Category Archives: Science

Technology Empowers Our Humanity

CustomerSupportNot that may years ago, read/write CD/ROM drives were essential and a good one was quite expensive. I once paid top dollar to get a top rated drive from Toshiba. It never worked. I called Toshiba dozens of times over 6 months trying to get it working. It would take an hour to get past hold, read off serial numbers and customer info, fax in receipts, explain the problem all over again, to get transferred and repeat it all, to get disconnected, go through it all yet again, only to be told to clean the drive, to call Microsoft, to contact Intel, to reinstall Windows, to buy higher quality disks, to change bios settings, or buy a new connection cable.

In the end, it turned out that this was a known issue with the drive, but Toshiba had a policy not to admit to any such issues. Instead, they intentionally made me jump onerous technical support hurdles and run off on expensive and time-consuming wild goose chases for six months before they finally admitted as much. Most people gave up well before that, but I was on a mission. Nevertheless, in the end I tossed the drive in the garbage.

Everyone has their customer support horror stories. Not that long ago, such infuriating experiences were the norm, not the exception. I had many similar experiences with Sony in particular and resolved never to buy anything from them ever again.

But today customer support has transformed dramatically. Today, wonderful customer support is the norm, not the exception.

AT&T exemplifies this welcome new normal for customer service. The hotspot on my mobile phone quit working. Although I knew it was not an issue with AT&T because it worked on my wife’s phone, I went to their site, hit chat, immediately got a wonderful representative named Stephanie who happily helped me reset my phone, 5 minutes later my hotspot was working!

That’s great customer service. And it’s not just huge companies that are putting the service back in customer service. My garage door light started blinking in a regular pattern as if indicating some error. I called Guardian Garage Doors and immediately got a wonderful guy on the phone. He heard my issue and asked me to text him a video. I did so and after a short hold said their engineers didn’t know what the problem was but wanted me to send it in so they could diagnose it. He offered to rush out a replacement. But minutes later he called back and suggested I try replacing my LED bulb. I did so even though it seemed silly, LED’s don’t do that. But apparently they do. That fixed it!

This is nothing remotely like the bad old days of Toshiba and Sony era customer “support.” The kind of great customer support we often see today is greatly facilitated by technology. It is enabled by the Internet, by chat technology, by searchable knowledge bases, by intelligent call routing systems, and by interconnected global workforces.

But while these technologies are incredibly empowering, real people and attitudes are still essential to great customer support. Technology doesn’t make representatives so pleasantly informal yet professional in demeanor. Technology doesn’t ensure that customer service departments are staffed to connect quickly and to stay on as long as it takes to resolve an issue. It takes sensible management to not interrogate you to prove your identity, ownership, and warranty. It is an explicit choice to authorize representatives to own issues even if they are not directly responsible. And it is their conscious decision to admit to issues candidly rather than reflexively conceal and deny them beyond all rationality.

So, while I often bash private sector corporations, I must give credit where credit is due. Some things do get better. Customer service stands in direct contradiction to widespread fears of a cold and impersonal technology-dominated future. It shows us that technology, properly implemented, can make our lives and our interactions not only more efficient and satisfying, but at the same time more friendly, more personal, more sensible, and yes, more human as well.

Advertisements

The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe. Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

Data Management Primer

data_analysisI spent the better part of 40 years working with data. As a scientific researcher and then as a software developer, my work was all about acquiring, managing, analyzing, and reporting data. That experience taught me lots of lessons. I shared many of those lessons by teaching database design and development at the college level and by writing books on the topic.

Chances are that as a professional in the information age, you do a lot of work with data as well. Here’s the most important thing to know right off… this doesn’t come naturally. Collecting and storing data properly is deceptively difficult. I know because as a software consultant I was called in to fix innumerable systems that were failing catastrophically because they were grown organically by clever, smart people using spreadsheets with complete confidence they were doing a great job.

