Ed Yong is not a skeptical reporter

Andrew Gelman continues to investigate science quality:
How to improve science reporting? Dan Vergano sez: It’s not about reality, it’s all about a salary
…this time focusing on science journalism.

But the situation is worse than this. Gelman quotes science journalist Dan Vergano, and what he says is standard for his profession but it is not good news. And I couldn’t let this pass from Andrew:

“There will always be skeptical, thoughtful reporters such as Ed Yong…”


Funny to hear Ed Yong described as a skeptical, thoughtful reporter. Palaeoevolution, on which he often writes, is in a worse state than social psychology. You can’t even get to the stage of doing stats wrong when you can’t do experiments directly on the central issues in the first place because your job is discovering what happenED instead of what happenS. You should therefore be particularly careful, but instead, practitioners simply abandon all suitable scientific principles, and make all decisions on a social basis.

I gave a wry smile at hearing Andrew recommend seeking advice from explicitly a cognitive psychologist or computer scientist! I am both, and can identify both groupist/individual corruption/self-deception, and also major flaws at the heart of what little IT is used, but Yong never questions any current sacred tenets and never seeks outside (in any sense) opinions.

Vergano unwittingly highlights the deadly flaws in the profession of science journalism he teaches:

“Finding a collection of credible external sources…”

He has nothing but a social basis on which to grant credence. (He can recognise group approval but can’t recognise when the group is both wrong, and only joinable by those accepting group errors.)

“…to comment on science-related news (a quick, admittedly ad hoc, form of peer review…”

The latter understood as the heart of science only by those doomed to be involved in science but without a basic understanding of it.

“…often drawn from a literature search on a topic) is standard operating procedure for science news reporters.”

Try getting published in a corrupt field without being corrupt. You can’t get into the literature, so this will stop you getting questioned.

“It is largely what we do, asking outside experts to sanity check new results.”

It’s because there are no examples of Yong ever having done that, that he is such a nuisance.

“When enough of them agree that something is reasonable or newsworthy or both (or not), we report those reflections in our coverage of the news.”

When enough in a field realise that big improvements are often easier to block than to be adjusted to, the better scientific work is, the harder it gets to sell… on top of the hard job of doing it in the first place. And taking money out of the equation would actually make little difference to palaeontological science.

Until journalists understand that science is a process of duelling theories, and that all of it at one time had support from one person alone and so cannot be handled democratically, science journalists wil be no more than a series of self-righteous road-blocks to the best scientists. And it would help if journalists learned that science is not the Kuhnian “what scientists DO do” but the Popperian “what they SHOULD do”.

“That is how it is supposed to work.”

It isn’t. Good – indeed simply decent – scientific journalism has skepticism as one essential component (and not just imitation skepticism) and genuine competence in both the specific field and the nature of science in general, as another.

Last year when yet another piece of genuine science showed once more that peer review only corrupts science, Yong was preparing what was described as a “remarkable new book” on BBC Radio 4, on how your gut flora was important for your health. My mother told me that before he was born. Neither the BBC nor Yong ever acknowledge the corruption behind what they largely use to justify their mispractice.

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Defending David Attenborough: Groupism And Incompetence

“If you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus!” (Jim Callahan; Prime Minister).

“Evidence is those observations not well explained by a theory, or not as well explained by one theory as by another.” (Sciencepolice-14 Rules Ж10.1)

“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses in action.” (Irving Janis: Groupthink (early draft))

“Life is not a popularity contest! Oh wait – it is.” (T-shirt caption.)

The above snippets link together, and to David Attenborough’s 2-part Radio 4 series this week on The Waterside Influence on human evolution, and in the process we need to explain why supposed scientists misbehave in the face of this idea:

Groupism in Science

Scientists go into their field usually with a view of becoming a good scientist; but to have a career in science you have to foster that career. So being a scientist, like being a politician, or an internet phenomenon, or almost anything, is a two-horse business: you must ride both your career horse and the “core business” horse if you are to “succeed”.

Unfortunately for Core Business horses around the world, most people are much better at Doing The Social Thing. They enjoy it more too. That’s because going around and contacting people, in person and these days on the net, and establishing mutual bonds of liking, respect and co-operation, are evolutionarily desirable, so evolution has made it almost universally enjoyable. The reason it’s unfortunate is that establishing how good you are at the core business is almost always contaminated by your (or others’!) success at socialising, and sometimes dominated by it. I believe I once heard a story about someone feeling hard done by because a colleague spent lots of time on the golf course with their boss, and got the promotion, without being any better at the job. You may have heard that story too.

Not only is the work of good performers at the Core Business at risk from specialist Socialisers, but there’s more damage to the core process:

The core business becomes a sideshow to the social operation, leading to more and more decisions being made in terms of social rules, especially rules of Group Behaviour: please others by supporting many people’s ideas – good. Come up with disruptive ideas – bad.

Science is all about coming up with new ideas. That’s why groupist behaviour is bad for science.

But groupist behaviour is very useful in a social animal for passing on your genes. That’s why war is so popular.

The worst thing of all is when worth – all worth, even in terms of morality as well as the core business – becomes judged by how well you please others in the group. Then, errors in a groupist culture become very difficult to correct or control. That’s why the national and group leaders you hate the most, got as bad as they did: the moral framework gets warped by local influences.

Then there’s the problem that outsiders with no understanding of the core business, can’t make judgements except through group performance. Other groupist organisations, especially those involved with pleasing people not just inside the organisation but outside, are especially bad at understanding there is ever any argument that can’t be judged by a democratic measure of popularity. (Martin Redfern, Alice Roberts, et al. at the BBC: This Means You.)

Also, anyone trying to drag judgements back onto a core business basis, gets seen as complicated, incomprehensible, pedantic of course, boring, irrelevant, weird, and eventually mad. (Weirdly, the word weird originally meant “able to control the fate of men”. At some point between the Indo-European era and the social media era, I think it may have changed its meaning.)

Even if instinct didn’t drive groupism, most people have been brought up amongst groupist examples; in most countries groupism was the standard, if not last generation then the one before, and certainly the one before that. Even if blatant sexism and racism are now often out of fashion, the groupist tendency is still intrinsic; it’s still standard practice in academic circles to call those better than you cranks, and block them secretly in every way you can.

Not the least menace is that you can’t feel yourself slipping across to the Dark Side! I’ve seen it happen any number of times. Try telling people they’re caving to peer pressure, and they won’t believe you. But they will hate you. I think the main group able to understand this, to notice the groupism creeping over them, and to resist it, is psychologists: not because they’re incorrigibly weird (though we are), but because the training gives so many examples of people completely believing something blatantly wrong (in either sense), often specifically under group pressure. However, sociologists, philosophers, and those with firm morals, sometimes the religious, are often also resistant to the creeping menace.

So now we’ve seen why groupism infects science, and why it harms it, let’s jump straight to the main criticism made of the Waterside Hypothesis (or whatever name) by groupist scientists…


“Oh, there’s absolutely no evidence for it!”

This criticism has a wonderful side effect of implying your opponent doesn’t even understand the need for evidence, and further, they’re some kind of muddle headed ignoramus… and this becomes the dominant impression your message communicates.

OK Alice Roberts, David Marjanovic, John Hawks, Jim Moore of aquaticape.org, Kate Wong, Henry Gee et al. et al,… when exactly did you make a detailed investigation of the nature of evidence sharp enough to computerise, and then relate it to other sciences? You haven’t done anything remotely resembling that because you’ve never had enough interest in any aspect of cognition to become knowledgeable about it. As a result, every time you say anything about evidence, you show you don’t understand it.

