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Andrew Witt
Works at Polyscience
Attended University of Wisconsin Madison
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Andrew Witt

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Pay Per View

This morning I woke to find a request in my email. A journalist was writing a story on new research and wanted me to comment on what pitfalls there might be in the model. It seemed like a pretty standard request, but I was wrong.

To begin with, the journalist didn’t give me a link to the research paper, they gave me a link to a popular article from a competing website asking whether black holes were actually holograms. The article tried to explain mind-blowing ideas about higher dimensions, and even featured a video clip where Matthew Mcconaughey explains M-theory in True Detective.

It’s too early for this. I haven’t even had a morning cuppa.

Okay, so I pour myself a cup and settle in to the task of tracking down the actual paper. A couple of Google searches later I have the actual paper (behind a paywall, natch) and start reading. Of course it uses the holographic principle, which is a mathematical technique that involves journals with confusing it with “is a hologram,” hence the popular article I was given.

It turns out the article is interesting, but has very little to do with the holographic principle. It’s actually a study of how quantum and classical descriptions of thermodynamics can give the same entropy results for black holes. Not a radical idea, nor some hologram heresy, but solid work towards bring together quantum theory with gravity. At this point I’ve already spent two hours on it, which I could do today because I have the time, and the article was interesting enough that I might get a post out of it.

Time to reply to the journalist. While they were looking for a “this is interesting, but..” reply, what they got was a tearing apart of the popular article and a basic summary of what entropy and thermodynamics are, how they relate to black holes, what the holographic principle actually is, and what the research paper is actually about.

But here’s the thing: articles on “black holes are holograms” are already gathering page-view money, and the journalist who emailed me is under pressure to get an article out quickly. They might go through what I sent them and write a thoughtful rebuttal to the hologram hype, but that wouldn’t get nearly the pageviews that Matthew Mcconaughey will. It would be easier and more profitable to simply gather a quote from someone else. I may have just wasted a couple hours this morning, but I hope not.

The thing is, the journalist actually tried to do the right thing. Seeing some sensational article they tracked down someone who might understand it as a reality check, and that’s why I took the time to reply. But if they write a more accurate article as a result it will cost them money. That’s where we are at this point. In the pay per view economy science writers lose money by taking the time to get it right.

I’m not sure how to fix this problem, but maybe one way is to draw attention to good science writing. If you see a popular science article that took the time to get it right, think about writing their editor. Tell them you liked the article because of its clarity and accuracy, and that you’d like to see more science writing like this.

Maybe then news sites will understand that science journalism can be more than pay per view.

News sites need to understand that science journalism can be more than pay per view.
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+Jef Oliver I take it you have a stack of these?
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BREAKING: Map of continental United States contains an elf making chicken in a frying pan. http://boingboing.net/2015/01/23/the-map-of-the-continental-uni.html
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VERY NICE PAMMY! Thanks. Hope you folks had a nice Christmas together.
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Humility

Yesterday’s post about the big bang and cosmic origins struck a few nerves.  Responses ranged from vulgar insults to dismissals of the post as “just a theory.”  But more subtle were the criticisms that declared the post lacked humility.  Scientific knowledge is never perfect, and to claim the validity of the big bang is to go too far.  When communicating to the general public scientists should never say “we know”, only that “we might know.” Scientists should show more humility.

Such criticism fails to recognize that the power of science is its humility.  In fact, the scientific process is based on the assumption that individual scientists won’t easily show humility on their own, so it is imposed upon them. There are three basic tenets of scientific research: it must be based upon verifiable data, it must be done publicly, and it must be open to criticism.

Most people view scientific evidence as repeatable experiments that can be done in the lab.  For this reason the findings of evolution or cosmology are often countered with “you weren’t there.”  But verifiable data is much broader than simply lab experiments.  It is a process of gathering data that clearly documents when, where and how the data was gathered.  If you gather observational data, the burden is on you to document its origin.  If you use data gathered by others, you must clearly cite your sources.

