Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for July, 2007

Will the Real Science Data Please Stand Up?

Posted by hyperpat on July 11, 2007

We are bombarded on a daily basis with the latest scientific research results. Anything from what stem cell usage might mean towards treatments for various ailments, space probe data pointing towards life elsewhere, new ‘global warming’ data in either support or disagreement with this hypothesis, new fossil data and how it supports one or another competing models of evolution, which foods have the greatest potential for prolonging (or shortening) life-spans (and this list changes constantly, with the former favorites turning to bottom-feeders and vice versa), DNA clues to how life works, the latest advances in computer speed, new ‘Grand Unified Field’ theories fueled by new astrophysical observations, the dangers of genetic manipulation and whichever virus of the day is seen as being a new great threat, the latest wonder drug – the list goes on and on. The total mass of this data is not surprising; after all, science still seems to be riding an exponential curve in terms of discoveries.

The trouble is, 99% of this information comes to us as filtered by the media. And most media outlets have a) a poor understanding of the science and b) a need to present this information in the most sensational way possible. After all, they are in the business of selling information. Which means that the average person often gets a very distorted view of what is really going on. Couple this with that same person’s own poor understanding of science and how it works, and you have a basic recipe for conclusions and plans that are not based in reality.

The current global warming flap is a good example of this. Most scientists would be the first ones to say that the current theories are trying to model what is a very complex system, with far more variables than most theories try to tackle, and that it is difficult to apply normal scientific methods, as there are very few laboratory experiments that can be done to verify or disprove most aspects of this – instead they must rely on the ‘open air’ data that the entire world can provide, and this data has highly varying degrees of verifiable accuracy. This leads to warring factions within the scientific community, as various people focus on one or another aspect of the available data and how well it fits their chosen hypothesis. Consensus on the extent and cause of the perceived problem has been slow, and there is still a contingent that violently disagrees with the current consensus view.

But it is rare that the media coverage explores these disagreements within the scientific community with any depth. Far too much of the coverage highlights the ‘scare’ factor – “New York city will be under 20 feet of water by the end of the century!”, and rarely gives more than a short summary of the underlying data and assumptions behind that prediction. The scientific community itself must take part of the blame for this. Far too often, scientists will make statements to the press or hand out short excerpts from their papers, leaving out the hard data on which their statements are based. It doesn’t have to be this way in today’s internet age. On line articles should include links not only to the summary statement, but to the complete paper that the scientist has probably submitted to the appropriate organization for peer review. But when such links are given, all too often when you try to open those links, you find have to pay some sort of fee or be a member of some professional society to access the complete paper – at which point most people give up, and rely on the summary only.

This is not to say that most people can actually understand the original complete paper. Few have the training to understand the data, reasoning, and methods that such papers typically present. But for those that do, having such access would at least provide a much larger set of eyes looking critically at the data, able to see possible variances from the given hypothesis, or outlying data points that the theory doesn’t explain properly or completely, and be able to come up with a better assessment of just what level of confidence can be placed in the theory’s predictions – the critical item in determining what to do about it.

Science via media/sound bite doesn’t cut it. Political and economic decisions based on such partial and filtered information is just asking for a disaster.

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Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Blindfolding the Populace

Posted by hyperpat on July 10, 2007

Closely related to my prior post about busy-bodies sticking their noses into what is clearly other people’s business are the long running attempts to ban certain books, as can be seen from this list, which includes some of the greatest literature written, such as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These attempts have ranged from trying to have it removed from every possible shelf and library, to burning, to issuing death threats (and sometimes more than just threats but actual acts) not only to author, but to those who were involved in publishing and distributing the book (see the writeup of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).

Most commonly, though, these attempts have occurred at the school level. It is understandable that some parents may find objectionable things in some books, such as discussions of certain subjects, offensive language, or depictions of certain actions that they don’t feel that their little Johnny is ready for. Schools need to be sensitive to parent’s perceptions; most are, and have procedures in place to handle such problems, such as the ability to have the child in question read something else when requested. But instead of requesting that their child not read a particular work for whatever reason that the parent’s find it objectionable, they place a demand to the school board that the work be expunged from all classes and removed from all library shelves. All too often, the school board caves in to these demands, until some other parent requests the book be re-instated, at which point the frequent result is that the work is placed in advancement placement only classes and shelved in the restricted area of the library. This is not an optimum solution. Schools exist in order to educate the child in all the things he will need to know about as an adult. Making access to literary works difficult or impossible is like putting blinders on the child, and then wondering why he’s not ready to function as an adult when that time comes.

But perhaps worse than this form of censorship, which at least has an understandable motive behind it, are those attempts to ban a book from everywhere. There is only one valid reason, at least in my opinion, why something should be suppressed, and its author’s right of free speech abrogated (along with the reader’s right to read what he wishes) and that is if it would cause physical harm to someone (the famous ‘you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater’). The current Supreme Court definition of obscenity, is, in my mind, incorrect and against what is stated in the First Amendment:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Even if 99 out of 100 people in a community think something is obscene trash (thus creating a ‘community standard’) and this same group believes the work in question has no discernible literary or artistic merit, banning this work still deprives the one person in that community who doesn’t think so of his right of free speech in the form of being able to read what he wants. The problem here is that pornographic or obscene works do not physically harm anyone. Absent an overriding reason such as this, I can find no justification for this ‘abridgement of freedom of speech’.

