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My brain, it's like a spaghetti machine! - Tactical Ninja

Feb. 22nd, 2013

09:41 am - My brain, it's like a spaghetti machine!

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OK so when you're eating an apple, do you find that one end of the apple tastes different from the other? If so, in what way are they different? Enquiring minds want to know..


I know we're wired to see patterns and make inferences from them and that we do it even when there aren't any and that's why conspiracy theories exist and that conspiracy theorists are generally seen to be at the deluded end of the thinking continuum, but really? What is up here?

Last night I went to this public lecture about some of the issues that occur in the use of evidence to create policy.

Cue a giant *yawn* from lots of people. And yeah, it wasn't all that exciting, unless you get a thrill from watching an elderly white man talk. It seemed to be very much an introduction to the issues and was pitched at what I would consider to be 101 level, but he did say some interesting stuff. The only note I made says this:

"Inferential gap between scientific knowledge and its policy implications. This is the area where values, beliefs, electoral concerns, public opinion, etc, are overlaid."

So what? That's not exactly news either, right? But he was talking about the way in which in NZ in particular, this inferential gap is a real problem in terms of policy creation. His suggestion to improve the situation was to have a Science Advisor in every Ministry, even the ones that don't seem to intuitively need one, and to consider doing limited empirical field trials of policy solutions before implementation.

Anyway, one of the topics he touched on was the way in which values, beliefs and inherent biases affect research at the presentation of findings stage, and also at the research design stage, and that New Zealand in particular (compared with other 'small advanced' economies such as Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Israel* and Ireland) suffers from a lack of a robust peer-review process for research undertaken by government (as opposed to academic research). He cited studies being completed and then going into filing cabinets in Ministry offices and never being seen again.

Like I said, nothing all that new here. But it tickled my brain, because last weekend one of the new people I talked to is big into open government, and I plied him with questions about implementation of that, and he talked a lot about the necessity to democracy of an informed public, and thus focusing on ways to make data as open as possible as well.

And then there was yesterday's conversation in which it was established (in my head anyway) that even in a rigorous environment such as science, the quality of work or the perception of quality of work is vulnerable to the influence of values, beliefs, etc.

And that came from the conversation earlier this week in which we established that part of the problem with the performance I'd watched was the historical context making the themes appear to be somewhat immature - the world's moved on from there and it's no longer relevant or shocking.

So what? I hear you say again.

Well, all these things have been mashing around in my head, along with my growing understanding that it's not the opinion of the politicians I have to change regarding drug policy, it's the opinion of the public. Increasingly, those already in the corridors of power are aware that the war on drugs has failed, but none will admit it publicly because it's political suicide. It's political suicide because policy around drugs has been created and maintained in an environment where values, beliefs, and electoral concerns have jumped into the policy process far too early - they have filled the inferential gap Gluckman was talking about to the point where in many cases, the data doesn't even get a look in. And Open Data dude is very interested in making sure the data gets a look in in the field of public opinion before that gap gets filled with other things.

I am interested in being in on this - let's just say it's relevant to my interests.

So while the guy last night was talking about the policy process as a whole, I think where I want to focus is on the bit where public opinion influences that process, and how to address the lack of informed public opinion in my own field, which seems to be the stumbling block for the creation of better drug policy.

So, brainy folks, how do we stop the apparatus of ideology from corrupting data before the general public get to see it? How do we ensure that data presented to the public is a) as objective as possible in itself and b) presented in a way that is as free from biases as possible? I don't think science advisors to ministers will fix this problem, so what will? No pressure..

Also, the questions at the end were.. um. One guy wanted to know what scientific advice the speaker (who is science advisor to our PM) had given the PM on same sex marriage**, and another person thought that if Ministries had science advisors then they should also have religious advisors to provide guidance on values and ethics. Which kind of made me feel a bit hopeless about public opinion being guided by objective critical thinking, you know?

* Incidentally, Israel is one of the countries that is leading the human trials for MDMA-assisted PTSD therapy. They have completed screening for their first subject.

** The answer was 'none, because that is not a scientific issue'.


This morning's conversation, paraphrased:

Me: *prodprodprod* Wake up and teach me programming!
Him: *blear* Ubuhduh?
Me: *bouncebounce* Int! I think I worked out what it means in concept and now I think I can apply it in other contexts and I'm excited about this so you have to tell me if I'm right!
Him: *obliges* *spends next 20 minutes discussing programming concepts*
Me: I WUV U

Reason number 753 that Dr Wheel is awesome - sleep ---> complex abstract discussions in less than 2 minutes. Also, yes, anyone who knows programming will now know exactly how much of a noob I really am. I have no shame.

