Back Off Man, I’m a Scientist

Forget driving. Forget voting. Forget your first real job. Forget moving into your first apartment. Forget true love and true heartbreak. In this country, you know you’ve finally become a real grown-up when your parents finally force you to take away all your boxes of crap.

Oh, I managed to hold them off for a decade, but finally my folks decided that they were redecorating. Which in 20- and 30-something circles is known as “playing the nuclear option.” Fortunately, their timing was pretty good, since I was already on a quest to find my long-lost college diploma. See, my insurance agent told me that he could get me a “Scientist” discount on my car insurance, as long as I could provide proof that I had a Bachelor of Science degree.

Don’t get me wrong — I protested that I wasn’t a working scientist, far from it. I told him that these days I couldn’t do a path integral to save my life. I told him about the thermometers I dropped in undergrad lab, about the spontaneous magnet quench back in grad school — the head grad student gave me the evil eye for that, but that totally wasn’t my fault! I told my agent that I had decided for the good of humanity to stay as far away from the lab as possible. “I do English…y stuff right now,” I told him. “One of the proudest moments in my career was when a software engineer chastised me, saying, ‘I don’t know what your degree is in, English or whatever, but I have a degree in Mathematics.'” (That’s when you know you’ve really made it as a tech writer.)

But my agent said all that didn’t matter, just send him a Xerox of the degree and voila. So thanks to my folks, and the estimated 65 grams of fine particulate dust I inhaled during the arduous search process, I am now saving some serious $$ on my car insurance! Who needs that silly lizard anyway? Does he have a Bachelor’s degree… in SCIENCE?

Anyway, I’m glad to see the ol’ diploma doing some good again. People say college is overrated, and that’s probably true — unless you’re a Scientist like me. After all, another 1,350 years of driving, and this baby just about oughtta pay for itself.

Yes, I Will Link to You, Just See if I Don’t

Chad Orzel has a complaint about LiveJournal culture:

[P]eople in LiveJournal land have never really grasped the concept of the permanent link. Possibly because the default settings for the software make it fairly difficult to find the correct URL, or maybe because that have that little feature that automatically inserts a link given only a username. Whatever the reason, LiveJournal people tend to just link to the front page of whatever journal they’re pointing to, and it drives me nuts.

Why this particular behavior is so prevalent on LiveJournal, I have no idea. Regular blogs long ago got used to the idea of linking directly to archive pages, and while linkrot is still a problem (particularly since both Blogspot and Movable Type are prone to trashing site databases), they’re almost always good for a few weeks or a month. LiveJournal has never gotten the memo, though, and it’s maddening. If I go out of town for two days, I don’t even bother trying to follow links in most LiveJournal posts, because none of them go anywhere useful.

Hear, hear! And while we’re out saying mean things about the linking habits of LJers, allow me to air my pet peeve about LiveJournal culture: what’s with the whole, “May I link to this please?” You just posted a page on the public Internet for Pete’s sake. Linking is what pages on the public Internet are for.

The weirdest aspect of this little cultural tic is that unlike most other blogging systems, LiveJournal already offers built-in security settings, settings that enable you to mark posts as “private” so they’re unreadable and unlinkable for the outside world. Thanks to LiveJournal’s design, no LJ user ever has to post on the icky public Internet if they don’t want to.

Anyway. Asking “May I link to this?” is mousy and lame. Show a little testicular/ovarian fortitude and just link already.

Two Levers Labeled ‘Hope’ and ‘Fear’

Chad Orzel, one of my favorite science bloggers, is trying to answer the question, What should everyone know about science? He suggests these three themes:

  1. Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts
  2. Science is an essential human activity.
  3. Anyone can do science.

While #1 and #3 both seem sound, I think #2 defines science far too broadly. To blockquote:

2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.

You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)

I know #2 sounds good. First, it’s flattering, particularly for those of us who were trained in a scientific field or who simply just like science a lot. Second, it’s a good hard stab at all those nasty tweedy humanities professors who preen about how scientists don’t know anything about literature and art, but who can’t themselves even be bothered to learn the frickin’ Second Law of Thermodynamics. Sheesh!

But — science isn’t “applied curiosity.” Most things with vertebrae have applied curiosity (balanced by applied cowardice).

When I think about the nature of science, I’m reminded of something Brad DeLong said about the The Law of Large Numbers: “This is the principal insight of the science of statistics. It is an important insight. It is a powerful insight. It is also not an obvious insight — that’s what makes it powerful and important.” The Law of Large Numbers (and related insights) are powerful, important, and non-obvious precisely because our minds do not naturally think in these terms. It takes training.

Greek logic is less than 3000 years old. Modern science is about 400 years old. Modern statistical methods are even younger than that. Meanwhile, storytelling has been with us, oh, ever since we had language. Singing possibly longer.

Or another way of putting this is: tell the average citizen, “All studies indicate that wearing a bicycle helmet drastically reduce incidence of head injuries,” and at best you’ll get a vague nod. If you want that same person to actually wear a helmet, you need to tell them something like this: “Dude, I just saw this bike messenger flip over his handlebars, slamming his head into the curb — and the guy simply got up and walked off, with a big old chunk out of his helmet.” Whoa.

Perhaps what makes this confusing is that you can harness science’s power without being all that scientifically inclined. I mean, John Hagee drives a car and flies in airplanes and everything. In fact, science is so powerful that “it works, bitchesdespite the fact that it’s so new and so shallowly rooted in our primate skulls. Of the entire spectrum of human behavior — all the appalling things and all the wonderful things too — science might well be one of the least “intrinsic” behaviors we have.

As for what all this says about us as a species, that’s well above my pay grade.