Category Archives: Popularization

Time: You’re On Notice!

In its quest to avoid irrelevance, Time Magazine has boldly surged into idiocy.

Remember a while back when this magazine-of-former-repute told us that “You” were the person of the year? As it happens, one of the Blagnet’s pixel-stained wretches predicted their choice over two months in advance, suggesting that no, we don’t need magazines to spout this kind of vanity — amateurs will do just as good a job for free.

A pragmatic person, given the job of managing a wood-pulp publication in these wild days of Web 3.1, would direct that publication’s efforts into doing things which the amateurs cannot. For example, they could send reporters to far-off locales, pull their strings to get inside connections, invest serious money in fact-checking and so forth. Alternatively, they could decide to outdo the Blagopelago through sheer force of idiocy. It’s not easy, but it could in theory be done.

Today, that theory has received empirical support.

Richard Dawkins is number 73 on the Time 100, and guess who they paid to write his profile.
Continue reading Time: You’re On Notice!

Bad Non-Journalism (Updated!)

This post originally written 28 April 2007 and updated the following week.

I’ve already wasted some of the Universe’s limited supply of ones and zeros writing about bad science journalism. I’ve even looked at one particular case in some detail (and believe me, I’ve got more on the way). Hopping over my various regular stops on the Blagnet this morning, however, I realized that bad journalism can be easier to spot than no journalism at all. In order to fix the system, we need to understand all of its failure modes.

Carl Zimmer writes of a story which should be making the rounds but isn’t:

You may perhaps recall a lot of attention paid to methane from plants back in January 2006. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute reported in Nature that they had found evidence that plants release huge amounts of the gas—perhaps accounting for ten to thirty percent of all the methane found in the atmosphere.

It’s not hard to imagine why people would get excited about this. Heck, anything which says plants are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is pundit food. “Trees cause more pollution than cars do!” Etc.

Now, the irritating thing about science is that bold claims can be tested, which a team of Dutch researchers have just done. Yesterday, their paper went online at New Phytologist. Tom A. Dueck et al. write the following in their summary:
Continue reading Bad Non-Journalism (Updated!)

Wired: Low Voltage

Wow, the hunt for extrasolar planets is really looking up:

NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder, or TPF, is already underway. The artist’s rendering shows a traditional telescope on the left — a visible-light chronograph — that will launch in 2016 and pick out likely candidates. An array of infrared telescopes (right) will launch four years later and look for life signatures.

So says a short in today’s Wired magazine by Bruce Gain and Kristen Philipkoski. Unfortunately, it looks like Wired is not fully plugged in. Keith Cowing of NASA Watch wrote well over a year ago,

According to NASA’s FY 2007 budget documentation “The Terrestrial Planet Finding project (TPF) has been deferred indefinitely.” In other words, it is dead. NASA is just afraid to say so.

As of 18 April 2007, the lack of funding means that TPF has no launch date. So, Wired notwithstanding, TPF is grounded. It just couldn’t get past the budgetary resistance.

Every once in a while I get the feeling that reporters can be real dim bulbs, you know?

(Via Steinn Sigurðsson.)

Even Though Mom Is Watching

I have to post about Quantum Tantra.

I’m a very ambitious physicist; I was trained at Stanford. I want not merely to find a new particle or equation but to discover an entirely new way of doing science. Quantum tantra aims to put humans in direct touch with nature without the mediation of instruments, without even those instruments called the senses. My needs are simple: I’d like to invent a truly gooey interface that connects my mind to other minds in the Universe. Modern physics is fully erect science; quantum tantra is physics on all fours.

Touching nature directly, and without the senses, eh? Sounds like, ahem, Tanuki-sized bollocks. Honestly, now, who wants to have sex where each motion is too tiny to be detected, and as soon as she observes you getting ready, your wavefunction collapses? (Besides, if there were anything legitimate in this, Richard Feynman would have discovered it already.)

This does, oddly, synchronize with the Attack of the Skinny Vixens which Dr. Joan Bushwell so kindly warns us about. Dr. Bushwell alerts us to this BBC story whose tagline reads, “Scientists are developing a pill which could boost women’s libido and reduce their appetite.” (Gee, I thought we were all supposed to be hunting down the God particle.) According to the BBC, Prof. Robert Millar of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproduction Unit (in Edinburgh) believes that a pill based on “Type 2 Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone” will ramp up the libido of the human female whilst simultaneously lowering her appetite. Hey, it works with monkeys and shrews!
Continue reading Even Though Mom Is Watching

Newsweek on Sex-Ed and Statistics

Via the Knight Science Journalism Tracker comes Sharon Begley’s story in Newsweek entitled “Sorting Out Good Science From Bad” (7 May issue, strangely enough). It runs under the sub-heading, “Just Say No — To Bad Science.” The content shouldn’t surprise anyone who grew up with Darrell Huff’s fascinating little book, How To Lie With Statistics (1954, reissued 1993). In a chatty two pages, Begley’s piece looks at one particular trick: selection bias.
Continue reading Newsweek on Sex-Ed and Statistics

Blaggregation at Darwin’s

I slept uneasily, my dreams full of ticking clocks, of racing the dawn, of improbable clouds just before sunsight and obscure preparations against the day. I dreamed that I could fly by selecting parts of a petroglyph body in my Firefox window and indenting them to high speed. When I tried, I fell up a Blade Runner hill, careening over an empty freeway as slick as Teflon.

