New Scientist rejected letters
29/08/15 11:07 Filed in: science
So far this year, I've been writing regular letters to the New Scientist magazine. Up until May, they printed quite a few of them, on the subjects of alien contact, alien signals, VR headsets transforming public performances, killer robots, the accuracy of internet facts, home servers to create bitcoins and one or two others, which was great.
'Fast food hit' (13th May)
Dear New Scientist. In your recent '60 seconds' column (issue 3020, 9th May 2015, pg7), you report that recent research shows that 'fructose appears to make our brains more responsive to images of food than glucose, and people who drink fructose-rich drinks are more likely to choose high-calorie foods over money prizes'. Since fructose, particularly in the form of high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, is a mainstay ingredient in fast food drinks, does this mean that fast food should be declared officially addictive?
'Carefully planned knee-jerk' (26th May)
Dear New Scientist. Your editorial (Issue 3022, 23rd May 2015, pg5) sensibly points out that negative, public 'knee-jerk' reactions to new recreational drugs are a big obstacle to an intelligent drugs policy, but it doesn't mention a much bigger problem. When a recreational drug becomes popular, it doesn't just proliferate, it competes with established, legal, recreational drugs. The organisations that make large sums of money from these legal drugs are therefore highly motivated to use their money and influence to demonise the new, competing drug in the media and push for its prohibition, thereby protecting their profits, even if the new drug that has appeared is actually less toxic than their own products. The public 'knee-jerk' reaction in such a situation is therefore far from automatic, but is instead the result of strings being carefully pulled.
'Who's in charge?' (26th June)
Dear New Scientist. Two articles in the technology section of your 20th June issue (2015, issue 3026, pg20) described how software will soon be able to 'not only understand what we are saying, but divine and anticipate our needs like a personal assistant,' and 'offer tips to make us look more chic'. This ability reminded me of Bertie Wooster's superlative butler, Jeeves, who was forever steering Bertie out of problems with his suggestions. The idea of having one's own personal Jeeves might sound idyllic but there's a worrying issue; who's really in control, the suggesting servant or the accepting master? An ancient Chinese proverb states that 'the best leader is the one whose followers think they're deciding things for themselves'. The same is almost certainly true for corporate advertisers, and algorithms.
'Prices and values' (13th July)
Dear New Scientist. In your cover story on the psychology of climate change inaction (issue 3029, 11th July 2015, pg28), Robert Gifford produces a long and interesting list of why people don't act to reduce their carbon footprint, but he misses a more fundamental issue, that our Western consumer society is fundamentally climate-change inducing; it is built around consumption and entirely against self-denial. This mentality is highlighted in an earlier article in the same issue (pg8) that describes the push to market a pill that mimics calorie restriction, rather than encouraging people to fast. To stop climate change, we don't need clever persuasion, we need an entirely different society.
'Walk the walk' (19th July)
Dear New Scientist. In your article on the Coal Renaissance (issue 3030, 18th July 2015, pg10), I read something I had never seen in a decade-or-more of of reading climate change articles, that a scientist involved in climate change research was actively making a personal sacrifice to reduce his or her carbon footprint. At the end of the article, Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester stated that 'he never flies anywhere himself' because he feels climate change scientists should set an example. After years of reading about climate change conferences in places like Bali (2007), it's wonderful to find evidence of a scientist not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. Well done, Kevin!
The dubious data unit, the 'hard drive' (2nd August)
Dear New Scientist. Describing the weight of an object in terms of elephants or blue whales is a popular subject on Feedback, but I noticed a new trend this week; how to describe amounts of data. The BBC website has an article reporting on the funding gained from last year's ice bucket challenges.Prof Ammar Al-Chalabi, professor of neurology and complex disease genetics at King's College London, states in the article that an international project to analyse the genomes of 15,000 people with MND, including every person in the UK with the disease, has been accelerated by funding from the ice bucket challenge. He said that it's "a massive project which will produce enough data to fill 10,000 hard drives".
This is a worrying development. Data is an elusive quantity to visualise but 'a hard drive' is not only a vague momentary unit (40Gb? 2Tb?), it's also time dependent as a standard item, halving every year-or-so. In comparison, an 'elephant', as a standard unit, is a veritable French Sevres Kilogram of reliability. Is Professor Ammar Al-Chalabi aware that in fifteen years time, he'll have to say that his international 2015 project 'produced enough data to fill 1 hard drive'?
'Superficial Intelligence' (4th August)
Dear New Scientist. In your Opinion page (issue 3032, 1st August 2015, pg22), Martin Rees states that biological brains will eventually be superseded by far superior, machine intelligences. This follows on from recent comments in the media by Stephen Hawking and others, warning of the dangers of runaway A.I. These are all surprising assertions, as digital computers, fundamentally, are no different from punch-card clocks. Also, A.I. and quantum computing have so far failed to live up to their initial hype; they're currently more Superficial Intelligence than Artificial Intelligence. How do Hawking and Rees think these automated sorters and calculators will reach such lofty goals?
Extra note: If you'd like to read an article explaining the limitations of digital computer's reasoning, check out this blog entry.
'Only one murder' (14th August)
Dear New Scientist. In a recent letters page (issue 3032), Tony Castaldo discussed what was required to combat climate change. He said that 'encouraging climate positive behaviours such as bike riding makes a negligible difference', and then talked about focussing on developing a theoretical, painless, technological fix. When I hear someone dismissing a positive, ethical act as being of negligible importance, I often reply by saying, 'okay, so it doesn't matter if I go out and murder someone?' When the person protests, I point out that since there are seven billion people on the planet, one more death would be negligible, according to their reasoning, and its significance could therefore be dismissed out of hand; what one might call a 'percentage morality' approach.
An ethical act is an ethical act; its importance and difficulty are always significant.
'Slow free will' (14th August)
Dear New Scientist. In your cover story of Issue 3033 (8th Aug 2015, pg32), Sean O'Neill reports that our belief in free will may be illusory, citing Benjamin Libet's famous experiment, among others. It is true that Libet's experiment is strong evidence that we don't consciously control our immediate reactions, but there is also a lot of evidence that indicates that we can train our brains over time, if we make enough effort. Perhaps we do have free will, but it is a slow free will and our moral responsibility lies in training our brains during quiet times to respond appropriately when the critical, fast-response events occur. In this way, we are responsible for our actions, but it is on the training ground, not in the game, that we become moral people.
'A leg to stand on' (14th August)
Dear New Scientist. In issue 3034 (15th Aug 2015, pg12), Colin Barras reports on the discovery of a strange Iron Age tradition of feasting only on a pig's right foreleg. It reminds me of an enduring story in which a traveller, passing a field, spies a pig with a wooden leg. He sees the herdsman nearby and asks him 'why does that pig have a wooden leg?' The herdsman replies 'Oh, that pig is incredible. A month ago, I was attacked by wolves in the forest. He heard my cry, ran in and single-handedly drove them all away'. 'Wow', said the traveller, 'that is amazing, but why has he got a wooden leg?' 'That's not all,' continued the herdsman, 'only a week ago, I was trapped under a falling tree and he rushed in and lifted it off me with just his snout.' 'That's astonishing!' Said the traveller, 'but why has he got a wooden leg?' 'Ah, well,' said the herdsman, 'with a pig as amazing as that, you don't eat him all at once.'
Perhaps this story gave rise to that Iron Age tradition?
I hope you liked that string of letters. I think they all make sensible and meaningful points (well, possibly apart from the last one), and so I am still a bit surprised none of them were selected. Hey ho. I probably won't be writing any more letters to New Scientist for a while. [STOP PRESS: They have actually printed one of the letters! (5th Sept), so, basically I'm keen again! I'm so fickle…] On the plus side, I'll try and use the extra free time to write more blog articles and maybe even a bit more of my science fiction comedy novel! But don't quote me on that. ;-)