Saturday, August 13, 2022

Science With the Gobbledygook

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

Today we’re celebrating 500 thousand subscribers. That’s right, we made it to half a million! Thanks everyone for being here. YouTube has made it so much easier for me to cover the news that I think deserves to be covered, and you have made it happen. And to honor the occasion, we have collected some examples of science with the gobbledygook. And that’s what we’ll talk about today.

1. Salmon Dreams and Jelly Brains

In 2008, neuroscientist Craig Bennett took a dead Atlantic salmon to the laboratory and placed it in an fMRI machine. He then showed the salmon photographs of people in social situations and asked what the people in the photos might have been feeling. For example, if I show you a stock photo of a physicist with a laser, the associated emotion is obviously uncontrollable excitement. The salmon didn't answer.

You may find that unsurprising given that it was very dead. But Bennet then used standard protocols to analyze the fMRI signal he had recorded while questioning the salmon, and found activity in some region of the salmon’s brain. The absurdity of this finding went a long way to illustrate that the fMRI methods used at the time frequently gave spurious results.

The dead salmon led to quite some soul-searching in the neuroscience community about the usefulness of fMRI readings. A meta-review in 2020 concluded that “common task-fMRI measures are not currently suitable for brain biomarker discovery or for individual-differences research.”

In 2011, a similar point was made by neuroscientists who published an electroencephalogram of jello that showed “mild diffuse slowing of the posterior dominant rhythm”. They also highlighted some other issues that can give rise to artifacts in EEG readings, such as sweating, or being close to a power outlet.

2. Medical Researcher Reinvents Integration

In 1994, Mary Tai from the Obesity Research Center in New York invented a method to calculate the area under a curve and published it in the Journal Diabetes Care. She called her discovery “The Tai Model.” It’s also known as integration, or more specifically the trapezoidal rule. As of date, the paper has been cited more than 400 times.

It’s maybe somewhat unfair to list this as “gobbledygook” because it’s not actually wrong, she just wasn’t exactly the first to have the idea. If you slept through math class, don't worry, you can just go into medicine. What could possibly happen?

3. The Sokal Hoax and its Legacy

This is probably the most famous hoax in academic publishing. Alan Sokal is a physics professor at NYU and UCL, he works mostly on the mathematical properties of quantum field theory. In 1996 he wrote a paper for the journal Social Text. It was titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. In this paper, Sokal argued that to resolve the disagreement between Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics, we need postmodern science. What does that mean? Here’s what Sokal wrote in his paper:

“The postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science…. [They] appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm, one that may be termed an ecological perspective.”

In other words, the reason we still haven’t managed to unify gravity with quantum mechanics is that you can’t eat quantum gravity. So, yes, clearly an ecological problem. Though you should try eating it if you find it. I mean, you never know, right?

Sokal’s paper was published without peer review. According to the editors, the decision was based on the author’s credentials. Sokal argued that if everyone can make up nonsense like this and it’s deemed suitable for publication, then such publications are worthless. The journal still exists. Some of its recent issues are about “Sexology and Its Afterlives” and “Sociality at the End of the World”.

Similar hoaxes have since been pulled off a few times even in journals that *are peer reviewed. For example, in 2018, a group of three Americans who describe themselves as “left wing” and “liberal” succeeded in publishing several nonsense papers in academic journals on topics such as gender and race studies. One paper, for example, claimed to relate observations of dogs and their owners to rape culture. Here’s a quote from the paper:

“Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender? [This article] concludes by applying Black feminist criminology categories through which my observations can be understood and by inferring from lessons relevant to human and dog interactions to suggest practical applications that disrupts hegemonic masculinities and improves access to emancipatory spaces.”

The authors explained in a YouTube video that they certainly don’t think race and gender studies are unimportant but rather the opposite. Such studies are important and it’s therefore hugely concerning if one can publish complete nonsense in academic journals on the topic. They argued that articles which are currently accepted for publication in the area are biased towards airing “grievances” predominantly about white heterosexual men. They called their project “grievance studies” but it became known as Sokal Squared.

The most recent such hoax was revealed last year in October. The journal Higher Education Quarterly published a study that claimed to show that right-wing funding pressures university faculty to promote right-wing causes in hiring and research. The paper contained a number of obviously shady statistics, and yet was accepted for publication.

The authors had submitted the manuscript under pseudonyms with initials that spelled SOKAL, and pretended to be affiliated with universities where no one with those names worked. They later revealed their hoax on twitter. The account has since been suspended. The journal retracted the paper.

4. Fake it till you make it

Those papers in the Sokal hoaxes were written by actual people. But in 2005 a group of computer science students from MIT demonstrated that this isn’t actually necessary. They wrote a program that automatically generated papers with nonsense text, including graphs, figures, and citations.

One of their examples was titled “A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy” and explained “Our implementation of our approach is low-energy, Bayesian, and introspective. Further, the 91 C files contain about 8969 lines of SmallTalk.” They didn’t submit it to a journal but it was accepted for presentation at a conference. They used this to draw attention to the low standards of the meeting.

But this wasn’t the end of the story because the MIT group made their code publicly available. In 2010, the French researcher Cyril Labbe used this code to create more than a hundred junk papers by a fictional author with name Ike Antkare. The papers all cited each other and soon enough Google Scholar listed the non-existing Antkare as the 21st best cited researcher in the world.

