Monday, April 17, 2017

If lack of reproducibility is a crisis, so is lack of producibility


The accepted practice is instead to adjust the model so that it continues to agree with the lack of empirical support.

This very Zen statement is a part of a commentary by theoretical particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder-- in Nature, no less (so it must be fashionable, if not also true) -- who writes candidly about the crisis in her field (and its neighbours: astrophysics and cosmology): Science needs reason to be trusted [Caution: paywall]. She calls it a crisis of "overproduction" (i.e., abundance) of theories, but I like to think of it as a crisis of "producibility" of experimental data.

In recent years, trust in science has been severely challenged by the reproducibility crisis. This problem has predominantly fallen on the life sciences where, it turns out, many peer-reviewed findings can't be independently reproduced. Attempts to solve this have focused on improving the current measures for statistical reliability and their practical implementation. Changes like this were made to increase scientific objectivity or — more bluntly — to prevent scientists from lying to themselves and each other. They were made to re-establish trust.

The reproducibility crisis is a problem, but at least it's a problem that has been recognized and is being addressed. From where I sit, however, in a research area that can be roughly summarized as the foundations of physics — cosmology, physics beyond the standard model, the foundations of quantum mechanics — I have a front-row seat to a much bigger problem.

I work in theory development. Our task, loosely speaking, is to come up with new — somehow better — explanations for already existing observations, and then make predictions to test these ideas. We have no reproducibility crisis because we have no data to begin with ... [Bold emphasis added]

Here's something that will makes your jaw not just drop, but go into a tailspin:

In December 2015, the LHC collaborations CMS and ATLAS presented evidence for a deviation from standard-model physics at approximately 750 GeV resonant mass2, 3. The excess appeared in the two-photon decay channel and had a low statistical significance. It didn't look like anything anybody had ever predicted. By August 2016, new data had revealed that the excess was merely a statistical fluctuation. But before this happened, high-energy physicists produced more than 600 papers to explain the supposed signal. Many of these papers were published in the field's top journals. None of them describes reality.

How good are graduate admission interviews, if job interviews are "utterly useless"?


Faculty members in almost all the Indian institutions are getting ready to interview tens (if not hundreds) of students for a handful (or a few handfuls) of PhD slots in their departments. A recent NYTimes article urges us to be mindful of limitations of this format: The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews by Jason Dana.

I realize there are quite a few differences between the kind of interviews Dana describes in his article and the kind we use. For example, his "experimental" interviews were (probably) unstructured, while we may be using something more structured [such as probing candidates specifically in the areas / subfields they say they are strong in]. Also, given the overwhelmingly large number of candidates compared to the number of available slots, there's usually a pre-screening exercise which relies on previous academic record, research experience, scores / ranks in entrance exams, etc.

And yet, this article reminds us some of the pitfalls of the interview process.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Editorials by Colleagues


These days, Current Science features only guest editorials by invited contributors, and it's great to see my IISc colleagues being featured in this very exalted space. Here's a quick sample:

Picture and a Thousand Words


This, from PhD Comics, is a gem.

That's all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A 'Special' Resonance


Resonance, the "journal of science education" published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, had something 'special' in its March issue: as Guest editors Prajval Shastri and Sudeshna Mazumdar-Leighton write in their editorial, "while this issue is no different from any other in intent, it is ‘special’ because it has an all-female authorship."

***

Hat tip to Vasudevan Mukunth's article in The Wire, which also points to special issues of Current Science and Physics News, but I am not able to locate their URL.

***

Update: The original post had a link to the special issue of Current Science; a friend alerted me that this issue has not yet been published.

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Removing Morons from the Productive Flow"


This profile of Scott Adams, the genius who created the Dilbert comics, has its focus elsewhere (his rationalizations of the rise and rise of Donald Trump during the US Presidential primaries and election), but somewhere in the middle is this gem (in bold, below) [If you are wondering why it stuck a chord, you haven't seen this ... (;-)]:

Adams’s Dilbert empire has been growing for three decades. When he launched the strip in the late ’80s, long-running staples such as Dennis the Menace, Family Circus, and Blondie seemed saccharine and dated. Adams’s creation was fresh, starring a sardonic software engineer named Dilbert; his conceited and grandiose dog, Dogbert; an incompetent boss; and a host of odd co-workers. Early installments showed Dilbert at home. When Adams refocused the strip on the workplace, it caught fire among a generation of office drones who spent their days staring at spreadsheets and slide decks. While workers had long tacked comics like The Far Side and Cathy to their felt cubicle walls, to say something about themselves and their brand of humor, here was a subversive comic about cubicle culture itself. During the ’90s, amid waves of corporate downsizing and the tech boom, a zeitgeisty Dilbert graced the covers of Newsweek, Time, and Fortune. Adams churned out Dilbert-themed calendars, knickknacks, and even a TV show. He also penned op-eds and business tomes, including The Dilbert Principle, based on the theory that companies tend to promote their least competent employees to middle management, “removing morons from the productive flow.”

* * *

Update: Wikipedia has an entry on the Dilbert Principle, in case you are interested.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Links


  1. What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? | The Upshot | Neil Irwin [See also: Is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology? | Fabio Rojas]

  2. ‘Copy and paste’ content spotted in IISER Thiruvananthapuram director’s papers | Journo's Diary | R. Prasad

In other words, "Get a Life"


Very little has been written on jealousy in academic life, and yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is prevalent in our profession. This is unsurprising. As Chronicle readers are well aware, academe today is a place of increasingly precarious employment conditions — where the "publish or perish" mantra is more relevant than ever and the pressure to win grant money has reached fever pitch.

In such an environment, it’s little wonder that jealousy can take hold. I’ve certainly felt my share (and I herewith apologize for privately cursing those of you who got positions and/or book contracts that I wanted). Jealousy may come with the academic turf but that’s rarely a good thing. So what can we do to better manage our envy at all stages of the academic career?

That's from Jay Daniel Thompson in The Chronicle of Higher Educationn: Maybe You’re Just a Jealous Academic. Can you spot the understatement of 2017? Hint: it's in bold.

This article eventually gets to "self-help" domain of how to deal with jealousy of the academic kind, and has an advice-list that might help you cope. The last piece of advice? "Develop interests outside the academy." In other words, "Get a Life".

Monday, December 05, 2016

From the Annals of Consumer Complaints: Boring Lectures!


From The Guardian:

Graduate sues Oxford University for £1m over his failure to get a first
Faiz Siddiqui claims ‘appallingly bad’ teaching during degree course prevented him from having a successful career

An Oxford graduate is suing the university for £1m claiming the “appallingly bad” and “boring” teaching cost him a first-class degree and prevented him from having a successful career.

Faiz Siddiqui, who studied modern history at Brasenose College, told the high court he believes he would have had a career as an international commercial lawyer if he had been awarded a first rather than the 2:1 he achieved 16 years ago.

Friday, December 02, 2016

QoTD


I am not a fan [of flag burning]. I agree that the American flag should not be disrespected. It's a sacred symbol that should be honored, whether it be on paper plates, or napkins, or banana hammocks.
-- Stephen Colbert [The Late Show (30 November 2016); the clip is also embedded below -- the relevant part starts at the 7th minute.]

Monday, November 28, 2016

Whistleblowing is Hard (and Dangerous): Theranos Edition


Just drop everything and read this absolutely gripping WSJ story on Tyler Shultz, the Theranos whistleblower (who also happens to be the grandson of former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was -- and continues to be -- associated with Theranos).

This snippet is from the section where the lawyers appear:

A few weeks later, Mr. [Tyler] Shultz was confronted by his father after arriving for dinner with his parents at their home in Los Gatos, Calif. His grandfather had called to say Theranos suspected he had talked to the Journal reporter. Theranos’s lawyers wanted to meet with him the next day.

He says he called his grandfather and asked if they could meet without lawyers. The elder Mr. Shultz agreed and invited his grandson to his house. The mood was tense but cordial, Tyler Shultz recalls, and he denied talking to any reporters. He says his step-grandmother was present during the conversation.

His grandfather asked if he would sign a one-page confidentiality agreement to give Theranos peace of mind. According to Tyler Shultz, when he said yes, his grandfather revealed that two lawyers were waiting upstairs with the agreement.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Links


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Trump Begins: The Dawn of the Donald"


Turbulent events demand an origin story. To make sense of "Just What Happened?"

Here's one from the land of Stephen Colbert [Update (24 November 2016): It looks like the embed doesn't work, but this link works, at least for now: The Dawn of the Donald].

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Laura Benanti, the Awesome


In these grim times, there's nothing better as a cheerer upper than Laura Benanti's impersonation of Melania Trump. Here are the three "Late Night with Stephen Colbert" shows she has appeared in so far: