ESP Study Proves Science Still Works

The fallibilities of science as an institution have frequently been on display lately. I’m hoping to find some time to write about that. But today I want to make note of something else: evidence of science working out well. Specifically, the freshly released extra-sensory perception study and the scientific response to it.

I’m not particularly excited about the media response to the paper. The media’s take is still unfolding and, although I haven’t seen any really egregious coverage yet, based on past experience we can generally anticipate the usual noncommittal half-phrases that emerge from the clumsy coupling of science-agnostic journalists and journalism-indifferent scientists.

But I am kind of excited about the way that science — meaning science as an institutional whole — has dealt with the research. I’m excited for a few reasons.

First of all, somebody decided to do a reasonably rigorous study on an interesting, hugely improbable phenomenon. It’s colossally unlikely that ESP exists in the world, but there is enough general interest in it that somebody might as well take a few weeks to run some actual tests. Not of course iron-clad conclusive tests (such things rarely exist outside of physics and maybe chemistry), but some experiments that are well-formed enough to be at least cautiously suggestive of the outlines of truth within some limited contexts. You know, scientific research.

Highly improbable phenomenon rarely turn out to be true. Single experiments are almost never likely to prove whether or not they’re true, either way. But true paradigm shifts in our understanding of major phenomena do occur often enough that it seems worthwhile to occasionally run some off-the-wall research, as long as the research is usefully competent, and reasonably cheap. Individual experiments may suggest some surprises, and those surprises are likely to eventually get explained as unimportant exceptions. They may alternatively or also induce some usefully novel thinking that breaks up comfortable patterns of observation. So colour me skeptical and maybe bemused, but I can’t work up any actual anger that somebody would do a study on ESP.

Second, the paper was submitted for peer-review. Peer review has flaws, lord lord. But it’s not such a bad procedure all-in. Sort of like a pre-trial: is the evidence here good enough to keep the accused in lock-up and use up the court’s time with a real trial, or should the whole she-bang be tossed off the docket so we can get on to the real deal? Or rather, is the research described plausible enough to merit the symbolic weight of the journal’s logo in the top-left corner? Or is it dubious enough that we shouldn’t subject real working researchers to the onus of having to skim past the title and maybe the abstract the next time they’re scanning the results of their daily keyword search alerts?

The real world uses Digg or Reddit or Facebook or whatever to do their focus-filtering. Science uses the peer-reviewed journal method, and it works at least OK (it also uses Digg or Reddit or arxiv or whatever). Sure prestige, apathy, vengeance, intellectual provincialism and ignorance all have a place in the peer review process, but mostly you get forthright and well considered opinions from people who have a reason to know.

In this case the panel of four peer reviewers were sufficiently convinced of the plausibility of the research to pass it along as worth reading by other people. So it’s probably interesting research. So it’s good we get to hear about it.

Thirdly, smart people read the paper and are trying to figure out how the results could be the way they are. Are there experimental design flaws? Statistical flaws? Could it be that the student-subjects were actually influenced by future events? (Let’s check for statistical flaws again.) Isn’t science amazing — if you do your work well enough, scads of brainiacs will add value by contextualizing and critiquing all the bits. For free! At least, free to you (except for when you pay your taxes). Sometimes that process is collegial, sometimes it gets personal and even ugly. I suspect we’re going to see both in this case. But we’re definitely going to see a lot of clever cats blasting away with both lobes. Fun.

I’m a little saddened by and a little sympathetic to the folks who are outraged that this topic is getting treated seriously at all. And yes, I’m sure that the foil-beany woo woo brigade will be barking about a paper proving ESP in a major journal for internet-years to come. There’s also an argument to be made that, given the utter implausibility of extra-sensory perception, diverting the attention of working researchers and the public towards it for any amount of time is a waste of that time. But whatever. The guy did (apparently) real research. It may or may not have experimental flaws, but if he’s maintained the intellectual respect of his intellectual peer group for this long it’s unlikely that he actively gamed his own system, or deliberately fiddled his numbers afterwards. Occasionally a working researcher with some one-off weirdo reason for kinking their own integrity will slip one past the peer review process (e.g. 1, 2, 3). The process mostly works on a presumption of good faith, and is susceptible on those grounds. But those are very rare events. If the media narrative is to be believed, real researchers really respect Dr. Bem’s considerable research record, so I’m guessing this is good-faith experimentation. In which case: hey, he deserves to present it to the community. Let’s have at it.

Fourth, the experiments are going to be replicated. One place I’m not so proud of science is that, as far as I can tell, this doesn’t really happen. Every highschool student is told that replication is very important to the scientific method. I suspect it almost never happens in practice. Because it’s boring.

What does commonly happen is that people adapt your published experimental premises in somewhat different circumstance, and those variants both produce fresh knowledge and sort-of stand in for replication. Oh, you think you showed that turtle gender is influenced by Great Lakes water chemistry? What about if I try it in frogs in Lake Baikal? This time I think we’re going to get to see straight-up replication. Should be interesting. And it will make all those highschool textbooks true for a moment.

Fifth and finally, even if the results of the study are eventually deemed to not be reflective of the whole truth, they are in this case guaranteed to be at least interestingly wrong. Which is possibly the best kind of research result. Most of the time, interestingly wrong studies will throw some little cul-de-sac of current research consensus into relief, and spark some questions that are interesting to people in one side of one building on campus. This time the questions emerging seem to be more grand, like: what if the common statistical framework used by the discipline of psychology is a) not equivalent to that used in other disciplines and b) not entirely suitable to assessing claims of extraordinary uniqueness (whatever that means)? Wouldn’t that be fun to know! So thanks Dr. Bem for helping us to find out. Even if ESP isn’t true.

Indeed, I would bet my kidneys against there being any actual ESP out there. I mean come on! It just sits way too far outside of the network of forces and facts that I have personally perceived or come to trust in the world. But I’m rather pleased about the reactions so far of the institution of science, an institution I’m rather fond of. That reaction could be going much worse — science doesn’t always deal well with institutional problems that come at it from oblique angles. So far, so good.

In The Service of Canadian Wildlife

For the last few months I have been holding down the Landscape Analysis desk at the pacific regional branch of the Canadian Wildlife Service, while the regular guy was off doing emergency planning. This was the last week of the contract and I’m once again a private citizen. Most of my time was given to a particular project: an upcoming study of the impacts of salmon gillnet fishing on diving seabirds. I wanted to take the job because the project has some really interesting research challenges. I was also curious to get an inside view of how conservation science is done in government.

Many of the projects I’ve been involved with in academia share similar themes to the work being done by the CWS: landscape-scale, data-driven assessment of trends and interactions in environmental systems. But doing research at CWS had a different feel than the academic labs I’ve known. Government research answers to different criteria and has a different audience. The primary motivation is not to satisfy your personal sense of cosmic wonder, and share what you learn with the peers who might read your journal submission. Nor are you hoping that some government conservation type might eventually take note of your theory, and embed it somehow in conservation regulation. In government you’re supposed to be doing the right thing, right now, on behalf of everybody. And not only do you have to do the right thing, you might have to demonstrate that the thing you’ve chosen to do is, in some plausibly objective sense, right. In practice that seems to mean being able to tie your choices back to previously identified criteria, which in turn link back to pre-existing directives, which are all presumably grounded on specific bullet points in legislation. It’s meant to be science as a service, not as an interest. The result might be a more conservative approach to research. You can take more risks when it’s only your own thesis goals on the line.

I don’t mean that as a criticism. Transparency and accountability are necessary to good governance, and if the business of the day has to move a little more slowly to ensure a documented lineage of decision making, so be it. But I was struck by a comment made by a poster on an internal forum, who suggested that space for innovation be deliberately built into the CWS’s work practices. If you have to be able to prove that you can answer a question before you’re allowed to expend resources asking it, then there are a class of complex questions which will just get left alone. And a lot of those types of questions tend to show up in conservation. I wasn’t in the Service very long, but my impression was that many people there are very aware of the benefits of asking difficult questions, and are finding ways to do so. I also got the impression that that objective is turning out to be, not surprisingly, tricky.

More concretely, I think I was seeing an institution in the midst of a protracted shift from keeper-of-records to having a more actively analytical capacity. Which would certainly be a good thing. In a changing biosphere it isn’t enough to know what the trajectory is. If your mandate is to intervene beneficially, you have to know what is causing the trends. Those two goals of memory and interpretation are not mutually exclusive, and a history of record keeping could be a key foundation for a great research agency.

This transition will not be helped by the legacy of Stéphane Dion’s time as environment minister. I gather (from occasional passing references, so maybe this narrative is inaccurate) that Dion was responsible for deliberately splitting the Service into two halves, one charged with the traditional duties of counting things, and one given the tasks of “science and technology”. There must have been some compelling  reasons to do so, but in the absence of those arguments I can’t fathom how anyone would think that severing the two hemispheres of the brain would yield good results. For starters, it’s impossible to do biological survey work without doing science. Sampling the world is not as simple as going into it, jabbing an index finger at things, and counting off. I could write an entire blog post about that, so I won’t.

Not surprisingly, data is a topic of ongoing planning and debate at the CWS. The Service has an extraordinary institutional memory. Their internal records for some species include decades of repeated censuses and surveys (in some cases repeated by the same person — imagine that!). They have stacks of tech reports with beautiful typewriter-printed tables, and gorgeously hand-drafted survey maps depicting the state of bird-colonized pacific atolls in the 1970s, tucked into their back-flap pockets. The people of the CWS hold a collective image of the historic trends of distribution and movement of bird species on the coast and across the country. And they are very actively in the process of transcribing that tech-report and spreadsheet data into a living digital resource but hoo-boy, doing so leads to some thorny posers around process and infrastructure.

Whilst chipping away at my own corner of that issue, I was struck by just how screwed up the state of GIS data storage is in general. How does any institution store spatial data in a truly cross-platform, future-proof way that protects it for posterity whilst simultaneously exposing it for analysis? Particularly if that data has any kind of significant relational structure to it? There are some beautiful ideas for the future, but the current options aren’t very satisfying. I had somehow always assumed that problem was solved somewhere, but now I’m confused how anybody does it.

The study I was contributing to will ramp up this summer, and depending on the results of that field season (and on the future of the salmon gillnet fishery, which is hardly clear) could be ongoing for years. I hope I’ve helped set up that program for success. Another difference between government work and working in academia or private industry is that little voice in your head, constantly wondering if what you’re doing would be judged a reasonable expenditure of the taxpayer’s dollars, if they could watch you doing it. For my own sake it was a definite win. The challenges were interesting — I was especially pleased to enhance my experience with database wrangling — and that inside-government perspective did indeed yield plenty to think about.

Good News About Good News

I find this article powerfully heartening for a number of reasons. And since it’s good news, I’m inclined to share it with you now:

Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s AwesomeJohn Tierny, New York Times

Visualization of the Tinyness of Tiny Things

This visualization of small things starts at the scale of coffee beans and free-zooms down to a carbon atom, always keeping some bigger and smaller things in the frame for reference. My mind is being blown at the scale of a lot.

CELL SIZE AND SCALE — Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah

We’ve Chosen Not to Know What is Causing Salmon Decline

This is painful: It looks like we may not have the data needed to explain the pacific salmon collapse because of politically motivated cuts to research, going back perhaps 30 years. It’s hard enough to understand ecosystems even when we have resources to do the science.

