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Are there limits to the truths science can discover?
Dr. Alex Berezow talks about the importance of communicating science in a clear and accurate way and why he turns to religion for the answers to some questions.
Dr. Alex Berezow is the author of Little Black Book of Junk Science, an easy to read pocket guide to debunking the most widespread anti-science myths out there, from the threat of artificial sweeteners to autism-causing vaccines. In his second book, Science Left Behind, Berezow argues that anti-science sentiment is not preserved exclusively for conservatives, but is also widespread amongst progressives who hold positions like aversion to clean energy programs (nuclear) or the unhealthiness of the “unnatural” (GMOs).
With a Ph.D. in microbiology and a passion for communicating science in a clear and accurate way, one of the first things Berezow tells me when I meet him at BrainBar is that journalists who do not have a background in science should not be writing about science. Period. I smile guiltily and proceed with my questions.
What are you fighting for?
My cause is science advocacy. In a world with so much fake news and so much bad science journalism, there needs to be a reasonable voice in science that says what is good and what’s garbage. I talk about popular myths, such as that the world is overpopulated or that we are all going to die from an epidemic.
What is the cause of bad science journalism?
What makes for bad science journalism is our need to get eyeballs onto websites. People would write the most outrageous headlines that don’t even closely reflect what the scientific research says because the truth is never nearly as exciting as the fantasy world. Most people don’t read beyond the headline, yet they still share the misguided story on social media.
The second reason is that you have journalists who don’t have any training in science, which is a huge problem. I think that journalists who have no background in science should not write about science. Period. And I think there are enough scientists who want to be writers so that this shouldn’t be a problem.
What is the purpose of science and who sets its agenda?
In my opinion, the purpose of science is to discover truth, but scientists are often restricted in what they can research because of how funding is set, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Science operates inherently conservatively because the money is limited. The problem is that really groundbreaking ideas have a hard time getting funded because there is no precedent. That is going to require some kind of government policy response. For example, one that I have heard of is to give unlimited funding to geniuses, to scientists who have an amazing track record.
How can we implement truly evidence-based public policy?
It’s tricky, because policy isn’t just evidence-based, it is also philosophy-based; it should answer the question what the proper role of government is. In the U.S. we have a long libertarian tradition and people have a very inherent repulsive attitude to the government getting involved. But that attitude is different in Europe, where there is more of a collectivist mindset. So, it is not a partisan issue but a philosophical issue.
But we need to rely on scientists and be sure not to turn scientific advice into a partisan advice. It drives me crazy when conservatives say that global warming is all fake or the left says that GMOs are dangerous. They have taken scientific advice and turned it into partisan politics. We need to reverse that. The politicization of science is a symptom of a bigger problem in society.
According to you, the ultimate goal of science is truth, but do you think that science has limitations when it comes to discovering all truth?
Yes. Absolutely. Science has nothing to say about ethics. If we were to follow science exactly as prescribed, we do things like eugenics. Science has nothing really to say about how we should treat other people. I am a religious person. I am a Christian. Science is the best secular source of knowledge that we have. If I want to know how humans evolved, I don’t go to the Bible, I go to science. But if I want to know why we are here and what we are supposed to do, then I go to religious texts, then I go to my priests. I think there are two non-overlapping magisteria—science, which is secular, and religion, which talks about the bigger questions: the whys, the questions kids ask, which are the hardest ones to answer.
Do you know where to draw the line?
It’s hard. Because some areas are clearly both. Bioethics is both. You cannot make a decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy based solely on science. What does science say about intellectual property or growing babies out of stem cells? Nothing. There are intersections where we have to interact with each other. Which is why when people say that philosophy is dead or that it has done nothing for us, that is such garbage. Because scientists and social scientists and philosophers, we have to be talking to each other.
Dr. Alex Berezow is Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health. He is the founding editor of RealClearScience where scientists, not journalists, write about science.
BrainBar is Europe's leading festival on the future where "the bravest and edgiest thinkers of our time" meet every year to discuss the most exciting and controversial topics shaping our future.
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a9734e306f0914bfdcbe79a1e317a7f0"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b-wAYtBxn7E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.