Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Opinions, Morals and What Science Could but Shouldn’t Tell Us

Headache. Image source: Mupso.
In an opinion piece from December, Brian Cox and Robin Ince argued that opinion must be separated from science when it comes to policy decisions:
“[T]here must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do… The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”
I used to say the same, that politics unfortunately mixes up scientific questions with unscientific ones, and that informed decision making requires us to first distinguish these. But then I went down a windy road trying to understand where science ends and where decision making begins. This eventually lead to my paper on the measurement of happiness. It also lead me to the conviction that the “extremely complex and uncomfortable border” doesn’t exist. Cox and Ince come to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

What is and what isn’t in the realm of science, and what is the role of science is in our political system are questions I care about deeply. And so I could not avoid noticing Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl recently discussed whether morals can be reduced to science. They come down, in rare agreement, on the side of “no”. It’s a variant of the “boundary” Cox and Ince touched on, so let us see what they had to say.

Sean and Lubos start by elaborating on what is and what isn’t a scientific statement. A scientific statement, they say, is one that could be false and whose truth value could at least in principle be empirically evaluated. The problem is then that the statement that morals can’t be reduced to science itself isn’t scientific. It isn’t because a definition for “moral” is lacking. Then, all answers to this question are just opinion so why bother with it? Lubos alludes to this by saying that whenever one could answer the question one way or the other somebody might just change the definition of moral
“Imagine that you find some quantity M encoded in the equations of M(orality)-theory in the future and you will claim that it measures morality… The problem is that even with this nice and well-defined formula, one may always legitimately refuse such a measure of morality and choose a completely different one.”
This lack of proper definition is an example for what I complained about in my recent post, that many philosophical questions are a waste of time if one doesn’t know what one is talking about to begin with. So let’s not debate the meaning of words and instead identify the real issue behind it.

What people really want to know is where science leaves them the freedom to make decisions. That’s why they are looking for a border between scientific and unscientific questions, the former can be answered by science, the latter presumably can only be answered by humans. In other words, they’re asking for their space to exercise free will.

Free will is an illusion that people hold on to quite stubbornly and that they protect vehemently, so the debate about the unscientificness of morals shouldn’t come as a surprise. The thought that science might tell people what they should or shouldn’t do is a great threat to free will, one that gets addressed in a forward defense. But that’s a misunderstanding. Science has never and will never tell anybody what should or shouldn’t be done because “should” is another one of these ill-defined words. “Should” implicitly necessitates a goal or a purpose.

“Science can’t tell us what to do”, as Cox and Ince write - correctly. But science can in principle tell us what we do. To understand how let’s have a look at what people mean when they refer to “morals” or “values”.

Humans are self-aware complex systems that have to process a lot of information to make informed decisions. Human self-awareness however is limited. We are not normally aware how the detailed processes of our thoughts proceed. In fact recent research in neuroscience seems to show that what we think of as “I” is primarily an aggregating mechanism of various deeper level systems whose detailed procedures the “I” does not normally take note of.

Thus, “we” don’t consciously know the details of how we make decisions. Moreover, a central element of human decision making is ignorance and oversimplification. The one thing that the human brain is really good at is energy efficiency. Which is why the default is to avoid thinking if unnecessary.

What we do instead of monitoring all that information from the input that we receive is learning to construct models of behavior that make use of simplified patterns and categories. Then we explain our decisions and those of others in terms of these simplified patterns. You chose this job because independence is important to you. You think polygamy is immoral and should be punished. These are rough summaries of longwinded thought processes which made use of experience, evolutionary traits, and random noise. They classify decisions in values like “independence” or morals like “faithfulness.”

Morals and values are thus just categories that people use to classify and explain the way they make decisions. Over time, using these simplified models, the higher level “I” system becomes good at predicting what will happen, and interprets this as an exercise of “free will.”

That having been said, if you believe in reductionism, morals and values are just emergent patterns in highly complex systems. It is clearly impractical and anyway presently impossible, but in principle one could define morals in this way. Imagine you’d do this. Now you have a definition for moral. An individual one, one that depends on cultural history as well as genetic ancestry. Here you have it. These are your morals.

You might then go and say that’s not what you mean with moral. And that would be fine with me because I don’t want to argue about words, so just call these emerging patterns something else. The point is that they’re what people make use of when they make decisions, and recall that this is the question we really want to address: What decisions are humans free to make because they’re allegedly unscientific?

