Archive for April, 2019

Apr 30 2019

Skeptic vs Denier

Published by under Skepticism

The skeptic vs denier debate won’t go away. I fear the issue is far too nuanced for a broad popular consensus. But that should not prevent a consensus among science communicators, who should have a technical understanding of terminology.

A recent editorial in Forbes illustrates the problem. The author, Brian Brettschneider, makes a recommendation for when to use which term, which sounds superficially reasonable but I think he misses the essence of the issue. His solution is this – if you have an advanced degree in climate science and you have doubts about the mainstream view, then you are given the benefit of the doubt and should be referred to as a skeptic. If you do not have a formal degree in climate science, then you have no business going against the consensus of mainstream scientific opinion and you should not be given the benefit of the doubt, and are hence a denier.

This is not a bad rule of thumb as an initial assumption, but does not work as a technical distinction.

First let me say that I agree with the underlying premise. It is not a logical fallacy (argument from authority) to defer to a strong consensus of legitimate expert opinion if you yourself lack appropriate expertise. Deference should be the default position, and your best bet is to understand what that consensus is, how strong is it, and what evidence supports it. Further, if there appears to be any controversy then – who is it, exactly, who does not accept the mainstream consensus, what is their expertise, what are their criticisms, and what is the mainstream response? More importantly – how big is the minority opinion within the expert community.

This is where a bit of judgment comes in, and there is simply no way of avoiding it. There is no simple algorithm to tell you what to believe, but there are some useful rules. Obviously, the stronger the consensus, the more it is reasonable to defer to it. There is always going to be a 1-2% minority opinion on almost any scientific conclusion, that is not sufficient reason to doubt the consensus. But you also need to find out what, exactly the consensus is, and what is just a working hypothesis. Any complex theory will have multiple parts, and it’s not all a package deal.

For example, let’s take evolutionary theory. There is almost unanimous consensus (>98%) among experts that evolution happened, that all living things on Earth are related through a nestled hierarchy of common descent. Further, the evidence for that conclusion is overwhelming and cannot be reasonably denied. Further still, there is no alternative scientific hypothesis that can account for that mountain of evidence (note the word “scientific” in that sentence). But the same is not true of all aspects of evolutionary theory. That natural selection is a main driving force of evolutionary change is also well established, but there is still legitimate debate about the role and magnitude of other factors, such as genetic drift. When we drill down to details about which species evolved into which other species and when, drawing a precise tree of evolutionary relationships, then there is considerable debate and much that is unknown.

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Apr 29 2019

Phosphorene Nanoribbons

Published by under Technology

As technology advances we find better and better ways to use existing materials. However, material science has the potential to introduce new materials to the equation, changing the game. It’s ironic that news about new materials tends to get relatively little attention in the media, but perhaps has the greatest potential to change our world.

That is exactly what I felt when I read this news about a production process to produce phosphorene nanoribbons. Sound boring, right? That’s why the popular reporting doesn’t even mention any of those things in the headline, but rather goes with the potential applications – We accidentally created a new wonder material that could revolutionise batteries and electronics.

As an aside, I don’t like the common narrative that something was discovered, “by accident.” The unspoken premise is that science is mostly looking directly for a specific effect or application. That is only a small subset of science, called translational research, where we are taking a discovery and looking to translate it into specific applications. However, the majority of research is just trying to figure out how stuff works. Often the findings of research are unexpected, and lead to new questions, and open up new possible applications. This is not “accidental” – it’s just part of the process. But the media loves that meme.

In any case, the actual paper, published in Nature, is not even about discovering the new material itself (which was discovered 5 years ago) but rather a process for reliably manufacturing large quantities of it with controllable properties. If you know anything about material science, that’s a huge deal, because most new wonder materials can’t get out of the lab because there is no way to mass produce them.

Phosphorene nanoribbons are “tagliatelle-like ribbons one single atom thick and only 100 or so atoms across, but up to 100,000 atoms long.” (Love the pasta reference.) They are made of phosphorous, which is an abundant element. Many 1 or 2-dimensional nanomaterials have been in the news over the last decade, most famously carbon nanosheets and nanofibers – 1 atom thick layers of carbon atoms which can be rolled into fibers. This class of materials is exciting because they have unique properties, such as strength (for their size), and electrical properties that can make them either incredible conductors or insulators, with low energy and heat dissipation needs.

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Apr 23 2019

Behind the Curve – Flat Earth Exposed

I finally watched Behind The Curve, a documentary about the Flat Earth movement. It is a powerful documentary which provides important insights into this fascinating phenomenon. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

For me the most interesting moments were those when the Flat Earth believers the film focuses on show a flash of insight. They never quite get there, but they have all the pieces in front of them, they see them, they see their significance, but can’t quite make the final emotional connection.

The other aspects that I found most interesting were those that provided generic insight into how ideological movements work. There is some basic and universal human psychology going on, and in some ways it’s a mirror to any group of humans, including skeptics.

I also was especially interested in the question, directly addressed by the film, of how best to approach Flat Earthers and the entire movement. What is our responsibility here as science communicators, and what is our best strategy?

Some reviews have focused on those moments when Flat Earthers did experiments to test their theory, and were wrong. These are, of course, delicious. For example, one group purchased a ring laser gyroscope, a $20k device that can very sensitively measure movement. They say straight up, and correctly, that if the earth is a globe and it rotates once every 24 hours, then there should be a 15 degree drift in the gyroscope every hour. That is their experimental hypothesis.

So – they set up the device and…it measures a 15 degree drift every hour. QED – the Earth is a rotating globe.

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Apr 22 2019

Partially Reviving Dead Pig Brains

I turns out they were only “mostly dead.” Well, it depends on your definition of death.

This is an interesting study that has been widely reported, with a surprisingly small amount of hype. The New York Times writes:

‘Partly Alive’: Scientists Revive Cells in Brains From Dead Pigs
In a study that upends assumptions about brain death, researchers brought some cells back to life — or something like it.

All the reporting I have seen so far has appropriate caveats, but they are really trying hard to maximize the sensational aspects of this study. I actually wrote about this study one year ago when the data was first presented. Now it has been published, so there is another round of reporting (which interestingly ignores the prior reporting).

The quick version is that Yale neuroscientists collected decapitated pig brains four hours after death and then tried to keep the brain cells alive in order to see what would happen. It’s actually a great real-life Frankenstein type experiment, a fact not missed by some outlets. Here is what they did: Continue Reading »

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Apr 18 2019

Should We Ban Plastic Bags

Published by under Technology

Probably – but it’s complicated.

That is often the unfortunate answer when we ask big questions about how best to manage the world. We want to feel good about ourselves for being good citizens, or at least champion clear policies that are objectively better and effective at achieving our goals. Reality rarely accommodates these desires.

Part of the problem is that there are over 7 billion people on the planet and growing, and our industrial civilization uses a lot of resources. So anything that millions or billions of people do is likely to have an impact. Because of this there may simply be no perfect option.

But further, the available options tend to have trade-offs. Therefore if you ask, which option is better, the answer often is – it depends. It depends on how you ask and how you answer the question. Defining the problem is often easier – the solution, not so much.

The problem here is clear – single use plastic products do not biodegrade. They survive in the environment for about 400 years. They will break down into microplastics, but these stay in the environment and can still cause problems. A recent study found microplastics in remote regions of the Pyrenees. They are basically everywhere. Plastics clog our oceans and increasingly animals are turning up dead bloated with plastic waste.

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Apr 16 2019

FDA Takes On Misleading GMO Labeling

Published by under Skepticism

The FDA has released its guidelines for voluntary labeling of food products with respect to whether or not they contain ingredients that either are, or are derived from, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The guidelines, if nothing else, are a good way for consumers to become more savvy to all the ways in which companies can use food labels that are technically truthful, but are designed to deceive.

However, it’s frustrating that these are just voluntary guidelines. They are not policy, so companies are free to just ignore them. Hopefully, they are a precursor to actual policy and regulations, but Congress had done a good job of keeping the FDA too weak to actually fulfill its mandate. So often they are left to firing off strongly worded letters, warnings, and voluntary guidelines.

Here are some of the deceptive practices the FDA discusses. Obviously they go over the basics of being accurate and truthful – what it considers a GMO, etc. These are mostly obvious or technical. More interesting are the ways in which labels deceive by omission or by implications.

For example, the guidelines note:

For example, on a product made largely of flour derived from genetically engineered corn and a small amount of non-genetically engineered soybean oil, a claim that the product “does not contain bioengineered soybean oil” could be misleading if consumers believe that the entire product, or a larger portion of it than is actually the case, is free of bioengineered material.

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Apr 15 2019

Furthering the Flying Car Thought Experiment

Published by under Technology

I love the conversation stemming from my last post on flying cars, and also our discussion on the SGU. Some great points were raised, and I want to further the conversation by addressing them.

I will begin by more explicitly laying out the various ways to frame the question of what impact flying cars may have. Whenever we ask a question about how something will affect a complex system, the answer always seems to be – it depends. It depends on exactly what question you ask and how you try to measure the effect. Are air dryers better than paper towels? It depends on what factors you think are important, and on several variables.

Thinking about the flying car question more deeply, it seems to me there are three levels to consider when it comes to efficiency. The first level is trip efficiency – what is the energy cost of making one trip for one passenger from point A to point B, comparing an electric flying car to a gasoline ground car and electric ground car? This was the level of the analysis of the recent paper I was discussing.

What they found is that flying cars can be more efficient than gasoline ground cars if the travel distance is long enough. For a 100 km trip they found that flying cars are 35% more efficient than gasoline, but 28% less efficient than electric vehicles. So that’ right in the middle of the pack.

Further, for longer trips the relative efficiency improves, but also if we consider geography and traffic the flying car, in some situations, may become the most efficient option. The authors point out that the average commute is 17 miles (which is close to other sources I found, some say 16 miles) but this also translates into 1 hour round trip travel time. But actually this is not enough information. We also need to know the average trip efficiency of these commutes. In other words – how much does the commute path deviate from a straight line? Also, how long does the commute take compared to no-traffic travel times? And further, how much of that commute is city driving vs highway?

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Apr 12 2019

We May See Flying Cars Yet.

Published by under Technology

Over the years I have waxed and waned in terms of my optimism that one day flying cars will be a reality – and not just prototypes, but in general use for transportation. I was at an ebb in my enthusiasm, but a recent article has nudged me toward more optimism.

By “flying car” I mean a vehicle used for personal transportation that can fly but also be driven by someone with about the level of training required to drive a regular car. If you need a pilot’s license, have to land an an airport, and the vehicle primarily uses wings for lift, then it’s not a “car”, it’s a plane. Occasionally developers put forward what is essentially a driving plane and claim it is a flying car, but I would not put it in that category.

The flying car has been a science-fiction promise for over half a century. Just about every vision of even the near future contains flying cars. It is a fixture in our mental image of the “future.” I think part of the reason it has so captured our imagination is the obvious utility. Who does not fantasize about flying over frustrating traffic and taking a straight line unobstructed path to your destination?

There have essentially been two hurdles to the development of the flying car. The first is safety – designing something that the average person can operate with moderate training and with minimal accidents, at the level of driving a regular car or lower. This nut has essentially been cracked. Computer algorithms can handle the difficult aspects of maintaining stability, and can even mostly fly themselves. Fifty years ago this was an issue, it no longer is.

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Apr 11 2019

Herbals Potentially Unsafe in Pregnancy

I know this blog is a metaphorical finger in the dike of a massive corporate advertising and misinformation campaign, but I need to say it as often as possible that herbal products are drugs. They are consumed or applied for the pharmacological effects of the chemicals they contain. But they are advertised as “natural” which is somehow magically supposed to alter that reality.

Many people, I suppose, don’t contemplate the fact that arsenic, hemlock, curare, strychnine, and countless other chemicals are all natural powerful poisons. The natural world is full of toxins, poisons, and powerful drugs. To a first approximation the natural world is trying to kill you. I would not, for example, recommend eating any part of a plant you cannot identify. Those are not dice you want to throw.

Literally centuries of snake oil marketing, however, has created a health halo around the vague concept of something being “natural”. The herbal supplement industry makes billions off this misconception, and of course does everything it can to promote it. Even the term “herbal supplement” is a misnomer – the result of the industry lobbying the government to treat these unpurified dirty drugs as if they were food.

As a result we have a drug industry that is largely unregulated and sells their products directly to the consumer, without prescription or any medical oversight, and are allowed to make or imply all sorts of health claims. Their products are rife with contamination, substitution, mislabeling, and adulteration. Even when the label is accurate, we often don’t know what the active ingredients are, their doses, or their interactions.

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Apr 09 2019

Quantum Acupuncture

In 2017 Chinese scientists published a paper in the journal Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion titled, “Discussion on quantum entanglement theory and acupuncture.” There are several layers to the erosion of science that this paper represents. Fortunately the paper was recently retracted, for reasons the editors do not make clear. I suspect they were just embarrassed.

The first layer I would like to peal away is the use of quantum mechanics to essentially explain magic. The authors write (originally in Chinese – this is the bad translation):

After learning the quantum entanglement, the authors have found that many characteristics of quantum are reflected in TCM, acupuncture theory and clinical practice. For example, the quantum entanglement phenomenon is mutually verified with the holism, yinyang doctrine, the theory of primary, secondary, root and knot in TCM, etc. It can be applied to interpret the clinical situations which is difficult to be explained in clinical practice, such as the instant effect of acupuncture, multi-point stimulation in one disorder and the points with specific effects.

Let me parse that a bit for you. What they are essentially admitting is that there are several aspects to acupuncture that cannot be explained with actual science, by appealing to evidence, logic, or what has been established about how the human body actually works. One of those aspects is the “instant effect” that acupuncture often seems to have on patient.

In real life, it takes time for the body to respond to any intervention. There are some drugs that, when given intravenously, can have a very rapid effect. Otherwise it takes time for substances to get absorbed, be distributed to their targets, for cells to respond, to make proteins, to begin healing, etc. Depending on the effect and the mechanism of the intervention, an almost instant response to treatment may be physiologically impossible.

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