“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:


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…


(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?


“The drum beats out of time…”

Far back in the mists of time, in those halcyon days when the Brexit referendum was still but a comfortably distant blot on the horizon and Trump’s lie tally was a measly sub-five-figures, I had the immense fun of working with Brady Haran and Sean Riley on this…

As that video describes, we tried an experiment in crowd-sourcing data via YouTube for an analysis of the extent to which fluctuations in timing might be a signature characteristic of a particular drummer (or drumming style). Those Sixty Symbols viewers who very kindly sent us samples of their drumming — all 78 of you [1] — have been waiting a very, very long time for this update. My sincere thanks for contributing and my profuse apologies for the exceptionally long delay in letting you know just what happened to the data you sent us. The good news is that a paper, Rushing or Dragging? An Analysis of the “Universality” of Correlated Fluctuations in Hi-hat Timing and Dynamics (which was uploaded to the arXiv last week), has resulted from the drumming fluctuations project. The abstract reads as follows.

A previous analysis of fluctuations in a virtuoso (Jeff Porcaro) drum performance [Räsänen et al., PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127902 (2015)] demonstrated that the rhythmic signal comprised both long range correlations and short range anti-correlations, with a characteristic timescale distinguishing the two regimes. We have extended Räsänen et al.’s approach to a much larger number of drum samples (N=132, provided by a total of 58 participants) and to a different performance (viz., Rush’s Tom Sawyer). A key focus of our study was to test whether the fluctuation dynamics discovered by Räsänen et al. are “universal” in the following sense: is the crossover from short-range to long-range correlated fluctuations a general phenomenon or is it restricted to particular drum patterns and/or specific drummers? We find no compelling evidence to suggest that the short-range to long-range correlation crossover that is characteristic of Porcaro’s performance is a common feature of temporal fluctuations in drum patterns. Moreover, level of experience and/or playing technique surprisingly do not play a role in influencing a short-range to long-range correlation cross-over. Our study also highlights that a great deal of caution needs to be taken when using the detrended fluctuation analysis technique, particularly with regard to anti-correlated signals.

There’s also some bad news. We’ll get to that. First, a few words on the background to the project.

Inspired by a fascinating paper published by Esa Rasanen (of Tampere University) and colleagues back in 2015, a few months before the Sixty Symbols video was uploaded, we were keen to determine whether the correlations observed by Esa et al. in the fluctuations in an iconic drummer’s performance — the late, great Jeff Porcaro — were a common feature of drumming.

Why do we care — and why should you care — about fluctuations in drumming? Surely we physicists should be doing something much more important with our time, like, um, curing cancer…

OK, maybe not.

More seriously, there are very many good reasons why we should study fluctuations (aka noise) in quite some detail. Often, noise is the bane of an experimental physicist’s life. We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing down and attempting to eliminate sources of noise, be they at a specific frequency (e.g. mains “hum” at 50 Hz or 60 Hz [2]) or, sometimes more frustratingly, when the signal contamination is spread across the frequency spectrum, forming what’s known as white noise. (Noise can be of many colours other than white — just as with a spectrum of light it all depends on which frequencies are present.)

But noise is most definitely not always just a nuisance to be avoided/eliminated at all costs; there can be a wealth of information embedded in the apparent messiness. Pink noise, for example, crops up in many weird and wonderful — and, indeed, many not-so-weird-and-not-so-wonderful — places, from climate change, to fluctuations in our heartbeats, to variations in the stock exchange, to current flow in electronic devices, and, indeed, to mutations occurring during the expansion of a cancerous tumour.  An analysis of the character and colour of noise can provide compelling insights into the physics and maths underpinning the behaviour of everything from molecular self-assembly to the influence and impact of social media.

The Porcaro performance that Esa and colleagues analysed for their paper is the impressive single-handed 16th note groove that drives Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’…” I wanted to analyse a similar single-handed 16th note pattern, but in a rock rather than pop context, to ascertain whether Procaro’s pattern of fluctuations in interbeat timing were characteristic only of his virtuoso style or if they were a general feature of drumming. I’m also, coincidentally, a massive Rush fan. An iconic and influential track from the Canadian trio with the right type of drum pattern immediately sprang to mind: Tom Sawyer.

So we asked Sixty Symbols viewers to send in audio samples of their drumming along to Tom Sawyer, which we subsequently attempted to evaluate using a technique called detrended fluctuation analysis. When I say “we”, I mean a number of undergraduate students here at the University of Nottingham (who were aided, but more generally abetted, by myself in the analysis.) I’ve set a 3rd year undergraduate project on fluctuations in drumming for the last three years; the first six authors on the arXiv paper were (or are) all undergraduate students.

Unfortunately, the sound quality (and/or the duration) of many of the samples submitted in response to the Sixty Symbols video was just not sufficient for the task. That’s not a criticism, in any way, of the drummers who submitted audio files; it’s entirely my fault for not being more specific in the video. We worked with what we could, but in the end, the lead authors on the arXiv paper, Oli(ver) Gordon and Dom(inic) Coy, adopted a different and much more productive strategy for their version of the project: they invited a number of drummers (twenty-two in total) to play along with Tom Sawyer using only a hi-hat (so as to ensure that each and every beat could be isolated and tracked) and under exactly the same recording conditions.

You can read all of the details of the data acquisition and analysis in the arXiv paper. It also features the lengthiest acknowledgements section I’ve ever had to write. I think I’ve thanked everyone who provided data in there but if you sent me an MP3 or a .wav file (or some other audio format) and you don’t see your name in there, please let me know by leaving a comment below this post. (Assuming, of course, that you’d like to be acknowledged!)

We submitted the paper to the J. New Music Research last year and received some very helpful referees’ comments. I am waiting to get permission from the editor of the journal to make those (anonymous) comments public. If that permission is given, I’ll post the referees’ reports here.

In hindsight, Tom Sawyer was not the best choice of track to analyse. It’s a difficult groove to get right and even Neil Peart himself has said that it’s the song he finds most challenging to play live. In our analysis, we found very little evidence of the type of characteristic “crossover” in the correlations of the drumming fluctuations that emerged from Esa and colleagues’ study of Porcaro’s drumming. Our results are also at odds with the more recent work by Mathias Sogorski, Theo Geisel, Viola Priesemann (of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Göttingen, Germany) — a comprehensive and systematic analysis of microtiming variations in jazz and rock recordings spanning a total of over 100 recordings.

The likelihood is that the conditions under which we recorded the tracks — in particular, the rather “unnatural” hi-hat-only performance — may well have washed out the type of correlations observed by others. Nonetheless, this arguably negative result is a useful insight into the extent to which correlated fluctuations are robust (or not) with respect to performance environment and style. It was clear from our results, in line with previous work by Holger Hennig, Theo Geisel and colleagues, that the fluctuations are not so much characteristic of an individual drummer but of a performance; the same drummer could produce different fluctuation distributions and spectra under different performing conditions.

So where do we go from here? What’s the next stage of this research? I’m delighted to say that the Sixty Symbols video was directly responsible for kicking off an exciting collaboration with Esa and colleagues at Tampere that involves a number of students and researchers here at Nottingham. In particular, two final year project students, Ellie Hill and Lucy Edwards, have just returned from a week-long visit to Esa’s group at Tampere University. Their project, which is jointly supervised by my colleague Matt Brookes, Esa, and myself, focuses on going that one step further in the analysis of drumming fluctuations to incorporate brain imaging. Using this wonderful device.

I’m also rather chuffed that another nascent collaboration has stemmed from the Sixty Symbols video (and the subsequent data analysis) — this time from the music side of the so-called “two cultures” divide. The obscenely talented David Domminney Fowler, of Australian Pink Floyd fame, has kindly provided exceptionally high quality mixing desk recordings of “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” from concert performances. (Thanks, Dave. [3]) Given the sensitivity of drumming fluctuations to the precise performance environment, the analysis of the same drummer (in this case, Paul Bonney) over multiple performances could prove very informative. We’re also hoping that Bonney will be able to make it to the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre here in the not-too-distant future so that Matt and colleagues can image his brain as he drums. (Knock yourself out with drummer jokes at this point. Dave certainly has.) I’m also particularly keen to compare results from my instrument of choice at the moment, Aerodrums, with those from a traditional kit.

And finally, the Sixty Symbols video also prompted George Datseris, professional drummer and PhD student  researcher, also at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics & Self-Organisation, to get in touch to let us know about his intriguing work with the Giesel group: Does it Swing? Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feeling in Jazz. Esa and George will both be visiting Nottingham later this year and I am very enthusiastic indeed about the prospects for a European network on drum/rhythm research.

