Friday, November 27, 2009

Bad news for agnostics?

While past studies have shown religious believers to be happier than nonbelievers, some new analysis shows that it's not quite so simple. Luke Galen has found that the convinced non-religious are also quite happy, but people who are uncertain are the ones who are dissatisfied. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn has analyzed data from the World Values Survey and found some more interesting details:
  • Religious people are both happier and unhappier. While a higher percentage of religious people report themselves as extremely happy than convinced nonbelievers, a higher percentage of religious people also report themselves as extremely unhappy.
  • Those who attend religious services and belong to religious organizations tend to be happier. And that's whether or not they believe--in fact among that group, those with the stronger belief tend to be unhappier. So it's the social aspect, not the doctrine, that promotes happiness. And this is further supported by:
  • The more religious a country is, the happier believers are, and vice versa. In religious countries, believers are happier; in nonreligious countries, nonbelievers are happier.
See more at the Epiphenom blog.

(Cross-posted to the Secular Outpost.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Why not put Rom Houben's facilitated communication to the test?

I've posted comments about the reasons to be skeptical about Rom Houben's facilitated communication at a number of blogs, where the response of some seems to be that there is no point of such testing. The reasons for not testing have included (1) that the videos are a "straw man"; (2) that criticisms from a stage magician and a philosopher/bioethicist are not worthy of attention; and (3) the testimony from Dr. Laureys, the facilitator Mrs. Wouters, and Houben's family is much stronger evidence than what we can see in the videos, and that Dr. Laureys says he already conducted a single-blind test which showed that the communication came from Houben, not the facilitator, and to reject that is irrational hyper-skepticism that assumes they are lying.

The first argument makes no sense to me. The videos clearly show the facilitator rapidly typing away with Houben's finger even while he's looking away or has his eyes closed, which is by itself a very strong reason to be skeptical, especially in light of the past record of facilitated communication. The second argument is not only ad hominem, but further refuted by similar analysis by a neuroscientist. The last argument is a bit better, but wrongly assumes that the only alternative is that the doctor and family are lying. Facilitated communication isn't a matter of conscious fraud, it's a matter of self-deception of the facilitator (enhanced by the expectations and reactions of the family). Given the possibility of unconscious cuing of the facilitator by the doctor, as well as his own vested interest in a positive result, the test he described doing is still far from sufficient to overcome the evidence plainly displayed in the videos.

Unfortunately, there is a very strong incentive to believe on the part of the doctor, the facilitator, and the family. To find that the communications are coming from the facilitator would be emotionally devastating, and detrimental to the doctor's credibility. To test further is to risk a huge potential loss of what has apparently been gained, and I suspect it's unlikely that we'll see it happen.

But look at it from Houben's own perspective--further testing is absolutely in his own best interests. For if the facilitator is the one doing the communicating, not him, then he is being further exploited for the satisfaction of his doctor, facilitator, and family, not for his own benefit. He's not being treated respectfully or as an end, rather than as a means. If he is, in fact, minimally conscious as the brain scans suggest, then speaking on his behalf without his genuine input is doing him even greater harm.

If you reject the idea that an hour or so of Houben's time should be used to do a conclusive, double-blind test to see whether the communications are coming from him or from the facilitator, is it because you want to believe, rather than to know? There is clear possible harm to Hoeben from not doing such a test. There is no harm to Hoeben from such a test, though there's clearly the risk of painfully dissolving an illusion for the doctor, facilitator, and family. But Hoeben's interests should be placed above that risk.

(Previously on Houben, a post with many links and references.)

UPDATE (February 15, 2010): Houben has been put to the test, and it turns out the communications were, in fact, coming from the facilitator.

UPDATE (February 20, 2010): David Gorski at the Science-Based Medicine blog has a bit more from the Belgian Skeptics, who were involved in the test.

Dana Perino forgets about 9/11 and the Beltway snipers

Dana Perino says, "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term."

Sean Hannity ignores it.

Terrorism is a strategy used by a militarily weak group against a militarily strong one, to create fear, dread, and uncertainty among the general population toward some political or ideological end, such as ending military actions by the strong group against the weak. It's not clear to me that Major Hasan's attack at Fort Hood meets the criteria of a terrorist attack, or even a religiously motivated one, though that's somewhat more plausible. His action did share the element of being an attack by the weak against the strong, but he also appears to have had mental issues and an ongoing battle with the military over his desire to get out and not be sent to Afghanistan. There were clear warning signs that were missed or ignored, but it doesn't appear that he was part of a broader plot.

The Fort Hood shootings were a tragedy, and possibly one that could have been avoided. But it certainly isn't an event that provides justification for torture, warrantless wiretapping, the revocation of habeas corpus, and the expansion of "homeland security" to the detriment of our civil liberties. Perino and Hannity want to argue that the Obama administration has made us less safe on the basis of this incident, which makes about as much sense as blaming the Bush administration for the Virginia Tech shootings.

UPDATE (November 27, 2009): As a couple people have correctly noted, I should also have mentioned the post-9/11 anthrax attacks as another terrorist act Perino forgot about. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was another.

UPDATE: Hume's Ghost notes that Perino has said via Twitter that she meant "since 9/11," and correctly points out how absurd it is to discount 9/11 for Bush (as well as these other subsequent events she's ignored), while blaming Obama for Hasan's shooting: "...while there were warning signs about Hasan's fitness for duty that could have been noticed by those around him, this is hardly something that would have been on the President's radar. No one was briefing President Obama that Major Hasan was determined to strike a military base; however, President Bush was briefed that Bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wikileaks to release over 500K text pager intercepts from 9/11

Wikileaks is releasing over 500,000 U.S. national text pager intercepts from September 11, 2001, over the next two days:
From 3AM on Wednesday November 25, 2009, until 3AM the following day (New York Time), WikiLeaks will release over half a million US national text pager intercepts. The intercepts cover a 24 hour period surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The first message, corresponding to 3AM September 11, 2001, five hours before the first attack, will be released at 3AM November 25, 2009 and the last, corresponding to 3AM September 12, 2001 at 3AM November 26, 2009.

Text pagers are mostly carried by persons operating in an official capacity. Messages in the collection range from Pentagon and New York Police Department exchanges, to computers reporting faults to their operators as the World Trade Center collapsed.
This is a significant and completely objective record of the defining moment of our time. We hope that its entry into the historical record will lead to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how this tragedy and its aftermath may have been prevented.

While we are obligated by to protect our sources, it is clear that the information comes from an organization which has been intercepting and archiving national US telecommunications since prior to 9/11.
The Transparent Society getting closer, it appears...

What would be more horrifying than "locked-in" syndrome?

Numerous mass media outlets and blogs are reporting on the misdiagnosis of Rom Houben of being comatose for 23 years when he was really conscious, according to Belgian neurologist Steven Laureys, who has claimed for years to be able to treat patients allegedly in a persistent vegetative state with electric shocks and find that they were really in a minimally conscious state. Videos of Houben show him allegedly communicating via a keyboard which is pressed by a single finger on one hand--but his hand is being held by a facilitator, and he's not even looking at the keyboard. Some still photos show the facilitator looking intently at the keyboard, while Houben's eyes are closed.

James Randi observes that this looks just like the self-deception of Facilitated Communication that was promoted as a way to communicate with severely autistic people, and Marshall Brain at How Stuff Works seconds that conclusion.

I think it's a bit too fast to conclude that Houben's not conscious--brain scans could indeed have provided good evidence that he is. But what would be worse than having "locked-in syndrome"? Having somebody else purporting to speak for you with ideomotor-driven Facilitated Communication, while you were helpless to do anything about it.

I'd like to see some double-blind tests of Houben, where he's asked questions about events that occur when the facilitator isn't present, as well as fMRI results during the process of facilitation (since there are brain activation differences between active and passive activities, which have been used to study such things as the perception of involuntariness during hypnosis--it shows features of both active and passive movement). I'd also like to see further opinion on Laureys methodology and diagnosis--it seems he has significant self-interest in promoting this case.

UPDATE: Brandon Keim at Wired Science has finally asked the questions that those who have reported this in the mainstream media should have been asking.

Here's a 2001 review of the scientific literature on facilitated communication.

UPDATE: The video on this story shows the facilitator typing for him while his eyes are closed and he appears to be asleep.

UPDATE: A Times Online story claims that Houben's facilitator, Linda Wouters, spent the last three years working with Houben to learn to feel tiny muscle movements in his finger, and that Dr. Laureys did tests to validate the technique:

The spectacle is so incredible that even Steven Laureys, the neurologist who discovered Mr Houben’s potential, had doubts about its authenticity. He decided to put it to the test.

