Print Your Own Gun… or Not

This is one of those blog posts that will likely be laughably obsolete within a couple of years. It’s not exactly news that 3D printing technologies have been used to print parts of working guns. So far, the firing chamber still needs to be a piece of real metal, and can be purchased off the […]

RepRap Mendel 3D printer

This is one of those blog posts that will likely be laughably obsolete within a couple of years.

It’s not exactly news that 3D printing technologies have been used to print parts of working guns. So far, the firing chamber still needs to be a piece of real metal, and can be purchased off the shelf; but the main mechanical part — where bullets are loaded and triggers are pulled and shells are ejected — can be printed at home on a common 3D printer. It is this part, usually called the lower receiver, that constitutes the legally controlled “gun”. In other words, the part of the gun that makes it a gun, and that you’re in trouble if you make without being a licensed firearm manufacturer, is the part that’s easiest to print yourself.

As of this writing (which is why I said this post will soon be obsolete) common 3D printers can only make stuff out of various plastic resins. It’s sort of possible to 3D print things out of metal, but it’s a much longer process and requires several additional steps. Metal bits can be deposited along with a resin binder, and the object then has to be infused with metal and baked, a process which requires additional hardware. But at the rate that 3D printing technology is evolving, this probably won’t be the case for very long. Femtosecond lasers are one possible technology that might make for-real metal printing available to the masses without any complicated additional steps. 3D printing already allows the construction of devices replete with moving parts all intact.

So it’s not a terrible argument when the pro-gun lobby says that it’s a fool’s errand to try and ban guns. They’re already here, and they’re going to continue to be easier and easier not just to buy, but to make.

However, one argument against this is that it’s still illegal to make your own gun, just as it’s illegal to sell pirated movies over the Internet. Web server companies that host 3D data files for guns could be open to prosecution, and that’s not trivial. The average Joe Blow can no longer easily launch some freeware program like Napster and easily download any movie or song; you have to have more specialized knowledge, and have to employ knowingly criminal intent to find the right servers and do whatever it is you do. This type of thing will likely keep the 3D gun modeling data very hard to find as well.

Obviously, anyone who really wants to do it will be able to.

However, this is not new to 3D modeling. There are many independent gunsmiths in the world, and many of these are licensed firearm manufacturers. A lot of them build reproductions of classic antique firearms; some build specialized competition weapons. It has always been the case — and will always continue to be the case — that a few simple metalworking tools allow anyone to manufacturer any type of gun they want. You do not need a 3D printer. You do not need to wait for 3D printing to become better. You can, right now, get ahold of some secondhand tooling and manufacture any type of firearm you wish, with nothing more than knowledge and skill. Unlike 3D modeling data files, which are likely to become subject to laws, conventional gun blueprints are widely available in books.

Don’t forget that the Oklahoma City bombing was accomplished with a rented truck, ammonium nitrate fertilizer [Note: this was written prior to the tragic Texas plant explosion on April 17], and nitromethane racing fuel, plus a trigger of commercially available explosive. It is a fool’s errand to try and prevent such attacks by controlling the materials, which, for practical reasons of running a society, must continue to be commercially available. It is somewhat less of a fool’s errand to block legal access to 3D firearm data files. But it remains a fool’s errand to prevent anyone from doing anything with a 100-year-old manually operated gunsmith’s lathe to do whatever they want to do in their basement.

3D gun printing? It’s sensational, it’s alarming, and it makes for great press; but it will never be the only way for criminals to create their own guns.

Can We Be Clear On Something? It’s STEM, Not STEAM.

STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The STEM fields are of special significance in the United States, as they are considered by the government to be strategically important, and because we have a shortage of experts in these fields. As a result, many government and educational agencies have STEM programs, and we’ll discuss some […]

STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The STEM fields are of special significance in the United States, as they are considered by the government to be strategically important, and because we have a shortage of experts in these fields. As a result, many government and educational agencies have STEM programs, and we’ll discuss some of those in a moment.

My purpose today is to nip a growing trend in the bud, which is the tendency for people involved in the arts to expand it to STEAM (A = Arts). Nearly everyone in my family (except me) is musical, and so I sit through a lot of fundraising presentations at concert halls, always hearing the pitch of why STEAM fields are so important. It’s in the high school newsletters, it’s in the local performing arts community brochures; it’s everywhere you look when you go to an art show.

