Nov 10 2022

Facial Characteristic, Perception, and Personality

A recent study asked subjects to give their overall impression of other people based entirely on a photograph of their face. In one group the political ideology of the person in the photograph was disclosed (and was sometimes true and sometime not true), and in another group the political ideology was not disclosed. The question the researchers were asking is whether thinking you know the political ideology of someone in a photo affects your subjective impression of them. Unsurprisingly, it did. Photos that were labeled with the same political ideology (conservative vs liberal) were rated more likable, and this effect was stronger for subjects who have a higher sense of threat from those of the other political ideology.

This question is part of a broader question about the relationship between facial characteristics and personality and our perception of them. We all experience first impressions – we meet someone new and form an overall impression of them. Are they nice, mean, threatening? But if you get to actually know the person you may find that your initial impression had no bearing on reality. The underlying question is interesting. Are there actual facial differences that correlate with any aspect of personality? First, what’s the plausibility of this notion and possible causes, if any?

The most straightforward assumption is that there is a genetic predisposition for some basic behavior, like aggression, and that these same genes (or very nearby genes that are likely to sort together) also determine facial development. This notion is based on a certain amount of biological determinism, which itself is not a popular idea among biologists. The idea is not impossible. There are genetic syndromes that include both personality types and facial features, but these are extreme outliers. For most people the signal to noise ratio is likely too small to be significant.  The research bears this out – attempts at linking facial features with personality or criminality have largely failed, despite their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Nov 08 2022

Atlantis is a Myth

The allure of the myth of Atlantis is understandable, and it has been promulgated in popular culture for over century. As evidence of the draw of this topic is the comments thread to my discussion of the Richat Structure and why it is not Atlantis. People clearly want to talk about it.

The status of Atlantis as a real archeological location can be quickly summarized – there is absolutely no evidence. There are no artifacts, there is no cultural history, there are no ruins, there is simply nothing. This is not surprising, since there was never any reason to expect that Atlantis was real in the first place. The notion of Atlantis as an ancient civilization was clearly an invested mythology of Plato. This was largely understood by scholars throughout history. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the notion Atlantis might be a real place became popular. Enthusiasts at the time expected that within 50 years or so we would have museums full of Atlantean artifacts. That never came to be – and here we are well over a century later and we don’t have a single shard of pottery.

I’ll come back to the lack of evidence in a bit, but first let’s review why Atlantis is clearly an invented mythology. The first historical mention of Atlantis as a place comes from Plato’s two works, Critias and Timaeus. There is a prior mention of the name Atlantis but not as a reference to a place. All other references come after Plato and trace back to Plato (who lived between 428 and 348 BCE). Plato used the idea of Atlantis as an evil empire that was at war with the virtuous Athens. This was a device to discuss the nature of the perfect virtuous city (Athens). Atlantis, in Plato’s telling, may have began as a virtuous city, because its citizens were partly descended from Poseidon, but as their part god blood was diluted over time their more aggressive and base human nature took over and they became corrupt.

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Nov 07 2022

AWARE-II Near Death Experience Study

The notion of near death experiences (NDE) have fascinated people for a long time. The notion is that some people report profound experiences after waking up from a cardiac arrest – their heart stopped, they received CPR, they were eventually recovered and lived to tell the tale. About 20% of people in this situation will report some unusual experience. Initial reporting on NDEs was done more from a journalistic methodology than scientific – collecting reports from people and weaving those into a narrative. Of course the NDE narrative took on a life of it’s own, but eventually researchers started at least collecting some empirical quantifiable data. The details of the reported NDEs are actually quite variable, and often culture-specific. There are some common elements, however, notably the sense of being out of one’s body or floating.

The most rigorous attempt so far to study NDEs was the AWARE study, which I reported on in 2014. Lead researcher Sam Parnia, wanted to be the first to document that NDEs are a real-world experience, and not some “trick of the brain.” He failed to do this, however. The study looked at people who had a cardiac arrest, underwent CPR, and survived long enough to be interviewed. The study also included a novel element – cards placed on top of shelves in ERs around the country. These can only been seen from the vantage point of someone floating near the ceiling, meant to document that during the CPR itself an NDE experiencer was actually there and could see the physical card in their environment. The study also tried to match the details of the remembered experience with actual events that took place in the ER during their CPR.

