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  • Junk Science Warning Signs: Part I

    Posted by John Jay on March 4th, 2009 (All posts by )

    So, commenter Tatyana asked about how a layman can discern the signals that indicate that a discussion has left the realm of rigorous thought. I thought I’d set down some thoughts on that over the course of a couple of posts, starting from the extreme left tail of the distribution and working my way in to stuff that’s more mainstream, could possibly be true, but ought not to be pounced on because there’s a lot more work to be done before a conclusion is reached.

    So, to start out with, I’ll tackle something that’s obvious to me as being in the looney science bin: the attacks on the Large Hadron Collider. As I mentioned before, my little online Science Fiction group ran afoul of the utter nutbars in the “LHC Will End the Woooorld” camp. I dug a little deeper into the “some scientists” whom the anti-LHCers cite. I uncovered that the most prestigious scientist whom they could quote was a German biochemist I’d never heard of named Otto Rössler.

    So then I dug a little deeper into Professor Doctor Rössler’s record, and came up with quite a lot. Unfortunately, it was quite a lot of utter rubbish. I see that rubbish cited all over the Internet, so I tried to set the record straight. After the jump is the blog post I made, mostly for my SF group’s amusement, about how I was able to tell Rössler was a crank. Enjoy.

    Scientists go off the rails as often as other people – perhaps more often. The difference between the macro behavior of the science community and the macro behavior of the general population is that the profession of science is supposed to have a built-in self-correcting mechanism – the scientific method – that subjects even famous practitioners of the scientific disciplines to the same third degree that one would put a complete novice claiming, for example, to have discovered a fundamentally new particle.

    In practice, however, the self-correcting mechanism has a few bugs. Famous practitioners can get away with publishing things that would be more highly scrutinized in other people. Recent retractions in the field of cloning should have made that crystal-clear to everyone.

    Below the layman’s radar, not-so-famous practitioners (and let’s be blunt, mediocre-to-poor scientists) can worm their way onto editorial boards of fourth-tier journals or into positions of prominence in professional societies (the scut work of which most of the best and most talented scientists do not want to sully their hands with) in order to pave the way for publishing results that would be rejected even by the bottom feeders of the scientific publishing world were their authors not on the editorial boards of said journals.

    But eventually someone tries to repeat the experiment, or applies the theory to newly discovered facts. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and so far, even when temporarily distorted by asceintific considerations within the human institutions of science, the scientific method prevails – eventually (even in the USSR). The great and not-so-great people of science, if they are worth their salt, retract their claims if it turns out that those claims are not justified. Everyone, and I mean everyone, even Nobel Prize winners, need someone to tell them when they are full of shit.

    For the layman trying to make sense of scientific, or pseudo-scientific arguments in the public arena, it is not sufficient to know that scientists can go off the rails. Kooks and crackpots generally use this argument very selectively to attack scientists who disagree with their pet theories, while ignoring the tendencies of their supporters to take the train airborne, as it were. The layman needs to know how scientists go off the rails in order to evaluate the legitimacy of claims in a public scientific argument.

    A few good examples are probably in order to calibrate the layman’s ability to determine which camp has hired Casey Jones as their engineer, to take the analogy a bit too far. But bad writing aside, examples are the best way to learn. Let’s begin with what is perhaps the most spectacular train wreck in all of modern science:

    Linus Pauling was the son of a druggist who, in the 1920s, when education was definitely not offered to all and sundry, worked his way from his home state of Oregon to a graduate degree in Chemistry with minors in Physics and Mathematics, and then a professorship, at CalTech. His book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals , took the explanatory power of the Quantum Mechanical Valence Bond Theory of Heitler and London from a simple explanation for the formation of diatomic Hydrogen, to a theory that could explain the bonds of much more complex molecules. This revolutionized Chemistry, and his further explorations into the structure of proteins looked at the forces that hold life itself together, opening up huge new vistas in Biology.

    Pauling won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. He deserved it, make no mistake. But Linus then fell prey to the hubris that fellow Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman was warning about in Cargo Cult Science. Leaving the study of the chemical bond in his older years, Pauling somehow became aware of the activities of one “Doctor” Irwin Stone. Stone actually was a food chemistry technician with a 2 year degree in the pre-war years (when obtaining a responsible position with an Associates was much more common, since there was much less to know) who was one of the pioneers of the use of ascorbate as a food preservative. Stone’s later theories on evolutionary nutrition and vitamin intake were unorthodox, to say the least. Quackery, if you want to be blunt (and I do).

