Aug 05 2019

Bad Science Promoting Organic Apples

Are we eating apples wrong? An ABC news headline reads, “If you aren’t eating the whole apple, you might be eating it the wrong way, a study finds.” This reporting is based on this study, which is a comparison of the bacterial content of different parts of apples, and comparing organically grown to conventionally grown apples. The study found that there was a different bacterial composition between the conventional and organic apples, and that the core and seeds of the apples contained about 10 times the bacteria as the flesh. The authors also conclude:

“Moreover, organic apples conceivably feature favorable health effects for the consumer, the host plant and the environment in contrast to conventional apples, which were found to harbor potential food-borne pathogens.”

All the usual problems I often complain about are present with this conclusion, starting with the fact that it is absolutely not justified by the actual data. First, this is a small preliminary study, of the sort that the media should not even report on. At best this type of study can generate a hypothesis to be tested. The researchers compared a grand total of four apples each from two orchards, one organic and one conventional. Right there you can probably see the problem.

All the apples were of one cultivar, so we cannot generalize the findings to other cultivars. But even worse, only two orchards were compared. Even if you sampled a thousand apples from each orchard, you are still only comparing two orchards.  Elisabeth M Bik, a microbiota researcher, already commented on the study, pointing out that –

For example, the orchards could also have different sun exposures, soil characteristics, age of trees, harvesting techniques and storage conditions, etc. These are all parameters that are not associated with organic vs conventional farming, but that could still have a big impact on the microbiome composition.

Exactly. There are many variables, and absolutely no way for the researchers to isolate the organic farming as the one variable that correlates with the changes they saw. Even worse, and I have no idea why they did this, the organic apples were picked and sampled fresh, while the conventional apples were stored in plastic prior to examination. Why introduce another variable like that? Bacterial populations are certain to change over time after harvesting, and based on storage conditions. So – do I have to say it – this study was not comparing apples to apples while they were comparing apples to apples.

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Aug 02 2019

Can an AI Hold a Patent

The BBC reports a case in which an artificial intelligence (AI) system is named as a possible patent holder for a new invention, and interlocking food container. Apparently none of the people involved with the invention meet the criteria for being a patent holder, since they did not come up with the actual innovation.

As a result, two professors from the University of Surrey have teamed up with the Missouri-based inventor of Dabus AI to file patents in the system’s name with the relevant authorities in the UK, Europe and US.

That’s an interesting solution. It does seem that international patent law needs to evolve in order to deal with the product of machine learning creativity. I think this reveals what a true game-changer current AI can be. It’s breaking our existing categories and legal framework.

But I don’t want to talk about patent law, about which I have no expertise – I want to talk about AI, about which I also have no expertise (but I do have a keen interest and pay attention to the news). Over the last few years there have been numerous developments that show how powerful machine learning algorithms are becoming. Specifically, they are able to create solutions that the AI programmers themselves don’t fully understand. The Dabus system itself uses one component to generate new ideas, based on being fed noisy input. But then a second component evaluates those ideas and gives the first component feedback. This idea, having two AI systems play off each other, creates a feedback loop that can rapidly iterate and improve a design or solution. So essentially we have two AIs talking to each other, and humans are largely out of the loop.

AI systems have come up with simulations and other solutions that the scientists using the system do not understand. Sometimes they don’t even know how it was possible for the AI to come up with the solutions it did.

Even more interesting, AI systems have developed their own language that they use to communicate with each other, and no human currently understands that language.

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Aug 01 2019

GMOs and the Knowledge Deficit Model

A 2015 Pew survey found that 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are generally safe to eat, while only 37% of the general public did. This was the biggest gap, 51%, of any science attitude they surveyed – greater than evolution or climate change. This hasn’t changed much since. A 2018 Pew survey found that 49% of US adults think that GMOs are worse for your health. These numbers are also similar in other countries.

An important underlying question for science communicators is – what is the source and therefore potential solution to this disconnect between experts and the public? In other words – what drives anti-scientific or pseudoscientific attitudes in the public? The classic answer is the knowledge deficit model, that people reject science because they don’t understand it. If true, then the answer is science education and fostering greater scientific literacy.

However, psychological research over the last two decades has called into question the knowledge deficit model. Studies have found that giving facts often has not result, or may even create a backfire effect (although to scope of this is still controversial). Some research suggests you have to confront a person’s explanatory narrative and replace it with another. Others indicate that ideological beliefs are remarkably resistant to alteration with facts alone.

But the knowledge deficit model is not dead yet. It seems that we have to take a more nuanced approach to unscientific beliefs in the public. This is a heterogeneous phenomenon, with multiple causes and therefore multiple potential solutions. For each topic we need to understand what is driving that particular belief, and then tailor an approach to it.

