Tag Archives: Science&Society

What’s all this fuss about having alternatives?

I don’t know what all the fuss is about “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time!

For example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be engineers, put wheels on the bottom corners of cars, so that the cars don’t scrape on the ground. But in some countries, the physicists teach them that gravity pulls whichever way the country’s leaders instruct it to. That’s why their engineers build flying carpets as transports for their country’s troops. It’s a much more effective way to bring an army into battle, if your politics allows it.  We ought to consider it here.

Another example: in my physics class I claim that energy is “conserved” (in the physics sense) — it is never created out of nothing, nor is it ever destroyed. In our daily lives, energy is taken in with food, converted into special biochemicals for storage, and then used to keep us warm, maintain the pumping of our hearts, allow us to think, walk, breathe — everything we do. Those are my facts. But in some countries, the facts and laws are different, and energy can be created from nothing. The citizens of those countries never need to eat; it is a wonderful thing to be freed from this requirement. It’s great for their military, too, to not have to supply food for troops, or fuel for tanks and airplanes and ships. Our only protection against invasion from these countries is that if they crossed our borders they’d suddenly need fuel tanks.

Facts are what you make them; it’s entirely up to you. You need a good, well-thought-out system of facts, of course; otherwise they won’t produce the answers that you want. But just first figure out what you want to be true, and then go out and find the facts that make it true. That’s the way science has always been done, and the best scientists all insist upon this strategy.  As a simple illustration, compare the photos below.  Which picture has more people in it?   Obviously, the answer depends on what facts you’ve chosen to use.   [Picture copyright Reuters]  If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to be a serious scientist!

A third example: when I teach physics to students, I instill in them the notion that quantum mechanics controls the atomic world, and underlies the transistors in every computer and every cell phone. But the uncertainty principle that arises in quantum mechanics just isn’t acceptable in some countries, so they don’t factualize it. They don’t use seditious and immoral computer chips there; instead they use proper vacuum tubes. One curious result is that their computers are the size of buildings. The CDC advises you not to travel to these countries, and certainly not to take electronics with you. Not only might your cell phone explode when it gets there, you yourself might too, since your own molecules are held together with quantum mechanical glue. At least you should bring a good-sized bottle of our local facts with you on your travels, and take a good handful before bedtime.

Hearing all the naive cries that facts aren’t for the choosing, I became curious about what our schools are teaching young people. So I asked a friend’s son, a bright young kid in fourth grade, what he’d been learning about alternatives and science. Do you know what he answered?!  I was shocked. “Alternative facts?”, he said. “You mean lies?” Sheesh. Kids these days… What are we teaching them? It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a new secretary of education.

Polar Vortex, Climate Change, Red Herring?

Wow, it was unusually cold last week. In a small fraction of the globe. For a couple of days. And what does that cold snap, that big wiggle in the Polar Vortex that carries high-atmospheric winds around the North Pole, imply about “climate change”, also known as “global warming”, also known as “global weirding”?

The answer is very simple. Nothing.

If you heard anyone suggest otherwise — whether they said that the extreme cold implies that there is no global warming going on, or they said that the extreme cold implies that global warming is happening — you should seriously question anything that person says when it comes to climate change. Because that person does not respect (or perhaps even understand) the difference between anecdote and evidence; between weather and climate; between a large fluctuation and a small but long-term trend. Or between media hoopla and science.

In the interest of an imperfect analogy: Let me ask you this. Are you generally happier, or less happy, than you were five years ago? Answer this as best you can.

Now let me ask you another question. Did you, within the last month, have a really, really bad day, or a really, really good one?

Does the answer to the second question have much to do with the answer to the first one?

Barring an exceptional recent disaster in your personal or professional life, the fact that, say, last Thursday your car broke down, you locked yourself out of your house, your dog vomited on the carpet and you got caught in the rain without your umbrella does not have anything to do with whether you are a happier person than you were five years ago. Being a happier person has more to do with whether you have a better job, a happier family, a better sense of self-esteem, and things like that. And even if you love your job, you know there are going to be really bad days in the office sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. We all know that.

It’s the same with daily and monthly and yearly fluctuations in the stock market compared to the slow but fairly steady century-long growth of the U.S. economy (both curves corrected for inflation.)

So why, when there’s a big fluctuation in the daily, monthly or even seasonal weather, do people jump up and down about what the implications are for the long-term trends in climate? Continue reading

More Scientist-Hostages Uncovered

Just in case you weren’t convinced by yesterday’s post that the shutdown, following on a sequester and a recession, is doing some real damage to this nation’s scientists, science, and future, here is another link for you.

Jonathan Lilly is a oceanographer, a senior research scientist at NorthWest Research Associates in Redmond, Washington, and I can vouch that he is a first-rate scientist and an excellent blogger.  He writes in an article entitled

Stories from the front: oceanographers navigate the government shutdown

about a wide range of damaging problems affecting this field of study.  What’s nice about this post, compared to my own general one from yesterday, is that he has a lot of specific detail.

Here are some other links, demonstrating the breadth and depth of the impact:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/10/230750627/shutdown-imperils-costly-lab-mice-years-of-research

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/10/what-does-a-federal-shutdown-mean-for-conservation-and-ag-science/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/eliseackerman/2013/10/07/the-shutdown-versus-science-national-observatory-latest-victim-of-washington-politics/

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/10/government-shutdown-affects-biomedical-research/

Help! I’m a Hostage! (D – 7)

Maybe you think this shutdown isn’t all that bad?  Perhaps you’re not talking to scientists, or thinking about their role in society. The effects of the government shutdown continue to ripple outward.  Scientific research doesn’t cope well with shutdowns.

http://www.ibtimes.com/us-government-shutdown-antarctic-research-program-5-other-shuttered-science-programs-1419918

In many fields, the research has to be maintained continuously; if you shut it down, even for a short period, all your work is wasted.   Continue reading

Science and the Common Good: A College Visit

Yesterday I gave a public talk at Ursinus College, a liberal arts college in aptly named Collegeville, Pennsylvania. [For those outside the U.S.; a `college’ in the U.S. is a university whose students are all undergraduates, mainly 18-22 years old; and a “liberal arts college”  aims to give students a broad education in the arts and sciences, along with more focused training in their chosen discipline.] My visit was sponsored by the college’s Center for Science and the Common Good, an impressive little program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (kudos to them!).  Its goal is to assure that the Center’s `fellows’ — the students in the program — are not only trained in their scientific fields but also become versed in thinking broadly about the role of science in our culture and society, and about how science is communicated to the public.

These wider issues are ones I think about a lot — I myself was educated at a liberal arts college — and are what motivated me to start this website and blog.  So I was honored that the Center invited me to visit. And they kept me (pleasantly) busy! In addition to the public talk, I spoke at length with the fellows of the Center about the role of science and scientists in society, as well as about the Center’s program and their career plans, and I also gave the undergraduate physics majors a slightly more technical tour of modern particle physics.

Since the Center was my host, my public talk was somewhat different from ones I’ve given previously.  Rather than focus entirely on the science behind the Higgs particle and field, I included some comments concerning the role of scientists in communicating science to the public. Among the meta-scientific questions I touched on were these:

  • What role should and can be played by blogs and websites run by scientists?
  • Can (or should) anything be done about the wildly inaccurate science reporting that one so often sees in the media?
  • Is it really that important that the public be informed about scientific research — given that public knowledge of the details of law, medicine, construction, accounting, plumbing, and other technical fields is also very limited?

I’ve got my own (tentative) answers to these questions, but if you’d like to weigh in, I’d be interested in your opinions. (If you do decide to make a comment, please feel free to include a parenthetic remark describing how much science you yourself know, and whether you learned it, say, in college, from magazines or popular books, etc.  This will give us all some perspective on what might shape your views.)

Thanks again to Ursinus College for the invitation and a very interesting visit!

He’s Not Wrong: The US and Science Research

In a letter entitled “Am I Wrong?”, Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of the major journal Science, asks how the United States has gone so far off course.  The leading nation in a technological age has lost sight of its scientific foundation; what will be the consequences?

A mere twenty years ago, this nation was clearly the best place in the world to do scientific research.  Since 2000 the decline has been precipitous, and though the U.S. still surely ranks in the top ten, few would say it clearly is the best anymore.  In general, the country remains a relatively great place to live and work.  But any excellent young scientist from abroad has to think carefully about coming to or staying in the U.S. for a career, because there might not be enough money to support even first-rate research.  Similarly, any young U.S. scientist, no matter how devoted to this country and no matter how skilled, may face the tough choice of either going abroad or abandoning his or her career. (It’s not just young people either, as I can personally attest.)

Whereas before the year 2000 it was easy for U.S. universities to attract the best in the world to teach and do research at their institutions, and to train the next generation of American scientists, the brain drain since that time has been awful.  (I see this up close, as more and more often I fail to hire talented individuals specifically because they see a better scientific and personal future outside the United States.)  And it is getting worse.  All of this affects our economy’s future, our society’s health, and even our ability to defend ourselves, especially since some of the most active spending on science is being done by countries that are hostile or potentially hostile to the free world.

It’s easy to blame this on the recession.  “Oh, these are bad times and we all have to share the pain.”  That’s true, but this problem started long before 2008.  The system became threadbare during the Bush administration, and now, in the ensuing recession and political chaos, it’s at risk of falling apart.

Please forward this letter by Mr. Alberts to your friends.  This is serious business with long-term consequences.