I have decided to turn off the comment functionality on this blog. I used to believe strongly that this would be the best place for any discussion to take place but this is clearly utopian. Most discussion about blog posts inevitably occurs on social media like Twitter and Facebook. At my advanced age I find it increasingly harder to keep track off all these multiple parallel streams and I predict soon I’ll find it even harder. Most of the comments here were often rehashing discussions I already had elsewhere as well while some of them were completely pointless. There was also the occasional joker who just took a dump on my lawn but didn’t bother to stick around for a chat. So now I am consolidating my resources. If you have a comment ping me a reply on Twitter (I always tweet out the link to a new post), respond via another blog post, or if you prefer a private conversation you can always email me.
Yesterday I came across* this essay by Etzel Cardeña entitled “The unbearable fear of psi: On scientific censorship in the 21st century” in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, an outlet that frequently publishes parapsychology studies. In this essay he bemoans the “suppression” of Psi research by the scientific establishment. I have noticed (personal opinion) that Psi researchers frequently tend to have a bit of a persecution complex although some of the concerns may very well be justified. Seriously entertaining the hypothesis that there is precognition or telepathy is often met with ridicule and I can imagine that it could make life with “mainstream” scientists harder. At the same time I am almost certain that the claims of this suppression are vastly overstated and they don’t make Psi researchers the 21st century Galileos or Giordano Brunos.
In fact, in a commentary on a Psi study I published two years ago I tried to outline specifically what differs between Galileo’s theories and the Psi hypothesis: the principle of parsimony. Heliocentricism may have faced dogmatic opposition from the religious establishment because it threatened their power and worldview. However, it is nonetheless the better model to explain observations of nature whilst being consistent with the current state of our knowledge. This is why it eventually succeeded against all opposition. The truth will out. Science is self-correcting even if it can take a long time and painful revolutions to get there. The same does not apply to the Psi hypothesis because Psi doesn’t explain anything. Rather Psi is the absence of an explanation because it posits that there are unexplained observations, something I would call stating the obvious. Anyway, I’ve repeatedly said all this before and this isn’t actually the point of this blog post…
In his essay, Cardeña briefly mentions my commentary and discusses in the Appendix some of the strawman arguments that have been levelled against my points. That’s all fair and good. I disagree with him but I have neither the time nor the desire to get back into this discussion right now. However, it brings me to another puzzling thing that I have long wondered about – mainly because it has followed me around for most of my life (ever since moving to an English-speaking country at least): the unbearable inability of people to spell my name correctly.
It used to frustrate me but after now decades of experiencing it regularly I have become accustomed to it. But this doesn’t stop me from being mystified by this error. Let me repeat it again:
There is no T in Schwarzkopf
By far the most common misspelling of my surname is Schwartzkopf. There have also been other mistakes, such as missing the 2nd letter C or replacing the F with an H (that one is particularly common when people try to write it phonetically). I assume the prevalence of the TZ spelling is that in the English language Z is a soft S sound and you need to have a T to produce the sharp German Z sound. That certainly makes sense. I know I’m not alone; a lot of people with foreign sounding names will suffer from frequent misspellings. I have become quite sensitive to this issue and I usually try very hard to ensure I spell other people’s names properly but of course I occasionally fail, too.
But this does not explain the incredible robustness of this TZ error. Cardeña is by far not the only person who has made it and under normal circumstances it would’ve barely registered on my radar. Yet what makes his essay so fascinating is that he manages to spell it correctly at the bottom of page 9 but then repeatedly misspells it in all the subsequent instances. This is in spite of the fact that he did spell it correctly in his own paper (that this essay discusses), that it is correct in his bibliography, and that he could easily access my article. This reminds me of a dyslexic student in my high school class who baffled us all (especially the teacher) by managing to change the spelling of the same word from one line to the next in his school papers (this was before dyslexia was well known or widely accepted as a condition – it would probably not be as dumbfounding to teachers these days). Cardeña is not a bad speller in general. His dyslexia seems to be Schwarzkopf-specific.
And he’s not alone in that. I singled him out here because it’s the latest example I came across but it would be harsh to lay this at his door. In fact, it is possible that his misspelling started because he quoted the TZ mistake from an email by Hauke Heekeren. This does not excuse his misspelling of my name after that in my book given he had access to the correct spelling – but it certainly proves he isn’t alone. Heekeren is German (I think) so he doesn’t have the language excuse either. How did he manage to misspell what is essentially two common German words? But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve also had my name misspelled in this way by a former employer who decided to acknowledge me in a paper they published. I worked with that person for over a year and published papers with them. You’d think they would know how to spell my name but at the very least you’d think they’d look it up before putting it in writing.
The general language excuse is also not that valid for statistical reasons. I am sure there are people with the same name spelled with a T but I don’t know any. I don’t know which spelling is more frequent but the T-spelling certainly has far less exposure. Schwarzkopf (with the correct spelling :P) is the name of an international brand of hair care products (no relations and none of the proceeds go my way, unfortunately). People should see that all the time. Schwarzkopf was also the surname of “Stormin’ Norman“, the coalition commander in the first Iraq War. At least people in the United States were relatively frequently exposed to his name for some time.
So what is it about people consistently misspelling my name despite better knowledge? Is there some sort of cognitive or even perceptual bias happening here? Can we test this experimentally? If you have an idea how to do that, let me know.
(* Thanks to Leonid Schneider and UK Skeptics for drawing my attention to this article)
As some of you know I recently shut down the blog I posted under my alter ego, the Devil’s Neuroscientist (DNS), on which was arguing against the pervasive zeitgeist and zeal of the open science movement. It was meant as a humorous attempt to balance the scales by being deliberately hyperbolic and sarcastic. At the same time I wanted to discuss some of the assumed truths and potential dangers of the proposals about how to improve science. It did however become a bit exhausting to maintain this line of argument and having to constantly remind people that I am not in fact the Devil’s Neuroscientist. I made the big mistake not to create a separate Twitter account for this. Perhaps I should even have launched the blog anonymously, although I felt at the time that this would be too trollish.
Either way, I was exasperated and stressed out by the experience (and possibly overreacting…), especially after some tweets suggested that I was trolling (despite not being anonymous) and as to whether I was being sexist, simply because the Devil’s Neuroscientist was female. My impression is that the people asking about this had not even read my blog but it’s not for me to say. My wife always says that Twitter exists solely to ruin people’s lives and I can see this being the case at least for B-list celebrities and politicians. For me this was the sign that it was time to pull the plug.
I know that inventing fake women is not the solution to fixing the gender imbalance in science. In fact, this was how I got the idea in the first place: within a very short time span there were two completely independent incidents in which I was mistaken for a woman. One was by a journal which had me registered under the name “Shannon” (I must have in fact reviewed for this journal under this name without ever noticing…). The other instance was some emails from an admin person at my institution who kept referring to me as a “she”. It was then that I decided that it makes sense to make DNS a woman. For one thing this (and the fact that she used American spelling) was practical as it helped me separate our identities in my mind. However, I also felt it deliberately highlighted the fact that people far too often assume that someone participating in these kinds of discussions is male. The sad truth is that many women in science regularly receive emails assuming they are men. The fact that it somehow seems special or funny when the reverse happens to me is the true problem here.
Anyway, it has been my impression that many people seemed to enjoy DNS’ contributions to these debates. The other day I discussed what should happen next and decided that there should be a new blog with the same purpose. But this time the format will be different. Posts will be anonymous and by many different authors. I haven’t quite formalised the organisational aspects yet but I will do so soon, after I finished some overdue real-world work. I will email a number of people who may be interested in contributing but the invitation is open to anyone. Wherever we stand on these open science discussions, I believe the voices of many different DNSes should be great for the cosmic balance. So stay tuned…
In the meantime, this is my own new blog. Here every opinion will be my own, uncontaminated by any demonic possessions. I will also migrate the various posts I made previously about parapsychology research from my lab webpage because that isn’t meant to be a blog and I have long felt uncomfortable with the fact that my students and research fellows are thus associated with these posts without their direct consent (the old links will remain active though).