Friday, July 29, 2011

The value of a Copyright

Just to make it clear, I'm going to say that there is some merit behind some copyright. A way to ensure a return on effort spent to produce the piece of work. That being said, it should not be the same right for every piece produced.

I don't really need any sort of scientific survey to look into part of this. Most copyrighted material is absolutely worthless. However, is it afforded the same protection as a major blockbuster movie, for free. Depending on how I structure the copyright of this blog, it has the same protection as Transformers 3. Why? To me this doesn't make any sense. Which is why I've decided to license my blog with a creative commons license. You can see it down at the bottom. However, I still got that copyright with no effort for myself. I have to do nothing to keep that copyright. 

The arts, sciences and technologies have had a strong interaction on each other throughout human history. We can see this with how our arts are pushing our technological limits. Video games push the limits of personal computers, recording studios push the limits of audio equipment and flawless video push the limits of TV and cameras. However, for any piece of art that was created on any of these technologies, they are afforded much more protection than the technology. The art also gains this protection for free, without any effort, whereas the technology has to go through a great deal of work to prove its worthy of the protection. 

As much as I would like to remove the auto guarantee of state protection on a work, I don't think that's feasible. However, I do think what is feasible and realistic is implementing a registration requirement for works older than a year old. This minimum level of effort demonstrates, at least to the owner, there is value in the copyright. If the content creator fails in this, the work should fall into the public domain. Thus freeing the vast majority of our culture from copyright. 

In the patent system there is a minimum cost for renewing the protection each year, which is considered the minimum value of a patent. This scale is graduated so that the the longer you want the protection the more expensive it is. For most firms this isn't really that much money. I think we need to add something like this for copyright. However, our current copyright length is extremely long. Which brings us to another point, after 20 years, which is the maximum allowable protection length for a technical discovery, the yearly rates should be exorbitant. In the last 10 years the copyright should cost more than $1,000,000 per year to manage. There will be firms that are willing to pay it, but it will be a difficult choice. Because it would be for every single copyright. This would quickly reduce the numbers of items within copyright protection.

I also think that there should be a payment difference for levels of protection. So this goes a bit to the different types of creative commons licenses out there. However, I think the most basic cheapest level of protection is required source acknowledgement if remixed, and the right to license out the work. Anything more than that would be extra money. So, if you didn't want it remixed for profit you would have to pay a significant amount of money more. Again, this is per copyright. There wouldn't be any blocks for works on a CD as each song can be sold separately, which would require a separate registration. 

I think with a system such as this we would quickly understand what the true value of a copyright actually is. At this point we have an artificially high valuation of copyrighted material based upon an extremely small subset of copyrighted material. From my previous post on the value of patents, we saw that most patents were barely able to cover the value of owning the patent. Additionally, most wouldn't cover the cost of litigation. 

We need to come to accept that most of our art at some point becomes economically worthless, if it ever was. That's not to say it's not emotionally full of worth, however, we can only truly understand that value when we have easy open access to it.

Further Reading:
Free Culture Lawrence Lessig: (Free ebook)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What is the value of a patent?

The truth of the matter is that most patents are worthless. What? How can that be with so many people suing over these patents? Why has there been a HUGE increase in patent activity in the past few years? Just because something is worthless doesn't mean it can't be useful. However, that being said, most patents are still useless. A patent on how to swing some one in a swing, is in fact, worthless and useless (real patent) (Jaffe and Lerner, 2006). In fact, I would argue it has negative value as it cost substantial money to have it patented. Granted the father was the patent attorney, however, there are still expenses that has to do with the procedures to get it patented.

In 2008 a study was published on the values of patents based on a survey asking both inventors and managers what they felt the value of a patent would be. As can be see in the figure below it's a greatly skewed graph with the vast majority of the patents being worth less than €1 Million ($1.5 Million). This value is related to how much an inventor or manager would have sold the patent for as soon as it was issued.

Gambardella et al, 2008

But wait! That's not worthless. In fact that's worth a lot of money! Is it? For a person yes. For a company maybe not. R&D is not cheap. Let's say it took three years to develop the technology and a staff of 5 people making €50,000, that alone is a cost of €750,000. You'd barely recoup the expenses of that let alone the materials. However, most economists would argue that those costs are sunk and shouldn't be factored into the cost of the patent. I do agree with this assessment, however there are other costs to consider as well. One of the biggest costs is risk of lawsuits. Which as you can see below are growing at an alarming rate.

