Thursday, December 24, 2009

Find the Pattern, Ignore the Contraditions, Only Learn When Challenged

When experimental results appear that can't be explained, they're often discounted as being useless. The researchers might say that the experiment was designed badly, the equipment faulty, and so on.

It may indeed be the case the faults occurred, but it could also be the case when consistent information emerges, but these possibilities are rarely investigated when the data agrees with pre-existing assumptions, leading to possible biases in how data is interpreted.

. . . .

I was particularly interested to read that breakthroughs were most likely to come from group discussions:

"While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work."

Although it turns out that discussion with people from a diverse range of people is most important - having a room full of people who share assumptions and expertise tends not to lead to creative scientific insights.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let's face it, science is boring

This is why I bailed out of biology after completing the degree (okay, mostly). Fascinating to know. Stultifying to do.
It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is... well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring.

My own brief and undistinguished research career included its share of mind-numbing tasks, notably the months of data processing which revealed that a large and expensive orbiting gamma-ray telescope had fixed its eye on the exploding heart of a distant galaxy and seen... nothing. I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist's San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. "It achieved little," he confesses, "apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine." And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of "I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards," he says. "It was about that time that I decided I didn't want to be a working scientist."
However . . .
Boredom, it seems, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Scientists at the top of their game rarely become jaded, possibly because it is only the most tenacious individuals who ever succeed in research. Those with shorter attention spans - and you may pass your own judgement on the New Scientist staff mentioned earlier - are soon weeded out.

It's not all natural obsessiveness, though; there's an element of nurture too. Sulston points out that the most repetitious stuff happens only after years of working around a problem, trying to find a way in. By the time you are "strictly turning the handle", as he puts it, you may be the most skilled person at your chosen technique. Sulston ranked among the best in the world at keeping a close eye on slimy, grey microscopic worms, so using this skill became a pleasure.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ritalin Cures Next Picasso

WORCESTER, MA—Area 7-year-old Douglas Castellano's unbridled energy and creativity are no longer a problem thanks to Ritalin, doctors for the child announced Monday. "After years of failed attempts to stop Douglas' uncontrollable bouts of self-expression, we have finally found success with Ritalin," Dr. Irwin Schraeger said. "For the first time in his life, Douglas can actually sit down and not think about lots of things at once." Castellano's parents reported that the cured child no longer tries to draw on everything in sight, calming down enough to show an interest in television.

Have a Problem, Kid? Here, Take This Anti-Psychotic

New federally financed drug research reveals a stark disparity: children covered by Medicaid are given powerful antipsychotic medicines at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. And the Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.

Those findings, by a team from Rutgers and Columbia, are almost certain to add fuel to a long-running debate. Do too many children from poor families receive powerful psychiatric drugs not because they actually need them — but because it is deemed the most efficient and cost-effective way to control problems that may be handled much differently for middle-class children?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap

Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

College-educated black men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.