Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
This weekend was the March for Science. What was the March for Science? A march for philosophy.
Judging by the number of people who participated in the March for Science, there are a lot of people who don’t understand what science actually is. Perhaps nothing illustrates this fact better than the commonly used phrase, “The science is settled.”
Science, or more specifically the scientific method, is a process of discovery that relies on observation and experimentation. First, a phenomenon is observed. Second, a hypothesis that explains that phenomenon is developed. Third, an experiment is performed to determine whether the hypothesis is plausible or not. Eventually, if enough experimentation indicates that the hypothesis is correct, a theory is developed. The keywords here are “hypothesis,” “experimentation,” and “theory.” Theories are not immutable truths. Every theory has the potential of being proven incorrect by future experimentation. So science can never be settled.
The existence of this misunderstand can be further illustrated by people mixing the scientific method with democracy. How many times have you heard a variation of the phrase, “[Insert an arbitrary but large number] percent of scientists agree that…” as if it meant something? Democracy is based on the idea that truth can be discovered by polling a voting body. Science is based on the idea that observation and experimentation can help us explain natural phenomenon. The two are unrelated. Even if 99.9 percent of scientists agree on one theory they can be proven wrong if the remaining 0.1 percent perform an experiment that proves the majority’s theory incorrect. A debate based on what the plurality of scientists think isn’t a scientific debate.
The purpose of the March for Science was to promote science-based policies. This purpose is entirely philosophical in nature. You see, the scientific method is a tool that can address a specific problem domain, namely the understanding of natural phenomenon. The scientific method cannot address all problem domains though. There’s no way to prove that two plus two equal four with the scientific method. To do that humans rely on deductive logic. There’s also no way to prove that the scientific method is the proper tool for understanding natural phenomenon. To do that humans rely on philosophy.
What is the best way for humans to conduct themselves in groups? The scientific method is not the proper tool for answering this question because the answer cannot be discovered through experimentation. The best way is not a natural phenomenon, it’s a subjective criteria. For example, the most important criteria for decided the best way is individual freedom. For a somebody else, the most important criteria may be equality in wealth. The question is necessarily philosophical because it’s subjective.
Whenever somebody says that the United States needs more scientists they’re using philosophy because they are using their subjective criteria, the number of scientists, to decide the best way for humans in an arbitrarily defined group (often referred to as “society”) to conduct themselves. The same is true for anybody who says that there needs to be more government funding for scientific education.
Naturally, I’m apt to blame the government indoctrination system, which is often mistakenly referred to as an education system, for Saturday’s deplorable public display of ignorance. I’m also smart enough to know that my blame is philosophical in nature, not scientific, because there is no way for me to perform an experiment that can confirm or deny my hypothesis. I will also say that I philosophically find this widespread ignorance detrimental to humanity (based on my subjective criteria of what is best for humanity).
Sometimes I wonder about the average intelligence of our society:
One finding that really surprised us is that a good deal of the potential for miscommunication may come from different interpretations of the exact same emoji rendering.
They were “really surprised” that a system of communication based on subjectively interpreted symbols was confusing?
Cripes. That shouldn’t have been surprising to anybody. Especially not to aspiring Ph.D.s.
I’m fascinated by languages. When I was in high school I studied German, in college I studied Japanese. Last year I learned Esperanto and this year I’m studying Latin. What fascinates me about languages is that they all accomplish the same basic thing, communicating ideas between individuals, but with vastly different rulesets. German uses pronouns where Latin uses conjugations. Esperanto uses a Latin alphabet where Japanese uses a writing system adapted from the Chinese writing system. Since the rules are well defined (even though they don’t necessarily have to be strictly abided by) anybody who understand a set of rules can communicate with anybody else that understands those same rules.
There are no well defined rules surrounding the usage of emojis. Each symbol doesn’t have a specific well known meaning like the symbols used in English or Chinese do. So it should be obvious that using emojis to communicate is going to be more confusing than using languages with well defined rules. Apparently it’s not obvious and resources had to be invested into researching whether the use of emojis is confusing or not. To make matters worse the researchers were “really surprised” that their research showed that using emojis is confusing.
