Tyson Adams

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Archive for the tag “science nerd”

Is science broken?

With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.

Sean dies

This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.

purity

As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.

To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.

A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.

Of course most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that get attention aren’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.

Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.

Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results blackbox. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section, so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.

And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:

This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!

But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers, so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.

Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!

But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.

Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*

The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women
#2 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below (I’d still love to hear from someone without a penis on this one). There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, just like all other aspects of society. This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence, but I doubt it is as large as implied, and they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. And I’d question how much this influence has on “listening” to women in science, because if there is a field that encourages knowledge and evidence over other aspects, then science is it. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t an issue with equality still to be dealt with. That old guard isn’t dead yet and their influence will hang around like old people smell for a while to come. But this issue isn’t confined to science and I think science is better placed than many other fields. I won’t go into the preferred areas of study issue, as maths, engineering, science, social science, humanities, etc, all have massive differences in their sex ratios that would need an entire uninformed rant on.


Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NGT’s answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).

It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.

Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.

Other rebuttals:

http://www.reddit.com/r/badscience/comments/1veyhu/cracked_again_6_shocking_studies_that_prove/cero5qj

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-science-broken/

Book Reviews: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad ScienceBad Science by Ben Goldacre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a while since I’ve blogged one of my book reviews. I guess that is part of the parenting manual that I didn’t read: hobbies are no longer priorities. There have been plenty of good books pass before my eyes since my last review, but I felt content just to let a short sentence, a star rating and an update to my Twitter feed to promote a good read.

This is slightly different. Ben’s book made me annoyed.

I’m a science nerd. I prefer to read the original research papers rather than the media coverage of them, as it is always terrible, usually based on a half-arsed press release and never links to the actual research. I am constantly amazed that in our modern age of computers, internet, vaccines, satellites and zero calorie drinks that people still believe in stuff that wasn’t plausible 200 years ago. And that’s why Ben’s book annoyed me. He made it painfully obvious how deliberate some of the misinformation campaigns have been.

I knew homoeopathy was rubbish (magic water droplets on sugar pills, or as I prefer to call it, a placebo), I knew that complimentary medicine is the term for stuff that hasn’t ever been proven to work, I knew anti-vaccine campaigners clearly didn’t remember that my dad’s generation had polio victims everywhere, I knew that “Big Pharma” are a mixed bag of good and bad science. So if I knew all of this already, why am I annoyed? Because I didn’t realise just how culpable the news media were and how media liaison and PR companies are straight up lying to people.

You see, I always thought, and this is still mostly true, that most media get science wrong because they don’t understand it and it isn’t easy to do the background research to check a press release on a study. I see this as not having the specialist science reporters doing the science journalism (imagine if a science journalist reported on climate change from the beginning, we’d have emissions at zero by now). But with Ben’s section on the MMR “controversy” and the “nutritionists” in the media, he paints a very clear picture of culpability that the media needs to address, or as Ben points out, people will just go to science blogs written by actual scientists in that field.

Excellent book and a must read for anyone who still reads newspapers or watches the TV news.

View all my reviews

PS: Yes, I’m also guilty of not publishing results, like most scientists I know. I make no excuses, I’m a terrible person.

Election 2013: Australian House of Reps and Climate Change

Normally I don’t talk politics. It really hurts my head when I repeatedly bash it against the desk when listening to politicians speak. Being apolitical I see little point in discussing what a bunch of self-serving failed lawyers do on a daily basis. Regardless, I’ve reblogged this post from uknowispeaksense – a fellow science nerd – as he has done a very good breakdown of both the houses of Australian parliament and where they stand on climate change.

Being a scientist, I find the current political inaction on climate change to be unacceptable. I find the denial of climate science to be akin to disputing gravity. Then again, I’m sure we could find politicians that would argue pigs can fly if there were enough votes in it.  The science is settled. So I think it is important that people know where their politicians stand on what is quite possibly the most important issue to face humanity.

Also, this link has position statements of various parties.

Note: Senators’ positions here.

In September this year, 2013,  Australians will head to the polls to exercise their democratic right and vote in the federal election, with each eligible voter hoping the party of their choice wins enough seats to govern for the next 3 years. Recently, Australian politics has seemingly become much like American politics with the right shifting to the extreme right and what were formerly centre left shifting slightly to the centre. In the process, the issue of climate change has become highly politicised. The idea of this page, is to highlight where each party and some selected individuals stand on climate change. In particular, I am interested in whether they accept the science or not.

