The Dubiosity Scale

Scientists like classification schemes and, especially, the jargon that comes along with them. Of course, this in part due to the fact that such schemes allow us to flex our intellectual vanity through the ritual abuse of dead languages. More legitimately, classification schemes and terms that are agreed upon within a particular field increase both the ease and precision of communication.

At the moment, I am writing at my patio table, peering with some concern (due to the threat to my ripening raspberries) at a bird hopping around the back garden. This bird is all black, with a relatively straight black beak; it is larger than a sparrow, but smaller than an eagle; and, as mentioned above, moves on the ground by hopping. Alternatively, I could communicate all that information, probably with even greater accuracy, by making use of our shared vocabulary for bird classification and tell you that I am looking at a carrion crow. Two words not only substitute for a tedious, run-on sentence of description, but also reduce confusion about the bird’s characteristics.

Good classification schemes summarize significant amounts of information by identifying many definitive characteristics through classification. Bad classification schemes convey no additional information other than the classification group.
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Infography Done Right?

Infographics are the new black. Usually, they simply represent an aesthetically compelling way to present data in order to convince you of the infographers point. Occasionally, this artistic presentation of data represents a thoughtful way to view data in order to address a particular question. Eric Fischer‘s Locals and Tourists images are just such an approach.

<i>Image: <a href="">Locals and Tourists #1 (GTWA #2): London</a>, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from walkingsf's photostream</i>

Eric starts with a question:

Some people interpreted the Geotaggers’ World Atlas maps to be maps of tourism. This set is an attempt to figure out if that is really true.

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The Comments “They” Don’t Want You to Read

Science 2.0 is all about open debate involving both scientists and non-scientists. Science 2.0 is a good thing. What does Science 2.0 need to make it go? It needs two things.

1. Anyone is free to provide express their opinion on a topic.
2. The community is free to provide commentary on that opinion.

These sound simple, but in practice they require courage and a thick skin.

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Do Guys Dream of Electric Playmates (Repost)

This is a repost of an article originally published on 24 February 2009 here in response to a Wired Magazine article that is, once again, making the rounds.

My apologies to Horselover Fat for the title, but what is a boy to do when confronted with Katharine Gammon’s “Infoporn: Today’s Playmates Are More Like Anime Figures Than Real Humans” in Wired Magazine:

Oh, Playboy, why do you want your “readers” to lust after androids? That’s the only explanation we can think of for the proportions of your lovely ladybots.

If Hef is secretly invested in Battlestar Galactica, then the argument that Playboy has been gradually programming American males to “lust after androids” for the past fifty years makes sense.
Battlestar Galactica publicity still
The argument that Playboy drives the public perception of the ideal female form, as opposed to responding to the preferences of their readers (you won’t get any judgemental scare quotes from me) may just be a reflection of Gammon’s socioeconomic philosophy or writing style. It also does not involve fun graphs. Dealing with the specific claim of the article, that Playmates represent progressively more extreme and less healthy body shapes, does.

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What the End of the World says about science

What does our obsession with End of the World scenarios say about our relationship with science?

As I wrote about here, I’ve embarked on a post-apocalyptic reading project, to survey 60 years of post-Hiroshima End of the World science fiction, essentially the road to The Road.

Science is a mediator between humans and nature. This mediating role rests on the ability science gives us to predict, control and manipulate nature. Even science done out of pure curiosity is based on control: in order to obtain scientific knowledge, we manipulate nature by doing experiments. The prime test of our scientific theories is how predictive they are, how well they enable us to manipulate nature with predictable results. From a scientific perspective, it is impossible to understand nature without controlling it. Post-apocalyptic science fiction describes situations in which our ability to predict and control fails catastrophically. Nature escapes our control, through world-wide plagues, collisions with asteroids, or invasions by alien species; or else we’re done in by our own efforts at control, by nuclear war or human-induced ecological catastrophe. Continue reading “What the End of the World says about science”