« previous post | next post »

ommmm picToday's Guardian offers Improbable research: The repetitive physics of Om. Tantalizing. In turn, this links to Ajay Anil Gurjar and Siddharth A. Ladhak, Time-Frequency Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound "OM" Mantra, International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security, VOL.8 No.8, August 2008. Even more tantalizing. A new field of theophonetics!

Unfortunately,  the article is not divine.

The first step seems fair enough: ommmmmm chants are analyzed using standard transform techniques, that represent signals as superpositions of wavelet forms. The second step is… well, there is no second step.

The conclusion of the IJCSNS article includes, e.g., the following two claims: "The time-frequency analysis has been carried out using wavelet transforms for the divine sound OM. We have concluded that OM chanting affords steadiness in the mind scientifically.", and on the same lines "we have confirmed scientifically the accomplishments of OM chanting in reducing the stress from the human mind." But in fact all that the article does is present wavelet analyses in pictorial form (like the one above), inviting the reader to spot the uniformity of the signal over time, and hence infer reduced stress and increased mental steadiness. There is no actual measure of psychological state other than the acoustic analysis of the ommm chants themselves.

Even the acoustic analysis is ridiculously limited. Wavelets are used in signal processing and signal analysis, e.g. for compression, so the claim might have been made that better ommming was measurable by increased compression ratio. But no such claim is made. We just see pictures, and a hint that the ommm pictures of experienced chanters are steadier than those of less experienced chanters. As you gather from the conclusions I listed above, this is supposed to show that experienced ommmmers have reached a steadier mental state than less experienced ommmmers, but in fact all it shows, if anything, is that experienced ommmmers are better at ommmming.

Perhaps the pictures mean more to the enlightened than they do to me. The article is so bad that I can't see it as anything other than a spoof. And the premise is amusing enough. But I don't know enough about the IJCSNS article genre to really get the joke. If there is one. Maybe the journal in question simply has very low standards.

I wonder whether the good journalists at the Guardian know whether they are reporting on a spoof or not?


  1. Tom said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    Haha as soon as I read that piece I knew it was going to be discussed either here or at Bad Science. I would suggest that the answer to your final question is "yes" since the author information after the article is:

    "Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize"

    Tom: You and others in the comment thread are clearly correct to indicate that Marc Abrahams knows that this is an example of awful science. But that is not exactly what I asked. The question (rhetorical, but answer it if you care to) was whether the folks at the Guardian, Abrahams or his editor, knew whether the original article was intended as a spoof or not. I myself cannot tell whether Ajay Anil Gurjar and Siddharth A. Ladhak take themselves and their work seriously.
    David Beaver

  2. Lance said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    I think the journal in question may have very low standards. On their website, they list their past and upcoming issues. Note that in each case, the submission deadline for the Call for Papers is ten days before the issue's publication date. That doesn't speak particularly well for its peer review system.

  3. Lance said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    As a followup to Tom's post above, it looks like Abrahams writes a regular column about bad science for the Guardian. So I think the original research isn't a spoof, but Abrahams knows very well just how reliable the research is.

  4. Sili said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    Ommmmmmm, lingalingalingalinga. Killi! Killi!

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    Good observation, Lance. A bit related, can anyone find an article in that journal where the

    Manuscript received [MONTH] 5, [YEAR]
    Manuscript revised [MONTH] 20, [YEAR]

    footnote does not say the 5th and 20th in the month of publication?

    The editor of every issue to date is one Dr. John M. Jun. Among the first two pages of Google results for "John M. Jun", the only ones in which "Jun" is not a month are hits for the journal website. Every hit for "Dr. John M. Jun" references the journal rather than any personal work of his. Which real computer science researcher would not have a personal webpage, or at least a trail of talk announcements?

    They charge the author of each paper a $400 publication fee, in addition to handing over the copyrights.

  6. Matt Cecil said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    Thinking about OM phonetically, there is something interesting going on. Of all the possible articulatory configurations, OM has the most acoustic resonance inside the vocal tract – the closure of the mouth is as far forward as possible, the nasal passages are open and the vowel space is very large. Maybe the sensations of calming from chanting om are from the high amount of acoustic resonances it creates.

  7. unekdoud said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    Time to compile a table of om vs omm vs ommm vs ommmm vs ommmmmm (vs ommmmm). Maybe experienced ommmmers spell them longer?

    P.S. ever tried to listen to one of these recordings backwards?

  8. Rubrick said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    The article's conclusion isn't a bad addition to the recent thread on "begging the question" examples.

  9. HP said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    As Tom said in comment #1, this article was written by Marc Abrahams of the Ig Nobel prizes and the Improbable Research blog. He knows exactly what he is doing, and he is always dry as a bone while doing it.

    Apropros of nothing, I was shopping at a large grocery store this evening that specifically targets immigrant populations and bourgeois foodies, and when I went to check out, the checkout clerk was (apparently) a devout Hindu. The guy in front of me had probably fifty pounds of beef in various cuts. In order to do her job, the clerk would take some pre-prepared folded paper towels, and whenever she needed to pass a wrapped piece of beef across the scanner, she would touch it only using the paper towels she'd prepared for the purpose. I suspect she would find the linked article by Gurjar and Ladhak entirely convincing.

    Hard to imagine what a whole beef tenderloin must look like to someone coming from that mindset.

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:57 am

    Actually, I believe that historically the OM sound was just a nasal vowel, with no closure. I'm not sure why it's OM rather than AM, since it's supposed to be the most open vowel possible. But I think this might actually represent an earlier *AUM.

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 3:19 am

    that Marc Abrahams knows that this is an example of awful science

    On what is this statement based. There is no evidence for it in Abrams article, and the IgNobel specializes in good science that apparently serves little purpose other than to awaken one's critical sense.

    Good question. It is clear that Abrahams knows that this is an example of awful science only given (a) that the science is awful, and (b) that Abrahams is acute. Martin Gardiner, who tipped Abrahams off to the story, and who posts about it here, is similarly acute. The care that both Abrahams and Gardiner take to present the facts and not to give overt value judgments stands in stark contrast to the verbal carelessness (or goofiness, take your pick) of the original researchers in drawing unwarranted conclusions. Despite this care not to give value judgments, I cannot read the last sentence of the Guardian article as anything other than witheringly sarcastic: Much as people chant the sound "Om" over and over again, Gurjar and Ladhake repeat much of the same analysis in their other five studies….

    Note: IgNobel specializes in science that is beyond good and bad. Think cold fusion. The om work has many of the properties of bad science, but also some important hallmarks of good science: a novel and potentially interesting research issue, and a very creative approach.

    David Beaver

  12. HECK said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 4:48 am

    I have often wondered if "Om" is cognate with the Latin "omnis", the source of the English prefix "omni-". Could they be chanting "All"?

  13. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    @unekdoud you mean they want us to become followers of Moe?

  14. Mark said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    HECK: no.

  15. Army1987 said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    @Henning Makholm:
    Right now there's a thread on an Italian linguistics newsgroup about several letters to an Italian newspaper signed by "Giorgios Psofoskily from Faskatalae, Greece" (Modern Greek for "George DeadDog from PeopleEatShit", I'm told).

  16. Matt Cecil said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    @Kenny Easwaran
    Maybe the vowel shape of "am" is impossible to maintain when producing a bilabial stop.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    IgNobel specializes in science that is beyond good and bad. Think cold fusion. Cold Fusion won an IgNobel? I very much doubt it.

    Doubt away, but Cold Fusion won John Bockris an IgNobel in 1997, and the better known failures of Pons and Fleischmann were among a list drawn up by the IgNobel panel in 1999 of "the century's most conspicuous technological failures."

    The IgNobel specializes in good science but bad, or unlikely, subjects.

    Of course you're right that much (most?) of the science is of decent quality. But with prizes like the following awarded, perhaps you'll allow that the Ig Nobel guys interpret their remit broadly?

    • for inventing a device (U.S. Patent 3,216,423) to aid women in giving birth: the woman is strapped onto a circular table, and the table is then rotated at high speed.
    • to John Edward Mack of Harvard Medical School and David M. Jacobs of Temple University, for their conclusion that people who believe they were kidnapped by aliens from outer space, probably were — and especially for their conclusion, "the focus of the abduction is the production of children".
    • Jacques Benveniste in 1991: for his persistent discovery that water, H2O, is an intelligent liquid, and for demonstrating to his satisfaction that water is able to remember events long after all traces of those events have vanished (see water memory, his proposed explanation for homeopathy).
    • Jacques Benveniste in 1998: not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet
    • (to various businessmen) for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world.
    • to Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, for his thirty-year study of the effects of punishing three million citizens of Singapore whenever they spat, chewed gum, or fed pigeons.
    • (the) statistical discovery that the Bible contains a secret, hidden code
    • to the Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters
    • for creating DNA Cologne and DNA Perfume, neither of which contain deoxyribonucleic acid, and both of which come in a triple helix bottle.
    • to The Southern Baptist Church of Alabama, mathematical measurers of morality, for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to Hell if they don't repent.

    David Beaver

    And Lance has got it wrong. Abrams does not write articles for the Guardian on 'Bad Science'. His series is called 'Improbable Science'. 'Bad Science' is run by Ben Goldacre.

    (Uh, sorry Lance: you're on your own here.)

  18. T-Rex said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    @Matt Cecil

    I'm pretty sure all tongue postures for vowels are maintainable with fully closed lips.

    I reckon it's more likely a low back vowel is used because it creates the largest oral cavity and completely free flow to the nasal cavity, and therefore resonates most loudly.

  19. Trey Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    These guys are clearly trying to horn in on the fabulously lucrative satirical linguistics market. Elizabeth Shipley's 2007 report in SpecGram on the language "B—" tells a better tale (and shorter, too).

  20. Sravana said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    @HP: I respectfully disagree. Religious dietary restrictions and the discomfort that people feel in violating them have absolutely nothing to do with bad science.

  21. Martin Gardiner said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    Some days after reading the article I began to realise (I think) what the authors were getting at . . . They were just trying to say (I think) that the experienced OMMMMers were remarkably steady in their OMMMMing – with the implication that this level of learned control might have beneficial ‘side effects’.

    They might say the same (I think) about jugglers, or spinning-a-plate-on-a-stick aficionados . . .

RSS feed for comments on this post