Setting aside my general hatred of intellectual property, I want to discuss an especially heinous abuse of intellectual property laws. A lot of research done in the United States is funded by tax dollars. We’re told this is necessary because the research wouldn’t be done if it was left to the market and that we shouldn’t complain because the research benefits all of us. But the research fueled by tax funding seldom benefits all of us because the findings are locked away being the iron curtain of publisher paywalls. We may have been forced to fund it but we don’t get to read it unless we’re willing to pay even more to get a copy of the research papers.
Aaron Swartz fought against this and was ruthlessly pursued by the State for his actions. Now that he has left us a new hero has risen to the call. Alexandra Elbakyan is the creator and operator of Sci-Hub, a website created to distribute research papers currently secured behind paywalls:
But suddenly in 2016, the tale has new life. The Washington Post decries it as academic research’s Napster moment, and it all stems from a 27-year-old bioengineer turned Web programmer from Kazakhstan (who’s living in Russia). Just as Swartz did, this hacker is freeing tens of millions of research articles from paywalls, metaphorically hoisting a middle finger to the academic publishing industry, which, by the way, has again reacted with labels like “hacker” and “criminal.”
Meet Alexandra Elbakyan, the developer of Sci-Hub, a Pirate Bay-like site for the science nerd. It’s a portal that offers free and searchable access “to most publishers, especially well-known ones.” Search for it, download, and you’re done. It’s that easy.
“The more known the publisher is, the more likely Sci-Hub will work,” she told Ars via e-mail. A message to her site’s users says it all: “SCI-HUB…to remove all barriers in the way of science.”
I fear many libertarians will be quick to dismiss Alexandra because she espouses anti-capitalist ideals. But it’s important to focus her actions, which are very libertarian indeed. She is basically playing the role of Robin Hood by liberating stolen wealth from the State and returning it to the people. The money has already been spent so it cannot be retrieved but what it bought, research, is still there and should be returned to the people as compensation for the original theft. That is all freely releasing tax funded research is and for her part Alexandra should be treated as the hero she is.
On the one hand we’re told that pure science can only be performed under the “neutrality” of government funding while on the other hand we’re told the research we were forced to fund isn’t ours to access. Having to pay to access research papers that I was forced to fund has been a pet peeve of mine since college. Even though I enjoyed free access to most scientific papers in college the simple fact that I would lose that access as soon as I graduated really rubbed me the wrong way. Fortunately I’m not alone. A group of people have developed a service aimed at pirating scientific research papers:
Sci-Hub uses university networks to access subscription-only academic papers, generally without the knowledge of the academic institutions. When a user asks Sci-Hub to access a paid article, the service will download it from a university that subscribes to the database that owns it. As it delivers the user a pdf of the requested article, it also saves a copy on its own server, so that next time someone requests the paper, they can download the cached version.
Unsurprisingly, Elbakyan’s project has drawn the ire of publishers. Last year, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub and an associated website called Library Genesis for violating its copyright. The two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database,” Elsevier’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, referring to the company’s subscription database.
But even if the new domain gets shut down, too, Sci-Hub will still be accessible on the dark web, a part of the Internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn. Like its seedy dark-web neighbors, the Sci-Hub site is accessible only through Tor, a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.
Sci-Hub can be accessed via the normal Internet here and via Tor here. That second link is important to have since Sci-Hub was already shutdown once. While it’s feasible for the State to censor the normal Internet it’s not feasible for it to censor Tor hidden services since there is no centralized name server to threaten.
I don’t hide my opposition to intellectual property in all forms but I especially detest copyright applying to criminally funded research. A thief should make reparations to right the wrong they have caused so the only way to right the wrong of the State stealing money to fund favored researchers it to make the findings of their research freely available to everybody.
I have no objection of vegetarianism or veganism. What I do object to are the vegetarians and vegans who act like they’re morally superior to us omnivores because they don’t eat animals. They fall into the same trap most of us do, being animals themselves they have very animal centric views. Since they are capable of suffering they believe all animals are capable of suffering (something I agree with). However, they don’t have any way to emphasize with plants so they assume plants are incapable of suffering and therefore eating them is morally acceptable. As it turns out plants are living things and like any living thing they have a drive to live. More research is showing that plants have an opinion on being eaten and their opinion is that being eaten sucks:
Vegetarians and vegans pay heed: New research shows plants know when they’re being eaten. And they don’t like it.
