Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Selfish Altruism

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

‘Psychological Altruism’ is just a special case of ‘Biological Altruism’ and the “gene” for either is the most selfish of all.

Of course the concept of genes for actual characteristics all being in one-to-one correspondence with discrete sequences of DNA is simplistic, and the “gene” for something as complicated as a behaviour pattern may involve those for many different proteins along with related expression-controlling sequences, but no matter how it works, any hereditary tendency towards “altruistic” behaviour is one which is prepared to sacrifice the rest of its host’s genome in order to enhance the number of its own duplicates that are carried forward by co-specifics of the sacrificed host (even ones who are outside its host’s immediate family so less likely to share other parts of the host’s genome).

Not only this, but the wily and misnamed “altruistic gene” has often also evolved links to behaviours (manifest in humans in concepts like “morality”, “fairness” and “religion”) which ensure that the benefits of the altruistic gene actually are *not* shared with co-specifics of the host who lack that particular “gene”! (Such hosts may take risks with their own lives and relatives for the benefit of their non-related “moral peers” and/or to punish the “immoral” – possibly even including members of their own family)

Psychological vs. Biological Altruism is the latest topic at PholosophyTalk.

[Note added Aug 10: Tim Dean at ‘Ockham’s Beard’ makes an interesting connection between the genetics of morality and of the immune system.]

Brain Scans as Lie Detectors

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC News – Brain scans being misused as lie detectors, experts say.

And of course those who claim to interpret the scans will also call themselves experts. (Which leads us off to another conversation entirely)

I am troubled by the confounding of privacy and accuracy concerns here. Frankly if lie detection were actually possible I’d be strongly in favour of it and “privacy” be damned! And I suspect that some of the scepticism is exaggerated by those who just don’t like the idea and so want it not to work. But I am also pretty confident that for now they are right and that it will be a long time before any method of lie detection is ever proved to be reliable enough to use as evidence in court.

We do of course need to be sceptical but is there any more need to legislate against the practice than against the use of chicken entrails to evaluate a job candidate? In both cases perhaps the technology shouldn’t be forbidden but until evidence is provided that it actually does work any evidence of its use should be taken as valid grounds for a civil suit re unfair practices.

Blog Action Day

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

This year’s Blog Action Day is devoted to the theme of Climate Change and an understanding of mathematics is certainly essential for anyone involved in making making decisions about how to respond to this issue (which in a democracy is presumably all of us).

The choice of Math and Climate as the theme of this year’s Math Awareness Month emphasized this connection, and Murray Bourne at squareCircleZ  today points to a number of articles in which he has used related topics as a source of examples for teaching mathematics.

A good source of background on the science of CO2 related climate change is this excellent history prepared by Spencer Weart at the American Institute of Physics, as is also the RealClimate site managed by a team of well-reputed climate scientists, and the question of how to compare the effectiveness of different policy choices is addressed in this on-line book by UK physicist David McKay (reviewed by theRegister).

The fact that no amount of restraint or conservation can counterbalance the harmful effects of increasing population is not often noted in the CO2 debate so I was a bit disappointed that Murray did not include his discussion of that topic in his list.

Science & Religion again

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, coauthors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”, writing in the LA Times, ask “Must science declare a holy war on religion?” Their concern appears to be that Richard Dawkins and other so-called “New Atheists” are not supportive enough of efforts by the National Center for Science Education and others to make common cause with those more enlightened religious groups that are prepared to define their faith in ways that claim not to be in conflict with science.

Getting Smarter

Monday, July 20th, 2009

This article shares some of my own reaction to the “internet is making us dumber” nonsense, as well as commenting on other possible sources of increasing global intelligence.

Is Mental Causation a Problem?

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Stephen Downes points to this review by Sara Worley in NotreDame Philosophical Review of the book ‘Mental Causation’ by Anthony Dardis, and he (Stephen) concludes with this:
“The main takeaway? This nice neat picture of ‘A causes B’ is deeply mistaken.”

Now I’m no philosopher, and I haven’t read the book, but I have to agree with Stephen on this. It has long seemed to me that even in the purely physical world the whole idea of cause and effect is just baby-talk. i.e. superstitious nonsense that has no real meaning beyond the question “What is a minimal subset of actual antecedents of B from which the eventual occurrence of B could have been deduced? (indefinite article intended since solution not necessarily unique).”


A Quantum Embarrassment to Scientific American

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

The latest Scientific American lead article Was Einstein Wrong?: A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity is an odd duck. It almost (but never quite) does a fair job of describing some quite challenging aspects of quantum mechanics and its relation to locality in special relativity, and yet manages to completely disgrace itself (and the magazine’s editors) within its first paragraph by asserting that “radio waves propagate through the air” in an argument identifying the light-cone locality of special relativity with non-existence of action-at-a-distance.

David MacKay: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

In Sustainable Energy – without the hot air UK physicist David MacKay presents plausible back-of-the-envelope estimates of the scales of action needed under various strategies for reduction of global carbon fuel combustion. The numbers he uses are easily checked and his analysis can be re-run with revised parameters if needed. Only when a significant fraction of humanity is capable of actually doing both those things will we have any chance of making the right decisions.

