Sunday, August 25, 2013

Policy Debates and Advisories

In a recent public speech by a native American and treaty rights activist, I learned of some government official saying "someday" the toxic radioactive waste from Hanford might make it into the ground water.

She pointed out how misleading that comment was, as that day is already long in the past.  People taught to stay ignorant and take their cues from pastoral cattle prod wielders (aka pastors) are not known for their acuity in debate.

Natives confront vast hordes of average know-nothing Americans who take on faith what "the government" tells them.  That leaves them feeling lonely, surrounded by a sea of mindlessness.

Anyway, the ability to discuss radioactivity in the environment in scientific and rational terms begins with simple acceptance.  Nuclear meltdowns have occurred and that era of safety we were promised by some (most are too young to remember) was never backed by the engineering.

PR is rice paper thin sometimes.  If you choose to fall for a false facade, at some point blame yourself, draw that line.  If you're a sucker, suck it up.

However, I'm not into "blame the victim" as a favorite art form.  The innocent people around Chernobyl were simply not in the loop.  Then as now, sensor readings were hard to come by.  I just did a survey of Oregon's public sites and so many of them were saying "we're so sure there's nothing to worry about we're just not taking readings."

That's like students saying, these exercises in our math books have been solved thousands of times by our ancestors (yes, our textbooks are old), the solutions are known and shared in teacher manuals.  Why do you make us slog through solving these problems the solutions to which are already known?  The answer is obvious:  so that you might be ready to put out a fire when it comes to your home.

Just develop the practice of taking readings.  The art of placing sensors, and reading them, is a skill in itself (not that it's always that easy as sometimes your "sensors" are dead birds and fish).

Place sensors in "perfectly normal" areas and practice reading them and proving a reliable source of data.

Find parameters it makes sense to measure and develop a model of how theses parameters inter-relate.

Draw on existing research and resist temptation to become overly secretive about your findings, condemning yet another generation to rediscovering what you already knew.

I am pleased that resort casinos understand the museum industry as a worthy interface between a specialized culture and a lay public.  The Warm Springs Reservation has an excellent museum, as do the Pueblo in Albuquerque.  The interpretive center as an institution makes sense to "Indians" as it would to ETs.

The System of Reservations (aka "jurisdictions" or "zones") which the Federation of States United (FSU) put in place -- I'm getting it slightly wrong, close enough -- is well-positioned within the museum industry to keep educating the public about the ecosystem and its cause and effect networks (its "karmic wheels" as some call 'em, meaning they're super-size big and slow-turning, not human, and/or sometimes they're atomic / subatomic).

Call them science museums if you wish.  OMSI is a good representative.  Where art meets science is in the science of effective presentation, which includes Tufte but also Crumb, Disney, and Dr. Seuss.  We use animation and simulation to impart information.

Not all exhibits need take the same broad path or recruit the same public.  Highways and byways remain useful.  I've got my eye on the Portland Hilton for some esoteric events.

Changing topics a little, I wonder about how the abortion debate would reshape if deformities per pregnancy were on the rise.  I'm not saying that's our world at this moment but imagine the moral debates in such circumstances, wherein viable offspring are a rarity and may have to come from implanted genetic material kept in lead-lined repositories deep within the planet (call it Krypton if that makes you feel any better -- I'm fine with generalizing beyond Earth).

Back to measurement-making and sharing results:  sensor networks are not intrinsically about "worrying" and/or "not panicking" the public.  They're intrinsically more neutral than that, like thermometers and barometers.  Their mere presence is not saying anything about what's expected.  When people with measuring devices show up, or fly instruments over you in drones, they're not necessarily foretelling doom.  They're about providing reliable global data that might be good news as well as bad.  The information may leave you indifferent.  But at least the information is being collected.  "No change" means you're establishing a baseline.

New scouts need to learn to make a fire.  To take a reading is routine.  To log a result is your habit.  Data gathering is something humans do.  If they ask you why you're attending to sensors and sensor data, taking readings, ask them why they're not.  When you monitor your environment, you are "minding your own business" -- don't let them tell you otherwise.  Tell them you're working for a museum, the one that will treasure your data someday.

If you need to focus on the "half full" aspects of the glass, closet pessimist that you are (an "out there" optimist), then subscribe to RSS feeds about happy camper villages where air quality is going up and people are happier with their lives than ever.  I'm not saying you won't find such news if you dig.  I'm subscribed to a few of those channels myself.

Summary statements:

Just don't let yourself off the hook if you prove yourself gullible.  At some level, you need to set your own standards.  Suck it up and move on.  Don't use the shock of finding yourself hoodwinked (fooled), lied to, as an excuse to stop probing.

You have a right to keep puzzling away, trying to think it through, whatever "it" is.  Admit you've been lied to, and you believed, and make that part of your mental model going forward.  That does not mean to never again extend trust.  That's a decision to keep making:  when to trust, when to not.

People lie, some are paid to, and your ability to discern "the story" will be continually challenged.  Accept the challenge.  Remember computer games.  You get to die many times.

If you watched a lot of cop and detective shows, or read those books, you have that scientists' sense that true stories have this advantage over false ones:  they cross-check and omni-triangulate, demonstrate internal consistency, to a much higher standard than cobbled-together postpone-the-day-of-reckoning falsehoods.

The latter (make-believe fabrications) tend to fall apart upon probing, which is why a lot of times it's really up to the prober:  how much do I want to believe this story?

Acknowledge your biases, at least to yourself.  Is it shameful to wish for better living standards for sentient beings?  Was the mistake that you trusted, or that you were let down?  It cuts both ways.