the amazing, gyrating theory of everything

January 31, 2012

Maybe some people just let the pressures of our busy, post-industrial lives get to them and snap, producing a few fevered works of the imagination during a small nervous breakdown in the process. Or at least this is the only explanation I can really think of for the now infamous 66 page thesis on the origins of all life, the universe, and everything by Erik Andrulis (along with some 39 pages of references) claiming that everything we know is based on an intangible phenomenon known as a gyre, which comes in billions of variations. Just think of any prefix that comes to mind and stick the word “gyre” after it, and you’re likely to find that term used somewhere to describe a planet or a molecule, or a galaxy, or natural selection. Hell, there’s probably a gyre that explains your particularly bad hangover the night you tried experimenting with a mix of tequila and schnapps. It’s loony, it’s completely and totally baseless, and yet somehow, it saw the light of day and now everybody seems to be rather steamed that it ended up in a peer reviewed publication, asking for the referees’ heads on a platter.

Considering the number of posts already written about the contents of the paper, it would be redundant to use the next paragraph or two for a summary of the nonsense it contains. Check out PZ’s post, or Ars Technica’s disappointed take on the publishing process to get the main theme. Simply put, this is a paper so bad, there is a small contingent of people who say it has to be a hoax because the idea that Andrulis is serious is far too painful and sad for them to contemplate. Meanwhile, the vultures at the Discovery Institute decided to pretend that a single awful paper in a brand new publication shows that evolution is nonsense, ignoring the simple and telling fact that every scientist who’s actually seen it is appalled it was published in the first place. But as you probably know, facts are not an area in which the Institute excels by by stretch of the imagination and as it continues to face its slow decay with denial, it has no reason to learn how to be honest now. But we digress at this point because the real question is how gibberish purporting to cover physics and macroscopic biology with no math made it to a peer-reviewed journal ran by a respectable university. After all, if you wanted to find a supposedly peer-reviewed paper that awful, you had to go to the now defunct Journal of Cosmology.

Well, let’s remember that a) peer review is not a guarantee of quality and sometimes scientists doing reviews let some serious messes through while holding back good work, b) the publication is brand new, and c) its editorial board’s reaction seems to show that no one really took it seriously. If the head of the editorial board’s comment on this mess is to say that she has no interest in her position, I wouldn’t rely on the publication for a terrific review process to say the least. With so little interest being paid, no wonder this sad wreck just slipped through the cracks. Maybe the disinterested editors didn’t even bother reviewing it because Andrulis’ record is composed almost entirely of very high quality papers on RNA. One would think that the grandiose title should have at least prompted them to take a look, but for all we know, they may have not even seen the title before a green light was issued to a well published researcher. The press offices were also asleep at the wheel when they published the release, as well as some science sites and blogs which also simply regurgitate whatever they’re given by the scientists. And one can’t really blame them because they’re not experts in the field and as the least publishable unit papers pile up, the copy/paste reflex can easily kick in before the editors realize the mistake they made and retract what they just sent out into the world, as they did in this case.

Before ubiquitous web access and open, peer-reviewed journals, this publication would’ve quickly been left to wither away in obscurity and we would’ve never seen Andrulis’ paper. But thanks to the SIWOTI Syndrome, it’s now plastered across the web and dissected for all its flaws. This would be great if the paper was somehow controversial and thought provoking, but it’s devoid of any scientific content whatsoever and is only useful for a good example of jargon-riddled nonsense we can all dissect to feel better about our education and sanity. I’d even go do far as to compare the kind of fascination we have with crank’s papers making their way around the web with fans of reality shows. Sure we may not know everything there is to know about a specific process or have a tenure-tracked research job at a world class lab, but at least we’re not embarrassing ourselves with a big treatise on magical swirling gyres of nothing which underpin the whole universe without a single equation to demonstrate a concrete physical relationship, right? And that’s really the sad part. Imagine how difficult of a time Andrulis will have publishing his next paper even if it’s the most solid and substantiated experiment with his primary research interest. Everyone will recall his crank-tastic thesis and he could pretty much kiss tenure goodbye since few colleges would even want to risk the appearance of giving tenure to a pseudoscientist…

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