“I showed him objects when I was alone with him in the room and then, later, with his aide, he was able to give the right answers,” Professor Laureys said. “It is true.”


Mr Houben’s “rebirth” took many painstaking months. “We asked him to try and blink but he couldn’t; we asked him to move his cheek but he couldn’t; we asked him to move his hand and he couldn’t,” Mrs Wouters said.

“Eventually, someone noticed that when we talked to him he moved his toe so we started to try and communicate using his toe to press a button.”

It was a breakthrough but much more was to come when a fellow speech therapist discovered that it was possible to discern minuscule movements in his right forefinger.

Mrs Wouters, 42, was assigned to Mr Houben and they began to learn the communication technique that he is now using to write a book about his life and thoughts. “I thought it was a miracle — it actually worked,” she said.

The method involves taking Mr Houben by the elbow and the right hand while he is seated at a specially adapted computer and feeling for minute twitches in his forefinger as his hand is guided over the letters of the alphabet. Mrs Wouters said that she could feel him recoil slightly if the letter was wrong. After three years of practice the words now come tumbling out, she said.

This still seems hard to rationalize with the video footage of the typing occurring while he's apparently asleep. Mrs. Wouters admits the possibility of "tak[ing] over" for him:
“The tension increases and I feel he wants to go so I move his hand along the screen and if it is a mistake he pulls back. As a facilitator, you have to be very careful that you do not take over. You have to follow him.”
UPDATE (November 25, 2009): Neurologist Steven Novella has weighed in. He suggests that Houben may have recovered some brain function and be conscious, but that the facilitated communication in the videos is positively bogus.
I've noted on the discussion page of Dr. Steven Laureys' Wikipedia entry that the paper in BMC Neurology that purportedly included Houben as a subject claims that all patients in the study were in a minimally conscious state (MCS) but had been misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). The criteria of the study say that those that recovered and emerged from MCS were excluded, which seems at odds with claims that Houben's brain function is "almost normal." A story in Nature 443, 132-133 (14 September 2006) by Mike Hopkin, "'Vegetative' patient shows signs of conscious thought," which quotes Laureys, is about a different patient, in a persistent vegetative state, who showed some signs minimal consciousness. When asked to visualize herself playing tennis, for example, she showed corresponding brain activity. But, as that article noted, that kind of neural response isn't necessarily a sign of consciousness:

But what that 'awareness' means is still up for debate. For example, Paul Matthews, a clinical neuroscientist at Imperial College London, argues that the brain imaging technique used cannot evaluate conscious thought; fMRI lights up regions of brain activity by identifying hotspots of oxygen consumption by neurons. "It helps us identify regions associated with a task, but not which regions are necessary or sufficient for performing that task," he says.

Matthews argues that the patient's brain could have been responding automatically to the word 'tennis', rather than consciously imagining a game. He also points out that in many vegetative cases, the patient's motor system seems to be undamaged, so he questions why, if they are conscious, they do not respond physically. "They are simply not behaving as if they are conscious," he says.

Owens counters that an automatic response would be transient, lasting for perhaps a few seconds before fading. He says his patient's responses lasted for up to 30 seconds, until he asked her to stop. He believes this demonstrates strong motivation.

He does admit, however, that it is impossible to say whether the patient is fully conscious. Although in theory it might be possible to ask simple 'yes/no' questions using the technique, he says: "We just don't know what she's capable of. We can't get inside her head and see what the quality of her experience is like."

But then again, as someone who's been reading a lot of literature on automaticity and voluntary action lately, it appears to me likely that a lot of our normal actions are automatic, the product of unconsciously driven motor programs of routine behavior.

Laureys is quoted in the article with a note of skepticism:

"Family members should not think that any patient in a vegetative state is necessarily conscious and can play tennis," says co-author Steven Laureys of the University of Liège, Belgium."It's an illustration of how the evaluation of consciousness, which is a subjective and personal thing, is very tricky, especially with someone who cannot communicate."

The article goes on to note that this woman, who is possibly somewhere between PVS and MCS, "seems to have been much less severely injured than the permanently vegetative Terri Schiavo" (as the report from her Guardian Ad Litem (PDF) made clear).

If Houben is in a minimally conscious state, which he apparently was in order to be included in Laureys' paper that his Wikipedia page says published the Hoeben case in 2009, that appears to contradict news claims that Houben's brain function is "nearly normal," unless he has recovered further function since that paper was written.

UPDATE (November 26, 2009): This footage of Houben and Mrs. Wouters from Belgian (Dutch) state television seems to be the most extensive footage of the facilitation process, and while it starts out looking slightly more plausible, it also clearly shows fairly rapid typing while his eyes are closed (and the camera zooms in on his face).

UPDATE (November 28, 2009): Dr. Laureys and Dr. Novella have had some interaction, which demonstrates that Laureys doesn't get it.

UPDATE (February 15, 2010): Dr. Laureys almost gets it now, and has done additional tests, which have shown that the communications are coming from the facilitator, not Houben.

UPDATE (February 20, 2010): David Gorski at the Science-Based Medicine blog has a bit more from the Belgian Skeptics, who were involved in the test.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Research Unit email scandal

Hackers got access to a trove of private emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit that is being trumpeted by those who disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming as proof of scandal. I've looked through the data a bit myself--you can find a searchable archive of the emails here. I suspect this collection of emails may end up being put to good research use as the Enron email corpus was. While I found a few embarrassing things, I found no evidence of outright data fabrication or fakery.

The main email that has been cited as such evidence is an email from Phil Jones that says:
I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.
Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate explains:
The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.
In other words, "hiding" in this case is using temperature measurement records instead of tree rings as a proxy for temperature records for a period of time where the tree rings are known not to be an accurate proxy, for whatever reason.

It's also claimed that these emails show a concerted effort to subvert the peer review process and stop publications by climate change skeptics, but most of those emails seem to center around an issue where the scandal was actually from the skeptics--the publication of a 2003 paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas in the journal Climate Research that was considered by 13 authors of papers cited to have misrepresented their work. Subsequently, half of the editorial staff of the journal resigned in protest at what they saw as a failure of peer review, and the managing director of the journal's parent company issued an apology (see Wikipedia's summary). The emails show that these scientists were upset by Climate Research's publication of bad science and encouraged protest and those resignations.

A few blog posts that seem to have good overviews of the issues:
An interesting comparison to past scientific controversy is:
And, to compare to the climate change skeptics:
The last of these posts, from Univ. of Alabama climate scientist and skeptic Roy W. Spencer, notes that:

If all of this sounds incompatible with the process of scientific investigation, it shouldn’t. One of the biggest misconceptions the public has about science is that research is a straightforward process of making measurements, and then seeing whether the data support hypothesis A or B. The truth is that the interpretation of data is seldom that simple.

There are all kinds of subjective decisions that must be made along the way, and the scientist must remain vigilant that he or she is not making those decisions based upon preconceived notions. Data are almost always dirty, with errors of various kinds. Which data will be ignored? Which data will be emphasized? How will the data be processed to tease out the signal we think we see?

Hopefully, the scientist is more interested in discovering how nature really works, rather than twisting the data to support some other agenda. It took me years to develop the discipline to question every research result I got. It is really easy to be wrong in this business, and very difficult to be right.

Skepticism really is at the core of scientific progress. I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong about all my views on manmade global warming. Can the IPCC scientists admit the same thing?

Another noteworthy comment, from Real Climate, is this one from caerbannog and Gavin Schmidt's reply:

Just a reminder: CRU is just one of many organizations focusing on climate research. The fact that its director has reacted badly (i.e. appearing to go for the “bunker” mentality) to repeated scurrilous attacks has no bearing on the validity of the science.

Hansen’s approach has been quite different — he’s basically said to his detractors, “here are all of the source code and data — go knock yourselves out”.

Under Hansen, the NASA/GISS data and source code have been freely available on-line for years. And all of the sceptics’ scrutiny of said data has uncovered only one or two minor “glitches” that have had minimal impact.

Just a quick question (or two) to Gavin, if you feel the need to spend even more of your weekend downtime answering questions here.

Given that all of your climate-modeling source-code has been available for public scrutiny for quite a long time, and given that anyone can download and test it out, how many times have climate-model critics have actually submitted patches to improve your modeling code, fix bugs, etc? Have you gotten *any* constructive suggestions from the skeptic camp?

[Response: Not a single one. - gavin]

I think this illustrates that it's far better to be completely open with your data and methods.

UPDATE (November 26, 2009): There's now an official response from the Univ. of East Anglia, the Climate Research Unit, and Phil Jones. Jones notes, regarding the Freedom of Information requests:

We have been bombarded by Freedom of Information requests to release the temperature data that are provided to us by meteorological services around the world via a large network of weather stations. This information is not ours to give without the permission of the meteorological services involved. We have responded to these Freedom of Information requests appropriately and with the knowledge and guidance of the Information Commissioner.

We have stated that we hope to gain permission from each of these services to publish their data in the future and we are in the process of doing so.
UPDATE (December 4, 2009): The journal Nature has weighed in on the controversy.

Climate scientist Judith Curry makes good points of criticism about climate scientists' behavior.

UPDATE (December 6, 2009): Univ. of East Anglia climate scientist Mike Hulme (author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, a book that I read several chapters from in a class on human dimensions of climate change this semester) on the issue:

The key lesson to be learned is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned — the I.P.C.C. does a fairly good job of this according to its own terms — but the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned, in the sense of being open and trusted. From outside, and even to the neutral, the attitudes revealed in the emails do not look good. To those with bigger axes to grind it is just what they wanted to find.

This will blow its course soon in the conventional media without making too much difference to Copenhagen — after all, COP15 is about raw politics, not about the politics of science. But in the Internet worlds of deliberation and in the ‘mood’ of public debate about the trustworthiness of climate science, the reverberations of this episode will live on long beyond COP15. Climate scientists will have to work harder to earn the warranted trust of the public - and maybe that is no bad thing.

But this episode might signify something more in the unfolding story of climate change. This event might signal a crack that allows for processes of re-structuring scientific knowledge about climate change. It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.

It is also possible that the institutional innovation that has been the I.P.C.C. has run its course. Yes, there will be an AR5 but for what purpose? The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production - just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.

UPDATE (December 11, 2009): PolitiFact gives its analysis of the CRU emails, which is fairly balanced.

UPDATE (December 12, 2009): Deep Climate catches Stephen McIntyre engaging in quote mining of the CRU emails in order to mislead.

UPDATE (December 24, 2009): David Douglass and John Christy, in "A Climatology Conspiracy?", argue that the CRU emails show a concerted effort to delay the publication of their paper, publish another paper criticizing it along side of it, and deny them the right of final reply. Their case is somewhat weakened by the fact that the second paper points out a significant error in their paper and they have apparently not tried to publish a reply or correct the error.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Joel Garreau on radical evolution

Yesterday I heard Joel Garreau speak again at ASU, as part of a workshop on Plausibility put on by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO). I previously posted a summary of his talk back in August on the future of cities. This talk was based on his book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--and What It Means to Be Human.

Garreau was introduced by Paul Berman, Dean of the Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law at ASU, who also announced that Garreau will be joining the law school faculty beginning this spring, as the Lincoln Professor for Law, Culture, and Values.

He began by saying that we're at a turning point in history [has there ever been a time when we haven't thought that, though?], and he's going to present some possible scenarios for the next 2, 3, 5, 10, or 20 years, and that his book is a roadmap. The main feature of this turning point is that rather than transforming our environment, we'll be increasingly transforming ourselves, and we're the first species to take control of its own evolution, and it's happening now.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, he said, your kid may come home from school in tears about how he can't compete with the other kids who are more intelligent, more athletic, more attractive, more attentive, and so forth--because you haven't invested in the human enhancement technologies coming on the market. Your possible reactions will be to suck it up [somebody's still gotta do the dirty jobs in society?], remortgage the house again to make your kid competitive, or try to get the enhanced kids thrown out of school. What you can't do is ignore it.

He then asked people to raise their hands who could remember when things were still prevalent:
  • The Sony Walkman
  • When computer screens were black and white. (An audience member said "green and black!")
  • Rotary dial phones
  • Mimeograph machines and the smell of their fluid
  • Polio
This shows, he said, that we're going through a period of exponential change.

His talk then had a small amount of overlap with his previous talk, in his explanation of Moore's Law--that we've had 32 doublings of computer firepower since 1959, so that $1 of computing power is about 2 billion times more than it was then, and an iPhone has more computing power than all of NORAD had in 1965. Such doublings change our expectations of the future, so that the last 20 years isn't a guide to the next 20, but to the next 8; the last 50 years is a guide to the next 14. He pulled out a handkerchief and said this is essentially the sort of display we'll have in the future for reading a book or newspaper.

He then followed Ray Kurzweil in presenting some data points to argue that exponential change has been going on since the beginning of life on earth (see P.Z. Myers' "Singularly Silly Singularity" for a critique):

It took 400 million years (My) to go from organisms to mammals, and
  • 150My to monkeys
  • 30My to chimps
  • 16My to bipedality
  • 4My to cave paintings
  • 10,000 years to first settlements
  • 4,000 years to first writing
At this point, culture comes into the picture, which causes even more rapid change (a point also made by Daniel Dennett in his talk at ASU last February).
  • 4,000 years to Roman empire
  • 1800 years to industrial revolution
  • 100 years to first flight
  • 66 years to landing on the moon
And now we're in the information age, which Garreau identified as a third kind of evolution, engineered or radical evolution, where we're in control. [It seems to me that such planned changes are subject to the limits of human minds, unless we can build either AI or enhancement technologies that improve our minds, and I think the evidence for that possibility really has yet to be demonstrated--I see it as possible, but I place no bets on its probability and think there are reasons for skepticism.]

Garreau spent a year at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the organization that invented the Internet (then the ARPANet), which is now in the business of creating better humans, better war fighters. [DARPA was also a subject of yesterday's Law, Science, and Technology class. It's a highly funded organization that doesn't accept grant proposals, rather, it seeks out people that it thinks are qualified to give funding to for its projects. It has become rather more secretive as a result of embarrassment about its Total Information Awareness and terrorism futures ideas that got negative press in 2003.]

Via DARPA, Garreau learned about their project at Duke University with an owl monkey named Belle, that he described as a monkey that can control physical objects at long distances with her mind. Belle was trained to play a video game with a joystick, initially for a juice reward and then because she enjoyed it. They then drilled a hole in her head and attached fine electrodes (single-unit recording electrodes like the sort used to discover mirror neurons), identified the active regions of her brain when she operated the joystick, and then disconnected the joystick. She became proficient and playing the game with the direct control of her brain. They then connected the system to a robotic arm at MIT which duplicated the movements of her arm with the joystick.

Why did they do this? Garreau said there's an official reason and a real reason. The official reason is that an F-35 jet fighter is difficult to control with a joystick, and wouldn't it be better to control it with your mind, and send information sensed by the equipment directly into the mind? The real reason is that the DARPA defense sciences office is run by Michael Goldblatt, whose daughter Gina Marie (who recently graduated from the University of Arizona) has cerebral palsy and is supposed to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. If machines can be controlled with the mind, machines in her legs could be controlled with her mind, and there's the possibility that she could walk.

Belle first moved the robotic arm 9 years ago, Garreau said, and this Christmas you'll be able to buy the first toy mind-machine interface from Mattel at Walmart for about $100. It's just a cheap EEG device and not much of a game--it lets you levitate a ping pong ball with your mind--but there's obviously more to come.

Garreau said that Matthew Nagel was the first person to send emails using his thoughts (back in 2006), and DARPA is interested in moving this technology out to people who want to control robots. [This, by the way, is the subject of the recent film "Sleep Dealer," which postulates a future in which labor is outsourced to robots operated by Mexicans, so that they can do work in the U.S. without immigrating.]

This exposure to DARPA was how Garreau got interested in these topics, which he called the GRIN technologies--Genetics, Robotics, Information science, and Nanotechnology, which he identified as technologies enabled by Moore's Law.

He showed a slide of Barry Bonds, and said that steroids are sort of a primitive first-generation human enhancement, and noted that the first uses of human enhancement tend to occur in sports and the military, areas where you have the most competition.

Garreau went over a few examples of each of the GRIN technologies that already exist or are likely on the way.

Dolly the cloned sheep. "Manipulating and understanding life at the most primitive and basic level."

"Within three years, memory pills, originally aimed at Alzheimer's patients, will then move out to the needy well, like 78 million baby boomers who can't remember where they left their car, then out to the merely ambitious." He said there's already a $36.5 billion grey market for drugs like Ritalin and Provigil (midafonil), and asked, "Are our elite schools already filling up with the enhanced?" [There's some evidence, however, that the enhancement of cognitive function (as opposed to staying awake) is minimal for people who already operate at high ability, with the greatest enhancement effect for those who don't--i.e., it may have something of an egalitarian equalizing effect.]

He said DARPA is looking at ways to end the need for sleep--whales and dolphins don't sleep, or they'd drown, but they do something like sleeping with one half of the brain at a time.

DARPA is also looking at ways to turn off hunger signals. Special forces troops burn 12,000 calories per day, but can't carry huge amounts of food. The body carries extra calories in fat that are ordinarily inaccessible unless you're starving, at which point they get burned. If that switch to start burning fat could be turned on and off at will, that could be handy for military use. He observed that DARPA says "the civilian implications of this have not eluded us."

Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, started by David Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School, aims to have a drug to reverse aging based on resveratrol, an ingredient from grapes found in red wine. [Though Quackwatch offers some skepticism.]

Garreau looks forward to cures for obesity and addiction. He mentioned Craig Venter's plan to create an organism that "eats CO2 and poops gasoline" by the end of this year, that will simultaneously "end [the problems in] the Middle East and climate change." [That seems overly optimistic to me, but ExxonMobil has given Venter $600 million for this project.]

He said there are people at ASU in the hunt, trying to create life forms like this as well. [Though for some reason ASU doesn't participate in the iGEM synthetic biology competition.]

Garreau showed a photo of a Predator drone, and said, "Ten years ago, flying robots were science fiction, now it's the only game in town for the Air Force." He said this is the first year that more Air Force personnel were being trained to operate drones than to be pilots. 2002 was the first year that a robot killed a human being, when a Predator drone launched a Hellfire missile to kill al Qaeda members in an SUV in Yemen. He said, "while there's still a human in the loop, philosophical discussions about homicidal robots could be seen as overly fine if you were one of the guys in the SUV."

"We're acquiring the superpowers of the 1930s comic book superheroes," he said, and went on to talk about a Berkeley exoskeleton that allows you to carry a 180-pound pack like it weighs four pounds, like Iron Man's suit. He asked the engineers who built it, "Could you leap over a tall building in a single bound?" They answered, "yes, but landing is still a problem."

Functional MRI (fMRI) is being used at the University of Pennsylvania to try to determine when people are lying. Garreau: "Then you're like the Shadow who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men."

Cochlear implants to give hearing to people for whom hearing aids do nothing, connecting directly to the auditory nerve. Ocular implants to allow the blind to have some vision. Brain implants to improve memory and cognition. Garreau asked, "If you could buy an implant that would allow you to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese, would you do it?" About half the room raised their hands. [I didn't hear a price or safety information, so didn't raise my hand.]

He showed a photo of a camera phone and said, "Fifteen years ago, a machine like this that can fit in your pocket, with a camera, GPS, and MP3 player, and can send email, was science fiction. Now it's a bottom-of-the-line $30 Nokia."

He asked, "Does anyone remember when music players were three big boxes that you put on your bookshelves? Now they're jewelry. Soon they'll be earrings, then implants."

Close behind, he said, are universal translators. "Google has pretty good universal translation on the web, and see it as moving out to their Droid phones." He observed that Sergey Brin was talking in 2004 about having all of the world's information directly attached to your brain, or having a version of Google on a chip implanted in your brain. [I won't get one unless they address network security issues...]

Garreau said, "Imagine anything you want, one atom or molecule at a time. Diamonds, molecularly accurate T-bone steaks." He said this is the least developed of the four GRIN technologies, "so you can say anything you want about it, it might be true." It's estimated to become a $1 trillion/year market in the next 10 years. There may be nanobots you can inject into your bloodstream by the thousands to monitor for things about to go wrong [see this video for the scenario I think he's describing], hunter-killers that kill cancer cells. "When you control matter at a fundamental level, you get a feedback loop between the [four] technologies."

At this point, Garreau said he's really not all that interested in the "boys and their toys" so much as he is the implications--"where does this take culture and society and values?" He presented three possible scenarios, emphasizing that he's not making predictions. He called his three scenarios Heaven, Hell, and Prevail.

He showed a chart of an exponential curve going up (presumably something like technological capacity on the y axis and time on the x axis).

He said that at the NIH Institute on Aging, there's a bet that the first person to live to 150 is already alive today. He mentioned Ray Kurzweil, said that he pops 250 pills a day and is convinced that he's immortal, and is "not entirely nuts." [I am very skeptical that 250 pills a day is remotely sensible or useful.]

For the last 160 years, human life expectancy has increased at about 1/4 of a year every year. He asked us to imagine that that rate improves to one year per year, or more--at that point, "if you have a good medical plan you're effectively immortal." [I questioned this in the Q&A, below.]

He showed a chart that was an x-axis mirror of the Heaven one, and described this as a case where technology "gets into the hands of madmen or fools." He described the Australian mousepox incident, where researchers in Australia found a way to genetically alter mousepox so that it becomes 100% fatal, destroying the immune system, so that there's no possible vaccine or prevention. This was published in a paper available to anyone, and the same thing could be done to smallpox to wipe out human beings with no defense. He said the optimistic version is something that wipes out all human life; the pessimistic version is something that wipes out all life on earth. [In my law school class, we discussed this same topic yesterday in more detail, along with a similar U.S. paper that showed how to reconstruct the polio virus.]

The problem with both of these scenarios for Garreau is that they are both "techno-deterministic," assuming that technology is in control and we're "just along for the ride."

He showed a chart that showed a line going in a wacky, twisty pattern. The y-axis may have been technological capacity of some sort, but the x-axis in this case couldn't have been time, unless there's time travel involved.

Garreau said, if you were in the Dark Ages, surrounding by marauding hordes and plagues, you'd think there wasn't a good future. But in 1450 came the printing press--"a new way of storing, sharing, collecting, and distributing information," which led to the Renaissance, enlightenment, science, democracy, etc. [Some of those things were rediscoveries of advancements previously made, as Richard Carrier has pointed out. And the up-and-down of this chart and example of the Dark Ages seems to be in tension, if not in conflict, with his earlier exponential curve, though perhaps it's just a matter of scale. At the very least, however, they are reason to doubt continued growth in the short term, as is our current economic climate.]

Garreau called the Prevail scenario more of a co-evolution scenario, where we face challenges hitting us in rapid succession, to which we quickly respond, which creates new challenges. He expressed skepticism of top-down organizations having any capacity to deal with such challenges, and instead suggested that bottom-up group behavior by humans not relying on leaders is where everything interesting will happen. He gave examples of eBay ("100 million people doing complex things without leaders"), YouTube ("no leaders there"), and Twitter ("I have no idea what it's good for, but if it flips out the Iranian government, I'm for it.") [These are all cases of bottom-up behavior facilitated by technologies that are operated by top-down corporations and subject to co-option by other top-down institutions in various ways. I'm not sure how good the YouTube example is considering that it is less profitable per dollar spent than Hulu--while some amateur content bubbles to the top and goes viral, there still seems to be more willingness to pay for professional content. Though it does get cheaper to produce professional content and there are amateurs that produce professional-quality content. And I'll probably offer to help him "get" Twitter.]

The Prevail scenario, he said, is "a bet on humans being surprising, coming together in unpredicted ways and being unpredictably clever."

He ended by asking, "Why have we been looking for intelligent life in the universe for decades with no success? I wonder if every intelligent species gets to the point where they start controlling their own destiny and what it means to be as good as they can get. What if everybody else has flunked. Let's not flunk. Thanks."

I asked the first question, which was whether there is really so much grounds for optimism on extending human lifespan when our gains have increased the median lifespan but not made recent progress on the top end--the oldest woman in the world, Jeanne Calment, died at 122 in 1997 and no one else has reached that age. He answered that this was correct, that past improvements have come from nutrition, sanitation, reducing infant mortality, and so forth, but now that we spent $15 billion to sequence the first human genome and the cost of sequencing a complete human genome is approaching $1,000 and personalized medicine is coming along, he suspects we'll find the causes of aging and have the ability to reverse it through genetic engineering.

Prof. David Guston of CSPO asked "What's the relation between your Prevail scenario and the distribution of the success of the good stuff from GRIN technologies?" Looking at subgroups like males in post-Soviet Russia and adults in Africa, he said, things seem to be going in the wrong direction. Garreau answered that this is one of the nightmare scenarios--that humans split into multiple species, such as enhanced, naturals, and the rest. The enhanced are those that keep upgrading every six months. The naturals are those with access to enhancements that "choose not to indulge, like today's vegetarians who are so because of ethical or aesthetic reasons." The rest are those who don't have access to enhancements, and have envy for and despise those who do. "When you have more than one species competing for the same ecological niche," he said, "that ends up badly for somebody." But, he said, that's assuming a rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer belief, "a hallmark of the industrial age." Suppose that instead of distributing scarcity, we are distributing abundance. He said that transplanted hearts haven't become cheap because they aren't abundant, but if we can create new organs in the body or in the lab in a manner that would benefit from mass production, it could become cheap. He pointed out that cell phones represent "the fastest update of technology in human history," going from zero to one phone for every two people in 26 years, and adapted to new uses in the developing world faster than in the developed world. He brought up the possibility of the developing world "leapfrogging" the developed world, "the way Europeans leapfrogged the Arab world a thousand years ago, when they were the leaders in science, math, and everything else." [I think this is a very interesting possibility--the lack of sunk costs in existing out-of-date infrastructure, the lack of stable, firmly established institutions are, I think, likely to make the developing world a chaotic experimental laboratory for emerging technologies.]

Prof. Gary Marchant of the Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology then said, "I'm worried about the bottom-up--it also gave us witch trials, Girls Gone Wild, and the Teabaggers." Garreau said his Prevail scenario shows "a shocking faith in human nature--a belief in millions of small miracles," but again said "I'm not predicting it, but I'm rooting for it."

Prof. Farzad Mahootian and Prof. Cynthia Selin of CSPO asked a pair of related questions about work on public deliberations and trying to extend decision-making to broader audiences, asking what Garreau thought about "DARPA driving this or being porous to any kind of public deliberation or extended decision-making?" Garreau responded that "The last thing in the world that I want to do is leave this up to DARPA. The Hell scenario could happen. Top-down hierarchical decision-making is too slow. Anyone waiting for the chairman of the House finance committe to save us is pathetic. Humans in general have been pulling ashes out of the fire by the skin of their teeth for quite a while; and Americans in particular have been at the forefront of change for 400 years and have cultural optimism about change." [I think these questions seemed to presuppose top-down thinking in a way that Garreau is challenging.]

He said he had reported a few years ago about the maquiladoras in Mexico and called it a "revolution," to which he got responses from Mexicans saying, "we're not very fond of revolutions, it was very messy and we didn't like it," and asking him to use a different word. By contrast, he said, "Americans view revolutions fondly, and think they're cool, and look forward to it." [Though there's also a strange conservatism that looks fondly upon a nonexistent ideal past here, as well.] With respect to governance, he said he's interested in looking for alternate forms of governance because "Washington D.C. can't conceivably respond fast enough. We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there." [Quoting the 'Smokey and the Bandit' theme song.]

He went on to say, "I don't necessarily think that all wisdom is based here in America. Other places will come up with dramatically different governance." He talked about the possibility of India, which wants to get cheaper drugs out to the masses, taking an approach different from FDA-style regulation (he called the FDA "a hopelessly dysfunctional organization that takes forever to produce abysmal results"). "Let's say the people of India were willing to accept a few casualties to produce a faster, better, cheaper cure for malaria, on the Microsoft model--get a 'good enough' version, send it out and see how many computers die. Suppose you did that with drugs, and were willing to accept 10,000 or 100,000 casualties if the payoff was curing malaria once and for all among a billion people. That would be an interesting development." By contrast, he said, "The French are convinced they can do it the opposite way, with top-down governance. Glad to see somebody's trying that. I'll be amazed if it works." His view, he said, was "try everything, see what sticks, and fast." [This has historically been the intent of the U.S. federal system, to allow the individual states to experiment with different rules to see what works before or in lieu of federal rules. Large corporations that operate across states, however, which have extensive lobbying power, push for federal regulations to pre-empt state rules, so that they don't have to deal with the complexity.]

There were a few more questions, one of which was whether anyone besides DARPA was doing things like this. Garreau said certainly, and pointed to both conventional pharmaceutical companies and startups working to try to cure addiction and obesity, as well as do memory enhancement, like Eric Kandel's Memory Pharmaceuticals. He talked about an Israeli company that has built a robotic arm which provides touch feedback, with the goal of being able to replace whatever functionality someone has lost, including abilities like throwing a Major League fastball or playing the piano professionally.

Prof. Selin reported a conversation she had with people at the law school about enhancement and whether it would affect application procedures. They indicated that it wouldn't, that enhancement was no different to them than giving piano lessons to children or their having the benefit of a good upbringing. Garreau commented that his latest client is the NFL, and observed that body building has already divided into two leagues, the tested and the untested. The tested have to be free of drugs, untested is anything goes. He asked, "can you imagine this bifurcation in other sports? How far back do you want to back out technology to get to 'natural'? Imagine a shoeless football league." He noted that one person suggested that football minus technology is rugby. [This reminded me of the old Saturday Night Live skit about the "All Drug Olympics."]

All-in-all, it was an interesting talk that had some overlap with things that I'm very interested in pursuing in my program, especially regarding top-down vs. bottom-up organizational structures. Afterward, I spoke briefly with Garreau about how bottom-up skeptical organizations are proliferating and top-down skeptical organizations are trying to capitalize on it, and I wondered to what extent the new creations of bottom-up organizations tend to get co-opted and controlled by top-down organizations in the end. In that regard, I also talked to him a bit about Robert Neuwirth's work on "shadow cities" and the Kowloon Walled City, where new forms of regulatory order arise in jurisdictional no-man's-lands (I could also have mentioned pirate codes). Those cases fall between the cracks for geographical reasons, while the cases that are occurring with regard to GRIN technologies fall between the cracks for temporal reasons, but it seems to me there's still the possibility of the old-style institutions to catch up and take control.

UPDATE: As a postscript, I recently listened to the episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast on human enhancement with philosopher Allen Buchanan, who was at the University of Arizona when I went to grad school there. Good stuff.

State of the world on drug decriminalization

Personal possession of any drug decriminalized: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Czech Republic, Baltic states, some German states and Swiss cantons, Mexico.

Partial decriminalization/minimal criminal prosecution: England, Denmark, Slovakia, Latvia, Croatia, Poland, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands (see chart in the Economist story linked below--it's interesting that the Netherlands has the highest percentage of prison outcomes on this list)

Unconstitutional to prosecute people for drug possession (any drug) per Supreme Court ruling: Argentina, Colombia

Marijuana decriminalized: 14 U.S. states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon)

States with some localities that have decriminalized marijuana: Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Washington, Wisconsin

Considering marijuana legalization: California, Massachusetts, possibly Oregon

Considering decriminalization (any drug): Brazil, Ecuador

Source: The Economist, "Virtually legal," November 14, 2009; state decriminalization details from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

William Dembski would like to use copyright to quash criticism

Although when it comes to other people's works, William Dembski hasn't seen a problem with taking copyrighted material and using it wholesale, dubbing over a computer animated video from Harvard and XVIVO of the inner workings of a cell with his own intelligent design-based commentary, when it comes to his own work he has a different standard.

Mark Chu-Carroll points out at his Good Math, Bad Math blog that Dembski is talking about using threats of claimed copyright infringement to shut down criticism of a recent paper he published with Robert Marks. That criticism includes pointing out that sources cited by Dembski don't say what he says they do, and providing counterexamples to Dembski's mathematical claims. Rather than respond to the criticism, Dembski would rather shut it down.

There are just a few problems with that--first, the criticism may well be fair use. Although it does quote a great deal of the paper by Dembski and Marks, it does so for the purpose of putting commentary and criticism side-by-side with quotations from the paper. Second, papers published by the IEEE require that copyright be transferred to the IEEE, so Dembski lacks standing even if there were infringement.

Check out the RationalWiki critique of the Dembski and Marks paper.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Daniel Dennett, The Evolution of Confusion

Daniel Dennett's talk from the 2009 Atheist Alliance International convention (link is to my summary) is now online:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Richard Carrier on the ancient creation/evolution debate

Richard Carrier, an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in Ancient History from Columbia University, gave a talk this morning to the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix titled "Christianity and Science (Ancient and Modern)." He argued that there was a creation/evolution debate in ancient Rome that had interesting similarities and differences to the current creation/evolution debate.

He began with Michael Behe and a short description of his irreducibly complexity argument regarding the bacterial flagellum--that since it fails to function if any piece is removed, and it's too complex to have originated by evolution in a single step, it must have been intelligently designed and created. He observed that 2,000 years ago, Galen made the same argument about the human hand and other aspects of human and animal anatomy. Galen wrote that "the mark of intelligent design is clear in those works in which the removal of any small component brings about the ruin of the whole."

Behe, Carrier said, hasn't done what you'd expect a scientist to do with respect to his theory. He hasn't looked at the genes that code the flagellum and tried to identify correlate genes in other microbes, for example.

