Trump’s relentless war against science

The Hill reports:

President Trump is directing all agencies to cut their advisory boards by “at least” one third.

The executive order issued Friday evening directs all federal agencies to “evaluate the need” for each of their current advisory committees.

The order gives agencies until Sept. 30 to terminate, at a minimum, one-third of their committees.

Committees that qualify for the chopping block include those that have completed their objective, had their work taken up by other panels or where the subject matter has “become obsolete.”

Another defining factor listed includes whether the agency itself has determined that the cost of operating the agency is “excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government.”

Critics say the order is another administration attack on experts who provide scientific advice.

“For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees,” Gretchen Goldman, the research director with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice. It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

A member of the Trump administration’s National Security Council has sought help from advisers of a conservative thinktank to challenge the reality of a human-induced climate crisis, a trove of his emails show.

William Happer, a physicist appointed by the White House to counter the federal government’s own climate science, reached out to the Heartland Institute, one of the most prominent groups to dispute that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous global heating, in March.

In the messages, part of a group of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Happer and the Heartland adviser Hal Doiron discuss Happer’s scientific arguments in a paper attempting to knock down the concept of climate emergency, as well as ideas to make the work “more useful to a wider readership”. Happer writes he had already discussed the work with another Heartland adviser, Thomas Wysmuller. [Continue reading…]

‘Recycling is like a Band-Aid on gangrene’


Influential panel votes to recognize Earth’s new epoch: The Anthropocene

Nature reports:

A panel of scientists voted this week to designate a new geologic epoch — the Anthropocene — to mark the profound ways in which humans have altered the planet. That decision, by the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), marks an important step towards formally defining a new slice of the geologic record — an idea that has generated intense debate within the scientific community over the past few years.

The panel plans to submit a formal proposal for the new epoch by 2021 to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which oversees the official geologic time chart.

Twenty-nine members of the AWG supported the Anthropocene designation and voted in favour of starting the new epoch in the mid-twentieth century, when a rapidly rising human population accelerated the pace of industrial production, the use of agricultural chemicals and other human activities. At the same time, the first atomic-bomb blasts littered the globe with radioactive debris that became embedded in sediments and glacial ice, becoming part of the geologic record.

“The Anthropocene works as a geological unit of time, process and strata,” says Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the AWG and a geologist at the University of Leicester, UK, who wasn’t confident of that conclusion when the AWG began its work a decade ago. But the vote demonstrates that the group has mostly coalesced around the geological unit. “It is distinguishable. It is distinctive,” he says. [Continue reading…]

Yes, determinists, there is such a thing as free will

In an interview with Nautilus, Christian List says:

I think the mistake in the standard arguments against free will lies in a failure to distinguish between different levels of description. If we are searching for free will at the fundamental physical level, we are simply searching in the wrong place.

Let’s go through these arguments one by one. What do you say to those who consider the idea that humans are beings with goals and intentions, and that we act on them, a prescientific holdover?

If you try to make sense of human behavior, not just in ordinary life but also in the sciences, then the ascription of intentionality is indispensable. It’s infeasible and not illuminating to explain human behavior at the level of astronomically complex neural firing patterns that take place in the brain.

Suppose I ask a taxi driver to take me to Paddington Station. Twenty-five minutes later, I’m there. The next day, I tell the driver to take me to St. Pancras Station. Now the driver takes me to St. Pancras. If I look at the underlying microphysical activity, it would be very difficult to pinpoint what those two events have in common. If we switch to the intentional mode of explanation, we can very easily explain why the taxi driver takes me to Paddington on the first day, and what the difference is on the second day that leads the driver to take me to St. Pancras Station. The taxi driver understands our communication, forms the intention to take me to a particular station, and is clearly incentivized to do so because this is the way for the driver to earn a living.

The neuroscientific skeptic is absolutely right that, at the fundamental physical level, there is no such thing as intentional goal-directed agency. The mistake is to claim that there is no such thing at all. Intentional agency is an emergent higher-level property, but it is no less real for that. [Continue reading…]

What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

Ross Andersen writes:

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why

Nature reports:

Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January [postponed to 30 January due to the ongoing US government shutdown], they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information. [Continue reading…]

Emergence: How complex wholes arise from simple parts

John Rennie writes:

You could spend a lifetime studying an individual water molecule and never deduce the precise hardness or slipperiness of ice. Watch a lone ant under a microscope for as long as you like, and you still couldn’t predict that thousands of them might collaboratively build bridges with their bodies to span gaps. Scrutinize the birds in a flock or the fish in a school and you wouldn’t find one that’s orchestrating the movements of all the others.

