Jun 10 2021

Brain Connections in Aphantasia

There is definitely something to be said for the neurodiversity perspective – when it comes to brain function there is a wide range of what can be considered healthy. Not all differences should be looked at through the lens of pathology or dysfunction. Some brains may be more typical than others, but that does not mean objectively “normal”, better, or healthier. Like any valid concept it can be taken too far. There are conditions that can reasonably considered to be brain disorders causing objective dysfunction. But the scope of healthy variation is likely far broader than many people assume.

Part of this concept is that brain organization and function includes many trade-0ffs. To some extent this is a simple matter of finite brain resources that are allocated to specific abilities, increase one and by necessity another has to diminish. Also different functions can be at cross-purposes. Extraverts may excel in social situations, but introverts are better able to focus their attention inward to accomplish certain tasks.

In light of this, how should we view the phenomenon of aphantasia, a relative inability to summon a mental image? Like most neurological functions, the ability to have an internal mental image varies along a spectrum. At one end of the extreme are those with a hyperability to recall detailed mental images. At the other are those who may completely lack this ability. Most people are lumped somewhere in the middle. The phenomenon of aphantasia was first described in the 1880s, then mostly forgotten for about a century, and now there is renewed interest partly due to our increased ability to image brain function.

A new study does just that, looking at people across that phantasia spectrum to see how their brain’s differ. Using fMRI they scanned the brains of those with aphantasia, hyperphantasia, and average ability. They found that in neurotypical subject there was a robust connection between the visual cortex (which becomes active when imagining an image) and the frontal cortex, involved in attention and decision-making. That makes sense – this connection allows us to direct our attention inwardly to our visual cortex, to activate specific stored images there. Subjects with aphantasia had a relative lack of these connections. While this is a simple model, it makes perfect sense.

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Jun 08 2021

Evolutionary Compromises

Evolution if one of the most fascinating scientific phenomena because it is so complex and operates over such varying and long timescales. It’s a real challenge to wrap one’s head around. There is therefore a tendency to settle on overly¬† simplistic evolutionary narratives. This is not a criticism, we all do this in an attempt to grapple with evolutionary thinking. The challenge is to recognize this fact, and be open to a deeper, more complex and nuanced understanding of evolutionary processes. It’s a great example of what should be a general intellectual posture – recognize the limits of our current understanding (wherever that may be on the spectrum) and not only be open to, but seek out new information and concepts to keep incrementally pushing our understanding forward.

In that spirit, here is a study on the evolution of broad-horned flour-beetles that illustrates some of evolution’s complexity. The male broad-horned has exaggeratedly large mandibles, which is uses to compete with other males for mating access to females. This is an example of sexual selection, when a feature specifically increases mating success but is not necessarily broadly adaptable. The go-to example of this is the peacock’s tail feathers – a garish display meant to attract females, but an evolutionary burden in many other aspects. This sets up an evolutionary tug-of-war, where a feature may be advantageous in one respect but disadvantageous in another. Evolutionary processes are fairly efficient at balancing such conflicting forces.

As an aside, the balances tend to be only metastable. They can alter with changes in the environment or behavior. Even different individuals within a species can adopt different survival strategies that result in a different balance of traits. If a population within a species does this it may even eventually lead to a speciation event. For example, it has been documented that within some primate species dominant males will have access to females due to their alpha status, while others gain access by currying favor with the alpha, and still others gain access by gaining favor with the females and sneaking behind the alpha’s back. Still others may act as a “wing man” to a close kin, promoting their genes into the next generation by proxy. The lesson here is – no one strategy captures the wide diversity of behavior even within a single species.

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Jun 07 2021

Fauci’s E-mails

A few years ago I was sued for libel, in a case I ultimately won in summary judgement where the other side had to pay for some of my legal costs because the judge deemed it unreasonable. But the case did proceed to discovery, which means each side gets to request information from the other. This included me turning over something like 40,000 e-mails. Search tools allow for sifting through these e-mails to find those that may be relevant. And of course, the other side was able to find e-mails that they could twist to create the impression of something sinister. Fortunately, in a court of law, there are rules of evidence and logic, and there was time to dig down to see if the e-mails in fact were evidence of anything. They weren’t.

