AAAS Dumbs Down Science

Posted in Humor on January 22nd, 2010 by MadDog
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I’m much the same as Bill Gates in one respect. Bill had little formal training to facilitate his transformation from pimply-faced geek to gozillionaire geek. I have had little formal training in my transition from uneducated trailer-trash lout to the internationally recognized know-it-all that I am today. Yet, we both somehow get by.

I owe much of my success as a bore to my lifelong pathological obsession with reading science journals. I succumbed to this disease before the age of ten, when I began pilfering copies of Scientific American  from local newsstands. After my first introduction to law enforcement, I got a paper route and subscribed. While other illiterate preteens were looking at the pictures in comic books, I was looking at much more interesting pictures in my carefully preserved and continuously expanding library of science journals. At that point my comprehension level was approximately -97%.

Now that you have sufficient background information, I shall proceed with my tirade.

As I have previously bragged about, I am a card-carrying PROFESSIONAL  member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. How this came about, I have no idea. I suspect that the organization conducted a random search for suckers and my name popped up. I received my membership card, which I have proudly displayed to hundreds of perfect strangers and a one year subscription to Science,  the mouthpiece of the organization.

The gotcha, of course, came at subscription renewal time. I was torn between (A) forking out about Two Hundred U.S. Bucks to renew the subscription or (B) carrying around a membership card that was clearly expired, exposing me as an EX  Professional Scientist. I considered carefully modifying the expiration date on the card, but I’m far too ethical to do anything so shady . . . mmmm. Eunie, finally tiring of my whining, said, “Write the cheque and shut up!” I sighed a sigh of pure love. I like the rough stuff.

Anyway, I continued to wade through Scientific American,  for which my comprehension level was approaching 93% (more about that later) and added Science  each week, beginning at a CL (I’m getting tired of typing) of about -17%.

However, I’ve noticed lately that my CL has been rising exponentially. I attribute this not to any elevation of my brain power, since this is clearly not the case, as I’m reminded daily by my friends. I lay the blame directly on the publishers of science journals. I’m not a conspiracy geek, but I am  beginning to wonder . . .

As a case-in-point, I present the cover of Science for 27 November 2009:*

Aside from the fact that I do not believe that it’s seemly to portray living cells as if they were Simpson characters (a little compass?  come on!), the shameless use of Alfred E. Newman’s likeness on the cover is an obvious ploy to capture the Budweiser-swilling teenage crowd.

Not wishing to portray Science  as the originator of this massive dumbing-down of science, I should mention that Scientific American  was, indeed, the perpetrator, commencing with it’s infamous “Toy Boat” issue of August 1987:

To illustrate my premise I present these atrocities from that very issue.

Here we see, in this astonishingly cheesy Nikon ad, Albert Einstein equated to The Three Stooges:

This exposes the shameless money-grubbing attitude of the rag. But, wait! There’s more.

A few pages later we’re confronted by the ineptitude of Scientific American’s copy editors:

Is this a simple failure to comprehend the principles of editing? At the time, I heard an alternate theory bandied about. Some claimed, quite reasonably I believe, that this was a coded message from the notoriously leftist scientific community (all college graduates) to their Commie brethren cowardly hiding behind the Iron Curtain and lending succor to the nefarious masters of the Axis of Evil. Decoded by IBM’s Blue Canker Sore, the most powerful computer of the time, it reads (paraphrasing), “Get out now or you’ll soon be sweeping floors for a living.”

Okay, I have flogged Scientific American  enough, already.

Let’s get back to flogging Science.  Here is example of the silly pandering that’s dragging science down to the least common denominator and artificially inflating my CL:

Science’s increasing use of video game screenshots is a foolish attempt to simplify complex concepts to the level that any fool with a Nintendo can understand them. This goes against the entire history of science, which clearly discloses a philosophy that espouses the principle that nobody  who does not receive massive grants should be allowed to understand anything.

As further evidence, I present a mystifying illustration which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the article:

I call this the “Distraction Ploy”. It is clearly designed to distract the reader from the opaque complexity of the arguments in the text so that the author can pretend that he has actually explained something. “Hey, what do you want me to do? Draw Pictures?”, the author can claim.