I love the arts. Music, literature, art, philosophy — it encompasses a wealth of fields, and students do truly remarkable work within them. Arts are important, but they are outside of STEM for some very good reasons. When educators and art patrons talk about STEAM, they are missing the point. The importance of art does not lie in any association with STEM, and arts are important for their own reasons unrelated to the the importance of STEM.

  • The America COMPETES Act recognizes the likelihood of the United States’ future inability to compete with foreign countries in STEM, so it encourages investment in STEM education. It authorizes funding for NASA, NOAA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and a whole array of merit-based education grants, fellowships, and training. We love the arts, but there is no corresponding strategic need for them, so they are not included in this program
  • US companies are constantly lobbying Congress to allow more foreign holders of advanced STEM degrees to have permanent resident status, because such experts are in high demand. (The controversial STEM Jobs Act is one attempt to address such demand.) There is no corresponding demand for students in the arts.
  • The shortage of STEM experts in the United States is such that the Department of Homeland Security maintains a special list of STEM degree programs, foreign students enrolled in which are eligible to stay in the country longer while pursuing their work. No such incentives are offered to foreign art students, as the need for them is not keenly felt.
  • STEM is especially important for women, as there are still severe shortages in the number of women who pursue them. Arts suffer no shortage of women.
  • The United States National Academies, NASA, National Science Foundation, US Department of Education, and the Department of Energy all have STEM education initiatives of their own, which you can read about by searching their web sites for STEM.

Allow the arts to stand on their own merits, and don’t confuse them with the strategic importance of STEM. It’s time to release the STEAM.

In Defense of Vulcan

The votes are in, and Vulcan won the naming contest for Pluto’s P4 moon. Pluto’s two newest moons, currently named P4 and P5, were discovered in 2011 and 2012 by a team led by SETI chief scientist Dr. Mark Showalter. Such discoverers have the right to recommend names to the International Astronomical Union, who then […]

Pluto and its moons, July 2012

Pluto and its moons, July 2012

The votes are in, and Vulcan won the naming contest for Pluto’s P4 moon. Pluto’s two newest moons, currently named P4 and P5, were discovered in 2011 and 2012 by a team led by SETI chief scientist Dr. Mark Showalter. Such discoverers have the right to recommend names to the International Astronomical Union, who then has final authority on the naming. Showalter and SETI thought it would be fun to solicit votes from the public from a list of 21 names, and the names Vulcan and Cerberus won. The IAU does not reuse names, and since there is already an asteroid named Cerberus, the SETI team plans to submit the Greek spelling of Kerberos instead.

This blog post is a serious pitch to the P4/P5 discovery team and the International Astronomical Union to not assign the name Vulcan to P4, but rather, to save it for the exoplanet Gliese 581 c.

It should be stated up front that the IAU does not currently name exoplanets. But since exoplanets are the fastest-growing field in astronomy, and arguably among those that best capture the public’s imagination, they’re going to have to start doing so very soon. In fact, Dr. Franck Marchis at SETI (@allplanets) says “I think this entire [Vulcan] story should be used to motivate the IAU to finally name exoplanets.”

Reason why P4 deserves the name Vulcan

Some say that in mythology Vulcan was a son of Pluto, so it makes a certain amount of sense for one of Pluto’s moons. But not all that much sense: First, Vulcan was a son of Jupiter and Juno (Zeus and Hera in Greek), not of Pluto; and anyway, none of Pluto’s three already-named moons (Charon, Nix, and Hydra) were children of Pluto either.

Reasons why Gliese 581 c deserves the name Vulcan

Every other reason. Star Trek has, for better or for worse, become an integral influence for today’s astronomy and space programs. People love it. It is broadly beloved internationally. We named the first Space Shuttle after Star Trek’s USS Enterprise (though it never fulfilled its original plan to be converted into a real launchable shuttle). It’s entirely appropriate that we name a real planet after Star Trek’s most famous fictional planet.

Gliese 581 c is an exoplanet orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581, discovered in 2010. It shares more characteristics with the fictional Vulcan than any other exoplanet known:

 Vulcan

 P4/P5

 Gliese 581 c

 Hot  Cold X  Hot ?
 High gravity  Low gravity (Barely any) X  High gravity (1.6x Earth) ?
 Outside the solar system  Inside the solar system X  Outside the solar system ?
 In the habitable zone  Outside the habitable zone X  Inside the habitable zone* ?
 Has no moon  Is a moon X  Has no known moon ?

