Science in 2015

The end-of-year science round-ups are appearing thick and fast. Too many to post links here, but many are surprisingly un-alarmist. If you only need one such article it’s Peter Diamandis picking his Top 10 Breakthroughs for 2015. I might also have added ‘NASA getting its public relations and outreach right, at last’, as a rider to his article.

Also fascinating in science is our growing ability to recover enough DNA to reconstruct a much more accurate picture of how ancient human populations evolved, diversified and spread.

Another kind of breakthrough for science in 2015, but in a much less obvious way, was the very public focus and debate on science’s many failings. Doubtless someone will soon write a book on science’s strange middle-aged breakdown and carpet-chewing bout of self-doubt, but a summary of 2015 would consist of…

* the various revelations of stunning levels of experiment reproducibility problems, matters which have since been widely debated in fields ranging from social psychology to biomedical research.

* a rising awareness of the dangers inherent in prematurely building a false and dogmatic consensus on a topic, from pseudo-science such as ‘preferred learning styles’ to the collapse of the cholesterol consensus.

* we saw the public exposure of various underhand methods for fudging and massaging data.

* evidence for the rise of false/purchased accreditation (fake PhDs have become endemic in Russia, for instance).

* the growth of predatory academic journals, and the penetration of their articles into academic search-engines.

* a general fretting over the journal peer review system and its inadequacies.

* hard numbers that demonstrate lack of training quality outside of subject teaching, from patchy PhD student training to the dismal state of information search training for undergraduates.

* the robust attack on jargon (by Pinker, mostly, but he’s enough on his own) and bad writing in science. Plus a nascent move toward having ‘plain English’ summaries or sidebars alongside journal paper abstracts.

One hopes that the target of most of the well-deserved attacks — mostly fields such as social psychology, sociology, educational studies, economics — will respond well to such revelations and chiding. I doubt they’ll be able to defensively return to ‘business as usual’, and some of the less ideology-infected fields may seriously reform and become more healthy and open places to work and debate. One factor weighing against that possibility of openness is the increasing influence of vile twitter-mobs on open investigation and debate, aided by supine university authorities seemingly unable to stand up to the lying bullies.

Anyway, so far as I can tell 2016 seems set to be the year of the invisibly small: useful new nanotech surfaces from biomedical to phones; studies of our gut microbiome; the role of microbes in climate and pollution clean-up; tiny particulate pollution and dangerous nano-fibres; microbial computing; industrial fungi and yeasts, and more. The various fields are moving forward faster than a hyperloop and we can expect big breakthroughs, synergies and discoveries.

10 things in 2016

I’ve been reading through many of the ‘coming in 2016’ articles in the press and on the blogosphere. The focus was mostly on political and economic risk, and on the obvious big threats ranging from Putin to various ailing economies (South Africa, Italy, Russia). Such articles tend to miss the impact of the cultural and the politico-cultural, and are often blind to game-changing progress in niches like agriculture (farm-bots and agri-drones). But I also noted some sparks of optimism. In no special order:

1. In 2016 we finally start to wake up to the threat of serious cyberattacks and cyber-espionage against the west. And individuals and business start to realise that everyone has a part to play in our defence.

2. Many well-managed African economies take advantage of various global factors to zoom further up the growth league tables. Such as all-time low oil prices / increased resource extraction at good prices / better global trade arrangements / growing populations. The same factors may help the re-emergence of various moribund economies in South America.

3. In the face of the severe and growing skills shortages employers start to pay better wages and to recruit in a less youth-centric way, in particular luring back the skilled and savvy over-50s who were discarded during the recession. Over-50s recruitment happens beyond simple low-level retail jobs.

4. Stealth taxes on allegedly ‘unhealthy’ foods are found to be unpopular with the electorate, and are effectively placed ‘off the menu’.

5. The UK really does vote to leave the European Union.

6. More and better methods of energy efficiency in power distribution and storage. In the home energy-saving finally starts to get serious for desktop gaming PCs and consoles (a big energy hog, with the average console using more energy than your fridge) and without impacting on game performance. People stick with the everyday energy-saving habits they developed to save money during the 2007-2014 recession.

