Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sokalian Diatribes


For those who have been paying attention to the latest news in science, you might have heard of computer scientist Cyril Labbé. For the past two years, Labbé has been using a program he created to detect fake articles created by another program called "SCIgen" that strings together words to create fake science papers and submits these articles to a range of journals - as a result, major publishers like Springer and IEEE have been alerted to over 120 instances of these computer generated articles that have been accepted by their journals.

This is pretty shocking (even though maybe it shouldn't be as it's not the first time it's occurred) but what I find interesting is the reaction from the scientific and skeptical community. The overwhelming response I've seen at a grassroots level is one of excuses; for example, I've seen many arguments that this isn't really a problem for scientific publishing because the only place that has been identified as being scammed was a conference rather than a mainstream journal. This is similar to the criticism of the Science investigation I mention above, where the author was criticised on various grounds, including the idea that the methodology was flawed for not having a control group.

To be clear, my complaint here isn't the validity of the complaints. The ones I mention above I even agree with and they were my immediate thoughts when faced with the news. My complaint, on the other hand, is more about the difference in the reaction to this paper compare to the infamous "Sokal Affair".

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Law of Feynman

I've considered writing this entry a number of times from multiple different angles but in light of the recent debacle, I've gone with this: The Law of Feynman. Stated simply, I view the relationship as such:

As a scientist's popularity increases, the probability of them making silly statements outside of their area of knowledge also increases. 

To help clarify this unique interaction of a scientist's popularity with silliness, I also propose that it be quantified and measured in terms of "Dawks". The unit of measurement here ranges from 0-10, with a Dawk score of "10" being comparable to the silliness of Richard Dawkins himself. If you don't think Dawkins makes silly statements outside of his area, I recommend you browse his Twitter feed. I particularly liked this one:

You showed them, Richard! Just er, let's not talk about Western Medicine or even (more broadly) Western Science.