Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Google funded study implies that Google Trends is a valid and rigorous behavioural indicator

January 8, 2014

I find that this disclaimer at the end of this study effectively invalidates the method of the study and its results.

This project was supported by a grant from 2012, although played no role in designing or conducting this study.

The results of the study (that more people searched for health issues on Google during the recession) are trivial and – with the best will in the world – of little value except for providing a plug for Google Search and Google Trends. Of course a Google Trend means something but to imply – as this study does – that a Google Trend for selected search items  is a rigorous and valid representation of a human behavioural pattern is more than a little fanciful.

Benjamin M. Althouse et al, Population Health Concerns During the United States’ Great Recession, Am J Prev Med 2014;46(2):166–170

Press Release: 

The group examined Americans’ Google search patterns and discovered that during the recent Great Recession, people searched considerably more frequently for information about health ailments. The kinds of problems indicated by the queries weren’t life threatening, but they could keep someone in the bed a few days, like ulcers, headaches, and back pain. 

In total, the team found there were more than 200 million excess queries of this kind during the Great Recession than expected.

“While it’s impossible to uncover the motives for increased searches, they likely indicate a person being ill, and ill enough to seek out online information or remedies,” Ayers said. The same group previously published a report showing that queries for anxiety and depression also increased substantially during the Great Recession.

The authors themselves write:

google search

Without first a study on whether the usage of Google search is actually representative of any part of the population, and whether a trend in such usage permits conclusions regarding the motives for such usage, this study is little more than an advertisement for Google Search and Google Trends.

Just as with Facebook surveys and profound conclusions, I am not at all sure that this “study” can even be considered science  - let alone good science. It is published  - believe it or not – in a journal of preventive medicine,  but it has little to do with medicine and more to do with PR and  Google’s image.

Nature/Turney defend the Ship of Fools and their Antarctic pleasure cruise

January 7, 2014

Chris Turney, his global warming pilgrims (called scientists), his pet journalists and his tourists are due to reach Tasmania on 22nd January after being “rescued” (from what?) after their chartered ship Akademik Shokalskiy (ice-strengthened but no icebreaker) was trapped in the Antarctic ice on December 24th.

Nature (much to their discredit) have hurriedly published a defence by Chris Turney of his tourist trip on his Ship of Fools.  It amazes me that Nature would – so quickly – publish such an obviously self-serving and narcissistic article. Almost as if they had a higher agenda of defending the larger global warming community so grievously opened up to ridicule by Turney and his tourists.

“It was no pleasure cruise” he whines (though he seems to have taken his family along for this jaunt). He claims the ship was an icebreaker - which it was not – and that the event could not have been anticipated  - which it could. He claims to have advanced the frontiers of science – which is mere hyperbole. He even tries to take credit for rekindling public interest! 

“… the value of our expedition must be judged by the quality of the research it always intended to produce, and the remarkable rekindling of public interest in science and exploration that has come with it”.

But his attempt to salvage something from his PR disaster does not go down well judging by some of the comments that his self-serving “defence” elicits:

Roger Corbett 2014-01-07 04:46 AM

How does a couple of hours shoveling snow to get inside Mawson’s Huts reported at the time by Professor Turney become “important conservation work” a few days later? When he is trying to boost the scientific credentials of a tourism exercise. When you are in a hole, stop digging. These little exaggerations add up to make it hard to believe the bigger things. “Never before has a science expedition reached out live to so many people from such a remote location”….er, “one small step for a man…” It’s a definite pattern in the accounts coming from the AAE-2 people. Reading as much as I can, I conclude that the tourism activities delayed return to the ship, despite increasing concern from the ship’s Master. The claims that the weather closed in so suddenly and unexpectedly by Professor Turney are exaggerated (like so many things he says and writes), either to deliberately deflect from his responsibilities as tour leader, or because ego doesn’t allow him to admit it even to himself.

