Letter to an Older Scientist

If only I were Michael J. Fox, a letter I would send back in time.

Dear Respected Mathematician/Scientist/Researcher:

First of all let me tell you want an honor it is to write to you from the future. Your work is so important in my time that we have named the main theorem which you proved in your paper "Megamathematical functorial categories which nearly commute" after you. Yes the JoeRandomName theorem is well known and used every day in my field. Thank you for thinking it up and proving it!

But I'm writing to you today, not because of this great piece of work. Instead I'm writing to you because a related piece of work which you published. I believe this work could would be useful in my own research. I've seen references to this paper which seem to indicate to me that it could be useful in my research. But, and here is the problem, it seems that I cannot get access to your work online nor at my library.

I know, I know. You published your work in a journal. I should have access to that journal. (And by the way, holy cow who typeset all the equations back in your day? Those typewritten equations are amazing. Today we have a computer program called LaTeX which has spread the tyranny of computer modern font, but is really rather awesome. Yes us future folk are spoiled.) Back to the issue, yes, I should have access to your work. But, you see, and here is the problem, the journal that you published in is now owned and operated by Elsevier. Oh, you know Elsevier, yes they have been around for a while, eh.

So what's the problem, exactly? Well you know when you wrote that paper you probably didn't think much about the value of the work you created. You just shipped it off to the publisher, got a referee report back, made some changes and didn't think about it at all. But you see, now in order for me to see your paper I need to pay 35 dollars. Okay so this is not much of a price to pay, you say, but I really don't know if the content of your paper is at all relevant to my work. Oh yes, you liked to browse journals in your day? Well libraries are increasingly no longer keeping paper copies around (we're really fucking up with the environment these days, could you please also tell your friends to work on better car fuel efficiency?) The reason I have to pay, you see, is that my library does not subscribe to the journal you published in. Why don't they? Well it turns out that the journal you published in costs $4000 per volume. Yes that's for one volume of one journal. And today is particularly bad for universities, as we're in economic bad times, so libraries are already cash strapped. So recently my library decided that it could no longer afford to pay for the particular journal you have published your result in.

Even worse, when I look back at the biography of you written by George Johnson (oh yes you are famous enough to warrant a popular biography: don't let it go to your head. But do make sure to keep generating humorous anecdotes.) I see that you were funded throughout your career by the National Science Foundation. So while some researchers at well funded schools have access to your paper, the amusing thing is that the people who paid for your work, also known as tax payers, don't have access to your work. A public good that's no longer public, because somehow the academic community has decided to let a company charge way too much for work they did not perform. (What percentage of the value of a journal is in the editorial value and what percentage is in the actual intellectual contect: yes you dear researcher who are reading this are being fleeced.)

Even worse, today we live in an academic culture which is overflowing with papers. Wait, this is good, isn't it! It means lots of good stuff is going on, right? Well, actually I hate to break the news, but today we live in a world in which number of publications substitutes for quality of publications. Indeed it is so bad that there are journals which publish absolute rubbish. And amazingly they still charge a huge amount for this rubbish!

Take for instant the a case which has recently come to light of the same publisher which now owns the journal you published in, Elsevier. This is the case of M. S. El Naschie. El Naschie, it seems is the editor of a journal called Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals published by Elsevier. El Naschie has an amazing publication record in this journal: 322 papers. Yeah I know, that's quite an astounding amount of work (I know you only published ten papers in your lifetime: of course five of these turned out to revolutionize the world.) But even more amazingly, it seems that many of these papers are, at best, silly numerology. It is even claimed that this was brought to the attention of the people responsible over a year ago, but alas no action was taken.

Even more astoundingly Elsevier publishes a "journal" on homeopathy. Hereyou find articles which explain homeopathy via nonlocal quantum correlations (and this somehow this renders homeopathy controlled studies impossible) Pure and utter pseudoscience as far as the eye can see.

So, yes, its sad to say that there are many of us who are very peeved at Elsevier. Not only are they charging an huge amount for work which was paid for by the taxpayers, they are also pushing pseudoscience.

And yeah, I'm glad you asked. Its tough for me too. I'm not even a real professor (just a pseudo professor) so I feel a tremendous pressure to publish in all the top journals in my field (prl for example) and most of these are not angels. One consolation I take is that these days many journals allow me to publish my early version of the paper on a thing called the ArXiv. Indeed, for many in my field, posting onto the arXiv is sort of the real publication event. But this is sort of like a puppy killer who sometimes volunteers at the animal shelter: I'm still giving away the stuff paid for by the public so that a private company can profit and keep it away from the prying eyes of everyday people. Recently I've begun to think a lot about whether I can continue to function in his messed up system. Do I really want to be a referee for journals which are part of this system? Can I find suitable places which will widely disseminate my work without charging an arm and a leg? I don't know, but I'm working on it.

