Fri Feb 20 14:23:45 EST 2015

Artificial Intelligence

Several well known smart people have been voicing fears about artificial intelligence being a threat to to humanity. For example,

But I fail to see any mention of a timeline. Is it decades, centuries or millennia? Predictions without a date attached to them are meaningless since they can never be proven wrong. I disagree with the above, so it's nice to see there are plenty of others who do also.

  • No, the robots are not going to rise up and kill you

    David W. Buchanan, member of IBM Watson "Jeopardy!" system team

    Science fiction is partly responsible for these fears. A common trope works as follows: Step 1: Humans create AI to perform some unpleasant or difficult task. Step 2: The AI becomes conscious. Step 3: The AI decides to kill us all. As science fiction, such stories can be great fun. As science fact, the narrative is suspect, especially around Step 2, which assumes that by synthesizing intelligence, we will somehow automatically, or accidentally, create consciousness. I call this the consciousness fallacy. It seems plausible at first, but the evidence doesn't support it. And if it is false, it means we should look at AI very differently.

  • An Open Letter To Everyone Tricked Into Fearing Artificial Intelligence

    Erik Sofge: Don't believe the hype about artificial intelligence, or the horror

    Forget about the risk that machines pose to us in the decades ahead. The more pertinent question, in 2015, is whether anyone is going to protect mankind from its willfully ignorant journalists.
    Here's the letter at its most ominous, which is to say, not ominous at all:

        "Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research
        how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls."

    To use the CNET and BBC stories as examples, neither includes quotes or clarifications from the researchers who helped put together either the letter or its companion research document
    The truth is, there are researchers within the AI community who are extremely concerned about the question of artificial superintelligence, which is why FLI included a section in the letter's companion document about those fears. But it's also true that these researchers are in the extreme minority.

  • Scientists say AI fears unfounded, could hinder tech advances

    Recent alarms over artificial intelligence research raise eyebrows at AI conference

    "We're in control of what we program," Bresina said, noting it was his own opinion and not an official NASA statement. "I'm not worried about the danger of AI... I don't think we're that close at all. We can't program something that learns like a child learns even -- yet. The advances we have are more engineering things. Engineering tools aren't dangerous. We're solving engineering problems."

  • No need to panic -- artificial intelligence has yet to create a doomsday machine

    A malevolent AI will have to outwit not only raw human brainpower but the combination of humans and whatever loyal AI-tech we are able to command -- a combination that will best either on their own.

  • Out of control AI will not kill us, believes Microsoft Research chief

    Eric Horvitz's position contrasts with that of several other leading thinkers.

    A Microsoft Research chief has said he thinks artificial intelligence systems could achieve consciousness, but has played down the threat to human life.

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Fri Jan 30 01:44:11 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • The War with Radical Islam

    Jeffrey D. Sachs

    Yet, in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity. It is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies. Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today's wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war -- one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.
    From the jihadist perspective -- the one that American or French Muslims, for example, may pick up in training camps in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen -- daily life is ultra-violent. Death is pervasive, coming as often as not from the bombs, drones, and troops of the United States, France, and other Western powers. And the victims are often the innocent "collateral damage" of Western strikes that hit homes, weddings, funerals, and community meetings.
    To be clear, Western actions do not provide Islamist terrorism with a scintilla of justification. The reason to point out these actions is to make clear what Islamist terrorism in the West represents to the terrorists: Middle East violence on an expanded front. The West has done much to create that front, arming favored actors, launching proxy wars, and taking the lives of civilians in unconscionable numbers.

    Nice to see an alternative view rarely written about. Read the whole article.

  • Corruption and Revolt

    Does tolerating graft undermine national security?
    Much of the hundred billion dollars the U.S. spent to rebuild Afghanistan was stolen.

