By inadequacies, we mean:
- Exaggeration (E)
- Irreproducible results (IR)
- Inadequate data (ID)
- Begging the question (BQ)
- Confusing correlation with causation (CCC)
- Ill-conceived experiments (ICE)
- Ill-defined concepts (IDC)
- Conflicts of interest (CI)
- Scientists behaving badly (SBB)
- The numbers don’t add up (2 + 2 = 5)
- Purely ornamental mathematics (POM)
- Appalling prose (AP)
- Why did someone publish this? (WDSPT)
- Just plain dumb (JPD)
- Don’t touch our funding (DTF)
We welcome some readers’ submissions:
Scientists, reported The Guardian in March,
have heralded a “whole new era” in physics with the detection of “primordial gravitational waves”—the first tremors of the big bang.
The minuscule ripples in space-time are the last prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity to be verified. Until now, there has only been circumstantial evidence of their existence. The discovery also provides a deep connection between general relativity and quantum mechanics, another central pillar of physics.
“This is a genuine breakthrough,” says Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist from University College London who was not involved in the work. “It represents a whole new era in cosmology and physics as well.” If the discovery is confirmed, it will almost certainly lead to a Nobel Prize.
On the other hand, maybe it was just a bit of schmutz:
We reanalyze the BICEP2 results and show that the 100x150 GHz and 150x150 GHz data are consistent with a cosmology with r=0.2 and negligible foregrounds, but also with a cosmology with r=0 and a significant dust polarization signal. We give independent estimates of the dust polarization signal in the BICEP2 region using four different approaches. While these approaches are consistent with each other, the expected amplitude of the dust polarization power spectrum remains uncertain by about a factor of three. The lower end of the prediction leaves room for a primordial contribution, but at the higher end the dust in combination with the standard CMB lensing signal could account for the BICEP2 observations, without requiring the existence of primordial gravitational waves.
On September 19, Planck released its dust polarization results. Schmutz. Or at least, schmutz-like. According to Lyman Page, an astrophysicist at Princeton, the episode “is testament to a healthy field.”
An equation can predict happiness, reveals the BBC:
“We were pleased to see that our equation did a good job of explaining happiness,” said lead author Robb Rutledge of University College London.
If the Data Don’t Fit, You Must Acquit
In 2008, Simone Schnall, then of the University of Plymouth, published a paper in Psychological Science indicating that priming subjects to think about cleanliness had a “substantial” effect on moral judgment. Efforts to replicate the results proved unsuccessful. Subsequent researchers found no such effect, despite testing four times as many subjects. Fortunately, Schnall swiftly identified the underlying problem: replication bullying (known formerly as “the scientific method”).
It is clear what is expected from me: I am a suspect now. More data is needed, much more data, to fully exonerate me. I must repent, for I have sinned, but redemption remains uncertain.
Many were deeply moved. As Slate reported:
In countless tweets, Facebook comments, and blog posts, several social psychologists seized upon Schnall’s blog post as a cri de coeur against the rising influence of “replication bullies,” “false positive police,” and “data detectives.” For “speaking truth to power,” Schnall was compared to Rosa Parks.
Easy to Grasp
As PNAS explains:
A conflict of interest includes a financial association or relationship that could influence the objectivity, integrity, or interpretation of a publication. Such conflicts of interest include relationships with corporations whose products or services are related to the subject matter of the article. These relations include employment, substantive ownership of stock or mutual funds, membership on a standing advisory council or committee, service on the board of directors, or public association with the company or its products. Other areas of conflict of interest could include receiving consulting fees, patent filings, serving as a paid spokesperson, or providing services in exchange for honoraria.
So, say—just to take the first example that comes to mind—if you were conducting research on the link between earthquakes and activities at a particular oil field, you shouldn’t accept payment from the owners of that field:
A newly published report by a group of American geoscientists concludes that two deadly earthquakes that struck the north of Italy in 2012 were not triggered by activities at a local oil field. That finding is at odds with the outcome of an earlier study, released in April, which said that the human-made influence “cannot be excluded.” The Italian government claims that the new study, which in part draws on new pressure measurements made at the oil field in question, rules out any role for hydrocarbon extraction in the two quakes. But some scientists question the legitimacy of the new research, which was commissioned on behalf of the company that owns the oil field and was based on work carried out for energy giant ENI.
