Archive for Language and science

'Case Studies of Peer Review'

Eve Armstrong, "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf: Case Studies of Peer Review":

Abstract: I present for your appraisal three independent cases of the manuscript referee process conducted by a venerable peer-reviewed scientific journal. Each case involves a little pig, who submitted for consideration a theoretical plan for a house to be constructed presently, in a faraway land. An anonymous big bad wolf was assigned by the journal to assess the merit of these manuscripts. The pigs proposed three distinct construction frameworks, which varied in physical and mathematical sophistication. The first little pig submitted a model of straw, based on the numerical method of toe-counting. His design included odd features, such as spilled millet and cloven-hoofprints on the window sill — possibly a ploy to distract the wolf from the manuscript's facile mathematical foundation. The second little pig used a more advanced approach, employing Newton's classical laws of motion, to propose a house of sticks. This pig included in her manuscript copious citations by a specific wolf, possibly aiming to ensure acceptance by flattering the wolf whom she anticipated would be the referee. The third little pig described an ostentatious house of bricks based on an elaborate dynamical systems and stability analysis, possibly scheming to dazzle and impress. The big bad wolf did not appear moved by any of the pigs' tactics. His recommendations were, for straw: the minor revision of water-proofing; for sticks: the major revision of fire-proofing, given concerns surrounding climate change; for bricks: unequivocal rejection, accompanied by multiple derogatory comments regarding "high-and-mighty theorists." I describe each case in detail, and suggest that the wolf's reports might be driven as much by self interest as the manuscripts themselves — namely, that at the time the wolf wrote the reviews, he was rather hungry. Finally, I examine morals learned, if any.

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Tortured phrases: Degrading the flag to clamor proportion

Guillaume Cabanac, Cyril Labbé & Alexander Magazinov, "'Bosom peril' is not 'breast cancer': How weird computer-generated phrases help researchers find scientific publishing fraud", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1/13/2022:

In 2020, despite the COVID pandemic, scientists authored 6 million peer-reviewed publications, a 10 percent increase compared to 2019. At first glance this big number seems like a good thing, a positive indicator of science advancing and knowledge spreading. Among these millions of papers, however, are thousands of fabricated articles, many from academics who feel compelled by a publish-or-perish mentality to produce, even if it means cheating. […]

We have been able to spot fraudulent research thanks in large part to one key tell that an article has been artificially manipulated: The nonsensical “tortured phrases” that fraudsters use in place of standard terms to avoid anti-plagiarism software. Our computer system, which we named the Problematic Paper Screener, searches through published science and seeks out tortured phrases in order to find suspect work. While this method works, as AI technology improves, spotting these fakes will likely become harder, raising the risk that more fake science makes it into journals.

As of January 2022, we’ve found tortured phrases in 3,191 peer-reviewed articles published (and counting), including in reputable flagship publications.

See also (by the same authors) "Tortured phrases: A dubious writing style emerging in science. Evidence of critical issues affecting established journals", arXiv.org 7/12/2021.

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Betelgeuse in Greek, Latin, Arabic, English, and Chinese

AntC led me down a deep, dark rabbit hole by asking:  "Hi Professor Mair, is the Contributing Writer confused, or is it the interwebs?"

He was prompted to ask that question by having read the following statement in this article, "Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky", Taiwan News, by P.K. Chen, Contributing Writer (2/8/22):

The Greek constellation Orion is called “Shen Xiu” (參宿, “The Three Stars”) in China; “Shen” or “three” refers to the three stars on Orion’s belt, while “Xiu” or “place for rest” refers to where the moon remains fixed and “rests.”

Trying to figure out the relationships among the names of the constellation and its constituent stars in Greco-Latin and Sinitic nomenclature ate up an entire evening.  To start with, there are many possibilities for how to pronounce 參宿, the Chinese equivalent to Orion (constellation name): sānsù (Google Traslate), cānsù (zdic), shēnxiù (Wiktionary).  So we've got a lot of variation involving both characters of the term.  But that's just the beginning of our attempts to grapple with the language and lore concerning Sinoxenic words for Orion. 

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Aristotelian aerosols?

Kasha Patel, "Covid-19 may have seasons for different temperature zones, study suggests", WaPo 1/28/2022:

Aerosol researcher and co-author Chang-Yu Wu explained that local humidity and temperature play vital roles in the size of the virus’s particles, which can influence its life span in the air. Drier atmospheres in colder regions will induce water evaporation from the particles, shrinking their size and allowing them to float in the air for longer periods. People also tend to seek shelter inside in colder environments and expose themselves to recirculated air that potentially contains the virus.

