Sep 12 2019

What Is Red Mercury?

I’m not a fan of the Star Trek movies reboot. While I do like the cast, and as a Trek fan I have some level of enjoyment of anything in the franchise, the movies were disappointing. As is usually the case with big budget movie failures, the problem was in the writing. Case in point – red matter. This is a mysterious substance invented by Vulcans in the future, a single drop of which could produce a singularity. It appears as a blob of red liquid. In the end it was a silly physics-breaking plot device that took you out of the movie.

I was reminded of this with recent reports of another mysterious red matter – so-called red mercury. As far as I know there is no connection between the two, and the similarity is pure coincidence. Perhaps the only connection is a psychological one. Mercury is already a fascinating substance, a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It would be fun to play with, if it weren’t so toxic. Red mercury would be an even more exotic form of this amazing element, and that is perhaps the same wonder-factor that the movie writers were going for.

In any case – as with red matter, red mercury does not actually exist. I write about a lot of things here that don’t actually exist, in order to deconstruct persistent belief in something nonexistent. People, apparently, are good at believing in things that aren’t real, a manifestation of the many flaws and limitations in our belief-generating machinery.

Beliefs can be generated and supported by a number of mechanisms – first hand experience, a phenomenon having a real effect in the world, misperception, biased memories, deliberate cons, wish fulfillment, cultural inertia, and a host of cognitive biases.  There are sufficient mechanisms of belief at work to create and sustain belief in something without any basis in objective reality. Every culture, in fact, is overwhelmed with such beliefs.

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Sep 10 2019

How the Brain Filters Sound

Our brains are constantly assailed by sensory stimuli. Sound, in particular, may bombard us from every direction, depending on the environment. That is a lot of information for brains to process, and so mammalian brains evolved mechanisms to filter out stimuli that is less likely to be useful. As our understanding of these mechanisms has become more sophisticated it has become clear that the brain is operating at multiple levels simultaneously.

A recent study both highlights these insights and gives a surprising result about one mechanism for auditory processing. Neuroscientists have long known about auditory sensory gating (ASG) – if the brain is exposed to identical sounds close together, subsequent sounds are significantly reduced. This fits with the general observation that the brain responds more to new stimuli and changes in stimuli, and quickly become tolerant to repeated stimuli. This is just one way to filter out background noise and pay attention to the bits that are most likely to be important.

Further, for ASG specifically, it has been observed that schizophrenics lack this filter. You can even diagnoses schizophrenia partly by doing what is called a P50 test – you give two identical auditory stimuli 500ms apart, and then measure the response in the auditory part of the brain. In typical people (and mice and other mammals) there is a significant (60% or more) reduction in the response to the second sound. In some patients with schizophrenia, this reduction does not occur.

In fact researchers have identified a genetic mutation, the 22q11 deletion syndrome, that can be associated with a higher risk of schizophrenia and a failure of ASG. Reduced ASG may be the cause of some symptoms in these patients with schizophrenia, but is also clearly not the whole picture. It’s common for a single mutation is a gene that contributes to brain development or function to result in a host of changes to ultimate brain function.

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Sep 09 2019

Born That Way

If someone is a bad person based on their behavior, are they more likely to have been born that way, or the result of environmental factors? Does it matter to how you would treat them, or how they should ethically be treated? If someone is a very good person, is their behavior the result of nature vs nurture? The actual answer to this age-old nature vs nurture debate is – it’s complicated. Both factors play a role in a complex interaction that differs for different people. It’s likely that true psychopaths were born that way, lacking an empathy circuit that most typical people possess in their brains. But of course there are also cultural norms that have a profound effect on our behavior.

Psychologists have been asking a slightly different question – not what the answer objectively is, but what do people assume that it is, and how does that affect their behavior toward other people. The assumption or belief that behavior is due primarily to instrinsic factors is called essentialism. A recent study looked at both children and adults and how they thought about characters with both morally good and morally bad behavior. Prior research suggests that in general we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to essential factors. People don’t just do good vs bad things, they are good vs bad.

