Jun 07 2022

The Morality of Skepticism

A recent editorial by Tauriq Moosa, a South African writer focusing on ethics, makes a cogent argument that skeptical activism is a moral necessity. I don’t know Tauriq and his connection to skepticism, if any, but he writes as if from a perspective outside the skeptical movement. Rarely do I encounter outside commentary on skepticism that isn’t cringeworthy in its cluelessness. Tauriq does a good job, although his commentary could be taken further (which, of course, I will do).

His core argument is that when it comes to skepticism of fraud and fakery, silence is not a (morally defensible) option. He makes an analogy to Semmelweis, who first discovered that if doctors would simply wash their hands before treating patients many lives could be saved. Knowing this, he had a moral imperative to try to convince the world of this fact. Likewise if a skeptic has good reason to believe that a treatment or practice is actively harmful, they have a moral imperative to try to convince others of this fact. Homeopathy, for example, is worthless. If you rely upon it to treat a non-self-limiting disease you are likely to suffer harm. He writes:

If you don’t think the skeptic movement is about saving lives and providing ammunition to protect yourself against charlatans, then you simply don’t know the numbers of preventable deaths – ‘preventable’ if the information had been accepted by the adults concerned.

He then goes on to confront a common response to this type of skeptical activism – rational adults can make their own decisions, so let them be. Tauriq addresses this by focusing on the notion of “rational”. He correctly points out that rational decision-making requires accurate information, and so providing that information is a service. He also points out that when children are involved adults have a responsibility for scientific due diligence when making decisions on their behalf.

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Jun 06 2022

AI Can Help Traffic Jams

Traffic jams cost the US economy an estimated $179 billion per year. That’s a pretty good incentive to invest in strategies to reduce the problem. Slow traffic is also a huge pain, causing significant stress and wasted time. (Remember the linear bias I wrote about recently, improving traffic speeds at the low end by avoiding jams has a huge effect on average driving speeds.)  The causes of jams are various, including accidents and road construction, but some causes are “soft” in that they just happen due to driving patterns. Phantom traffic jams is one phenomenon, caused mainly by tailgating. When one driver slows even a little, the car behind them has to slow a bit more, and this continues until traffic stops for no apparent reason. Traffic light patterns is another cause. Hard causes need hard fixes, like expanding lanes and having adequate accident response infrastructure. But the soft causes can be mitigated by smarter driving and traffic control.

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) enters the picture. Both of these significant causes of slowed traffic, better driving behavior and smarter traffic light control, can be improved with the application of AI. With respect to phantom jams, the solution seems to be to apply what researchers are calling bilateral control – this means that drivers should space themselves out so that they are equal distance between the car in front and behind them, rather than riding the tail of the car in front of them. Simulations show that adopting this driving pattern can reduce phantom traffic jams by 50%.

How can we implement this strategy? Driver education may help a little, but it is difficult to get a large number of people to make a behavior change, and the benefits really only occur when high percentages of drivers follow this pattern. Some level of driver assist is therefore needed. Short of full self-driving capability, it’s possible to enact bilateral control with a driver assist tweak to cruise control. Even just providing feedback to the driver to back off to an optimal distance from the car in front of them could work. This is a relatively simple fix that can be rapidly implemented.

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Jun 03 2022

What If We All Had Pocket Telephones

Writing a book forces you to engross yourself, almost obsessively, in one topic. That’s why I have been thinking about futurism (predicting what the future will bring) for the past year. Even though the book is finished (The Skeptics Guide to the Future, coming out September 27th) something relevant to futurism comes to my attention almost every day. I find particularly interesting past attempts at futurism, especially those far in the past. First, the farther back you go the more amusing futurism becomes, and second enough time has passed to judge how accurate their predictions were.

My brother and co-author Bob just sent me this nugget – a cartoon from 1919 imagining what it would be like if we all had pocket telephones. This was first published in The Mirror and authored by W. K. Haselden. I love it because it is both prescient and naive at the same time. The cartoon focusses on the inconvenience of having a phone in your pocket that can ring at awkward times. We have all likely experienced most if not all of these situations. I was actually in a wedding where one of the groomsman’s phones went off (it was an early Droid with the characteristic “droid” ringtone).

I understand that this is a cartoon, not an essay, and probably the point was to focus on awkward moments because they are funny. But still the author had to imagine how a new technology would influence our lives and had to glimpse the future, and therefore it is a legitimate (if limited) piece of futurism. You probably immediately recognized one of the most common “futurism fallacies”, as we call them in our book. The author imagines the people of his day, complete with 1919 fashion, living in the future when “pocket” phones are available.