In a lot of ways, patents are worthless until you sue someone. There are arguments that a patent has no value until you try to actually use it, or prevent some one from using it. Thus, the fact you're suing means it has inherent worth. Additionally, as there are requirements to pay for patents, a certain fee each year, there is a certain bottom level threshold to indicate the value of a patent. Shifts in this value will impact different patent holders differently. Increasing it towards the end could drive up litigation, while decreasing it, means that no patents will lapse.

So what can we take from this? With the rising numbers of patents, and the rising numbers of law suits, it could be argued that there is a sense of an increased value of patents. However, I think we need to be very careful with this sort of argument. As, we could just be letting bad patents get approved because of changes in the USPTO (there has been more of an increase in the USPTO than at the European Patent Office). In the end, the value of a patent is truly decided in the market when people purchase a product. Unfortunately, the person that gains value out of the patent may not be a true innovator. They could be a troll like Intellectual Ventures

References/Further Reading:

A.B. Jaffe & J. Lerner (2006). Innovation and Its Discontent.  NJ: Princeton
University Press.

Alfonso Gambardella, Dietmar Harhoff, Bart Verspagen (2008). The value of
European patents. European Management Review (2008) 5, 69–84.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

EFF's Tor challenge and Internet Freedom

First of all, no I didn't participate in the Tor challenge. I don't feel I can use my computer in this way while I'm doing a lot of work on it for school. However, I think the idea is excellent. I didn't explain what TOR is did I? Well here's the EFF website about Tor. TL;DR: basically it provides a way for You, to hide your actual IP address. You have to install a piece of software to access the network. Once you access the network you're data will bounce around and come out an exit point, which is your "final" IP address. This final address will take the brunt of any legal or illegal activity being conducted on the TOR network. The EFF suggest that you do not run an exit relay out of your home and the Tor project has some recommendations on running an exit point. However, it should be safe to run a middle relay to allow traffic to flow through your home address. The data that flows between middle nodes is encrypted. See the picture below.

EFF representation of the Tor network: from Tor Project
Why is this technology important? This helps with freedom of speech. The US constitution allows free speech and this is an important tool in allowing freedom of speech. Of course like any proxy website, or VPN it can be used for other purposes, as can the ideas of free speech. We may not like what it is being used for, what is being said or why, but it's still legal. One thing that is noted repeatedly on both the EFF and Tor page is the risk of DCMA take downs and law enforcement attention. Both of these have a chilling affect on freedom of speech.

It seems to me that copyright control and protection may seriously damage a project like this. If all the exit nodes are shut down because of copyright take down notices we lose a valuable tool in preserving our freedom of speech as well as an assumed right to use the internet in the way we feel is best.

Another concern I have about this technology is the obvious potential use by hackers. This tool is going to be used by hackers. It would be foolish for them not to. This of course puts this technology at odds with the wishes of the government to control copyright infringement and prevent hacking of businesses and government agencies. I seriously hope that the US government, and the EU, gives protection to the exit nodes from legal repercussions from hackers using these networks. Used in the right way Tor could be a modern Underground Railroad for dissenters in countries like Libya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Evidence of Higgs boson

I've been a bit remiss with my blogging of late and managed to miss discussing this pretty big story. CERN, the European particle physics group, has evidence that there might be Higgs particles. What are Higgs? Well, they are theorized to provide mass to all other particles. Not only has CERN reported this, but Tevatron in Chicago at Fermilab has reported seeing similar, but smaller results. This is very good news. In fact, despite the fact that Tevatron (6.3km) is no where near the size of Large Hadron Colider (LHC) of CERN (27km), which means that it can produce less power, can detect it means that there's a lot of room for further investigation at LHC. This is exciting.

What if Higgs doesn't exist? Well, basically it means that the Standard Model of particle physics is partially scrapped. Only partially, because a lot of the theory has been supported through the research at institutions like CERN and Fermilab. However, the evidence is pretty good, however, the scientists are being extremely cautious. They are currently at 2.8 sigma on a normal curve (bell curve for grading). For most research this error rate is more than enough for it to be considered a significant finding, 99.9% likelihood, however in particle physics significantly higher results are required. They require 5 sigma, which is about 1 in a million.

