Friday, February 16, 2007

A plea to you "normal" visioned folks out there

When I was young, my parents discovered I was somewhat colorblind. For the most part it didn't interfere with my life much. (Recently I discovered it would preclude my joining the bomb-squad.) But while it was sometimes annoying, I guess I just never noticed it.

Some of the most annoying repercussions of color-blindness has been for me in the areas of scientific reading. Way too often I have had to spend a long time squinting and carefully trying to figure out what a scientific graph or chart was trying to plot or illustrate when the authors were too insensitive to consider that they should not use only colors that color-blind people are unable to distinguish. The point of colors in graphs are to make it easier to grasp a larger amount of information, not harder.

This site does some great advocating for this. I wish more people would take it seriously. The site also has some great simulations of how color-blind people see colors. I think I have had hundreds of people over the course of my life ask me what color their shirt was. If I am feeling playful, I'd just say that I can't see colors and so their shirt is transparent. Generally I just say that it is hard to answer since I do not know how see colors. Generally I ask people to imagine an old TV that doesn't have all the colors, not quite a black and white one, but an early color one where there weren't 16 million colors. That probably approximates it. But It is a bit hard to explain, and you should all look at this site before asking me what color yourshirt is.

(Hat tip: Joseph A Ross in Nature.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Three articles

In today's NY Times there are three science-related articles that merit comment.

First, we have an article on facial recognition. The article perports to talk about humans and the fact that we tend to see faces in all sorts of things, like clouds, cinnamon buns and grilled cheese sandwiches. There was some talk about the neuro science behind the phenomenon and some minor remarks about the applications for facial recognition sofware. This article was praticularly light on the science, even by ScienceTimes standards. But the question I have, and I think this is a more important question is why are these so often religious figures who show up in toast, and not say, Jay Leno, or someone else equally recognizable. Where is George Bush? Where is Hitler? (Or Mohammed. (OK, we know why not him.)) Is it that these are the only ones that make the news that people look out for? Or is there a deeper connection? The fact that we tend to anthropomorphisize things is not surprising.

The second article is about Carl Sagan. Sagan was a great scientist and expositor of science. However, his widow is probably not a good expositor of anything. First, she wins today's award for "Most gratuitious reference to the US involvement in the Middle East". Here is a quote from the article:
In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in this country, she said, a tacit truce between science and religion that has existed since the time of Galileo started breaking down. “A lot of scientists were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore,” Ms. Druyan said over lunch recently.
I am a bit confused. First, what does 9/11 have to do with teaching evolution? Is this a post hoc fallacy trying to get us to think they are related? Is it pointing out that the truce that existed in the Muslim world between science and religion till Galileo prevented terrorism? Is she saying that scientists were mad that religious fanatics flew jetliners in to the world trade center and they are mad as hell and not going to take that? (What have scientists done to protest that?) So in short, I have not idea what she is talking about. And if you think that this was just some random quote, read the whole thing. She keeps refering to the middle east, as if that was forefront on Carl Sagan's mind, and somehow science will save us from something.

Finally, there is an article about a young earth creationist who got a PhD in geosciences. Here is another case of the article missing the point, but is nontetheless interesting. The article clearly shows a debate regarding the qualifications of someone who fails to conform to the academic orthodoxy. Now, everyone knows, that writing a PhD is often an excercize in Uncle Tomming. (I am not including myself here. My PhD advisor might not be the most nurturing person in the world, but we do see eye-to-eye on my project, and he is pretty helpful.) Not all people in biology believe in every bit of evolutionary theory they are use in their dissertation. I have seen PhDs in bible studies that presuppose the documentary hypothesis where their author has personally told me they do not believe in it. I have spoken to people who write PhDs in ethics that no sane human can believe. But as a colleague has told me recently that 90% of a PhD is listening to your thesis supervisor.

It is clear that even the very debate on whether this person should be barred from teaching and stuff is hypocritical and academically self-righteous. The whole point of the system is not to perpetuate scientific dogmas, but to insure that the people who are granted research funds and podiums to teach, and lesiure time to pursue the research are qualified. Not only that, we constantly talk about diversity, and I can't imagine someone who will contribute more to the diversity of a geology department than someone who doesn't believe in it. Moreover, this person is undoubtedly qualified, and the system is designed to insure that he is eminently qualified. Every day when he walked in to his lab for the first year of his research, he was hit with jibes and softballs that he undoubtedly spent time thinking about and coming up with snappy comebacks to. By the second year, since he made it through that trial, when his labmates started to have to take him seriously as a geologist, they must have started with the harder and harder questions, forcing him to be better and better at presenting it, and refining his position and making him learn to argue for it better. That is how good research should get done.

Conservatives of any sort face the same pressures in political theory as creationists do in biology departments, or meat eaters in philosophy departments, or sane people in performance art. The list goes on. The academy should be a place where one's credentials speak for themselves. It should not be a place where we look to your religion, sexual orientation, or beliefs about anything. Sure the research that the person will do for the rest of his career might be unorthodox, and any university hiring him might want to ask "what sort of research will you be pursuing?" and "will it embarrass us" or "will any of it actually get in to academic journals?" or "will you be teaching anything non-standard as part of lower level classes in geology?" but that is it. I would of course ban him from teaching high-schools, as there the goal is to disseminate the scientific orthodoxy. Teaching "alternate theories" of science is for a place of research, like a university, where everyone understands the standard account.

I frequently worry about what I can present to my colleagues. I am sure I think quite differently than many of them. And of course when I look for a job I will have to kiss-up to the Man. But the very idea that people would think it makes sense to deny a sopt in a PhD program to a qualified applicant solely on the basis of weird beliefs about the going paradigm strikes me as antithetical to the core of honest scholarship.