The adventures of Fallacy Man

Science advances one funeral at a time


A friend pointed me to this existential comic (click through for the full thing)


There are several layers to the humour in the Fallacy Man strip, which is always good to see. As is usual with humour, there is a larger point to be made here. For me, the point to be made is about how science is done.

Proof is hard to come by, in science. We all know the great asymmetry between evidence for and against a scientific theory: you can gather all the evidence in the world in support of your favourite theory, but one observation that doesn’t fit with your theory renders it false. This is the Popperian view of science as falsifiability.

But science research in practice hardly ever works like this. I mean this at two levels. The first is more obvious and less cynical than the other: most people who find outlier data in the lab assume not that the theory they are testing is false but that they’ve made an error somewhere. This is true of first year undergrads who ‘discover’ with their simple pendulum that the local value of g is 8ms-2; nobody concludes that Newton’s theory must be wrong1. It is also true of sophisticated experiments that show neutrinos travelling faster than light. The first thought physicists had wasn’t ‘Einstein was wrong’, but ‘there must be something wrong with the experiment’2.

The second, more problematic, sense in which Science doesn’t work in the Popperian falsifiability way has to do, as I see it, with the role of authority. Science today is, for better or worse, so vast and varied an enterprise that it’s impossible for one person to know more than a sliver of all knowledge 3. This is uncontroversial. This means that for anything that doesn’t fall within the sliver in which a scientist could claim expertise, he has to rely on other people.

What happens when the experts are wrong?

That question isn’t hypothetical. Experts (or people who fashion themselves experts) are routinely wrong. Sometimes because they overestimate what they know (think Linus Pauling and Vitamin C); sometimes because the questions they are trying to answer have no good answers (just on the subject of human health: is coffee good for you? is red wine? how about running?)

This is to say nothing of when experts are ‘deliberately’ wrong. Is fat good for you or bad? For 50 years, we’ve thought fat-free (which means artificially loaded with sugar) was the way to good health because researchers at Harvard were paid off by the sugar industry.

Science advances one funeral at a time, said Max Planck. That’s an observation that’s deeply, fundamentally, at odds with the idea that science is the search for evidence contrary to the hypothesis being tested. Can the objectivity of the scientists be separated from the objectivity of science itself?

I don’t want to go overboard with the postmodernist idea that science is no more objective than any other way of knowledge. But, except in physics or chemistry, where the presence and influence of the human element can be controlled for, or even eliminated, it seems to me a warning worth paying heed to4..


1. What might the student have done to get this value for g? Assuming g is 9.8 ms-2, this value of g would mean the student was enthusiastic about the pendulum’s amplitude of oscillation. See here.

2. The error was, needless to say, in the experiment, and not the correctness of Einstein’s relativity. There was a fibre-optic cable that wasn’t attached correctly.

3. “Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” – Konrad Lorenz

4. Does this make physics or chemistry “purer” sciences than biology or psychology or (gosh!) economics? That’s akin to arguing that studying spherical cows (with ellipsoidal perturbations?) is the only pure way of doing science.

Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. Vandana Shiva raises none of them.

G. Padmanaban, the former Director of IISc and a biotech administrator and activist if there ever was one, gave a talk at JNC about the promise of genetically modified crops–and necessary precautions to take in their use. Padmanaban pulled no punches, and laid out the pro-GM position as clearly as I’ve heard it. (Disclosure: I changed my position on GM crops about a year ago on the basis of the scientific consensus on their safety. I do not think GM crops are a cure-all; the ecological impact of every new GM crop should be assessed carefully before widespread use is authorised.) His talk cleared up several misconceptions I had about GM crops simply because of where I (mostly) got my information from.

Vandana Shiva is a high profile opponent of globalisation in general and Monsanto’s monopoly over Bt cotton (and Bt brinjal, if the time comes). She says that the government should “control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds”. This on the eve of an expected announcement from the central government on GM crop royalties. Her article is typical of articles written against GM crops, in that it’s vague, argues circularly, and would probably misinform the unwary reader.

OK, I’ll assume some explanation is necessary.

Monsanto added the gene from Bacillus thuringienesis(Bt) to the cotton plant’s genome, creating Bt cotton. Monsanto ‘owns’ Bt cotton, in that only Monsanto can decide who (else) gets to make or sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto charges such seed companies a royalty for using their technology. The companies presumably pass this on to farmers who buy seeds from them.

This is much like somebody making a song or a movie, and charging licensing fees for you to use them. (Several Indian) seed companies have licensed the Bt cotton ‘technology’ from Monsanto Mahyco, the subsidiary of Monsanto that owns Bt cotton rights in India.

