Category Archives: cranks

#SpoofJenks day

You may have noticed a rather unusual post on this blog yesterday. The reason behind this was an attempt by science bloggers across the internet (but rather highly concentrated at UCL for some reason) to strike back at constant attacks on science by people like Simon Jenkins. He wrote this piece in the Guardian and as a result Jon Butterworth of UCL wrote this piece to spoof it. This was taken up by Nature Blogs, who wrote this article promoting Spoof Jenkins day (now updated to include 21 official Spoof Jenkins articles), which in turn made it round twitter using the hashtag #SpoofJenks. A roundup by Jon Butterworth has appeared on the Guardian, along with their own report on the matter. Of course not everyone agrees with the personal nature of some of the counterattacks, such as this blogger, who explains why he will not be spoofing Sir Simon on this occasion.

Of all the ways to get my name on a Nature webpage…


Not a Guest Post and not by Simon Jenkins

Today, I’m sure that you, like me, are appalled at the moved to besmirch my good name through the medium of twitter. No other person in the land will start their working week with a campaign by “science citizen journalists” to parody and smear their views in this callous and amateur way. Linked only by, I am reliably informed, the “hashtag” (hash indeed!) #spoofjenks. This “Spoof Jenkins Day”, my friends tell me, is apparently the result of this post by scientist Jon Butterworth on his personal website in response to this article, written, proof-read and presented on a national. After such an attack, I feel it is my right to defend my credentials and my views. If I hear of the attack getting any worse, I have friends who will wire me the offending articles and “tweets” and I shall consider my options after reading the matter.

Let us begin with my own credentials. I began my editing career in 1976 and have worked through such titles as the Evening Standard and The Times, as well as a few supplements here and there and also holding the political editorial of The Economist. I also worked on two great national institutions of international importance – the Millennium Dome and the National Trust. Adding in my work on Country Life and my many publications such as “The Times” English Style and Usage Guide, I believe I have demonstrated quite a breadth of knowledge no ‘specialised’ scientist can match. I have seen most of life from behind my newspaper desk and have commented on it for more than four decades in the virtually unregulated media of print newspapers. Some may say my earlier editorial positions have given me free reign to say what I like irrespective of the quality, but I would dispute this. It is my uncanny ability to reduce seemingly complex matters to their irreducible facts that allow my colleagues to refer to me as Simple Sir Simon.

I also have a great depth of knowledge, having engaged with science on a number of occasions. In my post at the head of the National Trust, our publications have turned to such routinely ignored matters as ley lines and where to find them. When I was at The Times, I was similarly able to promote theories ignored in mainstream science, such as the views that there was no link between HIV and AIDS, something political and religious leaders in the developed world still use to prevent the soiling of their land through the disposal of non-recyclable rubber products.

This brings us to the heart of the matter with science. Yes, it brings us all kinds of gizmos and wonders – ever clearer photographs of God’s Creation great and very small – but we already know of the complexity and beauty of the Creation. Rather than studying the Rosette Nebula on taxpayer’s time, why do they not simply enjoy the beauty of nature’s Rose in their own time? If they want to study mathematics and statistical sciences, why do they not go into economics and learn numbers the way I did? The more than 14% of GDP that comes from the financial sector needs a lot more help than the about 30% of GDP that comes from the UK science base. And remember it is the financial services that foot the bill for the 0.3% of GDP spent on science. I shudder to think what the receipts from science itself are spent on. It must be something truly disgusting for the defectors with doctorates from science to come over to use their training to produce the computer programs on which the financial sector now runs. They do try to bring over their science with them – an understanding based on cold ‘rationality’ and ’empirical evidence’. Fortunately, we economists are made of sturdier stuff and resisted that to create the financial stability we see today. They are helped by the BBC, providing a state funded pulpit from which they may preach their gospel, unlike economists, who are reduced to relying on the daily shows the BBC produce, news correspondents and an annual direct visit from the Government in their Mansion House speech.

I ask what rationality is there really in the practise and philosophy of science? To reject that which we know in order to then be able to study it again and again, which I presume is what they’re doing. The idea that if an infinite group of monkeys were given an infinite number of typewriters, one would produce all the works in the British Library is sometimes ascribed to Arthur Eddington, a scientist. If that isn’t angels dancing on the pins of needles, I don’t know what is – and that was an actual scientific experiment. Looking up things like whether the aether blows onto light, these things speak of ephemera. Consider instead the unsullied beauty of the arts, which ask the questions we need to answer, or the certainties of the Bible and great works of literature, which are our guide to the answers we seek. They involve no such musings.

