We need better scientific fraud

A friend sent me this article about Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who “perpetrated an audacious academic fraud by making up studies that told the world what it wanted to hear about human nature.” What caught my attention was this comment about how the fraud was noticed:

He began writing the paper, but then he wondered if the data had shown any difference between girls and boys. “What about gender differences?” he asked Stapel, requesting to see the data. Stapel told him the data hadn’t been entered into a computer yet.

Vingerhoets was stumped. Stapel had shown him means and standard deviations and even a statistical index attesting to the reliability of the questionnaire, which would have seemed to require a computer to produce. Vingerhoets wondered if Stapel, as dean, was somehow testing him. Suspecting fraud, he consulted a retired professor to figure out what to do. “Do you really believe that someone with [Stapel’s] status faked data?” the professor asked him.

And later

When Zeelenberg challenged him with specifics — to explain why certain facts and figures he reported in different studies appeared to be identical — Stapel promised to be more careful in the future.

How hard is it to invent data? The same thing occurred to me with regard to Jan Hendrik Schön, a celebrated Dutch (not that I’m suggesting anything specific about the Dutch…) [update: German, as a commenter has pointed out. Sorry. Some of my best friends are Dutch.] materials scientist who was found in 2002 to have faked experimental results.

In April, outside researchers noticed that a figure in the Nature paper on the molecular-layer switch also appeared in a paper Science had just published on a different device. Schön promptly sent in a corrected figure for the Science paper. But the incident disturbed McEuen, who says he was already suspicious of results reported in the two papers. On 9 May, McEuen compared figures in some of Schön’s other papers and quickly found other apparent duplications.

I’m reminded of a classic article from the Journal of Irreproducible Results, “A Drastic Cost Saving Approach to Using Your Neighbor’s Electron Microscope”, advocating that researchers take advantage of the fact that all electron micrographs look the same. It printed four copies of exactly the same picture, with four different captions: One described it as showing fine structure of an axe handle, another said it showed macrophages devouring a bacterium. When it comes to plots of data (rather than photographs, which might be hard to generate de novo) I really can’t see why anyone would need to re-use a plot, or would be unable to supply made-up data for a made-up experiment. Perhaps there is a psychological block against careful thinking, or against willfully generating a dataset, some residual “I’m-not-really-doing-this-I’m-just-shifting-figures-around” resistance to acknowledging the depths to which one has sunk.

Certainly a statistician would know how to generate a perfect fake data set — which means a not-too-perfect fit to relevant statistical and scientific models. Maybe there’s an opportunity there for a new statistical consulting business model. Impact!

Update: Of course, I should have said, there’s an obvious bias here: I only know about the frauds that have been detected. They were unbelievably amateurish — couldn’t even be bothered to invent data — and still took years to be detected. How many undetected frauds are out there? It’s frightening to think about it. Mendel’s wonky data weren’t discovered for half a century. Cyril Burt may have committed the biggest fraud of all time, or maybe he was just sloppy, and we may never know for sure.

I just looked at the Wikipedia article on Burt, and discovered a fascinating quote from one of his defenders, psychologist Arthur Jensen that makes an appropriate capstone for this post:

[n]o one with any statistical sophistication, and Burt had plenty, would report exactly the same correlation, 0.77, three times in succession if he were trying to fake the data.

In other words, his results were so obviously faked that they must be genuine. If he were trying to fake the data he would certainly have made them look more convincingly real.

Freedom fries with milquetoast

I was amused to read that Republicans in the US were attacking President Obama for not dropping everything to fly to France and succor our friend and ally in its time of need.

“This is simply no way to treat our oldest and first ally,” [Rick] Perry told The Washington Post. “President Obama should have stood with France in person, defending Western values in the struggle against terrorism and showing support for the victims of this despicable act of terror,” Perry said.[…]

“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” [wrote Ted] Cruz.

Because, we know that if there’s anything Republicans care about more than defending scatological satire targeted particularly at conservative religious figures, it’s the centuries-old alliance, built mutual respect and admiration, with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys petulant prima-donna of realpolitik French.

It’s almost as intense as their abiding love of the Ukraine, for which John McCain attacked Obama’s and Angela Merkel’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea last year as “playing into Putin’s hands” and “milquetoast” respectively.

