Archive for September, 2011

People are scary in a way that numbers are not

September 29, 2011 7 comments

Two months ago TNC inveighed against reformers who depend solely on statistics to explain human motivations. They are blind to the possibility that changes leading to higher property values won’t automatically be supported. They can’t see that a neighborhood is often much more than a financial instrument. Most importantly, they often fail to note “the humanity in the actual human beings they would have reformed.”

This passage in particular struck me:

Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it’s really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.

He could have been describing reports on scientific literacy. The Americans are scientific buffoons porn is quite easy to find. The people captured in those reports not so much. Who are some of these people without “basic factual knowledge of science?” What do they do for a living? For fun when they get home? Do they really need more science to live meaningful lives? As I said about women in science, it’s easy to rob people of agency and assume their lives are tragic. It’s a lot harder to try understand their decisions on their own terms.

None of this is meant to undermine either the value of education or basic factual knowledge. It is not a good situation that only 20% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun. We should try to improve the situation.

But if we had some deeply reported science journalism to complement the statistics, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much fatalism. If we recognized that real people leading real lives can get along just fine even with their scientific illiteracy, there would be no reason to judge them so harshly. As with housing policy reform, science outreach is easier if you actually respect the people being reached out to.

Categories: Education, Literacy, Society

Stuff to read

September 27, 2011 2 comments

Here it goes…

1. David Bruggeman and W.H. Dean smartly pile some more on Mooney’s latest. But…

2. …Chris continues to go another round, this time with Kenneth Green.

3. A Rice University study shockingly concludes that for the most part, science and religion aren’t in conflict.

4. Susan Fitzpatrick disagrees with Michio Kako on sacred cows in science (the second link behind a paywall).

5. Roger on the politicization of science by scientists.


Categories: Blog Dump

Presidents’ experts and menstruation as pathology

September 22, 2011 1 comment

Via Shaping Science Policy, and to also to beat the science and politics meme some more, here is an STS scholar on presidents and scientific knowledge:

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.

Categories: Blog Dump

Misplaced obsession with ranking anti-science behavior

September 22, 2011 2 comments

Chris Mooney got a bit upset when Alan Berezow claimed “for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat”:

This is a truly mind-boggling statement. What is this numerical claim based on? I can give you polling data on Tea Party followers, for instance, who reject evolution and climate change in dramatic numbers. I’d love to see similar data on a scientific topic where liberals reject a widely accepted scientific fact in similar numbers, and do so for clear political reasons.

Both Berezow and Mooney display this bizarre obsession with ranking anti-science behavior. As if once we decide that Republicans politicize science more or less than Democrats there’s nothing more to discuss. As if scoring political points is all that matters. As if once we hear science, Republicans and Democrats in the same sentence, the only thing left to do is pass judgment on someone. But as others have ably observed, there is more to science and politics than a simple ranking.

I’m consistently disappointed Mooney rarely deploys his rhetorical prowess and authority in the science blogosphere to move us beyond this simplistic discussion. We get it–he thinks Republicans politicize science more than Democrats. And yes, he even has some fancy statistics in support.

But surely it’s important to note that the term anti-science is semantically and epistemologically problematic, and so we should use it carefully. That for many people science isn’t a deciding factor either way issue, and so branding them is inappropriate.

This piece is especially unfortunate since a couple of his recent posts suggested Mooney was finally moving in this direction. I guess it’s one step forward, one step back.

Categories: Politicization

The blogosphere cont.

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

To offer some final thoughts on the blogosphere, here’s Freddie yet again:

I guess I just wish that the blogosphere (and forgive the collective indictment) at least demonstrated interest in the question, “how are we making knowledge?” Taken as a whole, I don’t think that there’s a coherent epistemology of blogging out there, even in the most elementary or general sense. For all of the navel-gazing that bloggers undertake, they appear uninterested in the fundamental questions of what value blogs are creating and what systems of accountability there are for ensuring that truth claims are actually true.

Freddie is begging the question here. Since when did creating knowledge become the primary goal? Even academic blogs I’m familiar with care more about knowledge dissemination than creation per se. The political blogosphere seems more interested in analysis and affecting public discourse than anything else.

It’s just so academic to think that creating better knowledge will somehow solve our problems, and that anyone even tangentially involved in the enterprise should care first about this task. But even if the blogosphere did develop a coherent epistemology, I’m not sure how much good it would do. The academy has a finely honed epistemology, and it still produces a lot of bad work that no one really cares about.

