CRF Blog

When science gets it wrong

by David De La Torre

In Let the light shine in, The Economist reports on how peer review on the Internet, after peer review before publishing, has caught a number of scientific errors.

SCIENTISTS make much of the fact that their work is scrutinised anonymously by some of their peers before it is published. This “peer review” is supposed to spot mistakes and thus keep the whole process honest. The peers in question, though, are necessarily few in number, are busy with their own work, are expected to act unpaid — and are often the rivals of those whose work they are scrutinising. And so, by a mixture of deliberation and technological pressure, the system is starting to change. The internet means anyone can appoint himself a peer and criticise work that has entered the public domain. And two recent incidents have shown how valuable this can be.

The first concerns pluripotent stem cells, the predecessors of every other body cell. Pluripotent cells interest doctors and biologists, who hope to use them to investigate diseases, test drugs and, eventually, regrow patients’ damaged body parts. [more]

Wide Partisan Differences Over the Issues That Matter in 2014

by Bill Hayes

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has conducted a number of polls showing Wide Partisan Differences Over the Issues That Matter in 2014.

Heading into the final weeks before the midterm elections, Republican and Democratic voters are split not only over their candidate preferences, but also about the importance of key issues in the election.

Foreign policy, the budget deficit and immigration are among the most dominant issues for Republican voters; each is named by 70% or more as “very important” to their vote in the fall. But only about half of Democratic voters say each of these issues are very important to their vote decisions.

In contrast, both the environment and economic inequality rate as very important to about seven-in-ten Democratic voters—but no more than about four-in-ten Republicans. [more]

Issues that matter

Law and Literature

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the New Republic novelist Ian McEwan looks at the literary aspects of law in The Heartwrenching Court Cases That Inspired My New Novel.

Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a handful of judges — a bench is the collective noun. They were talking shop, and I was politely resisting the urge to take notes. The conversation was exotic in content, rather familiar in form. There was a fair amount of banter, of chuckling and teasing as they recalled certain of each other’s judgments. They quoted well-turned phrases and fondly remembered ingenious conclusions. Clearly, they read each other closely. They may have been a little harder on the judgments of those not present. How easily, I thought at the time, this bench could be mistaken for a group of novelists discussing each other’s work, reserving harsher strictures for those foolish enough to be absent.

At one point, our host, Sir Alan Ward, an Appeal Court judge, wanting to settle some mild disagreement, got up and took from a shelf a bound volume of his own judgments. An hour later, when we had left the table for coffee, that book lay open on my lap. It was the prose that struck me first. Clean, precise, delicious. Serious, of course, compassionate at points, but lurking within its intelligence was something like humor, or wit, derived perhaps from its godly distance, which in turn reminded me of a novelist’s omniscience. I continued to note the parallels between our professions, for these judgments were like short stories, or novellas; the background to some dispute or dilemma crisply summarized, characters drawn with quick strokes, the story distributed across several points of view and, towards its end, some sympathy extended towards those whom, ultimately, the narrative would not favor.

These were not cases in the criminal courts, where it must be decided beyond reasonable doubt whether a man is a villain or the unlucky victim of the Crown Prosecution Service. Nothing so black and white, nothing so noir or pulp. These stories were in the Family Division, where much of ordinary life’s serious interests lie: love and marriage, and then the end of both, fortunes querulously divided, the bitterly contested destinies of children, parental cruelty and neglect, deathbed issues, medicine and disease, religious or moral disputes complicating matrimonial breakdown. [more]

For Sale: Your Name and Medical Condition

by Bill Hayes

In For Sale: Your Name and Medical Condition, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on how data brokers sell lists of names of people with specific conditions.

As the population ages and consumers share more health data about themselves online, a burgeoning industry of data miners has emerged, scooping up often-personal medical data and selling it to marketers. While that’s a boon for companies trying to pitch products, privacy advocates warn that collection practices can cross the line. “People would be shocked if they knew they were on some of these lists,” says Pam Dixon, president of the nonprofit advocacy group World Privacy Forum. “Yet millions are.”