    Pauling probably picked up on Stone’s work because it sounded intriguing and unorthodox (but plausible to Pauling as an outsider to biology). Nobel winners unusually get that prize because they tend to think outside the box. But 90% of what is “outside the box” is outside the box because it is junk. Finding the other 10% is evidence of genius, usually (or being a blind pig – science has more than its share of blind pigs). Within their field, good scientists have a highly developed Bozo filter that allows them to separate an unorthodox, but possibly fruitful, line of inquiry from the red herrings. Not to say that good scientists don’t ever get an idea that turns out to have fins and gills with a decidedly crimson tint, but the practiced scientist rapidly recognizes the fish, and wipes the smell of the sea off of their hands. Outside of their field, the Bozo filter has large holes that represent gaps in knowledge and experience.

    Why did Pauling’s Bozo filter fail him in the case of Stone? Because, despite working on the chemical structure of proteins, Linus Pauling was no Biologist. It is possible to make a contribution to science that several branches of study can make use of, but that does not make the contributor a qualified practitioner of those various sciences. For example, the ideas of Vilfredo Pareto are used far beyond economics and business in endeavors as diverse as mollusc farming and paleontology. That, however, does not retroactively make Vilifred wither a Marine Biologist or a Paleontologist – he was an Economist, and one can assume that his study of molluscs was primarily confined to those he found on his plate. Analogously, working on the structure of proteins did not make Pauling an expert on the evolutionary biology of Vitamin C synthesis and consumption.

    But Pauling ran with Stone’s ideas anyway, violating Feynman’s admonition, never trying to poke any holes in the theory. Pauling made unscientific claims, defended obvious quacks, and generally engaged in behavior that would have gotten his license to practice medicine revoked, had he possessed one. He also was one of the driving forces responsible for removing the oversight of the FDA on Nutraceuticals, opening up the unsuspecting public to attack from a variety of charlatans just skirting the letter of the law.

    I’ve long wondered what led Pauling down the path to quackery. Was it the fact that his earlier contributions had been primarily theoretical, and in his older years, with everyone coming to kiss the ring of his Nobel, he dismissed experimental evidence that did not match with his theories because he’d lived in his own mind too long? Was it a cynical desire to make money or retain a fame that was receding? Was it early-onset Alzheimer’s or some form of selective senility related to Asperger’s Syndrome? Or was it that colleagues had in previous years kept his less sane tendencies in line, but the awarding of a Nobel increased their reluctance to criticize and allowed what was a heretofore unnoticed mental illness to come to the fore? I don’t know. What I do know is that he had a pernicious influence on both science and public health, and this was primarily because laymen saw the Nobel Prize and didn’t inquire about which branch of Chemistry it was awarded for (Physical).

    This is a key point in exposing the soft underbelly of scientific credentials. Some laymen see the letters “Ph.D.” after someone’s name and assume near-omnipotence.* Some laymen see “Nobel Laureate” after someone’s name and assume complete omnipotence. But science abhors argumentum ad authoritarium for a good reason, and Linus Pauling is the poster child for that reason. Claims to polymathy are to be met with skepticism by everyone, lay and expert alike. It is possible, given a strong mind and enough time, for a human being to become a world-class expert in two to three fields. No more than that. There is simply too much to learn, too many details that are not common to the various disciplines of science that can set the inexperienced off on a wrong tangent. Good scientists and mathematicians remember that they are standing on a small island of their own competence in a vast ocean of their own ignorance.

    So what’s the take home message from Linus’s story? Check every claim for its consistency with other messages from science. Modern science fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, and pieces that don’t fit are a big red flag if the claimant is coming out of left field. If there is an inconsistency, find out why, which is going to take some time and intellectual effort. And finally, one of the biggest warning flags about weakly defensible scientific sounding discourse, one of the softest spots in the underbelly of science, is when experts talk outside of their fields of expertise.

    For example, when Carl Sagan used his simplistic models to predict “Nuclear Winter” and then mumble, mumble retracted his position to “Nuclear Autumn” , when he predicted huge, catastrophic ecological consequences from Gulf War I, then mumble, mumble retracted his statements when those consequences failed to materialize, the same dynamic was in play. Sagan was not an atmospheric modeler, and his political hysteria clouded his scientific judgment and caused him to ignore Feynman’s admonition:

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

    In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

    It was easier for Sagan to ignore this in a field that was not his primary field of study. This psychological quirk of many scientists to ignore the importance of getting facts straight in a field other than their primary discipline (because deep down they harbor the irrational feeling that any field but their own can’t be as well developed or as important) on top of the higher likelihood of making mistakes in any but the primary field of expertise, justifies the sort of pseudo argumentum ad hominem behind the rule of thumb that the claims of experts talking outside their fields should be more critically examined than the claims of experts talking within their field of primary training.

    Pontificating in areas of non-competence is not the sole province of someone who jumps to a single second field after achieving superstar status – the method by which Pauling or a Sagan went off the rails – however. There is another way to go off the rails, one I call the “Pseudo Polymath” route. The middle-of-the-road scientist who gets a tenured position and then fritters it away dabbling in this or that, never really contributing much to any one field of endeavor, but collecting a large swath of (very) minor publications in a wide variety of fields. A person possessed of a sort of scientific ADHD.

    In my previous Graduate Advisor Taxonomy this kind of scientist usually become the Bitter, Fundless (but Tenured) Twit. In Europe, especially Germany, with their more hierarchical system and plenty of nooks and crannies to stuff deadwood, this person usually becomes a “minister without a portfolio” – someone kept on the rolls as a Docent, or lecturer, who has no graduate students, post-docs, nor indeed any research responsibility at all, but bears the title professor. The layman would do well to remember that in all things related to human beings, some people are more equal than others.

    How does one become a piece of scientific deadwood? One popular piece of chemistry humor in the 70s featured a protagonist named Pudvin. Among the myriad ways that Pudvin appeared to work while goofing off was to listen intently for promising new avenues of investigation in his department. He’d then go sit in that lab for a few days, pick up just enough to design a minor experiment and execute it, then turn it in to the main authors as “just a little something I thought up’. It was never anything Earth-shattering (hah), or even particularly useful, but as he’d obviously done something in the area, he got himself listed as a third or fourth author an impressive number of times. Unfortunately this type of behavior is not confined to the frivolous humor pages in the back of chemistry publications.

    In today’s world, with its emphasis on “interdisciplinary’ fields of study, it’s all too easy for Pudvins to slip through the cracks, as Metamanda noted some three years ago:

    It’s too easy to make a successful career social-sciencing to computer scientists, and designing it up amongst the social scientists, and being technical amongst the designers, and looking good without knowing your shit very rigorously. I am constantly afraid that I am doing this. And I am constantly trying to avoid being like that. We are valuable bridges between disciplines and communities of practice, but I don’t think we can settle for being only that. We have to have rigor, and depth. We have to know the methods and theories used in these various disciplines… know them well and then be creative enough to understand where they can be applied that maybe no one thought to apply them before.

    [Emphasis mine]. And this brings me to the actual point of this post, and that is a man who has managed to worm his way into the forefront of a recent scientific controversy via the Pseudo Polymath route. A man who has an impressively broad list of publications, until one digs a bit deeper. A real-life Pudvin as it were. A man whose papers are cited again and again by the anti-LHC crowd, the ones who think the collider is going to generate a black hole that will eat the world. The pseudo-scientific underpinning of that hysteria has been chiefly generated by this man. A man whose great breadth is constantly touted by those who want to believe in his arguments, while his overlooking his nanometer thin depth. And that man is Professor Doctor Otto Rössler.

    Otto Rössler obtained his MD in 1966, choosing to study immunology for “ethical reasons”. That’s the first indication one gets when researching the man that one is dealing with someone who is prone to exaggeration. It’s an odd turn of phrase – all scientists like to think they are helping mankind, and that science, any branch of science, is by dint of decreasing the material poverty of the world, THE most ethical profession. Those words about ethics are likely not the quote of a science biographer. It is vague and vaguely supercilious turns of phrase like “ethical reasons” that tend to trigger the alarms in a real scientist’s Bozo filter. Normally, upon seeing this kind of phrase, I immediately relegate the writer to my “blowhard” file, and go on to find someone with more sense to read or talk to. Believe me, I’ve met more than my share of people like that, and so has every other scientist out there. Our tribe has some real idiots, yes it does.

    Unfortunately for the good doctor’s sense of ethics, his contributions to the field of immunology appear to be minimal, consisting of one paper of minor importance. He himself admits that he was a lousy immunologist in his advisor’s opinion – the thesis for which he was granted a Ph.D. degree in pathology was only 24 pages! That’s about enough material for one paper in a decent scientific journal. This is clue number two that we are dealing with an odd duck.

    I believe that Rössler was awarded his Ph.D. either as an act of pity, or just to get him the hell out of his advisor’s hair, or because they assumed he’d be using his MD degree instead of the Ph.D. so no blood no foul, or because he’d spent so much time and gotten so close that the powers in his institution thought it would affect the morale of new students to watch someone who’d been there so long walk away without a degree. I believe that one or more of those reasons came into play in his Ph.D. defense because 24 pages is not even enough for a Master’s thesis.

    I probably need to explain some institutional mechanics to those of you who have never performed science at the graduate level. Ph.D. degrees ought to be awarded to someone who has done something publishable – and done it more than once! The rule of thumb in my advisor’s lab was 4 – 5 published papers would make an adequate Ph.D. thesis. That is a lot more than 24 typewritten pages.

    Fresh from his Ph.D. debacle, Rössler bounced to Robert Rosen’s lab. Rosen is a controversial figure in biology, I’ll just leave it at that. A brilliant man, but one prone to flights of ascientific fancy.

    Rössler went from there to a position as a professor of Biochemistry in 1969 at Tubingen, obtaining tenure in 1976. And there he stuck, dabbling in this, piddling in that (taking every chance to absent himself from Tubingen and the expectations of real work with a dizzying array of visiting professorships – that’s a big red flag to the professional scientist, as well), jumping on the new discipline of Chaos in its infancy when no one really knew what was going on and hitting upon a nifty system of differential equations that bear his name. He then spent the rest of his career mostly publishing minor extensions of that work in mathematics in minor journals and pissing his abilities away on asceintific speculation. He never acquired a research group as I can find no Ph.D.s who cite him as their advisor. He stuck around so long that someone Tubingen got embarrassed about having a a 54 year old associate professor around and made him a full Professor by decree, because he certainly didn’t contribute enough to his major field to earn the full professorship in the normal way. In fact it’s another red flag (of the Pudvin variety) to the professional scientist that someone calling himself a professor of Biochemistry publishes mostly in lower tier non-Biochemistry journals.

    I actually went and looked all of his publications up. I pulled pretty much every scientific paper, published proceeding and book chapter this clown ever wrote. I searched the literature all the way back to 1949 in non-Google databases, because I took one look at this guy’s record and said “he’s scientific deadwood, but how do I explain how I know that to the layman?”. The above analogies were the best I could do. I hope they give you an idea of why the scientific community dismisses the man as a crank.

    Now, at this point, I’ve got to come clean. Various people visiting my site have made me very angry, talking about the alleged safety issues with the Large Hadron Collider. The reason for my ire is not that they exhibit true believer syndrome, though they do. I can let that one roll off my back. The reason I’m upset is that these true believers quote Rössler’s paper on particle physics and his other public statements in their nonsense, and I’ve seen laymen all over the internet saying, in the face of some very scientific-looking citations from Rössler, “well, there must be something if this famous Ph.D. is raising alarm”. This line of thinking killed a girl in India.

    Misuse of scientific standing upsets me in a very professional sense. Sagan and Pauling were two of my heroes growing up, but the above mentioned ascientific political hysteria Sagan engaged in and the above mentioned quackery Pauling engaged in certainly took the shine off of them as I grew into a mature scientist myself. I certainly don’t take kindly to that kind of behavior from people whose greatest scientific achievements don’t come within lightyears of those two giants – I cut them, I cut Rössler – no slack at all.

    Let me be very clear. Rössler is someone talking far from his fields of competence when he’s talking about particle physics. He’s spent his entire career dabbling in this and that, and any claim to his polymathy by his supporters is glossing over the incredible lack of depth in any field of scientific endeavor. Most of his “polymathy” is in fact applications of his minor but – let me be fair here – very real contributions to chaos mathematics to various disciplines outside of Biochemistry (of which he is a professor). This is very analogous to the example of Pareto I cited above. The fact that the Rössler attractor can be applied to various disciplines outside his stated profession of Biochemistry manifestly does not make him an expert in those other disciplines – and the funny thing is that until this controversy even with his scattershot publication record, he had never published ANYTHING in particle physics and only once in a speculative article about macroscopic black holes – a vanity publication in a journal that has nothing to do with astrophysics. Chew on that for a while, true believers.

    You can safely assume that Rössler is like the type of person whom I’m sure you’ve met at work or at school who gets on as many projects in a position with as little responsibility as possible, and then, when asked to do something substantial on any specific project, points to how busy he or she is with the rest of their workload. They don’t not do anything, but they do just enough on each project to claim some credit. Deep down everyone who works with them knows that their worthwhile contributions are minimal, though.

    In the rest of this essay, I’m going to examine just how someone can turn himself into such a piece of scientific detritus, and how Rössler has squandered his potential. I’m also going to talk somewhat about other warning signs that the man is not a rational actor. For the newbie to the LHC controversy, or the person so distraught by the wild claims of the true believers, please take this as a scientist’s attempt to provide you with mental armaments so that when another scientific controversy arises, you can go into the fray a little better armed against the arguments of alarmists.

    As I pointed out above, as the man admits himself, he was a bit useless in his chosen field of Immunology. Obviously he has some skill in Mathematics, so he jumped on a new field that was just emerging in the 70s – chaos and complex systems. From there he did very little in Biochemistry.

    His adherents list an incredible array of absences in other disciplines as evidence of a genius of the highest caliber. Let’s look at that in a little more detail in the man’s own words, shall we?

    1969 Visiting Appointment Award, Center for Theoretical Biology, State University of new York at Buffalo, New York State. Cooperation with Robert Rosen.

    1981 Visiting Professor of Mathematics, Guelph University, Canada.

    1983 Visiting Professor of Nonlinear Studies, Center for Nonlinear Studies of the University of California, Los Alamos, New Mexico (non-military).

