# What’s Wrong with this Sting Operation?

To the extent that academic peer review is good for anything, it is optimized to catch honest mistakes. It is weaker against deliberate fraud and stubborn denial. Science has a presumption of fair play, a sense that the natural world isn’t a cheater. If you want to explain how a “psychic” operates, you’re better off asking a magician than a physicist.

Nearly two decades ago now, there was a dust-up when a couple French TV personalities got a clutch of physics and mathematics papers published, and even received PhD’s, and their “work” turned out to be nonsense. (The Wikipedia article on l’affaire Bogdanov is currently not terrible, and it contains more pointers to details than almost anyone could honestly desire.) The news stories about the incident really played up the “even the physicists can’t tell if the papers are nonsense or not” angle. That rather oversells the case, though. I read the Bogdanovs’ “Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime” when I was a first-year grad student, and I could see through it. If you know what a Lagrangian is, and the fog doesn’t intimidate you, then you can tell something is wrong. If you don’t know what a Lagrangian is, you’re probably not reading theoretical physics papers yet.

So, what went wrong?
Continue reading What’s Wrong with this Sting Operation?

# A Peculiar, Recurring Challenge

Not infrequently, crackpot physics papers attain a level of wrongness where trying to point to specific mistakes is useless, and a critique of the specifics collapses down to “just take a physics class” — true, but unhelpful to the curious bystander. The physicist, trying to say anything substantive, ends up picking out psychological “tells”, like the suspiciously convenient mention of too many famous big problems all in a row. There are no solid particulars of physics to discuss, so we end up talking psychology and sociology. I find the psychological questions that arise quite fascinating. Why, for example, is the population of pseudophysics perpetrators so heavily skewed to the male? But, in general, it is difficult to take physics and mathematics crankery and find interesting comments to say about it. All these years later, and the circle still refuses to square.

I’m reminded of self-proclaimed mega-genius Christopher Langan, whose “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe” mixed incoherence, impenetrability and arrogance. As one of my fellow science bloggers put it back in the day:

I have no idea what he means by “replacing set-theoretic objects with syntactic operators” – but I do know that what he wrote makes no sense – it’s sort of like saying “I’m going to fix the sink in my bathroom by replacing the leaky washer with the color blue”, or “I’m going to fly to the moon by correctly spelling my left leg.”

My personal favorite might be the parenthetical clarification, “conspansion consists of two alternative phases accounting for the wave and particle properties of matter and affording a logical explanation for accelerating cosmic expansion”. Words words words words, words words!

A kind of “security by obscurity” sometimes operates in cases like these, where the total lack of solid material to criticize leads to indifference and silence from established scientists. This “why bother?” response then becomes fodder for the pseudophysicist to claim that the academy is too stuffy to understand his work, or even actively censoring it. The truth is less dramatic, though not without its own interest to old-fashioned students of human nature.

# Giving “Natural Theology” and “intelligent Design” the Respect They Deserve

“Imagine you’re in a desert and you find a pocketwatch.”

“Hey, free pocketwatch!”

“Um, no. You—”

“Oh, right, I know this one. I flip the pocketwatch over so its belly is not baking in the hot sun.”

# A Good Old-School Skeptic Rant

Today’s discovery:

The online store of Marie “does it spark joy” Kondo is the new SkyMall catalogue.

The $60 “French Market” totebag looks flammable, so if you do strike sparks, you might have to douse the flames with water from the Balance Gem Water Bottle ($98).

And $156 for a “small cheese knife”? That, my friends, is going beyond SkyMall. We can’t stop here — this is Williams-Sonoma country. And, of course, there’s the section of the shop devoted to — ting ting! — crystals. A tuning fork and a lump of rose quartz,$75 if you please.

