Snatch the Pebble, Get the Shot?

I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating: Science is all around us. In the best instances, it’s accompanied by statistics.

More than a decade of working for one of my favorite statisticians, Joe Newton — who’s known as the Data Dean around here for good reason — has taught me a lot, from Einstein_Educationvaluable critical thinking skills to appreciation of the bigger picture, especially in situations where it hasn’t necessarily been disclosed. From both him and experience (sometimes painful), I’ve learned the importance of caution; of maintaining both a cooler head and the healthy dose of skepticism necessary to withhold judgment as I attempt to gather and evaluate as much information and/or evidence as possible. More often than not, this process begins and so often ends with a single piece of information: methodology. The more statistically relevant, the better.

Apparently, neither Dean Newton nor experience has taught me tact.

This past week, yet another of my friends came down with the flu. I dutifully monitored her prognosis from a non-contagious distance (i.e., Facebook) and noticed that things were looking up by week’s end. Given that ours is a relationship largely based on witty banter, I decided to celebrate her recovery by sharing a flu-related post to her page — a fictitious admission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, she’s fluent in the sarcasm I thought was apparent, given the sensationalized headline and the “news” source — which I now know is approaching a stunning 1.5 million likes on Facebook, indicative to me of a whole other type of pandemic — but several of her friends didn’t get the shot (pun intended). One went so far as to post this fact-laden retort from Respectful Insolence. (Oh, the irony, considering how often I’m the one who gets this educational honor by virtue of my day job).

Properly armed with the full CDC transcript, I’ll let you be the judge as to the accuracy of both the headline and the content of that Natural News piece. However, on the subject of jobs, I think author Orac really does a nice one in his blog entry of explaining the context behind the flu vaccine and what an absolute (albeit science-based) crapshoot it truly is each year for the World Health Organization. Forget the College Football Playoffs, this one is a statistical nightmare. Well, maybe more like a Bayesian’s dream, if you get my drift (again, pun intended). Paging Bani Mallick or Val Johnson?!?

I'm usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

I’m usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

Incidentally, my dad religiously got his flu shot every fall, and while I don’t recall him ever getting the flu, I can’t say that exactly inspired me to follow his example. Despite the fact that I know the science is solid, the only year I actually did get the shot was the year I happened to be pregnant in the fall (read guilted into it). Guess what? My husband and I both got the flu that year, with a bonus: H1N1. He got antibiotics; I got saline/homeopathic remedies. And the call from the elementary school once we got home, informing us that our first-grader had managed to get a piece of playground pea gravel stuck in his ear.

There is value in not judging a book by its cover, regardless how eye-catching or appealing, and prudence in looking before you leap, no matter how compelling the pitch or bandwagon. And in knowing your audience, even when among friends. Probably the capacity of your ear canal, too.

But in the final analysis where I’m concerned, all the hand-washing, ounces of prevention and apples a day won’t keep the sarcasm away. It’s hardwired. Jury’s still out regarding my own progeny, save for their mastery of dubious playground magic tricks.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

On the Other Hand

THIS JUST IN: Scientists are normal! For starters, just like you and me, they take the occasional vacation. That being said, I don’t know many whose curiosity ever takes the occasional break.

As proof, I respectfully submit Exhibit A — a Facebook posting from Texas A&M University astronomer Nick Suntzeff, documenting a curious find from his travels in Croatia this month. I’ll let you be the judge, from the history to the actions and their motivations, but for me, there’s no debating that Nick has a wonderful way with words!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

“I was intrigued with the city seal of Trogir in Croatia. What’s that comet all about? Well, there was a St. John buried in the city. When the Venetians set out in 1170 or so to fight the Byzantium enemies, the stopped in Trogir and sacked it. They stole all the relics of the saint, except they could not carry the whole damn sarcophagus of St. John — so they cut his hand off because it had the bishop’s ring. The hand was carried back to Venice. But the fleet suffered some divine intervention of a storm or plague or fleas. Anyway, Trogir recouped and demanded their stuff back, which the Venetians gave, except for the hand, which they felt they could care for better. On the eve of the feast of St. John (according to the article by A. Marinkovic), ‘the hand flew back to Trogir followed by a comet and helped by angels, and was found in the cathedral of Trogir, laid on the top of the tomb in clean linen.’

“They don’t make miracles these days like they used to. A dead hand with a ring followed by a comet and a squad of angels? Now, that I would notice as an astronomer. Even using IDL [Interactive Data Language].”

Texas, Our Texas

“When I moved here to East Texas over three years ago, I was a little homesick. I grew up in California and also worked and lived in Chile most of my life, and I never lived far from the ocean. Last year when I was in West Texas, I met an elderly woman who had grown up on a ranch west of Eldorado. She said that whenever she leaves Texas, she too feels homesick — not for the ocean but for the sky. I asked her why. She said that growing up on a ranch, especially at night, you have the sky from one horizon to the other horizon, and anywhere she goes, she feels penned in by city lights, fences and city buildings.

“The sky is really a part of the history of Texas. It is in our flag. It is in our music. It is really in the soul of Texas. And I am proud to be here at Texas A&M, helping to bring the sky back to this part of Texas.”

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

On December 4, 2009, Texas A&M University astronomer Nicholas B. Suntzeff put the icing on the celebratory cake with this absolutely perfect big-picture analogy, an excerpt of his remarks presented as part of the official dedication of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Nearly five years later, I think his grandiose words are just as fitting in capturing the magnificence of another stately project, Between Heaven and Texas, executed by another master of observation, Wyman Meinzer, the Official State Photographer of Texas whose life’s work involves appreciating and accentuating the Lone Star State’s beauty and sharing it with the world. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, meet Wyman and his most recent, resplendent take on Texas, our Texas.

Wyman Meinzer – Between Heaven And Texas from Wyman Meinzer on Vimeo.

Why I Ask Why

I read the other day that the average 4-year-old asks 437 questions a day.

As a mother of three young children (the youngest being a 3-year-old whom I’d consider advanced for his age, if not so much in potty training, then in this department), I can identify. As a journalist who works day in and day out with scientists who poke, probe and ponder for a living, I can also appreciate.

photoSo much value in simple curiosity and in being persistent enough to follow this innate gift to its fruition, whether the outcome ends up being success, failure or something in between. In recognizing and relating to the beauty in the build-up. The end game in the before, during and after insight. The process in and of the pursuit. The long-term possibility, even in the face of setbacks or sidetracks.

In so many ways, scientists and journalists have a lot in common. Both seek to raise awareness and convey information, ideally answers and solutions. In both worlds, accuracy is paramount – or should be. In absence of it, the product/audience is cheated, as is the profession.

Years ago, I got the opportunity to sit in on a PBS interview with 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient Dudley Herschbach, who recounted being asked by a fifth grader whether he thought scientists were made or born. Dr. Herschbach’s answer? “I’m sure scientists are born just like everyone else; however, the difference is, they’re not unmade. Every little kid is a natural scientist because they’re naturally curious. They also want to understand things they see, so they ask lots of ‘why?’ questions. That’s what science is.”

Dr. Herschbach went on to describe research as child’s play, equating it to the way a child first learns a language: “A child isn’t worried about getting the words right or wrong, so they just imitate and they play and they experiment and they learn. That’s the way you need to do science.”

GeniusOut of the mouths of babes, not to mention a Nobel laureate: The world depends on 4-year-olds asking questions. And on us retaining our inner 4-year-old. Well, maybe minus that back-talking part! I bet even Dr. Herschbach’s mother would agree.