It never occurred to them how this would look?
It was the Best of Times, it was the Blurst of Times
How Darwinian is cultural evolution? The question was posed in March in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:
Much clarity has been gained by drawing on the analogy between cultural and biological evolution (an analogy suggested by Darwin himself: “The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.”) This has made it possible to draw inspiration from formal methods in population genetics with appropriate adjustments and innovations. Of course, the analogy with biological evolution is not perfect. For example, variations in human cultural evolution are often intentionally produced in the pursuit of specific goals and hence are much less random than in the biological case.
“Not perfect?” “Not even remotely analogous, not in any way, not whatsoever,” would be more accurate.
Jawohl, Mein Führer
Recall Stanley Milgram’s famous 1961 experiments, designed in the wake of the trials of Nazi war criminals who claimed they were “just following orders.” Milgram sought to establish whether ordinary people would obey authority figures even when the instructions given were obviously morally wrong.
Volunteers were told they were taking part in a study on memory and learning, and instructed to administer electric shocks to a subject who had been asked to memorize pairs of words. The subject was an actor. The experiment revealed that some two-thirds of the volunteers were willing to keep shocking the subject even when he pled for mercy, wept, and screamed in agony—and to keep right at it until the so-called lethal dose. This has long been understood as evidence that ordinary men and women may easily be persuaded to behave like monsters. The experiments were widely seen as unethical, in as much as “[t]he realization that they could administer such lethal levels of shock to another human being could have long term negative psychological effects on the subjects.”
The results “may have been completely misunderstood,” according to researchers who reviewed the archives of the experiment at Yale. What did they find?
Far from being distressed by the experience, the researchers found that most volunteers said they were very happy to have participated.
Professor Haslam said: “It appears from this feedback that the main reason participants weren’t distressed is that they did not think they had done anything wrong. This was largely due to Milgram’s ability to convince them that they had made an important contribution to science. This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.”
The Independent draws this conclusion: “Instead of a latent capacity for evil, we just want to feel good about ourselves.”
Coexistence with Freud, Maybe: Not with Popper
The director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine argues that the discovery of REM sleep “could coexist easily alongside Freud’s theories that dreams had a deep unconscious meaning and purpose, overall. That purpose had to be rooted in evolution ... one way or another, dreams helped us to survive.”
“One way or another,” indeed:
However, Darwin pointed out that many features of sexually reproducing species can boost reproduction rather than survival in the environment per se. The peacock’s tail advertised its fitness to peahens, and so they tended to mate with the male who had the most extravagant tail in the group. Any peacock whose genes could support such a costly tail must be fit indeed! Similarly, the reindeer’s antlers were used as weapons in the fight against other males of the same species for access to females. The more elaborate the antlers, the more forbidding the buck. The goal was to intimidate your competitors enough that they would give up the fight for access to a fertile female and you would then win the chance to mate with her. The pressures of sexual selection made it imperative that males develop weapons such as aggressiveness, antlers, body armor, muscles, and stingers to fight other males for access to females as well as elaborate adornments to attract females. Thus, the costly, apparently non-adaptive traits were explained.
If we accept the sexual selection theory of REM sleep and dreams, we might suppose that there are some underlying advantages reflected in adapting to the outside world. Take the REM-related lapse in the ability to generate body heat. The vast majority of animals, including humans, sleep either with relatives or with sexual partners. Co-sleeping and huddling together allows for preservation and generation of heat between partners, preventing metabolic waste—and also creating opportunities to reproduce.
A similar advantage can be found in REM paralysis. To get to the root of things there, researchers have studied REM Behavior Disorder, in which the neurons that cause the paralysis have been destroyed, allowing dreamers to move about. Such patients, most of them male, dream that they or their wives are under attack from other men, and physically defend themselves while asleep with punches and kicks. REM paralysis, therefore, is in some sense an evolutionary protection, put in place to keep us from acting out our dreams and harming our partners.
What observation or discovery, precisely, would disprove this theory?
A Kinetic Frolic Through the Gordian Knot
Addy Pross, professor of chemistry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, observes that “the purpose-driven character of life stands as a challenge to our understanding of the material nature of the universe.”
Of course, once we recognize the existence of two distinct stability kinds, one based on probabilities and energy, the other on exponentially driven self-replication, the reason for the teleological character of all living things becomes obvious. Nature’s most fundamental drive, dictated by logic itself, is toward greater stability. That drive has a thermodynamic manifestation, as expressed through the ubiquitous Second Law, but it also has a kinetic manifestation—the drive toward increasingly persistent replicators. Two mathematics, two material forms. This distinction does not trace the dividing line between living and dead matter precisely—but it does explain it, and many of the other riddles of life into the bargain.
Clears that right up.
Enter the Pineal Gland
Scientists, it seems, are closing in on a theory of consciousness:
Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed one of the most promising theories for consciousness, known as integrated information theory.
Understanding how the material brain produces subjective experiences, such as the color green or the sound of ocean waves, is what Australian philosopher David Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness. Traditionally, scientists have tried to solve this problem with a bottom-up approach. As [neuroscientist Christof] Koch put it, “You take a piece of the brain and try to press the juice of consciousness out of [it].” But this is almost impossible, he said.
So instead, they’re squeezing the brain juice out of consciousness:
In contrast, integrated information theory starts with consciousness itself, and tries to work backward to understand the physical processes that give rise to the phenomenon, said Koch, who has worked with Tononi on the theory.
The basic idea is that conscious experience represents the integration of a wide variety of information, and that this experience is irreducible. This means that when you open your eyes (assuming you have normal vision), you can’t simply choose to see everything in black and white, or to see only the left side of your field of view.
Instead, your brain seamlessly weaves together a complex web of information from sensory systems and cognitive processes. Several studies have shown that you can measure the extent of integration using brain stimulation and recording techniques.
We are not persuaded that this amounts to “closing in on a theory of consciousness”—or indeed the statement of a theory of any variety, or even the statement of a series of meaningful English sentences. Apart from that, sounds great.
Is That Some Kind of Code?
Spotted in Education Research and Perspectives:
Notice of Retraction
Article Title: “Where do you switch it on?” A Case Study of the Enhancement and Transformation of University Lecturers’ Teaching Practices with Digital Technologies
The Editor in Chief and the authors have agreed to retract this article. It has come to light since the article was published that three of the study participants may have differed significantly from others in terms of their positionality at the time that the research was conducted. Given that the conclusions were drawn on the basis of the aggregated data, this poses a threat to the overall trustworthiness of the study. The paper has thus been retracted in full.
“In terms of their positionality?” Beats us.
Come to Jennifer the Spider Woman
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Verdolin: I really was inspired by the awful nature of my relationships. I studied social and mating systems for my PhD, and one night I thought, “How is it possible that I have a PhD in animal behavior, I know all these details of what animals do and don’t do, and I can’t seem to date successfully?”
I didn’t see animals doing some of the things humans do. You don’t see male Harlequin ducks chase down females only to get bored after they’ve caught them. It doesn’t happen. So I wondered what’s going on, with both men and women, that’s creating so much conflict between the sexes. I wondered what would happen if I thought about dating from an animal perspective. How would that change how I’m experiencing these dates?
Q: Did writing this book change the way you approach dating?
Verdolin: Totally. Not only did I learn about the mistakes I was making in communication, but I thought more about what I was looking for in a partner. Once I realized that animals are pretty clear about what they’re trying to achieve in a relationship and they act accordingly, I gave more thought to whether I was just interested in dating or was really looking for a relationship.
From Sue Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine:
I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable—if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p. 50 puts it) “Design out of chaos without the aid of mind.”
We note that it also works to get chaos out of design:
I pesrsevered, trcying to vvput over the idea that evolution is inevitable—if you have ifosformation thavt is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Drofan Dennett p. 50 puts it) ‘Dcs2esign out of chaos withdi2out the aid of midsnd’.
uuI pesrse333veresdd, trcying ssto vvput ovevvxr 24the idcwlea t§hat evolution is inevitable yu66& !if ydeeou have ifosformation thavt is zxzcdopied wqeith vaddddriation btand ssi2election tak1hen ysu m5555ust tgeet L) gis drofan xxx rp!2222 50 rtputsitR *dDcs2esi$$ $@$t $! 593trrds 53dthdi249ee 404&&((&^^^ dof dsnd’.
Got it in two tries. It was inevitable.
