Girl, Interrupting

September 19, 2010

Why is science important?

Filed under: random,science — sylviamclain @ 8:15 pm
Tags:

Alom Shaha runs a webpage called
“Why is science important?”

where amongst other things, people, some scientists some not, give their veiws on why science is important.

I wrote something for this if you care to look

“Discoveries come in the most unexpected places”

Its a cool website, with good views, have a browse around

September 15, 2010

On being a ‘foot soldier’

Or cannon fodder speaking out.

In case you haven’t heard, science funding in the UK is under threat.
From Paul Nurse, who said we need to fund only ‘excellent’ science to Vince Cable who thinks 45% of research in the UK is not-excellent and we should be only funding either ‘excellent’ theoretical work or things that will make money (eg technological advances) its not looking good for science research in the UK.

Of course scientists and science aficionados are dismayed, angry and trying to fight for what they know science to be, and why it needs funding, all kinds of funding.

One of the arguments for funding says science needs ‘foot soldiers’ – where the argument goes a la Newton – that excellent science needs other science which is ‘boring’ to stand on. eg foot soldier scientists.

BUT I think this term should be used with caution, or maybe even not at all.

Foot soldier implies to me ‘cannon fodder’ and this is a bad image for several reasons:

1 – This implies that science is a pyramidal process with those on the bottom being weed-like and just doing the background work for those on the top. Science is not linear, nor that predictable. It grows and recedes in fits and starts and it not just simply marching forward toward a common goal or puzzle to solve. Technology works like this, but not science! Science looks for answers to questions, one paper, research project at at time. You often don’t know what the answer will be and the answers often open up a whole load of other questions and importantly – you NEVER KNOW where a breakthrough will come from over the long term. Lots of important discoveries were actually by accident – when someone was working on something completely different.

2- this term implies that the ‘excellent’ science is at the top and the ‘dull’ science is at the bottom. which calls into question what do you mean by ‘dull’ and ‘excellent’ ? Do you base it on citations? Do you base it on the quality of the Journal it is in? Most scientists have observed that some of the best papers aren’t in Nature, and are actually in more low-impact journals. And if you base this on citations, sometimes bad or wrong science is more highly-cited – because everyone is saying it is wrong. And different scientific fields have different citation levels, just due to the sheer number of people working in a given subject area. Simply put – quantity does not always equal quality.

An important test of scientific research is its longevity – something might be highly cited and highly ‘important’ in one generation of scientists – but then just a blip in the overall body of scientific research over time. What about the Luminiferous aether? And no one has a crystal ball that tells us the most important research in the future. Moreover, sometimes old ‘boring’ research gets revived when new discoveries are made in different areas – Lie Algebra is a good example of this.

As a side note, Cable said we should support theoretically excellent ideas, which I would agree with, but ONLY along with everything else. Theory is an important part of science, but its hard to say what is excellent until the theories are proved or disproved – and this again takes time.

This pyramidal model is exactly the idea that advocates of science are trying to argue against – that science is marching towards some big common goal, with the great people on top – it is but only in the sense that science answers questions and that is a pretty broad goal.

Maybe a better statement is ‘it takes all kinds’, though not as evocative, it actually is perhaps closer to the reality.

The research I do I am not doing so that someone more excellent than me can show up in the future and stand on it and thereby make it excellent. I would bet many other scientists feel this way as well. My research is striving towards its own excellence, whatever that means and maybe only in my mind, because I have some specific scientific questions I want to answer, and you never know, this may be a big breakthrough or it may be a blip in the aether.

