Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Thoughts On The Closure Of ALL EXPERTS

All Experts was the free question and answer service that for 19 years provided users with answers to their questions in a vast variety of subject areas from biology, medicine, geology, religion, politics, and psychology to astrophysics and physics.  Since late 2004 I participated in the Astronomy forum - this before there was All Experts (it was known then as 'Experts Central') then three years later joined the astrophysics expert forum, as well as the atheist -agnostic forum.

As per a notification sent out a week ago, the site shut down from April 24th. Anyone trying to access it via Google or the url will simply be shown a terse message noting the 19-year run and that "more than two million" questions were answered.

Why the closure, we can't say. Experts were simply sent the brief notice with no further explanation. One reason is that perhaps there wasn't the money available to support the financial maintenance and even a putatively "free site" needs money to operate - if only to continue to support nearly 500 different forums, responses and further exchanges. Not to mention tracking vacation dates and experts' statistics in their profiles.

But let's be clear the site wasn't always smooth sailing and for experts often a source of frustration. After eight years answering astronomy questions, for example, I had to go to the option of  "no ratings allowed"  - ratings being given in the several areas of: politeness, knowledge, clarity of response, and timely response.    What constantly irritated me was that so few questioners knew how to give an appropriate rating, especially to knowledge and clarity of response.  For example, they'd deliver a '10' in knowledge but then a  '6' for clarity of response. But how would one be cognizant that the knowledge aspect was as high as 10 when they believed the clarity was only at a 6? It was preposterous.  

I tried to attach the proviso that if the answer still appeared to be abstruse, or too difficult, the questioner could reframe the question or make it more specific. (That was another gripe - often the questions were so poorly worded one couldn't make any sense of them and had to ask the person to please rewrite it, try to be more specific or to clarify a term used).   Often there was no further question, so the expert is left with just the crummy rating - and bear in mind we aren't getting paid a damned cent so the ratings comprise our only "earnings".

I retained the ratings for the astrophysics largely because I'd become a lot more rigid in what categories of question I accepted. If it seemed that bare balderdash or ignorance was the theme I delivered a polite rejection response.  Or, if there was the slightest divergence from what astrophysics included. For example, questions to do with meteorology, say the formation of "Moon dogs" or "halos"  forming around the Moon.   While perhaps making it as an astronomy question - ice crystals forming in the atmosphere - it doesn't make the cut for astrophysics. 

As I made clear in subsequent rejection letters the topics for astrophysics included: star formation and evolution, the HR diagram, stellar models, stellar spectra, star cluster dynamics, galactic cluster properties, Hubble diagram, expansion of the universe, solar flares, sunspot properties and coronal mass ejections as well as prominences, plasma waves and instabilities. 

Apart from the poorly worded or misdirected questions there were the many from crackpots. These were most often poorly or semi-educated people who were perhaps above average in intelligence, had a bit of a "brain storm" and fancied themselves a new Einstein for having found some seemingly novel relationship. One of these was a guy in his fifties or sixties, admittedly having "little education" who came up with the notion of "Earth flares", i.e. analogs to solar flares but occurring on Earth.

After several fruitless exchanges where I emphasized there was no observational basis for his entity, namely any magnetic signature for rapid release, he finally agreed to go to another expert. He just couldn't admit his own "thesis" was cockeyed and - in essence - pseudo science.

Another pair of crackpots (from the Middle East) insisted they had overturned Kepler's 2nd law of planetary motion, the "equal area" law.  One of them actually wrote:

"Kepler's area law says r*Vp=Ct.  Newton's universal attraction force says this force is radial F=Fr and a perpendicular force (Fp)  to the radial, also a side force component does not exist.  So: m*dVp/dt=Fp=0.  Then dVp/dt=0 and with integration we get Vp=Ct.     f Vp=Ct is correct, elliptical orbits theory has to be modified to a new theory, new math. And the motion equation should be r=-4*t^2+4*t*T-4*T^2/6 .This equation does not indicate an ellipse but a parabolic vortex spiral."
For his benefit I made several points:
1) He never expressed the 2nd law in proper form and indeed it makes no sense at all as portrayed.

2) He never defined 'C', and whether it is the same as h .  He doesn't say so one can't just assume it.

