Archive for June, 2023

Jun 30 2023

A Climate Rebuttal

Published by under Technology

The climate change discussion would benefit most from good-faith evidence and science-based discussion. Unfortunately, humans tend to prefer emotion, ideology, motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias. As an example, I was sent an excerpt from a climate change podcast as a “rebuttal” to my position. The content, however, does not address my actual position, and I find many of the arguments highly problematic. This one is coming from a perspective that climate change is real and a definite problem that needs to be addressed, but seems to be advocating that the best solution is to be all-in on wind and solar without needing other solutions.

The podcast is The Energy Transition Show and here is the episode I was sent: As a rebuttal to my position and what seems to be the position of many experts, their arguments are strawmen, but a particular kind of strawmen. One way to create a strawman argument it to portray the most extreme position as “the” counter opinion to your own. This sets up a false dichotomy – either you agree with us or you are advocating for this extreme and easily refutable position, ignoring vast territory between two extremes. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

[00:34:15] ….this argument against the energy transition, which seems to be falling by the wayside since you started in 2015, is this claim that we could never run a power grid with a large share of renewables due to their quote unquote intermittency? Right. You know, back in 2015, there were a lot of people insisting that the power grid couldn’t support more than maybe a high single digit, low double digit percentage of renewable power due to this intermittency, and that we would need to maintain significant amounts of baseload generators that run close to full time, like coal, nuclear plants, to ensure reliable operation of the power grid. But that has not turned out to be true, at least not yet, at the levels of penetration we’re seeing and we’re seeing very high levels of penetration in California. A couple weeks ago, I think 97% renewables at one point in time. And so I don’t really hear those arguments nearly as often anymore. But I am very interested in where you think those arguments have gone.

[00:35:55] Chris Nelder: Yeah, well, we were just talking about terminology and the preference of some people to start calling natural gas fossil gas or methane. I have a strong aversion to the term intermittency. That’s a term that really I think came from the fossil fuel industry as a way of casting doubt on renewables and making them sound unreliable or hard to forecast or in some way or another, not something that we can count on. And that’s just not the case.

The notion that the grid cannot take more than single digits or low double digits of intermittent sources may be a talking point on the climate change denial end of the spectrum, but that is not the mainstream perspective arguing that we should not rely entirely one wind and solar. Also, I have never read the argument from any expert that the grid cannot function with high penetration of wind and solar, only that it becomes more challenging and high penetration. One side note, many sources use the term “renewable” source or explicitly refer to WWS – wind, water, and solar. But hydropower is not intermittent, it can be dispatchable, and can be use for grid storage through pumped hydro. So including that in the discussion muddies the waters.

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Jun 29 2023

Ripples in Spacetime

Published by under Astronomy

It’s always exciting when a scientific institution announces that they are going to make an announcement. Earlier this week we were told that there was going to be a major announcement today (June 29th) regarding a gravitational wave discovery. The goal of the pre-announcement is to generate buzz and media attention, although I almost always find the reveal to be disappointing. I guess we are too programmed by movie plotlines where such reveals are truly earthshattering. So I have learned to moderate my expectations (a generally good strategy to avoid disappointment).

The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) team released five papers late last night in the Astrophysical Journal Letters – I think my moderated expectations were pretty much on target. This is awesomely cool science, but didn’t shatter my world. I can see why the scientists were so excited, however. This was the culmination of 15 years of investigation. The bottom line discovery is that spacetime is constantly rippling, in line with Einstein’s predictions of General Relativity. Let’s get into the details.

Gravitational wave astronomy is a new window onto the universe. Most of the recent news has been made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). This is a large instrument, with two powerful lasers at right angles to each other, with each arm about 4 km long firing through a vacuum pipeline. Where the lasers cross they create an interference pattern. The slightest disturbance in the lasers can change the interference, and therefore it is a very sensitive detector. The primary challenge is isolating LIGO from background noise and filtering it out. What is left is a signal produced by gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime created by massive gravitational events. LIGO is able to detect high frequency gravitational waves formed by the collision of black holes and/or neutron stars with each other.

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Jun 27 2023

Titan Disaster and Risk vs Benefit

Published by under Skepticism

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the recent disaster of the Titan submersible. Was the risk justified? Who should be responsible for the safety issues? Who should be on the hook for the millions of dollars the rescue effort took? And why did this tragedy garner more media coverage than 600 people dying off the coast of Greece when an overcrowded fishing crawler capsized?

