Category Archives: random

Marking myself annoyed

First of all, let me apologise for the very long delay since my last blog post. As you all know, the world is going through a lot of turmoil right now. I was also busy and travelling a lot and so I’ve had neither time nor the energy to blog. But anyway, I’m back and have a number of posts in mind for the next few weeks.

Before I begin, let me say this: My heart goes out to the victims of the horrific terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament the other day. All whose loved ones were injured or killed in this senseless act of violence are in my thoughts. I admire the efficiency and bravery of the emergency services and the bystanders who rushed to help. There is never an excuse to commit such vile crimes in the pursuit of some political goal. In the case of this brand of Islamic terrorism (if this is indeed confirmed to be the case), the actual political goal is also pretty obscure. Either way, it is a meaningless and evil act. We should stand united in the face of such evil. Don’t be cowed into giving up liberty and justice and never give in to hate and fear.

Having said this, let me get to the point. For several years now Facebook has had this feature where people “mark themselves safe” when a terror attack strikes. I presume it may also be used for natural disasters but if so I haven’t seen that yet. From the first time I saw this, during the terror attack in Paris, I found this rather tasteless and also far from helpful.

Back then, many people criticised Facebook as the feature was heavily biased towards white, western countries. Around the same time of the Paris attacks there were several other attacks in Turkey and the Middle East. Nobody got to “mark themselves safe” during those attacks. And in certain parts of the world terror attacks are a weekly occurrence. So the outrage over Facebook starting this feature for attacks in Europe is understandable. But I think it is misplaced: Facebook has always rolled out their new features in a geographically limited way and they typically start in the western world where they are based. There is also a related discussion to be had about in-groups and out-groups. And about our habituation to bad news: sad as it may be, even after this string of terror attacks in European cities they remain more newsworthy than those in Baghdad or Kabul where this seems to happen all the time. Since then, Facebook have expanded their use of this feature to non-western countries. Whether this was because of people’s complaints or they always planned this I do not know. But either way, it is no longer limited to the West.

What annoys me about this Facebook feature is something else however. To me it seems  demeaning and callous. I don’t think the emotional engagement we should have with such events and the concern we should feel for our fellow human beings should be condensed down to a button press and notification on social media. Perhaps I’m just an old fart who doesn’t comprehend the way the modern world works. I certainly don’t really understand dating via Tinder and a lot of the social media communication millennials get up to these days (snapstagram or chat roulette or whatever they’re called). And don’t get me started on the excessive hash tagging.

But there is a big difference: most of those other things are trivial or affectations. I have no problem with people looking for casual sex or even seeking a life partner via modern social media if this is what works for them. I may not understand the excessive selfie craze and glammed up pictures some people post of themselves emulating the growing ranks of celebrities who are only famous for being famous. But I don’t have a problem with that. It’s up to each and everyone how they want to spend their spare time and what they do in the pursuit of happiness. And of course I use social media too. I like using Facebook actually and use it often (some of my friends probably think too often, although they vastly overestimate how much time it actually takes from my life). Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family. I even got back in touch with some really old friends who I would not otherwise have any contact with now. So I don’t even feel that all of our social media contact is trivial. I have some very meaningful human contact that way and rekindled old friendships.

In contrast, this marking safe business seems deeply inappropriate to me. It trivialises the gravity of the situations. In my view, our emotional reaction to a situation like this should go beyond an emoji or clicking a “sad” button. You might say, to each their own. You don’t have to use this thing and can turn off notifications about this. But it’s not that simple. That’s not how social media work. The whole feature is designed around the idea that people mark themselves safe, thus spreading the word, and also ask their friends if they are safe. It creates a kind of peer pressure that coerces people into marking themselves “safe” causing a chain reaction that makes the whole thing spiral out of control.

You might also say, that is is a good and social thing to get in touch with your friends and loved ones. As I said, I use social media too. I am not Susan Greenfield, or any one of those people who think that staring into your phone or having social contact via the internet withers away our interhuman contact. Quite to the contrary in fact. I remember seeing this excellent cartoon about how smart phones are all about interhuman contact but sadly my google skills are too poor to find it. I most certainly disagree with this article – it is nonsense in so many ways.

But again, there is a difference: getting in touch with your loved ones is not the same as seeing a notification (or even requesting) that they “mark themselves safe”. It seems so cold, so removed from humanity. Of course, you worry about your loved ones. The clue why is in the word. You see on the news that some tragedy occurred and you want to know your friends and family are all right. Well then, pick up that smart phone of yours and send them a message or give them a call! The best way to find out if they are okay and letting them know you care about them is to speak to them. Several friends and family got in touch with me via phone or email or instant message asking if we are okay. And I certainly did the same. I have friends and family in Paris and in Berlin and I contacted them when the terror attacks there happened. On the day of the 7/7 bombings I contacted all of my London friends at the time. Even though I realise that the odds of any of them being caught up in these events are low, you also want them to know you think of them, find out how they feel, and give them some consolation and support. By all means, use social media for that purpose – it’s very good for that. But to me, reducing this down to one tap of your finger on the phone is sorely insufficient. I hardly says “I care” and in some ways it even seems to disrespect the victims and the plight of those people who actually grieve for their loved ones.

And then there is the practical side of this. The blunt nature of the algorithms behind this feature and the fact that people (quite rightly) don’t actually share all the details of their lives on Facebook causes some really stupid artifacts. Not only is Egham (home of Royal Holloway “University of London”) really, really safe, my department in actual London was also pretty safe from this terror attack (ironically enough, my department is right next to several of the sites of the 7/7 bombings, in particular the bus bombing at Tavistock Square). While I have walked across Westminster Bridge and past Parliament many times, believe me, it’s not where I spend most of my work days. And while of course it was possible that the terrorist didn’t act alone and other attacks might be happening (a common feature to IS and Al-Qaeda attacks), there were no reports of anything else happening at the time. But what if there had been other attacks? What if your friend marks themselves “safe” of the first one and then gets caught up in the second? Is there a way to “unmark” yourself again? And would that really be your first priority in that situation?

The even more bizarre artifacts of Facebook’s indiscriminate scatter approach are of course that it not only wants us to make sure people in Egham are okay but also those in galaxies far, far away. On the mark yourself safe page I saw several people who haven’t lived in London for years but are in the United States and other places thousands of miles away. Not everyone changes their personal details every time they move because that really isn’t always the most important thing in their lives. And of course, some people may have been in London at the time even though according to their “official Facebook records” they live somewhere else. They will fall through the cracks completely.

A much more severe side effect, however, is the distorted picture of reality this sort of thing produces. The tweet by Hanna Isotalus I already mentioned starts a thread elaborating on this problem. This whole business of marking yourself safe actually has the consequence of making everyone feel less safe than they are. While of course horrible and tragic for everyone who was involved, as I already said this attack was a pretty isolated event. By drawing this much attention to it by frantically requesting everyone who has anything to do with London mark themselves “safe” we actually vastly exaggerate its effects. The same can probably also be said about the intense news coverage of such events.

The casualties of terrorism in the western world have clearly declined considerably over the past decades. Admittedly, there are some spikes in recent years and most of those are related to jihadist terrorism. However, the actual reach of these attacks in Europe or the US is very small compared to the extent of fear-mongering and political agonising it causes. Also, not that it should matter but a very large proportion of Islamist terror happens in predominantly Muslim countries and most certainly a large proportion of the victims are Muslims.

This stands in stark contrast to the number of people injured and killed all the time by car accidents or – in the US anyways – by guns. It stands in contrast to the risks we are subjected to every day. Nobody seems to think to mark themselves safe every time they take a car or cross a road as if they’d unlocked some achievement in a computer game. I have yet to see a notification on Facebook from one of my many daredevil colleagues telling me “I rode my bike to work and managed to survive for yet another day”.

