Archive for Science

Edge does a thing

Posted in Science with tags , , on 15/01/2014 by sangomasmith

A bunch of people weigh in on scientific ideas that should be retired.


Whenever these sorts of lists crop up, I tend to get that feeling people have when watching TV shows that feature subjects they know something about. There is this moment when you realise that the opinion being presented is shallow/glosses over important concepts/presents only one side of an ongoing debate/is just plain false. And so you begin to wonder: is the seemingly-plausible stuff you see being presented on a topic you don’t really understand just as bad?


Anyway, there is some interesting stuff in there at least. Have a read and make up your own mind.



I fail to agree

Posted in media, musings, pedantry, rant, Science with tags , , , , , , on 19/03/2010 by sangomasmith

A quick disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of Dresden Codak. However, I don’t always agree with Aaron Diaz himself.

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A little slice of life

Posted in animals, Crop science, musings, Science with tags , , , , , on 26/02/2010 by sangomasmith

Here is a little slice of life:

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On the joys of pilot studies

Posted in Crop science, Science with tags , , , on 16/01/2010 by sangomasmith

Another year looms.

Luckily, I worked for most of my holiday to prepare for it. Specifically, I spent until the day before Christmas looking at sick plants. Now, joy of joys, I have returned from my delayed festive season to find… a very iffy data-set.

As anyone who has done stats knows, size counts. Specifically, size (in this case, the number of independent samples you can draw upon to construct your data-set) allows you to expunge random errors in technique, to draw statistically valid conclusions from the messy reality you’re trying to understand. A large sample size covers up a veritable multitude of sins.

Unfortunately, ny experiment lacked a large sample size. And, as is usual in biology, the plants did not cooperate. The end result, of course, is that my data (although hinting that I’m on the right track) is like an obstructive bureaucrat: It can neither confirm nor deny.

The small-scale trial effect is well known in research. Often, it has the effect of magnifying the difference between two samples by simple dint of random error. If the samples are large random error will tend to even out as all the variations cancel each other out. A small sample pool, however, allows a few rogue results to completely change the apparent outcome of the trial. The end result is that people get excited by the huge changes they see only to be disappointed when larger trials reduce them to insignificant effects.

Of course, It’s never just the raw data that makes an accurate trial. Just as important is the structure of the trial itself. Mine had all the right moves (positive and negative controls, a neutral sample for comparison, elimination of environmental variables etc.) except for one rather significant flaw. My testing system was subjective and non-blinded.

What this means is that my method of assessing each sample relied on personal judgement (at least, to a limited extent) rather than objective measurement. This, coupled with the fact that the person doing the assessing (me) knew what the subjects were and had a stake in a certain outcome for the trial, meant that the results were almost certainly skewed towards what I wanted rather than what actually happened.

The end result of all of this is a data-set that looks wonderful in a graph but fails the rigorous test of science. I’m sure, on a personal level, that the effect is real. But I wouldn’t convince anyone with my evidence.

Climate Pessimism

Posted in Crop science, News-related, Science with tags , , , , , on 11/12/2009 by sangomasmith

Ted Rall makes a valid point: we’re boned. In fact, I doubt if the general public is even aware of exactly how thoroughly this simple fact is accepted in the scientific community.

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This is why we have lab safety guidelines…

Posted in News-related with tags , , on 11/12/2009 by sangomasmith

A chemistry student in Kiev recently managed to blow his jaw off while chewing gum. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why you are not allowed to eat in labs.

Remember kids: some rules are there for your safety.

Fabrication and friends

Posted in DIY, musings, pedantry, projects, Science with tags , , , on 31/08/2009 by sangomasmith

Recently, a friend of mine and I had a debate about universal fabrication in general and fabbers in particular. The conversation and resolution we came to were, I thought, worth writing about. Full disclosure: I’m a biologist and JP (my friend) is an engineer. Oh, and we both want to buy a fabber someday.

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