Saturday, October 27, 2012

All That Science I Can't Understand

At Balloon Juice, DougJ notes that New York Times columnist David Brooks recently poo-pooed Nate Silver's now-infamous breakdown of the polls that included a prediction for a second Obama term.  One of the things he writes is important, and got me thinking, beyond the snark at some mainstream pundits:
It’s natural that establishment pundits would dislike Silver, of course. He deals in numbers, whereas they are quantitative illiterates. He made his bones in the grimy world of sports statistics, they made theirs doing respectable things like blowing Marty Peretz (Lane) or writing comedic books about yuppies (Brooks). So they come from different places than he does.
Two words jumped out at me - "quantitative illiterates".  In an election years where polls are popping up like mold in a junior high boys locker room, everyone and their brother can point to a poll that backs up their own treasured ideas of what's going on.  It's one of the things about Talking Points Memo I find annoying; at some point, someone needs to tell Josh Marshall that these polls are about as meaningful, in and for themselves, as reading tea leaves or goat entrails.  Since most of the people writing about the polls know as much about statistics as I do about metallurgy, I think it's fair to say we can chuckle and ignore them.

I think the same phenomenon is part of the problem we have talking about any scientific topic.  Consider global warming.  The whole idea makes sense.  The data both created and accord with the theory, both in the broad sense and in its particulars.  Yet, the theory, like all scientific theories, offers what seem to be contradictory ideas.  For example, while the global temperature will rise, this will also create far larger and more dangerous winter weather conditions in temperate regions.  Why?  Because winter weather systems, like those huge blizzards, require big masses of hot air meeting big masses of cold air to create all that snow. While temperatures in the temperate zones of the planet will continue to trend higher through traditionally colder months of the year, actual winter weather events will be more intense.  Because of global warming.

You know the argument that a fertilized egg cell, as the bearer of a unique DNA sequence, is alive and therefore deserving of legal protection? The average person sheds about 340,000,000 skin cells every single day.  Each of those has a unique DNA sequence.  Are they deserving of protection?

Consider all the talk about DNA and the relationship between genetics and certain diseases and character traits.  While it's true enough there are genetic determinants for things like eye color and hair color, and there are other genetic markers for things that range from diabetes to alcoholism, these tend to be more correlation that causation relationships.  The difference between causation and correlation is lost on most people.  For example, there is a correlation between smoking and diseases like lung cancer and heart disease.  Only about a third of smokers will develop lung cancer; about 60% will develop some kind of cardiac disease or weakness.  On the other hand, the vast majority of people who have lung cancer were smokers; the percentage of people who are diagnosed with particular types of coronary disease who were smokers is close to 90%.  That's correlation.  It's actually a simple concept.

Science is a marvelous tool.  Like all tools, however, it needs to be used properly; learning how to use it, though, is actually really easy.  Since we teach kids in elementary school about it, I don't know why educated adults suddenly become unable to understand it.

None of this is to argue that I agree with Silver's math.  Rather, it is to say that we need to be better educated about what science is and isn't, how it does what it does, so that when a nincompoop comes along and dismisses someone who actually knows what they're talking about, we can recognize the nincompoopery for what it is.

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