Friday, August 28, 2009

Catching up

Catching up with posts, comments, and things in general since coming back from vacation.

New comments in:
What is scientific literacy?

Summary 1 of Simplest Climate Model

John Mashey: Now that I'm back, any time you're ready to send or post about your K-scale, I'm ready to look or post.

From the trip: Mountain goats keeping cool on some remnant snow/ice at Logan Pass. The rise is a glacial moraine -- bunches of junk, mostly loose rock, the glacier had pushed out ahead when it was larger.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Off to the glaciers

By the time you see this, I'll be on my way to see some glaciers. Family vacation time. If I have a network connection, I might post some pictures. Otherwise, see you at the end of August.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Science Jabberwocky

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves
and the mome raths, outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!


... The start of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. No, I'm not going to try to persuade you that there are some deep underlying scientific meanings behind it.

Rather, it provides some suggestions on how to read science in areas that you're not familiar with. I have to confess that in areas outside mine, there seems to be a terrible array of words no more obvious than 'brillig' and 'slithy'. And words that look familiar, like 'gyre and gimble', but which don't look like they are supposed to mean what I'm used to them meaning.

Still, even with most of the words being unfamiliar, we can read this can know quite a lot. That's part, after all, of what makes Jabberwocky readable at all. So, let's take line by line, work our way through, and see what we can extract even from intentional nonsense.

1) Twas brillig and the slithy toves
a) Brillig probably means something about the weather. We might expect 'twas sunny' (or cloudy, etc.) in a poetic start.
b) toves are things that can be slithy. We don't know what either of the terms is, but we can get that far. Probably there are also non-slithy toves. Poetry doesn't follow the rules of scientific writing, but usually you won't see a modifier (slithy) unless it's possible for the thing to not be that way.

2) did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
a) normally gyre and gimble would mean something about spinning. A gyre is a rotating mass of fluid, a gimble is a sort of bearing that permits pivoting -- but both would be nouns, and in this case they're clearly verbs. The toves are gyring and gimbling, or at least they did gyre and gimble. Pretty often when a noun is turned to a verb, it doesn't mean exactly what it used to. And, when it's applied to something that we don't know, we should tread cautiously about it having acquired a different meaning than we're used to. English is nothing if not free with having multiple meanings for words.
b) wabe ... probably some kind of place. We might be unsurprised with 'field' 'park' or the like here. On the other hand, it could also be more of an event -- a party, ballgame. Or could even be abstract ('the ether', 'the astral plane').

3)All mimsy were the borogoves
a) Borogoves are things that can be mimsy
b) Mimsiness occupies some kind of range, from not mimsy at all, to all mimsy. These particular borogoves are all mimsy. I can just see the scientific writing here: "We examined a sample (N = 30) of borgoves, and found their average mimsiness to be 45% with a range of 30 to 95% mimsy." Replace borogove with 'meteorological station' and mimsiness with 'completeness' and there's many a paper on the subject.

4) and the mome raths, outgrabe.
a) likewise, raths can be mome. There are some non-mome raths out there probably.
b) further, raths, or at least mome raths, can be outgrabe.
c) We might also guess that raths and borogoves have some tendency to be near each other.

5) Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

a) Beware the Jabberwock. Easy enough; if you see a jabberwock, beware.
b) Jabberwocks are things that have jaws and claws. These are probably either why you should beware of a jabberwock, or how it is that you'll identify one. (They could also spit venom, but you won't know that until it's too late. The jaws and claws should be obvious much earlier.)

6) Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

a) Ok, there's a Jubjub, which is some kind of bird. It'd be nice to know what one looks like, so that we can properly beware.
b) More interesting, and helpful, is 'shun the frumious Bandersnatch'
i) Bandersnatches are things than can be frumious, and generally are (compare 'shun the poisonous rattlesnake' -- all rattlesnakes are poisonous, but in giving a warning, we do much more often use the redundant modifiers)
ii) we should shun them. Now this is interesting. Jabberwocks and Jubjubs, we should beware, but Bandersnatches we should shun. Shun is a social word, meaning we should not socialize with Bandersnatches. We would not say 'shun the poisonous rattlesnake', it'd be 'beware', 'flee', and the like. Shunning, we'd do with someone who was socially unacceptable 'shun the bore', 'shun the self-involved', and so on. Bandersnatches, apparently, are some kind of social creature that one could interact with, but you shouldn't. The reason we should not socialize with them is probably that they're frumious -- that's why the redundant modifier got used. So now we know that frumious describes some socially unacceptable behavior (at least to the person speaking).

I won't go through the whole thing. It's a piece of Through the Looking Glass, and you can find the whole Jabberwocky here.

Even with a torrent of unknown words, we can infer quite a lot about the things being discussed. In reading scientific work, unknown words will be common, so getting used to inferring what you can (couldn't make much headway on the Jubjub bird, but a fair amount on those frumious Bandersnatches) is a very good idea. Then keep reading and see how things get elaborated on. In Jabberwocky we never do hear more about the Jubjubs, so we're stuck at they're some kind of bird to beware. In a scientific paper, you'll usually see the same terms come up repeatedly, in different forms and contexts, so that it is often possible to build up a pretty good image by the time you slog through it. I confess it's a slog, since I've read papers outside my fields, and they're much more work to read than papers in my fields. Still, I get there.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Book on the way

Species: A history of the idea, by John Wilkins, is now available. I've ordered my copy.

I've known John over the net for several eons as time counts on the net, including seeing him write about species and the idea. For this central concept of biology, there turn out to be many different definitions that get used in practice, and probably all of them have changed through time as we learned more. Here, you get it all from the very earliest thoughts to the present. Likely not a middle-school or jr. high level read. John's a good writer, but his audience here is mostly the highly educated and knowledgeable. Still, I'll be giving it a go myself. Those who seriously interested in biology should definitely get a copy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Question place

Been a while since I put up a note for you to ask questions/make comments/suggest topics/ etc.. So, here goes. Have at it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Scientific Literacy

I'll suggest that literacies, scientific and others, are something like physical fitness. If you only know how to lift weights, or run, or exercise in general, you're not physically fit. You have to do the weight lifting, running, and other exercises to be physically fit. So it goes with literacies. If you have a knowledge to do something, whether that's reading, math, or bringing a scientific way of looking at scientific problems, but you don't actually do so on a fairly routine basis, you're not really literate at those things. You could become so, same as I will become physically fit again. But I haven't been exercising regularly, so I'm not physically fit at the moment.

Something mentioned in the comments I invited was there being a progression to scientific literacy. I'd never thought about it before, but that does make perfect sense. In physical fitness, there's a progression from getting out a couple of times a week and doing 20-30 minutes of something constructive, to 3-4 times a week at 30 minutes, to ... well quite a range. So it goes for scientific literacy -- a couple times a week reading and thinking about it, several times a week and applied to more challenging materials, and so on.

Related to that, though, is that the bulk of the population does not need to be at professional levels of activity to be 'fit', or 'literate'. I'll be in pretty good shape when I'm exercising my 5 hours or so a week. For running, that'll be about, oh,
20-25 miles per week with other activity, like weights, thrown in. But a competitive runner would be going 70-150 miles per week. I won't be doing that. And I'll be running at, say, 10 minutes per mile, as opposed to the 6 minutes of the elites. Still, I'll be fit -- even if not ready to challenge professionals to a head to head race. The scientifically literate person won't be ready to publish in the professional literature, but they can certainly read reports about it, and even (at higher levels of literacy) read the original papers themselves and gain from the reading.

A number of people mentioned particular items that should be known. Sometimes with the mention that there was too much, any more, to be known for possibly anybody to be truly literate. I'll disagree, really on both sides. Going to literature, for the moment, 200 years ago there were rather few books being published. At that time, one might have a sense that being literate meant that you'd read some notable fraction of the books being written (or that had been written). Then comes modern publishing and far too many books published each year for anybody to read any significant fraction of them. Did a reading rate that was literate 200 years ago become illiterate today? Or was that just not a good way of defining literacy? I opt for the latter. It has probably never been the case that anybody could know all that there was in science, and certainly not any time in a very long time.

My own take is that scientific literacy is less a matter of the fraction of all knowledge that you know, and more a matter of how you react to new knowledge that is offered up to you. The scientifically literate person, for example, may well not know that ozone is also a greenhouse gas. But, on encountering a claim that it is, be able to tell that it is important to the argument at hand that it is, and know how (and carry out) to check as to whether it is.

In this vein, I agree strongly with the folks suggesting that one of the skills of a scientifically literate person is that they can (and, I'll add, do) evaluate whether the source they're looking at is scientific or not. Things like my 'weeding sources' suggestions become second nature to the scientifically literate people. Acquiring new knowledge is no help if that new material is false. In that vein, as I've commented elsewhere with John Mashey about his K index (do take a look at it in the comments already linked to), I think there's such a thing as negative knowledge -- thinking things that are not true. For example, thinking that the earth is flat, or the sun circles the earth are negative knowledge. That's much worse, to my mind, that merely not knowing that the earth is round and circles the sun.

Where, then, does knowing science factoids come in? Certainly all the scientifically literate people I know (and I do consider that I know several nonscientists who are scientifically literate) do know a fair number of science factoids. My feeling is that this is a result of being scientifically literate, not the cause. For fitness example, right now I'd probably cover a mile in about 15 minutes, mostly walking. As I become more fit, I'll cover that mile faster, eventually getting somewhere around 6 minutes. But running the mile faster is not fitness -- I wouldn't necessarily be more fit if I ran 5:51 instead of 6:20. I might actually be in best fitness at a time when I was running the mile in 6:40 -- better endurance, strength for trail running, better core strength, etc..

The process of evaluating a report about some scientific work is, for scientific literacy, then, like going for a training run is for physical fitness. The training runs are where you improve your physical fitness -- build and train muscles, your cardiovascular system, and so on. The evaluation process -- which will involve learning the meaning of terms, some elementary facts, connections between facts in that field -- is the training run for scientific literacy. After you've done the training, you know facts. But they're the byproduct, same as a better mile time is for being more physically fit.

There is a serious practical problem in this, and maybe some teachers (hint to my sisters) will add some comments on that. Namely, state and local curriculum requirements are heavily oriented towards memorizing facts, rather than 'how to do science', 'how to evaluate scientific claims', and the like. Teachers who simply started running their classes in the direction of my notion of scientific literacy would probably be fired for failure to do their job (as the states and local school boards see it).

Still, maybe teachers can chime in with their observations of either what the literacy is, or how to implement ideas like this in the classroom.