Mail 744 Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Dear Dr. Pournelle:
A small terminological point about Chinese script: My copy of Oxford University Press’s The World’s Writing Systems (an amazingly comprehensive book—it even has Tolkien’s two invented scripts!) calls Chinese writing "logographic," meaning that characters represent words, as contrasted with syllabic and alphabetic scripts. The authors maintain that "pictographic" is obviously wrong, as there are Chinese characters for abstractions that can’t be pictured; and "ideographic" is more subtly wrong in several ways: "idea" is somewhat vague if the idea isn’t linked to a specific word, and there are grammatical function words such as "of" or "the" that don’t really express an idea. (We can count how many English words are in an unabridged dictionary, but how would you count how many ideas English-speaking people have?)
This is not to deny that having to learn hundreds or thousands of distinct characters that represent different words is a hindrance! I’m just in favor of going with more current scholarship and terminology on how written Chinese works. The term "logographic" actually strikes me as improving the precision of the discussion.
William H. Stoddard
I suspect my use of ‘ideographic’ betrays the age of my education: that’s how Chinese was described when I was in high school, or at least at my high school. I won’t quarrel with a more precise terminology, although I will point out that some Chinese seems to be ideographic: at least I am told that the character for ‘trouble’ is a stylized pictograph of two women under one roof. I won’t insist on that being correct, since I can’t recall where I first read it, but I would think that almost the very definition of ‘ideographic.’ But I don’t claim to know much about Chinese.
I do think it important that we understand Chinese culture., and I suspect that much of what I have always known is in need of amplification…
Subject: pictographs and phonetic writing
Dear Dr. Pournelle,
Your column for 1Oct2012 included a long letter about pictographs and phonemes. You were once exposed to a practical example. Korea once used classical Chinese for all written communication, even though the Chinese writing was a horrible fit for the Korean language. A king of Korea realized he could not communicate directly with the people, and fixed this. He directed a group of scholars to invent a phonetic alphabet that could be taught quickly to anyone. His scholars worked hard, made several voyages to China, and succeeded. The current Korean phonetic alphabet is little changed from the original effort. Those who point out that Korea still uses some Chinese characters are advised that they are used mostly in proper names and to avoid ambiguity, especially in legal documents. In all cases, there is a Korean spelling available for those unfamiliar with Hanja, the Korean name for the Chinese characters.
William L. Jones
Thank you. I should have added that story earlier.
October 3, 2012: The U.S. has angered the French Air Force by reneging on a 2010 contract to upgrade the four French E-3F AWACS (Air Warning And Control System) aircraft. The agreed on price is $466 million and now the U.S. wants to tack on another $5 million so the promised technology can be degraded. This is all because some American bureaucrat decided that some of the upgrade technology was too sensitive for the French and had to be taken out of the upgrade. The French are being asked to pay for this change. The French are not happy. The U.S. insists such changes are allowed for these deals but are having a hard time convincing the French……..
Words fail me.
I think it’s time for an update to the Iron Law:
The Department of Homeland Security has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a network of 77 so-called “fusion” intelligence centers that have collected personal information on some U.S. citizens — including detailing the “reading habits” of American Muslims — while producing “shoddy” reports and making no contribution to thwarting any terrorist plots, a new Senate report states. </>
Reading this did not cause the concept to dawn on me as we all know bureaucracies compete for funding and personnel. The pie they draw from is finite; for one bureaucracy to expand taxes must rise or another bureaucracy must shrink. In these times, bureaucracy is close to a zero-sum game. One wasteful bureaucracy points at another; why? Would it be to get resources? Pros, cons; fixes or problem, reaction; solution or, thesis, antithesis; synthesis may be at work here? I think you might update the Iron Law to reflect how these bureaucracies fight — and infight — for resources. This update would — ideally — include the words "intelligence failure", "parochial interests", and "mismanagement of funds" inter alia.
