You may have noticed a series of articles recently on mass animal deaths. Google has now set up a website to track these incidents. This is an interesting example of how the Internet is changing how we collect and analyze data. The normal scientific method is to develop a hypothesis, determine what data would prove or disprove the hypothesis, collect the data, and conduct an analysis of the data. Here we have the reverse - we are aggregating data and then drawing conclusions as a community from apparent linkages.
The problem is that while many people will view the aggregate data (i.e. the final map), few will dig into the background information of each occurrence to determine if there is indeed a link. Consequently, the aggregate data can be used to support a wide range of hypotheses, including conspiracy theories and alien interventions.
It's a really variation on a question that's been around for a long time: are things occurring more frequently or are we just becoming more aware of them because of improved communications? Without detailed analysis, data collection of this type may be interesting or even intriguing but ultimately is nothing more than a curiosity.
One of the terms I use a lot is the psychological term "cognitive dissonance", the situation where what we say and what we do conflict. In today's San Francisco Chronicle,columnist Johnathan Gurwitz really nails the latest in terrorism theater from TSA.
As it struggles to gain support for its "see something, say something" campaign, TSA is in the process of prosecuting an airline pilot for pointing out weaknesses in security at San Francisco airport. Interestingly enough, the security flaws the pilot points out are well known and have been commented on by security experts as far back as the airline hijackings of the 1970's. TSA continues to treat ordinary passengers as potential terrorists while ignoring ground staff that have easy access to secure areas and aircraft.
A basic security principle is defense in depth. No single security measure can ensure absolute safety, so the wise security practitioner layers a number of systems in an attempt to compensate for the flaws in each through the synergy of the whole. By focusing primarily on passengers, TSA has left gaping holes in the security of our air terminals. By punishing those that dare to point out these holes, TSA suggests its not really interested in gaining the support of the public through its "see something, say something" campaign.