Nov 22 2019

Going Down Under

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For the next two weeks I will be traveling to New Zealand and Australia to attend two skeptical conferences:

Christchurch, NZ, Nov 29 – Dec 1. 

Melbourne, Dec 6-8

In addition, tomorrow (Nov 23) we will be debuting our new stage show, the Skeptical Extravaganza 2.0, in Los Angeles (sorry, this is sold out). This show is a lot of  fun – it’s kind of a skeptical variety show, interactive with the audience, designed to mainly just have fun but to also expose the audience to some basic principles of neurological humility and skepticism.

We have three upcoming shows in the Northeast – this page will provide updated information on our show dates and locations as well as links to get tickets. If you want us to come to your city or region, there is also a place on that page to submit your request. If we get enough requests from the same location, that will definitely influence our schedule.

The SGU events page will also list show dates, in addition to all upcoming SGU events.

Over the next two weeks I will still be posting, but not as regularly, depending on my travel and prep schedule. We do tend to be more active on twitter (@SkepticsGuide) while we are traveling. So no promises, but do check back for more content over the next two weeks.

Now off I go to Middle Earth.

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Nov 21 2019

Virtual Education

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When I was in high school in the 1970s, computers were just entering the school environment. We had a small computer lab with embarrassingly primitive computers by today’s standards, but at the time they were cool. I remember using one very simple DOS-based program that taught the user how to use chemical nomenclature. It was a simple game where you get asked to solve a problem and then are given immediate feedback. I was impressed at how quick my learning curve was using this simple individualized feedback mechanism. Basically this was a video game designed to teach one skill, and it worked really well.

At the time, and really ever since, I figured that in the near future schools and education would be transformed by this technology. Now, four decades later, I am surprised at how little such technology has been incorporated into the classroom. My teen-aged self would be shocked.

For sure there is great educational software out there. But they are mostly commercial products intended to use at home. If you want to learn a language, or improve your child’s reading skills, there are apps for that. It is still a lot less than I would have figured, and less than it should be. And what’s missing is a comprehensive virtual educational curriculum designed for use by schools. The bottom line is that I don’t think we are leveraging this technology as much as we should, by at least an order of magnitude.

I was reminded of this by a recent study that finds that young children learn basic math skills more quickly from an AI virtual character.  What they call “parasocial” interaction (because it is with a virtual character powered by AI) improved the math skills of children beyond computer learning without the virtual character.

I am seeing moves in this direction. Certainly many schools (those with adequate resources) have access to computers for their students, and often they are incorporated into their assignments. I have a daughter in college and another still in highschool, so I just witnessed a standard public education in a fairly affluent part of the country. My overall assessment is that computer learning is an afterthought. It has not been integrated into the learning experience. Their education was and is still essentially based on teachers and text-books. This style of education is obsolete, and extremely inefficient compared to what it can be.

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Nov 19 2019

Scientific Fraud in China

There is plenty of fraud and corruption in the world, even in the halls of science. No one has a monopoly. But there are some hot spots that deserve specific attention. Recently significant concerns have been raised about the published research of Xuetao Cao, a Chinese Immunologist. This story is newsworthy because Cao is not just any immunologist – he is also the President of Nankai University, in Tianjin, China. But more to the point – he is the Chairman of research integrity in all Chinese research. When your head of research integrity is exposed for massive scientific fraud, you have a problem.

Here is a thorough treatment of the evidence for fraud, which covers over 50 published papers. The fabrication of data was noticed because much of it has to do with pictures, of either western blots, gels, flow cytometry images, and microscopy images. There appears to be two general types of fabrication going on. One type results from sending the same sample multiple times through analysis, but treating the data as if it came from different samples. In this case the resulting imaging will be strikingly similar in pattern, but not identical. The second type of fabrication is to simply photoshop copy and paste images.

Either way, the resulting data fabrication is undeniable once it is noticed. The images are simply too similar (and again, sometimes identical) to be genuine data. Once researchers started pouring through Cao’s other papers, the extensive fraud became obvious. When confronted with this revelation online, Cao responded by first standing behind his work, then stating:

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for any lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership and the concerns you raised serve as a fresh reminder to me just how important my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short.

