Mythbusting popular science

Are they helping or hurting science? (Photo by Roger Jones on Wikimedia)

Science has an image problem in this country.  In everyday culture, it’s gone from being an arcane art to being a popularity contest.  It’s commonplace to see surveys asking people on the street if they believe in evolution or if they believe in global warming—as if somehow science was subject to democratic majorities.

The danger is that much of what people believe about science is shaped by the media.  Yet the media is motivated by attracting eyeballs more than conveying the nuances of a topic.  Hence, an interesting bit of research by a scientists at Cornell gets turned into the headline:

Scientist proves that humans are psychic

All of which would be fascinating, except that’s not really what happened.  The study shows a data correlation that could be explained by people having precognitive abilities, but may have other explanations.  After all, science is about understanding why and how something happens, not just that it does.  Otherwise a scientist might observe the data correlation that supermarkets are more crowded on Saturdays, then conclude that clearly people are more hungry on the weekend and call it a “proof.”  Fortunately, science goes a bit deeper than that.  The burden for calling something a scientific proof is actually pretty darn high.  But most people don’t really know that.  They don’t really understand the scientific process.

Science has been popularized by television shows like Mythbusters where the cool side of applied science usually involves blowing something up.  While this has been a great boon for making science more accessible, it also does a disservice by creating the perception that a couple of guys in a well stocked warehouse can scientifically prove something given a few hours and an ample supply of duct tape.  While these experiments are great entertainment, they are not scientifically accepted proofs.  And this is a distinction lost on many of the viewers.

This issue is not particularly limited to the field of science.  Politics often has similar situations such as when popular polls are held asking how to fix the economy, as if the economy will yield to a majority vote.  Perhaps the better question is, why are we so keen to take complicated fields, boil them to their essence, and then claim mastery of the discipline?

Part of this problem is based on our slide into the populist ideal where everyone is thought capable of everything.  The notion that the only thing distinguishing me from a corporate CEO, a concert pianist, or a Nobel laureate is just that I haven’t yet chosen to apply my considerable talents to that field yet.  It’s not that hard, there’s nothing special about people who do that.  I could be President.  I could be a climate scientist.  I could be a rock star.  I just haven’t chosen to be.  We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid we give our young children in an effort to encourage them and give them self-esteem, and somehow it’s convinced us that nothing is very complicated or outside our grasp.

Maybe the world really is an abstruse place.  Maybe experts really do add value.  And while it’s great that you’re interested, maybe following along in the news doesn’t quite give your opinion on the matter quite the same weight as professionals working in the field.

Wegmans Brand Math

WegmansIn mathematics, addition is subject to the Commutative Law.  That is, if 2+3=5 then we may also say 3+2=5… unless you work at the local Wegmans grocery store.

I was in the cashier’s line behind a matronly woman whose order the young girl at the register was finishing up.  The girl announced. “That will be $104.62 today.”  The woman thumbed through her wallet and extracted a $50 bill and three crisp $20s, which she handed to the cashier.

The girl promptly started counting the money out, announcing her total as she went.  “50, 70, 90, 100,” she said.  Upon completion, she turned to the woman and  reminded her of the total.  The woman smiled sweetly at the young lass and suggested that perhaps she could count it out again.  Once more the girl confidently said, “50, 70, 90, 100.”  This time she ended with, “You’re still short $4.62.”

The woman was maintaining her composure, but looked as if she really wanted to grab the sweet thing by her pigtails and say something that started with, “LISTEN MISSY!”  To her credit, she instead asked the girl how much the three $20s were worth.

Fanning the bills in her hand the cashier said, “$60.”

“And how much is 60 plus 50,” the patient woman softly inquired?

You could almost see the wheels of the poor young girl’s mind grind to a halt as the pain of this dawning contradiction came across her.  With renewed determination, she grasped the short stack of bills and began counting aloud again.  “50, 70, 90, 100.”

In an effort to be helpful, I offered that perhaps she should start counting with the $20s.  The girl’s face brightened momentarily, and she flipped the stack and started counting yet again.  “20, 40, 60, 110.”  She looked positively delighted with herself while the poor woman in line just imperceptibly shook her head.

The cashier now looked at me and asked, “So why doesn’t it work when I do it the other way?”

I offered, somewhat less helpfully, “I guess it’s just one of those math mysteries no one understands.”  An explanation the young girl seemed quite satisfied with as she finally began to count change.  However, the matronly woman lowered her head and gave me a look over her glasses that was oddly reminiscent of my high school geometry teacher who also took it upon herself to make it clear to me that I was not nearly as amusing as I imagined.

Not wishing to push my luck, I paid for my order with a credit card.

Congress should be like NASCAR

John Boehner being honest about Corporate Sponsors (created by Tim)

One of the refreshing aspects of NASCAR is its open honesty about its corporate sponsorships.  Without corporate money the sport wouldn’t exist, a point the drivers, crews, and cars unabashedly acknowledge by being emblazoned with the corporate logos that make their jobs possible.

