Scientists Behaving Badly

You may think that science is a noble activity carried out by dedicated souls thinking only of the search for understanding and of improving the lot of society. Wrong! According to an item published in Nature ( https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02035-2) there is rot in the core. A survey of 64,000 researchers at 22 universities in the Netherlands was carried out, 6,813 actually filled out the form and returned it, and an estimated 8% of scientists who so returned their forms in the anonymous survey confessed to falsifying or fabricating data at least once between 2017 and 2020. Given that a fraudster is less likely to confess, that figure is probably a clear underestimate.

There is worse. More than half of respondents also reported frequently engaging in “questionable research practices”. These include using inadequate research designs, which can be due to poor funding and hence more understandable, and frankly this could be a matter of opinion. On the other hand, if you confess to doing it you are at best slothful. Much worse, in my opinion, was deliberately judging manuscripts or fund applications while peer reviewing unfairly. Questionable research practices are “considered lesser evils” than outright research misconduct, which includes plagiarism and data fabrication. I am not so sure of that. Dismissing someone else’s work or fund application hurts their career.

There was then the question of “sloppy work”, which included failing to “preregister experimental protocols (43%), make underlying data available (47%) or keep comprehensive research records (56%)” I might be in danger here. I had never heard about “preregistering protocols”. I suspect that is more for the medical research than for physical sciences. My research has always been of the sort where you plan the next step based on the last step you have taken. As for “comprehensive records, I must admit my lab books have always been cryptic. My plan was to write it down, and as long as I could understand it, that was fine. Of course, I have worked independently and records were so I could report more fully and to some extent for legal reasons.

If you think that is bad, there is worse in medicine. On July 5 an item appeared in the British Medical Journal with the title “Time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise?” One example: a Professor of epidemiology apparently published a review paper that included a paper that showed mannitol halved the death rate from comparable injuries. It was pointed out to him that that paper that he reviewed was based on clinical trials that never happened! All the trials came from a lead author who “came from an institution” that never existed! There were a number of co-authors but none had ever contributed patients, and many did not even know they were co-authors. Interestingly, none of the trials had been retracted so the fake stuff is still out there.

Another person who carried out systematic reviews eventually realized that only too many related to “zombie trials”. This is serious because it is only by reviewing a lot of different work can some more important over-arching conclusions be drawn, and if a reasonable percentage of the data is just plain rubbish everyone can jump to the wrong conclusions. Another medical expert attached to the journal Anaesthesia found from 526 trials, 14% had false data and 8% were categorised as zombie trials. Remember, if you are ever operated on, anaesthetics are your first hurdle! One expert has guessed that 20% of clinical trials as reported are false.

So why doesn’t peer review catch this? The problem for a reviewer such as myself is that when someone reports numbers representing measurements, you naturally assume they were the results of measurement. I look to see that they “make sense” and if they do, there is no reason to suspect them. Further, to reject a paper because you accuse it of fraud is very serious to the other person’s career, so who will do this without some sort of evidence?

And why do they do it? That is easier to understand: money and reputation. You need papers to get research funding and to keep your position as a scientist. It is very hard to detect, unless someone repeats your work, and even then there is the question, did they truly repeat it? We tend to trust each other, as we should be able to. Published results get rewards, publishers make money, Universities get glamour (unless they get caught out). Proving fraud (as opposed to suspecting it) is a skilled, complicated and time-consuming process, and since it shows badly on institutions and publishers, they are hardly enthusiastic. Evil peer review, i.e. dumping someone’s work to promote your own is simply strategic, and nobody will do anything about it.

It is, apparently, not a case of “bad apples”, but as the BMJ article states, a case of rotten forests and orchards. As usual, as to why, follow the money.

Neanderthals: skilled or unskilled?

Recently, you may have seen images of a rather odd-looking bone carving, made 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals. One of the curious things about Neanderthals is that they have been portrayed as brutes, a sort of dead-end in the line of human evolution, probably wiped out by our ancestors. However, this is somewhat unfair for several reasons, one of which is this bone carving. It involved technology because apparently the bone was scraped and then seemingly boiling or some equivalent heat processing took place. Then two sets of three parallel lines, the sets normal to each other, were carved on it. What does this tell us? First, it appears they had abstract art, but a more interesting question is, did it mean anything more? We shall probably never know.