Charles Rotter 2014-01-07 12:41 AM

…  I have been following the writings of the various blogs documenting this trip, and as far as I can tell, the only scientific discovery/conclusion/finding you have documented so far is that, if the food source for a population of penguins becomes much harder to reach due to added physical obstacles, then that penguin population will probably reduce in number. I am in awe at this insight.

Richard Tol 2014-01-06 04:09 PM

The way it turned out, this was indeed no pleasure cruise. At the same time, Chris Turney has yet to answer questions about the research purpose of this expedition. The Spirit of Mawson website is vague and many of the aims listed there cannot be achieved by a single, short trip. The successes listed above are from the first leg of the trip, rather than from the now-infamous second leg. If the second leg aimed to launch Argo floats, why did it sail on? And why were there so many people on board? There were 18 PhD students on the expedition. Only 6 have a research connection with Antarctica (the other 12 studying the North Atlantic, Australia’s coastal waters, brain injury, Iceland, New Zealand’s North Island, urban climates, pedagogy, the Equatorial Undercurrent, pharmaceuticals, time series statistics, microbiology, and Siberia), but only one of those has an obvious reason to visit Mawson’s Huts and even she would have collected more data in the same time had she flown there. Forgive me for asking, what research purposes were served by this expedition? Was this really the best way to spend the available funds?

NSA covers less than 10% of the world’s mobile communications!

December 5, 2013

It’s only arithmetic!

The NSA has much room for improvement and probably needs to increase its budget by a factor of 10.

  1. The National Security Agency is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.
  2. The ITU expects the number of cell phone accounts to rise from 6 billion now to 7.3 billion in 2014, compared with a global population of 7 billion.
  3. (NSA) records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices.
  4. People make, receive or avoid 22 phone calls every day.
  5. The NSA has a budget (secret) of about $52 billion (estimate).

Number of records available to be spied on = 6 billion x 22 /2 = 66 billion.

Five billion records may seem like a big number but it is not as comprehensive as one would expect to see from anybody aspiring to be “Big Brother”. The NSA records only 7.58% of the world’s mobile communications.

If the NSA (and Obama)  truly aspire to being the “Big Brother” of this Brave New World, they are going to have to step up their game. They need to increase their surveillance of mobile communications by at least a factor of 10. Moreover they need to start recording more of the content and not just the location of these devices.

Clearly the NSA needs a budget of about $500 billion per year just to come close to this goal!

Will buying “likes” on Facebook and Twitter translate into votes?

November 29, 2013

Perception can be reality. And fake “likes” are being used to generate fake perceptions of popularity and goodness. Whether humans are dumb enough to be taken in by fake perceptions and whether perceptions can be converted into real voters and customers remains to be seen.

The assumption within the public relations and advertising industry is that  buying “likes” on social media actually leads to some advantage for the person/thing/company being liked. Clearly some companies perceive “likes” as being an effective – if unproven -advertising form. There seems to be no shortage of people offering ways of buying and boosting “likes”. Offers are readily available to arrange “2000 Facebook likes for only $17, or 5000 for $35 or 100,000 for $500″. Carlo De Micheli and Andrea Stroppa have been looking at Twitter and the underground market

De Micheli and Stroppa

De Micheli and Stroppa


We estimated fake accounts make up for 4% of Twitter’s user base

Does this make sense?

  • Facebook makes it harder to create fake accounts yet openly declares: “As of June 30, 2012, we estimate user-misclassified accounts may have represented approximately 2.4% of our worldwide MAUs and undesirable accounts may have represented approximately 1.5% of our worldwide MAUs. 
  • Every account can follow up to 2000 people. 
  • By statistically excluding overlapping fake accounts, just on the 12 main marketplaces (Fiverr, SeoClerks, InterTwitter, FanMeNow, LikedSocial, SocialPresence, SocializeUk,  ViralMediaBoost), it turns out there are around 20M fake followers on sale right now. 
  • Followers are sold at an average price of $18/1000 followers (barracudalabs). 
  • Sellers can make between $2 and $36 per fake account 
  • Multiplying it out definitely shows a multi-million-dollar market

