The Complexity of Modern Science - Comments

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Dr. Courtney
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Certainly, there are lots of cases where modern science is complex, but I don't see this as always being the case.

I just published a paper with a colleague where we discovered magnetoreception in several new species of fish by designing an experiment and observing different catch rates on hooks with magnets and control hooks without magnets.

See: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1511/1511.09302.pdf

I've also published a few papers using a metric for fish plumpness (analogous to BMI in humans) to correlate various possible causal factors with fish condition.

I've mentored a lot of undergraduate research where a relatively simple problem needed to be chosen to be within the skills and abilities of undergrads, and not the best undergrads, but rather the ones who were weakest in math.

I encourage folks who think modern science needs to be complex to visit nearby regional and state science fairs. While some of the better projects succeed because a student rises to the level of complexity needed by the scientific problem at hand, many good projects succeed because of a clever choice of an interesting and unanswered (or under answered) science problem that is accessible with reasonably simple techniques.

I'm not smart enough to handle overly complex problems, so I've developed the skill to pick simpler ones.
 
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  • #77
Dr. Courtney
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In 2008, I helped my wife with a talk for the West Point Physics Dept along the lines of "All I needed to know I learned in Physics 101 and 102" which was about all the work we did from 2001 to that time with little more than 1st year Physics (and math).

When blast TBI became a big deal in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, lots of folks overcomplicated their approach for inventing improved laboratory blast sources with large finite element models and six and seven figure grant proposals.

We watched some YouTube videos headed to the hardware store and plumbing supply for a few hundred dollars of materials and got to work in the basement. Several of our early designs are simple tweaks on projectile launchers without the projectiles. Three of the papers describing our inventions have been published by the Review of Scientific Instruments.

Our greatest delay was not in inventing the devices to simulate blast waves, but with the sensors and electronics to quantify what we had. Eventually we borrowed some gear from an MRAP manufacturer and then the Air Force sprung from some equipment and we got some funding from DoD contractors once we had demonstrated the potential of what we had.
 
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In red drum, the control hook outcaught the magnetic hook by 32-18 for Χ2 = 3.92 and a P-value of 0.048.
This is complex if you never came close to scientific research. You can write books about (mis)understanding p-values.

How did you calculate your p-values, by the way? Take the "3 to 11" Black Drum: If the true probability is 50%, then getting a result at least as extreme as that (in either direction) is 2*0.514*((14 choose 3)+(14 choose 2)+(14 choose 1)+(14 choose 0)) = 0.057, in contrast to the 0.033 quoted in the paper.

Can you rule out effects from a different visual appearance of the hooks? Answered in the paper, they were covered with tape to look the same (apart from sea catfish hooks).
Can you rule out effects from different times of the day or other conditions? Answered in the paper, both hooks were present together.
Can you rule out effects from the position of the hooks? Answered in the paper, you switched it every time.
Can you rule out chemical influences from the used magnets and lead control?
How did you determine when to stop fishing? Probably (hopefully!) not based on caught fish, because that would lead to a bias in significance.
You measured the length of the fish to see if they are sexually mature.

It is a relatively simple experiment, and the basic idea is easy to summarize in a non-technical way, but there are still many details behind it. That is my point: If you are not aware that those details are covered, you can come up with "oh well, I use one hook during the day, and the other during the night, then I get the same result".
 
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Dr. Courtney
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This is complex if you never came close to scientific research....

It is a relatively simple experiment, and the basic idea is easy to summarize in a non-technical way, but there are still many details behind it. That is my point: If you are not aware that those details are covered, you can come up with "oh well, I use one hook during the day, and the other during the night, then I get the same result".
Thanks for the feedback. We'll have to double check that p-value. Our usual approach is to have one co-author use one stats package for the original calculations and then another co-author checks the calculations in a couple different stats packages. I expect we simply took the two-tailed p-value reported along with the chi-square, but we'll be sure when we both repeat it. I do recall double checking our chi-square and p-value computations using data from earlier studies (published by established experts in magnetoreception) to confirm that the software we used gave the same results for earlier published data. Once a precedent was set by seminal papers, we wanted to ensure an apples-with-apples comparison.

