Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.


Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.


Carnivalia

March 1, 2007

The seventh installment of Philosophia Naturalis, the quadriweekly carnival of physics and technology, is up on Geek Counterpoint; the highlight is John Conway’s two-part series about the search for the Higgs boson. The next carnival will be posted on March 29th; the carnival webpage is here. Note that although the host is not yet publicly posted on the carnival webpage, the next available hosting opportunity is on 5/24.

The 33rd Carnival of the Liberals is up on Blue Gal in a Red State. The next edition will be posted on Brainshrub on 3/14.

The 108th Carnival of Education is up on Dr. Homeslice. No highlight is offered, although there were a few possible candidates. The 109th carnival will be hosted on 3/7 on What It’s Like on the Inside.

The Skeptics’ Circle is now up on The Second Sight, with a special numerology theme. The highlights are Hlynes’ takedown of yet another a scare story about genetically modified food and Phil Plait’s rant about the story of the creationist who got a Ph.D. in geoscience and made national headlines.

And, of course, remember that the Carnival of Mathematics is up on Michi’s Blog on 3/9 and the next Carnival of the Godless will be posted on Hell’s Handmaiden on 3/4.


Ezra Opens a Second Front in the War on Science

February 28, 2007

Ezra’s latest post complains that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to partisan thinktanks. The idea is that it doesn’t matter that a study is hopelessly biased, as long as it has 500 pages of pretty graphs. Now, I know it’s attractive to project the diametric opposite of your own view onto the mainstream media. However, that’s not a very good methodology for discussing politics.

Social sciences have an outrageously low signal to noise ratio. How couldn’t they? They a) attract people who’re on average less smart than those who do natural sciences, b) give people a lot more incentive to stick to indefensible conclusions, and c) has a proliferation of methodological minutiae that can get you any result you want. For instance, multiple regression analysis depends on the variables you enter so much that the same data can be shown to lead to wildly different conclusions.

With so much chaff and so little wheat, people have to develop mechanisms of throwing out the junk. One good mechanism is the rule of thumb that if a thinktank disagrees with an academic study, the thinktank is always wrong; to take a slight refinement, academics whose chairs are funded by ideologically motivated thinktanks, like John Lott, are barely more reliable than thinktanks.

Right now, the media gives equal credence to peer-reviewed studies and to thinktank hatchet jobs. Even if it does what you imply it should, it won’t improve matters much. Laypersons won’t be any more informed, and experts won’t learn anything new.

A single news article can only offer a cursory analysis of scientific debates, and is hardly more informative than, say, direct-to-consumer drug advertising. It’s impossible to write a 1,000-word New York Times article doing justice to, say, debates within biological community about evolutionary developmental biology. And that’s an issue where it’s relatively easy to produce rigorous research; when you venture into economics, things get exponentially harder.

It’s possible for a newspaper to publish a debate between Lewontin and Dawkins, or even to commission both to write regular features about evolution. But what’s the point? Professional biologists, who know all the relevant facts and have been familiar with those debates for decades have already decided. There’s no point in a rematch in a far less professionally competent arena.

The same principle applies to social sciences. When a thinktank publishes a research, the ideal media’s reaction should be to ignore it. There’s nothing that privileges thinktank fellows over real economists enough to exempt them from peer review. Likewise, there’s nothing that privileges ordinary people’s views. Serious scholars may not be able to describe poverty or unemployment in lurid detail, but frankly the media could use fewer heartwrenching stories and more facts.

The layperson doesn’t need to know anything more than what mainstream expert opinion is, and to what extent expert opinion can be trusted (more so on climatology and evolutionary biology than on welfare economics and political science). If he cares enough to delve into the subject, that’s what books and professional reviews are for. The mainstream media can never be a substitute for scholarly books and articles; even semi-popular magazines like Scientific American are inferior to actually reading what current research is.

Check out my post on religion and welfare. The post has 1,500 words; counting graphs and tables as a number of words taking equal space, the study it critiques has 15,000. And the post doesn’t do anything that I’d expect of similar coverage in the mainstream media: literature review, quoting other experts, actually checking the data, fleshing out alternative theories. In its most cursory form, therefore, a satisfactory critique needs to be about a tenth its object study’s size. When the study in question has the 500 pages the hack Ezra quotes brags about, it takes 50 to take it apart.


Carnival Announcements

February 24, 2007

The March 1st edition of Help Us Help Ourselves will be posted on Feministe; submit your posts by comment- or trackback-spamming Jill’s announcement post.

