March 17th, 2018 (Permalink)
Quote Watch: Einstein Didn't Say That
It is an irony of fate that I myself have been the recipient of excessive admiration and reverence from my fellow-beings, through no fault or merit of my own.―Albert Einstein1
Since this is an entry about quoting, allow me to quote myself:
I've noted previously that Albert Einstein is a quote magnet, that is, any quote about science will eventually be attributed to him. Moreover, Einstein is the paradigm example of a "genius", so many quotes having nothing to do with science are attributed to him as a sort of all-purpose authority on everything.2
If you don't believe me, perhaps you'll believe a recent article from Aeon magazine:
Unsurprisingly, Einstein is quoted as an authority on science. … But he is more frequently quoted on a wide variety of non-scientific subjects, including education, intelligence, politics…, religion, marriage, money and music-making. …[Q]uotations from Einstein vary vastly in authenticity. Many can be traced to his writings; some are based on the recollections of those who knew him well; some have mutated over time; some resemble his thinking, or seem consistent with his personal behaviour but are not really his. And a number are simply bogus, invented to take advantage of his reputation as a genius and iconoclast…. As Calaprice3 observes: ‘Some sound genuine, some are apocryphal, and others are no doubt fakes, created by those who wanted to use Einstein’s name to lend credibility to a cause or an idea.’4
In addition to the fact that many of these alleged Einstein quotes are fraudulent, there is little reason to care what Einstein's opinions were about "politics…, religion, marriage, money and music-making". For instance, this article claims he had "two unsuccessful marriages5": would that make him an expert on marriage?
I'm beginning to think that there are so many fraudulent Einstein quotes out there that merely alleged ones should be presumed fake until proven genuine.
- Alice Calaprice, editor, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (2010), p. 14.
- Counterfeit Goods, 10/6/2017.
- Alice Calaprice, the editor of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, see the first note, above.
- Andrew Robinson, "Thus spake Albert", Aeon, 3/12/2018.
- See the previous note. Einstein's first marriage ended in divorce, but I'm not sure why Robinson writes that his second was "unsuccessful". However, I don't know much about Einstein's personal life. See, also, Calaprice, p. xxvi.
March 9th, 2018 (Permalink)
New Book: The Truth Matters
The truth certainly does matter, but the subtitle of this new book by Bruce Bartlett is more revealing than its title about what its supposed to be: "A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks". In the Introduction, Bartlett compares it to Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, meaning that it's a short guidebook to its subject for the general reader. Also, in the Introduction, he writes:
Once upon a time, Americans could read their local newspaper, subscribe to a weekly newsmagazine, and watch thirty minutes of national news on television each night, and be reasonably sure they knew everything important and newsworthy that they needed to know to live their lives. Those days are long gone. Newspapers have shrunk their news coverage drastically, the newsweeklies are shadows of their former selves, and the network evening broadcasts are viewed by only a fraction of their previous viewership. …Many people crave a simpler time before cable and the Internet….1
I'm doubtful about this notion of a golden age of American journalism prior to the internet and cable news channels: perhaps it was not so much a golden age as a fool's paradise. Is the media environment really worse today or are we just now learning how bad it's been all along? The environment may well have been simpler in the past, but simpler is not always better.
Of course, in this introduction, Bartlett is attempting to identify a need for his book, but I think that most people would agree that there is a need. Whether this is the book to satisfy that felt need, I don't know yet. I do agree with this part of Bartlett's prescription: "Ultimately, news consumers―average people―must take it upon themselves to learn how to identify fake news, irresponsible news sources and those peddling a political agenda from those that strive to tell the objective truth, exercise quality control and editorial oversight, correct errors, and maintain a reasonable separation between reportage and opinion."2
Who is Bruce Bartlett and what are his credentials for writing this book? He was a policy analyst in the Reagan administration and worked on economic policy for the Treasury Department under the first President Bush3, which would seem to make him a conservative Republican policy expert, but he seems to have taken a left turn and is now an independent4. These may not be the sort of credentials you'd expect for an author of a book on fake news: perhaps a former journalist or journalism professor would be more like it. However, Bartlett's knowledge as an experienced researcher may give him valuable insights, especially on economic matters.
The following is excellent advice:
…[J]ust think about Wikipedia. Many people abuse Wikipedia, and I talk a little bit about that [in the book]. One of the things that I always tell people is that it’s a great place to start your research but you never, ever want to end your research there. Although I’ve never, that I know of, been misled by information I got on Wikipedia, nevertheless, I would still double check everything. But if you’re starting to research a subject that you know absolutely nothing about, it’s a great place to start, because sometimes all you need is the name of one person or one book or one article that is a good summary of the subject you’re interested in and then you have search terms that you can plug into [search engines]….4
I've written much the same thing, myself 5, so you know it's got to be true!
- Bruce Bartlett, The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks (2017).
- Bruce Bartlett, "Fake news is a test for citizens. Here's how to pass it.", USA Today, 10/24/2017.
- Michael Winship, "GOP Tax Cuts Won’t Pass This Year―Or Maybe Even Next", Bill Moyers, 10/31/2017. So much for Bartlett's abilities as a prophet.
- Michael Winship, "Bruce Bartlett on Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks", Bill Moyers, 11/1/2017.
- Wikipedia Watch, 5/2/2014.