The worst of it is, he can’t even get a side of freedom fries with his milquetoast anymore.

Possibly highly likely

Apparently I’m not the only one who finds the government’s vocabulary for risk of terror threat confusing. MI5 has estimated the risk of international terrorist attack in the whole UK as “severe”, which sounds pretty threatening, hardly a calming prospect. And yet, according to yesterday’s Times

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, called for calm in an interview with Sky News on Friday, saying: “I don’t think it’s likely but I think we all know it’s a possibility — the threat level is severe and so therefore that means a terrorist attack is possible.

I’d say that calling the threat level “severe” is not what you do when you want the public to be “calm”. But then, his description corresponds to the official designation “moderate”. Obviously, no one wants to be the one who lowered the threat level right ahead of an attack, whereas leaving the threat level up for a few extra months (or years) has only diffuse and impersonal costs. Except that then you have to go out telling people that they shouldn’t really panic, even though the government says a terrorist attack is highly likely.

On a somewhat related note, the MI5 website ought to win a prize for the least helpful infographic. To illustrate the different threat levels for Great Britain and Northern Ireland they give us this map:

MI5 threat level graphic
For those plotting an attack in Northern Ireland but who can’t remember where it is…

There are just two “regions” whose threat level needs to be communicated. Is it really helpful to paste them onto geographically detailed maps of the United Kingdom? I’m guessing that, while they don’t want to specify any particular regions as potential targets, they don’t specifically want to make the point that Portree is equally at risk to certain southern metropolises with names beginning with L.


A “terrorism expert” on Fox News in the US has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic by informing his viewers that

in Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.

This is, of course, well known, and was first brought fleetingly to public attention by the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As some people have forgotten, in his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (based in Brighton, I believe) Dr King attempted to open the totally Muslim city of Birmingham to Christians, by staging a nonviolent march. After his arrest by the Muslim religious police (who actually beat and actually wounded him seriously) he penned these stirring words:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”[…] I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. […] I cannot sit idly by […] and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I am offering my services to Fox News, to appear as a history expert and discuss this neglected background to the current crisis in Birmingham.

It is perhaps to the credit of “expert” Steve Emerson that his organisation has posted the transcript of this interview, together with a sort-of-apology:

I have clearly made a terrible error for which I am deeply sorry. My comments about Birmingham were totally in error[. …] I do not intend to justify or mitigate my mistake by stating that I had relied on other sources because I should have been much more careful.

There are several more sentences in the same vein, followed by a non sequitur offer of a donation to Birmingham Children’s Hospital. While I appreciate his refusal to “justify or mitigate”, I think in this case an exposition of his sources would be informative, or at least entertaining. But these think tanks are not so much scholarly organisations as conspiratorial cells, and unless we take him to Guantanamo we’ll never get the names of his contacts.

I guess he’s standing by the London comments. I think this is a real opening for Labour, if the government is cutting housing assistance but still funding the Muslim religious police. And he hasn’t yet apologised for neglecting Dr King’s contributions to intercommunal understanding in Birmingham.

Spitting on the corpse

The great political cartoonist Joe Sacco has written a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — cartoon-essay about “the limits of satire” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I can’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I find his choice to say some of them now weirdly offensive, in exactly the way that much of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, and so undermining the point that he seems to be making.

Sacco writes, over a background of a hillside covered with crosses made of fountain pens — the cartoonist’s Calvary?

Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.

Implied is that everyone must agree that CH has been tweaking the noses of Muslims. That is, making pointless and puerile attacks that publicly shame people who are socially weak. One could claim that, but I think many people would disagree. I do, and I believe that most of the Charlie Hebdo staff would. Which suggests that this might not be the best time to criticise them, when some have just been murdered, and the rest are in shock, and unable to defend themselves.

Why do so many people, most of whom I’m sure never commented on Charlie Hebdo before, feel incapable of publicly saying, “It’s a terrible crime, and a threat to everyone’s sense of security and freedom of expression,” without needing to pair it immediately with a disclaimer “I never liked them, and I object to their approach to journalism and cartooning and politics and life in general.” Can’t it wait, at least until the survivors are back on their feet? No one goes to a funeral and feels obliged to say to the widow, “Yes, heart attacks are terrible, but he really was a shitty colleague, I found him dull, and he always smelled kind of bad.”

