04 July 2010

Weekend Roundup, Holiday Edition, 3-4 July 2010

This Weekend: skeptical liberals; theism and science reconciled (maybe), the conclusion; phone apps for arguing atheists (and Christians); Jefferson changes a word in the Declaration of Independence; Pogue reviews a Facebook book (and I go off on a tangent on the future of publishers); part 2 of the psychiatric history of homosexuality; standardization causes poor reproducibility (who knew?); Zimmer explains "one-off"; Pullum pummels Parker and Payack; Venn coffee tables.

Tobin Harshaw at the Opinionator (at the NYT) asks whether liberal commentators and bloggers are buying the U.S. Administration's happy talk that unemployment is improving.  He thinks not.  And the unemployed (hi!) don't seem to be buying it either.  Harshaw considers the potential problems this may cause Democratic candidates.  It really ought to cause problems for every candidate from either party.

In fact, today seems like a good day for a new Declaration of Independence.  Where's my quill?....

John Wilkins continues (concludes?) his series on whether science and theism can be reconciled within a single coherent point of view (I think this is a more or less accurate précis of the overall question he has been considering).  Here are parts 1 and 2.

I've got to confess that John's post tends to set off my sophistry alarm, and I'm not sure that it's quite worth the time to investigate why.  But he is always interesting to read, even when you don't agree with him.  A couple of quotes:
Objections to evolution come late. Apart from a few theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, who seems never to have had a personal name, only initials, objections to evolution as such did not arise until the early 20th century, and even then it was initially a heterodox opinion in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, hardly representative of Christian thinking. But what was objected to, almost from the beginning, was natural selection. Common descent, descent with modification, even sexual selection were all acceptable, but the idea that selection might generate the appearance of design without God’s direct intervention was highly problematic. Evolution might be real, but for the things that matter – humans and in particular the human soul – evolution by natural selection was insufficient.
And the bottom line of his 3-post argument:
Now this should mean that theists are able to accept a totally scientific picture, because science is effectively silent on the metaphysical aspects of entire universes. Science can only investigate and explain what happens within universes, multiverse theories notwithstanding. God remains a prime mover, and moreover, even has a providential Plan that he instantiates with the universe he chooses to create. So the theistic doctrine of creation is not threatened either.
I wonder, though: does it make sense to talk about the "metaphysical aspects" of this or any universe or multiverse?  I don't really see how it does or could. 

But for those who believe in a metaphysical realm, John's argument may work.

And I have a colorless green idea I'd like to sell you.

And for those of you who want to continue the discussion, see the article in Saturday's NYT on phone apps that provide talking points and rhetorical strategies for believers and atheists as they continue to argue past one another.  (Paul Vitello, "You Say God is Dead? There's an App for That")

Returning to the physical world, another story that taps into my former life as someone trying (in vain) to interest the world of musicology in the use of digital imaging for manuscript analysis:  Janet Raloff writes at ScienceNews on a newly discovered correction by Thomas Jefferson in an early draft of the "Declaration of Independence" (a change from "subjects" to "citizens"). The discovery was made using hyperspectral analysis; the scientist whose work is reported is Fenella France, at the Library of Congress.

Sigh.  I can think of a lot of interesting things to do with this technique on musical manuscripts and related documents. Probably ain't gonna happen, though.

Raloff's article doesn't link out to any secondary or research literature on this technique, but I may investigate further as time permits.

In the Sunday Book Review at the NYT, David Pogue reviews yet another Facebook book: David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World. The review is well worth reading, and Pogue convinces me (not that I needed much convincing) that the book isn't.

Particularly striking to me in Pogue's review are the many examples he gives that point to poor editing: stories and examples used in the book multiple times (as many as 5), tone-deaf prose, crucial names misspelled throughout ("Winkelvoss" for "Winklevoss," for example).

The decline of editing seems to be a chronic and gradually worsening problem in many books published by mainstream publishers. It occurs to me: do these corporations not realize that good (or at least competent) editing is one of the only bits of added value that they can continue to claim in the new digitally-driven world of publishing?  We simply don't need them anymore for, well, publishing (this is now essentially free, if you want it to be, as the prose you are currently reading proves), distribution (this post is instantly available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, except possibly in nations with strong censorship), and the production of physical books (there are now too many alternatives to mention here).

What remains of the functions of traditional publishers?: prestige perhaps (mostly already squandered), marketing (but this is also fading rapidly as a function that they can perform better than the alternatives), editing (an advantage likewise in the process of being squandered), book design (but for most practical purposes, they aren't really needed for this anymore), and the organization of book tours (about which I know nothing as of yet, so I won't comment).

So there's not much left.  They really ought to realize that eventually they're going to need to reinvent themselves as for-hire editorial companies. Except they probably won't.  So there's a good business opportunity here.

These comments are aimed at commercial mass-market publishers, not academic ones, but I think many or even most of these points apply to academic publishers as well.

The opening of Pogue's review:
According to “The Facebook Effect,” Facebook is the second-most-visited Web site on earth (after Google). The average member spends almost an hour there each day. It has more than 400 million active users — over 20 percent of everyone on the Internet — and is growing by 5 percent a month.

But according to David Kirkpatrick, who for many years was a technology editor at Fortune, Facebook is more than big. It’s a “platform for people to get more out of their lives,” a “technological powerhouse with unprecedented influence across modern life” and an “entirely new form of communication.”
But it's still boring. 

Especially when Michael Lorenz isn't posting.

Like Facebook, the dollar may not be the best system around, but it's what everyone else uses, hence its hard to displace.
(via The Browser, from the post "A new global reserve" by S.C. at the Free exchange blog at The Economist)

Romeo Vitelli at Providentia continues with part 2 of his series on the history of homosexuality as a psychiatric "disorder" (part 1 is here). He tells the fascinating story of the work of Evelyn Hooker, who began in the 1950s to do research that debunked the notion that homosexuals were more prone to psychopathology than heterosexuals. If I were gay, I'd probably know about her already, but I'm not and I didn't.

The Wikipedia article on Hooker includes a bibliography of her publications on homosexuality, unfortunately without direct links to the articles themselves or to sources for the publications.

Hooker's groundbreaking first article was:  E. Hooker (1957), "The adjustment of the male overt homosexual," Journal of Projective Techniques. I have not yet been able to find a source for this article online. (Vitelli's link to PsycNet is currently broken, and in fact, a direct search at PsycNet does not turn up this article at all.)

Hooker, who died in 1996, published a retrospective article about her work in 1993:
Evelyn Hooker, "Reflections of a 40-year exploration: A scientific view on homosexuality," in American Psychologist
Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall at APA PsycNET, and costs $11.95.

An interesting post from Henkjan Honing at Music Matters (a blog on music cognition) regarding a recent paper in Nature Methods suggesting that, contrary to received (and almost universally applied wisdom) standardization of experimental conditions actually contributed to poor reproducibility.  As Honing explains:
[The authors] argue that standardization should be seen as a cause of, rather than a cure for, poor reproducibility of experimental outcomes. Their study showed  that environmental standardization can contribute to spurious and conflicting findings in the literature. Würbel and colleagues conclude that to generate results that are most likely going to be reproducible in other laboratories, the strategies to standardize environmental conditions in an experiment should be minimized.
The article to which Honing refers is:
S. Helene Richter, et al. (2009), "Environmental standardization: cure or cause of poor reproducibility in animal experiments?," Nature Methods. The article is (unfortunately, because I'd really like to read it) behind a paywall at the Nature site, and costs $32.00
Here is the abstract:
It is widely believed that environmental standardization is the best way to guarantee reproducible results in animal experiments. However, mounting evidence indicates that even subtle differences in laboratory or test conditions can lead to conflicting test outcomes. Because experimental treatments may interact with environmental conditions, experiments conducted under highly standardized conditions may reveal local 'truths' with little external validity. We review this hypothesis here and present a proof of principle based on data from a multilaboratory study on behavioral differences between inbred mouse strains. Our findings suggest that environmental standardization is a cause of, rather than a cure for, poor reproducibility of experimental outcomes. Environmental standardization can contribute to spurious and conflicting findings in the literature and unnecessary animal use. This conclusion calls for research into practicable and effective ways of systematic environmental heterogenization to attenuate these scientific, economic and ethical costs.
There are clearly some sour grapes on Honing's part (he seems to have had work rejected because it was based on Web surveys; I'm guessing he wasn't giving the web surveys to non-human animals).  But the point nevertheless seems worth examining more closely.

Ben Zimmer's current On Language column in the Sunday Magazine of the NYT discusses the origins of the phrase "One-Off," another borrowed Briticism (like "gone missing") the etymology of which Americans don't understand.

Geoffrey Pullum has an even more scathing analysis and addendum on Kathleen Parker's stupid piece in Wednesday's Washington Post, following Mark Liberman's initial evisceration that I linked to the other day.

Pullum aptly calls Parker's piece "unbelievably irresponsible prattle," and because Pullum, like Liberman (and unlike Parker or Payack, whom Parker cites), knows how to do research and bring actual evidence to bear on a question, he can demonstrate very clearly that he is right about this.

Pullum describes the various ways that one could define, and hence count, instances of "passive voice," and lists all 29 passive clauses in Obama's post-oil-leak speech (out of 135 sentences; this is the speech that Parker purports to analyze in her WP piece).  As Pullum points out, it is difficult to see how anyone who actually reads these passive clauses could say that they avoid attributions of agency, which is the claim that Parker is making. An example (not at all atypical):  "...a team led by Dr. Steven Chu..."  Nope, that certainly doesn't avoid an attribution of agency.

I quote the entire end of Pullum's post:
Tell me the truth: can you truly say that you think phrases like seventeen were injured, or a team led by Dr. Chu, or expected to stop the leak, or a way of life may be lost, or the resources that are required, or his days are numbered, or threatened by a menacing cloud, or costs associated with it, or brought from Europe, sound girly?
Are Payack and Parker completely brainless? Didn't they glance at the text of the speech and think about how men talk? Did the Washington Post truly imagine something serious was being said about men's as opposed to women's styles of speech?
And girliness aside, is the alleged tendency to "deflect responsibility" in evidence here? Take a sentence like At this agency [the Minerals Management Service], industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Obama's passive clause is clearly locating responsibility: whoever was in charge on any particular occasion at the Minerals Management Service, Obama is accusing them of toadying to oil companies and making sure no stringent supervision would occur. Or take the sentence And this fund will not be controlled by BP. It's a passive construction, sure; but it directly and explicitly takes responsibility: it affirms a promise that whoever controls the fund it will not be BP.
Taking a raw frequency count of passive clauses as an indication of shiftiness or evasion is outright and obvious stupidity. That's what Payack does. Parker merely stretches things to draw an even sillier conclusion (one that Payack cannot be blamed for) by confusing use of passive clauses with speaking like a woman.
We have said it before on Language Log, and I'll say it again now: when you find journalists and columnists telling you things that have anything to do with language, put your hand on your wallet, because honesty and integrity are about to go out the window. Where language is concerned, people simply make stuff up.
Or, to modify the punchline of a long-forgotten Austrian joke that was circulating when I first moved to Vienna (not long after the "antifreeze in wine" scandal, the topic of the joke):
You can also do research with evidence.
I can think of quite a few people who should have that tattooed on the backs of their hands.

And wouldn't it be a better world if book reviews (especially scholarly ones) were as blunt as Pullum is here?

Coffee tables that look like Venn diagrams, from outofstock design, via BoingBoing.

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  1. https://www.baerenreiter.com/html/nba_rev/en/methods.htm

    This used x-ray fluorescence (but Joshua Rifkin has questioned their methodology).

  2. Thanks for the link! It seems all too characteristic that the page at the NBA isn't at all informative, and the resolution of the illustration is too low to tell see what they were doing. So, typically, we're asked to take it on faith.

    Where does Rifkin's critique appear? (That is, if it appears in print...)

  3. http://www.bach-leipzig.de/index.php?id=914

    and p. 35 of PDF