Someone needs to start a Journal of Pizza Quality Research, stat

We need somewhere to bury sloppy research on fast food, after all. Brian Wansink gets interviewed on Retraction Watch (y’all remember Wansink, the fellow who ground his data exceedingly fine to extract four papers from a null result), and he does himself no favors.

Well, we weren’t testing a registered hypothesis, so there’d be no way for us to try to massage the data to meet it. From what I understand, that’s one definition of p-hacking. Originally, we were testing a hypothesis – we thought the more expensive the pizza, the more you’d eat. And that was a null result.

But we set up this two-month study so that we could look at a whole bunch of totally unanswered empirical questions that we thought would be interesting for people who like to eat in restaurants. For example, if you’re eating a meal, what part influences how much like the meal? The first part, the middle part, or the last part? We had no prior hypothesis to think anything would predominate. We didn’t know anybody who had looked at this in a restaurant, so it was a totally empirical question. We asked people to rate the first, middle, and last piece of pizza – for those who ate 3 or more pieces – and asked them to rate and the quality of the entire meal. We plotted out the data to find out which piece was most linked to the rating of the overall meal, and saw ‘Oh, it looks like this happens.’ It was total empiricism. This is why we state the purpose of these papers is ‘to explore the answer to x.’ It’s not like testing Prospect Theory or a cognitive dissonance hypothesis. There’s no theoretical precedent, like the Journal of Pizza Quality Research. Not yet.

That last bit sounds like a threat.

Here’s the thing: we all do what he describes. An experiment failed (yes, it’s happened to me a lot). OK, let’s look at the data we’ve got very carefully and see if there’s anything potentially interesting in it, any ideas that might be extractable. The results are a set of observations, after all, and we should use them to try and figure out what’s going on, and in a perfect world, there’d be public place to store negative results so they aren’t just buried in a file drawer somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with analyzing your data out the wazoo.

The problem is that he then published it all under the guise of papers testing different hypotheses. Most of us don’t do that at all. We see a hint of something interesting buried in the data for a null result, and we say, “Hmm, let’s do an experiment to test this hypothesis”, or “Maybe I should include this suggestive bit of information in a grant proposal to test this hypothesis.” Just churning out low-quality papers to plump up the CV is why I said this is a systemic problem in science — we reward volume rather than quality. It doesn’t make scientists particularly happy to be drowning in drivel, but Elsevier is probably drooling at the idea of a Journal of Pizza Quality Research — another crap specialized journal that earns them an unwarranted amount of money and provides another dumping ground for said drivel being spewed out.

Wansink seems to be dimly aware of this situation.

These sorts of studies are either first steps, or sometimes they’re real-world demonstrations of existing lab findings. They aren’t intended to be the first and last word about a social science issue. Social science isn’t definitive like chemistry. Like Jim Morrison said, “People are strange.” In a good way.

Yes. First steps. Maybe you shouldn’t publish first steps. Maybe you should hold off until you’re a little more certain you’re on solid ground.

No one expects social science to be just like chemistry, but this idea that you don’t need robust observations with solid methodology might be one reason there is a replicability crisis. Rather than repeating and engaging in some healthy self-criticism of your results, you’re haring off to publish the first thing that breaches an arbitrary p-value criterion.

There really are significant problems with the data he did publish, too. Take a look at this criticism of one of his papers. The numbers don’t add up. The stats don’t make sense. His tables don’t even seem to be appropriately labeled. You could not replicate the experiment from the report he published. This stuff is incredibly sloppy, and he doesn’t address their failings in the interview, except inadequately and in ways that don’t solve the problems with the work.

Again, I’m trying to be generous in interpreting the purpose of this research — often, interdisciplinary criticism can completely miss the point of the work (see also how physicists sometimes fail to comprehend biology, and inappropriately apply expectations from one field to another) — but I’m also seeing a lack of explanation of the context and relevance of the work. I mean, when he says, “For example, if you’re eating a meal, what part influences how much like the meal? The first part, the middle part, or the last part?”, I’m just wondering why. Why would it matter, what are all the variables here (not just the food, but in the consumer), and what do you learn from the fact that Subject X liked dessert, but not the appetizer?

It sounds like something a restaraunteur or a food chain might want to know, or that might might appeal to an audience at a daytime talk show, but otherwise, I’m not seeing the goal…or how their methods can possibly sort out the multitude of variables that have to be present in this research.

