Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Big Bang, big questions

June 22, 2020

Our Universe began with the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. It started virtually volumeless, virtually infinitely dense and hot, and then expanded. What came before, and triggered the Big Bang? That’s not a valid question, because Time itself began with the Big Bang.

This is the “standard model” of today’s science. I am a believer in science. But that’s not like a religious belief or faith; instead, a matter of epistemology. Which refers to how we know things.

This doesn’t mean everything in science is “true.” That misunderstands the point. Scientific precepts (unlike religion) are always subject to revision with more information. That can disprove a theory, but none is ever proven with finality. That said, however, the bulk of modern science can be pretty much taken to the bank. The concept of biological evolution, for example, will not be disproven by new information. And the same applies to most of modern physics.

Current cosmology devolves from Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that most other galaxies are moving away from us. The farther distant, the faster. This means the Universe is expanding. Run that movie backwards and it contracts. Ending all crunched together: the Big Bang.

Note that the expansion doesn’t mean everything is enlarging. Instead it’s space itself that’s expanding, carrying everything along with it. And stuff all moving away from us doesn’t mean Earth is at the center. Picture instead a raisin cake rising; as it expands, each raisin moves away from every other.

Science has figured out the physics of the Universe’s start, back to a very teensy fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But then you get to a point where the extreme conditions of density and heat mean the laws of physics as we know them don’t work. We call this a “singularity.” (The same applies inside a black hole. Some scientists speculate that a black hole’s singularity can give off big bangs; maybe that’s our own origin.)

Inability to parse out just exactly what happened in that very first instant might be considered a problem in the standard model. But there’s a difference between “don’t know” and “can’t know.” While some theorists say “can’t know,” I prefer to suspend judgment on what future science may be able to penetrate. Scientists a century ago could not have imagined today’s knowledge.

Meanwhile, inability to wrap our heads around the notion of Time beginning with the Big Bang might also feel like a problem. Yet hitting that seeming conceptual wall doesn’t stop thinking about explanations for the Big Bang. Some reasonable concepts have been sketched out at least in a general way. We can say they’re not science because we have no way to test such ideas experimentally or with predictions — today. But again, a different story in the future should not be ruled out.

But here’s another problem. The Universe’s diameter is currently estimated at 93 billion light years. (At least that’s what we can see; the whole thing could be larger.) That doesn’t gibe with its age being only 13.7 billion years; it implies expansion exceeding light speed.

The explanation is inflation: during an infinitesimally small interval after the Big Bang, the Universe expanded faster than light speed. But didn’t Einstein tell us nothing can travel faster than light? Yes; but that applies only to objects moving through space. In inflation, it was space itself expanding.

And what caused this? It’s theorized that the force of gravity suddenly reversed, pushing stuff apart rather than pulling it together. Then, just as suddenly, it switched back. We have some ideas about why that could have happened.

However that, and the whole inflation theory, is mainly supported on the basis that it’s the only way we can account for what we observe.

Here’s another problem. We know the law of gravity: proportional to mass and decreasing with the square of the distance between objects. But other galaxies don’t appear to obey it, unless there’s much more mass than we can see. Scientists call that extra stuff “dark matter,” and have debated various ideas for what it might be. We just don’t know.

A possible solution is “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” (MOND). Just as some laws of physics change when it comes to the ultra small (quantum mechanics), the law of gravity might not apply to the ultra large distances associated with galaxies. Realize that gravity being far the weakest of nature’s fundamental forces — and diminishing with the square of the distance between objects — we’re talking about a force of evanescent smallness at galactic distances. A tweak to Newton’s gravity law might explain things without requiring any additional “Dark Matter.” (While I find this idea attractive, it is not orthodox physics.)

There’s yet another problem. We had assumed that after the Big Bang’s initial energy burst (and the inflation episode), the momentum of the Universe’s expansion would be slowing. There was debate whether it would eventually slow to a stop, with gravity then starting to pull things back together, toward a “big crunch;” or would expand forever, dissipating into virtual cold nothingness; or would do neither, reaching stasis (a “flat universe”). All dependent on exactly how much mass there is. The third option seemed to be winning.

But then a new discovery blew scientists’ minds: after having slowed for some billions of years, the expansion started speeding up! And is still accelerating.

