scientific opinion

Ideally, there should be no such thing as “scientific opinion”. Because science by definition is a process of gaining knowledge through observation and experimentation, and relies entirely on empirical evidence. No opinions needed. But because scientists are human (at least as far as we know) and humans are inherently irrational creatures, opinions, politics, and emotions inevitably get thrown into the mix.

Take Global Warming for example. The consensus among scientists is that Global Warming (now known as Global Climate Change, since not every place will necessarily get warmer) is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that’s just, like, their opinion, man. I mean, who cares what a bunch of nerds who spend all their time in labs and in front of computers and have no idea what the real world is like think, right? I mean, just look at England right now. They’re having like the coldest winter in years. That tells you everything you need to know, right?

Well, no. The fact is, there are mountains of data indicating that Global Climate Change is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that doesn’t mean that Global Climate Change itself is a fact. It’s simply the theory that best describes the available evidence.

And that’s how science works. Science doesn’t really provide “facts” in the strictest sense, but what it does is attempt to explain natural phenomena using repeatable experiments and verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, human beings in general aren’t really wired to accept this. The most scientifically honest statement would be, “The theory that Global Climate Change is real—and caused by humans—is the theory that best explains the available evidence.” But that’s not good enough for a lot of people. The most common response to this type of statement is, “Yeah, but that’s just a theory.” Unfortunately, that’s all science really has. In an ideal world, it would be enough. In this world, it isn’t.

The biggest failure as far as “scientific opinion” is concerned is the ability to get the message out in a way that people can understand and accept. After all, why should we care about the opinions of a bunch of stupid scientists? I don’t, and I am a scientist. I have a PhD in Complicated Blargamawhatsis (Computational Biochemistry), but that doesn’t mean that people should automatically trust my opinion about things. Anyone who’s met me personally or read any other post on this blog can attest to that. But seriously, scientific consensus is essentially meaningless. Either the evidence is there, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the opinion of some random guy shouldn’t carry more weight just because he has a PhD in HeylookatmeI’mascientistorsomething.

But that’s just my opinion.

Still, it is pretty interesting to look at things from the perspective of a scientist. For one thing, it’s funny sometimes to see journalists try and explain scientific topics to non-scientist readers. Often they do a pretty good job, but there are some subtleties that I think people should be aware of.

For example, when you read about some new scientific breakthrough, and the journalist mentions that the work was recently published (or soon will be published) in Science or Nature or even PLoS, it’s usually a good sign that the work is legitimate. However, if the journalist mentions that the research is unpublished, you should be a bit skeptical.

Because when a paper is published in a reputable scientific journal, it has to go through the process of Peer Review. Peer Review is not the same as scientific opinion, because with Peer Review a fellow scientist who is an expert in the field checks the work and makes sure that the evidence is sound, and the conclusions are reasonable based on the evidence presented.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, human emotions and opinions and irrationalities do come into play.

Recently a friend and colleague of mine found a paper in a scientific journal that is clearly and demonstrably wrong. I won’t bore you with the details (you’re welcome), but basically the authors made a fundamental mistake. I’m not exactly sure how this paper managed to make it past Peer Review, but it may be because the primary author is a Big Guy in the field, and unfortunately the work from Big Guys often doesn’t get as rigorously scrutinized as it should. So yeah, sometimes bad science does make it through Peer Review. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

Fortunately, there is a remedy. My friend (a fellow postdoc in my research group) wrote a comment paper pointing out the mistakes in the original paper. This is a generally accepted practice, because despite the danger of Big Guys getting their feelings hurt, most scientists will acknowledge that it’s really not very helpful to have incorrect science published as reputable science without anyone challenging it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. My friend asked me to be coauthor on the paper. Partly, I assume, because English is my first language, but I think it’s also partly because he believes having a Western name on the paper will help it carry more weight. And it really shouldn’t be that way—the arguments should speak for themselves—but that’s the way it is. And if that’s not bad enough, our boss doesn’t want his name on the paper because it could hurt him in the future if he wants to publish a paper and this Big Guy happens to be one of the reviewers. Again, it really shouldn’t work this way, but that’s how it is.

Fortunately, I really don’t care about my future in science.

The funny thing is, I’ve sort of been on the opposite side of this. I just finished writing a chapter for a computational chemistry textbook. The publisher, an American company, asked my boss to write it because he’s an expert (a Big Guy) in this particular field, and my boss asked me to write it because, well, English is my first language. And yeah, my boss is an expert on this topic, but I didn’t even know the topic existed before I started writing the chapter. But still, I figured it would be ok since it would be going through Peer Review, and some other expert will be catching any mistakes I made.

