Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Little Further Down the Tube

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home. ~David Frost

I know, I know. I'm a tiresome old curmudgeon when it comes to the subject of non-fiction television, most recently discoursed here. But, the situation is becoming so ridiculous, I am moved, once again, to raise a voice in pitiful protest.
Discovery plays fast and loose with quotes from scientists (leading them to believe that the subject is not prehistoric sharks still roaming the seas). Cosmos was horrible (thanks loads, Seth McFarland). Various crackpots have been given air time to claim they've found Jesus' tomb, Atlantis (again and again), Noah's ark (Look! That image shows a rectangular rock! It must be the ark!) and the Ark of the Covenant (one of the most pitiful shows ever done because the expert was so sincere).
Virtually every night, we get conspiracies uncovered (watch out for those sneaky Freemasons!), UFO's tracked (they're everywhere, they're everywhere), and ancient “discoveries” proving that pre-Columbus, the vikings set up shop in Wisconsin (probably because they heard the cheese was good). Also in the ancient discoveries (ha, ha) category is the never-ending nonsense of the ancient aliens shows. The pyramids? Aliens built 'em). The Nazca lines? Alien runways. Mythological beings in ancient religions? Obviously, aliens.
Recently, there was an ad for one of these pieces of nonsense claiming that Constantine's vision of a flaming cross was “misunderstood technology”, i.e. it was an airplane because, after all, if you look up in the sky an airplane looks like a cross. Of course, if it looks like a flaming cross, which was Constantine's vision, it might be in a tad of trouble, but what the heck, that's not your problem.
In hoc signo vinces, my ass; someone's just flying the friendly skies.
But it looks like they're really running dry, because they've had to resurrect the Bosnian Pyramids.
This bunch of baloney made news in the generally ignorant mass media (which will believe anything by someone claiming to be a scientist) back in 2006, and was immediately debunked. I've written about the whole fiasco at length; you can see it all here. The so-called archaeologist was a guy named Semir “Sam” Osmanagic, among whose other claims to fame included determining that ancient Mayans were descendants of the survivors of Atlantis, who were themselves descended from – ready for it?-- alien visitors from the Pleiades. As I said in my earlier piece, for those who are astronomy-disabled, the Pleiades is a star cluster which is one heck of a long way from Atlantis.
Ol' Sam even brought in an expert from Egypt to verify that his discovery was an honest-to-gosh-for-real pyramid. Trouble is the “expert” was not from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He was a mineral expert who decided that the sand between the blocks clearly indicated the use of cement like the ancient Egyptians used. Except that they didn't use a sand-filled cement; they used a gypsum-based goop which also helped slide blocks into place. There was also the problem that the whole area was under a sheet of ice at the time these things were supposedly constructed. You get the idea.
So the Bosnian Pyramids sank into oblivion as the mass media began to realize they had been had. Well, having given people enough time to forget the truth, good old History Channel (or H2, I'm not sure which) has brought them back, and given the direction they're taking these days it wouldn't be surprising to find that the aliens have something to do with them, which, interestingly was not one of the theories that Sam put forth at the time. But, if you're going to sell swamp gas, you might as well go for the premium stuff, I guess. This also may be a repeat of an program they did some years ago, which was seized upon by the pyramids-in-Bosnia crowd as proof positive that they things are real.
What makes this all so galling is that the networks peddling this stuff are supposed to be entertaining people (and sneakily teaching) people real science and history, not this hokey crap that should make an educated person puke. It becomes easier to understand why we've become a nation of anti-vaxer's, climate deniers, and history revisionists. Combine this sort of “educational” programming with home schooling, Bible-based science and history, and a general disregard for actually learning anything of substance and you find the current miserable state of American education easy to understand.
Look, an occasional nutball claiming aliens drop by his backyard on a regular basis is just fine, if you have real scientists pointing out that he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. But equal time for real knowledge doesn't seem to be part of the fabric of these programs.
The only satisfaction I can derive is that even the ignorant will tire of these idiotic displays after a while. After all, if you've seen one alien unexplained conspiracy you've seen them all. By that time, they'll have lost all the intelligent viewers, so no one will be left to watch their drivel. These networks will be reduced to 24 hours per day of infomercials.
Which will contain more factual material than all the hokum shows combined.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Discovery Slowly Sinks into the Sunset

