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Monday, January 30, 2017

I am not a scientist

"Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." —Thomas Jefferson, January 8, 1789

Read it
Amid the acrimonious Celebrity Apprentice @POTUS distraction of the contentious "Muslim Ban," I reflect here on our early introduction to the reactionary Trump science denial/suppression era... #MarchForScience

I just joined AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), and the Union of Concerned Scientists. I also gave them permanent links in my right-hand links column. Recall from my prior post:

Our Science Denier in Chief:
Is Anyone Actually a Scientist?
Forget the terrible “I’m not a scientist” schtick. Trump’s comments on climate change suggest no one is a scientist.

My favorite Trumpism is “nobody really knows.” He says it all the time. Did Russia interfere in the U.S. presidential election? “Nobody really knows.” How big is ISIS? “Nobody really knows.” Why did President George W. Bush invade Iraq? “Nobody really knows.” How can we identify potential terrorists? “Nobody really knows.” Most of the time, “nobody really knows” means Trump doesn’t want to, or isn’t prepared to, answer the question. (That’s why he says it so often.)

Climate change is different. “Nobody really knows” is simply Trump’s official position on global warming. It’s one of the rare times he uses his catchphrase offensively, rather than to get himself out of a jam. He doesn’t say it with a shrug and a casual toss of his hands. He leans in. To borrow a well-worn phrase from Trump supporter(ish) Donald Rumsfeld, Trump considers climate change a “known unknown“—the fact is that nobody knows about it...
I don't think we can overstate the risk here. Time to push back forcefully, particularly in light of reports of the Trump administration's attempts to suppress the public communications of federal departments and agencies such as the EPA, USDA, and National Park Service. Others whose legal charters are science-oriented rather than administrative are likely not far behind, e.g., FDA, NIH, CDC, NASA, NOAA and numerous others.

Unlike a couple of the entertaining, huckstering poseurs I've written up on this blog recently (e.g., Will Henshall, Jim Kwik*), I would never be so arrogant as to call myself a "scientist." Neither would I properly refer to myself as a "technologist," notwithstanding that I've spent my entire white collar career (which commenced in January 1986 at the age of 39 after finally getting my first degree) working in applied science and technology of one sort or another.
* In fairness, and to be precise, while young Mr. I-build-better-brains Kwik doesn't directly call himself a "scientist," he does repeatedly claim his methods to be "scientific" (neuroscience specifically). I have reached out multiple times since first encountering him asking him for credible, documentable verification. I don't expect to ever get any sort of reply.
From some stuff on "critical thinking / argument analysis / persuasion" I'm working on: initial job out of undergraduate school in January of 1986 was that of a quality control statistician and programmer [pdf] in an environmental radiation laboratory in Oak Ridge under the direction of acclaimed nuclear scientist John A. Auxier, PhD, CHP (so much for the anticipated corporate-industrial ad career). Much of our work was performed to a "forensic" standard, meaning that the laboratory's results would be used as evidence in litigation (e.g., contamination and dose/exposure cases) and regulatory enforcement actions. I spent more than five years there participating in excellent analytical science under the best of mentors, co-authoring several technical papers across my time there (see I learned a thing or two during my lab days about being extremely careful with computer coding and numerical results, lest I find myself sweating under Oath on a witness stand anxiously defending the accuracy of my work under intense cross-examination.

Fast forward a number of years. I started in graduate school in 1994 after working for a time as a Medicare hospitalization analyst [pdf], intending to pursue a Master's degree in Statistics, but soon switched over to an intriguing program known as "Ethics and Policy Studies" ("EPS," a unique interdisciplinary liberal arts course of study comprised of economics, political science, law, and applied philosophy). It played to my analytical writing strengths, as well as my long-standing interests in policy and political affairs.

It was there I absorbed the skills involved in honest and effective "argument analysis" (e.g., see my first grad school paper, an analytical, logic flow-charting deconstruction of the 1994 JAMA health care "Single Payer" argument [pdf] ). I also became steeped in the historical and contemporary literature of "applied ethics," — "doing the right things" beyond simply "doing things right."
Not long after completing graduate school, I was invited to join the part-time evening adjunct faculty at my local community college and university (my day job at the time was that of a risk analyst in a bank) to teach undergraduate courses in "critical thinking" as well as the EPS graduate seminar in "argument analysis." It was great fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat...

In recent years, I have worked again in the medical field, helping physicians and their staffs convert from the paper chart documentation method to electronic medical record systems. These software systems are extremely complex and controversial, with some clinicians arguing that they impede their work and decision-making processes. I've had to undertake deep study of the training, cognitive abilities, and diagnostic methods of physicians -- "How Doctors Think" (there's an excellent book by Jerome Groopman, MD with that title) -- as well as the thought processes of other "subject matter experts," in order to ferret out tactics that can help clients become better decisionmakers. I delve into a lot of these issues on my blog.