Does this impact my daily life? No not really, however I'm very sure whenever some of the original atomic theories were put forward and verified, most people didn't see much use in them. It might take us a large amount of time to figure out how to actually use this. For all we know some of these developments may lead to a better understanding of fission in some way. I'm speculating of course, but there's no reason to assume that this research is good for just doing more research.

In the United States cutting edge particle research is drawing to a close I'm afraid. In October of 2011 Tevatron will shut down for good, and there are only a few other large accelerators in the US, none as large as Tevatron.This will likely have long term impacts on both theoretical physics and particle physics in the US. The expertise will leave Universities like University of Chicago and move over to Europe to work with CERN. This didn't have to be the case, but in 1993 Congress scrapped the Super Collider in Dallas, the US gave up the desire to lead in particle physics.

Congrats to both Fermilab and CERN for coming so close to detecting the Higgs boson!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway and extremism

My heart goes out to Norway. I've been doing a lot of reading about this, there have been tons of blog posts speculating the reasons that drove this man to commit these heinous crimes. Over on /r/atheism there's discussion that atheists should be pointing out that this was a christian terrorist and work to ensure that the name sticks. They are saying that our media uses different words because he was christian compared to muslim.

In the US this massacre will no doubt bring up debates about restricting gun usage and access. However, Norway has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, and it clearly didn't help. This blog post helps explain the extent that this man went to in carrying out this violence. Additionally Al Jazeera has an interesting op-ed lambasting NYT for quickly claiming it was a muslim terrorist then switching to christian extremist.

My take on this is a bit more complex. The op-ed writer claims that it's not a battle between Islam and Christianity but a battle between extremists and the average person. While he is correct in that, it's not as simple as we'd like it to be. Unfortunately, differences in religion and cultures make it very difficult to figure out ways of dealing with these problems. Misinformation has spread so there is a lack of trust between your average person in the west and in the middle east. Bridging that gap will be difficult. In europe there are additional problems.

In many articles there are discussions of the lack of integration of different groups of immigrants into European countries. Some of these groups have the highest rates of criminality in the country. For example in the Netherlands Moroccans are the group with the highest level of criminality in the country. They have not integrated well at all. However, this is a two edge sword, as in many cases they aren't allowed to integrate. One of my friends told me about a friend of his roommate's that is Moroccan and even though he was born and raised in Amsterdam he is excluded from most bars because he is Moroccan.

These problems are extremely difficult to deal with and the stereotyping and racism can lead to extremism. This is what we've seen in this case. In the US, it was fueled by the Tea-Party, Beck, Palin and other politicians, in the Netherlands it's been fueled by Geert Wilders, and unless we can figure out a way to make them feel responsible for the anger they entice and inflame we are not going to see these messages stop.

That's only part of it. We need to work together to create a way for both groups of people to integrate. Requiring immigrants to take language courses is a way to do this. However, at least in the Netherlands, they are extremely expensive and many of the workers are working class and may not be able to afford the courses. So, perhaps some integration programs by the government will help with this. Additionally, to help with cultural issues using full immersion courses would work best. These courses can help teach the history of the country and about the cultural heritage of the country as well. This will ease the transfer from the previous living environment to the new one, as well as make the new immigrants more likely to integrate.

Who is going to pay for that. I don't know, most likely the immigrants and recent immigrants. However, this won't address a lot of problems. Specifically how do you deal with people like this Norwegian guy? I'm not sure. But I think addressing the ability of immigrants to integrate may help a great deal with these problems.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A convergence: ICE, Copyright, O'Dwyer Swartz

I think we're in the middle of a very bad convergence of cultural inhibitors. Most things that would fall under the purview of culture is copyrighted. Historically, we never had much trouble with this as individuals. However, now we're seeing more and more problems with this. As I've discussed in the past, ICE is heavily involved, individuals like James O'Dwyer and Aaron Swartz are in the middle of two different kind of legal action and content owners are coming up with new ways to control their material.

What do I think is going on? I think that we could be seeing the end of our ability to freely use our culture. We are also seeing the US attempting to govern the world's copyright law. For instance, the US is seeking to extradite O'Dwyer over a links page, something like Justin.TV, which in the UK isn't illegal and no one is sure if it's actually illegal in the US or not (See this ars technica article for more information). This isn't the only case like this. ICE seized a website that was declared legal in Spain.

