Seen on Facebook: “Part of the reason we have diseases is because of the shit they put in the vaccinations.”

Then they argued against vaccinations. The usual followed: That vaccines cause autism (a scientifically discredited idea) and that ‘other chemicals’ in the vaccines cause disease by ‘attacking our organs’ (actually, such chemicals are in significantly lower concentrations in vaccines than in most foods and drinks). They then ‘agreed to disagree’, demonstrating no flexibility on the issue. It is terribly frustrating given the important benefits of a major public health measure.

What is going on here? Why do people believe the wrong story in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence?

The answer is not that they are stupid. It is likely a result of pernicious cognitive biases that we all share. We’re all pretty hopeless at assessing small risks and our brain is essentially useless when it comes to statistics. It’s not natural to think statistically and even statisticians don’t do it automatically. Most importantly here, we tend to construct arguments in our minds based on the easiest memories we can access. This is called “availability bias”, bolstered by its cousin, the salience of vivid events creating an overestimation of the probabilities.

We fixate on rare dramatic events, and they become etched into our memories with all the emotional adornments of terror and compassion. They are easy to recall, and we then construct stories and causation from them. A child gets very sick after a vaccination, we are horrified, we link that to a well publicised (but wrong) link between autism and vaccinations and hey presto! Vaccines are to blame. It seems to make sense and gives us warm feelings that we have understood the world and can proceed with that knowledge.

None of that process requires you to think hard. You do it almost automatically. In contrast, to actually examine the link requires deliberate thought. Any medical treatment carries risk, but it is usually exceptionally small, and mostly well worth discounting. We attach too much value to very slim chances. For instance, a small risk such as a 1 in 10,000 chance of an adverse outcome is, perversely, perceived as hugely worse than no chance at all, and so we tend to avoid the risk by avoiding the risky activity.

On the flipside, we are happy to accept the extremely high probability of losing money in a lottery because we cannot really grasp the vanishingly small chance of winning – but we have no trouble at all imagining the benefits! Don’t trust your gut on small probabilities.

Autism is not caused by vaccinations, but that fact is far less famous than the original headliner. So powerful is the availability bias, that it affects the news and this creates a cascade of availability, reinforcing your biases. People ask, ‘but what if it is true, shouldn’t we be cautious?’ That is your little availability machine speaking to you. Fight back, question whether the information you’re using is true. Extreme caution is warranted only in the face of true uncertainty; it should not be a default position. It hardly needs to be said that not vaccinating causes a significantly higher risk of disease spreading in society.

Your fast-thinking brain is very good at living, but it is designed to meet challenges that are simple in nature, like avoiding lions on the plains of Africa. It’s not so good at new complex ideas, but it can be, as long as you work at it. Don’t let your first thoughts pervade your life; instead, use your capacity for reason to enhance it.

This first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 29 August 2013.

When I was young I wanted to be a SCIENTIST. I wanted to pour over the literature; I wanted to argue about method. I especially wanted to spend hours traipsing about the wilderness in search of tiny little things that may or may not help my research, and I then particularly wanted to spend back breaking hours in a laboratory dissolving things in solutions and then blasting them with heat and lasers and collecting gasses and measuring them to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, I had visions of spending hours in front of a computer calculating the statistics and determining, within certain bounds, the exact results, resulting in a mystical dream of writing up the research. Of course I would then have it go backward and forward between peers (each with their own particular flavor of review) and finally, after six good productive months of politics and writing, those results would be published in a journal for most of the world not to read.

Of course, none of the above is true. That was not my childhood vision. I mean, I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that, sure, but what I’ve just described? No thanks!

No, I had dinosaurs! I grew up in the time where it was discovered that it was an asteroid that hit Earth and killed them! I was a child of the time of ‘Transformers’, and I was especially proud of a T-Rex transformer that I had that none of the other kids did. In hindsight, that just made me a spoilt brat.

I watched the occasional documentary, mostly because my grandmother and mother encouraged it. I remember seeing David Attenborough crack open a rock to reveal a fossil. I guess it was a trilobite, can’t remember, but wow, I was amazed!

I also had politics. My parents always had the ‘adult news’ on at 7pm – the national news, and the current affairs after. If I wanted to spend that time with my mum and dad, I was watching that. I didn’t have half a clue what these people were on about, but clearly it was important. My subsequent high school education ended up being all about science and mathematics, hardly surprising for a son of doctors. Although my best final marks were in English – pretty uncommon for a science and maths nerd.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I was studying science, specifically geology, at university. If you’re wondering about the time gap, I studied Law for about 3 years at one point, but it WILL NOT appear on my resume since I gracefully withdrew after, shall we say, attendance-related performance issues. I attended enough though to learn a bit about argument, or as they more commonly say, enough to be dangerous. I then worked in real estate for a year, which one might justifiable say that combined with my half-baked and inadequate legal training made me positively lethal.

So any way, after learning the art of snakes and snake oil, I went in to learning about rocks and well, other rocks. This 3-year journey of rocks and their interaction with other rocks and how they all relate to each other was so fascinating that I decided to do an honours project in geology for an extra year. In which I determined the age of some rocks from a costal area in my home state of Victoria (about 50 million years old, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging).

These rocks were basalts as it happens (like that which erupts from the volcanoes of Hawaii) but what is really important is that this got me out there, cracking open rocks and finding samples. It also involved considerable literature review and statistics and report writing. Remember the start of this essay?

One thing I did do while collecting little bits of rock was stand on a rocky shore platform looking for samples, all alone, in complete disregard of the risks. I am not exaggerating to say that I could have died that day. The water from that freak wave only reached my waist, but any further and I would have found myself in the water, possibly kilometers from land. It does happen. That’s why Universities don’t let people do what I did alone (actually they didn’t then either, I just kinda well, you know…)

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because there, there on that platform being hit with a freak wave, I did consider why I was doing it. At the time, I guess I just needed that sample. Badly – my degree depended on it! Plus, what a beautiful place to die! Only kidding.