I woke up to an insistently beeping cellphone alarm and got dressed to the Lola Rennt soundtrack. Clutching a bottle of soda which I knew I shouldn’t drink since, like mental illness, diabetes runs in my family (but unlike mental illness, only on one side), I stepped out into a beautiful morning slightly too cold for my tweed eigenjacket and slightly too warm for my black leather trenchcoat. (I guess it’s never springtime in the Matrix.) Forty minutes of strolling later, with a song in my heart — specifically, Infected Mushroom’s “Cities of the Future” — I arrived at Darwin’s, a sandwich, coffee and pastry place near Harvard Square. It was five minutes till eight; I was early, but PZ Myers was earlier.
Continue reading Blaggregation at Darwin’s

New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

shnood: (roughly) an imposter; a person oblivious to just how trivial or wrong his ideas are.

“Were there any interesting speakers at the conference?”
“No, just a bunch of shnoods.

“The magazine New Scientist loves to feature shnoods on the cover.”

Note: someone who’s utterly contemptible would not be a shnood, but rather a schmuck.

— Scott Aaronson (27 May 2006)

Those of you interested in the way the Wobosphere functions as a disputation arena (“We Can Fact-Check Yo’ Ass!”) may be interested in the following sordid tale of intrigue and skullduggery. I originally wrote most of this last October, in a lengthy comment on David Brin’s blog. The moral of the story, insofar as I can find one, is this: if you say that you can move your car forward by bouncing a soccer ball back and forth inside it fifty thousand times, you’ll get a quizzical look (at best). If you say the same thing but with “microwave photons” instead of soccer balls, you’re reporting on cutting-edge science!

Back in September, New Scientist magazine published an article on the “EmDrive”, a machine purportedly able to propel itself using microwaves bouncing inside a box. Those of us who remember the Dean drive and umpty-ump other wonder machines have no trouble recognizing this as the same old stuff: like all the wonder-powered spacedrives before it, it can only putter forward by violating the conservation of momentum. New Scientist‘s reportage provoked science-fiction writer Greg Egan to write an open letter saying he was “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine showed.

So it goes, as they say on Tralfamadore. Claims of exotic spacedrives fuelled by violations of fundamental physics are, sadly but understandably, about twopence a dozen. The aspect of the affair which Egan found truly disturbing — indeed, reprehensible — was the way New Scientist glibly provided a “news” piece full of pseudoscientific gibberish purely to justify how the EmDrive might work. (Their argument really pushed the limits of the absurd, too: Einstein’s relativity has momentum conservation built into its mathematical structure, so you can’t use relativity jargon like “reference frames” to sidestep the conservation law.)

Egan posted his letter to the moderated Usenet group sci.physics.research, and the physicist John Baez put a copy on the blog he co-hosts, The n-Category Cafe. This spurred enough people to write New Scientist that the magazine opened a blog thread to discuss the issue, opening with a self-exusing note from the editor, Jeremy Webb. (Said note, as far as I can tell, satisfied nobody.)
Continue reading New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

All the News that Fits, We Print

I have a theory about science journalism.

Well, perhaps “model” or “hypothesis” would be a better word. Also, the basic idea isn’t original with me, but I think I can pull together pertinent evidence from a wider variety of stories than most writing-watchers have done, thereby casting (I hope) a little more light.

I don’t know how many of my skeptical blagofriends are in the habit of reading Mind Hacks, so I figured I’d convey along this post by Vaughan about “electronic smog”.

The Independent on Sunday has the dubious honour of publishing one of the worst pieces of science journalism I have ever read on today’s front cover — claiming to ‘reveal’ that children are at risk from Wi-Fi computer networks because of their developing nervous systems.

The headlines include “Children at risk from electronic smog”, “Revealed: radiation threat from new wireless computer networks”, “Fears rise over health threat to children from wifi networks” and “Danger on the airwaves”.

This is despite the fact that not one single study has found a health risk for wifi networks.

Gotta love those extra letters in funny foreign words like honour.
Continue reading All the News that Fits, We Print


I seem to have some kind of dopaminergic reward pathway established for blog commenting. Every time I see a new post, I know I’ll either be happy because I agree with it, or I’ll get that little surge from disagreeing vocally! Any time I see a remark about “framing,” I’m either gonna like you or hate your guts, and my natural argumentative streak gives me a positive brain-boost either way.

Trying to find a simple principle which completely covers a complex and heterogeneous set of overlapping problems in which our pious platitudes frequently conflict with one another is, as Sean Carroll says, a mistake. Complex problems, regrettably, often demand complex solutions. If this discussion had, from the beginning, focused on specific and concrete examples, I believe we would have seen much more agreement — and much more productive disagreement!

Blogs are the enkephalins of the masses.

Enough of this. It doesn’t make a difference.

May I remind everyone that Michael Egnor is still saying ridiculous things?

I Guess It’s a Deuteron

Seed has just offered the world a “Cribsheet” on string theory. It looks pretty slick, although their portrayal of a “hydrogen atom” seems to have an extra nucleon (as Wolfgang notes in the Cosmic Variance thread). I’m inclined to forgive the multiple electron orbits, since they only show one actual electron — and besides, ellipses aren’t that great a way of drawing orbitals anyway.

(Incidentally, if you want to see orbitals in video, check out episode 51 of The Mechanical Universe, available for free online via Annenberg Media.)

They do cite Barton Zwiebach’s First Course in String Theory (2004), which gives me a slight tinge of pride. I mean, somebody had to work the problems in the last five chapters to see if they were solvable by students and not just professors.

The portion of this post below the fold is a rough draft of several different rants, developed in embryonic form and smushed together. Read only if you’re exceptionally curious.
Continue reading I Guess It’s a Deuteron

In Soviet Russia, Evidence Frames You!

Heh heh heh. Mark Liberman, my conduit to a respectable Erdős number, had this to say today:

Most of us are pretty good at “audience design“: fitting how we express ourselves to what others are ready to hear. We notice when someone else is especially bad at this; but everyone’s image of other people’s minds has some blind spots. Cross-cultural communication often runs aground on such misperceptions, or at least so we’re told those who aim to teach us how to interpret the table manners and negotiating ploys of other cultures. And one of the deeper cultural divisions within our own society appears to be the one that separates lawyers from everybody else.

As the rest of the post suggests, if scientists have problems with the word theory, lawyers have trouble with the word fact.

It’s interesting that from the linguists’ perspective, “most of us are pretty good” at this audience design trickery. Rather than a technique which we must master at our peril, they take it as a basic assumption that “speakers adjust their speech primarily towards that of their audience in order to express solidarity or intimacy with them, or conversely away from their audience’s speech in order to express distance.”

Interlude: Framing

The “framingkerfluffle continues apace at and elsewhere (also here). For a primer on this subject, see my earlier remarks here. I like Joshua’s most recent take, which can be summarized in the phrase, “Let’s look at the data.” I also like what “Revere” has to say at Effect Measure:

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

“All good teaching is framing” has no more content than “All is God”, “All thoughts are memes” or “Everything is love.” You don’t get to say “All is full of love” unless you’re a Björk-22 model gynoid from the Yamtaijika Corporation. I’d add that if you really want to use a jargon word, you should pick one which doesn’t have an everyday meaning: picking a word which everybody thinks they understand even though they actually need a background in the subject is setting yourself up for confusion. Call it “Lakoff framing” or “Goffman framing” or something of the sort.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of?

Continue reading Interlude: Framing

I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

I’m not playing dumb, I really am confused. I’ve got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I’m ignoring frames at my peril, what I’m describing isn’t framing, what I’m describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I’m getting next to nothing that’s practical. OK, don’t call it “evolutionary theory”, call it “evolutionary biology”. Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.
Continue reading I Was Framed!

Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

Continue reading Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

I’m not sure when the idea of “human enhancement” first bubbled up in my brain. It seems to be one of those possibilities which I just grew up with, thanks to a childhood lost in books. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote,

There must be ways of putting nucleic acids together that will function far better — by any criterion we choose — than any human being who has ever lived. Fortunately, we do not yet know how to assemble alternative sequences of nucleotides to make alternative kinds of human beings. In the future we may well be able to assemble nucleotides in any desired sequence, to produce whatever characteristics we think desirable — a sobering and disquieting prospect.

The video version ends with “awesome and disquieting prospect,” by the way. Sagan’s friend Isaac Asimov was a little more cheerful; while dying of AIDS, he concluded the revision of his book The Human Brain with these words:

Man would then, by his own exertions, become more than man, and what might not be accomplished thereafter? It is quite certain, I am sure, that none of us will live to see the far-distant time when this might come to pass. And yet, the mere thought that such a day might some day come, even though it will not dawn on my own vision, is a profoundly satisfying one.

Continue reading Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement