This week struck me as a particularly exhausting one when it came to that certain brand of provocatively-headlined-but-probably-not-what-you-think-it-is science news that we know and love hate.
As usual, it’s the science media click-machine that’s to blame, which is a polite way of saying that there exists a gaping void of careful, cautious, skeptical, dare I say scientific science writing out there amidst the great internet knowledge machine. It’s desperately hard to get people to read your articles or watch your videos, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to disengage the gravity of reason and drift off into the aether of just-so stories.
PHD Comics has summed up this vicious form of the science news cycle very well:
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s some real diamonds that we can regularly depend on to shine through amid the soiled throngs of pseudointellectual beggars out there, and I, along with others, try to highlight their work regularly. I shall do so again here.
Here, I present two cases of “science things that were badly reported” and some links to better explanations. As usual, the defendants come from that tenuous intersection of neuroscience and behavior, because studying the brain is hard stuff, folks.
1) Mice Can Inherit Memories: No they can’t. Well, maybe they can (although I doubt it), but that’s not at all what this widely-reported paper in Nature Neuroscience says. The poor authors of that study are probably at home, drinking, wondering how, after years of hard work, their paper about how mice may pass on sensitivity to smells got so twisted. Headlines ranged from declaring this the source of human phobias to saying that Assassin’s Creed is based in real science.
What the researchers did was to condition some male mice to associate a smell (cherry blossoms) with a mild electric shock, which is mean, because that’s a nice smell! Naturally, the mice began to avoid the odor. The weird part is that their offspring, even two generations down the line, also seemed to avoid that specific cherry blossom odor, without ever encountering it before (and without their dads showing them). The dads’ noses all had more of the cells that smell that odor, as did the noses of their offspring. This did not happen with female mice and their offspring.
These kind of things aren’t supposed to be possible in a single generation. A mouse dad shouldn’t smell something, become afraid of it, and then be able to pass on a change to his kids. That’s precisely the kind of thing that got Lamarck and his giraffe necks laughed at more than a century ago. But it is possible that these mice were transmitting some sort of epigenetic change.
It’s possible that there was an epigenetic change passed down. But it’s not for sure. Beyond that, the way that statistics are applied to mouse behavior studies make it possible that the differences they see are just due to sample sizes, or not including certain controls, or some other random factor like that the humidity on a particular day happened to make the mice very jumpy. There’s also the fact that there is no known way for nerve cell changes or chemical responses within the olfactory bulb to be communicated to the testes, where sperm are made (there’s literally a blood-testis barrier to prevent that kind of thing).
2) Men and women’s brains are wired differently, therefore men are better at reading maps. That’s almost a verbatim headline from this news outlet. It speaks of “hardwired differences” (our brains are not hardwired) and is loaded with brainsplaining and neurosexism. This story is frustrating notsomuch because of the science, which is so-so, but because it is being misapplied by the media to reinforce cutsie-pie stories about what men are good at and what women are good at and never the twain shall meet and boy is it funny how men and women argue over getting lost?! GUFFAW!
Read this instead: At Discover, Neuroskeptic explains why the spatial resolution of the techniques used are like making a road atlas, while on the moon, using a pair of binoculars, and how the only real difference here may be that men’s brains are just slightly bigger than women’s (which doesn’t account for any noticeable difference in abilities, but can mess with scans a lot). And if you’d like a nice introduction to the idea of neurosexism and pigeonholing gender-based brain research into outdated social molds, might I suggest you read this article at The Conversation?
The fact is that men and women are mostly the same when it comes to their brains, but “Everyone can probably become pretty good at reading maps whether or not they are male or female, suggests common sense, not needing to be backed up by neuroscience” doesn’t make a very catchy headline.
None of this is to say that any of the results presented in the scientific papers are patently or provably false. But as we communicate the vagaries of Science In Progress, we must include the Don’t Knows and the Possiblys and all the other fine (and frustrating) forms of cautious optimism. It doesn’t kill the excitement. It just comes with the territory. I read it on a map somewhere.
It’s difficult for me to think of Nelson Mandela as anything but a universally-respected, wise, kind, and thoughtful asset to humanity. But he also organized attacks that would today be unconditionally condemned as terrorism. His government fought peaceful demonstrations with violence, and so he brought violence to his government. He was a fighter…once the fight got started. And he never stopped fighting, and the world is so much better because of that escalation to violence. That is the rarest sort of change, and it is a testament to his care as a diplomat, a politician, a human, and a warrior that it did not merely end in perpetual turmoil and bloodshed. To go from terrorist to president in only thirty years, with most of those thirty years spent in a cell, is an achievement I would never accept if I read it in fiction.
My video tomorrow is about inequality, and it doesn’t mention Mandela because I finished it yesterday and I had to fight the urge to remake it. But he is in my thoughts tonight, I hope he is in yours as well. If you’d like to learn a little more about his life, this short documentary is lovely.
How are people capable of hurting others simply because of a difference in ideologies despite all the biological mechanisms (i.e. mirror neurons) that help us relate to others? Has our present society affected our capacity to empathize? Also, in general which is more influential on the human mind: empathy or hatred/violence?
These are very difficult questions to answer, but our minds are built for more than just empathy, and hatred and violence are also born out of structures that are meant for strengthening social bonds and creating healthy communities.
We evolved in small groups, kinda like little human herds, and these herds functioned best when there were tight connections within the herd. That means human brains are built to value in-group empathy over out-of-group empathy. It also means that we’re built to respect and follow authority figures if they are consistent in our lives. The herd needs structure and support, and that comes at a cost when interacting with other herds, especially when there was competition for resources that could mean the difference between your child living or dying.
Hatred is generally born in fear, fear of disruption of something someone cares about, whether that’s the purity of their country, their loyalty to a certain group of people, or a belief that the world is great as it is and it is being corrupted by others.
So the real question is, what is stronger, empathy or fear? Unfortunately, fear is, which is why we have to fight it not only in ourselves, but in the world,. We do this by making the world a more stable place where there is less to be afraid of. Also by turning off 24 hour news channels.
#fear is the mind killer, fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration#
HANK i have a science question: why would i get motion sickness from watching a video? i understand getting it in a vehicle but why, when i'm sitting still watching something, would it have an effect on me?
We JUST filmed a SciShow on this so I’m tempted to tell you to just wait but…the gist is…when what your eyes see doesn’t line up with what your body feels, your brain gets angry. The reasons your brain gets angry are unclear, though there are some really cool theories…but you’ll have to wait until the SciShow comes out to learn about those…I’m not giving away /everything./
I realize that a lot of the people who watch and read It’s Okay To Be Smart might not regularly tune into the NPR show Marketplace, because one is about stock markets and economics and one is about science (mine’s the one about science). If you did tune in, though, then you got to hear me and Henry from MinutePhysics tonight, talking about the explosive rise of educational YouTube channels!
If you didn’t listen, that’s okay. I gotcha covered. Listen to it above!
Hank! How do you deal with stress? I am in advanced classes and I know I am smart enough for them just sometimes I feel like collapsing under stress. I have so much stress and I wish I had a better way to deal with it. Any advice?
Somehow I ended up the sort of person who deals with stress by dealing with the thing that causes the stress. This works extremely well except in cases when you can’t figure out a way to deal with the thing…in which case, you can’t deal with it.
In that case I think about how the galaxy has 300 billion stars and I’m just one guy on one planet around one of those stars and, like, what’s the worst that can happen really?
Hank! I'm totally freaking out about my biology final that's coming up really soon do you suggest any means of studying for science tests? P.S. I showed the class some of your science videos today and they loved you :)
Did you take notes in class? If you too notes in class, copy them. Just write them down again. If you didn’t, then watch lots of Crash Course and read your text book!
Hi hank! I noticed your amazing periodic table of elements and it got me thinking, I take chemistry in school (which I love) and elements such as ununtrium and Flerovium aren't elaborated on much (or at all), I'm not even sure what they are. The crash course periodic table had question marks for their pictures. So I have to ask what are these elements, what are they used for, and why don't we know what they look like?
Those are elements that don’t exist naturally. We can create them by smashing atoms together and making bigger, heavier elements, but their nuclei are so unstable that they pretty much immediately decay into other elements. We’re only able to create minuscule amounts of these elements at a time, so we can’t see them, only determine that they’ve existed after they decay.
Those elements aren’t ‘used’ for anything in the traditional sense. Studying them, however, gives us a greater understanding of how nuclear forces and reactions work. And that’s pretty useful since, y’know, nuclear forces hold the world together and all that.
For some reason I feel like you could be really good friends with the myth busters... Is that weird?
I met Adam Savage once, I played a show with him in Seattle. I talked with his wife for like 30 minutes about house hunting and then he walked in and she stood up and kissed him and did I mention I didn’t know who she was?
I was like “Girl! You just kissed ADAM SAVAGE! WTF?!
I didn’t get to talk much with Adam, but his wife is really great :-)
Sometimes I forget how many creators DFTBA.com represents and then I’m suddenly really proud and excited when I remember. So, with just 13 hours left in the DFTBA Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Regular Old Monday, and Cyber Monday Sale, here’s an incomplete list of the people we provide our services for:
Charles Trippy, who is right now selling shirts to fund brain cancer research
And there are a bunch of others, but the list was getting long and I’ve run out of time to write it because I literally have to go to the warehouse right now and help build boxes for shipping mugs in!
I’m really proud to have built such a useful company that works with so many inspiring and awesome creators and organizations. Thanks to Alan and Sam and John and Kristen and Dave and Matt and Katherine and Lindsey and everyone else who’s helped build this company.
$3 shipping for the next 12 hours folks…and your chances of getting your purchase before Christmas go WAY DOWN after this week.