Category Archives: Skepticism

Fox News Contributor Steven Milloy Promotes Junk Climate Science On Twitter

Frequent contributor to Fox News Steven Milloy retweeted a Politico story about climate change to suggest that CO2 won’t kill Earth because Venus is made of CO2 — the only trouble is humans don’t live on Venus, as far as we know.

Milloy is no stranger to ignoring accurate and verified scientific truths. A lawyer and frequent commentator for Fox News, he refers to himself as a libertarian thinker and runs a twitter account called @JunkScience through which he ironically, but not facetiously, often peddles what mosts scientists would refer to as junk science. His close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies have been the subject of criticism from a number of sources going back to the early 2000s, as Milloy has consistently disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and the health risks of second-hand smoke. Having close ties to tobacco and oil, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Among the topics Milloy has addressed are what he believes to be false claims regarding DDT, global warming, Alar, breast implants, second-hand smoke, ozone depletion, and mad cow disease. This time, however, he attempts to equate planet Earth with planet Venus, saying that CO2 won’t destroy the Earth because Venus is largely made up of CO2.

The obvious problem to scientists (and most people with a high school science education) is that humans don’t live on Venus, and couldn’t since it is so darn hot, hailing an average temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s obvious that Milloy is being paid to promote bad science in an effort to persuade Fox News watchers into believing that climate change is a hoax. The trick he uses here is to make it seem like people who believe in man-induced global warming through greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide think the Earth will cease to exist with too much CO2. That isn’t what climate change scientists and activists think at all.

On the contrary, climate change scientists and activists are concerned about human and animal life will cease to exist — the way it doesn’t exist on Venus.

The danger in having to explain this to people is that it’s easier to look at things Milloy’s way. Despite it being wrong, lazy thinkers will read what he tweets and hear what he says on Fox News without doing anymore research or thinking on the matter. When people say convincing things with authority, it usually doesn’t matter if what they’re saying is true or not.

Time travel: a conversation between a scientist and a literature professor

Richard Bower, Durham University and Simon John James, Durham University

Literature professor Simon John James and physicist Richard Bower were both involved in the curating the exhibition, Time Machines – the past, the future, and how stories take us there. Their conversations quickly revealed to them the many, wildly various, meanings of “time travel”. Here, they discuss how time travelling in literary and scientific terms might, one day, coincide. The Conversation

Simon John James: Richard, what does the term “time travel” mean for a physical scientist?

Richard Bower: Time travel is the basis of modern physics, and, for anyone that looks up at the night sky, an everyday experience. When we view the stars and planets, we see them, not as they are now, but as they were in the past. For the planets this time delay is only a few minutes, but for most of the stars in the night sky, thousands of years. For galaxies, faint smudges of light made up of very distant collections of stars, the delay can be millions or billions of years. By observing the faintest galaxies with the world’s latest telescopes, we can look back through time and watch the whole history of the universe unfold.

But this is not the most satisfying kind of time travel. It allows us only to gaze into the past as remote observers. One of the key challenges for modern physics is to determine whether it is possible to influence the past.

Looking back in time.
Roxana Bashyrova/

One of the key concepts of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is that objects exist in a long line in 4D spacetime, a unification of time and space. Although all observers agree on the length of the world line that connects two events, they may have different views about whether the events occur simultaneously, or at the same location but at different times, or a mixture of both. For example, while I sit at my desk to eat lunch, then work a little and get up to go home several hours later, a (very) fast-moving observer will see me whizz by eating lunch and immediately getting up to go home. In Einstein’s theory, time and space are mixed together: we cannot think of them separately. It therefore makes best sense to think of myself as always moving along that 4D world-line, travelling into the future at the speed of light.

But is it possible to cheat the safeguards of Einstein’s theory and to travel backwards through time? At face value the answer is no, but then again, the science of earlier generations would have said it was impossible for mankind to fly. Perhaps all scientists need is inspiration and a cunning idea.