No answers in B.C.’s sudden salmon collapse — Canadian Press, in the Globe and Mail

This has been a frustrating tale for a long time now. The government refuses to take on the research, disregards or even deliberately interferes with non-gov scientists who try to do it on their own, and then dismisses criticism from non-scientists by pointing out that there’s insufficient scientific proof. It may be that fish farms aren’t to blame for this round of salmon decline, so it’s somewhat ironic that the media is picking this moment to wake up to the sea lice story. Of course there’s no knowing what the cause is either way. And now that the fish farms are well established and oceanic temperatures and acidity levels are likely to remain unstable, it will be hard or impossible to set up well controlled experiments to find out.

Amino Acids Are From Space !?!

Found: first amino acid on a comet — New Scientist

Sweet jeezus, they found glycine on a comet in space! A comet not from earth! The only interpretation I can see is that the basic molecular structure of life is non-earth in origin. OMG! WTF! INTERROBANG!!! We’re from space! Like, seriously. Am I wrong about this?

And how is this old news amongst the exobiology crowd?

glycine molecular structure
glycine: surely not random?

Does it Matter that Canada’s Minister of Science is Creationist?

First off, the clarification. When asked later if he believes in evolution, he said:

“Of course I do….We are evolving every year, every decade. That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment. But that’s not relevant and that is why I refused to answer the question. The interview was about our science and tech strategy, which is strong.”

I’m not a fan of gotcha politics, the heart of which is taking comments out of context. But there’s a risk here of reverse-gotcha-ism. Some news outlets are reporting that the minister “ended the evolution brouhaha” with that statement, and the CBC carried only the first sentence. What I take from the full quote is that he believes in the word evolution. He believes things change over time, possibly in response to their environment. Things like shoes, and yearly change in response to “the sun”. Which is not of course the same thing as believing in the evolution of species and their traits over generations through natural selection of the fittest genes. Natural selection is the kind of evolution the minister was originally being asked about, and so far he hasn’t answered that question.

That could mean just a few possible things. One is that he didn’t understand that the question was about Darwinian evolution, and really thought the question was about general things like footwear changing over time, but that’s unlikely. Another is that he doesn’t understand the distinction, but nobody gets through a science-based degree (at Waterloo no less) without being vaguely aware that Darwin had a particular mechanism for evolution in mind. What seems more likely is that he is aware of the distinction, but figures the news-reading public might not be focused on it, and is using that confusion to avoid admitting that he really doesn’t believe in evolution.

So is it fair to ask a politician about their religion? Because creationism is a religious issue, he’s right about that, and that links a person’s views on the evolution of species to their religious views. As a general rule, I personally don’t think politicians should be asked about their religion. But sometimes the general rules get murky, such as when a science minister gets asked about an issue that bridges both science and religion. It’s hard to say, but in this case I think it probably was appropriate to ask him that, and I think he probably should answer, eventually.

He signaled the real answer by telling us that his views on evolution are tied to his religious faith. And unless he belongs to some hyper-rationalist religious community that I’m not aware of, one which has strong views say on punctualism versus gradualism, that pretty much means he thinks God settled the species.

So does that matter? Is it a problem for a Minister of Science to not believe in evolution? I don’t know. What does a Minister of Science do anyway? Not science, presumably. Some people seem to think he controls the balance between applied and pure research funding. Some people think that this minister is a fan of commercialized engineering over broader research. Well, okay, and if so that would worry me. Personally, I figure you need to spread research funding all up and down the applied:pure continuum, focusing especially on those areas of pure science which bear on those areas of applied science which bear on topics of significant worldly impact. That’s my opinion, and as far as I can tell, that doesn’t derive from my religious beliefs.

