Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Science, well sort of… what happens when you take a break from blogging

Writing this blog over the last three years has yielded many unexpected pleasures.  At the top of the list is the fact that some folks actually read it…stunning.  This was brought home to me recently when at least three of you seemed to notice that I hadn’t written one in several months.  A few disconnected reasons that don’t warrant explanation contrived to make it so.  But, hey, I’m back.

The time off has given me the opportunity to reflect on both the process and purpose of this effort.  My original purpose was to change the world, or at least how we see it. I’m letting go of that one, for the most part.  I think my greatest insight on change is that it simply takes exponentially more time than we would like or that is nominally required for desired outcomes.   We can rail against this, and are unlikely to change it, but that doesn’t mean we give up all together, hence back to the blog.

I’m actually pretty satisfied with the process.  The best part is when you weigh in and challenge my half-baked conclusions…Makes us all better.  I thought I’d take the opportunity of this reboot to briefly revisit some previous topics and outline a few things I’ve been thinking about, just to get back into the groove.

Fracking…gotta love it
Not going to re-litigate this one…the series is found (here).  But there has been some interesting new research that is noteworthy, largely in that it aligns with my biases.  This one from Stanford  and this NY Times article tend to support my general conclusion that on balance, fracking and the production of natural gas, will be of benefit in fighting climate change.  As I’ve said repeatedly, this is vexingly complex, but to date I have yet to see any serious research to change my view in the way I have framed it.

Why I’m glad Bill Nye debated “He who shall not be named”
Bill took a lot of grief from certain pious corners for debating the creationist Ken Hamm (whoops, named him).  The criticism was that doing so somehow either legitimized or gave attention to a point of view that deserved neither.  I get the argument, but simply disagree with it.  The debate itself was OK, but did little other than to lay out the science on one hand, and on the other, the tortuous convulsions sophisticated creationists put themselves through to appear sciencey.  But the real payoff was at the end, when the moderator asked Bill and Hamm if there was anything that would get them to change their views.  Hamm said no, Bill said, sure, evidence. Bam! The whole 155 year debate since Darwin boiled down to that one short interchange, which made it worth it.

A really interesting media trend
I’ve written often on the role of the media in shaping how and what we believe (here).  And while I argue they are a too easy target for our disdain, there is an emerging trend that I find quite hopeful.  I’m not sure if it even has an official name or meme yet, so we’ll just call it “Data Driven Stuff”.  In just the last few weeks Nate Silver’s (FiveThirtyEight), Ezra Klein’s (Vox), NYT’s (The Upshot) joined the Atlantic’s (Quartz) as examples of this trend. WARNING…if you are anything like me you will spend way too much time on these sites. Lots of wonky stuff covering everything from sports to politics and yes, even science.  What they seek to do is use data and statistics as the basis for their articles and arguments.  Smart stuff, but for me the really interesting part is the comment sections.  They are for the most part from equally smart people finding one fault or another with the data analysis.  It might be the size of the study group, the methodologies employed, sampling errors etc. The delicious irony is that they highlight the dirty little secret about “data”…while it can be instructive, it is rarely if ever determinative, and therefore not all that useful in other than a very narrow set of circumstances…more on this at another time.

I’m goofing around with a scientific formula
Those of you who know me well recognize this could get dicey.  This formula thing came to me almost in full form one day while taking a hike with the dog.  It goes as follows:  Proximity to Y, where Y= the scientific question, amplifies Z, where Z = the complexity of the answer to the scientific question, by a factor of G, where G= the number of people who care about the answer.  So the basic idea is that the closer you are to the question, likely because you have some expertise, the more complex the answer.  And the complexity of that answer is then amplified by the number of people who care about or are impacted by the answer.  Still working this one out…if I get my brain around it there may be more to come…so, what do you believe?