The Time Machine by HG Wells.
Artwork by Mike Mahle, courtesy of Rock Paper Books

SJJ: Well, you can find a lot of inspiration and cunning ideas in fantastic fiction, of course. Perhaps the most famous time travel text is The Time Machine (1895) by HG Wells, which was the first to imagine humans travelling in time through the use of technology. Other of his imaginations have been realised – he imagined and wrote about the technology of powered flight before science made it possible in real life, for example. Wells’s innovative idea led to modern time travel stories such as Back to the Future or Doctor Who.

But many different kinds of stories travel in time: Aristotle observed that a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end – but they do not have to be in that order. Even a text as ancient as Homer’s Iliad does not begin with the judgement of Paris, but with Achilles sulking in his tent in the ninth year of the Trojan War, and the story unfolds from there. Whodunnits usually don’t tend to begin with the murder, but with the discovery of the body, and the plot is reconstructed by the detective as the story moves both forwards and backwards. This is the temporal freedom of narrative time.

RB: What’s freeing in the literary device is for practical time travel the central obstacle. Although Einstein’s theories allow us to stretch and shrink time, the causal ordering of events remains constant. While, in your example, the life of the murder victim might experience their life flashing before their eyes in their dying seconds, the experience of their life will always precede the moment of death.

But in The Terminator, to take one example, the future human civilisation finds a way to loop the protagonist’s world line so that he travels back in time to intercept the cyborg and avert Sarah Connor’s death. In the inner regions of a spinning black hole, space and time are mixed so that this is tantalisingly close to possible, but I’ve never knowingly met anyone that made their way back from the future this way. Perhaps the looped world line cuts off the old future and pops out a new future, creating parallel worlds that exist at the same time.

From the conventional point of view, there’s rather a lot wrong with the idea of looping back in time. But modern interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest that the world may actually consist of many parallel futures, constantly splitting off from one another. All of these futures exist simultaneously, but we are only conscious of one of them. From this viewpoint, there isn’t so much to fear from time travel. The looped world line simply creates another layer of possible futures.

SJJ: I’m fascinated by time travel’s flexibility as metaphor for talking about many different kinds of academic research. History, archaeology would be obvious examples, but in a recent project I’ve been really inspired by work in the psychology of autobiographical memory. Narrative is not just a property of literary and other kinds of texts: it has been argued that the human sense of self is constructed from our narrativising of our own experiences within the passing of time: that memory and planning for the future are a kind of “mental time travel” which allows us to constitute identity.

Here my literary example is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Scrooge travels back to memories of his past selves, and by so doing is encouraged to change his ways for the better in the future. We could think of the despised, neglected miser of the vision of Christmas Yet to Come, and the beloved happy Scrooge of the novel’s ending as those inhabiting two different “parallel worlds”, perhaps?

RB: It’s certainly fascinating how literary ideas challenge scientific understanding – perhaps both of those parallel futures might be proved equally real yet.

Richard Bower, Professor in Physics, Durham University and Simon John James, Professor of Victorian Fiction, Durham University

Is it ethical to purchase human organs?

Editor’s note: This article is part of our collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH that next airs on Tuesday, June 28 on PBS and online at The show features fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.

Organ transplantation saves lives. People with end-stage kidney disease who receive a transplant tend to live much longer than those who undergo dialysis. A kidney from a living donor will last from 12 to 20 years, on average, compared to eight to 12 years for a kidney from a deceased donor.

But there is a shortage of organs. In the United States, the wait list for kidneys alone is around 100,000. Those waiting for kidneys make up most of the 120,000 people awaiting organ donation. The need for kidneys has led some to ask: Would purchasing organs be a solution?

‘Should organs be sold?’ is the question Point Taken debates June 28 at 11 p.m. E/10 p.m. C on PBS.

