Posts Tagged ‘junk science’

With Horizon, the BBC abandons science

Friday, October 27th, 2006

creepy

BBC TV’s venerable science flagship, Horizon, has had a rough ride as it tries to gain a new audience. It’s been accused of “dumbing down”. That’s nothing new – it’s a criticism often leveled at it during its 42 year life.

But instead of re-examing its approach, the series’ producers have taken the bold step of abandoning science altogether. This week’s film, “Human v2.0″, could have been made for the Bravo Channel by the Church of Scientology. The subject at hand – augmenting the brain with machinery – was potentially promising, and the underlying question – “what makes a human?” – is as fascinating as ever. Nor is the field short of distinguished scientists, such as Roger Penrose, or philosophers, such as Mary Midgley, who’ve made strong contributions.

Yet Horizon unearthed four cranks who believed that thanks to computers, mankind was on the verge of transcending the physical altogether, and creating “God” like machines.

“To those in the know,” intoned the narrator, “this moment has a name.” (We warned you it was cult-like, but it gets worse).

It’s not hard to find cranks – the BBC could just as readily have found advocates of the view that the earth rests on a ring of turtles – and in science, yesterday’s heresy often becomes today’s orthodoxy. But it gets there through a well-established rigorous process – not through unsupported assertions, confusions, and errors a five-year old could unpick.
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Junk science – the oil of the new web

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

There’s a case to made that James Surowecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds is the most influential book of the decade – The Selfish Gene for the noughties. Both have something else in common: the title of each book is profoundly misleading. Crowds aren’t wise, nor can genes be selfish – as one critic famously wrote, any more than atoms can be jealous.

Just as the young polemicist Dawkins paved the way for the social darwinism of the Reagan and Thatcher years, Surowecki’s discussion of futures markets and “collective intelligence” provides the flimsy premise for a spending splurge on junk technology. It’s the common thread that unites several of the disparate “Web 2.0″ start-ups we wrote about yesterday, in our must-read roundup.

Both authors were the catalyst for entire schools of junk science – yet both can justifiably claim to have been misrepresented to some degree. While Surowecki is clearly as bewitched by “collective intelligence” as Dawkins was by a gene-eyed view of evolution, he also warns that the crowd only picks winners in very specific circumstances, where the collective guess work acts as a kind of risk hedging. If these factors aren’t present, then the market falls victim to the inevitable: gaming.

But even when this appears to work, so what? Seth Finkelstein notes that in some situations, throwing darts at a dartboard produces excellent results. Citing the Wall Street Journal Dartboard Contest, he writes,

“People are fascinated by ways in which data-mining seems to represent some sort of over-mind. But sometimes there’s no deep meaning at all. Dartboards are competitive with individual money managers – but nobody talks about the ‘wisdom of darts'”

And today, Canadian hockey fans are rejoicing in the return of Maggie the Macaque. The simian (on the right) out-performed the experts in predicting the results of key games during the 2003 season. Could it be Maggie’s diet of crabs, or could it be – “The Wisdom of Monkeys”?

One need only look at the composition of the internet to understand why the “Wisdom of Crowds” will never apply: the internet isn’t representative of society, and even amongst this whiter-than-white sample, only a self-selecting few have any interest in participating in a given pseudo-market.

While Wisdom of Crowds was self-consciously written with the purpose of restoring the public’s faith in the market, after the dot.com bubble burst – it was titled after Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Decisions and The Madness of Crowds – it’s had the opposite effect.

The self-selecting nature of participation in computer networks simply amplifies groupthink. Facts that don’t fit the belief are discarded. The consequences abound, wherever you look.

The great Wikipedia experiment is already over, says Nick Carr, the inevitable result of an open editing policy.

He cites what may prove to be the 21st Century’s equivalent of the 1948 newspaper headline, “DEWEY WON”, Time magazine’s declaration that,

“everyone predicted that [Wikipedia’s] mob rule would lead to chaos. Instead it has led to what may prove to be the most powerful industrial model of the 21st century: peer production. Wikipedia is proof that it works, and Jimmy Wales is its prophet.”

Praise be!

But to buy into this world view, one must disregard all evidence to the contrary. Veteran Wikipedia administrator ‘Skippy’ of Wikitruth.info – a site strangely absent from Wikipedia’s “sum of all human knowledge” – mailed us his summary yesterday:

“Wikipedia is proof that an encyclopedia that ‘anyone can edit’ doesn’t mesh with the reality of human nature.”

