Archives For scientific research

experimental plant

Several years ago, scientists at the sustainable farming research center Rothamstead decided to splice a gene from peppermint into wheat to help ward off aphid infestations. You see, when hungry adult aphids decide it’s time for a snack, the essential oil given off by peppermint mimics a danger signal for the insect. Imagine trying to bite into your sandwich just as a fire alarm goes off over your head with no end in sight. That’s exactly what happens to aphids, and the thought was that this ability could be spliced into wheat to reduce pesticide use while increasing yield. It should also be noted that Rothamstead is non-profit, the research initiative was its own and no commercial venture was involved in any way, shape or form. Sadly, the test crops failed to live up to their expectations and deter aphids with the pheromone they produced, EβF. Another big, important note here is that despite the scary name, this is a naturally occurring pheromone you will find in the peppermint oil recommended by virtually every organic grower out there.

Of course, noting the minor nature of the genetic modification involved, the total lack of a profit motive on the part of a highly respected research facility, the sustainability-driven thinking which motivated the experiment, and the fact that the desired aphid repellent was derived from a very well known, natural source, anti-GMO activists decided that they wanted to destroy test crops in more mature stages of the research anyway because GMOs are bad. No, that was the excuse. Scientists planting GMO plants? They obviously want to kill people to put money in Monsanto’s pockets with evil Frankenfoods. With the experiment failing, they’re probably celebrating that all those farmers trying to protect their wheat lost a potential means of doing so and they won’t be driving to the research plots in the middle of the night to set everything on fire. The group which planned to carry out this vandalism, like many other anti-GMO organizations, lacks any solid or scientifically valid reason to fear these crops, and was acting based solely on its paranoia.

Indeed, anti-GMO activism is basically the climate change denial of the left. It revolves around a fear of change and bases itself on fear-mongering and repeating the same debunked assertion after another ad nauseam, with no interest in debate and even less in actually getting educated about the topic at hand. While anti-GMO zealots rush to condemn any Big Ag study showing no identifiable issues with GMO consumption on any criticism they can manage, real or imagined, with no study ever being good enough, they cling to horrifically bad papers created by scientists specifically trying to pander to their fears, who threaten to proactively sue any critics who might ruin the launch party for their anti-GMO polemics. Had Big Ag scientists done anything remotely like that, the very same people singing praises to Séralini would have demanded their heads on the chopping block. Hell, they only need to know they work in the industry to declare them parts of a genocidal New World Order conspiracy. But you see, because these activists are driven by fear and paranoia, to them it’s ok to sabotage the safety experiments they demanded to assure that scientists can’t do their research, while praising junk pseudoscience meant to bilk them.

paper crowd

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk lets you assign menial, yet attention-intensive tasks to actual human beings, despite the name’s ambiguity, and those humans want to be paid consistently and a fair fee for their efforts. This is why in March of last year, they launched the Dynamo platformwhich allows them to warn each other of bad clients who were stingy or unreasonable. The brainchild of Stanford PhD student Niloufar Salehi, who wanted to study digital labor rights, it came about in large part due to many of those stingy, unfair clients being academics. With small budgets for surveys and preparing complex machine learning algorithms, researchers were often paying an insultingly token sum to the workers they recruited, something Dynamo argues hurts the quality of their research by limiting their labor pool to the truly desperate and ill-qualified in its rules and guidelines for ethical academic requests for inquiring researchers looking for assistance.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, the fact that we give so little funding to researchers they have to rely on strangers willing to work for scraps, or that academics are fine with the notion of paying the equivalent of prison odd job wages to their remote assistants. Part of the problem is that the issues are interdependent. Many academics can’t afford to pay more and still meet their targets for sufficient survey responses or machine learning algorithms’ training set sizes. Turkers most qualified for the job can’t afford to accept less than 10 cents a minute, which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that 15,000 units of work taking half an hour come out to $45,000 or so, a hefty chunk of many grad students’ budgets. Something’s gotta give and without more money from universities and states, which is highly unlikely, academics will either keep underpaying the crowds they recruit, or end up doing less ambitious research, if not less research in general…

rainbow flag splash

Last year, a study conducted by poly sci grad student Michael LaCour showed that just a simple conversation with a canvasser who talked to people about marriage equality and then identified as gay, was enough to sway minds towards the acceptance of same sex marriage. This was an odd result because people don’t tend to change their views on things like homosexuality after a brief conversation with a stranger, no matter how polite the stranger was. However, the data in the paper was very convincing and it may have been entirely possible that the people surveyed didn’t think about marriage equality and meeting a gay person who didn’t fit the toxic stereotype propagated by the far right, wanted to seem supportive to meet social expectations, or might’ve even been swayed off the fence towards equality. After all, the data was there, and it looked so convincing and perfect. In fact it looked a little too perfect, particularly when it came to just how many people seemed open to talking to strangers who randomly showed up at their doors, and how inhumanly consistent their voiced opinions have been over time. It was just… off.

