Dec 20 2019

Commercial Spaceflight in the 2020s

To spaceflight enthusiasts, the 2010s was a transitional decade. The shuttle program ended in 2011, and along with it America’s ability to put astronauts into space. We have been hitching rides with the Russians to get to the space station (ISS) ever since. NASA had no plans to replace the shuttle anytime soon, and instead announced that it would focus on deep space capability while relying on commercial companies to take over missions to low Earth orbit. So, after almost a decade, how is this plan working out?

Well, there have been the inevitable delays, but otherwise I think NASA’s plan was a good one. Earlier this year SpaceX successfully tested their Dragon capsule, and they are planning to launch their first astronauts in the first quarter of 2020. SpaceX has had an impressive decade. Not without failures, but the development of reusable rockets able to land vertically is a game-changer for space travel and is definitely an impressive achievement for the company.

Meanwhile, Boeing also received a contract from NASA to develop the capacity to launch people into space. They are about to launch their Starliner capsule to the ISS with supplies as a final test before being approved the take crew. The capsule will also have an “anthropomorphic test device (ATD)”, which is fancy tech speak for a test dummy. The ATD will be loaded with sensors to see what an astronaut will experience during take off and landing. The capsule is designed for a ground landing, using parachutes and airbags to land on desert sand in New Mexico. If all goes well they also plan to launch people in 2020.

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Dec 19 2019

Sequestered Life

Researchers may (and I emphasize “may”) have found life in isolated underground pockets of water in South African mines.  What makes this potential find interesting is that this water has been isolated for about 2 billion years. Scanning electron microscopes have found what researchers believe may be a dividing bacterium. If this is confirmed it will be an exciting discovery for a few reasons.

But first – what do we know now? The water was collected from isolated pockets underground. The water is about 7 times as salty as sea water and can get up to about 54 degrees C. This is right at the limit for known extremophiles, but it is possible for bacteria or archaea to exist in these conditions. The evidence for possible life comes mainly from the microscopic images, which are suggestive but not definitive. One of the researchers, Devan Nisson, a graduate student, noted that “It’s possible the shapes were minerals.”

This would not be the first time that geological structures were confused for life. In 1996 researchers famously announced possible signs of life in a meteorite from Mars. Over 20 years later that claim is still not generally accepted. While there remains some controversy, the consensus is that the tiny structures are minerals, not microbes.

Making the claims for life in the South African mines at least plausible is the fact that there are nitrates and sulfates in the water, which could potentially be used by microbes as an energy source. There are abundant small organic acids, which could serve as building blocks and nutrients. So while extreme, it is possible that this water could support life.

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Dec 17 2019

Where is Fusion?

The promise of commercial-scale fusion energy has been looming in the background of our collective conversations about climate change and the future of our energy infrastructure. The potential of fusion is tremendous, but we are likely still decades away from commercial power plants. Exactly how far away is a matter of debate. There are some indications, however, that the industry is progressing from proof of concept research to commercialization. No one is seriously arguing that we are close, but this may be a sign of real progress.

Fusion energy is the energy that powers the sun. It comes from fusing light elements into heavier elements, starting with fusing two hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. You can get net energy out of fusing light elements, all the way to iron. Iron requires energy to either fuse or to undergo fission, and so that is the end of the line in terms of energy production. The heavier the element, the more pressure and heat it takes to fuse. All suns start our fusing hydrogen into helium, by definition. Once the hydrogen fuel is burned, suns that are sufficiently massive will contract, increasing their temperature and pressure, until their helium core starts to burn. More and more massive stars can fuse more and more heavier elements. The most massive stars can fuse lighter elements into iron, and then, as stated, that is as far as they can go.

Here on earth researchers hope to build devices that create sufficient heat and pressure to fuse hydrogen into helium. Deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen with one and two neutrons respectively) are easier to fuse, so that is what is being used. The advantage to a successful fusion reactor is that the conversion efficiency of fuel into energy is tremendous, greater than fission. Only matter-antimatter annihilation can produce more energy for a given mass. Further, fusion produces no long-lived nuclear waste, and releases no carbon or other pollutants. The end product is helium, which is a useful element. Tritium itself is radioactive, but very short-lived. Also, the containment vessels will become bombarded with neutrons, and it remains to be seen what technologies will be used to protect the structure.

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Dec 16 2019

Smartphones, AI, and Disease Management

As new technologies come online they often reverberate in other industries in unanticipated ways. New technologies may offer possibilities that did not previously exist. The smartphone is perhaps the best recent example of this. This was designed to be primarily a phone, including texting and video capabilities, but with access to the internet. So it is also a handheld computer. But it didn’t take long for app developers to realize that – hey, if people are carrying around an internet-connected computer at all times, that opens up a whole world of new possibilities.

