Brief book reviews: four popular science and history of science books

A while back I asked y’all for recommendations for popular science books that a scientist would enjoy. Meaning, not written a too low a level, not too hype-y, etc. There were so many great recommendations that it was hard to choose! But in the end, I decided to start with:

Brief reviews below the fold. tl;dr: The first three are all well worth your time. The Book That Changed America is a bait and switch and eminently skippable.

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Open thread: where to eat and drink in Portland for Evolution 2017 and #ESA2017

Evolution 2017 starts in in a couple of days, and #ESA2017 is coming up soon after that! We have a local lined up to write a guest post for us about where to eat and drink in Portland for #ESA2017, but in the meantime: been anywhere good? Tell us, and your many hungry and thirsty colleagues, in the comments!

I’ll start: McMenamins Kennedy School is worth the car ride. It’s a historic elementary school that’s been converted into a boutique hotel and brewpub. My wife and I stayed there a few years ago. You have to see it to believe it, it’s such a cool place. Every nook and cranny is put to use. There are several bars, each with its own funky decor; even the boiler room is a (cozy) bar now. The auditorium is now a theater that features classic movies and live music. You can eat and drink outside in the courtyard in the center of the school. The walls are festooned with paintings from local artists, every one of which was commissioned to commemorate the school. And the classrooms are now hotel rooms–that still have the chalkboards and chalk. In the ultra-competitive world of Portland brewing, McMenamins beers are fine, nothing special. Same for the food–it’s average brewpub food. But you’re going for the setting. McMenamins has made a name for themselves with their amazing renovations of historic properties in and around Portland, but they really topped themselves with the Kennedy School. I took my lab group there last time the ESA was in Portland, and might do so again. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Brief book reviews: five novels featuring scientists

A while back I asked for suggestions for “lab lit”: novels featuring scientists and scientific themes, that a scientist would enjoy. That last caveat is crucial: many fictional scientists ring true only to non-scientists.

And boy did our commenters come through in spades! I’ve been working my way through some of the suggestions from the post. Here are brief, mostly spoiler-free reviews of five of them: The Southern Reach trilogy, All The Birds In The Sky, and Ordinary Thunderstorms.

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Reader survey results!

Thank you so much to everyone who completed our reader survey! It’s very helpful to us to know what readers think of Dynamic Ecology and to receive so much thoughtful feedback. Below is a (long) summary of the results, with some commentary.

tl;dr: The overall feedback was very positive, but compared to our previous survey there’s definitely more of a sense that the blog could use some freshening up.

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Want to write a guest post for us on where to eat and drink in Portland for #ESA2017? (Update: we have a local volunteer)

Do you know Portland, OR? Do you like to eat food and drink drinks? We need your help! We’re looking for a volunteer to write a guest post for us on where to eat and drink in Portland for the ESA meeting.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing we’re looking for. But feel free to give it your own personal spin.

We’ve been doing these “where to eat and drink at the ESA meeting” posts for several years now and readers find them super-useful. So this is your chance to share what you love about Portland with lots of ecologists!

The ideal volunteer will be able to bang something out soon, so that those attending Evolution 2017 in Portland June 23-27 can benefit as well.

If you’re up for it, email me (jefox@ucalgary.ca) or tweet to @DynamicEcology.

p.s. I tweeted a request for volunteers a couple of days ago, which led to a few folks replying with some suggestions:

Please complete our reader survey! (UPDATE: survey now closed)

It’s been almost three years since we last took the pulse of our readers and invited feedback on how we can improve Dynamic Ecology. During that time, our readership has grown and changed. These surveys are our only source of non-anecdotal information about what y’all think of us, and they help Brian, Meghan, and I justify our blogging to our employers and funding agencies.

Please take a few minutes to complete the anonymous survey below. Please complete it even if you’re not a regular reader; it’s not very helpful if only our biggest fans complete it. We’ll summarize the results in a future post. Thanks in advance for your help!

UPDATE: Responses have slowed to a trickle of just a couple per day, so the survey has been closed.

What should high schoolers and undergrads learn about the scientific method?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Crowther. Greg has a Ph.D. in biology and has held several teaching and research positions at the University of Washington and other Seattle-area colleges. He’s currently working on a master’s in science education.