What’s causing that? “Dark Energy.” Meaning, as with Dark Matter, we don’t know. Yet Dark Energy is calculated to comprise some 70% of the entire Universe. (Remember that per Einstein’s famous equation, energy and matter are interchangeable.)

So . . . the singularity; no Time before Time; inflation; Dark Matter; Dark Energy. Science likes beautiful elegant theories. The standard Big Bang model begins to look like a clunky a Rube Goldberg contraption. With a lot of question marks. Might it all be just a huge mistake? What could an alternative possibly look like?

But suppose the Universe’s expansion does ultimately run out of steam and reverse, falling into a Big Crunch. It wouldn’t necessarily have to collapse all the way back to a singularity. Before that point, the extreme conditions could conceivably trigger a new Big Bang. Going back and forth like that forever. This avoids the conundrum of a singularity and also of a “Time before Time.” Though not the mind-bender of the word “forever.”

This is called the “Oscillating (or Cyclic) Universe,” discussed in Brian Clegg’s book, Before the Big Bang. That title hooked me in, but a more accurate one would have been About the Big Bang. Anyhow, Clegg shows there are serious problems with the Oscillating Universe concept too. He says it’s either equivalent to a perpetual motion machine or else must eventually run out of energy and expire.

There are other theories, like “branes.” And multi-universes. I won’t go into them. None strikes me as anything more than complete speculation.

Anyhow, one is forced to confront an irreducible mystery. Either the Universe had a beginning, arising out of nothing. Or else something always existed, without ever having had a beginning. No human mind can really grasp either possibility.

And there is an even deeper question: why is there something and not nothing? Scientists and philosophers have grappled with this.* Their efforts are far from satisfying. (Of course religion does no better. Why should there be a god rather than no god? At least we can be sure the universe exists.)

“Why is there something” is a question deep in my consciousness. Why I have one is itself a conundrum; but that’s only one small piece of the far larger mystery of existence itself. Most of us take it for granted, but not me. In fact, it’s my understanding of the clockwork of existence — imperfect though that understanding surely is — that nags me with that final “Why?”

It seems we should more logically expect a Universe of nothingness — a non-universe. That at least would raise no deep questions whatsoever. It would just be. (Or not-be.)

But I remain a believer in humanity’s ability to gain understanding. Someday people will look back with bemusement at us primitives, just as we look back at flat earthers.

* As I’ve discussed; here are some links: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/; https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/why-does-the-world-exist/;

The biology of the pandemic

June 14, 2020

My Capital District Humanist Society recently had a talk (over zoom) on the biology of the pandemic. It was a good scientific overview.

The speaker, Ricki Lewis, is an Adjunct Professor at the Alden March Biocenter; author of numerous scientific books and papers.

She began with a Joshua Lederberg quote saying humanity’s biggest threat is viruses; and by harking back to the great past fear over polio (another virus); as well as the once-common childhood illnesses Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox; all now defeated by vaccines (at least until anti-vaxxers came along).

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of this virus. Covid-19 is the illness it causes. It’s common for viruses to jump to humans from other animals. Particularly bats; they’re a quarter of all mammals, can harbor viruses without dying, and spew them all over. This is a natural enough explanation for Covid-19’s source. Lewis noted that no part of its genome matches anything in labs, though she couldn’t rule out its originating in a lab without human intentionality.

A virus is not a living thing, being much simpler than a bacterium or other kind of cell. It straddles the boundary between the biological and the chemical. Now, our genetic material is DNA; DNA is a molecular template for making RNA; and then RNA makes proteins. The genetic material for a virus can be either DNA or RNA. That genetic core, in a virus, is encased in a capsule of fatty stuff. “Coronavirus” gets its name from its crownlike exterior of spikes that lock into what are called ACE2 receptors on the outsides of our living cells. That enables the virus to inject its genetic material into a cell, and grab its chemical innards to make copies of itself. Then the cell bursts, spewing out more viruses.

