How correlations can sometimes mislead about causation

Suppose you saw data that showed that people tended to commit suicide just after they started taking anti-depressants. What would you conclude?

The alleged suicide of Chris Cornell of the music group Soundgarden came with the news that he suffered from depression and was on anti-depressant medication. I was listening to a radio program Here and Now where they were interviewing Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber of the Columbia Lighthouse Project at Columbia University about other reports that suggested that anti-depressants could trigger suicidal thoughts and, as a result, some physicians were refraining from prescribing these medications for their patients with depression and some people with depression were afraid to take them.
[Read more…]

The corrosive effect of Darwin

In his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel C. Dennett invoked a metaphor that I have found quite helpful. He said that the idea of evolution by natural selection is like a ‘universal acid’, something that cannot be contained in any vessel because it eats through everything. It is so potent and corrosive that once created it cannot be contained or restricted in any way but breaks through all barriers until it reaches into every space. Once you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection as applying in any area of life, there is no way to prevent it being used to explain every aspect of life.
[Read more…]

How nature documentaries try to get you interested

Nature documentaries are not easy to make, involving patiently watching for hours, days, and weeks on end in very difficult conditions to get the footage they need. But they cannot simply show the footage. To get people to watch, they need to create some kind of story arc with animal characters and protagonists who seem to play roles within it that the audience can identify with.
[Read more…]

Changing the rhythms of life

The ‘natural’ daily rhythm of our bodies is said to be close to 25 hours. But since our lives require a daily routine that corresponds to the clock and not our bodies, we are thus slightly out of sync with the rotation of the Earth, with each passing day increasing the disparity, resulting in things like sleeping extra on our days off from work or school in an effort to make up for it.
[Read more…]

Reflections on the March for Science

UPDATE: Here are some signs from the marches around the world. This sign describes me and a lot of the people for whom this may be one of the few or only rally they ever attended.

I just returned from the Cleveland March for Science. I spent my time at the pre-march events in Public Square and waited for the talks but came home when the march proper started. I have little experience with marches and rallies so have no means of comparison and estimating numbers. All I can say is that it exceeded my own expectations. It took quite a long time once the rally ended for the crowd to leave the square on the march, which is a sign of how big the crowd was.
[Read more…]

False memories and the many worlds of Hugh Everett

Anyone who has taken a course on quantum mechanics and learned the dominant Copenhagen interpretation of it has encountered the so-called measurement problem that says that systems can exist simultaneously in a superposition of mutually exclusive states until an actual measurement is made, at which point the superposition collapses in ways that are unknown to the observer and the system is found in just one of the possible states. What happened to all the other states? No one knows. They are assumed to just cease to exist. The most famous example of this is Schrodinger’s cat which, while still in the unopened box is both alive and dead, but when the box is opened is found either alive or dead.
[Read more…]

California vaccination rates soar

Mississippi usually ranks low in terms of public health measures while California ranks high. But when it comes to childhood vaccinations, that was reversed with resistance to childhood vaccination being high in California while vaccination rates have been highest in Mississippi. 99.7% of Mississippi kindergartners have had their shots, compared to a national average of 94.5% and the anti-vaxxers had taken aim at that state. The reason for the high rates is simple. Mississippi was enlightened enough to take a strong line over a long time when it comes to confronting the spread of infectious diseases, while California had a large number of well-to-do, educated people who bought into the anti-vaccinations scare stories and had the clout to exempt their children. The state had allowed parents to opt out under the most generous terms, such as having religious or philosophical objections
[Read more…]

Why was Gödel denied a job in Austria in 1938?

Mathematical logician Kurt Gödel was a prodigy who by 1931 at the age of just 25 had already published his landmark incompleteness theorems. Many people are familiar with Gödel’s name but have only a vague idea of why he is such an important figure. This brief biography gives a summary account of it.

In 1931, Gödel published results in formal logic that are considered landmarks of 20th-century mathematics. Gödel demonstrated, in effect, that hopes of reducing mathematics to an axiomatic system, as envisioned by mathematicians and philosophers at the turn of the 20th century, were in vain. His findings put an end to logicist efforts such as those of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead and demonstrated the severe limitations of David Hilbert’s formalist program for arithmetic.
[Read more…]