Maybe its just that February is finally ending, but GG has been navel gazing a bit after reading the exploits of some folks who really don’t understand what science is really for but who get to portray scientists in real life. If you have the stomach for it, Buzzfeed’s review of Brian Wansink’s rather unpleasant history of p-hacking at levels rarely seen is worth a read. Or you can see Retraction Watch’s ongoing accumulation of his retractions and revisions.
Those of us in geophysics pat ourselves on the back and are quietly happy that we don’t have hundreds of independent variables to go fishing in to find something marginally significant. But maybe we have issues that, while not as unscrupulous, are a means of finding something publishable in a pile of dreck.
So let’s go vp-hacking. (And yes, we’ll get in the weeds a bit here).
There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!). GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his [Pinker’s] definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.
Basically he argues that these are the people being the most empirical–the ones really out there who are curious, the ones really sparking science.
There is a grain of truth there. If all in society passively accept what Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT) tells them, we aren’t going to get far. For a long time explanations of the world were attempts to logically extend notions from really old DAFTs. So yes, curiosity and intellectual ferment are good for making progress.
But, there is empiricism and then there is empiricism. Doing empirical tests like seeing where in your garden the carrots grow best is a pretty clean experiment with a pretty clear outcome. But what Douthat describes are people who are trying everything to get healthier or avoid death. Presumably some in his experience got healthier by praying; some by eating macrobiotic foods. And no doubt some did not. When you figure in the complexity of human medicine and fold in the amazing strength of the placebo effect, you expect quite a number of people to find a cure in things that, frankly, are not curative. Thinking you can find a better way is a pretty universal behavior: Steve Jobs, hardly an idiot, initially rejected modern medicine for his pancreatic cancer. All are free to explore this with their own lives, but there is a point where society suffers, and presumably this is what Pinker might have been driving at (remember, GG is not reading that book). But, you ask, when is it bad to ignores the DAFTs out there? Read More…
Every now and then the amusing politics of Boulder provides a real reflection of problems at a broader scale. And while the continued principled posturing can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a lesson in here somewhere.
Boulder, you see, has purchased a lot of open space land. It makes the town a wonderful place to live, but somebody has to set the rules on this land. Sitting as we do at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at an ecotone between the plains and the mountains, there is real ecological value to much of this land. A considerable amount of the conserved land is agricultural and has been for about 150 years. A fit and outdoorsy population over a quarter million strong in the county wants to recreate on these lands. Balancing these demands is not easy.
What we see are special interest groups that coalesce around specific aspects of open space management. Mind, all agree that open space is good, but they are fierce adversaries in how the land is used. Dog lovers have a group dedicated to making as many trails as possible open to dog use. Mountain bikers have their own lobbying group dedicated to opening as many trails as possible to bikes. Climbers too will weigh in for access to their special sites. Conservationists lobby to preserve as broad an ecology as possible. Prairie dog advocates seek ever more ground for prairie dogs while agricultural tenants demand their removal.
Three things stand out. One, obviously nobody will win everything. And two, all these groups feel put-upon. Thus three, the folks making and enforcing the rules are pretty much vilified from all sides.
The funny thing is that most folks in Boulder are in many–or even all–camps. Riding a mountain bike, walking a dog, admiring the wildlife–lots of Boulderites do all of these things. So we aren’t even talking about shades of gray–we are talking about tints of brown from mixing all these paints together just a bit differently. And yet the advocacy groups often use exaggerated language and promises of the end of all that is good on open space if trail XX is not opened or closed to some use. At times it is like watching a bunch of 2 year olds fight over a toy.
So here is where we need to recall a lesson we should have gotten as children: play nice and we all will enjoy our time together; play selfish and nobody has fun. The strategy of exaggeration and vilification may seem effective in the short run, but it is corrosive in the long run. It leads to dog haters putting out poisoned bait, the dog lovers letting Rover roam where sensitive nesting grounds are, to mountains bikers cutting illegal trails in the foothills–all of which have happened here in Boulder. It is time to accept that when society says “no” it means “no.” You don’t make the rules on your own; you have to engage the body public. And this means you need to accept compromise–you have to respect the “no” you disagree with.
The good news from Boulder is that compromise happens. While every group can lament a loss, they can also tout a gain. Sometimes the compromises are more clever than you might anticipate: a trail that is open to bikes some days and not others. Or a place where dogs can be walked on leash but not to roam free. Sometimes they can be surprisingly strict: there are areas where you are not allowed to walk at all. But they might be balanced by other areas where you and your bike and your dog can prance about at will.