    Corruption creeps in, unnoticed, "like some odorless gas," Sarah Chayes writes in her new book, "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,"* and confounds policy objectives without attracting much policy attention. Chayes spent most of the past decade living in Afghanistan. Her book, which is part memoir and part treatise, argues that the United States has a tendency not just to ignore international corruption but to compound it, and that in places like Afghanistan this willful ignorance can be destabilizing and dangerous.
    Chayes cites a survey conducted by U.S. military commanders in Kabul, in which captured Taliban prisoners were asked why they joined the insurgency. The leading reason, according to Chayes, "was not ethnic bias, or disrespect of Islam, or concern that U.S. forces might stay in their country." It was "the perception that the Afghan government was irrevocably corrupt."
    As a general rule, occupying powers tend to push countries into corruption, not pull them out of it.

  • Redefining Mental Illness

    The report says that there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience: "Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without."

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • The Science Of Politely Ending A Conversation

    Research-based tips on finding a delicate way to part ways.

    After analyzing the final 45 seconds of the interactions, the researchers coded and tallied up the most frequent "leave-taking" behaviors. These included "reinforcement" (short, tacit agreements, such as yeah and uh-huh), "buffing" (brief transition terms, such as well and uh), and "appreciation" (an encouraging declaration along the lines of I've really enjoyed talking with you).

  • Disease Screening & Base Rate Fallacy

    The base rate fallacy refers to the neglect of prior probability of the evidence that supports the conditional probability of a hypothesis.

    Naturally, this has policy implications: if you test more and more people, a large percentage of people will be told they have cancer when they don't -- leading to more invasive testing that has other real side-effects. The trick is either to try to test a high-risk subpopulation (where the prevalence rate is higher) or to improve the test by reducing its false-positive rate.

  • Two-thirds of cancers caused by bad luck, not heredity & environment

    22 out of 31 cancers researchers studied could be explained largely by random mutations

    Plain old bad luck plays a major role in determining who gets cancer and who does not, according to researchers who found that two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types can be blamed on random mutations and not heredity or risky habits like smoking.

  • Keep Calm and Put Down the Sriracha

    It has come to my attention that some of you are becoming unable to eat good food unless it is spiced to within an inch of its life.

    If you are unable to enjoy simple, traditional fare that has been properly prepared with good ingredients, the problem is not with the food; it is with you.

  • Chocolate health myth dissolves

    Health-enhancing flavanols that end up on the shelf will likely appear in form other than chocolate

    But there are lots of foods that contain potentially healthy flavanols, along with other bioactive compounds in complex combinations. So the question is: Would academic scientists in publicly funded institutions be so interested in the cocoa bean if the chocolate industry wasn't supporting so much of the research?

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Thu Jan 22 23:51:53 EST 2015

Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)

Some links to help in deciding whether a medical treatment has any validity.

  • The Cochrane Collaboration

    Trusted evidence. Informed decisions. Better health.

    Cochrane is a global independent network of health practitioners, researchers, patient advocates and others, responding to the challenge of making the vast amounts of evidence generated through research useful for informing decisions about health. We are a not-for-profit organisation with collaborators from over 120 countries working together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest.

  • theNNT

    The Number-Needed-to-Treat.   Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine.

    We are a group of physicians that have developed a framework and rating system to evaluate therapies based on their patient-important benefits and harms as well as a system to evaluate diagnostics by patient sign, symptom, lab test or study.
    We only use the highest quality, evidence-based studies (frequently, but not always Cochrane Reviews) , and we accept no outside funding or advertisements.

  • Alternative Medicine Providers Show Their Greedy Side

    Fighting Pseudoscience.

    A growing lobby is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM ) providers, who have discovered a new opportunity to extract even more money from patients than they do already. They want the government to force insurance providers to pay for quack treatments, regardless of whether or not the treatments work. Any attempt to require evidence, they argue, amounts to discrimination.

    Alternative Medicine is the antithesis of evidence based medicine.

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Wed Dec 31 23:34:25 EST 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • The Open-Office Trap

    The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees' satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

  • Why is everyone so busy?

    Time poverty is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution

    Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier. Not a few presume they will cash in on all their stored leisure time when they finally retire, whenever that may be. In the meantime, being busy has its rewards. Otherwise why would people go to such trouble?
    Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.

