How to spot a fraud

Carl Sagan was a vocal proponent of science, among many many other things. One of his great legacies are a series of spectacular popular science books.

A recent post over at Brain Pickings recounts a chapter from Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark entitled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”. In this chapter Sagan reflects on the many frauds that claim to be fact, or science.  Rather than attempt to defraud each fraud individually, Sagan gave us a the tools to arm ourselves against being deceived by fraud, allowing us to grow and defraud liars ourselves.

He called it a “baloney detection kit”, and by adopting the kit we are able to shield ourselves against deliberate manipulation. Below I have listed nine of these tools (or read all about all of them here):


  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.


Thanks Dr. Sagan, we are forever grateful!

Sharks are not as deadly as selfies

So far this year, sharks have killed fewer people than selfies. Read about it here.

This could be a post about how we as a society are far too afraid of sharks.

But given that this year alone taking a selfie with a bison has caused injury, and Waterton Canyon park in Colorado closed because too many people were taking selfies with bears, maybe this should be a post about safety protocols while taking selfies.

But it turns out someone has done that already…

How about instead, I once again direct your attention to trying to take a selfie with a more innocuous organism!



Pigpen actually resembles… everyone you know

You know Pig-Pen? That adorable little guy from the Peanuts cartoons who has a cloud of dirt perpetually surround him? Well, it turns out he looks a lot like everyone you know.

We may not be walking around in a cloud of dirt, but it turns out, we are all walking around in a cloud of microorganisms. That we are spewing out. Into the air around us. Constantly.

The field of microbiology has been finding microbes inside and on top of us for years now (thank you advances in sequencing), this is the the first time it has been demonstrated that we are spewing microbes into the air around us.

Read about it over at NPR.

Or read the original article over at PeerJ.


A Postdoc is an Expression of Love for the Pursuit of Knowledge

One of our contributors just published an EXCELLENT article about what it means to be a postdoc.

How do you explain this position to non-academics? What is it exactly that you are doing? And when are you going to be able to get a financially secure long term job (it is not looking good out there…)

Jeremy also explains what his postdoc has looked like so far, and what he plans (hopes) to do in the future. And he ends his piece with one of my new favorite quotes about the postdoc:

“But I like what I do in academic research, and I think it’s worth doing. If nothing else, a postdoc should be an expression of love for the pursuit of knowledge. Times being what they are, it must also be an expression of hope. ”




Good News! Biologists aren’t replaceable

Self-driving cars, online “fem bots” and auto piloted planes.

As technology gets better, more and more jobs are taken by automation/robots (awesome video about it here).

But I come bearing good news! According to an interactive website over at the BBC, biologists have a fairly low risk of becoming automated. Good news for the job market!

Read about it here, or just play with all the different positions and how they know what will and will not become automated.




There are WAY more trees than we previously thought

Previous estimates put the approximate number of trees on earth at ~400 billion. However, recent collaborative study has revised estimates to 3.04 TRILLION. That’s 422 trees for every person on Earth.

While at first this seems like great news, it appears that there are in fact fewer trees than there have ever been. There are 46% fewer trees on Earth than there were before humans start our massive deforestation projects.

But let’s take a moment to appreciate the science! The new estimates were reached by merging two separate mechanisms for tree sampling-satellite observation and ground-based ecological work. It is a tremendous study using 429,775 measurements from around the globe.

Read about it over at the Washington Post.



10 Simple Rules

Following up on my post from earlier this week, sometimes it would be really nice if moving forward in science was more… straight forward.

While researching the previous post I came across the ULTIMATE how to guides. Apparently PLoS Biology has been doing an ongoing series called “10 Simple Rules“.

It has how to guides for career advancement, organization, workshops, conferences and SO MUCH MORE.

For example:

10 Simple Rules for  a Computational Biologist’s Laboratory Notebook

10 Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science

Or my personal favorite:

10 Simple Rules for Finishing Your PhD