Instant Theory

Friday, October 28, 2005

Too good to be true

One of MIT's rising stars has just been fired for falsifying data. Today, The Boston Globe and New Scientist, among others, report that MIT on Wednesday sacked Luk Van Parijs, 35, an associate professor in the school's department of biology (home to 4 nobel laureates). Van Parijs admitted, after a 14-month investigation by the school, to faking data left and right: in published papers, in unpublished manuscripts, and in grant applications. Now, the researcher's former affiliates, Harvard Medical School and Cal Tech, have concerns that work he conducted there may have also been tampered with. Van Parijs was previously considered to be a scientist with great potential, conducting elegant experiments that were published in major journals.

This debacle, which surely is a blow to one of the great academic powerhouses in the country, demonstrates the achilles heel of scientific research: Data and results can only be trusted as much as the scientists who produced them. In nearly every realm of science, there is a point in the research process where the men and women doing the science can be tempted to "clean up" or "polish" the data. Still others are tempted by the spoils of scientific breakthroughs that they completely invent results to conveniently prove their hypotheses. It might be surprising for people who have worked so hard to jeopardize their careers with such foolish mistakes, but it has happened before; just scan the Office of Research Integrity's case list to get an idea of how often this happens.

Research, especially in an academic setting, is a field that often relies on success of the scientist's work. Scientists need to publish papers, to get tenure, or to get and maintain funding. The temptation to produce successful studies is unfortunately too great for some to maintain their integrity. Hopefully, those who do misrepresent themselves or their work will be found out, and, as was the case with Van Parijs, it may require members of their own labs to blow the whistle.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Intelligent Design Must Win

The fight over evolution is boiling over once again: a federal court is hearing debate over whether the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board can place mentions of intelligent design in its science curriculum. Some parents, the ACLU, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are arguing that intelligent design is at least quasi-religious, and is therefore constitutionally barred from public classrooms. They're wrong.

There is no doubt that intelligent design is a highly evolved form of creationism. For decades, some of the shrewder creationists have whittled down statements of their belief in an effort to make it palatable both to the courts and more members of the public. They realized that to bring the idea of miraculous creation into schools and the rest of official public life, it had to pass the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

With intelligent design, they've basically succeeded -- they've pared back the idea of miraculous creation to such a general notion that it is not inherently religious. There are two components of this generality: first, it does not advocate any particular religion; intelligent design leaves room for the Creator(s) to be Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Marduk, or whoever else. The second component is that it doesn't even specify divine species creation. ID opens the possibility that some non-supernatural intelligent entity -- the space aliens? -- created Earth's species. Snarky folks lampoon ID by saying a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. Laugh all you want, but this is ID's great strength: it's agnostic about the source of Creation.

So even though most proponents of ID, both academic and populist, clearly think the intelligent designer is the Christian God, the theory does not -- at least not inherently or overtly. This may sound like a weaselly legalism, and it is. But legal systems work, by definition, with legalisms. As long as ID retains its creation- and religion-agnosticism in schools -- no mentions of Jesus or the Bible, folks -- it passes constitutional muster. The federal courts should allow the teaching intelligent design.

All of this is not to say that intelligent design should actually be taught in science classes. Teaching intelligent design as though it were science is forsaking part of the pursuit of truth, and anyone who supports ID is pushing our our children and our nation toward regressive ignorance. But our country has different bodies to make different decisions, and in this case, the power to choose between ignorance and the pursuit of truth lies in local school boards. This choice belongs to regular people chosen by their communities, not professional jurists on the federal bench.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Jurassic Park: Don't Hold Your Breath

Scientists recently found the intact blood of an extinct 20-million-year-old spider captured in amber. Unfortunately, they're saying they can't recover any DNA from the sample, which means they can't clone the disappeared bug. So the prospect of re-creating dinosaurs from similar blood samples seems to be "virtually nonexistent," according to the scientists.

I continue to hold out hope that genetic-recovery methods will improve in the next few years and allow us to bring back from the dead all manner of ancient fauna. Basically what I'm saying is that I hope to one day look outside my window and see some velociraptors traipsing down the street, even if it meant there was some chance that I'd encounter one in my own traipsing.

There are some other interesting angles of the research, by the way, despite the heartbreaking DNA news.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Endangered Logic

For those anti-conspiracy-theory conspiracy theorists in the audience, try this: compare the newspeak in this memo to the rhetoric used by California Republican Richard Pombo in his attempt to lobotomize the Endangered Species Act. (The memo, leaked to the press in early 2003, was penned by the same hand that brought us the 1994 "Contract With America", Frank Luntz.) This 17-page excerpt schools Bush Admin insiders on the verbal jujitsu required to outmaneuver wily Democrats hell bent on using science in combating the environment.

Now we have Pombo, whose House bill (pdf summary here) turns the Endangered Species Act into an entitlement program for wealthy landowners. And thanks to wording that--frankly--is just more American, there'll be no more pesky butterflies infesting crucial casino habitat!

[ESA available here.]

Monday, October 17, 2005

Squabbishness as Platonic Ideal

Jason Pontin, honcho at Technology Review, tells us to get with the future already and start eating "hypermodern" cuisine. One example of this new type of hi-tech food preparation is Cryovacking, also known as cooking "sous vide," if you do "cuisine" rather than "cooking." In any case, I'm eager to try the food -- I'll eat anything once -- although I suspect that it must be expensive if it takes 36 hours to cook a piece of lamb, and I'm not so sure that I like food that feels "strangely glutinous" or tastes "overpoweringly of squabbishness." [Emphasis Pontin's.]

Friday, October 14, 2005

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

Hello and welcome to Instant Theory, the blog that accompanies an as-yet unnamed online science magazine. The magazine will come together over the next few months. Until then, please enjoy these Instant Theories -- quick-n-tasty morsels about what's new in science.