Wow – you see what he just did there? He simultaneously apologized and took responsibility, but only for failure of supervision. So essentially he is throwing all of the people who work for him under the bus. Either way, however, this is really bad for Cao. Even in the best case scenario, all the fraud was perpetrated by others under his watch. Keep in mind, he is in charge of research integrity for all of China, but apparently can’t keep an eye on his own lab. There are certainly famous cases where research assistants were the ones perpetrating the fraud. Another immunologist, Jacques Benveniste, claimed to have evidence of immunological activity from high “homeopathic” dilutions. An investigation found his results to be highly unreliable at least, and likely straight-up fraudulent (although may have been do to really sloppy techniques and bias). But it also appears that the positive results all seemed to come from one lab assistant, Elizabeth Davenas – certainly a disturbing pattern.

Perhaps a similar pattern will emerge from Cao’s lab, but it seems unlikely that an overzealous assistant can be responsible for data fabrication in 50 published studies. This is clearly a systemic problem.

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Nov 18 2019

Peak Intelligence

There is an interesting article over at The Conversation asking the question – have humans reached peak intelligence? This is something we have discussed previously on the SGU so I was keen to find out what philosophers think about this question. The core question is this – are there ultimate limits to the ability of humans to think, understand, and hypothesize? If so, are we approaching that limit now? There is also an angle to this the article did not cover directly – is there is limit to our ability to manage complexity (as opposed to just comprehending reality)?

There are different ways to approach this question. From an evolutionary point of view, our ancestors were likely under selective pressure to solve problems of immediate survival, and not to unravel the deep mysteries of the universe. But I don’t think this is ultimately relevant. This is a hyper-adaptationalist approach. It actually doesn’t matter to the ultimate question, because our hands did not evolve to play the piano either. Abilities that evolve for one purpose may be more generally useful. Clearly humans evolved some general cognitive abilities that go way beyond their immediate narrow evolutionary function.

But the broader point is salient – our cognitive abilities are not necessarily unlimited. What if the universe is simply more complex than our brains can comprehend? Take quantum mechanics, for example. The best thinkers we have, specializing in this question, still cannot solve the mystery of duality and apparent non-locality. We have some ideas, but it is possible that our brains are simply not equipped to imagine the true answer. It may be like a cat trying to understand calculus. If this is true, then what would we expect to happen in the course of scientific development? Would we hit a wall?

As they also discuss in the article, I don’t think so. Rather, if we look at the course of scientific development, our ability to do science is progressing, the technology of science, if you will. But at the same time the difficulty, complexity, and subtlety of the problems are increasing. We are having to work harder and harder for progressively smaller returns. Rather than hitting a wall, I agree that we will likely just wade into the molasses. We will keep pushing deeper and deeper into fundamental theories about how the universe works, but progress will become slower and slower. It may never actually stop, but advances will simply come fewer and farther between.

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Nov 15 2019

Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019

The Ohio State House recently passed a revised education bill, now on its way to the state senate, that includes some concerning language. Here is the relevant passage:

Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

This is a wonderfully ambiguous wording, which I think is a feature, not a bug. It mirrors other parts of the bill which likewise sound superficially reasonable, but there is every reason to suspect has a clear purpose. The big question is – what does it mean that you cannot penalize a student for the religious content of their work? Does that mean they can say in a science class that the Earth is 6000 years old? Can they submit a project on history about Noah?

This is an extension of a strategy that creationists have been using in recent years. They are pushing for carefully crafted laws that sound like they are just promoting freedom, but are specifically designed to provide cover for teachers who want to introduce creationist materials in their classroom. Alternatively, under the guise of “standards” they can introduce laws carefully crafted to provide justification for not admitting evolution or climate change into the classroom.

These laws have to be viewed very much in their political context. Also, their impact will largely be determined by how they are enforced. Of course, if you know ahead of time how they are going to be enforced, because they were specifically crafted for that purpose, they are really stealth laws hiding under coy language.

