Thursday, April 18, 2013

I went to Manchester and all I got you is this blog post

In which I sum up my QED conference experience, and also rant about the lack of social science experts on the panel about experts.

I am back from the QED conference in Manchester. Awesome, awesome conference, enjoyed every speaker, out of superlatives for the Saturday evening entertainment. The panels I found especially interesting, as they were more about the community. Some of them had to do with community and grassroots activity, but also simply because they work more like real-life conversation.

The organization was meticulous. I don’t think I had ever been in an event of this size where everything started and ended on time… Being on the volunteer team got me a mention in the back of the program and a blue T-shirt, but no work to do, with everything so well planned and organized.

I do have one rant about the content, which is what the rest of this post is about.

There was the “is science the new religion” debate, which turned out to be about science and politics. It was really the only panel with someone from “the outside”, journalist Brendan O’Neill. He debated with physicists Jeff Forshaw and Helen Czerski, and comedian Robin Ince. As Vicky puts it, “it quite quickly deteriorated into an exasperated and highly entertaining bun-fight between” O’Neill and Ince. Ince blogged about the exchange, O’Neill published his “speech” and allegedly said that “QEDcon was like a crazy cult”.

So, there was a contrarian journalist, whose politics in almost any question are reversed to that of almost any other person in the room. It was a good show. O’neill was the ultimate bad guy, Ince was fantastically enraged. The QED crowd got to be called consensus zealots on Twitter, which is utterly satisfying. 

Ironically though, for a panel about expertise, there was no expert on science and policy. The whole thing crowd-pleasing, but not thought-provoking.

The place of experts in a democracy is a balancing act. Ince writes that it is a good thing that “heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity”. Obviously. But surgeons are generally thought of as being keener than other doctors on opening people up. So people are advised to also consult a cardiologist. And ultimately in our modern enlightened medicine, the decision remains with the patient.

The question is then who gets to decide the jurisdiction of the experts. Since this is a social question, social science experts should be the ones deciding!

Yeah, that was a circular argument. In practice there’s constant negotiation in society over who gets to influence decisions. I think it would be safe to assume that most groups of people tend to prefer to be as influential as they can. Sometimes because they are Bond-style villains aspiring for world domination for its own sake, but more often because they sincerely believe they know how to do things best. The heart surgeon really does think a scalpel is the right solution for your heart problem.
Now, I am not an expert on these things and I can only provide swiping generalisations. But there are people who study how this works, sociologists of science, science and society scholars and so on. For a serious conversation about these questions you should talk to them.

Unlike Brendan O’Neill, these are people who care about evidence. They think hard and systematically about these questions. I think people in QED would value that.

(BTW, the little I know about the subject comes mostly from Alice Bell’s blog “through the looking glass”. Follow her. The Guardian’s new Political Science blog is probably also good, but I haven’t been following it closely enough)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A good example of how to go about asking people about inequality

I wrote here about a sensationalist and mostly irrelevant paper about inequality in the US. That paper attempted to detach the term “inequality” from any concrete meaning it might have in people’s lives, which I claimed that this was ridiculous, as people only form meaningful opinions about things that are grounded in their realities.

Anyway, a good soul sent me a link to Patrick Sachweh’s paper, The moral economy of inequality. It has less colorful charts and more meaningful questions. Here’s the abstract:
This article asks how ordinary people in Germany perceive and legitimize economic disparities in an era of rising income inequality. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews with respondents from higher and lower social classes, the paper reconstructs the ‘moral economy’ that underlies popular views of inequality. While respondents agree with abstract inegalitarian principles—i.e. income differentiation
based on merit—they are concerned with specific instances of inequality, especially poverty and wealth. These are criticized because they are seen to imply intolerable deviations, both upwards and downwards, from a way of living presumed as universal, thereby fostering a segregation of life-worlds and social disintegration. Thus, perceptions of injustice do not seem to be based on the existence of income inequality as such, but rather on the view that economic
disparities threaten the social bond.
Significantly, the literature review show that it has been known to science since the 1970’s that people have multi-faceted and ambivalent opinions about inequality – that don’t lend themselves easily to surveying of the type Norton & Ariely did. People generally accept the notion of inequality based on merit, but
as Huber and Form (1973) have shown, such consensus on the dominant ideology is greatest when its main tenets are put in general terms. It is noticeably reduced when more concrete statements (e.g. about existing opportunities for rich and poor people) are presented.”
And later:
Hochschild’s research illustrates that people are torn between different and partly conflicting values and principles when thinking about inequality (Hochschild, 1979, 1981). While differentiating norms prevail in the economy, egalitarian norms are supported in social relations and the polity.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I registered today to a conspiracies unconference. I don’t know much about the event yet (and may ultimately be unable to attend), but I probably wouldn’t have registered at all if not for the attractively named book Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley. Penley’s basic observation is that interest in science, science fiction, and some of what we call pseudo-science are all fundamentally the same sentiment. She calls it “the yearning to get a personal grip on that seemingly distant realm” of science and technology.