Goddamn pseudoscientific “healing energy” crap for wine moms. Not only does it leech the respectability of science, but by aiming for that suburban market, it loses any chance of emotional depth. Nobody actually feels meaning or satisfaction from a SkyMall chakra stone, because of course they don’t. It just sits there. It does a worse job of just sitting there than a potted plant. The best you can do is try to convince yourself otherwise so you don’t admit you blew $75 feeding an exploitative industry that you could have spent paying off schoolchildren’s lunch debt or helping someone make the rent. As long as you’re trading in bunkum, why not up your game and sell something with real weight and history to it? You want some serious Goop? How about a kit for performing some fucking divination by entrails. Can’t find Mr. Right? Learn the secrets of the heart by going through the liver. # New Paper Dance (-ing With Myself) B. C. Stacey, “Misreading EPR: Variations on an Incorrect Theme” [arXiv:1809.01751]. Notwithstanding its great influence in modern physics, the EPR thought-experiment has been explained incorrectly a surprising number of times. 22 pages; an unknown number of bridges burned. # Two Recent Items Concerning Wikipedia A few years ago, I found a sentence in a Wikipedia page that irritated me so much, I wrote a 25-page article about it. Eventually, I got that article published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. On account of all this, friends and colleagues sometimes send me news about Wikipedia, or point me to strange things they’ve found there. A couple such items have recently led me to Have Thoughts, which I share below. This op-ed on the incomprehensibility of Wikipedia science articles puts a finger on a real problem, but its attempt at explanation assumes malice rather than incompetence. Yes, Virginia, the science and mathematics articles are often baffling and opaque. The Vice essay argues that the writers of Wikipedia’s science articles use the incomprehensibility of their prose as a shield to keep out the riffraff and maintain the “elite” status of their subject. I don’t buy it. In my opinion, this hypothesis does not account for the intrinsic difficulty of explaining science, nor for the incentive structures at work. Wikipedia pages grow by bricolage, small pieces of cruft accumulating over time. “Oh, this thing says [citation needed]. I’ll go find a citation to fill it in, while my coffee is brewing.” This is not conducive to clean pedagogy, or to a smooth transition from general-audience to specialist interest. Have no doubt that a great many scientists are terrible at communication, but we can also imagine a world in which Wikipedia would attract the scientists that actually are good at communication. There’s communication, and then there’s communication. (We scientists usually get formal training in neither.) I know quite a few scientists who are good at outreach. They work hard at it, because they believe it matters and they know that’s what it takes. Almost none of them have ever mentioned editing Wikipedia (even the one who used his science blog in his tenure portfolio). Thanks to the pressures of academia, the calculation always favors a mode of outreach where it’s easier to point to what you did, so you can get appropriate credit for it. Thus, there might be a momentary impulse to make small-scale improvements, but there’s almost no incentive to effect changes that are structured on a larger scale — paragraphs, sections, organization among articles. This is a good incentive system for filling articles with technical minutiae, like jelly babies into a bag, but it’s not a way to plan a curriculum. The piece in Vice says of a certain physics article, I have no idea who the article exists for because I’m not sure that person actually exists: someone with enough knowledge to comprehend dense physics formulations that doesn’t also already understand the electroweak interaction or that doesn’t already have, like, access to a textbook about it. You’d be surprised. It’s fairly common to remember the broad strokes of a subject but need a reference for the fiddly little details. Writers don’t just dip in, produce some Wikipedia copy, and bounce. I’m pretty sure this is … actually not borne out by the data? Like, many contributors just add little bits when they are strongly motivated, while the smaller active core of persistent editors clean up the content, get involved in article-improvement drives, wrangle behind the scenes, etc. [EDIT TO ADD (24 November): To say it another way, both the distribution of edits per article and edits per editor are “fat tailed, which implies that even editors and articles with small numbers of edits should not be neglected.” Furthermore, most edits do not change an article’s length, or change it by only a small amount. The seeming tendency for “fewer editors gaining an ever more dominant role” is a real concern, but I doubt the opacity of technical articles is itself a tool of oligarchy. Indeed, I suspect that other factors contribute to the “core editor” group becoming more insular, one being the ease with which policies originally devised for good reasons can be weaponized.] If you want “elitism,” you shouldn’t look in the technical prose on the project’s front end. Instead, you should go into the backroom. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s very easy to run afoul of an editor who wants to lord over their tiny domain, and who will sling around policies and abbreviations and local jargon to get their way. Any transgression, or perceived transgression, is an excuse to revert. Just take a look at “WP:PROF” — the “notability guideline” for evaluating whether a scholar merits a Wikipedia page. It’s almost 3500 words, laying out criteria and then expounding upon their curlicues. And if you create an article and someone else decides it should be deleted, you had better be familiar with the Guide to deletion (roughly 6700 words), which overlaps with the Deletion process documentation (another 4700 words). More than enough regulations for anyone to petulantly sling around until they get their way! And on the subject of deletion, over on Mastodon the other day I got into a chat about the story of Günter Bechly, a paleontologist who went creationist and whose Wikipedia page was recently toasted. The incident was described by Haaretz thusly: If Bechly’s article was originally introduced due to his scientific work, it was deleted due to his having become a poster child for the creationist movement. I strongly suspect that it would have been deleted if it had been brought to anyone’s attention for any other reason, even if Bechly hadn’t gone creationist. His scientific work just doesn’t add up to what Wikipedia considers “notability,” the standard codified by the WP:PROF rulebook mentioned above. Nor were there adequate sources to write about his career in Wikipedia’s regulation flat, footnoted way. The project is clearly willing to have articles on creationists, if the claims in them can be sourced to their standards of propriety: Just look at their category of creationists! Bechly’s problem was that he was only mentioned in passing or written up in niche sources that were deemed unreliable. If you poke around that deletion discussion