What’s remarkable is that all of this collaborative effort stemmed from Sixty Symbols. Public engagement is very often thought of exclusively in terms of scientists doing the research and then presenting the work as a fait accompli. What I’ve always loved about working with Brady on Sixty Symbols, and with Sean on Computerphile, is that they want to make the communication of science a great deal more open and engaging than that; they want to involve viewers (who are often the taxpayers who fund the work) in the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day research process itself. Brady and I have our spats on occasion, but on this point I am in complete and absolute agreement with him. Here he is, hitting the back of the net in describing the benefits of a warts-and-all approach to science communication…

They don’t engage with one paper every year or two, and a press release. I think if people knew what went into that paper and that press release…and they see the ups and the downs… even when it’s boring… And they see the emotion of it, and the humanity of it…people will become more engaged and more interested…

With the drumming project, Sixty Symbols went one step further and brought the viewers in so they were part of the story — they drove the direction of the science. While YouTube has its many failings, Sixty Symbols and channels like it enable connections with the world outside the lab that were simply unimaginable when I started my PhD back in (gulp…) 1990. And in these days of narrow-minded, naive nationalism, we need all the international connections we can get. Marching to the beat of your own drum ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Source of cartoon: https://xkcd.com/1736/

[1] 78. “Seven eight”.

[2] 50 Hz or 60 Hz depending on which side of the pond you fall. Any experimental physicist or electrical/electronic engineer who might be reading will also know full well that mains noise is generally not only present at 50 (or 60) Hz — there are all those wonderful harmonics to consider. (And the strongest peak may well not even be at 50 (60) Hz, but at one of those harmonics. And not all harmonics will contribute equally.  Experimental physics is such a joy at times…)

[3] In the interests of full disclosure I should note that Dave is a friend, a fan of Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, etc.., and an occasional contributor to Computerphile. He and I have spent quite a few tea-fuelled hours setting the world to rights



Welcome To The Machine

All this machinery. Making modern music. Can still be open-hearted.

From “The Spirit Of Radio”, Rush. Lyrics by Neil Peart.


On Tuesday evening I had the immense pleasure of attending The Australian Pink Floyd gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. It was a remarkable concert — stunning musicianship, awesome (literally) visuals, and beyond-impressive interpretations of Pink Floyd classics.

What made the gig extra special for me was that I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time backstage at the invitation of the Aussie Floyd’s guitarist, David Domminney Fowler. Despite his hectic touring schedule, Dave finds time to pursue interests in physics, maths, and the music-maths-physics interface. For example, he’s worked with Sean Riley on the Computerphile YouTube channel, including this fascinating video on translating visual information to music:

I’ve worked with Sean for a recent Sixty Symbols project and have similarly thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with him on a Computerphile video in the not-too-distant past, so was delighted when I got an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in meeting up with Dave when the band played Nottingham. I, of course, jumped at the chance.

Dave talked me through his impressive guitar rig (and variety of guitars) before the gig, and even generously gave me the opportunity to try out a few of his ‘axes’ (including his beloved Telecaster; I’d not played a Telecaster before). What particularly struck me was Dave’s forensic attention to detail in capturing the Floyd sound. Some of this was due to the signal processing — there were a number of classic analog pedals and kit on the way from the guitar to the amp — but the vast majority came from Dave’s exceptionally tasteful and accomplished playing. You can see what I mean in this video:

 If you’ve not yet seen The Australian Pink Floyd, I thoroughly recommend them. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe ’em. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed -Dave’s Comfortably Numb solo is worth the ticket price alone.

Moreover, Mr. Fowler certainly gives Dave Grohl a run for his money in the “nicest man in rock” stakes. Maybe it’s a Dave thing…

Brady Haran, Doctor of Letters

A short blog post to say just how delighted I am that Brady Haran was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Nottingham earlier this week. It’s been my great pleasure to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols (and a number of his other channels) over the past seven years. Despite — no, make that because ofour occasional tête-à-tête on just how to put across a piece of physics for a broad audience, I always look forward immensely to Brady (+ camera + bag of accessories) appearing at my door.

Brady’s work, and his remarkable work ethic, have put Nottingham on the map — and then some — when it comes to public engagement and communicating science. As Mike Merrifield describes in the video below, Brady’s ever-expanding portfolio of videos has topped 400 million views./ That’s nearly 2 billion minutes’ worth of viewing worldwide. All of us at the University of Nottingham owe Brady a huge debt of gratitude and it’s wonderful that this has been formally recognised by the award of Doctor of Letters.

Brady is his usual modest self in his acceptance speech (starting at around the 6 minute mark below), but it’s no exaggeration to say that he has fundamentally and radically changed my approach to explaining science and, by extension, my teaching.

I have learnt so much from him over the years.

Thank you, Brady, and congratulations.