Archive for August, 2017

Aug 29 2017

40 Years of Voyager

Published by under Astronomy

voyager1_highOn August 20th 1977 Voyager 2 was launched. On September 5th Voyager 1 followed. The reason 2 launched before 1 is because V1 was on a faster trajectory and would arrive at Jupiter several months before V2, and NASA felt it would be easier not to have to explain endlessly to the media why V2 was arriving before V1. At present V1 is 12,959,246,289 miles from Earth, and V2 is 10,657,559,202 miles.

Voyager 1 is the farthest human made object from the Earth. If our civilization collapses tomorrow, the Voyager probes would be the longest surviving artifacts of our existence.

If you do not remember the Voyager missions, then think of what it was like for Horizon to fly by Pluto. Pluto went from a fuzzy blob to a detailed alien world. The Voyager missions were the same, except times four. This was our first closeup look at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It was our first closeup look at the large moons of Jupiter – Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. We discovered even more smaller moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We discovered volcanic activity on Io, and that Jupiter has rings of its own.

Our knowledge of the outer solar system exploded, and we were rewarded with seemingly endless gorgeous pictures of these giant worlds and their companions.

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Aug 28 2017

GMO and Dunning Kruger

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

GMO-surveyIncreasingly in modern society, with perpetual access to the internet, lack of information is far less of a problem than misleading or incorrect information. As Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger fame) noted:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

I would add to that list – deliberate propaganda. People can feel as if they are well-informed because their heads are full of nothing but propaganda. Just have a conversation with an anti-vaxer, creationist, or flat-earther and you will see. Lack of information is not their primary problem.

Attitudes toward GMOs are also largely a function of information vs misinformation. After two decades of a dedicated anti-GMO campaign by the organic food lobby and Greenpeace, the public is largely misinformed about GMOs and organic food. This has led to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.

Michigan State University has recently published their Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which sheds further light on this issue. For example, 20% of respondents believe they rarely or never consume food with GMOs and another 26% did not know. Meanwhile, 75-80% of packaged food contains GMO ingredients. Most corn and sugar derives from GMO crops. There are also “hidden” GMOs. For example, just about all cheese is produced with enzymes (rennet) derived from GMO yeast. Laws requiring GMO labeling or outright banning GMOs, however, always carve out an exception for cheese, because the cheese industry would essentially not exist without it.

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Aug 25 2017

John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub

Published by under Technology

yuccamountainThe most recent episode of John Oliver’s, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of how we handle (or don’t handle) nuclear waste in the US. This has spawned an interesting discussion among skeptics and scientists, including this response from a nuclear scientist on Forbes.

My overall impression is that there are legitimate points on both sides, and which points one emphasizes probably depends on whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear.

My reaction to Oliver’s piece was that it was reasonable, made a lot of good points I had made myself, and that it was not anti-nuclear. I don’t know if Oliver is pro or anti-nuclear based on this piece. The theme of his show is highlighting crazy things in our society that should be fixed, if only we had the political will to do so. The main point of his piece is that we currently store commercial nuclear waste on site where it is produced. We don’t have any central long term repository for this waste, despite the fact that we obviously should.

The main point of the discussion was Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that took years and billions of dollars to research and build, that is a completely safe location to store commercial nuclear waste, but which sits empty for political reasons. Oliver correctly puts the blame mostly on Senator Harry Reid from Nevada who killed Yucca Mountain for purely NIMBY reasons (not in my back yard). It is a legit scandal and Oliver was correct to call Reid out on it and mock him.

Most of the criticism of Oliver’s piece focuses on what he did not say, which is always tricky criticism. Oliver has 20 minutes to tell a complex story, and he has to focus on one main point. He was not discussing the risks and benefits of nuclear power. He was not comparing it to other methods of energy production. He was only pointing out that in the last 50 years we have not been able to summon the political will to put our nuclear waste in a proper long term facility.

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Aug 22 2017

Bacterial Solar Cells

Published by under Technology

biofuel-bacteriaPlants make energy from light – a neat trick we would like to harness for our own use. Specifically, plants can turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars, which are molecules that contain a lot of energy. Sugars can be turned into ethanol, which can be burned as a fuel. This is the essence of biofuels. The advantage of this process is that it is carbon neutral. When you burn the biofuel you are returning CO2 to the atmosphere that was previously removed when the biofuel was made. You are not releasing previously sequestered CO2 into the carbon cycle.

