Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Qualifies as Medicine?

Debates about the proposed Health Reform bill usually center on the costs or savings anticipated. sometimes they center on the expected changes in performance of the medical community. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) added a provision to ensure that alternative medicine providers get their share. Why do we even have to consider this? If a medical procedure can be shown to be effective it won't be "alternative" anymore. Sen. Harkin is the guy who forced Harold Varmus to resign as head of NIH by creating the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). That institution has done at least one thing to aid medicine: They have done a good job of using rigorous placebo-controlled double-blind studies to prove the total lack of efficacy for a long list of herbal "cures". Why don't we just use taxpayer's money to support Kevin Trudeau and his "Cures They Don't Want You to Know About". Oh wait, we did support that millionaire for a while -we gave him room and board and then made sure he couldn't sell actual cures -just the information.

T. Troy Stark

Friday, December 11, 2009

God Believes What You Believe.

The study of psychology can reveal a lot about us. It often gives us a mirror to help us realize what we are doing from the point of view of others. It can also show us the faults in our own thinking, something god is unlikely to do according to this new study.

" News Office Homepage:
Study: Believers’ inferences about God’s beliefs are uniquely egocentricNovember 30, 2009
Religious people tend to use their own beliefs as a guide in thinking about what God believes, but are less constrained when reasoning about other people’s beliefs, according to new study published in the Nov. 30 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, led the research, which included a series of survey and neuroimaging studies to examine the extent to which people’s own beliefs guide their predictions about God’s beliefs. The findings of Epley and his co-authors at Australia’s Monash University and UChicago extend existing work in psychology showing that people are often egocentric when they infer other people’s beliefs.
The PNAS paper reports the results of seven separate studies. The first four include surveys of Boston rail commuters, UChicago undergraduate students and a nationally representative database of online respondents in the United States. In these surveys, participants reported their own belief about an issue and their estimation of God’s belief, along with their assessment of beliefs held by others, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Major League Baseball’s Barry Bonds, President George W. Bush, and an average American.
Two other studies directly manipulated people’s own beliefs and found that inferences about God’s beliefs tracked their own beliefs. Study participants were asked, for example, to write and deliver a speech that supported or opposed the death penalty in front of a video camera – an exercise known to affect people’s reported beliefs. Their beliefs were surveyed both before and after the speech.
The final study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the neural activity of test subjects as they reasoned about their own beliefs versus those of God or another person. The data demonstrated that reasoning about God’s beliefs activated many of the same regions that become active when people reasoned about their own beliefs.
The researchers noted that people often set their moral compasses according to what they presume to be God’s standards. “The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing,” they conclude. “This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.”
But the research in no way denies the possibility that God’s presumed beliefs also may provide guidance in situations where people are uncertain of their own beliefs, the co-authors noted.
Citation: “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs,” Nov. 30, 2009, early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin A. Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George A. Monteleone and John T. Cacioppo.”
Funding: University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Templeton Foundation, and the National Science Foundation."

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Full Potential

I'm absolutely amazed at how many people still argue that intelligence is not a valid description of human behavior. Anyone with more than a dozen acquaintances can tell you which of them are the more intelligent. On first meeting someone, most of us quickly evaluate their intelligence, so I'd be very surprised if intelligence is not something that can be objectively measured, with at least as much accuracy and meaning as how good looking someone is. (OK, I actually think IQ can be evaluated a bit more objectively.)

It has been my experience that neither social background nor education has any real impact on intelligence. One's occupation does not seem to predict their intelligence either, though performance in any occupation does. Of course, how long a particular occupation will retain someone of high IQ definitely depends on how interesting that person finds the work and that is quite unpredictable. And, some occupations will be quite limiting for someone without a high enough IQ to perform. For example, you don't find many theoretical physicists with an IQ below 120 though they do come in a wide range of social skill.

Since education, social class and most other environmental factors seem not to have any real effect on IQ, an assertion based only on personal experience, it seems quite reasonable to look for genetic markers. And, since no race is excluded from producing brilliant people those genetic markers must be more basic to humans than are the markers for race. I think the search for such genes is well worth the effort. Note however, that being born with particular traits cannot be blamed entirely on genes. It seems that a great deal of what we are born with is a matter of chance. I'm not even implying environment during development, but rather just chance. I suspect you are born with a particular IQ or g for the same reasons you are born with particular fingerprints.

If I'm right, then a more important question is how to educate people so that we, and they, get the most from what they are born with. I think "no child left behind" should be replaced with "no child's potential left underdeveloped".

-Troy Stark