Archive | January 2017

Should Science March On or Stand Pat?

Reported gag orders, statements that scientific claims were invented and a general dismissal of science have encouraged a number of scientists to coordinate a march on Washington sometime in the near future [Update: March is set for Earth Day, April 22, 2017]. But as an op-ed in the New York Times argues, is this a good idea?

The simplest answer might well be, if this is partisan, it probably is a bad idea. If it is not, it may well be a good one. At the moment, it is clearly reacting to dismissal of science on the right, but in fact parts of the political left have been just as eager at times to promote scare stories over scientific analysis (See vaccine-autism scares, genetic engineering scares, homeopathic medicine, some of the scares over fracking). There is a growing tendency to discount science that challenges your personal beliefs on both ends of the political spectrum.

Perhaps the march could include panels or marching sections like “why I believe in climate change even though I voted for Donald Trump” along side “why I believe genetical engineered food is safe despite supporting politicians who don’t.”Scientists who do research on these topics generally cease to toe their party’s line, and that should be the point. Science is a mechanism to try and overcome our own biases and predispositions.

There is not, as yet, a war on science as a whole in the U.S. Science has been far too useful in general to discard. Would the right really want to end all scientific research, including research that helps find natural resources, or makes cheaper airplanes, or faster computers? No. We will need scientific expertise more and more over time within legislative and judicial chambers as life gets more complex. We need as a society for science to be as respected as it continues to be, otherwise we risk being led astray by charlatans and biases.

The op-ed does suggest one form of marching: being involved in a community so that people know a scientist and don’t simply assume scientists are political animals. Although GG’s home community is swarming with scientists, when doing fieldwork, GG has been in corners of the country that don’t see scientists very often. Once, for instance, GG wanted to place a seismometer on a property and met with the owner, a spry elderly woman. She was initially very guarded, railing against the government, despising the IRS who, she said, was trying to take her property from her. “Are you from the government?” “No, ma’am, I am from a university.”  GG left a flyer for her to study, and a week later she grudgingly agreed to allow the seismometer to be installed. A week after the install, she decided to come up and see the instrument with us and was intrigued.  A few weeks later, she stopped us on our way to check on the instrument and insisted we come inside to help celebrate her husband’s birthday. Her politics were probably different than GG’s, but we understood each other in better ways than that.

So, patience and manners can be rewarded.

Quick notes 1/30/17

A couple things to check out.

Ars Technica caught up with some research GG (and the BBC) pointed out awhile back on how scientifically curious people are the ones who might change their minds about things they initially disagree with; their story provides a nice overview of the research and its significance.

FiveThirtyEight says out loud what GG has been pondering: Trump’s actions mirror what he said he would do. Recall the mantra after the election was that Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally while the media did the opposite.  While its been clear the media should have been taking him seriously (if they did not), Trump’s initial actions in office suggest they were right to take him literally. Now the question is, did his supporters take him literally too? The answer may well determine how the next four years play out.

And who is really hurt by the travel ban? Surprise, it is researchers and universities (as we’ve noted before)–and not uniformly but engineering programs in particular. You can see some of the people we aren’t letting into the country at Nature‘s website and a historical piece at Popular Science on when we deported some scientists and thus increased the threats facing the U.S.. Also, the ban has infuriated tech companies (who might be about to get a second bout of bad news).

Separately, National Geographic has a story about chaos in science agencies that includes discussing the development of the rogue twitter streams and the science march on Washington.

If nothing else, the first days of the Trump administration should be improving the mood of lots of protesters

March Or Run For Facts

Update 1/29. And the activism keeps on coming (though a more traditional mode of academic protest): the online petition of academics against the executive order restricting immigration. One of the strongest exports of the US is education; tangling up immigration rules in a rather ham-handed fashion will discourage international students, reducing the familiarity of foreigners with the U.S. while hurting already reeling universities financially (10% of the students at CU Boulder are international students; already international applications are down over 7% from last year. At CU, international students pay out of state tuition, which subsidizes the education of Colorado residents).

Probably one of the least anticipated consequences of Trump’s election is the growing politicization of scientists. The latest salvo is a proposed Science March on Washington DC, a proposal that has mushroomed in a few days. Others call for scientists to run for office; one organization provides support for scientists who decide to seek election. This comes on the heels of a rally held at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union meeting, an event unlike any other in memory. Something new is happening.

Scientists traditionally have stayed out of politics as much as possible.  One reason is a desire to be truth tellers to all; professing allegiance to a political party means your speech is now colored by partisan bias–perhaps yours or perhaps the listener’s.  Another is that the emotional characteristics of a scientist aren’t tightly aligned with the kinds of behaviors politicians need (scientists rarely compromise, for instance, but they will change their minds in the face of sufficient evidence–aka flip-flop.  Halfway from a right position towards a wrong position is, well, adopting a wrong position). As a community, scientists are loathe to align with a political party both because the community itself is heterogenous but also because becoming a special interest group beholden to one party both damages scientific findings in the public’s eyes and makes long-term funding of science far more of a political football.

