happy deadline everyone!

The main proof in one of my QIP submissions has developed a giant hole.
Hopefully the US Congress does a better job with its own, somewhat higher stakes, deadline. In many ways their job is easier. They can just submit the same thing as last year and they don’t need to compress their result into three pages. Unfortunately, things are not looking good for them either!
Good luck to all of us.


On this historic occasion, let me take this opportunity to congratulate tonight’s winner: Nate Silver, of the Mathematics Party. No words yet on a concession speech from the opposition.
Fans will be pleased to know that Nate is now on twitter.

Is science on trial in Italy?

credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Big news from Italy today, where a regional court has ruled that six Italian scientists (and one ex-government official) are guilty of multiple manslaughter for the deaths of 309 people that were killed in the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009.
The reaction in the English-speaking press seems largely to showcase the angle that the scientists are being persecuted for failing to accurately predict when the earthquake would hit. They are rightly pointing out that there is no currently accepted scientific method for short-term earthquake prediction, and hence there can be no way to fault the scientists for a failure to make an accurate prediction. As the BBC puts it, “The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial.”
And indeed, reading through the technical report of the “grandi rischi” commission, there does not seem to be anything unreasonable that these scientists say, either before or after the earthquake. (Unfortunately the reports are only in Italian… ma non è troppo difficile perché questo aiuta.) There is no evidence here of either misconduct or manipulation of data.
However, this is a rather delicate issue, and the above arguments in defense of the scientists may be red herrings. As BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos reports, the issue which was under deliberation at the trial was rather about whether the scientists (under pressure from the Civil Defense) issued public statements that were overly downplaying the risk. In fact, one official, Guido Bertolaso, was recorded in a tapped telephone conversation explicitly calling for such action, and I’m sure that charges will be brought against him as well, if they haven’t already. (Strangely, the wiretap was part of a separate investigation and went unnoticed until January of this year, hence the delay.)
In fact, after the aforementioned conversation with Mr. Bertolaso, one of the seven defendants, Mr. de Bernardinis (the ex-official, not one of the scientists) told a reporter that there was “no danger” posed by the ongoing tremors, and that “the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation” and that the public should just “relax with a Montepulciano” (a glass of red wine from the region).  Contrast this with the fact that strong earthquakes do tend to correlate time-wise with an increase in smaller tremors. Thus, although the total probability of a large event remains low, it definitely increases when there are more tremors.
Thus, the case is not just another in the long Italian tradition of show-trials persecuting scientists (c.f. Bruno, Galileo). It is at the very least a complex and delicate case, and we should resist the knee-jerk reaction to rush to the defense of our fellow scientists without first getting all of the facts. My personal opinion is that I’m reserving judgement on the guilt or innocence of the scientists until I get more information, though Mr. de Bernardinis is not looking so good.
(Update: as Aram rightly points out in the comments, a manslaughter charge seems very excessive here, and I suppose charges of negligence or maybe wrongful death would seem more appropriate.)
But there is at least one other tragedy here, and that is that these scientists might be essentially the only ones who face a trial. There are many other failure points in the chain of responsibility that led to the tragic deaths. For example, it has come to light that many of the buildings were not built according to earthquake safety regulations; the contractors and government officials were cutting corners in very dangerous ways. If those accusations are true, then that is very serious indeed, and it would be a travesty of justice if the guilty parties were to go unpunished.
Update: Michael Nielsen points to an outstanding article that I missed (from over a month ago!) that discusses exactly these points. Let me quote extensively from the article:

Picuti [one of the prosecutors] made it clear that the scientists are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. “Even six-year old kids know that earthquakes cannot be predicted,” he said. “The goal of the meeting was very different: the scientists were supposed to evaluate whether the seismic sequence could be considered a precursor event, to assess what damages had already happened at that point, to discuss how to mitigate risks.” Picuti said the panel members did not fulfill these commitments, and that their risk analysis was “flawed, inadequate, negligent and deceptive”, resulting in wrong information being given to citizens.
Picuti also rejected the point – made by the scientists’ lawyers – that De Bernardinis alone should be held responsible for what he told the press. He said that the seismologists failed to give De Bernardinis essential information about earthquake risk. For example, he noted that in 1995 one of the indicted scientists… had published a study that suggetsed a magnitude-5.9 earthquake in the L’Aquila area was considered highly probable within 20 years… [and] estimated the probability of a magnitude 5.5 shock in the following decade to be as high as 15%. Such data were not discussed at the meeting, as the minutes show.
“Had Civil Protection officials known this, they would probably have acted differently,” said Picuti. “They were victims of the seismologists”.

Randomized Governance

What if instead of electing our representatives in government, we simply chose them at random?
A new Rasmussen poll asked 1,000 likely voters exactly this question. Turns out, 43% thought that a random choice of people from the phonebook would do a better job than the current legislators, a plurality. Of course, these people were themselves chosen randomly from a phonebook, so I’m not sure they are entirely unbiased. 🙂
But why stop at the legislators? Why not just write random legislation using context-free grammars? We already have software that can automatically write scientific papers, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch. I guess that a lot of this random legislation would be better than SOPA.

A Federal Mandate for Open Science

Witness the birth of the Federal Research Public Access Act:

“The Federal Research Public Access Act will encourage broader collaboration among scholars in the scientific community by permitting widespread dissemination of research findings.  Promoting greater collaboration will inevitably lead to more innovative research outcomes and more effective solutions in the fields of biomedicine, energy, education, quantum information theory and health care.”

[Correction: it didn’t really mention quantum information theory—SF.]

You can read the full text of FRPAA here.
The bill states that any federal agency which budgets more than $100 million per year for funding external research must make that research available in a public online repository for free download now later than 6 months after the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
This looks to me like a big step in the right direction for open science. Of course, it’s still just a bill, and needs to successfully navigate the Straights of the Republican-controlled House, through the Labyrinth of Committees and the Forest of Filibuster, and run the Gauntlet of Presidential Vetos. How can you help it survive this harrowing journey? Write your senators and your congresscritter today, and tell them that you support FRPAA and open science!
Hat tip to Robin Blume-Kohout.

Could Elsevier shut down arxiv.org?

They haven’t yet, but they are supporting SOPA, a bill that attempts to roll back Web 2.0 by making it easy to shut down entire sites like wikipedia and craigslist if they contain any user-submitted infringing material. (Here is a hypothetical airline-oriented version of SOPA, with only a little hyperbole about planes in the air.)
I think that appealing to Elsevier’s love of open scientific discourse is misguided. Individual employees there might be civic-minded, but ultimately they have $10 billion worth of reasons not to let the internet drive the costs of scientific publishing down to zero. Fortunately, their business model relies on the help of governments and academics. We can do our part to stop them by not publishing in, or refereeing for, their journals (the link describes other unethical Elsevier practices). Of course, this is easy to say in physics, harder in computer science, and a lot harder in fields like medicine.
There is another concrete way to stand up for open access. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has requested comments on the question of public access to federally-funded scientific research. Comments should be from “non-Federal stakeholders, including the public, universities, nonprofit and for-profit publishers, libraries, federally funded and non-federally funded research scientists, and other organizations and institutions with a stake in long-term preservation and access to the results of federally funded research.” That’s us!
But don’t procrastinate. The deadline for comments is January 2.
Here is more information, with instructions on how to comment.
Here is also the official government Request For Information with more details.

More cracks in the theory of relativity?

When the OPERA collaboration announced their result that they had observed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, it rocked the entire physics community. However, despite the high statistical certainty of the claim, any sober physicist knew that the possibility of systematic errors means that we must patiently wait for additional independent experiments. Einstein’s theory hasn’t been overthrown yet!

Or has it?

Enter the good folks at Conservapedia, a “conservative, family-friendly Wiki encyclopedia.” They have helpfully compiled a list of 39 counterexamples to relativity, and noted that “any one of them shows that the theory of relativity is incorrect.” In fact, relativity “is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.” That is already damning evidence, but you really must look at the list.

A few of them actually have some partial grounding in reality. For example,

6. Spiral galaxies confound relativity, and unseen “dark matter” has been invented to try to retrofit observations to the theory.

Most of them, however, are either factually challenged or irrelevant:

14. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51.

18. The inability of the theory of relativity to lead to other insights, contrary to every extant verified theory of physics.

Why are these scientists at OPERA wasting tax payer’s money on their silly experiments when they can just check this list? And to Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh: please post your predictions for the LHC to the arXiv soon, before all the data gets analyzed.

Update from Aram: Ironically, conservativepedians don’t like Einstein’s relativity because of its occasional use as a rhetorical flourish in support of cultural relativism. (I agree that using it in this manner constitutes bad writing, and a terribly mixed metaphor.) But by denouncing relativity as a liberal conspiracy along with evolution and global warming, they’ve demonstrated their own form of intellectual relativism: the idea that there is no objective truth, but that we are all entitled to believe whatever facts about the world we prefer. At the risk of improving the credibility of Conservapedia, I made this point on their talk page. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Balancing the Budget, One NSF Grant at a Time

Now THIS is the kind of idea we pay our Republican house representatives to come up with. A website where we can go through NSF grants and identify the ones we think should not be funded, balancing the budget, one NSF grant at a time.But clearly this is barking up the wrong tree! The NSF budget is only $7 billion-ish (and there is no WAY that this budget pays for itself by barely maintaining the most innovative economy in the world. Psah you say!) So…
Anyone want to help me build a website where we go around and identify senior citizens that are collecting social security but have not contributed enough in their life to merit this money? Grandpa can appear on youtube where he’ll describe what exact it is that he did in his life that merits his current social security check. Too young to fight in world war two, that no good lazy bum, cut his check! BAM, social security solved!
Next we can expand into hospitals where we will be able to identify tons of cost cutting measures. Does little Suzy really need that surgery? See little Suzy via a snazzy web interface. Ask her questions. Find out she is a very unproductive member of society, what with her 3rd grade reading skills and 4th grade math skills. No surgery for you little Suzy! BAM, Medicare problem solved!
Moving down the budget we get to the military. My first suggestion was that we take all members of the armed forces, count the number of people they have killed, sort the list, and start chopping from the bottom up. BAM, military spending cut! Okay that doesn’t use the web and well qualified internet surfers to help us solve this problem. We could have the surfers do the sorting (internet sort is a less well studied sorting algorithm taking 2N time to sort a list of length N, and usually results in the death of far too many neurons.) So instead we could put up videos of every member of the military and vote on whether they are dangerous enough looking to merit their pay. BAM, military spending cut! For a second time! And we’d win wars just by glancing menacingly at our enemies!
And what about income tax rates? Well I suggest we make a great tool where people can vote on what they’d like marginal tax rates to be. And then we can exactly INVERT the results. BAM, income distribution problem fixed!
Okay, enough with reason number 1231 why I am not a Republican.
P.S. If you go to the website for this spirited effort, http://republicanwhip.house.gov/YouCut/Review.htm, the web form doesn’t appear to verify that you’ve submitted a valid email address or a grant, and well, you know that those don’t have to be real anyway. Just saying. 😉

Good and Bad News on the U.S. Deficit

Warning politics to follow! Politics with questionable data sources!

Recently the New York Times made a very cool web application in which you could select different methods for closing the deficit (which they break down into a short term 2015 and long term 2030 deficit.) I’ve always wanted to make sure a tool because I hate to say it, but most discussions of federal budgets have severe magnitude issues (order of magnitude physics, a great class to take!) Of course one can argue with the numbers and options the New York Times provides (see bottom of application for a list of where this data came from) but it is still an interesting exercise to carry out.

Even more interesting to me is that they allowed people to tweet the budgets they created and then they went out and collected data about these tweets. Here is that data. Of course the readership of the New York Times will not be representative, and this will be further biased by selecting people who tweet, but seeing as how I saw this tool linked to by several more conservative/libertarian blogs as well as by some of my more libertarian facebook friends, I’ll bet the demographic isn’t as bad as one might guess at first glance. One could probably figure out the bias from other surveys about these suggestions.

So, assuming that the demographic isn’t too distorted (big assumption of course, but roll with me on this one) what can one conclude? Well the first thing is the good news. I took the data from the 6898 twitter users and then started going down the line of most popular ideas until the deficit was balanced. This occurred at the 58 percent level (return estate tax to Clinton levels was the one that put it over the top.) So one could say that if this survey is in any way representative (not likely) that there is a path forward that has much more than majority support! The budget produced, by the way, consists of 41 percent tax increases and 59 percent reduction in spending.

Now the bad news. If I took the list and only implemented those for which there was a majority of support from those who were at the extremes of the survey (the Times broke out the people who balanced their budgets using 75 percent tax increase or 75 percent spending cuts) then there was a huge shortfall ($418 billion in 2015, $1345 billion in 2030.) Interestingly also the only such majority supported terms were spending cuts.

Another interesting breakdown is to take the identified taxers and spending cutters and to use the ones that they have a majority favoring and that the overall survey has a majority favoring. If one takes the tax increasing crowd and uses only the options that have an overall majority then one covers the deficit in 2015 (with a slight billion surplus) but fails to cover the long term 2030 deficit (has a $505 billion dollar deficit). If, on the other hand, one takes the tax cutting crowd and only uses their majority supported favorites, one does not close the short term 2015 deficit ($179 billion deficit) nor the long term ($390 billion deficit.) This comes all from spending cuts.

So there are some interesting things here if I close my eyes to the validity of the data. First it’s that there is majority support for addressing the deficit problem. Second, the extremes on both sides are incapable of solving this problem with majority supported proposals. So in short what is holding back deficit reduction is not support from the general public, but the polarizing climate in which reasonable people come together and compromise. Okay my own bias is that this is the main structural problem with the deficit 🙂

(Of course one should note that there are those who do not want to address the deficit today, especially in the short term where the U.S. economy is in uncertain times. There are also (separate) “reasonable” arguments to be made that a small deficit is not at all a bad thing.)

Climate Change Emails Scandal of a Physicist Kind

Ha, well, not nearly the soap opera that is the “University of East Anglia” emails, but fun to watch, nonetheless. A letter from American Physical Society president Cherry Murray:

Dear APS Member:
Recently, you may have received an unsolicited email from Hal Lewis, Bob Austin, Will Happer, Larry Gould and Roger Cohen regarding the APS and climate change. Please be assured that this was not an official APS message, nor was it sent with APS knowledge or approval. A number of members have complained to APS regarding this unsolicited e-mail. If the e-mail addresses used to send this message were obtained from our membership directory, this was contrary to the stated guidelines for members’ use of the directory. We arecontinuing to investigate how the senders obtained APS member email addresses.