Friday, August 23, 2013

Conspiracy Manipulators, Pseudo-Critical Thinkers & Other Frauds

Having observed the psychology of conspiracy theorists over the last few years, I think the term "conspiracy theorist" needs to be changed. Modern propagators of conspiracy talk almost never actually offer any theories; they tend to throw YouTube videos and infowars-type links at you, spew some talking points, and invite you to "come to your own conclusions." They are conspiracy manipulators: With extreme prejudice, they propagate information from within their echo-chamber, and using surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical techniques, they shape their recycled cherry-pickings into a narrative that evokes (if not actually describes) a dark and sinister world of deceit and cover-up. The most successful conspiracy manipulators are filmmakers skilled in visual and soundtrack techniques; the Loose Change crew is a classic example.

This summer, the case of Michael Hastings (see my previous post) has brought conspiracy manipulation front-and-center once again. It has become frighteningly fashionable among liberals to casually assume that the journalist was murdered, even after his wife and brother have come forward to say that it was only a tragic accident. We now know that Hastings was on a path to self-destruction, but that doesn't matter to the conspiracy manipulators; they continue to post their "unanswered questions" in comments sections, such as why Hastings' car engine was found behind the crash site, a physical impossibility in a high-speed crash. (This online rumor has been repeatedly debunked, but again, that doesn't seem to matter.)

One might think that the rise of conspiracy manipulation and belief stem from a failure of critical thinking. But it's more troubling than that; the trend is a perversion of critical thinking. Conspiracy manipulators and believers will adamantly tell you that they are the ones thinking critically; their critics are not. Those who criticize are declared either "brain-dead sheep," perhaps tranquilized into mindless conformity by fluoride in the water (yes, some do actually say that), or paid-off operatives of a government with limitless funds -- "shills" or "disinfo agents" in conspiracy-manipulation parlance.

Such arrogance is a textbook illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the proven tendency of individuals who are less competent to overestimate their competence, while more competent individuals tend to underestimate their competence. To put it more colloquially, conspiracy manipulators wouldn't know critical thinking if it hit them in the head. To them, merely being "fringe" and dismissing all information from authorities (unless, of course, it supports their cause) is enough to declare themselves super-awesome critical thinkers. "Wake up and open your eyes!" they tell you. For all their talk of open-mindedness, ironically they are pseudo-critical thinkers, too self-impressed with their questioning of authority to notice their own pseudoskepticism. And, they will deny that they are conspiracy theorists as readily as crazy people say, "I'm not crazy."

Do conspiracies exist? Of course they do, and of course the government has lied to us at times. But the conspiracy manipulator takes these to the extreme, seeing conspiracies everywhere. He (or she) skillfully crafts language that is fertile soil for the impressions of cover-up and deceit to bloom, all while asserting their impartiality as a mere seeker of truth. In the same way that the sociopath masters the art of superficial charm, the conspiracy manipulator -- completely oblivious to their own intellectual dishonesty -- masters the art of superficial inquisitiveness.

It's quite easy to write like a conspiracy manipulator, and if things had been slightly different, I could have been one (video). So let's give it a try:
I have reason to question whether the milk from Berkeley Farms -- a local dairy in my area -- is actually from cows. There are so many unanswered questions, things don't add up. There's a note on the Berkeley Farms label: "Does not come from cows treated with rBST." Hello? They're practically admitting it right there. So I called Berkeley Farms and asked if their milk comes from cows. The person on the phone refused to answer, and she seemed surprised -- unnerved, even. She put me on hold, and guess what, the call was dropped. What is Berkeley Farms hiding? (Sure, their website says their milk is from cows, but Ikea's website never told us their meatballs were horse meat, either.) I don't want to believe I'm drinking pig's milk! So, I went to Berkeley, to visit their farms. I found a major university and a lot of built-up urbanization, but not one single farm.* I then compared the color of milk from a random gallon of Berkeley Farms to one from a competitor, Clover Stornetta, and discovered that they look different (see below). Several calls to Professors with Ph.D.'s confirmed my suspicions that cow's milk would probably look different than milk from a pig or another animal. It should be noted that the Clover Stornetta label depicts a cartoon of a cow; the Berkeley Farms label does not. Interestingly, when I Google "Berkeley Farms milk is from cows" I get exactly zero results, whereas Googling Berkeley Farms pig milk yields 20,400,000 results. An e-mail demanding that they release genetic-analysis reports was ignored. Is Berkeley Farms milk from pigs or some other animal? I don't know, weigh all of the facts and decide for yourself!