Democritus, the father of science in ancient Greece, used to muse on their being two types of knowledge, the Legitimate and the Bastard. The Legitimate is the knowledge of the intellect. It is beautiful, unsullied and above all true. The Bastard knowledge is that which comes to the intellect via the imperfect senses. It is the Bastard science of materialistic empiricists that attacks me now. It is Legitimate knowledge that I use to defend myself. Not the knowledge derived by men in lab coats looking through telescopes, but knowledge passed on from the Eternal Mind through the Bible. Whoever needs to use their own mind when that one supplies all we need to know?

I do have friends, some of whom I have actually spoken to, who have in their time been practising scientists. In many cases, it was a brief flirtation – perhaps they were birdwatching late at night and their spotting scopes drifted onto the Moon for a moment – but scientists they were and so scientists I know. When I look at the full gamut of their profession – nurses, astrologists, others – I see that in every field there is something very common. Words. Made up words not found in the works of the great writers. Words that have no meaning I can discern and no meaning I feel I would want to waste time working out. Words that keep up the barrier between those who have entered the priesthood and those who remain the ley, sorry, layman outside.

This is the important point with science. It has these truths hidden behind these words that those inducted into it are told of. What else could they spend seven years of a medical degree or the first and postgraduate degrees of other fields learning at our expense? There can’t be that much to get their heads around. I have never had to stray beyond the science nor the mathematics of my schooldays in all my various careers and nor, I suspect, have they. For all the knowledge they seek we already know. Going back to Democritus, he developed an atomic theory thousands of years before Newton. His atoms had hooks and eyes, ball joints and sockets and when I look at those funny models of molecules that scientists ram down our throat through science programs every second of the day, I realise nothing has advanced since that time.

From my time at Country Life magazine to my stewardship of the Natural Trust, I have seen the agrarian nature of life. I make my toilet in the bushes that require such fertilisation and sleep under the stars in rugs my staff prepare from the wool of my own sheep. That’s fieldwork. That is living life as it was meant to be lived with the unchanging knowledge passed down from generation to generation. No Large Hadron Collider is going to change that however many Larges or Hadrons they collide.

But would they ever accept this kind of knowledge into their church? No, it is not a broad church this science. Mathematics and such techniques are well known to be human constructs, but there are other human constructs of equal importance, such as democracy – and I feel the latter is a far more noble and legitimate calling than the former. One and one make two only because the people will it to be so. When there are governments legislating on the status of the Planet Pluto, who are scientists to argue against them? They didn’t put Pluto where it is.  Similarly, when ideas are presented to scientists on internet fora or through the electronic mailman, who are they to insist on peer review and then choose amongst their own to be the peers. As a democrat, I am happy that I provided the platform for views that were unable to pass through peer review to get a wider audience with equal legitimacy. Scientists have their journals read by a select few in which papers are reviewed for so called accuracy, whereas all we have is a multimillion pound media empire reaching every corner of England, in which articles are proofread to improve their spelling. I did what I could to act responsibly and help correct this imbalance.

Even when scientists do talk to the media, it is difficult to get any sense from them. They use all these long words and then when we ask them to replace every single science term with a little box, drawing or sentence that the ordinary layman can relate to, they came back with these reams of stuff that we have to fit into two hundred words with a snappy title. They might have spent ten years preparing this press release (what do they do in that time?), but it is someone such as myself who has to present it to the public.

Even when the message is a little clearer, they have to mess things up. When a safety review of the Large Hadron Collider was carried out, there was a note saying there was a possibility that some such interaction or other (I think a Large hitting a Large) would create a black hole. The scientists talked about possibilities versus plausibilities and big numbers, but we can’t fit all that in. Now  the public know what a black hole is, so to be kind to the scientists, the media, when reporting on the LHC, pointed to that sentence and when it seemed to catch on in the people’s minds, repeated it over and again until everyone was talking about the LHC, just as the scientists wanted. Then some innocent little girl killed herself over fears arising from the matter, showing how irresponsible science is. There are many other such stories of the message peddled by science harming the public after we package it properly and present it. Perhaps it would be better if they said nothing at all.

Finally, I would like to speak of the contradictions of science. The person who runs this blog speaks of his own research into the Northern Lights. I know other scientists who are apoplectic about light pollution. It is times like this that I give thanks for the unerring Word delivered in the contradiction free Bible, the third volume of which is presently with my agent. For there is one story that stands out to me in the Bible, it is that story in Genesis, when the Lord has given Adam and Eve all they could ever want and all they could ever need. Through her acceptance of knowledge through the actions of that snake, the devil, Eve condemns the human race to exile outside of Eden. As the last Government was coming to a close and Peter Mandelson extolled the virtues of women in science, I was much minded by that eternal Truth. Not one that needs to be found, but that which has been given. That which can be found in the writings and artwork of yore, study of which can reveal all we ever need to know, all we’d ever want to know and all we ever can know. That isn’t to say we don’t need scientists at all. Occasionally a clearer look can be enlightening. One night in my field, I looked out to see these orange glows moving just below the cloud base. I had my man wire a scientist he knew to ask what they were. The scientist described something that rose aloft on the warm air released by a candle, a Chinese Lantern. But what about other possibilities, I mused. The use of the imagination rather than reasoning and so called ‘facts’, which are ever in dispute. This is how journalism and economics works. I therefore suggested to the scientist that he may have erred. That these orange glows were the presence of an alternate intelligence following and monitoring the energy of ley lines to deliver a message to Earth. I asked him whether an ancient voice from beyond, overly concerned with ley lines, could truly be repeatedly delivering esoteric messages the Earth doesn’t want to hear. He replied that at that moment the possibility had occurred to him.

For richer for poorer

As the Institute of Engineering and Technology combs the Coalition Governments words and actions for good and bad news for engineers, as reported on the CaSE Blog, Jon Butterworth is left scraping the barrel in terms of reading yet another anti-science article from the ever hysterical Simon Jenkins, and then giving him both barrels in reply.

Both [posts not barrels] should give the government encouragement that funding is required in science and technology.

UPDATE: Jon seems to have started a craze. From twitter:

lablit Monday is #SpoofJenks day. Irritated with boring attacks on science? Write a spook blogpost in style of Jenks. Please RT @alokjha @markgfh

Also another blogpost showing Jenkin’s cavaliar attitude to science is here.

UPDATE: aaaand another.

Are the knives out yet?

(by which I don’t refer to Lord Rees’s comments about the STFC having incompetent and inept leadership in this podcast, we know this, especially as one board member asked a visiting science professional what ‘Planck‘ was – the answer being one of the highest profile space telescopes that STFC members deal with, launched last year to a blaze of publicity)

The budget was published today, with savage cuts promised and quite a few delivered. But what about science? There was little direct mention of science itself, that will have to wait until the Comprehensive Spending Review, but some points were mentioned that got a cautiously good review from CaSE, albeit one tempered by the point that a decadal plan for revitalising science is now needed.

More relevant news came from an event that preceded parliament called Science and the New Parliament, which involved parliamentarians from all the main parties making promises and pledges. The review by CaSE is here.

One of the hopes of such events is to enable parliamentarians to distinguish between proper science and the siren voices that merely offer to support preexisting views. This sort of thing is the subject of a book reviewed yesterday in the Economist. An interesting point raised in the comments section of that review concentrated on how to identify anti-science masquerading as science. Taken from this link and this link the points were:

  1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
  2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
  3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
  4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
  5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
  6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

A couple of bits of history on display

Guenter Wendt was the Usher of the Apollo space capsules, the ‘Pad Leader’ and the last man the men who walked on the Moon saw before blasting off into the stars. He died on Monday morning aged 85, and to commemorate him, NASA put out this and this, oral histories, through their twitter account.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Jurassic Technology has an interesting collection in its Misch/Webster Gallery. Entitled “No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again“, Letters to The Mount Wilson Observatory 1915-1935, it displays a few dozen letters from cranks to the observatory director, explaining their possession of a new theory of everything. As I have a collection of these myself and display a few of them on here, I can quite understand the exhibition… What is most surprising is how little the letters shown online differ from their modern internet powered equivalents.

Do the oceans create the global magnetic field?

A recent report in the Sunday Times newspaper drew my attention to a new paper by a guy called Gregory Ryskin, a Chemical and Biological Engineer from the Northwestern University, Illinois, USA. The paper appeared in the New Journal of Physics, an “open access” imprint of the IoP and the German Physical Society. In it, he compares the variability of the Earth’s magnetic field as defined by the International Geophysical Reference Field and the variability of ocean currents. He notes a correspondence between the two and concludes that this could mean the oceans are the real source of the Earth’s magnetic field and that climate change, which alters global circulation, could therefore affect it.

Now there are more than a few problems with the paper itself as it stands. A lack of numerical results showing both inputs and outputs of the model (as well as a clear statement of which part of the model these relate to). A lack of a full literature search. Comparisons with other models (his is presented in isolation). The first section is really supplementary material, with the main hypotheses and equations for the model all that should be in there. But enough about that, what about the ideas themselves?

Water reacts to electrical fields as it is a polar molecule – charge up a ruler with static and put it near a running tap, you will see the water deflected by the static field. It is fully capable of influencing and even generating some level of magnetism. But quite the level suggested? Not really. The perturbations of the oceans are important enough to already be accounted for in magnetic field models, but they are just adjustments to an existing field. I don’t see, for example the Moon dragging Earth’s field round the planet over the course of a month. The spatial correlation between the strongest ocean fields and the area of greatest variation is interesting, but the reason for the ability of the ocean to affect the field there more is because the South Atlantic Anomaly is there – the area where Earth’s field is weakest is where the strongest currents are generating the strongest oceanic field.

Strength of field generated would’ve been a very interesting comparison to make, but seems to have been ignored here. Indeed the update to the online edition of the newspaper report as well as helpfully putting on the paper also put on a few quotes from skeptics including a geophysicists, Andrew Jackson from the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, who noted that the ocean currents generate a far smaller field than would be needed for the Earth. In addition to this, the Earth’s field is a very nice dipole shape. The reason for this isn’t because that’s how they generally form, but because components of the field with extra poles (quadrapole, octopole) fall off in strength faster than dipole fields, leaving a dipole shaped field outside a certain radius. In the case of the Earth, having a core generated field means most of these extra components are locked inside the Earth, with only small contributions to the outside field. In the case of Uranus, where the field is believed to be generated close to the surface (as in the ocean model), the field includes all kinds of weird effects and is much more complicated than ours.

Additionally, the morphology of the field has to be looked at. If water covers only sixty percent of the globe, how does it generate an all globe field with the weakest bit over the strongest current? The magnetic field poles are displaced from the rotational poles, but they are also offset – that is it isn’t quite in the centre (which is why there is a weaker field in the South Atlantic, which is where the field drops inside the Earth a little). How does this correlate to the oceans? Finally, even if the oceans do generate an effective sphere of field generation at sea level, this would preclude the field from existing below sea level. So the ocean floors would not hold an imprint of the field as it was when they formed and spread – but they do. The field must therefore be coming from beneath them as electric spheres tend to cancel out internal fields.

Finally, as Kathy Whaler of Edinburgh University mentions in updates to the article, the model of hydrodynamical flow in the core of the Earth is well founded in a number of ways. In this paper it is suggested only the variation of the field has ever been used as proof – which is simply a lie. Seismology has indicated the existence of an outer fluid core and variations in the Earth’s day and orbit are consistent with it moving around with something heavy and iron wobbling around inside the planet.

So in short, we know that the oceans do affect the global magnetic field, so it is unsurprising that there is some correlation between their circulation and variations in the field, but it’ll take some time to convince anyone that they could generate a field of the type we see associated with the Earth.

To put it even shorter, I wonder why the New Journal of Physics (and therefore the Institute of Physics) published this?

Another reputable physics journal?

When I received emails from a physics journal offering publication in journals relating to various fields of physics for a price, my response was to put a post on here. Another student who received emails from another such set of journals decided to test how reputable they actually were. Philip Davies, a graduate student at Cornell University received emails from Bentham Science Publishers. Seeing he was being offered publication in fields outside of his expertise, he used a computer program called SCIgen to create a nonsensical paper that he then sent in to the publishers. Normally, a real peer reviewed journal would send papers to reviewers, who will pass judgment on whether or not the advances are sufficient to merit publication. Davies believed the services offered in the email were in fact a form of vanity publishing, whereby money is paid to publish and no checks on quality made. Sure enough, as he reported in the Scholarly Kitchen blog, the paper was accepted. All this despite the acronym of his supposed research institution – Center for Research in Applied Phrenology, or CRAP.

As New Scientist reported, this isn’t the first time such methods have been used to test entry qualifications for journals and conferences advertised by email. Though this article may well not be making an appearance in any future publications, it certainly gets the point many a scientist would like to make through.

Bentham themselves say that they realised this was a hoax and wanted to get the name of the hoaxer through pretending to accept the article. Davies wonders why they didn’t just ask him and I wonder, given the large amount of hoaxes journals do have to put up with as well as the large volume of traffic in a journal, why they would do this anyway. It seems they will not be doing it in the future however, as New Scientist now reports, the editor in chief has been sacked as a result. He mentioned that the explanation of trying to solicit the name of the hoaxers was news to him and suggested in his letter of resignation that all editorial decisions on publication transferred to the science editors…