Consciousness: Pushing the boundaries of science and pseudoscience

I attended a conference in La Jolla last week with the ambitious title, “The Science of Consciousness”. As it brought together neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, physicists (like Roger Penrose), mathematicians, linguists (like Noam Chomsky), and many others, I looked forward to a variety of perspectives, including those outside the mainstream, but I got more than I bargained for. It turns out that it also included people more involved in various kinds of spirituality, wellness, meditation, and…interesting artistic interpretations.

(Image by Robert Fludd, 1619, Wikimedia Commons.)

Instead of shedding light on something as perplexing and seemingly impenetrable as consciousness, which people have been trying to understand for millennia, these other approaches threaten to undermine the whole enterprise. I worry that some of the conference could be better characterized as “The Pseudoscience of Consciousness.” And the distinction between science and pseudoscience never seemed more blurred.

But what do I know. Science hasn’t really given us that much of an understanding of the murky concept. What is consciousness and do only humans have it? What about babies and the elderly and people with debilitating mental illnesses? Exactly what parts of the brain are involved (just the frontal cortex? microtubules in neurons everywhere?) and how did it appear in evolution?

Science is only getting us so far, and consciousness is a fundamental conundrum of the human condition, so why not consider other avenues toward probing it? But some people aren’t doing that argument any favors. There’s people like Deepak Chopra (who was at the conference) who add the word “quantum” to their speculative if not fanciful ideas to try to make them profound or something. That’s B.S. (And anyway, the interpretation of the quantum behavior of particles and waves remains disputed and poorly understood since their discovery some 90 years ago, so that’s not the best reference to make!)

I’m glad people continue to speculate and investigate different facets of consciousness, such as how we’re conscious about our perceptions of language and conversation, music, making and retrieving memories, etc. Some scientists are also studying the kinds of neuronal activity that are dampened by anesthetics and enhanced by psychoactive drugs, which sounds weird, but it might illuminate, just a bit, what’s going on in our parts of our complex brains.

I’m also glad that people aren’t limiting this endeavor science. After all, poets, philosophers, musicians can make insights no one else has thought of before, and we need to listen to them. But when there’s the risk of pseudoscience being passed off as science and gaining legitimacy at the expense of it, then we have a problem.

Maybe this sort of thing is inevitable when you’re pushing the frontiers of something unknown while answers remain illusive. For example, think of interstellar space exploration, which also naturally captivates the imagination of a wide range of people. At times the consciousness conference reminds me of parts of the “Finding Earth 2.0” conference organized by 100-Year Starship that I went to back in 2015. While some impressive people like Jill Tarter and Mae Jameson focused on space travel technology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), other people worked on things like “astrosociology.” I was expecting people to talk about what it might be like for a handful of people to be stuck in an enclosed spaceship for years or a slightly larger planetary colony for decades. Those are important and tractable questions—and scientists at NASA and elsewhere are studying them right now. But instead a handful of people spoke about giant ships at least a century in the future, like it was Battlestar Galactica or the starship Enterprise or something. Yes, let’s think about what things might be like in the 23rd century, but all that’s premature unless we figure out how to get there first.

New freelance writings: forensic science reform, planet impacts, earthquake forecasting

Check out my latest articles and writings this past month, for Undark, Nature, New Scientist, and Now.Space. As always, thanks go to my editors. If you read just one, I recommend the Undark piece, which I’m particularly proud of and took a lot of work to write and report on.

 

Bite Marks and Bullet Holes

The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.

Forensic scientists working in the crime laboratory located in Ridgepoint House. (Source: West Midlands Police – Forensic Science Lab)

Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.

“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”

Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 2 June.]

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Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.

Election polling postmortem finds flaws in polls of Midwestern states that went for Trump

Remember the chaotic election last November? How could we forget! If you followed the polls and listened to pundits, you could be forgiven for expecting Hillary Clinton to win by a large margin. But that’s not what happened, and the outcome surprised even some established pollsters, prompting an investigation of the election polls, which six months later has now been completed.

