If coronascientists can’t predict the future, why do we call their predictions scientific?

From yesterday’s post on Israel

For comparison, how about the U.S. case count, plunging since January 1, 2021 despite no changes in policy or significant numbers of people vaccinated (from NYT):

And the plunging hospitalizations, which presumably should lead to a plunge in deaths (since the only thing worse than death is death without Medicare being billed for a hospital stay):

Given that Americans did not change their behavior or policies during the time period covered, coronascience that is actually “scientific” should have been able to predict this peak and subsequent downward trend, right?

Let’s look at what our nation’s greatest scientist (at age 80), Dr. Fauci, said to state-sponsored media just a month before the peak. “Fauci Warns Of ‘Surge Upon A Surge’ As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Hit Yet Another High” (NPR, November 29):

“We may see a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “We don’t want to frighten people, but that’s just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and as we began traveling, and they’ve happened.”

With the December holidays just around the corner and more people traveling, “it’s going to happen again,” Fauci said. “We’re getting into colder weather and an even larger holiday season.”

The December holidays happened. More people actually did travel: “U.S. air travel reached post-March peak on day before Christmas Eve, TSA data shows” (NBC). Positive tests (“cases”) are half what they were when these superspreading travel events occurred.

From the Official Magazine of Trump Hatred (New Yorker, November 12, 2020)… “The Pandemic’s Winter Surge is Here,” by “Dhruv Khullar, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, is a practicing physician and an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College”:

Unless we put mitigating measures in place, the coronavirus will spread, and sooner than we expect it will get out of control. The only way to avoid mass death is to move quickly and decisively, flattening the curve through masks, distance, testing, tracing, and lockdowns until a vaccine and therapies can avert the suffering caused by covid-19. Passivity is the enemy. The winter surge is here; we decide what happens next.

(Note that science-following humans are in charge of the virus: we decide what happens next.)

None of these things were done, except maybe in California and Maskachusetts, yet the surge that concerned the “scientist” dissipated, apparently due to factors unrelated to human actions.

Here’s Florida “case” curve, with a decline starting just as the snowbirds arrived for Christmas:

Florida is a state with no mask law:

Florida recommends but does not require face coverings for the general public. Several cities and large counties, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough (which includes Tampa), have mask requirements, but local governments are barred from assessing fines and penalties for noncompliance under a Sept. 25 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Floridians have rejected what the rest of us call science. Schools are open for in-person instruction (with some objections and lawsuits from science-following unionized teachers). Restaurants are open. Clubs are open. Offices are open. After-school sports for children are open and unmasked. People gather in large groups for social purposes. Even in supermarkets staffed by and catering to the elderly, workers and customers may be unmasked (CNBC). Here’s a January 2020 photograph from a club in Miami, in which people greeted each other with hugs and kisses:

If “scientists” failed yet again in their predictions, why are they still called “scientists”? What has distinguished astronomy from astrology, for example, is the superior predictive power of astronomy. Astronomy also gets better every year. Have we seen any improvement in the ability or people who claim to have scientific insight regarding coronavirus to predict epidemic statistics?

[My personal explanation for the plunge in U.S. “cases”: Back in October, Joe Biden promised that he would shut down the virus. What we’re seeing is simply President Biden delivering on his campaign promise a little earlier than expected (i.e., starting three weeks before taking power).]

Related:

  • Did doom visit the Swedes yesterday as planned? (May 24: On May 3, in “Doom for the wicked Swedes is always three weeks away”, the IHME prophecy for Sweden was a peak in ICU usage on May 22 and a peak in deaths (494/day) on May 23. What actually happened? Yesterday’s WHO report showed 54 new deaths. The day before it was 40. In other words, the prophecy was off by a factor of 10. They were going to need nearly 4,400 ICU beds. The actual number in ICUs all around Sweden? About 340. In other words, the “scientists” were off by a factor of 13X.)
  • How is coronaplague down in Brazil? (and the rest of the IHME predictions) (August 5; the June 10 prediction of the “scientists” was off by 10X).
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Our apolitical science-driven physicians

From the New England Journal of Medicine, i.e., the folks whom we can trust to give us science-informed advice on masks and vaccines, untainted by a political point of view… “Failed Assignments — Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates” (December 17, 2020):

We believe that it is now time to update the practice of designating sex on birth certificates, given the particularly harmful effects of such designations on intersex and transgender people.

Recognizing that the birth certificate has been an evolving document, with revisions reflecting social change, public interest, and privacy requirements, we believe it is time for another update: sex designations should move below the line of demarcation.

Designating sex as male or female on birth certificates suggests that sex is simple and binary when, biologically, it is not. Sex is a function of multiple biologic processes with many resultant combinations. About 1 in 5000 people have intersex variations.

Assigning sex at birth also doesn’t capture the diversity of people’s experiences. About 6 in 1000 people identify as transgender, meaning that their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Others are nonbinary, meaning they don’t exclusively identify as a man or a woman, or gender nonconforming, meaning their behavior or appearance doesn’t align with social expectations for their assigned sex.

Moving sex designations below the line of demarcation wouldn’t imperil programs that support women or gender minorities, it would simply require that programs define sex in ways that are tailored to their goals.

Moving sex designations below the line of demarcation may not solve many of the problems that transgender and intersex people face. Controversies regarding bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports participation will continue, regardless of legal sex designations.

Today, the medical community has a duty to ensure that policymakers don’t misinterpret the science regarding sex and that medical evaluations aren’t being misused in legal contexts.

Also, “A Test of Diversity — What USMLE Pass/Fail Scoring Means for Medicine” (June 18, 2020):

The stakes are high for all students taking this first Step examination of the three required for medical licensure. But students from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in medicine experience great angst.

Recently, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) decided to change score reporting from a three-digit numerical score for the Step 1 exam (the mean score for first-time takers was 230 in 2018) to a pass-or-fail outcome. … Although the effect on trainees from underrepresented groups remains uncertain, we believe that the change is a critical step toward diversifying the medical profession — particularly the most competitive, and simultaneously least diverse, medical specialties — opening a world of possibilities for physicians and patients alike.

The odds are stacked against students from underrepresented minority groups starting early in their scholastic journeys. Beginning in grade school, they may be subject to teachers’ racial and ethnic biases that can hinder their achievement. Socioeconomic factors such as neighborhood poverty and parental educational attainment may limit their access to high-quality schools, test-preparation resources, and supportive mentorship, widening the achievement chasm.

The medical examination system poses challenges that are especially burdensome to students of color and those with lower socioeconomic status. Step 1, much like the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), places a financial burden on students that includes the cost of the exam ($645 in 2020) and the study materials required to prepare for it.

As with the MCAT, scores on Step 1 are lower among black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and female students than among their white male counterparts. Although this disparity has multiple causes, historically disadvantageous early education in minority communities probably plays an important role for members of underrepresented minority groups.

… we believe that holistic review will be a tide that raises all ships equitably.

The last sentence is my favorite. There are a limited number of slots for training the most lucrative and cushiest specialties, but everyone will have a better chance of obtaining a slot after this change.

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Science is a great career if you don’t mind waiting until age 87 to be recognized

The New York Times ran what seems intended to be an inspiring success story,“Myriam Sarachik Never Gave Up on Physics”:

The New York-based scientist overcame sexism and personal tragedy to make major contributions to the field, for which she received recognition this year.

The phenomenon is now known as the Kondo effect, after Jun Kondo, a Japanese physicist who successfully explained what was going on. The Kondo effect has turned out to be a central component needed to understand the behavior of electrons in solids.

But Dr. Kondo, as a theorist and not an experimentalist, was not the first to show that his supposition [that electrical resistance may increase as some metals are cooled] was correct.

That instead was Dr. Sarachik, 87, now retired after a career spanning more than a half-century as a professor of physics at the City College of New York.

The experiment was just one of the accomplishments for which Dr. Sarachik received this year’s Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research, a top honor of the American Physical Society.

The article closes with some gender binarism:

“Women are no better and no worse at doing physics than men are,” she said. “They are, however, at least if they’re my age, more persistent. It’s tenacity. It’s the will not to be pushed out.”

What about people with the other 48 gender IDs? Are they persistent when it comes to physics?

As with a lot of articles in publications controlled by those who took their last science course in high school, I think one theme is promoting to young people the greatness of careers in science. But how many people would want to wait until age 87 to be recognized for a huge achievement?

Related:

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Kill them all (mosquitoes) with genetic engineering and let God sort out the mutant survivors

“Plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida gets go-ahead” (Guardian) is exciting to me since one of the best things that we could do for humanity would be to kill all of the world’s mosquitoes (in addition to the epic level of annoyance, they are responsible for killing 1 million people/year?).

Of course, the only thing more American than getting a mosquito bite is litigation. From the article:

A plan to release a horde of 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas is a step closer to fruition after a state regulator approved the idea, over the objections of many environmentalists.

Oxitec, a British biotechnology company, has targeted the US as a test site for a special version of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The mosquitoes contain a protein that, when passed down to female offspring, will lessen their chances of survival and, it is hoped, prevent them from biting people and spreading diseases such as dengue fever and Zika.

But the plan has caused uproar among conservation groups, which have sued the EPA for allegedly failing to ascertain the environmental impact of the scheme. Scientists have also expressed concerns about the oversight of the trial.

If this goes bad, we can blame Donald Trump and what my Facebook friends characterize as his “defunding” of the EPA (I wish someone would “defund” our household in the same way that Trump has defunded the Federal agencies that he has been accused of defunding!).

Personally, I am excited! The Mosquito book referenced below says that these insects have zero redeeming value. There are no animals, for example, that would be significantly inconvenienced if mosquitoes were eliminated. In other words, there is no animal that depends on the mosquito for its subsistence.

A tax-free resident of the Sunshine State (from the Corkscrew Swamp sanctuary):

Related:

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Epidemiologists switch from doing politics to writing science fiction

“Emergency COVID-19 measures prevented more than 500 million infections, study finds” (Berkeley News):

Emergency health measures implemented in six major countries have “significantly and substantially slowed” the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to research from a UC Berkeley team published today in the journal Nature. The findings come as leaders worldwide struggle to balance the enormous and highly visible economic costs of emergency health measures against their public health benefits, which are difficult to see.

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements,” Hsiang said. “I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

Armed with a few lines of Excel or R code, epidemiologists had been making prophecies about what would happen 1-8 weeks into the future. Citizens would then be able to see what actually happened:

(It is not surprising that these “scientific” results proved to be false, even beyond the usual “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” factors. As no country had ever tried an American-style “shutdown” (in which citizens still meet at grocery, liquor, and marijuana stores and still party every night on Tinder), only a scientist with a letter from God would have had a prayer (so to speak) of predicting the effects of such a shutdown. The self-proclaimed “scientists” also had no data regarding how easy it was for coronavirus to spread, what percent of the population was naturally immune, etc.)

The obvious inability of “scientists” to make useful predictions is not good for the image of “science”, even if “scientists” hadn’t further brought ridicule on themselves by flip-flopping on masks and the dangers of contaminated surface transmission, telling people it was okay to gather in huge crowds for BLM protesting, and telling others to quarantine while having sex with married women who would then go back to their husband and kids.

What’s the solution? Scientists can take up the genre of alternative history science fiction.

Traditional novel: What if the Germans had won World War II? Maybe the U.S. would be governed by an authoritarian puppet president, controlled by a foreign dictator. State governors would issue stay-at-home orders that eliminated Americans First Amendment rights to assemble. Young children would be locked into small apartments, denied schooling, friends, and playgrounds. Some brave folks would #Resist by going into the streets to battle with the city governments that they themselves had elected and would soon vote to re-elect.

Science-informed novel: Look at this two-parameter mathematical model. It shows what would have happened if we hadn’t locked down like I was recommending.

The beauty of this new approach is that, as with the “What if the Germans had won?” novel, there is no way to prove the author wrong.

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We are all pinheads compared to the Ancient Greeks and Romans

One of my activities during the coronaplague has been listening to Major Transitions in Evolution, a 24-lecture course that probably is best enjoyed in the video format because there are a lot of fossils presented. (And let me remind readers that the theory of evolution is only a theory!)

Are you an elderly curmudgeon who believes that every successive generation has been getting dumber? Do you think that the 19th century British were right to emphasize the study of Greek and Roman authors?

Science backs you up!

Over the last 10,000 years, human brains have been getting smaller! Professor John Hawks says that our brains have shrunk nearly 10 percent in relatively recent times and quite a bit of the shrinkage has occurred since Virgil was having a slave scribble out the Aeneid.

(Upset about all of the head injuries that occur as part of our sports culture? Our skull bones have been getting thinner as well.)

Related:

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Mining Oxygen on Mars

From a Valentine’s Day talk by Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronaut-turned-professor who is now part of an effort to mine oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere…. If the MOXIE system works and Blue Origin gets humans to Mars, they can come back without having had to pack 80 percent of their rocket fuel for the trip home.

Professor Hoffman explained that, though there is plenty of water in the Martian crust it takes too much energy to extract it. Thus, the plan is to “mine” the atmosphere, which is 96 percent CO2 (should be toasty warm from the greenhouse effect, except that atmospheric pressure is comparable at the Martian surface to what we have at 100,000′ above sea level).

Hoffman and collaborators’ experiment will launch in July 2020 and land in February 2021. The Mars journey will also be 7 months for humans, kind of like being on a cruise ship in Asia right now. The shocking news for movie fans is that The Martian is not scientifically accurate. The dramatic wind that forces an evacuation and is blowing stuff around would have to move at 1,000 mph to have enough force, given the thin atmosphere. In fact, the highest recorded winds on Mars are roughly 60 mph.

As with other astronauts I’ve talked to recently, Hoffman is not a fan of centralized government-run rocketry. Regarding the SLS, which promises to cost taxpayers $20 billion at least: “Maybe they will launch it a few times. It is Saturn V technology.” In his view, SpaceX and Blue Origin are where the innovation happens. The government “monopoly” had cost us decades of potential progress.

One thing I learned: this next Mars mission will include a helicopter! Also, landing on Mars is a combination of the worst features of the Earth and Moon. There is the friction from entering the atmosphere, as on Earth, but not enough atmosphere to slow down with wings or a regular parachute.

Sidenote: Hoffman first came to MIT because of Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures are now securely in a memory hole due to #MeToo issues.

Hoffman flew on five Shuttle missions, logged 1,211 hours in space, and did multiple spacewalks, including one to fix the Hubble telescope. An example of “bravery”? Perhaps not. There’s a talk on real bravery today at 4 pm:

What else do we find in the corridors at MIT? “The Trump administration is the noxious product of the capitalist system” (but didn’t most of the Wall Street capitalists support Hillary?)

A poster on “ethnomathematics”:

(If these “traditional and indigenous societies” are doing interesting stuff, why isn’t it just “mathematics”? Why do they need a special numbers nerdism ghetto?)

We crashed a Valentine’s Day party for a group of PhD students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Hollywood-style background:

The future engineering PhDs pour themselves coffee:

Circling back to Professor Hoffman… As with other retired astronauts I have met, this guy is incredibly fit and sharp at age 75. Makes one wonder why humans age at all. If we can live to 75 with hardly any deficits accumulating, why can’t we live to 750? If nearly all of us drop dead by 100, why don’t we drop dead at 10? Most of our cells have to go through at least one replacement cycle by age 10, right?

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Who earned an old-style Nobel Prize in 2019?

One of the (many) interesting angles in Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize (see previous post 1; also previous post 2) was that the Nobel in Physics was previously awarded for recently-developed stuff that had obvious near-term practical value for humans.

Marconi and Braun won in 1909 for the prize in “Physics” for their work in radio, which I think today we would call “engineering.” Nils Gustaf Dalén won in 1912 for improving lighthouses with a gas regulator.

What if the Nobel prize system still worked this way? They couldn’t reach back five decades, as they did with the Higgs boson (postulated 1964; confirmed 2012; Nobel Prize 2013). Who would have earned the prize for an advancement made in 2019?

My nomination: the team behind Garmin Autoland. It seems doubtful that the headline use will be common, but the technology could be adapted to yield huge safety improvements even for healthy two-pilot crews. The weather-avoidance system, for example, could suggest to pilots “Are you sure that you don’t want to adopt the following flight path?” The flap and gear extension systems could say “Would you like to add flaps and gear now that you’re lined up on final?”

Why it is important for humanity: a lot of people ride as passengers in airplanes. It is upsetting when airplanes crash (but, to judge by relative media coverage, hardly anyone cares about automobile crashes).

Reader: What are your picks? I guess you could also go back a couple of years (but not 49!) to things that proved themselves useful in 2019.

Related

  • this Cirrus video, in which the presumed wife-mother does not seem too concerned about the expiration of the pilot (presumed husband-father) as she activates Garmin Autoland and looks forward to the next stage of her life journey
  • TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019 (potential candidates from the folks who remind us that Greta Thunberg is #1 out of 8 billion)
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Geologist says Black Lives Don’t Matter…

… and neither do any other lives.

I’ve been listening to How the Earth Works, a survey course in geology from Michael E. Wysession, a professor at Washington University (St. Louis). It would surely be better as a video, but it works reasonably well in audio from Audible.

Wysession has a great knack for analogy, e.g., if the history of the Earth is your arm then you could erase human history with one swipe of an emery board over a fingernail.

What are we standing on? “The crust is literally the scum of the Earth,” says the professor, and more than 90 percent oxygen by volume.

The course dates from 2008 and therefore does not reference TIME Geophysicist of the Year Greta Thunberg. Wysession is a specialist in seismology, not in climate modeling, but he delivers the standard modeler result that the Earth is going to get warmer from the abuse it has suffered at the hands of humans, a child-like species in the professor’s view. He offers some practical tips, e.g., don’t live in the interior of a continent, especially near the Equator, because in the worst case it could be 8 degrees C hotter in 100 years. Areas near the ocean (but obviously you don’t want to buy a house right at current sea level!) will experience more moderate temperature increases.

Does he wail from his parents’ $10,000 chair like Greta T? No. He seems to take the long view. The Earth’s climate has been unusually stable for the past few hundred years. Back in the pre-Babylonian times there would be huge floods and multi-year droughts (thus leading to the stories we find in the Hebrew Bible, for example). As a geologist, he doesn’t get all that excited if the Earth gets hotter or colder for a while (“while” = tens of thousands or millions of years). What if climate change causes half of the human race to perish? Famine is the standard mechanism for controlling overpopulation of any species.

Climate is important for humans, according to the notes:

Between 0–100 C.E. warm, stable climates allowed the Roman Empire to thrive and expand. However, in 400 C.E., the climate went into an extended period of freezing. Starving Europeans migrated south and eventually overrode the Roman culture, contributing to its demise.

He also describes how the colder climate starting circa 1300 brought flood to China, which caused a boom in the rat population, which led to a boom in the flea population, which led to the Black Plague as the rats and fleas spread to the Middle East and Europe. The Plague in turn made the climate colder as “Millions of trees sprang up in now-abandoned fields, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cooling the climate.”

But humans aren’t important for the Earth in the long run.

For those who do want to worry about our species, Wysession brings up a lot of additional risks that don’t make it into the New York Times. When the Earth’s magnetic field “flips” from north-south to south-north, the flip happens almost instantaneously… in geologic time. There is hardly any magnetic field for 1,000 years during a “flip” and that means no magnetosphere. With no magnetosphere, cosmic rays rush in and destroy almost all of the life on our planet.

Can we predict volcanic eruptions? Not really. When a big one occurs, it can plunge us into a 1,000-year cooling period. Supposedly this happened 75,000 years ago with Toba.

What about geoengineering to stave off a big climate change? Wysession says that the sunspot cycle, which changes insolation by less than 0.1 percent, can have significant effects on the Earth’s climate (the Little Ice Age from 1550-1850, for example). So if we can build a big sunshade up in space, paint a bunch of stuff on Earth white, or fill the upper atmosphere with reflective particles we should be able to set the Earth’s temperature more or less as desired. (Failing that, plant some trees in the Sahara.)

Unlike our media and politicians, How the Earth Works covers both positive and negative feedback mechanisms for all of the cycles on our planet. Despite the discussion of human-caused climate changes, the course overall is a story in remarkable stability (not as bitingly sarcastic and funny as when told by this Nobel-winning physicist, though). Why aren’t our oceans as salty as the Dead Sea? Subduction keeps them in equilibrium by dragging ocean crust, filled with salt, down into the Earth.

Given that Americans want to talk about geoscience, but without doing any studying, watching or listening to this class could make you the life of the party (assuming that it is a very dull party).

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Female infanticide disproves sociobiology?

Wikipedia says “Sociobiology is a field of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution.”

One of the things that we learned about on our Northwest Passage cruise was the historical practice of female infanticide among Eskimos/Inuits. When food got scarce, female infants were at risk. The explanation given in museums and by guides was that boys would grow up into adult male hunters who could take care of their elderly parents.

From The North West Passage Exploration Anthology (a report from John Franklin from his 1825 trip):

The difficulty of procuring nourishment frequently induces the women of this tribe to destroy their female children. Two pregnant women of the party then at the fort, made known their intention of acting on this inhuman custom, though Mr. Dease threatened them with our heaviest displeasure if they put it into execution: we learned that, after they left us, one actually did destroy her child; the infant of the other woman proved to be a boy.

If the goal of an animal is propagating his/her/zir genes, this does not seem to make sense. A typical human female reproduces, thus passing on her parents’ genes. A typical human male has no offspring (polygamy is the natural human state, it seems; see “The era of monogamous long-term marriage was a brief interruption” within Real World Divorce).

The period of life in which the son will be potentially useful won’t likely start until after the parents are beyond reproductive age (and therefore whether they live or die has minimal effect on their reproductive success).

Readers: Is the existence of female infanticide across a range of cultures a simple proof that sociobiology is wrong?

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