Re: Friends With Benefits

1

Becks step on post like Godzilla! Becks destroy all post!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:26 PM
horizontal rule
2

GODDAMN IT.


Posted by: Becks | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:28 PM
horizontal rule
3

Tee hee.

Aw, Becks, you deserve it.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:32 PM
horizontal rule
4

Thank you very much, Ms Becks.

It's a good night for a good time for a good group.

But (in case emerson is in town) the organization running the Thursday event is non-partisan (and I've already kinda been rapped on the knuckles for it), so let me remind anyone interested in showing up: we want you there. But leave the partisanship at home. This is all about supporting people who support the US.


Posted by: mike d | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:34 PM
horizontal rule
5

You're not a lurker, though, mike.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:35 PM
horizontal rule
6

Sifu, you flatter me. As I've said to Becks (and others), I don't comment enough to consider myself a regular, so I arrogate for myself the title "semi-lurker."


Posted by: mike d | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:37 PM
horizontal rule
7

A semi-lurker is a semi-regular, you know.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:39 PM
horizontal rule
8

Are there like thirty goddamn threads or something?


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:43 PM
horizontal rule
9

8: Not that I begrudge the cause or any *particular* post.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 9:44 PM
horizontal rule
10

A semi-lurker is a semi-regular, you know.

So what do you call someone who used to be a regular but now just occasionally reads the posts?


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:21 PM
horizontal rule
11

10 - "erstwhile regular"

Never pass up an opportunity to use the word "erstwhile".


Posted by: Satan Mayo | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:31 PM
horizontal rule
12

Good call.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:33 PM
horizontal rule
13

10: Brother-in-arms?


Posted by: mike d | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:38 PM
horizontal rule
14

So what do you call someone who used to be a regular but now just occasionally reads the posts?

Missing the point?


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:39 PM
horizontal rule
15

"Productive."


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:39 PM
horizontal rule
16

Recovering.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:42 PM
horizontal rule
17

Dead to me.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:47 PM
horizontal rule
18

Late for breakfast.


Posted by: Nakku | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:49 PM
horizontal rule
19

"Bumpin' uglies."


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:49 PM
horizontal rule
20

15 wins.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:53 PM
horizontal rule
21

An irregular.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 10:59 PM
horizontal rule
22

Ogged.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:00 PM
horizontal rule
23

If you're writing a letter - or online electronic equivalent - to someone whose first name is used by both men and women, but though searching indicates that the person is probably a man, it's not clear that the person is in fact a man, how do you address the letter?

Dear Mr. [last name]? Dear [first name] [last name]?


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:02 PM
horizontal rule
24

"Yo, dude!"


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:03 PM
horizontal rule
25

[Redacted on request from the commenter.]


Posted by: Cleopatra | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:06 PM
horizontal rule
26

How are you, teo?


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:11 PM
horizontal rule
27

[Redacted on request from the commenter]


Posted by: Cleopatra | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:11 PM
horizontal rule
28

[Redacted as quoting material which earlier commenter had requested redaction of. Trust me, nothing particularly interesting,]

[raises hand...]

Sympathies on the being made to look like an idiot thing. Been there -- though thankfully in situations where I could leave my name off the final, embarrassing product.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 09- 9-08 11:28 PM
horizontal rule
29

23: "Dear Sir or Madam;"

OK, that's a joke. But yeah, that has happened to me before, and it's really obnoxious. If I seriously cannot in any way find out, I write "Dear [firstname] [lastname]."

As someone whose father was given a traditionally female first name and had to hear him groan about receiving all these goddamn phone calls for people looking for Mrs. [girlyfirstname] Bear, I do think people actually care and tend not to be cool with the mixup, even when it's fairly understandable.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:04 AM
horizontal rule
30

If I seriously cannot in any way find out, I write "Dear [firstname] [lastname]."

How about "Dear Dr. Lastname"? Who would mind being mistaken for a doctor?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:12 AM
horizontal rule
31

On an off-topic note:

I see that the giant Euro-Supercollider went on line today. Doeas this mean that it hasn't, in fact, created a black hole that will swallow the earth, and so we can rest easy, or is this an ongoing possibility?

I just want to keep track of my end of the world scenarios.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:15 AM
horizontal rule
32

Doeas this mean that it hasn't, in fact, created a black hole that will swallow the earth, and so we can rest easy, or is this an ongoing possibility?

They're only sending the beam in one direction right now. In a few weeks, they're going to start colliding the beams by sending them in opposite directions, which is when you should start worrying. Also, the black holes could be so tiny that it would take years for them to destroy us all.

So no need to take to the streets with signs announcing the end of the world, but it's probably appropriate to maintain a certain level of background paranoia about the whole thing.


Posted by: Matt F | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:42 AM
horizontal rule
33

the black holes could be so tiny that it would take years for them to destroy us all.

But this would give Bruce Willis time enough to fling them into outer space, right?


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:50 AM
horizontal rule
34

Wait, they're planning to cross the streams? As in "Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light" cross the streams?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:50 AM
horizontal rule
35

Pretty much, yeah. Today was just a practice run. We ain't seen nothing yet.


Posted by: Matt F | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:53 AM
horizontal rule
36

The Staypuft man must be stopped, no matter what the cost!


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:14 AM
horizontal rule
37

it's probably appropriate to maintain a certain level of background paranoia about the whole thing

Similarly, one should maintain a certain level of background paranoia that one might be hit in the head by a baseball thrown from an airplane at any moment!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:20 AM
horizontal rule
38

When the world comes to an end, I don't know what the rest of you will be doing, but I'll be laughing at Sifu. I want to see the look on his face when that happens.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:25 AM
horizontal rule
39

I'll be laughing at Sifu. I want to see the look on his face when that happens.

This will be quite the look, what with space-time bending back on itself and all that.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:27 AM
horizontal rule
40

A small black hole would dissipate before it swallowed the Earth. Small black holes are lame.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:27 AM
horizontal rule
41

You could probably simulate it pretty well by buzzing him from a small airplane and beaning him with a baseball.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:27 AM
horizontal rule
42

I can hardly wait!


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:28 AM
horizontal rule
43

Wait, they're planning to cross the streams? As in "Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light" cross the streams?

On the plus side, this would moot out all the election concerns,


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:30 AM
horizontal rule
44

Sifu right before being swallowed by a miniature black hole.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:30 AM
horizontal rule
45

43's conclusion makes me have a certain level of background paranoia that Di has just blinked out of existence.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:33 AM
horizontal rule
46

Who would mind being mistaken for a doctor?

You find this a fair bit in academic correspondence when people aren't certain who you are.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:35 AM
horizontal rule
47

Similarly, one should maintain a certain level of background paranoia that one might be hit in the head by a baseball thrown from an airplane at any moment!

No, see, this is easily avoidable by staying indoors. Which I do, all day long. That won't save me from black holes.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:41 AM
horizontal rule
48

No, see, this is easily avoidable by staying indoors.

Yeah, but then you have to worry about faulty lighting installations falling on your head, or electricians screwing up.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:50 AM
horizontal rule
49

Shit.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:58 AM
horizontal rule
50

Also, the building could spontaneously collapse. That's probably slightly more likely than the large hardon collider eating the world.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:00 AM
horizontal rule
51

Sifu's just trying to lure you all into complacency, people. Don't fall for his CERN propaganda.


Posted by: Matt F | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:05 AM
horizontal rule
52

50: You say hardon, I say hadron, let's call the *whole* thing off.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:07 AM
horizontal rule
53

Right. Because complacency on this issue could interfere with the vital and productive fretting we should be engaged in.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:08 AM
horizontal rule
54

Sifu just doesn't want us to know that he got hit by a beam and now has amazing superpowers.


Posted by: Mary Catherine | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:08 AM
horizontal rule
55

If you people could just get your stories straight, I could get all my fretting done by lunch.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:15 AM
horizontal rule
56

53: exactly!

52: my way is better.

54: that ain't news.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:18 AM
horizontal rule
57

As in "Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light" cross the streams?

Nah, as in "Do that thing we've been doing for decades, only with slightly more kick this time."

They all cross streams, people! It's kinda what matter and anti-matter do when you put them in the same magnetic field.

(I worked at FermiLab over the summer between my Junior and Senior year of high school, actually. Some of the preprocessors on the D0 detector in the latest run THAT DIDN'T PICK UP JACKSHIT, NOT THAT I'M BITTER were built in very small part by me. Whoo!)

Small black holes are lame. Any real science would have at least some chance to blow up the earth or unleash a monstrosity straight from Victorian horror literature.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:20 AM
horizontal rule
58

Oh man, Hadron is getting way too little attention here in the US. We've got at least another month to live.

See they gotta aim the beam. First they bend it 1/4 the way around and make sure it hits within the little containment rings. Then they try for half way. Then they try for the full circle, so it ends up where it started from.

If the aim is off the protons just nail the wall, causing no damage at all, or maybe the world ends, but probably not.

Once they get those protons running straight and true (in a circle so not straight and true but curved and, um, true when using circular reasoning I think) and whizzing by thousands of times a second, like maybe 11,000 times a second, then they can stick roses in there, freeze them, and watch them shatter when they hit a solid surface, although maybe that was a different Discovery Channel program I'm thinking of.

Anyway they stick stuff in there and look for the God particle, which I think is called a Boson's mate, although that might be the Mary Magdalen particle.

Regardless, if things go well I think it is about a month until the end of the world. It may take longer if they have some trouble tuning the super conducting magnets. Oh, and if the world doesn't end those same magnets will be used to send electricity from the Sahara to New York city to solve the energy crisis. The Hadron took 14 years to build, so I'm sure the trans-Atlantic super conducting cable will be coming along real soon now.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:21 AM
horizontal rule
59

What's fucked up about all this jokey fretting about what's going to happen when they turn the collider on is that the people doing this extremely interesting science are getting death threats because of idiots who really believe the hardon-collider-eats-the-world meme. Which makes me (hopefully) uncharacteristically humorless about the whole deal.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:24 AM
horizontal rule
60

my way is better

The Sifu Way:
Linking to websites that were funny for a brief period of time last year. Hey did you hear that some guy is making fun of what "white people" like?

Which makes me (hopefully) uncharacteristically humorless about the whole deal.

Ah, that explains it.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:29 AM
horizontal rule
61

Someone on the East Coast please kill Sifu. He's become paranoid and may put an end to life as we know it.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:29 AM
horizontal rule
62

60: dude that website's always funny. As is the website you linked to, in a Mall Ninja kind of way.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:31 AM
horizontal rule
63

Lay off of Sifu. Personally I am very interested in the Hadron and it is a crying shame that it is happening in Europe and not here in the US.

And some people are morons but I think ignoring them or treating them with mockery is the best we can do and also trying not to let them run our country.

When the Hadron doesn't end the world then the imbeciles will latch onto the next 'scare-o-the-year' and won't learn a goddamn thing about their immense fear and how irrational it is. At least somewhere in the world they are not ruled by fear, at least not now.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:34 AM
horizontal rule
64

63: Lay off of Sifu

Sexist.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:43 AM
horizontal rule
65

hardon-collider

Hee-hee.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:49 AM
horizontal rule
66

it is a crying shame that it is happening in Europe and not here in the US.

Yeah! We should build our own and make it bigger, faster, stronger, and in other ways more exceptional than their Old Europe science machines.


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:53 AM
horizontal rule
67

And some people are morons but I think ignoring them or treating them with mockery is the best we can do and also trying not to let them run our country.

Of whom are you speaking, Senator Biden?


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:59 AM
horizontal rule
68

66: Hey kids! Let's build a humongo supercollider somewhere in Texas!!


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:02 AM
horizontal rule
69

Duh-uh. They built it in Europe because that's where all the smart people are.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:02 AM
horizontal rule
70

69: So if they're all so smart, why did they build where they would be the first to die when it makes a black hole? ... yeah, I thought so ... USA! USA!


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:06 AM
horizontal rule
71

Does anyone here have more than knowledge by authority about the effects of any small black holes that would be produced by the supercollider?

I ask not because I am worried that the wold might actually end, but because I'm interested in the epistemology of the situation. Personally, all I have are essentially two arguments from authority. It is the expertise of the LHC scientists vs the expertise of the doubters. The LHC guys are clearly the more reliable authority, but I find it hard to get really worked up by arguments from authority in general. I'm certainly not going to call anyone a moron for doubting an argument from authority.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:06 AM
horizontal rule
72

65: Hee-hee-heebie-hee-hee.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:11 AM
horizontal rule
73

65: Don't kill Tripp yet, but track his movements just in case.

"Argument from authority"? Sifu?

Sure, if you call a paranoid who has not learned the lessons "Ghostbusters" taught us an "authority".


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:15 AM
horizontal rule
74

71: I don't do theoretical physics anymore, but talked about this with one of my old classmates who does. So it's still argument from authority but ... anyway, the main point is that there is a theory that allows for the creation of very, very small black holes, but if it's correct, it allows for it in other situations as well. So if we see them in the LHC, we should see them in cosmic radiation too, and those haven't eaten the earth. This is why the scientists aren't losing any sleep over it.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:16 AM
horizontal rule
75

Here's CERN's helpful safety page.

I'm a little disappointed to learn it's not going to make the world strange.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:18 AM
horizontal rule
76

I don't really understand how you can have an argument about the safety of a particle accelerator that's not from authority. Were you thinking we'd, like, do the math, rob?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:19 AM
horizontal rule
77

What's the Bildenberger position on this? Someone check with the LaRouchies.

My guess is that the Bildenbergers oppose the hardon collider, and that the LaRouchies -- like Sifu here -- support it.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:22 AM
horizontal rule
78

Yeah! We should build our own and make it bigger, faster, stronger, and in other ways more exceptional than their Old Europe science machines.

I get it, but the thing is in HS physics I toured the Fermi labs collider in Batavia Illinois and I know about the biggie in Texas and if it takes a 'space race' and pork for Texas to get this done then I don't care I want it done.

And when issues are backed up by scientific evidence then even if that evidence is presented in papers by 'authorities' it is not really an argument by an appeal to authority.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:23 AM
horizontal rule
79

I'm certainly not going to call anyone a moron for doubting an argument from authority.

Really? I'm not an epistemologist, but it seems to me that -- given how much we rely on testimony* for knowledge of anything except the world of our immediate acquaintance -- there's scope for an account of both warranted and unwarranted skepticism about particular authorities.

Completely unwarranted skepticism looks like something that we might be prepared to label 'moronic', no?

Also, what 76 says. If anyone here has some knowledge by means other than authority -- they actually are a particle physicist -- their information is just another piece of testimony, just testimony from someone you `know'.

FWIW, I have a couple of friends who are particle physicists -- one who worked at CERN a while back, and another who has some sort of connections there -- but I never though to ask them.

* I'm enough of an epistemologist to know that there's a moderate literature on knowledge by testimony even if I'm not actually familiar with it ...


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:24 AM
horizontal rule
80

71: Do you worry about if you were in a car accident you would accidently create a black hole that would eat the Earth?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:25 AM
horizontal rule
81

And when issues are backed up by scientific evidence then even if that evidence is presented in papers by 'authorities' it is not really an argument by an appeal to authority.

But if the argument is nothing but "the scientific authorities say...," without examination of the scientific evidence in those papers, then yes it is.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:26 AM
horizontal rule
82

58: a Boson's mate

I haven't been doing nuclear physics recently but isn't this the particle that ties knots and shouts "ahoy"?


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:31 AM
horizontal rule
83

I just want to dispute this notion that we have nothing to fear from small black holes. Does a tiny invisible thing flitting through your body and leaving a wormhole strike you as an okay thing?

At least, that's what Larry Niven said would happen, 40 years ago, in a different context.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:33 AM
horizontal rule
84

Brock,

Weeellll, the papers are reviewed by other scientists, and the experiments are generally tried by more than one group, so in the case of scientific debate each of us is not required to review every claim.

Yes, there is "faith" in the scientific process but I don't think that is really argument by authority in the traditional sense.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:34 AM
horizontal rule
85

BTW, did I jack the shit out of this thread, or what? Go me!


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:34 AM
horizontal rule
86

Oh, and now that I've looked at the CERN safety page, I feel less safe, because the guy on the right looks really weaselly.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:35 AM
horizontal rule
87

No, I don't expect anything other than an argument from authority on particle physics, and I am happy to admit that most of my knowledge of the world is knowledge by authority. What I'm surprised about is the vehemence of the arguments, for instance, in the claim that anyone who is worried about the LHC clearly doesn't understand probability and should also be worried about being hit by a baseball from an airplane.

There are a lot of places on the web that seem to be devoted to mocking those who doubt scientific authority. Pharyngula is one. These guys tend to treat all challenges to scientific authority equally. So doubting evolution is the same kind of mistake as wondering if themerisol might cause autism. Sites like that seem to be more about reinforcing tribal identity than science in the public interest.

I see some of that going on the the LHC, and it troubles me. I don't want expectations for scientific authority set too high.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:35 AM
horizontal rule
88

I haven't been doing nuclear physics recently but isn't this the particle that ties knots and shouts "ahoy"?

Yeah. It was originally called the Alexander Graham Bell particle, since Bell proposed "ahoy" as the proper greeting when using the telephone, but a recent meeting of the CCITT overturned that.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:36 AM
horizontal rule
89

84: Arguments from scientific journals are arguments from authority. They are just better arguments from authority You have increased the number of authorities and insured that have engaged in the practices which put them in a position to know the truth.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:38 AM
horizontal rule
90

rob,

I think Scientific American had a good rebuttal for the Hadron fear-mongers. I think. It seemed pretty darn reasonable to me but what do I know?


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:38 AM
horizontal rule
91

74 gets it right - cosmic rays of of energy far exceeding that of the LHC already pass through the earth. There are people who take advantage of this in order to look for particles, but it's much easier to cause the collisions yourself because then you can wrap your detector around the location of the collision and thereby get very good resolution of exactly what's going on as the collision debris flies out. That's the whole game with this kind of experiment - you look at the subatomic shrapnel and try to work backwards to whatever the hell it was that produced it.

Anyway, if the LHC is going to destroy the earth it will be by giving us knowledge of the deep structure of reality which we then use to build a device that falls into the hands of someone like Dubya.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:38 AM
horizontal rule
92

Yes, there is "faith" in the scientific process but I don't think that is really argument by authority in the traditional sense.

I don't think that follows. All that peer-reviewed publication is doing here is ensuring that the authority meets certain standards for reliability and transparency.

Scientific experts talking about their particular field of expertise are generally very good authorities, but they are authorities none-the-less.

on preview, pwned by Helpy-Chalk in 89


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:39 AM
horizontal rule
93

87: So doubting evolution is the same kind of mistake as wondering if themerisol might cause autism.

Given that both of these mistakes involve ignoring the consensus view of the scientific community, as expressed in papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, yeah, pretty much.

I mean, the reason the peer-review process exists is so that you can have a reasonable level of confidence that the consensus view accurately represents the best conclusions scientists have been able to draw from the available evidence, without having to redo every experiment yourself. To rate the opinion of some dude with a website, some dude who wrote an article, or your own bad self as equivalently likely to be empirical truth as a collection of papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals is, in fact, moronic.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:41 AM
horizontal rule
94

90: I'm actually not looking for a rebuttal. I think I read the Sci Am article at some point. I'm looking for an explanation of people's behavior around this issue. Or to be more precise, a challenge to my explanation of their behavior based on tribalism.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:41 AM
horizontal rule
95

rob,

Maybe they should be called 'arguments from scientific authority' for clarity. Otherwise creationists cause confusion by claiming they have their own authorities. They do this kind of thing with the scientific term 'theory,' equating it to another meaning and trying to discredit it that way.

Terms matter.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:41 AM
horizontal rule
96

Were you thinking we'd, like, do the math, rob?

It's not completely out to lunch to wonder if someone here might have done this, which is what I thought Rob was asking.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:41 AM
horizontal rule
97

not that 96 would be any less an argument from authority, natch.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:42 AM
horizontal rule
98

There are a lot of places on the web that seem to be devoted to mocking those who doubt scientific authority. Pharyngula is one. These guys tend to treat all challenges to scientific authority equally.

Yeah, that pisses me off. Especially when the science they are sometimes defending isn't necessarily the greatest exemplar out there.

Sites like that seem to be more about reinforcing tribal identity than science in the public interest.

Yeah, I think that's right. It's the 'engineer' syndrome all over again.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:42 AM
horizontal rule
99

"subatomic shrapnel."

Oooh, I like that term. In a similar vein, does anyone know how this shrapnel came to get such twee names?


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:44 AM
horizontal rule
100

93. But consider these two arguments.

Of course thimerosal is safe. The FDA conducted all the relevant tests, and scientists would never suppress information about dangerous drugs.
and
of course Vioxx is safe. The FDA conducted all the relevant tests, and scientists would never suppress information about dangerous drugs.

If you are a Vioxx fan, substitute Thalidomide. My point is that these arguments have the same form, and sometimes they are legitimate and important.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:45 AM
horizontal rule
101

re: 93

Yeah, as a general rule, that's probably reasonable; but that's also sort of crap, too. Scientists can also be full of shit and not all peer-reviewed work is equal.

On certain areas of science, damn right I'd trust my 'own bad self' over the views of some specific scientists. It's not the case that in all areas of science there exists a tidy consensus which can just be read off the scientific literature.

The sort of thing I have in mind here is not 'doubting evolution' but, say, 'doubting a particular account of one particular aspect of evolutionary theory where there are several incomensurable viewpoints in the literature'.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:47 AM
horizontal rule
102

99 - people with no social skills trying to be cute.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:50 AM
horizontal rule
103

Given that both of these mistakes involve ignoring the consensus view of the scientific community, as expressed in papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, yeah, pretty much.

There is a difference of scale though. The evidence for evolution as a whole is overwhelming, to the degree that very little else in science (outside of physics, anyway) can even begin to approach. Which isn't to say there isn't a lot of interesting open questions, but doubting the existence of evolution at all is somewhat like doubting that gravity is responsible for the planets orbits. The evidence is there, even relatively accessible for the layman who wants to spend a bit of time looking, it was sorted out a long time ago and there have been no serious challenges to it in the time since. Rejecting (the overall, general, theory of) evolution is roughly equivalent to rejecting science at all, at this point. This isn't to say that there is no possibility of a shift equivalent to say, classical-> modern physics possible in the future. Nothing is written in stone. But there is no rational basis for rejecting evolution, whatsoever.

So in that sense questioning the causes of autism is a lot more reasonable.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:50 AM
horizontal rule
104

100: except that it's not the FDA saying Thimerosal doesn't cause autism, it's the entire autism research community, backed up by both theoretical work on the nature of autism, empirical data on diagnostic standards, and empirical studies in countries that did ban Thimerosal and saw no reduction in autism. Do I really have to go back through and read all of those peer-reviewed papers to say that Thimerosal-hysterics waving the banner of unfounded worry are misguided with near total certainty, and the fact that they continue to wage what amounts to an unscientific policy campaign is at best a distraction from the work of understanding autism and helping autistics live happy and productive lives?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:50 AM
horizontal rule
105

Not to mention, Sifu, how far down the scientific food chain are you willing to extend this peer-review halo? *cough* *evolutionary psychology* *cough*


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:51 AM
horizontal rule
106

The current insanely stringent FDA regime is partly the result of Thalidomide, which was not approved in the US even under the much laxer standards then used.

The situation with Vioxx, where a compound is contraindicated for a portion of the population (like say aspartame for phenylketonurics) is common, and prevents a huge number of cheap medicines from being marketed.

I'm not psychic, but I expect that these drugs, coupled with haplotype tests to verify that they're OK for a particular patient, will come from India and China, not here.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:52 AM
horizontal rule
107

rob,

Both of those arguments are crap. They don't define 'safe,' they don't explain the experiments conducted and how to replicate them, and they refer to 'scientists' which is vague.

They attempt to coopt the language of science and use it fraudulently. Frigging marketers.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:53 AM
horizontal rule
108

I've been convinced that arguments from authority are good if the authority's good and you have good reason to believe it's good. Obviously you never reach a firm and unquestionable foundation that way, but that's life.

And to question an authority, you have to have reasons. You might see a conflict of interest, you might see errors, you might see bad arguments, you might see wrongly-formulated theories, you might have new data, and so on. All of these things require a considerable degree of literacy in the topic under discussion.

I frequently question the authority of mainstream American economics, but in order to do so even a little bit effectively I have to read a lot of stuff by non-mainstream (and renegade mainstream) economists. Even though I know that economists are not always wrong and are not always crippled by blind spots and conflicts of interest, I always begin by considering the possibility that they are.

I don't do this with evolutionary biology because I don't see problems with evolutionary biology, which to my knowledge doesn't have conflicts of interest and hasn't made arbitrary assumptions banning large areas of biological reality from the science.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:53 AM
horizontal rule
109

101: I'm not saying that a good consensus exists in all or even most situations, just that in both of the cases rob mentioned there is.

I mean, if his example had been e.g. "I'm not convinced string theory is ever going to lead to a useful grand unified theory" then, sure, doubt the authorities.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:54 AM
horizontal rule
110

109 to 105.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:55 AM
horizontal rule
111

togolosh,
99 - people with no social skills trying to be cute.

Goddamit I knew it! The same kind of people who ruined Unix and Linux.

Goddamit!


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:55 AM
horizontal rule
112

re: 109

Yeah, sure. I agree as a general rule of thumb.* We need pretty good reasons for being skeptical in the case of consensus positions widely supported by peer-reviewed experimental literature; and Joe-Public is rarely going to be in the position of having those good reasons.

* of course the philosopher of science in me wants to point to all those historical cases where there was some widely accepted and well-attested theory, agreed to by all the relevant authorites, and where that theory was later dumped ...


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 10:57 AM
horizontal rule
113

how this shrapnel came to get such twee names?

I love the Madysin quark myself.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:00 AM
horizontal rule
114

The distinction seems to be passe (Rorty doesn't accept it) but there are sciences whose prestige makes other people want to be scientists, and there are sciences which are desperately trying to make themselves scientific enough to have that prestige. The latter group is the problematic one, and I say that's where economics belongs (even though they've succeeded in cowing some of the other sciences into imitating them).

Where there's an enormous economic interest at stake, corruption is obviously more likely. (Of course, dissidents have economic interests too, often in a big way -- global warming skeptics, tobacco companies).

One idea I've been promoting with little success is that historical sciences are deeply different than ahistorical (theoretical, timeless, universal) science like physics, and that when a science studying historical phenomena (e.g. economics) tries to make itself into a theoretical science, very serious problems arise.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:01 AM
horizontal rule
115

I mean, what's frustrating about the epistemological assumptions rob's making is that they seem to forbid the use of critical thinking in the evaluation of authority. Yes, peer review can be flawed, and yes the scientific community can be dogmatically resistant to usefully contradictory evidence, but in the absence of a better way of evaluating the empirical validity of a given theory, debates over whether or not that's happening should happen within the framework of peer-reviewed scientific journals because otherwise you're chucking the baby of expertise out with the bathwater of occasional intellectual arrogance.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:02 AM
horizontal rule
116

Does "historical" mean something different that "social" in 114?


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:04 AM
horizontal rule
117

112: Even though it would encourage the creationists, I'd like to see a book listing and analyzing these episodes. Plate techtonics was one. Relativity was a famous one, but it really was an expansion and revision of Newtonian physics, not a complete rejection.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:05 AM
horizontal rule
118

Even though I know that economists are not always wrong and are not always crippled by blind spots and conflicts of interest, I always begin by considering the possibility that they are.

And god does it piss them off. I know I've related before the story of how I basically ended a couples friendship AB & I had with a woman and her economist husband: I mentioned at dinner some Surowiecki article about counter-rational behavior by taxi drivers, and the guy basically lost his shit*. Thing is, I come from a field that fucked up massively in the 20thC, and am therefore open to the idea that orthodoxies may be flawed. Economics seems to be a special case (social scientists insecure that they aren't real scientists), but I suspect that most fields are insufficiently comfortable with the idea that the dominant paradigms might be all wrong.

* Calling me sleazy and insisting that I was morally unfit to be president


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:08 AM
horizontal rule
119

Yes, in historical sciences (geology, history, evolution) things really change, and change is often unpredictable. Much of physics can be understood as the reversible rearrangement of things that don't change.

The lines have been drawn since chaos/complexity and unpredictability were found even in physics. Timeless, universal laws are a lot fewer than they used to be, and in many cases predictive determinism is no longer regarded as possible.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:10 AM
horizontal rule
120

JRoth has my vote, if he can show that he's in some way used violence against large cervids or bovids. LB's buffalo-killing parents are also now eligible candidates.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:12 AM
horizontal rule
121

re: 117

Such books exist. Various things in the post-Kuhnian tradition, for example.

On the epistemology of science science you have things like Larry Laudan's 'Confutation of Convergent Realism' [really very well worth reading] and a whole bunch of papers that, to a certain extent, spin off that and the whole idea of the 'pessimistic meta-induction'.

(John, I can email you a copy of Laudan if you want it)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pessimistic_induction

The structural realist literature, for example, is quite big on looking at those sorts of historical shifts and identifying the ways in which there was a continuity at an abstract, mathematical level.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/structural-realism/


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:14 AM
horizontal rule
122

Plate techtonics was one.

I'm fascinated by this one, because I guess the theory was developed just a few years before my birth, but it was already widely accepted when I was little, and it's so obvious to any layman looking at a map. Yet, apparently, I was like 10 years old before it became less than controversial. It was amazing to learn, as a young adult, that this thing I had always taken as a given was in fact a matter of live debate during my lifetime (Iris will feel the same way about the criminality of GWB, I hope).


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:14 AM
horizontal rule
123

JRoth has my vote, if he can show that he's in some way used violence against large cervids or bovids.

A lot of people say my dog looks like a fox or coyote, and I can be pretty rough on him when he gets into the alley and tears up the trash.

Thank you for your support.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:16 AM
horizontal rule
124

I think the general rule for trusting authority has to weigh the interests of the authority in having their opinion widely believed. All would-be authorities have an interest in being believed, but for some it's more important than for others. I think that part of the reason for the widespread influence of Freidmanite ideas in economics is the fact that these ideas are popular with people who are in a position to hand out large amounts of money. I doubt that the effect is conscious, but the subconscious pretty much runs the show IMO.

JRoth@118 - do you have a link to the story somewhere in the archives? I love hearing about economists being made miserable. Also, are you in psych? It was far and away the my favorite of the distribution requirement courses I took as an undergrad.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:18 AM
horizontal rule
125

No, it has to be a great big thing.

ttaM, please do. Emersonj at gmail.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:18 AM
horizontal rule
126

JRoth@118 - do you have a link to the story somewhere in the archives?

No, and I wonder if it's not in there (maybe I misspelled surowiecki). There's not much more to it than my summary in 118, but:

The Surowiecki bit was simply that taxi drivers in NYC act irrationally about nightly fares: on slow nights, they stay out forever, trying to reach some arbitrary threshold; on busy nights, they reach another, higher threshold, then go home, even though they could earn even more money with a small marginal work input. Obviously, there's some sense in which this is rational behavior - they feel shitty going home with a tiny take, working a busy night is extra-tiring, whatever - but it's not one that can be numerically modeled, and it certainly isn't home economus behavior.

So, at this dinner party (for which I had made beef Wellington from scratch, including puff pastry, and which lives on to this day as AB's ultimate example of me stressing out over a meal, but it was fucking delicious) with 2 other couples, I casually mention this Surowiecki piece as an example of how irrational people's economic behavior could be. And the guy gets very defensive, denying the basic facts - "that couldn't be true" and going on to get really heated. I didn't quite match him, but I certainly got animated. The other couple agreed afterwards that he'd been kind of a dick. Subsequently, the wives discussed it and we learned that the guy was deeply offended, and asked, "How would J like it if I questioned the very foundations of architecture?" To which, as I said above, my response would be, "You're right! Architects get shit wrong all the time."

We still see these people socially maybe once a year, and there's still palpable tension. Which I do feel kind of bad about, since AB and the wife really get along well. But I did apologize; what more could I do?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:37 AM
horizontal rule
127

122: Yes, the Continental Drift/Plate Tectonics story is a great one. One of the hardest exam questions I ever had was in a historical survey of Geology. It was basically "describe the development of the xyz using pre-plate tectonics theory". It was so much more complicated (and clearly wrong), that it was hard to even it keep it my head. I assume an analogous question in physics would be to do an aether-based explanation of something that relativity nails.

Years ago I worked with a guy who wrote what became known as the last significant pre-plate tectonics explanation of magnetic striping of seafloors. He was a brilliant guy.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:38 AM
horizontal rule
128

"How would J like it if I questioned the very foundations of architecture?"

Which would be foundations?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:39 AM
horizontal rule
129

It's not completely out to lunch to wonder if someone here might have done this, which is what I thought Rob was asking.

For someone to worry about miniture black holes being produced in the collider, they'd also have to accept the (effective) truth of a great deal of modern (not classical!) physics, up to and including black holes. There is actually very little empirical evidence for the existence of black holes.

Having swallowed all that to begin with, I think I'm allowed to do back of the envelope calculations. (Really coarse ones.)

So: to create a black hole (if they actually exist), I need a star larger than 1.44 solar masses, at least. Anything star smaller than that gets me a black dwarf or white dwarf.

There is no where near enough mass/energy involved in any collider collisions to make a normal black hole (or a star for that matter). So that's out.

If I expected some kind of particle accelerator to produce midget black holes, I would expect all such accelerators to produce black holes. And guess what? I have an absolutely fabulous accelerator right next door, called 'the sun'. (Again, accepting astrophysics.) If highly energetic collisions produce midget black holes that do not evaporate, then the sun should have been consumed already; 4.6 billion years is more than enough time for even the smallest black hole (that can grow) to consume the sun. Further, if midget black holes are generated by highly energetic collisions, then they should be created all over the universe, which rather strongly implies that if I went outside and looked up, the universe should be black, except for lots of exciting X-ray radiation, and also, we shouldn't exist. We do. Ergo, if we exist, midget black holes either do not exist, or evaporate, or are not created by natural (i.e. physically possible) processes.

The collider is not magic, the last I heard, so it follows that any black holes generated will evaporate, unless we somehow have stumbled upon a method that can produce (unnatural) black holes unnaturally.

Believing that the collider will destroy the earth requires that I believe physicists are all wrong (which they could be) and that they are all powerful at the same time. Which is magical thinking of the sort that would have airplanes falling out of the sky.

I'm looking for an explanation of people's behavior around this issue. Or to be more precise, a challenge to my explanation of their behavior based on tribalism.

I'm sure plenty of it is tribal, which doesn't mean it's wrong.

max
['Totem in a vat!']


Posted by: max | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:40 AM
horizontal rule
130

We still see these people socially maybe once a year, and there's still palpable tension. Which I do feel kind of bad about, since AB and the wife really get along well. But I did apologize; what more could I do?

Maybe you should tell the guy he's being irrational.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:40 AM
horizontal rule
131

Which would be foundations?

Yeah, I know, as I wrote that, I sort of paused. But what the hell.

Maybe you should tell the guy he's being irrational.

Awesome.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:42 AM
horizontal rule
132

126: But I did apologize; what more could I do?

When you're right and the other guy's wrong, a mere apology isn't good enough.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:45 AM
horizontal rule
133

132 is really really good.

It also explains electoral dynamics in the US for at least the last 40 years.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:46 AM
horizontal rule
134

Believing that the collider will destroy the earth requires that I believe physicists are all wrong (which they could be) and that they are all powerful at the same time. Which is magical thinking of the sort that would have airplanes falling out of the sky.

This is wonderful.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:48 AM
horizontal rule
135

126 - as I suspected, I liked the story. In large part it's because it confirms my bias against economists.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:49 AM
horizontal rule
136

129: I find max's post to be highly convincing, based on the assured but breezy writing style and a general feeling of "yeah, that sounds right." Kind of like watching the Palin speech. We are so not going to blow up.


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:50 AM
horizontal rule
137

To continue 134: believing in the hardon-eats-worlds concept really does mean simultaneously believing that a huge amount of fairly speculative particle physics is in fact true and that the people who proposed that physics are completely wrong about how it works.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:50 AM
horizontal rule
138

But no one really believes it's going to eat the world, sifu. The belief is that there's a very slim theoretical possiblity that it might, and that maybe, since we don't really fully understand what we're doing, that's not a risk worth running.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:54 AM
horizontal rule
139

believing in the hardon-eats-worlds concept really does mean believing everything apo has ever said.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:54 AM
horizontal rule
140

I didn't used to worry about the collider at all, but now I'm asking myself, "Why are Sifu and Max so intent on convincing me that the collider is safe? How dangerous is it, anyway? What haven't we been told?"


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 11:55 AM
horizontal rule
141

140: sifu is shorting "world exists" futures.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:00 PM
horizontal rule
142

140: sifu is shorting "world exists" futures.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:00 PM
horizontal rule
143

Sweet Jesus I hate the goddamn internets.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:01 PM
horizontal rule
144

Plate tectonics went from invention to wide acceptance reasonably quickly. The older theory of continental drift was not widely accepted because there was no plausible mechanism. No one could explain how continents float on top of the ocean. Once they discovered that the rock in the ocean is much newer than the rock that makes up the land, and the mechanism of seafloor spreading was suggested, plate tectonics developed quickly.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:01 PM
horizontal rule
145

To quibble with Max's explanation, the 1.44 solar masses isn't related to the energy required to create a black hole: it is the size a sun needs to become a black hole. There are other ways a black hole can form (theoretically).


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:01 PM
horizontal rule
146

138 doesn't make sense. If no one really believes it's going to eat the world, then they don't believe it's going to eat the world. If they believe it might eat the world, for any value of "might" stronger than "you might get eaten by a tiger in the next twenty five seconds", then they're picking and choosing which physics to believe for no rational reason.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:01 PM
horizontal rule
147

137: Not to mention that our physicists managed to build something MORE POWERFUL THAN SPACE ITSELF!!!! with Switzerland and France's science budget scraps.

But togolosh really gets the gist of the particle physics, at least as far as I understand them, in 91. Basically, these particles that we produce with the accelerator should be appearing and disappearing in space, just much less frequently and in a much more spread out way than in the accelerator collision chambers. But extremely few of those particles are actually stable. Most of them fizzle out before they can even travel the 4-5 feet from the collision area to the initial detector arrays built around it. What scientists are actually examining are the radiation emissions, and the energies of the few stable particles like leptons and photons (all of which are pretty routine in day-to-day life) that actually make it through the detectors. Theory already lays out what patterns should be expected from the decay of the various particles we're looking for, so those events get flagged for further examination. I assume any WTF? events also get passed on so the theoreticians can go back to the drawing board with them, but I don't remember that happening in any of the previous accelerator runs at CERN or FermiLab off the top of my head.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:01 PM
horizontal rule
148

I mean, what's frustrating about the epistemological assumptions rob's making is that they seem to forbid the use of critical thinking in the evaluation of authority.

Gosh, that's the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I'm trying to get people to use critical thinking in evaluating authority, and that means sometimes questioning the authority of scientists.

Funding bias is a *huge* problem in all of the life sciences right now. It effects evaluations of drug safety, the toxicity of pollutants and food safety & nutrition. It would be a big mistake to let general comments about peer review and plus some name calling hide that fact.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:03 PM
horizontal rule
149

I'm trying to get people to use critical thinking in evaluating authority, and that means sometimes questioning the authority of scientists.

Then the Thimerosal example was poorly chosen, because buying that requires total abrogation of critical thinking.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:05 PM
horizontal rule
150

It's actually not worth worrying about, we're just all doomed. It's not like we can go anywhere to hide or anything. Fucking Europeans.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:06 PM
horizontal rule
151

I assume an analogous question in physics would be to do an aether-based explanation of something that relativity nails.

The cool thing about the aetheric stuff is that in a lot of cases the mathematics is exactly the same -- it's a wave in an elastic solid rather than a transverse wave in a field but the basic maths is similar. Or at least in the cases used by philosophers as little 'noddy'-examples. Fresnel's spot, for example.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:07 PM
horizontal rule
152

believing in the hardon-eats-worlds concept really does mean believing everything apo has ever said.

THE MAN IS A GODDAMNED PROPHET, PEOPLE! YOU BETTA RECOGNIZE!


Posted by: OPINIONATED HARDON | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:08 PM
horizontal rule
153

What I don't understand about your question, rob, is that the idea that the collider might result in black holes, or even the very existence of black holes themselves (seen one lately?) require arguments from authority.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:08 PM
horizontal rule
154

Not to mention that our physicists managed to build something MORE POWERFUL THAN SPACE ITSELF!!!! with Switzerland and France's science budget scraps.

Ain't science grand? If they hadn't destroyed the world, they would have given us an infinite supply of energy. That's the breaks.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:09 PM
horizontal rule
155

The belief is that there's a very slim theoretical possiblity that it might, and that maybe, since we don't really fully understand what we're doing, that's not a risk worth running.

There's a slim theoretical probability that a person could instantaneously dissapate and reconstitute 6 feet to their right. This is in fact a probability that's roughly calculable using quantum mechanics, and I remember hearing a professor who would use it as an interview question for new hires. Needless to say, it's not a probability that keeps me up at night. We're talking in the same basic realm here.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:09 PM
horizontal rule
156

Right. It's questioning authority by appeal to a different, less authoritative authority. Feynman's watching you!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:10 PM
horizontal rule
157

106 The situation with Vioxx, where a compound is contraindicated for a portion of the population (like say aspartame for phenylketonurics) is common, and prevents a huge number of cheap medicines from being marketed.

107: Both of those arguments are crap. They don't define 'safe,' they don't explain the experiments conducted and how to replicate them, and they refer to 'scientists' which is vague.

You guys are right. In the argument, I should have said "Of course this Vioxx treatment plan is safe for someone like you. The FDA approved Vioxx for cases like this and scientists never suppress evidence about drug safety."

For the Thalidomide version, I should have specified the UK version of the FDA.

The general point still stands. People have every right to be concerned about the safety of drugs beyond simply asking whether they are FDA approved. The FDA process may be too cumbersome in some ways, but it is definitely too loose in other ways.

As long as drug companies can sponsor a safety trial, and then sit on the evidence if it comes out the wrong way, there is not enough transparency in the drug approval process to simply accept the FDAs say so.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:10 PM
horizontal rule
158

Plate tectonics went from invention to wide acceptance reasonably quickly.

Yeah, growing up my dad had books on the shelf that he'd picked up when he was younger which were dismissive of plate-tectonics. Main stream books, too. Not nutty stuff.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:11 PM
horizontal rule
159

As long as drug companies can sponsor a safety trial, and then sit on the evidence if it comes out the wrong way, there is not enough transparency in the drug approval process to simply accept the FDAs say so.

Something nobody, as far as I can see, has proposed doing.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:11 PM
horizontal rule
160

155: okay, and I think the doubters would say that you're underestimating one of the two probabilities.

I'm actually not trying to take sides here.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:12 PM
horizontal rule
161

John makes a good point. Maybe they already destroyed the world, and this is what it feels like.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:12 PM
horizontal rule
162

For the Thalidomide version, I should have specified the UK version of the FDA.

These days, the MCA/MHRA. Not sure what it was called back then.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:12 PM
horizontal rule
163

144: The older theory of continental drift was not widely accepted because there was no plausible mechanism

Although I read a very good book once (that I frustratingly cannot recall enough about to find*), that argued that the "no good mechanism" argument is a bit of a red herring, in that at the time of aceptance (and even now) there were many holes in the understanding of mechanisms. Wegener has a lot more of it right in the early 20th century than he is given credit for. (He also gets kudos for dying "heroically" on a expedition to the Greenland icecap.)

*It was general discussion of "hard" versus "soft" sciences (in this context geology and biology are 'soft"). They even described a "law" that was basically "Hard science tends to win over soft science even in places where soft science is more appropriate". An example given was the Lord Kelvin/age of the earth stuff in the late 19th century.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:13 PM
horizontal rule
164

163: at the time of acceptance

Of plate tectonics.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:14 PM
horizontal rule
165

of course the philosopher of science in me wants to point to all those historical cases where there was some widely accepted and well-attested theory, agreed to by all the relevant authorites, and where that theory was later dumped ...

This is an important thing to understand about science, but it's argument against accepting the scientific consensus in absence of a better theory.

also, 74 is a short version of 129, basically.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:15 PM
horizontal rule
166

As long as drug companies can sponsor a safety trial, and then sit on the evidence if it comes out the wrong way

That is not nearly as simple as you make it sound.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:15 PM
horizontal rule
167

The post title is excellent and understated.

Also, "the hardon supercollider" is excellent.


Posted by: Wrongshore | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:16 PM
horizontal rule
168

and I remember hearing a professor who would use it as an interview question for new hires.

The canonical version of this is the probability of your glass of milk sloshing itself out of the glass. Shows up on upper division exams pretty regularly, as I recall.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:17 PM
horizontal rule
169

That is not nearly as simple as you make it sound.

Not simple, no, but actually practiced with some success.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:17 PM
horizontal rule
170

153: I guess I'm not being clear here. I accept arguments from authority. I teach a unit in my critical thinking course on how to correctly evaluate authorities. I have no fears regarding the Large Hadron Collider.

However, I think that calling anyone a moron for doubting scientific authority is counter-productive to critical thinking.

When the Themerisol debate first surfaced, I did not dismiss the Themerisol people as crazy, because their argument had the same form as legitimate arguments about drug safety. After I did some research, I came to the conclusion that these concerns were unfounded. Further research that Lindsay Beyerstein did made me think that the Themerisol opponents were using evidence dishonestly. (Yes, an argument from authority.) None of this, however, is the same as dismissing the Themerisol opponents out of hand.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:18 PM
horizontal rule
171

165 should have read "it's not an argument..."


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:18 PM
horizontal rule
172

re: 171

Yeah, it's more a way of poking scientific triumphalists.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:19 PM
horizontal rule
173

Ok 170 is sensible but I think there is another category.

Sometime arguments, and the people making them, are dismissed out of hand because they are old arguments that have been adequately addressed in the past. People get tired of hearing them come up, particularly from people too willfully ignorant to realized they're simply propogating an old, discredited, position.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:21 PM
horizontal rule
174

None of this, however, is the same as dismissing the Themerisol opponents out of hand.

Except, at a certain point, things have been so thoroughly and manifestly debunked that you can and should do this, because the people still promoting the idea are anti-scientific and acting counter to the goal of expanding our knowledge of autism. You could take the time to carefully explain the same problems over and over to people without the expertise to really join the debate, or you could tell people to kindly shut the fuck up with their pointless bullshit so you can actually get work done. I certainly don't begrudge anybody who chooses the latter route, especially when the pointless bullshit so often aims to affect either policy or funding.

Thimerosal is actually a great example because, despite the fact that it's been totally debunked, you have fucking Presidential candidates from both parties validating it: this is not good for the cause of accurately understanding the world around us.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:24 PM
horizontal rule
175

I mentioned at dinner some Surowiecki article about counter-rational behavior by taxi drivers, and the guy basically lost his shit*.

if you're talking about Linda Babcock's research on labor supply by taxi drivers, all the economists I knew in grad school loved that paper and it was frequently assigned in classes. Insta-classic type territory.

Maybe this guy was just a prick?


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:28 PM
horizontal rule
176

People get tired of hearing them come up, particularly from people too willfully ignorant to realized they're simply propogating an old, discredited, position

Here's my worry. People who work at the interface between science and the public, or who just find themselves there, like PZ Myers, get tired of repeating themselves, and start looking at any challenge to scientific authority as a political threat by the willfully ignorant. But this, is in fact, not generally the case. Most challenges to science come from people who either (1) are new to an issue or (2) have legitimate concerns.

A philosopher of science came to Texas Tech and gave a long talk mocking creationists and attempting to diagnose the source of their mental disease. He was surprised to find that out in west Texas, the audience didn't laugh along with him. They were mostly creationists. When he was finally asked to directly describe the evidence base for Darwinian theory, he totally punted. This is a problem I see far too often.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:28 PM
horizontal rule
177

Eddington quantified the possibility of the equivalent of "your glass of milk sloshing itself out of the glass" as much smaller than the possibility of a million monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare. How much smaller I forget. "Merely statistically unlikely" = "impossible" if the improbability is high enough.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:28 PM
horizontal rule
178

I'm not criticizing Wegener. A successful theory requires many individual contributions. The theory of plate tectonics requires a bunch of surprising things to be true. Once the evidence moved those things from being implausible to being plausible, the theory became actively developed, and then widely accepted.

170: That's why I don't understand your original question.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:30 PM
horizontal rule
179

Most challenges to science come from people who either (1) are new to an issue or (2) have legitimate concerns.

Not to be too much of a little bitch, but... how exactly do you know this?


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:31 PM
horizontal rule
180

1. Communicating scientific results to the public requires repeating yourself a lot.

2. All scientists share some responsibility in communicating their results to the public.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:31 PM
horizontal rule
181

re: 176

A philosopher of science came to Texas Tech and gave a long talk mocking creationists ... When he was finally asked to directly describe the evidence base for Darwinian theory, he totally punted.

Really? I wonder who that was. Many of the philosophers who work directly in the philosophy of biology would have relished the chance, I'd have thought.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:32 PM
horizontal rule
182

Not to be too much of a little bitch, but... how exactly do you know this?

Mostly, from teaching evolution in philosophy of science and philosophy of biology classes. Most people doubt evolution because most people have not thought about it very long at all. Insulting these people is counter-productive.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:33 PM
horizontal rule
183

181: I forget his name. It was a real let down. The year before I had been a TA for David Hull, and I had plenty of experience with people who could have given a good answer. Mostly the problem was the guy misunderstood who is audience was, so he wasn't prepared.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:35 PM
horizontal rule
184

176: if you're saying that there's a problem with science education in this country such that ignorance is parised and people grow up with no understanding of the scientific method, well, I agree with you, but I hardly think the problem lies with scientists.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:35 PM
horizontal rule
185

71 Does anyone here have more than knowledge by authority about the effects of any small black holes that would be produced by the supercollider?

Yes. And Sifu's 137 gets it exactly right.

The whole mess is completely ridiculous. Essentially no one believes the LHC can make black holes at all; it's only possible if there happen to be large extra dimensions. Where large means many orders of magnitude larger than anyone had reasonably expected before 1998 or so. The remarkably strange thing is that we can't conclusively rule out these large extra dimensions, but there's no very good reason for them to be there.

If they are there, we might have a chance at making black holes at the LHC. Now, since we're talking about black holes, presumably we believe general relativity (there are heaps of experiments that attest to its truth in most situations, so we really should). If you believe general relativity, and you believe quantum mechanics (even better supported by experiments), then you have to believe Hawking's calculations from the 70s that show that black holes decay.

So the only danger comes from accepting the wildly improbable scenario where we make black holes at the LHC, and further accepting that general relativity and quantum mechanics break down in precisely such a way that every experiment we've ever done before is safe, and that black holes still exist and are created in the way we expect, but that they don't decay in the way we expect. It's nonsense to even try to put a probability on that; we have no theory that could ever exhibit behavior like that. We have to give up key principles of physics to even make sense of the possibility. The game that people have played with cosmic rays and so on (and the latest, most sophisticated version of that is a paper by Giddings and Mangano that you can find on the web) all involve somehow making some completely ridiculous set of assumptions to allow for the possibility of making stable black holes, and showing that even then we're not in danger. It's absurd that they have to do this at all, but I guess the threat of lawsuits is enough to motivate it.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:36 PM
horizontal rule
186

184 see 180.2


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:37 PM
horizontal rule
187

It's actually not worth worrying about, we're just all doomed. It's not like we can go anywhere to hide or anything.

I can't speak for the cranks, but I'll note that this played a role in me thinking about this enough to derail this thread. I hadn't read enough on the theory/hoax to know whether it was going to be a micro-black hole that would (I guess) give us some warning, or if we were in 'wink out of existence' territory (turns out, per Sifu's CERN link, both theories are out there). The idea of 'wink out of existence' is, to me, bracing. Even an unexpected tiger would give me some fraction of a second to comprehend my statistically unlikely ending. An unseen car would presumably hit me while crossing a street, an activity I comprehend as dangerous, even if I thought there were no cars around. But some scientist (in Europe, no less) flips a switch and everything stops? Freaky, man.

Anyway, all that said, I always assumed it was ignorant nonsense. 31 was, of course, a joke.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:38 PM
horizontal rule
188

On the willful ignorance tip, Slacktivist has a really good post up about the people who spread the Satanic Proctor & Gamble legend*, and about how he came to the conclusion that the people spreading the legend weren't ignorant, but malicious.

* Amway. Really.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:40 PM
horizontal rule
189

186: so you're saying that -- to take the example at hand -- the scientists building the Large Hadron Collider bear some responsibility for the fact that ignorant people are sending them death threats?

Look, the reason people in your classes doubt evolution is because there are lots of people trying to convince them that it's wrong. It's not like people emerge naively into the world, are told about evolution, and then say "huh, not sure I buy it." It's rather more like there are thousands of people -- a whole industry, in fact, with books, museums, celebrity spokespeople, and every manner of "authority" -- trying to mislead them. To call those people out as liars or fools seems, to me, entirely appropriate.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:43 PM
horizontal rule
190

There are also perhaps some sociological things at work here that help this persist. It's fun to joke about. It, obviously, can provoke interesting conversations. And as physicists we love to play the game of "how much violence can we do to the underlying principles that seem to govern the universe while still being consistent with everything we know and allowing for this totally crazy possibility?", which tends to be a fun game that helps us to understand what we really know and what we don't. We do this not because we think the totally crazy things are true, but because figuring out how we know for sure that they're not true is enlightening. Sometimes even the tiniest violations of physical principles would lead to consequences that would be completely obvious, and sometimes they wouldn't. Unfortunately, this is a case where playing that sort of theoretical game leads to playing along with the crazy paranoid people a bit too much. Probably all this talk should have been quashed years ago, but our willingness to take crazy ideas as far as possible has allowed this to really take hold. When people like Frank Wilczek are getting death threats, it's gone too far.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:45 PM
horizontal rule
191

189: No the problem is too systemic to say that misconception X is caused by scientists Y. I would say that in general doubts like this come up because in general scientists do a crappy job of talking with the public.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:46 PM
horizontal rule
192

I'd like to see a book listing and analyzing these episodes. Plate techtonics was one. Relativity was a famous one, but

Dinosaurs and asteroids is another. Used to be that dinosaurs were unfit for survival. Now we know they got blasted.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:46 PM
horizontal rule
193

I thought Vioxx was more or less safe, and was certainly safe enough for use in the population of people who get stomach problems from NSAIDs. Of course, that population is very small, and they'd already spent a shit-ton of money making the damn thing, so it got turned into Son of Advil, for which it was probably not safe enough.

Anyway, the plausible sounding concern about the LHC was that these cosmic ray created mini-black-holes would have a large velocity relative to the earth and so keep on trucking, while the LHC ones would be at rest, being formed by two streams traveling the same speed in opposite directions.. Once I read an explanation of how the LHC ones are not actually at rest (the streams aren't going in EXACTLY the opposite direction, and are going fast enough that it matters), I stopped worrying.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:47 PM
horizontal rule
194

if you're talking about Linda Babcock's research on labor supply by taxi drivers, all the economists I knew in grad school loved that paper and it was frequently assigned in classes. Insta-classic type territory.

Well, the Surowiecki piece would have been 5-6 years ago; does that timeframe correlate?

Maybe this guy was just a prick?

Not discounting the possibility.

To be fair, I probably started with a broad, "economics is teh suxxor because people are irrational" claim that got his back up, leading him to argue against evidence that he would normally have found interesting, rather than threatening. But, you know, shut up and enjoy your beef Wellington, you ungrateful fuck.

Other possible problem: he's a teetotaler, which would have made him the only sober person at the table. Fucking sober people ruin everything.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:48 PM
horizontal rule
195

When people like Frank Wilczek are getting death threats, it's gone too far.

Fucking Wilczek.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:50 PM
horizontal rule
196

191: so people doubt global warming because scientists haven't made it clear enough? Really? There's no ulterior motive there? People doubt evolution for reasons having nothing to do with religion? People have a general distrust of the scientific establishment not because powerful interests -- mostly, but by no means exclusively, on the right side of the political spectrum -- have a huge vested interest in nurturing that impulse, but because scientists just haven't been clear enough?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:50 PM
horizontal rule
197

188: In fact, Amway, Blackwater, and Domino's are all politically connected.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:51 PM
horizontal rule
198

That's why I don't understand your original question.

I actually had conflicting motives, so the whole thing probably came out wrong. I wanted to know who here had more than an argument from authority. As 96 suggests, I had a hunch that many in this crowd did have more than an argument from authority. I also had a hunch that people's vehemence on this issue didn't correlate well with the quality of their knowledge. I didn't think things through much after that, which is probably why it wound up sparking an argument.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:51 PM
horizontal rule
199

Most challenges to science come from people who either (1) are new to an issue or (2) have legitimate concerns.

Mostly, from teaching evolution in philosophy of science and philosophy of biology classes.

Let's be a little careful here. I think that classrooms are a special case, and certainly must be treated differently. And you should never mock a students position, regardless.

More generally, though, I believe your claim to be false. As far as I can see most, but certainly not all, challenges to science that occur in the public sphere come from either embedded interests who stand to lose financially if the information is propagated (eg. tobacco, energy companies, anti-regulation types) or from religious groups who are feeling threatened by the information (eg creationists). In both cases, we often see organized campaigns of misinformation, disinformation, and often out and out lying. Often this involves rote repetition of arguments that have been thoroughly discredited, pursued by people who know perfectly well they have been discredited. In this same public sphere, such arguments and people should be ridiculed and shamed.

I agree it becomes a little bit tricky when dealing with an adherent of these beliefs who really hasn't heard anything else. They are ignorant, but not willfully so or merely malicious. However, it is a perfectly reasonable response to such to just say "You really don't have any idea what you're talking about, but I'd be happy to discuss it with you once you have learned a bit about the current state of things --- and here are some resources". You don't have to engage an old argument as if it were a new one merely because it is newly (and often quite confusedly) stated.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:52 PM
horizontal rule
200

Also, there's a pretty clear demonstration of how it can be rational to be unconvinced by long deductive arguments, "long" determined by your odds of getting one of the steps wrong.

The strangelet theory of how the LHC could destroy everything is also pretty scary, but has received less press.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:53 PM
horizontal rule
201

196: I didn't say that poor communication with the public was the only problem. I just said it was an important problem.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:53 PM
horizontal rule
202

Most people doubt evolution because most people have not thought about it very long at all. Insulting these people is counter-productive.

Really? Do most people doubt gravity because they haven't thought about it very long at all? I agree that scientists should do a better job at communicating with the public (I, for one, am terrible at such things), but surely a great deal of responsibility should go to the media for allowing anti-science interests a prominent voice?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:55 PM
horizontal rule
203

I'll certainly cop to having a very vague understanding of the actual science, and arguing almost purely from (a) authority, (b) a general sense that what essear described in 190 was what was going on, and (c) a general sense of how wrongheaded and insidious bullshit anti-scientific "open mindedness" is in this country.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:55 PM
horizontal rule
204

Ooh, this interesting from the comments on the Slacktivist post I linked earlier:

Years ago in college I took a class in computer-simulation design. The final project was a simulation on the subject of our own choosing, and I decided to simulate the spread of rumors through a population. I essentially used an epidemiological model, and included controls to configure various probabilities--the odds that someone who believed a given rumor would relay it to someone else; the odds that the someone else would believe it, and so on. I did my best to put these values into ranges that matched real-world behavior, and then I twiddled the knobs to see what would happen.

One of the knobs controlled the probability that someone who knew a story to be false would forcefully debunk it whenever s/he heard it. And that knob turned out to be astonishingly sensitive and powerful. In the hundreds of scenarios I ran, I found that a tiny shift in the probability of that one factor--a difference as small as one part in ten thousand--could be the difference between a rumor being universally believed (except for a handful of skeptical cranks) and a rumor being universally forgotten (except for a similar handful of credulous cranks).

Sometimes it took quite a long time for false rumors to be completely quelled. And the simulation didn't take into account a change in the odds over time, as debunkers grow demoralized and give up challenging the rumor when they hear it. But it seems to me that just strengthens the argument for debunking--there should be as many people linking to snopes and hitting "reply all" as possible, so that there'll still be enough as their numbers dwindle. Every little bit helps.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:55 PM
horizontal rule
205

199: The thing is, most of the time you are not talking to agitators, whom I fully acknowledge are dishonest. But the agitators are numerically quite small. Most of the time you are talking in public, to normal people, about something an agitator has said in public to normal people.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:56 PM
horizontal rule
206

come up because in general scientists do a crappy job of talking with the public.

I think there is some truth here. However, there are two things to consider --- one, it has never been considered as part of their job, really, and so people are neither inclined nor prepared to do it. Furthermore, the media does a generally terrible job with scientific news, and many scientists have good reason not to trust them at all.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 12:57 PM
horizontal rule
207

about something an agitator has said in public to normal people.

Which should have been destroyed, carefully and visibly and at least as publicly as the original bullshit the agitator came up with. The media is complicit in a lot of this, they love conflict, and often encourage and even propagate it.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:02 PM
horizontal rule
208

Political people know that fighting systematic disinformation is a primary task. Scientists tend to be proud of being apolitical and above the battle, and tend to be weak at fighting disinformation.

By and large I think that PZ is doing exactly the right thing.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:03 PM
horizontal rule
209

Scientists tend to be proud of being apolitical

Evidence?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:04 PM
horizontal rule
210

The other thing is that scientists, in talking to the media, can be handicapped by their necessary commitment to accuracy. If you're working on the LHC, and a reporter says "so, is this 100% safe?" you can either say "yes", and be plausibly misleading the public, or you can say "no", and do nothing to prevent people from having the false belief that it's dangerous. It should be the job of the scientific press, and then the larger press, to get this across, and it should be beholden on laypeople to have enough basic awareness of the scientific method to understand that a one in several billion chance of something happening means that it will not happen. Everybody needs to do their part to fail to be a fool.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:05 PM
horizontal rule
211

Do you say it's wrong? You have individual scientists whe are engaged, but most of them seem to have better things to do.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:06 PM
horizontal rule
212

204. 207: I think we are in agreement about the value of a good debunking. The disagreement comes over what counts as good debunking. I think someone in the position Tweety describes in 203 is not a good debunker.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:07 PM
horizontal rule
213

212 ok, but 210 has a point too. While no scientist should take the attitude of "just shut up and believe what I tell you", conveying complicated information to a lay public is in itself a full time job, and you can't expect scientists to do it routinely (at least, not if you want them to do science, too)


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:09 PM
horizontal rule
214

I linked to the CERN safety page, and I was right. What else do you want from me?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:11 PM
horizontal rule
215

210: A "one in several billion chance" of destroying the earth would probably be unacceptably risky, no? The truth is more subtle: there's no well-defined probability, or, maybe, the probability is zero in any well-defined set of assumptions about the world. It's a question of how hard you work to unambiguously rule out the crazy. If we thought for a while, we could probably come up with zillions of other possibilities that are equally crazy but not so easy to rule out for how, say, turning on your car tomorrow could destroy the earth. The whole thing is really just bullshit. I think that everyone who has been interviewed should just say that. Yes, the machine is 100% safe.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:12 PM
horizontal rule
216

Look, while we're quibbling about epistemology, we're forgetting what's really important. During our last few hours of life we should all be reaching out those who are dear to us and preparing for the end.

I can't believe that it was that motherfucker Tweety who got all serious about this wonderful straight line, damn his eyes.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:16 PM
horizontal rule
217

A "one in several billion chance" of destroying the earth would probably be unacceptably risky, no?

Fuck no! Let's roll the dice!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:17 PM
horizontal rule
218

212: What does it take to be a good debunker? Here is the official "debunking". In my opinion, it was, while perhaps necessary for CERN from a legal perspective, an unfortunate waste of the time and talents of two physicists. It relies on absurd assumptions. But I suppose what I say in 185 isn't a good debunking either. What should it take? Do we really have to walk someone through the derivation of Hawking radiation (first teach them GR, then teach them quantum field theory, then...) in order to be convincing? Surely an appeal to authority should be sufficient?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:18 PM
horizontal rule
219

If I could impart one piece of information to everybody, I think it would be to give everyone a good working definition of the word "epistemology."

The question of what we know is inseparable from how we know it, yet issues of epistemology always get short shrift. The common argument against creationism in science classes, for instance, is that creationism is wrong. But that doesn't really cover it. The creationists are right to point out that wrong stuff gets taught in science classes all the time.

The reason creationism ought not be taught in science classes is that it's not science.



Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:21 PM
horizontal rule
220

Essear if you ever finish an interview without the reporter having at least a decent grasp of tensor calculus you've failed as a scientist.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:21 PM
horizontal rule
221

Winking out of existence when the LHC fires up would be boring (can nonexistence be said to be boring?). This would be much more interesting.


Posted by: Nathan Williams | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:22 PM
horizontal rule
222

Essear: this is why I don't like the description of bizarre thermodynamic events (e.g. a glass emptying itself) as "just very, very improbable". People really aren't equipped to process the differences between one in a million, one in a billion, one in a billion billion, one in a billion to the billionth power, and so on.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:22 PM
horizontal rule
223

214: You're right tweety. Linking to the CERN page should be enough in most reasonable contexts.

Was the page "In my opinion, it was, while perhaps necessary for CERN from a legal perspective, an unfortunate waste of the time and talents of two physicists." (218)? I don't think so at all. It is just a part of accountability and transparency in the sciences.

Ok, I need to actually do work.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:23 PM
horizontal rule
224

ttaM,

(John, I can email you a copy of Laudan if you want it)

Would you send one to me too. Thanks.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:23 PM
horizontal rule
225

The reason creationism ought not be taught in science classes is that it's not science.

I thought that was the common argument against it. It's certainly my argument against it (and ID, which is no better)


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:24 PM
horizontal rule
226

225: it was certainly the argument successfully used against it in the Dover case.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:25 PM
horizontal rule
227

OT, but physics related: it will be interesting to see where this goes.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:31 PM
horizontal rule
228

Ugh, this communicating physics thing is difficult. I'm clearly failing. Re 223, I'm all for accountability and transparency, but what I've been trying to get across is that the arguments contained in that paper have nothing to do with the reasons that we're convinced the LHC is safe. The arguments in that paper are based on mangling the laws of physics into a strange, inconsistent mess just to try to make the fears of earth-destroying black holes plausible, and then trying to show that consistently dealing with this mangled, inconsistent set of laws shows that we're still safe. It's utterly bizarre logic, and I think we would be much better off without it.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:34 PM
horizontal rule
229

To try to sum up the real reason we know we're safe: it's unlikely we can make black holes at all, but if we can, it's because they interact with normal matter in a particular way that allows them to be produced by normal matter. Those same interactions with normal matter are what enables the black hole to decay. There's no coherent theory of how the first step can work without the second step working; they always go hand-in-hand.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:37 PM
horizontal rule
230

Tensor calculus or bust, essear.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:39 PM
horizontal rule
231

I can assume they know linear algebra and vector calculus, right? I mean, journalism school must be teaching something, and it's clearly not about how to be a good reporter.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:42 PM
horizontal rule
232

230: once you can get a solid hold on co-variant and contra-variant, it's smooth sailing...


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:43 PM
horizontal rule
233

And uhhh .... Mike D's benefit thing that started this thread sounds pretty good too.


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:45 PM
horizontal rule
234

essear,

I really wish you would come around here more often. Any links or book suggestions (at a level suitable for grad school science) for the state of modern physics would be greatly appreciated.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:45 PM
horizontal rule
235

227 - I should participate, since I'm living in VA, working in Physics, and have science museum experience. Unfortunately the website doesn't really explain what the hell a "Flexbook" is, and the links on the page go to more pages of edu-speak gobbledygook. I hate that bullshit. It's like they go out of their way to make things more complicated than they need to be.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:47 PM
horizontal rule
236

234: Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality looks pretty good on that front, though I haven't had time to read it in detail.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:53 PM
horizontal rule
237

225, 226: That's the common and correct legal argument. But PZ Myers types spend a lot of time talking about how we know evolution is true instead of whether it's science.

(No blame to Myers here - after all, evolution is true.)

I have perverse admiration for the Kansas board of education in their ID case a few years back. They didn't merely mandate teaching of ID, they mandated a new definition of science that allowed for something other than material explanations. They understood what they were up against, and took it on with some degree of intellectual honesty.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 1:55 PM
horizontal rule
238

following up my own 235: On further investigation it turns out that there isn't a mechanism for working scientists to contribute in some sort of wikipedia style collaboration to help provide high quality instructional materials. It's just another top-down arrangement reframed in terms of open source and collaboration, but at its core just more of the same with minor differences in details. In other words, not a good idea badly implemented, simply a bad idea.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:00 PM
horizontal rule
239

Shorter 238: "That's not change, that's more of the same!"

234: Hmm, that's a tricky one, short of a long list of textbooks. As 236 suggests, Penrose's book is supposed to cover a lot of ground. I haven't read it. It's probably pretty good, but if you read it, be aware he's a bit of a nut, especially when talking about the brain, quantum measurement, or quantum gravity.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:03 PM
horizontal rule
240

be aware he's a bit of a nut, especially when talking about the brain, quantum measurement, or quantum gravity.

Indeed.


toglosh: ah, that sucks. I'm more than half convinced we should do away with most intro texts and replace it with something community built (at least, over time)


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:06 PM
horizontal rule
241

Here's a delicate argument from authority: People who hate The Emperor's New Mind for all of right reasons who've read Road to Reality have spoken of it highly.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:08 PM
horizontal rule
242

People who hate The Emperor's New Mind for all of right reasons form a vanishingly small part of the electorate.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:16 PM
horizontal rule
243

I linked to the CERN safety page, and I was right.

Time will tell, Sifu.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:16 PM
horizontal rule
244

I'm more than half convinced we should do away with most intro texts and replace it with something community built (at least, over time)

There are nascent moves to do this in philosophy. I'm 100% convinced it is the right way to go, and do what I can to promote them.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:18 PM
horizontal rule
245

244: I'm certain it's the right thing to do in mathematics and physics. I don't know enough about how other disciplines run their intro material, so I was hedging a bit.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:23 PM
horizontal rule
246

Amway, Blackwater, and Domino's are all politically connected.

If you don't get all of your friends and/or family to order a pizza in the next thirty minutes black helicopters filled with mercenaries will raid your house.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:24 PM
horizontal rule
247

242: but they are a wise and informed constituency.

245: isn't Mathworld a little bit this? Actually, wikipedia's math entries are often very good as well.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:27 PM
horizontal rule
248

I don't understand 228 in the context of 229: the explanation offered in 229 reads to me as essentially what the CERN page says, but 228 argues that the CERN page is somehow fallacious.

My takeaway from that is that essear may be splitting hairs, and not realizing that, to a layperson, CERN's explanation is essentially accurate - any sense in which it is incorrect is invisible to its target audience (this goes hand in hand with redefining "impossible" to mean "statistically so unlikely that East African plains apes can't deal with it rationally").

The alternate explanation is that my brain is so subtile that I gleaned the correct physics from CERN's bowdlerized presentation.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:27 PM
horizontal rule
249

Wow, this turned into a really interesting discussion. I have a lot of thoughts on this issue, which I may put into a post at my place if I have time, but for now I just have a quick comment.

I think rob's definitely right that the public needs to be well-informed about science, but I think Sifu's also right that this isn't really a job for the scientists themselves. Someone needs to be doing it, though, and the media clearly isn't up to it. I've increasingly been realizing that there's an important role in society for popularizers of academic research and findings (who can work in a variety of fields and fora), and that this is a valuable task in and of itself, and not something to be arbitrarily added to the work of researchers or journalists.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:29 PM
horizontal rule
250

isn't Mathworld a little bit this? Actually, wikipedia's math entries are often very good as well.

You need something closer to a textbook, but things like this (if they are `free' in the appropriate sense) can be used as a component, sure.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:31 PM
horizontal rule
251

On further investigation it turns out that there isn't a mechanism for working scientists to contribute in some sort of wikipedia style collaboration to help provide high quality instructional materials.

Tell me about it. I had to read "The Dancing Wu Li Masters"


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:32 PM
horizontal rule
252

249: and for the love of god don't hire lousy sportswriters to do that job.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:35 PM
horizontal rule
253

Ugh, this communicating physics thing is difficult. I'm clearly failing. Re 223, I'm all for accountability and transparency, but what I've been trying to get across is that the arguments contained in that paper have nothing to do with the reasons that we're convinced the LHC is safe. The arguments in that paper are based on mangling the laws of physics into a strange, inconsistent mess just to try to make the fears of earth-destroying black holes plausible, and then trying to show that consistently dealing with this mangled, inconsistent set of laws shows that we're still safe. It's utterly bizarre logic, and I think we would be much better off without it.

I feel dirty saying this, but to the extent that scientists want the public to give them billions of dollars to build their giant science things, it's more or less incumbent on them to address the concerns that the public has, no matter how silly? In the same sense that no matter how well-intentioned a basic political literacy test to allow someone to vote seems, we still think it's a bad idea?


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:37 PM
horizontal rule
254

Feynman's QED is good, no detailed math. If you have some math, Fermi's Quantum and Thermodynamics books are fantastic. Kac and Ulam's Math and Logic are really nice.

I agree with rob about popularizers and the strange politics of polarization. I don't know of a useful solution to the problem, though.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:41 PM
horizontal rule
255

Maybe 8 years ago I went to a lecture by a prominent (albeit fairly elderly) physicist/philosopher-of-physics in which he was arguing that we, collectively, should begin to take seriously the idea that some experiments -- high energy physics in particular, but also others including some stuff from the biological sciences -- could have potentially catastrophic consequences.

His talk was fairly alarmist, and was, I think, mostly about pushing the idea that there needs to be more explicit discussion within the scientific community that deals with phenomena with a very low probability but an extremely high danger (if they were to happen).

The talk was interesting, partly because he was talking about the fact that we don't have very good ways of reasoning in these situations. Our ordinary rational calculus [the sort of probability x outcome thing we normally do] breaks down in this extreme situations.

Thie was pre the LHC hoo-ha, but he was certainly arguing from a background informed by science rather than one informed by superstition fed by a credulous media.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:45 PM
horizontal rule
256

249 - I'd love to have a full time job as a science writer, but writing doesn't exactly pay megabucks, and my idea of what's interesting isn't necessarily the kind of thing that sells. Also a lot of science writing gets into the personalities of the scientists in a particularly shallow way that is apparently quite popular but annoys the hell out of me. I don't give a shit about the quirky genius, I want to talk about the facts. If the quirky genius is going to be part of the story I'll want to talk about things other than riding a unicycle down the hallway; I'll mention the fact that he's also a total douchebag in faculty meetings, sexually harasses his students, and is only kept on the faculty because he brings in shitloads of grant money.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:48 PM
horizontal rule
257

but writing doesn't exactly pay megabucks

As opposed to science?


