Archive for February, 2023

Feb 28 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part II

Yesterday’s post was the first in an exchange about the effects of climate change on public health. Today’s post is my response.

Part II

Climate change is a critically important topic for society today, and it’s important that the public have a working knowledge of the facts, causes, effects, and potential interventions regarding climate change, so I am always happy to discuss the topic. Unfortunately, it’s a very complex topic that has been highly politicized and polarized. The science often becomes wrapped up in ideology – the best indication of this is that one’s political affiliation is the strongest predictor of the public’s opinions regarding climate change. The media, as they do in general, is happy to sensationalize the topic and often does not provide good context or background. Scientists have gotten better communicating about climate change, but not enough to override political affiliation.

My sense is the core issue is that the complexity of climate change allows everyone to cherry pick those details that fit their narrative. You can find examples to support whatever narrative you want to believe. You don’t even have to be factually incorrect (although many people certainly are), you just have to be selective in your details and interpretation. Climate change is a Rorschach test of subjective validation and confirmation bias.

I say this all because I think Scott’s narrative comes through very clearly. He contacted me asking fervently for a debate on this specific topic, the health effects of climate change. I thought this was a little odd since I have never written or expressed an opinion about this topic before. It seems he assumed what my position was based on other things I have written about climate change – that I think it’s real, it is primarily being caused by humans, and the effects are likely to be bad for the environment and human civilization. This brings up another aspect of the climate change debate, that people generally take sides and think that everyone fits relatively cleanly into the “for or against” side. Once someone thinks they have detected what side you are on, they then ascribe the entire package of views to you.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 27 2023

A Climate Debate Regarding Health Effects – Part I

This is the first entry in an exchange between me and Scott Hastings, who requested the exchange. This is his opening arguments. My response will be tomorrow’s post.


Part I:

Hi Steven, first of all, I am tremendously grateful to you for taking time to engage with me on this very important topic. Thank you.

I’d like to start by sharing just a few media articles I found that are now over 3 years old:

New York Times: November 13, 2019 “Climate Change Poses Threats to Children’s Health Worldwide

ABC News Australia: November 5, 2019 “11,000 scientists declare climate emergency warning world faces catastrophic threat

CNN: November 12, 2019 “The climate crisis will profoundly affect the health of every child alive today,

Wired: November 13, 2019 “How the Climate Crisis Is Killing Us, in 9 Alarming Charts, A new report from over 100 experts paints a devastating picture of how climate change is already imperiling human health.”

We are both physicians, so I don’t want to leave out the American Medical Association statement on climate change.

I think you get the point…We are daily inundated with a “climate emergency” just around the corner.  It also seems that all the experts (at least 97% anyway) are in some general agreement about the “devastating catastrophe” lurking somewhere out there. However, the official IPCC-5 report seems to be a whole lot less confident than the headlines mentioned above.

My aim is to take exact verbiage from IPCC-5, then apply the most up to date scientific literature available to cross-check their stated claims. Since I’m a physician, I am specifically interested in health outcomes as a result of climate change. I am looking at global health trends (since this is a global phenomena), as well as trends in global natural events like floods, fires, and hurricanes as these obviously contribute to health outcomes.  It’s simple really, in our world of experts, nobody needs to be an expert at opening the newspaper the morning after the superbowl to see who won the game. In this case, the “newspaper” is going to be scientific research literature based on global observational trends from generally that was published in the past 6 years. What I will not include is modeling studies. That’s like trying to predict who is going to win the superbowl. I’m not interested in that.  Just real-world objective observations found on google scholar or pubmed. I’m only interested in who won the superbowl, not in some supposed “superbowl prediction expert”.

Are you ready? Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 24 2023

The Future of (Unpaid) Work

Published by under Technology

If we think of the top inventions that had a positive impact on human society and our quality of life most lists would contain things like the printing press, the wheel, or the computer. One invention that should be on everyone’s list but is easy to overlook is – the washing machine. Throughout history there were a variety of methods for washing clothes, all laborious and time consuming. Today the same task is accomplished by hitting a few buttons. The impact of unpaid domestic work was profound – it changed society. Other inventions that relieved domestic tasks had a similar positive impact – indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and even pre-sliced bread.

When researching futurism for my latest book, in fact, you can see the impact of these technological developments on futurism itself. Futurists from 100 years ago mainly focused on how future technology with further relieve drudgery and increase leisure time, because that was the technological revolution they were living through. Technology was all about convenience and leisure. Future airlines would be like luxury liners with maximized comfort (if they only knew). Everything had to be automated, from brushing your teeth to drying your hands.

Despite how massively overstated it was by past futurists, reduced drudgery and freeing up time is a result of technological advance, even if we choose to fill that time with other work. In the last decade or so there has been a lot of discussion about the future of work, because it feels as if we are about to go through another revolution of similar impact to the industrial and electrical revolutions, this one involving robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Anxiety over robots taking our jobs is at least have a century old. Robots have displaced workers, but the general trend has been to create new jobs to replace displaced ones and to make workers more productive.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 23 2023

Should Tech Companies Be Liable for Content

Published by under Legal Issues

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) is hearing a case that will have profound effects on social media – is Google liable for a terrorist killing? The family of Nohemi Gonzalez is suing Google, because she was shot by an Islamic terrorist in 2015 and the family alleges this act was abetted by Google recommending videos encouraging such acts. Google argues it is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

In cases like this there is always legal complexity, and it’s not my intention to do a legal analysis of the case. I just want to focus on Section 230. There are some misconceptions about what it says and does not say, so here is the actual wording:

“no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The law was passed in 1996, and was meant to protect website owners from liability stemming from what third parties post on their websites. It is not, as some pundits state at times, about protective “passive” platforms. I have also heard some commenters frame it as similar to protecting phone companies for the content of phone conversations. But Section 230 specifically refers to “interactive computer service” – so, not passive.

But at the same time, this law is more than a quarter of a century old. It is literally “web 1.0” and was written prior to the social media revolution. Google itself was created in 1998, two years after this law passed. The first blog was created in 1994, but blogs were not popular until later. WordPress, the most popular blog platform, was created in 2003. Twitter was created in 2006, and Facebook in 2004.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 21 2023

A Circular CO2 Economy

Published by under Technology

Big picture time – as I have discussed before, we have just passed 8 billion people on this planet and will likely top 10 billion before populations stabilize (which is quite possible, but that’s another story).  What this means is that anything we collectively do is big. It affects every other species on Earth, it can affect the climate, and it can push the limits of natural resources. We are also getting to that point in the arch of human history that we are feeling those limits. We basically already use most of the reasonably arable land on the planet. We have already used up most of our carbon budget, assuming we don’t want the massive expense, inconvenience, and displacement caused by climate change.

Up until recently we had the luxury of treating the Earth like an unlimited resource, because it functionally was. Also, every time we think we are getting to the limits of a resource, we either find a way of extracting more or find a different way of doing things. England, for example, basically ran out of wood to heat homes and maintain its navy, but this just spawned the age of coal and ultimately the industrial revolution. Warnings of peak whatever have so far turned out to be premature. We appear to be running low on lithium, but oh wait, there is enough lithium in sea water to last for literally a million years at current use levels. What about uranium? There is 500 times as much in sea water as land-based reserved.

But this is not true for everything always. We also have to consider the consequences. In my opinion (and I think many people agree) we don’t just want to be able to continue the growth of the global economy, we also would like to preserve as much of nature as possible. Nature itself is a precious resource; it’s good for human psychology, it’s an invaluable natural laboratory, and it’s beautiful (even if we don’t consider the ethics of crowding out other species). All things being equal, it’s probably better not to figuratively and literally just pave over all of nature for our own purposes.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 20 2023

3D Printing Superalloys

Published by under Technology

This is a cool material science development that nicely illustrates recent technological advancements. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have created a superalloy using additive manufacturing (3D printing). That may not sound that impressive at first, but consider the potential here. We are seeing the confluence of multiple modern technologies. This creates a synergistic effect that allows for new possibilities and accelerated progress.

First let’s talk about alloys – which are metallic substances comprised of two or more elements. The most famous, and most useful, alloy is steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon. Another ancient and important alloy is bronze, which is a combination of copper and tin. There are about 3,500 different alloys of steel used in industry today, each with slightly different properties. Many alloys are just iron and carbon with different percentages of carbon and different heat treatments, but there are also about 20 elements added to carbon steel to make different alloys. Alloys alter the hardness, strength, ductility, melting point, resistance to rust, and performance in different conditions.

After a couple thousand years of working with steel you may think that we have figured out most of the optimal alloys already, but 75% of modern alloys were developed in the last 20 years. Think about the number of different alloy combinations with 20 different elements, all of which can be added in different amounts. We’ve likely only scratched the surface with trial and error.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 17 2023

It’s Not Possible – Until Suddenly It Is

Published by under Culture and Society

There are a couple of recent stories that remind me that perhaps the most powerful thing in the world is political will. Often politicians and motivational speakers will say something along the lines of, “We can do anything, if we put our minds to it.” While this sounds like feel-good pablum, I think there is some truth to it (with a bunch of caveats regarding “anything”). We (collectively) have a great deal of ingenuity, technological savvy, institutions and methods of change, and resources. What we often lack is collective will.

But occasionally the stars align, pushing political will beyond some threshold, and magically the impossible becomes possible. The first of the two recent examples I referred to above is the incorporation of telehealth into medical practice. As both a doctor and a computer nerd with an interest in medical informatics, I have long pushed and hoped for a greater incorporation of telehealth for managing patients. But this was not something that I as an individual (especially working for a large institution) could do much about. I was told that it was being discussed and worked on, but there were many difficult obstacles.

First, we need the technology to have secure video and audio remote communication.  This technology would need to exist on the patient end as well as the clinician. Second, insurance companies would need to pay for such visits. In order to be universal, this would likely require state mandates. We would also need to carefully assess the effectiveness of online health visits to be sure there were no unintended negative consequences. Ideally, states would also offer licensure reciprocity for online visits, otherwise patients who see doctors across state lines would not be able to be seen online.  And practices need to carefully track the effect of telehealth on their financial bottom line. After years of exploration I was told more years of negotiation and study were required, but this might work eventually (just don’t hold your breath).

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, literally within days, we had a telehealth system up and running. It turns out the technology was already in place. On the patient end all it requires is a smart phone and downloading an off-the-shelf app, or a computer with a webcam. It was a little bumpy at first, but the system rapidly improved. States suspended licensure restrictions across states and mandated insurance coverage.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 16 2023

Serial Dependence Bias

Published by under Neuroscience

As I have discussed numerous times on this blog, our brains did not evolve to be optimal precise perceivers and processors of information. Here is an infographic showing 188 documents cognitive biases. These biases are not all bad – they are tradeoffs. Evolutionary forces care only about survival, and so the idea is that many of these biases are more adaptive than accurate. We may, for example, overcall risk because avoiding risk has an adaptive benefit. Not all of the biases have to be adaptive. Some may be epiphenomena, or themselves tradeoffs – a side effect of another adaptation. Our visual perception is rife with such tradeoffs, emphasizing movements, edges, and change at the expense of accuracy and the occasional optical illusion.

One interesting perceptual bias is called serial dependence bias – what we see is influenced by what we recently saw (or heard). It’s as if one perception primes us and influences the next. It’s easy to see how this could be adaptive. If you see a wolf in the distance, your perception is now primed to see wolves. This bias may also benefit in pattern recognition, making patterns easier to detect. Of course, pattern recognition is one of the biggest perceptual biases in humans. Our brains are biased towards detecting potential patterns, way over calling possible patterns, and then filtering out the false positives at the back end. Perhaps serial perceptual bias is also part of this hyper-pattern recognition system.

