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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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This should be news to nobody, and I can’t believe I have to say it out loud, but the sum:

1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+…

is not well-defined. The series diverges. It does not make sense in any mathematically rigorous way to say that it “equals” anything.
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Thanks to Jason Kottke for the kind mention of The Pioneer Detectives on his blog!

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A few weeks ago I got to take part in a panel discussion about The Pioneer Detectives and cosmic anomalies at New America’s space in New York City.

C-SPAN’s Book TV kindly came and filmed the event and is broadcasting it on TV and on their website.

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I spoke with the New America Foundation’s Cyrus Nemati in this podcast about The Pioneer Detectives.

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Read C Max Magee’s kind announcement of publication of The Pioneer Detectives over at The Millions.

It was really a pleasure to work with Max and Garth Risk Hallberg at the Millions to produce, in Max’s words:

a scientific police procedural, tracking the steps of those who sought to unravel this high-stakes enigma. His thrilling account follows the story from the Anomaly’s initial discovery, through decades of tireless investigation, to its ultimate conclusion. The Pioneer Detectives is a definitive account not just of the Pioneer Anomaly but of how scientific knowledge gets made and unmade, with scientists sometimes putting their livelihoods on the line in pursuit of cosmic truth.

I hope you’ll check out the book, either at Amazon or on iTunes.

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In a blog post, Paul Krugman derides Alan Simpson for spreading “zombie lies”, in particular the statement that life expectancy when social security was enacted was only 63. Krugman quickly says: “life expectancy at age 65, which is what matters, was almost 80 for women and 78 for men.” But life expectancy at 65 is not the only thing that matters—if we’re trying to keep the system solvent, the proportion of people who live to age 65 to begin with compared with those in the workforce is important. Life expectancy at birth is a proxy for this. Krugman’s smart enough to know this.

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Raymond Davis’s case was returned to a lower court by a Pakistani court of appeals today. The appeals court refused to rule on whether or not he has diplomatic immunity. The New York Times, and other American publications, initially held back reporting that Davis is a CIA contractor after he shot and killed two people on January 27th. The Times’s ombudsman explained that decision here, explaining that the paper didn’t want to repeat charges that had been made in the Pakistani press. The Times all but spelled out that Davis was a spy, saying, “his exact duties have not been explained, and the reason he was driving alone with a Glock handgun, a pocket telescope and GPS equipment has fueled speculation in the Pakistani news media.” That sentence says, without saying, that Davis was not, shall we say, a desk jockey. Continue reading

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I know it doesn’t launch for over a month, but NASA plans to move Endeavour to the launch pad tonight. Just made me think that if the shuttle program really had been like this (Discovery landed yesterday) with one shuttle taking off as soon as the previous one landed (the original idea was for a launch a week!) we’d be seeing a very different world in space. Of course, it was clear that it would never have worked. An excuse to link to Gregg Easterbrook’s famous, and awesome 1980 story.

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I suppose not. Much like when Tim Russert died, the encomia come in quick and heavy, the deceased being by all accounts basically nice and decent men, friends of and to the establishment. But this makes neither of them into more than perfectly good conveyors of consensus. There’s no shame in that, particularly, but let’s not make either into more than they were. Continue reading

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Apropos of the New York Times article about a lawsuit in Brooklyn over bicycle lanes, John Cassidy writes in support of the lawsuit, which claims that the city’s addition of bike lanes is “arbitrary and unfair”. Cassidy’s argument is that the bicycle lanes make it easier to bike, and harder to drive (and park). Well, yes. That’s precisely the point! He takes us on an idyll of youthful hungover bicycling, returning to his house shaking. Now, he says dismissively, “cyclists want it easy.” Again, is it evidence of some slothful decline of the west that bicyclists lobby to make cycling easier? Continue reading

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So I’m at a conference on the future of energy, and John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan, was talking. He was speaking about the need for better education and a better workforce when he said the following:

“Sometimes if you’re going to go from laboratory to commercial, who are the technical people who are going to work in that high tech environment with the proper controls–the right statistical and analytical ability to make sure this is not, uh, you know, reducing errors, this is zero error, zero tolerance for error, manufacturing has to get it right and that takes skilled people.”

Now, “technical people” with the right “statistical and analytical ability” would know that aiming for zero error in a manufacturing process is a very silly and costly thing to do. At some point, catching the marginal error is going to take more effort than it is worth, in time and money. It doesn’t take super-advanced training in probability theory to see this. Making a mistake like this in quite literally in the same breath as calling for better education I suppose proves his point, but not in the way Engler intended.

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Fall in Love with a New Book and Save 30%” is a really terrible subject line in an e-mail. Falling in love with a book is ipso facto a great and heady intellectual adventure. Saving 30% can be satisfying too. (I’d rather pay 70 cents for that orange juice than an even buck, sure.) But something as [melo]dramatic as falling in love shouldn’t be, even in your sales pitch, put in the same breath as a reasonably good sale. It’s like a guy telling his best friend he just met this wonderful girl he wants to marry because he realized she’s a cheap date.

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A thoughtful and vivid report from Tahrir Square by Graeme Wood: Paranoia Strikes Among Egypt’s Protesters: A Day and Night in Tahrir – Graeme Wood – International – The Atlantic.

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How on earth do you write a long (and in many ways, very good) essay about the late night talk show without mentioning Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Seriously.

Dick Cavett and the battles for late night : The New Yorker.

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Waiting for the December Atlantic to arrive, and reading some of it on-line. There’s a very strange article, a caring attack on Freeman Dyson.

The scientific infelicities are few, like this, surely accidental one:

Their schedule had them landing on Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970.

and there’s some smooth writing in the story, including this gem, about the asteroid Eros:


The Erotic climate is not perfect.

But the article, which is meant to be a critique of Dyson’s controversial position on climate change, never really engages his arguments. (Hence the absence of scientific infelicity; there is an outright absence of discussions of science.) Now I’m pretty skeptical of Dyson’s arguments myself, but just calling him smart, but crazy, is not the way to go:


The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many, is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb?

It seems there was raw material here both for an interesting story about Dyson (who is a fascinating figure) and an examination of good-faith criticisms of mainstream thought on climate change. There are clearly people with a vested interest (ahem, Exxon, etc.) in critiquing the scientific mainstream; there are also clearly thoughtful people, like Dyson, who criticize it on other grounds. Unlike the first class of “skeptics” the skeptics, sans quotation marks, should, at the very least, have their arguments examined in good faith, in a venue like this.

The Danger of Cosmic Genius – Magazine – The Atlantic.

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From Timothy Noah’s excellent series on inequality. The poorest 20% of Americans saw their incomes grow 6 times faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents.

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In which a robot helicopter wanders around Washington DC. The tough question is what happens when these things become deliberately autonomous.

Navy Drone Wanders Into Restricted Airspace Around Washington – NYTimes.com.

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