Watt Now profiles a new clean energy/recycling company every day. It’s very well written, and you should check it out.
Here it goes…
3. A Rice University study shockingly concludes that for the most part, science and religion aren’t in conflict.
5. Roger on the politicization of science by scientists.
Scientific controversies (even totally artificial ones such as creationism and climate change denial) are outside the scope of what most people, including politicians need to know. They don’t know anything, so why should their opinions matter?
It matters because having an opinion on something you know very little about is almost a perfect job description for a politician. From my time as Senate Intern #16, I saw that 60-70 major issues of national importance crossed the Senator’s desk every week. There’s no way for any human being to express and educated, sensible, let alone correct opinion on these issues, which is why in the real world politicians rely on staffers and outside advisers. Probably the most valuable, and most underrated skill for a politician to have, is knowing which experts to trust, and when to trust them.
While all of this is very true, it’s also true that science is rarely considered a “major issue of national importance.” Even when science is heavily involved, a national security or economic growth lens often seems more apt. At some point us “pro-science” people have to contend with the fact that science just isn’t as central as we want it to be.
Also via Shaping Science Policy, Kate Clancy illustrates bias in science with a case study on menstruation as pathology:
Not only did the idea of the menotoxin become a ubiquitous menace around any reproductively-aged woman, it began to explain pathology. So the menotoxin, which first was an explanation for the presence of menstruation in women, became a way of diagnosing women as ill… and again, since now all reproductively-aged women could secrete it from any bodily fluid at any time, the state of being female essentially made one pathological.
Soon the idea that the menotoxin indicated specific illnesses began to take hold.
“Dr. Schick and I discussed the possibility that the adult female diabetic out of control, the depressed adult female psychotic, and the adult female in the premenstrual phase secreted some common substance in their sweat.” (Reid 1974)
Here, you see premenstrual women compared directly with two pathological conditions: diabetes and psychosis. And all of these relationships, between menstruation and colic, asthma, wilted flowers, are largely observation, case reports, or poorly controlled experiments. When studies do not support the idea of the menotoxin, as with Freeman et al (1934) and two studies cited by Ashley-Montagu (1940) that were not in English, each get dismissed as outliers (even though in Labhardt’s case from Ashley-Montagu, the sweat of men was often as toxic as that of menstruating women).
And this is where I bring it back to my first two points about bias, that science can be biased by the cultural conditioning of those who perform it, and those who tell it. The people who studied the menotoxin really, really wanted to believe in it, to the point that they would ignore negative results and overstate the power of their anecdotes and case studies. The study of the menotoxin spans at least sixty years, maybe ninety depending on which references you consider legitimate, debated in Lancet letters to the editor, and published in several medical journals.
UPDATE: In the comments, Paul notes that my truncated quote somewhat misstates both him and Feyerabend. I should have been more careful as I know Feyerabend probably would not have insisted on methodological anarchy. My bad. Read Paul’s full post for more context.
I first turn to Paul Newall’s keen observation that Feyerband’s historical approach to understanding the progress of science itself violates his insistence on methodological anarchy:
The result was to place the epistemic systematists in the absurd position of advocating a methodology for science that would have killed the very progress allegedly brought about because early scientists followed the methodology.
Although this reductio succeeds, I want to suggest that Feyerabend’s historiography, and perhaps the historical approach in general, is somewhat paradoxical. The aim of his historiography is to free us from methodological or epistemological strictures but we find ourselves using the lessons of history to show that there are no lessons to be learned from history. This is too simplistic, though: what Feyerabend argued was not that there is and can be no methodology worth adopting but rather that all methods have their limits. Nevertheless, the paradoxical aspect comes from considering the use Feyerabend makes of history. Faced with a methodological rule, we can look to the history of science – and to apparently paradigmatic cases of good practice in particular – and show that an application of the rule would have been disastrous. However, it seems that this relies implicitly on a fixed interpretation of the events under consideration; after all, if it were possible for a rationalist or anyone else to recast the episode in a more favourable light for the rule at issue, we might be able to show that in fact its application would have worked then as now.
I now turn to a rather ancient Massimo Pigliucci post on why Occam’s Razor isn’t as useful as it’s sometimes made out to be:
The obvious question to ask about Ockham’s razor is: why? On what basis are we justified to think that, as a matter of general practice, the simplest hypothesis is the most likely one to be true? Setting aside the surprisingly difficult task of operationally defining “simpler” in the context of scientific hypotheses (it can be done, but only in certain domains, and it ain’t straightforward), there doesn’t seem to be any particular logical or metaphysical reason to believe that the universe is a simple as it could be.Indeed, we know it’s not. The history of science is replete with examples of simpler (“more elegant,” if you are aesthetically inclined) hypotheses that had to yield to more clumsy and complicated ones. The Keplerian idea of elliptical planetary orbits is demonstrably more complicated than the Copernican one of circular orbits (because it takes more parameters to define an ellipse than a circle), and yet, planets do in fact run around the gravitational center of the solar system in ellipses, not circles.Lee Smolin (in his delightful The Trouble with Physics) gives us a good history of 20th century physics, replete with a veritable cemetery of hypotheses that people thought “must” have been right because they were so simple and beautiful, and yet turned out to be wrong because the data stubbornly contradicted them.