The new report released today [I’ll include a link here] by the American Association for Public Opinion Research finds that, no, the polls aren’t “broken.” National polls fared pretty well, while Midwestern state polls missed a big segment of voters leaning toward Donald Trump. The letter from FBI director James Comey about the Clinton email probe appeared to cause a small temporary shift, and quite a few undecided voters broke for Trump at the last minute, but despite that Clinton won the national vote by 2.1%, almost as much as forecast (3%) and well within the uncertainties. But Trump’s victory in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where non-college educated suburban white people were politicized and turned out in large numbers, caught experts off guard. (Polls gave Clinton the edge in those three states, and had she won all of them, she would’ve won with 278 vs 260 electoral votes.)

The popular vote went for Clinton, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. Pollsters need to spend more time and effort on state polls, especially in “battleground” states, to improve those polls and more accurately get the voting preferences of all segments of the population of likely voters, including those who don’t respond as often to pollsters’ phone calls or online surveys. State polls throughout the upper Midwest seem to have missed non-college educated and working-class whites in suburban and rural areas, who turned out the vote more than expected and preferentially for Trump.

There’s a couple other findings worth noting, but I’d like to make a more important point about how polls are interpreted. Many people seem to have banked on Clinton’s narrow national lead, which did not translate into an Electoral College win. It wasn’t even close. “The horse race becomes interesting news fodder, but it’s misleading,” Michael Link, past president of AAPOR, tells me.

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New freelance writings: solitary confinement, lost SoCal beaches, Trump science, and where’s ET?

For those of you following my work, check out this sampling of new articles and writings from the past month (in Newsweek, Hakai magazine, Slate, and Inside Science). Many of them involve important questions we need to ask as a society or have implications for policy. If I’ve done my job, these will spark new questions and discussions, and I’m happy to hear your thoughts on them. As always, I’d like to thank my editors, who help me hone my good ideas and dissuade me from my bad ones.

 

Solitary Confinement Screws up The Brains of Prisoners

They live in tiny, austere cages not much larger than their bodies, isolated from their peers. These pitiful lab rats once served merely as control groups for researchers, to be compared with rodents in more comfortable abodes with toys and fellow lab animals for interaction. But then scientists realized these unfortunate rats could be the perfect model for a bigger, uglier experiment, since their living conditions mimic those of human prisoners in solitary confinement.

Within just a few days, rats isolated in small, nearly empty cages exhibit stress-related symptoms, aggressive behavior and higher incidences of disease, and they begin to lose the ability to recognize other animals. Over time, even their brain cells, synapses, blood flow and nervous systems start to be impaired. Scientists believe this happens to humans in isolation as well. “Our brains cannot function without social interactions. We require them as much as air and water,” says Michael Zigmond, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. He and other scientists have drawn attention in recent years to the effects of solitary confinement on people’s brains, minds and behavior…

Nearly one in five prisoners in the U.S. is put in solitary confinement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the majority of them are isolated for at least a month at a stretch. Prisoners in solitary often spend 23 hours of every day in a spartan concrete box the size of a parking space, and they usually have access to only a bed, a sink and a toilet.

Humans are social animals, yet in these conditions, they lack any meaningful social interactions, in addition to being kept in a state of sensory deprivation, with limited sunlight and exercise. Prisoners in solitary confinement rarely interact with staff and are fed through a slot in the door…

[Read the entire story in Newsweek, published on 18 April 2017.]

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New spacey stories: killer asteroids, stellar DNA, and rogue planets

I meant to post at least once a month, but I think you’ll understand that it’s hard to find the time while juggling new freelance science writing work with a 9-month-old kiddo at home. Anyway, here’s a couple pieces I’ve published over the past month. Enjoy! (See links below for the full articles.) As usual, thanks go to my helpful editors: Heather D’Angelo, Lisa Grossman, Lauren Morello and Jane Lee.