[Not to say some with science backgrounds haven’t entered politics.  Former Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had an MS in geophysics; Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado has an MS in geology. But PhD level research scientists haven’t been as common in politics.]

But after years of some sectors of science being vilified as some kind of liberal conspiracy by member of Congress, the president’s difficulty with factual evidence seems to have been the last straw. Many scientists are deciding that enough is enough; the risks to the field are too great to be ignored. If science is going to be branded as some whacko liberal conspiracy anyways, then the risks of getting involved are a whole lot smaller than they used to be.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Hidden Figures…

GG doesn’t really need to review such a prominent movie (particularly a movie that was based on a non-fiction book that hadn’t even been published when they were filming), but there are some points he’d like to make (aside from recommending both movie and book).

The movie focuses on one particular moment in time for the black women computers (yes, it was a job before it was a machine) of Langley around the time of the Mercury program.  As such, the movie rearranges many of the events documented in the book into a shorter timeframe (for instance, Mary Jackson’s long hikes to the segregated bathroom in the early 50s-and her angry tirade leading her to work in the wind tunnel group-were transferred to Katherine Goble in 1961, who had in fact ignored the absence of a Colored bathroom in her building by simply using the nearest available women’s room).  It also seems to amplify the racial tensions within Langley (especially with the supervisor of the white female computers and the flight engineering group) compared to the book’s broader view of Langley as more of a refuge from the Jim Crow Virginia these women lived in outside of work. These cinematic choices are not bad, and the movie does more or less convey the barriers the women faced and overcame. This does make the movie more coherent than the book, which probably needed a bit more development time, because the narrative thread in the text gets tangled from time to time. So it is a feel-good movie about the unjustly oppressed getting at least some justice based on a groundbreaking book that is long overdue.

GG’s point is that this is also a cautionary tale, and this is clearer in the book than the movie.  The book (unlike the movie) addresses the educational barriers these women faced, both in being black and female in the south.  By focusing on the few who had the combination of luck and skill to succeed, both the movie and book bury the fact that this means there were many others with less luck but, probably, equal skill whose contributions were never made because of discrimination. A point too rarely made is that discrimination not only hurts those discriminated against, but it denies the rest of society the contributions those victims could have made. And although the overt legal discrimination of the past is gone, the continued dearth of minority faces in science in general and in the earth sciences in particular suggests that some styles of discrimination remain. Because of that, we are poorer as a discipline.


GG doesn’t do Twitter.  Or Facebook. They just feel like ways to spend time on trivia and allow you to risk defining yourself to the world by electronic immortalization of an inappropriate brain fart. But if Richard Price of has his way, we’d all be doing more social media. He expresses his logic thusly:

A journal editor receives a submission, then asks two academics to review it. The article is then published and read by the larger academic community: depending on the paper, 500 or 1,000 people may read it. What did they think? This 
is lost data that a peer-review system should pick up. Academics, as they read a paper, are noticing aspects of it that they deem robust, and aspects they deem weak. The more of these opinions we can surface, the more we can develop a view of the strength of an individual paper.

OK, so just how are these 500-1000 readers supposed to provide feedback? Swipe left? Click on an upturned thumb? GG isn’t sure, because to sign up with, you have to allow them to access your contacts. Really? [Hmm.  Maybe this is why they have investors instead of grant or foundation support]. If there is any feedback visible to non-members, GG couldn’t see it without joining. How often do you fill out those pop-up surveys from all sorts of websites to “tell us how we are doing”? If you say “never,” odds are, you won’t be providing much feedback here either.

[An aside. is treading on very shaky ground.  GG has found copyrighted material on this website that he is sure was not approved (uploader had nothing to do with the original authorship or publisher). GG found one paper from 1994 he is a coauthor on in the database quite imperfectly listed (a five author list was shown as “Last author + 1” for author; it wasn’t clear who uploaded this old paper; elsewhere the same paper shows up with the first author listed as the sole author). A paper by Wakabayashi and Sawyer is listed as being authored by Saucedo Rosy. So material isn’t vetted in the most cursory fashion and the boilerplate about not posting copyrighted material isn’t really having any impact. The search engine for this site is really not up for even the most basic challenge. Why would anybody spend any time in this house of mirrors?]