7. Facebook for Work is a success. Large economic benefits accrue from its use, once it gets integrated into the workplace.

8. Really useful Microsoft HoloLens applications start to appear by the end of the summer — the dev kits having been in the hands of developers since the spring.

9. The American political race for the Presidency turns out to be a fairly decent and intelligent one, once the front-runners are decided. Some hope

10. The facts on which rational optimism is based continue to seep through growing cracks in the immense sea-wall of ignorance.

Oh, the humanities!

“Rise of the humanities … more people than ever, especially women, are studying them”

“On closer inspection, nationally there was no such long-term decline [in numbers of U.S. humanities students] and not even a short-term one during the downturn.”

There are more humanities students than ever, and we have greatly widened access both in terms of demographics and rural access. Even thirty years ago many types of students would never have had the chance to take such advanced studies. Current students have access to more knowledge and tools than ever before, and more opportunities when they graduate.

Coming soon to the humanities, a further widening of the student base. An annual influx of tens of millions of students living in Africa and India. Better, those students will be taking free MOOC courses that are inherently corruption-free, and can be assembled ad hoc to suit their needs — potentially freely mixing courses in the sciences, arts, history, and training for artisanal production.


Flying kitties for freedom!

Not to be outdone in the arena of ‘policy discussions via sci-fi’, the freedom-loving Electronic Frontier Foundation has today released its own sci-fi anthology. Naturally Pwning Tomorrow: a speculative fiction anthology is free and Creative Commons. There’s a choice of .ePub or Kindle .mobi. Big-name authors in the book include…

David Brin
Pat Cadigan
Cory Doctorow
Neil Gaiman
Bruce Sterling


Eagleton’s Hope without Optimism and Ridley’s The Rational Optimist

I heard today that veteran Marxist Terry Eagleton’s new book contains a short and trenchant review of The Rational Optimist. The review is being highly praised (though vaguely so, and in passing) by book reviews in the leftist press.

On perusing the book, a grab-bag of essays rather dourly titled Hope without Optimism (Sept 2015), I see that Eagleton’s review of The Rational Optimist is not announced as such but is instead buried in the middle of an essay. For those not able to get this new book, below is my quick digest summary of Eagleton’s specific quibbles. His review is characterised by a constantly upbraiding of Ridley for not saying this or considering that, then a paragraph or two later Eagleton grudgingly admits that Ridley did actually address this or that — just not in a manner in accordance with Eagleton’s avowedly Marxist ideology.

* “Ridley sees a direct relation between material affluence and human well-being”. This, according to Eagleton, is not a sufficiently nuanced view of the matter — since the great Karl Marx saw the whole thing in a much more balanced light.

(So, by implication, nothing has changed since Marx and Engels formulated their ideas and partially cherry-picked from data in the England of the 1850s and 60s. Will the left ever cease to view the world through the grimy windows of an early Lancastrian cotton mill?).

* Ridley is said to “naively” over-emphasise “the emancipatory nature of markets, exchange value, and the global circulation of commodities”. Ridley is thus a “devout believer” who places too much faith in free-market economics.

(But, late on in the review, Eagleton concedes that Ridley does warn that certain types of capitalist asset markets are prone to damaging “bubbles”, in a free market.(1) Eagleton later notes that “Ridley concedes that the world will end in disaster if we carry on the way we do”. I’d note that Ridley also expresses his doubts about certain types of corporations and “rent seeking” in the current economy).

* Ridley is fairly described as thinking that open “commerce goes hand in hand with a general spread of civility”, moderating many underlying human tendencies such as aggression. Apparently, to Eagleton, this is to be deemed questionable. He springboards from this point straight into an attack on Pinker, rather than on Ridley.

(I think that Ridley is simply unassailable on civility, in terms of the overall historical record. I seem to remember that Ridley even goes into specifics at one point in the book, suggesting that the rise of civility is probably a combined effect of various factors: trade + all the factors that run alongside the spread of trade).

* Ridley is admonished for having “passed over” or been “complacently silent” about the downsides of the upward trajectory of “trade and prosperity”, such as 19th century industrial factory conditions and even “colonialist genocide”.