Taking due care of details to minimize potential confounding factors has always been an essential ingredient of the scientific method, and there is nothing "modern" about it. An adequate control group and control of confounding factors have been essential ingredients in the scientific method since the beginning. These have been the fundamental distinguishing features between good experimental science and bad science for centuries.

Good high school science programs are capable of imparting this level of understanding. The average HS grad may not get it, but most of those who win and place in category at regional and state science fairs do a pretty good job.
 
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Taking due care of details to minimize potential confounding factors has always been an essential ingredient of the scientific method, and there is nothing "modern" about it.
The level of detail increased significantly in many fields. The positron discovery 1932 fitted on a few pages, the Higgs discovery 2012 was based on thousands of pages of supporting documents.
 
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Dr. Courtney
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The level of detail increased significantly in many fields. The positron discovery 1932 fitted on a few pages, the Higgs discovery 2012 was based on thousands of pages of supporting documents.
Absolutely. I agree. I am just trying to balance the notion that a lot of science in the 21st century is enormously complex with the fact that there is still plenty of room in science for people more like Michael Faraday who lacked mathematical sophistication and performed experiments very simple compared with many we see today.

The majority of my publications in the past decade are 3-6 pages, and I don't mean 4 page PRLs where the details are described in a 20 page PRA. We try pretty hard to include all the details for independent replication in the 3-6 page paper. None of my work approaches the elegance or importance of Faraday, but I strive for the simplicity.
 
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Who determines what's junk? what's pop-science? and What's of educational value, mythbusters as an example, they produce practice and sell pop-science on a large scale and are in general considered an acceptable "source" for this forum. Even though many times they get thing wrong. But that's how you learn, right?
 
  • #83
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I think the popularisation of science is horrible. It gives all the wrong signals and apparently the wrong ideas. Now, I didn't make it to become a scientist, but I am very well aware that what is conveyed to the public has virtually nothing to do with (the actual) science. I had one moment I thought I might have had an eureka-moment, and contacted a physisist. He suggested my idea was 'probably not that interesting'. I knew that already, but having an authority figure actually pointing that out to me set me back to work. I discovered that what I was actually trying was to understand the matter I was interested in. To be told that only scientists have a right to be occupied with the field of interest you are also interested in, can be disappointing. I also discovered one important motivation I was developing ideas of my own: I was utterly convinced that physics shouldn't be that complicated, the reason being that I thought that elegance and simplicity are the sign of a good theory.

So now I've figured it out. I haven't got a theory, and certainly not a new one. I've put down a set of well known laws that are enough for me to be satisfied. It is that satisfaction that stopped me from searching further. After all, I am not a scientist.
 
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Who determines what's junk? what's pop-science? and What's of educational value, mythbusters as an example, they produce practice and sell pop-science on a large scale and are in general considered an acceptable "source" for this forum. Even though many times they get thing wrong. But that's how you learn, right?
The thing is that mythbusters remains in the realm of "everyday, all around us" science.
They explain what they expect based on mechanics (including drag).
And the quote I like best (paraphrased) "Remember the difference between science and goofing around is writing your results down"

That's really important, certainly on the level of high school students that are performing their very first experiments.

Meanwhile other source are focused on spectacular but difficult to grasp phenomenons, Black holes are standard.
The course on GR I took was a semester, the full book by Carroll got treated, and the lecturer was good. Even so my knowledge is abysmal.
This is a great difference with explaining black holes without the underpinnings in under an hour. (where a lot of interesting this get swept under the rug)

I find that if they want to cover black holes in such a show, why not illustrate the Penrose process for a Kerr black hole?
That really blew my mind at the time.
 
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I don't think the Mythbusters claim to be scientists. I do think they would claim to be debunkers. They're related in spirit, but you don't have to be one to do the other: Houdini debunked seances without any claim to being a scientist.
 