When doing a social sciences experiment, the biggest stumbling block is the response rate and how small it usually is. Back in my undergrad days, I remember freezing my tail end off trying to gather some responses for a survey on urban development in the middle of an Ohio winter and collecting just ten useful responses in three hours. But LaCour was armed with money and was able to pay up to $100 for each respondent’s time unlike me, so he was able to enroll 10,000 or so people with a 12% response rate. Which is a problem because his budget would have had to have been over $1 million, which was a lot more than he had, and a 12% rate on the first try will not happen. Attempts to replicate it yielded less than a 1% response rate even when there was money involved. Slowly but surely, as another researcher and his suspicious colleagues looked deeper, signs of fraud mounted until the conclusion was inescapable. The data was a sham. Its stability and integrity looked so fantastically sound because no study was actually done.

New York Magazine has the details on how exactly the study came undone, and some parts of the story, held up in the comments as supposed proof of universities’ supposed grand Marxist-homosexual conspiracy to turn education into anti-capitalist and pro-gay propaganda as one is bound to expect, actually shine a light into why it took so long for the fraud to be discovered. It’s easy to just declare that researchers didn’t look at the study too closely because they wanted it to be true, that finding some empirical proof that sitting a homophobe down with a well dressed and successful gay person for half an hour would solve social ills was so tempting to accept, no one wanted to question it. Easy, but wrong. If you’ve ever spent time with academics or tried to become one in grad school, you’d know that the reason why it took exceptional tenacity to track down and expose LaCour’s fraud is because scientists, by in large, are no longer paid to check, review, and replicate others’ work. Their incentive is to generate new papers and secure grants to pay for their labs and administrators’ often outrageous salaries, and that’s it.

Scientists have always lived by the paradigm of “publish or perish,” the idea that if you publish a constant stream of quality work in good journals, your career continues, and once you stop, you are no longer relevant or necessary, and should quit. But nowadays, the pressure to publish to get tenure and secure grants is so strong that the number of papers on which you have a byline more or less seals your future. Forget doing five or six good papers a year, no one really cares how good they were unless they’re Nobel Prize worthy, you’re now expected to have a hundred publications or more when you’re being considered for tenure. Quality has lost to quantity. It’s a one of the big reasons why I decided not to pursue a PhD despite having the grades and more than enough desire to do research. When my only incentives would be to churn out volume and try to hit up DARPA or the USAF for grant money against another 800 voices as loud and every bit as desperate to keep their jobs as mine, how could I possibly focus on quality and do bigger and more ambitious projects based on my own work and current literature?

And this is not limited to engineering and hard sciences. Social science has the same problems as well. Peer review is done on a volunteer basis, papers can coast through without any critical oversight, fraud can go unnoticed and fester for years, and all academic administrators want to do is to keep pushing scientists to churn out more papers at a faster and faster rate. Scientists are moving so quickly, they’re breaking things and should they decide to slow down and fix one of the things that’s been broken, they get denied tenure and tossed aside. Likewise, whose who bring in attention and money, and whose research gets into top tier journals no matter how, get a lot of political pull, and fact checking their research not only interferes with the designated job of cranking out new papers in bulk, it also draws ire from the star scientists in question and their benefactors in the administration, which can cost the fact checkers’ their careers. You could not build a better environment to bury fraud than today’s research institutions unless you started to normalize bribes and political lobbyists commissioning studies to back their agendas.

So scientists didn’t check LaCour’s work not because they wanted to root for gay marriage with all their hearts as they were brainwashed by some radical leftist cabal in the 1960s, they didn’t check his work because their employers give them every possible incentive not to unless they’ll stumble into it when working with the same exact questions, which is actually what happened in Broockman’s case when he stumbled on evidence of fraud. And what makes this case so very, very harmful is that I doubt that LaCour is such a staunch supporter of gay rights to commit the fraud he has in the name of marriage and social equality. He just wanted to secure his job and did it by any means he thought necessary. Did he give any thought how his dishonesty impacts the world outside of academia? Unlikely. How one’s work affects the people outside one’s ivory tower is very important, especially nowadays when scientists are seen as odd, not quite human creatures isolated from everyday reality by an alarming majority of those exposed to their work, and who will be faulted for their colleagues’ shortcomings or dishonesty en masse.

