Good Math, Bad … Logic

Mark C. Chu-Carroll is a computer scientist who runs a blog “Good Math, Bad Math”. The tag line is “Finding the fun in math, Squashing bad math and the fools who promote it”. A quick browse through his recent posts show that he is not finding much fun for us and spends most of his time trying to debunk people he regards as fools.

In his latest post Gravity, Shmavity. It’s the heat, dammit! he goes all out to declare every submitter to viXra.org a crank. This is what he says:

“I have to point out that it’s on “viXra.org”. viXra is “ViXra.org is an e-print archive set up as an alternative to the popular arXiv.org service owned by Cornell University. It has been founded by scientists who find they are unable to submit their articles to arXiv.org because of Cornell University’s policy of endorsements and moderation designed to filter out e-prints that they consider inappropriate.”. In other words, it’s a site for cranks who can’t even post their stuff on arXiv. Considering some of the dreck that’s been posted an arXiv, that’s pretty damned sad.)”

In the comments he goes on to confirm his view:

“There are plenty of people in the world who aren’t interested in understanding why they’re wrong. They’re absolutely sure that they’re right, and there’s absolutely nothing in the world that’s going to convince them otherwise. Anyone who posts to viXra is almost, by definition, guaranteed to part of that group. The reason that people post things to viXra is because they don’t want to deal with the standards of arXiv.”

There have been a few anonymous comments on other blogs and forums promoting this view with very similar language so I am glad that he has finally put his name to them, giving us a chance to debunk the debunker. Clearly he has not read what I have written about why viXra.org was formed and how it operates, or perhaps he just does not understand anything beyond his blinkered worldview. His statements are  utterly misleading and as bad as the examples of bad math that this blog attempts to debunk.

The ability to post on arXiv is mostly dependent on working for an accepted institution or having the backing of someone who does. This is only indirectly correlated to the quality of what is being submitted. That is why a significant amount of “dreck” can be posted on arXiv. It also means that some people who do good science cannot submit there and use viXra instead. A lot of papers submitted to viXra.org have been accepted in peer-reviewed journals.

viXra operates by accepting all papers to ensure that everyone has a chance to archive their work regardless of who they are or who they know. Only a fool with no sense of logic would pick out a few examples of bad papers and conclude that this then applies to the whole lot.

The history of science is littered with stories of researchers whose work was ridiculed or ignored for years before being recognised as a breakthrough. Many Nobel Prizes have been awarded to work that started that way. You can follow our series of posts at http://blog.vixra.org/category/crackpots-who-were-right/ for some examples. If you are going to set yourself up as someone who debunks bad maths and science you had better make sure you apply the highest standards of logic otherwise you may go down in history as someone who ridiculed good science. By calling everyone on viXra a crank Mark  C. Chu-Carroll has virtually guaranteed that fate for himself.

What of the paper that Mark attempts to debunk? Well it possibly has some errors, but if it also has some worthwhile observations it would not be the first paper containing good science that was ridiculed for its mistakes. Famous examples include Georg Ohm’s work on resistance which was rejected because of its failed attempt to explain his experimental law theoretically, or the  popular book by Robert Chambers that prepared the public for the theory of evolution before Darwin, while scientists just picked holes in his terminology. If you are going to debunk something you should make sure that you are not missing the point of it. The idea that gravity may be linked to thermodynamics is currently a hot topic in physics so to ridicule a paper that works on that idea may not be very timely, even if the overall standard of the work is not the highest.

Let’s look at a few of the things that Mark says as he tries to debunk this paper:

“As evidence of this, the author claims to show how heating a copper sphere changes its apparent mass!”

Of course every student of relativity knows that heating an object does increase its mass according to the most well-known equation in science E= mc2. The amount in this case is about 4 nanograms, not the 20 grams suggested in the paper, but Mark is not just quibbling about the amount, he is ridiculing the whole idea that an objects gravitational mass changes as it is heated, yet it does. If you are going to debunk something it is important to debunk it correctly.

Another phrase Mark uses is “Mass, which at non-relativistic speeds is effectively constant …” This makes it clear that Mark’s knowledge of relativity comes from popular books where increasing mass with speed is often used as a cheap way to explain why objects cannot be accelerated to light speed. In professional scientific papers physicists always regard mass as an invariant of velocity. If you think I am being hard on him you can check what he admits in a previous post:

“I’ve read a couple of books on relativity, and I don’t pretend to really fully understand it. I can’t quite wrap my head around all of the math. That’s after reading several entire books aimed at a popular audience.”

With all due respect Mark, if your knowledge of physics and your command of maths is so poor then you are not the right person to be debunking any scientific work.

As Mark observes about himself

“There is the danger of screwing up ourselves. I’ve demonstrated this plenty of times. I’m not an expert in all of the things that I’ve tried to write about, and I’ve made some pretty glaring errors. I do my best to acknowledge and correct those errors, but it’s all too easy to deceive myself into thinking that I understand something better than I actually do. I’m embarrassed every time that I do that.”

Well Mark, if you are having so much difficulty it may be better to stop the negative posts and try to do a few more of the “fun” ones about good maths.

This kind of thing would be less sad were it not for the fact that Mark’s comments around the blogosphere have a serious impact on people’s willingness to use viXra. The meme that viXra.org is for cranks discourages many scientists and mathematicians from using it when they do not have access to arXiv.org. A quick check through our database reveals 143 out of 1065 submissions to viXra.org have comments indicating that they are published in peer review journals. That is not a bad rate considering we have been going for less than a year and it can take many months to get a paper published. Most people do not update the comments when a paper is finally accepted.

I notice that Mark works for Google as a computer scientist which makes me wonder how many other people there are under the illusion that they understand the scientific process despite such a poor grasp of science themselves. It is no longer a surprise to me that Google do not index viXra.org in Google Scholar despite having more than a 1000 articles. That puts it in the second largest category you can select on their submission page. They claim that if you are a publisher of scholarly works and would like to have your content included in Google Scholar, then your content is welcome. viXra.org was submitted as a site some months ago but they still only include articles that are cited from other sources. Clearly their welcome is not for all. Now we get an idea why that is.

12 Responses to Good Math, Bad … Logic

  1. Kea says:

    There are plenty of people in the world who aren’t interested in understanding why they’re wrong. They’re absolutely sure that they’re right, and there’s absolutely nothing in the world that’s going to convince them otherwise. Anyone who posts to viXra is almost, by definition, guaranteed to part of that group.

    Wow. Just wow. The blogosphere irony meter, which is built like a tank, just blew itself to high heaven.

  2. philipgibbs says:

    Kea: Exactly! At request I have given him examples of papers on viXra that are not crackpot. I chose my own because I can defend them. They are far too complex for him to understand but he should be able to see for example that http://vixra.org/abs/0907.0024 was recently published in INTEGERS which is a journal with a high standard of peer-review.

    If he does not now admit that he was wrong then he is acting out the definition of a crackpot himself.

  3. jsafuta says:

    Mark C. Chu-Carroll wrote:
    “Or, perhaps, before people start spending money on testing stupid ideas, we actually look at them first, and see if they make any sense at all.”
    I am looking for someone to look at http://vixra.org/abs/1006.0005.
    I’ve just submitted it and I am not absolutely sure that I’m right, and I am looking for absolutely anything in the world that’s going to convince me I’m wrong.

    Maybe you will find the task funny.

  4. Janne says:

    For some strange reason it’s always these sort of software engineers that have such strong opinions about physics, even though they don’t much about it.

  5. Kea says:

    Yes, Janne, that does seem to be the case. I think it is because Physics is such an integral part of the Geek DooD psyche that they feel they must be experts by osmosis.

  6. j says:

    “For some strange reason it’s always these sort of software engineers that have such strong opinions about physics, even though they don’t much about it.”

    Well, not knowing much about Physics he could publish a dozen papers on this site every day. He couldn’t on a peer review site, and he will have a hard time in arXiv.org.

    So I believe your argument runs against this site.

  7. philipgibbs says:

    j, Anyone like Mark would indeed be welcome to submit to viXra. Sometimes people from different fields have valuable insights. Also, many people here would be very happy to have someone give the kind of feedback that Mark has provided on a couple of papers here, even if it is negative.

    However, it is another matter to extrapolate from the small number of papers that he has some understanding of, to say that everything on viXra is cranky. Nobody is qualified widely enough to judge everything here. When people say something like that I have to respond because otherwise some people just accept it without thinking.

  8. j says:

    Then again if people accepts things without thinking this site can do much harm.

    I have read a random (small, ten papers, as unbiased as I could) sample of the papers in this site and all of them try to invalidate (explicitly or implicitly) well established old proved theories without showing any evidence. You can refute a postulate or improve a model (no theory is completely correct), but you can’t go against experiments.

    So it’s my impression that the signal-to-noise ratio is too high for the site to be useful, accepting the sample is too small, but as unbiased as I could get it. In my opinion, Mark simply explains why this is so, and his arguments sound reasonable to me.

    Obviously you can’t say there are no serious papers here. But I don’t see why we can expect the signal-to-noise ratio to be better than in the internet.

    I predict that eventually, as the site improves, it will start using some kind of filter to show what papers are more interesting than others, just to be useful. Maybe a democratic system, just like a wiki. Maybe not. In any case, this is basically the same arXiv does. The only difference is who will get that power.

    Otherwise, without the rating system, it will be used only to publish papers, but not to find them. And it will disappear.

    Or, of course, I can be completely wrong. As we know, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

  9. philipgibbs says:

    j, the signal to noise ratio on viXra may indeed be high, but that does not make the site useless. You are assuming that people will only look for papers here by browsing on the site for things of interest to them. In fact most people come here either because they have been referred here from somewhere else, or because something has turned up in a search engine when they use keywords of interest to them.

    The filter system you envisage already exists. It is the internet and the scientific literature. In time the most interesting articles will be picked out and referenced in some way that make them useful to others. Some research posted here may be ahead of its time and may not be referenced for many years. That is why its main role is an archive to store articles for a long time.

    Most of that also applies to arXiv.org. Of course arXiv has a higher proportion of professional scientists than viXra so there is less noise overall, but for any individual scientists only a very small proportion of what is there is of interest to them. Some people may find a new articles by browsing a particular section, but most finds are from searches or citations.

  10. j says:

    Good point.

    The trees didn’t let me see the forest. The site provides a stable URL so that papers, whether good or bad, can be referenced. A digital repository, like CiteSeer or so many.

    You’re right. But maybe “advertisement” is a bit unfocused. (Sorry, it seems that I always end with a critique :) )

  11. philipgibbs says:

    j, apparently Ginsparg was given a grant of $882610 to perfect “a variety of tools for enhancing the very widely used and popular Arxiv.org infrastructure, based on information filters for assisted service discovery and selection, text-mining, information genealogy, automated classification and identification of composite resources, data-mining, usage analyses, matching and ranking heuristics, support for next-generation document formats, and semantic markup.” Perhaps some of that is more the kind of thing you were hoping for when you spoke of a “filter to show what papers are more interesting than others”. When he has it working for arXiv.org we will of course steal all the good bits and use them on viXra too, but with a cutdown budget, and in reverse. :)

  12. [...] call me a crank now LOL By philipgibbs You may recall how I had to refute the claims by Mark Chu-Carroll on his blog “Good Math Bad math” that everyone who posts on viXra.org is a crank. When I was asked for a counterexample I pointed [...]

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