Nature is filled with such examples of complex behaviors that arise spontaneously from relatively simple elements. Researchers have even coined the term “emergence” to describe these puzzling manifestations of self-organization, which can seem, at first blush, inexplicable. Where does the extra injection of complex order suddenly come from?

Answers are starting to come into view. One is that these emergent phenomena can be understood only as collective behaviors — there is no way to make sense of them without looking at dozens, hundreds, thousands or more of the contributing elements en masse. These wholes are indeed greater than the sums of their parts.

Another is that even when the elements continue to follow the same rules of individual behavior, external considerations can change the collective outcome of their actions. For instance, ice doesn’t form at zero degrees Celsius because the water molecules suddenly become stickier to one another. Rather, the average kinetic energy of the molecules drops low enough for the repulsive and attractive forces among them to fall into a new, more springy balance. That liquid-to-solid transition is such a useful comparison for scientists studying emergence that they often characterize emergent phenomena as phase changes.

Our latest In Theory video on emergence explains more about how throngs of simple parts can self-organize into a more extraordinary whole:


The periodic table is 150 – but it could have looked very different

File 20181211 76968 1lsh5rp.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Theodor Benfey’s spira table (1964).

By Mark Lorch, University of Hull

The periodic table stares down from the walls of just about every chemistry lab. The credit for its creation generally goes to Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who in 1869 wrote out the known elements (of which there were 63 at the time) on cards and then arranged them in columns and rows according to their chemical and physical properties. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this pivotal moment in science, the UN has proclaimed 2019 to be the International year of the Periodic Table.

John Dalton’s element list.
Wikimedia Commons

But the periodic table didn’t actually start with Mendeleev. Many had tinkered with arranging the elements. Decades before, chemist John Dalton tried to create a table as well as some rather interesting symbols for the elements (they didn’t catch on). And just a few years before Mendeleev sat down with his deck of homemade cards, John Newlands also created a table sorting the elements by their properties.

Mendeleev’s genius was in what he left out of his table. He recognised that certain elements were missing, yet to be discovered. So where Dalton, Newlands and others had laid out what was known, Mendeleev left space for the unknown. Even more amazingly, he accurately predicted the properties of the missing elements.

[Read more…]

The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write:

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

The second part of the challenge is philosophical. Scientists have taken physical time to be the only real time – whereas experiential time, the subjective sense of time’s passing, is considered a cognitive fabrication of secondary importance. The young Albert Einstein made this position clear in his debate with philosopher Henri Bergson in the 1920s, when he claimed that the physicist’s time is the only time. With age, Einstein became more circumspect. Up to the time of his death, he remained deeply troubled about how to find a place for the human experience of time in the scientific worldview.

These quandaries rest on the presumption that physical time, with an absolute starting point, is the only real kind of time. But what if the question of the beginning of time is ill-posed? Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception. [Continue reading…]

The importance of knowing you might be wrong

Brian Resnick writes:

Julia Rohrer wants to create a radical new culture for social scientists. A personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Rohrer is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly admit it when they are wrong.

To do this, she, along with some colleagues, started up something called the Loss of Confidence Project. It’s designed to be an academic safe space for researchers to declare for all to see that they no longer believe in the accuracy of one of their previous findings. The effort recently yielded a paper that includes six admissions of no confidence. And it’s accepting submissions until January 31.

“I do think it’s a cultural issue that people are not willing to admit mistakes,” Rohrer says. “Our broader goal is to gently nudge the whole scientific system and psychology toward a different culture,” where it’s okay, normalized, and expected for researchers to admit past mistakes and not get penalized for it.

The project is timely because a large number of scientific findings have been disproven, or become more doubtful, in recent years. One high-profile effort to retest 100 psychological experiments found only 40 percent replicated with more rigorous methods. It’s been a painful period for social scientists, who’ve had to deal with failed replications of classic studies and realize their research practices are often weak.

It’s been fascinating to watch scientists struggle to make their institutions more humble. And I believe there’s an important and underappreciated virtue embedded in this process.

For the past few months, I’ve been talking to many scholars about intellectual humility, the crucial characteristic that allows for admission of wrongness.

I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. As technology makes it easier to lie and spread false information incredibly quickly, we need intellectually humble, curious people. [Continue reading…]