Friday, October 1, 2010

We scientists are freaks! - Part 3

... again, picking up the thread ...

No matter how non-scientists view us, it can't be denied that science (which arguably began in Greece, long ago) has become enormously successful. The new knowledge we've gained has made new technologies possible that have transformed our lives dramatically. Compare today's world with that of 200 years ago! The changes over the last 200 years are vastly greater than the changes over the preceding 2000 years, by far!!

Of course, some might justifiably say that many of those changes have not been for the good of humanity. Technologies have been used to cause pain and death. Some have carried with them unanticipated penalties that have been responsible for degradation and suffering. The question has been raised, "Just because it's possible to do something, does that mean we should do it?" Numerous examples come to mind: nuclear fission, genetic manipulation, global climate change, environmental destruction, etc. There are many important issues in today's world related to the use and abuse of science and its associated technology. Our world must make choices about what to do and what not to do. To make intelligent choices, people need to have an accurate understanding of the issues they confront.

It's a source of constant frustration for non-scientists to discover that science is nearly always incapable of offering black-and-white answers to vexing questions. Scientists always talk of probabilities, not certainties. They hedge their interpretations with numerous qualifications because that's the way science actually works. Scientists are not truthsayers, although they have a deep commitment to truth. We don't claim to have all the answers - in fact, we often emphasize that our knowledge is quite provisional and limited. Nevertheless, those societies which support science because of the value of its contributions, would prefer that we give them simple answers to hard questions. If the questions are simple, perhaps science can offer more compelling results, but hard questions don't lend themselves to simple answers.

There also are non-scientific aspects to many of these hard questions. Scientific understanding isn't the only important part of the modern challenges we confront. Economic aspects of these questions may be as challenging as the science. And ethical issues are almost always problematic in the "big questions" now demanding decisions. Even aesthetic concerns can be involved. At a time when the world is facing serious difficulties, it will take multidisciplinary involvement to work out satisfactory, practical solutions. I believe the pattern of scientific thinking can be a valuable tool, even when applied to other aspects of these problems. Successful scientists think for themselves, rather than blindly following the consensus, and I believe that even children not destined for careers in science need to know how to think for themselves. Scientists question the validity of assumptions. Scientists look to evidence, not preconceived ideas. Political slogans and selfish misrepresentations are rampant now, and it can be hard work to know what to believe. In these days of TV and the Internet, people are buried under an avalanche of "information" - some significant fraction of this information is just plain garbage. Children need to be taught how to sift the wheat from the chaff, to ignore the garbage and use the information to make decisions (large or small). Scientific thinking is a good pattern to follow in learning how to think for yourself.

All scientists should consider themselves to be educators, whether or not they are actually employed as such. We need to learn how to explain ourselves more effectively and to show why what we do is important. That importance is not just for society as a whole, but for every man and woman on the planet. It's ever more important for scientists to make the effort to be able to explain what they're doing to a 12-year old (which is not an easy thing to do). Unfortunately, some scientists who have made serious efforts to educate the public (Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau) wind up being criticized and demeaned for being "mere popularizers"! As if being a "popularizer" is some sort of inferior version of a scientist!! The need for popularizing science has never been greater.

One of the concerns I have for education is that it seems that most people come out of the process with little or no appreciation for, nor any substantial understanding of, how science works and the role it plays in their lives. They say things like "Science is boring!", or "Science is too hard for me!", or "Why should I care about science?" If this is happening as I perceive it, then something is tragically wrong with education. Children are born with natural curiosity, eager to understand the world around them. But only a few retain that child-like curiosity about the natural world for their entire lives. Most people have lost their love of learning by the time they're 12 years old. School is day prison for them, and day-care for their parents. It's a business for the educators, not a place where a new generation is imbued with a love for free inquiry. I think back to my elementary school days, and I can't recall a single teacher who reinforced my love of learning. I learned mostly at home, not at school, because what happened at school was boring, difficult, and not obviously of any interest to me. My own experiences has shown me why most people lose their love of learning - school mostly sucks!! I'm unusual because school couldn't kill my curiosity.

This mostly negative impact of education is intolerable in a world where science and technology are so important. Science is of critical importance to people if they care about the future of their society, and the world they will pass on to their children. We need better educators, and they need the resources to make science come alive for their students; to show their students why learning about how the natural world operates can add value and a sense of wonder to their lives.

For me, science has been a lifelong adventure. Going to "work" as a scientist has always seemed like play to me, and I've been able to earn a living for myself and my family in the process. I've had the chance to travel and meet fantastic people around the world because of my science. If I could, I'd take that curiosity and joy of learning I've had all my life and give it to every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

We scientists are freaks! - Part 2

So to pick up the thread where I left off ...

Although I've dedicated my life to becoming a meteorologist and contributing to the process of understanding the atmosphere, I've had many other interests: geology (esp. volcanology), astronomy, arachnology (esp. spiders), history, drawing and painting, photography, journalism, certain sports, genealogy, and so on. I couldn't make all these interests the basis for my career, but I've never lost interest in them. In many ways, I see connections among all my diverse interests - as I see them, they're not separate, isolated boxes, but rather are intertwined, as described so brilliantly by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In effect, they're a mostly invisible part of my meteorological science ...

Science and art are very different human endeavors - what sets science apart from all other things that humans do is that we scientists have a very clear way to define progress. That is, science is focused on understanding (the root of the word science is from the Latin word for knowledge), and to gain understanding we have to solve problems, to answer questions. Science can measure its progress by the ability to provide solutions to previously unsolved problems; solutions that can work in a very tangible, even practical way, and which help to gain new understanding - understanding that did not exist before that solution was developed. Modern technology is built on the framework provided by scientific understanding. To be ignorant about science is to be ignorant of technology. To be ignorant of technology is to be ignorant about the modern world. To be ignorant about the modern world is to be irresponsible! I've worked hard all my life to find out how little I truly know. I resent those who come by their ignorance the easy way! Ignorance is not equivalent to stupidity, but to be willfully ignorant is an act of stupidity.

Although we could attempt to measure progress by means of the changes that have gone on in, say, the world of art, those changes don't represent solutions to heretofore unsolved problems. Does cubism represent progress over impressionism in painting? They're different approaches to painting, and according to one's personal taste, some might see cubism as progress, but others might dispute that cubism was progress at all! Much of modern art is only understandable when seen as a statement about the styles of art that preceded it. To the non-artist, such an abstraction is opaque and can take away no clear message from such art.

I once saw a display of art where one artist had taken a toilet, broken it into several large pieces, and mounted the fragments on a stand. I have problems with this art for at least two reasons: (1) there is no craftsmanship required to break a toilet into pieces, and (2) whatever message the artist may have been trying to express is pretty difficult to fathom. This sort of 'art' doesn't succeed in conveying much of a message to most of us, except perhaps a few "illuminati" who know the artist. It's a sort of 'inside joke' on the rest of us - the ignorant masses. Much of modern art (atonal, arythmic music, paint splashed randomly on canvas, plays that seek to have no characters and tell no story, etc.) doesn't stand on its own. Such art can only be seen as a some sort of statement within the context of earlier art.

In contrast with such art, when I listen to classical music, or I see an impressionist painting, or watch a professionally-done play (or movie), there's both craftsmanship on the part of the artist and an emotional response associated with the experience. I get a very direct sense of connection with the artist. Perhaps that sense is only an illusion, but I believe I feel something of what the artist must have felt when creating the work. The best art, in my view then, is art that anyone can understand and which triggers an emotional response. This sense of connection can span hundreds of years, can cross cultural barriers, and spans the globe when the art is capable of standing on its own.

Science, like art, involves communication. But scientific communication is dependent on expressing ourselves in a way that provides an accurate understanding of our ideas. Scientific communication is an art form, seeking to say what we intend, and avoid any misinterpretation. Unfortunately, this can make scientific papers very hard to read and comprehend. New terms must be defined very carefully. New concepts must be explained so as to avoid misinterpretation. Interpretations must include appropriate qualification, to preclude any implication of undeserved generality. The language of science is laced with jargon - this also makes it difficult for non-scientists to understand the communication between scientists, which can sound like some sort of secret code. The coding is not generally held as a secret, but it takes time and effort to read it.

