Category Archives: education

Opportunities for Citizen Science

Citizen engagement is essential to our fast-changing civilization. I’ve spoken often about how, even while we’ve seen an increasing trend toward professionalization in all aspects of society, we’re also experiencing a counter-trend toward a vivid Age of Amateurs, when professionals in all fields will be augmented by curious, engaged and knowledgeable citizens.

For those passionate about expanding their horizons, many organizations offer a range of opportunities for crowd-sourced research. Interested individuals with a bit of spare time can collaborate with professional scientists and actively participate in investigations, helping to address real world problems. Despite lack of formal credentials, dedicated citizens can provide eyes and ears on the ground in widespread locations. They may take photos or measurements, collecting data that is of use to researchers monitoring wildlife or environmental changes – or even help with astronomical observations. Opportunities also exist to evaluate data online – and can be done from the comfort of one’s home.

Certainly individuals have long participated scientific discovery, especially in astronomy and the natural sciences. Volunteers are avid participants in regional wildlife surveys, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count. Others help monitor track seasonal butterfly migration. But now technology, such as ubiquitous cameras and smartphone sensors, have enabled high quality data collection and recording tools to be widely available to amateurs.

As a teenager, growing up in 1960s Los Angeles, I participated in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gathering data for professional astronomers, one of countless such groups that you might learn about via the Society of Amateur Scientists. In my novel Existence, I portray this trend accelerating as individuals and small groups become ever more agile at sleuthing, data collection and analysis – forming very very smart, ad-hoc, problem-solving “smart mobs,” assisted – or ‘aissisted’ by increasingly potent tools of artificial intelligence. These trends were also portrayed in nonfiction, as in The Transparent Society. But in the years since those books were published, reality seems to be catching up fast.

And hence this updated version of my citizen science postings, for 2023 (a date that few of us, in the 1960s, ever thought we’d see!)

Opportunities abound

For starters, the U.S. government website helps coordinate and catalog crowdsourcing and citizen science opportunities across the country. Their online database lists nearly 500 projects, which range from reporting on the effects of landslides or wildfires – to monitoring populations of wild animals such as condors, raptors, bats, or monarchs. The Stormwater Management Research Team (SMART) empowers students to conduct research on water quality in their local watershed, measuring turbidity levels, temperature or saline content.

The website SciStarter provides a clearinghouse to match willing volunteers with ongoing research projects. Citizens can track plant diversity, collect sightings of a newly introduced predatory beetle, or help monitor the abundance of microplastics in their local environment. Some projects can be completed online, such as Dark Energy Explorers, where citizens help astronomers classify galaxies, in order to better understand the distribution of dark matter. Others use volunteers to monitor trail cam footage and help identify wildlife species caught on camera.

Another useful site is Zooniverse, which also helps match volunteers with ongoing research projects. These range from Cloudspotting on Mars to helping astronomers identify elusive “Jellyfish” galaxies in large sky surveys. They may help track honeybee diversity or participate in a killer whale count.

Interested in how brain cells communicate? The Synaptic Protein Zoo needs volunteers to help analyze data on complex protein clusters. This research may shed light on neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and Parkinsons. Don’t know where to start? Training is provided. Similarly, The online game Foldit allows gamers to compete to fold protein structures to achieve the best scoring (lowest energy) configuration.

Looking beyond… volunteers can help astronomers classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, learn to map retinal connections in the brain at EyeWire, explore the surface and weather of Mars’ south polar region with Planet Four – or help track birds by tagging time lapse images from the Arctic with Seabird Watch.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – also offers crowdsourcing opportunities, where individuals can participate in categorizing whale sightings, monitoring marine debris – or they can help track tidepool life, or keep an eye on phytoplankton levels to fight harmful algal blooms.

Just One Ocean has sponsored a global initiative – The Big Microplastic Survey – which will call upon citizen science to gather data about the distribution and prevalence of microplastics in the world’s oceans, rivers, lakes, and coastal environments, in an attempt to better understand how these particles enter the food chain and impact biodiversity.

