And I disagree with Paul Krugman….sort of….

From his blog today:

One of the odd things about the debates we’ve been having over economic policy since the financial crisis is how many people on one side of these debates — the side I’m not on, as it happens — believe that they can win arguments by pulling rank. Critics are dismissed as just bloggers, which supposedly disqualifies them from pointing out errors and untrue statements; ideas are dismissed (wrongly, as it happens) as not part of what anyone has taught graduate students , as if this removes any possibility that the ideas might nonetheless be right.

Do I pull rank the same way? I’m sure that if you go over my writings with a fine-toothed comb, you’ll find some examples. But I try not to; I try to make arguments on the merits, and if I dismiss someone’s contribution, I try to do it based on what he says, not who he is.

What a lot of people — academics, I’m sorry to say, in particular — don’t seem to understand are the limits to what credentials get you, in principle and in practice.

Basically, having a fancy named chair and maybe some prizes entitles you to a hearing — no more. It’s a great buzzing hive of commentary out there, so nobody can read everything that someone says; but if a famous intellectual makes a pronouncement, he both should and does get a listen much more easily than someone without the preexisting reputation.

Now in theory, Krugman is right. After all, if one of my calculus students finds an error in a research paper of mine and it is an error, well, I don’t get off the hook by saying “you are just an undergraduate”.

But practically speaking, some fields (economics, the hard sciences) are very complicated, and it would be easy for me to be snowed by something that “made sense to me” on the surface. I’ve even (for a brief period of time) fell for mathematical flim-flam. So, I tend to rely on those who have good credentials and a history of being accurate.

Of course, even Nobel Laureates (academic and science ones) sometimes turn crackpot; it happens. It even happens to well respected jurists.

So I often depend on “community consensus” to call out the crackpots.

October 15, 2013 Posted by | economics, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

I’d love to throw rocks at Georgia Republicans but….

I just read where 70 percent of Georgia Republicans are creationists. Of course, this is gross scientific illiteracy.

And yes, I’d love to use this as an intellectual club to beat the Republicans with (“see how STUPID and icky the Republicans are!”)

1. Some of these people probably are successful in other areas of their lives (business owners, military or police officers, etc.). So while they are delusional in this area, they might be smart in other areas.

2. Scientific illiteracy is indeed bipartisan.

Wait: aren’t most scientists liberal? Well, yes. But most scientists are “out there” on the bell curve; they are NOT typical liberals.

Let’s use an analogy. Remember this scene from the comedy movie Airplane?

Yes, in the United States, the elite basketball players (NBA, CBA, stronger NCAA programs) are predominately black. But these athletes are also at the extreme end of the bell curve; they have little in common with the ordinary African American. Yes, lots of blacks suck at sports and lots of Asians are horrible at math.

And yes, most liberals are not good at science, though science illiteracy shows up in different ways in the liberal community.

Think: hysterical anti-GMO “activists”: you see lots of liberals in this group (though it isn’t predominately liberal…)

You see prominent liberals part of the anti-vaccine crowd.

You see liberal members of Congress pushing to get quack medicine covered by insurance.

You see support for homeopathy in liberal circles:

Seriously, just walk into any UU Church; you’ll see a lot of this:

Our beleaguered science Ph. D. doesn’t only argue with creationists….

and remember that the scientific illiterate don’t get scientific advice from scientists, they GIVE it to them. 🙂


So, as much as I’d love to slam Georgia and the Bible Belt for their scientific illiteracy, it is everywhere, save for a few isolated oasis of science labs and departments.

August 9, 2013 Posted by | biology, creationism, evolution, science, social/political, Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Science and Silliness …

Workout notes: nothing yet; drinking the coffee to get ready to go. I’ll probably run on the treadmill (easy on the joints) and walk outside (too pretty not to)

Flu attack: how it enters your body.

Fooling yourself
Sometimes magicians can spot the weak spot in an argument or test to see if an experiment is really “double blind”. Beware of the “false positive”.

Science: not really the enemy of the humanities. This is a Stephen Pinker essay that appeared in the New Republic. I’ll quote two passages:

And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation. And if you want examples of true moral greatness, go to Wikipedia and look up the entries for “smallpox” and “rinderpest” (cattle plague). The definitions are in the past tense, indicating that human ingenuity has eradicated two of the cruelest causes of suffering in the history of our kind.

