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.

Spot Was Observed to Run

How to write your first scientific paper

First advice is to take it seriously. Science isn’t science unless you communicate your results to other people. You don’t just write papers because you need some items on your publication list or your project report, but to tell your colleagues what you have been doing and what are the results. You will have to convince them to spend some time of their life trying to retrace your thoughts, and you should make this as pleasant for them as possible.

Lots of good stuff here. Make sure you know something about the journal to which you are submitting, too. Details vary — this ties in with the “pick a level of discussion and stick with it.”

Bee also mentions that students often write as part of a group. Feedback from colleagues is important and usually makes for a better paper. My advice is drop the ego and be receptive to criticism. And hope that you work with people who will give you honest feedback (a situation I have been fortunate to be in for many years)

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.

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.

The Price of Discovery

My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her.

Interesting story, and an astute observation:

There is a common narrative in science of the tragic genius who suffers for a great reward, and the tale of Curie, who died from exposure to radiation as a result of her pioneering work, is one of the most famous. There is a sense of grandeur in the idea that paying heavily is a means of advancing knowledge. But in truth, you can’t control what it is that you find — whether you’ve sacrificed your health for it, or simply years of your time.

Hard work and intelligence is no guarantee of success, and some success is just pure luck. There are a number of scientists out there who will never win a Nobel, and it has nothing to do with their talent.

Oh, Fudge

… except I didn’t say “fudge”

“Get Me Off Your F—ing Mailing List” is an actual science paper accepted by a journal

They don’t say fudge in the paper, either.

There are a bunch of journals out there, many advertising themselves as “open access” that will print basically anything — for a fee. Many claim to be peer-reviewed, as does the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, who accepted the paper.

IJACT … is a highly-selective, refereed journal. Manuscripts that appear in the IJACT Articles section have been subjected to a tiered review process. This includes blind review by three or more members of the international editorial review board followed by a detailed review by the IJACT editors.Although feedback ordinarily will be given, the editors reserve the right to reject a manuscript for publication without a rationale for their decision.

Oh, really? A reviewer marked its appropriateness as “excellent”. It was accepted; the only reason it wasn’t published was that the submitter didn’t want to pony up the $150 it would have taken.

The article chronicles other deliberately substandard submissions that were submitted to, and often accepted by, similar journals. Their sleaziness can’t be blamed on Schwartz.

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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.

Don't Tell Me My Love is Wrong!

Doing Elitism Wrong

This kind of cheap, lazy elitism ticks me off. It says nothing about why science is hard to understand, and it doesn’t even get the frustrations of the job right. I mean, “collecting data”? “Dense research articles”? Neither of those necessarily implies tedium or drudgery. Shockingly, not everything which requires patience and concentration is unpleasant.

I’ve heard the remark from a colleague that 80% of what we do is mundane, but we do that because 20% is really, really neat. (YMMV). One needs to acknowledge that science is not alone in this — professional (or other top-level) athletes, for example, spend more time practicing than they do playing the game. It’s all part of the larger picture. And, as Blake points out, who’s to say what is tedium or drudgery?

Have a Little Trouble With Bears, Did Ya?

(You can only go to the “the hard is what makes it great” well only so many times.)

Research is Hard

Yes, you have to learn lots of math, physics, programming, and many other related things in order to tackle new and interesting research questions in astronomy. The same is true for many fields. But at the end of the day? We are all banging our heads against walls over a minus sign, or a factor of 2, or mixing up log-10 with natural log, or losing track of which star is which. This kind of “stupid mistake” hurdle is what really makes research hard.

The sheer volume of little details makes it inevitable that at least one will be wrong the first time through any problem, whether theoretical or experimental.

Also note the whole “we first tested this on data where we know the answer” bit. Good protocol.