Response to Willie Soon: How can we legitimize scientific consensus?

Over the weekend, news broke that a skeptical climate scientist, Wei-Hock Soon, has accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry while neglecting to disclose those interests in his papers.

What particularly struck me about this piece was a quote from Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes: “The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate… Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.” The story of Wei-Hock Soon speaks to a broader problem: that the illusion of scientific debate can be crafted and manipulated, then used in the political arena.

It’s a problem that bridges two scales: individual studies vs. governing consensus. Individual studies often hold disproportionate weight in creating the illusion of scientific debate. The media and general public love single studies, particularly ones that are surprising or go against the grain. Specifics are powerful. A new finding is news, a growing body of evidence towards a general idea is not.

Of course, all science is an iterative process of back and forth. Theories as big as evolution and general relativity cannot be said to be certain. There is always open room for dissent — and often dissent is productive, begetting new strains of thinking. But there are scientific ideas — like anthropogenic climate change — backed by a large consensus, and that consensus should hold a certain amount of weight when a single critic speaks up against the grain.

Scientists like Dr. Soon poke holes in the consensus. They serve as talking heads that politicians can use to further broader agendas. These scientists take advantage of the fact that science is never a closed book. They play off the public’s perception that science is too complicated to be understood or questioned. Scientists can intimidate non-scientists in a way that makes non-scientists feel unentitled to ask for lucid explanations. “Just take my word for it, it’s complicated,” is the message.

To combat this, we should find ways to better consolidate and legitimize consensus, then stack consensus up directly against individual studies. How can we give a platform to voices that contextualize individual studies? One option is post-publication peer review, a topic that my friend Wudan Yan recently reported on for Hippo Reads, a publication between academia and lay audiences.

As more of the scientific publication process migrates on-line, post-publication peer review and other methods for scientific dialogue are beginning to emerge as a powerful tools. More journals are providing on-line platforms for experts in a field to comment on or respond to an individual study. I recently wrote about one example, an on-line debate over studies on the origins of mysterious fairy circles in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. The same journal published the original article, then a critical response, and then a rebuttal from the original authors again.

Options like post-publication peer review are promising because they provide the opportunity for more conversation and transparency. Contextualizing individual studies has a lot of potential for increasing scientific literacy. Accessible post-publication peer review platforms could empower journalists, general audiences and even other scientists to think more critically and holistically about individual studies as they come out. Let’s envision this as creatively as we’d like. “Something like a Yelp for science papers?” my professor suggested. It’s not an outrageous idea. After all, there already exists a Twitter for science papers.

Image: Pixabay / User geralt

Stopping by bromine

Today Jon Scieszka, author of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” visited our writing workshop class. We did an in-class exercise in which we had to write a poem about an element from the period table based off Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

I decided to write mine on bromine, specifically highlighting research from the past year suggesting that bromine, once thought to be relatively biologically useless, might actually be a trace element essential to our tissue development.

Here it is:

Which element is this I do not know,
Its neighbors are more common though.
It’s really rare in our Earth’s crust,
But in the ocean it does flow.

At room temp, a fluid red-brown,
In nature, it’s in salts, locked down.
We mine it for flame retardants,
So grab some, and make your flames drown!

Its name means “stench,” or a “strong smell.”
Though our common use of it fell
When we learned that it kills ozone,
It’s still in photo films, oh well.

Till now we’ve thought we need zero,
It seems our tissues use it, though,
So bromine would you help me grow…
So bromine would you help me grow.

For reference, this exercise was based on a parody poem Jon wrote himself, entitled “Astronaut stopping by a planet on a snowy evening:”

Which world this is I do not know.
It’s in our solar system though.
I’m thinking that it might be Mars,
Because it has that reddish glow.

But you know it could be Venus.
And if that’s true, then just between us,
It might be wise to leave before
Any locals might have seen us.

Could be Pluto. Might be Neptune.
Don’t they both have more than one moon?
I’m running out of oxygen.
I’d better figure this out soon.

Yes space is lovely, dark and deep.
For one mistake I now do weep:
In science class I was asleep.
In science class I was asleep…

* “‘Astronaut Stopping by a Planet on a Snowy Evening’ definitely reminds me of a poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963). Not ‘Mending Wall.’ Not ‘Fire and Ice.’ More like ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’”

Image: Wikimedia Commons / User DePiep

P.S. For a neat bromine-related lesson, check out this CreatureCast video about a dye called Tyrian purple, from Nina Ruelle! The dye is a bromine-containing organic compound produced by a sea snail called Bolinus brandaris.

The clock tells me

Hi there, I’m sharing a poem I wrote for an in-class exercise with Stephen Hall. I’ve been thinking about lucid dreaming a lot lately, which definitely inspired this piece. As a prompt, we borrowed the first line, “the bedside clock is right once,” from a poem entitled Nighttown by David Corcoran, former editor of the Science Times. 

The clock tells me

The bedside clock is right for once.
Someone once told me,
“You can’t read a clock in a dream.”
The numbers will appear warped,
lines curved and jagged,
chopped up and squirming.
Discernible, at first—
but they disintegrate the moment you try to focus.

Does the clock read now or then?
I can’t seem to place my fingers.
“Now” is technical,
but most days I live in a “then,”
sticky resin around my consciousness.

The bedside clock is right for once,
which means I must be lucid.
Clear, amber syrup
not yet solidified into resin.
My self, most days, appears warped.
Proprioception curved and jagged,
chopped up and squirming.

The bedside clock tells me to breathe,
instructs me to listen to the silence beneath the ticking, the padding of cat feet, the muffled sounds of city screaming into sky.

The bedside clock reminds me that time,
it is only the workings of cognition.

I am sure of two things:
1) The technical now.
2) My body:
discernible at first,
but it disintegrates the moment I try to focus.

Image: Flickr / garycycles

Sparrow songs tune into context

You know how even though the “k” in skill and “g” in guilt sound really similar, we know to put them in different categories? Many linguists think that ability to differentiate similar sounds based on context is uniquely human. But new research suggests that a type of bird, the swamp sparrow, does the same thing. Learn more in my new piece for Scienceline.
Image: Flickr / Peter Wilton

Alcoholism after gastric bypass: Is it in your mind or gut?

My latest piece for Scienceline explores the mysterious link between gastric bypass surgery and alcoholism. Scientists think it’s undeniable that patients are developing alcoholism at higher rates after gastric bypass surgery. But they still don’t know why. Some reigning theories suggest patients may be transferring food addictions to other substances, the surgery may alter alcohol metabolism in patients’ guts or that a gastric bypass may even trigger changes in the central nervous system, affecting how patients process dopamine, a neurotransmitter that modulates our brain’s reward circuit and plays a large role in addiction. I’m pretty happy with how this piece turned out and hope you enjoy reading it!

Image credit: Flickr / Faisal Akram

Why we should stand up to bullies in the workplace

Bullying isn’t just a playground phenomenon — it happens everyday, in professional settings around the world. My new piece for Cafe takes a look at workplace bullying, and how it can be a lose-lose-lose situation for individuals, business and society at large.

Image source: Flickr / Quinn Dombrowski

Is working a lot necessarily unhealthy?

Here’s a counterintuitive idea: The number of hours you work doesn’t say anything about whether or not you are a workaholic.

It’s a weird statement, right? Isn’t “working too much” the definition of workaholism? Well… maybe not.

Some psychologists believe that working a lot isn’t always unhealthy. They make a distinction between pathological “work craving” and meaningful “work engagement.” I explain the empirical difference between the two work styles in my latest post for Cafe.

Image Source: Flickr/ Bernard Goldbach

Oxycodone, morphine and the chemistry of addiction

Opioid painkillers like oxycodone and morphine are among the most abused drugs in the US … but are there differences in their addictiveness? My new post on Scienceline explores how oxycodone might actually be more addictive than morphine.

Image: Flickr / Victor

No need for the pharmacy; just press print

My new piece for Scienceline is on 3D printing drugs. Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in England have filed a patent for a 3D printer that can produce complex tablets using chemical “ink.” The technology would be a boon for personalized medicine–but it might also mean unfettered, and in some cases dangerous, access to experimental drugs. As my friend Eliza said, it’s “3D printing on steroids… no, OF steroids.” Read on!

Source: Flickr / Rob Ireton

Is the Workplace the Next Frontier for Wearable Tech?

There’s a lot happening around wearable tech: Google is developing a new edition of Glass, Italian high-end eyewear maker Luxottica wants to make more stylish smart glasses, the Apple Watch is coming out and fitness bands like Fitbit are taking off. In addition to all this, developers and employers are starting to consider workplace applications for wearable tech. My latest piece for Cafe explores this new trend—will wearable tech take off in the workplace before the home?

Image: Flickr/ Antonio Zugaldia

How to Fend Off a Socialist Insurrection… With Dinosaurs

Another article inspired by “Recapturing the Scenic Wilds,” an exhibit on natural history at Wave Hill. This one’s about how dinosaurs might have helped 19th century American tycoons promote capitalism. I originally wrote this piece for Cafe, but here’s an expanded version with more pictures. Special thanks to Lukas Rieppel, David Borgonjon and Wave Hill.

What do we want when we think of dinosaurs? We want to know which were the biggest and baddest. We want spiked tails and razor claws. We want epic battles to the death, the ground shaking underfoot.

We seek certain attributes from different animals. From dogs, we look for playful loyalty; from cats, agile curiosity. In sea turtles, we read grace and wisdom; in owls, stealth and majesty. Dinosaurs are no exception—they prompt a particular, danger-seeking response in our imaginations.

But how, exactly, did we come to think of dinosaurs as ruthless competitors?

Dino natural history: fact meets fiction?

The answer might reach back a couple centuries, according to Lukas Rieppel, a science historian from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. For the better part of a decade, Rieppel has been pondering how we came to imagine dinosaurs the way we do. “I was interested in the history of science aspect—how these creatures were discovered, and then especially how paleontologists did the work of using these fossils to imagine prehistory,” he said.


Skeleton model of Tyrannosaurus, 1912, from the American Museum of Natural History Library. Image: Public Domain.

In the halls of natural history museums, Rieppel noted, many dinosaur skeletons are arranged as if facing each other in eternal battle, leading museumgoers to conclude that most dinosaurs probably died in bloody competition. In fact, this practice of imagining a prehistoric world more gripping, savage and cruel than ours might be exactly why many of us find dinosaurs so alluring.

As a science historian however, Rieppel wanted to know more about the events leading up to these displays. He dug into the past, looking into early discoveries and exchanges of dinosaur fossils. In doing so he started to unravel a story: one that goes back to the late 19th century.

Last month, Rieppel led a panel discussion entitled The Power of Natural History at Wave Hill, a 28-acre public estate in the New York. The discussion accompanied an art exhibit, Recapturing the Scenic Wilds, which explores the intersection between natural history and culture.

Fossil discoveries and the rise of American capitalism

The first dinosaur bones were discovered in England in the early 1800s. But about fifty years later, American paleontologists began to discover more complete sets of bones belonging to larger dinosaurs such as Brontosaurus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

This was the Gilded Age in America, a time of rapid economic growth and corporate trusts, widened social inequality—generating great wealth for business magnates at the expense of a growing population of poor laborers. Over time, many of these magnates turned to philanthropy, funding public institutions such as schools, libraries and art spaces. Some of them also took an interest in natural history and dinosaur fossils.

Why dinosaurs? Rieppel points to two patrons in particular—J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie—to highlight two possible motivations.

America… now better than Europe!

Americans still had something of an inferiority complex toward Europeans in the 19th century, says Rieppel. Europe could tout rich cultural traditions in literature, art and philosophy extending back centuries, but America had not yet established such cultural claims.

What America did have over Europe, he says, was its natural bounty: its wide, open spaces and majestic landscapes. This was particularly true in the newly colonized American West, where people were discovering the first American dinosaur fossils along with rich stores of minerals and other natural resources.

“Dinosaurs fit into this narrative perfectly,” said Rieppel. “American dinosaurs were just bigger, more spectacular and more impressive than European dinosaurs.”

Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

At the time, American museums still imported many of their displays from Europe, but as paleontology took off in the United States, American patrons reversed this process. Carnegie, for instance, distributed about a dozen replicas of a colossal dinosaur named after him, Diplodocus carnegii, across major natural history museums throughout Europe.

“There’s a really strong branding here,” said Rieppel. “At the same time that America is overtaking Europe as the world’s industrial and financial center, these colossal prehistoric creatures are being discovered in the American West—and Carnegie is literally bringing them back to Europe, putting them in European museums, and showing Europeans how much bigger and more impressive American dinosaurs are.”

Capitalism, endorsed by nature

But Morgan and Carnegie were not only interested in celebrating American dinosaurs in Europe—they also wanted to bring dinosaurs to the forefront of Americans’ consciousness. In 1869, Morgan helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A couple decades later, in 1896, Carnegie founded the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

“Carnegie was interested in American dinosaurs for several reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that they’re bigger and better than European dinosaurs, so they become a representation of the American juggernaut,” said Rieppel. “But in addition, Carnegie is interested in dinosaurs because they help him make an argument to justify the competitive nature of American capitalism.”

The turn of the 20th Century heralded the Progressive Era, during which people began demanding stricter regulation of businesses and expansion of welfare. Carnegie, aware that many Americans saw captains of industry as unscrupulous bullies, worried about a socialist insurrection.

He developed an interest in evolutionary biology, drawing a link between competition in the natural world and that in the corporate world. In a popular essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that Darwin’s “law of competition” may exact a great price in the form of increased inequality, but that it is nevertheless “essential for the future progress of the race.”

Using Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, Carnegie maintained that competition, though it could generate harsh inequality, was necessary for progress.

How do dinosaurs come in?

In 1891, Morgan recruited his paleontologist nephew, Henry Fairfield Osborn, to start the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Along with many other notable naturalists at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt, Osborn was a proponent of eugenics: the idea that some humans were genetically superior to others. Osborn and Roosevelt valorized fierce competition in the natural world, a fact that is perhaps revealed in their celebration of hunting. Indeed, Osborn belonged to Roosevelt’s Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization consisting of hunters, many of whom donated their hunted game to natural history museums.

“Leaping Laelaps,” a famous painting by Charles R. Knight, 1897. Image: Public Domain.

“Leaping Laelaps,” a famous painting by Charles R. Knight, 1897. Image: Public Domain.

Given his preoccupation with evolution and his family of wealthy capitalists, Osborn might have been predisposed to also celebrate competition in dinosaurs, Rieppel argues. Moreover, he oversaw many ways in which dinosaurs were depicted to the public. In addition to supervising a team of famous fossil hunters, he hired an artist named Charles R. Knight to produce murals and sculptures imagining live dinosaurs in their habitats.

Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Rieppel, depictions of dinosaurs shifted. “Once these capitalists become involved in the funding and promotion of dinosaur paleontology, the way that we imagine dinosaurs changes,” he said. “It’s at this time that dinosaurs become what we mostly think of them as today … [emphasizing] their ferocity, their fierceness, their competitiveness—the fact that they rule over a world that’s red in tooth and claw.”

A pair of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park in London, commissioned in 1852 as part of a series of the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Around the mid-19th century, dinosaurs were often represented as elephantine, stationary creatures. With the discovery of American fossils a few decades later, says Lukas Rieppel, dinosaurs became the fierce, dynamic lizards we often think of today. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

A pair of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park in London, commissioned in 1852 as part of a series of the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Around the mid-19th century, dinosaurs were often represented as elephantine, stationary creatures. With the discovery of American fossils a few decades later, says Lukas Rieppel, dinosaurs became the fierce, dynamic lizards we often think of today. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

Many cutthroat images of dinosaurs during the early 20th century came from imaginative paintings, particularly those by Charles Knight. Museum curators like Osborn then used fossils to underscore these images, says Rieppel.

“The way that these museums displayed dinosaurs constantly reinforced the link between the material facts that we have—the fossil evidence that exists in the present day,” he said, “and the flesh and blood—the living, breathing, fighting, competing creatures that existed in the prehistoric.”

Rieppel gave the example of a painting by Knight, which depicted a large, carnivorous Allosaurus predating upon the tail of a Brontosaurus. Paired with the painting was a three-dimensional reconstruction of the scene: an Allosaurus skeleton positioned above a section of Brontosaurus tail. “There’s a one-to-one relationship between the way that the bones are laid out in the three-dimensional exhibit and the way that these flesh-and-blood creatures are represented in the painting,” said Rieppel.

In fact, Rieppel points out, the museum guidebook published with the creation of this exhibit at the turn of the 20th century further reinforced this chain of evidence. Specifically, it called museumgoers’ attention to markings on the vertebrae of the Brontosaurus tailbone that seemed to correspond in size and appearance to teeth of Allosaurus.


A fossil exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (top) depicts an Allosaurus skeleton feasting on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Created in the early 1900s but still up in the museum today, the fossils accompany a painting (bottom) of the same scene, by Charles Knight. Images: Public Domain.

A fossil exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (top) depicts an Allosaurus skeleton feasting on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Created in the early 1900s but still up in the museum today, the fossils accompany a painting (bottom) of the same scene, by Charles Knight. Images: Public Domain.

Curators prized painstaking attention to detail as a way of asserting their authority and erasing suspicions that museum exhibits might be flights of fancy, suggests Rieppel. He argues that even as many facts about dinosaurs remained unknown at the time, curators took great pains to present a unified front of knowledge.

He refers to a passage Osborn had written in the 1922 annual report for the American Museum of Natural History: “In the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History we are scrupulously careful not to present theories or hypotheses, but to present fact.”

“Of course, this is disingenuous,” said Rieppel. Since dinosaurs are long gone, they are necessarily recast through theories and hypotheses. Museums reimagine dinosaurs again and again, he says.

Today’s dinosaurs

In fact, our images of dinosaurs continue to shift. During the second half of the 20th century, Rieppel explains, paleontologists began to imagine dinosaurs as more social and shrewd than previously thought, doing things like hunting in packs and cooperating to nurture their young. “Now [dinosaurs] are usually depicted as colorful, agile and social creatures,” he said.

This shift also mirrors a shift in American corporate culture, he asserts. “Our own economy today looks very different. It is no longer dominated by large, vertically-integrated corporate firms.”

Of course, large multinational corporations still exist, he says, “But the emphasis of our popular imagination is much more centered on smaller, more agile, and highly adaptable firms. Not General Electric or Standard Oil, but Facebook, Google, Genzyme, 23andMe, Apple, Snapchat, Instagram and so on. Silicon valley startups, biotech spinoffs, that sort of thing.”

Rieppel ultimately hopes to make the point that all science is inextricably linked to human institutions and theoretical trends, capitalism included. “Science is part of our culture in the same way that art, literature and architecture are,” he said. “Therefore, we should analyze it as we do any other human endeavor.”

Cover Image: Flickr / Zachary Tirrell

Natural history museums: fact or fiction?

What goes into the making of natural history dioramas? And how do these dioramas inform us? My first piece for Scienceline explores the line between art and actuality in natural history displays. AND if you’re free this weekend, go to Wave Hill in the Bronx to catch the last couple days of “Recapturing the Scenic Wilds,” the exhibit on natural history that this article is based on. Not only is the exhibit thought-provoking and well-curated, Wave Hill is a stunning escape from the city.

Image: Richard Barnes , “Suspended Giraffe,” 2005, Digital C-print, 48” x 60.” Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

Can Bright Lights Help You Sleep Better?

My latest for Cafe is on using light therapy to correct wonky sleep schedules (very relevant to my life!).

I’ve also gotten questions about melatonin supplements, so I’ll give a brief explanation here. My understanding is that melatonin supplements have shown moderate effects for helping people fall asleep. One big problem is that the dosages of most pills are too high; at really high doses (>1 mg) it stops working after a while, sometimes after just a few days. Unfortunately the scientist at MIT who first created the supplemental form holds a patent for doses up to 1 mg.

Light therapy is actually often used in conjunction with melatonin supplements. Firstly, synergy: using both can push your sleep cycle in either direction for more than 2.5 hours. But another benefit of light therapy is that it can really be more effective for treating insomnia when it is coupled with seasonal affective disorder or other depression. I think for both light therapy and melatonin supplements, it’s particularly useful to nail down the timing of when to use the light or take the pills, based on your phase response curve (which I discuss in the article). At supplement doses around 0.3 mg, a dosage level studies have shown to be effective over a long term, you should take the pills a few hours before bedtime. In general, however, timing depends on some experimentation under the guidance of a doctor.

Image Source: Flickr/ Russell Bernice

An Inflated Sense of Optimism for Anti-Overdose Drug?

Moral attitudes in the United States have shifted dramatically around naloxone, a drug that reverses heroin overdose. But could costs and politicians’ everchanging priorities threaten naloxone’s promise to provide life-saving treatment for the masses? I discuss in my latest for Cafe.

Image: Intropin (Wikimedia Commons)

Every Fig You Eat Contains a Digested Wasp

For this week’s episode of the Doppler Effect, a science and technology show on WNYU 89.1 FM, I produced a segment on the life cycles of fig wasps. About halfway through the episode, Sandeep Nayak and I consult Eric Gruebel, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Manvir Singh, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, to explore how every fig you eat contains a digested female fig who was thwarted from having babies. Our conversation brings us on a journey learning about coevolution, mutualism, parasites, other crazy life cycles, zines and chocolate mountains. The first half is also a great listen: a look at New York City’s most underappreciated residents—rats—by Lydia Chain.

Image: Fickr/ Sonny Abesamis

On Modern Dying, and How We Might Save It

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death and suffering,” starts my latest piece for Cafe. It’s true, death has been on my mind—particularly how damaging our notions of aging and dying are. We don’t control the circumstances of our birth, and we don’t control when or how we ultimately die, but we should be able to control important details like where it happens, who we want to be there, the pain we feel and our sense of independence in the end. Fortunately, more Americans seem to be questioning this, including Atul Gawande, author of a new book called Being Mortal, and Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who ended her own life with drugs prescribed to her under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Gawande, Maynard and others argue that we need to explore and expand our end-of-life options. These include independent living, positive thinking, Death with Dignity and psychedelic therapy.

How to Hurtle Through Rock at High Speeds

My new piece on Cafe takes us below ground and back in time to learn about the geology of subway construction in New York City. I focus on New York’s most notorious public transit line, the Second Avenue Subway—a project that has been ongoing for almost a century now. Learn about the Manhattan Schist, a construction nightmare called bull’s liver and a 485-ton, 450-foot-long tunnel boring machine named Adi.