Apart from entertainment figures wanting to boost their apparent popularity, the buying of “likes” has now become a routine matter for politicians facing elections. They are relying on the herd mentality to lead  to an increase of votes in their favour. The risk they take is that humans – when acting as a mob or a herd – don’t like acknowledging or being accused of acting like dumb animals. But the risk of this backlash is being taken as being small. Politicians in India are now all rushing to buy “likes” – as just another legitimate advertising ploy. They have been paying for favourable articles about themselves and negative articles about their opponents in the print media for many years. But even the most socially illiterate politicians – who wouldn’t know a tweet from a twit – are spending a great deal of money to be able to show huge numbers of “likes”!

What part fake likes and dislikes are going to have in the Delhi elections next week and the national elections next year, remains to be seen. It could be quite effective in a city like Delhi where the penetration of social media among the new urban population is high  but among whom political awareness is still relatively new.

FirstPostIn a new sting operation, Cobrapost has revealed how certain IT companies in India are working to manipulate social media campaigns by buying fake FB likes and followers on Twitter, and running negative campaigns against rivals of their clients and also engaging in creating panic among minority groups. The report states that the most of these companies are working on the behest of BJP and Modi, but also work for Congress sometimes, and in addition manage campaigns for multinational firms, corporations etc as well. …….  In a statement to Firstpost, Facebook said that where fake likes and profiles are concerned, “It’s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this.

CobrapostOperation Blue Virus also makes certain stunning revelations. If the claims of the companies exposed are to be believed, among political parties, BJP is at the forefront in social media campaign, so is its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, with scores of companies working overtime for him. This puts a question mark on the claims of the BJP leadership that there is a wind blowing in favour of their party and Narendra Modi. The larger-than-life-image that Team Modi has assiduously carved out for Modi over the past one decade may not be that real, rather invented, and is reminiscent of the Goebbellian propaganda, to sway the opinion of gullible public. It is no surprise then that even a milder criticism of the BJP’s star campaigner invites scathing attacks from his followers on social media, claimed to be in millions in count. 

Paul Joseph Goebbels would have been in his element.


A liking for alcohol is genetic

November 28, 2013

Yet another paper which purports to show that bad behaviour is due to genetic compulsions. In this case a faulty gene is supposed to cause compulsive consumption of alcohol. If all bad behaviour can be shown to be due to genetic compulsions, it follows that nobody can be held accountable for their behaviour.

The press release is from Newcastle University but the researchers come from five universities. It is a 10 year project funded by the Medical Research Council to study genetic effects on alcohol dependence. “.. we don’t understand about how and why consumption progresses into addiction, but the results of this long-running project suggest that, in some individuals, there may be a genetic component”  says Professor Hugh Perry (MRC), “…. it could help us to identify those most at risk of developing an addiction and ensure they receive the most effective treatment.”

Genetic screening of the foetus and abortion of the alcoholicly inclined perhaps! Prevention being better than an impossible cure.

Quentin M. Anstee, Susanne Knapp, Edward P. Maguire, Alastair M. Hosie, Philip Thomas, Martin Mortensen, Rohan Bhome, Alonso Martinez, Sophie E. Walker, Claire I. Dixon, Kush Ruparelia, Sara Montagnese, Yu-Ting Kuo, Amy Herlihy, Jimmy D. Bell, Iain Robinson, Irene Guerrini, Andrew McQuillin, Elizabeth M.C. Fisher, Mark A. Ungless, Hugh M.D. Gurling, Marsha Y. Morgan, Steve D.M. Brown, David N. Stephens, Delia Belelli, Jeremy J. Lambert, Trevor G. Smart, Howard C. ThomasMutations in the Gabrb1 gene promote alcohol consumption through increased tonic inhibitionNature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI:10.1038/ncomms3816

Newcastle University Press Release

Researchers have discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and when faulty can cause excessive drinking. They have also identified the mechanism underlying this phenomenon.