Do these milk samples look the same to you?

Of course that was ridiculous and I hope you got a laugh out of it. But imagine that instead of milk, we were talking about something beyond the scale of everyday human life (the collapse of skyscrapers, a high-speed car crash, jet trails in the sky, etc), and that instead of a local dairy, we were talking about something more powerful and nebulous (the U.S. government, the New World Order, or "big science" if you're a creationist). In that case, you might approach the situation with a pre-existing desire to believe an alternative view. And that's the key -- although it's a tall order to convince someone that cow's milk is pig's milk, selling suspicions of the government to an audience already suspicious of the government ... piece of cake. People will always believe what they wanted to believe in the first place. That's why it's easy to sell penis-enlargement pills to men who would like to believe they can enlarge their penis. If the pills said they could make you a foot shorter, even the dumbest guys would cry bullshit.

I always find it amusing when a religious person tries to get me to pray. "Just try it, what have you got to lose?" they ask. "Drop to your knees and cry out to God. If you truly believe, in your heart, then trust me, Jesus will speak to you." Yeah, if I truly believe, first. That's the kicker there.

And if you cried out to the dairy-conspiracy gods -- and you really, truly desired to believe that the milk in your cereal isn't what it seems -- then my Berkeley Farms conspiracy would probably speak to you, too.

* Inspired by the signs on their delivery trucks, reading, "Farms? In Berkeley?" (Of course, there are a lot of indoor farms in Berkeley.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Michael Hastings: A Classic Conspiracy-Theory Fail

In June, when 33-year-old journalist Michael Hastings died in an unusual single-car accident, it quickly became a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we were at the apex of NSA paranoia, and a reporter famous for investigating the U.S. government and decrying the surveillance state was suddenly dead. Looking at the comments on HuffingtonPost, many ordinary liberals were highly suspicious of the crash, some outright assuming that of course he was murdered by the powers that be, yawn.

It did seem somewhat suspicious. Hastings died at 4 in the morning, driving an estimated 100 MPH on a residential street in Los Angeles before crashing into a palm tree, with enough impact to throw the engine block 50 yards away. What a weird way to die. I wanted to dig deeper, so I created a Google Alert and watched the news -- and the opinion -- come in.

During the long wait for autopsy and toxicology reports over a slow-news summer, various dubious "journalists" were happy to fill the void and keep people talking possible murder. One rose to the top quickly: Kimberly Dvorak, a Southern California freelance reporter whose stories on Hastings were bought by San Diego 6, a local affiliate of the CW television network based in Tijuana, Mexico.

So, not exactly the Washington Post.

In an early piece on Hastings' death -- which was reposted on dozens of "news" sites -- Dvorak wrote that:
1. An eyewitness saw the car going at maximum speed, then "heard a couple explosions shortly before the car crashed"
2. The explosion was so intense that it took the coroner's office two days to identify the body
3. Toxicology would reportedly take weeks to complete (even though "in stark contrast," James Gandolfini's toxicology in Italy had been completed in only a few days)
4. Shortly before his death, Hastings had sent an e-mail saying he was on to a big story
5. Hastings had said that he received death threats about once per year
6. "Accounts of the car crash" had contained "erroneous details" that "were hard to overlook" (like, the street was actually wide and straight, not narrow and curvy)
7. Even though the LAPD found no immediate evidence of foul play, the intensity of the fire, as judged by watching videos, resembles a thermite burn1 -- "gasoline generally doesn't burn that hot" (in Dvorak's opinion)
8. The LAPD "refuses to release the accident and toxicology reports"
9. The LAPD refuses to make the vehicle available for inspection ("which only fuels speculation")
10. Although Hastings had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, "his family and friends say he kicked the habit."

Dvorak also mentioned an interview in which HuffingtonPost had asked counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke to weigh in on the Hastings case. Clarke -- ever the provocateur -- stated that the crash was "consistent with a car cyber attack" that could remotely control the speed and braking.

Further articles were routinely picked up by left-leaning news aggregators. Dvorak wrote that Hastings hadn't touched alcohol in five years and "drove like a grandma," according to his friend, Staff Sergeant Joe Biggs2; that the palm tree hit by the car showed "seemingly minimal damage" and only a scratch on the curb; that in TV interviews, Hastings' wife "kind of had a smile on her face and didn't seem like a grieving widow"; and finally, that according to her own analysis of a surveillance video (using a "mathematic equation" for speed supplied by "a University professor"), Hastings' car was going only 35 miles per hour at impact.

Well, when you consider all of these facts, I guess he was murdered! I mean, there were clearly explosions3 and stuff, and stuff burning that wasn't gas, and the car was being driven by someone on a laptop or something who could make it go 100 MPH, or, well I guess I mean 35 MPH. Simple physics says only an explosion would launch an engine 50 yards -- normal car accidents aren't like that, and I know, 'cause I've seen 'em on TV. And you can't trust the LAPD, remember OJ? All I'm saying is, keep an open mind by reading all of Kimberly Dvorak's articles, and then come to your own conclusions!

What are they hiding under that sheet, other than a grotesquely burned corpse?

Imagine the embarrassment when Michael Hastings' accident, autopsy, and toxicology reports were published.

Most of the headlines said that meth and pot were found in Hastings' system. While true, the drug levels were determined to be too low to have contributed to the crash. Other details were more telling: According to interviews with family members, Hastings had relapsed into poly-substance abuse about a month prior, and his brother was soon to arrive in L.A. to try to get him into a rehab program. Hastings had delusions that he was invincible. In 1999, he had been abusing Ritalin and crashed his car into a pole, and subsequently checked into rehab. Later we learned that Hastings had recently come to believe that his car had been tampered with and that helicopters over L.A. were tracking him.

No, drugs didn't cause Hastings to drive 100 MPH. But, he appeared to have a bit of a screw loose, and the addiction and delusion was just a symptom of that. Brilliant journalist, yes; pillar of the community who drove like a grandma, no. What's disturbing is that many of my fellow liberals picked up on the murder narrative, because, well the government with the NSA and everything just seemed so darn sinister.

Actually, the murder talk had already been largely deflated, once Hastings' brother and wife came forward to say that it was probably only a tragic accident. Even while the new "casual conspiracy theorists" were describing to each other a stable, responsible Hastings being remote-controlled toward his fiery, explosive murder at the hands of vengeful government agents -- great scene for a movie, huh? -- his family privately knew that he was simply advancing toward self-destruction.

Ouch. That's gotta hurt, when the victim's own family denounces the cinematic narrative of the journalist-hero getting cyber-gunned down. (Maybe the wife and brother were bought off by the New World Order global bank? Sure....)

I'm not saying for certain that Hastings wasn't murdered. It's just so unlikely, given what we know now. It's an Occam's razor thing: Either, sinister forces came together to commit a Black Ops high-speed murder on the gritty streets of L.A. using cutting-edge wireless cyber-hacking technology, ooh! Or, a very talented dude who was already unstable and had a sad history of psychiatric problems, early one morning just snapped.

Doesn't make for a great movie. Then again, reality seldom does.

1. Many 9/11 conspiracy theorists believe that the World Trade Center buildings were demolished using thermite, a notoriously difficult-to-ignite incendiary.
2. If you want to give your "expert authority" more credibility, add a title or two, or three ("physics Professor Dr. Steven E. Jones, Ph.D.").
3. The reporter Dvorak routinely conflated sudden fire with explosion. There is a difference; actual explosions shred vehicles. Plus, eyewitness testimony is unreliable and easily manipulated.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Privacy Myth

No matter which side they're on, everyone is talking about the "revelation" that the National Security Agency has been collecting data about Americans' private communications. Aside from the clearly documented fact that we've known about this program since 2005 (it inspired my very first comedy video), I find it curious that many people are calling this an indefensible invasion of privacy -- a "draconian" program that is both unconstitutional and unethical.

I do not understand how anyone can reasonably expect privacy protection for their telephone metadata (phone numbers and identities of parties, and the duration of their calls, which is what the NSA has been collecting). I'm afraid it is not, as many claim, a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights: The 1979 Supreme Court case of Smith v. Maryland established that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding telephone metadata. Today's suit by the ACLU therefore has no grounds and will be dismissed (which, fortunately, has never stopped them from trying before). So, there's that minor detail.

The notion of absolute or even relative privacy is a quaint relic from a bygone, pre-electronic era. How often is our cherished personal privacy routinely violated, in manners which we accept without the slightest protest? Let us count the ways:

1. Anytime you appear in public, you are photographed constantly by security cameras. As seen in the Boston Marathon bombings case, this video can be combined to track your movements with incredible accuracy, should anyone wish to do so.

