Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mixed Nuts

I’m about to engage in an ad hominem attack, something which I am usually loath to do. I’m doing this for pretty much the same reasons that Phil Plait examined Richard Hoagland’s credentials, so I’d like to borrow a phrase or two from Phil:

Over the years, in my dealings with pseudoscientists, I have noticed a tendency for them to inflate their credentials. Their personal motives for doing so are not clear, but what is clear is the effect of making the pseudoscientist seem more believable than perhaps they should be.

Quite true, quite true, although I think that the effect Phil notes is indeed the conscious motivation for most credential inflation – it shuts off debate from laymen. Most scientists shy away from credential attacks for good reasons – ad hominem is bad logic, and many of us talk about issues that are outside of our rather strict disciplines. However, there are professional norms in the use of credentials - for example, my Ph.D. does not give me the right to use the title “Doctor” in a medical context, duping an unsuspecting layman into believing that any advice I may give comes under the auspices of a member of the AMA. As a matter of fact, those who overuse the title “Doctor” as a Ph.D. are suspect to the rest of us:

It tickles me to be called "Doctor" by someone with a medical degree. On the flip side, though, it's a nearly infallible sign of personality problems when a PhD insists on the honorific.

So now we come to the story of one “Dr.” Walter Wagner, who runs the website LHCdefense.org. It seems that "Dr." Wagner thinks that the Large Hadron Collider is going to end the world. Or something. The essential argument of Wagner is that - oh hell, I can’t even paraphrase this horse shit without turning my stomach – here it is in his own words:

there is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet..

OK, so what’s the danger here? If we’re talking about microscopic Black Holes, Wagner has a partner come up with a very scientific-looking paper that purports to point out a scenario where a microscopic Black Hole would form, and not decay according to the accepted theoretical treatment, but begin to accrue mass, and basically eat the Earth.

Wagner’s partner was an actual, if somewhat unorthodox physicist at the Max-Planck Institut Fur Physik named Rainer Plaga, but he was taken to the cleaners by a UC Santa Barbara physicist on a basic scientific mistake (in the except below, the citation [1] refers the Plaga paper I liked above):

Where did [1] go wrong? The answer is in the inconsistent application of formula (2) of that paper. In the type of warped scenario that [1] considers, the black hole would evolve up to a radius R _ RD via higher-dimensional evolution, and then would experience a large mass gain in transitioning to a slightly higher radius R _ RC, as [1] acknowledges. Throughout this region, in the usual Hawking scenario, the temperature formula (2) should hold. Thus if the black hole radiance is suppressed compared to this, as the author of [1] proposes, it can’t exceed a value of size (3). However, [1] then applies the formula (1) written in terms of the mass using the four-dimensional relationship between radius and mass, but does this in a region where the four-dimensional relation between radius and mass is clearly wrong. Indeed, 1 the four-dimensional Schwarzschild radius corresponding to the mass range … lies in the range 10−25−10−20cm, far below the claimed _ 10−5cm! It is this inconsistency that produces the claimed large power output, which, if correct, would represent an enormous enhancement of the black hole radiance, in contradiction to the stated assumptions of the scenario.

Most of the equations used in these arguments are simplifications of more complex equations. Anyone trained in physics or chemistry will be familiar with simplified equations that are true expression of physical reality only if certain assumptions are true. For example, the expression 1/(4 + x) is approximately equal to ¼ if x is small: at x = 0.1 it’s about .24, close enough to .25 for government work; at x=0.2, the expression is .238, and you might even still approximate it as ¼ for Federal Government work. But by the time x = 1, the simplification of using ¼ for the expression is obviously no longer valid. On the other hand, for values of x < 0.1, it’s a pretty good simplification.

What Plaga did was to apply an expression where the relationships it describes are not valid – just as if you used the ¼ simplification for values of x >10.

Plaga’s publication record is…odd. A very recent editorial authored by him in Nature places him in non-academic government service:

Rainer Plaga is in the Department for New Technologies and Scientific Foundations, Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), 53175 Bonn, Germany.

A Google search for him yielded an older address at the Max Plank Institut fur Physik:

Rainer Gottlieb Plaga (Group Leader)
Max-Plank-Institut für Physik
Nationality: German

At that institute, he made unorthodox pronouncements before.