The key to successful compromise is accepting the things you cannot do. Fail in that and you are no longer credible as a negotiating partner. And this is the risk of all who promote absolutism in the pursuit of their goals (and it is easy to think of national examples of the same). If you can’t accept “no” for an answer, don’t expect anybody to want to play with you–or let you play on our land.
Another facet of the “college isn’t really worth it” mindset has shown up in an op-ed by Molly Worthen in the New York Times. The op-ed itself complains that assessments of learning in colleges are, as implemented at present, a waste of time and effort. It is in the comments that you see a lot of people arguing quite strongly that some proof of learning is of value to those paying the bill. The irony is that these two sides are probably not disagreeing.
Years ago, the assessment was pretty obvious. Got an “A” in a course–you demonstrated mastery of that subject. Got an “F”? You didn’t. Note this didn’t necessarily measure learning in that class–if you waltzed in having already passed such a course elsewhere, you might have learned nothing, while the F student might have learned a lot relative to a poor base. While on occasion the instructor caught flack for doing a poor job, generally it was the student who discovered he or she was not up to the task. Read More…
A rather odd paper in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication makes the case, in a way, that science needs a public intellectual writing like how Paul Krugman has for economics. The paper tears apart the rhetoric of the NY Times columnist and seems to suggest that what is missing in public discourse is a scientist willing to mix it up with a similar degree of plain-spoken advocacy and truth-telling. The paper explicitly dismisses the kind of persona of stalwarts like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan despite the very public denouncements from all about science denialism.
Realistically, the paper misses the point. Is Paul Krugman an effective communicator? Sure. But why does he have such a bully pulpit? It is not simply because of his communication skills (and this paper notably does not investigate how he came to write the way he does), it is because one of the most influential newspapers in the world decided to give him regular column space. And why did they do that? A big part is because economics is clearly tangled with politics: elections are often won or lost on the state of the economy. But part of it is that New York is a center of financial activity: there was from the start a readership interested in opinions about economics. It didn’t hurt that he was local (so some columns have dealt with New York specific themes) and that he could write to a fixed space on a deadline.
Are there no voices like his out there in scienceland? Well, the blogosphere seems pretty loaded with scientists being pretty noisy about things (you could start at contributors to Real Climate and branch out from there to find some folks on the climate side of things just for starters).
So GG will argue that it isn’t the absence of equally robust voices in the scientific community that has prevented the emergence of some kind of equally influential science writer, it is the absence of an equivalent platform, one where such an individual can learn the ropes of effective public rhetoric. And where might such a platform emerge? Not New York or Washington DC; neither community really has enough of a science readership to make a publisher turn over space on a regular basis; those communities are far more fascinated with power and money. Probably the three most likely candidates are Boston, Denver, and San Francisco. Boston has an enormous number of universities and some of the most capable scientists in the world. Let the Boston Globe give Kerry Emanuel space a couple times and week and see what happens. Denver is home to one of the largest communities of earth scientists anywhere, plus a public that values the outdoors and so has more interest in the environment than many other markets; maybe the Denver Post should make inquiries. The San Francisco Bay Area is also home to a lot of earth scientists as well as a couple national labs and the tech industry; you’d think that the San Francisco Examiner or Chronicle might be willing to host some science column and encourage a political angle to it.
There are though a couple other barriers. Krugman is a Nobel winning economist but also a reliably liberal voice; knowing about where he fits on a partisan scale probably makes it easier to rely on him as a columnist. Economists are much more political creatures than physical scientists. A scientist writing op-eds might anger the right one day in complaining about removing evolution and climate change from textbooks, and then piss off the left the next in pointing out the ridiculous claims of anti-vaxxers and GMO opponents. Its not clear how that might play (the closest Krugman seems to come to that is pointing out that restrictive growth regulations, like those in liberal cities like Boulder and San Francisco, make these communities too expensive and exclusive for their own good). Another barrier is the risk of weighing in strongly where you know little. Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel medalist who went far off the deep end in advocating for vitamin C as a kind of miracle drug; would he have made a good columnist? You need a generalist who can avoid falling into a trap of thinking they know more than they do while venturing into unfamiliar terrain from time to time. And frankly the broader community views “scientist” as one-size-fits-all, but there is a pretty wide gap between lab and field sciences in practice that has at times produced prominent intellectuals on one side saying pretty stupid things about what the other side does. A Nobel Prize in Physics might not make one a great commentator on earth science, for instance (and earth science lacks a Nobel; the closest is the Crafoord Prize). (GG recalls the naiveté of some physicists pursuing a fabled fourth force some time back, while physicists can ridicule how geologists thought the Earth was eternal back in the day).
Finally there is the pain barrier. The paper mentions Micheal Mann as a possible candidate for such a public intellectual, but when you consider the kinds of attacks he has endured (some pretty powerful people threatening his job and credentials in court and in halls of government)–these are well beyond what most columnists have ever faced, and this is without him having regularly spoken on topics beyond climate change. Scientists generally do not go into science to be attacked in court or vilified in public. The ferocity around climate change dwarfs the typical economic arguments over business cycles and Federal reserve policy.
[And an aside. Why does it seem that astronomers of all people end up as public celebrities? Are they viewed as more distant and so safe?]
So will voices emerge like those the author of the Krugman analysis paper desires? It seems profoundly unlikely, but not because of a rhetoric gap.
So previously we’ve discussed how the current administration seems hell-bent on removing any kind of scientific information from being in the room when decisions are being made. This gets justified under claims of bias from scientists working within the government or funded by the government; the replacements, so far, have been representatives of industry or political appointees with no scientific backgrounds. Remember, this is not replacing scientists writing policy–they didn’t do that, this is replacing scientists providing scientific advice. It would be like replacing your dentist with an accountant.
What, exactly, is the result of this kind of maneuver? The answer may well be splashed across the front page of every paper in the country every few weeks.
A nice piece by Mark Rosenberg in Politico describes the result of blocking scientific inquiry into a public health issue from many years ago: the handcuffing of the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health from examining gun violence. Although technically barring the organizations from lobbying for gun control, the effect has been to prevent any attempt to investigate what works and what does not work in preventing fatalities or injuries from gun use. The analogy Rosenberg uses is that of cars: scientific study of what made car crashes happen and make them fatal led to years of updates to cars and motor vehicle laws that have greatly reduced fatalities on the road.
So what has preventing similar work on gun safety meant? It means that as everybody wants to stop school shootings, nobody knows what might work. So as Florida students demand action from legislators, the problem is, what action is appropriate? The answer, as Rosenberg points out, is we don’t know. Could it be banning certain guns? Could it be some better screening? Could it be better school security? Because we don’t study it, we don’t really know. The result, as everybody can see, is paralysis. This is, apparently, what the NRA wants because, it would seem, they fear any action which might impact gun ownership–even though we don’t know that that would be the recommendation that might emerge from research.
Now carry this forward to everything from toxic chemicals to unproven drugs to endangered species to climate change. Silencing science means you really have no idea what to do even once you agree there is a problem. Farmworkers mysteriously have incredibly high cancer rates? Maybe its the chemicals they handle, or maybe the food they eat, the places they live, their ancestry? Who knows? So do nothing. Songbirds suddenly vanish from cities across the country. Why? Who knows? Nothing to do about it.
Science is a tool to prevent you from deluding yourself. The only reason not to deploy it is to maintain personal delusions about the world around you. It would appear that this is the mindset of the current administration. The damage likely to emerge could be immense. Ignorance of the law is no defense in court. Perhaps ignorance of science should similarly penalize those trying to exploit it.
A thread on an AGU mail group lately has gone back and forth on whether peer-review of proposals by U.S. federal agencies is fair. Some have asserted that retribution exists in the system, but many of those who have participated have argued it is about as fair as any other activity involving humans, downplaying the possibility of massive collusion to punish an individual. It would not surprise GG if on a few occasions some kind of retribution tipped the scales against a proposal, but it is far more likely in most cases that a combination of other factors doomed a proposal. What emerged in this thread was an interesting thought, namely the reemergence of the idea of a double blind (or at least single blind) review system.
One fundamental premise, as noted by one writer, is “past performance is no indication of future success.” Basically, somebody who has generated something good might well lay an egg, while somebody whose last project failed could be on to something good. There are two issues here GG would like to contemplate: what does it mean to “succeed” and “fail,” and what components of an individual’s scientific reputation might be relevant.
First, failure is always possible. In trying to gain knowledge previously inaccessible to humanity, a scientist is venturing into the unknown. Things not going as planned is not particularly unusual. But what does it mean to fail? Read More…