Year: 2018

Time to look closer to home

Time to look closer to home

Immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate. It’s a large reason why economic arguments have failed to sway voters. Despite warnings of the high economic costs of leaving the EU (warnings supported by a majority of economists), immigration has continued to have a powerful influence – and is perhaps the major reason why the opinion polls have become so close in recent weeks. The immigration debate is quite polarised. On one side, the Remain campaign either ducks the issue or focuses on the benefits that immigration brings to the economy as a whole. On the other side, the Leave camp focuses on its costs and plays into fears (often in a cruel and cynical way) that migrants are putting pressure on public services that are already at breaking point. At least among Labour supporters intending to vote leave, immigration also appears to be a key issue. The need for a more even-handed assessment of the costs and benefits of immigration is sorely needed. While immigration brings undoubted benefits, it also places pressures on particular communities. It also feeds a sense of …

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

When he talks about where his fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology have taken a wrong turn, David Poeppel of New York University doesn’t mince words. “There’s an orgy of data but very little understanding,” he said to a packed room at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in February. He decried the “epistemological sterility” of experiments that do piecework measurements of the brain’s wiring in the laboratory but are divorced from any guiding theories about behaviors and psychological phenomena in the natural world. It’s delusional, he said, to think that simply adding up those pieces will eventually yield a meaningful picture of complex thought. He pointed to the example of Caenorhabditis elegans, the roundworm that is one of the most studied lab animals. “Here’s an organism that we literally know inside out,” he said, because science has worked out every one of its 302 neurons, all of their connections and the worm’s full genome. “But we have no satisfying model for the behavior of C. elegans,” he said. “We’re missing something.” …

Challenges of keeping the masses moving

Cities worldwide face the problems and possibilities of “volume”: the stacking and moving of people and things within booming central business districts. We see this especially around mass public transport hubs. As cities grow, they also become more vertical. They are expanding underground through rail corridors and above ground into the tall buildings that shape city skylines. Cities are deep as well as wide. The urban geographer Stephen Graham describes cities as both “vertically stacked” and “vertically sprawled”, laced together by vertical and horizontal transport systems. People flow in large cities is not only about how people move horizontally on rail and road networks into and out of city centres. It also includes vertical transport systems. These are the elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks that commuters use every day to get from the underground to the surface street level. Major transport hubs are where many vertical and horizontal transport systems converge. It’s here that people flows are most dense. But many large cities face the twin challenges of ageing infrastructure and increased volumes of people flowing through transport …

Emerging Markets Under Pressure

Emerging markets have come under a bit of pressure recently, with the combination of the dollar’s rise and higher U.S. ten year rates serving as the trigger. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of India has—rather remarkably—even called on the U.S. Federal Reserve to slow the pace of its quantitative tightening to give emerging economies a bit of a break. (He could have equally called on the Administration to change its fiscal policy so as to reduce issuance, but the Fed is presumably a softer target.) Yet the pressure on emerging economies hasn’t been uniform (the exchange rate moves in the chart are through Wednesday, June 13th; they don’t reflect Thursday’s selloff). That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Emerging economies are more different than they are the same. With the help of Benjamin Della Rocca, a research analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, I split emerging economies into three main groupings: Oil importing economies with current account deficits Oil importing economies with significant current account surpluses (a group consisting of emerging Asian economies) And …

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

You may have heard that humans only use ten percent of their brain, and that if you could unlock the rest of your brainpower, you could do so much more. You could become a super genius, or acquire psychic powers like mind reading and telekinesis. This “ten-percent myth” has inspired many references in the cultural imagination. In the 2014 movie Lucy, for example, a woman develops godlike powers thanks to drugs that unleash the previously inaccessible 90 percent of her brain. Many people believe the myth, too: about 65 percent of Americans, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In another study that asked students what percentage of the brain people used, about one third of the psychology majors answered “10 percent.” Contrary to the ten-percent myth, however, scientists have shown that humans use their entire brain throughout each day. There are several threads of evidence debunking the ten-percent myth. Neuropsychology Neuropsychology studies how the anatomy of the brain affects someone’s behavior, emotion, and cognition. Over the years, brain …

Peru ends conversation of ‘roadless wilderness’ in its Amazon rainforests

Biodiversity reaches its zenith in south-east Peru. This vast wilderness of 2m square km of rainforests and savannahs is formed of the headwaters of three major river basins, the Juruá, Purús, and Madeira. Nowhere on Earth can you find more species of animals and plants than in this corner of the Amazon that rubs up against the feet of the towering Andean mountains. These forests are also home to a culturally diverse human population, many of whom still live in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. In 2012 I spent a hectic few days in the exhausting Madre de Dios region, literally Spanish for “Mother of God”. I was there at the invitation of the Peruvian tourist board, which wanted to raise awareness of the region’s potential. In the lush lowland rainforests our team of ornithologists recorded more than 240 bird species in a few hours. These included the Rufous-fronted Antthrush, a near-mythical sighting among birders and one of a number of vertebrate species discovered by scientists there in the second half of the …

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

As the Milky Way was growing, taking shape, and minding its own business around 10 billion years ago, it suffered a massive head-on collision with another, smaller galaxy. That cosmic cataclysm changed the Milky Way’s structure forever, shaping the thick spirals that spin out from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. Two new studies — one published earlier this month, another still under peer review — describe the evidence for this previously unnoticed event. “This is a big step forward,” said Elena D’Onghia, an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin who is unaffiliated with the new research. “It’s interesting because we can finally see what the history of the Milky Way is.” To uncover evidence of the collision so many eons later, astronomers have to work like galactic archaeologists, sifting through myriad sources of surviving information to piece together a story consistent with the available evidence. Both research teams relied on data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, which has spent years gathering exceptionally rich biographies of millions of stars — …

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

In the early days of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty … of a rich country inhabited by starving people.” Would any head of state today voice this view? A 2013 poll recorded that only 36% of Americans had “a lot” of trust that the information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. High-profile leaders, especially on the political right, have increasingly chosen to undermine conclusions of scientific consensus. The flash-points tend to be the “troubled technologies” – those that seem to threaten our delicate relationship with nature – climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetic therapy and geo-engineering. The polarisation in these public debates constitutes an implicit threat to the quality of decisions that we must make if we are to ensure the future well-being of our planet and our species. When political colour trumps evidence-based science, we are in trouble. Could it be that this increasingly dangerous ambivalence towards science in politics is related to our continued misgivings over its cultural …

What Is an Argument?

What Is an Argument?

When people create and critique arguments, it’s helpful to understand what an argument is and is not. Sometimes an argument is seen as a verbal fight, but that is not what is meant in these discussions. Sometimes a person thinks they are offering an argument when they are only providing assertions. What Is an Argument? Perhaps the simplest explanation of what an argument is comes from Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. …an argument is an intellectual process… contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. This may have been a comedy sketch, but it highlights a common misunderstanding: to offer an argument, you cannot simply make a claim or gainsay what others claim. An argument is a deliberate attempt to move beyond just making an assertion. When offering an argument, you are offering a series of related statements which represent an attempt to support that assertion — to give others good reasons to believe that what you …

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

It’s easy to say “be more skeptical” or “exercise better critical thinking,” but just how do you go about doing that? Where are you supposed to learn critical thinking? Learning skepticism isn’t like learning history — it’s not a set of facts, dates, or ideas. Skepticism is a process; critical thinking is something you do. The only way to learn skepticism and critical thinking is by doing them… but to do them, you have to learn them. How can you break out of this endless circle? Learn the Basics: Logic, Arguments, Fallacies Skepticism may be a process, but it’s a process that relies on certain principles about what constitutes good and bad reasoning. There’s no substitute for the basics, and if you think you already know all the basics, that’s probably a good sign that you need to review them. Even professionals who work on logic for a living get things wrong! You don’t need to know as much as a professional, but there are so many different fallacies that can be used in so many …