This Confirms Our Bias Against the Social Sciences
Researchers at Stanford have made an awkward discovery about social scientists:
We studied publication bias in the social sciences by analyzing a known population of conducted studies—221 in total—in which there is a full accounting of what is published and unpublished. We leveraged Time-sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS), a National Science Foundation-sponsored program in which researchers propose survey-based experiments to be run on representative samples of American adults. Because TESS proposals undergo rigorous peer review, the studies in the sample all exceed a substantial quality threshold. Strong results are 40 percentage points more likely to be published than are null results and 60 percentage points more likely to be written up. We provide direct evidence of publication bias and identify the stage of research production at which publication bias occurs: Authors do not write up and submit null findings.
The study’s lead researcher, Neil Malhotra, is involved in the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences. It advocates, among other remedies, the logging of all social science studies in a registry that tracks their outcome: “These remedies have not been universally welcomed, however,” Nature reports.
“There’s been a lot of pushback,” says Malhotra. Some social scientists are worried that sticking to a registered-study plan might prevent them from making serendipitous discoveries from unexpected correlations in the data, for example.
Correlations in what data? Forty percent of it is in the trash, right?
Then Again, this is the Kind of Thing They’re Throwing Out
After a close reading of a website set up to redress this problem by capturing null results in replication attempts, we do understand why some social scientists might not be racing to publish results like these:
Reference to Original Report of Finding: Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2012). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion, 12, 154-162.
Title: Showering and Loneliness Take 10
Brief Statement of Original Result: The authors predicted that trait loneliness would be positively associated with warmer showers and baths. They tested this prediction with a correlational study (N = 51 college students). Three showering/bathing items were averaged to form a composite measure labeled “Physical Warmth Extraction.” The composite was correlated with Loneliness (r=.57, p<.05). The correlation for the item about warm water temperatures was not reliably different from zero using p<.05(r=.26, p=.07).
Type of Replication Attempted: Highly Direct Replication
Result Type: Failure to Replicate
We suppose we can understand why someone might decide that’s just not worth sharing with the world. (Why they didn’t decide it just wasn’t worth studying is unclear.)
That’s not the end of it, by the way. It seems scientists the world throughout remain resolutely determined to show that there’s no special connection between having a heart like a lonely hunter and a taste for soothing bubble baths. The University of Texas had another go at this vexed problem. Same results:
None of the 12 analyses produced a statistically significant overall regression model and none of the interactions were statistically significant when considered individually ... In short, we found no evidence that attachment styles moderated the relations between loneliness and showering/bathing habits.
Can we put this one to bed now? Apparently not: this problem seems to require the full weight of the world’s collective scientific manpower. John A. Bargh and Idit Shalev, of Yale University, tried the experiment again and came up with the same result:
Unlike Study 1a, however, there was no association obtained between loneliness and the frequency of taking showers or baths (r = .03, p > .25).
Okay, we’ve established this now, right? Wrong. A year later, same scientists, same question, same results:
Loneliness was assessed using the 3 item loneliness scale developed by Hughes et al. (2004) based on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell et al., 1980) using a 4-point scale (1=Never to 4=Often). The Physical Warmth index was created by standardizing the three bathing/showering items and averaging them into a composite after the frequency and temperature items were reverse coded so that higher scores indicate more frequent baths/showers and warmer baths/showers.
There was no evidence for an association between loneliness (M = 2.27; SD = .74, alpha = .86) and the Physical Warmth Index (r = -.025, p = .645, n = 356). The hypothesis relevant correlation between the water temperature item and the loneliness scale was not statistically distinguishable from zero (r = -.054, p = .314, n = 353).
We still don’t know whether lonely people like hot baths. Wir werden wissen, as David Hilbert predicted in a slightly different context.
We’re not Losing Sleep
Future generations, reports the Daily Mail,
could be exterminated by Terminator-style robots unless machines are taught the value of human life.
This is the stark warning made by Amsterdam-based engineer Nell Watson, who believes droids could kill humans out of both malice and kindness.
Teaching machines to be kind is not enough, she says, as robots could decide that the greatest compassion to humans as a race is to get rid of everyone to end suffering.
“The most important work of our lifetime is to ensure that machines are capable of understanding human value,” she said at the recent “Conference by Media Evolution” in Sweden.
(Tangentially: “Conference by Media Evolution” in Sweden? Let the robots kill us now.)
“We’re starting to understand the secrets of the human brain,” she points out.
No, we’re not.
while at the same time we’re getting better at programming computers with deep learning.
