Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”
Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.
Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.
You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.
If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.
[Tip o’ the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: September 27th, 2013 dw
Science Friday has posted a brief, phenomenal video about how octopuses and other cephalopods manage to camouflage themselves incredibly quickly. It explains the skin’s mechanism (which is mind-blowing in itself), but leaves open how they manage this even though they’re color blind. (Hat tip to Joe Mahoney.)
Tagged with: octopus
Date: September 11th, 2013 dw
In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition  to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.
You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.” Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science , a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,” that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!
The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology.  His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.)
Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” . And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” ) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”
So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.
 Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.
 Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology'” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.
 Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.
 Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12
 Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.
 Multhauf, p. 3.
 Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.
 Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.
 Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.
Amanda Alvarez has a provocative post at GigaOm:
There’s an epidemic going on in science: experiments that no one can reproduce, studies that have to be retracted, and the emergence of a lurking data reliability iceberg. The hunger for ever more novel and high-impact results that could lead to that coveted paper in a top-tier journal like Nature or Science is not dissimilar to the clickbait headlines and obsession with pageviews we see in modern journalism.
The article’s title points especially to “dodgy data,” and the item in this list that’s by far the most interesting to me is the “data reliability iceberg,” and its tie to the rise of Big Data. Amanda writes:
…unlike in science…, in big data accuracy is not as much of an issue. As my colleague Derrick Harris points out, for big data scientists the abilty to churn through huge amounts of data very quickly is actually more important than complete accuracy. One reason for this is that they’re not dealing with, say, life-saving drug treatments, but with things like targeted advertising, where you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate. Big data scientists would rather be pointed in the right general direction faster — and course-correct as they go – than have to wait to be pointed in the exact right direction. This kind of error-tolerance has insidiously crept into science, too.
But, the rest of the article contains no evidence that the last sentence’s claim is true because of the rise of Big Data. In fact, even if we accept that science is facing a crisis of reliability, the article doesn’t pin this on an “iceberg” of bad data. Rather, it seems to be a melange of bad data, faulty software, unreliable equipment, poor methodology, undue haste, and o’erweening ambition.
The last part of the article draws some of the heat out of the initial paragraphs. For example: “Some see the phenomenon not as an epidemic but as a rash, a sign that the research ecosystem is getting healthier and more transparent.” It makes the headline and the first part seem a bit overstated — not unusual for a blog post (not that I would ever do such a thing!) but at best ironic given this post’s topic.
I remain interested in Amanda’s hypothesis. Is science getting sloppier with data?
, too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
• big data
Date: May 26th, 2013 dw
Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.
Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)
Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:
So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.
Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.
Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:
The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.
But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.
But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.
This seems to me to have two implications.
First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.
Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.
I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.
But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.
The letters of
Lord Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are now online. As the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project explains, the collection consists of 4,000 letters gathered from about 100 different institutions, with about half in the British Natural History Museum and British Library.
The Correspondence Project has, admirably, been releasing the scans without waiting for transcription; more faster is better! Predictably annoyingly, the letters, written by a man who died ten years before the Perpetual Copyright date of 1923, seem to be (but are they?) carefully obstructed by copyright: The Natural History Museum, which houses the collection, asserts copyright over “data held in the Wallace Letters Online database (including letter summaries)” [pdf — oddly unreadable in Mac Preview]. Beyond the summaries, exactly what data is this referring to? Not sure. Don’t know.
But that isn’t the full story anyway, for the NHM sends us to the Wallace Fund for more information about the copyright. That page tells us that the unpublished letters are copyrighted until 2039, with this very helpful footnote:
Unless the work was published with the permission of his Literary Estate before 1 August 1989, in which case the work will be in copyright for 70 years after Wallace’s death, unless he died more than 20 years before the work’s publication, in which case copyright would expire 50 years after publication.
Eventually it gets to some good news:
Authors wishing to publish such works would ordinarily need to obtain permission from the copyright holder before doing so. However, on July 31st 2011, in an attempt to facilitate the scholarly study of ARW’s writings, the co-executors of ARW’s Literary Estate agreed to allow third parties to publish ARW’s copyright works non-commercially without first having to ask the Literary Estate for permission, under the terms and conditions of Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported”
So, are the letters published on the NHM site actually available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license? The Wallace Fund that aggregated them seems to think so. The NHM that published them maybe thinks not.
Because copyright is just so magical.
TWO HOURS LATER: Please see the first comment, from George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project. Thanks, George.
He explains that the transcribed text is available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, but the digitized images are not. Plus some further complications, such as the content of the database being under copyright, although it is not clear from the site what data that is.
Since the aim of CC is to make it easier for people to re-use material, may I suggest (in the friendliest of fashions) that this be prominently clarified on the sites themselves?
Well, I learned a bunch of stuff, but I’ll only mention two.
First, NASA is as totally awesome as you think it is. I went to the Langley centerfor a one day visit, and got a morning tour, and it is a nerd-heaven work space, with no Star Wars white plastic, but lots and lots of dented workbenches covered with sprays of components. And it adds up to our species looking down on our planet. Ultra ultra cool.
Second, I got a tour of the National Transonic Facility by Bill Bisset, who manages the place. They test models in the world’s most sophisticated wind tunnel — they fill it with liquid nitrogen (which they make themselves) that’s blown in by the world’s most powerful horizontally-mounted electrical motor (that consumes an eighth of the output of a local nuclear generator), and they measure up to 5,000 different parameters. So, naturally, I ran an urban myth past Bill, because that’s an excellent use of his time.
I had been told by someone sometime that those little upturned wing tips you sometimes see on planes were discovered more than invented: Someone tried them out, and they turned out to increase the efficiency of the plane, but no one knew why.
Nope, nope, and nope. They’re called winglets. Here’s the story, from a NASA page:
The concept of winglets originated with a British aerodynamicist in the late 1800s, but the idea remained on the drawing board until rekindled in the early 1970s by Dr. Richard Whitcomb when the price of aviation fuel started spiraling upward.
Bill explained that winglets work by altering the vortex that forms when air rushes over a wing. “Winglets…produce a forward thrust inside the circulation field of the vortices and reduce their strength,” as the NASA page says. They increase efficiency by 6-9%. Bill said they also effectively increase the wingspan of the plane, but without extending the wings horizontally, which matters to airlines because they pay airports based upon the horizontal length of the wings.
So,yes, everything I’d heard was wrong. And, yes, it was in Wikipedia all along.
(And yes, I learned a whole lot more. It was for me a wonderful day.)
Tagged with: nasa
Date: January 9th, 2013 dw
An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.
The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.
First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media .
Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…” This leads them to ask an important question:
Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…
Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference  where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”
They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:
Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.
I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.
But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.
So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.
We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.
Notes, copied straight from the article:
 M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).
 C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43
 P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)
 P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts
, social media
, too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: January 5th, 2013 dw
The American Psychiatric Association has approved its new manual of diagnoses — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — after five years of controversy [nytimes].
For example, it has removed Aspberger’s as a diagnosis, lumping it in with autism, but it has split out hoarding from the more general category of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lumping and splitting are the two most basic activities of cataloguers and indexers. There are theoretical and practical reasons for sometimes lumping things together and sometimes splitting them, but they also characterize personalities. Some of us are lumpers, and some of us are splitters. And all of us are a bit of each at various times.
The DSM runs into the problems faced by all attempts to classify a field. Attempts to come up with a single classification for a complex domain try to impose an impossible order:
First, there is rarely (ever?) universal agreement about how to divvy up a domain. There are genuine disagreements about which principles of organization ought to be used, and how they apply. Then there are the Lumper vs. the Splitter personalities.
Second, there are political and economic motivations for dividing up the world in particular ways.
Third, taxonomies are tools. There is no one right way to divide up the world, just as there is no one way to cut a piece of plywood and no one right thing to say about the world. It depends what you’re trying to do. DSM has conflicting purposes. For one thing, it affects treatment. For example, the NY Times article notes that the change in the classification of bipolar disease “could ‘medicalize’ frequent temper tantrums,” and during the many years in which the DSM classified homosexuality as a syndrome, therapists were encouraged to treat it as a disease. But that’s not all the DSM is for. It also guides insurance payments, and it affects research.
Given this, do we need the DSM? Maybe for insurance purposes. But not as a statement of where nature’s joints are. In fact, it’s not clear to me that we even need it as a single source to define terms for common reference. After all, biologists don’t agree about how to classify species, but that science seems to be doing just fine. The Encyclopedia of Life takes a really useful approach: each species gets a page, but the site provides multiple taxonomies so that biologists don’t have to agree on how to lump and split all the forms of life on the planet.
If we do need a single diagnostic taxonomy, DSM is making progress in its methodology. It has more publicly entered the fray of argument, it has tried to respond to current thinking, and it is now going to be updated continuously, rather than every 5 years. All to the good.
But the rest of its problems are intrinsic to its very existence. We may need it for some purposes, but it is never going to be fully right…because tools are useful, not true.
And one more thing about my previous post: I understand that when Heidegger was writing Being and Time in the 1920s, it was important to try to relax our culture’s commitment to scientific objectivity in order to allow more types of truths to appear – more ways that the world shows itself to us.
Almost a hundred years later, with a brand new medium for knowledge, truth, and disclosure, it is time to re-assert science’s privileged (yet still human and imperfect) position as we try to come to agreement across cultures about what we need to do in order to live together on this earth.
In my opinion.
, too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: October 28th, 2012 dw
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