Archive for May, 2019

May 13 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

Published by under Culture and Society

<Warning – spoilers galore if you are not up to date>

I always knew, deep down, that Game of Thrones (GOT) would not have a happy ending. Once Ned Stark got his head cut off at the end of the first book/season, I think everyone knew this was a different kind of fantasy story. I read the books first, and as I did it became clear that I was reading a tragedy and a horror story, not heroic fantasy.

I have a few thoughts I would like to share as the last episode of the series is ready to air. The people I watch the show with had a range of reactions to the second-to-last episode, but I think it was completely consistent with the story George R.R. Martin has been telling us all along. He has been deconstructing the medieval fairy tale right in front of our eyes, hitting us over the head with the reality that we already know. It’s interesting how difficult it can be for many to just accept that.

The final delusion was that Martin would bring it all back home. In the end the heroes would defeat evil, a good person would sit on the throne, and a golden age would dawn – it’s the Lord of the Rings ending. But come on – didn’t we all know this story was not LOTR?

First, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead was always a side show, even if it was the most captivating. Most of the series has focused on the title action – a game of thrones. I liken the Night King to a natural disaster – it’s looming in the background, some are warning of it, but mostly people ignore it while they focus on their short term politics. In the end we are really not prepared when the disaster finally arrives. The living actually straight-up lose the battle of Winterfell. (Don’t get me started on the terrible battle tactics: opening with a frontal cavalry charge, putting your troops outside your own choke point, and not opening with a sustained artillery bombardment, etc. – but that’s a side point.)

I think the lesson there is that death comes for all of us, and the best we can really do when we confront it is to either say, “not today,” or to face it bravely. Somehow life manages to keep crawling forward.  It’s like the Plague, in the end it’s a distraction from what we are really interested in, our political battles.

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May 10 2019

Apparently Medicine is Sorcery

According to Texas House Representative Jonathan Stickland, Texas pediatricians should mind their own business when it comes to vaccines, which, by the way, are sorcery.

That some state representative is completely clueless should come as no surprise, nor that he exposes his cluelessness on Twitter. Here is the now infamous exchange:

Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
You are bought and paid for by the biggest special interest in politics. Do our state a favor and mind your own business. Parental rights mean more to us than your self enriching “science.”
Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD@PeterHotez
Jonathan Stickland@RepStickland
Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime. Like every other business. Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity. It’s disgusting.

In his first tweet Stickland starts with the shill gambit, which is a lazy personal attack used to casually dismiss the concerns of others. In this case Stickland is assuming, and publicly asserting, that the only reason a pediatrician might advocate for children getting vaccinated is because they are “bought and paid for.” He then basically tells the doctor to shut up, as if a medical doctor does not have a legitimate professional and even ethical responsibility toward the health of their patients. Finally he dismisses “science” as a conspiracy and asserts the rights of parents to be free from science.

That is a lot of nonsense to pack into one tweet.

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May 09 2019

Source Credibility

Published by under Skepticism

How much of an influence does the source of information have on our reactions to that information? Not surprisingly, it has a significant effect. A new study supports this conclusion, but I think the implications are far more narrow than the reporting suggests.

In the study subjects were first given a generally positive attitude toward a character named Kevin. They were then told something disturbing about Kevin, that he beat his wife. However, one group was told this information came from official police reports. The other was told it came from a friend of Kevin’s ex-girlfriend. The new information had a much greater effect on attitudes when it came from a credible source than a dubious one. This was true even if the information first created a negative impression of Kevin, and then the subjects were later told the source of the information. They quickly corrected their opinion with the new information.

I find none of this surprising given prior psychological research. When it comes to beliefs about which we are largely emotionally neutral (like our attitudes toward a fictional character in a study) we tend to naturally follow a Bayesian approach – we update our conclusions as new information comes in. We also have a desire to be correct, all things being equal, and therefore would reasonably consider the source of information. The study results may also be reflecting a small confirmation bias. If subjects already believe Kevin is a good guy, they would be biased against changing this conclusion unless the new information warranted it. So a rumor from a friend of an ex-girlfriend, which we can easily rationalize away as having a grudge, is not enough. It’s hard to argue with official police reports, however.

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May 07 2019

Why Prior Probability Matters

Back in the early days of my skeptical career I attended a skeptical conference hosted by CSI (then CSICOP). One panel stuck out, and I still remember some details more than two decades later. This was a panel on extrasensory perception (ESP). The proponent on the panel argued that the research showing that ESP is real shows as much of an effect as the research showing that aspirin prevents strokes. Therefore if we accept one, we should accept the other. Even my nascent skepticism was able to detect that this argument did not hold water, but now I understand why in far greater detail. There are many problems with the claim (such as the quality of the research and the overall pattern of results) but I want to focus on one – the role of prior probability.

This is often a sticking point, even among mainstream scientists and clinicians, I think because of the inherent human lack of intuition for statistics. Most scientists are not statisticians, and are prone to making subtle but important statistical mistakes if they don’t have proper consultation when doing their research. In fact, there is an entire movement within mainstream medicine that, in my opinion, is the result of large scale naivete regarding statistics – evidence-based medicine (EBM).

