Science

Infinite in All Directions: Sugary Histories, Make LHC in India, Getting Help for Pedophiles

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Credit: asobitsuchiya/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: asobitsuchiya/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Shifting sets

First off, I’m extremely sorry for not having compiled this newsletter for the last five weeks. I’m not allowed to give excuses so it’s true that I just messed up. But on the off chance that I am allowed: there’s so much happening with The Wire at the moment. And the newsletter didn’t take a hit for lack of time as much as for the cost of switching between tasks that require different aptitudes. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: set-shifting. Research has shown that when a person switches from one task to another, there are two kinds of costs. One is the cost of readjusting one’s mental settings to be ready for the second task after the first. The other is the erosion of our efficiency at performing the second task due to ‘leftover’ settings from the first task. And these costs are exacerbated when the tasks get more complex. In effect, I skipped the newsletter because the second kind of cost was just getting too high for me.

This, of course, was the technical explanation. The regular explanation would be that, yes, I messed up my time-management.

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India + CERN: no biggie but for one thing

India became an associate member of CERN. No biggie there: Indian scientists have been participating in CERN research since the 1960s and the membership was only a matter of time money (it costs $11 million a year; full membership is around 10-times as much). The only thing worth celebrating about this announcement was that Indian institutions and companies will now be able to bid for CERN contracts. Like how ISRO’s been able to keep space-launch costs low relative to the international market simply by virtue of the cheapness of Indian labour, we can expect the same thing to happen with the components for experimental high-energy physics – and make that 78-crore-rupees back many times over. At least, we can hope.

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Trump & demonetisation

So much has happened in the last five weeks! Two yooge things: Trump won and, on a separate note, 86% of India’s cash became almost instantaneously delegitimised. On the Trump-and-science front, I only found one incident of note: that of Dan Rather’s thoughtful but predictably worded appeal to the Trump government to engage with scientists, and Emily Willingham’s effortless dismissal of the supposed effectiveness of such an appeal. Why wouldn’t it work, you ask? Because “Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist, and conspiracy theorists don’t give a rip about what science has to say if it doesn’t reinforce their paranoid ideas” – I thought that was pretty on-point. On other counts, especially climate change, I still find Trump to be unpredictable. As was argued before the election results came through, Trump as president-elect is likely to be different from Trump as presidential candidate simply because the political forces and institutions inherent to the American government will now constrain him and keep him from fulfilling many of his crazy promises – although, sadly, he will still enjoy many executive powers.

I’m going to wait and watch (Lisa Raffensperger over at Stat News has a list of 10 people on Twitter you could watch in particular to stay on the heels of Trump’s health announcements). Then again, there’s a significant cost associated with waiting here, as journalist Elisabeth Eaves argues in a paper titled ‘Crusades of the Clueless: Who will win the war on science?‘. Excerpt:

Champions of cluelessness may always lose in the end. As absurd as it sounds now, Germans once indulged in anti-relativity rallies after Einstein’s landmark general theory of relativity became politicized, denouncing its “Jewish nature.” Even the Vatican came around and conceded in 1992 – three and a half centuries after it took Galileo to task – that he was right. That does not mean the forces of ignorance will lose quickly enough, however, or without bringing down whole societies with them. The Muslim world never really regained its global preeminence in science, or much of anything else.

Update: I compiled this part of the newsletter on Wednesday afternoon, only to have my position jolted a few hours later, being informed that Trump wants to stop funding NASA’s climate change research. Robert Walker, a Trump campaign adviser, told The Guardian,

“My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing Nasa programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies. I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.”

But the politicisation of climate change research is difficult to avoid – if only because, as Princeton University researcher Robert Socolow argues,

The public policy problem of climate change is, at its core, a problem of risk management in the face of imperfectly understood risks. As a consequence, business and military leaders are natural partners, because they understand risk management. Captains of industry don’t bet their companies on outcomes that they prefer but have low probability. Nor are military leaders trained to underestimate threats. Instead, leaders in these arenas assess and reduce risks, invest in damage mitigation, and prepare for disruption. They go with the data and the odds, and they have an interest in the appointment of government officials who think strategically and understand urgency.

The Guardian article continues: “Walker, however, claimed that doubt over the role of human activity in climate change ‘is a view shared by half the climatologists in the world. We need good science to tell us what the reality is and science could do that if politicians didn’t interfere with it.'” – a comment that smacks of what Willingham warned us about (See ‘The real war on science’ section below for more) as well as, you know, irony. And all this said, I’m still going to and watch – things are likely to become clearer once we find out how Trump will be towards nonpartisan research as well as how Congress deals with his proposals. Another thing to keep in mind: there’s only so much Trump can do (although that’s by no means trivial) – climate change has been set to take a turn for the worse due to long-term forces anyway.

The other issue, demonetisation, still has me confused about what it’s really about (yes, I’m going to claim courage in choosing to say that out loud) so I’m going to remain mum – although I will say it’s hard to root for good intentions when the implementation has (nothing short of) misfired. There was that one thing about the ink on the new Rs 2000 notes – which I promptly proceeded to breakdown. “Turbo-electric effect” LOL

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Sugar v. fat

NYT had a superb bit of reporting about “how the sugar industry shifted blame to fat” – which I thought is relevant to understand what the history of science could be about (Chetan Bhagat, you listening?).

The piece was a lesson in what we choose to be obsessed about and what sort of popular wisdom we let percolate into the dietary decisions we make. Surely the idea of consuming saturated fats is more readily associated with anxiety over an increased risk of heart disease than the idea of consuming sugar. We may choose to believe that – though most of us have not read or even seen the studies in question – our knowledge of this association is founded on years of rigorous research. And that’s where we’re wrong: nothing may beat the use of ‘scientific facts’ to drive home a point in an argument but facts are contextual at the end of the day and almost never completely context-agnostic. This is one reason why studying the history of science is as important as studying science itself.

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The real war on science

There’s also a political angle to the sugar-fat story. NYT journalist John Tierney writes on City Journal about how it’s the Left, not the Right, that’s waging a war on science by (a) having become blind to its own confirmation bias (one effect of which is the belief that, if at all there’s a war on science, the Republicans must be waging it!) and (b) by having gotten carried away by “the delusion that experts are wise enough to redesign society”. He continues:

A group of Democratic state attorneys general coordinated an assault on climate skeptics by subpoenaing records from fossil-fuel companies and free-market think tanks, supposedly as part of investigations to prosecute corporate fraud. Such prosecutions may go nowhere in court—they’re blatant violations of the First Amendment—but that’s not their purpose. By demanding a decade’s worth of e-mail and other records, the Democratic inquisitors and their scientist allies want to harass climate dissidents and intimidate their donors.

Just as in the debate over dietary fat, these dissidents get smeared in the press as corporate shills—but once again, the money flows almost entirely the other way. The most vocal critics of climate dogma are a half-dozen think tanks that together spend less than $15 million annually on environmental issues. The half-dozen major green groups spend more than $500 million, and the federal government spends $10 billion on climate research and technology to reduce emissions. Add it up, and it’s clear that scientists face tremendous pressure to support the “consensus” on reducing carbon emissions, as Judith Curry, a climatologist at Georgia Tech, testified last year at a Senate hearing. …

That’s the ultimate casualty in the Left’s war: scientists’ reputations. Bad research can be exposed and discarded, but bad reputations endure. Social scientists are already regarded in Washington as an arm of the Democratic Party, so their research is dismissed as partisan even when it’s not, and some Republicans have tried (unsuccessfully) to cut off all social-science funding. The physical sciences still enjoy bipartisan support, but that’s being eroded by the green politicking, and climate scientists’ standing will plummet if the proclaimed consensus turns out to be wrong.

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The little engine that could

Yet another issue that invokes our contextual understanding of science is a space-engine called the EmDrive. It was first proposed about 20 years ago by an engineering named Robert Shawyer. The engine works by converting electrical energy into kinetic energy – but not in the way a ceiling fan does. The idea is to use the electrical energy to create microwave photons and then have them bounce around inside a conical chamber to propel the chamber forward. Now, remember the force-diagrams you studied in class XI physics? Where if you’re standing inside a box and pushing on a wall, the box doesn’t move forward because your feet generate an equal and opposite reaction on the ground that keeps the box grounded. In the case of an EmDrive, however, a recent paper has shown that there’s some thrust that’s actually produced. Which means the EmDrive is violating Newton’s third law of motion. The blasphemy!

And that’s what keeping scientists skeptical about this whole idea. Because the research was published in a peer-review journal, there’s some amount of reasonability that can be accorded to the results: that a few millinewtons of thrust were produced for a few kilowatts of energy. The people who conducted the research, from NASA’s Eagleworks lab, have listed nine ways in which their findings could be false at the end of their paper, and which will need to be checked for. But assuming the results are indeed true, two broad kinds of explanation have been advanced. First, that the EmDrive does produce thrust because of a theory we haven’t yet uncovered. Second, that the EmDrive does produce thrust because of an existing theory being wrong or not fully explored. The former class includes such hypotheses as a quantum vacuum virtual plasma and the Mach effect theory. The latter includes Unruh radiation and minor effects from special relativity.

When a friend pointed out the paper to me, I said it was BS – before realising I was also terribly biased based on the opinions of some ‘respectable’ scientists. And then I was also kinda ashamed because a history-of-science thesis I’d done while at ACJ had dealt with a similar situation: where Linus Pauling had called Dan Shechtman a failed scientist for the latter’s controversial discovery of quasicrystals in 1982. Pauling at the time was practically a demigod of chemistry but that didn’t stop him from being mean (at first) and eventually wrong about Shechtman’s pioneering discovery. Perhaps the EmDrive could be a pioneer, too?

Perhaps – but then again enough experiments have jumped the gun to celebrate their results before receiving a very-publicised debunking. Let’s wait for the next few experiments. Recommended reading on this front: on NatGeo and PopMech.

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Transitions at PLOS

On October 31, the Public Library of Science – more popular by its acronym, PLOS – announced that its CEO Elizabeth Marincola was stepping down. She’d taken charge three years ago at a difficult time for the open access journal: its revenues were dropping while its expenditure was spiking (though it was yet to declare a loss). And if Marincola’s being shown the door now, then whatever was put in place to right the sinking ship didn’t work. For someone who’s been following OA, this seems like a natural consequence of a relatively young organisation trying to keep itself going even as innovations it pioneered are being emulated by legacy organisations with understandably greater effect. But if you’re new to this subject, I highly recommend catching up – and catching up with Richard Poynder for added measure. An excerpt from the analysis on Poynder’s blog:

Be that as it may, PLOS ONE allowed the publisher to devote resources to advocating for open access and, importantly, to continue innovating. In 2009 PLOS pioneered Article-Level Metrics (ALM), and to speed up and make more efficient the publication process it set about developing its own submission system Aperta (currently only available for PLOS Biology).

And in 2014 PLOS introduced a data policy that requires authors to provide supporting data with their papers (with the aim of improving quality and reproducibility). It now also encourages researchers to post their research to preprint servers, on the principle I assume that this too could improve quality. Authors can also now have their preprints automatically submitted to PLOS via services like bioRxiv.

But innovation requires a constant flow of surplus cash, and the problem PLOS faces is that it is dependent on a cash cow that others want to eat. So we have seen legacy publishers developing their own megajournals, including BMJ, IEEE, Sage, Elsevier and Nature.

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Social/science papers

There were a couple research papers that I’d wanted to blog about but then set-shifting took its toll, so never got around to it. First, the more technical paper (whose abstract and discussion sections make for interesting reading) haughtily titled ‘Pharmacological Fingerprints of Contextual Uncertainty‘. It deals with research that shows how three neuromodulators – noradrenaline, acetylcholine and dopamine – regulate how we deal with uncertainty. As someone who has spent most of his adulthood planning life a week in advance and then dealing with anxiety attacks due to sudden changes, I find the paper’s insights quite useful in understanding myself:

We propose that noradrenaline influences learning of uncertain events arising from unexpected changes in the environment. In contrast, acetylcholine balances attribution of uncertainty to chance fluctuations within an environmental context, defined by a stable set of probabilistic associations, or to gross environmental violations following a contextual switch. Dopamine supports the use of uncertainty representations to engender fast, adaptive responses.

Dope.

The second paper is more-assertively titled ‘Pathogen prevalence is associated with cultural changes in gender equality‘. Its thesis is that four ecological affordances that have been known to influence human behaviour through cultural changes have also, across the same linkage, influenced trends in gender equality. From the (large) abstract:

We show that decreases in pathogen prevalence in the United States over six decades (1951–2013) are linked to reductions in gender inequality and that such shifts in rates of infectious disease precede shifts in gender inequality. Results were robust, holding when we controlled for other ecological dimensions and for collectivism and conservative ideological identification (indicators of more broadly traditional cultural norms and attitudes). Furthermore, the effects were partially mediated by reduced teenage birth rates (a sign that people are adopting slower life history strategies), suggesting that life history strategies statistically account for the relationship between pathogen prevalence and gender inequality over time. Finally, we replicated our key effects in a different society, using comparable data from the United Kingdom over a period of seven decades (1945–2014).

Both papers are openly accessible.

Bonus track: The relationship between cooking and masculinity in Sweden

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Three stories on The Wire

First: I’m obligated by my own joy in having published two particularly excellent stories on The Wire in November to highlight them.

The first was a 6,500-word-long behemoth that followed the work of a group of scientists trying to unravel the many mysteries behind the Kyasanur Forest disease in Karnataka, India. The piece’s author, Nithyanand Rao, had already done a tremendous job in getting all that information together after such detective work as it’d have taken – but that the writing is as gripping as it is also due to some good editing by Thomas Manuel.

The second story was of Risug, the world’s first reversible male contraceptive being developed by a researcher at IIT-Kharagpur named Sujoy Guha, and the different social, financial and political opposition it has faced. Kudos to the author Sohini Chattopadhyay – particularly for capturing Guha’s diligent spirit in her words as much as his work.

Finally: if I may say so myself, you might find my article detailing the plans, problems and considerations behind the organisation that’s aiming to put India’s first privately funded rover on the moon by the end of next year worth your time. One of the many bits of exclusive nuggets in it is when the launch is set to happen.

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If you have to ask

One day I was reading about the Jerry Sandusky trial; he had just been charged. The comments at the bottom of the article were all so vitriolic. I mean, that’s to be expected, but people were really going to town. It reminded me that pedophiles are the most hated group in all of society. It got me thinking about how all this starts; when do you first develop feelings towards little kids and do all pedophiles want to act on it? I started looking around and found that an attraction towards kids usually develops in the early teens, and there are a large portion — perhaps the majority — that don’t want to act on it. It seems obvious to me now, but I had never really thought about it before.

This is what Luke Malone said in an interview to Choire Sicha of The Awl when asked about how Malone began writing his now famous (non-fiction) storyabout the pedophiles who didn’t want to act on their urges and seek treatment instead. It was a wonderful piece of journalism, and Sicha’s interview is also great for its insights on how to report on such matters. But the biggest takeaway was that their pedophilia, like someone else’s anxiety or psychosis, is a psychological condition that impaired normal functioning in a way that didn’t immediately disqualify them from enjoying the rights that everyone is regularly entitled to.

The reason I bring all this up is to establish the context for a review of documentaries about sex-offenders that appeared on The Baffler a couple weeks ago. The reviewers take particular cognisance of how the anglosphere’s criminal justice system is particularly harsh when dealing with sex offenders as well as how the popular media that attempts to represent these offenders often simply fails to get past their offences. The overall result is to further erode what little opportunity exists for these people to seek non-judgmental support and care. Excerpt:

But almost everyone in the film—a sequel to [Todd] Solondz’s 1998 _Happiness_—is sicko-pervy. The men are pedophiles and rapists, the women narcissists and masochists; only the children escape pathology, though they, too, are drawn into their parents’ craziness. Solondz’s films ask: What if perversion is not aberrant but embedded in everyday life? What if it is—god forbid—funny? Solondz has been called misanthropic by critics, but he’s just the opposite: nothing human is alien to him. But the film’s distributor expected audiences to see only the alien and not the human, and to be repulsed. Although Life During Wartime won numerous U.S. and international awards, Universal Pictures ordered its “independent” subsidiary October Films to drop the film from its lineup on “moral grounds.”

Asking whether the sex offender is human only legitimizes the question and reinforces the doubt it arises from: if you have to ask, maybe the answer is no. And if one category of people can be less than fully human for their (real or imagined) bad acts, so can others—just ask the legions of young black men tarred as “superpredators” in the 1990s. As Trump takes office having risen to power by dehumanizing, criminalizing, and promising to seize the rights of broadening categories of Others, humanizing remains a necessary political step. But it’s not an end in itself. A movement for justice must start from the fundamental truth that everyone born in a human body is endowed with all human qualities and also with inalienable human rights—and move forward from there.

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Other bits of interestingness:

  1. Must read: The sparrow with four sexes
  2. Should our genomes be open-access?
  3. How to make phosphorous by doing disgusting things with urine
  4. The impostor phenomenon in science writing – A tangential comment: unlike admitting to being clinically depressed or anxious (which are admissions of weakness, effectively), I think there’s a difficulty associated with admitting to having impostor syndrome because it’s also a sly admission of not a weakness but a strength. This, in turn, reinforces the sensation of being an impostor.
  5. Jonas Salk: How did a bright – but not brilliant – boy grow up to become a medical legend?
  6. What every physicist should know about string theory
  7. How to encrypt your entire life in less than an hour
  8. A new way to understand how the macroscopic world emerges from the quantum microworld?

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