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Science & Technology
Great Courses Review: Professor Michael Shermer.

From their web page:

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” These words are no less insightful today than they were when he wrote them in 1985. Despite our best efforts, we are all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn’t matter how educated or well read we are. Our brains seem to be hardwired to have our beliefs come first and explanations for our beliefs second. And although we are skilled at recognizing the cognitive biases in other people’s thinking, we often have blinders on when it comes to our own.
This is a wonderful tool when used in the hands of an expert. What the experts aren’t telling you is that the basic techniques are not that hard to understand. If that is all you care to know, then at least the following should enable you to keep the conversation honest if the need or opportunity should ever arise. The media is especially apt to be superficial in reporting—in the business of selling news, it is hard to fault their eagerness to bring forth sensational results. Since humans have been so often described as political animals, there must be a lot of truth in the adage. Nevertheless, even in our propaganda age, most scientific studies are in fact well-enough done, but it is equally true that too many are not. Slyness and propaganda have been with us since antiquity; chimpanzees are as sly as we are—fully capable of misleading their brethren. Mark Twain was motivated to write:

“Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please.”
“Statistics don’t lie; statisticians do.”

Well, yes and no. Recent research draws a new, finer distinction in the area of dominance these folks occupy. And it is welcome. The distinction that counts, at the most basic level of definition, is whether they are violent, on what basis do they care for others. The violent or abusive kinds often end up in prison, wards of the state. The non-violent psychopath is another sort. Many populate the ranks of power—CEOs, politicians, military officers and the like. Many behave in moral ways, but too many do not, and they are the danger. That distinction and its ramifications are the subjects of this page.
We all read or hear about “studies” that claim this or that. How good are they? How can we know? Certainly there can be differences in opinion, differences in interpretation, and more commonly perhaps, differences in the significance we attach to each study. This page presents information on how to answer each question. One important branch of mathematics is statistics. Descriptive statistics deals with what is and done right will be accompanied be a defined error bar. On the other hand, inferential statistics provides means for interpretation and decision making, again with defined error bars. Most basically, these two branches of math comprise the science of designing experiments, measuring events, selecting data, learning from a base of data, controlling outcomes, and communicating probabilities and uncertainties. As a science, statistics is hard to master, not because the math is arcane, but because it is not always self-evident to beginners which “test” to apply, nor does the average person accustomed to thinking in probabilistic terms. That wisdom comes with experience for most of us having some expertise. The sub-discipline of industrial statistics, for example, requires little more than the four functions of a hand calculator to perform elaborate calculations that can lead to astonishing results.
Thanks to Michael Specter for concisely summarizing the many issues arising in science, the live variety in particular. Like many others he sees that denialism has captured the fancy of many, particularly by the public, not to mention reporters and pundits concerned with developments in the fields of biology and medicine. He fears what it will mean if American politicians continue to eviscerate science and the technologies it creates. We too are concerned and this page reviews his findings regarding very important public-health issues, vaccines in particular and how they can be banked against bioterrorism, if we allow them to be funded and banked to counter unknown threats found in the laboratory by accident or during deliberate searches for them... There really is no other choice.

See Chapter 8 of DENIALISM> The eminent biologist, Drew Endy, provided the catchy title for that chapter and we borrow it for this page for it is a to-the-point metaphor for safe passage through perilous times.
In this triad, confusion reigns.

How can that be?

  • Has not science given us mastery of the earth and all its denizens?
  • Has not science extended our lives by a factor of three or more?
  • Do we not hear daily about a study that claims a significant effect on our lives?
  • At the same time, too often we hear about studies that claim opposite effects?
  • And finally, why are so many scientific papers withdrawn?
  • All this has left us confused about what is what, while giving ammunition to those who would bury science if they could.
Given human frailties, inborn or learned, science is perhaps the least generally understood of the arts and major disciplines. While societies vary markedly, many in the US society have a love-hate relationship with its scientists. Scientists are hated and feared by many who nevertheless enjoy the fruits of science--and technology, its practical expression. For example, John Miller gathered information on scientific awareness in America for the National Science Foundations. He found Americans to be:

  • Scientifically savvy and alert: 20-25%.
  • Unaware that the earth circles the sun: 20%.
  • Unaware that DNA carries hereditary information: less than one-third, <33%.
Stephen Stigler
Book Review With Commentary

Stigler is a gifted historian of mathematics, especially in the sense of his dedication to thoroughness and objectivity. His insightful readings of obscure authors alone are worth reading in their own right. He has gone to great lengths to recount thinking as it evolved toward the modern sub-discipline of mathematics now known as statistics.
Describing living organisms may be simple enough and is the basis for the vast science of biology with its myriad details. In contrast with the descriptive success of DNA as a common denominator for all life, the human organism remains quite unpredictable in its behavior.
Peter Huber
1991 Book Review With Commentary

Huber deals with two features of humanity that are still alive and well in our day of terror: a legal system that is not up to the challenge and the power of myth.
Updated 15 Apr 2010; 18 Jan 2013

Humanity has an inherent need to know: how things work, about our origins, what is our purpose. It was easy to ascribe thunder to a god, rain to another and so on, and even create an hierarchy among them, complete with conflicts and histories of same. Mythology for sure. But a few brave souls dug deeper. Euclid developed geometry, Ptolemy understood his circles and developed a means to "explain" the motion of the planets "around" central earth. Copernicus observed inaccuracies and went on to propose a solar-centered method. The world has never been the same since--thanks to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein. Unlike astronomy, biology had to wait for Darwin, Mendel, Watson and Crick to parallel in biology the progression from Euclid to Einstein.

The basic nuts and bolts provided by Jacob Bronowski in a BBC / Time-Life documentary in 1973 puts science in a human perspective:

"We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible."
Book Review

Baloney underlies all propaganda whether secular, economic, moral, or religious. Peace is unlikely to come as long as baloney clouds issues, underlies advertising media, spews from the central office, or is handed down by governors of whatever stripe.
Sorting out the truth about terror

Nothing is more valuable than critical thinking. All it takes is an open receptive mind; experience helps.
Updated 17 Mar 2008

Fundamentally, science is knowledge in a systematic form derived from observation, study, and experiment. Its goal is to understand and formulate the principles of nature. Science can be used either to support or oppose terrorism. And that is the rub; science itself is amoral except for certain instincts animals carry in their nervous-system memories. Science is used for both good and evil. It is ironic that education in science will likely be the basic foundation for peace. The primary purpose of this page is to clarify the mystery of science and its peaceful roles.
A Fundamental Disconnect
Updated 18 Jan 2007

"My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?"
--Letter from Galileo Galilei to Johannes Kepler