Sacco then proceeds to some intentionally offensive drawings of his own: One of a black man with a banana falling out of a tree, the other of a “Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.” He then asks, “And if you can take the ‘joke’ now, would it have been as funny in 1933?” Imagine that at Sacco’s death (after, one hopes, a long and happy life) people pull out these images and reprint them with comments like “Talented cartoonist. Shame he was such a racist and antisemite.” This would be terribly unfair, because it ignores the context in which it was written. But Sacco seems to be arguing that the only context that matters is the political context, in which Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe, and relatively powerless in world affairs. It’s a complex problem, and I can’t fault Sacco for having his say on it, but it arouses in me a sense of unfairness when people

My personal reaction? The sort of comedy that CH engages in, like the underground comics tradition in the US that started in the 1960s — and still being pursued by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and others — has never been exactly to my taste, but I have never felt any urge to dissociate myself from it. The job of caricature is to reduce humans to their common bodily level, and show how ridiculous we all are, the highest and the lowest. It can serve the purposes of racist marginalisation, and it can serve important democratic principles. If Mohammed is caricatured, is he a representative of the oppressed Muslims in the Paris banlieu, or is he another big boss, needing to be taken down a peg? It’s a subtle argument, but I admire those willing to risk crossing the line, in order to explore where the line is, or if there should be any line at all.

An observation: Twice in the past few days Andrew Sullivan has reprinted reader comments or tweets that showed an outrageous CH cover, with a comment of the sort, “Yes, no one should have murdered them. But can’t we agree that they’re obviously a pack of racists? Just look at this outrageous example.” And each one of these posts got updated with a comment from a reader who actually knew the political context, and could point out that the cartoon was not racist in intent, but was illustrating an argument over the position of racial minorities in France. For example, a caricature of Justice minister Christiane Taubira (a black woman) as an ape was a response to racist comments by the right wing, including throwing bananas at her.

Is it a positive thing to concretise the racism of others in an unforgettable image? I think so, but it’s debatable. It’s a debate worth having, which is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their ilk.

A small majority

From SPIEGEL’s article about the Oxford PPE degree, where the rich and powerful met when they were only rich and young:

Tatsächlich kommt die Mehrzahl aller Oxford-Studenten von Privatschulen, die sich nur sehr wohlhabende Eltern leisten können: Obwohl nur sieben Prozent aller britischen Schüler auf Privatschulen gehen, machten sie 2013 in Oxford satte 44 Prozent der Studienanfänger aus.

Indeed, the majority of Oxford students come from private schools, that only very wealthy parents can afford: Although only seven percent of British children attend private schools, they were 44 percent of the matriculants at Oxford in 2013.

Even a government minister who studied PPE could tell that 44 percent isn’t a majority…

The article continues, quoting Danny Dorling, on Oxford Geographie-Professor in Oxford as saying

Vier Privatschulen und eine hochselektive staatliche Schule schicken mehr Studenten nach Oxford als die restlichen 2000 staatlichen zusammen genommen…

Four private schools and one highly selective state school send more students to Oxford as the remaining 2000 state schools put together…

I have to assume that this has been misquoted or mistranslated. There are not 2000 (or 2001) state secondary schools, but more than 3000. There are about 6600 undergraduates from state schools and 5200 from private schools. That would mean that at least 1400 undergraduates — about 400 a year — come from this one state school, and presumably a lot more.

My guess is, what he really said (or meant to say) is that these five schools send more students to Oxford than the bottom 2000 schools. Which doesn’t sound so strange, actually. The average number of Oxford places per school is less than one/year. In any given year most schools would send no one to Oxford. Even if schools were all equally good, if there are highly selective schools, they would be expected to send a large number of students to Oxford.

Cornpone opinions and Charlie Hebdo

When people praise the good work of Jimmy Carter for world peace, I am reminded of his despicable attack on Salman Rushdie, in the pages of the NY Times, in 1989. At a time when Rushdie was threatened with death for writing a brilliant, funny, and moving novel that grapples with religious themes (which also includes a coruscating satire of self-serving theocrats, something which is rarely mentioned in this context, and which I think was at least as much the motivation for the Iranian fatwa as any portrayal of the Prophet and his family), Carter wrote:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.

