“It’s a fact”–what we can learn from Mona Lisa Vito

I have been a fan of “My Cousin Vinny” for yearsmycousin and I must admit to guilty pleasure watching it for the umpteenth time when it does its semi-annual rounds on late night TV. Reading a couple of blog posts recently, I was reminded of my favourite scene where the antagonistic Ms. Vito, acting as an expert in general automotive knowledge,  wins the day by looking at photograph and turns the whole case for the defense…

Vinny Gambini: How could you be so sure?
Mona Lisa Vito: Because there is no way that these tire marks were made by a 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. These marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: [to Lisa] This is your opinion, or is it a fact?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact!

The full scene is at the bottom of this post….

The first post was from boingboing about the use of experts in understanding the Japanese nuclear event at Fukushima. The point made by the article was that an expert in one field is not an expert in another. In particular, while an expert in risk management can provide valuable insight on a problem of this magnitude to understand what is going on, you really should ask a nuclear scientist.

It has become a pet peeve of mine that we (the media) treat people as experts without ever considering, do they have any expertise in the subject at hand. I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin, when she was thrust in the limelight by John McCain and she was supposed to have all the foreign policy answers. An expert in public speaking does not equal an expert in the constitution, foreign policy or community service.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. This is where the second blog post comes in. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian had an article titled A case of never letting the source spoil a good story where he details various examples of journalists getting it all wrong where a check of the source material would have saved a lot of erroneous ink and spreading of falsehoods. I think his conclusion is right on

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

So the moral of the story is, if the article or blog post that  you are reading has no links to primary sources – then it is just opinion not fact.

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What I really want for Christmas

When my son was growing up, he loved building things withLego Taj Mahal Legos, a habit I also acquired (when I was allowed to help). A couple of years ago, I finished my first big Lego project the “Taj Mahal” – all 5900 plus pieces (took me 6 weeks), it was so much fun and I will never take it apart.

Then today, I came across the following Lego masterpiece (with thanks to the Register). This may well be the best thing by an Apple engineer this year (sorry iPhone 4 and iPad)  This is truly impressive, and as the person in the video states. “Pretty impressive for a bunch of plastic blocks”. I would love to see this as a kit.

For more information on the Antikythera Mechanism go here.

The Scientist “Star” system

Saw a very good piece on 60 minutes last Sunday on Dr. Bob Ballard, underwater explorer, best known for his discovery of the Titanic.

If you want to read as opposed to watch, the transcripts are here (part 1 and part 2). The piece is worth watching in its entirety but a couple of things really caught my eye.

  1. While he is best known for finding the Titanic, Dr. Ballard regards his greatest triumph as the discovery of giant tube worms at 8,000 feet underwater that thrive in total darkness on hydrogen sulfide.
  2. and to the point of this entry – he was very articulate in describing the ‘star’ system in science.He also acknowledged it doesn’t hurt to be known as the guy who found the Titanic, but he said that comes with baggage. “Science is a ‘we,’ not an ‘I.’ It truly is. I didn’t do anything. We did a lot of things. But in our system, in America, we have this star-based system. Star athletes, star news people, star politicians. And stars are ‘I.’ And the academic world is really, honestly a ‘we.’”

The success of folks like Dr. Ballard , Richard Dawkins, Steve Jobs or Barak Obama is based on the endeavors of many. While acknowledging that they didn’t accomplish everything alone (or as Isaac Newton said 400 years ago – “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”) we tend to focus on one person as the smartest guy/gal in the room and totally ignore everyone else.

One wonders in this age of instant collaboration including social networks with their promise of the wisdom of the crowds what will happen to tomorrow’s stars – will they be original thinkers or the best at harnessing the thoughts of others? Who knows?