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? ~Nicholas Johnson

I admit it: I am a veritable broken record when it comes to the subject of the so-called science and history channels. Note: If you're lucky one of the history channels will tell you what a “broken record” might be. Well, b'gosh, someone else has noticed. Over at Quartz.com, Adam Epstein takes issue with the Discovery axis and has a probable explanation for why it isn't going to get better any time soon.
I had seen articles elsewhere about scientists being ticked off that their quotes were taken and put into the context of some hokey monster shark expedition that had nothing to do with them. This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. One famous example was the Jesus tomb debacle that had experts coming out of the woodwork to complain about how their quotes were used. Given the route Discovery seems to be going, they won't be able to get reputable experts to speak to them. Not that they'll be bothered about it; there are loads of hokey experts available to throw out a meaningless pithy quote.
However, the depth to which Discovery will probably sink is indicated by the fact, as Mr. Epstein reports, that they have severed their ties with the BBC. The BBC, as can be seen by glancing at the credits of any decent non-fiction program, puts out most of the good stuff on Science, History, and formerly on Discovery. Now that Discovery is not going to have a relationship with them, how long before Science goes that route as well? Science Channel has pretty much become a YouTube outlet, with supposed scientists commenting on idiotic videos of people trying to do harm to themselves and others. That's about as low-budget as it gets.
History and Science have themselves devolved into UFO and “unexplained things” networks. There's the idiocy of Ancient Aliens. Constantine didn't see a flaming cross; he saw an airplane. It's “misunderstood technology.” The only thing that's misunderstood is that there is no proof, even indirect, circumstantial proof, that aliens have landed on Earth. Frankly, if they start getting our TV transmissions, they'll decide to avoid the place like the plague, if they're looking for intelligent conversation. On the other hand, if they're looking for an easy mark to exterminate through trickery, they'll recognize easy pickings when they see it.  They could destroy humanity with a couple of well-place infomercials.
It's not that these stations don't occasionally screw up and show something intelligent. It's just that the good stuff is often 5 or 10 years old. There hasn't been a good paleontology series since around 2000. Even Nova on PBS is guilty of this. Fortunately they redeemed themselves a bit recently with a good series on the paleo history of Australia, which was definitely worth watching. And Science claims to be showing new episodes of How the Universe Works, but the series seems to have gotten kind of hung up on catastrophes like:
  • An asteroid is going to hit the Earth, and wipe us out.
  • A nearby star will go supernova, and wipe us out.
  • A black hole will wander through the solar system, and wipe us out.
  • The universe will under go a phase change, and wipe everything out.
I mean, I know nothing is forever, but aren't there any subjects you guys can talk about that don't end with me and my nearest and dearest all turned to cinders?
At any rate, there's no sign that it's going to get better any time soon. In fact it looks pretty grim with no BBC programming coming to Discovery, which will now enthrall us with more Scandals of the Amish or Cursing Fisherman Who Might Die on Camera If You're Lucky.
Looks like I'm going to be able to catch up on my reading.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Fixing Science and History Programs

It is precisely because it is fashionable for Americans to know no science, even though they may be well educated otherwise, that they so easily fall prey to nonsense. They thus become part of the armies of the night, the purveyors of nitwittery, the retailers of intellectual junk food, the feeders on mental cardboard, for their ignorance keeps them from distinguishing nectar from sewage. ~ Isaac Asimov, "The Armies of the Night"

I was watching How the Universe Works on the Science Channel the other morning when I was startled by their depiction of the Big Bang. What startled me is that they got it right! I'll explain how in a moment, but it was so notable that it brought to mind the things that they mess up on science and history programs. After the debacle that was the Cosmos reboot, I figured science television (and by extension, historical TV) was pretty much dead. Now I have a little hope, but there are still lots of things that need to be fixed.

1. The Big Bang was not a smoke and flame filled explosion. This is what surprised me the other day. In Universe, the event was shown as a sudden expansion of a sort of hazy ball. There was no flame and smoke and no kaboom, unlike the Cosmos depiction, which Neil Tyson should have screamed about to the crowd of executive producers. Let's face it: no one was there when it happened, but it is postulated that from nothing we suddenly got a hot rapidly expanding mess of subatomic stuff that would congeal into atoms, stars, galaxies, and us. Bravo for someone getting right, but will others do it too?

2. You cannot hear explosions in space. Is anyone else sick and tired of colliding planetoids making crashing and booming sounds as they collide? Supernovae certainly put out a hell of a shock wave, but you don't hear it kapowie like a Mythbusters' “big boom.” Space is nearly empty, science show producers, and you're not going to hear “big booms”.

