The Purview of Skepticism
I may have mentioned that, at Skepticon IV, JT Eberhard gave a fantastic talk on why the skeptical community must concern itself with mental illness. For the most part, the response from the community has been enthusiastically supportive - but there were a few sharp notes of dissent, like this post by Gina Colaianni.
Most of Colaianni's criticisms are so off-base, I can't help wondering if she saw the same talk as the rest of us. (She thinks that JT, of all people, is calling for us to stop criticizing religion? I mean, really?) I'm not going to bother with those misunderstandings, but she makes one criticism I am going to address, just because I've heard it often from other sources:
I don't think it's okay just to pick a topic simply because you believe it should be focused on. What about other issues? What about focusing on uncovering social issues in undeveloped countries? What about focusing on other medical illnesses? I don't think it's okay to take on the issue of mental illness simply because someone fairly well-known in the skeptic community believes that the issue should be taken on.
This is an argument that I've heard, albeit in different form, about Skepticon itself: that a conference whose nominal focus is skepticism shouldn't be so atheistic, that we should confine ourselves to, say, Bigfoot or UFOs. I think this misses the point, since Bigfoot believers aren't pushing for cryptozoology to be taught in public schools, and UFO believers aren't agitating for federal grants for tinfoil-hat construction. If skepticism is to have any point at all, it should target the false beliefs that do the most harm, and religion would have to be near the top of that list.
I'm bemused by Colaianni's concern about whether it's "okay" or not to focus on certain topics. Okay according to whom? We're not soldiers in an army; we don't need permission from higher-ups. There's no Grand High Council of Skepticism dictating what we should talk about or care about. Skepticism is an amorphous, leaderless movement, and different people care about different things. Some of us write about alternative medicine, or Holocaust denial, or 9/11 conspiracy theories, or New Age quantum gibberish; and yes, some of us write about religion. We've even been known to dabble in politics - I've taken on Michael Shermer for his extreme libertarian views, for example. I'd say the same thing to Gina Colaianni as I'd say to any other skeptic: if you see a issue that you think the skeptical community isn't addressing in enough depth, then have at it! Don't sit around waiting for someone else to take it on.
All that aside, I do think there's a good reason why the skeptical community is uniquely well positioned to discuss mental illness. That's because we (I would hope) know something about science, and specifically about biology and neuroscience: we know that the brain is a biological machine, like any other organ in the body, and can break down or malfunction.
Simple as it sounds, this is a view that sets us apart from the majority of the population. In the view of religious people who believe in a soul, the mind can't be affected or altered by purely physical causes. Consciousness is a mysterious, ineffable, but intrinsically unitary phenomenon, and everything a person is and does arises from their own free choice. This leads inevitably to the view that anyone who's mentally ill must in some sense be choosing to act that way, that it's something they can just "snap out of" if they really want to. (That's, of course, when they're not treating mental illness as evidence of demon possession and declaring that the mentally ill need to be chained to their beds, beaten and prayed over to drive the devils out of them.)
And as JT explained in his talk, he chose to focus on mental illness for the same reason other skeptics focus on religion: because these false beliefs cause serious harm to people. If people with mental illnesses mistakenly believe they can just will themselves better, they may spiral deeper into depression and self-blame when this fails. Their friends and family, as well, may be confused and hurt if they believe the ill person is deliberately choosing to act in irrational or self-destructive ways.
Granted, a person has to have a basic desire to get better for therapy or medication to have a chance at succeeding. But expecting a person to overcome mental illness through force of will alone is like expecting a diabetic to make their pancreas produce more insulin through force of will alone. Mental illness isn't a defect of willpower, it's a defect of brain chemistry - and this is a message that skeptics can absolutely play a part in disseminating to society in general.
Image credit: shutterstock.com
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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