So as Hanna points out, you are safe. Marking yourself safe doesn’t make you safe. Take a step back (but omit the deep breaths – in London that is actually dangerous). Think about what this really achieves. By all means, contact your loved ones to let them know you care. While statistically they are not at risk, there is one distinct difference between accidents and terrorism. An accident happens by misfortune or neglect. Crime and terrorism are deliberate acts of evil. Talking to your friends and family who happen to be close to such things shows your support. And of course, please pay your respects to the victims, console the ones close to them, and honour the heroes who saved people’s lives and bring the perpetrators to justice.

But don’t buy into this callous scheme of “marking yourself safe”. You’re just playing into the terrorists’ hands. You just spread the fear they want to cause, the hatred and divisions they want to incite, and it contributes to the continued erosion of our liberties and way of life. It strengthens the forces who want to undermine our freedom and respect for one another. All those far-right politicians may not know it but they are bedfellows of these Islamist murderers. Sorry for the cliche but it’s true: If we buy into this crap, the terrorists win.

The Day the Palm hit the Face

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Scientists are human beings. I get it. I really do because – all contrary reports and demonic possessions aside – I’m a human being, too. So I have all manner of sympathy for people’s hurt feelings. It can hurt when somebody criticizes you. It may also be true that the tone of criticism isn’t always as it should be to avoid hurt.

In this post, I want to discuss ways to answer scientific criticism. I haven’t always followed this advice myself because, as I said, I’m human. But I am at least trying. The post was sparked by an as-yet unpublished editorial by a certain ex-president of the APS. I don’t want to discuss specifically the rather inflammatory statements in that article as doing so will serve no good. Since it isn’t officially published, it may still change anyway. And last time I blogged about an unpublished editorial I received a cease and desist letter forcing me to embargo my post for two full hours

I believe most people would agree that science is an endeavor of truth seeking. It attempts to identify regularities in our chaotic observations of the world that can help us understand the underlying laws that govern it. So when multiple people are unable to replicate a previous claim, this casts doubt on the claim’s validity as a regularity of nature.

The currency of science should be evidence. Without any evidence, a claim is worthless. So if someone says “I don’t think this effect is real” but offers no evidence for that statement, be it a failed replication or a reanalysis of the same data showing the conclusions are erroneous, then you have every right to ignore them. But if they do offer evidence, this cannot be ignored. It is simply not good enough to talk about “hidden moderators” or complain about the replicators’ incompetence. Without evidence, these statements are hollow.

Whether you agree with it in principle or not, preregistration of experimental designs has become something of a standard in replication studies (and is becoming increasingly common in general). So when faced with a replication failure and the fact that people of that ilk are evidently worried about analytical flexibility and publication bias, surely it shouldn’t be very surprising that they won’t just be convinced by your rants about untested moderators or Google searches of ancient conceptual replications, let alone by your accusations of “shameless bullying” or “methodological terrorism”. Instead, what might possibly convince them is a preregistered and vetted replication attempt in which you do right all of the things that these incompetent buffoons did wrong. This proposal has already been outlined very well recently by Brent W Roberts. Speaking more generally, it is the ground-breaking, revolutionary concept that scientific debates should be fought using equivalent evidence instead of childish playground tactics and special pleading.

Granted, some might not be convinced even by that. And that’s fine, too. Skepticism is part of science. Also, some people are not convinced by any evidence you show them. It is actually not your job as a scientist to convince all your critics. It is your job to test theories and evaluate the evidence unimpassionately. If your evidence is solid, the scientific community will come around eventually. If your evidence is only shouting about hidden moderators and nightmare stories of people fearing tenure committees because someone failed to replicate your finding, then I doubt it will pass the test of time.

And maybe, just maybe, science is also about changing your mind when you realize that the evidence simply doesn’t support your previous thinking. I don’t think any single failed replication is enough to do that but a set of failed replications should certainly at least push you in that direction. As far as I can see, nobody who ever published a replication failure has even suggested that people should be refused tenure or lose their research program or whatever. I can’t speak for others, but if someone applied for a job with me and openly discussed the fact that a result of theirs failed to replicate and/or that they had to revise their theories, this would work strongly in their favor compared to the candidate with overbrimming confidence who only published Impact Factor > 30 papers, none of which have been challenged. And, in a story I think I told before, one of my scientific heroes was a man who admitted without me bringing it up that the results of his Science paper had been disproven.

Seriously, people, get a grip. I am sympathetic to the idea that criticism hurts, that we should perhaps be more mindful of just how snarky and frivolous we are with our criticism, and that there is a level of glee associated with how replication failures are publicized. But there is also a lot of glee with which high impact papers are being publicized and presented in TED talks. If you want the former to stop, perhaps we should also finally put an end to the bullshitting altogether. Anyway, I will conclude with a quote by another of my heroes and let my unbridled optimism flow, in spite of it all:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
– Carl Sagan

The bottom line

So I haven’t posted in a while, first because I was depressed and lethargic from the dreadful outcome of the EU referendum, and then because I was busy with actual work. I was considering writing a post about how direct democracy has the same problems as citizen science (thanks to Chris Chambers for inspiring that thought a little) but then I don’t feel like it right now.

There isn’t much left to be said about “Brexit” (how I hate that word) that others haven’t already said. The bottom line is, it is highly likely to seriously hurt British science and, I wager, also Britain in general. It seems the political will isn’t there to simply slide into EEA membership (which would keep freedom of movement) and any other solutions appear to be like a terrible deal for the UK, for the EU, and for science. What exactly will happen nobody can predict (as you know I don’t believe in precognition) so we’ll just have to wait and see. Except we don’t have to wait and see for it here. I don’t really see why I should suffer the consequences of a referendum I wasn’t even allowed to vote in despite being a settled and contributing member of society. It is too early to make any rash decisions but I can certainly perceive greener pastures elsewhere…

For the time being, however, I have merely decided to switch to American spelling. This is not reawakening the Devil’s Neuroscientist (She also used American English). It’s just a protest. And, perhaps, depending how the US elections in November go I may have to change it back… On the bright side, my next post will presumably be about something sciency.

el_ultimo_de_gibraltar
I am currently considering petitioning UCL to open a branch in Gibraltar given that this region will almost certainly have to get some special status after the UK leaves the EU

Uncertain times

On 23rd June 2016 the citizens of the United Kingdom (plus immigrants from Commonwealth nations and the Republic of Ireland) will vote to decide if the UK should remain a member of the European Union. Colloquially, this is known as the “Brexit” debate. I refuse to use this horrible term again, not only because it sounds like a breakfast cereal but also because it’s a misnomer: the decision is not about Britain but the whole of the UK.

Let me be straight: I am a strong and vocal supporter of the UK staying in the EU. As an immigrant (I also won’t use the offensive term “migrant”) from a EU country, a Leave vote would have direct consequences for my life in the country I called home for almost two decades. I would inevitably lose some of the rights I have enjoyed since then. The EU is what made it possible for me to study, live and work here, it allowed me to spend a year in yet another EU country during my studies, and it made my life easier in countless ways, not least of all the simplicity of crossing the borders. All of these things apply to all EU citizens so from a purely selfish perspective all of them should also support it. A lot of things we take for granted are a direct consequence of the civil liberties the EU guarantees.

The whole public debate surrounding this issue has been characterised by panic mongering and inane bickering from both sides. From deliberate obfuscations (“If we leave the EU every household will lose £4,300!”) to outright lies (“We pay £350 million a week to Brussels!”) both camps are painting nightmare scenarios of what will happen if the other side wins. Add to that all of the rubbish Boris Johnson dreams up on a typical day that is too delusional to even constitute a lie.

The truth of the matter is this: nobody has a damn clue what will happen if the UK leaves the EU. There is no precedent for a country leaving the bloc. Some European countries like Switzerland, Norway, and Liechtenstein are not EU members so they can give us an idea of what the relationship between the UK and the remainder of the EU could look like in the future. However, these are all also very different countries than the UK. They have far smaller populations, have very different economies and societies, and they have existed outside the EU whilst the UK has for decades been an integral, albeit reluctant, member. The only thing Liechtenstein has in common with the UK is its national anthem. The only thing we do know is that most of these countries have a relationship with the EU that permits free movement of people. Since one of the main arguments put forth in support of leaving the EU is “regaining control of our borders,” it actually seems very unlikely that any dramatic change in border control can be achieved this way. Nevertheless, we can’t know what will happen.

This is why it worries me and why it should worry you also. The future is very uncertain and leaving the EU will be a very big risk. The doomsday scenarios painted by either side are extreme and frankly also insulting our collective intelligence. Anyone who tells you what terrible consequences a Leave or Remain decision will have, is either lying or – at best – completely delusional. In any case, you shouldn’t listen to them. The Remain camp have one thing going for them though: they support the status quo and voting to Remain is the conservative decision. Whatever propaganda Leave proponents may spout about it, it is unlikely that any of their horrors are becoming a reality if the UK stays in the EU. Rather, things will presumably not really change much from how they are now. Voting Leave is by far the riskier and more radical thing to do. That said, I doubt it will have disastrous consequences either. The initial negotiations will be difficult and cumbersome. The process of leaving will also cost a lot of money, at least in the short run, money that won’t be saved by not paying into EU coffers (for one thing because the UK will continue to pay while these negotiations take place). For science and technology, I believe the consequences will be painful as it will make it much harder to access large European research grants (which the UK also cannot simply make up for by no longer paying in) and – what is worse – the added bureaucracy and administrative burden of turning skilled workers from EU countries into immigrants from overseas, which will stifle collaboration to some extent. So no, leaving the EU will probably not to ruin the UK. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it won’t have bad consequences.

As far as I am concerned, I recently I started the process of naturalisation to become a British citizen. I had originally wanted to complete this before the referendum so I could vote in it. I held back on this for ages because for many years my country of origin did not allow dual citizenship (guess which supernational organisation is to thank for that being possible now?) and also because it’s damned expensive. Now I am too late to get there before 23rd June. If the UK stays in the EU, I will most likely finish the process. This place is my home and I am tired of being subject to taxation without representation. I feel it’s about time I can fully shape the future of this country with my votes.

Of course, gaining citizenship will be far more useful if the UK indeed leaves the EU. People like me would most likely lose the right to vote in other elections we could vote in until now. It is far less clear how residence rights will change. As I already said, if the UK remains in the EEA, free movement rights are unlikely to be affected at all. But if “control of the borders” is “regained” this would change. Will our automatic permanent resident status be carried over? It does seem improbable that we would suddenly be asked to apply for visas or indefinite leave as such a change would result in complete chaos. It is quite likely though that some additional bureaucratic hurdles would be erected because that’s just what governments do. But honestly, I don’t think I’ll go through with naturalisation if the UK leaves the EU. Melodramatic as it sounds (because screw it, this whole debate has been plagued with melodrama and over-emotional rhetoric) a vote to Leave is a statement that people like me are not really welcome in this country. If the UK votes to Leave, I will most likely choose to leave the UK.

But don’t get me wrong. I do think this referendum is a good idea. For one thing, it is democratic. More importantly, I don’t actually think that Britons will vote to Leave. The polls suggest a close race but the Remain camp has been steadily ahead. As the graph below shows,  the fewer people answer “Don’t know” in a poll, the farther the Remain vote is ahead of the Leave vote. It is probably simplistic to interpret too much into this because this must depend on the particular poll but it could support the interpretation that people vote conservatively. Undecided voters are unlikely to choose the radical option on referendum day.

In my view, this referendum is actually way overdue. If the Leaves have it, then yes, the British will have spoken that European integration has gone too far for them. But if the Remain votes win this will hopefully finally put to rest a common Eurosceptic assertion that the UK originally only “voted to join the Common Market.”  It is about bloody time that this discussion moved into the 21st century.

EuroPolls
Difference between Remain and Leave votes compared to the percentage of Don’t know votes. (Polls without Don’t know votes have been removed). Source: Poll of Polls

 

No Tea in Schwarzkopf

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.

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Psi is like the thing on the right…

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.

tea
Whilst mainly a coffee drinker, occasionally there is also tea in Schwarzkopf

(* Thanks to Leonid Schneider and UK Skeptics for drawing my attention to this article)