Women in science tumbling off a cliff

Since someone in this thread is trying to suggest that there might be a gender-based difference in ability to pursue careers in STEM fields, this chart is most appropriate.


That fits with my experience. On average, the undergraduate women I teach are just as capable as the men — if they weren’t confidential, I could show you my gradebook and you’d see that it’s women who consistently stand at the top of the class. Yet somehow, after they graduate, their participation in science careers plummets. I don’t think they turn stupid after getting their degree; I remember my peers from my graduate school and post-doc days, and no, all of them were scary smart or they wouldn’t be there. I think it’s more that harassment takes its toll (most of which I was oblivious to at the time, but afterwards, I’ve had women tell me about it, and it was an eye-opening “Oh, yeah, he was kind of creepy, wasn’t he” sort of revelation), and disrespect (I definitely knew older faculty who saw women as good technicians, but not smart enough to do creative work) and judgmental attitudes (“she’s just going to get married and pregnant and leave the field anyway”).

We are not yet creating equal opportunities. Don’t try to tell me that women are less capable when I deal with brilliant, hard-working women in science every day.

Bobby and Bobby are very foolish boys

There’s a popular scam among creationists: they offer big prizes to anyone who can “prove” that evolution is true. They never award these prizes, and I suspect they usually don’t even have the cash on hand, because they’ve got an ace up their sleeves. They set unreachable criteria. For example, to win Joseph Mastropaolo’s evolution prize, one must present evidence that persuades a team of judges — judges who are hand-picked by Mastropaolo. I think the game is stacked.

Now look who is playing a similar game: Robert Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro are offering a $100,000 prize for proof that vaccines are safe. I don’t quite know what they expect would constitute proof, since they seem to disregard the extensive clinical trials that have been carried out, or the lack of significant numbers of dead babies from their shots (almost 90% of infants get a thorough series of vaccinations, yet somehow we don’t have piles of dead babies), or the historical evidence (visit a 19th century graveyard, and you will find those piles of dead babies…modern graveyards are mostly full of old dead people), or the remarkable improvement in public health with the introduction of, for instance, the polio vaccine, and the effective eradication of smallpox, or that measles kills about 100,000 people a year (but very few in the US), all of which would be preventable by vaccines.

You know, that $100,000 prize would help a lot in vaccinating all the people in Asia and Africa who are suffering from measles — about 20 million people each year.

So what are the criteria for winning this prize?

Kennedy explained that the WMP will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can find a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women. Kennedy believes that even “a meager effort at homework” will expose that contention as unsupported by science.

Hold your horses, everyone! <rushes to the PubMed link I always keep handy>

Early exposure to the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines and risk of autism spectrum disorder.

No convincing evidence was found in this study that MMR vaccination and increasing thimerosal dose were associated with an increased risk of ASD onset.

Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.

These data indicate that administration of TCVs and/or the MMR vaccine to rhesus macaques does not result in neuropathological abnormalities, or aberrant behaviors, like those observed in ASD.

Vaccines and autism in primate model.

Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.

GIMME MY MONEY, BOBBY2. Those were a few papers that turned up in just the first page of a search — there were 180 more pages, but I didn’t bother looking, because I like the idea of winning a couple of years’ salary for the minimal amount of work. I wonder — could I be even lazier and just send them a link to PubMed?

I suspect that I won’t get paid, because there are other, mysterious excuses they’ll have for rejecting the evidence, just like the creationists do. The stated criteria are just to obvious and simple and have been met over and over in decades of peer-reviewed research.

They won’t pay up, because like the creationists, they’re only going to accept ‘evidence’ that supports their presuppositions, and the purpose of the reward is not to get information delivered to them — that information is freely available already — but to promote a lie. “We offered all this money, and no one could provide evidence, therefore you know that evolution/vaccines are false!” It’s a pretty tacky tactic.

It’s sad, too. I’ve liked many of De Niro’s movies. Now I’ll never be able to watch them again without being conscious that the actor is a colossal dumbass.

Someone needs to start a foundation to help victims of Physicist Syndrome

William Happer is a distinguished emeritus professor of physics. His specialty is optics and spectroscopy, but he’s got Physicist Syndrome bad — he thinks he’s an expert in everything to the point that he can disagree with distinguished professors in other fields, on their specialty. Yes, he’s that kind of idiot.

