Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Mike’s Rule of Expertise

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.

At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.

It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.

The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.

I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:

Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.

Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.

And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.

So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.

I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.

This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

(In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.

But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)

What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.

Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:

He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.

Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[

I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.

(I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)

Peak Human

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.

Guess Who, Fat Boy?

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).

Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.

So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:

That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.

William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.

(more…)

Swift Unveils the Gallery

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.

Post-Xmas Linkorama

Sunday, December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Robot Cars and the Law

    Friday, December 28th, 2012

    As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

    However…

    The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

    The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

    The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

    As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

    Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

    Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Toys. In. Spaaaaace.

    Thursday, September 27th, 2012

    I love this:

    The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.

    New Year Linkorama

    Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Why Science?

    Friday, September 14th, 2012

    As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

    But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

    It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

    Olympic Records

    Friday, July 27th, 2012

    This interactive graphic, showing how world records in olympic events have changed over time, is pretty damn cool. The improvement in the discus is particularly stunning.

    While part of this has to do with improved training and technology, these are just part of a larger trend of tapping deeper into the human potential. The people we were a century ago were a shadow of what we are now — well-fed people with all our teeth, marbles and bones who can live functionally into our 80’s. Vaccines and the reduction of childhood disease, in particular, have created an explosion in human healthy, lifetime and potential.

    I do think we are reaching the limits this side of genetic engineering. Watch how the records asymptote. I just hope the same isn’t true of our progress in science and technology.

    The Need To Explore

    Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

    Via the Bad Astronomer, I found this video talking about the ALMA array and the need for exploration that drives my profession.

    Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

    It’s worth watching, especially because it interviews scientists from one of best institutions of higher learning in the known universe: Mr. Jefferson’s. (Of which I might happen to be a graduate). Funny thing: I started out my career in radio astronomy and intended to pursue a career in it. Now I work in the gamma-ray regime, about as far away from radio as you can get and still be on the electromagnetic spectrum. But I still love the epic scale of radio telescopes. I’ve been to Arecibo. I would dearly love to see ALMA some day.

    Firewalking

    Saturday, July 21st, 2012

    I don’t know what annoys me more: that 21 people were burned fire walking in some confidence building bullshit; or that the organizers are blaming the burns on a lack of faith and concentration rather than a failure to either properly set or properly supervise this parlor trick.

    More from Penn and Teller here.

    The Dry Future

    Thursday, July 19th, 2012

    The WaPo has an article Looking at the current drought and wondering/speculating what will happen if and when such droughts become more common due to global warming.

    A lot of the hype for this is keying off a study that claims Texas’ 2011 drought was twenty times more likely because of global warming. This study has been loudly trumpeted around the punditsphere but needs to be taken with several helpings of salt water. The analysis is based on climactic modeling, a notoriously tricky discipline. It wouldn’t take much to make the 20 times go down a lot. Second, the 2011 Texas drought was an extreme event, on the tail of the probability distribution. If you shift the probability distribution just a little bit, the probability of an unlikely even shoots up dramatically. For example, if the likelihood of an event happening was one in a million and your analysis made it one in fifty thousand, that would be “20 times more likely”. But it is still an unlikely event and still at point where small assumptions can dramatically alter the results. Looking at their plots, 2011 was still an outlier. While there’s a great deal of research supporting the idea that global warming will produce a drier world (or at leas a drier USA), it’s sketchy to build policy on it.

    More importantly, the warming is inevitable. Even if we accept the current models; even we stopped all greenhouse gas emission today; the planet would continue to warm for another half century. We are long past the point of prevention; we are now at the point of adaptation, something the WaPo article only brushes against.

    There is hope in adaptation. The current drought has been more extensive than past droughts that caused food shortages and famine. But drought-resistant crops and better land management have prevented the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. We have not even begun to tap the potential for adaptation. And it’s a potential we’re going to have to tap if the next century is to be as plentiful as the last.