In the court of public opinion, however, there are no rules. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) can serve as a mechanism for discovery, and many academics, scientists, and public servants have been on the receiving end of them. Released e-mails can then be picked over with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney, but without ever facing the burden of legal protocol or a trained judge. In fact the purpose of this exercise is not to dig down to the truth but to cherry pick for anything that can be taken out of context to fuel conspiracy theories or to tarnish the other side. The purpose begins and ends with the twisting to create a sinister impression, and the results of any actual investigation are irrelevant (at least to many).

The first high-profile case of such an “e-mail gate” was with hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.¬† Investigations ultimately found no evidence of any deception or anything nefarious going on, but the damage was done. The fact is, in any scientific process scientists will discuss many things with each other. A lot of crap will be thrown against the wall, and it’s very easy to take casual conversations out of context. Anti-science activists saw this as a template, and began using FOIA requests to harass scientists and hunt for similar gotchas.

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Jun 04 2021

How Common Are BS Jobs?

Douglas Adams had a talent for irony. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series he told the tale of a civilization that tried to improve itself by tricking everyone with a useless job into taking a rocket trip to another world (actually to nowhere). For example, one of the discarded people’s jobs was to clean phones. That’s it – they were a phone cleaner. That civilization later collapsed due to a pandemic started by a phone virus.

Part of Adams’ humor was taking reality and then pushing it to the absurd, but that core of reality gave his humor more heft. We may not have phone cleaners, but it does seem that certain jobs are less useful than others. Of course there is a certain amount of subjectivity and value judgements here, but there are some jobs that even the people in them judge to be without purpose. The concept of “bullshit jobs” was proposed by anthropologist David Graeber. In his book Bullshit Jobs, he claims that 20-50% of people are in BS jobs, that this number is increasing over time, that BS jobs are concentrated in certain professions, and that such jobs are psychologically unhealthy. New research finds that he was correct in one out of four of these claims.

While Graeber was bringing attention to a real issue, the psychological effects of being in a job that you yourself feel is of no value, when it came to the magnitude of this issue he did not have hard data. He was largely making inferences. This did lead to mixed reviews of his work at the time, with some reviewers finding his arguments often labored. The new research is an extensive survey of workers in Europe between 2005-2015, with over 30,000 responses. Since by his own definition, a BS job is one that even the person in it feels is worthless, the survey relied upon self-report of whether one’s job had value. Those who responded “rarely or never” to the question, “I have the feeling of doing useful work,” were deemed to have a BS job. The total percentage of people in this category was 4.8%. That’s still about one in 20 people, but a far cry from the as high as 50% Graeber claimed.

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Jun 03 2021

Return of the Bird Flu

Remember the bird flu? Avian influenza (H5N1) was first discovered in birds in 1996, with the first human crossover detected in 1997. Since then it has been discovered in 50 countries and is endemic in six. If you are old enough to remember, there was a bit of a bird flu panic back in the late 90s. Fortunately, so far, those fears have not been realized. But it’s important to remember that the bird flu is still around. Even more important is to remember that there are thousands of potentially pandemic viruses in the world.

Avian influenza adapted to infect birds, and mostly spreads through poultry. Bird to human transmission (zoonotic infection) is rare, and usually occurs in those who work in the poultry industry with long term exposure. The virus is very deadly, with a case fatality rate of about 60%. Worldwide there are 700 reported human cases. However, the virus does not spread easily from human to human. Such transmission is very rare, and is not sustainable. This is why the virus has not caused an outbreak or worse among humans. There are also other strains of flu virus that primarily infect birds, such as H10N5. We now have the first report of an H10N5 infection in a human, in a poultry worker in China. Contact tracing did not reveal any other cases.

