Kazakhstan’s government is now intercepting all secure internet traffic within its borders, decrypting it so it can see what users are sending, and then encrypting it again before sending it on. The usual excuses about “protection of civilians” is being used. And as ever, it’s authoritarian nonsense. (ZDNet, MIT TR, BBC)
The European Court of Justice wants a way to detect unauthorised gene edited crops. But some changes to DNA are basically indistinguishable from, y’know, the random mutations that govern all life. Scientists aren’t really sure what to do about it. (Nature)
Some scientists fake data to push their studies through to publication. In fact, the World Health Organisation even makes recommendations to doctors based on these dodgy papers. English Anaesthetist John Carlisle is checking the figures and hunting down the fakers. (Nature) 
Machine Learning algorithms can infer your emotions (whether you’re being aggressive or lying) just by looking at your face. That’s because your emotional state can be reliably read from just your facial features. Except that’s not true – the science says otherwise. But it won’t stop lots of “AI” companies from peddling those lies and claiming to be able to see what you’re thinking. (ACLU)
Wealth inequality is a bit bonkers at the moment. US 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wants to fix that with a wealth tax. The former Treasury Secretary doesn’t think it will work. Now economists, who want broadly the same outcome, are arguing about the best way to go about it, and the central debate hinges on this – “Can you even tax the rich properly?” (CNBC) 
All political parties are bad (or wilfully misleading) at making graphs. So there’s this from the Lib Dem Press Office Twitter:
“For one there’s the truncated Y axis, with no label. Then there’s the fact 7 lines separate the Labour and the Tories’ likely share of the vote, according to a YouGov poll, but only 6 percentage points do. And, perhaps worst of all, somehow a quarter of a bar gap between the Conservative and the Lib Dem vote represents 2 percentage points. It is truly one for the ages.” (FT) 
 Fake Papers:
There’s something about scientific fraud that really amazes me. I know, I know, every domain has its assholes but there’s still something really baffling about fraud happening in academic science. If you’re smart and enough to make it as an academic (you presumably obtained a PhD, had the drive to get good references and the social presentability to operate in fancy institutions) and you care a lot about money, fame, prestige or preserving your ego above your principles (whatever they may be), my presumption has always been that one would realise that being an academic is a terrible way to go about getting any of those things.
Want an easy metric for self worth? Find a job with a high salary. Want to make money more easily in a somewhat less crowded job market? Go into investment banking. Want to be respected? Go into law. And, sure, getting a good job in finance, banking, consulting etc is really bloody hard, but probably about as tricky as landing a good academic job. And those other fields come with way more pay, bigger networks and better job security.
This is not to say scientists are any more virtuous, selfless or humble (hah!) than those in finance, law or consulting, but I do think that if you don’t actually have some sort of personal love of truth and free spirited inquiry, I really don’t see much point in losing out on the benefits offered by so many other forms of employment you can probably qualify for. Sure, there’s the sunk cost fallacy, maybe you don’t want to go back and do a law degree after your PhD, maybe you just went along with a scientific career path because it was the path of least resistance and now you’re stuck in a field you hate and you’ll happily commit fraud to get a leg up and some minor benefits to your career.
But at the moment you’re willing to forego your scientific integrity, why maintain the farce at all? Unless you’re a senior lecturer or professor at a good university (at which point it seems a little late to have lost the love of your subject), you’re probably having to work quite hard just to stay in the field and you’d be better off finding something more rewarding elsewhere.
In short, I don’t see why if you aren’t wholly (and perhaps irrationally) attached to the silly, romantic idea of uncovering the truth, seeking new facts about the world and all that other jazz, you would want to stay in the field and gather acclaim in that domain in the first place. Why not simply jump ship and make much more efficient use of your loose morals? And for greater returns!
Well, there is this:
‘Carlisle has developed his own theory of what drives some researchers to make up their data. “They think that random chance on this occasion got in the way of the truth, of how they know the Universe really works,” he says. “So they change the result to what they think it should have been.”’
So, it turns that not only are scientists not more virtuous, humble or selfless, they aren’t even all that good at being dispassionate arbiters of truth-seeking either. But I suppose that’s not really news.
 Feuding Economists:
I think we find political debates tedious because we feel like so much of it comes down to really basic, repetitive logical fallacies. Endless strawmen, ad hominems, ambiguity, you name it. And with a bit of reading around, self denial or just propensity to follow your particular tribe (I politically align solely on the criterion of coolest logo, so Plaid Cymru), you can generally poke holes in your political opponents arguments and it all gets a bit samey.