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Nov 14 2019

The Science Wars

In an ideal world (not the one we live in) science should be apolitical. In fact, it should be completely protected from political and other ideological influence. By this I mean the conduct of scientific research itself, so that the results are shielded from bias, conflicts of interest, and undue influence.

There are ways in which science and politics legitimately interact. If governments fund scientific research, then they have a right to set standards and dictate priorities for the research they fund. They don’t, however, have a right to dictate results, because then that perverts science into ideological pseudoscience. Priorities should also be broadly defined – what basic goal are you trying to achieve, such as finding cures for cancer. But they should avoid micromanaging the direction of scientific research, which optimally should follow the science itself.

The other legitimate interaction is that science should inform politics. It cannot determine politics, because politics also includes value judgements and priorities that are partly subjective. But scientific information can answer important questions helpful to setting political priorities or crafting specific solutions. Scientific research can also be used to determine how effective and efficient specific policies and programs are.

What we need to avoid, however, is a situation in which those with a vested interest are able to put their thumb on the scale, to create scientific research that serves their ends, rather than honestly pursuing the truth. When you work backwards from a desired result, that is not even science. That is pseudoscience.

But there is also a more subtle way in which political or corporate agendas can corrupt science – not by creating the scientific results they want, but by cherry picking those results. Science is complex and imperfect, so any big question in science is likely to contain research with results that are all over the place (just by chance alone). If you are able to cherry pick the results you want, without honestly looking at all the research based on quality alone, then again you can easily distort the scientific process to political will or vested interests.

This is a political battle that is going on right now – which science is admissible in terms of informing government policy? For example, in 2017 EPA director Scott Pruitt announced a new policy that would ban scientists from the EPA’s scientific advisory board if they received funding from the EPA. This was presented as a way to limit the perception of conflicts of interest.

However, in practice this was a way to exclude many academic scientists. If you are an environmental expert working in academia, chances are you have received some government funding. This would be the equivalent of banning medical scientists from government advisory boards who ever received funding from the NIH – so basically any qualified academic researcher.

The rule, however, made no mention of industry conflicts of interest. The result was to pack the scientific advisory panel with industry experts at the expense of independent academic experts – all under the pretext of quality control.

Similarly, you can craft rules to exclude specific scientific studies, again under the pretext of quality control, but designed to exclude studies more likely to be unfriendly to your political agenda. The EPA just announced a proposed rule to require scientists submit raw data for any studies they cite when informing government policy.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Disclosure of raw data for independent analysis is a good thing, but it is being perverted here for political ends. The devil, as always, is in the details. What if a study that is the basis of EPA policy is 20 or 30 years old, and the raw data is no longer available? Now they have an excuse to roll back regulations based on those older studies. What if the study includes confidential personal medical data? There are rules for the use and disclosure of such information, and so you can manufacture a regulatory conflict that excludes legitimate studies from consideration.

This is all the regulatory equivalent of p-hacking – making necessary and legitimate decisions about how to conduct research, but with an eye on how it affects the data so as to massage the results toward statistical significance.

Transparence and quality control in the science used by government agencies to inform policy is a necessary and good thing, but if specific rules are crafted with an eye toward favoring industry and excluding independent experts, you can engineer a desired outcome. Even more sinister – if you goal is just to promote uncertainty and doubt, to paralyze regulatory efforts, then just keep raising the bar of quality control to exclude more and more legitimate science.

No scientific studies are pristine. No researcher is without any connections to either industry or government that can be spun into a potential conflict of interest (or the appearance of one). He works in a lab with another researcher who received funding from an organization that is partly funded by industry – COI!

Elizabeth Warren is now promising to fight back from the other side.

Any studies found to present conflicts of interest “will be excluded from the rulemaking process and will be inadmissible in any subsequent court challenges unless the research has passed rigorous, independent peer review,” Warren wrote.

Again, the devil is in the details. How will this policy be implemented? It can easily turn into an industry witch hunt that excludes legitimate research based on tenuous or perfectly innocent connections. And who will do the independent peer-review? That’s really the question.

I believe that Warren’s intentions are pure, but here is my concern. She is thinking this is a way to exclude research, for example, funded by the fossil fuel industry with the intention of muddying the waters on climate change to delay regulations.