3. For goodness sakes, pronounce stuff correctly. Evidently, the narrators of these programs never actually watch any of the expert interviews. Did no one during the recording session actually listen to the narrator? Those are the only explanations for a narrator pronouncing the Sicilian city Syracuse as “Sire-a-cuse”. I mean, I can understand accenting the wrong syllable once in a while, or having trouble with some obscure member of the Period Table, but “Sire-a-cuse”? Really?

4. Either update the program or stop showing it when it gets out-of-date due to new information. The other day, I was watching a dinosaur program when they dropped some information that didn't seem right. I checked and the program first aired in 1999. In fact, it's unusual to find any paleological show newer than the early 2000's. True some stuff is still accurate, but there's stuff happening all the time in science and historical research that deserves to be mentioned. One of the funniest examples of a half-hearted attempt at an update involved the Tut caper (see the postscript to the article). So maybe the answer is just dump the old program and create new ones.

5. Stop showing flaming meteors hitting the ground. One of two things happens to a meteoroid on the way down to the ground. One, it burns up and possibly explodes in the air, sometimes with significant affect (Tunguska comes to mind). Two, it lands on the ground where it's hot to the touch but not nearly on fire. In fact, a meteor crashed through a car's gas tank some years ago; another clonked a lady on the shoulder more recently. But just showing rocks big enough to smash your skull into little bits is not as visually impressive as a flaming rock that big hitting someone's Buick.

But there's a big thing these channels need to do to demonstrate that science and history are their primary aims. Dump the “unexplained”, “UFO landed on my lawn”, “aliens gave us everything” shows. Simply put, most of this stuff, if not all of it, is pure junk. I mean some guy goes nuts over an elongated skull being an obvious dead alien, despite the fact that it's well known that some groups made a practice of performing this “beautification”. I'm sick of Bigfoot and all his brethren. I am tired of “unexplained” events that have been explained. If I have to hear that Atlantis has been found yet again, I may get sick.
And don't even get me started about the Bermuda Triangle.
I'm a bit more torn about the “near science” shows, the chief of which is Through the Wormhole. Fringe science has occasionally turned out to be the real thing. Quantum mechanics was thought to be pretty out there stuff back in its early days, but the theory made testable predictions that proved accurate, most people came around. That being said, some guy going on and on about his wacko theory about how time is shaped funny and then finishing with “Of course, I haven't done the calculations yet,” is a colossal waste of video tape.
There are a lot of interesting theories out there, but it would be nice to give voice to the dissenters to the latest day-glo slinky theory of matter.
At any rate, I have to hope that the Discovery-Science-History axis will mend their ways soon and get rid of endless marathons of garbage science, reality shows, and outdated re-runs. I realize that they're taking the cheap way out, as well as going for the lowest common denominator (read: person who really doesn't like science or history but enjoys naked people wandering around and cussing at each other).
On the other hand, since I watch little beyond the science and history programming, their continued dumbing-down would have one effect: I'd have to quit watching TV. Which would give me more time to write stuff.
Now that should scare anyone.

Monday, May 26, 2014

War of the Roses Redux: The Ending

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain. ~ William Shakespeare, Richard III

In November, I reported that the body of Richard III was being fought over in British courts. In case you haven't been paying attention, the body of everyone's favorite villainous monarch was found in a Leicester, England, car park. The skeleton showed obvious signs of scoliosis (Richard's hunchback) and severe trauma to the head from daggers and/or swords (Richard got whacked in battle at Bosworth Field). But the clincher was DNA testing of samples from the skeleton and from Richard's nearest living relative. Put it all together and you had as much of a sure thing as archaeology and biology can give in terms of an identification.

Since Richard III had been a king and all, it was decided that bygones should be bygones, and he should get a proper burial. That's when it got strange because the bones of a king who had been despised and overthrown violently were now desired by not one but two communities. One was Leicester, where he was found, and the other was York, represented by the Plantagenet Alliance. You can read the earlier piece to get the details.

To make a long story short, the issue has been decided in the favor of Leicester, who will build him a lovely little burial place in Leicester Cathedral where the tourists can come to see him, because this whole thing seemed to come down to that.

The Plantagenet Alliance insisted that Richard would have wanted to be planted on the old homestead in York. Well, maybe, but I suspect, as a king, he probably would have planned on being buried in Westminster Abbey, where other monarchs got interred.

It just didn't work out that way.

Monday, April 21, 2014

So long, Cosmos


Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense. ~ Carl Sagan

Okay, I give up. I gave them every chance. I hoped the scripts would quit bashing religion for the sake of bashing religion. I prayed the stupid cartoons with their over-dramatization and downright errors in fact would go away. I hoped the overt heavy-handed moralizing would stop. And I really hoped that Neil Degrasse Tyson would quit trying to be a B-picture actor and use his real voice, which is entertaining and enlightening.
Evidently ain't going to happen.
So I'm done watching. I got half-way through the last show with the overwrought cartoon about Clair Patterson and his isolation of lead in zircons when I realized they were going to have hit men chasing him as he began his campaign against lead in gasoline.
Enough already. It's bad enough that Isaac Newton was portrayed as a friendly fellow who was easily approached by Edmund Halley, when in fact, Newton was slightly mad from exposure to mercury from his alchemical experiments and hardly easy to deal with. Halley did a wonderful job just to get him focused on writing the Principia Mathematica. Newton's abilities to stay focused on a project weren't particularly good at the time. At least Halley got the credit he deserved for its publication.
The cartoons are not the only reason I've given up on the show, but they're symptomatic about the heavy-handed, often flawed information given out as fact. They got off to a hideous start with the beatification of Giordano Bruno, who was burned as a heretic because, well, he was a heretic. His writing about the structure of the universe was the least of his offenses.
Please note that I do not approve of burning people because they don't follow the tenets of a particular religion, but, if you're going to report the incident, you should point out that he was begging for it.
Today, Giordano Bruno would probably have a show where he purported to be a medium and/or astrologer foretelling the future and founding his own cockamamie religion around it. Oh, and he would be in contact with aliens.
The fluff piece on William Herschel wasn't much better, forgetting to mention he thought the sun was at the center of the galaxy (in other words, he was capable of error, too), didn't mention the work of his sister Caroline, didn't mention his work on building telescopes. But it did take pains to mention that he “believed in ghosts”, that is that the stars being viewed now might have blown up by now. Except that I've never run across anything crediting him with understanding what supernovae are, so as far as I know he might well have figured they would last forever.
Yet Herschel did a lot of neat stuff. He may have seen evidence of Uranus' rings. He identified huge numbers of nebulae. He significantly improved the telescope. Oh, and he wrote a bunch of symphonies.
This is the sort of stuff the Carl Sagan Cosmos series would have brought up just to show the depth of the man. The new Cosmos just creates badly animated cartoons. Oh, and don't forget the weekly commercial showing the special effects guy using some sponsor's tablet, which might explain the so-so graphics.
I think the problem is that the show has too many “executive producers”, all of whom seem determined to stick their biases and preconceived notions into the series. And, as I said before, we are not hearing the real voice of Neil Degrasse Tyson; we're hearing what he thinks is the voice of Carl Sagan.
This show is need of some “skeptical scrutiny”, but it's too late for that. I'm sure the whole thing is “in the can” as they say. Too bad, because the idea wasn't bad. Perhaps someday Dr. Tyson will do his own show with his own wit and outgoing style, freed from the cartoons and the agendas of MacFarlane, Braga, et. al.  Perhaps he'll take a lesson from Professor Brian Cox on how it should be done.
Perhaps, I'll even watch it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Return of Cosmos

The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous. ~ Carl Sagan

I don't mind saying that I had a lot of concerns when I heard that Fox was going to show a reboot of Cosmos. I had plenty of faith in Neil Degrasse Tyson to do a good job, but having seen the work of Seth Macfarlane, and seen the previews featuring lots of glitz and explosions, I was worried that this was just going to be a caricature of Carl Sagan's brilliant series.

The good news is that Dr. Tyson is as good as I would have hoped, the show was not filled with explosions, and it is a fine homage to Sagan's memory. Given the propensity of so-called non-fiction television (History, Discovery, and Science) to show phony-baloney reality nonsense, alien “investigations”, and other dross, this show is a breath of fresh air.

That being said, I can see there is going to be one tiresome aspect to the show: The cartoons. If future animations are as overwrought as the business dedicated to Giordano Bruno (evidently voiced by Mr. Macfarlane), the only thing we can hope is that they will be brief.

