Archive for August 2008

How Numbers Help Make Sense of Things: The Palin Pick edition

August 29, 2008

I’ve hammered on the theme that the goal of getting the public to understand science has little to do with specific facts or even ideas, and much more with helping folks master analytical tools that will help make pull the signal out of the noise of events and the day-to-day business of living.

I’ve argued that such an effort begins with developing a familiarity not so much with math as scientists and technologists think of field, but with much simpler approaches to quantification.  A little arithmetic goes a long way, as does what is to me the single most important idea:  this kind of basic math creates abstractions that, properly employed, allow us to find deeper points of contrast or similarity between disparate events than raw facts, even raw numbers ever could.

The best example (IMHO) that I’ve come up with came in this post.  But John McCain’s to-me bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate provides another opportunity to deploy some simple quantification to provide a little insight into how odd — and ultimately, how bad — a choice that was.

The basic argument against the Palin choice is all over the blogosphere.  You can look Steve Benen (from the left), Andrew Sullivan from the non-base right, and Ramesh Ponneru enjoying a moment of clarity in the opium – den end of wingnut right for variations on the theme. They all argue, and I agree, that the choice is a bad one from  because she is in fact desperately unprepared for the job.

The reasoning behind that argument is pretty simple and to my mind compelling:  leadership in her local PTA, a mayorality in a small town, a couple of stints on appointed state boards and something like 20 months as governor of a state whose population — 683,000 or so, is less than that of the Boston metro area in which I make my home– doth not a potential president make.  Lots of specific issues are already coming up, but that’s the basic story.

But there is a counter argument: conservative hacks (Ralph Reed on NPR this morning, for example) are trying to suggest that her executive experience as Mayor and Governor make up for her deficiencies in national security, international affairs, national issues and so on.

It’s a pretty risible argument, but how ridiculous it is can only be seen with  a clear idea of the scale of the jobs she has done so far to see just how much love to give her, and McCain, on this score.

So, at last to return to the premise of this post, that a little help from numbers can reveal a great deal, what can we find that would help place Palin’s level of competence in context?

First let’s constrain the analysis and accept the apparent McCain campaign judgment that especially after the events of the last week or so, a female veep selection was essential.  That leaves several potential picks mentioned over the last week, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Now whatever you may think of her views (not much, from where I sit), Hutchinson is a conventionally serious choice: she had executive responsibility as Texas State Treasurer (briefly, but longer than Palin has been governor of a state with the population of one of Houston’s suburbs); she’s into her third term in the Senate with big time committee appointments (on Appropriations, Veterans Affairs and  Rules and Adminstration, ranking member of Commerce, Science and Transportation); she’s won elections in a large state; and she knows how Washington works.

Seems like an obvious choice.  She did not light a fire under the anti-choice base, but there is no doubt that she is a national figure dead in the mainstream of the Republican party.  Her resume trumps Palin’s in every particular.

But let’s give McCain the benefit of the doubt on another constraint.  In a change election, watching Obama driving the message home brilliantly over the last week that Washington insiders are the problem, it is a plausible argument that the woman the campaign concluded it needed had to be someone from beyond the Beltway.

So far, Palin meets these criteria:  she’s definitely got a pair of X chromosomes and Juneau is about as far (barring Honolulu) as you can get from Washington in American politics.  Maybe, following this decision tree, once you impose these narrowing filters, Palin was as good as it gets.

Or not.  Another name that came up from time to time in the search was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO.

Now this is a harder comparison to make between than that between Hutchinson and Palin — after all, how do you rate corporate life to work in government?

You look to the numbers.  Both Alaska and HP are economic ecosystems.  They generate wealth, must be governed, have operations and a bottom line.  The comparisons are imperfect, but they give an idea, most importantly of scale, of how big a job each of these executives have performed.

In 2005, (the last year for which I could find the data in a quick troll) Alaska’s gross product — all of its economic activity — totaled just a whisker less than 40 billion dollars.  For 2005 — the last year during which Fiorina worked for the company, HP’s total revenue — the value of all its economic activity — more than doubled that number, topping  86 billion.

That comparison drastically understates the disparity in managerial responsibility between the two.  Last year, Palin signed into law her first budget – Alaska’s largest ever :  6.6 billion.  For 2005, HP made a profit of 3.473 billion, which, deducted from gross revenue, leaves about 83.5 billion out of the revenue total that had to be spent to make that money.

Certainly there would have been passive expenditures there, already agreed interest on loans, for example, as there are certainly automatic payments within a state budget.  But broadly speaking the comparison is overwhelming:  a CEO of a major company has much more fiscal responsibilty and a much larger economica strategic burden to handle than the leader of a small government administration — by about 13 to 1 on the numbers in this case.

