Join Fencing – See the World! Be ashamed to be British?

The Hungarian woman played beautifully, whilst slowly turning her romantic eyes to mine, trying to bestow the love of the piano on her unpromising novice. Maybe her expectations were too high or her manner a bit too impatient because the next thing I remember was running terrified from the room.

I was happier with my first fencing teacher, and it wasn’t a co-incidence that they were both Hungarian. The death of my father’s and grandmother’s hero Joseph Stalin gave Hungary the hope of a successful uprising, and led to my tutors fleeing to the UK.

Professor Moldavanyi also had a certain strictness about him. He would straighten up in front of you, with a second little emphatic straightening as he pushed his fingers back through his hair, which as a teenager he must have seen Hitler do in the newsreels, as I was to notice later. Or maybe everyone born in the Austro-Hungarian empire did that. But then Acos would slowly beam at you, and ask you something you didn’t quite know how to answer, and smile benignly again at your confusion. I learned my fencing rhythms from him, and also learned that I could like and be liked by someone who had earned the Iron Cross on the eastern front. He’d got it for being blown up riding a motorbike in the siege of Budapest, and also for his administrative work as an adjutant; let’s hope it was that.

By 1970 he had been asked to organise the world masters’ fencing championship –for teachers of fencing, rather than just old stars, though of course some were both– and he’d asked me to help.

Armband for assistant to 1970 World Masters Fencing championships

My armband! Still shiny!

It was at Crystal Palace, which of course was no longer there. One advantage of being a glorified greenhouse was that the cover for the Great Exhibition of 1851 was portable. After celebrating the peak excellence of the Empire in the middle of its ‘best’ century, between transporting some of my family and stamping out the Indian “Mutiny”, it was moved somewhere less important and emptier: south-east London, where Mr Jenkins, my master in charge of fencing, had watched it burn down the year Kipling died and Hitler hosted the Olympics (and a mere 34 years prior to 1970). How could something made of glass and metal burn? Merrily, it seems! Like Manderley: spectacularly at night.

Was it this that inspired me to ask one competitor to observe the No Smoking rule? He was a thin version of Colonel Custer. His wife had a tiny shiny red paper star stuck on her cheek below her eye. They were from San Francisco. They didn’t respect my authority.

My main duty was message-taking, but my main activity was watching. My most intense memory was a sabre fight between a Swiss and the giant Bulgarian later-to-be-presidential-candidate and rumoured-to-be-spy: George Ganchev. George’s opponent had angered him with a hard hit. In sabre you are allowed to slash, but it’s supposed to be fairly delicate. Years later, George told me, with a smile: “I am either smiling or punching!” With his mask on I couldn’t see if he was smiling in that fight but he and his opponent were whipping each other so hard I expect you could hear the blows in the car-park.

The stars were the Italians. Their main maestro was Maestri – by now apparently built around the waist for comfort rather than speed, yet he still slipped the surly bonds of middle-age, and danced the piste on laughter-silv’rd feet. It wasn’t un-manly. Or at least not too much. One felt and almost saw the ribbon of the pageant of Italian cultural excellence curling from his watching team to him as he flicked and floated up and down the piste, and back to them in unpretentious but super-cool triumph.

I have no memories of Bob Anderson who I’m sure would have been there, and who later stunted as Darth Vader. But on Radio 4’s Brief Lives, someone called Leon Hill recalled his memories of Bob. I do remember Leon Hill.

I remember him occasionally plonking his feet along the piste like he was trying them on new that day and for some reason had to wear Frankenstein boots with extra weights in them. I remember trying at the time to imagine WTF the Italians must have thought, watching this appalling apparition! I now realise they must have been thinking: What accursed process could throw up this great god of clumsy artless incompetence either as one of the most valued coaches, or as a top performer amongst UK coaches??!? Of course successful Italians know very well the styles in which Things Get Done in the world, but even they must have been shocked, even though their own country was not involved. I was disgusted. I watched Hill vs Maestri at two or three different weapons. It was horrific but irresistibly fascinating. It was like watching The Queen get beheaded over and over again.

Back at school I started prancing around on the piste myself. Mr Jenkins expressed disapproval on seeing me doing this in a match, but I explained I was just doing what Muhammed Ali did. Didn’t occur to me to mention Maestri though Mr Jenkins wouldn’t have heard of him anyway.

Twenty-odd years later I was embarking on my own coaching career and needed some basic qualification for insurance purposes. Within four years, two pupils I’d introduced to fencing would reach the U-16 national finals, and my 9-yr-old would arguably become the best of his age in the country.

Not too surprising: teaching was my family trade, and I’d had excellent training from many coaches.
I’d done this… I’d won that, all over the place. But that day, my opponent was the British Academy of Fencing – the national body for British coaching professionals.

On the first day of the weekend training course we all met up. In one corner was the estimable Steve Roose and the Bournimiszcas. Over on the other side, including three stalwart fencers and progressing coaches I got on well with, was an otherwise largely unimpressive accumulation of self-important members of the BAF. It did not include the initially very useful and appreciative but sometimes very nasty John Fairhall my epee coach who had recently died, nor the wonderful and talented Zemek Wocziekovski, nor my foil coaches the Goodalls, nor Jes Smith, nor Alan Skipp who mysteriously but tellingly was being encouraged by the amateur side of fencing to develop a parallel training organisation.

I was to be taken through the basic epee coaching course by… Leon Hill.

About a tenth of the way through the course he announced to me that I wasn’t good enough to pass the course. In fact I wasn’t good enough even to take the course. I was surprised to be told I’d already demonstrated such an appalling level of incompetence! No details or justification were ever given. However, as there was only one other person taking the epee course, Sue Benney (later to become a significant coach and veteran fencer), I stayed on, as otherwise she would not be able to get the practice at coaching she needed to do the course herself.

I knew I would be able to get the basic formal certificate I needed for insurance via the parallel amateur coaching channel. I also knew there was absolutely no fencing expertise or opinion from Hill that I valued or needed. I was fairly happy to carry on, despite not getting a refund, and was vaguely interested in what Hill would teach. At no point in my subsequent fencing did I ever think: “Oh – here’s something I learned from that course!” What I did see was one person taking another course that weekend, who was progressively reduced to tears by Hill and his idiot friends. Their mate asked me to lend him my towel so they could dry their eyes. That person became a significant and successful coach – indeed already was. I had reason to believe their difficulties had nothing to do with any shortcomings of their own, but to the appalling regime they felt forced to endure.

At the end I found that, unlike a driving test where you get your result immediately, there was a delay of many weeks before those good enough (!) to take the complete course would be told whether they’d passed or failed. It’s been pointed out that it took longer to decide and give out the results than for an academic degree.

People often wonder at my cynical attitude towards well-established institutions and traditions, including nationalism even for my own country. It’s experience. For example, experience of people like Leon Hill. Never mind him – his time has passed. It’s not just about him, but about those like him who yet survive, and should be dealt with early. And also about those who resent the likes of him, and even complain at what they endure, but respond with horror, and resist, when anyone tries to do anything about it.

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Firestein, Barwich, and How To Spot Good Science

Stuart Firestein is trying to solve the problem of spotting dodgy scientific advice – urgent today, but always tangled with another vital task: how to choose between scientific theories.

In stepping into all this he runs the risk of contradicting himself – an unexpected trap for those new to it. And if he gets it wrong but is listened to, he risks adding to the already mountainous obstacles faced by good new scientific theories.

He admits it’s an age-old challenge:

“Separating real science from pseudoscience is not a new problem.”

So how did he do?

The web editor has made “Spot the fakes by their certainty” the “jump out” message, but the main theme (and title) is how they get away with it, followed by what we can do, featuring the Certainty weapon – with which he shoots himself, amongst other errors.

But first he says how anti-sciencers copy science, starting with doubting authority. And how they dwell on fostering doubt. Of course he wants us to doubt them, yet to trust him as an authority. Can we? He says how Galileo et al. marked themselves out not just by doubting the church:

“But Galileo and those who followed him produced alternative explanations, and those alternatives were based on data that arose independently from many sources and generated a great deal of debate, and, most importantly, could be tested by experiments that could prove them wrong.”

Anti-vaxers do offer an alternative explanation: vaccination causes [whatever]; it’s short on detail but it is an account of what lies behind the actions and observations. Galileo et al. based their theory on the same astronomical observations of the later supporters of the old theory, not new evidence. Generating debate isn’t what marks out a good theory. And actually prior to Kepler’s ellipses, the new theorists still stuck to circles; that was “proved wrong” since they did not explain the observations any better than the old theory plus epicycles; the new theory also needed it’s own kludges. Firestein does not look like an authority here.

“There are those who try to cloak their motives in the trappings of science by claiming they are taking the scientific posture of doubt. Science, after all, depends on doubt. Every scientist doubts every finding they make.”

We have to search hard for actual admissions of doubt in his own arguments, despite claims that good scientists must have doubts. He displays few. He does have hope though: that we accept his authority. A few scientists express doubt but many don’t, and many seem to claim certainty. Who? Every one who unquestioningly speaks of Facts; one excellent example: Richard Dawkins. Another? The author himself.

“The same is true for the bewildering variety of brain-function enhancers being pitched with their ‘scientifically proven benefits.’ The purveyors of these products ask if you seem to be more forgetful, have less energy, are less able to concentrate? Well, of course you have all those symptoms. Everyone does. Unless you track down an underlying pathology with a brain scan or sophisticated psychological test, the ‘cure’ will always work because there is no disease.”

Don’t think “Poor old Susan” here – think about how Stuart mentions not just sophisticated psychological tests as a source of certain authority, whose underlying stats blunders have made them all suspect for years, but the new source of unreliability: brain scans for identifying subtle variations.

“A lengthy series of objective tests may lead to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. This is followed by narrowly prescribed drug treatments that have been worked out over several years of controlled trials and clinical experience. Even then there are no magic bullets. The drugs must be carefully dosed to each individual, and they may only have a limited effectiveness. But in this case there is a disease with recognizable pathology and a potential treatment aimed specifically at that pathology.”

Here he acknowledges that the treatment might not work but has No Doubt that a reliable meaningful valid diagnosis will be made. All Hail DSM – the magic book of perfect spells!

Now he considers what is to be done. Can a non-scientist even hope to spot fraud?:

“How does one learn to spot the con without getting a Ph.D. and spending years in a laboratory?”