Recent climate change is real, it is happening now, it is caused by humans and it is serious. This is not up for debate because the science is settled. Every major national scientific body in the developed world and the tens of thousands of scientists researching the climate accept this as fact. In my opinion, and many others, it is hands down the most important global issue and challenge facing humanity, and urgent action is required…now.

In order for global initiatives to be implemented to tackle the threat of climate change we must have governments who are prepared to act, and that means we must first have governments that accept the science. So how does our current crop of politicians stack up? To find out, Hansard, party websites, individual websites, press releases, newspaper, radio and television interview transcripts were searched for definitive statements made by our politicians that demonstrate that they either accept the science or not. Where a definitive statement wasn’t apparent, but the Member had mentioned some aspects of climate change, I emailed the Member requesting clarification of their position.  Where no response was provided, the Member was classified as “no data” or “insufficient data”. Two Members made no mention of “climate change” or “global warming” at all in the places searched. They have been placed in the denier category. Retiring politicians (as at February 16, 2013) have been excluded.

An example of a definitive statement accepting the science on climate change is this one from Steve Irons, the Liberal Party Member for Swan, who when rising to speak in parliament on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and associated Bills (CPRS2009), said…

“I accept the premise that climate change exists and that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the accelerated rate of climate change. There is evidence to support this and I lend my weight to those arguments.”

The link for that speech is here. An example of a definitive statement or statements rejecting the science is this barrage from Warren Truss, the National Party Member for Wide Bay as reported in the Australian newspaper.

”It’s too simplistic to link a finite spell to climate change.”

”These comments tend to be made on hot days rather than cold days.

”I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania.

”Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16.

”Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times…

”The reality is that it’s utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change.”

This is the usual grab bag of inane throw away lines, or variations of, one can find on any climate denial website.  So, just how many of our politicians accept or reject the science of climate change?

Position on the science of climate change of current Australian mambers of the House of representatives n=150

Position on the science of climate change of current Australian members of the House of Representatives. n=150

What is clear from this graph is that the majority of Members accept the scientific consensus on climate change and have made definitive statements to that effect. When we break it down into party affiliations v position, we get an interesting look into the politicisation of the issue.

Position on the science ofclimate change of Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation. n=144 (6 retiring)

Position on the science of climate change of Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation. n=144 (6 retiring)

The striking thing about this graph that should be immediately apparent, is the fact that nearly every Australian Labor Party Member  has made a definitive statement accepting the science of climate change. For the conservatives, the split is nearly 50/50. This can be broken down further…

Position on the science of climate change by Coalition Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation n=59

Position on the science of climate change of Coalition Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation n=59

No real surprises here that the Nationals, being the representatives for large areas of “the bush” are climate change deniers. Their constituents tend to be highly conservative. Please note: retiring members and those for which there is no data have been excluded from this graph.

So, who accepts the science and who doesn’t? What is clear is that if you are of the right, there’s a good chance you are in the wrong. Here is a complete breakdown of the results with each member and their position.

Current sitting Members of the House of Representatives and their position on climate change science.

Current sitting Members of the House of Representatives and their position on climate change science.

It’s probably fitting that the leader of the opposition, with a bit of help from alphabetisation, tops the list of deniers. This is the man who wants to lead the country and he refuses to accept the science of climate change. Remember, it is Abbott who claimed that “climate change is crap.” Now I’m sure there are supporters of Mr Abbott who will find quotes about his direct action plan to tackle climate change and hold this up as evidence that he is serious about the climate however, this is the man who will say anything for political expediency.

The thing that really bugs me about the list of deniers, is the presence of those National Party Members. While it isn’t surprising, these 8 people are supposed to represent Australian rural communities and have their best interests at heart. Climate change is likely to have very severe impacts on agricultural production in Australia. The CSIRO State of the Climate 2012 report states…

Australian average temperatures are projected to rise by 0.6 to 1.5 °C by 2030 when compared with the climate of 1980 to 1999. The warming is projected to be in the range of 1.0 to 5.0 °C by 2070 if global greenhouse gas emissions are within the range of projected future emission scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These changes will be felt through an increase in the number of hot days and warm nights, and a decline in cool days and cold nights.