What, you might say, was wrong with it, aside from the rather poor animation technique? Well, mostly, it was a misrepresentation of the whole Bruno story. To be fair, like the Galileo inquisition, the story is often told in an abbreviated fashion, but I had higher hopes for Cosmos.

I have written before about what I called the Galileo Caper. I wont' go through the whole thing again (you can follow the link), but the basic deal is that Galileo was actually in good graces with the Church over his amazing discoveries that seemed to confirm the Copernican system. As I explained, the Church wasn't against new knowledge, it just wanted to be sure it could fold that knowledge into the belief system in a way that didn't contradict doctrine. That is not to imply that the Pope and friends were flaming liberals, because they certainly could suppress anything they wanted to. But, as was seen with the publication of Galileo's Starry Messenger, they recognized that observational evidence was fact and couldn't be hidden forever.

Galileo's mistake was in his later attempt to write a dialog about the Copernican system. The problem was that the view of the Church was put in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which means basically “simpleton”. Essentially, Galileo was putting the words of the pope into the mouth of Mortimer Snerd. This did not go over well with the Vatican.

In the case of Bruno, he most certainly was burned at the stake as a heretic. But, it wasn't just his views on the makeup of the universe that got him into hot water. Basically, his argued against pretty much all of Catholic doctrine.

  • He argued against the divinity of Jesus.
  • He didn't accept the virgin birth.
  • He didn't believe in transubstantiation or other elements of the Mass.
  • He believed in reincarnation.

Oh, and he was accused of practicing magic and divination.

Aside from that (and a few other things) he was a solid Christian.

Now, the inquisitors were not a nice group and cooked a lot of people for less, but Bruno pushed the envelope as far as he could and was still given the chance to recant. When Galileo got that chance a few ears later, he took it and lived a relatively comfortably home imprisonment. Bruno could have avoided the stake.

None of this is to excuse the Inquisitions, the hindering of the spread of knowledge, and the general Aristotelian hangup of the Church. As it has turned out, fundamentalist Protestants have been even more resistant to scientific advance, as seen in the modern day attempts to force the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Unfortunately, the animation in Cosmos serves only to be a heavy-handed condemnation of religion.

Instead of the melodramatic animation, they could have simply said that for his depiction of the universe and other heretical statements, Bruno was condemned by the Inquisition.

Having got that off my chest, I can say that I will definitely be watching the series because it still is a potential beacon of knowledge is what was once called the vast wasteland of television. After all, as Carl Sagan once said:

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The ignorance keeps growing

You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do. ~Norman Juster

According to a National Science Foundation study, 1 in 4 Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth. Only 39% answered correctly that “the universe began with a huge explosion”, and almost half of Americans don't believe human beings evolved from earlier life forms.

Like most studies, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the universe did not begin with a huge explosion; it began with a sudden rapid expansion from a primordial nucleus or a singularity (whichever you prefer). I'm sure the authors of the study had seen one too many episodes of Science or History programs that insist on showing a huge flaming explosion, complete with big booming noises and debris flying every which way and claiming that's the way things started. If other questions were similarly worded, I could see why people who knew better might say no to it.

Over half the people surveyed seem to think that astrology is a science, which is an increase from about 33% a couple of years earlier. What is supposed to have happened in two years to prompt that nonsense?

As to the question of mankind's beginnings, that is a religious question for many people. They may know better, but they keep convincing themselves that the two contradictory creation stories in Genesis make more sense than the fossil record and anthropological research.

That being said, the study (which you can see here) basically says Americans respect scientists but they don't know what they do, and they think they're dangerous. A recent study by the Huffington Post, which I wrote about recently, seemed to indicate that respect for scientists was an up and down sort of thing.

It gets better (or worse depending on your point of view) as far as the study goes. It seems that Europe and China have issues as well. For example, 1/3 of the Europeans and Chinese think the Earth is the center of the universe. However, they are more likely to believe in evolution.

A cursory review of the linked document seems to indicate that they actually put together an agglomeration of many studies, threw them in a blender, and came up with this stuff, which a variety of news sources have cherry-picked to generate a few headlines.