But – the same rules can then be used to exclude research on GMOs because of industry connections and frustrate the approval of new crops. And how will this affect the pharmaceutical industry?

Even if Warren’s rules are used wisely, the apparatus is in place for the next administration who may have very different priorities.

The inherent dilemma is that we have government deciding how government will determine what science to use to form government policy. The process is just begging to be distorted for political ends.

What we need to do is craft an infrastructure of quality control for science that informs government policy that is as isolated and independent from undue political influence as possible. This can never be perfect, but it can be robust with sufficient checks and balances. We recognize the need, for example, for an independent judiciary that priorities justice over politics. We recognize the independence of the Fed to isolate monetary policy from politics. We also need to recognize the importance of independent scientific advice as insulated from political influence as possible. This should not be at the whim of the current administration, or easily weakened or perverted.

This can’t turn into a war between industry and academics. Both are needed, and good science has connections to both private and public funding. What we need is independent scientific advice that priorities objectivity and quality and is buffered from short-term political agendas.

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Nov 11 2019

Astrology – A Peak Behind the Curtain

It is always interesting, and incredibly useful, to have insight from someone on the inside of a pseudoscience. Occasionally, someone who’s logical ability and intellectual honesty are reasonably intact gets sucked into a world of pseudoscience. If they are able to emerge out the other end still able to engage meaningfully with reality, they may have an incredible tale to tell. For example, Britte Hermes is a former naturopath who is now a real scientist and is able to report what really goes on in the world of fake medicine. Another example is Mark Edward, a former “psychic” who wrote his own tell-all. In such situations I have always found that things are much worse than even the fevered imaginings of a jaded skeptic.

The Guardian provides another useful example – the confessions of a former astrologer. Please read the full article. It provides concise insight into the psychology and business of new-age nonsense. The author, Felicity Carter, started dabbling in Tarot readings as entertainment, and as the story often goes, was convinced by the amazing accuracy of some of her readings. While she increasingly took her readings and her psychic power seriously, she always kept one foot in the “real” world and was apparently intellectually honest enough to ask important questions (at least in her current telling). Here are some of the key insights she provides.

The first is the way the new-age mind works. She states, “Astrology is one big word association game.” This is typical pre-scientific superstitious thinking. It probably derives from the fact that the human brain largely functions through association. We’re really good at it. We casually use analogies, and our literature is replete with metaphor. The problem comes from confusing metaphor for reality. This is often referred to as sympathetic magic, which is the conceptual underpinning of many pseudosciences, like homeopathy. In this world-view metaphors are not just abstract connections made in the human brain, they actually exist out there in the physical world. The happenstance arrangement of some stars as viewed from Earth slightly resembles a lion in the human imagination, so this virtual pattern actually imbues the qualities that humans perceive lions possess. It is an extreme metaphysical view of reality, with the universe being imbued with cosmic magic. If it makes you feel better you can say it’s quantum something. What matters is our gut intuition that metaphors are real.

All this makes it very easy to give a reading, regardless of the specific tools used – Tarot, astrological charts, tea leaves, numerology, or nothing at all. All you have to do is riff on free associations.

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Nov 08 2019

How to Combat Firehosing

According to a recent Guardian article:

It’s (“firehosing”) a relatively new term coined by Rand researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews in 2016 to describe the propaganda tactics Russian authorities use to quell dissent and control the political landscape.

They report that the strategy has metastasized from political propaganda to science denial campaigns, such as the anti-vaccine movement. The skeptical world has known about this strategy for decades. We typically refer to this as the “Gish Gallop.” The context is slightly different, however – a Gish Gallop usually refers to a single encounter, such as a debate, in which one side vomits forth a large amount of BS and misinformation knowing the other side will never have the time to deal with it all. This strategy can work because it takes a lot more time to deconstruct each misconception or falsehood than it does to create it.

Firehosing is very similar, but can refer to a strategy of massive misinformation over time and in multiple venues. This is especially relevant in the age of social media. The underlying strategy is identical – overwhelm the other side with large volumes of low grade information, even blatant lies and claims that have already been definitively debunked. Some form of this strategy is so common, dealing with it is a frequent topic of skeptical discussion.

I find there are two roots to firehosing (I’ll use this term to refer to the general phenomenon). The first is more innocent, in that I don’t think it is a conscious strategy. Rather, the person engaging in firehosing is themselves a victim of a misinformation campaign. They have read or heard many bits of information, and find the sheer volume compelling. They fall for the fallacy of, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” No – in reality where there is smoke there may be fire, but there also may be someone blowing a lot of smoke, or maybe there is just fog. You will encounter a lot of pithy references to this in skeptical writing. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” “No matter how high you pile up cow pies they don’t turn into gold. You just have a huge pile of BS.”

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Nov 07 2019

The Evolution of Bipedalism

Published by under Evolution
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The evolution of human bipedalism is one of the great events in the history of life that we still need to flesh out. We tend to focus on big transitions because of their implications for the story of life – the evolution of flight, moving out onto land, and the development of intelligence. There is still much we don’t know about the exact path taken in the development of human bipedalism, because we lack good windows into that time and place of our past.

Scientists have now described a new hominid species, which I’ll get to below, but first some background. The first evidence we have of hominid bipedalism is in Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which lived between 6 and 7 million years ago. For context, the last common ancestor with chimpanzees was between 8 and 6 million years ago, so this is pretty close to the transition. We only have skull specimens, but we can tell the species was bipedal because the foramen magnum, the opening for the spinal cord at the base of the skull, opens below like in humans, rather than toward the back like in all other apes.

About 6 million years ago we have Orrorin tugenensis, from which we have a thigh bone which suggests bipedalism. But the earliest human ancestor with extensive evidence of bipedalism is Ardipithecus ramidus, dating to 4.4 million years ago. We have several specimens, the best of which, “Ardi”, contains foot and limb bones. Ardi has clear adaptations to bipedalism, but also for tree climbing.

Keep in mind, we did not evolve from chimpanzees – chimps and humans share a common ancestor. Chimps have diverged from that common ancestor as much as humans have. We don’t have any specimens that are candidates for that common ancestor, so we don’t really know what it was like. Chimps can walk on two legs part of the time, but they are not adapted to it. Chimps (and gorillas) knuckle walk – the walk on four limbs with their forelimbs resting on their knuckles.

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Nov 05 2019

Another Artificial Leaf

Scientists report a new process for using sunlight to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel. Anything that does a version of this basic process has been called an “artificial leaf” because that is what photosynsthesis does, convert CO2 and water into oxygen and glucose. The balanced equation is this: 6CO2 + 6H2O ——> C6H12O6 + 6O2, and the process is driven by energy from sunlight.

Plants evolved to do this efficiently. So, if we want an efficient system to remove CO2 from the air and make useful molecules, we can use life that already does this: plants, algae, or photoplankton. This is the basic concept of biofuels. Of course, when you burn biofuels you release the CO2 back into the atmosphere, so this isn’t a way to remove CO2 permanently, but it is a potentially carbon neutral process, with the energy ultimately coming from the sun.

I say potentially carbon neutral, because it depends how you are growing the biomass. If you are using fossil fuel based fertilizer and the farming itself is energy intensive, then you may release more CO2 than you take out. This is a limiting factor for using biofuels as a strategy for decarbonizing the energy infrastructure. Also, farming is very land intensive, and we need that land to grow food. For these reasons I don’t see biofuels as a major solution to the carbon problem. At best it can be used to recycle biomass that would otherwise be wasted to replace fuels for applications (like jet fuel) that are not easily replaced with electric motors.

The “artificial leaf” approach is very similar to the biofuel approach, except we use technology instead of biology. The key is in developing catalysts that will efficiently produce the reactions we need, getting their primary energy from sunlight. The advantage over biofuels is that if we could develop a scalable, efficient, and cost effective process it may not depend at all on farmland or large amounts of water. In the end this is an energy storage solution for solar energy, and in that manner is similar to using photovoltaics and batteries. In the case of the artificial leaf, the leaf is the photovoltaic, and the end product is the “battery” or energy storage medium.

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