 

Maybe Dark Matter Didn’t Kill the Dinosaurs after All

Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact. Credit: Donald E. Davis, via Wikimedia Commons

A giant asteroid or comet the size of a city smashed into the Yucatán 66 million years ago, likely causing the demise of dinosaurs and many other species. Scientists have wondered: is that a random, unfortunate event, or has life on Earth been subjected to periodic impacts from outer space?

Some researchers proposed that, if the dinosaur extinction — the last of five mass extinctions — had an astronomical origin, rather than being driven by volcano eruptions or global warming, for example, then maybe others did too. And if impacts from huge boulders of rock and ice drove these extinctions, they had to come from somewhere. It’s possible that dark matter could periodically dislodge distant comets from their tenuous orbits beyond Pluto, sending a few of them dangerously in Earth’s direction — thus linking the fates of dark matter and dinosaurs.

But a new study by a team of physicists and geologists from Durham University and Lancaster University in the United Kingdom appears to shoot down that dark matter interpretation. If it were true, extinctions would have happened in cycles. But these scientists pored over the fossil record over the past 500 million years, looking for extinctions occurring periodically, but they didn’t find any significant patterns like that in the data.

“We needn’t search the heavens to find reasons for these extinction events. The vast majority of them are due to Earth processes, not astronomical ones,” says David Harper, lead author of the study.

The dark matter idea, popularized by Lisa Randall’s 2015 book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” might sound far-fetched. But…

[Read the entire story in Now.space, published on 14 March 2017.]

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My new freelance writings: climate costs, light pollution, binary stars

I set out as a freelance science writer this month, and here’s a few excerpts from my latest pieces in Slate, New Scientist, and Inside Science. (See links below for the full articles.) As usual, thanks go to my insightful editors, Susan Matthews, Lisa Grossman, and Chris Gorski, and thanks to Abigail Malate, who provided illustrations for the light pollution article.

 

Here’s One Way Trump’s Team Could Manipulate Government Data

It has plans to recalculate the social cost of carbon, which has been called “the most important number you’ve never heard of.”

D2007_1108_427191.jpg

D2007_1108_427191.jpg

…Would Trump try to meddle with the government’s data-collection process? His transition team is interested in doing exactly that. One of the first things that might be under attack? A number known as the “social cost of carbon.”

Since 2008, the final year of the Bush administration, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation have been required to take the social cost of carbon into account when assessing and enacting regulations. Everything from refrigerators to cars and trucks to power plants emits carbon, which then goes on to hurt our health, our lands, our long-term viability on this planet, etc. The social cost of carbon allows more than 70 federal regulations, and even some local and state ones, to meaningfully and uniformly account for these costs while regulating. It’s sort of like a carbon tax that only applies to government decisions and is never actually paid but still incentivizes long-term good behavior over short-term economic gains.

“It’s the most important number you’ve never heard of,” says Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist.

It exists thanks to a 2007 federal court case that forced the Bush administration to account for the social cost of carbon when regulating the fuel economy of trucks and SUVs. The suit argued, among other things, that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act’s “calculation of the costs and benefits of alternative fuel economy standards assigns zero value to the benefit of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction” and that these benefits should be included. This was achieved by calculating and accounting for the social cost of carbon. Another court finding upheld and reinforced that decision just last year: A trade association of refrigerator companies had tried to argue that the cost of carbon estimate was just a guess and that the government didn’t have the authority to consider it. The court disagreed, upholding that the calculation “is supported by substantial evidence and is neither arbitrary nor capricious”…

[Read the entire story in Slate, published on 26 January 2017.]

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To combat climate change, incremental change is not enough

Some people, including Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, argue that we can effectively mitigate climate change and keep greenhouse gas emissions in check with small policy changes here and there. But I think we no longer have that option; the window for solving this massive problem with incremental changes closed years ago.

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

Even while we brace ourselves for the incoming Trump administration, with numerous appointments on the transition team who deny basic scientific understanding about climate change and human activities driving it, we should not just defend current first steps in place, like the Clean Power Plan. If we are to combat climate change and if we are serious about avoiding worst-case scenarios, which would detrimentally affect millions of people worldwide, especially those living in coastal areas and low-lying islands, then we need to actively push for more.