Speaking of drawing pictures, here is a suitably illustrative example of what I’m talking about. Has anybody yet figured out what I’m talking about? No? Good, that’s my point exactly:

Now, instead of pondering imponderable mathematical equations which I comprehended not in the least, I’m forced, because of the fancy chart, to spend hours to achieve the same result – total bafflement. I prefer to arrive at total bafflement by the more elegant and traditional method of indecipherable equations with lots of curly lines mashed up with sharp angles and tiny little numbers.

Another area of concern is the use of famous personalities to try to convince us that science is “easy”:

Here, in this image, Mister Bean is preparing to inject a radioactive substance into the heart of a doubtlessly uninformed patient. The implied message is, “If Mister Bean can do cutting edge medical science, any boob can do it.” This goes against every cherished principle of science. Science is supposed to be hard,  that’s why they call it science. Duh! Haven’t you ever heard of Rocket Scientists? It’s all about job security. The Americans and Russians were falling all over themselves to hire the previously-evil Nazi scientists after the second humiliating surrender of Germany. Why? (one might ask) Duh! (I say again) Because science is hard!

Patience, I am nearly finished.

As a final, and I might add, convicting bit of evidence, here is a complex graphic that claims to explain the previously mysterious principles of “up”, “down”, “right” and “left”:

It also, once and for all, scientifically establishes the location of the human armpit. Hey, man. You don’t have to draw me pictures!

Give me an equation!

* There may be individuals who are so humourless that they fail to recognize the forgoing as a fun-loving jab at a prestigious organization. If you are one of those individuals and you are feeling litigious, I refer you to George Carlin’s lawyer.

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The Spider Carpet and Some Thoughts About Passion

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Opinions on November 24th, 2009 by MadDog
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Life is about passion. I can’t imagine life without a few things burning me up from the inside out. Love, art, service . . . the list goes on. I’m fascinated by the things that people do because their passion drives them to do so. Sure, there is often  money involved, sometimes big money. That’s okay. It doesn’t detract from the amazement we experience when we see remarkable results of human passion simply because someone made a living from it. That’s a given.

From the 2 October issue of Science, the a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science comes this fascinating image and story:

The Amazing Spider Carpet from Lamba Weaving in Madagascar (Image: AMNH/R.Mickens)

A million female Madagascar golden orb spiders contributed their golden silk to this one-of-a-kind textile that went on display last month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. More than 80 people spent 4 years on the work, collecting spiders in the wild, drawing silk from immobilized (and later freed) arachnids with hand-powered machines, and twisting hundreds of spider lines to make each thread. The 3.4-by-1.2-meter tapestry is on loan from Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, who founded Lamba, a weaving enterprise in Madagascar.

I’m hoping that my journalistic license will allow me to escape the ire of the AAAS for filching their image and quoting a paragraph of text. I’ll give them a plug by mentioning that, if you’re a student or a post-doc, you can get a subscription for a limited time for just US$50 a year. That’s 51 issues of one of the finest science journals on the planet. What a deal! I paid over US$200 for my last subscription.

Let’s get the calculator out (can’t do this stuff in my head any more). Well, huh! A million spiders . . . I don’t know where to plug that in. Let’s set the spiders aside. I doubt if spider passion contributed much to this carpet (A Buddhist might disagree.)

Okay, it says that 80 people spent four years on the work. Let’s keep the numbers conservative. Let’s say that each person, on the average, worked 20 hours a week for 40 weeks a year. Hmm . . . 80 people times 20 hours times 40 weeks times 4 years . . . that’s 256,000 hours! A quarter of a million hours! A single person working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a years would take 128 years to finish the job (check my numbers).

Think about that while you contemplate this rather sombre sunrise at Coconut Point:

A Coconut Point Sunrise

Is the world any better off because of this achievement? Not a whit. Are a lot of ordinary people all excited about it? Probably not. Is it an intelligentsia thing? Of course. It appeals to rich folk, artsy types and science geeks. So, what’s it worth?

Well, (and you knew this was coming), let me tell you what I think.

Most of us face the daily grind and that’s about all that we will ever have. It’s simply too draining to exert much effort to pursue things which we may passionately desire to do, because putting food on the table and taking care of business is all we can manage. We need people who can somehow overcome these obstacles (no matter the means) and deliver to us remarkable achievements that inspire us.

Maybe they did it for money. Maybe they did it for love.

No matter. Though they didn’t know it, they also did it for me.

UPDATE: I found three very nice links with much more information about the Spider Carpet here, here and here.

