knowledge is perspective

by cloudier

How to think about science and becoming a scientist

A lot of what is frustrating and off-putting about science at first, including working in the research lab, is the same thing that’s frustrating and off-putting about math: to really enter the conversation you have to have the vocabulary, so there’s a lot of memorizing when you start. Which is just obnoxious. But it doesn’t take too long, and if you start interning in a lab early, then the memorizing feels justifiable and pertinent, even if you feel initially more frustrated at a) not knowing the information and b) not knowing how to apply it. If you don’t get into a lab, however, it’s just hard and pointlessly so (even though it isn’t).

(Virtually all fields have this learning curve, whether you realize it or not; one of Jake’s pet books is Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, which describes how people move from no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge. It’s bewildering and disorienting to start with no knowledge on a subject, but you have to endure and transcend that state if you’re going to move to deep knowledge. He says that he’s climbed that mountain with regard to writing, which makes writing way more rewarding than it used to be.)

Once you have the language and are able to think about, say, protein folding, the way you would a paragraph of prose, or the rhythm in a popular song, science takes on a whole new life, like Frankenstein’s Monster but without the self-loathing or murder. You start to think about what questions you can ask, what you can build, and what you can do—as opposed to what you can regurgitate. The questions you pose to people in your lab will lead to larger conversations. Feeling like an insider is nice, not only because it’s nice to belong, but because you’ll realize that even being a small part of the conversation means you’re still part of the larger discussion.

This is really important. Knowledge about a particular subject is mostly learning the vocabulary because this entails an understanding of how the major concepts in a subject link together.1 Jargon is unavoidable in most subjects because plain language is often too inefficient for communicating ideas. It is unfortunately a massive barrier that prevents laypeople from comprehending the ideas presented in new research – let alone understanding its implications – that can also alienate them in the same way that slang alienates people.2 These two factors, in addition to the media,3 is probably what leads to the entitlement and anti-intellectualism4 that fuels climate skepticism and the idea that autism is linked to a vaccine.

The willful ignorance that results from the lack of comprehension of how much a person doesn’t know and the emotional investment they make in their ideas prevents these people from acquiring the skills to assess their own beliefs simply because it’s emotionally painful.5 This is why I believe that it’s important to increase both the breadth of one’s knowledge as well as the depth required for financial sustenance. It’s also why I don’t particularly like it when people say ‘jack of all trades, master of none’: this implies that when I’m learning about a subject that comes under ‘breadth’, it’s displacing the time I spend learning about my field of specialisation.6 This isn’t necessarily true since I don’t spend the entirety of my waking hours learning.

An almost irrelevant comment on the aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’: No it’s not. Power usually means social or economic influence. Sure, you can acquire that influence with leveraged knowledge, but you can also acquire it by, say, being born in the right place at the right time. Let me propose an alternative: ‘Knowledge is perspective’. There are always things that people of a certain profession know that most people don’t, and it is attached to a certain way of looking at life – a perspective which involves focusing on certain aspects of the world we live in that all end up affecting the way we live. For example, immunology focuses on the microscopic immune system, which has effects that spill into macroscopic life, whereas macroeconomics focuses on the behaviour of national and global economies, with effects that again spill into everyday life. The idea that every field is reducible to maths might be true,7 but it’s a bit silly since there are important and relevant patterns that emerge with each level of magnification.8

notes
If you’re logged into WordPress, I think that black bar at the top is going to make all the links for the notes hit one line too low.

  1. Becoming a professional, however, also involves acquiring relevant skills.
  2. As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold places in the community and expresses shared values and experiences. Also as usual, not knowing the slang (or using it inappropriately) defines one as an outsider, a mundane, or (worst of all in hackish vocabulary) possibly even a suit. All human cultures use slang in this threefold way — as a tool of communication, and of inclusion, and of exclusion.
  3. Seriously, anyone who reports anything related to science in the media should be forced to get a degree before they publish one word. This kind of fuckery costs lives.
  4. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.
  5. I don’t mean to say that all professionals should be trusted, always. They’re human so they will make mistakes and sometimes people without any training will be able to find gaping holes in their ideas. However, these are people who spend a much larger proportion of their life thinking about the topic at hand – it is still most likely that they’ll know better than a layperson.
  6. Which, er, doesn’t exist yet. Biology might come close since it’s the only subject where I’ve really gotten a hold on that basic vocabulary. Speaking of which, the HSC does a shitty job of teaching that; NQE training is much better.
  7. xkcd is still awesome.
  8. I think this is the idea behind the name ‘Patterns in Nature’.

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Quora: Is it better to own a gun for self-defense, or is that more likely to cause problems?

Not really. I am basing this on years of weapons and self-defense training. Let me explain…

**) You shouldn’t ever “carry” a weapon for personal self defense.

As a side note, I also have a serious grievance with those who think that they can use a weapon for personal self defense outside the home. The fact is that if you are considering carrying a weapon in your pocket or purse, you are literally endangering everyone around you with virtually no chance of being of any use to anyone. First, a weapon that is not holstered is one of the most dangerous things a person can do to those around them. There are many ways that a weapon floating around can go off. If you carry one like this, I hate you. You’re going to hurt someone. Secondly, please imagine a time when you might need the weapon.