* Though the planet itself is unlikely to be habitable due to a probable runaway greenhouse effect, similar to Venus. Some early estimates gave it a surface temperature range comparable to Earth, with a possibility of liquid water.

P4 is not even a planet, it’s a moon; moreover, it’s not even a planet’s moon. Pluto is a dwarf planet. Pluto is in our solar system; Vulcan was far away.

We don’t have any sharp images of P4, but it’s almost certainly not round; rather it’s probably just random asteroid shaped. We don’t even know its size for sure; somewhere between 13-34 km diameter. If you were to view it from your comfortable spaceship,  you’d say “Wow, that’s a pretty poor excuse for Vulcan.”

Gliese 581 c is a proper, full-fledged planet. It’s rocky, so you can walk around on it. Its gravity is similar to that depicted on the fictional Vulcan, and it has hot temperatures like Vulcan (maybe too hot, but maybe not). In any case, there’s no known better match for Vulcan out there.

Shatner and Nimoy both came out on Twitter in favor of naming P4 Vulcan, and that was fun; but it was probably simply a reaction to Vulcan having been in the running. I doubt either of them, given a choice of heavenly bodies out there, would have agreed that the name Vulcan was best used for a cold, unremarkable, not-even-round rock orbiting a dark dwarf planet.

In a Google Hangout, Dr. Showalter responded to this exact request. “I agree with you, I think Romulus and Vulcan would be great names for exoplanets, and so would all kinds of names out of  Star Wars mythology and every other tradition that you can imagine, but I just don’t know if saving a name for an exoplanet is practical when we may never get around to using names for exoplanets.” I argue then, Dr. Showalter, that this is your chance to make a statement. The IAU is well aware that the public really wants the name Vulcan to be used. Don’t submit it for P4.

In my mind, Dr. Marchis treads on a thin rocky crust when he allows for the possibility of re-use. “When we start [naming exoplanets] I don’t think it will be an issue to have a planet named Vulcan and a moon of Pluto named Vulcan as well. The official name of the moon will be ‘(134340) Pluto IV Vulcan’ (or V) if it is accepted by IAU. When we finally have a nomenclature for exoplanet naming, it may be possible to name  Gl581c exoplanet: ’Gl 581 Vulcan c’ or something similar to that.” Hoping for a name re-use is a poor strategy. I don’t envision the IAU naming an exoplanet Jupiter, Titan, Io, Earth, or any other name that’s currently already in use inside the solar system. They may eventually re-use names, but solar system names will be lowest priority for exoplanets; most especially the name Vulcan, arguably the name with the highest public recognition.

So please, Dr. Showalter and friends, and esteemed International Astronomical Union, do not do this rash thing. We will always regret it. Do what’s best for the galaxy: save the name Vulcan for a deserving planet.

A Visual Tour of Earth Meteor Impacts

Considering all the recent fun involving asteroids and meteors, I thought it would apropos to show a visual history of major impact structures around the world to answer the question: Are we “due”? In fact, we’re never due, in the same way a die is never due to roll a three. So in the same […]

Considering all the recent fun involving asteroids and meteors, I thought it would apropos to show a visual history of major impact structures around the world to answer the question: Are we “due”?

In fact, we’re never due, in the same way a die is never due to roll a three. So in the same sense, we’re always due. And we have been as long as the Earth has existed. This interactive chart I made shows 51 impact structures that have been identified over the past 750 million years, each of which left a crater at least 20 kilometers across. The size of the circle represents the size of the crater. For reference, the largest included in this dataset is the Shiva impact structure in Asia, 500 kilometers across, from an impact event 500 million years ago.

I cut it off at 750 million years because the data gets really sketchy at that age. Impact structures are harder to find the older they are, and the more erosion has taken place. Even after 250 million years, you can see that it thins out.

Since this dataset is limited only to 20+ km craters, it represents only a tiny fraction of impacts that would produce global climactic catastrophe. Even craters as small as 1 km represented impacts that almost certainly would have resulted in years of cold, enough to dramatically affect species populations.

It’s worthwhile to note that I found it difficult to correlate crater size (which I’m reporting here) with the object’s size, known extinction events, estimated megatons of the impact, and popular object fragments. A list of known strikes from the geological record may not match up very well to this list, nor would a list of meteorite fragments. We don’t know where a lot of big ones hit as their craters are underground. There’s a lot we don’t know, and crater size is dependent upon speed, angle, mass, and type of object (rocky, metallic, or a comet). So take this as an incomplete history, but a history that is — nevertheless — of strikes that all had potential to be planet killers.

Data: David Rajmon’s Impact Database

Chart: Highcharts

You Are Such a Racist

Most of us are familiar with the Stroop Test. The subject is shown a series of words, each of which is written in a different color. The only task is to say what color the word is. What’s so hard about that? Well, nothing; it would be easy, except that each word is the name […]

stroopMost of us are familiar with the Stroop Test. The subject is shown a series of words, each of which is written in a different color. The only task is to say what color the word is. What’s so hard about that? Well, nothing; it would be easy, except that each word is the name of a color, and usually different from the color in which it’s written. You can try it online here, and see how surprisingly difficult it is. Believe it or not, a similar test can reveal your hidden racial biases.

The Stroop effect exists because it pits your conscious analytical skills against your native perceptions. By native perception, you see this image immediately as RED. But you are forced to use your conscious intellect to figure out the correct answer, BLUE. It’s very hard not to let the automatic impulse take over.

A related effect is laid embarrassingly bare by Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (try it for free here). IAT tests reveal many demographic biases, such as attitudes toward age, disability, race, sexuality, weight, etc. The one that I took involved racial biases. This particular IAT presents you with 24 items:

  • 4 white people (each with a white-sounding name)
  • 4 black people (each with a black-sounding name)
  • 4 Asian people (each with an Asian-sounding name)
  • 4 Hispanic people (each with a Hispanic-sounding name)
  • 4 positive words (love, pleasant, great, wonderful)
  • 4 negative words (hate, unpleasant, awful, terrible)

blackEach round of the test uses one of the four races as the target. There are two keys on your keyboard: one to use for positive words or the target race, and the other to use for negative words or any other race. The test randomly flashes either a word or a face and name (cropped so as not to show clothes, hairstyle, or other cues) on screen, and you press either the “positive” or “negative” button. If you push the wrong button, it tells you, and you can then push the right one, merely adding on to your reaction time.

It’s mainly about conscious intellect: identify the race or the type of word, and push the correct key. But your native impulse intercedes to enough of a degree that you find it easier or harder to associate certain races with your finger poised over the “positive” button. Once enough trials have been run — in the version of the test I took, each race was the target race 3 times for a total of 12 rounds of about 20-30 images each — enough data from your reaction times have been collected that a bias is shown. In my particular case, I found it easiest to associate Asians with positive words, and significantly hardest to associate Hispanics with positive words. Why? I don’t know; that’s a question for the psychologists. I’m unaware of either such correlation in my real life. Any comment I might make would be tainted by the famous Onion headline “I’ll have you know I have several black Friendsters.”

It should go without saying that little valid science is produced by a single run of this test. The idea is that demographic information is collected from each subject, and statistical trends are derived from very large data sets.

Nevertheless, taking yourself on a quick run through an Implicit Association Test can be an eye-opening experience, particularly for those who consider themselves above racial, gender, or body stereotype biases.

Update: I am alerted that a book has been recently released, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, focusing on the results of their research using the Implicit Association Test. I haven’t read it so cannot comment.

In Defense of Fast Food

It’s no secret that I’m not a giant fan of CNN.com’s science reporting, especially in recent years. But when I happened upon this story by chef Virginia Willis on CNN.com’s “Eatocracy” section, I felt that it went a little too far over the line of rhetoric trumping responsible reporting, and deserved some response. Here are the two […]

It’s no secret that I’m not a giant fan of CNN.com’s science reporting, especially in recent years. But when I happened upon this story by chef Virginia Willis on CNN.com’s “Eatocracy” section, I felt that it went a little too far over the line of rhetoric trumping responsible reporting, and deserved some response. Here are the two opening paragraphs, verbatim:

As a chef and food writer, I rarely eat fast food. The quality is generally atrocious and much of it is radically unhealthy. The menu offerings are the polar opposite of local and seasonal. There are dire implications concerning worker’s rights and wages, as well as animal welfare and factory farms.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, every interstate exit is identical with the same usual suspects offering the same sad sacks of chemically laced, artificially flavored fare, all swimming in high-fructose corn syrup. Cheap, fast food is at the core of what is wrong with our food system.

This is pop tripe. Her worst points are wrong, her best are debatable. It has long been politically correct to bash fast food, and this article opens with all the most tired cheap shots that are unworthy of a culinary professional.

