Gyromodels of everything

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Radical theory explains the origin, evolution, and nature of life, challenges conventional wisdom: Case Western Reserve theorist develops incomparable model that unifies physics, chemistry, and biology“, Case Western Reserve press release 1/26/2012:

The earth is alive, asserts a revolutionary scientific theory of life emerging from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The trans-disciplinary theory demonstrates that purportedly inanimate, non-living objects—for example, planets, water, proteins, and DNA—are animate, that is, alive. With its broad explanatory power, applicable to all areas of science and medicine, this novel paradigm aims to catalyze a veritable renaissance.

Erik Andrulis, PhD, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology, advanced his controversial framework in his manuscript “Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life,” published in the peer-reviewed journal, Life. His theory explains not only the evolutionary emergence of life on earth and in the universe but also the structure and function of existing cells and biospheres.

In addition to resolving long-standing paradoxes and puzzles in chemistry and biology, Dr. Andrulis’ theory unifies quantum and celestial mechanics. His unorthodox solution to this quintessential problem in physics differs from mainstream approaches, like string theory, as it is simple, non-mathematical, and experimentally and experientially verifiable. As such, the new portrait of quantum gravity is radical.

John Timmer, “How the craziest f#@!ing “theory of everything” got published and promoted“, Ars Technica 1/28/2012.

A paper like this can put a university’s Press Information Officer (PIO) in a tough position. According to a PIO at a major university (who asked to speak without attribution because he works in the field), a PIO can typically recognize when something is off on the fringes of science, and they don’t want to promote a story that will damage their institution’s credibility.

“We do try to avoid doing stories that we feel could backfire on the institution, but it’s not always up to the PIO to say no to a paper that is appearing in a peer-reviewed journal,” the PIO told Ars. “Note that she [the Case Western PIO] made the point about peer-review explicitly in the release—that’s a pretty telling detail.” […]

If the responsibility of press officers can be a bit complicated, the responsibility of news sites isn’t. PhysOrg and Science Daily both did what they always do and ran the press release, unedited, as if it were their own original news content. ScienceDaily even added itself as the dateline source.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that, in a large number of contexts, these two sites are treated as credible sources of scientific information. Items posted there make frequent appearances on social news sites, and a number of people I’ve talked to have been shocked to discover that the majority of the sites’ content is nothing more than rebranded press releases.

What does this have to do with language?  Well, I was going to say that linguistics is one of the few subjects that Dr. Andrulis doesn’t promise to revolutionize, until I checked the paper:

The theory outlined in this manuscript is limited in scope. I did not provide gyrosystems to model much of the scientific evidence related to astrophysics, particle physics, and cosmology before the electrogyre, nor did I integrate organismal, ecological, and ethological data after the cellulogyre. I predict that further gyromodel application will reveal its explanatory breadth and power. For example, given that complexity theorists find there to be a unifying organization in ecosystems, language, and economics, I predict the gyromodel will find applications in these subject matters.

But linguistic applications of the gyromodel aside, this episode offers an unusually pure example of (the first steps in) the ecosystem of flacks and hacks.  I’ve written about this in a number of posts over the years, including these:

Enhance breast size by 80%“, 4/9/2005
Another day, another reprinted press release“, 4/24/2005
It’s always silly season in the (BBC) science section“, 8/26/2006
Flacks and hacks and Hitchens“, 12/14/2006
Flacks and hacks and brainscans“, 11232007
Why don’t we have a better press corps?“, 9/11/2008
Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study“, 4/22/2009
Study: Hacks often bamboozled by flacks“, 5/30/2009

The general problem of credulous passing-on of press releases is especially acute in the case of language-related topics, because the countervailing forces (knowledge of the subject on the part of journalists and editors, and fear of reputational damage from public ridicule) are so weak in those areas.

In the case of the Andrulis paper, the claims were so bizarre, and covered such a wide range of fields, and came from such an unlikely source, that there was no journalistic uptake at all. But the paper’s publication in an allegedly peer-reviewed journal, the issuing of an enthusiastic press release from an apparently authoritative source, and the re-publishing of that press release at Science Daily, illustrate how little those steps actually mean.

P.Z. Myers offers the explanations that have probably also occurred to you:

This paper is so weird and out there that it is either an attempt to Sokal the field of origins of life research, or the man is seriously mentally ill.

It’s also a case where I feel that the bar bet model has a certain explanatory potential.

Update — it may also be relevant that W.B. Yeats was heavily into gyre theory, back in the 1920s. Whether the system of A Vision is connected to the current explorations of Erik Andrulis is unclear — it’s not in his bibliography — but the rules are different for poets.

Update #2 — an anonymous commenter on Derek Lowe’s post on this topic says:

It is no joke. He’s a colleague of mine and I know him quite well. His mental state has been deteriorating for several years and this theory has become an obsession. It is very sad for him and his family. It is deplorable and inexcusable that our PR department participated and promoted his mania.



45 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Let’s check in a few years to see if Andrulis gets tenure.

    Meanwhile, for those of you who might not understand PZ Myers’ use of the verb “Sokal”, check here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

  2. bks said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    Biologists always get their knickers in a knot over this sort of theory paper. Biologists want so desperately to believe that their science is a hard science which obeys the laws of chemistry and physics. The problem is that they never ask the chemists and physicists just what those laws are. You can find all sorts of theory papers in arXiv written by physicists that embrace heterodox ideas. No one gets upset about it. Walter Thirring (Austrian quantum physicist and former head of the theory division at CERN) proposes that galaxies are alive, but that it is life at a timescale unimaginable to humans. He is not pursuing tenure, but he wouldn’t be denied tenure because of that.

    PZ Myers is a better humorist than scientist. I understand that his adoring readers expect him to rubbish any challenge to the materialist canon, but his materialist universe rests on some very anti-materialist concepts (e.g. dark matter) and he seems blissfully unaware of the thin ice upon which he skates. His vitriol often comes across as sophistry.

    If nothing else, Andrulis has contributed an excellent bibliography which represents nearly 40% of the length of the paper.

    –bks

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    In what sense is dark matter a non-materialist concept? It’s the result of positing a type of matter to explain anomalies in observational results, as opposed to some sort of mental or spiritual or metaphysical explanation. What could be more materialist than that?

  4. Tom said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    I’m a computational physicist. I regularly read “theory papers”. As a rule, they are not rambling, >100-page word salads lacking any attempt whatsoever at mathematical or empirical justification. Maybe this is different in bioinformatics, bks, but since Andrulis has made some pretty big claims about physics I think I’m entitled to a view.

    I don’t really know how to refer to his work, but it does not qualify as “theory” in the sense understood by and relevant to the physics community. It should not have been published; the editor of Life is now making excuses for why it appeared at all.

    Bashing Myers or talking about pet theories of other physicists cannot obscure this fact.

  5. John Roth said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    As a side issue: John Timor’s point re Science Daily is quite important. I always refer to it as a press release aggregator. If provenance is important they indicate the originating institution at the bottom.

  6. Brett said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    After the silliness of this paper became evident (because of the way the paper was roundly mocked online) Case Western itself pulled the press release.

  7. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    According to this article, the journal is re-evaluating their editorial procedures:

    http://www.mdpi.com/2075-1729/2/1/213/

  8. bks said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    Tom, I have no idea what you mean when you say that the paper is not theory. The third sentence of the abstract begins: Here, I present a theoretical framework…

    Rod Johnson: If this is materialism, the word has been robbed of all meaning:

    More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery.

    We are much more certain what dark matter is not than we are what it is. First, it is dark, meaning that it is not in the form of stars and planets that we see. Observations show that there is far too little visible matter in the Universe to make up the 25% required by the observations. Second, it is not in the form of dark clouds of normal matter, matter made up of particles called baryons. We know this because we would be able to detect baryonic clouds by their absorption of radiation passing through them. Third, dark matter is not antimatter, because we do not see the unique gamma rays that are produced when antimatter annihilates with matter. Finally, we can rule out large galaxy-sized black holes on the basis of how many gravitational lenses we see. High concentrations of matter bend light passing near them from objects further away, but we do not see enough lensing events to suggest that such objects to make up the required 25% dark matter contribution. …

    http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/

    –bks

  9. Ø said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    It’s gotta be a joke, a sort of Sokal-style hoax to make some point. Look at what he says about his everyday research.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    Re: Bar-bet papers. A colleague and I bet a friend $50 that we could write a paper that would be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Here is where it ended up. This was many years before Sokal. The trick is to make the paper off-center but not quite unbelievable.

  11. Ed said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    Mark, thanks for linking to this delightfully insane paper. However, i think you’ve glossed over the most interesting linguistic aspect. The paper is replete with some very creative applications of morphology to describe, well, whatever this is about. (Spirals, I think.)