  • The World Is Not Falling Apart

    Never mind the headlines. We've never lived in such peaceful times.
    by Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack

    The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable--homicide, rape, battering, child abuse--have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states--by far the most destructive of all conflicts--are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.
    ... Why is the world always "more dangerous than it has ever been"--even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?
    Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from "experts" with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

  • Regular Exercise Induces Changes in DNA

    A study from scientists at Lund University found that exercise induces genome-wide changes in DNA methylation in human adipose tissue, potentially affecting adipocyte metabolism.

    Exercise, even in small doses, changes the expression of our innate DNA. New research from Lund University in Sweden has described for the first time what happens on an epigenetic level in fat cells when we undertake physical activity.
    "Our study shows the positive effects of exercise, because the epigenetic pattern of genes that affect fat storage in the body changes", says Charlotte Ling, Associate Professor at Lund University Diabetes Center.

  • The wealthy suffer from an 'empathy gap' with the poor that is feeding a rise in inequality

    It's also beyond dispute that we are approaching a social consensus that wealth and income inequality in the United States today now threatens to seriously damage our social fabric. That fabric is grounded in two fundamental ideas: liberty, or the freedom to determine our own destinies, and equality. The problem is that over the past thirty years -- in tandem with rising inequality -- we have favored liberty over equality.
    ... The reality is different. The working poor are not like the advantaged, superficial similarities aside. A very significant component of success -- one that may even be more determinative than hard work -- is luck. This is true, even if the advantaged have worked hard to maximize the benefits of that luck. By luck I mostly mean circumstances of birth and natural talents and abilities (which might well include the propensity to work hard).
    ... Why do the disadvantaged tolerate this situation? The American myth of self-reliance. No matter the vagaries of fortune, we consistently find that Americans at all levels believe in some variant of the Horatio Alger myth -- the classic American rags to riches success story -- despite strong empirical evidence that belies it. I think that there is some evidence in recent years that belief in this myth is eroding, a fact that will be dangerous for society if the the system continues as it currently is now.

  • The Rise of the Economic-Policy Truthers

    The great irony is that the trend convincing families that health spending is out of control is the same trend that is holding health spending down. Co-pays and deductibles hit families hard by forcing them to spend out of pocket. But by hitting them hard, they help to reduce hospital and doctor's visits and pull the headline health-spending number lower.

    Broaden the trend yet further and it is easy to see how many individuals do not believe in the recovery at all. More families have jobs, but they aren't getting wage increases. Many of the new jobs getting created are low-wage ones, after the recession wiped out middle-wage gigs. Families' wallets are getting squeezed with rising costs, while economists promise them that inflation is subdued. Families' health spending is rising, while economists promise them that overall health spending is remarkably flat.

  • How Technology Could Help Fight Income Inequality

    Tyler Cowen

    In the scenarios outlined here, though, growing inequality is highly contingent on particular technologies and the global conditions of the moment. Movements toward greater inequality often set countervailing forces in motion, even if those forces take a long time to come to fruition. From this perspective, rather than seeking to beat down capital, our attention should be directed to leaving open the future possibilities for innovation, change and dynamism. Even if income inequality continues to increase in the short run, as I believe is likely, there exists a plausible and more distant future in which we are mostly much better off and more equal. The history of technology suggests that new opportunities for better living and higher wages are being created, just not as quickly as we might like.

  • Penn Team's Game Theory Analysis Shows How Evolution Favors Cooperation's Collapse

    Last year, University of Pennsylvania researchers Alexander J. Stewart and Joshua B. Plotkin published a mathematical explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature. Using the classical game theory match-up known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, they found that generous strategies were the only ones that could persist and succeed in a multi-player, iterated version of the game over the long term.
    But now they've come out with a somewhat less rosy view of evolution. With a new analysis of the Prisoner's Dilemma played in a large, evolving population, they found that adding more flexibility to the game can allow selfish strategies to be more successful. The work paints a dimmer but likely more realistic view of how cooperation and selfishness balance one another in nature.

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Wed Dec 24 19:29:41 EST 2014

Extraterrestrial Life

The Great Alien Debate

In the Scientific American blog "Life, Unbounded", Caleb A. Scharf asks,"Are we alone in the Universe?" :

But the fascinating thing is how we tend to fall into either camp A or camp B, and how strongly we feel about our answers.

... The impasse would be broken if we could detect life with an independent origin elsewhere - either in the solar system or farther beyond - yet that's a challenge that remains unmet.

... In all of these examples, the non-detection of life (whether as fossils or as chemical signatures) is unlikely to eliminate the possibility of life in these places - we simply won't be able to be that thorough.

It seems to me the search for extraterrestrial life isn't than much different than the search for God. In both cases believers claim the absence of evidence just means the search should continue. In response to this article I emailed my thoughts to the author (but have yet to receive an answer):

Would the impasse be broken if we could create life (from non-life) here on earth?
Why can't we mimic the conditions necessary here on earth for single-celled microbial life to be created in a laboratory? If it was done once, why not again? Also if we know what conditions were necessary, wouldn't it narrow down where else to look for such conditions? What prevents us from doing that? Even if life is a series of low probability events, can't we make it more probable in an experimental setup? Is it too difficult to create the conditions or is it that we just don't know what the conditions are and how to do it?
If we can never prove that life does not exist elsewhere, isn't it a matter of faith that it does? How is that different than a religious belief that god exists?
If you don't have the time to answer me directly, perhaps you can address these issues in part 2 or later? Thanks for your attention.

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Sun Nov 30 23:52:19 EST 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Artificial Intelligence, Really, Is Pseudo-Intelligence

    One reason I'm not worried about the possibility that we will soon make machines that are smarter than us, is that we haven't managed to make machines until now that are smart at all. Artificial intelligence isn't synthetic intelligence: It's pseudo-intelligence.

    ... But it's striking that even the simplest forms of life -- the amoeba, for example -- exhibit an intelligence, an autonomy, an originality, that far outstrips even the most powerful computers. A single cell has a life story; it turns the medium in which it finds itself into an environment and it organizes that environment into a place of value. It seeks nourishment. It makes itself -- and in making itself it introduces meaning into the universe.
    Now, admittedly, unicellular organisms are not very bright -- but they are smarter than clocks and supercomputers. For they possess the rudimentary beginnings of that driven, active, compelling engagement that we call life and that we call mind. Machines don't have information. We process information with them. But the amoeba does have information -- it gathers it, it manufactures it.

  • Treating disease with fecal transplants

    Some disease sufferers have benefitted from fecal transplantation, in which a healthy person's stool is transferred to a sick person's colon.

    Then, in January, 2013, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the first randomized controlled trial involving FMT, comparing the therapy to treatment with vancomycin for patients with recurrent disease. The trial was ended early when doctors realized that it would be unethical to continue: fewer than a third of the patients given vancomycin recovered, compared with ninety-four per cent of those who underwent fecal transplants -- the vast majority after a single treatment. A glowing editorial accompanying the article declared that the trial's significance "goes far beyond the treatment of recurrent or severe C. difficile" and predicted a spate of research into the benefits of fecal transplants for other diseases.

  • Doubling Saturated Fat in the Diet Does Not Increase Saturated Fat in Blood

    New research links diabetes, heart disease risk to diet high in carbs, not fat.
    But note:

    This work was supported by the Dairy Research Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Egg Nutrition Center.

  • Weight influenced by microbes in the gut

    Our genetic makeup influences whether we are fat or thin by shaping which types of microbes thrive in our body, according to a study by researchers at King's College London and Cornell University.
    By studying pairs of twins at King's Department of Twin Research, researchers identified a specific, little known bacterial family that is highly heritable and more common in individuals with low body weight. This microbe also protected against weight gain when transplanted into mice.

  • What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change

    Today's renewable energy technologies won't save us.

    Google's boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do.

    ... As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today's renewable energy technologies simply won't work; we need a fundamentally different approach.

    ... What's needed are zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over within the next 40 years.