for Bechly’s page, you’ll find it links to a rolling list of such discussions for “Academics and educators,” many of whom seem to be using Wikipedia as a LinkedIn substitute. It’s a mundane occurrence for the project. And another thing about the Haaretz article. It mentions sockpuppets arriving to speak up in support of keeping Bechly’s page: These one-time editors’ lack of experience became clear when they began voting in favor of keeping the article on Wikipedia – a practice not employed in the English version of Wikipedia since 2016, when editors voted to exchange the way articles are deleted for a process of consensus-based decision through discussion. Uh, that’s been the rule since 2005 at least. Not the most impressive example of Journalisming. # Bogho-A-Lago The big scandal this weekend: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay pulled a hoax on a social-science journal by getting a deliberately nonsensical paper published there, and then crowed that this demonstrates the field of gender studies to be “crippled academically.” However, when people with a measure of sense examined B&L’s stunt, they found it to be instead evidence that you can get any crap published if you lower your standards far enough, particularly if you’re willing to pay for the privilege and you find a journal whose raison d’être is to rip people off. Indeed, B&L’s paper (“The conceptual penis as a social construct”) was rejected from the first journal they sent it to, and it got bounced down the line to a new and essentially obscure venue of dubious ethical standing. Specifically, I can’t find anybody who had even heard of Cogent Social Sciences apart from spam emails inviting them to publish there. This kind of bottom-feeding practice has proliferated in the years since Open Access publishing became a thing, to unclear effect. It hasn’t seemed in practice to tarnish the reputation of serious Open Access journals (the PLOS family, Scientific Reports, Physical Review X, Discrete Analysis, etc.). Arguably, once the infrastructure of the Web existed, some variety of pay-to-publish scam was inevitable, since there will always be academics angling for the appearance of success—as long as there are tenure committees. Boghossian and Lindsay made the triumphant announcement of their hoax in Skeptic, a magazine edited by Michael Shermer. And if you think that I’ll use this as an occasion to voice my grievances at Capital-S Skepticism being a garbage fire of a movement, you’re absolutely correct. I agree with the thesis of Ketan Joshi here: The article in Skeptic Magazine highlights how regularly people will vastly lower their standards of skepticism and rationality if a piece of information is seen as confirmation of a pre-existing belief – in this instance, the belief that gender studies is fatally compromised by seething man-hate. The standard machinery of rationality would have triggered a moment of doubt – ‘perhaps we’ve not put in enough work to separate the signal from the noise’, or ‘perhaps we need to tease apart the factors more carefully’. That slow, deliberative mechanism of self-assessment is non-existent in the authorship and sharing of this piece. It seems quite likely that this is due largely to a pre-existing hostility towards gender studies, ‘identity politics’ and the general focus of contemporary progressive America. Boghossian and Lindsay see themselves as the second coming of Alan Sokal, who successfully fooled Social Text into publishing a parody of postmodern theory-babble back in 1999. But after the fact, Sokal said the publication of his hoax itself didn’t prove much at all, just that a few people happened to be asleep at the wheel. (His words: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced.”) Then he wrote two books of footnotes and caveats to show that he had lampooned some views he himself held in more moderate form. Meanwhile, Steven Pinker—who happily boosted the B&L hoax to his 310,000 Twitter followers—strips all the technical content out of physics, mixes the jargon up with trite and folksy “wisdom,” and uses the result to support pompous bloviation. … Which, funny story, is one of the main things that Alan Sokal was criticizing. I gotta quote this part of B&L’s boast: Continue reading Bogho-A-Lago # Reaction GIFs are Useful It’s pretty darn remarkable, really. Every time—every! smegging! time!—that Steven Pinker opens his yap and opines on something I know about, he comes across as a transparent buffoon. The topic could be modern research on evolutionary dynamics, or it could be fanfiction. Today, thanks to his participation in the annual Edge essay shindig, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pinker’s essay is of the kind that starts semi-competently before going off the rails. He takes a valid and important scientific principle, oversimplifies painfully, discards all the actual content and ends up with a vacuous statement that shades into ethical irresponsibility. Continue reading Reaction GIFs are Useful # Fair Storytelling versus Young-Earth Creationism An interesting essay from last month, by Fred Clark: “Phlebotinum, young-Earth creationism and the willing suspension of disbelief” (20 October 2014). I think this analogy has something to it, but there’s also a point of contrast. A well-written phlebotinium story establishes the limitations of its fictitious technology, the rules by which it operates. Neither deflector shields nor transporters exist outside the story, but it’s well known that you can’t beam through the shields. Warp speed can only get you to the next star system so quickly. Go too fast for too long—warp 9.9 for more than seven minutes, let’s say—and your ship will break, and you will go no farther into space today. By contrast, creationism flips from one standard to another, rewriting its own rules whenever convenient (or, rather, whenever it’s necessary to avoid an incovenience). Molecular biology is fine as long as it’s making pretty pictures of things “too complicated to evolve by chance!!!”, but as soon as it provides an explanation, out the door it goes. “Academic freedom” is the creationist rallying cry, as long as it’s creationists who are being cruelly un-freedom-ized (perhaps by the hateful demand that they actually get some science done). # Night Thoughts Few debunkings of haunted houses, psychic media and so forth and so on rely exclusively, or even primarily, on what we’d call fundamental physics. It is not that the psychic operates in some way which requires a magnetic monopole; it is that the ability of people to do cold reading, plus our tendencies to remember hits and forget misses, plus other aspects of human behaviour, provide an alternative explanation which accounts for our experiences and gives us practical guidance for our future actions. Continue reading Night Thoughts # Verily, Who Would Have Thunk? Zack Kopplin describes an example of crackpot-idea synergy in a recent Slate piece about how “Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism.” Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state. Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than$82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Along with the usual evolution-denialist drivel, those taxpayer funds are buying a threat to public health:

The only study linking vaccines to autism was exposed as a fraud and has been retracted, and the relationship has been studied exhaustively and found to be nonexistent. But a Responsive Ed workbook teaches, “We do not know for sure whether vaccines increase a child’s chance of getting autism, but we can conclude that more research needs to be done.”

Anti-vax lunacy from the religious right? Who would have thunk it?

Well, other than people who have looked at the data, that is.

# Reflections

Prompted by this review of Colin McGinn’s Basic Structures of Reality (2011), I read a chapter, courtesy the uni library. It was endumbening. To the extent that he ever has a point, he says in many words what others have said more clearly in few. He confuses the pedagogy of a particular introductory book with the mature understanding of a subject, displays total ignorance of deeper treatments of his chosen topic, blunders into fallacies, and generally leaves one with the impression that he has never done a calculation in all the time he spent “studying physics”. Truly an amazing achievement.

A few years ago, I might have blogged my way through the whole darn book. I must be getting old (“REALLY? NO WAY!” declares my weak knee). But is it a healthy and mature sense of priorities, or a senescent academic crustiness? Have I become one of those people, concerned with my vita to the exclusion of all else? Dark thoughts for this cold autumn evening, dark as our current season of superhero movies—Fimbulwinter 3: Flame of Despair….

# “The Business of Skepticism is to be Dangerous”

Lately, I’ve found my thoughts returning to a passage of Carl Sagan which I first read years and years ago.

The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?

That’s from The Demon-Haunted World, chapter 24, page 416. I read that book as a child. I still remember the sensation of coming-to-wakefulness which that reading brought. Since then, I’ve grown taller and greyer and just a touch more bitter. I broke my heart a couple times, got my name into the learned journals here and there, and witnessed more than a few laudatory invocations of St. Carl of Ithaca.

I should have been less surprised to learn that skeptical institutions, fancy ones with Inquiry and Education in their names, belong on that list too.

It is difficult to have patience for those who restrict their community-building to those who need it least.