Report from TAM 8 (part 1)

The Amazing Meeting 8 is being held right now in Las Vegas and I am here with 1300 other skeptics and luminaries from the skeptic world.  Notable presentations from yesterday include:

Sean Faircloth.  Sean is the director of the Secular Coalition for America and he gave a passionate and convincing speech on the importance of moving back to a secular nation as was intended in our constitution.  He was a past assemblyman in Maine and his political background was clearly apparent in his professional rhetoric.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I’m sure many of the skeptics in the audience were not swayed by the rhetoric (but probably still agree with the message).  I think we, as skeptics, need to understand that having the right data or being right isn’t enough to change minds in many of the populous.  People, as people, react to stories not to data, and sometimes we have to couch our arguments into stories that touch more than the left side of brains.  The secular coalition is a great, necessary organization and I urge you to at least take a look at the website (www.secular.org) and see what they’re up to.

Pamela Gay.  As a part of the Astronomy Cast podcast (http://www.astronomycast.com/), Dr. Pamela Gay is a distinctive voice for the advancement of science and. in particular, astronomy.  But her live speech was inspiring, to say the least.  She described the opportunities for ordinary people to do real science and to contribute to man’s knowledge.  Her examples were the websites Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Storm Watch (http://www.zooniverse.org/home) where data is put out there for people to analyze.  She talked about discoveries of new phenomena by these non-scientists and encouraged everybody to participate.  She ended with stories about cuts in science education budgets that were alarming and touching.  Dr. Gay is a passionate and articulate ambassador of science and I hope she never stops spreading the word in her wonderful style.

Phil Plait.  Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait is a well respected voice in the skeptical movement but he was understandably nervous about the topic of his presentation: tone.  This has been the bone of contention in the movement for a while now and seems to be the main polarizing force in skepticism with the strident on one side and the courteous on the other.  Phil contended that nobody has ever been swayed to the skeptical side by being told that they are morons for believing what they believe.  I think he is right, but I think their probably is a role for the rude passion of the other end of the spectrum.  True, I don’t think those people do anything for the movement with the great moderate majority of the populous, but I think those people should be used to attack the extremes of the world of woo.  In other words, let PZ Meyers attack the Ken Hams of the world, but don’t sic him on moderates who will only be pushed into the other camp if they are told they are idiots.  No, better to have people like Phil courteously discuss the issues with the moderates.  Phil’s message is to do skepticism but “don’t be a dick” which is Wil Wheaton’s succinct and wise aphorism.  I would change that a little: don’t be a dick, unless you’re talking to a dick.  Even so, I’m not sure if any good comes of that except to maybe quash the fundy voices for a bit.  But, yes, tone matters.  Let the data speak, and don’t be a dick about your skepticism.  I know Phil will get a lot of flack from his presentation but I, for one, think he is on the right path.  (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/)

Adam Savage.  This mythbuster is a great popularizer of science and engineering and he openly supports the skeptic movement and the TAM events.  He read his acceptance speech for a humanism award which was poignant.  But where he really shined was in the Q&A.  He related funny stories from the show and his passion for the work, and the science, came through clearly.  He was accosted by a moon landing denier in the audience and he disarmed the man in a respectful but amusing manner.  This is a guy that you would love to sit down and have a few beers with.

more to come…

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Truth behind the humor

I have to agree with a lot of people who say that you can get a lot more people to pay attention to and retain information if it is put into a humorous form.  Just look at the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  Sure, they are fake news programs, but there are kernels of truth there—or should I say truthiness—and for a lot of people those programs are their main source of news.

This method is used to great effect in this link: http://www.cracked.com/article_18611_the-10-most-important-things-they-didnt-teach-you-in-school.html The article is funny and irreverent, but it it also imparts a good bit of wisdom.  Give it a read and see what you think.

Common Engineering Sense

Normally I am all in favor of, and like, the way that the skeptical community tests some of the unlikely claims of companies and individuals who are trying to sell a product or service to the gullible public. The approach usually has some scientific rigor that easily exposes the flaws, or the hype. Some things, however, can be discounted with just a little engineering common sense.