Now, scientists are well aware of the problem I’ve been detailing, and there is a lot of talk about some sort of post-publication peer review, or even making peer review compensated work, not just something done by volunteers in their spare time with the express purpose of weeding out bad papers and fraud. But that’s like trying to cure cancer by treating just the metastatic tumors rather than with aggressive ressection and chemotherapy. Instead of measuring the volume of papers a scientist has published, we need to develop metrics for quality. How many labs found the same results? How much new research sprang from these findings based not only on direct citation count, but citations of research which cite the original work? We need to reward not the ability to write a lot of papers but ambition, scale, and accuracy. When scientists know that a big project and a lot of follow up work confirming their results is the only way to get tenure, they will be very hesitant to pull off brazen frauds since thorough peer review is now one of the scientists’ most important tasks, rather than an afterthought in the hunt for more bylines…

atom

Dear Standard Model, we need to talk. Now, now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that you are not doing your job well, in fact the exact opposite is what we want to address. It may sound odd that a number of scientists are getting frustrated when they can’t seem to break you, but look at the situation from their angle. For physics to take a huge leap forward, it needs to outgrow you, much like general relativity was the next iteration of Newtonian physics, and like neo-Darwinian synthesis combined genetics and natural selection for evolutionary research to advance in new and meaningful directions. But before we can start working on your eventual replacement, we’ll need to discover your shortfalls, something outside of your predictive power. And right now, the sad truth is that we can’t. We’re desperately stuck and are looking for a way out.

The last attempt even used particles with exotic quark alignments, neutral B mesons, to trigger the decay of the heavy top quark into a muon/anti-muon pair, or a matter/anti-matter pair with an electron’s husky cousins. The idea was to smash them and show enough such pairs forming out of the debris to exceed your limit on them. Sadly, that refused to happen. Not only were the decays in ranges described by you, but so much within them that we can’t even hint at possibly breaking you with another attempt. All hopes are on the huge power boost to the Large Hadron Collider to maybe, just maybe, create a decay path or a particle debris cloud you can’t explain, giving scientists a peek at what lies beyond the world in your framework, and possible solutions to the paradoxes and mysteries that still exist. Although you’re supremely helpful and were one of the biggest scientific triumphs of the last century, now you’re actually holding us back.

Again, this isn’t a grudge. We like you and we’ll still have work for you. But science can’t simply coast on what it has already accomplished, it must find answers to questions that still loom long after a discovery is made, or better yet, introduced by a discovery. Regardless of what all those misguided postmodernist sophists preach, science thrives on disproving itself and finding out an axiom is actually wrong or woefully incomplete. Overthrowing and improving existing theories or introducing brand new ones is how we advance and what wins Nobel Prizes. And we won’t hold ourselves down just because you won’t break today or even tomorrow. There will be a day we will pass your limitations as the media across the world will declare that the hunt for your future iteration is now on. Because you see, we know there has to be something more laying beneath you, we know there has to so we can explain the anomalies with which bleeding edge work has to be peppered. And we will break you to find it. Nothing personal. It’s just science.

supernova flare

FRBs just can’t seem to catch a break this month. First, they were an alien signal. Then just as quickly as they were attributed to aliens because the Daily Fail decided to get creative with two out of context words and no one seemed to bother to fact check them, the bursts were called a false signal caused by microwave interference. Not just any microwave interference mind you, but the kind in which you warm up leftovers according to a widely quoted story for which, again, reporters decided that reading the actual paper is for chumps. Popular Science seems to have been the only mainstream publication to actually read the whole thing and point out that no, it’s not open microwave doors creating FRBs, but an extraterrestrial source. While the bursts seen by Parkes and mislabeled as a potential alien communication may have been coming from the kind of interference generated by a prematurely open microwave door by the media are likely just interference from cell towers or another source emitting as the same frequency, there is a batch of FRBs that came to us from as far away as 3 billion light years.

