Archive for May, 2019

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

Published by under Technology

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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May 28 2019

Hyperloop Hype

Published by under Technology

Here is another future technology where it is not yet clear how things will work out – the hyperloop concept. Several companies are working on developing what is called a hyperloop – a closed tube with reduced air pressure that will operate like a rail system for high-speed travel. The idea is almost a staple of science fiction, but could one day be a reality.

Most of the press for hyperloop has focused on Elon Musk’s project, because he is Musk. I like that Musk is not afraid to pursue bold new technology, and not afraid to fail. He will throw a lot of money, and dedicated focus, at a problem and has produce some stunning results, such as SpaceX’s rockets able to land after use. But he doesn’t have any magical ability to get around real-world limitations, just the money to hire great engineers and sick them on a specific problem.

One of those problems is developing the hyperloop. The idea has some solid merit. Having a dedicated path for traffic (you know, like a train or subway) has advantages, especially if that pathway is isolated from pedestrian or competing traffic. The idea of using a tube with reduced air pressure, in order to minimize air resistance to improve travel efficiency, is also a good one. I remember reading about this decades ago, so the idea itself is not new to Musk. The closed tube would also protect the path from weather.

From there things get progressively tricky. Is the tube going to be above ground or below ground? Neither option is great, and a system may need to use a combination. Above ground is far cheaper, but then you have a tube cutting across the landscape. You could elevate it so as not to interfere with animals and other traffic, but that adds some expense and creates another point of maintenance and possible failure. Such a structure would also be hugely vulnerable to terrorism.

An underground tunnel would be optimal – out of sight, away from harm and the elements, and the path can run under cities, roads, rivers, and other obstacles. However, an underground system would be much more expensive, prohibitively so.

This, of course, is the exact same problem any similar mass transit system has. These are major infrastructure investments, and which lucky cities get to be on the path? Just working out the rights to pass through many different pieces of land can get horrifically complicated. But if we made this investment, what would be the potential pay off? This is where the hype comes in. Optimistic projections are that some hyperloop systems could have cruising speeds around 500 mph. There is time to speed up and slow down, but still, that’s a good clip.

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May 24 2019

Using Bacteria to Store Energy

Published by under Technology

Energy storage is now a critical technology for the future of our energy infrastructure. We want to move to renewable forms of energy, but many of them are intermittent sources, and so energy storage will be necessary. At low penetration, up to about 30%, we can essentially use the grid as if it were a battery – putting unused energy into the grid when producing excess, and then taking from the grid when demand exceeds production. Having an efficient electrical grid is essential for this strategy, but it has inherent limits. It requires that the majority of electricity in the grid comes from base load or on-demand sources.

There are many potential options for large scale energy storage, but no currently available options are ideal. A new study explores one such possible solution, using bacteria to produce energy storing molecules from sunlight. The authors of the study lay out the problem:

No present energy storage technology has the perfect combination of high power and energy density, low financial and environmental cost, lack of site restrictions, long cycle and calendar lifespan, easy materials availability, and fast response time.

We really need all of those features in one option for it to be an effective solution. If any one feature is bad enough it is a potential deal-killer. Right now pumped hydro has the greatest efficiency, but is very site restricted. Batteries are not site restricted and have good energy density, but have a limited life-span and use some expensive materials that are not harvested in an environmentally friendly way and cannot be easily recycled. Producing hydrogen for storage is not a bad option, but we need better storage technology for the hydrogen (that is what has delayed the hydrogen fuel cell car so far).

There are some new proposals out there as well, such as using excess energy to have cranes raise blocks of cement into a tower. The blocks can then be lowered to drive turbines and recover the energy.  You could also heat minerals that can hold onto the heat for a long time, or spin up fly wheels in a vacuum.

Again – none of these technologies are ideal. Likely we will by using a variety of methods in different locations and situations. The authors of the current review explore the potential of using engineered bacteria to store energy from sunlight in the form of carbon-based high energy molecules – essentially biofuel. Bacteria can split carbon from carbon dioxide using sunlight as their energy source. That carbon can then be used in other reactions to create hydrocarbons. Essentially the captured energy will be stored chemically.

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May 23 2019

How Do We Know?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

A Reddit thread in the Skeptic subreddit is framed as criticism toward skeptical philosophy. The questions it raises are all important, and honestly the poster should have just framed his points as questions rather than criticisms, because they reflect not problems with skeptical philosophy but their poor understanding of it. So the first lesson here is – humility. Don’t assume that an entire field you don’t fully understand is wrong. Rather, start with the assumption that you have more to learn, and then let proponents make their best case.

There are many good responses in the thread, which shows that a reasonable understanding of skeptical philosophy is out there in the community. The questions are very common beginner errors, and so they are worth responding to in detail. My first response, however, (as others in the thread have pointed out) is to begin with a basic text of the subject. Read a philosophy book. I humbly suggest The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which is designed to be a primer on skeptical philosophy and directly addresses all of the poster’s questions. But there are many good books out there, and even basic philosophical books on epistemology will do (they don’t have to be explicitly skeptical).

I point this out because I frequently encounter people who are trying to do philosophy without even realizing it, or without an appreciation for the depth of philosophy as an intellectual field. Philosophy is one of those things that everyone thinks they can do, even without a lick of education on the topic. Inevitably they make basic mistakes, often ones that were dealt with thousands of years ago by the first philosophers. This would be no different than making pronouncements about a highly technical field of science without ever having studied it, and without really knowing the position of experts.

He begins:

‘Fact’ – What is a ‘fact’? Google search says: “a thing that is known or proved to be true”. Here is my problem: ‘known’…by whom? I am from India and have seen both villages and towns. Different things are ‘known’ in different communities. For example, people in rural areas ‘know’ there exists witches and ghosts.

This is a basic question of epistemology – how do we know anything, and what does it mean to know something? Here is also a pearl – don’t rely on essentially a dictionary definition for insight into a technical term or concept.

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May 21 2019

The Inherent Contradiction of Marketing Homeopathy

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is suing Walmart for their marketing of homeopathic products, similar to a prior lawsuit against CVS. Their claim is that Walmart is using deceptive practices to sell homeopathy, implying that such products are equivalent to science-based remedies. While I applaud their effort, you can tell by reading the reporting that it is ultimately an exercise in futility.

First let me clearly state my underlying premise – homeopathy is pure 100% nonsense. It is a 200+ year old pre-scientific system of potions with no basis in reality. It is simply witchcraft. And if that is not enough for you, it has been tested in clinical trials (despite being utter nonsense) and has been convincingly, and unsurprisingly, shown to have no effect.

The inherent contradiction this undeniable fact creates is, how do you market homeopathic products without deception and harm? The answer is – you can’t. The only way to actually sell the product is to deceive the customer on some level.

The FDA and FTC have tried to strike a balance between freedom and consumer protection when it comes to homeopathy, but this is a hopeless endeavor. There is no balance. So they each have their guidelines for the industry to promote transparency, honesty in labeling, and to minimize deception. Of course these regulations don’t go far enough. They just mean the industry has to be a little more clever and coy in their marketing.

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May 20 2019

New Probe To Look For Life On Mars

Published by under Astronomy

One of the greatest scientific questions to remain unanswered so far concerns the existence of life outside of the Earth. So far the only place in the universe where life has been confirmed in on Earth itself. There is almost certainly life elsewhere, the universe being as big as it is, but we have not confirmed it.

Looking in other stellar systems will not be easy. We will not be traveling to any other stars anytime in the foreseeable future, so what are the options for probing for extrasolar life? We can look for the chemical signatures of life in the atmosphere. Or we can try to detect signals from a technological species. That’s pretty much it at this point, unless that life brings itself or its probes to us.

Our best bet to detect life off Earth, therefore, is to look within our own solar system. There are really only a few plausible locations for life – in the oceans beneath Europa or Enceladus, in the atmosphere of Jupiter or one of the other gas giants, or on Mars. No where else has plausible conditions for life.

Of these possibilities, Mars is the easiest to get to. We have already landed a number of probes on Mars. None of these robots, however, have been equipped with the necessary tools to directly look for life. They did examine the conditions on Mars which could potentially inform the probability of life on Mars, but that’s it. The bottom line of this examination is that conditions are not particularly suited for life as we know it, but does not exclude the possibility of life.

One interesting find is the presence of perchlorates at 0.5-1% in Martian soil, likely widely distributed around the planet. These are reactive molecules containing oxygen, and present both good and bad news for human intentions on Mars.  The bad news is that perchlorates are toxic, and any human presence on Mars will have to deal with the soil itself being a hazard. Extreme measures will be needed to protect astronauts. This is not a deal-killer, but it is a significant technical hurdle.

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May 17 2019

The Climate is Always Changing

Whenever the issue of climate comes up on this blog (or even just in the comments on unrelated articles), climate change deniers make an appearance. Consistently they use terrible arguments – relying on straw men, factually incorrect statements, deliberately confusing and blurring the lines, and committing just about every logical fallacy. They are also the same recycled arguments I see over and over, regardless of how many times they are refuted. That is how you know a position is intellectually dishonest, it never changes. It just moves around to the same repertoire of refuted positions.

A systematic refutation of these bad arguments requires a book, and there are many good resources out there, but I just want to focus on one argument in this article – the notion that the climate is always changing. This, of course, is true. It’s simply not a refutation in any way of the scientific position of anthropogenic global warming.

This is one of the many positions of the deniers. First they will argue that the climate is not changing. When the evidence for that is too irrefutable, then they say that it is always changing. This is also where the unmitigated hubris comes in – they bring up the point that there are natural trends in climate change as if this is news to anyone. Oh really, you don’t say? The climate naturally changes? I wonder if the world’s climate scientists, who have dedicated their careers to thinking deeply and carefully about things like the climate, have ever encountered that notion before. You should tell them.

Or, this is just a suggestion, you can take a moment to try to understand what scientists actually think rather than just swallowing science-denying propaganda whole. If a scientific idea is comprehensible to you as a non-expert, it’s a pretty good bet the experts have thought of it. You certainly shouldn’t assume that they haven’t, or you are somehow smarter than all the climate scientists in the world. Seriously – get some perspective.

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May 16 2019

Training an AI to See Like a Human

Published by under Technology

The synergy between AI research and neuroscience is fascinating, and becoming more so. Knowledge of how organic brains function is informing our approaches to artificial intelligence, and research into AI is informing our understanding of neuroscience. I think this process will eventually lead to an artificial human brain, but it’s very hard to predict how long this will take.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to see the fruits of AI algorithms that employ neural nets or try to recapitulate organic learning in some way. A team at the University of Texas has published a paper in which they present yet another example of this – teaching an AI to quickly gather visual information about their environment from a few “glimpses.”

Human perception evolved to be fast and efficient, to infer our environment from as little information as possible. The advantage of this is speed – there is obviously an advantage to perceiving something flying at your head, or a predator stalking you, as quickly as possible. Our brains use algorithm to make high probability inference to construct our perception of the environment from tiny slices of information. This process works very well, and most of the time we accurately perceive our environment sufficiently to move around and interact with it.

However, this system is not perfect. It occasionally will make incorrect inferences or assumptions, and reconstruct reality wrong. We experience such occasions as optical illusions (if we ever break the incorrect construction, otherwise we persist in the wrong perception). This happens, for example, when our brains receive insufficient information or ambiguous information. When observing objects in the sky we may lack a reference in order to judge size and distance. Low light conditions may obscure much of what we see. Unusual objects or environments may challenge the algorithms assumptions.

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May 14 2019

Truth Decay

Published by under Skepticism

What is the greatest threat facing human civilization? This question is obviously meant to be provocative, and is probably inherently unanswerable. But I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that perhaps the greatest threat is the deterioration of fact-based political and social discussion. The argument is that this is a meta-problem that keeps us from effectively addressing all other problems.

There are, of course, potential threats that could override everything else, such as an asteroid barreling down on the Earth or a super pandemic that could wipe out humanity. Most problems we face or are likely to face, however, can be potentially effectively managed, or at least mitigated, if we optimally marshal our resources and planning. The real problem we are facing is that we appear to be increasingly unable to do so.

Some observers identify a large part of the problem as “Truth Decay.” The RAND corporation (a think tank of scientists and researchers), which has been researching the issue, defines Truth Decay as:

1- increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data

2- a blurring of the line between opinion and fact

3- the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact

4- declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.

I think that list seems reasonable. Clearly this is a multifaceted problem, and other researchers have identified these various factors before. In The Death of Expertise, for example, Tom Nichols focuses on item 4, the declining trust in experts and the very notion of expertise itself.

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