Must Scientists Be Apolitical?

by Tracy R. Walsh

Dan Cass thinks climate researchers “can be passionate moral leaders and still retain their integrity”:

The majority of climate scientists are probably right to follow their current strategy, which is keep calm and carry on. They are expanding our knowledge about the climate, doing what they are best at and which the rest of us are unable to do. However, we are in a global crisis, and I believe that the scientific fraternity has an ethical obligation to take action. We need some scientists to show social leadership, not just scientific leadership.

He recommends they follow a famous example:

In 1955, Albert Einstein signed a letter calling on the world to renounce nuclear weapons.

The 00001219Russell-Einstein manifesto was endorsed by the smartest scientists of the generation, including several Nobel Prize winners. … As a result of the manifesto, the scientists formed Pugwash, an organization of scientists devoted to a political project: preventing nuclear war. Joseph Rotblat was a founder of the organization and when the New York Times invited him to write on the 50th anniversary of the manifesto, he said: “We took action then because we felt that the world situation was entering a dangerous phase, in which extraordinary efforts were required to prevent a catastrophe.”

Rotblat and Pugwash shared the Nobel Prize for peace, and he is a hero of mine for showing that scientists can be passionate moral leaders and still retain their integrity. The work done by scientists through Pugwash helped make the world a safer place. Their work contributed to the key international agreements on weapons of mass destruction, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, and the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.

(Image via McMaster University)

Dick Pics On Display

By Tracy R. Walsh

If you’ve anonymously shared a crotch shot over the past few months, your junk may soon be part of an exhibit:

Four artists interested in feminism, the Internet, sex, porn, and power have decided that the dick pics they’ve gathered are important enough to share with the public. Over 300 men who have engaged in a little harmless online exhibitionism sending this summer may be surprised to learn that their members will mounted, framed, and put on display on August 23 at a Brooklyn gallery space by an artist collective known as Future Femme.

The artists collected the photos through social media and dating sites. The unwitting models apparently don’t have much legal recourse:

It’s true that if your dick appears in the show and you were misled about the solicitor’s true identity you have a chance at legal retribution. Because one of the artists posed as someone else [on Grindr] she’s liable to be sued for internet impersonation, a class A demeanor in New York that caries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. But unless any of these users walk into the Bushwick exhibit and recognize themselves, they’ll never know more than one stranger saw their dicks. But if a dick pic gets shown in a public space and the dick’s owner doesn’t know, is it moral? Is it right?

Jessica Roy is uneasy:

It’s pretty obvious what the outrage would look like were the genders in this story reversed, and revenge porn–the practice of publishing naked photos of someone online without their consent–is ethically unacceptable no matter your gender. But in response, the artists claim they’re doing it as a reaction to the feelings of assault women can feel when they randomly receive an unsolicited dickpic. They’re also posting each framed penis photo next to a picture of their own genitals, and there will be no names or faces that will make it possible to identify the dick owner.

Eric Shorey is one of the few men to have offered his opinion:

The art project, while licentious and shocking, could certainly be thought of as an interesting exploration of gender, sexuality, and predation in the age of the Internet. Or, conversely, it could be thought of as some horny girls having a laugh at the expense of men. Either way, the art piece is sure to start some much needed conversations about hook-up culture and the digital mating patterns of our fellow human beings.

Glitch Art

by Tracy R. Walsh


Modern-day Dadaists have transformed 3D printing mishaps into art:

The “digital detritus” of computer imagery gone wrong provided the foundation of glitch art, which celebrates the wild, uncontrollable pieces of an otherwise ordered artificial world, even if it was always confined to a screen. As 3D printers try to replicate the clean lines of a virtual model, though, that possibility of accidental chaos escapes into physical space. “The Art of 3D Print Failure,” a Flickr group that started in late 2011, chronicles the most beautiful mistakes to come out of 3D printers, from headless figurines to tangled loops of ABS plastic.

(Photo: “Evil Ducky” by Flickr user Eok.gnah)

Can Scientists Make It Alone? Ctd

By Tracy R. Walsh

Euny Hong, who wondered if crowd-funding could support a new generation of independent researchers, says she overlooked the importance of salesmanship:

I realized after reading some of [pharmacologist Ethan] Perlstein’s ongoing experiment updates that the open-source analogy is not totally applicable. His way of wording and framing his work is so clever that he can be described as more of an ad man. It occurs to me that a scientist not blessed with the gift of the gab would probably not make it as an independent scientist. … Everything is worded so that even non-scientists like me can not only understand, but find the whole thing engrossing, like his dangling the term “Mystery Psych Drug X.” Why withhold the name? To create suspense, Perlstein says. It’s working.

A reasonable point. Better get with it, Journal of Basic Microbiology:

More Dish on crowd-funding research here and here.

“We Can Call Off The Black Helicopters”

By Tracy R. Walsh

That was the wisecrack a British intelligence agent made while destroying journalists’ computers in the basement of The Guardian – one of many strange details in Alan Rusbridger’s surreal account of Snowden-related press intimidationRusbridger says the tactics won’t work:

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents; we just won’t do it in London. …. The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes–and, increasingly, it looks like “when.”

Ryan Chittum is stunned:

Greenwald’s paper has been threatened by its own government with prior restraint and had its hard drives smashed in its basement to make a (stupid) point. This is police-state stuff. We need to know the American government’s role in these events–and its stance on them–sooner rather than later.