For now we have experienced rare bird to human zoonotic transmission of flu strains primarily adapted to birds (colloquially “bird flu”) without any significant or sustainable human to human spread. So what’s the concern? As was originally raised by in the 90s, the concern is that every time a virus jumps from an animal reservoir to a human there is the potential that it will either mutate or will combine with another virus to cause a new strain that is highly contagious to humans. It happens, as we are now experiencing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So what do we do about it?

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Jun 01 2021

Graphene aluminum ion batteries

Damn, I hope this one is true. Battery technology is absolutely key to our energy strategy going forward. Right now the cutting edge is lithium ion batteries, which are great, and good enough for our current purposes. They allow for cars with a range of about 350 miles, which is more than enough for most purposes. They are barely, however, energy dense and cost-effective enough to use for home backup power. This is still an expensive option, out of reach for most people. They are fine for small technology, like laptops and cellphones.

I have been following battery technology news for years. At first it seems like we are always on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Then you realize that none of these advances are breakthroughs, and the media hype always glosses over or even ignores major limitations. For a useful commercial battery you need to have several features simultaneously, and any one can be a deal-breaker. We need high energy density (energy per volume) and specific energy (energy per mass). It also needs high power density – the ability to absorb and produce energy quickly, enough to run a car. It further needs many charge-discharge cycles, enough for daily charging for years if not decades. It further needs to be stable so that it does not spontaneously catch fire. And finally it needs to be made of reasonably common materials. Not being toxic is a bonus, as is being recyclable.

Lithium-ion batteries fit this fairly well. They do have a tendency to burst into flames if they overheat, but that is improving. They do require some rare-earths and also cobalt in their construction, which will ultimately be limiting.

So far, whenever I read about a leap in battery technology, it turns out that the leap is in only one or a few features, but other features are below the water line. The media report then always says something like – all we have to do is scale up, or figure out this one little problem, and we’re good. But the one little problem is the rub, and most of the time it keeps the breakthrough from being a breakthrough.

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May 28 2021

New Dark Matter Map Mystery

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Scientists have published the most extensive map of dark matter in the universe to date, based on a survey of 100 million galaxies. The findings don’t quite match with predictions made by computer models, suggesting that there is some physics at work which scientists do not yet understand. This, of course, is exciting for physicists.

As I discussed previously, we don’t know what dark matter is, but we are pretty confident it’s there. Dark matter does not give off any radiation, but it does have gravity, so we can see its gravitational effects. Based on these observations it seems that 80% of the matter in the universe is dark matter. This is a major area of research, because we do not know what dark matter is made of. It is probably some new particle we have not identified so far. This is where scientists live – on the edge of our current knowledge, peering into the unknown.

Part of that “peering” is gathering lots of data, and that is what the current study does. They used gravitational lensing to map the gravity of the universe, 80% of which is dark matter. Visible galaxies and dark matter cluster together, creating an overall structure to the universe. There are vast black voids with nothing, and there are tendrils of matter with galaxies, gas, and stars. The goal is to map this distribution, to see where all the stuff in the universe is.

They then compared this map to what we would predict based on our current understanding of the laws of physics. They started with a map of where all the matter was 350,000 years after the Big Bang, which was created by examining the cosmic background radiation. Then they model where that matter should have gone over the last 13.8 billion years based upon relativity and other physical laws. The map and the model were off by a few percent. The universe is more evenly distributed than the models predict. This may not sound like a lot, but physicists are used to dealing with high levels of precision. Physical laws tend to be very reliable. This is why we can make calculations and send a probe to Pluto 5 billion km away, and arrive precisely where they predicted. If the New Horizons probe was off course by a few percent, that would have been a disaster, both for the mission and our understanding of the relevant laws of physics.

This is why physicists love discrepancies between predicted and observed phenomena, even tiny ones. It means something is going on we are not aware of. This could be an effect we have not considered, an error in their experimental design or method of observation, or occasionally a tweak to our understanding of the laws of physics. The first two need to be thoroughly ruled out before new physics can be confidently postulated, and it is an increasingly rare event, but that is what physicists live for.