This is part of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute our own behavior to external factors and other people’s behavior to internal factors. I am the victim of circumstances beyond my control, but that other person (perhaps acting in an identical way) is just a bad person.

The new study adds some further nuance to this effect. They found that study participants (both children and adults) were more likely to attribute good moral behavior to essentialist causes than bad moral behavior. So if someone does good things, it’s because they are a good person. If they do bad things, it’s because of their bad environment. This is an interesting result, and suggest several questions to me. First, how universal is this? Is that result itself a product of learned behavior, a product of our time and culture? Would the result have been different in the 1950s in the US, and would it be different in other countries? I would also be interested in seeing how the results differ based on ideology.

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Sep 06 2019

Information Gerrymandering

Democracy, in a very real sense, is math. The point is to aggregate decision-making in order to arrive at the fairest outcome for the greatest number of people. Andrea Jones-Rooy, who spoke at NECSS this year, gave a great lecture about this. Here is an article she wrote about Arrow’s Theorem that goes over the basic concept, but she went into more detail during the talk. Essentially there is no system of voting that has perfect fairness (ranked choice vs least objectionable option, for example), so we just have to pick one and live with the trade-offs.

Jones-Rooy, however, was talking about different systems that work as intended, no cheating. If, however, one group puts their thumb on the scale, the democratic process can be massively distorted. Beyond a certain point you no longer even have a true democracy. Voting becomes a sham used to give a patina of legitimacy to a dictator or minority rule.

Perhaps the best known form of voting distortion in the US is gerrymandering. The best description I have heard of this is that it is a way for politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters to choose their politicians. The idea is to carve up voting districts deliberately to favor one party, so that even if they have 40% of the voters in one state, they can secure 60% or more of the representatives. (This doesn’t work for senators or presidents where voting is state-wide.)

Researchers, however, have published an article in Nature in which they describe a more insidious form of distortion – information gerrymandering. This amounts to a rigorous mathematical description of a phenomenon we have been discussing, the effect of social media networks on public opinion. They found:

Players are assigned to competing groups (parties) and placed on an ‘influence network’ that determines whose voting intentions each player can observe. Players are incentivized to vote according to partisan interest, but also to coordinate their vote with the entire group. Our mathematical analysis uncovers a phenomenon that we call information gerrymandering: the structure of the influence network can sway the vote outcome towards one party, even when both parties have equal sizes and each player has the same influence.

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Sep 05 2019

DNA Analysis of Loch Ness

If you have never been to the highlands of Scotland, add it to your list of places you should visit. It is incredibly beautiful. When I was there last year we visited Loch Lomond of lyrical fame, and also the largest lake in Great Britain. We were given the option of instead visiting Loch Ness, and we had to explain to our guide that she had a bus full of skeptics. She was relieved because she thought Lomond was the better destination, but of course most tourists want to see the more famous Loch.

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has now taken on a life of its own, and it seems unlikely that any evidence, no matter how definitive, will kill it. Rumors of a monster in the Loch go back centuries, but the modern myth was kicked off by the famous Surgeon’s Photo. In 1934 Colonel Robert Wilson, a British surgeon, published his now iconic photo. His accomplice later confessed this was a hoax, using a model built out of a toy submarine and a clay head (which I always thought looked like it was modeled after an arm and hand). But it was too late, a myth was born.

A recent headline from the BBC now declares: “Loch Ness Monster may be a giant eel, say scientists.” The problem with this claim is that there is no Loch Ness Monster, so it can’t be anything. Of course they mean that giant eels may be responsible for Nessie sightings, but even this is misleading. There is likely no single phenomenon responsible for the continued sightings of something unusual in Loch Ness.

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Sep 03 2019

The Politics of Nuclear Power

Our president is a global warming denier, is anti-vaccine, and is a conspiracy theorist. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, being anti-science is never a good thing. When those in positions of power are ignorant of science and hostile to the institutions of science and the methods that those institutions espouse, that is a recipe for disaster.

