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Science communication is important in today's technologically advanced society. A good part of the adult community is not science saavy and lacks the background to make sense of rapidly changing technology. My blog attempts to help by publishing articles of general interest in an easy to read and understand format without using mathematics. I also give free lectures in community events - you can arrange these by writing to me.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Rise and Rise of the Pseudo-Scientist

What is pseudo-science?"Psedo-science is a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status."

A field, practice, or body of knowledge can reasonably be called pseudo-scientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.

These are modern times - information is freely and easily available. Everybody has an opinion; it is shared with million others by pressing a button.  This couldn't possibly be a bad thing - after all, humans thrive on exchanging information and ideas, and now we can do this globally without much effort.  We can sample the whole spectrum; from the well reasoned, sophisticated ideas to the most absurd.  This is what makes the human societies interesting .

The difficulty starts with the arrival of the modern pseudo-scientist.   Pseudo-science has always been around - harmless most of the time but has been known to cause major problems in the past.  The scientific method is based on empirical verification and must follow a rigorous set of tests. Pseudo-science generally falls far short of meeting such criteria that scientific investigations live by. Its appeal lies in the simplification of the reality that it offers - often providing a comforting outcome which people might feel inclined to accept as truth.  The simplification almost always requires ignoring vital evidence that does not fit the final desired outcome, or misrepresentation of existing established scientific ideas and at times outright concoction of evidence to support what the pseudo-scientist wants to prove.

The information society that we live in allows pseudo-scientists to reach a much bigger audience, find a larger number of receptive minds and gather momentum. The resulting surge of opinion can influence decision makers (politicians look for their popularity index for the next election) and one can see a situation when important decisions may be made on false premises.

What can the general public do?  It is not an easy choice - we all are bombarded with enormous amount of information and few of us have time to sit calmly and listen to complex science ideas. This gets even more difficult if the message is not a comforting one. I have thought about this difficulty but can find no solution. Pseudo-scientists are here to stay and there appears to be no method to safeguard the public from them.  

One way to provide protection from pseudo-scientists is for actual scientists to educate the general public and explain what the true science says about an issue.  This may be a tall order; scientists are not known for their communication skills - countless times I have come out from a conference presentation not quite knowing what the presenter was trying to tell.  Scientists are good at talking to their colleagues but are largely unable to reach the general public.
Some people say that science knowledge and technology are growing at an ever increasing rate.  More knowledge is added this year than was added last year etc.  With each passing day, the gap between the scientist and the non-scientist increases.  New technological appliances have a sort of magical aura in the way they work - science fiction of a few years ago becomes reality very quickly.  The helpless citizen of the world becomes just the right subject for pseudo-scientist who can provide a reassuring, comfortable explanation to everything.

We are in an impossible situation here.  Scientific progress, efficient and widely available means of communication are supposed to be good. Pseudo-scientists can exploit these to influence the general opinion to further their own agenda - be it selling a product for commercial gain, to make an ideological point, support business sponsors to suppress useful true state of affairs etc.  Fossil fuel lobby, climate change deniers, sponsored advertisements in online media selling health and beauty products are examples of pseudoscience in action - some of this can be very subtle.
I personally call it con-science as lot of the time the purpose is really to mislead and exploit the public.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sustainability: Introduction

Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs                                                   ... Albert A. Bartlett 2012

In September 2012, I gave an eight hour course on sustainability - an important issue encompassing most areas of life.  The lectures were aimed at highlighting the problems with sustainable development in today's society and the strain that our current civilization is putting on the earth's resources and ecosystem.  General commonsense approach to the basics of life like food, energy, water were shown to help in alleviating some of the problems.  Population and over-consumption are the two main issues that need to be addressed before any sensible resolution of our unsustainable existence can be found.  The talks have been published as follows:

Sustainability: Quotes
Sustainability: Managing Population
Sustainability: Managing Climate Change
Sustainability: Managing Food and Water Resources
Sustainability: Managing Energy Resources

In the talks, I have deliberately avoided a detailed discussion of how new technologies will impact sustainability.  There is complex interaction between technological advancements and how potential benefits are shared.  It might be possible to solve a lot of the problems discussed in the talks but there is a darker side that could not be ignored.  Current events do not inspire confidence and the question - can our civilization survive long enough to see the benefits? - will remain.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Science in Medicine - Magnetic Resonance Imaging - MRI

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is primarily used to detect hydrogen containing molecules in the body.  Outside the medicinal field, MRI is commonly known as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMR) as the method utilizes the spin of the protons (hydrogen nuclei) to detect them.  As water (H-O-H) contains protons, it is the soft tissue that gives the strongest signals and detected most efficiently while bone has fewer hydrogen atoms and gives a weak signal.
In this respect MRI complements CT.
As is true for other imaging methods also, the availability of fast computers has allowed these methods to be used as routine in hospitals and provide invaluable information about the human body - its functions and illnesses.
The physics of MRI is more complex than for other imaging techniques.  I have tried in my lecture to tone down the discussion for a non-specialist audience.  There are some detailed articles and good books available but seldom they are written for a nonscientific audience.  Hope this all makes sense:

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Science in Medicine - Positron Emission Tomography (PET) with Case Studies

PET is unique in its ability to non-invasively detect metabolic activity of various organs inside the body.  PET is particularly effective in the detection of cancer, and its remission or otherwise after treatment as it gives the current metabolic activity of the cancerous tissue.
Short-lived radioactive isotopes are used in PET to minimize exposure to nuclear radiation and provide information with acceptable exposure levels.
The slides of my talk on PET are published here.  They attempt to introduce the complex subject of nuclear radiation and its detection in an accessible way.  The efficacy of PET in detection of various ailments is demonstrated by looking at some case studies. (unfortunately some of the information about the websites is lost but I implicitly acknowledge the pictures that I have used)