Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Winners of the Google Science Technology Fair

Anna Kuchment was there [Google Science Fair: Winners tackle breast cancer, hearing loss and water quality]. Just once, I'd like to see a science fair winner who actually did science and discovered something about the natural world that has nothing to do with technology or applications.
An expectant crowd gathered last night inside an airplane hangar at a flight school in Palo Alto, California to hear the winners of the second annual Google Science Fair. The grand prize went to Brittany Wenger, 17, of Sarasota, Florida, who wrote a computer program to help doctors diagnose breast cancer less invasively. Jonah Kohn, 14, of San Diego, Calif. won his age category for creating a device that converts sound into tactile vibration to improve the music-listening experience for the hearing impaired; and a trio from Spain won the 15 to 16 age category for documenting the hazardous and non-hazardous organisms found in water from different parts of their country.
Anna Kuchment works for Scientific American and posts on a blog called Budding Scientist: Everything you always wanted to know about raising science-literate kids.


29 comments :

  1. I imagine the vast majority of people, even those with a passing interest in science, are primarily concerned with the applications of science. I doubt many care about how the natural world works at all.

    I think this is a big part of the reason the public is relatively disinterested in science. People don't seem to care how or why things work they just want to know that they do.

    Perhaps I'm being too cynical.

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  2. I imagine very many people care about how the natural world works, until they reach an age somewhere between 6 and 12. The question is what makes them stop caring.

    Here's an interesting article in which psychologists suggest the problem may be a style of education which gives the impression we already know all the answers:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/09/little-kids-are-natural-scientists/

    I for one feel much less drawn to investigate things once I find out they have already been investigated by someone else. Perhaps the key is to raise awareness of how much mystery there still is in the world.

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  3. I am sorry for "the vast majority of people," then. I am completely fascinated both by technology and by how the natural world (universe(s)) works.

    As for educational styles - well, I always was a stubborn little cuss, hanging on to my skepticism that we really knew all the answers, or even that everything my teachers thought we knew was correct. (I mean, what the heck is the "valence theory"? Atoms run around with little minus and plus numbers attached? Nice when I finally had a physical chemistry course in college and found out a little about quantum mechanics and electron shells, subshells, and orbitals.)

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  4. So cancer diagnosis isn't science, Larry?

    I thought that anything that involved critical thinking (which DDX does) was science. Or is that only the case when you're writing about the "science wars"?

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    1. Did you even read what he wrote? Since when does "I'd like to see a science fair winner who actually did science and discovered something about the natural world that has nothing to do with technology or applications" mean "things having to do with technology or things that have applications are not science"?

      Larry, was your readership always this inept?

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    2. Uh...the whole strike-through bit on "science" in the title is much more indicative of Larry's general attitide toward "applications". Intimating that a discipline is not "real" science, as the style of the title does, is just a back-handed and fallacious (see No True Scotsman) way of asserting said discipline is not science at all.

      I find it deepely hypocritical that, on a blog where readers often attack Christian scriptural inerreantists for their reading and application of the Bible, questioning the blogger's own premises based on a motif in his posting gets criticized for not being a word-for-word reading of what was written in a single post. In other words, my critique of Larry's lack of consideration for cancer diagnosis as science has nothing to do with my being inept because I supoosedly failed to read Larry's literal words and everything to do with my being insightful (though not particularly so) because I indentified thematic elements across Larry's posts.

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    3. Michael, I commend you. You handled Anonymous' gratuitous and nonsensical insult much better than I, or I suspect most others, would have.

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    4. I have had much opportunity to act differently and have indeed acted that way.

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    5. Larry, was your readership always this inept?

      Well, Michael M is relatively new but, yes, I've always had some readers who seem completely incapable of following a logical train of thought.

      Most of them are creationists but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

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    6. Larry:

      Where do your general themes fit into your perception of others' comprehending your posts?

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  5. All three of these projects involve science and the author's comments are obviously steeped in ignorance. However, even if one accepts the grumpy, cynical view of the author, a slightly more careful look at these projects would have revealed to his jaded eye that the 15-16 age category winners did exactly what he'd like to see.