But economists? They sound much more fun (hear me out). I don’t doubt in large part it’s because I don’t have a firm grasp on economics, but following a twitter spat or a debate between economists just seems much more sporting because both sides seem to do a much better job of sounding reasonable and appealing to, y’know, actual theoretical models or data. But the debates are still about the basic way we organise society in a way that affects people’s lives, so the stakes feel more important than academic debates in other fields about, say, whether supersymmetric particles exist (though that doesn’t necessarily mean more interesting).
And sure, it might then devolve into why a given model or interpretation of data (or maybe even data themselves) are wrong but that’s where all the fun is. Saying “yo mamma fat,” solicits eye-rolls, but saying “yo mama’s waistline is at a positive three sigma deviation from the Gaussian mean for women her age,” and retorting with the idea that there are other variables of interest that you should be marginalising on for a meaningful comparison is another level of debate entirely.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sucker for anything that sounds vaguely smart and convincing, but the tension and the drama feels all that more enjoyable for it even if I don’t really understand economics. It’s like Star Wars. The space ships are made up, and even if it’s totally implausible they would make sounds in space, what I care about is that the stakes and the action feels palatable and satisfyingly explosive.
Plus economists say stuff like this on Twitter, which is great:
“Very cool to attack young academics for doing policy-relevant research. Here is my peace offering @LHSummers: let’s all root for the wealth tax. If it yields less than 80% of our estimated revenue, I give you 10% of my wealth. Otherwise, you give me 10% of yours.”
When’s the last time you heard a politician bet 10% of their personal wealth on the outcome of one of their policies? I don’t even care if this is just grandstanding, this is the kind of “skin-in-the-game” kind of commitment I want to see in debate participants.
Plus, that “sounding reasonable” part isn’t entirely for show. Last week US Senator Alexandria Orcasia-Cortez asked Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell about whether estimates of the “natural rate of unemployment” (a rate at which unemployment is so low that it causes ever-rising inflation) might be horribly wrong.
‘She noted, “inflation is no higher today than it was five years ago. Given these facts, do you think it’s possible that the Fed’s estimates of the lowest sustainable unemployment rate may have been too high?”
Powell’s response, to his credit, was as simple and direct as you’ll ever hear from a central banker: “Absolutely.” He elaborated: “I think we’ve learned that … this is something you can’t identify directly. I think we’ve learned that it’s lower than we thought, substantially lower than we thought in the past.”
Powell’s response was commendable, perhaps even groundbreaking; here was the Fed chair challenging decades of conventional economic wisdom. It was a welcome sign of a policymaker’s willingness to question age-old assumptions that have dictated policy and affected millions.’
See, that’s the kind of honesty I can get behind.
 Terrible Political Graphs:
But alas, we can’t stay away from shoddy political discourse forever. Except this time, with graphs!
In response to the bizarre looking graph from the Lib Dems posted above, the FT also had this to add
‘So it was of little surprise to us when the Lib Dem Press Office tweeted perhaps one of the most heinous chart crimes of the year Wednesday. Mathematics clearly doesn’t course through their orange blood…
…In 2014, the Nick Clegg pledged that he would make sure all UK schools follow the core curriculum which, of course, included mathematics. It’s a shame the same standards haven’t been extended to their hiring policy.’
But hang on just a moment. What if in fact the problem is, someone in the press office at the Liberal Democrat HQ is actually too mathematically literate?
So what if the distance of the bars doesn’t seem to correspond to the actual numbers being reported? That’s just how we’re used to thinking about bar graphs! What if the bars aren’t being plotted in Euclidean space? What if it’s in some bizarre space-time with positive curvature being projected onto a 2-D plane. That would also explain why the y axis isn’t labelled.
Maybe some intrepid mathematician for the Lib Dems is counting using some set that closely resembles but isn’t actually the same as the real numbers? In fact the percentages are suspiciously close to whole numbers, so we already know there’s a level of approximation going on here. Rounding procedures are, in some sense, sort of arbitrary and we don’t know that this pioneer of graph-making is constrained by the common sense rules we learnt in primary school.
I would suggest that the Lib Dems could fix this problem by just swapping all mathematicians currently on staff for physicists but the problem there is you’d end up with a graph in which all the parties had an exactly equal share of votes “to within an order of magnitude”, with enormous error bars. But to me, somehow, that would feel a bit more honest.
See you all next week.