Hold on though, how are some FRBs a case of mistaken identity and others are coming all the way from intergalactic space all from the same telescope? Well, the first study deliberately took what were thought to be 11 signals deserving extra attention and processed their distribution to see if they could find any patterns that would give us a clue as to their origins. Unlike you were told by just about everyone, it probably was not aliens, or even microwaves, since there was a string correlation between signal distribution and a constant we use to sync equipment placed across the world. What exactly emitted the signals we don’t know, but it’s likely fairly humdrum communications equipment. The second study tried to figure out if they could generate a fake signal with microwave ovens, which they could, and then used the data they collected to ferret out whether the FRBs they tracked matched these control perytons.

This is where the story gets interesting. After the second team found matches between the two in terms of frequency, CNET and most others called it a day and told the world that those goofy scientists think aliens were contacting them because they couldn’t wait for their nachos to warm up, adding their inability to fact check to their inability to read an entire paper. But when taking a close look at the distributions form their perytons and genuine FRBs, the researchers found key differences pointing to the bursts coming to us from deep space. Unlike the perytons, FRBs did not have predictable clustering when all candidate signals were included in the analysis, mostly did not line up with the position of the stars in our own galaxy, and one could not match any of their control signals to such an extent that it would be impossible to mistake it for a peryton. So this means that FRBs are indeed extragalactic signals from violent cosmic events and SURONs along with exotic events like neutron star collisions and quakes, are back on the table.

Now that we have the science sorted out, I’d like to turn back to the media for just a moment to humbly ask what the hell is wrong with those who take anything the Daily Mail says and rush to publish something, anything, no matter how poorly researched, distorted, or outright full of crap it happens to be as long as they can publish it quickly enough to ride the Google Trends waves to some extra views. Yes, the media was always awful at reporting science, but this is a rather remarkable low. As mentioned above, reporters who couldn’t be bothered to read whatever the paper they’re covering said made up some alien contact theories no one entertained, said that experiments to rule out human interference with results was in fact proof that the “aliens” were microwave ovens, and proceeded to cast scientists who were just trying to study an interesting phenomenon as the lab-coat wearing version of the Keystone Kops. Your readers deserve real news, written by people who know how to research stories. They deserve better than what you throw at them without a second thought as you rush to the next SEO-dictated topic.

See: E. Petroff, et. al. (2015). Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope arXiv: 1504.02165v1

noodly_horror_600

While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.

exposed brain

If you recall the last post about those who mew that science just cheapens the world around us with its math and experiments, you may remember the book used as a prime example of these attitudes, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. I know, a sardonic riff on Dawkins, how original, right? Well, over the last month or so, White has been taking plenty of heat for his work and its thinly veiled disgust and contempt for the process of inquiry and trial and error which has taken humans to the Moon, doubled our average lifespan, and is now exploring the far reaches of the cosmos and the physical makeup of our minds. His reply so far? His critics just don’t get him or the reasons why he wrote what he wrote, claiming that pretty much everyone got everything he said so wrong, they might as well be reading a different book. That wouldn’t stick, so in his latest defensive missive to detractors, he trots out a new excuse for his nastiness; he was just kidding when he was making up nicknames for atheists and outspoken scientists of note. So come on, have a sense of humor and laugh with him as he descends into inanity. Or as he says…

But I don’t fault Feynman for playing the bongos [by referring to him as Bongoman]. I’d happily join him on rhythm guitar, and we’d snap fingers with the hepcats. I merely suggest that it is disappointing that someone who played the bongos also thought that everything about creation is explained by the spinning of atoms. I’m laughing at the incongruity.

What incongruity might that be? A scientist who understands a fundamental parts of how matter as we know it comes together and apart also likes music. So what? He should be entranced by the beat of his bongos so much so that he has an epiphany and declares that his work on how subatomic particles behave was all rubbish because, dude, this universe is like totally way too complex to really understand? Because that is what White is very strongly implying. His inability to realize that being able to explain how something works doesn’t rule out being inspired by it, or outright awed, makes his main thesis a worthless non sequtur. I understand how his browser will render a web page and can walk him though the mathematical tree of bytes that is the DOM (or Document Object Model) as it’s going to be rendered. Should I never tell him about this if I get a chance so he can just be ignorantly happy that some magic brings him web sites and refuse to believe that knowing how the web works lets you admire what it can be made to do?

Since White doesn’t understand that science is much more than providing technical notes on a natural phenomenon, he ends up arguing against learning past a point with which he’s at ease because he wants to have the freedom to wax poetic on life’s mysteries, and he’s incensed that an awful lot of people want to keep pushing past his point of willful ignorance. This is really what his message boils down to: "stop learning so much!" He’s so appalled by the notion that creative thought can be studied as a set of chemical reactions in the brain that he refuses to consider it as a viable area of research. Where the curious and the scientific ask what these chemicals are, how they react, and how did they come to be what they are and function the way the do, he just wants to run away and pretend that there’s no way those rotten eggheads can make him feel a little bit less special by figuring out how his brain works. Thankfully, few people seem interested in his love note to proud, glib obliviousness by choice, and that’s why White is so wound up. His call to discard facts and curiosity is going unanswered by far too many people for his liking…

far future city

Ever since the New Atheists arrived on the scene, there’s be a loud, wailing siren from religious and humanities pundits decrying the idea that we could use science to explain the universe that we occupy. Generally their argument for why we can’t use reason and experiments to clear up a lot of mysteries and what makes us tick boils down to "how dare you say you can explain all this complexity and wonder in math and mechanistic descriptions?" And that’s really as far as it goes because their objection to using science to explain their pet topics in the language of formulas, statistics, and data sets is that it takes away a mystery they so desperately wanted to preserve for another sermon or tome of nebulous ponderings on the human condition. While researchers and engineers see the beauty in knowing how things work, science-phobic pontificators rush to the fainting couches, distraught that someone dare to explain their minds as sprawling networks neurons and accumulated experience alongside evolutionary mechanisms.

If you’re one of those people who needs to be a mysterious, delicate snowflake who is just way too complicated and nuanced to study, I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. Knowing how the world around us works in scientific, mechanistic language is how we build modern societies, land on a different world, send robots into deep space, and find cures for what ails us. If you refuse to see how knowing what makes the universe tick gives your existence even more meaning and a very enviable ability to modify the world to accomplish something, even to a small extent, that is your personal problem. Now, far be it from me to say that literature or religions never made profound contributions to humanity because they have. But what they couldn’t do was to find and confirm solid, experimentally proven, reliable answers to big questions about who we are and where we might be going. Science has given us a vast, complex, mysterious universe, and they’re upset that we can derive some algebra to try and explain how a few bits of it fit together?

Consider this. If you’re loudly and publicly rebelling against the scourge of "arrogant scientism" but you’ve ever tried something to find out what will happen and then repeated your experiment to confirm it, you’re a hypocrite. You relied on the scientific method to answer your question, not those nebulous "other ways of knowing." Come to think of it, what are all of these "other ways of knowing" we hear invoked so often by both a fundamentalist zealot with a mind wide shut, and a crunchy New Ager with equal zeal? Voices of an omnipotent deity? The universe telling you that we’re all connected in a creationist fantasy for left wing anti-intellectuals? That’s just your brain making shit up to put it bluntly. You can attend philosophical seminars and conventions of tweed suit-clad graybeards, huffing and puffing, and looking serious, saying "isn’t life so mysterious?" as Tim Minchin once put it, and rage against the fact that science can explain things that were once said to be off limits to mere mortals. It won’t change the fact that it’s our ability to explore, dissect, catalog, explain, and predict though science that makes us who we are.

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A long time ago, I shared one of my favorite jokes about philosophers. It went like this. Once, a president of a large and prestigious university was asked who were his most expensive staff to fund. "Phycisists and computer scientists," he replied without hesitation, "they always want some brand new machine that costs a fortune to build and operate, not like mathematicians who only need paper, pencils, and erasers. Or better yet, my philosophers. Those guys don’t even need the erasers!" Yes, yes, I know, I’m a philosophical phillistine, I’ve been told of this so many times that I should start some sort of contest. But my lack of reverence for the discipline is not helped by philosophers who decide to speak up for their occupation in an age of big data and powerful, new tools for scientific experimentation to propose answers to new and ever more complex real world questions. Case in point, a column by Raymond Tallis declaring that physics is broken so much so that it needs metaphysics to pull itself back together and produce real results.

Physics is a discipline near and dear to my heart because certain subsets of it can be applied to cutting edge hardware, and as someone whose primary focus is distributed computing, the area of computer science which gives us all our massive web applications, cloud storage, and parallel processing, there’s a lot of value in keeping up with the relevant underlying science. And maybe there’s already an inherent bias here when my mind starts to wonder how metaphysics will help someone build a quantum cloud or radically increase hard drive density, but the bigger problem is that Tallis doesn’t seem to have any command of the scientific issues he declares to be in dire need of graybeards in tweed suits pondering the grand mechanics of existence with little more than the p’s and q’s of propositional logic. For example, take his description of why physics has chased itself into a corner with quantum mechanics…

A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

As science bloggers love to say, this isn’t even wrong. Tallis and Wallace have mixed up three very different concepts into a grab bag of confusion. Quantum mechanics can do very, very odd things that seem to defy the normal flow of time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t know the general topology of a quantum system. The oft cited and abused Uncertainty Principle is based on the fact that certain fundamental building blocks of the universe can function as both a wave and a particle, and each state has its own set of measurements. If you try to treat the blocks as particles, you can measure the properties of the particle state. If you try to treat them as waves, you can only measure the properties of the waves. The problem is that you can’t get both at the same exact time because you have to choose which state you measure. However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states. In other words, measurement of quantum systems is very possible.

All right, so this covers the Uncertainty Principle mixup, what about the other two concepts? The biggest problem in physics today is the lack of unification between the noisy quantum mechanics on the subatomic scale and the ordered patterns of general relativity. String theory and the very popular but nearly impossible to test many worlds theory tries to explain the effects of the basic forces that shape the universe on all scales in terms of different dimensions or leaks from other universes. So when Tallis says that it’s still 40 years and we don’t know which one is right, then piles on his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on top of Wallace’s seeming inability to tell the difference between multiverses and string theory, he ends up with the mess above. We get a paradox where there isn’t one and scope creep from particle physics into cosmology. Not quite a ringing endorsement of philosophy in physics so far. And then Tallis makes it worse…

The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

Again, a grab bag of not even wrong is supposed to sell us on the idea that a philosopher could help where our tools are pushed to their limits. Considering that Tallis dismisses the entire idea that neuroscience as a discipline has any merit, no wonder that he proclaims that we don’t have any clue of what consciousness is from a biological perspective. The fact is that we do have lots of clues. Certain patterns of brain activity are strongly associated with a person being aware of his or her environment, being able to meaningfully interact, and store and recall information as needed. It’s hardly the full picture of course, but it’s a lot more than Tallis thinks it is. His bizarre claim that scientists consider some nerve pulses to be conscious while the majority are said not to be is downright asinine. Just about every paper on the study of the conscious mind in a peer reviewed, high quality journal refer to consciousness as a product of the entire brain.

The rest of his argument is just a meaningless, vitalist word salad. If brain activity is irrelevant to consciousness, why do healthy living people have certain paterns while those who had massive brain injuries have different ones depending on the site of injury? Why do all those basic brain wave patterns repeat again and again in test after test? Just for the fun of seeing themselves on an EEG machine’s output? And what does it mean that it’s a surprising fact that we can perceive matter around us? Once again, hardly a serious testament to the usefulness of philosophers in science because so far all we got is meaningless questions accusing scientists of being unable to solve problems that aren’t problems by using a couple of buzzwords incorrectly, haphazardly cobbling bits of pieces of different theories into an overreaching statement that initially sounds well researched, but means pretty much nothing. Well, this is at least when we don’t have Tallis outright dismissing the science without explaining what’s wrong with it…

Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication.

Here we get a double whammy of Tallis getting the science wrong and deciding that he doesn’t like the existing ideas because they don’t pass his smell test. He’s combining competing ideas to declare them inconsistent within a unified framework, seeingly unaware that the hypotheses he’s ridiculing aren’t complimentary by design. Yes, we don’t know how the universe was created, all we have is evidence of the Big Bang and we want to know exactly what banged and how. This is why we have competing theories about quantum fluxes, virtual particles, branes, and all sorts of other mathematical ideas created in a giant brainstorm, waiting to be tested for any hint of a real application to observable phenomena. Pop sci magazines might declare that math proved that a stray quantum particle caused the Big Bang or that we were all vomited out by some giant black hole, or are living in the event horizon of one, but in reality, that math is just one idea. So yes, Tallis is right about the confusion under the algebra, but he’s wrong about why it exists.

And here’s the bottom line. If the philosopher trying to make the case for this profession’s need for inclusion into the realms of physics and neuroscience doesn’t understand what the problems are, what the fields do, and how the fields work, why would we even want to hear how he could help? If you read his entire column, he never does explain how, but really, after all his whoppers and not even wrongs, do you care? Philosophers are useful when you want to define a process or wrap your head around where to start your research on a complex topic, like how to create an artificial intelligence. But past that, hard numbers and experiments are required to figure out the truth, otherwise, all we have are debates about semantics which at some point may well turn into questions of what it means to exist in the first place. Not to say that this last part is not a debate worth having, but it doesn’t add much to a field where we can actually measure and calculate a real answer to a real question and apply what we learn to dive even further.