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Chris Hadfield
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Hey Bill Nye! Do Humans Have Free Will?

Bill Nye answers a question from Thomas: "Is there really an independent ego that is in control of my every thought and action?"

Thomas: Hi Bill. My name is Thomas and I'm from Los Angeles. I would really like to hear your opinion on whether or not we have free will in the conventional meaning. Is there really an independent ego right here that is in control of my every thought and action? I think Einstein is a determinist so he does not believe in free will, but then there's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, although to my understanding the uncertainty is in our scientific instruments and the inaccuracies of the measurements. Thank you.

Bill Nye: Well, you covered a lot of ground in there, but nobody knows about the nature of consciousness. I think we have free will up to a point, but we are driven by deep, deep things like wanting to get food, making more people — that is to say mating. And then I cannot help but notice how much people from the same family tend to do the same things. Same families tend to do the same things just anecdotally. But clearly I know I have made decisions based on things that happened around me that I wouldn't have made without being informed by history or what I'd noticed. I know I have. Now if that turns out not to be true, I would be very surprised.
Now as far as the uncertainty principle goes, uncertainty principle is roughly there's a quantum, there's an amount of energy below which you can't measure. The old saying is you can know where the electron is or you can know how fast it's going, but you can't know both, not exactly because anything you would use to measure it would inherently move the electron or change its speed. That's the classic uncertainty principle at work. With that said, I am satisfied now, as an engineer and scientist, that our brains are chemical reactions and chemical reactions, at some level, depend on quantum mechanics, on the interaction of subatomic particles based on this extraordinary thing called quantum electrodynamics; you alluded to it.

And so at some level there's randomness in what we think because we're made of chemicals that have randomness. But largely, human behavior is generally predictable. There's whole schools full of psychologists and psychiatrists who study humans and they come across patterns, and those patterns have got to be part of our brains and our free will has got to be part of that. I mean I don't mean to skirt your question, but the nature of consciousness — you are living at a time when the nature of consciousness is not understood, but it may be very soon because we'll build computer models or computers that are as sophisticated or as complicated or as messed up as human brains and they will behave the same way as human brains, as long as they're plugged in, the computers. Carry on.

Bill Nye makes one of the most ardent questions of philosophy more easily understood. While competing visions of natural physical laws — received from Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr — have cast down on whether a satisfactory answer will ever be found to the free will question, Nye urges us to look inside ourselves and around ourselves. We feel as though we make free choice, and we observe similar patterns in the world. As we get closer to understanding consciousness, those observations will be validated or called further into question.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Spiders lace webs in toxins to paralyze prey

Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.

Luciano Marra from São Paulo, Brasil - Aranha de Teia (Nephila clavipes), CC BY-SA 2.0
Surprising Science
  • A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
  • The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
  • Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
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