One thing that has led to the “brute” concept is they did not leave many artifacts, and those they did were stone tools that compared with our “later ancestors” appeared rather crude. But is that assessment fair? The refinement of a stone tool probably depends on the type of stone available. The Neanderthals lived more or less during an ice age, and while everything was not covered with glaciers, the glaciers would have inhibited trade. People had to use what was available. How many of you live in a place where high quality flint for knapping is available? Where I live, the most common rocks available are greywacke, basalt, and maybe some diorite, granodiorite or gabbro. You try making fine stone tools with these raw materials.

Another point, of course, is that while they lived in the “stone age”, most of their tools would actually be made of wood, with limited use of bone, antler and ivory. Stone tools were made because stone was the toughest material they could find, and they hoped to get a sharp edge which would make a useful cutting edge. Most of the wooden items will have long rotted, which is unfortunate, but some isolated items remain, including roughly 40 pieces of modified boxwood, which are interpreted as being used as digging sticks and were preserved in mudstone in Central Italy. These were 170,000 years old. Even older were nine well-preserved wooden spears is a coal mine at Schöningen, from 300,000 years ago. Making these would involve selecting and cutting a useful piece of spruce, shaping a handle, removing the bark (assumed to be done through fire) smoothing the handle with an abrasive stone, and sharpening the point, again with an abrasive stone.

Even more technically advanced, apparently stone objects were attached to wooden handles with a binding agent. The wooden parts have long rotted, but the production can be inferred from the traces of hafting wear and of adhesive material on the stones. Thus Neanderthals made stone-tipped wooden spears, hafted cutting and scraping tools, and they employed a variety of adhesives. Thus they made two different classes of artifacts each comprising at least three components. They were making objects more complex than some recent hunter-gatherers. There is a further point. The items require a number of steps to make them, and they require quite different skills. The better tools would be made quicker if there were different people making the various components, but that would require organization, and ensuring each knew what then others were doing. That involves language. We have also found a pit that contains many bones and tools for cutting meat from them, presumably a butchery where the results of a successful hunt were processed. That involves sharing the work, and presumably the yield. 

We have found graves. They must have endured pain because they invariably have the signs of at least one fracture that healed. To survive such injuries they must have had others care for them. Also found have been sharpened pieces of manganese dioxide, which is soft but very black. Presumably these were crayons, which implies decorating something, the somethings long rotted away. There are Neanderthal cave paintings in SpainFinally, there was jewellery, which largely involved shells and animals’ teeth with holes cut into them. Some shells were pigmented, which means decoration. Which raises the question, could you cut a hole in a tooth with the only available tools being what you made from stone, bone, or whatever is locally available naturally? Finally, there are the ”what were they” artifacts. One is the so-called Neanderthal flute – a 43,000 – 60,000- year-old bear femur with four holes drilled in it. The spacings does not match any carnivore’s tooth spacing, but they do match that of a musical scale, which, as an aside, indicate the use of a minor scale. There is also one carving of a pregnant woman attributed to them.  These guys were cleverer than we give them credit for.

New Ebook

Now on preorder, and available from July 15 at Amazon and most outlets that sell .epub, Spoliation.

When a trial to cover-up a corporate failure ends Captain Jonas Stryker’s career, he wants revenge against The Board, a ruthless, shadowy organization with limitless funds that employs space piracy, terrorism, and even weaponised asteroids. Posing as a space miner, Stryker learns that The Board wants him killed, while a young female SCIB police agent wants retribution against him for having her career spoiled at his trial. As Stryker avoids attempts to kill him, he becomes the only chance to prevent The Board from overturning the Federation Government and imposing a Fascist-style rule.

A story of greed, corruption and honour, combining science and visionary speculation that goes from the high frontier to outback Australia.

The complications involved in processing small asteroids means they have to be moved to a central point. The background to this novel shows the science behind that, and also how to convert an asteroid into a weapon. You know what happened to the dinosaurs so the weapon has punch.

Preorder at:

Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B097M95LCJ 

Smashwords:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1090447

B&N                https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/2940164941673

Apple:             https://books.apple.com/us/book/x/id1574442266

Kobo               https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/Search?Query=9781005532796

How Fast is the Universe Expanding?

In the last post I commented on the fact that the Universe is expanding. That raises the question, how fast is it expanding? At first sight, who cares? If all the other galaxies will be out of sight in so many tens of billions of years, we won’t be around to worry about it. However, it is instructive in another way. Scientists make measurements with very special instruments and what you get are a series of meter readings, or a printout of numbers, and those numbers have implied dimensions. Thus the number you see on your speedometer in your car represents miles per hour or kilometers per hour, depending on where you live. That is understandable, but that is not what is measured. What is usually measured is actually something like the frequency of wheel revolutions. So the revolutions are counted, the change of time is recorded, and the speedometer has some built-in mathematics that gives you what you want to know. Within that calculation is some built-in theory, in this case geometry and an assumption about tyre pressure.

Measuring the rate of expansion of the universe is a bit trickier. What you are trying to measure is the rate of change of distance between galaxies at various distances from you, average them because they have random motion superimposed, and in some cases regular motion if they are in clusters. The velocity at which they are moving apart is simply change of distance divided by change of time. Measuring time is fine but measuring distance is a little more difficult.  You cannot use a ruler.  So some theory has to be imposed.

There are some “simple” techniques, using the red shift as a Doppler shift to obtain velocity, and brightness to measure distance. Thus using different techniques to estimate cosmic distances such as the average brightness of stars in giant elliptical galaxies, type 1a supernovae and one or two other techniques it can be asserted the Universe is expanding at 73.5 + 1.4 kilometers per second for every megaparsec. A megaparsec is about 3.3 million light years, or three billion trillion kilometers.

However, there are alternative means of determining this expansion, such as measured fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and fluctuations in matter density of the early Universe. If you know what the matter density was then, and know what it is now, it is simple to calculate the rate of expansion, and the answer is, 67.4 +0.5 km/sec/Mpc. Oops. Two routes, both giving highly accurate answers, but well outside any overlap and hence we have two disjoint sets of answers.

So what is the answer? The simplest approach is to use an entirely different method again, and hope this resolves the matter, and the next big hope is the surface brightness of large elliptical galaxies. The idea here is that most of the stars in a galaxy are red dwarfs, and hence the most “light” from a galaxy will be in the infrared. The new James Webb space telescope will be ideal for making these measurements, and in the meantime standards have been obtained from nearby elliptical galaxies at known distances. Do you see a possible problem? All such results also depend on the assumptions inherent in the calculations. First, we have to be sure we actually know the distance accurately to the nearby elliptical galaxies, but much more problematical is the assumption that the luminosity of the ancient galaxies is the same as the local ones. Thus in earlier times, since the metals in stars came from supernovae, the very earliest stars will have much less so their “colour” from their outer envelopes may be different. Also, because the very earliest stars formed from denser gas, maybe the ratio of sizes of the red dwarfs will be different. There are many traps. Accordingly, the main reason for the discrepancy is that the theory used is slightly wrong somewhere along the chain of reasoning. Another possibility is the estimates of the possible errors are overly optimistic. Who knows, and to some extent you may say it does not matter. However, the message from this is that we have to be careful with scientific claims. Always try to unravel the reasoning. The more the explanation relies on mathematics and the less is explained conceptually, the greater the risk that whoever is presenting the story does not understands it either.

2020 and all that

Since the year is almost over, I thought I would have a small review of the year, from my point of view. From my perspective, the year started with nice warm weather, and rather remarkable sunsets. Australia had some terrible bushfires. Still, all was well where I live. NZ had some fires as well, although nothing like the Australian ones.

My daughter-in-law is Chinese, and her parents live near the edge of Hunan province, but her father travels to work in a factory in adjacent Hubei province, and in February that got locked down. I am not quite sure what happened exactly, but her father could not return home for nearly a week. That is putting in overtime! When Tian announced that Wuhan would build a thousand-bed hospital in ten days, I did not believe her, but they did, in the middle of a lockdown. The Chinese lockdown was interesting. Soldiers from the PLA would but paper tape over everyone’s doors. If you wanted groceries a soldier would take away the tape, you would go collect them, then the tape would be replaced. Break the tape and be naughty, an automatic six months in a Chinese jail, and you don’t get time off for good behaviour. Good behaviour is required, and avoids the consequences of bad behaviour. If your naughtiness could reasonably, in the eye of the party, have led to someone else getting the virus as a consequence of your behaviour, five years. The Chinese behaved and by all accounts the virus was essentially eliminated and life returned to normal in China in a couple of months, other than the odd outbreak from Chinese returning from somewhere else.

