My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the month “January, 2011”

The Decline Effect and why it’s a good thing

In Jonah Lehrer’s recent New Yorker piece, The Truth Wears Off, he discusses Jonathan Schooler’s idea that science is troubled by a disturbing trend of publication bias that has resulted in statistical noise being reported as significant new findings. When repetition accounts for that noise, the “Decline Effect” as Schooler calls it, makes those initial significant findings disappear into the ether.

Lehrer writes:

For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe?

“For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling.” Is it? This regression toward the mean is exactly why scientists perform follow up studies in the first place. This is the raison d’etre for the scientific process as we know it today. If repetition shows an earlier conclusion is in error, then it was not so “rigorously validated” now was it? The truth will out. Time makes fools of us all. (E.T. Bell)

No scientist should be disturbed by the trend. If anything, it should reaffirm their faith in the process, and Lehrer never returns to admit that, even in the piece’s conclusion.

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything.

This is not news to anyone. (Also, be careful of how you use that word prove when discussing science. This isn’t a court room.) In fact, that difficulty is why people trust the results that have been rigorously tested. The Decline Effect does not indict the scientific process, Mr. Lehrer. It indicts the scientific publication process, and scientific journalism that reports the hype. (Just look at the recent “life on other planets” press conference nonsense.)

There is a bigger problem that cuts to the heart of this issue that neither Schooler nor Lehrer addresses here: Short term gain vs long term viability. Science with a capital S, proper noun, is obsessively fixated on the long term. Time, repetition, confirmation or refutation: these are the things that make it what it is. The process removes human error through repetition and regression toward the truth.

The fact that a great deal of research is done by corporations, in particular pharmaceutical companies, is no surprise. Companies need to prove their products and processes, and the scientific process is the best way to do it. The corporate-backed science regime is a double edged sword, though. The profit motive and long term economics actually reinforces the objectives of good science. Measured over time, accurate information is simply more valuable than misleading information. Companies behaving responsibly should want good information.

The problem arises when short term gain is elevated above long term viability. The U.S.S.R.’s crises were worsened because they were systematically reporting bad information. It wasn’t communism that failed, it was institutionalized lying.

The political structures governing medical treatment in the U.S. are similarly rewarding for companies who think in the short term. The sooner they get approval, the longer they can exploit their patent before generic sales begin. In the long term, generic sales will be lackluster if the drug is ineffective, but by the time those studies confirm that the drug is ineffective, the company has already gotten a decade’s worth of hyped-up brand name sales and is effectively “done” with that drug.

The same trend exists in energy (dirty vs clean energy), stock, bond, and currency markets (sub-prime lending and credit default swaps are mathematically impossible to make viable in the long term), and many other things.

When immediate survival is threatened, short term survival is prioritized appropriately. But when long term success is clearly achievable, but short term gain is rewarded, a depressing number of people still opt for short term gain.

The trouble with corporate science in the U.S. actually extends beyond the lab, and even beyond the company. The problem is that the current tax structure makes a stock’s closing price more important than the actual underlying asset: the company’s profitability and long-term viability. As a result, business decisions affect how science is reported, and the selection bias toward statistical noise.

This is short term vs long term problem is not unique to science. But science at least has a mechanism for dealing with it. What we, as a society, do with unconfirmed scientific results is not to be blamed on the scientists themselves.

New Years: Partying and Cleaning

We’re finally back in Chicago after spending a fantastic couple weeks back home. New Years was great. Quite a few of the Radio/TV/Film and Theatre crew who I was in school with were back in town for the holidays so we all partied together. Three nights in a row of hanging out with some of my best friends? Sign me up.

First night was seeing Richard Kalinoski’s play My Soldiers. It’s a story about a National Guard medic, Angi, who comes back from Iraq with PTSD following an IED strike. It’s always interesting to see his work since he’s my alma mater’s artist in residence. It’s also awkwardly amusing to see him break his own rules for playwriting and poignantly demonstrate why they’re important. Principally, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule with a long, expository phone call at the beginning. But by act two, the scenes with the competent therapist are perfect examples of playwriting done right. After the play we hit Polito’s, a by-the-slice pizza joint just off campus and caught up.

New Year’s Eve we partied at JP’s place, where I chugged a cup of champagne because it was given to me in a red cup with a foam head so thick I thought it was just beer. That was an eye opener. It was fun hearing stories from the friends of mine who are out doing professional productions, though none are writing or acting yet. I will admit, it was slightly awkward to be at a party where some were ten years younger than me, though I was not the oldest one there.

When we got back to Chicago, we had to make room for quite a bit of new stuff: a vacuum, a toaster oven, and a printer. Really, it was the printer that catalyzed the cleaning.

In just the area within reach of my office chair, I managed to get rid of two garbage bags full of junk. Everything from old D&D character sheets to an old messenger bag. I had kept the bag (even after getting a new one) in the hopes of finding a place that could repair the clasp, since even with the broken clasp it was the best bag I’ve ever owned. But in two years, I couldn’t get a replacement and the store that sold it is closed.

Other junk cleared out:
– Arm straps for using a pull-up bar for ab workouts
– A charger for a phone I haven’t owned in two years
– Notes for my first book that I never used
– An issue of a UWO alumni magazine that slipped in with my Mensa research journals
– Leftover Census forms
– A bluetooth hands free earpiece that always really sucked to use
– Tons of old driver disks for hardware I haven’t had for ages (Side note, who the hell has needed driver CDs since like . . . 2002?)
– Instruction manual for Acid Music that was shoved in a drawer
– User manual for a camera

But since most of this stuff was in drawers that are now empty, it doesn’t feel like the space is cleaner just yet. I’m sure I’ll notice it as the year goes on, though.

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