We have a hierarchy of defenses. First are simply physical barriers, like skin. Then there’s “innate immunity,” mainly white blood cells tasked with combating invaders in general, through what we call “inflammation.” The third level is “adaptive” immunity, when the body manufactures antibodies specific to a particular invader. But that takes a while. Lewis noted that Blood Type O seems to block the covid virus better than other types; whereas Type A is overrepresented among the victims. She also said that Africans may be suffering less than us from covid because their immune systems are already revved up due to all the various illnesses they’re exposed to.

We get infected mainly by taking in viruses in droplets spewed out in coughs or sneezes, or just breathing, by infected people. That’s why masks help a lot. Lewis discussed the possibility of getting sick from touching surfaces where Viruses have come to rest. While this can happen, she didn’t think it’s much of a factor.

Most who get infected with the covid virus suffer only mild symptoms, or none. It’s actually better from the virus’s point of view if it can do its thing without killing the host; hence Lewis saw some possibility that covid could mutate its way into such relative benignity. Meantime, however, it does make a minority of victims very sick. A lot in the body goes wrong. We have endothelial cells that kind of hold things together; and they “come apart at the seams.” The alveoli in our lungs, which transfer oxygen into our blood, fill up with “stuff,” and blood oxygen plummets. You also get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and organ failure. Your own immune system goes haywire trying to fight this, resulting in a “cytokine storm” with nasty positive feedback loops. (Also, those who recover from a bad covid episode seem to be left with a range of problems that will be long-lasting.)

As for treatment, the drug remdesivir seems to inhibit virus replication, somewhat hastening recovery. But Lewis was skeptical about a vaccine, saying we don’t actually know if that’s even possible, and anyhow it would take a lot longer to deploy safely than optimists currently contemplate. Meantime “herd immunity” would deprive the virus of enough potential victims to keep itself going; that would happen once about 70% of the population has been infected and are presumably immune; though we don’t yet actually know they are immune from reinfection. And we’re a long way from herd immunity levels. Reopening economies could accelerate that, with a “second wave” of infections. Lewis said she initially expected that in the fall, but now thinks it could come within weeks due to the George Floyd protests likely having spread the virus.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

How old is the world?

April 25, 2020

Is the Earth around 4.5 billion years old? Or, just 6,022 and a few months?

PBS’s Independent Lens had a fascinating documentary about Kentucky’s “Ark Encounter” — to go with the “Creation Museum” I’ve written about. The documentary spotlighted some local opposition mainly to the project’s millions in tax subsidies. Surely unconstitutionally violating church-state separation.

This ark is a full-size imagining of Noah’s vessel. Really gigantic, costing in nine figures, to illustrate the ark accommodating every “kind” of animal. But apparently these Biblical literalists weren’t bothered by the implausibility of Noah and his three sons alone somehow managing such a huge project, without the modern technology they themselves used — not to mention the funding.

But of course that’s the least thing that might trouble young-earth creationists. They’ve calculated, from the Bible, Earth’s beginning in 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact! Biblical literalism taken to its ultimate, preposterous extreme.

Actually, the planet is roughly a million times older. If its history were condensed to a single year, then 4004 BC would have arrived on December 31 — at about 11:59 PM.

To swallow that 4004 story, you have to torture a lot of facts. Or just ignore them. One is our seeing other galaxies millions, even billions, of light years distant. A light year is how far light travels in a year. The light from those galaxies took millions or billions of years to reach us. Case closed.*

Likewise, to deny biological evolution you have to work awfully hard waving away practically everything we actually know about life and its history. As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

The impresario behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter is Ken Ham. The documentary showed what a slick con artist he is. Speaking to a big audience of youngsters, Ham led them in a chant mocking scientists who say the Earth originated billions of years ago: Were you there?

What a killer argument. And if you believe, instead of those scientists, the Biblical story of creation — were YOU there?? And the people who wrote that Bible story — were THEY there??

Also shown was one young woman “scientist,” part of the Ark organization, to give it a patina of “science.” I put those words in quotes because, as one (real) scientist said, one can have the training and capability to do science, but actually doing it is another thing. The young woman “scientist” declared that the Bible is true. How does she know? Because it’s true. It just is. She believes it because she believes it.

As a child I found a price guide to check my Canadian coins. “I’ve got a valuable one!” I exclaimed to my parents. The 1913 dime has two varieties, one rare, one common. My rationalist dad said, “How do you know yours is the rare one?” I said, “I just know it!” I wanted to believe.