Inevitably, the virus landed in New Zealand, and our government tried a strategy of elimination. It was fascinating in that on day one I was out on the road running alongside the bank that encloses my property to cut back vegetation and make it easier for road users. A pedestrian came down the road and immediately crossed to the other side when he saw me. I live on the side of a hill, and I can look down on the main highway going into Wellington. It was weird: almost no vehicles. How could this be? During the major lockdown, my daughter brought me groceries once a week; she, being a senior physician at Wellington Hospital had a priority time for grocery shopping when all and sundry were not allowed. On a personal level, I had one scary moment when the lockdown was eased off. On the first evening, I went to a scheduled meeting that we all thought would be cancelled, but wasn’t. I was driving down what is normally one of the busiest roads in the valley when a van flew out of a commercial building and shot across the road, presumably being used to empty roads. Fortunately, I still have very good reflexes, and it seems good brakes.

The good news is that while there were the odd example of a leakage, the virus appears to be eliminated here, and sports events, summer festivals, etc are apparently going to proceed as usual. While the tourist/hospitality sector has been in trouble, and probably will continue to be, life in New Zealand has returned to normal.

At a personal level, I was invited to write a chapter on hydrothermal processing of biomass by a major book publishing company. I agreed, and that was settled prior to the virus outbreak. I sent in the chapter, but never heard any more about it. I suppose it gave me something to do over the period. I also finished and started revising my next novel, provisionally called “Spoliation” so please go to https://www.inkshares.com/books/spoliation to read chapter one.

The election here had the government returned with a record majority, while in the US there was a narrow defeat. What does this all mean? The most critical problems for 2021 will be how to fix the economies and how to deal with the virus. There are vaccines for the virus, but unless the virus is eliminated, it will stay with us, and now it depends on how long the vaccines work. My guess is revaccination will probably need to be frequent unless we do eliminate it, and I can’t see that happening as only too many countries do not see that as an objective. Meanwhile, the virus is mutating. As for the economies, what happens will be critically dependent on what governments and central banks do. We may be cursed with more interesting times.This will be my last post for 2020. Since it is summer here, and Christmas is imminent, I shall be distracted, but I shall return in mid January. In the meantime, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a healthy virus-free 2021.

Will Pump-priming the Economy Help Post-Covid?

Because I operated a company that had the primary objective of developing technology for new businesses in the chemical arena, economics interested me. We can all be smart looking back, but what about now? What should we do about the economy during virus times? So what are some options? This will take more than one post, but first, what is the best example in history of getting out of trouble? What tools are available?

In 1936, John Maynard Keynes published “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, and when he did so, he should have known it worked for getting out of depression because when Adolf Hitler took over in Germany, the economy was in a mess, with horrendous unemployment and terrible wages for most of those actually employed. Hitler promised to fix things, and he did, by implementing the policies that Keynes was later to publish. By 1936 the German unemployment had essentially disappeared and Keynes would know that.  Hitler was to provide the world with horrors, but early on his economic policy was exactly what Germany needed.

Keynes’ approach was essentially that in a depression the state should provide money to prime the economy, and when better times arrived, pay it back. In my opinion, therein lay one flaw: when better times arrive, do politicians want to pay it back? Er, no. Better (at least for re-election chances) to leave it as debt and inflate it away. (Hitler never had the opportunity to pay it back, because he had other interests.) It is usual to say that Keynes’ economics collapsed in the 1970s with persistently high inflation and high unemployment. One could argue that at least part of the inflation was because the governments refused to pay back, and instead kept borrowing. I have no doubt the counter to that will be, look at now – there is no inflation, and governments are borrowing heavily. Maybe.