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:50 PM
horizontal rule
258
I'll mention the fact that he's also a total douchebag in faculty meetings, sexually harasses his students, and is only kept on the faculty because he brings in shitloads of grant money.

I'd buy it.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:50 PM
horizontal rule
259

re: 236

I worked my way through the first third or so of 'The Road to Reality'. It's pretty good.

It is _work_ though. You do need to do the maths as you go along. I can't speak for the last two-thirds of it, thesis revisions and a lack of time got in the way.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:50 PM
horizontal rule
260

I think what you want is more respect for the profession of pop-science writer, and a higher level of education among them. People doing newspaper science journalism shouldn't be journalists with BA's who happened to get interested in the science beat, they should be people who were working scientists but got sick of it (or are working scientists but not exclusively) and also happen to be good writers.

Isaac Asimov, while not a great writer in the fiction sense, did a really nice job with explaining stuff clearly -- I grew up reading paperback collections of some science column he wrote. And I have to think that has something to do with being both a good writer (in the 'good enough to be clear' sense) and being sophisticated enough about the material to really understand most of it. Stephen Jay Gould, while I realize his high-level academic work is controversial, was brilliant at writing those popular essays about mostly non-controversial aspects of evolution.

And goodness knows there are enough post-docs who decide they hate academia -- we just need to get them writing more journalism.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:52 PM
horizontal rule
261

It is _work_ though.

This is a real problem with popularizing technical material. There is a difficult balance between what effort people have to put into something, and what they can take away from it. It seems pretty clear that very few people are particularly good at reducing the complexity without losing much.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:54 PM
horizontal rule
262

That's 'cuz it's irreducible complexity, d00d!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:55 PM
horizontal rule
263

we just need to get them writing more journalism

Great idea, but is the media interesting in hiring them (at a reasonable rate) and training them in the journalism side of things? I've seen no evidence of it (as opposed to, say, demand for patent lawyers from similar experience pools)


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:57 PM
horizontal rule
264

That's 'cuz it's irreducible complexity, d00d!

Not really. There's a lot of reducible complexity that's not done well, too.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:57 PM
horizontal rule
265

Jared Diamond?


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:58 PM
horizontal rule
266

Oh, soup.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:58 PM
horizontal rule
267

Whups, Sifu


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 2:59 PM
horizontal rule
268

re: 261

Yeah, my feeling was that he'd got the balance about right for me personally. He doesn't presuppose much at all -- he starts with things like basic geometry -- but he does expect you to put some time in.

I'm probably his ideal audience. I have a decent basic science/maths background -- at one time I was reasonably good at both, but didn't go down that route as an undergrad. On the other hand, I have a fairly advanced lay person's understanding of the science without the maths [through my philosophy of science background]. So, the fact that Penrose doesn't want to gloss over the maths on the way is great. I don't want the 'tales for children' version. I just want a version that won't take me 4 years of degree level study to get.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:00 PM
horizontal rule
269

263: more than that, are people interested in reading them? Pop-science just-so stories that feed people's preconceptions sell like gangbusters; careful, cogent explanations of complex physical phenomena perhaps less so.

I really do think it needs to start with science education in, like, Kindergarten.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:00 PM
horizontal rule
270

267: ayuh, I know. Didn't Behe steal the term from information theory?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:02 PM
horizontal rule
271

I don't want the 'tales for children' version. I just want a version that won't take me 4 years of degree level study to get.

And it's great that this is available, but I don't think the audience is ever going to be huge. We need more done somewhat less technically, but still not `tales for children', where it can be.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:02 PM
horizontal rule
272

I really do think it needs to start with science education in, like, Kindergarten.

Muppets to the rescue!

http://pbskids.org/sid/


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:04 PM
horizontal rule
273

More needs to be changed than just the training of science writers, and some of the changes won't be appealing to scientists. The public needs to know about the politics of science, including the sexual harassment and the grant money, in order to understand how this all intersects with the real world. The grant money is important. When Novartis basically buys the biology department at Berkeley, the public needs to know what this for the reliability of scientific knowledge. The sexual antics of some researchers makes a difference to, insofar as it can tie into the gender bias in some of their theories.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:05 PM
horizontal rule
274

re: 271

Yeah, that's right. The Penrose book certainly isn't one you'd give to a friend who was casually interested in learning a bit more about physics.

`A Brief History of Time' is certainly a much easier read.

What about things like Lee Smolin's books? Things like `Three Roads to Quantum Gravity'? I have it, but don't think I've ever gotten round to reading it.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:06 PM
horizontal rule
275

I really do think it needs to start with science education in, like, Kindergarten.

This is actually a really good idea. I think early science education and early math education suffer the same root problem (here, anyway) --- the people who are teaching at this level are mostly also people who don't understand and don't like the subject.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:06 PM
horizontal rule
276

261

"This is a real problem with popularizing technical material. There is a difficult balance between what effort people have to put into something, and what they can take away from it. It seems pretty clear that very few people are particularly good at reducing the complexity without losing much."

Another problem is deciding what level you are writing to. Something that people in the top 5% can grasp without too much trouble may be a real problem for the median person.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:09 PM
horizontal rule
277

273: You have an awfully naive view of people, rob. The public is going to put zero time into understanding science in so far as it does not impact on their lives.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:10 PM
horizontal rule
278

re: 275

That's right, I think. The average bright 10 year old with an interest in maths is often going to be ahead of their teacher.

It's hard to know how to deal with it without making unreasonable demands on teachers of that age group [and younger] -- they are generalists, after all, and need a load of other skills beyond subject competence.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:11 PM
horizontal rule
279

260: Some of the question is "popularized" to what degree? For quantatively literate folks I think the "well-established" scientist in an area who also writes well works best; Gould, E O Wilson, Feynmann, Hawking, (maybe Jared Diamond) come to mind. Guys like McPhee or Asimov do okay as well.
Two things though:
1) You often see the necessary shortcuts and glossing that these folks do derided by practitioners in the area. Not sure they are doing their field a service when they do that (unless something is truly and importantly wrong.)
2) This still is not popularization that gets anywhere close to where it would impact something like the black hole thing in the popular imagination.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:12 PM
horizontal rule
280

275: yeah, the difference when somebody who really knows what they're talking about does science education for kids is just amazing.

273: is the same understanding necessary to gainfully read philosophy?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:12 PM
horizontal rule
281

280: Are you new here? Of course he's going to say yes.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:13 PM
horizontal rule
282

they are generalists, after all, and need a load of other skills beyond subject competence.

yes, clearing bunging a bunch of ph.d's into the elementary schools wouldn't help.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:14 PM
horizontal rule
283

The public is going to put zero time into understanding science in so far as it does not impact on their lives.

We could go all Euro or Canadian and mandate that all tv shows have as many science plugs as product placements. This show is a start.

http://www.cbs.com/primetime/big_bang_theory/


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:14 PM
horizontal rule
284

Incidentally, the BBC is doing a good series of popular meta-science articles on their news website.

e.g.

on causation -- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7592579.stm

on averages -- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7581120.stm

There's five parts I think


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:14 PM
horizontal rule
285

Anyhow, I would say that rob's solution, taken on its own, would have the net effect of making the problem worse, since you would have people with a poor understanding of the scientific method and no ability to evaluate claims on their merits searching for bias and deciding the whole thing's bunk. But maybe that's the point.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:16 PM
horizontal rule
286

284: they did a series on probability and statistics lately that wasn't bad, outside of being a bit brief.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:17 PM
horizontal rule
287

clearing bunging

"clearly just bunging"

sigh. i should go have a nap or something.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:17 PM
horizontal rule
288

people with a poor understanding of the scientific method and no ability to evaluate claims on their merits searching for bias and deciding the whole thing's bunk. But maybe that's the point.

No, the goal is for people to identify the bunk as bunk and the knowledge as knowledge. We all agree that some things that pass themselves off as science are bunk. I'm pointing out that people won't be good at identifying bunk unless they know the causes of bunk.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:31 PM
horizontal rule
289

252: What a dumb fuck that Easterbrook is. He should work at the New Republic.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:49 PM
horizontal rule
290

The biology department of Berkeley produces bunk?

What in the entire history of humanity makes you think 285 is not completely true?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 3:51 PM
horizontal rule
291

||

Oh this is fun. To what extent are interior department officials in the Bush administration in bed with private industry?

The same two women [from Interior] also "engaged in brief sexual relationships with industry contacts," the reports' cover memo said, adding that "sexual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be arms-length."
Its like finding out that the reporter at the Bush press conference who asked all the softball questions was *literally* a whore.

|>


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:06 PM
horizontal rule
292

290: Compare.

"We can't let people know about the conflicts of interests and moral failings of the ruling officials, because then people won't trust the government."

"We can't let people know about the conflicts of interests and moral failings of the priests because then people won't believe in religion."

"We can't let people know about the conflicts of interests and moral failings of scientists because then people won't believe in science."


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:18 PM
horizontal rule
293

It's hard to know how to deal with it without making unreasonable demands on teachers of that age group

How about creating science and maths teachers who are trained for primary school? Like one teacher who just covers maths for kids from 5 through 10 or 12? And another who covers science? It would be easy for someone with a solid undergrad B.A. to do the subject material, and at least this way you'd get someone genuinely bright and motivated in that field to be the kids' first exposure.

I'd say the other subject areas, since they're more social or humanities-based, could be handled by a grade-level teacher like they are today. After all, pretty much everyone likes humanities at least at a 12-year-old level. Or those who don't have absolutely no business being teachers since it involves communication and interaction.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:19 PM
horizontal rule
294

"sexual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be arms-length."

Apo?


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:21 PM
horizontal rule
295

Rob nobody's saying we can't let people know, just that it's an utterly demented place to start. And for that matter, I think political coverage that focussed more on what government actually does and less on the personal failings of politicians would be a really great idea.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:21 PM
horizontal rule
296

I believe those would constitute analogies, which are still banned. Because I believe in Ogged.

Actually make the affirmative argument that a systematic program to emphasize the human failings of scientists will lead to the average person better able to distinguish between knowledge and bunk.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:24 PM
horizontal rule
297

I know Sifu already said this, but here's the crux in another compare and contrast:

"Scientists have a peer-review process by which their assertations are verified or rejected within a reasonable time frame by trustworthy independent experts."

"Priests have a peer-review process by which their assertations are verified or rejected within a reasonable time frame by trustworthy independent experts."

"Politicians have a peer-review process by which their assertations are verified or rejected within a reasonable time frame by trustworthy independent experts."

When you don't have smart ways to really assess someone's results, you're left with the stupid ways. That's what we get with religion. Or sometimes pundits deliberately ignore the smart ways to assess results and go straight for the stupid ways like raccoon after peanut butter. That's what we get with politics.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:28 PM
horizontal rule
298

re: 293

Certainly in Scottish primary schools there's a little of that goes on. A friend used to be the maths specialist for her primary school in Glasgow. She was a normal primary school teacher but was appointed 'maths subject specialist' [I can't remember the exact title]. She didn't do all of the maths teaching for other classes, but her job was to attend specialist training courses and disseminate the material to other staff, co-ordinate the use of new textbooks and methods, do QA work on the maths teaching carried out by other teachers, etc.

There was also a program in Clackmannanshire to introduce philosophy from about age 5. Sufficiently successful that there was some talk of extended it nationally. There also used to be a unit that worked out of Glasgow Uni that produced philosophy materials for kids.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/6330631.stm


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:33 PM
horizontal rule
299

When you don't have smart ways to really assess someone's results, you're left with the stupid ways. That's what we get with religion.

Well, some would say that religion is trying to explain the unexplainable, or at least the unknowable or unprovable. Pretty easy to take advantage of, or to call the other guys ideas bullshit.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:35 PM
horizontal rule
300

[BBC] did a series on probability and statistics lately that wasn't bad, outside of being a bit brief.

That's wonderful to hear. Honestly, if I had to name one area of math or science that people should know better, this would probably be it. Applicable nearly fucking everywhere in life, and really kind of crucial to understanding any other science and especially the social sciences. Plus, it's a pretty basic subject at its root and can become really intuitive if someone's used to it. That's one area for kindergarten to start on.

Basic biology with a focus on the human body, histology, some basic biochemistry, etc. would be the other main contender since it would help people have some grasp of what medicine does.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:35 PM
horizontal rule
301

||

So today I had to testify for the first time ever in an arbitration as (god save me) an "expert" witness. I was somewhat trepidatious, as I was responding to the testimony of a high-level exec of the company in question, but, as it turns out, I kicked ass, especially during the cross-examination. Fun!

|>


Posted by: Sir Kraab | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:44 PM
horizontal rule
302

re: 286 and 300

I think it was part of the same series.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7605118.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7554022.stm

etc.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:46 PM
horizontal rule
303

Sir Kraab is the embodiment of the logical fallacy of appeal to authority!