Well what a good job having a Ph.D. and years in a lab will assure freedom from following bad theories or even propagating them oneself. Ten years ago I asked, as he does here, what can be done to help the public, journalists, and scientists, ensure good understanding and practice of sound science. For relative experts I recommended the deceptively simple strategy of choosing the best explanation for the observations, though this is the strategy for experts. Also of course, resist the temptation to claim unreal authority for science by claiming science produces facts, proofs and truths, because this can be be convincingly argued against, thus crippling science’s authority. My view is that laypeople can be helped to spot pseudoscience by a series of dodgy heuristics NOT to be used by experts when judging scientific theories. Dealing with fraud is largely a matter of morality, and social and political strategies for making people damn well do what it is clear they ought to be doing, or similarly, not doing.

Firestein addresses the problem of what to do when you need maths to understand something, to which I will add that experts also very often make mathematical mistakes. There was a well-publicised case of a majority of medical doctors getting the simplest Venn diagram problem wrong and getting confused between likelihoods and prior probabilities. There is also the totally unappreciated problem of the mathematically proficient forcing the wrong mathematical model onto a problem, when a more complex, or different model, or even a more algorithmic or qualitative approach would be better. AI has suffered terribly from this, and so has psychology. Totally unappreciated is that genetics has too. I know how hard it is to convince a field of their systematic mathematical blunders when they have less mathematical understanding, but also the hugely tougher challenge of showing a field they’re following the wrong maths when those leading them astray have unquestionable mathematical expertise.

“And half the audience is gone with each equation (Stephen Hawking said that).”

Actually Hawking was quoting his publisher. Here we have an opportunity for a gesture towards the multiple evils of the science publishing industry, and to repeat that we’ve had far too much of publishing gatekeepers making important decisions in science.

Finally he makes the claim that you can judge a pseudoscientist by their certainty. Admittedly here he does say “most of the time”, unlike many examples elsewhere. But unfortunately most examples of pseudoscience I’ve seen come from those currently employed as scientists – and they have no doubt at all that they’re right.

Without much delay, he once more honours his argument in the breach:

“Mystery and uncertainty may not strike you right off as desirable or strong traits, but that is precisely where one finds the creative solutions that science has historically arrived at. Yes, science accumulates factual knowledge,…”

Factual knowledge undeniably implies acceptance of Absolute Truth. And Certainty.

“But like your blood pressure medicine, the stuff we know is reliable even if incomplete.”

Unqualified use of “reliable”, implies 100% certainty somewhere.

We need strategies for identifying good science that work for all the purposes for which it’s required. Relying on Certainty or Good Maths don’t work. Too many good scientists are too certain, and too many good mathematicians do faulty science. Detecting blatant cynical fraud designed to fool the public, or other scientists, are two different problems. There is no elegant solution to the first, and the second is a matter for society. Judging plausible theories offered in good faith by at least pretty good scientists, is a third important issue, and Must Not have solutions applied to it that are supposed to work for the other two problems but probably don’t even work for them anyway. Peer review is a prime example of the latter criterion, and good maths, and apparent certainty in the advocate are others, alongside a host of other pseudoscientific social dodges from Overton Window to gut feel to personal career convenience.

He says pseudoscientists often try to imitate scientific approaches. (I am reminded of a bullshitting pseudoscientific Wikipedia editor who accused me of having all the appearance of a proper scientist and yet… he could tell I wasn’t because if it quacks and walks like a duck…!)

“Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. The problem, as we all know, is that flattery will get you nowhere.”

Ha! A.S.Barwich INSISTED ON FLATTERY! Instead of wasting far more time on critiquing his piece than it and Firestein deserved, I’d described it in a quick tweet far short of 280 characters. Barwich responded on Twitter by calling me “an arse on the internet”, and saying she was muting me. Presumably because she had only met me via Twitter, my opinion was valueless. Of course I had only encountered her over Twitter, and I hadn’t even heard of her current university.

But trust me – if Barwich and Firestein don’t get their hands on the running and ruining of your science, it will only be for lack of opportunity.

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John Hawks’ Interesting New Homo Evolution Chart

I do like the Human Evolution chart John Hawks mentioned in Twitter that he is working on at the mo!

John Hawks’ March-ish 2020 chart of humans post 2 million years-ish from DNA and some fossil evidence

[Useful tip: to get the full size version I put into WordPress, right-click on the image and open in a new tab, then change its url so at the end it says: w=1800&h=950 🙂 .]

All over it are pointers to interesting issues. Where to start? Well, in the middle is a red dead-end finger with tendrils reaching down from an extinct branch of early modern people, into the Neanderthals. That is a record of our failed -or not completely failed- attempts to invade Europe and western Asia from Africa. Our eventual successful attempt was about 60,000 years ago but by then our maternal line had succeeded in replacing the original Neanderthal mitochondria! That’s actually where the vast majority of DNA material is, in the cell! (But it’s repeated versions of the same small stretch. The vast majority of the information content is in the nucleus.) The origins of that event were long before 200,000 years ago. The recently-in-the-press modern-type skull from Petralona, Greece, long before 60,000ya was not a one-off invader, and it can’t have been the earliest. (Not to be confused with another famous Petralona skull thought to be Homo heidelbergensis.) We know what the original Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA was, from the Spanish cave deposits in Sima de los Huesos (aptly, “cave of bones”). There are at least two caves there, and I must write up a summary of the differences to help me to remember them. The place on the tree apparently held by Sima de los Huesos is nicely shown on the chart. It used to be considered Heidelberg man, and H. h. was supposed to be the common ancestor of us and Neanderthals, but, as shown on the chart, the age of the split between us and the Neanderthals, and indeed between them and the Denisovans, was before the Heidelberg fossils themselves (not shown on the chart, but which was no more than 700k years ago, which was before all but the possibly earliest data of any heidelbergensis-attributed fossil, apparently in an Atapuerca site, which is where Sima de los Huesos is.)

Next, despite the proliferation of connections, there is one category that is absent: evidence of interbreeding between moderns and very archaic types. The African archaics shown at the top, which led strongly into current African populations, apparently after the ex-Africans left, are shown as no more archaic than the Neanderthals (though they contributed up to 19% of some contemporary populations, six to fifteen times that contributed by Neanderthals). The mauve line near the bottom interacted directly only with the Denisovans, and the turquoise “Superarchaic” only interacted with the “Neandisovans”. It’s beginning to look like by the time of the final, successful excursion from Africa 50-70kya, the true ancients elsewhere had already had done to them by the Neanderthals and Denisovans, what we would end up doing to those two.

However, since that “Superarchaic” turquoise group WAS capable of breeding with the early “Neandisovans” and they in turn were capable of breeding with us, and the Superarchaics split off about 1.8 million years ago, that’s evidence that just about every branch on the human tree since then would be capable of interbreeding with every other branch. If so, that’s a proper species in the biological sense. Of course evolutionary isolation starts in isolated places, exemplified apparently by the Indian wolf which is said to be incapable of breeding with other wolves, and some parts of the tree might have been non-interbreedable.

In fact, at the left end of the chart, some splittings and re-mergings seem to suggest that an inter-breedable species extended back to 2.3 million years ago, thanks to the contributions at the left end of the Superarchaics. This does not mean that all the human-ish types we know of from fossils, around at the time, could interbreed, but it does mean we can’t be sure they couldn’t. But that earliest divergence point is actually the date of the first fossils named “Homo”. Not all those fossils named Homo have to be part of the inter-breedable tree, and some may have diverged some time before. But it does look like Homo erectus, from a bit short of two million years ago, and it’s immediate ancestor, whatever or wherever that was, can reasonably be called Homo/human. The Superarchaic will be seen by many as Homo erectus, however much integrity that concept actually has or lacks. But so will the grey link between 1.8 and 1.4 million years.

The intriguing “early erectus” remains from Dmanisi, Georgia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea, may throw light on the split-then-re-merge at the left, between 2.3 and 1.9 million years ago. That is exactly what I would expect if a significant “Pre human” group left Africa, evolved significantly elsewhere, then re-invaded Africa. I’m not sure yet though if that feature of the chart is based on data or is an imaginative flourish.

Does this chart help us match up intriguing “primitive” fossils from Africa (Homo naledi) and East Asia (Homo floresiensis and others from e.g. the Phillipines)? Does naledi, from about 300,000 years ago, match up with “African archaics unknown” in pink at the top? No. It’s too primitive and has too many resemblances to types near the left-end junction, though it is possible those are reversals suitable for exploiting trees. But naledi‘s probably a third type knocking around in Africa a third to a half a million years ago. It may well be somewhat hybridised though. Also it was in Southern Africa, not West Africa where the “African archaics unkown” left their genetic markers.

Could floresiensis, aka “The Hobbit”, be involved in “Eurasian archaic unknown”? Well, we have fossils known as H. erectus from east Asia pre-dating the supposed split of “Eurasian archaic unknown” from moderns, and erectus is generally considered to be less primitive than floresiensis.

So it looks like naledi and floresiensis are not part of the chart. The chart actually only includes types and lineages inferred genetically, or known genetically and from identifiable fossils, and no DNA has yet come from naledi or floresiensis.

Finally, the chart shows the first Australians splitting off before 100,000 years ago. I’m not at all sure that’s right. Maybe it’s to do with there not being much room at that end of the chart. I think a log time scale would help here!

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The Christmas Vodrom Takes Wing!

It’s funny how things get started. But how could a thing like this happen.. and what is it?! This episode happened and was written-up around the Christmas of last year, which is why it has to appear today, to avoid an extra year of delay!…

What’s the time? Half past nine – time to hang your Christmas vodrom on the line!

I have a little friend called Ezra who is 1, and he took me, with his parents, uncle and aunt  and grandparent Helen, to a Christmas lantern workshop in Pontypridd. Ezra’s mum Ally made an owl:

This is the owl in its final state of glory. It took them less than a couple of hours; they completed it in the first session. The brown feathers are birch leaves, thoughtfully provided by the workshop organisers, and expertly utilised by the artists. This owl was much admired when exhibited in the eventual church service. We thought the eye pupils should be big, but Ally, who has special powers, made them small. Here the actual small pupils alternate with imaginary big ones. Image reversed to un-mirror the writing.

Now if Ally was making an owl, what kind of creature could I make? What else of course but a volant dromaeosaur – a vodrom 🙂 . That is, a flying example from the group of dinobirds to which Velociraptor belonged. Velociraptors were flightless descendants of flying forms, from which modern birds were also descended. Astonishingly, no physical representation of a vodrom with its rear wings in the only sensible flight configuration it could have used, has ever been made…until now!

So we’re talking part Christmas decoration, part science project.

This is the configuration as depicted in chapter five of The Secret Dinobird Story. In the model, the front wing doesn’t rise so high. I don’t know how high it could rise but it was higher than many people would have you believe.

So fast did I work that by the end of the first two-hour session, I’d already stuck fourteen sticks together, if the image below, taken upstairs at Pontypridd library, was taken near the start of the second session. I would say in my defence that we were late for the first session, and I took the trouble to split the ends of all six sticks in the front and rear triangles so the ends of the withies could be interslotted across each other to some extent, before being masking-taped.

The lady was I think helping to run the session upstairs at Pontypridd library. Note the clever way the photographer has aligned the sticks through the lady’s eye-line where the viewer’s eye would probably start, so as to draw the gaze along the object 😉 . Note also how very difficult even a simple stick object can be to understand visually. I have to work hard to grasp it and I made it. The head end is at the left, and the horizontal sticks along the line of the backbone pass underneath the apex of the front triangle. There is also a rear triangle, apex down, and the horizontal sticks from the head end pass below, and are attached to, the mid-point of the horizontal side at the top of this larger rear triangle. All the sticks are connected to or are within the front or rear triangles, except the horizontal stick across its back. The head and tail ends of the long horizontal sticks were soon to be cut off.

I can’t remember much about the second session except for a couple of interactions.  A little boy walked confidently in and made a bee-line for my design sketches, and of course I told him Don’t Touch That!!  The lady in charge, Angharad I think, immediately summed up the situation and suavely and expertly ushered me to the far end of the table where I would have more room or something, but where of course the strange man would be less of a threat to the smaller children.  Whilst there, a baby and her mum sat next to me, and the baby  became absolutely fascinated by the resonant and strangely sinister sliding tones the strips of masking tape made as they were peeled of the reel 🙂 .

In the third two-hour session pretty well all I did was make the rectangular feet, out of willow withies, the left of which is shown on the table in the image below.

This image shows the structure the best. Helpfully the carcass stands up on its rear end, as here, and we see it “from below”. The base of the front triangle, near the top here, is too wide for the real animal; the corners would lie well outside its skin. But the wide cross-piece was very useful for keeping the thing stable when it was lying down in its proper pose and being worked on. And if the wide corners were cut off, lots of fiddly new cross-beams would be needed inside, to retain strength. Flat on the table is the left foot, seen from above, with feathers as yet unpapered.

And that didn’t include the foot feathers which already appear in the pic above, thin garden canes forming their edges. The foot feathers are largely attached to, and obscuring, four pieces of thin cane across the end of the foot.

The inner sections of the front wings are part of the carcass, and each has four visible twists of thick wire hanging down, connecting to points on the outer wing sections when those are lifted into place from below. The front wings are set in the position just before they reach the end of their upward travel. The rear wings are 90° ahead of the front wing cycle, as justified in The Secret Dinobird Story, and as is the case with dragonflies. The rear wings, when attached, are about half way through their “downstroke”. However, whereas the whole of the front wings goes up and down as in modern birds, the rear wing power stroke is largely provided by the feet which push out first then down, aided somewhat by the shin section i.e. tibia & fibula, which also bend out and up a little at the knee to provide an overall straightening of the leg. Just possibly the thigh bone i.e. femur contributed too. This leg straightening would utilise the same muscles used by these creatures in the stabbing motion (not really slashing, note) of the leg and big toe claw, which was their main offensive feature. Since their teeth were rather thin and pointed backwards more sharply than in other predatory dinosaurs, they would have been broken or twisted out of their sockets if used on the prey in anything other than clean backward slices through dead meat, and to guarantee this, the prey must have already been dead at the time.  That’s how we know the toe claw (or something other than the teeth – and there is no feasible alternative) was used for killing.

The image above shows a very important feature of vodrom aerodynamics: the skirt behind (in this pose, below) the rear legs. The rear wings are rooted very high on the body – they stick out sideways from the hip sockets which are quite high in the pelvis. (This allows the legs to be longer and have longer strides than if the hip joint was lower.) However, very unlike modern birds, vodroms had shoulder sockets quite low down in the body. This might have been connected to the need to reach out and grab their prey with their arms, preparatory to using the big toe claw, and the prey would usually be effectively “ventral relative to” the dromaeosaur’s chest, though it may have been lying on its side. Anyway, the root of the rear wing was quite a bit higher than the root of the front wing, and to streamline this and avoid the rear leg offering a massive air-break to the oncoming airstream, some kind of surface, a “patagium”, made of stretched skin and feathers, as appears in front of the elbow of an extended modern bird’s wing, would be expected to be present between the root parts of the front and rear wings. As with that wing patagium in modern birds, it would be angled down at the front, and on its own would give negative lift. However, in the modern bird case, behind the thicker part of the limb, a trailing-edge surface comprising two thirds or three quarters of the rear section of wing, would be angled down towards the back, and both on its own and combined with the front part of the surface, would provide lift at the rear. For this reason alone there would probably be a substantial skirt behind the rear legs. Some parts of the leg might be quite thin but the main muscles for moving the legs would have to be somewhere, inevitably in the thigh and just below the knee . Interestingly the lower half of the shin bone (tibia) is incredibly thin in the presumably volant dromaeosaur Bambiraptor, even though the top half is pretty thick.

The skirt would have to be unconnected to the tail which flicks energetically up and forwards over the back during the toe strike, a movement which was the whole raison d’être of the special long stiff tail.  The feathers forming this skirt would have to swivel round the leg when the knee was angled forwards for walking, otherwise they would stick out to the side. This must have evolved before dromaeosaurs though, because the toes-and-knees-out pose used in flight by dromaeosaurs was used even in the gliding stage of their ancestry. A massive change of angle would have been especially necessary for the primary feathers on the foot of course.

At the extreme right of the main carcass in the photo above, at the end of the shin just above where the ankle will go, there are four thin little green cane sections in parallel. When the foot is attached, sticking upwards and outwards at right angles, these green canes are used to snag the free ends of lengths of fishing line, one for each foot feather, attached to the far end of each feather. When tightened, this applies a slight inward bend of the feather tip, as would be expected when the feather was pressing down against the air in the power stroke. Ideally, this bend, incorporating also the resultant forward thrust which would actually exceed the drag caused by the downward movement through the air, would also bend the end of the feather forwards.

A little forward and upward bend has been achieved, enough to suggest the force and movement involved. Unfortunately, tightening the fishing line beyond a certain point results in the concentration of bend towards the middle of the feather becoming rather obvious. In life the bend would be pretty constant in the outer half of the feather because the feather is more flimsy towards the end, to compensate for the tendency of the bend to be greater towards the middle. This could have been effected in the model by adding short splints to the base and middle of the feather canes to apply extra stiffness but by that time I couldn’t be arsed. It has been possible to twist the foot so that the plane of the feathers is slanting, to show how forward thrust is produced, but the reverse twist of the end of the feather to provide thrust during a firm downstroke, as opposed to the normal angle during gliding, which provides lift, has not been effected. Some effort was made to produce this by attaching the end of the fishing line to the rear edge of the feather, but it didn’t work very well and I even forgot to do it for two of the feathers.

The slight bend in the feathers, to indicate reactions of the air to the power stroke, is effected using fishing line between the tip of the feather and a grid at the base of the shin. Because one end of the feather is effectively being attached very close to its other end, there is very little upward rotational force on the foot.

Initially the fishing line was wound onto sticks with cross-pieces (shown in the image before last, furled up at the feather ends for tidy keeping when the foot was detached), and when the foot was connected, line was unwound and the sticks were stuck through the cane grids on the shins, where the cross pieces prevented the sticks rolling and unravelling.

Later, Helen suggested and made hooks out of strips of copper about 30mm long, with a hole opposite the hook end, for the fishing line (which she also provided from her magic shed) to thread through. These hooks were then poked usually over the top “musical stave cane” and hooked over a lower one. By this stage the extra lengths of unwanted fishing line could be cut off, now the approximate length was well known, and any minor adjustments effected by the choice of which stave lines the hooks were poked through and hooked over. Two of the now sad little t-sticks are seen lying unwanted beside the scissors, in the image above.

Helen. Draw no conclusions till you’ve seen her wielding an axe!

Helen papered the feathers of the right foot and did it just twice as fast as I took to do the left foot, and better. Also visible in the photo above is the fillet of red leather Helen kindly mended my slipper with. Ezra, who is her grandson, was fascinated by this red flash, and would bend down, carefully grasp it, and try to lead my foot in the direction of the room where he wanted me to go.

Here, Helen adjusts the foot feather bend for the first time, using the copper hooks. Helen also made the claws, cunningly from gauze wrapped around wire formers, and coated with the hard wax…””. Unfortunately I failed to communicate the exact numbers of claws required. It should have been two big ones and ten small ones, but four big ones and four small ones got made. We could have put all three foot claws on each foot, but the front wings don’t really have pieces of stick in all the right places, and in the end we just put a big one on each foot and one small one on each wing.

The photo above illustrates a slight problem of scale that eventually developed. When I made the first little triangle for the shoulder region, it was only about 30cms wide. I think I imagined subconsciously that the whole thing would be just over a meter wide. But it turned out to have a wingspan (a double wingspan of course) of about seven feet, and was about eleven feet long including the tail. It had to be built in sections (seven of them) just to get it in the car.

The horrible head. I suppose I originally intended to paper it but soon found excuses not to.

The head embraces a length of garden hose, suggested and contributed by Helen, and can be put onto the neck spike this way round, in ant-eater mode, which Helen prefers…

…Or the head can be put on this way up, which seems more suitable to me, for a flight configuration. Either way it can be swivelled and to some extent fixed.

We did take it to the service, more a lay one than religious, at St. Catherine’s church, Pontypridd. Here Helen is putting the head on, having threaded two sets of fairy lights through the body, neck and head, and conceived and constructed the eyes. We didn’t get the vodrom to the church early enough for it to be hung up, but Ally’s Owl is there in the background, in pride of place, between the other two. The foot feathers are unpapered at this stage but the tail is shown, stuck through a loop of stiff wire at the rear end and lodging conveniently in a snug groove between where the shoulder blades would be…on a human. A feather duster will eventually be attached to the end of the tail. This pose is in a diving angle, not horizontal flight.

In church with the lights on.

Among many other songs, “Jingle Bells” was sung, and the words were shown on a screen. At last I was able to get to the bottom of what that mysterious line “…Jingle bells, jingle bells, there’s sailing on tonight!” was all about. Actually, the line is:

“What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight!”

That’s good, because I never could work out what sailing had to do with Christmas, and as my mis-heard version suggested we would all go home and watch sailing on TV, when even as a kid I thought the song must have predated TV, that is also resolved.

But did you know the song included this verse?:

“A day or two ago I thought I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fanny Bright was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank and then we got upsot!”

Hmm. Reminds me of that scene with Flashman in The Great Game where he had to look after the girl after a sleighing accident.

Towards the end of the proceedings in the church, it was announced that the lanterns could be bought for a £2 donation each. Luckily no-one tried to buy the vodrom.

We got it home and hung it from the ceiling against the wall:

Without the tail, obvs. This is probably the view from dead ahead in flight.

From below:

Not its most dignified angle, though it is somewhat reminiscent of the German parliament fat eagle logo. The feet do not actually point forward anything like as much as seems in the pic. It is taken from below the head, the model is actually pointing down in a slight dive because of the sloping ceiling it is up against, and it is quite a wide angle lens. As shown by the fairly flat-on view of the rear triangle, the rear section is seen from an angle with quite a lot of forward component.

I am very proud of this picture below. The background distractions of the original photo have been blanked out:

Here the vodrom is seen in horizontal flight. Although the outer section of the front wings, i.e. the hands and their primaries, is far too short, the belly is far too hollow, the mysterious dromaeosaur pubis is not included, and the head and neck are clearly more symbolic than accurate, and not just because of the festoons of fairy lights, I think it does give a decent impression of a volant dromaeosaur in flight. But most such depictions look completely naff, partly because the configurations are the inventions of scientist-impersonators who have clearly not understood that primary feathers on the feet exactly like primary feathers on the fore-wings means a thrust stroke must be envisaged for the feet, but partly because the feet inevitably look weird being carried so low down. Here though, it has a certain power and dignity to my eye. Also it is really quite Noggin The Nog-ish.

Posted in Bird evolution, The Secret Dinobird Story, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Human Evolution Nov 2019 The Dismal View From The Shoulder Of Orion

What would an off-world viewer think of the current state of palaeoanthropology? In just a week, we’ve had two banana skins for the field to slip up on – and show itself up over. First, the over-hyping of the mitochondrial DNA evidence for a wetland southern African…Homeland. Then, the astonishment at the forty-year-old news that our ancestors were already upright 10 to 20 million years ago, soon no doubt to be forgotten again. Whether viewing from the classic Mars or even from the shoulder of Orion, the appalling mess would be equally clear.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe!” our spectator would report to their mates, on stepping back from the eyepiece. Years ago when my father was arguing with the garage fixing his car, he questioned the man on his use of the term “you people”. But that was over fifty years ago in the high street. Surely dodgy terms wouldn’t appear in scientific journals today? Well, in the paper by Chan et al., “Homeland” was used for the area of apparent origin at some point in our ancestry, in Botswana, but it’s an unhappy term for land areas in South Africa. I sort of knew that but wasn’t too bothered as I don’t come from there or feel the sensitivities personally; but there were other issues of that nature too, and that’s the sort of thing top journal editors are supposed to be on top of.

But the main problem with the Chan et al. paper was using the family tree of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to work back to a time and place where “it started.” That does work a bit, except it depends what you mean by “it” – the mtDNA tree or the people tree? Also, the place where the original versions seem to cluster now is only the place where they started if people haven’t done their usual trick of moving around a lot. You only know where that lineage of mtDNA seems to have started, but other lineages of people will have barged in all down the line, messing up the neat tree. mtDNA doesn’t combine sexually, but people and most other creatures recombine “most of” their DNA of course, so a family tree must include cross-linking marriages like a royal lineage does, not like a coarse scale evolutionary tree. An excellent example is that of the earliest evidence we have for modern humans leaving Africa: by about 250,000 years ago most Neanderthals seem to have had their original mtDNA replaced by ours. Judge that Neanderthal tree by its mtDNA and you’re way off. mtDNA is passed down by mothers, and fathers pass their Y chromosome down, which also doesn’t recombine. You can get neat –too-neat– family trees from the Y chromosome too, but they converge back to a different place, west Africa, at a different time.

Having said that, neither the mtDNA tree nor the Y chromosome tree offer many certain facts, but a big mistake made by some scientists is to assume that only definite “facts” count. Most of our evidence is circumstantial, or clouded by noise or complication, and many patterns of male invasion from the Y chromosome base, or female invasion from the mtDNA base, for example, might have happened, and might be the cause of what we see. Obliterating this possibility by slaming the Chan et al. paper ruthlessly into row Z is a classic common scientific error. “Not certain therefore impossible – and Unscientific”.

So yes, Chan et al. should have included these well-know complications in their account; but the sub-editor should have been on top of all this too. One reason people attacked Chan et al. so hard was that their own viewpoints were being ignored. If it were my viewpoints being ignored they wouldn’t have given a damn. The current view is that since the different features of modern people seem to have sprung up first in places dotted all round Africa, moderns must have sprung from a pan-African melting pot. Evolution can happen like this but I think most people consider it a bit unusual; multiregionalists were sneered at 20 years ago.

That is a problem of not reflecting the current theoretical landscape – i.e. no adequate literature search appears to have been done, or been insisted upon before publication. People hate that if it’s their literature being ignored.

In the other case, the majority literature has been scrupulously observed way beyond the call of duty, to the point where the science becomes absurd. Science is conducted by people, a bit like goods are conducted along railway lines, but it should be done for the good of the cargo, not to optimise the experience for the trucks. In Böhme et al.’s paper on an apparently bipedal European ape about 11.5 million years old, we have an even more gob-smacking example of failure to literature search, assisted once again by a default of duty by the editor – the same sub-editor in the same journal as before. It would be inconvenient for some people if Böhme et al.’s results became accepted. The issue centres on our walking on two legs, when it happened, and what it means.

By the time I wrote my book in 2012, it was already decades past the time for a new understanding of bipedality in human evolution to have arrived. Though little in historical biological science is absolutely certain, some things are pretty damn obvious, and simply cannot be excluded from our portfolio of theories being considered. We can tell by the structure of the spine whether an apelike creature tended to stand upright when on the ground, or on all fours. Imagine little spikes attached firmly to your vertebrae and sticking out through the skin of your back, with strong elastic bands joining adjacent spikes and pulling them together. That stops your spine bending forwards, and it helps it stay upright. That mechanism, subcutaneously using muscles and tendons, is what we have, but with the bone spikes actually sticking out sideways from the vertebrae but still high up near the skin. In this we resemble a tail-less ape-oid called Morotopithecus, which lived in Africa some time between 14 and 23 million years ago. We do not resemble chimps and gorillas in this; their predominantly quadrupedal habit on the ground means they are different from us. But they are also different from each other. Chimps suspend their diagonal/horizontal spines by ligaments from the dorsal pelvis, while gorillas use interlocking vertebrae. We have therefore been walking upright on the ground, with whatever degree of perfection, for over 14 million years, and probably nearer 20, and chimps and gorillas dropped back down again, separately. Either that or bipedality evolved more than once. You can tell whether it was more than once or just once by the fact that NO quadrupedal forms except those clearly on the separate Proconsul lineage, have EVER BEEN FOUND. That is, until modern chimps and gorillas start to show up less than about a million years ago.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Aaron Filler, a long-time successful spinal surgeon, who has investigated this for years, and explained it perfectly adequately, decades ago. He is not an imaginary person. His expertise is not imaginary. Imagine how good you would be at doing his job! Imagine how good Henry Gee would be at repairing people’s spines so they worked well and didn’t attract court cases! Henry Gee? That’s the expert who allowed the Chan et al. paper through without either understanding the limitations of mtDNA evidence, or considering the new multiregional viewpoint worthy of mention. Of course you’d have to be an expert at sub-editing to be a sub-editor at Nature, wouldn’t you. And that expertise means he knows more about spines than Aaron Filler does. For this reason an interpretation piece by T.L. Kivell, accompanying the principle paper by Böhme et al., was able to claim: “The commitment to terrestrial bipedalism, characterized by skeletal adaptations for walking regularly on two feet, is a defining feature that enables the assignment of fossils to the hominin lineage – which comprises all species more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees”. If that were true, Danuvius guggenmosi on which they report, from Germany, would have to be closer to humans than chimps, because it clearly preferred bipedality, and the human-chimp split would be over 11.5 million years ago. Blatant rubbish.

So the explanatory piece contains a logical inconsistency, and the overwhelming evidence that we have been upright for most if not all of 20 million years, is ignored yet again. But Nature magazine offers us a further example of sloppy thinking as the second page of Kivell’s piece begins: “Each living ape species is a result of its own long, evolutionary history, and, in the case of African apes, one that we often forget because there is so little fossil evidence of it. This absence of fossil information to reveal how African apes evolved makes questions about the nature of our common ancestor even trickier to answer.”

What makes evolutionary puzzles more tricky to answer than anything else is the failure of most scientists in the field to master basic thinking skills. That quote in the paragraph above, that we have no chimp or gorilla fossils, depends on the family tree you draw up! We have a dozen distinct ape-man fossil types between 1 and 6 million years, and where you put them on the tree determines whether you think you have any chimp or gorilla fossils. Draw the lines of lineage back from chimps/gorillas through some of the fossils and you have chimp/gorilla fossils. Draw all the lines away from chimps/gorillas and hey presto – you have no chimp/gorilla fossils! Simples. When asked why they choose the family trees that they do, workers will say they just know those types are all closer to humans than the other apes. How do they know? Because all the types are upright, so they must be closer to humans. Then when you ask them if they’ve forgotten that the entire human/chimp/gorilla lineage has been upright for more than 20 million years, they just drift off and don’t answer. They get paid for doing this. When you offer the nuclear bomb argument that African monkey fossils have been found accompanying supposedly human ancestors, and you ask them to consider the probability, assuming equal fossilisation and discovery likelihoods, of finding no chimps or gorillas, they will start to accuse you of being an obsessive crank. By the time you tell them the p value of the missing apes observation not being explainable by chance goes into six places of decimals, they will have blocked your communication channels to them… so they escape having to offer an explanation excusing chimps and gorillas from being fossilised and found in the usual way.

It’s clear that the field of palaeoanthropology has drifted way clear from reality and is not under the control of responsible adults. It’s barely disguised groupism: never risk voicing or even thinking alien ideas for rear of group disapproval. When it is pointed out that the Botswana marshes suggest waterside environments, and the clay in which the fossil Danuvius guggenmosi was found implies it lived in mud, those paid to climb into and occupy a respectable position in the tree of human evolution study will go ape-shit at the implications.

We deduce people’s aims by long-term observation of their patterns of behaviour. You may think we can deduce their level of intellect in this way too, but ignoring the obvious, and failing to communicate it even if it’s your duty, is actually a symptom not of stupidity but of dishonesty. These people are not robots programmed to follow the same tracks of stupidity decade after decade. Instead they are following a cogent plan to serve their own interests, and avoid being on the losing side of any scientific argument, and to hell with the effect on science. They have abandoned their duty to serve science with honesty and without deceit, and they make all their decisions first of all in the semi-unconscious state which ensures they never stray from the pack. It is not robots we have to fear now. It is lying, irresponsible power-seeking buffoons.

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Will Self and James Bond

In Will Self’s ten-minute A Point Of View yesterday, he related the alarming experiences of a friend of his in, or it seems, ‘at’, the hands of the mental health services: Parity of Esteem.

A difficult area. “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was invoked. I saw that whilst a psychology student and found it a bloody entertaining film, but maybe because she knew she’d spend her career working in psychiatry, my friend ended up sobbing (as so many others have subsequently while out with me) whereas I knew I certainly would not be. Years later, another acquaintance surprised me by repeatedly diagnosing people as “borderline personality”. I was surprised because so many suspects seem to be diagnosed as this these days, but I’d never heard of it and could never find out what the borderline was supposed to be between.

Dream-like drawing of woman with empty head crawling with snakes.

By Miles Johnson; click for original source: , shown in , in the category “Where is my Mind?”

There’s a big American psychiatry catalogue that has repeatedly alarmed people by sudden changes in advised practice and diagnosis. Appalling to admit this but I can’t help thinking of it as The Big Book Of Madness And Spells. Each time, people ask, if it’s right now, how wrong must it have been before? And what confidence can we have in it now?

Another psychologist acquaintance was progressing their research in the field, and teaching it, whilst running a small business on the side. She advertised the “Tigers Eye” stones she sold, as being “possibly helpful in early stage diabetes”. Aren’t psychologists supposed to be scientists?

But sometimes you’ve got to do something. Another friend was involved with psychiatry but at the business end. One category of people I’ve known is those involved in one way or another with psychiatry; another is those whose life has become centred on sticking it to the lawyers they have employed but have cheated them out of large sums of money. At one time my three closest associates were in this category; it is gratifying how many of them had some success. This particular chap managed to force one solicitor to move to a different practice, even as he was himself succumbing to an even more ruthless assailant. He reminded me of the old boss of the secret service in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” who was close on the track of The Mole, whilst irresistibly slipping away himself. Eventually my friend insisted that the solicitors were trying to break into his house at night. I tried to persuade him that bad though they were, that wasn’t really their style, but eventually I had to spend a night in his house to see if we could catch them. Being in that house that night was like being in “The Shining”, but my friend was terrified all the time.

The next morning I ran around frantically trying to get him sectioned. Citizens Advice Bureau… local council… . Eventually I snagged an ambulance man on his way into the local dentist to help someone who’d fainted. Turned out he knew my friend but didn’t pay me much heed. Finally the authorities got round to it themselves but my efforts made no difference.

What can yer do. Anyway, this subject was clearly one Will Self had strong feelings on – as he had with his talk on Grenfell Tower. And as with that, his talk took on a special characteristic… but not in the way that many, including myself, change their style when angry, when we just get a bit incoherent. With Will, the components of his talk, normally handled with such careful elegance, with grace as their most salient feature, no longer strike you as graceful. They are, but now the reason for the gracefulness when executed slowly, becomes clear: now invisible, it is nonetheless present and essential for execution with this new, terrible, dispatch. It’s like a Rubik’s cube but of metal, with all the pieces curved and different, being solved by a prodigy. You can’t actually see the high precision of the pieces, or the thin layer of oil, or the astonishing expertise, but you can tell by the magic that they’re there.

It wasn’t until I’d been a fencer, and had studied performers of various grades, that I started noticing this phenomenon with physical skills. On watching Torville and Dean, I was suddenly aware of a compelling comparison with Bill Gosbee, a top British foilist. Complex action sequences rolling smoothly, coolly and perfectly through, with any apparent imbalance actually being a preparation for the next stage.

I also suddenly noticed one Christmas about that time, that the Australian James Bond, who was only in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and who most people don’t like, was actually the best Bond of the first three. In the fights, it is amusingly clear that dear Roger Moore (as good a name as any of Fleming’s!) is really only making pantomime gestures with his blows, a bit like some kind of oriental theatre where you just accept that this is supposed to represent a fight, but Roger clearly hadn’t needed to do any real fighting since he was six, if ever. [But check out Lee Marvin’s comments on Moore being “like granite” after some kind of exchange on the set of Shout At The Devil. I’m not sure their fight really did go beyond the stage fight they had in the film, though an accidental punch might have landed. Roger’s style of fighting in his films might reflect his care not to hurt the stuntmen!] Sean Connery, whose performance I thought excellent as a kid, later struck me as an annoying teenager whose behaviour had survived to middle age unchanged. And though he clearly put a bit more into his fights, you knew all the time he was thinking “I wonder how this looks”. But with George Lazenby – my god! He just jumps out of the screen! You get that horrible but authentic sudden start, a short burst of very fast but surprisingly neat movements, and ending with perfect balance. Even though he didn’t have Roger’s or Sean’s shoulders, you just knew immediately that that guy was one of those very rare things – a genuine, well-practiced, and expert scrapper.

There were other ways in which he was a more convincing performer too. Only in recent decades have I begun to wonder whether Bond is supposed to be some kind of unobtrusive mole-type spy, or some kind of commando/SAS type. Have there really been real-life agents who combine the two? I doubt it. Moore and Connery’s Bonds clearly try to dominate any room or scene in which they appear, but some unobtrusiveness would surely be essential. And any real James Bond would surely come across as unpleasant or odd in some way: born a psychopath, or psychologically twisted early in life, perhaps. That ex-SAS bloke I lived next door to, could cycle through the stages of a pleasant conversation, but every now and then he would be happy to make a chilling short-cut, some kind of dangerous assumption that left me thinking “WTF…? What happened just there?!”. Lazenby walked in without any real effort to engage with the company, far less to charm anyone, but with his “I don’t give a shit for you guys”, and his smug handsomness all too apparent. Actually, to be fair, Daniel Craig’s Bond is even more convincing. Instead of representing a dangerous psyche, he much more resembles the surviving fighter pilots I’ve met or seen on TV, who, with the exception of Douglass Baader, seemed introverted, very determined, and very, very careful.

How, one wonders, did Will Self come by his skills? The words must have come through books, in much the same way that Stephen Fry needed books for some of his special skills. And plenty of opportunity for thinking on one’s own. But I’m convinced that such performance capabilities only originally evolved for hunting or fighting, and they’re only developed these days through some kind of competitive environment. What infernal fights or rows could frame his fearful eloquence? Who with? Where? As for when, I’d guess teenage years. Between America and the posh parts of England, he had many opportunities for meeting regularly with an exotic range of challenging environments and individuals. Ours just to wonder why. And just to wonder 🙂 .

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Tom Foale’s “QuantumChoices” twitter thread on economics of “Brexit – Whose Interests?”

[This post also available as a pdf: ]

On August 3rd 2018, Tom Foale Twitterering as @tfoale : “QuantumChoices”, gave a vivid economics-graphics-based series of tweets, replying to “Adam”. I have not been able to locate the tweets in TF’s twitter feed, so don’t know Adam (…from Adam!) but the thread can be found here:

I got it from 5th Aug, who got it from: . WritersFrock later tweeted: :

[Happy to show image attributions when I discover them. Inform me by comments to this post.]

TF’s QC twitter thread starts here:

Replying to @wehden07 @pete_at_tweet @DeborahMeaden

Adam, let me present you with some comparative economics, and then you tell me whether ANY Tory (and I was one) has your interests at heart. I’m going to compare the UK with our partners in Europe. Firstly, we WERE the fifth largest world economy. Remember that.

Despite that, we have one of the highest levels of poverty in Europe.

Map showing London richest in EU while some UK provinces poorest.

Map showing London richest in EU while some UK provinces poorest.

Wealth is the LEAST equally distributed. By a very long way.

Chart showing staggeringly high UK wealth inequality, and getting worse 2000-2015.

Chart showing staggeringly high UK wealth inequality, and getting worse 2000-2015.

Where does all of that wealth go? Well, the UK has the highest property prices and rents in Europe.

Average monthly rental costs for apartments in European cities 2015.

Average monthly rental costs for apartments in European cities 2015.

The Tories would love you to believe it’s due to immigration, but the truth is that we are strictly average in the number of immigrants per head, and those states cope.

Gross inward migration by EU countries 2012.

Gross inward migration by EU countries 2012.

The truth is rather nastier. The Tories strongly represent a class of income-earners called rent-seekers. Adam Smith, one of the fathers of modern economics and free markets, said…

Adam Smith maligning landlords (note: not all landlords are evil!)

Adam Smith maligning landlords (note: not all landlords are evil!)

Rent seekers like income that comes from owning property, not doing work, and includes finance. As soon as rent-seekers have dominance they have the perverse incentive to limit the supply of housing to drive up rents and house prices.

Adam Smith on oppression of poor, monopoly of rich, highest in countries going to ruin fastest.

Adam Smith on oppression of poor, monopoly of rich, highest in countries going to ruin fastest.

This diverts capital from growth-creating production businesses, because people can earn more from owning property. This leads to underinvestment in R&D and automation.

UK lags behind on R&D 2016.

UK lags behind on R&D 2016.

We are below average in industrial robots per head, for example. This leads to the UK falling behind.

Industrial robots per 10k employees by country - UK not in top 21.

Industrial robots per 10k employees by country – UK not in top 21.

We have declining productivity compared to the rest of the G7 – the northern Europeans could take Friday off and still produce more per week than a brit:

Declining UK productivity.

Declining UK productivity.

…the rest of the world (particularly Asia) is catching up fast, and this leads to the lowest wage growth in Europe.

UK joint bottom with Greece for wage growth 2015.

UK joint bottom with Greece for wage growth 2015.

We also have the worst pensions:

Comparatively miserable UK state pension.

Comparatively miserable UK state pension.

So it doesn’t look like the EU is the source of the UK’s problems, does it – when every other EU nation is better off? Could it be our own government that is to blame, of which JRM is one of the most self-interested?

Adam Smith showed, in his book “The Wealth of Nations”, that all wealth is created by production, by companies and people like Deborah [@DeborahMeaden] risking their money to invest in them.

Adam Smith says wealth created by producers for their own interest.

Adam Smith says wealth created by producers for their own interest.

In a normal country there can’t be more rents than there are production profits and workers wages to pay them. However, we are not a normal country. We invented the offshore tax haven and trust fund system, a product of anglo-saxon law.

Panama Papers revelation of money laundering.

Panama Papers revelation of money laundering.

The City of London became what it is from managing wealth, not creating it. It manages wealth on behalf of companies and individuals around the world. Mostly legally, because of our EU anti-bribery and anti-money-laundering laws.

However there is a link between the City and the seamier side of these offshore trusts that is exposed in the documentary “The Spider’s Web”, , which is available on Amazon, free on Prime. And it links all of the pieces of Brexit together very nicely.

Offshore tax havens now look after around $50Tn in assets in secret trusts. Fifty thousand billions. Now if the City earned just 1% for managing that money that would be $500Bn. Easy money, no need to worry about workers.

The Russian Money Laundromat exposed.

The Russian Money Laundromat exposed.

This offshore system attracts tax avoiders, money launderers and despots (did you know that Africa owes 200bn but African despots have almost a trillion in offshore funds while their people starve? If you want to reduce immigration, give the African people their money back).

So that is the link between all of the key players in Brexit. They all benefit from offshore secrecy. Farage, Arron Banks, the ERG group of MPs, Putin and his oligarchs, US billionaires, UK media moguls. The British public has been fooled by some extremely rich, very toxic people

Now those people have persuaded you that we need to build a commerce wall around the UK to keep out those nasty EU types with their regulations, despite it being very easy to prove that this is an EXTREMELY bad idea.

Retweet of @tfoale’s own earlier tweet:
[Dear BBC, you are confused. Here’s a simple explanation. Leaving the Common Market/Customs Union is like building a wall all of the way around the UK that costs people and businesses time and money to get over, in both directions. Those costs are trade barriers. ]

This is based on a very fundamental misunderstanding of economics. They are cargo-cult economists, having belief in ‘free markets’ with no understanding of how they really work. Not that Labour, or even classically-trained economists, are any better.

Retweet of @tfoale’s own earlier tweet:
[Libertarianism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of free markets. The ideal free market is not ‘free of regulation’. It’s a market which perfectly balances supply and demand based solely on the self-interest of its participants, GIVEN that certain assumptions hold. ]

So please, recognise that these old Etonians are NOT acting in your interests, the Tories are NOT the party of business and fiscal probity, and the UK is being cut adrift without a rudder to make a few rich ex-pat and foreign right-wingers even richer, at YOUR expense.

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Causation, Correlation, And The Perfection Of Science

The Director of, a professor of mathematical sciences, wrote in Causation vs Correlation, how journalists and others have the problem of how one establishes causality – and avoid misleading the public.

Though a controlled study?

Say for example you give one set of people Apples and the other group something that seems superficially like apples.

If all the Apples group got Dyspepsia and the control group didn’t, we’d have a jolly good excuse to believe Apples cause Dyspepsia.

But what if Apples cause Burping which causes Collywobbles which then causes Dyspepsia… and yet if you could prevent B or C in the chain, then D didn’t happen? Where exactly has your A “causes” D gone now? Is it now wrong? What if B and C can never be prevented? Would A cause D after all? What if B and C could be prevented but it never happens naturally and no-one knows how to do it and won’t until 2099? Now not even Uzoma’s clever comment that “x causes y if the lagged values of x improve the predictability of the current value of y”, seems totally reliable.

The confused sadness we feel at this point is called philosophy. But the more we ponder it, the more interesting and entertaining it becomes. One cause of philosophy is when concepts we thought were single identical blocks, turn out to come in different kinds. When your concept of X differs from ours, you can have a war. Even if everyone agreed (never happens), you may realise a concept contains moving or separable parts. You can then get a multi-sided war in your own mind, since our knowledge is in the form of networks of nested rules, and some rules want to stay the same and others want to change. It’s mainly conscientious thoughtful people this seriously affects, though it may throw anyone into doubt, some way down the line, if they remember the confusion, and have to make a serious decision.

Sometimes it helps to see exactly what is happening, even if on lifting the lid or getting out and looking underneath, the picture becomes complex. I find it helpful to reveal the view that knowledge is a system of models that enable us to predict the future, and predict our best actions to ensure individual and multi-generational survival, and their proxy: happiness. This makes things easier because it explodes the whole trouble-making concept of “cause”. It’s not about a real “truth”. It’s about strategies that people, animals, plants and other agents can do or should do to choose their best behaviour.

When an atom bomb explodes, the “unavoidability” of the sequence of events it follows is only the one we impose. Every sub-atomic particle is working out its own salvation on its own with no memory of what happened in the past and no sense of individual or group duty. The fact that airborne nuclear explosions always seem to cause a mushroom cloud, is just the way it always turns out, and always comes as a complete surprise to all the particles involved. The rule, and the fact, are concepts created by us. Facts, rules and truths are only psychological entities that nature has allowed us to create and use, to help us survive. They’re not really even engineering or scientific entities. Truth is like the image formed in a camera. It does depend on the outside world but it wouldn’t happen at all without the camera. If so, it wouldn’t be easy for entities like us to tell the difference between the concepts of absolute truth, and a subconscious mental process that gives us the feeling of a real thing out there in the world, like a (potentially erroneous) visual image.

That ridiculous mush now gives us a sound foundation on which we can build our truth/causality/etc processing machine plant, because it has dissolved the concepts of absolute truth/causality/etc. Now we only need to find handy rules by which we can create models or rules to deal with our observations and other aspects of the world. The first gift it delivers is the answer to why no-one has ever been able to nail truth, causality, the best way to establish a fact, etc. A truth is a model of a bit of the world we are prepared to rely on. It doesn’t make sense without the rest of our model of the world, and our bits of model change over time and differ from others’.

So we only have to make up some handy rules on how best to do scientific experiments, given limits on time, expense, and reliability requirements. We don’t have to find and prove strategies that ensure we’re doing the best possible thing. When people give up on finding an absolutely perfect strategy, it’s not a failing. There is no perfect strategy.

Nonetheless the rumour that there are cells in a rat’s brain that fire when it thinks it has learned a causality, are justifiable. It may certainly feel it has established a causality, and that process will no doubt help ratdome survive. We may well have somewhat similar cells. When they fire in our brain or in a rat’s it doesn’t need to mean an absolute truth has been discovered, and that doesn’t matter. It helps us survive, or the process does in the long run. We are prepared to treat it as a truth. It works. It will never be perfect and it doesn’t matter.

This is a disruptive idea worth billions. There is a rumour that facts can only be produced through a somewhat secretive process controlled until recently by publishing companies, and involving subjective unpaid opinions of unelected individuals whose expertise is arbitrarily accepted. Those individuals are/were social contacts of workers in those companies, but it so happens that the proportion of them that are saints is exactly the same as the proportion that are perfect philosophers. If the process is valid that proportion is 100%. It has a lot in common with selecting a pope, and this is because they are both typical power-brokering behaviours of humans. The extent to which the publishing industry has been imposing this process and its justification on the fact creation industry, is not widely known, but it wouldn’t be if it were done well. It has been done well enough for people to believe the necessity for the publishing industry is a fact and always has been, although the deception and its name have only been around since the 1970’s. It has been done so well that this process is believed by some to be the sine qua non of science. It has been done so well that another definition of science, the careful execution of controlled experiments, has repeatedly determined that the publisher-intimate process is perhaps the most corrupted and corrupting currently accepted process science has ever studied, and actively works against the best new scientific theories… and yet, it is either the foundation of science, or an essential pillar of it.

How weird it would be if science violated its own principles! How unusual it would be for people not to think things through for themselves, and not to ask awkward questions. If you could see through all this, and even worse, could tell that you had to satisfy managers whom you knew also knew it but followed it regardless, it would be like living in The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.

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Hey! A May Hay Holiday! Kiri Bloom Walden and Helen Castor

Perhaps an hour spent laughing at badstockphotosofmyjob late on Monday night prepared me for a bit of frivolity, so when I noticed Helen Castor was talking at the Hay festival the next day, I checked out the programme of speakers. Rose Tremaine offered a catalogue of horrible things that had happened to her so I was glad that was too early the next morning for me to get to. Helen Castor was talking about Queen Elizabeth I, but surely that would be just like a TV programme? However there were two speakers on storytelling-type themes, and these looked like just the kind of thing a Top Notch blogger should be on top of! I decided to sleep on it, and if I woke up early enough…

A thirty-five minute flurry of Hay Fest programme speed-reading, Google Maps and Traveline (shocking how slickly G Maps manages to do public transport now!), washing, dressing, lunch-packing, even managed egg on toast, and I was on the train. Just after I’d bought my ticket I learned with sadness that both Traveline and Google Maps thought there were no buses back from Hay to Hereford after midday. And this is what Hay railway station currently looks like:

Hay-on-Wye railway station nowadays. Looks like we missed the last train. By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikipedia.

Hay-on-Wye railway station nowadays. Looks like we missed the last train. By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikipedia.

I seemed to be heading for Serious Adventure land.

Couldn’t get in to the “HD39. Jen Lunn Read for Good: Secrets of the Storytelling Universe”, so I went to HC’s QEI talk instead. Unlike the other two talks that were in rooms big enough for about 20, Helen Castor’s hall had room for about 2,000 , and I must have got one of the last places. It were Grand. She revealed to us that Elizabeth was not only very canny, but that it was only through her unusual intelligence and self-control that she managed to avoid being killed (as Helen usually referred to it, as in the case of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn, instead of “executed”). Elizabeth would take up a carefully considered and prepared position and defend it faultlessly to the death, or in her case, to the avoidance of death. More than once The Authorities very strongly suspected her of being involved in conspiracies but just couldn’t quite pin anything on her. She also seems never to have spoken of her mother, only praised her father.

Elizabeth I's locket ring with minature of mum Anne Boleyn. Click pic for original from theanneboleynfiles

Elizabeth I’s locket ring with minature of mum Anne Boleyn. Click pic for original from theanneboleynfiles

And yet… she had the most delightful signet ring which opened to display a tiny portrait of her mother and someone else – not dad. That ring is kept very carefully under wraps somewhere and not even HC has been able to see it, although it was once loaned to an exhibition. Afterwards, one of the questions was about that ring. An Absolutely Gorgeous Jewel, as that bloke on the Antiques Roadshow might say. The Guardian’s view on it.

HC has recently started showing us unfailingly entertaining extracts from the Ladybird historical books, on Twitter, and her talk here started with the Ladybird Elizabeth I. Page one shows Anne Boleyn holding the newly born Elizabeth I wrapped in swaddling clothes I think they’re called, with Henry VIII looking on. Anne is doting, but although Helen described Henry as being portrayed not too badly in the book, he is glaring nastily at Anne and the baby, and as the text reports, he wasn’t pleased it wasn’t a son. Elizabeth’s older sister Mary was described as a different sort of person (yup, catholic), and, to much mirth, Helen read out that “Henry had been married before”. Yup, many of the audience seemed to have heard about that, by the sound of it 🙂 . I think they must have enjoyed writing those Ladybird books.

