Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fishing vs. Catching

In a recent post, a friend commented about how much he disliked the elements he encountered during a recent fishing trip. But most of all he hated not catching any fish.

While I love catching fish, over the years my focus has changed a bit. Don't get me wrong, I still love catching fish, but simply being "on the water" is often enough to quench my thirst for finding my center. Struck with a moment of insight (they happen so rarely these days), I responded with a brief thought on fishing (and catching). And I smiled to see that it seemed to strike a chord with others, too.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Email overload? No way! I got this...(or not)

Yeah, I got this. N...no, no I don't.
You know you're buried in emails when:
  1. you actively manage 5+ different email addresses
  2. your main email has >2,500 UNREAD messages in the inbox
  3. your email responses to threads have >10 items in a numbered list
  4. you want to respond to most emails (but rarely do)
  5. you obsessively check your phone or email program every time you get a notification of a new email
  6. triage is the primary way you handle messages. Like:
  • Newsletter? Sit on it for future reading (translation: you'll never look at it again. Solution: delete it. And if you only read about 1 for every 5 or more of that newsletter, unsubscribe).
  • Close friend? Read it and want to respond. In reality you don't respond for much too long and your "close" friends start wondering if you really care. Solution: read the message then ring them on the tele.
  • Boss or project co-worker? Probably going to get a response, just not as quickly as either of us would like.
  • Forwarded message with funny pics of cats that look like Hitler? Nope, sorry. Gettin' axed.
Mashable Infographic: email today.
Am I an email addict? I used to be. But not any more. Now I'm more along the lines of apathetic, apoplectic (email) medic. Sure I check my email several times a day but I'm going to change that. And I don't hide from family or drive many miles while on vacation just to check my email.

So here's what I'm going to do about it. I'm going to start sending many fewer emails, only respond during certain times of the day, turn off incoming email notifications on my phone, and start making more phone calls. I'm going to unsubscribe from email lists, LOTS of them, even though I like getting many of the emails (at least, in theory I like it; good/interesting material!). Some habits are hard to break. On email threads with many responses in a short period of time, I'm going to wait for the flurry to die down, then respond with a single email that captures the most pertinent things I need to convey. Or I'll call you. I'm hoping this will help cut down on the frequent distractions. Even though they may be important messages that do need to be addressed, when the notifications pile in incessantly, they are still distractions...sometimes welcome, most of the time not. And they nearly always alter productivity on whatever task I'm working on.

So if you don't hear back from me within a few minutes regarding an email you've sent me, if you see I've unsubscribed from the email distribution list you curate or the blog you write or the newsletter you edit or the...(insert list here), don't be offended. It's not you. It's me. It's not that I don't like all this information. I just cannot conceivably find the time to read through all of it the minute it arrives in my inbox. I'll get to it, but only a couple of times a day. Yes, rich media is, well, rich with additional/supplemental info, but that's just the sort of stuff I'm trying to pare out right now. If it's important and needs immediate attention, give me a ring. I'd much rather talk with you for five minutes. After all, we can cover so much more ground in that time on the phone than we could in an email thread.

As much as I love electronic media, I really thrive on the personal interactions with you.

Monday, May 27, 2013

10,000 tweets in...

I've been doing this social media thing for some time now. I don't care much about finding as many followers as I can (I figure they'll come naturally within the course of conversations). I tend not to care much for the vast majority of the discussions on Twitter (infographic on what people tweet?). And I don't typically tweet out shameless, self-promoting, useless drivel. I find myself parsing through and gravitating to the conversations that touch on topics of particular interest to me. Do I care about Justin Bieber's troubles with his monkey? Uh-uh. Britney Spears' baby fat? Nope. What about the latest Harlem Shake video? Yeah, not so much (the first few were...fun...but after that, meh).

But here's what I DO care about - things like science, homebrewing, fishing and hunting, politics, relationships, family, friendships - all those things that crank my scooter, rev my engine, get my noggin' knockin'...basically things that mean something to me for one reason or another. And they almost always involve interactions with others.

So perhaps it's no surprise that my 10,000th tweet was part of a real discussion with a fellow scientist.

At least I'm not this guy.

Vivat necessitudines (long live relationships)...

My 10,000th tweet - part of a convo w/ a scientist.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Normative Science. Is it wrong?

People place values and judgments on different parts of the world around them and on how they interact with it. In large groups of people – think “society” – patterns in valuation and judgment emerge based upon similar beliefs about what is important and how much weight those beliefs carry. People, as inherently social animals, tend to congregate around others that share similar values and judgments, sometimes leading to divergent ways in which people (within the same society or among other societies) come to view the world. Within these groups, repeated patterns of valuation and judgment become the modus operandi, the established norms, under which people operate – the normative way of doing things (e.g., this is how people ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to act; the ideal).