3) His equation r*dVp = Ct = 0 is incorrect. The Areal law in most concise form should read:

dA/dt = h z^ / 2
In addition,  he failed to distinguish between a real force and a non-existent force, i.e. perpendicular to the orbit (since the gravitational force of interaction acts through the mass centers) so mg = 0 i.e. weightlessness applies.
In effect, his integration result, e.g. Vp=Ct  is spurious .
After much back and forth in the rejection regime he rendered a final assertion he believed would force me to go to his side.  This was after I pointed out that the very fact spacecraft had landed successfully on Mars, the Moon, Venus etc. showed the Kepler law in its given form had to be correct. However, unwilling to accept this he wrote:
"Anyhow,  sending celestial probes to the Moon,or Mars or to any body will still be successful even if the orbits are triangular. It does not depend on  the form of the planet's trajectory . It is controlled from the earth."

In other words, he's saying you just need to fire the rocket into space, and the human controllers on Earth (like at Johnson Space Center) will do the rest,  to "steer" it to the destination.    I had to summon all my will power to avoid calling him a total nutcase, but again we must allow common courtesy even for kooks.
Then there was the Canadian "Bree"  (and several others with different identities or names) who sought to browbeat me into accepting a novel presentation of units which "proved" one or more of her crackpot ideas. She wrote, as "mathematical proof":

1)     Speed of Light  =  orbit Velocity^2  /  Pi       (Enormously Important Equation)

2)     Speed of Light  =  Acceleration of Gravity  x  orbit Time

3)     Speed of Light  =  Acceleration of Gravity  x  (earth Volume  /  orbit Circumference x Tau2)

4)     Speed of Light  =  Acceleration of planet earth in orbit  x  Diameter of orbit

5)     Speed of Light  =  Density of earth  x  orbit Velocity x 21  
None of which made any sense in terms of actual physical units and dimensions as I tried to show her, to no avail.  Her baloney was a perfect example of similar piffle cited by Charles Seife in his superb book:  'Proofiness: How You're Being Fooled by the Numbers.'   Seife decried the tactic of using numbers not just to lie but to baffle the susceptible and gullible with bullshit.  He referred to a common failing of most people unversed in math to be hoodwinked merely because some form of math or numbers are interjected into arguments.  Not just using numbers to bolster one's argument. In his words, to use fake numbers to prove falsehoods and to seek to prove something is true - even when it's not- is one of the most egregious forms of  intellectual  fraud. But "Bree" believed herself to be an incomparable genius of the first order.

The first thing any first year Physics student learns - or should - is to check a formula or claimed relationship for consistency of the physical units used. If their combination doesn't yield any recognized physical quantity - defined as part of the standards and constants published yearly by the American Institute of Physics - then the results are balderdash, pure and simple. Let's take her example (4) where:

Speed of Light  =  Acceleration of planet earth in orbit  x  Diameter of orbit

What are the units here? The speed of light c is in meters per second, or m/s. The acceleration a is given in terms of  m/ s 2  and the diameter of any orbit (any orbit) is a length -  so given in meters (m). Then multiplying them together one gets:

(m/s)  =  ?  (m/ s 2) (m)  =  m2 / s 2

Which is emphatically not the same as the units for velocity of light! Let's also check her "enormously important equation" (1): Speed of Light  =  orbit Velocity^2  /  Pi      

Again, we examine the product of the units to see if there's a physically meaningful quantity that results or if this girl is just seeing things, or seeing what she wants to see.  We have the speed of light on one side (units m/s ) and on the other the orbit velocity squared:

(m/s)2    =  m2 / s 2

Note that the presence of pi is neither here nor there as it's dimensionless.       "Bree" leaves herself open on so many fronts it's essentially laughable, and in ordinary discourse she'd be put down as a dummy or dupe, but as experts  we had to strive for politeness. This irrespective of what mutation of knowledge we were confronted with. (Including one Saudi character nicknamed "Amtry" who tried to argue atheists were less than moral because they objected to have prostitutes flogged, or those women seeking abortions. 

The thing that really bothered me in all this kerfuffle with the Canuck lass(-es) was, not so much the snarkiness and bogus certitude of these young women, but their failure to recognize that the combination of units yields zilch. A squared velocity is simply NOT the same as a velocity. Both girls - if indeed there are two - would merit an F in any physics class of mine.  Worse, if I could I'd deliver an F-minus because of the lack of critical thinking.

Sadly, if this girl or girls are infected by this stupidity many others might be too. Who knows how many physics students have gone on to the website referenced and then belabored their profs with this bullshit, wasting all kinds of time?  But one thing I've learned is you can't argue with ignorant students or ignorant people who are already committed to believe what they want. In this case, because the "maths' seems to work out (at least in their heads) they believe it like a sacred book.

