Archive for July 2008

Sunday Stuff 1: Cosmology meets New Age Nonesense — Karadzic edition

July 27, 2008

Sean Carroll finds perverse pleasure — which I share in war criminal/face of evil* Radovan Karadzic’s reinvention of himself as a new-age healer.

Sean notes the quantum connection that Karadzic tried to make in his spiel — and this appropriation of a remarkably hard-headed body of science is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that the language in which quantum theory is often popularized lends itself to all kinds of folly.

But I was struck by what seemed to me a new wrinkle in nonsense. Sean rightly snorts at the parody of quantification in this passage:

“It is widely believed our senses and mind can recognise only 1% of whatever exists around us. Three per cent we understand with our hearts. All that remains is shrouded in secrecy, out of the reach of our five senses; however, it is within our reach in the extra-sensory manner,” he [Karadzic] wrote in one article.

This is familiar enough — one of the standard moves used when purveying such stuff is to cloak it in trappings that suggest a science-like precision. But Sean missed a more specific potential source for the “numbers” (sic) in Karadzic’s “analysis” (sic-er) — one that now joins quantum theory as the unintential wellspring for silly-season stuff in our culture.

It’s all cosmology’s fault, of course. WMAP’s, in particular.

One of the most reported findings from the first round of analysis of the WMAP plot of the CMB was that the particular details of the hot and cold spots on that map permit a calculation of the composition of the universe — how much of the mass-energy it contains came in particular forms. It turned out that, rounding off as the early press did, 73 percent came in the form of dark energy; 23 percent or so as dark matter, and the remainder, roughly 4 percent, is ordinary matter.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Karadzic allows human capacity — senses and heart, to perceive four percent of reality. The rest is beyond our direct observation, and must be accessed by magic.

I can understand why Sean, a cosmologist, would shy away from this hideous conclusion: but what if modern cosmology, an extraordinary intellectual and technological achievement, making measurements at a precision that a generation or two ago would have been pure fantasy, producing observations about nature with exceptional rigor (which cannot be said of every branch of physics, at least not yet)…what if all this great work is just so much fodder for murderous quacks.

More to do on public engagement with science I would say…but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

*Karadzic may be the face of evil. According to American negotiator Richard Holbrook, evil itself comes personified in the form of Ratko Mladic, Karadzic’s partner in crimes against humanity.

Mladic is still at large.

Image: WMAP Five Year Microwave Sky.

Quicky addendum to Bishops and Biology…

July 26, 2008

This is why the kind of rhetorical shenanigans discussed below matter.   PZ Myers links to the latest follies from the Texas State Board of Education. For a report from the front lines about the damage done by asserting false equivalences between challenges to religious and scientific claims, read this.

Image:  Charles Darwin as an ape in Hornet Magazine, 1871.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Australia Attacks US!

July 24, 2008

This just in:

(Actually, Australian Defense Force footage of a torpedo test using a decommissioned US warship as a target.)

And why not once more into the wellhead?

July 23, 2008

I’m not one of those who believes in a deity mindful of the fall of every sparrow, but if there were an entity who could order up divine retribution for self-inflicted stupidity, could it have resisted this?

(Editor’s note: it isn’t just Aeolus who seems to have endorsed Obama. The immutable legal principle of stercus accidit could not be denied. Hence, John McCain’s “I can drill everywhere I can think of to save you five cents a gallon in a decade–maybe” tour had to cancel its latest booking.

(Check out that last link for some actual substance from the invaluable Wilco 278).

Image: J. W. M. Turner, “Snowstorm,” 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

And while we are on the subject…

July 23, 2008

…I couldn’t resist posting this unbelievably cool picture:

From the summary description at my source for the image, Wikimedia Commons:

This image depicts an early oil field exploitation in Pennsylvania, around 1862. The two wells shown are the Phillips well and the Woodford well, both among the most productive of the time. Note the small distance between them. At the foreground appear wooden barrels in which the crude was stored, explaining why oil is still measured in “barrels”. Note the barrel size was not standardized yet : various size of barrels can be noticed.

More on the Offshore Drilling Bait-and-Switch

July 23, 2008

Much more informed and more rigorous info on the issue I blogged here, outsourced to Wilco 278.

Cherry picking data is one of the oldest tricks in the book. As TJ warned: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Keep this in mind if the hurricane lets McCain make his scheduled emulation of Don Quixote tomorrow.

Update: It won’t.

(BTW: thanks, Wilco. Real knowledge is a wondrous thing.)

Image: Lourdes Cardenal, Group of windmills at Campo de Criptana in La Mancha, 2004. Licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, ver. 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why it helps to run the numbers…

July 23, 2008

and why it matters.