Nine-odd further years later, I am asking the same questions, but this time, there are no freak waves. Since then, I’ve been staring at rocks and reports and trying to decide where the next big gold or nickel deposits might be found. I’ve worked for a couple of the biggest mining companies in the world, I’ve also slept in a swag in the middle of a frigid desert night between stints supervising dusty, loud drill rigs.

Through all of this, I have continued to have an almost child-like fascination in science and nature. I have read all the famous authors – Gould, Dawkins, Sagan, you name it. I watch the docos. I watch them again. I sometimes write stuff about things on my blog. I follow my little curiosities down the rabbit hole that might begin with a name, lead to a wiki search, and end in several journal articles and a whole new ‘issue de jour’ for the week. I get involved in skeptical arguments and pursue the philosophical reasoning they entail. I pity those around me sometimes; I suspect I am quite, as they politely say, “intense”.

So, I could tell you something about evolution, I could tell you a little about quantum physics (which is only to say, for example, that I could tell you about Schrodinger’s Cat, and also explain that no cats are involved). I could describe the Monty Hall problem and why it demonstrates how flawed our thinking can be.

Why would you listen to me though? I’m a geologist, not a philosopher, or physicist, or even a biologist. In fact, I have never done a single formal course in biology, and that includes school level biology (I did physics and chemistry and geography, there’s only so much room). I did read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, when I was in high school, but I’m not about to say I’m some sort of cosmologist.

I would ask you to listen only because it is interesting; for no other reason. I would appeal to your sense of intrigue. I am suggesting to you that the real world is far more interesting than anything that you might have seen in the Da Vinci Code or, God forbid, stuff about the megalodon shark in Shark Week.

The real world has every sort of mystery of the sort that Dan Brown wrote his fiction about. But the thing is, it’s not fiction. Even Brown’s fiction contains some real science and real history. And that is the point. Its not just science, it is history and culture too. They all link together to make this great big wonderful story. And anyone can be part of that. Anyone can be that investigator. The scientist at the frontline, and even, with time, the one that the President calls when the aliens land.

For that though you’re going to need skills. Investigative skills, particularly of the sort that can be verified and tested. And this is where you will need some scientific training. Or at least, a good appreciation of rational thought and how something can be known, objectively. You need to have an appreciation of why scientific reasoning has lead to the advances it has. After all, you trust planes not to fall out of the sky, right?

Either way, rejoice in your fascination for all things interesting. Science is not a specialized territory only inhabited by nerdy, bespectacled introverts who are always portrayed as nerdy, bespectacled introverts. In fact, most scientists are normal. Really, they are.

Most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t want to be a scientist. I was almost a lawyer, and there are plenty of other valid, interesting and important pursuits in life, and no, science is not the only ‘way of knowing’. All that said though, please learn about science and its methods. The modern world demands it.

 

Reposted from Medium: https://medium.com/architecting-a-life/369f86f61f79

It’s all very well to look at the history of science and the prominent revolutionary figures therein and conclude that these were ‘Masters of Science and Scientific Method’; but did they really follow set rules handed down to them? After all, it was precisely their radical ideas that caused change. A traditional scientist of the day might have dismissed those radical scientists as rogues, or worse, pseudoscientists (if they’d had that word back then!).  Clearly, following prescribed rules does not imply scientific progress.

We’ve met Karl Popper and falsificationism, which seemed to help us decide what is scientific or not, but then we found that this is problematic if the evidence partially supports the hypothesis. We’ve seen that enough of this can lead to a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn). Now we return to look at the activity of scientists, and we find that in reality, scientists who progress science seem to be just proposing whatever theory they like.

Paul Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science, who, true to his theories of science, lived in 4 different continents and at least 6 different countries. He rejected the notion of universal method in science, instead advancing what is termed ‘epistemological anarchism’, which is to say, there is no absolutely fixed way of knowing things and that ‘anything goes’ would better describe scientific method in ‘revolutionary science’. Furthermore, he suggested that science cannot claim the role of ultimate arbiter of truth.

Controversially, Feyarabend looked at heroes of science, such as Galileo, and said that instead of being sticklers to persistent and careful methods who finally got their day in the Sun, these guys were really just great persuaders. So forceful was their campaign, that their theories won the day. Crucial to this is that their theories were, at the time of their proposing, either not fully supported by the facts, or the technology did not exist to fully test their theories (a number of Copernican-era predictions went untested for centuries, for example). This implies that their theories, at the time, were not necessarily scientific, meaning they shared the stage with competing theories of a more mystical nature (for example, astrology or religious doctrine). The success of the ‘scientific’ theories has led to science becoming the dominant way of knowing about the world, and that in turn has lead to science oppressing other epistemologies.

All this leads to a rather dismal postmodernist view of science – that there really is no way to decide between science or magic or religion when it comes to understanding the world, that they are all ‘relative’. This simply does not bear scrutiny when we look at the advances science has made. Feyerabend is perhaps best understood as a product of huge social change that resulted in postmodernism becoming a dominant philosophy in the post-war era. His work, however, shed light on that suspicion we always had, that science is not strictly rule-bound, that advances are made through radical activities. This much is probably true; even if we discard the notion that religion could be on equal footing to science when it comes to understanding the world.

This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 15 August 2013.

I’ve just returned from a thoroughly engaging evening discussing skeptical and rational thought (it started with an examination of Osteopathy). I had injected my mature-age-graduate self into the more undergraduate-leaning student club beautifully entitled “The ANU League of Godlessness” (clearly I could not resist gravitating to such a club). The discussion that followed, over drinks, with one or two members wound its way to a discussion about logical thought more generally and how arguments can be constructed (and abused). Wonderful stuff!

