Friday, July 29, 2011

OMG This Math Is Depressing

I just had the dubious pleasure of reading a transcript of an interview related to the “Arctic scientist muzzled for paper about polar bears.” It is incredibly depressing, because of the lack of knowledge of absolutely basic math it reveals – and not by the scientist, who does just fine.

Here is my summary of the interview. Let’s see if you can do better than the interviewers. I have even simplified the numbers ever so slightly.

Two Interviewers: Hi. We’re here from the investigative branch of the department to investigate allegations of scientific misconduct in a paper you wrote about a sudden apparent increase in deaths of polar bears.

Scientist: Do you have the scientific background to understand the paper?

Interviewers: No.

Scientist: OK, I’ll do my best.

We had been doing surveys of whales up here off the Alaska coast for 20 years, noting all other creatures out there as well. Each sweep covers (randomly) 10% of the total area we watch over. One year, for the first time, the ice moved well away from the land. On our next sweep that year, we saw four polar bears swimming. On the sweep after that, we saw three dead polar bears. Now, we couldn’t ever remember seeing such a thing, so I went and checked the notes and checked the memory and notes of the guy who had been doing this before me, since the beginning, and we’d never seen such a thing. So we wrote up a paper about it, passed it by everyone at the agency, had it anonymously peer reviewed by three people, and it was published by Polar Biology.

Interviewers: OK, so what you’re saying is, you saw 7 polar bears. How can you say there were 30 dead polar bears out there?

Scientist: What?! I didn’t say there were 7 dead polar bears – I said there were three.

Interviewers: No, in your paper, you say 4 polar bears on one sweep, and 3 in the next. Four plus three equals seven.

Scientist: But …

Interviewers: Also, why didn’t you say 7 dead polar bears instead of 30, since that’s all you saw?

Scientist: Look, in the first place I only swept 10% of the area, so I multiplied the number I saw by 10 …

Interviewers: Why would you multiply by 10?

Scientist: Excuse me, but have you ever taken any fifth grade math?

Interviewer: And even if it was OK to multiply by 10, that would mean you were claiming you saw 70 dead polar bears.

Scientist: No, I’m claiming I saw 3 dead polar bears, and that the best guess for the total in my area was 30 dead polar bears.

Interviewers: Ah, so let me read back to you what you have said. ‘I am claiming in my paper that it is likely that there are 30 dead polar bears out there.’ Is that correct?

Scientist: No. Have you ever taken any statistics? Even just a little? It is not “likely” that there are 30 dead polar bears out there. It’s just the most likely number, and there is an almost 50% chance of a number less than that, and an almost 50% chance of a number grea - …

Interviewers: Well, I think we have all we need.

Scientist: In that case, on the record, let me tell you what’s really going on. First, the purpose of the paper was not to establish a final determination of what was going on, but to say that something odd was going on. Second, my hypothesis – that there are increased polar bear deaths because of ice withdrawal from land – has been amply proven since by scientific research, anonymously peer reviewed. Third, this department has persistently attempted to prevent me and others from publishing any research that might support global warming, even though this research is a clear part of my job as a scientist and a clear part of my task in this department. Fourth, I am supposed to be checking out anything that might affect the natives here, not just whales. They want to know about my research, whales and otherwise. The only people who don’t are the oil companies whose permits might be affected and the political appointees in this department who seem to be doing their bidding. Instead of investigating me, why don’t you investigate them for “scientific misconduct”? I can certainly document attempts to distort my research, to the point where I took my name off the product …

Interviewers: Goodbye.

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