The On Screen Scientist has obviously done more research into the man than I have, or want to. His conclusion is pretty much mine – this is an odd duck who has made plenty of mistakes in the past, and who obviously thinks more of his abilities than warranted. That he’s being touted in anti-LHC circles as a “senior German physicist” is another example of the pseudoscience rank-pulling that Phil Plait was talking about.

A few other, related red flags show up in that paper. First, and this was what led me to try to hunt Plaga’s institution down in the first place, is that if you look at any scientific publication, the affiliation of the authors are listed, with their business address. Plaga’s paper contains only an address, no affiliation. I have a feeling that the BSI would not take kindly to him publishing physics papers under their auspices, and since he's not using their address, I must assume that he is no longer associated with Max Planck. If anyone reading this was privy to the circumstances surrounding his departure from that august institution, please shoot me an email.

The second red flag is the word “pre-print”. Some journals do indeed send the authors pre-prints, because backlogs mean that even a reviewed and accepted publication won’t show up in print for months to a year, and you’d like to be able to hand the paper in a nice format to lab visitors (and grad students like to have them for job interviews). However, you don’t “submit pre-prints” – pre-prints are provided to you as a courtesy after the review process is over. Mixing the words “submit” – used with not-yet-accepted papers, and “pre-print” used for accepted papers, is disingenuous at best.

The final red flag is the “journal” Elsevier. Elsevier is one of the largest private scientific publishers in the world, with scores of journals in many fields. It is generally excoriated for its high prices, but it does serve a purpose, and its journals are generally accepted as of reasonably high quality. What the paper should have noted was a submission to a specific journal from this list. I didn’t submit my graduate thesis to Nature Publishing Group, I submitted it to Nature (and it was accepted and published, BTW). When I wrote my resume up before the acceptance, the citation in my CV read “JTS and Prof. Advisor xxxx, Submitted to Nature 01/01/01”. An exact journal, date, and time.

One thing I will give Plaga, which the OSS also pointed out – crackpots of this ilk are usually algebra challenged, and at the very least, Plaga’s mastered some advanced math, because his mistake was at a fairly high level for someone associated with Doomsday scenario mongering.

Back to the other safety issue, strangelets, this issue was raised about the RHIC in Brookhaven almost a decade ago - by this very same dipshit, Wagner – and the energies involved in the Brookhaven instrument are more likely to produce strangelets than the LHC. However, high energy cosmic ray strike astronomical objects at higher energy than either collider, so the fears on that score are pretty much demolished by the fact that the moon continues to exist:

Given minimal physical assumptions the continued existence of the Moon, in the form we know it, despite billions of years of cosmic ray exposure, provides powerful empirical evidence against the possibility of dangerous strangelet production.

Geez, I’ve gotten so bogged down in logical and scientific argument, I forgot my ad hominem. Where was I? Oh yes, “Dr.” Wagner. “Dr.”. I, like Derek Lowe, have an aversion to being called “doctor” unless it’s by students. In other contexts, to establish credibility, the term should be used once in a context like this: Dr. XXX YYY of the ZZZZ. After the first mention, the last name should be sufficient, with no honorific.

So, just who the heck is Wagner, and where did he study physics? Well, I was not able to come up with a publication record for him. Fortunately, we have his background in his own words, under oath :

I am a nuclear physicist with extensive training in the field. I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1972 at Berkeley, California in the biological sciences with a physics minor, and graduate degree in 1978 in Sacramento, California in law.

Wait, wait, wait. His only graduate degree is in law? So that “Doctorate” is a Juris Doctorate? Here’s the relevant Wiki quote on that:

Attorneys must nonetheless avoid using the title doctor in a manner that might mislead the public, such as a medical malpractice attorney using the title "Doctor" in a manner that could cause the public to believe the attorney is a medical professional with relevant medical experience.

I think using the title “Dr.” for a J.D. when talking about your physics credentials pretty much qualifies as misleading the public, don’t you?

But look, Wagner’s (I keep wanting to call him Wagner, Esq., now, but I doubt he’s licensed to practice law any more, or he shortly won’t be if the fraud allegations against him are proven) only physics degree is not really a degree. It’s a minor in physics for a biology degree.

He calls himself a “nuclear physicist”. Now, there are no “nuclear physics” undergraduate degrees, “nuclear physicist” implies graduate study in most situations. But not this one:

Commencing in 1973 I worked extensively in cosmic radiation research at UC Berkeley, Physics Department, Space-Sciences,

He was a lab tech.