  • Forvo: All the words in the world pronounced by native speakers

    Worlds largest pronunciation guide: 2,655,619 words 2,804,143 pronunciations 322 languages

  • Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone -- Especially the Wealthy

    "Wealth -- its uses and abuses -- is a subject that has intrigued me since my youth in the rural Midwest," West writes in the introduction to his study of billionaires. From his seat in Washington, D.C., he has grown concerned about the effects on democracy of a handful of citizens controlling more and more wealth.

  • Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don't Think They're Smart

    But praising their intelligence can make them feel even more insecure. A self-esteem expert offers a way out of the conundrum.

    They (parents) often praise the ability, the talent, or the intelligence too much. The opposite of this is the good process praise. This is praise for the process the child engages in -- their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement.

  • Comforting the NSA and Afflicting Its Dissenters

    Defending Edward Snowden from criticism by Yishai Schwartz in the New Republic.

    No serious defense of the surveillance state can ignores its anti-democratic abuses, its lawbreaking, and its record of punishing whistleblowers.

  • Even Israel's Best Friends Understand That It Is Disconnecting From Reality

    A lead editorial in The New York Jewish Week, the flagship American Jewish newspaper, center to center-right in orientation, with many thousands of Orthodox Jews among its readers and an ardently pro-Israel editorial line, bluntly asks whether the Israeli government has become unmoored from reality.

    ... It also means understanding that while most settlement expansion that is now taking place in the West Bank is happening in areas that will most likely come under Israeli control in the event of a final peace deal, the Palestinians haven't agreed to this division yet. Unilateral moves do not help. They certainly don't help Israel's international standing, which is lower than it has ever been, and they certainly don't help maintain Israel as a cause that garners bipartisan support in the U.S.

  • Can you build up a tolerance to ice cream?

    Research suggests that those individuals who frequently eat a given highly palatable food derive less satisfaction from the subsequent consumption of that same food, such as ice cream.
    ... In short, this study found an inverse relationship between the frequency of ice cream consumption and the activation of the brain's reward centers in response to ingesting an ice cream milk shake.
    ... In a sense, the observation is similar to the developed drug tolerance seen among drug addicts, where the high of the second hit is never as good as the first.

    I eat ice cream every day but don't notice that effect.


    Next Century Cities supports communities and their elected leaders, including mayors and other officials, as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet.
    It is a consortium of 32 cities with the mission of making 1 Gbps fiber-based broadband available to any community in the United States.

  • A New Macroeconomic Strategy by Jeffrey D. Sachs

    It is time for a new strategy, one based on sustainable, investment-led growth.

    Most high-income countries -- the US, most of Europe, and Japan -- are failing to invest adequately or wisely toward future best uses. There are two ways to invest -- domestically or internationally -- and the world is falling short on both.

    Though policy alternates between supply-side and neo-Keynesian enthusiasm, the one persistent reality is a significant decline of investment as a share of national income in most high-income countries in recent years. According to IMF data, gross investment spending in these countries has declined from 24.9% of GDP in 1990 to just 20% in 2013.
    In the US, investment spending declined from 23.6% of GDP in 1990 to 19.3% in 2013, and fell even more markedly in net terms (gross investment excluding capital depreciation). In the European Union, the decline was from 24% of GDP in 1990 to 18.1% in 2013.
    Neither neo-Keynesians nor supply-siders focus on the true remedies for this persistent drop in investment spending. Our societies urgently need more investment, particularly to convert heavily polluting, energy-intensive, and high-carbon production into sustainable economies based on the efficient use of natural resources and a shift to low-carbon energy sources. Such investments require complementary steps by the public and private sectors.

  • Why Experts Reject Creativity

    People think they like creativity. But teachers, scientists, and executives are biased against new ways of thinking.

    In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term "the Innovator's Dilemma" to describe the choice companies face between incrementally improving their core business (perfecting old ideas) and embracing emerging markets that could upend their core business (investing in new ideas).

    ... Indeed, it turns out that our aversion to new ideas touches more than technology companies. It affects entertainment executives deciding between new projects, managers choosing between potential projects or employees, and teachers assessing conformist versus non-conformist children. It is a bias against the new. The brain is hardwired to distrust creativity.