  12. Jeremy said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    I don’t know where the comment of John Timor’s is that John Roth referred to, but that would have been precisely my point. That a press release was scraped on Science Daily confers no legitimacy on it whatsoever.

  13. Jeremy said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    Oh, he meant John Timmer. Well, that’s completely different.

  14. David L said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    I like to think that the word “incomparable” in the title of the press release is the poor PIO’s way of telling readers not to waste their time on this one.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    I’m puzzled by the phrase “out there” in P. Z. Myers’ explanation. It seems to mean “far out,” but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen or heard it used in that sense before. How common is this usage?

    [(myl) My impression is that it’s pretty common. See here for a couple of nice examples, or here.]

  16. Sili said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Tom, I have no idea what you mean when you say that the paper is not theory. The third sentence of the abstract begins: Here, I present a theoretical framework…

    Claiming that something is a theory, does not make it so.

    He may offer a hypothesis, but I gather that little is done to test that hypothesis against real world measurements. You know, the way we’ve repeatedly done with Dark Matter (I wish we’d agree on just calling it Tweedle-Dee, but everything points to it being a particle, so matter it is), and lately with the accelerated expansion of the observable universe, the phenomenon that is conveniently referred with the shorthand “Dark Energy”.

    /adoring reader

    Incidentally what does Dark Matter have to do with biology in the first place? Evolution by random mutation and natural selection would take place no matter how much DM and DE was around (as long as enough is there for reproducing entities to form the first place).

  17. Tom said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    Claiming that something is a theory, does not make it so.

    Indeed.

    I gather that little is done to test that hypothesis against real world measurements

    I’d go further than that – the “gyromodel” hypothesis is formulated in such a way that it is totally unable to generate any predictions which COULD be tested against the real world. It therefore fails as a scientific theory, no matter how grandiose its claims are.

    the paper is replete with some very creative applications of morphology

    I love the “lexicon” on page 3 where we are introduced to such coinings as “gyromnemesis”, “matrioshkagyre” and “trimergence” amongst others. Reading on we encounter “macroelectronexus”, “dipcellulomatrix” and the like. This is what science is meant to sound like, right?

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    @bks: materialism is the position that the only thing that exists is matter (or energy). Dark matter is (purportedly) matter. To say we know little about something, but we’re nonetheless treating it as if it is matter–not fairy magic, rainbows, prayers, gods, mind, Promethean fire, emanations from the Ain Soph, morphogenetic fields or spukhafte Fernwirkung–that’s materialism.

    Keep grindin’ that axe though (or turning that crank, as it were).

    @Sili: dark matter has nothing to do with biology as we know it. bks apparently has an issue with PZ Myers, or with some larger view of science, and jumped the rails to vent about it.

  19. Anthony said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    I am sorely disappointed that none of his gyres gimble, nor are found in wabes.

  20. ENKI-2 said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    To bring the discussion back into linguistics territory, the typical way of pulling a Sokal is to generate a paper from a grammar. Snarvix does this automatically. The lazy can instead generate a markov model out of the body of papers previously submitted to Life or Science and use that to generate a new paper, which will read like word salad to the initiated but may be indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill ‘scientism’ to the uninitiated (or even to scientists outside the field who have succumbed to creeping specialism).

  21. John Lawler said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    I also think it’s a telltale tipoff that the very first verb used in the PIO’s press release is asserts. No mention of anything like discovery, proof, evidence, or confirmation. Just assertion.
    Power to the Performative.

  22. un malpaso said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

    I think the word “matrioshkagyre” is what tips me off to the fact that it’s all just a big joke. I could be wrong, but… really?

  23. Brian said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    I’d love to agree that this reads like a big joke, but it doesn’t. It reads exactly like a crank paper. Run this down the crank physics checklist, and it rings all the usual bells (a waterfall of assertions without significant proof/evidence, sweeping pronouncements of its applicability to wide ranges of science, eschewing the existing jargon in favor of a brand-new lexicon). The man is a crank, and would probably benefit from the right medication.

  24. Joe said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    I think the strangest thing about this case is that there hasn’t yet been 1) a statement by Andrulis saying that he was pulling a Sokal or 2) somebody close to Andrulis or the university saying that he is mentally ill. I’m afraid the latter is much the more likely scenario, since it is an incredibly risky move for an assistant professor to Sokal his own field. Are universities in the US allowed to disclose information about the mental health of its faculty?

