Saturday, September 25, 2010

Climate Change: Being Skeptical about Skeptics

photo: NASA

by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

A group of researchers from the Columbia University (New York) has recently published a paper titled “Climate Change: Addressing the Major Skeptic Arguments” in which they examine many claims and counter-claims being made in the public debate about climate change. The paper's unequivocal conclusion is that “the primary claims of the skeptics do not undermine the assertion that human- made climate change is already happening and is a serious long term threat”. Nevertheless, in spite of the results drawn from meta-studies like this, the skeptics' arguments continue to find appeal among people all over the world.

Skepticism regarding climate science is particularly harmful due to the obvious relevance and urgency of the subject. The stakes are so high that we cannot afford to do nothing. Even if the worst case scenarios are unlikely to occur, we cannot wait until we are completely sure about what is going on. We must do something now! I am not talking about geoengineering or any other controversial “solution” that would probably make things even worse. I am talking about sustainability and rationality. And contrary to what many skeptics apparently want us to believe, sustainable development is not economically harmful, unless you consider dilapidating the planet a good long term investment. If we stop consuming natural resources at a rate that is far beyond that of their renewal (when they are renewable at all), what harm can we possibly cause to the planet? What harm will we cause to the planet if we reduce pollution and deforestation? What if we stop procreating like cockroaches? What harm will that cause?

The advancement of scientific knowledge would be nearly impossible without skepticism. For some scientists, however, skepticism seems to be an end in itself. They will simply never give up. When proven wrong, they will immediately look for some other way of undermining the arguments of the majority*. When you take a closer look at them, you realize that behind their intransigence almost invariably lies an agenda, bias or an inflated ego. Sometimes, finding out who sponsors their research sheds some light on the matter. But, unfortunately, it is rarely that simple.

*Click here and read John Cook's article “The contradictory nature of global warming skepticism

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mr. Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

Although America's hegemony is since long not the same anymore, most significant events that happen in the United States still have serious implications for the rest of us, who are not americans. Anyone who thinks otherwise must probably have been living on another planet during the last economic crisis or since 9/11 for that matter.

That is why when science gets banned from school books, Sarah Palin starts having real changes of becoming the next US President (wasn't Mr. Bush bad enough?), or some lunatic menaces to burn the Koran, the rest of us, who live elsewhere, should be as concerned as any mentally sane american citizen.

On these grounds, I decided to use this space to help publicizing Mr. Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, an event programed to take place in Washington, D.C., on October 30. In addition to calling attention to the insanity that seems to have recently invaded America's public life, it will probably be very amusing.

Click here and/or watch the video below to learn more about it.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Book Review
by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

The book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, written by Nicholas Carr, is one of those books that everyone should read. It shows how the internet profoundly changes the way the human brain is wired and discusses the possible resulting cultural and social impacts.

The human brain is an incredibly plastic organ. It can change to adapt to even small shifts in our circumstances and behavior. Particular brain circuits are strengthened through the repetition of  mental or physical activities. The reverse of the medal is that if you no longer use certain skills, you gradually forget them. The brain map space dedicated to the activities in question is turned over to the skills you practice instead. The habit of reading, for example, operates profound changes in the brain. Experiments have shown that the brains of the illiterate are different from the brains of the literate. They understand language, process visual signals, reason and form memories in different ways.

The changes that happen within the brain also vary according to the media one uses for reading. Reading a book is very different from reading internet content. The online environment favors cursory reading, superficial learning, as well as hurried and distracted thinking. Even worse, the net deliveries “precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, interactive, addictive – that have been show to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.” This prevents us from thinking either deeply or creatively. The changes in brain circuitry are not only profound, but also swift. An experiment performed in 2008 “actually showed people's brains changing in response to internet use.” Using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists observed what happened inside the subjects' brains while they navigated Web pages. As little as  five hours on the internet (one hour a day) was shown to be enough to significantly rewire their brains.

The reason why one gradually has his/her abilities to concentrate and think deeply impaired has to do with the way the brain handles memories. There are two different kinds of memory: long-term and working memories. The long-term memory is not some kind of warehouse of information. It is actually the seat of understanding. It not only stores facts and experiences, but also complex concepts (“schemas”). The working memory comprises the contents of one's conscientiousness at any given moment. Nothing is stored in the long-term memory without previously passing through the working memory.  “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”

Unlike the long-term memory, the working memory has a very limited capacity. It seems to be incapable of processing more than two to four elements at a time, “with the actual number probably being at the lower rather than the higher end of this scale.” It is a bottle neck. Give it too much cognitive load (links, pop-ups, animated banners, incoming e-mail message alerts, etc) and it will be overwhelmed, hindering your capacity to learn and retain information.  As the author puts it:

When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or the most of the information (…) into the long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We're able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.


Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data (the emphasis is mine).
The division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding.

There is much more to the book than what is summarized above. However, that pretty much gives an idea of the seriousness of the problem, showing why the book is a must read.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Aging: What does the Future Hold for Us?

As we age, our bodies undergo a natural deterioration process. Our mental acuity diminishes, our organs function at a slower rate, we become weaker and fragile. This process, however, is probably not ineluctable. The first video below shows what happens to our bodies as we grow older. The second one is about what the future may hold for us when it comes to expanding human lifespan.