Climate models suggest long-term drying over southern areas during winter and over southern and eastern areas during spring. This will be superimposed on large natural variability, so wet years are likely to become less frequent and dry years more frequent. Droughts are expected to become more frequent in southern Australia; however, periods of heavy rainfall are still likely to occur.

These changes will require mitigation and adaptation activities to be undertaken not just by the agricultural producers, but also the communities in which they exist, and without government support, many will go to the wall. One wonders if a government full of climate change deniers will be able to make the important decisions that will secure Australia’s food future? For an insight into the potential challenges faced by agricultural producers in the future, as well as what will be required to adapt and mitigate, it is well worth reading the 2012 paper by Beverly Henry et al titled, Livestock production in a changing climate: adaptation and mitigation research in Australia. From the abstract…

Climate change presents a range of challenges for animal agriculture in Australia. Livestock production will be affected by changes in temperature and water availability through impacts on pasture and forage crop quantity and quality, feed-grain production and price, and disease and pest distributions. This paper provides an overview of these impacts and the broader effects on landscape functionality, with a focus on recent research on effects of increasing temperature, changing rainfall patterns, and increased climate variability on animal health, growth, and reproduction, including through heat stress, and potential adaptation strategies.

Full text available here. It’s not just livestock. It’s across the board. What will wine growers do in the face of earlier springs, increased risk of fungal diseases and changes in the microbiology and chemistry of winemaking? What will apple and stone fruit growers do to cope with a decrease in the efficacy of natural pest predators due to phenological changes in host species? Will wheat farmers be able to rely on a government full of climate change deniers to provide adequate R&D funding to combat lower yields? One need only look to Queensland to see what ideological climate change denial from a government looks like.

So, here are a few examples of the kinds of statements made by the deniers in our parliament. Remember, these people are ignoring the advice of tens of thousands of experts from around the world who are all saying the same thing, and they want to make decisions on your behalf, that won’t just affect you, but your children and grandchildren as well.

“The Prime Minister and her ministers have repeatedly declared that the “science is settled” and there is no need for further debate on how to respond to the environmental challenges from climate change. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist told me recently that “science is never settled” and that scientific assumptions and conclusions must always be challenged. This eminent Noble Laureate pointed that had he accepted the so-called “settled science”, he would not have undertaken his important research, which challenged orthodox scientific propositions and led to new discoveries, which resulted in a Nobel Prize.” Julie Bishop

That was Julie Bishop appealing to authority…the wrong authority.

“We are after all only talking about models and forecasts. Just as an aside, when the weather bureau cannot reliably tell me what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and then tells me that in 100 years there are going to be sea level rises of a metre as a result of climate change, I think I am entitled to exercise a level of caution in deciding whether to accept everything that is put to me about weather, climate and long-term trends.” Darren Chester

Darren Chester, failing to understand the difference between short-term weather forecasts and long-term climate trends. Scarily, he then goes on to discuss how wonderful it would be to dig out and burn all the brown coal in the Latrobe Valley. For the uninitiated, burning any coal is bad, but burning brown coal specifically is very bad. It burns much cooler than anthracite  due to higher water content and less lithification and so you have to burn more of it to produce the same amount of energy.

“As I rise to speak on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related bills, I do so wondering whether the debate is being driven by alarmists or scientists. Are we debating this subject from a scientific standpoint or are we being caught up in the emotion of the times? We do live in an uncertain world and it is understandable why it can be easier to accept statements at face value rather than questioning what we are being told. I have been reading Professor Ian Plimer’s book on his response to the global warming debate. It makes for very interesting and illuminating reading, and I would recommend it to any member entering the debate on global warming.”Joanna Gash

Joanna Gash basing her uneducated and ill-informed opinion on the writings of a non-expert who has never published a single peer-reviewed paper on the subject of climate change and who is the director of seven mining companies. Can you say “vested interests” Joanna?

“To say that climate change is human induced is to overblow and overstate our role in the scheme of the universe quite completely over a long period of time. I note that the member for Fraser came in here today with a very strong view about how human beings have been the source of all change in the universe at all times. He has joined a long line of Labor backbenchers I have spoken about in this place before—amateur scientists, wannabe weather readers, people who want to read the weather, people who like to come in here and make the most grandiose predictions about all sorts of scientific matters without even a basic understanding of the periodic table, or the elements or where carbon might be placed on the periodic table. So the member for Fraser has joined this esteemed group of people who seem to be great authorities on science.” Alex Hawke

Alex Hawke, also confusing weather with climate but doing so in a spectacularly arrogant way. I love it. He’s not just saying, “I’m an idiot” but rather “I’m really an idiot and you better believe it! So there!” Who wants to ask Mr Hawke where carbon is on the periodic table? I know I do.

