Acting Like a Polite Ape

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

James Gurney (Dinotopia) notes that if you want to draw portraits of great apes, you have to approach them in the proper way:

You can’t just march up to a great ape enclosure and start staring at them, or they’ll get all shy and disgusted and turn their back on you, because staring is a threat to them.

Yesterday we went to the North Carolina Zoo, the third largest zoo in the U.S.A. We got there early in the day when the gorillas were just waking up.

I remembered something I learned in my primate social behavior class. I approached the glass with a submissive posture, looking down at the ground and backing up with my hand out.

The gorilla loved it. He had never seen a human act like a polite ape before. He came right up to the glass and posed for me while I did this half-hour portrait from just two feet away. It was like sketching someone on a subway. I tried to just glance at him discreetly out of the corner of my eye.

The inconvenient truth about malaria

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Paul Reiter — “a scientist, not a climatologist” — explains the inconvenient truth about malaria:

In his serious voice, Mr Gore presented a nifty animation, a band of little mosquitoes fluttering their way up the slopes of a snow-capped mountain, and he repeated the old line: Nairobi used to be ‘above the mosquito line, the limit at which mosquitoes can survive, but now…’ Those little mosquitoes kept climbing.

The truth? Nairobi means ‘the place of cool waters’ in the Masai language. The town grew up around a camp, set up in 1899 during the construction of a railway, the famous ‘Lunatic Express’. There certainly was water there — and mosquitoes. From the start, the place was plagued with malaria, so much so that a few years later doctors tried to have the whole town moved to a healthier place. By 1927, the disease had become such a plague in the ‘White Highlands’ that £40,000 (equivalent to about £350,000 today) was earmarked for malaria control. The authorities understood the root of the problem: forest clearance had created the perfect breeding places for mosquitoes. The disease was present as high as 2,500m above sea level; the mosquitoes were observed at 3,000m. And Nairobi? 1,680m.

These details are not science. They require no study. They are history. But for activists, they are an inconvenient truth, so they ignore them. Even if Mr Gore is innocent, his advisers are not.

More inconvenient history:

Take their contention, for example, that as a result of climate change, tropical diseases will move to temperate regions and malaria will come to Britain. If they bothered to learn about the subject, they would know that in a period climatologists call the Little Ice Age, when Charles II held ice parties on the Thames, malaria — ‘the ague’ — was rampant in the Essex marshes, on a par even with regions in Africa today. In the 18th century, the great systematist Linnaeus wrote his doctorate on malaria in central Sweden. In 1922-23 a massive epidemic swept the Soviet Union as far north as Archangel, on the Arctic circle, killing an estimated 600,000 people. And malaria was only eliminated from the Soviet Union and large areas of Europe in the 1950s, after the advent of DDT. So it’s hardly a tropical disease. And yet when we put this information under the noses of the activists it is ignored: ours is the inconvenient truth.

Some inconvenient facts:

In the first place, malaria in most of sub-Saharan Africa is ‘stable’: everyone gets bitten by infective mosquitoes every year, sometimes as many as 300 times. So it is absurd to claim that climate change will increase the rate of infection; you cannot add water to a glass that’s already full.

On the other hand, in regions where malaria is newly arrived, or has emerged after a period of remission, a plethora of interacting factors are at play, including forest clearance, irrigation, the mobility of people, urbanisation, resistance to insecticides and antimalarial drugs, the Aids epidemic, population increase, the degradation of public health infrastructures, and war and civil strife. Most of all: poverty. Poverty and malaria go hand in hand. There is no evidence or need to implicate temperature.

The samurai version of hitting a bucket of balls

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

It’s not hard to imagine what the samurai version of hitting a bucket of balls entails:

I finally figured out why the Japanese love to go the driving range and hit golf balls instead of play golf on a course.

It ties into the ancient samurai tradition of practicing for battle by first beheading a bunch of criminals. Beheading prisoners is to war as the driving range is to the golf course.

For example, the 60-something retired samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo said in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, from the early 17th Century:

Yamamaoto Kichizaemon was ordered b his father Jinemon to cut down a dog at the age of five, and at the age of fifteen he was made to execute a criminal. Everybody, by the time they were fourteen or fifteen, was ordered to do a beheading without fail.

