Archive for category science

[2b2k] Protein Folding, 30 years ago

Simply in terms of nostalgia, this 1985 video called “Knowledge Engineering: Artificial Intelligence Research at the Stanford Heuristic Programming Project” from the Stanford archives is charming right down to its Tron-like digital soundtrack.

But it’s also really interesting if you care about the way we’ve thought about knowledge. The Stanford Heuristic Programming Project under Edward Feigenbaum did groundbreaking work in how computers represent knowledge, emphasizing the content and not just the rules. (Here is a 1980 article about the Project and its projects.)

And then at the 8:50 mark, it expresses optimism that an expert system would be able to represent not only every atom of proteins but how they fold.

Little could it have been predicted that protein folding even 30 years later would be better recognized by the human brain than by computers, and that humans playing a game — Fold.It — would produce useful results.

It’s certainly the case that we have expert systems all over the place now, from Google Maps to the Nest thermostat. But we also see another type of expert system that was essentially unpredictable in 1985. One might think that the domain of computer programming would be susceptible to being represented in an expert system because it is governed by a finite set of perfectly knowable rules, unlike the fields the Stanford project was investigating. And there are of course expert systems for programming. But where do the experts actually go when they have a problem? To StackOverflow where other human beings can make suggestions and iterate on their solutions. One could argue that at this point StackOverflow is the most successful “expert system” for computer programming in that it is the computer-based place most likely to give you an answer to a question. But it does not look much like what the Stanford project had in mind, for how could even Edward Feigenbaum have predicted what human beings can and would do if connected at scale?

(Here’s an excellent interview with Feigenbaum.)

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[shorenstein] Andy Revkin on communicating climate science

I’m at a talk by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times’ Dot Earth blog at the Shorenstein Center. [Alex Jones mentions in his introduction that Andy is a singer-songwriter who played with Pete Seeger. Awesome!]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Andy says he’s been a science reporter for 31 years. His first magazine article was about the dangers of the anti-pot herbicide paraquat. (The article won an award for investigative journalism). It had all the elements — bad guys, victims, drama — typical of “Woe is me. Shame on you” environmental reporting. His story on global warming in 1988 has “virtually the same cast of characters” that you see in today’s coverage. “And public attitudes are about the same…Essentially the landscape hasn’t changed.” Over time, however, he has learned how complex climate science is.

In 2010, his blog moved from NYT’s reporting to editorial, so now he is freer to express his opinions. He wants to talk with us today about the sort of “media conversation” that occurs now, but didn’t when he started as a journalist. We now have a cloud of people who follow a journalist, ready to correct them. “You can say this is terrible. It’s hard to separate noise from signal. And that’s correct.” “It can be noisy, but it’s better than the old model, because the old model wasn’t always right.” Andy points to the NYT coverage on the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But this also means that now readers have to do a lot of the work themselves.

He left the NYT in his mid-fifties because he saw that access to info more often than not doesn’t change you, but instead reinforces your positions. So at Pace U he studies how and why people understand ecological issues. “What is it about us that makes us neglect long-term imperatives?” This works better in a blog in a conversation drawing upon other people’s expertise than an article. “I’m a shitty columnist,” he says. People read columns to reinforce their beliefs, although maybe you’ll read George Will to refresh your animus :) “This makes me not a great spokesperson for a position.” Most positions are one-sided, whereas Andy is interested in the processes by which we come to our understanding.

Q: [alex jones] People seem stupider about the environment than they were 20 years ago. They’re more confused.

A: In 1991 there was a survey of museum goers who thought that global warming was about the ozone hole, not about greenhouse gases. A 2009 study showed that on a scale of 1-6 of alarm, most Americans were at 5 (“concerned,” not yet “alarmed”). Yet, Andy points out, the Cap and Trade bill failed. Likewise,the vast majority support rebates on solar panels and fuel-efficient vehicles. They support requiring 45mph fuel efficiency across vehicle fleets, even at a $1K price premium. He also points to some Gallup data that showed that more than half of the respondents worry a great a deal or a fair amount, but that number hasn’t changed since they Gallup began asking the question, in 1989. [link] Furthermore, global warming doesn’t show up as one of the issues they worry about.

The people we need to motivate are innovators. We’ll have 9B on the planet soon, and 2B who can’t make reasonable energy choices.

Q: Are we heading toward a climate tipping point?

A: There isn’t evidence that tipping points in climate are real and if they are, we can’t really predict them. [link]

Q: The permafrost isn’t going to melt?

A: No, it is melting. But we don’t know if it will be catastrophic.

Andy points to a photo of despair at a climate conference. But then there’s Scott H. DeLisi who represents a shift in how we relate to communities: Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts. Inside Climate News won the Pulitzer last year. “That says there are new models that may work. Can they sustain their funding?” Andy’s not sure.

“Journalism is a shinking wedge of a growing pie of ways to tell stories.”

“Escape from the Nerd Loop”: people talking to one another about how to communicate science issues. Andy loves Twitter. The hashtag is as big an invention as photovoltaics, he says. He references Chris Messina, its inventor, and points to how useful it is for separating and gathering strands of information, including at NASA’s Asteroid Watch. Andy also points to descriptions by a climate scientist who went to the Arctic [or Antarctic?] that he curated, and to a singing scientist.

Q: I’m a communications student. There was a guy named Marshall McLuhan, maybe you haven’t heard of him. Is the medium the message?

A: There are different tools for different jobs. I could tell you the volume of the atmosphere, but Adam Nieman, a science illustrator, used this way to show it to you.

Q: Why is it so hard to get out of catastrophism and into thinking about solutions?

A: Journalism usually focuses on the down side.If there’s no “Woe is me” element, it tends not to make it onto the front page. At Pace U. we travel each spring and do a film about a sustainable resource farming question. The first was on shrimp-farming in Belize. It’s got thousands of views but it’s not on the nightly news. How do we shift our norms in the media?

[david ropiek] Inherent human psychology: we pay more attention to risks. People who want to move the public dial inherently are attracted to the more attention-getting headlines, like “You’re going to die.”

A: Yes. And polls show that what people say about global warming depends on the weather outside that day.

A report recently drew the connection between climate change and other big problems facing us: poverty, war, etc. What did you think of it?

A: It was good. But is it going to change things? The Extremes report likewise. The city that was most affected by the recent typhoon had tripled its population, mainly with poor people. Andy values Jesse Ausubel who says that most politics is people pulling on disconnected levels.

Q: Any reflections on the disconnect between breezy IPCC executive summaries and the depth of the actual scientific report?

A: There have been demands for IPCC to write clearer summaries. Its charter has it focused on the down sides.

Q: How can we use open data and community tools to make better decisions about climate change? Will the data Obama opened up last month help?

A: The forces of stasis can congregate on that data and raise questions about it based on tiny inconsistencies. So I’m not sure it will change things. But I’m all for transparency. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, like when the US Embassy was doing its own twitter feed on Beijing air quality. We have this wonderful potential now; Greenpeace (who Andy often criticizes) did on-the-ground truthing about companies deforesting organgutang habitats in Indonesia. Then they did a great campaign to show who’s using the palm oil: Buying a Kitkat bar contributes to the deforesting of Borneo. You can do this ground-truthing now.

Q: In the past 6 months there seems to have been a jump in climate change coverage. No?

A: I don’t think there’s more coverage.

Q: India and Pakistan couldn’t agree on water control in part because the politicians talked about scarcity while the people talked in terms of their traditional animosities. How can we find the right vocabularies?

A: If the conversation is about reducing vulnerabilities and energy efficiency, you can get more consensus than talking about global warming.

Q: How about using data visualizations instead of words?

A: I love visualizations. They spill out from journalism. How much it matters is another question. Ezra Klein just did a piece that says that information doesn’t matter.

Q: Can we talk about your “Years of Living Dangerously” piece? [Couldn't hear the rest of the question].

A: My blog is edited by the op-ed desk, and I don’t always understand their decisions. Journalism migrates toward controversy. The Times has a feature “Room for Debate,” and I keep proposing “Room for Agreement” [link], where you’d see what people who disagree about an issue can agree on.

Q: [me] Should we still be engaging with deniers? With whom should we be talking?

A: Yes, we should engage. We taxpayers subsidize second mortgages on houses in wild fire zones in Colorado. Why? So firefighters have to put themselves at risk? [link] That’s an issue that people agree on across the spectrum. When it comes to deniers, we have to ask what exactly are you denying, Particular data? Scientific method? Physics? I’ve come to the conclusion that even if we had perfect information, we still wouldn’t galvanize the action we need.