Most smartphones also have three sensors in them, a microphone, a camera, and a vibration sensor. This allows for the convenient gathering of information from the user. Sure, this can be used for nefarious purposes, but also can be leveraged for things that can benefit the user. There are now, for example, apps that will monitor your sleep, or your daily exercise. Even simple things can be really useful. Patients, for example, can take pictures of themselves while having intermittent symptoms, to show their doctors later. The ability to take pictures pre-existed smartphones, but the fact that almost everyone now has a camera on them at all times, which produce digital pictures that are easily shared, is a game-changer.

This is all even without designing specific sensors optimized for medical applications. It does seem likely that the smartphone will evolve to some degree into a “tricorder” like medical sensory device, communicating information to your doctors in real time. Things like monitoring your pulse, heart sounds, breath sounds, retinal scan, and skin examination are already possible. Specialized plug-in or bluetooth devices could greatly expand this capacity, making some medical testing cheaper, more convenient, and also better in some ways. The big advantage is the ability to do long-term monitoring during normal life activities. Such applications also have the potential to expand modern medical testing into poor or developing areas that would otherwise lack it.

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Dec 13 2019

Who Gets to Decide?

One of the things I like about blogging is that it is an interactive forum. Often times the conversation in the comments dwarfs the original article in scope and depth. I use this to learn as much from my readers as they do from me, and improve my understanding of topics and ability to communicate them. Sometimes points raised in the comments deserve the treatment of a full blog post, not just answers in the comments.

Yesterday I wrote in support of crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe applying standards to protect their users from fraud and abuse, specifically not allowing their site to be used to fund clear medical quackery. I took the time in this article to spell out my basic approach to the concept of regulation, because it is a common theme here. Part of skeptical activism and science communication is consumer protection against fraud and abuse. I believe that proper regulation is essential to protect the public from fraud, and so I am often called upon to defend the very concept of regulation itself.

One commenter raised what I find to be the two most common pillars of objection to regulation – the slippery slope argument and the question of who gets to decide. Neither objection, when used as a blanket or overreaching argument against regulation, is valid. Let’s start with the slippery slope.

For background, a slippery slope argument is one that concludes that if step A is taken, this will lead inevitably or very likely to step B. Since most people would find B unacceptable, we should be cautious about taking step A. To support this argument it is often further argued that there is no difference in principle between A and B, and therefore in order to be fair and internally consistent, we cannot take step A without B. This form of argument becomes a slippery slope fallacy when the premise that A inevitably leads to B or should if we are being consistent is simply wrong, or at least an unwarranted assumption. Remember, we are talking about informal logical fallacies here, so they are not always wrong. That depends on the specific context.

What the slippery slope fallacy ignores is that ethics and legislation is often about balancing two or more valid principles and concerns. When it comes to regulation we are often talking about freedom vs security or protection. Striking a balance between these two does not mean we will inevitably surrender all our freedom, any more than it means we will inevitably live in total anarchy. In fact, legal principle and precedent enshrines this balance – the state has the right to regulate various things, but must demonstrate a compelling interest before encroaching on a recognized personal freedom.

Let’s take helmet laws as an example. People have the freedom (in principle) to decide for themselves if they want to wear a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, but governments often assert their right to decide for individuals, and essentially make it a fineable offense to ride without a helmet. What is the state’s compelling interest? Well, if you get into an accident which results in brain injury, you may become a burden to the state and therefore others. Your injury would affect other people, by raising their health insurance premiums, or using public resources. Is that enough? Regardless of where you come down, the deeper point is – the decision is based upon a balancing of these various concerns. We can make an individual decision without obligating every similar decision to be decided in the same way. If we allow the state to force us to wear helmets, that does not mean they have a green light to micromanage every single life decision we make. Or if we decide the state does not have that right, that doesn’t mean they also don’t have the right to enforce speed limits. For every decision, the state has to demonstrate a compelling interest which is greater than the personal freedom being sacrificed. Each decision is individual – no slippery slope.

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Dec 12 2019

Crowd Funding Quackery

A recently published ethics paper addresses the issue of whether or not it is proper for crowdfunding sites, like GoFundMe, to allow campaigns to fund dubious medical treatments. This question is also part of a more general issue – how tech companies have replaced traditional industries and institutions thereby bypassing existing mechanisms of safety, justice, and quality control. On the medical issue, the authors write:

Recent studies have shown that many individuals are using crowdfunding to finance access to scientifically unsupported medical treatments. Recently, GoFundMe prohibited campaigns for antivaccination groups on the grounds that they “promote misinformation about vaccines” and for treatment at a German clinic offering unproven cancer treatments due to “the need to make sure people are equipped to make well‐informed decisions.” GoFundMe has not taken any additional actions to regulate the much larger presence of campaigns seeking to fund unproven medical interventions on the platform. In this article, we make the ethical case for intervention by GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms.

