Jun 18 2019

Is Authenticity a Thing?

Authenticity is a tricky concept when it comes to people, and is increasingly being challenged both in psychology and even with regard to physical objects (with regard to objects, the value rather than reality of authenticity is questioned).  Writing for Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman deconstructs the psychological concept of authenticity nicely. But let’s start with a standard psychology definition of what this means:

Authenticity generally reflects the extent to which an individual’s core or true self is operative on a day-to-day basis. Psychologists characterize authenticity as multiple interrelated processes that have important implications for psychological functioning and well-being. Specifically, authenticity is expressed in the dynamic operation of four components: awareness (i.e., self-understanding), unbiased processing (i.e., objective self-evaluation), behavior (i.e., actions congruent with core needs, values, preferences), and relational orientation (i.e., sincerity within close relationships). Research findings indicate that each of these components relates to various aspects of healthy psychological and interpersonal adjustment.

My issue with this definition is that each of those components don’t necessarily add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. I understand the concept of unbiased processing, for example,  but this still tells me nothing about how it leads to authenticity, and by extension what authenticity is. How is it different than just being psychologically healthy, as measured by more specific traits?

Kaufman reviews the research on authenticity and show that really it’s just a rationalization for holding a favorably biased view of ourselves. People tend to think they are being authentic when they are acting on their virtues, being their best self, and also acting in ways that are congruent with societal expectations. The concept of authenticity is, in essence, used to manage one’s reputation. I am being authentic when doing things that other people will view positively, and not being my true self when I do things that will harm my reputation.

But as Kaufman points out – everything we do is a manifestation of some aspect of our true self. If you are acting in a way that is not congruent with your core values, you are still doing it for a reason that is part of your overall personality – that is part of your “true self.” If you are engaging in biased processing, or being insincere, these are part of who you are also – otherwise you wouldn’t be doing them.

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Jun 17 2019

Fake Skepticism About Psychics

I was recently sent a link to a site purporting to advise – “5 Easy Ways To Tell If Your Psychic Is The Real Deal Or A Fraud.” The title itself is a red flag. A better title might be – 5 ways we can know that all psychics are frauds. So of course I can replace these five ways with one even simpler more surefire way – they are giving you a psychic reading. If they are doing that while taking your money and pretending it’s real, they are a fraud. They may believe it’s real themselves, but that doesn’t make it real.

In reality this is just an advertisement for this specific psychic – they are warning you away from their competition by arguing that they are genuine. This is a age-old advertising technique, to make people feel insecure about your competition, so they will buy your product or service just to be safe.

But let’s take a look at these five ways. The first is: They don’t offer a refund. Offering a refund is a common sales technique in itself, it gives the customer the impression that there is no risk. However, you always have to read the fine print. What are the conditions under which a refund is given, what do you have to do to get your refund, and are there any hidden costs (like – just pay shipping and handling).

They also say, “It’s a fallacy to think that psychic gifts should be given free, they aren’t, because time is still being utilized and spent.” This is true in that anyone is allowed compensation for their time. But the stated assumption is that the person has “psychic gifts.” There are no standards for determining if someone has such actual gifts. Essentially they are saying – if it feels right to you, then its genuine. This just means that this particular psychic is confident in their performance skills.

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Jun 13 2019

There is No One Energy Solution

This is part 3 of my informal series about our energy infrastructure. My last post was about addressing concerns about nuclear energy, but really can only be understood in the context of our overall energy plan. The comments have been quite fruitful, and I would like to thank all the commenters who provided useful resources for further information, much of which I will synthesize here. That was exactly what I was hoping for, so again, thanks.

I won’t rehash the assessment of nuclear power, but just summarize my position. I am not saying that nuclear is the answer, only that something like it is necessary, and we should not take it off the table. Nuclear is relatively safe, we have plenty of fuel (enough to last centuries), we can deal with the waste, and the Gen IV reactors are extremely promising. But even for those who acknowledge those points but still reject nuclear, a common theme emerged. That theme is – we don’t need nuclear because X is a better option. This approach, however, is fatally flawed for two important reasons.

The first has to do with the economics of power utilities, which ironically was often raised as a point against nuclear – it’s too expensive. The best reference to address this issue is this lecture by Jesse Jenkins, a Harvard environmental fellow.  He addresses this, plus another common theme that emerged in the comments – we no longer need baseload production; that is an antiquated notion. I encourage you to watch the entire lecture, but here is the quick version.

There are three basic types of energy production and demand that we can use to balance the grid, to match production with demand moment to moment.

1- We have intermittent energy sources, mainly wind and solar. Their advantage is that they are renewable and zero carbon. Their disadvantage is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled.

2 – There is “firm” energy production (similar concept to baseload). There are sources of power that run at a constant rate and are slow to ramp up or down. This does not mean they cannot be varied at all, just not quickly. We might, for example, plan on turning off a reactor during a time of day when we know solar production will peak. In this category are nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and natural gas with carbon capture. We might also add to this category strategies for long term, massive, cheap energy storage.