One of the best parts of the copyright law for consumers is the First sale provision. This allows a consumer that owns a book, but not the copyright, to sell this book to some one else. Or do with this book anything they want to after the first sale. However, we're seeing this ability erode away. Autodesk, makers of AutoCad, are suing a guy that is trying to resell a two copies of AutoCad. They are claiming it violates their copyright and their End User Licence Agreement.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is another manner in which content owners are exerting excess control over their content. If you bought a song from iTunes, that DRM is going to last longer than the copyright which it is absurd in my opinion.

Another case where DRM and content ownership is going to have a long term negative impact is in the PC gaming industry. There are a few major platforms for game digital game distribution. Steam being the largest, however all these games are put into a walled garden of "ownership" where you are able to play the game and use it, but you aren't in control of the actual content. You have absolutely no ability to resell the game. In the past, if you didn't like a game after you bought it, you had the ability to sell it for a loss to some place like Gamestop. With these online platforms you don't have the ability to do that, as it would cannibalize sales from Steam itself.

Other services are starting to get into the act to prevent copyrighted materials from being sole without the owner's consent. Today, PayPal has decided to ban payments to any website that is illegally selling copyrighted material (Torrent Freak article). This is pretty serious. As a company the have the right to do so, and I'm very sure that there will be some other service that will provide secure monetary transfers.

Based on these observations, I believe that our government and content owners are working to control and limit the freedom of usage of our own culture. It's not a conspiracy, as the government is actively working with RIAA and MPAA to help regulate the material. ISPs have recently gotten involved in the game as well (EFF commentary). These groups are working to use copyright to gain more control over the material every day.

What can we do? Contact your government officials, get educated through EFF and Creative Commons, and other organizations like this.

Further reading:
Lawrence Lessig Code 2.0

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Aaron Swartz and Freedom of Knowledge

Aaron Swartz has been arrested and accused of a multitude of crimes, for a break down of them go here, for gaming a big journal retrieval site called JSTOR (it is a large one many journals are stored within this site). As some one that works with these retrieval services quiet often and has actually hit the limit for the amount of citation data you can pull from them, they can be frustrating. Some of the work I'm personally doing right now is related to citation analysis and co-authorship analysis. Which allows networks of knowledge flows to be seen. Another method is to do a word analysis within articles to create knowledge networks based on what articles are about, what knowledge is contained in each of the articles. Apparently, in the past, Swartz has done something like this. Some of my colleagues also use techniques to allow additional gathering of information. Most of this information, even with you have legal access, is difficult and very time consuming to procure. In this case, Swartz has access and may have been able to get a hold of this data through other means. JSTOR mentioned in one of their releases that they have a program that allows for high volume access to their publications. 

This case also has made me think of a few other issues with our current knowledge retrieval systems and repositories. Companies need to make money off these publications, so we can't have them for free. However, through my research, I've used articles that are 20 years old. If this knowledge was patented, I would be able to access this and use it with no problem at this point. In many cases, it could happen sooner as many patents aren't renewed after a certain time frame. Using a scientific article is typically more like using something published under a creative commons license, which means you can remix the information. Through citations you give credit where it is due. In most cases you can get access to the data and models, if you give the person credit, either through citations or co-authorship. Why does this work? Because the research is publicly funded.

Authors can also pay to allow full free access to their work depending on the journal. However, in most cases they don't, or don't get the article to be free continuously. However, there is some relief from the burden of paying for individual articles, Google Scholar, is able to find articles that scientists have on their personal websites, and allow access to "working paper" versions, which means they aren't quite publishable yet, even after they have been published. 

I think for publicly funded research we need to have an exception to the copyright law, which changes it from 70 years to 10 years. Depending on the field even 10 years is to long. The work my wife is doing articles cited which are that old are typically cited because it's giving credit to trail blazers. These papers are typically cited in the hundreds compared to the average of the tens. Once the copyright expired there would be much more competition for distribution of the articles and reduces the risk to the knowledge community if any given retrieval system or journal fails.

This Swartz case scares me in general, because it will make it even more difficult to access information and care a large risk if you create scripts to make it easier to get access to massive amounts of data.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hypocrisy of science deniers

This is something that has been bothering me for a while. People pick and choose the types of science they are willing to accept the validity of the scientific method. This relates to my controversies series where I explained several major controversies in the US. As I said then, people have decided for whatever reason to suspend their acceptance of scientific principles and believe something that is unfounded, been proven to be untrue, or untestable or have simply chosen not to accept the scientific data.

So what am I upset about? Well, each group of these people accept the scientific method in fullness in other situations. The general heuristic used in scientific research is the same in all types of science. The specific methodologies used are typically sources of creativity. Scientists are able to connect strings concepts, and data to create a testable theory to a problem. These theories are then rejected or accepted for more testing. That's all well and good, but the problem is that people wholeheartedly accept less rigorous testing for other products. You hear the organic crowd talking about how this organic food is so much better for you than that processed apple sprayed with chemical. The reason, because it's more natural. They also argue that fish oil and vitamins make you feel better. Well, the problem is that there is no actual evidence to support these claims. In many cases, as Michael Specter put it, it just turns into really expensive pee. However, many of them will reject health food science that disputes these claims.

Ok, so I've rambled a bit without a good story in this one. People will always be this way. However, this science, layperson disputed science, has lead to amazing breakthroughs that have made our lives better. For instance, because we know evolution to be true, we're able to test on animals because we are genetically similar to them. We test specific animals in specific ways because of their genetic similarity to us. We are able to non-human organ transplants because of this as well. We have made huge strides in our technologies because of the same methods that developed the theory of evolution, climate change and vaccines. People have no problems, for the most part, using technologies. Adopting these new technologies that in some cases we don't even really know why or how these technologies work the way they do.

People put more trust in these technologies than they do in well proven science that have lead to life saving inventions, and practices. We cannot pick and chose which sciences we support. We need to support all of them with the understanding that from any of these branches of investigation that something major can be discovered that will make our lives better.

We may not really understand or see how this will happen at first, but looking back we can see the wonders that have arisen because of our voyage into the endless frontier of science.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Economics III

I'm sorry it's been so long between my last couple posts. I've been pretty busy. Brian just moved to Eindhoven from Austin, so I've been hanging out with him, moving to our new place, and then I just read a dance with dragons. In addition to that, I've also started working on my research project for the summer. Hopefully things will settle down now and I'll be able to post blogs more frequently.

So, last week, I was beating up on the neoclassical growth model and my friend came running to it's defense. He had a good point. The best way to predict the weather is based on what today's weather is. This might work passably well, but will fail pretty quickly here in the Netherlands and in Pittsburgh. It works really well in Austin. Hot today, going to be hot tomorrow. A better way to predict is to create a range of likely outcomes through simulation. This is what the weather man does on the news. They run simulations based upon the current conditions as well as conditions in the surrounding areas to make a better prediction than just walking outside.

Evolutionary economics is based upon these same ideas. Many of the models are more like climate models rather than mathematical equations. These models have predicted crashes similarly to what happened in 2007, based upon the rules of our economy and behaviors of people within the system. There have been some models that have attempted to create models very similarly to the neoclassical models, which are able to account for more of the differences between growth rates within countries.

I prefer the simulation approach over the mathematical models, because you are able to easily change things. As we have more control over our economy than the weather, these changes can reflect policy choices, changes in regulation as well as increases or decreases in government spending. As these changes build on each other the system can simulate how a series of changes within a short time period may impact the system.

The other benefit of evolutionary economics over neoclassical is the clear tie to how science, technology and education impact the economy. These factors are typically left in the residual or the measure of our ignorance in neoclassical economics. Changes in the rate of adoption or creation of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs can impact the long term health of an economy which everyone knows, but the economists haven't done the best job showing it under neoclassicalism. If they had, then we would never be cutting education and science funding first. We would be pouring money into these systems to try to spur more discoveries!

Neoclassical economics was useful, however, I think the time for it has passed as it is unable to deal with the complexity of the world. Evolutionary economics looks at the economy as a complex system and is designed to handle it.

Further reading:
Origin of Wealth:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Economic Growth II

So, two days ago I started discussing two different paradigms for economic growth. The first is neo-classical growth, the second is evolutionary economics. I basically asserted that neoclassical growth methods are crap. Well, I should have been a bit more careful. There are situations where they do work and can work well. However, they require a great deal of work to make sure that they actually predict anything. Additionally, they also measure if the economy is going towards or going away from a steady state position.

First, it's not entirely clear if there is anything as a steady state economy. By steady state I don't mean no growth at all, it's more like consistent growth at a specific level. The US supposedly was in a steady state economic condition during the late 90s and early 2000s. However, two recessions, in my opinion, have revealed how flawed this theory of steady state economy is.

So what is neoclassical economics good for? Well, it can be used to predict growth assuming that the economy is capable of absorbing new technologies and innovations. If the economy is able to absorb these and then create manufacturing centers or research centers based on these advancements then the neo-classical growth model can work fairly well. It would work well for most European countries, however, I would still be skeptical of these predictions.

Why? Well, these growth models only capture a part of the economy as I said on Sunday. It also doesn't predict or deal with changes within the structure of economies. For example, the age of steel was an extremely long lasting period, however, based on neoclassical growth the city of Pittsburgh should not have worried about shifting to a new area.

So what is evolutionary economics then? Well, I'll get to that tomorrow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Economic Growth: two paradigms

So, I talk a lot on here about science, innovation and technologies. I have also mentioned before why innovation is important to economic growth. So, why?  What's the big deal? Well, simply put, it's a perspective of economics. There is one major school in Economics, with a few competing schools. I study one of the competing schools, the largest in fact. This branch is referred to as Evolutionary Economics. The traditional type of economics is called NeoClassicalism.

Neoclassical economics is split between micro and macro economics, where at a micro level there will be some demand and some supply and between two people a price agreement will be set based on the factors that go into costs and how many people want the good etc.  Then there's macro economics which looks at growth at a regional, or country level using terms like gross domestic product (GDP), which I discussed previously. In this post I will focus on macro economics, tomorrow, I will discuss how evolutionary economics at a micro level is different than neoclassical.

GDP measures some very specific things, however, it does not include all economic activity. Despite limitations it currently is the best measure we have for economic activity. Based on the GDP, many different economists have attempted to create theories based on the GDP that will model growth. These started in the mid 50's with Solow and his model based on savings rates, salaries and previous GDP levels. This model is still the basis for most mainstream economists models. It is a horrible measure as it leaves a huge portion of economic growth as a residual, or as one economist put it "the measure of our ignorance." This measure is about 75% of the growth.

In 1982 two guys put together the basis of evolutionary economics, which focused on micro level transactions instead of macro level events. However it has been extended to the macro level quite easily. The major argument is based on Schumpeter and that innovation drives economic growth. These economists basically ignore savings and things like that, and focus on knowledge capabilities. They were able to show that technology growth accounts for a massive amount of the economic growth in an economy.

Through these challenges neoclassical economists have adopted something called endogenous growth model. Where technology change is part of the driving force economic change. Before, it was considered an external factor that just happened to the economy. However, there is still a severe limitation to this theory: knowledge is a public good freely available to anyone anywhere. As we all know this is absurd. Basically we can see how this is a failed theory through the discussion I have on the patent system.

I will discuss more of this topic tomorrow.

Further Reading
Kuznets, S. (1973), Modern Economic Growth: Findings and Reflections, The American Economic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Jun., 1973), pp. 247-258.
Mankiw, G.N. (1995), The Growth of Nations, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Vol. 1995, No. 1, 25th Anniversary Issue, pp. 275-310.


Verspagen, B. (2005), Innovation and Economic Growth in J. Fagerberg, D.C. Mowery and R.R. Nelson (eds) Handbook of Innovation, Oxford University Press (I have this and can email it to you if you're interested)
Silverberg, G. and Verspagen, B. (2005), 'Evolutionary theorizing on economic growth' in K. Dopfer (ed.), The Evolutionary Foundations of Economics, available as IIASA Working paper.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I've gotta say, it's hard to be a lover of space, NASA and scientific exploration right now. With the end of the shuttle program around the corner, and a new bill to cut a huge amount of funding from NASA (article) things are looking rather down right now. Basically this would kill the James Webb telescope. I think this would be a terrible thing.

Why should we invest? Well, the US prides itself on being number one in everything, even if we aren't actually number one. Without continuing to push the frontier of research we will fall behind eventually. The article above, or another article mentioned congress killing the Super Collider in Texas, it would have been able to produce the novel results that the Large Hadroc Collider is producing now. The US would be the world leader in particle physics. We are starting to fall behind. Europe is going to be the world leader, and in the future we will be reading articles written by Europeans. We could be excellent teaching centers for particle physics for years to come, but the best of the best will not be in the US.