June 10, 2010

Prince Charles, keepin’ it real for mother earth

Filed under: bp oil,environment,science — sylviamclain @ 11:07 pm
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worried about the evils of the world?
I know! Lets blame science and science driven consumerism…

or Galileo, he started it you know…

Prince Charles speaking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies a few days ago, seems to know all about the evils of science and capitalism. The profit imperative for scientific research and science exploiting and ‘damaging’ the natural world – all driven by nasty consumers and scientists. And he says we have objectified mother earth with science, by you know trying to learn more about her, maybe we are robbing her of her mystique – and she is pissed…

The Green Prince

While, HRH Prince of Wales seems to have forgotten that capitalism is why he still has a job (I think he really wants to go back to the good old days of medieval times presumably so he might get a little more respect or perhaps mistresses that could be easily covered up), in the wise prince’s view, science as an evil force in the world goes back to Galileo.

If it wasn’t for Galileo making his assertions about motion and quantity, then we would be ok today and live back in the good old days with horse manure everywhere in cities, poor sanitation and a life expectancy of ooh 45 years (if you were rich) that was great.

We all want to blame someone, just like with BP and this horrific oil spill and environmental disaster. But can we really blame science at large?

And as Kevin Cosnter puts it (I can’t believe I am quoting Kevin Costner, but he is after all trying to do something) “We’re all at fault here it is just too easy to blame BP.”

I am not quite sure what Mr. Costner means by this specifically, but the point is good. Blaming science (and consumerism) for what ails us is easy to do but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it actually doesn’t really help anything. Any time anyone wants to blame someone – it means that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed!

But who is going to fix this?

Science and technology.
How else are we going to stop the oil spill? Mother Earth doesn’t seem to be doing much ..

On a broader scope, science and technology are also the answers to a ‘greener’ future, not just cleaning up the oil spill. Perhaps science ’caused’ these problems in the first place, but science has also helped solve many societal problems throughout history. We no longer die of the bubonic plague – I think that’s kind of cool myself.

Of course maybe this is the Prince’s point – if all of the common folk died of the bubonic plague while he was out hunting in the country during plague season, that would take care of the nasty population problem he is worried about too, hoorah!

I guess Prince Charles forgot about his expensive organic food for consumers – well at least it isn’t science driven, and mother earth ‘she’ must be pleased.

May 24, 2010

Do we really need another sputnik before we do something?

Filed under: higher education,science — sylviamclain @ 4:13 pm
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Do you like your mobile phone? Do you like the fact that you can use the world wide web to connect with your friends?
do you like using your iphone when you sit on a delayed train?

Yes?

Than why don’t you support government funding of the sciences?

I think the answer many folks would give is this:
I already have a mobile and a computer and television, what is your point?
Governments are in deficit, we don’t have any money – we need budget cuts, I don’t want to fund some scientist that does something esoteric and useless…

I am a scientist, and I can’t count the times that people have said to me ‘but how is this useful?’ or ‘what is the point of that?’ or even worse ‘Wow, you must be really smart, I could never understand that’

These questions are not so easy to answer because there is not always a clear connection between scientific discovery or the science we are doing right now and this is, in part, because we don’t know precisely where science is going to lead us in the long-term.

but I also think one of the problems is that there is not always a clear public understanding of science and its history and its link to modern technology

So, who’s fault is that?
There are several places we could lay blame but I think now might be a good time to ask…

Do we as scientists do a good job at communicating with the public?
I would say yes and no and we are going to have to do better…

Yes: There is a huge amount of science blogging these days, on science, on science policy, on the use of evidence-based methods, on bad science in the media and many more. There are science programmes with Brian Cox, Simon Singh, on Planet Earth and the BBC recently announced it wanted to help increase science literacy by launching programmes on the celebration of science.

But is this enough?
No: Apparently not Because people and politicians still ask this question – ‘ how is this useful?’ and then, perhaps by default, decide it isn’t useful enough. Among the first things that are being cut in this economic crisis by both the US and UK governments are science and higher education.

The US House just blocked the scientifically based America COMPETES bill and wants to freeze funding for research budgets at US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation over the next 3 years.

and today the first cuts announced by the UK coalition government were:
…. £836m of cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), £670m to the Department for Education, and no cuts to the Departments for Health,
Defence, and International Development
(my italics).