Ironically, her article goes on to discuss how much she likes Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant serving basically the same chicken and HFCS soft drinks as other fast food restaurants — she fails to convincingly argue why the same food is OK when Chick-fil-A serves it, but not other similar chains. But, be that as it may; today I’d like to address Willis’ points from her opening paragraphs. Too many people blindly accept such pop attacks on fast food without reflection on the facts.

Let’s go point by point:

The quality is generally atrocious…

I’d say the quality is almost always exactly up to expectations; I don’t get an especially sloppy cardboard burger any more often than I get a restaurant meal that fails to delight. If she’s saying a cheeseburger is not French cuisine, well, no duh, it’s not intended to be. Without defining “quality” this statement is really just a weasel word to poison the well. If she means the flavor, well, that’s purely a matter of opinion.

…and much of it is radically unhealthy.

I will have this argument all day long. I’ve investigated this for Skeptoid, and this is simply untrue. The ingredients used in fast food are the same as used in fine restaurants and that you can buy in a supermarket. If you’re talking about calories, I call BS. The typical fast food meal is actually quite small and takes 5 minutes to eat, compared to almost any restaurant meal where you spend a solid hour eating almost constantly. The worst offenders — naturally sweetened soft drinks (sugar or HFCS) and milk shakes — are identical to what you’d get ordering the same thing at a restaurant or buying it from the supermarket. This myth that fast food is magically unhealthy is simply not supported by any facts.

Indeed, it’s a valid argument that the opposite is true. No one will ever die from malnutrition eating fast food: it’s got just about everything your body needs. Eat four 510-calorie Big Macs a day and you’ll lose weight, and get more protein and vitamins than you would from most other similarly caloric diets. If you don’t believe that, do the research for yourself, instead of simply parroting ideologically-driven pop tripe.

The menu offerings are the polar opposite of local and seasonal.

So what? There’s no benefit to either. Locally-grown is a fine boutique experience, but as I’ve written before, there’s no other real benefit. It’s also usually worse for the environment, contrary to what appears obvious.

There are dire implications concerning worker’s rights and wages…

I am not aware that this problem is specific to fast food chains at all. BusinessInsider.com found that a lot of fast food chains are beloved by their employees. I’m unconvinced that this is not the case with most any industry.

…as well as animal welfare and factory farms.

Again, any issues that exist are common to the food industry as a whole, not to a given category of restaurant. And exactly what is a “factory farm” besides a weaselly way to say “farm”?

 It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, every interstate exit is identical with the same usual suspects offering the same sad sacks of chemically laced…

“Chemically laced”? What chemicals? What are these malevolent “chemicals” found in fast food that are not common to all food?

…artificially flavored fare…

Really? OK, let’s take a McDonald’s combo. Soft drink, sure; same as you’d get if you bought a Coke anywhere. What’s the “artificial flavor” in the fries? Nothing. What’s the artificial flavor in the cheeseburger? The only possibility I can think of is the Heinz ketchup; but according to Heinz, it’s all natural flavoring. Willis just parroted something that seemed obvious to her, but does not appear to be supported by facts. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that artificial flavoring is more common in fast food than in regular supermarket food.

…all swimming in high-fructose corn syrup.

Really? Obviously this is hyperbole. Pretty useless hyperbole, too. HFCS is no more common on fast food menus than it is on any other menu. Even if it were, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it that you couldn’t say about regular sugar.

Cheap, fast food is at the core of what is wrong with our food system.

I’m going to disagree wholeheartedly. The abundant availability of cheap, fast food shows that our food system has reached the pinnacle of success. This perspective is symptomatic of someone with many snobby choices — and offering many choices, catering to anyone’s personal preferences, should be the ultimate goal of any nation’s food system. Ask someone in Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC, Sierra Leone, Burundi or Chad if they would consider abundant cheap food choices to be a sign of their food system’s failure.

It’s perfectly fine to dislike fast food, or high-calorie food, or whatever it is that you don’t care for. If you think Americans eat too many calories and you want to place the blame on the food providers, then place it equally among everyone who offers over-calorific food — starting with Starbuck’s and big-plate sit-down restaurants. Simply parroting pop pseudo-food-facts is part of the overall problem of a lack of critical thinking in society.

(For those bound to ask: My favorite fast food chains are Five Guys, Baja Fresh, Burger King, and KFC. My least favorite are Del Taco, Jack in the Box, and so far, Chick-fil-A has failed to impress despite several fair attempts.)

