From the peer-reviewed pages of Springer Nature…a theory more bonkers than a conference of Flat Earthers.

“Wow. Just wow. What the f**k?!?!”

That was the opening line of my e-mail reply to Ivan Oransky, MD, and co-founder of Retraction Watch, when I’d picked myself up off the floor after reading the paper he sent me earlier this week. Ivan wanted my reaction to…deep breath…”Development of a safe antiparasitic against scuticociliates (Miamiensis avidus) in olive flounders: new approach to reduce the toxicity of mebendazole by material remediation technology using full-overlapped gravitational field energy”, Parasitology Research https://doi.org/10.1007/s00436-018-6010-8 (2019). 

That paper has now been retracted for reasons that will become very clear, very soon.

The more puzzling question is how the hell it got accepted in the first place.

Scroll down to page 5 of the paper (linked above) and find the section headed “Production of material remediated MBZ using full-overlapped gravitational field energy“. Actually, I’ll save you the bother. The section is reproduced in all its glory below. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

SilkwormNonsense_1

…wait, there’s more…

SilkwormNonsense_2

And in case that didn’t make sense, there’s a helpful figure to explain everything:

SilkwormNonsense_3

I haven’t read anything quite as superbly crackpot as this since Jordan Peterson’s “Maps Of Meaning”.

As Ivan discusses over at the Retraction Watch blog, this, um, seminal example of truly innovative scientific reasoning was submitted on March 18. The editors and reviewers then took four months to consider the paper. And subsequently accepted it for publication.

Peer review. The gold standard on which all of science stands or falls.

“We don’t need no education…”

(…or Why It Sometimes Might Be Better For Us Academics to Shut The F**k Up Occasionally.)

Boost Public Engagement to Beat Pseudoscience, says Jim Al-Khalili” goes the headline on p.19 of this week’s Times Higher Education, my traditional Saturday teatime read. The brief article, a summary of points Jim made during his talk at the Young Universities Summit, continues…

Universities must provide more opportunities for academics to engage with the public or risk allowing pseudoscience to “fill the vacuum”, according to Jim Al-Khalili.

Prof. Al-Khalili is an exceptionally talented and wonderfully engaging science communicator. I enjoy, and very regularly recommend (to students and science enthusiasts of all stripes), his books and his TV programmes. But the idea that education and academic engagement are enough to counter pseudoscience is, at the very best, misleading and, at worst, a dangerous and counter-productive message to propagate.

The academic mantra of “education, education, education” as the unqualified panacea for every socioeconomic ill, although comforting, is almost always a much too simplistic — and, for some who don’t share our ideological leanings, irritatingly condescending — approach. I’ve written enthusiastically before about Tom Nichols’ powerful “The Death of Expertise”, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve referred to David McRaney’s The Backfire Effect in previous posts and articles I’ve written. It does no harm to quote McRaney one more time…

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

Perhaps you’ve been more fortunate than McRaney (and me.) But somehow I doubt it.

As just one example from McRaney’s list, there is strong and consistent evidence that, in the U.S., Democrats are much more inclined to accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change than Republicans. That’s bad enough, but the problem of political skew in motivated rejection of science is much broader. A very similar and very distinct right-left asymmetry exists across the board, as discussed in Lewandowsky and Oberauer’s influential paper, Motivated Rejection Of Science. I’ll quote from their abstract, where they make the same argument as McRaney but in rather more academic, though no less compelling, terms [1]:

Rejection of scientific findings is mostly driven by motivated cognition: People tend to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview. At present, rejection of scientific findings by the U.S. public is more prevalent on the political right than the left. Yet the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science, such as the superficial processing of evidence toward the desired interpretation, are found regardless of political orientation. General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.

Let me repeat and bolden that last line for emphasis. It’s exceptionally important.


General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.


If we blithely assume that the rejection of well-accepted scientific findings — and the potential subsequent descent into the cosy embrace of pseudoscience — is simply a matter of a lack of education and engagement, we fail to recognise the complex and multi-facetted sociology and psychology at play here. Yes, we academics need to get out there and talk about the research we and others do — and I’m rather keen on doing this myself (as discussed here, here, and here) — but let’s not make the mistake that there’s always a willing audience waiting with bated breath for the experts to come and correct them on what they’re getting wrong.

