An exercise in wrongness

Wrongness isn’t a word, you say? Then I’m off to a great start. (It is, though).

My department makes a pretty big deal of our second year projects. We don’t have any qualifying exams, just an oral presentation and paper. We’re still 4 long weeks away from presenting these projects, but there have already been plenty of eye-opening moments for me to write about. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done a project of this nature and magnitude from start to “finish” (are these projects really ever over?) largely independently. This means that there are a lot of surprise moments for making mistakes.

Going back to last summer when I started running the experiments that will be included in my project, I screwed up plenty of things. My sloppy programming meant that the experiment crashed sometimes. Other times, I failed to communicate important details to the research assistants running the experiment, and we had to trash the data. It turned out that the data collection was actually the phase of the project in which I made the fewest mistakes, though. The process of analyzing the data was a cycle of mistakes and inefficiencies that were usually followed up by more mistakes and inefficiencies. Every once in a while, I’d do something useful, and that was enough to keep me going.

Sometimes, I’ve gotten annoyed at myself for making these mistakes, especially when deadlines are approaching or when my advisor has to be the one to point them out to me. I’ve been frustrated by the messiness of the data, though logically I know that I should probably be skeptical if my data weren’t messy), and all those things I should have done differently continue to come to mind and nag at me.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. A handful of older grad students have told me about their second year project mistakes, and mine start to look like par for the course.

And then I discovered a Nautilus interview of physicist David Deutsch. It’s a pretty philosophical interview on the importance of fallibility, but the takeaway is that the ability to be wrong is something we should embrace because the very fact that we’re error-prone means that it’s possible to be right. He points out that so often in science, people prove things wrong that have been assumed for many years to be truths.

What makes progress possible is not whether one is right or wrong, but how one deals with ideas. And it doesn’t matter how wrong one is. Because there’s unlimited progress possible, it must mean that our state of knowledge at any one time hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. [As the philosopher Karl Popper said], “We’re all alike in our infinite ignorance.”

This interview lifted a lot of weight off my second-year grad student shoulders. I’ve made lots of mistakes throughout the process of putting together this project (and I’m not finished making them, I feel pretty confident), and therefore, there is a such thing as doing the work correctly. In the end, the p-values that I find when I analyze my data aren’t really the important part (though, unfortunately, they’re what will determine if and where the work gets published…). Instead, it’s a reminder to focus on the ideas – the ones the work was based on and the one the work opens up – and embrace the wrongness.

Here’s one effective way to communicate science

Science is very cool. But the way it’s often taught – seemingly arbitrary facts to be memorized or lab procedures to be blindly followed – is less cool. It’s not too surprising that many people decide at some point during their education that science is not for them. Not only do they forgo scientific careers (which is fine – variety is important), but they avoid science in all forms. They skip the science section of newspapers and blogs, comment on the uncharacteristically dry and warm winter without questioning its causes or consequences, and take medications that they’re prescribed without researching the condition they’re being treated for or alternative treatments. In many cases, science that’s relevant to everyday life flies under the radar and people don’t even notice it; in others, they read a sensational headline and run with it or post photos of a seemingly magical dress on all their social media accounts.

And who can blame people for feeling like pursuing scientific information is a waste of time? If their science education brings up painful or boring memories and the rare scientific writing that they do engage with may as well have been written in another language, non-scientists are not going to seek out science in their lives. Exciting more students about science is one way to avoid societal scientific ignorance, but another is to improve the quality of science communication. Efforts to do so are widespread (for example, this summer I’ll be attending a workshop, ComSciCon, whose goal is to improve communication between scientists and their readers), but we still have a lot of work to do.

Nautilus has become one of my favorite sources for science news. At its core, it’s a science blog, but it’s very different from any other science blog I’ve encountered. For one, each issue has a theme, like the current one – Dominoes (subtitle: one thing leads to another). The pieces within an issue do all relate to the theme, but are from seemingly-unconnected domains, resulting in a surprising web of connections among ideas you’ve probably never thought about together (or in isolation, as is often the case for me). Nautilus is also different because there’s a clear effort made to present the content of a post in the format that works most for that post. I recently wrote about the cool experience of learning about how music hijacks our perception of time through an audio tour, consisting of clips and annotations.

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A recent post about an interview with Helen Fisher, a prominent sex/love/relationship researcher and communicator, also provided a non-traditional reading experience. The post embodied so many goals of science communication. It opened by describing the experience of the interview – an interesting comment Fisher made and the actual apartment that the writers met in. Then, once we can picture the environment that the dialogue took place in, the author told us why we should care about the interview: Fisher makes some provocative claims, such as suggesting that an increase in casual sex has caused our divorce rate to stop increasing – casual sex might lead to long-term marital happiness. The rest of the interview is presented in transcript form, but a video of the interview is the main draw. It’s not posted as one chunk, as most videos are. It always bothers me that I don’t get to experience an online video at my own pace in the way that I experience written materials. The Nautilus interview eliminates this bother by posting Fisher’s responses to each question as individual mini movies that are linked to the questions she’s responding to. Thanks to this format, readers can preview the questions, skip the ones they find less interesting, and listen to the interesting ones in any order they want (all of which I did). This solution is fairly low on complexity, but high on genius. More, please!