To review, OceanGate is a submersible company that offers expeditions to the wreckage of the Titanic and other experiences. The company has been operating since 2008, making¬† more than 200 dives. The Titan was their latest vessel. It has made two previous successful trips to the Titanic, one in 2021, and one in 2022. The trip this month was it’s third trip. During descent to the wreckage, about 1 hour 45 minutes in, the control vessel suddenly lost contact with the Titan. It is believed that at that point the Titan suffered a “catastrophic implosion”. Essentially the pressure compartment failed. Even the tiniest crack would be enough, as any weak point would then collapse the entire chamber, kind of like popping a balloon but with high pressure on the outside rather than the inside. The only bright side of this being the fate of the Titan is that death would have been sudden, and the five passengers were not slowly suffocating for days trapped in the dark deep under water.

The disaster has sparked a lot of discussion about whether the entire enterprise is worth the risk. Some have called for a halt to any sight-seeing trips to the Titanic (anything other than research). At the other end of the spectrum was the OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush who now famously said:

“You know, at some point, safety is just pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything. At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.”

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Jun 23 2023

RFK Jr., Joe Rogan, and Vaccines

RFK Jr., who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is anti-vaccine. He will vehemently deny this, but I don’t buy it for a second. He is simply playing the, “I’m not anti-vaccine, I am pro-safe vaccine” gambit, which is disingenuous and always has been. We have been covering this topic for years, and David Gorski did a recent excellent review of this at SBM. You can’t claim not to be anti-vaccine, and then defend a long list of anti-vaccine tropes.

RFK has apparently been avoiding his views on vaccines on the campaign trail, but it always seems to come up. On the Joe Rogan podcast RFK found what he must have thought was a friendly environment, and felt free to repeat is claim that vaccine cause autism. This is a topic I have been covering for two decades – vaccines do not cause autism. But let’s do a quick review of this harmful claim.

This first appeared in the 1990, when the anti-vaccine movement hit upon the increase in autism diagnoses as a new tactic. They start with the assumption that all bad things that happen to children are caused by vaccines, so obviously they must also be causing the rise in autism. When Andrew Wakefield came out with his fraudulent and now retracted study claiming an association between the MMR vaccine and autism, he became an instant celebrity of the anti-vaccine movement. Trouble is – the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Wakefield, it turns out, had a patent on an alternative vaccine and was trying to torpedo the competition. But the anti-vaccine movement does not let science, evidence, or basic logic get in their way. So they simply moved over to a vaccine ingredient, thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative.

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Jun 22 2023

UFOs – Has the Narrative Shifted

Published by under UFO's / Aliens

In an interview for Newsweek, Michio Kaku was asked about UFOs. Here’s his response:

Well, first of all, I think that there’s been a game changer. In the old days, the burden of proof was on the true believers to prove that what they saw last night was a flying saucer of some sort. Now the burden of proof has shifted. Now it’s the military, the military has to prove that these aren’t extraterrestrial objects.

He goes on to say that there are now multiple lines of evidence that need to be explained, and that this is the “gold standard” in science. It’s a good example of the fact that scientists and science communicators are not necessarily good scientific skeptics who know how to deal with fringe claims. There is an entirely different skill set and knowledge base necessary to deal with the UFO question than to explain physics to a lay audience. To illustrate, I am going to outline why I strongly disagree with Michio.

Let me start with two premises that I think should be noncontroversial. The first is that there is a phenomenon of alleged encounters with aliens – sightings, stories of abductions, videos and photographs, alleged government cover-ups, and others. We can stipulate that people see things they can’t explain and tell stories of alien encounters (sometimes under hypnosis). I will refer to this collectively as the “UFO phenomenon”. The second premise might get some pushback from believers, but I think is completely reasonable – there is no smoking gun unequivocal evidence that aliens are visiting or have visited the Earth. If there were, there would be no debate. You can still believe that the evidence favors the conclusion that we are being visited, that at least some of the UFO phenomena is produced by actual aliens, while accepting the premise that there is no undeniable proof.

If you accept these two premises – there is a UFO phenomenon in the absence if iron-clad proof – then we can talk about competing hypotheses to explain these premises. There are two main contenders. The first is what I have called the “psychocultural” hypothesis. This contends that all UFO phenomena are a mix of misidentified natural or terrestrial phenomena, the many mechanisms of self-deception, cultural belief, delusion, and opportunism. The second is the alien hypothesis, that at least some UFO phenomena are alien craft, encounters with aliens, crashed saucers, or alien experiments. There are other hypotheses (the tongue-in-cheek psychic bigfeet from the future), but they are fringe enough that we can ignore them for now, and in fact I feel they can be subsumed in this debate under the alien hypothesis.

