Incomprehensible Bullshit

The mathematics professor Alan Sokal famously shamed much of the humanities profession by publishing Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’  — a paper intended as ambiguous gobbledegook — in the peer-reviewed postmodern cultural studies Journal Social Text in 1996.

Sokal’s paper was a cleverly and artfully constructed piece of trolling. Sokal did it by conforming to the stylistic trappings of postmodernists like Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Luce Irigaray — mimicking their dense and obscure verbiage, misusing concepts from science like quantum gravity (of which there exists no widely accepted scientific theory), and shrouding his argument in a great deal of ambiguity. The piece described the notion of a “postmodern science”, one that discarded the notion of objective truth.

The fallout from this paper underlined the divide between science (which seeks objective truth), and postmodernism (which does not seek objective truth). But more than that, it exposed postmodernism and cultural studies as being ambiguous, self-absorbed, and incomprehensible, to the extent that its own journals were tricked into publishing an article intended as nonsense.

Yet this issue — of baffling with incomprehensible bullshit — is not just a problem in postmodernism. Mathematics recently had a Sokal moment (and frankly, it is surprising that it took this long). Via the LRB:

Last month That’s Mathematics! reported another landmark event in the history of academic publishing. A paper by Marcie Rathke of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople had been provisionally accepted for publication in Advances in Pure Mathematics. ‘Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE’ concludes:

Now unfortunately, we cannot assume that

It is difficult, as a non-specialist, to judge the weight of that ‘unfortunately’. Thankfully, the abstract is a model of concision:

Let ρ = A. Is it possible to extend isomorphisms? We show that D´ is stochastically orthogonal and trivially affine. In [10], the main result was the construction of p-Cardano, compactly Erdős, Weyl functions. This could shed important light on a conjecture of Conway–d’Alembert.

Baffled? You should be. Each of these sentences contains mathematical nouns linked by the verbs mathematicians use, but the sentences scarcely connect with each other. The paper was created using Mathgen, an online random maths paper generator. Mathgen has a set of rules that define how papers are arranged in sections and what kinds of sentence make up a section and how those sentences are made up from different categories of technical and non-technical words. It creates beautifully formatted papers with the conventional structure, complete with equations and citations but, alas, totally devoid of meaning.

So mathematicians and mathematics journals are also susceptible to being trolled by their own bullshit, their own conventions, syntax and “rigour”. If a mathematics journal and the peer-review process can be fooled by a meaningless paper spat out by a computer program, how much well-intentioned but bad or meaningless mathematics has also slipped through the peer review process?

And what about the other subjects that have adopted mathematical symbols as their lexicon, like economics?

I have written at length about some of the problems connected to the very great increase of mathematical terminology in economics — and remain highly sceptical of the use of assumptive models in economics.  The social sciences are particularly unsuited to simplified mathematical modelling — unlike the physical sciences, the phenomena they seek to explain tend to be far less linear in observable causation, and so far more susceptible to wildness. No model or theory less than reality itself can fully represent human behaviour and human action; each transaction in an economy is unique, and arises from a different set of circumstances, representing a constantly varying order of human preferences. This tendency toward nonlinear causality is why transparency is critical to bullshit detection in the social sciences. Just as a sheen of ambiguous, obscure and poorly-defined English can make theories incomprehensible and closed-off from scrutiny and understanding, so too can a sheen of obscure and specialised mathematics.

Well-written work — whether in plain language or mathematics — requires comprehensible explanations and definitions, so that a non-specialist with a moderate interest in the subject can quickly and easily grasp the gist of the concepts, the theory, the reasoning, and the predictions. Researchers can use as complex methods as they like — but if they cannot explain them clearly in plain language then there is a transparency problem. Without transparency, academia — whether cultural studies, or mathematics, or economics — has sometimes produced self-serving ambiguous sludge. Bad models and theories produce bad predictions that can inform bad policy and bad investment decisions.  It is so crucial that ideas are expressed in a comprehensible way, and that theories and the thought-process behind them are not hidden behind opaque or poorly-defined words or mathematics.

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We Should All Love Fed Transparency

Ron Paul’s signature Audit the Fed legislation finally passed the House; on July 25, the House bill was passed 327 to 98. But the chances of a comprehensive audit of monetary policy — including the specifics of the 2008 bailouts — remain distant.

Why? Well, the Fed doesn’t seem to want the sunshine. Critics including the current Fed regime claim that monetary policy transparency would politicise the Fed and compromise its independence, and allow public sentiment to interfere with what they believe should be a process left to experts dispassionately interpreting the economic data. Although the St. Louis Fed makes economic data widely available, monetary policy is determined behind closed doors, and transactions are carried out in secret.

Bernanke:

We fully accept the need for transparency and accountability, but it is a well-established fact that an independent central bank will provide better outcomes.

Ron Paul:

When the Fed talks about independence, what they’re really talking about is secrecy. What the GAO cannot audit is monetary policy. It would not be able to look at agreements and operations with foreign central banks, and governments, and other banks, transactions made under the direction of the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee], and discussions or communications between the board and the Federal Reserve system relating to all those items. And why this is important is because of what happened 4 years ago. It’s estimated that the amount of money that went in and out of the Fed overseas is $15 trillion. How did we get into this situation where Congress has nothing to say about bailing out all these banks?