(Yet, a page or so later in the same review, Eagleton admits that Ridley was not so “silent”. Since he bridles when “Ridley proudly points out” the history of the outlawing of “slavery and child labour”, on which point he chides Ridley for not paying enough attention to the opposition that some 19th century reform movements faced. Eagleton bridles again, when he reads Ridley condemning the early factory system of “inhuman hours” in “terrible danger, noise and dirt” — because Ridley then had the temerity to point out that a factory life was often a somewhat better life than one spent as a farm labourer (or child or wife of such).

* Ridley is deemed an “embattled ideologue”, and therefore not a dispassionate judge of the matters under discussion. Ridley’s faith in the future is deemed to be essentially a mystical one, through being described by Eagleton in terms such as “unquenchable belief”, “a faith in the spirit of innovation” and various similar quasi-religious denigrations.

(/Splutter/ Well, that’s “the Marxist pot calling the Free-Marketeer kettle black”, if ever I heard it. Ridley has explained many times why he is a rational optimist, not the unthinking happy-clappy sort of optimist, something which any fair reading of the book should have made evidently clear).

* Eagleton remarks that the trajectory of our future progress may even give to rise too… an eventual utopian Marxist society.

(Erm… you were casting aspersions about someone being quasi-religious in outlook, Terry…?)

* Ridley allegedly “passes over the fact that innovation is simply one factor in a complex economic system” and Eagleton gloomily asks “what if the innovations prove unprofitable?” Ridley is also claimed to have “failed to point out how capitalism can impede inventive thought”. The Rational Optimist‘s working notion of “collective intelligence” is deemed too vague, and yet it is concrete enough for Eagleton to suggest that it could become “despotic” in future.

(Ridley’s major new 2015 book has amply addressed all those quibbles, I think).

* Ridley is a “social Darwinist”.

(A common slur and falsehood made by the left, here made in passing. It’s an accusation I’ve heard Ridley cogently rebut several times now, calling its use by another reviewer “an elementary howler”).

* Ridley’s 2010 book took too rosy a view of progress in contemporary China.

(Possible. All books seem unavoidably and unconsciously to reflect the times in which they were written. The Rational Optimist may have been no different in certain minor respects. An intelligent reader of the books of the past sees such ripples of history and upbringing, but looks through them to see the grit of the underlying argument)

* Ridley’s book is somewhat mired in the author’s own upper middle-class worldview.

(Possible. But since socialists and Marxists seem to be overwhelmingly upper middle-class, this criticism seems another example of “the pot calling the kettle black”. It’s true that Ridley’s political savvy does partially suffer because he has never been on/in the left, but always embedded in the English small-c conservative mindset. So he just doesn’t understand his opponents on the left well enough to combat them effectively.)

* Ridley expends “no less than an entire paragraph” addressing the current threat of nuclear war, which is not enough space according to Eagleton. Just because nuclear war and various other dire threats (named by Eagleton as “famine, plague, environmental disaster and so on”) haven’t yet happened, says Eagleton, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.

(Ridley has ably addressed such “but… but… the doom just hasn’t happened yet!” arguments. Yet, later in the same review, Eagleton admits that Ridley does suggest that such dangers — if they were to occur — would obviously make the 21st century what Ridley terms “a dreadful place”. It seems obvious that the potential for a small group of extremists to cause a widespread and existential chaos has increased since the 1980s. Partly due to the spread of enabling technology, and partly due to our complex and delicately-balanced supply-chains. But at the same time our methods for the detection and prevention of such extremism have also vastly increased, and we have greatly raised the overall level of moral pressure against acts that could threaten whole populations. If a widespread attack were to occur, for instance a hundred drones carrying a contagious bio-war attack combined with a major cyber-attack, then we now have vastly better ways to route around or solve the major problems and food-security blockages that would follow. In my view the more serious existential worry should be that some scientifically-approved global project to ‘rectify the climate’, by seeding the oceans or atmosphere with something, will go horribly and irreversibly wrong.)

* Ridley may think that many of humanity’s perennial problems “are en route to being resolved”, but how can we ever overcome “the crimes of our ancestors” that are deemed to have enabled such progress?

(The “we are always-already responsible for all the crimes of the past” argument is a bit rich, coming from a Marxist who sits in a tradition that whipped out a dubious New Left “Get Out of Jail Free” card in regard to the immense crimes of Stalin and Mao. And who comes from a wider socialist tradition that has historically been blithely happy to raise its future ‘utopia’ on new foundations containing the bones of tens of millions of people.)

* Ridley may also be ignoring much that was good and recoverable in the past, in his rush to the future. Eagleton then actually supports this point by quoting nearly a page from what he terms the “ever-sanguine” Leon Trotsky.

(Hmm… now that’s quite possible, Trotsky aside. The Rational Optimist was written before Scruton’s recent book on conservative traditions, which is excellent and written from a British perspective. Scruton’s early chapters discuss and pinpoint British conservatism’s traditional respect for both the past and for future generations. I sometimes think that Ridley isn’t as sharply aware of the outlines, value and reach of these traditions as he might be — perhaps because he lives inside them rather than ‘seeing them whole’ from the outside.)

* 1. Footnote: In the case of the U.S. housing asset market, I would argue that the recent bubble/crash was actually caused by quasi-socialistic government interventions and fumblings. Thomas Sowell’s excellent book The Housing Boom and Bust (now out in a Revised Edition) gives a very clear account of this government intervention in an asset market, and can be summarised in one paragraph thus…

“There was over-regulation and mis-regulation by city and federal governments in the 1970s and 1980s, creating a shortage of house building land. This then triggered land price booms in a small number of desirable cities in the USA. House builders then passed these land price increases to house buyers, triggering highly localised house-price booms – which then attracted many investors looking for a quick buck. As new-build houses rose in price, gentrification kicked in and renovators started pricing locals out of formerly run-down neighbourhoods. The many multi-property investors who entered the game were sustained by a government which had encouraged a low-interest / easy-credit economy. These highly localised house-price booms were then cynically used to justify a national political crusade for “affordable housing” for minority groups. Very quickly the mortgage companies were forced by the U.S. government (under threat of legal action) into mandatory quotas which handed out millions of no-risk mortgages (“low incomes acceptable, no deposit needed, pay almost nothing for two years”) to those least able to afford the eventual payments. These “toxic debts” were then bought up by the huge U.S. government-sponsored mortgage aggregators, which quickly repackaged them as ‘mortgage-backed securities’ which they could sell off to unsuspecting investors and banks around the world. The bubble burst and the crash occurred. The problem was then made worse as governments dithered about which banks they should save, and which they should let go to the wall. This uncertainty meant that no-one in business knew who to trust for credit, leading to a spiralling credit crisis around the world.”

Something to smile about

Did young Americans become broadly happier in the 20th century? On one remarkable surface measure, it seems so. A new open access study has taken “37,921 front-facing portraits sourced from 949 yearbooks in 27 states” and overlaid these to create a computer-blended ‘summary image’ for each decade.



Though perhaps it also has something to do with the rise of the good dentistry that Americans are famed for.

It can’t be because of slow shutter speeds, and people not being able to “hold the smile”. That wasn’t true after about the late 1910s, and almost all professional studios had both flash and lots of light.

Red Mars – bound for TV

The hard sci-fi colonisation epic Red Mars is to be adapted as a TV series. The news that a TV adaptation of the novels was being written has been around for a while now, but apparently the filming has now been approved (or ‘green lit’, as they say in the industry) for filming in 2016. It looks very promising, given the veteran team they have on board.

Asking the writer of the superb Babylon 5 (story-arc viewing/skipping order) to adapt seems like the perfect choice. The team on Mars suggests that they will stick close to the can-do ethos of the novels, and a tight ten episodes should ensure there’s no padding out the series with disposable ‘problem-of-the-week’ episodes.

“Author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is heading to television, under the title of its first novel Red Mars. American network Spike TV has confirmed a ten-episode season set to premiere in January 2017. Game of Thrones producer Vince Gerardis is attached as executive producer. Sci-fi veteran and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski will write. Robinson himself will oversee as a consultant on the show.”