October 27, 2005
Only a scant 10 months ago when I began this blog, I had high ambitions of posting regularly. In fact, for the first few months, I posted something new every three or four days. Currently, I'm batting more like once every two weeks. Oh, how the ambitious have fallen. While I spend perhaps a disturbing amount of time reading science and current events each day, I have not yet hit upon the right rhythm for posting the inevitable thoughts that come out of that. It also takes me a non-trivial amount of time to put together a posting, since I am considerably slowed down by my determination to say sensible and coherent things. Who knows, perhaps in another 10 months, I'll be down another factor of two and posting once a month.
On a related note, I am constantly amazed by the both prolific and consistently good writers like Tim Burke, Bill Tozier, Cosma Shalizi and Carl Zimmer. One happiness would be to join a collective blog such as Crooked Timber, another prolific and intensely edifying source of distraction.
Links, links, links.
The title is perhaps a modern variation on Hamlet's famous "words, words, words" quip to Lord Polonius. Some things I've read recently, with mild amounts of editorializing:
Tim Burke (History professor at Swarthmore College) recently discussed (again) his thoughts on the future of academia. That is, why would it take for college costs to actually decrease. I assume this arises at least partially as a result of the recent New York Times article on the ever increasing tuition rates for colleges in this country. He argues that modern college costs rise at least partially as a result of pressure from lawsuits and parents to provide in loco parentis to the kids attending. Given the degree of hand-holding I experienced at Haverford, perhaps the closest thing to Swarthmore without actually being Swat, this makes a lot of sense. I suspect, however, that tuition prices will continue to increase apace for the time being, if only because enrollment rates continue to remain high.
Speaking of high enrollment rates, Burke makes the interesting point
... the more highly selective a college or university is in its admission policies, the more useful it is for an employer as a device for identifying potentially valuable employees, even if the employer doesn’t know or care what happened to the potential employee while he or she was a student.
This assertion belies an assumption about whose pervasiveness I wonder. Basically, Burke is claiming that selectivity is an objective measure of something. Indeed, it is. It's an objective measure of the popularity of the school, filtered through the finite size of a freshman class that the school can reasonably admit, and nothing else. A huge institution could catapult itself higher in the selectivity rankings simply by cutting the number of students it admits.
Barabasi's recent promotion of his ideas about the relationship between "bursty behavior" among humans and our managing a queue of tasks to accomplish continues to generate press. New Scientist and Physics Web both picked the piece of work on Darwin's, Einstein's and modern email-usage communication patterns. To briefly summarize from Barabasi's own paper:
Here we show that the bursty nature of human behavior is a consequence of a decision based queueing process: when individuals execute tasks based on some perceived priority, the timing of the tasks will be heavy tailed, most tasks being rapidly executed, while a few experience very long waiting times.
A.-L. Barabasi (2005) "The origin of bursts and heavy tails in human dynamics." Nature 435, 207.
That is, the response times are described by a power law with exponent between 1.0 and 1.5. Once again, power laws are everywhere. (NB: In the interest of full disclosure, power laws are one focus of my research, although I've gone on record saying that there's something of an irrational exuberance for them these days.) To those of you experiencing power-law fatigue, it may not come as any surprise that last night in the daily arXiv mailing of new work, a very critical (I am even tempted to say scathing) comment on Barabasi's work appeared. Again, to briefly summarize from the comment:
... we quantitatively demonstrate that the reported power-law distributions are solely an artifact of the analysis of the empirical data and that the proposed model is not representative of e-mail communication patterns.
D. B. Stouffer, R. D. Malmgren and L. A. N. Amaral (2005) "Comment on The origin of bursts and heavy tails in human dynamics." e-print.
There are several interesting threads imbedded in this discussion, the main one being on the twin supports of good empirical research: 1) rigorous quantitative tools for data analysis, and 2) a firm basis in empirical and statistical methods to support whatever conclusions you draw with aforementioned tools. In this case, Stouffer, Malmgren and Amaral utilize Bayesian model selection to eliminate the power law as a model, and instead show that the distributions are better described by a log-normal distribution. This idea of the importance of good tools and good statistics is something I've written on before. Cosma Shalizi is a continual booster of these issues, particularly among physicists working in extremal statistics and social science.
And finally, Carl Zimmer, always excellent, on the evolution of language.
[Update: After Cosma linked to my post, I realized it needed a little bit of cleaning up.]
October 17, 2005
Some assembly required.
While browsing the usual selection of online venues for news about the world, I came across a reference to a recent statistical study of American and European knowledge of science and technology, conducted in part by the National Science Foundation. The results, as you my dear reader may guess, were depressing. Here are a few choice excerpts.
Conclusions about technology and science:
Technology has become so user friendly it is largely "invisible." Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.
NSF surveys have asked respondents to explain in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. Based on their answers, it is possible to conclude that most Americans (two-thirds in 2001) do not have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific process. This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience.
Response to one of the questions, "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science. In the United States, 53 percent of respondents answered "true" to that statement in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before 2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered "true.") The 2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought the United States more in line with other industrialized countries about the question of evolution.
Yet, there is hope
... the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in 1992.
Also, the survey found that belief in devil possession declined between 1990 and 2001. On the other hand, belief in other paranormal phenomena increased, and
... at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives. Although the majority (56 percent) of those queried in the 2001 NSF survey said that astrology is "not at all scientific," 9 percent said it is "very scientific" and 31 percent thought it is "sort of scientific".
In the United States, skepticism about astrology is strongly related to level of education [snip]. In Europe, however, respondents with college degrees were just as likely as others to claim that astrology is scientific.
Aside from being thoroughly depressing for a booster of science and rationalism such as myself, this suggests that, not only do Westerners have little conception of what it means to be "scientific" or what "technology" actually is, but Western life does not require people to have any mastery of scientific or technological principles. That is, one can get along just fine in life while being completely ignorant of why things actually happen or how to rigorously test hypotheses. Of course, this is a little bit of a circular problem, since if no one understands how things work, people will design user-friendly things that don't need to be understood in order to function. That is, those who are not ignorant of how the world works provide no incentive to those who are to change their ignorant ways. Of course, aren't we all ignorant of the complicated details of many of the wonders that surround us? Perhaps the crucial difference lies not in being ignorant itself, but in being unwilling to seek out the truth (especially when it matters).
The conclusions of the surveys do nothing except bolster my belief that rational thinking and careful curiosity are not the natural mode of human thought, and that the Enlightenment was a weird and unnatural turn of events. Perhaps one of the most frightening bits of the survey was the following statement
there is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their staff are any more technologically literate than the general public.
October 05, 2005
That "haha" kind of funny
I am not a regular reader of The Onion. Years ago, it seemed as if every one of my friends was. With mostly different friends now, I don't receive pointers to nearly as many stories, and my life is, I'm sure as a result, much less full. Thank goodness someone (still) reads The Onion, so that I (still) don't have to. Two amusements for you:
Intelligent Design Trial
I have only vaguely been following the trial in Dover, PA, mostly on account of its mere existence being supremely depressing. Given that, I still applaud the parents who have brought suit against the school board. In addition, however, let me recommend The Loom, which routinely demonstrates (in an award-winning way) the kind of clear and precise writing that we on the side of logic and rationality need more of.