The study showed that normal mice show no interest in alcohol and drink little or no alcohol when offered a free choice between a bottle of water and a bottle of diluted alcohol.

However, mice with a genetic mutation to the gene Gabrb1 overwhelmingly preferred drinking alcohol over water, choosing to consume almost 85% of their daily fluid as drinks containing alcohol – about the strength of wine.

The consortium of researchers from five UK universities – Newcastle University, Imperial College London,  Sussex University, University College London and University of Dundee – and the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit at Harwell, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust and ERAB, publish their findings today in Nature Communications.

Dr Quentin Anstee, Consultant Hepatologist at Newcastle University, joint lead author said: “It’s amazing to think that a small change in the code for just one gene can have such profound effects on complex behaviours like alcohol consumption.

“We are continuing our work to establish whether the gene has a similar influence in humans, though we know that in people alcoholism is much more complicated as environmental factors come into play. But there is the real potential for this to guide development of better treatments for alcoholism in the future.”

…. a team led by Professor Howard Thomas from Imperial College London introduced subtle mutations into the genetic code at random throughout the genome and tested mice for alcohol preference. This led the researchers to identify the gene Gabrb1 which changes alcohol preference so strongly that mice carrying either of two single base-pair point mutations in this gene preferred drinking alcohol (10% ethanol v/v – about the strength of wine), over water.

The group showed that mice carrying this mutation were willing to work to obtain the alcohol-containing drink by pushing a lever and, unlike normal mice, continued to do so even over long periods. They would voluntarily consume sufficient alcohol in an hour to become intoxicated and even have difficulty in coordinating their movements.

So my preference for scotch rather than Newcastle Brown Ale is probably also genetic!.

India Mars Orbiter Mission Update – 14th November and ISRO is silent

November 14, 2013

In spite of a great deal of ballyhoo about ISRO’s heightened and improved publicity, their website is remarkably short of information or updates. There has been nothing new since they reported that the earth orbit correction had succeeded and that was 48 hours ago. They have not even put out a revised mission plan. No doubt they have to be a typical Indian Government bureaucratic organisation but they have much to learn about public relations. They are still stuck in the paradigm of “No news is good news” and haven’t quite realised that “No news, when news is expected, is bad news”.

I would have thought that they could at least have put out a daily bulletin. The long silence from ISRO suggests that something may be amiss. (The FB page contains virtually no forward looking information – except the pre-mission plans and photographs). 

Indian science journalists apparently just wait for official press releases and have no updates and little background to offer. Their lack of pro-active coverage and apparent lack of interest leaves much to be desired.

The next scheduled burn is supposed to be on 18th November (according to the original mission plan) to raise the orbit (apogee) to about 200,000km. That would then be sufficient for the injection into a Trans-Mars trajectory with the scheduled sixth burn (actually seventh including the corrective burn 2 days ago). But the mission plan must have been revised. Yet ISRO has not released any information. I can understand their fear of putting out a plan and not being able to keep to it but they will one day realise that being up-front with the plan and its critical parts for an R & D program is by far the best way of keeping on top of communications. And in keeping messages on track.

In the meantime the ToI reports that:

After having successfully tackled a momentary glitch in Mangalyaan’s orbital manoeuvres on Monday, Isro scientists have postponed a crucial exercise. The exercise is to test the five instruments aboard the Mangalyaan before the orbiter embarks on its long journey to Mars in early December. The instruments were to be activated on Monday this week for a brief while to ensure that they work fine. But this procedure will now be carried out next week.

I have been trying to follow the mission via the live satellite tracking websites ( and but I am a little dubious as to how “live” they actually are. I noted that after the corrective burn 48 hours ago, both sites took almost 24 hours before they showed any change to the orbit.

