Apr 26 2021

Political Polarization is Exaggerated

Humans are tribal by nature. We tend to sort ourselves into in-groups and out-groups, and then we engage in confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to believe mostly positive things about our in-group, and mostly negative things about the out-group. This is particularly dangerous in a species with advanced weaponry. But even short of mutual annihilation, these tendencies can make for a lot of problems, and frustrate our attempts at running a stable democracy.

Part of this psychological tribalism is that we tend to exaggerate what we assume are the negative feelings of the other group toward our own. Prior research has shown this, and a new study also demonstrates this exaggerated polarization and negativity. There are a few reasons for this. One is basic tribal psychology as outlined above. Other cognitive biases, like oversimplification and a desire for moral clarity, motivate us to craft cardboard strawmen out of our political opponents. We come to assume that their position is either in bad faith, and/or is simplistic nonsense. We tend to ignore all nuance in our opponent’s position, fail to consider the justifiable reasons they may have for their position and the commonality of our goals. Ironically this view is simplistic and may motivate us to act in bad faith, which fuels these same beliefs about us by the other side, creating a cycle of radicalization.

This process is helped along by the media, both traditional and social media. Social media tends to form echochambers where our radicalized simplistic view of the “other side” can become more extreme. Also, impersonal online interactions (just read the comments here) may allow us to engage with the cardboard fiction in our minds rather than the real person at the other end.

Traditional media contributes to this phenomenon by focusing on issues in conflict at the expense of issues where there is more consensus and commonality. The media likes conflict, and this give everyone a distorted view of how much polarization there actually is.

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Apr 23 2021

A “Decisive Decade” for Climate Action

After four years of backsliding on tackling climate change, it is good to see the US once again taking it seriously and trying to lead the world on climate action. Good intensions are necessary, but insufficient, however. The Biden Administration pledges a 50-52% decrease in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. That sounds ambitious, and it is, but it is also not enough. It helps clarify how big the task is we have before us, but also how high the stakes are. Some recent studies also help clarify the picture.

First, a recent study yet again dispenses with the false dichotomy that dealing with climate change is about the environment vs the economy. Wrong. Climate change hurts the environment and the economy – so both of these concerns are in alignment. This study was done by a large insurance company (who are used to estimating risk and cost) and they concluded that climate change will cost the world economy $23 trillion in lost productivity by 2050 (compared to where we would be without climate change). Failing to tackle climate change is the costly option. Further, these costs will disproportionately affect poorer countries, increasing the wealth gap between rich and poor nations and likely causing political instability (not to mention a climate refugee crisis).

This does not even account for health care costs and lost productivity due to poor health from pollution. These costs are estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars per year for the US and several billion worldwide.

Even if we just look at climate change through an economic lens, investing in clean energy is a no-brainer. Green technologies are the technologies of the future, and so it also makes sense for any country to invest in this industry to be competitive. Investing in these technologies would be a massive boost to our economy, with each dollar spent being returned many times over. Failure to do so is economic malpractice. Clinging to dirty 17th century technology is a loser’s strategy.

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Apr 22 2021

EU Scientists – Organic Farming Less Sustainable

European Union (EU) agricultural scientists are in a bit of a pickle. I’m not sure to what extent it is one of their own making or how much it was imposed upon them by politics and public opinion, but they are now confronting a dilemma they at least ignored if not helped to create. The question is – how best to achieve sustainable agriculture in a world with a growing population? This problem is made more difficult by the fact that we already tapped the most efficient arable land, so any extension of agricultural land will necessarily push into less and less efficient land with greater displacements of populations and natural ecosystems.

The dilemma stems from the EU’s regulatory support for organic farming. The core problem is actually the very concept of organic farming itself, which is rooted historically and ideologically in pseudoscience. Organic farming is philosophy-based rather than science-based farming – it is a manifestation of the appeal to nature fallacy. The result is a set of specific rules in order to qualify as “organic” that mostly represent a rejection of modern agricultural technology. There are some good things in there as well. Sometimes low tech methods are best. But organic farming does not use the best most sustainable methods. It uses the most “natural” methods, by some vague, arbitrary, gut-feeling criteria. So, for example, you can use pesticides, but only if they are derived from natural sources, even if they are less effective and more toxic. You also can’t irradiate food, because irradiation seems scary (even though it safely reduces food spoilage thereby reducing waste and foodborne disease).