One would have thought they'd back off but that's not the nature of crackpots.  This was even after I had written in one rejection:.  Btw, anyone can concoct and hurl together dissimilar units to make them appear valid, but garbage in = garbage out. The sure sign of pseudo-scientific claptrap and bunkum is when one reads:

"The earth in orbit is electrical, the Tesla is present due to the earth moving through the aether.  When you multiply earth Acceleration by the Diameter as well as the hidden Tesla you get the Velocity of light and its CORRECT UNITS."

Any physics student of mine that would scrawl such drivel would get an F - for the semester! An orbit being electrical? Moving through the "ether"? The ether doesn't even exist - the Michelon -Morley experiment showed the concept of ether is redundant.  The rest is pure poppycock. The waste of a mind is a terrible ting and this nonsense is an enormous waste of a mind - as well as the minds led to buy into it

 At least 5 months passed before the following bit of bafflegab gibberish (under the header 'Sound math')  arrived in my inbox, doubtless compliments of the selfsame Canadian twit, now using the name "Brianna":

Our SOLARMath equations work with "Kilograms" ( )

But because Avogadro's number is atoms per mole which leads to atoms per "gram", prior to commencing the equation below, we need to convert the initial Mass of the earth to grams.

The Equation is;

The Mass of the earth divided by Gravity^4  x  Acceleration of earth in orbit  =  Avogadro's number.

5537831004648121688015772977.2114697 grams  /  (9.8)^4  =  600392689687827221617859.5082045622325038

600392689687827221617859.5082045622325038  x  .001003207246557  =  602318297074676474879.204

I replied with a customized rejection and was as polite as possible, emphasizing that the astrophysics forum (at least for my domain of questions) had to meet at least one of a set  of content criteria for consideration as a legit astrophysics query. She then fired back "Are you drunk? Of course it's not astrophysics, it's math!"    But any serious inquirer in astrophysics - or math- would know the multi-digit explication as shown would instantly identify  a hardcore crank -  not to mention the units being all wrong.

Then there was Steve Torchinsky  (an "engineer turned radio astronomer") who "torched" me  ("so-called astronomy expert") for advising an Indian engineering student  who wanted to transfer into astrophysics that it might be "too hard" a path to successfully negotiate. Especially going from engineering to highly abstract (relatively!) astrophysics courses like stellar modeling, evolution and plasma theory.  Torchinsky blabbered on about the hundreds who "made it" (say in radio astronomy) but never referenced my presumption that one had to get through a very difficult undergrad and graduate series of courses first. A battery that many engineers - including my mechanical engineering brother in law- have said would have been their undoing. Could he have made it? Maybe? Would he have? I don't know and neither does Torchinsky.

Apart from these issues there've always been the niggling critiques (in ratings sites)  of All Experts, i.e. they "don't know enough about my specific problem" or "they take too much time off etc. WTF do you expect for a FREE service? All of which shows me that the widespread trope that "people devalue and dismiss anything given for free" is probably true. So, as they say - let the naysayers and complainers carry  on now that All Experts is gone. I am sure Google will be able to answer all their specific questions - if they just take enough time and get through the first gazillion irrelevant pages!


Jeff said...

I was one of the top experts there for many years, in the area of computer networking. I am not remotely surprised the site shut down. It was very poorly run and managed. For the last several years in particular, participation and questions fell WAY DOWN - so clearly they didn't advertise or market appropriately. I used to get a question or more every day. For the last few years, I got maybe one a month ... maybe.

FYI - I didn't even get the email that they were shutting down :)

A big issue - there was an annoyingly high percentage of questions that were clearly some kids's homework (high school or college). Allexpert's management NEVER blocked or banned these people - so they just kept asking more questions and I kept refusing to answer them. In particular, there was this one guy from India who would spam like EVERYONE on every forum with questions, probably stuff he found on the Internet - just to waste all that time. I sent evidence to allexperts management and do you know what they did? Yep - NOTHING.

I won't miss it. This should have been a multi-million dollar business instead of a monumental failure. If I'm ever going to spend my time doing that again it will be a forum that I own, make money on, and I'll get to block and ban as needed.

Copernicus said...

Spot on points made, in particular on the obvious homework questions which I inadvertently neglected to mention. But it was galling, especially when the wording clearly was from a textbook and you called them on it. Then you'd see the response full of indignation: "How dare you impugn my question as being homework!" Well, uh, yeah, sonny - if it reads as "Explain how one can compute the angular diameter of the full Moon from its linear dimension".

You are also correct about the failure to advertise and market properly. I also think this was one reason the ratio of cranks seemed to increase in latter years. The cranks more easily found the site than 'normal' questioners.