found myself defending a perception that scientists tend to be on the ASD scale. My argument was that in order to critically argue a point well in science you have to be horribly self-aware, sharply self-critical, questioning your own motivations in putting forward the argument. My thought was that if this thinking is put directly to those not familiar with it without out ’re-mapping’ it into a narrative or linear argument it will seem very introspective and ASD-like.

*I’ve changed one word I don’t agree with.

Enjoy reading!

You can also read my own research blogging on testing the common ancestry of all modern-day life or contribute your thoughts on the consulting for the Natural Health Products Bill.


First image, Fish oil background, by Petr Kratochvil.

Other blog posts at Code for life:

Testing common ancestry to all modern-day life

Have your say on the development of a Natural Health Products Bill

Career pathways for NZ science Ph.D. students

Wellcome diversions

137 years of Popular Science back issues, free

0 Responses to “Sunday reading list”

  • Grant, I think I would agree with you that it is quite possible that scientists may think in a different way from your average member of the public but I don’t think it is necessary to suggest that this means scientists fit on the Autism Disorder Spectrum.
    ADS typically involves impairment of social communication and interaction, something not applicable to most scientists.
    Also, scientific thinking is a process which perhaps most scientists pick up through their training, rather than it being an intrinsic part of their personality?

  • You’ve got the wrong idea: I’m saying the same as you. Other people have written that scientists “often” are somewhere in the ASD scale, I’m defending “against” that (not in the sense of sides) saying I don’t think so.

  • Apologies, Grant, I now realise the importance of the word perception in your following phrase:
    “This reminds me that twice now on sciblogs I’ve found myself defending a perception that scientists tend to be on the ASD scale”

    and I think your choice of “ASD-like” makes sense.

    Although, I agree that “scientific” thinking does not necessarily put us on the ASD scale, I do occasionally wonder why I think the way I think (I guess that self awareness component). Is it possible that there is an underlying biological difference in some scientists (i.e. nature as opposed to nurture)? With most nature versus nurture arguments I tend to favour a position where there is contribution from both nature and nurture.