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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, September 23, 2017

His Big Bang Redefinition Is Confusing and Insubstantial

The latest post by cosmologist Ethan Siegel (published by Forbes.com) seems to offer a dramatic announcement. It is entitled, “The Big Bang Wasn't the Beginning, After All.”

For decades astronomers have told us that the Big Bang that occurred about 13 billion years ago was the beginning of the universe. We have been told that the universe began in this event, in which the universe began expanding from an infinitely dense point, with incredible heat and density in its first seconds. Has something new been discovered to overturn this view?

No, not at all. It's just Ethan Siegel playing redefinition games in a very confusing fashion. There is no substance at all in Siegel's announcement, and nothing new has been discovered about the universe's beginning.

Here's what's going on. About 15 years after getting the best evidence for the Big Bang (the discovery of the cosmic background radiation), scientists began to make a speculation about something that may have happened when the universe was about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. This speculation is called the cosmic inflation theory. It is speculated that when the universe was only about 10-35 second old, it underwent for a fraction of a second a period of exponential expansion, and then returned to the normal, linear rate of expansion we now observe. This strange speculation is called the cosmic inflation theory.

That name is one of the most confusing labels ever put on a science theory. When discussing this cosmic inflation theory, you must not fall into the trap of thinking that the universe's expansion at, say, 10 seconds after the Big Bang was an example of “cosmic inflation.” You must remember that this term “cosmic inflation” refers only to something that supposedly went on during the first second of the universe's history.

Now Siegel wants to introduce a new confusion. He wishes to redefine the term “Big Bang” so that it only refers to what happened after this alleged period of cosmic inflation that supposedly occurred in the universe's first second. So Siegel wants us to start thinking: first there was the cosmic inflation, and then there was the Big Bang. Redefining the term "Big Bang," he says, "The hot Big Bang definitely happened, but doesn't extend to go all the way back to an arbitrarily hot and dense state." 

By making this attempt at redefining the Big Bang (as something that did not occur at the very beginning), Siegel is out on his own. This is not the way the majority of cosmologists speak, and this is not the way they have been speaking about the Big Bang for the past 50 years. For 50 years cosmologists have been talking about the Big Bang as if that term means: what happened at the very beginning of our universe.

For example, in the visual below from a NASA web site, we see the Big Bang referred to as something occurring before the alleged period of cosmic inflation, not after it (Siegel proposes the opposite order, that we think of the Big Bang as occurring after cosmic inflation). 

big bang

What would motivate a cosmologist to try to redefine the term “Big Bang” so that it does not refer to the very beginning of the universe? It is easy to think of a motivation. For 50 years cosmologists have been troubled by the fact that they have no explanation for the Big Bang at the universe's beginning. But if a cosmologist redefines the term “Big Bang” so that it doesn't refer to the very beginning, he can then say that he has an explanation for the Big Bang. If I redefine “Big Bang” to mean something that began when the universe was one second old, then I can claim to have an explanation for that state by referring to the previous second. So the motivation may be: the redefinition may help a cosmologist place a laurel wreath on his head, allowing him to say, “Clever me, I explained the Big Bang.”

Siegel has been pushing this attempt to redefine the Big Bang for quite a while, but there is little evidence that other cosmologists are following him in this matter. Most cosmologists continue to use the term “Big Bang” as they have done for the past 50 years, to mean the event that started the universe. The majority of cosmologists continue to speak as if the Big Bang began at the very beginning, Time Zero, not some time after Time Zero. They mainly continue to speak as if the Big Bang was the very beginning of time.

There is no substance behind any attempt to redefine the Big Bang as something that began later than the very beginning. Nature does nothing to support such a redefinition. The cosmic inflation theory (that there was some special period of exponential expansion during the universe's first second) is unproven, very farfetched, and not supported by any compelling evidence. There are good reasons for rejecting such a theory, discussed by Paul Steinhardt at Princeton University, and in this post and this post. Among the reasons is that the theory conflicts with findings about anomalies in the cosmic background radiation. 