Even good data gets ruined if it is badly stored.  This applies to small projects as much as large ones. Poorly stored data becomes the “garbage in” for your subsequent analyses and reports. Therefore I thought I would share a brief summary of some of the most important “do’s and don’ts” when I comes to collecting and storing your data. I won’t try to explain or justify all of these rules, but trust me, if you follow them your work will be far more efficient and effective:

  1.  Always create a key field. This field should uniquely identify each record. I recommend you identify each record with a simple incrementing number, one that has no real-word meaning and that you never report to external users of the data.
  2. Don’t create derived fields. It is generally not good practice to store fields of data that are derived or calculated from other fields. It is better to compute these when needed to ensure the values are current.
  3. Make sure every column or field of data is atomic. That is, each field value should contain only one irreducible piece of information. You never want to put say, two phone numbers in one field. Store only one piece of information per field by creating separate columns if necessary.
  4. Think ahead carefully about how atomic a field needs to be.  Will I need to break up phone numbers into separate parts? You have to consider how the data will likely be used and the best choice is still not always obvious. Do you ever need to know the street name in an address? If so, you might consider storing the house number and street in separate fields as this is extremely difficult to parse. Will you need the month from a date? You probably still don’t need to store that separately since it is extremely easy to extract months from dates when needed.
  5. Avoid series of columns. You don’t want Phone1, Phone2, and Phone3 fields. Better to have a separate “phone numbers” table with a record for each phone number along with the type of phone linked through a key field. A relational table like this is much more flexible, efficient, maintainable, and expandable.
  6. Don’t stick data where it doesn’t belong. When you don’t have a column, it is tempting to just jam some values into a column where they do not really belong. For example, you have a pregnancy field that does not apply to men. So why not stick prostate indicator into this column in records for males? This is a major no no. Every value in a column should describe only one attribute.
  7. Don’t append or prepend. Always avoid appending or prepending data values to add further information. For example, adding “fax” or “mobile” after phone numbers. Instead add a separate phone type column or better yet create a separate relational table to store these values.
  8. Don’t vary record types in a given table. You can have a column that indicates whether the record is a Parent or Child, but you should not then change the meaning of subsequent fields depending on whether the record belongs to a parent or a child. If parents and children require different information, create separate tables.
  9. Never use “special” values. Never put in a reserved value like “NONE” or “1/1/1999” “to indicate some special condition. This is a very bad practice that inevitably results in errors, hair-pulling, and tooth-grinding.
  10. Give your columns clear and meaningful names. Don’t use cryptic names. If the column contains first names, simply call the column “First Name.” This makes it completely unambiguous, reduces errors in analysis, and makes reporting clear, consistent, and easy
  11.  Format your data consistently. For example, store SSN with hyphens or without as you prefer, but don’t mix these. With hyphens is preferable since it is best to store data so that it does not require formatting upon reporting.
  12. Use Null and Empty values correctly. -Assuming your data storage system supports these, use them correctly. Null means that value was never entered. Empty means it was entered, and it was explicitly entered as empty.
  13. Allow Null and Empty responses on your forms. Forcing users to put in an answer they don’t know yet just to save the form only opens the door to garbage data. If you force an answer too early, you may be forcing the user to make something up just to move on, and later there is no way to spot this as “fake” data. Better to wait until the last possible point prior to finalization before verifying that all data entry is complete.
  14. Don’t allow bad values to be entered. Provide dropdown or selection lists wherever possible rather than text data entry. Text (freeform) data values are usually garbage data values that are very problematic to search, analyze, and report.
  15. Don’t duplicate any information. No information should be repeated in rows. For example, you should have one parent table with customers and another child table with orders records for each customer. You should not have one “flat” table which repeats the same customer information on every order record for that customer. This is one key difference between simple “flat table” data storage and a normalized relational database.
  16. Break the rules when needed. The only thing worse than not following these rules is mindlessly following them. Break these rules only when it makes good sense to break them. You can’t make that assessment if you do not understand them, and the reasons for them, intimately.
  17. Think long-term. Don’t assume you’ll never need your data again or that you will be the only one to ever look at it. You may know how you violated these rules, but others might need to understand this data in the future and they will not. Following these rules will ensure that this valuable data you collected is not wasted just because you could not anticipate how they might be used in the future.

