Two pieces of all too obvious propaganda

Lately I have not posted about the changes in the academia concerning communication of research. There were many occasions to comment, many pieces of propaganda which I interpret as the beginning of a dark period, but, hey, also as a clear sign that the morning light is near.

Having a bit of time to spare, I shall react to two recent pieces of a slightly more subtle propaganda. Only slightly more subtle, that is my opinion. You don’t have to believe me, make your own opinion instead!

Please consider also the point of view that the following two pieces are involuntary propaganda, accidentally produced by ignorance.

Make your own opinion, that’s the most important.

Piece 1: How to become good at peer review: A guide for young scientists by Violent methaphors.  The post starts by the following

Peer review is at the heart of the scientific method. Its philosophy is based on the idea that one’s research must survive the scrutiny of experts before it is presented to the larger scientific community as worthy of serious consideration.

I saw before this nonsense that peer-review has something to do with the scientific method. It has not, because the scientific method says nothing about peer review. Probably the author makes a confusion between the need to be able to reproduce a scientific result with peer review? I don’t know, but I recommend to first learn what is the scientific method.

Peer review is a recent procedure which has to do with the communication of science through journals.  I will no discuss the value peer review brings to research (a value which exists, certainly), but instead I shall just comment that:

  • as it is done today, peer review is that piece of paper the legacy publisher throws into the wastebasket before making your work, dear researcher, his,
  • peer review is an idea based on authority, not on science, so that you don’t have to understand why a piece of research is valuable, instead you just have to lazily accept it if it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal,
  • peer review needs you, young researcher, because most of everybody else is too busy with other stuff. Nobody will thank you, is your duty (why? nobody really knows, but they want you to believe this).

The second part of the quote mentions that “one’s research must survive the scrutiny of experts before it is presented to the larger scientific community as worthy of serious consideration”, which would be just sad, dinosaurish speaking, if it would come from an old person who did not understood that today there is, or there should be, free access to information. This freedom does not come without obligations: if you want to survive  to this deluge of information, then you have to work hard for this and make responsible choices, instead of lazily relying on anonymous experts and on filtered channels of informations. Your take: do something like religion and believe the authority, or do some science and use your head. Which is your pick?

UPDATE (20.10.14): I can’t explain to myself why Mike Taylor does not detect this, behind the bland formulations.
He does, however, makes good points here.

Piece 2. Unexpected, but I think a bit more subtle is this post at Not even wrong: Latest on abc . The main idea, as far as I understand it, is that Mochizuki work is not mathematics unless accepted by the community. Here “accepted” means to pass a peer-review, which Mochizuki does not oppose, of course, only that apparently he worked too much for the “experts” to be able to digest it. So,  it is Mochizuki fault because there seem to be needed many months of understanding, if not years, from the part of the experts. This is an effort that very few people are willing to make, unfortunately. Somehow this is Mochizuki fault, if I well understand. I posted the following comment

This looks to me as a social problem, not a mathematical one. On one side, there are no “experts” in Mochizuki field, because he made it all. On the other side, the idiotic pressure to publish, which is imposed in academia (the legacy publishers being only opportunistic parasites, in my opinion), makes people not willing to spend time to understand, even if Mochizuki past achievements would imply that there might be worthy to do this.
To conclude, is a social problem, even an anthropological one, like a foreign ape which shows to the local tribe how to design a pulley system, not at all believable to spend time on this. Or it is just nonsense, who knows without trying to understand?

Peter Woit replied by sending me to read a very interesting, well known text, thank you!

For some great wisdom on this topic, I urge everyone who hasn’t done so to read Bill Thurston’s “On proof and progress in mathematics”
http://arxiv.org/abs/math/9404236
For Mochizuki’s proof to be accepted, other members of the community are going to have to understand his ideas, see how they are supposed to work and get convinced that they do work. This is how mathematics makes progress, not just by one person writing an insight down, but by this insight getting communicated to others who can then use it. Right now, this process is just starting a bit, with the best bet for it to move along whatever Yamashita is writing. It would be best if Mochizuki himself could better communicate his ideas (telling people they just need to sit down and devote six months of time to trying to puzzle out 1000 pages of disparate material is not especially helpful), but it’s sometimes the case that the originator of ideas is not the right person to explain them to others.

What is the propaganda here? Well, it is the same, in favor of legacy publishers, but hidden behind some  universal law that a piece of math is not math unless it has been processed by the classical peer-review mill. Please send us small chunks, don’t hit us with big chunks of math, because the experts will not be able to digest them.

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4 thoughts on “Two pieces of all too obvious propaganda”

  1. I’m not sure that you aren’t misreading Thurston’s argument. Mathematics, although it does have peer review for journals, is not tied to peer review like other sciences. Mathematicians routinely share their work in preprint form and in talks at conferences long before it is peer reviewed; the actual publication of the final paper is often an afterthought. Some well known work is never formally peer reviewed at all. So one of the main downsides of peer review – that it slows and limits dissemination of valid material – is much less of a problem in math. I think you are assuming that the “communication” in math comes through peer reviewed papers in their published form, but that is not an accurate view of the field.

    1. Carl, I believe the same. The Thurston reference is from a comment by Woit at NEW, maybe he is misreading Thurston’s argument.
      There is a small detail, though, where I don’t know if I agree with you: after the great conversion of mathematicians to using arXiv, there is not much advance in new models of publication of mathematical research. There are interesting projects, I look forward to see them in action. But until then, it is rather humbling to compare with PLOS (OK, it’s Gold OA, but nevertheless…) , PeerJ, BMJ. Strangely enough, it looks that mathematicians like to play this teens games around who’s the greatest scorer of ISI points.

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