And of course, research takes money. In an era of decreased or uncertain research grants, scientists may turn to crowdfunding to support their projects. The SciFund Challenge trains scientists to more effectively connect and communicate with the public to run a successful crowdfunding campaign. “The goal? A more science-engaged world.” One advantage to researchers is that they can receive funding in a matter of weeks, rather than months. Grant-writing takes a substantial commitment of time and effort for most university researchers.

Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, has asked: “What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.”

Another platform that helps raise money to crowdfund scientific research is , which operates much like Kickstarter. Researchers post projects with moderate monetary goals, in areas ranging from anthropology to neuroscience and earth science. Their byline: “Curiosity is contagious. Every project has a story to tell and an audience that will want to hear it.”

Backers may receive periodic updates on their chosen projects and direct communication with researchers. They may also receive souvenirs, acknowledgment in journal articles, invitations to private seminars, visits to laboratories or field sites, and occasionally, naming rights to new discoveries or species. Citizen science offers a wonderful opportunity for schools to actively engage students of all levels with STEM projects – and spark imagination and scientific thinking.

Whatever your level of involvement, you can have the satisfaction of participating in humanity’s greatest endeavor. In an era when political factions and media empires are waging relentless “war on science” this trend toward active participation — or providing some financial support — is the surest way to help support an active, vigorous, future hungry and scientific civilization.

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The Flynn Effect: are we getting smarter? (a shared post)

I enjoy a habit of contrarian-poking at overused assumptions. Especially the hoary nostrum that humanity is not improving. Elsewhere I take on one aspect of this cynical calumny, where folks sadly shake their heads over how “our ethics haven’t kept pace with technology.” What malarkey. What stunning ability to ignore all we have done in the last 60 years.

FlynnEffectOh, I’ll avow we may not be getting better fast enough to save ourselves or the planet.  That tense race is central to my novels EARTH and EXISTENCE. I’m no complacent polyanna. Rather, the fact that we’ve improved a bit demands we redouble our efforts! It is cynics who are at best lazy and unhelpful.

Putting ethics aside, what other areas of improvement might do the most good? How about making everybody smarter?  Better able to grasp complex situations and knowledge. Better equipped to understand diverse views and negotiate pragmatic solutions. Yes, there are forces in today’s society, especially America, that seem bent on pushing in the opposite direction – lobotomizing large swathes of the public  The worst of these at present is run by Roger Ailes on behalf of foreign trillionaires, but there are noxious forces pushing moronic oversimplification on the far-left, as well. So it has always been.

51qP75bq0DL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Decades ago, science fiction author Poul Anderson wrote a terrific novel — Brain Wave —  that asked: what if every creature on Earth started getting smarter at a steady pace, beginning the same day?  In that story, it happens because our solar system moves out a galactic zone that repressed electrical activity slightly. A magical story device but one that may have some relevance after all, as I’ll assert below.

Today, much talk revolves around expanding human intelligence the way that it has increased for thousands of years — through prosthetics. By using external devices to expand what we can know and see and pay attention to.  This revolution began with cave paintings and then writing, but really took off with the invention of printing presses and glass lenses… then newspapers and steamships, radio, television, libraries, the Internet. Each generation, grouches greeted these advances with: “normal people cannot cope!” Countered by transcendentalists proclaiming “this will make us all as wise and mighty as gods!”

GoogleTalkThe irony, of course, is that both the cynics and fervid technophiles always turned out each to be about half right. (For more on this, see  Third Millennium Problem Solving. A 90 minute Google Tech Talk spanning the entire range of human “discourse” and how it is evolving.)

But today let’s veer away from obsessing on our toys and prostheses and external cyborg enhancements and instead focus on the central, “meatiest” aspect of all this. Are we – on average – getting smarter within our squishy human brains?  To explore this briefly for us, I invited fellow member of the Lifeboat Foundation Francis Heylighen, of the Free University of Brussels, who will offer some background about the “Flynn Effect.”

