Critic and Skeptic Roundup

“That was excellently observed,” say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.
– Jonathan Swift

Update May 2023: Added Professor Gary Smith, author of The AI Delusion, Standard Deviations, and the newer Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science.

Update November 2022: Added Professor Dave and Michael Woudenberg. (How could I have forgotten Dave in the first post??)


A big part of the CSP Blog in the past couple years has been a critical analysis of relevant engineering literature. By ‘relevant’ I mean relevant to CSP and its main applications of presence detection, modulation recognition, parameter estimation, source separation, and array processing. So I’ve produced many ‘Comments On …’ posts lately, and this tends to solidify my reputation as a critic rather than as a creative engineer. However, the CSP and SPTK posts on the CSP Blog still vastly outnumber the ‘Comments On …’ posts. We’ll see what balance the future brings.

But if you like to see critical reviews of current science, technology, and engineering work, there are others out there doing it much better than me and doing it for much more important topics, such as artificial intelligence, particle physics, cosmology, and social media.

So here in this post I want to introduce you, should you care to view the rest of the post, to other critics that you might enjoy, and might use as a balance against the typically credulous mainstream media and those pundits, bloggers, and YouTubers that do more promoting (influencing?) than analyzing.

Gary Marcus: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

The tidal wave of hype surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning is overwhelming. I do a tiny bit to push back on it here on the CSP Blog. For an insider’s unvarnished view of the field, check out Gary Marcus on Substack. He does a lot more than me to put the various claims and trends in perspective.

Gary and his co-author Ernest Davis also have written an accessible book on contemporary AI called Rebooting AI:Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust. Definitely worth checking out. Here is a snippet from the Amazon description:

Despite the hype surrounding AI, creating an intelligence that rivals or exceeds human levels is far more complicated than we have been led to believe. Professors Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis have spent their careers at the forefront of AI research and have witnessed some of the greatest milestones in the field, but they argue that a computer beating a human in Jeopardy! does not signal that we are on the doorstep of fully autonomous cars or superintelligent machines. The achievements in the field thus far have occurred in closed systems with fixed sets of rules, and these approaches are too narrow to achieve genuine intelligence.

The real world, in contrast, is wildly complex and open-ended. How can we bridge this gap? What will the consequences be when we do? Taking inspiration from the human mind, Marcus and Davis explain what we need to advance AI to the next level, and suggest that if we are wise along the way, we won’t need to worry about a future of machine overlords. If we focus on endowing machines with common sense and deep understanding, rather than simply focusing on statistical analysis and gathering ever larger collections of data, we will be able to create an AI we can trust—in our homes, our cars, and our doctors’ offices. Rebooting AI provides a lucid, clear-eyed assessment of the current science and offers an inspiring vision of how a new generation of AI can make our lives better. Blurb for “Rebooting AI” by Marcus and Davis

Sabine Hossenfelder: Particle Physics

I included a long quote from Dr. Hossenfelder in a recent post to defend my regular (incessant?) ‘Comments On …’ critical reviews, which are a form of post-hoc public peer review. She is a physics doer and a physics explainer (like others I admire and try to learn from), but she is also critical of the direction particle physics is going and critical of particular interpretations of quantum mechanics. She has both a blog and a popular YouTube channel.

Her new book (I haven’t yet read it) is Existential Physics:

Not only can we not currently explain the origin of the universe, it is questionable we will ever be able to explain it. The notion that there are universes within particles, or that particles are conscious, is ascientific, as is the hypothesis that our universe is a computer simulation. On the other hand, the idea that the universe itself is conscious is difficult to rule out entirely.

According to Sabine Hossenfelder, it is not a coincidence that quantum entanglement and vacuum energy have become the go-to explanations of alternative healers, or that people believe their deceased grandmother is still alive because of quantum mechanics. Science and religion have the same roots, and they still tackle some of the same questions: Where do we come from? Where do we go to? How much can we know? The area of science that is closest to answering these questions is physics. Over the last century, physicists have learned a lot about which spiritual ideas are still compatible with the laws of nature. Not always, though, have they stayed on the scientific side of the debate.

In this lively, thought-provoking book, Hossenfelder takes on the biggest questions in physics: Does the past still exist? Do particles think? Was the universe made for us? Has physics ruled out free will? Will we ever have a theory of everything? She lays out how far physicists are on the way to answering these questions, where the current limits are, and what questions might well remain unanswerable forever. Her book offers a no-nonsense yet entertaining take on some of the toughest riddles in existence, and will give the reader a solid grasp on what we know—and what we don’t know. blurb for “Existential Physics” by Sabine Hossenfelder.

Freddie DeBoer: Education and Social Media

I first encountered DeBoer through his book The Cult of Smart, but he also has a active and lively Substack. Here is Amazon’s blurb for the book:

Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world, and that our schools are broken and failing. Proposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: Academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.

Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place. blurb for “The Cult of Smart” by Freddie DeBoer

Freddie is a socialist, but he thinks social and political progress are hampered by blank-slateism (see also Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate), which denies biological variation in mental capabilities in humans: we are all blank slates at birth and how well we fare depends entirely on our interactions with others, which themselves are shaped by societal forces.

Shoshana Zuboff: Social Media

I’m not a big fan of social media. You’ll find me on LinkedIn, my employer’s website, and on the CSP Blog. I’m inherently suspicious of companies that offer free services and that are obviously advertising companies. Shoshana Zuboff delves deeply into the inner workings of social-media (read: advertising) companies like Facebook and Twitter, but she also looks critically at Apple and Google, which aren’t exactly social media, but which share aspects of what she calls surveillance capitalism with FB and Twitter. The book is called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.”