So, here's what I'm saying, old researcher. I'm really sorry, but your decision to publish in that journal isn't going to go well. I know enough about time travel to know that there is nothing you or I can do about it, but really I'd like to at least push some of my own guilt back to your time, so that you can know how poor a choice you are making. Maybe you can write a letter about this problem and hide it somewhere so I can discover it and use it as ammunition against the evil science publishers?

Dave Bacon
Pseudoprofessor from the Future

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Dave, why do you want to make me so sad?

Someday we'll have to talk about the problems in my industry. Academia is not the only industry that could use improvement.

When I first read about the El Naschie case I decided I would not referee for Elsevier anymore (and thank goodness I never published there). In fact, from now on I will publish with and referee for professional societies only!

If we all boycot Elsevier and whoever else abuses the system, we can really take back what's ours (i.e., the taxpayers'). With modern technology such as the intertubes we can surely bring the evildoer to his knees...

Mory I make you sad because I know you are really a happy person.

Regarding THIS comment from Letters to an Older Scientist
"Even more astoundingly Elsevier publishes a "journal" on homeopathy. Hereyou find articles which explain homeopathy via nonlocal quantum correlations (and this somehow this renders homeopathy controlled studies impossible) Pure and utter pseudoscience as far as the eye can see."

Excuse me? Homeopathy is being researched by serious scientists, genuine MD's PhD's chemists and pHysicists right now. The most recent Lancet article questioning Homeopathy and regarding it as no better than placebo has been convincingly refuted by a series of recent articles, for example from the Journal of Clinical Epidemology (see below for cite).

Dismissing all of Homeopathy as pseudo-science is itself a kind of unscientific pseudo-scepticism in which 200 years of overwhelminig clinical evidence
AND recent double blinded placebo controlled randomized tests have clearly demonstrated efficacy for Homeopathy well above placebo.

To persist in the attempt to demean Homeopathy simply because its theoretical mechanism of action remains unknown is itself UNSCIENTIFIC.

Regarding that last point, progress has been made, for example the recent confirmation of M. Ennis' experiments regarding the stimulation of Basophil cells to produce histamine by a substance diluted well past the Avogadro limit (see cites below) may provide at least the start
of a theory to explain Homeopathy's remarkable successes.

Subsequent research has confirmed the stimulation of histamine
production of basophil cells by a substance diluted well past
the avogadro limit - no atoms of the stimulating substance
remain but the effect is still observed. The following might be
of interest:

4: Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.

Improvement of flow cytometric analysis of basophil activation
inhibition by high

histamine dilutions. A novel basophil specific marker: CD 203c.

Homeopathy. 2006 Jan;95(1):3-8.

PMID: 16399248 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

5: Guggisberg AG, Baumgartner SM, Tschopp CM, Heusser P.

Replication study concerning the effects of homeopathic dilutions of
histamine on

human basophil degranulation in vitro.

Complement Ther Med. 2005 Jun;13(2):91-100.

PMID: 16036166 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

6: Lorenz I, Schneider EM, Stolz P, Brack A, Strube J.

Sensitive flow cytometric method to test basophil activation
influenced by

homeopathic histamine dilutions.

Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. 2003 Dec;10(6):316-24.

PMID: 14707480 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

And HERE is a link to research completely refuting
a 2005 Lancet meta-analysis which claimed that
Homeopathy was no better than placebo:

Lüdtke R, Rutten ALB. The conclusion on the effectiveness of
homeopathy highly depend on the set of analysed trials. Journal of
Clinical Epidemiology, 2008. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2008.06.015

Rutten ALB, Stolper CF. The 2005 meta-analysis of homeopathy: analysis
of postpublication data. Homeopathy, 2008. doi:10.1016/j.homp.

There is NO definitive conclusion regarding the possible
mechanism of Homeopathy and therefore, no refutation.
We must allow SCIENTIFIC research to take its course and
you CANNOT make premature conclusions neither based
on your personal "skepticism" nor on anyone's assertions
until that scientific research is completed, in my opinion.

By James Pannozzi (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink

Yo James Pannozzi,

Thanks you for providing a nice list of other reasons why scientific review is not perfect. That's a nice convenient list.

If you'd like to address the main point of the link I post to, that a paper claiming that homeopathy is related to non-local quantum correlations, please do. Please make sure you've learned quantum theory before you do this.

Oh and "There is NO definitive conclusion regarding the possible mechanism of Homeopathy and therefore, no refutation. " There is no definitive conclusion about pink elephants on the moon, and thus no refutation of their existence. I look forward to your massive screed on my denigration of the pink elephant's cause fictitious forces post.

Hey, you should read the recent Brevia in Science discussing leachates from commonly used plastics interfering with biological assays, especially ones working with very sensitive cell types. The basophil is a nice example of a very sensitive cell type and I would argue that 'homeopathic' effects are likely the result of very real and very significant artifacts due to the process by which the homeopathic preparation was made and how that process differs from the process that was used to make the control substance.

The reason homeopathy is being researched is because people (typically non-scientists) are willing to put money toward those studies. I doubt you will find an area of research where there are dollars available that is not filled by real MDs, PhDs, chemists, physicists, acarologists, etc. Just because it looks like science doesn't mean it is science. Politics enters into everything, especially when money and prestige are on the line.

Quantum mechanics explains many things, but rarely macroscopic biology. Especially if you are talking about chemicals that are endogenous in biologic systems (copper, for example, is tightly regulated and almost certainly present at 'homeopathic' concentrations is some tissues at some times, so why would administration of a 'homeopathic' copper solution do anything? And yet you can find all sorts of studies here). The most recent paper by Belon in Inflammation Research has no error bars, just p-values, and a Wilcoxon rank test was used which does not seem appropriate for comparison of 6 groups, also this paper does not demonstrate the same result using a second technique - the typical height of the bar you need to clear in biology for the result to be even thought of as credible.

It is telling that their only readout is flow cytometry. That method is so fraught with both systematic and random error that you can get any experiment to tell you anything you want. They do not calibrate their instrument with standard beads pre- and post-, they do not explain how the data are manipulated within the software before they are presented.

It is important also to note that biological systems are still better sensors for many compounds than physical, analytical instrumentation, so it is no surprise that we haven't identified all of artifactually-induced bioactives in these 'homeopathic' preparations. Anyhow, as high sensitivity analytical instruments improve I would guess that we will continue to chip away at the pseudoscience of homeopathy, at least as regards publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Much like intelligent design, I do not care if you believe in homeopathy, but do not call it Science, or even science. I'll stop now. This is just silly.

CJ, here's a friendly hint: don't use your meatspace name if you don't want potential employers to read this and decide you're a wingnut.

Someone doing a cursory Google on you will find a lot of posts with the caps lock stuck, and that is not going to be a Good Thing for a programming job.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink

Regarding David Bacon's comments that:
"If you'd like to address the main point of the link I post to, that a paper claiming that homeopathy is related to non-local quantum correlations, please do. Please make sure you've learned quantum theory before you do this."

Unlike people who have NOT learned Homeopathy but then attack it, I do not call Quantum theory nonsense nor devised by quacks (although reading about the "many worlds theory" I'm tempted).
I've read a bit about Milgrom's theory of macro quantum entanglement and it sounded like utter nonsense but you are correct I do NOT know Quantum theory. I've read parts of Quantum Computation by Chung and several years ago worked through Fermi's "Notes on Quantum Mechanics" (long out of date but went at about my speed).

Regarding David Bacon's comment that:
"There is no definitive conclusion about pink elephants on the moon, and thus no refutation of their existence. I look forward to your massive screed on my denigration of the pink elephant's cause fictitious forces post."

Having sampled some Sake' a while ago and being unexpectedly surprised at the results, I believe that I've already seen the Pink Elephants in one of their eartlhy visitations and therefore shall forgo a massive screed on them or anything else.

By James Pannozzi (not verified) on 22 Nov 2008 #permalink

Regarding D.C. Sessions admonitions:

My software days of glory ended long ago DC - I told you I started studying Acupuncture, Chinese Herbology and I'm studying classical Chinese. If I can work up the courage to study the crazy thing, I might have a go at Homeopathy. But I'll probably visit China first.

By James Pannozzi (not verified) on 22 Nov 2008 #permalink

I will point out, only because it amuses me, that JP has no desire to discuss the merits of the actual 'work' of homeopaths.

I sent myself a letter, on 24 August 1976, addressed to myself at the age of 30 (roughly 6 years in the futre of the poem) which falls into the category of "Letter to an Older Scientist." It was the following poem:

"Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now"
-- R. Zimmerman

I envied my friends' vacations
to Bali and Paree
and longed for my avocations
so what do you think of me?

You envy your friends' reputations
Professor and PhD
and long for a vacation
and take yourself seriously!

I loved, lost, and loved a dozen times
'til it was art
and practised all the official crimes
while you, dry counterpart,

yes, you, content yourself with rhymes
(don't upset the apple cart)
and have replaced with pantomimes
those old four seasons of the heart

To childhood, it's true, I clung
but what a healthy hold
and though I misapplied my silver tongue
it was not sold.

Whose songs is it you've sung
for other peoples' gold?
I know, though I am young
and you are old!

24 aug 76