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Jun 02 2022

Surviving a Global Catastrophe

On the most recent season of Love Death and Robots (which is excellent, btw) the first episode sees the return of the three robot explorers from previous seasons. They are looking over the remains of human civilization trying to figure out what went wrong. It’s a clever and funny commentary on some of our more irrational social ills and how fragile civilization can be. And while the apocalypse is primarily a plot device for survivalist and zombie movies, it is a serious issue and something we can plan for.

No one wants to think about the worse-case scenario, or confront it as a real possibility. There are survivalists and preppers who seem to romanticize the idea – if you put so much time and effort into preparing for something, it can be seen as anti-climactic if it never happens. But it does make sense to prepare for contingencies that you truly hope never happen. Also, preparing for a global catastrophe should in no way detract from our attempts at preventing catastrophe. It should not be a form of giving up. Rather, we’re just hedging our bets. We should spend the majority of our efforts preventing disaster, but just in case.

One example of this is the Svalbard global seed vault. In case there is some agricultural apocalypse, such as a blight, or some other collapse of global civilization, a large stock of seeds of all agriculturally important plants are kept preserved in the vault. We could use this as an emergency supply to reboot our agricultural system. Hopefully we will never need to crack open the vault (metaphorically) but in case we do, it’s nice to know that it’s there.

A recent paper (expanding on prior research) explores the practicality and utility of civilization refuges as a hedge against global catastrophe. The authors argue that we should at least think about which locations in the world would be most resilient in the face of, for example, a global pandemic. What if we have a pandemic similar to COVID except ten times or even a hundred times more deadly. COVID is now at 6.3 million global deaths. What if it were 63 million, or 630 million? These are plausible scenarios, and we would be foolish not to take reasonable steps to prevent them, mitigate them, and prepare for them. Again, prevention is the best option, but we need to prepare for failure leading to a worst-case scenario.

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May 31 2022

Were Dinosaurs Warm or Cold-Blooded?

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If you haven’t seen the new series, Prehistoric Planet, hosted by David Attenborough, you should see it. The visuals are stunning, the science is updated, and it provides a compelling look into the world of dinosaurs and other animals contemporary to the dinosaurs. While watching an episode last night, depicting a velociraptor leaping around energetically, my wife asked, “Were dinosaurs cold-blooded?” The classic concept of dinosaurs is of large lumbering and slow animals, cold-blooded (ectothermic) like other reptiles. However, scientists have long suspected that some if not all dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded (endothermic) – hence the updated vision of dinosaurs as energetic animals. (The picture is of a baby T-Rex.)

Birds, which are dinosaurs, are very endothermic, even more so than mammals. So the real question is not if dinosaurs were endothermic, but when in their evolution did they become so. One reasonable hypothesis is that the bird clade evolved endothermic metabolism in order to fuel their very high energy lifestyle of flying, so it may be a later development within the bird subgroup. In any case, I gave a short version of that answer, continued to watch the show and vowed to update my knowledge on where the question of dinosaur metabolism lies. By coincidence, a recent study sheds considerable light on this question, possibly settling it, in fact.

Ectothermic vs endothermic metabolism is mostly about how efficiently oxygen is metabolized with fuel in the body to produce energy, which also produces heat as a byproduct. Ectothermic creatures, like modern reptiles, burn oxygen slowly, so that can eat less, breath less, but also are less active. Further, their metabolism does not produce that much heat, so that cannot regulate their own body temperature. They have to use the environment to do so, like basking in the sun. We have a skink as a pet, and you have to provide a warm and cool side to their environment, so that they can use external temperature to regulate their internal temperature.

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May 27 2022

UK Seeks to Allow Gene-Edited Plants

I guess some good came out of Brexit. The EU essentially has banned GMO (genetically modified organisms) products, which I believe is unscientific and overly restrictive. Anti-GMO attitudes are demonstrably correlated with poor knowledge about agriculture and genetics. That’s because anti-GMO attitudes were largely created by a propaganda campaign based on lies and disinformation. For example, many people who oppose GMOs claim that Monsanto sued farmers over accidental contamination. This is absolutely not true, but it successfully demonized the industry.

The UK is now free to make up their own regulations regarding GMOs and they appear to on the verge of loosening their restrictions. However – they are limiting this loosening to “gene-edited” organisms and only plants (not animals). It’s a half-step, but at least it’s in the right direction. What is the difference between genetically modified and gene-edited?

“Gene-edited” is a new category, covering genetic changes that were previously lumped in under GMO, primarily because of the availability of new technology. A gene-edited crop is one in which one or more genes were either turned on or off, but no new genetic material was added. GMO is now limited to organisms where new genetic material is added (either cisgenic if from the same species, or transgenic if from a different species). Why the difference? It’s all ultimately arbitrary, not based on any rational science. For example, you can use radiation or chemicals to rapidly mutate crops, plant hundreds of the mutants, and then select the ones that happen to have desired traits (a process called mutation farming). That’s OK, and not considered genetically modified. Such plants even count as “organic” (another arbitrary label). But if you precisely insert a known gene, that somehow is considered a GMO and demonized by a large segment of the population.

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May 26 2022

How Memories Are Linked

Memory research, both at the psychological and neurological level, is fascinating, partly because memories are so essential to who we are. We often don’t perceive the underlying mechanisms by which memories are formed, stored, and recalled, but they dramatically affect our mental life. Further, being aware of how our memories work is a critical part of neuropsychological humility – human memory is not perfect, it’s not like a tape recorder, it is a dynamic and flawed process. For example, different aspects of a memory and different memories are linked together, but these connections can be jumbled. We may fuse the detail of one memory to another, alter details completely, and even remember things that happened to someone else as if they happened to us.

This is partly because memory did not evolve to be a perfect recorder of our life experiences, but rather to create a meaningful and adaptive narrative of our past. One critical component of the adaptive nature of memories is that our brains can link different memories together, because they apparently have a meaningful connection. A recent study tries to elucidate one aspect of this process, and as a result may have turned up a clinically useful bit of information.

For a little background, our brains function as massively parallel processors. One of their core functions is to make associations between different things – when we remember one thing that triggers other memories, including details about the original memory but also other memories. Our brains are association machines. This is not only intrinsic to how we remember but how we think. Much of literature, storytelling, metaphor, and creativity derives from association. How does this work at a neuronal level? It’s safe to say that it’s complicated, but the researchers were trying to elucidate one tiny piece of the picture.

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May 24 2022

Graphyne Made for First Time

By now many people have heard of graphene, an allotrope of carbon that is “2-Dimensional”, meaning that it is a sheet of carbon one atom thick. The carbon atoms are arranged like in a chicken wire. Graphene is considered a modern “wonder material” because it is flexible yet strong and has superior temperature and electrical conducting properties. You can also “dope” the graphene with many other elements to create novel properties. We are really just at the beginning of exploring the potential of this material, but already it us being used as an additive to make materials like plastic stronger and more conductive. A limiting factor is the ability to manufacture graphene in bulk and at high quality (with few errors in the arrangement of carbon atoms), but research is extensive because of the incredible potential of the material.

Before graphene has really hit its stride, scientists have now made for the first time a related carbon allotrope called graphyne. This is also a 2-Dimensional material with similar amazing properties like graphene, but may be even better. Previous scientists have only been able to make nanometer scale amounts of graphyne, but a recent study report the production of graphyne in bulk.  Graphyne has a different arrangement of carbon atoms than graphene. It is more complex and combines different types of carbon binding. That was the trick, to combine different types of carbon in the same material.

Carbon is an extremely useful element (and the basis of organic life) because of its unique properties. It has four available electrons with which it can form bonds with other elements, in either single, double, or triple bonds, which creates a lot of potential configurations. Carbon bonds are either sp3, sp2, or sp, depending on which electrons orbits are being used to share electrons and form a bond. You can read the details here if you are interested, but it has to do with the specific type of bonds using the different orbitals. Graphite uses only sp2 bonds, while diamond uses sp3 bonds (both are allotropes of carbon). Graphene is also sp2.

Graphyne, on the other hand, combines sp and sp2 carbon atoms which can give it useful properties:

Unlike graphenes, which consist solely of sp2-hybridized carbons, graphynes contain sp-hybridized carbons periodically integrated into an sp2-hybridized carbon framework. It was predicted that graphyne would exhibit intriguing and unique electron-conducting, mechanical and optical properties. Specifically, the electron conduction in graphynes would be exceptionally fast, as it is in graphene. Yet, the electron conduction in some graphynes could be controlled in a defined direction, unlike the multidirectional conduction in graphene, because the triple bonds can create distortion in Dirac cones.

Essentially graphyne has all the cool properties of graphene – it’s light, strong, and highly conductive to electricity and heat – but has the additional property of having controllable unidirectional conduction. Graphene, on the other hand, conducts in all directions. Controlling the direction of the conduction of electricity is critical to many electronic applications.