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms. A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide.

I’ve seen a case in which an English professor refused to accept that the notion that the explosion of “repressed memory” abuse cases was due to people reacting to the suggestions of the therapist; that memories can be falsified. In her mind, research basically can show whatever you want it to show.

The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Sadly, this appears to be the case. I’d hate to see the humanities cut their own throat as it is a valuable part of someone’s education.

Queen’s We Are the Champions. Watch if you like Freddie Mercury in spandex or if you like goats:

August 8, 2013 Posted by | biology, education, humor, nature, science | , , | Leave a comment

The joys of having a science Ph. D.


You can add to that: trying to have a discussion with GMO activists….or climate scientists having a discussion with climate change deniers, medical scientists trying to have a discussion with anti-vaccination activists, etc. 🙂

It has gotten to the point that, as soon as someone is referred to as “an activist”, I tune them out.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | evolution, humor, science | , | Leave a comment

Personal Stuff and some articles

I am finishing the morning coffee and will make it to the gym, then the office.

This will be my first weight lifting in a week; I miss it. I see the doctor about my back; we’ll see if there are better therapy exercises that I should be doing.

Tonight’s trail run (5 miles): I’ve signed up but will probably pass; the back is still just a bit too tender to attempt to run on an uneven surface. Fortunately, I took the “cheap, no shirt” entry fee. Hiking (in good visibility) is still ok though and I might do some of that this weekend, in addition to short runs on smooth, “easy” surfaces.

Intellectual Health
It is tough for me to master any material that is too deep during the academic year. I might work on a problem that is a follow on to a paper that has been accepted, as well as read two “broad but sort-of-shallow” text books. I have to be as diligent with my intellectual “work outs” as I am with my physical ones.

What does 200 calories get you? This is a nice slideshow.

Gravity Waves: here is a new technique for seeing these things. It is called “quantum squeezing” though I don’t know what that means.

Bacteria that resists antibiotics: this is a real threat. Right now, we don’t have drugs to fight these; we need to work at preventing spreading.

Screen shot 2013-08-02 at 6.37.26 AM

Sorry, but this is nonsense. Hey, EVERYONE has common sense (if you don’t believe them, ask them) though, well, most people have achieved at a rather average level. “Common sense” appears to be “extend what works in my day-to-day life to an unfamiliar situation”. In fact, the intuition that appears to work in a day-to-day setting often does NOT apply to unfamiliar situations such as science, macro-economics, foreign relations, etc.

Of course, we have a country of 300,000,000 people and somewhere, someone is doing something stupid. ALL of us have from time to time. Yes, there are those who do more than their share of stupid things, and yes, I know (first hand) about the educated person who has a personality disorder, loses money to scams, etc.

August 2, 2013 Posted by | biology, injury, physics, science, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

An ongoing application of Bayesian statistics to clinical trails

This New York Times article is about clinical trials for drugs; in particular cancer fighting drugs. The gist of the article is that there is so much human variation and so much variation between cancer cells of the “same type” of cancer is that most clinical trials prove to be disappointing.

But there is a new idea: use Bayesian statistical methods during the trial to test several drugs at once and eliminate those that appear to not be working out, even while the trial continues.

This article does NOT contain the details of how Bayesian statistics are used however.

July 16, 2013 Posted by | science, statistics | , , | Leave a comment

Lyme disease, genetic mutation and cholesterol, etc.

This is an interesting article in the New York Times about Lyme disease and how antibiotics might affect those who suffer from it and…:

Chronic Lyme disease is a highly controversial catch-all term for a host of long-lasting symptoms that may or may not stem from prior infection with the bacterium that causes acute Lyme disease. Often misdiagnosed and mistreated, chronic Lyme disease leaves thousands of people physically and mentally debilitated and without a medically established recourse.

Mary Rasenberger, 51, a New York lawyer, experienced “a series of ailments going back 10 years.” She was finally given a diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease last summer after having been told that she had multiple sclerosis.

Her long-term symptoms were “aching joints, headaches and indescribable fatigue” that made her miserable and unable to exercise. In the last few years, two additional symptoms developed: neuropathy in her limbs and face, and vision problems. In an interview, she said she “woke up every day feeling sick”; if she became overheated, she felt as if she had the flu.

