Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Should our leaders know about the process of science?

Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science.

Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former Chief Scientist of Australia

Do you know the basic process of science?

Maybe you have a distant memory of a school teacher saying something about cause and effect or experiment or maybe hypothesis. Perhaps you were told to mix a few chemicals in some test tubes and record the colour changes.

Well, that’s it in the formal sense — the testing of hypotheses through controlled experiments. All that stuff about the scientific method.

It began with the Scientific Revolution in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.

This period is also known as the Enlightenment when a few radical thinkers decided they had had enough of religions telling them obvious lies about the world around them. The likes of Beccaria, Baruch, Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith decided a better approach was needed, one based on fact, things known to be true.

Now let’s see what happened next.

The rise of democracy, the industrial revolution, huge increases in health and well-being for more and more people.

The average westerner now lives in more luxury and comfort than Louis XIV, the king who was miffed at all those philosophers bursting his bubble. Way more in fact.

The arts and social science types will not be happy that I am suggesting progress is down to the natural sciences, but you have to admit, it put a rocket under the process. The changes seen in societies across the globe in the last 200 years have been so much faster than at any other time in human history.

In short, science is important.


It makes good sense for leaders as well as thinkers to at least know how science works and something about the philosophy behind it. Especially the idea that the scientific method generates evidence, facts know to be true.

It is vital that decision-makers know what is known and how reliable that information is. We took the piss out of Donald Rumsfeld but actually, he was onto something, although he was lampooned for saying it.

The scientific method and the results from the researchers who apply it reliably generate the facts that give us the full suite of knowns.

Professor Chubb said something else. He also wanted the political muppets to know about statistics.

He is spot on.

Without the basics of probability — how likely something is to happen — combined with an understanding of the scientific method, the results of research and the advice of the experts are meaningless.

Probability seems quite difficult to understand for most people. Here are a few conundrums as examples…

  • If I toss a coin and get five heads in a row, what is the probability of the next coin toss delivering heads? Exactly 50%, just like it was for the previous five tosses.
  • The median is not the same as the mean even though they are both measures of central tendency unless the data is normally distributed.
  • An unlikely event is not impossible — ask Nassim Taleb about black swans.
  • Correlation is not causation.
  • And here is a statistic that everyone should know — 8,000 per hour

These statistics and likelihoods and measures of distributions are not lies, they are vital to understanding risk and opportunity, the very essence of what policy for the collective benefit should be about. Minimising risk and maximising opportunities for as many citizens and visitors as possible.

Politicians are ignorant of this at our peril.


Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to.

Also let us know in the comments section if a short course on the scientific method would be of interest to you

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.

Madness

Madness

Here is what Professor Brian Cox, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and popular interpreter of science, has to say about those who ridicule or ignore scientific consensus.

Imagine that we’re flying on a plane, and imagine that the passengers decide that they think they can fly the plane better than the captain. So they say ‘come on, we’ve had a vote and we all think that it’s our right as a citizen to land this plane rather than you. It doesn’t matter that you’ve studied it for 20 years

Do you want to be on that plane? I certainly don’t.

Any regular reader will know that I am rarely effusive on the qualities of scientists. I have doubts over the quality of research and the peer-review process that is supposed to maintain it. I question the training of future researchers and lament a seemingly pervasive misunderstanding of inference. The bunkers that scientists hide in restrict their worldview and too often the tug of opinion overrides objectivity.

But these are nuanced gripes of the middle aged.

I have never doubted the core of what science is and does. Any foibles are just that. Even modestly applied, the scientific method builds knowledge and understanding of everything from rockets to growing rocket. Without it we would still be hunting and gathering.

The captain of the plane may not be the greatest pilot on earth but I ‘d rather he have the controls than the elected nominee from random passengers.

Anyone who agrees should have a polite conversation with those who are comfortable that the $5 billion a year US Environmental Protection Agency has a budget cut of 30% whilst the US defence budget goes up by $50 billion, a 10% increase.

Madness.

Evidence

gathering-evidenceUnder English common law the accused is innocent until proven guilty. The onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person in the dock committed the offense.

This usually means that details of what happened to perpetrate the alleged crime is amassed and presented to the court. Information designed to established who did what, when, and where. Often there will also be an explanation of why the person did it for context is important too.