Good knowledge does not always equal useful or worthwhile knowledge. Knowledge in any form is not always the goal. The blogosphere implicitly recognizes these facts, and that’s a good thing.

Categories: Academia, Misc

On the blogosphere and readers’ responsibilities

September 18, 2011 1 comment

While I try to stay within the confines of science studies, Freddie DeBoer’s latest missive warrants a response. Not content to simply critique the flaws in Matt Yglesias’s prediction on the decline of the university, Freddie felt it necessary to attack the blogosphere writ-large:

As it happens, pay blogging has actually been on the uptick, as Yglesias himself has pointed out— with reference to evidence, making this post vastly more valuable than his recent ones on college. If he treated them in that way, I wouldn’t mind the conjecture, but that’s not the case. There is no indication in these posts that Yglesias takes one more seriously than the other, or that he recognizes the value of empirical evidence and the poverty of speculative claims about the future. This is a really good example of what I was recently complaining about on Balloon Juice, the conspicuous lack of epistemological distinctions and accountability in the blogosphere. Yglesias is essentially making things up here, whereas he was responsibly reading empirical data when it came to the blogging boom. Yet there’s no consistent system of knowledge generation that privileges the latter over the former, and no accountability to be found within blogging to correct his poor reasoning.

That last sentence is a bit strange. In this very post, Freddie spends 500-odd words serving up the kind of blogospheric accountability he insists doesn’t exist. Matt swung and missed here, and Freddie quickly pounced. This is what is supposed to happen.  Precisely because so many people can read and pick apart sloppy arguments, we shouldn’t worry so much when bad ones are advanced.

The blogosphere was never intended to replace longform journalism or peer-review, which almost by definition are coherent and well-researched while limited in scope and time-consuming. The blogosphere reverses these qualities. In the past three days alone, Matt has authored thirty-three posts. Surely Freddie doesn’t expect every  one of them to reference the latest NBER report. Matt does what anyone who every day writes thousands of words on topics as diverse as evolution, social insurance, political rhetoric, bank regulation, Islam, war in Iraq, the Danish elections, and monetary policy would do.  Some posts (perhaps too few) are rigorous, well-thought out and draw from established scholarship while some are not. So it’s a bit much to claim Matt doesn’t “recognize the value of empirical evidence.” More likely, this piece was composed within 10 minutes and we shouldn’t take it that seriously.

By requiring excellence in every post, Freddie neglects his duties as a blog reader while narrowing the richness of what the blogosphere offers. Blogs demand more of their readers exactly because they demand so little of their writers. Readers should know what they’re getting into before they engage with the medium. Don’t visit blogs if you want carefully constructed prose that references the latest Science paper.

Restricting the one venue where informed analysis happily co-exists with  partial and even complete ignorance won’t necessarily improve the blogosphere. It will make for watered-down journalism.

Is there no place to think out loud? To offer visceral predictions? To describe the vague impressions we all have that we know aren’t grounded in evidence? And if the blogosphere cannot fulfill this role, where should it exist?

Perhaps Matt should have started: “Hey guys, this post is less meticulous than some of my others. Take it with a grain of salt.” Perhaps such caveats would better delineate the good from the bad. But perhaps readers should recognize armchair theorizing when they see it.

Writers rightly expect their readers to bear some responsibility in the transaction. In the blogosphere, even more so.

Categories: Misc

Climate science as astronomy

September 14, 2011 1 comment

Here’s Matthew Bailes on climate science and astronomy:

It may come as a big surprise to many, but there is actually no difference between how science works in astronomy and climate change – or any other scientific discipline for that matter. We make observations, run simulations, test and propose hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings.

Other than the strange notion that all scientific disciplines run simulations (they do not), I get what Bailes is trying to do. If we somehow prove that there is “no difference” between climate science and astronomy, then surely we should equally trust their conclusions. If both climate scientists and astronomers undergo peer review and test their hypotheses, then there should be no need for opposition in either case.

This type of wishful thinking crops up all the time. But as Bailes himself admits, no one really cares that much about astrophysics discoveries. For better and for worse, climate science doesn’t share that fate. Whatever the epistemic similarities between the two (and I think Bailes was a bit careless there), the policy implications of climate science mean you can’t really equate them.

Categories: Climate Change