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An Apple Is an Apple – Or Is It?

Posted in Mixed Nuts on October 9th, 2009 by MadDog
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One apple is pretty much the same as any other, eh? Except for the taste, of course. Ah, but organically grown  apples are much  better for you, right?

Certainly, the use of nasty chemicals to make produce look prettier, increase production yields, reduce infestation and generally increase the producers’ profits should be examined closely. The benefits and perils of these practices are still debated.

What has bothered me for some time is the manner in which the claims of benefits from organic production methods have expanded to include the nutritional value of the food produced. I found an interesting letter in the 7 August 2009 issue of Science,  the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The letter, titled Organics: Evidence of Health Benefits Lacking,  began by stating the familiar explanations why organically grown produce might be more nutritious:  natural fertilisers are absorbed more slowly and conventional pesticides disrupt nutrition absorption or synthesis, potentially lowering the nutrient levels.

The cover of Science, 7 August 2009

The article* then discusses a systematic survey of scientific literature over three decades, including very recent material, that demonstrated that there are neither consistent nor meaningful differences in the levels of nutrients between conventionally grown and organically grown produce.

There is an FDA/USDA requirement (we’re talking the U S of A here, folks) that requires that a nutrient in a product must be at least 10% greater than its comparison product to allow a claim of “more nutritional”.  For organics, this is not the case.

What does make a difference is the cultivar or variety. Some varieties of produce are more nutritional than others. If you can get the information, you can achieve a much better nutritional outcome by choosing the most nutritious varieties.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trashing organically grown foods. Frankly, I don’t see much difference in the supermarket, except for price. However, I’m wondering what chemicals were used on the Non-Organic side of the aisle. Nevertheless, I am not swayed by claims of getting more nutrition for my buck from the organically grown stuff.

Here in Madang we don’t have to worry about organic vs. non-organic. Everything  is organic. If you don’t find a worm or two in your lettuce, you wonder what’s going on. There’s an old story about how you can tell how long someone has lived in PNG:

A NEWBIE, upon finding maggots in his banana, shrieks and throws it into the bush.
SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILE carefully pulls the maggoty bits off and eats the rest.
AN OLD HAND sees the maggots and says, “Thanks, Lord, for the extra protein.”

I walked over to the market for a few minutes this morning to get some shots of our wonderful produce. Here’s a little gallery:

Bon appétit.

* Organics: Evidence of Health Benefits Lacking, Science,   7 August 2009, Kate Clancy, Michael Hamm, Allen S. Levine, Jennifer Wilkins. Any misunderstandings or errors of interpretation of the letter are my fault. You can email correspondence to aslevine@umn.edu

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Australia On My Mind

Posted in Mixed Nuts on March 20th, 2009 by MadDog
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I got this nice shot of the Finisterre Mountains  across Astrolabe Bay  this morning on the way to work. Dirving to the office takes only about twenty minutes and is always a pleasure with this kind of scenery to distract me. It has absolutely nothing to do with Australia, but it is pretty:
A Finisterre Mountain panorama

I received my new Science magazine yesterday. It’s the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which I am a member. Long story there. I have no idea how I became a member. I never applied for membership. I somehow became a Professional Member and started receiving the bimonthly magazine about two years ago. I’ve received several notices that my membership has expired, but I can’t afford the US$200+ a year to maintain it. Nevertheless, they still keep sending me the magazine. Go figure.

Australia is on the far side of the Moon
This is a pretty cool error on their part. I pass the magazine on to several other science-oriented friends. Is it honest for me not to tell them? I’ll have to think about that sometime. Maybe after I’m dead.

Anyway, I glanced at the cover and instantly saw Australia. Okay, okay, it’s not perfect, but it’s sort of Oz shaped. The Japanese are doing a bang-up job of getting snaps of the far side of the Moon with Project SELENE. You can find some cool images here.

Did I mention that I once saw Australia up in the sky? Readers who come back time after time for fresh applications of my unique torture methods will have seen this image before:

Australia is up in the sky

Okay, that’s enough of Australia for today.

On the way past the neighbours’ house the other day I noticed that one of the girls had dressed up their very nice red dog in a red dress:

A red dog in a red dress
I’ve always been partial to red dogs. Here’s an interesting read on Dog Coat Colour Genetics. I read on another site that a red coat recessive dog (whatever that is) does not have a single black hair on its body!  Imagine that. It makes me wonder exactly how that they proved it. Did someone examine every hair on a red dog?