“As the only PhD qualified scientist in this parliament, I have watched with dismay as the local and international scientific communities and our elected leaders have taken a seemingly benign scientific theory and turned it into a regulatory monolith designed to solve an environmental misnomer. With a proper understanding of the science, I believe we would not even be entering into this carbon tax debate. To put it simply, the carbon tax, with all its regulatory machinations, is built on quicksand. Take away the dodgy science and the need for a carbon tax becomes void. I do not accept the premise of anthropogenic climate change, I do not accept that we are causing significant global warming and I reject the findings of the IPCC and its local scientific affiliates.” Dennis Jensen

Dennis Jensen, legend in his own lunchtime appealing to his own non-authority and single-handedly dismissing the honest, dispassionate work of tens of thousands of real scientists from around the world. At this point I should point out that Dennis Jensen does indeed have a Phd….in materials engineering on ceramics. Next time it starts raining cups and plates I’ll be sure to look him up. Oh, and he is also tied in with the Lavoisier Group and according to Wikipedia, boycotted parliament the day Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation. I know that isn’t relevant to climate change but hey, if he’s a racist arsehole then everyone has the right to know about it. Anyway, I strongly urge my readers to check out the rest of his parliamentary rant. It is a cracker. Every single paragraph is filled with…well….crap. Who voted for this clown?

“Perhaps more concerning is the evidence that suggests climate scientists have engaged in manipulation of data, routine alienation of scientists who dispute the theory of anthropogenic global warming and the overall culture of climate change science that encourages group think and silences dissent.”Don Randall

Don Randall, reflecting on a newspaper article about “Climategate”no less. Obviously 9 independent investigations into “Climategate” all finding no wrong doing isn’t enough for the wilfully ignorant. For a good roundup of the whole saga, skepticalscience is the place to go.

These were just a few of the deniers and their ill-informed statements that I randomly selected. Having read through so many speeches and transcripts and media releases, I can attest that these are representative of the other deniers in the list. For me, the mind boggles when it comes to climate change denial. Presumably, these politicians are meant to be rational people. The appeals to the authority of non-experts really confuse me. It is akin to getting a plumber instead of an electrician to rewire your house. They wouldn’t get a vet to perform the brain surgery some of them clearly need. Why do they think the opinions of non-experts has any weight when it comes to climate science? It is completely irrational.

I guess it may seem to some that I am picking on the conservatives…and that would be correct, but I also have one or two big questions to ask of the ALP. If you all accept the science behind climate change as you claim and see fossil fuel combustion as the primary cause of recent climate change, why do you subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars every year? Why not use that sort of money to develop the renewable energy sector and get us off our dependence on coal quicker?

This year’s election, if recent polling results carry through to September, is going to be won by the conservatives. Their leader, who admits to lying, who is on the record as holding different policy positions based on political expediency, is surrounded by men and women who are irrational in their non-acceptance of the science of climate change, many of them failing to grasp simple concepts such as the difference between weather and climate. Some of them suffer heavily from arrogance and one inparticular the Dunning-Kruger effect. A number of them have links to the mining industry and right-wing think tanks that are funded by mining companies and/or have mining executives on their boards. I wonder where their royalties loyalties lay? Is it with the people who have elected them, or their mining mates? I think I know the answer and it isn’t we the people. But then you’ve got the ALP subsiding the very industries they are claiming are the problem. Decisions decisions. For some, the decision might be about the lesser of two evils. Choose wisely.

Thanks to John Byatt for his valuable assistance with data collection.

If any politicians read this and feel they have been misrepresented, please feel free to contact me at unknowispeaksense@y7mail.com preferably with a definitive statement and I will make the necessary corrections and publish your response.

I have done the same thing for the Senate here.

Check out the National Party’s disconnect here.