So we’ll proceed on the assumption somebody sometime might at least code the bloody website in a useful manner and pay somebody to limit the copyright violations. In solid earth science, GG isn’t sure that most papers even get scanned by 1000 readers, let alone actually read by that many (the numbers on the site are mostly 0 reads for earth science papers despite listing thousands of followers). And if you have to score a paper you want to read? Probably read less. But what kind of discussions is this invitation likely to produce? Carefully thought out analysis?

Getting a good review as an editor is almost as hard as making one as a reviewer. (By “good” GG means thorough and useful). Mind, this is from professional colleagues identifiable to the editor who have agreed to take on this chore. Good reviews take time–frequently days. Odds are, any commentary on papers in the context of a social network website will be more superficial than even a so-so review. If you are scanning material looking for something in particular for your own work, are you going to stop and read a whole paper and provide feedback? No; maybe you’d say “has useful data”.  Are you going to spend the 10-15 minutes to write down what you thought was strong and what was weak? The Magic 8 Ball says “Don’t count on it”. It isn’t remotely clear to GG that this will yield anything very useful.  Pretending this is a major advance on peer review is kind of delusional.

A lot of these kind of proposals really are assuming that knee-jerk, in-the-moment analysis will greatly improve science, just as short lines of text spread through social media has deepened our political discourse. Although something like this will at times produce the kind of meaningful dialog that improves the science [we will for the moment put aside the problem of citing living documents], more often GG expects that crickets will be the most common sound in that comments area, followed by the occasional “did you notice your latitudes are wrong” kind of comment and then the “how come you didn’t cite my classic paper?” diatribe. Will seat-of-the-pants momentary evaluation of a paper by hundreds uncover the true worth of a paper? Maybe sometimes. GG suspects it will more often reflect the flavor-of-the-month group think in some corners of a field.

We’re Number 2!…Did we try harder?

A few months ago, US News and World Reports came out with a global ranking of universities by discipline (as opposed to their more usual ranking of schools overall or individual departments) and much to the surprise of many, GG’s home at the University of Colorado (CU) came in number 2 globally in geoscience.  Since the only department with anything like that name is Geological Sciences (also GG’s home), the school linked the department to this ranking. Woo-hoo! Take that, MIT and Stanford and all you other snooty places! This so impressed other departments that asked for speakers from our department.

Now the reality is a lot more complex.  On one hand, this is an appropriate (and long overdue) recognition of the strength in earth sciences at CU, but on the other, it isn’t quite the resounding endorsement of Geological Sciences that it might seem. This certainly is not a ranking you want to use to decide where to go to school (potential students can look at a page GG has at his academic website on how you might want to look at rankings), but it might be a ranking of use if you wanted to aid a high-achieving research program. Because this stuff gets to be so prominent and wielded as a club for getting resources, it might be worth looking behind the rankings to see what is going on. It might not be what you think, and it probably isn’t telling you where the best science is per se.

Read More…

Irrational Expectations

GG lives sort of in Boulder, Colorado, a place that is struggling to see what it wants to be.  Reading reports of planning meetings feels like watching blind men feel an elephant.

Here’s the short story: Boulder has about 100,000 people; another 60,000 come in from outlying areas to work in Boulder. Housing prices are such that the city estimates that 40% of residents struggle to pay for housing. So arguably there are 60,000 living comfortably in Boulder and well over 100,000 who would like to live there (the 60,000 commuters probably have families in many cases) but have trouble making it work. Boulder has surrounded itself with green space that it prides itself on. The city has a goal of making 10% of its housing affordable. City residents clearly want to keep the city as it is, with largely single family housing and relatively low density.

Here is the irrational part: all the goals stated are impossible to achieve together. To accommodate all the people who would want to live in Boulder with housing they can afford while retaining current open space, the city’s density would have to more than double. If, on the other hand, the housing stock remains as it is, not only will lots of folks still be unable to live in Boulder, but prices will continue to rise, and of course the greater the fraction of housing that is subsidized, the higher the prices will be for the remaining housing. So most of the arguing going on simply ignores that the city has painted itself into a dead end.

There are precisely two ways out: improved transit and higher business taxes.  There is a lot of cheap real estate well to the east on the plains. If people could easily live there and commute to Boulder, the pressure for affordable housing in Boulder would decline. Yes, the city would have a different demographic mix, but that’s life with a free market. Alternatively, the city could really crank up business taxes and basically push a bunch of employers out of the city. Reduced employment in the city would reduce the demand for housing; ideally you’d keep the pressure up until the number of jobs roughly matched the number of workers living in the city.

Realistically, pushing out business isn’t going to happen, so the only plausible solution to Boulder’s problems will be to improve transit far to the east. That there is no plan to do this makes clear that the city and county have no realistic understanding of their situation. This isn’t the only place with problems like this, but it is striking that a community with a lot of well educated people can’t see their way through this.