In politics, people often talk of incremental changes, pushing for small reforms when the opportunity arises in the hopes that they somehow add up to bigger shifts over time. That might make sense for some policy goals, but as we reach so many “tipping points” with the climate, such as indicated by the horrible state of Arctic sea ice this year, we no longer have time for dilly-dallying. People and groups from very different political backgrounds have come together for big changes before—often for war—and now I hope that many will try to set aside their differences to try to realize a common goal.

The Clean Power Plan, developed under the Clean Air Act, goes after power plants, the country’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. It sets targets such that the national electricity sector’s emissions must drop by about 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. (Recall that 1990 was the original baseline, used by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, but the Obama administration shifted it, possibly to make it seem like its reductions are larger than they actually are.) The result will be less of an emphasis on coal-fired power plants and more renewable energy as well as energy efficiency gains. We may see more use of natural gas or even nuclear power.

But the Clean Power Plan is not enough even to meet the country’s Paris Agreement commitments. Other beneficial policies make a difference as well, including California’s climate regulations—which include generating 50% of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030; reducing hydrofluorocarbons; and the EPA and Department of Transportation’s regulations on heavy-duty vehicles. If all of these things went according to plan, the US’s Paris pledges might be achievable.

Some people who should know better (such as the IPCC and US Democrats) include flawed or unproven technology, like carbon capture and storage in these policy frameworks. We should not depend on these or other so-called “negative-emission” technologies developing in the near future, as argued in this recent paper in Science by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters.

Furthermore, even before Donald Trump takes office, the US is not on a path to meet its Paris Agreement pledges. This analysis in Nature Climate Change by Jeffery Greenblatt and Max Wei makes it clear that more has to be done. The Paris Agreement itself was supposed to be just a first step.

Even *if* the US and other major greenhouse gas-producing nations fulfill their Paris climate pledges, we’re still heading toward around 3 degrees of warming, far beyond what scientists warn is a safe threshold. When climate experts put together the Paris Agreement, they recommended 1.5 degrees warming as the threshold we should shoot for, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve that economically or practically. But perhaps with major policy shifts in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, 2 degrees might be achievable. Even that, however, could mean losing some island nations, more extreme flooding and droughts, numerous losses of species, suffering coral reefs, dwindling of some agricultural crops and fisheries, and shifting of ecosystems and growing deserts, among other disruptive and destructive impacts. In the US as well, economists and climate scientists are trying to estimate the “social cost of carbon,” which could cost this country billions or more in damage (though Trump’s transition team has tried to downplay these numbers so far).

The fact is, to mitigate climate change, we can’t emit much more greenhouse gas. The US has already burned through most of its carbon budget. Shifts from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, especially solar and wind, are already happening, and this trend would be tough to reverse by the incoming administration. Instead, it could be framed as a business opportunity, and perhaps Trump would be keen to back it in some way.

Lastly, let’s remember that, across the political spectrum, many people are in favor of major infrastructure projects. Investing in wind farms and solar power plants while upgrading public transportation systems, for example, could create millions of jobs, stimulate the economy and put us on a better path toward reigning in our toxic greenhouse gases.

Trump Transition News in Nature: Budget Situation, Scientists Respond

Here’s a pair of stories I’ve worked on recently on the transition to the Trump era and what that means for science. The second one was written by Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon and me. Thanks as usual to Lauren Morello for help editing. Thanks also go to my very informative sources. At the end of this post, I’ve also included links to a couple related stories by my Nature colleagues, and I recommend checking them out, too.

 

Stopgap spending bill leaves US scientists in limbo

Proposal would keep funding flat for most research agencies, but cuts could come early next year.

In what has become a year-end tradition in Washington DC, the US Congress is getting ready to approve a stopgap spending measure before it adjourns for the holidays.