3 – Rapid response strategies. This include sources of energy that can quickly be turned on and off, mostly natural gas. It also includes rapid storage options, like batteries, that can provide instant energy. On the demand side this category would also include strategies like shifting demand, such as charging your electric car overnight during minimal energy demand to smooth out the demand curve.

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Jun 10 2019

Answering Questions About Nuclear Power

It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the same comments crop up, with the same objections. So I want to explore, as best I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an expert. This is my personal synthesis of publicly available information. I also consider blogs to be as much conversations as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, especially if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring genuine expertise to bear. Sometimes, in fact, I specifically choose a topic to blog about because I want to “crowd source” it in the comments.

Overall, while I think that nuclear power is likely to be a critical component of our attempts at minimizing carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no dog in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. I also think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have trade-offs. So my approach is – what are all the risks and benefits to nuclear, and are they ultimately worth it in the end, compared to all the alternatives?

I have taken the same approach to this question that I take to all controversial questions – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or final arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really compelling arguments against using nuclear power. There are some legitimate points against nuclear, they just don’t add up to a reason not to use it, in my opinion. So let me go through them.

Nuclear Energy Safety

Safety is often a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the safest form of energy production we have. We need to do an entire lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and environmental effects (including waste and pollution). Every single reference I have found indicates that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the safest form of energy production.  Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).

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Jun 07 2019

Chernobyl Miniseries – The Good and Bad

If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” I recommend it. It is fantastic storytelling, and manages to grip your attention even though you know what happened and the story is extremely grim.

But there are also some major problems with the story. Unfortunately, one of its flaws undercuts its primary strength. This is historical drama, and as everyone should know by now “Hollywoodized” versions of history are never accurate. Braveheart, for example, is famously good storytelling, but horrible history. It gets pretty much everything wrong, but has had a massive influence on the public’s understanding of the historical events it mangles.

I know – fiction is fiction. But historical fiction does often pretend to be at least minimally accurate. It is perhaps more insidious in that it mixes truth and fiction in a way deliberately crafted to be compelling. It is a powerful method of misinformation.

So how does Chernobyl do? What I liked about the series is that the main villain is the lies and deception inherent in the Soviet system. A quote from the final episode states this well:

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.”

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Jun 06 2019

The Metric System Is Not a Conspiracy

Oh boy. I probably shouldn’t do this, but my “someone is wrong on the internet” instincts are overwhelming me. Tucker Carlson recently had on a guest, James Panero, who essentially repeats the arguments he laid out in this article. Who is Panero? Apparently he is an art critic. I don’t know if he is truly a conspiracy nut, or was just looking for an issue to propel him onto the media for his 15 minutes of fame.

I will also say at this point that I don’t think Carlson is worth responding to. He, in my opinion, is just a highly paid troll catering to an extreme political view. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes, but I wouldn’t assume he believes what he says. Performance art is a more likely hypothesis.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. He put the arguments out there, complete with factual errors and poor logic, and it’s worth setting the record straight.

Carlson starts:

“Almost every nation on Earth has fallen to tyranny: the metric system,” said Carlson. “From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only country that is resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.”

He mispronounces “kilograms” then makes a funny face – performance art.  But on to the actual arguments. Panero makes the point that “It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.”

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Jun 04 2019

New Information on the CRISPR Babies

Last year a Chinese researcher, Dr. He Jiankui, announced that he had altered the germ line DNA of two babies using the relatively new and powerful gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. Dr. He is back in the news because of a new study looking at the effect of a mutation similar to the one Dr. He created on the life expectancy of those with the natural variant. The study finds that those who are homozygous for the gene variant (the delta 32 mutation of the CCR5 gene) have a 21% greater all cause mortality than those without the variant. What this means for the two children is unclear, but does raise concern.

Dr. He took it upon himself, without proper oversight or approval, to use CRISPR to alter the CCR5 (C-C chemokine receptor type 5) gene of embryos he then used for IVF (in-vitro fertilization) on his patient. The father who donated the sperm for fertilization (the patient’s husband) is HIV positive, so He sought to make a genetic change to the eggs to prevent HIV infection from the father. CCR5 is a protein on white blood cells that is used by HIV as an important gateway into the cell. Without it HIV infection becomes much less likely. There are other gateways, so it is not perfect immunity, but those with the naturally-occurring delta 32 mutation of CCR5 seem to be immune to HIV as a result.

He’s plan was to alter the CCR5 gene in the embryos in a way similar to, but not identical to, the delta 32 mutation. This was apparently successful in preventing HIV infection in the resulting babies. He announced what he had done after their live and apparently healthy birth.

He received widespread criticism for what he did for several legitimate reasons. First and foremost is his unsanctioned use of CRISPR on humans. He essentially conducted illegal human research. Human research is carefully regulated, with international standards, in order to protect the rights of people from harm and exploitation. He bypassed these regulations and was acting as a rogue researcher. That in and of itself is a career-ender.