Now it gets good, though, because he claims to be:

credited with discovery of a novel particle only previously theorized to exist [by Nobelist P.A.M. Dirac], namely a magnetic monopole. That discovery still remains controversial as to the identify of that novel particle, and numerous searches for magnetic monopoles are still currently underway, or proposed, including at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].

On his own site, he even cites the paper:

Price et al., Physical Review Letters, August 25, 1975, Volume 35, Number 8.

It always amazes me when pseudoscientists put out references. In the age of the internet, someone with a scientific background is going to check. So I did. Wagner is not listed among the 4 authors:

P. B. Price * and E. K. Shirk *
Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720

W. Z. Osborne † and L. S. Pinsky
Physics Department, University of Houston, Houston, Texas 77004

But wait. He was a lab tech. So I went to my old friend Google and stumbled on this:

In 1975, a team of researchers headed by P. Buford Price at U.C. Berkeley announced the discovery[5] of a cosmic ray track in a particle detector slung under a high-altitude balloon that was significantly different from all others ever measured. Using the particle track-etch method pioneered by Price, et al., they discovered the track of a particle that had passed through 32 sheets of 1/4 mil Lexan plastic without any measurable change in ionization. Yet, the Cerenkov detector admitted only of particles less than 2/3 c [the speed of light in the clear plastic]. The charge was measured as being 137, the same as predicted by Paul Dirac who first predicted the theoretical existence of magnetic monopoles. The particle track preliminarily identified as having been caused by a magnetic monopole had been spotted by technical assistant Walter L. Wagner.[6]

Odd. Odd because such minutae as the name of the lab tech who spotted an abnormality are generally not included in such high level reports as a Wiki article unless the tech put in enough intellectual effort to be listed as an author on the paper. Reference #6 does corroborate the claim, however:

But credit for first spotting the monopole's track belongs to two technical assistants: Julie Teague, 31, at Houston and Walter Wagner, 25, at U.C.

Except that poor Ms. Teague got left out of the Wiki article. Why would the article mention Wagner and forget her? Let’s go back to Wagner’s words under oath, shall we? Words that were meant to enhance his credibility with every shred of experience that might look good to a layman:

I have remained active in the field of theoretical nuclear physics, and serve as a science editor for Wikipedia, having numerous articles and revisions in nuclear physics to my credit, and I am very familiar with the editing procedures and processes, and with the nuclear physics editors at Wikipedia.

Well that about explains that doesn’t it? But it gets worse. In a Wikipedia article that Wagner obviously was not able to edit, we get a clear picture of why Price’s 1975 paper did not win a Nobel by now:

Another experiment in 1975 resulted in the announcement of the detection of a moving magnetic monopole in cosmic rays by the team of Price.[4] Price later retracted his claim, and a possible alternative explanation was offered by Alvarez[13]. In his paper it was demonstrated that the path of the cosmic ray event that was claimed to be due to a magnetic monopole could be reproduced by a path followed by a Platinum nucleus fragmenting to Osmium and then to Tantalum.

Wagner, of course, dismisses those who would diminish his great discovery:

While some pundits claimed that the tracks represented a doubly-fragmenting normal nucleus, the data was so far removed from that possibility that it would have been only a one-in-one-billion chance, compared to a novel particle of unknown type. The data fit perfectly with a Dirac monopole.

We have "pundits" in science? If you ignore huge chunks of modern science, you can say that fire fits perfectly with the theory of phlogiston, too.

Over at Entropy Bound, they have even more evidence that the reference to Wagner in Wikipedia was inserted into the article by Wagner himself:

And for the record, the "Cosmic rays" Wikipedia entry was started in 2002, but Wagner's "discovery" was only posted on January 13, 2008 by an unnamed author (which turns out to be a dialup connection in Honolulu - just 'nslookup'!), just in time for his re-entry into the blogosphere.

This is a serious problem for Wikipedia. If they are not careful, Wagner is going to name drop them all over the press and the legal arena, and his financial woes may further drag them into a spotlight they do not wish to share with this man.

First, Wikipedia needs to check to see if Wagner is still editing Nuclear Physics articles for them. If he is, they need to bounce him out on his ass for over-stating his credentials, post-haste. They need to issue some cease and desist paperwork to keep him from dragging their good name into this frivolous lawsuit, and they need to go over everything he’s touched with a fine toothed comb. Oh yes, they need to make the “Unusual Cosmic Rays” and the “Magnetic Monopole” articles consistent with both established opinion and each other.

