Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fast decisions

Recent research from the Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University demonstrates that birds, specifically magpies, make fast decisions based on human gaze. Clearly, selection advantages have provided them with the ability to both collect and process information from human gaze efficiently. Although the human gaze, on the surface, appears to be a binary phenomenon – present or absent, it is possible that the birds may be using finer details of the available information in the decision processes.

If the speed of decision-making is a skill that is passed on from generation to generation, then, it should point to observable differences in the bird brain. If the skill has been improving over time, then, it is unlikely that it is an acquired skill. If the structure of the brain, indeed, is changing, it is interesting to think about what is happening in the case of humans. The speed of decisions was critical early in human evolution but it seems less important now. If evolution did select for speed, then the current crop of humans are thrust into an unfamiliar environment. Excluding certain war situations, video games and financial trading (that is largely taken up by computers), the quality of decisions is more important than the speed of making them. In other words, the magpie that is able to discern finer shades of human gaze by analysis may ultimately win the game. 

Trigger happy Homo-sapiens may have been successful in eliminating slower Neanderthals but one has to wonder if this is another evolutionary quirk, that resulted in sub-optimal outcomes.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Stress-less belief

Research from the University of Oxford, recently reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrates that “the belief in science,” increases with stress. In trials where subjects were known to be stressed in the experimental group compared to the control, they found that the stressed group are more likely to agree with seemingly innocuous statements such as “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.” This points to the general observation that it is “belief” that acts as the stress reducer. An equal number of people may be using “the belief in religion” in a similar vein.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Early days of homo-sapiens were not pretty – animals and cannibals were hunting them down and stress was the primary attribute of living. One had to believe to survive, for without it, everything looked bleak. Burdened with a powerful organ, an evolutionary quirk, humans could look forward and see a worse tomorrow. The uncertainty was constant and they were completely ill-equipped to survive in the environment they were afforded. The elements reduced them to less than a few thousand – before inexplicable luck launched them higher from near extinction.

Stress has been with humans ever since. And survival, thus, selection depends much on how to reduce stress. Belief has become a critical defense mechanism in this battle. They started believing in inanimate objects that resembled something. As society developed, they moved onto legends and stories – that will someday morph into organized religion. Then, science arrived – with similar but potentially superior constructs that could explain what is observed. It slowly ate into the market share of the dominant provider of belief – religion. Science, however, could never appeal to the masses as belief is not about explaining the present - it is more about obscuring the future. The inability of science to give meaning to ignorance will likely hold it back for ever.

Believe to reduce stress – it does not matter what one believes in.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Technology lift

A recent study from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras argues that making cheap tablets available to millions in India may lift them out of poverty. This is a path worth pursuing as poverty is fundamentally driven by lack of access to information and capital. The competence and even desire can be shown to be uniform across the masses but market failures in information have held nearly 1/3 of the world’s population back and pinned them to incurable poverty. This is a shame for a civilization claiming to have made progress in virtually every dimension but has little to show for it.

Lack of access to information is the worst contemporary societal disease, as it leads to poverty, disease, crime and moral decay. As the leaders of countries across the world clamor to build and enhance physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges, they forget the leverage afforded by improved information infrastructure. The world has already moved on from the need for physical transport to mental engagement. With 3D printing around the corner, the trucks, trains and airplanes that carry physical goods are about to become obsolete. Further, with computer languages and mathematics rendering the world flatter than a pancake, the only advantage remains to be in information and knowledge.

If the IIT hypothesis holds good, then the distribution of millions of tablets across the country at $50 a piece, may usher in a wave of innovation. If the leaders of the country are serious about making a difference, here is a golden opportunity to run an experiment that cost nearly nothing. But then, one can never underestimate bureaucratic friction, corruption and sheer incompetence in policymaking, in a country, vastly famous for it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The goal

What is the goal of an individual? With 7 billion people around the world with little genetic diversity but with a wide variation in perspectives, that include sex, country, language, religion, physique and science, the question is what one should attempt to optimize. In a zero order society such as ours where optimization is always local, it is a good thought experiment.

The problem presented, then, is related to the probability that humanity will pull itself to the next stage. It seems unlikely – diseases have to be cured, the environment has to be mended, happiness has to be restored, art and philosophy have to triumph over prescriptive engineering and science, money has to be abandoned, knowledge has to become the primary currency of transaction and meritocracy has to prevail. Yes, it seems unlikely, but many attempted to achieve much less in the past.

What is the goal for an individual in the precious amount of time she is afforded? Could she try to change the system, society and the culture that envelopes her – or should she simply drift away to obscurity, complying? Should she look around, see what others do not see, make others cannot make and progress thoughts, others cannot have?  Should she redefine who she is and in the process change humanity bottoms up? Should she challenge the status-quo or accept the preprogrammed outcomes? Should she become successful and then change the world or fail attempting early? Should she broker thoughts across time and space to connect and then disconnect?

