Monday, November 22, 2010

Regress = Progress

In the generally annoying vein of journalists writing about science comes this. All of the items Mr. Horgan, apparent journalism school graduate, cites as regress are signs of progress. I think this points to a huge gulf between science and journalism. In journalism, realizing your proposed narrative is wrong means that you're back to where you started; in science, realizing your proposed narrative is wrong means you've made a giant leap forward in understanding.

Just think: how often do we see articles about, say, city government where the author has as its main point that  there is no narrative?

The key point is that frequently in science knowing more means we realize we know less.

I actually see one of Horgan's observations:
What I found fascinating was the issue's overall tone of caution rather than the traditional boosterish enthusiasm.
as progress in itself. "Boosterish enthusiasm" is, in my view, bad for scientific progress.

On to the examples ...

The end of infectious disease
We used to think this was a) possible, and b) if possible, economically feasible. We've come to realize that evolution can be more powerful than our technology.
Space colonization
This will probably still happen soon on the scale of the lifetime of the solar system with our currently main sequence star, so don't fret, Trekkies. But if you can tell me what the point of the ISS is beyond a giant subsidy to Boeing to maintain some of our space infrastructure, I will give you a thousand dollars. I have never seen a peer-reviewed paper come out of the ISS; nearly all of the science is done by unmanned probes. 
But the real problem I have is that colonization is not science. It being nearly Thanksgiving, a seasonal example: the Mayflower was not a scientific voyage. 
Supersonic transport
The science behind supersonic flight happened before 1947. The fact that it is not economical to send hundreds of people at a time to business meetings and/or tropical islands faster than the speed of sound, but is economical to send one person and thousands of pounds of bombs is not a scientific fact.
Commercial fusion power
This turned out to be much harder than we thought; I myself was discouraged by my advisors from pursuing this field back in the 1990s. However missing a 20 year guess at commercial viability 30 years ago does not mean the field is going backward. It is still moving very, very slowly forward. Additionally, arguments against fusion's commercial viability are themselves due to progress in the field. We understand the problem better, and therefore understand that it is not likely to be economical anytime soon.
The origin of life
Keep up with the research buddy. Most of the problems with Urey-Miller type experiments are due to the fact that we have no idea what the chemical composition of the Earth's atmosphere was at the time. This is another case where we know more now and realize we know less.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Truth in data

Where did this image come from? I first noted it on Science Daily. Ignore for the moment the bombast accompanied by most any Science Daily post. Well, wait don't ignore that :
  • Science Daily : "Brilliant X-ray Explosion."
  • MAXI : "faint X-ray transient."
Hmmm. Which is it then?
Perhaps the Science Daily author was completely blown away by the accompanying image. After all, in 5 days, this object in the center of the field-of-view became significantly brighter. A close look at the two images shows that all objects in this field-of-view are brighter on Oct. 17. Why were these data sets not normalized to each other? From just these images, I think it is obvious that the relative brightness of the central object is greater on Oct. 17th. I can only guess that the two different normalizations were included to produce a more dramatic image. Unfortunately, this drama comes at the price of honesty.
There is much effort to bring science results to non-scientists. This effort is a cross between public outreach (i.e. "please keep letting the NSF, NIH spend your tax dollars") and public education (i.e. "this here galaxy is 12 billion years old. [12billion much greater than 5000]".) Some of these efforts are official, and others are part of a greater media.
The short time-scales of today's mass media are unsuited to science reporting. Science Daily is "Updated several times a day with breaking news...". I doubt it. Science is slow and painstaking work. To give the public the impression that there is such a thing as "breaking news" in science is potentially damaging to research. To generate "breaking news", a researcher may be tempted or coerced to scale the false color in an x-ray image at the behest of an editor or PI. I wish Science Daily included a minimum of technical detail in their articles and captions. A lay reader may learn a little more than what someone said. And, the editors may have to think a little more critically about the content they are including.