No, we’re not.
While Ms. Watson’s warning seems grim, she believes a robot uprising isn’t necessarily a negative event.
Didn’t it involve exterminating us Terminator-style?
Accounting Secrets of the Great Cosmologists
Why do distant galaxies seem to be accelerating away from us so much faster than the near ones? Perhaps, says Mikko Lavinto of the University of Helsinki, the expansion of the universe isn’t accelerating. It’s just an optical illusion:
The new theory isn’t quite a slam dunk when it comes to describing the real universe. Lavinto and co say that when light enters a Tardis region, it is deflected sharply by the greater curvature there.
That’s not what astronomers observe at all and Lavinto and co. have to get around this problem with the standard solution available to all cosmologists developing new theories of the universe—they simply ignore it and continue their calculations as if the light travels in the same direction as it would ordinarily have done.
No worries. That’s the way we handle it when we discover our checkbook doesn’t balance, too.
- 2 + 2 = 5
Investing: A Guide for the Perplexed
“In [a] market frenzy, it is difficult to keep a cool head. But if things don’t add up, it will eventually fall apart,” Hao Hong, Bank of Communications international strategist, tells MoneyBeat.
Good enough for us! Probably works just as well as those Markov models ever did.
Why the Great Apes Never Fished
A new study led by University of Utah graduate student Robert Cieri suggests that man’s transition to modern civilization has something to do with the species’ lowered testosterone level as the drop of testosterone in humans approximately 50,000 years ago coincided with the development of arts and advanced tools which include fishing equipment, grindstones and projectile weapons.
Or perhaps the development of projectile weapons had “something to do” with the development of fishing equipment?
Cieri said that lower levels of testosterone is [sic] linked with social tolerance and cooperation among animals and less aggression in humans and opined that the increasing human population may have been responsible to [sic] the drop in man’s testosterone level as people need to cooperate with each other to succeed and aggression can be a disadvantage.
Aggression can be a disadvantage. But it can be an advantage. Still, it must have been a disadvantage, because it dropped, right? And it must have dropped because it was a disadvantage.
Neurons in Love
This one has a bit of that Zen flavor, too:
It has long been thought that the chemicals our bodies create largely regulate the way we feel, but Anderson thinks it could also be down to the wiring within our brains. His experiments on mice and flies that switch on and off light-sensitive neurons have shown that the neurons that control aggressive behavior are the same or similar to the neurons that control sexual behavior. It offers the intriguing notion that the neurons that control sex and violence are intimately linked or overlapping in the brain.
David Anderson, professor of biology at the California Institute for Technology, “believes his and other researchers’ efforts will provide a much better understanding of what an emotion is in the brain.”
If That’s Precise, We Never Want to See Vague
Susan Stepney, a University of York computer scientist, has introduced a formal framework that can be used to determine whether a physical system is performing a computation:
This formulation allows a precise description of the similarities between experiments, computation, simulation, and technology, leading the researchers to conclude: physical computing is the use of a physical system to predict the outcome of an abstract evolution.
This isn’t a hoax. Someone really published this:
We predict that next-generation microbiome sequencing of samples obtained from gut or brain tissues of control subjects and subjects with a history of voluntary active participation in certain religious rituals that promote microbial transmission will lead to the discovery of microbes, whose presence has a consistent and positive association with religious behavior. Our hypothesis also predicts a decline of participation in religious rituals in societies with improved sanitation.
It gets better:
It is unlikely, but possible that the rejection of condom use, vaccination and use of antibiotics present in some religious cultures, as well as the sacred status of specific domestic animals (possible definitive hosts to the parasites) may also be related to microbial host control. [sic]
It is also unlikely but possible that microbial host control accounts for that strange craving one sometimes has for Kung Pao chicken, the designated hitter rule, and Biology Direct’s maddening inability to put the commas where they should be.
Interestingly, fasting is a widespread religious ritual. Fasting is known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition as shown for hamsters, Burmese pythons, mice and ground squirrels.
Interestingly. As shown for ground squirrels, even.
“It may be of importance,” they suggest,
to understand what happens in microbial communities on the surfaces of important religious relics and casings that travel around the world, such as The Gifts of the Magi (relics associated with the life of the saint prophet of the Christian religion Jesus Christ) [sic] and popular sacred sites.
Or it may not be.