Science! If There Isn’t Any News, Make Some Up!

Today’s exercise reveals a case where no particular knowledge of science is needed to assess the story – mere basic logic and grade-school math are the only tools required.

New study reveals the possibility of hurricanes ‘unlike anything you’ve seen in history’

And now, in a new study in Nature Climate Change, Princeton’s Ning Lin and MIT’s Kerry Emanuel demonstrate that when it comes to three global cities in particular — Tampa, Fla., Cairns, Australia, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates — there could come a storm that is much worse than anything in recent memory (or in any memory).

Granted, these theoretical storms are also highly unlikely to occur — in some cases, they are 1-in-10,000-year events, or even rarer. The researchers refer to these possible storms as “gray swans,” riffing on the concept of a “black swan” event, an unpredictable  catastrophe, or highly impactful event. A “gray swan,” by contrast, can indeed be predicted, even if it is extremely rare.

On a logical level, saying something could happen isn’t saying much – it’s not a logical impossibility. A square circle is a logical impossibility, but it could be true that Genghis Khan built a gigantic base on the dark side of the moon from which his decedents will launch an attack on earth marking the 1,000 anniversary of the sacking of Baghdad.  It’s absurd, but not logically impossible.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. No sane person, if he gave it any thought, would think it impossible that there might occur a storm greater than any they have personally seen or even hear of. So what we’re doing here is trying to layer a little math on this commonsense idea – it could be worse – and lay down some odds. So, how do we come up with those odds?

The purpose of the study is “to raise awareness of what a very low probability, very high impact hurricane event might look like,” said Emanuel. The gray swan storms were generated by a computer model that “coupled” together, in the researchers’ parlance, a very high-resolution hurricane model with a global climate model. That allowed the researchers to populate the simulated world with oodles of different storms.

OK, then. Sounds like something a couple grad assistants might fiddle with for kicks and giggles: Take model A, which incorporates a bazillion assumptions and presumes a gazillion dependencies, and use it to feed modal B, which may or may not use the same, or may even use mutually exclusive, assumptions and dependencies, and see what comes out. Good times, on the level of a purely intellectual exercise. Just don’t try to make predictions in the real world from it.

Of course, if one  or both of the two models have been shown to consistently fail to match reality, we would add yet another level of caution. No sane person would dream of announcing the results of such an exercise as if it were a scientific finding of some sort, right?

Must be a really slow news day. Or maybe science isn’t the point?

One other note: the time frames they are talking about are large – these mega storms are something like 1 in 200,000 year probabilities. We’d expect one or more glaciations – ice ages – in that time frame. The return of miles-thick ice sheets covering all of Canada, some of the Midwest and much of Northern Europe and England, with a 300’+ drop in sea levels, for millennia at a stretch, would be bad, way worse than any storm. So, I’d say: let’s not sweat the storms too much.

Science! NYT Revisions of: Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says

I really don’t know what to make of this. Yesterday morning, via the Google science news feed, I found an article on an effort to reproduce results from psychology studies published in 3 leading journals. Later that day, I went back to it, only to find that it had been heavily edited. I thought the original had gone down the memory hole, and so despaired of seeing exactly what had been changed. However, turns out I had not closed the tab with the original article from yesterday morning, and so was able to capture it. I then threw the original and revised versions into Word, ran a compare, and voila! I’ve posted the whole thing at the end.

Herein we investigate and ruminate.

Recap: Yesterday, a preposterously upbeat article on a study that showed that less than 40% of the results presented in a set of 100 research papers were reproducible. I say ‘preposterously upbeat’ because, in the real world of real science, it would be a tire-fire smoking, Death Star klaxon sounding DISASTER for any field to admit that 60%+ of its results were not reproducible. But here, it’s just business as usual:

The results are now in: More than 60 of the studies did not hold up. They include findings that were circulated at the time — that a strong skepticism of free will increases the likelihood of cheating; that physical distances could subconsciously influence people’s sense of personal closeness; that attached women are more attracted to single men when highly fertile than when less so.

This was the original 4th paragraph in the article. Note how trivial the claims being disputed are – nothing to see here, move along. Everything is Just Fine.

I objected to this. Imagine.

The revision eliminates this paragraph, and kicks the criticism up a dozen notches (Bold is my emphasis):

Now, a painstaking years long effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested. The analysis was done by research psychologists, many of whom volunteered their time to double-check what they considered important work. Their conclusions, reported Thursday in the journal Science, have confirmed the worst fears of scientists who have long worried that the field needed a strong correction.

The vetted studies were considered part of the core knowledge by which scientists understand the dynamics of personality, relationships, learning and memory. Therapists and educators rely on such findings to help guide decisions, and the fact that so many of the studies were called into question could sow doubt in the scientific underpinnings of their work.

“I think we knew or suspected that the literature had problems, but to see it so clearly, on such a large scale — it’s unprecedented,” said Jelte Wicherts, an associate professor in the department of methodology and statistics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Puts it in a slightly different light, huh?

I admit to not knowing what’s going on here. In every other case I’ve run across, one can count on the press to report on challenges to the cargo cult sciences – psychology, sociology, political science and their spawn – in such a way as to reassure the sheep that Nothing Is Wrong. Oh sure, everybody makes mistakes, but Science is Self Correcting(tm), so don’t trouble your fuzzy, bleating little heads about it.(1)

There are some other rather glaring bits evident to the reader’s gimlet eye. In general, though, I’m pleased at some of the tone here, although, eventually, when you get to the end, it’s still largely apologetics for the idea that we must accept the conclusions of psychology or sociology because our cell phone actually works!

Here is the compared versions. Had to embed a Word doc (we’ll see if that even works), as pasting into WordPress loses all the markup. Red and Green are the changes from the original. Don’t know what’s up with all the weird typefaces:

Compared versions of 2015 08 27

  1. See here and here for examples – the author does not distinguish between psychology and, say, chemistry. They are both, we are to believe, science in the same sense. Science is hard; cargo cult science is even harder, it seems. And because *technology* is self-correcting (get it wrong, and the tablet won’t boot, the rocket crashes, and lights won’t go on), and, as a side effect, often spurs correction of the underlying science, we are take as dogma that sociology, say, will miraculously fix itself! Marxist sociologists will eventually see the evidence that their theories don’t correlate to anything in the real world, and reject them, one hopes before those theories put another 100 million people in their graves. I’m pretty sure there are few logical steps missing here.

Science! Are Social Sciences Fraud?

Maybe one needs the special glasses to see the wonder of the results?

UPDATE: score one for Truth, Justice and the American Way. The Paper of Record totally redid the article since I cut and pasted those couple paragraphs below. Gone are the poo-pooing of the issue with claims that things are generally OK, we just need to tighten up a little – now we’ve got:

Their conclusions, reported Thursday in the journal Science, have confirmed the worst fears of scientists who have long worried that the field needed a strong correction.

The vetted studies were considered part of the core knowledge by which scientists understand the dynamics of personality, relationships, learning and memory. Therapists and educators rely on such findings to help guide decisions, and the fact that so many of the studies were called into question could sow doubt in the scientific underpinnings of their work.

“I think we knew or suspected that the literature had problems, but to see it so clearly, on such a large scale — it’s unprecedented,” said Jelte Wicherts, an associate professor in the department of methodology and statistics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Whoa. That’s a little different, and a lot more to the point. Not perfect – perfect would be a call for disbanding all cargo cult science departments, tarring and feathering enough of the more egregious offenders to offer a cautionary tale to undergrads, and having some real scientists pronounce on the validity of all existing studies and pre-approve proposed protocols and methods before any future studies are done. But hey, a world better than the self-congratulating stuff I captured this morning.

There’s also this gem:

The act of double-checking another scientist’s work has been divisive. Many senior researchers resent the idea that an outsider, typically a younger scientist, with less expertise, would critique work that often has taken years of study to pull off.

“There’s no doubt replication is important, but it’s often just an attack, a vigilante exercise,” said Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.

Riiight. You mean, younger scientists without careers, tenure and grants to defend?

Could it be that someone at the Times read my blog and said – stop the presses! We must tone this down a little in view of that Yard Sale of the Mind dude’s incisive and damning points! Hey, it’s possible, stop laughing! Or maybe enough serious researchers coughed up a hairball or two, and the Times reacted? Who knows?

I’m leaving the original essay intact, for posterity. My only regret is that I failed to capture the whole thing, which may now be down the memory hole.

With, one presumes, a straight face, the New York Times informs us:

Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says

Ya think?  I also like the saw off the limb you’re sitting on nature of a study casting doubt on studies. Anyways:  Continue reading

Checking In

Been a while. These last few months were without a doubt the most stressful of my life. The next few promise more of the same. In addition to the three items I’ve mentioned – the death of my sister, the anniversary of my son’s death, and the departure for college of three of our four remaining children – there are three other things that are just as stressful that I am not a liberty to talk about.

I sometimes go from one phone call or email or text trying to deal with issue D directly to another trying to deal with issue E, around and around. Entire days pass wherein I get hardly anything done except working on these problems. I can’t recall another time in my life so full of unhappy things. Suck it up and offer it up is about all I can do. Thank God for my wife and kids!

Anyway, all this really cuts into my blogging. Until recently, it cut into my reading as well, but now it seems I can take some solace in a good book or two. I do not understand how my own mind works in this regard, which is somewhat disconcerting at my age.

The blog draft pile has grown a bit; a sentence or two has been written on the various stories I’m working on; and ideas come and go through the windswept canyons of my brain, but I don’t manage to net any. In a month or two, at least a couple of these issues should be resolved or at least die down a bit – I suppose I’ll get used to palling around with my 11 year old in an otherwise empty house (it should do us both good – he and I are both missing his siblings), memories fade, and a few things that can’t go on forever will end.

Sorry to get all melodramatic. I’d really rather be cheerfully writing about Hegel. Ha.

Giant Killer Robot Needs New Shoes

Is it morally responsible to give money to people building giant fighting robots, when there are baby ducks going hungry in local canals right this minute?

Tough one.

Update: Or maybe not so tough:

Throw a couple large mouth bass in the canals, and that takes care of your hungry baby duck problem, freeing you, morally, to throw money at giant fighting robots.

Circle of life, and all that.

Updates, Asides & Micro-Reviews

1  When I’m not being the most thoroughly rational and reasonable person you’ll ever meet who isn’t an honorary Houyhnhnm, I sometimes get emotional. The last few months, with the death of my sister, the anniversary of my son’s death, and all but one of the kids leaving for college, have been, well, emotional. This futzes with my attempts at rationality in weird ways, especially since I, like Spock in The Voyage Home, find answering the question ‘how do you feel?’ way more difficult than it ought to be. Maybe I’m a replicant or something, an earlier, much less physically attractive version of Rachael? It’s a difficult thing to disprove…

One thing that gets weird is what I can stand to read. Lately, when I reach into The Pile near my bed to read myself to sleep, I’ve settled on a a scholarly and somewhat dry book on Greek Mythology by some British don or other. This, while my (new paper white, yay!) Kindle sits there with partially read John C Wright, Brian Neimier and Orestes Brownson. Huh? I’d rather, it appears, read about how the Argonaut saga originated somewhere outside the Greek world and was retrofitted, over the centuries, with more mainstream Greek heroes, who storytellers were then obliged to more or less awkwardly work into the narrative or work around. Beats Hegel, for sure, but those other guys?

Also, a couple things I read during this time I’ve since partially reread, and discovered that I’d totally misapprehended them. Note to self: check emotional state before writing any reviews, you may blow it otherwise. (Age of Ultron, anyone?). That said:

2 The middle parts of Brownson I found draggy, as he beats to death every flavor of every objection to the premise that the Union is and must be constituted as a nation and people in fact and by natural law *before* it could write a legal document. The South, thus, could object as much as they want to the written Constitution, but the same natural laws that govern all the natural goings-on in this world also, in the normal working of things, constitute peoples as nations who only THEN can construct laws for themselves. You can’t legitimately leave such a thing without doing horrible violence to the rule of law and human nature itself.

Fascinating concept, and I’ll get back to a more full-blown write up once I feel better, whatever that means.

The real surprise: Brownson, as through and through an opponent of slavery as one could hope to find, nonetheless detests the Abolitionist movement, even more, in some ways, then he detests slave-owning. Why? Because while both slavery and the excesses of the Abolitionists are barbaric, in the sense of being opposed to the Commonwealth essential to any civilization worthy of the name, slave holding is a persistent remnant of barbarity standing against efforts to achieve true civilization, while the Abolitionists, having a Commonwealth and a Republic, would burn the whole world, the state, the Union, the Commonwealth and the Republic itself to be rid of slavery. In their rhetoric, they dismiss or condemn the Union for having allowed slavery in the first place and not having stamped it out in the second.

Brownson points out that the American bias in favor of revolutionaries is fundamentally insane.  For every ‘good’ Revolution like America’s of 1776, there are dozens in which the worst traits and people rise to the top, and nothing is achieved except the destruction of life, freedom and the Commonwealth itself. And, since this vast majority of revolts don’t establish a more perfect order, they tend to repeat themselves over and over. He is, I’m sure, thinking of the France  of his time.

So the Southerners willing to be ‘rebels’ were, in Brownson’s opinion, deluded by the American myth of the good revolution. There hearts were in the right place, perhaps, but they did not understand what they were doing – no one did, until the act of fighting the Civil War forced people to work through what it was all about – which is what Brownson’s book is all about.

3 I’m rereading Brian Niemeier’s first novel Nethereal (see above for why) and quite enjoying it. Expect a review soon.

4. In some ways, John C. Wright’s latest Somewhither takes his everything and the kitchen sink approach to characters and ideas to an even more extreme level than before, if possible. I’m only a little bit into it, yet we’ve already run into a menagerie of creatures eldrich, and enough ideas for half a dozen short stories. But I’ll need to start over soon, see above.

5. I threw that story up, after a couple hours of writing and one quick rewrite, just to see if I could actually let anything out of my trembling hands and into the wild. I resisted rewriting it for a couple days, then went back and eliminated a couple paragraphs and tried to mitigate some redundancy. BUT THAT’S IT! Ok? So I can ‘finish’ a story, after a fashion. Conceptually, at least.

Did you know that the history of civilization can to some extent be found in the layers of ruins of ancient farms? In rural France, the earliest ruins, when the farmers first built houses, show one big room – and all the animals stayed in there, too. As time went on and, one presumes, things settled down a bit, a divider wall was put in, perhaps to keep the cows and goats from stepping on sleeping peasant children. Next, solid walls with doors went in. Finally, when things got really settled, a separate but very near by building – a barn – was built for the animals, and everyone, one hopes, slept and smelt better.

This makes total sense, in a world where populations are ‘harvest-sensitive’ – that livestock was a matter of life and death, you’d better know where it is and be able to defend it.

So, out of the blue, thinking of recent cultural developments, I had the stray thought: if this keeps up, we’re going to need to keep the cows in the living room.

Science! Clickbait Edition…

Let’s take a fairly innocuous, in the sense that no one has yet proposed a government program to address the menace of slitty-eyed kitties – emphasis on the ‘yet’ – bit of Science! and see what headline writers have done with it. In the name of Science! and all that, of course.

Here’s what we’re talking about: A couple researchers from UC Berkeley and Durham looked at the shapes of the pupils of a couple hundred species of animals, and drew some conclusions. Vertical pupils indicate largely nocturnal hunters; horizontally elongated pupils tend to be grazing animals, and there are exceptions. Then they speculated on why this might be so. That’s about it.

Just look at those eyes – look deeply. This is a evil, sneaky predator! We needed a study to show this, because no biologist or cat owner ever noticed this before.

Google’s Science! news feed leads off with:

Scientists unravel mystery behind cats’ vertical pupils” from something called Livemint. This one isn’t too bad, apart from ignoring the gist of the study to work cats into the headline. The only bits of fluff are the ‘unravel mystery’. Who, exactly, is lying awake at night wondering why cats have vertical slit pupils? And when are they moving out of their mom’s basement? OK, cheap shot – but not everything is a mystery breathlessly waiting unravelment.

New Study Looks Into Difference in Pupil Shapes Across Animal Kingdom” From the Pioneer News. This is pretty darn accurate. I’d even propose this as a model for other headline writers writing about science – just the facts, ‘mam. But as clickbait, it’s a total fail – only people actually interested in the topic would click that.

Goats have horizontal pupils, cats have vertical slits and this is why” from Nature World Report. An observation followed by a TRVTH claim – OK, not too egregious, but do notice that we’ve lost the idea of what the study is generally about, and instead lead with the examples goats and cats. Now, if this editor worked for me, he’d (it would have to be a ‘he’ as no woman would make this mistake (1)) get fired – you had a chance to lead with ‘Cats’ on the Internet, and DIDN’T?!? Even modifying it to read “Screaming Goats have horizontal pupils…” while a vast improvement, wouldn’t save your job.

Eyes can tell the difference between predator and prey: Research” NYC Today. My eyes sure can! Why, just the other day, I used them to see a ladybug slaughtering aphids, David-like, in their tens of thousands! Or maybe that’s not what they mean. This headline offends not so much Science! as the idea of using English to communicate something.

Eye Shape Reveals Predatory Nature In Animals – Study” Design & Trend, another never heard of it publication whose name fails to suggest ‘go-to source for breaking Science! news’. But I digress…

Not too click-baity (totally a word!). My complaint: if not going after goat-obsessed kitty worshippers, why reframe the study to talk only about predators?

OFFICIAL: Evil-eyed cats MORE LIKELY to be SNEAKY PREDATORS – boffins” The Register, as dubious a source as exists in this space-time continuum, unless you’re looking for  goofy headlines employing hyperbole, CAPS and the word ‘boffins’. Then, the Register is totally your top source.

Do we even need to talk about this? Evil-eyed, MORE LIKELY, SNEAKY – OFFICIALLY verified by boffins. We have reached the apex of Science! right here… But, as click bait, should have gone with ‘kittens’ or ‘kitties’ instead of ‘cats’, because that would have added a note of poignancy to the whole evil-eyed sneaky predator thing. Then again, other than researchers motivated by the purest scientific motives, such as myself, who would ever click on a link to the Register? On second thought, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.