You can read my original report for details, but the study was basically a bust. There were some methodological problems with the study, which was not well-controlled. They had trouble getting data from locations that had the cards in place, and ultimately had not a single example of a subject who saw a card. And out of 140 cases they were only able to match reported details with events in the ER during CPR in one case. Especially given that the details were fairly non-specific, and they only had 1 case out of 140, this sounds like random noise in the data.

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Nov 04 2022

Consensus on Dealing with COVID-19

A panel of 386 experts from various disciplines and 122 countries have put together a consensus statement on how the world can best deal with the continued challenge of COVID-19. The statement contains 57 specific recommendations that had >95% consensus from the panel, with most having >99% consensus. This is like an M&M rounds for the world’s COVID response. In medicine we have morbidity and mortality rounds where we review both statistics and individual cases with bad outcomes. The point is to explore those cases and determine what went wrong, if anything, and how individually and systemically we can prevent or minimize future similar negative outcomes. This panel did the same thing for our COVID response.

Such endeavors are not about placing blame. We can leave that up to the politicians looking to score points. The purpose is to map out a future course, to take specific actions that will minimize future death and negative health outcomes from the COVID pandemic, which is (despite what you may want to believe) not over. The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread throughout the population, and continues to mutate with variants and subvariants increasingly able to evade prior immunity (from infection or vaccination). As predicted the pandemic is slowly morphing into an endemic infection, like the flu, that will simply be with us indefinitely. But infections are still at pandemic levels.

The focus of the recommendations is on how governments can enact policy and allocate resources to better tamp down infections and reduce negative outcomes. This is needed, because government responses were mostly a failure. This doesn’t mean that the US and other governments didn’t do anything useful. They did. But from the perspective of what a fully prepared optimal response would have been, the actual response, in my opinion, was basically a failure. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Even now, after everything the world has been through, our preparedness and response is less than ideal.

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Nov 03 2022

Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time

It’s that time of year again – the time when we debate, yet again, whether or not we should get rid of shifting the clocks twice a year and if so, which time to make permanent, DST or standard time. It does seem like this debate has been heating up in recent years, but it is unclear if we have a political consensus sufficient to make a change. In March of this year the Senate actually passed the Sunshine Protection Act, which would make DST permanent. However, the bill has stalled in the House. In previous years such measures have simply died in committee. This time around it just seems like politicians have more important things on their plate.

DST was first instituted in the US in 1918 as a wartime measure, to reduce energy costs by extending light in the evening when people are active. The measure was brought back during WWII, after which it was left to the states whether to keep DST. In 1966, however, the Uniform Time Act was passed to encourage all states to adopt DST. Initially DST was instituted for 6 months of the year, from late spring to early fall. In 1974 DST was made year round, but this led to immediate complaints that children were going to school in the morning and parents were going to work in pitch dark, and the measure was repealed the next year. DST was also extended in 2007 until just after Halloween, ostensibly to make trick-or-treaters safer walking the streets. But there have also been significant industry lobbies. The candy industry lobbied hard for DST to extend past Halloween. But many industries, from golf to barbeque supplies, make more money from extended DST. Now DST is 8 months out of 12.

The question remains – which option is best: to keep the current system where we change between DST and Standard Time twice a year, to make DST permanent, or standard time permanent? There is no one objective answer because every option has trade-offs.

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Nov 01 2022

No Lottery Miracle

The headline in the New York Post reads: 1 in 331 billion chance: Same New York lottery numbers drawn twice in one day. Sounds impressive – the problem is, it’s entirely wrong. What is true is that the same five numbers, 18, 21, 30, 35, and 36, were drawn in the New York Take Five lottery in both the midday and evening drawings for Thursday, October 27. The Post reports that “experts” (unnamed) told them the odds of this happening are 1 in 331 billion.