The Indian government decided, in May this year, to cap prices for seeds. They also decided that royalties should be capped at 10% of the seed price for the first five years, and should decrease after that. The order also said that any company that wants to produce Bt seeds should be given a licence (much like the compulsory licensing for life-saving drugs that India enforces). The Indian government then withdrew the order, presumably under pressure from the industry, and said they’ll tell us what they’ve decided in three months, i.e. some time this week.

A wide range of positions on intellectual property is possible in a democracy, and the government will find some middle ground, as governments do. That the government used the essential commodities act instead of something else has been called into question, with people pointing out that seeds constitute about 5% of input costs for farmers and that setting royalty limits only serves the intermediaries between Monsanto and the farmers.

The misinformation about GM crops, on the other hand, is staggering. Vandana Shiva’s article, for instance, is an incoherent muddle. Her central point that the Indian government should control the price of seeds is clear enough. But her article doesn’t even mention seed companies, consistently making it seem as if farmers are directly indebted to Monsanto!

The article is rife with bad arguments and specious analogies. I made a list:


300,000 farmers have killed themselves because of seed royalties.

About 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. But no clear link exists between farmer suicide numbers and the adoption of Bt cotton. If it’s true that seeds are 5% of the total input cost, though, a link seems unlikely.


By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.

Monsanto claiming ownership of the seed because it had the tools to shoot a gene with a gene gun into the cell of the plant is the equivalent to a doctor who has facilitated in-vitro fertilisation claiming parenthood and ownership not only of the child thus born, but of all its descendants in the future. Society will surely reject such a claim.

I wouldn’t blame you if you came away from Vandana Shiva’s article thinking that farmers owe royalties to Monsanto, crop after crop, season after season. This is, as far as I can tell (and I’d happily stand corrected; down with the evil corporation and all that), absolutely untrue. Farmers do have the right to save their seeds and replant them. That the next generation of hybrid Bt cotton won’t be quite as resistant to bollworm as the first generation is called the loss of hybrid vigour, and is a feature of all hybrids, not just GM hybrids.


By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, such corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds which have now become their property.

Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing. They multiply and reproduce.

If the assertion is that patents related to living organisms should be regulated differently from patents for other things, I think that’s all right. But it is a line-drawing exercise. Experiments on animals are allowed for example; certain kinds of experiments on human beings aren’t. We can debate where the line should be drawn for patenting.

On the other hand, “plants can evolve on their own” is only a valid argument against patenting Bt cotton if cotton plants could somehow evolve a/the gene that provides bollworm resistance.


In Argentina, a judge rejected Monsanto soya bean patent, saying: “The writer of a book cannot claim to be the inventor of a language.”Monsanto is not writing the book of life. It is just scrambling the letters in total ignorance of what its “genetic modification” means at the level of the organism, the seed or the eco system. Claiming patents on seed and patents on life is therefore equivalent to claiming destruction as creation, ignorance as innovation.

The writer of a book has rights to what he’s written. That’s intellectual property. We can decide democratically whether, and how strictly, we want to enforce IP rights. But saying “the writer didn’t invent those words” in defence of plagiarism, say, is laughable. There’s a clear legal distinction between what’s patentable–the technology to add the Bt gene into cotton–and what isn’t–cotton itself.

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. If GM crops turn out to be invasive, what ecological impact would that have? Sans proper farmer training/education, are we risking pesticide resistant super-pests? Vandana Shiva raises none of them in her article.

The colour-perception wars

Blue and black or white and gold? Maybe this will explain it.

No, I don’t mean race. Although that does bring to mind Woody Allen’s quip that people will always find something to fight about (HT Meenakshi for this line).

There’s this picture of a woman in a dress doing the rounds, and apparently starting huge arguments. People are freaking out, and what not.


Here’s something I haven’t seen suggested anywhere else: try a pinhole camera. Take a piece of paper (it works best if the piece of paper is thick and opaque). Punch a small hole–an actual pinhole is likely too small; try a paper-punch.

I see black and blue. Which I assumed was because of the lighting. So as I figure, using a pinhole should take away effects of the lighting and show up the ‘true’ colours in the picture. So what I expected when I tried this was that I would see hints of gold and white. Which happened.

But wait! There’s a twist. If my explanation above is right, people who see white and gold unaided should continue to see white and gold through a pinhole. This is NOT what happens, apparently (admittedly I only have an anecdote to go by). Why don’t you try it and tell me?

What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

“Thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.

As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions


An infinitely long Maxwell’s demon in a vacuum

In which the second law of thermodynamics plays spoilsport in the high dreams of an honourable Gujju.