And he’s being considered for the position of Science Advisor to Donald Trump. Are you surprised? Trump’s chief skill seems to be in ferreting out the worst people and elevating them to positions where they can do the most damage. If you’re wondering why Trump is at all interested in this crank professor, it’s because he’s already been bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

William Happer has accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry in the past. In a Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide, Peabody Energy paid him $8,000 which was routed through the CO2 Coalition.

In 2015 undercover investigation by Greenpeace, Happer told Greenpeace reporters that he would be willing to produce research promoting the benefits of carbon dioxide for $250 per hour, while the funding sources could be similarly concealed by routing them through the CO2 Coalition.

But make up your own mind. Here’s an interview with the sublimely confident Dr Happer. Let’s start with something I can agree with.

Well, I guess where I see the big problem in our country is science illiteracy in the general population. If I were King, I would figure out some way to get better science teaching into the schools, you know, K through 12, and especially middle school and high school. It’s a disgrace that people get out with high school degrees knowing as little as they do. And I think it’s getting worse. I think it was much better in the ‘30s than it is today. And teaching makes a difference.

I often tell the people this anecdote — I once asked Edward Teller [a key architect of the hydrogen bomb] how it was possible that there were all these Hungarians, you know, there was him and Eugene Wigner and Szilard, von Neumann — a real constellation. They were all about the same age, and made enormous contributions to science. It was easy, he said. We all had the same high school teacher in the Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest. So there’s an example. Whoever this teacher was deserves a medal, you know. Nobody pays any attention to him. But at least in Hungarian society, teaching was an honorable profession, so that this really good guy — probably better than most university professors — produced this galaxy of stars. So I think we should seriously think about improving general education.

Oh man, yes. There was one teacher I’d name as extremely influential in getting me to pursue a career in science — thanks, Mr Thompson, and that chemistry class my junior year in high school. I think we all know of strong teachers who confirmed our commitment to do this thing…we here at the college level are mainly dealing with young men and women who’ve already made up their minds. We should pay public school teachers more, don’t you think?

But then he mounts his high horse.

I don’t know. First of all, just the term denier to someone like me is extremely offensive because it’s carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer. And you know, I dodged Nazi submarines when I was a kid [on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States] and my father fought against them and my mother worked on the Manhattan Project, and I found it profoundly offensive, you know, and many other people feel the same.

I think toning down the rhetoric would help a lot. And it has been very uneven — for example under the previous eight years the President and secretary of state kept talking about the deniers, you know, about the baskets of deplorables, the knuckle draggers, the Neanderthals. That was me they’re talking about.

I don’t think it was the anti-Nazi science kook they are talking about. It’s the, you know, Nazis. Literal Nazis. The people who do Nazi salutes, talk about white supremacy, and voted for Trump — the guy considering you for science advisor. I’m more than a little tired of indignant people who profess their contempt for Nazis while embracing the political party that counts on Nazi/racist support to get elected.

But also it’s impossible to take his concerns about toning down the rhetoric seriously when he just said this:

“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”

But even worse is the simplistic crackpot science he is peddling.

I see the CO2 as good, you know. Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing. It’s just incredible when people keep talking about carbon pollution when you and I are sitting here breathing out, you know, 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every exhalation. So I mean it’s shameful to do all of this propaganda on what’s a beneficial natural part of the atmosphere that has never been stable but most of the time much higher than now.

You know what else I’m pumping out as I sit here? Water. It’s just oozing out of my pores, evaporating out of my breath. Water is good, right? So more of it would be better. Let’s dump Happer in a big vat of water and let him paddle there, bathing in the life-giving fluid.

Another natural product of my metabolism is urea. I’m going to be even more generous and suggest that he be immersed in a vat of urine. More is better, always, right? So water plus urine has to be an improvement. Also, plants love water, and they love nitrogen. Therefore, it’s even more beneficial and natural.

OK, I forgot. He also likes gasses. We’ll top off the vat with pure, natural, healthful CO2. It’s a win:win!

I would like to remind Dr Happer of an old familiar (and true) phrase: the dose makes the poison. No one is going to deny that CO2 (and water, and nitrogen) are necessary components of a healthy atmosphere for life as it exists on earth. But we need balance in all things: just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen and water, balanced dynamically in cycles of renewal and reuse. That’s how we maximize growth in a sustainable way. Happer thinks throwing the balance out of wack is just as good as a balanced cycle. That ain’t gonna work.

Furthermore, he denies all the chaos and disruption as we roll our atmosphere back to the state it was in during the Carboniferous — which was admittedly a very nice environment for the plants and animals adapted to the Carboniferous, but probably isn’t as favorable to a species that evolved out of the ice ages.

He also ignores the possibility that we have no check on a runaway greenhouse effect — there is no guarantee climate change will stop at a swampy, hot, carbon-rich Carboniferous. I don’t think we’re predicting a roll-back to the Hadean, but it doesn’t take much change to make human life uncomfortable and possibly untenable.

Ultimately, though, his problem is that he’s not as bright as he thinks he is, and that he has a limited, one-dimensional view of geophysics, ecology, biology, and climate…yet, as a victim of Physicist Syndrome, he still thinks his narrow perspective trumps that of geophysicists, ecologists, biologists, and climatologists. That makes him a perfect Trump advisor, although it may chafe when he discovers that Trump thinks he’s even smarter than physicists.

I guess this is a Valentine’s Day story

It’s about snails looking for love.

But I just have to intrude rudely and mention that handedness in snail shell coiling has been studied for a long time, and we mostly know the answer: the direction is specified by a maternal effect gene, so what matters is the genotype of Jeremy’s mother, not Jeremy’s phenotype. Jeremy and Lefty are almost certainly heterozygous, the product of a homozygous left-coiling mother and a mate who was almost certainly (because this is a rare trait) homozygous for the right-coiling allele, and because they carry the right-coiling allele, all of their little baby snails will be right-coiling. He’s going to have to look in their grandchildren to find more left-coiling snails.

Technical details of the genetics aside, it must be frustrating to have to take chirality into consideration when trying to mate. Imagine a world where being left-handed makes sex with right-handers require all kinds of twisty gymnastics to line the bits up just right.

But…who is going to the stars?


Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an excellent essay on generation ships — the science-fiction concept of building starships designed to take hundreds or thousands of years to fly to their destination, with generations of people living within them — and summarized all the physical, biological, and ecological problems with them that would ultimately doom such a project to failure. His conclusion is that “Earth is our only home”, which sounds depressing if you look at it one way, but really shouldn’t be, if only we could stop trashing the place.

I agree completely with that essay.

Now Kameron Hurley has written her own excellent essay in response, pointing out that there is a path towards making them viable again. I agree completely with this one, too.

If we figured out how to jettison ourselves from the Earth, we can figure out how to alter ourselves to traverse the incredible distances between stars and even galaxies. And here, then, is the difference in ideas that drives my writing as opposed to that of many other science fiction writers. I understand that space travel and expansion is just as much about altering ourselves, our attitudes, our social structures, our very biology, as it is about altering the places we choose to live.

The one problem is that word “ourselves”. Who are “we”? As Hurley says, the only way this works is if we are plastic and willing to change who we are, adapting to radically new circumstances. We can’t expect to simply put New York in a bubble and lift it off the planet — New York in space is a completely different beast from a New York planted firmly in the BosWash corridor with harbors and airports to connect it to everywhere else. The life of the city would have to change utterly.

The Puritans left England in their ships to preserve their way of life. It didn’t work. It changed everything about them in ways they could not predict, and I suspect that if we could go back in time and show the Puritan emigrants a picture of what America would become and how their descendants would live, they would react with horror and decide that there is no point in leaving after all. If your goal is to shelter your identity, your way of life, and the lives of your children, packing up and moving to a wildly different environment with unpredictable elements is probably the very worst idea you could have. If you want to define “ourselves” as a body of beliefs and ideas, well, sorry, those are extremely fragile and tend not to survive in new environments without some major transformations.

What about our biology? Look at the formation of the Panamanian land bridge and the exchange of North and South American fauna. We couldn’t possibly predict who the winners and losers would be, except, maybe, that there’d be a lot of losers. The grand champion of the invasion of North America was…opossums? Really? Come on. If they’d been sapient, those 5 meter tall phorusrhacid terror birds might have been pretty confident that they were going to kick ass and take over and rule two continents, but instead they all went extinct — as did the Astrapotheria, the Litopterna, the Sparassodonta, and other orders of big strong beasties — and it was the marsupial rat-thingies that thrived?

