science


Duck Quacks Don’t Echo: A Fun New Show About Scientific Facts

January 22, 2014

“The show that proves unusual scientific facts in the most hilarious ways.” That’s the billing for the delightful new television show Duck Quacks Don’t Echo, co-hosted by Tom Papa, Michael Ian Black, and Seth Herzog. Duck Quacks premiered January 13 on National Geographic Channel, where two half-hour episodes air back to back on Mondays beginning at 10 PM. The show celebrates science via episodic competitions between the co-hosts to see who can present the most amazing scientific “facts.” But the facts—or, rather, hypotheses—are not just presented and explained. They’re also tested. Herein lies the big fun. Is it possible to build a functional hovercraft using readily available household objects? Papa and Herzog rev up two such homemade machines for an in-studio demonstration and race. Can airborne bacteria from a flushed toilet reach your toothbrush six feet away? Hazmat-suited experimenters “go CSI” on a bathroom, employing infrared light and dry ice to see how far aerosolized toilet water travels. (Not all the facts are pleasant!) Is it possible for a person to eat six saltine crackers in one minute without water? Black and Herzog try their respective, um, how shall I put it, “strategies.” When someone lies, does his nose warm up? If so, why? A professional poker player and other experts are marshalled to figure out the answers. Can four ceramic coffee mugs support a two-and-a-half-ton pickup truck? How about with nine people jumping up and down in the back? Audience members participate to find out. Is it possible to dance on top of a vat of pudding without sinking into it? Herzog dons some 80’s dance garb (“You look like Flashdance ate Footloose”) and goes for it. Can male enhancement drugs (such as Viagra™) keep cut flowers erect for a week beyond their normal stamina? (“If your flower remains erect for more than 192 hours, please see a botanist immediately.”) The foregoing queries and several more are tested in the first four episodes of Duck Quacks. (Some of the experiments in these first few episodes are arguably less than scientifically sound, but the primary purpose here is entertainment.) Future episodes reportedly will test such queries as whether the color red really makes bulls angry, whether swearing can increase one’s tolerance for pain, whether attractive women can retard men’s thinking, whether a bathing suit cap can be stretched so far that an adult can fit inside, whether when singing the same song choir members’ heartbeats will synchronize, whether it’s possible to scale walls using vacuum cleaners, and much more. At the end of each episode, the studio audience votes on which host presented the “most impressive, outrageous or interesting” facts, and “the winner takes home the coveted ‘Golden Quack’ trophy.” In addition to the tested hypotheses are interesting trivia questions such as “The human body contains enough carbon to fill how many pencils? (a) 90, (b) 900, (c) 9,000”; and “By the age of 60, the average person has lost half of their what? (a) Bone Mass, (b) Taste Buds, (c) Hair.” The most crucial ingredient in the show, however, is the charisma, levity, and wit of the co-hosts: Tom Papa, Michael Ian Black, and Seth Herzog. These guys are pure fun. Although I’m not familiar with the prior work of Black or Herzog, both men are clearly in their element here. Each shines. I am familiar with Papa, having discovered him a few months ago when my wife happened. . . Continue »


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Science Should be Funded Privately, Not Through Federal “Investment”

November 6, 2012

Lamenting predicted cuts under the Romney budget plan, Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation, called for more “federal investments in science and technology” in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Scientific knowledge and new technologies,” argued Professor Lane, “are the building blocks for long-term economic growth.” According to Professor Lane, America’s economic future requires adherence to “a basic investment principle: no science, no growth.” Professor Lane is not suggesting that individuals, businesses, or voluntary charities should adhere to this “basic investment principle.” Rather, he is assuming the inadequacy of the private sector to make necessary scientific and technological advancements, and arguing that the federal government should be the primary “investor” in science. But is federal funding of scientific research really investment? If a Wall Street professional extorted money from you—for instance, by threatening to lock you in a cage unless you give him some of your earnings—and then used the money to buy shares of a research company, you would hardly characterize his actions as “investment in science and technology.” Yet this is precisely what Professor Lane calls the same course of action taken on the part of the federal government. Federal “investment” is a euphemism for federal theft. The proper role of government, far from “invest[ing] in science” or “expand[ing] the economy,” is to protect individual rights by banning force from social relationships and by using retaliatory force against would-be rights violators—including extortionists. Under a proper government, funding of scientific research would be entirely private and voluntary. Willing individuals and corporations would either invest in science and technology, with the goal of profiting on the investment, or donate to research institutions, with the goal of charitably supporting scientific advancement. If individuals or businesses failed to see the benefits of funding a particular scientific endeavor, scientists and their advocates would be free to try persuading possible investors of the benefits. Professor Lane and other proponents of science present powerful arguments about the benefits of scientific research, and those arguments would undoubtedly convince many people to financially support scientific advancement. Yet, advocates of federal “investment” in science often simultaneously argue that individuals could not be persuaded to sufficiently finance scientific research. This argument is self-defeating. If scientific advancement is as clearly beneficial as Professor Lane and others claim, what would stop people from privately investing to secure that benefit? If, on the other hand, people cannot see or be persuaded of actual or potential benefit in supporting scientific research, then they have no good reason to invest. Either way, they should be free to keep or spend their money as they see fit. As Ayn Rand said, “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others.” People have a moral right to invest their own money in science—or not to do so—as they see fit. Professor Lane might value scientific research more than other people do, but that does not give him a right to employ government force to make them the means to his ends. Like this post? Join our mailing list to receive our weekly digest. And for in-depth commentary from an Objectivist perspective, subscribe to our quarterly journal, The Objective Standard. Related: The Meaning of Obama’s Government “Investments” Capitalism and the Moral High Ground Image: Wikimedia Commons