  25. Ø said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    The man appears to have several papers with modest respectable-looking titles published in ordinary respectable-looking journals searchable on PubMed. There is a corresponding description of his (real) research at his web page. When he’s at home his idea of a broad question worth looking at is something like this:

    “My group has been asking two broad questions: How does the spatiotemporal control of RNase interactions and post-translational modifications relate to RNase recognition and metabolism of specific classes of RNAs in living cells? How does RNase activity relate to cell structure and function?”

    Then there’s this other crazy thing. I’m guessing it’s a joke/prank/hoax at the expense of the journal, not at the expense of the field that he really works in.

  26. jf said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    There is an anonymous comment at Derek Lowe’s blog saying that he knows Andrulis and that his mental deterioration has been obvious to all for quite some time.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    I have heard (with no substantiation) that Andrulis recently was denied tenure, and this paper came out afterward.

  28. bk said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    Good heavens, Rod Johson, Dark matter is (purportedly) matter… And you dare to mock Andrulis!

    Some scientific materialists have been criticized, for example by Noam Chomsky, for failing to provide clear definitions for what constitutes matter, leaving the term ‘materialism’ without any definite meaning. The problem of providing such a definition seems particularly challenging given the fact that contemporary physics does not have a single notion of matter; rather physics has two different and contradictory theories of matter, general relativity and quantum theory. Chomsky also points out that the concept of matter has been expanded in the past to accommodate new scientific discoveries, and it’s possible it will happen again, so scientific materialists are being dogmatic in assuming the opposite.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism

    Sili, the relationship between Biology and Dark Matter is found in theories of the Origin of Life. Andrulis –for better or worse– is of the opinion that the Universe is alive. That is, the animate cannot be separated from the inanimate. It is certainly true that Life transmutes the inanimate into the animate and then, in turn, becomes inanimate. It is equally clear that the boundaries of the living are porous and ill-defined (is the extracellular matrix of a biofilm part of the animate or inanimate?)

    The study of tractability, and of universal systems, received its impetus from an investigation of biological fractionation procedures. It would not have arisen from physics, which expects its theories to be couched in forms of tractable systems rather than statements of general interaction (the heart of intractability). Indeed, it might not be amiss to consider biology as the physics of intractable systems. If this is so, then far from physics swallowing up biology, the situation may well be the other way around. Our analysis of the reductionist hypothesis has thus shown the fertility of biology in generating important new insights in mathematics in the sciences –though doubtless in a way different from what was originally intended.

    (Robert Rosen, On Mathematics and Biology in _The Spirit and the Uses of the Mathematical Sciences_, Saaty & Weyl, editors, Mcgraw-Hill, 1969 p. 209)”

    –bks

  29. DCA said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    This is unhappily similar to a couple of papers I’ve gotten to review, in which it became obvious that the author (the same one both times) had indeed developed mental illness. The university is unlikely to make any statement (for good legal reasons having to do with privacy). This part is sad; but the more intereting questions are why the journal, and the PIO, didn’t spot this for what it was. Nobody, after all, requires that there be a press release for every paper published by a faculty member.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

    The gyres, the gyres! Old Rocky Face, look forth;
    Things thought too long can be no longer thought…

    [(myl)

    For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth,
    And ancient lineaments are blotted out.
    Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;
    Empedocles has thrown all things about.

    ]

  31. Tom said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    you dare to mock Andrulis!

    Should have walked away from this a while ago, but doesn’t this sound just exactly like a line said by an evil villain before crushing the life out of some minor character in a scifi B-movie?

  32. Carl Offner said,

    February 5, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

    @ENKI-2: There are, to be sure, automated ways of generating gibberish, but Sokal’s hoax was far from that. (And you probably know that anyway, to be sure.) His hoax was wonderfully thought out, and contained some real gems. Just to take one very minor example: the way he brought in “Radon measure” was over-the-top clever, and funny, and certainly not the sort of thing one could expect of some algorithmic scheme.

  33. Rod Johnson said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    bks, I have never mocked Andrulis (or “dared to” mock him). With all due respect… what the fuck are you on about?

  34. bks said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    (To the Language Log Overlords: Thanks for your perseverence. I apologize for the intemperance of my interlocutors. I’m sure it’s my fault. This will be my last comment in this thread.)

    Rod: I guess it was the other Rod Johnson who said, I have heard (with no substantiation) that Andrulis recently was denied tenure, and this paper came out afterward.

