Tuesday, September 14, 2010

“Shocked”: Institute of Physics President-Elect Threatens Blogger

We’ve got mail!

from  Marshall Stoneham <*********@tiscali.co.uk>
to   avery.gilbert@gmail.com
cc   Dr Jennifer Brookes <*********@mit.edu>
date   Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 12:23 PM
subject   Science and integrity

Dear Dr Gilbert

I was shocked to see your comments on Dr Jennifer Brookes on your blog 

Dr Brookes is coauthor of refereed papers in very strongly refereed journals, and the winner of a prestigious personal Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship, where the competition, like the scientific standards, is likewise exceptionally strong. Her first paper was published in the premier physics journal in the world, Physical Review Letters, and was singled out by the editors on publication as being of special interest. Her subsequent key papers are in journals of the Royal Society, which has been setting the very highest standards for 350 years

Turin’s seminal idea - right or wrong - takes an idea well known in physics, and asks whether it plays a role in olfaction. He posed that idea in a form that can be assessed by the standard scientific methods - objective ones, not the subjective “like or don’t like.” Jenny Brookes’s first paper explicitly asked whether there were physics-based objections to the Turin theory: the Abstract of her paper talks of testing “the physical viability of this mechanism” and even paragraph 1 makes it clear that the article’s aim was to see if “The proposed mechanism is viable (there are no physics-based objections and it is consistent with known features of olfaction) provided the receptor has certain general properties.” Whether it is the actual mechanism that nature uses is, of course, a matter for experiment.

Jenny’s second paper, in a major Royal Society journal, is not about the Turin theory at all (you should have realised this), though the topic - enantiomer pairs - is one that offers a key test of various ideas on olfaction. 

Your slurs on Dr Brooks — and on Dr Turin, but I will let him answer them if he deems it necessary— are unworthy of someone who calls himself a scientist. If you still wish to be regarded as a scientist of integrity, you really must withdraw your slurs on Dr Brookes by removing the offending comments from your blog, and desist from such unprofessional statements. You should clarify your position by saying explicitly that you accept Dr Brookes’s scientific integrity, whether or not you agree with the conclusions in her papers. 

Further, if you wish to regard yourself as a scientist of integrity, you surely must write an apology to Dr Brookes.

Marshall Stoneham

Professor Marshall Stoneham FRS
President Elect, Institute of Physics
Emeritus Massey Professor
London Centre for Nanotechnology and Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
Wow. Where to begin? 

After giving it some thoughtful consideration, here’s my formal response to Professor Stoneham:
Bite me.
FirstNerve readers may wonder what put Prof. Stoneham’s nose out of joint. It’s this—my response to commenter Nathan Branch, published over a year ago. (Does the Emeritus Massey Professor know how to carry a grudge or what?)
Nathan Branch said... 

Mr. Gilbert, I love dropping by and reading your blog because I get tidbits like this: “thanks to Chandler Burr’s lick-job of Luca Turin, people think the vibration theory of olfaction is taken seriously by scientists.”

The lick-job was entertaining, and it made for a page-turning story of scientific intrigue. I didn’t realize that it was considered so totally bunk-worthy as you imply. 

Is there nothing about vibrational theory that’s worth continuing to explore? I ran across a notice that a Fellowship grant was offered to a post-graduate student researching vibrational theory:

July 20, 2009 8:05 PM 

Avery Gilbert said... 


Here’s the deal—if you’re going to promote a theory in neuroscience you need to make specific predictions and back them up with experimental data, like electrophysiological recordings from a rat nose, or sniff tests with humans. Turin can’t be bothered to gather such data; and the people who have gathered it find scant evidence, if any, to support vibration theory. In graduate school after the third pitcher of beer on a Friday evening we’ve all come up with an amazing theory that is fucking brilliant and explains everything. The next morning we take an aspirin and head back to the lab to work on a reality-based project. Well, most of us do.

As for the Wellcome fellow, Dr. Jennifer Brookes, she appears to be a serial apologist for Turin--having co-authored two physics papers that basically say, “No, wait! Vibration theory is theoretically possible.” Great—more theory to prove a theory. How about demonstrating the location and physical operation of this amazing vibration detector? If it’s real, an experimentalist should be able to play it like a fiddle—make you smell different things by modulating a tuning fork. Alas, Brookes intends to explore Turin’s theory using an artificial MIT biosensor instead of an actual biological nose.

I think it’s time for vibrationists to pick a real nose. 

July 21, 2009 12:11 AM
Prof. Stoneham is upset that I called his former doctoral student Jennifer Brookes a serial apologist for Luca Turin. He notes that only one of her two papers is directly about vibration theory, by which he seems to imply that she is a simple apologist rather than a serial one. However, as Dr. Brookes is now studying VT at M.I.T. (Turin’s current institution), I think she fairly qualifies for my original adjective and I stand by it.

Note the way that Stoneham, a Fellow of the Royal Society, responds to scientific criticism. He doesn’t post a public comment to air his point of view. Just the opposite—he sends a thuggish private email demanding that I remove my comments because he dislikes them. And for good measure he implicitly threatens to smear my scientific reputation. What the hell happened to disagreement and debate? Did Prof. Stoneham take a correspondence course in Scholarly Intimidation and Message Control from the Phil Jones Climategate Academy of East Anglia?

Stoneham never challenges my central (if mocking) point: it’s one thing to claim, like Dr. Brookes, that vibration theory is a theoretical possibility; it’s another to provide biological or sensory evidence that it’s the chief mechanism of odor perception. Instead, he bloviates about “Jenny’s” “prestigious” Wellcome Fellowship and how his co-authored paper with her appeared in the “premier physics journal in the world.”

[OMG I criticized someone published in Physics Review Letters—what was I thinking?]

As for Prof. Stoneham’s demands for clarification, censorship, and apology, I have a demand of my own. I am shocked that a prestigious organization like the Institute of Physics has elected as its president someone with such utter disregard for the scientific principle of free and open debate and who uses his position to suppress the views of those with whom he disagrees. I therefore demand that Marshall Stoneham immediately resign his IOP presidency.


~x~ said...

I actually think Turin is right, with zero scientific background.
But I'm *shocked* that a member of the scientific community isn't psyched on you.

- Making science accessible and fun for the couch-centric
- Making something dry hilarious
- Taking the piss out of the bromance between Turin and Burr
- And I seem to remember *something* about scientific method and the importance of proof and dissent

~x~ said...

...and this brought out my inner sad hobo clown too.

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

Things are hitting up to the nerves huh?

Avery Gilbert said...


Bromance . . . heh.

There is a sad aspect to inner hobo clowns. But some inner clowns have a nasty side, like Captain Spaulding. After publishing over 500 papers their heads become extremely large and they may exhibit clown rage.

Avery Gilbert said...

+ Q Perfume Blog:

True--doubly so since the question is how things get on your olfactory nerves in the first place. Is an odor molecule a key that fits the lock or does it just hum the right note?

~x~ said...

"what kinda clown ARE you, anyway?"
"the crying on the inside kind, is there any other?"

Quick Change featuring Bill Murray

will check out link
let's have a shock free day

(it's possible I'VE been suffering from clown rage for quite some time)

queen_cupcake said...

Quite entertaining post, thank you. I am dismayed by the current anti-science bias in our culture today.

Ines said...

This was fun! :)
I would say unbelievable what people think and do but then, I come from Croatia, unbelieveable is believable here every day (when it comes to what people say and do and are still able to look in the mirror and claim sincerity and moral superiority).