Further, the specific application that He chose was not necessary. There are already effective proven treatments to minimize the chance of HIV infection from infected sperm used in IVF. Using an experimental treatment instead of a proven standard treatment is also considered unethical.

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Jun 03 2019

Should You Nap?

Some cultures routinely have a siesta after lunch. Is napping in the middle of the day good for you or bad? The short answer is – it depends. However a new study adds further evidence for a possible benefit to the mid-day nap, at least for elementary school children.

Let’s start with the concerns about napping, which has to do with “sleep hygiene.” Sleep hygiene refers to behaviors that optimize sleep quality, such as avoiding bright light late at night, going to bed with an empty stomach and bladder, and keeping a consistent schedule. One item on the good sleep hygiene list has been to avoid napping during the day. The problem with napping is that it makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night, which can result in a net loss of total sleep and sleep quality.

But it turns out the real answer is more nuanced. Some studies, such as this Spanish study in favor of siestas, show that a 30 minute light nap in the early afternoon is actually a net benefit, including improved memory, performance, and a reduction in stress. In 1995 NASA conducted a study and found that 26 minutes was the optimal time for their pilots to nap in order to optimize performance.

The features of a beneficial nap, therefore, include a limit on time to around half an hour. They also include (and this is probably a linked feature) lightly napping only – not falling into a deep sleep. The deep sleep is more likely to interfere with sleep onset at night. Also, the nap needs to be early in the afternoon, at least four hours prior to when you want to sleep at night. It should also be part of your routine schedule.

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May 31 2019

Teaching Media Literacy

Like many activist skeptics I have spoken to, on several occasions I have been summoned to jury duty, which was a short-lived experience. On voir dire I was asked what I do and the fact that I host a skeptical podcast came up. This lead to my almost instantaneous dismissal. Lawyers, apparently, don’t want a skeptical jury. They want jurors they can manipulate. Likewise, politicians often appreciate a pliable electorate, willing to internalize whatever slogan or propaganda they feed them. Democracy, however, functions best when citizens are informed and can think critically about the information politicians and their government are feeding them.

This is why there is so much hand-wringing over what many feel is a crisis of “fake news.” As is often pointed out, fake news is nothing new, but we do seem to be entering an era of “truth decay.” Media contains more appeals to emotion, and fewer verifiable facts. Social media is certainly playing a role in this, but of course it is complicated to fully define this. The prevailing question is – what do we do about it?

As CNN reports, Finland’s answer is to do something radical – teach media literacy to all citizens. As CNN also points out, Finland is a small homogeneous country with a particular culture and national identity, which means we cannot simply extrapolate their experience to other countries. The media landscape in the US, for example, is very different. But, there is also likely considerable overlap in the challenges being faced. Finland also faces Russian propaganda exploits, and is dealing with the same array of social media outlets as everyone else.

What is media literacy? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (which ironically has the horrible acronym NAMLE), defines media literacy as:

The ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication.

One example of good communication would be, for example, not overusing all caps. But seriously, the goal is essentially to teach critical thinking in the context of consuming all media. This goal might be familiar to the readers of this blog. This is also the exact topic of my recent book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to know what’s really real in a world increasingly full of fake. The subtitle is another way to frame media literacy.

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May 30 2019

The Role of Carbon Capture

The primary solution to avoid the worst consequences of CO2 induced climate change is to reduce the release of additional CO2 into the atmosphere. So far we have not achieved even this goal – the global release of CO2 reached a new record in 2018 at 37.1 billion tonnes. We need to reverse this trend, for CO2 emissions to actually start decreasing globally. There is debate about how quickly this has to happen to avoid specific outcomes, but it’s pretty clear that we need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions over the next 50 years. Ideally we would get to net-zero emissions – or better yet, net negative emissions. But how is that possible?

This is the idea of carbon capture – taking carbon back out of the atmosphere for long term storage. The problem is not that we can’t do this. We can. The problem is that current processes are limited. They have two main problems. The first is that they can’t be done on a meaningful scale. We mostly have laboratory proof-of-concept techniques, but without a clear way to scale them up to industrial levels. We need to be removing billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, anything less is just a drop in the bucket. The second problem is energy efficiency.

The term “carbon capture” refers to various methods. This includes just growing biomass, which naturally incorporates carbon from the atmosphere. Plant life temporarily stores carbon, until it dies and rots. Or it can be turned into biofuel, or buried underground for more permanent storage. You can also use minerals to capture carbon, or phytoplankton which then sink the ocean floor when they die. The term can also refer to the process of recouping some of the carbon released when burning fossil fuels.

What we really want, however, is direct air capture of carbon dioxide – taking carbon that is already in the air and removing it. We can do this now, but again not on a scale or efficiency that we need.

What would we do with the carbon once we take it out of the atmosphere? There are three basic approaches. The simplest is simply to bury it in a solid stable form. This will sequester the carbon long term, reversing the process of burning fossil fuels which releases previously sequestered carbon.

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