Why Science May Be Fundamentally Hard to Believe

A recent study [PDF] by a group led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, has found that humans may fundamentally be opposed to non-intuitive facts. Even though you may learn a fact and willingly accept it as true, your brain resists and will never properly replace its intuitive notions (such as the idea of the world being flat, or the idea that larger objects fall faster). You can suppress your natural beliefs, but this study implies that you may never be able to replace them.

When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.

In a recent article on the study John Lehrer of the New Yorker argues a link between these findings and the depressingly low adoption of belief in evolution in America.

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Humans As Bacterial Cities

Metagenomics is a field of research which uses genomic data from a large number of organisms in an ecosystem to attempt to characterise the ecosystem holistically. This technique has only recently been possible with the advent of high throughput sequencing. Metagenomics is particularly good for investigating life which can’t be readily grown/cultured in a lab – which is a surprisingly large amount of the microbial world. One particular part of the microbial world, our own bodies, is being investigated in the Human Microbiome Project.

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Bacteriograph Velocirabbit

Zachary Copfer is a bioartist. He currently works primarily in the new medium of bacteriogaphy: photographs produced by glowing genetically modified bacteria (which replace light sensitive photo paper). This work is effectively a new medium for artistic endeavour, one which captures the spirit of the genetic revolution – replacing large numbers of conventional technologies with biological ones.

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Human Organ on a Chip

Donald E. Ingber and his team at the Harvard’s Wyss Institute have developed a chip which contains human cell cultures and aims to simulate (for the purposes of  scientific testing) human organs. Such a chip would be cheaper, more ethical, and more accurate than current animal testing used in drug development. By connecting chips of different organs together an effective “human body” of chips could be created. Check out a video on the work by Reuters after the break.

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Framing the Synthetic Biology Ethics Debate

In an opinion piece posted on Monday, Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose (sociologists at King’s College, London) argue that the ethics debate over synthetic biology needs to “get real” and focus on the current applications of the technology. Check out the article here.

Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: “Do we have the right to play God?”. These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology’s imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.

This way of framing discussions is unhelpful. It is an example of “speculative ethics” that distracts us from less exciting but more pressing questions. What are synthetic biologists actually doing? How easy, or difficult, is it proving? What applications are they realistically going to develop in the short to medium term? What is their intended purpose, and to what extent could these contribute to the public good?

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