The language and bullshitness of ‘a nearly unreadable paper’

Earlier today, the Retraction Watch mailing list highlighted a strange paper written by a V.M. Das disputing the widely accepted fact that our body clocks are regulated by the gene-level circadian rhythm. The paper is utter bullshit. Sample its breathless title: ‘Nobel Prize Physiology 2017 (for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm) is On Fiction as There Is No Molecular Mechanisms of Biological Clock Controlling the Circadian Rhythm. Circadian Rhythm Is Triggered and Controlled By Divine Mechanism (CCP – Time Mindness (TM) Real Biological Clock) in Life Sciences’.

The use of language here is interesting. Retraction Watch called the paper ‘unreadable’ in the headline of its post because that’s obviously a standout feature of this paper. I’m not sure why Retraction Watch is highlighting nonsense papers on its pages – watched by thousands every day for intriguing retraction reports informed by the reporting of its staff – but I’m going to assume its editors want to help all their readers set up their own bullshit filters. And the best way to do this, as I’ve written before, is to invite readers to participate in understanding why something is bullshit.

However, to what extent do we think unreadability is a bullshit indicator? And from whose perspective?

There’s no exonerating the ‘time mindness’ paper because those who get beyond the language are able to see that it’s simply not even wrong. But if you had judged it only by its language, you would’ve landed yourself in murky waters. In fact, no paper should be judged by how it exercises the grammar of the language its authors have decided to write it in. Two reasons:

1. English is not the first language for most of India. Those who’ve been able to afford an English-centred education growing up or hail from English-fluent families (or both) are fine with the language but I remember most of my college professors preferring Hindi in the classroom. And I assume that’s the picture in most universities, colleges and schools around the country. You only need access to English if you’ve also had the opportunity to afford a certain lifestyle (cosmopolitan, e.g.).

2. There are not enough good journals publishing in vernacular languages in India – at least not that I know of. The ‘best’ is automatically the one in English, among other factors. Even the government thinks so. Earlier this year, the University Grants Commission published a ‘preferred’ list of journals; only papers published herein were to be considered for career advancement evaluations. The list left out most major local-language publications.

Now, imagine the scientific vocabulary of a researcher who prefers Hindi over English, for example, because of her educational upbringing as well as to teach within the classroom. Wouldn’t it be composed of Latin and English jargon suspended from Hindi adjectives and verbs, a web of Hindi-speaking sensibilities straining to sound like a scientist? Oh, that recalls a third issue:

3. Scientific papers are becoming increasingly hard to read, with many scientists choosing to actively include words they wouldn’t use around the dinner table because they like how the ‘sciencese’ sounds. In time, to write like this becomes fashionable – and to not write like this becomes a sign of complacency, disinterest or disingenuousness.

… to the mounting detriment of those who are not familiar with even colloquial English in the first place. To sum up: if a paper shows other, more ‘proper’ signs of bullshit, then it is bullshit no matter how much its author struggled to write it. On the other hand, a paper can’t be suspected of badness if its language is off – nor can it be called bad as such if that’s all is off about it.

This post was composed entirely on a smartphone. Please excuse typos or minor formatting issues.

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Curious Bends – macaroni scandal, bilingual brain, beef-eating Hindus and more

1. The great macaroni scandal in the world began in Kerala

“‘Only the upper class people of our larger cities are likely to have tasted macaroni, the popular Italian food. It is made from wheat flour and looks like bits of onion leaves, reedy, hollow, but white in colour.’ This paragraph appears in a piece titled: “Ta-Pi-O-Ca Ma-Ca-Ro-Ni: Eight Syllables That Have Proved Popular In Kerala”. Readers, I am not making this up. For a few years, from around 1958 to 1964, food scientists in India were obsessed with tapioca macaroni. Originally called synthetic rice, it was developed by the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in Mysore as a remedy for the problems of rice shortage, especially in the southern states.” (4 min read, livemint.com)

2. China is using Pakistan as a place to safety test its nuclear power technology

“Pakistan’s plans to build two nuclear reactors 40 kilometres from the bustling port city of Karachi, a metropolis of about 18 million people has become a bone of contention between scientists and the government. They are to be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation. Each reactor is worth US$4.8 billion and the deal includes a loan of US$6.5 billion from a Chinese bank. These reactors have never been built or tested anywhere, not even in China. If a Fukushima or a Chernobyl-like disaster were to take place, evacuating Karachi would be impossible, says a leading Pakistani physicist. He argues that building these nuclear reactors may have significant environmental, health, and social impacts.” (6 min read, scidev.net)

3. Speaking a second language may change how you see the world

“Cognitive scientists have debated whether your native language shapes how you think since the 1940s. The idea has seen a revival in recent decades, as a growing number of studies suggested that language can prompt speakers to pay attention to certain features of the world. Russian speakers are faster to distinguish shades of blue than English speakers, for example. And Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than shape, whereas Koreans focus on how tightly objects fit together. Still, skeptics argue that such results are laboratory artifacts, or at best reflect cultural differences between speakers that are unrelated to language.” (4 min read, sciencemag.org)

4. Nobel-prize winning biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan named president of the Royal Society​

“Ramakrishnan grew up in India and has spent the majority of his research career in the United States, moving to the United Kingdom in 1999. He has a diverse scientific background: he switched to biology after a PhD in physics. “That breadth is something I hope will help me,” he says.” (3 min read, nature.com)

5. History is proof most Hindus never had any beef with beef

“To achieve this goal, the RSS has, among other things, turned beef into a Muslim-Hindu issue. So the ban on beef is a device to create a monolithic Hindu community? Yes. You also have to ask the question: When did the idea of not eating beef and meat become strong? Gandhi was essentially a Jain; he campaigned for cow protection as well as vegetarianism. It was Gandhi’s campaign that took vegetarianism to non-Brahmin social groups that were meat-arian. The only people who were not really influenced by Gandhi’s cow protection campaign and vegetarianism were Muslims, Christians and Dalits. If the Dalits were not affected, it was because Ambedkar immediately started a counter-campaign.” (8 min read, scroll.in)

Chart of the week

“Among the educated elite the traditional family is thriving: fewer than 10% of births to female college graduates are outside marriage—a figure that is barely higher than it was in 1970. In 2007 among women with just a high-school education, by contrast, 65% of births were non-marital. Race makes a difference: only 2% of births to white college graduates are out-of-wedlock, compared with 80% among African-Americans with no more than a high-school education, but neither of these figures has changed much since the 1970s. However, the non-marital birth proportion among high-school-educated whites has quadrupled, to 50%, and the same figure for college-educated blacks has fallen by a third, to 25%. Thus the class divide is growing even as the racial gap is shrinking.” (4 min read, economist.com)

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