Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence

Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.


Will the Real “Predatory Journal” Please Stand Up?

Large publishers serve themselves by painting "predatory journals" with a broad brush
The scientific publishing industry has been on a hunt for what it calls “predatory journals.” They want to make sure that all scientific publications occur in “legitimate” and “reputable” journals. Additionally, they encourage scholars to avoid “predatory” journals which are there merely to enrich themselves by having you pay for access. While I agree with these ideas in principle, I’ve noticed more and more that the way that these principles are applied has been, well, incredibly self-serving for the journals. To begin with, let’s look at a commentary on predatory journals published in 2019 in the journal Nature: Predatory journals are a global threat. They accept articles for publication — along with authors’ fees — without performing promised quality checks for issues such…

Welcoming the Post-Zoom Era

The Zoom era is quickly coming to an end. How should companies re-adjust?
Prior to the pandemic, few outside of technology jobs even knew what Zoom was. Now, everyone is comfortable with video conferencing. However, while the technology works better than ever, I’m starting to sense that people are done with continual video conferencing.  Many people who use Zoom do so on a compulsory basis. They have jobs that require that they Zoom for meetings or they are in classes that require online attendance. Therefore, it is hard to decipher people’s attitudes towards Zoom in those circumstances. They use it because someone told them they must. However, I regularly teach at a homeschooling co-op class. Homeschoolers, especially in Oklahoma, aren’t compelled to do anything that they don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t want to…

NoSQL Databases are the Problem, Not the Solution

NoSQL means that you will be continually rewriting your code
It’s amazing how much we forget about our own history. Many people think that NoSQL databases are the “next big thing” in technology, and that we should write all of our core applications using them. However, NoSQL databases actually predate relational databases, and common relational databases were established to solve the problems that NoSQL brings. What are the advantages of NoSQL databases? There are essentially two — they are fast, fast, fast, and they can scale, scale, scale. This much is true. However, if you aren’t building the next Facebook, you probably don’t need that much speed and scale. The fact is, this much speed and scale comes at a cost, and, even in the 1970s, with the limited computers…

Mental Models for What Government Does With Our Money

Models used by pedantic experts, even if more accurate, confuse instead of clarify the key difference between taxation and government debt
We live by mental models. Although we rarely take the time to think about it, any time we reason about something we are using a mental model. Sometimes those models are close to reality, and sometimes they are not. When you turn your steering wheel, it does in fact turn your tires — but power steering adds quite a bit of assistance. So the mental model is close to correct but not exactly true. Similarly, in chemistry, multiple models of the atom are usually taught. In the widely used Rutherford model (also called the “planetary model”), electrons “orbit” the nucleus at different distances. However, this model was not found to be precisely true. A more precise view of the atom…

Will the Sokal Hoaxes Worsen the Academic Echo Chamber?

When only mainstream thinking is allowed, insularity and echo chambers are the result
The latest spate of academic hoaxes, which includes not only the latest Sokal hoax, but also fake papers being published in journals such as the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, is a major cause for concern. While the hoaxes themselves are problematic, what is likely to be worse is the ongoing fallout for researchers and new ideas. Academics has long had a problem of being insular. Many papers are published on the basis of your status in academics, not the quality of the paper itself. This is not to say that the papers didn’t legitimately pass peer review (though that is questionable in some cases), but rather that the editor decides which papers are “worthy” of peer review based on the editor’s knowledge…

Be On the Lookout for More Sokal Hoaxes

If you spot a Sokal hoax, let us know by tagging @cnaintelligence on Twitter
In a previous article, we noted that a group of researchers have been testing the rigor of social science journals by submitting fake articles and data in order to demonstrate problems in these branches of academics. These hoaxes, known as Sokal hoaxes (named after the original hoaxer, Alan Sokal), have now begun their third round, with the first detected paper in the journal Higher Education Quarterly. The paper, “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy,” has now been retracted, but it looks like this is not quite the end of the matter. The Chronicle of Higher Education managed to get in contact with the Sokal hoaxers. While their identities are anonymous, they responded to emails sent to the…

Are Sokal Hoaxes Really Helping Reform Science?