    ... The researchers found that new ideas -- those that remixed information in surprising ways -- got worse scores from everyone, but they were particularly punished by experts. "Everyone dislikes novelty," Lakhami explained to me, but "experts tend to be over-critical of proposals in their own domain." Knowledge doesn't just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers. (In the real world, everybody has encountered a variety of this: A real or self-proclaimed expert who's impatient with new ideas, because they challenge his ego, piercing the armor of his expertise.)

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Nov 25 23:50:34 EST 2014

About Science

Some links related to the understanding and practice of science that interest me.

  • Understanding Research

    Series from The Conversation -- Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair

  • The evidence crisis, by Jim Baggott

    it seems science is confronted with nothing less than a crisis of evidence

    Last year Jim Baggott published a book, called Farewell to Reality, which challenges some of the prevailing opinions about contemporary theoretical physics of the kind which address our `big questions' concerning the nature of the physical universe. In it I argue that some theorists have crossed a line. They are suffering a `grand delusion,' a belief that they can describe physical reality using mathematics alone, with no foundation in scientific evidence. I call the result `fairy-tale' physics.

  • How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything

    Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.

    What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering -- of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions -- which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment.

  • Scientific consensus has gotten a bad reputation - and it doesn't deserve it

    It's used by both sides in the climate debates, but consensus is part of a process.

    Reproducible results are absolutely relevant. What Crichton is missing is how we decide that those results are significant and how one investigator goes about convincing everyone that he or she happens to be right. This comes down to what the scientific community as a whole accepts as evidence.
    There have clearly been times in the past where the consensus wasn't especially brilliant. Mendel was ignored instead of starting to build a consensus, and Alfred Wegner's formative ideas about plate tectonics were roundly ridiculed. But it's worth noting that these cases are the exception. The majority of the time, the consensus is a bit closer to being right than whatever came before it. And while it may be slow to change sometimes, it can eventually be shifted by the weight of the evidence.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Oct 31 15:47:01 EDT 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Your nose knows death is imminent

    Losing the sense of smell predicts death within five years, according to new research.

    According to new research, the sense of smell is the canary in the coalmine of human health. A study published today in the open access journal PLOS ONE, shows that losing one's sense of smell strongly predicts death within five years, suggesting that the nose knows when death is imminent, and that smell may serve as a bellwether for the overall state of the body, or as a marker for exposure to environmental toxins.

    ... The tip of the olfactory nerve, which contains the smell receptors, is the only part of the human nervous system that is continuously regenerated by stem cells. The production of new smell cells declines with age, and this is associated with a gradual reduction in our ability to detect and discriminate odours. Loss of smell may indicate that the body is entering a state of disrepair, and is no longer capable of repairing itself.

  • We Are All Confident Idiots

    The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise.

    In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psycholog, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize - scratch that, cannot recognize - just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers - and we are all poor performers at some things - fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.
    What's curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

  • Past Climate Change Was Caused by the Ocean, Not Just the Atmosphere, New Rutgers Study Finds

    The study published in Science provides a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of climate change today.

    In their study, the researchers say the major cooling of Earth and continental ice build-up in the Northern Hemisphere 2.7 million years ago coincided with a shift in the circulation of the ocean - which pulls in heat and carbon dioxide in the Atlantic and moves them through the deep ocean from north to south until it's released in the Pacific.

  • What Schizophrenia Can Teach Us About Ourselves

    Some scientists are arguing that our new understanding of a particular network in the brain is allowing neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists - even artists and writers - to understand each other in ways that wouldn't have made sense ten years ago. Called the default mode network, or DMN, it's a set of brain regions that are typically suppressed when a person is engaged in an external task (playing a sport, working on a budget), but activated during a so-called "resting state" (sitting quietly, day-dreaming).
    "We should be wary of seeing a schizophrenic person as someone with a kind of deficiency," Woods says. Rather, it may be just another part of what it means to be human. A person might simply process language differently or ruminate on social interactions for too long. His or her inner speech might be more fragmented or circuitous. Individual differences in DMN activity account for the diverse ways the human mind freely wanders.

