Archive for July, 2018

Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

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Jul 30 2018

Eye Movements and Personality

Published by under Neuroscience

Have you ever seen someone with “shifty” eyes? How much can we really tell about someone from just their eye movements? This is an interesting question that researchers are exploring. A recent study uses artificial intelligence software to attempt to correlate eye movements of subjects during a specific task with standard measures of personality.

Let’s take a look at this study and then discuss what it all means. Researchers rigged 50 subjects with head gear to record their eye movements:

“Binocular gaze data were tracked using a state-of-the-art head-mounted video-based eye tracker from SensorMotoric Instruments (SMI) at 60Hz. The tracker has a reported gaze estimation accuracy of 0.5° and precision of 0.1°. The tracker recorded gaze data, along with a high-resolution scene video on a mobile phone that was carried in a cross-body bag.”

The data from eight of the subjects was not usable, so they were left with 42 subjects. They recorded an average of about 13 minutes from each subject with about 20% loss of data. They also gave each subject a standardized personality test, and then used an AI learning algorithm to correlate features of eye movement with outcomes on the personality test. They analyzed the data to see how much the eye movements “predicted” the personality traits, and found:

“…our classifier performs well above chance (that is, confidence intervals do not overlap with any of the baseline performances) for neuroticism (40.3%), extraversion (48.6%), agreeableness (45.9%), conscientiousness (43.1%), and perceptual curiosity (PCS, 37.1%). For openness (30.8%) and the Curiosity and Exploration Inventory (CEI, 27.2%) our classifier performs below chance level.”

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Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

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Jul 26 2018

Water on Mars

Published by under Astronomy

It looks like Mars has become the third body in the solar system that has a body of water beneath a cover of ice. As reported by AAAS:

Between May 2012 and December 2015, the Mars Express spacecraft was used to conduct a radar survey of a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars. A tool onboard the spacecraft sends radar pulses that penetrate the surface and ice caps of the planet and reflections off subsurface features provide scientists with information about what lies below.

The scientists concluded that water was the best explanation for the radar images. This is far from confirmation, but it is a strong suggestion and certainly warrants follow up.

We have known for a long time that Mars used to be a watery planet, with flowing water on its surface. There are geological features that look like ancient river beds, for example.  In order to have surface water, however, you need an atmosphere with enough pressure and warmth, so Mars likely had a thick enough atmosphere in the past. That atmosphere was lost over time, probably due to the steady pressure of the solar winds, without any significant magnetic field to protect from it (like we have on Earth).

There is also evidence for water on Mars today – there is a tiny amount of water vapor in the thin atmosphere. There is also permanent water ice in the ice caps on Mars. There is a transient and seasonal carbon dioxide ice layer in the north and a permanent carbon dioxide layer over the southern ice cap, but both are mostly water ice. In fact, if all the ice on Mars melted, it could cover the entire surface to a depth of 35 meters. Finally there is water ice in the surface soil on Mars, which occasionally boils away at the surface.

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Jul 24 2018

Are Hyperloops the Future?

Published by under Technology

Starting around 1550 primitive railroads were developed as a way to move coal, first within increasingly deep mines, and then from the increasingly distant coal mines to the towns and cities where the coal was needed. At first they were simply wooden rails to help support the wheels of carriages on soft dirt roads. Ties were added for further support. Rails were changed to iron and then steel to add durability. Eventually steam-powered engines were used to move the rail cars.

Even though rail lines were laid to move coal and metal ores from mines, it was simple to add a car for people, which was just an afterthought. Railroads became an efficient way to quickly move large loads and lots of people at high speed over long distances, and were central to the industrial revolution.

Later motorized carriages (cars) became popular. Gasoline powered internal combustion engines beat out steam engines and electrical vehicles when Ford built his factory and outproduced all competition.

Soon after the Wright Brothers worked out the technology for powered controlled flight, airplanes were used for commercial and military purposes, and soon to move passengers.

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Jul 23 2018

Oxford Study – Reanalyzing the Drake Equation

Published by under Astronomy

Earlier this year I wrote about two ways of looking at the probability of there being advanced alien civilizations – the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox, and how to resolve any apparent conflict between the two. The Drake Equation is simply a series of probabilities of all the factors necessary to have technological civilizations.

The Drake Equation is:

{\displaystyle N=R_{*}\cdot f_{\mathrm {p} }\cdot n_{\mathrm {e} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {l} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {i} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {c} }\cdot L}


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible


R = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Of course we do not know any of the variables. All we can do is input a range of possible answers and see what range of results it spits out. That is exactly what a new study from Oxford researchers did.

This “study” does not include any new information, it is simply a new analysis of the Drake Equation, inputting what they authors think are the most reasonable figures, including the full range of our uncertainty. They argue that the uncertainty is even greater than has been previously considered the case, and when the full range of uncertainty is taken into account, the answers to how many civilizations there are out there varies by orders of magnitude.

Most importantly, the range of possible answers to the Drake Equation equals 1 – meaning that humanity is the only technological civilization in the known universe. They write:

When the model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.

They argue that their results resolve the Fermi Paradox, which is simply a question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi – If there are any alien civilizations out there, where are they?

Fermi was musing that, given millions of years of spacefaring technology, a civilization in our galaxy could have explored and even settled the entire galaxy. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is almost as old (13.5 billion years) There are an estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. That is a lot of time for any civilization to explore and spread out. So why aren’t we seeing them.

One might extend this argument to SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio astronomy. While SETI has explored only a small percentage of the sky, and in a small percentage of possible frequencies, the more we search the more we can say that the galaxy is not humming with alien signals.

The Fermi Paradox can be resolved in a number of ways. It’s possible that the resources necessary for interstellar travel are simply not worth it. It is also possible that our alien neighbors may respect our autonomy and are keeping their distance. But it may also be true that our nearest alien neighbor is a galaxy or more away, really making it not worth the resources to travel to our humble system. All this would take is for any one of the factors in the Drake Equation to be at the low end of estimates.

The one factor we are learning more about is the number of possible worlds in the galaxy that could potentially host life. The search for exoplanets, while still in its infancy, is rapidly finding thousands of worlds around other stars, and we are starting to be able to make statistical statements about typical stellar systems. The numbers are still biased by our search methods, but we are working toward a more accurate representative picture.

First, it turns out that planets are common around other stars. Further, Earth-like planets are also common. Further still, as pointed out by another recent study, this one from Australia, moons may be an even more abundant potential location for life than planets. Large moons around gas giants may have liquid water. We have two such candidates in our own system, Europa and Enceladus. But the researchers are talking more about moons in the goldilocks zone, where liquid water can exist on the surface.

So the answer to the Fermi paradox is not likely to be found in the number of potential host worlds. We can turn next to the probability of life of any kind developing, and that is where we get back to Europa and Enceladus. Even Mars may help inform this question. If we find life or the fossils of life on these other worlds in our own system, that would support the conclusion that life itself is abundant in the universe.

Until, however, we detect actual aliens or their signals, the rest of the factors in the equation are likely to remain a mystery. Put simply – we have a sample size of one. We don’t know how likely life is to develop intelligence, and intelligence technology, and how long such civilizations tend to last. We won’t know until we encounter evidence of aliens.

And, if there are few or no other aliens out there, we will never know the full answer. We would only have increasingly negative evidence and the sense that we are alone.

This does not have to be a depressing thought, however, although it would be disappointing. In response to this study, Elon Musk tweeted:

This is why we must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization & extending life to other planets.

Sure, this is a bit self-serving as his company is trying to get to Mars and this is one of his main justifications for the effort. But it is true, none-the-less. If we are the only technological intelligent species in the galaxy or even the universe, how much the more precious are we. Carl Sagan pointed that out decades ago.

If we are the beneficiaries of a fantastically unlikely series of events, so unlikely that there is only one example in 2 trillion galaxies over billions of years, then we should take all the more care to value and preserve that civilization.

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Jul 20 2018

Cancer Patients Using Alternative Medicine Twice As Likely To Die

This is the second study published in the last year looking at outcomes of cancer patients using alternative medicine, showing a negative effect on survival. The same author, Skylar Johnson, was the lead author on both studies. Last year’s study looked at using alternative treatments instead of standard therapy, and the newly published study looks at patients who used at least one standard therapy.

In the current study, just published in JAMA Oncology, the researchers followed a cohort of 258 cancer patients who used alternative medicine, and 1032 matched patients who did not. They found:

Patients who chose CM did not have a longer delay to initiation of CCT but had higher refusal rates of surgery (7.0% [18 of 258] vs 0.1% [1 of 1031]; P < .001), chemotherapy (34.1% [88 of 258] vs 3.2% [33 of 1032]; P < .001), radiotherapy (53.0% [106 of 200] vs 2.3% [16 of 711]; P < .001), and hormone therapy (33.7% [87 of 258] vs 2.8% [29 of 1032]; P < .001). Use of CM was associated with poorer 5-year overall survival compared with no CM (82.2% [95% CI, 76.0%-87.0%] vs 86.6% [95% CI, 84.0%-88.9%]; P = .001) and was independently associated with greater risk of death (hazard ratio, 2.08; 95% CI, 1.50-2.90) in a multivariate model that did not include treatment delay or refusal.

All that means that cancer patients who used alternative medicine in addition to at least some standard therapy were more likely to refuse chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. As a result patients using CM (complementary medicine, in the jargon chosen for the study) had a 5-year survival that dropped from 86.6% to 82.2%. This represents twice the risk of dying over this time.

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Jul 19 2018

Developing Cognitive Biases in Young Children

Published by under Neuroscience

I have discussed a number of cognitive biases over the years, based mostly on research in adults. For example, Kahneman and Tversky first proposed the representativeness heuristic in 1973. But at what age do children start using this heuristic?

A heuristic is essentially a mental short cut. Such short cuts are efficient, and decrease our cognitive load, but they are imperfect and prone to error.  In the representativeness heuristic we rely on social information and ignore numerical information when making probability judgments about people.

In the classic experiment subjects were given a description of the personality of a student, designed to be a stereotype of an engineer. They were then asked how likely it was that the student was an engineering student. Many subjects answered that the student was likely an engineering student, without considering the base rate – the percentage of students who are in engineering. Even when given that information showing it was unlikely the student was an engineer, many subjects ignored the numerical information and based their judgments entirely on the social information.

This can also be seen in the context of general cognitive styles – intuitive vs analytical (or thinking fast vs thinking slow – as in the title of Kahneman’s book). Intuitive thinking is our gut reaction, it is quick and relies heavily on social cues and pattern recognition. It is therefore fast, but is also error prone and subject to a host of cognitive biases.

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Jul 17 2018

A Glitch in the Matrix

Published by under Skepticism

The original Matrix movie was brilliant and innovative. It introduced movie elements that we now take for granted, like shifting perspective and “bullet-time”. The story, too, was creative and certainly captured the imagination. In fact, I would argue, the movie has become iconic, in that it represents a more general phenomenon. There is a serious philosophical question about the probability that we are living in a simulated universe. Often “The Matrix” stands in for the concept of any kind of simulated reality.

In the movie (huge spoiler if, for some reason, you have still not seen this movie) most of humanity is living, unbeknownst to them, in a digital simulated world. They are actually floating in pods, plugged in to a vast computer. The fake reality is called the Matrix. One clever plot point is that there are occasional small glitches in the Matrix, usually when those who control the Matrix are introducing new code. This is experience by humans trapped in the Matrix as experiences of deja vu, or errors in perception. In an animated sequel (Animatrix – highly recommended if you are a Matrix fan) glitches were even used to explain apparent paranormal activity. A “haunted” house was simply a computer glitch.

This was an interesting plot point because it reverses the normal line of argument. Some people, unsurprisingly, have taken this seriously, as if it applies to the real world, therefore proving that we are actually living in the Matrix.

Glitch in the brain vs glitch in reality

There is no question that people experience glitches in their stream of perception of external reality. This is a common topic of psychological study, and pretty much the entire field of stage illusion. One very common theme of critical thinking and scientific skepticism is that we seek to carefully explain these apparent glitches as largely neurological phenomena (an approach I call neuropsychological humility).

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Jul 16 2018

Motivated Reasoning vs Lazy Thinking

Published by under Neuroscience

A new study takes another look at partisan motivated reasoning, with surprising (sort of) results. The study shows that as interested critical thinkers, we need to keep up with the psychological research about critical thinking.

First some background – motivated reasoning refers to the tendency to rationalize a defense of a position that we hold with some emotional investment, and reject counter-evidence. If a certain belief is part of our tribal identity, or has emotional significance, we react differently to relevant facts than when a belief is emotionally neutral. For neutral beliefs, we happily update what we believe when new credible information is presented to us. I don’t really care if Thomas Edison invented the light bulb or stole part of the design from Joseph Swan (he did, but he made important improvements also) – whatever the historical data says, I will happily believe. But if someone claimed that George Washington really wanted to be made king of America but was forced to accept a lesser role (he didn’t, I just made that up), I might be motivated to push back just out of patriotism.

Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for years, and are discovering that it is a real thing, but it’s complicated (that should be no surprise). There is a general challenge with psychological studies that human behavior is complex and opaque, and they resort to using constructs and markers to reveal specific phenomena. How do you test motivated reasoning? First you have to separate people into groups based on some feature that should impact their motivation, such as ideology, religion, or political affiliation. Then challenge their beliefs and see how they respond.

Many studies have shown that when you do this, ideology matters. There is even a possible backlash effect, where motivated believers dig in their heels, but this effect is controversial and may be very small.

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