Brad DeLong reproduces a  memo from Obama campaign econ. policy director Jason Furman.   In it, Furman discusses the latest Tax Policy Center report on the true costs and beneficiaries of the Obama and the McCain tax plans.

Money quote from the TPC report:

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income. In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

For extra credit and reading pleasure, see the extensive comparisons the Center made between the tax proposals as described the candidate’s advisors, and as set out in stump speeches and or campaign policy documents.

The key point there, at least as the Obama campaign would have you know, (PDF here), is that there is a $2.8 trillion gap between what the McCain advisors say the GOP nominee-apparent’s plan would cost, and what the number is in what we laughingly call the real world.

These are important numbers, and as important, they are not, in the last analysis subject to that much controversy.  That is:  while it is possible to argue a great deal about the long term economic effects of different tax policies, coming up with the immediate or even the medium term costs of different proposals is not a black art.

These are what scientists call deductions.  They are not quite facts, not yet.  But starting from a baseline of factual knowledge — the current tax code, revenues, analysis of earlier changes in tax policy and so on — it is possible to make well grounded predictions of what would happen if each candidate were able to impose the policies they now promise.

The bottom line:  well, my argument that a McCain presidency will be disastrous for scientific, technological and medical research is strengthened by this latest report.  With non-defense discretionary spending already squeezed by the disastrous Bush brew of tax cuts for the top brackets and an unfunded war, McCain’s proposed tax and spending priorities leave essentially nothing for such luxuries as advanced education, basic and applied research and all the rest.

If our investment in science lags, of course, we will suffer along every axis from national security to our ability to relieve human suffering or to uncover novel sources of human happiness (who knew the ARPANET would enable us to Twitter at each other.  Hmm.  Perhaps I should rethink that example.)

But the key here is that you cannot make this argument without the baseline numbers.  McCain can and does say that he supports research and innovation to solve such fundamental problems as America’s energy needs.  I don’t doubt that he believes it when he says it.  But such commitments are meaningless, lies in fact if not in intent, given his tax and budget policies — or else his tax promises are lies.  That’s what you can say when — and only then, you actually dig in the weeds of the data.

In this context, TPC study offers one more valuable yardstick against which to weigh all the other commitments McCain is making.  The question is will anyone (but your earnest, but rather low-profile blogger) do so?

But not to snark before time, I’m waiting.  This is my question: will the reporting on this story emphasize the actual differences between the two plans and the consquences?  Or will it focus instead on some variant of the “McCain counters Obama’s tax sally.”  That is — do the voters/audience get an account of the facts that McCain would wish to dispute, or just the dispute?  Will the story make it onto the news budget at all?

We’ll see.  As an extra credit question, I’m wondering whether Marc Ambinder will engage this at all?  He’s reproduced a lot of Scheunemann.  So how about a little domestic substance from the “Reported Blog on Politics?”  Will update as events warrant.

Image: James Gillray, “A great stream from a petty-fountain; or John Bull swamped in the flood of new – taxes,” hand colored etching, 1806.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday science book corner…

July 20, 2008

Sort of outsourced to Boyce Rensberger.

As I see this blog, it’s about science as it intersects with public life with a strong strand of history running through it, and occasional commentaries on the writing of science for the public as a sort of meta-coverage. Of late, politics more or less connected to science stories have dominated — and that’s likely to go on, given the season. But I don’t want to lose sight of the other stuff, so this week I plan to write at least a few notices of recent popular science books worth noting. Here, I thought I’d offer a Sunday kind of retrospective on some of the old good stuff worth remembering. Hence, my turn to Boyce, my already-missed MIT colleague.

Boyce, for those of you who don”t have the privilege of his acquaintance, is the just-retired director of the Knight Science Journalism fellows program at MIT.

(For those of you who don’t know about this program and are mid-career science writers, check it out. It offers one year at MIT, a decent stipend, and no requirements other than the twice weekly seminars during which leading researchers in the area come and talk to y’all for a couple of hours. In other words, it’s a really, really good gig.)

Boyce has also taken on most of the available roles known to science writing: daily newspaper reporter and editor; magazine writer and editor; kids science tv writer; book author — all before he became one of the leading educators of science writers through his work at the Knight Program.  (For a quick intro to what matters to him, read this.)

Along the way he came up with this: a list of the books that, in his humble opinion, every science writer should read.

I never take such lists all that seriously, and I would surely make a somewhat different selection if I were ever tempted to canonize. But leaving aside such quibbles, it is true that at least all the books on the list that I have read (most, but not all) have done me good.

All of this is preamble to the suggestion that occurred to me when I made a recent return to Boyce’s list:

A really good read would put together Schroedinger’s What is Life with Watson’s The Double Helix. I’m not sure if the impact of Schroedinger’s brief book is remembered all that much these days, but it was hugely influential — Francis Crick, for one, credited his turn to biology to an encounter with it, and its worth reading because it demonstrated the power of disciplined thinking to define a problem. Schroedinger was, of course, a physicist who got interested in biology late in life; he focused on the question of inheritance with variation, as the chief outstanding issue biology had to solve next. Most impressive, with almost no data, he managed to anticipate several of the major developments in biology to come over the next couple of decades.

The most important of which, of course, was Watson and Crick’s identification of the structure of DNA molecule. Watson’s book doesn’t need any introduction — and, with my family connection to Rosalind Franklin, I can’t say I think Watson’s account of her can be taken as anything but his own more or less fictional creation.

But the juxtaposition of the Schroedinger and Watson account is great fun, and illustrative of two poles of science writing. Schroedinger’s is formal, analytical — and invitation to take part in the intellectual life of science. Watson, though he would probably hate to hear this description, takes a truly humanist approach to presenting the inner life of science to a lay audience. He spends an enormous amount of time on what it feels like to do science; while you certainly learn the basic story of DNA and the significance of its structure, his account of the making of modern biology is all about the people, most of all, of course, the man Peter Medawar called “Lucky Jim.”

Put ’em back to back, and see what you think.

Image: Andreas Praefcke, “Basement shelves, Firestone Library, Princeton,” 2007. Source Wikimedia Commons

Do you need to be a scientist to be a science writer?…Dennis Overbye edition.

July 19, 2008

This question came up in the midst of a little blog kerfluffle I inadvertently ignited when I had the temerity to criticize Richard Dawkins’ criteria for inclusion in his anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. See my posts: here, here, and here, and some of the responses here, and here, if you care about such inside baseball.

Now The New York Times physics and cosmology reporter Dennis Overbye has weighed in on the matter in his recent “talk to the newsroom” Q & A with readers. Check it out — it’s a good read, as are his two books. (Full disclosure — Dennis and I go way back; I was a cub reporter at Discover when he was writing there back in the early 1980s, and he and I collaborated on one article, I think, back then; we’ve since connected through a mutual interest in Einstein.)

The whole session is interesting, but this early exchange caught my eye, especially given the identity of the questioner:

Becoming a Science Reporter

Q. Do you think a degree in the sciences is necessary to be a science reporter? Is it most important in generating story ideas or in translating “geek speak” into language that most readers understand? Does your editor also have a degree in science?

I love reading Science Times and pounce on the stories when they come across the wire — as do others on the copy desk of The Roanoke (Va.) Times.

Thanks for taking the time to answer readers’ questions!

— Mary J. Lewis, copy editor, The Roanoke Times

A. Ah, an easy one.

The first thing you need to be a science reporter is a sense of humor because things will sound weird and then they will get even weirder. You are just going to sound foolish and you might as well get used to it. Luckily the scientists will not mind foolish questions for a few reasons. First of all, they are used to thinking of themselves as pretty smart and the people questioning them as, umm, not so smart. Secondly, being the kind of people who could stay up all night obsessing about an anomalous result in an experiment or an equation that didn’t quite work out, they can recognize and appreciate a similar ruthless determination to understand on the part of someone who is interviewing or photographing them. I’ve seen photographers coax sober minded physicists into rearranging their furniture and assuming all kinds of cockeyed poses — all in the name of getting the “right picture.”

Finally, there really isn’t any such thing as a silly question in science, where the best people often are those who are free enough to think up a really outlandish question. Einstein said his success was due to the fact that he kept asking a child’s questions when he was an adult. I am reminded of what Niels Bohr once said, “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

What does this have to do with your question? If you know too much going in as a journalist, it might serve you well, but not your readers, for whom you are the surrogate. I do see more and more people in my field who have Ph.D.s, but I don’t think it is the degree that makes them good, rather it’s the ability to be inquisitive, to learn on the spot, to size up people and to get them to talk.

The higher you go in science, the more you know about less and less, which is hardly a good prescription for a reporter, unless you have the prerequisite skills anyway. One of my colleagues, Jim Glanz, has a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton, but it didn’t stand in his way and now he is the Baghdad bureau chief. A random survey of my colleagues on a sleepy afternoon turned up college degrees in rhetoric, English literature, general liberal arts, and then law, as well as journalism, biochemistry and physics.

None of my editors have a degree in science, although they might have taken some courses. One of my former editors, Cornelia Dean, now a reporter, wound up in the science department after someone saw her with a copy of Scientific American. So you can learn a lot from reading, a concept we’re fond of here at the newspaper.


Image: John White Alexander: The Printing Press [showing Johannes Gutenberg] (from the cycle “The Evolution of the Book”). Photographer: Andreas Praefcke. Location: Library of Congress (Jefferson Building), Washington, D.C. Source: Wikimedia Commons.