The memristor skeptics

Illustration of the memristor in electrical network theory. Image from Wikipedia, produced by Parcly Taxel.

Illustration of the memristor in electrical network theory. Image from Wikipedia, produced by Parcly Taxel.

A story of skepticism gone horribly wrong.

In 2008, researchers at HP Labs announced their discovery of the memristor, a type of electrical device that had been predicted by Leon Chua in a 1971 paper titled, “Memristor– the missing circuit element.” Memristors have been in the news again recently due to HP’s announcement of a bold new computing project called The Machine, which reportedly makes heavy use of memristor devices. Thanks to the sudden attention being paid to memristors in the past few years, we now know that they were with us all along, and you can even make one yourself with a few simple hardware items.

Since I teach my department’s introductory course on electronic devices, I’ve been studying memristors to see if it’s time to add them into the basic curriculum. During my reading, I started to notice a small percolation of skeptical voices. They appeared in popular science magazines, blog posts, and comment threads, and said some very unexpected things, like “HP didn’t really invent a memristor” and even “the memristor may be impossible as a really existing device.” I soon noticed that several of the critics were published researchers, and some of them had published their critiques on the arXiv, a preprint site used by credentialed researchers to post draft articles prior to peer review. The skeptics reached their peek in 2012, but fizzled out in 2013. One of those skeptics went out with a bang, crafting a bold conspiracy theory that still echoes in discussion fora and in the comment threads of tech industry articles. This post chronicles the rise and fall of his career as a memristor scholar. I also offer some speculation as to how the debacle could have been avoided.

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Why school led prayer is wrong

This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.

Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.

Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”

Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.

I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.

This isn’t a hard concept at all.

The trouble with p-values

An annoying T-shirt

An annoying T-shirt

Nature has two pieces this week on how p-values are commonly misused to distort scientific results. I’ve often been annoyed by casual statements like “what’s your p-value?” which is sometimes dropped as a quasi-scientific rebuttal in online discussions. Nature’s editors encourage us all to dive a little deeper into the foundations of statistical methods.

The first piece is an editorial called Number Crunch, issues a call to action for practicing scientists and educators:

The first step towards solving a problem is to acknowledge it. In this spirit, Nature urges all scientists to read the News Feature and its summary of the problems of the P value, if only to refresh their memories.

The second step is more difficult, because it involves finding a solution. Too many researchers have an incomplete or outdated sense of what is necessary in statistics; this is a broader problem than misuse of the P value.

Department heads, lab chiefs and senior scientists need to upgrade a good working knowledge of statistics from the ‘desirable’ column in job specifications to ‘essential’. But that, in turn, requires universities and funders to recognize the importance of statistics and provide for it. Nature is trying to do its bit and to acknowledge its own shortcomings. Better use of statistics is a central plank of a reproducibility initiative that aims to boost the reliability of the research that we publish (see Nature 496, 398; 2013).

The second piece is a more detailed article by Regina Nuzzo, titled “Scientific Methods: Statistical Errors.” Nuzzo gives a straightforward explanation of the problem:

It turned out that the problem was not in the data or in Motyl’s analyses. It lay in the surprisingly slippery nature of the P value, which is neither as reliable nor as objective as most scientists assume. “P values are not doing their job, because they can’t,” says Stephen Ziliak, an economist at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, and a frequent critic of the way statistics are used.

For many scientists, this is especially worrying in light of the reproducibility concerns. In 2005, epidemiologist John Ioannidis of Stanford University in California suggested that most published findings are false2; since then, a string of high-profile replication problems has forced scientists to rethink how they evaluate results.

P values have always had critics. In their almost nine decades of existence, they have been likened to mosquitoes (annoying and impossible to swat away), the emperor’s new clothes (fraught with obvious problems that everyone ignores) and the tool of a “sterile intellectual rake” who ravishes science but leaves it with no progeny3. One researcher suggested rechristening the methodology “statistical hypothesis inference testing”3, presumably for the acronym it would yield.

The article goes on to dissect several common distortions that result from researcher’s pursuit of results with low p-values. The point is well taken, and is a reminder for us all to spend some quality time examining our foundations.


Thad Roberts: my one-time friend, and one of science’s greatest betrayers

I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a year. I don’t know why. Its been more than a decade since I knew Thad Roberts, the infamous NASA intern who stole a safe full of invaluable moon rocks and tried to sell them on the black market. Thad was my study partner in undergraduate physics courses, and he was the president of our astronomy club. My first star parties were with Thad, along with my first experiences with astronomical imaging. He was charismatic and influential at the University of Utah.

It came as a total surprise one morning when I saw Thad’s face on the newspaper front page. Thad had been away at NASA for a year or two, hoping to become an astronaut. I was utterly bewildered by his crime. Thad’s crime goes a step beyond science fraud. If fake science discredits the difference between truth and fiction, that’s bad enough. But Thad’s actions declared that science is meaningless, as if to say, “Truth? Fiction? Who cares? I’ll take the money.”
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Too many PhDs — will rising career stress diminish the quality of research?

A number of interesting articles caught my attention this weekend, concerning the oversupply of scientists and engineering professionals. The first article reports a dramatic over-supply of new PhD-level physicists generated by the large hadron collider (LHC) [1]. According to Science magazine’s weblog, Science Careers, teams affiliated with LHC produced 174 new PhD graduates in a single year. By comparison, there are only 152 advertised positions for post-doctoral employment, and of those only 61 are in North America. The LHC graduates will enter a pool of nearly 1000 young physicists competing for these positions. Just a few days ago, I wrote about the general overproduction of doctoral graduates for whom there are dwindling career prospects. This article focuses on a particular sub-population who will face an unprecedented level of professional stress as they launch their scientific careers. According to the article:

Such competition is hardly unusual these days. Stories abound of a single postdoc drawing more than 100 applications and the best and brightest coming up empty in their hunt for academic jobs.

Academia’s new hyper-competitive normal is only likely to get worse, since programs continue to increase graduation rates faster than faculty size. We now have a generation of underemployed and insecure post-docs who must manage low salaries into their 30’s or 40’s. In the highly competitive environment, they will be forced to invest increasing mental bandwidth on institutional politics (for self protection), personal financial concerns, and constant rounds of applications for their next hopeful position. My hypothesis is that the added stress will diminish their competency as scientists.
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The modern university: is the bubble about to burst?

A few articles caught my attention recently, each calling attention to the failing economics of university education and research. We all know that the system is growing, and costs are growing while funds are either stagnant or shrinking. At the same time, tuition costs are growing rapidly. These trends have been ongoing for the past decade, and point toward one conclusion: our system is larger and more expensive than we (collectively) want it to be. I’m going to argue that this fits the generic definition of an economic bubble. I’m not an economist, and I don’t want to dive into technical definitions of bubbles and non-bubbles, but I’d like to consider the bubble metaphor in terms of the following situations:

  1. The costs of conducting research exceeds the total public investment.
  2. The production of doctoral graduates exceeds demand for new PhDs in the job market or academia.
  3. The financial sacrifices of pursuing an academic career vs the satisfaction obtained from that career.
  4. The individual costs of obtaining a degree vs its effect on earning potential.

In the sections below I write about each of these “bubbles” individually, and how they present multiple crises for the academic enterprise.
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Sexism and Schism in the Skeptic Community

For years leading up to PZ Myers’ clumsy disclosure of rape accusations, the debate of sexual harassment and “rape culture” within the skeptical/Atheist movement(s) was steadily rising to a full boil. I am a little frustrated by this debate because I don’t attend the events in question; I read the books, magazines and blogs and listen to pod-casts. In most instances I turn to these materials because I’m interested in science and philosophy, not necessarily because I want to read about gender and social policy (much less about the self-referential politics of skeptical advocacy organizations). But gender issues are now in the spotlight, and that is probably not a bad thing because the problem is real as evidenced by a number of documented, independent events.
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Academic freedom vs “Intelligent Design”

Academic freedom vs “Intelligent Design”

Complementary to my earlier post about an Assistant Professor in trouble for criticizing a religious leader, here is an Assistant Professor in trouble for promoting a religious ideology at a secular institution. The contrast is really interesting, because both universities are state institutions presumably subject to the same rules about church and state. In this case at Ball State University, a professor is facing some sort of jeopardy over his teaching of intelligent design theory in an undergraduate science class. The Discovery Institute has rushed to his aid with a lengthy letter and petition. I might speculate that the Discovery Institute could win their argument if they could manage to donate a nice new building to the university.

I’m not completely sure how I feel about the relationship between “intelligent design” and academic freedom. ID is not science; it is a mixture of wishful thinking and thin air. On the other hand, college students are adults and should be able to cope with some exposure to junk theories. On the third hand, the students pay for meaningful instruction on relevant, mainstream science, and their course outcomes (and grades) will have a lasting impact on their career options. I do think that ID can have some place in the university environment, but it would be reasonable for the university to implement some quality control — perhaps a co-instructor who can balance the presentation.

While I personally think that ID is meta-scientific motivated fantasy, I do acknowledge that some accomplished scientists take it seriously. One of my articles is actually co-authored by someone who is (or at least was) a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, someone who has maintained a competent professional reputation and doesn’t make ID a focal point of his research or teaching. My personal opinion is that if the students are pushed to study and to understand proper rigorous science, then they will be able to see that ID is just irrelevant.

The truth is not uplifting

“The truth is not uplifting. It destroys.”  — Boyd Packer (alleged)

Apparently the truth can also get you fired if you happen to work in a Utah university. Jared Lisonbee, an Assistant Professor at Weber State University, alleges that he was terminated from his position because he protested naming an academic center after Boyd Packer, a  leader in the Mormon Church. I can only assume that Jared Lisonbee is related to the author of this editorial (another Lisonbee), which criticizes the name in very sharp terms:

Naming a state university program that is supposed to represent and serve a variety of non-traditional families in the community after Packer sends the message that only certain types of families are valued by the state, and that is insensitive at the least. In Utah, where the separation of church and state is paper thin, this naming of a public program sends a loud, clear message to many that discrimination is both acceptable and embraced at Weber.

Sadly, it would not shock me if this allegation were true. It also wouldn’t surprise me if there were other, more appropriate reasons for Lisonbee’s termination; but let’s talk about Packer. Among Utah academics and intellectuals, Boyd Packer is infamous for his attacks on intellectuals within the church, including faculty at Brigham Young University. Slate recently published a retrospective on Packer’s purges that took place in the mid-1990s. Packer is alleged to have specifically targeted individuals based on the content of their publications, resulting in the scandalous termination of some faculty from BYU. If academic freedom still exists among the University’s values, then Boyd Packer’s name should not be considered as a suitable advertisement for those values.

Since I am myself a professor at one of Utah’s esteemed academic institutions, I am also conscious that I create some risk for myself by making these comments. According to Weber State’s spokesman, “Employees are evaluated on neutral, job-related criteria.” I’m sure my university’s spokesman would say the same thing, but it is statistically implausible. My university hires the best candidates from across the world, people from all walks of life, allegedly without regard to their faith or non-faith. One can easily verify that the starting faculty are religiously diverse. And yet one can easily confirm that in some departments as much as 100% of full professors are members of the Mormon faith. There is a vanishingly small probability that this could happen by chance, if we practiced an even-handed process for tenure and promotion. One of my former colleagues once told me (quietly) that “After enough time, all the coffee drinkers will be gone.” And soon after that, he was gone (of his own choice, I should add).

