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┬ádiscussion 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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Is this scientism?

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Is there science happening here? I need a biologist to tell me.

PZ Myers and Laurence Moran say “Physicians and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly construed.” Sam Harris and Steven Pinker suggest (or at least imply) that scientists will ultimately overtake the humanities; Massimo Pigliucci has strenuously critiqued this latter view, calling it “scientism.”

This debate revolves around a basic rhetorical fallacy: the claim that “scientists” have a unique legitimacy attached to their beliefs, together with a claim of demarcational privilege to decide who is and isn’t a scientist. The arational imposition of intellectual privilege is, I think, the essence of the fuzzily defined “scientism” that non-scientists find threatening. It’s threatening because it is a threat. It attacks the legitimacy of entire classes of scholarship, and the Myers/Moran attack on engineers is one example.

This style of argument is used to de-legitimize a perceived opponent, or (as in Pigliucci’s case) to defend the legitimacy of his own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his position: we (scientists) don’t need you (non-scientists), you need us. On this level, the debate has nothing to do with science or the quality of ideas; instead it is a purely sophistic (and egoistic) effort to disqualify others.

I’ll pause now to remind the reader that I’m an engineer. Speaking as an engineer, I think there is a clear distinction between engineering and science: engineers have to actually get things right or they may suffer immediate economic, functional or ethical consequences. Scientists, on the other hand, have to pass their work through a process of critical review by their peers. The latter process is important to the long-term filtering of ideas, but peer review doesn’t have the same falsifying power as a collapsing bridge, an exploding boiler, a crashing train, a killer radiation leak or a misfired missile. So if we’re talking about legitimacy, I’d sooner trust the beliefs of a randomly selected engineer over those of a random scientist.

But Moran and Myers think engineers are something less. They are annoyed by Ken Ham’s claim that creationists can be successful in scientific careers, something that was argued during the Bill Nye / Ken Ham debate. They are so annoyed by the creationists that they are willing to degrade entire classes of scholars in order to win a fake point.

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Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

Look, science!

Look at all that science!

Skeptical arguments generally live in the domain of rhetoric and informal logic. Most informal arguments hinge on the correct identification of logical fallacies. There has been a slow growth in the number of alleged fallacies since the dawn of internet debate. Novel fallacies are usually a re-branding of established fallacies, with the goal of simplified rhetorical clarity. I’m concerned that this also promotes a false confidence that leads to shallow thinking and mis-identification.To paraphrase Occam, “fallacies are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In this post, I’m going to pick on two examples: Prothero’s observations about credential mongering, and Myer’s anti-theology “courtier’s reply” argument that has been referenced by Dawkins and others. I chose these specific examples because they seem to be shaky arguments that can be aimed against each other. I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these arguments in their original context, but these arguments are not able to live independently as authentic fallacies.

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Pseudo-scholarship and the Libertarians

Tower in DinanIn this post I consider the definition of pseudo-scholarship as something more subtle than pseudo-science, and I examine an essay by Ayn Rand as an example. This post examines some poor aspects of libertarianism that, in my opinion, are “not even wrong.” In a future post I will return to libertarianism and explain aspects that I think are both scholarly and extremely good, and are supported by real evidence. Until then, let’s start with some of the negative items…

During a recent debate over libertarianism, I was drawn into a deeply layered argument that ranged from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and broader libertarian thinking, to Natural Rights theory and the scholarly value of meta-ethics. The discussion was also invaded by Holocaust revisionism, creating a very murky situation. Most effort in the skeptic community is directed toward pseudo-science, which is easily defined — e.g., theories that contradict observed evidence, or that make claims that are untestable or deceptive. But when it comes to the humanities and social or political sciences, the distinction is not so obvious.
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