On currency

On currency

The value of money is a useful fiction.

As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others. 

Money, in and of itself, is useless.  Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents.  The story makes us want these things.  We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.”  Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins.  As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.

The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.

If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay.  In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done.  Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay. 

But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods.  And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless.  No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.

So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.

This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins.  This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money.  Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it.  And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin.  Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins.  And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.

Those all seem like bad features.  But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.

The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth.  The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time.  If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices.  Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.

This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase.  By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth! 

But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value.  And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be.  Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.

When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.

Modern money barely exists.  Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers.  In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.

This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate.  In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless. 

It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible.  Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.

This would be sad for those rich kids.  But, lo and behold, it was fixable!  If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will.  The story needs to be chanted more loudly.  If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!

That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value.  This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.

In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.

For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it.  Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates.  Money from nothing!

From David Segal’s New York Times article:

A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.

Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.

“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”

They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money. 

By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so.  A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.

Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class.  I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.

“Med call?” somebody asked.

“Shakedown?” asked another.

The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.”  And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras?  I gotta get on that list!” 

The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.

After he’d left, the guys explained the system.  “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months.  So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while.  And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”

Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.

“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.”  And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth.  But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.

About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.

“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.

“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.

“You idiot!  You didn’t have them get the top one?”

“No, man, that’s my smile!  Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”

“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list?  I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out.  Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”

As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before.  And I’ve had braces.  Invisalign.  I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.

“So who was it, that lady doctor?”

“Naw, was the Black guy.”

“What?  Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”

“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy.  There’s just three, is all.”

“Oh.”

Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit.  Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one.  And they didn’t let him keep the teeth. 

I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

The scientific method is the best way to investigate the world.

Do you want to know how something works?  Start by making a guess, consider the implications of your guess, and then take action.  Muck something up and see if it responds the way you expect it to.  If not, make a new guess and repeat the whole process.

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Image by Derek K. Miller on Flickr.

This is slow and arduous, however.  If your goal is not to understand the world, but rather to convince other people that you do, the scientific method is a bad bet.  Instead you should muck something up, see how it responds, and then make your guess.  When you know the outcome in advance, you can appear to be much more clever.

A large proportion of biomedical science publications are inaccurate because researchers follow the second strategy.  Given our incentives, this is reasonable.  Yes, it’s nice to be right.  It’d be cool to understand all the nuances of how cells work, for instance.  But it’s more urgent to build a career.

Both labs I worked in at Stanford cheerfully published bad science.  Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to notice the flaws because primary data aren’t published.

A colleague of mine obtained data by varying several parameters simultaneously, but then graphed his findings against only one of these.  As it happens, his observations were caused by the variable he left out of his charts.  Whoops!

(Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel quickly responded that my colleague’s conclusions probably weren’t correct.  Unfortunately, Warshel’s argument was based on unrealistic simulations – in his model, a key molecule spins in unnatural ways.  This next sentence is pretty wonky, so feel free to skip it, but … to show the error in my colleague’s paper, Warshel should have modeled multiple molecules entering the enzyme active site, not molecules entering backward.  Whoops!)

Another colleague of mine published his findings about unusual behavior from a human protein.  But then his collaborator realized that they’d accidentally purified and studied a similarly-sized bacterial protein, and were attempting to map its location in cells with an antibody that didn’t work.  Whoops!

No apologies or corrections were ever given.  They rarely are, especially not from researchers at our nation’s fanciest universities.  When somebody with impressive credentials claims a thing is true, people often feel ready to believe.

antibodies.JPGIndeed, for my own thesis work, we wanted to test whether two proteins are in the same place inside cells.  You can do this by staining with light-up antibodies for each.  If one antibody is green and the other is red, you’ll know how often the proteins are in the same place based on how much yellow light you see.

Before conducting the experiment, I wrote a computer program that would assess the data.  My program could identify various cellular structures and check the fraction that were each color.

As it happened, I didn’t get the results we wanted.  My data suggested that our guess was wrong.

But we couldn’t publish that.  And so my advisor told me to count again, by hand, claiming that I should be counting things of a different size.  And then she continued to revise her instructions until we could plausibly claim that we’d seen what we expected.  We made a graph and published the paper.

This is crummy.  It’s falsehood with the veneer of truth.  But it’s also tragically routine.

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41B1pZkOwmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Luke Dittrich intertwines two horror stories about scientific ethics in Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.

One of these nightmares is driven by the perverse incentives facing early neurosurgeons.  Perhaps you noticed, above, that an essential step of the scientific method involves mucking things up.  You can’t tell whether your guesses are correct until you perform an experiment.  Dittrich provides a lovely summary of this idea:

The broken illuminate the unbroken.

An underdeveloped dwarf with misfiring adrenal glands might shine a light on the functional purpose of these glands.  An impulsive man with rod-obliterated frontal lobes [Phineas Gage] might provide clues to what intact frontal lobes do.

This history of modern brain science has been particularly reliant on broken brains, and almost every significant step forward in our understanding of cerebral localization – that is, discovering what functions rely on which parts of the brain – has relied on breakthroughs provided by the study of individuals who lacked some portion of their gray matter.

. . .

While the therapeutic value of the lobotomy remained murky, its scientific potential was clear: Human beings were no longer off-limits as test subjects in brain-lesioning experiments.  This was a fundamental shift.  Broken men like Phineas Gage and Monsieur Tan may have always illuminated the unbroken, but in the past they had always become broken by accident.  No longer.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical.

Dittrich was dismayed to learn that his own grandfather had participated in this sort of research, intentionally wrecking at least one human brain in order to study the effects of his meddling.

Lacking a specific target in a specific hemisphere of Henry’s medial temporal lobes, my grandfather had decided to destroy both.

This decision was the riskiest possible one for Henry.  Whatever the functions of the medial temporal lobe structures were – and, again, nobody at the time had any idea what they were – my grandfather would be eliminating them.  The risks to Henry were as inarguable as they were unimaginable.

The risks to my grandfather, on the other hand, were not.

At that moment, the riskiest possible option for his patient was the one with the most potential rewards for him.

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By destroying part of a brain, Dittrich’s grandfather could create a valuable research subject.  Yes, there was a chance of curing the patient – Henry agreed to surgery because he was suffering from epileptic seizures.  But Henry didn’t understand what the proposed “cure” would be.  This cure was very likely to be devastating.

At other times, devastation was the intent.  During an interview with one of his grandfather’s former colleagues, Dittrich is told that his grandmother was strapped to the operating table as well.

It was a different era,” he said.  “And he did what at the time he thought was okay: He lobotomized his wife.  And she became much more tractable.  And so he succeeded in getting what he wanted: a tractable wife.”

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Compared to slicing up a brain so that its bearer might better conform to our society’s misogynistic expectations of female behavior, a bit of scientific fraud probably doesn’t sound so bad.  Which is a shame.  I love science.  I’ve written previously about the manifold virtues of the scientific method.  And we need truth to save the world.

Which is precisely why those who purport to search for truth need to live clean.  In the cut-throat world of modern academia, they often don’t.

Dittrich investigated the rest of Henry’s life: after part of his brain was destroyed, Henry became a famous study subject.  He unwittingly enabled the career of a striving scientist, Suzanne Corkin.

Dittrich writes that

Unlike Teuber’s patients, most of the research subjects Corkin had worked with were not “accidents of nature” [a bullet to the brain, for instance] but instead the willful products of surgery, and one of them, Patient H.M., was already clearly among the most important lesion patients in history.  There was a word that scientists had begun using to describe him.  They called him pure.  The purity in question didn’t have anything to do with morals or hygiene.  It was entirely anatomical.  My grandfather’s resection had produced a living, breathing test subject whose lesioned brain provided an opportunity to probe the neurological underpinnings of memory in unprecedented ways.  The unlikelihood that a patient like Henry could ever have come to be without an act of surgery was important.

. . .

By hiring Corkin, Teuber was acquiring not only a first-rate scientist practiced in his beloved lesion method but also by extension the world’s premier lesion patient.

. . .

According to [Howard] Eichenbaum, [a colleague at MIT,] Corkin’s fierceness as a gatekeeper was understandable.  After all, he said, “her career is based on having that exclusive access.”

Because Corkin had (coercively) gained exclusive access to this patient, most of her claims about the workings of memory would be difficult to contradict.  No one could conduct the experiments needed to rebut her.

Which makes me very skeptical of her claims.

Like most scientists, Corkin stumbled across occasional data that seemed to contradict the models she’d built her career around.  And so she reacted in the same was as the professors I’ve worked with: she hid the data.

Dittrich: Right.  And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

She paused for several seconds.

Corkin: Shredded

Dittrich: Shredded?  Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Dittrich: Really?  I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history.  Why would you do that?

. . .

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right.

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On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys.  I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.

No luck.

Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail.  I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.

Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys.  The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.

On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up?  I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”

Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb.  They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard.  It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).

I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass.  I hoisted my keys toward the sky.  Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.

I know, of course, that magic isn’t real.  Neither is luck.  But knowing is different from believing.

I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes.  That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up.  I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.

Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander.  I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous.  Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent.  Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite?  What if I used my up on the keys?  What if I found my keys but lost my family?

I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.

1024px-Ambulance_Toronto_March_2010Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren.  A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven.  Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?

I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights.  I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.

Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance.  I dashed back.  I waited again.  I grew worried again.  Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.

By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store.  Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.

“We thought you were meeting us at the library.  We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”

An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.

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Dollarnote_siegel_hqIn jail, conspiracy theories run rampant.  Everyone’s mind is idle there.  People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening.  The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem.  So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them.  The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be.  I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”

We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen.  After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild.  We’re building a wall.  This time it’ll be hewn stone.

Certain numbers take on inordinate significance.  The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives.  They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.

Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned.  If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse.  Jubilee has never been celebrated.

The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse.  Again I nodded sagely.  What does one say?  People inside wait, and wait, and wait.  Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.

Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them.  Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.

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In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced.  We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait.  When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read.  And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.

The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …

Great wealth can accomplish the same.

jacobsenIn Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity.  The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious.  Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation.  Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls.  Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability.  Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.

But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue.  In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:

One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells.  In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA.  For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.

At other times, funding came from the idle rich.  The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.

Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic.  Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.

[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory.  She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends.  To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.

Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty.  Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017.  Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.

A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate.  Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.

While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?

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What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?

Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur.  An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.

shanbhagIt’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.  Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The narrator’s sister marries.  Insufficiently pampered, she returns home.  The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.

The narrator marries, too.  An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach.  But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:

After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room.  Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday.  Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.

We entered the room.  I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.

I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.

No, I’m serious.  I really want to know.  Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.

I just told you,” I said.  “It’s the truth.  I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”

She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.

I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company].  Which was, of course, true.  The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.

Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable.  She is too honest.  She has too much integrity.  She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference.  She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family.  The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.

When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:

The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.”

You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though.  He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”

There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen.  It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.

But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them.  They were all released …”

These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said.  “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught.  Remember that techie who recently killed his wife  He was caught because of his overplanning.”  He laughed.

What are you people saying?” [my father] asked.  He looked upset.  “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”

[My uncle] sighed.  “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said.  These things are not as big a deal today.  I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala?  Everyone else does it, too.  You never know when you might need these people.  It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”

Now it’s Tuesday.  Anita hasn’t called since she left.  Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon.  I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning.  Haven’t been able to summon the courage.

Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:

As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well.  He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”

I began to shiver at the mention of blood.  Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this?  He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort.  He went away without speaking another word.

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If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.

I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously.  For what, I don’t know.  The phone rings.  I grab it and look at the screen.  An unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”

A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”

No, it’s not.

Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up.  My mind is in a whirl.  Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls?  First the insurance agent, now this.  Could it be a sign?

Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad.  Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me.  Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station?  What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house?  Or could something have happened to her after she came home?  What if she’s killed herself?  Everything she might need is there.  A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills.  A tall building not too far away.  Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?

Enough of this madness!  Let me go home now.  I reach for the glass of water in front of me.  It shatters in my hand.  Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me.  He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.

I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.

As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand.  There’s blood on it.”

I freeze.  What is happening?  What have I become entangled in?  There must be some way out of all this.  The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.

Ghachar ghochar.”  A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined.  Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.

Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry.  Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings.  Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.

On the PubPeer lawsuit, scientific fraud, and anonymity.

CaptureThere are some problems with academic bioscience.

That much seems to be well agreed on.  There are a lot of contributing factors — the pyramid-scheme-like training & employment setup, the recent propagation of soft money positions (universities hiring without setting aside money for salaries, expecting salary money to come out of research grants instead), a reduction in real money available for research at the same time as more people are applying for funding, and then the myriad issues arising from journal policies.  Things like an emphasis on unexpected results, disinterest in publishing reproductions, allowing material to be published with scanty experimental details and, worse, heavily-processed data in the form of graphs and charts as opposed to raw data itself.

Which, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, probably the best place to start would be last year’s paper from Alberts et al., “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.”  The authors provide a thorough, accessible introduction to many of these problems.

Today, I’m just going to focus on one issue: the difficulty of identifying scientific misconduct.  As in, principal investigators publishing work that they know should not be published, at least not in the way they’re presenting it.

Which, sure, you could use the word “fraud” for this, but that’s a very harsh word that I don’t think is entirely appropriate to encompass the range of issues we ought to consider.  Like work that’s presented misleadingly to make it seem more exciting than it really is.  Or work that’s found out to be inaccurate (or partially inaccurate) after it’s sent for publication, but is never retracted.  Classifying those types of cases with the same word used to describe fabricated data seems overly harsh, even though none of that is okay.

For starters: yes, this issue has been in the news a lot more lately than it used to be.  Part of the problem is directly related to issues addressed in the Alberts article.  Biomedical research seems more competitive now than it used to be, and the people involved are objectively more replaceable; the number of available persons with the necessary training per professorship has increased, largely because each professor needs a team of people to conduct experiments, and the way those teams are currently assembled is primarily from the ranks of trainees.

The other main driver for an increase in apparent fraud is that it can pass by undetected more easily now.  Modern experiments are hard — the techniques require a lot of training to even understand the underlying physical principles, let alone to be able to correctly interpret data.  Even researchers who’ve come to very different conclusions than myself about what ought to be done acknowledge that experimental difficulty is a huge issue for the reproducibility of modern work; you could read Mina Bissell’s article “The risks of the replication drive,” for instance, where she writes:

“So why am I concerned?  Isn’t reproducibility the bedrock of the scientific process?  Yes, up to a point.  But it is sometimes much easier not to replicate than to replicate studies, because the techniques and reagents are sophisticated, time-consuming and difficult to master.  In the past ten years, every paper published on which I have been senior author has taken between four and six years to complete, and at times much longer.  People in my lab often need months–if not a year–to replicate some of the experiments we have done on the roles of the microenvironment and extracellular matrix in cancer, and that includes consulting with other lab members, as well as the original authors.”

So, let’s start with that.  Experiments are sufficiently involved that they might be difficult to reproduce even if the results were correct.  And let’s set aside the issue of whether or not results are robust; in her article, Bissell points out that tiny variations in cell line can have dramatic impacts on their response to assays.  So it might be fair to wonder in those cases whether observed results matter, but not whether they’re correct.

But there’s a confounding factor, because some results presumably are not correct.  Both John Ioannidis’s article “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” and Chabris et al.’s article “Most Reported Genetic Associations with General Intelligence Are Probably False Positives” consider the math behind p-testing, the typical ways that researchers collect and process data, and journal publishing policies to show that our current system is likely to yield many inaccurate results. Indeed, there seem to be enough incorrect results published that many drug companies no longer trust academic results, as described in Begley and Ellis’s article “Raise standards for preclinical cancer research”  (although it’s worth noting here that Begley and Ellis are basing their conclusions on numerous instances in which famous results could not be reproduced.  Bissell’s objections, as mentioned above, could still apply).

Okay.  That’s probably a lot to take in, especially since this is all just preamble to the point I wanted to make today.  Let me give a quick summary: experiments are hard.  That makes testing reproducibility hard.  But some of what’s out there is in fact not true (almost assuredly, based on the numbers, although this can only be proven on a case by case basis).

So, how do we separate the cases of things being not true because, yes, science is hard, and it’s easy to reach incorrect conclusions, and it’s a journey, a journey in which no one expects to unravel all of nature’s mysteries right away… cases where a published result is innocently not true for those reasons, and cases of fraud?

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A nice shot from PhD comics.

Because there is fraud in our current system.  Papers knowingly not retracted.  Inaccurate data published.  Data work-ups that obscure questionable aspects of a group’s results.  And it’s very difficult to draw attention to: when people do find out about it, they tend to be powerless underlings.  An ethical stance against fraud can easily result in a destroyed career: consider Peter Whoriskey’s article about a Johns Hopkins researcher who drew attention to some problems with research he was working on and was summarily fired, then harassed.  Or you could consider Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s article about Diederik Stapel, a sociology professor who simply made up all his experimental results for decades.  Because of his past successes, his students were extremely reticent to confront him about suspected fraud, allowing the scam to persist far longer than you might imagine it should’ve.  And, and this is an excellent point that Bhattacharjee made, “Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments.”

And, right, the reason why I’m writing about this today?  There is an anonymous platform for commenting on scientific papers called “PubPeer.”  And, look, I know that anonymous bullying is a problem, that there are lots of horrible issues with systems like Yik Yak allowing people to write vituperative comments online with no accountability.  But PubPeer seemed like an important service simply because it can be so difficult for outsiders to know when there are flaws in scientific research, and because the insiders who do know, and who might have an incentive to report the truth, could suffer grave consequences for doing so.

And yet… PubPeer was ruled against recently.  A judge said that PubPeer should be forced to turn over identifying information for an online commenter who supposedly cost Fazlul Sarkar a job at the University of Mississippi.  To me, this is bad, because any suspicion of fraud not validated by a university investigative committee could be considered defamation — but university investigative committees are often slow to act and do not necessarily protect the careers of informants.  It seems bad to take away an anonymous venue for potentially spreading scientific truth, especially since this is an arena where the anonymity really is important for the accuser, and should not be important for the accused: the accused has objective science to defend themselves with if they are in the right.  If Sarkar had separate pieces of data for all his published experiments, he could have shown that data to whomever at the University of Mississippi to quell their concerns.  Whereas a commenting graduate student or post-doc or whomever has no guarantee that levying an accusation won’t render him or her permanently unemployed in the field.