Friday, December 23, 2005

Dubious Data has their Dubious Data Awards up. Anyone interested in science in the media would do well to give it a look.

As a scientist, I deeply believe that scientific method is our best hope for solving the problems of mankind, as well as for exploiting opportunities to just make life better. I think a lot of laypeople feel this way, but there are also many who view science with suspicion. This, I think, is good, and frankly, a part of being an informed citizen is figuring out how good your information is. No one claiming expertise or authority to speak, however, deserves a pass. We need to look askance at journalism, too, which is (often unwittingly, but not always) complicit with hucksters and alarmists just as often as it is in cahoots with big business.

Most of the time, it just isn't possible for the average person (or a non-specialist outside his or her field) to evaluate the claims made in news reports about new medicine, or hidden dangers possibly lurking in our water supply or being beamed from our cell phones. Scientific sifting of information is far less likely to occur than exploitation of the info, however misbegotten, by people in politics or fundraising for special interests. Sites like, with no particular political axe to grind, are a good resource. We need a set of basic scientific and statistical tools to know how seriously to take the reporting we read. I think I will devote a few posts to this soon.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

An unexpected connection

I have a friend at work, an electrical engineer. I'll call him Bob. Actually, I always call him Bob, because that's his name. Anyway, Bob is a really nice guy who will answer my ignorant questions about electronics with a smile, a diagram, and a patient explanation of what I should do.

I had need to measure a temperature, and had a nice sensor picked out to do it. However, I needed to amplify the signal. No big deal, I thought. I know a little electronics, and routinely build things to measure stuff. But I hit a thorny (to me) problem: if I amplified the signal so that the variation in temperature would produce a useful voltage change, the value of the voltage would be close to the highest voltage my analog to digital converter could read. Hmm, I thought. Time to talk to Bob.

The solution he showed me was to use an op amp and input a small voltage that would be subtracted from the output value. The variation in output caused by temperature change would be easily resolved by the A to D, and I had plenty of room for the temperature to swing up or down.

The solution is probably very obvious to an EE. I, however, am not an EE, but a chemist with enough electronic knowledge to do some things. Bob showed me how to solve my problem using the graphical shorthand common to electrical engineers, drawing the parts, and reasoning, aloud, in a logical but only vaguely mathematical way about what voltage would appear here or there, and he led me through the way the solution worked. I understand the shorthand well enough that his trick is now in my arsenal of cool electronic things I can do. I am sure he would have been happy to just draw me a circuit to solve my problem, but instead, he taught me how to solve an entire class of problems for myself.

Skipping to another conversation I was having with a technician in the lab: We needed to change a part of a molecule so that it would be more soluble in a particular solvent. To anyone who cares, we were going to perform a transesterification. I drew the molecule on a white board, using the graphical shorthand common to chemists, and led my friend through how the parts of the reactants formed and broke bonds, and how we got the product we wanted, in a logical yet only vaguely mathematical way. The principle thus illustrated, the technician has a new reaction in her arsenal of cool tricks to make new molecules. I could have just told her what to mix together, but now she knows a new synthetic technique in chemistry.

In both cases, Bob and I could break down the problem using a simplified diagram of the problem, one that hides all but the most essential features. In no way do they reflect the underlying reasons why the systems act the way they do. Yet it is possible to follow the rules for manipulating the diagrams, tempered by a few chemical or electrical engineering principles (very simple principles, in both cases) and come to useful solutions to problems.

The graphics and rules for their manipulation hide all the details. There is no indication of the physics or chemistry underneath. But the explanations are good enough so that someone skilled in their interpretation can do something useful based on them.

It hadn't occurred to me that the same general approach works for chemistry and electronics, though I work with both quite a bit.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

My brain makes my wife angry

Very interesting post in at about how we tune some things out and pay attention selectively. Over the years I have had to do a lot of studying, and became pretty adept at focusing on what I needed to read and blocking out everything else. Being married, this ability takes on a certain double-edge, though...

Neuroscience is cool. It turned me into an agnostic, though. When I was in my early twenties, I was a Roman Catholic seminarian. I planned to be a Jesuit priest, so I could get a heapin' helpin' of both science and religion, since Jesuits are often trained in something "worldly" as well as being ordained.

Anyway, one afternoon, during Christmas break, I was home from seminary and in the local public library. I picked up a copy of From Neuron to Brain and began reading. Sometime in the course of reading the book, I realized that the only reason I still believed in God was that I couldn't see how consciousness could be explained without God. I just didn't know much about the problem, having only seen it from the philosophical side in school, where it appeared intractible to me. The instant I got it into my mind that consciousness would succumb to scientific scrutiny, my faith began to erode.

Now, the fact that it was held up by only this thread suggests that it had been in trouble for a while, and indeed it had. I had long gotten over my childhood belief that the Bible was an accurate account of anything, since I could read the official version and see that it was not internally consistent. (I truly wonder about the sanity of anyone who claims that the Bible is inerrant. I don't see how, since it states plainly in many places that two opposite things are true. QED. I would like to head off anyone who would engage in argument on this point by referring them to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible. They use the KJV, but bring your own along, just in case...)

In the course of my adolesence, when my love for science really took hold, I had rejected arguments from authority, or arguments from adverse consequences ('If you don't believe in God, you'll go to Hell!' isn't a reason to believe, it's a threat not credible to someone who doesn't already believe. It is also a favorite 'argument' of preachy types.) After threats and dubious holy books, the final reason to believe is to get along with the group, I guessed, and I had also rejected that as insufficient. But I couldn't account for the 'miraculous' fact that I was meat that had thoughts.

I won't prattle about deconversion and the emotional anguish it causes. There are a lot of good social effects of religion (whoa, atheists, I'm well aware there are plenty of bad ones, too) so I subscribe to a utilitarian view of encouraging whatever good comes out, and denouncing any bad. I don't get any fun out of poking holes in people's worldview (I like Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, a evolutionary psychology of religion that makes me think that irrationality and religion are inevitable, so I'm not going to waste time fighting anything but the excesses I see. It would be as fruitless as prohibiting sex, I think).

In the past few years, I've been reading what I can of Daniel Dennet and Patricia Churchill. I'm not clearly convinced by Dennet's Consciousness Explained, but I think it may be because people are just not wired to understand the sort of explanation of minds that science can give, or may be able to give as we learn more. It does dispense with a lot of what we intuitively believe, but the result is pretty non-intuitive. Just like we found at the bottom of physics and chemistry with quantum mechanics, a real explanation of consciousness might prove incomprehensible, yet demonstrably accurate.