Can scientists speak truth to power when they aren’t in the business of “truth”?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Can Science Speak Truth to Power?

For SIAM News:

Since the onset of COVID-19, government messaging has been scattershot at best. In the meantime, epidemiologists, public health experts, and other members of the scientific community have struggled to communicate accurate information to the public — sometimes without adequate data (see Figure 1). To further complicate matters, many of these same scientists are paid with public money in the form of grants or beholden to corporate funding. Additionally, the priorities of civil leaders do not always align with those of public health efforts, and scientists themselves are not apolitical machines and thus have their own biases.

These conflicts and confusions are particularly problematic during a global pandemic, but it doesn’t take a virus to reveal the presence of fissures in a world where people perform both science and public policy. Climate change, nuclear weapons, space exploration, deep-sea mining, endangered species protections, and garbage disposal are only a small sample of areas in which scientific issues overlap—or conflict—with governmental priorities.

“More scientists these days acknowledge that we are not those who are elected by the public,” Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said. “We understand that the policy decisions that politicians and governments make depend on more than just the scientific evidence that we present.”

Read the rest at SIAM News

The snake-oil salesmen of “earthquake prediction”

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Earthquake weather

Earthquake predictions are going viral online — and spreading dangerous conspiracies along the way.

For Inverse:

In 1990, an eccentric Texan named Iben Browning appeared on the national stage with a dramatic prediction: On December 2 or 3 of that year, a major earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault in southwestern Missouri.

Professional earthquake scientists mostly declined to even give the prediction any attention, and — to their total lack of surprise — Dec. 3, 1990 came and went without a tremor. Nevertheless, Browning’s prediction sent a number of people into a panic, who built “Browning bunkers” and brought news crews to the small town of New Madrid (pronounced in a typically American fashion as “MAD-rid”). The non-event even inspired a 1993 song from the southern Illinois alternative country band Uncle Tupelo.

On its face, predicting an earthquake in New Madrid doesn’t seem too far-fetched. On Dec. 16, 1811, a tremor struck the town large enough to change the course of the Mississippi River and create the illusion of making the water flow backward. The young city of St. Louis was heavily damaged, and New Madrid itself was essentially destroyed. The New Madrid region even experienced a magnitude 4.7 quake in September 1990, which lent a little credibility to Browning’s claim in the public eye. The area has around 200 low-magnitude quakes annually, and disaster-preparedness experts are concerned that infrastructure is not robust enough to handle larger events.

But knowing earthquakes have happened at a particular site and are likely to happen again in the future is not the same thing as being able to predict them. Browning based his “forecast” on weather patterns and other phenomena, but never fully revealed his methodology for others to evaluate. (His primary motivation may in fact have been selling videocassettes explaining his theories to a panicked population.)

[Read the rest at Inverse]

Measuring the gravity of climate change

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Don’t be turned off by the name of the publication! This article for SPIE Photonics is meant for anyone, and describes a very sophisticated experiment that connects my area of expertise (gravitational physics) to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

The GRACE to tackle climate change

A pair of orbiting spacecraft use laser technology developed for detecting gravitational waves to measure melting ice in Greenland

For SPIE Photonics:

Climate change is the largest existential threat facing humanity. Melting ice in polar regions and in mountains contributes to rising ocean levels worldwide; warming air disrupts jet streams and precipitation patterns, making severe storms more likely. Tracking these disruptions is essential for understanding how rapidly climate change is happening. However, Earth is big and many of the important fluctuations can be hard to measure without intensive local observations year-round.

But Earth-observation satellites present another extremely effective way to track climate change. Since 2018, a pair of spacecraft has been recording data that allow scientists to measure the melting of polar ice and the depletion of water tables during droughts. The satellites, together known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), track small fluctuations in Earth’s gravity as water moves from place to place. As its name suggests, the joint project between the US and Germany succeeds the original 2002-2017 GRACE mission. Both have proven so successful that researchers are now planning a third mission.

[Read the rest at SPIE Photonics]

Our Vanishing Sky

For the “Nature” print issue of The Nib, Maki Naro and I pointed out that space is a natural resource that should not be hogged or polluted. Our comic is now available for free on the Nib website!

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The End of Night

comic panel depicting an alien flying over a light-polluted Earth, reading "Companies based in wealthy countries disproportionately produce light pollution and space junk, just as they pollute the air and water around the world."
Panel from “The End of Night”, with words by me and art by Maki Naro

Read the rest at The Nib

Space is for everyone, except if you don’t fit the gender binary

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

NASA’s Embarrassing Pronouns Fumble

Employees are frustrated and mad that a pilot program meant to foster inclusivity was abruptly ended.

for Slate:

The gesture from the leadership at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was simple: as of a few weeks ago, employees could add their pronouns to their official identification for meetings. On calls and chats, the information would appear alongside their names and internal ID number. The addition of a formal field for pronouns was a show of support to gender minorities and their allies.

But it didn’t last. On Monday of this week, representatives from NASA Headquarters called a meeting to abruptly end the new features in their system, which they said had been rolled out as part of a pilot program. Officials told Goddard employees who attended the meeting that they hadn’t determined if including pronouns was appropriate in a professional context, and needed to consider broader impacts of displaying the pronouns, an explanation that left many feeling frustrated.

Read the rest at Slate

Finding the right math for medical problems

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). However, even though the main audience for this magazine is professional mathematicians, I wrote it to be understandable even if you gloss over the math. And it involves the word “tortuosity”, which is just fun to say.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

A Nonparametric Swiss Army Knife for Medicine

For SIAM News:

The complexity of living things is frequently humbling for mathematicians. Even a single cell contains a plethora of processes and complicated interactions that tractable mathematical models cannot easily describe. Researchers have applied nonlinear dynamics, mechanical analogs, and numerous other techniques to understand biological systems, but the tradeoffs of modeling often err on the side of reductionism.

