On Inference

The first issue of the magazine Inference appeared online back in 2014. At the time, it was surrounded by a significant amount of mystery: who were the editors, what were they trying to do, and who was funding it? I asked around and no one I talked to was sure what the answers were to these questions. Best guesses seemed to be that it was run out of Paris, with David Berlinski playing some role, and the funding source might be Peter Thiel.

Looking at the early issues that came out, on the topics I was competent to judge, the contributions about mathematics and physics were generally interesting and of high quality. On some other topics where I lack competence, there seemed to be a skeptical attitude towards materialism and evolutionary theory that I’m not sympathetic with.

Late in 2015 I was contacted by someone from Inference (Hortense Marcelin) to write an essay for them, something about the multiverse and string theory. After thinking about it a bit, I turned down the offer. The main reason was that I was sick and tired of the subject, didn’t want to spend time writing at length about it. A contributing factor in the back of my mind was that, not knowing the identity of the editors or anything about their agenda was another reason to not get involved.

A couple years later I got another invitation to write for them, a request to write a short response to an excellent piece by George Ellis, Physics on Edge. Deciding to do this wasn’t hard. The piece would be short and I already knew exactly what I wanted to say, so it would take little time. In addition, I think by this time the identity of the editors was known, and, most importantly, Inference had a pretty good track record of publishing high quality articles in the areas I know about. What I wrote was published as Theorists Without a Theory.

Adam Becker a few days ago published at Undark a long article about Inference. It’s a bit of an exposé, taking issue with some of the writing as “intelligent-design propaganda”, and revealing that yes, Peter Thiel is a funder. An odd part of the story is that Becker suspects that a negative review of his book by Glashow in Inference was motivated by the fact that he had not much earlier contacted Glashow to ask pointed questions about the publication and its funding.

Today I got in my inbox A Statement from Sheldon Glashow and Inference, which is available here. You can read it for yourself. Noteworthy in the Undark article is Becker’s report that Glashow had told him that “questioning evolution” is “no longer a
policy of the journal”. Referring to two early 2014 articles that could be described as questioning climate change and evolution, the statement says:

Becker believes that two of our essays are deserving of censure. They are William Kininmonth’s “Physical Theories and Computer Simulations in Climate Science,” and Michael Denton’s “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis Revisited.”

Both were published in 2014.

Now a secret must be imparted. Sheldon Glashow and Rich Roberts agree with Becker. Richard Lindzen and David Gelernter do not.

It ends with this response to the accusation about the motivation for the negative review of Becker’s book:

Inference commissioned Sheldon Glashow to review Becker’s book in the spring of 2018, well before Becker was known to Inference. The idea that we would require the services of a Nobel Laureate in order to make a fool of Becker is absurd. Becker is capable of doing that quite by himself.

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50 Responses to On Inference

  1. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    Oh, yes, that old, classy argument “he is a Nobel Prize winner, who do you think you are?” Also that other classy argument “yes, we do creationist and climate-denialist propaganda, and if you criticize us you must be an enemy of freedom”. Adam Becker should be applauded, not ridiculed, for taking on such dark and powerful forces.

  2. I was contacted by someone from Inference some years ago. They asked me to write an essay for them and made a pretty good financial offer. I put a lot of effort in this and submitted the piece as requested.

    After some while I received a revision from an anonymous editor who had garbled up my argument so badly and misrepresented my opinion so much that I could see no common ground and just refused to agree it be published. Luckily I hadn’t signed the letter of agreement, so I had no trouble pulling out of this. (Otoh, I didn’t get the kill fee either.) I then shortened the piece and published it elsewhere.

    By now I have dealt with quite a number of editors at many different publications and let me just say I have never seen anything remotely like this. Normally they are are little more… restrained. Also, while it’s rather common that fact checkers and copyeditors remain anonymous, I don’t know any other place where they don’t tell you who is the editor.

    In any case, if you have been wondering why I never share or comment on anything from that magazine, now you know why. I got away with the impression that this magazine’s editors have a rather heavy hand.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,
    I wasn’t very impressed by Becker’s book either, see
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=10147
    An interesting question to ponder is whether Becker’s Undark piece would have been different if Inference hadn’t published a bad review of his book. It came off to me as a hit-piece.

    As for the dark and powerful forces at Inference, the list of their editors is now public (and quite distinguished). Yes, it seems to be Thiel’s money, but, if it’s paying for good science writing (modulo some early dubious choices), so what?

  4. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    Peter — I don’t know whether or not Adam is correct to suspect that Inference slammed his book because they knew he was on their case. I have not read Adam’s book yet, but whether I or you like it seems besides the point here. The picture painted by his Undark piece is much bigger and I am surprised that it doesn’t cause you concern, given how active you are in tracking the influence of money on science.

    At least the Templeton Foundation is open about its agenda and does not try to cover up its tracks. I find it hilarious for a publication to have anonymous funders (and even editors, according to Sabine) and then scoff at people who find that creepy. And I don’t find it reassuring that the identity of the funder was not a secret to people “in the know”. If anything, that makes it even creepier to me.

    In response to all this, some mathematicians and physicists’ attitude seems to be: “But the guy is so smart and generous and we like to have a place that publishes cool essays about quantum gravity and algebraic geometry.”

