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Beating the Bounds

By Peter,

Having found the new optimism more mundane than the image it projected of itself, I returned towards the jet d’eau to set off round the perimeter of its “parish” in the hope of finding whatever might remain of the earlier optimisms it had displaced. My perambulation uncovered no less than thirteen ghosts, relics and living examples.b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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On finally facing the Enquiry Centre, I saw that it consisted of three parts, representing successive stages in its evolution. The oldest section exhibited the brutalist style typical of many British university buildings of the 1960s and early ’70s. McKean and Walker describe it as “a muscular medieval fortress”, and its concrete buttresses and small windows…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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I posted a rather lengthy comment to a post at the Aguanomics blog. It discusses “the power structures that affect our lives” in terms of centralized vs. decentralized (what I might prefer to call dispersed) and coercive vs. free, each portrayed as a dichotomy. I don’t know if my comment is under review or if…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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“ It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible ” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Continuing my archaeology of the present, I headed out of Geddes Quadrangle toward Small’s Wynd where, closely encroached by other structures stood…

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Tt is no doubt a good thing that we hear of scientific fraud, academic plagiarism and medical malpractice in the name of research, but we would do well to remember that these are just sophisticated names for age-old theft and assault. Can we really hope for better science if we can't hope for better people?

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Jet d’Eau

By Peter,

Falling unannounced into the city and armed only with a map from a hundred years ago, I set off, hoping to find in the city’s physical form clues to the origins of my own preferences and limitations. At the head of the rose angle, on stone plinths still bearing the stumps of railings long since…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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By Peter,

Increasingly, our culture will have to be built around maintaining elderly people whose prospects of returning to independent good health or of ever being economically productive is essentially nil. What then will be the core value of our culture?b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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I’m leery about the whole idea of “science communication”. While science communicators generally present themselves as educators, a lot of science communication is at least as much concerned with fostering favourable public attitudes to the quite particular private interests of professional scientists who want more funding for certain types of research, of political organisations who…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

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I’ve been reading about the NIPS Experiment. Calm down at the back there. NIPS stands for Neural Information Processing Systems. It’s all very serious and you can read about the experiment [url=""]here[/url] and [url=""]here[/url].
In essence, the experiment aimed to examine the process by which papers are accepted or rejected by peer review committees for conference presentation. Obviously, it’s all to do with scientific quality and the scientific community is built around a common understanding of what that means. Or is it?
The NIPS experimenters split their panel of conference peer reviewers into two committees. Most of the papers went to one committee or the other for review, but 10% of them (166 papers) were reviewed by both committees without the members knowing which papers they were. It was then possible to see how similar the two committees were in their evaluation of those papers. A full write-up of the results is still to come, apparently, but [url=""]Eric Price has revealed the essence[/url].
The committees disagreed in their evaluation of 43 of the 166 papers. Naïvely, you might think that’s not too bad. They disagreed on 25.9% of cases, so they must have agreed on 74.1%. However, Eric Price points out that the committees were tasked with a 22.5% acceptance rate which means that the number of disagreements was larger than the number of acceptances each committee was expected to make. This means that most (more than half) of the papers accepted by either committee were rejected by the other.
Price considers a theoretical model which treats the peer review process as a combination of “certain” and “random” components. He assumes that there will be some papers that every reviewer agrees should be accepted (acceptance is certain) and some that everyone agrees should be rejected (rejection is certain). For the rest, Price’s model assumes that committee members make their decision by (metaphorically at least) flipping a coin. This is the random component and the level of randomness in peer review is the proportion of papers that get this treatment. The divergence in reviewing committees’ decisions seen in the NIPS experiment imply that there is quite a lot of this coin-flipping randomness in peer review; perhaps more than most people thought.
Is this “randomness” in reviewers assessments a cause for concern? Price points out that “consistency is not the only goal” and, indeed, it can arise for reasons that are not necessarily welcome. For instance, unanimously accepted papers may simply be feeling the benefit of appearing under the name of well-connected authors that reviewers favour for reputational reasons. Conversely, papers that reviewers unanimously reject may just be suffering the penalty of pursuing unfashionable research topics that reviewers see as a drain on funding for more popular topics. It may well be that it is precisely in the “random middle” – between the certain acceptances and certain rejections – that we see peer review at its best.
But how can it be any good if it’s random? The truth is, it’s pretty implausible that it really [i]is[/i] random. I don’t see much reason to believe that peer reviewers actually flip coins and as [url=""]humans are not good random number generators[/url], it seems unlikely that conceptual flipping of imaginary coins would produce genuinely random results. What really goes on in this middle zone is not random at all. Rather, it’s a process of deliberation where each reviewer considers a variety of factors and makes a decision on the basis of balancing those factors. Even having made the decision, the reviewer probably still feels a fair degree of uncertainty as to whether it was the right one.
Because reviewers are usually allowed to decide for themselves which factors to consider in their deliberations, there is a good deal of variation between reviewers as what factors they consider. Putting it more formally, the [i]weight[/i] they give to each factor is not prescribed. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that even individual reviewers will attach the same weight every time: the same reviewer could reach different conclusions about the same a paper considered under different circumstances.
In short, the degree of “randomness” seen in the NIPS experiment undermines one of the cornerstone assumptions of the peer review process – that reviewers share a coherent common notion of what qualities to value in a paper. Instead, it suggests that the criteria that reviewers use in practise are quite divergent. If this is the case, it is hard to see how peer review could possibly be “fair”. Certainly, steps such as making reviewers comments and identities open to authors would seem to miss the point. What is more in order is a dialogue over the criteria used to evaluate research in the first place and whether traditional peer review has any useful role to play in this. [img][/img]



