An Old Argument Returns

Pamela Paul is standing up for MERIT in scientific publishing. Of course, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but her friends in the Intellectual Dark Web gave her a convenient press release to work from.

My colleagues who publish in professional journals have mostly responded to Paul, rather than to the paper and press release she is working from. The paper is inappropriate for the one journal she mentions, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, because the PNAS publishes short technical papers, and this is a long polemic.

I’ve thought that scientific journals could benefit from publishing more polemics, but polemics on chemical and other scientific issues. That’s not what this paper is about. It is about practices in journal publishing that the authors disapprove of. They frame their polemic in terms of merit versus identity.

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Not Enough Disruption?

For the past few weeks, a paper in Nature has provoked vapors among those who want more scientific disruption. Bill Broad summarized it in the New York Times.

The paper defined “disruption” by a pattern of citations in the scientific literature. Horrifyingly to some, those disruptions have decreased since 1950.

There are layers of assumptions. First, that a pattern of citations in scientific papers is a measure of disruption. Next, that disruption is good and necessary for science. The overall goal of this disruption is not made explicit. To better our lives? In what way? For an abstract ideal of progress? For personal glory?

Four examples are given in Johnson’s thread: the DNA helix, relativity, quantum mechanics, and space flight. None were developed in a single paper. All emerged after long histories of related work. The first two are associated with single historic papers. The last two aren’t.

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White Guys In Science – E. O. Wilson

And one more

I first gave E. O. Wilson some extended thought when his book Consilience came out in 1999. When I was younger, I was intrigued by grand syntheses, which is what Consilience attempts to be. I don’t think I read it, though, just the summaries. The idea was, as I recall, that at some blessed time in the future all the sciences (all forms of knowledge?) would come together in one synthesis. If that’s wrong, don’t bother to explain to me what it really said. I don’t care.

My second thought was that of course something like this could be published only by a “grand old man.” Someone who had made his name in some part of science and then had gone on to pontificate about other things. Tiresome, but not the first time.

I follow a number of biologists on Twitter, including experts on insects and ants, Wilson’s favorite. They were inspired by him and are now trying to assess his legacy. Consilience wasn’t Wilson’s only attempt at a grand synthesis; he had earlier written on sociobiology, and that was where he got into trouble.

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White Guys In Science – Eric Lander

White guy scientists are in the news again. With E. O. Wilson’s death, his legacy is being reviewed, and some of it is not nice. President Biden’s science adviser, Eric Lander, has had to to apologize to his staff for bullying and other bad behavior toward them.

None of this is a surprise.

When Eric Lander was nominated in 2021, Peter Aldhous at BuzzFeed News collected a number of incidents showing Lander to not work well with women.

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Excellent Science Reads

Following up on science stories that have been badly handled by the media.


I am tempted to refer to this phenomenon as “flying saucers” to emphasize the nonsense that surrounds it. The report was released last week and seems to have been drowned out by Critical Race Theory and other shiny objects thrown out to distract from real issues.

Kelsey Atherton comprehensively explains why, no matter what UFOs may be, the military will never tell us everything they know. Everything they know would inform adversaries of the capabilities of military sensors and other things we’d rather they not know.

Here’s another view of the reporting on UFOs and other things, and I’m quoted.

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Links – April 7, 2018

Thinking out the North Korean standoff. From Robert Jervis and Mira Rapp-Hooper. A somewhat similar commentary from Jeffrey Lewis. South Korea’s recommendations for negotiations with North Korea. Bolton’s illegal war plan for North Korea. Verifying North Korea’s nuclear disarmament if we get that far.

Two similar analyses of activity around North Korea’s light water reactor: From 38 North and Institute for Science and International SecurityRead More

Links – February 9, 2018

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would like eventually to enrich uranium. They also want to buy nuclear reactors. How should the agreements around those reactors be structured?

Russia hasn’t disposed of 34 tons of plutonium. It’s our fault.

How America Could Accidentally Push Russia into a Nuclear War. The Nuclear Posture Review gets Russia wrong.

Russian scientists at Sarov, Russia’s equivalent to Los Alamos, arrested for mining bitcoins. 

The education of Kim Jong-Un. Long read on North Korea’s leader, with bonus on how to think about intelligence analysis.

Here’s what war with North Korea would look like. A full-blown war with North Korea wouldn’t be as bad as you think. It would be much, much worse. Long read.

What if North Korea had won the Korean War?

Gene Sharp, Global Guru of Nonviolent Resistance, Dies at 90.

Beautiful jellyfish and radiolarians. (Top graphic from here.)


Links – February 1, 2018

Cool dinosaur and mammal tracks at NASA. Top photo from here.

The first thing Congress needs to do, when it can get away from the fever dreams of the worst of its members, is to reconstruct the process for passing a budget before the end of the fiscal year.

Americans Are Rising to This Historic Moment. I’m not as convinced as Eliot Cohen, but I think there are positive signs.

Heather Cox Richardson on creeping authoritarianism.

Five Questions the Nunes Memo Better Answer. What is at stake – the grand bargain with the intelligence community. And why aren’t we hearing more from the intelligence community?

Is the Trump foreign policy great-power competition or America First? It depends on whom you ask.

Zeynep Tukfeci on the latest data privacy debacle. It’s not enough to ask individuals for their permission.

Leaks, feasts and sex parties: How ‘Fat Leonard’ infiltrated the Navy’s floating headquarters in Asia. There are simple ways to avoid this kind of corruption. We need to know why the Navy didn’t apply them.

Victor Cha: Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans. Cha was to be US ambassador to South Korea, but apparently the ideas expressed in this op-ed were felt to be disqualifying.

This is definitive, if you have friends who are still pushing the Sy Hersh narrative about nerve agents in Syria. It was the Syrian government who were responsible for the sarin attacks.


How I Learned To Love Climate Modeling

I’m annoyed by the New York Times hire of Bret Stephens, more annoyed by the defense that Times editors are mounting on Twitter. I’m annoyed that this has to be said again, but here we are, as Times editors tell us that any criticism is merely trying to silence a conservative voice. My objections have nothing to do with Stephens’s political views, except that it is clear that those views drive his views of climate change.

I was once a climate skeptic, with a great deal more basis than Stephens’s sense that life is uncertain and therefore we should eat dessert first. My skepticism arose BECAUSE I knew something about the climate models. Read More