A piece of evidence is an observation that helps choose the best theory. Since there is a potential infinity of theories you or people in the future could construct to explain any set of observations, even if a theory accounts for all the evidence, this doesn’t prove it is true. Because of this, you can never prove any theory true, at least not in the natural sciences. Even if it’s the only theory around now that covers all the evidence, that doesn’t stop further theories in the future from explaining it better.

So evidence lacks the power of positive proof. However as theories are required to explain observations, if they fail to explain/account for/predict one or more of the observations they are supposed to explain, they have failed the requirement of a theory.

That’s why evidence always acts in a destructive manner. For example, if you had a theory that all the most recent “20” or so African fossil species (let’s call them) of pre-human, “ape-man-ish” nature, are all more closely related to the human ancestry than to chimps or gorillas, as every person I mentioned three paragraphs ago does, your theory has at a first estimate, one chance in 3 to the power of 20 of being right. That’s an example of evidence acting negatively. And since none of those mostly overpaid punters above has even acknowledged the problem, it’s also an example of not being able to put simple statistics and the basic scientific principle together well enough to be called a scientist. And since every time someone points out your incompetence in this, you blame the problem on them, it’s evidence inconsisent with a basic standard of professional morality. And if you’re happy to include overtones that anyone who disagrees with you has psychiatric issues, thus seeming to be claiming expertise in that area though no professional in that area would behave like that, it is further evidence better supporting the view that you are a charlattan than that you are not. (In fact in her 2014 book which didn’t have to cite mine because she could find an excuse not to, Roberts acknowledged that the ancestors of chimps and even gorillas might have been upright, yet also took uprightness to be diagnostic of the human lineage. Messy thinking not worthy of being published as science, and not worthy of a science professor.)

But if the observation is that many more humanish fossils seem associated with shellfish than would be expected if human ancestors almost never exploited the waterside, then that observation is better explained by a theory that does posit a waterside habit. So that is evidence for: it’s certainly evidence, and somewhat against competing theories. But it’s not evidence that destroys all other theories, which is what the Old Guard say is required. They say that, because they still, subconsciously at least but usually consciously, believe in the positive nature of evidence, and in a version where they won’t start to consider an outsider’s theory until it has already completely proved their own theory impossible. Also of course, it’s standard groupism to apply the strictest acceptance criteria to non-group theories (or people), while applying scarcely any at all to their own. For example waterside theories were expected to make predictions when the Old Guard never required it of theirs. In fact, in historical sciences predictive endorsement is rare compared to simple explanation of pre-existing observations.

Other observations are indeed evidence against the waterside theories’ opponents; listen again to the radio programmes or read Marc Verhaegen.

Whos’s bad?!

Alice Roberts tweeted to ask if the contributors to Attenborough’s programme knew it was so positive towards the aquatic view. Wish on. Those that don’t advertise their support of it are being careful to avoid Roberts trying to damage others’ careers before their good work damages her own reputation. In the last year or two she has flicked the tweet “Bonkers” at the aquatic theory. Well, if your theory requires that David Attenborough is bonkers, you may as well give up – quite apart from all the other people you want to colour bonkers. There is no “strangely” in what Roberts terms “the strangely enduring nature…” of the waterside idea. It endures because people better at science than her think it’s a good theory. What I find strangely enduring is the habit of paying any posers skilled mainly in scientist-impersonation, to occupy positions where they can block good science.

John Hawks tweeted “Even Homer nods”, meaning even great ones such as Attenborough make mistakes. Actually he hasn’t made any error here, but Hawks has made a few blunders:

* No chimp or gorilla fossils found. (And no consideration of the anomaly, so that’s two in one.)
* Extraordinarily low rate of viral insertions in the recent human lineage if 7 million years is assumed – much better explained by reducing the chimp-human split to 4.15 million years ago.
* Confusing the parent-to-offspring mutation rate with the long term genetic clock.

Clumsy brushstrokes like that make his overall picture a nonsense. About what you’d expect of someone without a proper science degree, quickly promoted to the point where he was too self-important to listen. I don’t care if he can code; as John Maynard Smith said, any idiot can write a computer program. Hawks may be good at getting his message out but he’s not as good as Osama bin Laden, and I disagree with some of his ideas on evolution too.

As real philosophy of science simply isn’t taught, not even on the way to PhDs in scientific disciplines, it is only those who can think for themselves and have the power, like Attenborough, or the freedom like Verhaegen, Morgan, Greg Paul, Algis Kuliukas etc. or myself, who can make real headway through the jungles of palaeontology. We have to put up with groupist incompetent professors pissing down our backs and telling us it’s raining, but we have the consolation of the acknowledgement of posterity, and the satisfaction of making the scientific discoveries.

Posted in Human evolution, Philosophy of science, The Secret Dinobird Story, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Oh, Oh, Woe What A Lovely Referendum!

Last week I heard someone say, without deceit: “Why? What did she do?” when told Hilary Benn had been sacked. I think that person might really be on to something! Better just cut yourself off from the news and politics for years – and now more reason than ever!

This multidimensionally disastrous mess has happened for very simple reasons. There are three sorts of people who have caused it: the ignorant; the cynical exploiters for power; and the good guys were repeatedly ineffectual. Take Wales as an example of the first. Although no-one I’ve spoken to in South Wales voted for “Out”, Wales as a whole did. The main issues in the minds of the “Out” voters were: immigration, which has impacted Wales hardly at all, compared to for example London with great experience of immigrants but less objection (and similarly the much more mixed Cardiff voted Stay vs the valleys voting Leave); and money. Wales was a net beneficiary Europe-wise to the extent of £400 million per annum, which it will now lose… and those who voted to lose it didn’t bother to find out about it first.

So the people in Wales voted to lose financial benefit they didn’t know they had, and to avoid a problem they knew nothing about, and which people who did know about weren’t so bothered about.

This Gary Larson cartoon seems apt.  Do make sure you pick up The Far Side where this is to be found, or his latest compilation of all his work.  It's a substantial tome in weight and other ways but you'll never find a better item to leave lying around your house to impress and tickle up visitors! Click for the Gary Larson site.

This Gary Larson cartoon seems apt. Do make sure you pick up The Far Side where this is to be found, or his latest compilation of all his work. It’s a substantial tome in weight and other ways but you’ll never find a better item to leave lying around your house to impress and tickle up visitors!
Click for the Gary Larson site.

The others who caused the problem were at the other end of the spectrum: those who had power already and wanted to increase it. Right wing newspaper owners like to influence. What do they want to influence? What have you got?! Dumping Europe gives them one less potential competitor for influence, but there is also the Proud And Bigoted Old Englander identity which they adhere to since they know a certain type of reader will engage with that to bolster their own identity… while buying more papers.

Then there are politicians – some going for personal gain, and Ghod, the winner of the Westminster Fat Pig competition looks to be Boris Johnson. A few weeks ago he wasn’t sure which side he was on; now, jumping the right way has set him up to be prime minister. Makes you proud to be British (YUK). Nigel Farage is an interesting case. Is he motivated by a clear and sound view of an independent way for the UK to change and prosper? No. He’s driven by his discovery that he can gain influence, as so many cynics have always done, by forcing people to make sudden knee-jerk decisions based on the simplest most revolting group psychology. It’s pure groupism, and if you can harness it, you’re driving the power wagon. It is of course nasty to the point of very dangerous. Not just are complex decisions concerning long-term economics, international politics and the environment short-circuited by xenophobia, but he actually doesn’t care that he is destroying the entity his party is named to support! THERE WILL SOON BE NO UNITED KINGDOM – because The United Kingdom Independence Party will have caused the Scots to choose Europe over England. So now on top of everything else there will be a massive mess over deciding where to put the nuclear fleet and then moving it, and massive expense when it has to move, and a massive argument all over again over whether it’s worth having. It’s interesting that Farage didn’t go to university. His style of “always the knee-jerk decision” couldn’t have survived in the way it did if he had.

Then there’s new shit not many of us foresaw though perhaps we might have: serious increases in victimisation of minorities, now the chanters of “Give Us Back Our Country” feel they’ve been mandated. I’ve known a lot of Polish people and I prefer them not only to British bigots but even just to the average Brit. They’re just much more civilised. How many revolting nutters do you know who can play the piano?

The tory and Labour leaders weren’t in either of the first two categories that brought this about – at least Cameron didn’t want to make hay by supporting Brexit, though he did gamble the country in the hope of a slight gain for his party – which of course went horribly wrong, and which his photos now grimly show he has realised. Labour is to blame for exhibiting another another deadly principle that contributed: not exactly the principle that if you have no power you can’t do anything, but that fate, which they now suffer, has been a result of giving power to idiots – which I’ve mentioned already. There is a very nice person I know, who is obsessed with hating the tories, and who therefore thinks that getting the most anti-tory leader is a good thing. She should have listened to Douglas Hurd. He often used to say: “Think it through.” Just predict step by step what will happen in the end if you do what you’re thinking of doing. Then ask yourself if that’s what you really want to happen. Democracy! Democracy! The more you extend it the better you’ll be! Actually, reducing the MPs’ power to elect the party leader, extended it to people who didn’t realise Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn would zeroise their power. If David Miliband had been elected, as he would have been by the MPs, he at least would have made a good fist of rallying Labour around the Remain standard (and who knows, he might even have won in 2015.) Individual members of the Labour party caused the disaster as much as anybody. A political leader needs to be an inspiring figure. Caroline Lucas was a passionate preacher for staying – better than any major figure in any other party – even more than Nicola Sturgeon. Why does Labour not understand the need for charisma in leaders? Because Labour now gives its big decisions to idiots.

There should never have been a referendum on this issue, for the same reason that there never was and never should never be one on hanging, or on anything where the unthoughtful will outnumber the wise.

I cannot understand why good arguments for staying were seldom put forward well. Someone had to shoot out a set of crisp, pithy, convincing one-liners to match the Brexiteers’ but they did not. Sometimes the good, thoughtful guys have to use the Devil’s style.

In science and in politics there is no substitute for thinking. We don’t decide scientific issues by giving the vote to the ignorant, because when we do we end up with something like cladist absolutism. This Europe vote has shown that in politics, pure mindless principle can take you only so far. You must vote for what you can get – half a loaf is better than no bread, even if Maggie said it. If the good guys say nothing, or if they don’t think things through themselves, or aren’t grown-up enough to understand the importance of practicality, then we’ll allow the ignorant and evil to take us to hell in a hand-cart.

Oh well. If I do turn the news on, at least I’ll have the spectacle of Corbyn vs Johnson. To go with Trump vs Putin.

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Celebrating Dylan Thomas

What? Eh?! You mean Dylan Thomas day is TODAY?! OK – well a bit rough and ready then…

“…Down to the sloeblack, slow, black…” as you can see from the pic of my script below – not that anybody can ever forget the first time that tingled their spine – and quite often subsequently too! Note how he warns you by the eleventh word: “It is spring, moonless night in the…” that he’ll be twisting normality to wring things never got out of the language before, as the 20th century artists did with images.
I was impressed as a kid – in class and on the radio – and I’m delighted but not too surprised that Dylan Thomas is the most googled 20th century poet, but I never realised that I’d have the opportunity to be soused in the richest possible Dylan marinade myself, for months! I haven’t yet recounted my stumbling return to amateur dramatics after fifty years, and how my irresponsible incompetence forced the company to cancel Antony and Cleopatra – that is a tragedy for another day – but the wonderful Gordon (sixty years actor manager) forgave me! AND later asked me to be Lord Cut Glass in Under Milk Wood!

Of all the excitements and other emotions one is prey to around the company, it’s the great Honour of it all that’s the king, and I find I just can’t say no, when Gordon’s almost sepulchral dramatic voice asks if I’d like to take part.

I genuinely suspect that none of the hundred-odd plays Gordon has put on, nor any of the hundred he will doubtless stage in future, could match the production they put on earlier this year. For one thing they’d already done it once before, and some of the participants then were in it now, and there’d been an additional false start subsequently, so many of them knew the play very well. Also they were of course 190% Welsh (except me and the Irish lady Dymphna 🙂 ). And many of them were and are Absolutely Top Notch actors; some better even that that! Perhaps first to leap out of my memory? The poisonous yet remarkably unpoisoned Mrs. Pugh, played by dear little old Janet, who played a fairy in the 40’s, and was on University Challenge in the 60’s. She was also “No. 23 – Important”, and though I wasn’t on stage to see here do that properly, I’ve no doubt she was ideal for the part. Unfortunately I lost an oportunity to perfect the timing and movements of my silly walk as PC Atilla Rees whilst she was commentating on Lily Smalls on her knees as walked past them both, since I don’t think DLOJ considered perfecting that aspect essential. Nonetheless, I was quite pleased with my walk, where I imagined myself a marabou stork and wafted my boots in huge graceful arcs through the air. I had to wear a thickly quilted nylon jacket under my postman’s tunic since although I was tall enough, I was not, unassisted, anything near the “barrel chested” state specified in the script. Also, that was the only one of my parts where I was recognised by anyone in the audience who knew me personally, and perhaps that was only because I had to march up to the front of the stage and glare menacingly at the audience. A bit of guilt there – I really needed a bit nore practice at glaring menacingly, especially before and after Silly Walking, and I didn’t quite invest enough preparation into my art there 😦 .

Lor Cut Glass was the most challenging for me, even though he was the only Englishman amongst my roles (in the whole play actually). He was especiually interesting because oddly he was the most weird of all the characters, certainly mine, and yet was uncannily, in ways I don’t care to explain exactly, like me. He was an extreme clock enthusiast, and I admit I may be thought to have extreme enthusiasms in certain areas of science. His fussing over his clocks, somewhat matched my fussing over my writings and programmings! 😦 In the end I decided to cradle multiple clocks in my arms and sort of fondle them. I hope it looked as weird and creepy as it was supposed to! And like me, the character was very fond of tinned mackerel, as well as being a rare Englishman amongst the Welsh. Last time, that character had been played by the remarkable Dale, who’d impresed me in another company’s performance of Blythe Spirit, and although other members of that cast were staggeringly brilliant – I would like to mention Madame Arkarty – Dale had been picked out for the prize for performance in that play, by, presumably those more expert than me. Flirting round and round the gorgeous and gorgeously played Myfanwy Price, as Mog Edwards, right in front of me, was memorable to say the least, but his performances as Cherry Owen duetting with Karen Walters, and also duetting actually chorally with Waldo, sung rivettingly by Phil Davies, were each worth the entry money themselves. I did see the recent Under Milk Wood film with Charlotte Church and the chap who was the Welshman in “Love Actually”, and although I had a lot of sympathy for that film and went along with it, it really wasn’t a patch on our production. Really.

I was also the bible puncher Jack Black, who repaired sexy shoes by day, and stalked the woods by night seeking out snogging couples to disapprove of and wave his bible at. By chance I’d recently pulled out of a skip, along with a camera and other great stuff, a gignatic leather-bound bible in Welsh. So I waved that. There is one bloke near where I live who I slightly modelled myself on for this, and I managed to get a laugh on the second performance by the way I pulled my trousers on. (They were already on of course – I’m not that kind of actor! – but I did that hip-rotation thing ladies sometimes do when pulling on their tights, which has always fascinated me.)

Other parts forcing themselves onto the stage of my memory were Mo’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, expertly terrorising her two dead husbands simultaneously, and of course the husbands, Phil again and Martyn. And the unexpectedly good Richard as the Reverand, and Elaine’s unbeatable Rosie “Come on up boys, I’m DEAD” Probert. How could a strict and respectable teacher play that part so vividly?!
cast rotated IMG_1406
And then there was… Gordon’s daughter as Polly Garter. Just uncommentable. And don’t forget she can sing at least as well as Charlotte Church – and she did. And she was just as good as Lily Smalls. Jo’s going to be the Alison Steadman character in “Abigail’s Party” which she’s directing later this month. And we musn’t forget her mum and her kids and all the other kids in the show, and all those wonderful gossip ladies along with Captian Cat, who were the two washing-line poles of the play… and all the rest of them, and Myfanwy Price’s real son who did the lights 🙂 .

And yet I had yet ANOTHER part too! I actually volunteered as The Voice Of The Guide Book. I soon realised DT was using it to mock Pevsner the German architect who drove around Britain after the war, writing guidebooks on the buildings. Thomas used him as an ignorant, unfeeling outsider, to gain sympathy for Llaregub (that’s: “Llar(with the Welsh double L of course)-REG(with a rolled R)-ib”) and its characters. Of course I couldn’t expect any audience to understand my attempt at a German accent, for more than one reason, so I left it out, but I tried to put a fair degree of disdain into my commentary. Initially Gordon wanted less disdain, and I put more sympathy into it, but then it did sound like some weird and very cynical Allan Whicker! Maybe when I recorded it (some voices were played from recordings) I put a little more mildly Tuetonic coldness back into into it, because I am delighted to say that Gordon said he quite liked the detached objectivity in the end 🙂 .

Nice to be able to repay even a little!

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Jingmai O’Connor Values Peer Review and Palaeo PhDs and Demonstrates Their Uselessness

Some dramas you’ve just got to comment on, whether or not they lead to any moral conclusions… But as it happens, this one certainly does…


Jingmai O’Connor.

A feisty but very very personable person (she chats very pleasantly here), who you can imagine gets on very well with her bosses (so long as they weren’t women!). She has zoomed to being a professor at 32.

She writes a lot of papers none of which ever question the underlying beliefs of the group. The group’s subject – dinobird palaeontology – is a historical science and so gains benefit from controversy-resolving experiments less easily than do inductive sciences such as psychology/physics blah blah blah as I’ve said a million times, and is therefore horribly prey to random memes sweeping through it, and worse, psychological/social corruption on a massive scale. This has concerned some of the world’s top experts in the scientific process, and it’s been understood, analysed and commented upon for decades. To forfend these threats, communities need a sound understanding of psychology and philosophy of science. Nobody in palaeontology knows anything about these. If they did they wouldn’t behave as they do.

It is a composed science (combining many others) and the greatest of these is information science, since the dominant task of palaeontology is the computerised construction of family trees. This is a very tricky job requiring inputs from many areas and many other sciences. A research-level degree in information science is required to judge the validity of these family tree structures. No-one employed in dinobird palaeontology appears to have one, or to be on meaningful speaking terms with, anyone who has. The vast majority of dinobird palaeontologists have probably never written a computer program in their lives, and are notorius for not being able to get their statistics right.

O’Connor went in with a geology degree, and did some extra study of bird anatomy in order to deal with her postgrad work, and that’s it. But to thrive in her career, all she needs to do is identify the beliefs of her bosses and work within them. She gets none of the complex issues right, and some of the simple ones wrong. As a PhD certificate should announce expertise in the principles and practice of sound science, and of the essentials underlying the science concerned, her PhD, like so many in palaeontology, means nothing.

This is Jingmai on Footinmouthbook:

Yeah - keep on Keepin' It Real, dude; we DO like to know what you really think!  Oh Donald Trump!  Where are you when we need you?

Yeah – keep on Keepin’ It Real, dude; we DO like to know what you really think! Oh Donald Trump! Where are you when we need you?

I can sympathise with that smart + beautiful thing – I find it a real curse myself. It causes chaos 😉 . That’s why I’ve been advised by the Home Office to keep pictures of me off the internet in case they melted it. (To be fair, it can be a big problem for a few, as shown by that Brick site I already linked to, above.)

Mickey Mortimer.

From his blog "The Theropod Database"; click to go there.

From his blog “The Theropod Database”; click to go there.

Like Jingmai, lacking in anything scientifically useful except careful observation, a good memory, a thorough approach and a bit of geology from his degree. But unlike her, unusually bright. He also thinks for himself as his selfies show, and he made an impression on me after 9/11: while others on the dinosaur mailing list were saying “Wow” and “What does it all mean”, and reciting the national anthem, he just carried on dinosauring, thereby showing that at least he wasn’t going to be affected by the attacks. He is also relatively open minded for a cladist, and kindly gave me the benefit of his opinion on Patagopteryx when I was writing my book. I feel it was a bit mean of Jingmai to express those views about his looks because whatever you may think, and it is hard to judge, you can’t say Mickey doesn’t make the effort.

The Current Biology site.

They sort of interviewed Jingmai, or at least gave her some questions to select from.

Leonid Schneider.

In response to the Current Biology interview and the subsequent Twitterstorm around her views on science bloggers, he posted, on his blog “For Better Science”, a piece entitled “Jingmai O’Connor interview: if you have valid criticisms, publish them!“. As he says near the start, referring to the Current Biology interview:

“O’Connor’s last reply, to a question of academic commenting via blogs and social media, produced a Twitterstorm of indignation. Many on Twitter were debating: did O’Connor really accuse all blogging scientists of being incapable of proper academic publishing? Did she really mean to say, as Lenny Teytelman summarized it, “Good scientists publish. shitty ones blog”? Is doing both mutually exclusive?” He then interviewed her himself. There were 27 replies within three days, including one which I don’t think he was expecting: Mickey Mortimer’s defence against Jingmai’s nasty and rude email to him which I haven’t seen, but including that Facebook message she sent him, which he’d screengrabbed before it was quickly deleted.


on Schneider’s “For Better Science” blog; also general



Scene 1:

DATE January 6th, 2016

Mickey Mortimer, on his blog, thoroughly criticises a paper by JO’C. This is not the first time he’s done this. (Nor the last.) He’s not really rude but he is ruthlessly thorough. (Or at least he’s not rude to JO’C; he does sometimes give a very good example of inter-group rage, e.g. when commenting on classic members of prime outgroups, such as the chap who thinks the fibres on fossil dinobirds aren’t feather-like fibrils but collagen fibres.)

Scene 2:

The Current Biology “interview”, reported, I think, on 11 January 2016.
JO’C says how she got into studying evolution while doing geology, and moved towards palaeo.

But, if you haven’t grappled with anything technical or abstract in biology, you might as well have been collecting cigarette cards of animals, for all the good it will do you in palaeontology.

I am obviously impressed by what she says here:

The number of Cretaceous bird fossils uncovered in China is unprecedented — we recently published on the largest dataset of fossils from a single dinosaurian taxon, 224 Anchiornis from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature!

Anchiornis was probably the ancestor of Archaeopteryx. How come there are so many Anchiornis?? Evidence for an explosion resulting from an evolutionary breakthrough, presumably.

…the study of paleontology is being rapidly transformed through the application of cutting edge technology, and this gives the younger generation a competitive edge.

What does she mean, I wonder? The natural ability of the young to take readily to Facebook? (Oh boy – I wish I was young enough to write Facebook postings like that!)

Actually there is a very serious point here. She claims the younger generation has a competitive edge due to cutting edge technology. Exactly WHAT cutting edge technology is being used?! And especially that which ‘only the young’ can manage well? I repeat here as elsewhere: there is NO technical expertise being used by the likes of O’Connor, and if it were, the complete absence of technical expertise that they show would put them at a huge disadvantage. They have no idea about the cladogram generating programs they use, and the issues around understanding their output. In fact it’s not just truer to say that it’s precisely the gullibility of the young that allows them to follow the folly of their teachers (her professor Chiappe is typical here), but it is at the heart of the mess of palaeontology that it’s only because they have so many technical, and perhaps moral, ingénues in the field that it stays permanently in the mire.

Current Biology: “Do you believe there is a need for more crosstalk between biological disciplines?”


There actually is a lot of it going on, at least in paleontology, but more is always better! For example, I work with several labs that study the evolution of development, but I also collaborate with biomechanical engineers. I love collaborating — there is no way individuals can be experts in every field, and by working with other disciplines you not only expedite the progress of your research, but you also often gain new insights and perspectives that often lead to new ideas.

She is not the slightest bit interested in anything anyone else tells her if it means she might have to change her mind – particularly if it comes from outside her field.

Although it was Current Biology that specified crosstalk between biological disciplines, most of the damage is being done by the likes of JO’C making amateurish mistakes in non-biological disciplines that have a bearing on palaeo.

Current Biology: “What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?”

[Heh heh! Funny you should say that 😉 …]


Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

God – she really is such a simpleton, isn’t she. You go to school, believe everything you’re told, study for degrees, and when you get up to the one she’s got (mind, not the silly old first degree that Mickey Mortimer has got – that doesn’t count for anything!), then you go to work, and do and believe everything your bosses tell you… and they and you are the good people, and all the others are naughty and stupid and don’t count! Well here’s what I’ve noticed about the world: people hunt surrepticiously and perhaps even subconsciously for power, and when they’ve got it they make up reasons why it’s right they should have it, and they do whatever they can get away with, to keep it for themselves. Thus, it’s vital to get into a position to veto ideas (about, say, the importance of checking for independence in data) that might undermine your standing, even though all you know about information science is “Triassic then Jurassic then Cretaceous”. [I did originally write here: “If no-one was trying to stop others expressing views, how come no-one from China has ever been permitted to view my blog directly? And perhaps every other WordPress blog?” But I’ve just noticed I had 2 views from China yesterday i.e. 22nd Feb 2016 🙂 . And one in Oct 2015. None in 2012-2014. Stop Press: one on March 3rd 2016.] And how come every single member of the SVP tries to pretend that every single insight I revealed in my book was nonsense – even the ones with digital justification!? Get real. It isn’t a resounding poll amongst independent electors that results in everyone from China ‘disapproving of’ my blog – the supposed ‘numbers’ are not independent and neither are they unbiased – and the same goes for the opinions of members of the SVP. Later on we’ll see Tony Thulborn (that’s the Australian one – he’ll be in the “Not The Same Person” chapter in the 2nd edition!) discuss ineffective peer review wonderfully well.

Publishing might be nice as a criterion if the peer review system in palaeo wasn’t corrupted to buggery. It’s not like it’s slightly imperfect “because it’s only human after all”; it’s like a clock where two thirds of the components aren’t working but no-one knows or cares because no-one can tell the time anyway. What “the palaeontologists often forget” is that peer review is the system by which poetry journals decide which poems to publish, it was never mentioned by Popper in any of his books, and there’s nothing that especially links it to science. I sometimes implement statistical algorithms to help understand phylogenies, though I admit I’m about as good at statistics as I am at running. But one paper I actually submitted to a journal, was referred to David Unwin who understands
statistical algorithms about as well as he understands Inuit. Of course he was unable to make any meaningful comment at all and he rejected the paper ostensibly because he said my sentences were too long (but in reality because I criticised the beliefs of him and his stupid friends in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology). O’Connor, while failing to recognise any of her own shortcomings, would simply see views in my paper differed from hers, and just say That’s Not Science.

In other sciences, getting the opinions of a few people who didn’t produce the paper, can be useful, even if, as usual, none of them have much idea of the philosophy of science beyond two or three erroneous slogans; but in palaeontology, believing in peer review is just a damaging fantasy. But when there’s a rotting hippo blocking the official road (coughHenryGeecough), you simply take another path. Then there’s the curious situation relating to China: Popper famously gave Marxism as a prime example of an untestable theory. As a result, whenever I do science, I’m directly challenging the Chinese government, and so, theoretically, is anyone else doing science, there or abroad. I wonder if the Chinese premier, visiting the UK the other day, mentioned Bacon (the one with the hat) not just because that might be an example of something useful the UK had produced that could be turned into a diplomatic compliment, but also because President Xi was trying to suggest an alternative to Popper? Anyway, even if I may one day be Big In Japan, China will always try to stop me being heard.

Also, just publishing in commercial journals that have managed to gain power in the academic field, is a whole nuther separate thing which I decided to bypass 25 years ago. In engineering-type fields like AI you don’t have to ask the publishing industry if your machine/program works. Look at Apple or Google: if it works, they just use it. And in palaeontology it doesn’t matter a damn even if your idea is wrong – it couldn’t do any harm anyway, so why bother with all fuss, delay and expense? We know for sure that many palaeo ideas blessed and accepted by Science and Nature (and the BBC and the NHM) must be crap and others were undeniably so in the past, yet the world still turns now, as it did when children were solemnly taught that Brontosaurus had to live in swamps.

Scene 3:

The Leonid Schneider blog interview of JO’C.

LS mentioned Lenny Teytelman’s blog posting “Blogging is wonderful for science. More scientists should blog and tweet.

(Teytelman found the academic lifestyle was driving him and his family nuts and asked whether he needed it – as I asked myself in 1990 whether I needed to be formally within the academic framework any more, to do science. Who knows – maybe Jingmai might one day ask herself a similar kind of question.)

I would like to mention Teytelman’s comment:

“I find that what is truly damaging to science is the false assumption that publication or peer review equals truth.”

[A posting on Teytelman’s blog in 2013: “What hurts science – rejection of good or acceptance of bad?” attracted a comment by Nikolai Slavov:
“I fully agree with and support the idea of decoupling the importance of a paper from its review and the journal where it is published. The part that is essential to keep and raise in significance, in my opinion, is the scientific rigor: the claims in a scientific article must be supported by the data and analysis. I am not convinced that we can rely on random “experts” or majority layman opinion for that part…
…It is great to make the evaluation of a paper transparent and ongoing but the first pass, I think, must involve people who have a large probability of assessing correctly the support of the claims by data and analysis. Otherwise we may end up with numerous weak and incorrect but mutually
supporting claims forming influential opinions, a phenomenon well studied and amply demonstrated by psychology research.]

JO’C, answering Schneider’s question 2:

…As a scientist, I feel the most important trait is the ability to admit when you are wrong.


…What I oppose, are people who are not scientists sitting around in front of their computers acting like they are.


Be an amateur scientist, great healthy hobby! But do not disrespect the hard work most scientists put in to become the careful, knowledgeable researchers they are.

Or rather, the cavalier, willfully ignorant, cynical groupists her group actually are.

5. Should a scientists reach a certain maturity (like, PhD degree or tenure) before becoming a peer and entitled to criticise publications of established scientists by private communications?

Absolutely not

Oh really? Didn’t she Facebook: “a BS in anything does not make u a professional” ?

6. Do you see any situation where such peer criticisms should be ever posted in public (because they could not be published in a journal, for whatever reason)?

I think you are welcome to do this if you want, complain online about your paper being rejected unfairly. Or in rare cases, yes you may be being stonewalled – a flaw of the system, a direct result of the fact it is comprised of human beings. But I think if something is really valid and important that it should be capable of being published in a peer review journal.

Oh yes! What a wonderful world that would be.

No one can stonewall every journal. Might it be more parsimonious to think that this hypothesis might be incorrect rather than to think the whole scientific community is against them?

It’s not “the whole scientific community” blocking certain insights from non-palaeo disciplines through all journals! The cancer has been spreading for nearly fifty years, and once it grew past the tipping point, no-one violating the groupist creed could gain any traction through the formal channels. That’s the whole point. That’s what they do – they infiltrate and hijack the mechanism, and then they just turn round to the rest of the world and claim the results of the ‘proper’ processes back them up. But elsewhere in the real scientific community, where her gang hasn’t managed to infect, sound ideas can be aired.

If you have a valid idea, you must have proof.

Because neither she nor any of her teachers know anything about the philosophy of science, they think historical biological science is the same as geometry. Just this alone shows the pointlessness of paying for people like her to do what she does. In answering Leonid’s 4th question she herself says “Nothing is perfect”. To Question 7 her answer includes: “we should not expect perfection. Perfection is something we slowly and painstakingly strive towards, but never reach.” She’s right there but if she is there can never be facts, proofs or truths in palaeontology, only a list of current hypotheses, all supported by circumstantial evidence. They constantly jockey for relative favour like alleles constantly moving up and down the fitness table in a genetic algorithm as they mutate and encounter different environments. This is still science but such a community of theories is not to be treated as though they were facts. Check out chapter two of my book (in the first 15% free online) for an outline of what historical science really is.

In this case, maybe by presenting their case online others will be interested, pursue this hypothesis, find proof, and tada, the internet has saved science! But sometimes people just cant accept being wrong – I often say the number one thing holding back science is the human Ego.

Now let me see if I can think of someone whose ego gets in the way of science… The main thing we’re seeing here, apart from not understanding the way science should work (e.g. trying to use parsimony as a trump card, trying to veto things all the time etc. etc.) is people saying one thing and doing another.

To question 7:

a scientist’s career can be ruined because his public image got tainted in some scandal in which the accuser is some amateur who thinks he is being clever but actually just doesn’t understand. And you know who else doesn’t understand? The administration. And next thing you know, you’re under review because of some jerk with a computer. These mistakes SHOULD be caught in the peer review process of publication and it is a shame on the journals that let such mistakes through, they are the ones to hold responsible…
…In any cross-section of humanity there is a population of liars and cheats…


…Although the scientific system of peer review publication is flawed, it is a better system than a free for all of ideas/comments/critiques from netizens of varying educational

Translation: “It’s easier for people like us who have never designed an experiment, written a simulation or indeed any kind of computer program, nor opened a book on philosophy of science, to get away with our little game if we can game the system to prevent those who have, from being heard.”

10. Concluding thoughts?

I think the idea that we are even entitled to any opinion is wrong. because it allows bigotry. You see, I am bothered by the 21st century disease of “my opinion on everything is valid and every one should respect it.” I think the idea that we are even entitled to any opinion is wrong. For example, entitled to be hateful and bigoted…

So some people shouldn’t be allowed ANY opinion, even on science, because sometimes some opinions cause problems? Since she’s never thought about the nature of knowledge, she doesn’t realise all concepts are uncertain, plastic and, importantly, negotiable. She doesn’t welcome others’ opinions because she sees them as law. Because of this absolutism, the only alternative she can see is for herself and her friends to be allowed to have the opinions but not anyone else. As we shall soon see, though we might have learned it from her comments already, she and her friends decide what’s what, and whatever that is, they call it Science, and they can do that because they’re scientists… because they have whatever level of degree she’s up to, despite none of her gang knowing jack shit about anything other than bird bits.

The respect others are entitled to expect from you is that they are entitled to have a, pehaps provisional, opinion – not that you have to obey it.

…based on what you think despite what science etc tells us?

WHOSE science? YOU’d have to be an expert, but all you know is bird anatomy and a bit of geology. You think science is parsimony, or anything claimed by a someone of your choice holding a PhD in anything.

This is the 21st century

Never a sound argument in moral philosophy [“In this Modern Day And Age… we should do what I think.”]

and we should not hide behind freedom of speech and we should take responsibility for our species as a whole and our global actions and utilize the knowledge we

Who’s WE, cladist? Need knowledge engineers apply? Oh yeah – that whole Freedom Of Speech thing.. rubbish wasn’t it. Not thought through at all… it never really worked out did it. Shame though, when you think of all the effort spent defending it. But all that was so last century; I for one welcome the return, in this modern day and age, to the simple comforting certainties of blockheaded arbitrary tyranny. And don’t forget how interested Hitler was in the environment.

She begins (or continues) to argue that because there are important issues in the world, some people, I guess, chosen by her, should be subject to permanent veto on issues that interest her:

…have at our hands to be better, not ignore environmental problems (I’m a crazy environmentalist) or preach intelligent design under the guise of “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.” So why should things that apparently didn’t make it through the scientific process…

Ah yes – “The” “Scientific” Process. The process, supposedly agreed and perfected, which of course is based on the Peer Review System, on which she is an expert… even though many of those joining in the discussion she inspired, question its value, and some of the top philosophers of science (plus at least one knowledge engineer!) have argued, in detail, that her school of scientific “thought”: cladism, is rubbish…

Bear in mind that under her regime, the creationists Newton and Maxwell would have been sent somewhere they wouldn’t be heard.

…to still be presented… because… its someone’s opinion and they are entitled to it despite peer review identifying problems worthy of rejection?

Let’s slip in here, the very impressive comments on peer review by the Australian Tony Thulborn, in answer to her saying:

‘If you have valid criticisms, publish them!’

“Oh yes. In an ideal world, perhaps. In the real world you will often be denied the opportunity to publish valid and important criticism because the gate-keepers (editors, reviewers) don’t like your criticism or, in some cases, don’t even understand your criticism. (And, if I may forestall the smartarse critic, their failure to understand doesn’t necessarily betray your failure to explain matters with the utmost clarity.) Your criticism might be supported by incontrovertible evidence and (for the benefit of boneheads) explained in words of one letter, but if others don’t want to hear it, they will refuse to hear it. Even if you do keep trying and eventually succeed in publishing your criticism, it will do you no good, for its existence will be (polite cough) ‘overlooked’, even by those who’ve been unfortunate enough to meet you in person and have a copy stapled to their shirt-front. And even if its existence should be admitted, it will be deemed inconsequential, not worth mentioning – for reasons that are never explained or, worse, for reasons that are spurious… which will take you all the way back to square one.”

I admit my opinion on things I know nothing about don’t matter (and maybe, no definitely, I should learn more to hold my tongue).

A mature cladist knows that the creed doesn’t actually fit with other academic disciplines, yet since it takes outsiders some time and expertise to discover this, the strategy of all sticking to the same story and also pretending to be real academics, can be made to work, and is robust to short-term set-backs… so long as you don’t let the image slip. It’s too late for you to become a real scientist but you could have made it as a cladist had you held your tongue. “Professor by 32…” And by 33…?

And this is why I think social media is damaging, because its largely a lot of unchecked opinions, often hurtful, hateful, baseless, uneducated,

I can’t think of anyone involved in all this who shows less benefit of education than you.

…etc. This is the point I made in the end of the article in CB. And now in light of the ensuing internet rage I have attempted to clarify my stance, aka I have stuck a few more opinions out there. When my whole point was that myself and others shouldn’t flagrantly do this….

Well, we’ve come to expect a lot of hypocrisy over the last few days. But I’m so glad you did because now we know what you think.

Now that I’ve thoroughly crucified myself….

I don’t care what you’ve done to yourself [what on earth is that invert doing on your wrist?!], since people like you have been desperately trying to ensure that real contributors such as myself, have their life’s work wasted (in this area anyway!), and you’ve been genuinely hoping we’d die soon. I can provide a Twitter quote from John Hawks, for one, that implies that. I do though, so hope you’ve crucified your school of thought. Anyone can see that you think science, which in fact is a continuing process of dueling theories, should be reduced to the say-so of any group that you happen to belong to – and the same for political dialogue – and that you can reveal the mentality of a badly brought-up kid a quarter of your age.. and yet…, amazingly, you are the wunderkind figurehead embodying everything that 21st century palaeontology is proudest of!

Yep, you certainly do represent professional palaeontology perfectly.

Which is why we need blogs.

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Marvin Minsky – I Sat Next To Him Once! :-)

Marvin Minsky was a giant of the 20th century – not just his own field, and especially for me.

He is credited, along with John McCarthy and one or two others, with having invented the term Artificial Intelligence in 1956 at that famous Dartmouth conference. (It seems the term was actually coined by 1955 – a suitable year for its birth, I’d say 🙂 .) Like other pioneers in the cognitive sciences (Freud: sex in eels; Pavlov: the basic mechanics of dog dribbling or something), Minsky did some early experimental work on animals – lobsters in his case. Minsky was bright, inventive and combative, and had a lot of interesting ideas in cog.sci (I was particularly impressed with his The Society of Mind published in 1986) but he also invented the Confocal Scanning Microscope. Funnily enough, at a taxonomy conference I attended once, two of his main involvements pervaded the proceedings: the CF microscope, and the notorious Perceptron. The two concepts, of Minsky and the perceptron, could not be themselves without each other!

The perceptron is a simplified concept of a nerve cell, with inputs to it from other neurons. If enough inputs are helping our neuron to fire, and not too many are inhibiting it, then it will fire and send outputs on to other neurons. Minsky (and his close associate Pappert) didn’t like the perceptron. But surely, if you had enough such units arranged together next to each other and in layers, couldn’t that do whatever a brain could do? Like many people back in the 1970s, my instinct was that it could, and my face betrayed this when Professor Sutherland informed us in our Perception tutorial that there was a problem with the perceptron’s abilities. In those days I didn’t argue with professors, especially those who weighed about 20 stone and had a half-empty bottle of Beefeater gin on their desk, mid-morning, and with no lid or glass in sight. But he was pretty perceptive himself, though exacting, taking care to do a good job and explain that when perceptrons are used in a single layer they cannot do certain things. They can’t separate areas of the input space into enclosed regions. That means that a perceptron with just two inputs, one representing the east-west position, and one representing north-south, could only ever be taught to say whether a point was on one side of a line, but not that it was in some kind of enclosed space.

Why people had to get so hot under the collar about this was never clear to me, since it was well known that if you stacked perceptrons in multiple layers, the outputs from one layer inputting to units in other layers, you could perfectly well judge whether a point was in an enclosed area (in 2D space with just two inputs, 3D with three, or “multidimensional space” for more complex real-life problems that needn’t have anything to do with space). But for some reason, Minsky and Pappert had this amazing ding-dong battle with the champion and inventor of the perceptron, Frank Rosenblatt.

Years later Minsky admitted it was “probably overkill” on his part. Well, just “kill” was bad enough, not just because shortly after that episode not only did Rosenblatt die, but also it became almost impossible to get funding on any project that involved neural nets (a perceptron being a unit in a neural net of course). In the UK, this was superimposed on the negative effects of the Lighthill Report which directed funding to be cut back because it thought there was no prospect of AI becoming a reality, or becoming even useful, in the near future (there doesn’t seem to have been a similar report for the prospects of the CERN experiments, but then some sciences take PR more seriously than others).

This damage to the AI effort, largely self-administered, is somewhat reminiscent of the zombification of palaeontology, but since AI isn’t packed with pompous ignorant blockheads the way palaeontology is, good work (on neural nets) did actually continue. In 1986 Rummelhart and McClellend edited their landmark two volume Parallel Distributed Processing, reclaiming the territory but carefully avoided the term neural nets wherever possible even though that was what it was about, and which included famous influential work by Hinton and Sejnowski. (1986, ’87 & ’88 were good years for publishing: in ’86: Society of Mind, Parallel Distributed Processing, The Dinosaur Heresies; ’87: my Idea For A Mind paper 🙂 , suspected of being influenced by PDP and SM, though I’d actually read neither by then; ’88: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, Science as a Process, Reconstructing the Past.)

The atmosphere in the conference chambers that hosted the perceptron rows was reportedly legendary. Long after, in about 2002, I attended an AI conference in Birmingham (not the Wham Bam Alabam one! – the “real”, though admittedly smaller one) which both Minsky and neural nets hero Geoffrey Hinton attended. I was a bit late since I’d had to drive round and round the campus finding where the meeting actually was, without notices posted anywhere nor anywhere convenient to park and check the map. By the time I got in, most of the seats where taken, but people seemed to have steered clear of the one next to Minsky, so I sat there. This time there seemed to have been some kind of maths challenge between Minsky and Hinton, and Minsky had his head down busily trying to do some complicated sums. All the while, speaker after speaker gave talk after talk unavoidably mentioning the major influence Minsky had had on first this area of AI and then that, with Minsky himself paying no attention to the repeated mentions of his name. He also paid no attention to an American lady in the middle of the room who didn’t seem to be tuned in much to the AI but was keen on cheerfully implying that she at least considered that she was a good friend of Minsky, while constantly rustling sweet wrappers. That was the first day I actually met Stan Franklin, a great chap, and very nice to me, whose time I feel I’ve terribly wasted. Stan was someone else Minsky never paid much attention to; a big mistake if you ask me, not to mention insult. Oh yeah – also there, in the back row, was that chap Push Singh. Now whatever happened to him, I wonder? Yup – suicide: becoming a standard AI fate, viz Turing, and including, I suspect, Michie! But anyway… there were echoes of the bad old days in the interchanges between Hinton and Minsky: calm, patient and slightly long-suffering from Hinton; somehow his manner and very long suit trousers reminded me of some representation of a good young father from a 1950’s film. He had studied under Christopher Longuet-Higgins (as Higgs the nuclear physicist had when he and C L-H had both been chemical physicists), so he’d had experience at dealing with big, demanding personalities. (C L-H seemed to bring his associates good luck! Freeman Dyson was at school with him.) Funnily enough Minsky paid no attention to me either, until I asked him “What would you say was the definition of science?” He turned slowly to me, regarding me with some suspicion, and said fairly patiently and apparently not for the first time: “I don’t know but I know when I see someone doing it.” I’ve never considered that a good answer. It doesn’t distinguish between animals snuffling about, non-scientists snuffling about, and people (or agents) explicitly seeking the models that best explain the observations… and to ignore the Popperian view without saying why or even acknowledging it… 😦

But I think I’ve worked out to my own satisfaction what drove Minsky to wage the perceptron war. At that time it was thought, wrongly, that you had to choose between the Symbolic Approach to AI (which was all about solid blocky concepts, LISP programming and languages), or on the other hand, the Connectionist Approach – i.e. neural nets. In fact, you do need lumpy concepts with subtle characteristics interacting complexly with different kinds and categories of other concepts, for their standard execution, as Minsky realised, but what he didn’t realise was that you can, and must, create (i.e. learn) those blobby concepts by neural net methods – more subtle and complex methods than we currently have – in the same way that strands of candy-floss (cotton-candy) are accumulated round the stick to form a blob. He didn’t see the perceptron as the simplest first example of an endless sequence of instantiations of neural net advancing into the future… and he couldn’t see this partly because of groupism – he was a symbolist – and partly because of a kind of arrogance that mathematicians (coughLighthillcough) often have, of thinking they’ve summed up everything about a concept and its future possibilities because they’ve demonstrated some isolated point concerning it. Paradoxically Minsky was one of the first to investigate neural nets experimentally (the “SNARC” – Stochastic neural analog reinforcement calculator) but he was hampered by trying it before the invention of the programmable computer. I think that because he couldn’t do it, it annoyed him to think that someone else could. But just because you can’t do something with a soldering iron, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There is a picture of the electronic box Rosenblatt constructed to investigate his perceptron instantiation of the neural net, and to my eye is looks like he’s been able to use wires that plug in and out of sockets to make connections. Just a simple technical advance like that can perhaps make all the difference!

When he was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid; but the concepts described in The Society of Mind would make a good list of features to be accounted for by an ambitious AI implementation.

What pleased me most about him was something he said in his main conference talk about John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument. Searle claims that if you have a room where slips of paper are passed in though one letter box with Chinese writing on it, and people inside the room busily follow various rules which eventually produces an English version which is passed out of the other side of the room, there’s nothing in the model that actually understands Chinese. In Minsky’s view, and mine, that is a claim that within any process that does something there has to be some sub-component that actually does the whole job.

I had wondered if his death would be reported on the BBC radio news. If it was I missed it, and if it wasn’t, I’m a bit peeved. [Ah yes – died Jan 24th; had nice feature on BBC Radio 4 Last Word Fri 12th Feb. A very notable student of his, Patrick Winston, gave a glowing talk on him, though missed out the controversy 🙂 .]

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The Dinosaur Wore Bubblewrap pt2 – Further Thoughts

[Continuing from my first posting on Duane Nash’s idea that some scales on some dinosaurs may have contained air (or at least gas), thereby providing thermal insulation…]

I think Duane has in mind hollownesses within nodular scales that were sometimes filled with air (or other gas) and sometimes with blood, or sometimes increasing or decreasing amounts of each:

“Through vasoconstriction[,] blood flow can be diminished to this layer creating an insulating, vacuum sealed layer of air visceral to the outer skin and which insulated dinosaurs from temperature extremes. Additionally, this layer could be vasodilated and engorged with blood to facilitate heat shedding or heat uptake into or from the environment respectively.”

But I think it’s important to remember that the “air” concerned probably wasn’t going anywhere in between hot or cold episodes, and also that it probably wasn’t possible to change its pressure at will, so you couldn’t just pump blood into the air-filled volume. Of course, if the mass of air remained the same but the temperature changed dramatically, then the pressure would inevitably change within an air-tight cell. I think blood supply changed when the animal was hot; it might have done what we do and just widened up the blood capillaries near the surface of the skin when it wanted to cool down, or perhaps it might have pumped more blood close to the surface of cells (through channels in the bone) only on the shady side.

But no blood in the central hollownesses. I’ve looked at the heat images of those sunbathing crocodylians (caimans) in Duane’s post, and because we don’t quite know enough about the circumstances, I don’t think it’s possible to say much, other than it’s not too surprising to see such images of “crocs” sunbathing, possibly still quite warm from the night before (the zoo was near the equator), with a slight breeze cooling the tips of the scales. That doesn’t mean the channels within stegosaur plates did not contain blood – perhaps they were internal arteries that fed exterior veins, but if so, those channels never contained air.

There is a big problem about how to get air into such hollow spaces within nodular scales. I suspect it is very difficult to produce air spaces without access to outside air. If it were easier, mammals would have air in the centre of their long bones that needed to be accelerated and decelerated the most (e.g. tibia/fibula). Birds can sometimes do it with some long bones (doubt if it ever gets below the knee) because they have outgrowths of their airsac system which can channel the air. But in order for birds to be born with air in their lungs they have to poke their nostrils into the airsac within the egg a day or two before hatching. The original liquid is drawn back into the membranes, and some evaporates, but outside air replaces it. I’m pretty sure hollow bones below the neck are never air-filled until after birth, and I don’t think even birds can just magic up bubbles entirely within the body… usually.

But if it’s true that Longisquama‘s feathers were in the form of long squashed balloons with seams down the middle, then air must have got in somehow! AND… not only would ornithiscian dinosaurs have presumably used the same method or at least achieved the same effects to air-fill what were in all likelihood homologous structures, but also, one would expect the method to be inherited from dino-ancestors with similarly primitive feather types. As I have explained at length, “dinosaurs” evolved repeatedly from small tree-living gliders, quite often from an ancestror with a slightly different feather type. Thus, troodonts and dromaeosaurs evolved from Archaeopteryx/Anchiornis-grade forms (powered flight by then, perhaps even Anchiornis to some extent) with modern feathers; Sinosauropteryx etc. evolved from animals with more primitive but already fibrous feathers; maybe there was an earlier descent of “theropods” earlier in the Jurassic, already with fibrous feathers of a slightly different sort… and before even that, there were dinosaur clades that came from types with non-fibrous feathers. That’s why we don’t see fibres in the same way and to the same extent on ornithiscians, but we may well be seeing some of these air-filled structures.

How did air get into these structures? Incidentally, air-filled structures may well have been part of the heritage of later fibrous-pellaged types, but presumably lost somewhere along the way when more modern feathers evolved. I have always supposed Portugese-men-o’-war can actually produce bubbles entirely internally – I think I’ve heard that claimed – and if so then it must be possible. I don’t see how Longisquama could have produced air-filled feathers by communicating with the internal pulmonary system, or to have inflated them with outside air. (Of course, it might well not be air as such but some other gas such as CO2 or O2.)

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