Academic freedom prevents us from getting trapped in circles of delusion

Without expressing and evaluating ideas, we would never be able to determine what's right or wrong.

STEVEN PINKER: One reason why we need to keep channels of expression open is that it's possible for people to get trapped in a vicious circle of delusion if they believe something that is not true and if people are punished for pointing out that it's not true. In fact, you could even have a circumstance which no one actually believes something but no one is afraid to express the opposite of that idea out of fear of being punished if they do. And you can – it's sometimes called pluralistic ignorance. It can lead to the madness of crowds where everyone is under some collective delusion or at least expresses a collective of delusion because they don't want to be the first person to break the spiral of silence. They're afraid of being the little boy who says the emperor is naked and entire societies can be under a collective delusion. The ability to express an idea can puncture a bubble of collective false knowledge and is one of the reasons that we have to cherish that freedom.

Let's say you wanted to make an argument against free speech. If I said you can't say that you would immediately say well, wait a sec. I haven't even made my argument yet. The very fact that you're making an argument for anything presupposes that you have the right to express an idea. It may be incorrect but how will we know if it's incorrect or not until it's expressed and it can be evaluated. Also, we know that people are not infallible. They are not omniscient. That throughout the history of ideas there have been people who are absolutely certain that they are correct and history has shown that they've been mistaken. So the fact that we as a species can come up with good ideas, explanations of how the world works in science, ideas about how best to organize our government in politics, ideas about what is morally defensible and indefensible have all come about because people have expressed ideas, thrown them out there, allowed them to be evaluated by others.

The better ones win out but the only reason they won out is that they were expressed in the first place. We just don't know any route to knowledge other than what Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation, throwing an idea out there, seeing if it withstands attempts to falsify it.

In universities above all free speech and freedom of inquiry have to be encouraged because universities are given many perequisites by society. Tax free status, sometimes direct government support, the institution of tenure, the credentialing function that people often can't get a job unless they have a piece of paper from a university. So we invest a lot of trust and resources in a university because they ought to be idea factories, places where ideas are broached, evaluated, tested. If universities aren't doing that then they really don't deserve all the perquisites that societies are giving them. And one of them has to be the airing of ideas that make you uncomfortable. Simply because the fact that an idea makes you uncomfortable has nothing to do with whether it's a good idea or not. It is just a fact of human nature that it's pleasant and enjoyable and empowering to hear ideas that you agree with, that people in your tribe endorse.

It's annoying and upsetting, sometimes hurtful to hear ideas that you disagree with, that your tribe disagrees with. It might call into question your own credibility, your own competence but it ought to be aired for all that because if your feelings are hurt sometimes that's just too bad. You might be wrong no matter how painful it is for that fact to become known. And if you aren't wrong, if you are right how can you know it. How can anyone else know it unless the opposing idea is broached and flaws with it are pointed out. So there's a – our own feelings of discomfort can't be a guide as to which opinions ought to be expressed. And again we just know that no one's smart enough to think up all the good ideas on their own. Successful institutions, successful societies are at intellectual crossroads where people and ideas can flow in and out, the bad ones weeded out, the good ones accumulated. Any vibrant culture, any successful body of knowledge is kind of a greatest hits collection.

It's an assembly of all of the ideas that have at least for now stood the test of time. Now there are cases in which we already restrict free speech in say extortion and bribery and libel, inducements to imminent violence. There are lines that we can draw but they are circumscribed zones in which we say that we feel we have the right to regulate speech. The default is ideas can be aired with a few carefully justified exceptions.

  • If channels of expression aren't kept open, there runs a risk of pluralistic ignorance.
  • We all have the right to express ideas even if they're incorrect.
  • How would we know whether an idea is right or wrong without expressing and evaluating it?


Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
  • The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
  • The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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The sheer number of massive data breaches and known security vulnerabilities online today should be enough to scare us into better data safety practices. Unfortunately, these issues seem to consistently elicit gasps and condemnations by talking heads and private users, but little else. It's not about turning office and personal computers into Fort Knox, really, it's about using common sense and exercising caution.

According to the 2019 Official Annual Cybercrime Report, businesses fall for ransomware attacks every 14 seconds. Cybercrime is also on the rise, with some estimates putting the cost of online crimes at roughly $6 trillion by 2021. In this increasingly risky landscape, it makes sense to invest heavily in antivirus, anti-malware, and overall protection tools. However, these applications can only take you so far.

At some point, the problem isn't that hackers are too smart for us, but that we, in a false sense of security, believe we can let our guard down, which leads us to ignore standard security practices that significantly reducechances of our being attacked. Here are some no-brainer security steps that we constantly overook but should start keeping in mind.

Browsing the web via VPN

While it may seem like an endless amusement park with everything you've ever wanted to find, the internet is a much darker than we'd like to imagine. Although it is undoubtedly a great tool and has significanty enhanced quality of life the world over, the internet also means our personal data is now exposed every time we browse the web or open an application online. Often, sites and bodies we see as the "safest" are often themselves invaders of our privacy such as internet service providers governments and giant tech companies.

Connecting to an unknown network can be dangerous—something nearly 92% of those who use public WiFi networks ignore. Undeniably, many have started to limit their activity online as their concerns about privacy (rightfully) grow. Yet, many people still happily browse the web without a care and continue to leave trails of data everywhere, creating noteworthy problems when their information is scanned and compromised.

According to Harold Li, Vice President at ExpressVPN: "In an era when we conduct the most crucial and sensitive parts of our lives online, a VPN is a critical tool for protecting both digital privacy and security. They increase your anonymity online, shield your online activity from monitoring by ISPs and governments, and defend your data from hackers on shared networks such as public Wi-Fi." Even so, most of us continue to neglect VPNs. In fact, according to VPN Mentor, only 5% of internet users in the US have a VPN.

Protecting Google docs

As we become increasingly reliant on the cloud, one of the first things we've migrated is our ability to do work. McAfee's 2019 Cloud Adoption and Risk Report found that for the past six years running, the "file sharing and collaboration services" category—services like Google Docs—has been the leading driver of cloud use in business, accounting for nearly 21% of services in use at the average company.

According to the study, today, some 83% of organizations store sensitive data in the cloud, and about 8% of all cloud-shared documents include sensitive information. Moreover, we're sharing these files more than we used to, with significant year-over-year rises in documents set for open access to "anyone with a link."

This is problematic for two reasons. On one hand, the ease with which we can share documents increases the likelihood that they will be intercepted. On the other, as user bases stratify around services they use, SaaS platforms gain access to sensitive corporate assets unbeknownst to even the IT team. This is what's known as "shadow IT."

In remarks to Techopedia, Uri Haramati, the CEO of SaaS management platform company Torii , noted that "Considering the rampant threat of cyberattacks, security risks are definitely something companies have to be wary of."

On the other hand, "The fact that they are trying out new tools, means that they want to be better at their work," according to Haramati. "Why should management dampen such a positive attitude? Instead, leaders should value their employees' drive to be better and find out how their existing processes can be improved upon."

Disabling your microphone and camera

Recently, video conferencing service Zoom was revealed to have major flaws that allow hackers to theoretically take over unsuspecting users' webcams with a single URL. This may seem like a less threatening incident than having data stolen, but it can be just as damaging. A malicious third party with unfettered access to your webcam can discern much about your personal habits and can potentially witness and record damaging or embarrassing situations. In the UK, for instance, there have been recorded incidents of hackers capturing these moments and threatening to upload them to social media unless a ransom is paid.

The problem is similar with microphones, which can be used to track your communications even when your devices are "off". Most AI-based assistants today, for instance (such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home) are constantly listening, and companies have people on the other side listening to these recordings, as was discovered recently with Siri. Simply turning off your microphone manually can give you significant protection.

Using Encrypted Communications

It may sound straight out of a James Bond movie, but encryption is quickly becoming one of the most important technology fields in our digitized world. Even with a VPN and robust protection, it's still not impossible for someone to access our communications while they're in transit between us and the recipients. In fact, as our messaging applications expand in number and importance, governments, law enforcement and nefarious actors' interest in them is rising.

Many services do offer powerful encryption tools and features, but people often remain on the most popular chat apps because of convenience and familiarity. Facebook Messenger remains one of the most popular tools (despite belonging to a decidedly anti-privacy corporation), while Chinese apps like WeChat and Tencent's QQ Mobile are also main players despite the fact that they're both heavily monitored by the Chinese Government.

Facebook's Messenger, for instance, only offers optional end-to-end encryption (even though WhatsApp, which Facebook also owns, provides E2E by default). This doesn't even account for emails, which remain the most popular online communication method. Even when sending sensitive data, we're more than happy to send it via Gmail or Yahoo! and completely ignore the fact that there is little we can do once those emails leave our inboxes to protect the information we've shared.

Start small

Establishing better cyber security practices doesn't require a computer science degree and a military budget. What it needs is attention to detail, unlearning bad habits, and creating new ones. As the number of vectors available to hackers, scammers, data miners and governments continue to expand, it won't be big things that cause breaches, but rather something as small as leaving a webcam on, forgetting a password, or sending a compromising email without considering who may view it.