Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scientific truth-seeking: An evolving process

== Big Minds Ponder Big Ideas? ==

The New Perspectives Quarterly has one of its unique features up again... a summary of ideas and concepts that were discussed by a gathering of notables at a meeting of the Berggruen Institute, last spring. Participants ranged from Jared Cohen of Google Ideas and Mircrosoft strategist Charles Songhurst to Transparent Society author David Brin; from Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo to MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito; from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to political scientist Francis Fukuyama to Alec Ross, the U.S. State Department’s top digital diplomat.

The idea-summary, Democracy and the Smart Mob - prepared by journalist/author Nathan Gardels - is very dense, with a fresh concept (or two or three) in every paragraph,  Extremely efficient; you'll need to focus and turn off your multi-tasking bars, even the background music!  But if you retain any attention span from the Old Days, you should find it well worth while.

Which brings up a fascinating modern problem.  Perhaps the most important one, since it affects how rapidly and well we can bring our vaunted skills to bear on other problems.

== Standards of Transparency in Science? ==

The issue of attention, scrutiny -- and transparency --  has never been more paramount than in science, which sets the gold standard for accountability in the hungry search for truth. But there have always been flaws and biases. (Believe me!) New technologies offer ways to both speed the results publication and expose them to credibility-ranking through criticism, not by abandoning peer review but by finding ways to crowd-source it with feedback ranked by a credibility scoring system. (I have proposed something similar as a terrific business someone might provide for the public as a whole.)

A range of discussions "have pushed publishers to explore alternatives to traditional publishing (such as data journals like GigaScience and data repositories like figshare and Dryad), and to rethink standard business models (for example PeerJ and eLife). (See “Whither Science Publishing,” The Scientist, August 2012.)"

It's an important topic that shows how seriously the smartest people in our civilization are taking on these issues, developing tools of verification and accountability that we can only hope will someday shine light also into the smokey worlds of commerce and politics.

Consider the following as an example of a discovery-trend that pokes hard at standard models and hence merits close scrutiny before acceptance... but which also offers tentative promise of rapid benefits, if confirmed.  Hence, rapid 21st Century attention should be applied.

== Solar neutrino dependence for radioactive decay? ==

Recent research findings appear  to suggest the rates of decay of some radioactive elements may vary according to our distance from the sun, or bursts of solar activity.  Moreover, one potential practical use may be to detect and predict solar storms well in advance.

The proposed mechanism... some purported effect that solar neutrinos may have on the weak nuclear force... is one that pokes my skeptical reflexes, as a physicist.  I am open minded but will need to see a LOT of evidence for something like that.

Here's the basis: Some groups found statistically significant correlations in the rate of decay of certain elements, which appear to be very slightly - but consistently - different in January and July, when the Earth is closest and farthest from the sun, respectively.

"When the Earth is farther away, we have fewer solar neutrinos and the decay rate is a little slower," Jenkins said. "When we are closer, there are more neutrinos, and the decay a little faster." Researchers also have recorded both increases and decreases in decay rates during solar storms.

"Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics," Jenkins said. "So, we are saying something that doesn't interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is."

Fascinating.  Let's stay tuned.  Above all, let's watch carefully how the newly "tech-speeded" process of discovery, review and publication/feedback works in this test case.  The process is very important to us!  And let's bring the lessons to the outer world.

==Reinventing Discourse==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverAs a matter of fact, I've had a longstanding interest in improving methods of human discourse in general -- which have, unfortunately, not benefited from advances in information technology, anywhere as much as they should.  Indeed, judging from the condition of "culture war" in the U.S., discourse is plummeting to incredibly low levels.  Yes, search engines allow each of us to glom onto vast amounts of info-stuff on any topic, helping to make us glib and confident in our shallow "facts" (or rather - assertions). But without any processes for analytics, credibility, attribution or accountability, there is just no way for truly bad ideas or memes to die, let alone decline in virulence.

I wrote about this meticulously (though perhaps too academically) in Dispute Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness,  an article for the American Bar Association's Journal of Dispute Resolution. And I portray in my new novel EXISTENCE portraying a new future when all the missing parts are in place, allowing free citizens to coalesce upon any problem in "smart mobs" that swiftly self-organize, applying advanced analytic tools and deploying fierce citizenship in rapid-real time.  Alas, the horizon does not seem replete with endeavors that might make the dream come true.

See also an accumulation of articles and speculations about transparency, freedom and technology.

So, can we come up with better ways to argue and possibly even negotiate?

