Embrace the mess: how to choose which scientists to trust
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
It’s no easy task these days for people to pick the scientists they should follow. According to a recent poll by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 39 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in the scientific community. The finding is similar to Pew research last year showing that 29 percent of Americans have this level of confidence in medical scientists.
Not helping: All the money in science. Just 20 percent of Pew’s survey respondents think scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest with industry. While this issue is common to many fields, the recent gold rush to foot the bill for research on therapies for healthy aging may be contributing to the overall sense of distrust. “There’s a feeling that at some point, the FDA may actually designate aging as a disease,” said Pam Maher, a neuroscientist who studies aging at Salk Institute. “That may be another impetus for a lot of these companies to start up.”
But partnering with companies is an important incentive for researchers across biomedical fields. Many scientists – with and without financial ties and incentives – are honest, transparent and doing important, inspiring work. I asked more than a dozen bioethicists and researchers in aging how to spot the scientists who are searching for the truth more than money, ego or fame.
Avoid Scientists Who Sound Overly Confident in messaging to the public. Some multi-talented scientists are adept at publishing in both top journals and media outlets. They’re great at dropping science without the confusing jargon, in ways the public can enjoy and learn from.
But do they talk in simple soundbites, painting scientific debates in pastels or black and white when colleagues use shades of gray? Maybe they crave your attention more than knowledge seeking. “When scientists speak in a very unnuanced way, that can be irresponsible,” said Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center.
Scientists should avoid exaggerations like “without a doubt” and even “we know” – unless they absolutely do. “I feel like there’s more and more hyperbole and attention seeking…[In aging research,] the loudest voices in the room are the fringe people,” said the biogenerontologist Matt Kaeberlein.
Separate Hype from Passion. Scientists should be, need to be passionate, Johnston explained. In the realm of aging, for example, Leonard Guarente, an MIT biologist and pioneer in the field of aging, told me about his belief that longer lifespans would make for a better world.
Instead of expecting scientists to be lab-dwelling robots, we should welcome their passion. It fuels scientific dedication and creativity. Fields like aging, AI and gene editing inspire the imaginations of the public and scientists alike. That’s not a bad thing.
But it does lay fertile ground for overstatements, such as claims by some that the first 1,000-year-old has already been born. If it sounds like sci-fi, it’s probably sci-fi.
Watch Out for Cult Behavior, some experts told me. Follow scientists who mix it up and engage in debates, said NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan, not those who hang out only with researchers in the same ideological camp.
Look for whether they’re open to working with colleagues who don’t share their views. Through collaboration, they can resolve conflicting study results and data, said Danica Chen, a biologist at UC Berkeley. We should trust science as long as it doesn’t trust itself.
Messiness is Good. You want to find and follow scientists who’ve published research over the years that does not tell a clean story. “Our goal is to disprove our models,” Kaeberlein said. Scientific findings and views should zig and zag as their careers – and science – progress.
Follow scientists who write and talk publicly about new evidence that’s convinced them to reevaluate their own positions. Who embrace the inherent messiness of science – that’s the hallmark of an honest researcher.
The flipside is a very linear publishing history. Some scientists have a pet theory they’ve managed to support with more and more evidence over time, like a bricklayer gradually, flawlessly building the prettiest house in the neighborhood. Too pretty.
There’s a dark side to this charming simplicity: scientists sometimes try and succeed at engineering the very findings they’re hoping to get, said Charles Brenner, a biochemist at City of Hope National Medical Center.
These scientists “try to prove their model and ignore data that doesn’t fit their model because everybody likes a clean story,” Kaeberlein said. “People want to become famous,” said Samuel Klein, a biologist at Washington University. “So there’s always that bias to try to get positive results.”
Don’t Overvalue Credentials. Just because a scientist works at a top university doesn’t mean they’re completely trustworthy. “The institution means almost nothing,” Kaeberlein said.
Same goes for publishing in top journals, Kaeberlein added. “There’s an incentive structure that favors poor quality science and irreproducible results in high profile journals.”
Traditional proxies for credibility aren’t quite as reliable these days. Shortcuts don’t cut it anymore; you’ve got to scrutinize the actual research the scientist is producing. “You have to look at the literature and try to interpret it for yourself,” said Rafael de Cabo, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Or find journalists you trust to distill this information for you, Klein suggested.
Consider Company Ties. Companies can help scientists bring their research to the public more directly and efficiently than the slower grind of academia, where “the opportunities and challenges weren’t big enough for me,” said Kaeberlein, who left the University of Washington earlier this year.
"It’s generally not universities that can take technology through what we call the valley of death,” Brenner said. “There are rewards associated with taking risks.”
Many scientists are upfront about their financial conflicts of interest – sometimes out of necessity. “At a place like Duke, our conflicts of interest are very closely managed, said Matthew Hirschey, who researchers metabolism at Duke’s Molecular Physiology Institute. “We have to be incredibly explicit about our partnerships.”
But the willingness to disclose conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean the scientist is any less biased. Those conflicts can still affect their views and outcomes of their research, said Johnston, the Hastings bioethicist.
“The proof is in the pudding, and it’s got to be done by people who are not vested in making money off the results,” Klein said. Worth noting: even if scientists eschew companies, they’re almost always financially motivated to get grants for their research.
Bottom line: lots of scientists work for and with companies, and many are highly trustworthy leaders in their fields. But if a scientist is in thick with companies and checks some of the other boxes on this list, their views and research may be compromised.
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/