Archive for July 2008

Carbon TV: Steve Colbert meets Eric Roston

July 30, 2008

In case you missed it last night — you can see it here.

Colbert is the energizer bunny. Eric did a good job — but Stephen definitely made him work.

Closing line (Colbert’s) “This book is made of carbon.”

Program Notes/Book Notes: William Gibson/The Way We Live Now edition

July 30, 2008

Stimulated by Matthew Yglesias’s shoe fetish revelation, let me recommend (after you check the link) that you (a) listen to Karrie Jacobs elegant commentary on public radio’s Marketplace program, and then (b) go read the book she praises, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.

I’ve read, if not everything Gibson has written, then a pretty fair subset. (Long ago I wrote up some of my thoughts about his work in an essay for the long gone and much missed New York Academy of Science magazine, The Sciences. Ah well; all text is grass.) I think Pattern Recognition is his best, both intellectually rich and a fine exploration of character and emotion. His sense of technology as a solvent of human expression and feeling is so sharp.

I’m there with the comparison Matt makes in his post; I made the same point using different measures here. But Gibson is a better guide than either of us ever will be to the labyrinth of brands and signals in which we live now.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, “A Pair of Shoes,” 1886. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wierdest verbal image of the day…

July 29, 2008

Comes from the increasingly self-paroding Carly Fiorina.

Defending the self-admitted economic illiterate, John McCain, as the better steward of American wealth and well being than his opponent, she told reporters that McCain has spoken with various econ gurus “to make sure that he continues to keep his pulse on the American economy.”

Googling shows that the italicized phrase has turned up quite a bit lately.

But think about it. You can take a pulse, or keep your finger on a pulse. But putting your own pulse on something? What’s up with that? I have to say, at breakfast this morning I really did not need the image of McCain’s beating heart lub-dubbing and splooshing all over every laundromat, mall, cubicle farm, cattle lot and the rest of the places and ways Americans make their living.

This is undoubtedly much less important than the real argument going on, in which the McCain team’s approach seems to be to ignore the data of the last sixteen years about the impact of tax increases and decreases on growth and budgetary discipline.

The short form: despite the claims of Fiorina and Martin Feldstein, (one of those whom Brad DeLong might have in mind when he talks about economists associated with the Bush adminstration now having to pay the reputation price,) tax increases do not in themselves destroy prospects for growth — the evidence of the Clinton years destroys that shibboleth. As for McCain’s alledged commitment to fiscal discipline, there’s been a bit of news this week to remind us that tax cuts do not as a matter of principle pay for themselves.

Even shorter form: Just as Delong notes that economists backing Bush’s deficit cutting claims in 2003-4 were lying; these and other McCain affiliated advisors are not telling the truth now. Caveat emptor.

Image: Jan en Caspar Luyken, Illustration of a Surgeon, c. 1690. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

If you thought popular writing about science has problems…

July 29, 2008

Try economics — and you could do worse for a wince and chuckle than read this helpfully edited version of the “I got mine jack” school of what the post’s writer calls glibertarian economics.

It’s always nice after a dealing with crap in one’s own area to see the silliness play out next door.

Don’t miss the comments either.

Why science writing is hard — Andrew Sullivan (and surrogates) illustrate.

July 29, 2008

Outsourced largely to a e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

The back story: A study in the journal Obesity (press release here) extrapolates from current data to suggest an enormous increase in the percentage of Americans who become obese (defined as possessing a Body Mass Index over 30). If this comes to pass, it would evoke a huge amount of spending to deal with health consequences of such American expansion.

The claim gets picked up in Wired, which then lands it in a drive-by post on Sullivan’s extremely popular blog.

The only problem: no one in the expanding circles of puffing this very slender piece of work took note of the key phrase which, to the original study author’s credit, did make it into the press release that otherwise over-hyped its subject. The release said: “Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.” (Italics added.)

Here’s the comment that — also to his credit — Patrick Appel (subbing for Andrew) then published:

It never fails to impress me the fact that people see a journal article and then turn their critical reasoning skills off. Looking through the actual paper in question, it’ll be figure 1 that’s giving the headliner quote of 86% fat by 2030. Except that this is wrong….

…the kicker: these are *linear* extrapolations, taken out well beyond where they actually tell us anything. The tell-tale hint? Take those projections out another 15 years and they say the overweight plus obesity fraction will be 100% before 2045. Yes, that’s right. Not a single healthy person left alive in the US. Marathon runners? Triathletes? Starving supermodels? Richard Simmons? All of them obese. Presumably from the fresh vegetable blight of 2040, forcing every last one of us to subsist entirely on Chicken McNuggets and Spam.Oh, and that trend they’re talking about is extrapolated from 3 data points. Sure, it’s suggestive, but I wouldn’t scream bloody murder from these stats.