In short the court will hear evidence.

Indeed the quality of the legal system is determined by the amount and reliability of evidence amassed and the integrity with which it is used. A court that relied on hearsay and opinion in the absence of facts would scare most sane people.

Step outside the court and the logic that underpins the legal system should still apply.

Decisions made from evidence should be smarter, more efficient and lead to more consistent outcomes than decisions made on a whim.

Unless I was crazy thirsty I wouldn’t pay $100 for a beer once I know that the going rate for a beer is $5.

Jumping on a train makes no sense unless I know where it is going… “The train on platform 10 is an all stations to the back of beyond”.

Clearly we gather, store and use evidence all the time.

Wait a moment.

This tsunami of logic is all very well if it was true but it is a ruse. Recent experiences suggest to me that we actually prefer to be without evidence when we make decisions. Our egos rather like seat of the pants choices that require us to think fast and punt on our hunches.

Instead of careful massing of information, turning it over with evaluation skills and maybe project a scenario or two, we guess.

If the gut says yes, then yes it is.

How else could a handbag be sold for $5,000, a third of the worlds population be eating themselves into disease, or climate change be denied?

I think that massing evidence, filtering it out and taking the time for an informed choice is just too hard for most of us, even when it is about the important stuff.

As a purveyor of evidence this really pisses me off.

Guilty your honour.

Accumulated knowledge

damselflyIf you wanted to read all that humanity knows about damselflies it would take you a while.

A Google scholar search on ‘biology of damselflies’ provides a list of nearly 9,000 research papers and this is just the start. Not every paper will have biology in the title, so search ‘damselflies’ and we are up to 13,000. Dig a bit more and there are over 68,000 publications containing information on damselflies and their charming cousins the dragonflies.

Suppose you really like these flying denizens of forest glades and decide to become an expert in their biology. By allocating 10 minutes to each publication — time to scan the abstract, a graphic or two and the key points of the discussion — then you would be at it for over 11,000 hours.

Make than 6 years of full-time work with no holidays.

In the good old days of the gentleman naturalist you might actually have taken on this herculean task. Your passion for damselflies would make the work a pleasure and independent wealth afforded you all the time in the world.

There was no need to produce anything from your all those hours in a wing chair by the fire. A mind brim full of detail on mating rituals, prey selection and peptide inhibitors was enough. That you could bore the pants off your dinner guests was simply a bonus.

Not so today.

Anyone afforded the luxury of 72 months with the accumulated human knowledge of damselflies would need a product at the end — a research thesis at least. And that thesis would only pass muster if it added to the already huge body of knowledge.

Your studies could not be completed in front of the fire surrounded by a library of leather bound books with the whiff of coal smoke across your nostrils. No sir.

After just a small amount of reading you would be donning a white coat and spending the rest of time in the laboratory dissecting the tiny abdomens of Diphlebia nymphoides, a pretty blue species native to eastern Australia. How else would you discover the true variability in digestive efficiency?

Only if you were really lucky would you have first donned hiking boots and trekked to the streams and creeks with a butterfly net to catch a few specimens for your analysis.

Even when the body of knowledge is vast our job is to add to it. Human endeavour is all about adding to the pile. We are addicted to making things bigger and better.

And boy is this mountain of human knowledge growing. The 869 papers on damselflies published in 2014 is double the number published in the entire decade of the 1970s.

Clearly damselflies are not central to any of the many economic or social challenges of our times. At best research might provide some details on how to avoid their extinction. So why do it beyond bald curiosity passed down the generations?

The reason for the burgeoning knowledge is simple. There are many more people than there used to be.

More people means there is more education, more universities with science faculties, and more students in attendance. The law of large numbers does the rest. Even the most esoteric topics will have more people interested in them than in the past.

So the body of knowledge grows, even for damselflies.

Pause for a moment to consider what this process of knowledge creation means. It is nearly impossible for any one person to have read everything we know about damselflies. Even if they were given a decade in the drawing room they might not get to all of it.

We have a searchable repository of the knowledge in the cloud that makes it easy to find specific facts. This is fine if you are already an expert and know what you are looking for.