    But I find it hard to isolate this from the broader context, which is that you have a government that steals babies from their parents and puts toddlers in cages, and a billionaire who supports said government — and whose money comes in part from selling surveillance technology to it (https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2018-palantir-peter-thiel/).

  5. Addendum: My husband reminded me that at the time I was pretty pissed off the anonymous editor believed to know more about my research area than I do myself. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now that I think of it, this almost certainly means it was a physicist. Someone with a big ego.

    I felt pretty stupid back then for turning down $5000, but in hindsight I am glad I didn’t let some anonymous person channel their opinion through an essay with my name on top of it.

  6. Dave Miller says:

    Peter,

    While I think Intelligent Design is nonsense, I suspect that it may serve a positive purpose by forcing evolutionary scientists to provide more detailed evidence in rebuttal.

    Climate science is a different story: the media over-simplifies the subject to a binary “no human impact” vs “catastrophic human impact.” “No human impact” is of course nonsense, but, in fact, there is lots of room for gradations in between the extreme positions: when Richard Lindzen of MIT or Judith Curry of Georgia Tech raise detailed questions about some specific aspects of the climate consensus, I am interested in their views, just as I am interested in your views critical of the established endeavors in string theory.

    I just finished Adam’s book and found it interesting and informative. The book certainly has its heroes and its villains (though Adam seems not to see this himself). On the other hand, since some of his heroes (notably Einstein, deBroglie, and Wigner) were already some of my heroes, I found the book congenial.

    Does anyone know of any critiques of Adam’s book that argue that he badly botched the story factually (as opposed to the reviewer’s simply not liking the book personally)?

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Dave Miller,
    I just don’t think arguments over publishing denials of climate change and evolution are that relevant here since that’s not what Inference is now doing. One could definitely question what they were up to in their first few issues (and this affected my decision not to write for them then), but to be fair I think one needs to look at their current editors and what they are doing.

    For another review of the Becker book by an expert, see this
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1809.05147
    which I think does a good job of explaining the problems with the book. These problems are not a matter of “not liking the book personally”. There’s some similarity between the problems with the book and with the article: both are in some sense an unfair “takedown” (of Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation in the case of the book, of Inference and its editors in the case of the article).

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Sabine,
    That is an odd story. My own experience was completely different (the only editing of the piece I remember was asking me if it was all right to reword a sentence or two).

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,
    I agree there were good reasons to be dubious about what was going on at Inference when it first came out. Right now though their editors are advertised publicly, see
    https://inference-review.com/about
    and they have a track record of publishing that anyone can look at and make up their own minds about. Personally I think they’re doing a good job, and that there are t0o few outlets for high quality writing about science, especially those that actually pay people to do it.

    I’m no fan of a lot of what Peter Thiel is involved in, but if he wants to spend his money this way, I don’t see any reason people shouldn’t take it. Yes, Templeton Foundation money is worth worrying about because it is designed to fund a specific ideological point of view (mixing science and religion). I don’t see Inference doing this (now, one could reasonably have this worry about them at the beginning).

    On the general question of worrying about source of money funding things, I think one has to be careful about moralistically going down that road. Otherwise, for example consider the huge amount of funding now coming from RenTech via Jim Simons. I think he’s doing a great job with what he funds and I have no problem with his politics, but I don’t know how that money was made. The only answer I’ve ever seen to that question from the few who know is “if we told you we’d have to kill you.” A lot of RenTech money also was used to attack US democracy and elect Trump. Talk about “dark and powerful”….

    Part of my reaction to this is also an increasing allergy to “takedown” journalism. Adam Becker in his article clearly has an agenda, partly driven by Glashow’s review of his book, and it’s not to give a fair evaluation of the story of Inference.

  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Has Inference properly disavowed their flirtation with ID?

    Look, I don’t want to revisit the debate anymore than you do, but if the observational evidence wasn’t overwhelming enough, one might take some comfort that people like Fisher, Haldane and Wright put evolution on a mathematically rigorous foundation no later than the 1940’s, well before the underlying molecular biology was properly understood. It’s been as good as science gets for plenty of time now.

    My feeling is that giving ID’ers a hearing isn’t just sketchy, it’s agreeing to disseminate a pernicious lie. If they haven’t already, they should admit is much. It would be a great way to make amends and win back support, if cleaning up their act is a sincere objective.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,
    Glashow in his statement explicitly disavows the early ID and climate denialist articles. The current editorial board has eleven members, most of whom I have a high opinion of from what I know of their work. Two of them that I know a bit about and that I have problems with are exactly the two that Glashow identifies as not disavowing the early two articles. One, Richard Lindzen (who was my instructor in a PDE class at Harvard), could be classified as a climate denialist. The other, David Gelertner, is a computer scientist right-wing ideologue (at one point supposedly a possibility for Trump’s science advisor), with the perhaps relevant background of being a victim of the Unabomber.

    So, here’s the question, if a publication has a generally high-quality editorial board of eleven people, except that two of them one feels have noxious and dangerous views, what should you think of the publication? Should you read it, link to it, write for it? My answer to this is to look at what they are publishing. If they’re publishing pieces reflecting views I consider noxious and dangerous, that would be a problem. I see an argument for that in some of their early pieces, I don’t see it now.

    One can take a different and more purist view, that one should not associate oneself with any organization that has even one, much less two, people on its editorial board with dangerous views. I’m not that sort of purist.