Last year I went to the Kase Execution Grounds to try my hand at beheading and I found it to be an extremely good feeling. To think that it is unnerving is a symptom of cowardice.

It’s funny that the Japanese have been diligently practicing their swings for hundreds of years, merely changing the size of the sphere they’ve been hacking at on the practice grounds.

Darts for Geeks

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

I can’t remember the last time I played darts, but I do remember briefly thinking that where you should aim depends on your accuracy — and now Ryan Tibshirani has run the numbers:

Target the inside border of 8 and 16. Even If you’re off, you’ll still get decent points.

Above Average
Focus on the triple-19 ring. It’s your ticket to an excellent score.

Zero in on the point-tripling arc in the 20 wedge and expect direct hits.

Every man is a warrior, a politician, and a theologian

Friday, December 18th, 2009

From Winston Churchill’s “My Early Life” (1930) comes this delightful description of the Indian frontier — that is, Afghanistan:

Campaigning on the Indian frontier is an experience by itself. Neither the landscape nor the people find their counterparts in any other portion of the globe. Valley walls rise steeply five or six thousand feet on every side. The columns crawl through a maze of giant corridors down which fierce snow-fed currents foam under skies of brass. Amid these scenes of savage brilliancy there dwells a race whose qualities seem to harmonize with their environment. Except at harvest-time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician, and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress, made, it is true, only of sun-baked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its defense. Every family cultivates its vendetta, every clan its feud. The numerous tribes and combinations of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten, and very few debts are left unpaid. For the purposes of social life, in addition to the convention about harvest-time, a most elaborate code of honor has been established and is on the whole faithfully observed. A man who knew it and observed it faultlessly might pass unarmed from one end of the frontier to another. The slightest technical slip would, however, be fatal. The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest; and his valleys, nourished alike by endless sunshine and abundant water, are fertile enough to yield with little labor the modest material requirements of a sparse population.

Into this happy world the nineteenth century brought two new facts: the breech-loading rifle and the British Government. The first was an enormous luxury and blessing; the second, an unmitigated nuisance. The convenience of the breech-loading, and still more of the magazine rifle, was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian highlands. A weapon which could kill with accuracy at fifteen hundred yards opened a whole new vista of delights to every family or clan which could acquire it. One could actually remain in one’s own house and fire at one’s neighbor nearly a mile away. One could lie in wait on some high crag, and at hitherto unheard-of ranges hit a horseman far below. Even villages could fire at each other without the trouble of going far from home. Fabulous prices were therefore offered for these glorious products of science. Rifle-thieves scoured all India to reinforce the efforts of the honest smuggler. A steady flow of the coveted weapons spread its genial influence throughout the frontier, and the respect which the Pathan tribesmen entertained for Christian civilization was vastly enhanced.

The action of the British Government on the other hand was entirely unsatisfactory. The great organizing, advancing, absorbing power to the southward seemed to be little better than a monstrous spoil-sport. If the Pathans made forays into the plains, not only were they driven back (which after all was no more than fair), but a whole series of subsequent interferences took place, followed at intervals by expeditions which toiled laboriously through the valleys, scolding the tribesmen and exacting fines for any damage which they had done. No one would have minded these expeditions if they had simply come, had a fight and then gone away again. In many cases this was their practice under what was called the “butcher and bolt policy” to which the Government of India long adhered. But towards the end of the nineteenth century these intruders began to make roads through many of the valleys, and in particular the great road to Chitral. They sought to ensure the safety of these roads by threats, by forts and by subsidies. There was no objection to the last method so far as it went. But the whole of this tendency to road-making was regarded by the Pathans with profound distaste. All along the road people were expected to keep quiet, not to shoot one another, and above all not to shoot at travelers along the road. It was too much to ask, and a whole series of quarrels took their origin from this source.

Perrault’s Fairy Tales

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I was not expecting to see a new book review of ‘The Complete Fairy Tales’ by Charles Perrault, published in 1697, in the LA Times, but a new Oxford University Press edition has just come out:

Perrault was an iconoclast, a rebel against the tyranny of classical education in the 17th century, who set out to prove that myths based on European folk tales could have as enduring and profound an appeal as the stories of the Greeks and Romans. A new translation of his little book, by Christopher Betts, proves him triumphantly right about that, if any proof were needed.