….Yes. Chalk this one up there with, “According to current trends, housing prices will keep rising, allowing us to take on LOADS of bad debt!”

Exactly so.

The moral of this story is one I and my colleagues at the MIT science writing grad program try to drum into our students very early. Just because a press release or a paper says something doesn’t mean you can suspend your bull-shit sensor. Science writing is a specialized beat because claims are asserted in technical language, and in many cases, in forms that require at least a bit of statistical due-diligence to assess.

Simply glossing a press release with a hip-ish reference to Wall-E (Wired), and then passing on the news as fact (Appel-for-Sullivan) ain’t close to good enough; in fact, I would say, this kind of slapdash reporting (or transcribing) that does a fair amount of damage to the public’s willingness to pay attention to scientific results — not as much as the overtly fraudulent kind of stuff that comes out of the Discovery Institute or climate change denialists — but still, this kind of stuff doesn’t help matters.

Now — professional or credentialed science writers are hardly immune to all kinds of flaws of their own, ranging from the cheer-leading problem (in which science writers only tell the “good” stories – and miss, for example stuff like this. (Abstract only — full article costs $).

Then there is the context problem – it’s possible, for example, to get so absorbed in the particular fashion in a field that it becomes hard to remember — and report, that there is more to physics than string theory, for example, or that the identification of the gene “for” something is only a tiny part of the biological knowledge needed to comprehend most of what’s going on in an organism.

And certainly, plenty of science writers don’t possess in themselves enough specialized knowledge to smell out dicey stories in much or most of what they cover. I could not do any of the science I have covered over the last quarter of a century. What I have learned (with some hard lessons, to be sure) is to check not just the facts of any story I want to write — but its meaning as well.

In this case, the facts were fine. A study does exist that says what the Wired item and the Appel post say it does. But it was the interpretation of those facts that was off. In this case, as the commenter above points out, the issue was simple — any trend line that suggests incidences exceeding 100 percent coming soon ought to raise a couple of alarm bells.

Ideally, this kind of first-order BS test should not require specialized beat-centered training. Anyone writing for the public about more or less anything ought to know enough about numbers to get that one; it is or ought to be as much a part of a liberal arts intellectual arsenal as is the skill of writing a clear sentence.

To that end, I wish I could publish here the guide to mathematical reasoning my colleague Alan Lightman has written to introduce the science writing grad students at MIT to the tools they can use to make sense of the hype factor in science news. He”s getting ready to turn that material into a short book, I believe, and it can’t come to soon.

In the meantime, this concise and funny book is a good place to start.

Image: Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

News Flash: Dog Bites Man take two — McCain does not care about global warming

July 28, 2008

I’ve said this already, here and here. Now its official, and all over the liberal end of the blogosphere.

Well — kind of official, in exactly the way one might expect such things to go down.  McCain himself still promotes his global warming straight talk on his campaign site — but just in case any of those who really matter get worried that the “maverick” ™ senator might really mean to stray out of the petroleum corral, a mutually trusted messenger, Steve Forbes, gets tasked to deliver the nod-and-wink.

I’ve said before that Barack Obama won the science primary.  Now, on at least one significant issue at the intersection of science and politics, the choice between the last two candidates standing has become that much more clear.

(That last link is there for historical context — it takes you to Donald Kennedy’ s speech on climate change in the context of a presidential election in 2000.)

Updates on the 100 mpg car front

July 28, 2008

Way, way back when there was a Republican fight for the nomination, Mike Huckabee made a little splash by calling for a one billion dollar prize to encourage the production of a generally available care capable of 100 mpg.

I ridiculed Mike here and here. Mostly because (a) the billion bucks was such a wildly disproportionate reward, given the X-prize being offered for the same basic goal seemed to think that ten million would do the trick, and, at least as important, at least one production vehicle on the verge of release, the Tesla roadster, could already lay claim to the milestone. (Latest news — as of a couple of weeks ago, 12 production vehicles had been completed, with the assembly line cranking away at a blistering four vehicles a week.)

But the what I want to highlight here is the power of 4 buck a gallon gas to concentrate the mass market manufacturer’s mind.

Most immediately, it looks like the GM Volt is real as of 2010 — though at a higher price than originally proposed, 40K instead of around 30K. It will have an MPG equivalent of 150 mpg running on its electric motor, which will drop if the range-extending gasoline engine gets called into use. GM also has a Saturn Vue plug-in SUV project in the works. Toyota is working on its plug in response, with a current, very short range claim of 99.9 mpg.

But what caught my eye today was this report from the Green Car Congress, showcasing the British Motor Show’s latest offerings of cool to cute electric, energy efficient cars.

