Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brain Rinse

“The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won't sit upon a cold stove lid, either.” – Mark Twain

Jim has made several interesting posts on information warfare.

Of all the words he’s written on the subject, the most important quote is this one:

When information arrives, how many folks ask themselves: How was this information acquired? Is it complete? Is it accurate? Is it biased. Is it relevant? Is there enough detail? Do I accept it because it reinforces what I think I know, or do I reject it for the same reason? How can I verify it? How can I test it? If I can't test and verify the information, do I accept it anyway? If so, why?

Those who fail to ask themselves such questions place themselves and those who depend on them, at a significant disadvantage - they will always be at the mercy of those who can observe the universe critically, adjust their worldview appropriately, decide and act.

I have an affinity for that type of inquiry because I am an accredited professional in information warfare – I hold an MBA with a subspecialty in marketing. Some segment of society wages information warfare on the individual practically every day of his or her life. And the individual wages it right back.

I’ve lately been noticing one facet of human thought that is probably closely related to, in fact may be one of (before you nitpick, please remember I said one of) the underlying causes of, true believer syndrome.

Permit me to take a bit of an excursion of ascientific fancy.

When we humans walked the savannahs, death stalked us with pointy teeth and twitching tails. While the human herds relied on each other to look out for danger, each person also double-checked his peers.

Along with that danger came a certain doggedness and trust in one’s own instincts. If a primitive human thought the face of a predator had shown momentarily between the branches of a certain bush, he or she might be inclined to skirt that area even when others in the group see no danger. And, if that human were correct, his or her descendants would be a little more prolific, and a little more cautious, and a little more apt to stick ideas that they knew, or even just suspected, to be true (rather than new ideas that might be more fruitful, but also might be false) than the rest of the herd. Nature is a bit more harsh in punishing false negatives than false positives. We humans are wired to avoid Type II error, because it might eat us.

Mind you, the kind of mind that took the whole scenario apart and figured out that the predator only used those hiding places for certain times of the year when it was migrating and realized that in the other times of the year that tree was a good place to hide to do the human’s own hunting is the kind of mind that would be most useful in a highly technical environment. Unfortunately, that’s also the kind of mind that takes risks and gets eaten more often.

Now, the scenario I just outlined was something I pulled out of…thin air, yeah, that’s it. But I suspect that something very similar actually went into the natural selection of human beings. This is probably also related to our propensity to see patterns where no pattern exists, as my friend Eric said:

We innately despise the idea the universe is random and uncontrollable and grotesquely unfair. It's contrary to our natures. The same litters of brain cells that help a lemur make it to the next branch or a chimp spot the leopard in the brush just happen, I think, to make it all-to-easy to see order reigning in strings of unrelated and meaningless coincidence.

Human beings tend to believe things long after they’re disproven. The more the belief is tied to pattern recognition, per Eric’s point, the harder it is to shake. I do believe that this is related to the fact that to ancient humans, the face they thought they saw in the acacia tree might just be a lion, whether or not anyone else in the tribe saw it, too.

Once a piece of stupidity gets internalized, it takes a lot of repetition of fact to shake it out of the heads of the majority of people. As Terry Pratchett said: “A lie can run around the world before the truth gets its boots on”.

I would add as a corollary that an old truth is like a barnacle. You have to scrape it off when it’s no longer true, it doesn’t fall off by itself. Received wisdom that has shown itself to be valid, even if only once, is very, very hard to shake. This is true even when that piece of information is manifestly out of date. There might be a lion under that tree after all.

There is, in marketing, a concept called the “first mover advantage”. If the first product to market is given enough lead time, and fills a need well enough, it is often impossible to dislodge for decades, even generations. Think Frisbee. Think Kleenex. The classic example, the classic practitioner of this, is Procter and Gamble.

When P&G launched the first liquid dish detergent, it was billed as the Dawn of a new era. Thousands of housewives gratefully used what was a revolutionary product. Have you ever tried to wash dishes with homemade soap? I have. My grandparents were poor and frugal, and my grandmother made her own pumice and other soaps used for everything from scrubbing tractor parts to dishes to removing the dirt and top layers of skin from a kid’s hands. Using soap to wash dishes sucks. Dawn was and is a great product.

Dawn is still, years after its launch, the leader in its class. Kids use what their moms used. I did. Mom used Dawn, and that’s the brand I bought when I left for college. There are families whose forebears were richer than my grandmother and they are on the fourth generation of Dawn loyalists.

But Dawn is on the expensive side of the category, as it can afford to be, with that kind of loyalty. P&G is also famous for offering several different products to fit various segments of the market. And so, Joy was born. Now, the next time you go to the Wal-Mart, pick up a bottle of Joy and a bottle of Dawn at the same time. Did you realize that they were both P&G products, or did you think they were competing companies? Even if you realized that they were both P&G entities, did you ever look at the patent numbers on the bottles?

Now, I’m not privy to P&G trade secrets, and maybe Joy has a slightly different blend of the surfactants covered in those identical patents, but the smart money is on a common blend with different colorants and perfumes added at the end of the manufacturing process. Perhaps there’s a dilution factor, but I dilute the stuff before using it anyway. I now use Joy, and have ever since I took my first marketing class that used P&G as a case study.

If you pay more for Dawn than for Joy, I believe that you’ve lost a skirmish in the information war, you haven’t scraped the barnacle off of your hull, directly because of what I was talking about: old wisdom is hard to shake and seldom challenged in what we in marketing call a “low involvement purchase”. If there were two identical cars at two different prices, a lot more people would pick up on that because a consumer’s conscious involvement in a purchase is directly proportional to the amount of money at stake - although the Mercury brand always struck me as a little odd in this respect.

But a lot of people who might read the two paragraphs above will still use Dawn.

Conmen, tricksters, marketers and intelligence agents realize that once an idea gets into someone’s head, even if it is disproven in a way that the rational brain realizes is legitimate there is an emotional residue akin to an aftertaste that colors perceptions. Unless the new idea totally dominates the old one, the old one tends to stick. This is at the core of the marketing adage that “perception is reality.

I hold advanced degrees in both marketing and science, so I’ve always been at war with that perception = reality bromide. Perception defines the reaction to reality. The scientific marketer asks “at what point does reality overcome perception in a human’s response to his or her environment”. The “high-involvement” decisions I talked about above give one clue. Even in low involvement decisions, at some level of superiority humans forget the aftertaste and go for a new flavor. Once again, from the P&G archives comes an example that shows that the first mover advantage can be overcome: the story of Tide laundry detergent.

In the 1920s, Americans, even those with washing machines, used soap flakes as detergent. Gray clothes, rings around the collar, and undissolved soap were common, especially in hard water. In 1933, P&G introduced Dreft, the first liquid laundry detergent. It was considerably better than soap flakes in hard water, but only marginally better at heavy soiling. But it was the first mover, and did reasonably well. During WWII, a P&G scientist defying orders from management to drop the problem (which had been classed as insoluble) came up with the formula for Tide. It sat on the shelf until wartime restrictions lifted. The delay was probably fortunate for P&G, because, after the war, sales of washing machines skyrocketed, allowing for a spectacular product launch of Tide. Dreft was left in the dust because Tide’s superiority was so great even loyalists had to agree that Tide was better.*

Moving from the realm of commerce, the more insidious form of this phenomenon I call “mental aftertaste” is that on many topics, there is no way for the layman to perform a test such as directly comparing the washing efficacy of Dreft and Tide that once and for all changes their perceptions. Once the tone has been set by the first mover, it extremely, extremely difficult to shake a perception. You can prove to people that a particular astrologer is a fraud and they will continue to believe in astrology in general. You can show them the studies that have debunked the connection between aspartame and brain tumors, and there is still the fuzzy feeling that aspartame is just not natural, and that there is something wrong with it. Never mind that they can’t articulate exactly what the harmful effect is – it’s just bad. They fall back on the aphorism that artificial things are never good for you (give me azythromycin over mold-derived penicillin any day). And they never acknowledge, probably never realize, that their hostility is tied to the emotional response elicited by those poorly run and poorly reported-upon stories about aspartame and brain cancer. The rational argument has been disproven, but the emotional aftertaste remains.

Conspiracy theories rely on this habit of thought. So do medical myths. How many people still believe that cellphones might cause some form of harm, even if they concede the data show there’s no link to brain cancer? How about high voltage lines?

The sad thing is that people who don’t recognize and modulate (not eliminate, modulate) this tendency of human thought become sheep at best, conspiracy theorists at worst. For the last several years the anti-vaccinationists have been taking a beating on the logical front with several studies giving pretty good evidence that there is no link between the thimerosol preservative formerly used in vaccines and the incidence of autism.

At the beginning of this year, several very shocking revelations about the ethics of the lead author of the original study that should have demolished any credibility that the MMR / Gut / Measles Virus hypothesis ever had. Andrew Wakefield faked the data. He made inappropriate compensation to his subjects for their participation. He was paid by ambulance chasers to find a link between vaccines and autism. His work is totally discredited.

And yet, even when forced to acknowledge that there is no link between either the measles virus or thimerosol (now completely absent from vaccines), parents in the Autism community will still look at vaccines with suspicion. Any minor news item about adverse reactions to vaccines, no matter how rare, no matter how mild, will be freshly jumped upon with cries of “see, we were right!”. It’s sad, really, considering all the people this has harmed. The well has been poisoned, and even after the poison has been neutralized, everyone thinks they taste almonds in the water.

I’m willing to bet something similar will happen with the LHC. Even though Wagner, Plaga, and Rössler have been exposed as cranks and frauds, people are still uneasy about the collider, not because of anything specific, but because the emotional aftertaste of the Wagner lawsuits has primed them to believing that there is something vaguely sinister about the experiment. When scientists, with very good reasons, laugh at their fears, it’s called arrogance. And yet, had Wagner and Rössler not come to the fore, would anyone think twice about the safety of the machine? Other than the very mundane, but very real concern of mechanical failure, that is?

Our human habits of thought make us susceptible to certain weapons in the information warfare arsenal. This is a weakness. But not a totally harmful one. In fact, I think that it is likely that having this weakness also gives us the ability to experience hope. One reason I am such a fan of science, to the point where I actually became a professional in it, is the power of the scientific method to counteract human gullibility while preserving hope.

Scientists have a lot of personality quirks and annoying traits, but the one trait that is much more common in that tribe than in the general population, one the general population would do well to emulate is the forced habit of washing one’s brain of previously held notions when evidence – tested evidence – proves those notions wrong.

*People with small children will probably immediately recognize that P&G made lemons out of lemonade by repositioning Dreft as a more gentle detergent suitable for infant clothes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not exactly John's meme: Socialism Literature

Not "socialist literature", because that would be something different...

Lately, apropos of our situation and the government's response to it, I've been studying up on the Great Depression; what caused it, what the government did about it, and why it ended. I get the impression people (especially people in government) don't understand it very well, or bother to read any of the history or economics about it.

But the Depression inspired several classical works of political economics that effectively explored what makes economies work. The common theme is surprisingly simple (although it seems to elude most politicians): Incentivize the individual.

The first good book on my bookshelf inspired by the depression is one I've talked about in this space before: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, by Joseph Schumpeter. Written in 1942, it starts out with an apparently sympathetic analysis of Marxism, which Schumpeter purposely put there to encourage socialists to read his book. Schumpeter went on, however, to say that "creative destruction" in the business sector, fueled by entrepreneurialism and "disruptive technologies", is essential to the long term survival of capitalism and continued economic growth and wealth creation. He then gloomily predicted that capitalism would eventually evolve into corporatism, hostile to the essential processes of entrepreneurialism and creative destruction. Schumpeter himself clear that he was not advocating the end of capitalism, writing "If a doctor predicts that his patient will die presently, it does not mean that he desires it."

It is hard to look at our current situation and not be a Schumpeterian. When I first studied Schumpeter in college, I remember thinking he was probably right, and hoping his predictions did not come true before I died, or at least before I retired. I didn't make it.

The next book talks about how the government will react to the economic trends predicted by Schumpeter. Written in 1944, The Road to Serfdom, by Frederich Hayek (what is it about these Austrian economists?) is one of the most influential and most published works in economics ever written. In it, Hayek makes the case that centrally planned economies will inevitably lead to tyranny. Tyranny is inevitable, he believed, because no government could adequately process and analyze all the variables needed to successfully implement a planned economy. Because of the inability of the organs of planning to do their jobs, disagreement and conflict was sure to arise over how to manage the economy, and the government would be forced to resort to coercion to impose its (flawed) plans. The eventual result would be a authoritarian state populated by poor and miserable serfs.

When I read them in the 1980s and the Soviet Union was still around, Hayek and Schumpeter made for highly effective critiques of Soviet Communism. But Communism was already dead at that point and just didn't know it yet (although many Communists did, right John?) and had been forcibly imposed by Marxist revolution anyway.

I'm starting to think Communism was good for our capitalist system because it kept reminding us what we didn't want to be. Now we seem to have forgotten it all and appear to be caught in the throes of some kind of demented hysteria - which if you read the history of the Depression, you may notice has happened before.

The third book talks about the role of the individual in a deteriorating economic situation. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, was not published until 1957, although in many ways it appears to be set in the 1930s. Rand's themes are pretty well known, although they certainly seem to have been forgotten lately: namely that rational ("Objectivist") individual liberty is essential to the survival and prosperity of human civilization. Take away that simple motivation: that every person has the right to the fruits of their own labors - and it's only a matter of time until civilization collapses. Rand was particularly harsh towards collectivism, in particular collectivized labor - a particularly prescient theme in view of the current problems being suffered by the American auto industry.

As I write this I'm listening to a TV news story saying the big 3 car makers have reached an "agreement" with the United Auto Workers in which the UAW gives up essentially nothing, and guarantees at least another $25 billion will be needed to "prop up" these non-viable companies in the next quarter alone. Of course the government will not allow the car companies to enter bankruptcy, because that would give them the legal leverage to break the death-grip of the unions.

The theme of these classically liberal authors is simple: in economics, it is the power of the individual that counts, and it is the nature of human society to take away that power, with bad result.

On the other side of the fence are the "modernist" Liberals, who are currently in favor, represented most famously by John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Keynes' most famous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, says that most of what we think we know about economics, supply, demand, etc., is wrong, and instead there are complex and cointerintuitive forces governing consumer spending, prices, and interest rates. Written during the Depression, General Theory says that, under such conditions, governments must engage in radical deficit spending to "jumpstart" the economy. Sound familiar?

Later, Keynes was one of the founding directors of the World Bank and the architect of the Bretton Woods agreements, and advocated creation of a centrally planned world economy with a single world currency.

John Kenneth Galbraith was perhaps most famous for being FDR's chief of the Office of Price Administration during World War II, responsible for the government's setting of prices for everything from table salt to ocean liners at the point of a gun. His most famous postwar work, The Affluent Society (1957), drew on both his wartime experiences and the theories of Keynes to say that only the government is smart enough to decide how to manage modern complex economies, and governments should use consumption taxes to shape public behavior. Galbraith, perhaps even more than Keynes, was very paternalistic, repeatedly making the point that intellectual elites (usually in government but also in big business) must make decisions for the ignorant masses on how to manage their affairs. He was consistently dismissive of the power of the free market, and even of the classical entrepreneur, writing that it was big business that was the main engine of technological progress.

So the intellectual debate that we haven't had in this current crisis boils down to this: Who can better decide how you spend your money: you, or the government?

I've spent a (mostly wasted, I'm afraid) lifetime in and around big government, and my overwhelming experience is that government is usually about the worst way to do anything. The bureaucratic system promotes mediocrity and corruption and the more I learn the more government seems functionally almost identical to organized crime - and I know a lot about organized crime as well.

The Congress just passed and the President just signed the largest spending bill in the history of the world, and not a single one of them even read it. They read only "their part", namely the sections where their patrons (in organized crime, or banking, or the car industry, or whatever) get their money. And this is not surprising or even noteworthy in Washington because that's how it always works.

I have my own non-scientific theory that a big part of the world's economy comes from crime or some kind of illicit activity. Every economic system is a continuum between legitimate, legal activity (you make or buy something honestly and sell it honestly) and purely criminal activity (you steal something and sell it or sell something you don't own, or which doesn't exist). In between is a wide spectrum of "grey area", from not paying taxes on cash transactions, to artificially but legally inflating prices, to deceiving people about what they are paying for, to charging people outrageous but secret interest rates (That means you, Chase Bank), to smuggling legal commodities from one place to another to avoid taxes, to a zillion other complicated and shady but profitable activities.

My theory is based on my own observations of money being spent that has no apparent legitimate origin, from the local scale (your neighbor has no job, but a new $400,000 yacht) to the macro scale (Russia). Non-scientific extrapolation suggests to me that as much as 40% of even healthy economies is dirty. In non-healthy economies the 'crime fraction' may be much higher, nearing 100% in places like North Korea.

The other thing I notice is that the more authoritarian the regime, the higher the crime fraction, because when you take away the incentive for legal entrepreneurialism the void tends to be filled by the criminal variety. Do your own analysis and form your own conclusions.

Criminal activity, in almost all of its forms, is very corrosive to a healthy economy. The current economic crisis was precipitated by an epidemic of corrupt "gray area" activity: a big chunk of the financial industry made loans they knew were bad then packaged and resold those loans without disclosing the risk associated with them, in order to keep inflating the real estate bubble, encouraged by politicians who not only took money from but openly conducted homosexual affairs with the financial executives making the bad loans. (Want to see an eerie coincidence: study the biography of John Maynard Keynes.)

Governments rest on legitimacy in the eyes of the governed, even authoritarian ones. As authoritarianism increases, individual liberty decreases, and the crime fraction grows, loss of legitimacy accelerates the process, leading to a "failed state". A failed state may lash out against its neighbors or become a humanitarian and economic sinkhole, draining resources from neighbors.

We are now at the decisive moment for the United States, and are betting our whole future that Keynes and Galbraith are right and Schumpeter, Hayek, and Rand are wrong - that government really does know better than you and me.

The stimulus bill signed yesterday contains a provision to allegedly spend $81 billion "protecting the vulnerable" (plus another $61 billion of vulnerable-protecting deceptively lumped under "tax relief"). No information, so far, about what that means, but it probably means welfare or straight-up wealth redistribution - maybe that plan to give tax refunds to people who paid no taxes.

However, the government promises:
This is your money. You have a right to know where it's going and how it's being spent. Learn what steps we're taking to ensure you can track our progress every step of the way.
That is, without telling us what $142 billion worth of "protecting the vulnerable" means. I downloaded the bill, and studied it for a while (It's 407 pages, I haven't read the whole thing yet, either, but then again I didn't vote for it.) and can find no reference or explanation about protecting the vulnerable.

If it works, we'll be fat, dumb, and happy serfs. If it doesn't work, what will happen?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I'm a strange combination of extremely busy and lazy right now, so I'm relying on UCF memes for posts. Normally I let memes slide by, but after reading Eric's book post, I decided that doing the book meme from my office might elicit something strange, if not humorous.

Here's the meme:

1. Take five books off your bookshelf.
2. Book #1 -- first sentence
3. Book #2 -- last sentence on page fifty
4. Book #3 -- second sentence on page one hundred
5. Book #4 -- next to the last sentence on page one hundred fifty
6. Book #5 -- final sentence of the book
7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph....

OK, but I have to warn you that the only non-science books I have in my office are for studying foreign languages:

Однажды весною, в час небывало жаркого заката, в Москве, на Патриарших прудах, появились два гражданина. Что, однако, резко отличает его от товарищей по работе -- это то, что на всех этапах его пути его сопровождают слухи об интригах, о нарушении дисциплины, о самоуправстве, о клевете на товарищей, даже о доносах полиции на соперников. それはどな用事でしたか。所長から聞いた。先制は何も言わずに教室を出て行かれた。

One unseasonably hot spring day, at the hour of sunset, two citizens appeared in the Park of the Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow. What, however, sharply distinguishes him from his comrades in arms - is that every step of his way is accompanied by rumors about intrigues, breach of discipline, arbitrariness, slander of his comrades, even about betrayal of his rivals to the police. On what matter was he summoned? The head of the institute had written. The teacher left the classroom without saying a word.

1. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
2. Portraits of the Revolutionaries by Lev Trotsky
3. Office Japanese by Hajime Takamizawa
4. Japanese, the Written Language Prt 2 by Eleanor Harz Jordan and Mari Noda (spit - I hate hate hate Jordan's teaching methods)
5. Japanese verbs at a Glance by Naoko Chino

OK, I learned a couple of things. First, this kind of exercise is far easier with Japanese where the topic of conversation is set once a paragraph or so, and sentences thereafter are usually subjectless, and can be fit into all kinds of patterns when taken out of context. Second, I also learned that if you take random sentences out of my library, even if the flow is a bit broken, it sounds really, really sinister. Well, what can you expect, I study Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. That is vaguely sinister, when you think about it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Question for All You Scientists and Engineers Out There

When was the last time you went to the library? What did you check out? Did you copy anything?

Our institution no longer has a print library for journals, and the only reason I see to keep them in some institutions is to access older stuff that has not yet been digitized. I have not made a copy of an article on a copy machine in probably 7 years, now.

If you had told me in grad school that the copy machine would be a thing of the past within 5 years of graduation, I would have looked at you as if you had just landed from the Planet Idiot.

These musings were prompted by this article.

I attend several large conferences each year, and get a subscription to several print journals as part of my society fees. I don't read them. I search the TOC of the on-line editions each month, instead. The only print issue I keep is the big, fat one with all the abstracts from that international conference, because it's still easier for me to look at a print version to see the other, related, presentations from that journal, which I might miss searching the conference CD using keywords.

I think moving to pure on-line publishing for most articles, with perhaps once-per-quarter print editions of the most important stuff is probably they direction that scientific publishing should be headed.

That being said, there will have to be sources found to replace print ad revenue, and pop-up ads in on-line versions are not going to be popular.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I Swear

...that I did not see the title of this blog post by Philip Davis before I wrote my piece on Rossler. I guess great minds think alike.

If you didn't click the link, the post describes a publishing scandal very similar to the editorial shenanigans that I described in detail in my post about Otto Rossler, involving the very same journal, but this time surrounding the Editor-in-Chief, Mohamed El Naschie* rather than Rossler. It seems that El Naschie has published 322 papers in his own journal. When one considers that even a crank like Rossler has managed about 50 less in a 40 year career, one's mind begins to boggle.

As Phil notes in a follow-up post, El Naschie has been replaced as EIC, probably a case of too little, too late.

It does not surprise me that the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was involved in scientific controversy. It surprises me even less that this controversy is based on behavior similar to Rossler's: self-publishing articles that would be subjected to intense peer review in a journal with a high reputation. Acceptable behavior is dictated by behavior at the top, and Rossler was just following his boss's lead.

One thing that Davis said that is really, really good for the layman to keep in mind is this:

A journal is a community of individuals, and membership in each community is conferred with the successful transfer of a manuscript. If this gift is accepted, the author receives a symbolic transfer of prestige back from that community. Prestige is legitimated when it is recognized by the broader scientific community. If I have never heard of your journal, then being an author means nothing to me. If your article is published in a controversial journal, then that association is transferred as well.

This is another way of looking at what I was saying in the previous post on Rossler. Of course people want to be good scientific citizens. Of course scientists want to publish in order to share their discoveries with others so that others don't repeat their work, but go on to advance science even farther by building on it. But that does not mean that the publishing scientist does not want to obtain the greatest amount of standing in return for their effort.

In my literary days I was a historicist. Historicists admit that there is a social aspect to every human endeavor. Unlike post-modernists, however, historicists never jumped the shark and claimed that the entire process to anything (especially science) is entirely social.

So, lets be clear that I'm agreeing with Davis as a historicist, not as a post-modernist. The social aspect of journal publishing outlined by Davis is a proxy for a process of physical reproduction of the experiments in a new publication. In the perfect world, all reviewers of a new manuscript would be required to reproduce the results in a new paper as part of the peer review process to provide a firewall against scientific fraud. In practice, there is not enough time in the day.

So top tier journals unleash the big dogs as peer reviewers, and those top scientists are likely to have performed experiments similar to the ones in a hypothetical new publication. The bottom of the barrel often performs no peer review beyond the editor and perhaps one other reviewer, usually also on the editorial board. In the case of CS&F, even this minimal review was skipped for the editor's publications.

When I dismantled Rossler's reputation in that previous post, I had not fully researched Chaos, Solitons and Fractals beyond finding that quote by Wen Zhen describing the unethical editorial practices that led to the inflation of the journal's Impact Factor. Since then, I've dug a little deeper into the matter, and I've seen a lot of quotes similar to this one:

For you see, the most simple minded, stupid, and yet pervasive index of journal quality is the Impact Factor, peddled by none other than (you guessed it) Thomson Scientific, which determines the quality of the journal by the brilliant and subtle method of dividing the number of citations are received from publications indexed by Thomson by the number of articles in the journal (in other words, the sort of thing a monkey would come up with). As a result mostly of citations to itself, CFS has a higher impact factor than any mathematics journal, even though it is worthless pseudoscience. (Journals in other fields consistently have higher IFs than mathematics, since they write more, shorter, papers, and thus tend to cite each other more often).

One of the legitimate complaints about Impact Factor is that it does not take into account the size or the publishing norms of the field. Mathematics is a small field that publishes infrequently, so going by simple number of papers cited, journals in the field are going to get lower IFs than Biology journals which is larger and depends on rapid communication to grow the knowledge base**.

But once I turned my, well, not baleful eye, more an exasperated and pissed off hairy eyeball, to CS&F, well, as my friend MWT said, the whole thing stated to look like digging out a tumor with a spoon. The entire journal is tainted from the crank-editor-in-chief down to Rossler.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Ah, screw that, I'm tired of this cluster of nuts. I, like Eric, want to write about something fun for a change. But when the LHC turns on again, the whole crew we've been writing about will get another burst of publicity, and I want to have everything laid out in black and white pixels so I can lump it all together in one big meta-post and mail it to the major media outlets to let them know that a group of bloggers who actually, you know, went to school and studied stuff, rather than studying how to write about stuff, actually did their work for them, thank you very much.

So here, in as concise a post as I can manage, is the evidence that anyone who has published in CS&F should take those papers right off of their CV and hide them, and anyone, such as Rossler, whose publication list is riddled with cites to that journal, should be laughed out of public discourse.

First of all, I became aware of the greater scandal with CS&F via the n-Category Cafe, a fine science blog that you all should read:

It is sad that some academic institutions and, in larger extent, some publishers back those people up. For example, Elsevier has a journal called Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, included unfortunately in the A+ category in quality by the Australian Academy of Sciences, in a powerful commercial citation factory called Current Contents and with high “impact factor” over 3. It is not that in Chaos etc. there are no good papers, some are normal regular hard science. But, a significant and very visible percentage of papers there belong to one and the same group of people including the very editor, certain El Naschie, a person with many bogus affiliations, and writing in recent years papers with practically no arguments but high predictions based on numerology, coincidences and fancy pictures combining Lie algebras, chaos theory and so on, at the layman level.

Please allow me one digression here - funding and other goodies are doled out by governments based on a mixture of quality and quantity of publications of the scientist in question. One of the main indicators of quality is the IF, so the game mentioned by Wen Zhen has serious implications on the distribution of public monies, when non-sensical, self-referential papers in CS&F are graded as A+ by a government funding agency. THIS is why cranks need to be driven out publicly and quickly - scarce research dollars should not be spent on them, but rather on legitimate research.

Those of you familiar with the Walter L. Wagner story will see a depressing repetition here. El Naschie was trained as an engineer, and claims a Ph.D. from Cambridge. Unfortunately, Cambridge no longer claims him:

One further aspect is whether El Naschie's PhD thesis, claimed to have been accepted at University College London in the 1970s, exists or not. No clear information on this has yet emerged.

Beyond his Ph.D., El Naschie claimed affiliation with Cambridge for a long time with no clear basis in reality:

El naschie keeps publishing junks in CSF for a quite long time and kept unnoticed by mentoring system of Elsevier which seems very odd. While it was so obvious from the far beginning that we have a crackpot.

The same applies to Cambridge university which allowed him to publish his articles for nearly ten years 1993-2001 using its affiliation, while, for sure, he wasn't a staff member there. It is far from reality to imagine that people in Cambridge have been fooled for that long time.

But what, exactly, is he publishing? Well, as Derek Lowe noted, the physicists and mathematicians who have actually read his work have a pretty low opinion of it:

While I'm not qualified to referee his works, those who are report that his papers don't make much sense - "undisciplined numerology larded with impressive buzzwords" is one review at the UT site. (That's a phrase I'm going to have to remember for future use; it's bound to come in handy).

The Quantum Pontiff also notes the skepticism of reviewers interviewed by Nature about the scandal:

Scene three: tensions rise. Peer reviewed or not peer reviewed, that is the question:

Most scientists contacted by Nature comment that El Naschie's papers tend to be of poor quality. Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University in New York, says he thinks that "it's plain obvious that there was either zero, or at best very poor, peer review, of his own papers". There is, however, little evidence that they have harmed the field as a whole.

Hmmmm. The extent of harm is often hard to judge in a delayed feedback loop. The University of Frankfurt is reportedly initiating an investigation of El Naschie's claim to be affiliated with them, when his actual affiliation is:

a private association, called the “Frankfurter Förderverein für physikalische Grundlagenforschung” (Frankfurt association for the support of basic research in phyiscs).

It is interesting to note that Thompson really set itself up in this interview with El Naschie concerning the article On a fuzzy Kahler-like manifold which is consistent with the two slit experiment which was published in the other journal caught up in this scandal (CS&F and the International Journal of Nonlinear Science have been accused of requiring authors in either journal to cross-cite to drive up the IMpact Factor).

In fact, I have never recognized the traditional lines of demarcation between the sciences, not even between theoretical physics and engineering, let alone pure mathematics and applied physics. Thus, the melting of math, physics, and experimental realism may have appealed to similarly-inclined researchers and thus led to the high citation rate of this particular paper.

However, in any event, one should not forget that my approach in this paper, namely geometrizing physics, is in a direction where the majority of theoretical physicists working on the Minkowski-Einstein program are involved, and that the two-slit experiment which I attempt to resolve in the same paper is arguably the most famous and most difficult problem in quantum mechanics. There are also possible applications, as yet undreamed, for this experiment in nano and quantum technology. This may also have contributed to the high citation rate.

This attack on "traditional lines of demarcation" is quite a large red flag for crankhood - most real scientists are actively multidisciplinary, but also very, very cautious about going to far afield form their core training without being very careful that they are not making fundamental mistakes. And when the man boasts about high citation numbers? Well, just take a gander at this Google Scholar page, which gives the actual papers citing one of his more famous papers in Google Scholar at 38 cites. I sure didn't find any cites without El Naschie listed as an author. To give you a calibration, I have not published in the open scientific literature in about 10 years since becoming one of the evil minions of Industry and changing career paths, but my most-cited paper has been cited 345 times in 11 years, and only about 5 of those cites are from papers I authored.

Elsevier's practice of bundling journals so that librarires have no choice but to buy crud such as CS&F if the library wishes to purchase Elsevier's more prestigious journals has not made the publishing house any friends in Academia. The biology community is not happy with their decision to publish the journal Homeopathy, which lends a patina of legitimacy to that most unscientific of "disciplines".

I've been loath to jump on the bandwagon excoriating Elsevier, when I know that their journals do provide a publishing outlet when the channels at the Society-sponsored journals are full - there is just not enough space in the more "altruistic" formats to publish everything that comes out of Academia, and private publishers do perform a useful function in filling the gap. No one complains about Nature Publishing Group turning a profit, because they maintain their quality standards. The issue is not one of private versus "altruistic", and Academics would do well to remember this before going off into tirades that betray their ignorance of economics. The issue is that Elsevier is behaving as a near-monopoly in a way that leads to one of two possible conclusions - either they are asleep at the wheel, or they are publishing and bundling known crap, and degrading the prestige of their other journals in the procerss purely out of greed.

One of those two conculsions is correct, but I do not have the time or resources to ascertain which one. And in fact, both lead to the same unhappy end for Elsevier, unless they clean up their act. The only conclusion I can come to for certain is that anyone who regularly published in CS&F is tainted. I know that I would be taking any publications in CS&F off of my CV, if I had any.

Which I don't. :p

* For the scientifically uninitiated, that "lecture" is chock full of vague buzzwords, banal observations, and scientific non-sequiturs. What exactly this branch of mathematics has to do with nanotechnology, I have no idea, and I speak as someone trained in several branches of nanotechnology.

** Biology, let's be very frank here, is the easiest of the hard sciences, or at least the one that requires the least math. People who balk at chemistry or physics at junior and senior levels of college because of the sharp increase in applied math at that level tend to drop into biology as a consolation prize. In science there is a very definite hierarchy of perceived difficulty based on math content (and hey, I'm a P-chemist, so I say that there is a high correlation between perception and reality here :p). Taking my tongue partially out of my cheek, biology is also the science that's going to give you the greatest bang for your buck in terms of innovation at this point in history, so it is not exactly a bad thing that biology is heavily populated right now. But take a poll of 100 doctors and ask how many started as Chemistry majors and switched to biology when P-Chem loomed large. The driver for migration into biology is not perceived utility, but perceived ease of obtaining a degree with decent grades. Even when biology begins to become less fruitful 50 years hence, it's still going to attract more students than high math disciplines.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


I rarely participate in memes, but this one's been going around the UCF: 25 random facts about yourself. I've kind of liked the answers and I'm at at least as random as Michelle, and probably twice as crazy as anyone in the UCF, excepting Jim, so here goes:

My surname is Prussian.

I have both Scotts (Clan Munro) and Irish (Brady) in my background, as befits a true Southerner, but that mix in combination with Prussian is truly unholy.

One of my distant ancestors was a Brit in New Amsterdam, and was jailed briefly by the Dutch for shooting his neighbor’s dog when the dog dug up his garden.

I have ancestors who served on both sides of both the Revolution and the Civil War.

When I was 5 I wanted to be a “stinky ol’ farmer”, as my grandfather the farmer put it.

I had my first taste of chewing tobacco when I was 5. Same grandfather. He “forgot” to tell me to spit. I swallowed. I have not had a chew since. o.O

I had my first taste of beer around the same time. It was Pabst Blue Ribbon. I didn’t drink beer again until I was 25. My grandfather may have been a farmer, but when it came to keeping kids away from temptations, he wasn’t stupid. :D

I was a very poor student my first two years in high school, because I had idiots whom I did not respect for teachers, but I got my act together the second two years enough to finish in the top 7. My SAT score beat the valedictorian's by over 150 points, and I was the only National Merit Scholar in the county the year I graduated.

I have a letter of commendation from Komsomol. It was for serving in the Stroiotryady. On the stroiotryad I laid bricks and roofed an apartment building in Moscow.

I have been detained by the KGB twice*. It was in Gorbachev’s USSR, so I was not too scared. (Yeah, right.)

I was in the middle of this.

I have never been south of the equator.

When I was a child, I frequently flew in helicopters piloted by both US Army and ARVN veterans.

My father was a meteorologist.

My father’s poor health strongly colors my memories of my childhood. He had a rare heart condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot. Complications from it killed him when I was 20.

I still miss him. He was the strongest person I ever knew. Even late in his life when he’d turn blue from lack of oxygen after a dozen steps, he never stooped to getting a handicapped parking permit. That was for really handicapped people.

I was a bang-up student in college, and finished my 4-year degree with a 4-year certificate in the translation of technical Russian in 3 years. I missed having my father see me graduate by 6 months.

I have pretty long ear hair for my age. If I forget to trim it, certain people in my life are likely to ask me “what are you, a dog?”.

I still bite my nails. This led to some pretty nasty tastes in Organic Chemistry.

I don’t think I work hard enough.

My biggest regret in life is not having served in uniform.

The place where I’ve lived that I miss the most is Tokyo.

The place I’d most like to live next is Singapore.

When I retire, I want to buy a farm in Loudoun County, VA.

When I die, I will be buried in Virginia, in a cemetery full of Confederate Soldiers named “Union Cemetery”. I think that’s fitting.

*Ol’ Tank’s going to have a field day with that one :D