Would this happen if there were public outrage? Perhaps it would anyway, but perhaps not.

as is noted by Road from Ruin authors Bishop and Green, today’s £6bn cuts are political rather than useful economically . Aside from the obvious caveat that public outcry doesn’t mean much to the government, as it often doesn’t, this is at the very least is where the government thought the best cuts could be made and must on some level be linked to a public perception of the importance of government funding for science and education.

but as was simply put: from twitter today:
@THE (Times Higher Education) @NHJ_HE Does the sector communicate effectively how important it is to the public?
I think not. If they did, everyone would #loveHE

Despite all of the gargantuan efforts of scientific writers such as Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Brian Cox there is more to do and maybe as a community we need to try to do better.

Or maybe we need another Sputnik:

At exactly 19:28:34, October 4, 1957 the soviet satellite Sputnik was launched and spent 3 months in orbit, I wasn’t alive then, but apparently you could see it from the USA on a warm summer evening, travelling in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
the US freaked out – how were the Soviets ahead? They thinking about satellites too, the US decided that they were a good idea in 1955, but Spunik caught Westerners off guard – and thus became NASA…

I probably don’t have to go into the details of what NASA brought us, do I? We all know this – everyone likes the Velcro example but what about SATELLITES, which allow things like mobiles, the internet, wireless internet..
But what Sputnik also did was increase the education budget and specifically the science education budget in the US, as politicians at the time saw the link between science research and higher eduction.

but we don’t need another cold war to inspire us – maybe we can up the ante in the scientific community – extend the efforts of those already blogging about science (see above, and apologies for anyone I missed) and creating such laudable organizations as ‘Sense about Science’ and I’m a scientist.

I think we need to add a little history – about how technology has been developed from scientific research, which was considered, perhaps ‘useless’ at the time, and this is what I, for one, intend to do.

May 23, 2010

Science takes time and we are not all going to die…

Filed under: genetic technology,morality,science,science ethics — sylviamclain @ 1:00 pm
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well we are, but not by a world taken over by synthetic beings in the near future…

Science isn’t very fast, even though it often seems like it especially when we read media reports about ‘new’ scientific breakthroughs…

Last week, Genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter who established the genetic tech company the Venter group, published a paper in Science where they took a chemically synthesized genome and created a bacteria cell. They synthetically reproduced the genome of bacterium A, then they put this genome into bacterium B (different species) and the host bacterium B produced bacterium A cells.

Replicating synthetic DNA using bacteria or just enzymes from bacteria has been happening for a long time, its what is used in recombinant DNA technology, invented by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in the 1970’s. It is, for instance, how we can use DNA for crime cases, by replicating bits of real DNA synthetically. What is different in the Venter paper is that this technique used synthetic, man-made DNA to replace the natural DNA of a bacteria to form a new living cell, which is entirely ‘run (and can replicate itself)’ from this synthetic DNA, this is kind of cool.

And technologically this is an enormous step, the Venter group had to develop a new methodology and techniques for this to work, which again is a large-scale significant feat, but there is no new underpinning scientific discovery in all of this. Or more simply put its a small scientific step and a huge technological breakthrough.

So why is this distinction between science and technology important?
Science and technology are not the same thing (even though there is sometimes a fuzzy line between the two), we have forgotten this…
and the science bit, well it takes a lot of time.

Technology development can be fast – but science isn’t necessarily fast, in fact it is almost never fast… but it is science that underpins any technology, and technology is one outcome of science which has been built up by years of research, which has evolved over a long period of time.

This result has also sparked a debate about ethics ,‘playing god’ – eventually wiping out humanity á la ‘I am Legend’ – and even a warning from the Holy See. This genetic ethics debate is not exactly new, I remember having it as an undergraduate in the late 1980’s and it also arose when Dolly was created…

But are we in any kind of imminent danger of synthetic humans taking over the planet? I don’t think so – why? Because science takes a long time.