Notables from Nautilus chapter: Perception

In a previous post, I wrote about my introduction to the multidisciplinary publication Nautilus, whose current issue’s topic is Time.

Here are some of my highlights from Chapter 2: Perception:

A quote from Making good use of bad timing, by Matthew Hutson:

Like photos in an album, the causal links between [the scenes of our lives] must be inferred. And we do that, in part, by considering their sequence and the minutes, days, or years that pass between them. Perceptions of time and causality each lean on the other, transforming reality into an unreliable swirl.

In this article, Hutson tackles the widely-asked question: Why does time fly when you’re having fun? There’s a generally accepted model of our perception of time as a pacemaker. The pacemaker emits “ticks,” which are general bursts of neural firing, and they’re collected by an accumulator. To perceive time, we compare the number of ticks acquired over a given time to some reference stored in memory. If we’re distracted from these ticks, however, as is likely to be the case when doing something fun or something that puts us in a state of flow, we’ll perceive fewer ticks and consequently perceive that less time has passed. On the contrary, when we’re doing a task that requires attention, we might be hyper-aware of the accumulation of ticks, and time might speed up. Intriguing as this model is, no one has discovered correlations in the brain for the proposed pacemaker or accumulator.

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In Why we procrastinate, Alisa Opar writes that we see our future selves as distinct people from our current selves. She cites an fMRI study to show this. When people think about themselves, there is more blood flow in the medial prefrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex than when they think about others. The researchers found that when people talked about their future selves, they had less blood flow in the brain areas associated with thinking about the self; in fact, their blood flow patterns looked similar to those exhibited when thinking about other people. Further, individuals who had the least activation in these brain areas when thinking or speaking about their future selves were also the ones who were least likely to favor long-term financial gains over short-term ones. In other words, they experienced their future selves as more distinct from their current selves than the people who were more likely to favor long-term gains. In short, she writes, “their future self ‘felt’ more like somebody else.'”

In another study, participants were told that the experiment was on disgust and involved drinking a mix of ketchup and soy sauce. The more they drank, they were told, the more they would further science. Some participants had to agree to an amount that they would drink that day, others to an amount they would drink next semester, and still others to an amount that their friend would drink today. The group that had to agree to an amount they would drink in the present pledged to drink significantly less than the participants who were agreeing for their future selves or their friends (and the pledge amounts for future selves and friends did not significantly differ from each other). Again, it appears that we think of ourselves in the future in the third person, in the way that we think of others. The solution to reducing procrastination or making better decisions in the present, it would seem, must involve strengthening our connection to our future selves.

This chapter even includes a short time-inspired fictional story, reminding me of how many different and interesting ways there are to approach the topic of time.

Time: Discovery

A friend recently turned me on to Nautilus – a self-proclaimed “different kind of science magazine,” that weaves science together with philosophy and culture. Each issue has a general theme and is comprised of 4-5 chapters, one published every week, and each containing a few different articles.

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The current issue is Time: mysteries of the moment. Considering time is a topic with which many of us are intimately familiar (we make it, spend it, kill it, waste it, give it, and occasionally even enjoy it…), the authors’ abilities to make me see time through new lenses is pretty welcomed. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Chapter 1: Discovery:

The very first line of the introduction:

There’s a ticking bomb in the corner of your awareness. The danger isn’t the bomb, though—it’s the clock. Time, that most pedestrian, over-measured, and tightly regulated quantity of our daily lives, is in a perpetual state of crisis.

A great metaphor from Over time, Buddhism and science agree:

All things, especially living ones, are marinating in the river of time.

A discussion of how we talk about time in Life is a braid in Spacetime:

We find it completely normal to ask someone “what’s the time?” implying that there is such a thing as the time, and that there are inherent properties of time. But we would probably never ask someone “what’s the place?” We’d instead ask something along the lines of “where am I?” which highlights that we’re asking about a property of ourself, not of place. But when we ask what the time is, aren’t we really intending to ask the same thing as when we ask where we are? Essentially, aren’t we asking, “where am I in time?”

Our language reveals how differently we think of space and time: The first as a static stage, and the second as something flowing. Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion.

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And a final quote from In search of time’s origin:

Mounting evidence shows that at the most basic level of reality, time is an illusion, and stranger still, that time doesn’t really exist.

This statement is either incredibly comforting (ah, I don’t have to worry so much about time if it doesn’t even exist) or terrifying (my whole life is based on time – how can it not exist?!)

After reading chapter 1, I must admit that I still don’t really know what time is, but the articles suggest that we’re all pretty confused about it and have been for many years. I guess that just gives us more to think, write, and read about.