Archive for April, 2019

Apr 08 2019

More Research into Bullshit

Published by under Neuroscience

Often times when I state that I do not accept a claim at face value, I am challenged with the question – “Well, do you think they are lying?” The question results from a false dichotomy – that someone is either telling the truth or consciously lying. It misses a phenomenon that is perhaps vastly more large than conscious lying – bullshit.

Lying is when you say something that you know to be false. Bullshitting is when you say something that you don’t know is true or not. There is a spectrum here also, where people may be exaggerating or stretching what they know to be true, mixing in speculation and opinion with facts, distorting what is known with a conscious or unconscious agenda (motivated reasoning), or they are simply gullible themselves. How carefully do you vet a specific piece of information before you accept it and repeat it as true, and how transparent are you about your sources and your confidence in the information?

Most people, I would argue, are not careful enough. Being skeptical is essentially about being really careful and transparent about the information you accept.

Psychological researchers are trying to understand the phenomenon of bullshit, and actually use that term in the literature. A recent study extends this a bit, and is in line with previous research. Pennycook and Rand looked at 1,606 participants through online surveys. They evaluated how receptive they are to statements which are referred to as “pseudoprofound bullshit” and also their ability to discriminate real news from fake new.

Pseudoprofound bullshit are statements that are designed to superficially sound deep, but are actually utterly meaningless (think of pretty much anything Deepak Chopra says). For example, “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

There is even a website that generates random “Chopraesque” statements. For example, it just generated for me, “Innocence gives rise to subjective chaos.” This literally just uses an algorithm to string together random words but structured in such a way as to produce such statements.

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Apr 05 2019

The Color of Vowels

Published by under Neuroscience

What is the color, if you had to choose, of the “oo” sound in “boot”? What about the “ay” sound in “say”?

Researchers asked 1,000 participants this question, 200 of which have synesthesia – a condition in which different sensory and cognitive modalities blend into each other. Interestingly, 70% of non-synesthetes still had a structured answer to these questions. They had a mental map of what vowel sounds had which colors.

Synesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon, that is also a good reminder that our brains are just squishy machines, and they have quirky flaws like all machines. Brain function is mostly a result of networks of neurons firing together. There are various biological mechanisms that control the firing of neurons, so that they participate in networks but these electrical signals do not spread randomly through the brain (that’s basically what a seizure is).

These networks are horrifically complex, and interact with each other is complex ways to create neurological function. There are all sorts of variations of this brain wiring that can produce all the variation we see in people, including some that we would consider disorders or pathological.

Synesthesia is more of a condition than a disorder because it does not necessarily cause any demonstrable harm, and may even be an advantage in certain ways. Synesthetes have their brain networks crosses in unusual ways, so that they smell sound, see odors, or hear colors. They may also assign sensations to abstract concepts. Numbers may have a color, texture, or contour, for example. This is not imagination – they really perceive these things.

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Apr 04 2019

Deep Learning is Changing the World

Published by under Technology

This is a big-picture story I have been following closely, partly because it feels like we are still on the steep part of the curve. Every now and then in the development of technology we hit upon something that may seem small at first, but in retrospect changed the world completely. Electricity is an obvious example. At first scientists didn’t think it would be useful for much, but once we realized we could power devices and do other things with electricity, we remade our world with technology that uses it. The digital revolution was another such transformative breakthrough. Such technologies don’t just win the game – they change the rules of the game.

It’s easy to see such disruptive technologies in retrospect, and much harder to anticipate them. We are somewhere between these two extremes with current technologies that are in the process of transforming our world. It is becoming increasingly clear, for example, that artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly turning into such a transformative technology.

Specifically we are starting to see an explosion of deep learning algorithms. These are AI programs that can learn general rules or patterns from examples. They can be fed examples, or take in examples by observing the world, or even generate examples through trial and error. This technology also dovetails with the age of big data – we have massive data sets and now we also have the AI to make use of those data sets in novel ways.

As is often the case, the early use of a technology is for frivolous purposes, if only as a proof of concept. Deep learning algorithms have been demonstrated to the world by winning at Jeopardy, chess, and now the game, Go. The news of these milestones were a flash in the social media pan, commanding our attention for five minutes before we went onto the next thing. But I think in retrospect we will see them as the harbingers of a new age of technology. The age of AI.

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Apr 02 2019

Another Massive Cambrian Find

Published by under General Science

I know this is two paleontological posts in a row, but I had intended to blog about this before the stunning KT discovery. Chinese paleontologists announce in the journal Science a new early Cambrian fossil bed in South China – the The Qingjiang biota.

This is now just the third major Cambrian find – the first being the famous Burgess shale, and the second the Chengjiang, also in China. This find is amazing for several reasons.

First, the Cambrian Explosion is an incredibly important period in the evolution of life. The Cambrian period lasted from 541 to 485 million years ago. This was the first appearance of the multicellular life that clearly lead to all subsequent plants and animals, including modern species. There was a previous period called the Ediacara fauna, but it is still unclear if this lead to the Cambrian life or was a side branch or even an independent origin of multicellular life that didn’t make it. Recent evidence suggests that some Ediacara life were animals, and therefore ancestors to some Cambrian life and not a total dead end. But this is still not fully resolved.

Either way, the massive diversification of multicellular life in the Cambrian period lead to all the modern phyla, and many additional phyla that did not survive the Cambrian. Our first real evidence of this diversification was from a famous fossil find in Canada, the Burgess Shale. Most of what we know about the Cambrian still comes from these fossils.

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Apr 01 2019

Capturing The Most Deadly Day On Earth

Published by under General Science

“When I saw that, I knew this wasn’t just any flood deposit,” DePalma said. “We weren’t just near the KT boundary—this whole site is the KT boundary!”

Unless something really unexpected happens, this is likely to be the science news story of the year, and will be on everyone’s short list for the science news of the decade. It may be the paleontological news of the century. It’s easy to get excited when news like this breaks, and maybe I’m overcalling it, but you can decide once you hear the news, if you haven’t already.

A young PhD candidate, Robert DePalma, has found a massive fossil deposit that seems to have been laid down on the actual day the asteroid hit and wiped out 99.9999% of living things and 75% of species on Earth.

The New Yorker tells the whole story in great detail, and the whole thing is worth a read, but here is the quick version. It is now clearly established that 66 million years ago a several mile wide asteroid impacted the earth at 45 thousand miles per hour, impacting near the Gulf of Mexico creating what is now called the Chicxulub crater. The impact sent tons of debris into the air, into orbit, and even around the solar system. Hot rock rained back down onto the Earth, setting fire to most of the plant life, poisoning the atmosphere, and blocking out the sun plunging the Earth into a toxic deep freeze.

It’s hard to imagine anything surviving that day or the following weeks and months, but some life squeaked through and eventually evolved into the modern assemblage of life, including humans.

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