For instance think about how long has it taken to get to the point of making a bacteria? and Venter reproduced an already known species of bacteria, they didn’t create a super bacteria which can say jump tall buildings in a single bound and this is a really important point….

Well its taken years and pretty quick years by the normal scientific standard.
In 1868 DNA was first found by Friedrick Miescher who called it nuclein.
In the 1910’s X-ray diffraction was discovered by Max von Laue and the father and son team, William (not Billy) Lawrence Bragg.
In 1953 James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA using X-ray diffraction techniques.

Incidentally the von Laue and Bragg’s were physicists. Who didn’t probably care (or know) about Miescher’s nuclein when they were watching atoms scattering X-rays from minerals.

The point of all of this – that science takes time. It also takes us on paths we CANNOT predict no matter how much we DO try to predict. So just because we can technologically make a known bacteria from reproducing and ‘watermarking’ an already existing bunch of DNA, doesn’t necessarily mean we are on a linear path to creating some kind of superhuman…

If you read Venter’s Science paper he says this:

No single cellular system has all of its genes understood in terms of their biological roles. Even in simple bacterial cells, do the chromosomes contain the entire genetic repertoire? If so, can a complete genetic system be reproduced by chemical synthesis starting with only the digitized DNA sequence contained in a computer?

So they answered the last question, but not the first one…. Meaning, they know they can reproduce a bacteria, by reproducing its DNA, but they still cannot explain at an intimate level the totality of gene function and again

No single cellular system has all of its genes understood in terms of their biological roles.

We are still a pretty long way from understanding this, even though we can now reproduce something that is already in existence, Venter’s bacteria A is a known species, we don’t know which bits of the genetic code to change to make say a hippo from a bacteria. And when is this going to happen? Who knows? And this is a scientific question that is likely going to take a long time to answer, and may even involve a scientific revolution on the order of Copernicus or quantum physics…

Technologically Venter has made a huge leap, but scientifically it really is just the next obvious step in some already known science, there is no new scientific discovery and the science bit, well it takes time…

May 13, 2010

Dumb and Dumber: the mismeasure of women

Oh no here we go again..

Every 5 – 10 years the good old IQ debate comes up…. and usually some minority comes out on bottom, women, African-Americans – yet no one ever asks themselves why is it that White males never come out on bottom, now THAT would be really different.

But nope, women are dumber than men and Professor Richard Lynn has been ‘brave’ enough to say it, after all he probably thinks he is refreshingly just speaking the truth. Prof Lynn says its science – but he concedes women have better spelling skills so they’ve got that going for them – and after a ‘life time’ of research he should know!

Apparently what he doesn’t know is anything about IQ tests – and Binet’s (the inventor of the IQ test) worst nightmare is coming true – he was afraid to publish his results. He invented the test ONLY TO IDENTIFY WEAK STUDENTS WHO COULD IMPROVE, that is it, and he was afraid these investigations would be used to ‘tag’ people for life… which apparently it has 100 years on.

Everyone, and especially Professor Lynn, should take a day off to read Stephen J. Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man to understand how IQ tests actually work, instead of just repeating these numbers that mean nothing much to anyone, and the world would be a lot better off. The Mismeasure of Man is an entire book on the problems with testing people for things like intelligence (the key being in the title) ranging from Eugenics to IQ testing.

Specifically, Gould writes about the inaccuracies and problems in these tests with a focus on why the statistics can be misleading. Incidentally, the Mismeasure of Man was written partially as a response to the 1994 book The Bell Curve where scientists argued that IQ was a predictor in things like unwanted pregnancy and job success, oh yes and that men are smarter than women.

Prof. Lynn even brought up the point that women have smaller brains! In fact polar bears have bigger brains than humans (even adjusting for body mass) so well maybe they really have the highest IQ, but you don’t see many Nobel prize polar bears – male or female.
Coincidentally, my favourite refutation of brain size was when mathematical genius Gauss was found to have a brain size slightly below average at 3.3 lbs the researchers did note it had more folds than other brains – so in this case size didn’t matter, but only for Gauss, because he was a genius.

