Sep 18 2018

Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?

If you were a woodworker, or any craftsman or probably had any job, in the 13th century you didn’t have to worry that technological innovation would render your position obsolete. With the industrial revolution, and the technological revolutions since, there has been an increasing pace of turnover of the kinds of jobs needed in the workplace. We no longer need switchboard operators, and the need for carriage drivers has plummeted.

Technology and automation do displace jobs. Worries that robots are coming for our jobs is not new – remember that Twilight Zone episode from 1964 where the W.V. Whipple Manufacturing Co. automates the factory and lets off all the workers? Well here we are more than 50 years later and the unemployment rate is historically low.

There are several ways to measure this, one is the productivity per person, or per hour worked. To put this into perspective, between the year 1 and the year 1820, productivity per year per person increased from about $600 to $1200, essentially doubling in about 2000 years. Since 1820, however, productivity increased to $26,000 – by more than a factor of 20. In the 20th century, the economy has grown by a steady 2% per year. This continuous growth has only been the norm for the past 200 years, however.

The pace of increasing productivity is also increasing. This is largely due to automation, W.V. Whipple style. Machines are increasingly doing much of the repetitive manual labor, and workers using modern technology can simply produce more. It’s often easy to see how automation will displace jobs. Eventually, self-driving cars will displace the Uber drivers who displaced the taxi drivers.

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Sep 17 2018

Intense Farming Better Than Organic

A new study reviews hundreds of articles on several farming systems (dairy, beef, wheat, and rice) to compare different approaches to farming and their net effect on the environment. They conclude that intensive farming systems are the “least bad” option for providing the food we need. This is in line with previous studies showing that organic farming uses significantly more land than conventional farming.

Farming has a huge negative impact on the environment. There is no way around that basic fact – farmland displaces natural ecosystems and has significant externalities, such as water use, release of CO2 from the soil, and runoff of chemicals into the environment. Right now we are using 11% of all land on Earth for farming, which is most of the land that is reasonably suitable for farming. To meet the needs of a growing population, we may need to expand farmland, into less and less productive land, which would significantly increase the negative impact of farming on the environment.

Some previous studies compared different farming systems by measuring the impact they have on the land. But this type of analysis is misleading – the authors of the current study instead looked at the environmental impact for a given production of food. That is what really matters. They also looked at studies that measured externalities, as listed above. They found:

Their results from four major agricultural sectors suggest that, contrary to many people’s perceptions, more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.

They found that organic dairy farming uses twice as much land as conventional farming, for example.

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Sep 14 2018

New Apple Watch and Health Screening

Apple recently announced two new health features of their Apple Watch – fall detection and heart monitoring. These are being sold as useful health measures, but there are concerns that this new technology may be more gimmicky than useful, and might actually be counterproductive.

The first feature detects possibly dangerous falls. If the motion detector senses that the wearer has fallen to the ground, and then they don’t move for one minute, the watch will automatically call 911. This superficially sounds reasonable, but the concern is that the tech company has not adequately tested this feature in coordination with medical professionals.

Specifically – what is the sensitivity and specificity of this algorithm? How often will it detect an event that reasonably requires a call to 911, and how many false positives will it generate? How much will this overwhelm emergency services?

What is naive about this feature is the lack of appreciation for the fact that medical interventions need to be evaluated. Why, for example, one minute? That is a round number, but is that really the threshold where the true-positive to false-positive ratio is optimal, while avoiding dangerous delays if someone is really injured?

Also, what will be the net effect of this? Will the drain on resources actually cause more harm than benefit to the users? How will 911 call centers handle these calls? Will they be able to interpret them?

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Sep 13 2018

Hurricane Pseudoscience

Hurricane Florence is about to hit the Carolinas, extending as far south as Georgia and north as Virginia. The storm peaked at a Category 4, but now as it approaches land has been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane. Hurricanes generally gain power over the ocean, from the energy of water evaporating off the surface, and then lose power when they hit land.

But this weakening does not mean that the storm is not dangerous. The category refers only to wind speeds, but there are other factors to consider. First, this is a very large storm. Also, it is slowing down, so may stall over the Carolinas. This means it can just sit there, dumping large amounts of water. The two dangers are storm surges and flooding. A storm surge is the rise in sea level above the normal high tide, caused by the wind. This can rapidly flood coastlines.

Flooding occurs when rivers overflow their banks and there is simply too much water too fast to be absorbed into the ground or flow back to the ocean. Flooding and storm surges actually cause most of the damage and deaths during large storms, not the wind itself.

Dramatic storms like Florence always seem to prompt fresh discussion about the effects of global warming and what we should be doing about it.

Here is a good summary by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the effects of AGW on tropical storms. Warming does not increase the number of storms, but it does increase the average intensity of storms and the amount of water they drop. Therefore, statistically we should be, and are, seeing more intense storms and more flooding.

Of course you cannot blame any single storm on AGW – it is a statistical effect.

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Sep 11 2018

The Pluto Debate Rages On

Published by under Astronomy
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If you have not watched Rick and Morty, I highly recommend it. It is an adult-themed cartoon, very entertaining, and extremely well written. On one episode Jerry, while trying to help his son Morty with a science project, mistakenly says that Pluto is a planet. When Morty corrects him, Jerry doubles-down and will not relent, going as far as to call NASA to insist that Pluto be reclassified a planet. This gets the attention of the Plutonians, who are themselves engaged in a raging controversy over whether or not Pluto is a full planet, and who enlist Jerry as an “Earth scientist” to support the planet position. This plot line is really a commentary on science denial, specifically global warming denial.

The Pluto controversy back on Earth is less intense, and the stakes are lower, but it remains and interesting debate about how to optimally categorize things in science. What categories should we have, and what criteria should we use? Should scientific utility be the only measure, or should public understanding also play a role?

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh and was designated as the ninth planet. Pluto has always been, for some reason, a popular favorite, maybe because of the name, maybe because it was the smallest planet. Pluto has the most eccentric orbit of any of the classic 9 planets, and it’s orbit actually crosses over the orbit of Neptune. It is also the first Kuiper belt object discovered – a region of our solar system beyond Neptune that is full of icy objects.

Problems started for our nice planetary system when other Kuiper belt objects started to get discovered. In 2005 Eris was discovered – it is slightly smaller than Pluto but is 27% more massive (because it is more dense). Eris also has a moon, Dysnomia. Two other large Kuiper belt objects have since been confirmed and named – Makemake and Haumea.

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Sep 10 2018

BBC and False Balance Revisited

In 2014 the BBC announced a policy change – that it would train its journalists to avoid false balance when reporting science news.  This was a welcome policy change, but apparently execution has not achieved the desired results. In a recent training brief the BBC admits it often gets its science reporting wrong, falling for false balance. This is especially true when reporting on climate change.

Balanced reporting simply refers to the journalistic standard of fairly and proportionately representing all sides in a legitimate debate. This strongly applies to political reporting, where there are often literally two sides, and neither side is objectively right or wrong. Even when one side has the better case, many news outlets take a neutral journalistic stance, simply reporting what each side claims. They relegate taking a side to the editorial and opinion pages, while sticking to the facts in their news pages.

False balance refers to the practice of reporting two or more sides to a controversy as if they are equivalent when they are objectively not. This mostly applies to science reporting, where opinion plays far less of a role than politics. The BBC affirmed in 2014 what critics of mainstream science reporting have been saying for decades – good science journalism does not present all sides in a balanced way, but rather reports different views in a proportional way, depending on the consensus of scientific opinion. That is a far more accurate way to report science news.

So, if 99.9% of geologists and other scientists accept the consensus interpretation of the scientific evidence that plate tectonics is the only valid scientific theory regarding the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, science journalists should not feel obligated to report on the alternate theory of the hollow Earthers every time they report on a related news item. They also do not have to mention, every time they show a NASA photo or video of a spherical Earth, that there are those who contend the Earth is actually flat.

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Sep 07 2018

Probiotics – It’s Complicated

A new detailed study of the effects of probiotics on the gastrointestinal microbiome shows how complex this subject is. Unfortunately, the reporting is significantly oversimplifying the results. The BBC reports:

A group of scientists in Israel claim foods that are packed with good bacteria – called probiotics – are almost useless.

That’s not actually what they said, at least according to my read.

Probiotics are pills or foods that contain live friendly bacteria, which are meant to support the beneficial bacteria that live in our guts. This basic idea is not pseudoscience. It is quite reasonable – however, the science of probiotics is very immature. We are still in a phase where we are discovering more and more complexity, and struggling to find any clear therapeutic gains. Meanwhile, the marketplace is making claims that go way beyond the science, and is based on very simplistic notions of how the microbiome works.