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:47 PM
horizontal rule
304

Amen to 300.


Posted by: Sir Kraab | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 4:58 PM
horizontal rule
305

Po-Mo Polymath's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach "comprehensive stats education" to kindergartners. Learning about stats before learning long division?

Po-Mo Polymath: Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.


Posted by: Merganser | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:03 PM
horizontal rule
306

Once you gotten kids to accept negative numbers, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, and fractals, moving to sexual abuse is a piece of cake. It's a good thing that the creationists don't know any math at all.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:16 PM
horizontal rule
307

PMP claims he only wants to expose your kindergartener to "standard" deviations.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:22 PM
horizontal rule
308

303: It is only a fallacy if it is an appeal to the wrong authority. But we all know that Kraab is the best authority there is.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:23 PM
horizontal rule
309

I don't even want to know what the non-standard deviations are. The standard ones horrify me.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:26 PM
horizontal rule
310

I'd watch out for the law of large deviations, if I were you. You don't want to get in trouble with the law, do you?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:28 PM
horizontal rule
311

"Fat tails". I don't know what they are, but I bet Apo does.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:29 PM
horizontal rule
312

These thought police, these math gestapo, want your child to learn what THEY think is a "normal" distribution. Well I'll tell you what, MY normal distribution doesn't look like that mealy-mouthed centrist piece of tripe! MY normal distribution puts America FIRST!


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:31 PM
horizontal rule
313

When I am President, your children's teachers won't talk to them about such abominations as "two-tailed t tests" as though they were perfectly ordinary.


Posted by: Merganser | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:35 PM
horizontal rule
314

300 - I gather that in Hungary they emphasize statistics and probability in secondary education to a far greater degree than in the US.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:48 PM
horizontal rule
315

Communists would do that, especially if they weren't really European.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:56 PM
horizontal rule
316

I third PMP's policy recommendations in 300.

Actually, if we could just get journalists to be minimally statistically literate I would be thrilled. Or forget journalists, just their editors.

Yay Sir K! Always fun to experience both the surprised pleasure that you were able to make your points so smoothly, and disturbed horror that other folks rise to positions of power without...err...such competence?


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 5:58 PM
horizontal rule
317

312: Karen Hughes' book: Ten Minutes from Normal. Rove put her up to it.


Posted by: bill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:05 PM
horizontal rule
318

My, y'all shoot high. Basic knowledge of statistics and probability? We're working on basic critical thinking: logic, reasoning. When does one statement contradict another?

Carry on.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:07 PM
horizontal rule
319

318: You are right, as today has amply demonstrated.

He said "lipstick" ... heh, heh ... heh


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:11 PM
horizontal rule
320

My, y'all shoot high.

Not really. I'd be happy if news stories about political polls routinely explained that percentage swings within the margin of error are not actually "news" by any stretch of the imagination.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:12 PM
horizontal rule
321

I'm taking me some kickass probability courses this year. I'm very excited.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:16 PM
horizontal rule
322

320: I'm talking about critical thinking on the part of the general public (the topic as the thread developed), not about journalism. The bar is a bit higher with respect to reporting.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:17 PM
horizontal rule
323

Troll alert.

Nah. Fuck it.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:30 PM
horizontal rule
324

Kraab is very articulate and not at all flighty. Yay Kraab!


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:30 PM
horizontal rule
325

Do we have any evidence that the general public has any interest in critical thinking? Or, to put it another way: why should people care about developing critical thinking skills, unless they are professionally obliged or temperamentally inclined to think that way?


Posted by: Mary Catherine | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:32 PM
horizontal rule
326

Leaving aside Rorty etc and the whole privileging of science & reason over emotion and instinct. Facts/values dichotomy and there ain't no truth. Truth is what works. Reason doesn't work for politics.

Critical thinking, probablity, fricking quantum mechanics for the masses. That'll beat the Republicans. This is insane

Guts, gonads, and the reptile brain are the targets in politics.

The utter absurdity of the Democrats in thinking that what they call the truth really matters is more depressing than anything the right ever does, because it destroys all hope.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:39 PM
horizontal rule
327

That's wonderful to hear. Honestly, if I had to name one area of math or science that people should know better, this would probably be it. Applicable nearly fucking everywhere in life, and really kind of crucial to understanding any other science and especially the social sciences.

True. But probability is so, so hard to think straight about.

Plus, it's a pretty basic subject at its root and can become really intuitive if someone's used to it.

Ahem, yes. My point exactly.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:40 PM
horizontal rule
328

Guts, gonads, and the reptile brain are the targets in politics.

bob is awarded a full heebie-geebie for this statement.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:43 PM
horizontal rule
329

It's about power & force & coercion. I don't want to fucking negotiate with McCain. I want him dead.

It's about hate & rage and wanting to stomp their fucking shattered skulls into the dust. Everyone of them, and their dogs & dreams and histories and futures.

It is also about love and kindness and compassion and empathy...but not for my enemies. I don't want any enemies around anymore.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:44 PM
horizontal rule
330

325: Oh, MC, I don't know.

I guess I'd venture the possibility that the public vaguely recognizes that it's out of its depth, that it's being manipulated, that there's far too much yacking come it at from all angles, and it's ill-equipped to handle it. Can't figure out how to sort it out. So there's a defensive, backlash response that goes: trust no one. In fact, don't really listen carefully at all.

That's a standard narrative about all this, one I happen to think is right. The question whether the public has an interest in, or even believes that, it can become better equipped to think critically, is slightly different. We've become a culture reliant on deferring to experts.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:45 PM
horizontal rule
331

I don't want to fucking negotiate with McCain. I want him dead.

You probably won't have to wait long. You are talking about waiting, right bob?


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:46 PM
horizontal rule
332

325

"... Or, to put it another way: why should people care about developing critical thinking skills, unless they are professionally obliged or temperamentally inclined to think that way?"

It can prevent them from sending all their money to some guy in Nigeria. Actually most people's critical thinking improves when it is actually important to them personally to make the correct decision.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 6:57 PM
horizontal rule
333

I didn't send them any money, James. They are going to send me money. All I had to do was give them my bank account number so that they could make the deposit. What is so hard about that?


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:01 PM
horizontal rule
334

Ahem, yes. My point exactly.

Huh? Not sure that I follow.

To be clear, I'm not talking about sophisticated stuff. More like introducing simple guessing games as a way to learn probabilities and an intro to fractions, maybe a very basic idea of independence versus dependence, that sort of stuff in elementary school. It's not too tricky to keep clear.

Messy distributions and variables with complicated interactions can wait. We won't schedule the monte carlo simulations of complex multivariable scenarios with conditional interactions until... 8th grade?


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:13 PM
horizontal rule
335

re: 321

What sort of stuff? [I'm curious] Foundations of probability stuff? or applied/stats stuff?

My old supervisor [sadly dead now] was into probability theory/philosophical foundations of probability, so I had to write a fair bit on this stuff. I'd like to come back to it at some point, if time allows.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:18 PM
horizontal rule
336

335: foundations stuff, I believe.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 7:41 PM
horizontal rule
337

Probability is a great thing to teach children, as we all know from The Wire.

I had to skip out on the conversation to attend that rarest of events, a gathering of physicists dressed in suits (only slightly more probable than a black hole consuming the earth!). Let's see: Dancing Wu Li Masters? Wow, I hope that wasn't assigned in a real physics class. Lee Smolin's book? Haven't read it, but he doesn't really seem to understand quantum field theory very well, so I would be wary.

One thought-provoking physics book aimed at a lay audience occurred to me: Bob Laughlin's A Different Universe. I don't agree with a lot of his opinions, but it is an entertaining read and exposes the reader to some concepts in modern physics that are pervasive in the community but rarely explained to outsiders.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:21 PM
horizontal rule
338

248: I don't understand 228 in the context of 229: the explanation offered in 229 reads to me as essentially what the CERN page says, but 228 argues that the CERN page is somehow fallacious.

The CERN page talks about how we know we can't be harmed by "stable microscopic black holes". I'm saying that they're not really stable in the first place. The page does say "stable microscopic black holes are not expected in theory," but "not expected" doesn't really convey the right sense. It's not like "well, they could be there, but we don't expect them"; it's "the idea is so incompatible with what we know that we can't coherently talk about it." It's science fiction; you can talk about it for a while, but if you look too closely the whole thing doesn't make any sense. All the arguments about it are like a very sophisticated version of telling a story about time travel where you fret over getting certain logical details right but ignore the blatant paradoxes staring you in the face.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 8:40 PM
horizontal rule
339

>> Ahem, yes. My point exactly.
Huh? Not sure that I follow.

I just meant that saying something "can become really intuitive if someone's used to it" is saying that probability is not intuitive. I don't mean to be snarky -- I understand what you were getting at. Maybe something like if you study it enough it can become second nature --- but to me "second nature" is not the same as "intuitive". For most people, thinking probabilistically is very counterintuitive.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 09-10-08 9:54 PM
horizontal rule
340

I don't want to fucking negotiate with McCain. I want him dead.

According to Matt Damon, who was quoted in today's Wash. Post for some reason, actuarial tables show that McCain has a 1-in-3 chance of dying in the next 4 years. Hang in there, bob.


Posted by: Sir Kraab | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 5:24 AM
horizontal rule
341

Also! McCain apparently said at a rally yesterday that "I got an old ink pen" with which to veto pork. I'll be he does.


Posted by: Sir Kraab | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 5:27 AM
horizontal rule
342

I really want to take a statistics course.


Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 5:37 AM
horizontal rule
343

Has anybody linked to this yet? It contains all the information people need to know about whether the supercollider will destroy the world..


Posted by: CJB | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 6:25 AM
horizontal rule
344

re: 335

Cool. I found that stuff fascinating.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 6:29 AM
horizontal rule
345

For most people, thinking probabilistically is very counterintuitive.

Yes. What comes intuitively or "naturally" for most people is to think in terms of story or narrative. And then what happened? and what happens next? The use of anecdote to illustrate a larger point (which I take to be the very opposite of thinking statistically or probabilistically) is what makes sense to most people, including me. I mean, I guess I know enough to realize that, for certain questions/problems, that's the wrong way of thinking. But I don't think probabilistically, because I've never learned how to.

Parsimon (330), I'm sorry that I sounded snarky/dismissive. I honestly do not believe that most people are going to 'think critically' as understood by those who value critical thought. I agree with McManus (who appears to agree with Hobbes) that people are basically tribal, and tend to believe what those around them (with whom they identify, that is) believe. So in politics, the way to counter the opponent's narrative is to offer a competing and more compelling narrative.


Posted by: Mary Catherine | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 6:49 AM
horizontal rule
346

342: Like this one?


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 6:51 AM
horizontal rule
347

345: I didn't take you to be dismissive upthread. My "Oh, MC" tone reflected a tiny bit of hand-wringing, as I've become deeply frustrated, over time, on this question. I don't think our accounts are particularly at odds. I see people's confusion when faced with competing narratives they don't know how to sort; I attribute the peculiar attitude of ready suspicion and unfocused anger (even violence) in a lot of Americans to, again, their vague awareness that they can't determine quite what to think. They take ready refuge in tribalism.

I don't really like the condescending tone I seem to be taking here, but whatever. It doesn't strike me that our tribal natures are at odds with a desire, nonetheless, to understand. Which takes critical thinking skills.

This is written a bit quickly - I'm at work.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 8:43 AM
horizontal rule
348

The link in 343 is now my homepage. I should put it on my iPhone as well.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 9:07 AM
horizontal rule
349

338: Thanks for clarifying. I guess I took their reasoning to indicate pretty clearly that, in fact, "stable microscopic black holes" were more or less impossible.

When talking about really advanced science - stuff that can't be understood at all without doing some math first - I really don't have a problem with talking to laypeople the way you do to a very intelligent child. My daughter is smart as hell, but she's 4, so I explain things flipping effortlessly from the actual explanations to the crazy kid logic ones - Could Medusa turn Zeus into stone? Well, first of all, they're both imaginary, so no. Second, Zeus is immortal, so no. And this happens with real world phenomena as well - wild boars don't live in Pittsburgh, but even if they did, you wouldn't have to worry, because Mama & Daddy will keep you safe.

As someone said up above, "real" scientists have a very bad habit of quibbling with "pop" science explanations that are substantially correct, because someone could be misled, although you'd have to already know the facts in detail to even get to that level - the layperson will take the explanation at face value. But scientists are "somebody is wrong in the internet" people by nature, so I'm not sure there's a way around it.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 09-11-08 9:19 AM
horizontal rule