No, I’m Not on the Payroll of (Name Your Evil Entity)

Welcome. You are reading this post because you’ve been directed here by either myself or one of my listeners to whom you’ve suggested that I’m on the payroll of {insert the name of your preferred Evil Entity here}. I am a full-time science writer who has tackled over 300 different pop-culture urban legends on my […]

IMG_3777Welcome. You are reading this post because you’ve been directed here by either myself or one of my listeners to whom you’ve suggested that I’m on the payroll of {insert the name of your preferred Evil Entity here}.

I am a full-time science writer who has tackled over 300 different pop-culture urban legends on my podcast Skeptoid, and many other subjects on other online/offline publications. Most likely, you read, watched, or heard something of mine, found that it disputed a cherished belief of yours, and you decided that no rational person could actually come to such a conclusion as I did unless he was on the payroll of Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Food, Big Toxins, Men in Black, what have you.

You have arrived at a completely irrational supposition. The Internet is a big place. In 2011, BlogPulse.com estimated that over 1,000,000 new blog posts are published every day. Many of them contradict each other. Whatever you read from me was just one of those blips. If an Evil Entity decided that a good way to promote their agenda was to put “on the payroll” one random writer, to write on every imaginable subject over the course of a seven-year-period (the length of time I’ve been doing this), simply so they could sneak in a single blip of a post that agrees with their agenda, we could assume that that Evil Entity has a pretty poor marketing department.

I am paid for what I do, but it is not by any one single entity. My income comes completely from voluntary donations from listeners, almost all of it in the form of monthly micropayments. It’s a large body of supporters. They have many different opinions. Every week I upset some of them with my conclusions. I am on the payroll of White Noise, not of Evil Entity. This is very important to the impartiality of my research and reporting. If I demonstrated a bias, my pay would go down, not up. A lack of bias is what my best supporters are hoping to receive.

To make this work, I do my best to see what today’s best science has to say on the matter, and that’s what I report. It’s usually pretty easy to tell what’s good science and what’s not. Good science has successfully persuaded the majority of researchers and publications. Research that’s “not quite ready” has not yet done so. Occasionally this is because it’s cutting edge and overturns much of what we know; far more often it has failed to persuade others because it’s simply wrong. Regardless, I try to report whatever it is that most scientists have agreed is the best state of our knowledge.

“Scientists” are not a bunch of stiff old men in labcoats in black and white photographs with nefarious agendas. Real scientists (including hundreds of my friends and acquaintances) are young people and bright minds in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and they wear colorful clothing. They live in your neighborhood and you’ve seen them at your local park. Most of them probably earn less than you do. They do it because they are excited about learning, making new discoveries, and improving our world. Their jobs exist because their employer needs to learn things. (When employers want the “status quo” they rarely need to hire scientists.)

Some of what they learn goes back to the drawing board when their colleagues are unable to confirm it. Some of what they learn does get confirmed, and eventually widely accepted throughout the world, and goes to improve and strengthen our collective knowledge in that particular science. This is the scientific method. Sometimes, what we learn by the scientific method surprises some people. Often, some people are disappointed, because science usually shows that problems and systems are complicated and solutions are rarely magically easy.

Such explanations are what I seek out. Why are solutions not magically easy? What really does work, as opposed to what we wish would work? I learn these things every week with every episode of my show, and I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned. The more surprising it is, the more interesting it is. Invariably, some are disappointed whenever I report that a magically easy solution they’ve been buying into is not supported by science. Others take this knowledge and use it to their benefit.

My promise to you is that I will never offer you a magically easy solution to a complicated real problem. If someone else has been selling you one, you should check to see where their payroll is coming from, at least as actively as you should check mine.

What Is a Consensus?

Anyone who has ever pointed out that a scientific consensus exists on a certain matter has probably been meet with laughter and derision. The word consensus has practically become a punchline. It is reminiscent of the famous corollary to Godwin’s Law which states that the first person to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument; […]

IMG_3741Anyone who has ever pointed out that a scientific consensus exists on a certain matter has probably been meet with laughter and derision. The word consensus has practically become a punchline. It is reminiscent of the famous corollary to Godwin’s Law which states that the first person to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument; so it frequently goes with the first person to mention consensus. So many highly visible personalities deny and deride scientific consensus that the term has, in popular usage, become synonymous with a fatally weak argument.