I spend a lot of time on public engagement, both online and off — although not, admittedly, as much as Jim — and I’ve encountered the “motivated rejection” effect time and time again over the years. Here’s just one example of what I mean — a comment posted under the most recent Computerphile video I did with Sean Riley:

ZeroCred

The “zero credibility” comment stems not from the science presented in the video but from a reaction to my particular ideological and political leanings. For reasons I’ve discussed at length previously, I’ve been labelled as an “SJW” — a badge I’m happy to wear with quite some pride. (If you’ve not encountered the SJW perjorative previously, lucky you. Here’s a primer.) Because of my SJW leanings, the science I present, regardless of its accuracy (and level of supporting evidence/research), is immediately rejected by a subset of aggrieved individuals who do not share my political outlook. They outright dismiss the credibility or validity of the science not on the basis of the content or the strength of the data/evidence but solely on their ideological, emotional, and knee-jerk reaction to me…

Downvoting

(That screenshot above is taken from the comments section for this video.)

It’s worth noting that the small hardcore of viewers who regularly downvote and leave comments about the ostensible lack of credibility of the science I present are very often precisely those who would claim to be ever-so-rational and whose clarion call is “Facts over feels” [1]. Yet they are so opposed to my “SJW-ism” that they reject everything I say, on any topic, as untrustworthy; they cannot get beyond their gut-level emotional reaction to me.

My dedicated following of haters is a microcosm of the deep political polarisation we’re seeing online, with science caught in the slip-stream and accepted/rejected on the basis of how it appeals to a given worldview, rather than on the strength of the scientific evidence itself. (And it’s always fun to be told exactly how science works by those who have never carried out an experiment, published a paper, been a member of a peer-review panel, reviewed a grant etc.) This then begs the question: Am I, as a left-leaning academic with clearly diabolical SJW tendencies, in any position at all to educate this particular audience on any topic? Of course not. No matter how much scientific data and evidence I provide it will be dismissed out of hand because I am not of their tribe.[3]

Jim Al-Khalili’s argument at the Young Universities Summit that what’s required is ever-more education and academic engagement is, in essence, what sociologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) experts would describe as the deficit model. The deficit model has been widely discredited because it simply does not accurately describe how we modify our views (or not) in the light of more information. (At the risk of making …And Then There’s Physics  scream, I encourage you to read their informative and entertaining posts on the theme of the deficit model.)

Prof. Al-Khalili is further reported as stating that “…to some extent, you do have to stand up and you do have to bang on about evidence and rationalism, because if we don’t, we will make the same mistakes of the past where the vacuum will be filled with people talking pseudoscience or nonsense.” 

Banging on about evidence and rationalism will have close to zero effect on ideologically opoosed audiences because they already see themselves as rational and driven by evidence [3]; they won’t admit to being biased and irrational because their bias is unconscious. And we are all guilty of succumbing to unconscious bias, to a greater or lesser extent. Force-feeding  more data and evidence to those with whom we disagree is not only unlikely to change their minds, it’s much more likely to entrench them further in their views. (McRaney, passim.)

Let me make a radical suggestion. What if we academics decided to engage rather less sometimes? After all, who is best placed to sway the position — on climate change, vaccination, healthcare, social welfare, or just about any topic — of a deeply anti-establishment Trump supporter who has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the “universities are hotbeds of cultural Marxism” meme? A liberal academic who can trot out chapter and verse from the literature, and present watertight quantitative (and qualitative) arguments ?

Of course not.

We need to connect, somehow, beyond the level of raw data and evidence. We need to appeal to that individual’s biases and psychology. And that means thinking more cannily, and more politically, about how we influence a community. Barking, or even gently reciting, facts and figures is not going to work. This is uncomfortable for any scientist, I know. But you don’t need to take my word for it — review the evidence for yourself.

The strength of the data used to support a scientific argument almost certainly won’t make a damn bit of difference when a worldview or ideology is challenged. And that’s not because our audience is uneducated. Nor are they unintelligent. They are behaving exactly as we do. They are protecting their worldview via the backfire effect.

 


[1] One might credibly argue that the rejection skew could lean the other way on certain topics such as the anti-vaccination debate, where anecdotal, and other, evidence might suggest that there is a stronger liberal/left bias. It turns out that even when it comes to anti-vaxxers, there is quite a considerable amount of data to support that it’s the right that has a higher degree of anti-science bias [2]. Here’s one key example: Trust In Scientists On Climate Change and Vaccines, LC Hamilton, J Hartter, and K Saito,  SAGE Open, July – Sept 2015, 1 – 13. See also Beyond Misinformation, S. Lewandowsky, U. K. H. Ecker, and J. Cook, J. Appl. Res. Memory. Cogn. 6 353 (2017) for a brief review of some of the more important literature on this topic.

[2] …but then it’s all lefty, liberal academics writing these papers, right? They would say that.

[3] Here’s an amusing recent example of numerological nonsense being passed off as scientific reasoning. Note that Peter Coles’ correspondent claims that the science is on his side. How persuasive do you think he’ll find Peter’s watertight, evidence-based reasoning to be? How should he be further persauded? Will more scientific evidence and data do the trick?