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    1. You think documenting what's hazardous and not hazardous (to humans, no less) has no applications? You gotta be kidding me.

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    2. Anonymous-immediately-above:

      Who expects a teen to discover the Higgs boson or that DNA has a double helical structure?

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    3. Micheal M,

      Please read this carefully;
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

      You commit this logical fallacy with nearly every post.

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    4. Uh...Larry explicitly said "I'd like to see a science fair winner who actually did science and discovered something about the natural world that has *nothing* to do with technology or applications". The whole point that it is nigh-unto-impossible to find are area of basic research that is easily understandable to high school student that simultaneously has *no* applications to the real world. For instance, I spent a summer at California State University-Fullerton on a Research Experience for Undergraduates research assistantship studying the dimerization properties of cytochrome c' (not cytochrome c) under different concentrations of the protein itself. Now, even though we were doing basic research insofar as we were examining the basic properties of the protein in aqua, there were very obvious applications applications to biomimetic switches already published in the literature.

      In short, Larry has constructed a false dichotomy between "basic", or "pure", and "applied" science in order to bemoan the trends he dislikes in science outreach and education.

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    5. Then why use the Higgs discovery as your example? You know this is impossible for someone without a super collider to accomplish.

      Disagree with his point of view all you want. The last paragraph from Friday, July 27, 2012 4:17:00 PM would have sufficed, and made your point, instead of your idiotic Higgs/DNA structure comment.

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    6. Why take issue with my examples of "pure" research?

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    7. Anonymous-from-above:

      The point I was trying to make with the Higgs boson analogy is that it is hard to think of a topic in science that doesn't "*nothing* to do with technology or applications". The Higgs boson is the closest I could come to an off-the-top-of-the-head example of a recent discovery that has no immediate application to technology. Anything in evolutionary biology has applications outside evolutionary biology is we are to take Dobzhansky at his oft-quoted words: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

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  6. i am a creationist and so very sceptical of "science' being anything other then people thinking about stuff and applying it.
    These kids probably just are trying to invent things or discover things and its all rather second rate.
    I certainly notice the bias and agenda that anything to do with Global warming etc gets top awards.
    I think the establishment has profound agendas in wjo wins.
    If anything was any good this group award wouldn't matter.

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    1. Well, well, Booby Byers is a global warming denier, in addition to being an evolution denier. What a surprise.

      As usual, Booby Byers shows that he doesn't understand science. Take his first sentence: i am a creationist and so very sceptical of "science' being anything other then people thinking about stuff and applying it.. Totally inane. Science is not just people thinking about stuff. That's philosophy. Science is a method of understand the natural world through observations and evidence.

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  7. Since Larry seems so eager to distance (his definition of) science from its applications and the various technologies that arise from its discoveries - even in the case above, which involves things that can actually lead to the betterment of peoples' lives - I would ask him, as well as all 'militant atheists' to ALSO make a distinction between a simple belief in god, and whatever acts may result from specific teachings that stem from such a belief. In other words, let's call refer to cases such as suicide bombing (AS WELL AS the benevolent actions of some religious people, i.e, the Quakers during the days of the Underground Railroad) as mere 'applications' of religion. And maybe, perhaps, stop blaming religion for all the evils of the world, and treating belief in god as if it were some sort of disease that needs to be eradicated?

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    1. Ah...but is not actually as eager as you he think he is. He think that the publications of Maarten Boudry, a philosopher of science, are science. in other words, he only wants to include in "science" what benefits his worldview.

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    2. I would ask him, as well as all 'militant atheists' to ALSO make a distinction between a simple belief in god, and whatever acts may result from specific teachings that stem from such a belief.

      Done.

      I try to distinguish between the delusion of believing in god(s) and the paraphernalia that is associated with organized religions. I'm well aware of, and appreciate, the good that is done by many believers.

      I do not blame religions for all the evils in the world. Many nonreligious groups have been evil.

      And maybe, perhaps, stop ... treating belief in god as if it were some sort of disease that needs to be eradicated?

      This is where we part company. I think it's bad to be deluded. I think it's bad to believe in things that don't exist.

      I opposes those who believe they've been abducted by UFOs'. I oppose those who believe that homeopathy is effect medicine. And I oppose those who believe in supernatural beings.

