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When does a misunderstanding reach the point where it is recognized to be flat-out ridiculous?

James Lasdun reviews a book by Ariel Sabar telling the story of a conman who sold a fake Bible-related document to a Harvard professor, leading to academic publications and media publicity before the whole thing fell apart.

The most amusing of many amusing bits:

An Egyptologist at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, found a ‘colossal double blunder’ in the Coptic grammar. As a younger man, Depuydt had once warned the Oxford journal Discussions in Egyptology not to publish a grammatically flawed version of a Gnostic text. They went ahead anyway, only to learn that they had been pranked when a reviewer’s daughter pointed out that the name of the man who had ‘discovered’ the text, Batson D. Sealing, sounded awfully like ‘bats on the ceiling’. The entire issue had to be recalled (it’s now a collector’s item).

This is a story we’ve heard many times before. Some low-grade scholarly work appears (perhaps an actual faked document such as this Jesus text or the Hitler diaries from the 1980s, or garbled or misrepresented data such in the climate economics papers of the gremlins guy or the monkey experiments of the Evilicious guy, or pizzagate-style data that might be fake or might be just garbage, or sleepy misrepresentation of others’ data, politically or religiously-tinged noise mining as in that study of beauty and sex ratio or that Bible code paper, or just run-of-the-mill cargo-cult science such as we’ve seen for ESP, himmicanes, air rage, ages ending in 9, ovulation and voting, and lots of other things you can google), it hits the media heights of NPR or Ted or Freakonomics or Gladwell or Time Magazine or whatever, and then, eventually, the truth comes out.

Another set of examples are speculative bubbles such as Theranos or MIT’s “personal food computer” which never had anything to offer to their wealthy backers except for the presence of other wealthy backers on the inside. Given that the insiders get rich off this sort of thing and don’t seem to suffer any professional or financial consequences, we can expect more of these.

The common feature of all these stories is that at first seems there’s some possibility that the claim is legit, then there’s some criticism by insiders and outsiders that’s brushed aside, then at some point it’s not even debatable and in retrospect it’s all a big joke.

The other common feature is that even when the original results are conclusively found to be fraudulent, or not supported by the data, there’s still some underlying hypothesis that could be true—and it’s also possible that the opposite is true. The data supply no valuable evidence, which is something that people seem to have a hard time understanding. (Evidence vs. truth.) It’s possible that prettier parents are more likely to have girls—or that they are less likely to have girls. It’s possible, as claimed by those faked Bible document, that Jesus was married. It’s possible that Cornell students have ESP, even though it does not really appear in the data that have been shown to us, etc.

But what interests me is the transition—the “tipping point,” if you will—when the lack of evidence becomes overwhelming, when you start to see arguments of this caliber, where there’s not even an attempt at linking to the real world:

(More here.)

As they say at Harvard, the replication rate is “statistically indistinguishable from 100%.”

And, of course, some of the people involved in these efforts never give up. I think the beauty-and-sex-ratio and ovulation-and-clothing researchers and still stand by their claims. On the plus side, they’re not trying to overturn a democratic election; they’re just pushing scientific arguments that are not supported by their data in the way that they claim.

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