Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let Them Eat Coal!

Last weekend, I had a discussion with my father-in-law on my food burning post. We talked for quite some time, and I lamented the silliness of the U.S. strategy to use ethanol as a motor fuel. I am confident that I didn't have much to add to the conversation because I am still pretty upset about how dumb the idea is. "That post was as close to a rant as I have seen," according to my co-worker Lonnie. I think what Lonnie was trying to tell me is that I didn't mask my real feelings about the stupidity of the energy policy that we are pursuing as a country.

Anyway, since Bob is a great problem solver and looks for unconventional approaches, he suggested that the way out of this whole expensive food mess (food riots in the Third World and rice rations at Costco) is to research how to turn our massive coal reserves into food. When he said that, I think I was stunned at both the brilliance and the irony of the idea. We plant corn, wheat, and other grains (perfectly good food products) with the expectation that they will be burned in internal combustion engines to power our cars. At the same time, we have decided that we cannot use coal (a perfectly good energy product) to produce electricity or to run our cars as motor fuel.

This makes perfect sense ... in Bizarro World!

I have now decided that what the U.S. really needs is a "Manhattan Project" type of effort to figure out how to turn coal into food. Eating our coal reserves may be the only way we will be able to get at the energy contained in this fuel. I am looking for investors to get in on the ground floor of this brand new market.

I can see it now. A whole line of barbecue products. Lignite patties will replace hamburgers, anthracite links will replace hot dogs, and bituminous sausages will take the place of brats. All we need is a few billion federal dollars to investigate the feasibility of our products. After we show that it could be done for thousands or millions of dollars per pound of food (and you thought Kobe beef was expensive), we can ask for federal subsidies to help us "compete" in the market place. The subsidies should be good for a couple of billion dollars per year. Finally, when our investment really takes off and the same suckers that are now buying organic foods start buying our products, we can get billions of dollars for NOT producing food from coal.

"A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon it adds up to real money."* Now, who's ready to invest in my sub-bituminous "Hot Pockets" idea? What could possibly go wrong?

*Everett Dirksen during a debate in the U.S. Senate

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Other Things On My Mind

I chose to maintain the "perkier" attitude that Kristy talked to me about earlier this week by not writing about the celebration of Vladimir Lenin's 138th birthday. What's that, you didn't hear about this celebration? You actually did, but most people just called it "Earth Day." Anyway, I spent most of this week either sick (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) or thinking about another topic (Standard of Living).

More specifically, I was wondering what makes a country like the U.S. have a high standard of living compared to say, Liberia (technically, the U.S. and Liberia were "founded" on the same principles). Well, rather than look at the typical answers of lack of resources, colonialism, and exploitation by the West for the difference, I decided to look at something else: Energy Use Per Capita.

This actually turned out to be kind of a chore because the Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita numbers were not available for some of the high standard of living countries while the Energy Use Per Capita were not available for some of the low standard of living countries. I obtained the 2006 GNI Per Capita for the top 16 and bottom 26 countries of the world (as estimated by the World Bank) and plotted that against the 2003 Energy Use Per Capita (as estimated by EarthTrends Environmental Information). What I discovered is found in the figure below.

Basically, the top 10 countries in standard of living use at least 15 times (in cases almost 60) the amount of energy per capita as the bottom 10. Why in the world is this important? It is because access to energy (electricity, oil, etc.) at a reasonable price correlates well with standard of living. It is also important because those countries at the bottom don't want to stay where they are. They want to move up the list to where Luxembourg, Kuwait, and the U.S. are.

For those of you intent on saving the world by recycling, changing your light bulbs, and adjusting your thermostat up and down depending on the season, remember that you are nibbling at the edges of the energy equation. There is an entire (third) world out there wanting the kind of standard of living that we have, and the only way to satisfy that demand is to find and produce more energy.