== Guest post: “Why it appears that we are getting smarter” ==

… by Francis Heylighen

James Flynn, a political scientist working in New Zealand, observed in the 1980’s that the score-results of different groups of people on standard intelligence tests had consistently increased over the past decades. Earlier researchers had failed to pay attention to that trend, because IQ scores are always calculated with respect to the average score for the present group. By definition, the average is set to 100, and the standard deviation to 15. Someone who scores one standard deviation better than the average would therefore get an IQ of 115. But if that person’s score would be compared with the average for the corresponding group, but tested one generation earlier, then the final score would be about 125! Flynn was the first to systematically make such cross-generational comparisons.

41770gYTmIL._AA280_SH20_OU01_Since then, the so-called “Flynn effect” has been confirmed by numerous studies. The same pattern, an average increase of some three IQ points per decade, was found for virtually every type of intelligence test, delivered to virtually every type of group. This means that people nowadays are on average some 20 IQ points smarter than people in 1940. People with a perfectly normal IQ of 90 then would according to present norms merely score 70, i.e. as having a mild form of mental retardation. For one type of test, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, Flynn found data that spanned a whole century. He concluded that someone who scored among the best 10% a hundred years ago, would nowadays be categorized among the 5% weakest.

One might expect that the Flynn effect would be most pronounced for tests that measure the results of education. The opposite is true, however: the increase is most striking for tests measuring the ability to recognize abstract, non-verbal patterns. Tests emphasizing traditional school knowledge show much less progress. This means that something more profound than mere accumulation of data is happening inside people’s heads.

Flynn himself admitted being baffled by his initial results, and finding it hard to believe that his generation was significantly more intelligent than the one of his parents. Indeed, compared to the previous generation, the number of people who score high enough to be classified as “genius” has increased more than 20 times. This means that we should now be witnessing, in Flynn’s own words, “a cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked”. Because he found this conclusion implausible, he suggested that what has risen is not intelligence itself, but some kind of “abstract problem solving ability” that may have more to do with skill at test-taking than with creative intelligence.

But if we look at the ever-accelerating production of scientific discoveries, technological innovations and cultural developments in general, the “cultural renaissance” does not seem such an absurd idea anymore. Perhaps we cannot pinpoint a dozen contemporary Einsteins simply because there are so many of them that their contributions have not had the time yet to diffuse to the level that everybody would know them.  If there would be hundreds or thousands of Einstein-level geniuses in the scientific community nowadays, then it seems likely that none of them would stand out enough to get the kind of worldwide recognition we associate with exceptional figures like Darwin, da Vinci, or Newton. Moreover, our society and the problems it investigates have become much more complex than in the days of these historical geniuses. (We have already pickjed the “low-hanging fruit” -db)  It should not surprise us that present-day geniuses may be working on subjects too complex or abstract to be appreciated outside a relatively small circle of specialists. But that does not diminish the superior intellectual level of their contributions.

Nowadays, most authors tend to consider the Flynn effect as a real cognitive improvement, not a mere artefact of testing methods (although the fact that people are more used to taking tests may have helped somewhat in getting better scores). There is less agreement about the origin of the effect, though. Most likely, it is due to the interaction between a variety of factors that tend to accompany the tremendous economic and social advances of the past century:

o        better health care (less serious illnesses that can delay or damage brain development, less exposure to toxins such as lead, smog, food poisoning, etc.)

o        better nutrition (better availability of fresh foods, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals such as iron and iodine, etc. that are necessary to build and support the brain)

o        higher levels of education (although this is not the whole story — as Flynn found that the IQs of children have been rising even during periods when the time spent in school remained the same).

o         higher cognitive stimulation by an increasingly complex environment

This last factor may be particularly important. Indeed, our everyday world offers ever more abstract information to be processed ever more quickly-in the form of computer games, books, high-tech gadgets, television, advertisements, news items, magazine articles, blog entries, movies, etc. This requires ever more activity from the brain, thus “training” it to become more intelligent.

Some people like to complain that our society is “dumbing down”, noting that very few read Shakespeare or listen to Bach nowadays. However, these people typically fail to notice that hardly anybody read Shakespeare a century ago (if they could read at all), and that probably more are reading him now than ever before. Moreover, an objective observer cannot fail to notice that a typical TV series or even an ad nowadays is much more complex and fast-paced than it used to be half a century ago. Thus, even the “non-intellectual” stimuli we are bombarded with demand ever more intense cognitive processing. In the workplace too, we see that what used to be repetitive industrial and agricultural jobs tend to be replaced by knowledge work, caring for people, or controlling complex machinery. As a result, people with a low intellectual level find it increasingly difficult to find a decently paying job, thus being stimulated to develop themselves.

A final plausible factor contributing to intelligence increases is that families have become smaller: with fewer children, parents have simply much more attention and resources to invest in each child. The effect on intelligence is confirmed by the observation that first-born or single-born children are on average some 2 to 3 IQ points smarter than second or third-born children, who had to compete with their siblings for parental attention.

In sum, while there are of course always methodological and other question marks about something as difficult to measure as intelligence, it seems well established now that we are indeed getting smarter. While the causes are not fully clear yet, those we do understand leave plenty of room for further improvement: we can definitely eat and live more healthily than we do now, while there does not seem to be a limit to the quantity and quality of education and cognitive stimulation achievable via the Internet. There is certainly cause for optimism in these observations. However, we should note that our rise in intelligence might simply be paralleling the rise in complexity of the problems we have to deal with, so that subjectively we may not really feel more competent to do what we need to do.

More to read

Bernheim, J. (1999). The Cognitive Revolution and 21st Century Enlightenment: towards a progressive world view. Science, Technology and Social Change, Einstein meets Magritte (p. 63). Kluwer.

Flynn, J. R. (1987). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological bulletin, 101(2), 171.

Flynn, J. R. (2012). Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press.

Heylighen, F., & Bernheim, J. (2000). Global Progress I: Empirical Evidence for ongoing Increase in Quality-of-life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 323-349.

Neisser U. (1997). Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests, American Scientist, September – October 1997

Neisser, U. (Ed.). (1998). The rising curve:  Long-term gains in IQ and related measures (Vol. xv). Washington,  DC,  US: American Psychological Association.

—  Francis Heylighen; Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Free University of Brussels.

== Afterword by Brin ==

Thank you, Francis, for that excellent summary of a fascinating phenomenon. Which makes us wonder — is humanity “uplifting itself?”

There are so many aspects to this that we have no time to explore thoroughly here.

children-prometheus-accelerating-pace-human-evolution-christopher-wills-hardcover-cover-art1. Can this phenomenon be partly genetic?  It is a truism, widely held, that civilization must have slowed human evolution because it gave the weak opportunities to survive and to breed. But in fact there is every reason to believe that human evolution sped up with the arrival of civilization, and especially after we discovered beer! See Christopher Wills’s book  CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS. For example, clothing and shelter technologies empowered some groups to settle the Tibetan Plateau, an environment so harsh that selective pressures have turned Tibetans into almost a sub-species of their own. This may really take off if segments of humanity start adapting to space and other worlds.

2. I would add a few recent factors, such as changes in the toxic loads supported by most human populations. Francis mentioned the gradual elimination of toxins like lead from paint and gasoline – (though resisted strenuously by the same dopes who claimed Tobacco was harmless and cars don’t cause smog and that human industry cannot change a planet’s climate). Removal of lead has now been shown to have dramatically reduced levels of violence in the U.S. and other populations since 1970. (See my own role in getting the lead out of gas, as a 19 year old Caltech student in 1970!)

The same can also be said regarding our burdens of living parasites. In Korea after 1960, a vast de-worming effort eliminated endemic intestinal parasites which helped improved diets to increase the height of children by many centimeters and no doubt affected brains. Likewise, the parasitic paramecium Toxoplasma gondii is endemic in much of the human population and now is known to dramatically alter personality and behavior.

I am hoping we’ll find dozens of such things that have long nibbled away at humanity’s potential! Why? Because no simpler way can be imagined to boost human mental and moral performance than just by eradicating factors holding it down. It would mean that we can improve in the easiest and best way… by eliminating that which had been crippling us.