EBM focuses on clinical research to answer questions about whether or not a treatment works. Conceptually EBM explicitly does not consider prior probability – it only looks at the results of clinical trials directly asking the question of whether or not the treatment is effective. While this may seem to make sense, it really doesn’t.

Let me explain.

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May 06 2019

Detecting Lies in the Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that the polygraph test for detecting who is lying is not reliable enough to be used practically. Here is a good summary by the American Psychological Association (APA). The bottom line is that the entire idea of a lie-detector is problematic for various reasons. First, the underlying premises have not really emerged from psychological research, and has not been validated by research. The idea is that people will display physiological signs of stress when they are making an effort to be deceptive, or when confronted with incriminating information. However, the relationship between physiological signs and mental stress is too complex to develop any test. There is no universal feature of lying that can be detected.

The polygraph uses two basic techniques. The first is the control question test (CQT) – you ask questions of the person being examined, control questions that do not relate to the crime in question, and relevant questions related to the crime. The idea is that they will react more to the relevant than the control questions. The other method, the guilty knowledge test (GKT) is similar – mentioning random items along with one directly related to the crime may reveal guilty knowledge that only the perpetrator should know.

The idea sounds compelling, and it does work in that using these techniques results in a slight statistical advantage in determining who is lying and who isn’t. However, a small statistical advantage is all but worthless in practical application. There are too many false positives and false negatives to be useful. For any individual suspect, at the end of the test you still don’t know if they are lying or not.

Part of the problem is that people are complex and variable. Not everyone responds the same way to stress, or to the situations provoked in the testing. But the problem is worsened by the existence of effective mental countermeasures. There are two basic countermeasures that have been shown to be effective – lowering further the statistical effect of the polygraph. The first is to assign mental significance to control items or questions, thereby reacting similarly to the control and the relevant items. The second is to create mental distance to all the items, including the relevant ones. Focus on something else – the sound of the words, their precise dictionary meaning, or imagine a famous character saying them. If the statements are in writing, you can focus on the color of the ink, the font, or other superficial aspects.

These countermeasure work. They successfully blur any difference between control and relevant items.

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May 03 2019

Organic Solar Cell Breakthrough

Published by under Technology

It’s interesting to try to envision the energy infrastructure 50 and 100 years in the future. Which technologies will prove the most cost and carbon effective? Of course, this can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy – the technologies we think will work will be the ones we invest in and develop. This is why I think we should hedge our bets by developing every viable option. Can nuclear fission be made cost-effective? Will fusion ever be practical? How efficient can solar get, and what grid storage options will work best?

Having said that, I do think it’s pretty clear that solar energy will play an increasing role in our energy infrastructure. As of 2018 solar represents only 1.6% of energy production in the US, but is growing rapidly. Most solar panels in use today are silicon based. They are getting cheaper and more efficient, and have already crossed the line to cost-effectiveness in most areas, and within a decade should be cost effective everywhere.

Solar, of course, is an intermittent energy source, not on-demand. Right now, with such little penetration, you can basically use the grid as your battery – put energy into the grid when you produce more than you use, and take energy from the grid when you need more than you produce. This is why net metering laws are so important – making sure that customers with solar get full credit for the excess energy they produce. This strategy will work until we get to about 20% penetration. Then storage will be necessary to get to higher levels of solar in the mix.

Storage can be individual, like having a power wall in your home. Or it can be massive grid storage run by the power companies themselves. Likely we will have both in the future. Exactly what we will do for storage, in my opinion, is one of the open technological questions.

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May 02 2019

Pilots Reporting UFOs

The Navy recently drafted new policies for how its pilots and other personnel should report any encounters with “unexplained aerial phenomena” – more commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. They say this is in response to an uptick in pilots reporting such encounters and requesting a formal way to report them.

The reporting on this topic ironically reveals the underlying problem in the first place – there is a stigma attached to the reporting of UFOs because of their cultural association with claims that they are (or may be) alien in origin. People mentally equate UFO with flying saucer (a colloquial term for any alien spacecraft of any shape).

Even sober takes on this topic focus heavily on the probability that such sightings are an alien phenomenon. Tyler Cowen does touch on many possible interpretations of UFO sightings, but spends the bulk of his commentary exploring how probable it is that aliens are visiting. He concludes it is not likely, but the chance is non-zero and deserves to be explored.

While I basically agree, I still think the framing is problematic. Essentially we are taking a phenomenon that likely has multiple causes, some known and some unknown, and focusing most of our attention on what is probably the least likely unknown possible cause. This would be like defining a new clinical syndrome by the least likely possible disease that could be causing it. This constrains our thinking, and in this case creates an unfair stigma. It also fuels conspiracy theories and wild speculation by the public. An further, it has resulted in paying too little attention to a phenomenon that may have practical real-world implications.

Returning to the medical analogy – there are fake diseases in the popular culture used to explain very real symptoms. For example, some people with chronic skin symptoms think they have a bizarre form a parasitosis. They clearly don’t, but that should not cause us to be dismissive of everyone with the same symptoms, or to ignore the search for underlying real causes.

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