I’m too tired and too busy to go into much more of this ad hominem, but I do have to note that further resume padding is going on in the legal document:

Commencing in 1979 I began employment as a federal nuclear safety officer with the US government, from which I am currently retired, though I remain in frequent contact with my former duty station. My federal duty station was with the US Veterans Administration, and I managed an extensive program of nuclear safety involving usages of ionizing radiations from machines [X-ray, CT, etc.], and from a wide variety of radioactive materials produced by particle accelerators, in nuclear reactors, or extracted from nature [principally uranium and its radio-daughter radium].

Oh pu-leeze. The description sounds like he was at the VA HQ running a large safety program. By his own admission, he was the nuclear medicine safety officer at the VA Hospital in San Francisco. This man’s job was to run a Geiger counter around the radiology department of the VA to ensure that someone didn’t leave the rear shield off of the X-ray machine and irradiate the ovaries of the nursing staff (this was 1979). The job was in no way nuclear physics as I understand the term, and although it dealt with radioactive substances like the ones produced in particle accelerators and nuclear reactors, I’d be amazed to learn that the VA owned either of those two devices.

I can’t take any more. Janiece is right. This man’s a retard. But Wiki had better get their act together, fast.


Eric said...

Generally speaking, it's not merely frowned-upon for attorneys to use the doctor honorific, even though our terminal degree in the States is the Juris Doctor. It's considered downright unethical, and may even be something a State Bar will sanction you for (they probably wouldn't "pull your ticket"--i.e. take your license--but I'd imagine you'd get a censure or reprimand in your file).

Otherwise, we'd all be running around calling each other "doctor." Mislead the public? Hell, we'd do it just for our egos. :-)

Janiece Murphy said...

John is wrapped around the axle. My work here is done.

Nicely done, John.

::clap, clap::

Ken S, Fifth String on the Banjo of Life said...

Very nice takedown, John.

(On a side note, shoot me an email, business related)

CW said...

Other than some x-ray tech at the VA in San Diego claiming to have discovered some uber-exotic particle, I'm not sure what this is about. I did hear, however, on a major news network how scientists were "unsure if the startup of the LHC would create a black hole and destroy the world". Apparently it will not... bummer - that would have been interesting.

vince said...

An ad hominem attack is not simply an attack on the person argued against, it's an irrelevant attack (Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, 2nd Ed., Howard Kahane, pg. 25 - from my practical logic class many years ago). The attack you made in this post is full of relevancy, as Wagner makes his credentials a keystone in his argument.

An excellent post.

John the Scientist said...

Vince - to a scientific debate, credentials should be irrelevant. The debate should be about the testability of the theory and the solidness of the facts.

The reason I descended into that debate is not that Wagner uses the title "Dr." in his debates with scientists, it's that he uses it to impress laymen and to keep his lawsuits from being thrown out of court. No public money should be wasted by any scientific agency in defending themselves from this crank.

CW - I'll fill in some details I didn't have time for - Wagner is the one who filed the lawsuit ti have the LHC shut down.

Anonymous said...

It certainly seems easy to post horses--- about others when you do so without revealing your identity.

If you're so sure of yourself, ID yourself when you engage in ad hominem attacks.

I do not personally know Dr. Plaga, but I have read many of his papers. He is exceptionally knowledgeable in physics, something you are clearly lacking in.

As to my credentials, they are neither exaggerated nor minimized. I majored in physics for three years, switched majors my senior year to biological sciences [a science of which you are also likely woefully ignorant], and hence technically I minored in physics. Thereafter I spent two years training incoming graduate physics students in cosmic radiation techniques, while also analyzing cosmic radiation physics experiments. Thereafter, I spent five years managing a complex radioactive materials license with approximately 200 users of radioactive materials with Z = 1-92. I took a breather from that field to work in science education. Out of 10,000 applicants, I scored 80/80 on the mathematics portion of the examination, with the second highest scorer obtaining 79/80.

Now, if you can take a test like that and ace it, I'd be happy to discuss subjects with you. Otherwise, I'm simply casting my pearls before swine.

Since I do not normally read for your blog, I'll likely not see your response. If you wish to communicate anything of value, you should email me at the address at my website.


Walter L. Wagner