Don’t Drink the Nuclear Kool-Aid | AlterNet

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Don’t Drink the Nuclear Kool-Aid | AlterNet

Typical knee-jerk anti-nuke article but comments actually worth reading

I Google, therefore I Don’t Think

Monday, June 30th, 2008

My friend Gerry Pareja sent this article by John Naughton from The Observer, responding (I think very well) to Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?‘ in The Atlantic, but I can’t say that its arrival is what distracted me from my previous line of thought. In fact I was just tired, but feeling my need for sleep as a sign of lack of commitment-to-task prompted me to start also on my own intended response to Carr – and others who decry the influence of the web and other technology on our mental capacities. (more…)

Hedonic Man

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Hedonic Man is the title of a review by Alan Wolfe of two books on the “new economics”. Like Wolfe (and probably countless others) I am sure that the science of economics is sorely lacking, but also like him I am more than skeptical of the ideas of these revolutionaries (which I must admit I have not read directly but have come across in various contexts). However my objections are often different than Wolfe’s and in fact I think his review misses the point in a number of key respects.

To start with the second of the authors being reviewed, it was a discussion elsewhere (in Scientific American if I recall correctly) of some of the experiments described by Dan Ariely which irritated me so much that I have been meaning for some time to look it up again and write a response. Wolfe’s review now gives me that opportunity.

But in the unlikely event that I actually have a reader for any of this, I am afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow (since my attention span has just expired).

Gates on Watson on Race

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

The Science of Racism is an odd title for an article in which Henry Louis Gates identifies James Watson’s view as something he calls “racialist” and distinct from “racist”. (more…)

Dyson on Global Warming

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The Question of Global Warming – The New York Review of Books

CO2 Reduction Scenarios (UK example)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Heavyweight physics prof weighs into climate/energy scrap [printer-friendly] | The Register

The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

“Holding theorems in their hands” is a blog post about the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project. It’s a wonderful story about collaboration on many levels and across many interest groups – and with beautiful images to boot. I saw it via Stephen Downes.

Eggheads – The Boston Globe

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Eggheads – The Boston Globe

Ravens and octopi both give me hope for the future of intelligence on this planet.

Probability of Occurring by Chance

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

In this post at squareCircleZ, Professor Bruce Armstrong from the Sydney Cancer Centre at the University of Sydney is quoted as saying “The probability the that increase is due simply to chance is about one in a million so we are looking at something that is almost certainly a real increase in risk”. But this is almost certainly a misstatement since the probability that something is due simply to chance is not computable and probably not even meaningful whereas the probability of its happening in a randomly chosen situation from a well defined population of cases is meaningful and often computable. Either concept could be expressed by the ambiguous title of this post but they are definitely NOT the same – as can be seen from the following example. If I win the lottery without cheating then the probability of it having happened by chance (in the sense of having only chance factors involved) is in fact 1 but the probability of it happening by chance (ie of it happening given that only chance factors were involved) was less than one in a million. Of course, if we don’t assume that I didn’t cheat, the probability that my win was due only to chance may be less, but in any event it is not the same as my chances of winning a fair game. For a more practically relevant example consider the case of an experiment which identifies an effect of some sort “at the 95% confidence level”. What this means is that the probability of the observation occurring if only random effects were present is no more than about 1 in 20. But then in a set of many trials it is likely that up to about 5% of them will actually appear to show the effect. Users of statistics need to be aware of this distinction since in an experiment which collects more than six variables (as many in the social sciences do) there are more than 21 pairs to consider and so in an average such experiment at least one such pair will seem to have a significant relationship even when no such relationship actually exists.

All this is actually relevant to the story about cancer clusters since, in a world with several million observed groups of a hundred or so people, if the chance of a cluster happening given only random factors is one in a million then we may expect to see several such clusters occurring just by chance.

Leaning Tower Illusion

Sunday, August 12th, 2007

My friend Gerry Pareja forwarded a link to this story from ‘Improbable Research’ about the first prize winner in the Neural Correlate Society’s 2007 Illusion of the Year contest.

The image certainly is pretty cool. But to test the explanation I tried covering each image in turn and the effect was still there! I wondered if there was a perceptual delay effect in that our memory of one picture affects our interpretation of the other but then I also noticed that the effect changes depending on where the picture is in our field of view. If I position myself facing the right hand edge of the monitor, then the right hand tower seems more vertical and the left one almost seems to lean left or backwards. So the illusion may be more (or at least partly) due to the fact that in the absense of other visual cues in the picture we tend to interpret as if viewed from the direction at which we are looking at the picture – ie we interpret the picture edge as a window frame.

AlterNet: Environment: Exposed: The Truth Behind Popular Carbon Offsetting Schemes

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

AlterNet: Environment: Exposed: The Truth Behind Popular Carbon Offsetting Schemes

Bonobo Swingers?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Arts&Letters Daily pointed to this fine essay by Ian Parker in The New Yorker. It really is an interesting and entertaining blend of anecdote, history, and good science reporting.