In science, facts dictate beliefs. Not the other way around.

Then the show profiled a young man, reared in young-earth creationism. It was very important to him to protect his belief by having all the answers. Which he got from creationist websites arming him with refutations to every fact of mainstream geology and evolution-based science. Refutations which gradually he came to see through as false, misleading bunk.

I’m in awe of someone able to do that, having such intellectual equipment, honesty, and courage. I had it easy; I may have believed in my 1913 Canadian dime, but never in religion. But for people who do, the belief is very powerful. The documentary showed several whose certitude and confidence runs deep. I always remind myself that certain as I am they’re wrong, they’re equally certain I am wrong.

But: what difference does it make, really, whether you think the world is billions of years old, or only a few thousand? If you understand evolution science, or refuse to? It doesn’t exactly affect our daily lives. Or does it? The belief isn’t in a vacuum. It’s integral to a whole way of thinking, to one’s relationship with reality, with existence itself. Indeed, people shape their lives around such beliefs. That’s why they hold them so tenaciously, and why freeing oneself from such false belief is often so traumatic.

Surveys show about 40% of Americans believe the 4004 BC story. These are more or less the same people who don’t believe climate science. Who believe Trump.

* Actually, young-earth creationists answer that God could simply have made that light travel faster. Or created all the stars, and made them visible, all on the first day. Belief in such literal omnipotence is a universal cognitive get-out-of-jail free card.

Coronavirus realities

March 24, 2020

Trump, having previously said the economic shutdown could last till August, now wants a return to normalcy much sooner. (Much sooner than medical experts recommend.)

Actually we’re only just beginning to see how bad things are. The Economist’s latest issue (as usual) provides much clarity.

COVID-19 is very contagious, and the containment measures look too little too late because the virus is already very widespread. The swiftly rising number of reported cases is likely just the tip of an iceberg. Many infected people don’t show symptoms right away, if ever, but meantime can infect others.

Our efforts might, in a couple of weeks, appear to bend the curve down. But the problem is that a majority of the population won’t have been infected, hence won’t have developed immunity, and the virus won’t have disappeared from the landscape. This means that after Trump declares victory and restrictive measures are relaxed, the virus will likely spike back up — necessitating a reimposition of restrictions. “This on-off cycle,” says The Economist, “must be repeated until either the disease has worked through the population or there is a vaccine which could be months away, if one works at all.”

This virus, while new, is not a fundamentally different creature from others of its ilk, so in principle previous methods to create vaccines should succeed. But before then, most of our population could contract the illness. As we know, most would have only minor symptoms, or none. But even a death rate below 1% could still be expected to kill a million or two.

Of course, besides a vaccine, a medicine to treat the illness would change everything. While some candidates are being tested, we don’t have a treatment yet.

Note that — barring the virus’s complete eradication (practically impossible) — the more effective a shutdown is in preventing infections, the worse will be the second wave, after the relaxation, because the virus will have so many potential new victims without immunity. The Imperial College in London built a set of models (reported by The Economist) showing this effect after five months of restrictions. If they included schools, the second wave is even more severe. (China may soon be putting this to the test.) Governments need to be candid about this prospect, instead of encouraging us to imagine the whole thing will just go away in due course.

I have argued that we really have no choice but to accept severe economic pain to avoid a nightmare scenario of a health system unable to handle a flood of illnesses so that many thousands die simply from lack of care. That’s starting to look likely despite our best efforts. Realize not just coronavirus victims will be affected — hospitals won’t be able to treat accidents, heart attacks, anything else. And, says The Economist, “the bitter truth is that [those containment efforts] may be economically unsustainable. After a few iterations governments might not have the capacity to carry businesses and consumers. Ordinary people might not tolerate the upheaval. The cost of repeated isolation, measured by mental well-being and the long-term health of the rest of the population, might not justify it.”

An agonizing dilemma. But The Economist also says it can be mitigated by a massive testing regime and use of technology to trace contacts and identify who really needs quarantining. As South Korea and China have done.

Trump keeps patting himself on the back for his early restrictions on travel from China and, later, Europe. That may indeed have helped slow the virus’s spread. However, it was already underway before the travel bans, so it was delusional to think they solved the problem. What was really needed was what South Korea did — again, massive testing, right away.

