Urrgh, physicists.

I actually have a lot of respect for physicists doing physics, but sometimes some of their most prominent practitioners are really good at getting everything else wrong. Like Stephen Hawking, for instance.

“Six years ago, I was warning about pollution and overcrowding, they have gotten worse since then,” he said. “More than 80 percent of inhabitants of urban areas are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.”

Oh. Six years ago, huh? That’s not very impressive, Mr Prophet, when Rachel Carson was warning everyone about environmental pollutants almost sixty years ago, when the filth and disease of major cities like London have been the subject of concern for centuries, and Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798. But I’m glad you’re finally catching on to what everyone else already knew.

But after citing those real problems, guess what Hawking thinks we ought to be worried about?

Hawking warned about artificial intelligence and the fact there is no way to predict what will happen when machines reach the ability to self-determine.

“Once machines reach the critical stage of being able to evolve themselves, we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours,” he said.

Jebus. We do not have self-aware, conscious robots, and their production is not imminent. We do not have an artificial intelligence. We don’t know how to build an artificial intelligence. Skynet is science fiction. The Matrix is not real (and is actually rather hokey). If I had to make a list of real problems we ought to be worried about, it would start with overpopulation, over-exploitation of resources, environmental destruction, and global climate change. It would include the rise of a new fascism, oppression, poverty, growing disparity in wealth, emerging diseases, and a host of other genuine concerns. The sentient robot uprising wouldn’t even make the top 100; it would be somewhere down in the bottom 100, along with the zombie apocalypse, Kardashians taking over the planet, Nazis emerging from their secret base at the center of the hollow earth, and sharknadoes.

But, I know, Stephen Hawking! It takes a world class physicist to make malarkey about nonexistent problems important to the media, I guess.

My panels at #CVG2016


I’m leaving for Minneapolis later today, and I’ve been planning out my panels, like a responsible participant. Here’s what I’m doing:

The Reproducibility Problem: How Serious is it?
Thurs 12:30 Atrium 2

There’s been a lot of discussion about the ability to reproduce experiments, especially in the social sciences. How serious is the problem? What can be done? Panelists: PZ Myers, Vernon McIntosh, Laura Okagaki-Vraspir, Peter Larsen, Topher Hunter (mod)

This one could get heavy: it’s all about statistics. Contrary to the description, I’m going to focus on the cancer reproducibility project, because this isn’t just about those fuzzy social sciences — it’s about any field with an extremely complex data set and a fair amount of individual variability.

What Does God Need With a Starship?
Thurs 2:00 Atrium 4

From the Christ-like figure of Superman to the metaphysical adventures of the Enterprise, fantasy and science fiction have long explored religious and philosophical questions. What is it about SFF that touches our spirituality? Panelists: Amanda Larsen, Cetius d’Raven (mod), PZ Myers, phillip andrew bennett low, Kristina Halseth

My role on this panel is to cross my eyes and make gagging noises every time someone says “spirituality”. No, not really, I’ll be nice. My points will be a) science fiction celebrates naturalism, and effectively undermines religious myths, because every time a supernatural being is invoked, they’re treated as a complex material phenomenon rather than magic, and b) SFF doesn’t touch our spirituality, it touches our humanity. Humanism FTW.

Twin Connection: Myth, Science and Confirmation Bias
Thurs 3:30 Atrium 3

Cultures worldwide have different myths and legends about twins. How much can science explain? Do twins share a special connection that transcends scientific understanding? This panel will explore myths and facts about twins. Panelists: PZ Myers, Kathryn Sullivan, Windy Bowlsby

The answer to the first question: all of it. Twins are a simple, entirely comprehensible phenomenon. The answer to the second question: NO. Won’t this be fun?

The mention of confirmation bias in the title suggests to me that we’ll all be resonating on the same wavelength (like twins!), so really, it might be fun.

Our Place in Space
Fri 2:00 Atrium 4

What are the dreams and practicalities of colonizing space? How might humanity reach beyond our planet? We’ll discuss the science of human spaceflight in reality and fiction. Panelists: Emily Finke, Ryan Consell, Nicole Gugliucci (mod), PZ Myers

As the biologist on the panel, I’ll be there to bring everyone down to Earth. I don’t think “colonizing” is at all likely or practical — we’re not going to establish stable, self-sufficient human populations on other moons or planets in our solar system. We’re just not that adaptable, and the environments are just too hostile. The only possibility is radical genetic modification, in which case the ‘colonists’ won’t be human anymore, and they’ll probably reveal other defects in human potential.

But I still think we ought to be out there: exploration and temporary scientific colonies are a good idea. There is also the possibility of extracting useful resources, but the economics of that seem a little far-fetched.

If somebody suggests that we need colonies to ensure the future of the human race in case of catastrophe, I might just explode, which would be entertaining.

Look at that, though: I get all the work done on Thursday and Friday, leaving the weekend totally free for fun. I’d take credit for my genius, but I didn’t plan out any of the timing, so it’s all by chance.

It’s also science-heavy, which is great. I thought about signing up for some of the more bookish fiction panels, but man, there were a lot of people volunteering to get up on the stage for those (some had a dozen people vying to get up there, and that’s just too many for a good discussion).

See you there!

Tim Tebow, HERO

A man had a heart attack on a flight, and one man heroically leapt into action and is being praised in all of the news stories now. That man was Tim Tebow, HERO.

What did he do that was so helpful? He prayed. He organized a group of people to pray for the sick man, heroically.

According to people who were there, flight attendants and passengers tried to help: they did chest compressions. They tried to help the man breathe. They started an IV line. These people are not named. The True HERO was Tim Tebow, who is a famous Christian, and who publicly prayed for the man.

The crew on the plane apparently responded with commendably swift action to help the unconscious man, and did merely material things, like chest compressions, starting an IV, helping breathe life into this man, but then Tim Tebow, HERO, strode up the aisle like a boss and prayed.

I observed a guy walking down the aisle. That guy was Tim Tebow. He met with the family as they cried on his shoulder! I watched Tim pray with the entire section of the plane for this man. He made a stand for God in a difficult situation.

Fuck yeah! Because God was in such a difficult spot here that he needed a cheerleader. And this is the big news, that a pious man stood and did nothing but mumble at an invisible man to come fix a problem. We should all be glad that someone was there to make a stand for a god.

Unfortunately, the sick man died.

The only appropriate thing to do now, of course, is to blame Tim Tebow, FAILURE. He obviously did not pray hard enough. After all, if he was notable enough to get all the attention and credit for doing nothing, he’s notable enough to get all the blame for doing nothing.

Women are so bad at computer games…


But that’s the stereotype, that men are more competitive and better at playing games, so of course women are just naturally squeezed out of the gaming environment. The thing about computer games, though, is that performance is stored in digital data, so researchers can take it apart case by case and assess performance objectively. In a study of 11,000 players, researchers found no gender gap in performance.

Do men advance faster than women in MMOs? Prior research found a perceived gender gap in participation and performance, suggesting men as playing more and better than women. This article challenges this gender gap through a longitudinal performance analysis of men and women in two MMOs in the United States and China, EverQuest II and Chevaliers’ Romance III, respectively. Controlling for extraneous factors such as play time and guild membership, our results showed that women perform at least as well as men do. Perceived gender-based performance disparities seem to result from factors that are confounded with gender (i.e., amount of play), not player gender itself. The stereotype of female players as inferior is not only false, but it is also a potential cause for unequal participation in digital gaming.

However, while men and women are just as good at playing the games, there’s a huge difference in participation: the sample for this study was 18% women, 82% men. That’s something that has to be explained, but at least now we can throw out the old ‘girls suck at games’ excuse. As the authors suggest, it may be that the stereotype itself is self-reinforcing.

An abuse of stem cells

I’m a developmental biologist, so of course I’m enthusiastic about the potential for stem cell therapies. I’m also aware of the limitations and risks. I absolutely hated that heavy-handed, nonsensical satire of stem cell research that South Park aired several years ago, in which Christopher Reeve was shown eating fetuses for their stem cells, which enabled him to walk.

But then, that’s South Park: almost always great thudding ham-handed bullshit. No way people could believe that just gobbling down stem cells would cure diseases.

Unfortunately, as we’re fast learning in the political arena, there is no bullshit so rank that you can’t find someone won’t chow down on it. Science-Based Medicine discusses stem cell tourism — there is such a thing — where people with serious illnesses travel to countries with less restrictive medical practices to get shot up with stem cells. So here’s the story of Jim Gass, a wealthy man who had a stroke and wanted to be healed…so he did research “on the internet” and got the brilliant idea to repair the damage with stem cells. And then he got worse and needed a more conventional medical intervention.

The surgeon gasped when he opened up his patient and saw what was in his spine. It was a huge mass, filling the entire part of the man’s lower spinal column.

“The entire thing was filled with bloody tissue, and as I started to take pieces, it started to bleed,” said Dr. John Chi, the director of Neurosurgical Spine Cancer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was stuck to everything around it.”

He added, “I had never seen anything like it.”

Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively. Then came the real shocker: The cells did not come from Jim Gass. They were someone else’s cells.

Mr. Gass, it turned out, had had stem cell therapy at clinics in Mexico, China and Argentina, paying tens of thousands of dollars each time for injections in a desperate attempt to recover from a stroke he had in 2009. The total cost with travel was close to $300,000.

Stem cells are not magic. They are plastic cells that are pluripotent — they can differentiate into a variety of different tissues. But they need instructions and signals in order to develop in a constructive way, and the hard part is reconstructing environmental cues to shape their actions. They’re like Lego building blocks — you can build model spaceships or submarines or houses with them, and they have a lot of creative potential, but it’s not enough to just throw the Lego blocks into a bag and shake them really hard. Basically, Jim Gass was getting the cellular equivalent of receiving massive injections of Legos, in the forlorn hope that they would spontaneously repair his nervous system.

Gorski also points out one of the warning signs that this is a quack therapy: the locations where it was done.

Ask yourself this: Why are so many of these clinics located in countries like Kazakhstan, China, Mexico, and Argentina? It’s not because the scientific facilities are so much more advanced there. It’s because regulatory oversight protecting patients is lax to nonexistent.

Con artists always seek out the most permissive environment.

Maybe philosophy can be entertaining


You might want to read Terminator: The Simone de Beauvoir Chronicles if you don’t mind seeing philosophers shoot each other or run over each other with trolleys. This one rebukes hyper-rationality and utilitarianism, and includes a few cool quotes from Simone de Beauvoir…and also makes up a few that she should have said.

There are hints to all the philosophical in-jokes, and I like this summary of the line in the excerpt I posted here.

The final line is a play on Beauvoir’s famous phrase from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. By this she meant the the roles, characteristics, and attributes that make up “womanness” are not essential traits to women, but rather adopted individually and culturally. There is no essential woman for Beauvoir, as indeed there was no essential humanity. It is up to us to decide what we are.

Why, that’s downright inspiring.

It’s been a good day in the courts

Mississippi passed a bad law. HB1523 said that employees of the state did not have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they had a sincere belief that it was wrong, where those sincere beliefs were:

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;

(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and

(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

So if we assume those premises, those premises are legally valid because we’ve assumed them, and you don’t have to do the job you were hired to do if you don’t want to do the job you were hired to do. Tautology seems to be a way of life among good Christians.

Good news, though: a federal judge has ruled that Mississippi cannot do that. Start issuing those marriage licenses, clerks!

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