For this reason, Heather Harrington of the University of Oxford and her collaborators are turning to global mathematical methods and drawing on experimental data to identify the best techniques. Harrington described several of these methods during her invited talk at the 2021 SIAM Conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems, which took place virtually earlier this year.

“The way that we look at dynamical systems is usually in a small region of the parameter space,” Harrington said. This approach is helpful if one knows a lot about the model and its parameters, but it can be hard to extract detailed predictions from the model if the parameters in question range over large values. “In biology, we often don’t know if the system is very close to a value in parameter space because the variables or parameters are difficult to measure or the data is too messy,” she added.

[read the rest at SIAM News]

The danger of climate change may be its rate

As with many of my other contributions to SIAM News, the article “It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Rate: Rate-Inducted Tipping’s Relation to Climate Change” includes some mathematical equations, but I’ve tried to write the piece so you can understand it even if you gloss over that part. And this article in particular has some important concepts relating to the biggest issue facing humanity today: climate change.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Rate

Rate-Inducted Tipping’s Relation to Climate Change

For SIAM News:

For many years, scientists have warned that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC)—the thermal cycle that drives currents in the Atlantic Ocean—is getting weaker [1]. Among other effects, the AMOC carries warm water to Ireland and the U.K. and returns cooler water from the north to southern regions. Instability in this circulation cycle could result in its complete collapse and cause widespread disruptions in temperature, changes in rain and snowfall patterns, and other natural disasters.

The potential loss of the AMOC represents a possible tipping point due to human-driven climate change. Global increases in temperature lead to warmer ocean water and melting polar ice, both of which decrease water density (see Figure 1). The subsequent lower-density water does not sink as much as it cools, thus disrupting the thermal cycle. When the AMOC collapsed in the prehistoric past, it jolted Earth’s climate and affected every ecosystem.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

Teaching AI to “Do No Harm”

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Is There an Artificial Intelligence in the House?

For SIAM News:

Medical care routinely involves life-or-death decisions, the allocation of expensive or rare resources, and ongoing management of real people’s health. Mistakes can be costly or even deadly, and healthcare professionals—as human beings themselves—are prone to the same biases and bigotries as the general population.

For this reason, medical centers in many countries are beginning to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into their practices. After all, computers in the abstract are not subject to the same foibles as humanity. In practice, however, medical AI perpetuates many of the same biases that are present in the system, particularly in terms of disparities in diagnosis and treatment (see Figure 1).

“Everyone knows that biased data can lead to biased output,” Ravi Parikh, an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “The issue in healthcare is that the decision points are such high stakes. When you talk about AI, you’re talking about how to deploy resources that could reduce morbidity, keep patients out of the hospital, and save someone’s life. That’s why bias in healthcare AI is arguably one of the most important and consequential aspects of AI.”

[ read the rest at SIAM News ]

Bicycles, networks, and biological homeostasis

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While this article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you gloss over the math.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Balancing Homeostasis and Health

For SIAM News:

Human beings are not bicycles. However, mechanistic metaphors for the human body abound. For instance, we compare athletes to finely-tuned machines and look for equations that are derived from mechanics to describe biological processes — even when the relationship is no better than an analogy.

However, the concept of homeostasis clearly exemplifies the breakdown of mechanistic models when one applies them to the human body. Homeostasis is the process by which an organism maintains a stable output regardless of input (within reasonable limits). The most familiar example is human body temperature, which stays within a remarkably small range of values regardless of whether one is sitting in a cold room or walking outside on a hot day.

“In a bicycle, you know what each part is for,” Michael Reed, a mathematician at Duke University, said. “We are not machines with fixed parts; we are a large pile of cooperating cells. The question is, how does this pile of cooperating cells accomplish various tasks?”

[ Read the rest at SIAM News ]

Coding complicity in police violence

Occasionally people (usually my fellow white men) yell at me to “stick to science!” Well, sticking to science is a luxury that white women and scientists of color can’t afford, and pretending scientists aren’t complicit in violence toward underrepresented groups preserves inequality. At the same time, some within the broad tent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) actively perpetuate problems. My latest piece for SIAM News discusses one particular example — the ways in which computer scientists and other developers of code have helped increase racial profiling and police brutality — but many of the points apply more broadly to STEM. (Bonus: look for the Rage Against the Machine lyrics.)

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

When Software Harms, What You Reap Is What You Sow

For SIAM News:

As of July 2020, the CalGang database contained the names and personal details of nearly 90,000 people in the state of California who are suspected of being in gangs or associating with gang members. Despite its stated purpose to provide law enforcement agencies with accurate intelligence information, audits and independent investigations revealed that the database was riddled with errors, falsified material, racial profiling, and other serious problems.

Databases and algorithms are ubiquitous parts of our interconnected world, but CalGang illustrates a major way in which they can fail people. If a streaming service suggests a movie that you do not like, no real harm is done; but if your name appears in CalGang, you may face consequences like increased police harassment or harsher sentences if charged with a crime.

“[Most of] the people creating these technologies are not affected in negative ways,” Seny Kamara, a computer scientist at Brown University, said. “But if you’re a young Black male growing up in Chicago or New York or California, you know that you may end up as a false positive in a gang database, and that affects your life in a completely different way.”

[Read the rest at SIAM News]