Archive for the 'Chemistry' category

Reasonable reactions to kids messing up in dangerous ways.

Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old Florida high school student, was expelled from her high school last week for mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a plastic bottle on school grounds, creating some smoke and enough pressure to pop the cap off the bottle.

No property was damaged. No one was hurt.

Kiera described what she was doing as "conducting a science experiment" while the police described it as "possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device" -- both felonies.

While there has been a general increase in "zero tolerance" enforcement of policies by school systems, it is maybe not unimportant in the reaction in this case that Kiera Wilmot is African American. (For more on that, check out DNLee's post and the discussion at Black Skeptics.)

Schools, obviously, have reasonable concerns about students doing "freelance science" on school grounds, without supervision and without sufficient attention to issues like safety. And, there are sensible arguments that messing around with science (even the explode-y kind) outside the constraints of a lesson plan (and the inevitable standardized test question that follows upon that lesson plan) is precisely the kind of formative experience that gets kids interested enough in science to pursue that interest in their formal schooling. There's a challenge in finding the middle ground -- the circumstances where kids can get excited and take chances and discover things without doing permanent damage to themselves, others, or school property. In olden times, when I was in high school, some of our teachers managed to create conditions like these in the classroom. I don't even know if that would be possible anymore.

Meanwhile, we desperately need to figure out how not to read a 16-year-old's momentary lapse of judgment as a sign that she is a criminal, or a dangerous person to have in the classroom alongside other 16-year-olds whose lapses have not (yet) been so publicly observable. Smart kids -- good kids -- sometimes make decisions with less thought than they should about the potential consequences. Imposing draconian consequences on them isn't necessarily the only way to get them to be more mindful of consequences in the future.

My thoughts on this kind of case are made complex by very slight personal involvement with a similar case almost 20 years ago. In 1994, I lived near Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a "senior prank" in the canter quad led to an explosion, a 15-foot plume of fire, and eighteen injured people, including two students seriously injured with second and third degree burns. The three seniors who confessed said they were trying to make a smoke bomb, but they had gotten it wrong. They all pled guilty to one felony count, were placed on probation, then had their felonies reduced to misdemeanors after they met particular conditions. They also faced a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the injured students.

And, if memory serves, at least one of the students had his admission offer at an elite private college revoked.

I know this because I was teaching chemistry courses at a nearby community college that summer and the following fall, and one of the "mad bombers" (as they were being called in town) was my student. He was a good student, smart, engaged in the lessons, and hard working. In the laboratory, he took greater care than most of the other students to understand how to do the assigned experiments safely.

He wasn't, when I knew him, someone who seemed reckless with the welfare of the people around him. He definitely didn't seem like a kid looking to get into more trouble. He seemed affected by how wrong the prank had gone, and he gave the impression of having internalized some serious lessons from it.

None of this is to argue that he or the others shouldn't have been punished. They harmed their fellow students, some of them quite seriously, and the civil suits struck me as completely appropriate.

But approaching kids who mess up -- even quite badly -- as irredeemably bad kids (or, worse, as bad kids treated as adults for the purposes of prosecution) just doesn't fit with the actual kid I knew. And, possibly, going too far with the penalties imposed on kids who mess up is the kind of thing that might turn them into irredeemable cases, rather than giving them a chance to make things right, learn from their screw ups, and then go on to become grown-ups who make better decisions and positive contributions to our world.

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Chem Coach: a career outside of science with more chemistry than you might expect.

In honor of National Chemistry Week, See Arr Oh is spearheading the Chem Coach Carnival, which he describes as an "online repository of chemistry job success stories". The posts from the first two days make for interesting and inspiring reading.

Given that, by official reckoning, I leaked out of the science pipeline, it wasn't obvious to me that I had a chemistry job success story to share. But See Arr Oh asked me to share, and I love my job, and it turns out that chemistry has more than a little to do with how I do it. So, here we go:

My current job:
Associate professor of philosophy at a teaching-focused university, with my teaching and research focused on philosophy of science and ethics in science.

What I do in a standard "work day":
Let's skip over the parts that make it "work" (i.e., grading, committee meetings, getting swallowed up by bureaucracy) since I imagine those are pretty similar to what chemistry professors get to do. Instead, I'll tell you about the teaching and research.