If you have such a definition for morals then would science then tell you what you should do? No. It would in the best case simply tell you what you do. The best case being one in which scientists would be able to construct a complete model for human behavior. Depending on your attitude you might call that the worst case.

But while in principle possible, it is questionable that such a model is feasible to construct at all. It seems plausible to me that the process of thought is irreducible in the sense that if you tried to predict it you’d have to create an almost perfect copy of the original system and watch it in real time, in which case you’d just duplicate rather than predict decisions.

In other words, while the “border” between scientific and unscientific questions does not exist in principle, it does exist in practice. And it’s located where our ability to model complex systems ends, an end that might shift somewhat in the future but quite possibly will never entirely recede. The best way we presently know to find out what decisions humans make is to ask them. The best way we know to find out what the global climate does is not to ask humans but a computer model.

What does this have to do with happiness? Well, striving to achieve happiness is a human universal, so much so that you might want to raise the maximization of well-being of conscious beings to a universal goal. Having defined such a goal it would fill in the blank of the “purpose” and the “should” that was previously missing, or at least it seems so.

The problem is however that happiness is a byeffect of natural selection, it’s a simplified response to behavior that has in the past been beneficial for reproduction. Elevating happiness to an end unto itself is a circular definition of purpose, it’s fundamentally meaningless. Which is why, in my paper I argued we should forget about trying to define happiness and its maximization as a proxy to understand human behavior. Instead we should look for a properly defined quantity that has predictive power to describe the evolution of our economic, politic, and social systems, and the suggestion I made was maximizing the number of possible decisions that we (think we can) make. Which might or might not be correct. A scientific question that’s waiting to be answered.

Summary: Ill-defined questions are unscientific, but uninterestingly so. Once a question is well-defined science is in principle able to answer it, but not necessarily in practice. A scientific definition for morals might exist, but quite plausibly we will never be able to construct it. And even if we could, it wouldn’t tell us what should be done, but simply what is done. Opinion begins where our ability to model complex systems ends. This border will inevitably shift over time and it’s this “shift” that makes it uncomfortable. And no, I don’t believe in free will.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Apps I’d like to see

I learned this morning that in the drawer of pessimists, I lie in the corner of existential pessimists:
“Pessimists are of two types, the catastrophists, that is to say the types who look up in the starry heavens and see (metaphorically) only asteroids in the sky racing towards us to wipe us out as the dinosaurs were wiped out; and existential pessimists, that is to say those who see dissatisfaction as the permanent condition of mankind because of his inherent makeup, his contradictory desires and emotions, dissatisfaction that is perfectly compatible however with a great deal of enjoyment of life.” [Source]
Which is why I totally appreciate the internet in all its glory, and yet I am doomed to always complain about something that isn’t quite as good as it should be. Why, for example, doesn’t gmail mark messages that I have already replied to, which a program as dumb, clumsy, and stupid as Windows Mail could do for me? And why does facebook roll out a search function that nobody needs and nobody wants, instead of allowing me to simply search my timeline for a keyword. (Don’t tell me to use CTRL+F on the activity log while scrolling, I tried that and it didn’t work.) If I could assign tags to links posted on fb it might actually become a useful archiving system, but usefulness is clearly not Zuckerberg’s vision. And why, oh why, did Google have to kill the Google reader?

Leaving aside my complaints about current affairs, here’s something I would like to see in the future:

Scientific Seminar Channel

I’d really like to see that all institutes with a good AV equipment lifestream their seminars, and that all their seminar announcements are collected in some common channel. I could browse there for areas of interest, mark upcoming talks I’d like to listen to, and get a timely reminder, no matter where on the planet the talk takes place. And needless to say, there would be a way to log in and virtually “raise hand” to ask a question. I’m visualizing that in the back of the room there’s a screen showing avatars or video streams of people logged in from remote places. The technology is clearly there, so where’s my seminar channel?

Shopping cart for seminar speakers

Something that I’ve wished for whenever I organize a conference is a simple way to find people who could give talks on a specific topic, ideally filtered by location. The way I do this presently is by browsing my memory, personal referral, or searching the arxiv for keywords and then looking up author names on Google, hoping they have a descriptive webpage. This isn’t only time-consuming, but also ineffective. I am thinking this could be useful also for reasons of science outreach. You could look up on such a website speakers on topics of current interest in your area and invite them for a public lecture or a coffee house talk. Ideally, people could also upload slides or videos of some representive talks so you could form an impression on what to expect from them. Maybe one would want to add a possibility to rate speakers.

