Archive for April, 2009

Was it dangerous to give Freeman Dyson a soapbox?

April 28, 2009

In a reunion of sorts, fellow traveler Christoper Mims sparked a lively exchange this Monday evening between him, myself and our colleague Nikhil Swaminathan on whether the New York Review of Books erred dangerously in giving Nobel-deprived physics genius Freeman Dyson room to vent his thoughts in an infamous 2008 piece on climate change and whether we can engineer our way out of it.

Dyson’s NYRB piece must have been the inspiration for a fascinating profile of Dyson in the New York Times magazine. The author, Nicholas Dawidoff, quoted Dyson extensively on his contrarian views. By all credible accounts, Dyson overestimates his grasp of the data. See also this piece on geoengineering as the new climate denialism.

So, did NYRB open a Pandora’s box of climate bullsh-t? Chris and Nikhil have given me permission to reproduce our exchange here. I hope the discussion will continue in comments.

Read the rest of this entry »


Being a baby is like being stoned (swine flu relief)

April 27, 2009

1. Inside the baby mind 

You know how when you’re stoned, all of a sudden, you can hear the refrigerator in the next room buzzing right in your ear?

While adults automatically block out irrelevant information, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the conversation of nearby strangers, babies take everything in: their reality arrives without a filter. … The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. … “This is the same ecstatic feeling that the Romantic poets were always writing about,” she says. “It’s seeing the world in a grain of sand.”

Odd that the Boston Globe wouldn’t bother to answer the reader’s most immediate question.


2. How Women Got Their Curves

Given the longstanding and widespread sexual repression of women in both Western and Eastern societies, it is not surprising that only recently has anorgasmia (failure to experience orgasm) been identified and treated. Nonetheless, the real biological mystery isn’t why some women don’t climax, but why some do….

Tyler Cowen

3. Best back-handed compliment (Ayn Rand) 

I can only report that The End of Poverty, narrated throughout by Martin Sheen, puts Ayn Rand back on the map as an accurate and indeed insightful cultural commentator.

Tyler Cowen

4. Psychology of self-castration

A large proportion (40%) of wannabes’ interest in castration was singularly of a fetishistic nature, and these men appeared to be at a relatively low risk of irreversible genital mutilation. … Nineteen percent of all wannabes have attempted self-castration, yet only 10% have sought medical assistance. 

David Dobbs

5. Snooty people HATE The Da Vinci Code

DVC was one of my finest Net Flix choices to date. And yet:

Salman Rushdie has called The Da Vinci Code “a book so bad that it makes bad books look good”, while the American grammarian Mark Lieberman has labelled Brown “one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature”.

Maybe Salman should have waited for the movie, which by the way I bet Padma loooved.


6. Jedi cops in Glasgow

A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police confirmed: “At the time of the request, 10 (eight police officers and two police staff) had recorded their religion as Jedi.” … About 390,000 people listed their religion as Jedi in the 2001 Census for England and Wales. In Scotland the figure was a reported 14,000. 

Effect Measure

If you’re not reading Marginal Revolution, may I ask why not?

April 24, 2009

I’d taken a break from it myself for a couple years. It used to be the one blog I read religiously. It’s still wicked good.

Timothy Geithner: a study in facial micro-expressions

Scientific post-colonialism: randomized trials vs. global poverty

April 24, 2009

Back in ’05 I ganked a story from Marginal Revolution about randomized trials of NGO programs in poor countries. Examples from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab:

Colonialist? You decide. My story:

By randomly splitting people into two groups, one of which receives an experimental intervention, researchers can set up potentially simple, unbiased comparisons between two approaches.

The emergence of cheap, skilled labor in India and other countries during the 1990s changed that, Banerjee says, because these workers could collect the data inexpensively. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were proliferating and started looking for ways to evaluate their antipoverty programs.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Tyler Cowen tells me two of the economists who co-founded the MIT lab are on somebody’s short-list for an economics prize considered a prelude to the Nobel.

[T]he clear favorite is Esther Duflo, 36, who leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab with MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee.

Re: the other co-founder, Sendhil Mullainathan:

One insight: The behavioral weaknesses of the very poor are no different than the weaknesses of people in all walks of life, but because the poor have less margin for error, their behavioral weaknesses can be much more costly.

Ahem. Indeed.

So anyway, where to pitch a story? If only the idea of incremental good works had cultural caché.

Update: the winner was Emmanuel Saez, who studies income inequality.

On bullsh*t and science journalism

April 24, 2009

Reading Mike the Mad Biologist quote Julian Sanchez on the asymmetrical advantage of bullshit says a lot about what it’s like to be a science journalist. Sanchez notes first how easy it is for a creationist or anyone else peddling a bad argument to make a serious sounding or intuitively appealing claim.

The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

Does JR understand all the technical details of the sh*t JR writes about? F*ck no. Not as a rule, anyway. What I do is familiarize myself with some specialized terms as best I can, run them through the logic mill and then use expert judgment to weight the importance of the conclusions. A big part of my job is triangulating that expert judgment, which partly involves feeling out whether people are feeding me a line or not. I’ll admit, sometimes I probably get hosed.

I’m obviously ranting at myself here, but basically, if you don’t sometimes defer to experts on complicated issues, you are probably overestimating your own epistemology. Like Sanchez says:

Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.

I think of Objectivists fetishizing pithy Latin summations of logical discourse, one of which allows you to deflect someone’s point by accusing them of the dreaded Appeal to Authority. Well, to articulate the unspoken premise there, appeals to authority are perfectly fine if the authority has expert knowledge you don’t. As Wikipedia confirms. Induction and deduction are different, people! 

Can you tell I’m grumpy at myself for not having bothered to sort through the whole string theory fuss until now, when it’s over and done with? It’s easy to say string theory — or climate change, or evolution — is bullshit. It’s another thing entirely to be able to weight the facts for yourself. And don’t even get me started on conflating facts with values.


Things I kinda meant to blog about

April 23, 2009

1. Our obsession with climate change is killing off animals left and right

EU policies promoting a market for biofuels triggered the destruction of Indonesian rain forests in favor of palm plantations. Meanwhile, the forestry industry has argued that their monoculture plantations in Asia, Africa, and South America deserve credit as carbon sinks, but the data show that these biological deserts are actually spewing out carbon dioxide. […] Conservationists now have an apparent ally in the White House, so let’s tell him to slow down and get those forest protections in place before the carbon-conscious spill any more blood.

2. Global Warming, Thirsty Energy: 7 Dimensional Chess

Captures my ego-induced paralysis in the face of potential ecological catastrophe – and makes me think of Star Trek chess – a twofer:

Many of the new problems produced by human-induced global warming worsen each other. Trying to keep track of the interconnectedness is a little like trying to play — or even imagine — 7-dimensional chess.

For example, the growth of corn-ethanol biofuel has been shown to raise food prices … which in some places forces poor farmers cut down more forest … which releases more greenhouse CO2 into the air (about 20 percent of mankind’s annual carbon emissions are believed to come from deforestation) … [et cetera]

Where’s Brent Spiner when you need him?

3. One in ten computer gamers are ‘pathologically addicted’

The report found that poor school performance and a pathological addition to video games were strongly linked, but Dr Gentile warned that the research had not investigated which came first.

“It is certainly possible that pathological gaming causes poor school performance, and so forth, but it is equally likely that children who have trouble at school seek to play games to experience feelings of mastery, or that attention problems cause both poor school performance and an attraction to games,” he wrote in the findings, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

4. JG Ballard died

Although most famous for the autobiographical Empire of the Sun and the controversial Crash, Ballard also embraced technology, science and the environment as subjects for his writing and worked as an assistant editor on the Chemistry and Industry magazine.

Iain Sinclair, an author and friend of Ballard, said “He was one of the first to take up the whole idea of ecological catastrophe. He was fascinated by celebrity early on, the cult of the star and suicides of cars, motorways, edgelands of cities. All of these things he was one of the first to create almost a philosophy of.” (Daily Telegraph.)

Years ago I read The Crystal World, about some crystalline thing that grows out of control and consumes the world. It was unsettling. Then I tried reading Crash, about people who get off on car crashes, but it was too gross “adult” for me at the time. Then they made a movie about it – the one with James Spader, not the one where Matt Dillon feels up Thandie Newton.

5. Remembering the Past is Like Imagining the Future

From the physicist who brought you universes where time runs backward:

As it turns out, the way that the human brain goes about the task of “remembering the past” is actually very similar to how it goes about “imagining the future.” Deep down, these are activities with very different functions and outcomes — predicting the future is a lot less reliable, for one thing. But in both cases, the brain goes through more or less the same routine.

Update 4/23/09: I figured something like this was going on — Sean Carroll, the time physicist mentioned above, is writing a book. Congrats to him on its recent appearance on Amazon! Also: pre-order my book! Chapter 99 totally bites off Sean’s Sci Am article about time. I probably should have credited him. Oops! Sorry, Sean! 😦

The LHC ended the String Wars, if not the Trouble with Physics

April 21, 2009

Peter Woit is one of the two lead critics of string theory who touched off the String Wars. Today I was going through his blog scanning for leads and found this, in a post about a Pop Sci story that listed “theoretical physicist” as one of the worst jobs in science:

As mentioned here repeatedly, claims that hiring in particle theory is dominated by string theory are behind the times. String theorists are now yesterday’s fad, with terrible job prospects if they don’t have a permanent position. Today’s fads are LHC phenomenology and cosmology…

LHC of course = that Large Hadron Collider thingy.

String theory is on its way out in American universities it seems, but the long-standing pattern of fad-driven hiring isn’t. Which is one thing that makes the idea of trying for a career in theoretical physics these days about as appealing to many smart young people as the idea of going into the vermin handling business…

Which of course makes perfect sense. The particle theory community has an opportunistic, aphilosophical, arguably hierarchical style because it “evolved” to get a bunch of of people to quickly solve problems coming out of accelerator data. Or so claims Lee Smolin, anyway – the other lead string theory critic – whose book (The Trouble with Physics) I was flipping through last night. So of course when New Scientist caught up with the Horgan-bashing Ed Witten, he was at CERN waiting for the LHC to come back online.

In a word: fascinating!

Reading between the lines on stem cells

April 20, 2009

As a science blogger, I’m supposed to parse science coverage in the popular media looking for flaws in hurried reporting on which I can simultaneously build my own reputation and perpetuate the cultural power struggle that is the myth of the Anti-Science Public.

Let me enter this world in what I hope is a cautious way, with a look at a recent NYTimes piece on the Obama administration’s partial lifting of the Bush stem cell funding restrictions.

Guidelines proposed by the National Institutes of Health to carry out an order made last month by President Obama would allow research with federal financing only on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics. The money would still be prohibited for stem cell lines created solely for research purposes and for embryos created through a technique known as therapeutic cloning.

Then comes a succession of three quotes giving three slants on the new rules.

[1.] “I think it’s a big step forward,” said Richard O. Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “although there are aspects of stem cell research that will still be outside federal funding.”

Fair enough. Pretty neutral.

[2.] Others called the proposed rules a sellout.

“I’m disappointed,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, the director of the Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute at Stanford. Dr. Weissman accused the health institutes of “putting this ideological barrier in the way” of treating disease.

I might be splitting hairs but the bit about “treating disease” made me look twice. Irv Weissman is the dean of stem cell research in the U.S. And as he himself will tell you, stem cell science is hyped to the point that clinical research on them often has a wafer-thin rationale. (Clinical trials are the things you do when you want to develop a treatment by figuring out its dosing, safety and relative effectiveness compared with standard therapy.)

See his comments for my 2007 story about the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells:

Weissman says that most clinical studies of stem cells fail to meet what he sees as key criteria: They should be based on clear, peer-reviewed demonstrations of tissue regeneration, replicated by a large number of independent groups that provide rapid, long-lasting benefits.

I have no idea if the paraphrased part of Weissman’s quote in the Times was accurate. Either way, it comes off as your standard keeping-the-science-faith quote, bristling at what are perceived as willful restrictions on Science and its Progress. Values drive science policy decisions, after all.

Finally, the willful get their voice too:

[3.] Abortion opponents predicted that the administration would soon embrace less restrictive stem cell policies.

“This is clearly part of an incremental strategy to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes,” said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Um, killing? Beg the question much? But aside from the moralizing aspect I agree that we seem to be watching an incremental game here, which makes me wonder why the two scientists quoted above didn’t have a more positive spin.

It’s a big face-saving negotiation, I guess. When you’ve squawked for years about unfair funding restrictions, you can’t up and say, “Hey this rule change is awesome! We see the light at the end of the tunnel!” You’d look like a schmuck and maybe get treated like one.

Ditto for the other side. The National Right to Life Committee can’t be all, “We got our way for a while and it was totally awesome! So fine, do whatever.”

I would like to see stem cells gradually become depoliticized. This Kabuki dance could be consistent with that but I think an important next step would be to acknowledge that the logical opposite of the National Right to Life Committee is not Irv Weissman. It is a pro-stem cell citizens group. The subject of whether and how to fund stem cell research is not a scientific one. It’s a moral-ethical-political one.

Pitting scientists on one side vs. political activists on the other makes it sound like science can give us the answer what to do with stem cells, and it keeps the door open to further politicization of the science.