    1992 Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

    1993 Visiting Professor of Theoretical Physics, Lyngby University, Denmark.

    1995 Visiting Professor of Complexity Research, Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico.

    All of these appointments have to do with his contributions to Chaos mathematics. However, when you see that kind of jumping around on a non-science resume, does it not raise red flags that the person is not serious, is hard to work with, or has some other professional problems? Then why do the true believers point to Rössler’s professional ADHD as a positive? From a scientist’s perspective, one expects to see perhaps one or two visiting appointments over a 20 or 30 year career – being absent from one’s own lab leaves one’s own graduate students adrift, not a nice thing for an advisor to do. Ah, but Rössler does not train graduate students. Another red flag, that is.

    Finally, we come to the publications themselves. There are 272 of them in Google Scholar, an impressive publication list, even for someone professing in Academia for 39 years.

    I’m going to have to digress again, I’m afraid. I have a scientist’s intuition about this man, and I’m trying to explain to laymen why my intuition is sending me alarm bells, so I hope you see the method in my madness. I’m trying to show what normal behavior is, then I’m trying to show how Rössler violates normal behavior in ways that send off my alarm bells.

    The first odd publication behavior is the disconnect that I’ve noted before. Rössler does not publish in Biochemistry journals. I went through that rat’s maze of a publication list with a highlight pen and came up with 36 articles out of the 272 (that’s a whopping 13% for those of you keeping score at home) relate to either chemistry or biology only one of the 272 papers directly related to Biochemistry as I understand it. (This one.)The biology papers mostly have to do with chaos in evolutionary biology (for example this one), and the Chemistry papers have to do with reaction kinetics (where chaos shows up most noticeably in the fields of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and explains the Visiting Professorship of Chemical Engineering).

    OK, says the layman, perhaps he branched out into physics, which is why he’s so concerned about black holes. Maybe he’s really respected outside of Biochemistry, which is why they put up with him not actually publishing anything in the discipline he’s a professor of.

    So we come to another the second odd behavior and another digression. Rössler publishes mainly in journals most scientists don’t bother to read regularly, so this is a digression about the prestige of scientific publications and the peer-review process. Remember what I said waaaay back in the beginning about mediocre to-poor scientists working their way onto the editorial boards of fourth-tier journals? Perhaps I ought to define the term “fourth-tier journal”. We scientists acknowledge that not all scientific work is of equal value. We also acknowledge that peer-review is a necessary but odious and time-consuming task. So we set up a system where certain journals publish top-flight stuff of interest to all, or at least most, scientists and articles submitted there get rigorous peer review by a number of reviewers and the editor. This is the first tier. Certain other journals publish interesting stuff that gets a good working over, but is less interesting to people outside the field. This is the second tier. Other journals publish stuff that’s only interesting to people in the field, stuff so mundane it gets peer review, but is unlikely to generate controversy. This is the third tier. And finally, there’s the garbage cans, where you stuff things that have to be published because it’s publish or perish, or because the poor grad student you’re flushing out of the Ph.D. program with a Master’s as a consolation prize has to publish somewhere, poor bastard. This is the fourth tier.

    Publishing in this kind of fourth-tier journal was exactly how the Intelligent Design camp finally got their first “peer reviewed” paper into the literature. So, you can see how much water papers in those kinds of publications hold with serious scientists.

    Now, those tiers as I outlined them are not well-defined, in fact some people think there are three, four, or five tiers, but scientists within a field know what’s good and what’s not. However, it is publish or perish, and guys who put out one stellar paper a year got tired of being unfavorably compared to guys who put out 8 or 9 crappy papers a year, and thus the Impact Factor was born. If you really want an idea of how petty scientists can be, Google yourself some information about the various criticisms of the Impact Factor and the other proposed methods for ranking journal prestige.

    So, where has Rössler published? I’m going to give credit where credit is due, then I’m going to deduct some interest. The highlight of his career is a paper he published in Naturethis one. A publication in Nature or Science is impressive, no doubt. Many scientists have distinguished careers without ever gracing their pages. Both publications are journals that are regularly read by scientists of pretty much all disciplines, so to get in there your work has to be of high import and be of interest to people outside your field.

    So Rössler published in Nature. He a observed a newly described (at the time) form of Chaos in an oscillating reaction that had been known for about 10 years in the West, and about 20 years in Russia. Let’s give the man the props he is due – he was the first to observe this, and he was looking in the right direction for Chaos. And he discovered a system of differential equations that behaved in a different manner from the classical Chaotic example of the Lorenz system that anyone who’s read Gleick’s book on Chaos should recognize. But here is where I take the interest back out of the transaction. The question is, was this evidence of genius, or was it a case of the proverbial blind pig and his truffle?

    You can either get into the pages of Nature or Science by dint of a major discovery or synthesis, or you can nose around in Nature and observe something that no one has ever observed before. When fields are new, that second type of major publication is most possible, it’s much more likely to be a discovery of the blind pig variety, it’s the time in a field that Dirac was talking about when he contrasted the Physics of the 1920s with the Physics of the 1970s:

    The problems are more difficult now and there is not the same hope of making rapid progress which there was in those days. Excitement is usually combined with the hope of making rapid progress, when any second rate student can do really first-rate work.

    That quote was kind of nasty in this context, wasn’t it? I’m fully aware that this is the Internet, and Rössler himself might read these words someday. Tough cookies. Normally I’d not tear into a fellow scientist this way, but this clown is fear mongering, pontificating on topics out of his specialty, and generally behaving badly. The gloves are off, here. So let’s get to examining the record, in Rossler’s own words:

    Then this narrowing tunnel-like slinky got magically flattened in my mind into a spiral which strangely was expanding rather than contracting before being bent into a reinjection loop toward the neighborhood of its origin. (The opposite feat, reinjection inside-out, was later discovered by Normann Kleiner and Sebastian Fischer. This was much as Shilnikov had done topologically some ten years earlier in the other time direction, as I later learned.)

    Thus a letter-Z like slow manifold (in Christopher Zeeman’s terms), but laterally extended into a sheet, was kind enough to offer itself as a host in my mind. One could prove the existence of chaos, with a 1D return map. But the equations, later re-discovered by Christian Mira, were messy. Floris Takens had a similar idea at about the same time. Simulating the expanding spiral on the lower floor of the letter-Z paper worked in December of 1975.

    Later René Thomas saw much deeper into the topology of this feedback circuit.

    I think it’s pretty clear that Rössler was the first to see something that was floating around in a lot of minds at the time, and did not do a whole lot of detailed analysis after the discovery. Starting to look, if not like a blind pig, at least like a one eyed porker.

    So let’s examine the rest of the 271 publications. If I read his own words wrong, and there is something to Rössler’s genius, we ought to see a lot of publications in all kinds of journals with good Impact Factors that expand on his mathematical genius. Despite its flaws, I’m going to stick to Impact Factor when looking at Rössler’s output. When you publish in a field and have an ahem, impact on that field, you generally want to publish in a journal in that field with an impact factor of at least 3, or 2 at the very minimum. That means that most people in that field will read it, and it has a pretty good peer review process. If you just want the vanity of a publication, there are plenty of fourth-tier journals where the peer review consists of a trained monkey, a talking mouse, and a senile emeritus professor.

    I’m going to list Rössler’s publications in journals with impact factors of 2 or higher:

    An equation for continuous chaos
    Rössler, O. E.
    Physics Letters A, Volume 57, Issue 5, p. 397-398. 1976

    Horseshoe-map chaos in the Lorenz equation
    Rössler, O. E.
    Physics Letters A, Volume 60, Issue 5, p. 392-394. 1977

    An equation for hyperchaos
    Rössler, O. E.
    Physics Letters A, Volume 71, Issue 2-3, p. 155-157. 1979

    Chaos in the Zhabotinskii reaction
    Nature 271, 89 – 90 (05 January 1978)
    OTTO E. ROSSLER & KLAUS WEGMANN

    Hyperchaos and chemical turbulence in enzymatic reaction-diffusion systems
    J. Chem. Phys. 104, 9974 (1996)
    Peter Strasser, Otto E. Rössler and Gerold Baier

    Higher chaos in a four-variable chemical reaction model
    Killory, H.; Rössler, O. E.; Hudson, J. L.
    Physics Letters A, Volume 122, Issue 6-7, p. 341-345. 1987

    That’s it. Six publications in really good journals over a 39 year career at Tubingen. That’s not to say that other journals with impact factors in the 1.5 to 2 range are not good (some are, some aren’t), but over a career that long, the career of someone trying to be taken as an expert in anything, one expects more publications in higher impact journals. Many more, by at least an order of magnitude, in a 272 item publication record. I bent over backwards, looked at all 272 entries, and looked up the impact factors of the journals I had never heard of. And if you look (I’m not wading though that list again to count exact numbers, you want to argue with me, do your own research) a good part of the rest of Rössler’s output is book chapters and the like, which are invited papers with little to no peer review, and really just amount to a review article of one’s own work, which in this case, isn’t much.

    Aside from that, an awful lot of the other stuff Rössler publishes is not actually science. Wade through that list and you’ll find titles such as these:

    A system theoretic model for biogenesis

    Does a centralized clock for ageing exist

    Deductive biology—Some cautious steps

    Slower aging in women: A proposed evolutionary explanation

    How chaotic is the universe?

    Recursive evolution.

    On the possibility of a new relativistic contraction law

    The self: a processual gestalt

    Do ‘super suns’ and ‘super planets’ exist: An endocosmological hypothesis.