How can I get a job like that?

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A Long Way from Anywhere

Posted in Mixed Nuts on February 12th, 2009 by MadDog
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I found this map in the 2 January issue of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Access time by sea or land to the nearest city of 50,000LegendThe map depicts the density of sea routes, but, more interestingly, it shows the travel time by sea or land, in days from a location to the nearest city with a population of 50,000 or more. The scale starts with light yellow in hours, growing darker up to 36 and then changes to days, with dark brown being ten days.

It’s important to note that is doesn’t show air travel. The map would be pretty much all the same colour, since few places are farther than a couple of hours from a city of 50,000.

Look at the difference in colour between the island of New Guinea and Madagascar. Either Madagascar has more big cities or it has a much better road transportation system – probably both. I’m too lazy today to check it out.

I don’t seem to be brimming over with opinion this morning, so I won’t draw any harebrained conclusions from the map. I can hear the sigh of relief from readers all over the world.

If you ‘d like to see the source of the data and read some interesting stuff about the subject go here. You’ll find a larger, more detailed version of the map, downloadable software to make your own maps, and a cool poster that you can download.

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What About the Future?

Posted in Opinions on February 10th, 2009 by MadDog
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Yesterday I received four new issues of Science, the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Why four issues at once when it’s published weekly? Well, you would know if you understood the postal system in Papua New Guinea. In all fairness, though, we are a long way from the rest of the planet.

We, along with many other developing nations are a long way from the rest of the planet in other matters.

Here is the first paragraph of the lead editorial:

For success in an increasingly complex, crowded, and dangerous world, a nation must strive to be a meritocracy: Its education and social systems should be structured to select those with the most talent, energy, wisdom, and character as the next generation of leaders for each segment of society. When I was young, I was taught that providing equal opportunities for everyone was a matter of social justice – part of the social contract in the United States. Now, I believe that it is also a matter of national survival. Any country that fails to encourage and develop the talent in each individual through its public school system will suffer greatly, because the quality of a nation depends on the collective wisdom of both its leaders and its citizens. [italics mine]

Now, before I get all heavy with my spouting of unsolicited opinion about the matter, let me show you an image of the harbour in front of our house. The shot required a fifteen second exposure and massive processing on the computer with Photoshop:

The harbour at night - Madang

If you click to enlarge, you can see a fair amount of detail, especially in the warehouse on the left.

The curious idea of a meritocracy hasn’t gained much of a foothold. The idea that someone should hold a position of influence and power because of “talent, energy, wisdom, and character” is not especially popular. People seem to gravitate upwards for other reasons, especially where the general education level is inadequate for people to make reasoned decisions about leadership. There is a lot of talk about choosing leaders wisely, but what is the result of all this wink-wink, nod-nod?

Two recent elected officials in our area (no naming of names here) were convicted criminals. One attempted to serve part of his term in office from a jail cell. How does this speak of character?

Forget principles – how about ability. Well, you can hardly have a meritocracy if your population is largely uneducated and technically unskilled.

Who is to blame for this? It’s easy to blame the government – it’s a big target. But there is plenty of blame to go around. Everybody can have their fair share. I have seen families who believed that education was essential to their future limit their size (fewer children) and make horrifying financial sacrifices in order to pay school fees. I have also seen many other families let their many children run wild while there was always money for beer and cigarettes. I ask: which family will prosper in the end?

I can hear the voices of some even now, “That’s easy for you to say. You’re relatively rich compared to most of us.” This is true, but we have put our money where our mouths are. Over the years we have paid school fees for more than twenty children to go as far as they wished to go. Some have done well and now have good jobs. Some chose not to continue and their futures are not as bright.

My opinions are seldom humble, so I won’t change the trend now. I believe and espouse the idea that if we do not change our attitude towards education and force a change of governmental policy that fosters free education for those who show promise, than we are doomed to national mediocrity. We will be indistinguishable from other developing countries who have failed to reach their full potential.

Our country has great potential. I believe that Papua New Guinea is the “natural leader” of the South Pacific island nations. Can we ever claim the moral, educational, and technical high ground?

Never. If we fail to educate our children.

Will we ever see a sunrise in education?

Will we ever see the sun rise?

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