Reflecting on interdisciplinary journal clubbing

I come from a physics background, but I spent the past three years running the Ace Journal Club, a group that reads scholarly articles from the interdisciplinary field of asexuality studies. While I was never the sort of person who disrespected the social sciences, my experience with the journal club has enhanced my respect and appreciation.

Asexuality studies is a highly interdisciplinary field, mostly within the social sciences. Looking at our monthly public discussion notes, the most common fields are psychology, sociology, and gender studies. But there have also been a few from communication studies, health sciences, and literature. There are a few odd examples from linguistics, library sciences, and I don’t even know how to classify the paper doing quantitative analysis of romance novels.

An important aspect of the journal club is that we aren’t just reading papers–we’re also discussing them. If I were just reading papers on my own, I would be left on my own to seethe about something the paper said that just didn’t make sense. But since I’m discussing it with other people, some of whom have expertise in the field, they can explain why it says that. OR, more frequently, they explain why it’s even worse than I thought, and then we can complain about it together!

How is it that all these complaints about social science articles lead to greater respect of the social sciences? It shows me that the social sciences are alive.
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On the scientificity of string theory

I must emphasize that although I have a background in physics, by no means do I have expertise in particle physics or string theory. I was a condensed matter physicist, and an experimentalist not a theorist. I do not have any deep understanding of string theory beyond a general background knowledge. What I bring to the table is a bit of awareness of how physics research operates in practice, plus the cynicism that comes with the territory of being an ex-physicist.

String theory was essentially a scientific fad. I’m not going to go into the history, because I have no expertise on that, and the Wikipedia article is frankly opaque. Dr. Collier recently made a more accessible retrospective–although I find the video game irritating, and Dr. Collier is liable to get some things wrong.

The relevant part is that string theory was a fad in scientific research and a fad in popular science. The physicists were overly excited about it, and so was the public. Then there was backlash, which again occurred both among physicists, and in the public. String theory was criticized for failing to make any testable predictions. Peter Woit described the theory as “not even wrong” (and published a book with that title), because a theory could only earn the status of being wrong by making a prediction that was found to be false.

Today, long after all that went down, what I encourage among non-physicist readers is moderation. String theory isn’t exactly a success story, but in the end it’s still legitimate scientific research. Frankly, you probably shouldn’t have any opinion on string theory at all, and it was a mistake for science communicators to have ever encouraged you to have one.

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On the retraction of an ROGD paper

I have a comment on the recent retraction of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases”.  I happen to have some expertise on this precise issue.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) is an alleged phenomenon where kids suddenly experience gender dysphoria. The hypothesis is that this is caused by social contagion and therefore the kids are not authentically trans.  The entire research area is fundamentally flawed because it’s based on the accounts of parents who frequent ROGD forums, instead of, you know, talking to the kids in question. The kids likely have a better idea than the parents just how “sudden” the onset really was.

But that’s not why the paper was retracted. The journal stated that it was retracted “due to a lack of documented consent by study participants”. The stated reason is not obviously connected to the real problems with ROGD research, so it sounds pretextual.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 2: Dissonance Theory

See part 1

Dissonance in music is analogous to conflict in a story. Dissonance sounds “unpleasant” in the same way that conflict is unpleasant to the characters within the story, but then it would be an odd to have a story without any conflict. The opposite of dissonance is called consonance. Music commonly alternates between dissonance and consonance–creating tension, and then resolving it.

Conventional musical theory comes with a bunch of ideas about what’s consonant or dissonant. 400 cents, the major third, is considered consonant; 300 cents, the minor third, is considered dissonant. There’s some physical basis for these ideas, but arguably a lot of it has to do with tradition. 300 cents is more dissonant than 400 cents because that’s the meaning we’ve absorbed from our musical culture.

When you go outside the usual tuning system, musical tradition offers less guidance on what’s more or less dissonant. So this is the part of my intro to xenharmonic theory where I discuss a theory of dissonance that is independent of musical tradition.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 1: Perception of microtones

Microtonal music is music that goes outside of the standard western 12-tone tuning system. There are many microtonal traditions throughout history and the world, but xenharmonic music refers to a specific modern musical tradition that makes a point of being microtonal.  If you’d like to listen to examples, I have a list of popular xenharmonic artists. Xenharmonic music is associated with music theories that might be considered heterodox. Heterodoxy is good though because conventional music theory is too narrowly focused on a certain European classical music tradition, and we could use an alternate perspective.

This is part of a short series introducing xenharmonic theory. Part 1 is about the perception of sound, with a particular focus on small differences in pitch. Part 2 is about dissonance theory. Part 3 is about tuning theory. The first two parts overlap with conventional music theory, but focus on aspects that are independent of tuning. Part 3 is where we get into theory that’s more specific to the xenharmonic tradition.

I freely admit that I don’t know everything, I just know enough to point in some interesting directions. The idea here is not to write an authoritative intro to xenharmonic music theory (which might be better found in the Xenharmonic Wiki), but to write an accessible intro with a bit of a slant towards what I personally think is most important.

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I read popular physics: Explosions at the edge

This is part of my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and rant about barely related tangents in order to provide “context”.

After the November issue, which didn’t really have any physics articles at all, the December issue has two major articles! One is astronomy, the other one is about the fusion reactor, ITER. But, after complaining about how all the physics articles are about astronomy, it looks like I’m still choosing the astronomy article. The ITER article is just a bunch of photos of the engineering, and I don’t have much to say about that.

So, the astronomy article is “Explosions at the Edge” (or that’s how it’s titled in print). It’s about the surprisingly diverse ways that massive stars can go supernova. For example, rather than simply exploding, a star may first shed a layer of gas, and then the subsequent explosion will collide with that gas, producing a prodigious burst of light.

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I read popular physics: Orbital Aggression

This is part of my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and publicly ponder what choices in life brought me to this point. This month’s “physics” article is not really about physics at all, but that’s the bed I made.

The article is titled “Orbital Aggression” (paywalled), and it’s about the possibility of space war. Space war refers not to war rained down from space, but rather war that targets satellites. Especially in the US, satellites play an important role in communication and imaging, such as transmitting credit card transactions or monitoring weather. They’re also used by the military, again especially the US military, which occupies every corner of the globe.

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