    Energy-nonconservation in Physics? (uh oh, BIG ol’ red crank flag)

    The scale change of Einstein’s equivalence principle

    The relativist stance

    Leveraging the Future-Existence of a new endo-reality in economics

    Anti-flaring: how to prevent the market from overheating

    Some remarks on the experimental realization of a mind machine

    Needle People and Pancake People: The Gulliver Effect

    Does the Moon Pull à la Newton or à la Einstein or in a Third Way?

    Mirror competence implies person competence

    And my favorites:

    Endophysics: The World As an Interface

    Ultraperspective and endophysics

    Endophysics? You mean a re-hash of the Observer’s paradox?

    Even in the absence of the crank notion of “endophysics”, titles such as these raise the red crank flag and wave it around like, well, a madman. We scientists like to do a bit of speculating and navel gazing once in a while, but it is imperative to remember that what is put forth in most science publications must be able to be tested. Anything else is high sounding speculative fiction with math. Grand old men of science can get away with the occasional speculative piece, but a publication record full of pieces like that is another red flag for crankhood. Science is testable. It’s a fundamental tenet. This was the gist of Michael Crichton’s diatribe against the Drake Equation:

    This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

    As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

    Those titles I just named from Rössler’s list of publications are religion in the same sense the Drake Equation is – untestable hypotheses at the current moment. Nonscientific speculations dressed up with math. And the red flag that they are not even serious speculative fiction, but more the type of stuff L. Ron Hubbard came up with, is that they are not published in journals that have anything to do with the subject matter content. That means both that the peer review did not consist of the best scientists in the field, and that very few people who actually work in the field that is the topic of the article will every read the arguments presented. It is scientific vanity publishing.

    Let’s just take one. This one: “BSE Viewed Dynamically: A Possible Early Cure Based on Passive Immunization Against PrP Sc”. I almost had to break my self-imposed rule of no profanity in this post, right there. Did Rössler and his chemical engineering pals honestly think they had something worthwhile to say about BSE, only to bury it in a publication like that one? Come on, if you honestly thought you had a good method for treating Mad Cow Disease, wouldn’t you try to get that article into the best medical or pharmacology journal available? Articles like that in Podunk publications are the scientific equivalent of paying a vanity press to publish the novel that got rejected by every agent you submitted it to.

    And finally, an awful lot of what Rössler has published in recent years looks just plain weird, even to the non scientist. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will quote the article that the anti-LHC crowd is so fond of, the one that the On Screen Scientist referred to when he took Rössler to school back in the heyday of the anti-LHC lawsuits:

    There is one point left to mention even if this goes against the grain of scientific etiquette: the discreet charm of planet saving. A street ballad comes to mind as a conceptualbridge:

    “Last time I tried to do something for the planet was thirteen years ago,
    ‘Lampsacus hometown of all persons on the Internet‘ [15] was the name,
    by coincidence the police were ordered-in
    to keep me out of my lecture hall for months in a row,
    three times was I carried out in front of the students,
    each time the plain-clothes officer in charge spontaneously
    apologized afterwards which invisibly restored dignity, but the
    requisite 10 billion dollar fund never materialized.”

    Does inserting that into a scientific paper sound like the mental process of someone you want to be touting as an expert all over the web? I thought not.

    Now that I’ve nearly finished beating on the man’s publication record, let me come back to that part of the record in journals with IFs of 3 or higher, because my above list is not entirely complete. The reason being that in recent years ol’ Otto has published a lot in the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, which claims an impact factor of just around 3. That surprised me, because I’d never heard of the journal, and I’ve heard of most of the physics / physical chemistry-related journals with impact factors of 1.5 or higher. If you didn’t read the link in my statement above about how petty scientists can be about journal prestige, now might be the time to go back and take a look, because it explains how low impact journals with editors lacking a good moral compass do things like requiring submitted papers to have a significant number of references to papers in that very same journal and other self-referential, circle-jerk, no ethics cons to artificially raise the Impact Factor. And lo and behold! What did I find on the Net? Why this (I left the mis-spellings intact to avoid charges of quote tampering):

    IF only cannot refelct the atual level of journals even from the some field. For example, everyone in community knows that “Chaos, Solitons, & Fractals” is a journal with poor reputation but with a higher IF. Why does it happen? It is manmade totally. The Editor and AE of this journal usually negelect the strict review of each submitted paper, and order authors to cite articles in a list they provide as many as possible. The list always contains articles published in this or related journals. It is clear why this journal has a higher IF.

    Oh, there we go. Thank you Wen Zhen.

