On The Allure of Flat Earth Debunking Videos

For a while now, I’ve really enjoyed watching SciManDan and others on Youtube debunking videos posted by flat eathers.  Based on the number of subscribers of these debunking video producers, I’m in good company.  SciManDan has over 300k subscribers, for example.

I also enjoy several other Youtube channels, including Numberphile, Fermilab, PBS Space Time, and many others.  Arguably, these are a far better use of my time.  I learn absolutely nothing by watching SciManDan, except that there are apparently people who believe there is a giant conspiracy pushing the “globe earth model” to apparently keep the population from believing in God.  Yet, I find myself looking forward to the next SciManDan video release, not the next Fermilab release.

I suspect there are two likely, not mutually exclusive, explanations:

First, there is little to no cognitive load in watching SciManDan videos.  They give me a faux satisfaction of having learned something, without all the taxing energy of learning something.  As someone who really does like to keep expanding the boundaries of my knowledge, this is a bit frustrating.  But only in hindsight – not while watching them.

Second, it makes me feel superior.  *I* would never think that the Earth is flat, and *I* feel better about myself because I know the Earth is spherical-ish.

This somewhat dovetails into concerns I have about letting myself “ease up” on working, reading, learning, planning, and thinking: certainly, it makes sense to take a break and engaged in mindless activities, but then I am putting a cap on what I am able to accomplish over the course of my relatively short life.  Now, there is much to be said about what I’ve come to think of as “strategic resting” leading to being more productive as a whole, but I perceive that some of the faux learning I engage in is not serving as part of that “strategic rest” – after all, I still want to play the occasional video game, meditate, take my dog for walks, and so on.

This has been weighing on me.  More than usual recently, in no small part because of the COVID lockdowns, where I have pointed out to my bored kids that, for the first time in human history, just about anyone can sit down and learn just about anything from the brightest minds in that field for free, on demand, 24 hour hours a day.

And here I am watching SciManDan.  (Who, by the way, seems to be a brilliant, funny, and kind person – no knock on him – this is all about me).


Book Review: The Theory of Everything

I recently finished listening to the audio book “The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality”.  This audio book comes from The Great Courses.  First, I want to say, that I wish I had purchased a version that included audio, as there are several references to something being displayed and so audio-only was not the way to go.

As for the content, I will say that I learned more about quantum physics in the 12 hours of this audio book than in all my previous readings and classes.  The author and narrator, Don Lincoln, is one of the physicists that discovered the Higgs Boson, so he knew his physics, but communicated in a way that is very approachable and understandable.  As the title indicates, the book takes stock of what we know, and what we don’t know, about developing a grand unified theory.  In the process, Dr. Lincoln explains many otherwise obtuse concepts that, at least for me, made sense. While the underlying math is surely far outside my reach, many of the concepts that I struggled with rationalizing make more sense now.

There were several topics that I now understand much better:

1. Cosmic microwave background radiation.  Just about everyone has at least heard of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).  The CMB was produced in the aftermath of the big bang, yet one of the odd features of CMB is that is it roughly the same in all directions.  I long had a hard time reconciling in my mind how this could be: how could we still be receiving radiation produced shortly after the big bang, which happened about 14 billion years ago?  The fact that it is roughly the same in all directions makes sense: we exist inside the pocket of expansion that occurred after the big bang, so space is receding away from us in all directions.  The piece I was missing, but which seems painfully obvious now, is that the universe propagated outward at speeds far exceeding the speed of light after the big bang.  But how can that be?  Nothing is faster than the speed of light, right?  Well, nothing *inside* the universe is able to move faster than the speed of light, but that limit does not apply to the universe itself.

2. Dark energy.  Like the CMB, most of us have heard about dark energy.  Like when quarks were first theorized, I assumed that dark energy didn’t *really* exist, but was rather a fudge factor necessary to reconcile the observed motion of galaxies with our models of the universe.  Disappointingly, the book doesn’t provide a lot of insight into what dark energy actually is, I think because we do not really understand it to that level yet beyond that it is roughly the opposite of gravity.  One aspect of dark energy I learned in this book fascinates me: the amount of dark energy is proportional to the volume of space.  For the first few billion years of the universe, gravity was the dominate force (at macro scales, at least), but there was an inflection point several billion years ago where, because of the expansion of the universe, dark energy became the dominant force (again, at a macro scale), causing stellar bodies to continue accelerating away from each other.