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anorlunda
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I think that opposition to the popularization of science is very dangerous to science. In recent years, nothing has promoted science in the eyes of the public better than popularization of the Hubble Space Telescope pictures.

I think the forgotten point is that The American People are skeptical of those who come looking for handouts, especially if it sounds like an entitlement.
  • What is the science budget spent on? Only a panel of scientists know and understand that.
  • What are the products of science? The products are peer reviewed papers that you can't understand, and aren't allowed to view because they are behind paywalls. Scientists can view them using your money to pay the paywall fees.
  • What are the benefits of science? Scientists will draw the conclusions and tell you what they are.
  • How do we prevent abuse of science budgets? Only scientists can police themselves. All investigations and disciplinary actions are confidential.
  • I oppose science's commandments on climate change remedies because remediation is a moral and policy issue, not science. How dare you oppose us. You must be anti-science (associating you with anti-Semites), or a denier (associating you with Holocaust deniers.)
  • How much of the GDP do you need to do science properly? More. Ever more.
Quibbling over the scientific accuracy of the popularizations misses the point. Popularization is perhaps the most important part of a public relations campaign needed to convince the public that science is something that should be funded. Public statements (and private attitudes) by scientists that make them sound more like a priesthood or an over class, rather than public servants harm the cause of science.

My point is that science has a vital self interest in promoting pop science and in stop sounding so head swelled regarding themselves and so dismissive regarding the opinions of the proletariat.
 
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  • #87
Dr. Courtney
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I think that opposition to the popularization of science is very dangerous to science. In recent years, nothing has promoted science in the eyes of the public better than popularization of the Hubble Space Telescope pictures.

I think the forgotten point is that The American People are skeptical of those who come looking for handouts, especially if it sounds like an entitlement.
  • What is the science budget spent on? Only a panel of scientists know and understand that.
  • What are the products of science? The products are peer reviewed papers that you can't understand, and aren't allowed to view because they are behind paywalls. Scientists can view them using your money to pay the paywall fees.
  • What are the benefits of science? Scientists will draw the conclusions and tell you what they are.
  • How do we prevent abuse of science budgets? Only scientists can police themselves. All investigations and disciplinary actions are confidential.
  • I oppose science's commandments on climate change remedies because remediation is a moral and policy issue, not science. How dare you oppose us. You must be anti-science (associating you with anti-Semites), or a denier (associating you with Holocaust deniers.)
  • How much of the GDP do you need to do science properly? More. Ever more.
Quibbling over the scientific accuracy of the popularizations misses the point. Popularization is perhaps the most important part of a public relations campaign needed to convince the public that science is something that should be funded. Public statements (and private attitudes) by scientists that make them sound more like a priesthood or an over class, rather than public servants harm the cause of science.

My point is that science has a vital self interest in promoting pop science and in stop sounding so head swelled regarding themselves and so dismissive regarding the opinions of the proletariat.
Great points. Let me add that the popularization of science is essential to recruiting new scientists and encouraging students to work in their science classes.
 
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Public statements (and private attitudes) by scientists that make them sound more like a priesthood or an over class, rather than public servants harm the cause of science.

My point is that science has a vital self interest in promoting pop science and in stop sounding so head swelled regarding themselves and so dismissive regarding the opinions of the proletariat.

I also think that the real issue is not the accuracy/inaccuracy of pop science. The issue is faith. Almost no one, not even scientists themselves, performs experiments to check the results. We take the results on faith. The question is, in whom should one have faith?

Someone like me puts a lot of effort into checking scientific results for consistency. There are occasional errors, but the great amount of the time science is correct . I know scientists personally and plainly they aren't hucksters. This is the source of my faith.

The great majority of people have neither the time nor inclination to do this. They have to choose the objects of their faith on other things.

Now science has a huge advantage in that the modern world is utterly based on it. Electric motors, radio waves, etc. People use these things every day and it gives science great credibility. It's amazing it isn't even more than it is.

On the other hand, I think scientists tend to move into areas where science doesn't apply. I mean things for which there is no evidence either for nor against. Many scientists take the positivist point of view, that if there is no evidence then it doesn't exist. This is a philosophical stance, a faith, not science. Many positivists promote their faith aggressively, with an "this is the truth and everyone else is a fool" attitude. Some seem to think that science proves atheism. How unscientific! I find this irritating and others consider it offensive.

But this sort of thing has been going on for over a century. Why is this coming to a head now? I recently read Dwight Eisenhower's autobiography. He wrote that science would lead us into the future. The general public was quite enthusiast about science. Nowadays, no major politician dares touch the subject. They make sure science gets its money, but its mostly hush hush. What changed?

I will point out two facts. Exxon Mobil is one of the richest organizations in history, by far, to an almost unthinkable degree. These days, unlike 1958, Exxon Mobil stands to benefit economically if public faith in science is reduced.

Exxon Mobil is very influential and will continue to be. My recommendation is that scientists should stop trying to set themselves up as an alternative priesthood. They should keep their collective nose out of places they don't belong and stick with science.
 
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I also think that the real issue is not the accuracy/inaccuracy of pop science. The issue is faith. Almost no one, not even scientists themselves, performs experiments to check the results. We take the results on faith. T
I recently saw a video on Youtube. A young man made a circle of 9v batteries standing on end "to make an electric field." He put a bar magnet on a simple turntable in the center and it began to rotate. I was 99% sure it was a convincing fake, but the real point is this. 180,000 people had watched this video and not one of them had repeated the experiment to find out whether or not it would work.
 
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Almost no one, not even scientists themselves, performs experiments to check the results.
That is completely wrong, at least for serious scientific disciplines. Science is all about checking results, most of the time is spent on this. And it works. In physics, nearly every experiment gets repeated, often multiple times, and reproducibility is very high.
  • What are the benefits of science? Scientists will draw the conclusions and tell you what they are.
People thinking this should open their eyes.
 
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Quibbling over the scientific accuracy of the popularizations misses the point. Popularization is perhaps the most important part of a public relations campaign needed to convince the public that science is something that should be funded. Public statements (and private attitudes) by scientists that make them sound more like a priesthood or an over class, rather than public servants harm the cause of science.
Thank you, Its important to take science to the public, it helps to promote its virtue. Saying modern science is to difficult for laypeople or religious people or anyone is a back handed insult to the populous.




The thing is that mythbusters remains in the realm of "everyday, all around us" science.
They explain what they expect based on mechanics (including drag).
Yeah and the young people who like that show are probably gonna grow up to be the next generation of scientist. That's a good thing.
 
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That is completely wrong, at least for serious scientific disciplines. Science is all about checking results, most of the time is spent on this. And it works. In physics, nearly every experiment gets repeated, often multiple times, and reproducibility is very high.People thinking this should open their eyes.
You misunderstand me. What you are saying is completely true. But... did you personally drop weights to check Galileo's results? Have you set up a telescope and collected data to verify Kepler's laws? Did you perform your own version of the Stern-Gerlach experiment? Of course not. It is not practically possible to verify even 0.0001% of scientific results your self. The results must be accepted or rejected based on faith and consistency with what one already believes.

If someone else verifies the result then you may or may not have faith in that check. There is no getting out of this. One simply does one's best under the limitations imposed by nature.
 
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Yeah and the young people who like that show are probably gonna grow up to be the next generation of scientist. That's a good thing.
Kids in grade school could do experiments with magnets and rubber bands and stuff. I'd do it myself if it were convenient.
 
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Thank you, Its important to take science to the public, it helps to promote its virtue. Saying modern science is to difficult for laypeople or religious people or anyone is a back handed insult to the populous.
The details are often too complex for anyone who does not want to spend years to learn them, which means all apart from scientists working on that topic. We cannot change that, science for the public (or even for other scientists working on different fields) has to get simplified. The question is how, and how can we make clear that the presented things are simplified descriptions of the underlying science.
But... did you personally drop weights to check Galileo's results?
Sure.
Have you set up a telescope and collected data to verify Kepler's laws?
No, but I derived them from Newtonian physics, and I know thousands of scientists checked both Newtonian physics and the derived Kepler laws in countless independent measurements.
Did you perform your own version of the Stern-Gerlach experiment?
No, but I saw someone doing it live.

I don't need faith to trust experiments verified by multiple independent groups, getting consistent results. Most of those scientists performed the experiments much better than I could.
 
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The details are often too complex for anyone who does not want to spend years to learn them, which means all apart from scientists working on that topic. We cannot change that, science for the public (or even for other scientists working on different fields) has to get simplified. The question is how, and how can we make clear that the presented things are simplified descriptions of the underlying science.

I don't need faith to trust experiments verified by multiple independent groups, getting consistent results. Most of those scientists performed the experiments much better than I could.
I agree with you completely and I do things pretty much the same way myself. But we aren't talking about Us. We're talking about Them.

I don't think the complexity of modern science has anything to do it. Galileo had it much worse than do We and his experiments were simple enough. Complexity isn't the problem. Human psychology and the realities of politics with its vigorous pursuit of self-interest are the problem. These aren't going to go away any time soon.

You saw Stern-Gerlach live? I'm jealous. But this puts you in a microscopically tiny minority.
 
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The details are often too complex for anyone who does not want to spend years to learn them, which means all apart from scientists working on that topic. We cannot change that, science for the public (or even for other scientists working on different fields) has to get simplified. The question is how, and how can we make clear that the presented things are simplified descriptions of the underlying science.
I was referring to science as a whole, sure certain fields can't be presented in a meaningful way without simplification. And even misinformation for those of us who are curious enough to ask "the right people" ....case in point ( Oklo-phenomenon )..... can be very insightful and understandable for laypeople. Had it not been for you and others I'd still be wondering how a nuclear chain reaction could happen in nature without certain conditions being met. I understand it, and I learned from it. Surely you see the value in things of this nature.
 
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The details are often too complex for anyone who does not want to spend years to learn them, which means all apart from scientists working on that topic. We cannot change that, science for the public (or even for other scientists working on different fields) has to get simplified. The question is how, and how can we make clear that the presented things are simplified descriptions of the underlying science.
I agree. But if science is growing more complex, that means that a growing portion of the scientific budget must be diverted to explanations. The duty to explain yourself to the public should be mandatory for anyone seeking public funding. That becomes very difficult when it means laying off a researcher to make room for a populist.

Wikipedia is an example. Here on PF and elsewhere, I hear numerous complaints and whining about Wikipedia's flaws. But if we had 100,000 scientists spending 5 hours per week on Wikipedia, they could overwhelm the 10,000 or so obnoxious WIki editors. They might be able to change Wikipedia's rules and hopefully improve the value of WIkipedia for the public benefit. Lawyers are expected to devote a non-trivial fraction of their personal time to pro bono work. Would it be so bad to establish an analogous ethic for scientists to devote 5 hours per week to public education or projects like Wikipedia?
 
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I just came across this article at forbes [Title: What Are Quantum Gravity's Alternatives To String Theory?].
It can use some simplification or expansion (e.g. quantization is hard to grasp for someone that hasn't heard much about QM).
I do think it's a good a start.
 
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I just came across this article at forbes.
I have no idea what that link was pointing towards... I did have to paste the link in edge to open it without pop-up blocker so I don't know if that affected it.
 
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Yeah and the young people who like that show are probably gonna grow up to be the next generation of scientist
And the few who dislike the show because the "Laymen's Myths" focal point covers such a shallow, narrow fraction of science will be the ground-breakers. Don't get me wrong, explosions and projectiles up to the size of vehicles and such is cool and interesting but there is such a greater magnitude of sense of awe to be held for physics which most people might have had barely a brief acquaintance with very few points. For example how many people have seen an interference pattern of light with their own eyes? I can think of many such startling phenomenon which most people don't even know what is so amazing about it if you show them and you'll never see 99% of it of on "TV" if people continue to watch television.
 

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