A monument in Moscow to peer review.

Students at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow have unveiled what must be the first monument to peer reviewers.

The sculpture takes the form of a die displaying on its five visible sides the possible results of review — ‘Accept’, ‘Minor Changes’, ‘Major Changes’, ‘Revise and Resubmit’ and ‘Reject’.

The main academic sponsor, sociologist Igor Chirikov, spends part of his time at Berkeley.

It’s a better idea than a sculpture.  The block of concrete was just sitting there, and the challenge was to reuse it, which rather limited the artistic options. It’s a pity that the key words are all in English: a realistic reflection of the current state of scientific publication, but Russia has a great scientific tradition that could have been recalled at the same time. Do commenters have better suggestions for honouring the Unknown Peer Reviewer?  Disappointed authors might for instance go for a hangar full of vampire bats.

A Nobel Prize for John Goodenough

It’s long past time.

Over the jump, an open letter to the Chemistry Committee of the Nobel Prizes urging them at long last to award the Nobel Prize to Professor John Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery. If you agree, you can email a message of support to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at info@kva.se. Continue reading “A Nobel Prize for John Goodenough”

Stardust and pixie dust

Another Trump lie: children is Detroit and in Nebraska do not see the same stars.

It was, I admit, far from the worst falsehood in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech:

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they will [fill?] their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.

This is roughly what the child in Detroit sees on a clear moonless night. The photo was taken in suburban southern California, which surely has less light pollution.

Credit Wikimedia

At a plausible inner city star visibility cutoff of magnitude 2, about 70 stars are visible from anywhere on the Earth, or at most 35 stars from a given point.

This is what the same night sky looks like from unpolluted and bone dry Death Valley:

Credit Grant Kaye (a fine professional photographer but I couldn’t find copyright info – I’ll replace if he objects)

Continue reading “Stardust and pixie dust”

On Scientific Objectivity

What makes us think that science is “objective”? Steve Heims, in a 1980 book, put it nicely:

“The ethos of science rests on two pillars, the politically useful myth of “value neutrality” and the article of faith most conducive to the growth of scientific bureaucracy, namely, that scientific innovations (“progress” ) and science-based technological innovations are a priori beneficial. While these two pillars clearly knock against each other, they continue to hold up the practice of science.”

This is not to say that we should ignore facts, as this administration is wont to do, but that we should recognize that our values inform how we select topics.

Operational definitions

Kevin Drum is steamed about the larceny practiced by elements of the criminal justice system, from petty (charging arrestees for the “service” of booking, and then not giving all of it back),  to grand (the civil forfeiture scam by which the police can take your car–or your house–and keep it if someone in the station house is willing to say he thinks you, or someone, used them nefariously).

Kevin is entirely correct, but this ongoing outrage is overshadowed by the official massacre playing out in the Philippines, whose president was elected on a platform promising that people can be shot (and he boasts of having blown away a few citizens personally) if someone thinks they sell, or use, drugs.  Someone? Apparently this means the shooter, or some guy who told him something about somebody.

(We also have a case of nature imitating art here: the plot of Terry Gilliam’s immortal Brazil is set in motion when a fascistic, bureaucratic dictatorship arrests the wrong guy (who dies in custody) and feels obliged to return the arrest fees it collected to his family.  Brazil, I may note, is a bitter, dystopian, satire.)

The concept central to understanding this stuff is central to all hard science and underappreciated in social science, namely the importance of operational definition.  An operational definition is a assignment to categories, or a reported measurement, that includes the protocol–the operations–by which it was applied.  Example: the ‘height of a building’, for most purposes, doesn’t need to specify the measurement process. But for others, it’s important to specify whether it was observed by lowering a measuring tape from the top, by surveying instruments and trigonometry back to an identified monument of accepted altitude, or by carrying an altimeter to the top and reading it; each of these will give a different number. Responsible experimental scientists report the brand and model number of measuring equipment used in lab procedures, as well as (when it might matter) ambient conditions and what the mouse had for dinner.

Never mind that capital punishment for drug use, or losing your house for dealing, let alone a relative’s dealing, are savageries in and of themselves. The implicit operational definition of a drug dealer,  or  one whose house may be confiscated in the cases above is quite far from the one we normally use to shoot or merely mulct people, and the press has a lot to answer for when it says Duterte and his vigilante thugs have “killed drug dealers”. The operational definition of “a drug dealer” used to allot punishment in civilized countries includes a finding of “guilty” after a whole series of steps from arrest with Miranda rights provided, through chain-of-evidence records, and a trial with its own specified protocols.

Duterte isn’t ‘shooting drug dealers’; he’s shooting people asserted to be drug dealers by, apparently, almost anyone: the guy’s romantic rival or business competitor, or an undertrained, underpaid cop’s on-the-spot guess.  And our own cops aren’t confiscating “assets used in crime”, they are confiscating assets they covet when they are willing to make up a story. “Hey, you remember the guy we busted for meth two weeks ago [whose trial won’t start for six months]? His cousin has a nice new SUV, and car 233 was totaled in that wreck on the freeway.  I bet the cousin gave him a ride in it sometime; let’s go pick it up!”