In the classroom, I teach mostly upper division students (juniors and seniors, but with some masters students in the mix). About half of my teaching ends up being an "Ethics in Science" course (multiple sections each year) that is required of our chemistry majored, heavily enrolled by other science majors, but also taken by a good handful of non-scientists who are curious about what's involved in doing good science, and in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. You can peek at the current syllabus to get a feel for the sweep of the topics we discuss. The other half of my teaching assignment is usually "Philosophy of Science" (again, multiple sections each year), a straight-ahead intro to the subject with the usual philosophical discussions of how the scientific knowledge gets built, whether we have good grounds for believing the scientific method can deliver on its promises, what attitude we should take towards our best scientific theories (approaching literally true, or merely empirically adequate), and so forth. The interesting twist is that a lot of the population taking "Philosophy of Science" is there to fulfill the upper division general education science requirement. (Yeah, I know.) So, basically, this is an opportunity to take a whole bunch of people who are kind of scared of science and get them a basic understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from.

The research I do focuses a lot on the different conceptual and methodological toolboxes different scientific disciplines use to build science (philosophers of science of yore loved physics but really neglected chemistry), and on saying useful things about how to understand "ethical practice of science" in the particular circumstances in which scientists and scientific trainees find themselves in our world.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?:
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in chemistry and philosophy. Then I got my Ph.D. in chemistry because I kind of thought I'd just read philosophy at home after work. Well ... it didn't turn out that way. The philosophical questions about science kept squeaking for my attention, and when I recognized that pursuing those was probably what would make me happy, I got another Ph.D. in philosophy, with a focus on the history and philosophy of science.

I should tell you that I got my chemistry Ph.D. relatively quickly (4.25 years), which made re-upping for another Ph.D.-length stint in grad school far more palatable than it would have been otherwise. If I had taken more like 8 years to get the first Ph.D., I think I would have been more likely just to get an M.A. in philosophy, or to do a "Ph.D. minor" in philosophy (that was an option my graduate institution had that I didn't find out about until I was well into the second Ph.D.).

How does chemistry inform my work?
In my research (in philosophy, this looks an awful lot like reading and writing!), my experience with chemical methodology and the "forms of life" of scientists who do chemistry ends up being really useful when I read someone making sweeping generalizations on how all good science must work based on a close examination of physics. Chemistry differs from physics in interesting ways, which means a careful philosopher of science needs to build a model of science that can accommodate chemical practice too -- or else dismiss chemistry as an "immature" science or some hogwash like that. Indeed, philosophers have been working on developing an interesting subfield in philosophy of chemistry.

The ethical practice of science part of my research is more informed by the types of human interactions in knowledge-building that I observed during my misspent scientific youth, but some of the issues that are especially important to chemists (like safety, so the knowledge-building doesn't kill you) are of special interest to me.

You can probably guess how that misspent scientific youth is important in providing examples for discussion with my "Ethics in Science" students. It also helps me frame discussions of strategies for being ethical in situations where one is decidedly on the low end of the community power gradient. In my "Philosophy of Science" class, of course, I sneak in examples from chemistry whenever I can!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: 
I've been on conference panels a couple times with a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, but only after I started doing philosophy. (Once was at a philosophy of science meeting, the other was at a chemistry meeting.)

* * * * *

If you'd like to honor National Chemistry Week and the chemistry bloggers who keep its spirit alive every week, you might consider kicking a few bucks into the Chembloggers general donations during the DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students Challenge.

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The continued relevance of my (first) Ph.D.

Sep 08 2012 Published by under Chemistry, Personal

From time to time, when people find out that it took me two Ph.D.s to work out what I wanted to be when I grew up, they'll make comments about what a pain it must have been wasting those four-plus years learning chemistry stuff that is well-nigh useless for a professional philosopher.

Let the record reflect that last weekend, I made use of a skill that I honed in my graduate chemistry training.

Sadly, that skill was bottle-washing -- not the most intellectually stimulating thing to do. But, when the bottles need washing, knowing how to wield a bottle-brush with authority is important.

