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Things we believe, despite mountains of data disproving them

by Kristy

Birthers believe that Obama wasn’t born in the US, Creationists believe in a divine story of why humans walk the Earth, conspiracy theorists conspire, psuedoscientific claims abound, alien watchers scope the skies, and people spend fortunes on psychic chat lines.  Why do we want to believe so badly, that we ignore the convincing evidence to the contrary?  Sure, this is a controversial topic, and my list could be a top 500 instead of a top 5, but here we go…

Top things we believe, despite mountains of data disproving them:

1. Psychics, Aura readers, Reiki practitioners and the like.  The most troubling aspect of these beliefs is the money they cost.  All these treatments are expensive (as are any “medical” treatments that may accompany them – see #5 below), and despite centuries trying to prove that the supernatural is super natural, there is not an inch of data to support it.  The most outrageous claim?  Psychic water, of course.  One interesting aspect of these examples is the phenomenon where people cling even tighter to beliefs when they are challenged, or when their doubts are raised.

2. Where are we in the solar system?  As the film “A Private Universe” uniquely displays, many intelligent children can’t wrap their minds around the solar system, how seasons occur, and what causes an eclipse. Is it a failure of the educational system?  A short-circuit in our cognition?  Or is it exemplary of our willingness to believe what is comfortable and easy, instead of what is real?

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Batty about Bats – but even Batman can’t save them from White Nose

By Kristy

A white fungus is currently killing most of the bat population across the Eastern US.  Nobody understands why, or how, and there is uncertainty as to how this will affect our ecosystem.

For five years of my Ph.D., during 7 months out of the year, I would occasionally drive an hour from Boston to capture wild-caught bats at a barn on a rural farm.  A harp trap was set-up at the mouth of the barn, to catch the bats at ‘emergence’, or the time at dawn or dusk when these insectivorous bats arouse in order to feed on bugs.

When autumn approached and the bats were preparing for hibernation, they would migrate to caves in Vermont, and I would also drive there for 2 nights of bat-catching at dark, cold, mountain caves.  This meant carrying the trap up the mountain, along with our supplies and the bat hotel (the small wooden cubbies that house the bats in the close-quarters they prefer).

The flying devil, Myotis lucifugus

These bats are Myotis lucifugus, or little brown bats, named for their Lucifer-style devil ears.  Actually, the bats are quite adorable, quite smart, and are more closely related to humans than most other model research species.  They roost in these barns in maternal colonies, with only very few young males.  In the fall, the bats mate and then store sperm all through the winter, only fertilizing a single egg when spring comes.  This period of hibernation during the winter is extremely energy-intensive, requiring deposition of new fat stores, and making the seasonal hibernating bat a fascinating example of beneficial obesity in the animal kingdom.

Needless to say, I am fascinated by and adore all bats.

Not all people share this feeling.  Sure, Batman is a hero, but usually bats are the scary winged creatures of nightmares and horror movies.  My own husband ran to the car, rolled up the windows, and locked the doors, when I tried to get him to touch one of the bats I was holding at the barn one summer.

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Five Scientists at Rock-Star Status (for me)

by Kristy

The Holy Grail of Science: The Nobel Prize

Throughout History, scientists have been martyrs, unsung heroes, toilers in the shadows, and mystical figures.  Often, their work has changed the way we think and affected society well beyond the laboratory.  Other times, their work has been followed by technological advances which also carried a lasting legacy, be it good or bad.  But despite all this, few of us outside the field can name more than a handful of famous scientists, and even fewer can name one or more living, working scientists today.

I’m inspired by many scientists whom I work with, whose work I read or hear about through their seminars, or those who have preceded my generation and paved the way through advancements in techniques, or by bringing novel and important ideas.  These are the scientists that students today try to emulate, and who deserve a bit of public spotlight.  They also tend to reach Rock-Star status among younger scientists.

Here are my top 5 Rock-Star Scientists, across all genres and eras:

1. Jonas Salk – for the vaccine that wasn’t patented, and the scientist who cared only about curing the sick, and not about selling a scientific fact in order to get rich.

For the first time in 1955, Salk’s polio vaccine successfully treated its first case of polio.  Since then, polio has become one of the first eradicated diseases around the globe.  Salk never directly benefited financially from this discovery, and never sought to patent the vaccine so that it needed to be commercially manufactured and sold in order to be used as treatment.  Today, very few groundbreaking (or not as impactful) discoveries lack patents, or direct financial gain by their discoverers.

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Posted by on April 19, 2011 in Kristy, Science, Top Fives

 

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