22 May 2015

Bad philosophy 1

Different people are good at different things, which is no real surprise; but one of the common situations where some people suddenly become blind to this is scientists regarding philosophy.  Plus, well, most non-philosophers regarding philosophy.  I've had the good fortune to know a couple of serious philosophers of science, enough to appreciate that they've developed some understandings more profoundly than I have.  And, I'm immodest enough to extend that to 'more profoundly than most non-philosophers'.

One path of bad philosophy, the one which causes this post, follows from mistakes on the matter of certainty.  Or, naming it by way of the error it leads to, intellectual nihilism.  Certainty is a problematic concept for science, and science versus philosophy.  Errors come from both sides, so beware of throwing rocks.  From my philosophical vantage point, science is intrinsically uncertain.  My scientific excuse for that philosophical assumption is to consider the Uncertainty Principle.  It's enough for here to understand that you cannot, simultaneously, observe everything about a complex system (like an electron, an atom, or the climate system) exactly.  You can do pretty well, but there's always some uncertainty in the observations.

A different line of philosophy regards how and how well you can consider yourself to know something (epistomology).  One view of this derives from Karl Popper, under the label 'falsification'.  For here, it's enough to note that one can really only be confident about your knowledge to the extent to which you've tested it.  (Do, of course read further!)  Since you can only be confident about your knowledge to the degree to which you've tested the idea/hypothesis/theory/..., and any test of an idea (etc.) is intrinsically uncertain (uncertainty principle again), you can never be entirely certain that you have the right answer, idea, hypothesis, theory.  So some humility is in order -- for everybody.

Enter the bad philosophy.

18 May 2015

Playing With Numbers: Triangles and Squares

You can play with numbers; which will be a surprise to some and extremely obvious to others.  I'm writing for those who will be surprised.  Consider the picture of dots here:
* *

We've got a triangle, a small one.  It has 3 dots.  Now put another row of dots, keeping it a triangle:
* * *
 * *

There are 3 dots in the first triangle, 6 in the second.  Next triangle will have 10 (as we add in a row of 4). 

For gaming: What is the 20th triangle number?  Is there a way you can look at a number and tell whether it is triangular?

Or you can play with squares:

* *
* *

* * *
* * *
* * *

So the first three square numbers are 1, 4, 9.  Next, the 4th square number, will be 16.  These are actually simpler to game than the triangular numbers.  What's the 20th square number?

And of course we can make more interesting figures, like hexagons:
 * *
* * *
 * *

So the first hexagonal number is 7.  What's the second?  Can you predict the 3rd, the 20th?

On the one hand, we're just playing some games here.  On the other, there are also serious mathematical papers on hexagonal numbers, and triangular, octagonal, and so forth.

08 April 2015

Autism Awareness month 2015

A reminder that April is Autism Awareness month.  I can't say very much first hand, but won't let that stop me from writing.  (As usual.)

Couple notes.  One is, though I'm not autistic, I'm also not dead center 'normal' (whatever that is).  (what, you've noticed?).  I deviate from 'normal' in some directions that point in the direction of autism.  Not enough to be on the autism spectrum myself, but enough that my sister found me useful as a guidepost towards her autistic students.  Partly because of this, I am irritated by people who say 'everybody in science is autistic'.  

Another note is, I know a number of autistic people, at various places along the spectrum.  That's the other reason I'm irritated by such blanket generalizations.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that some working scientists/engineers/... are indeed autistic.  But it's neither necessary nor sufficient, nor does it really honestly connect to either the scientists (who may or may not be autistic) or autistic people (who may or may not be scientists).

The thing to do is, er, be aware of autism.  See also my sister's (same one) blog.  Autistic people are people.  Start, and finish.  As with any people, you get farther with understanding them as themselves rather than trying to fit them in to preconceptions you may have.

03 April 2015

Citizen Science Versus Science

It's impolitic to say so, but I dislike the term 'Citizen Science'.  Scientists are supposed to be embracing 'Citizen Science' and all that.  But I can't get rid of the feeling that it's a patronizing term.  Nor can I ignore the echo that scientists are something other than citizens.  Lose-lose.

The patronizing, maybe you don't see it.  But consider some other realms of activity.  I am, for instance, a runner.  Not a 'citizen runner', just a runner.  I have been in races with some people who were anywhere from slow beginners to world record holders.  In one race, I ran a 10 km against the (then) current men's marathon world record holder (Khalid Khannouchi) and the soon-to-be women's marathon world record holder (Catherine Ndereba).  No, I'm not great.  That's the point.  They ran their 10k, in about 28 and 30 minutes, respectively.  And I ran mine in about 45 minutes.  They were much better than I.  But we all (about 3000 of us) ran the same race, by the same rules, and were called the same thing -- runners.

Or consider music.  At one point, I played clarinet.  With tons of practice, I was able to get reasonably good results and sat near the top of my section in high school.  We were pretty good for a high school band, so maybe I was pretty good clarinetist back then.  The thing is, I know what seriously good musicians were like -- my sisters were both talented, one exceedingly so.  They were oboist and flautist.  The flautist might have been able to turn professional successfully.  Chose not to.  But you notice, again, same terms -- clarinetist, oboist, flautist -- used for us nonprofessionals as for the professionals. 

My take is, let's all go do science.  Not citizen science, just science, period.  Same as music or sports or anything else, some of us make a living at it, and many more will do it for the love of it.  But we're all engaging in the same activity, so let's also call it by the same name.  Same as we do for any other activity.

25 March 2015

How to pick cherries

The not-so fine art of contriving to support the conclusion you predetermined is cherry picking.  Really not a good thing for a scientist to do or condone, but pretty common in politics.  The latest example comes from politician (now presidential candidate) Ted Cruz, being condoned/defended (even praised) by scientist Judy Curry.

Suppose you're interested in global warming, just in understanding what's going on -- not in 'proving' that there is warming, or cooling, or that temperatures are unchanged.  You're an actual skeptic -- looking for evidence and where the evidence leads.  One thing you learn pretty quickly in your skeptical explorations is that you need 20-30 years of data to define a global climate temperature.  Shorter than that, and your answer depends sensitively on your averaging period.  As a skeptic, you don't want such unreliable methods.  Apply the 30 years to a number of data records (below), and you get the answer that climate has been warming, 1.3-1.7 K/century (2.3-3.1 F).

As a cherry-picker, committed to finding a particular answer, however, you go straight for the option of using short spans -- look for a record length that will give you the answer you want, then ignore the fact that your answer changes if a couple years are added or subtracted.

05 March 2015

Merchants of Doubt Movie

Do go see the Merchants of Doubt Movie.  Los Angeles and New York March 6 opening, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC the 13th.  More widely starting the 20th of March.  The movie is inspired by the book of the same name, about how it is established industries can sell Doubt even in areas where the science is pretty well established.

The movie is not the book, nor does it make the mistake of trying to put the book on screen.  But it does pick up many of the threads, and, most importantly, shows well how the Merchants of Doubt ply their trade.  And it does so in an engaging way.  One element of that being the extended visual, and practical, illustration of close up magic.  Sleight of hand, misdirection, using shills (3 card monte was the example for this) all have their analogues for the Merchants of Doubt.

The phrase itself derives from the tobacco industry, PR firm, which concluded that doubt was their product -- they could not argue the science, but they could still cast doubt.  Decades later (not from the movie) this was echoed by Frank Luntz, who also observed "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth," Mr Luntz notes in the memo.

We see this item primarily through the flame retardants theme in the move.  A doctor testifies to legislators about the harrowing death of a child, burned on the parts of its body that were on the non-flame-retardant pillow as opposed to the flame-retarded mattress.  Once the testimony is given, the bill to lift requirements for the chemicals is promptly defeated.  Except, it turns out, and the doctor confirms, that the events in his testimony never actually happened.  But his story was far more compelling that mere recitation of facts about the (in)effectiveness of the fire-retardants.  And that's the important part.  (? For the doctor, at least, and his funders.  See who that turns out to be.)

How did we get to fire retardants from tobacco?  Cancer is a long stretch from fire, after all.  But that's part of the tangled web of merchandising Doubt.  Burning cigarettes start fires.  Tobacco companies could have been told to develop cigarettes that didn't burn so long unattended.  Rather than do so (potentially expensive), they pushed the argument, successfully, that the problem was the couches/mattresses/pillows.  They shouldn't catch fire so easily; that was the real problem.  If you can convince people that it's the fault of couches for letting themselves be burned, rather than of the cigarettes for burning couches (thence homes and people), there are few limits to what you can convince people of.

That's one of the methods of the PR flacks, and those methods are what the movie explores in a number of difference stories and ways.  Climate looms large in the movie, larger than in the book.  That renders it a little hard for me to say much about -- I have too much first hand experience with the people and events.  What I can say from that first hand knowledge (or at worst second hand) is that it represents well how the people in the climate 'debate' actually talk.  And I can say with some confidence that it represents them fairly.  That's true whether it's Marc Morano (who's quite up front about the fact that he is attacking the scientists, not the science, and is pleased about the hate-mail that scientists get after he releases their email addresses) or Katharine Hayhoe (receiving end of some of that hate-mail, a scientist working on understanding climate who has been talking publicly to groups about creation care).  Katharine is also a conservative evangelical Christian.  One of the themes in the moving being about tribalism, so such identifiers sometimes are important.

I don't give away much, the meat is how you get to this point, in observing that I also like Producer/Director Robert Kenner's choice to end the movie with some optimism from Bob Inglis (6 time congressman elected from very conservative part of very conservative South Carolina) as to his belief that the problems of climate change are real (which got him massacred in his last primary) and can be addressed.  The Merchants of Doubt have their successes, as does the magician.  But, as more people see how the trick is done, the fewer who fall for it.  I hope.  See the movie and let me know in the comments what you think.

Since I was at a special preview, I'll write a separate note about that, and about some of the discussion we had with Kenner after the movie.

In the mean time, some potentially useful other links:
Movie's official web site with release dates
Rotten Tomatoes

02 March 2015

Better thoughts

During my weird week, I also had a couple signs of beauty.  Both from my nieces, and one in the midst of sadness.  If I haven't reminded you before: I've got great nieces!

First, from my niece Kristen, whom you've heard from before, an observation about science/scientists:
Somehow I was chosen as one of two students who got to share dinner at an excellent Cuban place (which the school paid for) with most of the chemistry professors and the person who gave a presentation to us tonight about his job as an environmental consultant. So much knowledge was tossed around at the dinner table oh my gosh I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such an interesting group of people. I also feel really proud to be going to a school where the professors and students can eat and be nerds together like one happy dork family :'D
Second, following the death of Leonard Nimoy (best known as Spock, from Star Trek), my other niece Madeline:
Losing our beloved Mr. Spock left me with an empty part of my heart, being that my best friend and I call each other Kirk and Spock. In the words of that same friend we must not think of the fact he is gone, but to remember all of the good times we had with him.

01 March 2015

A weird week

Between people denying that there is a correlation between CO2 and temperature and several other items, last week was just plain weird for me.  A few pieces of, I hope, some more general interest.

One is, of course, the reminder that CO2 is indeed correlated with temperature.  And, of course, since that original article is pushing 6 years old, I should make an update.  (Clue: The conclusions won't change much -- 6 years isn't large compared to the 50+ already used.)  But also the reminder that I really should write that note I've had in mind about just what correlation is.

Then there was the (different) anonymous also on twitter who seemed to think it was terrible that a comment was made equating people on 'the other side' were as bad or worse than the worst mass murderers.  I don't hold with such comments, and the blog in question was for a group that I'm a member of (National Center for Science Education.  But, by the time I saw the tweet from the anonymous the next morning the comment had been deleted.  I agree with the deletion -- if we are talking science, there's no need or point to equating others to mass murderers.  The anonymous was continuing to complain even after the comment was deleted, though.  Don't get that, nor the fact that a different (and higher profile) blog published a main article equating people in climate science to terrorists and mass murders, yet it (the anonymous) has no objection to that.  Nor, to be pragmatic, why it sent me the tweet rather than the owner of the blog.  I may wield awesome power, but that's mostly in my own mind -- not in every organization that I happen to be a member of.

In the midst of those, there was an idiot congressman (Grijalva, D-AZ) deciding to launch a fishing expedition on people, whose testimony he didn't like, got their funding from.  I'm all in favor of disclosure of all funding by people who testify to congress.  But not such selective application of the principle.As it stands, only government funding need be disclosed.  That strikes me as a problem  If you're happy with oil company funding not being disclosed, though, how happy are you that Greenpeace/Earth First!/... funding also doesn't need to be disclosed?  And vice versa if you're not fine with business disclosure.  For the same reasons, I also opposed the fishing expeditions of Joe Barton (R-TX) against Mann, Bradley, and Hughes (2005). 

I suppose there's a certain theatrical interest in what will follow now.  Republicans have officially decried (James Inhofe, R-OK, chair, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) such fishing expeditions.  But Republican Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is pursuing his own fishing expedition against the National Science Foundation for funding proposals on, for instance, internet security and fraud detection.  Myself, I'm in favor of internet security and fraud detection. 

And then there's been the recent fishing expedition announced by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) against NASA for its temperature record analysis.  The analysis that agrees extremely well with results from NOAA, the Japanese Meteorological Agency, the Berkeley effort at re-analyzing all data from ground zero and re-inventing all wheels, .... 

Oh well.  Then there were the llamas, and much to-do about someone's dress?  A weird week.

Next post will be about a couple more substantive, and constructive, aspects to the week.