To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.

[Just as an aside, on rereading this now I am struck by Carter’s strange choice to frame it as though it were a technical American legal issue, by citing the US constitution — obviously irrelevant to Rushdie, who, as a UK citizen residing in the UK has no such rights — rather than referring to international norms of liberty and civil rights.]

I was reminded of this in reading the response of the Financial Times’s Tony Barber to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday:

some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.


Jonathan Chait has grouped this with other examples of journalists and politicians respecting, if not quite condoning, murderous responses to wounded religious sensitivities, such as this response of Time’s bureau chief in Paris to the last terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo three years ago:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

Yes, indeed, how could one possibly interpret a satirical cartoon about a religious figure other than that the author is “begging” to be murdered? In this view, the editors of Charlie Hebdo got discouraged by Dorothy Parker’s poem (the one ending “Guns aren’t lawful; \\Nooses give; \\Gas smells awful; \\You might as well live.”) and thought that drawing caricatures of Mohammed would be a clever alternative. They were begging for it, as the rapist said. They might as well have drawn the cartoons on the way down after leaping from the Eiffel Tower. It surprises me that I’ve yet to hear of anyone advocating banning Dante.

People have real emotions over religious symbols, and this needs to be recognised. But emotionality can also be an effective power strategy. Saying, “I (and my coreligionists) are incapable of modulating our responses. We are an uncontrollable doomsday device.” is an effective way of compelling compromise, as long as you can convince the rest of society that you are really incapable of restraining the emotional responses of the mob. (And as long as you can avoid a violent backlash against your religious group, if they happen to be in the minority; but even a violent backlash would serve the interests of those interested to radicalise their people.) It is really an expression of contempt for these others, to suppose they are incapable of rational reflection, requiring the rest of us to pre-emptively reckon with their reflexive violence.

I often think of a lesson from the Talmud, that the rabbis ruled that to save a life a Jew is permitted to violate any religious precept except three prohibitions: idolatry, murder, and incest (including adultery); and there seems to have been considerable disagreement about idolatry. But, they went on, this only applies to freak occurrences: For instance, if a bank robber takes you hostage and forces you at gunpoint to drive his getaway car on Shabbat, you are permitted to obey; but you may not save your own life by agreeing to kill another hostage. If this is a time of general persecution, on the other hand, one may make no accommodation at all, not even to change the way one ties the sandal straps.

The point is that symbolic actions depend on context. I am all in favour of avoiding unnecessarily wounding people’s sensitivities. Under normal circumstances, I would not go out of my way to shock true believers with intellectual critiques of religion or with satire. But as soon as men with guns insist, “You may not speak of (or draw) the Prophet,” they have made him a symbol of violence, and oppression, and ideological repression. And others are entitled — indeed, are obliged — to attack that symbol. This is the same problem that plagued efforts to ban burning the US flag back in the early 1990s. The US Supreme Court ruled that this was protected free speech, and the right wing went crazy, trying to amend the US constitution and turn the next election into a referendum on burning flags. The natural response of people who cared about free speech was to burn more flags. The US flag had been transformed, temporarily, from a common symbol of American love of country and shared ideals, into a partisan political symbol of oppression of minority opinion.

Everyone needs to accept, living in a pluralistic society, that there will be discussions and publications and activities going on in various corners of our society that we don’t like, and either come to terms with their contents or learn to ignore them. No one forces me to attend a mosque or a church, and no one forces muslims to read Charlie Hebdo. I would not be astonished to learn that in some mosques negative comments are made about my own religion and its symbols.

The apparent goals of those advocating violence in the name of Islam in the west are purely fantastical: The alternative to pluralism in Europe is obviously not a society devoted to Islamic values. But that merely underscores the gap between the stated and real objectives. The real target is surely not the non-muslims, but the moderate muslims. The goal, I presume, is to convince the broader society that muslims are violent, and so cut off the access of ordinary muslims to acceptance and assimilation.

This is why the appeasers’ policies of avoiding offence is doomed to failure, even on its own terms.