One approach that might be a step in the right direction was pointed-out to me by Dr. Paul Dixon co-founder, Harnu.com.  "Harnu is equal parts translation service, news and content aggregation, map interface, and social layer. Our goal is to connect individuals who would otherwise never meet; to allow anyone to send a message or question anywhere in the world, and get an answer back. Our thesis is that if everyone growing up in middle America just knew one person growing up in the Middle East, the world would be a very different place - and that there's no reason that can't happen."

Some of you should try it and report back.  A step toward global perspective is welcome.

== Is the e-era green enough? ==

Pete Markiewicz has posted an interesting article, Save the world through Sustainable Web Design, describing how the "green medium"… publishing and reading electronically… may be a bit less eco-friendly than people think.  Oh, the per-word carbon footprint is lower, but the sheer volume has big effects. "According to one estimate, pushing exabytes around in 2011 took as much as ~9% of US electricity (up from 3% in 2000), and 5% worldwide. Processing this energy into bits required enormous amounts of water, mostly for cooling data centers. Within a decade, those same data centers may use more power than the entire airline industry. At the same time, new web services continue to drive the manufacture of new computers, with a resulting mountain of e-waste. Despite steady increases in computing efficiency, the internet’s footprint will only grow larger as populations in Asia and elsewhere come online."

== Sci Miscellany ==

* Just when you thought things could not get cooler or weirder... A pulse of light can have almost any shape in space and in time, determined by the amplitudes and phases of its frequency components. Surprisingly, single photons can also be generated in a variety of complex shapes. The difference is that the amplitude for a single photon doesn’t represent a definite value of the electric field strength; instead it’s associated with the probability of detecting the photon at each location and time.

Researchers could also encode information in the photon shape and transmit it from one place to another. There is so much flexibility that a single photon could represent any letter in the alphabet, for example, or even a quantum combination (superposition) of several letters. ... They created photons that had two separate frequency components with a particular phase difference. These photons were efficiently detected using local oscillator pulses that had a matching phase difference.

* Interested in design and the beginnings of YOUR era?  See this fascinating article about how HP designed the first modern hand-held calculator, the HP35.  I remember it well!

* See a fun video about how the Gates foundation is offering prizes for the re-invention of the toilet.

Still, along very similar lines, I yearn for a re-invention of our likewise stinky levels of public discourse.  


David Brin said...

Not sure why Bing's biography of David Brin comes up with a description of a band named "!!!"


rewinn said...

In re smart mobs: by pure coincidence, today the webcomic "The Order of the Stick"'s discussion forum briefly discussed the fact that that comic artist didn't really need a copyeditor for typos, since the forum swiftly detected such. AND is paid in the currency of Entertainment (...to which I would add Reputation).
Sometimes it really does feel a little bit like something out of Existence. Now if only we could get Congress to publish a discussion forum!

(One wonders if closing the Capitol permanently, and requiring Congress to discuss business from their offices in the 50 states, might not be a good thing. If nothing else, it would require the lobbyists to do their work closer to the voters!)

Ian said...

First off, in the comments section of the last thread I misinterpreted Jumper's link to an article about Ron Paul's economic theories as an endorsement of those theories, for which I most sincerely apologize.

Thinking about Rewinn's post I'm reminded of how the Athenians tried law suits. They drafted at random anywhere from 50-1,000 citizens (depending on the nature of the lawsuit). The trial lasted no more than a day in total and consisted mostly of speeches from opposing counsel.

Maybe we can update that to the modern age: draft people to spend a day listening to opposing arguments regarding a piece of proposed legislation and questioning the proponents then have a straight up straight down vote.

Maybe require both parties to put up their version of the proposed law and use the Pendulum rule - one version is accepted in its entirety so both parties have an incentive to be as reasonable and broadly accommodating as possible.

You wouldn't need to usurp the role of Congress but if one party kept voting down popular measures there would probably be a political cost.

(Here in Australia I've advocated a somewhat different approach: a third house of Parliament, with twice as many members as the other two houses combined; elected by a national proportional vote with a strict and low limit on the maximum number of seats any one party can hold; members of the house would be ineligible for running for any other political office for 10 years and former members of the other houses would be ineligible to run. The third house would meet for,say, six weeks a year and members would only be paid a per diem for days actually attended plus travel and accommodation costs. The house would not have the power to veto legislation passed by the other two Houses but would have the power to pass legislation that was then submitted to the House of Commons; to pass nonbinding resolutions and to call witnesses to testify and authorize inquiries. Elections would be every two years with members restricted to two consecutive terms and three terms in total.

The thinking behind this is that essentially EVERY political and social group would have some level of representation and advocacy.)

Lorraine said...

"...how the "green medium"… publishing and reading electronically… may be a bit less eco-friendly than people think."

