Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Credible science

Worse Than Failure has a wonderful story about "experts". Incidentally, I notice the distinction between "Expert" and "expert" in the US is almost the opposite of my experience here in the UK. This side of the pond, it's usually those who are trying to impress people with bullshit who feel compelled to use Initial Capitals. Real experts are much more modest.

The WTF story provides a link to SCIgen, where we can read of "scientific" conferences that apparently accept papers submitted without peer review. Amusing though this story is, it points to a serious issue: if practical jokers like SCIgen can get papers published, so to can incompetents and frauds.

The SCIgen site links to a page at the Technical University of Vienna, which accuses the Wessex Institute of Technology of a similar lack of standards. It's not perhaps surprising that WIT didn't feel obliged to respond in detail to all of the accusations, given the way they were presented, but that's unfortunate, because there was prima facie evidence of a case to answer. And when WIT were making hundreds of pounds from every paper accepted for publication, they had a duty to their customers to show that their peer review process was honest.

The accusations against WIT were over ten years ago. Even if true, the events described were perhaps an isolated incident. WIT seem to have put such events behind them, until Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer happened along. Minnich and Meyer were bright enough, and dishonest enough, to leave their silliest creationist conclusions out of their abstract. They weren't bright enough, or were dishonest enough, not to reference Nicholas Matzke's paper a year earlier that discredited their irreducible complexity nonsense. Matzke's explanation is neatly summarised here by cdk007.

Of course, conferences' review processes are subject to ineluctable time constraints. Journals can afford to be a bit more rigorous. That's why the Sokal affair was such a shock. Alan Sokal published a nonsense paper in the journal Social Text. The same day it appeared, this appeared in a different journal. When I first read that last, I was slightly puzzled as to why Sokal seemed to believe that he belongs to some coherent body called "the Left", some of whose members he thinks have let the side down. I've since learned, from ScienceBlogs and elsewhere, just how one-dimensional US politics is.

In the Sokal affair we saw how social scientists could be fooled by real scientists like us; my, how we laughed. Real scientists could never be taken in so easily. Oh yeah? The Bogdanov affair wiped the smiles off a few faces.

Notice how the Wikipedia article on the Bogdanov affair has been protected against vandalism. The controversy rumbles on. One of the major supporters of the Bogdanov brothers was a Professor Yang at Hong Kong University. Unfortunately (a) the university had never heard of him and (b) his postings were traced (by IP address) to a Paris dial-up connection. The Bogdanov brothers lived in Paris at the time.

If smart people can be awarded PhDs for fraudulent science, how much credence can we give to scientists who announce their results on the Web, on TV or in the press? At best, a rush to publication is motivated by the increasing need for academics to court funding. Fleischmann & Pons might charitaby be seen in this category. At worst, it is a sign of incompetence or fraud. Steorn are little more than a PR agency, and are not to be taken seriously. But the world's energy problems seem to attract miracle solutions. If it's not a hitherto unknown energy source, it's pretending the problems don't exist. Martin Durkin, who has a record for "selective editing" has been given airtime by Channel 4 again. His allegations are debunked at