  12. a1 says:

    After reading here about the launching of Inference, I did a quick search and posted a ‘guess’ connecting it somehow to Mont Pelerin Society. I see now that in September 2018 Peter Thiel has been invited to speak at their General yearly meeting. So now I guess that the world is not what it appears to be – it’s much more sinister.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    a1,
    I’m still not seeing what is “much more sinister” here. We know who the editorial board is and we can see what they are publishing. Since they’ve been paying their authors and not advertising the source of their money, obviously it has been coming from some private source, likely a wealthy individual. Picking wealthy people at random, a lot of them share the crank Libertarian worries of the “Mont Pelerin Society”, which from their website seem to be the dangers of big government, welfare, trade unions, inflation, and “business monopoly”. That the money comes from someone (Thiel) who has the views on economics and politics of the Wall Street Journal editorial page seems to me neither surprising nor sinister. The relevant question though is that, since Inference publishes nothing on economics or politics, should one care about the views on those topics of its funder?

  14. a1 says:

    I am not disputing any of this but I would just mention that they have a topic “Economics’ with seven items and the first was in vol.I ,iss.1, about Piketty. If MPS has views and/or interests outside of economics, e.g. ID or climate scepticisms, that might be worrying.

  15. sphaerenklang says:

    I have no opinion on the merits of Inference’s editorial staff. But .. why should we have to guess about where the money for an ‘opinion’ publication comes from?
    Why would anyone be OK with *secretly* funded magazines whose aim appears to be – at least in part – influencing public opinion?

    At least we know who owns Fox News …

  16. Regarding money sources in publishing: it’s not like people don’t publish with Springer because it is owned by members of the Holtzbrinck family with one might imagine certain economic views…

    And people publish with Elsevier despite their explicit political moves to remove access to academic research through open access means.

  17. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    Dear Peter,

    I guess every time a journalist does his or her homework and reveals something inconvenient — but with obvious public interest — about a powerful person, lots of people will take the side of the powerful person and call it a “takedown”. I call it doing a public service.

    And just because someone funds the publishing of nice articles about quantum gravity rather than creationism, it does not mean that they don’t have an agenda — in particular if the source of the money is an open secret among those in the know. There is already an agenda in giving people 5,000 dollars and then having those people say “geez, that guy gave me 5,000 bucks and I know I am a nice person, so I guess he must not be as bad as they say”.

    But I guess I am being “moralistic” and that supporting the guys who put toddlers in cages is not bad enough. Where will we draw the line, then? What needs to happen before we stop normalizing this?

  18. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    P.S. I should clarify that I do not equate those who accept money to write for a publication with those who fund it. I myself do not know what I would do if I were offered to write for such a publication — perhaps I would accept, perhaps not. What I do know is that 1) I would want to know where the money comes from, and 2) I would want the readers to know that as well.

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Oh, I’m not advocating for purism or boycotts of Inference or anything like that. I myself have expressed the opinion that it’s perfectly fine to accept Templeton funding if they let the recipients do legitimate science nonetheless, which seems to be the case. Money’s fungible.

    But I certainly have some sympathy for those who feel, as I do, that “teaching the controversy” crosses a red line. It was always a bogus appeal for intellectual freedom, and belied some truly anti-intellectual motives. Those who have promoted it are rightly viewed with deep suspicion. If Inference as a “whole” wishes to be free of that suspicion entirely, it could do worse than disavow such malignant pseudoscience explicitly as an official editorial policy moving forward, and not just an ostensible practice.

    That said, if Inference gets lots of eyeballs, pays well, and lets people publish legitimate, high-quality work, I don’t think it should be shunned even if it doesn’t take such steps.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,
    The “takedown” is not the revelation that Thiel is funding Inference, which wasn’t hard to figure out. Adam Becker’s article portrays the publication as a right-wing funded plot to delegitimize science, with the main editor Glashow a patsy who sleazily punished Becker for asking inconvenient questions by panning his book. Which do you think is more plausible: that Glashow panned Becker’s book out of such animus, or that Becker’s animus towards a publication that panned his book has a lot to do with the Undark piece?

    As for Palantir, it went from nothing to yes, a huge dark and powerful force, due to funding from the Obama administration, with Joe Biden one of its promoters.

    By the way, I just checked my records: Inference paid me \$250 for the piece I wrote for them. From what I remember, no money was promised when they asked me to write something, I did it assuming I was doing it for free, was a bit surprised when a check came in the mail. No, I’m not defending them because they sent me \$250.

    I try and avoid politics on this blog, but I think there’s a really important political point here. How to deal with Trumpism and the collapse of US democracy is the most important issue in the world today, but successfully doing so requires understanding how this collapse occurred. It didn’t occur because of Peter Thiel: as far as his politics go, he’s a garden variety wealthy Libertarian Republican, and such people will always support the Republican candidate. Trump won the election not because wealthy Republicans did what they always do, but because of a highly successful campaign of hit-jobs/takedowns of Hillary Clinton, coming not just from the Right, but from the Left and liberal establishment. Progressive publications were rabidly devoted to taking down Clinton as a tool of Wall Street, compromised by funding of the Clinton Foundation. The New York Times featured every day on the front page hit-job articles about her email server. By the time of the election, she had been taken down, she was the most hated person in the US, by the right, center and left. Opinion polls showed that, by a wide margin, people thought Trump was more ethical than her, and they voted (or didn’t come out to vote) accordingly.

    I don’t think hardly anyone except the Right has learned this lesson from 2016 about how you destroy democracy. Already, as 2020 Democratic candidates start appearing, the takedowns have started. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test and the like is going to dominate the next two years, and we’re going to end up reelecting Trump or worse. Demonizing Thiel may make you feel better, but he’s not the problem. Self-righteous attacks on our own kind (in this case, the people at Inference who are trying to put out a high-quality publication) are.

  21. Dave Miller says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the link to Chris Fuchs’ review. It seems that he did find some (relatively minor) factual errors; however, I disagree with Fuchs that Adam’s interpretation of EPR is an error. As in so much concerning QM, this seems to be a matter of… interpretation.

    You said:
    > There’s some similarity between the problems with the book and with the article: both are in some sense an unfair “takedown” (of Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation in the case of the book, of Inference and its editors in the case of the article).

    Well, I think that’s what I was also trying to get at. Adam is more of an opinion journalist than an academic, in both the book and in his takedown of Inference. Is that a bad thing? He’s pretty obvious, and it seems to me any reader should be able to decide for him or herself if Adam’s taking of sides is objectionable.

    I do remember from my own student days trying to get Feynman interested in foundational questions in QM: he did not literally say “Shut up and calculate,” but there was a sense that we should sort of accept the Copenhagen perspectives as the only valid inspiration… and then forget all about it and just start doing calculations.

    I.e., questioning Copenhagen back in the mid-’70s was discouraged. You are slightly my junior in age: did you have a different experience?

    As to the Mont Pelerin connection, there is now an extensive historical literature explaining that the world we live in today was created by the Mont Pelerin Society (most recently, Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism).

    As it happens, I was friendly with several members of Mont Pelerin back around 1980 when I was at Stanford and had a chance to meet over a dozen of them (at the time, the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies were in the Bay Area, and both had some ties to Stanford).

    Without going into details, I will just say that Adam’s book is certainly more accurate than most of the historians’ writings on Mont Pelerin! The over-wrought conspiracy theories about Mont Pelerin may have a veneer of academic respectability, but they have very little connection to the real world. The Bushes, the Clintons, the neocons, the Democratic Leadership Council, the Moral Majority, and a host of other groups and organizations have had a greater effect on the USA than Mont Pelerin.

    Dave

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Dave Miller,
    I started studying QM (haven’t finished yet…) in the mid-70s, and don’t recall ever hearing that one should “shut up and calculate” and not think about QM foundations. I spent a fair amount of time doing this (studying foundations of QM), came to the conclusion on my own that this was a waste of time. This was the era of the advent of the Standard Model, so I think the attitude of most theorists was “why would you spend your time thinking about those old questions where there’s nothing new, when the SM has just given us all sorts of new and exciting things to think about?”. The topics Becker wants to push were already old news at that time (Bohmian mechanics [1952], Many-Worlds [1957], Bell’s Theorem [1964]).

    My problem with Becker is a combination of disliking agenda-driven takedowns in general, and not agreeing with his particular agenda. In the case of the book, see my review. I don’t think the world would be a better place if what’s in the current QM textbooks about Copenhagen was replaced by material out of Becker’s book. In the case of Inference, I don’t think the world will be a better place if Becker’s agenda to discredit the publication is successful. Discrediting the place that published a bad review of his book will be good for him, but convincing people not to read or write for one of a limited number of outlets for high-quality writing about math and physics won’t make the world a better place.

  23. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    Peter — I happen to agree with you that the New York Times’ behavior during the 2016 campaign was reprehensible, and I have said so many times on social media (even attracting the ires of some NYT colleagues).

    Still, from there it is a big leap to conclude that the NYT was the main cause of Trump’s electoral college victory. To begin with, I would guess that cable news channels had more impact than the NYT in making Clinton look bad in the eyes of the average voter. Probably a lot of Bernie Bros on social media helped, too — although how many of those were actually Russian bots (or real people misled by Russian meddling) is still unclear to me. Voter suppression certainly played another big role, and perhaps hacked voting machines did, too (although Putin would have been smart enough to use that in moderation, so the results would not deviate too much from exit polls). I think there are a number of different causes and perhaps none of them was decisive by itself.

    I do not know whether it is true or not that Glashow slammed Becker’s book out of revenge. Perhaps you know Glashow well; I have never had the pleasure. But I don’t buy the argument “he is the one with the Nobel Prize, so it is self-evident that he would be incapable of pettiness.”

    What I do know for sure is that I value the information that Becker provided to me as a reader and as a journalist, and that therefore his piece was worth doing.

    But seriously now, Adam Becker as a destroyer of democracy? He did not decide to work on the exposé because of the negative review of his book — that came later. He is one freelancer who stuck his neck out in the public interest, and is risking a lot because of it. (And by the way, so are the editors of Undark.) But somehow Becker is the problem, while the guy who enthusiastically contributed to electing Trump is not?

  24. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,
    My comments about Trump and politics were in response to yours about Thiel and his support of our awful current president. That support, perhaps rightly so, has caused Thiel’s name to become a swear-word in many quarters, including most of academia. Because of this, I don’t thinking going after a Thiel-funded project is sticking one’s neck out, quite the opposite for the audience Becker writes for.

