What is an apology?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, “Why don’t they just apologize?” or “Why don’t they apologize the right way?”  In the mean time I’ve often thought, “Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?”

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.


Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what’s in it for Alice?  What’s in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value–why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

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The Second Law and its misuses

An OrbitCon session brought to my attention to the fact that Steven Pinker spouts a lot of bullshit about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (The Second Law is, “entropy cannot decrease over time in a closed system.”) In Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, he begins by refuting the creationist argument that the Second Law contradicts the theory of evolution. This is easy to do, you just say that the earth isn’t a closed system, and dramatically point at the sun. But Pinker then proceeds to forget about the sun, and argues that the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains poverty. I don’t have the book available, but Pinker has written an essay along similar lines:

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth.

Here’s the thing: creationists are really really wrong about the Second Law. There’s plenty of room to be less wrong than creationists, but still really really wrong. For those of us who have taken an interest in fighting creationism, we know we can just point at the sun and be done with it. But just because you’re familiar with this argument, please don’t mistake that for an understanding of the Second Law. Don’t be like Steven Pinker.

Here I will state and explain a few basic principles about entropy, with the goal of going beyond a mere refutation of creationist arguments.

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Things I liked about grad school

To cap off my series on why grad school sucks, I’d like to talk about some of the things I did, after all, like about the experience. This will be more personally focused, and may describe aspects of grad school that other people would miss out on, or dislike.

I can read papers

I started out this series by talking about how physics talks are really bad.  Even now after finishing a PhD, I find that most talks are still incomprehensible. In contrast, I feel pretty good about my improved ability to read papers.

Note, the best way to understand more physics presentations, is to understand when a presentation is best skipped, and it’s the same way with papers. A lot of skill in reading technical papers comes from knowing when to skip a paper, or when to skip large sections of it. But also, as I got further in my Ph.D., there were fewer sections that I needed to skip, and I could return to old papers and understand them better. Some of my most satisfying experiences were going beyond mere reading, being able to critique papers in detail.

This ability extends beyond my own field of study, to other fields of physics, and to other disciplines entirely. I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read scholarly papers in math, psychology, sociology, gender studies, and law. Of course, some disciplines are more difficult than others.

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Is grad school doing what you love?

Many people place a special value on “doing what you love”. Should you become a corporate tool, or a real-life scientist? “You should do what you love” is the reply. And it’s a reply that is detached from any real cost-benefit analysis. Like, maybe you only sorta love being a real scientist, and maybe you don’t love the working conditions of a scientist, and maybe the salary of a corporate tool is so much higher that it enables you to do other things that you love. But you can’t make a snappy motto out of such considerations.

The problem with “doing what you love” is that it doesn’t come for free. If academic institutions need a certain number of grad students,* then they need to provide incentives for just enough people to apply. “Doing what you love” is one incentive, and it takes the place of other incentives that academic institutions could have offered instead. In other words, they don’t need to pay you well, or treat you well. However much grad students are willing to tolerate in order to do what they love–that’s how much they end up having to tolerate.

*I’m only talking about Ph.D. students and not Masters students. I’ve never heard anyone describe a Masters degree as doing what you love.

In economic terms, we can speak of the “marginal” grad student (a concept similar to the “swing voter”). For the marginal grad student, the expected costs and benefits are exactly equal, such that the decision to go to grad school could go either way. It may be that the marginal grad student thinks they would love being a scientist, but this is exactly offset by the costs. So for some people, grad school may be a good deal. But the deciding factor is not merely whether you love grad school, it’s whether you’d love it more than the marginal grad student.

Beyond that, I think even the marginal grad student is getting a bad deal. The marginal grad student expects they would love grad school, but ends up loving it less than they predicted.

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On work hours in academia

Since I’m looking for jobs, I need a little elevator speech for why I chose to leave academia. “The attitude in academia, is that you’re doing extremely important work, and it’s the passion of your life, and therefore you should be willing to accept terrible work conditions. I would rather have a less glamorous job about actually helping people in my immediate surroundings, instead of slaving towards a distant ideal.” How’s that sound? Eh, maybe.

Poor working conditions are hard to quantify, but one thing we can quantify are the work hours. How many hours do academics work? If the titles of news articles are to be believed, you do not need to work 80 hours a week. The title is hilarious because it suggests some people really do work 80 hours, but it’s just unnecessary. But yes, people tend to overestimate their work hours, and studies suggest that it’s really 50-60 hours a week on average for faculty. But how’s that for an absurd standard? Instead of arguing that we should be working only 40 hours like a normal job, people instead have to argue that the 80-hour week is a myth–or at the very least, unnecessary. This also tells me that even when people work 50-60 hours, they feel like they’re working 80, that everyone around them is working 80, and/or that their colleagues and students should be working 80.

Even when academics argue for a 40 hour work week, the main argument is that you can be just as productive in shorter hours. I appreciate that this is the argument people need to make. But now that I’m on the outside, I can finally say, fuck y’all. Forget productivity. How about being humane to your workers? I don’t know that much about the history of labor rights, but my understanding is that the 40-hour work week was a greater step forward for humanity than any of that stuff I did with superconductors.

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Luck in grad school

I am continuing my blogging series on why grad school sucks.  This series has only had one entry so far, in which I talk about how bad physics talks are, and how this worsens impostor syndrome.  Today I will talk about how scientific success is based on luck.

If you have ever read any popularizations of science, you’ve likely heard that many scientific discoveries are made by serendipity.  This makes sense, because if a discovery isn’t a big surprise, then it’s not much of a discovery, is it?

We have one of these stories in the field of superconductivity too.  Kamerlingh Onnes is credited with the discovery of superconductivity in 1911.  But that’s not what his work was really about.  His real accomplishment was being the first person to liquefy helium.  He just tried cooling a bunch of things, and that’s how superconductivity was discovered.  That’s serendipity!  Kinda?

The thing is, serendipitous discoveries might make for a fun story, but it’s garbage to actually live through.  If you go to grad school, will you hit upon something truly interesting?  Or will you just produce a bunch of unremarkable studies that nobody cares about?  Nobody knows!  But your career success depends on it!

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Things that bug me: gluten

As I sift through the ruins of organized skepticism, I recall something that always bugged me.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a bunch of chronic gastrointestinal problems.  The treatment to celiac disease is to switch to a completely gluten-free diet.  However, people with celiac are not by themselves the cause of the many gluten-free products sold in stores.  Many people buy those because they believe they have a different condition, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS).  They believe that when they go on a low-gluten or gluten-free diet, they have fewer gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. they feel less bloated).  I say “believe”, because there is no consensus that NCGS exists.

The standard skeptic’s line on NCGS is that there is no evidence that it exists, and there is no reason for people to go on gluten-free diets unless they think they have celiac disease.  One study that has been used in support of this position, is a paper from 2013, which says in the title “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity“.

The interesting thing about this paper is that it says that people who report NCGS do experience a significant reduction in symptoms when they change their diet.  However, the important change in their diet is not the elimination of gluten, but the elimination of another category of chemicals, known as FODMAPs.  FODMAPs are generally present in the same grains that include gluten, so it’s easy to get them confused without having a study designed specifically to separate them.  In other words, it is possible that people who believe they have NCGS are correct about having symptoms that improve with a change in diet, but incorrect about the source of those symptoms.

I recall that back in 2013, skeptics were saying, “This is another confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along: NCGS doesn’t exist.”  And I recall reading the news reports and thinking, wait.  This means we were wrong.  People who thought they had NCGS were correct to change their diets.  We were wrong.  Why weren’t skeptics acknowledging that they had been wrong?

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