Once you have your observational results or theoretical work, the next step is to present it publicly.  This could be a conference, a preprint archive, a book, or submission to a research journal.  A scientific discovery is meaningless if it isn’t disseminated.  Publication provides a record of the work, so it can’t be tossed down the memory hole.  Make a significant discovery, and the record is there.  Make a foolish claim, and that’s there too.  It’s the latter possibility that strikes fear into scientists everywhere, because  publishing your work isn’t sufficient.  When you make your research public your colleagues now have a chance to pull the work apart and see if it really says what you think it says.  It gets subjected to peer review.

Peer review can be the most frustrating and most humiliating aspect of scientific research.  That’s why it’s considered the gold standard of science.  Having research published in a peer-reviewed journal means that the work has been examined by other experts in your field, and has been found clear and without obvious error.  It doesn’t mean its perfect, but it does mean the work has been held to a high standard and survived.  This is why when I write about new scientific work I focus on peer reviewed articles.  When I write about work that hasn’t been peer reviewed, I clearly say so.

Of course even after conducting your research, organizing your results, checking it with friendly colleagues, presenting it publicly and submitting it to peer review, you still aren’t done.  You’re never done, because at any time someone can critically review your work again.  If you have a great theory and your predictions don’t support new findings, we look for something better.  No matter how famous, or how many awards you may have, anyone can be toppled by new scientific discovery.

That’s the deal.  Keep pushing back against ideas.  Keep working to develop better theories.  Always, always keep in mind that your theories might just be wrong.

What survives is an understanding of the universe that it robust.  It is a confluence of evidence that supports a deep theoretical framework.  It is knowledge humbly gathered, and put forward with humility.  Through a process that recognizes human fallibility.  It is humanity’s best understanding of what is real and true about the cosmos.

This is why I present ideas like the big bang with the claim that we know.  We Know.  We know because thousands of individuals have devoted their lives to understanding the universe.  Devoted their lives to getting it right.  Relying on a process that forces us to be humble, and forces us to defend our ideas over and over.

In my posts I always strive to present our best understanding of the universe in a way that is clear and meaningful.  That’s why I try to limit moderation of the comments.  It is a kind of peer review.  I write about science to the best of my ability, and everyone is free to criticize it.  I’ve made mistakes in my posts and been called on them.  I’ve been praised and thanked for making things clear.  I’ve also been called a liar. A fool. Prideful. Deceitful. Ignorant. Arrogant.

Fair enough.  That’s the deal.

Image:  Excerpt from da Vinci's notebooks.
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Breaking the Law

One of the assumptions most scientists have about the universe is that there are absolute physical laws that describe or govern the behavior of the cosmos. They’re often referred to as the laws of physics. Of course the scientific theories we’ve developed over centuries of experiment and observation are also referred to as the laws of physics. The two aren’t necessarily the same, which is why you sometimes hear of some new discovery as “breaking the laws of physics.”

While I’m not particularly fond of the term, it does raise an interesting question. Can the laws of physics be broken? If you take the position that there exist some absolute set of physical laws, then the answer would be no. Any violation of the scientific theories we’ve developed would simply show that our “laws of physics” are not the real laws of physics and must therefore be modified accordingly. If, however, you take the position that our known laws of physics are the only knowledge we have of the universe, then clearly the laws of physics can be broken. Our goal as scientists is then to develop a set of physical laws that aren’t violated.

While it seems reasonable to presume that there is some set of absolute physical laws, we have no way of proving it. The idea is a metaphysical assumption we can never test. We might discover the absolute rules of the universe through scientific study, but we could never be certain that there isn’t some rule-violating process we haven’t yet observed. We may also reach a point where we have no way to distinguish between competing models. For example, the idea of early cosmic inflation would explain things such as why the universe appears to be uniform. As BICEP2 found, the presence of dust in the universe can obscure evidence of early cosmic inflation, assuming it occurred. What if it’s impossible to prove that early cosmic inflation occurred?

Of course it’s possible that there are no absolute physical laws. There may only be approximate rules that we can discover, like a game of twenty questions. One of the strengths of science is that it works even if absolute laws don’t exist. Our theories are only as good as the evidence, and are always open to improvement.

That’s why we love finding some new phenomena that “breaks the laws of physics.” It means we can learn something new about the universe.
One of the assumptions most scientists have about the universe is that there are absolute physical laws that describe or govern the behavior of the cosmos.
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FORT LAUDERDALE, FL—Smiling as their children played among the mounds of gray, icy slop, local parents told reporters Tuesday that a dirty slush machine had successfully provided their families with a small taste of winter in Florida.
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The Democrats deserved to lose tonight, but not for the reasons Republicans might think. It is typical for the opposition party to pick up seats in a midterm, especially in this case since many of the seats that were up for grabs were seats obtained by Democrats in traditionally red districts during the 2008 wave.  But even controlling for that, they still deserved to lose. Why?

Because Democrats do not stand up for democratic policies (few do unapologetically, like Elizabeth Warren). The Republicans are not shy about promoting their policies, even extremist versions of it. They run absolute nut-cases all the time for office. More than that, through constant repetition of unanswered attacks, Democrats essentially allowed the GOP message to be adopted as truth, and then simply distanced themselves from those policies.
 
So, no Democrat stood up for the record of the last 6 years. They didn't attempt to stand up for the ACA. They wouldn't even admit they voted for Obama. This kind of back peddling spinelessness isn't going to be rewarded by voters you want to turn out.

6 years ago when these Democratic Senators took office, things were much worse. Unemployment was in double digits. GDP was falling. Gas prices were high. Homes were being foreclosed. 

Now we have better economic growth than most OECD nations, our deficit is the smallest it's been since 2008, unemployment is below 6%, the stock market is doing well, gas prices have fallen significantly, and millions of Americans now have health insurance and no longer fear pre-existing conditions.

About the only nagging indicators are labor force participation rate and wages -- which mute people 'feeling' the recovery.

If you want to sell people on an ideology, you've got to believe it, and unapologetically promote it. When Tea Partyists talk about dismantling the government, they don't hold back, they don't equivocate.

If you want a vibrant two party system, in which there is a battle of ideas, and compromise, both sides need to stand up for their ideas. Over the past decades, the Democrats have essentially been acting like Reagan Republicans of the 80s, presenting a more moderate and muted form of what is essentially, a 'right' platform, meanwhile, the GOP has run even further to the right just to differentiate themselves. We have a Congress now of center-right RINO Republicans -- called Democrats --, and extreme-right conservatives.

If you're going lose, at least go down fighting for what you believe. Perhaps Democrats believe if they all started talking like Elizabeth Warren, they'd lose more elections. Maybe they would, but maybe the public would start to absorb some of the ideas, and progress would be made, just like it was made on civil rights or gay marriage. 

As soon as the Democrats accepted Republican messaging on policies, and decided to backpedal and concentrate on hyping the base over issues like "war on women, they folded any chance they had of beating the usual midterm odds.
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LOWELL, MA—Saying he feels the need every now and again to vary his repertoire, Seaport Data Systems junior account manager Brandon Herbert, an individual who already spends much of his workday breathing and chewing loudly, told reporters Monday tha...
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Downworthy: Chrome plugin to convert hyperbolic viral mill headlines into sarcastic reality. http://buff.ly/1ga6VS9
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Engineer
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  • Polyscience
    2013 - present
  • Thermal Care
    Engineer, 2013
  • Grainger Global Sourcing
  • Applied Web Systems (div of Thermal Care)
  • TRESU Royse
  • Wisconsin Center for Applied Microelectronics
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  • University of Wisconsin Madison
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