Ohh and apparently its genetic, so that must mean that intelligent genes are only on the y-chromosome then, wow! who knew? I guess the Human Genome project folks missed that one – or maybe it was made up of only women scientist who weren’t smart enough to spot it – that elusive intelligence gene.

If you think this argument might be ok because Professor Lynn is a scientist, then why don’t you go and read what ‘scientists’ said about Africans during the heyday of the slave trade, or if you don’t feel a particular worry about slavery, go and read what Hitler’s scientists said about the intelligence of the ‘average Jew” – IN BOTH CASES these scientists were well respected within their community….

But the real issue is why this keeps happening? Why do ‘learned’ folks keep saying things like this?

On the simplest level it is a way of not taking responsibility for disenfranchised portions of society. It is also easier not to redress the balance by simply deciding that women are dumber than men and then as a society there is nothing we have to do about it.

Often when some gender or race is under-represented in an academic field there is no one reason for this. And to be honest in the case of women, this is getting better, either we are overcoming our inherent IQ deficiency, or women and girls are actually being encouraged to participate more in science, which is good. The more the merrier. However, there are also less women in science today because we are still playing catch up, from the 300 or so years science has been a profession.

One of Prof. Lynn’s points is that not many women have won the big science prizes – Nobel, Fields medal in Mathematics or are Members of the Royal Society.

Well why? His conclusion is…. limited intelligence, though he does say women can be ‘above-average’ just not geniuses – I feel better already, so that’s something…

But think a bit more about it – it is true, there are less female Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) for instance than their male counterparts – but how do you get to be an FRS? – you get to be an FRS by being voted in by other FRS’s. And of course there is no reason to ever think women would be disenfranchised from this by chauvinism, is there? It must just be because women are dumber.

It is also worth mentioning that women, until quite recently, were kept out of academic jobs, as late as the 1950s, and weren’t allowed to actively engage from their male colleagues. The perfect example of this was Rosalind Franklin, who was in part responsible for discovering that DNA was helical – and missed out on the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick because she died very young – wasn’t even allowed to dine or go to the pub with her colleagues as University dining rooms were male only, and her male colleagues chose to go to male-only pubs to discuss science.

However, science doesn’t work usually in a vacuum, so you could almost argue she was more clever by going it alone… (but I don’t really think that is fair either)

But this was in the 1950s – This is 60 years later and this really should be a non-issue – women are in science, women are being encouraged in science, and we should keep doing this, so why the resurrection of the 1950’s issue? What we need to do as a scientific community is stop distinguishing between the gender or race of scientists, I don’t mean in the recruitment phase, I mean in the practising phase – once you are a scientist it shouldn’t matter if you are a woman in your profession.

But this still IS an issue, and partly because people like Prof. Lynn make it an issue and a resurecction of an age old argument still appears in the news. But the best way to kill a stupid issue, is to ignore it, so I shouldn’t even be writing this

I guess true integration for women in science will come when they are referred to as ‘scientists’ rather than ‘female scientists’ and when papers stop publishing silly articles about how women will never be as smart as boys…

and in the meantime, while you are waiting – go and read the Mismeasure of Man. Oh and I’m off to iron my husband’s shirts.

May 8, 2010

Science funding, where do we go from here???

Science needs a Saatchi!

Whether you supported the Lib Dems or Labour, or even the Conservatives things are looking pretty dire for science funding. As the New Scientist says in the elections ‘Science is the Loser’.

Science is, or rather should be a long-term investment. However new polices arising from the new government (once it forms), will almost certainly have largely short-term goals. From a political point of view, its pretty hard to explain to the electorate that you are going to cut housing in favour of science. Obviously, life isn’t really this simple but the majority of voters did support the Conservatives, who want to cut public spending NOW. I think it might be hard for any government to convince that public they need to pay for science research.