Since 1988, approximately three of every four kidneys for transplantation have come from deceased donors, the rest from living donors who give one of their kidneys to a relative, loved one or even a stranger. In the United States, live donation seems quite safe. A recent study found that kidney donors have only a slightly higher absolute risk of developing end-stage kidney disease than healthy non-donors.

What might we do to alleviate the shortage of kidneys in the U.S.? One positive step would be to adopt an opt-out system of deceased organ donation like one now in place in Spain, where the rate of organ donation is highest of any country. The default in this system is donation at death when organs are viable, but everyone has well-publicized opportunities to opt out of donation. As it stands, U.S. citizens must now opt in to deceased donation, for example, during driver’s license renewal. The rate of donation in the U.S. is about midway among nations that are tracked.

Unfortunately, changes in deceased donation practices are unlikely to eliminate shortages. Some physicians, lawyers and bioethicists have proposed regulated markets in live “donor” kidneys. Surely a lot more people will be willing to sell a kidney, assuming the price is right, than to donate one, their argument goes.

Yet purchasing kidneys is not only prohibited by international norms, it violates U.S. law. The only country where a legally approved market in kidneys exists is Iran. But market proponents insist that legal prohibition of commerce in kidneys is a grave mistake.

Are the proponents right? The answer depends in part on moral argument. In conducting this argument, it is important to steer clear of two implausible absolute positions.

A matter of human dignity

Selling a body part does not necessarily mean a person is for sale.

One position, put forth by market opponents, is that a person’s selling an internal body part is always wrong. Perhaps the best known philosophical proponent of this view is the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. We are obligated always to act in a way that expresses respect for the dignity of humanity, Kant held. He believed that all of us, no matter where on the spectrum of talent, wealth, happiness, or others’ regard we may be, have a worth beyond price.

Kant maintained that a person’s selling one of his internal parts – the example he gives is selling a tooth to be transplanted into another’s mouth – is always wrong, apparently because this action fails to express proper respect for the seller’s own dignity. The action always sends a false message, Kant seems to have believed: that the seller himself has a mere price.

But, as I have tried to show, it is implausible to maintain that every time a person sells one of his internal parts, he is sending such a message. A kidney is not a person. In some contexts, someone could surely sell a kidney (or a tooth) and not thereby convey that he himself has a mere price. For example, suppose a senator sells one of her kidneys in order to raise money for a charity. In our cultural context, she surely wouldn’t thereby be signaling that she herself has mere price!

Another questionable absolute position, put forth by market proponents, is that buying internal body parts from informed, voluntary and autonomous sellers is always right – that is, morally permissible.

Consider this: One way to buy someone’s kidney would be to buy her. Would it be morally permissible for you to buy as a slave a mother who has put herself up for sale in order to get money to educate her kids? The position in question implies that your buying her would be right, assuming roughly that she is mentally competent, informed of her action’s consequences and under no threat from others to undertake it. But many of us believe that your buying her would be wrong. In Kantian terms, it would express disrespect for the mother’s dignity by treating her as having mere price.

Black markets already have led to misery

The implausibility of these absolute positions regarding selling and buying of internal organs suggests that the moral permissibility of markets for organs is a complex and context-dependent issue.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 10,000 black market operations involving purchased human kidneys now take place per year. Vendors in such markets, who are typically very poor, undergo serious psychological and physical harms. According to recent research, Bangledeshi kidney sellers “suffered from grave sadness, hopelessness, and crying spells, and experienced social stigma, shame, and isolation for selling their body parts …” A study in Chennai, India found that over 85 percent of sellers reported a decline in health after kidney removal and that 80 percent would not recommend that others in similar circumstances sell a kidney.

Proponents of kidney sales insist that regulated markets would not have these dismal effects on vendors. Proposals for such markets incorporate provisions aimed at ensuring the safety of sellers and recipients, for example, through thorough donor screening processes and proper postoperative care.

As I have argued elsewhere, even full compliance with the rules of a regulated market would fail to ensure its ethical acceptability. The existence of such a market might harm poor people. For example, aggressive debt collectors might force the poor to sell the fungible assets they always carry with them: their kidneys.

It is naïve to assume that regulated markets would be well-regulated markets. If the United States legalizes markets in kidneys, would not other countries follow, among them some who have had an active illicit trade? These countries, including Brazil, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, seem to have high levels of corruption and thus ineffective regulatory infrastructures. It is reasonable to worry that the kinds of harm that accrue to kidney vendors in unregulated markets would also befall them in some regulated markets.

Whether we should adopt a regulated market in kidneys turns not only on moral argument, but also on whether doing so would actually increase supply. A recent systematic review of studies found support for the hypothesis that offering financial incentives for blood does not increase its supply. Of course, effects of payment might differ for blood and for kidneys. Nevertheless, for all we know market exchange of kidneys might “crowd out” giving associated with altruism. People who would otherwise have donated an organ might refrain from doing so if providing one has connotations not of moral virtue but of financial interest.

It remains unclear how much regulated markets would actually increase supply. In any case, such markets should prompt ethical concern, especially regarding their impact on the very poor. Most of us reject the idea that the end justifies the means: we believe that some means would be wrong to take even to a good end like increasing the supply of kidneys for transplant. Under present societal conditions, markets would, I suspect, be among such ethically unacceptable means. They do not warrant our support.

The Conversation

Samuel Kerstein, Professor of Philosophy, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Personal beliefs versus scientific innovation: getting past a flat Earth mentality

The history of science is also a history of people resisting new discoveries that conflict with conventional wisdom.

When Galileo promoted Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolves around the sun – counter to church doctrine about the Earth being the center of the universe – he wound up condemned by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – that new species develop as a result of natural selection on inherited traits – ran into opposition because it contradicted long-held scientific, political and religious beliefs. Alfred Wegener’s 1912 proposal that Earth’s continents move relative to each other – the theory of continental drift – was rejected for decades, in part because scientists held fast to the traditional theories they’d spent careers developing.

These kinds of examples aren’t only historical, unfortunately. We’re used to hearing about how the general public can be dense about science. You might expect some portion of everyday folks to take their time coming around on truly groundbreaking ideas that run counter to what they’ve always thought.

But scientists, too, hold their own personal beliefs – by definition, based on old ways of thinking – that may be holding back the innovation that’s at the heart of science. And that’s a problem. It’s one thing for an average Joe to resist evolving scientific theories. It’s quite another if a scientist’s preconceived notions holds us back from discovering the new and unknown – whether that’s a cure for Zika or a cutting-edge technology to combat climate change.

Personal beliefs as publication roadblocks

Real scientific progress occurs when laboratory or field research is reported to the public. With luck, the finding is accepted and put into practice, cures are developed, social policies are instituted, educational practices are improved and so on.

This usually occurs though publication of the research in scientific journals. There’s an important step between the lab and publication that laypeople may not know about – the evaluation of the research by other scientists. These other scientists are peers of the researcher, typically working in a closely related area. This middle step is commonly referred to as peer review.

In a perfect world, peer review is supposed to determine if the study is solid, based on the quality of the research. It’s meant to be an unbiased evaluation of whether the findings should be reported via journal publication. This important step prevents sloppy research from reaching the public.

However, in the real world, scientists are human beings and are often biased. They let their own beliefs influence their peer reviews. For example, numerous reports indicate that scientists rate research more favorably if the findings agree with their prior beliefs. Worst of all, these prior beliefs often have nothing to do with science but are simply the scientists’ personal views.

‘But that’s counter to what I thought…’

How is this a problem for scientific innovation? Let’s look at how some personal beliefs could prevent innovative science from reaching the public.

What if she’s on the path to a revolutionary idea?

