Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Know When to Walk Away, and Know When to Run

Every now and then there’s a kerfuffle about people treating other people badly. These things need to be talked about, but I wish we could do a better job of it. You might guess that this is prompted by the recent Feynman posts and responses/comments, and you’d be right. Before that it was “not all men”, and before that, Bora. But I’m not going to go into specifics about any of those, I’m going to tell you why such discussion is off the table for me. Even (perhaps especially) in the light of declarations that others must speak up — that silence is assent, and similar assertions.

I used to be active on various discussion boards other than the one that hosts this blog, and I’d go and visit when physics discussions at SFN were slow. I was reading a thread where someone (a crackpot, if I may) was proposing an alternative to relativity, which was almost certainly wrong, and there were posters making note of that in no uncertain terms. I noticed a problem, though — one of the equations the crackpot was using was actually correct — I think it was the gravitational time dilation formula gh/c^2, which is the approximation you get when you can assume g is constant — and I made a post pointing this out: I said that there were a lot of questionable claims being made, but this equation was not one of them. Adjust criticism accordingly. No problem, right?

Not so much. At that point, a number of other posters set upon me, accusing me of defending the crackpot, and concluding that I must therefore be a crackpot. There was one who went so far as to say that no real physicist would ever use an approximate formula (!), because we had computers and could run code using an exact formula. Actual examples, including physics papers using similar approximations were not enough to dissuade these folks from their positions. I had been branded a crackpot and once that had happened, no facts mattered. At that point I was was wrong by fiat so anything I had to say was dismissed, and my support for the entirety of the crackpot’s position was assumed. After that, the only dialog directed at me was sarcastic. I was a leper.

It was not a pleasant experience, and this in a relatively mild atmosphere. It gave me some perspective in moderating discussions involving those who are not enamored of the scientific mainstream — look at the facts, and do not assume more is there than is written, and don’t attack the person. Snark is a signal that any serious consideration is over, so one has to be sure all reasonable discourse has been exhausted. It can happen, and I’m guilty of that from time to time, but it’s after going over the same ground three or four times and making no progress. (Sometimes a claim is so outlandish that ridicule is the only response — but those are exceptions, not the norm.)

I’ll use, as an example, the use of the term I’m not particularly fond of: “fanboy” (or worse, fanboi). I usually see these in discussions about Apple products (as an observer — I rarely participate), aimed at someone who likes Apple products. A: I like X about my iPhone. B: Fanboi! To me, it’s a signal that the party isn’t willing to discuss any merits of the argument. It’s dismissive and no better or more productive than an eight-year-old engaging in name-calling. In the Feynman discussions, I have not checked to see if it was deserved or not (probably yes, but I don’t know), but to my mind any useful conversation is over once someone has dropped the fanboy flag or other blatant sarcasm on the pitch. It’s a big Do Not Enter sign.

Another danger about snark is it’s an invitation for others to jump in. It’s a sort of mob mentality, I think. Scientists having discussions generally keep to the issues and don’t typically degenerate into mockery, but something happens once that first window gets broken. People in the mob probably don’t recognize they are in one, at least at the time.

Pointing out an error in an evolution paper does not make you a creationist, pointing out a mistake in a global warming paper does not make you a denialist, just as pointing out an error in a critique of crackpottery did not make me a crackpot. Correcting the facts is what we should be expecting in discussions, so the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality absolutely does not fit. We, as scientists, recognize the dangers of that in formal science, and go to great lengths to point out to science detractors that we are not promoting dogma. That attitude needs to be more pervasive in discussions about the culture that surrounds science.

I have opinions on matters, and perhaps something to add to a discussion. But the entirely predictable response that gets played out gives me pause about participating. Perhaps that’s an unfixable part of the internet. But it may also be true that some of what many agree are social issues in STEM that don’t seem to be getting better very quickly are being hampered because some people feel shut out of the discussions as they become polarized so quickly. Think about that: people you want to reach are possibly being shut out of the conversation because of the fear that they will be verbally pummeled and shunned at the slightest inkling that they don’t agree with you, because they see how others are treated. You will not hear their voice, and if they feel that they are being attacked, they will not listen to yours.

I want the broader social situation to improve. These conversations need to happen, so we must do a better job of encouraging the conversations. I can disagree with details of something you say without disagreeing with your conclusion. Finding fault with some fact you’ve quoted does not automatically mean I agree with your opponent — I want you argument to be stronger, unassailable, and I’ve found a chink in it. I’m trying to help you. But having been burned by this before, under milder circumstances, I have no wish to jump in to a much hotter fire.

These conversations need to happen. We must do a better job of encouraging the conversations.

This Particular Ship Has Sailed

Greenwich Mean Time could drift to the US, minister warns

Time will become meaningless and people’s experience of night and day will change fundamentally if the world goes ahead with plans to scrap leap seconds, the science minister has warned.


Most people can’t tell the difference; GMT is solar time and currently universal coordinated time (UTC) is atomic, but is adjusted to keep in synch with the sun, because the earth’s rotation rate is a tiny bit slower than it used to be, and the broad trend is that it continues to slow. But even if these are no longer tied to each other, so what?

Without them atomic clocks, which are used as the basis of international time, would fall out of sync with the cycle of night and day. Nearly 800 years from now, the sun would reach its highest point at 1pm, rather than midday.

Right now, the sun doesn’t reach its highest point at noon for the vast majority of the population, and I’m not even worrying about all of us who experience daylight “saving” (or summer) time, where we shift our clocks forward an hour, so that this nominal noon effect actually does happen at 1 PM (without any apparent hysteria or crumbling of empires).

The sun is only overhead (or on a line going overhead) at noon if you are on the actual meridian for your time zone, and then it’s only overhead at noon on the solstices, as I have mentioned a couple of times before — the overhead sun on the meridian varies by ± 15 minutes, and most of us live elsewhere. Meaning that a) this isn’t an actual problem, and b) it will take 800 years before we reach as much skewing as we presently inflict upon ourselves.

“Going purely for an atomic clock option would lose contact with time as we experience. My view is that the relatively frequent but modest corrections are better than allowing a discrepancy to build up. Greenwich Mean Time would slowly move west towards America. I want to keep it in Britain.”

Official time (UTC) is kept by the international Bureau of Weights and measures in Paris. So this is just more hyperbole.

If Only it Mattered

British Columbia Enacted The Most Significant Carbon Tax in the Western Hemisphere—What Happened Next Is It Worked

Nice to see that this can work. If only facts mattered in US politics…

A Cautionary Tale

Related to Monday’s post about copyright and plagiarism:

Photographer wins $1.2 million from companies that took pictures off Twitter

Joshua Kaufman, a lawyer for AFP, blamed the infringement on an innocent mistake and said the Twitter user who posted Morel’s photos without attribution bore responsibility for the error. The AFP editor, Kaufman said, believed the pictures were posted for public distribution.

Tis points out a pitfall of one of the big issues — posting without attribution. You can’t simply assume that an unattributed picture is in the public domain, and if you want to use the picture you need to track down the copyright owner. As I had relayed: www does not mean public domain (before Pedantic Man swoops in, yes, Twitter doesn’t actually use www in its address. But the concept is the same)

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

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

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.

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