In the last decade or so we have demonstrated that the microbiome is an ecosystem at homeostasis. People have about 100 bacterial species in their gut microbiome, which not only colonize their mucous membranes, they keep out other bacterial species. This is an important part of our immune defense – the microbiome prevents infection by harmful bacteria. Further, you can’t just throw one or a few species into an ecosystem and expect to change it.

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Sep 06 2018

Superstition and the Illusion of Control

Humans tend to be superstitious creatures, meaning that we sometimes believe in magical causation – if I wear my lucky sweater my favorite team will win. Psychologists have been examining this strange phenomenon for decades, with some interesting results.

A recent study ads one more piece of information to the emerging picture of what drives superstitious beliefs and behaviors, but let’s first give some background.

Superstitious beliefs are primarily about the illusion of control – the feeling that we have some direct or indirect control over the outcome of processes over which we objectively have zero control. Gambling is a common everyday example – gamblers tend to develop all sorts of behaviors they believe will give them a better chance of winning at games which are random. Psychologists divide the notion of control into primary and secondary. Primary control is direct control – if I throw the dice with my left hand I will get a better result. Secondary control is an attempt to harness or align with an outside force, such as luck.

It is always difficult to tease apart the complex causes of human decision-making and behavior, and studies necessarily rely on artificial situations or markers of the behavior in question. But a few fairly clear signals have emerged from the research.

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Sep 04 2018

French University Dumps Homeopathy

France is the world’s biggest consumer of homeopathic potions. According to a study by Edzard Ernst:

The results show that a total of 6,705,420 patients received at least one reimbursement for a homeopathic preparation during the 12-month period. This number equates to 10.2% of the French population, with a predominance in females (68%) and a peak frequency observed in children aged 0-4 years (18%).

This is unfortunate, because homeopathy is pure pseudoscience, costing French taxpayers €279 million in one year. But there is some good news – homeopathy has been in retreat around the world, at least in terms of official recognition and reimbursement. Homeopathy hospitals are closing in the UK, the FDA has decided to finally start regulating at least the worst homeopathic offenders, and now a French university, Lille, has decided to suspend its homeopathy degree for the 2018-19 academic year.

Further (and here is the big lesson here, in my opinion) this is mostly in response to scientists taking the time to review homeopathy and declare that it is not based in science and does not work.

So what happened in France, where homeopathy is very popular? Well, in March 2018, 124 French doctors signed a statement taking a strong stand not only against homeopathy, but all kinds of pseudoscience in medicine. The entire statement is worth a read, but here are some highlights:

The obligation of honesty is enshrined in the Codes of ethics of the medical professions and the Code of public health (article 39 of the Code of ethics and article R.4127-39 of the Code of public health). The codes forbid charlatanism and deception, impose to prescribe and distribute only proven treatments. The codes also proscribe the use of secret remedies or not clearly mentioning the substances they contain. The Council of the Order of Physicians is responsible for ensuring that its members do not use their title to promote practices whose science has never proven useful or even dangerous. The Council must ensure that doctors do not become trade representatives of unscrupulous industries.

Homeopathy, like other practices called “alternative medicine”, is in no way scientific. These practices are based on beliefs that promise a miraculous and safe recovery.

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Aug 28 2018

New Neuron Type Discovered in Humans

Human brains are perhaps the most complex known structures in the universe (known to us), and while we have discovered a tremendous amount of information about them, there is still much to discover. Recently neuroscientists have discovered a new neuron (brain cell) type, so far discovered only in humans – the rosehip neuron.

Neurons are highly specialized cells in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. They have a general structure that includes a soma, which is the cell body, and projections called dendrites and axons. Generally dendrites are short and numerous and receive electrochemical signals from other neurons. Axons tend to be long and few (often only one) and carry signals away from the soma to other cells. Neurons are therefore a basic component of the nervous system circuit.

Neurons also tend to be either excitatory (increasing the firing of the neuron they synapse on) or inhibitory (decreasing the firing of the neuron they synapse on). Different neuron types are identified by their general shape and their neurochemistry – are they excitatory or inhibitory and what neurotransmitter do they use. The most common neuron type in the cortex is the pyramidal cell, which has a pyramid-shaped soma, a dense bush of dendrites, and one long axon. Pyramidal cells are excitatory and tend to use glutamate as their neurotransmitter.

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