A robber comes up to you late at night beside your car. He pulls a knife and demands your purse with your car keys.
“Oh hold on just a second and let me find my gun.”
…a few seconds go by…
“I’m serious, I am robbing you.”
“I know, I know. Just give me a second. I know it is over here somewhere.”
… a few more seconds pass…
“You see that I have a knife right?”
“Just be patient.”

“I’m truly sorry, but I really must be going. I’ll be taking your purse now.”
“Oh, just one more second!”

He takes the purse and steals your car. Then as you stand there contemplating how the gun should have solved your problem, the robber rolls down your window and throws your gun out to mock you. You hear Janie’s Got a Gun playing on your radio and reflect on the song’s irony and how this didn’t play out the way you thought it would.

The imagination of Lana Del Rey

There’s something about them that’s both an opportunity and a problem, and the crux of it would seem to be this: Different genres have totally different rules about the ways in which artists are supposed to be imaginative

Is Higher Income Inequality Associated with Lower Intergenerational Mobility?

OECD Better Life IndexQuora: How does Iron Chef work?

A few weeks before the taping the production company calls and asks if the chef would like to compete. On agreement another call is scheduled a week down the road during which such things as sous chefs, taping dates, and more are discussed. Also the compensation and what to shill when the chef comes on stage.

During the second call an Iron Chef is chosen. The other Iron Chefs at the taping are just doubles standing in for the real ones, the stuff you see on TV is B-Roll (secondary footage that adds meaning to a sequence or disguises the elimination of unwanted content). Aside from the chosen Iron Chef none are in the building.

Once the Iron Chef is chosen a few days pass, then a call is again made during which the challenger is informed which secret ingredient the Iron Chef chose. Yes, the secret ingredient is chosen by the Iron Chef. The challenger is given one of three possible ingredients.

A few weeks of practicing five dishes follows. Which is much easier than it’s made to look. No one who can’t make five dishes in one hour should be allowed to call themselves a cook.

The day of the taping starts early. First a lot of B-Roll is shot, then the challenger intro is filmed and the “selection” of the Iron Chef. After this the secret ingredient is revealed (“act surprised, OK?”) and the challenger and Iron Chef have a little time to plan ahead. Not that the Iron Chef needs to, they already knew what it would be.

The filming of the 60 minute cooking takes about three hours. The judges are introduced and some B-Roll is shot. My FoF had a personal friend of the Iron Chef, some B-list celebrity, and a food writer as judges. After 35 minutes or so, when the dishes are done, more B-roll is shot and some shots are redone where, for example, a camera was in the way or someone cursed too much. A lot of Alton Brown is shot after the cooking, he does some Wikipedia lookups and writes his script, then Brown and Brauch shots are finished and the Iron Chef and Challenger retreat.

One of the challenger’s sous chefs as well as one of the Iron Chef’s sous chefs stays behind and works with the FN cooks to make six plates of each of the courses. Four go to the judges table (the judges are not in the room for this, they’re around for the chef cooking taping and for the judging), one goes in the back for B-roll and one is set aside for promo and other work.

The judges return and IC and challenger do the song and dance. Sometimes something happens (my FoF’s chef dropped a plate, for example) and either the aside plate is brought out or a new one is quickly cooked. B-roll of judges eating is shot, some witty banter, then everyone goes back into their waiting areas.

Another hour later the “chairman” and the chefs are brought back out, the big reveal is done. And then it’s all over.

Why College Students Leave the Engineering Track

Professor Babcock has written extensively about college students’ evolving study habits (or lack thereof) over the last 50 years. He found that in 1961, full-time students spent about 40 hours each week in class and studying. By 2003, they were investing about 27 hours a week.

Break up the big banks? Here’s an alternative

There is a better alternative: expanding the liability for major financial institutions. If a shareholder invests a dollar in a big bank, why not make that shareholder liable for the first $1.50 — or more — of losses as insolvency approaches? In essence, we would be making the shareholders liable for the costs that bank failures impose on society, and making the banks sort out the right mixes of activities and risks. Eugene N. White, an economics professor at Rutgers University, supported a related proposal in a recent paper, “Rethinking the Regulation of Banking: Choices or Incentives?”

This proposal would shrink the financial sector, while avoiding excess regulatory micromanagement of bank activities. But it could still be combined with other regulations, like limits on leverage, if deemed appropriate or necessary.

Unlike the “big is bad” view, this proposal would penalize failing banks rather than safe, successful ones that happen to be large. That’s also more in accord with the American ethos of winning at business.

Under this reform, it’s quite possible that we would end up with some very large and also relatively safe banks. Note that Canada, whose banking system has proved remarkably safe over the last century, relies on a small number of major banks.

In any case, the market can adjust bank sizes over time, as perceived risks to banks change, without requiring new legislation to ward off each new source of risk. It’s hard for the law to win that race, especially when Congress is so fractious.

Expanded liability for bank shareholders might satisfy the Occupy Wall Street movement, and could be sold as a market-oriented, not regulatory solution; it’s probably what markets would insist upon if there were no central bank and no F.D.I.C. As recently as the 1980s, the partnership structure, another alternative to limited liability, was common among investment banks — and that hardly seemed a crippling drawback at the time.

We need to resist vengeful or “feel good” options for financial reform and embrace those that will really work.

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