A journal of cognition, computation, cartoons and cooking; physics and phonotactics; academia, art, alcohol and angst.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why is Kaku commenting as an expert on the Fukushima Disaster?

Who do you go to when complicated sciencey stuff happens that needs to be broken down to the general public? Why, a physicist who writes books, of course!

Except Michio Kaku is not a nuclear scientist or engineer or energy policymaker (fundamental physics is not nuclear physics), he is not Japanese (perhaps relevant - he is born and bred American), and he most certainly is biased. Apparently that reasoning didn't stop ABC's Weekend Edition from having Kaku on as "our expert ... all through this crisis".

His lack of expertise makes commenting as an expert irresponsible - granted, we in physics often feel all-powerful in understanding everything, but when laypeople actually take us seriously, we have to give every possible inch of humility in our conclusions. His comparisons to Chernobyl (the comparison was even worse the next day) are sensationalist, as the disasters are nothing alike in mechanics or magnitude.

But he is not only irresponsible, but unethical, in that he never reveals his quite-relevant 30-year NNP activism for a complete dismantling of nuclear energy on Earth. See a response from Nuclear Dreams with full quotations given in a 2008 interview with the India Times. In addition, I refer you to the following quotation from a commentary Kaku wrote for The Guardian ("Ban Nuke Power, Ban Nuke Weapons") in 1979 while a highly-public activist:
"Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin. They are controlled by the same people, produced by the same corporations and serve the same political and financial interests. They give off the same radioactive poisons, generate the same deadly waste that nobody yet knows what to do with. And both threaten catastrophic destruction. The people who brought us Hiroshima now bring us Harrisburg."

Scientists grow up with all sorts of biases and shouldn't have to cite them in their work if they have sound reasoning. However, Kaku has a history of vocal political activism in this subject, but rather than giving a disclaimer or stating up-front his views on the complete dismantling of nuclear power, he uses his scientific authority (in spite of his field being completely unrelated) to spread hyperbole and misinformation -- in effect, fear-mongering.

His is an extreme case, but scientists in general have to be very careful about the topics on which they are sought for comment or authority. News reporters often think they can write accurately on biology, economics, and psychology, but admit ignorance on physics, seeking the most famous name they can find to comment on other people's research or topics outside their field. For those sought, famous or not, it is absolutely unethical to exert argument by authority alone. You are a journalist within science - speak carefully and cite your facts.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Secret Language of World of Warcraft

A journalist has no clue. This has been covered in many many blogs already (kotaku, worldofwar, tetonhammer). But now the video has been taking down from youtube due to copyright claims, but more importantly it has been removed from the official website of the San Francisco Bay NBC 11 KNTV affiliate whence it aired! I recovered the video from the affiliate's google cache which may reset soon, and a second-person filmed copy of decent quality off youtube.

Meanwhile, I will try to give the ripped video some extra life from a direct link (flv) and from another source.

My comment on this: first, see the above blogs for why this is so funny (simple answer - she was "pwned" with a bit of an inaccurate portrayal of the use of language in WoW). Now, I was big into news/feature journalism in high school and undergrad, with several awards under my belt, even having attended summer camp in TV and print journalism at Northern Illinois University. One thing they told us at NIU though, as we were struggling in front of the cameras, is that us Chicagoans were putting ourselves under the pressure of the highly-polished standards of major metropolitan news outlets, whereas the professional nowheresville networks of this place just beyond the rural ring of Fermilab were decidedly amateurish - thus these journalism students in DeKalb had a bit more confidence in their performances than we who received metro Chicago broadcasts.

The point is that this report was horribly amateur by any metropolitan standards, even for a five-minute throwaway feature. She is blatant in personalizing the story (which is in itself a way of trivializing what is actually a very complex and important phenomenon) and even more blatant in not checking facts with even a quick Google search, which would reveal that she'd been a bit taken in by her "boyfriend". In raw substance, this could only be characterized as a personality piece about her live-in lover (since he was the only source, and not authoritative at that) which really merits her canning from a major metropolitan outlet.

