All scientists get George Box’s dictum beaten into them: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” And some are very useful, indeed. Gravitational models of the solar system, for example, allow space agencies to slingshot their spacecraft around planets and land on a moving bulls-eye more than 50 million miles away. If you’re not impressed by that, you might need medical attention.I'd add that some models are more or less wrong than others. It's wrong to model earth as a sphere rather than an oblate spheroid, but it's less wrong to model it as a sphere than it is to model it as a piece of flat land riding through space on the back of a turtle.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Monday, May 28, 2012
The whole question of being pro- or anti-GM food is in many ways a bad one. The better question is what crop, with what modification, for what purpose, made by whom?It's a good point - as much as the people writing stupid headlines and generating sound bytes would like to believe otherwise, people aren't (generally speaking) stupid. A blanket ban is not throwing away a potential useful tool because it's not useful in all situations. Throwing away all your hammers because right at this moment you need to drill a screw in. The other salient bit is:
By so transparently rejecting scientific consensus on both issues, greens invite the charge of hypocrisy when they urge politicians and the public to listen to the scientific consensus on climate change. If they are prepared to cherry-pick scientific evidence to suit their purposes on nuclear power and biotechnology, people are bound to wonder whether they are doing the same over climate change.Which is, I think a fair point. If you are using solid evidence and the scientific method to push for a particular world view (climate change), you don't then get to switch off the evidence based view of the world when it all of a sudden conflicts with your "common sense" (GE). Science is first and foremost about what is really there, not what we want to be there.
And an honourable mention to a commenter, mentha trecenta, in the comments, in response to someone using the old "there's no evidence to support GE's safety" argument, for providing this pithy link alongside an expression of disbelief. 440 studies of ... studies of GE safety that have found nothing to indicate danger.
I'm not particularly happy with the defenders of the Urewera 4 though either. The general impression that I get is that there is a belief that from the get go, this was just a massive sting against Iti et al and no punishment is justified. And that, I find hard to accept. There is a point they bring up that is of concern though. From reading Morgan's piece, I get the impression that the sentences imposed on Iti and Kemara are the maximum possible sentence and as such, are to harsh. It would be interesting to compare their sentences with other sentences for other similar firearms charges. If there is major differences, then yeah, the judiciary isn't going to come out of this smelling like roses. I'm not sure what mitigating factors there are though. I'm not sure that saying they've always run around in the bush playing with guns is one that I'm comfortable with.
Which brings me to the Urewera 4 themselves. I'm sorry, but from what little evidence I've seen (and I acknowledge that it is only a little), at best a bunch of idiots. Seriously, running around the bush with guns practising commando tactics? I'm sorry, but the instant you pick up a gun with political action in mind, you are either an idiot, a soldier or someone worth investigating. The three are not mutually exclusive.
No one comes out of this looking good. Not the police, not the defendants, not the defenders of the defenders nor the defenders of the police. And the judiciary deserves a good hard looking at as well. Quite disgusted with the lot of them I am.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
So there's a lot of work, to be done. We need more people defending the education system. We already have WATU and University without conditions beginning to mobilize. There's a good piece from University Without Conditions. There is a idea floating around of Universities as independent institutions acting as the conscience of society where academics are allowed to freely research what ever takes their fancy. This ideal university has never, I suspect, existed. Still it's an ideal that many think we should be striving for. The UWC piece very nicely turns this on its head and positions the university not as an ideal we should be attempting to defend, but as something we should see as a leader of society. It's a re-phrasing that I like. And I like it think because it brings to the fore the notion that education and more importantly research is not something that should be confined to universities or large companies, but is something that everyone should aspire to.
I have (minor, qualified) reservations about the University without conditions - only because the timing and location of everything I've seen them do appears to be targeted towards university students. This at least shows that they're not necessarily always going to be focused like that. Which makes me happy.
Friday, May 25, 2012
A total of $326 million. Over four years. So $81 million/year. $76 million or ($19 million/year) is capital expenditure, building machines which might sound a lot, but try splitting that over the 6 or 7 CRI's and see how far that gets you. That's maybe one new properly outfitted building per year. Not each. One building.
The other $250 million ($62.5/year) again sounds impressive. $90 million of that is going straight away to the newly renovated Industrial Research Ltd, Now the Advanced Technology Institute. Which is fine, probably needed. Which leaves $160 million. $60 million of that is apparently going into National Science Challenges. $15 million a year. National Science Challenges are contestable. Like the Marsden Fund. The Marsden fund dished out almost $55 million last year. Or about 8 percent of the applications. Another $15 million would have enabled another 25 proposals bringing us back up to somewhere near the average from the last 15 years. In other words, treading water at best.
