Apr 20 2017

Retreat of the Cryosphere

glacier-retreatPatrick Burkhart and his colleagues recently published a review of their research on the cryosphere, which is a collective term for all the ice on the surface of the Earth. In addition to their review of the science, the new information they add is a photographic project documenting the retreat of glaciers around the globe.

The retreat of the cryosphere is one of the many lines of evidence supporting the idea that the earth has been warming over the last half-century. There are several different ways to look at this. You can look at each pole to see the extent of ice coverage at their peak in winter and minimum in summer. You can look at specific ice sheets, like Greenland. You can look at glaciers. And you can look at total global ice, the cryosphere, which of course is the best single measure.

With regard to glaciers, the authors point out that there are many variables affecting the current size of any individual glacier. It is possible but difficult to account for all these variables and isolate one as a primary cause of melting. However, you can survey glaciers from around the world, which is a good way to control for local variables. When we do this we find there is a significant trend toward glacial retreat.

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Apr 18 2017

Is Alex Jones Faking?

alex-jonesAlex Jones is famous for his Infowars program in which he, often red-faced and ranting, promotes all kinds of absurd conspiracy theories. He claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” operation (and pretty much every similar event – all staged by the government. He claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were literally demons.

The enduring question (at least for me) has been – to what extent does Jones actually believe the stuff that he says? I phrase it that way because belief is not necessarily binary (I don’t want to commit a false dichotomy logical fallacy). He may believe some of the stuff he says to some extent, but then exaggerates and gets into speculation, or simply not care about the veracity of his claims.

Clearly he has a shtick and it’s paying off well for him.

I have not taken on Jones directly (I have addressed many of the claims he supports) because I haven’t found it to be worthwhile so far. His character is clearly a nutjob, to put it bluntly, and I suspected not entirely sincere, and overall I thought it best to ignore him.

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Comments: 132

Apr 11 2017

Science and Politics

marchforscienceThe March for Science is coming up on April 22, which has prompted another round of – should science stay out of politics? I think this is a persistent debate because the answer is yes and no, depending on what you mean.

Staying Out of Politics

There are several arguments for why scientists and science organizations should stay out of politics. The first is that politics and ideology can distort science. There are countless historical examples of this. You might call this “motivated research” which is similar to motivated reasoning.

Research can be directly toward an ideological agenda in many ways. Ideology can frame how we ask questions, which questions we think are important, and which research agendas get funding. Political beliefs can also shape how research is conducted, exploiting degrees of freedom and other methods to distort the process of research and the interpretation of results. It can also bias which research gets published and cited.

Every step of the way there is the potential for bias, and if that bias is consistently in one direction it is not difficult to manufacture an entire alternate reality of scientific evidence that supports your agenda. We see this with alternative medicine research in general. We see it with pharmaceutical company research which is much more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the company. We see cultural biases, such as the uniformly positive studies of acupuncture in China.

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Comments: 89

Apr 10 2017

New Study on Long Term Memory

memory-brainThere is something I never fully understood about memory, and now a new study might clarify my confusion.

The current model of how short and long term memory work is this. Short term memory is formed in the hippocampus and related structures. The hippocampus is highly plastic, it can change rapidly in order to form new real-time memories. However, this plasticity also has the necessary effect of causing recent memories to rapidly fade as they are overwritten.

Short term memory is actually limited in two ways, by the amount of information it can store, and duration. Studies vary in terms of how long short term memories last, but they all agree that it is from 15 seconds to 3 minutes. Measuring this is trickier than it may first seem, because people can “refresh” their short term memory by rehearsal, or from their long term memory, so you have to control for these factors.

There is also something called working memories, and there are varying concepts of exactly what this is. In essence working memory is short term memory that you are currently focusing on and manipulating. For example, if you do math in your head, you are using working memory.

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Comments: 288

Apr 07 2017

$100 Million? It’s Going to Take More Than That

Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board of eBay, speaks at the eBay Developer's Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. (Photo by JB Reed/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the world’s richest men. He recently announced that his philanthropic investment firm will dedicate $100 million to combat the “global trust deficit.” By this he means the current lack of trust in information and institutions born by the age of misinformation, fake news, and alternative facts.

I agree that this is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and tackled, but I hope that he is just getting started with the $100 million, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. I also don’t think we can rely on a few philanthropists to fix this problem.

As an aside I find it historically interesting that the internet boom lead to a crop of very young very rich people, not only Omidyar but also Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and others. Omidyar notes that:

“We sort of skipped the ‘regular rich’ and we went straight to ‘ridiculous rich’,” he said of his overnight fortune.

“I had the notion that, okay, so now we have all of this wealth, we could buy not only one expensive car, we could buy all of them. As soon as you realise that you could buy all of them, none of them are particularly interesting or satisfying.”

So we have a crop of young bored billionaires looking to change the world. I think that’s cool.  I hope they succeed.

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Comments: 50

Apr 06 2017

Flat Earth Rising

flat-earthInterest in the notion that the earth is flat has been increasing in recent years. I have to say, as much of a jaded skeptic as I am, this level of self-deception is still amazing to me. It truly demonstrates that there is no practical limit to the power of motivated reasoning or the absurdity of conclusions which it can defend.

Serious flat earth proponents actually do believe that the earth is not a globe, but a flat disk. When you think about this for even a moment, many problems arise, but they have an answer to all of it. Not a good answer, but enough of one to allow motivated reasoning to take over.

Space Exploration

Perhaps the most obvious problem with belief in a flat earth is that we have been to space. You can actually see the earth as a spinning globe. There is no other viable interpretation of this direct and dramatic observational evidence. You might as well tell me that a basketball is not round.

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Comments: 84

Apr 03 2017

Transcendental Meditation Pseudoscience

Transcendental-meditationIt’s fun to run into such a wonderful example of pure pseudoscience. Let’s deconstruct this one: Field Effects of Consciousness and Reduction in U.S. Urban Murder Rates: Evaluation of a Prospective Quasi-Experiment. This study comes from the Maharishi University of Management.

The idea here (which, let’s be clear, is a tenet of religious faith, not a scientific theory) is that consciousness is a field, and that there is a universal field of consciousness of which we are all a part. When individuals engage in transcendental meditation (TM) they are not only affecting their own consciousness, they are affecting the entire field.

The point of this and other similar TM studies is to confirm the belief (they are not testing the belief) that if enough people put good vibrations into the universal field of consciousness, society in general will benefit. How many is enough? Well apparently they have an answer for that. It is the square root of 1% of the population. Why? Because math.

That is such an excellent example of pseudoscience, having the trappings of science without the real essence of science. Look, they use numbers and everything. Apparently there isn’t a dose-response effect, there is a threshold effect, and once you get over the magic threshold the effect kicks in. That threshold has a simple mathematical formula, the square root of 1%. There is no established theoretical reason for this, but it sounds nice, having more in common with a magic ritual than a scientific process.

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Comments: 38

Mar 28 2017

Is AI Going to Save or Destroy Us?

cylon1Futurists have a love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence (AI). Elon Musk represents the fear side of this. In two recent articles we see two sides of this fear of AI. In a Vanity Fair piece we learn:

He told Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance, the author of the biography Elon Musk, that he was afraid that his friend Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and now the C.E.O. of its parent company, Alphabet, could have perfectly good intentions but still “produce something evil by accident”—including, possibly, “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”

We also learn from The Verge:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

So Musk thinks we need to enhance our own intelligence digitally in order to compete with the AI that we are also creating, so they don’t destroy us. Musk is joined by Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking raising the alarm bells about the dangers of AI.

On the other end of the spectrum are Ray Kurzweil, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page. They think AI will bring about the next revolution for humanity, and we have nothing to worry about.

So who is right?

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Comments: 303

Mar 27 2017

More on Bird Evolution

bird_evoThe fossil evidence for the evolution of birds is currently one of the greatest evolutionary stories we have to tell. It is also a home run for the predictive value of evolutionary theory and is a devastating blow to any denial of common descent.

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. At that time the fossil record was sparse, although it was enough to establish that the forms of living things was changing over geological time. One of the most dramatic gaps in the fossil record at the time was between birds and other vertebrates. It was believed that birds must have evolved from some type of reptile, but the most recent common ancestor was not known.

This was a great test for the new theory of evolution. If evolution were true then birds must have evolved from something else, and therefore the gap between birds and their closest non-avian relative should eventually be filled in by future fossil finds. If evolution is true, those creatures must have existed.

If, on the other hand, some version of creationism were true so that was created close to its current form, then there would not have to be any creatures filling in the morphological space between birds and their closest relatives. Birds would not have any relatives, they would be an isolated group unto themselves.

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Comments: 111

Mar 24 2017

3D Printed Houses

ApisCorHouseHere is a light and fun item for a Friday – we are making progress in the technology for 3D printing houses. Business Insider did a review of a San Francisco startup, Apis Cor, that says it built a 400 sq ft. house in 24 hours with $10,134 worth of materials. That is pretty impressive.

They estimate the cost of a square house built with their methods at around $223 per sq meter. A conventionally built home would be in the $1,200 per sq meter range (obviously this is highly variable, depending on quality, complexity, and finishing).

3D printed homes are not new. The idea is that you use a large 3D printer that makes the walls of the home using additive technology. They print with some version of concrete. There are limits on the size and the height of such constructions, and it has been costly and time-consuming to set up the printer on sight. One option is to 3D print sections of a house in a factory then deliver them and assemble on site. This adds time and expense.

Apis Cor’s advance is their 3D printer, which they claim is more portable and can easily and quickly be set up on site, to 3D print the home entirely as one piece. The video at the link above shows the process (but is almost comical in that it is a self-parody of a corporate promotional video).

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