Monday, April 24, 2017

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Checks Out

"The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling." -- Robert M. Pirsig

Robert Pirsig is off to his next long ride over the horizon, as reported in the New York Times.

I was finishing up a master's thesis and writing my Ph.D. proposals when a colleague, Dr. Marty Fisk, also working in Don Lindsley's Experimental Petrology Lab, suggested I read Pirsig's book as a great explanation of the scientific method. It was a great description, as was Pirsig's description of the inner struggles he had with finding himself after electroshock therapy and his single-minded passion of understanding Quality.

“The Buddha, the Godhead,” Pirsig writes, “resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”

 I had my own brain dysfunction back then, in part due to being launched over a Volkswagen Beetle, sans bicycle helmet, by a wayward motorist and finding myself unable to know whether I was looking at equations upside down or right-side up. There were preexisting conditions as well. So perhaps reading Pirsig's novel was therapy for me as I rewired my mental facilities and started a new dissertation topic. All the while noting, as I do now, that the scientific method is present as Pretty Damn Good Guidance whether one is studying rocks, thinking about transportation planning, unraveling the secrets driving one's own mental demons, or tearing down a motorcycle engine.  I still have Pirsig's book and am sorry to see him check out. Way smarter than me and a great role model.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

March for Science, a Short Sequel

Somewhat blurry as I tried to zoom too much
Gah. Get back home and find out that Michele Scarponi was put six feet under by an inattentive van driver while riding his bike near his home in Italy a day after the Tour de Alps. One of the nicest guys in the pro peloton.

As far as the March? It was well attended and from the show of hands, a lot of scientists were there. One would hope that science was detached from partisanship but given that the pols who attended and spoke were Democrats, its hard to escape the idea that the politicization of science will be with us for a while. Indeed, Mayor Gonzales started out on the right foot bringing attention to all the scientific organizations near and dear to Santa Fe, but then went off on a monologue on how we should all vote for the sugar tax. My wife reminded me that this was an excellent opportunity for a stump speech. I suppose...

 Certainly there is plenty to be said about overindulgence in sugar, corn syrup, and the like. There are plenty of papers out there on Type II diabetes and its drivers, which include some things we can't control (genetics) and some we can (diet and exercise). An excellent use of the rally in discussing the question of why we want to influence people's dietary habits would have been to discuss the nutritional science behind the hazards of eating too much junk food and drink laced with processed sugar. I think we should have left the politics to speak for itself. How to influence people, whether by carrots or sticks or appealing to enlightened self-interest (or a combination) is a policy decision and often a messy one.  I would prefer to do it with continuing education rather than a blunt instrument like another sin tax but if the public is paying for health care, the public has an interest in healthier people. But that is not a science problem.

"Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty: some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” R. Feynman

A few people got it. Hint.
The purpose of an event like this should be to make connections with the general public to show how science helps solve problems and identifies the way the world works from the standpoint of the scientific method. It is not a guarantee of always finding answers to problems, i.e. TV science, or of finding answers without significant uncertainties (see Judith Curry's "uncertainty monster" essays) but of using the scientific method to try to understand problems as well as we can. Without some care, rallies turn into advocacy for positions on public policy rather than discussions of the way that science illustrates the reasons we need to address problems and make policy decisions. That's where it becomes partisan. Todd Ringler said it better than I can in his speech at the March in Santa Fe:

"...As climate scientists our job is to provide — to the best of our ability — a clear description of how the Earth will change with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Now I kind of thought that we had an understanding between climate scientists and policy makers. We study the problem, we build theories, we gather observations, we produce projections — you know, we do what scientists do. Then, policy makers — our politicians — would act on this information to craft legislation in the best interest of all of us. Scientists and politicians — hand in hand — each serving society in their own way..." --Dr. Todd Ringler

More from Todd here, if you are a science geek.

Oh, and I did see some people who bicycled to the rally but it was too crowded to get a picture. We parked by the house in Casa Solana and got there via shoe leather express.