Popular Science Sucks—I Have a Pie-Chart to Prove It (2015Feb07)


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Saturday, February 07, 2015                            12:37 PM

The world was once a garden. Before the industrial age, everything was organic—the houses, the roads, the toilets, the farms, the furniture. We were once all-natural. When I say ‘garden’, I’m not implying any Garden of Eden—like all gardens, there was plenty of manure and rotting organic matter. If you caught that old garden in the wrong breeze, it stunk to high heaven—but it was a non-toxic stink.

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Then the steam engine led to the combustion engine, which led to the jet engine, then the rocket engine. Edison had his time in the sun, as did Ford, Einstein, Turing, Gates, and Jobs. Now the garden is gone and what’s left is not so pretty.

To sustain our first-world population requires mining, cutting, energy production, chemical processing, and manufacturing—all in mind-blowing, humongous quantities. (Did you know the world uses billions of tons of steel, every day?) We know that Earths’ infinite abundance is an illusion—that its amazing powers of recuperation can only be pushed so far. But we ignore that. And we keep ourselves so very, very busy trying to scam each other and distract each other that it is easy to ignore even such obvious facts.

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Between our old people, who are too ignorant to turn on a computer, and our young people, who are too ignorant to understand how unimportant computers are to the big picture, it’s obvious that our world is changing too fast for our society to keep up with. Meanwhile computers become ever more ingrained in our everyday lives, while computer experts baldly admit (as they always have) that the Internet can never be totally secure from malware. It’s kind of like accepting Politics, even while knowing that a bad politician can be humanity’s greatest threat—oh, wait—we do that, too.

There was no nerd happier than I when the Digital Era elevated ‘smarts’ to a sexy asset. But just as Star Wars popularized science fiction, and ended up diluting it into something sub-intellectual, so now science, math, and logic have been popularized, with the attendant dilution of these virtues into weapons of commerce and gamesmanship.

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There is no more popular meme than a pie-chart—but how many of today’s pie-charts illustrate hard data, and how many are printed in USA Today in an attempt to manipulate the un-informed? Back when they were too boring for anyone but us nerds, no one would have bothered to make a pie-chart of bad data—what would be the point, miscommunication? Yes, as it turns out, that’s a very good use for a mathematical tool. Because people love, love, love the appearance of reason—it’s the methodical application of reason that leaves us cold.

And words. Aren’t we all a little bit tired of words? If words had true meanings, arguments would end. If words had justice, they’d refuse to issue themselves from the mouths of many of the people on the TV news. Every word is a two-bladed sword—without good intentions, words are nothing but cudgels and self-appointed crowns. I’m so sick of the neat little bundles of words that spew from the faces of cold-blooded opportunists and greedy bastards—pretending that a logical algorithm of honest-sounding terms can erase horrible injustices that even three-year-olds would know in their hearts. A good argument is no substitute for a good person—and you can talk all day without changing that.

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But let’s return for a moment to pie-charts. I witnessed the early days of computing and I can attest to the fact that spreadsheet software was a big player. Descartes’ invention of a chart using an x-axis and a y-axis proved so useful that it pervaded mathematics and remains a part of it today. Just so did business leaders find in the mighty spreadsheet a powerful tool for business analysis, sales, and forecasting. Breaking down business activity into rows and columns of numbers gives people great clarity—if you’re into that sort of thing. But we’re not all math geeks—some of us prefer a simpler challenge to the mind. Presto, bar-graphs, pie-charts, etc.—graphic representations of numerical values—so simple even a child could use (or misuse) it.

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And way back then, I had a problem with the whole GUI, WYSWIG, object-oriented, ‘visual’ dumbing down of computer science. It seemed to me that if you couldn’t understand computer code, it wouldn’t help having everything be point-and-click. But the world has long over-ruled me on this point, and it’s only getting worse. What is the point of having scientists conduct a study—and then have a government official decide whether the study should be released? What is the point of a laboratory that conducts studies at the behest of large industrial sponsors—don’t they know that such circumstances taint the report before it’s even issued? Who do they expect to believe them? What is the point of classifying proprietary data from pharmaceutical studies—are they afraid the competition will steal their dangerous, toxic drug ideas while they’re being sued by their ‘patients’?

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We like that the world is getting more confusing—or, at least, some of us do—it makes it easier to lie and cheat and steal. And just to super-charge the confusion, we have a mass-media machine that craves excitement and ignores substance, like a spoiled child. Somewhere between the ‘yellow journalism’ at the break of the last century, and this century’s Fox News, we used to enjoy a historical ‘sweet-spot’, where Journalism was respected and professional—they even got to the point where it was available as a major in college study. TV news started out as a mandatory, public-service requirement for public broadcasters! They still have Journalism majors in colleges—but the classes are usually titled something like “Communicating In Media”, or some other name that lets you know you’re not dealing with ‘reporting’ anymore, you’re ‘communicating’. More dilution of something great into something ‘meh’.

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And that’s where the whole world is heading. Where once was sweet air and crystal-clear water, flush with fish and game, free of toxins—we will now enjoy ‘meh’. Where once dumb people could remain comfortably dumb, and scientists were trusted to think, we will now enjoy a free-for-all of debate points and well-turned phrases made out of pure bullshit—until reality pulls the plug. I once had hope that we would control ourselves in some way—I was so stupid. I guess I was misled by my intense desire for us to survive as a species, maybe even live as good people. Ha. We all have to grow up sometime.

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4 responses to “Popular Science Sucks—I Have a Pie-Chart to Prove It (2015Feb07)

  1. Great post. I way at a yoga studio where a really vapid couple of lawyer were giving a dharma talk that was so muddled and even self-contradictory it was unbelievable. Then they said something like, “well, if you told a scientist about this, they’d say something about how it’s not valid because you didn’t do a scientific study, blah, blah…..” And one of them was a lawyer for the federal government. I thought the Sara Palins of this world were uneducated ex-beauty queens, but these people had professional degrees.

    • Thanks, Kurt. But don’t get me started on college degrees and their relationship to intelligent understanding. It may be sour grapes, since I have no higher-ed degrees of my own, but I’ve come to suspect college doesn’t make us smarter, it just makes us all dumber in the same way.

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