UPDATE Sep 27: Work intervened. More on this in a bit, but I thought I should say something before then. Like Saikishan points out in the comments, the Carnot engine argument is flawed. The idea of generating power from the temperature rise caused by the train is laughable. I’ll say why. I’ll also argue why I think the idea that energy can be extracted from the small scale motion of turbulence is also deeply flawed. Soon.

There’s this article doing the rounds about the Indian central government getting a letter from a gullible Gujarati man who thought he had a brainwave when he realised that moving objects drag the medium they are in (air) behind them, and leave eddies of flow in their wakes. “All that wasted energy! Let’s put a windmill there and extract it all, why don’t we?”

So went he forth and sent a letter by post to the Prime Minister’s Office. (The article makes double mention of the fact that he sent his letter by post. That’s either wonderfully subtle mockery, or just blind luck.) And apparently the PMO saw fit to send this letter to the Railways asking for expert opinion.

The PMO, in turn, forwarded it to the Railways Ministry, asking it to explore the “techno-economic” feasibility of the idea, and sought regular updates.

The expert opinion was, of course, that this is a useless idea:

“A train will pass the windmill in less than 20 seconds. Even if there is a train every 15 minutes, a windmill can operate for only 25 minutes per day. This will not be viable economically. Further, the energy produced by the windmills would have to come from the trains only, which will consume extra energy[…]”

I have no problem with people sending silly ideas to engineers in the railways. I’m sure whoever got the job of explaining why the idea is silly had a lot of fun with it. I thought I would too.

So what’s wrong with sticking a windmill next to a train? The good people of the railways point out that this would be a huge investment that’s only ever going to be ‘switched on’ 25 minutes a day. Philistines, I tell you. What stops them from working with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills? Unfortunately, even with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills, there’s the little matter of the second law — the no-free-lunches law of thermodynamics.

Stick a windmill–indeed or any mechanism–next to a train and whatever energy the mechanism produces has to come out of the fuel the train burns. (There would be additional losses too.) As proof by reductio ad absurdum, imagine an ideal engine (a Carnot engine) running the train; i.e. the train’s already running at the maximum possible efficiency. The addition of the windmill draws extra work out of the fuel that the train is burning, and fucks with the second law. And as we all know, the second law is Tony Montana.

The infinitely long train idea is out, then. How about a mechanism that captures energy from the random motion of the turbulence that the (finitely long) train leaves behind in its wake? I can think of two inter-related problems with this.

The first one is logistical: what is the mechanism you have in mind that “knows” when the train has passed by? Because if the mechanism is in place when the train is passing by, it will affect the flow around the train, and therefore change the drag on the train, and therefore effectively draw energy from the train’s fuel source. At which point we’re back to fucking with Tony Montana.

The second problem is fundamental. Can you extract energy from the random motion in a medium? The idea of extracting energy from the wake behind a train is a rehash of the very old problem of Maxwell’s demon: a mechanism that can separate the ‘hot’, i.e. faster moving, molecules in a gas from the ‘cold’ ones. If you think about it, all you need is two compartments with a tube connecting them which only allows ‘hot’ molecules to pass in one direction, and only allows ‘cold’ molecules to pass in the other direction. And soon enough, one of the compartments will be full of ‘hot’ gas, and the other full of ‘cold’ gas. And of course, nothing of the sort is physically possible without violating the second law. Why this is so has to do with information and energy being equivalent, but I shan’t say more about this here.

In conclusion, windmills need large-scale movement of the air around them, i.e. they need wind, in order to extract energy. And changing the large-scale flow around a moving object has to be paid for with interest in increased drag, owing to the second law. The second law of thermodynamics also precludes any attempt at extracting energy from the small scales (albeit in a different way from above).

The deterministic equations of life, the universe, and everything


In principle, the equations of classical (or quantum**) mechanics completely determine the future of every particle in the universe given the present state of every particle. This has two implications: one, that the universe is deterministic (with attendant restrictions on what “free will” can mean); and two, that the physical law that entropy in the universe always increases requires serious explanation. I recently attended an interesting talk on the second of these by a philosopher of science. Even more recently, a chat with a friend turned to the determinism of the physical laws.

If you accept that the basic laws governing the motion (and therefore the time-evolution) are deterministic, does that mean, given that there was a definite beginning, that every one of us is unique? Can there be somebody else who is exactly like you? If that question seems leading, that’s because it probably was. In order to answer that question, however, you’d have to define what “exact” means. Now, it may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

What’s a good definition of “exact”? Clearly, I know the universe exactly if I know where every molecule of the universe is and how fast it is moving. You might think this is an extreme demand and you’d be right. You would need a computer larger than the universe to keep track of all the data. (Why? The simplest “computer” that can do this is the universe itself. Any device with a more complicated process for tracking every molecule will have to have many times the number of molecules the universe has. And universes are hard to come by.) If this is your definition of “exact”, then, it is meaningless (and perhaps trivial) to ask if somebody else can be “exactly like” you.