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I’ve never been inordinately curious about the natural world. As a kid, I did not spend long hours using a telescope or a home chemistry set, nor did I catch frogs in marshes or learn to identify species of local flora.  I got to high school, and then college, without any clear sense that I should become a scientist or that I would enjoy this particular vocation.

In my first four semesters of college, I took the usual variety of courses and grappled with their many fascinating questions.  Why did the Vietnam War start?  What do Buddhists really believe?  How did E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End illustrate his directive of “Only connect”?

Though fascinating, these questions also seemed horribly intractable.  One could cite evidence from a primary or secondary source to support one interpretation or another, but there didn’t seem to be any standard way of resolving disagreements besides deferring to the authority of the professor.

Science was different, though.  Professors presented the so-called “scientific method” as a fair, objective way of evaluating the strength of different possible explanations.  Accrue some background knowledge via reading and observation; pose a hypothesis; design an experiment to test the hypothesis; determine whether the data collected are consistent with the predictions of the hypothesis; and discard, modify, or retain the hypothesis as appropriate.

It all sounded so orderly, so sensible, so feasible.  Even if I did not have a great big hypothesis of my own, I could imagine taking someone else’s hypothesis out for a spin, say, using a species that hadn’t been studied yet.  This “scientific method” seemed simple enough for novices like me to follow, yet powerful enough to reveal fundamental insights about the world.  I was hooked – not on any particular molecule or technique or theory, but on the logical flow of the process itself.  I’ve considered myself a scientist ever since, and I now present the scientific method (often called the process of science) to my own students – because it’s relevant to their futures (whether or not they become scientists), but under-taught and poorly understood – more or less as it was presented to me.

“But wait!” cry various smart, articulate people such as Terry McGlynn and Brian McGill.  “That’s not how scientific research really works!”  Indeed, UC-Berkeley has an entire website, How Science Works, devoted to debunking and revising what it calls the “simplified linear scientific method.”

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Responding to “a post-fact world”: In defense of the honest broker

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Peter Adler.

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Last week Brian wrote a series of idea-rich posts about doing science in a post-fact world. In his final post, he concluded that scientists need to “Act more like other interest groups at the decision making table… Now that we’re no longer being accorded a special seat, we should sharpen our elbows and advocate strongly.” Although I agree with much, even most, of Brian’s three posts, I come to the opposite conclusion. Here are two argument in defense of the honest broker position.

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A post-fact world: Part III -what is a scientist to do?

I started this 3-part series noting that a lot of scientists (including myself) are very dismayed to be living in a post-fact world. I think the instinctive reaction to this that I have heard over and over again is basically “I have to do more outreach, talk more to the public, explain my science in a more understandable fashion and just get them to understand”. This is in many ways an unsurprising response. It is playing to our natural tendencies and strengths. It is in many ways doubling down on what we already do. Its also more than a little elitist (we need to educate them who don’t know as much as we). It is also empirically rejected – this is the knowledge deficit model (if people only knew more science they would behave differently) which has been thoroughly studied and resoundingly rejected (can I say trashed?) by social scientists (e.g. did you know among the general public the more scientifically literate people are, the LESS likely they are to perceive serious risks in climate change and the more likely their political affiliation is to predict their views on climate change?).  The knowledge deficit model (tell people smoking is dangerous) didn’t work to stop people from smoking. And its not working on climate change. More generally, it is not ever going to work. The literature on this is extensive.

Just to be clear, I have this “knowledge deficit” response too – I’ve spent much of the last semester working with three middle schools helping them understand climate change and exploring what they can do about it. And doing this certainly cannot hurt. So I’m not arguing against doing it or criticizing those who have these inclinations. But I am wondering if it is the best response or just the easiest and most comfortable response?

So I spent the previous two posts in this series trying to get outside of my own little scientist head and see what history and social science can tell us about how we got to a post-fact world. Namely, I argued that:

  1. Our current post-fact world has been coming for half a century and is part of broad brush societal trends
  2. Humans are not particularly prone to careful abstract thinking about cause-and-effects and largely choose beliefs and make decisions based on a mix of social-thinking, emotions and fast-thinking.

Or to put it succinctly, the human brain never worked by the knowledge deficit model (adding knowledge=changed beliefs and behavior) and societal trends for the last 50 years have only moved us further away from that non-existent ideal. So where does this leave us as scientists in dealing with a post-fact world?

