Monthly Archives: September 2011

Science tells a human story but scientists don’t care

I read something interesting from the Archdruid Report. It suggests that science provides a narrative to contextualize human lives. That’s interesting, but not the intention or concern of scientists.

…When the late Carl Sagan spun his compelling “We are star-stuff” myth for the viewers of Cosmos, for example, he was engaging in reflection rather than abstraction. His goal was not to communicate an abstract rule but to weave a narrative of meaning that provided a context within which human life can be lived.

He makes an interesting point about science. I see it as the fringe of knowledge, pressing outward. There is an aspect to which the Archdruid points that is the opposite. He suggests that science is a competing reflective narrative in our culture.  I don’t disagree, but I can vouch for this: scientists don’t see their work in this context. Sagan was building a narrative to directly compete with The Religious Narrative.  I think religions see see only this aspect of science, and it’s an aspect of science to which the scientists themselves are oblivious and uncaring.  That disconnect is part of the problem with communicating science to non-scientists. It’s one reason Carl Sagan was so smart.

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2011 Japanese Earthquake, 6 Months Later

The devastating March 2011 earthquake in Japan is now six months behind us. Tragically, more than 15,000 people lost their lives.

I heard a speaker a few weeks ago suggest that her Father’s cancer may have resulted from living too close to the Three Mile Island incident. Admittedly (and to her credit) she did not insist that the nuclear accident was the cause, only suggested that it might be the cause. And (like all wobble language) it is hard to argue against such claims. About 140,000 people evacuated from a region around the plant with a radius of 20 miles. Afterward, about 2 additional cases of cancer resulted beyond what would be expected, statistically. The normal incidence of cancer is about 400-500 per 100,000 people per year. So it is completely impossible to discriminate between of the people who lived around TMI and would normally get cancer and the two extra cases that resulted from the accident. Maybe her father was one of those people. But the likelihood is slim.

I (of course) did not confront a grieving woman after the death of her father. Her statistical analysis was off, but her emotions took precedence. Yet her attribution of that cancer to TMI leaves her audience with a little more fear of radiation and nuclear power.

With that in mind, I think back to the Japanese earthquake. Again, tragically, 15,000 people lost their lives.  A dam broke and drowned at least four people. Living in front of a dam carries some risk.  Are dams a threat to humanity? No, and neither are nuclear power plants. So far, as of yet, not one person has died from radiation.

Alarmists would have everyone believe that the nuclear disaster associated with the accident was far more terrible than the earthquake itself. If that were true, we would expect that there would be many thousands of sick or dead people due to radiation. But there are none yet. Now, if the nuclear tragedy doubles the risk of cancer across a 30 mile swath of Japan containing 100,000 people, we might see 500 additional cases of cancer per year. That is a terrible (and unrealistically bad) scenario, but it is (still) not remotely so terrible as a single tragedy killing 15,000 people without warning.

So it is strange to me that irrational fears resulting from Fukushima nuclear disaster will have so great an emotional impact relative to the natural disaster. And it may be that the emotion will have a lot bigger political impact than reality.

-Peter

P.S. To be fair, one rad-worker has leukemia, but that disease takes years to develop, so is not likely due to the meltdown.

Anti-fragility

Evolution, capitalism and science are anti-fragile. Nassim Taleb introduced the idea to my consciousness.

Top-down optimized systems are always fragile. These three phenomena are not fragile. In fact, they gain from being shocked.

Evolution, capitalism and science also share this common algorithm: systematic, brutally honest trials of proposed solutions, followed by ruthless rejection of failures and amplification of successes. The human psyche may not be well-adapted to appreciate such systems. We seldom like honesty or rejection.

 

Patagonian tree fungus is the secret ingredient in beer

The new issue of PNAS shows some evidence for the origins of my other favorite beverage.  “The draft genome sequence of S. eubayanus [Patagonian tree fungus] revealed that this long-sought partner of ale-yeast gave rise to a domesticated, hybrid species used to brew lager beer.”

It’s worth a quick look at the picture on the cover. Who would guess something so ugly could yield such a tasty product. Beer is, in the apocryphal words of Ben Franklin, “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”