All posts filed under: Science

The Apocalyptic Threat from Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Science Fiction

The person in the photo that sits to the left of this paragraph does not exist. It was generated using Artificial intelligence (AI), which can now generate pictures of imaginary people (and cats) that look real. While this technology may create a bit of social havoc, the truly massive disruption will occur when AIs can match or exceed the thinking power of the human brain. This is not a remote possibility: Variants of the machine-learning AIs that today generate fake pictures have a good chance of creating computer superintelligences before this century is out. These superior beings could be applied to wonderful purposes. Just this week, for instance, it was announced that the AI system AlphaFold has been recognized for providing a solution to the so-called “protein folding problem,” which holds implications for our fundamental understanding of the basic building blocks of human biology. If, however, mankind releases smarter-than-us AI before figuring out how to align their values with our own, we could bring forth an apocalypse instead. Even the Pope fears the destructive potential …

Desperation and the Quest for Control: The Dangers of Alternative Medicine

I am a skeptic and a curmudgeon, so I was surprised when a friend of 30 years asked if she could add me to her “Reiki Grid.” A Reiki Grid, I soon discovered, is a pattern made with crystals, allowing a Reiki practitioner to send “healing energy” to individuals whose names or pictures are placed on the grid. My friend is not a contemporary shaman. She is a hard-nosed, highly competent 37-year-old female attorney. She also has Stage IV breast cancer. Since her diagnosis, besides conventional cancer treatment, she has turned to alternative medicine and treatment modalities, including Reiki, which she credits for playing a large part in her health remaining stable at the moment. And what is Reiki? If I’m being diplomatic, I would describe it as “energy healing,” a sub-type of alternative medicine involving the practitioner placing their hands lightly on or just above the patient’s body in order to “transfer” energy. If I’m being truthful, I’d describe it as utter woo—a glaringly obvious pseudoscience. And yet it is a pseudoscience many women …

Retracting a Controversial Paper Won’t Help Female Scientists

Imagine yourself as a newly hired female assistant professor and the delight you feel when you learn that your article, examining over 222 million academic papers, has just been accepted at one of the top science journals. Now imagine your response when you discover that a fellow female academic is formally demanding your paper’s retraction,1 galvanized by a mob of outraged scientists on Twitter. This was the recent experience of Bedoor AlShebli, who published her large-scale research in Nature Communications.2 Open letter to the Editor-in-Chief of @NatureComms about the AlShebli paper, which claims that training with #WomenInSTEM damages the careers of young scientists pic.twitter.com/NvuBK3Z5T6 — Leslie Vosshall PhD (@pollyp1) November 19, 2020 In an analysis of over three million junior and senior co-author teams, AlShebli and her colleagues found that junior scholars with more female senior co-authors received fewer citations (up to 35 percent fewer) on their academic publications. Moreover, senior female academics who published with female junior scholars received 18 percent fewer citations than those who published with male junior scholars. No such citation …

Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion. How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students? Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about …

The Fragility of Modern Education in the Time of COVID-19

Modern education is arguably the most massive feat of social engineering ever attempted by humanity and one of the most important, when effective. Academic competencies at the end of schooling can have life-long influences on employability, wages, and the ability to advance in one’s career.1,2,3,4 These influences, of course, benefit the individual, but also shape the communities in which educated individuals reside and have wider effects on gross domestic product and rates of technological and other innovations.4, 5 It is not simply years of schooling or having a credential (e.g., high school diploma) that produce these effects, it is the actual reading, mathematics, and other academic skills and knowledge that students take with them as they head off for college or the work force.5 With this in mind, consider that the strategies designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the schooling of as many as three out of four of the world’s students,6 The long-term impacts of these disruptions will not be known for some time but there are well-founded reasons to believe …

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …

It’s Still Early Days. But Pfizer’s Stunning Vaccine Results Could Be a Real Game-Changer

With COVID-19 cases surging in the United States and many other countries, Monday’s announcement that ongoing vaccine tests had produced positive results comes as much-needed good news. In a placebo-controlled trial of 43,538 subjects, a vaccine developed by Pfizer, working with the German company BioNTech, was found to be “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.” (Although the early work was done in Germany, by Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, the BioNTech co-founders, subsequent development work has been performed collaboratively with Pfizer, which is why it is commonly referred to in the media simply as the Pfizer vaccine.) Half the subjects received the placebo and half the vaccine (dubbed “BNT162b2”); and an independent monitoring committee unlocked the data when 94 COVID-19 cases had been recorded among all subjects (a predetermined point of interim analysis). Pfizer reports that “the case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 percent, at seven days after the second dose.” In …

Sex Differences in Occupational Attainment are Here to Stay

In many nations and for many people, the sex difference in occupational attainment is a social pathology that begs for corrective intervention. The ultimate societal goal for many is equal numbers of high-achieving men and women across high-status fields, including those that typically draw more of one sex or the other (e.g., men in engineering)[1]. Here, I place the sex difference favoring men in occupational attainment in an evolutionary perspective and show that this pattern will be immune to all but the most draconian interventions, such as legally-imposed quotas. The reason for this is simple: The relation between social dominance and reproductive success is typically stronger for males than for females, and this in turn favors the evolution of traits that facilitate male status striving[2]. In the first section, I show that the achievement of social status and some degree of success in culturally-important domains are more strongly related to men’s than women’s reproductive prospects and success. The sex difference here is found in hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies, as well as in early empires, …

Jack Turban’s Dangerous Campaign to Smear Ethical Psychotherapy as Anti-Trans ‘Conversion Therapy’

This essay is adapted from a letter published on October 21 by the listed authors in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It has been abridged for a non-academic readership. A subset of the scholarly citations included in the original letter appear below in the form of web links. Readers who wish to read the full text of the authors’ original letter, including the complete list of sources, are invited to consult the Archives of Sexual Behavior web site.   In September 2019, JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association, published an article entitled ‘Association Between Recalled Exposure to Gender Identity Conversion Efforts and Psychological Distress and Suicide Attempts Among Transgender Adults‘ by psychiatrists Jack Turban and Noor Beckwith, and epidemiologist Sari Reisner. Turban, the article’s corresponding author, is a well-known advocate for trans rights and medical treatment of transgender-identifying individuals. This publication concluded that therapy causes harm, and has been used to promote bans on psychotherapy for gender dysphoria worldwide. As the title of the published study indicates, Turban and his co-authors (whom we will …

The Evolutionary History of Man’s Best Friend Revealed

Man and dog share a long history. In much of the world, a history as old as humanity. The latest genetic evidence now tells us that the emergence of the domestic dog lineage occurred soon after the human expansion out of Africa 50,000 years ago, in the depths of the last Ice Age. We came. We saw. And we befriended. This we knew, but now we can closely examine how. A paper out today in Science uses 27 ancient dog genomes from the past 11,000 years to construct an evolutionary history nearly as rich as that produced by human population geneticists over the last decade. The authors found five lineages of ancient dogs that were present at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the dogs that interacted with human migrations during the rise of agriculture and the fall of civilizations to produce the riotous dog diversity that we know today. Familiar breeds like the Pekingese and the St. Bernard, as well as stray Asian village mutts, they’re all the products of a …