Brian Greene says what I said about string theory – but with more yearning

April 20, 2009

It’s Sunday afternoon, I’m flipping all casual through my May Wired  – it’s the “mystery” issue – when what do I find on page 017? Why, it’s that old Brian Greene, and he’s damn sure gonna give us some wood about the mystery that is Science!

Quick backgrounder: You may remember Greene from when I profiled him for the Columbia University alumni magazine, the source of the snazzy David Copperfield pic there. He also wrote some books and things.



Wired‘s relevant pages have not appeared online yet are right hereso let me give you Allow me to unpack the juicy bits. Brian has us imagine alien invaders who ruin scientists’ lives by – get this – giving them the “definitive explanation of everything in the cosmos.” What jerks! For you see:

Science is about immersing ourselves in piercing uncertainty while struggling with the deepest of mysteries. It is the ultimate adventure.

Piercing the deepest of mysteries?? Earmuffs, kids! Toning it down a little, he then bends over backwards to call string theory “one of the most promising approaches” to quantum gravity, adding there’s been “stupendous progress” but a final assessment “remains elusive.”

Is string theory true? Brian won’t say. Too mysterious. But “the journey has been exhilarating” and he feels “an emotional connection to the cosmos” he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Hmm, the cosmos has heard that from him before: it’s boilerplate Greene. See this 2004 Slate piece.

Now if the universe ever gets wise to that sweet talk and kicks string theorists to the curb, Brian’s cool with that, because it’s like what he said before:

It’s what happens along the way that enriches us. The wresting with mystery, not the ascension to resolution, defines who we are.

Or in other words, pretty much what I said the other day, if what I said the other day had piled on the veiled sexual metaphors. And frankly, why didn’t it?

As a pundit, Greene’s yearning shtick is obliged to fascinate me. I mean, no wonder he’s such a great ambassador to simple folk, who also yearn for things. Riffing on those hypothetical aliens who harshed science’s mellow, it’s like we the NPR-listening public see string wranglers as literally hyper-dimensional super-beings, and Greene is the 3 + 1 dimensional Keanu face they present to us.

Amanda Shaffer probably said it right back in that Slate piece:

String theory… serves as a perfect canvas on which idealism, optimism, and romanticism can be easily projected. … The very qualities that make fellow scientists skeptical—the obsession with elegance, the quasi-spiritual shtick—are precisely what dazzle a public hungry for meaning.

And let’s not forget wrestling with mystery. Because, damn! Mystery be lookin’ all good and shit. C’mere, mystery, and let me ponder all up in your intangibles.

Why must other people be cleverer than I?

April 19, 2009

Part one in what I’m sure will become an ongoing series.

1. Evolutionary psychology: the adaptive significance of semen flavor

I can think of only two ways to test this hypothesis, both of them impractical or impossible:

1.  If women gave birth through their stomachs, semen would taste great

2. Those males with genes giving them better-tasting semen will leave fewer offspring than other males.

2. These Bitches is This Bitch

An enthusiastic “writer” has recently found page view success through a front page Reddit appearance this weekend past. In between “posts” the author of “Fuck Yeah Cilantro” has found time to attack this “blog”. Anchor text: IN OTHER NEWS, THE WORLD IS FULL OF SHITHEADS brings you here. It is followed by the elaborating: “i would throw smallpox blankets on these bitches.”

Well, sorry to disappoint, but these bitches is this bitch. 

3. Judith Warner: Calling Kids ‘Gay’ Has Nothing To Do With Gays

[NY]Times internet family columnist Judith Warner has determined that when kids call other kids “gay” or “fag” they are actually enforcing outdated codes of masculinity, not actually accusing that kid of being a homosexual.

Right. Duh. Where the hell have you been? Oh, right, an old rich white lady liberal cocoon.

4. Depression, Neurogenesis and Herpes

The authors […] found that injections of gancyclovir devasasted the production of new neurones in the engineered mice. […] That’s not all that surprising.

However, they also found that gancyclovir treatment had no effect on the ability of 28 days treatment imipramine, an antidepressant, to affect the mice’s behaviour. (The measure of antidepressant action was the Tail Suspension Test). That’s a result, because a lot of people are interested in the theory that antidepressants work by boosting neurogenesis in the hippocampus. If that were true, blocking neurogenesis should also block the effects of antidepressants.

1) h/t @BoraZ;
2) h/t^nth @BoraZ;
3) Found this one myself. It was tough;
4) h/t Research Blogging – emphasis and links mine;
And now to go get cleverer.