The lists sell for pennies a name and cover some of the most sensitive medical conditions. A database of 1.2 million people taking medication for depression costs 9.5¢ a name, and a list of almost 900,000 erectile dysfunction sufferers goes for 18.5¢ a name. [more]

Charlie Rose Interviews Terry Gilliam

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews director Terry Gilliam.

Not Giving an Inch

by Bill Hayes

In Not Giving an Inch for the New York Times Book Review, Amir Alexander reviews Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet by John Bemelmans Marciano.

In his entertaining and enormously informative new book, “Whatever Happened to the Metric System?,” John Bemelmans Marciano tells the story of the rise and fall of metric America. With a keen ear for anecdotes and a sharp eye for human motivations, Marciano brings to life the fight over the meter, its champions and its enemies. The 1970s bookend his narrative, but the reader soon finds the struggle lasted not a decade but centuries. And in what was to me the book’s greatest revelation, the meter — that alleged vehicle of international Communism — turns out to be American through and through.

The father of American metrication was none other than Thomas Jefferson …. [more]

Stretch Genes

by Bill Hayes

In Stretch Genes for the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr reviews A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade.

Science and science journalism are different things. Though each is valuable, they require at least partly different skills. Science demands unrelenting skepticism about purported facts and theories, and science journalism demands an ability to make the complex clear. Despite my admiration for his work as a journalist, I’m afraid that Nicholas Wade’s latest book reminds us of the risks inherent in blurring the distinction between these endeavors. A Troublesome Inheritance goes beyond reporting scientific facts or accepted theories and finds Wade championing bold ideas that fall outside any scientific consensus.

Wade, now a freelance writer and reporter, is best known for his work as a journalist at The New York Times. He has also written several popular books on biology. The most recent — Before the Dawn (2006) and The Faith Instinct (2009) — focused on evolution in human beings, including the evolution of religion. In A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade maintains this focus on human evolution, though he turns to a far more controversial topic, human races. His goal, he says, is “to demystify the genetic basis of race and to ask what recent human evolution reveals about history and the nature of human societies.” He concludes not only that human races are real but that they probably differ genetically in surprising ways.

Wade’s main claim is that human races likely differ in social behavior for genetic reasons as a result of recent evolution. These slight differences in behavior may, in turn, explain why different sorts of social institutions appear among different peoples …. [more]

Art and Craft

by Bill Hayes

In The life and times of Mark Landis, the Los Angeles Times reviews Art and Craft, a documentary on Landis, an art imitator.

Certainly, the case of Mark Landis is a curious one. He has been plying art museums with fakes since the mid-1980s, giving imitations to dozens of U.S. institutions, from Washington to San Francisco. These range from high to low, Antoine Watteau to Walt Disney.

Landis, however, has never accepted money for the fakes. This means he hasn’t broken the law, since there hasn’t been a loss to recipients. (It’s up to museums to do their due diligence when accepting a gift.) [more]

Foul Territory

by Bill Hayes

In Foul Territory for Atlanta magazine, Chris Van Dusen looks at the dangers of attending a baseball game.

Baseball is many things: an institution, a tradition, an obsession. It is also achingly boring to watch. Last year, the Wall Street Journal looked at three Major League Baseball games and timed how much real activity occurred in each. The findings? Although a typical baseball game stretches past three hours, the actual action in a game — moments like hits and runs and fielding — totals just eighteen minutes. And so, over the endless minutes of nothing, fans are fed distractions: food and beer, of course, but also absurd chants, mascot foot races, the wave, the Jumbotron. By the time Melky Cabrera came to bat in the bottom of the fourth that night, the Fletchers [a family sitting in good seats in the stands] had already seen themselves on the seven-story screen three times.

Today Cabrera plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, but four seasons ago he was a Brave. The team roster listed him as six feet, 210 pounds. A switch-hitter, he was batting left-handed against right-handed reliever Elmer Dessens from the Mets. On the first pitch to Cabrera, Dessens threw an 88-mile-per-hour fastball on the inside part of the plate.

Cabrera’s swing, so quick and effortless as to seem almost an afterthought, connected solid but late. On the telecast, the ball disappears from the screen as if it were never there.