Effective, sustained "critical thinking" coupled with successful rational advocacy ("persuasiveness") are of particular importance in high-stakes fields such as medicine, various other applied sciences, and engineering (not to mention national and international governance, where misunderstandings can result in war or other tragedies). However, I argue also that it's equally important for all of us ordinary citizens to become better critical thinkers and constructively persuasive communicators to help each other get to truths large and small and put issues to rest. There will never be any shortage of disputes to resolve...

So, again, I am not a "scientist." I tout myself as a "quantitative analyst and writer," which I regard as more succinctly, reservedly appropriate. Nonetheless, I am thoroughly trained in and steeped in (and an enthusiastic advocate of) the methods of applied science and technology across a number of technical disciplines. I will put my operations science PDSA Process QI chops up against anyone's. My 1992 CQE exam was all about process improvement science. My 1994 IHC CQI cert was all about process improvement science in the clinical setting.

While the core founding topic of this blog was that of support for the national effort to extend the reach and efficacy of digital health information technology, I have taken the independent's pro bono liberty to extend my purview to encompass the gamut of topics and issues critical to the health care space.

Defense of science per se, it would seem obvious to me, sits atop that list. And, science is now more acutely under attack than during any time I can recall. We cannot afford a back-to-the-future return to "Soviet Science / Lysenkoism 2.0."


What is the Scientists' March on Washington
Welcome! We want to thank you all for your incredible outpouring of support for this march. We are working to schedule a March for Science on DC and across the United States. We have not settled on a date yet but will do so as quickly as possible and announce it here.

Although this will start with a march, we hope to use this as a starting point to take a stand for science in politics. Slashing funding and restricting scientists from communicating their findings (from tax-funded research!) with the public is absurd and cannot be allowed to stand as policy. This is a non-partisan issue that reaches far beyond people in the STEM fields and should concern anyone who values empirical research and science. 

 There are certain things that we accept as facts with no alternatives. The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution. Politicians who devalue expertise risk making decisions that do not reflect reality and must be held accountable. An American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.

 Please bear with us as pull together our mission statement and further details. Many more updates to come on Monday. 
Twitter: @ScienceMarchDC
Reddit: /r/scientistsmarch
Get Email Updates
To help:
Count me in.

Democratic governments the world over are increasingly paralyzed, unable to act on many key issues that threaten the economic and environmental stability of their countries and the world. They often enact policies that seem to run against their own interests, quashing or directly contradicting well-known evidence. Ideology and rhetoric guide policy discussions, often with a brazenly willful denial of facts. Even elected officials seem willing to defy laws, often paying negligible prices. And the civil society we once knew now seems divided and angry, defiantly embracing unreason. Everyone, we are told, has his or her own experience of reality, and history is written by the victors. What could be happening?

At the same time, science and technology have come to affect every aspect of life on the planet. There is a phase change going on in the scientific revolution: a shifting from one state to another, as from a solid to a liquid. There is a sudden, quantitative expansion of the number of scientists and engineers around the globe, coupled with a sudden qualitative expansion of their ability to collaborate with each other over the Internet.

These two changes are dramatically speeding up the process of discovery and the convergence of knowledge across once-separate fields, a process Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson named consilience. We now have fields where economics merges with environmental science, electrical engineering with neuroscience and physics, computer science with biology and genetics, astronomy with biology, and many more. This consilience is shedding new light on long-held assumptions about the world we live in and the nature of life.

Over the course of the next forty years, science is poised to create more knowledge than humans have created in all of recorded history, completely redefining our concepts about— and power over— life and the physical and mental worlds as we assume editing control over the genetic code and mastery in our understanding of the brain. One only has to recall the political battles fought over past scientific advances to see that we are in for a rocky ride. How that rush of new knowledge will impact life, how it will be applied through technology and law, and whether our societies and governments will be able to withstand the immense social and economic upheavals it will bring depends upon whether we can update our political process to accommodate it. Can we manage the next phase of the scientific revolution to our advantage, or will we become its unwilling victims? 

If that were not enough, the explosion of information technology is creating a power struggle between individual privacy and the public good, and between the organizations— businesses, criminal enterprises, terrorist groups, and governments— who seek to use this new technology for influence and control. Sensing technology and robotics are threatening to replace millions of truck drivers and taxi drivers over the next decade, and to mechanize warfare with tiny autonomous robots that carry enough charge and intelligence to hunt and kill humans. These advancements have prompted many of the world’s leading scientists and engineers to warn that we must get ahead of artificial intelligence before it gets ahead of us. 

As we are being overwhelmed by new scientific and technological developments, we also are facing a host of legacy challenges caused by commercialization of the incomplete scientific knowledge of the past. Thanks to early science, humans have prospered, but at a cost: significant climate disruption, unprecedented environmental degradation, massive extinction of other species, vast economic and power inequities, and a world armed to the teeth with the products of a military-industrial complex, including weapons that could destroy nearly all life on the planet. 

Without a better way of incorporating science into our policymaking, democracy may ultimately fail its promise. We now have a population that we cannot support without destroying our environment— and the developing world is advancing by using the same model of unsustainable development. We are 100 percent dependent on science and technology to find a solution.

Otto, Shawn Lawrence (2016-06-07). The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (Kindle Locations 159-193). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.
A must-read, this book.