This is a lawsuit filed by Wayne State University cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar making claims of defamation against the authors of anonymous posts published on the PubPeer online journal club website. It’s quite a read. Ivan Oransky has published a commentary here. Meanwhile, PubPeer has been sent a notice of subpoena to produce evidence that would allow the authors of the PubPeer comments to be identified.

The lawsuit claims that the comments, which largely concern the origins of gel images appearing in papers from Sarkar’s lab, effectively accuse Sarkar of research misconduct. Sarkar claims damages related to losses he suffered resulting from the decision by University of Mississippi to rescind a very lucrative job offer it had made to him.

As of this writing, Sarkar has never been found responsible for research misconduct. However, it’s hard to understand Mississippi’s decision unless the people there thought there was substance to the damaging implications of the PubPeer comments. Clearly, those comments have to be taken seriously as part of the literature of science whose effect (and function) is to blunt the confidence readers have in certain peer-reviewed papers.

Equally, as one intended function of Sarkar’s lawsuit must be to resharpen that confidence and thereby influence what people actually believe about science, it must also be regarded as another kind of scientific literature.b.gif?


Not Open Naming

By Peter,


I just saw this tweet from Brian Glanz.

‘We need to defend “#openscience” from misappropriation’ implies that while the term “openscience” may stand for openness, use of the term itself is not open. If it can be misappropriated, then it has been or can be ‘properly’ appropriated elsewhere. In effect, Glanz implies that the term “openscience” is itself proprietary.

Now I don’t suppose he wants anyone to think that it ‘belongs’ to some person or organization, but rather that when we see it used, we should reasonably be able to expect it to stand for certain things – a particular idea of open science. Of course, that idea has to come from some person or persons in particular and to have currency, it has to be an idea that is accepted within a particular community. Once they become accustomed to using it in a particular way, they may feel aggrieved when they find the term being used by others in contrary ways. Particularly so when that use appears to be an attempt by those others to gain credibility for themselves through using the term in a way that associates them with the currency afforded to the term by the community that established its use first.