And, now we have apple cider (or more properly, the yeast contained in that cider) munching on sucrose in the bottles, developing some carbonation. Plus, the carboy is now free and ready for this Fall's press, which is good, as the apple tree is groaning under the burden of all those apples.

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The things you can learn reading a comment thread.

So, Chemjobber (whose blog focuses on "[q]uantifying the chemistry job market" and "helping chemists find jobs somehow") wrote an interesting post on the supply/demand mismatch when it comes to chemistry Ph.D.s and how this might affect a person's rational deliberations about whether it's worth the gamble to pursue a chemistry Ph.D.

That post got me thinking (as good posts do), and I posted some of my thoughts about what we (in a sort of societal-level "we" that at least includes chemists and chemical educators, broadly construed, but that might also encompass higher education types and even society as a whole) might want to do about this supply/demand mismatch, and about how what we think we should do is probably connected to how we think about the point of education in the first place.

My post got Farked.

I went and read the comments. (I know, who does that?)

There, I learned:

1. Putting up a blog post that includes some typos (or maybe they were artifacts from the voice recognition software) means that your Ph.D. should probably be revoked. Immediately!

2. The existence of one commenter with a Ph.D. in chemistry who has an intellectually stimulating job that pays well means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (False alarm, kids! Come on back to the lab!)

3. The existence of one commenter who works placing interns for his university's STEM college and reports a 100% placement rate for students looking for internships means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (Even though maybe these are undergraduate students being placed? And maybe some of these internships pay less than what you'd view as a living wage, or perhaps nothing at all? Still, companies will welcome cheap transient labor from science majors, so the economy is totally fine!!)

4. Ph.D. programs in chemistry are probably way easier now than they were 100 years ago. (Whither intellectual rigor?) Maybe these lower standards are to blame for the glut of chemistry Ph.D.s.

5. On balance, it is a good thing when a sub-par chemist finds a job teaching philosophy!

Thankfully, we sub-par chemists can look to Fark comment threads for helpful examples when we teach logic and critical thinking.

And, because I count it as due diligence, I immediately emailed Chemjobber to alert him to the news that he's been mistaken about the chemistry job market. I expect by the end of the week he'll shift his blog over to providing photos of labware with hilarious captions.

Finally, given that the blurb that went with the link to my posts reads:

The market value of a Ph.D. in chemistry is now limited to asking 'Would you like fries with that?" On the positive side, chemistry students are bumping the hell out of English majors in the paper-hat careers

I could get all shirty about pointing out that my Ph.D. in a "useless" non-STEM field helped me secure a tenure-track job (and, ultimately, tenure) in a field where it's maybe even harder to get an academic job than in chemistry. (Look at me being a dumbass with my sunk costs and such!) And, there are no fry-o-lators or paper hats involved.

But that would just be mean of me.

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Blogospheric navel-gazing: where's the chemistry communication?

The launch last week of the new Scientific American Blog Network* last week prompted a round of blogospheric soul searching (for example here, here, and here): Within the ecosystem of networked science blogs, where are all the chem-bloggers?

Those linked discussions do a better job with the question and its ramifications than I could, so as they say, click through and read them. But the fact that these discussions are so recent is an interesting coincidence in light of the document I want to consider in this post.

I greeted with interest the release of a recent publication from the National Academy of Sciences titled Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments (PDF available for free here). The document aims to present a summary of a one-and-a-half day workshop, organized by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable and held in May 2010.

Of course, I flipped right to the section that took up the issue of blogs.

The speaker invited to the workshop to talk about chemistry on blogs was Joy Moore, representing Seed Media Group.

She actually started by exploring how much chemistry coverage there was in Seed magazine and professed surprise that there wasn't much:

When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was very similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, "part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is so easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the 'why' rather than the how.'" For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.

The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalist point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, "That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of opportunities." (24)

A bit grumpily, I will note that this editor's impression of chemistry and what it contains is quite a distance from my own. Perhaps it's because I was a physical chemist rather than an organic chemist (so I mostly dodged the organic nomenclature issue in my own research), and because the research I did had no clear applications to any consumer products (and many of my friends in chemistry were in the same boat), and because the lot of us learned how to explain what was interesting and important and cool to each other (and to our friends who weren't in chemistry, or even in school) without jargon. It can be done. It's part of this communication strategy called "knowing your audience and meeting them where they are."