I blame advertising. My main uses of the Internet are text-oriented: blogging, email, database lookups. I have a much faster computer and a significantly faster connection than 10 years ago (but still too slow to be a consumer of video, for example), but no noticeable performance boost. It seems Moore's law is largely cancelled out by some law of economics to the effect that increases in speed and capacity will be offset by decreases in signal to noise ratio. Re. "sustainable web design," I propose starting by resisting the pressure to move the goalposts: What's considered a "lightweight" web page these days? Hundreds of kilobytes? North of a megabyte? Perhaps people who consider themselves sustainable web designers should start by holding the line on this stuff.

David Brin said...

Chicago area folks!

On Sunday - during the World Sci fi conventions, I will set aside some time outside of the badge area for folks who want to swing by for a meet-n-chat. From 2-3pm in the bar just off the lobby at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker. Come one, come all. And sorry I can't offer more time. Worldcons are frenetic. But see some of you there!

David Brin said...


Already I must reschedule! Not 2-3 Sunday but rather 4:30 to 6 pm Sunday at the Chicago Hyatt.

Jumper said...

Tha;nks, Ian. Not only is it better than uncertainty, I seem to have been understood.

One of my issues with electronic print is its volatility and the complete unanalyzed recognition by the press itself that a newspaper serves as a "certificate." They are likely fakeable but only by expensive experts; for example I have a copy of an old "Star" paper (No, I don't read those!) picked up as a novelty at a garage sale, with Osama's photo rendered as a target, from 2001. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it is not a "fake" and it really was published then. (An awful example I'm using, isn't it?)

But an old printed page serves as a higher probability of being genuine. That's the point.

Likewise, the press has gone almost completely to digital photography, so no actual negatives of photographs are stored anywhere in news organizations nowadays. A negative serves as a certificate.

Not to mention the old laws requiring "public notice" be given for which printed newspapers served to fit the bill. I wonder how that will change, as it must be changing even now.

Tony Fisk said...

Standards of Transparency in Science
On a related topic, Marblar is getting ready to roll. It's a game with an aim: to publish cool but useless things that have been discovered in labs over the years and see if people can find a use for them in other areas. (You get paid finders fees, apparently. Fair enough if you don't have the capacity to bring the idea to market yourself) I am waiting to see what transpires with interest.

Green Internet
Aren't 90% of the emails sent spam? Maybe it's time for that 'penny post' approach (well, maybe a millicent per packet).
It wouldn't surprise me to hear that a lot of the bandwidth being used is from flashy up-front ads (auto-run videos even!) and other content-free junk (I have a rather jaundiced view of marketing departments being semantic blocking filters)

Without seeing the actual breakdown of usage, I suspect that a lot could be reduced by intelligent use of lazy instantiation techniques via AJAX.

But then, what's the incentive? Who's paying for the download stream?

Actually, there is an incentive: getting your shop window up and navigable ASAP to keep the interest rate up.

Paul451 said...

[From the last post]

Re: Republican defeat means...
"A trounced GOP would re-evaluate. Chastened, it might even turn to the adults in conservatism."

Yet they responded to both 1992 and 2008 by becoming even more insane.

Paul451 said...

Re: Third House of Parliament in Aus.
Why not have, say, 100 people randomly selected in each state, each year. They spend a few weekends in various sized groups discussing issues of the day (getting to know each other), then they vote for their ten or so wisest members.

The elected members from each state become the new House of Reps. After six months, they vote on their own ten or so wisest members, who become the new government for 12 months (6 mths with their own House, 6 months with the next one.)

Then as a sanity check, you have each piece of legislation passed by the House go before a jury of, say, 12 randomly chosen people. A "trial", where proponents and opponents present their cases for'n'agin the legislation.

Final sanity check would be to replace the Governor General (and Queen), by making the Chief Justice of the High Court the nominal Head of State, but giving the GG's power of legislative assent to the full bench. (This was my suggestion during the Republican "debate".)

Dave Rickey said...

Leading Disclaimer: I am not remotely qualified to have an opinion about particle physics.

One of the interesting things I remember running across back when the "faster than light" neutrinos from the LHC were a big part of the science news was the interesting coincidence someone found in the timing of both those neutrinos and the neutrinos that beat the visual light from a recent supernova: The timing was just about exactly what you would expect if the neutrinos were transiting every atomic nucleus they encountered in zero time.

What if, at some basic level, the neutrinos aren't seeming to interact with matter because to the neutrino, matter isn't there? They don't enter the nucleus at all, they interact with it at a more fundamental level, at which the nucleus has no dimensional length.

