Driverless Cars & New Concepts

The gradual evolution of science and technology sometimes makes it difficult to see the point when we move beyond the thing itself onto the next level of thing. Confused? Yes that may have been unclear but I came across this quote via futuramb

One reason I will eventually move away from my chosen name for the technology — robocar — along with the other popular names like “self-driving car” is that this future vehicle is not a car, not as we know it today. It is no more a “driverless car” than a modern automobile is a horseless carriage. 100 years ago, the only way they could think of the car was to notice that there was no horse. Today, all many people notice about robocars is that no human is driving. This is the thing that comes after the car.

Martin over at futuramb suggests:

I agree totally that “self driving car” is a strange expression and compares well to “horseless X” but why not reinvent the word “automobile” to refer to what it really means – a vehicle that moves automatically e i by itself?

Self driving car is a mouthful and it is also silly to have a thing that attempts to explain itself in terms of something with an additional attribute. This moves us closer to a metaphor rather than a word – mind you, in the past, we tended to use Greek and/or Latin to enable the metaphor to become acceptable as a word. For example, Television: A mix from the Greek tele (afar) and the Latin visionem (act of seeing).


If we set aside the naming question, my issue is really whether this is really a new, new thing that needs a redefinition? The technology is advanced and awesome but is it really something so special as to lift it above the earlier technology. I don’t think so. But it is a fascinating discussion about the development of technology.

Facebook & the Bad Science Baloney Detection Kit

Michael Shermer has a brilliant Baloney Detection Kit which can “help draw the boundaries between science and pseudoscience”.

But don’t let the science and pseudoscience thing put you off – it has other simpler uses. In a recent lecture I asked my students to apply the detection kit to a particularly bad piece of “research”.

The report was modestly entitled “Sweden’s Largest Facebook Study” it’s available online here. It’s in English with a Swedish summary. There are several easy-to-spot flaws with the report but the first thing that sets the alarm bells off is the fact that the report was not released into academia but was given exclusively to the media. This meant that before anyone could actually read the report the media was gleefully telling us that researchers have proven that “Facebook makes us miserable”, it spreads “unhappiness” and we are even miserable if we don’t logon often enough.

People who disagreed couldn’t do anything since the report was not available. This may be good marketing but its also very bad science. Things did not get better when the embargo was over and the report was released.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that there is a PR company’s logo above the university logo. I’m all for partnerships but PR isn’t research and research isn’t PR. Credibility in the research was not enhanced.

The next thing that hit me was the research location and topic. The report is published at Göteborg Research Institute which is under the School of Business, Economics and Law but the highest ranking researchers where from psychology. Releasing a report to the media instead of peer review is one thing but not publishing within your own discipline is also a bit odd – what are these people attempting to conceal…

Then I looked at the authors’ qualifications. Two PhD students, three undergrads and a PR person. Seriously??? This is not a guarantee for good science! Not that it makes that much of a difference but the undergrads were not even students at the same university. Curious.

The final thing that got me going was the subjects included in the study. Sweden has 9 million people and 52% of them are on Facebook (Olle Findahl Svenskarna och Internet 2011 has an English summary). The “Largest Facebook Study” is based on data from an online survey of 1011 respondents. This hardly qualifies it as largest anything. Getting three undergrads to pester 1000 friends to fill in a couple of bad questions may give you data to play around with but its hardly the basis for making the statements they make in the report. Asking people if they are happy? Seriously?

But we had lots of fun in class – I gave my students the report and the baloney detection kit which is based around 10 questions (more details here):

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
2. Does the source make similar claims?
3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

They tore the report to shreds! They had questions, spotted errors and anomalies after the briefest of readings. I am proud of them all.

The whole thing reminded me of the Martin Rimm affair of 1995. Rimm was a student at Carnegie Mellon who had also carried out “research” and arrived at the fascinating conclusion that 83.5% of images traded on Usenet are  pornographic. He secured a publication in a law review (prestigious, but not used to dealing with statistics) and then sold an exclusive to Time Magazine who used it as a cover story

Naturally when the article with the glorious title

“Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway: A Survey of 917,410 Images, Description, Short Stories and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in Over 2000 Cities in Forty Countries, Provinces and Territories.”

was finally made available it was torn to shreds, the law review was criticized and so was the editor of Time Magazine. It was not a pretty sight.