But most people simply wouldn’t look. And if nobody spends any time in the winged armchair only the cloud will have the accumulated knowledge.

Recognising what we know

There is a very funny scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asks Sheldon and Leonard trivia questions about famous American rock bands. Needless to say they are clueless. Not even Sheldon’s eidetic memory could rescue him. Penny’s infamous smirk was never funnier.

So now, do you know what this is?

equation

Don’t worry. A thousand people chosen at random from the population probably wouldn’t know either.

Most folk would be able to tell you that it was ‘some science shit’ and a few of them might know it was an equation for something.

Just one or two would recognise the mathematical notation for the third law of thermodynamics that states all processes cease as temperature approaches absolute zero.

But if more than two out of 1,000 people knew this you would suspect that the sampling was far from random. Perhaps it took place in the coffee break of a theoretical physics congress attended by Dr Coopers.

Now, of course, if you did sample 1,000 delegates from said congress, not all of them would recognise the equation. But I digress from my main point, which is this…

Each of us can only know a tiny fraction of what is known.

Even the eidetic can only remember what they have seen or heard. And for those of us who forget all the time, then our fraction can be small indeed.

The curious thing is that rather than get to know a little about a lot, people specialise. Either by choice or just as a default from our experiences we focus. After a while we all know quite a lot about something.

There are people who know more than seems possible about the cutting tolerances of a lathe or the rules that govern a financial balance sheet. There will be someone who can recite by heart the poems of Keats and someone else who can quote the test batting averages of all players in the current Indian cricket squad and then proceed to tell you why many of them should never have been selected.

This accumulation of specific knowledge is very useful. It gives us great depth in technical and practical matters. How else would an accounting firm provide services or repairs be made to a faulty MRI scanner? Not to mention brewing a decent coffee.

We need people who know the details.

What has struck me of late is just how specialised we have become and how little this means we know when presented with material outside our expertise. Just like Sheldon and Leonard, we are easily at a loss.

And yet we also take for grated what we know.

Because I have been in the guts of ecological science in research, teaching and my consulting practice for far too long, I take scientific knowledge for granted. For example, I can easily see the link between grazing management and soil carbon — graze too hard and soil carbon declines — and the net environmental benefits of changes to grazing practices that stop or even reverse that soil carbon decline.

What I can’t do is assume that a specialist in financial assurance will see or believe that such a link exists. She needs evidence. And as the language and logic flow falls outside her expertise she will need some persuading.

This is usually not a problem because ecology and accounting speak happening in the same room is about as rare as a female financial specialist. Except that they are about to collide.

The next decades will require that food production doubles or a lot of people will go hungry. Hungry people are not easily or righty ignored and the only way to feed them will be to invest in more efficient food production, distribution and storage systems.

It will be a time for specialisms to be recognised and respected. Times approach when the lion will lie down with the lamb… and come to some agreement.

This will only happen if expertise and depth of knowledge is respected. If we have to spend all the time convincing each other we actually know stuff then the solution will slip away.

So be grateful that someone among the 1,000 knows the formula for the third law of thermodynamics and don’t dismiss her for being odd.

It will be smarter to listen to she has to say.

Lex parsimoniae

William-of-OckhamMore than 600 years ago William of Ockham is credited with inventing lex parsimonae, the law of parsimony. We know it as Ockham’s razor, the principle that where there are several hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

It serves as a useful rule because fewer assumptions mean less complex solutions and these are often preferable even when they make less reliable predictions.

You will also know the modern variant KISS — keep it simple stupid — that is wielded to stop us from wandering off to the never never lands of technical, logical and, dare I say, emotional complexity that so many of us find appealing.

I often wonder what William of Ockham who lived the life of a Franciscan friar in a time when witches were burnt and the life expectancy was closer to 30 than 50 would make of mobile phone neck.

What hypothesis might he have put forward to explain the epidemic of downward eyes and squashed chins? Prayer perhaps, certainly a simple explanation with few assumptions and a good fit to the behaviours of his day.

Collective deference would be an option, a mass display of respect to an unseen deity or perhaps in anticipation of a papal visit.

A sudden collective and consuming sadness from the realization that life was indeed hard and without hope of ripe old age.

It is impossible that he would have chosen the hypothesis that people are staring at a device that invisibly connects them to candy crush and tweets with such a force that they can no longer see the sky.

Clearly the razor must have context.

It works for the assumption set that is available at the time. In other words it is dependent on what is known. Friar Ockham had no idea that everyone would carry a mobile device or that they would be addicted to it to the exclusion of all others.

It remains true that the simplest explanation is usually correct. What is good to remember is that the truth, however simple, may not yet be known.

 

Evidence-based decisions

Melbourne-skylineIn the last month I have been exploring decision making in business. It’s a long story that spins around one core assumption that I needed to test. The assumption is this.

If evidence is available people will use it to help them make smart choices.

Now I always thought that before any serious decision was made the brain recalled and sifted its available knowledge relevant to the decision. This coffee is hot. It must be because I just saw the barista pour steaming milk into it so I will sip it to avoid burning my tongue.

Other decisions rely on less categorical evidence. My superannuation scheme allows me to choose between steady and more risky but high-yield investments that have something to do with the mixture of stocks and bonds in my portfolio. I choose the steady option because I remember seeing a graph showing share price crashes occur often enough for another big one to happen before I retire.

Sipping coffee or avoiding risky stocks are evidence-based decisions even if the amount and quality of the evidence used is vastly different.

As a professional scientist evidence is my currency. Training and experience have taught me the skills to sift data into facts and to understand how facts can become evidence. And I always hope that the evidence is articulated in forms that influence decisions. This is a powerful paradigm that still underpins my consulting practice alloporus environmental.

It always made perfect sense to believe that if the human brain makes decisions based on facts, then if evidence were available people would use it.

Oh the bliss of naivety. If only it were possible to be in such a state indefinitely. Life would be so much easier.

Then I began to ask business types this question.

If evidence were available to help decision-making, would you use it?

Mumbling ensued. In just a handful of meetings it was clear that the real answer was no. There were claims of course and even the occasional example of actuarial prediction or due diligence report, but in reality decisions are gut feel things.

At best evidence is gathered in support of a decision already made.

It has been quite a shock to find a core assumption that is a given for a scientist is at best bent and at worst ignored in other walks of life, even where evidence is needed.

Then I paused and realised where evidence comes from for the majority of people who do not have the time or inclination to peruse academic tomes. It comes from their experience; usually their immediate experience that is still in the front of the mind.

And a good deal of this ‘evidence’ is incomplete.

What we see in the workplace or told by the boss or browse on the web is not evidence in the scientific sense. Even if it involves data it has no context to determine inference. In short we decide on a whim. What our guts tells us.

If this is true it begs some very interesting questions.

Why doesn’t the system fall over if we are relying on the [mostly] corpulent guts of [mostly] male business managers?

Why do we have evidence at all if nobody uses it?

Would decisions be better if they were made analytically?

Sounds Crazy #10 | Pest control means getting on with it

DeerFeral animals are pests in large parts of rural Australia. The list of culprits is long with foxes, cats, feral dogs, goats, rabbits, pigs, deer, and camels all causing problems for farmers and conservationists alike. In production terms the cost is estimated at billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly there are pest control programs all over the country with poison baits, mustering, hunting, trapping and a host of other control tactics in place.

In 2005 some scientists became curious to see if any of these control programs actually made a difference.

They interviewed as many of the pest control organisers as they could in all the states and territories for control programs that had a conservation focus. They established that the majority of over a thousand programs they identified, 68% in fact, had no form of monitoring in place at all. The pest control teams did not know how many pests they had removed or what had happened to the species or habitats the pests were affecting.

In short they were operating blind.

Now a pilot in Papua New Guinea on a stormy afternoon, if he had any sense, wouldn’t take off. Flying blind is dangerous.

Except that the only immediate danger in pest control is to the pests. The operators simply get on with control. Indeed the researchers found that there was some monitoring of person days spent tracking, numbers of baits released, and helicopter logbooks full of hours mustering sufficient to show that the job was being done — but nothing on the outcome.

After habitat loss, pests and weeds are the next most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia. In many places they are the main cause of biodiversity loss and attempts at control make sense.

What is crazy is to have no idea if control measures have made a difference. We have no idea if they are worth all the effort.

