Friday, June 29, 2012

Fundamental Flaws of Science - Part 3

This is Part three. You should really read Part 1, and Part 2 First...

And now back to known data for a look at the Third Flaw - insufficient means to acquire, store, recall and analyze necessary data. 

We simply lack the data processing power and resources to capture enough information about what is going on. In even a relatively small event, say a thunderstorm, there are trillions of data points associated with it; variances in temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, particulate, etc… scattered over a wide, three dimensional area. 

There are millions of “events”  (storms, tornadoes, tremors, tidal waves, rain, snow, fog…) occurring on the earth at any given time. We collect only a very small sampling of the data associated with a relatively small number of these events. This means the picture we have is incomplete.

As an example, look at the chart below, let’s assume this is a plot of speed over time, would you assume from this that the object being observed is accelerating?

Now look at this chart. In this case, the object was accelerating, but is now slowing down.

Both charts use the exact same data. The difference is I left out the even values in the first chart. Two of the omitted values (8 and 10) drastically changed the observed result. Even the rate at which samples are taken can drastically impact the resulting conclusion.

But does this kind of stuff really impact real science?

For nearly one hundred years the scientific community embraced the idea of a mass-less substance called caloric, which was the means by which heat transfer occurred. This incorrect idea was the result of an incorrect theory, and resulting incorrect interpretation of data. It took nearly 50 years to change the community’s mind.

When I was in first or second grade, I remember hearing all kinds of talk about how human pollution was causing global cooling, and we were going to enter an ice age in the very near future unless things changed. Today, science has a better understanding of our environment, and now says human pollution is causing global warming, and we are in equally dire straits very soon unless things change…

In reality these three flaws are not failings of scientific method or scientific process. The method is sound, the process is practical. The failing is in the humans performing the science. We are very bad at establishing and maintaining a valid metric of the "truthiness" of a given statement or idea. We draw conclusions based on weak similarities between unrelated systems; we overstate the certainty of our conclusions… We lack the means to collect and sift through enough data to see the big picture. And who knows what we don’t even know we don’t know?

The problem comes when science forgets these imperfections, loses its humility. Well, the information gathering/sorting/storing problem is a technical problem.  It continues to improve over time. But the human factor in that is in remembering that the data is incomplete, and accounting for that in our truthiness measure.

Good science must be free of pride, free of 'high-priests', free of secrets, and free of special-interest. Good science is humble, inquisitive, open, accessible. It is passionate, but unemotional. It is not afraid of theory, but clearly labels it as such.

I have had this post muddling about in my brain for years now. I still haven't come up with a nice, prose-y conclusion. But rather than sit on it any longer, I will just close with "San Dimas Highschool football rules!".

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fundamental Flaws of Science - Part 2

 This is Part two of three. Find Part one Here.

I’ll call this second flaw “Observational limitation”. It is a kind of "truthiness" problem, but instead of being due to intentional simplification, or known deficiencies in the model, it is due to factors that we simply aren’t even aware of. I will try to illustrate this concept by borrowing from the book “Flatland”.

Take a look at the object below. What is it?

A line, you say?

It certainly looks like a line in this picture, but you are looking at it from the side. From the top it looks completely different.

You are thinking it is a circle now?

Now what if I told you that what you are looking at is in fact a 2 dimensional slice of a three dimensional Object? Now what is your guess? It could be a sphere. It might also be a cylinder, or a cone. 

You can’t really know without more information. But if you could only see two dimensionally, would you even be able to perceive the existence of a third dimension?

That is one concept presented in the book Flatland, when a Sphere attempts to convince a square of the existence of a third dimension. The square sees the Sphere as a circle. And refuses to accept the possibility of a third dimension. Ultimately, The square comes to realize the existence of the their dimension, and then begins to wonder about the possibility of more dimensions. The sphere, who helped the square to this new state of enlightenment, finds this preposterous, silly. He knows there are only three dimensions (just as the square was once convinced there were only two).

So, how much information are we missing? What don’t we know? What are we not seeing when we are watching light not come from a black hole? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fundamental Flaws of Science

I consider myself a scientist. I am a believer in the principles of observation, measurement, experimentation, and repeatability.

I do notice three rather substantial flaws in the scientific process as we apply it.

The first flaw, is the lack of a ‘truthiness’ metric. I’ll use gravity as an example. If I were to say “acceleration due to gravity”, you might just remember a number in the range of 32 ft/s2 (or 9.8 m/s2). If so, good on you for remembering this little physics tidbit (geek!).

However, 32 ft/ s2 Does not in fact represent the rate at which an object accelerates as it falls. It is a very good approximation for an object falling close to the earth’s surface. 

Gravitational acceleration in fact varies depending upon the distance between, and the mass of, both objects. So being a significant distance from earth versus being close to the surface, or being on a planet with different mass than earth will yield a much different rate of acceleration.

But even for a given altitude from earth, gravitational force varies depending upon location, which means acceleration varies as well (granted the variance is relatively small, thus the 32 ft/ s2 will yield a sufficiently accurate value, but the point is, when you were told that “acceleration due to gravity is 32.1 ft/ s2” in school what you learned was not precisely true).