So what are we left with? Two PhD students gained some buzz in Swedish media but are viewed with suspicion in academia – this is going to follow them no matter how much they will eventually try to downplay it. The research institute and the School of Economics has sullied its name (why on earth did they let this happen??). I also wonder were the supervisors were in all of this? They may be innocent bystanders but still they have to take some of the heat.

So what we are left with is one happy PR company. What a mess baloney makes….


The law is an ass

Need more proof that the law is not as relevant as it should be? Via Slashdot comes a link to a report in the Times of India about a recent case in the High Court of Bombay. The court had received a complaint filed by an NGO, Janhit Manch that sought action against ‘fake’ astrologers, tantriks, practitioners of Vastu shastra etc.

The outcome was probably a lot more surprising than most would expect. Instead of confirming that astrology lacked any scientific foundation they came to the conclusion that:

“So far as prayer related to astrology is concerned, the Supreme Court has already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is science. The court had in 2004 also directed the universities to consider if astrology science can be added to the syllabus. The decision of the apex court is binding on this court,” observed the judges.

Decisions such as these could hardly prove to be negative on the reality of science – even if the perception of science may be dented in some quarters, but any people who chose to be affected by this are hardly the most scientifically rooted. On the other hand scientists, and thankfully a whole bunch of lawyers, can only shake their heads in despair.

All we can do is agree with Mr Bumble: “the law is an ass”

Ghost writing in Science, plagiarism with a twist

Read yesterday in the Guardian that a MD was being accused of plagiarism with an interesting twist. Basically he had been accepting cash to add his name to medical articles written by a drug company.

Doctors have been agreeing to be named as authors on studies written by employees of the pharmaceutical industry, giving greater credibility to medical research, according to new evidence.

The Guardian has learned that one of Britain’s leading bone specialists is facing disciplinary action over accusations that he was involved in “ghost writing”.

When talking to students about plagiarism I tend to say that plagiarism is any attempt by a student to use the ideas or words of others in an attempt to deceive the examiner into believing they are students own. But is what the MD is doing plagiarism? And how does this differ from the more accepted forms of collaboration? For example lazy co-authors or large teams working together. How much does the “author” of a paper actually need to write him/herself for it not to be plagiarism? Some papers are co-authored by hundreds of researchers who have worked together to varying degrees. ScienceWatch reports on multi author papers and give examples of papers with up to 900 collaborators!

The question is naturally important but what is the difference between 900 collaborators or a paper ghost written by the company to which the MD agrees?

Science books: The best of the best

Tim Radford reviews the short listed books for this years prestigious Royal Society Science Book Prize. Read the reviews and then go read the books. We are living in a time when science books are fun reading – are we at the height of science reporting? So sure the criticism that science becomes devalued into entertainment but that’s a hell of lot better than being ignored.

What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life by Avery Gilbert (Crown $23.95)

What the Nose Knows - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (Harper Perennial £8.99)

Bad Science - Royal Society Science Book Prize

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Harper Press £25)

The Age of Wonder - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer by Jo Marchant (Windmill Books £8.99)

Decoding the Heavens - Royal Society Science Book Prize

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow (Penguin £9.99)

The Drunkard's Walk - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Your Inner Fish: The Amazing Discovery of Our 375-million-year-old Ancestor by Neil Shubin (Penguin £9.99)

You Inner Fish - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Pluto is a planet again, at least in Illinois

The government of Illinois has declared that Pluto is a planet.

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared “Pluto Day” in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

In 2006 the International Astronomical Union resolution created an official definition for the term “planet”.  But since Pluto did not meet the criteria (Pluto had not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit) it was demoted from full Planet to dwarf planet. This decision was not without a serious amount of angry arguing amongst astronomers, amateurs and others.

Obviously the Government of Illinois disagree with the IAU – but why? Well the person who discovered Pluto was born in their state so the demotion of the planetary status also demotes the local pride and tourist value (seriously? is there a tourist value in being the state where the man who discovered Pluto was born?)

This is really cool – imagine if states began randomly redefining nature to suit their political needs?

Well its a good way to begin the weekend with a smile.

(via Discovery Blogs)

Scientific Humor: Cello Scrotum

In 1974 Elaine Murphy reported the condition that came to be known as “Cello Scrotum” to the British Medical Journal. The condition was supposed to be occur among cellists and was a painful complaint caused by their instrument repeatedly rubbing against their body. Well over 30 years later the originator admits that the condition was a just a hoax. BBC writes:

“Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim. “Somewhat to our astonishment, the letter was published.”

Baroness Murphy, formerly a professor at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, did not sign the 1974 letter herself, fearing that she might get into trouble. Her husband John, now chairman of a Suffolk brewery, signed it instead.

The reason for coming clean according to the Baroness was when the hoax was included again in the 2008 Christmas edition of the BMJ. Even though making up science is serious I just can’t stop smiling at this which feels more like a prank than the scientific fraud it is. It also goes to show that even well established journals are not to be trusted.

Rubbing the cello against the body causes “cello scrotum”? It makes you wonder how the editors of the BMJ thought the cello was played – or did they think it was something that cellists did after hours?

Cellist by St Stev (CC by-nc-nd)

Voodoo Science

In what is one of the best examples of voodoo science and the gullibility of the law that I have seen in a long time (ever?) a court in India has accepted a scientist claims that his machine can measure guilt.

The International Herald Tribune reports a case concerns a woman who was accused of killing her former fiancé by poisoning him.The legal system decided to test the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test of Neuroscientist Champadi Raman Mukundan.

The test to measure her guilt consisted of placing 32 electrodes on the accused head. They interrogators then read aloud their version of events, speaking in the first person along with with neutral statements. From this the software distinguishes memories from normal cognition. Even if the accused said nothing her brain reacted when the crime was described. The judge agreed that the scans were proof of “experiential knowledge” of having committed the murder, rather than just having heard about it.

Obviously there are too many reactions to this! But let’s ignore the obvious lack of technical reliability, the need to prove the technology and the differences in legal and scientific methods and standards of proof.

Lets just say that the accused may have a guilty conscience in relation to the victim for several reasons other than the fact she may or may not have poisoned him. In addition to this she may lack any emotions of guilt even if she poisoned him.

The scary part is that the dignity of science is accepted without too many pertinent questions by the court and create real consequences.

Voodoo Fetish Market, Lomé by themanwithsalthair

The God Delusion

Yesterday I bought and began reading Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion – The book is a well written, good humored approach to the subject. He includes plenty of quotes throughout the book, an early one in the beginning is from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”

So far I am very pleased with the book – it’s very nice to read a clear lucid argumentation on atheism. So I guess I will be posting more on this later.

Women in Science

The numbers differ between the disciplines but there is a basic sad truth in academia and that is that the higher up you climb the less women are left. Anna Kushnir writes in Wired:

Take my graduate school for example: My class was made up of eight people — seven women and one man, or 7 to 1. He was Snow White and we were the seven dwarves — each with a remarkably appropriate nickname. I was Grumpy, should you be curious to know.

Snow White and at least four of the dwarves have continued on to postdoctoral research jobs. That is a 4 to 3 ratio of women who went on to do a post-doc to those that chose alternate career paths.

Everything is adding up so far, right? Lots of women are around. Lots of science is being done. All is well.

The next set of numbers is slightly puzzling, however. That is the ratio of female to male professors in our department, at a well-respected academic institution, is 48 to 7 men to women.

Interesting reversal, isn’t it? We go from 7 to 1 in grad school to roughly 1 to 7 in professorships.

There are plenty of reasons and explanations but none that adequately explain the whole process. One of the reasons is that, unfortunately, academia for a long time been a boys club where girls are not welcome. This is a really silly reason but who said that professors were not silly?

Calvin & Hobbes G.R.O.S.S. club (get rid of slimy girls)
by Bill Watterson