STEP 3. BOOST YOUR B.S. METER
Any trainer will tell you bad technique leaves you vulnerable to
injury. Assess data with a healthy dose of skepticism, or you might pull a conceptual hamstring.
Spot the Junk: Words are powerful. Know how to use them correctly—and how to recognize jargon abuse.
Relative vs. Absolute Risk
In 1995 thousands of women shunned oral contraceptives altogether after a study showed users of a recently introduced form of "the pill" were twice as likely to develop blood clots as were women taking older versions. Yet though the relative risk had indeed doubled, the increase in absolute risk was still tiny: Mortality reportedly climbed from 1.5 to 3 women per million. Meanwhile, in the months following the "pill scare," pregnancy rates in England and Wales jumped 7 percent over those for the same period the previous year.
Who's an Expert?
Though a Ph.D. doth a doctor make, it doesn't always make an expert. Someone with a degree in oceanography is not automatically an authority on other topics. If people were more aware of the distinction, Nobel Prize?winning chemist Linus Pauling might not have gotten so much attention for recommending massive (and, it turns out, unhealthy) doses of vitamin C to treat everything from the common cold to cancer.
A disclaimer appeared in the biology textbooks of Cobb County, Georgia, in 2002: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things." In an absolute sense, this is true: Theories are proposed or accepted explanations based on assembled evidence. But in science, many theories—the theory of gravity, for example—enjoy near universal acceptance, based on the preponderance of evidence and the success of the model. The term "theory" does not imply doubts about a phenomenon's fundamental existence.
The boom in nanotechnology has led to a corresponding boom in nano-babble, rendering the prefix virtually meaningless. Take the recent fad of "nano-reefs" for small home aquariums: If they were actually sized in nano-
meters (billionths of a meter, or 10-9), they'd be invisible to fish and their owners. What's next, pico-reefs? (Pico: 10-12.)
Nature vs. Nurture
Is human behavior genetically predetermined or is it a result of environmental influences? Dogmatism on both sides of this "debate" has led to innumerable wrong turns, such as social Darwinism on one side and Soviet-era training programs on the other. The correct answer: We are products of both genes and environment, and understanding their complex interactions remains beyond our limited ken.
The Uncertainty Principle
Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, formulated in 1927, states that a small bit of matter—an electron, for example—cannot have both a well-defined position and a well-defined momentum at the same time. What's more, measuring one of those properties inexorably disturbs it—you can never know what an electron's position was before you measured it, because the act of measurement changes its position. Dime-store philosophers have had a field day with this concept, using it to explain all manner of things. Pundits have been known to maintain, for example, that since the presence of a reporter exerts an influence on the people being observed, the journalistic endeavor is an example of the uncertainty principle. But in practice, Heisenberg's principle only applies to the subatomic world.
Clean Your Filters: Adhere to these basic principles at all times.
In the 1930s Viennese philosopher Karl Popper stated that for a claim to be considered scientific, it must be conceivable to prove it wrong by observation or experiment. For instance, the statement "All elephants are gray" would be falsified by a single sighting of a pink elephant.
When choosing between two competing theories to describe a phenomenon, medieval philosopher William Occam said, the simplest explanation is the best. Sure, maybe dachshunds exist on Earth not because of selective breeding but because aliens brought them here, but why make more assumptions than necessary?
The smaller the sample size, the less believable the findings. It's not enough to know that one in 10 study subjects developed adverse reactions to a medication; you must find out how large the pool was. If there were just 10 subjects and one fell ill, the significance is unclear. But if 100 out of 1,000 people got sick, you should avoid that pill.
Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase "paradigm shift" to describe rare, profound shifts in the way the world is understood by science: Earth at center of universe, Earth not at center of universe, for example. Paradigm shifts are rare, but use of the phrase to pump up an idea's importance is frequent. When a theory is trumpeted as revolutionary, part of a paradigm shift, this is usually a red flag for half-baked ideas; be skeptical. Everyday science is more evolutionary than revolutionary; established ideas are upended less often than media reports would have you believe.
Don't Be a Carrier: Five misconceptions even you (yes, you) have been known to spread.
False: Toilets and bathtubs drain counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. The Coriolis effect, caused by the rotation of the Earth, can be seen in the spin direction of weather systems such as hurricanes and cyclones. But in the short-lived flush of a toilet, the force
is far too weak to have an impact; the direction of the water's rotation depends on the toilet's design.
False: No two snowflakes are alike. Snowflakes are six-sided crystals composed of about 1018 water molecules, giving them unimaginable—but not infinite—potential for variation. In 1988, Nancy Knight, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, discovered two identical snowflakes that had been collected from clouds above Wisconsin. The snowflakes apparently formed as conjoined twins.
False: Humans use just 10 percent of their brains. MRI and PET scans show that a much larger portion of the brain is engaged
during complex thought processes. And biologists scoff at the idea that we would evolve such an oversize brain—it eats up 19 percent of the fuel in our bloodstream—only to use but a fraction of it.
False: A penny dropped from the Empire State Building would kill someone below. A few calculations tell us that a penny falling edge-on from the 1,050-foot-high observation deck on Floor 86 of the 102-story skyscraper would fall 500 feet before reaching maximum velocity: 57 miles an hour. This is about 1/10 the speed of a low-caliber handgun bullet—fast enough to hurt but, except in freak circumstances, not to kill. It's a moot point anyway: Thanks to updrafts, coins tossed from the observation deck generally land on the setback roof of Floor 80.
False: The Moon appears larger when it's on the horizon because it's magnified by the atmosphere. This is an optical illusion. You can confirm that fact by taking photographs of the Moon as it tracks across the sky: It will appear the same size on the negatives, no matter where it is. The cause of the illusion is the subject of considerable debate, but the leading theory is that it's a classic Ponzo illusion: The brain mentally magnifies objects near the horizon because it interprets them as far away; thus the Moon appears larger to us when it is closer to the horizon.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.