During the education process I went through, I often had a sense of joy and wonder when I encountered the ideas of earlier scientists. The insight I had gained by reading about them was inspiring and crossed time and space to dazzle me with its brilliant light (the cartoon cliche about a light bulb above someone's head is not without value as an analogy). In the process I experienced an echo of the insight when it first was created by someone, perhaps long ago. The idea may have been old by the time I read it, but it was very new to me! I could only imagine at the time what it would be like to be the very first person to have such an insight.

We scientists discuss our ideas at conferences, over the Internet, over the phone, and so on, but mostly in journals that record what we have learned at regular intervals. Scientific journals are not at all a record of established facts - journals are more like diaries, recording the ideas we had along the way, in order that we all can consider those ideas within the continuing discussion that is science. Journals are more akin to a heavily-moderated forum on the Internet.

The only goal of any scientist is to gain new understanding, whereby one person's idea can inspire another to pursue a related idea and move everyone forward in the process. Science is not at all a mere collection of facts. Its ideas are always provisional - the best we might have at a particular moment, but always subject to revision by someone. Science uses logic - the ideas must satisfy logical criteria - but the basic task of science is to subject our ideas to creatively-inspired tests (which also involves developing new methods for evaluating the data from observational tests). Evidence coming from those tests can be used to evaluate competing ideas, thereby allowing the profession to arrive at a consensus regarding our understanding. That consensus is always changing, dramatically on occasions but more normally by small increments, as we develop new ideas and obtain new evidence. Science is evidence-based. The only ideas of value to science are those logically consistent ideas that can be tested on the basis of evidence.

Again, a pause ... more to come ...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We scientists are freaks!

Conversations with my friends today have brought home to me a theme I've written about in places, but never with the thoughts crystallizing in my head today. The theme is the way by which scientists are trained to think about the world. Of course, there is no simple formula for the so-called 'scientific method' but there clearly is a way to think like a scientist.

A scientist uses logic (mathematical logic, as well as classical logic) and evidence in a way that many non-scientists seem unable to do. Logic forces us to consider the logical implications of our ideas, and when logic is incapable of resolving issues, we scientists turn not to faith but to evidence. We seek to develop ways by which the evidence can help us decide the validity of some hypothesis (idea). Ideas are cheap - but it involves creativity and effort to develop meaningful ways to evaluate our ideas. Scientists don't accept arguments by authority - no matter what credentials an individual might have, they're insufficient to keep others from questioning the ideas of the most famous scientist. We have no sacred texts, full of revealed truth. Truth in science is an ideal towards which we can strive but will never achieve. Honesty is the foundation of science, any intentional dishonesty is anathema. And so on ...

Although I make no claims that science is the answer to all our problems - far from it, actually - it's a way of thinking I believe can be applied successfully in many ways. When we're confronted with a problem, there's no one way to seek solutions to that problem, but any proposed solution should be based solidly on logic and evidence. If a proposed solution is illogical, or contrary to the evidence, it can't be considered to be of much value. When societies struggle to deal with complex problems like global climate change, extremist terror, abortion rights, the national economy, genetic manipulation, evolution, and so on, it seems to me that if people are going to vote on such topics, they need to have at least some understanding of the issues. It's not enough simply to accept someone's word about important issues! People shouldn't be willing to let someone else tell them what to think - they need to know how to think it out for themselves, and then do that thinking. Ostensibly, education should provide people with the tools to do this, but the sad fact is that most people find education to be boring and consider it to be irrelevant. And in many ways, that assessment is all too true - education in the USA gets low budgets and little priority.

You may not be a global change scientist, but if 99+% of global climate change scientists accept the IPCC position on the subject, is it rational and/or logical simply to disagree with that consensus? On what basis might a non-scientist disagree with the findings of the vast majority of global climate change scientists? Are you similarly inclined to dispute Einstein's Theory of Relativity? It's not that the consensus represents some sort of sacred truth - the IPCC report is not immune from dissenting opinions, but if you're claiming it's wrong in some way, surely you can offer extraordinarily compelling evidence to support your rejection of the consensus. How many global climate change deniers have provided such irrefutable evidence? The answer to that is clear: none of them.

When you see a debate between a global climate change denier and a global climate change scientist, the odds that one of them is correct are not 50-50! If you can't evaluate the scientific arguments, then it seems to me that a logical position is to accept the arguments of someone who has 99+% of that science community behind her/him! It's not a 'coin flip' - the debaters are not on equal footing. Not by a long shot!

