A 5-step algorithm to scientific discovery

18 03 2010

Today I stumbled upon these pearls of wisdom by Paydarfar & Schwartz, thanks to Thierry Huck. Thought I’d share. It is a five-step process, one might say algorithm, to scientific discovery.

1. Slow down to explore. Discovery is facilitated by an unhurried attitude. We favor a relaxed yet attentive and prepared state of mind that is free of the checklists, deadlines, and other exigencies of the workday schedule. Resist the temptation to settle for quick closure and instead actively search for deviations, inconsistencies, and peculiarities that don’t quite fit. Often hidden among these anomalies are the clues that might challenge prevailing thinking and conventional explanations.

2. Read, but not too much. It is important to master what others have already written. Published works are the forum for scientific discourse and embody the accumulated experience of the research community. But the influence of experts can be powerful and might quash a nascent idea before it can take root. Fledgling ideas need nurturing until their viability can be tested without bias. So think again before abandoning an investigation merely because someone else says it can’t be done or is unimportant.

3. Pursue quality for its own sake. Time spent refining methods and design is almost always rewarded. Rigorous attention to such details helps to avert the premature rejection or acceptance of hypotheses. Sometimes, in the process of perfecting one’s approach, unexpected discoveries can be made. An example of this is the background radiation attributed to the Big Bang, which was identified by Penzias and Wilson while they were pursuing the source of a noisy signal from a radio telescope. Meticulous testing is a key to generating the kind of reliable information that can lead to new breakthroughs.

4. Look at the raw data. There is no substitute for viewing the data at first hand. Take a seat at the bedside and interview the patient yourself; watch the oscilloscope trace; inspect the gel while still wet. Of course, there is no question that further processing of data is essential for their management, analysis, and presentation. The problem is that most of us don’t really understand how automated packaging tools work. Looking at the raw data provides a check against the automated averaging of unusual, subtle, or contradictory phenomena.

5. Cultivate smart friends. Sharing with a buddy can sharpen critical thinking and spark new insights. Finding the right colleague is in itself a process of discovery and requires some luck. Sheer intelligence is not enough; seek a pal whose attributes are also complementary to your own, and you may be rewarded with a new perspective on your work. Being this kind of friend to another is the secret to winning this kind of friendship in return.

All in all my own process does follow those rules, although I’m still waiting on the major discovery. Sometimes I commiserate about spending too much time in step 1, only to be reminded that all I was doing was step 3. I have been working on some methodological improvements to climate reconstruction techniques for a while, and they are finally panning out… Expect some fireworks soon. Step 2 Idefinitely follow in bursts – feast or famine. Step 4 I learned doing my postdoc, which is when I actually starting looking at data and not just model output.  Step 5 is an ongoing process. Going for a drink tonight …

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Advice to Climate Scientists on how to Avoid being Swift-boated and how to become Public Intellectuals

1 03 2010

My friend Kevin pointed me to this great post by Juan Cole, which is well worth it’s own weight in wisdom. The recent vilification of climate scientists in the public sphere underscores the need for my profession to urgently become media-savvy. Though it seems that experience will be the best teacher, i found the following advice very useful. It is always nice to hear you are not alone in a dark room. Happy reading. El Niño.

Climate Scientists continue to see persuasive evidence of global warming and climate change when they speak at academic conferences, even though, as Andrew Sullivan rightly put it, the science is being ‘swift-boated before our eyes.’ (See also Bill McKibben at Tomdispatch.com on Climate Change’s OJ Simpson moment).

This article at mongabay.com includes some hand-wringing from scientists who say that they should have responded to the attacks earlier and more forcefully in public last fall, or who worry that scientists are not charismatic t.v. personalities who can be persuasive on that medium.

Let me just give my scientific colleagues some advice, since as a Middle East expert I’ve seen all sorts of falsehoods about the region successfully purveyed by the US mass media and print press, in such a way as to shape public opinion and to affect policy-making in Washington:

1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research ‘legible’ to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves.

2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven’t spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. They are there for the following reasons:

a. Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp/ Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media.

b. Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the US corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent rollodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc. in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media.

c. Media thrives on controversy, which produces ratings and advertising revenue. As a result, it is structured into an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ binary argument. Any broadcast that pits a climate change skeptic against a serious climate scientist is automatically a win for the skeptic, since a false position is being given equal time and legitimacy. It was the same in the old days when the cigarette manufacturers would pay a ‘scientist’ to go deny that smoking causes lung cancer. And of course we saw all the instant Middle East experts who knew no Arabic and had never lived in the Arab world or sometimes even been there who were paraded as knowledgeable sources of what would happen if the United States invaded Iraq and occupied it.

d. Journalists for the most part have to do as they are told. Their editors and the owners of the corporate media decide which stories get air time and how they are pitched. Most journalists privately admit that they hate their often venal and ignorant bosses. But what alternative do most of them have?

e. Journalists for the most part do not know how to find academic experts. An enterprising one might call a university and be directed to a particular faculty member, which is way too random a way to proceed. If I were looking for an academic expert, I’d check a citation index of refereed articles, but most people don’t even know how to find the relevant database. Moreover, it is not all the journalists’ fault. journalism works on short deadlines and academics are often teaching or in committee and away from email. Many academics refuse (shame on them) to make time for media interviews.

f. Many journalists are generalists and do not themselves have the specialized training or background for deciding what the truth is in technical controversies. Some of them are therefore fairly easily fooled on issues that require technical or specialist knowledge. Even a veteran journalist like Judy Miller fell for an allegation that Iraq’s importation of thin aluminum tubes in 2002 was for nuclear enrichment centrifuges, even though the tubes were not substantial enough for that purpose. Many journalists (and even Colin Powell) reported with a straight face the Neocon lie that Iraq had ‘mobile biological weapons labs,’ as though they were something you could put in a winnebago and bounce around on Iraq’s pitted roads. No biological weapons lab could possibly be set up without a clean room, which can hardly be mobile. Back in the Iran-Iraq War, I can remember an American wire service story that took seriously Iraq’s claim that large numbers of Iranian troops were killed trying to cross a large body of water by fallen electrical wires; that could happen in a puddle but not in a river. They were killed by Iraqi poison gas, of course.

The good journalists are aware of their limitations and develop proxies for figuring out who is credible. But the social climbers and time servers are happy just to host a shouting match that maybe produces ‘compelling’ television, which is how they get ahead in life.

3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job). I certainly have been calumniated, e.g. by poweful voices such as John Fund at the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.

Juan Cole, Feb 28 2010 blogpost