    Because I hold myself to a higher standard of substantiation and to ward off your naysaying, I offer this definiton of mock from Webster’s Unabridged (1913) 2. To treat with scorn or contempt; to deride.

    As I have tried to point out above, physics has some problems with Life. Without getting into the rather out there program of Walter Elsasser, let’s consider Neils Bohr:

    Interestingly, Bohr also believed that complementarity could be applied to contexts other than quantum mechanics and the realm of subatomic particles. In a lecture titled Light and Life that he gave to a congress on light therapy in Copenhagen in 1932 (Bohr, 1933), he proposed that a notion of complementarity might be needed for understanding biological phenomena. Bohr suggested that experiments to analyse the molecular properties of organisms and biological functions were basically incompatible—the complex organization of living systems cannot, in fact, be preserved under the experimental conditions of a complete quantum mechanical analysis (McKaughan, 2005). Instead, both types of experiment are needed

    http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v11/n5/full/embor201056.html

    Perhaps Andrulis needed to invent a nomenclature for his ideas because contemporary science did not contain the concepts he needed. Andrulis is not the first to point out the similarity of vortices (eddies in streams being a common metaphor) and life. The paper does not seem to be of the first rank to me, but then neither does the journal.

    –bks

  35. D^2 said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 1:37 am

    As a longtime observer of crank science literature, in my opinion Andrulis is not mentally ill. He is simply devoted to what he thinks is a revolutionary idea; so devoted that he has stopped being self-critical about it. In many ways, he reminds me of Rupert Sheldrake:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake

  36. Jess Tauber said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 2:12 am

    By the way, ScienceDaily REDATES its refried press releases all the time, so that unwary and/or infrequent visitors get the sense they are reading something newly minted. They started doing this a few years ago. Seems to be a snowballing issue, as even EBay is now letting its sellers do it too, so potential bidders don’t end up feeling like some item is a loser if it hasn’t been already bid upon. And its going on with rerun television shows being relisted as ‘new’ even if they’ve been seen 4 weeks running.

    As for universal theories with drivel content, somebody ought to sit the purveyors down and make them actually figure things out. I worked out that the Periodic Table was intimately related mathematically to the Pascal Triangle, and anyone can demonstrate it to their own satisfaction with pen, paper, and copy of the table. So how come nobody ever noticed it before, since it was right before their eyeses (sorry, been watching Lord of the Rings…) all this time?

  37. Rod Johnson said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    How was that mocking? I feel nothing but compassion for the poor guy. I was simply reporting what I heard about his situation, since people were speculating on the effect this affair would have on his chances for tenure. There was nothing of scorn or derision in there. As someone who has watched the sausage factory of tenure grind up people I admire and care about, I would never treat it as a laughing matter. So yes, that was the other Rod Johnson—the imaginary one in your mind.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    I should probably mention that general relativity and quantum mechanics aren’t known to be contradictory. Most physicists, I believe, expect that they’ll turn out to be special cases of an underlying theory. Also that I haven’t heard any “scientific materialists” assert dogmatically that no new form of matter remains to be discovered, though I suppose there could be some. (Also that I have no idea how well the paragraph quoted from Wikipedia represents what Chomsky said.)

  39. Tracy said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    I now want all Language Log comment threads to involve (semi-)relevant poetry quotes.

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

    @Tracy: Be careful what you wish for! (And if I do it again, should I mess up the punctuation and capitalization again?)

  41. Rubrick said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 12:49 am

    Bear in mind, a lot of people said Dianetics was a load of nonsense too, and… oh. Huh. Yeah.

  42. Stefan said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    The guy might be crazy, but I think he’s onto something. The problem here may be something akin to “those who speak about the Dao do not know of it, and those who know about the Dao do not speak of it.”

    In Andrulis’s case, he has gotten a glimmer of something Dao-like—the inherent spiraling of all things, at all scales, in all directions, throughout time—but he is speaking about it.

    Zhuangzi: 野馬也,塵埃也,生物之以息相吹也。天之蒼蒼,其正色邪?

  43. Stefan said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    This bit from the ancient Daoist text Zhuangzi loosely translated: “Shimmering swirls of star stuff breathe in and breathe out of all creation. Is blue the true color of the sky?”

  44. Jess Tauber said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 7:32 am

    ‘Shimmering swirls of star stuff’ sounds wonderful- can I get some of that on my Danish?

  45. Patrick said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    @Jess:

    You want a Danish?

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