Take the ADE 651 bomb detector, for instance. This is a device that is currently being used in Iraq and other conflict areas for detecting explosives. It consists of a belt-mounted box and a hand held unit from which a rod protrudes. The rod is free to move horizontally and point to guns and explosives. If this sounds a bit like dowsing, you’re right. But forget about that for a moment. Let’s look at this without preconceived notions, but rather with some engineering common sense.

First, the control module. Into this are fed cards programmer for specific explosive types. Okay, then we need scanning circuitry in the box and a chip or barcode or magnetic strip on the card. The BBC, on a similar unit, found the box to be empty and the cards to have RFID tags similar to the security tags on a CD package. Whether this kind of tag would be enough to change settings is questionable, but even if it could, an empty box can’t read it. First red flag.

Now the hand unit. The rod swings freely with the slightest movement of the operator’s hand. No engineer worth his salt would design a product where the primary indicator is sensitive to how the user holds the thing. Imagine if your GPS were to tell you to turn left one day and the next day tells you to turn right, just because you have a passenger or because it is raining. Second red flag.

Closely following that are the instructions which state that the user must be relaxed and in a good state of mind before using the unit. This is something you will never see in engineering requirements or specifications. Third red flag.

Finally, let’s look at the power source. Oh, wait, there isn’t one! The instructions say that the operator must shuffle his feet to build up the static electricity to operate the device. Even if this could be done reliably, this would only build up a charge in the person. Without a discharge path there is no current and no power. Final (huge) red flag.

So even if you didn’t know that dowsing is a crock, would you buy any of these to protect yourself and others? Of course not. But who is to blame here, the slimy manufacturer or the credulous purchaser? If this was a harmless dowsing rod that entertains a fringe group of believers, I’d say the latter. But people are dying because of these things so I think both are responsible. And even if we say that the buyers were well meaning but ignorant, we would have to question how they could possibly be in that position and not have the sense that almost everything we carry around these days at least needs a battery.

So no scientific testing was really required here. Just some good engineering common sense shows these things to be what they really are: a fraud.

More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADE_651 and here.

Bad Habits

Many good engineers pride themselves on their ability to do quick “back of the envelope” calculations that are accurate enough to be used as the basis for some expedient decisions. The ability to do this stems from experience, where rules of thumb and instinct about the numbers are cultivated, and from good engineering fundamentals which provide the engineer with the tools to develop the right approach and process to do the calculation, even if it is a new problem.

What can be difficult is knowing when and how to question yourself.

I recently came upon a paper (fortunately of limited distribution) where the approach, process and calculations were correct, but all the conversions from metric to English were wrong. Seems that 2.45 was used instead of 2.54 for conversion from centimeters to inches. Though it looked like a case of transposition, in fact the author said that he always thought the conversion was the former. And there lies the potential pitfall to the engineer — assuming he is correct because he always did it that way.

It’s not that I am advocating second-guessing yourself all the time, but rather that periodically we all can use a quick check on some of our fundamental constants, rules of thumb, and calculations methods to both shore up our memories and correct bad habits.

It is sort of like the driving tests that this country doesn’t periodically give to established drivers. I was in a car with a middle-aged driver who tailgated, didn’t use signals, and cut people off. When I tried to bring this to his attention (while making sure my seatbelt was on), he replied that he had been driving for thirty years. Yes, I thought, but you’ve been driving badly for all those years. His experience didn’t change the fact that he was dangerous driver.

If we have bad habits in our engineering calculations or processes, they need to be caught and corrected before they become part of our experience and thus “correct” in our minds. As engineers we need to understand the limitations of our human minds (especially, I am sorry to say, as we age) and bolster our memories with the tools of our trade such as handbooks and structured calculation processes. Though it may cost a bit in terms of pride, it shouldn’t. As far as I can see, no engineer should be faulted — by herself or anybody else — for checking their work. And while you’re at it, you might want to check those handbooks and spreadsheets too. Nothing is sacrosanct where good engineering is required, and the guys that wrote that handbook may have had some bad habits too.

What do you think? Have you ever found yourself using the wrong value, equations, or process out of habit? How often do you go back to examine your fundamentals? Drop us a comment.