3) Then there is selection. Elsewhere I discuss the question of whether humanity performed its spectacular mental “overshoot” beyond what was necessary to become the top predator, for the same reason that many other species acquire exaggerated traits — sexual selection. Only in my theory, it was two-way with both males and females choosing each other based in part on savvy and smarts.  In which case, might that sort of thing resume?  It could do so… if tastes changed just a little.

FlynnEffectAlas, none of these things can possibly act fast enough to turn the tide and help us in time. The real solution will be harder.  It will involve looking in the mirror – each of us, one at a time – overcoming the allure of self-righteous dogmatism and rage, pondering little steps of self-improvement, adding grace to our thought processes, calm consideration, subtlety, curiosity and contingent wisdom… plus finding subtle ways to convince our neighbors to do the same.  Learning to accomplish the latter, without getting killed… that’s a sure intelligence test, if there ever was one!

Oh, even if we optimists are right, and a road to gradual and eclectic, free, voluntary, individualistic and diverse improvements in human nature and intelligence can be found, rest assured there will be many ructions and difficulties before we finally adapt at last to a mature and relaxedly sane state. To a world without brutish evil, rage, violence, illogic, dogmatism or Fox News.


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Crowd-sourcing “citizen science,” new products and ideas

Citizen engagement is essential to our fast-changing civilization. Politics could certainly use more empowerment of common citizens. So could innovative commerce, and even national defense relies on a robust citizenry. But one area with especially bright prospects, is crowd-sourced — or individual participation in — inventiveness and science.

It’s a topic I’ve discussed many times. As a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles, I participated in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gathering mountains of data for professional astronomers, one of countless such groups that you might learn about via the Society of Amateur Scientists. In my new novel Existence, I portray this trend accelerating as individuals and small groups become ever more agile at sleuthing, data collection and analysis — forming very very smart, ad-hoc, problem-solving “smart mobs.” But even in the months since that book was published, reality seems to be catching up with fiction.

For example, as funding dollars for science are increasingly under threat, a number of groups are offering opportunities for crowd-funded basic research, enabling citizens to interact directly with teams at the cutting edge of some topic. Envision a kind of KickStarter for science research. Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, asks “What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.”

Backers receive periodic updates on their chosen projects and direct communication with researchers. They may also receive souvenirs, acknowledgment in journal articles, invitations to private seminars, visits to laboratories or field sites, and occasionally, naming rights to new discoveries or species. One advantage to researchers is that they can receive funding in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Current projects on the science funding site Petridish include: saving the Samaki fish in the world’s largest desert lake, monitoring glacial lakes, and tracking sharks with satellites. Or on Microryza, you can contribute to tracking Magellenic Penguins, or exploring the stability of neural networks. iAMscientist offers opportunities as diverse as monitoring Diamondback Terrapins with new tracking technologies, and robotic hand rehabilitation for stroke victims. Recent projects on RocketHub’s SciFund Challenge include projects to identify new drug candidates to treat Alzheimer’s disease, developing artificial photosynthesis, or saving stressed coral reefs on Kiribati. Or you can donate to specific projects, such as LiftPort, which seeks to build a space elevator.

If you’re looking for more active involvement in research projects, you might try SciStarter, Scientific American’s Citizen Science, or Zooniverse, which offers a compilation of projects for citizen involvement, such as studying how solar storms affect conditions on earth at Solar Stormwatch and identifying exoplanets at PlanetHunters. Volunteers can help classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, learn to map retinal connections at EyeWire, map the age of Lunar rocks with MoonZoo, or analyze extraterrestrial signals with SETILive. You can donate your home computer’s processing power to SETI@Home to help analyze data from radio telescopes such as Arecibo.

Indeed, one worthy project that could help in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence more effectively than the sadly obsolete program at the Seti Institute would be to re-ignite Project Argus, the alternative endeavor of the Seti League, that envisions setting up 5000 radio telescopes in back yards across the planet, keeping the entire sky under observation, all the time, instead of peering through a super-narrow soda straw at distant specks of space, one at a time.  A system far more likely to catch the rare blip of an alien race “pinging” us, which recent calculations show to be more plausible than the imagined tutorial “beacons.”  In any event, this is where one millionaire could help thousands of eager (and tech savvy) amateurs to become key members of a worldwide smart mob, hunting ol’ ET down!

