The System Works

Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies

Real scientific controversies play out in the scientific literature, through papers drawing on many other sources of data.

Phony controversies tend to play out in the media, through press releases, stump speeches, and polemical writing reshared via social media.

Somewhat related: something I wrote a while back. Each step along the way of doing the science increases your confidence, but ultimately what you need in any scientific finding is confirmation of a result.

Once the weight of experimental result hits a certain critical mass, the expectations swing away from needing data to confirm a theory to needing exceptional data to disprove it.

It's Always Harder than You Think

An open letter to Gov. Scott Walker: stop perpetuating the myth of the lazy professor

When you say we should work harder, I hear two things: 1) we aren’t working hard, and 2) we don’t think we have to. Professors seem like an easy target. We have good job security, we’re paid well, we often come from privileged backgrounds. We appear to have little to do but teach a class for a few hours a week, and we have extended vacations. It’s easy to see us as cloistered in the Ivory Tower, without much experience with the “real world” and the concerns of average folks.

The picture I’ve painted for you is incomplete, though.


(yay! internet finally restored!)

Why 50 million smart meters still haven’t fixed America’s energy habits

The upshot: Right now, smart meters aren’t waking Americans up and making them conscious of their energy use — because they aren’t being paired with what behavioral research shows us is needed for that to happen.

This is the story of why the smart meter revolution has, thus far, fallen short — and how we can better use one of the most pivotal innovations in the electricity sphere to save energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and save a lot of money.

I can vouch for the notion of immediate feedback being an important component to changing behavior — something that’s discussed in the article. My new-ish car tells me my instantaneous gas efficiency and reminds me of things that I know but would not necessarily be thinking about, such as how wasteful it is to romp on the gas when speeding up, or how hitting the brakes means you are bleeding away your kinetic energy as heat. So it’s modified how I drive — smaller accelerations. Less gas when speeding up and coasting to slow down, when it’s appropriate to do so. So I can see how this would work for home energy use, too.

Inmates Running the Asylum

Yup, a Climate Change Denier Will Oversee NASA. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

This is very worrisome. NASA is one of the key scientific agencies studying global warming and climate change. A good fraction of NASA’s annual budget goes to Earth-observing satellites critical in looking at various factors of climate change (like the recently launched OCO-2, which monitors CO2).

This is as close to the analogy of putting the fox in charge of the hen house that there is. It would be as ludicrous as putting the rabidly anti-science Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oh, wait.

The Book I Read

I finally read a book that’s been in the queue. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

As side note, I’ll mention that I heard about this right after the book won the Pulitzer last year and was alerted to a local-boy-makes-good story in one of the upstate NY papers, sent to me by my mom. The author (Gilbert King) and I were in the same graduating class in high school. That combination was enough of a nudge to get me to buy it.

It’s a horrific tale of the pervasiveness of racism in our not-too-distant past, and the involvement of Thurgood Marshall in the case allows for his compelling story to be told as well, along with others involved in the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF). I had a little trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight, as the story jumps back and forth between the case and the history leading up to it, but I found it to be a captivating read. One gets a fairly raw look at the atmosphere of the times, including the reality that no person of color was likely to see justice done in any legal conflict that crossed the racial barrier — in a capital case such this, that the defendants would be found guilty was rarely in doubt, regardless of the facts, and it was considered a “victory” if the sentence came back as life in prison rather than the electric chair. The book tells of some truly heinous characters and lays out the LDF’s strategy of establishing grounds for appeal, because the only possibility for a result that came close to fair would only happen in courts far removed from the alleged crime.

It’s hard not to notice the similarities of this case with recent events in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere — that while some of the overt acts of violence stemming from racism have subsided — lynch mobs by people in sheets, as an example — far more behavior has only been masked and still pervades society. I’ll leave to others more eloquent than I to continue to delve in to commentary on all that, save for this: it’s too easy to say that things are better now than they were 60 years ago and leave it at that. To ignore it because for many of us it’s normally out of sight. To not believe the stories simply because we don’t experience it ourselves (a lot of parallels with sexual misconduct here as well). Social media has been a big step forward, as it has allowed for these events to be shared and not contained as a local, isolated incident. Maybe it can galvanize us enough to follow through to the next steps, to change the system and/or the people in the system, as necessary.

I’ve read that the rights to the book have been bought by Lionsgate, and they have given it a high priority. I hope this project doesn’t pull any punches. We got a glimpse of this kind of atmosphere in “Mississippi Burning”, including the collusion and overlap between law enforcement and the KKK, and “Devil in the Grove” shows us that the portrayal was not Hollywood embellishment. (It also shows the FBI wasn’t always so keen or successful in working civil rights cases — that transformation starts in the book’s span of history) There are a couple of story arcs in the book, where the attitudes of a few people are changed by their exposure to the hypocrisy of the situation and to the persuasiveness of Thurgood Marshall, which might lend themselves to some of Hollywood’s weaknesses (that can change “true story” into “based on a true story”). I say read the book — there is only so much a movie can include, anyway — and hope the movie doesn’t disappoint.

Remember Your Lines

Seems to me that a lot of politicians are using “I am not a scientist” when they shouldn’t, and forgetting that fact when they should remember it.

Science bashing: The latest threat to research in America

Line-item science bashing by eyeballing titles and brief study descriptions is one of the most concerning consequences of the NIH budget crisis, and certain sciences will bear the brunt of the ridicule given accessibility of the topic. For example, we all have personal theories about nutrition and human behavior, but few of us have personal theories about DNA mutation or B cell development. The confidence that superficial knowledge creates amongst legislators and outspoken others has the potential to be devastating to science. Now more than ever, scientists and health care professionals need to be educating the public about the worth of our work.

The problem here is that the deficit model isn’t necessarily valid — if there’s an ideological bias at work then education won’t fix the problem. I think it’s less about false confidence and more about not liking research that might conclude something that runs afoul of one’s established world view. To paraphrase something I recently saw on twitter, these are people who want science to reinforce their beliefs. If it’s going to contradict those beliefs, they want to shut it down.

How'd You Get to Be So Good?

I was trying to track down some details of some work-related history and ran across this, which just happened to have my search terms in it (though not in close proximity in the text). It’s a Congressional hearing from 2006 on how the recent NIST Nobel laureates view science policy.

This is not today’s congress, i.e. this was not chaired by Lamar Smith, and all that that engenders, so even though the GOP hasn’t been particularly cozy with science in some time, this dates to a time when things weren’t quite as bad as today. Plus, this hearing wasn’t discussing social science or global warming.

It’s a transcript, so it’s not polished and there’s a lot of fluff, but there are parts that are quite good. I know from experience that Bill Phillips (Nobel in ’97) and Eric Cornell (’01) are good science communicators; I can’t recall ever hearing Jan Hall (’05) give a talk but his testimony is pretty clear as well.

The hearing will address these overarching questions:

1. Why has NIST been so successful at cultivating Nobel Prize winners?

2. What are the implications of the Nobel Prize-winning research at NIST and how can that work get used outside of NIST?

3. What steps are most necessary to improve U.S. performance in math, science and engineering, and U.S. competitiveness?

What directed my attention to the transcript was related to Bill Phillips’ work on laser cooling and trapping

One application of low-temperature physics is technology to improve the accuracy of atomic clocks. By cooling atoms of cesium, scientists have made atomic clocks that are a billion times more accurate than an ordinary wristwatch.

From Bill’s testimony:

Today, laser-cooled atoms define time. At the naval observatory, they keep time for our military. They synchronize GPS, which guides everything from military jeeps to commercial aircraft. NIST’s standard clock is accurate to less than one second in 60 million years. We like to call this “close enough for government work.”

The naval observatory mention was one part that garnered the hit on Google; apparently he talks us up on pretty much every occasion. We invited him out to visit us last summer when we declared our fountain clock ensemble to be fully operational (and were not subsequently destroyed by the rebel alliance), and got to hang out for a while. One thing we talked about is what he discusses below on government investment in science.

Later on in his prepared statement he describes how he pursued laser cooling — first as a bit of a hobby, with scrounged equipment, but later on as a primary research investigation, with proper funding. And, I might add, with minimal interference from a bureaucracy which might demand immediate commercial application from research (just the normal government bureaucracy to inhibit work). He speaks of realizing the application to clocks, but those clocks and frequency standards didn’t come to fruition for several decades, and even then that was pretty fast for basic research to get going, to make a discovery, and for that discovery to have a significant impact. Such is the scale of science, and that’s the reason why scaling back on government investment will not be noticed at the commercial level for quite some time. Inertia is the problem here. We’re coasting on older investment, and we won’t be able to quickly (if ever) regain any lead we have should we lose it. You can’t recreate a decade’s worth of research overnight, even if you threw a lot of money at the problem. As the saying goes, it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, but you can’t get nine women together to make a baby in a month. There’s no substitute for continued, deliberate investment in basic research.

Bill Phillips, in his prepared statement

The invention of the transistor at Bell Telephone Labs set the stage for a booming electronics industry that has sustained much of the U.S. economy. It came from a strong and sustained program in basic research at Bell Labs, one that was mirrored in other industrial labs like RCA, Raytheon, Ford, Xerox, IBM, and so forth. Today, many business analysts seriously contend that AT&T never got a significant return on its research investment and denigrate the value of any long-range, basic research in any industry, focusing instead on very short-term return on investments. Today, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self in regard to basic research and that sort of far-sighted support of research has virtually disappeared from American industry. I don’t know if we can ever expect to return to the golden age of industrial research, but I strongly believe that we must, as a nation, regain and maintain that level of basic research if we are to remain competitive in a world economy. If industry cannot or will not take its traditional share of this responsibility, I believe that government must compensate.

I think that this is not happening, and things have gotten worse in the last several years as science funding has been cut. We’ll wake up in a decade or two and wonder why so much of the innovation is happening elsewhere and it’s going to be because the government stopped funding science at a level necessary to move forward, mainly because of a powerful few who hated science and blocked its progress. Our “return on investment” can’t be the criterion we use to decide on basic research, because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find.

From Eric Cornell’s statement

The big question is what is going to be the big new industry of 2020? If I knew the answer, I would not be here in front of you testifying–I’d be off setting up my own high-tech venture capital company instead. No one knows the answer for sure, that is why scientific research and discovery is so important. Without knowing for sure what the next big thing will be, we can remain cautiously optimistic that that big thing will be an American thing.

Remember, this was from 2006. I wonder if his take would be different today, given trajectory of science funding? But again, note the underlying thought here: it’s research, and you don’t know what you’re going to find until you go out and find it. Any and every interruption can stop research, but it requires time to get it going again. All too often you have to go back to square one and start over from scratch.

I Have Standards, You Know

The Days They Changed the Gauge

US North and South had different rail track gauges. They fixed it pretty much all at once.

I’m glad I ran across this after the update, as this interesting observation was added (quoting from one of the links)

As things turned out, having different gauges was advantageous to the South, since the North could not easily use railroad to move its troops to battle in southern territory during the Civil War. Noting this example, the Finns were careful to ensure that their railroads used a gauge different from the Russian railroads! The rest of Europe adopted a standard gauge, which made things easy for Hitler during World War II: a significant fraction of German troop movements in Europe were accomplished by rail.

Also the note about how the standard gauge was adopted after secession, so there was no opposition from the South. Adoption of standards is usually contains a large dose of politics. If the dissenters aren’t in the room, consensus is easier.

A Cold (War) Light

Weapons-Grade Private Enterprise

In 1991, the Cold War ended without making the world immediately safer. The Soviet Union had split up: Russia was dead broke, and much of its nuclear arsenal was split among the newly-independent countries of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, which were also broke. The reasonable fear was that the nuclear stuff and the nuclear scientists would go to the highest bidder. True, countries were negotiating how to get rid of nukes and the stuff of which nukes are made, but international negotiation is slow and international bidding likely to be much faster.

That fall of 1991, Neff wondered whether Russia could un-enrich its weapons-grade uranium, sell it to the U.S., and the U.S. would pay in dollars and use the un-enriched uranium to fuel its civilian nuclear reactors.

Interesting bit of swords-to-ploughshares history.


What If All The Images Went Away

After arguing with (arguably) allies in science communication I was fed up. Fed up with the attitude that unattributed images are just a (small) sacrifice for the net good of science communication to the populace at large. Fed up that photographers, cartoonists & illustrators are considered by many to be lesser professions than scientists & educators. Fed up that rapid image sharing (oh I’m sorry: “curation”) can trample so many creators and yet lead to fame and fortune.

I found myself saying once again, “can you imagine what science communication would be like without images?

Note well that Glendon Mallow is discussing attribution, which is a minimal effort, and not permission, which really should be a part of the discussion (Here’s a link where that does come up). Sometimes permission is not an issue, because of creative commons licensing or the image being in the public domain. But a lack of a copyright notice is not any guarantee that an image is in the pubic domain some people will edit images to remove the attribution and copyright (OMG!) before they post an image, and you might be grabbing that bootlegged image. The bottom line is that using an image without permission is likely a copyright violation. And it’s the wrong thing to do.

But, baby steps. As noted in the post, this internet doohickey is still pretty new, so lets get the lack-of-attribution habit fixed, and then we can tackle getting permission.