And of course the organic farming industry is driving the biggest controversy in agriculture – the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is the focus of a new paper by EU agricultural scientists who now have to confront the organic farming hobgoblin which is getting in the way of sustainable farming. Here are the highlights: They open by dispensing with the most common argument used to dismiss the need for GMOs and justify organic farming inefficiency –

Sustainable food systems will require profound changes in people’s consumption patterns and lifestyles, which is true regardless of the farming methods used and does not change the fact that organic farming often requires more land than conventional farming for the same quantity of food output.

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Apr 20 2021

Imaging the Living Brain In Action

One major factor in the progress of our understanding of how brains function is the ability to image the anatomy and function of the brain in greater detail. At first our examination of the brain was at the gross anatomy level – looking at structures with the naked eye. With this approach we were able to divide the brain in to different areas that were involved with different tasks. But it soon became clear that the organization and function of the brain was far more complex than gross examination could reveal. The advent of microscopes and staining techniques allowed us to examine the microscopic anatomy of the brain, and see the different cell types, their organization into layers, and how they network together. This gave us a much more detailed map of the anatomy of the brain, and from examining diseased or damaged brains we could infer what most of the identifiable structures in the brain did.

But still, we were a couple of layers removed from the true level of complexity of brain functioning. Electroencephalography gave us the ability not to look at brain anatomy but function – we could detect the electrical activity of the brain with a series of electrodes in real time. This gave us good temporal resolution of function, and a good window into overall brain function (is the brain awake, asleep, or damaged) but very poor spatial resolution. This has improved in recent decades thanks to computer analysis of EEG signals, which can map brain function in higher detail, but is still very limited.

CT scans and later MRI scans allow us to image brain anatomy, even deep anatomy, in living creatures. In addition we can see some pathological details like edema, bleeding, scar tissue, iron deposition, or inflammation. With detailed imaging we could see the lesion while still being able to examine a living patient (rather than having to wait until autopsy to see the lesion). As MRI scans advanced we could also correlate non-pathological anatomical features with neurological function (such as skills or personality), giving us yet another window into brain function.

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Apr 19 2021

SpaceX Awarded Lunar Lander Contract

I’ve been watching For All Mankind – a very interesting series that imagines an alternate history in which the Soviets beat the US to landing on the Moon, triggering an extended space race that puts us decades ahead of where we are now. By the 1980s we had a permanent lunar base and a reusable lunar lander, not to mention spacecraft with nuclear engines. Meanwhile, back in reality, we are approaching 50 years since any human has stepped foot on the moon.

But NASA does plan on returning to the Moon and staying there this time, with their Artemis mission. (In Greek mythology Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo.) Originally they planned to return to the Moon by 2028, then Trump asked them to move up the timeline to 2024. NASA dutifully complied, but this was never realistic and anyone who has been following Artemis knew this was not going to happen. And now NASA is admitting they will not be ready by 2024. But sometime likely in the latter half of this decade we will return to the Moon.

One of the last pieces to put into place is a lunar lander, something to get people from lunar orbit down to the surface of the Moon. NASA has finally awarded the contract to build this lander – to SpaceX.  They are making no secret of the reason. SpaceX gave the lowest bid, by far. This is partly because the entire mission of SpaceX is to make space travel cheaper, mainly by using as many reusable parts as possible. Toward this end they perfected the technology for landing rockets vertically. The videos of Falcon rockets landing after launching satellites is still stunning. SpaceX also achieved a rating for their Dragon Crew capsule to actually carry people into space, and they have delivered astronauts to the ISS. Finally, SpaceX has already been developing their Starship design, which will be the basis of the new lander, which NASA is calling the Human Landing System (HLS).

Interestingly, a recent independent analysis found that the most efficient (only looking at efficiency) landing system using non-reusable parts was the Apollo system – a two-stage approach with a landing module and ascent module. However, if you use a renewable lander, then the one stage approach makes the most sense. That is in keeping with SpaceX’s philosophy, so it’s not surprising that they are taking that approach. I do wonder if they are going to use an actual Starship just outfitted for lunar landing, or are they going to make a new and smaller version? If the former, then it seems a bit odd that the HLS part of the system is a ship capable (theoretically) of doing the entire mission, from Earth surface to Lunar surface. That is Musk’s vision, single stage to destination for maximal reusability.

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Apr 16 2021

Later School Start Times

Yet another study shows the benefits of delaying the start time for High School students. This study also looked at middle school and elementary school students, had a two year follow up, and including both parent and student feedback. In this study: “Participating elementary schools started 60 minutes earlier, middle, 40-60 minutes later, and high school started 70 minutes later,” and found

Researchers found that the greatest improvements in these measures occurred for high school students, who obtained an extra 3.8 hours of sleep per week after the later start time was implemented. More than one in ten high school students reported improved sleep quality and one in five reported less daytime sleepiness. The average “weekend oversleep,” or additional sleep on weekends, amongst high schoolers dropped from just over two hours to 1.2 hours, suggesting that with enough weekday sleep, students are no longer clinically sleep deprived and no longer feel compelled to “catch up” on weekends. Likewise, middle school students obtained 2.4 additional hours of sleep per week with a later school start time. Researchers saw a 12% decrease in middle schoolers reporting daytime sleepiness. The percent of elementary school students reporting sufficient sleep duration, poor sleep quality, or daytime sleepiness did not change over the course of the study.

This adds to prior research which shows similar results, and also shows that student academic performance and school attendance improves. For teens their mood improves, their physical health improves, and the rate of car crashes decreases. So it seems like an absolute no-brainer that the typical school start time should be adjusted to optimize these outcomes. Why isn’t it happening? Getting in the way are purely logistical problems – synchronizing school start times with parents who need to go to work, sharing buses among elementary, middle, and high school, and leaving enough time at the end of the day for extracurricular activities. But these are entirely solvable logistical hurdles.

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Apr 15 2021

Paul Thacker Trolling Skeptics on Vaccines

As the COVID vaccine rollout continues at a feverish pace, the occurrence of rare but serious blood clots associated with two adenovirus vaccines, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, is an important story, and should be covered with care and thoughtfulness. I have followed this story on Science Based Medicine here, here, and here. There is a lot of nuance to this issue, and it presents a clear dilemma. The ultimate goal is to optimally balance risk vs benefit while we are in the middle of a surging pandemic and while information is preliminary. This means we don’t panic, we consider all options, and we investigate thoroughly and transparently. There is a real debate to be had about how best to react to these rare cases, and as a  science communicator I have tried to present the issues as reasonably as possible.

But we no longer live in an age where most people get most of their science news from edited science journalists. Most get their news online, from a range of sources, some good, some bad, some acting in bad faith or filtered through an intense ideological filter, and many just trolling. There are even “pseudojournalists” out there, reporting outside any kind of serious review. One such pseudojournalist is Paul Thacker, who recently decided he had to criticize the reporting of “skeptics” on the COVID vaccine blood clotting issue.

For background, Thacker was fired from the journal Environmental Science & Technology for showing an anti-industry bias. Bias is a bad thing in journalism, the core principle of which is objectivity. I have no idea if Thacker honestly believes what he writes or if he can’t resist trolling, but it doesn’t really matter. He has espoused anti-GMO views to the point of harassing GMO scientists, leading Keith Kloor to call him a “sadistic troll”. Thacker has also promoted 5g conspiracy theories.

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Apr 13 2021

A CRISPR Genetic On-Off Switch

Our knowledge of genetics and the tools to engineer or modify genetics continues to rapidly progress. The most celebrated recent advance was CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a bacteria-derived system that can easily target any sequence of DNA using a guide RNA. CRISPR is like the targeting system and it can be paired with various payloads, most commonly Cas9, which is an enzyme that will cut both strands of DNA at the desired location. CRISPR was actually discovered in 1993, but the CRISPR-Cas9 system was first used for gene editing in 2013, an advance that won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2020.

We are still, however, on the steep part of the learning curve with this powerful technology, and now researchers have published perhaps the greatest advance since 2013 – a way to use CRISPR as an on-off switch for genes. At the very least this will revolutionize genetic research. But it also has incredibly therapeutic potential, although other hurdles remain for applications in living organisms.

Using CRISPR-Cas9 for gene editing basically comes in two forms, knocking in genes or knocking out genes. Knocking out genes is by far the easier of the two. CRISPR targets the gene you want to silence, or knock out, and Cas9 will make a double strand cut in the DNA. The cells natural repair mechanism, called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ), the joins to the two cut ends together. This repair mechanism, however, is very imprecise and frequently introduces errors. Many of those errors will cause a shift in the genetic sequence that essentially ruins to code, effectively turning off the gene. This change is permanent, and will be carried to all later generations.

Knocking in a gene is more difficult. You not only have to make the cut at the desired location, you have to provide the genes sequence you want inserted and you need a different DNA repair mechanism called homology-directed repair (HDR), which is more precise and preserves the genetic sequence so that the gene remains active. But NHEJ is much more common than HDR, and so the trick is finding ways to enhance HDR repair so that a new gene can be successfully inserted at the repair site.

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Apr 12 2021

Progress on Bionic Eye

Some terms created for science fiction eventually are adopted when the technology they anticipate comes to pass. In this case, we can thank The Six Million Dollar Man for popularizing the term “bionic” which was originally coined by Jack E. Steele in August 1958. The term is a portmanteau of biological and electronic, plus it just sounds cools and does roll off the tongue, so it’s a keeper. So while there are more technical terms for an artificial electronic eye, such as “biomimetic”, the press has almost entirely used the term “bionic”.

The current state of the art is nowhere near Geordi’s visor from Star Trek TNG. In terms of approved devices actually in use, we have the Argus II, which is a device that include an external camera mounted on glasses and connected to a processor. These send information to a retinal implant that connects to ganglion cells which send the signals to the brain. In a healthy eye the light-sensing cells in the retina will connect to the ganglion cells, but there are many conditions that prevent this and cause blindness. The photoreceptors my degenerate, for example, or corneal damage does not allow light to get to the photoreceptors. As long as there are surviving ganglion cells this device can work.

Currently the Argus II contains 60 pixels (6 columns of 10) in black and white. This is incredibly low resolution, but it can be far better than nothing at all. For those with complete blindness, being able to sense light and shapes can greatly enhance the ability to interact with the environment. They would still need to use their normal assistive device while walking (cane, guide dog or human), but would help them identify items in their environment, such as a door. Now that this device is approved and it functions, incremental improvements should come steadily. One firmware update allows for the perception of color, which is not directly senses but inferred from the pattern of signals.

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Apr 09 2021

Electric Trucks

It’s all about money, and infrastructure. We can talk about what’s best for the environment, but when it comes to individual purchasing decisions, the decisive factors are going to be expense and functionality – how much bang do you get for the buck. This is especially true when it comes to industry. Things like fashion and trendiness don’t really matter on the factory floor, only efficiency, ROI, cost effectiveness.

In our conversion to a green economy, the low carbon options have to be cost effective if we want wide adoption (short of mandates). For electric cars, we are already there. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Over the anticipated 15-year life span of a vehicle, the electricity required to run a battery-powered electric car can be as much as $14,480 cheaper than fueling up an internal combustion vehicle.

That, however, is the best case depending on electricity and gasoline costs. In areas with the highest electricity costs and lowest gasoline prices there can be a small advantage to gas. But there is an overall cost advantage to electric cars. Also, according to Consumer Reports:

Consumers who purchase an electric car can expect to save an average of $4,600 in repair and maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle compared with a gasoline-powered car, CR’s study shows.

A 2018 study combines these factors and takes average value and concludes:

The average cost to operate an EV in the United States is $485 per year, while the average for a gasoline-powered vehicle is $1,117.

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