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Jun 20 2023

Using AI for Neuroforecasting

I’ve been following AI (artificial intelligence) news very closely, including all the controversies and concerns. I tend to fall on the side of – AI is a powerful tool, we should continue to develop it and use it responsibly. We don’t need to panic, and highly restrictive laws are likely unnecessary and counterproductive. But there are legitimate concerns about the power of AI, especially in the “wrong” hands. I also think the greatest disruption to our lives might not come from cyberterrorists (although a legit concern) or AI run amok, but from marketing. Giving companies who see us only as customers the power to predict our every move gives me pause.

This AI news item falls into this latter category – the use of machine learning AI to predict which songs people will like. Seems innocuous, but I think it furthers a trend that has some serious downsides. This is what the researchers did:

Traditionally, song elements have been measured from large databases to identify the lyrical aspects of hits. We took a different methodological approach, measuring neurophysiologic responses to a set of songs provided by a streaming music service that identified hits and flops. We compared several statistical approaches to examine the predictive accuracy of each technique. A linear statistical model using two neural measures identified hits with 69% accuracy. Then, we created a synthetic set data and applied ensemble machine learning to capture inherent non-linearities in neural data. This model classified hit songs with 97% accuracy.

This kind of approach is called neuroforecasting – predicting people’s likes and dislikes based upon their brain activity and physiological responses (like a lie detector but for your reaction to music). First let me point out that this study used a synthetic set of data, and is therefore just a proof of concept – this approach can theoretically work. They need to test this in the real world, and see if it can predict hits, not just match the model to existing hits. But let’s assume it works, and the 97% accuracy hold up. What will this mean for the music and streaming industries?

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Jun 19 2023

Regret After Transitioning

In my last post I noted that even mentioning general vague support for the LGBTQ community was enough to trigger very specific feedback, often making erroneous scientific claims. Each claim requires a deep dive and article-length discussion. Even though the discussion that followed in the comments was better than I thought it would be, it still filled with additional dubious claims. I suspect there are two main reasons for this. The first is that the topic of gender identity is complex and not intuitive. It may feel intuitive, as if your immediate gut reaction is all that is necessary to deal adequately with the topic, but it really isn’t. Ultimate this topic deals with how our brains construct our own sense of self, identity, and reality. These are always tricky concepts to deal with – and as I have pointed out before in other contexts, our brain constructs are counterintuitive by their very nature. In other words, our brains evolved for these constructs to feel real and automatic, and for the subconscious processes that create them to be invisible to us.

Second, the issue of gender identity has been highly politicized. This has resulted in any discussion of the topic being flooded with biased and deliberate misinformation. The usual FUD (fear, uncertainty doubt) strategies apply.¬†And of course – science is hard. Even seemingly straightforward questions are actually quite complex. This makes it easy to create confusion by “just asking questions” or selectively applying skepticism.

One question at the heart of the trans issue is this – what is the rate of regret or even detransitioning after medical transition? One narrative is that adolescents (often conflated with “children”) are being prematurely herded down a road to transition, which they later regret. The other narrative is that, generally speaking, making the decision to transition is taken very seriously, with very low levels of later regret. Which is true?

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Jun 16 2023

Being Trans Is Not A Mental Illness

On the current episode of the SGU, because it is pride month, we expressed our general support for the LGBTQ community. I also opined about how important it is to respect individual liberty, the freedom to simply live your authentic life as you choose, and how ironic it is that often the people screaming the loudest about liberty seem the most willing to take it away from others. That was it – we didn’t get into any specific issues. And yet this discussion provoked several responses, filled with strawman accusations about things we never said, and weighed down with a typical list of tropes and canards. It would take many articles to address them all, so I will focus on just one here. One e-mailer claimed: “It is obvious to me that the 98% of trans people have a mental illness that should be treated like any other mental illnesses.”

Being trans itself is not considered a mental illness, but this deserves some extensive discussion. It’s important to first establish some basic principles, starting with – what is mental illness? This is a deceptively tricky question. The American Psychiatric Association provides this definition:

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

But this is not a technical or operational definition (something that requires book-length exploration to be thorough), but rather a quick summary for lay readers. In fact, there is no one generally accepted technical definition. There is some heterogeneity throughout the scientific literature, and it may vary from one illness to another and one institution to another. But there are some generally accepted key elements.

