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Opinion, Fact, Knowledge, Bias post image

Inside the bubble where chiropractors without medical degrees and Jenny McCarthy are fact-armed experts on toxins and vaccines, but medical doctors and scientists produce unresearched opinion.

The summer of 1995: South India with my parents and cousin. A few weeks into the trip, I developed a skin condition which caused the melanin in my face and forearms to disappear in small blotches. Alarmed and on the recommendation of a friend, my very-medically-proficient folks unwittingly rushed me to some quack. Not-A-Dermatologist took his own sweet time showing up, flicked my forehead, cheeks and forearms really hard with his dry, knobby fingers (for which I would have flicked him right back, if not for Mom), took no scrapings for microscopic analysis, diagnosed a skin infection, did not refer me to a dermatologist, took an exorbitant amount of money and showed us the door with a prescription for antibiotics. Nothing happened other than hits to my immune system and intestinal flora from ingesting unnecessary anti-bacterial drugs for a non-infection. A month later, in the heart of Tamil Nadu, a village homeopathist offered to see me and swore just from looking into my eyes that my blood “was spoiled and could be purified” and proceeded to give me a paste with MERCURY in it (that I refused to ingest).

Back in Chennai at the end of the summer, Dad’s pathologist sister came to visit and, on seeing my condition only worsen, took me to see her actually-board-certified dermatologist friend who examined my skin thoroughly and then said, “You live in America, right? Don’t you have access to some of the best sun-blocking creams?” Black does crack, it turns out. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am probably the only dark-skinned person you know who burns and loses melanin in the sun, which leaves inverse freckles and blotches. One week and half a tube of 30+ SPF gunk later, my skin cleared up.

In a recent group conversation about eating well for good health, a friend of a friend brought up eating only organic foods to flush the body of Toxins that cause cancer and other ailments. If you want to know how I feel about Toxins Dun Dun Duuuuuun as an amorphous, anti-drug, anti-chemical catch-all term, read this and this. The former is a thoughtful history and explanation of the modern American obsession with Human Toxicity by a surgical oncologist and the latter a piece by a young scientist on why commercial detoxification therapies are bunk. Both explain clearly what toxins are and aren’t, and how bacteria and viruses cause more diseases than anything else. When I presented both articles for friend’s friend’s consideration, I was told that they were “unresearched opinion” and to educate myself because, get this, “knowledge is power.”

I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.
I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.
I will not talk with toxin-obsessed, anti-vaccination strangers.

Towards the end of our chat, I almost sent the link to Facts About Dihydrogen Monoxide, but what would have been the point? The bubble explodes and causes a huge mess?

You may ask why I engage such people, but a) you don’t know they are “such people” until the Impasse of Irrationality and b) it’s my responsibility as a scientist, friend and concerned human being to inject reason and facts where they aren’t, especially when lives and health are at stake. These are folks who refuse to vaccinate their children and would rather feed their family and themselves truly harmful heavy-metal-laced concoctions, unnecessary minerals, antibiotics and “organic” foods, all in the name of removing bullshit toxins from the body. Not all foods labeled “organic” are indeed free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and eating unwashed organic fruits and vegetables is probably more harmful to you than processed foods. Granted, I stay away from fast food, except when on a long road trip, but calorie intake and trans fats are my motivators, not mythical cancer-causing Toxins which can be Leached Out with juices, oils, footpads and Anions for energy boosts. Eat everything in moderation, drink lots of water, get a good night’s sleep, exercise, use your brain and get an annual checkup if you can.

Another thing: I have nothing against licensed chiropractors, but I don’t want a gastroenterologist cracking my back, if you catch my meaning.


Opinions are not facts. Facts are not opinions.

They are not the same and do not constitute opposing viewpoints of equal merit.

Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed?

The public should be able to get information on all sides of an issue — but that doesn’t mean that all sides of the issue deserve equal weight. Science works by carefully examining the evidence supporting different hypotheses and building on those that have the most support. Journalism and policies that falsely grant all viewpoints the same scientific legitimacy effectively undo one of the main aims of science: to weigh the evidence.


Another kind of bias is bias perpetuated by its purported removal.

Be it in the corporate or academic world, I am increasingly tired of men in power smugly saying, “We don’t see gender, just the quality of your work.” That statement rings completely hollow to me, because it implies that women inherently produce work of lesser quality and is a cop-out not to address an unwritten policy of sexism. If the business is truly gender-unbiased, why are more men groomed and promoted from a pool of men and women? Unless no man or a complete dud applies for a position, why is a man always offered it over an equally-qualified woman? Perhaps if management were to look at the abilities and track records of ALL candidates more closely, truly without a focus on gender, more women will be seen climbing the ranks.

I present the essays of three scientists that address this inherent blindness that masquerades as impartiality. Thanks to the latest sexist brouhaha, this time associated with Nature magazine.

Kelly Hills: How Many Times Does “Don’t Promote Misogyny” Need to Be Discussed?  “If they had a lot of Flat-Earth letters, would they feel compelled to publish one? If so, they might want to rethink their editorial judgement.”

Anne Jefferson: Megaphones, broken records and the problem with institutional amplification of sexism and racism “To my read, it appears that implicit or explicit biases are reducing the number of African-American applications that get scores that make the discussion cutoff, but that once an application is discussed it has equal likelihood of getting funded regardless of the color of the applicant’s skin.”

Kate Clancy: The Way We Produce and Advance Science “I know many of us operate on fear—fear of being scooped, fear of not getting tenure, fear of not having enough funding to do our work, fear even of being exploited ourselves. But we cannot let fear motivate a scheme that crushes potential bright future scientists. The criteria for scholarly excellence should not be based on who survives or evades poor treatment but who has the intellectual chops to make the most meaningful contributions.”

It is 2014, as Anne reminds us, and all I want is to live in a world a society that shows physical and intellectual progress, not the return of previously-dead diseases and the extension of the notion of white/male superiority for absolutely no valid reasons. If we fight irrationality, blind faith and brute force abroad, we have to fight for reason here, or else what are we trying to protect?

And, if you take anything at all away from this post, it is this: There is nothing wrong with not having thought through, but with refusing to think through.


Credits: “Anions are molecules” photo by @thisischristina

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A Suitable Replacement For Google Reader post image

At long last, I’ve added a new sidebar widget (look there –>) that once again allows me to share interesting articles from my feedreader in the form of a list. Ever since Google shelved Reader earlier this year, I went through Feedly, Flipboard, Fzzzt, Furwhumpl, Fediddr and finally found and settled on TheOldReader. It’s the closest thing to, well, the old Reader with a simple user interface, minimalist display and, most importantly, the ability to mark and share (even if it does take up to a day to show up in the sidebar here). From chatting with support staff on Twitter, it looks like they’re still ironing out glitches, but are very responsive and encourage users to suggest features that are then prioritized and released in pretty short order. For instance, I requested a browser bookmarklet to share any article I come across online, not just ones from feeds to which I’m subscribed, and am told it’s on its way.


Crows are in the news again, pesky yet awesome creatures that they are. From my feedreader, how a corvid brain works and a really cool video of a crow that uses a jar lid to go snowboarding. It’s my seasonal gift to you. Also, thanks, Baltimore! That was one hell of a field goal.


On An Hour Of Code

and how it is going to get us precisely nowhere.

President Obama wants Americans to learn how To Code [Washington Post]

You’d think a person who spends most of her waking hours on a computer hammering away at geoscientific problems would rush out and hug the man for saying such a thing, but no. I am downright bothered by what he said.

Coding is a tool, like a hammer. A hammer requires a nail. Coding needs a problem to solve. More specifically, it requires a well-rounded education to go with it that then allows access to and understanding of the problems that can be solved by coding. In a country that increasingly worsens its education system through a combination of bureaucracy and anti-learning measures, a call to learn how to code is like burning a building down and then telling folks to go get a hammer pipefitter’s kits.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with knowledge for its own sake and coding is one of those remaining subversive acts, something you can teach yourself and perform without schools and prerequisites. In that way, it is much is like calculus. You can absolutely suck at algebra, geometry and trigonometry, but calculus is a new world with its own new set of rules to start all over with. Yes, the thrill of calculus and coding kept me going in science, but not without wonderful, knowledgeable teachers and a love of science itself.

Furthermore, when we are told to engage in Code or the more enticing Hack, in what language? C, Python, Fortran, Java? PHP, HTML, CSS?  What makes for valuable and sustainable computer literacy? It sure isn’t in knowing how to build apps and websites. And as Eric Ridgeway said: “We don’t need more php hackers.” What we need, in fact, are folks who are good at more than one thing, those who can bridge the gap between scientific, financial and economic problems and the computer as problem solver. Gone are the days of unitaskers, because no real problem can be fixed with knowledge in one single area any more. So, throwing out a soundbite like “Don’t just use your smartphone, learn how to program it” is great press, but it ultimately means nothing and is far from a panacea. Something tremendously more useful to say would have been, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man or woman on Mars and returning him or her safely to the earth,” but that’s measurable, goal-oriented commitment and not empty pandering.

Again, I know it sounds sexy, but Please Don’t Learn To Code. Listen to expert programmer Jeff Atwood who wrote this piece last year when coding was the hot thing again for … an hour.

Please don’t advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …

  • Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
  • Communicate effectively with other human beings.

These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life.

We also desperately need to establish a national baseline for what constitutes value and accountability.

(An aside: Even if President Obama were the world’s most l33t h4x0r, he cannot fix the mess that is the healthcare website because the real culprits were an appalling lack of project management, interoperability and testing every step of the way.)

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Typhoon Haiyan Aid and Disaster Mapping Efforts: How You Can Help Now post image

Aid Going To Philippines In Haiyan’s Wake, But Not Reaching Those Who Need It [Huffington Post]

A team from Médecins Sans Frontières, complete with medical supplies, arrived in Cebu island Saturday looking for a flight to Tacloban, but hadn’t left by Tuesday. A spokesman for the group said it was “difficult to tell” when it would be able to leave.

“We are in contact with the authorities, but the (Tacloban) airport is only for the Philippines military use,” Lee Pik Kwan said in a telephone interview.

An Associated Press reporter drove through Tacloban for about 7 kilometers (4 miles) and saw more than 40 bodies. There was no evidence of any organized delivery of food, water or medical supplies, though piles of aid have begun to arrive at the airport. Some people lined up to get water from a hose, presumably from the city supply.

(Emphases mine.) You’d think world governments would have some sort of emergency plan and network figured out after the Boxing Day tsunami, Katrina and Tōhoku, but Infrastructure And Preparation (Or Lack Thereof).

The Cliff Mass Weather Blog suggests that resources are deployed on forecast, NOT on disaster. Hey, what a great idea! Why didn’t all the great government powers of the world think of that one before?


I’ve become a post-disaster waiter, as in someone who waits for a few weeks until the government-NGO machine sorts itself out following the initial shock and when the dammed-up aid starts flowing. Once those initial funds, food and supplies actually begin to get to survivors more efficiently, that’s when you are doing the most, short of being there. Weeks, months, years later, long after the media has forgotten about Haiyan and the disaster porn fades.

Then again, I know some organizations are doing their damndest right now. My top two are Médecins Sans Frontières (or Doctors Without Borders) and the UN-sponsored World Food Programme (WFP). Please donate to MSF and click on the radio button that says “earmark my donation for the Emergency Response Fund” and/or at WFP’s Typhoon Haiyan page. WFP is big on nutritional efficiency (check out their school meals program that has my forever support), so I believe it when they say that “for every $100 you give, WFP can provide 1,000 packs of [high-energy] biscuits.”

Other than that, missions and personal sources are the way to ensure that money will make it to the intended. You know how I feel about Judeo-Christian charity (“here’s a cot and two hot ones in exchange for your religious and cultural identity”), but a couple of friends have suggested truly Christ-like ones that I will share with you here the moment I have permission. Please talk to your friends and neighbors about a joint donation effort or seek out some vetted charities in your area. Charity Navigator is another good place to look.

Information and mapping efforts:

* Digital Globe needs your help mapping the devastated areas on fresh satellite imagery!

The scale of the storm’s destruction has been massive. In addition to collecting imagery, we need volunteers to help us map the devastation. In support of such efforts, DigitalGlobe has activated a crowdsourcing campaign, open to anyone willing to help … For this campaign, we will be releasing the crowd produced results to the open source community.

* Ushahidi is collecting crowdsourced information from the affected areas. You can follow them on Twitter. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team is on it again, so if you have an OpenStreetMap account, please (make one and) step in and help by adding any information or map data. The GISCorps is helping as well.

What else? You tell me.


Image: Phillippines Typhoon Haiyan Appeal by CAFOD Photo Library (CC 2.0)


In an attempt to describe the good stuff from this year’s SEG annual meeting, I left out that the unnecessary aspects of vendor marketing continues, as if such schlock makes any difference to those of us who really use the tools. All the way from the outrageous and costly flash on the main exhibits floor with a ratio of 3-4 marketers for every geoscientist to the booth babes (admittedly lots fewer and less egregious compared with previous years and other technology conferences), do we, as in exploration geophysicists and not-uninformed buyers at a trade show, need it? Matt Hall summed up many of my feelings towards these phenomena in his most recent Agile post. You should read the whole thing, but here are my favorite bits:

What a shame ads bring nothing at all to our community. All that money — so little impact. Well, zero impact.

One innovative company has invented time travel, but unfortunately only to 1975. At least, that’s the easiest way to explain the shoeshine stand at Ovation’s booth.

Let’s be clear: marketing, as practised in this industry, is a waste of money. And this latter kind of marketing — remarkable for all the wrong reasons — is an insult to our profession and our purpose.

Are we okay with burning millions of dollars on glossy ads, carpeted booths, nasty coffee, and shoeshine stands? Is this an acceptable price for our attention? Is the signal:noise ratio high enough?

I almost touched on this with my closing remarks on the SEG Women’s Network breakfast: “[We are a] growing group of women and men who understand the importance of removing unnecessary [obstacles and] sexism in our industry as well as supporting and promoting professionals because that is what we are – professionals.”

Let’s go there:

Every individual and company in the entire industry wants to “remain relevant” and fears being “left behind.” But, I don’t know what relevance and keeping up mean when the same products are being marketed to and purchased by all of us. Granted, the majors have tons of money and people to research and write their own special plugins for these off-the-shelf products, but in the end, the underlying engines are the same, so how are we being competitive when we’re all standardized to the same tools?

As for marketing products with the aid of the scantily-clad, male and female geoscientists are professionals who can be won over with great new algorithms and excellent services; catering to the lowest common denominator among us may net a company lots of money (and that’s all they care about), but with changing industry demographics, fewer folks are likely to take that company seriously. Look, I hold nothing against scantily-clad women and men, but there is a time and place for that, and it is not a professional industry gathering. And, come on, shoe-shining? My husband says it’s a lot worse in defense-sector trade shows and I have personally seen it get icky at COMDEX and IITSEC, but there is none of it at Strata, OSCON, etc. The latter is Tim O’Reilly‘s direct and respectful influence on his company’s conferences. Therefore, I challenge SEG, its board and incoming president to discourage such practices (a great precedent is past president Klaas Koster who launched and still supports the SEG Women’s Network). In fact, the shoe-shining women from this year were brought to the Women’s Network’s attention and not much was done after we translated the message upward. If the conference organizers don’t care enough to set a respectful tone, I really don’t expect it from vendors.

Being an extrovert who can easily control my level of social involvement as needed, I will continue to attend industry events – to say hello to technology vendors, find out what’s new, easily run into friends from all over the world whom I rarely get to talk to and pick up a book or two – but playing dodgeball* to get from one end of the confusingly-laid-out floor to the other is a huge price to pay for finding out what is Really new.

Ultimately, it’s a result of any industry conference becoming an end in itself. The conference happens because they are paid a lot by vendors to make it happen. But, when it results in the society and science being relegated to the background – where, as Amanda Knowles puts it, “stumbling upon the golden nugget of a good technical talk comes at the expense of sitting through five bad ones” – you really have to reconsider why you’re paying your dues AND your attendance fees AND your travel costs.

Our professional-scientific society has reached a point at which it has to seek identity and true purpose. Who do we want to be as a society? What do we want this conference to say about us? There’s the thousand-megawatt-flashy exhibits floor run by the vendors who want to buy us and private hallway/barroom discussions among the cognoscenti. And then there’s the sad Book Mart in back, the deserted SEG Foundation booth, the press room in godknowswhere on the third floor, a low signal-to-noise ratio in the talks and a couple of nice but heavily-vendor-sponsored parties. Even if most of us work for corporations, our purpose as a society is important and achievable, if we continue to amplify the stuff of lasting value like vetted talks, open discussions, working workshops, hackathons, professional networking, parties when they are free of awkwardness and, especially, the science and people of exploration geophysics, i.e. the society itself.

*Patches O’Houlihan says: “If you can dodge a booth babe, you can dodge a ball!”