In a way Carl Sagan said a very similar thing in the opening of The Demon-Haunted World, which Penley quotes. He writes about a cab driver who wanted to ask him about science – by which he turned out to mean Nostradamus, Atlantis, and aliens in Air Force freezers. As Sagan told him there was no evidence for all that, his enthusiasm turned into glum. Sagan writes that the cabby was “well-spoken, intelligent, curious”, that he “had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe”, and that he was “widely read” – about this fringe stuff.

Sagan’s point is to lament the blending of science and nonscience. But let’s put that a side for a moment. What’s interesting for Penley, and now for me, is this guy’s deep curiosity about the world.

A science fan’s curiosity.

Why is this helpful?

For one, it helps me understand some “becoming a skeptic” stories in which people mention how previously they were into fringe stuff. For example this Guardian piece by Neil Denny (the man behind my favourite podcast!), in which he describes how he had been interested “weird phenomena” like Bigfoot and UFOs. Then he had a revelation (his word) – incidentally, reading The Demon-Haunted World – and this morphed into obsessive reading of popular science. (Neil also writes about the science fiction he read, before and presumably after, and remember how Penley thinks sci-fi is part of the same mix).

I am also reminded of an DisinfoCast, a conspiracy theories podcast. I once listened to an episode about ancient Egypt and star constellations and stuff. It wasn’t difficult to find faults in the argumentation, but I did feel a vaguely familiar vibe, reminiscent of skeptical podcasts. Something about the curiosity for stuff that is not necessarily relevant to the here and now, and the “truth against lies and distortion” theme.

I don’t mean to say that their conspiracy theories are true, just that there’s something in the form factor that reminds me of organised skepticism.

But then the next question has to be – if interest in science, pseudo-science, and science fiction are basically the same, why are some people into one combination of them and not the other? And how comes some people “convert” and others don’t? Do “conversions” always go in the same directions?

In a more personal reflection, I think I probably find the whole idea surprising (and illuminating) because for me science has always been what the teach you at school. On the other hand, my curiosity about science is way less deep and personal than that of some other people, and there may be a causation here, though I am not sure in which way it runs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The much anticipated opening post

I promised to say something about who I am and what this blog is. So here it is.

As the box on the right reads, my name is Daphna and I am a PhD student in Tel-Aviv University. I plan my research to be about the skeptic – rationalist – humanist movement. Or science fans, or grassroots science communicators, or “geeks”. I am not sure which is the best term, so I’ll just use skeptics in this post at least.

I want to understand this movement. What it is about. Why people get involved with it. What it can – or can’t – do.

I have defined myself as a skeptic for several years and have been active with Israeli skepticism since 2010. A year ago, give or take, I started thinking it would be really interesting to talk to skeptics about skepticism. I had been doing long-form interviews on my podcast, and I found that it was something I enjoyed doing. Maybe that’s because I am kind of shy and in need of a good excuse to ask questions…

Anyway, I didn’t just want to get to know skeptics. I wanted to understand this world better through these conversations. Which, as I slowly realised, is a kind of research project. And thus the idea of
going back to school to study skepticism formed.

As for the blog: I blog, of course, for the fame and fortune.

Well, not exactly, but I do want people in skepticism to know about what I do. I am still struggling with how to research something I feel part of. But I think the right thing to do is to let people in on what’s going on. Also, I hope my work will be interesting for people in skepticism, and it’s important for me to keep writing about it in a place that requires less social scientific lingo. In a way, it’s my own science communication project. That is, if you feel like calling what I do science…

I am just starting off now, both the academic work and this blog. In a way I invite you to join my thinking/learning process. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What’s a scientist?

