Category Archives: Video


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

Because the World Needs Nightmares

You know what the Scientifick Blogohedron needs more of? Well, besides introductions to basic subjects, so that we can be more than chatterbots reacting to whatever news story incenses us the most?

Gosh, you people are demanding.

No, I’m talking about nightmare fuel!

And as only children’s television can deliver. You remember Square One TV, right? It came on PBS in the afternoons, after Reading Rainbow and before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Like every other aspect of my generation’s formative years, it can be relived via the video tubes. Our lives have already been uploaded: the Singularity came and went, and we were all too busy arguing to notice.

Looking back, Reimy the Estimator Girl was fairly cute, and the “Angle Dance” is somewhat frightening in that in-1983-this-was-the-future way, but one bit of sheer irrational terror stands out. I refer, of course, to the mask which Reg E. Cathey wears in the title role of “Archimedes”:


A mathematician and scientist
Born in 287 BC
He lived in the city of Syracuse
On the island of Sicily

He said he could move the world
If he only had a place to stand
A fulcrum and a lever long
And the strength of an average man

He solved the problems of his days
Using math in amazing ways
His great work lives on today
Continue reading Because the World Needs Nightmares

Interlude, with Cat

Want to know why I never get anything done? It’s not just because I find myself volunteered to write a one-act musical entitled Harry Crocker and the Plot of Holes. It’s also because Sean Carroll linked to a whole bunch of physics blogs, mine included, thereby obligating me to read through all their archives, and in the backblog of High Energy Mayhem I found a pointer to a talk by Krishna Rajagopal (my professor for third-term quantum — small world) on applying gauge/gravity duality to strongly coupled liquids like RHIC’s quark-gluon soups and cold fermionic atoms tuned to a Feshbach resonance. It still counts as “work” if the videos I’m watching online are about science, right? Look, if you use the “Flash presentation” option, it plays the video in one box and shows the slides in another! (Seriously, that’s a simple idea which is a very cool thing.)

Anyway, while I stuff my head with ideas I barely have the background to understand, and while I’m revising a paper so that it (superficially) meets PNAS standards, and while I try to re-learn the kinetic theory I forgot after that exam a few years back. . . Here’s a cat!

\"Extra credit\"? Professor Cat is amused.

(This one is for Zeno, and was recaptioned from here.)

In Which I Vacate

OK, if anybody out there actually understands Manhattan, maybe you can help me. Here’s the situation: you’re at the American Museum of Natural History, or in other words, 81st Street and Central Park West, and you’ve got to get to the corner of Canal Street and the Bowery, where the Chinatown bus is leaving. The B train is not running. Is there a better way than to ride the C train all the way to Canal Street and then play dodge-the-pedestrians from the south of Soho into Chinatown, weaving through the bobbing umbrellas and the vendors selling improbable knockoffs of everything that shines, as the summer rain begins to fall upon you?

I always get to have the strangest kinds of fun when I visit New York City.

Joshua, Rebecca “NSFW” Watson and I rode down from Boston yesterday morning, ostensibly to attend Lori Lipman Brown‘s talk for the NYC Skeptics, but we arrived too late and were only able to attend the drinking which happened afterwards, coincidentally beginning when Rebecca showed up (for reasons I do not purport to understand). The following eight hours passed hazily by, in the aptly-named Social Bar.

The cheese fries were good, the crab dip not so much. Our waitress did a very good job keeping the Skepchick contingent supplied with libations, and she did yeoman (yeoperson?) service in getting the bar to follow our scribbled instructions for making skeptically-themed drinks: the Buzzed Aldrin, the Moon Hoax, the Sylvia Browne. . . .

I must admit that when I was a teenager reading books by Carl Sagan and company, I did not expect “skepticism” as an intellectual movement to involve showing up at a bar and starting to drink at four in the afternoon.

Anyway, with the weekend well and truly wasted, I’m back in the Greater MIT Metropolitan Area, where the computer I left behind has finished a run of number-crunching and given me something interesting in the results. I’m going to take off a few days and poke these analyses to see what else they’ve got — the SCIENCE IN PROGRESS light is tentatively flashing in my spine. (I’ve also realized that I’ve had a few too many pointless arguments in different corners of the science blagotubes in recent weeks, so I should take a bit to do something more productive with my time. You’re all still wrong, though.) I recognize that I owe at least two people book reviews, and readers have sent me some items of woo that might well be worth debunking, but there’s only so much caffeine a brain can hold. . . .

The Strident and The Shrill

BPSDBRichard Dawkins and PZ Myers had a lengthy, informal chat during the 2008 American Atheists conference in Minneapolis, and a recording of their conversation is now available on DVD and in the video tubes. They discuss the fight against pseudoscience as well as several interesting topics in good science.

I did my best to summarize the kin-vs.-group business in this book review. Among the “glimmerings” which suggest there’s a better way to think about some evolutionary processes (name for that better way still to be defined) are, I think, the epidemiological simulations in which fitness of a genotype is clearly a function of ecology and thus strongly time-dependent, and consequently existing analysis techniques are likely to fail. Assuming this kind of thing happens in the real world, it might be better to speak of “extending the evolutionary stable strategies concept” or “temporally extended phenotypes” than to have yet another largely semantic argument over “group selection.”

Also of note:

When Dawkins spoke at the first artificial life conference in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987, he delivered a paper on “The Evolution of Evolvability.” This essay argues that evolvability is a trait that can be (and has been) selected for in evolution. The ability to be genetically responsive to the environment through such a mechanism as, say, sex, has an enormous impact on one’s evolutionary fitness. Dawkins’s paper has become essential reading in the artificial life community.

Anyway, on with the show.

P-Zed wrote an introduction to allometry a little over a year ago.
Continue reading The Strident and The Shrill

Two Bardolatrous Items

I was in the basement of Building 14 several weeks ago, where MIT hides the “humanities” books, and I found the following:

The notion of Shakespeare entertained by an age affords an index to thought in general. If men re-create God in their own image, they are constantly remodelling their effigy of him whom they insist on regarding as the most God-like of men. Après Dieu, il créa le plus.

— Hazelton Spencer, Shakespeare Improved (1927)

Most of the things I’m seeing on the Internet these days have been making me go all stabby. I want to find press agents and revoke their science licenses. I want to smack George Lakoff for spreading neurophrenology and mainlining stupid into what should have been academic discourse. I want to make Ben Goldacre release the photos. . . yeah, he and PZ know what I’m talking about.

But I can’t do any of those things, so I’m driving them out of my mind with Chimes at Midnight (1965). Damn, but that soundtrack is catchy.

Friday Geek Update

My aged and broken laptop is still broken and has not grown any younger. Moreover, the USB key on which I had a decently recent backup of my work appears to have died as well. Furthermoreover, the server on which I also had my work backed up is suffering from a bum RAID array. Mission for today is to extract the drive from the old laptop and wire it directly into the dilithium recrystallization coils — er, I mean, connect it to my new Sony VAIO C420. I note that Micro Center sold me a laptop with Windows Vista on it, but I forgive them, since Ubuntu gutsy (the installation disc I had on hand) installed without any trouble. Audio, wireless and all those goodies worked without extra effort; I haven’t yet had much success with the Bluetooth support it automagically detected, but the only device I’ve had to test it with has been a cell phone which doesn’t play well with anything else, either. I found a status-bar tool which displays the current weather conditions as reported on the Intertubes, and unlike the previous version I’d used, this one can display temperature in kelvins. A year in Lyon followed by a change to my laptop settings went a long way to making me “internally metric”; this may be the logical next step.

(By the way, I booted into Vista just once — so I could say I knew the enemy, and all — and it sucked. It took the duration of an entire Pinky and the Brain episode just to decide how best to phone in to the mothership and report the music library I hadn’t yet put on the blasted thing because I’d just taken it out of the box. Neil Gaiman was right to consider XP an upgrade.)

All that aside, it is now Friday afternoon in Cambridge, Mass. (which is across and down the river from Newton, Mass. — there’s gotta be a physics joke in that). Outside, it’s a partly cloudy 302 kelvins. Inside, it’s time for the Dandy Warhols, with “I am a Scientist.”

Incidentally, we like to have music playing while we cook dinner here at Château Sunclipse, and this was the song we had going when we discovered that enchilada sauce with a dash of hoisin made an excellent base for beef soup.

Sagan on Eratosthenes

After getting himself all grumpy about the ways in which statistics are abused, Joshua Hall decided to relax with a little Carl Sagan.

Fun fact: the philosopher Poseidonios of Apameia (c. 135–51 BCE) repeated Eratosthenes’s experiment about a century and a half later. He observed that on the island of Rhodes, the bright star Canopus was just touching the horizon, while at the same time in Alexandria, the star was a few degrees above the horizon. Because the Earth curves between the two places, the star was seen from different vantage points, and thus the angle between Rhodes and Alexandria could be found. Poseidonios was luckier than he knew: both his figure for the distance between Rhodes and Alexandria and his measurement of Canopus’s position were wrong, but the two wrongnesses canceled each other out, giving a reasonable final answer.

(And yes, I employ BCE/CE dating just to irritate people.)