Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
November 2018

Community Indicators

There isn't a thing out there, called GDP, that we're trying to measure really well. It's a construct that shapes the way we think about the world, and although we think we're measuring what we observe, actually what we're doing is observing what we measure.

- Diane Coyle, in an interview with NPR's Planet Money.

In chemistry, an indicator is a molecule that changes color when the endpoint of a titration is reached. For instance, methylene blue turns colorless when it is placed in a reducing environment (meaning an excess of electrons in the solution that can be added on to the dye molecule; remember that it's the electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom that determine which wavelengths of light are absorbed and which are reflected, and therefore what color it appears to be). Phenolphthalein turns from colorless to pink as a solution becomes more basic (around pH 8.2). These are not just trivia, or magic tricks, or even technobabble, but valuable tools--for the people who know how to use them.

The city of Greensboro has just launched a Community Indicators project, to go beyond gross measures like GDP to more relevant and local measures. This follows up on its Open Data portal, the idea of which is to make public data more easily accessible, to move away from the model of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires separate requests for specific pieces of information. It creates a new problem, though. Simply dumping the archives onto the Internet doesn't teach average citizens how to search through them, or how to interpret what we find. Analysis is a skill set, not a technology.

You might remember Hans Rosling from his TED talks. The sad part is that, as he describes in the introduction to the book Factfulness, simply giving people correct information is not enough.

The ignorance we kept on finding was not just an upgrade problem. It couldn't be fixed simply by providing clearer data animations or better teaching tools. Because even people who loved my lectures, I sadly realized, weren't really hearing them. They might indeed be inspired, momentarily, but after the lecture, they were still stuck in their old negative worldview. The ideas just wouldn't take. . . . I almost gave up."

--Factfulness, p. 11

Rosling died recently, but his last, best hope for education was this book, outlining the cognitive biases that warp how we view statistics like the ones he presented in the famous animated bubble graphs developed by his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna. For instance, we simplify complex distributions that show lots of overlap to averages, and then focus solely on the differences between the averages to create "gaps." Gaps are vital ingredients for our Us/Them, Hero/Villain narratives, so we search for them, whether they are relevant or not, and we usually find them.

Rosling takes a different approach to simplifying distributions. Of the seven billion people on the planet, he places 1 billion in the lowest of four income groups, living on $1 a day or less; 5 billion in the two middle groups, making $4 and $16, respectively; and 1 billion making more than $32 a day, which includes me and probably most readers of this column. A theme of his book is that full distributions tell us more than the endpoints--not just a quantitatively more complete picture, but a qualitatively different interpretation. In terms of the most destructive forms of Downbelow poverty, most of us have already made it out.

The villains of another recent book, Positive Populism, are the global elites, a much smaller group than the billion people that Rosling places at the top of his scheme. Never mind that 100 years ago, throughout the American South, people were shitting outside, spreading hookworm, until the outhouse campaign started by the very rich Rockefellers. Or that John D. chose hookworm as a cause precisely because health was a universal good, one that would improve productivity without upsetting the economic order. Both of those things are true, but they don't make for a clear separation into heroes and villains. This book addresses the perceived loss of status within that top billion as the bottom billions catch up, with a refreshingly nonpartisan raft of policy proposals, any one of which could inspire a good story. Here's a quick sampling:

Free markets in education and labor, meaning a universal school voucher system and market-based immigration for high-value immigrants (though the predictability of "high-value" is questionable, and worth exploring in story form).

A robust, Teddy Roosevelt-on-steroids trustbusting regime, with corporations who face less competition being more heavily regulated and taxed at higher rates. He also wants an end to noncompete riders on employment contracts.

Strengthening families through marriage incentives, parenting education, and better training and more autonomy for social workers.

Decentralizing power and money to local communities, and incentivizing their members to be involved, individually and collectively, including a universal Citizen Service Corps for teenagers.

Requiring politicians to recuse themselves from any decisions involving donors and to institute open office hours like university professors.

PP author Steve Hilton also spends a good bit of time trying to paint the Chinese as his other major villains. Personally, I greatly prefer the approach taken by journalist David Ignatius in The Quantum Spy, where the Chinese are serious rivals--smart and determined, but just as loyal to their own ideals as their CIA counterparts. It's also a very nice example of a layman working hard to understand and to explain complicated technical material to his readers.

Quantum computing is astonishingly complicated, especially for someone like me. I'm a journalist, a novelist. I am not a technologist. I had to teach myself the fundamentals of this. I thank at the end of my book some real leaders in area of quantum computing who were kind enough to talk me through some of the basics.

- David Ignatius, Wired interview

According to The Quantum Spy, even our fastest machines can't do the kind of hacker magic that Felicity Smoak does in seconds every week on Arrow. In that novel, a single facial recognition search through all of Europe's traffic cam footage, using a quantum computer that probably doesn't exist yet, takes days. So technology, by itself, is not going to solve our problems with information overload and the cognitive biases that prevent us from using the information we have.

Channeling Rosling for a second, is that information overload problem even real? History suggests that the underlying anxiety is not new:

It was King Solomon himself who lamented, 'of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.' (Ecclesiastes 12:12) . . . Perceptions of an information overload emerge when society lacks an authoritative philosophical and intellectual paradigm through which sources of information and knowledge can be interpreted.

- Frank Furedi, The American Prospect

In other words, we turn information into knowledge through interpretation, through discussion and argument. Sure, we also short-circuit that process with faulty mental models and social signals, but I would argue that a combination of tools and social conventions can help. Librarians and archivists spent centuries coming up with ways to sort and catalogue information, and new methods are being invented and tested all the time, like NASA's Task Load Index, which the Mayo Clinic has been using to design better ways of serving up electronic health records. Procedural checklists are another NASA invention that reduce the number of hospital mistakes. There are even tools that help us to argue better, like the diagramming techniques called argument mapping. We just need to start using them.

Randall Hayes is currently exploring India, looking for pragmatic solutions to problems of poverty, education, and employment. Also comic book stores.

REFERENCES

https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/08/23/641278187/beyond-gdp

Everybody sounds smarter with a British accent.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methylene_blue

https://www.chemteam.info/Redox/Meaning-of-Redox.html

Remember, kids--"LEO says GER"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenolphthalein

https://www.imaginaryworldspodcast.org/technobabble.html

A really nice discussion of the phenomenon, and of the Science Entertainment Exchange, which drops scientists into productions. I am theoretically a member, but I have never gotten the call.

http://scienceandentertainmentexchange.org

https://www.cfgg.org/blog/community-indicators-launch

https://www.weforum.org/focus/beyond-gdp

There are a couple dozen stories here, but that phrase, "beyond GDP," brings up many, many more in any search engine, including this, by one of the authors of the book Radical Markets, about which more later.

https://www.bu.edu/pardee/files/documents/PP-004-GDP.pdf

https://data.greensboro-nc.gov

https://www.cato.org/events/nsa-road-911-lessons-learned-unlearned

Lots of good insights from these three NSA whistleblowers.

https://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling

https://ask.metafilter.com/60189/Whats-the-origin-of-the-phrase-last-best-hope-for

https://www.gapminder.org

The book is not available through the Roslings's foundation, but tons of other teaching materials are, including a card game.

http://babylon5.wikia.com/wiki/Downbelow

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histogram

One of the "seven basic tools of quality," introduced in Japan after WW2 to train workers intimidated by full-on statistics in quality control.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/nature/how-a-worm-gave-the-south-a-bad-name/

India, where I happen to be this month, is #6 in the world for worm infections.

https://www.wired.com/story/david-ignatius-quantum-spy-high-tech-espionage/

http://jsnn.ncat.uncg.edu

https://www.facebook.com/GreensboroScienceCafe/

Click through to the Group for current updates.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felicity_Smoak

http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/07/information-overload/

https://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/12/17/information-overload-or-a-search-for-meaning/

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/magazine/making-choices-in-the-age-of-information-overload.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA-TLX

https://hbr.org/2018/03/how-mayo-clinic-is-combating-information-overload-in-critical-care-units

https://ww2.mc.vanderbilt.edu/crew_training/17215

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_map

https://timvangelder.com/2016/07/16/argument-mapping-with-word-smartart/

Read more by Randall Hayes


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