A Bit About Me
I hope you enjoy reading this blog post. My website has organised content about lots of different topics that are easily found from the homepage. This blog is a more informal area of my website.
I trained as scientist. I gave up research mainly because I felt that, like all professions, only a few scientists were doing the really good work and that their voice and leadership was lost in a sea of mediocrity.
(I know there are great examples of leadership and organisation in science and that they are pushing civilisation on fast. However, my feeling is still that these exceptions do not get the profile they deserve. As a result I think science is generally misunderstood by the general public. Also, I think brilliant minds are lost to science every day and the fantastic benefits of science are unleashed on the world more slowly and with more mistakes as a result.)
So, demoralised, I left to explore the world, including a lot of backpacking, while struggling to fit my hard-learned, logical thinking into non-science, social groups.
Finally, I stopped travelling and became a teacher. I had found an outlet for my passion for critical thinking and the power of science. As I write this now (May 2017) I feel I can claim to be a successful teacher who is inspiring others.
My next (and maybe final) ambition is to come full-circle and use my teaching and communication skills to become a link between researchers/critical thinkers and the general public. I want academics to think my videos and books are good at spreading the results of their research. I want the general public to think my videos and books are entertaining.
As I write this now (May 2017) my website is about to be overhauled to reflect this new ambition. It is going to be a mess for a while. Hopefully within the next year I will have some regular content coming out and a website that is becoming a great destination for entertainment and learning (while secretly promoting science and critical thinking).
Now for the Full Article
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."
This is a living blog post. I will be updating it every-so-often while I undertake a massive update of my website this summer. I'm moving a lot of the more personalised content to here so that I can: (1) Streamline the content pages to be easier to read and; (2) Delete a lot of smaller pages to also streamline the website experience. This page will become a place to learn more about how, why and when the projects happened!
"Did you hear about the man who froze himself to absolute zero? He's 0K now."
My inspiration is to make Science easier. This is a theme in all my Science and Maths work. In my Science Consulting work I use plain English wherever possible. In my tutoring I help my students get the big picture and so start to find the whole subject easier. My Wildlife books are written to be clear and detailed without unnecessary technical language. In all these areas my long term ambition is to publish (as cheaply as possible) resources to empower everyone to understand Maths and Science themselves. An example of a Scientist who inspired me is Dr Ben Goldacre who has the website Bad Science.
Benford's Law (link to Wikipedia) is one of my favourite mathematical "laws". It explains how a number (if it has been measured or calculated) is most likely to start with a 1 (for example 1, 14, 17 and 138). It is in fact approximately 30% likely to do so! I like that it was discovered (and forgotten) years before when it was called the "The Grubby Pages Effect". This alternative name comes from 1881 when an American astronomer, Simon Newcomb, published in the American Journal of Mathematics that he'd noticed the first pages of books of logs got grubby much faster than the last ones. In fact, the proportion for digit D was log10(1 +1/D).
In the introduction to Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science he says: "You cannot reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into." I find this rings true in so many ways. For example, I think this is a common mistake (that I definitely used to make) that if you have trained hard in Science you develop the habit of logical thinking. I believe logic is very useful for many sorts of problem-solving and so on. However, there is no law saying everyone has to be logical and I would appeal to my readers to remember to respect other people's ways of thinking!
A quote I like from Ben Goldacre's Bad Science: "the plural of anecdote is not data". He also mentioned a study in his book showing that on average people rate themselves as being about 6-7 out of 10 for most skills. Interestingly this average is maintained if you take a subset of people who are either very good, very bad or any given skill level. So, people bad at something over-rate themselves and people good at something under-rate themselves. I think this study is a great insight into the human condition. How you use this fact is up to you! Personally I use it to remember to avoid pub debates and just listen: in my social life I now try to enjoy fun times with my friends and leave my Science at work!
"Heisenberg is pulled over for speeding. 'Do you know how fast you were going?' 'No, but I know exactly where I was.'"
Richard Feynman (a famous scientist) was well known for saying the following: "You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through teh parking lot. And you won't believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!" This was often repeated because it was his standard response to people saying amazing things happened like winning the lottery.
The placebo effect is an interesting thing. An unusual example I like (also from Ben Goldacre's book) is a researcher called Deming went with his team to rest lighting effects on efficiency in factories at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant at Cicero, Illinois. This was in 1923. he told the workers that they were part of a special study to look at what might improve efficiency... and whatever he did (paraphrasing at this point) be it raise the light levels, keep them the same or lower them... productivity improved... so here is the placebo effect turning up in yet another place!
I have a crazy theory that we would understand the world much better if we really understood inflation. I often used to have discussions with economists or other interested people but I felt the conversation always went the same way. They would generally explain how it worked in terms of other features of the economy. Then they would look at me and expect me to either deny what they were saying or admit they had explained it. My issue was that while they were always correct they always seemed to be explaining it with other economic terms. I think there is an underlying thing going on that impacts on the human condition and gives society a momentum in the wrong direction. But, who knows?! Here is a link to a nice graph I saw once with a 750 year long-term trend of inflation (strictly speaking a price index). If you can bear a lot of technical language there is a Wikipedia page about inflation and a Wikipedia page about the consumer price index (there are other sorts of price index but the consumer price index is generally considered a good one).
A nice website that has very "meta" things about Science is The Edge which I strongly recommend. My personal opinion is that the site has a lot of untapped potential but what it does it generally does well.
"In my experience the truth usually seems to be somewhere in the middle."
Dr Duncan James