Dan Kennedy thinks the same thing could happen in America:

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. … But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files–nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

And J.D. Tuccille believes the British government wanted scare reporters across the globe:

That the act was intended as a public message certainly makes more sense than the suggestion that U.K. intelligence authorities are unaware that, in the Internet age, a story reported by an American reporter living in Brazil working with a colleague (Laura Poitras) in Germany, based on information delivered by a whistleblower who has taken refuge in Russia, can be cut off by threatening a single British newspaper. … This wasn’t a serious attempt to stop The Guardian from publishing stories about the intelligence community; it was a baseball bat across the knees as a lesson to all journalists.

Organized Non-Violent Crime?

by Tracy R. Walsh

Today’s gangsters are less bloodthirsty than their 20th-century counterparts, according to The Economist:

The United Nations identifies a series of “emerging crimes” mostly committed by criminal gangs: These include poaching, illegal logging and trafficking controlled goods, such as archeological artifacts and endangered animals. Those sorts of crimes required ever more dispersed networks, with specialized skills replacing sheer muscle. But even they require more violence than the newest of crimes: cybercrime, identity theft and fraud. These are increasingly being committed by new organizations from countries with little history of organized crime, and are probably the fastest-growing ways of making an illicit buck. By contrast, the trade of the old-fashioned gangster, well-known in his district, his monopoly enforced by violence, now looks antiquated.

More Dish on the rise of globalized gangsterism here.

When Gun Control Is Too Outrageous To Contemplate

by Tracy R. Walsh

We get bulletproof whiteboards:

It’s a potentially life-saving tool, a last line of defense in the event of an active shooter situation, and that was basically the thinking behind [University of Maryland Eastern Shore president] Juliette B. Bell’s decision to spend $59,800 on the whiteboards/shields. “We are not really doing this in response to a specific event; I see it more as an opportunity to be prepared and to be proactive in our approach to safety on campus,” Bell said. “We think that it’s worthwhile.”

A Linguistic Shitstorm

by Tracy R. Walsh

Anglicisms play a major role in modern German:

The liberal salting of English words into German sentences is called “Denglisch” (Deutsch and Englisch), and it tends to annoy traditionalists. … What Brits call a mobile and Americans call a cell phone, Germans call a Handy—a word that looks borrowed from English, but isn’t. The baseball cap—a common faux-hip ornament in today’s Germany—is a Basecap. And Germans call table football Kicker, a game unknown in the English-speaking world. (The mangling goes both ways, as Americans alter the German Fussball to foosball.)

And when a rude word is borrowed, its taboo in the original language does not always travel with it. Angela Merkel is just one of many Germans who don’t realize that you can’t just casually uses the word Shitstorm in a press conference. The word has become common enough to be added to Germany’s most prestigious dictionary, the Duden.

Update from a reader:

With regard to the use of false Anglicisms in German, you missed my very favorite one: in German, a compulsive hoarder is called a “Messie”. Like this: “Der Mann ist ein Messie” (“that man’s a hoarder”).

Turning Human Beings Into 2.9013

Physicist Alan Sokal, who was last seen demolishing postmodernist pretensions, has set his sights on positive psychology. This time his target is the critical positivity ratio, which blogger Neuroskeptic describes as “the idea that if your ratio of positive to negative emotions is over a certain value, 2.9013, then you will ‘flourish’; any lower and you won’t.”

The concept was laid out in an influential 2005 paper, which according to Google Scholar has been cited more than 950 times. Neuroskeptic explains what Sokal and his colleagues, Nicholas Brown and Harris Friedman, found:

[T]he idea of a single ‘critical ratio’ that determines success or failure everywhere and for everyone is absurd in itself. … But even were there a magic ratio, it wouldn’t be 2.9013. The whole analysis in the 2005 paper was based on taking a poorly-described dataset and then making it fit a mathematical model, purely by means of elementary misunderstandings.”

Of course it drew on 1960s geophysics:

[Study author Marcial] Losada observed positive and negative emotions change over time, and that we can model this process in the form of a Lorenz system. The Lorenz system is a mathematical function famous for being pretty (e.g. ooh!). There are infinitely many Lorenz systems, based on three set-up ‘parameters’, each of which can be any number. It turns out that Losada set two of those three variables to the values used by a geophysicist in 1962, who picked them purely to make a pretty illustration for his paper about air flow.

If you set up a Lorenz system in exactly this way, and set it running, you can get a number out, 2.9013. This number is meaningful only within this particular system, with those particular parameters. Yet by means of an epic series of assumptions, Losada declared this meaningless quantity to be the Key to Happiness and Success.

Mathematicians David H. Bailey and Jonathan M. Borwein aren’t terribly surprised:

From all indications, the Fredrickson-Losada article is an exercise in “physics envy” — trying very hard to dress work in the social sciences, which, by definition, are not closely connected to very precise physical laws and processes, in the exalted language of mathematics and mathematical physics. It is also the case that the whole area of social psychology has been rocked by recent scandals and by a prevalence of sloppy ‘science’. It has been described by Nobel economist Dan Kahneman as a “train wreck waiting to happen.”

But more generally, the lesson for all who would apply mathematics in this or any other arena of modern science and engineering is clear. Mathematics is a powerful tool, but there is no point in attempting to apply it beyond reasonable boundaries, or with a level of numeric precision far beyond what is justified by the original problem in hand. Mathematical excesses can lead to nonsense.

Watch out, David Brooks.