The Science of Retractions

the retraction that caused all the comments

I have an odd affinity for the “corrections and retractions” section of periodicals. Maybe it comes from being a copy editor at my shitty little boarding school newspaper, or – more likely – I’m just weird.

Either way, with very few exceptions, most corrections or retractions go virtually unnoticed. (There was a relatively recent discredited Rolling Stone Magazine story where the screw up got more attention than the original article, but that’s very rare, and there were some exceptional circumstances and forces in that case that simply aren’t present in the countless, buried retractions and corrections that are printed or posted every day in periodicals large and small.)

To me, one benefit of the internet-ization of news is getting to see comments on retractions.


For one, it makes me realize that I’m not the only human alive reading the fine print that taketh away the large print.

For another, the comments on retractions/corrections tend to be less primitive and more informed than the sad state that most comment sections have devolved into. And surprisingly, they’re often slyly clever and sometimes just downright, wickedly, funny.

(Perhaps this is because most of the people who make the effort to seek out this tiny corner of the media universe are likely to have a higher than average interest in the specificity and power of words. We are protective of words and of facts. We catch the well-hidden and nicely wrapped sketchy premise underlying the bombshell conclusion. We define “fact” by terms more stringent than the mere existence of confidently written words and no obvious, instant, screaming rebuttal. We poke and prod, dissect and test, examine and question before we are satisfied.)

However, as much time as I spend reading “news,” I spend far more time gobbling up legal briefs and opinions, dry governmental documents, memos and reports of all shapes and sizes, from tax records and budgets to USAWC doctoral thesis submissions.

And of course, for decades now, my main fare has been academic journals of all shapes and sizes. As a college student I found a sympathetic doctors’ office that would give me old copies of JAMA and Lancet.

But, one thing peer reviewed scientific articles tend to lack is the same sort of “retraction” issue that mainstream articles do, because by nature they are supposed to be provable. (At least not disproven or immediately disprovable.)¹

And the “peer reviewed” part was a fairly successful check on too much nonsense making it into the rare, and rarified, pages of the lofty, top-tier annals of science.

Anyway, my point is that, at least to the best of my recollection, I don’t recall seeing a retraction of a study published in a well-regarded, peer reviewed, scientific journal. Hence, not much retraction action.

Until now.

And now that I’ve seen this odd creature in the wild, I want more —

because it is AWESOME.

The comments of the snooty syntax snobs in the New York Times or Washington Post have nothing on these commenters.


First, the “retraction” – the term is used loosely as the method of the correction was at least as much, if not more, the issue of the article as the original mistake itself.

And the original mistake is 15 years old, which is, by itself, pretty unique.

the retraction that caused all the comments

Chemical & Engineering News ²

I really like – to an unnatural extent, probably – the chemical structure of molecules. I mean that. I love them. I can look at them and see infinite possibilities. My mother loved jigsaw puzzles, and I really didn’t. But I look at Lidocaine, and I am fascinated. (Water, actually, is the most amazing fucking molecule ever. Okay. I’ll stop.)

Here’s Lidocaine. It’s practically begging to bond.

(It’s also highly symmetrical in comparison to other compounds of similar complexity.)



Lidocaine is cool


Water is not as impressive by itself, and even the 2D interlaced molecules can’t come close to doing it justice: it is the strangest, most beautiful, near magical thing in the entire world. Period. Seriously. Check it out.


Okay. Back to my Chemistry Commenters.

(Names obscured in most obnoxious manner imaginable. Sorry.)

“15 years?” begins what quickly becomes of  long line of seriously enthusiastic comments….

the chemistry of retractioins-obscured names


Alternate ways of proving or disproving the fuck-up are examined. Inspiration for further experimental extrapolation is quickly extracted from the fuck-up.

comment kickoff

Even whether or not the fuck-up actually was a fuck-up, is intensely discussed and debated.

is it a fuck-up


The debate was robust, but respectful in every way. There was a feeling of near-euphoria at swapping out ideas, compiling thoughts and knowledge, and solving a problem.

Mostly, it was just the weirdest – and most fascinatingly fun – comment section I have ever, ever, ever encountered.

comment-compliment-and hey-u-wanna-know-my-idea--sure-email-me

In the end, they wade neck deep into the weeds, but in doing so, they actually figure out what went wrong, why, how to fix it, and how to recognize it – rapidly and respectfully sharing information that leads to a natural, satisfying conclusion. 

chem crowd

Who knew that comments could have a conclusion? 

(I mean, of course, anyone could still comment, but these few people totally worked out – by sharing knowledge bit by bit – something that for over 15 years has been, at best, murky.)

There’s so much bullshit and vitriol in the world right now that this detour into a geeky, obscure universe that communicates without attacking and is rewarded with the satisfaction of solving something, even if it is something obscure, made the world a happier place for me, even if only momentarily.

The person who, perhaps, seemed to outshine the others in basic Chemistry knowledge and just overall limberness in his logical abilities wrote what I thought was the best comment of all, and it was not at all Chemistry specific.

Although it may seem simple and obvious, our actions and what I see of society generally, doesn’t reflect it, so I suppose it bears repeating.

We may find ourselves in the position of seeing someone else’s mistake, and may want, or even need, to correct it. But we should always appreciate the fact that —

we could be making the next mistake ourselves.

you could be the one making the next mistake


As I was moving on from the website, marveling at the potential of crowdsourced knowledge in general, and how much more powerful it seemed to be in this highly specialized field – where sharing knowledge has always been valued and is deeply rooted and entangled in ways that might be foreign to other disciplines – I was, and still am, awestruck.

I was about to close the screen when I caught sight of a title in the sidebar:

accidental proof

“Crowd-based peer review passes test”

Oh, yeah. It sure does.

¹ This is less true now than in the past due to the extraordinary increase in the quantity of outlets publishing scholarly works and the public availability to what was, not long ago, only shared within small, specialized groups due to the extraordinarily prohibitive costs necessary for subscriptions.
² Chemical & Engineering News/ISSN 0009-2347/Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

Something you don’t see every day, or every — ever

“_______________ is an artist affiliated with M.I.T.

I’ve just decided that anything having to do with M.I.T. is suspect out of the gate, and that it simply makes me feel better to be openly hostile and ridiculously unreasonable about a place that I still also totally love. Because most of the faculty, alumni, and students – at least the physicists – are beautiful in every way.

Albert Einstein – this guy –

is completely unique. But also amazingly representative of the sweet, silly, brilliance that runs through every theoretical physicists’ DNA.

And you can know this by looking at the empirical evidence. When physicists discover a whole galaxy living inside the supposedly smallest single unit of nature, everything in this new galaxy has to be called something. Like discovering the planets in the Milky Way galaxy, except that there is no such thing as a “planet” yet, so you are starting from scratch. No one knows what the hell you’re talking about. You need a whole new vocabulary.

Let us reverse engineer the spin* of Shakespeare’s question: “what’s in a name?”

Science, in general, names things in the most orderly and most awful way. Phylum, Genus, Species…

It’s awfulness.

Physicists, on the other hand, are weird.

BOOM! Suddenly a whole new unexplored world opens up. And in order to be able to even communicate in any way at all, obviously, things must have some sort of label. If I say, “Mars is a planet” you have to know what, at least in the broadest sense, a “planet” is.

And so everybody dropped acid and named shit.

No, they didn’t even need to drop acid. They are on a permanent LSD voyage. (Yes, I am jealous.)

I don’t know who or why “Quark” happened, and I don’t want to know. I don’t want my imagination limited by facts on this one.

But somehow, acid or shrooms or whatever the hell, “Quark” is where they start. Element >> Atom >> Quark.

Which is a pretty weird name. Maybe. I mean, it’s a new thing. It has to be a new word. Maybe they thought it sounded scholarly and serious.

Except they don’t leave room for ambiguity. They leave no room for interpretation once they start identifying the different types of Quarks.

Up Quark.

Down Quark.

(Pretty normal. So far. Continue…)

Charm Quark. ??


Anyway, I still love the Lepton Lovers, but M.I.T. has mutated into a parasitic organism, the dark heart of the most ruthless, merciless war machine the world has ever known. And if humans become extinct, or if, at the very least, the rest of the world decides that it’s time that Americans become extinct, any breadcrumbs salvageable from the rubble will inevitably lead back to that prestigious place.

That prestigious palace of higher learning where the phrase: “____________ is an artist affiliated with M.I.T.” sounds sinister. Where there seems to be no other reasonable interpretation than the twisted, scary, sinister interpretation.

In CERN we trust.

*bad physics pun

RANDOM AUDIO: I Am Way More Obsessed with HPAI Than You


Influenza, in all its forms, is the master of mutation, making it irresistible to a “bug” junkie like me. So when the 2014-2015 outbreak swept across the country, mutating as it went, and in the end causing 48± million birds to be euthanized, with portable incinerators carted from commercial poultry factory to commercial poultry factory still unable to keep up, I was obsessed.

carcass disposal -aka composting

Skipping the multitudinous, envy-tinged detailing of gas chromatograph model specs – all of which I wanted – sampling methods, let alone my thrilling Rubik’s Cube imagining of the 18 known H (hemagglutinin) antigen and 11 known N (neuraminidase) antigen pairings, I will simply leave for posterity this moment of disapproval at the dubious methodology of our USDA and APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.)

It’s dull, don’t listen, but doesn’t hurt me to post it. It’s like a clipping in a scrapbook that won’t mean anything to anyone but me, because although it is impossible to tell from this truncated clip, it was at this very moment that I understood the terrifying implications that the dry data and deliberately dense terminology could not obscure.

*HPAIHighly Pathogenic Avian Flu

*Poultry Trivia: Were you aware that there is actually a “national coordinator for carcass disposal issues?” Well, there is, and her name is Lori Miller, a Senior Staff Officer with USDA-APHIS, and National Coordinator for Carcass Disposal Issues.

Unclog the pipes

I don’t give a shit about cats but only the 10 seconds (where I start the video) where Ed is using his “write bad songs”/”unclog the pipes” analogy

That’s what  this blog is for me.

Now fuck off.


Ho, wait, I’m back!

(I actually went and “watched” (listened) to the “awful” singing and guitar playing of 12 year old Ed that he references in this edition of his “unclog the pipes” analogy and it is quite bad, and so fucking brave. So I’m sticking it up after the “unclog the pipes” clip, which, btw, unless you can handle lots of disgusting record promo shit, you shouldn’t bother watching past the analogy.)

But taking a listen to him at 12 is worth a bite. It will make you a braver person. (And I think it’s why all true musicians of every stripe and every fucking cool human who actually “meets” Ed Sheeran likes him so much.)

“Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” –Goethe