Tonight = haircut! I am vaccillating between cutting and keeping, but leaning towards cutting. We'll see how it goes when Paul puts in his recommendation. Dude's never given me a bad haircut and I trust his judgement lots.

Comments:

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From:dreadbeard
Date:February 21st, 2013 10:05 pm (UTC)
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"how do we stop the apparatus of ideology from corrupting data before the general public get to see it?"

There you run into persuasion and propaganda (in this sense a neutral term to describe the mass communication process.) The short answer is, you don't, you just have less corruption, or corruption of a style that suits your ideology.

Munitions of the Mind by Philip Taylor is a stimulating overview of how this has been achieved from ancient times onward.

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From:tatjna
Date:February 21st, 2013 10:09 pm (UTC)
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Seems to me that this problem is why Open Data Dude and Gluckman up there were both quite hot on making sure information is widely peer reviewed, although their ideas for how to make that happen seemed a bit different.

Some of the questions touched on the corruptability of the peer review process, but it seems nobody's come up with a better way of ensuring information is critically assessed for 'objectivity' before distribution.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 21st, 2013 10:38 pm (UTC)
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I haven't been thinking of them as numbers, I've been thinking of them as concepts. Because those things you talk about up there, the ring buffers and other arcane-sounding things, are all just words to describe a concept and so is int.

So if I get the concepts, then the rest is just learning syntax. Which is why I was so excited about int (being something of a metaconcept) that I woke up Dr Wheel this morning to talk about it.
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From:kehleyr
Date:February 21st, 2013 10:58 pm (UTC)
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You are too brainy for me today :-).
Also your hubby is awesome :-) (so are you!!!)
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From:tatjna
Date:February 21st, 2013 11:05 pm (UTC)
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But but but... nobody has answered my question about the apples! And that was the most important part of the post!

Dr Wheel is indeed awesome, and by the time I've strung all the #reasons together, I reckon I'd have a book called "A thousand reasons to love Dr Wheel."

Which would be mushy. <3
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From:bekitty
Date:February 21st, 2013 11:21 pm (UTC)
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How do you influence the wider public to your point of view? Simple. You get the media on your side. Influencing the media was how the so-called "war on drugs" started.

An astounding number of people believe everything they read in the papers, and moreso if it's also parroted on TV. Really. I mean, there are people out there who firmly believe that Fox News is telling them the truth about everything.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2013 12:59 am (UTC)
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I'm not convinced that getting the media on your side is that simple, eh? And even if it was, I'm pretty sure it's more complex that that. For example, scientific press releases are often ambiguous - thinking here of that one that led a whole lot of quite neutral news outlets to report that Antarctica is getting cooler (and thus a whole bunch of the public to doubt climate change), when in fact that is not the case.

And then there's education as an apparatus of ideology as well. And the failure of some evidence to make it to the media at all, because someone's values interfered between the production of data and its distribution.

So yeah, definitely the media, but not just the media, and some of it happens before the media. I'm interested in that place.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2013 01:00 am (UTC)

Re: Also relevant

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He doesn't have two inches to get off. And I'm thinking of more like FOUR inches.

Take that, Crying Bald Guy!
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From:anna_en_route
Date:February 22nd, 2013 01:53 am (UTC)
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Awwwww, lightbulb moments in programming are awesome!


I'm currently helping my partner get to grips with SQL which is really fun.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
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I get the feeling it's something that will have an increasing number of lightbulb moments until the point where I feel vaguely competent, and will then be followed by a lot of headdesking till I'm actually competent, as I try to do things that are still beyond my ability. ;-)
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From:pundigrion
Date:February 22nd, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
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I only notice a difference in apple varieties, not on different regions on a given apple. I like Russets the best.

I think it is partly a failure of the educational system to teach critical thinking and to value logical and science. For instance, there used to be a water tower on our hill. For some reason, someone got in their head that it was ugly and needed to come down completely. It did need repairs, but not to the extant that a new tower would be cheaper. Multiple scientists and experts were called in and gave the council a report which basically boiled down to the water tower absolutely still being serviceable and that our neighborhood was likely to have troubles with water pressure without it, particularly in the summer. *One* expert disagreed and said he thought the pressure would be fine...not one of the water guys but the structural engineer who was called in to say if the tower was still sound. Guess whos opinion the council chose to go with? (Oh, and that guy agreed the tower was sound with a couple of repairs) Sure enough we are having pressure trouble!
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2013 02:33 am (UTC)
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I have a stock rant about the education system's failure to teach critical thinking and how that's related to class sizes, which normally ends in how I'm a filthy socialist and some muttering about state agendas and pedagogy.

But I agree, it would be much more useful for our overall wellbeing for kids to learn how to think instead of what to think.
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From:coyotegoth
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:55 am (UTC)
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The base is often sweeter.
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