Sunday, 16 March 2008

Global Warming and Social Warming

One of my favourite authors of sociophysics papers, Serge Galam, has published an interesting short analysis of social phenomena associated with the frenzy of words and resolutions (hardly a frenzy of real activities) that is called `response to the Global Warming threat'.

The paper, found on arXiv, Global Warming: the Sacrificial Temptation argues that the emotional side of the situation has led all research on the warming and conclusions of such research away from the scientific princliples.

Let me quote the abstract and conclusions of this paper:

The claimed unanimity of the scientific community about the human culpability for global warming is questioned. Up today there exists no scientific proof of human culpability. It is not the number of authors of a paper, which validates its scientific content. The use of probability to assert the degree of certainty with respect the global warming problem is shown to be misleading. The debate about global warming has taken on emotional tones driven by passion and irrationality while it should be a scientific debate. The degree of hostility used to mull any dissonance voice demonstrates that the current debate has acquired a quasi-religious nature. Scientists are behaving as priests in their will "to save the planet". We are facing a dangerous social phenomenon, which must be addressed from the social point of view. The current unanimity of citizens, scientists, journalists, intellectuals and politicians is intrinsically worrying. The calls to sacrifice our way of life to calm down the upset nature is an emotional ancestral reminiscence of archaic fears, which should be analyzed as such.

To sum up above analysis of the social and human aspects of global warming, most caution should be taken to prevent opportunistic politicians, more and
more numerous, to subscribe to the proposed temptation of a sacrifice frame in order to reinforce their power by canalizing these archaic fears that are reemerging. Let us keep in mind that in a paroxysm crisis of fear, opinions can be activated very quickly among millions of mobilized citizens, ready to act in the same direction, against the same enemy: it then enough to designate it.

Read it, even if you fear the global warming.

Friday, 14 March 2008

New Scientist and dark energy without dark energy

Some time ago I have decided to subscribe to New Scientist. My reactions are, on the average, rather mixed. Half o f the printed pages are taken by job postings for UK (which are rather uninteresting for me. And the general tabloid style, which I have already ridiculed here is a bit too tabloid.

But there is a positive side of the `hunt for the NEWS' approach, which, in summary more than compensated the shortcomings. It is exactly the tabloid style hunt for the man bites dog sensational news that allows to find scientific research that is off the beaten path.

The reason for this mention is the reference to works of David Wiltshire, especially his efforts to build alternative to the cosmology model. Ever since the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, I have felt that the acceptance of the Dark Energy/Dark Matter Universe, despite the 120 orders of magnitude discrepancy with the basic quantum `explanation', was a bit too fast.
My own experiences with solid state physics are that if anyone proposes an explanation that is off the data by, a single order of magnitude, it is `suspect', two orders make it useless. But hundred and twenty orders of magnitude? Yet the astrophysics community has accepted the 70%/25%/5% explanation so easily, without real understanding about what these 95% of the Universe are made of. Carroll's Preposterous Universe offers a good label for this quick understanding.

For these reasons I am grateful to the New Scientist for pointing out the work of Wiltshire. His papers, on Dark Energy without Dark Energy and Cosmic clocks, cosmic variance and cosmic averages, available on the WEB, are rather difficult in their mathematical part, but they are also very pedagogical.
In the words of the author:
An overview is presented of a recently proposed "radically conservative" solution to the problem of dark energy in cosmology. The proposal yields a model universe which appears to be quantitatively viable, in terms of its fit to supernovae luminosity distances, the angular scale of the sound horizon in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) anisotropy spectrum, and the baryon acoustic oscillation scale. It may simultaneously resolve key anomalies relating to primordial lithium abundances, CMB ellipticity, the expansion age of the universe and the Hubble bubble feature. The model uses only general relativity, and matter obeying the strong energy condition, but revisits operational issues in interpreting average measurements in our presently inhomogeneous universe, from first principles. The present overview examines both the foundational issues concerning the definition of gravitational energy in a dynamically expanding space, the quantitative predictions of the new model and its best-fit cosmological parameters, and the prospects for an era of new observational tests in cosmology.

While the calculations are rather intricate (too intricate for this amateur), the background physics and assumptions used are physical common sense and with much closer links to reality (such as observations of inhomogeneity of the Universe) that the Dark Energy models.

Why is then Wiltshire's work not the hot topic of astrophysics conferences?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Cultural Natural Selection

An interesting paper by Rogers and Ehrlich, titled Natural selection and cultural rates of change, published in a recent edition of PNAS, has brought my attention to the issue if some principles of the Darwinian evolutionary theory might be applicable to cultural transmission. The findings document the intuitive reasoning that it should be so.

It has been claimed that a meaningful theory of cultural evolution
is not possible because human beliefs and behaviors do not follow
predictable patterns. However, theoretical models of cultural
transmission and observations of the development of societies
suggest that patterns in cultural evolution do occur. Here, we
analyze whether two sets of related cultural traits, one tested
against the environment and the other not, evolve at different
rates in the same populations. Using functional and symbolic
design features for Polynesian canoes, we show that natural
selection apparently slows the evolution of functional structures,
whereas symbolic designs differentiate more rapidly. This finding
indicates that cultural change, like genetic evolution, can follow
theoretically derived patterns.

Of course the mechanisms of change are different: in place of biological mutations we have innovation and cultural drift. But the stabilizing (or destabilizing) effects of selection on those traits that have strong link with reality which may influence the survivability of individuals and societies (canoe design, but also obviously, building design, food preparation etc.) are the same in mechanisms in biology and cultural change. The difference between the observed rates of change in functional and decorative design elements of canoes provide not only beautiful observational example of such differentiating process in action, but also are reminiscent of the `Spandrels of San Marco' discussion. Is it possible that a functional (i.e. selective) element in canoe design could come from a decorative change?
What was the origin of the high bows of the Viking boats? Was it technical/functional when conceived? I guess that yes, but perhaps there is more to the story?

In any case, this is a short but quite interesting paper.

Crowd Behaviour, continued

Following the topic of the previous post: fortunately, the search through references has been possible, and thus I have been lucky enough to read four of the key papers related to the field under discussion.

It seems that indeed, animals and humans alike may be led by relatively small groups of informed individuals, and that in most cases such non-democratic methods do have an advantage (for example in choosing when/where to feed, or in choice of the new location for a bee swarm). Whether the selective advantages of such a method of being led by small `informed' minority are applicable to human societies is an interesting question, both from scientific and from political point of view.

The paper mentioned in the previous post, Consensus decision making in human crowds, by Dyer at. al. depicts a very interesting experiment, where conditions reduce humans to `animal' status, by careful choice of setting where verbal and sign communications are prohibited. Despite the limitations, strong correlations were observed.

For those interested in following the trail deeper, I suggest the following papers:

Evolutionary Origins of Leadership and Followership, by Van Vugt

Consensus decision making in animals, by Conradt and Roper
Group decision-making in animals by Conradt and Roper


Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move by Couzin et. al.