What I am struggling to understand is why the Fed is so keen to not disclose the inner workings of monetary policy even in retrospect. How can we judge the success of monetary policy operations without the raw facts? How can we have an informed debate about what the Fed does unless we know exactly what the Fed does? Why should only insiders be privy to this information? Surely the more we know, the better debate economists and the wider society will be able to have about Fed policy?

There are plenty of critics of Bernanke and the Fed, including both those who believe the Fed should do more, and those who believe the Fed should do less. But it seems very difficult to appraise the Fed’s monetary policy operations unless we can look at every aspect of its policy. If Bernanke and the FOMC are confident that their decisions have been the right ones, why can they not at least disclose the full extent of monetary policy and explain their decisions? If they are making the right decisions, they should at least have the confidence to try and explain them.

All that the current state of secrecy does is encourage conspiracy theories. What is the FOMC trying to hide? Are they making decisions that they think would prove unpopular or inexplicable? Are they ashamed of their previous decisions or decision-making frameworks? Are they concerned the decision making process will make them look bad? Are they bailing out well-connected insiders at the expense of the wider society?

We can’t have a real debate about policy unless we have access to all the data about decisions. Those who believe the Fed’s monetary policy has worked should welcome transparency just as much as those who believe the Fed’s monetary policy has not worked. If the Fed’s actions have been beneficial, then transparency will shine kindly on it. If not, then transparency will help us have a better debate about the road forward.

The Face of “Don’t Ask Questions of the Government”

I know that’s hard to digest in a society where pregnancies and marriages of D-list celebrities make the cover of People magazine, but there comes a point where the public’s right to know needs to take a back seat to matters like national security and diplomacy.

Heads should roll because of the Fast and Furious debacle. We don’t need every detail of that operation to be made public in order for that to happen.

If it were an isolated sting, maybe. But it is at least the third incarnation of a gun-running scheme stretching across two administrations, which means we could be pressing to open Pandora’s Box. We do not want to open Pandora’s Box, not about this and certainly not about a bunch of other potentially scandalous things the federal government has been involved with.

Fast and Furious? Please.

Being told that something’s “none of your business” is slowly being characterized as rude, and if such a statement is coming from the government, it seems incriminating.

Times have changed. Yet, not everything is our business. And in the political arena, there are things that should be and need to be kept quiet. . . .

You see, freedom isn’t entirely free.

It also isn’t squeaky clean.

And sometimes the federal government deems it necessary to get its hands a little dirty in the hopes of achieving something we generally accept as good for the country. 

And maybe it’s better for us not to be so nosy, not to know everything because, to paraphrase the famous line from the movie “A Few Good Men,” many of us won’t be able to handle the truth.

LZ Granderson, CNN Columnist

This is the kind of sophomoric anti-liberty trash that passes for journalism today? Shut your mouth, mind your own business, don’t ask questions of your loving government?

Granderson may be a rabid Obama apologist who would reflexively defend anything Obama says or does, and there’s no law against that. But this man is trying to pass himself off as a journalist!

Journalism is about asking questions that corporations, governments and establishments don’t want to answer. It’s about reporting the full-story, no matter how many toes you step on. It’s about opening up power to real scrutiny. And that is something that the propagandists in big media are often incapable of — which of course is why big media is slowly dying.

I get apoplectic whenever some hawkish deficit-happy foreign policy schmuck advocates American intervention in Syria (no matter how many archaic Turkish planes are shot out of the sky) even more than I did before America struck Iraq.

The utterly bizarre imperative of American intervention in the middle east is thrown into stunning contrast against the background of utter lawlessness and destruction on America’s own border with Mexico as a direct result of the failed drug war. The clowns in successive administrations have spent so much time, effort and energy on policing the borders of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, yet they have failed to check the growth of the drug cartels into massive, well-armed organisations.

By trying to obstruct the congressional investigation into the botched gun-running operation Fast and Furious, and instead hiding behind the phoney front of executive privilege Obama and Holder have shown that they have something to hide.

Whatever they are trying to hide should be brought to light. You can’t have an accountable government without checks and balances, and the greatest check to tyranny is transparency.

We need to know the depth and width of Fast and Furious and the programs which preceded it: how was it authorised, how was it designed, how did it go wrong, who was to blame for it going wrong.

We need to know whether or not the widely-spread allegation that the Obama administration has sold guns directly to Los Zetas is true. We need to know whether or not El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel are working with the DEA and the Mexican government. (Both of these allegations are widely accepted as fact in Mexico).

We need to know why Obama has chosen to continue the failed drug war, even in spite of overwhelming evidence that the illegality of drugs is the very thing that empowers the criminal cartels, and in spite of the fact that Obama is a former drug user.

We probably won’t get our answers directly from politicians; while it is the responsibility of journalists to ask these kinds of tough questions, politicians will almost always deflect. But I am sure there are some conscientious people inside the DEA, inside the Mexican government, and inside the Justice Department or FBI, or inside the drug cartels who will blow the whistle sooner or later. Anyone who can answer these questions is serving the public good. We can handle the truth, no matter what LZ Granderson or Eric Holder think. We need to hold government to account for its actions.