2. If you have a cell phone and it's turned on, your real-time, minute-to-minute position can be similarly monitored and tracked with amazing accuracy. This technology, too, was used in the Boston case.

3. If you drive a car with an air bag system, a device under your hood constantly records your speed, acceleration, and braking actions. If you're in an accident, the data from this recorder can and will be used against you in a court of law.

4. If you own property, anyone with an internet connection can view photos of it, taken from several different angles, for free. will even overlay information about the size of the home and the most recent sale price.

5. For a nominal fee, anyone can perform a government- and/or credit-records search to reveal your home address (if that isn't already freely available), residence history, arrest record, credit score, business license, etc.

6. If you upload a photograph, the file can be analyzed to reveal the camera's serial number, and if the seller is subpoenaed, your identity as the photographer.

7. Any online photograph identifying you can be found in seconds, by anyone, as can any information that has ever been revealed about you online. It is virtually impossible to get such things removed.

8. If you touch something and invariably shed skin cells or hairs, your presence at the scene can later be confirmed with incredible certitude, through DNA sequencing.

9. Consumer data centers have compiled dossiers on you and your buying habits. (If you're turning 55 soon, you'll be hearing from the AARP. You can be sure of it.)

10. If you include the term "Game of Thrones" in your text on Gmail, you may well be targeted with a banner ad involving Game of Thrones. Yeah, your emails are being scanned by a corporate entity with zero oversight. Does that not bother you also, and if so, why do you still use Gmail?

11. If you live in certain cities (like mine) and you live in an apartment, you can be fined for lighting up a cigarette inside your own home. Now, if that isn't an affront to personal privacy and freedom -- an otherwise-legal act being outlawed in one's own home -- I don't know what is. Yet, the members of my community seem to think this is just fine. (I am neither a smoker nor an apartment dweller.)

12. Then of course there's the personal information that users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., are happy to distribute to the world. This self-invasiveness, in many cases, boggles the mind.

Through all of this, though, somehow there's an assumption that one's precious phone-calling records are sacrosanct. Where is this world, where we can expect to do anything and go anywhere we wish, using any technology, without leaving a trace? It's no world that I know -- at least not one that's existed for the past 20 years.

If you don't like the fact that privacy no longer exists, then either elect Congresspeople who will enact privacy laws (probably not going to happen), or I suppose, move to a cabin in the woods and live Ted Kaczynski-style. But to text and chat on your high-tech device claiming that the government's actions are unethical and unconstitutional, and that you're outraged by this affront ... get real. That ship has sailed long ago.

Update 6/13: Here's a great companion article on the myth of privacy:
The Top 5 Things You Didn't Know the Government Knows About You by Meagan Reed (HuffPo)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fuel & Fickle Outrage

Ten or fifteen years ago, there was a sudden nationwide spike in the price of gasoline. Where I live, in California, a gallon was approaching $2.00 — which, at the time, was considered frighteningly high. The local news did a segment at gas stations, in which folks vented their frustrations. “At least at this station, the price is reasonable,” said one customer, prompting the reporter to quip, “$1.50 is reasonable?”

It was funny, because just a month or two earlier, $1.50 would have been seen as expensive. Today in some places of the U.S., four-dollar gas is normal now, and if it spiked up to $5.00 this summer, you can be sure that even $4.50 would soon be the new reasonable.

I think oil companies and OPEC should manipulate the public’s ongoing discontent with fuel prices, as a way to become way more profitable. It would just take a little conspiracy: Every six or nine months, have the price of gas shoot up by about a dollar, and keep it there for a couple of weeks. Then drop it back down — but not quite to where it started. Each cycle, the price creeps higher and higher. As long as the low price is much less than the outrageous number it came down from, relieved consumers will be delighted that they’re getting gas for a relatively reasonable price. If you keep shifting the standard of what’s reasonable, consumers will practically thank you and ask for seconds. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this??

Of course I’m kidding. The above scenario kind of already happens, and it says something about the way people think. A few years ago there was a lot of crowing when gas prices were pushing $4.50 ($5.00 in my area). Some SUV owners actually traded in their Suburbans and Hummers for more efficient cars. It was positively delicious. But now that the prices have been fairly stable for a couple of years, I see more SUVs on the road than ever. Consumers just don’t seem to care; I guess the price of gas is reasonable again. (Compared to Europe and other places, it’s been reasonable for a very long time.)