In the ancient context, the debate was between those who argued for natural selection on random arrangements of features that were spontaneously generated, such as Anaxagoras and atomists like Democritus and Epicurus, vs. those who argued for some kind of intelligent design, like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Galen. Carrier set the stage by describing a particular debate about the function of the kidneys between Asclepiades and Galen. Asclepiades thought that the kidneys were either superfluous, with urine forming directly in the bladder, or was an accidental sieve. Galen set out to test this with a public experiment on an anesthetized pig, which had been given water prior to the operation. He opened up the pig, ligated (tied knots in) its ureters, and they started to balloon and the bladder stayed empty. Squeezing the ureter failed to reverse the flow back into the kidney. When one ureter was cut, urine came out. Thus, Galen demonstrated that the kidneys extract urine from the blood and it is transported to the bladder by the ureters. The failure of the flow to operate in reverse showed that the kidneys were not simple sieves, but operated by some power that only allowed it to function in one direction. This, argued Galen, was demonstration of something too complex to have arisen by chance, and refuted the specific claims of Asclepiades.

Galen's 14-volume De Usu Portium (On the Usefulness of Parts) made similar arguments for intelligent design about all aspects of human anatomy--the nerve transport system, biomechanics of arm, hand, and leg movement, the precision of the vocal system, etc. He also asked questions like "How does a fetus know how to build itself?" He allowed for the possibility of some kind of tiny instructions present in the "seed," on analogy with a mechanical puppet theater, programmed with an arrangement of cogs, wheels, and ropes.

Galen also investigated the question of why eyebrows and eyelashes grow to a fixed length and no longer, and found that they grow from a piece of cartilage, the tarsal plate. He concluded that while his evidence required an intelligent designer, they entailed that God is limited and uses only available materials. Galen, a pagan, contrasted his view with that of Christians. For Christians, a pile of ashes could become a horse, because God could will anything to be the case. But for Galen, the evidence supported a God subject to the laws of physics, who was invisibly present but physically interacting to make things happen, and that God realizes the best possible world within constraints.

Which intelligent design theory better explains facts like the growth of horses from fetuses, the fact that fetuses sometimes come out wrong, and why we have complex bodies at all, rather than just willing things into existence via magic? If God can do anything, why wouldn't he just make us as "simple homogenous soul bodies that realize functions by direct will" (or "expedient polymorphism," to use Carrier's term)?

The difference between Galen's views and those of the Christians was that Galen thought of theology as a scientific theory that had to be adjusted according to facts, that facts about God are inferred from observations, and those facts entail either divine malice or a limited divinity. What we know about evolution today places even more limits on viable theories of divinity than in Galen's time. (Carrier gave a brief overview of evolution and in particular a very brief account of the evolution of the bacterial flagellum.)

Galen's views allowed him to investigate, conduct experiments to test the theories of his opponents as well as his own, and make contributions to human knowledge. He supported the scientific values of curiosity as a moral good, empiricism as the primary mode of discovery, and progress as both possible and valuable, while Christianity denigrated or opposes these. The views of early church fathers were such that once Christianity gained power, it not only put a halt to scientific progress, it caused significant losses of knowledge that had already been accumulated. (Carrier later gave many examples.)

Tertullian, a contemporary of Galen, asked, "What concern have I with the conceits of natural science?" and "Better not to know what God has not revealed than to know it from man."

Thales, from the 6th century B.C., was revered by pagans as the first natural scientist--he discovered the natural causes of eclipses, explained the universe as a system of natural causes, performed observations and developed geometry, made inquiries into useful methods, and subordinated theology to science. There was a story that he was so focused on studying the stars that he fell into a well. Tertullian wrote of this event that Thales had a "vain purpose" and that his fall into the well prefigured his fall into hell.

Lactantius, an early Christian writer and tutor of Constantine the Great, denied that the earth was round (as part of a minority faction of Christians at the time), said that only knowledge of good and evil is worthwhile, and argued that "natural science is superfluous, useless, and inane." This despite overwhelming evidence already accumulated of a round earth (lighthouses sinking below the horizon as seen from ships sailing away, astronomical observations of lunar eclipses starting at different times in different locations, the fact that different stars are visible at different latitudes, and the shadow of the earth on the moon), which Lactantius simply was uninterested in.

Eusebius, the first historian of the Christian church, said that all are agreed that only scriptural knowledge is worthwhile, anything contrary to scripture is false, and pursuing scientific explanations is to risk damnation. Armchair speculation in support of scripture, however, is good.

Amid factors such as the failure of the pagan system, civil wars in the Roman empire, and a great economic depression, Christianity came to a position of dominance and scientific research came to a halt from about the 4th century to the 12th-14th centuries.

Carrier compared these Christian views to specific displays at the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky, which compared "human reason" to "God's word." One contrasted Rene Descartes saying "I think therefore I am" to God saying "I am that I am." Galen wouldn't have put those into opposition with each other.

Another display labeled "The First Attack--Question God's Word" told the story of Satan tempting Adam to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which highlights the "questioning" of Satan for criticism, and argues that putting reason first is Satanic.

Another diagram comparing "human reason" to "God's Word" showed evolution as a 14-billion-year winding snake-like shape, compared to the short and straight arrow of a 6,000-year creation.

Carrier noted, "It doesn't have to be that way. Galen's faith didn't condemn fundamental scientific values; Galen's creationism was science-based."

He then gave numerous examples of knowledge lost or ignored by Christianity--that Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth (a case described in Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series), Ptolemy's projection cartography and system of latitude and longitude, developments in optics, hydrostatics, medicine, harmonics and acoustics, pneumatics, tidal theory, cometary theory, the precession of the stars, mathematics, robotics (cuckoo clocks, coin-operated vending machines for holy water and soap dispensing), machinery (water mills, water-powered saws and hammers, a bread-kneading machine), and so on. He described the Antikythera mechanism, an analog computer similar to WWI artillery computers, which was referred to in various ancient texts but had been dismissed by historians as impossible until this instance was actually found in 1900.

Another example was the Archimedes Codex, where Christians scraped the ink from the text and wrote hymns on it, and threw the rest away. The underlying writing has now been partially recovered thanks to modern technology, revealing that Archimedes performed remarkably advanced calculations about areas, volumes, and centers of gravity.

Carrier has a forthcoming book on the subject of this ancient science, called The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire.

A few interesting questions came up in the Q&A. The first question was about why early Christians didn't say anything about abortion. Carrier said it probably just wasn't on the radar, though abortion technology already existed in the form of mechanical devices for performing abortions and abortifacients. He also observed that the ancients knew the importance of cleanliness and antiseptics in medicine, while Jesus said that washing before you eat is a pointless ritual (Mark 7:1-20). Carrier asked, if Jesus was God, shouldn't he have known about the germ theory of disease?

Another question was whether Christianity was really solely responsible for 1,000 years of stangnation. Carrier pointed out that there was a difference between Byzantine and Western Christianity, with the former preserving works like those of Ptolemy without condemning them, but without building upon them. He said there are unerlying cultural, social, and historical factors that explain the differences, so it's not just the religion. He also pointed out that there was a lost sect of Christianity that was pro-science, but we have nothing of what they wrote, only references to them by Tertullian, criticizing them for supporting Thales, Galen, and so forth.

Another questioner asked how he accounts for cases of Christians who have contributed to science, such as Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and Bacon. Carrier said "Not all Christians have to be that way--there's no intrinsic reason Christianity has to be that way." But, he said, if you put fact before authority, scripture will likely end up not impressing you, being contradicted by evidence you find, and unless you completely retool Christianity, you'll likely abandon it. Opposition to scientific values is necessary to preserve Christianity as it is; putting weight on authority and scripture leads to the anti-science position as a method of preservation of the dogma.

It was a wonderfully interesting and wide-ranging talk. He covered a lot more specifics than I've described here. If you find that Carrier is giving a talk in your area, I highly recommend that you go hear him speak.

You can find more information about Richard Carrier at his web site.

Philosophy Bites podcast

I've been listening to past episodes of the Philosophy Bites podcast, and I highly recommend it--they are short (about 15 minute) discussions with prominent philosophers about specific philosophical topics and questions. I've found them to be consistently of high quality and interesting, even in the one case where I think the philosophical argument was complete nonsense (Robert Rowland Smith on Derrida on forgiveness). Even there, the interviewers asked the right questions.

