Follow-up on summing infinite series to -1/12

In the interests of fairness, I thought it made sense to note that Phil Plait published an apology of sorts this morning.

At the clearest point, Plait owns up: “I blew it, and I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”

However, he does not actually seem to realize what he did. He’s amused by the episode, throwing in a references to The Princess Bride, a movie I like as much as the next guy, but which hardly is appropriate in the context of an apology/retraction. (Plait’s so proud of his accomplishment, he marks it with an asterisk to make sure people notice.)

Plait goes on to note:

Overall, a lot of what I wrote in the article is correct prima facie. A lot of it wasn’t.

“I didn’t get everything wrong,” (which he didn’t) is a poor defense. Someone with his stature–not only was he a practicing scientist for years, but he is one of the foremost popularizers of science of our time–has a responsibility to do better.

That he doesn’t see things this way comes to the fore in his closing paragraph:

So: I made some mistakes, got other stuff right, could’ve been more clear, and learned a lot. Pretty much a typical day in anyone’s book.

Learning a lot–about different subjects–is one of the pleasures of writing about science, indeed of writing in general. But the idea is to do that learning before publishing a piece, not after. There’s plenty that’s thoughtful in Plait’s follow-up, but that doesn’t change the fact that his original post remained up as Plait composed his apology, and remains up now.

The question is whether the original post can be construed as an error made in good faith, by someone who is good at their job, doing their job well. Plait obviously thinks the answer is yes. But, in my view, his follow-up does little to expiate the damage of the original post, which continues to draw in the gullible. (As I was writing this brief note, 3 more people on Twitter chimed in to note the “astonishing” result.)

Anyhow. To reiterate–the things Plait got wrong are not details. They are basic.

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