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May 27 2021

Red Flags of a Crank Study

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the potential danger of misinformation. There are times when we need to act collectively as a society to accomplish certain goals. This is particularly challenging in a society that is organized around a principle of individualism – a principle I endorse and value. Liberty is a precious right to be jealously defended. But it is not the only right, or principle of value. So at times we have to delicately balance various competing interests. I like my freedom, but I also really like not catching a deadly disease, or spreading it to my family.

In a perfect world (one we definitely do not live in) there would be no need for restrictive or draconian measures. All that would be necessary was distributing information – hey, if you want to protect yourself and others, wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, and get vaccinated. If you’re really interested, here are the facts, the published studies, the expert analysis, to back up these recommendations. Here are the error bars and level of uncertainty, the risk vs benefit analysis, and comparison to other options.

This approach is necessary, and works to a degree, but it is insufficient. There are two main shortcomings of the information approach. First, people are only semi-rational beings, not Vulcans. We are susceptible to tribalism, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and a host of cognitive biases, faulty heuristics, and logical fallacies. Our intuitions about balancing risk and benefit are also flawed, and we have a hard time dealing with very large numbers. Just peruse the comments to any blog post on this site that is even slightly controversial and you will find copious examples of every type of flawed thinking.

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May 25 2021

Global Action To Prevent Climate Change

There have been many studies coming out recently looking at what it would take to mitigate climate change, and some patterns emerge from these analyses. First it is important to note that a certain amount of climate change has already happened, with 2020 being 1.2C warmer than the average year in the 19th century. More warming is also inevitable, even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today.

The famous “12 years to stop global warming” notion refers to what it would take to stay below 1.5C warming, because below that level we can avoid major outcomes from climate change. That means getting close to net zero by 2030, which is absolutely not going to happen. Failing that the next goal is to stay below 2C warming. For that we likely need to get to net zero by 2050. That is possible, but will be extremely difficult.

One point of clarification that often gets misunderstood – no one is claiming that seriously bad outcomes will happen by 2030 or 2050, just that dangerous levels of warming will become inevitable by then if we don’t drastically reduce our CO2 release. The bad outcomes, like significant ocean level rise, kick in around 2100. This misunderstanding creates the illusion that scientists keep warning about climate change with endless deadlines that keep passing, while the world seems to be doing fine. Don’t be deceived by this. This is like ignoring your health, including warning signs like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and claiming everything is fine, right up until the day you have a heart attack.

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May 24 2021

UFOs Are Back – And They Are Still Nothing

One of the unofficial functions of the skeptical movement is to serve as a form of institutional memory. Pseudoscience tends to come around in cycles. Each generation or two gets fascinated with the same topics only to eventually tire of them when they ultimately come to nothing. The die-hards stay on and keep the flame going until the next generation. Each time a paranormal or dubious topic rears up again, the same poor evidence, sloppy logic, common myths, gullible journalism, and old tropes are trotted out. This is where skeptics come in. We are like antibodies that remember the history and can respond to the nonsense much more quickly and effectively.

Fascination with UFOs (unidentified flying objects) has waxed and waned a few times over the last 60 years. After a relatively quiet period interest is once again peaking. While “UFO” simply refers to something in the sky we cannot identify, everyone knows we are really talking about alien spacecraft. Whether you want to be coy, technical, or explicit – that is always what people are really talking about. This time the government appears to be the cause of increased interest, which is a break from the standard narrative that the government knows all about it and is covering it up.

In 2007 Senator Harry Reid wanted to know if there was anything to the whole UFO thing. This lead to Pentagon investigations and eventually the formation of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF). Next month they are due to give their official report to congress, and that is what has journalists all aflutter. They love stories like this – you can have serious-sounding people with connections to government talking about UFOs (now UAPs), and always there is the idea in the background that these can be aliens. The government officials won’t ever endorse – or deny – that idea. They take the coy route. We just want to know what’s going on. There is something interesting happening. Their answers seem like a wink and a nod. The journalists can tell a sensational story with plausible deniability, and never have to dig deep enough to tell the real story.

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