So, instead of spinning our wheels, let's look at actually solving the energy equation by investing in energy sources that we know will work (coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear) and leave the rest of the energy sources (solar, wind, biomass, etc.) to those celebrating Vladamir's birthday.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Really Tough Problem

After reading my last post, Kristy told me that I probably needed to write something "a little perkier". After re-reading the post myself, I figured that she was probably right. However, I am home sick and the three of us (Kristy, Sophie and me) are sharing a really nasty cold. So, cheerful thoughts are hard to come by right now. Having written that, my current random thought is definitely more light-hearted and is a dilemma that I have encountered in the last 6-9 months. It does require some explaining for those outside of Arkansas.

If you grow up or live in Arkansas, the Razorbacks are your team. The state does not have any major league franchises, and the only professional teams are two AA baseball teams (Arkansas Travelers and Northwest Arkansas Naturals), an Arena Football League 2 football team (Arkansas Twisters), and an NBA Developmental League team (Arkansas Rimrockers -- did not play a 2007-2008 season). In case you weren't keeping track, those teams have players that are at least 2 steps from the bigs in every sport. That is precisely why the Hogs are the only game in the state of Arkansas for football, basketball, and baseball.

Most residents of Arkansas are what Texas Aggies would deride as "T-shirt fans" because they have no real ties with school (i.e., they didn't attend the University of Arkansas and maybe have never been on the campus), but they will buy t-shirts, hats, hog-noses, bumper stickers, etc.

Why worry about t-shirt fans? Well, for Aggies, it is because they are usually the most vocal, obnoxious Texas Longhorn fans that you will find on the planet. (Actually, no, that award should probably go to the Texas Tech fans.) If you are a Texas Aggie fan, it is generally because you have some link to the school, but if you root for the 'horns it is likely that you jumped on the bandwagon because they were good at some point and you wanted to cheer for a good team. I think this is probably true in lots of places (Oklahoma/Oklahoma State; Michigan/Michigan State; Alabama/Auburn) where a state divides its loyalty. So, Aggies have a general disdain for the entire universe of t-shirt fans regardless of university.

Anyway, I had no problem with being a t-shirt fan before I went to Texas A&M because my undergraduate school (Hendrix College) wasn't a "big time" athletic program (or even small time athletic program for that matter). After spending five years in College Station and developing a passion for Aggie athletics, it felt a little odd to cheer wholeheartedly for the Razorbacks. Don't get me wrong. I never cheered for them to lose, but it didn't upset me if they lost. My dad and brother couldn't understand my "conversion," and they were shocked when I didn't always see the officiating or the rest of the world through the same cardinal-colored glasses. (Actually, I think they considered kicking me out of the family.)

Well, last September, I became an adjunct faculty member in the University of Arkansas's Center for Microelectronics & Photonics (I know, irony), and last February, I was appointed the Assistant Director of the Center. I have recently become a "full-time" Hog fan because I am bombarded with Razorback news and notes. I don't even feel like I am a t-shirt fan because I have ties to the school.

Now, here is the dilemma. Just recently, the Aggies and Razorbacks signed a 10-year deal to play football every year in the Dallas Cowboys new stadium (aka, Jerry's World). So, here is where you can help me. What should I do when my two favorite teams play next fall (and every year after)? Should I "woo pig" or should I "gig 'em"?

A. Be happy that one of my favorite teams will win.
B. Be down that one of my favorite teams will lose.
C. Pick the better team each year and cheer for them.
D. Go camping and find out who won later.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Iwo Jima = Global Warming?

I saw this cover of Time magazine a couple of days ago and tried to start framing my thoughts about the serious problem that it represents. I don't think that I have arrived at any real clarity of thought yet, but I will try to present why it is so disturbing to me.

