Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Video Game Violence

November 9, 2014

Let me start by saying that this article won’t change anyone’s mind. The kind of people who obsess over this kind of thing are not the kind to take kindly to having their kind of world view challenged by these kinds of facts.

C.J. Ferguson, at Stetson University, in Florida, did a simple study* of the correlation between real world youth violence vs video game violence, using historical statistics. Earlier studies were lab-based, forcing subjects to both play violent video games and take psychological tests, and many came to the conclusion that the more they did this, the more violent their experimental subjects became.

Here’s the key graphic.

A good example of non-causality

A good example of non-causality

The correlation is negative (R = -0.85). Based on this, one could claim that video game violence actually reduces youth violence. After all, if you’re at home playing games, you’re not out on the street, getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.

Of course, since correlation does not necessarily imply causation (although, as Randall Munroe says, it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’) we can’t necessarily claim that video games reduce youth violence. What we can say is that the doomcriers theory fell at the first fence, that violent video games, in general, demonstrably do not, in general, increase youth violence.

*In case the link rots, here’s the full citation: Ferguson, C. J. (2014), Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When. Journal of Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12129

Congress, the Sequester, and the FAA

April 27, 2013

As everyone has said, Congress voted money for FAA controllers, just in time to catch their planes.

There’s been some controversy over the FAA furloughs. FAA says they are mandated. Congressional Republicans say they are playing the old DC game of cutting high visibility programs — just the way the NPS does every budget cycle “Cut our budget? I guess we’ll have to close the Washington Monument.” It’s the way the game is played.

I think the President isn’t playing hardball enough. Were I he, and there’s 300 million reasons why I’m not, I’d threaten to veto the bill. “Congress broke the budget system. Congress can’t just glue the handle back on and say it’s fixed. Send me a full fix for the budget, or go stand in line.”

Of course that gives them plenty of ammunition back home, once they get off the bus, to blame the President for the delays, but I’m sure the American people are smart enough to give credit where credit is due.

Broken World

October 19, 2012

A recent paper in Science describes how the Earth became a hellish desert for over five million years as a result of the Permian Extinction. The trigger is still unclear, and suggested causes range from asteroid impacts to runaway greenhouse effect due to volcanic eruptions. In the tropics, sea temperatures were 40C (104F), and land temperatures were over 50C (122F).

Most of the discussion of the paper appears to be the implications for the current era of global warming. What I find interesting is the fact that it puts severe constraints on the development of life-as-we-know-it.

The tropics were barren hells for five million years. That’s an eternity in evolutionary time. There was life at the poles (or we wouldn’t be here) but it was not able to modify itself enough to recolonize the tropics. What tropical life there was, was shrubs and ferns, and there were no tropical fish, not even guppies.

This puts an upper limit on the allowed temperatures for life on earth-like planets, and gives us a better criterion for setting the inner limit of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ around a star. Yes, it’s possible that life-as-we-don’t-know-it might develop, based on asbestos or something, or that, given half a billion years, rather than just five million, life on earth could adapt, but it helps us better understand just what our limits are.

Dinosaur Killers 3 – The Science

August 10, 2012

He thought: meddle first, understand later. You had to meddle a bit before you had anything to try to understand…You have to try to get your mind around the Universe before you can give it a twist. — Pratchett, Interesting Times

Turns out, the quiz that kicked off my Dinosaur Killer essays was not about the Earth impact threat at all. Instead, it was about what typeface fonts people consider reliable.

My comments on the quiz took it at face value, and were based on a certain amount of background as an amateur astronomer and space enthusiast. Most people who took the quiz were neither. So all they had to go on was a vague impression from old news reports, Hollywood movies, ….and the gravitas provided by the fonts. Errol Morris was testing the idea that fonts matter when reading about something we know little about — “are we more inclined to believe that gold has an atomic number 79 if we read it in Georgia, the font of The New York Times online, rather than in Helvetica?” This belief, of course, has no impact on the fact that the atomic number of gold is, indeed, 79.

His findings? More people believed the statement when it was written in Georgia than when written in Comic Sans. This has implications for everything from advertising to political shilling to blog writing.

This experiment is a good example of how science works. You think about what you know, or think you know, on a topic, and you establish a working hypothesis — fonts are not important. Then you devise a way of testing this — ask a question that elicits an opinion about a statement on which the test subject knows little, and randomly print it in different fonts. Administer the test to enough people to accumulate good statistics, and then look at the results. In this case, the results were that fonts are important. We discard our working hypothesis for a new one, and we use the new one to ask new questions — if Georgia is more trustworthy that Comic Sans, is it because Comic Sans has no descenders? We have a new hypothesis and can create a new question. Do this often enough, and we can assemble the results into a Theory of Fonts.

Note that it took a while to come up with the Theory. In science, as I’ve said elsewhere, the word theory should never be preceded by the word just. A theory is a model of the world, based on what we know. It throws off hypotheses that are testable, and some of which have been tested. In civilian life something can be just a theory, but not in science. The differences between the two uses are as great as the difference in the use of the word shoot by photographers and hunters.

Happy 4th of July, CERN

July 4, 2012

On the day we reserve to tell ourselves America is great – July 4 – Europe reminds us that we suck at science. #HiggsBoson
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) July 4, 2012 via Twitter

Fifteen Minutes of Fame…

April 14, 2012

…and forever after, you’re the guy who wrote that Dinosaurs in Space paper. It’s gotten a certain amount of criticism, plus a spit-take or two.

The paper sounds like it started off reasonably rational. I can’t be sure, because it’s behind a paywall, but most of the commenters commented on this. It talks about chirality, or handedness in the shapes of various life-building chemicals. Life-building amino acids are left-handed (L-)*, not right-handed (D-), but there’s no reason they had to be**, and there’s no reason we couldn’t have a more even mix of the two kinds of handedness.

I suspect, as a simple systems scientist (that is, non-biologist, non-biochemist, non-evolutionist, your way through the rest of the Standard Occupational Classification System) that what we are seeing is a frozen accident. Life accidentally started out left-handed, and made more left-handed chemicals. Right-handed amino-acids didn’t have such a support group, and got out-competed. That hypothesis turns on the idea that a primitive L-amino based life form would prefer left to right-handed amino acids. It’s testable. (more…)

Hypothesis Testing II

April 26, 2011

So, in response to a suggestion (thanks, Kurt) that I cast my net wider, on Monday last I posted the link to my original Hypothesis Testing entry on my Twitter feed. That resulted in NO additional hits. I guess I’ll just have continue to wallow in luxurient obscurity.