Archive for December 27th, 2011

The frustrating scientific method

| December 27, 2011 | 1 Reply
The frustrating scientific method

I just finished reading an excellent article by Jonah Lehrer of Wired: “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” The article focuses on the scientific method. We all know that science makes steady progress as it spins its ideas and conducts experiments, right? Wrong.

Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

Sometimes, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the entire theory needs to be revamped or discarded, breaking the conceptual continuity. Therefore, the practice of science is often not smooth sailing, contrary to popular conceptions. A good approach to dealing with the uncooperative data is for the scientist to make sure that he or she doesn’t work alone:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

[caption id="attachment_21014" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Nicholas_ at istock (with permission)"][/caption]

These comments ring true to me. Once again, skepticism to the rescue, and we need to turn to “outsiders” because we hesitate to murder our own children (this is a phrase I heard in a writing seminar–a reason for a separate editor). It’s important to remember, though, that bringing others into the conversation doesn’t always work. It has to be the right chemistry, where everyone is geared to the end result and where the criticism of the work needs to be savage though each of the participants nonetheless shows appreciation for each others’ hard work. We should strive for the benefits of group endeavors while avoiding groupthink:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.

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Race, class and drug use

| December 27, 2011 | Reply
Race, class and drug use

AT Huffpo, Ryan Grimm discusses the race and class entwined history of America’s attitudes toward drugs, including alcohol:

The reaction of the American government, and its people, to drug use was — and still is — a complex mix of factors, involving lobbying by the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol industry, temperance advocates, and religious movements. Historically, the argument has played out — and continues to play out — amid a backdrop of racism and class antagonism. Racism and bigotry were generally not the drivers of prohibition movements, but instead were the weapons used by temperance advocates to achieve their ends. The movement to ban alcohol, for instance, gained its strongest adherents without resorting to bigotry, but when World War I broke out, the movement was quick to tie beer and booze to instantly despised German immigrants, pushing the effort over the Constitutional hump.

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Test your knowledge of American civics and history

| December 27, 2011 | 11 Replies
Test your knowledge of American civics and history

I just finished taking this test of United States government civics and history.  I correctly answered 32 out of 33 questions, having guessed at a couple of them.  I believe that most of these questions are fairly worded and that they concern important topics of which American voters should be familiar.  I assume that I scored highly because I work as a lawyer, because I read quite a bit, and I actually lived through some of the events mentioned in the questions.  I would think that Americans who choose to vote should be able to answer more of these questions correctly than incorrectly. In fact, it is my opinion that people who do terribly (those who answer more incorrectly than correctly) should voluntarily refrain from voting in national elections because they lack a basic foundation of knowledge on which to base political decision-making.    Now consider this:

More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33 question test on civic literacy and 71% of them received an average score of 49% or an “F.” The quiz reveals that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

As discussed by the linked article, even significant numbers of elected officials who took this test displayed ignorance regarding basic topics. This is highly discouraging, of course (and see here).

It is difficult to argue that the People of this country should self-govern when so many of them are so ignorant of the basic information they need in order to cast meaningful votes.   It’s time to break the silence and to admit to each other that in order to self-govern, the citizens will need to be much more selective in how they spend their free time. They apparently need to be much more selective in their television viewing and book choices (25% of Americans did not read any books last year).  Better education is the answer, but how can we educate the many millions of people who have already graduated from school?  How can we pry them, at least once in a while, from the addictive fare offered by the Entertainment Industries?

I would love to make all candidates currently running for President take a comparable test. I would suspect that at least several of them would fail even this simple multiple choice test.   Actually, I believe that Presidential candidates should be required to take a much more difficult and detailed test under supervised conditions to demonstrate whether they are well-versed in American politics and history.  Their scores should then be published (along with the questions and their answers) for voters to consider.

These test results indicate that these are dangerous times for our country. It’s frustrations like these that lead me to advocate dramatic measures, such as passing a Constitutional Amendment to get money out of politics. Such an amendment would be a start, and only then might we have meaningful conversations about what needs to be done to fix the country. We cannot have such conversations while we have ignorant voters and corrupted politicians.  If we can’t depend on the People of this country and if we can depend on our elected officials, on whom can we depend?

Maybe, after passing a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, we could have some chance to break up big banks and big media, we maybe then we could start weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and we could start investing in better quality civics and history education for our children.

Or maybe my proposed first step is a pipe dream.    Based on many conversations I’ve been having with people I respect, I’m increasingly worried that we don’t have what it takes to pull out of our current nose dive.

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