The headliner? The four-seconds-to-60/10 minutes to recharge Lightning GT. 300 large, I’m afraid, so this is another pure fantasy. But taken all in all, and never forgetting the 350 mpg personal transportation available in the form of this electric scooter, it looks like the use of market mechanisms to control green house gas emissions is, pace the McCain campaign’s whispered walk-back on the issue, is working just as the econ 1 textbooks tell you it should.

Image:  Lightning GT, Lightning Car Company photo.

Mental Health Break: Ornithology edition

July 28, 2008

As the the ever reliable xkcd confirms, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing:

The Data Matter: Does John McCain Hate Kids dept.

July 28, 2008

Trying even harder on the keep-it-short imperative, just a quick hit on McCain’s fumbling anti-gay adoption stance as expressed yesterday to George Stephanopolous on ABC.

Three rapid thoughts:

1. What else did anyone expect him to say? If he comes out embracing, or even tolerating gay adoption, he loses the election in July, IMHO — given what such a stand would do to his support, such as it is, among the 20% or so of the GOP base made up of social and religious conservatives.

2. Just to make the absurdity of his fumbling explanation a little more obvious, someone in the media should ask him, pressing him for a specific answer: would he prefer unmarried, single parent adoptions as long as the man or woman were straight, to placing children in two-parent, same-sex couples?

3. Most seriously: this is another case of McCain being either ignorant — unaware of the scientific data on the question he addresses — or else being simply expedient (what a polite word!), willing to sacrifice children in order to win an election. McCain said

I’m running for president of the United States, because I want to help with family values. And I think that family values are important, when we have two parent — families that are of parents that are the traditional family.

The rest of his answer is similarly incoherent, but the point he seems to be trying to make is that there is a moral and social benefit that accrues when only male-female couples raise children. Unfortunately, as a matter of empirical investigation, this is wrong. Consider:

A study released in May 2007 by the Department of Justice (Canada), Children’s Development of Social Competence Across Family Types, points out that “A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers may have marginally better social competence than children in ‘traditional nuclear’ families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any differences.”[32]

There are a host of other studies confirming and broadening this conclusion. There are a few that challenge it. Strangely, they all seem to derive from groups that have a polemical interest in that outcome.

The inference becomes more clear when you consider the question McCain was actually asked: is it better for children to linger in foster care or to be raised in two parent, same gender families? To him, no. In the real world, where children without parents actually live — not just moral feeling, but the data suggest (strongly) otherwise.

Program Notes: NPR/Nancy Pelosi edition + a little housekeeping

July 28, 2008

Housekeeping first:

I got another vacation coming — this one a honker of a trip to South Africa (family/animals — the key test will be making sure I keep the differences between the two groups clear in my head). I’ll be gone most of August. This blog will keep ticking over — with some help from at least one guest blogger. But I can’t pretend that Inverse Square will be operating on all cylinders (mixed metaphor alert) for the next few weeks. Nothin’ much will be happening anyway.

Anyway — for the month, the style of the blog is going to shift a little — more quick hit posts, fewer illustrations. In that spirit:

Check out this interview with Nancy Pelosi on NPR’s Morning Edition, July 28 edition. It’s a mostly conventional, uncontroversial conversation centered on the release of Pelosi’s new book.

Pelosi went off the rails, for me at least, at the very end of the piece. There, she spoke of how a woman in power would be able to say this:

“I think in an intuitive way and that special quality and that special grace that women bring to it all is something that would be such a source of strength to our country.”

Now, there has been a wealth of research, some of it even reputable, about differences in cognition and other brain functions between the genders. See this, if you want to begin tiptoeing into that field.

Note also that all of the population studies in the world do next to nothing to help you guage the capacity of an individual man or woman. John McCain’s analytical and quantitative skills — categories sometimes trumpeted as strengths of male minds — have not been anything to write home about on this campaign. Hilary Clinton’s mastery of policy analysis was widely seen as a distinction to be drawn against her primary and the putative general election opponent. (As you’ll see from the headline on that link, Brad DeLong’s mantra: “Why, oh why…” has retrospective power

But the point isn’t that individuals are all, by definition, exceptional in some way. It is that it is not intuitive reasoning that women bring to the table as a particular strength — after all, that master of gut knowledge, George Bush, has put thinking by feel into justifiably ill repute as a qualification for the Presidency

No — Pelosi actually got it right the sentence before the one quoted above. It is the distinctive experience of women that would give a female President something new and valuable to bring to the table. Everything to pay disparities to a grasp of what it takes to maintain the daily logistics of families in which men, on average, still do not carry an equal load.

That is: it is a mug’s game to claim for women special fitness for office because of a presumed, at least partially magical quality of how their brains work. Just think of the counter argument, substitute men for women, and rational for intuitive, and think of the justified howls that would result. It is a perfectly legitimate claim to say that women’s lives are different than those of men in the aggregate and in particular — and that such experience is relevant to governance, leadership and policy.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, “The Kitchen Maid.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.