Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

ID’ing in a Skeptical World

May 26th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Try as it might, the Sri Lankan government can’t quite convince everyone that its soldiers did, indeed, gun down Velupillai Prabhakaran. So a DNA test may be necessary to quell the few remaining naysayers. But how might such a test work, especially considering that Tiger 001‘s wife and daughters are nowhere to be found? Several years ago, amidst a false rumor of Saddam Hussein’s demise, Microkhan delved into the art of wartime corpse identification. The skinny? More distant male relatives can suffice as reference points, but 100 percent accuracy can never be achievable in such instances. And so the conspiracy theories will always find room to flourish.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    One of the most important jobs science has right now is to explain the limits of certainty to the general public. If we could get everyone on the same page, things like the debate over evolution might not be so vitriolic (a pipe dream, unfortunately).

    You’re also never going to convince the conspiracy theorists, but such is the price we pay for being pattern recognition animals.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Yeah, I think this is all part of something we’ve discussed before–namely, our species not-so-great grasp of probability. It’s almost like we’re hard wired to look at baffling odds and think, “Well, what if this is one of those 0.0001 percent things?”

    I guess that’s in part because we’re selfish animals to a great extent, and thus think the special circumstances will always apply to us. And that’s why the house always wins…

  • Jordan

    By the same token, it’s clearly an advantageous trait for our species, if not for most individuals. Our ancestors may have never come out of the jungle if some of them hadn’t thought “Hey, looks like I could get some good food out there” while not paying too much attention to all the pointy-tooth beasties in the grass. But enough of them survived and learned how to kill said beasties that they thrived. And let’s not forget the age of exploration, when people set off in all sorts of odd directions, many times leading to quite unpleasant deaths with little accomplished. But enough of them did find new and interesting places while living to tell the tale.

    There was a really great piece in the Radiolab (one of my favorite WNYC productions) episode about Space when the founder of the X-Prize was giving a talk. An audience member got up and asked “Aren’t you worried that you’re encouraging people to do things that may get them injured or killed?”. And the presenter retorted “Not at all! I have no doubt that some people will be hurt.” In an odd flip, we seem to have discounted the necessity of physical risk in projects that advance technology and our welfare. And have often times erected barriers to people putting themselves at risk in pursuit of their dreams.

    There’s always a very difficult balance in allowing people to be free to pursue their desires and protecting them from unreasonable harm. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it set very well right now.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Excellent point re: illusion actually being a Homo sapiens feature rather than a bug.

    You’re the third person to shout out Radiolab to me in as many days. I seem to be missing the boat–need to tune in.Subscribing to podcast in 3, 2, 1…

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