    Sure, Thiel is known for supporting lawsuits that led to court decisions against Gawker and put them out of business, but I’m afraid that there I’m kind of on his side. Gawker’s whole business model was based on the unfair takedown/hit-job humiliation of their targets, exactly the sort of thing that has destroyed our democracy. The world is a better place without them. Yes, Becker and Undark before publishing this piece had to be sure to meet the very low legal standard for not libeling a public figure, but I don’t think that’s really onerous.

    No, Becker is not responsible for the destruction of democracy in the US, but I’m dead serious that we’re screwed if our side won’t get over its love affair with the unfair takedown of our own people. A lot of complicated factors led to the 2016 debacle, but Clinton lost for exactly one reason: people on the center and left irrationally hated her. This wasn’t because of the Russians or Fox News, but because they were fed a continuous diet of unfair stories by the “liberal” and Left media about how personally unethical and unlikable she was.

    If Becker wants to takedown Thiel, or even the off-beat right-wing crowd that started Inference (Berlinski/Lindzen/Gelertner), that’s fine with me. But, on the question of the current state of the publication and its editors, I think the Becker piece was highly unfair towards people doing good work. This is based on actually reading Becker’s book and Glashow’s review, as well as reading many of the articles Inference has published in recent years. Before applauding the latest takedown, you and others should first do the same.

  25. Tyler Hampton says:

    Hey Peter,

    This is my first time commenting here, but I have followed the blog sporadically for years and I enjoy it very much.

    I think Adam Becker’s piece is highly misleading and unfair, for the following reasons:

    1) Adam dismisses a review I wrote for Inference of Dan Tawfik’s laboratory, not on the basis of its actual content, but on the basis that I was a ‘tennis instructor’ reviewing a complex biological subject. I admit I am not an expert. But I find it unfair that Adam does not engage the material on its own merits, and does notmention that I do have a degree in biology. (Yes, I have only an undergraduate degree, to be sure, but Adam writes as if I had no relevant background at all.) Adam also does not mention that Dan Tawfik liked the review well enough to link to it on his own website.

    2) Glaringly, the very article that Adam Becker claims attacks evolution and upholds creationism in fact both affirms evolution and denies a supernatural biological creation. The relevant article is Michael Denton’s “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis Revisited”. I know, the title sounds bad. But if you actually read all three parts of it, you will see that Denton is criticizing a particular *mechanism* of evolution, not the *fact* of evolution. This is most apparent in part 3, where Denton asks, “If life is a natural phenomenon, how might its forms have been actualized? How can one type lead to another?”

    Denton’s answer is not “God did it”, or “it can’t be done naturally”, although Becker’s article would lead you to believe that. Instead, Denton defers to ordinary mutational events (albeit, mutations in a biological possibility space that is nicely ordered). Denton states in answer to his question of how evolutionary transitions are accomplished, “As the creation of atoms in the stars depended on a highly fortuitous nuclear energy pathway, so it is possible to imagine analogous minimum energy pathways at all levels of the organic hierarchy, arranged so that the distances between types are massively reduced in ontogenetic space. One might suppose that gene functions are clustered in the space of all possible genes, rather than scattered widely.”

    What Denton is suggesting is that, in a hypothetical major evolutionary transition, as gene ‘x’ mutates to gene ‘y’ with one single mutation, a phenotype ‘A’ may mutate in a very sharp and big way to a very different phenotype ‘B’. It may not take a thousand mutations to get a big change, only a few. Denton may or may not be right on the details of the organization and distribution of phenotypes in the space of all possible genes, but his theory is not creationism in any sense, or an attack on ‘evolution’ or biological evolution founded on the laws of physics.

    3) Adam Becker rather unfairly patches together quotes in J Scott Turner’s essay. For example, the full line from which Adam Becker quotes is “evolution is driven not by natural selection, but by extended homeostasis.” The deletion of the last part by Adam makes it sound more ridiculous than it is. Turner believes in evolution, natural selection, and Sewall Wright’s fitness landscapes, and Turner’s essay argues along the lines of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, which has much mainstream support in evolutionary biology. (Turner does however make some woefully ambiguous and suggestive remarks about cognition in swarm intelligence, but 99% of his article is good, and the remaining 1% is not overtly wrong, just uncomfortably ambiguous).

    Overall, I conclude that Adam Becker’s piece is misleading and parts of it should be retracted.

  26. Klavs Hansen says:

    Peter,
    I would not be so sure that creationism has left the pages of Inference; see for example the recent ‘An Open Letter to My Colleagues’ by James Tour (the precise reference is not available to me, sorry, it seems the website is blocked here in China).
    We should not be blind to the fact that serious scientists can potentially lend a lot of prestige to a website with a more or less hidden agenda it may want to push. Stranger things have happened before. It is then up to everybody to decide if setting things straight in their own field is worth the price, because a price will be paid.

  27. Tyler Hampton says:

    Klavs,

    James Tour is a qualified synthetic chemist. He proposes *no* creationist scenario in Inference, and merely criticizes the lack of rigor in the field of prebiotic evolution, a discipline which is notorious for it. This is not my opinion: it is the opinion of qualified experts in the field of origin of life studies, like Steven Benner and the late Robert Shapiro. Look at Benner’s 2018 Nature article about the history of the phrase ‘prebiotically plausible’: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07274-y
    See also Robert Shapiro’s article here about ‘plausible’ prebiotic scenarios: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-simpler-origin-for-life/

    James Tour and Robert Shapiro criticizing existing prebiotic scenarios does not make them creationist any more than Peter Woit criticizing existing string theory scenarios makes him a creationist. To say otherwise is false, and if uncorrected, slanderous. I know you are for fair play, liberal values, etc. Then why are you unfairly generalizing and labeling people?

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Tyler Hampton/Klavs Hansen,

    Thanks for your comments. I hadn’t seen the James Tour piece and it’s very odd that Becker doesn’t mention it or link to it, since it seems to me the strongest evidence for the case that Inference still has an issue with the Berlinski/Gelertner editorial faction and their views of evolution. Tyler Hampton is correct that Tour is not explicitly making a case for creationism, but he is clearly a sort of skeptic about Darwinism. For a detailed explanation in his own words, see here
    https://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/evolution-creation/

    Clicking through the links in the Becker piece trying to find a reference to Tour did lead me to a lot of material about Thiel’s views on evolution and climate change. With the what seems to me misleading text “Thiel himself has expressed doubts about the settled science of evolution and climate change”, Becker links to pieces that quote Thiel thusly:

    About evolution: the New Yorker quote is “I think it’s true.” He does go on to “but it’s also possible that it’s missing a lot of things, and it’s possible it’s not the most important thing.” There’s also a Washington Post quote: “I believe that evolution is a true account of nature, but I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”

    About global warming: “probably true”

    The two articles are worth reading if you want to get some idea of what Thiel actually thinks and thus some idea of his motivation for funding Inference. The way Becker paints him as a climate denialist and opponent of the theory of evolution is quite unfair.

    I continue to feel that Becker’s piece was a hit job. A serious and fair article about Thiel and Inference would make some attempt to explain Thiel’s actual views and likely motivation, not caricature them in incendiary ways. It would also examine the interesting question of how the publication has evolved from the initial Berlinski/Lindzen/Gelertner version to the more recent version that seems to be more led by Glashow.

  29. David Berlinski says:

    Has it come to this: That OOL research is now beyond criticism? James Tour is an eminence in synthetic organic chemistry. He has published more than six hundred peer reviewed articles, and holds one hundred and twenty patents; his work has elicited over 77,000 citations. His criticisms of OOL research in the pages of Inference have been precise, detailed, and informed; and in each of his essays, he has gone out of his way explicitly to deny that he proposes to explain the chemistry of life by an appeal to religious sentiment. His is a call for a better scientific understanding. He has said as much again and again and again. Anyone who imagines that Tour is wrong in point of chemistry, or logic, for that matter, is free to say so in the pages of Inference. Arguments by irrelevant insinuation are now a commonplace of social and political life. Should they be a part of scientific life as well? The question, I am afraid, is rhetorical. Such arguments have already become commonplace. This is hardly evidence in their favour.

  30. Peter Woit says:

    David Berlinski,

    Thanks for your comment. By the way, for those like me who might initially wonder what “OOL” is, I gather it is “Origins of Life”.

  31. The original raison d’être of this blog, in my understanding, was to point out the failings of a politically powerful but narrow-minded theoretical physics elite for whom “tribal affiliation” trumped open-minded flexibility in every instance. The intent of the fusillade of critiques was intended to unsettle – to dent the barrier of complaisance surrounding mainstream (i.e., stringy) theory. It succeeded. Theoretical physics is now more chaotic than it was in the very recent past, and creativity thrives on the border of order and chaos. I approve, but then, I approve of all efforts to discommode any smug collective intent on maintaining order, even when that order is broadly detrimental – but also when the order may be broadly favorable. Some chaos is necessary. How ironic, then, that when this blog and its comments very infrequently stray into opinions on actual politics and world affairs (e.g., populism bad; Clinton good), there seems to be an underlying understanding that there is only one correct way of thinking on such things, and no flexibility will be brooked. Even to be undecided is to be deemed wrong. But that’s academia for you, and more generally human nature. I should just feel fortunate that I live in a time and place where failing to conform does not lead inexorably to being drawn and quartered – actually drawn and quartered, as opposed to metaphorically. And I do – feel fortunate, that is. I think.

  32. Peter Woit says:

    Geoffrey Dixon (and all)
    I’ll revert to my usual policy of suppressing political discussion here, having to deal in even a limited way with the heat surrounding discussions of evolution and climate change is bad enough. I thought it was important to answer Davide and give some context to my intense dislike of the currently popular phenomenon of the (unfair) call-out/takedown/hitjob, which I think is incredibly destructive.

    If it’s any consolation Geoffrey, about politics I actually agree with you that there’s a huge problem (in academia and elsewhere) of rigid thinking and rabid desire to destroy others. Where we likely disagree is that I don’t really care if people like this on the left and center want to spend their time at war with their analogs on the right (who, by giving us Trump have done something truly awful to our society). What really bothers me is that my friends on the left and center often find it’s a lot easier and more satisfying to go after their own, or people who are minding their own business trying to do something worthwhile.

    Enough of all this, though, back to the peaceful issues of evolution and climate change…

  33. jjj says:

    Inference is not coming off well here.
    Besides admitting the “Evolution in crisis” is just a clickbait title,
    this sentence makes no sense:

    “Inference commissioned Sheldon Glashow to review Becker’s book in the spring of 2018, well before Becker was known to Inference.”

  34. Peter Woit says:

    jjj,
    Note that the “Evolution in Crisis” article was published back in 2014 in their first issue, and Glashow (who it appears is now their lead editor) agrees it is “deserving of censure”.

    It’s pretty clear that the sentence about Becker is just designed to explain that the decision to have Glashow review Becker’s book was made at a time (spring 2018) they’d had no contact with Becker (his book came out in March). In his piece, Becker gives summer 2018 as when he first heard from Inference (an invitation to write a piece) and mid-September as when he talked to Glashow. The review was published Oct. 19. Becker’s take on all this is:
    “It’s odd that Inference would want me to write for them shortly after my book was published, then decide to pan it a few months later, after they knew I was investigating them. Even odder: A couple of weeks later, they asked me to write a response — again for a fine fee — to Glashow’s review. I declined. ”

    I don’t understand what’s so odd about them giving him an opportunity to respond to the negative Glashow review, especially since their editorial model is to publish pieces and responses to those pieces. I also think the implication that Glashow decided to trash his book because he was asking questions about Inference is ridiculous. If Glashow was concerned about what he might write, the obvious thing to do would be to write a laudatory review. Based on personal experience, authors tend to hold much higher opinions of publications and reviewers that say nice things about their books.

  35. Anonymous says:

    @Dave Miller: Richard Lindzen has swallowed the kool-aid. I had a conversation with him where he brought up the effects of DDT, and he echoed the anti-science, anti-global-warming sites who said that DDT was harmless and it was banned because a lot of environmentalists baselessly agitated against it. I was incredibly disappointed with him, as I had believed his pretense of being a scientifically-motivated global warming skeptic.

    I didn’t think I could judge the claims of global warming personally, as the subject is too complicated. But the DDT claim is totally wrong. My father was a falconer, so I have actually researched this. Rachel Carson in Silent Spring overstated the effects of DDT (it only harms a large percentage of bird species; a reasonable percentage of bird species can tolerate it, and thus some studies on specific species of birds concluded it had no effects), but there is unquestionable scientific evidence that it was well on the way to driving bald eagles and peregrine falcons to extinction, and also had a significant negative impact on songbirds.

    And don’t ask me why the anti-global-warming propagandists picked DDT to include on their handful of examples of why scientists were totally wrong.

  36. S says:

    @Anonymous,

    There’s a pattern that I think is pretty common where a scientist comes to skepticism about some widely held belief (sometimes reasonably and sometimes not — that seems to me not to be crucially relevant to the pattern); and he says so, and then gets attacked; and the whole experience — doubt and reaction to doubt — so shakes his faith in the scientific establishment that he kind of loses his legs and starts questioning all kinds of things (almost always including things that should not be doubted — irrespective of what the status of the first thing was).

    Serge Lang comes to mind here; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen others, although they do *not* come to mind at the moment. Particular kudos are due to Peter for *not* being an example.

    My only point is that I think that skeptics’ position on their first hobby horse should be evaluated on its own terms, assuming they were ever serious scientists. Their later openness to crackpottery seems a pretty frequent side-effect and only weakly correlated to initial correctness.

  37. Peter Woit says:

    S,
    Thanks. Over the years I’ve repeatedly run into the phenomenon of string theory or multiverse proponents characterizing criticism of string theory or the multiverse as analogous to criticizing the theory of evolution. No, this hasn’t caused me to question the theory of evolution, but it has been an eye-opening experience about how even the smartest and well-meaning of people can let their tribal affiliations cause them to adopt really bad arguments. Serge Lang is a peculiar case, but the phenomenon you describe may correspond to people who find reason to doubt a tenet of their tribe being led by this to change tribal affiliation (not paying much attention to the fact that the new tribe has even more dubious beliefs…).

    All,
    Just stop with the submission (from both sides) of rants about the perfidy of those of the opposite tribe. If people have reasoned arguments about the facts of the Inference story that’s one thing, but if you just want to vent about how bad the other side is, do it elsewhere.

  38. Rollo Burgess says:

    Well I only discovered Inference relatively recently (perhaps via a link here now that I think about it) and I think that it is a very interesting periodical with some great essays and reviews. It is a welcome addition to the mostly tawdry wasteland of the internet.

    I’m not sure why we need to get into all this conspiracy theorizing etc. It should be a fairly safe assumption that most people reading on here regularly or reading Inference are reasonably bright and well-educated. If there is the odd paper that one disagrees with, dislikes, or even disapproves of, one moves on. Having a bit of critical nous such as to be able to do this is one of the key purposes of an education!

    I couldn’t care less who funds it: it sounds like one of the less stupid things that Thiel probably does with his money; I don’t need protecting from ideas like a feeble snowflake and nor do most of you, I’m sure!

  39. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Most people who read primary literature in peer-reviewed journals are typically very well educated in the field of interest. But if published work is funded by, say, a petrochemical or pharmaceutical company, it is a grave breach of ethics if that fact is not divulged, and may involve serious legal breaches as well. The consequences for not doing so are often dire. The reasons are a matter of extensive public record. Expecting scrupulous disclosure is entirely justifiable, regardless of the integrity of the recipients or their work.

    Journalistic integrity is preserved by disclosing funding sources. I’m a big fan of NPR. They tell me when a story is made possible by a grant from Exxon or what-have-you. If they cover a story about, say, an oil spill, they take pains to disclose when sponsorship might raise concern about conflicts of interest.

    It’s not too much to ask.

    Maybe undisclosed funding by Thiel is irrelevant. Why not make it public anyway, however easy it is to figure out? What purpose is served by not doing so? I don’t get that at all. And I don’t understand why Glashow seems so blase about it. It’s standard practice in publication to be transparent about funding, often to avoid the very thing Glashow seems to feel is unreasonable, i.e. suspicion. It seems some of Inference’s contributors would rather have learned certain facts from someone other than Becker. Are they being unreasonable?

  40. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,
    The comparison to disclosure of research funding by pharmaceutical or petrochemical companies is a bit of a stretch… I haven’t seen even a hint of an accusation that Inference’s editorial decisions have anything to do with Thiel’s financial interests.

    What people are suspicious about here is whether the journal has hidden ideological, not financial interests. When the journal first appeared I think this was a very reasonable suspicion: the problem wasn’t really that the source of funding was unknown, much more serious was that the editors were unknown. And, if you did find out that they were Berlinski/Lindzen/Gelertner, you would have good reason to worry that the journal would reflect some of their shared ideology.

    At this point though, the editors are known, and everyone is free to make what they will of them and of the choices they have been making about what to publish. I don’t see the point of judging a publication on the source of its money rather than its editorial decisions.

    I realized that, for most of the things I read online, I have no idea how they are funded. Picking one at random (Slate), I just went to their site and spent a while trying to figure out where their money comes from. No luck.

  41. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    With Slate it seems to be the usual adverts, though I could be wrong. In fact, you do have an excellent point in that I don’t really know. I should probably ask the question more often. Then again, Slate is kind of the media equivalent of junk food for me, so it’s difficult to care as much as I would about, say, Quanta, which I’m thankful exists.

    Mostly I sincerely think it’s a case of the “cover up” being far worse than the insinuated crime, at least from a PR perspective for Inference. Plausibly, no one was trying to hide anything they felt was untoward. Which is kind of naive, I think, if you’re Peter Thiel.

  42. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    Peter,

    I am afraid you are missing the point in your response to LMMI. You said “I haven’t seen even a hint of an accusation that Inference’s editorial decisions have anything to do with Thiel’s financial interests.” The point of disclosing sources of funding is not that it’s ok if you don’t disclose your COI as long as you are not doing anything biased. (Also, I am more worried about Thiel’s ideological interests than his financial ones.)

    And I completely disagree that for a website like Inference, disclosure is less important than it is for researchers, so that the comparison is “a stretch”. Would we be ok with Putin’s propaganda outlets like RT hiding their sources of funding just because they do not publish peer-reviewed research? Is potentially subverting peace and democracy less grave a threat than subverting scientific integrity? It’s not against any law to be secretive about a website you publish, and I believe one has the right to do that, but then one doesn’t get to be offended if people think it’s creepy — and say so.

    It’s also a bit circular to say “Oh everyone, relax, we know where Inference’s money comes from now — so Becker’s piece was hit job and unnecessary.” I know where Inference’s money comes from _precisely_ thanks to Becker. Otherwise I would not be here debating this in the first place.

  43. Anonyrat says:

    Slate.com is owned by the same holding company that owns the Washington Post. Of course that doesn’t tell us how they are funded. They claim to be advertisement-funded in the US; and they have a paywall for non-US readers.

  44. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,
    I’m afraid comparison to RT and the Russian campaign to subvert democracy is even more of a stretch than the comparison to drug companies subverting medical research.

    Look, I think the story of Inference and Thiel’s role in it is an interesting one, well worth writing about and of public interest. I even agree that the way it started out, with editors and funding hidden and sharing some dubious ideological goals, was creepy. But I also think Becker’s piece was a hit job, and his book about QM had serious problems (one of which was that it was in some ways a hit job…). If you want to get outraged about an example of not so good ethical standards in journalism, publishing a piece aimed at discrediting a publication and its editors written by someone whose book they (for good reason) trashed a few months earlier doesn’t pass a basic smell test.

  45. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,
    I don’t think that’s it’s true that Slate currently has the same ownership (Bezos) as the Washington Post. Surely the identity of their current owners isn’t hard to find out, but my point was just that there’s nothing I could find anywhere on their website about it.

  46. David says:

    I scrolled to the bottom of Slate.com, and at the lower right found “Slate is published by The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company.” There’s lots of information about them at GHCO.com

    Regarding Inference, they could move beyond their history of publishing pseudo-scientific nonsense but only if they demonstrate ongoing integrity. A clear denunciation of their past practice and disclosure of funding seem to be minimum requirements.

  47. Peter Woit says:

    David,
    And what if the current editors of Inference don’t agree that they need to issue a statement beyond the one they already issued, because that one doesn’t meet your standards? Are you not going to read their articles? Are you not going to write for them if asked? The same questions are there for any publication at any time, what makes anything different about this publication? Everyone can look for themselves at what they are publishing and decide what they think of it. Is it worth reading? Is it of generally high quality or not? Those seem to me the relevant factors, but everyone can and must make their own decisions about this sort of thing every day.

  48. Immaterial says:

    An irrelevant remark. You impart knowledge, not a secret. You reveal a secret.

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