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February 28th, 2018 (Permalink)
Junk Food Science
A scientific scandal is rocking Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, and both BuzzFeed News1 and Slate2 have run recent articles on it. One source of the scandal seems to be that the head of the lab, Brian Wansink, is more of an activist than a scientist, and the lab's work more advocacy research than science. Multiple comparisons3 would appear to be the lab's main research sin, but there are multiple failures here, not all of which can be laid at the door of the lab:
- Multiple comparisons:
…Wansink coached [a visiting researcher] to knead the pizza data. First, he wrote, she should break up the diners into all kinds of groups: “males, females, lunch goers, dinner goers, people sitting alone, people eating with groups of 2, people eating in groups of 2+, people who order alcohol, people who order soft drinks, people who sit close to buffet, people who sit far away, and so on…”. Then she should dig for statistical relationships between those groups and the rest of the data: “# pieces of pizza, # trips, fill level of plate, did they get dessert, did they order a drink, and so on...”.1
This seems to have been the lab's usual procedure: search through data until a statistically significant relationship between two variables is found, then invent a post hoc hypothesis to explain the relationship. This would be fine in exploratory research, but there needs to be a follow-up study to see whether the relationship is real or just a statistical fluke. However, the lab seems to have neglected to follow up.
Worse, it also seems to have failed to report this procedure in its published articles. In all likelihood, many of the lab's papers would not have been accepted for publication if it had been open about all of the comparisons made, together with the apparent fact that no statistical adjustments were made for those comparisons. Statistical significance at the usual .05 level is meaningless if twenty or more comparisons are made, and there are many more than twenty comparisons suggested in the above quote.
- Poor peer review:
Scientists often rely on peer reviewers―anonymous experts―to weed out errors in papers before they go to press. But journals didn’t, or couldn’t, catch every inaccuracy from the Food and Brand Lab. For example, reviewers were generally positive about what ended up being a controversial 2012 study in Preventive Medicine. It reported that schoolchildren ate more vegetables at lunch when they had catchy names like “X-Ray Vision Carrots.” … Last fall, Wansink admitted that the lunchtime observation part of the carrots study had actually been done on preschoolers, not the reported 8- to 11-year-olds.1
This is really the researchers' fault, and not that of the peer reviewers, as it appears that the latter were misled. It's unreasonable to expect reviewers to catch misstatements or missing information about how an experiment was conducted, since they have to rely upon the experimenters to accurately and fully report what they did.
Clearly, peer review failed to prevent the publication of a large number of bad articles, but I don't see any evidence that the problem was with the reviewers rather than the researchers. This is not to say that peer review isn't often superficial―it is―just that in this particular case it doesn't seem that it can be faulted.
- Publish and perish: "When their work was rejected, the members of the Food and Brand Lab would often try increasingly lower-quality journals until they succeeded.1"
You can't blame the researchers for trying to get their papers published somewhere; the fault here is in the "lower-quality journals" being willing to publish junk papers, as well as in the entire academic ethos of "publish or perish". The lab is now in danger of perishing from publishing so much junk, but up until recently it was an extremely successful research organization. If the lab survives the current scandal, it may have to stop publishing junk research, but it would be nice if the "lower-quality journals" improved their standards. Unfortunately, as long as the pressure to publish is so strong, there will continue to be a demand for these journals―not from readers, of course, since nobody wants or needs to read this junk, but from the scholars who must publish it somewhere, anywhere.
- Replication is not optional: "This practice [publishing in 'lower-quality' journals] is in part responsible for the sheer volume of scientific findings that cannot be replicated.1"
These articles say little about the extent to which other scientists attempted to replicate the lab's work, but given that most of the supposed effects discovered by the lab were probably statistical artefacts of their flawed research procedure, I would expect that they would not replicate. As with "publish or perish", this is one of the perverse incentives towards junk research built into the current academic environment. Because there is usually so little reward for attempting to replicate the work of others, much bad research is never discovered or exposed. Labs like this can crank out hundreds of worthless studies for years because nobody bothers to try to replicate them.
Moreover, I suspect that many people in the field were aware that much of this research was shoddy, but just ignored it. How could they not be aware of the amount of silly stuff published in their own field? I'm not even in the field and I'm aware of it! All you have to do is read the popular press to see that much of the research about food, nutrition, weight loss, etc., is hokum.
- Stephanie M. Lee, "The Inside Story Of How An Ivy League Food Scientist Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies", BuzzFeed News, 2/25/2018.
- Daniel Engber, "Death of a Veggie Salesman", Slate, 2/28/2018.
- The Multiple Comparisons Fallacy
February 20th, 2018 (Permalink)
The Puzzle of the Five Suspects
Who shot Victor Timm? The only witness to the shooting saw a short blond running away.
There are five suspects who each had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime: Avery, Bailey, Casey, Davey, and Eddy.
Three of the suspects are short―less than six feet tall―and two are tall―greater than six feet. Three of the suspects have brown hair, while two have blond. At least one of the suspects is a tall blond.
Avery and Casey are the same height, whereas Davey and Eddy are different heights―that is, one is short and the other is tall. Bailey and Eddy have the same hair color, while Casey and Davey have different colors.
Which of the five suspects shot Timm?
February 1st, 2018 (Permalink)
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