People tend to react against perceived change because they just don’t like change. If it costs them more money, then they really don’t like it. But in the long term, when standards and expectations are forced to evolve over time, the threshold for consumer outrage just drifts along with the tide. Like heat waves among climate change, the sudden fluctuations are clear to see, but the gradual global trend is less likely to get our everyday attention.

Then again, a lot of us just aren’t paying attention.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Dark Energy: Too Big To Fail

[1/31/13 update: Many thanks to David Wiltshire for clarifying some points in the comments, and for addressing critics of his ideas. -EC]

According to today’s mainstream science, about 71% of the Cosmos is made of something that scientists have never seen, detected, directly observed, or even indirectly observed. It’s “dark energy,” first described in the late 1990s as a repulsive or anti-gravitational property of empty space. By measuring supernovae in distant galaxies, astronomers inferred that not only is the universe getting larger, the expansion is getting faster with time. Physicists started speculating about what might be responsible for the acceleration, and the newly minted concept of dark energy quickly became the accepted explanation. In fact, today it’s built into the standard cosmological model of a universe that expands with an ever-accelerating rate.

Dark energy has also gone mainstream: As viewers of popular-science TV programs know well, in the very distant future, the repulsive effects of dark energy may become so dominant that they tear apart galaxies, stars, planets — eventually even the atoms that currently make up your body — in a highly dramatic “big rip” that marks the end of the universe.

From the outset, the concept of dark energy seemed to me like a bad idea. We had a set of observations we didn’t fully understand, and in response, we externalized the problem onto some unseen but supposedly real agent “out there” that must be to blame. It didn’t sound like the best approach. It seemed very possible that we misinterpreted the supernova measurements, so why the rush to invent a brand new form of energy (which would need to comprise three-quarters of the universe!) to explain this interpretation? Surely, no one can say that all other alternative explanations had been exhausted. Inventing dark energy was a bit like losing your homework assignment, and then promptly deciding that your family must have an invisible and undetectable dog who ate it.

It turns out that in 2007, David Wiltshire of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury explained how the apparently accelerating expansion of the universe could be an illusion due to our perspective in the Milky Way. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, a clock can run at different rates depending on the local strength of gravity; near a massive star, for example, a clock will run more slowly than an identical clock positioned far away. From the perspective of an observer close to the star, everything (including the nearby clock) will appear to be running normally, while the distant clock seems to run fast; to an observer near the clock in deep space, meanwhile, the local time will appear to pass normally as usual, but from that perspective, the gravitationally bound clock seems to run slow. Gravity’s effect on time is universally accepted. If your GPS receiver didn’t account for general relativity, your navigation directions would lose accuracy in minutes.

Wiltshire’s insight was that light from the supernovae traverses huge stretches of space where there is little to no matter, so clocks there would run fast as judged by observers near galaxies, such as ourselves. When astronomers study supernovae on the other side of these voids, the measurements are affected by the fact that the voids are expanding faster than the space closer to us (as judged here on Earth). According to Wiltshire’s calculations, if you lived in one of these voids, you’d judge the universe to be about 18 billion years old — several billion years older than how things appear here, where matter and gravity slow clocks as well as the expansion of space. The end result is that the Milky Way resides in a “Hubble bubble,” a local region beyond which all of the rest of the universe appears to be expanding away, at an accelerating rate. Similarly, if you lived in a galaxy on the other side of a large void, the Milky Way would appear to be accelerating away from you. You would be living in a Hubble bubble there, too.

The first time I read about Wiltshire’s insight, my reaction was disbelief: “Surely they must have thought of that!” But apparently, they hadn’t. The equations that cosmologists use to study the universe’s large-scale structure are extremely difficult to work with, so some simplifying assumptions have been made in order to construct workable models. One of these is to describe space everywhere as a uniformly expanding fluid. This assumption has been a part of the mathematics of cosmology (in the so-called Friedmann equations) since 1922, before we even knew there were other galaxies beyond our own. Given the brutally difficult equations, which could not otherwise be solved, the Friedmann solutions have been a part of cosmology bedrock ever since. However, we now know that the large-scale structure of the universe is not at all uniform; there are walls of galaxy clusters separated by enormous voids, so if Einstein is correct, the universe is not a uniformly expanding fluid. Time flows, and therefore expansion happens, faster in some places than in others.