What is the goal of an individual? Is it comprehensible?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Inflexible homes

A recent study from the University of Warwick statistically demonstrates what could be intuitively clear – policies that result in high home ownership reduces labor and location flexibility, leading to higher unemployment rates. This is an important observation. However, what the study may be ignoring is that the “job market” has changed and any analysis of historical data on jobs and location flexibility may not be valid.

Many are unwilling to own up to the fact that there are no more “jobs” in the conventional sense of the word. With advancements in 3D printing and communications technology, both manufacturing and services industries are being revolutionized. What matters most now are skills and not presence, creativity not political savvy, imagination not optimization and execution not meetings.Those seeking jobs and those who are attempting to hire, should seriously reconsider what they are tying to do. If having a home, ties somebody down to a location and that reduces her employability, then, she may be seeking the wrong job. Equally importantly, if the hiring manager, however yahoo great she might think she is, insist on the presence of the employee on location, may be simply missing the whole point.

Studying historical data is good – but doing so without the context of the changing world, may not be.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


As humans find ways to live longer – first comprehensively beating out the bugs and then tackling some autoimmune diseases – it appears that the brain is taxed more and more. It has been the workhorse, ever ready to monitor, maintain and occasionally think, but it was never designed to last this long. A quantum computer, no less, but constrained by its biological origins and lack of flexibility, the brain has been a puzzle to those who attempt to use it. It stores information but retrieves it less efficiently, allowing humans to be ordinary animals, inaccurately recollecting the past and happily speculating about the future.

Memories of the brain, then, are what sustain humanity and the loss of them is simply disastrous. As the sane departs into the folds of history, they take those precious memories with them as there is no cloud, with sufficient capacity, to store it all. What a tragedy that humans have not found a way to preserve their own memories as the loss of information from those leaving and those who left but yet alive, is infinitely costly. Housed in small spaces, the brain has been front and center to the tribulations of generations in the past and more yet to come, yet it shows flashes of brilliance and compassion with failed attempts at integration and introspection. What could be done to preserve its creative intentions, its ability to seek the truth, its actions to make things right, its attempts to resolve the past and its valiant attempts to forecast the future?

The brain, the final frontier, will likely elude humanity forever as they travel in deep space, accumulate wealth and fame, explain particles and energy, kill and mutilate in the name of religion and politics and assert superiority over the known universe.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Better, older..

Recent observations (1) from a binary star system that includes a neutron star dancing with a white dwarf, indicate that Einstein's general theory of relativity, nearly a 100 years old now explain the seen gravity waves, the best. This is further affirmation that the dark ages of science is prolonged, with no foreseeable end. Fancy theories and heavy steel never measured up to sheer intellect and imagination.

The real question for physicists is where they go from here. Now that the Higgs Boson is proven to be “true”, what is next? Perhaps, a more exotic version of the Boson or maybe another trip to the particle zoo to pick an unproven fantasy, that may require a bigger and more powerful atom smasher. In either case, the expected progress in knowledge is close to zero. Both status-quo education systems and the process of awarding research grants have to change substantially to make any difference here. Awards and prizes, mere nods to mediocrity, who strive to discover and publish, peer reviewed or otherwise, simply make the situation worse. Further, engineers clamoring for “bigger” and more interesting projects simply aid and abet useless experimentation.

It is time to return to paper and pencil, the forgotten art of thinking, instead of measuring.


Einstein's gravity theory passes toughest test yet. Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 14:10 in Astronomy & Space

Friday, May 10, 2013


A recent article (1) proposes that the mere existence of markets substantially erodes moral value, subjectively defined as the willingness to save the life of a mouse (used in animal experiments) instead of receiving money by trading them. Further, the authors argue that multilateral markets adversely affect morality more than bilateral markets.

These are interesting observations. If one were to accept the definition of morality as the ability to reject money to save a life (of a mouse), then, lack of markets will certainly enhance it. For, without markets, one cannot transact and hence an individual with no access to markets will be unambiguously, the most moral. At the other extreme, with large multilateral markets – and at the limit, with instantaneous and unrestricted access to infinite markets, the proclivity of an individual to transact (for money or other such benefits) will be the highest. Such large markets will always reduce transaction costs and participants in these markets will always be less moral (according to the definition) than those with no or restricted access to markets.

The real question is how one should define morality. Is morality a property of the individual or does it depend on the environment presented to her? Does morality change with the context, space and time of the issue at hand? Is morality demonstrable and measurable? Is morality binary or continuous? Does morality differ across ethnic and geographical regions? Are moral people better and if so how? Is morality valuable to society, or is it costly?

It is always important to define what is being measured before setting out to measure it. Also, passive assertion of societal benefits from subjective constructs such as morality can lead to the wrong conclusions.

(1) Morals and Markets Armin Falk 1,*, Nora Szech 2,
1 Center for Economics and Neuroscience, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
2 Department of Economics, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany.