How Science Really Works

Dave asked a bunch of very interesting questions in his recent post. These questions are probing about the nature of science and how science is done over the long-term. I think that a lot of people understand about science in the abstract – you ask a question (typically a yes/no question) and then think of some way of answering this question. This is a pretty picture of how people do science at a microscopic level, but it doesn’t address how people come up with the questions to ask. That, I think, is the tricky bit.

Let’s take the most obvious analogy that I can think of: a forest.  Let’s pretend for a few minutes that no one has ever heard of a forest or trees. One day, someone wanders over a hill into a valley and notices these tall brown and green things in front of them. No one has ever seen these things before. The person takes a bunch of pictures, does some rough analysis of the heights of the trees and maybe how many there are (very rough!) and publishes a paper in Nature. A new field of science is born!

Scientists everywhere flock to the forest. There are a wide variety of papers that come out, covering topics such as: (a) bark – the skin of trees; (b) how tall is a tree, really; (c) rings – what are those all about; (d) leaves – it’s all about the shape; (e) can animals survive in the darkness of trees; (e) on the size distribution of conifers of the upper valley; (f) a detailed analysis of the bark from tree 12,362; (g) a detailed analysis of the leaf distribution from tree 12,362; and (h) the life cycle of tree: a statistical analysis. You get the idea – there are just a mountain of papers.  No one has heard of trees, let alone forests!  So, there is a ton of new things to investigate.  Some of those papers do a detailed analysis of single trees and generalize to every other tree, while others do statistical analysis of all (or a subsample) of the trees. Every paper is new and fresh and exciting.

After 20 years of studying the forest, you have some scientists who are still looking at tree 12,362, and writing papers on how that tree has changed over the course of 20 years, and others who are looking at a statistical analysis of how much sunlight is needed to support the robust growth of poison ivy (the scourge of the forest!). Another study argues that the analysis of the study that was done 15 years ago was flawed and instead of 1,250,320 trees in the forest, there really are 1,261,624. There is a vicious rebuttal.

After 40 years, the papers start to focus on forest management and what we can do to sustainably harvest the wood for houses and fires and other things, but yet keep the biodiversity of the forest. There are occasional papers on new species of trees and animals that come out, but they are relatively few and far in between.  It is becoming harder to get funding for fundamental tree research. The public in general is still pretty excited by trees and forests, but we know a lot about them, so we don’t need to spend as much money on fundamental research for this specific topic. Textbooks are written, and the topic is covered in classes throughout high school and college.

This is the natural order of science topics – an initial discovery is made, people flock to the field to study it, lots of basic science is done to explore the topic, with funding to support the new science, then, as more and more is known about the subject, funding starts to decrease, papers discuss more and more about the details of the subject, with fewer fundamental discoveries, the knowledge is accumulated in textbooks, and eventually people turn to different science topics. It is a lifecycle. Many science topics result in practical applications.  For example, atomic physics. One of the practical applications is the ability to kill hundreds of thousands of people with a very small device. I supposed I could have come up with a better example.

In the 1940s, the first rockets that went into space made measurements of the upper atmosphere and the magnetosphere.  These rockets couldn’t get very far away from the Earth, so they were basically constrained to studying these regions.  There were a LOT of them. We made a ton of fundamental discoveries of the thermosphere, ionosphere, and magnetosphere. As we moved into the 1970s, we sent missions to Mars and to fly by other planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus. We took pictures of the sun from above the atmosphere and discovered what the sun looks like in X-ray wavelengths. In the 1980s we took images of the northern (and southern!) lights from space. We measured the winds and temperatures in the upper atmosphere. We were discovering new species of trees everywhere we looked. With more satellite launches, radars deployed, lidars built, and other instruments spread across the globe.

Today, NASA’s budget is less than 1/10th the size it was in 1969. We have been to the moon, then decided it was not worth the expense.  We have measured all sorts of interesting things in space.  We’ve done a pretty good job of classifying the trees – improving our understanding of the near-Earth space environment. Does this mean that it is time to stop doing research on the space environment, since we understand a bunch of the large-scale physics of the system?

I think that this is an interesting discussion. At this time, we spend several billion dollars a year on measuring the weather down here where we live.  In many ways, this is not to improve our understanding of the atmosphere (although this data definitely helps!), but it is in order to enable us to specify the weather status right now and predict what the weather will be like in a few days from now. This is obviously important for many, many people.

Specifying the weather in space is not super important to the vast majority of people right now.  There are some areas where it is important, though.  For example, trying to predict when and if satellites or pieces of orbital debris will collide.  In order to figure this out, it is quite important to understand the weather in the upper atmosphere. If you would like airplanes and cars to reliably use GPS in an automated way, then understanding the state of the ionosphere becomes important.

In some ways this discussion of the importance of space research becomes an argument for the transition of the pure research to the specification and prediction of space.  There will clearly need to be science that is done to improve our understanding of the system. For example, meteorologists can explain how a tornado forms, but to predict this is almost impossible. More research is needed in order to more fully explain the exact conditions, with bounds on those conditions, that lead to different sizes of tornados. Science improves our ability to predict. The motivation that drives the science can be both the desire to better understand the physical processes and the desire to improve the nation’s ability to predict what will happen in the future.

We are at a cross-roads in the space physics community, where one road is called Specification and Prediction, while the other is called Double Down on Basic Physics.  I personally think that we should explore both paths and that it is ok to have science that is motivated by practical applications and not just the desire to know more.

Dave – you asked a lot more questions than just this really “simple” one that I answered. I think that you have started an interesting discussion that I hope you will pick up! I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and other topics that you raised.

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Hello Dave: Writing For Science

My friend, Dave, and I worked on a podcast last year.  We have not really continued it, since both of us ran out of time to dedicate to recording and editing new episodes.  If you would like to check it out, it is called “X and Why” and available for download on your favorite podcast app.  You can also get it from the website xandwhy.xyz. Recently, Dave wrote a blog post about writing. It was quite insightful and very interesting.  We agreed that we should be doing more writing and that this is the first in a series of back-and-forth posts that we will publish. Dave’s first post can be found here. You might want to read that before reading more of this, since it will be a response.

One of my sisters is only 6 weeks younger than I am.  We went through school together, and my parents thought it was best to treat us as equal as possible. This means that we were placed in the same level of classes for as long as possible. The big problem with this was that I was a pretty slow learner in many subjects, while my sister was a superstar in every subject. In math, my 4th grade teacher said that I would never do anything math related, while my sister was acing everything math related.  In middle school, I struggled to get a C- in Advanced English, which is where my sister was placed. She deserved it. I clearly did not. My mother used to be extremely frustrated when she would quiz me on my spelling words. It was a pretty tough time for all of us.

I used to be an avid writer in middle school, too.  I wrote about super heroes. They were very imaginative, with characters that suffered greatly for their powers. I got well-deserved Cs on the stories, with red ink everywhere. In high school, I turned to writing about much more depressing subjects and writing poetry. While the ideas were interesting (maybe), they were written horribly. I recognized this in high school, but didn’t know how to improve them.

When it came time to go to college, it was clear that I was not going to be a writer.  I, instead, took every physics class that I could.  I took programming and math classes. One of my favorite classes that I took in college was “Data Structures”, which is currently a programming class that is dreaded by almost all computer science students that I talk to. I loved that class. English, on the other hand, I don’t even remember. I know that I had to take some sort of reading class and some sort of writing class, but I have no idea how I did. I hated writing.

When I graduated from college, I expected to have a job doing some sort of programming or some sort of physics-related thing. I did not expect to write. Then I started graduate school.

I wrote my first paper in my second year of graduate school. You can find it here. When I got the reviews back from this paper, they included phrases similar to “this was the worst written paper that I have ever reviewed.” I am not exaggerating at all.  They were incredibly brutal. It was quite demoralizing. This paper was eventually accepted for publication, and an amazing thing happened. We had to send in a double-spaced hard-copy of the paper to the American Geophysical Union, and a copy editor actually marked it up.  They sent it back to me, and I had to make all of the changes that they noted.  This was a brutal process, but it taught me some of the things that I was systematically doing incorrectly. AGU continued to do this for many years, so every time I wrote a paper, I got a fully edited paper from AGU, which taught me grammar and style. The copy editors of AGU taught me to correctly write scientific papers. Now, when you write papers, AGU doesn’t return copy edited manuscripts, since it is all done electronically; you simply send them the Word (or LaTeX) file, and they make the changes.  I think that this is very sad, since I learned so much from this process. I also learned a huge amount from spell checkers, which have saved my life.

I am now the teacher and not the student.  I edit my student’s papers and bleed all over them.  My students and I still get pretty nasty comments from scientists, but I am not overly concerned. I have actually hired copy editors to read over my papers and edit them.  They typically don’t find more than a few issues, while the scientists typically find 10s of suggestions for grammar.  I make these changes that the scientists suggest, but most of the time they are being overly picky about things. For example, my last paper was returned with a statement like “the first sentence in the paper had a split infinitive, so I basically couldn’t proceed with reading the rest of it.” For those who are not in the know (which was me before that moment), a split infinitive is when you put a descriptor between the noun and verb (“To boldly go…”),where you are supposed to have it after the verb (“To go boldly…”).  Wikipedia says that it is a common practice to split infinitives and it is perfectly acceptable (or, it perfectly is acceptable? :-). Ah, scientists.

Now, I am a writer. I have to write.  I write papers.  I write proposals. I write blogs. I write annual reports. I write proposal and paper reviews. And reviews of reports. I write and write and write more.

I still struggle with writing.  When I stare at a blank page and have to write a paper or proposal, I don’t know what to say. So, I force myself to write something easy to begin with – like the descriptions of the figures. This is easy. Then I write the methodology, which is also easy. Then maybe the discussion and conclusions. The last thing that I ever write is the introduction, since this is the most free-form and is the hardest to make flow. It is also the first thing that anyone reads and sets the whole tone of the paper. If you mess it up (split infinitive), the reader is discouraged straight away.

That is my writing story.

You (Dave) asked a bunch of questions about science, but I feel like I have written too many words to keep people’s interest already, so I will answer these in a separate post in the next few days. It is a good topic that you have started with, and I am very interested. I just thought that I should respond to your initial post with my own story of my writing journey. Thanks for suggesting this, Dave, and I hope that we can continue this longer than the podcast!

 

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Advantages and Disadvantages

As part of the College of Engineering Honors Community, we talk a fair bit about privilege, and what it means to have privilege.  We also talk a lot about diversity and considering other people’s path through life. Additionally, I listen to a lot of podcasts where there are discussion on how some people see the world through the wildly varying lenses. It is sometimes extremely difficult to understand how people can view the world in radically different ways. So, I wanted to open a conversation about how some of us have advantages over others and some of us are disadvantaged compared to others.

Here is a simple example that everyone can probably appreciate. Let’s say that you have a chronic illness that causes you to miss one day of work a week. Over a full year, this is about 50 days of work missed, or about 20% of the time. That is a lot of work. Pretty much by definition, this person will fall further and further behind a person without a chronic illness. They won’t be able to accomplish as much as their co-workers. Let’s say that their employer treated them very fairly, and basically compared them to other workers hour-by-hour (like 1600 hours of work compared to 1600 hours of work to another person), and gave them appropriate raises.  Then the chronically ill person, in the best of circumstances, would get roughly 80% of the raise of a person of similar work performance.  Is this fair?  Because someone is born with a chronic illness, they fall behind others of similar talent.

Let’s consider another example. When a professor tries to get tenure, they may end up working a lot of hours. The more hours the professor works, the more papers and proposals they can write.  While there is a lot more to it, if you assume that you have two people who have exactly the same abilities, the person who works more will produce more. Consider sleep.  If you are the type of person who needs 8-9 hours of sleep a night, you basically have a disadvantage over someone of equal ability who only needs 5-6 hours of sleep a night.  The person who needs less sleep, literally has more hours in the day to work. You could argue that this is a HUGE advantage. If you assume each person spends 7 hours a day with family and eating and stuff, and they sleep for either 5 or 8 hours, then the person has either 12 or 9 hours of work time, for a difference of 30%. This can make for a 45 hour work week or a 60 hour work week.  That is massive when considering the amount of time it takes to write papers and proposals, prepare lectures, and advise students. Is this fair? Because someone is born with the need to sleep more, they naturally fall behind someone who needs less sleep but has similar talents.

A professional basketball play is another example of someone who is born with certain advantages over another person.  I could never be a basketball player.  I have super short legs and have almost no hand-eye coordination at all. But, let’s pretend that I wanted to be a basketball player and tried really, really hard at it. There is no way that it would happen. This is a somewhat different type of example, though, since I will never have similar talents as someone who is two feet taller than I am and can actually dribble a ball.

Let’s then consider two people who are identical in their talents, except they just have a few differences. Let’s say that one is a man and one is a woman. This shouldn’t matter at all if they are identical in their talents. But, in the real world, it does. For example, when sending resumes to perspective technical employers, men receive more callbacks than women, even when the resumes are identical.  In teaching evaluations, men are typically given higher ratings, even in online classes, when the only thing that is different about the entire class is the name of the professor. When competing for the exact same technical job, women are disadvantaged compared to men.

This is also true of race – black and brown people are disadvantaged compared to white people when applying for the same jobs. There are many aspects of life where black and brown people are at a disadvantage: law enforcement and banking to name just two. Imagine being pulled over by the police multiple times in a month for trivial traffic violations (or no violations at all). I would definitely have to change my driving habits and would have to add 20-30 minutes to every single trip that I take, just in case I got pulled over.  It would change a huge aspect of my “just in time” lifestyle.  I have also been extremely lucky with banking.  We built a house just before the recession, and had a very difficult time selling our old house. The bank basically bent over backwards to help us out of our situation.  If they had not done this, we could have lost our brand new home that we had spend thousands of hours building with our own hands. I am extremely grateful for this, but it really could have easily turned out differently if the bank had decided that I was not the type of person that they wanted to take a huge risk on. Like if my skin were a different color.

(It should be noted here that until recently, there was clear discrimination in our mortgage lending, where banks would turn down black people who had significantly better credit than white people who were given loans. This is not fantasy. It was standard practice. Now there are laws specifically prohibiting against it, but there is unconscious bias where questionable cases are tipped one way versus the other depending on the race of the person applying. The Supreme Court even acknowledged it.)

Is it fair that by luck of birth you may have huge advantages over someone else? Or put another way, is it fair that someone else, by luck of birth, may have a huge disadvantage compared to you?

Take me for example. I am a middle aged white male who is very healthy, was born to parents who were not rich, but were not suffering, and had access to a very nice safety net. I am a professor at a major research university who has tenure and basically can’t be fired. I am extremely lucky. I have worked hard and am smart enough to succeed in my field, but there is no question that if I was born with different skin color, had parents who were much poorer, had a lower IQ, suffered from abuse and neglect as a child, went to worse public schools, or was a woman, I would have had a significantly harder journey.

We just had a meeting with four women faculty and four men faculty and all four men stated that they typically made mistakes or did something dumb in class specifically to try to make them seem more approachable to students, while all four women reported that they got bad teaching evaluations when they made mistakes in class. What a different perspective.

What does this mean?

First, we should all understand that advantages and disadvantages come from all different directions. We are luckier than some people and unluckier than others. Some of us have a lot of advantages, while others do not. Just knowing this and thinking about its ramifications is a good start.

I try to keep the understanding that others might have fewer advantages than I do in the forefront of my mind.  I see that I have many advantages compared to the vast majority of Americans, and it has really changed the way that I think about how I get things accomplished. I feel like I have a responsibility to use the advantages that I have to help others who may not be as lucky as I am and continue to be.

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I totally stole this image from the web. I am sorry.

 

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Welcome to the New Year

It is New Year’s Day 2017. I am not sure that I have ever really published something on the first of the year before, since I am not really one for making resolutions. This year, though, I feel like I need to.  I am not really sure why.  Maybe it is a mid-life crisis or something. A realization that life can be both short and long at the same time.  That we both need to live life for today, but need to plan for tomorrow at the same time.

My largest struggle in life is my inability to say “no” to people.  I constantly overcommit and spread myself too thin. There are all sorts of reasons for this, I am sure, but, no matter what the reason, it is still there. I have to learn to say “no” to people.

Interestingly, the majority of people around me recognize this. Most people agree that I need to say “no” to other people. Not to them. Which is the whole problem.  Who do you say “no” to? How do you prioritize what is important and what should you turn down?