Perhaps it is that distinctly human trait where being seen to do the right thing is just as important as doing it.

Sounds crazy to me.

Google Scholar can link you to the original research

Reddiex B, et al (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. I. Patterns of control and monitoring. Wildlife Research 33, 691–709

Reddiex B. & Forsyth D.M. (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge Wildlife Research 33, 711–717

Pinnacles of knowledge

Teaspoon of soilSuper-specialization by individuals sets humans apart from all other species — more so even than language and technology.

No other species has a system where individuals can first figure out what their innate skills are and then focus on them to train, strive and perhaps one day become the best at them. It is a luxury afforded by taking away the need to spend our waking hours searching for provisions and we have basked in it. The result is extraordinary greatness in every field of human endeavor from art to archery.

Science is fertile ground for this specialization. Given that what we already know about nature is both broad and deep, advances in science require highly detailed understanding and no small amount of technical expertise.

A visit to any modern analytical laboratory will show you that the lab coated ones must be as adept with electronics and computers as they once were with a pipette and petri-dish. They must be highly focused on their topic and their techniques.

We have also had several generations of this specialization. As each generation passes the body of scientific knowledge broadens thanks to the increasing numbers of focused scientists. The handful of Universities with a five hundred-year plus heritage have been joined by thousands more, most of them in the last 100 years. The lab coat manufacturers are doing pretty well

Specialization has also filtered down the academic system. Modern undergraduates no longer enroll in a general science or even a biology degree. They will major in microbial ecology or wildlife management, specialisms that did not exist in times past. The brightest students that progress through the degrees into research and academia of necessity become super-specialists. The best of them climb steadily onto a pinnacle of knowledge that is often so narrow that only one person can stand on it.

This should be good. The body of knowledge is already vast and all the obvious things are known — it takes focus and tenacity to add anything meaningful to the pile. If the system failed to promote specialization we would rarely find out anything new.

And unless the pinnacle is tall, steep-sided and isolated on the plain of human knowledge he, or these days she who scales it would not be seen by everyone else [just because a person wears a lab coat does not mean they are exempt from normal human needs for adulation and success].

Not surprisingly then, specialization has flourished.

The soil biologist

Suppose that you are want to be a scientist and you happen to be interested in soils, specifically in the importance of biological activity for the delivery of nutrients to plant roots. This is a pretty specialized niche to begin with, albeit essential knowledge at a time when global food production must double again in the next 30 years.

This area of interest may seem quite focused yet it has a number of pinnacles. You might choose to scale the one related to arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi, AMFs. These are a specific type of fungi in the soil that penetrate the roots of vascular plants and make it easier for the plant to capture certain nutrients.

It is easy to see that the AMF specialist will soon be so focused that the biology undertaken by his colleagues who study soil nematodes is very different to his.

Techniques wise the soil biologist will also need to specialize. Instrumentation to uncover patterns in the DNA of those AMFs is not the same as those used to understand what happens to nitrogen that these microbes help to fix. It would take training and many years of experience to be able to drive all the necessary machines to be an AMF generalist.

The downside of the pinnacle

A pastry chef might be able to rustle up a passable vindaloo but it is unlikely that he would be familiar enough with the flavor combinations to create a gourmet curry dish.

Similarly whilst the AMF specialist will know more than most about soil biology

his intellectual comfort zone is narrow. Monitoring for soil quality that is in part determined by the activities of AMF, for example, requires skills in sampling design [what to sample, where, when and how often] that are not usually in the toolbox of the laboratory specialist.

Once perched on the scientific pinnacle of AMF DNA the specialist may have a fine view of the plain of soil biology below and in the distance see the landscape of challenges to apply the hard won skills. Only to do anything about them requires descending once again to the plain of generality.

At this point Sir David would whisper commentary about lemurs not wanting to cross the bare soil between isolated trees and having to first pluck up courage and then dance across the dangerous open space to the safety of the next tree.

You see the point. Complex environmental challenges need the knowledge and skills from many specialisms. In an ideal world this would mean gathering up the requisite specialists into a team and setting them to work.

Our human made world is never ideal and we are at serious risk of super-specializing our way out of the ability to adapt.