A harsher summary from the Village Voice recently declared:

“No true believer in the democratic promise of the Web can fail to gladden at the very mention of this grand experiment – the universal encyclopedia ‘anyone can edit’!—or fail to have noticed, by now, what a fucked-up little mockery of that promise it can sometimes be.”

It’s no surprise to discover that Time magazine’s puff piece was written by WiReD magazine editor Chris “Long Tail” Anderson. Three years ago, Anderson bet your reporter that by today Wi-Fi chipsets would outsell GSM or CDMA chipsets. This was on the occasion of an Intel-sponsored edition of his publication, and Anderson was in the grip of the religious mania about Wi-Fi. His prediction has fallen short by around a billion units.

(If you want faith-based economic theory, Anderson’s your man.)

We’ve written about groupthink on so many occasions – particularly after the collapse of the Howard Dean presidential run – we won’t bore you with repetition. But a golden rule of internet companies is that the more faith they place on the “new wisdom of the web”, the more inevitable their demise.

For Google, which buys into the junk science more than any other Silicon Valley company, this is very bad news indeed. The “democracy of the web” was short-lived, and the company devotes most of its brainpower resources not to developing new products, but trying to rescue its search engine from “Grey Goo”. Faith-based junk science can be a real handicap.

Where does all this affect us? Wherever their advocated bad ideas waste money and resources. For those of us who want better technology, the mini splurge of capital investment in fatuous companies is more than troubling. A dollar spent on a doomed web site is a dollar that could have been spent on solving some real, overdue infrastructural problems.

Seth Finkelstein points out an immediate consequence which is already taking place. Wisdom… gained such traction on the net, because of its cultural distrust of expertise. This stops where the net stops, however – it’s hard to envisage even the most militant Wikipedia fan choosing to be operated upon by amateur heart surgeon. But it’s accelerated the process of deskilling, and the new flood of cheap (but wise!) amateur labor promises to depress wages even further.

The media, and Time is a great example, espouses the rosy view that our public networks are in rude health. I’m confident that this utopian view carries little weight with a public frustrated with pop-ups, viruses and spam.

So to return to our original question. If the public so wilfully buys into sloppy thinking, are the authors themselves responsible? In the case of both Dawkins and Surowecki, who mistitled their books, they may protest too much

People more drunk at weekends, researchers discover

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

A parody from 2000

It’s open season on Wikipedia these days. The project’s culture of hatred for experts and expertise has become the subject of widespread ridicule. Nick Carr christened it “the cult of the amateur”.

But what has professional academia done for us lately? Here’s a study from the University of Amsterdam to ponder.

New Scientist reports that researchers for Professor Maarten de Rijke at the Informatics Institute have been recording words used by bloggers, in an attempt to find interesting or unusual patterns. What revelations did the team’s MoodViews software unearth?

The team discovered that the LiveJournal label “drunk” becomes increasingly popular each weekend. And around Valentine’s Day, “there is spike in the numbers of bloggers who use the labels ‘loved’ or ‘flirty’, but also an increase in the number who report feeling ‘lonely’.”

It gets better.

The team also noticed that on the weekend of the publication of the most recent Harry Potter book, bloggers used “words like ‘Harry’, ‘Potter’, ‘shop’ and ‘book’,” PhD student Gilad Mishne reveals.

This work really should put the Nobel Prize Committee on Red Alert. Alongside the existing scientific prizes for Chemistry, Physics and Physiology and Medicine, the Laureate Committee should design a new category for the “Bleeding Obvious”, or the “Dying Ridiculous”.

More seriously, let’s look at what this episode teaches us.

Two things are immediately obvious: Mishne’s study was considered worthy of academic funding, and it was considered worthy of an article in a popular science magazine.

The study doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before: unless you’re surprised by the revelation that people get more drunk at weekends, or people talk about Harry Potter books more when a new Harry Potter book goes on sale. The study is really considered funding-worthy and newsworthy because of what’s unsaid – the implication that the aggregation of internet chatter will reveal some new epistemological truth.
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Nature journal cooked Wikipedia study

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

They want to believe, too

Nature magazine has some tough questions to answer after it let its Wikipedia fetish get the better of its responsibilities to reporting science. The Encyclopedia Britannica has published a devastating response to Nature‘s December comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica, and accuses the journal of misrepresenting its own evidence.

Where the evidence didn’t fit, says Britannica, Nature‘s news team just made it up. Britannica has called on the journal to repudiate the report, which was put together by its news team.

Independent experts were sent 50 unattributed articles from both Wikipedia and Britannica, and the journal claimed that Britannica turned up 123 “errors” to Wikipedia’s 162.

But Nature sent only misleading fragments of some Britannica articles to the reviewers, sent extracts of the children’s version and Britannica’s “book of the year” to others, and in one case, simply stitched together bits from different articles and inserted its own material, passing it off as a single Britannica entry.

Nice “Mash-Up” – but bad science.

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Captain Cyborg to write UK science funding guidelines

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

Uncowed by public ridicule, attention-seeker Professor Kevin Warwick has been appointed to a panel that will determine the basis for public research funding decisions for the UK’s higher education institutions.

Captain Cyborg is one of twelve panelists chosen to set the criteria for public research funding in the UK’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering departments. It’s one of 68 panels encompassing medicine, the social sciences and the languages and is conducted by the Research Assessment Exercise, a quango funded by Higher Education Funding Council for England, and its counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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Hoax paper fools cybernetic boffins

Friday, April 15th, 2005

An MIT student has had a paper consisting of computer-generated gibberish accepted by technology conference WMSCI. The pretentious gathering bills itself as “an international forum where researchers and practitioners examine Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics key issues”

Comp sci undergraduate Jeremy Stribling told us that he didn’t single out WMSCI because of its subject matter, although it’s easy to see how it made a tempting target.

WMSCI's split brain

“A Metaphor,” the organizers explain. “We are trying to relate theanalytic thinking required in focused conference sessions, to thesynthetic thinking, required for analogies generation, which calls formulti-focus domain and divergent thinking. We are trying to promote a synergic relation between analytically and synthetically oriented minds, as it is found between left and right brain hemispheres, by means of the corpus callosum.” [their emphasis]

But the conference organizers’ two minds didn’t meet in time to catch the hoax, which fell right through WMSCI’s supposedly rigorous review procedures.
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Physics hoaxers discover Quantum Bogosity?

Friday, November 1st, 2002

The physics establishment appears to be unable to decide whether papers submitted by two former French TV presenters are a scientific breakthrough or an elaborate hoax. The debunking to date has been done on Usenet groups and informally, over the Internet.

The pranksters evaded the rigorous peer review process employed by scientific journals, and have succeeded in publishing four physics papers. The pair even won themselves PhDs into the bargain.

Grichka and Igor Bogdanov succeeded in having Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity 18, Spacetime Metric and the KMS Condition at the Planck Scale in the Annals of Physics, and a Russian journal, and Igor – this time flying solo – persuaded the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics to publish the Topological origin of inertia.

But curiously, so arcane and abstract is the world of theoretical physics, that the work has yet to be repudiated.

Usenet posters describe the papers as “laughably incoherent”. A fascinating thread on Usenet begun by John Baez brought the hoax to light, and persistent questioning by Arkadiusz Jadczyk on his website has done much to expose the pair.

The Bogdanovs apparently foxed a New York Times reporter curious about the case, who after an angry denial from one of the hoaxers – denying that he was a hoaxer – dropped his investigation.

“Does no one have the courage of his convictions to stand up and declare an opinion one way or the other, or is it simply that no one has bothered to actually spend the time to acquire an informed opinion (i.e. more than just skimming the papers for a few choice sentences)?”, asks Kevin Scaldeferri from the California Institute of Technology.

So, the only respectable branch of physics in which the Bogdanov’s operate appears to be, umm … pataphysics.

The terrible, terrible conclusion some might draw from the episode is that string physics is no more a “science” than a social science. Several years ago physics professor Alan Sokhal hoaxed the cultural theories establishment with a delightful pastiche that suggested recent quantum theory work proved aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as he explained in his paper A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies:-

“While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance,” he wrote.

But if the establishment is so reluctant to expose the prank, is it the fault of hoaxers or the scientific method? The work of many of our most important scientists has been conducted in the margins, contrary to orthodox scientific opinion. Occam’s Razor is not only a wonderful thing for debunking junk science, but a terrific way to cut your own arms and legs off. And scientists must eat, so grant-funded research necessarily follows the orthodoxy.