It has been a week for rational explanations, for assessing evidence in a logical way, a subject on which I have posted in the past and which goes to the heart of the scientific endeavour.
There was a lot of media attention about a study published in PNAS that claimed to show that hurricanes with female names (Katrina, Sandy, etc.) cause more damage than those with male names, because (to quote the abstract of the study) “hurricane names lead to gender-based expectations about severity and this, in turn, guides respondents’ preparedness to take protective action”. In other words, people take feminine words less seriously than masculine words. Is that true? Are people really that socially attuned to gender-specific language? Turns out that the original study may have made too many assumptions with regards to data and the statistical model they used, according to a re-analysis by Bob O’Hara and GrrlScientist on the Guardian science pages. However in a further twist, a re-analysis of the re-analysis by Florian Hartig on the Theoretical Ecology blog found some (although very, very weak) support for a gender effect. Florian makes an interesting point, however, that “the authors would have probably found it much more challenging to place this study in [a top science journal such as] PNAS if they would have done a more careful and conservative statistical analysis”. In other words, science is certainly not immune to the effects of hyperbole and controversial findings.
Speaking of “hyperbole and controversial findings”, Richard Dawkins made headlines by apparently suggesting that reading fairy tales to children is not in their best interest: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?” Not surprisingly there was a big backlash against Dawkins who clarified his views on Twitter (!) and claimed they had been taken out of context. Perhaps so, but he has a track record of increasingly controversial views that he surely knows will raise his profile. But then he’s an author with books to sell, who long ago gave up being a practising scientist by not publishing any peer-reviewed papers in science journals for over 30 years. Dawkins’ role at Oxford was as Professor for Public Understanding of Science and unfortunately he gives the impression that scientists are all about rational thought and logical arguments in every facet of their lives. Which we’re not, I can assure you: I possess a whole raft of personal, irrational idiosyncrasies, including sending a little prayer to the Gods of Science every time I submit a new manuscript to a journal. Which they often ignore, the f**kers.
There was also an odd quote from Dawkins in relation to the logic of fairy tales, that there is “a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable”. Nope, it’s not statistically improbable – it’s biologically impossible! “Statistically too improbable” suggests that it could happen, given enough time. Not sure that this helps with public understanding of science….
Something which is statistically improbable, but which does happen occasionally, is finding new fossils which make us rethink our understanding of the biodiversity of species interactions. Such a find was published recently in the journal Biology Letters: a 47 million year old fossil bird of a previously undescribed group that provides the earliest evidence of flower feeding, and possibly pollination by a birds. The evidence in this case is the presence of pollen grains preserved in the gut area of the fossil, which could also represent flower eating (a range of birds do this, for example bullfinches) rather than nectar feeding and legitimate pollination. Nonetheless it’s a stunning find and links nicely with a February post of mine.
Another new discovery this week, for me at least, was that (contrary to rumours, errr, started by me….) Dr Georges Aad does indeed exist. Apologies to him, though it was fun while it lasted.
Finally to the intriguing photos that grace the start and end of this post. I took these from the garden a couple of evenings ago. It shows a plane apparently flying into a dark tunnel that stretches out ahead of it (click on the images for a better view). We watched the plane for several minutes and the “tunnel” appeared to be moving ahead of the plane as it travelled across the sky. Karin had a plausible explanation, that what we were seeing was the shadow of the contrail because of its position relative to the low angle of the setting sun. This was confirmed by a web site showing other examples of this phenomenon, which apparently is not uncommon, though judging from the comments on the site, some people prefer US government covert chemical spraying as a rational explanation. Evidence and data will always be open to interpretation.