Now this is not an argument that Carly Fiorina should have been standing next to John McCain today.  That there are all kinds of considerations that go into such decisions has been amply demonstrated by the choices of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

But if you are trying to get a handle on just how far Palin’s experience has been from the level of responsibility that goes into leading the United States of America, it is worth remembering that in her one supposed area of expertise is as an executive.  And in that role, her 20 months of running the Alaska budget is loosely equivalent to the mangerial task of handling the revenues of the 348th largest company in America, which in 2007 was the Ball Corporation, the fourth largest packaging and can company in the country.

And in case you were wondering:  the 2007 budget for the United States of America topped 2.7 trillion.

Just to finish this off:   McCain, Obama and Biden have never had to adminster an operation larger than their Senate offices, or for McCain, a peacetime bomber squadron.  But they didn’t claim that attribute, offering instead claims of judgment, experience, temperament, knowledge of the affairs of the nation and so on.  By contrast, “executive experience” is Palin’s only alleged skill in governance.

So the two points I hope this post makes are (a) that there are ways to think about making rational comparisons between potential leaders, and they include at least some willingness to think if not mathematically, at least arithmetically…and (b) that as expected from a first review of her resume, this just slightly deeper look into the numbers supports the proposition that Sarah Palin is  the most unqualified Vice Presidential candidate in living memory.

David Brooks Steals His Paycheck

August 29, 2008

Nothing about science, or much at all in Mr. Brooks latest effort, but as readers of this blog know of my admiration for the plucky uber-class pundit’s ability to spin dross out of gold, I thought I’d try to be the first to suggest that this column is so empty of both thought and style that if I were an Ochs or a Sulzberger, I’d demand my money back.

Seriously, Brooks has achieved a parody of opinion writing.  This is what you get from a hung-over freshman who forgot to do the reading.  It is to funny as groat clusters are to food.  (h/t Firesign Theater.) This is truly is one of those so-bad-it-should-be-in-a-museum efforts.  Read it and weep.

I wish I had the wit, stamina or stomach to analyze it more deeply. I don’t, and I confess that I suspect the deficiency may not lie with me.

Image:  Cornelis Vroom, “The Highway Robbery,” c. 1625. Source Wikimedia Commons

More on Right Wing Science-Phobia: Up from comments edition

August 28, 2008

A post or two below I tried to tear a strip or two off a new, conservative Slate wannabe site called Culture 11.

In that post, I asserted that the new webzine’s launch with zero science content illustrated a broader problem of current American conservatism refusal to confront the significance of science’s methods and results in any account of the ideas that matter in modern thought, not to mention daily life.  I also suggested that this was so because facts inconveniently muddle what I see as the fantasy life that passes for intellection on at least the web-cages of the right.

To his credit, one of the site’s editors, Conor Friedersdorf, responded with a polite comment, suggesting that as feature editor he would willingly entertain and commission suggestions for “worthwhile” (his loaded word) science stories.

I answered with a long comment saying, in essence, he couldn’t ask for others to do his job for him, but commenter JRE later said it better, which is why I’m excavating his comment for your reading pleasure here:

If Conor Friedersdorf is serious about being serious — that is, if he really wants to examine the triple point where culture, politics and science come together, there are some superb examples out there he might consider as templates.
For example, in his book The Republican War on Science Chris Mooney has argued (persuasively, in my view) that the conservative movement has become actively hostile to, and destructive of, the scientific enterprise. Crooked Timber got an entire seminar out of it.

Now, I’d expect that Mr. Friedersdorf might have a different take from Chris Mooney, and maybe he could scare up some smart conservatives who believe that they are, too in favor of real science — and, in the process, let us how what they think about developmental biology, climatology, and a host of other topics. Because, to be frank, every time I hear another conservative claim that mainstream science is politicized from root to branch, and it’s the right wing that’s carrying the torch of dispassionate inquiry, I think that I don’t know of a time when one party has been so identified with vain, ignorant, dishonest windbaggery.

But this is Conor Friedersdorf’s chance to prove me wrong. How about it, Mr. Friedersdorf?

Image:  Carl Spitzweg, “The Alchemist” c. 1860.  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.

Why You Should Just Eliminate the Middle Man…

August 28, 2008

…And bookmark xkcd:

Move Along Folks: Conservative rags edition

August 28, 2008

There is nothing to see here….

That is:  I did something I do for the kind of sick thrill you get passing a wreck on the highway — checking out Megan McCardle’s self parody of a blog over at The Atlantic Monthly’s site. (the lack of link is deliberate; I don’t like to link to things I don’t recommend.  If you are curious, there is this thing called Google that can probably get you where you want to go.)

There I find she recommends, in near ecstatic terms a new site called Culture 11,* (huh?) promoted as a conservative version of Slate, which launched yesterday. ( McCardle’s praise –“Full disclosure:  I’m fairly close to its editorial staff.  Fuller disclosure:  it’s still pretty awesome.” — gives you a bit of a sense of why I am loathe to send the unwary over to wallow in such prose.)

So, in the John Cole school of reading this stuff so you don’t have to, I actually went over to check out this new haven of thought and letters.  There, I searched every last article they have up so far, all twenty seven as of the time of writing this.  There were some notable howlers — see Conor Friedersdorf’s Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism for a hilarious account of, among other things, the dilemma of a conservative on a blind date confronted by a woman who may or may not accept “basic conservative and libertarian truths.”

(Again: fair warning.  Leave aside the argument such as it is.  You have to be willing to stomach sentences like “As a dating dilemma, this is easily solved.  Ask her questions!”  There.  Proceed at your own risk.  Tom Wolfe, conservative though he surely is, knows style and its absence.  He would equally surely wince at the asserted claim of kinship.)

And so on…but really, the point of this post is not simply that someone, somewhere is saying something stupid on the internet.  Rather, it is to point out one reason why conservative claims of intellectual authority have worn so thin.

They ignore science.  There is no science at Culture 11 at all.  Not as a category; not squeezed into headings like “Education” or “Ideas.”  The one article under the heading “Technology” provides an interesting brief against the privatization of city services, but basically includes no actual explanation of the technological problem under review — how to design and build a city-provided wifi network.

Other than that, nothing.  And it’s not that there is a dearth of science and public life stories of interest within the context of conservative politics, after all.  Just today, the Republican National Convention platform committee published their document, which calls for a complete ban on embryonic stem cell research.  That might be worth a comment, no?

How about the argument between the parties about the appropriate resource and technological response to the problem of the US energy mix and supply?

What about some hard thinking about the numbers behind and the moral values inherent in the McCain campaign’s health policy advisor’s statement that the emergency room counts as insurance for the uninsured?

I am not suggesting that I expect anyone from that side of aisle to write stuff I agree with.  I’m not even expecting them to make good cases for the points of view I’m guessing they’ll adopt.  But these are in fact big, obvious issues that matter not just to a scientific community, but to the public at large in the midst of deciding who should be our next president.

And yet, the entire site is designed, at least for now, to suggest that questions with a scientific or technical core don’t rise to the level of significance worthy of a conservative intelligentsia’s attention.  By contrast, Slate has a whole section devoted to health and science, two editors devoted to the care and feeding of that section and about a post a day, sometimes more, to keep the site populated.  I’m not saying I love all their stuff (though when they publish a former student, I do).  But they cover the story; they do so in an opinionated way, writing as public intellectuals. They take this stuff seriously.

I suppose I am picking on a brand new publication, the brain child of a plucky band of brothers (of both genders) rushing into the breach of the defenses of the liberal media.  But it still seems to me both striking and telling that a set of would-be leaders of right-wing public intellectualism would find nothing in science to engage.

I do not think that they achieve such lofty unconcern simply because doing science is hard, though it is, nor that writing well about science is hard, for all that I have scars to remind me that just how hard.

Rather, it is because, IMHO of course, in the broadest sense, it is much harder to spin science than it is, say, the consequences of impotent bellicosity over Georgia.

To put it another way, one near and dear to Boston Celtics fans:  I think the right dodges science when it can because it can’t handle the truth.

You may take all this as the official announcement, rather than the earlier leaks, that Inverse Square is back from vacation.

*This link provided because even though I think the site is basically worthless, it seems to me hard to write a post about a web-location without pointing to it.  A foolish consistency and all that…

A Musical Tribute in the Better Late Than Never Dept.

August 24, 2008

So there is this Youtube gem that I stumbled upon a few months agot (viewer number two million and change, so I can’t really claim to have uncovered some occult treasure) — and ever since I’ve been looking for some shameless pretext to stick it up on the blog.

Well, the perfect excuse came with the birthday of the man with one of chemistry’s great names and numbers to his credit.

There is only one problem: travel, brain bubbles, advancing age, whatever, conspired to make me miss Amadeo Avogadro’s anniversary: he was born on August 9, 1776.

Avogadro, an aristocrat (with the astonishingly wonderful full name of Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto), was one of the founders of the theory of gases. His greatest accomplishment was to formulate Avogadro’s law, which relates the mass of a volume of gas to its molecular mass. Among other garlands he received (posthumously in this instance) was the naming of his famous number, which states the number of molecules in one mole of gas. (The number was actually calculated by Johann Josef Loschmidt.)

Anyway, enough of this. As noted above, better late than never:

In honor (sort of) of Avogadro’s keen understanding of the importance of the relationship between pressure and volume, please enjoy, Mr. Freddy Mercury’s gloss on a similar theme:

Program Notes: New York Times on the Hardest Job in Science…

August 24, 2008

Or at least in the top ten: Check out this story on someone who sounds like a fantastic teacher of high school biology in Florida, doing his best to put evolution all the way back into the curriculum.

I’ve no doubt that the science blogosphere will pick up on this piece, and it should. But as someone who has taken a fair share of potshots at the Times and some of its writers lately, I thought it was dead down the middle of the “credit where credit is due” imperative to note that the paper and reporter Amy Harmon did a fine job here.

Image: Henri Rousseau, “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.