It may well be that this is what was intended by the people behind the website that Glanz cites, Frustratingly, the site seems to be offline as I type this, but earlier viewings revealed it as a showcase for various ‘alternative’ science viewpoints. The only one with which I can claim any familiarity is that of Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake is a reminder that even among those with the trappings of “proper” scientists (Sheldrake has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University and has published many research papers in plant biochemistry) there lurks a certain dissatisfaction with scientific materialism. While I wouldn’t put money on Sheldrake and his ilk knocking the materialist axioms of science off their cultural pedestal, I equally doubt that such heretical attitudes are going to disappear. Science as we know it (open or otherwise) is a product of our culture in our historical era. It reflects our preferences and prejudices at least as much as it reflects nature. Some day, humanity will abandon science, either because interest in material reality wanes to the point of insignificance or because new and presently unsuspected ways of relating to it are discovered.

Glanz’s own Open Science Federation site characterizes open science as “proper science” that is “by anybody and for everybody”[*]. Evidently, the anybody has to subscribe to somebody‘s idea of what is proper. The question is: who is that somebody? If it’s the same as the everybody, then there may (probably will) be disparate ideas of what is ‘proper’ science. Who adjudicates in any disagreement over that and from where do they get their authority?

By invoking the need to “defend the good name of science from pseudoscience”, Glanz has implied that the Open Science Federation represents just such an adjudicator. But why? If everything is to be open, everybody will have the information they need to decide for themselves what they should believe. Every hypothesis is grist to the mill. Only by investing time and effort investigating it can you know it’s not right. To be sure, there’ll be cranks who keep coming back with the same old discredited or unsubstantiated stuff, but even then, being reminded of some “crazy” idea in a new context may be the spark that sets someone’s imagination off in a fruitful direction.

Shoring up the boundaries between “scientific” knowledge or discussion and knowledge or discussion generally is not a fruitful way forward for open science. b.gif?


An ambitious project to launch a crowd-funded lunar mission was announced today. A British company, Lunar Missions Ltd., intends to send a probe to the south pole of the moon in 2024. Its mission will include drilling a borehole at least 20 metres into the lunar surface. It is hoped that it will collect lunar rock samples that have lain undisturbed by solar radiation or meteorite impact since the moon formed some 4.5 billion years ago. This may help us understand how the moon and earth were formed and shed light on the practicality of a permanent manned lunar base.

Perhaps more remarkable than this scientific mission is the funding for the project which is expected to come from voluntary public subscriptions. Lunar Missions’s initial funding round is being run as a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign that the company hopes will yield $950,000 (£600,000) in a month. At that point “we will know if the project can move forward”, says Lunar Missions’s press release. The initial funding will allow the company to establish a management team to take the project to the next stage which will involve further rounds of crowdfunding. To attract pledges, the company offers each subscriber their own “digital memory box” in a time capsule to be buried in the moon as part of the lunar mission. Lunar Missions hopes that 1% of the global population who can afford to will eventually support the project, yielding revenues of £3billion ($4.6 billion).

The Lunar Mission One lander will have to be designed during the project, but it is suggested that the launch vehicle could be a SpaceX Falcon 9. Given that subscribers will be able to send their DNA to the moon as strands of hair, the payload is likely to include two or three kilograms of human hair.

While the lunar mission itself is clearly still a tad speculative, Lunar Missions also intend to use pledged funding to develop an educational project. Billed as “one of the most exciting and ambitious academic undertakings in history”, this will be a digital record of life on earth as submitted by the public. Presumably that will come cheap.

Most important of all, Lunar Missions have the media angle covered with Brian Cox and Angela Lamont on board and a glitzy CGI video of what the space craft might look like once they’ve got round to designing it.

Lunar Mission One is a fascinating and very ambitious idea. It will be interesting to see how far they get. If an entire space mission really can be financed without government or corporate backing, it raises the question of why any other area of scientific research would consider such support necessary.b.gif?