But I was wrong about it being like TV programme. It wasn’t, but it was clear that HC is an accomplished lecturer, expertly taking slow half steps back from the lectern from time to time help the legs with the standing, and speaking very easily. Into this hour she packed well over two hours-worth of TV time, but no-one was ever anything less than wrapt. She does “lady” very well in her TV appearances, but it’s clear from her footballing tweets she’s some way towards being a tomboy. It was a hot day and we discovered she has a tomboy’s knees 🙂 . I like that in a celebrity historian. Judging by the audience response at the end, we were all very pleased with her. She’s very able but seems to have no nastiness. I think she was slightly surprised by the extended applause at the end; she said it was the first time she’d been at Hay (as a speaker I presume). I’m sure they’d be happy to have her back. As usual, the unfair treatment of women was a recurring theme, and one of her comments that will bear repeating was: “No-one ever seems to accuse Henry VIII of being bossy and emotional”. Helen Castor has written the Elizabeth I book, in the 25,000 word Penguin Monarch series. See if you agree with The Guardian’s view on it.

I filled the two hours to the next talk with fried squid and chips, and a £4 ice-cream, but as people I was chatting to agreed, it was a holiday after all. They also agreed it was full of almost exclusively Radio 4 listeners-type people. Remembering Mickey Flanagan’s joke about places his wife says have “got an ambience” having no “working-class” people, I always feel rather guilty at Hay – but it doesn’t stop me enjoying it – even basking in it. While I was wandering about, expertly licking my ice-cream, a few people started giving me funny looks. Only later did I realise that despite my care and attention, I’d dropped four trails of melted ice-cream down my dark shirt :-S . However I was able to discover some of the fascinating stands there: Jackie Morris had a crowd round her desk full of otters.

Jackie Morris' Otters of the aphabet.

Jackie Morris’ Otters of the aphabet. Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris' names of the otter. Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris’ names of the otter. Hay 2018.

I think I may just have missed her drawing a new full-sized one with an ink-soaked piece of sponge. Fablus. Check out her Otters of the alphabet

She illustrates with gold-leaf too.

Some of Jackie Morris' stuff at Hay 2018.

Some of Jackie Morris’ stuff at Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris illustrated books Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris illustrated books Hay 2018.

There was Mari Thomas there, and what most caught my eye was a sort of parchment effect made of gold or silver, with the words disappearing through a threadbare gold or silver fabric.

Mari Thomas bookmark showing her eroded gold or silver parchment design

Mari Thomas bookmark showing her eroded gold or silver parchment design

In the second talk I attended, Kiri Bloom Walden took us through the four-minute Scene d’Amour clip from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” where James Stewart meets a woman who is supposed to be imitating a lost love of his. There was such a lot of film culture crammed into this. First she explained that westerners automatically become expert in standard film technique, so that when it’s violated, as it often is in horror films, it has quite a powerful effect. There’s a thing called film language, and also just langue. Didn’t quite fully understand that, but for example during a conversation, you get the view from behind one person’s shoulder at the other person’s face and then vice versa: “shot reverse shot”. Not doing that in the scene added disquiet. Also you expect to have a quick glimpse round a room upon entering it, but Hitchcock denies us that in the Vertigo scene. He spent time with the German film makers as his careeer was starting, and was influenced by Fritz Lange. Apparently a director who likes to control everything is called an auteur, though interestingly, once Hitchcock had had full control over the casting, he tended to give the actors surprisingly free reign. KBW showed the use of shadow and colour in the form of a green mist, harking back to a graveyard scene earlier in the film. Also, there were three doors in the bedroom in the later part of the scene, which was supposed to be ominous. One of them seemed to have a window in it, a bit like some kind of hospital or something.

The music was compsed by Bernard Hermann, who also scored Psycho and Taxi Driver, and as KBW said, the music made a huge contribution to Hithcock’s films – for example the stabbing music in the stabbing scene in Psycho. Bernard Hermann was a topic in Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week, discussed by composer Neil Brand, with Francine Stock. I was surprised to hear Hermann described as “minimalist”; even I noticed the huge triumphant Wagnerian crescendo in the central point of the scene.

I have to say the full effect of the scene was never going to work for me because though I could see the woman was affecting Stewart’s character, the style in which Hitchcock likes to portray his central women characters usually drains them of all sex-appeal for me, for example in this clip. Should say though that Anna Massey in Frenzy was an exception. I was also pleased to hear that though Martin Scorsese (or was it the other one?) had this as one of his favourite films, he often felt quite confused by it – as I often am with some Hitchcock films. Probably was Scorsese since he’d used the same composer …who died the day after finishing recording the Taxi Driver music.

Anyway, Fan TASTIC Day out, and not a single Y chromosome between any of the main people who made it for me what it was. And what made it perfect was that there actually is a frequent bus service back to Hereford during the festival 🙂 .

Hay bus timetable. Click to enlarge.

Hay bus timetable. Click to enlarge.

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Sabine hasn’t killed Popper

Sabine Hossenfelder – the phenomenology of quantum gravity – has I’m glad to say an interest in philosophy of science… and a popular blog called Backreaction.

In her areas of interest, as in mine, there are problems, but in hers it seems it’s always philosophy’s fault, whereas in mine, I tend to blame the practitioners. I don’t think Popper is The Pooper.

First let’s comment on one of her recent postings (I’ll look at earlier ones in later posts).

“Popper is dead.” “…his philosophy, that a scientific idea needs to be falsifiable, is dead….”

Working steadily towards “falsifiable”… no, “Popper” isn’t dead because there is still nothing to beat hypothetico-deductionism, for which “Popper/Popperism” is often used as a handy label. (I do so shamelessly.) Already in 1908, when Popper was only 6, Student’s t test was judging two theories by comparing what each predicted, against the evidence. If you take the one that best predicts the evidence (‘the treatment had an effect’ vs. ‘the treatment didn’t’) , that’s elementary hypothetico-deduction.

Popperism isn’t exactly the same thing as hypothetico-deductivism, and he didn’t have the last word on it any more than he had the first word. But his philosophy is still basically that of H-D:

Science is the search for theories that best explain or predict the observations.

It’s centered on predicting, and sometimes explaining. It’s not actually centered on testing and falsifying. And testing is a subtle issue, though most people think it’s a cube of concrete. He realised the necessity of rooting out “cheating theories” which can never be disproved; but these aren’t good theories because they tend to be bad at PREDICTING what won’t happen.

Why is the heart of the matter prediction? Lifeforms need to work out what to do, and when to do it. That’s why we remember, feel and think: they help us predict the best things to do at each moment. This process soon starts to involve predicting not just our best choice of actions but also simply “what will happen”. That way we can can base our action on what we think will happen, not only on what has just happened. (Theories that always say “anything can happen now”, are as unhelpful as those saying “anything we do now will be just as good for our survival as anything else”. It would be much clearer if the word “predict” meant that predicting one thing implied other things were predicted not to happen. Perhaps there is a better word, meaning “exclusively predicts”.)

Sabine says that according to Popper a good scientific theory has to be testable. But that’s two things: ‘Good’, and ‘Scientific’.

Before going on to her comments about what it means for a theory to be scientific, it’s vital to realise that testing a theory may only become possible with technology (or statistical or philosophical skills) developed in a thousand years’ time. I’m sure some current archaeological theories, mooted or latent, can only be tested by trawling through DNA held in the soil surrounding specimens. It was NOT unscientific to posit such theories prior to 1953, even though few could envisage such a test before then. Much more damage is done to science through unjustified “testing-related” criticism, than by people proffering “untestable” theories. That’s why I considered it essential to cover Testing thoroughly in my guidelines:

11) An untestable theory is one which is intrinsically logically untestable, not one for which no technique for testing it is yet known to some person, or indeed anyone. Deducing the scope of implications, effects, or influences of a hypothesis (via which it might be tested) can be slow and unending. ‘Untestable’ is a rare category, not to be routinely flung at everyone else’s new theory.

12) Tests a new theory can uniquely pass are best offered, and may be needed for superiority, but not for pseudo-criteria like theory status, false ‘testability’, or truth. Insisting on a mechanism for a theory is a classic error. A theory often inspires the discovery of its mechanisms and special tests.

In other words, you Do Not need to worry about testing until Later. And you shouldn’t need to worry about anyone yelling Can You Test That???!? before you’ve even finished working out what your theory is.

Sabine’s blog post:

“In practice, scientists can’t falsify theories. That’s because any theory can be amended in hindsight so that it fits new data. Don’t roll your eyes – updating your knowledge in response to new information is scientifically entirely sound procedure.”

Indeed, refutation is technically impossible in theory. But the other thing – proof positive – is so much worse. That’s why Popper stressed the importance of judging based on evidence against theories. But although you can’t criticise Popper for preferring “evidence against”, you can criticise him for stressing black-and-white, yes/no refutation judgements. In most sciences, even physics, we have to judge our favourite from a number of possible theories, sometimes none absolutely refutable, and each better at some things than their competitors:

2) The worth of a theory depends on such aspects as accuracy, generality, simplicity, and the degree to which its implications are genuine predictions (and the more surprising the better).

Indeed, a theory as originally stated, might make a wrong prediction, but by twiddling the parameters, it can be made to predict any required observations. Popper hated parameter-twiddling, but having seen how animals learn vital skills from their mistakes, I felt it necessary to offer the reminder:

6) A theory is refuted only when all its reasonable instantiations are refuted, not just one. Fixing faults in a theory can mar its other qualities, yet repair is still basic to knowledge development.

Remember from 2), that a more complex, and less general theory, even though twiddled to be more accurate (as yet), might well lose out. But our rules for theorising must allow theory development: theory development isn’t a once-and-for-all vote, it’s a marathon.

SH herself rightly claims that in practice, theories can be judged to be inferior, rather than absolutely refuted:

“That’s because repeatedly fixed theories become hideously difficult, not to mention hideous, period. What happens instead of falsification is that scientists transition to simpler explanations.”

We judge by use of subtle qualities, and sometimes, indeed usually, using probabilities. Refutation and even falsification are not words I would have chosen. The words I use are:

1) Science is the generation, judging and honing of theories which model (i.e. explain or predict) the best.

Perhaps “refute” has a slightly different, less absolute, meaning in Popper’s native language. SH would be able to answer that better than me.

“But many physicists not only still believe in Popper, they also opportunistically misinterpret the original Popper.”

Yes. The latter is a big problem.

“Even in his worst moments Popper never said a theory is scientific just because it’s falsifiable.”

I think he did. But it was not “in bad moments” because he was trying to address the “demarcation problem”: “What is a scientific theory?” (I think this is to do with the Wittgenstein business of saying you have no right to speak of subjects about which you know nothing/little or whatever; also there were claims that you could deal only with “facts”, which makes as much sense in advanced cognitive technology as dealing with good and evil in biology. That was the context, and as we might now see it, out-of-date detritus, to be polite, that had to be dealt with at the time.)

That question – what is a scientific theory – is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from What is a GOOD theory. I think SH confuses those two:

“It’s not hard to come up with theories that are falsifiable but not scientific. By scientific I mean the theory has a reasonable chance of accurately describing nature.”

Yup – she does confuse them. It’s a two-stage process: Check first that the theory does not embody some kind of logical barrier to its evalutation (i.e. that it’s testable – but don’t get obsessed with this for reasons I gave above; it’s all right – we don’t have Wittgenstein or the Vienna Circle or Freddy Ayer to worry about now)… and Second: see if it predicts/explains well (works as a good model – see above also).

“If the only argument that speaks for your idea is that it’s compatible with present data and makes a testable prediction, that’s not enough.”

Oh but it is, so long as its qualities like those mentioned in 2) above are met, compared with other theories.

“My idea that Trump will get shot is totally compatible with all we presently know. And it does make a testable prediction. But it will not enter the annals of science, and why is that? Because you can effortlessly produce some million similar prophecies.”

It’s a perfectly good model of the future, assigning a probability to a future event. Doesn’t deal much with scientific issues, but S H has only introduced it as a red herring, and as far as that goes, it works for her. Also, there ARE indeed infinitely many theories that explain the observations we’ve made – amongst them the theories that will one day take physics forwards beyond the current ones.

“In the foundations of physics, compatibility with existing data is a high bar to jump, or so they want you to believe. That’s because if you cook up a new theory you first have to reproduce all achievements of the already established theories.”

That goes without saying. That’s what it means to model as well as competing theories.

“This bar you will not jump unless you actually understand the present theories, which is why it’s safe to ignore the all-caps insights on my timeline.”

Just because you will probably have to understand existing theories to know what observations they already explain, it doesn’t follow that anyone trying hard to get you to learn the basics of practical philosophy of science, is wrong.

S H draws a picture of her science becoming contaminated by crap theories. I can sympathise – two of my sciences have: three areas of palaeontology have been completely destroyed by it, and social psychology has been seriously contaminated. But she’s not helping much, as her use of “predictions” in the following, shows:

“This overproduction of worthless predictions is the theoreticians’ version of p-value hacking.”

She criticises the easy proliferation of theories that in practice can never be tested… because nature’s deeper secrets are harder to get at. That just shows how far her science has got, not that searching for better theories is bad science.

“The point is that the easier it is to come up with predictions the lower their predictive value.”

Never mind about all that or however many theories it may be theoretically possible to come up with, the theories she hates to see proliferating haven’t done the business: they have NOT explained/predicted better than other theories, and that’s all you need to say to disparage them adequately. No need to confuse theorisation with prediction, or to confuse passing the demarcation test with scientific quality, nor even to confuse the likelihood of evidence given a theory with ‘likelihood of a theory being right’:

“In this argument you don’t want to show that the probability for one particular theory is large, but that the probability for any particular theory is small.”

And no need to throw mud at hypothetico-deductivism. H-D is the process of building the best models of the universe we can, and that’s all we can ever do.

It seems she’s written a book on all this. I make the easy prediction that it will damage the widespread understanding of the philosophy of science. But I can sympathise with what she said on her earlier blog post on the book:

“The current situation in the foundation of physics is a vivid example for how science fails to self-correct. The reasons for this failure, as I lay out in this book, are unaddressed social and cognitive biases.”

I can sympathise with that, to put it mildly. As I laid out in my book.

“But this isn’t a problem specific to the foundations of physics. It’s a problem that befalls all disciplines, just that in my area the prevalence of not-so-scientific thinking is particularly obvious due to the lack of data.”

What physics needs is some huge machine built to produce terragigions of new data per second. That should fix it.

“This isn’t a nice book and sadly it’s foreseeable most of my colleagues will hate it.”

Yup, they will.

“By writing it I waived my hopes of ever getting tenure.”

Do you know, I’ve just realised that my chances of ever getting a top place in palaeo at say Berkeley, AMHN or the NHM in London, may have been seriously compromised by saying everyone there were idiots.

“…But I have waited two decades for things to change and they didn’t change and I came to conclude at the very least I can point to the problems I see.”

Seriously now, you tried to do The Right Thing. But another thing you could do is find the people who know some good practical philosophy of science, and listen to them before writing a book on the subject.

I’m sorry to be mean but she’ll never listen to my advice, but if she did say anything it would be cheeky. However there were lots of comments to her post, many interesting. It would be cheap to say that not everyone agrees with her, since she said they wouldn’t at the start. But these are some I’m glad I read, starting with one by a certain ‘gowers’ – a Timothy I’d guess, by the classiness. Soon, another talks of mathematicism , and I think he has a point. It was that that nearly killed neural nets. Panda-girl mentions the demarcation problem, and Jayarava Attwood makes my point about the logical positivists. In between them, SH says she isn’t criticising Popper (only burying him, no doubt). Finally someone says Sean Carroll says don’t worry too much about falsifiability. I don’t like Sean Carroll but he’s right that the testability/urgent falsifiablity idea has gone way past its station. And that poster’s comment about Kuhn, has a point. For example, Kuhn saying what people tend to do (demand you provide an alternative theory once you’ve disproved another’s, for example) has too often been taken as advice on what scientists ought to do.

gowers said…

This discussion reminds me of the question of what makes a good mathematical conjecture. It’s not hard at all to come up with a statement that nobody has any idea how to prove or disprove, and therefore that is (i) consistent with the evidence we have so far and (ii) testable (in the sense that somebody might one day come up with a proof or disproof). But that doesn’t make it a good conjecture. A good conjecture is one that makes surprising and testable predictions.

6:55 PM, November 06, 2017
PhDstudent said…

Nice post. I am reminded of the people who post every possible prediction on Twitter for, e.g., the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, then delete all but the one that turned out to be correct after the event and try to convince people that they were psychic.

7:18 PM, November 06, 2017
bud rap said…

“That’s because repeatedly fixed theories become hideously difficult, not to mention hideous, period.”

Well, that succinctly describes particle physics and cosmology alright. Both disciplines are an unscientific compendium of mathematical fantasias that, in the aggregate, bear only a glancing resemblance to physical reality. And it is that lack of resemblance that makes them both so horrible in scientific terms. Observed reality does not contain the features that are prominent in the standard models.

Of course, to a mathematicist (like Max Tegmark for instance), this does not present a problem because the mathematics is thought to underlie and be determinate of reality. If their mathematical models require fractionally charged particles and dark matter, then such must exist. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the popular sophistry has it. Reality is deficient, not the models which are, by definition, always correct or at least always correctable.

While Tegmark may be an extreme example, it could be argued that mathematicism is the dominant paradigm in the scientific academy and has been for the better part of the past century. Empirical science no longer constitutes an open ended investigation into the nature of physical reality but is now a mere adjunct of theory, dispatched to remote realms in search of confirmation, no matter how threadbare, for the preferred standard models. For evidence of this look no further than the LHC and LIGO, where grandiose claims, of models triumphant, are spun from minuscule evidence that has been lovingly massaged from enormous piles of carefully pawed over data. Science has become a lab assistant in the department that bears its name.

Sabine, you and Lee Smolin are right to be uneasy with the current situation and it is undoubtedly brave of you to speak up, especially since it has rendered your employment situation difficult. Many Worlds, Parallel Universes and similar vapid theoretical concepts are the direct offspring of mathematicism. But mathematicism is essentially just a kind of modern day secular mysticism. Its objects of concern lie in the supernatural realm of the human imagination, far beyond the reach of proper scientific inquiry.

May I suggest that to defeat mathematicism, if that is your purpose, you need only rise to the defense of empiricism and logic as the foundational elements of science. Math will consequently reacquire its proper relevance as a branch of logic, and an essential modeling tool alongside qualitative analysis. Mathematicism will then be free to slink off to the philosophy department, if they’ll have it.

Best of luck. Your blog is a pleasure to read.

8:25 PM, November 06, 2017
panda-girl said…

I agree with richard the naivetheorist. Falsifiability alone cannot make a theory (or hypothesis) scientific. But if a theory is not falsifiable, using your example, one cannot even amend that theory after a test that is not consistent with its prediction. An unfalsifiable theory cannot not contribute to scientific progress. I am sure you would agree with this.

I believe, if you abandoned the falsifiability criteria, you probably would need to replace it with something else to address the demarcation problem. Do you agree, Sabine?

12:52 AM, November 07, 2017
Sabine Hossenfelder said…


I am not criticizing Popper. I’m saying Popper alone isn’t enough.

2:36 AM, November 07, 2017
Jayarava Attwood said…

I read this post yesterday and was too boggled by it to comment. I’m still confused today, but allowing it to sink in.

I think to be fair to Popper one must situate him historically. The falsifiability criteria was a response to the Logical Positivists. They argued that a proposition can only be true if it is verified. And Popper countered with the now famous black swan argument. Philosophical truth cannot be sought by verification; we can only show that something is not true by finding counterexamples. There may always be a black swan waiting to come along and falsify something believed to be true.

Of course Popper did not allow for retrospectively changing one’s prediction to fit new data. And maybe in retrospect, that was a mistake. And science doesn’t really seek the truth, IMO it seeks accuracy of explanation and prediction (some scientists believe that this amounts to truth, but naive realism is another story).

I think I knew that Popper was at least incomplete because of Higgs. The LHC was not made to falsify the predictions of Peter Higgs. It was made to “search for the Higgs boson”. To verify the prediction. A lot of scientists are apparently still logical positivists.

Thanks for making me *think*!

BTW the field in which this process has the largest impact is not physics, but economics. The standard economic models constantly fail to predict the real world, but are tweaked to fit the data retrospectively. Economists believe that if they can do this then they understand what is going on. They fail to predict events like the deepest and longest recession in living memory, but keep their jobs anyway. Because their models can be endlessly tweaked.

5:24 AM, November 07, 2017
Phillip Helbig said…

Sean Carroll and others have argued that we should give up falsifiability as an important criterion in science. I disagree. Any scientific theory has to be falsifiable in principle, pretty much by definition. Some things might not be falsifiable in the short term, but that is no reason not to work on them. But one shouldn’t equate these with things which are not falsifiable, even in principle.

I think Kuhn has done much more harm than Popper. 😐

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