Archive for: March, 2009

NY-20: This One Ain't Gonna Be Over Soon.

Mar 31 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

With all precincts reporting, Democrat Scott Murphy leads Republican Jim Tedisco by 65 votes (77,344 to 77,279). It looks like this one might not be finalized for a while. According to the AP, there are 6000 absentee ballots to count, and ballots will be coming in until 13 April. So I wouldn't sit up late waiting for the final on this one.

No responses yet

New Features: Picture and Quote of the Day.

Mar 31 2009 Published by under Misc

Just a quick programming note:

Starting tomorrow, and running through at least all of April, I'm going to try something new. Every day, I'm going to post one quote and one picture. The pictures will all be my own, the quotes obviously will not be. In some cases (like tomorrow's), the quote and the picture will appear in the same post. On other days, they'll be two separate posts.

I've promised (but not delivered) regular features before, but this time is different. (I might have said that before, too, but I mean it this time.) I've already picked the first month's worth of pictures, and have the posts ready to go.

One response so far

Anti-Vaccination Stupidity, Expertise, and Feeling "Empowered" by Risking Kids Lives

Mar 31 2009 Published by under Flaming Small-Minded Stupidity, Medicine

Your sink is leaking all over your bathroom floor. Whose advice do you take on how to fix it - your plumber's or your accountant's? I suspect that the sane among us would typically go to the plumber. If we were suspicious about the first plumber's advice, we'd probably call another plumber. Similarly, the rational among us would not look to a plumber as a source for informed commentary on the economy, foreign affairs, or journalism.

We understand that expertise matters.

We don't consider experts to be infallible, we don't bow down and worship at their feet, or uncritically accept everything that every expert says, but we understand the importance of knowledge and experience. Experts are not born, they're made through a long process that involves spending enormous amounts of time and effort to study a field. It's been suggested that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to gain expertise in a field, and that's not a bad lowball estimate for a lot of fields.

There are many fields, though, where 10,000 hours is not enough training to be considered an expert. That much time and effort might be enough for people to consider you to be competent, but only just.

Take medicine, for example. Residency is an enormously intense period of training - most programs officially limit interns and residents to 80 hour work weeks, but in a lot of places that's treated the way most people treat speed limits. Even if you assume that residents only average 70 hours a week, the vast majority of doctors will have worked for far more than 10,000 hours before they sit for board certification exams. The intern who sees you on his or her first day on the job has probably spent at least four or five thousand hours on clinical rotations as a med student.

Want to get a Ph.D in any of the sciences? After you're done with your undergrad, you should plan on spending at least five years in grad school. After that, plan on spending another few years as a postdoc before you even think about applying for a tenure track Assistant Professor job somewhere.

With that in mind, I'd like to share the source of my current irritation with you.

Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

The "Ethics" of Framing Science

Mar 30 2009 Published by under Science and Politics

Last night, Matt Nisbet posted a section from the first draft of a new book chapter he's working on. In this particular chapter, he says he's trying to "lay out a detailed ethical framework" for science communications. At least in theory, that's an interesting concept. Are there ethical responsibilities involved in communicating science?

The material that Matt self-quotes is a bit light when it comes to explaining just why we should think there are ethical responsibilities involved in science communication. About the closest he comes is this brief passage:

Surveys indicate that Americans strongly believe in the promise of science to improve life, deeply admire scientists, and hold science in higher esteem than almost any other institution. Scientists therefore enjoy tremendous communication capital...

I don't have the philosophical background or ethical expertise of some ScienceBloggers, but that certainly doesn't strike me as the worst reason to think that science communication involves certain ethical obligations. Science is a critical part of modern life. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that our entire current standard of living depends on science. Despite this, relatively few people have more than the most basic understanding of science (if that). I think that both the public's trust of scientists and the public's dependence on science entail some ethical responsibilities. If nothing else, it's important to make sure that the trust is not abused.

Let's take a look at what ethical responsibilities Matt thinks we have as scientists and communicators of science. He identifies four "ethical imperatives":

Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

CO2, Freeman Dyson, Magic Trees, the NY Times, and a Piece of Pencil Lead the Size of New Mexico

Mar 27 2009 Published by under Climate/Weather

The New York Times has recently taken some flack as the result of Nicholas Dawidoff's New York Times Magazine profile of Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson. Times science blogger Andrew Revkin has also received some less than favorable reviews of a post he wrote about the article. The bulk of the criticism revolves around the treatment given to Dyson's views on climate change, and is well warranted.

Neither Dawidoff nor Revkin apparently thought it necessary or desirable to subject any of Dyson's views or proposals to any sort of reality check. This is at least somewhat strange. Dyson's views are aggressively opposed to the strong scientific consensus on the issue, and yet he has not been very involved in research in the field. At the same time, some of the ideas that he proposes for climate change mitigation are outlandish, to say the least.

There are times when the perspective of someone outside a particular field can come up with an insight into a problem that has baffled those who have worked on the issue for years, and Dyson's clearly a pretty bright guy. Luis Alvarez's work on the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction is a fantastic example of this, and it's clearly important to keep that possibility in mind. It's also important to remember that, just like every inventor who gets laughed at is not a Fulton, the distinguished scientist from the other field is not always going to be right.

When the distinguished scientist in question is suggesting specific ideas, it's not always all that hard to do a quick back-of-the-envelope check to see just how feasible - or not - the idea is. That's certainly the case with Dyson's Magic Trees.