I particularly have enjoyed listening to topics that are outside the areas of philosophy I've studied, like Alain de Botton on the aesthetics of architecture. Other particularly good ones have been Hugh Mellor on time, David Papineau on physicalism, A.C. Grayling on Descartes' Meditations, and Peter Millican on the significance of Hume. I've still got a bunch more past episodes to listen to; I'm going to be somewhat disappointed when I catch up.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Robert B. Laughlin on "The Crime of Reason"

The 2009 Hogan and Hartson Jurimetrics Lecture in honor of Lee Loevinger was given on the afternoon of November 5 at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law by Robert B. Laughlin. Laughlin, the Ann T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Horst L. Stormer and Daniel C. Tsui), spoke about his recent book, The Crime of Reason.

He began with a one-sentence summary of his talk: "A consequence of entering the information age is probably that we're going to lose a human right that we all thought we had but never did ..." The sentence went on but I couldn't keep up with him in my notes to get it verbatim, and I am not sure I could identify precisely what his thesis was after hearing the entire talk and Q&A session. The main gist, though, was that he thinks that a consequence of allowing manufacturing to go away and being a society based on information is that "Knowledge is dear, therefore there has to be less of it--we must prevent others from knowing what we know, or you can't make a living from it." And, he said, "People who learn on their own are terrorists and thieves," which I think was intentional hyperbole. I think his talk was loaded with overgeneralizations, some of which he retracted or qualified during the Q&A.

It certainly doesn't follow from knowledge being valuable that there must be less of it. Unlike currency, knowledge isn't a fungible commodity, so different bits of knowledge have different value to different people. There are also different kinds of knowledge--know-how vs. knowledge that, and making the latter freely available doesn't necessarily degrade the value of the former, which is why it's possible to have a business model that gives away software for free but makes money from consulting services. Further, the more knowledge there is, the more valuable it is to know where to find the particular bits of knowledge that are useful for a given purpose, and the less it is possible for a single person to be an expert across many domains. An increasing amount of knowledge means there's increasing value in various kinds of specializations, and more opportunities for individuals to develop forms of expertise in niches that aren't already full of experts.

Laughlin said that he is talking about "the human rights issue of the 21st century," that "learnign some things on your own is stealing from people. What we think of as our rights are in conflict with the law, just as slavery is in conflict with human rights." He said that Jefferson was conflicted on this very issue, sayng on the one hand that "knowledge is like fire--divinely designed to be copyable like a lit taper--I can light yours with mine, which in no way diminishes my own." This is the non-rival quality of information, that one person copying information from another doesn't deprive the other of their use of it, though that certainly may have an impact on the commercial market for the first person to sell their information.

"On the other hand," said Laughlin, "economics involves gambling. [Jefferson] favored legalized gambling. Making a living involves bluff and not sharing knowledge." He said that our intellectual property laws derive from English laws that people on the continent "thought ... were outrageous--charging people to know things."

He put up a photo of a fortune from a fortune cookie, that said "The only good is knowledge, and the only evil ignorance." He said this is what you might tell kids in school to get them to study, but there's something not right about it. He then put up a drawing of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster (Laughlin drew most of the slides himself). He said, we're all familiar with the Frankenstein myth. "The problem with open knowledge is that some of it is dangerous. In the U.S. some of it is off-limits, you can't use it in business or even talk about it. It's not what you do with it that's exclusive, but that you have it at all."

His example was atomic bomb secrets and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which makes it a federal felony to reveal "nuclear data" to the public, which has been defined very broadly in the courts. It includes numbers and principles of physics.

Laughlin returned to his fortune cookie example, and said there's another problem. He put up a drawing of a poker game. "If I peeked at one guy's cards and told everyone else, the poker game would stop. It involves bluffing, and open access to knowledge stops the game." He suggested that this is what happened last year with the world financial sector--that the "poker game in Wall Street stopped, everyone got afraid to bet, and the government handled it by giving out more chips and saying keep playing, which succeeded." I agree that this was a case where knowledge--specifically knowledge of the growing amounts of "toxic waste" in major world banks--caused things to freeze up, it wasn't the knowledge that was the ultimate cause, it was the fact that banks engaged in incredibly risky behavior that they shouldn't have. More knowledge earlier--and better oversight and regulation--could have prevented the problem.

Laughlin said "Economics is about bluff and secrecy, and open knowledge breaks it." I don't think I agree--what makes markets function is that price serves as a public signal about knowledge. There's always going to be local knowledge that isn't shared, not necessarily because of bluff and secrecy, but simply due to the limits of human capacities and the dynamics of social transactions. While trading on private knowledge can result in huge profits, trading the private knowledge itself can be classified as insider trading and is illegal. (Though perhaps it shouldn't be, since insider trading has the potential for making price signals more accurate more quickly to the public.)

Laughlin showed a painting of the death of Socrates (by Jacques-Louis David, not Laughlin this time), and said that in high school, you study Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, and learn that knowledge is good. But, "as you get older, you learn there's a class system in knowledge." Plato etc. is classified as good, but working class technical knowledge, like how to build a motor, is not, he claimed. He went on to say, "If you think about it, that's exactly backwards." I'm not sure anyone is ever taught that technical knowledge is not valuable, especially these days, where computer skills seem to be nearly ubiquitous--and I disagree with both extremes. From my personal experience, I think some of my abstract thinking skills that I learned from studying philosophy have been among the most valuable skills I've used in both industry and academia, relevant to both theoretical and practical applications.

Laughlin said that "engines are complicated, and those who would teach you about it don't want to be clear about it. It's sequestered by those who own it, because it's valuable. The stuff we give away in schools isn't valuable, that's why we give it away." In the Q&A, a questioner observed that he can easily obtain all sorts of detailed information about how engines work, and that what makes it difficult to understand is the quantity and detail. Laughlin responded that sometimes the best way to hide things is to put them in plain sight (the Poe "purloined letter" point), as needles in a haystack. But I think that's a rather pat answer to something that is contradictory to his claim--the information really is freely available and easy to find, but the limiting factor is that it takes time to learn the relevant parts to have a full understanding. The limit isn't the availability of the knowledge or that some of it is somehow hidden. I'd also challenge his claim that the knowledge provided in schools is "given away." It's still being paid for, even if it's free to the student, and much of what's being paid for is the know-how of the educator, not just the knowledge-that of the specific facts, as well as special kinds of knowledge-that--the broader frameworks into which individual facts fit.

Laughlin went on to say, "You're going to have to pay to know the valuable information. Technical knowledge will disappear and become unavailable. The stuff you need to make a living is going away." He gave as examples defense-related technologies, computers, and genetics. He said that "people in the university sector are facing more and more intense moral criticism" for sharing information. "How life works--would we want that information to get out? We might want to burn those books. The 20th century was the age of physics, [some of which was] so dangerous we burned the books. It's not in the public domain. The 21st century is the age of biology. We're in the end game of the same thing. In genetics--e.g., how disease organisms work. The genetic structure of Ebola or polio." Here, Laughlin seems to be just wrong. The gene sequences of Ebola and polio have apparently been published (Sanchez, A., et al. (1993) "Sequence analysis of the Ebola virus genome: organization, genetic elements and comparison with the genome of Marburg virus," Virus Research 29, 215-240 and Stanway, G., et al. (1983) "The nucleotide sequence of poliovirus type 3 leon 12 a1b: comparison with poliovirus type 1," Nucleic Acids Res. 11(16), 5629-5643). (I don't claim to be knowledgeable about viruses, in the former case I am relying on the statement that "Sanchez et al (1993) has published the sequence of the complete genome of Ebola virus" from John Crowley and Ted Crusberg, "Ebola and Marburg Virus: Genomic Structure, Comparative and Molecular Biology."; in the latter case it may not be publication of the complete genome but is at least part.)

Laughlin talked about the famous issue of The Progressive magazine which featured an article by Howard Moreland titled "How H-Bombs Work." He showed the cover of the magazine, which read, "The H-Bomb Secret--How we got it--why we're telling it." Laughlin said that the DoJ enjoined the journal from publishing the article and took the issue into secret hearings. The argument was that it was a threat to national security and a violation of the Atomic Energy Act. The judge said that the rule against prior restraint doesn't apply because this is so dangerous that "no jurist in their right mind would put free speech above safety." Laughlin said, "Most people think the Bill of Rights protects you, but this case shows that it doesn't." After the judge forbid publication, it was leaked to a couple of "newspapers on the west coast," after which the DoJ dropped the case and the article was published. According to Laughlin, this was strategy, that he suspects they didn't prosecute the case because the outcome would have been to find the AEA unconstitutional. By dropping the case it kept the AEA as a potential weapon in future cases. He said there have only been two cases of the criminal provisions of the AEA prosecuted in the last 50 years, but it is "inconceivable that it was only violated twice. The country handles its unconstitutionality by not prosecuting." The U.S., he said, is like a weird hybrid of Athens and Sparta, favoring both being open and being war-like and secretive. These two positions have never been reconciled, so we live in an unstable situation that favors both.