A few years later, Labbé wrote a program that could detect the specific pattern of these junk papers that were generated with the MIT group’s software. He found that at least 120 of them had been published. They have since been retracted.

The online version of the MIT code doesn’t work anymore, but there’s another website that’ll allow you to generate a gibberish maths paper, with equations and references and all. Here for example is my new paper on “Existence in Complex Graph Theory” with my co-authors Henri Poincare and Jesus Christ.

The physicist enthusiasts among you might also enjoy the Snarxiv that creates a website that looks like the arXiv but with nonsense abstracts about high energy physics. I’ll leave you links to all these websites in the info below the video.

5. My Phone Did It

Okay so you can write papers with an artificial intelligence. Indeed, artificial intelligence now writes papers about itself. But what if you don’t have one? Look no further than your phone.

In 2016, Christoph Bartneck from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand received an invitation from the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics to submit a paper. He explained on his blog “Since I have practically no knowledge of Nuclear Physics I resorted to iOS auto-complete function to help me writing the paper.” The paper was accepted. Here is an extract from the text “Physics are great but the way it does it makes you want a good book and I will pick it to the same time.”

6. Get me off your fucking email list

I’m not sure how well-known this is, but if you’ve published a few papers in standard scientific journals you get spammed with invitations to fake conferences and scam journals all the time. In many cases these invitations have nothing to do with your actual research. I’ve been invited to publish papers on everything from cardiology to tea. Most of the time you just delete it, but it does get a bit annoying. I will say though, that the tea conference I attended was lovely.

In 2005, David Mazières and Eddie Kohle dealt with the issue by writing a paper that repeated the one sentence “Get me off your fucking email list” over and over again, all including flow diagram and scatter image. They submitted it to the 9th World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics to protest its poor standards.

In 2014, the Australian computer scientist Peter Vamplew sent the same paper to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology in response to their persistent emails. To his surprise, he was soon informed that the paper had been accepted for publication. Not only this, its reviewers had allegedly rated the paper “Excellent”. Next thing that happened was that they asked him to pay 150 dollars for the publication. He didn’t pay and they, unfortunately, didn’t take him off the email list.

7. Chicken chicken chicken

Chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chick chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chick chicken chicken chicken Chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken Chicken chick chicken.

8. April’s Fools on the Arxiv

The arXiv is the open access pre-print server which is widely used in physics and related disciplines. The arXiv has a long tradition of accepting joke papers for April 1st, and it’s some of the best nerd humor you’ll find.

For example, two years ago two physicists proposed a “Novel approach to Room Temperature Superconductivity problem”. The problem is that the critical temperature at which superconductivity sets in is extremely low for all known materials. Even the so-called “high temperature superconductors” become superconducting only at -70 degrees Celsius or so. Finding a material that superconducts at room temperature is basically the holy grail of material science. But don’t tell Monty Python, because it’s silly enough already to call minus 70 degrees Celsius a “high temperature”.

In their April first paper, the authors report they have found an ingenious solution to the problem of finding superconductors that work at room temperature: “Instead of increasing the critical temperature of a superconductor, the temperature of the room was decreased to an appropriate [value of the critical temperature]. We consider this approach more promising for obtaining a large number of materials possessing Room Temperature Superconductivity in the near future.”

In 2022 one of the April’s fools papers made fun of Exoplanet sightings and reported Exopet sightings in zoom meetings.

9. Funny Paper Titles

As you just saw, scientists want to have fun too, and not just on April 1st, so sometimes they do it in their paper titles. For example, there’s the paper about laser optics called “One ring to multiplex them all”. Or this one called “Would Bohr be born if Bohm were born before Born?”

Of course physicists aren’t the only scientists with humor. There is also “Premature Speculation Concerning Pornography’s Effects on Relationships”, and “Great Big Boulders I have Known” and “Role of childhood aerobic fitness in successful street crossing”, though maybe that was unintentionally funny.

An honorable mention goes to the paper titled “Will Any Crap We Put into Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect?” because the authors did literally put bird crap into graphene. And, yes, it increased the electrocatalytic effect.

10. Dr Cat

In 1975, the American Physicist Jack Hetherington wanted to publish some of his research results in the journal Physical Review Letters. He was the sole author of the paper, but he’d written it in the first person plural, referring to himself as “we”. This is extremely common in the scientific literature and we have done that ourselves, but a colleague pointed out to Hetherington that PRL had a policy that would require him to use the first person singular.

Instead of rewriting his paper, Hetherington decided he’d name his cat as co-author under the name F. D. C. Willard. The paper was published with the cat as co-author and he could keep using the plural.

Hetherington revealed the identity of his co-author by letting the cat “sign” a paper with paw prints. The story of Willard the cat was soon picked up by many colleagues, who’d thank the cat for useful discussions in footnotes of their papers, or invite it to conferences. Willard the cat also later published two single-authored papers, and quickly became a leading researcher, no doubt with a paw-fect CV. On April 1st 2014 the American Physical Society announced that cat-authored papers, including the Hetherington/Willard paper, would henceforth be open-access.

I hope you enjoyed this list of science anecdotes. If you have one to add, please share it in the comments.

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