The legislation introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives would hold spending flat at most science agencies, with some limited increases. These include an extra US$872 million to implement provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would reform drug development and biomedical research. The money would be split between the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and state governments…

The stopgap funding bill, which would expire on 28 April, also allows for extra funding to keep a handful of major multiyear space programmes on track. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes designed to monitor Earth’s weather and climate, as well as NASA efforts to explore deep space and develop a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

But for most science programmes, funding would remain at roughly the same level as in the past fiscal year. And continuing to operate under a temporary funding measure means that agencies cannot start new programmes or end old ones without explicit permission from Congress.

“Every time you delay a [final] spending bill, it prevents the science agencies from doing the planning they need, and it keeps them in limbo,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC…

Many researchers are more worried about what might come after this temporary funding extension, if it is approved. When president-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January 2017, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress — and their science priorities are very different from those of outgoing President Barack Obama, a Democrat…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 7 December 2016.]

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Is Trump betraying his base?

Many Trump voters hope their man in the White House will be a brave outsider who will shake things up in Washington and improve their economic and job situations. But his platform, landing team and appointments so far indicate that they’ll be sorely disappointed.

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-Elect Trump won 62 million votes, and the way I see it, many of those came from people who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by a system in which the political establishment ignored their concerns and struggles. Many from Midwestern states also saw local industries erode and jobs remain hard to come by—the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is stuck at 10%, higher than when Obama took office in 2008—at odds with talk by commentators of an improving economy. (Racism, sexism, and xenophobia disturbingly factored into Trump’s campaign as well; these are very important issues, but I’ll write about them more later.)

However, it’s hard to see how Trump would change business-as-usual when lobbyists and Washington insiders make up so many of his appointees and transition team. These include Wilbur Ross, founder of a private equity firm, to lead the Commerce Department. He previously owned a coal company whose Sago mine in West Virginia had been cited for hundreds of safety and health violations and in which 12 miners lost their lives following an (avoidable) explosion. Betsy DeVos, a prominent donor to head Education, would likely push for more access to private schools which would lead to decreased funding to public ones, including those that many Trump voters’ families depend on. Trump also has numerous advisers and potential appointees from Washington think tanks and lobbying firms, including Myron Ebell, Michael McKenna and Michael Catanzaro.

None of these people have experience with or a record of supporting working-class people, whom Trump won more votes from than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, according to exit polls. He also won more men and more people with less than a university education, according to a Pew survey, and his supporters primarily came from rural areas and suburbs. (And yes, there was a big racial divide, but it looks similar to previous elections, in spite of the role racial issues and immigration played in Trump’s campaign.)

Furthermore, the tax code Trump has proposed would raise taxes on the poorest while cutting them for the richest people. Nearly 8 million families, most of them single-parent ones, would see higher taxes, too. The biggest tax changes would be to the richest 1 percent, who would benefit from windfalls of 13.5% on average, the Tax Policy Center finds. The richest of the top 1 percent (multi-millionaires) would also benefit from him repealing the estate tax (and possibly the gift and generation-skipping taxes). If all these tax cuts passed, the deficit would balloon over Trump’s term and it could be tough for his administration to continue the federal government’s support for the welfare system that some of his voters and many other people rely on, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump voters are concerned about what they perceive as inequality in job opportunities, according to a Pew survey conducted right before the election. (But they’re not worried about economic inequality, presumably hoping that the “American Dream” will one day come true for them.) It’s not clear where the needed jobs would come from during Trump’s term though. Infrastructure projects often create many jobs, but Trump’s proposal seems to depend on huge tax credits, which won’t necessarily have the intended results.

Nevertheless, if Italy’s experience with Berlusconi is any guide, I suspect that most Trump voters won’t simply turn against him just because he broke some campaign promises or because his economic policies don’t benefit them. People want to feel like they have someone, anyone, who listens to them and represents their interests. If no one else provides a clear and credible alternative, I think many people will stick with Trump through his term.

Finally, how will journalists grapple with the Trump era? Many have different thoughts on this (see this, this, and this), and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself as well. I don’t really have an answer yet, but stay tuned.