If following Keynes, does it matter what the money is spent on? In the German example, the money went on infrastructure, and on providing the expansion of industries for making things. There was an unintended consequence after the war: once the West Germans started to run their own economy they had another economic miracle. Thanks to Hitler’s apprentice schemes, there were a large number of highly skilled people required for manufacturing, and they had factories. The allies bombed cities but mainly left the factories alone. German manufacturing reached its highest point of the war in late 1944. As an example, they made ten times more fighters then than around the Battle of Britain. (That they had run out of skilled pilots was a separate issue.) 

Keynesian economics involved high taxes on the wealthy and some claim such tax rates prevent innovation and general expansion. In the US, from 1953 to 1964, the top tax rate was 90%, and it did not drop below 70% until about 1982. This period corresponded to the US being the most developed country in the world. The tax rates did not stifle anything. Of course, there were tax exemptions for money being sent in the desired direction, and that may well be a desirable aspect of taxation policy. The death of Keynesian economics was probably a consequence of Milton Friedman, as much as anything else. The stagflation in the late 1970s convinced politicians they could no longer spend their way out of a recession. An important observation of Friedman was that if policymakers stimulated without tackling the underlying structural deficiencies, they would fail. They did not and fail they did, but that was partly because the politicians had ceased to look at structural deficiencies. Friedman was correct regarding the problem, but that was because in detail Keynes’ obligations were overlooked. No more than half of the Keynes  prescription was implemented generally. So, where does that leave us? Is Keynes applicable now? In my opinion, the current attempts to spend our way out of virus difficulties won’t work because there are further problems that apply, but that is for a later post.

Ebook discount

From April 13 – 20, A Face on Cydonia,  the first in a series, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. In 2129, Fiona Bolton has her life before her. She is a world expert in sonic viewing with a corporation-funded University chair, but when her husband protests against that corporation she finds herself recording his murder. She wants justice.

Jonathon Munro so wants to be important in a corporation, but he has no talent that should be needed by any corporation, until he finds himself in a position to help a senior conceal a murder. If he wishes to advance he must ditch his girlfriend, Sharon Galloway, who is developing a special digging device. Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to explain why, on a TV program, a battered butte on Mars morphed into the classical face and winked. Grigori Timoshenko forms an expedition to settle this “face” for once and for all. He needs Fiona to image the interior of the rock, he needs Sharon and her digger, and he gets Jonathon anyway. With hidden agendas, a party in with members hating each other, the gloss of visiting another planet soon wears thin. A story of corruption, greed, murder, the maverick, the nature of Mars, and with the problem of why would an alien race be interested in such a disparate party. Book 1 of the First Contact trilogy.

Ebook discount

From March 1 – March 7, my ebooks at Smashwords will be significantly discounted, and one will be offered free. The fictional ebooks include”

Puppeteer:  (Free!) A technothriller where governance is breaking down due to government debt, and where a terrorist attack threatens to kill tens to hundreds of millions of people and destroy billions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/69696

‘Bot War:  A technothriller set about 8 years later, a more concerted series of terrorist attacks made by stolen drones lead to partial governance breaking down.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/677836

Troubles. Dystopian, set about 10 years later still, the world is emerging from anarchy, and there is a scramble to control the assets. Some are just plain greedy, some think corporate efficiency should rule, some think the individual should have the right to thrive, some think democracy should prevail as long as they can rig it, while the gun is the final arbiter.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/174203

There is also the non-fictional “Biofuels”. This gives an overview of the issues involved in biofuels having an impact on climate change. Given that electric vehicles, over their lifetime probably have an environmental impact equivalent to or greater than the combustion motor, given that we might want to continue to fly, and given that the carbon from a combustion exhaust offers no increase in atmospheric carbon levels if it came from biofuel, you might be interested to see what potential this has. The author was involved in research on this intermittently (i.e. when there was a crisis and funding was available) for over thirty years. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/454344

Book Discount

From January 23 – 30, my thriller, The Manganese Dilemma, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. 

The Russians did it; everyone is convinced of that. But just exactly what did they do? Charles Burrowes, a master hacker, is thrown into a ‘black op’ with the curvaceous Svetlana for company to validate new super stealth technology she has brought to the West. Some believe there is nothing there since their surveillance technology cannot show any evidence of it, but then it is “super stealth” so just maybe . . . Also, Svetlana’s father was shot dead as they made their escape. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water? The lives of many CIA agents in Russia will depend on how successful he is.