Friday, February 27, 2009

Notes of Brimstone, Cherry, and Gouda

Ill try to make this as non-partisan as I can, because I have no illusions that the phenomenon doesn’t cross party lines — but I was incensed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s swipe at volcano monitoring research, as were more than a few people with a greater-than-elementary-school education. [1]

Some of you may be mercifully unaware of the latest entry in the political grandstanding game of picking out a research project that has a strange title and making it seem like a waste of tax payer money — without bothering to find out what it’s actually meant to study. Gov. Jindal, in a rebuttal to President Obama’s televised talk on the state of the nation (if not a formal State of the Union Address), singled out $140 million to be spent on volcano monitoring, and asked, possibly intending an Andy Rooney vibe, what the heck volcano monitoring was.

Now, in view of how little they’re taught about — well, anything — gov. jocks have no right to be spouting out about science. Not without either educating themselves (as some do) or hiring somebody who knows something about it (as far too few do). But while I’m appalled at Gov. Sarah Palin panning fruit fly research [2], at least I get that. It comes from an ignorance of the science — and ignorance is no sin, only the attempt to cling to it is — meeting up with what, after all, is an odd avenue of research if you don’t know the scientific history. How anyone who’s old enough to remember Mount Saint Helens blowing a big chunk of Washington State to Kingdom Come could think that volcano monitoring, even if you haven’t heard the term before, isn’t a very serious matter of human life and death is far beyond my humble imagination.

One amusing, if disturbing, possibility: the 1971-born Jindal has speechwriters who aren’t old enough to remember Mount Saint Helens, and Jindal doesn’t review their work ahead of time. Sounds ridiculous, but it’s no more ridiculous than explanation #1.

Whatever you think of Gov. Jindal’s political positions, I hope that the fact you’re reading means you’d support his consignment to the infernal regions for crimes against science [3].

Still, every once in a while you come across a research paper that, while completely valid in its own right, simply begs for a punch line. Such as teaching mice to discriminate between different wines.

Noboru Takiguchi and friends at Hiroshima and Osaka universities found out that they could train 10 mice to 70 percent concordance (i.e., 20 percent better than a random, even-odds chance) in discriminating between red wine, white wine, rose, sake, and plum liqueur.

But the interesting result came when they took their mice (trained, remember, to tell between red wine and other alcoholic drinks) and tried to see if they could tell the difference between different red wines (Japanese reds Bon Rouge and Bistro Red, and Beaujolais Villages, from the admittedly more familiar wine-associated country of France). Six mice couldn’t do it better than random chance (50 to 67 percent concordance), and only two could do the job, with an average concordance of 75 percent.

I suppose nobody’s going to be firing their sommeliers and buying mouse cages over a 25-percent-better-than-guessing result, but the fact that the remaining two mice had a concordance lower than 30 percent is amazing.

Think about that: the mice were discriminating effectively between the choices, but making the wrong choice anyway, even though they were being rewarded for the right one. Takiguchi and his kameraden think it may have to do with the mice concentrating on the wrong odorant components. While it isn’t immediately clear to me how that would work — wouldn’t it explain inaccuracy rather than the observed “reverse accuracy?” — it’s a damned interesting idea that, not that I have to say it, is worth pursuing. No wait, I do get it. The idea is that the odorants you use to tell between wine and sake are different than the ones that distinguish between different wines. Even more interesting, because there’s a parallel issue in SAR dog handling: do dogs that are distingushing between the scent of individual humans pay attention to different odorants than those simply telling human scent from other animals? Still, we don’t know for sure; another paper by this group, showing that just about all mice can distinguish between reds if trained to do so, would help strengthen the argument.

Or is it shades of Punished by Rewards? Were the mice, resentful of the patronizing task of choosing between a decent French red and two less-than-inspiring domestics [4], trying to send the researchers a message? [5]

I see a result either way. Contrary to what politicians seem to think, research is its own reward.

[1] Also check out this Yale Daily News piece.
[2] Hey, fruit flies are funny.
Even Did a Cat Shit In Here? got into that game.
[3] No, I’m not going easy on Barack for the
who-invented-automobiles gaffe. It’s equally embarrassing; but at least it wasn’t the core of an attack on a line of research.
[4] Good sake is fantastic — but let’s face it, Japan will never be famed for its vineyards.
[5] Hey, the first reader who can tell me the title and author of an SF short story I read ages ago, in which a psychology researcher awakes to find himself in an alien’s
Skinner Box, gets an arbitrary, probably not valuable ... um, reward ... of my choosing.

1 comment:

Barton Paul Levenson said...

The classic example of "what a dumb idea for research!" was the late William Proxmire's excoriating scientists for studying cow flatulence. The latter substance, of course, contains a lot of methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and as more of the ecosystem's biomass is devoted to cattle for human consumption, the more methane gets produced. So yes, cow farts matter, hilarilous as that may seem to eight-year-olds and to grandstanding politicians.