It’s high time Congress showed the honesty and integrity of NASCAR.  Congressmen should be required to wear jackets at all public appearances with corporate logos on them proportionate in size to the donations they have made.

Presumptive Speaker John Boehner is hardly the only Congressman sponsored by industry, but he is among the worst offenders.  He was most famously caught in 1996 handing out checks for tobacco companies on the floor of the House, but his ties to industry lobbyists are much broader and deeper than that.

In addition to cigarette companies like Altria and RJ Reynolds, Boehner is supported by Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Google, MillerCoors and UPS, just to name the large donors.  Together they have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign.  Lobbyists for those companies also are known to have provided him with rides on corporate jets, and to have socialized with him at luxury golf and waterfront resorts.

Boehner’s close circle of corporately connected friends and staff have ready access to to the man who is likely to be the the most powerful Republican on the Hill and third in line to the Presidency.  One lobbyist listed recent issues for which he had sought the lawmaker’s backing: combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund executives, and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.  Boehner says these were issues he agreed with anyway, but given that he has known for years where his bread is buttered, that hardly means more than he already knows what his sponsors want.

Granted, politicians on both sides of the aisle are complicit in this corporate buy-out of legislators, and efforts at true campaign finance reform have repeatedly failed.  Still, if there’s no way to get corporate money out of the process, minimally those sponsorships should be out in the open, displayed as proudly on the politician’s jacket as the requisite flag pin.

Bachmann vies for GOP leadership post

Michele Bachmann
Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Congressional Tea Party Caucus leader Michele Bachmann has announced she is running for the GOP Conference Chair now that Rep. Mike Pence has stepped down.  If successful, this would make the Minnesota representative and Tea Party front-person the fourth highest ranking Republican in the House.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has also announced his desire for the seat.  Hensarling is a close political ally of Eric Cantor, which potentially sets this contest up as the first “Tea Party vs. establishment Republicans” fight of the new Congress.  The vote is expected to happen on November 17th.

The prospect of Bachmann’s rise in power and influence within the House is particularly troubling in light of her persistent tendency to buy into conspiracy theories.   She raised fears about the census over concerns Obama would use the information to open conservative internment camps.  She’s convinced The Fed is conspiring to create a single global currency.  And she believes the healthcare bill promotes abortion and rations care.

Most recently, she appeared on CNN’s AC 360 after the election and railed against Obama’s upcoming $2 billion dollar trip to Asia, which would include the redeployment of a tenth of the U.S. Navy, as an example of the waste that needs to be eliminated from government.  Unfortunately, as Anderson Cooper points out, the notion that a Presidential trip could cost more per day than the war in Afghanistan is preposterous and untrue.

A senior GOP aide on Capitol Hill told NBC News that the chance of Bachmann securing the GOP Conference Chair is, “slim to none.” The aide continued, “She’d be hard-pressed to find the votes to win that job.”  However, given the number of Tea Party backed candidates that enabled the Republican takeover of the House, the pressure on the GOP establishment to give the Tea Party a seat at the leadership table may be significant.

Cooling the hot tea of the House

John Boehner
Presumptive Speaker of the House Boehner

George Washington is said to have told Thomas Jefferson that the framers created the Senate to be the saucer designed to cool the hot tea of the House.  The midterm elections have created a situation in Congress that will test this plan almost literally given the Tea Party has now fueled the Republican takeover of the House.

As John Boehner becomes the presumptive Speaker of the House, he finds himself in an enviable position to carry out Mitch McConnell’s priority of spending the next two years assuring Obama is a one term President.  While the GOP failed to retake the Senate, this may turn out to play to the strength of the “Party of No.”

Boehner and other Republican leaders made no bones pre-election that should they win there will be no compromising with them.  Assuming they hold true to this, the country can expect the House to be a fitful producer of subpoenas and extreme legislation designed to appease the Tea Party faithful.  This also means that things that need to get done, like funding and budgeting, probably won’t.  The House, which is constitutionally required to start all budget bills, may withhold providing funding for all manner of programs in an attempt to starve the government into submission.

The beauty being that the House’s proactive agenda will never pass the Senate who, with just a slight Democratic majority, will be hard-pressed to agree on much.  While the House may be hotter than ever, the Senate will be an equally large heat-sink.  The Senate and Obama will be the scapegoats for why the GOP will fail to deliver on their promises of things they were going to do, while enabling them to more effectively say no to the things they said they would stop.  The economy will not improve much in this environment, leaving the Republicans able to continue to play the victims, and voters able to continue to blame the Democrats in 2012.

There is always the chance the Republicans will instead opt to work with the Democratic Senate and the President to cooperatively govern in the best interest of all of us, but the only reason to believe that, is the historical tendency of politicians to abandon their campaign rhetoric after the election.   Ironically, citizens now find themselves in a position where they are best off only if the people they elected turn out to have been full of hot air during the campaign.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the next couple of years play out.