What I loved was just how fascinating the world of philosophy and the brain can be. The intersections of logic and psychology and how we live as humans is intriguing, and we did get on to things like gambling and how that works not just in principle, but in operation.

After such discussions, I always come away enlivened, but also just a little concerned. Why are these things so fascinating to me, why do I like not just talking and thinking about them, but also reading about them and delving deeper.

Why, in other words, am I engaged in geological research, a quite different field? Why do I not seek out popular science in geology (not that there is much) and tend to go for other realms of science and philosophy? Why aren’t I in philosophy, or biology, or physics (leaving aside my questionable skill in mathematics)?

So I have questions for the scientists of you: Have you ever questioned your motivations and desires in your own field? Have you ever been depressed about your research and sought greener pastures over the fence? How many of you have done something about that and actually changed?

 

Perhaps its just this goddamned paper I’m trying to write.

ResearchBlogging.orgA famous study by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster showed that as the global number of pirates has decreased historically, the climate has warmed up. That is, there is a negative correlation between increasing global temperatures and the number of pirates. The FSM drew on this link to demonstrate that pirates are devine beings and that their decline is responsible for global warming. Arrrhh!

Of course, this study was a parody. Whilst it may be true that there are less pirates today than when climate was cooler, this is an example of pure correlation, not causation. Pirates do not keep the climate cooler, there is no mechanism for them to do so, however, the correlation in the data cannot be denied.

At the other end of the scale is, for example, the negative correlation between increased vaccination rates and the incidence of targeted infections. This is a particularly strong negative correlation, but it also has a causative basis. This is because we know the mechanism by which a vaccine protects the vaccinated, and thus can predict that in a population, there would be a negative correlation as described. This is a causation relationship that results in correlation – statistically and scientifically, the strongest possible result. Put another way, it is a hypothesis about the positive benefit of vaccination that is strongly supported by the evidence.

In the middle is the great big grey area of intellectual inquiry, also known as ‘everything else’. Recently a large meta-analysis (a study of studies – comparing different studies to draw over-arching conclusions) concluded that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and faith (Zuckeman, Silberman and Hall, 2013). That is, the higher your intelligence (analytic intelligence, such as that measured by IQ tests) the less likely you are to be religious.

Your personal reaction to that result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, likely to be influenced by your opinion on religion, and your opinion on intelligence.  But what does this result really mean? Are religious people dumb? Are atheists smarter? Does high intelligence ‘cause’ un-religiousness? Does religiousness ‘cause’ low intelligence?

The short answer is ‘no’. This is just a correlation. It just suggests that on the whole, really intelligent people are less likely to be religious. However, this study went further, discussing mechanisms to explain the correlation, and here is where it moves into the area of causation.

Of these, perhaps most interesting is the notion of sense of control. A person’s sense of control over their lives is influenced by numerous factors, both internal (within their control) and external (outside of their control). The report discusses studies that have shown that if you challenge someone’s sense of control, their belief in God increases. This suggests that religion provides a means of explaining one’s life; that what you can’t control is in the hands of God (and isn’t it instructive here that we have idioms such as ‘in the lap of the Gods’?). Higher intelligence can provide a person with greater self-control, that is, they have the means to have greater control over their lives, therefore, less reliance on faith. They see and understand themselves as in control, not an external power. They also found that intelligent people are less conforming, thus less likely to be influenced by the dogma of religion.

The most common explanation they found though was that intelligent people prefer rational explanations to irrational ones. Analytical thinking is preferred over intuitive thinking. An intelligent person may view the world rationally on the basis of logical conclusions, rather that by some grand supernatural design. As a result, the build-up of rational conclusions results in a decrease in religiosity.

All this then suggests a causative mechanism – that higher intelligence fosters a greater sense of personal control and that a preference for rational thought processes reduces the need for faith, thereby reducing belief in the supernatural. If we were to take that as a hypothesis, we would expect to find, in a population, the exact negative correlation that was found if the hypothesis were to be supported.

Clearly though, I have made a circular argument, by taking a result, finding an explanation, proposing a hypothesis from that explanation, and then, completely unsurprisingly, getting the same result. Not good science on my behalf there. But what we can recover from this is that there might be a mechanism that accounts for the correlation, and that therefore, this is not simply a pure correlation. In other words, there might be a causative relationship. The existence of a number of studies that show psychological phenomena such as the personal control study discussed above demonstrates that there exists a way in which higher intelligence could lead to lower religiosity. Whilst this does not completely explain the negative correlation, it puts it firmly into the camp of ‘possible causation’, making the overall finding of a negative correlation important scientifically, pointing strongly towards the value of further research, especially into the psychological mechanisms behind religiosity.

Of course, whilst you’re not likely to be able to improve your IQ by reducing your faith, you could at least put yourself in the ‘upper half’ of the curve and tell people how you’re one of the intelligent ones!! ;)
Zuckerman M, Silberman J, & Hall JA (2013). The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 23921675

I recently moved to Canberra, the capital of Australia, to take up research in geology. Canberra has a pretty amusing reputation culturally in Australia. It’s either thought of as a complete hole, or, ‘nice, but why would you?’ or as people often say, the problem with Canberra is it’s ‘full of politicians’. And I can’t say I’ve been swept away by glistening cultural and social happenings since being here, although it does have arguably Australia’s top-ranked university, which is why I am here.

One thing Canberra does have, apart from the seat of government and a spooky monument to USA-Australia relations at the Department of Defence of an eagle atop an obelisk, is Australia’s largest art gallery, The National Gallery of Australia.

Currently touring is an exhibition of JMW Turner’s works from the Tate Gallery in London. And what an exhibit it is. Chronicling his career all the way up to his later works (often involving the sea and maritime disasters), the show not only highlights his skill as an artist, but forcibly demonstrates his power.

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Well that was ugly! A recent tweet from Prof. Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous atheist in the world, seriously upset people. His tweet consisted of neatly cherry-picked figures relating to the distribution of Nobel Prizes between Trinity College, Cambridge, and Islam. The point made, albeit incredibly droll and unenlightening, was that Islam had not produced as many Nobel Prizes as even just one very well regarded university college. His tweet:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Well that really stirred the pot, and the general complaint was that he was being a bigot, or as one writer eloquently put it “dressing up bigotry as non-belief”. It is hard not to see it this way.  I’m certainly not keen to get carried away on the ‘offensive’ argument, tending to agree with Stephen Fry on the value of claiming to be offended, but it was grossly provocative and quite lame, argumentatively.

Prof. Dawkins has responded in a longer blog post, and now we get to see what he really meant. His point is more subtle than the tweet and contains some interesting ideas (whilst also continuing on the theme of boring facts about Nobel Prizes though). To me, his longer post reminds me of what is great about Dawkins, and it is a crying shame that he has allowed his Twitter account to become a pariah.

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“New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”

-John Locke, 1690

Revolutions are usually considered bloody affairs. In science, this is rarely the case, as those white lab coats do stain easily. It would seem crazy to think of science as having a revolutionary history, a sort of dialectic that puts one theory in the red corner and another in the blue. Science is normally thought to involve thousands of tedious hours of hard work gradually adding to our understanding of the world.

Yet we have already encountered the ‘Black Swan’ – that piece of evidence that refutes a hypothesis, and we have struggled with how to proceed from there. Standard practice would be to reject the hypothesis, and continue further research, and in fact, that is how the majority of science is conducted.

What happens when someone develops a new theory though, one that fully explains all the existing observations, but in a novel way? Sometimes, this shakes the foundations of science – new science can only progress in light of this new idea.

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“Plurality must never be posited without necessity”

-William of Ockham

People prefer simple solutions to problems. This is pretty obvious – it takes less unnecessary hard work. So, does this idea apply in science? Welcome down the rabbit hole of the history and philosophy of science.

Ockham’s Razor is a hugely influential heuristic (rule of thumb) in science. The Razor provides a way to decide between competing explanations that are equally supported by the evidence at hand. It suggests that the favoured explanation is that which posits fewer variables.

However, we all know that science is not often ‘simple’. How do we translate this position to science? This is where ‘falsifiability’ comes in, a concept made famous by Karl Popper in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”. If you cannot falsify a hypothesis, then it is not scientific. The famous example is “all swans are white”. By inductive logic, no amount of white swans can prove this statement; instead it is supported until a single black swan is found.

Falsifiability alone does not, however, reduce possible explanations to one. Competing theories may all be falsifiable, thus scientific. Having established that swans can be black or white, we propose three competing ideas: 1. All swans are either black or white. 2. All swans are either black or white, but location determines which. 3. All swans are either black or white, but location and the season it is in December determine which. Having taken samples from Australia and England to test these hypotheses, you would see that all statements are supported, however number 2 has an extra variable, and 3 has two.

Strict application of the Razor would suggest you accept hypothesis 1. However, the extremely strong correlation between location and swan colour suggests that 2 is also acceptable. In this case, you decide that the ‘simplest’ hypothesis is the weaker, because it has less explanatory power. That is, even though clearly swans are either black or white (hypothesis 1), the black swans are all in Australia, and so hypothesis 2 suggests an explanation determined by geography. What about hypothesis 3?  Well, seasons are dependent on location, and so the seasons variable is superfluous, regardless of how well supported it is by the results. We take hypothesis 2 and move on, because that result has thrown up new hypotheses (e.g. around species and evolution) – the very fodder of science.

Thus science aims to explain, rather than simplify. Ockham’s Razor is really about how to prefer an explanation, rather than about the most simplistic explanation. Sometimes the best explanation is very complicated, the point is that it is no more complicated than it needs to be to do the explaining. Many ‘conspiracy theories’ fall foul of the Razor for this reason–they introduce extra variables without improving the explanatory power – that is, the non-conspiracy hypothesis can explain all the evidence.

Things get interesting when a contradictory result is found by a new experiment. Does it really falsify the hypothesis, or should we modify the hypothesis? Should hypotheses be ‘backward modified’ like this to explain new data? Doesn’t this contradict everything I’ve just said? How the hell does science really work? This will be a tale for another day, where we meet people like Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, and encounter the anarchist, Paul Feyeraband.

This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, No. 8, Vol 65, 23 July 2013.

We do seem to be heading in dark direction. A world where we seek not evidence but instead opinions from friends and talk show hosts, a world where argument is all that is needed. A world, in short, where anything can be true if we only believe it.

In an attempt to keep the post short, I first observe that the Cassini spacecraft has taken its final look at Earth, an event mostly ignored despite its poignancy given its status as one of the last great exploratory missions to Space.

People, and the politicians who represent them, seem determined to look at short terms goals, especially financial, in the face of species-threatening climate change. (I wanted to link something there then realized there are too many examples…)

 ‘Journalists’ of science and technology seem comfortable to be creationists (apparently because the story is better).

Elections are contested as a race to the bottom for votes, rather than as a conversation on ideals, goals and aspirations for society.

In the face of this, the collective advancement of society’s knowledge seems to be localized to the ‘nerds’, and clearly the popularisation of nerds has done nothing to raise the status of their work. I’m glad I was never a fan of that American show, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (somewhat more of a fan of its namesake though).

I remember laughing at a movie a number of years ago called “Idiocracy”. I now actually can see a day where humans attempt to feed crops with Gatorade and puzzle at why that doesn’t work.

We seem to have lost sight of the days when we looked to the stars and imagined how much more we could know, how much better we could be and pictured a glorious future for humankind.

I don’t know, perhaps I am prematurely a grumpy old man. Still, I do wonder how we can combat the level of unreason in society, and I fear where it will lead.

Simply because everyone else is raving on about the recent AAS survey, I thought I would too. How depressing it is to find that not the entire population of Australia knows that a year is measured by the time it takes for the Earth to do a lap of the Sun! And fresh water makes up what percent again of total water resources? How much of that is potable? Wait, that wasn’t one of the questions (probably would have require knowing what ‘potable’ means anyway).

Like many science commentators out there (and I won’t even try to list them all, but this is an excellent one, and this is an excellent one from the last time they did this survey), I breathed a sigh of “so what!” After which I sort of just found the whole thing depressing.

I tweeted earlier today that all I think it says is that 30-40% of Australians are not ‘natural naturalists’. That is, people who take a broad interest in scientific topics and fields and who tend to remember lots of the gory details. At the top level, these people are known as ‘polymaths’ – that is, they operate at near genius level in more than one scientific field. At the other end, they could be your average Joe who loves a good documentary (and is probably a fan of David Attenborough). In other words, they quite possibly are not scientists. And THAT is the point. Knowing certain facts about the world does not make you a scientist.

Others mentioned above have pointed out that science is about such things as approach to problems and method and application of analytical techniques. Generally, it is about concepts and thinking, not about facts. The facts fall out of the conceptual tree when you shake it hard enough.

So why does it depress me? Well I guess I am a bit of a ‘naturalist’ – I love to know about the world and how it works. Knowing why a year is as long as it is is part of that, to me. Finding out about natural phenomena is exciting! And even though my specialist field is geology, I am very interested in a range of things, some scientific, some not quite (like philosophy) and some not at all (art). So I consume all manner of things, and along the way I happen to remember a few things (although I will be the first to admit I have a terrible memory). I suppose I find it hard to understand why anyone else would not be the same.

So perhaps I am weird? Or perhaps not! Lurking in the 60% odd of people who knew stuff for the survey will be people like me! And some of them will be in or go on to scientific careers. I think Australia is pretty safe for now.

[But come on, people should know how long it takes for the Earth to go round the Sun, I mean, really?]

“What do we want? Scientific Certainty! When do we want it? Within a certain timeframe!”

The public, the media and especially politicians like to make a big thing about scientific uncertainty. For scientists, it’s just a fact of life. So what is this ‘uncertainty’ and how does this affect our lives?

We scientists perform research just so that we can understand the world around us. To do so, we use various scientific and statistical techniques, and especially where the latter is concerned, these result in ‘measures of confidence’ in the data (and thus conclusions drawn there from). It means that we present data with ‘error bars’, which are designed to show a range of values within which the ‘reality’ may lie. These error bars represent upper and lower limits that are determined on the basis of our confidence in the results. This is largely a statistical calculation, and it results in mind-bending statements such as “plus-minus 6% with 95% confidence”. What does this all mean?

Three concepts: Confidence, Error and Likelihood.

Imagine this scenario: you decide to determine whether the morning light is a result of the rising of the Sun in the morning (hear me out, this is going to be scientific!).

You’ve noticed that it seems to get quite light at around about the same time as when the Sun rises, but you’re not sure that it’s actually related to the Sun rising (stay with me!). So you hypothesise that the morning light is due to the Sun rising. To test this, you take a series of measurements over numerous days – the amount of light, the time of day, and the position of the Sun with respect to the horizon.

Your data looks a bit like a curve when you plot it – that is to say, there is no definite point at which dark becomes light (anyone who’s been up before it’s light will know this, but for the benefit of an undergraduate audience…).

So you do the statistics on it (yes, there is a point to paying attention to those stats classes!). This shows that there is a correlation between the position of the Sun and the amount of light (durrr, I know…), but wait! There is variation in the data. Not every day is the same! How could this be? Well, it could be that your instrument is near some artificial light sources, it could be that the very light of God is shining upon your scientific research (hey, appealing to all audiences here). How do you decide?

To the rescue – the null hypothesis!

For this you decide to generate a completely random version of the sunlight data (even your phone could do that these days). And then you compare, statistically, the random set to the experimental set. Sure enough, it tells you that only a percentage of the data could be explained by the random data. The rest could be considered to be explainable by the hypothesis (that the amount of light is a result of the position of the Sun).

Now, just say you decide you want to know what 95% of the data is saying. It is telling you that the light patterns match to the Sun position patterns to within, say, plus or minus 2 minutes every day. That is to say, the middle 95% of the light data matches within the same times plus or minus 2 minutes every day. What have you learnt? Well, you’ve probably confirmed that the position of the Sun is the dominant factor in the amount of light in a given place at a particular time of day (yes, yes, assuming you are outside, etc). That is, your 95% Confidence Interval.

But why all the scary stats and numbers? Why should we be only 95% confident of this match, plus or minus 2 minutes? Well, because we have measured things in the real world, with human-made devices and their associated problems; nothing is infallible. But also because there might actually be other factors at work – street lights, machine error, etc. But if we take that null hypothesis test we did before, we’ll see a pattern. In the above example, had we taken the middle 99% of data, we may have had a result that was plus or minus 30 minutes in the time data. That’s starting to sound a bit dodgy. Had we taken the middle 66% percent of the data, we may have been within plus or minus a few seconds, but that would have left a third of the data unexplained. What’s going on here?

Well, fortunately, these numbers I’ve been picking relate to ‘standard deviations’ (SDs), a highly statistical term that essentially means the amount to which the data show ‘weirdness’. A small SD means the data is pretty tight – it’s all showing the one thing. One full SD is around 66%, which we’ve agreed is a pretty poor test of the data. 2 SDs however, is 95% of the data, “almost all” in most people’s parlance. 3 SDs puts you in the 99% category, which is ridiculously definite!

Imagine a diagram of confidence versus error; the Y-axis shows Error, measured as a percentage deviation (that is, how much it differs from the average), while the X-axis shows the confidence level, measured in those Standard Deviations. Remember, we choose our confidence level, then see what the error level is. Choose your confidence interval, and then see where your error margins plot. This will give you an idea of how strong your result is. This is, the likelihood that you have made an observation of reality; your science has revealed a ‘truth’ about the world around us.

So, those studies that have low error margins at high levels of confidence, those are the ones we can be pretty darn certain are likely to represent the real world. The ‘Nobel Committee’ area of certainty represents experiments that start to demonstrate ‘theory’ – that summit of science where things are considered to be the closest thing that science has to ‘fact’.

Examples of things that fall in to that ‘Nobel’ area: gravity being responsible for the apple falling from the tree; the Sun rising in the east and causing ‘daytime’; human influence on climate causing global warming. Yes, I said it. Ask the climate scientists – this is where the data lies.

We’re never certain, we’re just certain within certain error bounds, at a confidence level of X.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 9.04.07 PM

 

This article published at Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University: http://www.woroni.com.au/features/scientific-uncertainty-a-certain-certainty/

Students of the 70s and 80s enjoyed a certain freedom in their tertiary academic education – it was fully funded by the government. All they had to do was put a roof over their heads and feed themselves (which of course is a challenge when you’re a student), but they did not end up with a significant debt to the government afterwards as students do these days. Concurrent with this ‘golden age’ of tertiary education was a booming era of scientific research in Australia. Everything from medical research to planetary science got a gong, and Australia has its fair share of Nobel medals to show for it. Between all of this, these people found the time to agitate for progress in society. Before one’s eyes get misty with nostalgia, it can be summed up by saying that from the 50s up until probably the early 90s, Australia was one of the most progressive places in the world to be in research.

Something happened in the 90s though, politics changed, people switched off and governments no longer felt the need to invest so heavily in fundamental societal values, like research and innovation. The boom in private wealth probably lulled everyone into thinking that capital markets had developed a momentum to help carry this burden. The shifting ground of popular politics also helped sideline exciting fields of research, and science in general. It simply wasn’t news any more, and it was too easy to sit back in suburban comfort and say, “the money should be spent elsewhere, what’s the value of nerdy scientific research?”. This coupled with a growing conversation around elitism versus egalitarianism, which in the Australian context was read as “academics in their ivory tower are wasting money”, laid the groundwork not just for cuts to funding, but for those cuts to go largely under the political radar.

Fast forward to 2013, and we are in a situation in which federal funding for research and higher education faces cuts and deferrals of $3.8 billion over the next four years. Anyone familiar with the research grant process in the country will know that it is a back-breaking, time consuming exercise, a process that takes valuable time from research efforts, without any certainty of success. And it has to be done at least every few years. But don’t take my word for it, here is the process put beautifully in metaphor by Professor Suzanne Cory, the President of the Australian Academy of Science in her address to the National Press Club today:

Imagine you decide to build a house – you go to the bank and borrow enough money to buy 1000 bricks, and you lay them. And then you have to go back to the bank to ask for another loan, to buy another 1000 bricks. Having laid them, you then once more have to stop building and spend time convincing the bank to lend you enough for the next 1000 bricks and they only lend you enough for 600. When you know you are working with so much uncertainty, how far do you dare plan?

That is the current situation in research funding in Australia, has been for years, except now it is against a backdrop of a shallower pool of funds (and getting shallower).

The consequences of this for Australia will be simple: Research and innovation will decline, our brightest minds will leave the country, and Australia will lose status as an innovation powerhouse. Following that will be a negative flow-on effect to the economy, the scale of which will dwarf the cuts currently being made. This will be a sad state of affairs for the country to find itself in, the country which produced WiFi, flu vaccines, cervical cancer vaccine, the cause (and cure) of common peptic ulcers, the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer… the list goes on.

For the future of Australia, for it to have a prosperous, innovative future; scientific research needs to be funded as a central national priority. Indeed funding should increase, and the onerous short timelines of the grant process need to be reviewed to take into account the natural process of scientific research; to let academics and students evolve their work. Governments on both sides of politics cannot afford not to provide this support.

 

This article first seen at ABC News Australia’s ‘The Drum’ Opinion and analysis: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4798960.html

Time to rekindle this blog. I’ve returned to science, somewhat officially, now being involved in geological research at a major university. And I’m living on campus. So I get to pretend to be a pimply student again. This also gives me time to think about science in general and I suspect that this will result in me writing here again… so, it’s been a long time, but please do come back!

See you soon!

“I am going to outlive myself. Eat, sleep, sleep, eat. Exist slowly, softly, like these trees, like a puddle of water, like the red bench in the streetcar.” 
― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

What does it mean to live an ‘authentic life’? If the world has no meaning, then all we can do is exist; live. This should not really surprise us, yet it is a fundamental source of anxiety in human beings. Our developed brain and its wild imagination is both a blessing and a curse. We live, and then we die. With a whole lot of thinking time in between. 

So it is that an outlet of my existential angst is to photograph things that might go unnoticed, or things that are ‘challenging’. These are the found objects of a mindful wander through the world. Sometimes these are quite macabre, such as road kill. But what is ‘macabre’ anyway? There’s a beauty in the decay of a carcass, as it breaks down and its molecules return to the Earth to continue their aeons-long cycle. The black space of the mind intrudes, but this is not a fearful thing. This is life, and death, and the world turning.

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(c) 2011 Michael K P Robinson

At other times, it is the mundane, or even the moderately beautiful things. I say ‘moderately’ because they have little hope in competing for attention against the truly beautiful. They just exist, like us. Forming part of our sphere of attention, these objects are part of this same cycle, beautiful in their own, small way.

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(c) 2011 Michael K P Robinson

At other times still, it is the very contrast between the majestic and the pedestrian that is what makes mindful observation the very spice of life. If we’re to live on this planet for all these years, and if we are to realise how very unlikely it was that we would be conscious of the world through our own eyes at this point in history, we might smile more often at the absurd nature of it all. Truly much is going on all around you. All the time. Enjoy it, interact with it. Allow your thoughts to roam and your actions to follow.

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(c) 2011 Michael K P Robinson

The journey is long, time consuming, and may very well have no point at all other than to procreate. But you are conscious, you can think, you can do. Play with it. Enjoy it, because you can. Take the road less travelled, and keep your eyes, ears and mind open. 

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(c) 2011 Michael K P Robinson

[Images taken from "The Terror of Existence", an exhibition I held as part of the 2012 FotoFreo Open Exhibitions Program, in Perth, Australia.]

Its been a busy 18 months or so, and I am no longer writing about science, really. Photography has taked over to a large extent, as alluded to by a previous post, fuelled by my own personal journey. So if you want to follow that, my other blog, “Sublimation”, is the place to go. I may return here from time to time though because I am never far away from science, science communication, and rational things in general.

Yours in rational thought,

Mike

Written for the Letters to Sir David project: http://dearsirdavid.wordpress.com/

Dear Sir David, 

Nearly eleven years ago, my Grandmother, Beryl Ayton Hall, turned 80. In a grand lunch in my parent’s gorgeous drawing room, I was asked to say a few words in her honour. I came prepared with a single prop for the occasion, hidden under a cushion adjacent to where I spoke. It was a geologist’s hammer, and I was in the first year of my geology degree.

At about the point that I described how my Grandmother used to encourage a deep interest in the natural world, I described how, as a young boy, I was bewitched by your television shows. In particular, a scene where you broke open a wedge of shale to reveal the fossil remains of a creature that had last roamed the planet hundreds of million years ago.  I wanted to do that. And I wanted that hammer! 

So there I was, a student geologist, holding up the hammer in a room full of people, exclaiming the influence that my Grandmother had on me, and telling it through memories the very fodder of which was your work. 

Like so many countless millions, I grew up and into adulthood with your work. To this day, I cannot think of a better exponent of natural wonder, and natural science. Your work has in part shaped my visceral reaction to the natural world over the years, and I am eternally grateful.

I finished my geology degree, and have worked as a geologist for nearly eight years since. I could not have sustained a scientific career without a constant little voice in my head that simply enjoys the natural world and the stories contained within. Science is the only tool we have to unlock this treasure, and it is the great communicators of science, such as you, that bring it a human dimension. For conveying the scientific joy of the natural world into my living room, I thank you.

My Grandmother was not a scientist, rather a teacher. She always admired your shows, both at a basic level of entertainment, and also at the higher level of her very sharp (and quite scientifically capable) mind. She’s no longer with us, but I am confident that she would share my applause at your life’s work.

Truly you have shown people parts of the world that many might never have known existed. Most on Earth are unable to travel the world and see its natural wonders. Many of those people would also lack a basic scientific education. You are one of the few who have transcended these borders of space and socioeconomic status.

A significant portion of the population of Earth understands its planet better through you. Society owes you a debt. I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done. 

Yours sincerely,

 

Mike Robinson

Western Australia

Cloncurry River

My work and my photography have displaced this site nearly completely. I’ve come back here to caress this blog gently; remind it that it is still wanted. It must feel like an unloved child, bereft of attention.

Work – I am in full swing back in exploration looking for copper-gold and silver-lead-zinc deposits. The work is in outback Queensland, and has involved a range of exploration strategies, from basic geological mapping (what is it and where does it lie in space?) through rock chip sampling (is it worth anything anyway?) up to actual drilling (ok, is there really anything there?). The breadth of science that goes behind exploration is amazing; from physics – the physical properties of the different rock-types give different responses when subjected to different tests, which allow them to, roughly, be distinguished from each other – to chemistry in its central role – it is the minerals that we look for, and only a lab can really tell us how much is there – and then right up to the frontier, where biology has a role to play – the trees themselves suck up elements in the groundwater, and this gets deposited in their leaves, which then fall to the ground. All in all, it is a practical scientist’s playground. The money’s good too.

Play (serious play) – photography. It has become an obsession (like it wasn’t a little bit of one already). What started with a digital SLR a couple of years ago, has morphed into several film cameras, a home developing set up, a film scanner, and various other bits and pieces. All that and it’s only a hobby really. My passion in photography is more for the artistic side. Whilst I am a self-confessed sciencey person, I like my art to be artistic! I’m not a macro-photography kinda guy. That said, I do like macro shots, just don’t do it myself. I prefer to wander about the place, looking for interesting corners and angles, searching for the play of soft light; composing an interesting frame. I think it stems from my love of modernist art and architecture – I am a fan of brutalist architecture for instance (there – go look that up on wiki!!). The actual science behind a photograph is very interesting, but I don’t think about that at all in my photography. I suppose that is part of its appeal?

I finally got around to establishing a photographic portfolio site, and it also will now serve as another outlet – for my ‘artsy side’.  Have a look – mkrobinson.com

 

So long for now, hope to be back a bit sooner next time…

Sometimes, just every now and then, you need a good shot of reality to return your mind to what is real, away from the stuff of mere thought, navel-gazing and “controversy”.

I’ve been in hospital since Sunday afternoon. It’s now Wednesday night, and I’ll be going home tomorrow. Pneumonia put me in here, via the emergency department. Pneumonia is quite a nasty condition indeed, filling parts of your lungs with fluid, causing intense pain and reducing lung capacity, just like someone squeezing your lungs to stop each breath. It even has an appreciable mortality rate; fortunately I appear to have dodged that bullet.

Between pain, restlessness, incessant (appreciated) attention from doctors and nurses, and being confined in isolation in case you have one of the very nasty ‘superbugs’ going round, this is an altogether unpleasant experience. I don’t recommend it at all. Zero stars.

One effect, I found, of hospitalization for pneumonia, is great difficulty in appreciating anything from anyone else’s point of view. It turned me into a surly, irritable bore. Even my wife left a couple of times because she could see clearly that I wasn’t getting much out of her presence, and that it was only upsetting her to see me this way. Now, those who know me might ask, “so, what’s changed?” Well, excuse me, I say, I am at least capable of sympathy and being nice and stuff. This kind of condition seems to highlight the worst in me!

Today, however, I am much improved. I am now capable of fully articulating my grievances. However, I don’t have many and those that I have (and did articulate, to the chagrin of my wife) are quite petty. They moved me into a shared room for my last night. Annoying, but it was so that someone in the same position that I was in three days ago could use it. Really, why be upset with that?

More than that, since I am now out of isolation, I was able to take my book into the hospital courtyard to read. In the fresh air! That was fantastic in itself: no beeping machines, no noises from other patients and no general activity and “goings on”. A little bit of peace in the middle of one of Perth’s busiest public hospitals.

As I sat there, I realized that the door to the courtyard is large enough and the pathways in the courtyard wide enough to allow a hospital bed to be wheeled out there. Thinking about that, I wondered, what type of patient would be wheeled outside on their bed? It occurred to me that it could be someone who wasn’t going to see the “real world” outside the hospital again.

There are trees and flowers in the courtyard. The courtyard garden would not win any awards, however, someone looks after this garden. A rectangle of sky above the courtyard provides glimpses of the weather, today revealing cold wind and rain; pretty rare in Perth recently. Even the ordinary looking shrubs and flowers, set against the drab architecture of this public hospital have a certain beauty. It occurred to me, that if this little shrubbery with its intermittent flowers were to be my final contact with nature, I wouldn’t mind. The sweeping vistas of Perth’s beaches would not be so sweeping in that state anyway; and the salty air would probably only irritate one’s condition. So, to hold a few leaves, to breath the fresh air and to watch the odd cloud pass by would be enough: Far better than to stare listlessly into a partially flickering fluorescent light for hours and hours; surely and sadly the fate of so many.

I contemplated those inside who are far more unwell; who weren’t able to wander out into the garden. Really, I am fortunate, and the marvel that is medical science has returned me almost to normal within three days of being admitted into the emergency department. Even as I type this, a man nearby is about to be seen by an Oncologist, which really means only one thing. He is not a well man either, and just telephoned a friend to say he wont be at the football match this weekend. He was offering his ticket. Last night, we had a code blue in my ward (code blue being a medical emergency with a patient, like for instance cardiac arrest). If I’m not mistaken, inconsolable tears followed from a woman I shall never meet.

Wonderful and horrible things take place in hospitals, it really depends on what ward you are in at a given time. In the middle are the majority of people like me who, in a fog of self-pity brought on by middle-of-the-road medical conditions, are awful to the very people trying to help. I regret it, but it is hard to imagine being different. Hopefully I won’t need to test it. In the end, this remains yet another tribute to the work of the Orderlies, Cleaners, Meals staff, Nurses, Technicians, Doctors, Administrators, and the Gardeners (who I imagine are too-easily forgotten) that make up the lifeblood of a hospital. And a further tribute to the decades of medical research that goes behind what made my recovery so speedy. I thank all the staff of the Sir Charles Gairdiner Hospital in Perth. Particularly, I thank the fabulous people who attended me in Emergency and those who looked after me here in Ward G54: I think you’ve fixed me!

One final thing: Next time you’re in your garden looking at an old shrub and thinking about replacing it with a slicker, trendier model, consider how important that very plant could be to a different person in different circumstances.

A little embarrassing to share one’s own poetry, but as I am about to move back into minerals exploration, this seemed appropriate. I wrote this the last time I did fly-in, fly-out exploration; something I am unlikely ever to do again.It’s not all that good, I’ll warn you!

Weary site, weary home

Drilling, drilling, drilling on.
Catch a sulphide, cast it out.
See a speck, move about.

Move on now, more to do.
Live the dream, spirits high.
There’s no disappointment; why?

So now to execute the plan.
See the rods go down, turn,
And the metres burn, burn.

A budget tried; the geo lied,
There’s more in the assay,
Well that’s what they say.

And then, while much is had,
Back at home, things are sad,
The other half is away,
And it seems that he’ll stay.

The results come in, a hopeful grin.
Much is forgotten,
As we drill what’s rotten.

Sun setting, a forlorn pit,
As noone thinks to ask,
What will become of it?
Wallowing a weary task.

Mast at angle,
Offsiders wrangle,
The spoils aren’t in line.

And so the call is come,
The metres are all done.
The Geo rests his head,
Will he lie straight in bed?

Cat flap opens in empty home,
As the wife walks lonely in,
The food bowl empty, quiet moan,
Reward a forgotten sin.

See there, in the freedom bird,
Novel resting in his hand.
His situation is absurd,
He resolves to make a stand.

A stranger to no longer be
In a house of his own.
To only recently see,
So many times lost, groan.

Reconciled, together again,
Weeks lost; catch up required.
There at heart shall his home remain,
What exploration inspired.

Wait! A new way may be found,
Heart and home in one place.
His feet firmly on the ground.
But results come, stealing space.

Cycle, cycle, cycle again,
Flights leave off, and hopes are lost.

 

Mike Robinson, July 2009

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