Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims

Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

[W]e suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians.

A good list, but not a great list. I think some of the examples are still too esoteric. Also, for politicians, one could use more targeted examples, such as the one for sample size. Put it in terms of polls — do politicians ever wonder why polls generally get about 1100 respondents? Sample size to make the results significant at a reasonable-sized random error of about 3%. They might relate better to that.

The list also can be applied to people in general, and it’s concepts such as the ones here that are really the basis of scientific literacy. Not so much the facts of any one discipline, but in the process all of them share. Knowing these tidbits can weed out a lot if bad science.

How Wrong Was Bill O’Reilly?

You may remember Bill claiming that nobody can explain the tides. Well, Not only does Henry Reich do it, he does it in ten seconds

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NASA is Special (But Not Because of This)

Two of the many stories about the shutdown I’ve run across mention NASA (because several of the people on my twitter and RSS feeds are in astronomy-related fields), so that’s a common thread, and makes the stories slightly more aligned with my own, as opposed to the people working at e.g. NIH.

I cannot volunteer my time to work on NASA business during the furlough

What may come as a surprise to many is the following statement from the letter I received informing me of what I can and cannot do during the furlough: “During the furlough, you will be in a nonpay, nonduty status. During this time, you will not be permitted to serve NASA as an unpaid volunteer.”

How many federal agencies, for that matter, how many employers have to tell their employees “I’m sending you home without pay for an indefinite period of time and you are strictly prohibited from doing any work for the company/organization on your own time and without compensation?”

History Repeats Itself, and NASA Bears the Brunt of It

Before the actual shutdown, the threat of a furlough was a dank, dark cloud hanging over that work. It was hard to be hopeful about the future, knowing that at any minute we might all have to drop what we were doing and go home, for an unknown length of time. That hit a lot of folks very hard; they wanted to do their jobs. It wasn’t just worrying over paying the bills, it was actually not doing the work that had so many people upset.

The people at NASA are not alone in this, in terms of these circumstances and how they feel about it. Not that the articles are claiming this, mind you, but just in case one reads such stories and is tempted to think it’s an isolated case. Phil hits the nail on the head when he speaks of the dank, dark cloud, and how people really want to get the job done. Les mentions it in terms of unpaid time, and I have long suspected that many of my scientist, engineer and technician (and support staff) colleagues have worked more hours than went on the timecard, just because getting the job done, and done right, is important to them. I know scientists in other parts of the government who feel the same way. NASA may have some different rules in place, but there are parts of government where this rule about not volunteering your time is not limited to the shutdown — unpaid overtime is a no-no. I hope Les doesn’t get in trouble for admitting to doing it. I will neither confirm nor deny the fact that I’ve done so.

The admonition against volunteering your time, AFAIK, was boilerplate wording that would have gone to all workers. NASA wasn’t singled out for this. I’ve mentioned how the scientists want to work, but I see dedication with non-scientists as well, and that means when I see comments to the effect that we government workers are overpaid and pampered (hey, we already have healthcare! Luxury!), and so staying home “on vacation” is no big deal, it really chafes. Morale-killing moves like this will drive good people out of government service, sooner or later, especially younger workers who are not as invested in it. Professionals (i.e. those who have degrees beyond undergraduate work) typically can make more in the private sector, and why stick around (or join) with all this BS? The right complains the government is incompetent and this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if their antics succeed in driving the top talent out.

N is for Neville Who Died of Ennui

As regular readers know, I work for the US government. I discovered over the summer that even though being furloughed affords me extra time, it’s not time where I’m generally in a mood to blog. The pointlessness and selfishness of this government shutdown has absolutely killed my enthusiasm. To paraphrase a colleague, they have dug another morale hole for us to fall into.

We’ll see what happens.

STEMming the Myth

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

A pretty good summary of the situation, I think, including the point that making more students scientifically literate is not the same as churning out more science majors.

Also, this:

Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check.

Tell Them!

The Utility Of Physics

Excellent points about the general question of why physics is important and should be funded.

Even in areas in which it is difficult to argue for the application and usefulness to the public, we can bring out the argument that it is difficult know the future applications of such knowledge. The history of physics is littered with many such examples, including quantum mechanics. The early development of quantum mechanics had almost no emphasis on the usefulness and application. If we only want to fund work that had such clear utility, then we would have missed out on the development of quantum mechanics.