[Andy ends by singing a song about liberated carbon. That's not something you see every day at the Shorenstein Center.]

[UPDATE (the next day): I added some more links.]

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[2b2k] Social Science in the Age of Too Big to Know

Gary King [twitter:kinggarry] , Director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, has published an article (Open Access!) on the current status of this branch of science. Here’s the abstract:

The social sciences are undergoing a dramatic transformation from studying problems to solving them; from making do with a small number of sparse data sets to analyzing increasing quantities of diverse, highly informative data; from isolated scholars toiling away on their own to larger scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary, lab-style research teams; and from a purely academic pursuit focused inward to having a major impact on public policy, commerce and industry, other academic fields, and some of the major problems that affect individuals and societies. In the midst of all this productive chaos, we have been building the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, a new type of center intended to help foster and respond to these broader developments. We offer here some suggestions from our experiences for the increasing number of other universities that have begun to build similar institutions and for how we might work together to advance social science more generally.

In the article, Gary argues that Big Data requires Big Collaboration to be understood:

Social scientists are now transitioning from working primarily on their own, alone in their officesâ??a style that dates back to when the offices were in monasteriesâ??to working in highly collaborative, interdisciplinary, larger scale, lab-style research teams. The knowledge and skills necessary to access and use these new data sources and methods often do not exist within any one of the traditionally defined social science disciplines and are too complicated for any one scholar to accomplish alone

He begins by giving three excellent examples of how quantitative social science is opening up new possibilities for research.

1. Latanya Sweeney [twitter:LatanyaSweeney] found “clear evidence of racial discrimination” in the ads served up by newspaper websites.

2. A study of all 187M registered voters in the US showed that a third of those listed as “inactive” in fact cast ballots, “and the problem is not politically neutral.”

3. A study of 11M social media posts from China showed that the Chinese government is not censoring speech but is censoring “attempts at collective action, whether for or against the government…”

Studies such as these “depended on IQSS infrastructure, including access to experts in statistics, the social sciences, engineering, computer science, and American and Chinese area studies. ”

Gary also points to “the coming end of the quantitative-qualitative divide” in the social sciences, as new techniques enable massive amounts of qualitative data to be quantified, enriching purely quantitative data and extracting additional information from the qualitative reports.

Instead of quantitative researchers trying to build fully automated methods and qualitative researchers trying to make do with traditional human-only methods, now both are heading toward using or developing computer-assisted methods that empower both groups.

We are seeing a redefinition of social science, he argues:

We instead use the term “social science” more generally to refer to areas of scholarship dedicated to understanding, or improving the well-being of, human populations, using data at the level of (or informative about) individual people or groups of people.

This definition covers the traditional social science departments in faculties of schools of arts and science, but it also includes most research conducted at schools of public policy, business, and education. Social science is referred to by other names in other areas but the definition is wider than use of the term. It includes what law school faculty call “empirical research,” and many aspects of research in other areas, such as health policy at schools of medicine. It also includes research conducted by faculty in schools of public health, although they have different names for these activities, such as epidemiology, demography, and outcomes research.

The rest of the article reflects on pragmatic issues, including what this means for the sorts of social science centers to build, since community is “by far the most important component leading to success…” ” If academic research became part of the X-games, our competitive event would be “‘extreme cooperation’”.

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[2b2k] Popular Science incompetently manages its comments, gives up

Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”

Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.

Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.

You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.

If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.

[Tip o' the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]

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[2b2k] Is big data degrading the integrity of science?

Amanda Alvarez has a provocative post at GigaOm:

There’s an epidemic going on in science: experiments that no one can reproduce, studies that have to be retracted, and the emergence of a lurking data reliability iceberg. The hunger for ever more novel and high-impact results that could lead to that coveted paper in a top-tier journal like Nature or Science is not dissimilar to the clickbait headlines and obsession with pageviews we see in modern journalism.

The article’s title points especially to “dodgy data,” and the item in this list that’s by far the most interesting to me is the “data reliability iceberg,” and its tie to the rise of Big Data. Amanda writes:

…unlike in science…, in big data accuracy is not as much of an issue. As my colleague Derrick Harris points out, for big data scientists the abilty to churn through huge amounts of data very quickly is actually more important than complete accuracy. One reason for this is that they’re not dealing with, say, life-saving drug treatments, but with things like targeted advertising, where you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate. Big data scientists would rather be pointed in the right general direction faster — and course-correct as they go – than have to wait to be pointed in the exact right direction. This kind of error-tolerance has insidiously crept into science, too.