Psychologists have an important question about serial dependence bias, however. Does this bias occur at the perceptual level (such as visual processing) or at a higher cognitive level? A recently published study attempted to address this question. They exposed subjects to an image of coins for half a second (the study is Japanese, so both the subjects and coins were Japanese). They then asked subjects to estimate the number of coins they just saw and their total monetary value. The researchers wanted to know what had a greater effect on the subjects – the previous amount of coins they had just viewed or their most recent guess. The idea is that if serial dependence bias is primarily perceptual, then the amount of coins will be what affects their subsequent guesses. If the bias is primarily a higher cognitive phenomenon, then their previous guesses will have a greater effect than the actual amount they saw. To help separate the two (because higher guesses would tend to align with greater amounts) they had subjects estimate the number and value of coins on only every other image. Therefore their most recent guess would be different than the most recent image they saw.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 14 2023

SpaceX Tests Super Heavy Booster

Published by under Technology

Last Thursday SpaceX successfully conducted the most significant test firing of its Heavy Booster rocket to date. The rocket sports 33 Raptor 2 engines. During the test, 31 of them fired. One engine failed, and one was shut down. According to SpaceX, even with 31 engines the rocket would still make it to Earth orbit.

The test moves SpaceX one step closer to a full launch of the Starship system, which includes a Starship on top of a Heavy Booster. On Thursday’s test they fired Booster 7, which is currently pared with Ship 24, however during the test they only had Booster 7 on the pad in case of catastrophic failure. If the analysis of this test turns out well SpaceX plans to launch a full stack, booster plus ship, into orbit either later this month or next month.

SpaceX says it has two full stacks ready to go, but there are many more in various stages of assembly. They expect to produce an additional pair of boosters and ships every two months. Further, both components are fully reusable, which means they can fly multiple times. It remains to be seen, of course, what their lifespan will be – how many times can each component fly?

If all goes well, and it’s looking good so far, this will be a significant addition to our spaceflight capability. The Starship system will be the most powerful rocket ever launched – more powerful than the Saturn V, then NASA’s current Space Launch System (SLS) and even the most powerful Soviet/Russian rocket ever developed. It will have a lift capacity of 100-150+ tons, depending on the desired orbit. The Starship could also be configured to carry 100 crew/passengers.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 13 2023

ChatGPT Almost Passes Medical Licensure Exams

Published by under Technology

The emergence of several AI applications for public use, such as Dalle-2, Midjourney, and ChatGPT, had made AI one of the biggest science news items of the past year. I have written about it here extensively myself, and have been using these applications extensively to get a feel for what they can, and cannot, do. The capability of these systems, however, is a rapidly moving target.

Recently I wrote about the potential for a ChatGPT-like application as an expert system, specifically to aid in medical practice. Already there is an update worthy of a new post (also that was posted on SBM). For background, ChatGPT is a large language model, essentially a powerful chatbot that is able to produce natural-language responses that are coherent in response to user prompts. Ask it a question or give it a task and it will spit out a fairly descent response. It is trained on data from the internet up to 2021. The application has many teachers freaking out because it produces good essay responses, at least at a high school level. I don’t think this will ultimately be a problem but it will force teachers to rethink essay-based assignments.

As a marker of the real-world potential of these AI apps, Microsoft has reportedly put billions of dollars into ChatGPT and is incorporating it into their Bing search engine. Google has countered with their own application, Bard, which is off to a bumpy start, but give them time. The next version of ChatGPT, version 4, is coming out soon, and promising to be even more powerful and up-to-date. The bottom line – expect to see this software everywhere, incorporated into the background of our computing experience. In fact, ChatGPT will be writing that software.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Next »