That plants possess an intelligence is not new knowledge, but according to Modern Farmer, a new study from the University of Missouri shows plants can sense when they are being eaten and send out defense mechanisms to try to stop it from happening.
If you derive some amount of moral superiority for being a vegetarian or vegan on the grounds that plants don’t suffer then you can kindly shut the fuck up now. Those of you who refuse to eat meat because of the way animals are treated by farmers still have a valid argument because the way many farmers, namely factory farmers, treat their livestock is pretty disgusting.
Evolution is a fascinating thing to study. Looking at the way species developed over time you can get a small understanding of what potential difficulties they encountered and what adaption best suited them to overcome them. The Guardian has a piece about how our faces have evolved overtime to better take hits:
Five million years of slugging it out with fists has left its mark on the human face, scientists believe. Evidence suggests it evolved to minimise damage from altercations after our ancient ancestors learned how to throw a punch.
Researchers studied the bone structure of australopiths, ape-like bipeds living 4m to 5m years ago which predated the modern human primate family Homo. They found that australopith faces and jaws were strongest in just those areas most likely to receive a blow from a fist.
Granted the face is still a good target if you’re looking to strike somebody in a way that will quickly end the fight. There are just too many small, fragile bones in the face. But it’s interesting to see that evolution has apparently made us less susceptible to strikes in the face and even with that we still often focus on striking the face.
Personally I prefer grappling over striking because it allows more control over the situation. More control allows one to resolve a situation with less violence in most cases. But striking appears to be popular enough amongst our species to change the way we’ve developed and that’s kind of cool.
One of my pet peeves are agenda pieces pushed as scientific research. As the political climate in the United States becomes more toxic the propensity for individuals to create agenda pieces and attempt to pass them off as scientific research seems to be increasing, which isn’t surprising. Most of you who have read this far probably think I’m going to go into a tirade about global warming. I’m sorry to disappoint you but that’s not happening. No the subject of this post is a link that I’ve been seeing make the rounds in the social justice warrior circles. In their pursuit to be offended they have found a supposed research paper that demonstrates without a doubt that we’re all a bunch of sexist fucks:
ople don’t take hurricanes as seriously if they have a feminine name and the consequences are deadly, finds a new groundbreaking study.
Female-named storms have historically killed more because people neither consider them as risky nor take the same precautions, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes.
Well isn’t that something our societal sexism is literally kill us. Except, you know, it probably isn’t. A minor snag in the paper’s claim is accidentally mentioned in the article:
Hurricanes have been named since 1950. Originally, only female names were used; male names were introduced into the mix in 1979.
For the first 29 years of the hurricane naming system all hurricanes have been given female names. Now this may not seem significant in relation to the paper but it is. If you look a figure 10 on page 6 of this research paper [PDF], titled Deaths and Death Rates from
Extreme Weather Events: 1900-2008, you will see a rather interesting trend:
Will you look at that, it’s a noticeably downward trend! This shouldn’t be surprising. As our technology has improved, especially in regards to computer modeling, we’ve developed a better understanding of hurricanes. We can more accurately predict when, where, and how hard a hurricane is going to hit, which has allowed us to reduce the number of lives lost. Since for the first 29 years hurricanes had exclusively female names and since hurricane deaths have been steadily declining since 1900 it’s pretty easy to deduce that the reason more deaths have been caused by hurricanes with female names is because more hurricanes had female names when hurricanes were killing more people on average.
If we gave every hurricane a male name from here on it would likely be quite some time before the number of deaths caused by hurricanes with male names exceeded the number of deaths caused by hurricanes with female names. You know, because of that overall downward trend thingy.
I actually hypothesize that the gender of a hurricanes’ name has no bearing whatsoever on the number of deaths it causes. This is because most sane people probably don’t put any bearing into a hurricane’s name. If it’s predicted to be a category 5 hurricane, for example, most people are going to get the fuck out of its way or find some serious shelter. That’s because the category, not the name, is what most people are going to base their course of action on. As much as the social justice warriors hate to hear it most people aren’t actually so petty as to risk their life on things as pointless as the gender of the name of a hurricane.