There there's that last $100 million. That'll get us ahead right? That $100 million, or $25 million a year gets split between Universities, technical institutes, wananga and private training institutes. There's quite a few of those. The big players like Auckland uni will probably be able to get a few million, but the rest will be spread pretty thin.
One of the more cautious bigwigs from that sciblogs post mentioned that nothing had been done to address the post-doc problem - we have graduates coming out of university and leaving science or going overseas because there's no work for them, either in academia or industry. I can't see this changing. Another $15 million a year won't employ that many more. And even more depressing we have the so called average family thinking that this is a positive budget for science.
At the same time as suggesting we need more scientists, there's sod all support for early career scientists and in education they're cutting allowances for people wanting to to post graduate work (a Masters degree is probably the minimum requirement to get a job as a lab technician these days). It just doesn't make sense.
And science is one of the aspects of this budgets that isn't heinous. The fact that compared to the rest of the world, we're going backwards slower than we were before is being presented as a positive. They're dumping on the poor, selling assets and the promises of growth ring hollow.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
So watching Hans Roslings latest talk engendered a significant amount of optimism. Yes, we're going to hit the 10 billion mark. It's not inevitable that we'll go significantly past that though. There's a number of countries where the birth rate is less than 2 children per woman. And it appears one of the bigger factors involved is education, specifically of women. Which is something that can be worked on, levels are far from perfect now, but it's a problem that can be tackled sensibly. A lot better than attempting to institute population controls.
Seriously. Political editor Audrey Young in the herald today: "one of Mr Parker's toughest challenges is to rid Labor of the borrow and spend baggage that plagued it at the last election". ... .... Seriously, was she at the same election? There was a lot plaguing Labour, but a borrow and spend image wasn't one of them. How does this not sound like someone to lazy to remember 9 months ago and as a consequence is happy just to make shit up. Again. And the herald expects us to take it seriously?
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
And you'll probably not be surprised to know, I think science should be spoken to power more often. Martin Robbins and Mark Henderson at the Guardian are suggesting that we need an Office of Scientific Responsibility, a formal office that fact checks politicians use of science and statistics to justify their policies. Something similar has been proposed in fullfact.org, but as best I can tell, full fact focuses more on the media's use and abuse of statistics. Which sadly means that it's ability to be widely published is probably hindered, given that it's the publishers that they're fact checking. An office dedicated to fact checking politicians would be grand. It would possibly (hopefully) contribute to more evidence based policy being enacted.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Thursday, May 17, 2012
It's Thursday, and while the politicians have been doing plenty of asinine things that are well worth getting worked up about, I am unable to muster a suitably eloquent tirade. So I'm going to post this video instead. It's David Attenborough explaining how queen bumblebees get the jump on all the other insects in early spring. I thought it was cool enough when we figured out how bumblebees fly (answer: very efficiently). This is even cooler, unhooking and re-gearing a muscle system inside the body and using it for internal heat generation? How absurd/cool is that. And people wonder how scientists can be so fascinated with nature that we devote whole lives to figuring out how little bits of it work. How could you not?
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
So I've finally got some data back from my pilot experiment. I've spent the last couple of days processing it. And doing it wrong. Which is not a bad thing, it's been quite nice to finally have some real data to play with.
The data that I got back was in the form of short reads. We take our sample cells, grind them up and extract the RNA, which is then sent away for sequencing. The sequencing process chops all the RNA up into little pieces and we end up with a large number of very small sequences or reads. or in my case, roughly 59,000,000 per sample. And I submitted 12 samples. Not as daunting as it sounds, automation is a wonderful thing.
After doing some basic quality control on the sequences, I've been using a application (bwa - uses a Burrows Wheeler transform for those of you that are of a geeky mindset, have a look, it's an interesting idea) compares each of those reads to the sequences of genes from kiwifruit and PSA that we know exist. After that though, I'm getting bugger all reads matching the genes - they're not even registering at the lvel of background noise. So I'm obviously doing something wrong. Which believe it or not, I don't mind. Now that I have an actual problem to solve, there is much fun to be had he said. <grin>
Monday, May 14, 2012
One of the points that he made, repeatedly and quite emphatically, which is liable to be ignored by those that want to dismiss him, was that he was not describing a proven origin of the universe, but a plausible one. I'll possibly write more about it when I've digested it. I found it interesting though, because I have seen people having a go at his book because it didn't "prove" his theories.If what I heard him say this evening is in anyway similar to his book or previous lectures, then he has been done a disservice.
