Tag: science

“Other scientists agree, at least when quoted selectively.”

Ouch. This hurts. Satire by Alan Dove (via):

In a groundbreaking new study, scientists at Some University have discovered that a single molecule may drive people to perform that complex behavior we’ve all observed. Though other researchers consider the results of the small, poorly structured experiment misleading, a well-written press release ensures that their criticisms will be restricted to brief quotes buried near the bottoms of most news stories on the work, if they’re included at all.

“This is a real game-changer for our understanding of this complex behavior, which has affected so many lives,” said Wannabe Famous, PhD, who directed the study. Dr. Famous describes the results, which were hyped relentlessly to journalists for a week before being published in today’s issue of A Scientific Journal, as “the Holy Grail of a field that has been trying to link this single molecule to a complex behavior for decades.”

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Crossing borders in the sciences

In an essay in this month’s Scientific American, Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University, makes a case for the benefits of international collaboration in the sciences:

It has become cliche that great discoveries come from interdisciplinary thinking… [F]ew realize how much science is energized when team members have different cultural approaches to problem solving. International diversity is just as important as diversity of discipline.

She notes that years ago when she began a collaboration with researchers in Mexico and Germany, the “approaches seemed irreconcilable:”

…my Mexican cohorts wanted to relax the rules to make the mathematics more tractable and later put htem back in. This set our German friends on edge. They kept reminding us of the constraints and the boundary conditions to make sure we did not stray too far. My American training left me somewhere in the middle: I worried about the constraints but was tentatively willing to relax them.

…The need to reach across national boundaries places greater demands on scientists. While scientists become more specialized as they proceed through their studies, broadening and collaborative experiences make them better able to “think differently” and “connect the dots” to discover new things. Ultimately it leads to better science.

I think it’s important to take note of this observation. Today, more students than ever are experiencing international learning experiences through study abroad and internships — roughly 40% of the students in liberal arts institutions now study abroad (in IR, that number is somewhere around two-thirds of the students).

In the sciences, and in physics and chemistry in particular, the number of students with some type of international learning experience or collaboration at the undergraduate level is substantially lower — often well below 10%. Most undergraduate science students are reluctant to study abroad because of fears they won’t land positions in research labs, or get into graduate school or medical school. Too many science departments and faculty reinforce this view by stressing earlier professional tracking — even in liberal arts institutions. Not all science students would necessarily benefit from international learning experiences, but if there is merit to international collaboration, it makes sense to cultivate these experiences at the beginning of specialized science education.


Book Blegging

Loyal Duck readers, I was hoping you might be able to help me out.

Do you have any recommendations for books about the inventive ways that people (scientists, designers, business folk, etc) have evaluated hard to test subjects? I am looking for something that is less about methodology, per se, and more about testing ideas in a practical way where either the environment or subject matter makes testing difficult (thinking here of astrophysics, for example). I am not looking for something that looks at the subject from a philosophical standpoint, but is more of a collection of examples that highlight the inventive ways people have gone about testing hypotheses in practical ways.

For example, I am thinking here of Shapiro’s famous observational test of general relativity (the Shapiro Delay), or the discovery of Neptune.

Hopefully this makes some sense. Any suggestions?

Thanks in advance!


The Danger of Data without Theory

I came across this Chris Anderson piece from a 2008 issue of Wired via Ana Andjelic. Anderson argues that in the era of Big Data we no longer need to rely on theory and the scientific method to achieve advances in knowledge:

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.

Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”

…faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

There is certainly value in sophisticated data mining and an inductive approach to research, but to dismiss the deductive approach (construct theory>deduce testable hypotheses>empirically verify or falsify hypotheses) would be shortsighted.

Modern data mining may be enough to authoritatively establish a non-random relationship, and in some cases (translations and advertising) more than suffices for useful application. However, even the largest data sets still represent only a sample–and, therefore, an approximation–of reality. Moreover, establishing correlation still doesn’t get you to the underlying causal mechanisms that drive causation. Even if Google, with enough data and advanced statistical techniques, can claim that a causal relationship exists it can’t tell you why it exists.

For some subjects, “why” may not matter–do we care why Google’s program is able to accurately translate between languages, or is the practical effect enough for us? But for others it is crucial when thinking about how to construct an intervention to alter some state of being (e.g. a medical condition, poverty, civil war, etc). Understanding causal mechanisms can also help us think through the consequences of an intervention–what are some potential side effects? Are there other, seemingly unrelated, areas that might be affected by the intervention in a negative way? When we are dealing with more interconnected, complex systems (like human physiology or society) it behooves us to go beyond relationships and understand what levers are being pulled.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]


“Girls Don’t Do Math Past Algebra”

Today, a group of articles in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other newspapers, comment on the AAUW (American Association of University Women) report which will be webcast this Thursday.

These articles reminded me of a teacher that I’d had when I was young, who, despite my stellar performances in math courses, told me that girls don’t do, or need to do, math past algebra. Apparently, I am not alone, as the report lets us know that 40% of women who are now in the surveyed “STEM” (science and engineering) fields were discouraged at some point in their academic career from being in the sciences. While, if anything, that teacher’s sexism encouraged me to seek out education in math and science, story after story both related to this report and more generally can be told where women were explicitly discouraged from participating in or excluded from work in the sciences and engineering.

Just five years ago, at-the-time Harvard President Larry Summers (and current Director of the National Economic Council) argued that women are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering because of innate differences between men and women. I think there are two important things to say to this discussion: first, that women CAN do science and engineering as well as men can and shouldn’t be discouraged from it on any sort of (innate or social) capacity logic. Second, though, it might be important to explore the argument that our very conceptions of science are gendered. I have written about this in International Relations specifically in the journal Politics and Gender, but will make the argument briefly here …

In these fields, women’s underrepresentation is so grave that this “failure” to make it cannot be understood as individual or incidental, but, rather, as a consequence of structural barriers to women’s participation. Incidental explanations identify some factor or set of factors, such as educational differences, differences in the subfields of international relations that women are interested in, age differences, methodological differences, and so on, and “blame” women’s underrepresentation on those differences. These explanations imply that, if women had the “same” education, the “same” interests, and the “same” methods, then their experience in the subfield of international relations would be similar to men’s. As such, many who look for women’s equality in these fields are actively interested in finding more women who do “good work” and including them among the ranks of faculties. I have heard several department chairs and deans lament that they simply were unable to find a woman who met their criteria, and thus were unable to hire a woman to fill a vacant tenure-track line. In this scenario, senior colleagues explain, were there to be a woman who did the same work at the same level as the (more qualified) male candidate, then the department would have no problem hiring the person — women who were “the same” would be treated that way.

The problem, then, for those who consider women’s underrepresentation incidental, is that women are not the same. Because of perceived inferior preparation, skills, research interests, research methodologies, or other qualifications, women are often understood as less qualified job candidates and less desirable contenders for promotion. Women’s underrepresentation could be fixed by assuring that women got the same training, worked in the same areas, and obtained the same qualifications.

Still, there is a sociology to what is counts as “traditional” or “good” work. Feminists have described this as the “malestream,” rather than the “mainstream” because even where women are becoming more accepted as scientists, it is largely conditional upon socializing themselves into disciplines as defined by the men who came before them. If what is “traditional” is endogenous, then the problem of women’s underrepresentation is structural rather than incidental. Even were women numerically “equal” to men in terms of their participation and rank in the sciences, they would still be participating in a men’s world.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that women’s work is nontraditional. Rather, it is that we consider women’s perspectives outside of tradition because tradition is laced with gender subordination. If “tradition” excludes women’s perspectives, indoctrinating women into tradition will not “fix” the gender disparities in these professions.

As such, instead of focusing exclusively providing women the “same” education and the “same” opportunities, perhaps it is time to question the value sciences assign to sameness. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking that women fall outside of the norm, and start redefining the norm in terms of the presence and importance of women’s perspectives in the sciences.


Is IR Really a Science? Let’s Find Out

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber alerted me to the fact that 3 Quarks Daily has instituted a quarterly award for the best blog post in the areas of science, politics, arts and literature, and philosophy.

Starting next month, the prizes will be awarded every year on the two solstices and the two equinoxes. So, we will announce the winner of the science prize on June 21, the arts and literature prize on September 22, the politics prize on December 21, and the philosophy prize on March 20, 2010.

About a month before the prize is to be announced we will solicit nominations of blog entries from our readers. The nominating period will last approximately one to two weeks. At the end of this time, we will open up the process to voting by our readers. After this period, we will take the top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add a wildcard entry of their choosing. And finally, a well-known intellectual from the field will pick the winner, runner up, and third place finisher from these, and will write some short comments on the winning entries.

Just for fun, the first place award will be called the “Top Quark,” and will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with two hundred dollars.

Well, I don’t know if posts here at the Duck or on other IR blogs would widely be considered science, politics, arts and literature or philosophy (though frankly, I suspect some of PTJ’s might count as all of the above.) But the way I see it, IR is a science, which means IR blog posts should qualify for next month’s contest.

So, since we haven’t yet gotten around to establishing our long-discussed Duck of Minerva “Top Quack” award for IR blogging, if it strikes your fancy head on over to 3QD to nominate an IR blog post of your choosing in the Science contest before June 21. It will be interesting to see which disciplines are ultimately represented among the science awards.


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