“Minorities aren’t good at STEM.” The stereotype that “women are not good at math” is commonly held – and also happens to be incorrect. If a scientist holds this personal belief, then he is likely to judge any research done by women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) more negatively – not because of its quality, but because of his own personal belief.

For instance, some studies have shown that female STEM applicants in academia are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Because of this gender bias, it may take a female STEM researcher more time and effort before her work reaches the public.

Some racial minorities face similar kinds of bias. For example, one study found that black applicants are less likely to receive research funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health than equivalently qualified whites. That’s a major roadblock to these researchers advancing their work.

“Comic books are low-brow entertainment for kids.” Here’s an example from my own area of expertise.

Does this look like a legitimate area of inquiry to you? Analysis of comic book images can yield new insights into how we perceive.

Comic book research is a relatively recent area of study. Perhaps because of this, innovative findings in psychology have been discovered by analyzing comic book images.

However, people often believe that comic books are just low-brow entertainment for kids. If a scientist holds this personal belief, then she’s likely to judge any psychology research using comic books more negatively. Because of this, scientists like me who focus on comic books may not be able to publish in the most popular psychology journals. As a result, fewer people will ever see this research.

“The traditional ways are the best ways.” A final example is a personal belief that directly counters scientific innovation. Often, scientists believe that traditional methods and techniques are better than any newly proposed approaches.

The history of psychology supplies one example. Behaviorism was psychology’s dominant school of thought for the first part of the 20th century, relying on observed behavior to provide insights. Its devotees rejected new techniques for studying psychology. During behaviorism’s reign, any talk of internal processes of the mind was considered taboo. One of the pioneers of the subsequent cognitive revolution, George A. Miller, said “using ‘cognitive’ was an act of defiance.” Luckily for us, he was defiant and published one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.

If a scientist believes the way we’ve always done things in the lab is best, then she’ll judge any research done using novel approaches more negatively. Because of this, highly innovative work is rarely published in the best scientific journals and is often recognized only after considerable delay.

We know our planet is round. But are we missing out on other innovative ideas?
Jaya Ramchandani, CC BY

How is this a problem for scientific progress?

Almost by definition, the most important and innovative scientific findings often go against people’s existing beliefs. If research that conforms to personal beliefs is favored, then any research that is based on new ideas runs the risk of being passed over. It takes a leap to imagine a round Earth when everyone’s always believed it to be flat.

When old ideas rule the day, scientific progress stalls. And as our world changes at an ever faster pace, we need innovative thinking to face the coming challenges.

How can scientists stop their personal beliefs from impeding scientific progress? Completely removing personal beliefs from these contexts is impossible. But we can work to change our beliefs so that, instead of hampering scientific progress, they encourage it. Many studies have outlined possible ways to modify beliefs. It’s up to scientists, and indeed society as well, to begin to examine their own beliefs and change them for the better.

After all, we don’t want to delay the next revolutionary idea in climate science, pioneering cure for cancer, or dazzling discovery in astronomy just because we can’t see past our original beliefs.

The Conversation

Igor Juricevic, Assistant Professor of Psychology (Perception and Cognition), Indiana University South Bend

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Astrobiologists Use Biosignature Gases To Search For Aliens

Professor Sara Seager of Massachusetts Institute of Technology says her team of scientists is looking for biosignatures from gases emitted by alien life forms on habitable extrasolar planets. Many of these gases could be detected remotely by telescopes, but could end up having quite different compositions from those in the atmosphere of our planet.

Prof. Seager and her colleagues explained,

“Thousands of exoplanets are known to orbit nearby stars. Plans for the next generation of space-based and ground-based telescopes are fueling the anticipation that a precious few habitable planets can be identified in the coming decade. Even more highly anticipated is the chance to find signs of life on these habitable planets by way of biosignature gases.”