 

Politicks and Opticks

There’s been a great deal of opprobrium directed at The Sunday Times and the journalist Peter Conradi for the publication of that interview with Alessandro Strumia at the weekend. Although the criticism has (just) fallen short of calling for Conradi’s head on a plate, he’s certainly been very widely castigated. The responses to Conradi’s tweet below are a good representation of the tone of the critique:

I’m strongly of the opinion that this opprobrium is misplaced, misdirected, and ultimately entirely counter-productive. It plays completely into the hands of the “leftists/liberals/PC orthodoxy/feminazis are crushing free speech” brigade. Conradi didn’t, as some have claimed, completely ignore the “other side”; for one thing, he points out that the variability hypothesis — which Strumia unblinkingly takes as a matter of received wisdom — is “divisive” and “by no means universally accepted”. It’s a profile of Strumia, not a debate or a well-balanced discussion piece. One might as well take the Times Higher to task for not including a well-balanced rebuttal from a VC or PVC of my comments about “corporate uni bollox” in this.

Moreover, wind back a couple of years and we find, also in the pages of The Sunday Times, a double-page feature on Angela Saini. Simon Baron Cohen et al., whose work Saini roundly and rightly criticises in the piece, could well have taken umbrage at the lack of focus on their counter-arguments (such as they are.) But the piece is, in essence, a profile of Saini.

The target of our opprobrium should be Strumia (with whom I am currently engaging in the comments section of my previous post) and his pseudoscience, not The Sunday Times or Conradi, especially when the latter noted on more than one occasion that there was intense criticism of Strumia’s stance.

Those of us who strive for equality, diversity, and social justice are sometimes not the most cognisant of, to use the buzzword du jour, political “optics“. (And I very much include myself in the criticism here.) We should always consider just who might be in our audience. If it comprises solely those who share our principles then, in effect, why are we preaching to the converted? If, instead, we want to try to convince readers of The Sunday Times (who may well be slightly more towards the right of the political spectrum) that Strumia’s ‘analysis’ is bunk then is arguing that the article should never have published really the most productive approach to adopt? Doesn’t this live up to all of the stereotypes of the left that a more right-leaning Sunday Times reader may accept?

Let’s just focus on highlighting the glaring deficiencies in Strumia’s ridiculous “physics was invented by men” and “citation counts are directly related to IQ” assertions. Arguing that his views shouldn’t be published only serves to strengthen his (and his supporters’) martyrdom complex and, worse, creates the impression that we have something to hide. His pseudoscience speaks for itself.

“It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo…”

Alessandro Strumia is back in the press again. Earlier this month CERN decided to sever all ties with him due to the fallout from that presentation. I’ve written about the Strumia case previously, both here at the blog (at some length — see this and this) and in the pages of Physics World, so won’t rehash the many arguments against his thoroughly biased and pseudoscientific claims about women in physics. Prof. Strumia also got in touch with me in January, following my criticism in Physics World, and an e-mail exchange ensued. I’d have liked to have made that exchange public here at Symptoms… but Alessandro preferred not to have our debate in the open.

What’s clear from today’s article in The Sunday Times is that Strumia isn’t going to let counter-evidence or counter-arguments affect his ideology. Once again, and to quote from the piece I wrote for Physics World (if you’ll excuse the self-plagiarism), he’s presenting himself as the “ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly.” Cue a Letter To The Editor…

“Dear Editor,

Alessandro Strumia (Alessandro Strumia: the data doesn’t lie
— women don’t like physics, Sunday Times, March 24) claims that his views on women in physics have been censured due to “excessive political correctness”. Many years ago, the physicist Robert L Park highlighted a key proviso for those who opine that their “radical” theories are being stifled, viz.

Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right

Your article on CERN’s severance of ties with Strumia, while refreshingly even-handed, didn’t quite capture the deeply pseudoscientific tenor of his “analysis” (and I use that term advisedly). Prof. Strumia asserts, on the basis of a fundamentally flawed and credulous set of suppositions, that the IQ of the authors of a scientific paper scales directly with the number of citations accrued. En route, he confused correlation with causation, cherry-picked his cited sources to a remarkable extent, and indulged in overwrought rhetoric more akin to an amateur YouTube pundit than a professional, established scientist speaking to his peers at a conference.

Strumia’s presentation was a masterclass in what Richard Feynman, the physicist’s physicist, described as cargo cult science: to the untrained eye it looks scientific, but the essential ingredients of objectivity, rigorous self-criticism, and lack of ideological bias are sorely missing. Although I don’t agree with Strumia being dismissed for his reactionary views, his time would be better spent on informing himself about the complexity of the underlying science than crying victimhood at the hands of “The Establishment”. Might I recommend Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong“?

Yours sincerely,

Philip Moriarty”

 

 

Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 


[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.