This, in particular, given the recent (and incredibly myopic) push to limit research funding to areas with commercial or national security applications.

Letting the Air Out, Thank Goodness

I was gearing up for a rant about how the sequester, and in particular the furloughs, were sucking all the air from the room, but it was just announced that they will stop at six days, which means just one more week of this nonsense. So that kills the worst part of my rant, thank goodness.

The lesson of the first four-and-a-half-weeks is that scheduling time, especially with more than two people, becomes incredibly more difficult when you lose a day per week if your furlough days aren’t synched up. Any interaction where you need information from someone else, or vice-versa, becomes strained; there is no quick turnaround when key people are absent on random days, and you have your own work you are trying to get done. Work in the lab has slowed considerably because that’s one of the variables, while bureaucratic nonsense seems to be a constant, and when you reduce hours, the constants don’t seem to shrink. This was not a 20% reduction of useful work output — it was more than that. These are probably some of the reasons academic researchers work the long hours: they can, because they are on salary, and the research part of the job is where the extra hours are spent, after teaching and doing all of the bureaucratic overhead.

The people up on top of the food chain, to their credit, have been insistent that nobody sneak in unpaid overtime to compensate. It was recognized that a furlough meant that work would not get done. It seems to me that many were irked by the political narrative that there’s all this fat and bloat in the military, so that the sequester will have no effect on operations, because the fat would be cut. Well, guess again. It’s more that the DoD part of government actually is big-boned, and what looks like fat is more of a system bloat that needs to be restructured, which doesn’t happen simply by starvation.

Here’s a rough example of what I mean: spending money has a huge overhead of paperwork. One of the reasons for this is that government employees need to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars they get, so there are a whole bunch of rules to follow to make sure money is not mishandled. But all of the paperwork and regulations make the process inefficient, which wastes taxpayer dollars. However, nobody is willing to streamline the process, because eventually there will be some misuse of funds (or even just something that has an appearance of impropriety), and too many members of congress, and the general population, will go absolutely apeshit over the revelation. So we spend many dollars in order to safeguard fewer dollars. That’s a systemic problem, and not one that can be solved simply by reducing budget.

But my creeping malaise seems to be somewhat better now that the end of furloughs is in sight, even though the larger sequester problem still exists. I had joined a colleague in meaningless protest by not shaving (anywhere). He started while I was on vacation, so I got a late start, but even the shorter duration doesn’t change the fact that I had one of the worst beards grown by anyone of drinking age. Glad to be rid of the non-goatee portion of it.

What Do You Mean, No Gender Bias in Physics?

I ran across Zapperz’s post Physics Departments Without A Single Female Faculty Member yesterday, and made a comment on the blog. Today I see that Chad has a post up, Baseball and Gender Bias: “Number of Women in Physics Departments: A Simulation Analysis “, which exceeds anything I would have said, had I cobbled together a post.

Which is not to say I would have, because this is the sort of subject where some scientist readers stop acting like scientists, in terms of data interpretation and/or reading comprehension. This was a narrowly-defined analysis, based on a specific premise. As Chad puts it

They have assumed a particular gender distribution among the imaginary faculty pool in their simulation, which matches the gender distribution of the real sample– 16% of the bachelor’s-only faculty are female and 11% of the Ph.D.-granting pool. That’s descriptive, not prescriptive

IOW, they used the actual gender ratios we have, because that’s what we have — nobody has said this is good, or appropriate. It’s not an endorsement. It also doesn’t say that there is no discrimination going on.

This is Not Leading, So Get Out of the Way

Mandating Scientific Discovery Never Works

The history of science is replete with unexpected discoveries with profoundly important effects. The World Wide Web was not developed to address a public need but to help physicists communicate at a high-energy physics laboratory engaged in esoteric studies of the fundamental structure of matter. Theoretical studies of the nature of light emitted by hot objects ended up leading to the development of quantum mechanics, which describes the weird behavior of electrons in atoms. In the process, it led to the development of transistors and all the modern electronics on which modern computers and our information economy is based.

IOW, what works best is letting scientists investigate the area(s) of interest to them. Enough of what they find will be useful to us all, somehow.

Don’t Worship at the Altar, Because It Doesn’t Exist

Challenge, don’t worship, the chiefs and high priestesses of science

This is a piece from the Guardian published last week, and I was intrigued: I perk up a bit whenever I see a mention of high priests or priestesses, or any intimation of science as a religion. Such a straw man is often a beacon that crackpottery is nearby.

Science today, and the way we share it with the rest of the world, is based on layers upon layers of deference. We spend our lives crawling up to senior scientists, and those who pay them, sitting and waiting to be told what to think. We shouldn’t be so complacent.

I agree with the conclusion, though not for the same reason the author does. Yes, by all means do not be complacent when it comes to scientific result — go out and get some science education, if you don’t have it. Because that’s the only weapon you have against having to trust someone else to interpret some scientific finding. I would absolutely love it if people could think for themselves about this. The problem that we have today is that people don’t go down that path. They simply choose to trust someone else (often someone with a political agenda) to do the interpretation. Science is not challenged, and the problem of people not thinking for themselves hasn’t gone away.

The problem is that science literacy isn’t going to completely solve the issue. You aren’t going to become an expert on a subject. What literacy allows is a chance to filter the bogus claims and spot the con artists in the discussion. It will help you identify whom to trust.

The author then goes on to tie this in with the deficit model, and I think that’s a reach. The deficit model isn’t correct. It’s been found that in issues like climate change and evolution, the problem in convincing more people is not that the proper information isn’t being conveyed. But that’s only part of the audience — the ones who have already substituted some ideology that drives their acceptance of facts. The deficit model isn’t completely wrong, because if it was, nobody would ever learn anything. Schools would be useless, and we know they are not. People do learn science in schools. It’s just not in play once people have some kind of emotional attachment to an answer.

But deference is certainly not the issue for peopler who are claiming that global warming is a hoax or that evolution is obviously wrong. Some of the arguments put forth to buttress those claims boil down to a premise that scientists are idiots, which is pretty far from being deferential.

I also worry that the author is selling us short on having people “challenge” rather than “unquestionably listen”. I don’t think anyone is proposing the latter or denying the former. However, a challenge has to have some validity to it. It can’t simply be a roadblock from a crowd who, despite not knowing much about the science, somehow know that it’s wrong.

Then we get to this:

When I was looking into the Big Bang Fair last term, I learned that volunteers were briefed not to get pulled into debating “politics” of arms dealing or the fossil fuel industry, lest it distracted from the science. I’ve since heard similar briefings have been issued for science events running over the summer. It’s also a line I heard all too often when I worked at Imperial College.

It’s bullshit. Simple bullshit. Politics doesn’t distract from the science. An over-emphasis on decontextualised science is used to distract from the politics.

There’s some bullshit there, that’s for sure. Science has an impact on politics, to be sure, and science will always involve people, which has ramifications, but the way nature behaves — which is what science investigates — is not political. If it’s true, it’s going to be true whether you are a conservative or a liberal. There is no Republican version of the laws of thermodynamics*, or a variant of relativity that only works for Democrats.

One might question the naiveté of a statement such as that, when we’ve just heard from politicians in both the US and Canadian governments about how they want to interject themselves further into the process. That, on top of the usual background noise of politicians grousing about teaching evolution, or that global warming is a hoax, and threats and attacks on scientists doing that kind of research. Politics doesn’t distract from the science? Really?

* No legitimate version. I’m aware of Conservapedia.

Canada, What Were You Thinking?

Canada Sells Out Science

[T]he National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”.

I’m incredibly sad to read this. I worked at TRIUMF in Vancouver for about 2.5 years as a postdoc, and I did witness some bureaucratic beancounter nonsense, but nothing like this.

Phil’s take on this is spot-on. But beyond saying that research pays off, making this policy short-sighted, is the fact that in basic research, you don’t truly know what you’re going to find! That’s what this research is — an attempt at discovering the unknown. There is no way to guarantee some kind of specific commercial benefit from the undiscovered, but the point of funding discovery is that someone will eventually think of ways to exploit newly-found knowledge! Overall, there will be economic gain as a result — that’s the way it has been for a long time. There’s no reason to think this has suddenly stopped.

The Worst Idea in the Sad, Long History of Bad Ideas

This is even worse than thinking about taking dinosaurs off of Isla Sorna.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

The new chairman of the House science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.

Funding criteria chosen by the Republican congress, many of whom wouldn’t know good science if it bit them on the ass, and belittle any science they don’t understand or whose conclusions are disagreeable to their ideology. Which is most science.

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