    That’s not the only thing that struck me as odd about many of the articles in this list of publications in CS&F . Rössler is obviously publishing stuff in CS&F that has nothing to do with Chaos, Solitons or Fractals. Even low quality journals don’t publish non-subject matter related articles with any regularity. Why would it be that CS&F makes an exception for Rössler? Could there be something else going on? Oh, wait, remember my comments about editorial boards? Ah bingo! Scroll down the page to find the members of the editorial board. Rössler obviously got tired of having to go through even the minimal peer requirements for originality of Zeitschrift Naturforschung Teil A (most of his stuff published there was a re-hash of other work) and the peer review of journals that, you know, actually have reviewers who understand the topic of the article, and decided to slide his cut-rate mathematical masturbation into the journal on whose editorial board he sits.

    So it is no surprise that the one “peer-reviewed” Rössler paper about black holes was published in in CS&F. The paper so commonly touted by the anti-LHC crowd did not even pass that low hurdle – it is self-published. If the publication were worth the paper it was printed on, it should have been published in Nature Physics. But then, the complete shredding of the argument would have been done as private reviewer comments accompanying a rejection notice, instead of as this public humiliation. And we would have been spared both aggravation and unintentional comedy.

    Where is the publication record showing that Rössler knows his own field of Biochemistry very deeply? Nowhere. Where is the record showing that, after his initial discovery, Rössler engaged in deep analysis of his secondary field of Chaos? It is contained in six papers, and six papers do not an expert make. Where is the record showing that Rössler’s brand of Chaos math is applicable to the LHC? Nowhere. Where is the publication record that shows that Rössler knows anything about particle physics? Nowhere. And where is the evidence, however circumstantial, that Rössler is not a serious scientist? Everywhere.

    Rössler, sadly enough, is a guy who had some talent in science, but frittered it away staring at his navel. Sean Carrol just posted about Frank Tipler, another guy who had some talent and went off the deep end (though Tippler’s talent was an order of magnitude greater than Rössler’s), and Sean said something profound here:

    In science, we tend to valorize (to the point of fetishizing) a certain kind of ability to abstractly manipulate symbols and concepts — related to, although not exactly the same as, the cult of genius. (It’s not just being smart that is valorized, but a certain kind of smart.) The truth is, such an ability is great, but tends to be completely uncorrelated with other useful qualities like intellectual honesty and good judgment. People don’t become crackpots because they’re stupid; they become crackpots because they turn their smarts to crazy purposes.

    Rössler’s obviously come a little unglued in recent years. I really didn’t enjoy writing this after the first blush of anger wore off, but I’m tired of the anti-LHC crowd citing this guy as an “expert”. I hope that, if you are sitting on the fence about whether to take him seriously, that you understand why this scientist would not trust him to read his own weight off the display of a digital scale, let alone have anything intelligent to say about the safety of the largest physics experiment on earth.

     

    4 Responses to “Junk Science Warning Signs: Part I”

    1. Shannon Love Says:

      My own scientific knowledge is like the Platt river, a mile wide and foot deep. Most of mathematical skills have atrophied from misuse. Yet, a lot people, even well educated people are very impressed by my wide but shallow knowledge base. I’ve found that if you know something that a group of peers does not know, the people in that group tend to believe you are very smart. Even if you have only pointed them toward a gloss of an answer.

      I think it is very easy to convince laypeople that you understand something which you do not, especially if you have some credentials, no matter how shallow, after your name.

    2. Tatyana Says:

      I’m pressed for time, so I’ll have to postpone finishing this very interesting post (I’m at approx. 1/3 of it) for later. Don’t know, maybe you addressed my note later in the essay, in this case – disregard it, but I have to add this. Often it is not only difficult for a layman to compare and contrast different scientific theories to form his own opinion, it is unprofitable. If someone’s business or political interests (especially if directly connected) would benefit from agreeing with one side of the dispute, he’s more likely to believe the Ph.Ds and Nobels on that side. I am still thinking my former boss: the clients of his business are mostly government agencies, he’s dependent on personal approval of various bureaucrats for getting into bids for jobs. So he supports every piece of stupid regulation (besides being, personally, the most controlling lefty Democrat I’ve seen in architectural offices), including the “green policies”, connected to officially approved Goracle’s nonsense of global warming.
      Gotta go now, I’ll return to this later.

      Shannon: you forgot your mad millworking skillz, in addn’ to mathmatics.

    3. EnlightenedDuck Says:

      I have a nit to pick with your proclamation about Impact Factors of at least 3 being indicative of good journals. The cut-off varies from field to field. Since Impact Factor only takes into account citations of recent publications, fields with longer review times have depressed Impact Factors.

      In statistics, and Impact Factor above 1 usually denotes a journal worth publishing in. This is both a problem and a reality of the field.

      Having said that, I won’t argue with your suggestion of 3 as a general guide, though in medicine that is pretty low…

    4. EnlightenedDuck Says:

      Just read post II in the series, and you addressed my main concern. Thanks!

      For those not noting dates, post II pre-dates my comment:)