Tuesday, August 01, 2006

My Conversation with Lorne Ipsum of Geek Counterpoint

I had a few questions for the host of the Geek Counterpoint podcast last week, so I e-mailed him and he sent back his responses. These words were so helpful for me I thought I'd post them here to hopefully enlighten other people.

BTW, Geek Counterpoint is a incredibly great podcast that is put together by a scientist/engineer named Lorne Ipsum. He tackles the "science behind the news" talking about all kinds of stuff from stem cells to quantum mechanics to relativity to the technology of the Titanic. I highly recommend it!

Anyway, here was our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. I've put Lorne's words in blockquote.

Daryl: The latest shows have been fantastic! Thanks so much for creating them. I especially like, as you know, the Quantum Mechanics / Relativity thread. If you continued doing those for months, I'd love every minute of it.

The net neutrality and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck stories were also excellent.
Lorne: Thanks a mint, glad you liked them! Please tell your friends...

Daryl: I have four suggestions for new show ideas (take them for what they're worth!):

A. *String theory* - I've read a few articles lately that say that string theory is on the way out. I couldn't remember if you had done a show on this previously, and I couldn't find a way to search for it on your site. If you've already done it, please disregard.
Lorne: Haven't done it, but it's coming up in a few weeks. The original plan was to do an episode summarizing the various "Theories of Everything" before I start going into details on each of them, but I'm not sure if I'll have enough material for a decent TOE episode... As for the "on the way out" bit, I don't buy it. Science is a competitive business (when it's done right), so it's typical for someone pushing a theory that competes with an older theory to do a little academic "trash talking."

It's been said that politics is essentially show business for ugly people. If you ask me, science is rugby for academics.

Daryl: B. *The long tail* - I'm just reading the book of the same name right now, and it's very interesting from a business perspective. But I'm not knowledgeable enough to know whether the statistics and science behind it is valid or not. Would you be interested in weighing in on that issue sometime?
Lorne: Yep, but that's a ways down the road. I've got a whole stack of books to read before I pick up that one (although it ought to be interesting, if the Wired article that started things was any indication). Can't vouch for the statistics, but in a broad-brush sense, it sounds "right" to me (given my tastes in music & reading material, I pretty much live in the long tail).

Daryl: C. *Science proceeds one funeral at a time.* I think it was Max Planck who said this, and to me, it makes tremendous sense.

Lorne: Near as I can tell, it's a paraphrased version of Planck. I think the original is "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Same idea, though, and there's an unfortunate amount of truth in it.

Daryl: In healthcare it seems so obvious, as we use technology (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery) that have such limited success (1-5% with certain cancers) and we seem to be ignoring the causes of why people get sick. But is it true in other sciences too?
Lorne: You betcha! For instance, plate tectonics seems obvious now, but it was hugely controversial for years. Meanwhile, Einstein fought against quantum mechanics until the day he died (he didn't like the degree to which probability is involved). A tendency to dogmatism seems to be an ingrained part of the human psyche.

This came up for me because I posted something about the Bosnian Pyramid on my blog and a guy wrote a comment that this pyramid "went against science." I tried to explain that every advance made in every field of science "goes against science" and that the established experts will also disagree with it. However, the trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff. He disagreed, saying that experts welcome new ideas if they are worthwhile. That hasn't been my experience in healthcare, but I can't speak for other fields.
Lorne: Strictly speaking, experts *should* welcome new ideas -- but since they're only human, they often don't. The problem is that people get comfortable with the status quo, and get upset when the status quo is... well... upset. I think part of the problem is that people (including scientists) tend to see science as a body of knowledge, rather than as a process.

Daryl: To me, the Bosnian Pyramid may be something that throws our view of archaeology into complete chaos, or it might be some crackpot who is digging on a hill. But the fact that he throws our existing theories a wrench is not a reason to disregard him by itself. What do you think? Is it worth a podcast? Maybe the Bosnian Pyramid isn't a good example for you, but there are probably other current examples.
Lorne: My issue with the Bosnian Pyramid stuff is that (as far as I know, anyway), there haven't been peer reviewed papers on the work done there. Science by press release is generally a red flag w.r.t. the quality of the work. The material that the on-site folks have put on their website also is long on assertions, and short on substantiation. I think people would take things more seriously, too, if the "chief investigator" didn't come up with cutesy names for everything ("Pyramid of the Sun," and such).

I'm not sure if I'll do an episode on the Bosnian Pyramid -- at least, not until more information is available. I've got a couple of episodes in the works, though, that touch on Planck's principle.

Daryl:D. *Cold fusion.* I found a Website that goes into great detail of how the cold fusion results from Pons-Fleishman have been recreated many times, and that the only reason we're not using it wide-scale is because it was so ridiculed back in the 1980s when the news first came out. My understanding is that those researchers did make some mistakes by not releasing all their information right away, but this Website, which has some pretty prestigious names attached to it, says there were real results behind the hype. Here's the site: http://www.lenr-canr.org/. The "free e-Book" on the left-hand side is where I got most of my information.
Lorne: Thanks -- I'll have to check this out. Pons & Fleishman were real examples of press conference science, unfortunately. Since their big result (substantial excess heat generated) hasn't been reliably repeated, it pretty much gave the field of low-temperature fusion research a bad name. I've got to imagine that research funds for cold fusion are tough to come by right now. I'll have to see what the e-Book has to say about it...

Daryl: Also, what are your thoughts about joining one of the podcasting networks? I'm thinking about joining Podshow, because I'd like to incorporate advertising into my shows and they seem to understand how a new advertising model is needed more than anyone else. They are looking at ways to monetize the value of the relationship the podcaster has with their audience, rather than just based on volume, demographics, psychographics, etc.

I'm just interested to hear whether you're headed that way or not.
Lorne: I'm ambivalent about it, honestly. I'm not wild about moving my feed, and the Podshow site tools are pretty limited. Some of their contract terms seem a bit one-sided to boot. Supposedly (at least, according to some things I've heard on the Daily Source Code), Podshow will have more flexible options in the future. If I could use their advertising tools without changing my feed or hosting, I'd be more interested in it. I looked at another network as well (blubrry), but they have some terms of service that I'm not wild about.

Check out Geek Counterpoint for Lorne's "science behind the news." It is a great podcast.

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