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.

The Costanza Effect

Scientists Confirm Existence of Moon

I think this is pretty cool. Calibrating a detector by basically doing the opposite of how you would normally calibrate an instrument.

It’s important in this game to make sure your detector is really “pointing” where you think it is. (Ice Cube doesn’t move, of course; the detectors find tracks in the ice, from which a direction is reconstructed.) So it would be nice to have a source of muons to check against. Sadly, there is no such source in the sky. Happily, there is an anti-source — the shadow of the Moon.

Spirograph Was Never Like This

Euler Spirals

Draw a straight line, and then continue it for the same length but deflected by an angle. If you continue doing this you will eventually return to roughly where you started, having drawn out an approximation to a circle. But what happens if you increase the angle of deflection by a fixed amount at each step?

Being Wet Can Be Cool(ing)

How Do Things Cool With Evaporation?

You know water evaporates – that’s when it turns from a liquid to a gas. You probably also know that a hot pot of water will cool off in part because of evaporation. However, did you know that a cup of water at room temperature will also cool off? Yes, even if the water starts at room temperature it will cool off to below room temperature. I think this is awesome.

But how does this work?

Poe, Poe, Pitiful me

10 physics misconceptions, explained poorly

[This blog post was written by a guest columnist, a D-student in freshman physics who will remain anonymous]

It’s pretty obvious it’s not, even accounting for Poe’s law (as applied in this case, one could not tell the difference between a D- student and a professor pretending to be a D- student, were the professor able to avoid succumbing to snark. Or hyping his book.). The misconceptions are very real, though. One of my favorites, much more plausibly true, is the one about heavy boots.

In my teaching days I saw plenty of these. So much so that we once played a game of “GCE Jeopardy!” at a party my housemates and I threw. The answer was given, and one had to name the Gross Conceptual Error (GCE) that would have elicited the response. For example, if the answer in the “mechanics” topic was “It is always conserved”, the proper GCE question would not be energy, since that’s actually conserved. It would be “what is momentum?” Some students would invariably insist that momentum was always conserved, even in the cases where a net force was acting. Which counts as a gross conceptual error.