Right now satview is showing a position over Africa at an altitude over 100,000 km but this data needs to be taken with a pinch or two of salt.

Live track Mars Orbiter

Live track Mars Orbiter also shows the same position and gives the following data. Note that both sites give the same location and now also give much the same altitude. They do not match on “speed”. Satview gives a speed of about 4149km/h which is about 1.15km/s whereas n2yo gives a “speed” of 6.9 km/s. I am not quite sure what “speed” is being reported.


SPEED [km/s]:
SPEED [mi/s]:
14h 45m 32s
17° 1′ 12”
The satellite is in day light
PERIOD:  1434m


Science journalism by press release -”New ligament found in the knee” – Yes back in 1879!

November 10, 2013

Last week every Science section in every major newspaper reported the discovery of a new ligament in the knee! Every science site carried the astonishing news in breathless tones of wonder! I almost wrote about it since my son had had his knee ligament reconstructed a few years ago after a volleyball accident. But I couldn’t get access to one of the references and I didn’t – thank goodness!

To put it mildly the “newness” of the discovery was all a load of bulls**t.

The body part in question had been discovered in 1879! A new paper had been written about this ligament and published on 1st August. But their University had only issued a press release last week. And not one of the very many science “journalists” looked beyond the press release and had bothered to read the very first line of the paper abstract which stated “In 1879, the French surgeon Segond described the existence of a ‘pearly, resistant, fibrous band’ at the anterolateral aspect of the human knee…” . Instead they went to town with their headlines as this simple Google search shows (About 29,200,000 results in 0.32 seconds) 

Science journalism by infectious press release!

Paul Raeburn’s take-down is as comprehensive as needed and is reproduced here:

 It was startling news, but an easy story to write: Scientists have discovered a new body part! Amazing, isn’t it, that something could have eluded us since the time of Hippocrates?

Well, it would be amazing, except for one little detail, a detail so trivial I’m embarrassed to bring it up: It isn’t true.

But, hey, it’s an unusually warm Thursday in New York, I’m feeling good about life, so let’s give the journalists who bungled this story a break.

Why? Because in order to discover that the story wasn’t true, they would have had to dig down all the way to the very first line of the study’s abstract, which says, “In 1879, the French surgeon Segond described the existence of a ‘pearly, resistant, fibrous band’ at the anterolateral aspect of the human knee…”

That’s the body part in question, as journalists who even glanced at the abstract would have known. The darn thing was discovered 134 years ago.

USA Today‘s story, headlined, “New body part discovered,” reports that the new study confirmed the existence of the thing, called the anterolateral ligament, or ALL. The story then says that in Segond had “speculated” about the ligament, when the abstract clearly says that he “described” it. (Please excuse the annoying overuse of italics, but it’s hard to write normally when you’re grinding your teeth.)

Gizmodo‘s story: “It may sound impossible but scientists have discovered a new body part.”

Vanity Fair: “Newly Discovered Body Part Means New Sections of WebMD to Memorize!” Funny, right?

TIME: “Your Knee Bone’s Connected to Your…What? Scientists Discover New Body Part.” This story has the virtue of consistency. Unlike some of the others, it’s wrong all the way through. Congrats, people! Segond, TIME writes, “theorized” that the knee might have another ligament. “Surgeons Discover New Ligament in Human Knee.” The story reports that the study’s authors “looked into a theory made by a French surgeon in 1879, which claimed that an unknown ligament existed on the anterior of the human knee.” Well, what was it–a theory, or a claim? Prospectors can theorize about the location of gold deposits, but that falls far short of staking a claim. “Doctors find totally new, undiscovered part of the human body.” MsnNow also reports that the Anatomical Society found this discovery “very refreshing.”

I’ll spare you any further examples, but here’s the catch: This study was published online on Aug 1, 2013. Why the sudden pickup now?

Apparently because the University of Leuven in Belgium, where the study’s authors work, put out a press release this week. The release sadly lacks TIME’s sparkling consistency. Its headline reports that surgeons described the ligament, which is–gasp!–correct. (The release still wrongly calls it a “new” ligament, as Ed Yong pointed out to me.) But the release’s author can’t help but go further in the text. The French surgeon “postulated” the existence of the ligament, it says. Wrong again; he described it.

That release was picked up by ScienceDaily, a press-release aggregator that masquerades as a news site, and which mangled the news further. “New ligament discovered in the human knee,” the headline reports. “Two knee surgeons at University Hospitals Leuven have discovered a previously unknown ligament in the human knee…” the story begins. ScienceDaily parrots the release’s “postulated.” And just for fun, ScienceDaily describes the new study as something “that could signal a breakthrough” in treatment of ACL injuries in the knee.

Only a single ray of hope penetrated my day, which had started out hopeful and turned so depressingly dark. The website io9 (“We come from the future”) got it right. “No,” its headline read, “science has not discovered a new body part.” The stories, it writes with admirable clarity, are “all crap.” It even links to the original French paper, where, if you’re so inclined, you can read about des ligaments dans le genou.

Moi, I’m heading to yoga; I don’t know how else to unclench my jaw.

-Paul Raeburn

A quick fix for plagiarism

November 8, 2013

It doesn’t seem right. In fact it sounds like an abdication of responsibilities and like covering up a crime if and when the crime is discovered.

But it also sounds a simple fix. A stroke of genius – somewhat crooked but very clever. Just eliminate the plagiarism by punctuation!

If accused of plagiarism, just put the impugned text within quotation marks!

Retraction Watch has the story:

PNAS has a curious correction in a recent issue. A group from Toronto and Mount Sinai in New York, it seems, had been rather too liberal in their use of text from a previously published paper by another researcher — what we might call plagiarism, in a less charitable mood.

To paraphrase Beyoncé: If you like it, better put some quotation marks around it. But we’re pretty sure she meant before, not after, the fact.

The article, “Structural basis for substrate specificity and catalysis of human histone acetyltransferase 1,” had appeared in May 2012, in other words, some 17 months ago. It has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.


Parthun is Mark Parthun, a professor at Ohio State University. It was he who brought the misused text to PNAS’s attention. He tells us:

I read this paper with great interest because my lab also studies the Hat1 enzyme.  While reading this, a number of the passages in the Introduction and Discussion sections started to sound very familiar.  These passages were familiar because they were plagiarized from a review article I had published earlier (Parthun, M.R. Oncogene 26:5319–5328, 2007).  I also found some sentences that were plagiarized from another manuscript from another lab (Campos, et al, NSMB 2010).  I brought this plagiarism to the attention of the editors at PNAS and suggested that this manuscript be retracted.  After more than a year, PNAS published a correction (  This correction lists all of the passages that were plagiarized and simply says that they should have had quotation marks around them.  This seems like a woefully inadequate response.  PNAS has essentially made plagiarism irrelevant because if you are caught, all you have to do is retroactively say that you should have used quotations.  Is this a common practice with journals.  I hope not because I think this represents a serious step in the erosion of scientific ethics.


We asked Daniel Salisbury, a PNAS editor, why the journal opted to correct rather than retract the paper. This was his reply:

In light of recent concerns from the author of the plagiarized text, we are following up with the PNAS authors’ institution.

Parthun, who said he received a similar message, was not impressed:

My problem with his response [is] that they are simply passing the buck.  I would have thought that PNAS had the ultimate responsibility for the manuscripts that it publishes.  I don’t understand why they need Mount Sinai to tell them when something is improper.

To which we say, we agree.

We’ve emailed Plotnikov for comment and will update this post if we hear from him. Meanwhile, although we think there might be room in science publishing for correcting improperly attributed text, an instance of multiple examples of frank plagiarism such as this probably isn’t the test case.

Has Facebook reinstated beheading videos for the NSA or just for revenue – or for both?

October 23, 2013

That Facebook allows NSA access to all its material has become clear from the Snowden leaks.

In addition to phone records and email logs, the National Security Agency uses Facebook and other social media profiles to create maps of social connections — including those of American citizens.

That beheading and other videos with gratuitous violence are often uploaded on  Facebook is apparent (and whichever way Facebook twists and turns it is equally apparent that they must stand as the publishers – if not the authors – of such material). That much of the uploaded material is faked is also apparent (especially from areas of conflict). It is the gratuitous violence which attracts the voyeuristic surfers like a crowd gathering at the scene of a bloody incident. The sight of vultures gathering at the carcass of a kill attract even more scavengers of all kinds. It is the gatherings of the crowds which increases the revenue generating traffic for Facebook.

The more bloodstains on the road the larger the crowd of ghouls who gather. But among the ghouls are also perpetrators returning to the scene of their crimes where the “incident” was not just an accident. And that interests the NSA.

Why then has Facebook removed its ban on such material? There are very few voices supporting the move.

Who gains? Why the NSA and Facebook. The NSA needs material to mine in its search for the “bad” guys. And people who behead others or fake such pictures or are inspired by such material are of special interest. And Facebook wants the revenues.

ArsTechnicaFacebook said that overall, it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from authorities in the second half of 2012, pertaining to between 18,000 and 19,000 individual Facebook accounts. …. By the end of July 2013, we learned directly from an FISC judge that no corporation ever served with a “business record” court order under the Patriot Act has ever challenged one. This is despite the fact that the law provides them a means to do so.

Judging by what Facebook does – and not by what it says – also suggests that they are a lot closer to the NSA than they would like their users to know.

Beforeitsnews: About a year after Facebook reportedly joined PRISM, Max Kelly, the social network’s chief security officer left for a job at the National Security Agency, either a curious career move or one that makes complete sense. The Chief Security Officer at a tech company is primarily concerned with keeping its information inside the company. Now working for an agency that tries to gather as much information as it can, Kelly’s new job is sort of a complete reversal.

And it does not matter where in the world you are. If you are on Facebook your information is in a security agency’s database somewhere. It may not have been flagged as being of special interest but it’s there. If not at the NSA then surely at GCHQ or with the Germans or with the Russian agencies. Even if meta-data is only kept for some limited period of time – once your existence has been registered it can never be deregistered. And if the initial data was “flagged” for any reason then that individual will forever be under surveillance.

Science is losing its ability to self-correct

October 20, 2013

With the explosion in the number of researchers, the increasing rush to publication and the corresponding explosion in traditional and on-line journals as avenues of publication, The Economist carries an interesting article making the point that the assumption that science is self-correcting is under extreme pressure. “There is no cost to getting things wrong,” says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who has taken an interest in his discipline’s persistent errors. “The cost is not getting them published.”

The field of psychology and especially social psychology has been much in the news with the dangers of “priming”.

“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

It is not just “soft” fields which have problems. It is apparent that in medicine a large number of published results cannot be replicated

… irreproducibility is much more widespread. A few years ago scientists at Amgen, an American drug company, tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer, often co-operating closely with the original researchers to ensure that their experimental technique matched the one used first time round. According to a piece they wrote last year in Nature, a leading scientific journal, they were able to reproduce the original results in just six. Months earlier Florian Prinz and his colleagues at Bayer HealthCare, a German pharmaceutical giant, reported in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, a sister journal, that they had successfully reproduced the published results in just a quarter of 67 seminal studies.

The governments of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, spent $59 billion on biomedical research in 2012, nearly double the figure in 2000. One of the justifications for this is that basic-science results provided by governments form the basis for private drug-development work. If companies cannot rely on academic research, that reasoning breaks down. When an official at America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) reckons, despairingly, that researchers would find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters of all published biomedical findings, the public part of the process seems to have failed.

It is not just that research results cannot be replicated. So much of what is published is just plain wrong and the belief that science is self-correcting is itself under pressure

Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong. But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think. …… Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or others appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A career structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems. “There is no cost to getting things wrong,” says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who has taken an interest in his discipline’s persistent errors. “The cost is not getting them published.” 

…… In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one such paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, “most published research findings are probably false.” 

The tendency to only publish positive results leads also to statistics being skewed to allow results to be shown as being poitive

The negative results are much more trustworthy; …….. But researchers and the journals in which they publish are not very interested in negative results. They prefer to accentuate the positive, and thus the error-prone. Negative results account for just 10-30% of published scientific literature, depending on the discipline. This bias may be growing. A study of 4,600 papers from across the sciences conducted by Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh found that the proportion of negative results dropped from 30% to 14% between 1990 and 2007. Lesley Yellowlees, president of Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, has published more than 100 papers. She remembers only one that reported a negative result.

…. Other data-heavy disciplines face similar challenges. Models which can be “tuned” in many different ways give researchers more scope to perceive a pattern where none exists. According to some estimates, three-quarters of published scientific papers in the field of machine learning are bunk because of this “overfitting”

The idea of peer-review being some kind of a quality check of the results being published is grossly optimistic

The idea that there are a lot of uncorrected flaws in published studies may seem hard to square with the fact that almost all of them will have been through peer-review. This sort of scrutiny by disinterested experts—acting out of a sense of professional obligation, rather than for pay—is often said to make the scientific literature particularly reliable. In practice it is poor at detecting many types of error.

John Bohannon, a biologist at Harvard, recently submitted a pseudonymous paper on the effects of a chemical derived from lichen on cancer cells to 304 journals describing themselves as using peer review. An unusual move; but it was an unusual paper, concocted wholesale and stuffed with clangers in study design, analysis and interpretation of results. Receiving this dog’s dinner from a fictitious researcher at a made up university, 157 of the journals accepted it for publication. ….

……. As well as not spotting things they ought to spot, there is a lot that peer reviewers do not even try to check. They do not typically re-analyse the data presented from scratch, contenting themselves with a sense that the authors’ analysis is properly conceived. And they cannot be expected to spot deliberate falsifications if they are carried out with a modicum of subtlety.

Fraud is very likely second to incompetence in generating erroneous results, though it is hard to tell for certain. 

And then there is the issue that all results from Big Science can never be replicated because the cost of the initial work is so high. Medical research or clinical trials are also extremely expensive. Journals have no great interest to publish replications (even when they are negative). And then, to compound the issue, those who provide funding are less likely to extend funding merely for replication or for negative results.

People who pay for science, though, do not seem seized by a desire for improvement in this area. Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, says proposals for replication studies “in all likelihood would be turned down” because of the agency’s focus on pioneering work. James Ulvestad, who heads the division of astronomical sciences at America’s National Science Foundation, says the independent “merit panels” that make grant decisions “tend not to put research that seeks to reproduce previous results at or near the top of their priority lists”. Douglas Kell of Research Councils UK, which oversees Britain’s publicly funded research argues that current procedures do at least tackle the problem of bias towards positive results: “If you do the experiment and find nothing, the grant will nonetheless be judged more highly if you publish.” 

Trouble at the lab 

The rubbish will only decline when there is a cost to publishing shoddy work which outweighs the gains of adding to a researcher’s list of publications. At some point researchers will need to be held liable and accountable for their products (their publications). Not just for fraud or misconduct but even for negligence or gross negligence when they do not carry out their work using the best available practices of the field. These are standards that some (but not all) professionals are held to and there should be no academic researcher who is not also subject to such a standard. If peer-review is to recover some of its lost credibility then anonymous reviews must disappear and reviewers must be much more explicit about what they have checked and what they have not.


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