Some of these rules simply cannot be achieved using a single (denormalized) table like you typically create with Excel. They require multiple tables following a normalized design structure of parent and child tables.

If you don’t see any way you can avoid breaking these rules, then your data storage requirements probably exceed the limitations of a simple table. If that is the case, the fact that you cannot implement these rules should alert you that you need to consult a data management professional to produce an efficient relational database schema using SQL Server or some other professional database.

Scientific Models

I recently attended a book club discussion on The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (see here).  In it, Blackmore puts forth a thesis of “memetic evolution” to describe how our minds work. In fact, her assertion is that our minds can only be understood in terms of memetic selection. Although that seems to be a wildly exaggerated claim, the scientific model she proposes is both stimulating and promising.

But memetic evolution is not the topic of this article. I only cite it as one example of the kind of topic that  many non-scientists and even some scientists have great difficulty discussing fairly. Often in discussing such topics, a great many unfounded criticisms are lodged, and these quite often flow from an inadequate understanding and appreciation of scientific models.

This is understandable. Unless you are a trained, experienced, and particularly thoughtful scientist, you probably have had inadequate background to fully appreciate the concept of a scientific model. In fact, if you look up the word model in most dictionaries, the scientific usage of the term is typically not even mentioned. No wonder many people have a very limited if not completely mistaken appreciation of what a scientific model is. A scientific model is not analogous to a plastic model kit that is intended to look just like the real race car in every detail. It is not at all like a fashion model, intended to present something in an attractive manner. Nor is it like an aspirational model to be put forth as a goal to emulate and strive toward.

No, a scientific model is a working system that does not need to actually “look like” the real system it describes in any conventional way. The important characteristic of a scientific model is that it behave like the real system it describes. How accurately a scientific model reflects the real system it models is measured by how well it explains observed behaviors of the real system and is able to predict future behaviors of the real system.

For example, in 1913 Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr put forth the atomic model of matter that we are all familiar with – a nucleus of protons and neutrons orbited by electrons. This was a highly successful model because it described a huge number of observed characteristics and behaviors of matter, allowed us to gain great understanding of matter, and most importantly allowed us to predict as yet unobserved traits of matter.

But in truth the Bohr model is a laughably simplistic stick-figure representation of matter. It describes certain behaviors adequately but completely fails to describe others. It was quickly extended by De Broglie, by Schrödinger, and innumerable others to include wave and then quantum characteristics.

Despite its almost laughable simplicity and innumerable refinements and extensions made over the last century, the Bohr model remains one of the most important and consequential scientific models of all time. If the Bohr model was presented in many book discussion groups today, it would be criticized, dismissed, and even mocked as having no value.

Certainly we can and should recognize and discuss the limitations of models. But we must not dismiss them out of a mistaken lack of appreciation of the limitations of scientific models. Often these misguided criticisms have the more widespread effect of unfairly discrediting all science. Following are some examples of the kinds of criticisms that are valid and some that are invalid.