Scientists Need Not “Study” Psychic Nonsense to Reject It

March 19, 2012

Surprise, surprise: “A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real,” reports Live Science. But we didn’t need a “new study” to figure that out. The background is that, last year, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published Daryl Bem’s article purporting to show “retroactive influences on cognition.” Bem’s “experiments” allegedly showed cases in which an “individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.” Bem’s claim is not that people can predict certain things about the future based on historical trends and the causal nature of the world (e.g., the Sun will rise tomorrow). Rather, his claim is that people can have “precognition . . . and premonition . . . of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.” They can do this, he says, because “information travels backwards in time.” Real scientific experimentation starts with observations of reality, such as the facts that objects fall to earth, eyes perceive light, magnets attract certain types of metals, living cells have a particular structure, and distant reaches of the universe contain (or contained) various entities detectable through modern telescopes. Most fundamentally, real science comports with the law of cause and effect—the truth that a thing can act only in accordance with its identity. This law is necessarily presupposed by all genuine scientific inquiry. One immediate implication of the law of causality is that, because the future hasn’t yet occurred, information can’t travel backward in time from it. Bem’s “theory” of psychic ability rejects the law of cause and effect; it posits as science the fantasy that people can “know” the future by means that contradict the law of causality. Thus, despite its superficial trappings of “experimentation,” Bem’s “theory” is properly cast aside as the rantings of a mystic. Those who wish to examine the details of the “chaotic, careless nature” of Bem’s “experiments” may read James Alcock’s critique and follow-up for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. But the fact that Bem’s “research” was ever taken seriously by any portion of the scientific community is deplorable. Bem is not a scientist, he is an anti-scientist, and he should be condemned as such. If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to The Objective Standard and making objective journalism a regular part of your life. Related: Enlightenment Science and Its Fall An Interview with Philosopher of Science David Harriman Image: iStockPhoto


Periodic Table of the Sciences

March 19, 2010

David Harriman’s Logical Leap: Induction in Physics won’t be available for purchase until this summer. But an interesting application of Harriman’s work on science to the development of an innovative science curriculum is available now—thanks to the Falling Apple Science Institute (which Harriman co-founded with Tom VanDamme). The application is called the Periodic Table of the Sciences. The Periodic Table of the Sciences is a graphical description of Falling Apple’s vision for science education. Within each column, the table shows the stages of development (from bottom to top) of the five major theories that are essential to a basic education in science. The order of the columns (from left to right) reflects the fact that each theory is a prerequisite for the next. The concepts of science have a necessary order. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion must come before Newton’s law of universal gravitation, electric charge before atomic theory, and atomic theory before modern biology. This logical order is shown in the table—vertically in the development of each theory and horizontally in the progression from one theory to the next. Thus, the Periodic Table of the Sciences captures the integration and the hierarchy of scientific knowledge. For students and teachers, the table serves as a reference that demands an answer to two crucial questions: what previous knowledge does an idea rest on, and where does the new knowledge lead? Each box, for four of the five major theories, currently contains a brief view of what Falling Apple Science thinks should be taught at that stage of knowledge. This provides a glimpse of an inductive K-12 science curriculum and its logical order. For a more in-depth analysis, see Harriman’s articles in TOS: Enlightenment Science and its Fall The 19th-Century Atomic War Induction and Experimental Method Isaac Newton: Discoverer of Universal Laws Proof of the Atomic Theory Errors in Inductive Reasoning


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Rational Science versus Sacrificial Politics

