Monthly Archives: July 2013

Science Advising in the Government

The Forum on Physics and Society has a couple of articles on science advising, including one from John Morgan called ‘Practice and Pitfalls of Science Advising in the Government’. He discusses his experiences as a science advisor and gives some insight into the kinds of challenges faced in that career.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

In every part of the government, inconvenient truths are everywhere. The scientist is often in the position of undermining established wisdom of every type across the ideological spectrum. In this sense, science and technology are inherently subversive, especially in the government, which is run by interests, relationships, and politics, not objective data.

To be effective, especially in the long term, the scientist must abandon self-righteousness and ideology. The scientific community has done a poor job in this regard in recent years and has unnecessarily alienated policy-makers, especially among conservatives. Interdisciplinary collaboration is important in this regard. With respect to policy development, the hard sciences can benefit from a close relationship with social science, especially those who work in economics and evaluation research. Scientific evidence must encompass the human and social impact of policy and practice, not just the cold numbers of physical science.



Sagan Sundays

I’m going to try starting a new series dubbed ‘Sagan Sundays’, in which every week I share quotes, video clips, and tributes associated with one of the greatest cosmological philosophers of our time: Carl Sagan. Sagan’s brand of popular science was one in which he took a hard look at the human species from a cosmological perspective, considering its virtues, its faults, its triumphs, and its tribulations. He blended realism with optimism and scientific objectivity with compassionate humanism, realizing that though we may a small role in the grand scheme of the universe, we play the largest possible role in our own lives.

To get us started off, here’s a quote from Broca’s Brain. Just Sagan, looking up at the sky all starry-eyed.

If we look at the universe in the large, we find something astonishing. First of all, we find a universe that is exceptionally beautiful, intricately and subtly constructed. Whether our appreciation of the universe is because we are a part of that universe – whether, no matter how the universe were put together, we would have found it beautiful – is a proposition to which I do not pretend to have an answer. But there is no question that the elegance of the universe is one of its remarkable properties.

The Art of Making

Here’s one example from an interesting set of videos on Vimeo called ‘The Art of Making’. From the group Deep Green Sea, whose aim is to ‘communicate meaningful ideas that can excite, provoke, and educate’, the videos give an in-depth look at the science and skill behind the making of various objects.

The ‘Art of Making’ series aspires to display and highlight people who go against the spirit of today’s pessimism and desperation. They dare to dream and create with zeal and imagination. Armed with passion for knowledge and emotion, they attempt to combine the precision of science with the elegance and resourcefulness of art.

The videos are short and sweet, employing beautiful soundtracks and some impressive editing. Besides carpentry, they also cover the making of a dress and a guitar. Makes me feel like I should go create something.

Shots of Awe, with Jason Silva

Futurist and filmmaker Jason Silva has recently started a new project called Shots of Awe, short inspirational videos based around scientific topics like evolution, space travel, and consciousness. Dubbed ‘shots of philosophical espresso’, the videos are packed with inspirational footage and are accompanied by a constant stream of metaphysical musings by Jason.

The description from the YouTube channel:

Ever ponder the miracle of life? Or perhaps wonder about the evolution of intelligence? In Shots of Awe, Jason Silva chases his inspiration addiction as he explores these topics and more. Every week we’ll look at the complex systems of society, technology and human existence and discusses the truth and beauty of science in a form of existential jazz.

COSMOS: A Space-Time Odyssey, the trailer

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the legendary series on science (and which is available to watch online for free from Hulu), is being redone for the new century. Filling the shoes of Carl Sagan will be the man who is likely today’s biggest popularizer of science: Neil deGrasse Tyson. Cosmos, both then and now, aims to outline much of what we know about the universe and how we came to find ourselves in it. The preview makes it look like a high budget Hollywood film, and I’m pretty excited about it.


Data Journalism Handbook


The European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation have joined forces to create the Data Journalism Handbook, a “free, open source reference book for anyone interested in the emerging field of data journalism.” The central tenet of the handbook is exploring “how data can be used to create deeper insights into what is happening around us and how it might affect us”.

Though the handbook is written for journalists, it provides useful advice for anyone who wants to understand data and effectively communicate results to others. This could include scientists, teachers, activists, or just anyone who wants to better understand the world.

It covers such important topics as:

As I’ve talked about before, we are entering the era of big data, with the internet providing access to a growing amount of easily accessible data on a wide range of topics. There’s a lot to be learned from it all, if we only know how to look.

Brian Cox on the role of science in democracy

Physicist Brian Cox has a few choice words to say about the importance of a scientifically literate population for the proper functioning of democracy. (via Brain Pickings)

From the clip:

We live in a society — as the great the great physicist and communicator Carl Sagan always emphasized — a society that is entirely based on science, it is based on technology and engineering. All the great, important decisions that our democracy will be forced to take in the next decades, and all the way into the 21st century, are based on science — they’re based on scientific method, they’re based on an understanding what reason and reaching conclusions based on evidence is. And if the presentation of science is a Frankenstein presentation of science — a misrepresentation of what we do, a complete misselling of the wonder of exploration — then we have a problem in our democracies. And it’s the same problem that we have if we don’t have an educated population.

While I think that saying society is entirely based on science is a broad overstatement, I think that his basic message is sound. But the pursuit of scientific literacy is more than just an issue of acquiring all the facts and understanding the physical laws that form the framework of nature. It’s about developing a way of thinking in which everything is open to be questioned and facts are not facts unless they are backed up by observations. As Carl Sagan says in A Demon-Haunted World:

That kind of skeptical, questioning, “don’t accept what authority tells you” attitude of science — is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

and also:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.