But even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. And even though there appears to be a significant asymmetry in the degree to which our two major political parties take anti-scientific positions, on some issues the political left has it wrong for their own ideological reasons. The two big anti-science issues popular on the left are anti-GMO stances and anti-nuclear energy. The latter was recently brought into sharp relief when Trump signed a, “Memorandum on the Effect of Uranium Imports on the National Security and Establishment of the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group.” 

I doubt that Trump, who has demonstrated profound anti-intellectualism and even an unwillingness to read, has a deep knowledge of the scientific issues surrounding nuclear power, but he is a conduit for those who do, unfettered by political opposition (which remains on the left). Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, in his version of the green new deal, states, “To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.” He plans to completely and quickly phase out all nuclear power in the US.

I have to point out for completeness that more moderate Democratic candidates, like Joe Biden, do include nuclear power in their energy infrastructure plans to combat global warming.

Also, attitudes toward nuclear power have been moving toward more favorable in recent years. This seems to be due to a few factors. The more people know about nuclear power, the more favorable they are towards it. Fears about global warming have caused some to moderate their views on nuclear energy. And newer reactors designs are moving toward smaller and safer designs.

There is still an asymmetry politically, however. Only 31% of Democrats say that nuclear power is essential or helpful, while 34% say it would be harmful. For Republicans the numbers are 50% and 17% respectively.

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Aug 27 2019

Acupuncture Points Don’t Exist

Acupuncture is defined as an intervention involving placing thin needles into specified acupuncture points in order to relieve symptoms or promote healing. What is special about the acupoints? They are supposed to be locations where the flow of life force (chi) can be manipulated. There are a few problems with the claims made for acupuncture. First, there is no place for vitalism – belief in a life force – in modern science. There is no evidence that it exists and no reason to hypothesize that it exists. It is worse than wrong. It is unnecessary. There is also no convincing evidence, after a century of research and thousands of studies, that acupuncture works for anything.

But also, an independently fatal flaw in the notion of acupuncture is that there is no evidence that acupuncture points exist. They are a complete fiction. They have no basis in anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, biochemistry, or empirical evidence. A recent study highlights this fact – Accuracy and Precision in Acupuncture Point Location: A Critical Systematic Review. This is a review by acupuncturists in the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies. The authors reviewed the literature for any studies that looked at the precision and reliability of the location of acupoints and found:

Considerable variation in localization of acupoints was reported among qualified medical acupuncturists. Variation in point location among qualified non-medical acupuncturists is unknown due to lack of any identified study. The directional method was found to be significantly inaccurate and imprecise in all studies that evaluated the method.

So acupuncturists cannot agree upon where alleged acupoints actually are on the body, and the primary method to localize them was both inaccurate and imprecise. The simplest explanation for this fact is that acupoints don’t exist. Even if you want to hold out the illogical conclusion that acupoints do exist, even though they have no basis in theory and they cannot be detected by any objective measure, you cannot avoid the conclusion based on this evidence that acupuncturists don’t know where they are. So how, then, can they claim to be able to stick needles into acupoints? Short answer – they can’t.

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Aug 26 2019

False Memories and Fake News

Here’s yet another reminder that our memories are reconstructed fabrications our brains use to reinforce existing narratives. A new study of 3,140 participants finds that exposing people to fake news created false memories of the depicted events in about half of subjects.

What the researchers did specifically was show people in Ireland prior to the 2018 referendum on abortion, six news stories, two of which were fake. One of the fake stories was about campaign posters being destroyed after it was discovered that they were illegally funded by an American. Later, about half of the subjects reported false memories regarding at least one of the two fake stories. About one third of the subjects included details in their fake memories that were not included in the original stories.