First, the image of U.S. marines planting our flag on top of Mount Suribachi has become a symbol of the determination that we showed as a nation to rid the world of both the European and Asian variants of fascism. The Battle of Iwo Jima has been called some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater. About 21,000 Japanese soldiers defended the island while the U.S. forces were in excess of 100,000. The end result was over 20,000 dead Japanese and over 26,000 U.S. casualties (~7,000 dead). The bloodiness of the battle and the difficulties the U.S. forces encountered in taking this small island have been cited as one of the factors that President Truman used in deciding to use atomic weapons against the main island of Japan.

So, there is this theory called Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) that says driving an SUV, producing electricity, choosing the wrong pet products, and forgetting or neglecting to recycle are causing a catastrophic temperature increase that will end life on the planet as we know it. There are MANY respected scientists and engineers that believe that there is no crisis. In fact, the reason why most of them don't believe there is a crisis is because when a theory (or model) doesn't agree with reality, you have to choose the reality regardless of how elegant or convenient the theory is.

Now, putting the image together with the theory of AGW, are we being asked to sacrifice our current economy, future prosperity, and, quite possibly, our lives in an effort to "Win the War on Global Warming?" Although I have not read the article, I am going to assume that we are.

I have written on the lack of peer review (Wanted: Fact Checker), the lack of computer model validation (A Nuclear Engineer's View of Validation), lack of critical examination of model assumptions (The Problem of Choice), and just plain ol' bad science ("But where does the HEAT go?"). I am absolutely convinced that AGW theory is being used for at least these two (if not more) things: (1) A method for climate scientists and other scammers to maintain a funding stream that will dry up when the facts see the light of day; and (2) A means of scaring people into giving the federal government and the United Nations more of their money and more control of their lives.

What bothers me about this image is that Time magazine either is being duped into being a tool of the social engineers and environmental wackos, or is willingly producing propaganda that the average American will not investigate further. I find the first proposition highly unlikely, so I am forced to conclude that this magazine has become an outright propaganda organ of a socialist view of the environment. I am not ready to sacrifice my freedoms for a highly suspect view of the environmental damage that I supposedly produce by simply being an average American. However, if Time magazine has their editorial way, I am sure I will soon find myself in the minority.

By the way, if carbon dioxide becomes an environmental hazard in the Environmental Protection Agency (United Nations) sense of the word, then EVERY BREATH YOU EXHALE is now capable of being regulated by some government.

That should give you some idea about what lies at the end of this rainbow: A totalitarian jackpot.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

You Make the Call

When I watched this play at the end of the Texas A&M/UCLA game in the NCAA tournament, I thought, "Man, that really looked like a foul." Actually, I screamed "FOUL!" really loud at the TV - only to be told by the announcers that the final score was 53-49 (or something like that). This play made the difference between an overtime game and a UCLA win.

What do you think? Foul or clean play?

If you said "clean play," you are obviously a UCLA fan or ESPN's Doug Gottlieb. He actually said that Texas A&M should not complain about officiating. He claimed that the referees had called a good game. He said something like, "It was just good hard-nosed defense." I was dumbfounded by the comment because I doubt that A&M would have gotten the benefit of the same call had the roles been reversed.

The good news is that the A&M player is back on campus after coming out of the trauma-induced coma he suffered when he hit the floor after this hard-nosed defense.

Anyway, I needed to get that off my chest because it has been stewing for about 3 weeks.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yankees Versus Redsox (Or More BS)

Although this blog started as a rant against bad science, I thought I would calm from my rants on that subject for at least one post. That's right, I am going to rant about something that REALLY irritates me. I absolutely cannot stand the way that the dang New York Yankees versus the Boston Redsox is being foisted upon me day after day (and year after year). I think this is another example of an overblown importance the media provides to this rivalry. The media giants are located there, so these teams are the most important in the universe.

Recently, we got to hear about the absolute silliness about a Redsox jersey being in the concrete of the new Yankee stadium. Then, we had to hear about how they were removing the jersey because the Yankees couldn't bear the thought of it being there in perpetuity. (Actually, some structural engineer probably told them they had to dig it out because of the weakness that might result from the impurity in the concrete.) Now, we have to breathlessly await what will happen during the next weekend series. Sorry, I am not buying what these clowns are selling.

First, I grew up in the South. If not explicitly taught, it was understood that Yankees are generally not nice people. While I have somewhat overcome my difficulties with Yankees (thanks, Jen and Chris), I don't care a bit for the baseball teams up there. Actually, the word "hate" comes to mind when I think of the baseball Yankees. They are the epitomy of what I think is wrong with baseball. "Oh, we didn't win the championship last year. Let's spend another hundred million to get four other teams' best players."

Next, only people from the Northeast care about these teams. Sure, there are tons of people that live there, but give us a break. The lowest ratings in the history of the World Series occurred when the Mets played the Yankees a few years back. It seems that no one in the rest of the country much cared what happened after the players got off the subway.

Finally, we have to listen to this shhh, I mean, stuff for 19 times (or how many ever games they play) each year. We also have to hear pre-series, post-game, and post-series coverage. And, don't forget the introspective pieces, the "Behind the Lines" specials, the Ken Burns Baseball: Special Edition, etc.

I know how it feels to be a Yankee. I spent five years in College Station, Texas. To some of the guys I met down there, I was a Yankee because I came from north of the Red River. So, I guess the definition of Yankee varies by location. But PLEASE, stop with the Yankees versus Redsox BS already.

This is either really irritating or I am really in need of NCAA football to start up again soon. As I think about it, it is probably both.


As a side note, I have added a couple of items to my list of 101 Things About Me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

This Is Perfect?

Today (April 14), I went to work with frost on the ground, and yesterday it was below freezing when I got out of bed. I tend to HATE cold weather because, even though I am still young and spry, my surgical scar and joints are more annoying when it is chilly. Added to the annoyance of the cold-induced aches and pains, I saw that several of my neighbors had decided combat the deep freeze last night by placing their bedsheets and blankets over their plants. I thought to myself, "This is THE climatological optimum? This is PERFECT?!?!"

While in that train of thought, I remembered some of the things about the signatures of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) from a book by Patrick J. Michaels (Meltdown). Here are some of the signs of AGW according to Michaels:

--"The warming would be greater in winter than in summer." [This is good to me. It is not as cold. And, what is the difference in the summer between 101 and 102? Hot is still hot.]

--The warming would be greater in the Northern Hemisphere compared to the Southern Hemisphere. [This gets a "Big deal!" from me. I think this is because most of the land is in the North, but I am not sure.]

--"Nights would warm relative to days." [Good. Nights are when it really gets cold anyway.]

--"Warming would be enhanced at high latitudes." [Again, this get a "Big deal!" from me. Who the heck really cares if it -50 rather than -55? In fact, I would bet the people there would be happy for the 5 degrees of AGW on a night when it is -55.]

Some of the other things that happen with a warmer climate are longer growing seasons, increased land that is suitable for agriculture because the growing season is longer, and a "free" fertilizer (the U.S.D.A estimates that crop yields have increased 10% as a consequence of humans putting carbon dioxide into the air). All these things add up to the ability to produce more food for a growing (but stabilizing) world population. What is so horrible about that?

I don't know what is so horrible about any of these things that we would choose to wreck the most productive and energy efficient economies of the world to stop 0.07 degrees Celsius of AGW. However, I am tired of seeing my neighbors' bedsheets in their front yards. Almost anything would be more perfect than that.


As a side note, I have added a couple of items to my list of 101 Things About Me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The road to hell ...

Lately, I have been thinking about why people believe that intentions actually matter. What I am really getting at is whether "it is the thought that counts" or it is the actual results/outcome of your actions that counts. I have a couple of examples that will illustrate the question, then I am going to post a poll to find out what you guys think. You will have the option of "Yes", "No", or "It Depends" (an answer created especially for Zach because I don't want him to feel excluded from participation). For those of you that need to elaborate (Zach), please comment.

Situation #1: Suppose there is this great idea that will both improve the lives of millions of people at very low cost and will make someone a gazillionaire. Does it matter whether she decides to manufacture the idea to help people or whether she is in the deal strictly to make money? I submit that it doesn't matter as long as the idea goes forward because people will be helped with both intentions. If you think it matters, please tell me how you determine the intent of the person with the idea.

Situation #2: Suppose a young black (or white) man is murdered for no apparent reason (wrong place, wrong time). When they find those responsible for the act, the prosecuting attorney finds out that the dirtbags are white (or black) supremacists and decides to charge them with a hate crime in addition to the murder. Is the act of killing more wrong because it was done for an idiotic reason? Hate crime legislation is one thing that I don't comprehend and probably never will. I have never been persuaded that (1) we can determine what someone was thinking when they committed a horrific act and (2) why it is worse if it was done for "hate" reasons rather than for money, drugs, or some other senseless reason.

I think that this pretty much spans the spectrum from happy thoughts to heinous acts. The question is the same in both cases: Does it matter WHY someone does rather than WHAT someone does?

When answering, remember that there is a reason for the saying, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

WANTED: Fact Checker.

Back before we got married, Kristy was looking for a summer job. She is a good writer and worked for the school newspaper. So, she went to the local paper (The Mena Star) and asked if they were looking for proofreaders because she had noticed about 25 errors in the stories on the first couple of pages. After demonstrating her ability to find these errors with a highlighter, she was told "We don't really need a proofreader." What does this have to do with anything I've written about thus far? Not much except that ironies like those observed in that story and in this article tend to make me chuckle a bit.

The article is a press release about a paper in the April 7, 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors of the PNAS paper discuss the massive global ozone depletion that would happen if 100 Hiroshima size (20 kiloton) weapons were detonated above cities in the northern subtropics. I am sure that it is a nice paper on a new fangled global chemistry-climate model. There is just one tiny problem. This experiment was actually performed by the U.S., U.S.S.R, France, China, and England between 1945-1963. These five nations accounted for approximately 650 atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons.

In the time before the "Partial Test Ban Treaty," the U.S. tested over 300 nuclear devices in the atmosphere. Some of the devices tested by these nations were almost 1,000 times the size of the Hiroshima weapon (Ivy Mike, Castle Bravo, and Tsar Bomba). Now, the chemistry-climate model might not be exactly linear with weapon yield, but it seems that we did not have a nuclear winter after these tests (unless my history texts left out some pretty important events).

It is times like this when I would NOT want to be a peer reviewer for a journal like PNAS. When you don't even recognize the difference between the virtual reality of a computer simulation and physical reality, it is time to go out and buy Trinity and Beyond.

And just maybe the National Academy of Sciences will be posting a position for "Fact Checker" in the near future.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Food To Burn

I have a question. How many of you have been eating a wonderfully prepared meal (Kristy has spoiled me on these over the years) and thought, "I have a better idea for this food. I am going to burn this food and heat the house. Or maybe I can convert it to automobile fuel and burn it in my car?" Who, in their right mind, thinks that this is a good idea? Time's up! No sane person can really think this is a good idea.

The strange bedfellows of environmentalists, congressmen, senators, the president, and large agribusiness corporations think this is a terrific idea. But then again, no one usually accuses any of these people of being sane. The "Energy Independence Act" of some year made burning our food supply (think ethanol production) our national policy.

Before you think that this is really about reducing our carbon footprint as a nation, remember that, in addition to burning up our food supply, we imposed a heavy tariff on imported ethanol. So, if a country can produce this "green" fuel more cheaply and efficiently using sugar cane or sugar beets, they are taxed to prevent them from competing with U.S. farmers. Did they really think this one through or is the farm lobby really this powerful? I think it is probably a little bit of both.