  1. We must first recognize when we are talking about a new idea like memetic evolution, that we are talking about a scientific model.
  2. A scientific model does not need to answer everything. We must recognize the limitations of every model, but the more important focus is on how useful it is within its applicable limits. Newton’s Laws do not describe relativistic motion, but in our everyday world Newtonian physics is still fantastically useful. Critics of science should not claim that a model – or science in general – is fundamentally flawed or unreliable because a particular model is not universal.
  3. Many critics of science think they have scored points by pointing out that “you can’t trust science because their models are always being replaced!” But models are hardly ever replaced, rather they are extended. The Bohr model was greatly extended, but the basic model is still perfectly valid within its range of applicability.
  4. The fact that there are many different models of the same thing is not proof that “science contradicts itself and cannot make up its mind.” We famously have the two major models of light- the wave model and particle model. The wave model correctly predicts some behaviors and the particle model correctly predicts others. Though they appear irreconcilably different, both are absolutely valid. Real light is not exactly like either model but is exactly like both models. Think of your mother. She has a mother-model that describes her behavior as a mother. But she also has a wife-model, a career-model, a daughter-model, a skeletal-model, and many others. None of these in themselves completely describes your mother, and many may seem irreconcilably different, but all of them correctly model a different set of behaviors in different situations and only collectively do they all communicate a more complete picture of your mother.

So, when discussing something like memetic evolution, it is proper and correct to ascertain its boundaries and to critique how well it describes and predicts observed behaviors within those boundaries. But it is wrong and counter-productive to dismiss it either because there exist other models or because it does not – yet – describe everything. And worst is to dismiss all of science as flawed because it puts forth multiple models of reality and extends them over time.

To describe and predict human thinking, Skinner put forth a stimulus-response model, Blackmore puts for forth a meme-model, and I often focus on a pattern-recognition model. These are not in competition. One is not right and the others all necessarily wrong. The fact that there are these three and many other models of human thinking does not reflect any fundamental weakness of science, but rather its strength.

It us unfortunate that far too few people have a sufficiently deep appreciation and level of comfort with scientific models. We must do much better to understand and communicate these subtleties that are so fundamental and critical to science.

 

Music Appreciation

PatI’m flying to Vegas this weekend to catch “Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo: A Very Intimate Acoustic Evening.” I have been a fan of theirs since the 70’s and am thrilled to get to see them once again. Unlike so many other older artists who simply run on autopilot, Pat and Neil have just gotten better and better with age, reinventing themselves in fresh ways while still remaining unapologetically true to their rock hard roots. No longer having megastar status has actually freed them to be truly great. Rather than being carefully manicured by the contrived glitz of big concert venues, they truly shine in intimate settings where they can stroll out on stage and warmly greet the audience wearing sweat pants and holding Styrofoam mugs of coffee.

My upcoming concert trip inspired me to upgrade my music system. I used to have an admittedly insane $50K worth of audiophile equipment, but like many others I have gradually traded away all that great equipment for the convenience and unlimited access of the digital age. I know that many people are perfectly happy with their crappy ear buds (see here), and are convinced that high-end audio is just pretentious nonsense, like people who insist that a $1000 bottle of wine really is worth every penny. But whether you can hear it or not, to people who can and do appreciate fine audio, you get what you pay for.

While for a long time the very alluring benefits of digital libraries and streaming access have forced us to compromise on quality, the industry has made huge strides. The good news is that today most of us can now get really, really good quality for a very affordable price. You no longer have to invest $20K and dedicate a room to get very good audio that rates at least a B+.

But as a consequence, concessions to digital convenience has pushed the dream of an A+ quality experience even further out of reach. For a while, I feared that truly exquisite high end audio had been essentially killed by digital. But I am pleased that the industry is not remaining satisfied with mass market B+ audio. Streaming services have invested heavily in delivering high quality source material, and the traditional audiophile industry is catching up to provide new digital-friendly equipment that can take those who care enough to the heights of sonic rapture.

Yesterday I visited a local high end audio store here in Tacoma called Advanced Audio (see here). I have to say that the staff there were incredibly warm and friendly, not at all the cliché snooty types that all too often manage these stores. I picked up a Sonos Playbar for my television (see here). The audio is very nice for both music and movies. Certainly not audiophile quality, but excellent for the money with amazing ease of connectivity to all my digital equipment.

