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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The big tent of libertarianism

ImageIn the United States, the term “libertarian” has been co-opted by a narrowly defined ultra-capitalist conservative philosophy embraced by the US Libertarian Party, and by some factions within the Republican Party. But the word has always had a much broader meaning, encompassing many distinct legal and philosophical views. Some libertarians¬† claim to have devised complete philosophical foundations for ethics and government, but others adopt a situational approach to problems of applied ethics and law.

Yesterday, over at the Friendly Atheist site, blogger Terry Firma “came out” as a libertarian. What’s great about Terry’s post is that he highlights progressive aspects of his views. He believes in a progressive income tax and single payer health care — ideas that are not typically associated with Libertarian Party USA. I love Terry’s post because I consider myself to be the same kind of libertarian, and I’ve met plenty of like-minded progressive libertarians over the years, but we’re often lumped in with the Ayn-Rand-Tea-Partier-gun-lover-climate-change-denier cult that has been so loud in recent years.

I previously wrote some very critical remarks about the Ayn Rand variant of Libertarianism, which has become a dominant influence in the US Libertarian and Conservative political movements. There is no shortage of problems with Randian thinking. But “Libertarianism” refers to a diverse collection of philosophical approaches to ethics, politics and law, and the entire batch should not be dismissed because of a few bad eggs.

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Santa, Jesus and dinosaurs

Father Christmas rides a goat

Father Christmas rides a goat

A friend of mine once shared her “skeptic origin story,” which also happens to be an amazing Christmas story. I’ll have to paraphrase the story from memory:

When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I couldn’t believe so many people had been lying to me. I immediately stopped believing in God, Jesus and dinosaurs. They all sounded like made-up fantasies told by the same people who lied about Santa. I eventually started believing in dinosaurs again.

This story is both funny and thought provoking. On one hand, it exposes the plain similarity between religious knowledge and the Santa myth — the latter being a ubiquitous lie in which nearly everyone knowingly participates. On the other hand, it highlights a continual challenge for skeptically minded people: where do I draw the boundaries of my skepticism? This is sort of the amateur version of the demarcation problem: where are the lines that separate (1) total junk; (2) reasonable but wrong beliefs; and (3) questionable topics that warrant further study?

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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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Structured reasoning with ProbLog


ProbLog is a simple language for probabilistic reasoning. It allows you to write logic programs that account for uncertainty among the facts and propositions, and it can calculate the probabilities of hypothesis or events based on your model. An online tutorial with a web-based calculator is available here.

Of all the intellectual techniques available for those who pursue a rational worldview, I believe none are more important that Bayesian inference. By saying this is “most important,” I don’t mean to disregard the fundamentals of logic, mathematics, probability, statistics, etc — those are all prerequisites to understanding Bayesian techniques. There’s been a lot of talk about Bayesianism recently in skeptical circles, with Richard Carrier drawing a lot of attention for his advocacy of Bayesian methods in history. I appreciate that there are a lot of philosophical arguments surrounding Carrier and others’ use and application of Bayes’ theorem. As with all reasoning techniques, Bayesian reasoning can be used well or it can be used poorly.
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There is a difference between science and debate

ImageThe goal of science is to build knowledge. The goal of a debate is to win. While these can sometimes look very similar, they are not the same. Online media have created platforms where superficial debates can flourish at the expense of scientific understanding. Skeptical communities who advocate the scientific worldview already promote a widely known collection of rules for debate. They should also consider articulating “best practices” for constructive discussion, recognizing that most discussions do not need to become debates.

Science concerns itself with analysis, observation, demonstration and refutation with the goal of building knowledge. While scientific discussions often involve the juxtaposition of arguments, they rarely proceed in the manner of formal debates unless the occasion calls for an immediate decision or action — as in a peer review decision or the adoption of a research agenda. When debate happens, it requires extensive preparation by the participants and is usually moderated by a decision maker, such as a journal editor, program manager or committee chair.
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Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
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Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade

It is now ten days since PZ Myers’ Aug. 8 disclosure of rape allegations against a popular skeptic author, the online community continues to be galvanized in a chain reaction of heated discussions on many topics related to gender equity, sexual harassment and the politics of rape. Although I previously wrote that PZ Myers’ disclosure was improper, I now believe it may have significantly raised consciousness of these issues among free-thinking circles. I also wrote that the accusations point towards a much more general problem in modern professional life. Discussions of these problems are appearing everywhere in discussion fora and comment threads within the free-thinking blogosphere. Although the comments often reflect strong opinions (and sometimes mean-spirited opinions), I believe most participants possess flexible minds capable of evolving when exposed to new information. This debate has therefore created a rare opportunity to really deepen our collective understanding of an important but under-recognized issue.
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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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PZ Myers’ Grenade

Several days ago, popular Atheist blogger PZ Myers made some incendiary claims on his site Pharyngula. Myers asked, “What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?” Probably the worst response is to throw the grenade into a large crowd. But that’s what Myers did by posting criminal allegations on his blog — specifically, he posted an anonymous allegation of rape made against a popular author and speaker. In spite of the fractured culture that’s emerged in the skeptic/Atheist blogosphere, I like Pharyngula and I usually enjoy Myers’ writing. This time, I think there’s a consensus that he made a mistake (I’ll avoid linking to other blogs since there’s a lot of shouting about who’s buddies with whom). From my perspective, PZ’s question about the grenade should be translated into a more practical wording:

How should an individual or association respond to private allegations of criminal conduct?

There’s a quick answer (and I’ll offer more detailed explanations below): In general, if you have knowledge of a crime, you should immediately speak to a law enforcement representative and/or consult with an attorney before taking any action or making any public disclosures. Now since PZ is a blogger — and therefore arguably classifiable as some form of journalist — there may be other appropriate steps.
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