The same could happen with astronomy. The Hubble Telescope led to over 9,000 scientific papers being published. Yes, that may seem like we were probably spending more money on research than just the money that we spent on Hubble, but remember we were also producing jobs to support those scientists that were writing the papers. The Webb Telescope is going to be significantly more powerful than Hubble. We have had some amazing picture of space and the universe around us because of Hubble. Pictures of the Crab Nebula, Pillars of Creation and the Rose Galaxy. See below.

Top Left Crab Nebula, Right Pillars of Creation Bottom Rose Galaxy
For me, these images instill a feeling of awe and wonder. Through the Hubble we've expanded our understanding of how the universe works and how dangerous of a place we live. The rose galaxy, or galaxies, are two galaxies colliding with each other. Our galaxy is actually predicted to collide with the andromeda galaxy in a few million years. We know this because of Hubble.

We are also starting to realize that what we're learning at the particle level may interact with the origins of the universe. For example, string/M theory also is a theory about how the universe was started. We need to be able to keep seeing back in time to understand how these theories interact with each other.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Controversies IV - Vaccines

Today I learned something interesting. A guy who does Judo with me told me that in France there are concerns over Hep B shots and Multiple Sclerosis. Apparently, this is based on a discredited publication and health authorities have not been able to convince the French to begin taking the vaccines again. This is of serious concern for me, because he also mentioned that the vaccination rate was something like 30% or so.

In some ways France is lucky, because the vaccine isn't as serious as the vaccine people are rejecting in the US. They are rejecting MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella), which are highly contagious. What can we learn from these two cases?

First, it is extremely difficult to overcome personal beliefs on scientific evidence. In both cases many different studies have been conducted to verify the safety of the vaccines. In the US, the connection was completely debunked. The Journal the Lancet it is the UK medical journal, actually went so far to retract the article. It was a flawed study where there were only 12 patients, they were unwilling included and the author was also being paid. There were many cases of ethical violations and the guy isn't even allowed to practice medicine in the UK any more. He now works in the US. So, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary people still believe these findings.

Second, we learned that it's not only conservatives, or a segment of the population that is uneducated that hold these anti-science beliefs. The topics I've talked about have focused primarily on that group. This controversy is with the liberal well educated group of people living in California. They have celebrity spokespeople and many of these people are engineers or some other scientifically based  profession. These people should know better.

What are the risks if we don't vaccinate though? Well, vaccination works through protection of the herd. Everyone needs to be protected in the "herd" otherwise everyone is at risk. Well, that just sounds like a scare tactic. Ok, yes a bit, however vaccines don't always work. You could have gotten vaccinated for MMR and it didn't actually give you the anti-bodies you needed. It's difficult to test for these things and expensive. Not something you'd want to subject a small child to. So, lets say that unknown to you, your child's vaccine didn't work, and another kid in class was intentionally unvaccinated. He some how comes across measles and comes to school with it. Your child could become ill, as well as any other person in the school that the vaccination didn't work for or intentionally wasn't vaccinated.

Ok, let's say you're right, why is Autism increasing? Well, partially we've changed the standards for what fits autism over time. In the past only people like Rainman would have been considered autistic, now there's a well defined spectrum that includes a lot more types of behaviors. Other reasons may be from who are having children together. A recent study (WSJ summary) showed that Eindhoven has a significantly higher rate of autism than two other areas where there are many less technology jobs, thus less engineers and scientists. This also would indicate a possible reason why Silicon Valley might also have a higher rate than other places in the US. This does need additional research to compare regions in the US to regions like this and others around the world.

In conclusion, just because you believe non-scientific things does not mean you are stupid. There are a lot of changes in scientific literature. However, we need to develop techniques to educate people and convince them that the new data is right and that there is not some grand plot to make some one money (anti-vac think its the pharmaceutical companies lying) or destroy our economy (anti-climate change thing it's a conspiracy to destroy the US economy). These groups are increasing risk to everyone. We need to as a general public, figure out a way to address these problems.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Controversies III - Evolution

So, we have some ideas for how to deal with climate change. Will they work? I don't know. I hope my friends that read my last post will discuss will educate themselves on climate change and work to talk with their friends about it. Also, let me know if you do and how it goes!

How do we deal with evolution though? This one is a lot trickier, not that dealing with climate change is easy (but I think my idea is a step in the right direction). People who are much smarter than I am have been attempting to tackle this one for some time, including Richard Dawkins who is extremely knowledgeable about the topic. He wrote a fantastic book about evolution called "The greatest show on Earth" where he discusses each of the "counter" claims of ID (Intelligent design) advocates.

However, in some ways this is even besides the point. The major issue is that people are trying to remove evolution from the classroom. This is the biggest problem. This would destroy our capabilities to compete in the future in biomedical applications.

Why are people trying to fight evolution? Well, they feel that it will drive people to atheism. This isn't true. There are many people that have figured out ways to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution. The biggest problem is that it directly contradicts the bible. Which in the US there is a growing minority that take the bible literally. The next issue is the growing minority that falsely claim the US is a "Christian Nation" which this CNN contributor debunks.

It appears that we need to not just worry about scientific accuracy but also historical. For it is impossible to really understand the "controversy" without understanding the context that it is being framed within. Without this claimed backdrop there would be no basis under which to fight having evolution in school classes. Evolution is not a religion. With the pope accepting it, it's as much of a part of catholicism as it is part of secular humanism or part of the accepted scientific facts of an atheist. Since the supporters of ID place the argument within this framework though we must first refute the framework of a christian nation and from there we can show that it is impossible to teach ID in school while evolution must be taught in school.

Additional ponderable thoughts:
"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" is a 1973 essay by the evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, criticising anti-evolution creationism and espousing theistic evolution. The essay was first published in the American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pages 125-129. (Wikipedia)

We teach our vets, doctors, nurses and pharmacists biology. Without a clear understanding of biology from a young age the quality of our healthcare can only go down. As a country we will not be able to stay on top of the life sciences research and pharmaceutical production.

If we fail to education our students on biology how do we keep up, and how to we keep our economy running?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Controversies II

It's been a few days since I posted. Mostly because my friend Brian just moved to Eindhoven and I've been busy showing him around. But i also had an exam on friday and was kept busy with that.

In my last post, a reader pointed out that I was perhaps being a bit over generalizing with the group of people that refute climate change. I said that it was rural christian republicans that most likely refused to accept the evidence for climate change. I still say this is true, however, not everyone that falls into this description refuses to accept climate change.

Indeed, we should be thankful for that. In a study that was looking to determine how trust is developed in an informational source it was determined that similarity in other opinions increases trust in topics unrelated. Meijnders et al (2009) investigated the trust that develops with sources related to Genetically Modified foods.  They found that when there is no other information about the source other than what they wrote about an unrelated topic if the opinions matched it increased trust in the source. So if an author wrote about a cash register and the reader agreed with the author, and then the reader read an article about GM foods by the same author there would be higher acceptance of the information in the source. It also found the opposite to be true as well. That if there was a difference in opinion then it would lead to a rejection of the author and they would dispute their claims.

What does this have to do with climate change or any other controversy though? Well, who are the people that speak the most about evolution and climate change? Scientists, and as Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in his talk on naming rights that 40% of scientists in the US don't believe in God and 85% from the National Academy of Science. For the group that has the biggest issues with these topics this reduces any  trust between the reader and the author. The amount of evidence presented become inconsequential as there's no trust between the two and the evidence may in fact strengthen the rejection of climate change or evolution.

How can we deal with this? Well, one way is through more communication with the general public. It may also include educating the religious leaders of how the science works and why they should accept the evidence. Many atheists may not like that idea, but these leaders can reach a lot of people and they are a trusted source of information on other topics. The next step would be to have christian scientists that work within the field of evolution (there are some not many) and climate change explain how these two accepted scientific principles do not conflict with belief in god.

The catholic church has already accepted evolution, and have made positive remarks on climate change. This helps some, but most US citizens are not catholic, so we need to go after different people. Evolution is going to be much more difficult to succeed in this. As pastors are leading the charge against evolution in many churches. However, there is no reason why an approach like this would not work for climate change.

In controversial topics, science would be better served to be inclusive in educating as many religious leaders as possible to ensure that their followers are getting correct information from the best sources. This is in additional more scientific communication in general. More scientists need to function as journalists and start their own blogs.

Meijnders et al, 2009, "The role of similarity cues in the development of trust in sources of information about GM foods", Risk Analysis vol 29, no 8