Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to the “God voice”

The New Yorker profiles Neil deGrasse Tyson (behind paywall):

“Tyson refuses to take explicit political positions in public, or to criticize elected officials, even those who reject evolution; he would rather invest his energies in creating a more enlightened electorate.”

This seems much better than the Bill Nye approach.  Arguing with creationists is a losing game.

He also gives us a glimpse into the childhood visit to the Hayden Planetarium that turned him onto astronomy:

“After that one session with the deep voice of the planetarium director – the God voice – resonating in the cavity of the dome, looking at the universe.  That is some pretty impactful life experience.”

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Finding confirmation bias in famous experiments – the Robert Millikan edition

In the NYT, political scientist Michael Suk-Young Chwe recalls his Caltech physics professor showing students Robert Millikan’s lab notes from his famous oil-drop experiments that established the electrical charge of the electron:

“The notebooks showed many fits and starts and many “results” that were obviously wrong, but as they progressed, the results got cleaner, and Millikan could not help but include comments such as “Best yet — Beauty — Publish.” In other words, Millikan excluded the data that seemed erroneous and included data that he liked, embracing his own confirmation bias.”

He also suggests – less credibly – that science take a lesson from literary criticism, a field that – in his view – has “real standards of scholarly validity.”

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The “look elsewhere” effect and false positives

In the NYT, George Johnson suggests that the frequency of new discoveries is declining and while false positives increase: “The phenomenon is called the ‘look elsewhere effect.’ Suppose you have it in your head that extraterrestrials are beaming, in binary code, some particular signal — the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You aim your radio telescope at a point in the sky and find nothing. So you look elsewhere, trying one spot after another until finally you hear the triumphant sound. Was it broadcast deliberately or was it a random signal — space monkeys banging on xylophones?”

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“Absurdly improbably things happen all the time”

Statistician David J. Hand explains why, in Slate:

1.  There are an infinite number of improbable events that could occur
2.  Lots of things happen – every day, every month, every year
3.  The improbable becomes inevitable

Add to this the fact that our minds are inclined to focus on the improbable that does happen and to point it out to others.  It should not surprise us when we are surprised!

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Morning musings

I’m working on book about the limitations of scientific knowledge, tentatively called Science Is Wrong.  I’ve been trying to get a grip on exactly what the book will be and how I will talk about it.

Woke up at 6 a.m. with the following thoughts swirling in my head:

1. For many people (including many scientists), invoking science is the easiest way to get them to check their critical thinking skills at the door.

2.  There’s a myth that science protects you from believing in preposterous stories.  But – at its deepest level – this is completely wrong.  In fact, the whole job of scientists is to invent preposterous stories that help us get a handle on some element of the natural world….all the while knowing that it is inevitable that the stories will be proven preposterous by future scientists.

3. The consensus of scientists is not the same thing as the Scientific Consensus.


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