Links – Science Edition October 30, 2015

Branching out today beyond nuclear. There’s been a lot of science, good and bad, in the news lately.

The politics of anti-knowledge. Long read on the opposition to empirical understanding of the world around us and how it plays in American politics. Right now, it’s playing all too well.

The Wall Street Journal featured a long article by Matt Ridley, excerpted from a forthcoming book, that argues that technology drives science, rather than the other way around, and that therefore the government should stop funding basic science, because the technological entrepreneurs will fund all the basic science we need. I’m not going to link to that article, because it is just another version of that anti-knowledge. But here’s one response to it, with a link.

Ridley’s argument flows from his libertarian/free-market beliefs. If you believe the free market is all-powerful and all-seeing, the argument makes sense. Having done a bit of applied and not-so-applied science myself, I would argue that science and technology serve us best when they are in dialog. Something cool is developed technologically, but we don’t understand it all. In order to make it even better, we have to do basic science. Or basic science comes up with a neat idea that can then be developed into something useful, uncovering more basic science questions along the way.

Unfortunately, many scientists play into Ridley’s argument by overrating basic science, with the collaboration of too-credulous reporters. Or perhaps reporters looking for clicks. Today’s exemplar of the genre is the SUPER-BATTERY BREAKTHROUGH. One clue is the use of the word “breakthrough.” Seldom does a single basic research finding directly translate into a breakthrough product. Another is that the finding comes from a university, which means it is one piece of an eventual product at best, and perhaps nothing at all. Many basic research findings result in nothing beyond a steppingstone to a better solution. The researchers themselves are quoted in the article that much more needs to be done, and applications are at least ten years away. But many people will read the headline only and will be disappointed and slightly disillusioned with science when the breakthrough doesn’t appear in their homes.

More egregious, on the part of both the media and the promoters, is the unfolding story of Theranos, which promised to revolutionize blood testing down to a few drops for many common medical tests. It’s not clear what is wrong with Theranos’s claims, but the FDA is questioning some of them, and reporters are trying to find answers to the questions that should have been answered before Theranos was hailed as the technology to disrupt (another danger word) medical testing. It’s not clear whether Theranos was actively fradulent, or its Silicon Valley founders thought that they could disrupt without understanding the problem, or if something else went wrong. Theranos has been highly secretive (another warning sign), and is continuing that way.

Here’s a responsible report from the Los Angeles Times on genome testing. H. Gilbert Welch and Wylie Burke put genome testing into the context of how it works and what it actually might do. Which is less than its Silicon Valley (another danger sign?) promoters say. The relationship between genome and disease is complex and not easily amenable to the kind of interventions we have now. Which is not reason to give up on it, just a better way to understand what it can and can’t do. Photo from here: a genome map.

And here’s a reward if you’ve gotten this far: a well-preserved mammoth from Siberia.

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