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Jul 30 2019

The Challenge of Deepfakes

You have probably heard of deepfakes by now – convincing video manipulation that is improving rapidly, getting better and easier. Right now you can often tell when a video has been manipulated. The human eye is very sensitive to movement, facial expressions, and other subtle cues. But the best examples are getting more difficult, and experts predict there will be deepfakes undetectable by most people within a year.

How will this affect the world? Most reports I read simply say that people won’t be able to trust videos anymore (we already can’t trust photos). But that doesn’t capture the situation. People knowing that video can be manipulated won’t really solve the problem.

The problem is psychology – people can be primed and manipulated subconsciously. Let’s say, for example, that you see a video of a famous person committing a horrible crime, or saying something terrible. Even if you know such videos can be faked, or hear the claim that that video was fake, the images may still have an emotional effect. It becomes part of your subconscious memory memory of that person.

Human memory also will contribute to this effect. We are better at remembering claims than remembering where we heard them (source amnesia) or if they are true or not (truth status amnesia). Seeing a dramatic video of a person doing something horrible will stick with you and will be much more vivid than later information about forensic examination of the video.

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Jul 29 2019

Coincidence and the Law of Large Numbers

Weird things happen to most people at some point in their lives, and if not to you directly than probably to someone you know. But what is the ultimate meaning to such coincidences? They may seem amazing, and psychologically scream out for an equally amazing explanation.

Skeptics caution, however, that our tendency to see patterns and impose satisfying explanations combine with our relative lack of intuition for statistics to jump to unwarranted conclusions. If we do the math, then it becomes clear that very unlikely events should happen all the time, given enough opportunity.

Some people, however, do not want to give up the narrative value of coincidences so easily. Sharon Hewitt Rawlette, for example, has written a book about The Source and Significance of Coincidences, and prefers a more supernatural explanation. In a recent editorial for Psychology Today she strikes back at the skeptical explanation for coincidences. She basically has one point to make, but first she states the skeptical position:

Skeptics argue that, even if the odds that a particular event would occur at this particular moment to this particular person are very low, there are so many moments over the course of our lives and so many people on this planet, that even very improbable coincidences are bound to happen eventually, just by chance. This is often referred to as the Law of Very Large Numbers.

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Jul 26 2019

Going Back to the Moon

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon there has been a lot of talk about NASA’s plans to return. Each new dribble of news can be exciting, but a coherent plan remains elusive. Somewhat of a plan is starting to take shape, however.

In a recent commentary for the Washington Post, Astronomer Phil Plait made an interesting point – that the Apollo mission was designed to be self-limited and not a sustained effort. The point was to beat the Soviets to the moon, and so it was baked into the design of the program to do everything to get their quickly not slowly and sustainably. Further, once we did beat the Soviets to the moon, and it was clear they abandoned their own efforts to do so, support for the program faded.

I think this is correct, but it is in contrast to the naive impression I formed as a child during the Apollo program and nurtured throughout most of my life. It always seemed to me that once we became a spacefaring race, progress was inevitable. Certainly every science fiction movie reinforced this impression. Apollo was followed by the space shuttle, then the ISS. OK, that makes sense. But then progress in sending people into space seemed to wane. We now have to hitch rides to the ISS on Russian craft. NASA’s plans seem to change with each administration. Multiple conflicting visions compete for dominance, while we seem to chase our tail.

I have to now acknowledge that it’s possible the massive effort necessary to safely send people to the moon and return them to Earth may only be feasible with the political and public support generated by the cold war and an immediate space race. Without that, we don’t seem to be able to sustain the political will – which in practical purposes means money. NASA and the White House need to be on the same page, and Congress needs to provide the funding.

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Jul 25 2019

The Global Warming Consensus

The degree to which there is a scientific consensus in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) remains politically controversial, even though it is not scientifically controversial. Denial of the consensus remains a cornerstone of AGW denial, so let’s examine the science and the arguments used to deny it.

Much of the public discussion focusses on the 2013 Cook article which claimed that there is a 97% consensus among experts in AGW. This has become the poster child of the consensus argument, much in the way Mann’s original article has become the icon of the “hockey stick” of global temperatures. The denialist strategy here is the same – falsely present the situation as if all the scientific eggs are in one basket, and then attack that basket with everything you have.

So Cook has been vilified by the deniers as if that demolishes the evidence for a consensus. That strategy ignores, however, the many other studies that also look at the question of consensus. In fact, there is a consensus of studies on consensus. A 2016 review of 6 independent studies found the range of estimates of the consensus is from 90-100%, with the consensus clustering around 97%. The “everything depends on that one Cook study” strategy is just factually incorrect.