Remote Robot

This isn’t so much something I’d like to see, but something I think we will see. The intelligent robot that will do your household while you’re at work is still science fiction, and it will remain so for quite a while. But once you can construct a robot with a similar mobility as a human, it would be handy to have one at home that you could move around while you’re physically absent. Put the laundry from the washing machine into the dryer. Close the window. Water the plants. It seems to me that the technology for this is almost there. The economy probably isn’t.

Gamified PhD Life

You might have heard of the recent trend to gamification, inventing games around peoples’ self-set goals that they can use to collect points and virtual rewards whenever they make good decisions. Healthy living for example. You gained two points by not adding salt. The life of a PhD student would make for a good gamification. You gain points for each talk you give, conversation with your supervisor that you survived, group meeting that you didn’t fall asleep in, and if you have amassed 10.000 points you’re ready for the final battle.

Two apps that really exist and that you might appreciate: The particles app for the iPad and GmailTex.

What app would make your life a little better?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Philosophie of Gaps

“And then there's the joke in which a young man told his mother he would become a Doctor of Philosophy and she said, “Wonderful! But what kind of disease is philosophy?”
~Steven Pinker in “The Blank Slate”

Philosophers and physicists, especially those working on fundamental questions of nature, have a difficult relationship. I know a lot of physicists who use the word philosophy as an insult, and even those who have sympathy for the quest of the philosopher tend to give them a hard time.

And understandably so. I’ve heard talks by philosophers about the “issue” of infinities in quantum field theory who had never heard of effective field theory. I’ve heard philosophers speaking about Einstein’s “hole argument” who didn’t know what a manifold is, and I’ve heard philosophers talking about laws of nature who didn’t know what a Hamiltonian evolution is.

But on the other hand, I’ve met remarkably sharp philosophers with the ability to strip away excess baggage that physicists like to decorate their theories with, and go straight to the heart of the problem. No wonder the relation between both sides can be uncomfortable.

This has left me wondering what is the role of philosophy in physics, or in modern science more general.

I will admit that I have a limited attention span for philosophical arguments. To begin with, philosophers (as apparently everybody in the humanities) have the annoying tendency to throw around names rather than proper definitions. The introduction of a cosmology paper in philosophy style would not contain the Friedmann equations, but instead two conflated paragraphs on the Friedmannian paradigm and its contextual appropriation of the cosmological principle, subsequently adapted as the concordance model.

Leaving aside the name-throwing and over-abundance of multi-syllable words, the issue of lacking definitions is a deep one for me. If somebody can’t write down a definition for expressions they are referring to, I lose interest. Because then their whole argument is in the end just empty words. I am interested in verbal arguments only to the point that they precede the construction of a mathematical model.

Having said that, here is where philosophy plays a role in physics: To develop these verbal arguments that have not yet been possible to cast in a more stringent form. This means though that when science progresses, when our knowledge expands, the room where philosophy is useful inevitably shrinks. The role of the observer in quantum mechanics, horizons in general relativity, or infinities in quantum field theory might once have been philosophical question. They no longer are. Presently popular topics for philosophers in physics seem to be the nature of time and the multiverse. Personally I think these are already topics that are close enough to existing theories that they can and should be cast into a mathematical language. Topics that are further off presently existing theories, and still more clearly playground for philosophers, are for example free will or the role of mathematics in science in general.

This tension between philosophers and scientists doesn’t only exist in physics. Another area where you find frequent displays of this confrontation is neuroscience. Consciousness used to be the field of the philosophers, but no longer so. Yet, philosophers are slow to get off the turf.

A recent display of this can be found in a NYT opinion piece that discusses “famous thought experiments” by philosophers. One of these famous arguments that philosophers discuss to make a living seems to be based on confusing the brain perceiving the color red as a result of photons of a certain wavelength hitting the retina, with the brain knowing about the process of perceiving the color. You might be forgiven for confusing knowledge about perception with the perception itself if you didn’t know anything about the brain, but in the last decade we have learned a lot about how the brain is wired and processes input. Or at least some of us have.

It seems clear to me that consciousness and self-awareness are areas that philosophers will have to clear in the soon future. That is correct: I don’t think there’s anything particularly mysterious about self-awareness, and nothing about it that we won’t be able to understand with some more research on complex systems and neural networks.

But what about science at large? Does this mean that we have a philosophy of the gaps much like we have a god of the gaps, filling in the spaces where currently knowledge is missing, but inevitably on the retreat?

For most of science this is a thorny question (previously discussed here), that being whether or not there is an end to the knowledge about nature that mankind can gather. It’s a question I don’t know how to answer.