But even to this day, we’re still not doing that. Still only starting to ramp up toward it.

As The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist (on American affairs) writes, this testing inadequacy at least partly owes to the Trump administration’s “decision to scrap the NSC’s dedicated pandemic unit” (established under Obama). He also points to its “sticking with a faulty viral test when the WHO could have provided a working alternative.” (As South Korea used. The tests mostly in use here now, still way too few, also don’t give results for up to ten days — almost useless in this fast-moving pandemic.) Lexington also points to overall White House dysfunctionality, and concludes: “a stunning catalog of failure.”

Add in Trump’s fountain of false and misleading information, which delayed most Americans’ taking the problem seriously. Last Wednesday he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act, enabling government to require industries to produce stuff needed in an emergency. We’re desperately short on respirators and protective gear. But just signing an order, with Trump’s posturing flamboyance, actually produces nothing, absent follow-through. And it is absent. Trump seems to imagine he’ll nevertheless make the needed items magically appear.

Trump (never able to admit error) now claims he knew very early this would be a pandemic. Contradicting his own previous statements. And begging the question: if he knew so early, why was our response, particularly on testing, so dilatory?

The harsh truth: South Korea’s infection began exactly the same time as ours. Had we done what South Korea did, we might have avoided the need for economic restrictions as extreme as those now in force, which may well fail anyway. And avoided literally trillions in costs and losses and untold human suffering. And of course a vast number of deaths soon to occur.

Trump bears terrible blame for this catastrophe. As do Americans who voted for such a person.

Suppose there were some disease that would somehow disproportionately take out Republicans. Well, here it is. They do tend to be much older on average. But moreover, many Trump fans who took on board his early pooh-poohing of the virus still treat it less seriously than even he does now; thus are more likely to expose themselves to infection and death.

On the other hand, this thing is bollixing up voting, and Republicans will take advantage to make casting ballots harder — especially for Democrats. We must be vigilant lest our democracy be another casualty of COVID-19.

Artificial Intelligence and our ethical responsibility

March 16, 2020

(A virus-free and Trump-free post. (At least until I added this.))

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was originally conceived as replicating human intelligence. That turns out to be harder than once thought. What is rapidly progressing is deep machine learning, with resulting artificial systems able to perform specific tasks (like medical diagnosis) better than humans. That’s far from the integrated general intelligence we have. Nevertheless, an artificial system for the latter may yet be inevitable in the future. Some foresee a coming “singularity” when AI surpasses human intelligence and then takes over its own further evolution. Which changes everything.

Much AI fearmongering warns this could be a mortal threat to us. That superior AI beings could enslave or even eliminate us. I’m extremely skeptical toward such doomsaying; mainly because AI would still be imprisoned under human control. (“HAL” in 2001 did get unplugged.) Nevertheless, AI’s vast implications raise many ethical issues, much written about too.

One such article, with a unique slant, was by Paul Conrad Samuelsson in Philosophy Now magazine. He addresses our ethical obligations toward AI.

Start from the question of whether any artificial system could ever possess a humanlike conscious self. I’ve had that debate with David Gelernter, who answered no. Samuelsson echoes my position, saying “those who argue against even the theoretical possibility of digital consciousness [disregard] that human consciousness somehow arises from configurations of unconscious atoms.” While Gelernter held that our neurons can’t be replicated artificially, I countered that their functional equivalent surely can be. Samuelsson says that while such “artificial networks are still comparatively primitive,” eventually “they will surpass our own neural nets in capacity, creativity, scope and efficiency.”

And thus attain consciousness with selves like ours. Having the ability to feel — including to suffer.

I was reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty: regardless of whatever else might be said of animal mentation, the dispositive fact is their capacity for suffering.

Samuelsson considers the potential for AI suffering a very serious concern. Because, indeed, with AI capabilities outstripping the human, the pain could likewise be more intense. He hypothesizes a program putting an AI being into a concentration camp, but on a loop with a thousand reiterations per second. Why, one might ask, would anyone do that? But Samuelsson then says, “Picture a bored teenager finding bootlegged AI software online and using it to double the amount of pain ever suffered in the history of the world.”