A common criticism I hear of scientific consensus is “science should not be decided by a vote”. I agree. People making this argument are probably genuinely unaware that science-specific use of the word consensus differs from its common use. Of course, the scientific community does not ever gather in a secret conference and vote on the official scientific dogma of the day. That would make a cool 1984-style cautionary sci-fi story, but it doesn’t happen in real life. (Who would pay for all those flights, hotel rooms, and bar tabs?)

The way the word use differs is that in common use, a consensus merely means the general agreement of the majority. We all have a consensus that killing people is bad. Non-scientists also have a consensus on certain matters of science: gravity makes a ball drop, the Earth is globe shaped, sunburns are harmful. But for a scientific consensus to exist, it must be based on more than just personal opinions and observations of the majority; it must be based on results.

I found a dramatic example of this when I did my Skeptoid episode on left handedness. I found that the majority of research shows that left handers have shorter life expectancy. Now there are a lot of ways that the data can be analyzed, and a lot of possible explanations for this; and quite a few researchers disagree with that finding. However, I found that the scientific consensus shows left handers do indeed have shorter life expectancy. Not everyone agrees, but a clear majority do. This is based on the conclusions reached by many, many researchers over many, many studies. This consensus excludes Joe Blow like you and I, who have not done any such research. Ideally, it also excludes psychologists who may have strong opinions, but who have not performed or analyzed the research. Even though handedness is an active field of study that includes dissenting viewpoints, we currently have a scientific consensus that left handers have shorter life expectancy.

The obvious application of consensus in today’s political climate is global warming. A scientific consensus exists that shows anthropogenic global warming is a reality. This consensus is far stronger than the one I found pertaining to lefties; it is, in fact, virtually unanimous among professional climate researchers. But quite obviously, there is no common consensus about global warming. If we took a vote among the public, we’d essentially get a near-50/50 division along political party lines. This does not constitute a general agreement among a clear majority. However, the more we focused our study group toward people in scientific fields, the closer the common consensus would morph toward the scientific consensus. The scientific community at large would show a trend toward AGW as a reality, but it would include many dissenting voices, and could not really be called a scientific consensus. If we focus our group further to exclude scientists from non-climate fields, the scientific consensus would strengthen. Finally, if we limit our group to only those professional researchers with advanced degrees in climate science who actively work, publish, and review work specific to global climate, we find that the consensus is (very nearly) unanimous.*

So, simultaneously, there is no consensus on AGW, and there is strong consensus on AGW. It depends on whether you’re using the scientific meaning of the word consensus or not. Scientific consensus does not equate to a vote of the majority. It more closely represents the majority of the current published research.

Consensus does, of course, change as knowledge improves. It must change, or it is useless. Its whole value is that it represents the current state of our knowledge, to the best of our ability to determine it. When the fringe research turns out to be true, the results are repeated by others in the field and the consensus changes to represent it. Cold fusion failed to persuade other researchers who failed to replicate the results; and consensus did not change. The idea that HIV does not cause AIDS has also failed to move the consensus. However, scientific consensus does still actively change. It has recently changed to reflect that a type of bacteria, not stress or diet, is the cause of peptic ulcers; and even the Standard Model has had to have been updated recently to show that neutrinos have mass. Scientific consensus is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

By all rights, it should be the case that the first person to reveal the scientific consensus should win the argument. Because, really, whatever the current consensus is, is the first and last word on a scientific question for us people on the street — until the researchers working hard at changing it manage to do so.

* – The question of whether these authors and researchers are all paid stooges participating in a global conspiracy is an unrelated question. To change the scientific consensus, the brave patriots who turn down the Big Warming paychecks need to get publishing!

Do You Want to Know?

If you’ve ever listened to my podcast Skeptoid or heard me speak in person — whether you agreed with me or not — one thing that I hope you’ve taken away is my genuine enthusiasm for learning. I have the best job in the world, spending the better part of a full week immersed in […]

Mustachioed Englishman JBS Haldane, FRS (Public domain image)

If you’ve ever listened to my podcast Skeptoid or heard me speak in person — whether you agreed with me or not — one thing that I hope you’ve taken away is my genuine enthusiasm for learning. I have the best job in the world, spending the better part of a full week immersed in a subject, a different one each week. I don’t ever remember being bored with it or running out of threads to follow. I’ve read the adventures of handlebar-mustachioed colonial Englishmen, I’ve traced the genesis of ghost stories back to their unexpected origins, I’ve gone as deep as I’ve been able into hard sciences that are all just a little bit over my head.