And maybe sometimes the strings/vibrations/dimensional knots that are what the nucleus "really is" destabilize as a result of that passage?


Tom Crowl said...

Want to dive more into that piece on Disputation...

But meanwhile been loving this Kindle and re-reading some old classics...

On the persistence of Feudalism and in line with the whole 99% vs 1% question ran across this quote from "The Time Machine" where our hero is trying to understand the division of humanity into two separate species:

"So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears. Such of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die; and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs."

Just had to share that... there's more than a little truth in it.

Anonymous said...

One major difference between the smart mobs in "Existence" & the concept of a Disputation Arena is that the smart mob is composed of people trying to get to the truth, while in a Disputation Arena there are 2 opposing sides each trying to push their vision of reality.

To move forward in exploring/solving a problem I think there needs to be a mechanism for neutral, independent individuals to "vote" by where they put their attention/participation. That's how a smart mob works.

- Ron -

Paul451 said...

Re: Solar effect on radioactive decay rates.
We've sent RTGs everywhere from the Moon to Mars to the edge of the solar system. Is the claimed Earthly effect testable? (I figure if they can detect, at all, variation due to the mere eccentricity of Earth's orbit, then surely they can detect variation due to a difference of 50 times Earth's orbit.)

David Brin said...

Dave Tom Anon and Paul... you are all being very sharp.

Paul I wonder if the RTGs sent outward have anywhere near enough self-examining sensitivity to track this effect. i doubt it. We are probably talking a fifth order effect.

David Brin said...


matthew said...

Hopefully now some of those ron paul fanatics finally give gary johnson a decent look.

Also, tangentally related to the disputation arenas, am I the only commenter here that followed up with our interest in the forcasting world events group?
After a year involved with it I can say that the site could be better but that it is a fun exercise. My two complaints: focus is almost 100% on outside the usa, and that only the top 50 overall best prognosticators get a ranking that is viewable to other members of the group. Transparency would help with weighing the merits of comments made by other users.
Oh, same handle there as here, if anyone else is playing.

Ian said...


An alternative explanation for the annual fluctuation in radioactive decay might involve dark matter.

We know that dark matter is affected by gravity so, presumably, within the solar system it's denser closer to the sun.

A WIMP might occasionally (despite the name) interact with a radioactive nucleus resulting in fission.

While that sounds like a long shot it seems to this very tired layman like a more reasonable theory than neutrinos interfering with the WNF.

David Brin said...

Ian that's a very good idea.

Robert said...

This isn't directly related to today's topic, but it's a Civil War III article too good to pass up:
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/revolt-of-the-rich/ The link was in Andrew Sullivan's blog.

Bob Pfeiffer

BCRion said...

Rebuttal paper on the solar neutrino affecting half-life in any significant way below. Also addresses the RTG question, which also strongly disagrees with any such magical mechanism. Quite honestly, I think this is a case of people mining data wanting to believe something special rather than the mundane confounding factors such as thermal expansion of equipment or poor calibration.


"In conclusion, we find no evidence for correlations between the rates for the decays of 22Na, 44Ti, 108Agm, 121Snm, 133Ba, and 241Am and the Earth-Sun distance. We set limits on the possible amplitudes of such correlations (2.5 – 37) times smaller than those observed in previous experiments1,2,3. Our results strongly disfavor the suggestions by Jenkins et al.4 of an annual variation based on a previously unobserved field produced by the Sun or the annual variation in the flux of solar neutrinos reaching the Earth. Very recently, Cooper8 performed a very clever analysis of decay power data obtained from the 238Pu thermoelectric generator aboard the Cassini spacecraft. The results of this analysis also strongly disagree with the hypothesis of a correlation between nuclear decay rates and the distance of the source to the Sun."

Alfred Differ said...

The thing with the neutrino wouldn't be unprecedented. Lasers work along those lines, so I'd be looking for how a neutrino flux would change the odds of emission. They are talking about an equivalent to stimulated emission, right? As always, though, they have to show us.

Makes me wonder what this would do to some of our radio-dating clocks.

Ain't physics fun? 8)

David Brin said...


Paul451 said...

BCRion, quoting the paper,
"Very recently, [P.S. Cooper] performed a very clever analysis of decay power data obtained from the 238Pu thermoelectric generator aboard the Cassini spacecraft."

Thanks for that.

(And another effect that hints at Brand New Physics, goes away. <sigh> )

Alfred Differ,
"Makes me wonder what this would do to some of our radio-dating clocks."

And what would we measure them against?

White Whale said...