Continue Reading »

46 responses so far

The "Phantom" of Heilbronn and Negative Controls (Or the Lack Thereof)

Mar 27 2009 Published by under Science

It looks like there are quite a few police officers in Germany with egg on their face right now. They spent several years, thousands of man-hours, and over $14 million trying to track down a criminal mastermind, only to discover that they were chasing lab contamination. Sadly, I am serious about this. From a 2008 Telegraph article:

Police in Germany have stepped up the hunt for a serial killer nicknamed "the woman without a face".

The mystery woman has been linked by DNA to six murders and a string of thefts in a 15-year spree in three countries. Her latest victims may be three second-hand car dealers shot execution-style.

The inquiry is based entirely on DNA found in smudges of sweat and nearly invisible flakes of shed skin at the crime scenes.

The malevolent and depraved fiend had, by that time, engaged in a crime wave that crossed international borders. Evidence of her heinous acts was found throughout much of southern Germany, as well as in neighboring parts of Austria and France. Oddly, though, it appeared that the criminal might have had some sort of phobia or aversion to Bavaria - no trace of her was ever found there. (I'll get back to that in a bit.)

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

John Boehner and Retroactive Truth

Mar 26 2009 Published by under Accidental

Like many people, I was amused by the "budget" that the Republicans in Congress unveiled today. If you count both the front and back covers, it's 19 pages long - but even that's a generous estimate. Three of the pages are cover pages for sections of the document. Random figures with little to no relationship to anything in the text are used to fluff out the space, margins are suspiciously large in places, font size varies - basically, think of anything you've done to a term paper at 3 am the morning it was due when you were five pages short and out of ideas.

But there are plenty of other folks - on both sides of the political spectrum - laughing at the GOP's "budget". Fortunately, there were actually other disasters at the same press conference. One thing that Minority Leader John Boehner said seems to demonstrate that he might be just a bit temporally challenged when it comes to certain concepts - like "truth":

"Two nights ago, the president said we haven't seen a budget yet of the Republicans," said House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Well, it's not true, because here it is Mr. President." He waved a thin document called "The Republican Road to Recovery" that describes the GOP proposal.

Someone really needs to sit Boehner down and explain how the whole "truth" thing works. He apparently doesn't seem to understand that you can't make something that was said on Tuesday untrue by pulling an all-nighter on Wednesday. You can hand in the homework on Thursday, but that doesn't mean it actually existed on Tuesday.

8 responses so far

Redoubt Eruption - As Seen From Space

Mar 26 2009 Published by under Geology

As many of you probably know by now, Alaska's Redoubt volcano has been erupting for several days now. If you're interested in the details, head over to new SciBling Erik Klemetti's Eruptions blog. If you're interested in the latest in really cool pictures, here's one for you:

1238107943 Ak231

(Source. Click for full size version)

The picture comes from the Alaska Volcano Observatory (aka place where "something called volcano monitoring" gets done). The ash plume from the eruption is the clearly visible dark smudge near the center of the picture. The image was taken by a weather satellite in geostationary orbit over equatorial Asia.

4 responses so far

I love Walter ReMine

Mar 26 2009 Published by under Accidental

Some of you might be familiar with the work of Walter ReMine. He's been around the fringes of the online creation-evolution thing for quite a while now. His typical schtick involves the relentless self-promotion of his self-published book The Biotic Message, which he claims represents a revolutionary new origins theory of some sort.

It's been a while since ReMine was last on my radar screen, but he's posted a couple of items over at Uncommon Descent recently. These are advertised as the first two parts of a multiple-part essay of unspecified length. He promises that this essay will introduce readers to "Message Theory" - a term which he uses often, always with the capital letters, but has yet to actually define. Instead, he devoted all of his first post and half the second to a discussion of the importance of testability, and why it's such a good thing that Message Theory is actually testable. (He does not, of course, explain how to test it in either post.) The remaining half-post is devoted to an explanation for why it's not possible for him to publish his idea in the form of scientific papers - apparently, it's too wide-ranging and comprehensive to fit in anything less than a book.

Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

Congress, The Deadliest Catch, and "Drill, baby, drill!"

Mar 25 2009 Published by under Science, Policy, and Management

The Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch is one of the only reality shows I can watch without rooting for the painful demise of 2/3 of the cast, preferably before the first commercial break. I genuinely enjoy the show, not just because it looks at an interesting job, but because it seems to capture some insights into genuinely interesting people. As someone who is interested in science and how science is used in public policy, though, I'm sometimes a little frustrated that the show doesn't take the opportunity to really get into any of the science or policy issues that are involved in our fisheries.

Those issues aren't sexy. They don't have the raw human appeal that you get watching a greenhorn struggle to make it in a rough job, or a captain and his brother having a heated discussion below decks. They certainly don't involve the risk of sudden death in sub-freezing temperatures. Including them probably is probably not likely to improve their ratings (at least outside the highly sought-after 30-35 year old balding science geek demographic). But they are important, and almost nobody who doesn't work in those areas really knows anything about them.

I was interested to learn that one of the captains featured on The Deadliest Catch testified about one of the fisheries issues at the intersection of science and public and before Congress on Tuesday. Captain Keith Colburn, owner of the F/V Wizard, spoke before a joint hearing of the Energy and Mineral Resources and Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittees of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The hearing used the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as an opportunity to examine President Bush's decision to open more areas in the Bering Sea to oil and gas exploration.

Continue Reading »

One response so far

Older posts »