When some subject attracts controversy, there is more to it than mere disagreement. Disagreement need not lead to controversy if the disagreeing parties understand and have learned to live with each other’s point of view. Controversy arises when there is some unresolved tension to be worked out.

The subject of ‘open science’ still attracts controversy because there is no settled coexistence of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ models of science. There is disagreement over just what the “open” in open science should be taken to mean and over what type or degree of openness is the best for science. Those who are enthusiastic about greater openness tend to focus on themes of transparency, accountability, fairness in getting research published and, of course, “free” access to data. Those who still feel skeptical about open science tend to focus on the need to maintain standards of quality and reliability. Because the open science debate largely remains one that is conducted by science professionals for science professionals, tension arises over the extent to which the opening up of science should be allowed to disrupt the established norms of professionalised scientific practise.

One area where the effects of this tension can be see is in attitudes to the opening of peer review of research reports. A recent high-profile retraction of scientific papers that apparently drove one of the researchers involved to suicide, led to calls to open up the processes of peer review[*], but the editor of the journal concerned said that, while this had been considered, “the disadvantages — which include potential misinterpretations and the desire of many referees to keep their comments confidential — have prevented the journal from embracing this”[*]. Clearly, there are conflicting motivations here. Regardless of the effects on overall research quality, a major barrier to opening up peer review is the perceived desire of referees to preserve the established norm of anonymity.

In practise, peer review is a process of negotiation between the authors of a proposed research report, editors of the journal to which it has been submitted and reviewers selected on the basis that they are well-informed representatives of the eventual audience for the report. Authors want to get their report published in a journal with a ‘brand’ reputation that attracts the right sort of reader (people who’ll cite the paper, basically). Editors want papers that will reinforce the journal’s reputation for bringing out quality publications of interest to its readership.

Peer review is widely identified as a cornerstone of quality assurance in institutional science, most people readily admit that it has very obvious faults. Review is entrusted to a small number of individuals whose competence and trustworthiness are judged only subjectively by the editors. While reviewers are supposedly chosen on the basis that they possess a strong understanding of what quality means in relation to the relevant field of research and have a commitment to seeing it maintained, they may have other motives as well, such as getting to see new research results before everyone else or even seeking to influence what results others get to see. Another effect of institutional peer review is that acceptance of a paper for publication itself signals to readers that the work described is worthy of their attention and that the conclusions drawn by the authors are respectable. Individual readers are free to take contrary views, of course, but by doing so, they risk marking themselves as outsiders or even cranks if it’s not evident that many others feel the same way. Even when a post-publication debate takes place on the significance of a paper, there is not usually any mechanism for making the content of the debate a necessary part of reading the paper itself. The interpretations negotiated during the peer review process and set out in the published paper remain the ‘official’ position unless it turns out that the paper contains errors or misdemeanours serious enough to warrant retraction of the paper.

No doubt, there are circumstances where complete retraction is appropriate, but in many cases a discussion of what seems wrong and what remains good about the research report might be quite possible. There are plenty of reasons to believe that far more papers are in need of this kind of evaluation than are ever retracted [*]). There is at least one online forum (PubPeer) that tries to provide this kind of facility. But, it is notable that the people who make PubPeer say they have collectively decided to remain anonymous in order to avoid “circumstances in which involvement with the site might produce negative effects on their scientific careers”[*]. Clearly, there is real tension over the idea of open peer review where just anyone can criticise a research report and be identified for doing so.

Perhaps this tension will only resolve itself when an ‘open’ model of science abandons the idea of authoritative research statements as represented by the ‘scientific paper’ altogether and instead sees results only as stimulus to imagination that engenders debate and motivates further research action.b.gif?


‘PeculiarPhilosopher’, a participant at the Galilean Library (TGL), drew my attention to this excerpt (pp. 88-100) of an article by anarchist Bob Black in which he berates Noam Chomsky for claiming to be an anarchist while not really being one.