I am all for finding an economical way to produce ethanol from cellulose, but I don't think many people believe that Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, and Maker's Mark are best utilized powering a Ford F-150. Until we find a way to produce cellulosic ethanol by the acre-foot, I think we are better off eating our food rather than burning it. If you have seen the price of food lately while grocery shopping or had Kristy's lasagna, you will likely agree.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Freedom or Not, Here We Come!

Before we get started, I need to make this very clear. I am not a smoker, I have never been a smoker, and I prefer to spend my time in an environment that does not have second hand smoke. This "rant" is about incremental loss of personal freedoms. The very concept of a central committee of power drunk local politicians making decisions that have unintended consequences makes my blood boil.

While we were living in Albuquerque (sometime in 2004-2005), the city council along with the mayor decided that they knew better than every business in the city and banned smoking in restaurants. Later in 2007, they extended the ban to bars and night clubs, but they continue to allow smoking in "Cigar Bars," whatever that is. That's right! You can no longer smoke in the bars and night clubs of Albuquerque. I always thought that you went to bars and night clubs to drink, smoke, and engage in other risky behaviors, but that is just a guess based on the movies that I have seen.

In any case, many people, including my wife Kristy, were pleased with the results. Even though I could now go to my favorite restaurants without having to worry about smelling like an ashtray, I was more than a little bit ticked. Before the ban, several of the restaurants in town had made the decision to become non-smoking without the government requiring it. Imagine that. Small business owners, in a market where the majority of all the new entries to the market fail, thought that they could gain a competitive advantage by providing a different dining experience. While I don't have the numbers to prove it, my guess is that these restaurants were gaining business relative to their peers. That is the way of the free market! It is efficient in providing a method of deciding winners and losers unless something interferes with it.

As this "wave" of restaurants decided to become non-smoking, the city "central committee" stepped in. Today, it was suggested to me that the council saw that the restaurants were moving in that direction and decided to take credit for it. Of course, the councilors claimed they were ONLY showing that they cared about the health and well-being of the workers in the restaurants. However, the unintended (or maybe intended, I'm not sure) consequence of what they did was to pick winners and losers. How? Their decision eliminated any competitive advantage that the non-smoking restaurants had gained by the stroke of the mayor's pen.

Forget the smoking ban for a second, and let's think about this another way. Who is in a better position to win in a highly regulated environment: a large national business with lawyers employed full-time on regulatory issues or a family business that is trying to expand from one small town to another? Now, what did the council actually do? They discriminated in favor of the large national chain restaurants that already have the advantage of name recognition when travelers are making a dinner decision.

What they should have done is to let the owner of Paisano's, a great Italian restaurant in Albuquerque, continue to do what he was doing: Going smoke-free and advertising it in the newspapers, local TV and yellow pages; providing superior food; and providing menu choices for those that don't often have them. (Annie, this restaurant is so good that they have fantastic gluten-free pasta dishes and gluten-free lasagna according to one of the people here at the conference.) Instead, they decided in favor of the Olive Garden. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

So, if you are ever in the Q (another brilliant marketing decision by the same genius mayor), see if the central planners made the right decision. Take a trip to see Joseph Camuglia at 1935 Eubank NE. You won't regret it!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Finding Comfort In Junk Science Judo

In the fall of 1996, I was in a Health Physics class at Texas A&M University with a bunch of new faces. Early in the semester (it might have been the first day), we were discussing risk analysis and the actuarial risk of various activities. As part this discussion, a table from Bernard Cohen's book (Before It's Too Late: A Scientist's Case For Nuclear Energy) was showed to the class. The table was titled "Average Loss of Life Expectancy (LLE)" and here is an extraction of the highlights that Avery (one of my new classmates) thought applied to him:

Activity Causing LLE (Days of LLE)

  • Being male (2800)
  • Being unmarried (2000)
  • Smoking cigarettes, 1 pk/day (1600)
  • Being poor (700)
  • 15 lb overweight (450)
  • Accidents (435)
  • Driving a car (20)
  • Alcohol (130)
  • Occupational Accidents (74)
  • Small cars vs. standard size cars (50)
  • Falls (39) [Avery was kind of clumsy.]
  • Radiation worker entire adult life (12)

When Avery totaled up the days, he proclaimed that it was 21.5 years. At this point, he stopped the class by saying, "I can't handle this! Those numbers can't be true! If they are, I am living on borrowed time." These numbers have probably changed a little bit since Cohen's publication in 1983, but Avery's logic path was one that is commonly tread in medical science journalism today. However, I am pretty sure that he was just being funny.

We are bombarded daily with media reports of ecological type of epidemiological studies that tells us something like, "Men who eat green cheese are 21% more likely to need vision correction... Dr. Joe Blow is encouraged that green cheese lovers may save millions of dollars in eye care related expenses each year by simply moderating their consumption of this offensive dietary item. Dr. Blow also stated that more research is needed on this health care crisis." Like this story, almost every one of this studies reported on a daily basis is pure, unadulterated bunk.

Epidemiologists tend to believe that relative risks between 0.5 - 2.0 imply, at best, weak associations, and that studies such as the green cheese study above should be viewed with a great deal of suspicion because of the nature of this epidemiological method and the data quality that comes from ecological studies. (Ecological studies are
observational studies where data is collected on populations rather than individual subjects.) This is true because statistical correlation doesn't mean that you have identified a true cause and effect relationship.

Steve Milloy has an excellent tutorial on how to recognize and debunk junk science, so I won't spend time trying to redo his work. I don't have definitive proof, but I think Mark Twain was referring to these "researchers" when he wrote that "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." What I find more than a little disturbing is that we are allow these grabs at taxpayer money by pseudo-scientists that abuse both true research methods and statistics. Until we can find a way to combat junk science, I guess I will have to find comfort in the fact that when I find purple wild flowers growing in the northwest portion of my freshly mowed yard, I really don't have a 4% increased risk of developing testicular cancer.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Stench of a Paper Mill

How many of you out there have ever driven through a town that has a paper mill as one of its primary industries? If you have, you know the distinctive smell of the methyl mercaptan emanating from the mill that makes you feel kind of sick as you speed out of town. The conspiracy theorist in me makes note of the fact that one of the biggest speed traps in Arkansas is right outside of a town with a booming paper mill. If you haven't had the pleasure of smelling a paper mill, just think of decaying matter or swamp gas, and you are in the right ballpark.

By now, some of you are wondering if I haven't been sniffing too many of those chemicals. However, those of you who have been with me from the beginning know how I despise the low level of information that it is found in most scientific papers today. I found the same stench of decay in this 2001 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article is about how to bulk up a Curriculum Vitae (CV) for those academics striving for recognition and tenure. The article states that the creative researchers pad their paper count by changing the parameters on their graphs. This is definitely a creative way to scam the system of "publish or perish" found in many university environments, but it also reeks. According to the article, if I have a theoretical idea, an experimental way to test it, and a comparison of the experimental results with the theoretical predictions, that is worthy three separate publications (and at least of couple of citations).

To me, these are three aspects related to a common set of information and would make AN excellent paper. I am willing to consider exceptions to this if it takes several months to years to perform one or each of the three phases (theory, experiment, and comparison). However, if you are publishing 57 articles (19 as the lead author) in a single year, I don't believe you would find your way into my exemption category. [By the way, I have electronic copies of all eight of the peer reviewed journal articles that bear my name. I would be happy to share them and discuss the information content of any of them.]

I have a few thoughts/questions for aspiring young scientists that are quite different than those presented in the article. First, do you really have a grasp of your chosen field if you are just throwing stuff out there to see what sticks? Next, are you being considerate of the peer review process (someone has to read and evaluate your submission) by bombarding the system with papers that are marginally within the MPU for the journal? Finally, do you think the wretched smells of an academic paper mill will be safely left in the lab when you are challenged about the quality rather than quantity of your research effort?

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