Citizens have long participated in regional bird counts, as well as monitoring butterfly migration, wildlife, and local water quality. Technology has enabled high quality data collection and recording tools to be widely available to amateurs. You can even do science without leaving your home…the online game Foldit allows gamers to compete to fold protein structures to achieve the best scoring (lowest energy) configuration.

Whatever your level of involvement, you can have the satisfaction of participating in humanity’s greatest endeavor. In an era when political factions and media empires are waging relentless “war on science” this trend toward active participation — or providing some financial support — is the surest way to help support an active, vigorous, future hungry and scientific civilization.

Well… and vote, of course.   And show your crazy uncle the melting of the arctic…

==Crowd Sourcing Ideas and Innovation! ==

Then there’s tinkering and creating new products, new services, the sort of thing that Adam Smith (and anyone with sense) proclaimed as the heart and soul of productive enterprise. Sure, good things have happened to help stimulate creativity.  Patent law was (believe it or not) a huge advance over what came before.  Venture capitalists tend to have the imagination of Galapagos finches, but they, too, were somewhat of a step forward. Only, now, as we finally creep out of the dullard doldrums of the Naughty Oughts, there arrive dozens of new approaches that may do a lot of good, stimulating our creative juices.

Unused inventions get crowd-sourced sparkMarblar is the latest in a string of “open innovation” sites that attempt, in one way or another, to encourage inventiveness online.  It does this by crowdsourcing a simple request:find new uses for under-exploited patents.

Related endeavors? ArticleOne asks its community of users to find “prior art” – published documents that show an invention existed before it was patented – to quash patents that firms have been accused of infringing.  (It also helps good/original patents to thrive!)

Or take: Innocentive, where companies and NGOs present problems that they feel need solving – such as how to develop a portable rainwater storage system for the developing world. On the flipside, IBridgeNetwork and post university and corporate research in a bid to find people who’ll license their technology to commercialize it.

== Then build it! ==

And the Maker Trend builds momentum!  Read about new companies that will bring 3D printing to the home. Letting you take a downloaded or self-made template and order up a physical version. Even a sculpture made from your head-scan. Commercial 3-D printing works with only a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics, but more are in the works. Researchers are experimenting with exotic “inks” that range from wood pulp to sugar. (And stem cells! But that’s a different story…)  Some devices can extrude liquid foods, like icing and melted chocolate. Soon we’ll be able to print everything from birthday cakes to electric circuits, potentially making complex electronics from scratch.

“When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast, other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are “subtractive”; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)”

Yes yes.  But will you (gentle reader) forgive me if I add a perhaps mysterious parenthetical? Both methods miss the real deal.  I know how to do it — create 3D objects — by actual random access of individual points in space!  But I ain’t telling.

==Programming for Everyone==

While we’re on the burgeoning topic of crowd-sourcing…  Inform the world about Raspberry Pi!  Can a $35 computer persuade kids to put down their smartphones and try their hands at programming?   Or at least explore the guts that make things work? Another part of the new Maker Movemen.

Long before I keynoted a recent Maker Faire, I was trying to throw incendiaries about this matter.  For example in the Salon Magazine article “Why Johnny Can’t Code,” which complained about the lack of a common – very basic – programming language in all computers. Something simple, reliable and universal — remember when ALL “home” computers had such a lingua franca language that all kids could fool with?  One so common that textbook publishers used to include try-it-at-home exercises in all the math and science books. Yes that language sucked.  But millions of kids got a taste of what made the pixel move — (an algorithm!) — and that does not happen anymore.

(Incidentally, that article brought me more hate mail than even my pieces dissing Star wars!)

Perhaps Raspberry Pi will help to change that, yet again.Tomorrow’s kids may know more about the “guts” of their technological world than the video-game generation does.  In part thanks to great efforts like this.