Wiltshire argues that a necessarily uneven expansion of the universe previously hadn’t been considered because (1) physicists are used to considering relativistic effects on time only in the extreme conditions of black holes and particle-accelerator experiments, and (2) they have assumed that such effects in intergalactic space would be extremely weak. They are indeed weak, but Wiltshire has done the math to show how the cumulative effects become huge over billions of years and across vast distances of space.

According to Google Scholar, Wiltshire’s original paper has been cited 123 times to date; it’s certainly not being ignored. There appear to be few or no papers that refute the concept of non-uniform expansion due to relativistic effects. In fact, most of the papers build upon the idea.

So why, in 2013, is “dark energy” still a thing? Beats me! In his excellent book The Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin describes how modern physics can unwittingly construct opaque, monstrous theories that become intellectual dead-ends with no practical uses, but which nevertheless persist for sociological and financial reasons. First, a few innocent working assumptions are laid down, and then models are built on those assumptions, and then others build upon those models, and so on — until there’s a mini-industry of researchers working in the field and collecting funding, with the original assumptions rarely re-examined. This is what has happened with dark energy: Even though we now have a viable explanation for the appearance of cosmic acceleration, a bad alternative has become entrenched. Careers have been forged based on the cosmological model that includes dark energy. And in a potential embarrassment for the ages, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for what the prize committee called “the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.” Dark energy is too big to fail!

Beyond academia, the public never should have been asked to have faith in a mysterious, undetectable force that’s out there but at the same time all around us. Invoking such ideas makes it impossible to maintain the clear distinctions between religion and science, at least in the public eye. But even today, the History Channel tells us “we now know” that most of the universe is made of mysterious dark energy. NASA does the same, on a public-education page called “Universe 101.” Houston, we have a problem.

Perhaps there are physicists who secretly hope the dark-energy concept will gradually die out. But in popular science, which is usually well behind the curve, the myth of dark energy will undoubtedly linger for years on the websites and the TV programs. We deserve better.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why The Speed Of Light Is Constant

When many people first learn that the speed of light is constant — that it’s the same everywhere in the universe, and is measured the same by all observers — it all seems kind of arbitrary. It’s strange enough that the speed of light is a “cosmic speed limit,” beyond which no object can go. But, how can the speed of anything possibly be a constant value? When I’m in an airplane and I walk forward up the aisle, I am going faster than the plane itself, something that could be verified by an observer on the ground. My total speed, relative to the ground, will be the speed of the plane plus my walking speed. (Subtract the speed if I’m walking in the other direction, toward the tail.) Yet, if I measure the speed of a light beam coming from a laser aboard a plane or a spaceship, I’ll always get the same result of 186,000 miles per second, whether the beam is facing forward, backward, or sideways, or even if it’s beamed from the spaceship in any direction and measured on the ground. Why?

It actually has to be this way. A world in which the speed of light varied might be impossible logically (see below), or at least could be so messed up and incoherent that complex structures such as galaxies and intelligent life might not be possible.

Consider a thought experiment: You set up a rapidly rotating beacon in deep space, with a radio antenna on it. (Radio waves are an invisible form of light.) The antenna is transmitting a radio signal consisting of a sequence of natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, and so on. Far away from the transmitter, you tune in your receiver and wait for the beacon to start spinning and transmitting the sequence. What kind of signal will you receive?

That depends on whether the speed of light is constant or not. Let’s imagine that it isn’t. In that case, the speed of the radio signal in your direction would change according to the velocity of the transmitting antenna, as with the example of walking up the aisle of an airplane: As the beacon spins, sometimes the antenna would be coming toward you — which would “throw” the signal faster in your direction — and sometimes it would be moving away, which would subtract some miles per hour from the signal’s speed. So, parts of the signal would be traveling toward you faster than other parts. Naturally, if the speed of different portions of the signal is different, the faster portions will reach you sooner than the slower portions. This effect would worsen the farther away you are from the beacon, and the faster the beacon is spinning. You might end up receiving a steady sequence of numbers like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 13 - 14 - 15 ...

Here, the 7 - 8 - 9 segment is arriving sooner than the 4 - 5 - 6 segment, even though it was actually transmitted later. If this were a television signal rather than a sequence of numbers, with the antenna on a large rotating disc, the program would be really messed up. A political candidate might be seen giving a concession speech, followed by a speech where he seems confident he’ll win. I’m not sure that causal impossibilities would result from incoherent information flying around the universe,* but surely the formation of large structures such as galaxies, responding gravitationally to far-away moving bodies, would be affected (if gravity would even exist in such a universe).