People like Carter and the Time journalist Hambly think that freedom of expression is such an important thing that it really should be kept safe and secure in a quiet place, not endangered by taking it out into public. This attitude (like so much else) was well satirised by Mark Twain, in a line I have quoted before:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Up is down

I mentioned in an earlier post George Lakoff’s work on metaphorical language. One fascinating issue is the way same metaphorical target can be mapped onto by multiple conceptual domains, and sometimes these can come into conflict — or a metaphor can come into conflict with the literal meaning of the target. When the figurative-literal target conflict is particularly succinct, this tends to be called “oxymoron”. One of my favourites is the 1970s novel and subsequent film about a burning skyscraper, called The Towering Inferno.

This particular one depends on the conflict between the “UP is GOOD, DOWN is BAD” metaphor (an indirect  form of it, since it goes by way of DOWN is BAD is HELL is BURNING), conflicting with the literally towering skyscraper. Anyway, the UP-DOWN dichotomy gets used a lot, creating lots of potential confusion. For example, UP is DIFFICULT and DOWN is EASY, inspiring the famous allegory of Hesiod that inspired so many devotional images:

Vice is easy to have; you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you, but between us and virtue, the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and steep uphill hard climbing at first.

Hence the uncertainty of the phrase “Everything’s going downhill.” Is it getting worse, or getting easier?

There is a triple ambiguity when numbers get involved. LARGE NUMBERS are UP (“higher numbers”, “low number”) when we are counting the floors of a building, but SMALL NUMBERS are UP when ranking (#1 is the winner and comes at the top of the list).

This brings us to the example that inspired this post. The BBC news web site this morning told us that “A&E waiting times in England have fallen to their worst level for a decade.” It’s hard to feel much sense of urgency about the fact that waiting times have “fallen”.

BBC website A&E morning



Presumably that’s why the text had changed in the afternoon:

bbc website afternoon

Aposematism and toy guns

Another person has been shot in the US because he was brandishing a toy gun.

Police hit the 32-year-old man three times Sunday evening after he pulled from his waistband what was later determined to be an air gun, which fire metallic projectiles such as pellets or BBs, police spokesman Albie Esparza said.[…]

The air gun did not have a colored tip on it, which is a standard identifier of a toy gun, Officer Gordon Shyy said Monday.

Actually, this wasn’t even exactly a “toy”. More, a sublethal weapon. I’m generally not the most sympathetic to police officers who kill the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. (In Utah last year police were the leading category of homicide perpetrators.) And the case of the boy who was shot on a playground because he had a toy gun clearly seems tinged with racism. But I can’t blame the problem on a lack of coloured tips on the gun.

Surely a brief thought about warning colours and mimicry in nature suggests that a strategy that says “a red tip means the police don’t need to worry about this otherwise very dangerous-looking weapon” can’t be viable. It’s too easy to mimic the signal and gain the advantage (lessened police response to your weapon). This is not quite the same as aposematism — advertising ones inedibility to predators through defensive colouration — but the general problem of cheap signals undermined by mimicry is the same. Continue reading “Aposematism and toy guns”

Aren’t all famous people friends?

By way of Andrew Sullivan, I found this book review by Diane Johnson, referring to

Freud’s friend Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, the inspiration for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut…

Poor Schnitzler. He’s one of my favourite authors, and Traumnovelle is one of his masterpieces, but he needs to be put into context for English readers by his connection to two people who are much better known.

I find the Freud hook particularly poignant because Freud was famously not a friend of Schnitzler. They were contemporaries, yes, and neighbours in Vienna. They read each other’s work. But they were not friends. There is one famous letter from Freud to Schnitzler (out of about 10 in total), on the occasion of the latter’s 60th birthday, in which Freud expresses his admiration, and explains why he had never made an effort to meet him. He says it was “Doppelgängerscheu”, fear of meeting his double. Schnitzler used a similar expression some years later in an interview with an American journalist, and he had long been fascinated by Freud’s theories, though also critical.

Freud did invite Schnitzler to his home after that letter, but there seem to have been only a few encounters after that. It would have been more accurate to call Schnitzler’s work “the inspiration for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, and the inspiration for many of Freud’s theories of dream analysis”.