Finding Truth Through Fetal Cells

Posted under: education, health, philosophy, science.
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I enjoy listening to Radiolab, a podcast about science, philosophy, and human experience. In the episode “Fetal Consequences” (which can also be read on the NPR blog), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss how fetal cells remain in the mother for decades, possibly having effects on her body. Originially it seemed that that fetal cells were solely beneficial to the mother. The hosts shared a story about sheets of fetal cells turning into healthy liver cells and healing the mother’s damaged liver. It was later proposed that perhaps fetal cells might actually be harmful to the mother in some cases due to a variety of causal factors.

I found the study about fetal cells fascinating, but what I thought was especially significant was what Tufts University professor and scientist Kirby Johnson said regarding his personal stake in the work:

Of course I wanted to help out, but if I find out that’s not the case [that my fetal cells made no difference when my mother was ill], well, that’s the truth. And as a scientist, I want to find out the truth; whether or not the truth is wonderful or the truth is horrible…at least I know what the truth is, and both as a son and as a scientist, that would be of value to me.

This is true science. The scientific method can, and should, be applied to all aspects of life. Too often people stop asking the questions when they find the answers they are looking for. Any new evidence or ideas that challenge one’s beliefs, or cause discomfort or uncertainty are discounted or completely dismissed. As skeptics, scientists base their opinions on good evidence, and are not afraid to have that evidence challenged.

The strength of the scientific method is found in its ability to detect error as well as its ability to detect truth. It describes a way of obtaining knowledge that is based on observation, repetition, transparency and correction. It would behoove everyone–individually and as a society–to value and engage in scientific thinking: Deep curiosity about the world, rigorous and critical examination and testing, unbiased and objective scrutiny, and openness to new ideas and perspectives–regardless of the palatability of the outcome.

Comments (0) May 28 2012


Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

Posted under: book review, education, philosophy, psychology.
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Dan Ariely previously wrote Predictably Irrational which I read and enjoyed. In this follow-up, Ariely reveals the beneficial outcomes and pleasant surprises that often arise from irrational behavior; he examines some of the positive effects irrationality has on our lives and offers a new look on the irrational decisions that influence our personal lives and our workplace experiences.The Upside Of Irrationality

What Ariely suggests about our tendency toward hedonic adaptation is compelling:

Hedonic adaptation is the process of getting used to the places we live, our homes, our romantic partners, and almost everything else. It is an emotional leveling out–when initial positive and negative perceptions fade. When we move into a new house, we may be delighted with the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren’t as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don’t derive as much pleasure from the handsome floors. (p. 168)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: The Social Animal

Posted under: book review, education, philosophy, psychology.
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The Social AnimalNew York Times columnist David Brooks uses his book, The Social Animal, to assemble his evidence for the causes of success and failure in life, and to draw implications for social policy.

Brooks shares some insight in the way we learn and communicate, which I found interesting:

Automaticity is achieved through repetition, or “reach and reciprocity.” You start with the core knowledge in a field, for example, then venture out and learn something new. Then come back again and reintegrate the new morsel with what you already know. Then venture out again. Then return. Too much reciprocity and you end up in an insular rut. Too much reach and your efforts are scattershot and fruitless. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information. (p. 87, 89)

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Comments (0) Aug 06 2011


Book Review: Predictably Irrational

Posted under: book review, education, food, philosophy, psychology.
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I just read a fascinating book called Predictably Irrational by Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT, Dan Ariely. He explores the idea that our irrationality happens the same way again and again. He performs several experiments and examines the way we make decisions, coming up with some interesting findings.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Ariely begins the first chapter by discussing relativity:

There’s one aspect of relativity that trips us up. It’s this: we not only tend to compare things with one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily.

He writes that evaluating two houses side by side yields different results than evaluating three: A, B, and a somewhat less appealing version of A. The subpar A makes it easier to decide that A is better–not only better than the similar one, but better than B. The lesser version of A should have no effect on your rating of the other two buildings, but it does.

Most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. Ariely performed an experiment at MIT in which he selected pairs of photos of random people: one of them physically attractive (A), and the other one noticeably less so (B) in each pair. He then doctored the photo in Photoshop, creating a slightly but noticeably less attractive version of each of them–a decoy (-A and -B). He then approached students, presenting them with three pictures. Some of them had the regular picture (A), the decoy of that picture (-A), and the other regular picture (B). Others had the regular picture (B), the decoy of that picture (-B), and the other regular picture (A).

Whenever I handed out a sheet that had a regular picture, its inferior version, and another regular picture, the participants preferred the regular person–the one who was similar, but clearly superior, to its distorted version over the other, undistorted person on the sheet. This was not just a close call; it happened 75 percent of the time.

Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly.

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Comments (3) Jun 14 2009


Name Change

Posted under: philosophy.
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As I mentioned in our family site, we are excited to be starting out the new year with new identities–well, the girls and I anyway. We have decided to change our last names. I will take back my maiden name, Uhler, because that is who I am. The girls will change their last name to Danler, as it is a combination of Brent and my family names; it connects them to each other, and to both of us. We are excited for this change and hope that the girls never acquiesce to changing their last name (if they are to ever get married) and give up their identity.

Read Brent’s post about women, marriage, and the tradition of women taking the last name of their husbands. I agree with Brent; these things are misogynistic and archaic.

Comments (3) Jan 20 2009


The Ethics of Lying

Posted under: philosophy, psychology.
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Some argue that lies are justified when truth would gratuitously cause or heighten conflict. What justifies the lie is the benefit of its outcome; if more good than harm flows from its telling, it is justified.

German philosopher and moral absolutist Immanuel Kant believed that lying is always wholly unacceptable. He based this on his general principle that we should treat each human being as an end in itself, and never as a mere means. As a deontologist, he focused on the motives or reasons behind action rather than its consequences. Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (1) Jan 01 2009