The basic principle is that tech companies still retain an ethical and legal responsibility for how their platforms and technology are used. Most applications and social media outlets begin as an unregulated peer-to-peer environment, just facilitating an individual exchange between two private citizens. In a way this is a Libertarian nirvana. However, as such applications scale up the downsides that have already had to be dealt with in the traditional industries they are supplanting begin to resurface.

We can take any such app as an example, such as Uber. The Uber app, which I use, is very convenient. They have definitely made a better mousetrap. But as Uber has grown huge, we begin to question what responsibility they have to their drivers and riders. How much do they have to vet drivers to protect riders? What kinds of protections and benefits should they offer drivers? Did they just replace a regulated industry with an unregulated one? The same questions have arisen with Air bnb, which critics warn is being used to simply create de facto hotels that skirt regulations.

There are two principles here. The first has to do with the role of regulations in general to protect the public from exploitation of various sorts. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole entirely, but just summarize my position as this. I support carefully considered and monitored regulation to keep society functioning optimally and prevent exploitation, externalizing costs, unfair competition, and the like. The only truly free market is a regulated one, because an unregulated market will become increasingly distorted over time as the powerful use their power to obtain more power (rather than play fairly).  At the same time we have to be humble regarding unintended consequences, which is why regulations need to be minimalistic and monitored for their effects. If you buy some version of this basic premise, and are not an anti-regulation purist, then it should be concerning that effective regulations are being nullified by an app. This is happening without any elected representatives of the people making any decisions – without any public representation. In the extreme this can evolve into a tech oligarchy.

The second principle is fairness. If one industry that is regulated is competing with another that is unregulated, that gives an unfair advantage to the unregulated one (regardless of what you think about regulations in general).

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Nov 22 2019

Going Down Under

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For the next two weeks I will be traveling to New Zealand and Australia to attend two skeptical conferences:

Christchurch, NZ, Nov 29 – Dec 1. 

Melbourne, Dec 6-8

In addition, tomorrow (Nov 23) we will be debuting our new stage show, the Skeptical Extravaganza 2.0, in Los Angeles (sorry, this is sold out). This show is a lot of  fun – it’s kind of a skeptical variety show, interactive with the audience, designed to mainly just have fun but to also expose the audience to some basic principles of neurological humility and skepticism.

We have three upcoming shows in the Northeast – this page will provide updated information on our show dates and locations as well as links to get tickets. If you want us to come to your city or region, there is also a place on that page to submit your request. If we get enough requests from the same location, that will definitely influence our schedule.

The SGU events page will also list show dates, in addition to all upcoming SGU events.

Over the next two weeks I will still be posting, but not as regularly, depending on my travel and prep schedule. We do tend to be more active on twitter (@SkepticsGuide) while we are traveling. So no promises, but do check back for more content over the next two weeks.

Now off I go to Middle Earth.

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Nov 21 2019

Virtual Education

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When I was in high school in the 1970s, computers were just entering the school environment. We had a small computer lab with embarrassingly primitive computers by today’s standards, but at the time they were cool. I remember using one very simple DOS-based program that taught the user how to use chemical nomenclature. It was a simple game where you get asked to solve a problem and then are given immediate feedback. I was impressed at how quick my learning curve was using this simple individualized feedback mechanism. Basically this was a video game designed to teach one skill, and it worked really well.

At the time, and really ever since, I figured that in the near future schools and education would be transformed by this technology. Now, four decades later, I am surprised at how little such technology has been incorporated into the classroom. My teen-aged self would be shocked.

For sure there is great educational software out there. But they are mostly commercial products intended to use at home. If you want to learn a language, or improve your child’s reading skills, there are apps for that. It is still a lot less than I would have figured, and less than it should be. And what’s missing is a comprehensive virtual educational curriculum designed for use by schools. The bottom line is that I don’t think we are leveraging this technology as much as we should, by at least an order of magnitude.

I was reminded of this by a recent study that finds that young children learn basic math skills more quickly from an AI virtual character.  What they call “parasocial” interaction (because it is with a virtual character powered by AI) improved the math skills of children beyond computer learning without the virtual character.

I am seeing moves in this direction. Certainly many schools (those with adequate resources) have access to computers for their students, and often they are incorporated into their assignments. I have a daughter in college and another still in highschool, so I just witnessed a standard public education in a fairly affluent part of the country. My overall assessment is that computer learning is an afterthought. It has not been integrated into the learning experience. Their education was and is still essentially based on teachers and text-books. This style of education is obsolete, and extremely inefficient compared to what it can be.

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Nov 19 2019

Scientific Fraud in China

There is plenty of fraud and corruption in the world, even in the halls of science. No one has a monopoly. But there are some hot spots that deserve specific attention. Recently significant concerns have been raised about the published research of Xuetao Cao, a Chinese Immunologist. This story is newsworthy because Cao is not just any immunologist – he is also the President of Nankai University, in Tianjin, China. But more to the point – he is the Chairman of research integrity in all Chinese research. When your head of research integrity is exposed for massive scientific fraud, you have a problem.

Here is a thorough treatment of the evidence for fraud, which covers over 50 published papers. The fabrication of data was noticed because much of it has to do with pictures, of either western blots, gels, flow cytometry images, and microscopy images. There appears to be two general types of fabrication going on. One type results from sending the same sample multiple times through analysis, but treating the data as if it came from different samples. In this case the resulting imaging will be strikingly similar in pattern, but not identical. The second type of fabrication is to simply photoshop copy and paste images.

Either way, the resulting data fabrication is undeniable once it is noticed. The images are simply too similar (and again, sometimes identical) to be genuine data. Once researchers started pouring through Cao’s other papers, the extensive fraud became obvious. When confronted with this revelation online, Cao responded by first standing behind his work, then stating:

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for any lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership and the concerns you raised serve as a fresh reminder to me just how important my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short.

Wow – you see what he just did there? He simultaneously apologized and took responsibility, but only for failure of supervision. So essentially he is throwing all of the people who work for him under the bus. Either way, however, this is really bad for Cao. Even in the best case scenario, all the fraud was perpetrated by others under his watch. Keep in mind, he is in charge of research integrity for all of China, but apparently can’t keep an eye on his own lab. There are certainly famous cases where research assistants were the ones perpetrating the fraud. Another immunologist, Jacques Benveniste, claimed to have evidence of immunological activity from high “homeopathic” dilutions. An investigation found his results to be highly unreliable at least, and likely straight-up fraudulent (although may have been do to really sloppy techniques and bias). But it also appears that the positive results all seemed to come from one lab assistant, Elizabeth Davenas – certainly a disturbing pattern.

Perhaps a similar pattern will emerge from Cao’s lab, but it seems unlikely that an overzealous assistant can be responsible for data fabrication in 50 published studies. This is clearly a systemic problem.

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Nov 18 2019

Peak Intelligence

There is an interesting article over at The Conversation asking the question – have humans reached peak intelligence? This is something we have discussed previously on the SGU so I was keen to find out what philosophers think about this question. The core question is this – are there ultimate limits to the ability of humans to think, understand, and hypothesize? If so, are we approaching that limit now? There is also an angle to this the article did not cover directly – is there is limit to our ability to manage complexity (as opposed to just comprehending reality)?

There are different ways to approach this question. From an evolutionary point of view, our ancestors were likely under selective pressure to solve problems of immediate survival, and not to unravel the deep mysteries of the universe. But I don’t think this is ultimately relevant. This is a hyper-adaptationalist approach. It actually doesn’t matter to the ultimate question, because our hands did not evolve to play the piano either. Abilities that evolve for one purpose may be more generally useful. Clearly humans evolved some general cognitive abilities that go way beyond their immediate narrow evolutionary function.

But the broader point is salient – our cognitive abilities are not necessarily unlimited. What if the universe is simply more complex than our brains can comprehend? Take quantum mechanics, for example. The best thinkers we have, specializing in this question, still cannot solve the mystery of duality and apparent non-locality. We have some ideas, but it is possible that our brains are simply not equipped to imagine the true answer. It may be like a cat trying to understand calculus. If this is true, then what would we expect to happen in the course of scientific development? Would we hit a wall?

As they also discuss in the article, I don’t think so. Rather, if we look at the course of scientific development, our ability to do science is progressing, the technology of science, if you will. But at the same time the difficulty, complexity, and subtlety of the problems are increasing. We are having to work harder and harder for progressively smaller returns. Rather than hitting a wall, I agree that we will likely just wade into the molasses. We will keep pushing deeper and deeper into fundamental theories about how the universe works, but progress will become slower and slower. It may never actually stop, but advances will simply come fewer and farther between.

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