3. Matter and energy are not different things.  As Einstien’s famous equation states, energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.  Anyone who really takes a moment to ponder that equation should conclude that matter and energy are indeed not different things, but I never really understood why.  The reason atoms have mass is that the subatomic particles that compose the protons and neutrons, called Fermions, themselves are close to mass-less, however are traveling at the speed of light, but bound up in a tight ball that we think of as protons and neutrons.  Mass actually comes from the kinetic energy of the motion of these Fermions.

I found the book to be very informative and I’m glad I listened to it.  I feel like I understand where we live a bit better now, even though there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the universe.



Book Review: Evolve Your Brain

I recently finished listening to the audiobook titled “Evolve Your Brian: The Science of Changing Your Mind”.  For a number of years, I’ve been on a quest to learn as much as I can about how the brain functions –  particularly how it makes decisions under uncertainty.  This book is a bit lower level than most I’ve read recently – focusing more on the structure, chemistry, and biology of the brain’s components, rather than at the macro scale that I normally study. 

I’m conflicted about this book.  On one hand, the author covers aspects of brain function I’ve never heard before, such as how synapses actually work, how impulses propagate across a neuron, how neurons connect to one another, and so on.  On the other hand, the author makes some really amateurish logical leaps. 

The fundamental point of the book is that our brain is a complex organ driven by biochemical processes – and we have the ability to consciously change these biochemical processes, through changing our attitudes, meditation, and so on.  This part, by the way, is not controversial or revolutionary – it’s sound science, and is the underpinning of cognitive behavioral therapy.  The author explains a few case studies where people have apparently overcome significant disease, such as cancer, or trauma, such as a sever spinal injury, simply by having the proper positive perspective and attitude, and related states of mind.  To put a fine point on this, the author is saying that a number of people cured their advanced cancer by changing their minds.  In the author’s view, this makes sense, because we know that the mind can create changes in the body. 

Here is my problem: the author found a number of people who overcame cancer and other serious physical problems, including himself, through apparent mental conditioning and attitude.  This is the same problem one would have a hundred years ago talking to people who overcame illness through bloodletting: you only talk to the people that it worked for.  The ones that it didn’t work for aren’t around any more, or at least, aren’t in the set of people that you interviewed.  Said another way, there could be an equal number of people that had the very same positive attitude and mental discipline as those in the set of people interview by the author, but that didn’t get better.  This, by the way, is why random control trials are so important. Having said that, having a positive attitude certainly does not hurt, and very likely does lead to a better quality of life, even if it doesn’t (reliably) cure cancer.

Setting aside the “irrational exuberance” of the author to cure thyself through though, I found the book to be a worthwhile read.  I feel like I learned a lot about the underlying mechanics of the brain.

If you’re interested in the brain, I recommend adding this to your reading list.

US Politics is a Two Team Sport

Earlier this year, I wrote briefly about perceptions of fairness in politics.  The 2018 midterm elections recently came and went, and in some instances, are still being debated, with all the attendant lawsuits and public outcry.  I try hard to look at things through the lens of an independent observer, and I continue to see that people interpret any given political “happening” strictly based on their affiliation.  Take, for example, the debacle happening in Broward Country, Florida.  People seem to be generally interpreting the events in one of two ways:

  1. The democrats are trying to rig the vote
  2. The republicans are trying to suppress attempts to get an accurate vote count

Very similar events are happening in other parts of the country, with similar views.

It is clear to me that, at it pertains to US politics, we now have only two teams to cheer for.  Anything done by our team, or done in favor of our team, is fair and appropriate, and anything done by the opposing team or in favor of the opposing team is an example of dishonest, dirty politics.

The challenge I see is that politics seems, to me at least, to be built on the notion that people will make decisions that regarding leaders that are in their own best interests.  What is happening, though, is that people’s interests seem to largely have become disconnected from the “team” they identify with – which is often based on less meaningful characteristics about us (in a political sense), like where we are from, and how our parents identified themselves.

I also find it fascinating that the country continues to balance out at roughly half democrat and half republican (negating the small-ish 3rd party population in the middle), particularly given the broad range of issues that each party has to represent.

Drone Attacks and Attribution

Today, there was an apparent assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela.  Allegedly using a drone carrying explosives.  The attack was not successful, though a  number of people were apparently hurt.  The incident is still clouded in the fog that comes with such events, and out understanding of what actually happened will likely change as new details emerge.  