Now let’s consider what happens in a world where the speed of light is constant. In this case, all portions of the signal are transmitted at the same speed relative to you, even as the beacon rotates, so no portion reaches you faster than any other. The numbers arrive in the correct sequence, just as they were transmitted. However, the only way this can possibly work (as Einstein showed) is if measurements of time and distance change for various observers. For a transmitting antenna on a rotating beacon, this produces a relativistic Doppler effect — a slowing down and speeding up of the signal, almost like a vinyl record being played back off-center, something like this:

1 ---- 2 --- 3 -- 4 - 5 - 6 -- 7 ---- 8 --- 9 -- 10 - 11 - 12 -- 13 ---- 14 --- 15 ...

If the TV antenna on the disc were transmitting American Idol, you’d see the show from beginning to end without interruption — no unexpected spoiler — but the slowing down and speeding up might make it sound as if the singer and the band can’t stay on key to save their lives (which in reality happens sometimes).

As it turned out, the constant speed of light was confirmed by the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter in 1913, through observations of double star systems, where two stars are rotating around each other closely. He realized that if the speed of light varied as the stars advanced toward us or receded away, the orbits would appear erratic. The system might appear blurry or scrambled and incoherent, and from great distances the laws of motion would appear not to work at all. However, such was not the case in any system that de Sitter observed, and this was used as evidence to support Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the constancy of the speed of light. All observations made to date support the same conclusions.

Personally, I think that the constant speed of light is a hint that the universe is fundamentally informational (the “it from bit” hypothesis proposed by the great physicist John Wheeler). This idea says that matter/energy and spacetime emerge from a deeper layer of existence that’s based purely on information. In our universe, information in the form of light always passes from point A to point B in a coherent, sequential fashion, for every observer — it’s space and time (and even mass) that all change accordingly to suit it. There might be a lesson there.

* I haven’t been able to come up with a paradox of cause and effect, resulting just from some information traveling faster than other information. In the days when some news came by rail and some by telegraph, you might have heard that Lincoln’s assassin had been caught before you heard that Abe had been shot — but nobody went back in time to kill John Wilkes Booth. Still, I suspect there is a thought experiment that would show it couldn’t work. If you have any ideas, please comment.

Monday, December 24, 2012

How To Build A Free-Will Machine

One of the hottest topics in physics and philosophy these days is the question of free will. Do we humans make truly free choices in the world, or is this impression merely an illusion? It certainly seems as if we have free will, but if science teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t always trust our intuition: Feathers respond to gravity the same as bowling balls (in a vacuum), light does not travel infinitely fast, and the surface of a pond is not flat, but curves slightly with the shape of the Earth. Is free will wrong, too?

Those who subscribe to the reductionist school of thought would say that we do not have free will. According to this argument, a complete understanding of the world can be reduced to particles strictly obeying the laws of physics; therefore, whatever physical state you (i.e., the particles of your brain/body) and your environment were in prior to making a choice, there’s one and only one corresponding state afterward, and that means only one choice — predetermined by the earlier state of the atoms and molecules in your body. Some take this to the extreme, arguing that the future of everything in the universe is already decided, and that this future could be predicted with perfect accuracy in principle (if not in practice), given complete knowledge* of the universe’s present state. A different line of argument points to cognition experiments: It is now well known that our brain has already settled on a decision about a half-second before we consciously sense that we are deciding; therefore our conscious sensation of free will must be an illusion, it’s argued.

The term I use for this kind of thinking is “retarded.” I mean no offense; I use the term literally, that these arguments are regressive and backward, unimaginative, crippled by the Einstellung effect — they are based on old paradigms and leave no room for new, “outside the box” ways of thinking. (We used to think patterns on the surface of Mars were canals built by Martians; after all, we humans build canals on Earth, right? And, the Martians have human faces. That’s retarded thinking.) The experimental argument against free will is retarded, because it assumes that only our conscious self is capable of making free decisions. What if the actual free decision happens a half-second earlier in the subconscious, and only the conscious aspect of free will (“I think I’ll make a left turn here”) is the illusory part? The high-level executive functions of the brain, which include thoughts and sensations, are only a small part of consciousness, like the images displayed on a computer screen. There’s a lot more going on at deeper levels than it seems, and this is where free will may reside.

That leaves the physical, reductionist argument against free will. Prominent scientists including physicist Paul Davies and mathematician George Ellis reject this as well, on the grounds that strict reductionism does not apply to living systems. In the science literature there has been an explosion of research and theory on the role of information in biological systems, and we are seeing a groundswell of acknowledgment that in living organisms, information plays a causal role on the atoms and molecules of life. This recognition of “top-down” effects is changing our view of the bottom-up mechanisms which, according to traditional reductionist thinking, drive everything in the universe.

If information is fundamental to the way organisms (such as humans) operate, can we demonstrate that free will really exists by describing it in terms of information, rather than atoms and molecules? How would that work?

Let’s consider one of the most human-brain-like machines in the world, the Jeopardy-playing IBM computer Watson. Watson uses a sophisticated statistical approach: Given a Jeopardy clue, Watson compares keywords and strings of words with a vast database of information, runs a slew of algorithms simultaneously, and then comes up with a list of possible responses, assigning each a confidence level. If the confidence level of one response is sufficiently high, Watson rings in and gives a response. Google Translate and Apple’s Siri use similar statistical approaches. But no one in their right mind would say that Watson or Siri has free will; given exactly the same prompt and the same database — what scientists call initial conditions — the result will be entirely predictable. Despite being an incredibly complex computer, Watson is still not as complex as the simplest one-celled animal, let alone a human brain. So, how could we modify Watson so that it would start to exhibit qualities of free will?

Dynamics. That’s the key difference between Watson and living cells. Watson uses more or less a fixed database and operating rules, which is why, given the same clue, Watson would respond the same. But dynamics — in the form of highly complex, interacting internal changes — are one of the most obvious hallmarks of living organisms. If Watson were built with interacting dynamics, the results would be chaotic enough that Watson would begin to exhibit free-will-like qualities. For example, a random number generator could alter all statistical calculations slightly over time. That alone would make its responses more unpredictable. Another number generator could randomly remove access to sectors of the database, mimicking the imperfection of biological memory and recall. Watson’s thresholds — the risks it is willing to take — could go up and down slightly with time, as well as in response to external conditions (how far into the game it is, Watson’s score against those of its competitors, even the instantaneous temperature and air pressure). Watson could be given “moods”: If it missed a couple of clues in a row, it might get “bummed out” and avoid risks for a while. There could be positive and negative feedback mechanisms that either exaggerate or reduce risk-taking over time, based on several of the other factors. Changes in light levels and noises (such as a burst of laughter or applause) could “distract” Watson, causing the confidence levels to dip or fluctuate uncontrollably, with some distractions being longer than others, based on factors such as recent performance and the scores. “Fatigue” could set in, with the threshold for distraction going down not only steadily by time but also as a function of Watson’s performance and even the time of day. Watson might be given a mechanical “body” that must cooperate in order to play the game, this interplay dynamically affected by the body’s own complex dynamics and feedback mechanisms and distractions. (Too much ringing in? “Hand” cramps up.) And so on.

Given all of these extra dynamics, would Watson have human-type free will? Not quite. That would require piling on astronomical layers of complexity. Phrases in clues might conjure specific “memories” from its “life” that could either help or hurt performance; it could have multiple competing internal influences or “dialogues,” akin to Freud’s id and superego (or like Gollum/Sméagol from Lord of the Rings); and it could have advanced “emotions” such as jealousy or contempt, those emotions modulated by its “memories” as well as every other factor I’ve mentioned. That doesn’t even touch on the decidedly human skill of analytically understanding (and misunderstanding!) the true meanings of the clues the first place.

Regardless, adding only five or ten interacting dynamic parameters to the existing Watson would create a system sufficiently chaotic that its behavior might exhibit the free will of, say, a flatworm. Simple living creatures have enough dynamic complexity going on that it’s effectively impossible for us to recreate the same initial conditions, both internal and external, of any given choice it might have to make. So, even though a flatworm or a modified Watson will usually respond to a certain stimulus in a certain way, you can never know enough about the system to say for sure. Throw in the indeterminate/random nature of quantum-mechanical influences at the sub-cellular level (analogous to the number generators in modified Watson), and it becomes impossible even in theory to predict how choices will be made.

As far as I’m concerned, that means free will, even for a flatworm, or for a Watson. For a human being, with all of its complexities and frailties, it isn’t even a matter of debate.

* The “knower,” being a part of the universe, would need complete instantaneous knowledge of itself, including knowledge of the state of having learned the last fact about itself. Or, it would need to be external to the universe, which is defined as all that exists. Both options are logically impossible.