Science can be defined a number of different ways but within each are common descriptors. People tend to think of (and accept) science as the systematic study of objects or things, the results of which – through repetition and testing – bring about some understanding, knowledge or truth about those things. Indeed, under the principles of scientific inquiry, science itself is free from valuation or judgments associated with societal norms, thus leading to scientific inquiry that is purportedly unbiased (e.g., this thing ‘is’, ‘was’ or ‘will be’…). But scientists (and the science they conduct) have sometimes strayed from these principles and 1) waded into the grey area where scientific inquiry is unduly influenced by valuation and preconceived judgment or 2) masqueraded behind science and the notion of being unbiased to advocate for particulars policies or stances – otherwise known as normative science. Here, I a) examine the long-held debate on the appropriateness of normative science as viewed through the lens of peer-reviewed articles, b) discuss problems with the existing arguments for and against and c) argue that normative science, under certain conditions, has a place in society.

Dr. Robert Lackey

The academic debate surrounding the appropriateness of normative science has been particularly prominent in recent years. Dr. Robert Lackey, retired professor of fisheries science and political science at Oregon State University and retired EPA senior research scientist, is one of the more outspoken voices in the recent discussions and argues that much of the science currently being communicated to the public and policymakers is normative in nature, often presented with value-laden terminology (e.g., “degradation”, “improvement”, “good”, “poor”, etc.) and masquerades behind the cloak of unbiased science. As he puts it, society should be making the judgment calls, not scientists - “there is no scientific imperative for adopting any particular policy option”. Lackey posits that stealth policy advocacy is wrong and urges 1) scientists to be cognizant of their language but get involved in the policy-making process and 2) policymakers to be alert and recognize normative science and the biases presented (see his 2013 Terra Magazine piece and an earlier talk of his from 2004).

Philosophical Explorations journal

Wim de Muijnck (2011), on the other hand, argues in the journal Philosophical Explorations that under certain societal conditions and in certain scientific fields such as psychology, neuroscience and economics – fields that deal specifically with human behaviors and norms – normative conclusions are warranted. He argues for normative conclusions because “claims about human beings tend to be more than claims about mere matters of fact, because they will often be claims about human needs, interests and concerns”. Wyatt Galusky (2000) also argues that in certain situations, normative science provides societal value. To illustrate his point, Galusky discusses the field of conservation biology, an explicitly normative science that suggests that 1) biodiversity has intrinsic value and 2) conservation of that biodiversity provides benefits for humans.

But the debate on the virtues of normative science is not new. Indeed it has been the topic of philosophical debates for generations. In the 1970’s, Knut Tranöy (1978) argued that normative science is necessary when 1) social costs are included as part of the discussions and 2) “scientific enterprise becomes increasingly oppressive” (he also uses the field of psychology as an example). In the 1940’s, Iredell Jenkins (1948) attempts to define normative science, something he says has rarely been done up to that point, noting that it is usually cast in a negative light next to descriptive science and the distinctions between both types (descriptive and normative) is “sharp and significant, though not absolute” (e.g., philosophy as a science). Some thirty years previous to Jenkins’ work, in 1912, George Sabine (1912) discussed the distinctions between descriptive and normative sciences, using the examples of physics (descriptive) and ethics (normative) to draw distinctions and point out the need for both types of science. Similarly, in his seminal 1907 speech before the American Philosophical Association (also one of the earliest papers drawing attention to descriptive and normative sciences), Ernest Albee (1907), described the distinction between descriptive and normative science as the difference between what is real (what is) and what is ideal (what ought to be). In his eloquent essay, he outlines the benefits of both “types” of science, suggesting that any science built upon and examining logic is, in fact, normative.

The Three Wise Men and the Three Monkeys by Raul de la Nuez
Within the literature, the dividing line between support of or opposition to normative science tends to fall along the lines of appropriateness of making value statements/recommendations. Supporters of normative sciences (e.g., ethics, psychology, conservation biology) often point to the need to maintain certain norms of society (e.g., killing people outside of war is not tolerated) and that recommendations originating from these disciplines simply speak to those norms. Opponents of normative science (note the distinction between previous reference to normative sciences plural and normative science singular, here; I refer to this earlier) most often point to the need for the scientific process to remain free of value and judgment. That is to say, for scientific integrity to be maintained, scientists must seek to keep the range of possible questions being asked (and potential outcomes) open and free from bias. Opponents of normative science worry that scientific inquiry under the umbrella of pre-conceived notions narrows the range of potential questions/outcomes. Another oft-mentioned argument from normative science opponents is the need for scientists to keep their conclusions and recommendations free of opinion (stick to the facts). But do not scientists, as humans, inherently have their own opinions about things, just like non-scientists? If the science they conduct is rigorous and based upon established scientific principles/integrity, why then are scientists not supposed to voice their opinions? In many situations, because they are most familiar with the data, are scientists not the most qualified to offer advice?

(politicians) Mis-Information (science)
While these discussions add to a better understanding of the need to maintain scientific credibility, I see the main distinction between opponents and proponents of normative science as 1) something a bit more nuanced and 2) an apples-to-oranges comparison. I argue that the overwhelming majority of scientific undertakings adhere to the basic tenets of science. That is to say, people conducting scientific investigations (scientists), by and large adhere to basic scientific principles (e.g., deductive/inductive reasoning, hypothesis formulation/testing, results leading to addition hypotheses/testing/retesting, replication). If/when they DO deviate, the peer review process (scrutiny from their peers) frequently catches biases and “reigns them back in”, a process that is inherently normative. Issues arise when pre-conceived notions are, at the early stages, allowed to creep (purposefully or unintentionally) into the scientific process. Nonetheless, there is widespread acceptance among academics that allowing values/judgments to cloud the scientific process is unacceptable. Additionally, there appears to be an implicit accept among academics for the underlying premise of various scientific disciplines (normative science vs. normative sciences). Thus, the arguments in the literature in opposition to or in favor of normative science appear mostly to be semantic in nature – the underlying science and how scientists arrive at conclusions is, I argue, operating largely as it should (i.e., under scientific rigor). Additionally, I contend that normative sciences (e.g., ethics, psychology, conservation biology) play a critical role in understanding and shaping our society. Without unbiased assessments of human norms (descriptive science), we will not be able to adopt policies and practices that help society at large (the normative angle).

The Honest Broker

However, being aware of the potential to introduce biases, valuation and judgments into the recommendation/discussion process – crossing the line from simply laying out (and interpreting) the facts (descriptive science) to advocating for a particular outcome based up on your own judgments of what ‘should’ be (normative science) is a valuable mental exercise that should be constantly undertaken by scientists. Roger Pielke Jr.’s (2007) four idealized roles of science in policy and politics (see his book The Honest Broker) help bring clarity to how science can be utilized in the policy process. Additionally, Pielke’s four idealized roles reaffirm the need for adhering to the scientific process while being transparent about interpretation and advocacy. Because regardless of whether the science is good, advocating for a particular position leads others to question your ability to conduct unbiased research.

And as we all are painfully aware in the public policy process, perception is reality.


Albee, Ernest. 1907. “Descriptive and Normative Sciences.” Philosophical Review 16:40. Available on JSTOR Archives.

Galusky, Wyatt James. 2000. “The Promise of Conservation Biology: The Professional and Political Challenges of an Explicitly Normative Science.” Organization and Environment 13(2):226–32.

Jenkins, Iredell. 1948. “What is a Normative Science?” The Journal of Philosophy 45(12):309–32. See PhilPapers' listing.

Lackey, R. T. 2004. “Normative science.” Fisheries 29(7):38–39.

Muijnck, Wim de. 2011. “Normative authority for empirical science.” Philosophical Explorations 14(3):263.

Pielke, Roger A. 2007. The honest broker. Cambridge University Press.

Sabine, George H. 1912. “Descriptive and Normative Sciences.” The Philosophical Review 21(4):433–50. Available on JSTOR Archives.

Tranöy, Knut Erik. 1978. “Normative foundations of science.” Synthese 37(3):471–77.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Simple Kind of Man

Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut album: Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd

I was listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" song the other day and was struck by how profound the lyrics really were. I've sung that song over and over again, and loved it every time...without really hearing the message. This is definitely a song I want to learn to play on the guitar...and play/sing with my son.

Sorta like this fella playing/singing this awesome 4 Non Blondes song ("What's Up?") with his daughter.

Three cheers for parenting to classic rock...

Lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man"

Mama told me, when I was young
Come sit beside me, my only son
And listen closely, to what I say.
And if you do this
It will help you some sunny day.

Ohh take your time... Don't live too fast,
Troubles will come, and they will pass.
Go find a woman and you'll find love,
And don't forget son,
There is someone up above.

And be a simple kind of man.
And maybe some day you'll love and understand.
Baby be a simple kind of man.
Won't you do this for me son,
If you can?

Forget your lust for the rich man's gold
All that you need is in your soul,
And you can do this if you try.
All that I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.

And be a simple kind of man.
And maybe some day you'll love and understand.
Baby be a simple kind of man.
Won't you do this for me son,
If you can?

Boy, don't you worry... you'll find yourself.
Follow you heart and nothing else.
And you can do this if you try.
All I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.

And be a simple kind of man.
And maybe some day you'll love and understand.
Baby be a simple kind of man.
Won't you do this for me son,
If you can?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis I - an historic day for religion...AND the environment?!

Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment
Today's election of Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope has already proven to be an historic moment for the world's Catholics. I'm hopeful for an entirely different reason. I'm hopeful because, although he has not yet revealed why he chose it, he took the name Pope Francis I.

Francis of Assisi, born to a wealthy cloth merchant, eventually forsook the worldly (consumeristic) life to pursue a life a poverty and service to God. But he had a particular fondness for and connection with animals and the natural world...in fact was enraptured enthralled with it. Though he was never ordained into the Catholic priesthood, he is perhaps the most venerated of all religious figures and is today known as the Patron Saint of Animals, the Environment, and Ecology.

Side bar: I had largely forgotten about it, but as a child I was incredibly moved by a movie. Being raised in a religious hippie commune for several of my early years, we did not have much access to television or radio. So when us children DID get to watch a movie, it was a significant moment for us. And one particular movie - Brother Sun Sister Moon - really resonated with me. Even (especially?) now, remembering back to watching that movie and learning more about the story of St. Francis of Assisi, I am moved to my core. Not so much by the movie, but by his story. This image (below) captures it particularly well for me. In complete vulnerability, there is this sense of amazing glory, fullness and strength...and he is offering himself to and embracing the amazing world - God's Creation - around him. But I digress...
1972's Brother Sun, Sister Moon movie cover
Religious leaders hold tremendous influence with people of faith regarding perspectives and attitudes about the environment. Recognizing this, a number of scientists have attempted to engage religious leaders in developing and framing science and sustainability messages that resonate with people of various religious backgrounds by convincing them of the direct applicability of environmental issues to questions of faith (journal examples [sadly behind paywalls] here, here, here and here). Among the more notable examples is the work from world-renowned ecologist E. O. Wilson (examples here and here).
A few Twitter links from today's historic Papal election.
Assuming the Pope takes up and fully embraces his namesake, I'm hopeful that a new era of wise environmental stewardship, perhaps initiated and championed by the roughly 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, may be just around the corner. Today's election results seem like a significant event. Maybe it will even prove to be a watershed moment in the move toward a more environmentally-minded consciousness. Today has certainly proven historic for the world's Catholics. But will today also prove to be an historic day for our planet? Only time will tell...but I'm hopeful.

Read the Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Francis of Assisi

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dirt poor you (and me): Wealth Inequality - is there a role for government?

Video on wealth inequality in America. What we think it is, should be, and actually is are vastly different. Is this OK? Are you OK with it? Do you think you'll be able to move up into another wealth category? The statistics indicate no. Does government have a role to play here? Perhaps redistribution (such a vilified word for half of Americans)? Or maybe implementing Ross Perot's flat tax idea? See some good Mashable discussions on wealth inequality, then watch the video below. What do YOU think about wealth inequality?

Lest you think, in a momentary lapse of quasi-(in)sanity, that you actually CAN work your way into something of a top 20 percenter, this New York Times article (Ambition at a Cost) does a good job of illustrating just how deep the division is between the haves and have-nots.

And yet, for some strange reason, I keep striving to "lift myself up by my bootstraps" and attain greater wealth...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is efficiency the most important thing?

From InvestingThesis.com

As I work my way through the OSU's Master of Public Policy (MPP) program, I'm struck at how much emphasis - at least in the early program coursework - is given to economic efficiency for solving problems (or rather, prioritizing solutions to problems). I can't help but wonder...is efficiency really the most important variable in valuation of a thing? In a capitalist society, it certainly seems to be. World-renowned economist Bjorn Lomborg illustrates this well with his work on the Copenhagen Consensus (around the 12 minute mark you get his interpretation of what's most important) - we should be spending our money to influence problems of immediate concern rather than focusing on problems with longer-term affects. I can't be the only one that finds discounted present value - the concept that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow - an insidious notion...

Access larger versions of Lomborg's TED talk.

But what of non-capitalist ways of living (thinking)? What of making decisions now with an eye toward how current decisions will impact future generations? The Iroquois, Onandaga and other indigenous peoples understood the importance of thinking down the road. Why can't we? Is money really that corrupting an influence? Has economics ruined (clouded, at best) our long-term thinking? How can we dial back this myopic economic viewpoint and return to generational planning? Is it possible? I'd argue we're near a (Malcom Gladwell-ian) tipping point.