Luckily, this level of detailed knowledge is not only impossible, but also unnecessary. I don’t need to know what every molecule on Earth is doing in order to predict that the Earth will go around the Sun in a slightly eccentric circle. This is the salvation of the scientific enterprise. Emergent phenomena can be studied without needing to know every detail of the underlying physics*.

Phrased slightly differently, it is indeed true that you are “unique”; both in the sense that there’s nobody else whose molecules are exactly like yours (i.e. we’re all snowflakes), but also in the more important sense that the arrangement of molecules that makes you could be no other way.

But even this more correct interpretation is meaningless for the reasons I’ve given above: what matters are some aggregate properties of the molecules that make up you and me. In general, whether or not these macroscopic properties are uniquely determined by initial conditions is not a question that has an answer. You might think the answer is what you choose it to be, the answer that lets you sleep at night.

UPDATES: When I say above that you can choose the answer you want, I mean you can’t get to the answer by pure rationalism. We don’t, of course, have to answer this question “rationally”; we can find the answer empirically.

*I say underlying physics, not in support of the sentiment that “it is all physics underneath.” In fact, this is not only wrongheaded, but also counterproductive. The wrongheaded bit is illustrated (as only Randall Munroe can do it) here.  I know of at least two prominent examples of people taking “everything is numbers” to idiotic heights: Steven Levitt of Freakonomics, and now Nate Silver of Five Thirty-Eight.

** Srikanth points out that since quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic, what I say here may not hold. I think it still might, but I realise that it’ll take more than one blogpost to sort this out.

HT: Aanveeksha, who brought this topic up.

Sydney Brenner on science

Scientific institutions and risk in science.

Sriram sent a bunch of us an interview with Sydney Brenner,one of the discoverers of mRNA. In the broad-ranging interview, Brenner talks about the thrill of making a scientific discovery and the joy of seeing your predictions come true. He talks about how institutions of science are run today and how they might be made better. The entire interview is well worth the read, whether or not you in the end agree with what is being said.

Of interest to me, since this is relevant to what I said about graduate school the last time, is Brenner’s take on taking risks in academic research. In fact, his idea of institutionalising risk, and I’ll say more of why I call it this, reminds me of something that’s said of/to drivers in formula one–somebody who doesn’t once in a while walk back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands simply isn’t trying hard enough.

Batting for unconventional thinking in science isn’t new. In as much as economics is a science, Paul Krugman’s views on how to do economics better are in the same vein. Brenner says we must stop scientific research from becoming the gigantic machine that makes cogs of graduate students, both by protecting them from financial hardship, and by encouraging independent thought. I wrote the last time about how the Indian research establishment is willy-nilly doing this.

The interviewer also mentions something else that is now disturbingly common: the increasing use of adjunct faculty members, who, even after teaching courses for decades at the same college, are paid little money and have no job security.Several Indian universities do the same thing with adjunct members of teaching faculty as American universities. Government-aided colleges in Karnataka that teach basic science and arts undergraduate colleges haven’t hired permanent members of faculty for something like 25 years. And privately run colleges find it easier to just hire temporary teachers and pay them a pittance.

Brenner also talks fondly of the college system of Oxford and Cambridge and how it allows not only people from different scientific disciplines, but people from different disciplines to sit at the same table. This again is sadly something we haven’t got right. The best institutions in the country focus more and more on smaller and smaller scientific disciplines; science isn’t for us, it seems, to be polluted by mixture with the social sciences or, god forbid, the humanities.

Brenner’s idea of a “Casino Fund” in science — i.e. money that the institutions funding science should allocate for long-shot ideas and basically write it off — is a way of making risk a part of the firmware of science and its institutions. We should allocate a small fraction of all funding and give it to people with a proven record of gambling successfully, he says; this is the only way to ensure that the big risky ideas that might revolutionise science see the light of day. But not everybody agrees. Were the 1950s a golden age for science? A lot of good work was done. But we also know that the 1950s weren’t at all a good time for women in science.

Entirely aware that the extent of my expertise at running an institution of science is to have managed somehow to keep my PhD work afloat, may I venture that perhaps a better implementation of Brenner’s idea of institutionalising risk is to make sure that institutions of science are inclusive? I put it to you that it’s a greater, to say nothing of nobler, risk to take to ensure that science is inclusive. Scientists, being human beings, are products of their time. Could there be anything more limiting than excluding entire categories of people from the humanist endeavour that is science?