30 May 2007


Rejecting reality and believing falsehood

One of my recurring themes here recently has been the ways our Old World primate brains make it difficult for us humans to understand many basic things, including probability and risk, geological time, contingency, extremly large- or small-scale events, and so forth.

Here's another one, an excellent psychology article about why we resist some scientific ideas more than others (via Pharyngula). Coincidentally, Harvard history of science professor Steven Shapin addresses a similar topic on the CBC Ideas podcast this week called "Testing Science" (MP3 file). Essentially, research shows that...

...even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naive physics") and the social world (a "naive psychology"). [...] These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. But these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn.

However, some concepts don't work that way, even when they are far from obvious. For example:

[The existence of germs and electricity] is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist.

That's interesting, because our evidence for those things is pretty indirect, however pervasive: light switches and televisions and computers work, and washing your hands helps prevent infection. But most people have never seen a germ, never mind an electron. It would seem, purely objectively, that being able to look at rock strata in a highway cut, or watch the patterns of a coin flipped over and over, or observe the similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans at the zoo, or hummingbirds and dragonflies in the garden, would make concepts like deep time and randomness and biological evolution easier to understand than electricity or germ theory.

Yet they are not. Our brains are remarkable things, and one of the most remarkable things about them is that we can, if we work at it as we grow up and throughout our lives, help ourselves get around our own cognitive limitations.

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I was reading an article about mushrooms and radiation, and I remembered you, that you went through radiation therapy. There are actually some mushroom varieties that actually thrive with radiation around. After Chernobyl certain varieties of mushrooms thrived; these varieties actually use radiation as some form of energy. Isn't that stunning really? Mushrooms are actually something between animals and plants, more closely to animals really.
Do you have a source for that article? I'd be interested in reading it. The radiation I received is very different, of course -- isolated and short-term, from a particle accelerator, not radioactive elements in the environment.

Mushrooms are neither animal nor plant, they're the surface reproductive parts of underground fungi. And while some might thrive under radioactive conditions, that doesn't necessarily mean they're healthy. Most likely they will exhibit high rates of mutations and deformations, just as the animals and plants now living around Chernobyl do. (Not that it would be so easy to tell with a mushroom.)

Here's an research article demonstrating that Chernobyl-area mushrooms are not safe to eat because of radioactivity. But many people in the area consume them anyway.
It's an article from wikipedia:


Reading on, the author writes: "Traditionally, they are considered heterotrophs, organisms that rely solely on carbon fixed by other organisms for metabolism. Cutting edge research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests that at least some fungi have the capability to extract energy from ionizing radiation. They apparently accomplish this by using the pigment melanin in lieu of chlorophyll. Ekaterina Dadachova has been studying certain fungi that thrive near Chernobyl in the midst of ecological catastrophe. Her experiments demonstrated the surprising result that their growth is enhanced rather than undermined by radiation."