The Post called this a “lottery miracle” but in fact it is a classic example of what is called, with good reason, the “lottery fallacy”. The odds of winning the Take Five with one ticket on any particular game is 1 in 575,757. What the Post’s experts did was take a calculator and multiple those odds by itself, yielding 331,496,123,049. (So in their view an expert is anyone with a calculator.) But those are the odds of those five numbers coming up on two consecutive draws – not the odds of any five numbers repeating. The chance of any five numbers repeating is simply 1 in 575,757 – the odds of the evening numbers being the same as the midday’s (whatever those midday numbers were). This lottery happens every day, so in the last 10 years that would be 3,650 opportunities for this to happen. The odds of this coincidence happening each decade is closer to 1 in 157.

But the odds are even greater of such a coincidence happening for various reasons. First, there are about 180 lotteries in the world, 46 in the US alone. More subtly, we are determining the criteria for a lottery coincidence after the fact. What if the identical numbers came up twice in a row, just not twice in the same day (say an evening draw and the following morning draw). The Post would still falsely consider that a 1 in 331 billion miracle. That doubles the chance right there, for now both the morning and evening draw can match the one before (1 in 78 per decade).

People, however, consider it an amazing coincidence if the same numbers come up close together, even a few days apart. In 2009 the Bulgarian lottery turned out the same numbers in one week. This sparked the same reaction as the New York lottery results. This dramatically increases the probability of a hit, for now each sequence of numbers can be compared to every other sequence of numbers within several days. For one week of Lottery Five draws, that 14 sets of numbers, and 91 possible comparisons (using the formula k(k-1)/2).

There are other types of lottery coincidences also, such as the same person winning a lottery twice (even with different numbers). When this happens again many media outlets will commit the lottery fallacy and report the wrong odds. The odds of this specific person winning this specific lottery with two individual purchased tickets may be astronomical, but the odds of anyone winning any lottery twice having purchased multiple tickets is pretty good. Some kind of lottery coincidence should happen on a regular basis, and it does, at about the rate proper statistics predicts.

We can apply the lottery fallacy principle to things other than the lottery. We tend to notice patterns that stick out, such as any coincidental alignment of facts or occurrence. We are then impressed with the incredibly low odds of that particular alignment happening. But again, we should be considering the probability of any alignment happening. You dream of someone who haven’t seen in years, and they call the next day. Must be psychic – or just the predictable alignment of random events in your life. People tend to underestimate the possibility of an alignment, because they underestimate the number of variables at work.

Let’s say that 100 definable things happen to you in an average week (just to use a representative number – the actual number is likely far greater). That would be 4,950 opportunities for any two of those things to align in some way – every week. We also use loose criteria for what constitutes an alignment, usually deciding the criteria after the fact. This is true of all almost 8 billion people on the planet (7.98 – almost there).

The number of opportunities for an extremely unlikely alignment happening is equally massive. Apparently strange coincidences, in the aggregate, should happen all the time – so it should be no surprise that they do.

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Oct 31 2022

Alternative Gene Splicing – Another Method of Bioengineering

Genetic engineering is a rapidly progressing scientific discipline, with tremendous current application and future potential. It’s a bit dizzying for a science communicator who is not directly involved in genetics research to keep up. I do have some graduate level training in genetics so at least I understand the language enough to try to translate the latest research for a general audience.

Many readers have by now heard of CRISPR – a powerful method of altering or silencing genes that brings down the cost and complexity so that almost any genetics lab can use this technique. CRISPR is actually just the latest of several powerful gene-altering techniques, such as TALEN. CRISPR is essentially a way to target a specific sequence of the DNA, and then deliver a package which does something, like splice the DNA. But you also need to target the correct cells. In a petri dish, this is simple. But in living organism, this is a huge challenge. We have developed several viral vectors that can be targeted to specific cell types in order to deliver the CRIPR (or TALEN), which then targets the specific DNA.

Now I would like to present a different technique I have not previously written about here – alternative splicing. A recent study presents what seems like a significant advance in this technology, so it’s a good time to review it. “Alternative splicing” refers to a natural phenomenon of genetics. Genes are composed of introns and exons. I always thought the nomenclature was counterintuitive, but the exons are actually the part of the gene that gets expressed into a protein. The introns are the part that is not expressed, so they are cut out of the gene when it is being converted into mRNA, and the exons are stitched together to form the sequence that is translated into a protein. Alternative splicing refers to the fact that the way in which the introns are removed and the exons stitched together can vary, creating alternative forms of the resulting protein. This dramatically increases the number of different proteins that an organism’s genes can code for, because each gene can potentially code for multiple protein variants through alternative splicing.

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Oct 28 2022

An Open-Letter to All Cranks

I get lots of e-mail, sometimes from people who want to convince me that their pet theory has merit – in explicit hope that I will champion their cause and spread their theory. They are always disappointed. The exchange is always the same, almost eerily so, as if they are all following the same script. I think to an extent they are – they are all absorbing the same narrative from the culture. So here is my generic response to all cranks, past and future.


Dear Crank,

I use that term not as a personal attack, but as an accurate description of your behavior. I want you to understand why that behavior is not serving you well, and what you can do the escape from a cycle of self-destructive, and frankly annoying, behavior. Hey – you e-mailed me, you jumped up in front of me waving your hands in order to get my attention. Well, you got it. And now I am going to do you a massive favor. I am going to give you a tiny slice of the attention you are so clearly desperate for and explain to you why you are a crank.

I understand you have a theory with which you are very impressed, and it includes a lot of math and facts and details. You may even have some scientific education and background. But if you think you have somehow seen through the fog, and have proven that the world’s scientists have all been hopelessly wrong for the last century or so, then you are likely suffering from not only a lack of proper humility, but overwhelming hubris. You may think that you have proven with one devastating argument that evolution is impossible, or global warming is not real, or that you have created free-energy, cured cancer, or changed everything we thought we knew about history (or whatever), but you haven’t.

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Oct 27 2022

Trust In Science

A new Pew survey updates their data on American’s trust in scientists. The “good news” is that overall, trust remains high, with 77% saying they trust scientists a great deal or a fair amount, and only 23% not too much or not at all. Actually, when you think about it these numbers are still pretty bad, but they seem good because our expectations are so low. More than one in five people don’t trust scientists. For more perspective, that 77% figure is the same for the military. The highest rated group was medical scientists at 80%. Elected officials were at 28%.

These numbers are also fairly stable over time. Interestingly they did bump up a bit during the pandemic, but then quickly returned to their historical levels. Some argue that these numbers are pretty good and we shouldn’t “freak out about the minority.” I disagree – not that we should freak out, but we do need to take these numbers seriously, and they are not necessarily good news.

One reason I am still concerned about these numbers is that there is a pretty significant partisan divide. Recent years have Democrats at around 90% with Republicans around 63%. More than a third of one major political party does not trust scientists, and they seem to be the political center of the party. This gets even worse if you look at the question of whether or not scientists should play an active role in policy debates. Only 66% of Democrats say yes, and only 29% of Republicans (down from 75 and 43 respectively). This, to me, is very telling. It’s one thing to say you trust scientists, but what does that mean that you also don’t want them to play an active role in policy?

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Oct 25 2022

Video Games May Improve Cognitive Function

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At a recent talk, during the Q&A an audience member asked me what I thought the consequences would be of the “idiocracy” we seem to be heading toward. I challenged the premise, that people in general are becoming less intelligent. I know it may superficially seem like this, but that has more to do with media savvy, echochambers, tribalism, and radicalization, not any demonstrable decline in raw intelligence.

In fact, I pointed out, in the last century there has been a consistent increase in IQ testing ability, by about 3 IQ points per decade (called the Flynn Effect). There is still debate about what this means, and it is important to point out that IQ testing does not equal “intelligence” which is multifaceted. But whatever standard IQ tests are measuring, performance is generally improving over time. Another measure, that of civic scientific literacy (in a longstanding series of studies by Jon Miller), increased from 1988 t0 2008 from 9% to 29%. It has since plateaued at that level.

There is no consensus as to why this is so, but I have some thoughts based on the literature. Technology is exposing people to more information, and this has only been increasing further with the advent of computers, the internet, and even social media. Regardless of any negative effects, people seem to know more stuff, and have improved problem-solving skills. Our brains are busier, they are exposed to more ideas and facts, we interact with a greater number of different people and opinions, and we have to interface with technology and information more. The workforce is shifting from manual labor to more intellectual labor. Even just going through your normal day likely involves interacting with technology that would have befuddled older generations.

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