But regardless of the answer to this question, for as long as there will be conscious beings thinking they will always be left with the question whether there are limits to what they can think of. And a more pragmatic, though related, question is how science works and how it progresses. These I believe are areas where philosophy will always play a role: to analyze the process of thought and inquiry, and its realization in the scientific endeavor. And as long as we have fundamental questions  about nature, it is good to keep philosophers around to catalyze the process of making soft science into hard science. Even if they are sometimes a little annoying.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Lara with her new glasses.
When you last heard from Lara and Gloria, they could utter a few single words. Within a couple of weeks, they have transitioned to speaking full sentences, answer to questions with "yes" and "no", and are very clear in expressing themselves. "Jacke an, Bagger gucke" (Jacket on, watch digger), they might say when they want to go for a walk. They still refer to each other as Gaakie and Gookie though. And they are struggling with German grammar, especially finding the right articles.

Lara now has glasses that are meant to help correct her squinting. She wears them without complaint. It probably helps for her acceptance that I too wear glasses.

The half-day daycare solution is working reasonably well, except that it's prohibitively expensive. The nanny has taught the kids to drink from a cup, to wash their hands, to paint and to jump. I'm sure our downstairs neighbors are as excited about the jumping as the kids. My commuting to Stockholm is not working quite so well. It leaves all of us terribly exhausted and is a huge waste of time, not to mention money. The time that I gain by having the kids in daycare is mostly spent on catching up on life's overhead, paperwork, the household, piles of unread papers and unanswered emails that wait for me upon return.

That having been said, I have a bunch of trips coming up. March 15 I'm in Bergen giving a seminar, apparently on the topic "Siste nytt om kvantegravitasjon". On April 12 I'm in Reykjavik. I haven't been able to find anything resembling a seminar schedule on the department website, but it's the same seminar as in Bergen. In May George and I are running the previously mentioned Workshop for Science Writers in Stockholm, and at the end of May I'll be attending a workshop on "Quantum Gravity in Perspective" in Munich. I have some more trips coming up, but plans haven't proceeded further than that. If you're located in any of these places and feel like  meeting up, send me a note.

Besides this, I've been told that the current issue of the Finnish magazine Tähdet ja avaruus ("Stars and Space") has an article by Laura Koponen about quantum gravity, featuring Renate Loll, Robert Brandenberger, and me. It's in Finnish so I have no clue what it says, but the photos look nice. Though... something about the photo of me didn't feel quite right, and after some forehead frowning it occurred to me that the NorthFace logo on my shirt fell victim to Finnish photoshopping. I actually like it better this way; I prefer my clothes without logos if possible. In any case, should you by any chance speak Finnish and have read the article, let me know what you think.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Upcoming Science Writers Workshop at Nordita

Recently, I've seen and heard a lot of talk about the relevance of science communication. Of course I totally believe it's relevant. I also totally believe Elvis was right asking for a little less conversation and a little more action. So George Musser and I, we decided to run a workshop that actually communicates science, physics in particular, astrophysics and cosmology specifically.

Our "Workshop for Science Writers: Astrophysics and Cosmology" will take place May 27-29, 2013, in Stockholm. It is is hosted and mainly funded by Nordita, and co-funded by the Swedish Research Council, Vetenskapsrådet. All the relevant information is on our website:
The organization is well under way, and we have meanwhile assembled a great list of lecturers, that we will bring together with a selection of excellent science writers. The details of the schedule aren't settled yet, but we are planning on lectures focused on recent developments and running and upcoming experiments, followed by question and answer session. I am very much looking forward to this workshop as I myself am not an expert in the area and I expect to learn a big deal.

Space for this meeting is limited but we will select some applicants among those who register online. The application deadline is March 31st. So if this sounds interesting to you, either as a physicist or as a science writer, you can fill in this application form.

This isn't the typical workshop that I normally organize. It's somewhat of a challenge for me to figure out the needs of science writers. George's suggestions have been invaluable while I've mostly taken care of the local issues. We're still in the midst of preparation though. I'll keep you updated on how it's going and you can expect some coverage of the event on this blog.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

23 and Me

This is the century in which personal DNA sequencing became affordable. And so it was unavoidable that curiosity would finally have me sign up at 23andMe, spit in a plastic tube, and see what's in my genes. Primarily, I just wanted to know how it works. So here's how it works for those of you who share my curiosity and are thinking of having a look at their genetic information too.

How does it work?

First thing you do is order a spit kit. It contains a plastic tube with some preservative and exact instructions how to send it back to the lab. 23andMe is located in California. They ship outside the US, but not to all countries; you can find a full list here. Cost for the spit kit is presently at US$ 99. To this you have to add the shipping and customs cost for a "human sample" which comes at US$ 79,95.

I ordered the spit kit on January 4th. It was shipped January 10th and arrived in Germany within a few days. They ask for quite some amount of saliva, so it's not really done with "just spitting." It took me half an hour or so to fill the tube up to the mark.

There's a number on the spit kit that you have to register on the website. For this you have to set up an account if you haven't already done that anyway. Then close the tube and seal it into a plastic bag with a biohazard logo which goes into a padded envelope. The spit kit comes with customs forms that have to be filled in. (If you live in the US, the procedure is easier). To send it back  to the lab, you have to drop off the envelope at a DHL Express station. So if you think of doing this, you might want to check where you find the closest one to your place.

On January 18, I received an email saying the sample arrived in the lab.  They tell you the analysis takes on average 6 weeks. On March 4th, after exactly two months, I got the results. It should be said that that they don't actually sequence the whole DNA. They look for about a million SNPs that are known or suspected to be interesting for one or the other reason.

What do you get?

First thing you see when you log in to view your results is the question whether you want to opt out of receiving health information. If you do, you only get information about your genetic ancestry.

Once logged in, you can browse the raw data if you like, this will give you a long list with names of SNPs, their position, and your genotype. For the average user like me, who doesn't know a terrible lot about genetics, this isn't very useful though. What's more useful is the summary you get that tells you what's known about your genotypes, what this means, and how reliable this information is.

In the "Health" menu, you have the categories "Disease Risk," "Carrier Status," "Drug Response" and "Traits." Disease risk and drug responce is self-explanatory. Carrier status tells you if you carry any known mutations responsible for heritable genetic diseases (which you might not necessarily get yourself but just pass on to your kids). Disease risks come in percentage of likelihood to develop some disease, and they tell you whether your risk is higher or lower than average. In addition the results are labelled by stars telling you roughly how reliable the conclusion from existing research is. Drug response gives you a list of drugs you are likely to respond to more or less than average, which is valuable medical information.

The first three categories in the "Health" menu contain more details than I'm comfortable sharing publicly, so let me instead show you a screenshot of the "Traits" list, which you could summarize as fun facts

Blue eyes, curly hair, and, no, I don't use deodorant. I've always assumed the rest of the world is just somewhat weird when it comes to their arm pits.

Now let's look at the ancestry, which you see in the screenshot in the left menu. The "relative finder" isn't working yet, it says they're still processing my data. For all I know I haven't lost any relatives, so I'm not expecting to find many. The ancestry composition tells you where your genes came from 50 years ago, it looks like this:

So, I'm European, but then you already knew that. From what I know of my family, I'd have expected more East European and less North European though; I'm somewhat surprised about this. Who knows what my ancestors have been up to.

And then you can trace your maternal and paternal line. The maternal line comes down through mitochondrial DNA which is exclusively inherited from the mother. Allegedly, if you look back long enough, we all go back to the same woman, referred to as Mitochondrial Eve. But there have been a few mutations since and the line has split, which allows some localization. 23andMe lists your haplogroup and shows its estimated distribution about 500 years ago:
Again, it looks more nordic than I'd have expected.

The paternal line is traced via the Y-chromosome. So I'll have to convince a male relative to spit for this information. I think I know what my younger brother will get as a birthday present ;o)

The website

The website is very functional, readable, and works well. What I appreciate very much is that they don't just give you a likely correlation between your genotype and some trait, but, if you click on an item, you get a list of scientific papers and a short summary of the research status. So you don't have to believe what they tell you but can make up your own mind.

You can also, if you find the time, fill out some dozens of surveys that they use to find cross-correlations between what you report and your genetic information. The participation is entirely voluntary. They've found some links in this way, eg the "curly hair" SNP that you see in the first image (the one that appears with the 23andMe logo) is such a case. So you can actively contribute to research in the area, which I find a nice twist.

Taken together I'd say it's worth the money. I had previously toyed with the idea to sign up with 23and Me, but before January 2013 you had to get a subscription for the webpage in addition to the cost for the sequencing and the shipment.

It is btw entirely coincidental that my favicon looks pretty much like the 23andMe logo. I've used this icon since 1997 I believe, it's supposed to be a mixture of an x and a lightcone.