Friday, January 29, 2010

Team Psychology

When I used to watch NBA basketball regularly, one of the things I laughed about the most was when all the players on each team would point in one direction or another after the ball went out of bounds. One teams player would point in one direction indicating it was their ball, and the other teams players would point in the opposite direction. It appeared that objectivity and honesty had no place in the dispute.

When you play on a team you are expected to do your best, take the falls and the pain and put forward your all. I've played soccer indoors on a tile floor as a goalie, and still dove for the ball, hit the pole from time to time, and did my absolute best every time coming away with scraped and bleeding elbows and knees.

I believe there is a primal instinct involved when you participate or even watch a sport. Your identity is tied to the team, and their success or failure means far more than it should, almost as if your prospects for survival depend on the outcome of each game. Considering the psychological ramifications, it isn't surprising that people would be willing to bend the truth a little to effect the outcome.

Our distant ancestors had no time for games, and the only analogous competition they would have engaged would have been a competition for resources and may really have had a life or death result. Belonging to a clan or tribal community would have been imperative. Their success is your success, and their failures your failures. This is now ingrained in our very nature, and why my pulse quickens and my hands numb when watching a game.

This is unhealthy when it pushes us to lose our objectivity and honesty. In some cases the team has nothing to do with sport. Academically it can lead to dishonesty when you put aside your principals to push for a particular outcome. When it comes to science, objectivity and honesty are inherent in the process, otherwise it isn't science.

One of the newest examples of this is the paper Menne, M. J., C. N. Williams, and M. A. Palecki (2010):On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2009JD013094, in press. A good analysis can be found on the website of Roger Pielke Sr., here: Professional Discourtesy By The National Climate Data Center On The Menne Et Al 2010 paper

The Menne et al 2010 paper is a preemptive strike against the Surface Stations project by Anthony Watts, using a subset of early non-quality controlled data. They used homogenized (gridded) data from 70 high quality stations, and compare it to homogenized data 1228 USHCN2 stations in an attempt to show there isn't a significant difference in the temperatures measured.

The results are not to be believed for multiple reasons. If you take a random subset of the 1228 stations and did the same thing chances are very remote that the resultant grid would be the same or even close. Something doesn't jive with the analysis. If it were true, then why do we have 1228 stations, and not just 70? It seems we could save some money here if more stations don't tell you anything.

The next problem unintentionally illustrated by this paper is what it implies. Station siting apparently doesn't matter, and the urban heat island doesn't exist. If you have a station with a temperature sensor sited in a parking lot, next to a burn barrel, or an air conditioner, (all documented at it doesn't matter. The data don't need to be quality controlled, because the process used at NCDC can fix bogus numbers. The whole thing is ridiculous on its face, and the authors are showing either their incompetence or their contempt for science and the public.

They have suspended not only objectivity and honesty, but rationality, in their attempt to take it for the team. We saw the same thing in November with the CRU emails, and repeatedly over the last few weeks with the IPCC Glacier fiasco, the Amazon forest fiasco etc.

Team psychology is good in its place, but science isn't it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Original thought and the monkey equation

When I was in College I took a technical writing course. (I know... you're shocked.) In the course we were given guidelines regarding the proper citation and use of sources. This was before Wikipedia existed. Plagiarism was warned against in the strongest terms, as it should be.

A friend of mine just graduated after going back to school. He recently told me he ran his papers through an online citation checker which generated a list of sources for different statements he'd written. The funny thing about it is that on some of these papers he didn't actually do any research. He knew what he knew, he typed it up, and gave someone else the credit. If these weren't his original thoughts, how can we be sure that the person cited for one of his points was the originator of the thought?

What is original thought? One of the guidelines I was given in class was to use the most recent sources. I disagree. Take for example the Arrhenius equation. k = A e^{{-E_a}/{RT}} It's not exactly recent, but is it original? Who came up with it? It might surprise you to learn that it was first proposed, not by Svante Arrhenius, but by Dutch chemist J. H. van 't Hoff.

There are such things as foundational principles. The Arrhenius equation stands at the heart of many other equations derived after it, and is a foundational empirical equation. In physics and engineering it is much easier to identify the foundational principles than it is in say, sociology. I get the distinct impression that my english teacher was more comfortable with the social sciences, where theories change by the month. My heat and mass transport book was 30 years old, and still perfectly relevant.

There is such thing as original thought, in the hard sciences or otherwise, although we may or may not know its genesis. It is probably easier to find the source when dealing with the hard sciences. I don't envy the sociologists, whose theories often can't be proven or dis-proven, but are often easily accepted anyway, nor can they be reduced to concise equations. (note: The phenomenon of Anthropogenic global warming is more easily understood from a social/psychological perspective, once you have dispatched with the falsehoods)

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. There are millions of books in the library. I'm sure there has to be a considerable amount of overlap in those books. This could probably be measured using the text of online books, maybe even with a search engine such as Google. I assume there would be a geometrically decreasing relationship to this overlap, this stepping on each others toes, that has nothing whatsoever to do with plagiarism. Three word overlaps would be greater by an order of magnitude than four word overlaps etc. The empirically derived formula could be called the infinite monkey theorem equation, or the Brent equation, unless you don't believe I came up with it first. Not familiar with the infinite monkey theorem? It is the theory behind adding more and more programmers to a project in the hopes that you'll ship on time... OK, just kidding. I think it actually describes an IRS department. Don't believe me? You could check Wikipedia (, which has no less than 30 citations for the linked article. The rule is it cannot be considered original thought unless you found it on Wikipedia, then it's as worthless as your original thoughts.

We all think. We all stand educationally on the shoulders of giants. It should be no surprise that some of our thoughts, although originally conceived within our own minds, are not new to the world, and in many cases weren't new to the people who first jotted them down. Inspiration is a trait we all can lay claim to at one time or another. Until I find out otherwise, I'm taking credit for figuring that one out.

Never mind. I just read this. Don't quote me.