Since the point of all this is to distill it into a narrative that I can share, I get a lot of questions. For the most part, these come in two basic varieties. First, there are honest questions by interested people like myself who want to know more. Second, there are argumentative or rhetorical “questions” from those who disagree with my conclusions and want to prove me wrong. These are not really questions. They’re public challenges, intended to rebut. I think you know the kind of “questions” I mean. They often sound something like this:

Have you personally observed one species change into another?

How can you presume to know how physics works in other dimensions?

Since when is science determined by a majority vote?

I’m all in favor of being corrected wherever it’s due, or of having any assertions I’ve made honestly challenged. If I’m wrong, I want to know. If I don’t know something yet, I still want to know. When I ask someone a question, it’s because I want to know. But these argumentative challenges are not motivated by the desire for knowledge. Given that, I don’t consider myself obliged to answer them. If you really want to know something, I’m happy to help to the extent that I’m able. If you don’t, I’m going to spend my limited resources elsewhere.

Sometimes I’m live in front of a crowd or on the radio. And sometimes those questions will come in. Here’s what I have to say to the “questioner” who is hoping merely to trap me into revealing some weakness of what I’m presenting, because he’s absolutely married to his particular conspiracy theory or pseudoscience. (By way of example, let’s answer “Why are there no transitional fossils?”)

 I don’t believe that you actually want to know that. If you did, the resources available to you are so easy to find that you’d already know if you had any genuine interest.

An argumentative question deserves a flippant answer. An honest question deserves an honest answer. There are people to whom every subject is new, and it’s entirely possible that someone may want to know about transitional fossils. It’s easy to read the tone of the person asking the question. If it’s a genuine question, I’ll answer it; if it’s out of my depth, I’ll say so and give them my best advice on how to go about learning more.

There is too much knowledge out there waiting to be discovered to spend time sparring with those who are consciously disdainful of it. My preference is to share in the excitement of those who want to learn things.

Do you want to know?

Skeptoid Podcast Now Available in Mandarin Chinese

In a major expansion, the Skeptoid science podcast, in English since 2006, is now available in Mandarin on the Chinese iTunes Store and at http://skeptoid.com.cn. This effectively triples the potential listener base, making the award winning show available to more listeners worldwide than any other podcast in any genre. Host Zhe Li (Lizzie to her […]

In a major expansion, the Skeptoid science podcast, in English since 2006, is now available in Mandarin on the Chinese iTunes Store and at http://skeptoid.com.cn. This effectively triples the potential listener base, making the award winning show available to more listeners worldwide than any other podcast in any genre.

Host Zhe Li (Lizzie to her English speaking friends) was selected as the favorite from a field of test hosts whose recordings were evaluated by a large focus group of Chinese natives. As a professional translator, she brings a wealth of experience and resources translating even the most obscure technical and scientific terms from Skeptoid.

For an in-depth interview with Lizzie (in English) please give a listen to The Skeptic Zone episode 216. It starts at about the 23-minute mark.

I spent months evaluating the idea of expanding Skeptoid into foreign languages. It’s a much larger commitment than most people realize, so the available resources had to be thrown at the lowest hanging fruit. China is the world’s largest market, and Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by more non-English speaking people than any other; so it was the obvious choice. Translation, recording, international rights management, bandwidth, editing and engineering, website nationalization, and commitment to Chinese marketing, listener support, and quality control are ongoing tasks, and all cost time and money. Skeptoid Media’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit application is still pending, but I decided to proceed with the investment because I think it’s an important direction. (By the way, at least half a dozen people have contacted me from various countries in the past week offering to host other language versions of Skeptoid. Thanks for the enthusiasm, but I promise you I’ll move in that direction if and when the resources are available, each language becomes Skeptoid’s strategic priority, and when all the ducks are in a row to do so.)

A lot of people have asked me about the political issues involved with China, and how I plan to avoid getting blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. This is a serious consideration. Fortunately Skeptoid is largely free of any political content; and in any case, episodes are only selected for the Chinese version that are appropriate for the market. A bigger concern, it turns out, is simply finding subjects that Chinese listeners will be interested in. I once gave a talk on Mexican history to an Australian audience. They’d scarcely heard of Mexico, and couldn’t care less. Similarly, Chinese listeners are largely disinterested in most stories from the Americas. But stories from Russia, Asia, and Australia are very much of interest, as are general science topics that apply worldwide.

So please, invite your Chinese friends to check out Skeptoid. It has very little competition in their podcast market, and I think it’s going to set a decent standard for new media worldwide.