== And finally… some sci-miscellany ==

Physics wonks Uncertainty over the Uncertainty Principle? Canadian researchers have cleverly used “weak measurement” methods to glimpse the polarization of a light wave before it enters a strong measurement device, in order to appraise whether the effects of measurement are as predicted by the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.  If verified, the results might indicate that Uncertainty caused by measurement may be but smaller and more complex than we thought.  Maybe.

Random science thought…Is science a one-man enterprise?  Diametrically opposite to fantasy’s romantic images of wizards, the best scientists publish and share as quickly as they can.  And even when they have towering egos, they know they aren’t doing it alone. The Poster Boy is a good example. Galileo is credited with a number of discoveries during the Gosh-Wow-Look! era of astronomy.  Yet very few were uniquely his.  As one of you commented recently: “Marius concluded that Jupiter had moons one day later than Galileo.  David Fabricius published a pamphlet several months before Scheiner made his meticulously documented series of observations, which in turn was a month or two ahead of Galileo.  Harriot as usual was ahead of everyone, and as usual never published.  Sure, he deserved attention as the sun around which science revolved in his era.” (See my short story about Galileo at Harvard!) “But take Galileo out of the equation, and all the same discoveries are made.  We’d be talking about Scheiner’s sunspots, Fabricius’ lunar mountains, Marius’ moons of Jupiter, or Lembo’s phases of Venus!”

== Final Notes ==

Sexiest job of the 21st Century: Data Scientist, according to The Harvard Business Review.

Should our 8 hours of sleep be divided into “firste sleep” and seconde sleep”?

Is it really about to be 2025… the home time of the Jetsons?  Here’s a contemplation of the Jetsons, and how they influenced our attitudes (and expectations) of the Future. Even more chilling, it will soon be 2015, the (back to the) Future of Marty McFly… and where’s my Mr. Fusion?

Yes, I know… this was a long posting.  But it’s about the really important stuff!  Alas, next time we’ll return to the aggravating irritation known as politics.

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Unscientific America — Denying Science at Our Peril

Increasingly, scientific consensus is failing to influence public policy. Facts, statistics and data appear insufficient to change highly politicized minds… and science has started scrutinizing why.

Alas now, this topic inevitably devolves down to our screwy American politics. And while (as I avow repeatedly) every political wing has its anti-science flakes, growing mountains of evidence suggest that one wing has gone especially frenzied in an anti-scientific snit. Or else (as that wing contends) science itself has become corrupted, top to bottom, rendering “evidence” suspect or moot. Let’s examine both possibilities.

Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, has a new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science, in which he describes how firmly some of our neighbors – even moderately well-educated ones – now cling to aphorisms, assertions and just-so stories in order to clutch a politically motivated view – or mis-view – of scientific data.  Misinformation persists – and propagates – about the dangers of vaccinations, the hazards of nuclear energy, the credibility of creation vs. evolution, and the preponderance of data supporting global warming. In case after politically-redolent case, we find that evidence has a limited power to persuade on hot button issues where deep emotions are involved.

I agree with Mooney that this delusion-conviction effect has done grievous harm to our once-scientific and rational nation. And anyone would have to be deaf, blind, and in hysterical denial not to see these trends operating, in tsunami proportions, among our Republican neighbors.

Mooney describes in detail how bad it is – that millions of our neighbors deem facts to be malleably ignorable. Though soundly refuted by scientific studies, angry parents continue to believe their children acquired autism through vaccinations: “Where do they get their ‘science’ from? From the Internet, celebrities, other frantic-angry parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation,” writes Mooney, noting that for every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science. In 2009, 15 year old U.S. students ranked 17th out of 34 developed countries in science. A firm foundation in science is fundamental to modern citizenship as well as our ability to innovate and succeed in a global economy.

In fact, the “war on science” has ballooned long past any mere attack upon the credibility of researchers and professors.  It now manifests as a general “war on all knowledge castes” — including teachers, economists, journalists, civil servants, medical doctors, skilled labor, judges, diplomats… everyone (in other words) who actually knows a lot. All are routinely attacked on you-know-which-murdochian-“news”-network.

