Archive for October, 2017

Oct 31 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Epistemology

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

UFOconspiracyJust last week I discussed a study looking at the correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and hyperactive pattern recognition. The quick version is this – belief in false patterns (such as bizarre conspiracy theories) results from a tendency to detect false patterns and a lack of filtering out those detections. The question for psychologists is, how much of an increased tendency to believe grand conspiracies is due to increased pattern recognition and how much is due to impaired reality testing? My assumption would be that both are involved to varying degrees in different people. The study found that there is a correlation between conspiracy beliefs and pattern recognition – which supports that hypothesis, but does not refute the role of decreased reality testing or other variables, such as culture, ideology, and self-esteem.

This week I am going to discuss another recent study looking at belief in conspiracies and their correlation with beliefs about the nature of knowledge (epistemic beliefs). These researchers are focusing on the other end of the equation – the methods we use to assess knowledge and form beliefs, rather than the more basic function of perceiving patterns. They start with a helpful review of previous literature:

There is also some evidence that individuals’ styles of thinking can influence their willingness to accept claims lacking empirical evidence. Individuals who tend to see intentional agency behind every event are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, as are those who attribute extraordinary events to unseen forces or interpret events through the Manichean narrative of good versus evil. Those who mistrust authority, who are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and who lack control over their environment are also more predisposed to conspiracist ideation.

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Oct 24 2017

The Mandela Effect

Published by under Neuroscience

mandelaeffect1Do you remember when Nelson Mandela was killed in prison in the 1980s? Apparently there are a lot of people who, for some reason, had this memory. Of course, Mandela was not killed in prison, he survived and went on to become president of South Africa.

This false memory, however, gave rise to the term, “The Mandela Effect,” which refers to remembering some detail of the past that is simply not true. There is a disconnect between our memory and reality.

This should not be surprising to anyone, especially anyone even slightly familiar with memory research. Our memories are constantly changing, they merge, details shift, and entire memories can be confabulated. If there is a conflict between our memory and documented reality, it is clearly our memory that is at fault.

Despite this obvious answer, there are groups of people who feel that the Mandela effect represents something else. The disconnect between our memories and reality is due, they argue, to a shifting in reality, perhaps due to a crossing of the streams between parallel universes. Alternatively it can be a glitch in the Matrix that happens when they apply a new patch or expansion.  Between physical reality and memory I would say that memory is the one that is slippery and changing, not reality.

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Oct 23 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition

conspiracy thinking1Humans are conspiracy theorists. Seeing and believing in conspiracies appears to be a fundamental part of how our minds work. Psychologists are trying to understand rigorously exactly why this is, and what factors predict a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

A recent study adds to those that link conspiracy thinking with pattern recognition. The researchers did a series of experiments in which they showed that the belief in one or more conspiracies correlates with the tendency to see patterns in random data, such as random coin tosses or noisy pictures. Further, when subjects read about one conspiracy theory they were then slightly more likely to endorse other conspiracy theories and to see patterns in random noise.

They conclude:

We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.”

This makes sense, which is why psychologists have been studying it in the first place. First, we know that people in general have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. That is part of how our brains make sense of the world. Essentially, we are bombarded with various sensory streams. Our brains parse those streams as best it can, filtering out noise and distraction, and then searching for familiar patterns. When it finds a possible match it then processes the information to make the perceived pattern more apparent. That pattern is then what we perceive.

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Oct 20 2017

Making Oxygen on Mars

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

Mars baseAt some point humans will travel to Mars. It seems inevitable, the only question being when that will happen. Optimists like Musk think it will happen before mid-century, but that may not be realistic. There are significant logistical hurdles without clear solutions.

Some argue, and I agree with this strategy, that we should focus first on a moon base. The moon is a lot closer, which solves many problems right there. But otherwise it would have many of the same challenges as Mars, and so if we develop a base on the moon we can use what we learn to be better able to tackle Mars. Further the moon can be a literal launching pad for Mars.

While Mars has some extra challenges, it may have some advantages as well over the moon. NASA experts have observed that Mars has just enough of an atmosphere to be a problem. It has 1% of the pressure of Earth, which means for astronauts it is functionally the same as a hard vacuum. You still need pressure suits, pressurized living spaces, and you need a supply of air to breath.

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Oct 19 2017

More Gravitational Waves

Published by under Astronomy

neutronStar_drupal_withNOcaptionThe winner of the Nobel prize for physics was the detection of gravitational waves. These are extremely subtle ripples in spacetime caused by massive cataclysmic events, such as black holes colliding. These ripples were predicted by Einstein, who thought we may never be able to detect them because they would be so unbelievably tiny.

How tiny?  LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), the device used to detect the waves, can detect changes as small at 10 -22 meters. Graviational waves detected so far have had an amplitude of 10 -18 meters, smaller than the radius of a proton.

How is that possible? That is where the interferometry comes in. LIGO uses a laser split into two beams that will travel for 8 Km and then reflect off mirrors and come back to the same detector. The two beams have traveled the exact same distance so that they are in phase, or at least they can be calibrated to be exactly in phase, meaning that the peaks of the waves line up. When a ripple in spacetime comes through, the length of the two arms (which are at 90 degree angles to each other) will change slightly, bringing the two beams out of phase. That slight phase shift can be detected and measured.

Prior to winning the Nobel prize LIGO had detected four gravitational waves wash over it. This was considered enough of a confirmation of the technology and science to award the prize.

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Oct 17 2017

What Is Artificial Intelligence

AI-1A recent article by Peter Yordanov claims that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is nothing but misleading clickbait. This is a provocative way to state it, but he has a point, although I don’t think he expressed it well.

Yordanov spends most of the article describing his understanding of human intelligence, partly by walking through the evolution of the central nervous system. His basic conclusion, if I am reading it correctly, is that what we have today and call AI is nothing like biological intelligence.

This is certainly true, but it seems like he takes a long time to make what is essentially a semantic argument. The core problem is that the word “intelligence” means many things. Lack of a consistent operational definition plagues the use of the term is pretty much every context, and certainly in computer AI.

What we have now and is generally referred to as AI are computer algorithms that display functions that resemble intelligence or duplicate certain components of intelligence. Computers are good at crunching numbers, running algorithms, recognizing patterns, and searching and matching data. Newer algorithms are also capable of learning – of changing their behavior based on data input.

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Oct 16 2017

Clean Eating Antiscience

Eating “clean” is the latest fad diet pseudoscience. A recent article in The Guardian goes over the many aspects of this movement in great detail, and is worth a read. My only complaint is that the author, Bee Wilson, buys into misinformation about the medical profession and nutrition.

Wilson claims that the medical profession was unhelpful when it came to nutrition. I disagree – the medical profession was at the forefront of nutritional research and advice. The problem was that the science-based answers were not what everyone wanted to hear.

There are many aspects to the clean-eating movement, which Wilson does do an excellent job discussing. It is mostly marketing, a way for self-proclaimed “gurus” to make millions selling cookbooks, diet plans, and detox programs with outrageous claims that it will transform you health and cure whatever ails you.

The movement is also partly a reaction to the realities of modern Western culture. There is an obesity epidemic in our culture, and while the exact causes are debated it seems clear that the food industry is partly to blame. Market forces also favor tasty food, which tends to be calorie dense, and supersized portions.

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Oct 13 2017

A Poor Marker of Truth

Published by under Culture and Society

lunar animalsAs a recent Atlantic article recounts, in the early 1800s steamed powered printing presses were making the distribution of information cheaper and faster. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this was an opportunity. In 1833 Benjamin Day (who was just 23 – the Zuckerberg of his age) founded the New York Sun.

The paper was the first of the “penny press” – sold for just a penny to increase distribution, and then monetized through advertising. This was a new paradigm – Day was not really selling information to the masses, he was selling the attention of the masses to advertisers. This flipped the incentives. He no longer had an incentive to produce quality information (because information was not the product), but rather to print whatever information got the most attention (which was his product).

So, in 1835 Day printed a series of stories about how astronomers, using a new telescope, were seeing bat people on the moon. The story “went viral” and fooled most people. It took rival newspapers to debunk the stories until Day finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax. That hoax may have been over, but it spawned an age of tabloids that continues to this day.

The printing press of the 21st century, of course, is the internet, and attention is the coin of the realm. This creates an inherent dilemma for our society – because attention is a poor marker of truth.

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Oct 12 2017

Another Antivaccine Retraction

Retracted-950x633Science only works when it works.

In other words – science itself does not lead to an understanding of the universe unless that science is done correctly, rigorously, and honestly. This is a lot harder than I think is generally appreciated. In order to really reach firm scientific conclusions about any complex question we need to follow the arch of the research as it matures. We need to see what overall patterns emerge in the evidence. Eventually a tentative but reliable scientific consensus can be achieved.

There are many ways in which this process can go off the rails, however. With ESP we see researchers chasing the noise – trying to find tiny signals but only chasing their tails. With acupuncture we see proponents choosing to ignore, misinterpret, and then abandon well-controlled clinical trials in favor of “pragmatic” studies that will show them what they want. There is “cargo cult” science that goes through the superficial motions but lacks true scientific methodology. There is “Tooth Fairy” science that nibbles around the edges but never addresses the core premise – is the phenomenon actually real?

There is a huge positive bias in science – researchers have a tendency to tweak their methods to get the results they want, publishers have a tendency to publish positive exciting research, and other scientists have a bias toward citing positive interesting research. Funding sources affect research outcome. When pharmaceutical companies fund research the results are much more likely to be favorable to their drug than independent research. Scientists make mistakes, take shortcuts, and often have blinders on. And then there is outright fraud, which is uncommon but still crops up on a regular basis.

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Oct 10 2017

Half the Matter in the Universe Just Found

Published by under Astronomy

filamentsBy now most people are familiar with dark matter – that mysterious substance which has gravity but otherwise does not seem to interact with the normal matter with which we are most familiar. About 27% of the stuff (matter and energy) in the known universe is dark matter, 68% is dark energy, and only about 5% is made of known particles (baryons – protons, neutrons; leptons – electron; and more exotic particles).

We currently don’t know what dark matter is. We know it’s there because we can see its gravitational effect, first noticed because galaxies spin faster than they should. Based just on the gravity from stuff we can see, galaxies should be flying apart. They stick together because there is significantly more gravity than we can account for. There must be additional matter we can’t see, or dark matter.

It is perhaps less well-known that we also haven’t found about half of the normal matter that should exist in the universe. Even if we just consider that 5% that is made of standard particles, about half of it is missing. That is – until now, if recent reports are accurate.

This really wasn’t much of a mystery (not like dark matter) – astronomers suspected that the missing matter was present in the form of diffuse gas between galaxies. There is a lot of space out there, and even a wispy vapor could contain a lot of particles, as much as is contained in all the visible galaxies. The problem is, this thin gas is too wispy to see with conventional means.

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