Having said that, there is an interesting analogy to a problem we have in cyber security: attribution.  When attacks are relatively simple to perform and can be done from some arbitrary distance, it’s often unclear who was responsible.  Drone technology seems to be headed in a similar direction.  Drones continue to become cheaper, more powerful, and so on.  Unlike cyber attacks (so far), attacks using drones can directly harm property and people.  Given that drones can travel long distances and be piloted via remote control, they offer would-be criminals a means of causing destruction from afar, potentially without any means for law enforcement to tie the attack to a specific person.  Certainly, there are potential mitigations to this anonymity…  I am thinking about gun shot locators installed in some cities, but for tracking radio frequency emissions.  If it gets really bad, we may see new types of radar deployed in municipalities to detect unauthorized drone activity.

In the cyber world, attribution is, sometimes at least, a construct intended to serve a political agenda.  It’s quite likely we will see the same with drone attacks…  Was an attack perpetrated by a psychopath angry about a denied tax benefit, or was it conducted by a foreign military?  Hard to say.

Thoughts on Humanity and Crime

I watched a twitter conversation this afternoon that got me thinking about our expectations of other humans and where the line of personal responsibility begins and ends.  I won’t post a link to the conversation in question – I am not interested in jumping into someone’s discussion on this topic.  Here is a summary of the discussion:

Person 1: I am not sure why people put themselves through pain to prevent themselves from becoming a victim of certain types of crime.  It makes sense to take reasonable steps to protect, for example, your car from being stolen, but if it does get stolen, insurance is there to cover the loss.

Person 2: I should not have to worry about leaving my car unlocked.  People need to learn to not steal my car.

We should not have to lock our car doors at night.  We should be able to leave the keys of our car on the seat and not have to worry about someone stealing our car.  Stealing a car is clearly wrong, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone internally justifying such an act.  But many cars are stolen every day.  We can make an assertion about how everyone else should act, but at the end of the day, we can only control our own actions.  No matter how illegal we make it, no matter how much we may educate society about how wrong it is to steal cars, there is a segment of the population that will steal your car, given the chance.  To reject this is, unfortunately, rejecting what we objectively know about humans.  And that is irrational.  There is a lot of variability in the minds of humans.  Most people have a pretty strong sense of ethics, but the work of people like Dan Ariely show that even otherwise uptight rule followers can behave badly.  But there are people that fundamentally don’t see the problem with stealing a car.  Maybe they have some mental condition, or they are in some terrible financial circumstance where stealing a car is the most rational action to them, or maybe they are under the influence of narcotics, or many other possibilities.  My point is that it’s not rational to expect that no one is ever going to steal another car.  That is different than saying we expect that no one should steal a car.

We should indeed strive to hold people to a high standard, but at the same time, we have to deal with the realities of our environment.  I don’t think a person whose car was stolen because the doors were unlocked is to blame or somehow deserved or contributed to what happened – that is all on the thief – but it also seems irrational to look at the spot where my car used to be and yell at the sky, demanding that everyone do a better job of not stealing cars.


On Labeling People

A few days ago, I saw a quote posted by someone in my Mastodon timeline about the ills of labeling people.  I really wanted to reference the post here, but since Mastodon has no ability to search, I’m out of luck.  I tried searching Google for the quote based on memory, and learned that there are hundreds of quotes from various people on the topic.

The problem is that we are hard wired to label things.  Everything.  People, places, things.  This is simply how our brain is built to handle the complexities of the world.  In effect, these quotes remind us to do something that is not possible for humans to do.

The intention of all these quotes is certainly virtuous, if misplaced.  Labels are generally what leads to stereotypes and discrimination.  To that end, a more helpful quote really should remind us to be aware that we instinctively and unconsciously label people, and that such labels can improperly skew our perceptions, and that we need to actively reevaluate the reasons for our feelings towards people.

Perceptions of Fairness Based on Team Affiliation in Sports and Politics.

I recently read comments on twitter about the story of the Speaker of the House firing the House’s chaplain. Apparently because the chaplain prayed against the recent tax bill. Or something.

It’s interesting to watch the perspective of the commenters. Assuming none of them were Russian trolls or George Soros paid actors, the perception of the appropriateness of the action clearly aligned with their political affiliation. This reminds me of people watching a professional sports game. Two spectators with roughly the same understanding of the game will interpret the actions of a referee/umpire/official very differently, based on which team he or she supports. An action against the opponent is reasonable and just, and an action against “their” team is unfair, or the result of malice or plain incompetence on the part of the official.

That’s really concerning to me. While the chaplain episode may not have much consequence in the larger scheme of things, applying this irrational reasoning to the political system will result in deeper divisions between parties and a willingness to “look the other way” by wrongdoing of the home team.

The political system appears to me to be built on the assumption that people are rational, but we are not.

The Trouble With US Elections Going Forward

The recent revelations about the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica debacle is alarming, but should not be surprising.  Companies, from Amazon to Netflix, continue to ratchet up the sophistication in how they analyze data to motivate potential customers.