Science itself is turning attention to this problem and things are not looking good.  According to one study (via Mooney): “The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.” It was found that conservatives who knew more tended to dig in their heels against new facts or budging their views, using what they already knew as bulwarks against changing their minds. But this did not hold for the other side. Educated liberals who were pre-disposed to be suspicious toward nuclear power nevertheless were adaptable when shown clear scientific data assuaging their fears.

Mooney concludes that even education fails to serve as “antidote to politically biased reasoning.”

Take a look at this excerpt of Mooney’s latest book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April). It shows that our current Culture War is not about left vs right at all.  It is about two very different sets of personalities and worldviews.

== It’s not all bad news ==

Oh, heck, want a positive note? It may be possible to overcome this sickness, enflamed deliberately by Roger Ailes and his crew. Stanford Prof. James Fishkin and his colleagues ran an experiment in which a full spectrum of Californians were brought together and asked to soberly deliberate on state problems, negotiating a range of solutions. With their minds focused by sober responsibility, rabid partisans suddenly displayed flexibility, curiosity, willingness to learn and … (yes even the Republicans)… a readiness to negotiate with their opposing neighbors, without calling them satanic.

Fishkin and his colleague, Bruce Ackerman, call for a new holiday, Deliberation Day each Presidential election year, when “people throughout the country will meet in public spaces and engage in structured debates about issues…” to revitalize a spirit of open communication and negotiation in democracy.

== But the bad is still plenty bad ==

All too often politicians use bad science to justify their political agenda. Both right and left have favorite conspiracy theories about Global Climate Change (which I’ve discussed in Climate Skeptics and Climate Deniers). On global warming, Rick Santorum said, “I for one never bought the hoax.”  But consider…which is more likely: A massive conspiracy involving 90% of scientists worldwide — or oil companies spending vast sums to sway opinion, and influence public policy to protect their profits? Decide for yourself.

In any case, most of the methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions involve increasing our energy efficiency and stimulating development of new forms of energy — things we ought to be doing anyway to remain competitive and current in an ever-changing global economy.

Oh, please… you Brits over there… nail those guys who have done so much harm to America. Whose family name reminds one of the underground-dwelling cannibals of Wells’s novel The Time Machine.

==Campaign Finance: Follow the Money==

Talking Points Memo

Compare numbers of campaign donations under $200 and those over $200 between Obama, Paul and Romney. Who has a broad range of support? Who is the populist candidate?  A fascinating comparison… especially when you add in super-pacs, whose average contributors (for Romney) have been in the $100,000 range.  Citizens United, anyone?

Do you think we’ve been exaggerating the degree that the super-uber-rich are buying influence in politics?  Just one small group of immensely wealthy GOP donors…almost all of whom attend twice-yearly secret meetings hosted by the billionaire Koch Brothers — have already sent gushers of cash to Super-Pacs supporting Romney, Gingrich and even Ron Paul. We’re talking upwards of One Hundred Million Dollars... and it is only March.  Tell me… is there any red line that even your fox-crazy uncle must decide is intolerable?  Can we stop this?

WhoWhatWhy reports that that Saudi prince Walid bin Talal – Rupert Murdoch’s top partner at Fox – has invested heavily in Twitter.  An event coinciding with Twitter’s recent announcement that it would cooperate with censorship of any content deemed “illegal” in any country, whatsoever.  WhoWhatWhy can get a bit “over-eager” but these facts speak for themselves.

Iceland shows the way. If the European (and American) debt crises seem endless, with Big Banks the only relentless winners, then read up about Iceland, given up for dead after their foolish bankers (who called themselves “geniuses”) leveraged the country into tsunamis of red ink.  What this article doesn’t talk about is the “gender aspect”.  In effect,, the women of Iceland simply took over.  Grabbed the reins of politics and finance out of the hands of their “genius” husbands and sent them back to the fishing boats, where they belonged.

Following those rumors of a brokered GOP convention?  A lot of simmering talk about drafting… Jeb Bush.  This survey of Bush Family “coincidences” may be a little biased… but the facts do speak.


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