That may still be far-fetched. Yet the next passage really caught my attention. “If this description does not stir you,” Samuelsson writes, “it may be because the concept of a trillion subjects suffering limitlessly inside a computer is so abstract to us that it does not entice our empathy. But this itself shows us” the problem. We do indeed have a hard time conceptualizing an AI’s pain as remotely resembling human pain. However, says Samuelsson, this is a failure of imagination.

Art can help here. Remember the movie “Her?” (See my recap: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/her-a-love-story/)

Samantha, in the film, is a person, with all the feelings people have (maybe more). The fact that her substrate is a network of circuits inside a computer rather than a network of neurons inside a skull is immaterial. If anything, her aliveness did finally outstrip that of her human lover. And surely any suffering she’s made to experience would carry at least equal moral concern.

I suspect our failure of imagination regarding Samuelsson’s hypotheticals is because none of us has ever actually met a Samantha. That will change, and with it, our moral intuitions.

AI rights are human rights.

Coronavirus/Covid19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

March 9, 2020

It may or may not be a pandemic, but it is certainly a panic. A huge chunk of Italy, including Milan and Venice, is locked down, as is much of Washington State. Financial markets have freaked out, anticipating economic damage (mostly not from disease but from measures combating it).

Our federal government’s response so far is shambolic. Test kits: too little too late. Moronic Trump spews misinformation and utilizes the occasion to bash enemies.

China’s draconian restrictions on freedom seem to have gotten the spread under control. One worries about countries with governments even less competent than Trump’s. (Yes, there are many.)

A problem is that an infected person is symptomless for a while, so can infect many others before detection.

Okay. Now let’s please get a grip.

So far, coronavirus has caused something over 100,000 illnesses and 3000 deaths worldwide. It’s an ailment much like ordinary flu, so most cases are relatively mild and clear up by themselves. Both illnesses kill mostly people already in frail health.

In the U.S. alone, ordinary common flu this season has thus far caused at least 32 million illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations, and 20,000 deaths.

Coronavirus does seem to have a somewhat higher death rate, but it’s still a very small percentage and the vast majority of victims recover. Coronavirus also does seem somewhat more infectious. On both measures, researchers are still trying to get an accurate fix. But it’s clear that though, on a case-by-case basis, coronavirus is more dangerous, it is not dramatically more dangerous.

And even if coronavirus is more contagious than ordinary flu, your chances of catching the latter, in the U.S., are hundreds of times greater simply because there are vastly more carriers. That could conceivably change, but coronavirus would have to metastasize humongously before it would actually be a U.S. health threat rivaling ordinary flu.

So why the panic over coronavirus, but not ordinary flu?*

As ever, human psychology is very bad at rationally gauging threats. After 9/11, millions felt safer driving than flying, though the risk on the roads was hugely greater (even counting the terrorism factor). People feel safer driving because they imagine they have control, unlike on an airplane. In the case of flu, the control factor is represented by vaccines, though in reality their effectiveness is limited. Another factor is familiarity. Driving, and seasonal flu, are thoroughly familiar. Unfamiliarity makes airplane terrorism, and coronavirus, seem more scary.

So we have TSA, and drastic efforts to contain coronavirus. Similarly strong measures could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually from car crashes and ordinary flu, not to mention guns, but most Americans just yawn.

Government might do better at calming the coronavirus panic by calling it just “flu.”

* Actually, measures combating coronvirus will probably prevent larger numbers of flu deaths as a side effect.

What we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Part I)

January 2, 2020

Michael Pollan is a food thinker and writer. Not a restaurant reviewer; he looks at the big picture of what we eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants; omnivores eat both.)

The book is a smorgasbord of investigative reporting, memoir, analysis, and argument. Pollan does have a strong point of view; cynics, pessimists and misanthropes will find much fodder here. But Pollan is no fanatical purist ideologue. We saw him on a TV piece summing up with this core advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems pretty reasonable.

He’s a lovely writer. Here’s a sample, concluding the first of the book’s three parts, talking (perhaps inevitably) about McDonald’s:

“The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat . . . hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger, or French fry, as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full.”