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A post-fact world: Part II – what our social scientist colleagues already know about human thoughts and behavior

This is the second post in a three part series on being a scientist in a post-fact world. The first post explored the history of how we got here. This post focuses on the fact that social scientists have pretty much known for a long time that most humans decisions are not taken based on facts and helped by increased understanding. The third will attempt to look at what scientists living in a post-fact world should do.

I am by no means a social scientist. But I most definitely recognize their existence and the validity of the work. Therefore as an honest scientist, I should first look at what is in the literature and rigorously studied before leaping to and giving primacy to my own intuitive ideas about how people’s minds work.

If I were to summarize the findings in a few words its that humans don’t base their thinking and behavioral decisions on fact-informed logic. Computers do. Spock does (did?). Academics pretend we do. Scientists arguably do in the aggregate across all scientists, but demonstrably don’t as individuals. And most humans don’t even pretend to be logical-factual in their decision making processes.

Here is a blitzkreig summary of social science literature on human decision making (so short as to be almost insulting to the complexities of the field, but hopefully digestible):

  • Humans are short term thinkers – economists have formalized this in the notion of the discount rate. Businesses often use a discount rate of about 8%. That means that $100 today is worth about twice as much as $100 given to me 9 years from now, and four times as much as $100 given to me 18 years from now. Note this has nothing to do with inflation. It is a statement about how much humans are willing to defer gratification. Economists treat this as a rational behavior. You may or may not see this as rational. But it sure explains a lot about why it is really really hard to get people to care about graphs of the impacts of climate change that have a title with the year 2080 in it. Problems in 2080 press on me about 0.52% or roughly 1/200th as much as the problems I have today. Climate change is going to have to to be 200x more impactful on my life than finishing my dissertation, get tenure or raising my kids are this year.
  • Humans have diverse, ordered needs – Maslow famously identified a hierarchy of needs. The idea is that humans only worry about higher level needs after lower level ones are addressed. The first priorities are physiological (food+warmth), then security (physical safety). Then comes social belonging/love followed by esteem/prestige. At the top of the list is self-actualization. Now, to be sure Maslow’s hierarchy is a simplification, and it has been corrected and amended to death, but the original idea remains compelling for capturing some core ideas. Where does keeping the planet protected come in? Where does appreciating a cool butterfly? or appreciating biodiversity?  They’re certainly pretty high in the list (i.e. low priority), quite probably only at the tippy-top actualization level. UNLESS they become part of social belonging and self-esteem, which leads immediately to …
  • Humans make a lot of choices as expressions of identity and belonging – A great deal of human behavior is made as a signal of what group one belongs to more than a carefully thought out story. A great example is climate change. Circa 2000 polls showed that the best demographic predictor of belief in climate change was education level (more education made one more likely to believe in climate change). But over the 2000s climate change became simply a predictor of political affiliation (in the US Democrats were more likely to believe in climate change than Republicans). Climate change become a badge of identity and belonging rather than a fact evaluated based on education. In short, social calculus explains much of our thinking and behavior and explains many things that would otherwise seem irrational.
  • Humans have dual circuits for thinking – Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his research on this topic. He calls them fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking can do amazingly complicated things including reading a billboard at high speed. But it is not based on logic or abstract thinking. And it is subject to many biases and fallacies – in short to many errors. Slow thinking is basically our Spock and the only place that applies logic and facts to arrive at novel conclusions. But the point is that a surprising number of our decisions are taken by the error-prone fast thinking part of our brain.
  • Human emotions drive much decision making – This comes as a shock to classical economists but not to psychologists nor advertising executives. This simple idea has led to the far more effective campaigns against smoking that involve television campaigns and pictures on cigarette packages that involve disgusting teeth, people recoiling from the smoker etc vs the older campaigns that just put a black-and-white print message on cigarette packs saying “Warning Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health”

Before summarizing the implications of this for a post-fact world, let me briefly comment on how this relates to scientists:

  1. Scientists are a very unusual subset of human personalities – in a nice paper by Weiler et al 2012 they use the Myers-Briggs personality assessment*. Myers-Briggs identifies four roughly independent axes of personality variation. So each individual’s personality is located in a 4-dimensional space. They compared US climate scientist’s personalities (and other types of scientists) to the general public. What they found is that on one axis (extrovert vs introvert) scientists were no different than the general public (about a 50/50 split in both cases). But on the other 3 axes, scientists were statistically significantly biased towards one end. Most importantly, scientists are more intuiters while the general public is more sensers. These words can be a little misleading but basically intuiters work with abstract thinking, while sensers work with concrete sensory-driven thinking. Scientists are also more thinkers (analytical and looking for cause and effect) than feelers (focused on empathy and personal relationships) (this is the weakest distinction of the three significant axes). Finally scientists are more judgers (prefer linear processes leading to crisp outcomes) than perceivers (happy to follow non-linear processes retaining a cloud of ambiguity). Long before this study, psychologists took the 2^4 (=16) corners of the 4-D space and identified jobs that people with that personality type were typically found in. One personality INTJ (introvert, intuiter, thinker, judger)  was actually labelled the scientist box. But INTJ is a rare corner – it is about 1.5% of the population (note that by default each corner should have 6.25% of the population). And ENTJs (extroverts but sharing the other 3 personality traits with INTJ and most scientists) are another 4% of the population So if you read the first part of this post and said “the people I hang out with aren’t this irrational”, it is because you are hanging out with a very weird outlying 5% of the population who are demonstrably unusually prone to linear thinking about cause-effect and abstract processes.
  2. Scientists work by belief too – But it would be a serious mistake to take this as a badge of exclusionary elitism. All that data above about irrational thought processes applies to scientists too (we are humans before we are scientists). Get really honest with yourself about why you believe in climate change. Is it because you understand the details. Do you know the laws and equations of black-body radiation. It only requires high school algebra and geometry to calculate a rough heat balance of the earth. Have you done it? Can you name the key experiments and observations confirming this theory? Or are you using social processes to decide who you trust and believing in climate change because others say so? And what is the source of your knowledge about CO2 being a greenhouse gas – can you explain why? have you looked at empirical data? or do you “know” it because somebody you trust told you its true? Don’t worry everybody thinks using the “social computer” of many people communicating to each other. We would be absolutely paralyzed if we had to deeply know everything ourselves – even as scientists we have to trust other people to build our cognitive world view  (see an interesting-looking book on The Knowledge Illusion – Why we are never thinking alone). We differ from non-scientists only in our criteria for picking who to trust, not in avoiding “knowing” by “trusting”. Or to take a different line of argument, do you know of scientists who have a pursued an idea when it seems hopeless? sometimes they turn out right (and then become famous). One example is the story of Barry Marshall who discovered and proved that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Starting only with correlational evidence (most ulcers had the same bacteria), her persisted not only against expert opinion but through a series of experiments that would appear to reject his idea, before later experiments confirmed his idea. Lakatos recognizes this aspect very clearly – the hardened core assumptions are chosen by belief and cannot be rejected or accepted. And Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolutions clearly showed that scientists belief systems play an important role. So scientists work by beliefs and trusting others even within science! What is special about science is that we have an adversarial system in which the rules of logic win over majorities of scientists, not because individual scientists are more Spock-like than the rest of humanity.

Summary

People decide what to believe and take decisions on how to behave through a complex process in which emotions, social considerations, and error-prone “fast” thinking circuits all play a large role. The logical, analytical, abstract, fact-driven slow-thinking circuits are used fairly rarely. Scientists tend to use their slow-thinking circuits (I’m making a few leaps here) more than most people and so it is bad to generalize from how we think. But even scientists tend to primarily think with emotions and social considerations and “know” things that would probably better be described as “trust” or “believe”. And even within the realm of logical thinking it is not obvious how things far in the future or high up in the Maslow hierarchy of needs should be weighed in. The New Yorker made a similar argument recently in an article entitled “Why facts don’t change our minds?

So what do you think? Am I overstating the irrationality of human behavior? Of scientists? Should every human think completely rationally and be data-driven about whether to smoke or worry about climate change? Whether they should or not, do they think purely rationally? What does this mean for scientists who want the world to change based on facts we discover?

 


*Again social scientists have moved beyond Myers-Briggs and lean more to the Big Five Personality traits which has more empirical justification. But Myers-Briggs has been used for decades, many people know how to interpret it, and it has close relationships to the Big Five. Just my opinion, but if you’ve never taken a Myers-Briggs test, it is worth the 20 minutes to see where you come out. You can find lots of decent tests online these days and it may give you some insights about yourself, but mostly it will give you some insights that not everybody else thinks the same way you do.