Or not. Yeah, apparently the publishers decided that since my boss is such a big expert, the chapter didn’t need to go through Peer Review. It’s already been accepted for publication. So basically, any mistakes I made are going to be taken by others as fact, and dutifully followed as such.

Whoops.

And yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, this entire blog post was my way of saying, “Hey, look at me, I wrote a book chapter for a chemistry textbook and it got published!”

I got out more

To five cities in eight days, to be exact. Although I suppose I really shouldn’t count Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of the six Special Economic Zones of China, where they’re allowed to follow slightly different rules in order to maximize profitability, and the only reason we even went there at all was that the plane tickets were cheaper. In fact, I didn’t get to see much of the city except through a plane or bus window, because as soon as we got there we headed straight for the border crossing.

Even though Hong Kong is fully part of China (under the “one country, two systems” system) the border crossing is exactly the same as if you were traveling to a foreign country. They even stamped my passport and everything. And as Hong Kong is one of the two Special Administrative Regions of China, they’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, excepting defense and foreign affairs. I thought it was interesting that while I didn’t need any sort of visa or special permission to go there, my Chinese friend who I was traveling with did. Apparently they have to regulate things or else too many people from the mainland would go to Hong Kong for a visit, and then just never go back. As one of my work colleagues put it, “Yeah it’s one country, two systems—but their system is better!”

I was glad I’d been to England before going to Hong Kong, because there were some similarities between Hong Kong and an English city that I never would have picked up on if I had never been to England. Mostly the trains, train stations, and pubs. And if that seems pretty trivial, I’d just like to point out that trains, train stations, and pubs are a pretty major part of an English person’s life, so that’s no small thing.

The friend I was traveling with was making the trip as part of his job, so I did manage to fulfill at least part of my goal of getting out more, because even though I got to stay in a 5-star hotel at night (my friend was able to change the room his company booked for him to one with two beds at no extra cost), during the day my friend had to work, so I had to fend for myself.

And I have to say that the thing that surprised me most about Hong Kong was the sheer number of Pakistani tailors insisting I buy suits from them. I thought this was odd, since they should’ve been able to tell from the map in my hand and perplexed look on my face that I was clearly a tourist—and a poor one at that—but that didn’t seem to deter them at all. Honestly though, I have a hard time imagining that harassing tourists on the street is an effective business model. I just don’t see how that would work for them. It certainly didn’t work on me.

I only had one full day in Hong Kong, and I wanted to make the most of it, so I did what any reasonable person would do and took the World’s Longest Escalator. Not to get anywhere in particular, but because out of all the interesting things to see and do in Hong Kong, the one thing I wanted to do the most—the single thing I absolutely had to do—was ride the World’s Longest Escalator.

Yeah, there’s definitely something wrong with me.

Still, from the top of the escalator I took a walk through the Botanical Gardens to get to the tram that goes to the top of Victoria Peak which allows for a view of almost all of Hong Kong in its entirety, so I did end up doing some things other people might consider normal, but the highlight of my trip to Hong Kong was still the World’s Longest Escalator.

The next day I took the ferry to Macao. Just like Hong Kong was a former British colony, Macao is a former Portuguese colony. And like Hong Kong has some distinctly English elements to it, Macao definitely has Mediterranean European elements to it. I say “Mediterranean European” because I’ve never actually been to Portugal, but I’m assuming it’s similar to Spain in terms of narrow, winding streets in older parts of cities, and so on.

There was one square in the old part of Macao where if you looked at it just right, you could swear you were in Europe. Aside from the teeming masses of Asians taking pictures, of course.

(And of course at least one person who’s reading this will be thinking that yeah, sometimes you see teeming masses of Asians taking pictures in cities in Europe as well, but I’m not going to go there.)

Like Hong Kong, I had only a day in Macao, and then it was back to China proper. To Zhuhai, another Special Economic Zone. And this may seem like a pretty odd way to spend my vacation, but I basically spent two full days in Zhuhai barely leaving the hotel room at all while I finished the first draft of my first novel. But the thing is, that’s exactly how I wanted to spend my time, and I have absolutely no regrets.