And who will be in even worse shape is the Arts – who will likely have even LESS funding that science.

but the arts have people like Charles Saatchi; and, while this isn’t anywhere close to ideal, as private collectors tend to support only the ‘it’ artists – it’s better than nothing – and maybe these private collectors will even branch out to support more artists in general during these difficult economic times.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe funding sciences and arts are both good things, that they are an essential part of society, but where is the money going to come from ?!? And how in a government that is armed for budget cuts is MORE spending in these areas ever going to happen ?

There are very very strong arguments for supporting science, which many many others have made for instance: Brian Cox on Space funding and CaSE , to name only two, there are many more!
Many of the proponents for science funding point out that it is needed for growth in the economy.
And Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour all have at least indicated that Britain needs to have a technological future.
How exactly that is going to happen without science funding and higher education funding ? Logically, it just doesn’t follow that you can cut the science budget and still develop technological industry.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems want education reform (in secondary schools), but if we inspire students in the UK to ‘achieve their dreams’ and encourage students to study science – where are they going to go to University? If places are being cut and higher education budgets squeezed – how can more British students enter into technology?

Perhaps immigration is the answer, but that doesn’t really work either in the current political climate, given all of the rhetoric about ‘British jobs for British people’.

I would like to see an increase in governmental budget for science and higher education funding, so that the UK doesn’t cut off its nose to spite its face…

BUT

the reality is, like it or not, this is exactly what IS going to happen, if only in the short-term…

so what is next for science funding ?

Investment in science and technology should not be considered short-term funding, but rather needs to be long-term if it is to be effective. Science takes time, Rome wasn’t built in a day and new technologies don’t emerge overnight – even though it often appears that way (usually you don’t ‘see’ them in the media until most of the background science has been done, which takes years).

And the money, even for the short-term, isn’t going to come from the government in the UK. Like it or not, science needs a new funding regime which is not completely dependent on government funding. This already happens to some extent with the Wellcome Trust for instance, but its not enough.

What science really needs a Saatchi, or some kind of funding regime based on philanthropy and private investors.

There is an interesting article concerning this very point by Michael Green and Matthew Bishop, authors of Philanthrocapitalism , which suggests a longer-term scientific funding scheme where the private sector helps via philanthropy or in their words “since philanthropy is often at its best when it thinks long term and takes risks that government cannot”.

Agree or disagree with scientific and higher education funding cuts from the government, scientific research funding is going to have to find another answer.

May 5, 2010

If you vote for science, which party do you choose?

I think its gotta be Labour….

The general buzz (twitter, blogs, newspapers, etc) is that the Lib Dems are the best on science, so if you want to save science – Vote Lib Dem! But it depends on which bit of science policy you look at and what you think about the economy..

The guardian does a nice comparison on science policy between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems from the great and the good of British science journalism – Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, to name a few.

Comparing the three articles in the Guardian…

On several issues all three parties say about the same thing – they are all vague about the science budget, given the economy this is not surprising, they don’t want to commit – and as Cox says “this is frustrating but fair enough”. They all want libel law reform on scientific intercourse and they all support animal testing – except for cosmetics on bunnies and fur coats (well maybe the Tories still want fur coats).

On homeopathy, the Tories and Lib Dems say NO – but Labour says, disappointingly, let someone else sort it out, maybe a result of being the last responder and wanting to keep the homeopathic vote? Is there a homeopathic vote?

On drug policy and public health issues, the Lib Dems really are the most progressive and reassuringly believe in actual scientific investigation to inform this policy, which is laudable and a breath of fresh air compared to the other two parties.

This all looks good for the Lib Dems

BUT
Labour does seem to be the best on climate change and has the most ‘credible’, ‘coherent’ and ‘reasonable plans’ for tackling climate change.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, or rather I do, but can only cheer for it. I live in the UK but am foreign and can’t vote – but if I could it would be a hard hard decision to decide between Labour and the Lib Dems.

But on balance I’d vote Labour. Why? Two reasons:

It is pretty unlikely that the Lib Dems are going to achieve even any semblance of power from this election. Barring some unforeseen miracle, the Lib Dems won’t secure enough seats to form a government by their lonesome BUT they will more than likely be the second party in any coalition government.

In this more likely case, as the junior partner in government, many of the Liberal Democrat policies will probably get largely ignored, with only the biggest things on their agenda (like electoral reform) being pushed forward. Science policies would have a high chance of being thrown out the window – while I am sure MPs like Dr. Evan Harris (Lib Dem) would lobby against this, how much influence would he be likely to have in Tory/Lib Dem government? The Tories aren’t historically all that open minded….

But in the words of Bill Clinton “its the economy stupid”.
If the UK economy doesn’t recover, then there really ISN’T going to be an increase in science policy budget at any time in the near future and in fact if there is a bigger recession this will probably lead to a decrease in funding. The economy is a central issue in this election, fix the economy – then lobby to fix science policy or all of those ideas about it will just be that ideas…

and Labour seems to me to have the winning economic policy.

N.B.: For my American friends, in case you don’t know, there is a General Election tomorrow in Great Britain where the new leader of government will be chosen. The contenders? Tories (Conservatives), Labour and Liberal Democrats – the problem is that in order to form a government the winner has to obtain a certain majority (not simple) and if no party achieves this (which is likely in this election) than the party with the simple majority goes to one of the other parties to form a coalition in order to form a government. And unlike US government, the government in charge makes ALL of the decisions (albeit with some influence from the other parties, if they can muster a big enough voice).

May 2, 2010

Just because you are a scientist doesn’t mean you are morally superior.

Filed under: morality,richard dawkins,science — sylviamclain @ 6:49 pm
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Although we sometimes tend to think so – and this isn’t helped by scientists who purport to be morally superior by the fact that they are ‘rational thinkers’

Some scientists like Richard Dawkins appear to think that rational thought (or logical thought and sober discussion) leads to a more moral society – perhaps is does –
is he a Kantian?, does he think there a moral law which only smart people can work out? Do we create our own moral laws? – of course, as do most religions

Even though Dawkins appears to support a fluid morality, unlike Kant, he tends to blame bad things in the world on religion and indeed says to find morality in religion you have to ‘cherry pick’– but this isn’t only true of religion and implies an all or nothing simplistic kind of moral construct…

or more simply put ‘religion is bad’ and ‘science is good’

but great scientists aren’t always ‘good’ themselves

Sometimes, we tend to think that great thinkers are good people and look to them for moral direction…

But some of the greatest scientists might actually be considered ‘immoral’ by many different standards – atheists, religious or otherwise….

Einstein (who Dawkins spends a long time convincing us is an atheist in the God Delusion) was, as we pretty much all might agree a pretty smart guy and he is also often quoted for his ‘moral quips’ :

Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties….

which make him seem not only knowledgeable but a pretty good guy – but maybe not.

In 1919 Einstein divorced Mileva Maric, because he fell in love with his cousin, which happens; but then proceeded by almost every account – some perhaps apocryphal – to treat his ex rather poorly.

Disregarding social ties he left her to raise their children with virtually no financial support (although allegedly he gave her all his 1921 Nobel Prize money), in a what I would consider an unkind act called her uncommonly ugly and effectively robbed her of her scientific career – according to their son Hans-Albert (G.J. Whitrow (ed.)(1967), Einstein: The man and his achievements, p.19), which might be considered somewhat in opposition to being a ‘man of value’.

Some have even alleged that she helped Einstein with his theory of relativity (though there isn’t alot of good evidence for this) as he referred to his theory and work as ‘our work’ and ‘our theory’ in his love letters to Mileva, but then again as Einstein said himself
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

Isaac Newton was undoubtedly a great man – scientifically at least – but was not such a great guy to be sharing a pint at the pub with, as the Newton Project says (better than I can):

“Even in his maturity, having become rich, famous, laden with honours and internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s foremost thinkers, he remained deeply insecure, given to fits of depression and outbursts of violent temper, and implacable in pursuit of anyone by whom he felt threatened. The most famous example of this is his carefully-orchestrated campaign to destroy the reputation of Gottfried Leibniz, who he believed (quite unfairly) had stolen the discovery of calculus from him.”

Just because people do one thing well, and indeed with genius, means they are pretty smart about some things but maybe not about others…
Not that all scientists and rational thinkers are ‘bad’ or all religious folk are ‘good’; but being moral and being smart aren’t necessarily correlated,
as sometimes scientists like Richard Dawkins would lead us to believe.

April 25, 2010

Should scientific funding really be MORE elite?

Filed under: science — sylviamclain @ 4:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

or how to creatively hamstring scientific progress….

Funding the scientifically elite is fundamentally short sighted.

The new (or almost new) head of the Royal Society in Britain, Sir Paul Nurse, wants to reform scientific funding – joy!
Something does need to be changed, as funding to do scientific research is shrinking to the point where it is almost non-existent in the UK and other parts of the world.

But what Nurse proposes will in reality make the situation worse– he wants to make funding more elite or in his words – “I think this has got to be solved really by having support systems that can reflect the fact that some people are very, very good”

Ignoring for the moment the class-based, bigoted language problems with Nurse’s statement – even though he says he is really non-elitist in other parts of his life – I am sure he has lots of friends who are not elite; this is going the wrong way for funding in fundamental scientific research. The system already funds these people who are very, very good; so do they get even more money at the expense of everything else?

Nurse also says “Much of the [current non-elite] work is worthy but the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries?”

This ignores the fact that that boring ‘worthy’ science is what is needed for the ‘top end’ elite to make those real discoveries…

As Issac Newton once said, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ even though Newton himself liked to squash the opposition like small ants (Newton, wasn’t a nice guy) – the point is well taken. Before we can get to the sexy stuff, there is lots of detailed graft you have to do… if you stop funding anything that is not a top discovery – you strip the backbone of science.

Funding the elite would also obliterate the important discoveries that no one ever expected; and kill some important research just because the funders presuppose that it is crap – Lord Kelvin (who was a very, very good scientist back in the day) once said that ‘radio has no future’ and that ‘X-rays were a hoax’, it is probably a good thing that Lord Kelvin wasn’t in charge of handing out scientific funding to who he thought was elite.

Nurse only really has a point when you think about industrial or applied research which solves ‘societal problems’ and has a specific goal. Arguably the best example of this is the Manhattan project which had a specific goal – build a nuclear weapon. The US government hired the best ‘elite’ scientists as well as thousands and thousands of the presumably non-elite – and in the end, they were successful. In fact government and industry should do more of this – using focused big-cash methods to solve problems such as for alternate energy to fossil fuels but they, TOO, need to keep the funding up even when the science seems slow or not a ‘top discovery’ – science takes time and, again, a whole lot of graft. (As an aside the Royal Society and similar funding bodies don’t typically have a large amount of money anyway – so these ‘elite’ funding methods would be like firing a couple of mail room clerks to save costs at Lehman Brothers.)

But there is a difference between industrial (or applied) research and fundamental research.

Both use scientific methods to solve problems but fundamental research is considered distinct from applied research. As a loose definition, ‘fundamental research” (such as that which is funded by the Royal Society) is academic. It is research that may not have a direct application which is apparent or immediate but does actually add to the wider scientific body of knowledge. And applied research is well, applied.

The line between fundamental and applied research is often fuzzy. Some fundamental research eventually leads to practical applications – the discovery of the neutron for instance was fundamental, but led to lots of industrial applications in the long run and the big government funded NASA program brought us Velcro, same idea – you never know where science may go and what discoveries will be made.

And Sir Nurse should know better.

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