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Life, the Universe, Everything

Correlation and Causation

From xkcd:

Correlation does not imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'

I’m taking a micro course called “Scientist as Citizen,” which is basically a workshop for scientists who want to know about interacting with the public, specifically through journalism. It’s taught by Cornelia Dean, Science Editor at the New York Times, so she has a lot of experience dealing with scientists and trying to communicate science to the public. Unfortunately, a lot of scientists have this attitude towards science journalists:

I dont think science/medicine journalism will ever catch up with ‘clergy/ministry/missionary’ for the title of ‘most useless profession’, but man, some days theyre certainly giving the Godbots a run for their money…

So whats my point? Hmm. I guess that more scientists should open blogs and take a moment to write about cutting edge research, and the profession of pop-science/newspaper/magazine ‘science’ writer should either shape up, cut the fat from their ranks, or disappear.

I can’t get quite as worked up as this because I haven’t personally experienced bad science journalism about my research. Nevertheless, it is clear that a lot of scientists are wary of science journalists for similar reasons. It’s tough to explain your research in a way that other people will understand, a process made more difficult because of the different ways that scientists think as compared to the general populace (and that includes science journalists who are by and large NOT scientists themselves). In this class, Ms. Dean brought up several examples of  these differences, but there is one that I thought was especially insightful.

A lot of people tend to assume correlation = causation; cum hoc ergo propter hoc. My favorite illustration of this fallacy is in an open letter written to the Kansas City School Board regarding their fight to get Intelligent Design taught in schools

You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.

Ms. Dean said something that I think bares repeating, “A correlation is not an answer, it’s an opportunity to ask a question.” Scientists generally know this when it applies to their research, but even scientists can be mislead by this fallacy in their day-to-day lives.

Ultimately, I think science journalism is important (though I agree with Abbie from ERV that more scientists should blog about their own research). Unfortunately, with news organizations everywhere slashing their science reporting budgets and taking reporters off of dedicated science beats, the trouble journalists have understanding what they are reporting on will only get worse. It will be up to us to the scientific community to communicate more effectively to make sure it’s done right.


8 March, 2009 Posted by | Education, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More landlord drama

For those of you that don’t know, our landlord is a complete douchebag, and he has managed to demonstrate that more fully this month. Just for a quick backstory, my roommates and I had to hire a lawyer within the first week of moving in because he was trying to claim that our lease was invalid and wanted to make us pay more for rent etc etc.

Last month we were informed that he would be selling this property, so we wouldn’t be able to renew our lease. Despite the problems we had with him, we like the house and the location (and moving in general is a hassle). But whatever, if he’s selling there’s not really much we can do about it. Then 3 things happened all at once: we noticed that our house was posted for rent on craigslist, we got a letter in the mail that said we were delinquent on rent and that if we didn’t pay soon, they would start eviction proceedings and screw up our credit, and a Realtor came by to show our place to a bunch of college kids (clearly not interested in buying a multi-million dollar home).

First of all, we double checked our bank accounts and all of our rent checks had been cashed 2 weeks prior, and added up to the right amount. Second, we’re pretty sure that this guy just has a racket to re-rent the house every year to get someone a realtor fee and to stiff kids out of their security deposit (we’re fairly certain that we’ll have to go to our lawyer to get that back). So in the mean-time, we’re looking for new appartments and chances are I won’t be living with the same people again (finding a house this large is terribly difficult in Cambridge).


4 March, 2009 Posted by | Personal | , , , | Leave a comment

Short update

I’m terrible at keeping this thing updated, I’m aware, but to be honest, not that much has happened recently.

I finally finished up my 1st rotation on micro-RNA’s. It went pretty well in terms of getting to know the lab and the environment, but my experiments weren’t particularly successful. Then again, the point of lab rotations really doesn’t seem to be getting stuff accomplished. I was supposed to start my next rotation today, but space isn’t going to open up until next week, so instead I’ll just give a brief explanation of what I’ll be studying: Toll-like receptors (TLR’s).

TLR’s are proteins on the surface of the cell that detect bad-guys and tell the immune system to react. These are different than the receptors on B-cells and T-cells, which can be randomly generated to recognize almost any molecular pattern (so when the flu and cold viruses mutate ever year, you can make a new response to them). Instead, TLR’s are hard-wired by evolution to detect things that the pathogens have a hard time changing, and are present on almost every cell type. That way, if you get infected by a bug that you’re B- and T-cells have never seen before, the TLR’s can still tell the rest of the boddy, “Hey, something’s not right here,” and mount up a preliminary response to give the B- and T-cells time to get in the act.

My project will be to work on the evolution of these receptors. The first one was discovered in fruit flies (and is simply called “Toll”), where it is important in the response to fungal infections. The immune system of insects is dramatically different from that of vertebrates, but nevertheless, the original Toll gene was clearly duplicated and mutated to recognize a variety of different signals (humans have at least 10, mice have 13). I don’t have details yet about what exactly I’ll be studying about the evolution of these TLR’s, but I’ll let you know when I do.

Beyond that, not much to report. Classes are going fine but there’s a lot of reading to get done. I’ve also been climbing a bunch (I knocked out my first 5.10b today). Hopefully when the weather gets warmer I’ll be up for some out-door stuff. Keep checking back, I’m really going to try to keep this current.

2 March, 2009 Posted by | Personal, Science | , , | Leave a comment