The implications are twofold. First, I can decry the state of TV journalism, and I will. This was primetime, after the superbowl, on a major metro outlet, and let crap slip by, even possibly advertising for it beforehand as some comments have mentioned. Frankly, the best reliable TV journalism you'll get will be from the international outlets, like BBC, Fox (yes, they have journalistic merit of a different type), and cable (CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Show, etc). But for local coverage, I'd recommend two sources: local PBS and NPR carriers (Chicago Tonight is what I always used to watch growing up, which continues to maintain excellent standards of discourse) and specialty feature shows like 190 North, an ABC show covering plenty of cultural nuances from both the deep and shallow ends.

The second implication that troubles me is the state of linguistics in popular culture. Linguistics in itself is a very wide, multidisciplinary field. I studied and did some research in computational and generative linguistics as an undergrad, which encompass mathematical approaches to theoretical models and simulation of language, and which actually have very important predictive capability (as well as marketable results, as seen in every manner of computer speech recognition). However, many other slices of the pie exist in the forms of psycholinguistics, historical linguistics, and, as would be relevant to this broadcast, anthropological (or social) linguistics (and this even excludes relevant clinical and literary cross-disciplines). In most cases, these people are serious, methodical scientists who are fortunate enough to be higher than most social sciences in terms of empirical purity due to the inherent rule-based and objective grounding of their medium of study.

But when a layman thinks about a "linguist", he sees the Grammar-Nazi columnist in the New York Times "society" sections, or the gifted, well-mannered Victorian polyglot translating for the Congolese savages (or his sci-fi equivalent of C-3P0). This is soooo not the scope of academic linguists that it's almost funny.

Almost. Except the public never takes academic linguists seriously. [further rant on linguistics in the public sphere saved for later]. One of many cases in point is that the perceived "expert" on WoW language and its interpretation is some amateurish reporter and her WoW-addicted boyfriend who sabotages her story.

The real tragedy for the public is that there is so much depth to the amazingly intricate linguistic change happening all around us every day. When "pwned" enters everyday conversation like it did in grad school among us who were non-gamers, you see one of the first truly English words (derived almost exclusively within our own language and culture) to utterly defy conventional typology. Or, in a more classical example, when we can document and possibly predict a continued changing (general frontening, actually, by some conjectures) in the pronunciation of vowels in Standard American English, that may give the older generations a greater appreciation of some of the tangled accents of today's youth. Or maybe, at the end of the day, if we simply understand the argument to raise awareness of how native dialects can affect students' benefit from grammar classes in America, we might be able to respond intelligently when such arguments are made instead of grossly misinterpreting them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cells, visualization, and quantum consciousness nonsense

I'm a big fan of computer visualizations in science, both for the general public and for science students themselves (researchers, too). One project that I've been hoping to get off the ground soon is to build virtual worlds in special relativistic and quantum mechanical domains to help in building the modern "physical intuition" that all us students seem to lack.

Anyway, a couple videos caught my eye that were linked on Brain Windows: I enjoyed the videos by Drew Berry immensely (see Aptosis), as well as Harvard's The Inner Life of the Cell. Many more videos are available at the main site. Berry's videos were especially nice because of the use of environmental sound: there is a lot of useful information that can be effectively transmitted by sound. Accurate or not (and it's not, but neither is the visual information, since the scales of these videos are well below 400nm), it immerses the viewer in the environment.

One thing that kind of got me chuckling was the visualization of cytoskeletal microtubules and cytoplasm ions. Cytoskeletons are a nice modelling problem in physics (and under a lot of research at that), but I also came across them a lot in some light cog sci reading on quantum consciousness, or quantum computation in the brain (sometimes people, especially researchers in the field, confuse the two).

Yes, light cog sci reading. I could put the sum of physics in quantum consciousness theories on a napkin. I've seen two theories dominating the "literature" in this "field", with some overlap. The first is called Quantum Brain Dynamics (QBD), which asserts that applying the wave equations to the water in the brain creates a model for EEG signals while also creating quantum effects of wavefunction collapse and superposition. Then people decided a more convincing, less pseudoscientific mechanism for quantum processes than "water, ordinary water (laced with a healthy dose of LSD)" would be that computation occurs in the cytoskeleton of brain cells.

I won't say anything about the physics, because all the math that they do is probably fine enough, just not very interesting and certainly not enough to draw any conclusions from. But many good scientists (key example being Roger Penrose, a proponent of quantum consciousness theories) can fall victim to biasing their opinions based on how they think things should be. In spite of there being no reason for us to suspect quantum mechanics plays a role in cognition (no evidence for humans being capable of quantum computation, for example, and plenty of evidence that classical mechanics can model many cognitive processes), QBDers invoke it because consciousness is "exotic". I suppose it's an important idea to play around in just because any idea is worth investigating, but without even a mechanism for communication of quantum states between cells in the brain, the attention is very unwarranted. I shouldn't even be calling it a theory, since it has no basis in experimental or theoretical principles and makes no predictions.

Also, I will punch the next person who tells me to watch What The Bleep Do We Know?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Abortion and animal rights: the post that gets me pipe-bombed

Okay, so physics and philosophy isn't the most exciting thing in the world. Let's talk abortion! I just saw this video that asks abortion protesters whether women who have illegal abortions should go to jail. Most said something along the lines of that women who have abortions are "punished enough".

It's an important question, and has actually changed my mind: from a purely social-pragmatic standpoint, it seems clear that abortion has to be legal. Nobody is prepared to let poor people die on the street, so medical care must be socialized. Nobody is prepared to send desperate women to jail (except for one person in the video), so abortion must be legalized. Makes sense to me.

But I'm pretty terrible at political issues and often flip sides (or do what my brother, an army language/diplomacy officer with an economics degree, tells me). On the abortion issue I've always just stayed out of it - as a man, it's not my place to presume how women perceive life in their bodies, or how their psychology works (lord help us), or anything else about them for that matter. Ethically, I still feel that way - it's not my place to judge. But law must be pragmatic, not necessarily "moral".

But you didn't ask how I felt scientifically: in this sense I think that if it's okay to kill great apes, it's okay to kill fetuses and infants up to three months (or was it years? I can't remember the research) old or so, depending on when they reach a measurable state of self-awareness.

The point is that it's NOT okay to kill great apes, dolphins, elephants, or any other higher animal with demonstrable self-awareness. As said before, I think there may be a measurable phase transition of self-awareness, at which point we must step back and stop invasive testing.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Counting: science we can all count on

I'm browsing blogs regularly now to steal ideas, and this one caught my eye with a funny line from an actual scientific paper quoted in the New York Times:
While attending lectures on dementia, the doctors, Kenneth Rockwood, David B. Hogan and Christopher J. Patterson, kept track of the number of attendees who nodded off during the talks. They found that in an hourlong lecture attended by about 100 doctors, an average of 16 audience members nodded off. “We chose this method because counting is scientific,” the authors wrote in their seminal 2004 article in The Canadian Medical Association Journal. (emphasis added)
Is this the funniest thing ever in a scientific journal? There's the old tale of the paper with a one-sentence abstract, "No, it does not," but I think this is in a league of its own.

Now to over-analyze it with two related questions: is counting scientific, and is it science we can all agree on?

In the mathematics of set theory, we begin to answer that question. In logic, counting numbers is an extension of the propositional logic that is so familiar to lawyers in philosophers (hence, I don't like it much). Also, I've never formally studied logic, am not a logician, and can't do it justice. But being outside my specialty hasn't stopped me so far on this blog.
The counting numbers (integers) are called a mathematical group, while the real numbers as a whole are a field. The main property that defines these sets is closure under some operation, like addition or multiplication. This means that any elements of the set that are operated on will generate other elements of the set: add two numbers and get a number, multiply them and get another number, etc. You cannot add apples and oranges to get a pear is the point.

What is interesting about this subject is that our numbers are only one type of field. There's the complex field, the quaternions, the rationals, vectors, matrices, and all sorts of stuff that do not behave like "counting" should. In matrix multiplication, for example, A*B does not equal B*A: it is noncommutative (in the real world, this is why quantum mechanics works the way it does: the universe is not commutative).

But the concept of a field can be too restrictive. A while back some crackpot math teacher proposed adding a new number to math classes called "nullity." While I could analyze it briefly but incorrectly with my limited topology background, the idea is cleanly shot down by Cale. I would make a simple analogy: we count on a number line that extends to infinity in both directions. But what if we added an extra point to that line where infinity should be? Then we have a closed ring (reminds me of the temperature scale that includes negative temperature, actually). We can even add two more points above and below and get a sphere, or something even more exotic, leaving our simple linear counting structures far behind.

At the same time as we destroy the infallibility of counting, set theory reminds us that it's all good: through homomorphism, we can still understand systems in the real world by ordinary counting. Physics, even though it sees the world in exotic groups and complex fields, still works in a counting framework.

I will address briefly whether or not counting is a universal science. It is not. See an article on the Pirahã tribe for an example of people whose concept of integers fades at "3 or more" (see also the original paper, Nevins et. al.'s response, and Everett's response). And before anybody brings it up, Sapir and Whorf are still idiots. So is Stephen Hawking.

Several Amazonian and Austronesian tribesmen have settled in the cities, many with similarly exotic languages. The human mind can adapt - it's not a slave to language or culture - but you'd have to start learning by counting on your fingers by going back to kindergarten. I wonder again what logic is universal. Obviously it's not first-order or second-order, and I would still argue that it's not even basic propositional: according to me, all logic is learned from the environment.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Epistemology, logic, and a quantum universe

I stumbled on this old blog post about people who argue that not reducing something to self-evident truths is equivalent to having a foundationless theory of circular logic that doesn't explain anything.

Philosophically, we observe something nice about the universe: symmetry. That is, if I observe some kind of process, then set up the same process some time later (or in some other galaxy somewhere) and observe it again, there won't be any difference. Observed phenomena are invariant in space and time: our universe is consistent. This is great because it gives us the power of prediction - without it, Tom Hanks could never say that "Tomorrow, the sun will rise!"

We need that to do anything in science, and, as I argued in a philosophy essay, symmetry combined with entropy could give rise to deductive logic (a "learned" trait among animal species, perhaps not instinctual?). That gives us the power of evidence and hence experimental science. Maybe other people perceive a different reality (hell, with enough shrooms, you can't count on anything being consistent in the world), so as I said in the last post, the question of who's right is open.

The point I want to bring up is the origin of the universe, because such a scenario requires two assumptions (regardless of the theory used to generate it): quantum fluctuations and symmetry. Symmetry allows, by Noether's Theorem, all the a priori laws of mathematical physics (such as conservation of energy) to hold. But how are we so confident in the quantum nature of reality? I'd just look to the axioms of QFT for inspiration: anything that's not forbidden is required, or, you might say, "Sorry, but while you weren't looking, everything that could possibly happen, happened!"

I imagine the pre-universe to be completely undefined (because any definition means something specific is there), so of course there's symmetry in every metric you want (in any number of dimensions). Now it's just a matter of having something appear out of nowhere, and we have mountains of experimental evidence supporting the notion of a quantum reality. It's philosophically "nice" to have a free lunch appear in a blank-slate universe.

It's not a Q.E.D. moment, but I keep wondering what's Latin for "From nothing, everything," or perhaps more appropriately, "Science: it works, bitches!"

Note my possible circular logic: we observe symmetry, incorporate it in our logical thought, and then assert that it must always exist.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Atheistic cosmology does not imply atheism

To conclude my two posts below, I will talk about theism and consciousness. If we don't have or don't need a first cause, is there still room for god?

Incidentally, god is not throwing dice to make quantum mechanics work. It is simply not "how it works" - true randomness is the rule, not the exception. There is a multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics that would contradict me, but I think that's a bit of a cop-out.

Anyway, I make room for the possibility of god, since other people seem to know god so well. I call myself ignostic, meaning I recognize I have no concept of what god is as other people understand it.

What keeps me from pure atheism is my understanding (or lack thereof) of consciousness. There are certain philosophical problems with it: consciousness is wholly our own phenomenon, yet other people have it, and we can never know for sure if it's the same as ours; it is immutable, in that there is no meta-awareness of a change in awareness; and it appears to have a mostly-definite transition point between consciousness and unconsciousness, a phase transition if you will.

The first two points seem unlike anything we have encountered, and are suggestive of the need for a new physics or an impenetrable barrier for physics (which may leave room for a god). The third point gives me hope that we can crack consciousness with ordinary physics, because we have a clear indication of something measurable that interacts with it.

I have faith in physics and objective reality, but there's little that can be argued against me saying that I may be the only person with true consciousness, or that someone's reality of knowing god is fundamentally and possibly even measurably different from mine.

You might say I am an atheist who believes in (or is at least agnostic about) a god that only others know.