Were we to redefine the Big Bang so that it does not refer to the very beginning, it would be a kind of arbitrary semantic silliness similar to redefining the word “human” so that it does not refer to people with very dark skin. Whenever such a very arbitrary redefinition is proposed, we should ask: who is attempting to help himself or his kind by proposing such a redefinition? Just as a politician might wish to redefine “human” to make things easier for his own kind, a cosmologist might wish to redefine “Big Bang” to make it easier to place a triumphal gold medal around his own neck. But explanatory triumphs are not earned by arbitrary redefinition.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Royal Society's Slick GMO Guide Has More Spin Than Straight-Talk

The Royal Society (the United Kingdom's oldest science organization) has released a slick information guide pitching genetically modified organisms (GMO's). It's a document giving 18 answers to 18 questions about GMO's.

 A page from the info guide

At the beginning of the document there is some cleverly worded text designed to make you think that the document is going to be a balanced look at the topic of GMO's. We are told that balanced focus groups were created:

There were eight groups in total and 66 members of the public took part. Participants were recruited for a range of views based on those for and against GM or who were undecided, in order to reflect the findings of a nationally representative survey on the subject.

But these focus groups were just kind of a smoke screen, because we are then told that “the following set of 18 questions was the outcome of the responses from the focus groups,” and that the answers to the questions were written by “a group of experts who have endeavored to ensure the answers are factual, as much as possible, and not associated with any value judgment.” So the focus groups were ignored when writing the answers to the questions. That's hardly a technique for providing a balanced examination of an issue. The claim that the answers in the document are “not associated with any value judgment” is misleading, because the answers do actually make value judgments such as favorable judgments about genetically modified crops.

The key question addressed is question 8, which is “Is it Safe to Eat GM Crops?” The following answer is given:

Yes. There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM. There could be risks associated with the specific new gene introduced, which is why each crop with a new characteristic introduced by GM is subject to close scrutiny. Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop.

Asking “Is it safe to eat genetically modified crops” is not asking the right question, because “is it safe” questions are so vague and debatable that almost any answer can be justified. Is it safe to drink three glasses of vodka a night, or to drive at 70 miles an hour on the highway, or to live in a beachfront house in Florida (where hurricanes are common)? It is easy to make a case for either the “yes” or “no” answers.

A much better question to ask is: is there a reasonable chance that you will be harmed if you consume genetically modified crops? The answer to this question is: yes, there is. Such a chance is probably much less than 50%, but it is substantial nonetheless. The roles that genes play are often extremely complex and obscure. It is not very unlikely that we may discover harmful effects from genetically modified food. While each genetically modified crop may be tested before it is released, there is still the possibility that eating certain combinations of genetically modified crops might turn out to be dangerous. Similarly, neither carbon nor oxygen is harmful in itself, but a certain combination of them (carbon monoxide) can be fatal.

A study published in 2012 found that a genetically modified crop and a herbicide it was engineered to be grown with caused severe organ damage and hormonal disruption in rats fed over a long-term period of two years. Eventual consequences for some of the rats included tumors. Published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the study was carried out by a team led by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini. A kind of intellectual lynch mob quickly formed, led by pro-GMO interests, which caused the paper to be retracted. The incident was a great black mark on contemporary bio-science, and seems like a very troubling attempt at a cover-up. After a long delay another scientific journal published the study. See here for other information about the study.

We hear no specific mention of Seralini's research in the long Royal Society document on GMO's. The Royal Society document inconsistently states the following about genetically modified foods (GM):

Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop....There have been a few studies claiming damage to human or animal health from specific foods that have been developed using GM.

The second statement contradicts the first statement, particularly since the Royal Society document does nothing to dispute these “studies claiming damage to human or animal health from specific foods that have been developed using GM” other than to weakly note they have been “challenged.”

Should we think that genetically modified foods are very safe on the grounds that “Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop”? Not necessarily. As they say in the investment industry, “Past results do not guarantee future results.” The fact that something hasn't yet produced much harm doesn't show it won't produce harm in the future. The passengers on the fatal flights of the Hindenberg and the Challenger probably thought they were safe, on the grounds they were using technology which hadn't failed in quite a long while.

Beware of experts telling you something is safe based on a past performance record. At about the beginning of 2008, the financial experts such as Standard and Poor's told us that CMO tranches were a very safe investment, based on their previous performance record. But in 2008 such investments experienced a disastrous large-scale failure, with defaults aplenty, and investors losing billions. If something unexpected like that happens with genetically modified foods, we might see a large-scale loss of life.

