19 December 2010

Scientific integrity comes to America

It’s official: the US government is going to keep politics out of science.

I’m confused about the appropriate response to the news. Do I whoop with joy over this promising turn of events that will lead to greater scientific progress in the US? Or do I facepalm myself over the politicians’ pathetically belated realisation that science and political ideology should never, ever mix?

Ambivalent reactions aside, it can only be considered a good thing that the Obama administration has publicly declared the independence of science from undue political influence. Yes, I’m aware that a public declaration isn’t a magic spell that will suddenly banish all such influence. But at least American scientists will finally be able to do their thing under the aegis of policies that contain “a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency.”

This has been a long time coming. For years now scientists and organisations like the Center for Inquiry (CFI) have been calling for such pro-science action. The retardation of science under the Bush administration has arguably eroded America’s commercial, technological and intellectual prominence. It has also very likely contributed to the prevalence of anti-scientific attitudes, while nurturing disdain for evidence-based decision making.

The Obama administration’s green light for independent science comes at a time when the US sorely needs to up its game in scientific literacy. In a 2006 world ranking of science literacy among high school students, the US ranked at No. 22 out of 33 countries, which is well below the OECD average (ditto for maths and reading). With American scientific advancement no longer a signed and sealed deal, the last thing US politicians should be doing is sabotaging their already beleaguered science institutions with anti-scientific meddling (and if it’s the Republicans doing the meddling, you can bet your retirement fund that it will be anti-scientific).

Of course, it would also help if members of the science community refrained from making silly comments regarding ‘political bias’ in the actual practise of science, rather than in its implementation, which can indeed be politicised. Now that the Obama administration has pledged to maintain the integrity and independence of science, freshly energised and emboldened scientists should start strutting their stuff. Even if most of them are Democrats.


14 December 2010

Talk about putting the cart before the horse

Consider the following statement:

Most jockeys are short. This is a problem. Horse racing organisations need to address this imbalance by encouraging tall people to become jockeys.

Silly, isn’t it? The reason why jockeys tend to be short has little to do with horse racing politics or managerial bickering. Simply put, short and light physiques lend themselves to riding a horse to victory better than tall and heavy ones. It’s the physics, stupid.

13 December 2010

The Sokal Hoax 2: Alt med gets punked

Arse-cupuncture - coming soon to an alt med provider near you

What’s one way to tell if a system of thought contains utter bollocks? When its ‘experts’ can’t even tell the difference between its own official bollocks and a prankster’s totally made-up bollocks.

10 December 2010

The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’

“Acupuncture relieved my back pain, that’s why I know it works.”

“After my daughter got vaccinated when she was two, she became autistic. How can anyone think that vaccines don’t cause autism?”

“My uncle’s wife’s nephew’s cousin’s neighbour had his cancer go into remission after using only herbal remedies. They’re way better than chemotherapy.”

“Homeopathy is effective because I am living proof that it can cure herpes.”

You may know someone who has expressed something similar to the above. Perhaps you yourself have a personal story to tell about how you became a believer in carb-free dieting/UFO abductions/traditional Chinese medicine after being exposed to ‘evidence’ that confirmed your biases. The confirmation bias and cherry picking fallacies are largely responsible for why Aunt Maria insists that it’s the power of prayer that cured her of her haemorrhoids.

Steven Novella has written a brilliant article explaining how anecdotes and anomalies can lead people to draw inaccurate or plain wrong conclusions, and why a large volume of personal testimonies does not count as proof. The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’. Dr Novella’s article educates us on the nature and proper role of both anecdotes and anomalies in science. As he writes, “Context is king.”

I highly recommend that you also read the comments in response to the post. They contain more instructive information and examples of faulty thinking that further illustrate Dr Novella’s points.

This kind of knowledge should really be taught in schools to develop students’ critical thinking skills. It would certainly reduce the number of adults who subscribe to all sorts of dubious beliefs, simply because they lack an understanding of logical fallacies like confirmation bias, cherry picking, argument from ignorance, equating correlation with causation, and creating false dichotomies. Many don't know how to think about thinking – what psychologists call ‘exercising metacognition’. Thankfully we have great science educators like Dr Novella to teach us the ropes.


08 December 2010

WikiLeaks: the case for and against

Looks like they got him. Julian Assange now sits in a London jail on rape charges, awaiting possible extradition to Sweden. But I won’t be drawn into this sideshow. I’m more concerned about the ethical issues behind the actions of WikiLeaks. Assange may be the cognitive, directive and even motive force behind it, but his current absence from WikiLeaks won’t lessen the impact the organisation has made on the international landscape. The fallout of ‘Cablegate’ will continue to occupy people’s thoughts and fuel fiery arguments attacking and defending WikiLeaks (and thus Assange).

07 December 2010

No, I'm not a 'blogger'

A writer who writes books isn’t called a booker. A writer who writes magazine articles isn’t called a magaziner. So why is it that a writer who writes a blog is called a blogger? Why do wordsmiths working with a certain early 21st century internet medium get labeled with such an unlovely appellation? Bad enough that said internet medium suffered the historic misfortune of having the adequate designation of ‘weblog’ hacked into the fecal-sounding ‘blog’. Must we compound this disgrace by calling writers of blogs ‘bloggers’? A blogger blogging on his blog gives the impression of needing 3-ply toilet paper.

I’m not alone in my antipathy for the word ‘blogger’. Jonathan Dobres eloquently denigrates all things ‘blog’ related in this website post. Personally, I can somewhat tolerate the term ‘blog’, so long as it refers specifically to a website maintained by one or more individuals who regularly post original material (textual, visual or auditory) that isn’t purely objective, disinterested reportage or organisational propaganda. Otherwise it’s a news website or an impersonal home page. It helps if the posted material is interesting/educational/edifying in some ineffably sublime way. Alright, erotically titillating is good too.

What I would like to see go the way of the broad-faced potoroo (potorous platyops) is the word ‘blogger’ being used to describe someone who writes for a blog. My fellow online scribes, you are writers, no less so than someone who gets paid to have her alphabetic ejaculations appear under a globally recognised masthead, or behind a hip orange-and-cream cover with a fucking bird on it. Wherefore this ashamed reluctance to declare oneself a writer just because one hasn’t been professionally published? You use words, do you not? You string them together into (sometimes) coherent sentences, correct? And you are (hopefully) read by an audience, yes? So call yourself a writer, damn it! Unless you prefer a description reminiscent of taking a shit.


05 December 2010

Leaking is the new terrorism

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks
According to a former Alaskan governor and North Korean ally, Julian Assange is a terrorist. He has “blood on his hands”, because being the editor of an internet outfit that makes secret stuff not so secret is just the same thing as exploding bombs in crowded places, gunning down hotel guests and flying planes into buildings. With the sort of manhunter posturing and persecutive bombast coming from his critics, you’d think Assange was Osama bin Laden’s chief operations coordinator.