The air in humid, hotter environments contains more water, which can condense onto the virus particles, make them bigger and theoretically fall to the ground faster. Wu compares the particles to a rock in this case — the more mass, the faster it falls.

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Language meets literature; rationality vs. experience; fiction vis-à-vis nonfiction

New article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), "The rise and fall of rationality in language", Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen (12/21/21)

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Creating scientific terminology for African languages

Article in Nature

"African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms:  Many words common to science have never been written in African languages. Now, researchers from across Africa are changing that", Sarah Wild, Nature 596, 469-470 (August 18, 2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02218-x

Here are some selected passages:

There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution.

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Tortured phrases

Article by Holly Else in Nature (8/5/21):

"‘Tortured phrases’ give away fabricated research papers

Analysis reveals that strange turns of phrase may indicate foul play in science"

Here are the beginning and a few other selected portions of the article:

In April 2021, a series of strange phrases in journal articles piqued the interest of a group of computer scientists. The researchers could not understand why researchers would use the terms ‘counterfeit consciousness’, ‘profound neural organization’ and ‘colossal information’ in place of the more widely recognized terms ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘deep neural network’ and ‘big data’.

Further investigation revealed that these strange terms — which they dub “tortured phrases” — are probably the result of automated translation or software that attempts to disguise plagiarism. And they seem to be rife in computer-science papers.

Research-integrity sleuths say that Cabanac* and his colleagues have uncovered a new type of fabricated research paper, and that their work, posted in a preprint on arXiv on 12 July1, might expose only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the literature affected.

[*VHM:  Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse, France]

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Data vs. information

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

The following was drafted as an Appendix to a project whose working title is "The Emperor's New Information" (after Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind). It's still a work-in-progress, so feedback would be welcome. For example: Are the two examples persuasive? Do they need technical clarification or correction? Have others at LL noticed how certain authors "who should know better" use the term information where data is dictated by the context, or employ the two terms at random, as if they were synonyms?

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Bronze, iron, gold, silver

In our ongoing quest to link up linguistics with archeology, we have had numerous posts involving Iranian-speaking peoples spreading from west to east and bringing culture and language with them.  When I say "culture", I mean technological as well as spiritual, artistic, architectural, and other aspects, plus social customs and political organization.  Because the Iranian-speaking peoples were so active in spreading diverse manifestations of culture, I often refer to them as Kulturvermittlers par excellence.

Among the more prominent features of culture that Iranian-speaking peoples transmitted across Eurasia was metallurgy.  That includes all four of the main metals:  bronze, iron, gold, and silver.  The first two were mainly for weapons and implements, and where they went, they transformed military affairs, agriculture, and daily life.  The changes that bronze and iron brought about amounted to revolutions of civilization.  Gold and silver were primarily for ornament and embellishment, and the Iranian-speaking people created breathtakingly beautiful works of art out of these precious metals

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The dissemination of iron and the spread of languages

This incredibly fine NHK documentary on "The Iron Road" will only be available online until November 8.  Since I do not know whether and in what form it will be available after November 8, I'm including it here only as a link embedded in the title.  If anyone discovers that, after November 8, it might be available on YouTube, Vimeo, or other easily accessible platform, I would be very grateful.  In any event, if you are interested in the history and transmission of ferrous metallurgy across Eurasia, together with its cultural and political impact, as well as Hittite and Scythian art, architecture, and language, and what came before the Silk Road, I strongly urge you to view this video by November 8.  This is one of the best Eurasian archeology documentaries that I have ever seen.

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"Gold" as element and "gold" as substance — as conceived by Mendeleev

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

Your wonderful arabesque on the world of 'kedi'* (and the disappearance of cats for a time — perhaps to a different planet, because they had grown weary of trying to school us humans?) reminded me that you are a connoisseur of languages plural, not just Chinese. In that connection, you might find my 2019 article** on Mendeleev interesting.

 
[**"Mendeleev’s Elemental Ontology and Its Philosophical Renditions in German and English", HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 25 (2019), No. 1, 49-70.]

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Thought control to detect the misuse of language

[This is a guest post by Mark Metcalf]

Recently read a short story by Chinese sci-fi author Ma Boyong (translated by Ken Liu) entitled "City of Silence" (Jìjìng zhī chéng 寂静之城) — a tale about a highly dystopian future in ("not") China. The story was referenced in an article in Wired.

Haven't been able to find an English translation online, so I got the Kindle version in a compilation – Invisible Planets. A thought-provoking story that describes a State in which the government controls people's thoughts by monitoring all of their communications in order to detect the "misuse" of language. The following excerpts from the book explain how the process evolved. Very disturbing, with echoes from recent history that are even more disturbing.

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Hong Kong: language, art, and resistance

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