Joshua Jordan, KSC
And yet some things cannot be accomplished without bureaucracy. The art of good government requires understanding how to prune and control bureaucracy; you can’t really live without it, nor would you want to. Government like fire is a dangerous friend and a fearful master – but it is required for civilization.
In your August 31, 2012 Mail at
<http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=9400> you posted my question
"What fraction of the scientific literature is fabricated in the service of agendas?"
You introduced my question with a question of your own: "How real is science?"
I had hoped that responses from your readers would help clarify my thinking about this issue. So far I’ve seen only one reply at
<http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=9533> That response did not seem to address my question. Instead it discussed other topics, including religion, which has nothing at all to do with my question.
In my original e-mail, I gave reasons for asking my question, listing my own experience plus statements by three internationally known speakers and writers who have made comments questioning the integrity of the scientific literature.
Today I am reading articles in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" and in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" that address the very issue I raised when I first asked my question. It appears that the situation is worse than I ever imagined. There are serious questions arising about the integrity of peer-reviewed journals and questions about the fraction of the scientific literature that is fabricated.
An article in a blog published by "The Chronicle of Higher Education" dated October 1, 2012, by Paul Basken has the headline "Misconduct, Not Error, Found Behind Most Journal Retractions"
<http://chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/misconduct-not-error-found-behind-most-journal-retractions> Mr. Basken describes an article from "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences"
<http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/27/1212247109> in which it was determined that 2/3 of journal retractions are due to fraud. To quote from the Basken summary:
Research misconduct, rather than error, is the leading cause of retractions in scientific journals, with the problem especially pronounced in more prestigious publications, a comprehensive analysis has concluded.
Not surprisingly, the reasons provided for retraction of fraudulent articles are themselves fraudulent. To quote from the abstract of the PNAS paper (subscription required for full text):
Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic.
It appears that the journals do not consider themselves to be gatekeepers for scientific integrity, despite all the lip service paid to peer-review. Quoting again from the Basken article:
Dr. Casadevall was more critical, saying that the misconduct discovered through their study was “the tip of the iceberg” and that journals needed to develop better standards. As an example, he cited the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which accounted for 27 of the 158 examples where a retraction attributed to an error was discovered by Dr. Casadevall and his team to actually involve misconduct. Part of the problem, he said, is that the journal has a policy of allowing retractions without giving any public explanation of the reason.
In such a setting, Dr. Casadevall said, “the misconduct is going through the roof because the rewards are disproportionate.”
Indeed, it is now known that the journals do not even bother to document the existence of the so-called peers who do the peer-reviewing, as described in another article in "The Chronicle" under the headline:
"Fake Peer Reviews, the Latest Form of Scientific Fraud, Fool Journals"
<http://chronicle.com/article/Fake-Peer-Reviews-the-Latest/134784/> That there is a "retraction epidemic" in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals makes me wonder again what percentage of the scientific literature is fabricated in the service of an agenda. Basken quotes one of the authors of the PNAS article:
“Right now we’re incentivizing a lot of behavior that’s not actually constructive to science,” Dr. Fang said.
This seems consistent with the statement by Dr. John Patrick, president of Augustine College in Ottawa that I quoted in my previous e-mail about this issue. Dr. Patrick said:
We have no idea now, do we, how much of the scientific literature is fabricated. And, of course, it’s very hard to imagine why it wouldn’t be fabricated. We’re merely reaping the rewards of what we have taught."
43:37 minutes into the talk at
The PNAS article studied only the medical literature, which might be getting special scrutiny because life and death are at stake. Quoting again the Basken article in "The Chronicle":
The risks to public health were illustrated this year by a report in Nature in which the pharmaceutical company Amgen described its attempts to independently verify a collection of 53 published studies concerning cancer drugs. The Amgen scientists found they could confirm the scientific findings in only 11 percent of the articles.
(Nature article at
In other research areas, where only relatively inconsequential things such as academic promotions and grant money are at stake, we can surmise that there is much less incentive to investigate fraud.
It appears that distrust of the scientific literature is rooted not in the conspiratorial imaginings of the general public but in the documented behavior of the scientific community.