He also discussed the case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist from Taiwan who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who took home items that were classified as "PARD" (protect as restricted data), even though everyone is trained repeatedly that you "Don't take PARD home." When he was caught, Laughlin said, he said "I didn't know it was wrong" and "I thought they were going to fire me, so I took something home to sell." The latter sounds like an admission of guilt. He was put into solitary confinement for a year (actually 9 months) and then the case of 50 counts of AEA violations was dropped. Laughlin characterized this as "extralegal punishment," and said "we abolish due process with respect to nuclear data." (Wen Ho Lee won a $1.5 million settlement from the U.S. government in 2006 before the Supreme Court could hear his case. Somehow, this doesn't seem to me to be a very effective deterrent.)

Laughlin said that we see a tradeoff between risk and benefit, not an absolute danger. The risk of buildings being blown up is low enough to allow diesel fuel and fertilizer to be legal. Bombs from ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel are very easy to make, and our protection isn't hiding technical knowledge, but that people just don't do it. But nuclear weapons are so much more dangerous that the technical details are counted as absolutely dangerous, no amount of benefit could possibly be enough. He said that he's writing a book about energy and "the possible nuclear renaissance unfolding" (as a result of need for non-carbon-emitting energy sources). He says the U.S. and Germany are both struggling with this legal morass around nuclear information. (Is the unavailability of nuclear knowledge really the main or even a significant issue about nuclear plant construction in the United States? General Electric (GE Energy) builds nuclear plants in other countries.)

Laughlin said that long pointy knives could be dangerous, and there's a movement in England to ban them. Everybody deals with technical issue of knowledge and where to draw lines. (Is it really feasible to ban knives, and does such a ban constitute a ban on knowledge? How hard is it to make a knife?)

At this point he moved on to biology, and showed a photograph of a fruit fly with legs for antennae. He said, "so maybe antennae are related to legs, and a switch in development determines which you get. The control machinery is way too complicated to understand right now." (Really?) "What if this was done with a dog, with legs instead of ears. Would the person who did that go to Stockholm? No, they'd probably lose their lab and be vilified. In the life sciences there are boundaries like we see in nuclear--things we shouldn't know." (I doubt that there is a switch that turns dog ears into legs, and this doesn't strike me as plausibly being described as a boundary on knowledge, but rather an ethical boundary on action.) He said, "There are so many things researchers would like to try, but can't, because funders are afraid." Again, I suspect that most of these cases are ethical boundaries about actions rather than knowledge, though of course there are cases where unethical actions might be required to gain certain sorts of knowledge.

He turned to stem cells. He said that the federal government effectively put a 10-year moratorium on stem cell research for ethical reasons. Again, these were putatively ethical reasons regarding treatment of embryos, but the ban was on federally funded research rather than any research at all. It certainly stifled research, but didn't eliminate it.

Next he discussed the "Millennium Digital Copyright Act" (sic). He said that "people who know computers laugh at the absurdity" of claiming that computer programs aren't formulas and are patentable. He said that if he writes a program that "has functionality or purpose similar to someone else's my writing it is a violation of the law." Perhaps in a very narrow case where there's patent protection, yes, but certainly not in general. If he was arguing that computer software patents are a bad idea, I'd agree. He said "Imagine if I reverse-engineered the latest Windows and then published the source code. It would be a violation of law." Yes, in that particular example, but there are lots of cases of legitimate reverse engineering, especially in the information security field. The people who come up with the signatures for anti-virus and intrusion detection and prevention do this routinely, and in some cases have actually released their own patches to Microsoft vulnerabilities because Microsoft was taking too long to do it themselves.

He said of Microsoft Word and PDF formats that they "are constantly morphing" because "if you can understand it you can steal it." But there are legal open source and competing proprietary software solutions that understand both of the formats in question--Open Office, Apple's Pages and Preview, Foxit Reader, etc. Laughlin said, "Intentional bypassing of encryption is a violation of the DMCA." Only if that encryption is circumvention of "a technological measure that effectively controls access to" copyrighted material and the circumvention is not done for the purposes of security research, which has a big exception carved out in the law. Arguably, breakable encryption doesn't "effectively control access," though the law has certainly been used to prosecute people who broke really poor excuses for encryption.

Laughlin put up a slide of the iconic smiley face, and said it has been patented by Unisys. "If you use it a lot, you'll be sued by Unisys." I'm not sure how you could patent an image, and while there are smiley face trademarks that have been used as a revenue source, it's by a company called SmileyWorld, not Unisys.

He returned to biology again, to talk briefly about gene patenting, which he says "galls biologists" but has been upheld by the courts. (Though perhaps not for many years longer, depending on how the Myriad Genetics case turns out.) Natural laws and discoveries aren't supposed to be patentable, so it's an implication of these court decisions that genes "aren't natural laws, but something else." The argument is that isolating them makes them into something different than what they are when they're part of an organism, which somehow constitutes an invention. I think that's a bad argument that could only justify patenting the isolation process, not the sequence.

Laughlin showed a slide of two photos, the cloned dog Snuppy and its mother on the left, and a Microsoft Word Professional box on the right. He said that Snuppy was cloned when he was in Korea, and that most Americans are "unhappy about puppy clones" because they fear the possibility of human clones. I thought he was going to say that he had purchased the Microsoft Word Professional box pictured in Korea at the same time, and that it was counterfeit, copied software (which was prevalent in Korea in past decades, if not still), but he had an entirely different point to make. He said, about the software, "The thing that's illegal is not cloning it. If I give you an altered version, I've tampered with something I'm not supposed to. There's a dichotomy between digital knowledge in living things and what you make, and they're different [in how we treat them?]. But they're manifestly not different. Our legal system['s rules] about protecting these things are therefore confused and mixed up." I think his argument and distinction was rather confused, and he didn't go on to use it in anything he said subsequently. It seems to me that the rules are pretty much on a par between the two cases--copying Microsoft Word Professional and giving it to other people would itself be copyright infringement; transforming it might or might not be a crime depending on what you did. If you turned it into a piece of malware and distributed that, it could be a crime. But if you sufficiently transformed it into something useful that was no longer recognizable as Microsoft Word Professional, that might well be fair use of the copyrighted software. In any case in between, I suspect the only legally actionable offense would be copyright infringement, in which case the wrongdoing is the copying, not the tampering.

He put up a slide of Lady Justice dressed in a clown suit, and said that "When you talk to young people about legal constraints on what they can do, they get angry, like you're getting angry at this image of Lady Law in a clown suit. She's not a law but an image, a logos. ... [It's the] root of our way of relating to each other. When you say logos is a clown, you've besmirched something very fundamental about who you want to be. ... Legal constraints on knowledge is part of the price we've paid for not making things anymore." (Not sure what to say about this.)

He returned to his earlier allusion to slavery. He said that was "a conflict between Judeo-Christian ethics and what you had to do to make a living. It got shakier and shakier until violence erupted. War was the only solution. I don't think that will happen in this case. [The] bigger picture is the same kind of tension. ... Once you make Descartes a joke, then you ask, why stay?" He put up a slide of a drawing of an astronaut on the moon, with the earth in the distance. "Why not go to the moon? What would drive a person off this planet? You'd have to be a lunatic to leave." (I thought he was going to make a moon-luna joke, but he didn't, unless that was it.) "Maybe intellectual freedom might be that thing. It's happened before, when people came to America." He went on to say that some brought their own religious baggage with them to America. Finally, he said that when he presents that moon example to graduate students, he always has many who say "Send me, I want to go."

And that's how his talk ended. I was rather disappointed--it seemed rather disjointed and rambling, and made lots of tendentious claims--it wasn't at all what I expected from a Nobel prizewinner.

The first question in the Q&A was one very much like I would have asked, about how he explains the free and open source software movement. Laughlin's answer was that he was personally a Linux user and has been since 1997, but that students starting software companies are "paranoid about having stuff stolen," and "free things, even in software, are potentially pernicious," and that he pays a price for using open source in that it takes more work to maintain it and he's constantly having to upgrade to deal with things like format changes in PDF and Word. There is certainly such a tradeoff for some open source software, but some of it is just as easy to maintain as commercial software, and there are distributions of Linux that are coming closer to the ease of use of Windows. And of course Mac OS X, based on an open source, FreeBSD-derived operating system, is probably easier for most people to use than Windows.

I think there was a lot of potentially interesting and provocative material in his talk, but it just wasn't formulated into a coherent and persuasive argument. If anyone has read his book, is it more tightly argued?