First, as the WHO states, “Mental disorders involve significant disturbances in thinking, emotional regulation, or behaviour.” But then we have to define “disorder”, which is typically defined as a lack or alternation in a function possessed by most healthy individuals that causes demonstrable harm. “Significant” is also a word that’s doing a lot of heavy lifting there. This is typically determined disorder by disorder, but usually includes elements of persistent duration for greater than some threshold, and some pragmatic measure of severity. For example, does the disorder prevent someone from participating in meaningful activity, productive work, or activities of daily living? Does it provoke other demonstrable harms, such as severe depression or anxiety? Does it entail increased risk of negative health or life outcomes?

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Jun 13 2023

Woman with Catatonia for Years Wakes After Treatment

Published by under Neuroscience

The story of a woman, in a severe state of catatonia for years and “waking up” after being treated for an autoimmune disease, is making the rounds and deserves a little bit of context. April Burrell was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia resulting in catatonia, and has been in long term care since 2000. However, she was also more recently found to have lupus, an autoimmune disease that can affect the brain. After being treated with immunosuppressive medications, multiple courses of treatment over months, her condition steadily improved. She still has symptoms of psychosis and is not cognitively normal, but is able to recognize people and interact and does much better on standard cognitive tests. The credit for her recovery goes to a psychiatrist, Sander Markx, who had seen the patient 20 years before, and upon learning that she was still institutionalized and unchanged order the workup that resulted in the diagnosis.

This is a remarkable case, but is not ultimately surprising. I had a similar case as a resident. A patient was admitted with worsening schizophrenia. He had severe schizophrenia for the last 20 years or so, mostly cared for at home by his family, but now was simply getting too difficult to give proper care. He was admitted to the psychiatry floor, and they consulted the neurology service almost as an afterthought, because the patient had been lost to follow up for so long. We had a low clinical suspicion that there was anything neurological going on, but recommended a CT scan of the brain and other workup, just to be thorough. The CT scan found a very large tumor pushing in on his frontal lobes. The tumor itself was outside the brain but inside the skull. Neurosurgery was consulted, the tumor was promptly removed, and within days the patient was almost back to his pre-schizophrenic baseline – essentially cured. That’s the kind of case you never forget.

To put such cases into clinical perspective it’s important to recognize that schizophrenia is a clinical diagnosis, meaning that it is based upon signs and symptoms, not any pathological findings on imaging or laboratory workup. There are markers and researchers are trying to understand it better as a brain disease, but for now the diagnosis is still mainly clinical. Part of the clinical diagnosis, however, is ruling out neurological pathology. This is a standard referral that we neurologists get from psychiatrists – rule out neurological disease. Only when that is done is the patient given a psychiatric diagnosis.

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Jun 12 2023

Will Apple’s Vision Pro Change Anything?

Published by under Technology

For the first time in over a decade, Apple has announced a new product designed to change computing. There was the transition to personal computing with the Apple computer, then to portable computing with the iPhone, and now they hope to usher in the transition to virtual computing with their Vision Pro. It may be emblematic of the response to their announcement that Apple stock prices dropped during the announcement.

My personal response is mixed. Since I am now in the “futurism” space (I dislike that phrase, but not sure how else to put it) after the publication of my second book, I do tend to follow technology news quite closely. I’m especially interested in how people interact with new technology, and what that tells us about the future of technology. The Vision Pro is an excellent test case, and I think reflects many of the basic principles of futurism when it comes to thinking about future technology.

The product is being presented as a mixed reality application – usable for both virtual reality (VR) in which one’s visual experience is entirely immersed in the virtual world, and augmented reality (AR), in which you can still see the real world around you but digital content is overlayed on the real world. When evaluating any new tech we need to consider three basic types of analysis – how good is the hardware, how will it be used, and is it practical. By all accounts, Apple has definitely made a huge leap in the VR/AR hardware. Their device looks like ski goggles, and has impressive specs. It can run for two hours on battery, which you would wear on your waist, but can also be plugged in if your are sitting at your desk. It has 23 million pixels in each eye, greater than 4k resolution, eye tracking, and surround sound. There are no firm numbers on field of view, but speculation is that it will be a standard 110 degrees, which for me is very disappointing. It would be nice to bump that up even a little.

So by all accounts this would be an excellent VR headset, if nothing else. But in addition it has multiple cameras with which it can view the world and include that feed into what you see, creating an AR experience. The opacity of the digital world can be dialed anywhere from 0 to 100 percent. Also there are no controllers like with standard VR. You simply move your hands to manipulate objects in the virtual world, and also can interact with objects by just looking at them. So again, at the very least, this appears to be a great VR headset.

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