I might disagree with his evaluation, but man, this guy can write.

That first third of the book is all corn. In fact, if “you are what you eat,” we are all corn (well, mostly). Don’t think you eat much corn? Think again. As Pollan explains, a high proportion of our food is derived from corn; even our meat, the animals being mostly corn-fed. Pollan argues that, rather than humans domesticating corn, corn domesticated us. Viewed biologically, that species exploits us to spread itself and increase its population.

Pollan sees food industry economic logic driving us toward a kind of craziness. When the government started intervening in farm produce markets, the aim was to support prices by preventing overproduction. Remember farmers paid not to grow stuff? But in the 1970s that reversed, with the system now incentivizing ever higher yields, aided by technological advances. The resulting glut, in a free market, should drive prices down, signaling producers to cut back. However, if farm prices fall below a certain floor, the feds give farmers checks to make up the difference. Thus their incentive now is to just grow as much as possible, no matter what.

But, even with that government guarantee, Pollan shows, most farmers can barely eke a living, after costs. The bulk of the profit from corn actually being swallowed by the big middleman corporations like ADM and Cargill.

Meantime it’s a challenge to market all that corn. That’s why so much goes to animal feed. The industry has also cajoled the government to require using some in gasoline (ethanol), which actually makes neither economic, operational, nor environmental sense. But it does eat up surplus corn.

Part of the marketing challenge is that while for most consumer goods you can always (theoretically at least) get people to buy more, there’s a limit to how much a person can eat. So with U.S. population growth only around 1%, it’s hard for the food industry to grow profits by more than that measly percentage. But, in Pollan’s telling, it’s been fairly successful in overcoming that obstacle. This contributes, of course, to an obesity epidemic.

The abundance and consequent (governmentally subsidized) cheapness of corn figures large here. It goes into a lot of foods like soft drinks (yes, full of corn too!) that also attract us by their sweetness. Unsurprisingly, lower income consumers in particular go for such tasty fare that’s also cheap — buying what provides the most calories per budgetary dollar.

But the main driver of obesity is simple biology. We evolved in a world of food scarcity, hence with a propensity to load up when we could, against lean times sure to come. Thus programmed to especially crave calorie-rich sweet stuff. But it being no longer scarce, indeed ubiquitous, no wonder many get fat.

Pollan extensively discusses “organic” food. Largely a victim of its own success. “Organic” is a brilliant marketing ploy, it sounds so good. And farming that conforms to the original purist vision of what “organic” should mean may be environmentally cuddlier than conventional farming (though there are tradeoffs, one being greater acreage required). However, in practice, stuff in stores labeled “organic” is not produced all that differently. A key reason is that once “organic” took off and became big business, producers had to use many of the same large-scale industrial practices of conventional farming. Small operators can’t compete. Another is that the USDA rules for “organic” labeling were lobbied hard by producers to give them more leeway. Pollan cites, for example, a rule saying cows must have “access to pasture.” Sounds nice, but if you think about it, what does it really mean? If anything? Here, and in much of the rulebook, there aren’t real rules.*

Pollan muses that salad might seem our most natural kind of eating. But it gives him cognitive dissonance when considering the complex industrial processes that actually put it on our plates. An organic salad mix takes 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. If grown conventionally, it would be just 4% more. Bottom line: by and large, “organic” is a pretty meaningless label. (Wifey take note.)

However, Pollan chronicles his stint at one actual farm that might be called beyond organic. This read to me like one of those old-time utopia novels. And that farm is actually extremely efficient. But its model doesn’t seem scalable to the industrial level needed to feed us all. Also, it’s extremely labor- and brain-intensive. Few farmers today are up for that.

The farmer profiled there opined that government regulation is the single biggest impediment to spreading his approach. It gives USDA inspectors conniptions. Pollan shows how the whole government regulatory recipe is geared to bigness. One example: a slaughtering facility must have a restroom reserved for the government inspector alone.

The book also delves deeply into the ethics of eating animals, a fraught issue. I will address that separately soon.

* Well, there are some, like no antibiotics. Today’s organic farming is a sort of kludge — Pollan likens it to trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind your back.