Political Typologies - don't box me, bro!

How do you identify yourself politically? How does it align with the results from this Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey/analysis? I consider myself a liberal Republican turned moderate Democrat (a centrist, really...something we've lost in our current political divisiveness). And, indeed, that's where my typology fell ("Post- Moderns" to "New Coalition Democrat", depending on my answer to one question) - socially liberal but generally fiscally conservative. I find it silly to try to label people along a continuum as they can simultaneously hold multiple "positions" along that spectrum - that is to say, being at one place along a spectrum isn't mutually exclusive from simultaneously being at another place along the same spectrum. 

Why do I consider myself centrist? I hold some socially liberal perspectives but also consider myself fiscally conservative. The results from that fun-to-take-but-not-too-insightful Pew Research survey landed me pretty much where I expected, too. BUT...I did not like answering many of the questions as the two options presented often did not capture my position. I took the survey several times, changing one question each time to see where it would place me and was not surprised to learn that changing one answer was often enough to move the label assigned me to another category. For instance, when I first took it, I landed in the "New Coalition Democrat" but when I changed my answer to the question about people whose skin color is of the darker persuasion and racial discrimination from "racial discrimination is the main reason people can't get ahead these days" to people of the darker skin persuasion "can't get ahead and are mostly responsible for their own condition", I was assigned to the "Post-Modern" category. In reality, I don't agree with either of these statements. But I did find it apropos that the name of the survey was "Going beyond red and blue" and yet the answer options were so restrictive, forcing you into one of two answers with no grey area between them. Guess that's the tradeoff between having too few people answer the questions (too complex and long) and a survey short enough to hold people's attention. No matter, it's just a quick-n-dirty survey/analysis. I am a complex onion with many layers. Some are so sweet and others might make you cry. I am secure in it.
I am an onion... (art by favianna.com)
Nevertheless, the utility in these sorts of "analyses" (if we can call them that) and of public policy theories in general is in helping us structure how we view the world. Indeed, these sorts of typologies offer some insights into how groups of people might loosely be clustered. But what value does that have in and of itself? How about for deciding how allocating government funds? Or deliberating on cutting, expanding, or creating new programs? Is it useful for getting understanding how to get elected? Certainly. How much utility beyond that? I believe the real utility is in illuminating where similarities exists and where the potential for commonalities/overlap can help advance or arrest particular policies.

This Pew Research survey/analysis claims to go "beyond Red vs. Blue". I don't think it goes far enough in identifying commonalities among differing political ideologies. Do you?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Are GMO salmon safe? Really?

Comparison of regular- and fast-growing GMO Atlantic salmon.

Late last month, perhaps lost in all the Christmas hubbub and hullabaloo, the Food and Drug Administration (finally) issued a ruling that AquaAdvantage's/AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon posed little to no threat to the environment. Headlines read (Huffington Post) "GMO salmon not a threat to nature, FDA says" and (PopSci) "GMO salmon environmentally safe". 

But is that really what the FDA said in their ruling? Or is this just the media's take (spin?) on a story to make it a sexier headline?

Here's what the FDA actually said in their ruling - what's known as a Draft Environmental Assessment, more specifically, a Preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact (fondly referred to as a FONSI) - "the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States." (I've excerpted parts of the FONSI, below but you can read it in its entirety)

This is the part that most news organizations clued in on. But that's not the whole story. After all, where there any caveats? And what is meant by "physical environment" or "proposed action"? Turns out, understanding both is significant to understanding the ruling.

And what of potential unintended consequences and compounding effects to the environment and human health? I find it disheartening that the burden of proof for EPA and FDA rulings is the companies do not have to demonstrate that their product will do no harm, rather only that they have some safeguards in place to minimize harm. And no long-term studies are required.

Does this seem like a sensible way to keep people safe - simply trying to minimize potential harm? What if the harm inflicted is quite large? And how do we measure "minimized harm"? Is it just simple economic accounting (e.g., cost/benefit)? I'm not jumping to conclusions about the safety of this fish. By all accounts it's probably very safe to eat. But will it be safe in the environment when (not if) these fish accidentally get out of their holding facilities (and they will, whether by some "act of God" or a human bucket brigade)? The FDA didn't rule on that...only that under the company's current plan of raising these GMO fish outside of the US, there's likely no significant harm to physical environment of the US. Seems like there's an awful lot of "what ifs". As Jerry Seinfeld says to George Constanza in one Seinfeld episode, "that's a pretty big motza ball hanging out there"...and I say too few safeguards!

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.