January 29, 2009

by John David Lewis and Paul Saunders The Obama administration continues to appoint radical environmentalists who want us to commit industrial suicide on behalf of nature. Meanwhile, top-rank scientists continue to renounce claims of a coming climate disaster. The latest scientist to voice his conclusions is retired senior NASA atmospheric scientist Dr. John S. Theon. As chief of several NASA programs from 1982 to 1994, Theon was responsible for all weather and climate research, and oversaw the work of Dr. James Hansen. Hansen is NASA’s foremost proponent of man-made global warming—and a strong supporter of Al Gore. Hansen has compared coal trains to Nazi death trains, and has lobbied for the prosecution of coal industry executives. Hansen also claims to have been “muzzled” by the Bush administration. Dr. Theon has repudiated all of this. “I appreciate the opportunity to add my name to those who disagree that global warming is man made,” Theon wrote to the Minority Office at the Environment and Public Works Committee on January 15, 2009. Hansen was never muzzled even though he violated NASA’s official agency position on climate forecasting (i.e., we did not know enough to forecast climate change or mankind’s effect on it). Hansen thus embarrassed NASA by coming out with his claims of global warming in 1988 in his testimony before Congress. As regards computer software models—the primary source of support for the claims of global warming advocates—Dr. Theon writes: “Climate models are useless.” Furthermore, some scientists have manipulated the observed data to justify their model results. In doing so, they neither explain what they have modified in the observations, nor explain how they did it. They have resisted making their work transparent so that it can be replicated independently by other scientists. This is clearly contrary to how science should be done. Thus there is no rational justification for using climate model forecasts to determine public policy. Dr. Theon is in good company. A U.S. Senate Minority Report released in December 2008 names more than 650 international scientists who are dissenting from man-made global warming fears. This is greater than twelve times as many scientists as the 52 who co-authored the UN reports that American bureaucrats continue to cite. These 650 scientists include: Aerospace engineer, physicist, and NASA Administrator (April 13, 2005 to January 20, 2009) Dr. Michael Griffin; Atmospheric Scientist Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman to receive a PhD in meteorology; Geophysicist and former  astronaut Dr. Phil Chapman; Astronaut/Geologist and Moonwalker Jack Schmitt; Apollo 7 Astronaut and Physicist Walter Cunningham; Chemist and Nuclear Engineer Robert DeFayette (formerly with NASA’s Plum Brook Reactor); Ferenc Miskolczi, an atmospheric physicist and former researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center; Climatologist Dr. John Christy; Climatologist Dr. Roy W. Spencer; and Atmospheric Scientist Ross Hays of NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility. In summary, while the vast majority of scientists are going in one direction—repudiating claims of a man-made climate disaster—politicians are going the other direction—embracing such claims and shackling industry on those “grounds.” Why? Why, as the scientific case for man-made global warming collapses, are politicians all the more determined to impose draconian controls on industry? The answer is morality. Politics is directly dependent upon morality. Politicians who follow a morality of sacrifice will impose laws that enforce that “ideal.” Conversely, those who follow a morality of rational self-interest will act to protect our rights—including our rights to productive action. The observations, analyses, and conclusions of. . . Continue »


The Real Key to Fixing Science Education

November 30, 2006

Science education is a frequent topic in the news these days. This past Wednesday, Microsoft announced a campaign to improve math and science education in the Seattle area. According to Brad Smith, a senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft: “We’re very concerned about the possibility that our kids are falling behind in areas like math and science.” As well they should be. Study after study shows that the average American student has an abysmal level of scientific knowledge. And as we witness greater and greater demand for strong math and science skills—and the thinking abilities that math and science foster—a poor background in science is a greater handicap than ever. Many smart, wealthy, and well-meaning people are attacking the problem of science education. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about their chances of success. Why? Because, from what I have seen, they are not getting to the core of the problem. They are trying to improve science education with a combination of money, computer programs, motivational speeches, and exciting field trips—but without changing the fundamental flaw of almost all science education today. Consider this example from a newspaper story on Microsoft’s initiative: “One idea being floated is to have Microsoft employees volunteer to meet with kids to explain how they use math on the job, such as in developing the Xbox videogame player. If kids can see real-world applications for the advanced math skills they’ll learn in school, it can get them more enthused about the subject, Smith said.” Now there is certainly nothing wrong with showing students the modern, practical applications of math and science. But does anyone really believe that kids talking to Xbox engineers will do anything significant to alleviate the mass boredom that exists in math and science classes around the nation? Students around the nation are ignorant and bored with science because most science education goes against the most crucial principle of education: the hierarchy of knowledge. In brief, the hierarchy of knowledge is the fact more abstract knowledge, such as Newton’s laws, depends on less abstract knowledge, such as Galileo’s discoveries. But consider how most of us were taught Newton’s laws. As I write in my essay, “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education“: “If your education was typical, the teacher came into class one morning, stood at the board, and declared that Newton identified three laws of motion—which you dutifully wrote down and later committed to memory. No context had been established for these discoveries. No information had been given as to what earlier observations and theories were made by other great scientists, what further discoveries were made by Newton, and how Newton’s incomparable genius enabled him to integrate all this information into three fundamental, universal laws governing the behavior of every object in the universe. “Pick up any grade school science textbook and you will see the same problem. Page one usually displays in vivid color a diagram of the structure of an atom. The chapter tells the students that an atom is a tiny unit of matter, that it has a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, that the nucleus is surrounded by electrons, and so on. The question that such books make no attempt to answer is: Why should a child believe this drawing any more than he believes the Saturday morning cartoons? He has never seen an atom, or a nucleus, or an electron;. . . Continue »