Parents who read fairy tales to their children know how terrifying they are. Most fairy tales have a happy ending, but it usually comes only after one or more characters have died a horrible death or spent a long time in durance vile. People who haven’t read them since they were children themselves will scarcely believe that such shocking, gruesome stories are permitted in the hands of the young: Fathers who want to marry their daughters, ogres that dine on little children and a serial killer who murders his brides and locks up their corpses in a secret chamber are standard fare.

And that’s exactly why the appeal of fairy tales has never diminished. Children are thrill addicts who relish imaginary gore — and have no interest in theories about why they do so. Only a child can hear the story of “Little Red Riding-Hood” and see it as a straightforward, “what happens next” narrative. We didn’t need Freud to tell us that there were powerful sexual currents in a story about a little girl who ends up in bed with a cross-dressing wolf, who amazes her with the prodigious size of various parts of his anatomy.

The most influential of modern fairy-tale theorists was Bruno Bettelheim, who propounded the thesis in “The Uses of Enchantment” (1976) that fairy tales are fantastic psychodramas that enact the real fears of children and end with the reassurance that all will be well in the end, when they grow up. Most American children slay their demons and satisfy their appetite for righteous mayhem with cartoons and video games, but in Perrault’s day, European children had direct experience with the horrors portrayed in fairy tales. In the reign of Louis XIV, France was ravaged by famines; thus the story “Hop o’ My Thumb,” in which the parents abandon their little sons to die in the forest because there isn’t enough food for all, wasn’t a bizarre, monstrous fantasy but a plausible reality.

Unlike the other great narrative traditions, fairy tales generally have been treated as anthropological phenomena more than as literature. There’s no such thing as a definitive text of the major stories; the books read by most children are modern retellings, frequently bowdlerized to protect the sensibilities of the parents. Betts’ integral, authoritative translation of Perrault’s “Histoires ou Contes,” which renders the prose tales in lucid, polished style and (for the first time, Betts writes in his introduction) the poetry in galloping rhyming verse, captures the full measure of the tales’ suspenseful power. No matter how many times we’ve heard the stories, we still long for Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters’ comeuppance and delight in Puss in Boots’ ingenuity in tricking the ogre into transforming himself into a mouse so he can gobble him up.

Yet much of the charm of Perrault’s versions lies in their depiction of life during the reign of the Sun King, delightfully captured in 26 engravings by Gustave Doré and reprinted in this edition. The grandmother’s rustic hovel in “Little Red Riding-Hood” could be a set for a pastoral ballet at Versailles; Perrault’s ogres are landed gentry in grand châteaux, who serve baked children at their tea parties. This gloss of Gallic charm domesticates the savagery of the enchanted world in a way that Disney would later emulate with a sentimental, distinctly American optimism.

Insurgents Have Not Hacked U.S. Drones

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Insurgents have not hacked U.S. drones, despite the Wall Street Journal headline, but they have intercepted unprotected video feeds using cheap off-the-shelf software called SkyGrabber:

U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.

In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”

So, why are the drones transmitting unencrypted video?

The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones. Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes. Additional concerns remain about the vulnerability of the communications signals to electronic jamming, though there’s no evidence that has occurred, said people familiar with reports on the matter.

The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Paul Greenberg looks at The Most Important Fish in the Sea:

The deal with fish oil, I found out, is that a considerable portion of it comes from a creature upon which the entire Atlantic coastal ecosystem relies, a big-headed, smelly, foot-long member of the herring family called menhaden, which a recent book identifies in its title as “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”

The book’s author, H. Bruce Franklin, compares menhaden to the passenger pigeon and related to me recently how his research uncovered that populations were once so large that “the vanguard of the fish’s annual migration would reach Cape Cod while the rearguard was still in Maine.” Menhaden filter-feed nearly exclusively on algae, the most abundant forage in the world, and are prolifically good at converting that algae into omega-3 fatty acids and other important proteins and oils. They also form the basis of the Atlantic Coast’s marine food chain.

Nearly every fish a fish eater likes to eat eats menhaden. Bluefin tuna, striped bass, redfish and bluefish are just a few of the diners at the menhaden buffet. All of these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids but are unable themselves to synthesize them. The omega-3s they have come from menhaden.

