What’s good for the goose

The contentious biologist Lior Pachter has joined the fray, siding with Lysenko.
He accuses the mathematical commentators on Tao’s and Gowers’s blogs of making illiterate pronouncements on biology. As we’ll shortly see, he’s plenty guilty of blasting way past his own spheres of competence, but presently we address the substance of his criticism. Without pontificating on the complex, porous interface between mathematics and biology, we’ll note in passing that mathematicians can make solid contributions at the boundary without actually knowing much biology beyond the high school level. Population dynamicists and phylogenic analysts do this all the time.

But that is completely beside the point, since, as pointed out in Igor Rivin’s comment, the paper in question does not purport to offer a biological contribution! It mathematically models a well-documented phenomenon. Find the model unrealistic? Question the phenomenon’s veracity? That’s what rebuttals and rejoinders are for. What happened at NYJM is the paper equivalent of a summary execution (something I’m not entirely sure Pachter opposes for his ideological opponents). As for the paper’s mathematical interest — it would be ironic for a biologist who complains about ignorant mathematicians invading his field to take issue with that, would it not?

But it gets better. Pachter, you see, also dabbles in psychometry. Or rather, he brazenly dismisses the whole field from first principles. Nevermind that it has been actively studied for over a century, leaving a voluminous trail of scientific literature. Pachter’s got a slick gotcha-argument discrediting the whole field as bunk. He’s in good company with Queen Izabella — except she invokes more advanced tools and hence ends up looking sillier. (Pachter and Laba also share a passion for hounding innocent men out of their jobs, but that’s a topic for another post.)

We leave off with a note to hypocrites everywhere, and especially those fond of Yiddish proverbs:
עס נישט קיין ביינער, וועלן דיר נישט וויי טאן די ציינער


10 thoughts on “What’s good for the goose

  1. Yes, Pachter’s blog post was quite over the line and contentious and oh wait, what’s this?

    “equivalent of a summary execution (something I’m not entirely sure Pachter opposes for his ideological opponents)”

    Huh, yeah, you seem like a really intelligent person with a firm grip on reality.

    “Pachter and Laba also share a passion for hounding innocent men out of their jobs”

    Ah, and a supporter of sexual harassment too. What a prize you are. Your mother must be proud.


    1. What was that word right before your open-quote that you for some unfathomable reason left out? Oh right: “paper”, as in it was ” the *paper* equivalent of a summary execution”. And my dim-witted loose grasp on reality notwithstanding, I’ve got an inkling of a suspicion you left that out intentionally, to troll a quote out of context.

      The analogy is rather apt. Just like the norms of a free, decent society require due process — even for “deplorable” individuals — so too the norm of academic publishing have due process for retracting a published paper. Even if the paper is wrong, misinformed, allegedly plagiarized, etc. Igor Pak has an excellent blog post on this:
      (It’s a long read, so you might grow tired looking for juicy quotes to get your panties in a bunch about. Protip: it’s easier if you just cut and splice individual letters.)

      Ordinarily, I wouldn’t waste time arguing with a troll, but I’m glad for the opportunity to elaborate upon my analogy, which I’m actually rather fond of.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Apologies for misinterpreting your post. I think the correct interpretation simply didn’t occur to me because it’s incredibly ridiculous.

        I’ve never had a paper retracted but, and I’m willing to admit that I might be wrong here, I’m pretty sure the experience is not at all like being executed. For one thing, not only can you publish other papers but you can even just resubmit that same paper elsewhere.

        Being executed, on the other hand, results in death. So I’m kind of not so sure about this analogy of yours.

        Also, are you just going to pretend that you didn’t defend sexual harassment? Yeah, that’s probably a good move.


  2. Are you really going to argue, with a straight face, that there’s *any* math journal out there that’ll even consider publishing Hill’s paper? It’s been killed, all right.

    Re: “sexual harassment”. My stance is pretty much the same as on “racism”. I simply don’t know what these notions mean in popular parlance anymore. The dictionary definitions have been thrown out the window, and everyday acceptable behaviors from yesterday have become “problematic” today and will be a fireable offense tomorrow.

    Unwanted touching is a no-no (a big one). So are persistent unwanted sexual propositions. Those are about the only blanket statements I’m willing to make at the time. I’ll condemn (or not) individual behaviors, but not nebulous notion whose definition is in constant opportunistic flux.


    1. Hill can’t publish the paper elsewhere even if there was a journal willing to do it — apparently he transferred the copyright to NYJM. So NYJM both has the copyright and has made the paper disappear. An unprecedented situation.

      He can probably write a sufficiently different paper stating the same results, but here you are entirely correct — nobody will touch that. Perhaps a journal based overseas might, e.g. a Russian one, but not in the West.

      Liked by 1 person

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