In reality science seldom defines truth. Instead it defines a model which is believed to approximate truth based upon current observation and measurement. 

In Mechanical and Electrical engineering, for example,  there are many equations that measure flows of things (Water, air, etc. for mechanical and Civil, and electricity for Electrical). Those equations do a good job of accurately modeling these flows… when they are big. But as things get much smaller (you see this often in modern electronics design, now that more computing sits in that phone you are holding than was available in the room sized computers that first put man on the moon), those equations fail miserably to accurately predict behavior, an entirely different set of equations is called upon when dealing with the miniaturized version. What does that mean? It means those equations do not represent the truth. They are good approximations of what is happening for a limited range of conditions, but they do not in fact model what is actually happening.

The problem is, this is seldom well documented, so people often accept as true, that which is only, mostly true, or generally true, or true, but only under certain circumstances.

And that’s the stuff we know we don’t know, what about the stuff we don’t know we don’t know? 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Health update: back to square one.

In a March post I mentioned being happy with a 7.5 minute mile I ran. Funny how quickly you can end up back at square one. I might be at a new record low now. For the past three weeks, I have had a fever, cough, and other cold-like symptoms, pretty much without break. (Wiped out my PTO for the year). I am getting very little sleep at night. And my abdomen is a source of much pain. I think it is primarily due to the coughing, but not certain. My Gastroenterologist (ughh! that's the kind of thing really old people say!), started me on Pentasa, and a hard hitting, broad spectrum antibiotic. We also drew lots of blood for lots of tests, but so far no answers. If I am not improving dramatically by Monday, I get to start hunting for an internal medicine specialist.

Enjoy your health, and don't take it for granted. It can slip away quite unexpectedly.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Four more years with Obama

Yes, I think it is quite likely, in spite of his record setting low approval ratings, that we may get Obama for another four years. Why?

1. Incumbency. Obamba is the incumbent. Incumbents have a fair chance of being re-elected. that whole momentum thing is working for them. It isn't a guarantee, but it helps.

2. Two party politics. Most people attach themselves to either the Republican party or the Democratic party. It's a stupid way to operate a government, but it is what is is, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. So it is going to come down to the Republican in the race or the Democrat in the race.

There will be a few votes taken by other parties, and by independents. Those won't change that the winner will be either a Republican or a Democrat. The Democrats are mostly going to vote Democrat. The two candidates lean slightly to the center of party position, giving both a chance to swing a few votes from the other side. But the Republican side is a bit stirred up at the moment, Thus the moderate position of Romney is likely going to cost him some votes to those who want a more "Conservative" Conservative at the helm. He probably won't recover sufficient Democratic swing votes to cover this loss. 

3. Mormonism. There is a group of fundamentalist Christians who make up a not insignificant part of the republican vote. Many of them are likely to sit out the election, rather than vote for a "Cultist", which is what they have been convinced Romney is. Since they won't vote for "the Mormon", they will effectively cast their vote for Obama.

So, don't be to surprised when the president you love to hate is still running the show next year, and the year after that and...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Two Party Politics and other nonsense

Is there anyone really foolish enough to believe that the world is black and white? I am not alluding to right vs. wrong. I am literally talking color. Black and white.

No red, blue, yellow or purple... No gray even, just black... and white.

In the same vein, is there anyone deluded enough to believe that all people think in one of two ways? does the fact that you don't like hot dogs make you a vegetarian? Yet we do this all the time.

Sunni, Shia, Black, Caucasian, Atheist, Christian, Republican, Democrat... We draw imaginary lines, pick sides, and then often, proceed to beat each other (more) senseless. It's sheer lunacy.

Of course, it's easy to see how it begins.

Say you have six people who form a community. They have decided to vote on a handful of important matters. Three of those people get together and decide to form an alliance. They agree that one particular item is of great importance to them. There are a few other items that are important to one, and of no concern one way or the other to the rest. So a deal is made to all vote the same way on all those items. The other three vote independently, some voting yes, some voting no on the various matters, and the end result is the three who formed an alliance get most of the votes to go the way they want them to.

It is animal nature, largely. Strength in numbers, circle the wagons and all that. So we form gangs. We move in packs. We circle the wagons. We unify. We utilize strength of numbers to "get our way".

Somehow it always happens though; the gang takes on a life of it's own. It becomes the all consuming, driving force. We become so involved in the gang - in the label, that we forget what the fundamental, driving principles were. Reason is lost and madness prevails.

We formed or joined these groups in the beginning to provide protection, to preserve our particular mores, to protect our freedoms. In the end, those groups rob us of even more freedom. We become so entrenched in the dogma of the particular group, that we begin to see every decision in terms of black or white. Option 1) or option 2). All other possibilities become invisible. We lose the ability to seek rational compromise, or to find the 3rd option which satisfies the needs of all.

If you are no longer able to think critically, if you are no longer able to talk rationally, if you are no longer are to listen with empathy, you are no longer free. If you compromise your fundamental beliefs in order to support the cause of some conglomerate, you are no longer free.

And worse, this slavery was not imposed upon you. You willingly submitted to it.