Internet trolls and integration by parts

Image: Don’t feed the trolls, © Sam Fentress CC BY-SA 3.0; plus integration by parts.

I’m usually pleased when people read my blog posts and ask questions about them.  Usually – but not when they’re trolls.

I ran into a very-likely-troll a couple of weeks ago.  I’d written a post I called Charles Darwin’s Other Mistake, about Darwin’s disdain for the use of authorities with Latin names.  It’s more interesting than it sounds – really – and it was picked up by Real Clear Science and (partly as a result) attracted quite a bit of readership.  And one reader left a question that had a distinctly suspicious odour to it.

I called the post Charles Darwin’s Other Mistake because most people are aware of his really big blunder: the inclusion in the Origin of Species of blending inheritance (a model for genetics in which progeny inherit characteristics midway between those of their parents).  Inheritance doesn’t work that way, and if it did natural selection would be ineffective (because interindividual variation would be quickly lost from populations).  Darwin should have understood that, although we can forgive him for not having (at the time) any other model of genetics to replace it with.

Anyway, my very-likely-troll asked why it is, if blending inheritance is wrong, that offspring are often intermediate between their parents anyway.  That’s (put that way) a simple, obvious, and scientifically worthwhile question. I was tempted to see it as a SciComm opportunity and to answer the question (starting with the quantitative genetics of polygenic traits).  But there were a couple of tip-offs that it probably wasn’t a sincere question.  There was something about the tone, a gotcha kind of flavour that suggested an antievolutionist.  Worse, there was the questioner’s choice of example: the intermediate skin tone of children of “white” and “black” human parents.  It’s not a stretch, hearing that example, to have racism alarm bells go off in your head.*

So I simply deleted the Reply that asked the question (I can do that, and do when it seems appropriate).  That very-likely-troll went unfed that day.

If anything surprises me about this, it’s not the presence of my very-likely-troll (although to my mild and pleasant surprise, trolls are rare on Scientist Sees Squirrel).**  Instead, it’s that I actually picked up on the fact that the question (likely) didn’t mean what it seemed to mean. That just isn’t something I’m good at.  I’m pretty literal-minded; I expect people to mean what they say and say what they mean.  (Yes, I’m That Guy who answers rhetorical questions.)  It always catches me off-guard when it turns out that someone said thing X but actually meant thing Y.  I mean, who does that?  (Yes, everyone, I know.)

The whole thing reminded me of an experience I had as an undergraduate (and here we come, finally, to integration by parts; I’m sure you’ve been waiting breathlessly).  A lot of my undergraduate friends were engineers, and they thought I was absolutely brilliant at calculus.  Here’s why.  They’d often ask me questions about their calculus assignments – many a time, while we were standing in the cafeteria line.  “Steve”, they’d ask, “I’m stuck on an integration problem; can you come help me after supper?”  I’d simply ask them what the function was they couldn’t integrate.  They’d tell me, and I’d tilt my head thoughtfully for a few moments, and then I’d say – every time – “have you tried integration by parts?”*** They’d always reply that no, they hadn’t, and I’d say “well, I think it will work for that function”, and they’d go try it and it would always work.

Was I actually brilliant at calculus?  I’m pretty sure my friends thought I was doing the integration by parts in my head, right there in the cafeteria line, but of course I wasn’t.  I had figured out just one thing: why they were asking the question.  I’d figured out that my friends were very smart, but they hated integration by parts.  As a result, if a problem could be solved any other way, they would already have solved it; and if they were stuck, that meant it had to be an integration-by-parts problem.  I’d thought not about the question they were asking, but about why they were asking it.  Same trick, really, as sniffing out the troll behind the blending-inheritance question – but a much happier story.  Some of my engineering friends probably still think I’m some kind of integration genius, solving their toughest problems in my head, in the cafeteria line.

There’s no stunningly important moral to today’s post.  Just a pair of stories, 30 years apart, one amusing and one not, linked by the notion that sometimes the really important thing is not what someone is asking, but why they’re asking it.  Troll detection, and engineering calculus: the same analytical approach.

© Stephen Heard  July 9, 2019


*^It’s just possible that I’m wrong, and that it was a perfectly sincere question using an example from the questioner’s lived experience.  If so, and if my questioner is reading this, I apologize.

**^It’s almost as if they’re not terribly attracted by my obsessions with scientific writing, obscure history of science, and the etymologies of Latin names.  Go figure.

***^If it’s been a while since you’ve had calculus: integration by parts involves harnessing the formula just below the troll, in the image above.  It’s a clever trick that can simplify integrals that involve products of functions – but it’s not an intuitive trick.

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