Further, subjects were more likely to form false memories if the fake news dealt with a scandal for the other side (so “yes” voters were more likely to form false memories regarding a scandal involving the “no” vote). And perhaps most concerning, when the subjects were told which news stories were fake, this only decreased the false memories slightly. It did not correct the effect.

None of this is entirely new, but it is the first study like it involving a real-time political event. This research reinforces what psychologists have been demonstrating for years – that memories are constructed, and then reconstructed in remembering, that memories are partly thematic and the details will morph to fit the theme, and that fake memories are relatively easy to create. Once formed a fake memory feels just like a real memory. They are just as vivid and compelling as a genuine or more accurate memory. Vividness does not predict accuracy, despite the fact that this is what most people assume.

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Aug 22 2019

AI and Scaffolding Networks

A recent commentary in Nature Communications echoes, I think, a key understanding of animal intelligence, and therefore provides an important lesson for artificial intelligence (AI). The author, Anthony Zador, extends what has been an important paradigm shift in our approach to AI.

Early concepts of AI, as reflected in science fiction at least (which I know does not necessarily track with actual developments in the industry) was that the ultimate goal was to develop a general AI that could master tasks from the top down through abstract understanding – like humans. Actual developers of AI, however, quickly learned that this might not be the best approach, and in any case is decades away at least. I remember reading in the 1980s about approaching AI more from the ground up.

The first analogy I recall is that of walking – how do we program a robot to walk? We don’t need a human cortex to do this. Insects can walk. Also, much of the processing required to walk is in the deeper more primitive parts of our brain, not the more complex cortex. So maybe we should create the technology for a robot to walk by starting with the most basic algorithms similar to those used by the simplest creatures, and then build up from there.

My memory, at least, is that this completely flipped my concept of how we were approaching AI. Don’t build a robot with general intelligence who can do anything and then teach it to walk. You don’t even build algorithms that can walk. You break walking down into its component parts, and then build algorithms that can master and combine each of those parts. This was reinforced by my later study of neuroscience. Yeah – that is exactly how our brains work. We have modules and networks that do very specific things, and they combine together to produce more and more sophisticated behavior.

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Aug 20 2019

Nuke Mars?

Remember that scene at the end of Total Recall when the alien machine melts the polar ice on Mars, and within a minute gives Mars a warm breathable atmosphere? Of course, there was a lot wrong with that scene – not the least of which is that the polar caps on Mars are not composed of anything close to a breathable atmosphere. The northern ice cap is mostly composed of water. There is a thin top layer of carbon dioxide (CO2) ice during the winter that sublimates (turns into gas) in the summer. The southern cap undergoes the same process, and is also made of water ice and CO2 ice, but apparently has more CO2 ice than the northern cap. You will notice there is no oxygen in there.

But could, theoretically, we melt the ice caps as part of a plan to terraform Mars? Elon Musk previously floated the idea of nuking Mars – exploding many nuclear bombs over the ice caps in order to quickly melt them, turning the water and CO2 into vapor and thereby warming the planet and thickening its atmosphere. The result would not be an instantly comfortable and breathable atmosphere, but could take us a long way to making Mars more habitable. Musk’s idea was soundly criticized, but recently he tweeted the idea again (although no one is sure if he is serious or not, or just trying to sell T-shirts), but it has resurrected the discussion about whether nuking Mars is a viable option.

A 2018 paper published in Nature crunched the numbers of what we know about non-atmospheric CO2 reserves on Mars. They counted not just the ice caps, but also the carbon bound in the soil. They concluded:

These results suggest that there is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be emplaced into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas in these reservoirs is not accessible and thus cannot be readily mobilized. As a result, we conclude that terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.

That’s discouraging. There isn’t an atmosphere on Mars waiting to be melted or liberated. There is also the question of whether or not exploding nukes over the poles would even work to melt the ice. By some calculations we would need thousands of nukes per day over weeks to accomplish this. And then, of course, the gases would freeze again, because there is not enough CO2 to sustain warming. So – no “blue skies on Mars” anytime soon.

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