Sorry social justice warriors, I usually try to avoid involving myself in your wars. But when you claim to have scientific proof that society is made up of sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic men I’m going to look at the research and see if the conclusion is plausible or if there’s another possible explanation. If the conclusion isn’t plausible and there is a much more scientific explanation I am going to call you on your bugshit craziness.
Renewable energy is the buzzword used by any company or non-profit organization that wants a big fat grant from the federal government. One of the big categories of renewable energy is solar. Solar sounds nice on paper since it produces energy from the sun and if the sun stops providing energy we will have much larger issues to worry about that electricity. But solar panels can also be unreliable. At night or when there is cloud cover solar panels produce nothing. The atmosphere, by design, also greatly diminishes solar energy before it gets to Earth’s surface. These factors make terrestrial solar panels less than idea for power production. But that doesn’t mean solar energy is nonviable, it merely means solar collectors need to be placed in space:
It’s been the subject of many previous studies and the stuff of sci-fi for decades, but space-based solar power could at last become a reality—and within 25 years, according to a proposal from researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The agency, which leads the world in research on space-based solar power systems, now has a technology road map that suggests a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system—about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.
This is research into solar energy that actually matters. Unlike the shit research produced here in the United States, research into space-based solar collectors could actually create a viable source of energy for our increasingly energy-hungry society.
Obviously the technology isn’t without danger. If energy is being beamed from orbit the beam will most likely carry a rather high damage potential. But wind farms and terrestrial solar collectors don’t have a flawless safety record either. Anything that generates enough electrical energy to matter is almost certainly going to have some tradeoffs. The only question becomes one of tradeoff. Here in the United States we’ve basically decided that the risk of nuclear meltdown is too great for the amount of power produced. Will we decide that the risk of a point on land being incinerated is low enough for the amount of power produced? I hope so because space-based solar panels will likely be the only renewable energy source that can produced what our species needs.
Good-bye, breadboard. Scientists at the University of Illinois have come up with a conductive, water-based ink that lets you draw working circuits on an ordinary piece of paper. They’ve packaged the product into a rollerball pen, called Circuit Scribe, and if you want to be one of the first to get hold of one, the team is crowdfunding the project on Kickstarter right now.
A pen that can draw working circuit pathways? That’s pretty damn cool. In fact I can think of several practical jokes involving conductive ink. On a less nefarious note, these things would have been a ton of fun in my college electronic classes.
I’m sure you’ve seen the stories floating around that say scientists of proven that Oreo cookies are just as addictive as cocaine. At first this story gave me hope. I’ve eaten Oreo cookies but have never become addicted to them. If the research was correct that would indicate I could do cocaine without getting addicted. I admit, there are times when caffeine isn’t enough to keep me awake and it would be nice to know a nonaddictive, strong alternative exists for those times when I absolutely must stay awake. Sadly my hopes have been dashed. As it turns out, the research was bupkis:
Here’s how the experiment, which has not been peer reviewed and has not been presented yet, went down. Mice were placed in a maze, with one end holding an Oreo and the other end holding a rice cake. The mice, without fail, decided to eat the Oreo over the rice cake, proving once and for all that mice like cookies better than tasteless discs with a styrofoamy texture.
“Just like humans, rats don’t seem to get much pleasure out of eating them,” one of the researchers said in a press release, the same press release that says “Connecticut College students and a professor of neuroscience have found ‘America’s favorite cookie’ is just as addictive as cocaine.”
Bad science leads to bad results. Granted, this story set off my bullshit detector right away. Because of my suspicious nature I assumed that the research was performed by an anti-obesity group looking to demonize popular junk foods or by a competitor to Oreo cookies (probably from a company that offers healthier alternatives). As gun control groups have taught us, the results you want can be obtained so long as you right the criteria properly. But it turns out that this research wasn’t the result of some anti-obesity group or an Oreo competitor (that we know of), it was the result of a bad experiment. All the experiment demonstrated was that mice don’t care for rice cakes. I don’t blame them, I find them to be flavorless and unfilling as well.
Unfortunately, I’ll almost certainly see claims that Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine on Facebook for weeks to come. Incorrect information seems to disseminate faster than correct information. That’s probably because correct information is seldom makes for as good of a story as incorrect information.