Black’s main gripe with Chomsky is that Chomsky is a leftist and as such adheres to moral and ideological values that are barriers to anarchism. Some of the discussion at TGL focused on the contrast between Chomsky’s leftist pragmatism and Black’s – what is it? – idealism? However, I think the difference between Chomsky’s anarchism and Black’s lies more fundamentally in the type of anarchy to which they are supposed to lead. Witness their polarised attitudes to democracy: for Chomsky, anarchy is justified as the perfection of democracy. Chomsky seems to see anarchy as the ultimate realisation of democracy. An anarchist society would be a perfectly democratic one. Democratic institutions, according to Chomsky, provide starting points where people can work within the state to “build the institutions of a future society” that would “place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities”[1]. He sees the attempts of authoritarian government and the PR/advertising industries to influence and indoctrinate people as an undermining of democracy.

Bob Black, on the other hand, seems to see these things as facets of democracy itself[2]. For him, democracy is just another device used by the state to make the people more susceptible to the propaganda of powerful elites and is something to be superseded by anarchy: “anarchism should be the threat to democracy”[3].

In Chomsky’s anarchy, there will still be professors at MIT publishing books and papers in academic journals, but in solidarity with “working people”. In Black’s, there might be none of these things. People, “working” or otherwise, will each be living their own anarchy, freed from their statist addictions which include, in addition to opportunities to answer a few multiple choice questions distilled from the sanitized, prepackaged “issues” on which the elites have deigned to consult them, financial and medical care safety nets and MIT professorships.

Just as it is incumbent upon Chomsky to persuade us that there are effective strategies for working with the state to bring about its democratic dissolution, so it is incumbent upon Black to persuade us that just dropping out of the state to live personal anarchy right now will not simply lead to some dog-eat-dog hell.

Black chides Chomsky [3] for failing to acknowledge that by far the greater part of human (pre)history took place before the advent of states and that in those days everyone lived in anarchic societies. That we’re here today to know that proves that they worked, I suppose. But what do we know about those anarchic societies? While Steven Pinker used his survey of the evidence[4] to support a rather whiggish account of history, I’ve not heard that his data are too badly flawed. He would contend that, overall, a decidedly greater proportion of people in prehistoric anarchic societies died violently at the hands of others than is the case in subsequent state societies. The state may support elites, but it also provides means of negotiation between competing interests, hence it’s less violent. Of course, Pinker’s evidence is statistical. There may have been very nonviolent anarchic societies in the mix. But if Black cares about that, it’s incumbent upon him to show us what characteristics anarchic societies must possess to avoid becoming endemically violent. Yet to do that without heading toward the moderated anarchy he so despises in Chomsky’s account could be a tall order.

While I instinctively find Black’s fauve anarchism more appealing than Chomsky’s enlightenment version, I still need persuading that it could ever persist for any significant length of time. Unfortunately, I think the evidence of history is that in the great majority of cases where an anarchic society has been in head-to-head competition with a state, the state has prevailed. That’s why today, most people live in states and why what anarchic societies there are, mostly survive at the pleasure of some state or other.

By historicising the argument for anarchism, Black attempts to cast the state as an aberration and anarchy as the ‘natural’ condition of human society. However, the state is really just a human invention – a technology – introduced as a way to make human societies more prosperous. So far, it has been rather successful in doing that. Its development is now an empirical part of the trajectory of human evolution. The state may (probably will) eventually disappear, of course, but it will not necessarily give way to anarchy. More likely, it will evolve into something else that we can presently scarcely imagine and for which we will no longer find “state” a useful name. Chomsky’s form of anarchism is perhaps more likely to have an effect on that than Black’s.








By Peter,

Seeing how people in the past imagined their future that is now our present is always entertaining and sometimes informative. The author of the Found0bjects blog has posted a set of illustrations taken from ‘Drugs’ published as a volume of … Continue reading →b.gif?