But, the rest of the article contains no evidence that the last sentence’s claim is true because of the rise of Big Data. In fact, even if we accept that science is facing a crisis of reliability, the article doesn’t pin this on an “iceberg” of bad data. Rather, it seems to be a melange of bad data, faulty software, unreliable equipment, poor methodology, undue haste, and o’erweening ambition.

The last part of the article draws some of the heat out of the initial paragraphs. For example: “Some see the phenomenon not as an epidemic but as a rash, a sign that the research ecosystem is getting healthier and more transparent.” It makes the headline and the first part seem a bit overstated — not unusual for a blog post (not that I would ever do such a thing!) but at best ironic given this post’s topic.

I remain interested in Amanda’s hypothesis. Is science getting sloppier with data?

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[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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[2b2k] Science as social object

An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.

The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels[1]. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.

First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media [2].

Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…”[3] This leads them to ask an important question:

Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…

Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference [4] where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”

They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:

Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.

I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.

But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.

So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.

We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.

 


Notes, copied straight from the article:

[1] M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).

[2] C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43

[3] P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)

[4] P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts

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[2b2k] Science as social object

An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.

The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels[1]. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.

First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media [2].

Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…”[3] This leads them to ask an important question:

Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…

Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference [4] where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”

They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:

Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.

I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.

But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.

So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.

We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.

 


Notes, copied straight from the article:

[1] M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).

[2] C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43

[3] P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)

[4] P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts

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[2b2k] Science as social object

An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.

The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels[1]. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.

First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media [2].

Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…”[3] This leads them to ask an important question:

Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…

Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference [4] where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”

They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:

Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.

I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.

But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.

So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.

We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.

 


Notes, copied straight from the article:

[1] M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).

[2] C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43

[3] P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)

[4] P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts

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[eim][2b2k] The DSM — never entirely correct

The American Psychiatric Association has approved its new manual of diagnoses — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — after five years of controversy [nytimes].

For example, it has removed Aspberger’s as a diagnosis, lumping it in with autism, but it has split out hoarding from the more general category of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lumping and splitting are the two most basic activities of cataloguers and indexers. There are theoretical and practical reasons for sometimes lumping things together and sometimes splitting them, but they also characterize personalities. Some of us are lumpers, and some of us are splitters. And all of us are a bit of each at various times.

The DSM runs into the problems faced by all attempts to classify a field. Attempts to come up with a single classification for a complex domain try to impose an impossible order:

First, there is rarely (ever?) universal agreement about how to divvy up a domain. There are genuine disagreements about which principles of organization ought to be used, and how they apply. Then there are the Lumper vs. the Splitter personalities.

Second, there are political and economic motivations for dividing up the world in particular ways.

Third, taxonomies are tools. There is no one right way to divide up the world, just as there is no one way to cut a piece of plywood and no one right thing to say about the world. It depends what you’re trying to do. DSM has conflicting purposes. For one thing, it affects treatment. For example, the NY Times article notes that the change in the classification of bipolar disease “could ‘medicalize’ frequent temper tantrums,” and during the many years in which the DSM classified homosexuality as a syndrome, therapists were encouraged to treat it as a disease. But that’s not all the DSM is for. It also guides insurance payments, and it affects research.

Given this, do we need the DSM? Maybe for insurance purposes. But not as a statement of where nature’s joints are. In fact, it’s not clear to me that we even need it as a single source to define terms for common reference. After all, biologists don’t agree about how to classify species, but that science seems to be doing just fine. The Encyclopedia of Life takes a really useful approach: each species gets a page, but the site provides multiple taxonomies so that biologists don’t have to agree on how to lump and split all the forms of life on the planet.

If we do need a single diagnostic taxonomy, DSM is making progress in its methodology. It has more publicly entered the fray of argument, it has tried to respond to current thinking, and it is now going to be updated continuously, rather than every 5 years. All to the good.

But the rest of its problems are intrinsic to its very existence. We may need it for some purposes, but it is never going to be fully right…because tools are useful, not true.

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