How fast was it going? We don’t know for sure, but a line drive from a major league batter can easily exceed 100 miles per hour. We know some other things. We know that a baseball weighs five ounces. We know that force equals mass times acceleration. We know that Fred Fletcher’s six-year-old daughter, whom he will identify only as “A,” was sitting precisely 144 feet from home plate. The laces on her sneakers were knotted in neat bows. And she — well, not just she, but everyone around her — had less than one second to react to Cabrera’s line drive.

Less than one second. [more]

The GOP’s Millennial problem runs deep

by Bill Hayes

PewResearchCenter has released a number of polls showing that The GOP’s Millennial problem runs deep.

The Republican Party’s struggles in appealing to young people have been well documented. And even those Millennials who do identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP are decidedly less conservative than older Republicans. [more]

GOP Ideological_Divide

Big Data in the Classroom

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Big Data in the Classroom.

Schools are increasingly using online learning technology. Advocates tout its use in tailoring lessons to each child’s pace and ability as a revolution in education.

But privacy advocates have warned that the vast amounts of personal data students generate with the products can be misused. California, for instance, is set to pass the first law prohibiting companies from selling students’ personal information or using it for marketing purposes.

Is the collection of data from schools an invasion of students’ privacy? [more]

The Enclosure of the American Mind

by Bill Hayes

In The Enclosure of the American Mind for the New York Times Book Review, Anthony Grafton reviews Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz.

The trouble starts at admission. Top universities woo thousands of teenagers to apply, but seek one defined type: the student who has taken every Advanced Placement class and aced every exam, made varsity in a sport, played an instrument in the state youth orchestra and trekked across Nepal. This demanding system looks meritocratic. In practice, though, it aims directly at the children of the upper middle class, groomed since birth by parents, tutors and teachers to leap every hurdle. (The very rich can gain admission without leaping much of anything, as Deresiewicz also points out.)

Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they’re no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. [more]

Thomas Cromwell

by David De La Torre

In Henry’s hooray, The Economist reviews Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant by Tracy Borman.

IN SOME ways Thomas Cromwell is a known quantity. He was King Henry VIII’s favoured minister, the London-born blacksmith’s son who severed England’s ties with the church of Rome. He is the hero of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”. Through hard work and bloody-minded ruthlessness, he hammered a new England into shape. [more]

Richard House’s 6 favorite books

by Bill Hayes

In The Week’s Book List, novelist Richard House lists his 6 favorite books:

The Vatican Cellars by André Gide …. Gide’s protagonist, a youth who aspires to create the perfect motiveless crime, is a close relative to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Dennis Cooper’s indolent rich boys. The section involving a scientist’s revenge assault on a devotional statue is wicked and funny. [more]

What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?

by Bill Hayes

In What If Counterfactuals Never Existed? for the New Republic, Cass Sunstein reviews Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans.

Richard Evans is a widely admired historian with a particular interest in twentieth- century Germany. With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally useless — possibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

To those who enjoy such speculation, Evans will seem a bit of a killjoy, and he seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject. His exploration of counterfactual history is in part a history of the topic. In his account, one of the noteworthy early publications was Louis Geoffrey’s Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, in 1836, which offers a narrative in which Napoleon ultimately conquers China, Japan, and the United States, and is deemed “Ruler of the World.” Geoffrey much admired Napoleon, and as the example suggests, much writing in this vein tends to reflect wishful thinking (and to be self-consciously whimsical).

In 1857, the philosopher Charles Renouvier gave a less-than-felicitous name to this kind of work: Uchronie, which he defined as “a utopia of past time,” in which history is written “not as it was, but as it could have been.” Renouvier himself contributed to the genre. His elaborate counterfactual tale imagined that Marcus Aurelius had been replaced by the Roman general Avidius Cassius, eventually leading to a free peasantry rather than a slave class. Through a number of bizarre twists, the ultimate result was a more secular Europe and a very different form of Christianity, without confessionals, monasteries, or purgatories, but with a firm commitment to science and learning, producing a federation of independent European states. One of Renouvier’s main targets was Catholicism, and in his idealized counterfactual narrative, Catholicism never amounted to much, and so freedom  and peace prevailed. [more]