A lot of the language he used was very ... affirmative, when he was talking about the parts of physician that we known about, Einstein, Hubble, cosmic background radiation, that sort of thing. And I wonder where and how people miss that transition, from this is what we know to this is what we think. There are occasions where science, with it's own particular vocabulary runs into conflict with everyday language. The use of the word believe is one of those occasions, where usually it is meant to signify something that is thought true with no evidence to back it up, whereas in science it usually means there's a decent chunk of evidence pointing us in this particular direction. Theory is another problematic word - a guess vs a rigorous explanation of all the available data backed up by bucket loads of evidence.
This isn't one of those occasions though. I don't see how you can misrepresent someone when they are quite explicit in making the distinction between what is known and what is hypothesized. It's a straw man argument, one of many that I'm seeing more and more raised in writings about scientists.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
The university system as it is, is not going to be able to remain as it is. Continued funding cuts and alignment with the needs of business is, I suspect, going to result in an educational system that is entirely to focused. So for the formal education system to continue to have value, it going to have to change. This doesn't mean that it has to be done away with, possibly the current system could become part of the core system. Personally, I'd like to see a system where lectures and teaching materials are made free to all - something that I believe the University without conditions would be on board with. Universities providing a separate track for examinations only would mean you wouldn't necessarily have to commit to a full time course or that you could take the course if wanted without sitting for accreditation.
Universities should, I believe, retain their role in blue skies scientific research, as well as remaining the primary focus of humanities research - as much as some on the right might want to believe that all of the humanities research is bollocks (certainly not all), it isn't and it needs to be done somewhere. Scientific research can also be carried out by companies and trusts, formal education is not the be all and end all of education. Which is why I like the idea of graduate students being whisked off for further study as part of their employment rather than necessarily progressing through the PhD system. Especially if the option to round out an education with some of the humanities is available.
Sorry for repeating myself, hope that's a little clearer than the previous post.
I got to that Guardian article via one of Ben Goldacres posts (seriously, why would you not already be subscribed to his posts). I'm going to assume that Dr Goldacre is not suggesting that the changes are being mooted are necessarily going to be universal. I certainly hope they're not. Again, I think it's a case of things need to change, but this time, hopefully we'll manage that change better. I find it interesting though, because I've been seeing glimmers of people wanting to enact change here. Though the idea didn't originate here (or at least, I don't think it did), in Auckland we have a group called the University without conditions. It's an interesting idea, springing from the idea that the continuing decrease in funding to our universities and the continued push towards making our universities more responsive to the needs of business, is resulting in the loss of something essential to an education.
As an idea, it has it's problems. Namely that while it might be able to provide an education, it is not able to enable a recognized qualification. Which, to be fair, is not something they're trying to do. And ideally it's be good if some lessons could be taught out of the times/locations that are primarily convenient to current university students. I don't think an education should be the preserve of people who have committed to one full time. The big problem though I think is that anyone can hold a lecture, which is going to hurt quality control. Not saying I have the answers, and the observations of the particular problems are an aside really. What's interesting is that someone has seen a problem and they are trying to work around it. It's an extension of the hacker pathos that was present in early internet days. See an obstacle, route around it.
I'll have to go looking for the articles as well, but ages ago, I recall Nature reporting on a move in China to get people into employment at a certain level. They weren't pushing people to continue their formal education. So instead of doing a PhD, there were some students getting snapped up by the big companies with research divisions and getting trained further there. Which I thought was a good idea. Which would be even better if courses outside of your specialty where available without a full time commitment, so as to be able to round an education whilst getting the benefit of training with people doing the latest research.
The universities can't remain as they are. As they continue to mouth the words innovation and excellence, they sound more and more like politicians who know and continually use the buzzwords without having an understanding of what they actually mean. Or being unable/unwilling to change the system. Which means that if they continue on this way, they'll be increasingly detached from the real world (clue, the real world is not just what businesses want) and eventually, they will die.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
The data that was presented supported the notion that the world is warming, so there was nothing out of the ordinary there. Ocean levels will rise. Only when people talk about ocean levels rising they all tend to talk of the Artic melting, or all the ice in Greenland rolling into the sea. One of the causes that I at least, had failed to see, which Pascal went into, was the thermal expansion of the water. Warmer water occupies a greater volume that the same mass of colder water. And as our oceans warm, they will expand. The current models are looking at about 1mm/year apparently. Not much, but it's another meter's worth of sea rise on top of whatever other water goes into oceans from the melting ice sheets. Not huge, but not insignificant.
For some reason I can't recall right now, when I read this this morning, it put me in mind of Pascal's talk. A University of Washington researcher, Rory Barnes has pulled out his books and done some sums. There's a region around every star called the goldilocks zone, where water exists as a liquid. Only it's probably not quite where we thought it was - for other stars at least, we're fairly sure where our one is. One of the factors that hadn't been taken into account was the gravity of the stars pulling on the internals of the planets that orbit them. This is usually changes because forces due to gravity are related to distance and with elliptical orbits rather than circular ones, a planets distance to it's star is always changing. So gravity pushes and pulls the planets internals, which in turn generates heat from all the friction. Which means that the goldilocks zone probably extends a bit further out than we thought because it's not just the heat from the sun that's contributing to the heat of the planets atmosphere, the planet is as well.
Tidal heating shrinks the 'goldilocks zone' : Nature News & Comment
While we can learn a lot from this, it's quite obvious that the real world isn't like this. In the wild, temperatures vary just as the daylight varies, the changes in the length of the day correspond to the age of the plant (as it ages over spring/summer), the amount of water available varies wildly. This paper has nonetheless, tried to track changes in gene expression of plants in the wild. They used principal component analysis, which broadly speaking involves sort large numbers of possible genes into set of genes - to find groups of genes that corresponded to different conditions. In the wild at least, there was a limited number of conditions they could track, water levels and temperature - you can't separate the length of daylight/age of plant factors, they're to closely intertwined. Given what has been found in the lab, they were able to correlate a few of the changes in gene expression with groups of genes.
Even better though is that some of the changes in the expression of the groups of genes they tracked, were correlated with multiple different conditions. Notice I say correlated here. In the wild everything is sufficiently messy that you can only identify correlation, not causation. Here's the bit that I'm not sure people will recognize as being so extraordinarily cool though. We can identify various components of the control mechanisms in the lab. In the wild, these control mechanisms interact with each other and the environment in ways that we can't predict yet. The complexity of these systems is immense. And this is just in plants. Which if you think about it, are pretty uniform from one end to the other - there's differences, just nowhere near the differences you get in animals. And when you get that extra layer of complexity ... how freaking cool is that. There is literally so much to learn here that it boggles the mind.
Monday, May 7, 2012
I've seen the appalling ad campaign that the Heartland Institute* put out late last week commented upon in a few places. Ken Perrott at Sciblogs passes comment as well. His surmise is that the Heartland institute has found itself in the echo chamber - that place where people only read the opinions of people that they agree with. Reading only what you agree with makes it quite difficult to see the flaws in your thinking. There might not be any, but it's good to have the ideas tested anyway. It also leaves you not being able to communicate your ideas to your target audience, which, if you are trying to advance a world view is all the people who disagree with you. It happens all over the place. Occupy for instance, attempts to draw attention to the inequality of the current system. If possible solutions only get talked about in the general assemblies, then the chances of possible solutions that they propose being accepted by the general population is limited. Those within the general assemblies and working groups of Occupy might all agree on a solution but they are not the target audience. For ideas to be advanced they must win over the agnostic and resist the antagonistic. I becomes an question of both the validity of the idea and how well it is communicated.
It's why it was a good idea to read Garth Georges columns in the herald back when he still did them. Even if it left you feeling unclean at the end.
*A climate change denial "think tank" in the states with pots of money and connections to the oil industry who pay people with otherwise laudable credentials from around the world to deny the science as well
Friday, May 4, 2012
It says something dire about the state our media, I think, that you could wander into shops afterwards and have shop assistants ask you "what all that was about?" Seriously, multiple thousands of people and still... <sigh>
It's both good that they're doing it and depressing that they have to, but it's led to an offshoot of Occupy to come to the conclusion that they need to set up their own media distribution channels. One hopes it works and shall watch, with interest.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
It did make me think about my next graduation though (several years away). I'm not sure how that'll work, especially if the same people are there conferring the awards. Apart from finding the whole ceremonial part of it ... empty and somewhat pointless, I don't have much in the way of respect for the people handing the degree out. How does one reconcile that with pride in attaining a degree in the first place?