Victor, the owner of Advanced Audio, took me into a listening room to show off his combination of Sonos Connect, Auralic Altair, Macintosh MC275 tube amplifier, and small-format Focal Sopra N1 speakers. He let me listen to “Papa’s Roses” by Pat Benatar on the system. I’ve used this track as my reference piece for many years, along with a few others like “Big Love – Live” by Lindsey Buckingham. I know from experience that these songs simply get better and better as your equipment gets better.

I’ve auditioned Papa’s Roses on the best of the best and thought I knew how gorgeous it could be, but I was still blown away this time. I had never heard it reproduced this beautifully. It was like a heavenly orchestra of angels. The song was rendered with such exquisite detail as to bring tears to ones eyes.

I was particularly blown away because the source was streaming digital! It is very gratifying that the high end audio industry not gone the way of vinyl records. Instead, it has met the challenge to bring stunning quality to the digital world of music. Now it is true that if you want to experience this acoustic nirvana, you will have to fork out around $25K. But while out of reach for many, it is still good to know that it is out there waiting for you and yielding technical breakthroughs that will improve everything downstream.

If you decide to audition a high end system, I can offer some practical advise. While an expert like Victor can talk your head off with acoustic science and engineering, here are 10 simple guidelines to help you pick out the best system for you:

  1. Don’t be swayed by specs. They don’t matter in the final analysis. The only thing that matters is the listening test.
  2. Don’t be fooled by complexity. The best speakers I’ve ever found have been simple two-way speakers, not gimmicky contraptions with 38 emitters designed to wow the unsophisticated buyer.
  3. Bring your own source material that you know very well.
  4. Some systems only sound good with particular types of music. Unless you only care about a particular music type, audition a representative range of genres.
  5. Some systems only sound good with sufficiently high quality sources. This greatly limits what you can enjoy. If I cannot still enjoy my beloved but crappy-quality Nina Hagen recordings on a system, I don’t want it.
  6. If the salesperson won’t let you play your own source material, walk away. He or she is trying to cherry pick only that particular music that flatters the system and avoid music that exposes its flaws.
  7. Don’t be wowed by heavy bass. I don’t want a system that sounds like a woofer array in the trunk of a ’79 caddie.
  8. Look for natural balance, dispersion, and clarity that flatters all parts of the music. Every instrument should stand out clear as the clearest bell. You should hear fingers sliding on the frets, breath on the reeds, and the subtle reverberations of an actor speaking in a hallway.
  9. Test it at all volumes. A great system should sound full and satisfying at low volumes. It should also still sound great – and not tire you out – at 100+ decibels.
  10. Don’t be rushed. The only test that really matters is what I call the “can I walk away” test. Many systems will knock your socks off for a few minutes, then leave you fatigued and ready to enjoy some silence. A great system leaves you wanting ever more and more and more. You desperately want to play everything you own. You could listen for hours and not get tired of it. If you cannot stop listening, you’ve found the right system for you.

Claiming that the experience of true audiophile quality music enjoyment is just made up, is like claiming that watching Star Wars on your television is just as good as experiencing it at an extreme digital big screen 3D movie theater. Great music can only be fully appreciated with great music systems. And I am overjoyed that digital and audio technologies are today converging and synergizing to make that experience accessible to more and more people.

 

Our Northern Flicker

My wife and I recently moved from Manhattan to Tacoma Washington. Although we still love NYC, we were ready for a change from the endless scaffolding and continual roadwork that seems unending and incessant in lower Manhattan. We were frankly tired of being woken up by jackhammers echoing through the skyscraper canyons (in lower Manhattan they literally tear up the streets and pave them over only so they can rip them up again the very next day). We were ready for the peace and serenity of the Puget Sound.

Imagine our Deja Vu shock to be virtually bounced out of bed in the morning by a noise somewhere between a jackhammer and an over-revved race car between 6 and 8 am in the morning. It seemed to come from the general area of the chimney, but it reverberated throughout the house. After exhausting every possibility inside, I went outside to spot a paunchy little bird perched on our chimney, industriously drumming away with his beak on our metal chimney cover at like 10,000 ppm (pecks per minute). He was essentially the little transducer at the base of a huge sound resonator.

northern-flickerIt turns out that he or she is a Northern Flicker and they are well-known to north westerners because they are regionally infamous little drummers. Of course no one can say with certainty why they do this but we can speculate. They are peckers by nature. They peck out hollows for homes with their beaks, they peck to find food, and they peck produce a unique sound that attract mates or communicate with them. Hey, they have a very efficient and powerful little hammer, and when that is all you have…

Some people assume that the bird is just mindlessly pecking on metal because they are too stupid to realize that it is metal. I don’t subscribe to such dismissive and diminutive assumptions regarding animal behavior. This kind of view often arises from a false notion of human exceptionalism that is endemic to religious thinking.

Instead of only taking pride and self-satisfaction in how unique and special we are, I also take great pride and satisfaction in appreciating how alike we are with our animal cousins. Rather than feel diminished by comparisons to animals, by ascribing human-like motivations and capabilities to them, such comparisons give me a deep sense of continuity and familial community with all of nature. Furthermore, we can better learn more about ourselves if we are more open to recognizing our own simplified and less complicated behaviors and motivations in other species.

Therefore, when it comes to our Northern Flicker friend, I think that, like us, he drums for many reasons. Drumming is what he does, he’s really good at it, he takes pride in it, and he enjoys it so it does it just for fun. He probably really, really likes the huge megaphone that our chimney cover offers, and likes to be the loudest Flicker in the neighborhood.

This is not to suggest that our Flicker’s emotions and behaviors and intellect are on a par with ours, but they are simpler versions of our human versions in the same way that his little bird legs gave rise to our human legs and his littler eyes are earlier versions to our human eyes. Their behaviors do not merely “appear” human, they are exactly what evolved into our more complex feelings and emotions. Just as we aren’t the only animals to have some form of brain, we aren’t the only animals to have some level of emotions and intellect and feelings. To dismiss these deep and direct similarities out of some religious sense of separateness is, to me, a highly sad and lonely pedestal on which to place ourselves. You may choose to DEFINE emotions as things only humans have, to DEFINE intellect as intellect only when it reaches human capabilities, but that does not negate the real presence of highly developed precursors in animals.

And just as the drumming of our little Flicker resonates and echoes and touches others in ways he cannot imagine, so too do our more complex behaviors reverberate our to touch others in tangible and deeply personal ways that we cannot imagine. If I were to make it impossible for our little drummer to peck on our chimney cap in some way, he or she might very well start to peck on the wood of our home and that would be much worse for us.

So, my new Flicker friend, you go on drumming on our chimney cap. I grok you and it enriches my life to listen in on your early morning broadcasts. I can identify with your joys and compulsions and frustrations and yearnings for a mate. I hope that later this spring, when your drumming stops, it will mean that our chimney cap has helped you find a mate who will give you other things to do with that spectacular beak of yours!

Anecdotal Evidence Shows

The titular phrase “anecdotal evidence shows that…” is very familiar to us – with good reason. Not only is it very commonly used, but it is subject to a great deal of misuse. It generally makes an assertion that something is probably true because there is some observed evidence to support it. While that evidence does not rise to the level of proof, it does at least create some factual basis for wishful thinking.

Anecdotal evidence is important. It is often the only evidence we can obtain. In many areas, scientists cannot practically conduct a formal study, or it would be ethically wrong to do so. It may simply be an area of study that no one is willing to fund. Therefore, even scientists often have no alternative but to base conclusions upon the best anecdotal data they have.

Anecdotal evidence is essential to making everyday decisions as well. We don’t normally conduct formal studies to see if our friend Julie is a thief. But if ear rings disappear each time she visits, we have enough anecdotal evidence to at least watch her closely. Likewise, even court proceedings must often rely upon anecdotal evidence, which is slightly different than circumstantial evidence.