Probability, coincidence, and the origin of life

November 30, 2019

The philosopher Epicurus was shown a wall of pictures — told, reverently, they portrayed sailors who, in storms, prayed to the gods and were saved. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

He was exposing the mistake of counting hits and ignoring misses. It’s common when evaluating seemingly paranormal, supernatural, or even miraculous occurrences. Like when some acquaintance appears in a dream and then you learn they’ve just died. Was your dream premonitory? But how often do you dream of people who don’t die? As with Epicurus, this frequently applies to religious “miracles” like answered prayers. We count the hits and ignore the many more unanswered prayers.

I usually work with the radio on. How often do you think I’ll write a word while hearing the same word from the radio? (Not common words, of course, like “like” or “of course.”) In fact it happens regularly, every few days. Spooky? Against astronomical odds? For a particular word, like “particular,” the odds would indeed be very small. But the open-ended case of any word matching is far less improbable. Recently it was “Equatorial Guinea!” Similarly, the odds of any two people’s birthdays matching are about one in 365. But how many must there be in a room before two birthdays likely match? Only 23! This surprises most folks — showing we have shaky intuitions regarding probability and coincidence. Most coincidences are not remarkable at all, but expectable, like my frequent radio matches.

So what does all this have to do with the origin of life? I recently began discussing Dawkins’s book, The Blind Watchmaker, and life’s having (almost certainly) begun with a fairly simple molecular structure, naturally occurring, with the characteristic of self-duplication. Dawkins addresses our intuition that that’s exceedingly improbable.

The essence of evolution by natural selection is, again, small incremental steps over eons of time, each making beneficiaries a bit likelier to survive and reproduce. The replicator molecule utilized by all life is DNA,* which maybe can’t be called “simple” — but Dawkins explains that DNA could itself have evolved in steps, from simpler precursors —non-living ones.

Indeed, non-living replication is familiar to us. That’s how crystals form. They grow by repeating a molecular structure over and over. (I’ve illustrated one we own — trillions of molecules creating a geometrical object with perfectly flat sides.) Dawkins writes of certain naturally occurring clays with similar properties, which could plausibly have been a platform for evolving the more elaborate self-replicators that became life.

Maybe this still seems far-fetched to you. But Dawkins elucidates another key insight relevant here.

Our brains evolved (obviously) to navigate the environment we lived in. Our abilities to conceptualize are tailored accordingly, and don’t extend further (which would have been a waste of biological resources). Thus, explains Dawkins, our intuitive grasp of time is grounded in the spectrum of intervals in our everyday experience — from perhaps a second or so at one end to a century or two at the other. But that’s only a tiny part of the full range, which goes from nanoseconds to billions of years. We didn’t need to grasp those. Likewise, our grasp of sizes runs from perhaps a grain of sand to a mountain. Again, a tiny part of the true spectrum, an atom being vastly smaller, the galaxy vastly larger. Those sizes we never needed to imagine — and so we really can’t.

This applies to all very large (or small) numbers. Our intuitions about probability are similarly circumscribed.

If you could hypothetically travel to early Earth, might you witness life beginning — as I’ve explained it? Of course not. Not in a lifetime. The probability seems so small it feels like zero. And accordingly some people just reject the idea.

Suppose it’s so improbable that it would only occur once in a billion years. But it did have a billion years to happen in! Wherein a one-in-a-billion-year event is hardly unlikely.

The odds against winning the lottery are also astronomical. Our human capacity to grasp such probabilities is, again, so limited that many people play the lottery with no clue about the true smallness of their chances. Yet people win the lottery. And I had my “Equatorial Guinea” coincidence.

And what’s the probability that life did not evolve naturally, along general lines I’ve suggested, but was instead somehow deliberately created by a super-intelligent being of unimaginable power — whose existence in the first place nobody can begin to account for?

Surely zero; a childishly absurd idea. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howsoever improbable, must be the truth. But the Darwinian naturalistic theory of life is not at all improbable or implausible. There’s tons of evidence for it. And even if there weren’t, Dawkins observes, it would still be the only concept capable of explaining life. Not only is it true, it must be true.

* That all living things use the same DNA code makes it virtually certain that all had a common ancestor. Your forebears were not, actually, monkeys; but the ancestors of all humans, and of all monkeys, were fish.