      Why? Because these are all examples of irrational thinking and I think it's wrong for society to condone such behavior.

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    3. but that in itself is a very arrogant viewpoint. Who are you, and how are you, to say that belief in god is a delusion? Science has never proved this, not in the least. Science CAN'T prove this but can only insist that there is no evidence. And yet, when millions upon millions of your fellow human beings can attest with certainty that god plays a role in their lives - many of them wise and intelligent, many of them changed significantly, and for the better, by this certainty - how can you do anything other than say that science as it stands today has no way of incorporating their views, or understanding them? To go beyond that is to arrogate to yourselves and those like you a position of judgement that you haven't earned.

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  8. Michael, ah, curioser and curioser! :)

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  9. Nevertheless, Michael, it does make for an interesting talking point, I feel. Whenever I have attempted to point out to a Scientific Triumphalist that science has a checkered history, in that we now have to deal with environmental threats and destructive weaponry unimaginable a hundred years ago, they inevitably point out, "that's not science! Science just tells you ABOUT the world; it is not responsible for what people do with it!" Arguing on behalf of theism, can one not argue, "Theism is nothing other than a belief in god; you can't blame it for religious wars, suicide bombers, etc. That's something that people DO with their belief in god, an entirely separate issue"?

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    1. While I do appreciate the rhetorical symmetry of your argument, Andy, I don't see it as a particularly relevant argument to the problematics of "New Atheist" discourse. No-one commenting on this blog, as I far as I can tell, is a Vulcan. That is, I don't think that anyone here claims to "live by logic alone" (never mind that total logical consistency has implications for the completeness of one's logical system), so pointing out an apparent contridiction in their approach to religion and science does not necessarily refute their claims. Moreover, since yours is an argument by analogy it is always possible to attack it through the non-equivalence of religion and science.

      My point was that Larry is inf fact not as eager to distance science as logic-like system of reasoning about the natural world from non-science as a system of creating knowledge about the not-necessarily-natural world. Instead, Larry incorporates fragments of the latter that he sees as supporting his views of science as a "way of knowing" and re-labels them "science" without respect for how doing so might further problematize the demarcation between science-concordant activities and science-discordant activities. There is, for instance, no doubt that Boudry's work in the philosphy of science uses "logical and critical thinking"; however, there is no indication that Boudry, with whom Larry has had extensive social intercourse (including, by Larry's account, discussions on the types and operation of methodological naturalism in science), either concieves as his work as "science" or endorses such an interpretation. Now, Boudry most certainly does not own the ultimate interpretation of his ideas, but, given Boudry's training in the philosophy of science, I could understand where he might object to Larry's apparently facile approach to the problematics of demarcation.

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  10. Michael, I appreciate the clarification. Since I have chiefly been interested in pointing out and calling out the - to me - arrogant and derisive tone that 'new atheists' (whom I refer to as scientific triumphalists) adopt toward believers, I have a tendency to overlay that concern over discussions. This is a tendency I need to learn to avoid. I missed your point and was not even aware of the disagreement you have with Larry over demarcation.

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    1. It's not so much the demarcation problem as that Larry wants to re-demarcate everything he finds intellectualy fruitful as "science". However, if Larry actually wants to participate in the the discourse on the politcal consequences of demarcation, he can't go around calling scarlett lavender, if you know what I mean.

      Briefly, "scarlett" is a deeply saturated bluish-red (but not purple), whereas "lavender" is a highly desaturated bluish-red (but not purple). My point is that, while I can see how Larry might call Boudry's work "science", most people wouldn't understand it as science in the way that "science" is commonly understood, so calling it thus conflates two ideas that are not normally conflated. However, simultaneously Larry rejects the pronouncements of other philosophers of science, including giants in the field of the philosphy of evolutionary biology, such as Eliot Sober and the philosphers who were prosecution witnesses in the Dover trial, because they support a form of methodological naturalism that separates core religious claims from examination by scientific inquiry. In short, as I have intimated before, Larry only "scientizes" philosophy when "scietnizing" philosophy makes his philosophy "science", and in doing so relabels common concepts in an uncommon way.

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