Question 13 of the 18 questions asks this about genetically modified crops: “GM crops have only been around for 20 years, might there still be unexpected and untoward side effects?” The answer given by the Royal Society document is: yes. So if there might be unexpected and untoward side effects from eating genetically modified crops, as the Royal Society document admits in answering Question 13, why was the answer it gave to question 8 (“Is It Safe to Eat GM Crops?”) a simple “Yes” answer? Given what the Royal Society has answered for question 13, it seems that the answer to question 8 (“Is It Safe to Eat GM Crops?”) should have not been a simple “Yes, “ but instead something like, “Probably, but there may be unexpected and untoward side effects from eating genetically modified crops.”

See this link for a critical analysis of the deficiencies of the Royal Society document on GMO's, which has some notable omissions and inconsistencies.

The Royal Society information guide answers 18 questions about genetically modified food, but it doesn't answer the question below, which would make a useful addition to their guide.

Their guide left out this Question 19

Postscript: A recent ethically troubling news story tells us, "The blueprint for life - DNA - has been altered in human embryos for the first time in the UK."  This raises the question: what will they do with the monsters that will result from trial-and-error experimentation with DNA in human embryos? Will they coldly kill off such bad results, or lock them up, as suggested in the speculative visual below?

gene splicing

Saturday, September 16, 2017

He's Apoplectic That This Anomaly Is Being Researched

As shown in this post, the ire of neuroscientist Steven Novella was recently ignited. Very strangely the bitter indignation of this scientist has been kindled by the simple fact that a research laboratory has been opened.

The research laboratory is a laboratory in India to study the anomaly known as homeopathy. I have never tried homeopathy, and have never recommended it. But I know that it is an alternative medical technique that can sometimes involve giving people extremely diluted solutions. A believer in this technique may believe that if you take a certain type of concentrated solution, and then dilute it by a factor such as 10,000 times or more, the solution will still have some medical potency (and the medical potency can still be retained even if there is no detectable trace of what was originally in the concentrated solution).  

Based on what we currently know about chemistry, you would expect homeopathy to have no effectiveness whatsoever. But surprisingly, research studies have often seemed to show real medical effectiveness from such extremely diluted solutions. There seem to be three possibilities here:

  1. Homeopathy has no real effectiveness, and studies suggesting otherwise are just false alarms.
  2. Homeopathy does have some real effectiveness, and its effectiveness is because nature has some important aspect that our chemists have overlooked or not yet discovered.
  3. Homeopathy can sometimes be effective not for chemical reasons but simply because some people believe it is effective; and homeopathy is a case of a mind-over-matter effect or a placebo effect in which a person's expectations or beliefs can affect his medical outcomes. (Notably, a meta-analysis in the British medical journal Lancet found that homeopathy produced results substantially better than could be explained by a placebo effect; it stated, "The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo.")

Because items 2 and 3 are of very significant scientific and intellectual interest, it seems that homeopathy is worthy of further study and investigation. So I am puzzled by the irate reaction of Steven Novella to an Indian news story that merely mentions that a new research center has been opened in India to study homeopathy, without even making any general claims about homeopathy. Why would a scientist not want an anomaly to be investigated further? Could it be that Novella is worried that the research might find something that challenges his dogmatic proclamations on the topic of homeopathy?

Novella has a link saying “homeopathy does not work for anything.” When I follow that link, it takes me to another post by Novella mentioning mainly the NHMRC report on homeopathy. In a previous post, I thoroughly examined this report, and found it to be a prime example of a faulty and biased meta-analysis. I documented quite a few defects in the meta-analysis, such as arbitrarily excluding studies with fewer than 150 subjects, a cut-off level that is not typically used by other medical meta-analyses. A typical meta-analysis on a topic other than homeopathy will include studies having 75 or 100 subjects.  The NHMRC considered only 225 research studies out of more than 1800, an exclusion rate far higher than we have with other similar meta-analysis studies. There are guidelines called the PRISMA guidelines which give recommendations on how a meta-analysis should be done. The NHMRC report violated such guidelines. So we cannot use the NHMRC as a guide to whether homeopathy is effective, and its meta-analysis does not cross-out the Lancet meta-analysis suggesting that homeopathy has an effectiveness better than a placebo. 

Novella also compares ESP and homeopathy, and the information he gives on ESP is dead wrong. He says this:

After a century of research and thousands of studies there is no clear evidence that ESP is real. For both homeopathy and ESP there is a great deal of noise, but no clear signal. There are many flawed or small studies, but no repeatable high quality studies.

What Novella is telling us about ESP is entirely wrong. Sound experimental research showing the reality of ESP has been done for more than 130 years. Among the research highlights was the work of Professor Joseph Rhine at Duke University. Under controlled experimental conditions, Rhine showed spectacular results such as tests showing 3746 successes out of 10,300 tries (a 36% success rate), in experiments in which the expected success rate was only 20%. We would not expect such a result to occur by chance even if every person on planet Earth was tested for ESP. The subject in question (Pearce) got even better results testing with another researcher (Pratt), getting 558 successes in a card-guessing experiment in which the expected number of successes was about 370. Such a success rate occurring by chance had a likelihood of less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Pearce's successes were repeated, showing Novella's claim about repeatibility is inaccurate. An even more spectacular result was reported by Professor Riess, who did a remote card-guessing test showing a success rate of 73% on 1850 guesses in an experiment in which the expected success rate was only 20%.

More recent research on ESP has included sensory deprivation experiments called ganzfeld experiments. Done by many researchers using many subjects, such experiments have repeatedly  shown success rates of 30% to 32% and higher on tests in which the expected chance rate is only 25%. This is a very high degree of repeatability. Even more dramatic recent results are summarized at the end of this post. There are also innumerable very dramatic  anecdotal reports of ESP collected by researchers such as Louisa Rhine, and summarized in the book The Gift

So Novella is simply misinforming us about ESP. He's told us that “there is no clear evidence that ESP is real,” which is false. He's also told us that there “are no repeatable high quality studies,” but there are very many such studies, and ESP is very much an effect that shows up dramatically in repeated scientific studies.

Given that Novella has misinformed us about ESP, we may wonder whether he is also misinforming us about the evidence for homeopathy. He tells us that there is in regard to homeopathy a “great deal of noise, but no clear signal,” and if you read between the lines, that “great deal of noise” sounds like something that could be real evidence of an important reality behind homeopathy. How to sort out whether there is real evidence? One way is to do more research. So Novella's ire about a homeopathy research center appearing is strange, and also unscientific.  

 "Don't bother me with more data" isn't scientific

Postscript: Another example of a Novella misstatement is this  post with the title, "AWARE Results Finally Published -- No Evidence of NDE." The AWARE study (which you can read about here and here) actually found very dramatic evidence for near-death-experiences (NDE), including a case of a man reporting floating above his body while his heart had stopped (including independent verification of his recollections of his medical resuscitation efforts while he was unconscious), and a person who reported traveling through a tunnel toward a very strong light, and encountering a beautiful crystal city, along with about 100 other near death experiences.

Postscript: Novella's rage against paradigm-challenging research continues in this post, where he fulminates against the existence of the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine.  In the post Novella claims that acupuncture "does not work." But a New York Times article asserts otherwise, saying the following:

A new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. The findings provide strong scientific support for an age-old therapy used by an estimated three million Americans each year.  

In the post, a methodologist at the very prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says, "We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain."

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Brain Dogmas Versus the “Total Recall” People

In the Guardian this year, there was a long and very fascinating article entitled “Total Recall: The People Who Never Forget.” The article discusses very rare cases of people with what what is called hyperthymesia or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, a topic that the 60 Minutes TV program had covered in 2010.

Less than 100 such people have been identified. They have the uncanny ability to remember in great detail every single day of past years of their lives, sometimes stretching back for decades.

The article discusses Jill Price, and says this about her:

Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.

A memory researcher named James McGaugh has verified the accuracy of Price's recollections. One way to do this is simply to ask her questions about what happened on a particular day that something notable happened. For example, if asked on what day Rodney King was beaten, or what day Bing Crosby died, she can quickly recall the exact date. Of if asked the significance of some particular date, she can tell you some famous person died on that day. McGaugh also verified the accuracy of Price's recollections by checking her diary. He and his colleagues wrote up the case in a scientific paper.

Another scientific paper (which can be read in full here) describes the case of HK, which the 2012 paper describes as a 20-year old person with “near-perfect” autobiographic memory. HK is described as blind and having been born at 27 weeks early, 13 weeks early. The paper states:

As can be seen in Figure 1,for dates between this first memory until his 10th year of life, HK shows a relatively steady increase in accuracy for autobiographical events. Accuracy takes a noticeable jump to near 90% in 2001 at age 11. From that point forward, HK’s recollection of autobiographical events is near perfect.

The paper also gives us insight as to what it is like to have such a memory:

He reports that he is able to relive memories in his mind as if they just happened. HK stated that everything about his memory, including sounds, smells, and emotions, are vividly re-experienced when he remembers a particular event in time...,He stated that there is no difference in the vividness of his recollection between events that occurred when he was five and events that he experienced within the past month.

The scientists did an MRI scan of the brain of this person with this near-flawless autobiographic memory. Did it show something like an abnormally big brain? No, something like the opposite was found. For the paper tells us that the volumetric analysis “reveals significantly reduced total tissue volume in HK” and that “a volumetric analysis of subcortical structures shows general reduction in subcortical volumes in HK (1019 mL) relative to controls (1249 ± 29 mL).” So the person with this miracle memory had a brain about 20% smaller. The only part of his brain that was larger was his amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain. HK's was 20% bigger, but that's only a flea-sized difference.

Cases such as Price and HK apparently date back to the nineteenth century, for an 1871 article describes a man named Daniel McCartney who, according to the Guardian article, “could remember the day of the week, the weather, what he was doing, and where he was for any date back to 1 January 1827, when he was nine years and four months old.” 

Something different from these cases of Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory or hyperthymesia are the cases of extraordinary memory in savants. Savants are individuals who have some mental disability but also have some extraordinary mental talents. An example of a savant is the late Kim Peek, who could accurately recall the details of 12,000 books he had read, despite having an IQ of only 87. Other examples are Tony DeBlois, who can play 8000 songs from memory, and Derek Paravicini who can play a piece after hearing it only once, despite having a severe learning disability. 

So far researchers have failed to draw any noteworthy conclusions from these cases of extraordinary memory. But such cases may suggest that standard ideas about memory are wrong. The standard story is that memories are all stored in your brain. There are several reasons for rejecting this idea, such as the seeming impossibility of explaining how instantaneous recall of distant memories could occur (discussed here), and the reason (discussed here) that there is no workable theory of how brains could be storing memories for 50 years. The most popular theory is that memories are stored in synapses. But synapses are subject to a high rate of protein turnover and structural turnover which should make it impossible for synapses to be storing memories for longer than a year or two. The proteins in synapses are replaced within a few weeks. A recent scientific paper mentions an estimate that the rate of protein turnover in synapses is about 0.7% per hour, which is a rate of about 16% per day. 

Under the assumption that memories are stored in brains, we would not by any means expect some people to remember their past experiences 800% better than an ordinary person can. Such a thing would seem to require a brain 800% bigger than the biggest brain that can fit into a human skull. And also under the assumption that memories are all stored in brains, we should not expect people with smaller brains or damaged brains (such as patient HK and Kim Peek) to have dramatically better memories.

But let's imagine a different scenario. Imagine if people's memories are not stored in brains, but are stored in some psychic or spiritual reality associated with a person. Your memories may be stored in something like your soul, not your brain. Under such a scenario, you might have complete memories for everything that happened to you. But your brain might act as a kind of valve, limiting your access to these memories. For some rare people, this normal blockage or limitation of access to biographical memory may not be occurring. Such people may have Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory.

Cases of Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory are easy to reconcile with such a theory. We simply imagine that in such people the brain's function as a kind of “blockage valve” for our memories is not working normally, so the blockage does not occur as it normally does. But cases of Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory are hard to reconcile with standard claims that the brain is where all your memories are stored. Under such claims, it is unthinkable that anyone should have memories such as Jill Price's, which would seem to require a brain the size of an elephant's.

Postscript: Another interesting mind anomaly is the rare anomaly of acquired savants.  A person may acquire extraordinary mental abilities after some accident.  One such case is Orlando Serrell, who acquired extraordinary calculation and memory skills after being hit by a baseball when he was 10, in 1979.  According to his web site, "He can recall the weather, where he was, and what he was doing for every day since the accident."  Again, we have something that does not fit in with conventional dogmas about the brain, but which is compatible with very different ideas about memory.  If your brain acts as a kind of faucet or valve for your memories, rather than a storehouse of such memories, it might be that a head injury might reset that valve so that memory is dramatically enhanced.