Tag Archives: science

E.O. Wilson does not think math is unnecessary

This piece by E.O. Wilson has been much shared and much griped about in my circles, but I think it’s a case of a provocative headline (“Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math:  discoveries emerge from ideas, not number-crunching”) prepended by the WSJ to an essay that says something much more modest and defensible.  I’d paraphrase Wilson like this.   Being good in math is like being a good writer.  Everyone agrees:

  • You can do great science and be a terrible writer;
  • Being better at writing is a worthwhile aspiration for any scientist.

The conjunction of these two statements in no way feels like a denigration of writing.  Nor is Wilson denigrating math.

I’ve said this before but it’s important so I’ll keep saying it — when you write an opinion piece for a publication, you don’t write the headline — the editors do, and they’ll put whatever loosely relevant headline will generate the most clicks.

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Is the replicability crisis overblown?

Hal Pashler, a psychologist at UCSD, tweeted my post about the “end of history” study, and this led me to his interesting paper, “Is the Replicability Crisis Overblown?” (with Christine Harris.)  Like all papers whose title is a rhetorical question, it comes down in favor of “no.”

Among other things, Pashler and Harris are concerned about the widespread practice of “conceptual replication,” in which rather than reproduce an existing experiment you try to find a similar effect in an adjacent domain.  What happens when you don’t find anything?

Rarely, it seems to us, would the investigators themselves believe they have learned much of anything. We conjecture that the typical response of an investigator in this (not uncommon) situation is to think something like “I should have tried an experiment closer to the original procedure—my mistake.” Whereas the investigator may conclude that the underlying effect is not as robust or generalizable as had been hoped, he or she is not likely to question the veracity of the original report. As with direct replication failures, the likelihood of being able to publish a conceptual replication failure in a journal is very low. But here, the failure will likely generate no gossip—there is nothing interesting enough to talk about here. The upshot, then, is that a great many failures of conceptual replication attempts can take place without triggering any general skepticism of the phenomenon at issue.

The solutions are not very sexy but are pretty clear — create publication venues for negative results and direct replication, and give researchers real credit for them.  Gary Marcus has a good roundup in his New Yorker blog of other structural changes that might lower the error rate of lab science.  Marcus concludes:

In the long run, science is self-correcting. Ptolemy’s epicycles were replaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system. The theory that stomach ulcers were caused by spicy foods has been replaced by the discovery that many ulcers are caused by a bacterium. A dogma that primates never grew new neurons held sway for forty years, based on relatively little evidence, but was finally chucked recently when new scientists addressed older questions with better methods that had newly become available.

but Pashler and Harris are not so sure:

Is there evidence that this sort of slow correction process is actually happening? Using Google Scholar we searched <“failure to replicate”, psychology> and checked the first 40 articles among the search returns that reported a nonreplication. The median time between the original target article and the replication attempt was 4 years, with only 10% of the replication attempts occurring at lags longer than 10 years (n = 4). This suggests that when replication efforts are made (which, as already discussed, happens infrequently), they generally target very recent research. We see no sign that long-lag corrections are taking place.

It cannot be doubted that there are plenty of published results in the mathematical literature that are wrong.  But the ones that go uncorrected are the ones that no one cares about.

It could be that the self-correction process is most intense, and thus most effective, in areas of science which are most interesting, and most important, and have the highest stakes, even as errors are allowed to persist elsewhere.  That’s the optimistic view, at any rate.

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Paul Ryan, science, money, television

From ScienceInsider’s summary of Paul Ryan’s approach to the federal spending on science:

“Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions,” Ryan said in introducing his amendment to a spending bill. CDC had spent “over $1.7 million on a ‘Hollywood liaison’ to advise TV shows like ‘E.R.’ and ‘House’ on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. … In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

“E.R” and “House” are surely seen by vastly more Americans than all federal science education programming put together.  Doesn’t $1.7m  sound pretty cheap for ensuring that the medical information coming through those giant megaphones is correct?  In Ryan’s world, what’s the mechanism under which TV producers would spend their own money doing this?  Their own goodwill?  Or will scientifically sloppy doctor shows inevitably be rejected by the wise aggregate consumer, so that the market does the job for free?

I also think it’s not fair to ask that every US-funded program be the best use of taxpayer dollars.  I mean, do we really want a federal government that consists entirely of my NSF grant?

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Of all the crops, true peace is tops

I took CJ to the terrific UW Science Expeditions last weekend — he had a great time, petting the stuffed badger, looking through a microscope for the first time, filling (and almost breaking) a pipette, and holding a caterpillar provided by the Department of Entomology.  He declined, as did I, the opportunity to handle a Madagascar hissing cockroach, but apparently we were unusual because there was a line to handle the Madagascar hissing cockroach.  Lots of the exhibits were presented by the departments in the Agriculture School — at one of these I learned that Wisconsin has an official state soil, established by statute in 1983.  But not only that — our official state soil has an official state soil song!  And it gets better — the composer of the Antigo Silt Loam song, Francis D. Hole, isn’t just a one-hit wonder but a prolific musical interpreter of soil. I give you “Some Think That Soil is Dirt:”

Some think that soil is dirt and quite disgusting.
This is not true.

Some think that soil is dirt and quite disgusting.
This is not true.

Some think it makes the air all brown and dusting.
Good dust’s in me!

Some think it makes the air all brown and dusting.
Good dust’s in you!

Praise Mother earth she is our earthly Mother
She gives us bread. She gives us bread

Praise ground, the holy ground that’s softly under
Our feet that tread. Our feet that tread.

Vigor, Vigor from the soil does flow;
Roots and life are teeming down below

No wonder that the land’s so green,
the ferns and flowers so fresh and clean!

Soil is everywhere;
from it sweet blessings gently flow.

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In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

John Tierney writes in yesterday’s New York Times — correctly, I think — that science departments don’t need federally mandated quotas, a la Title IX, in order to improve the situation of women in science.

So what’s so annoying? Stuff like this:

The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.

Are these really the only two choices? Couldn’t we — without “Title Nining” away our autonomy — push our profession to be as open and as attractive to all mathematically talented people as we can? Is it possible that an effort of that kind could drastically increase the number of women who enjoy successful careers in research mathematics? Of course — because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for years, and a drastic increase is exactly what happened. Not that you’d know it from Tierney’s article. There, any disparity between men and women is understood by all reasonable people to be the result of immutable personality differences. In which case our choice is: freedom, or an assault on human nature by the full coercive power of the state?


On his blog, Tierney writes

Why, now that women students are approaching a 3-to-2 majority on campus and predominate in so many disciplines (including many science departments), is Washington singling out a few male-dominated departments in engineering and physical sciences? The answer from advocates of this policy is that science must be “Titled Nined” for women to get “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” to borrow the title of the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences on women in science. The answer from their critics — call them the Anti-Title-Niners — is that this bias exists largely in the imagination of well-organized activists, and that women on average just aren’t as interested as men are in these disciplines.

I just want to draw your attention to a rhetorical trick in that last sentence. Have you ever noticed that when you want to forbid people from thinking critically about what you’re saying, you can stick in a “just” and make your assertion seem like an eternal fact about the universe? Read the last sentence again without the “just.” Sounds different, doesn’t it? I learned this trick from listening to a lot of sports talk radio in my car, where you routinely encounter arguments of the form “Brett Favre is one of the five best players in the history of the National Football League. He just is.” If women report being less interested in going into mathematics, you might ask: why is that? But if they just are less interested, well, what is there to say?

If you want to see some different views about women in science (which do not, I guarantee, suggest that evil men are conspiring to hold the sisters down, that unequal representation is proof of discrimination, or that math departments should be federally bludgeoned into numerical parity) have a look at Amanda Schaffer’s six-part series in Slate or the work of Virginia Valian.

And now I will make fun of Tierney’s “about my blog” blurb. He writes:

With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  • 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • 2. But that’s a good working theory.

Cute! But let us not forget the idea “girls don’t care for math, and left to their own devices they wouldn’t be interested in boring boy stuff like scientific careers” does appeal to a lot of people, and it kind of is the conventional wisdom. Dare I say Tierney just isn’t taking a particularly bold or contrarian stance on this issue?

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