I will be cross-referencing it with this one (below), among others.

Otto takes some hard shots at the journalism field for its too-prevalent "subjectivist" 'just present all sides uncritically" ethos -- in particular when it comes to science reporting. To the extent that "investigative journalism" fails to hew to a scientific standard of reporting generally, well...

"Democracy's Detectives" is a fine, fine, thorough, analytical book, but I was disappointed to find just one reference to the scientific method in the body of the text.
[Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Pat] Stith’s experience made him a frequent speaker about CAR [Computer Assisted Reporting] techniques. In a 1996 talk to the Society of Professional Journalists, he laid out best practices in using data and software to develop investigative work. He stressed that CAR stories were similar in many ways to other articles in that “Computer assisted stories work best when the leads grow out of our reporting, out of our attempts to find answers to questions raised in our communities.”  CAR might often involve significant time and effort to gather and clean data, analyze patterns, and (sometimes) conduct statistical tests. But much of this would remain out of sight of the reader. Stith noted:
Numbers often are the essential element in a story— the “what” of the five “Ws.” They can tell us what happened.… But readers usually are more interested in the answers to questions raised by numbers.

Numbers may be the foundation, but it’s people, their experiences, their explanations, their feelings, that will bring the story to life, that make people want to read.

In the Internet era, “Nerd boxes” eventually became popular ways for online public affairs outlets such as ProPublica to show their work. Though Stith warned reporters not to load articles with too many figures, in the mid-1990s Stith was counseling reporters to be ready to share their results and methods when asked. His description of the importance of transparency, replication, and openness to revising hypotheses are all consistent with the scientific method [emphasis mine]. He noted:
We are glad to tell anyone exactly how we did a report. In a few cases, we have given the agency we’re writing about copies of key reports, and allowed them to study figures we intend to use, and those we don’t.

Our theory is, we’re not ashamed of our work, and the choices we’ve made. If we’ve made a mistake, by all means, find it, and bring it to our attention before we publish. Our work— and our results— can be duplicated. And we’ll show you how.

Hamilton, James T. (2016-10-10). Democracy’s Detectives (Kindle Locations 10092-10111). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. 
Dr. Hamilton devotes extensive attention to the work of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors):
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. IRE was formed in 1975 to create a forum in which journalists throughout the world could help each other by sharing story ideas, newsgathering techniques and news sources.
IRE provides members access to thousands of reporting tip sheets and other materials through its resource center and hosts conferences and specialized training throughout the country. Programs of IRE include the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting and DocumentCloud...
"Improving the quality of investigative reporting." Like, well, having it comport with science?

One of Shawn Otto's repeated critical shots at the journalism trade:
The clash between the science-literate and a science-illiterate society creates unique problems not just for hapless individuals who run afoul of ignorant or racist authorities, but for the mainstream media as well. Budget-strapped and increasingly unable to discern between knowledge and opinion, science-illiterate journalists too often aid the slide into unreason. Many journalists believe there is no such thing as objectivity, rendering otherwise brilliant minds unable to discern between objective knowledge developed from years of scientific investigation, on the one hand, and a well-argued opinion made by an impassioned and charismatic advocate on the other. This problem extends beyond journalists. Cumulatively, newspaper editors have allowed themselves to be heavily manipulated by antiscience public-relations campaigns. One cannot be certain exactly why an opinion editor chooses to run one piece and not another, for example, but in December, 2015, the nonprofit Media Matters did an analysis of opinion pieces that mentioned the recently concluded Paris climate talks and ran in the ten largest-circulation newspapers in the United States: USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday, and the Washington Post. Nine of the pieces, or 17 percent, included climate-science denial. Just 3 percent of climate scientists in any way dispute human-caused disruption of the Earth’s climate system. This means that the major US papers expressed views that were more than five times as doubtful about climate change as the actual climate scientists publishing in the field. By engaging in this sort of misrepresentation, the media deprives the public of the reliable information necessary for self-governance. [Otto, op cit, Kindle Locations 292-305]
Keyword search "journalists" in The War on Science. 100 hits. "Journalism," 75 hits. Most of them linking to passages highly critical of the field (sometimes excessively so?) in the context of science reportage.

Stay tuned. For now, you might like my recent post "2017: Disruption ahead on all fronts, for good and ill."

"In our new era of fake news and post-truth gloom, the quest for objective truth and (non-alternative) facts has become more critical than ever before. Scientists and journalists must join forces in this common endeavor, and not hesitate to call out present and future falsehoods, whether due to innocent mistakes or to frank attempts to mislead. Whereas post-truth is an illusion—with no basis in reality—the actual truth is impervious to our wishes, emotions or beliefs. The scientific method teaches us that we will only ever attain truth by stubbornly stripping away every piece of misinformation that stands in its way. Investigative reporting and aggressive fact-checking will be crucial to get us there."
Glad I signed up for their email feeds.

Op-Ed: Trump is playing a dangerous game with these 'alternative facts'


See my follow-on post "Update on the March for Science."

More to come...

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