Without benefit of any studies or NSF funding (although they throw a few mil my way if they're suitably impressed), I can tell them a lot about American attitudes toward science. In general, they don't get it. As soon as most people no longer had to take science courses, they simply purged their minds of what little information they had. They now rely on mainstream news (which seldom goes into sufficient detail), so-called science programming (which, as I've discussed many times can range from the adequate to the downright awful), and sensationalist programming about alien encounters, international Masonic plots to rule the world, and the incredible correctness of Nostradamus' predictions, with a dash of Mayan apocalypse thrown in for good measure. And I won't even go into the mermaids and dragons nonsense.

American ignorance about science is as old as the country itself. Americans talk a great show about the importance of education but are loathe to actually have to pay for it. A huge number of years ago, when I was in high school, we had a school tax levy up for a vote. Someone wrote a letter to the newspaper saying he couldn't understand why we needed more money. After all, we could just use the text books a few years longer. Well, having sat through several years of having science teachers having to correct outdated information in our ancient science texts, I had a word to say about this in my own letter to the editor. A Latin book or an English literature book could be a few years old, but geography, history, and science texts needed to be kept up to date. My letter actually got published, a little to my surprise. So what was the reaction? Somebody wrote wrote in to say that if a student could fashion such a well-written letter, it showed that the current system was doing its job without the need of any further expenditures.

I should have written the thing in crayon with a few misspellings or something.

What is depressing about the study, if in fact its statements are valid, is that Europe and Asia are in as much trouble as we are. If it's true that significant numbers of Europeans and Asians don't know that the Earth orbits the sun, then civilization is sinking slowly into the sunset. It's a little hard to tell who is going to pull us out of this morass.

Once upon a time, this country got into science in a big way. What caused that was the Soviet Union launching Sputnik. The sudden realization that we were being out-brained by a bunch of Commies was enough of a kick in the pants to get people to fund education and to steer kids into scientific and technical fields.

There's no such competition now. No one seems to care if China gets people to the moon. Even if they do, they'll be using 50 year-old technology (except the computers will be better). There's nothing there that will get Americans or Europeans (and perhaps not even the Chinese) excited about science.

Where's an alien invasion when you need one?


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament]: 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.- Charles Babbage

As you may have heard, it snowed down here in the South. Birmingham and Atlanta were paralyzed, and most stuff just shut down. That part is normal. Southern cities do not invest heavily in snow removal equipment because it wouldn't be used more than a day or two every couple of years. The normal reaction to snow is to simply close everything down. Everyone stays home, or leaves work or school early, and watches the snow hit the ground from the comfort of their respective living rooms. The next day it melts and things are back to normal.

Well, it didn't work out that way this time. There were two problems. First, the temperature dropped precipitously as the sleet and/or snow fell. Normally, some snow falls, hits the relatively warm ground and promptly melts. In this case though, as the icy stuff hit the warm ground, it melted then got covered by more stuff that didn't melt as the temperatures fell. The ice then got covered by snow, which is about the worst case scenario for winter driving. Yet even that wouldn't have been a huge deal had it not been for the second problem: The weather guessers screwed up big time.

To begin with, winter weather warnings were issued early on (some as early as Sunday evening) that said the bad stuff would arrive around 10 AM and would affect Alabama south of I-85 and US 80. Basically, that's everything south of Montgomery. Birmingham, on the other hand, might get a “dusting” of snow. Now, if I were still doing my ridiculous commute to work in Birmingham, I probably would have considered going into work because both Birmingham and my area (slightly north of Montgomery) were outside the nasty stuff. Fortunately, I am retired now, so I didn't have to make a decision. Thank goodness.

When I got up Tuesday morning, it obvious something had gone very wrong with the predictions. First of all, it was sleeting, almost four hours before the precipitation was supposed to start. Second, looking at the radar, it was obvious that it was snowing like the dickens up in North Alabama, including Birmingham, where it wasn't supposed to. Because people up there believed that this was the “dusting” they were supposed to get, they went to work and school. By the time they realized just how wrong the weather services had been, the roads were a slick mess. But, the schools and businesses decided to tell everyone to make a break for it, which of course ended up with a major traffic catastrophe.

So what happened? Well, it seems that weather models were wrong. To begin with, the storm was farther north than the models had predicted. Then there was this from a National Weather Service person: “ 'The models we use generally show storms coming in slower than they do, so we backed up the predicted time that storms are expected to hit.' ” According to [Mark] Linhares, the NWS forecast backed up Tuesday's storm arrival by several hours, but was still off by a couple of hours.”

