Science & Society

OK, I've had just about enough of the stupid statistics being put out by the FDA regarding full body scanners at airports. I'm not sure why everyone is behaving as if such a scan is a singular event in a year.  One hears about how such a small dose compares against the annual safe dosage and yet does it occur to no one that many people fly more than once per year?
I think there is something deeply wrong with our view of science. The word itself, Science (with a capital "S"), sits alongside other monoliths such as Religion, Art, Music, Literature, Politics and so forth that require constant defining just to ensure we're talking about the same thing. The problem with science is that we are taught a myth... and then complain when the myth is incommensurate with reality.

Earlier this month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that $8 million worth of new grant money has been awarded to educational and non-profit institutions across the United States to support programs that connect the public to science appreciation and interactivity.

The NOAA's Environmental Literacy Grant program focuses to enhance informal educational opportunities at museums and through family and teen programs, as well as expand citizen science networks. The funded projects will work to increase the understanding and appreciation of environmental issues of the oceans, coastlines, Great Lakes, and the climate around the globe.

A few weeks ago, The Science Cheerleaders grabbed headlines with their appearance at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, where they cheered for citizen science and science literacy, as well as served to provide a new kind of role model for young girls, showing them they can be both cheerleaders AND scientists.

Following this public appearance, were two very strong reactions. One was overwhelmingly positive. The other was overwhelmingly negative and critical—and a lot of it came from scientists and science bloggers. 

Most researchers regard their work as vital to society, even if that value is only higher order and the chain to societal benefit is tenuous to outsiders.  That's no different than any other job - people at the Department of Motor Vehicles feel like the entire state would halt without them and, in an elaborate food chain, they are right, and the same holds true for environmentalists who worry that some obscure critter going extinct will have a butterfly effect on worldwide ecology.  In a domino world, they are also correct.

But researchers are different than those other examples because they can't just do their jobs, they have to not only show they are doing their jobs, they have to prove they should continue doing them, and then raise the money to do it.
There's a neat piece on tweaking versus invention, written by two law professors (Kal Raustiala of UCLA and Chris Sprigman at UVA) over as a Freakonomics guest blog.  Their bit on Geeks, Tweeks and Innovation talks about how Tweaking is good, but the law is against it.

Pioneering = making something totally new.
Tweaking = making something better.

I liken cognition to a hill-climbing search on the landscape of theories/models/maps that explain/predict reality.  It’s easy to get stuck on peaks of local maximality.  Injecting randomness creates a sort of Boltzmann machine of the mind and increases my chances of finding higher peaks.

But I have to be prepared to be more confused — and question more assumptions than I intended to — because chances are my new random placement on the landscape is initially lower than the local maximum I was on prior.  This part is scary.

As I first mentioned in a previous Science 2.0 post, a month ago I took a walk to Cabot Auditorium at Tufts University to see a presentation by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who is also one of the "four horsemen" of New Atheism.

Dennett discussed three of his potential futures for religion, mostly the third possibility:
  1. Religion will sweep the planet.
  2. Religion is in its death throes.
  3. Religion transforms into creedless moral teams (ceremony and tradition, but no doctrine).
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

The much-revered writers of the Golden Age of science fiction can be quite rough around the edges, even downright embarrassing on occasion. The writing is hurried, the plots of plot-driven books are disturbingly inconsistent, and the characters are primarily stock types and authorial mouthpieces. To top it off, many of these novels are ambitious, earnestly offered as novels of big ideas. These ideas are usually sympathetic (tolerance, freedom, racial equality, escape from religious tyranny), but generally reduced to platitudes expressed in long, somnolent sermons by the your standard pointy-headed philosopher-scientist.
What is science?

Science is application of the scientific method to problems or questions, and then submitting the story to the scrutiny of others. It’s simple. It’s elegant. It’s self-correcting.It’s LOGIC.

BUT. What if your audience was never taught what the scientific method really is? What if want to teach it to a child for the first time? What if the person standing across from you is a dummy??

Duh, you use poop
. Everyone has had experience with poop. People get poop. Poop is universal. (I would use sex, but there’s the thing about the little children and also human behavior is much more complex than poop.)


The scientific process in everyday life OR