It occurs to me, a political layperson, that the US electorate exists on a continuum: the far left and far right are highly aligned with their respective parties, often based on a few strong issues such as religion, abortion, taxes, gun rights, welfare, drug legalization, and so on.  But this population collectively likely only constitutes a minority of the electorate.  The majority reside in the middle.  The closer to the middle one gets, I hypothesize that there are an increasing number of issues that the one considers important in selecting a candidate to support.

Neither political party has to worry much about their “base”; it’s the group in the middle that they need to fight for.  From a lay person’s perspective, the approach candidates seem to generally take to address the “middle” is not the issues, but rather rote familiarity.  Basic marketing 101.  This is very likely why we see the costs of campaigns spiraling out of control: each candidate trying to get more “face time” in front of voters on TV, radio, and in front yards.  In a manner of speaking, there seemed to be tacit acceptance of this practice, because whomever could raise more money must, by definition, have more support as evidenced by their superior fund raising abilities.

I think the Facebook debacle (and likely the Trump presidency as a result) shows us that it’s possible to segment people in the “middle” and efficiently target them with specific messages that are intended to resonate with that particular group.

Given the plethora of data gathered on a continual basis about nearly all US citizens, it seems likely that elections going forward will become less about effectiveness of fund raising and more about the effectiveness of data analytics approaches and the ability to target and deliver specific messages to prospective voters that are intended to either want to vote for the desired candidate, or at least not vote for the opposing candidate.  All of this happens outside of public view and without any oversight.  And that should be troubling to everyone.


Bad Laws and Certainty Among Politicians

I’ve had a number of recent discussions regarding Georgia’s proposed new hacking law, as well as the proposed SESTA and FOSTA law.  Most of the people I’ve spoken to wonder why the laws would be proposed, since they will almost certainly cause the opposite effective of their intended purposes.  While this is certainly hard to objectively test, I strongly suspect a few things are happening here.

First, humans like certainty.  When we go to a doctor for some ailment, we want a doctor that can definitively tell us what the problem is.  If we go to a doctor with our ailment, and she tells us that she’s not sure what is wrong, we likely won’t go back.  Numerous studies have show, however, that doctors often misdiagnose illnesses, and that is one of the reasons machine learning and artificial intelligence holds great promise in medicine.  Regardless, we reward the doctor who is certain, and ignore that one who is uncertain.

I believe the same is true of politicians.  Like doctors, we, at least in the USA, have little patience for politicians who do not have robust positions on various topics.  Further, and unlike doctors, politicians are almost never allowed to change their minds on an issue, based on new input.  Mind-changing by a politician is almost always seized on by a political adversary as a sign of weakness.  Recall John Kerry’s debacle of voting for something before he voted against it.

Next, as Nassim Taleb points out, people are susceptible to what he calls the “narrative fallacy”.  People can be given a tangible narrative that makes intuitive sense, and in their minds, that narrative effectively becomes fact.  This is troublesome in the hands of a politician who is unwilling to change her mind based on new evidence.

Finally, and related to the narrative fallacy, politicians seem to have much greater success in selling policy platforms to the masses that are based on narratives, particularly narratives that are based on “fairness”, than it is to sell a position that may be counter-intuitive, but based on data.  Add in lobbying from firms that benefit from the incorrect narrative, and I suspect we end up with laws intended to do one thing, but end up causing the opposite.

In the case of SESTA and FOSTA, intended to drive down instances of sex slavery, the law may end up hurting more people than it can help.  There is a clear and straight-forward narrative for banning sex trafficking on the Internet, and holding those who provide aid, such as web site operators, accountable for their role in the crime.  Opponents point to data that indicate the opposite will happen, because the crimes will move “underground”, since demand has not changed, and those that were making a living off of sex work will have to resort to potentially much more dangerous avenues for earning money, such as by working through often violent pimps.

To counteract this phenomenon, we need to change our values around.  We should value those who do update their views based on new data.  We should understand that some issues are complex and expressing uncertainty is not weakness.  We should value people that want to gather additional information before making significant decisions, such as passing some new law.  We should strongly consider putting our senses of “fairness” in check when supporting or opposing positions that, on the surface may seem more fair, but in the end, cost everyone considerably more.

All of that is difficult to do because we are emotional beings, reacting to things through the lenses of the many different heuristics we’ve developed over thousands of millennia.  What we think is a rational position may not be rational, and we should not only be willing to accept that we’re wrong, but seek evidence that we are wrong and make changes accordingly.