I have just read Alice Bell’s paper about sciene bloggers. She mentions “science studies’ long-standing obsession with the way in which professional boundaries are formed and articulated through the popularisation of science”. I didn’t know science studies were obsessed with that (I don’t know much about science studies, I am afraid; I am going to have mend that), and it made me think.

Skeptics are also obsessed with boundaries of science, but with the epistemological, not professional ones (epistemology is a word I feel free to use based on listening to 70+ episodes of Rationally Speaking). That is: what’s science and what’s pseudo-science, anti-science, bad science, woo or BS. This is the famous the Demarcation Problem.

But is it possible that all while reinforcing the epistemological boundaries of science, skeptics actually blur the social ones?

A case to the point: one of the leading figures in Israeli skepticism, arguably the most committed among us, a person who almost single-handedly made the Israel Skeptics Organization happen. She also gives talks about skepticism, and in her bio line for the talks she writes “a skeptic and a scientist”.

I must confess that I feel uncomfortable with that. She is a person of many talents, including an undergraduate degree in the sciences, but that’s not enough to be a scientist, the way I understand the word. But my understanding is just that – my understanding. Clearly her understanding is different.
Another prominent Israeli skeptic defines himself more cautiously as “a science fan and an amateur scientist” (hmm… it sounds better in Hebrew). I say “cautiously” because talking about “amateur scientists” implicitly acknowledges the category of “professional scientists”. But while an “amateur scientist” isn’t a professional, she isn’t a layperson either, so boundaries do blur.

And what about myself? I am super cautious, and wouldn’t dare calling myself a scientist, with or without qualifiers. But I do after all allow myself to publicly critique the research methods of practising (social) scientists, don’t I? Isn’t that boundary blurring, in practice if not by name?
What do you think? Do you agree about blurring the social border of science, or am I blowing things up? And if I don’t, doesn’t it clash with all this talk about what science is and isn’t?

P.S. – I ran this post by the people mentioned as I thought it would be fair to ask them before I publish what might be interpreted as criticism. They both OKed it. They also both felt there was a problem here, and had already or will now change the way they describe themselves. Which makes the question even more complicated, I guess…

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Economic inequality, the wrong way [my US elections post]

A research paper about economic inequality in America has been making the rounds: “Building a Better America - One Wealth Quintile at a Time” by Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and best selling author (Predictably Irrational), with economist Michael Norton.

I am going to tell you why, contrary to what Ariely claims, the paper doesn’t say that “Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don't Realize It)”. And hopefully there’s a general point here.

The researchers asked Americans about the distribution of wealth in the US. The respondants grossly underestimated it. They said, for instance, that the two bottom quintiles (40%) possessed 9% of the total wealth, while top quintile possessed 59%. The correct numbers are 0.3% and 84% (!).

Is this shocking? Not really. Surely no one expects people to memorise macro-economic variables. Or do we expect them to “estimate” wealth distribution? based on what?

Incidentally, why did N&A asked about wealth, with income inequality much more on the public mind? Wealth is latent. If I own my apartment and my neighbour rents, I may be much wealthier than her, but no one can see it. Income is more visible - even where salaries are not openly discussed.

It’s possible that people had income in mind when answering about wealth. Maybe they didn’t realise the difference, or they used income as a proxy for wealth. It’s telling to compare the survey answers above to the US income distribution - 11% to the bottom 40%, 51% to the top 20% (Census Bureau, table H-3).

Yes, the survey meticulously explained what wealth was. But do you expect people to know the wealth distribution, if you need to tell them what wealth is?

This point safely nailed, let’s move on to the more juicy part, where people were asked to imagine joining a new nation. When they joined this nation, they were told, they “would be randomly assigned to a place … so you could end up anywhere in this distribution.” They were asked to choose wealth distribution for their new country. The result: among three alternatives – total equality, the current American state of affairs, and that of Sweden – Americans of all stripes wanted Sweden (!).

People also had to construct their ideal wealth distribution for the US. Again – everybody constructed a distribution more egalitarian than the current one. In fact, Ariely writes, “the ideal distribution … was dramatically more equal than exists anywhere in the world.” (!)

I refuse to be shocked, again.

We saw people can’t estimate the wealth inequality numbers. I claimed they didn’t even quite grasp the concept. How then is it meaningful to ask them about their ideal distribution? How isn’t it just one big garbage-in-garbage-out?

And when Americans pick a distribution “dramatically more equal” than anywhere on the planet, doesn’t that imply precisely that they have no idea what those numbers mean?

Ariely writes that the study “avoid[s] hot-button terms, misconceptions and the level of wealth people currently have”. But preconception and personal stakes transform the academic to something that pertains on real life. And it’s real life people have opinions about.

That last point is my general one. Questionnaires are bound to take things out of context. Testifies every question you have ever wanted to tick with “it depends”. Questionnaires tend to assume people have opinions about everything, opinions that can fit into the available answers. Personal experience again tells us how wrong this is. People who use questionnaires say this can be fixed with good planning and statistical analysis. Well, if it can, “Building a Better America” isn’t a great example.

There’s more. The paper sometimes simply replaces one bias with another. This doesn’t have much to do with the point I wanted to make, but I can’t resist including it anyway. So as a compromise the type is small.

First, joining the society in a random economic position is supposed to take away incentive (Ariely compares it to blind wine tasting). That’s silly. If you are going to get a random piece of a pie, your rational choice would be an equal distribution, so that you will never end up with a small piece.

And does the size of the pie matter? the economic justification for inequality is that it encourages economic activity and growth. In the survey, all the pies are the same size, an implicit direction to ignore this argument. A similar point was made by a right-wing commentator in the National Review Online. Unlike that commentator, I share Ariely’s social-democratic sentiments. The trick is to be able to think critically no matter what your feelings about the results are.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science, Storytelling

I’ll get to introducing myself and the blog, and apologizing for its name, etc. But I am going to kick off by telling about a science-themed storytelling evening I organized in Tel-Aviv.

The inspiration was The Story Collider. I have been listening to their podcast and I have enjoyed the stories. But I didn’t quite get it. Sure, there are “scientific” stories (David Dobb’s “Lost in your brain” is a favourite). But many are more like “the geologist & the bear”: I was doing science (looking at rocks in Alaska) – nothing much to tell about it – then something interesting, though mostly unrelated, happened (a bear). Well, when you are in a nature reserve in Alaska, you may happen on a bear. Why is it a science story? What’s the point?

And yet I went on and organised a science storytelling evening. The rational, frankly, was that it could be a storytelling event for people who don’t go to storytelling events. I mean, everybody loves stories, yet, I’ve never even considered going to an annual storytelling festival held near Tel-Aviv. The re-runs from this festival, broadcast in wee hours, tend to have 3 grey-haired men with stories of glorious olden-times. Uncool.

Stories about science, on the other hand, that could be cool. That could bring in the hipster-ish geeks.
It turned out to be more complicated. The event was part of a meeting of Skeptics in the Pub Tel-Aviv. The attendance was lower than the usual and of those who did come many were new. Apparently people who think science stories are cool are not quite the normal SitP crowd.
People (including, to my horror!, the storytellers) kept referring to the stories as “talks”. Maybe they are used to the concept of a talk, what it is, what it is about. Stories are less obvious. This is a surprise, given that maxim that stories are somehow part of being human. It remains a point to explore.

My own story was an old family story about a scientist who fell in love with my grandmother. People said it was a good story about how even scientists can do crazy things out of love. I never knew that was what my story was about! Partly because - well, of course scientists would act crazy for love. What did you think they were, robots?

Which made me realise one type of value science stories have.

There is an image of scientists as robots, or Spocks. But world-class physicists do get madly in love. And there is an image of scientists as pale, short-sighted nerds in white coats, but stories show how science could be a plain, old-fashioned adventure involving bears (or sharks). Science is thought of as this cold, inhuman process, but sometimes the scientific becomes deeply personal.

I suspect a major goal of the science communication project, both the official version and the grassroots, fandom version, is to re-brand science. Re-negotiate what it means to be a scientist or a person interested in science. Science storytelling is part of that.