Hurley is exactly right that generation ships could be doable if we didn’t think of them as shells for people in transit and more as self-sustaining ecological islands cast off to grow and change, but then we have to change our notions of what constitute “us”, because for sure what arrives at a distant star a thousand years from now won’t be Americans, and may not even be recognizable as human any more. We could be building a bridge to Tau Ceti that delivers a chittering cargo of marsupial rat-thingies to a brand new world.

Is that acceptable? Is our vision of ourselves sufficiently flexible that we would consider planting a colony of unicellular eukaryotes on a distant planet to be a success? Would we be disappointed if we didn’t at least get mammals off-world, or are we going to insist on a primate exodus? We’re going to have to have an extraordinarly broad sense of identity for this all to work. Hurley seems to get that, I’d just wonder whether she’s gotten weird enough.

This was a concept I explored deeply in my novel, The Stars are Legion. Because certainly, we will change if we create and inhabit a living organism to which we are intrinsically tied. The Earth has shaped our evolution in every way, and our world-ships will no doubt do the same. Perhaps we’ll never be able to leave these ships. But propelling ourselves across the universe inside a self-sustaining world that can repair and reproduce itself solves the problems of distance and reduces the chance of ecological collapse, particularly if the worlds moved together as a legion and included independent layers of systems so that if one began to decline, another would rise. Think of it as naturally evolving back-up systems.

Exactly. People aren’t an ecosystem. It’s going to require establishing a complex, diverse assemblage of organisms to be self-sustaining, and everything will change year after year. And you aren’t going to be able to predict ahead of time how it will change, only that it will change. And the most fungible, protean, fragile elements will be the highest level bits, things like “societies”.

Those who arrive in the next star system, if they have created societies that allow them to change what we currently consider to be the intrinsically human foibles of war and strife and pettiness and bickering, will require time to adapt to a new environment. Consider how symbiotic parasites can chemically change and shape their hosts to suit them. Now imagine a ship is programmed to merge its flora and fauna with a new planet when it arrives, making the world-ship, now, into a living terraforming machine, a bacterial incubator that rapidly adapts the local environment to sustain its hosts. If symbiotic parasites can do this here on earth, why can’t we hurl something like it through space?

There are nightmares nestled in that idea.

Imagine you fill your ship with high-minded idealists, intellectuals and artists, and plan to export the very best of your culture to distant alien worlds…and by the time it gets there, it turns out that the best survivors are Republican neo-Nazis and televangelists.

Or it isn’t even people who last a thousand years in your starfaring arcology, and the survivors are all marsupial rat-thingies. But I repeat myself.

Try flipping the perspective, too. You’re having a grand time on an ecologically restored Earth, living in balance with all of nature, when a legion of ecological arks from an alien world arrive. They don’t want to exercise the cartoon SF prerogative of exterminating all humans or destroying Earth, they want to merge with us allow change to flow from the natural ecological and evolutionary interactions of diverse species. They aren’t going to kill us, no not directly, they’re going to give us an opportunity to adapt and change, like all good species. Never mind that these kinds of interactions are always catastrophic for some. We send probes up to the oncoming giant space island to figure out what we are going to face, and the astronauts look inside and say, “My god, it’s full of marsupial rat-thingies!”

Or Republicans and televangelists. But again, I repeat myself.

But I am looking forward to reading Hurley’s The Stars are Legion. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.

Happy Darwin Day, unofficially!


Hey, like, do you remember when congress proposed to recognize Darwin Day, officially, years ago? Yeah, it’s been kind of bouncing around for a long time. Didn’t pass.

Hey, also, remember when Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said a few words about that Darwin stuff?

God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.

Heh. Good times, good times. Hey, didja know this kind of bill has been proposed over and over again, and always dies in that same Committee on Science, Space and Technology? The one that is currently chaired by Lamar Smith, with luminaries like Dana Rohrabacher on board? I wonder how that happens.

Last month, another Darwin Day bill was shuffled off to that committee. How do you think it will fare?

Oh, well, we shall celebrate evolutionary biology in our hearts. Or on YouTube — I’ll be going live here around noon to play “Ask an Evolutionist” for a while, as promised.