Seager’s team proposes in their paper published online in the journal Astrobiology that all stable and potential volatile molecules should be considered as possible biosignature gases, laying the groundwork for identifying such gases by conducting a massive search for molecules with six or fewer non-hydrogen atoms in order to maximize their chances of recognizing biosignature gases. They say they promote the concept that “all stable and potentially volatile molecules should initially be considered as viable biosignature gases.”

The scientists created a list of about 14,000 molecules that contain up to 6 non-H atoms. About 2,500 of these are CNOPSH (C – carbon, N – nitrogen, O – oxygen, P – phosphorus, S – sulfur, and H – hydrogen) compounds.

This means that instead of the costly and controversial method of netting strange creatures from the bottom of the sea, these scientists have decided to search and find thousands of curious, potentially biogenic gas molecules.

Earth Compared To Largest Known Star NML Cygni

This article is part of a series:
Animated Gifs That'll Science You Fast

Comparing the planet you live on to the size of other celestial bodies has got to be one the biggest mind-blowing experiences a human can go through. To put yourself into perspective and recognize that we are but a nano-blip on the radar of extraterrestrial life makes it all that much more apparent why we haven’t been visited yet… or have we…?

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Intelligent life in the universe? Phone home, dammit!

We’ve been conditioned by television and movies to accept the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. “Of course there’s intelligent life out there; I saw it last week on Star Trek.” We’ve seen it all, from the cute and cuddly ET to the fanged monstrosity of Alien.

Not cute and cuddly.
Artur, CC BY-SA

But is it likely that we’re not alone in the universe? And if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t they contacted us yet?

The first person to address this question in a systematic way was Frank Drake, who invented the Drake equation to predict the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy. His equation is rather complicated, but here’s a simple version of his argument.

First, let’s count how many stars are in the galaxy. To quote one of my predecessors, “Billions upon billions!” And how many of those stars have planets? Until recently, we really didn’t know. But over the past 20 years, astronomers have made remarkable progress in discovering planets around other stars. We now know that many stars have planets orbiting them.

Looking for a planet that’s juuuuust right.
Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, eds. The Book of Knowledge

Could creatures actually live on any of those planets? Many of them are just giant balls of gas, or else too hot or too cold to contain liquid water, which is the basis of all life on Earth. But a few of them do seem to be at the right temperature. These are the Goldilocks planets: not too hot and not too cold for liquid water. (And that’s without even considering the possibility that exotic forms of life could survive without water.)

Now we enter murkier territory. How likely is it that life will develop on a potentially habitable planet? We don’t know the answer, but life on Earth got going very shortly after the formation of our solar system, and it has wedged itself into every available niche, no matter how hostile.

The tardigrade – microscopically cute and cuddly.
Willow Gabriel and Bob Goldstein, CC BY-SA

Colonies of bizarre creatures flourish in perpetual darkness near deep ocean vents, where superheated sulfur-rich water spews from under the ground. Radiation-resistant bacteria bask happily in levels of radioactivity that would instantly kill a human being. And then there’s the tardigrade, which looks like a microscopic eight-legged teddy bear, that can thrive in liquid nitrogen or boiling alcohol. So the probability of life developing on habitable worlds seems very high.

And how likely is it that this life will develop intelligence? This remains an open question (which is scientist-speak for “we haven’t got a clue”). But many scientists consider intelligent life almost inevitable, in which case the galaxy should be teaming with alien civilizations.

If the galaxy is crawling with aliens, where are they? Interstellar travel is limited by the speed of light, so maybe it’s no surprise that no one has visited us. But we should at least be able to detect alien radio signals, either from attempts to contact us directly, or in the form of alien TV reruns. Why haven’t our alien friends contacted us? This question was famously asked by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, so it’s called the Fermi paradox: all of our arguments suggest that alien civilizations should be common, yet we’ve seen no sign of them.

One possibility is that intelligent life really is rare. My own personal opinion (and it’s just an opinion) is that life is common, but intelligent life is rare (something many of us suspect based on our own experience). While life developed in the relative blink of an eye after the birth of the solar system, it took billions of years before we smarties showed up on the scene. And remember that “survival of the fittest” doesn’t always mean “survival of the smartest.” While intelligence is certainly a useful survival trait, it seems far from inevitable. If not for an errant asteroid, the dinosaurs might still rule the world.

Is it cosmic luck these guys are gone and we’re on top now?
Marcin Chady, CC BY

Another possibility is that intelligent life inevitably destroys itself. Until recently, our options for total self-destruction were limited to nuclear weapons. But we are on the edge of expanding our armada to include genetically engineered viruses (think: Ebola meets the common cold!).

And consider the dangers posed by nanomachines, tiny self-replicating robots programmed to convert matter into more robots. Imagine a tiny robot, no bigger than the width of a human hair, designed to provide some useful function, programmed to build a copy of itself, using materials from its environment. Now you have two machines, and both can create duplicates, giving us four machines. But what if this process got out of control? The nanomachines could rapidly consume the entire Earth, converting it, along with everyone on the planet, into “grey goo.” British astronomer Martin Rees discusses these and other catastrophic possibilities in his book, Our Final Hour. Have all our potential alien visitors succumbed to self-destruction?

Friends or foes?
Interdimensional Guardians, CC BY

Or is it possible that the galaxy really does contain other forms of intelligent life, but something prevents contact with us? Here we enter the realm of more speculative ideas. (Translation: when a scientist says “speculative,” it really means “a very interesting idea that’s only one step removed from complete nonsense.”)

Among the more speculative possibilities: maybe the galaxy is a dangerous place, full of robotic probes sent out by hostile aliens to wipe out any competition, so everyone else is in hiding. Perhaps we really shouldn’t have put a detailed description of the location of our solar system on our own space probes. It’s a bad idea to reach out and try to touch ET when we might get a call from the Alien instead.

An even more bizarre suggestion is that superior civilizations have decided to avoid contact with lesser beings such as ourselves, so that we live in a kind of cosmic zoo, complete with a “Do not talk to the animals” sign.

We’re IN the computer.
Warner Bros.

Some have even suggested that we live in a gigantic computer simulation, a la The Matrix.

A longer list of possibilities (along with a skeptical discussion) has been compiled by astronomer Milan Ćirković.

Without more data, the Fermi paradox will remain, for now, unresolved, and many of the proposed solutions will have to be classified as “speculative.” And now you know exactly what that means.

The Conversation

Robert Scherrer is Professor and Chair of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Memetic Warfare and the Sixth Domain Part Three

Can an image, sound, video or string of words influence the human mind so strongly the mind is actually harmed or controlled? Cosmoso takes a look at technology and the theoretical future of psychological warfare with Part Three of an ongoing series. 

Click here for Part One.

Click here for Part Two.

A lot of the responses I got to the first two installments talked about religion being weaponized memes. People do fight and kill on behalf of their religions and memes play a large part in disseminating the message and information religions have to offer.

Curved bullet meme is a great one. Most of the comments I see associated with this image have to do with how dumb someone would have to be to believe it would work. Some people have an intuitive understanding of spacial relations. Some might have a level of education in physics or basic gun safety and feel alarm bells going off way before they’d try something this dumb. It’s a pretty dangerous idea to put out there, though, because a percentage of people the image reaches could try something stupid. Is it a viable memetic weapon? Possibly~! I present to you, the curved bullet meme.


The dangers here should be obvious. The move starts with “begin trigger-pull with pistol pointed at chest (near heart)” and anyone who is taking it seriously beyond is Darwin Award material.

Whoever created this image has no intention of someone actually trying it. So, in order for someone to fall for this pretty obvious trick, they’d have to be pretty dumb. There is another way people fall for tricks, though.

There is more than one way to end up being a victim of a mindfuck and being ignorant is part of a lot of them but ignorance can actually be induced. In the case of religion, there are several giant pieces of information or ways of thinking that must be gotten all wrong before someone would have to believe that the earth is coming to an end in 2012, or the creator of the universe wants you to burn in hell for eternity for not following the rules. By trash talking religion in general, I’ve made a percentage of readers right now angry, and that’s the point. Even if you take all the other criticisms about religion out of the mix, we can all agree that religion puts its believers in the position of becoming upset or outraged by very simple graphics or text. As a non-believer, a lot of the things religious people say sound as silly to me as the curved bullet graphic seems to a well-trained marksman.

To oversimplify it further: religions are elaborate, bad advice. You can inoculate yourself against that kind of meme but the vast majority of people out there cling desperately, violently to some kind of doctrine that claims to answer one or more of the most unanswerable parts of life. When people feel relief wash over them, they are more easily duped into doing what it takes to keep their access to that feeling.

There are tons of non-religious little memes out there that simply mess with anyone who follows bad advice. It can be a prank but the pranks can get pretty destructive. Check out this image from the movie Fight Club:

Motor Oil

Thinking no one fell for this one? For one thing, it’s from a movie, and in the movie it was supposed to be a mean-spirited prank that maybe some people fell for. Go ahead and google “fertilize used motor oil”, though, and see how many people are out there asking questions about it. It may blow your mind…

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Sorry Nerds, There’s No Warp Drive

It makes for a sensational headline but NASA didn’t even come close to discovering warp technology.

The mechanism behind their fuel-free propulsion has no clear link to warping space-time. In fact, space-time is not proven or understood to exist as a material substance able to warp. It’s all nonsense. So what really happened?

Richard Feynman once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

You should have been suspicious when the story made the rounds on social media. The headlines were claiming NASA successfully tested something called the EM Drive. The EM drive is awesome, and it’s real science. It’s a propulsion engine doesn’t use propellant, which seems to violate the laws of physics by creating a reaction with no initial action.

First, let’s examine the actual finding. NASA has developed a hollow device that can be  pumped full of electromagnetic radiation which reflects back-and-forth, tapped inside the chamber, generates thrust, causing the device to accelerate in a direction based onthe shape of the chamber. You might ahve seen the story or similar reports over the last year because iterations of it have been built by Roger Shawyer (the EM Drive), one from a Chinese group led by Juan Yang, and one from Guido Fetta (the Cannae Drive), all claiming successful thrust. The stories on science news sites claim the acceleration created is caused by warped space of an Alcubierre Drive, the completely fictional “Star Trek” design.

Here are some problems. First off, none of the tests showed results from gadations in power. If this is a viable prototype for an engine, the science behind it hasn’t proven why a tiny acceleration in relation to a huge amount of relative power is worth any sort of real consideration for space travel. It’s a weak engine with no sign of how it can be scaled.

Secondly, the thrust they created is so small it might just be a mistake in mathematics or caused by an unknown factor, unrelated to warp tech. A true test requires an isolated environment, with atmospheric, gravitational and electromagnetic effects removed from the equation.

Thirdly, good science is reproducible. These tests lack a transparent design so no one else can verify that this actually works.
Finally, a real report has to be created that can be peer-reviewed and understood before irresponsibly publishing the claims.

Optimism of this sort, claiming to be able to put people on mars with a warp engine, is not scientifically valid. This latest group declared they have broken the previously-held laws of physics. They assume we can scale up and implement this engine for space propulsion just because of some questionably positive results. They claim to be distorting space, they claim they might be causing light to go faster by approximately 10^-18 m/s. They made these claims without actually proving them, and told the general public, spreading misinfo.

Harold “Sonny” White at NASA, has made extraordinary claims about warp drive in the past. He is totally the kind of guy who would jump to warp drive as a conclusion. There is nothing in NASA’s report that shows they’ve created a warp drive. Sorry, Star Trek and Star Wars fans. Most likely this is a public relations move to get America and the world science communities more excited about space travel and science education.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY