Training the next generation of nitpickers

One of my students just submitted his first bug report to Wolfram. I’m so proud.

This is arguably not a bug, but it’s certainly unexpected, nonstandard, and undesirable behavior.  Wolfram Alpha is calculating the norm of a vector as the square root of the sum of the squares of the vector’s components (i.e., the usual Pythagorean relation). But when the vector has complex numbers, that’s not the right thing to do: you have to use absolute squares. Otherwise, you get absurd results like these, and your norm isn’t even a norm.


Lamar Smith actually is going after peer review

Last year, scientists and science writers got worked up over a bill proposed by Representative Lamar Smith (Republican of Texas) that, it was claimed, constituted an attack on peer review of grants at the National Science Foundation. I thought that that attack was silly. The proposed law, while certainly not a good idea, would have had little or no effect on the peer review process. I still think that that diagnosis was correct.

To repeat something else I said at the time, even if this bill is mostly harmless, that doesn’t refute the claim that Smith is an enemy of science (he certainly is), and it doesn’t rule out the possibility that he does want to go after peer review in other ways.

Since I was (sort of, I guess) defending Smith before, I feel like I should point out that he has been meddling in the NSF review process lately in ways that bother me considerably more than that proposed legislation. Science and io9 have pieces that are worth reading on the subject.

Smith has made a list of grants that he doesn’t like and has had staffers examine the process by which these grants are reviewed. There doesn’t seem to be any question that Smith chose to go after these grants because he didn’t like  their titles and brief descriptions. In other words, as Representative Eddie Bernice Johnston (Democrat of Texas) put it in a letter to Smith,

 The plain truth is that there are no credible allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse associated with these 20 awards. The only issue with them appears to be that you, personally, think that the grants sound wasteful based on your understanding of their titles and purpose. Seeking to substitute your judgment for the determinations of NSF’s merit review process is the antithesis of the successful principles our nation has relied on to make our research investment decisions. The path you are going down risks becoming a textbook example of political judgment trumping expert judgment.

Smith argues that Congress has the duty to oversee how NSF is spending its money, which is undoubtedly true. But it makes no sense to do that by picking individual awards based on their titles and having people with no expertise try to evaluate their merits. And in the process, actual harm can be done, particularly if the anonymity of the peer review process is compromised, as Johnston claims it has been in her letter. (I have not examined Johnston’s allegation in detail.)

In case it’s not obvious, let me make clear that anonymity does matter. As an untenured assistant professor, I participated on an NSF review panel that gave a negative recommendation to a proposal from one of the biggest names in my field (someone who could surely torpedo my career). Among the proposals recommended for funding by that panel were some stronger proposals by young, relatively unknown researchers. I hope that I would have made the same recommendation if I had not been anonymous, but I’m not at all sure that I would have.

Smith’s actual agenda seems to be that certain categories of proposals (largely in the social sciences) should be eliminated from NSF funding. If he wants to propose that straightforwardly and try to pass a law to that effect, he has the right to do so. But Johnston’s exactly right that interfering with the peer review process is not the way to go after this goal. In my experience, NSF peer review works remarkably well. Having individual members of Congress examining individual proposals is certainly not going to improve that system.

In one way, Smith’s actions fit into a long tradition of politicians railing against wasteful-sounding research grants. William Proxmire had his “Golden Fleece” awards way back in the 1970s. Then there was this tweet from John McCain:

That was actually about an earmark, not a peer-reviewed grant, so it raises quite different issues about the funding process, but as an example of a thoughtless critique of science, it fits right in. (Astronomy is a significant industry in Hawaii, and  astronomy jobs are in fact jobs.)  What Smith’s doing is different from these, because he’s using the investigative machinery of Congress rather than just bloviating.


Atheists who believe in E.T.

According to a press release from Vanderbilt, atheists are more likely than members of various religions to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life:

Belief in extraterrestrials varies by religion

  • 55 percent of Atheists
  • 44 percent of Muslims
  • 37 percent of Jews
  • 36 percent of Hindus
  • 32 percent of Christians

I heard about this via a blog hosted at the Institute of Physics. The writer expresses surprise at the finding:

Apparently, the people most likely to believe in extraterrestrial life are…atheists. More than half (55%) of the atheists in the poll professed a belief in extraterrestrials, compared with 44% of Muslims, 37% of Jews, 36% of Hindus and just 32% of Christians.
Without information about how many people were polled, or how they were selected, it’s hard to know how seriously to take these results. The press release also didn’t say how the question was phrased, which is likewise pretty important. After all, believing that we are unlikely to be alone in a vast universe is very different from believing that little green men gave you a ride in their spaceship last Tuesday. But even so, it seems odd that atheists – a group defined by their lack of belief in a being (or beings) for which there is no good scientific evidence – are so willing to believe in the existence of extraterrestrials. Because, of course, there’s no good evidence for them, either.

I agree that the lack of information about polling methodology is annoying. (The press release refers to a book that’s not out yet, and I can’t find any other publications by this author that contain the results.) But the last part of this quote is just silly. There certainly is evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, and it’s not at all unreasonable for a rationalist (assuming, for the moment, the author’s implicit equation of atheism with rationalism) to believe in it.

In particular, we know that there are a huge number of planets like Earth out there. There’s considerable evidence that that number is unbelievably large (i.e., 10 to some large power), and it might even be infinite. Furthermore, we know that in the one instance of an Earthlike planet that we’ve studied in detail, life arose almost as soon as it could have. Those facts constitute strong evidence in favor of the idea that extraterrestrial life exists.

Of course that’s not a proof (in the sense of pure mathematics or logic) that life exists, but presumably “belief in” something requires only (probabilistic) evidence, not literal mathematical proof. (If mathematical certainty were required for belief, then the list of things a rational person should believe in would be quite short.)

I don’t think it’s the least bit surprising that atheists are more likely than theists to believe in extraterrestrial life. That’s exactly what I would have predicted. After all, some major religious traditions are based on the idea that God created the Universe specifically for us humans. A natural consequence of that idea is that we humans are the only living beings out there. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t believe in such a tradition is far more likely to believe that life is a random occurrence that happens with some probability whenever conditions are right for it. A natural consequence of this belief is that life exists elsewhere.