Sunday Science links

one of the Best Science Photos winners
Image Source: National Geographic: Best Science Images of 2008 Announced (Honorable Mention, Photography:
“Squid Suckers: The Little Monsters That Feed the Beast” by Jessica Schiffman)

Ig Nobels

The Annals of Improbable Research has just had its annual big night out:

The ceremony began with past Ig winner Dan Meyer – the co-author of a British Medical Journal study on Sword-swallowing and Its Side Effects – swallowing a sword.

Read about this year’s winners – I’m particularly drawn to the winner of the Literature Prize: David Sims for his passionately written study “You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations.”


A new book, Autism’s False Prophets, by vaccine scientist and anti-woo-merchant activist Paul Offit has just come out (with all profits going to genuine autism researchers), and the Science Blogs Book Club blog has a variety of responses from the Science bloggers. The author even responds to the responses. Kev Leitch, parent of a child with autism, focuses on what makes him angry about the woo-merchants: How Autism Has Become A Secondary Concern

In his post today, Dr. Offit raises the point that is at the heart of the matter for me.

A couple of bloggers praised the book for its tone, that I never appeared to get angry at the false prophets described in the book. The reason for that is that I’m not the father of a child with autism. If I were, I would have been quite angry. Angry because I think that the anti-vaccine forces have taken the autism story hostage.

I’m angry. I’m damn angry. I don’t want to blog about vaccines. I don’t want to blog about the frighteningly casual way serious medical interventions are tested on autistic children like they are so many Guinea Pigs.

As Leitch so passionately argues, parents who get sold on these alleged magical cures for autism spend so much time and money on them that they miss out on chasing up the special educational resources and cognitive intervention therapies that can help their child learn how to function as effectively as possible as eventual autistic adults who need independent skills. Some of the descriptions of treatments inflicted on autistic children by desperate and well-meaning (but hoodwinked) parents that are published in the comments thread are horrifying.

Read more of the Book Club posts about the book.

The Mind

BBC: ‘Illusions driving market havoc’

The mind naturally creates illusions and superstitions at times of stress – and this could be adding to the global financial crisis, say scientists.

US researchers say feeling “out of control” makes us more likely to misinterpret information as we search for signs of order.

The study in the journal Science found investment decisions of volunteers were adversely affected by these feelings.

[…]The researchers, from the University of Texas and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe that humans cope with feeling out of control by trying to impose order subconsciously – even in situations where there is none.

[…]the researchers believe that other kinds of illusion, from conspiracy theories to superstitions, stem from the same basic subconscious problem, and that it may be contributing to the current havoc on the world’s financial markets.

The research quoted dovetails with other studies, and to my eye offers insights into the mindset that drives religiosity as well. I suspect that the extraordinary partisanship surrounding this particular US presidential election also owes a great deal to people feeling out of control and seeking a sense of order in attaching themselves to a particular party/candidate’s platform.

Philosophy of Science

Blue skies versus applied research

Should science be about discovery for its own sake or about solving the most serious problems of the day?

It’s a question that’s almost as old as science itself.

Science and Women

Categories: arts & entertainment, education, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, health, Science

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. As the parent of a child with Autism I am often reduced to spluttering rage at those who have hijacked ‘Autism’ for their own ends. They refuse to believe the years of solid science that says that Autism is NOT caused by vaccines and they totally ignore any study that suggests otherwise.
    I’d love to see a study that examines how many parallels there are between this group and those who deny that humans are at least partially the cause of global warming.
    I think I’ll be buying a copy of Paul’s book.
    Grendels last blog post..Not Happy Jan!

  2. ” to my eye offers insights into the mindset that drives religiosity as well”
    Agree completely – finding patterns in the random is obvious something the human brain does extremely well – I’ve often wondered whether it’s related to the ways we evolved to find food. Locating a food source (whether hunted, gathered or whatever) clearly involves finding patterns – this type of swampy soil is where this edible plant grows; this kind of trail is left by a tasty wildebeest. I’d hazard a guess that this ability leads us to find patterns in what is actually just random life, leading us to believe there is some sort of purpose/order/higher being behind the whole thing.

  3. I’ve found the commentary on the Ig Nobels at Skepchick to be quite fun.

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