Most people around the world seem to be drifting away from any interest in science and the technology derived from it. This, despite the overwhelming dependence in our modern world on science and technology! How can this be happening? It seems to me that the technology most of us use is making us lazy. It's work to think. Understanding and choosing among competing ideas takes substantial effort. Apparently, it's easier just to follow some demagogue masquerading as a 'pundit'! If education is to be effective, the recipient must be a fully-engaged participant in the process, no matter what the topic - no matter how good or bad the teacher might be. Education is not something we inflict on young people, it's a process they should understand and know how to continue for the rest of their lives! It's a commitment to learning no matter what the topic and without regard to the teacher's abilities.

One of my friends said it well - "We scientists are freaks!" For many of us, science necessarily is a lifelong dedication to gaining new understanding. And most of us are not only interested in science. Many of us are serious students of history, or some art, or journalism, or other topics. We are the most well-rounded people in my circle of acquaintances - how many artists do you know who are seriously involved in a hobby related to some science? I'm very proud of being associated with people who are likely to be capable thinkers and learners in many areas, not just their technical specialties.

I have much more to say on this, so I'll continue in my next posting.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Experiencing the Mediterranean

Yesterday, a friend of mine took me with him on an afternoon jaunt to Port de Valldemossa, on the northern coast of Mallorca. I'd been there before and looked forward to a return on a warm, sunny fall day. We arrived to find the place more crowded than I'd ever seen it - apparently others had a similar idea!

After parking, we sauntered along the jetty, which includes a boat ramp on one end, and the other end creates a small part of the bay that is sheltered from the waves by a breakwater, that's made of concrete, with large rocks piled up, facing the ocean. My friend Alan mentioned as we ambled along the jetty that the place where we were walking was wet, a clear sign that we might be getting soaked by the waves crashing along the breakwater. But we remained standing at the end of the jetty in the warm sun, chatting about nothing particularly meaningful for a few minutes.

Then a large wave hit the breakwater and some seawater rolled over the concrete, spending its energy as it spread out and stopped its progress in front of our feet. Seconds later, another larger wave hit the breakwater - this time, the seawater surged completely over the jetty, but only to a depth of about 1/4 of an inch on the concrete. This was followed almost immediately by an even larger wave, that sent a wall of water over the breakwater that was at least 3 meters high! This slammed into us, knocking Alan off his feet, and pushing both of us steadily toward the 1 meter dropoff into the harbor!! I was still standing and I felt the power of the breaking wave sliding me along the concrete so I instinctively dropped to my hands and knees, which reduced the area of my body facing the wave's power and I came to a stop less than a meter from the edge. The wave washed past us into the harbor.

We stood up, and took stock. We were thoroughly soaked with sea water - I could taste the salt. My very expensive camera was pretty wet, Alan's cell phone had been in his pocket and also was quite wet ... and a group of people on the harbor shore were looking at us. Perhaps they were stifling their laughter at our obvious stupidity. Perhaps they were concerned for our safety. But they said nothing. Alan and I looked at each other - and burst out laughing! We were O.K. and had simply behaved stupidly enough to have been caught precisely by the very situation we had anticipated but foolishly ignored.

We hung around the port for quite a while after that, having moved to a position where we were no longer threatened by the wave action. I did some photography - my camera turned out to be still working with no apparent problems. Alan's cell phone also worked. We were in the sun, hoping that our clothes would dry out, which they did to some extent. I had scraped my knee on the concrete and had a small trickle of blood to show for our experience - Alan scraped his elbow and had a similar trickle. Eventually, we retired to the bar for a beer, laughed about our soaking in the Mediterranean Sea, and imagined how the story might grow with the telling (enormous megalodon sharks circling in the harbor below the 30 meter drop to the harbor, waiting for us to become their next meal, my lower leg severed by the force of the 40 meter tsunami, Alan's arm hanging by a few threads, etc.)

We can laugh at ourselves, so we did. But in the final analysis, we were simply stupid, and a relatively modest wave showed us the enormous power of moving water in a way that was only embarrassing, not life-threatening. I hope I make no similar mistakes in the future, but ...