Maybe the unsettling thing about having a creationist Science Minister is just the sense that seriously religious types sometimes seem suspicious about science. There are lots of religiously faithful folks who are effective professional scientists, but I suspect that most of those are the sort whose religious perspective is such that it can be reconciled with adeterministic mechanisms like genetic drift. I have trouble seeing how those who adhere more closely to literalist gospel truth can simultaneously muster the disciplined intensity of respect for worldly truth that purest research science gathers around it.

Do we want a science minister who is suspicious of scientists? Yes, absolutely. Do we want a science minister who is suspicious of science? Maybe. Do we want a science minister who lets religion trump the most well-established, central tenets of scientific theory in his personal world view? All of this is to say that I’m just not sure, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a good idea.

Google Earth Gets Oceans, Time

Major upgrades to Google Earth getting rolled out today. For one, oceanic surfaces will be explorable in the same way that terrestrial ones have been.

Not getting as much press, but more exciting to me, is a new ability to scroll through time, seeing changes in landcover through history. Currently, custom data can be time-stamped and viewed as a temporal animation, but the landcover data that is the core of the Google Earth viewing experience has not taken advantage of that ability. Visualizing landcover change is fundamental. Being able to see how things used to be can shift perspective completely on how things are today. Watching that change might yield a sense of trajectory, adding a feeling of dynamism and potential.

Generally, western reductionist science drops the ball on understanding the world as an ever-changing place. We tend to describe the world and it’s systems as as a series of isolated static snapshots, and I think that way of thinking either leaks out from science into broader cultural understanding, or maybe leaked in from it. As Dean Bavington would say, we need to tell stories about flows, not just stocks.

Of course, stories about flows in landcover and human footprint requires having a time series of data, and that’s challenging both from an archival and technical viewpoint. I haven’t played with it yet, it will be interesting to see just how many mountains the Google Earth people have moved to make it workable.

According to the New York Times:

“By choosing among 20 buttons holding archives of information, called “layers” by Google, a visitor can read logs of oceanographic expeditions, see old film clips from the heyday of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and check daily Navy maps of sea temperatures.” —Google Earth Fills Its Watery Gaps

10 points to anyone who can remember the name of the guy who carried the onion-skin “layers” overlay metaphor into a computerized GIS context. It’s escaping me now, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Google”.

Monetizing the Klein Bottle

No, seriously. Well, sort of seriously.

“At last, Acme has conquered topological and engineering frontiers to manufacture genuine glass Klein Bottles. These are the finest closed, non-orientable, boundary-free manifolds sold anywhere in our three spatial dimensions.”

They have hats, too.

Robert McNamara for President!

In Seed Magazine’s endorsement of Barack Obama, they make this rather startling claim:

“Far more important is this: Science is a way of governing, not just something to be governed. Science offers a methodology and philosophy rooted in evidence, kept in check by persistent inquiry, and bounded by the constraints of a self-critical and rigorous method. Science is a lens through which we can and should visualize and solve complex problems, organize government and multilateral bodies, establish international alliances, inspire national pride, restore positive feelings about America around the globe, embolden democracy, and ultimately, lead the world. More than anything, what this lens offers the next administration is a limitless capacity to handle all that comes its way, no matter how complex or unanticipated.”

I suppose the “methodology and philosophy” of science (whatever that may be) may serve as a productive metaphor for some aspects of governance. In particular, routine and rigorous assessment of the outcomes of policies and subsequent adjustments of those policies seems like a good idea that roughly corresponds with “the scientific method” of doing things. There is also a tradition of adhering to the observable truth, without regard to personal or institutional consequences, which is expressed to a remarkable, albeit incomplete degree in scientific institutions. Politics could hugely benefit from adopting such a valuation of truth.

But governance is about so much more than facts. It’s about values. It’s all mixed up with equity, and justice, and consent, and consensus, and the lack of consensus, and figuring out just what the hell our goals for our society are anyway. I’m not sure exactly what “science” is, but I’m pretty certain it is not a way of governing human communities. I think it’s strange that the Seed editors would even make such a claim. Robert McNamara for president!

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