Now chew on that for a moment. What he's saying is that the computer models the National Weather Service uses are wrong and haven't been corrected. That is a frightening statement. Yet we see evidence of this all through hurricane season, when the models predict storm paths that are radically different from one another, and which change from one hour to the next. If you ever want to see why the path predictions are so weird, go to a weather site that shows all the models. A couple of years ago, at least one model showed a hurricane making it all the way to Wisconsin. One would think they would have dumped that model, but my suspicion is that on some other occasion it had been accurate, or at least had been more reasonable.

Computer modeling is notoriously difficult, especially when it's about real-world systems. It's one thing to predict collision interactions in a particle accelerator or how galaxies interact gravitational. It's quite another when people's lives are affected by predictions of where a hurricane will strike or how much snow is going to fall. Businesses and governments make decisions based on these predictions, and the consequences of being off by a “couple of hours” can be very costly in terms of money and in terms of lives.

So, when the Weather Service admits the model is wrong and admits that they didn't fudge it right by “a couple of hours” (in some areas it was more like 3 or 4 hours), it's time for someone to evaluate the modeling that's being done. Maybe it's time to dump the models all together and go back to actually having people read the surface maps. I suspect that forcing these people to actually analyze the weather patterns with their heads rather than almost solely with computers and fudge factors might give us better forecasts.

Face it. It's unlikely it could be much worse.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A distinct lack of respect

I find your lack of faith disturbing... ~ Darth Vader

Huffington Post took a survey (doesn't everyone?) to see how Americans felt about scientists and science journalists. Seems the answer is “not very good at all.”

Why am I not surprised?

First of all, the general public's attitude (worldwide, not just in the US) toward science has had a tendency to go up and down, depending on what was being discovered. No doubt when medical schools were using grave robbers to get human specimens for dissection, people took a dim view of this medical science stuff. Similarly, early electricity experiments, especially those involving making dead things move, had to freak many out, especially given the sensational way they were reported.

Interestingly, though, people love technology. So, when electricity started producing lighting, steam started powering machines, and so on, the average person thought this “science” stuff was pretty cool. Except when it put him out of work, but that's another story.

So people's faith in scientists kind of goes up and down depending on how much benefit they're seeing from their efforts. But a couple of other things in the HuffPo article are disturbing because they reflect justified attitudes.

For instance, there's the issue of how “pure” scientific research is. A large majority of people thought scientific findings are “often” influenced by politics or corporations. Corporate finagling with research has long been a problem, particularly in the drug industry. When people say “political”, I'm sure they thought of global warming research, but the real impact of politics is on what sorts of research will be done. If a researcher wants a grant, he/she is going to gear a proposal to whatever the powers-that-be (them what controls the money) think is hot or essential. Otherwise, the researcher is going to get squat. So, yes, politics (not limited to elected types) affects research.

Science journalists are far less trusted then the scientists. This is easy to understand if one watches any of the mainstream science reporting. I recently fried the PBS program NOVA for its hideous program on Comet ISON, which features, among other things, photographs of a bunch of comets that weren't ISON while implying that at least some of them were (including a lovely pic of Hale-Bopp). It's ironic that the commercial Science Channel did a much better job with the subject.

So, if people can't depend on NOVA, what does that say about NBC, CBS, or FOX? Worse, when the History Channels bury us under “ancient aliens” and a so-called “forensic” archaeologist (or historian, whatever he calls himself) finding the Holy Grail in the Midwest US or Welsh-speaking Native Americans, it's easy to see how people could wonder about scientists. The trouble is these sorts of nonsensical programs make people wonder about the legitimate scientists, not the phonies claiming to have found female god worship to have been rampant in the Founding Fathers.

But the scientists aren't blameless themselves. Consider these recently reported “researches”:

  • Scientists are searching for time travelers on social media. Space.com should have left this one for the Onion. However, if they must look on Facebook for time travelers, I suggest they search for “John Titor.”

  • A deformed rubber sheet is not like spacetime. Gasp! You mean the old analogy of how a big ball warps space is not actually mathematically accurate? The real shock here is that any scientist would have believed that the equations for a rubber sheet would work for four-dimensional spacetime.

  • Then there's the business of faking and/or losing data. A recent example of fakery involves AIDS research, but there have been bundles of them in the last few years. As to losing (or just plain chucking out) old data, I covered that in some detail in my last post.

  • Along the same lines of data finagling, there's this piece of information on the second-hand smoke fiasco. When these studies came out years ago, they were criticized for some fast-and-loose combining of data from different populations to get the lowest possible “significant” correlation. These criticisms came from a lot of non-tobacco funded sources, so it is nice to see that some real data has been gathered. The fact that it took so many years, though, does not increase the view of scientists in the eyes of many.

Certainly, the American distrust of scientists and science reporting reflects poorly on science education and science programming in this country. People have a vague idea how science works and what it's purpose is. All that being said, scientists and science reporters obviously aren't doing a very good job of changing anyone's mind. In other words, if scientists don't like the average American's attitude, it's up to the science community (which includes those who report on science) to do something about it.

Stopping the search for time travelers on Facebook might be a good place to start.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Some of our data is missing ...

But there is nothing, no data, no documentation, not a single wire chamber photograph, not a single collision publicly available of which you could make sense. And this is a scandal. ~ Alexander Unzicker, The Higgs Fake: How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee

I read Unzicker's book not too long ago and was amazed at just how ticked off he is with particle physics. In general, I tend to agree with him, especially in the matter of the Nobel Committee falling all over itself to give the prize out to Higgs for the possible discovery of what is maybe the Higgs boson.

For perspective, Einstein received a Nobel 10 years after expounding the General Theory of Relativity, and even then he got it for the photoelectric effect, despite the fact that solar eclipse data had verified the warping of space as predicted by Einstein and the fact that perturbations in Mercury's orbit were also explained by his theory of gravity.

But, it was the section where Unzicker started ranting about how much raw data was gone. I thought he might be indulging in hyperbole. After all, the raw data, especially for published research, can be valuable for detailed assessment of experimental accuracy and methodology. It was partly the lack of raw data that brought down Jan Hendrik Schön, which I've discussed before. Eugenie Reich brings out the point in her book Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World that suspicions began to arise when it was noticed that some graphs and tables in different papers from the genius looked exactly alike.  The suspicions began to turn into certainties when Schön couldn't produce his raw data.

Then along came this article, which is downright scary. Seems that a survey by Current Biology found that over 75% of biological study data between 1991 and 2011 seems to have gone away. Well, you say, what the heck, they got what they needed out of the numbers, so who needs them?

Well, how's this for a reason to keep the raw information? Seems that even 40-year old data can provide insights, in this case, into the deposition of moon dust. Amazingly, NASA had lost all the data. Fortunately, one of the researchers kept a backup copy of the tapes.

You want another reason? I'll give you a practical example. This involves mundane consumer products, yet it could have cost a lot of time and money trying to figure out what had changed in the product—when nothing had.

Back when I worked in the razor blade business, a large customer started complaining that one of our products was nowhere near as good as it appeared to be years ago. So we ran tests, meaning we had people shave with the product, and, lo and behold, the result was not as good as it had been a few years before. I'll spare you the gory details of how we went in circles for some time and how my boss ended up leaving the company, in part because of this problem, in part because of some other things. Once he was gone, I was free to take a close look at that old data that he had kept back. These were shaving tests he had run and summarized, and he had insisted there was nothing in that data that was important. Unfortunately, it turned out he had played a little fast and loose with the results, combining some rating levels to make it look like the product was on a par with competitors. Turned out the old data looked just like our new data. In other words, the product hadn't gotten any worse; it had always been kind of crappy.

So why did the customer perceived that the product had declined? The reality was that he wanted a price cut and figured this was a good way to get one. The happy part of the story is that we were able to figure out how to make the product better. The sad part is that the customer still went with someone cheaper (who wasn't as good as our new product). The bottom line is had we known nothing had changed, we wouldn't have wasted a ton of people-hours on a niche product and either would have immediately given him the cut or told him (politely) to go suck rocks.

The reality is that old data can be very revealing when revisited. In addition, there is probably terabytes of data that have never seen the light of day. Astronomers periodically find fascinating things in old Hubble pictures that have never been properly analyzed because of the glut of information available. If they don't see what they were looking for, they don't look at the data any further. In a couple of cases, that means they missed actual images of planets orbiting distant stars. Who knows what else is hidden in the old pictures, assuming they haven't all been tossed?

Now, the Large Hadron Collider, in fact any collider, turns out huge masses of collisions. Today, these are analyzed by computers looking for a particular event that fits a model. Well, if the model is wrong, the event might mean something totally different. We don't know that for certain, but, because data is just being chucked, it will be very difficult to go back and evaluate the possibility.

And that ain't science.