Sunday, April 20, 2014

All science is social

One of the more surprising and profound things I learned in grad school is that science is an inherently social activity.  I'm not talking about societal impact of science - for example, pressure for and concern about the development of nuclear weapons.  Nor am I speaking of attempts by social institutions to control scientific knowledge, like the Church's prosecution leading to Galileo's forced recantation of heliocentrism.

Rather, my point is that science itself is social.  A lone experimenter might come up with some cool findings.  But if they aren't replicated to ensure they are not just a fluke, and if they don't become part of the public body of scientific knowledge, they are pretty trivial.  One of science's most important features - its ability to correct errors over time and come to successively better approximations of "reality" - can only occur within the context of a society of researchers, each interested in proving - or disproving - some specific piece.

And, in the long run, the society is in some ways more important than the question of whether an individual theory or researcher is "right."  Thomas Kuhn's seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made the point that an older generation may hang onto a paradigm in the face of contradictory evidence.  But that's not a bad thing.  This social/cognitive/emotional feature of science helps to ensure that any new theory challenging the status quo is well-elaborated and supported.  So, the social and personal context of science - with a range of diverse people involved - makes it richer and better.

A great example is the refutation of the 18th century investigation of "phlogiston" - believed to be an element that embodied fire, enabling things to burn.  Taking the Wikipedia article as an example, there is no overt mention of social elements of science.  Most of the discussion is around physical findings and theories.  But, take a look at the "Challenge and demise" section, The first paragraph starts as follows:
Eventually, quantitative experiments revealed problems... Robert Boyle burned magnesium in oxygen, and found the product, magnesium oxide, had more mass than the original magnesium. 
Let's read between the lines - the "quantitative experiments" were shared.  Robert Boyle obviously reported his findings. The findings get all the attention, but the process around them is only implied - as is all too often the case.  Without that process, there would just be a guy here who found something out, and a guy there.  How could there be a convergence of evidence that would lead to a change in the consensus view of fire?

Later in the article, we read the following:
Phlogiston remained the dominant theory until Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier showed that combustion requires a gas that has mass (oxygen) and could be measured by means of weighing closed vessels... These observations solved the mass paradox and set the stage for the new caloric theory of combustion.
Again, the social context is only implied. Lavoisier "showed" his findings - the verb "to show" implies an audience.  His findings "set the stage" for the new theory.  Someone's got to see the stage there, all set, and want to be in the show.  Else, there is no science.

For a more modern (counter?)example, consider Lysenko's rise and fall in the early USSR.  Propped up by the government, his theories spread throughout the country regardless of empirical support.  What was lacking in this case was an environment where ideas could be freely exchanged.  So,

OK, I've beaten this to death.  My point is, science can't exist without being embedded in a dynamic social give-and-take.  Publications and conferences are not just good vita-filler and travel opportunities.  Really, they represent the heart of science.  I think that is not as clear as it should be to the general public.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The straight signal

Here's an idea I've had for a while. You know how you come to a red light, and there are two lanes, and there's a car in the left lane... you get into the right lane because you don't know if that car will be turning left. Then someone comes up behind you wanting to make a right on red - too bad!

If we could rely on people to use their turn signals all the time, you could tell if the car in the left lane will be going straight - its turn signal wouldn't be on. But, alas, that is not reality. So, what we need is a straight signal. You get in the left lane, you turn on your straight signal, then people know they can get behind you.

The straight signal can be helpful in other situations - for example, in spots where most people turn, but you will be going straight. A couple of spots come to mind - for example, where, the road curves and a smaller road proceeds straight. There's always that one yahoo coming toward you who decides you're going to turn just like everyone else, so they'll cut in front of you. Turn on your straight signal to let him know you're coming!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Evolution and humility

One of the arguments against evolution is that the incredible complexity and diversity of life could never emerge from randomness in any conceivable timespan. I would suggest this reflects more on the limitations of our ability to conceive of time quanity than on the possibilities of evolution.

Humans are terrible at understanding large numbers and time - much less the two combined. Let's take the second point first: "It seems like just yesterday..." "Every second seems like an hour when you're gone..." ""Where did the time go?" Our memory and time sense are not designed to let us really understand that a year is 365 times as long as a day (for that matter the concept of 365 is beyond us; see below). Even less are we able to understand what a million years is. Yet opponents of evolution blithely decry that it could occur on that kind of timeframe, generally without any evidence other than their own intuition.

People also lack intuitive understanding of even moderately large numbers, much less the huge numbers involved in evolutionary timespans. Do you really have a sense, for example, of how big a hundred is? If a bag of jellybeans spilled on the floor, could you say whether there were 100, 75, 150, or 200, just by looking at it? If not, I argue, you don't really understand what a hundred means. You may be able to use the number, compute with it, make judgments using it, but you don't really understand it in an intuitive way, like you do, say, five.

Now imagine a hundred bags of jellybeans - that's 10,000. Would you have any clue how many were there? Now imagine a hundred of those 10,000-jellybean spills - that's a million. So, sez me, you can't even come close to understanding the numbers involved in evolutionary timeframes.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Penicillin and evolution

To those who deny evolution: next time you have pneumonia, why not ask your doctor to prescribe penicillin? It's not as though the resistant bacteria would have survived long ago and perpetuated new strains of drug-resistant germs. That would be evolution.

Yup, penicillin should be fine for you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What good is space?

One of the big arguments for publicly funded space exploration is that it leads to all kinds of technological advances that are used in other areas.

I'm sorry, but that just is not borne out by the evidence. If the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on space have returned benefits to the tune of millions or even billions, that doesn't exactly seem a good investment. Similarly, the argument that all kinds of riches await us in space seems not to have worked out either. There has yet to be developed a blockbuster money-making enterprise that requires human space travel. Economics just won't make the case for space exploration.

Someday, maybe commercial space travel will be self-sustaining and realistic. In a tiny way, it's already starting. OK, great. But do we really need government-sponsored programs to provide a "boost"? Maybe, assuming we care that they succeed. But why should we care? Do we expect it to make our lives so much better that it's worth all those tax dollars?

If we really wanted to do something for the country or the world, there are many better ways we could be spending those hundreds of billions of dollars. For example, real education reform, reintegrating the inner cities into the mainstream economy and culture, developing and implementing effective ways to impact child abuse and neglect, creating cross-country mass transit systems that actually work...

Now, there is a more effective point about space travel. To argue for space exploration in the name of pure science makes much more sense. There is nowhere else but space to do a lot of the science that gets done there. But let's be clear: again, the cost-benefit ratio would seem to accrue from unmanned missions - think Hubble and the Mars missions of the past 20 years.

Manned spaceflight, as near as I can tell, has been mostly make-work. Build a space station - and do exactly what on it that you couldn't do on a two-week mission? Build a fleet of space shuttles, which can't launch reliably, and send people into orbit to do what? Even if there are a small number of long-term experiments that need a human right there every second, are they worth hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars?

To argue convincingly for the value of manned spaceflight from a fiscal or scientific perspective is very difficult, to say the least. If people are going to go into space, let's be honest - the main reason we want to do it is because it's cool! OK. I won't argue with that. I agree. I might be willing to spend an extra $100 on my income taxes for that. Just don't try and jerk me around with rationalizations.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Driving, trust, egoism, violence

There is a tendency, when driving, to sit inside your 3000 pounds of metal, plastic, glass, and music, and forget that each of those other 3000-pound blobs out there is a person. You have a relationship, of sorts, with the people driving around you.

If you're going the speed limit on a 35-mph road, you are trusting the person coming toward you at a relative 70 mph to act in a very predictable way - with a lot at stake if you are wrong! Yet you don't even know him or her - or even whether it is a him or a her. Would you let a stranger serve you food, without even seeing what he or she looked like first? I'd say the risk is much higher driving on the same road with him, wouldn't you?

While sometimes we trust, at other times we feel so violated, so enraged, at others' behavior. I can't believe he cut me off! How dare he honk at me! Is it simply because we've been frightened by unpredictable and dangerous behavior? Sometimes. But I think another frequent reason is that, somehow, we feel victimized - not physically endangered, but emotionally attacked, taken advantage of. Cars can become a vehicle for expressing something ugly and primitive, that somehow feels OK to let out when we are insulated from the person of that person behind two layers of steel, plastic, glass, and music.

Our relationship with others on the road is really cut down to the basics - there is no language, no negotiation, just simple one-time encounters. And our emotions seem to mirror this simplicity, this primality. Without language to help mediate these relationships, are we stripped of some of our ability to reason, to modulate our responses?

Often, from the "perpetrator's" point of view, I think, pure selfishness and/or obliviousness to the needs of others is behind nasty driving. Why else sit in the right lane at a red light with no one else there and a car behind you with its turn signal on? It doesn't take much effort to change lanes as you come to a stop.

I guess what troubles me about my last observation is the implication for other social situations. I worry that the people who stay in the right lane, or who slow down, glide right, and then suddenly turn left with no signal, are the same ones who, walking behind you, see you drop $10 and pocket it, or take advantage of a very drunk freshman at a frat party.

If so, they are legion. What are the implications for the world? Have they always been there, only now they are more evident because driving puts us into contact with so many more people? Are they really not that bad, and the unique factors involved in automotive relationships bring out the worst? What do you all think?