The evidence is mixed. The current prank on Higher Education Quarterly prompts some questions
It happened. Again. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted a mostly-nonsense paper to the journal Social Text. The purpose? To show that the social sciences, especially the critical theorists, were not intellectually rigorous. His paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was written so that anyone who was familiar with quantum gravity would know that it was a joke. Therefore, when it was accepted, it was obvious that no rigorous review process was in place. The journal apparently just accepted anything that sounded “intellectual-ish” and conformed to the editors’ idea of what scholarship looked like. It became known as the Sokal hoax. In 2017, a group of researchers began a similar hoax, later tagged as Sokal Squared. The goal, again, was to show that what the authors call “grievance studies” are undermining real scholarship by allowing nonsense to pass as scholarship. They managed to get several of their fake papers published, for example, Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon (May 22, 2018). In fact, for some of the papers that hadn’t been published by the time the experiment ended, the reviewers requested more outlandishness. That brings us to the present day. The education journal Higher Education Quarterly,” which is run by Wiley (a major academic publisher), published a new paper titled “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy.” If you take the alleged names of its authors, who cannot be traced to any institution of higher education, “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III,” the initials spell out: S.O.K.A.L. III It is unclear at this writing what this third iteration of the Sokal Hoaxes is trying to prove. At Power Line, Steven Hayward suggests that the overall goal is to show that any paper can be published if it stokes the biases of leftist editors. If so, the hoaxers have pushed the right buttons: the Koch Brothers, the Federalist Society, right-wing interference… The problem? As search has demonstrated, the funders they study don’t actually fund the research they are studying and some of the organizations have been defunct through the entire period of study. One of them appears entirely fictitious. While we still don’t know who wrote “SOKAL III” or why, I think it is good to take a moment and reflect on academic hoaxes in general, and what they indicate. The goal of the hoaxers is to demonstrate that critical theory and “grievance studies” journals are only pseudo-academic. They want to show that obviously wrong papers get through as long as they conform to the style and expectations of the journal. So did these hoaxers succeed in their aim? To begin with, I should say that it is not the job of an editor or reviewer to catch falsified data. Journals assume that data associated with an article is legitimate and was legitimately obtained. Now, there are times when data is obviously wrong, and a worthwhile editor or reviewer should catch that. However, it is not the job of the reviewers to verify or repeat the experiment. They trust the reporting and merely make sure that the reasoning about the data is correct. Therefore, a proper hoax must illustrate more than just acceptance of falsified data. It has to illustrate acceptance of wrong reasoning about that data. Or, at minimum, the data must be so obviously wrong that any worthwhile reviewer would be able to spot it. However, there are other requirements of a proper experiment that the “Sokal squared” hoaxers seem to have left out. In order to show that the social science journals they targeted are more problematic than science journals, they would have needed a control group. Note that none of the Sokal hoaxers tried submitting nonsense to a science journal. Even other Darwinists often complain about “just-so” stories in evolutionary biology, and especially in evolutionary psychology. So why did the hoaxers not dream up an equivalently outrageous just-so biology story to see if it would pass peer review? Were they afraid to know the results? History says that, as long as you are proposing an evolutionary “just so” story, there is almost no idea that is too absurd to be published in even the topmost journals. The original Sokal hoax, too, had problems. The journal it was submitted to, Social Text, was not a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the journal was not even claiming to have the same scholarship standards as science journals. In fact, they were relying on Sokal himself to provide the expertise on physics, which was the primary reason for including him. So, while I am in basic agreement with the hoaxers about the general quality of critical theory and “grievance studies” journals, I find it odd that the hoaxers, so certain of their proposition, seem to be unscientific in their approach to finding out the answers. In fact, we don’t even need to go into hoaxes to see that the same sort of implicit bias can infect ordinary science journals. As noted by Michael Crichton and followed up on here at Mind Matters News, science journals have been ready to publish whatever the latest trendy topic is for decades, no matter how bad the science content. Then, for topics that are less trendy, they will sometimes retract legitimate papers which have been properly reviewed simply because the topic is out of favor. If an idea is in favor, then, as we’ve seen, the requirements for rigor are relaxed significantly. So, while I appreciate the attempts of the Sokal hoaxers to demonstrate biases and poor scholarship in the social sciences, I fear that those in the harder sciences will use this as an excuse to ignore their own problems with bias and poor scholarship. Note: “SOKAL III” has now been retracted. You may also wish to read: Twenty years on, aliens still “cause global warming” Over the years, the Jurassic Park creator observed, science has drifted from its foundation as…

Culture Watch: “This is Us” Recognizes Limits of Machines

Let's hope that this becomes a trend of popular culture dealing with the realities of technology and its limitations
Most people do not recognize the inherent limitations of machines and algorithms. This is true even more in popular culture, which seems to be fixated on a narrative of machines becoming sentient and taking over. However, in a recent episode of the popular TV show “This is Us,” the limitations of computer algorithms came to the forefront, with the show not only recognizing the outlines, but getting the details correct. You might wonder why a TV drama is getting involved in the technical details of a discussion on the limits of computation. “This is Us” is a TV show which emphasizes the connections between generations — how the altruism and selfishness as well as the accomplishments and failures of each…

Book Review: “Ghost Work” Flops in Economic Understanding

"Ghost workers" are those unseen workers behind artificial intelligence
Here at Mind Matters, we have often covered the way that humans are used to supplement Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence has generally been misunderstood as replacing human effort in society, while, in reality, it is usually leveraging it, instead. Whether using humans to find good training data, mining content for intentionality, or even using humans directly within machine learning algorithms, today’s most prominent “AI” systems are actually strange hybrids of humans and computers. As a matter of fact, the market for human supplementation of AI is so large that Amazon has an entire service built around it. While much of this work is done either for free (oftentimes through games on the Internet) or through traditional paid office work, a growing amount is being done through “microtasks,” through systems…

Boston Dynamics’ Famous Robot Dog Being Put to Work

Long stalled in the area of research and development, "Spot" is now being prepared for its first job
Boston Dynamics is a robotics innovation company that has been best known for “converting capital into viral YouTube videos.” Their first sensation was over a decade ago, when they released the legendary breakthrough “Big Dog” robot video. What was unique about the robot dog was its ability to traverse a diverse array of terrain. Additionally, as can be seen in the video, it even handled sudden impacts well. Boston Dynamics continued to develop these multi-terrain walkers, coming up with a more humanoid design with “Pet Man.” While Boston Dynamics’ robots have long been an area of research and development, they have recently been put to work. The current incarnation, known as “Spot,” is currently being outfitted for doing what it…