The responses on The Dish makes me think they didn’t click through and read the full post.
One of the many remarkable features of Popper’s thought is the scope of his intellectual influence. In the modern technological and highly-specialised world scientists are rarely aware of the work of philosophers; it is virtually unprecedented to find them queuing up, as they have done in Popper’s case, to testify to the enormously practical beneficial impact which that philosophical work has had upon their own. But notwithstanding the fact that he wrote on even the most technical matters with consummate clarity, the scope of Popper’s work is such that it is commonplace by now to find that commentators tend to deal with the epistemological, scientific and social elements of his thought as if they were quite disparate and unconnected, and thus the fundamental unity of his philosophical vision and method has to a large degree been dissipated. Here we will try to trace the threads which interconnect the various elements of his philosophy, and which give it its fundamental unity.
According to Andrew Sullivan (video below), you must post at least twice a day to be considered a real blog (h/t Nisbet). Since I rarely post twice a week, I’m really in trouble. Apparently I’m not blogging and “just putting stuff up online.”
With that, here is some more stuff I’ve decided to just put online:
1. Gary Gutting in the Times on experts and global warming.
2. William Pannapacker in Slate on fixing higher education. He basically trashes getting a PhD in the humanities.
3. The response from several graduate students, and his response to the response.
6. Given how much I write about science and sports, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight this excellent Freddie DeBoer analogy between baseball and high-quality teachers.
7. Along those lines, Roger Pielke Jr’s new blog The Least Thing focuses entirely on the role of sport in society. Yeah!
That is all. You may continue.
I have yet to respond to the excellent comment left on my last post. In the meantime, look at…
In the off chance you’re lucky enough to not be updating resumes, applying to jobs, and preparing for interviews this weekend, here’s some stuff to read:
- David Bruggeman reminding us that science isn’t just for scientists!
- The economic impact of the Human Genome Project…
- …and the inevitable skepticism about the numbers!
- The crisis in higher education yet again!
- A nice take-down of Sam Harris (h/t Freddie)
- An excerpt from Tim Hartford’s new book on innovation, just discussed here!
Here it goes…my cop-out technique to avoid writing a real post when I’m too busy or tired.
1. Over at TNC, they’re discussing why academic debates don’t enter public discourse. In my view, we can’t discount the fact that most academic debates just aren’t that interesting! It’s telling that the phrase “It’s academic” generally refers to questions that ultimately don’t have much relevance to things we actually care about.
2. Scott Adams suggests that practical knowledge should trump learning for learning’s sake:
Some of you will argue that learning history is important on a number of levels, including creating a shared culture, understanding other countries, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I agree. And if the question was teaching history versus teaching nothing, history would be the best choice every time. But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I’d always choose the skill that has the most practical value. You get all the benefit of generic mental training plus some real world benefits if any of it is retained.
3. Via David Bruggeman, we learn that robots are getting really f***ing smart:
After an update to its software, a robot scientist has recycled its previous research to make a new biological discovery.
Named Adam, the van-sized robot came to scientific fame after autonomously investigating gene function in yeast. Those findings anticipated an era when computers wouldn’t just be research tools, but researchers.
2. Physics envy among financial analysts (h/t The Bubble Chamber). The math can get a bit much (I mostly glossed over it) and some of the terminology will seem strange without a background in physics. But sections 1 – 3 and 8 are quite accessible and not too dense at all. I especially liked their comparisons of psychology and economics (2.3), and their analysis of the financial collapse in Section 8.
This comic gem comes right after “Level 5: Irreducible Uncertainty” in their uncertainty taxonomy:
Level : Zen Uncertainty
Attempts to understand uncertainty are mere illusions; there is only suffering
Ha! There’s also a one-hour video here, which I haven’t seen yet.
3. Bill Davenhall on geomedicine (video below)
Via David Bruggeman, I’ll highlight The Bubble Chamber, a wonderful new blog by historians and philosophers at the University of Toronto. As David says, it’s great to see them trying to wrestle with contemporary problems. You should also be reading Age of Engagement by science communication scholar Matt Nisbet.