The problem with biofuels is that the process is inefficient. The overall process is about 1% efficient in terms of how much of the sunlight falling on a field of crops used for biofuels ends up as usable fuel. Photosynthesis itself is only about 3-6% efficient.

While there may be a niche for biofuels in the future, I doubt they will make a sizable dent in our energy needs. The ultimate problem is land use. We are pretty much already using all available land to grow food to eat, and a growing population will make this more challenging. So we simply don’t have land to dedicate to growing crops specifically for biofuels. We can use crop waste and non-food plants, but that will likely not be enough to be a major contributor to our energy infrastructure.

If any kind of biofuel is going to be worth it, we have to get the efficiency way up. Some scientists think that plants are not going to be the solution. They are simply too inefficient at harnessing light energy. If we want a self-replicating organism that can turn atmospheric CO2 and sunlight into a biofuel with high efficiency, we have to turn to bacteria. A recent study demonstrates that this option might be viable.

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Aug 21 2017

Solar Eclipse and Coincidence

solar-eclipse-2017Today there will be a total solar eclipse making its way all across the continental US, from Oregon to South Carolina. Unfortunately I could not logistically travel to see it first hand. I’ll have to wait for 2024, when another total solar eclipse will hit America, making a trail from Texas through upstate New York. Here in CT we will get 75% coverage, which will be cool but nothing (from what I hear) like seeing totality.

Eclipses are one of the testaments to the power of science. We can predict them with incredible accuracy, because we have worked out in tiny detail how planetary orbits work. We can make careful observation and combine that with accurate theories about how the universe works and mathematics to make calculations, and predict these celestial events far into the future.

Some people, however, choose to see the eclipse as a testament to the existence of God. I first heard this argument when I was in college – a friend of mine who was also a fundamentalist Christian essentially ridiculed me for thinking that eclipses were just coincidence. The hand of God was clearly at work.

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Aug 18 2017

A New Option for Grid Storage

Published by under Technology

Last year I wrote about the various grid energy storage options, adding a newly proposed option – chilled air. I am now writing to add another new option to the list – concrete gravity trains. But first, let me review the background.

We need massive grid storage for two main reasons. The first is peak shaving. Energy demand peaks in the early evening, which means we need to have the capacity to meet all of peak demand, even though demand the rest of the day is lower. Peak power is less efficient and clean, because the more efficient energy is used preferentially for baseload production. We dip increasingly into the less efficient energy options when necessary to meet peak demand.

Grid storage could shift energy produced during low demand and then draw upon it during peak demand. Optimally enough grid storage could completely flatten power production, increasing overall efficiency.

The second reason for grid storage is the increasing use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar which are intermittent and not on-demand. This varies by season and location, but generally peak demand occurs just after sunset, when the sun is not shining. No matter how much solar and wind energy we produce, without grid storage we would need to maintain all of our peak capacity. You can encourage people to shift their energy use to times when energy is produced, but it’s hard to get everyone to do something.

The bottom line is that if we ever want to get to significant renewable energy production we will need significant grid storage.  Continue Reading »

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Aug 17 2017

Alternative Medicine Kills

alternative medicine killsI find it ironic that proponents of alternative medicine often accuse their critics (including yours truly) of not caring about patients. They try to take the moral high ground, claiming they are just trying to help people anyway they can.

Of course, this entirely misses the point of the criticism (which is either deliberate or convenient). Proponents of science-based medicine want one thing – the best chance that our treatments are safe and effective. Determining whether a treatment or any medical intervention has more benefit than risk can be very tricky – much more tricky than most non-experts realize. That is precisely why we need the best science available to help us make these critical determinations.

Meanwhile, alternative medicine proponents, it seems to me, fall into two broad camps: those who simply don’t understand the science of medicine, and con-artists. This is actually a continuum, with many people having a combination of naivete and a willingness to cut corners or engage in a little deception. The one thing they don’t have, however, is any legitimate moral high ground. They are either being reckless, despite their intentions, or they are robbing people of their health and money.

For some so-called alternative treatments there is little quality scientific evidence to evaluate claims. For such treatments we can still make judgments based upon plausibility, but such arguments are rarely compelling to the lay public. We also have an extensive history over the last century at least of new possible medical treatments. We know from experience that most new treatments will not turn out to be safe and effective. So, just playing the odds, any new untested implausible treatment is overwhelmingly likely to be either worthless or harmful. But again, people buy lottery tickets.

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Aug 15 2017

More on the Backfire Effect

Published by under Skepticism

mythsOne critical question for the skeptical enterprise is the notion of a backfire effect – when someone is given factual information about a myth that they believe, do they update and correct their beliefs or do they dig in their heels and believe the myth even stronger? Some studies worryingly show that sometimes people dig in their heels, or they simply misremember the corrective information.

A new study sheds further light on this question, although it is not, by itself, the definitive final answer (one study rarely is).

For background, prior studies have show several effects of interest. First, from memory research we know that people store facts separate from the source of those facts and from the truth-status of those facts. That is why people will often say, “I heard somewhere that…” They may not even remember if the tidbit is true or not, but the idea itself is much easier to remember, especially if it is dramatic or resonates with some narrative or belief.

So, if you tell someone that there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism, they are most likely to remember something about a link between vaccines and autism, but not remember where the information came from or if the link is real. That, at least, is the concern.

The research on this topic is actually a bit complex because there are numerous variables. There are factors about the subjects themselves, their age, their baseline beliefs, their intentions, and the intensity of their beliefs. There are different types of information to give: positive information (vaccines are safe), dispelling negative information, graphic information, and fear-based information (pictures of sick unvaccinated kids). There are different topics – political vs scientific, with different levels of emotional attachment to the beliefs. There is belief vs intention – do you think vaccines are safe vs do you intend to vaccinate your kids? Finally there is time, immediate vs delayed effects.

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Aug 14 2017

Tribal Epistemology

Published by under Skepticism

Tribalism550In the early days of my skeptical career I spent time investigating and deconstructing classic pseudosciences, like belief in Bigfoot, astrology, UFOs, and ghosts. I was often challenged as to why I even bothered – these are all silly but harmless beliefs. Is it really worth the time to dissect exactly why they are nonsense?

But my fellow skeptics and I knew the answer. We were interested not so much in the beliefs themselves but the believers. How does someone get to the point that they believe that the relative position of the stars at the moment of their birth could influence the wiring in their brain and even their destiny? At the time I think the answer most activist skeptics, including myself, would give was scientific illiteracy. People simply lack knowledge of science and fills the gaps with entertaining fantasy.

Lack of scientific knowledge definitely plays a role, and is an important problem to address, but it was naive to think it was the main cause. Such explanations do not survive long with contact with actual believers. It becomes rapidly clear that the primary malfunction of true believers is not a lack of information or scientific savvy. It’s something else entirely.

My explanations for why people believe nonsense then evolved into stage 2 – a lack of critical thinking skills. Scientific knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of epistemology (how we know what we know), logic, cognitive biases and heuristics. This view, that belief in nonsense is mainly a failure of critical thinking, is a lot closer to the truth. Our strategy for fighting against belief in pseudoscience and magic evolved into promoting not only scientific literacy but critical thinking skills.

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Aug 11 2017

Alex Jones – Snake Oil Salesman

Patent-medicine5If Alex Jones lived 150 years ago he would have traveled around with a horse-drawn wagon selling his patent medicine with a medicine show featuring amazing stories about hacking his way through the jungle to find cures and sitting down with Indian medicine-men to learn their secrets.

Today he has his own TV show where he tells amazing stories of conspiracies in order to sell dubious supplements.

I have to admit, Jones had me fooled for a while. I was only paying slight attention to the nonsense he spewed on InfoWars, enough to know that he was a raving conspiracy theorist. I paid closer attention when he claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag operation. Anyone as popular and flamboyant as Jones is likely supplementing their true belief with showmanship. I now, however, think it’s more likely that Jones is pure showmanship.

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