In this masterwork of original thinking and research, Shoshana Zuboff provides startling insights into the phenomenon that she has named surveillance capitalism. The stakes could not be higher: a global architecture of behavior modification threatens human nature in the twenty-first century just as industrial capitalism disfigured the natural world in the twentieth.

Zuboff vividly brings to life the consequences as surveillance capitalism advances from Silicon Valley into every economic sector. Vast wealth and power are accumulated in ominous new “behavioral futures markets,” where predictions about our behavior are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new “means of behavioral modification.”

The threat has shifted from a totalitarian Big Brother state to a ubiquitous digital architecture: a “Big Other” operating in the interests of surveillance capital. Here is the crucible of an unprecedented form of power marked by extreme concentrations of knowledge and free from democratic oversight. Zuboff’s comprehensive and moving analysis lays bare the threats to twenty-first century society: a controlled “hive” of total connection that seduces with promises of total certainty for maximum profit — at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future.

With little resistance from law or society, surveillance capitalism is on the verge of dominating the social order and shaping the digital future — if we let it. blurb for “Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff.

Her thesis is that these companies engage in a lot more than simple advertising–they are trying to modify your behavior to maximize their profits. (I’m trying to modify your behavior too, but only to maximize your engineering success!)

Common Sense Skeptic: All Things Elon Musk

The Common Sense Skeptic YouTube channel pretty much focuses all their critical firepower–which is substantial–on things that Elon Musk says and does. It is an antidote to the legion of Musk fanboys out there that are convinced self-driving cars are already here and colonizing Mars is a good use of our terrestrial resources.

I was particularly amused by a video the CSS posted, created by some colleagues of theirs, that was largely a sequence of Things Musk Has Said and then some actual facts–no narration in the video.

David Gerard: Bitcoin and Digital Currency

Another area of high-tech modern life that is drowning in hype and misinformation is digital currency. A lot of people have a lot of interest in ‘talking it up‘ independently of the truth. Thankfully we have David Gerard to help sort it all out for us with lots of evidence and clear writing. I highly recommend his book “Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum & Smart Contracts.” Although I still struggle to fully understand cryptocurrencies.

See also Gerard’s website that chronicles, with substantial help from Amy Castor, the various goings-on in the cryptocurrency world.

An experimental new Internet-based form of money is created that anyone can generate at home; people build frightening firetrap computers full of video cards, putting out so much heat that one operator is hospitalised with heatstroke and brain damage.

A young physics student starts a revolutionary new marketplace immune to State coercion; he ends up ordering hits on people because they might threaten his great experiment, and is jailed for life without parole.

Fully automated contractual systems are proposed to make business and the law work better; the contracts people actually write are unregulated penny stock offerings whose fine print literally states that you are buying nothing of any value.

The biggest crowdfunding in history attracts $150 million on the promise that it will embody “the steadfast iron will of unstoppable code”; upon release it is immediately hacked, and $50 million is stolen.

How did we get here? Blurb for “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Blockchain” by David Gerard

Dave Farina: Professor Dave Explains

Professor Dave has long been featured on the “Blogroll” list of websites I placed on the right side of every CSP Blog page (scroll down a bit) because of his great chemistry posts and what he calls his debunk videos. The former, and many other non-chemistry science videos, vastly outnumber the latter, but the latter are epic.

Of particular interest is his debunks (take-downs) of the Electric Universe cranks (a person I used to know is aligned) and the Discovery Institute creationists.

Michael Woudenberg: Polymathic Being

Woudenberg has a substack and writes in a no-nonsense style about engineering and engineering management. I first noticed his writing when I came across the idea of a wicked problem, but he is a skeptic and a realist and just kind of cuts through the crap surrounding different kinds of approaches to leadership, work, and management. I’ve only scratched the surface, but from these excerpts from a recent post on data science, you can see we have some attitudes in common:

Gary Smith

I first encountered Gary Smith through his book The AI Delusion, which presents his views of the limitations of computers in the context of artificial intelligence. Gary is a professor of economics, but I read him as a statistician. One of the themes in The AI Delusion is that data-mining is not knowledge discovery (science), which I refer to here at the CSP Blog as rooting around in voluminous data looking for things. Things that make us go. I’ve also read his book Standard Deviations and will soon move on to a more modern take on statistics and its misuses in Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science. I think of Gary as the modern-day equivalent of Darrell Huff, the author of the classic text How to Lie with Statistics.

Go ahead and leave suggestions for good critical reads in the Comments if you’d like.

Author: Chad Spooner

I'm a signal processing researcher specializing in cyclostationary signal processing (CSP) for communication signals. I hope to use this blog to help others with their cyclo-projects and to learn more about how CSP is being used and extended worldwide.

3 thoughts on “Critic and Skeptic Roundup”

  1. Thank you professor for your reviews. We learn a lot from your “nice big pictures”. Certainly, to review a topic we have to be creative in our analysis….so don’t worry about the naysayers.

    I’m not an expert in AI but some scientists said that Bayesian Cognitive Model is a much more effective and well-founded approach (according to some mathematician) to mimic our brain. What’s your Comments on this?

    1. I am also neither an expert in AI nor a scientist, and only a bare mathematician. However, from my popular science/engineering reading, it appears to me that the most successful model of human cognition will need multiple components–sophisticated neural networks, belief updating mec hanisms like the Bayesian Cognitive Model, realistic models of how memory works (which appears mysterious still), symbol-manipulators, rule-based expert systems, etc.

      But for machine learning applied to things like signal processing (modulation recognition), deep neural networks do not compete directly with Bayesian Cognitive Models. That is, you still need to join some kind of processing of received data (like CSP, just off the top of my head) with the mechanism for updating posterior probabilities and prior probabilities.

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