I would like to see more comments about these issues from your well-informed readers. The decline in trust, the decline in the belief that your fellow Americans will try to do the right thing, plays a significant role in Charles Murray’s book "Coming Apart." Loss of trust threatens the existence of civil society and the continuation of the American project. At one time scientific journals were assumed trustworthy. Today when reading an article one is less apt to think "Isn’t that interesting" and is more apt to ask "What are they up to?"
The problem is that I don’t have time to give the matter the attention that it deserves. Academia has become bureaucratic in extreme ways, and the Iron Law prevails there as elsewhere. On the other hand, the Internet has made it possible to make almost anything available to nearly everyone. We have not gone through the intellectual revolutions that will entail. In the early days science fiction was more imaginative than it often is now; on the other hand, some have simply thrown up their hands and say ‘Singularity!’
‘Now deputies are investigating how Garner ended up in a position where the hogs were able to eat him.’
Hogs can be dangerous, and boar hunting was a royal sport at one time…
Subj: Polls: refusal rates?
What fraction of those who will vote refuse to respond to telephone pollsters?
"At Pew Research, the response rate of a typical telephone survey was 36% in 1997 and is just 9% today."
"53% of Americans actively refuse to answer poll questions."
Are the refusers systematically different from the responders? We won’t know until Election Day.
A long time ago a magazine went out of business after falsely predicting an election: it used a telephone poll when only those with higher incomes could afford a telephone. Now polls that use landlines have a problem. Getting a true random sample is increasingly difficult, and as they get more desperate there will be more people unwilling to answer. Stay tuned…
Generous letter from Heinlein to Sturgeon
Scanning Instapundit, I chanced upon this:
A peek into a highly creative and generous mind–
As it happens I spent the Saturday night of that Chicago Convention in Mr. Heinlein’s suite in a party that lasted until dawn and we watched the sun rise over the lake. A memorable night, and the real beginning of myh long friendship with Mr. Heinlein. Ted was at the convention but not a t that party.
"grade level" and literacy
Many parents, frustrated by the government schools, have pulled their children out. Home schoolers – who almost always uses phonics, not look-say – now educate about 4% of American children. Private-school enrollment is rising. Some government schools are losing 8% of their enrollment annually.
What shocks me is the degree of economic illiteracy in "the land of the free." Given what economists know about the Economic Calculation Problem and Incentive Problems, why do we still rely upon government provision of education?
Regarding China — they appear to be more and more scientifically adept as time goes by – and in part, this seems to be due to their willingness to learn other languages, especially English. It takes decades to educate an entire nation, but the right education for their best and brightest can cause a great transformation.
I do point out that with the Internet it is possible to have real education without government schools. Credentials are another matter.
And on that score:
The WWW and government…
It is getting close to impossible for any establishment group to get its version of the past accepted. There are rival sites that provide links to evidence that undermines the establishment’s view.
"The Internet has overcome the establishments’ distribution systems. Information delivery systems present numerous outlets to anyone with an Internet connection. Very skilled communicators can now overcome what would have been nearly impenetrable barriers to entry in 1995.
"The quality of the broad mass of digits is low, but the quality at the top is very high. Open entry has produced outlets for people with very great skills in both research and expression."
Subj: Perot fears economic takeover, refuses to endorse
Did a Computer Bug Help Deep Blue Beat Kasparov? |
A computer bug seems to have helped Deep Blue Beat Kasparov:
It was a mistake, but it messed with Kasparov’s head.
Roberta and I met and had dinner with Gary Kasparov when we were in Moscow in 1989. I can hardly call him an old friend, but we did exchange some letters afterwards. Interesting story. I can see how it might have affected his play.
Of course Big Blue is not conscious – yet. And I do think it was unfair to let them reprogram the computer during the game series.
Subject: Spherical Drive Motorcycle
It looks like something right out of a Sci-Fi film, but as a Harley rider for 40+ years, it’s a little much for me
© 2012, jerrypournelle. All rights reserved.