After Zhuhai we went to Guangzhou, where quite a few of my friend’s friends live. Really, really good people. Really, really good people who drink way, way too much, and as part of their “hospitality” expect their guests to drink as much as they do. Or more. Whether their guests want to or not.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it was totally AWESOME. Hell, it’s a small miracle I ever came back to Beijing.

The culture in the south of China is definitely distinct from that of the north. Sure, pretty much everywhere in China you can find people who are pretty nuts about food, but in the south they really go all out. After about 10 or 11 at night, the narrow streets and alleys of pretty much every southern city become filled with cheap, outdoor restaurants and pretty much everyone, no matter how poor they are, manages to scrounge up the time and the money to meet their friends for good food and good times. It’s pretty cool. It’s a shame, but you don’t really see that so much in Beijing. The people are too serious, and work too hard. Plus, an outdoor restaurant in Beijing would get pretty cold during the winter.

So yeah, it was an incredible trip. And it was incredibly hard to come back to Beijing and try to get back to work. In fact, as soon as I have the time and the money, I really want to go back to see more of the south of China.

Also, I have this inexplicable yet burning desire to go back to Hong Kong and buy as suit.

getting out more

The other day I mentioned to a friend that I need to get out more. My friend found this amusing, considering the number of countries I’ve lived in or visited. He has a point. Just looking at my passport, I have stamps for America, England, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Ireland, Panama, Spain, China, and Morocco. Plus resident visas for England and China. In fact, there’s only one page left that doesn’t have a stamp of some kind on it.

And this is the passport I got in 2005, so it doesn’t include my East Africa or Mediterranean misadventures.

So yeah, on paper (literally) it looks like I’m a pretty adventurous guy. And I am in some ways, but in other ways not so much.

For example, I traveled halfway across the world to China, and right as soon as I got here I immediately set forth and……did nothing. I mean, I went to work on the weekdays and everything, but on the weekends I just sat around my apartment by myself. Most weekends I did not even leave my apartment at all. And my apartment really isn’t that big.

And yeah, it is kind of a pain to go downtown. I live in a suburb north of Beijing, and I generally have to stand on the subway for about an hour to get to the heart of the city, but that’s not a very good excuse. Thousands of people do it every day. During rush hour. It’s not even that bad on the weekends.

My problem is that I get stuck in a routine far too easily. Even though I’m adventurous enough to pack up my entire life and move to a completely new continent, once I get there I tend to quickly find a new routine and fall right into it as if I’ve always been there.

And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Except for the fact that I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see China through the eyes of a resident, and I’m not really taking full advantage of it.

Part of the reason for this is that I’m just not much of a solo adventurer. For the most part I like to wait until other people come up with cool ideas, and then I tag along. The problem with this is that most of my friends here don’t really have the time or the money for a vacation, and even if they did, they wouldn’t want to take it with the weird American guy who can’t really speak Chinese or remember the names of, well, pretty much anything.

The thing is, I look at my friends who are just a little older than me, and most of them are looking to settle down—if they haven’t already—and it’s reasonable to think that I’m probably going to reach that point within the next few years as well. So it stands to reason that if my adventuring days are indeed limited, I really should be doing everything I can to make the most of them, and even if no one is willing or able to go with me, I should strike out on my own. In fact, it’s probably better if I strike out on my own. Some lessons in independence and self-reliance would be good for me. And hell, if I’m going to be serious about this, I really need to make concrete plans, not just vague intentions. At the very least, I need to see Hong Kong, Shanghai, and maybe even a trip to Tokyo before I leave China. That’s about the bare minimum that I think I could be satisfied with. But most importantly, I need to do it on my own. I need to plan it on my own, and I need to go on my own. It’s the only way I’ll ever learn any self-reliance, and it’ll help me get into the habit of being more adventurous without waiting for someone else to plan everything.

Which is why I’m going to Hong Kong tomorrow.

With my housemate.

Yeah, less than a week after I made up my mind that I wanted to go to Hong Kong, he asked me if I wanted to go there with him. Funny how that works. He’s going for business, but while he’s in meetings during the day I can go out and explore the city, and we can meet up in the evening for dinner, and then hit the bars.

And yeah, this doesn’t help me with my independence and self-reliance, but I honestly can’t pass up the chance to see Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau with a friend who also likes to travel and enjoy good restaurants.

Plus the fact that he’s Chinese helps a lot too.

Anyway, I should probably go pack, or something. Despite all the traveling I’ve done, I’m still not good at packing, and I still always wait until the night before to even start thinking about it. You’d think by now I would’ve learned.

But hey, at least I’m getting out more.