The 55th meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle will be posted in five days on The Second Sight. Submit your woo-debunking to EoR by email.


Saturday Science Links

February 24, 2007

I think it was Squashed who was enamored enough with my science-themed link posts on Appletree that he suggested making it a regular weekend feature. Always happy to oblige, here’s what my net has come up with:

Shelley notes that scrub jays plan ahead, a cognitive trait previously thought to be unique to humans. In one experiment, the birds were conditioned to expect food in the morning in one room but not in another; those in the breakfast-less room then stored food each night. In another, each room had a different kind of food; the birds then stored each kind of food in the room filled with the other kind.

She also links to a study that shows that children of alcoholics have reduced mental development. Now, you’d think it’s because women who consume alcohol during pregnancy ruin their fetuses’ brains. But in fact, it’s both genetic and environmental, with no gender component; the senior author explicitly says that “There were no differences between the effects of maternal and paternal drinking.” My guess is that the groups that treat all women as pre-pregnant are not going to issue gender-neutral warnings to individuals not to become alcohol-dependent.

Tara writes about the gloriously pro-science President of Gambia, who is trying to use prayer to cure AIDS. The good news is that people must see the President in person to get prayed for, limiting the scope of the pseudo-treatment somewhat. The bad news is that the President demands they stop taking anti-retroviral drugs.

Mark at Cosmic Variance explains the equation e = mc^2 using a thought experiment. The basic point of the thought experiment is that since light is a wave, it imparts momentum, so conservation of momentum eventually implies mass-energy equivalence.

Orac’s Friday Dose of Woo features biodynamics, a pseudoscience that emphasizes the need for not only organic farming but also various processes that are supposed to make crops spiritually healthy. Biodynamic requires farmers to apply eight specific substances to the soil, all of which take me back to the days when I read the AD&D Dungeon Master Guide‘s section on magical items.

GrrlScientist writes about the sea changes in the continental shelf waters of the northwest Atlantic. What had been previously attributed to overfishing of cod is now recognized to be primarily the result of climate change. The main change is reduced salinity, caused by a) greater snowmelts in the Arctic, and b) climate-driven shifts in wind patterns that alter ocean currents.


Saturday Link Roundup

February 17, 2007

I wanted this roundup to be science-themed, but there’s been too few linkworthy science posts and too many political posts. Still, starting with the science, GrrlScientist reports about how sulfur particles cause some global cooling, which can be exploited to mitigate global warming. The only thing I have to say about that is to recall the Futurama episode where Fry says at a ski resort, “It’s a good thing global warming never happened.” Leela retorts, “It did, but the nuclear winter balanced it out.”

Orac writes about the dilemma of whether to allow individuals access to experimental drugs. He comes down strongly on the side of not allowing, explaining that,

The entire ruling also seems to rest on a misperception that there are “miracle drugs” out there that we will have to wait years for because the FDA is too slow to approve them. However, if there really were such a “miracle drug” that was amazingly effective compared to anything we have now, a large randomized phase III trial would not be necessary to detect its efficacy. Indeed, its efficacy would almost certainly show up in even a small phase I trial. There’d be examples of amazing tumor shrinkage or even outright cures. In reality, we don’t see these things in Phase I trials, because there are no miracle drugs, at least not yet. Because the effects of most new drugs against various tumors tends to be less than miraculous, we need Phase III trials to determine safety and efficacy.

Kevin Alexander Gray of Black Agenda Report skewers Obama as a bland, white-identified politician who’s not listening to the black community’s concerns. Obama happens to be black, but he’s not the black voters’ candidate; black voters prefer Clinton, who they’re backing by several percentage points more than whites do, while supporting Obama by no greater numbers than whites do. It could be due to unfamiliarity, but it could also be due to Obama’s failure to tap into traditional sources of black support.

Matthew Yglesias turns his attention to Iran. Scott McLemee has an entirely misguided column on Inside Higher Ed that accuses liberals of not caring about Iranian democracy. Matt Yglesias notes that he has no idea what he’s talking about. After all, American conservatives want to bomb Iran, a surefire way to cement support for the regime, while the liberals are letting the regime crumble under its own weight.

Via Ars Mathematica I found a long article in the New York Magazine about praise and self-esteem. The two-line conclusion is that praising children’s intelligence will only hurt them by making them complacent and causing them to view failures as embarrassments, while praising their effort will make them work harder. In addition, praise needs to be specific – e.g. “It’s good that you can concentrate for so long” – or else it will be perceived as disingenuous. Draw your own conclusions about education.


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