  • Something Is Dangerously Wrong at the New York Fed

    The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a public institution, which writes banking rules and enacts monetary policy. But the 12 regional banks, which carry out regulatory examinations, are privately run. The local banking industry and other corporate interests choose the majority of the regional bank boards, who subsequently select a president. Unsurprisingly, those presidents often reflect the business management perspective of those who choose them. Bill Dudley, the New York Fed president, spent his career as chief economist for Goldman Sachs.
    This public/private hybrid leads to a lack of transparency about the regional banks and their activities. The New York Fed, which because of the presence of Wall Street has by far the most power of the regional banks, routinely exempts itself from public disclosure requirements.

  • The Problem With Positive Thinking

    Why doesn't positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.
    Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we've already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.
    What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with "realism." Here's how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

  • Assange: Google Is Not What It Seems

    In this extract from When Google Met WikiLeaks Julian Assange describes his encounter with Google's Eric Schmidt and how he came to conclude that it was far from an innocent exchange of views.

  • Why Inequality Matters

    Bill Gates on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

  • Real-time rumor tracker

    It's part of a research project with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University that focuses on how unverified information and rumor are reported in the media. It aims to develop best practices for debunking misinformation.

  • The Immigrant Sport: What Ping-Pong Means In America

    Article about the U.S. Open of Table Tennis in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A plug for my favorite sport.

  • Freedom From Religion Foundation

    Protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation's ad featuring Ron Reagan describing himself as "an unabashed atheist" has been rejected for airing by CBS, not only by "60 Minutes," the desired placement, but for any CBS TV show. Watch it: CBS, '60 Minutes,' reject Ron Reagan's `unabashed atheist' ad

    We need more prominent people to come out as atheists. Laws won't change until public opinion does, just like for women's rights, gay rights, etc.

  • Belief in Free Will Not Threatened by Neuroscience

    A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, have argued that this shows our sense of free will is an illusion, and that lay people would realize this too if they were given a vivid demonstration of the implications of the science.

    ... However, in a new paper, Eddy Nahmias, Jason Shepard and Shane Reuter counter such claims. They believe that Harris and others (who they dub "willusionists") make several unfounded assumptions about the basis of most people's sense of free will.

    I was hoping for a better argument.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Oct 23 22:56:13 EDT 2014

Brain Errors

Some links about how your brain sometimes fails so that what you think is true may not be right.

  • Brain's limits lead to unconscious choices in what we see and remember

    The brain has limited capacity to perceive and remember, and it makes choices we're not aware of

    How much we can visually take in and what we remember are subject to limitations in signal capacity and storage space. The brain adapts by making a lot of choices outside of our conscious awareness, new research shows.

    "Forgetting seems disadvantageous, but plays an essential role in maintaining the efficiency of memory operations," the researchers wrote.

  • Things You Cannot Unsee (and What That Says About Your Brain)

    What you know influences what you see.

    Once you interpret visual stimulus in a certain way, you'll continue to interpret it in the same way now and the next time you encounter the stimulus

    You're not only seeing what is actually before you; you're seeing what your brain is telling you is there.

  • When Beliefs and Facts Collide

    TheUpshot, Brendan Nyhan

    This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.

  • YourMorals.Org

    Learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values, while also contributing to scientific research

    Why do people disagree so passionately about what is right? Why, in particular, is there such hostility and incomprehension between members of different political parties?

    If you think your moral values are about logic or facts, think again.

  • Our biases make it really hard to see things clearly.

    ... people understand the world in ways that suit their preexisting beliefs and ideological commitments. Thus in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread the facts in a way that confirms their biases.

  • How reliable is eyewitness testimony? Scientists weigh in

    As Loftus puts it, "just because someone says something confidently doesn't mean it's true." Jurors can't help but find an eyewitness's confidence compelling, even though experiments have shown that a person's confidence in their own memory is sometimes undiminished even in the face of evidence that their memory of an event is false.
    . . .
    One thing the report comes out solidly in favor of is treating the lineup as a double-blind scientific experiment-neither the witness nor the presiding officer should know in advance whether the suspect is in the lineup. "Double-blinding is central to the scientific method because it minimizes the risk that experimenters might inadvertently bias the outcome of their research, finding only what they expected to find," the report concludes. But it leaves the question of exactly how police departments should implement double-blind lineups unanswered.

  • Think You're Immune to False Memory? You're Not.

    The most disconcerting aspect of human memory is not that we forget things; it's that we falsely remember them.

    We know for a fact that at least 225 men and women have been convicted of serious crimes because witnesses convincingly, yet mistakenly, named them as the culprits.
    . . .

    Overall, the results of the study further substantiate the idea that human memory is not recorded but constructed. We recall events and details by association, using basic emotional, tactile, and visual cues to piece together a memory. Sometimes, that process manufactures jumbled falsehoods.

  • Think by Numbers

    You have a total of three brains: the reptilian brain, the paleo-mammalian brain, and the rational brain.

    Your mind has been infiltrated. Your logical and conscious prefrontal cortex is ever thwarted by powerful saboteurs hiding within the dark realm of your subconscious. The usurpers of your decision-making processes are none other than the ignorant reptilian brain stem and emotional limbic system. They torture you with sadness for the slightest defiance. They drug you with narcotic neurochemicals to reward your obedience. This diabolical duo is responsible for all forms of irrational human behavior, such as racism, war, and marriage. Your only defense against these illogical bastards is to base your decisions on cold, hard numbers.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Mon Sep 29 12:04:12 EDT 2014

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Does philosophy have a future?

    by Mark English

    One of (the) problems with philosophy is that -- unlike in science -- virtually nothing within the discipline is ever definitively resolved. Old approaches are routinely exposed as logically flawed or inadequate. But the usual pattern is that someone then comes along and finds that the original view can be salvaged with some small modifications and/or that the critique is also flawed.
    ... The general belief within philosophy is that the process of collegial debate, discussion and review leads to a refinement or clarification of views and so to a progress of sorts. Refinement, yes. Clarification, I'm not so sure.
    Often this process can all too plausibly be interpreted in one of two ways (or both -- the ideas are not mutually exclusive): it can be seen as a cover for what is essentially an ideological battle; or merely as a competitive game, self-perpetuating and futile.
    ... The view that much philosophy is self-perpetuating and futile, a game of sorts which ends not when some kind of "truth" or resolution is finally arrived at but when people just get tired of that particular game and move on to another, has often been more or less acknowledged by philosophers.

  • Clapper Denies Lying, Announces New Ethics Policy

    Why isn't this guy in jail?

    Clapper flat-out lied to Sen. Ron Wyden during a Senate hearing in March when he said the NSA does not wittingly "collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."
    Clapper has previously said he "responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no."
    On Thursday, he said he had been falsely accused of lying "because of a mistake and trying to answer on the spot a question about a specific classified program in an unclassified setting."

    Even though it was a friendly setting, was there not at least a giggle from the audience?

  • No, Snowden's Leaks Didn't Help The Terrorists

    "Well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them."

    "...Flashpoint Global Partners, a private security firm, examined the frequency of releases and updates of encryption software by jihadi groups... It found no correlation in either measure to Snowden's leaks about the NSA's surveillance techniques, which became public beginning June 5, 2013."

  • Schizophrenia not a single disease but multiple genetically distinct disorders

    About 80 percent of the risk for schizophrenia is known to be inherited, but scientists have struggled to identify specific genes for the condition. Now, in a novel approach analyzing genetic influences on more than 4,000 people with schizophrenia, the research team has identified distinct gene clusters that contribute to eight different classes of schizophrenia.

  • Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota

    Collectively, our results link NAS (Non-caloric artificial sweeteners) consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage.

  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics

    Now, anyone with internet access and a web browser can enjoy reading a high quality up-to-date copy of Feynman's legendary lectures.

    Volume     I: mainly mechanics, radiation and heat
    Volume   II: mainly electromagnetism and matter
    Volume III: quantum mechanics

  • How big telecom smothers city-run broadband

    AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable use statehouses to curb public Internet service

    The companies have succeeded in getting laws passed in 20 states that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments