The Devil’s dictionary, Feb. 12, 2018

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary include quantifiction, argument by an algae, etc.

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.

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all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2018 by Russ Hodge

quantifiction  to introduce as many fictional devices as needed into a mathematical or statistical procedure to ensure that you get the result you desire – rather than an ugly truth that would force you to give up your lovely model or, God forbid, your behavior. After a long period of incarceration, quantifiction was recently granted a Presidential pardon. It has been restored to the exalted position it held in the Official Canon of Scientific Methods until two centuries ago, and is being widely implemented by the ruling theocracy in the natural sciences, economics, environmental studies, university mathematics departments, epidemiology, taxation, and all the other fields deemed to have been corroded through the corruptive influence of reason. A number of open source tools have been developed to run under the Open Quantifiction suite, including Fudge factor, Xagerate, disCriminate, overSimplify, Nflate, Denyify, reVersify, and JustLie. See the entry for exaggerate for more.

argument by an algae  For a long time, certainly more than a century, perhaps as much as a thousand years, maybe even millions for all I know, scientists have been engaged in a fierce debate on the topic of argument by an algae. Some researchers are for. Some are against. The rest are presumably riding the fence. If you make a career in science, be prepared for the day when someone pops the question, “Do you think arguments by an algae have a place in the way scientific conclusions are reached?” Tread carefully in composing your answer. Whatever the reason for interest in this bizarre topic, people tend to get quite worked up about it. To save you a lot of time, don’t try to find an answer on PubMed. I have been looking for years and have not only been unable to find any literature on the topic, but any reasonable etymological source for the term.

Scientifically, I find it difficult to conceive of any mechanism by which an algae (or the absence of an algae, depending on whether you hoped for a positive or a negtive correlation) could validate (or invalidate) a scientific argument that happened to be going on nearby. Unless, of course, the science concerned algae in the first place. Then there might be some sense in going down to the pond, scraping up a bit of the green stuff  (or not), and popping it into your magic-angle, solid state NMR machine. Otherwise, I am at a complete loss regarding what an algae is doing in scientific theory.

X-Y graphs and associated terms  X-Y graphs, also known as Cartesian coordinate graphs, refer to a type of plot or chart that was invented far back in prehistoric times by males, as the name implies. Some evolutionary psychologists claim that this system was invented because humans were restricted to two-dimensional thought; i.e., they were able to consider two features of an object at a time, but a third was too much to handle. So, for example, they could understand that a rock was black, or that it was heavy, but not that it was both black and heavy (which would have required adding a third dimension to the chart).

An example of an X-Y graph

Custom dictates that all data plotted onto an X-Y graph fall within a shape called a Bell curve. When this proves impossible, a number of terms have been invented to describe data that fail to adhere to the rule:

outliars (sometimes spelled outliers)  data points that should be clustered with a group but have wandered far astray, like sheep, to take up positions in very distant reaches of graphs. Their existence is an affront because they skew all of your results in an undesirable way, usually but not necessarily in the direction of the outlier. How much shift occurs depends on the number of dots properly gathered into the cluster. Even dots on paper are made of matter, which means they exert gravitational fields on each other, so if there are an awful lot of them, the outliar will tend to fall into an orbit around the cluster over time. Whether or not the orbit decays, drawing the errant point back to the fold, depends on the direction and velocity of the outliar at the time it was trapped on the paper. And whether there are other graphs lying nearby that might draw it into their gravitational fields instead.

outrightliars – outliers that are even farther away, always on the right side, providing information which simply cannot be true because it does not fit the lovely paradigm you developed; it never occurred to you to look that far away. There may be many even downrighterliars, so far away they are located on someone else’s chart.

dirtyliars – points plotted on a graph that got smudged somehow, perhaps because the dots are so small they fall prey to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or they are being chased by Schrödinger’s cat, so their exact positions cannot be determined.

altimeter  a measuring stick or large ruler, always a few inches longer than a yard, that has been stored in a high place, probably to keep the dog or the children from getting their teeth or paws on it. Contrast with antimeter – a measuring stick used exclusively to measure negative numbers, which is why 0 is found to the far right and the rest of the numbers run in reverse order. (Not to be confused with antimatter, but the reverse polarity of the stick would permit it to be used to measure that as well.)

ion – a particle that is charged, usually with VISA, but MasterCard is accepted in some places; be sure to save the receipt, what with all the identity theft going on these days. Used as the stem for the following additional terms:

anion – means simply “an ion”; the space was omitted through a misprint in a textbook long ago and now people think anion means something other than one ion, but just ignore them because they’re wrong.

cation – a cat that has been loaded with a powerful charge of static electricity by rubbing it against a carpet; the longer you rub, the higher the charge, as measured by the number of scratches on your arms. Released, the cat dashes off to deliver a powerful shock to whatever person or animal it encounters next. This may result in fatalities, depending on the age and overall health of the victim, whether they are wearing a pacemaker, if they have recently undergone an examination using MRI, etc.

If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

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The Subtle Art of the Truly Vicious Review

a guide for Referees of Journal Articles

 from the Vaults of Wilford C. Terris, Prof. emeritus (At Large)

 

We all know the situation: your name has gotten onto a journal’s list of reviewers, and one day they stick it to you by sending you an article on a topic that is dear to your heart (or would be if you’d thought of it first). It’s close enough to the work of your lab that you should have thought of it. And you surely would have, if you hadn’t been running around like a headless chicken in search of external funding. That, of course, is your job: to be a headless chicken, with no time to think about anything besides funding all those technicians, predocs, and postdocs, not to mention the Christmas party. It’s what you have the postdocs for, to do the thinking, and they are the ones who should have thought of doing the experiments described in the article the journal has just sent you, but they failed to do so, in spite of having heads and not being chickens. Inexcusable. Now you’ve got to single out someone to punish, to set an example, to emphasise to the others how important it is to think about things you aren’t thinking about. But should be.

The real dilemma, however, is more serious: somehow you’ve got to convince the journal to reject the damned paper. Better yet, not to reject it outright, but to send it back for major revisions, asking for experiments that are at least very difficult, and ideally, impossible. If you’re lucky, this will send the manuscript spiraling off into Revision Limbo, where it needs to remain just long enough for your lab to catch up. You’ll have to do some things differently, of course. Maybe you’ll use extra crispy mice rather than regular mice – which you can, thanks to all of that funding you have been running after.
[Editor’s note from Russ: I think he means CRISPR mice; Wilford has been emeritus for quite some time now.]

If the paper is a first submission, there’s bound to be something inherently wrong with it. These days scientists almost always submit a story before they’ve nailed down every last detail; they’re too worried about being scooped. Which they ought to be; that’s how the game is played. The only question is who will scoop them, and since somebody’s going to try, why shouldn’t it be you? So you’ve got to slow things down by thinking up more experiments for them to do, asking them to validate the results in another model system, using different statistical methods… All of this is standard procedure for a review; just try to be in a really bad mood when you read the paper and write your report for the journal.

Sometimes, however, more drastic measures are called for. Maybe you’re dealing with a third or fourth revision, or one of those rare papers that is truly excellent and so thorough that only a fool would disagree with its conclusions. That’s when the Artistry is called for. You’ve only got one chance to derail this thing, so you’ll have to aim for strategic targets in a way that has a devastating impact on the paper, while seemingly going about the referee business as usual. To pull this off, no one may suspect that you have a personal stake in the outcome.

Now before anyone jumps up and accuses me of perverting the sense of the review the  process, and its lofty goals of being fair and impartial, I will only say that I have spent many decades on the receiving end of the peer review system. Fair and impartial? What planet have you been living on? If you get back three reviews of your paper, there’s always one joker in the deck who seems determined to muck you up. Usually their comments indicate they haven’t read the paper, or if they did they entirely missed the point – even though it’s right there in the abstract, as plain as day to any sane person with a reasonable comprehension of the English language. Based on comments offered up in the past, I’m not convinced that this third reviewer meets either of these criteria. I have noticed, however, a method to the madness, and I’ll lay it out here for future reference, if you ever find yourself in need.

The following list provides some strategies that have proven effective in bringing the publication process to a grinding halt. They can be safely used in almost any situation, providing you follow two guidelines:

Don’t ever use them all, or use the same subset in successive reviews for the same journal, because eventually the editor will get wise to you.

Each comment should be just vague enough that you don’t get caught outright in an easily refutable lie. If the journal editor does come back to you on some point, apologize and say the comment probably referred to a point on a different page. Unfortunately you’re currently on the road and don’t have access to the manuscript, but once you get back you’ll check into it and contact him. (Which, of course, you won’t)

Each criticism needs to be adapted, of course, to suit the paper at hand. Here the examples are oriented toward biomedical research, but they can be easily tweaked to fit any other field.

 

  1. Advise the journal simply to reject the paper out-of-hand, claiming that “while it may have some merit, it is clearly of interest to only a small group of specialists devoted to a highly arcane field that is definitely on the wane and is likely to disappear entirely in a few years.”
  2. If the paper is based on studies of a particular molecule/cell type/ organism/species, claim it has no relevance beyond delivering a trivial detail about the specific system considered in the study.
  3. If the paper makes some large, global claim about a basic issue in science, state, “It’s not transparent to me how the authors conceptually move from the specific system they are working with to the grand claim they make about this process/mechanism/theory as a whole. Several other possible interpretations of the data come to mind; it would be interesting to get a deeper look into the process by which they selected a conclusion which, primae facae, does not seem to be the most likely one.”
  4. Claim that “while the paper claims to present original results, I seem to remember having read the same basic study in an obscure journal a few years ago, and I’m certain that I have heard other groups present on practically the same topic at various conferences. If I come across the reference, I will send it along.”
  5. If the paper does not use –omics technologies, include the statement, “One must wonder why the authors didn’t approach the question using high-throughput methods across the whole genomes of entire species.”
  6. If it does make use of –omics technologies, write, “It probably would have been better to focus this study on a specific system, cell type, or organism. The enormous breadth of the study created a pile of supplemental data so huge that we simply have to take the authors’ word that it means what they claim. Personally I do not quite understand how the authors could discern significant effects from the noise, particularly given the statistical model they used (rather than much better ones which have developed in the meantime). Not to mention the cut-off points, which seem rather arbitrary.”
  7. If no industry or private affiliations are listed, state, “I find this strange, because I personally saw one of the authors having lunch with a vice president of a major pharmaceutical company/defense contractor/psychiatrist” (depending on which best applies to the situation; don’t name the specific author).
  8. If industry affiliations are listed, write, “As can be clearly seen from the list of affiliations, the results may well be biased by funding from the pharmaceutical/ defense/psychiatry industry, even if only a little money changed hands, and the effects are quite subtle.”
  9. Include the statement, “It is unfortunate that the principles of double-blind studies were not applied to the experiments, which clearly reflect the influence of unconscious choices and bias among the author(s).” This is usually safe because unless the paper is specifically medical, you’ll almost never find double-blind experiments. If by chance you’ve received one that does, then write, “But were the scientists truly blind? and if so, truly double-blind?? Someone had to be able to keep track of which was the experimental group and which was the control… If this was managed by computer, were appropriate firewalls in place? Could someone have hacked in after hours?”
  10. Point out that the list of authors reflects a fundamental bias against women in science (if there are more male authors), men in science (if there is a preponderance of females), authors of Italian/Spanish/French/German/ Japanese/Chinese/Indian, etc. etc. ancestry (depending on which ones are missing).
  11. If there are any authors from non-academic organizations, criticize their presence as a potential source of bias and dig up some dirt on their organizations. If you can’t find any dirt, write, “And have you heard how many retractions there have been of papers from this place?”, regardless of whether there have actually been any retractions.
  12. If all the authors are academics, criticize the absence of industrial partners with a statement such as, “Some of the methods used in the work have been developed to a much higher state of precision by industry; the authors would have been safer adopting more standard technologies and methods.”
  13. Write, “This paper was clearly written by someone with a limited familiarity with English and it could use a good work-over by a native speaker,” even if the language is flawless. If the paper is very good, this will send the authors into a tizzy of sentence-by-sentence editing, usually producing something worse than the original – in any case it will delay publication by at least 6 weeks.
  14. Write, “I find the usage of commas rather bizarre, for example on page…” pointing out that your pagination may be different than that seen by the authors or editor. This comment is always safe because English speakers never entirely agree on all aspects of comma usage. If you’re lucky you’ll get another 6-week delay out of just the frenzied search for a misplaced comma.
  15. Write “In some cases the logic is sloppy and there are gaps. As just one example, see paragraph… on page…” (picking out any paragraph that fails to begin with “Thus”, “therefore”, “however”, or some other logical connector anyplace that you could squeeze one in.
  16. Write, “While the experiments seem to indicate a trend which tends to support the conclusions, I am not entirely convinced; the argument would have been stronger if the authors had studied the issue at the level of basic mechanisms/cellular level/tissue/organism as a whole” (whichever is lacking).
  17. Write, “Our attempts to reproduce the experiments completely failed, or led to entirely different results.” (Although you haven’t tried to reproduce any of them, this will almost always be true; in the case of a miracle where the experiment can be reproduced, you can always find a way to sabotage it.) 
  18. Write, “Although at the moment I don’t have access to all of the images, I seem to remember two that seemed strangely similar – has the author (presumably by accident) used part of the same image twice, in a different orientation or color scheme? Although the image I’m thinking of may, in fact, come from a previous paper by the group.”
  19. Pick one of the technologies or methods used in the paper and mention something like this: “Our experience with instrument X demonstrates that the manufacturer’s protocol occasionally produces inconsistent results. Ideally the results should be validated using instrument Y,” where Y is something so fantastically expensive or unique that no one else can acquire it.
  20. Conclude with a statement such as, “In these days of endless retractions of even seemingly exceptional work, caution is advised, particularly in cases where there is even the vaguest scent of scientific malpractice.”
  21. Append a global, vague generalisation such as, “I find the repeated use of specific adverbs extraordinarily tedious,” or, “Why don’t the authors ever use adjectives?” or, “Check for inconsistencies in the style of references.”
  22. If in spite of your efforts, the journal decides to accept the paper, well, you’ve done your best and it’s out of your hands. At this point you should switch sides and send a note to the editor saying, “I am greatly pleased to hear that your decision went this way. I regretted feeling obliged to offer a few small points of criticism, but am encouraged that the writers took them in the spirit they were intended and have produced a final draft of the ms. that is greatly improved.”

As should be obvious, the overall strategy is to engage the enemy simultaneously at all levels from all directions (raising issues about the scientific question, methodology, writing style, comma usage, etc.). I believe a similar strategy is described in a passage in The Art of War, the ancient treatise by the Chinese general Sun Tzu, but I don’t have access to my copy right at the moment. When I find it, I’ll get back to you.

 

If you liked this piece, you will probably enjoy:

Even God’s first paper got rejected, and

The Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases

The Devil’s dictionary, getting ready for the new year…

Stay tuned in the coming year when the Devil’s dictionary will expand to include comments on STYLE… including the secret to writing a brilliant paper even when you don’t have any results…

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary include consciousness, coconut crab, Calvin cycle, and more…

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.

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all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge

consciousness  a mental state in which one is not only aware of sensations and events, but is aware enough of being aware of them that one finds something to complain about.

Calvin cycle  a setting that used to be included on washing machines, at the hottest end of the range of cycles, representing the steps required to cleanse a person (or his or her clothing) of all sin. Basically the water was heated at a constant rate inside the machine until it surpassed the boiling point and, with no egress, continued until God stopped it, through an explosion or another calamity, such as punching the rotating drum through the outer metal shell and usually the wall of the washroom, taking with it anything and anyone in its way, or until the owner was pronounced dead, upon which God would take care of the matter Himself. Named for the infamous French theologian John Calvin, who routinely used washing machines as instruments of torture for the same purpose, alongside public burnings and other manifestations of his faith.

coconut crab  an enormous arthropod at the Humvee end of the scale of crabs. This species used to be prevalent throughout Indonesia and other areas of the Pacific, but is nowadays experiencing a rapid decline through the incursion of other species that have dramatically reduced the availability of parking spaces. In desperation coconut crabs sometimes park in beds or sleeping bags, leading to travel advisories for voyagers to these parts of the world.

From the tip of its claws to the back end, technically known as the “butt end,” an adult coconut crab can span nearly a meter, although the claws themselves may be three or four meters long, which is hard to understand unless some type of folding is involved. In an amazing coincidence, coconut crabs have a diet consisting mainly of coconuts, so it’s a good thing their claws are powerful enough to crack the hard shells. Evolutionary biologists believed that the species discovered this capacity by accident – how could they have known that there was something edible inside a coconut? – probably as the result of a mishap that occurred during a bowling tournament. When coconuts became scarce, the crabs have also been known to eat Amelia Earhart.

chemosmosis  to strictly follow the rules of chemistry while carrying out the process of smosis, rather than performing it any which-way, which is still widely practiced although people ought to know better. Smosis is divided into endosmosis, the inward-directed form of smosis, which is considered more polite, and exosomosis, which projects the smosis outwards and is unacceptable in many civilized contexts.

glomerulus  a structure in the kidney where blood vessels come to dead ends when the developing embryo becomes too exhausted to finish linking them to each other; instead, it ties them up in a hasty knot and hides the ugly mess under a cap-like structure called the Bowman’s capsule, which is shaped exactly like a Soyuz spacecraft and is about as roomy for what has to fit inside. In essence, the glomerulus is to the blood vessel system what metal or plastic tips are to shoelaces. In contrast to these devices, which are subject to regulatory practices in the manufacturing industry, the glomerulus always leaks. This releases liquid from the blood and dumps it into the kidneys, which don’t want to deal either and simply pass it along to the bladder. There the liquid is stored until the bladder is full and has to be emptied. If this process took a little longer, the contents of the bladder would ferment and provide a source of alcohol. It is possible that in the past, this happened in animals that had much larger bladders, but this feature was removed through natural selection, as drunken animals make easier prey. If the glomerulus were entirely closed, the body’s water would be recycled. As things stand, mammals must continually take in and release water, which is incredibly inefficient, but at least it ensures that water returns to the environment so that other organisms have something to drink.

hypoteneuse  a hypothesis so completely ridiculous that to publish it is the equivalent of an act of professional suicide by hanging.

induce  the stem –duce derives from the historical title “duke” or “duce”. In ancient times this title was given to the person placed at the front of a march or parade, usually heading toward an opposing army, carrying a symbol of office that atttracted attention and enemy fire. This might be a flag, a trumpet, a baton, a trombone, one of those little cars driven by Shriners – anything that made a good target. This would discourage the opposing army from firing in the direction of the King, who like all good tyrants would show his solidarity with the folk by wearing inconspicuous clothing and mixing in with the masses. The title of Duke (in some regions pronounced dunce) was publicly heralded as a great honor, and was considered so at least by the person receiving it. In some cases plebes were invited to compete for the honor, and thus was born the expression “to duke something out.” It was awarded to the inductee in a ceremony called an induction. During the ceremony all sorts of statements were made about the exemplary character of this person, basically a tactic to shame him into acquiring one.

Once the title had been awarded the inductee was expected to demonstrate his worthiness by exhibiting exemplary aspects of character, or conduct, which meant all sorts of unusual mannerisms such as marching straight ahead when fired upon, upon which everyone was expected to follow, with the exception of the king, who generally showed respect for his subjects by allowing them to pass by toward the front. If during this process there occurred an attack from the rear, then the duke would be quickly conducted through the crowd at a rapid rate to assume his rightful position.

This notion of “start” or “begin” has been retained in modern scientific usage, taking the stem duce (in other words, using it to induce a word), and adding on whatever prefixes and suffixes come in handy for a given situation. This has advantages for lexicographers, relieving them from the burden of inventing a lot of words, which is so difficult they usually resort to stealing them from some other language instead, in violation of all sorts of intellectual property laws. In fact, how often do we really need a truly original word? In most cases an old one can be bent or warped to get you there, or at least in the general vicinity.

Thus the term induce acquires the meaning, “to cause something to start to start, or to start a cascade of events in which an unruly gang will follow.” The direction is irrelevant provided the herd all begins to move in a common direction. There lingers a connotation that under normal circumstances the flock would never do so without being motivated through the promise of a great reward, which it probably won’t live long enough to receive, or the threat of a great punishment, which it probably will live just long enough to appreciate, although barely, which occurs if it refuses to behave according to the wishes of a totalitarian dictator or scientist, whichever happens to be in charge of the situation at hand. If the inductee tries to hide within a crowd, he first has to be deduced from it, which means detected against a noisy background. Then he can be pushed forward, or produced. If force is required to keep him in that position, one can always resort to tape to keep him there – to duct him. A person can be stripped of the honors, or unduced, and if later he is called to serve again in the position, this reduces him. If that should happen but cannot be accomplished, for example because the duke who has replaced him hasn’t died yet, then the duke remains unreduced while he waits, a period which generally never lasts too long.

polyploid  derived from combining the terms polyp – an ugly protrusion from a surface which ought to be smooth – and loid, which is a strip of metal used to open a car or some other enclosed space that the user of the loid can be arrested for entering. Thus a polyploid is a device to slice open polyps, or separate them from a surface to which they have become attached. This should restore the surface to more or less its original condition, although you may have to apply a new coat of varnish to hide the scratches made while inserting the polyploid under the polyp to pry it up.

reflex  the best way to understand a reflex is by using a diagram of the human body, ideally a diagram of your own. If you don’t have such a diagram yet, briefly go outside. Find a relatively empty, flat surface somewhere on the ground, such as the middle of the road. Briefly lie down on that spot, facing upwards, which should place your back to the ground; if not, repeat the procedure until this is the case. Be sure to smile. Then get up, go inside, log onto Google Earth, and zoom in on your coordinates until you see your image. Print this out and cut carefully along the outline until you have your personal diagram.

Now we are ready to approach the topic of reflexes. A reflex is a process that takes place in one specific part of the body whenever a stimulation is applied to another part, whether or not you want it to – because reflexive circuits entirely bypass the brain. For example, hitting your kneecap with a hammer will cause you to kick the person who has struck you, unless the blow is so strong that it shatters the kneecap entirely – you may need to try several times, raising and lowering the force, until the stimulus has reached the appropriate strength. Hitting your thumb with a hammer, on the other hand, will cause the mouth to open and utter signals of distress. A blow directly to the head will cause the knees to buckle and drop you to the ground. Try this across the entire body until you have mapped all the reflexes stimulated by hammer blows. Then measure the effects of other types of stimuli. Stimulating the ears with the sound of a bell will trigger salivation in the mouth, for example. A stimulation of the ears through the entry of a bee or wasp, on the other hand, will cause you to run around and flap your arms, as if trying to fly away. All of these are reflexes.

sessile colonial cnidarian  a quantity of cnid – a jelly-like mass, shaped into a coherent form using a device such as a jello mold – which has colonized a place where it does not naturally occur, such as a sofa, and thereafter resists all efforts to remove it, citing the timeless justification given by all colonialists: that it is simply exercising its natural right of eminent domain.

 

If you enjoyed the Devil’s Dictionary, you might also like the following:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto

and other entries in the category Satire.