This really leads to the core of the problem, which is that I don’t really have any life-long goals that I am working towards.  I don’t have an ambition to be a department chair or a dean or a NASA administrator or anything like that.  I don’t know if any of those things will actually make me happy or not. (Which is yet another issue – are you supposed to work towards things that will give you happiness and/or work towards things that will fulfill some larger purpose in life? This whole life thing is really freaking confusing at the moment.)

I tend to bumble along in life, taking whatever random turn life offers.  I seem to have no real purpose or direction. Which makes it very easy to overcommit and take on too much responsibility, since I have no overarching path to guide my decision making. I simply say “yes” to everything because I don’t want to disappoint people; and the thing sounds interesting, so I might as well do that too. What horrible reasons for taking on more responsibility.

What does this mean for the New Year? Well, I have a couple of concrete things and a nebulas thing.  First, the concrete things, since they are (much) easier. There are a few things that I know that I love to do, which I will do more of in 2017.

I have learned over the last couple of years that I really love to run. I have been trying hard to run every day.  I clears my head and gives me a lot of energy. It is easy to do and doesn’t take as much time as cycling or going to the gym. So, I resolve to run more this year. I would really like to average about 3 miles per day, which is really, really hard, since I am often so busy that I can’t run at all. (We also live on narrow dirt roads, so in the winter it is difficult to run, since it is dark and often icy. This means that I have to go somewhere to run, which takes a lot of time, or that I have to torture myself and run on the treadmill.) I will compromise and set my goal at 2 miles per day, or 730 miles for the year. In 2016, I ran about 500 miles according to my phone. If I do two half marathons this year, that should be an easy goal, right?

I have also learned over the last many years that I love photography. I am also incredibly frustrated by it.  This is because I am in a place where I can see that my pictures are pretty ok, but there are a lot of much better pictures out there. So, for the last couple of years, I have not taken nearly as many pictures as I should, since I have sort of given up. But, I have become more inspired lately.

There is a difference between just doing something over and over and over again and a thing called deliberate practice. When you just do something over and over again, without really trying to improve, you don’t get any better at it (surprise!).  With deliberate practice, you really try to improve, which means getting feedback, and studying, and really going outside of your comfort zone. For example, if you want to improve in running, you try to either run a little bit longer every day, or you try to run a bit faster everyday, or you talk to a coach about how you can improve.  Improvement comes with some pain. So, one of my goals for this year is to improve in photography.  My sister and I are going to take a picture a week and post it on a website.  I will try to use the idea of deliberate practice to improve some aspect of my photography every week.

Now, the nebulas goal.

Decisions would be much more straightforward if I knew what I actually want to do with my life.  There are a lot of choices out there, such as being a leading modeler and always pushing the boundaries of what computational physics can do; being someone that drives new innovations in measurements and how data and models can be fused together (a sub-discipline here is ground-based or space-based measurements – it is very hard to do both); being an administrator and pushing for improvements in academia at the University of Michigan, or on a broader scale; being a leading educator and pushing for new ways of teaching students (at the university, in K-12, and across all age ranges through podcasts, blogs, videos, books, etc.); or being whatever comes next.

What I would like to do this year is try to figure out what I would like to be when I grow up. I would like to consider each of these different options and figure out some sort of prioritization in my (work) life. If I can develop some sort of framework for making decisions, then perhaps I can learn to say “no” more often.  This will allow me to spend more time focusing on a few key things and not spreading myself so thin.

I guess that is my stretch goal – figure out how to be to not be so stretched.

P.S. Some very small additional goals for 2017: (1) try to enjoy travel more and (2) try to eat vegetables every day (and french fries don’t count).

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Where does this path go?

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Purpose

I have gotten a lot of good advice over my lifetime.  Two pieces of advice that I have gotten from people over the years are on interacting with people:

  1. Put yourself in their shoes to see how they may be approaching the issue.
  2. Make sure you agree on the problem you are trying to solve before looking for solutions.

Honestly, I forget to take these into account almost all of the time, since I am human and deeply flawed. But, at the best of times, I try to step away from the situation and take this advice.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have struggled with trying to make sense of how our country can be so divided. I have been thinking about this a lot. I am not sure that I have any great answers, but I wanted to share my thoughts.

To understand other people, you fundamentally have to put yourself in their shoes and then ask, what problem they are trying to solve. I have come to think of this as asking “what is the purpose of life”, not from my own perspective, but from someone else’s perspective. The reason that I think that this is the fundamental question is because I feel like it drives us all.  We all want things.  If you believe that the purpose is to do great things, then you might be an extremely driven person who pushes for innovation and change.  If you believe that there is no purpose in life, then you may just settle for whatever comes your way.

I struggle a lot with this question of purpose. I can see why people have vastly different beliefs on the purpose of life, since I don’t feel like there is a truly correct answer. Here are some of the answers I have come up with:

  • We are all members of a single species. The most important thing that we can do is improve conditions for all of humanity. This means that we should be working towards improving conditions for people across the globe. Borders should not matter.
  • We are part of the United States of America. We should work on improving conditions in the USA and making sure that the citizens of the USA have access to the best of everything. Other countries’ interests are not really our concern.
  • We are part of a tribe. This tribe may be our local town, our local state, our university, our business, people who look like us, people who believe what we believe, or whatever. There is a subgroup of people who are more important than others. These people should be elevated without full consideration of how this affects other tribes. The most important thing is the success of the tribe.
  • We are part of a family. This family unit is the most important thing and should be preserved at all costs.
  • There is nothing more important than my personal wellbeing and pleasure at this moment. You could argue that this is follows from the statement “there is absolutely no purpose in life, so nothing really matters except me.”
  • In order to live beyond death, we need to create a legacy that will survive us. This legacy could be a great work of art or engineering or science or whatever, or it may be being a leader of something.

A few thoughts about this list:

  • From bottom to top, this list is just an increasing of the number of people who are included in the group of people who are important to help.
  • I think (hope?) that most people think that all of these things are important, but to varying degrees that change, sometimes dramatically, as situations change. Large world disasters, such as the Tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in Indonesia, unite the world. After 9/11, we went full on USA. We were pretty united. As time passes, and there are no uniting events, we separate more and more into different tribes.
  • This is very Darwinian. The survival of self is the most important thing. The survival of our offspring is the second most important thing.  The survival of our tribe helps our own DNA survive. The survival of our country helps our tribe to survive, which helps our DNA survive. The survival of our species is obviously important at an etherial level, but, when push comes to shove, people will act to save their own. We are genetically encoded to act this way. It is very hard to fight Darwin.
  • I personally think that liberals tend to think that the purpose of life is more global, while conservatives think that the purpose of life is more local. This is why liberals think of global warming as a serious threat, while conservatives don’t really care – global warming is not going to hurt us, it will hurt people who are not in the USA the hardest and our children’s children after that. (There is also the thought that we will simply engineer a solution to the problem, but that is another post.) This is fundamentally why liberals can’t engage with conservatives on the problem of global warming – their purposes don’t align at all.
  • I don’t think that there are fundamentally different camps in the world, where some people fundamentally believe in one thing and others fundamentally believe something completely different.  I think that there is a large bell curve, where the vast majority of people believe (or act upon) something in the middle, with fewer and fewer people towards the edges. (I happen to be way over on one edge, but I need to understand that I am not “normal”.)
  • Religion provides a guidebook on the purpose of life. I have a lot to say on this subject, but I won’t say it here.
  • This doesn’t say anything at all about how to accomplish the goals or act on the purpose.  That is a 100% different discussion.

So, what to do with this realization? First, I would suggest to talk to people about their fundamental core beliefs instead of how they want to act. If we can agree on the core beliefs, we can then move on to discuss actions, but until we are all talking about hitting the same target, it doesn’t make sense to discuss what direction we should be shooting in.

The second piece of advise that I would have (for myself included) is that when we make arguments for or against something, we need to think about the other person’s core beliefs.  The arguments must align with their beliefs, or else they will land on deaf ears. For example, arguing that they should give something up to help people in another country doesn’t make sense for people who think on a more local scale. Or, arguing that we should elect a woman for president when they care about why their town’s economy has been decimated by businesses moving out makes no sense. The message was not addressing their core purpose. It was addressing our own.

 

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Publishing Anonymously

I just came across an interesting NYT’s article, that talks about two scientists publishing an article using “fake names”. I find this very interesting, because I have often thought of doing this myself.

Here are some arguments for why people should publish using their own names:

  1. People know who you are, or if they don’t, then they know that you are a relative newcomer in the field.  They take you at your word. Your reputation enhances your credibility.
  2. It is more honest to put your own name down, since you are staking your reputation on the research.

The article basically points out these things.

Here are some arguments for why people should use fake names:

  1. People know who you are, or if they don’t, then then know that you are a relative newcomer in the field. This shouldn’t matter one bit when publishing a paper. The science should stand on its own.  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter who the author is.  If it does stand on its own, then it doesn’t matter who the author is.
  2. If the article is using real data, or real models, and legitimate analysis methods, it shouldn’t matter who writes it.  If an article is incorrect, it should be caught in the review process, or the community should prove that it is not correct. Why does it matter whose name is attached?
  3. Who cares whether an anonymous name gets “credit” or “blame” for good or bad science.  The science is what matters.

In many ways, your name is a double-edged sword when publishing.  If the people who read the text like you a lot, then they may give you a pass for sloppy work.  If they don’t like you, then they may be overly critical.  If you publish a lot of papers, it probably ends up being a wash, unless you are extremely popular or extremely unpopular.

Part of the problem with the publishing community is that it is a single-blind system where the reviewers are anonymous, and can say anything that they want about the paper with almost no consequence at all.  So, if they give a horribly biased review, it doesn’t matter (unless the editor steps in) one way or the other.  If the paper is accepted even if it is garbage, or rejected even if it is great, no one really ever knows.  Or if it is accepted, but the reviewers make the authors jump through a bunch or crazy hoops, no one will ever know.

There are two obvious solutions to this:

  1. Make the reviews double blind, so no one knows who the author is and no one knows who the reviewer is, until the paper is published.
  2. Make the reviews publicly available.  The reviewers don’t have to be known, but the reviews should be completely out in the open (along with any submitted versions of the paper).

Ideally, both would take place – everything should be anonymous until the publication comes out, and then just about everything would be public.  If everyone knew that their reviews could be read by anyone in the community, they would probably be a lot more civil and a lot more helpful. And people might write better papers too.  Perhaps I am too optimistic on both fronts.  But, people tend to behave a lot better in public.

I, personally, have had a lot of really great reviewers (thanks everyone!!!), but I have also had some pretty horrible reviewers (like – I should be banned from publishing because of the assumptions that I have made! Seriously!)  I have expressed massive support for publishing anonymously.  I have also expressed support for publishing everything on a blog or some other place where people can get access to the ideas early.  I am not a main-stream scientist.

So, it will probably come to no surprise that in that article, I think that the NYT got the villain completely wrong here – it is not the authors that published their paper in a journal using “fake names”, it is the reviewers and editors that let it pass if it was indeed garbage science.  But, it seems like, it wasn’t (really) garbage science (partially). It was about climate and didn’t agree with main stream climate science.  This is perfectly fine.  The article argues that it could completely explain climate change in a totally different way, which I doubt.  But, I don’t see the problem with allowing publications of data that question the beliefs of main-stream scientists, myself included, especially if it is a new an innovative way of looking at the data.  The thing that really rubbed me wrong was that some other scientist (who didn’t review the paper) said the study “is just a curve-fitting exercise of five data points using four free parameters and as many functional forms as they could think of …” Ok.  That is fine to have that opinion, and it may indeed be true. What does this have to do with the names of the authors?  Nothing.  If the study sucks so badly, write a comment on the article and be done with it. I have also written a few comments on papers just like this (here is one).  They call that “Science”.

 

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Equality in Science and Engineering

I spend a fair bit of my time thinking about equality in science and engineering.  There are two areas that I mainly ponder – education and workforce.  The big question that I really ask myself all of the time is “what can I do about these issues?”  It is a very hard question to answer.

I think that on a very small scale, we can all do things like recognize bias and try to fight against that bias.  As an educator, I can point out these issues to students and try to raise awareness. But on a larger scale, it is much more difficult. People have been trying to figure out what to do to make science and engineering less dominated by white males for a long time, so what can we do about it?  I don’t really have the answers, but I do think about it.

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and some of them have episodes that focus on these issues. For example, I just listened to an episode of Planet Money on the fact that there used to be a ton of women who programmed computers back in the 60s and 70s. In the early 80s when home computers were first being introduced, they were considered more toys, and so were marketed as toys, but were aimed at boys and dads, since the manufacturers thought that the games that they could play on these computers were more boy oriented. This got boys into getting computers at an early age in the 80s and when those boys went to college, they had a LOT more experience with computers than girls of the same age. This led to the extreme dominance of men in the tech industry.  Here is a plot that they included on the podcast website:

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They also noted something that is discussed a lot – men tend to be much more confident about things that they know nothing about, while women tend to admit that they know nothing about the subject. Just ask my wife about this. This leads to men dominating discussions and getting more opportunities, since they are more willing to go out on a limb. So, when you have a room full of people, with a few boys who know a lot about computers (and make everyone aware of this) and a bunch of girls and boys who don’t know anything, the girls think that they are in over their head (and drop out), and the boys just soldier on.

Here are two stories from my experiences, one quite recent and one from a long time ago:

When I was a freshman in high school, I started taking French, since we were required to take a foreign language. I basically failed this class, so I switched to a computer programming class. I was the only freshman in the class, but I was probably one of the only kids who actually had a computer at home. I had been programming for over a year by then, so I knew just about everything in the class. I was the kid who raised his hand for every question that the teacher asked. Yes, I was that kid. That changed when a bigger kid punched me in the stomach one day because I was too smart. I learned my place.  Intimidation works.

I have been serving on some committees that are pretty important for our community, and are filled with people who have very strong opinions.  One of the issues that I know that I have is that I have a tendency to be one of the first people to speak up about things.  In these committees, I have a very hard time actually providing any sort of opinion at all, since there are many people who are much more vocal than I am. In addition, there is a lot of ignoring of other people’s opinions and downplaying their ideas. This is not an environment for the timid.  I don’t think that many people think of me as timid, but in some of these committees, I am really not comfortable at all. You really have to be a super-Alpha to be heard and acknowledged. And you have to walk the knife edge of assertive versus aggressive. This is the type of environment that tends to drive women away from science. And I can really see why.

I very much like to listen to the Freakonomics podcast also.  They tend to discuss ideas that really go against the grain of societal norms.  They did two episodes on gender inequality and bias recently.  One that looked at the inequality in pay between men and women. This episode argued that if you compare apples to apples, women do tend to get paid the same as men for the same work.  But, it is difficult to find apples to apples comparisons, since women tend to get orange jobs and men tend to get apple jobs, and that is the cause of the pay gap. In another episode, they discussed gender barriers for women into fields that are dominated by men. It was somewhat depressing, but is a very important episode.

I have also been listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, who I might argue is one of the smartest people on the planet.  I very much like the way he thinks about problems, which I guess makes me bias.  Hmmmm.  Anyways, he just started a podcast a couple of months ago and it is very interesting. The first episode talks about how we as a society have a tendency to make small concessions to underrepresented people, and then take a huge step backwards because we are so proud of ourselves for being so forward thinking. He argued that we are sort of doing that with Barrack Obama right now – we are so proud of ourselves for electing a black president that people feel like we have moved beyond race and everything is great.  Which, clearly, it is not. There is also an implication that if we elect Hillary Clinton as president, we will end up not electing another female president for a long time.

The latest three episodes talk about education and the barriers into higher education for poor people.  His thinking is that the United State is supposed to be a country in which anyone from anywhere can rise up and become extremely successful. He argues that this is not true, because the education system is stacked against poor people.  I completely agree, so it was definitely a bit of preaching to the choir.  But anyways, here are one sentence summaries of the episodes: (1) poor minority kids have a huge number of obstacles to get over in order to even get on a level footing as rich white kids; (2) one of the reasons that tuition at some universities is raising is that they are paying more financial aid for poor students, while at other universities the tuition is raising to pay for gourmet food and really, really nice dorms, which disadvantages the universities who are trying to actually help poor people; and (3) universities are getting huge donations and have monstrous endowments; but many elite universities are using those to attract the cream of the crop as opposed to the poor and disenfranchised. These are all very compelling episodes and if you are involved with higher education, you should really listen to them.

Clearly, these are important issues to me, and I will probably talk about them more. Stay tuned!

 

 

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