It is quite difficult to exist in this environment without remarking on the situation, even though such remarks may yield unpredictable consequences for one’s career.  I’m sure that I wouldn’t be remarking on it now, except that I happen to be on sabbatical in a far-distant location. We shouldn’t need to speak in fear about matters of academic freedom and institutional bias. Yet still, even in this post, I’m carefully guarding what I say. Time will tell if I guarded it well enough.

Bill Gates on increasing university graduation rates

There’s a brief article in the Atlantic that points to a presentation by Bill Gates in which he advocates for improved university graduation rates. The article claims that “shockingly low graduation rates” are the “biggest problem” for higher education. I couldn’t disagree more. The biggest problem is that we are expecting colleges and universities to compensate for deficiencies that begin in the secondary school system. We are expected to hand degrees to students who are not prepared to learn — and now we are increasingly expected to pump them out faster. I previously described this as the “factory education” model, that educational performance can be understood and optimized purely by pumping up the statistics. To me, this is not very different from the disastrous No Child Left Behind policy, which was itself born out of the wrong-headed notion that education can be controlled and improved by policy-makers, who deduce truth through the study of statistical measures and over-generalized correlations that are far removed from the reality of educational interactions.

In my view, the educational process is highly individual and local — much like economic transactions. Central control of education is comparable to central control of prices in a competitive economy. Although I am not an economist, my understanding is that prices are most effectively set by market participants — the buyers and sellers who are most intimately associated with individual transactions. Policy-makers cannot feasibly obtain and process all the information that is relevant to pricing in every local transaction. I believe there is analogy here that can be applied to education: policy-makers are not in a position to understand to vast array of objectives and circumstances that affect higher education, and should be cautious about the conclusions they draw from apparent statistical relationships. For example, it is true that having a university degree is associated with higher earning potential. But giving everyone a “degree” will not cause them to become high earners.

Outcome-driven education policies are fundamentally broken because they lack any meaningful sense of qualia. If we simply dictate that universities must deliver more graduates or face sanctions, then the universities will comply. The least-energy solution is to dumb-down our programs, reduce standards, and let more students pass through without demonstrating the  level of skill attainment that is appropriate for their degree. My views are shared by many people who submitted comments to the Atlantic article (which has an unusually good comment thread). Here are some of the highlights:

The enormous overhead expense associated with over staffing and building fancy “perks” for students (facilities, gyms, high-end food service) is what is really driving up costs. Meanwhile, well-intentioned efforts to “get more people into/through” college is driving standards of performance down. I am constantly under pressure to “dumb down” my classes and spoon feed students who won’t take the initiative to learn the material, but have the weapon of evaluating me negatively at the end of the term if I don’t make things easy and accessible for them. The students who are really “losing” under this system are the really good ones, who aren’t getting the challenging higher education they want and deserve. What I would like to see is more skill-based, programmatic vocational tracking at the 2-year and state colleges that will lead to high-paying jobs. — AnnieB

Focusing on students who would drop out both decreases the value to employers of that education (because a degree would no longer be an indication of a solid work ethic) and insures that all students receive a lower quality education…. The focus on completion is what destroyed high school, and that damage is obvious to everyone. Don’t let that damage happen to our colleges. Perhaps if we make it clear that only properly prepared students are acceptable college candidates high school students would work harder at their education while in high school. As it is, a student can graduate without putting any significant effort into their education at all. — Cyberike

I am a university professor in Canada. My institution is working on specifically helping students succeed… not by dumbing down the expectations, but by providing mentoring and tutoring for courses with high failure rates. It’s working well… and creates a collaborative feeling. — Nancy

There is this huge irony in technology: it requires high skills and a
massive investment of time, energy and resources over long time periods to
deliver modern goods and services… but what these very products encourage is
easy entertainment and instant gratification. A diminishing number of high
skill producers serve an increasingly large number of low skill consumers. Modern
capitalist systems can flood the market place with streams of cheap commodities
and thereby promote a sense of entitlement and an expectation that you can be
famous for five minutes without having to do very much. — Tony Cleaver