And there is another aspect to this. An author, knowing his work may to subject to such censorship, may decide to alter or leave out certain things in his writings. This effectively constitutes ‘prior restraint’, and down this road lies “Ignorance is Strength” – from another of those books that people have tried to ban.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Politics | 4 Comments »

Sticking Their Noses In

Posted by hyperpat on July 6, 2007

Why do people get so upset by the actions of others that don’t affect them? That man down the street has (gasp!) women coming to his door at all hours of the day! Sheila across the way is wearing a mini-skirt! Tommy in next block must be up to no good – he’s always taking flights to countries with unpronounceable names! Maybe he works for the (whisper) CIA?!

And it doesn’t stop at just the local level, as a quick perusal of nanny-ish state of our government can attest. The entire flap over same-sex marriage is a prime example – whatever others do in this regard, it doesn’t affect your marriage or your sense of what is right for you.

Laws should be the controlling rules for the interactions between people. You can’t rob or beat up others. You can’t pollute everything around you because that does affect the quality of life of others. You shouldn’t be able to cook the corporate books, because that does affect everyone who has invested in the company. These kinds of laws make sense. What doesn’t are those laws that attempt to regulate what are purely private actions. What you do in your bedroom is not the province of either law or busy-bodies. Who you live with, be it someone of different ethnicity,  color, or the same gender, is not the proper provenance of law.  If you wish to gamble away all your money, that’s your problem. The government should not be able to say that all gambling is illegal. If you wish to smoke marijuana, that should be your business (however, if, while under its influence, you go out and crash your car into someone else, that is the provenance of law).

There is a concept of the ‘public good’ that is often invoked when such laws are considered or passed. But this is a false attribution. The ‘public good’ applies to all people; only those things that actually (or at least potentially) affect all the people fall under its umbrella.  Private actions do not.

But I doubt if we’ll ever get rid of those who are so into ‘we’re just doing this for your own good’. Who think their morals are the only correct ones, and everyone needs to adhere to them. Or the religious fanatics who insist that everyone convert to their faith. Just how much of the world’s misery is caused by such attitudes? Far too much.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, religion | Leave a Comment »

The Ratty State of the Film Industry

Posted by hyperpat on July 5, 2007

Once again, I find myself impressed by what Pixar is doing. Their latest, Ratatouille, is a) great fun for everyone in the family b) has excellent graphics c) has some emotional depth and maturity to the story line, which the kids might miss some aspects of, but the adults watching can certainly relate to. Yes, there are places where they went for the slapstick sight gags, but there are just as many satiric bites with some real meat. Perhaps most entrancing, to me anyway, was the portrait of the gourmet food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), as it was so absolutely spot on in depicting both the worst and best aspects of that profession, along with some very snide commentary on the ‘herd’ instinct and the inordinate influence some authority figures have.

More and more, I find the most original and entertaining movies to be the animated ones. It seems like Hollywood has forgotten how to be original in its live-action movies; all I seem to see are yet more cops chasing psychotics, ‘comedies’ using 100 year old gag lines suitable only for three year-old mentalities, romances totally predictable from the opening minute of the film, and the continuing series of movies with ‘III’ or even ‘IV’ in their titles (always a bad idea, as the latest Pirates of Caribbean shows). Their few attempts at SF are usually so bad that no self-respecting fan of the genre can force themselves to watch them, and for those works based on written works by SF grand-masters, often the fans should be out there forming a picket line to prevent anyone from seeing the travesty Hollywood has made of the work. About the only thing they’ve done right recently is make some at least watchable versions of various comic-book heroes.

I suppose I can’t have everything. More Pixar, please!

Posted in Movies | 2 Comments »

Planning for the Future

Posted by hyperpat on July 2, 2007

I’m contemplating my upcoming birthday, when I’ll turn 59. Back when I was in my twenties, 50 seemed to be an impossibly long time away, and an age that I’d never reach. Now, it looks like I might actually reach retirement age, despite various medical problems and a lot aches, pains, and non-limberness. With such a milestone actually in sight, planning for it has moved center stage: just how much capital will I have at that point, what income will I have, where do I want to live, and perhaps most importantly, just what will I do when I don’t have to get up and go to work everyday.

Most of my free time right now is spent reading, watching TV or movies, bowling, or playing chess. These activities probably just won’t be enough to really keep me occupied when all my time is ‘free’, and the item that looks most likely to fill that extra time is real writing. Part of the problem I have right now trying to write is the lack of large blocks of uninterrupted time that I can devote to this, when I can concentrate on what I want to say, immerse myself in the logic of the story, and figure out all the myriad details, secure in the knowledge that I won’t have to put it aside to go figure out the latest hardware or software bug. Because when that does happen now, I find it very difficult to get back into the story’s ambiance and logic after the interruption. But to make this work will require some discipline, setting aside particular hours to ‘work’, and getting my wife to recognize that these hours are not the time to regale me with the latest family gossip. It also means that whenever possible, I should work till there is a clear closure to a least a part of the story.

Planning for the other aspects of retirement, most especially the monetary ones, makes me realize just why it is so difficult for young people to do any serious saving or planning for their retirement. When you are that age, retirement exists only in never-never land; the time-frame is just too far away to be ‘real’. This is one great service that Social Security does perform, as it’s basically an enforced savings plan. What would be better, though, is a plan that requires that a certain percentage of your income be set aside, unspendable, but that the individual could control how it is invested, and is actually owned by the individual (unlike the Social Security funds, which really go to pay current retirees, not put into any kind of savings, and which depend on a continuous stream of new, young workers to pay the benefits to those retiring – a rather dangerous form of a Ponzi scheme, given that demographics can change in unanticipated ways). While the last attempt at setting up something like this failed the Congressional test, it’s a concept that I hope will not go away, and will eventually be implemented, because, you know, retirement is just so far away, man, and I just can’t be bothered with something like that now.

Posted in Politics, Writing | 3 Comments »