Knowing when anecdotal evidence is telling, when it is simply a rationalization for wishful thinking, and when it is the basis for an outright con job is not always easy. The fact that sometimes all we have to work with is anecdotal evidence makes it all that much more dangerous and subject to misuse and abuse.

All too often, anecdotal evidence is simply poor evidence. I once presented anecdotal evidence of ghosts by relating a harrowing close encounter that I had. The thing was, I totally made it up (see here). People don’t always intentionally lie when they share an anecdote, but those people who in good faith repeated my story to others were nevertheless sharing bad anecdotal information.

Testimonials are a form of anecdotal claim. Back in the 1800’s a Snake Oil Salesman would trot out an accomplice to support his claims of a miracle cure. Today we see everyone from television preachers to herbal medicine companies use the same technique of providing anecdotal evidence through testimonials. Most of these claims are no more legitimate than my ghost story.

We also see anecdote by testimony performed almost daily in political theatre. The President points to the crowd to identify a person who has benefitted greatly from his policies. In Congressional hearings, supposedly wronged parties are trotted out to give testimony about how badly they were harmed by the actions of the targeted party. Both of these individuals are put forth as typical examples yet they may be exceedingly unusual.

So here’s the situation. We need anecdotal evidence as it is often all we have to work with to make important decisions that must be made. However, basing decisions on anecdotal information is also fraught with risk and uncertainty. How do we make the wisest use of the anecdotal information that we must rely upon?

First, consider the source and the motive of the anecdote. If the motive is to try to persuade you to do something, to support something, to accept something, or to part with your cash, be particularly suspect of anecdotal claims or testimonials. One great example are the Deal Dash commercials. You hear a woman claim that she “won” a large screen television for only $49. Sounds great, until you realize that the anecdote doesn’t tell how many bids she purchased to get it for $49, how much she wasted on other failed auctions, and how much was spent in total by the hundreds of people bidding on that item. Anecdotal evidence are not always an outright lies, but they can still tell huge lies by omission and by cherry-picking.

Second, consider the plausibility of the anecdote. If the anecdote claims to prove that ghosts exist, someone made it up. Likewise with god or miracles or angels or Big Foot. Just because someone reports something incredible, no matter how credible that person may be, demand credible evidence. As Carl Sagan pointed out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Third, consider the scope of the anecdotal claim. Does it make sweeping generalizations or is it very limited in scope? If the claim is that all Mexicans are rapists because one Mexican was arrested for rape, we end up with a Fallacy of Extrapolation which is often the result of the misuse of anecdotal information.

Finally, consider the cost/benefit of the response to the anecdotal claim. If the anecdote is that eating yoghurt cured Sam’s cancer, then maybe it’s reasonable to eat more yoghurt. But if the anecdote is that Ed cured his cancer by ceasing all treatments, then perhaps that should be considered a far more risky anecdote to act upon.

Anecdotal information is essential. Many diseases such as AIDS have been uncovered by paying attention to one “anecdotal” case report. In fact, many of the important breakthroughs in science have only been possible because a keen-eyed scientist followed up on what everyone else dismissed as merely anecdotal or anomalous data.

Anecdotes are best used to simply make the claim that something may be possible, but without any claims as to how likely it is. For example, it may be that a second blow to the head has seemed to cure amnesia. However, this cannot be studied clinically and it is not likely to occur often enough to recommend it as a treatment. Still, sometimes it is extremely important to know that something has been thought to happen, no matter how uncertain and infrequent. If a severe blow to the head MAY have cured amnesia at least once, this can help to inform further research into it.

Don’t start feeling overwhelmed. We don’t actually need to stop and consciously analyze every anecdote in detail. Our subconscious pattern-recognition machines are quite capable of performing these fuzzy assessments for us. We only need to be sure to consciously internalize these general program parameters into our pattern recognition machines so that they produce sound conclusions when presented with claims that “anecdotal evidence shows.”