Yet a test for Lyme disease came back negative. Desperate, she finally consulted a Lyme “specialist,” one of a number of doctors who treat patients with symptoms like Ms. Rasenberger’s with long-term antibiotics, despite the fact that such a regimen has shown no significant or lasting benefit in controlled clinical trials. These trials involved randomly assigning patients to the antibiotic Rocephin (often administered intravenously) or a placebo, with neither patients nor those evaluating their symptoms aware of who got what.

Still, after several months on antibiotics Ms. Rasenberger, like many similar patients, said she felt “completely healthy for the first time in years.” Each time she tries to stop the medication, her debilitating symptoms return.

Reports like Ms. Rasenberger’s are hardly unusual, and experts now realize that some people who get Lyme disease go on to develop a chronic illness even if their initial infection was promptly diagnosed and correctly treated. Approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of people who are treated for medically documented Lyme disease develop persistent or recurrent symptoms of fatigue, musculoskeletal pain and cognitive complaints …[…]

As for why some people with PTLDS seem to benefit from intensive antibiotic therapy, at least temporarily, Dr. Aucott suggested a few theories. The antibiotics may have an anti-inflammatory effect that relieves pain and swelling. Alternatively, patients may have a low-level, persistent infection that is temporarily suppressed by antibiotics — but not killed by them. Or it may be that some PTLDS patients experience a placebo effect, improving because they believe the treatment will help and because someone is finally taking their symptoms seriously.

Complicating the picture is the fact that some people with PTLDS symptoms apparently never had Lyme disease in the first place, Dr. Marques said in an interview. There are other infectious organisms — Epstein-Barr virus, for example — that can produce similar symptoms and may be the real culprits.

But experts cannot rule out Lyme spirochete as a cause, either. Many, if not most, people who are infected with it never know they have been bitten by the tiny deer tick that spreads the bacterium from animals to people. They may never develop or notice the red rash that can result. Even when a rash occurs, only one in five is the characteristic bull’s-eye associated with Lyme disease. Most are solid red and round or oval.


We still have a lot to learn, don’t we?

Now to cholesterol:

Her cholesterol was astoundingly low. Her low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, the form that promotes heart disease, was 14, a level unheard-of in healthy adults, whose normal level is over 100.

The reason was a rare gene mutation she had inherited from both her mother and her father. Only one other person, a young, healthy Zimbabwean woman whose LDL cholesterol was 15, has ever been found with the same double dose of the mutation.

The discovery of the mutation and of the two women with their dazzlingly low LDL levels has set off one of the greatest medical chases ever. It is a fevered race among three pharmaceutical companies, Amgen, Pfizer and Sanofi, to test and win approval for a drug that mimics the effects of the mutation, drives LDL levels to new lows and prevents heart attacks. All three companies have drugs in clinical trials and report that their results, so far, are exciting.

“This is our top priority,” said Dr. Andrew Plump, the head of translational medicine at Sanofi. “Nothing else we are doing has the same public health impact.” […]

Fascinating, huh? 🙂

I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again: President Obama never had a “progressive majority” in Congress, though for a 5 month period, there were 60 Democrats in the US Senate. And as for those who fantasize about President F. D. Roosevelt, remember that he made some huge compromises too.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | Barack Obama, Democrats, politics, science | , , | 1 Comment

Science Sunday: both the high level and the s****y.

Sh**ty Science
Some time ago, I mentioned that some people can benefit from receiving the stool of others. The idea: some intestinal disorders are caused by “bad” bacteria and stool from a healthy person contains a fair amount of “good” bacteria. Hence a “stool” transplant into the lower digestive tract can sometimes be beneficial.

It isn’t easy to find doctors who do this kind of therapy, but some have had success with a “do it yourself” procedure (taken from a medical doctor). The New York Times offers a story of this.

High Science
Watch a rocket take off, hover, and then, in a controlled manner, land down in a “bad science fiction movie” way.

July 8, 2013 Posted by | science, technology | , , | Leave a comment

What has held me back (some)

Workout notes
Screen shot 2013-07-06 at 10.20.11 AM

74 F, 79 percent humidity. But there were others out there, albeit on their way back.
This 8.0x mile course features a nice, cool, 1 mile segment through a “canopy” of trees and offered shade much of the way. Still, I was dying:

1:25 for 8.0x miles; 43:20 out, 41:40 back, which included a very brief walk break at 4.2 miles. I am glad that I didn’t give up on it. A younger couple passed me (female in black spandex shorts) on the way back; on the way out I saw a large group of lady runners and a few cyclists.