But menhaden are entering the final losing phases of a century-and-a-half fight for survival that began when humans started turning huge schools into fertilizer and lamp oil. Once petroleum-based oils replaced menhaden oil in lamps, trillions of menhaden were ground into feed for hogs, chickens and pets. Today, hundreds of billions of pounds of them are converted into lipstick, salmon feed, paint, “buttery spread,” salad dressing and, yes, some of those omega-3 supplements you have been forcing on your children. All of these products can be made with more environmentally benign substitutes, but menhaden are still used in great (though declining) numbers because they can be caught and processed cheaply.

For the last decade, one company, Omega Protein of Houston, has been catching 90 percent of the nation’s menhaden. The perniciousness of menhaden removals has been widely enough recognized that 13 of the 15 Atlantic states have banned Omega Protein’s boats from their waters. But the company’s toehold in North Carolina and Virginia (where it has its largest processing plant), and its continued right to fish in federal waters, means a half-billion menhaden are still taken from the ecosystem every year.

For fish guys like me, this egregious privatization of what is essentially a public resource is shocking. [...] The menhaden is a small fish that in its multitudes plays such a big role in our economy and environment that its fate shouldn’t be effectively controlled by a single company and its bottles of fish oil supplements. If our government is serious about standing up for the little guy, it should start by giving a little, but crucial, fish a fair deal.

Greenberg’s concern for the menhaden seems genuine and well placed, but his policy prescription is backwards. Omega Protein is “mining” a valuable resource specifically because it does not own and control it. It’s a free-for-all, and Omega Protein is looting faster than the competition. If it owned the sole right to fish menhaden, it would husband the fish for future consumption; it would have its own incentive for fishing sustainably.

Always a Secretive Race

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Kipling describes the Afghans — always a secretive race — in his 1892 story, “The Lost Legion”:

The Afghans were always a secretive race, and vastly preferred doing something wicked to saying anything at all. They would for months be quiet and well-behaved, till one night, without word or warning, they would rush a police-post, cut the throats of a constable or two, dash through a village, carry away three or four women, and withdraw, in the red glare of burning thatch, driving the cattle and goats before them to their desolate hills.

The [British] Indian Government would become almost tearful on these occasions. First it would say, “Please be good, and we’ll forgive you.” The tribe concerned in the latest depredation would collectively put its thumb to its nose and answer rudely. Then the Government would say, “Hadn’t you better pay up a little money for those few corpses you left behind you the other night?” Here the tribe would temporize, and lie and bully, and some of the younger men, merely to show contempt of authority, would raid another police-post and fire into some frontier mud fort, and if lucky kill a real English officer. Then the Government would say, “Observe; if you persist in this line of conduct, you will be hurt.” If the tribe knew exactly what was going on in India, it would apologize or be rude, according as it learned whether the Government was busy with other things or able to devote its full attention to their performances. Some of the tribes knew to one corpse how far to go.

Others became excited, lost their heads, and told the Government to “come on.” With sorrow and tears, and one eye on the British taxpayer at home, who insisted on regarding these exercises as brutal wars of annexation, the Government would prepare an expensive little field-brigade and some guns, and send all up into the hills to chase the wicked tribe out of the valleys where the corn grew, into the hilltops where there was nothing to eat. The tribe would turn out in full strength and enjoy the campaign, for they knew that their women would never be touched, that their wounded would be nursed, not mutilated, and that as soon as each man’s bag of corn was spent they could surrender and palaver with the English General as though they had been a real enemy.

Afterwards, years afterwards, they would pay the blood-money, driblet by driblet, to the Government, and tell their children how they had slain the redcoats by thousands. The only drawback to this kind of picnic-war was the weakness of the redcoats for solemnly blowing up with powder the Afghan fortified towers and keeps. This the tribes always considered mean.

Afghanistan in 1897

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

A continual state of feud and strife prevailed throughout the land, Winston Churchill said of Afghanistan in 1897:

Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.

Nor are these struggles conducted with the weapons which usually belong to the races of such development. To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer. The world is presented with that grim spectacle, “the strength of civilization without its mercy.” At a thousand yards the traveller falls wounded by the well-aimed bullet of a breech-loading rifle. His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder,always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

That is from Churchill’s The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War (1898).

Scotland’s deer are changing shape due to hybridisation

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Scotland's red deer are shrinking — and its imported Sika deer are getting larger:

Sika deer (Cervus nippon) occur in many of the habitats in Scotland that the native red deer (Cervus elaphus) lives.

Although it was already known that sika crossbreed with red deer, it was thought the overall impact on the native species was low.

The two species differ greatly in appearance: red deer are larger than sika, usually standing 30cm taller at the shoulder.

Red deer stags can also grow antlers with 12 points or more but sika antlers rarely exceed eight points.

Despite the fact that sika are smaller in size, the two species can mate giving birth to hybrids that are fertile.

At present hybrids are a rare occurrence, with scientists estimating that between 0.01 to 0.02% of deer in most areas where the species overlap are hybrids.

However, it has been found that in some areas as many as 40% of deer are of mixed breed.

Such crossbreeding may permanently alter wild deer on Scotland’s mainland, some researchers fear.

Flood Could Have Filled Mediterranean In Less Than Two Years

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Rushing water wore down the sill that separated the Mediterranean from the Atlantic millions of years ago, which allowed more water to pour in and encouraged still more erosion.A cataclysmic flood may have filled the Mediterranean in less than two years:

A new model suggests that at the flood’s peak water poured from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean basin at a rate one thousand times the flow of the Amazon River, according to calculations published in the Dec. 10 Nature.

“In an instantaneous flash, the dry Mediterranean became a normal Mediterranean like we see it today,” says lead author Daniel Garcia-Castellanos of Spain’s Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Barcelona.

He and his colleagues calculate that at the height of the flood, water levels rose more than 10 meters and more than 40 centimeters of rock eroded away per day. The model also shows that 100 million cubic meters of water flowed through the channel per second, with water gushing at speeds of 100 kilometers an hour. Rather than a Niagara Falls-esque cascade from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, the team’s results imply a torrent several kilometers wide at a fairly gradual slope.

Any geological record of erosion from rushing waters seemed lost:

But Garcia-Castellanos and colleagues found it, thanks to plans for an underground train. Cores drilled in the seafloor as part of preparations for the Africa-Europe tunnel project, which hopes to run trains under the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco, revealed a deep channel filled with loose sediment. Using the drilling data and previously collected seismic data, the researchers determined that the channel is 200 kilometers long, between 6 and 11 kilometers wide, and between 300 and 650 meters deep.

Other geologists who had noticed the channel thought it had formed through erosion by rainwater in a river network, like in the Rhone or Nile rivers. But while those river channels are V-shaped, the new data show that the Strait of Gibraltar channel has the distinctive U-shape of the seafloor beneath the Strait of Dover. This shape is a hint that the strait formed in a torrential flood.

Using equations derived from observations of mountain rivers, the team of researchers modeled how the flood might have progressed: The flood started gradually, but as the sill between the Atlantic and the dry Mediterranean wore down, the rate of water flowing and rock eroding increased exponentially. As more water flowed over the sill, more rock wore away, allowing ever more water to spill in.

The calculations show an upper limit of two years for how long it took to fill the Mediterranean. But Garcia-Castellanos says it could have been as short as a few months.

Hence the Hyborian Age.

Bacteria engineered to turn carbon dioxide into liquid fuel

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Researchers from UCLA have engineered bacteria to turn carbon dioxide into liquid fuel:

Using the cyanobacterium Synechoccus elongatus, researchers first genetically increased the quantity of the carbon dioxide-fixing enzyme RuBisCO. Then they spliced genes from other microorganisms to engineer a strain that intakes carbon dioxide and sunlight and produces isobutyraldehyde gas. The low boiling point and high vapor pressure of the gas allows it to easily be stripped from the system.

The engineered bacteria can produce isobutanol directly, but researchers say it is currently easier to use an existing and relatively inexpensive chemical catalysis process to convert isobutyraldehyde gas to isobutanol, as well as other useful petroleum-based products.