Anyway, after explaining why Seed didn't have much chemistry, Moore shifted her focus to ScienceBlogs and its chemistry coverage. Here again, the pickings seemed slim:

Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemsitry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.

Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom [sic]. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, "So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not as the star of the show." (26)

While I love both The Pump Handle and Speakeasy Science (which has since relocated to PLoS Blogs), Moore didn't mention a bunch of blogs at ScienceBlogs that could be counted on for chemistry content in a starring role. These included Molecule of the Day, Terra Sigillata (which has since moved to CENtral Science), and surely the pharmacology posts on Neurotopia. That's just three off the top of my head. Indeed, even my not-really-a-chemistry-blog had a "Chemistry" category populated with posts that really focused on chemistry.

And, of course, I shouldn't have to point out that ScienceBlogs is not now, and was not then, the entirety of the science blogosphere. There have always been seriously awesome chem-bloggers writing entertaining, accessible stuff outside the bounds of the Borg.

Ignoring their work (and their readership) is more than a little lazy. (Maybe a search engine would help?)

Anyway, Moore also told the workshop about Research Blogging:

Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website [sic]. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said that bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.

"Who are these bloggers?" Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini-review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers. (26)

Moore also noted some research on the chemistry posts aggregated by ResearchBlogging that found:

the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. (26)

The issues raised by the other workshop participants here were the predictable ones.

One, from John Miller of the Department of Energy, was whether online venues like ResearchBlogging might replace traditional peer review for journal articles. Joy Moore said she saw it as a possibility. Of course, this might rather undercut the idea that what is being aggregated is blog posts on peer reviewed research -- the peer review that happens before publication, I take it, is enhanced, not replaced, by the post-publication "peer review" happening in these online discussions of the research.

Another comment, from Bill Carroll, had to do with the perceived tone of the blogosphere:

"One of the things I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to another point of view to 'you are a jerk.' My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat." (26)

Moore's answer allowed as how some blog readers are interested in being entertained by fisticuffs.

Here again, it strikes me that there's a danger in drawing sweeping conclusions from too few data points. There exist science blogs that don't get shouty and personal in the posts or the comment threads. Many of these are really good reads with engaging discussions happening between bloggers and readers.

Sometimes too, the heat (or at least, some kind of passion) may be part of how a blogger conveys to readers what about chemistry is interesting, or puzzling, or important in contexts beyond the laboratory or the journal pages. Chemistry is cool enough or significant enough that it can get us riled up. I doubt that insisting on Vulcan-grade detachment is a great way to convince readers who aren't already sold on the importance of chemistry that they ought to care about it.

And, can we please get past this suggestion that the blogosphere is the source of incivility in exchanges about science?

I suspect that people who blame the medium (of blogs) for the tone (of some blogs or of the exchanges in their comments) haven't been to a department seminar or a group meeting lately. Those face-to-face exchanges can get not only contentious but also shouty and personal. (True story: When I was a chemistry graduate student shopping for a research group, I was a guest at a group meeting where the PI, who knew I was there to see how I liked the research group, spent a full five minutes tearing one of his senior grad students a new one. And then, he was disappointed that I did not join the research group.)

Now, maybe the worry is that blogs about chemistry might give the larger public a peek at chemists being contentious and personal and shouty, something that otherwise would be safely hidden from view behind the walls of university lecture halls and laboratory spaces. If that's the worry, one possible response is that chemists playing in the blogosphere should maybe pay attention to the broader reach the internet affords them and behave themselves in the way they want the public to see them behaving.

If, instead, the worry is that chemists ought not ever to behave in certain ways toward each other (e.g., attacking the person rather than the methods or the results or the conclusions), then there's plenty of call for peer pressure within the chemistry community to head off these behaviors before we even start talking about blogs.

There are a few things that complicate discussions like this about the nature of communication about chemistry on blogs. One is that the people taking up the issue are sometimes unclear about what kind of communication it is they're interested in -- for example, chemist to non-chemist or chemist-to-chemist. Another is that they sometimes have very different ideas about what kinds of chemical issues ought to be communicated (basic concepts, cutting edge research, issues to do with chemical education or chemical workplaces, chemistry in everyday products or in highly charged political debates, etc., etc.). And, as mentioned already, the chemistry blogosphere, like chemistry as a discipline, contains multitudes. There is so much going on, in so many sub-specialities, that it's hard to draw too many useful generalizations.

For the reader, this diversity of chemistry blogging is a good thing, not a bad thing -- at least if the reader is brave enough to venture beyond networks which don't always have lots of blogs devoted to chemistry. Some good places to look:

Blogs about chemistry indexed by ScienceSeeker

CENtral Science (which is a blog network, but one devoted to chemistry by design)

Many excellent chemistry blogs are linked in this post at ScienceGeist. Indeed, ScienceGeist is an excellent chemistry blog.

Have you been reading the Scientopia Guest Blog lately? If so, you've had a chance to read Dr. Rubidium's engaging discussions of chemistry that pops up in the context of sex and drugs. I'm sure rock 'n' roll is on deck.

Finally, David Kroll's blogroll has more fine chemistry-related blogs than you can shake a graduated cylinder at.

If there are other blogospheric communicators of chemistry you'd like to single out, please tell us about them in the comments.
*Yes, I have a new blog there, but this blog isn't going anywhere.

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What are honest scientists to do about a master of deception?

A new story posted at Chemical & Engineering News updates us on the fraud case of Bengü Sezen (who we discussed here, here, and here at much earlier stages of the saga).

William G. Schultz notes that documents released (PDF) by the Department of Health and Human Services (which houses the Office of Research Integrity) detail some really brazen misconduct on Sezen's part in her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University and in at least three published papers.

From the article:

The documents—an investigative report from Columbia and HHS’s subsequent oversight findings—show a massive and sustained effort by Sezen over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results. ...

A notice in the Nov. 29, 2010, Federal Register states that Sezen falsified, fabricated, and plagiarized research data in three papers and in her doctoral thesis. Some six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Columbia chemistry professor Dalibor Sames have been withdrawn by Sames because Sezen’s results could not be replicated. ...

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

Apparently, her results were not reproducible because those trying to reproduce them lacked her "hand skills" with Liquid Paper.

Needless to say, this kind of behavior is tremendously detrimental to scientific communities trying to build a body of reliable knowledge about the world. Scientists are at risk of relying on published papers that are based in wishes (and lies) rather than actual empirical evidence, which can lead them down scientific blind alleys and waste their time and money. Journal editors devoted resources to moving her (made-up) papers through peer review, and then had to devote more resources to dealing with their retractions. Columbia University and the U.S. government got to spend a bunch of money investigating Sezen's wrongdoing -- the latter expenditures unlikely to endear scientific communities to an already skeptical public. Even within the research lab where Sezen, as a grad student, was concocting her fraudulent results, her labmates apparently wasted a lot of time trying to reproduce her results, questioning their own abilities when they couldn't.

And to my eye, one of the big problems in this case is that Sezen seems to have been the kind of person who projected confidence while lying her pants off:

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

In this matter, the reports echo sources from inside the Sames lab who spoke with C&EN under conditions of anonymity when the case first became public in 2006. These sources described Sezen as Sames’ “golden child,” a brilliant student favored by a mentor who believed that her intellect and laboratory acumen provoked the envy of others in his research group. They said it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Sames retaliated when other members of his group questioned the validity of Sezen’s work.

What I find striking here is that Sezen's vigorous defense of her's own personal integrity was sufficient, at least for awhile, to convince her mentor that those questioning the results were in the wrong -- not just incompetent to reproduce the work, but jealous and looking to cause trouble. And, it's deeply disappointing that this judgment may have been connected to the departure of those fellow graduate students who raised questions from their graduate program.

How could this have been avoided?

Maybe a useful strategy would have been to treat questions about the scientific work (including its reproducibility) first and foremost as questions about the scientific work.

Getting results that others cannot reproduce is not prima facie evidence that you're a cheater-pants. It may just mean that there was something weird going on with the equipment, or the reagents, or some other component of the experimental system when you did the experiment that yielded the exciting but hard to replicate results. Or, it may mean that the folks trying to replicate the results haven't quite mastered the technique (which, in the case that they are your colleagues in the lab, could be addressed by working with them on their technique). Or, it may mean that there's some other important variable in the system that you haven't identified as important and so have not worked out (or fully described) how to control.

In this case, of course, it's looking like the main reason that Sezen's results were not reproducible was that she made them up. But casting the failure to replicate presumptively as one scientist's mad skillz and unimpeachable integrity against another's didn't help get to the bottom of the scientific facts. It made the argument personal rather than putting the scientists involved on the same team in figuring out what was really going on with the scientific systems being studied.

Of all of the Mertonian norms imputed to the Tribe of Science, organized skepticism is probably the one nearest and dearest to most scientists' basic understanding of how they get the knowledge-building job done. Figuring out what's going on with particular phenomena in the world can be hard, not least because lining up solid evidence to support your conclusions requires identifying evidence that others trying to repeat your work can reliably obtain themselves. This is more than just a matter of making sure your results are robust. Rather, you want others to be able to reproduce your work so that you know you haven't fooled yourself.

Organized skepticism, in other words, should start at home.

There is a risk of being too skeptical of your own results, and there are chances to overlook something important as noise because it doesn't fit with what you expect to observe. However, the scientist who refuses to entertain the possibility that her work could be wrong -- indeed, who regards questions about the details of her work as a personal affront -- should raise a red flag for the rest of her scientific community, no matter what her career stage or her track record of brilliance to date.

In a world where every scientist's findings are recognized as being susceptible to error, the first response to questions about findings might be to go back to the phenomena together, helping each other to locate potential sources of error and to avoid them. In such a world, the master of deception trying to ride personal reputation (or good initial impressions) to avoid scrutiny of his or her work will have a much harder time getting traction.

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When the news coverage departs from physical reality.

May 02 2011 Published by under Chemistry, Current events

On NPR's Morning Edition this morning, Dina Temple-Raston told Renee Montagne how Osama Bin Laden tried to evade detection:

[O]ne intelligence official told us that nothing with an electron actually passed close to him, which in a way is one of the ways they actually caught him.

Temple-Raston went on to clarify that suspicions were raised when bin Laden's compound (which has been described as a "mansion" and was certainly bigger than the neighboring houses) had neither telephone service nor internet connections.

But, let us note for the record that all the furniture, walls, floors, window treatments -- indeed, Osama bin Laden himself -- were almost certainly lousy with electrons, and that these electrons would have been in motion. Electrons were not only passing close to Osama bin Laden -- they were passing in him and through him. Matter, in this universe, is made up of atoms, and ions, and aggregates of these, that contain electrons!

Verily, in the event that bin Laden's compound was actually electron free, I reckon the strong positive charge of the place would have given him away much sooner.

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Blogrolling: Reaction Crate.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my professional interests (which I even talk about occasionally here) is the philosophy of chemistry, a subset of the philosophy of science with a fairly small number of practitioners.

Well, I've recently found a new blog, Reaction Crate, whose tagline promises "Philosophy, Chemistry, and Other Reactive Things."

So far, there's a cool post on chemical classification by microstructure. And, there's an extremely helpful post about how to get into grad school in philosophy or history and philosophy of science. The blog's author, Julia Bursten, is a third year grad student in the HPS department at the University of Pittsburgh, so she knows of what she speaks -- and she's writing about it very engagingly.

Check it out!.

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National Chemistry Week repost: Happy Mole Day! (What's a mole?)

Oct 23 2010 Published by under Basic concepts, Chemistry

This is National Chemistry Week. It's always chosen to coincide with whichever calendar week includes October 23 (or 10/23), since October 23 is "Mole Day".

"Huh? Why would chemists celebrate a furry critter that burrows underground?"

Not that mole. The mole chemists celebrate is a unit.

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National Chemistry Week repost: Elements with Style.

Oct 22 2010 Published by under Book review, Chemistry, Kids and science

To continue our celebration of National Chemistry Week, and our traditional Friday sprog-centric focus, we dip into the archives for a review of a cool children's book introducing the chemical elements:


The book: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style, written by Adrian Dingle, illustrated by Simon Basher. (Boston: Kingfisher, 2007)

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