I wanted to chase the couple but thought better of it; it was a good thing too because I wasn’t in the best of shape at the finish. Whew! Mind you, I wasn’t running that hard.

Low hemoglobin + warm temperatures = tough day for even a medium length “run”.

There is a Chinese toad that actually grows spikes on its upper lip for a brief period during mating season; it also exhibits some unusual behavior.


Surf to the link at Jerry Coyne’s website to read more.

My social struggles

Remember those old friction exercisers?


I didn’t use this model; I used one that was marketed by Bart Starr (it had green canister) but it worked the same way.
You could use it for curls, rows, and then anchor it with a door to do lat type exercises, among other things. Some might even still use it:

I used mine fairly regularly, especially during football season when we didn’t lift weights. I also did a LOT of pushups.

I remember Sundays: I’d have my black and white television on in my room and the NFL game would be on; I’d watch the game while using this thing. I just KNEW what I was seeing my future.

Well, here is what happens with most young people: toward the end of high school, they get a grip, and start looking at realistic options for the futre. Me: I still had the dream of being a big time football player; I couldn’t let it go until…well..the realization came that it wouldn’t happen.

Plebe summer at Annapolis was a real eye opening experience; we were all together and I soon saw the enormous gap between me and those who were recruited for the various sports teams. It became apparent how un-athletic I was; it was humiliating. I had trouble passing the obstacle course (good athletes saw it as a bit of a joke).

It wasn’t all bad though; later I found out that I did reasonably well in certain other areas but that isn’t the point in the post.

My point: it seems that, when one changes a situation (gets older, goes to a new school, gets a new job, moves to a different social setting), there are a blizzard of “unspoken rules” or “unspoken points of etiquette” that other people pick up on, without having to be told. I was TERRIBLE at that; I still am. In fact, I’ve learned to make it a point to learn these unspoken rules and to quietly ask others if I am confused.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t do well as a Naval officer, though I started to catch on toward the end. I do eventually catch on and end up extracting my head from my butt, but sometimes it is not until I wore some people’s nerves raw.

So, back to the exer-genie example: most people do NOT need to be told when they need to grow up and let go of childhood fantasies. I was NOT one of those people; I needed cold, hard reality to kick me in the teeth.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | evolution, frogs, Navel Staring, running, science, spandex | , , , | Leave a comment

Science: camouflaged birds and the sinusoidal jet stream

Camouflaged birds: hat tip to Jerry Coyne:

This bird looks like a piece of rotted tree, when it is staying still. It will do this, even during a rainstorm. It is also very protective of its young.

The jet stream
The jet stream has changed from being more or less “latitude like” to being sinusoidal; this has allowed the cool arctic air to go lower in some places and further up in others; hence we have some weird temperature fluctuations and lots of rain in some places:

Consider these unusual occurrences over the past few years:

— The winter of 2011-12 seemed to disappear, with little snow and record warmth in March. That was followed by the winter of 2012-13 when nor’easters seemed to queue up to strike the same coastal areas repeatedly.

— Superstorm Sandy took an odd left turn in October from the Atlantic straight into New Jersey, something that happens once every 700 years or so.

— One 12-month period had a record number of tornadoes. That was followed by 12 months that set a record for lack of tornadoes.

And here is what federal weather officials call a “spring paradox”: The U.S. had both an unusually large area of snow cover in March and April and a near-record low area of snow cover in May. The entire Northern Hemisphere had record snow coverage area in December but the third lowest snow extent for May.

“I’ve been doing meteorology for 30 years and the jet stream the last three years has done stuff I’ve never seen,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private service Weather Underground. “The fact that the jet stream is unusual could be an indicator of something. I’m not saying we know what it is.”

One hypothesis postis a change in a loss of Arctic sea ice as a culprit.

Here is a spectacular example: one town in South Dakota saw a 70 degree rise in temperature, over a 24 hour period!

July 2, 2013 Posted by | biology, climate change, evolution, nature, science | , | Leave a comment