Monday, October 29, 2012

Italians Convict Science...Again

In the 1600's, the ingenious scientist Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", and forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo's crime was championing the idea of heliocentrism, which offended the Pope and was generally regarded as an affront to God at the time.

How far has Rome come in 400 years? Not very far if you're an Italian seismologist. Last week, an Italian court convicted six scientists of manslaughter, sentencing them to six years in prison for failing to give adequate warning of a deadly earthquake which destroyed the City of L'Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

If incomprehensible verdicts like this become common, mankind will stifle science simply be forcing it to always err on the side of caution. Imagine a world where every tremor, approaching storm, or rising river was met with evacuation orders. In L'Aquila, what would authorities have done had they received a warning of a possible earthquake? Evacuated the region for a month or more waiting for the "all clear"? Reinforced buildings that are 700 years old? We only have to look to Hurricane Katrina to see how futile advanced warnings often are at getting citizens to act.

In tragedies like the one in L'Aquila we look for someone to blame. Property was destroyed and loved ones were lost, but finding fault with the scientists who have not yet conquered the discipline of predicting earthquakes is dangerous.

Science has marched on since Galileo's time, growing in leaps and bounds. With an appeal pending for the six scientists found guilty of failing to predict an earthquake, it remains to be seen if society's regard for science has also grown.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Just (Un)Do It!!!

Nike has piled on the "now leaving Lance Armstrong" train, announcing late last week that it has ended its contract with the cycling phenom. Calling the evidence of Armstrong's doping "insurmountable" and suggesting that he "misled [us] for over a decade", the clothing and footwear manufacturer has severed its ties with him.  

"Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner", it said in a statement. When the multinational corporation became so sanctimonious, however, was not revealed in their statement. It would appear that the philandering of Tiger Woods, the sexual assaults committed by Kobe Bryant, and the interstate dog-fighting ring financed by Michael Vick are all things that Nike can condone, as it has stood by those athletes amidst insurmountable evidence and even incarcerations.
...while you still can
Of course, Woods, Bryant, and Vick are all still actively involved in their sports (Vick returning after spending 21 months in prison), whereas Armstrong is not, which is the real reason Nike took this as an opportunity to dump him. The others could continue to pump out sales for Nike and pump up its bottom line. 

If Nike was genuinely concerned about its image, it would sever ties with all drug cheats, felons, sexists, racists, and criminals in its midst, but that clearly hasn't happened.

Sorry Nike, but taking the moral high road on this one hasn't fooled anyone.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Science Always Catches Up

They saved Walt Disney’s brain. Or so we’ve been told, so that one day when science has cured all ills, Uncle Walt can be re-animated (excuse the pun) and carry on as a cartoon genius.
While this particular claim is long on rumor but short on facts, the process of freezing the dead, known as cryonics, does exist and many eccentric personalities, perhaps the most famous being baseball legend Ted Williams, are in a deep freeze somewhere awaiting that day when resuscitation of the dead becomes the latest medical marvel.
If this seems like too much sensational science fiction to you, a reminder of all the incurable diseases and unsolvable mysteries that have been put to rest by science is perhaps in order here. Scourges such as polio, tetanus, and typhoid fever are all manageable now and could be eradicated from the planet if vaccines were made available to all.  There was a time when volcanic eruptions were acts of God, hailstorms had religious interpretations, and no one could figure out how the bulky bumblebee was capable of flight. Science provided the answers.
So where am I going with this, you ask? Enter misfortuned Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France champion has long been suspected of doping in a sport where drugs seem to be the culture. The allegations have always been unequivocally denied by a smug Armstrong and his handlers with claims that all tests administered were passed at the time. End of story.

I’m not going to waste a syllable of this post railing on Mr. Armstrong; I think the good he’s allowed his celebrity to create greatly outweighs the bad, but I will suggest that science has caught up to Armstrong. Indeed, he did pass every test designed to catch cheaters while he was an active cyclist, but it would now appear that newer more innovative tests can now detect what was undetectable only a few short years ago. Ah, there’s the rub.
While Armstrong’s assertion that it’s “time to move forward” and that he will no longer defend the allegations is not an admission of guilt, it would certainly appear that he has read the writing on the wall and knows that the science won’t lie.
There are many lessons in the Lance Armstrong story, but maybe the least obvious is one that requires reefer mad, occasional pill-popping teenagers and other recreational drug users to take note.  Science always catches up.   Only a dope would think otherwise.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Obama's Razor

The principle of Ockham’s Razor arose from 14th century philosopher, William of Ockham’s concept that the simplest or most obvious explanation of several competing ones is the one that should be preferred until proven wrong.  If this sounds like too much mental gymnastics, think of it this way. If you come home from work to an empty house and the lamp in the living room is laying in pieces on the floor while your dog sleeps on the couch only a few feet away, you will immediately begin to form theories on how the lamp got smashed. There could have been an earthquake while you were at work. Maybe the house has been burgled and the thieves broke the lamp while rummaging through your belongings. Perhaps aliens, solar flares, or global warming are responsible. Or did Fido have a paw in the outcome? The assumptions derived from Ockham’s Razor would lead us to conclude that your dog is the most probably culprit because that provides the least complicated explanation.

I would like to apply the same logic to Obama’s dreadful fumbling of the presidential debate last week. Theories abound on how the great orator could have stumbled and stammered and failed to make his point so often during the 90 minute debacle. It was altitude sickness (the debate was in Denver). It was his anniversary and he had other things on his mind.

As William of Ockham would, I prefer the simpler explanation. Obama is capitulating. He’s bright enough to recognize that the policies he’s set in motion over his term as President have not fixed anything and never will. The rhetoric is getting old and tired, but he’s married himself to it. How can you spend $800 billion on stimulus with the resulting unemployment rate still hovering around 8% and not be more than a little down in the mouth. How can you promise to cut the deficit in half, but instead add $5 trillion in new debt and not be disillusioned by your own policies?  How can you wake up every morning knowing that 4 million of your fellow Americans have been out of work for more than a year without being resigned to the fact that it isn't working?

If Mr. President continues to debate the way he did last Wednesday with 60 million viewers watching, he’ll need more than Obamacare to cover the “ass-whoppin” he’s going to get in November.

...until proven wrong.

Monday, October 01, 2012

...and so it begins.

I spent my youth, adolescence and even time as a young adult habitually challenging my father to arm wrestling contests whenever the desire arose and the opportunity presented itself. I don’t recall ever beating him. I guess the challenges stopped when I no longer felt that I needed to prove anything to him or maybe just out of sheer respect when I figured that I may be able to beat him. He never shirked from the challenge and was always more than willing to oblige. This is part of some unwritten father/son creed, an opportunity to foster confidence and steer youth down the correct path to adulthood.

I recall that opportunity with my own son clearly. My heart beat slightly faster. I felt a little flush. I could sense a faint bit of moisture on my palms. Was it really going to happen?

I was checkmated shortly thereafter.

There may come a time in every father’s life when he will be surpassed by his son, physically, intellectually, or both. As fathers, we know this day is coming and while we may rage against it, we are proud when it finally arrives. I got my first glimpse of that day last week when my son made nearly flawless moves on his way to checkmating me. Sure, he had beaten me before, but then I had moved carelessly on purpose, as I taught him the game. This time was different. When he gained a small edge early in the contest, I countered aggressively to try and overcome the disadvantage. I never did and was defeated several shrewd moves later. We shook hands as is our custom after chess and I could see in his eyes that he knew what I knew:  the day had come. He had done well.

Son, you’ll know much more than I will ever know. I hope you continue to do well, but more importantly I hope you do good.