The aim is to improve thought in general. No group can be smarter than the smartest person within it, but given that most everyone has serious limitations in their perceptual capacity that reside principally in the emotional realm--usually ego, and excessive attachment to unexamined ideas--it makes sense to use groups to further effective thinking.

If the aim is to reduce emotionality, then some form of heuristic is necessary. Thought cannot be unstructured. Edward de Bono has written extensively about this, with his Six Thinking hats an excellent example.

For my own purposes, I have developed a number of heuristics, including formal use of continuums, and what I call Perceptual Breathing, which is the constant movement from abstraction to concrete details and back again.

As an example both the words Democrat and Republican are abstractions. There is considerable ideological diversity among the members of both parties, and there is also substantial divergence between what people THINK the parties stand for, and what the actual members, when elected to Congress or some other body, do.

Fox News is an abstraction. It can refer to Shepherd Smith, Sean Hannity, the people who own Fox. It can refer both to the newscast and to the website. Referred to in aggregate, it would necessarily include not just the hosts, but the people they bring on to represent alternative views (which they do, often).

Most error in this world is the result of basic ignorance, which is corrected through education, or from an abuse of abstraction.

The creation and operation of large scale systems is impossible without abstraction, but the necessity of constantly reconciling ideas with realities, intentions with outcomes, is absolutely central.

If you want people to think effectively in groups, the most basic requirements are asking the questions: what are we trying to accomplish; and "is what we are doing working"?

If more people asked those questions with sincerity, we would live in a much better world.

I will admit to disappointment that the discussion on the other page ended. I always win--which I define as reducing people opposing my views to silence in the face of factually accurate and logical supported, clear positions--but it always disappoints me.

Rob said...

Good grief, MG. You flooded this forum of busy people with no fewer than 4000 words of your thinking, and waited an insufficient time to see if its moderator would respond in kind before declaring us all your inferiors?

And then you wonder aloud why nobody responded. Well, here's a tiny clue: We've mostly all got day jobs.

White Whale said...

So do I. I just make really good money when I'm working.

And it's WAY more than 4,000 words.

I'll wait with baited breath. Just kidding. Ian is the only one even trying.

For the record, though, I made my first post Tuesday, continued yesterday, then finished the job today.

I also asked David Brin to define progress a week ago. He apparently considers himself an enlightened Progressive. Surely he is capable of telling us what that means, in clear language?

I noticed a long time ago that there is considerable overlap between utopian and childish thinking, between comic books and Communism.

Ayn Rand--who differed in her specific beliefs, but not in the overall quality of her thinking, from comic book Communists--apparently spent most of her life in an emotional world she built well before ten years old. John Galt was modeled on a man she encountered in a children's novel.

"Epater les intellectuelles"--I may make that my motto.

Rob said...

MG, I don't think brags about a high income or a clear victory are going to endear you to people here.

White Whale said...

It's unfortunate: nobody here wants to think actually new thoughts, but you think the exact opposite of yourselves. And don't try to preyend ideological others are treated with respect. You want to dish it ouy, but csn't take it.

White Whale said...

You know, I look at this silence, and it makes me sad. I have no reason to doubt the average IQ on here is reasonably high. What is lacking is the emotional stamina to risk your ideas, to fight for your ideas, to evolve your ideas.

It is fun to speculate. It is fun to compare idea A and idea B in a dilatory, non-compulsive, playful way. But it is virtually never USEFUL.

Thinking is building. It is no different in principle than putting up a physical structure. But because it requires sustained concentration, what it requires most of all is CHARACTER.

We need people who are tough, who can go out into the unknown, and come back wiser and better able to lead. But we lack those people. We have jettisoned the notion of character as a relic of another age.

Life, we are told, is supposed to be easy. Solving our problems should be easy. Hell, we can do it simply by denying they exist. We can pretend that massive increases in the size of our welfare state will cut costs, and that we can borrow a trillion dollars a year forever and never have a problem.

Just push the blue button and all will be well. That is more or less what we are being told, here, and with a tone of deep derision for any dissenters.

Oi. Yes, I do shut up eventually, but it takes a while when I'm wound up. Over and over and over I see signs of cultural decay. This is just one. You view yourselves no doubt with some justifications as members of the Best and Brightest Party. But your output is mediocre. It is appealing on the surface, but a bit of digging and it is gone.

Of course I'm glad Mr. Brin is not a full blown leftist, and that he respects Adam Smith. What I don't get is how a bloated government in any way serves the cause of the small businesses that constitute the overwhelming bulk of jobs, or how he can conceive of an oligarchy that consists in anything but the financial elites who run the Federal Reserve.

We have a Command economy in money. How many of you grasp that?

rewinn said...