We are still in the “potential” stage here. Graphyne is getting a lot of attention because chemists predicted for years that it would be an incredibly useful material for electronics, but no one could manufacture it. Now a group has used a new technique to make it in bulk, which has reignited interest in the material. Further, now researchers can get their hands on the material and begin to explore its actual properties (not just theoretically predicted properties).

In the meantime, further research is needed to refine the production process, to make it quicker and cheaper for hopefully industrial scale production. This is often a deal-killer for new technologies. If you cannot produce it at an industrial scale it will remain a laboratory curiosity, or at best a high-end niche application. We may see it is probes NASA sends to the outer solar system, but not in your home or car.

Both graphene and graphyne still command incredible attention and investment because of their potential to revolutionize several industries. They could be used to make batteries with far greater energy density and specific energy than current lithium-ion batteries. They could be used in micro-optics, in superfast computers, and also wearable technology (because the materials are thin and strong). As it typically the case hype tends to get ahead of reality by 10-20 years. It takes time to work out the kinks and figure out how to make a technology actually work. It’s also possible we may never figure out a way to mass produce either material in sufficient quantities and qualities to realize the most promising applications, but given how the field is progressing we can be optimistic.

Graphyne now adds a new dimension to the promise of these new carbon 2-dimensional materials.

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May 23 2022

EVs and Range Anxiety

Demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is increasing, but still there is lingering hesitancy to make the switch to EVs. Sales of EVs have been increasing geometrically over the last decade, with global sales reaching 6.6 million in 2021, compared to 66.7 million total vehicles sold. While this trend is encouraging, there is still a long way to go and the global warming clock is ticking. So what barriers remain to more complete adoption of EVs?

Up front cost is still an issue, but this has been largely mitigated by the availability of more EV options that are in the range of comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Also the total cost of owning an EV is cheaper. According to a 2020 analysis:

For all EVs analyzed, the lifetime ownership costs were many thousands of dollars lower than all comparable ICE vehicles’ costs, with most EVs offering savings of between $6,000 and $10,000. While new EVs were found to offer significant cost savings over comparable ICE vehicles, the cost savings of 5- to 7-year-old used EVs was found to be two or three times larger on a percentage savings basis.

That was also before the recent spike in gasoline prices, and such spikes are not rare and likely to happen during the course of owning an EV. I wrote recently about the local health benefits of reducing pollution. I own an EV and I can also attest to other practical benefits. The driving performance is excellent, better than any ICE car I have driven. I can “fill up” at home and never have to take the car to a gas station. There is also limited routine maintenance – no oil changes or all the other things that go with an ICE. Because of regenerative braking the brake pads also last much longer. The tires are really the only thing that require attention. It is simply a superior car-owning and driving experience, and the money saving is nice.

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May 19 2022

The Linear Bias

Having a working understanding of the biases and heuristics that our brains use to make sense of the world is critical to neuropsychological humility and metacognition. They also help use make better sense of the world, and therefore make better decisions. Here’s a fun example. Let’s say you increase your driving speed from 40 mph to 60 mph over a 100 mile journey. How much would you need to increase your speed from a starting point of 80 mph in order to save the same amount of time on the journey? Is it 100 mph or 120 mph?

Many people follow the linear bias, the false assumption that most systems follow a linear path. It is an interesting question as to why this bias is so deeply rooted in human psychology, but research shows that it is. Others may follow the ratio heuristic, and consider that 60 mph is 50% more than 40 mph so you would have to increase your speed to 120 mph to get the same 50% increase. But this too is wrong. The real answer is 240 mph. Do the math for yourself. While the ratio heuristic seems more reasonable, in this context it fails because you are not considering the fact that at higher speeds the overall trip time is less and therefore the potential time saving is also less.

When the linear and ratio biases are applied to time, in fact, psychologists refer to this as the time-saving bias. We tend to underestimate how much time we can save when starting at a slow speed and vastly overestimate time saving when starting at a relatively high speed. This bias applies to more than just driving, but also to any task. We feel that if we push our speed or efficiency higher, there will be substantial gains, but there usually isn’t. At the same time, we need to realize that bottlenecks where speed is very low present an opportunity for significant increases in efficiency. We know this, but we still tend to underestimate its effects, especially relative to increasing already high speeds.

So in any operation, whether driving on a journey, completing a task at work, or maximizing the efficiency of a factory, it is best to focus on the slowest components. There is significantly diminishing returns when improving already fast processes, and they are probably not worth it.

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