The Truth About Tamiflu

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The truth about Tamiflu is surprisingly hard to come by:

Roche has claimed that its drug reduces hospital admissions by 61% in patients who were otherwise healthy before they got the flu. It has also said that Tamiflu reduces such complications as bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis by 67%, and lower respiratory tract infections requiring antibiotics by 55%. A 2006 Cochrane review of Tamiflu came to similar conclusions — based largely on a paper that looked at ten studies, all of them funded by the company.

But when the Cochrane team, led by Chris Del Mar, from Bond University in Australia, re-examined the studies they had previously used in 2006, they found some discrepancies. It turned out that only two of the ten studies had ever been published in medical journals, and those two showed the drug had very little effect on complications compared to a dummy pill, or placebo. So the Cochrane reviewers decided to look at the data for themselves.

First they went to the lead authors of the published studies — the researchers who were supposed to have access to all of the data. One author said he had lost track of the data when he moved offices and the files appeared to have been discarded. The other said he’d never actually seen the data himself, and directed the Cochrane team to go directly to the company.

Four months and multiple requests later, the Cochrane researchers had a hodgepodge of data from the company, including two studies that showed the drug was ineffective, but which the company had never published. Roche also provided data from a third study, which involved 1,447 adults and adolescents aged 13-80, the largest study of the drug ever conducted. Yet the company never published that one either. (A summary of this and other studies is available at But with only partial data, the Cochrane team couldn’t even figure out what the study had been intended to measure.

In the meantime, two former employees of Adis International, a large communications company, came forward with documents showing they had ghostwritten some of the published studies of Tamiflu. One of the ghostwriters told the BMJ, “The Tamiflu accounts had a list of key messages that you had to get in. It was run by the [Roche] marketing department and you were answerable to them. In the introduction… I had to say what a big problem influenza is. I’d also have to come to the conclusion that Tamiflu was the answer.”

Scientific Peer-Review is a Lightweight Process

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Shannon Love explains to non-scientists that scientific peer-review is a lightweight process:

It works like this. An experimenter in a particular field sends a paper to a journal that covers that field. The editor then secretly selects scientists in the same field whom the editor believes are competent to glance over the paper and check it for obvious errors or faults. In the vast majority of cases, peer reviewers do not examine the original data, do not examine experimental records, do not examine the experiment’s hardware/software and they most certainly do not confirm the results claimed in the paper by reproducing the experiment themselves.

Saying a paper is peer reviewed says nothing about the validity of its conclusions.

Peer-review is a political process:

Peer review protects a journal’s reputation by hiring experts in a field to check papers prior to publication. It is not a journal’s responsibility to confirm or refute experimental conclusions, but it is their responsibility to check for basic errors in math or methodology, just as they would check for errors in grammar or spelling. Peer review offloads any responsibility for publishing bad papers onto anonymous members of the scientific community. It’s a perfect form of blame passing that everyone else wishes they could use.

This blame passing also keeps journals and editors from being accused of taking sides in personal and professional quarrels. It is also the reason that reviewers themselves prefer to remain anonymous. No scientist wants to suffer the professional and personal consequences from either refusing or accepting a paper they should not have refused or accepted. It is also why peer review is a superficial review. The reviewers do not wish to be dragged into the minutia of scientific debates and quarrels. Instead, they concentrate on the basics that everyone can agree on.

Eric Falkenstein adds his thoughts:

I’ve refereed many papers, and I never independently tried to replicate their results with their algorithm and data. If they faked their data subtly, only posterity would punish them, not a referee.

But a referee also crucially opines on a paper’s usefulness, and this involves guessing what other people would like to reference. Most models do not have straightforward empirical implications, so this is often an assessment of which toolkit is considered cutting edge. Economics often builds huge Rube Goldberg machines that potentially are useful, which are never refuted, but rather, fade away as the professors who made their reputations on these models retire, and the new generation sees that they are quite useless.

Input-output models, large scale macroeconomic models, second order difference equations modeling the GDP. These were all considered the apex of ‘good form’, and so any results in these frameworks, if sufficiently rigorous, were published. If you submitted a paper today using these frameworks, you would get rejected out of hand because they are no longer considered useful. But that came through long experience, and not any definitive rejection. Even today, some results based on dynamic programming, and using vector autoregressions, are published merely for getting a result, not an interesting one, because the technique is difficult, rigorous, and takes economics a leap equivalent to the leap from astrology to astronomy. Who says economists don’t work on faith?