Tyson Says: A point I should make about the results here, which was also made on The Drum last night: The Labor Party doesn’t allow for crossing the floor or dissenting public comment. Now, it isn’t like there aren’t penalties in the other parties for doing so, but this point needs to be considered when viewing the statistics.

Essentially, where it has all of Labor politicians on board with climate change, that is actually a party stance, not the individuals. I know from first hand discussions that there are Labor politicians who don’t believe in climate change science, but they won’t go on record as such because the party room has voted against them.

This is partly why we see such pathetic policies and hypocritical positions (e.g. mine coal like it is going out of fashion whilst claiming coal is to blame). Remember, politicians don’t care about science or facts, they care about making their supporters happy. Just don’t think that the voting public are their key supporters, because they certainly didn’t donate tens of millions to their party.

See why I’m apolitical?

Talking Spec-Fic with Rex Jameson

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Today we have a special guest on the site. My friend Rex is an author, science nerd and has as many degrees as I have, so you can see why we get along so well. Last year Rex released his first novel, Lucifer’s Odyssey, which I recommend for any speculative fiction and fantasy fans, and this year has released the sequel, The Goblin Rebellion (which is free for the next couple of days).

Tyson: Rex, you’ve had a busy 6 months. You have released your first novel, gotten married, released two novellas, completed a PhD and released your second novel. The obvious question I have for you is, what are you currently reading?

Rex: Unfortunately, most of my reading material has been non-fiction recently. I work in real-time, embedded systems and am involved in several interesting projects involving spacecraft, mobile devices and very soon remote-controlled drones. I’ve also been giving job talks for professor positions and finishing up my dissertation (March).

T: So boring stuff is working with real spacecraft? You just killed the dream of every boy under the age of 12.

R: Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s boring at all. I’m extremely excited about my work, and I plan on doing much more of it!

T: What about fiction?

R: The next fiction books on my list are a couple of indie author works: Moses Siregar’s “The Black God’s War” and Jennifer Rainey’s “These Hellish Happenings.” I’m also REALLY wanting to read George R. R. Martin’s epic series. It feels like I’m running into people reading a Dance of Dragons at every airport I enter, but I’ve heard stories about weeks-long splurges on his books, and I’m trying to avoid it until I’m able to really get into it.

T: Jennifer’s book is on my to-read list, which is still 6 or more months long. I found the first three Game of Thrones e-books on sale and snapped them up. Whenever I read a book or series that has taken the world by storm I am always underwhelmed. I call it the DaVinci Effect.

R: A well-chosen descriptor.

T: Thanks. How much Christian hate mail have you received so far after Lucifer’s Odyssey?

R: I wouldn’t say it’s Christian hate mail. I’ve received some sporadic messaging that I would characterize as worried. Part of being a Christian is discipleship, and some people take that very seriously. A novel that spans trillions of light years in distance and involves creatures living hundreds of millions and even billions of years does appear to conflict with strict belief in the 6,000-10,000 year old creation story.

But I honestly find it odd that this rift between modern scientific discovery and Christianity even exists. It would have been quite easy to update Christianity to account for the fossil records in a way that doesn’t involve saying “but those are all from Noah’s flood” (which is quite ludicrous) and in modifying man’s role in the universe once we realized just how massive the known universe is. Instead, many in America tend to look at science’s findings as one of God’s tests: a challenge that God has handed down to test the tenacity of their belief that every word in the Bible is in fact directly from God and thus infallible. And this kind of stubbornness to adapt to facts and findings has retarded our growth as a species since Galileo. I’ve heard from some that this voluntary impediment is in fact reasonable and expected because Eve shouldn’t have eaten from the knowledge tree to begin with…

Anyway, yes I’ve gotten some mail, but I understood I would be getting it. Most of it has been cordial, but religious figures are a touchy subject, even if they are presented in a fantastic and fictitious light in the series. The series is not intended to bash Christian beliefs by any means. It’s more of a modern retelling of the origin story with the vastness of the universe and time taken into account. I also love string theory and the concept of multiverses, time-dilation, chaos theory, and other hobbies of mine, and the only way to properly have fun with them was to set them in an expansive series of universes.

T: I like that yourself and David McAfee have both been listed on a review of your book. Apparently you’ve created a genre for Christians to get riled up about.

R: Yeah, pseudo-biblical fiction. With the way it’s defined, most fantasy could be placed in there. I’m pretty sure any book with a savior child character who is promised by prophecy in a religious tome could fall into this genre, should a comparison be wanted. Belgarion in David Edding’s Belgariad series might fall into this comparison, even though it’s unrelated to Christianity, just because a savior child is promised to the Earth and rescues the world from evil. It’s probably an appropriate descriptor for my first series, though I’d disagree with the anti-Christian characteristic for reasons stated in the comment section of that article.

T: Interestingly the entire “young Earth” thing is just one section of six views on Christian religious interpretation. Most sects are fine with science. Of course I’ve received enough death threats to understand fundamentalists are the strange cousin of any societal group, we’re all embarrassed by them.

R: The Young Earth group may be one of six Christian interpretations, but it’s hardly the minority in America. My only issue with the group is that they’ve latched onto the debates that atheists and theists have concerning the origin of the universe (i.e., Big Bang versus Creationism), and are using issues with the current perceived expansion rate of the universe as proof that the entire scientific movement is a house of cards.

For example, the fossil record is now in some way dependent on the Big Bang and collapsing expansion theory, tectonic plates are now somehow linked to weathermen not getting the weather right all the time, evolution is now directly linked to asteroids carrying microbes being the real originator of life, or climate change is suspect because it doesn’t make sense that matter can come into existence from nothing. I’ve seen all of these claims in arguments from Young Earth creationists. Even though none of these are dependent upon each other, it’s become a science versus creationism argument where all science can now be suspect simply because a Young Earth creationist is unwilling to investigate or learn about an entire branch of science–since someone has convinced them that all science is wrong and evil and counter to God’s intentions for mankind.

The result is a sustained rise of fear and ignorance, and that is a huge impediment on progress. And ultimately, I believe the continued pressure of this movement on education is causing less emphasis on math and science in American schools and is directly hindering our economy and ability to produce quality researchers, which are required for innovation and technological growth. After all, environment has a lot to do with educational responses of children. If parents don’t value math and science and look upon them negatively, children are likely to have the same feelings.

T: Can we expect to see Lucifer square off against his noodliness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

R: I don’t think that would be much of a fair fight. Yes, FSM has wing-like structures that might help propel him through space, but FSM’s wings appear quite squishy and obviously delicious. Lucifer appears to be made of stronger stuff in the series, and I doubt he’s anywhere near as tasty. Therefore he has fewer natural predators, a sword, the ability to open a channel to near-infinite reserves of energy in a big-bang-like state, and wings made of a nearly indestructible material–while the demons or angels are alive and their soul is present. In contrast, I’ve never seen FSM with a sword. I’ve seen him falling for the “pull my finger” routine (which shows obvious gullibility) but never wielding a scary weapon.

I’ll admit I could be underestimating his ability to smother someone with special sauce or noodly goodness.

T: You also forget his noodliness has pirates on his side. Actually: Flying Spagehetti Monster, Lucifer, Pirates, Christian outrage; add ninjas and zombies to the mix and you have the next Da Vinci Code!!

R: Heh! If only it were that easy, we could all be rich!

T: You classified Odyssey as speculative fiction, I would have called it fantasy: Wheel of Time, spec fic or fantasy?

R: In my defense, I have categorized the work as epic fantasy and space opera. I haven’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time past the first book. I recently thought about picking it up during the holidays, but then I saw the reviews for New Spring and decided against it (at least for now). I read Derek Prior’s “Cadman’s Gambit”, instead, and I’m happy I did. It’s a complicated story but good. It’s also speculative fiction/fantasy, btw.

T: I started the first in the Wheel of Time series, moved onto the Night Angel series by Brent Weeks. Fantasy always seems to be code for “I didn’t want to grab my street map for exposition”, unless it has elves or dragons in it. Apparently having a proper imagination precludes classification in other genres.
Game of Thrones, ditto, spec fic or fantasy?

R: Fantasy. I’ve seen a couple of the HBO episodes but haven’t started the book series out of fear of missing my dissertation and paper deadlines. That being said, it will be mine–oh, yes!

T: Thesis deadlines are highly over-rated. They only apply to the postgrad student and not anyone else in the chain. I still haven’t received my certificate. Actually, there is an idea for an epic thriller: “Two postgrad students (Rex and Tyson) fight the hard slog of science, peer review and the ruthless administration building to finally graduate. But will it be too late to enter the real world?”

R: Honestly, my adviser doesn’t seem like he’s in much of a hurry to get me out the door, but I’m chomping at the bit to have my own lab, target my own research grants, and teach my own classes. So, that’s really the only reason I’m pushing so hard to finish my dissertation. The job I want requires final paperwork and the funny robes, and I’m getting feedback and interest from great universities and faculty that I’d love to work with.

T: Funny robes and extra acronyms attached to your name is always handy, especially when you are arguing with the anti-science brigade.
So you’re sticking with your classification for Lucifer’s Odyssey? You could sucker a few unwitting literary fiction readers.

R: The classification of Lucifer’s Odyssey as speculative fiction comes from the fact that readers debate about whether Roger Zelazny’s Amber Series was “classic science fiction”, “fantasy”, or the much more recent “speculative fiction.” I had read some commentary on the Kindleboards from readers, and many of them seemed less offended by the label “speculative fiction” than choosing one of the categories with stricter modern interpretations of genre boundaries.

Lucifer’s Odyssey is more fantasy than science fiction, and the majority of my work will probably be more fantasy than science fiction. I chalk this up to my line of work. When you look to escape your current situation, you often go to the opposite extreme of what you do every day. Since my job has me looking at problems in satellites, rc drones, and mobile phones in mission critical systems, my writing escapes tend to be more fantastical rather than technical. I have some ideas for thrillers and pure fantasy, but I’m putting them on the back-burner until I at least finish “Shadows of our Fathers”, the third book in the Primal Patterns series.

T: I hear you there. I’m writing thrillers where the main characters get to shoot a lot of people. Shooting someone for making up their opinion on the spot, to argue with the person who has just spent the last few years researching the topic, isn’t widely accepted in society.

R: Well, I’ve noticed people are far more willing to read a book about shooting random people than a derelict homeless man dropping f-bombs when the devil kills his friend. Maybe your idea could work.

T: Are you living proof that being an author attracts the ladies, since you got married after publishing Odyssey?

R: Hah! Hardly!

Although Lucifer’s Odyssey was published last year, it started as a short story several years ago. The original story was from the perspective of Michael and involved the bar scene, the interrogation, and the escape and burial of Azazel (which was taken out completely during editing), but in a much more primitive form. And quite frankly it was terrible. Even after several rewrites, it was bad.

I met my wife while the story was forgotten in a folder on my hard drive. So, resuscitating it and redrafting it a few times resulted in far more eyerolls from her than attraction. Still, she’s awesome and incredibly supportive. It takes a special kind of person to love someone who has a job that sends them frequently abroad and often spends a considerable amount of time at a computer writing stories or developing software when they’re in the room with you. She’s a rock star and a wonderful person!

My wife pointed out that the reason I was having trouble writing any of my stories was that they were all depressing and dark. Now they are shooty and dark, so it is amazing what our partners can bring to our writing.

Actually, the novelette “Elves and Goblins: Perspectives of a Father’s Rebellion” is totally dark and shooty. Maybe one day we could collaborate on a thriller or something. Might be fun.

T: Well, we already have an idea for the plot. Although submitting a thesis at gun point and combating peer review in a death match scenario may only appeal to scientists.
I’m going to put in a spoiler alert here: at the end of your first novel Jesus ended up somewhat shorter. Doesn’t that leave the next book without a decent bad guy? Because if the sequel is Lucifer dealing with his feelings about the loss of his cat to cancer, I might not promote it.

R: Here’s an even bigger spoiler: I have no plans for putting Jesus into the series, and there’s a framework for seven books–though I only plan on doing three books in the Primal Patterns before moving on to something else for a while. That could change if readers demand it, but I think a foray into more standard fare might be something that would appeal to new readers. Contemporary urban epic fantasy like the Winter Phenomenon series I had planned or maybe expansion of one of my short stories.

T: We had a conversation about how wonderful editors are a few months ago. How do you think your editor could improve something written by the average monkey at a typewriter?

R: I’m afraid I won’t name names, but the bane of most unedited first work is head-jumping and bad dialogue. I’ve noticed many new fantasy or science fiction authors tend to do pretty well with action sequences. I say many and not most. Most self-published work is still bad, and I think all work should be edited in some way by neutral parties in your genre. The only exception to this are trained professionals or people who know how to remove themselves from the work and become neutral parties in the genre.

Another thing that an editor does for an author is give some peace-of-mind to the fiction writing process on subsequent books. When I was writing Lucifer’s Odyssey, I had a lot of self doubts about whether or not I could tell a story this complex. I’m not sure the answer is ‘yes’ yet, but from the reviews, I don’t think I’ve done a terrible job either.

A couple of readers have noted that the tone can be jarring, and after asking one of them, I was told that the tendency of Sariel to inject humor into serious situations was the type of tonal change that seemed unusual. My editor once made a suggestion on one of these, and I did tell him that I would rather Sariel remain that way because sarcasm and fraternal humor is basically how he’d gotten through life as a youngest child, a seemingly destiny-less position, in the most important family in all of Chaos. His tone changes quite a bit in the second book, but that core is still there. He’s lived for millions of years, and he still has his daredevil instincts and a frightening tendency to play with his food, even if it might kill him.

Now, I’m coming to this in a roundabout way, but I do have a point. An editor is only as useful as you let him or her be. If they make suggestions and you buck them, you better have a good reason for it, and you better be prepared to face the music when readers who want that type of sanitized feel pick up your book.

Similarly, if you didn’t expect backlash but you find it, as a self-published author you have the ability to change it. I recently removed almost all of the cursing from both “Lucifer’s Odyssey” and “Angels and Demons: Perspectives of a Violent Afterlife” because of a handful of complaints (out of thousands of readers). Why? I made a trade off.

I believe that in the real setting, the characters would have cursed, but I know that many more conservative readers would have used the cursing as an easy excuse to not read the book and allow themselves to enjoy the story. I also knew I wanted to give the book away for free for short periods of time, and from experience, I know that this particular type of reader picks up free stories without looking at the summary or the warnings, and they are more likely to leave a 1-star review. Is this my fault? No, but such a 1-star review given within days of a book’s release (especially if it’s the only one) can kill a book’s potential quickly. After re-reading the story without the cursing I felt that the compromise was worth doing.

So I think it’s important to mention that listening to your editor is vital, but so is listening to your readers. Yes, some readers are going to be wrong, and you have to understand that there’s always a vocal minority that believes their opinion is right no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary. But often, readers can be a part of the long-term editing process–the neutral genre voice that guides writing into the next book and the one after that. And that’s worth listening to!

T: Thanks to Rex for taking time out of his hectic day. Spec-fic fans should check out Rex’s writing. See my review of his first novel here.

What can you achieve?

There was something on the TV last night, I think it was a moth attracted to the bright screen. Fortunately the ‘moth’ flapping around didn’t distract me from someone talking about being your best. Best? There is always the question of ability and effort. No one would doubt that effort is involved in achieving something, but some people have to work really hard just to be average, just visit any shopping mall for confirmation. And what if you are lazy, are you aiming too high in your career? My inner science nerd sent me to Google Scholar to find out what various people can achieve.

Real-life accomplishments

Average adult IQs associated with real-life accomplishments:

  • MDs or PhDs (postgraduates) 125

  • College graduates 115

  • 1–3 years of college 105-110

  • Clerical and sales workers 100-105

  • High school graduates, skilled workers (e.g., electricians, cabinetmakers) 100

  • 1–3 years of high school (completed 9–11 years of school) 95

  • Semi-skilled workers (e.g., truck drivers, factory workers) 90-95

  • Elementary school graduates (completed eighth grade) 90

  • Elementary school dropouts (completed 0–7 years of school) 80-85

  • Have 50/50 chance of reaching high school 75

Average IQ of various occupational groups:

  • Professional and technical 112

  • Managers and administrators 104

  • Clerical workers; sales workers; skilled workers, craftsmen, and foremen 101

  • Semi-skilled workers (operatives, service workers, including private household; farmers and farm managers) 92

  • Unskilled workers 87

Type of work that can be accomplished:

  • Adults can harvest vegetables, repair furniture 60

  • Adults can do domestic work, simple carpentry 50

  • Adults can mow lawns, do simple laundry 40

There is considerable variation within and overlap between these categories. People with high IQs are found at all levels of education and occupational categories. The biggest difference occurs for low IQs with only an occasional college graduate or professional scoring below 90.

So there you go, now you know just how hard you have to work. And just remember, in a democracy the vote of the highly educated is given the same value as those who think mowing a lawn is mentally challenging.

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