▸ science

Read: Writing Science

Schimel’s “Writing Science” seems a better guide to ‘serious’ writing than Pinker’s recent “The sense of style.” Though both are aimed at the non-fiction writer and have many recommendations in common.

Schimel takes a more hands-on, practical approach. Indeed, “Writing Science” is a more classical textbook, even including end-of-chapter problems. It is showing what works and less discussing the why. On the other hand, it makes very clear why good writing is necessary. You want your article not just getting published but also cited. And you need that grant.

All in all, “Writing Science” is not dramatically different from other good writing guides. A distinguishing feature may be the explicit framing of the article and that grant applications as stories. A scientific article is not that different from a novel, the research note may not be that different from a newspaper piece. Hence, the story arc features prominently in this writing guide. The story arc determines the overall structure of the article, its sections, paragraphs, and sentences.

As particularly eye-opening and helpful I would consider Schimel’s discussion of an article’s resolution, its conclusion. It should not end with and emphasize the article’s shortcomings but its contribution. It should not emphasize that “more research is needed” but the potential application. It should not give the reason to read another paper but the reason to cite this article.

Read: Fifty Degrees Below

In for a penny in for a pound. Despite not having been overly enthusiastic about the prequel Forty Signs of Rain I continued Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction series on science, politics, and climate change. This happens when you (that is I) buy all books of a series before even starting to read the first. And yes, I know what sunk costs are. Maybe I am just curious whether things improve.

Some did. Some did not.

There is less of the insights in US academics and science administration. I would have liked to read more of it. This was what drove me to pick up the next volume of the series. There is less of the annoying anti-economics, anti-markets vibe. Though the author’s attitude is still obvious I consider this an improvement. The main character – although every person from the first novel still appears there is now a clear main character what results in fewer switches in perspectives (good!) – is very strange; completely, absolutely not credible. The whole book I was wondering why, why is this guy doing this? Consequently there was no connection at all. I, as the reader, felt as an outside observer constantly shaking my head. This killed most of the potential enjoyment.

Hence, when I am going to pick up book number three I hope the see, maybe, another protagonist and more science.

Read: Forty Signs of Rain

Science fiction about science. Real science with all the administrative (un)pleasantness; grant committees deciding about funding, making and breaking academic careers, pushing research from the public domain towards commercial monopolization with intellectual property rights protection and trade secrets. Lobbying government officials for funding and policy change. Rain. Certainly not a space opera, my usual Science Fiction reading.

It works. At first I was not so sure. While mentioning Game Theory and its application to, for instance, agenda setting may have gotten me hooked, a perfectly superfluous rant about the woes of neoclassical economics, the afflictions caused by it by believing in its oversimplifying assumptions, got me less sympathetic with the author’s cause climate change. Who the heck knows this strangely specific term neoclassical economics and who know about the other schools of economic thought? Yes, I do. Though I would be part of a very small minority indeed.

The story build up very slowly. It’s the first novel of a trilogy, so the author can take his time. He does. There are three story sub-plots which develop step by tiny step and only for two of them I see how they will connect later. Only at the very end things begin to accelerate, otherwise the novel remains remarkably uneventful. Thus, in a strange way Robinson manages to keep me turning the pages and looking forward to the next two books of the trilogy. Strange because I feel more compelled by the story’s background, the workings of the NSF and science politics, than the looming disaster that the trilogy is all about.

Read: The God Delusion

“The plural of anecdote is not data.” This is a quote from Dawkin’s The God Delusion making the case for a more scientific approach to Life, the Universe and Everything. Unfortunately most of his points are supported by just these anecdotes. There is also a lot of name dropping as if a point (generalizing to all members of a group) becomes more valid if a more prominent representative of a group can be shown as an example.

At one point he concedes that he, from that point on, has to use rhetoric rather than logic to make his case. That came as a bit of a surprise: In my opinion he relies mostly on rhetoric in his book and very little on explicitly applied logic. Many things seem so obviously evident to him that he does not spell them out. I missed that. I would have needed it. The God Delusion lacks the brilliance of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins jumps from point to point without discussing them in sufficient depth, ultimately failing to convince, sometimes rambling on minor issues, getting side-tracked, and losing the reader: me.

I agree with Dawkins on most issues. We do not need religion as a moral guide. There is undeserved respect towards religion. Religion and science do not mix (well). Most importantly, the mental abuse, the indoctrination of easily impressed children that is part of religious upbringing is bad, bad, bad. I agreed with him on these points before I read the God Delusion not because of it.

Read: The Making of an Economist, Redux

I am not at an economics department any more. Yet, I am still interested in the profession. Maybe even more interested than a few years before. David Colander provides with The Making of an Economist, Redux a brief overview about the state of the economics curriculum and the economics student at a few of the elite US universities in the early 2000.

I am a little bit disappointed, disillusioned and reaffirmed.

Disappointed because I expected more from this book. The content is mostly fine as far as the topic allows. The presentation, however, could be improved considerably. All the endless tables should have been made into less messy and more clear graphical illustrations. Or at least been complemented with them. The data analysis is cursory, yes. But, I guess this serves a purpose. The data may suffer from several biases and the current analysis does not pretend any false precision or representativeness.

Disillusioned because US economics students may be even more ignorant than I would have thought before. The system really seems to produce basically only a conforming mass of idiot savants.

Reaffirmed because there seems to be only minor differences between the economics education in the US and Germany. In both places the history of economic thought and more broader philosophical questions are not addressed any more – at economics departments. General knowledge about economics is under-appreciated and training focuses on producing least publishable units.

I wonder: Is there any comparable research done for Germany and / or Europe?

Read: Nerds - Who they are and why we need more of them

Despite the luring title “Nerds - Who they are and why we need more of them” I would not have bought the book – it was a gift. The author David Anderegg, PhD has his academic degree printed on the book’s cover. I am always a bit suspicious of people insisting on the public use of their degree. At least as a means to promote their work, to lend credibility to their expertise. Nevertheless, I mostly enjoyed reading the book.

The author gives an assessment of the nerd and geek stereotype in American culture. He pays special attention to children and adolescents and how the nerd label may affect their personal attitude towards academic achievements. I think his observations are quite to the point. Even though the book is rather American-centric the same observation can be made in Germany. There is a general aura of anti-intellectualism in Germany as well. People are actually proud of their lack of math skills and little understanding of science at large.

This is a serious problem for society as people (children) who do not want to be labeled as nerds or geeks may choose not to reach their full potential. This is a loss for society. Technological and scientific advancement could be improved if only it was not hip to be dumb or just mediocre.