The other strategy used to deny the consensus is to misrepresent individual studies, again with the focus being on Cook. There is admittedly a lot of complexity here, and no one number will capture that. No individual study is perfect, because you always have to make some trade-offs. These papers are all estimates of the consensus, and had to make certain assumptions. But that is why multiple independent estimates are useful.

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Jul 23 2019

Practicing Medicine Without a License Is Not Free Speech

A federal court has recently affirmed that states do indeed have the right to enforce professional licensing laws. This may seem obvious, and I think it is, but lawyers for Heather Del Castillo (from the libertarian, public-interest law firm, The Institute for Justice), a “holistic health coach” based in Florida, argued in court that their client was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Judge Casey Rogers of the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida rejected their arguments out of hand.

This is a very important ruling for anyone interested in science, skepticism, and professionalism. Had the ruling gone the other way, it would have been a disastrous precedent. Let’s review what the First Amendment does and does not guarantee.

First, you have to think about when a question of speech and censorship is a First Amendment issue at all. For example, if you get banned from a social media outlet because someone doesn’t like your speech, that is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall pass no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” This applies only to the government, both federal and state. So this affects how and when the government can censor, oppress, and punish speech. It has zero effect on private companies or citizens. The bottom line is that you have no right to speech in someone else’s private venue.

What about getting fired from your job for your speech? Nope, that’s not a First Amendment issue either, if you work for a private company and not any government. However, your employer may still run afoul of the Civil Rights Act or contract law. If you do work for the government, then the burden of proof shifts to the government. They can only discipline you for your speech if it interferes with your job or violates your contract or ethical guidelines of the job.

The First Amendment applies when government is involved in any way. If you get sued for libel, then that is a First Amendment issue. The government cannot shut down your newspaper because it doesn’t like your editorial policy. You cannot be arrested and jailed for your speech (with certain limits). Once we determine that a certain situation is a First Amendment issue we are not done, because freedom of speech is not absolute. There are certain very narrowly defined limits.

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Jul 22 2019

Conspiracies Are For the Birds

Let me just start by saying – I don’t believe for a second that this one is real. I think it’s something between absurdist performance art, trolling, and marketing. But it does raise the question about the ultimate effects of such things, and therefore the ethics.

There is an online faux movement called, “Birds Aren’t Real.” It is a fake conspiracy theory someone made up in order to make fun of other conspiracy theories, and perhaps sell T-shirts. The idea is that sometime in the 1970s the US government killed all the birds in North America and replaced them with identical drones in order to spy on its citizens. Of course this makes no sense on multiple levels. Why would they bother to kill all the birds, rather than just mix their drones in with the natural ones? Why hasn’t anyone captured or found one of these drones? And of course, the technology to pull this off is at least a century off, so how did the CIA (or whoever) pull this off 40 years ago?

The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is a feature, not a bug. The question is – why did someone bother? I can certainly see the fun in doing so. Read the website, it’s transparent (in my opinion) mockery. There are various theories as to what’s behind the movement, and what the true motivation is for those who created and who promote it. The cynical view is that they are just trying to sell merchandise by creating a brand. It may work. Others believe they are skeptics trying to expose the gullibility of conspiracy theorists. Or it may have all simply been a joke, or some version of trolling. It may be all of these things.

The question is – will the birds aren’t real meme take on a life of its own? This question has lead to perhaps the least likely theory, that this is all an elaborate social psychological experiment testing the limits of human gullibility. This theory, however, is really just another fake conspiracy theory, which starts the cycle of speculation all over again.

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Jul 19 2019

Electronic Skin

This is another entry in my informal series on interfacing machines and the human brain. Yesterday I wrote about Neuralink, which is a project to develop electrodes to interface with the brain itself. Today I write about another incremental advance – in the July 17th issue of Science Robotics, researchers published, “A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins.”

This seems to be a serious advance in the architecture of artificial skin.

“We demonstrate prototype arrays of up to 240 artificial mechanoreceptors that transmitted events asynchronously at a constant latency of 1 ms while maintaining an ultra-high temporal precision of <60 ns, thus resolving fine spatiotemporal features necessary for rapid tactile perception. Our platform requires only a single electrical conductor for signal propagation, realizing sensor arrays that are dynamically reconfigurable and robust to damage.”

This configuration is more scalable than the current designs, which “are currently interfaced via time-divisional multiple access (TDMA), where individual sensors are sampled sequentially and periodically to reconstruct a two-dimensional (2D) map of pressure distribution.” As the number of sensors increases, with this design, the delay in signal processing gets greater. The new design does not suffer that limitation.

Biological skin evolved to have a host of desirable features. It is soft, has a variable number of sensors as needed, and yet is robust, still operates with minor damage, and is self-repairing. Artificial skin would be optimal if it shared all these features. This new eskin gets us closer to this ideal.

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