Monday, October 13, 2008

The Economist on Science

Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.

For Carl, Kea, Matti, Tony and all others who have trouble getting published: Take a break from the journals and read this week's (Oct 11, 2008) issue of THE ECONOMIST. Amid discouraging news about the world economy is a fascinating article Publish and Be Wrong. Speculation about strings, extra dimensions, "dark energy" and even alternate universes fill the journals. According to a group led by Dr. John Ioannidis, the most widely reported scientific papers are most likely to be wrong!

"With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished...

"Dr Ioannidis made a splash three years ago by arguing, quite convincingly, that most published scientific research is wrong. Now, along with Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and Omar Al-Ubaydli, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, he suggests why...

"The group’s more general argument is that scientific research is so difficult—the sample sizes must be big and the analysis rigorous—that most research may end up being wrong. And the “hotter” the field, the greater the competition is and the more likely it is that published research in top journals could be wrong..."

We can see this phenomenon in most physics journals. The "hot" fields of speculation spawn hordes of papers. When the Sun and planets were thought to circle Earth, theories were proposed with 60-100 epicycles. In the case of "dark energy," a divergence of theories have been proposed, nearly all of which must be wrong. Because of a "hot" subject, these papers get published in all their wrongness.

The Ioannidis group's results are published in "Public Library of Science Medicine," an online journal. Today papers that suggest a changing speed of light have great difficulty being published. Real advances in science occur out of the press spotlight. THE ECONOMIST concludes, "The question for Dr Ioannidis is that now his latest work has been accepted by a journal, is that reason to doubt it?"



Blogger Kea said...

Oh, I remember enjoying the bright lights of NY around Xmas time once. Fortunately, us non-serious researchers (as polite professionals refer to crackpots) don't have to worry too much about devoting our lives to publishing papers.

2:36 PM  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

Maybe it's a sign of crack-pot-dom, but I believe that if I tried, I could get published.

The real problem is that working on physics is a lot of fun. Writing papers is boring. But publishing them is painful.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from Julianne/CV:

"ST & Curious — I’ve been running grad admissions for many years now. I can say securely that it is almost impossible to deduce from a graduate school application who’s going to wind up as a tenure track professor and who isn’t. We’ve had students who came in looking like a rock star, just to drop out and join the LaRouches (true story). We’ve had people who squeaked in off the wait list, who’ve turned out to be some of our most well-known graduates.

[ Isn't Kea waiting to be discovered? ]

The differences among these people are not easily quantifiable GRE scores or GPAs.

I just don’t trust us to make the initial decision about who is a worthy apprentice at the level of hair splitting that requires matching the numbers of tenure-track job openings a year. I do trust us to help students understand the job market, and to help train them for whatever career path they decide is best (teaching, industry, academia, etc, where “etc” does not include the LaRouches).

Note also, that matching that number presumes that a TT career path is the only one that is “worthy”, which is bogus."

Howard Georgi/Harvard/Physics commented on students who were "calculating machines" (high GRE scorers, math crunchers) who were unimpressive. It's the people who come in with Ideas, who count (although mathematical rigor is also important).

My story:
My arch-rival in grad-school was such a cruncher, who was stuck (with the rest of the field), until I came along with a simple idea based on geometry. He stole the idea (no acknowledgement to me), & promptly BASTARDIZED it by phrasing it in some overly complicated math analysis. I re-did all the calculations using high-school level math (!!), rigorous proof, & in the process discovered a dumb mistake in their analysis

[ which EXPOSED a flaw in the so-called peer review & his PhD thesis committee..i.e. NOBODY READ HIS PAPER!! Everyone automatically assumed it HAD TO BE RIGHT, since there was all this fancy math & lingo. Well, bullsh*t!! Plus, the entire field was EMBARASSED for being stuck..& my "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything" (ring a bell?) using simple vector-geometry was the "dagger" ]

I had no problem in publishing in conference proceedings, but my papers were blocked from journal publication! After this childish display of territorial behavior ("mine!"), I said "you can have it morons!" & walked away. There was a book published summarizing the field, which used the above fancy math solution (complete with error), which is currently being taught at Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, et al. I.e., they are teaching grad students how NOT to do research.

So, yes, this herd mentality exists in Research publication & it can be very wrong. Fads, groupies, herds, sheep-mentality, etc. In the above case, fancy math can act as a "snow job" to fool reviewers. M. Disney (galaxy researcher in UK) published a critical paper on the over optimism of Cosmology saying "do not be impressed by esoteric math & fancy computers".

I just uploaded an interesting interview with R. Sundrum from SUSY '06, where he clearly states he is not a "backer of either theory" & is keeping an open-mind. He & his co-author (L. Randall/Harvard) seem to be well-grounded & adjusted. They seem to know what they're doing.

"Discretion is the better part of Valor"

11:14 PM  
Blogger QUASAR9 said...

well I guess being published is not 'proof' of being wrong (or right), but certainly reason to question the subject matter.

Xmas lights already.
Gosh, no wonder some people are sick of xmas by the time it axtually gets here.

Nice to see you looking great as usual. You must spend a fortune on that lipstick - oe do you buy it wholesale?

8:32 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

All your happy thoughts are a great antidote to the negativity elsewhere in the web. The important thing is whether the discovery is made, not whether the world finds out.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Dr Ioannidis made a splash three years ago by arguing, quite convincingly, that most published scientific research is wrong."

Well, what does it mean to be 'wrong'? Has Dr. Ioannidis ever heard of the term 'The Relativity of Wrong' (Asimov, of course)?

To Carl: working on Physics is certainly fun. Publishing is perhaps painful, but it does sharpen your ideas as you need to explain them to a larger audience.

"Today papers that suggest a changing speed of light have great difficulty being published."

Well, I am sure you've heard of 'Extraordinary Claims...etc.' But you mentioned that an experiment to falsify this could be presently conducted; amen to that.

12:13 PM  
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