Desiderata #16: links and commentary
alien biosignatures, AI confabulation, science drama, pig Hitler
The Desiderata series is a monthly roundup of links and thoughts, as well as an open thread and ongoing AMA in the comments for paid subscribers (along with extra links).
1/10. Since the last Desiderata, The Intrinsic Perspective published:
LK-99 as a cautionary tale for prediction markets. When "I like the stock" becomes "I like the rock.”
(🔒) Serial killers are out. Subway pushers and mass shooters are in. Checking in on America's psychoses.
Ambitious theories of consciousness are not "scientific misinformation.” In defense of Integrated Information Theory.
Walled gardens mean online writing is dead. Long live online writing! Federated social networks as the future.
The Intrinsic Perspective's subscriber writing: part 1. Sampling the state of the blogosphere.
2/10. Perhaps it should be bigger news that a planet that could contain alien life was discovered? Exoplanet K2-18b, which is about 120 light years away from us, has methane and carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. That’s pretty interesting, because methane is considered a good “biosignature” in that the only thing that produces it in significant quantities is life. Usually.
Is methane a perfect biosignature? No, there are some abiotic processes that can produce it. Here’s from “The case and context for atmospheric methane as an exoplanet biosignature,” published last year in PNAS:
Clearly, the mere detection of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere is not sufficient evidence to indicate the presence of life given the variety of abiotic methane-production mechanisms. Instead, the entire planetary and astrophysical context must be taken into account to interpret atmospheric methane.
But the authors still make the case that methane is the best signature of life that we can detect from afar right now. The discovery therefore strikes me as bigger news than, say, grainy infrared videos that are easily explained as far-away planes, and so on. If you’re keeping a list of places to send fast-accelerating AI probes or intergenerational ships, K2-18b should definitely be high on the list.
3/10. This article in National Affairs shattered my understanding of college pricing, arguing essentially that the rising cost of college is an illusion created by institutions listing high costs for marketing purposes but then giving out ill-specified “awards” that decrease the cost.
It’s basically a “prestige treadmill” where the sticker cost is a marker of value, so they have to pump the sticker cost while offering lower rates to get people to actually attend.
4/10. In “Ambitious theories of consciousness are not "scientific misinformation” I broke down the problems with the letter signed by 124 scientists accusing Integrated Information Theory, one of the leading theories of consciousness, of being “pseudoscience.” The letter, the brainchild of Hakwan Lau (who I first met in New York when I was looking into graduate school) has now triggered a wave of media discussing the fallout, and you can find stories about it in The Atlantic, Nature, Nautilus, and others (I am quoted in The Atlantic as well as the Nature article). Things are, well, a shit show. Here’s from The Atlantic:
The letter’s second half calls out IIT for having “panpsychist commitments,” and says that because the theory’s core claims are untestable it should be thought of as a “pseudoscience,” like astrology. “A lot of the people who signed on to the letter were a little uncomfortable with the use of that word,” one of the signatories, Joshua Shepherd, a philosophy professor at Carleton University, in Canada, told me. “If you’re going to make a strong claim like that, then you have to give some very strong evidence,” David Chalmers, a professor at NYU and one of the foremost philosophers of consciousness, told me. “Given the 100-plus very well-known figures who signed the letter, I was expecting something more solid, and I think a lot of people had reactions like that.” [Anil] Seth told me he was surprised by the list of names at the bottom of the letter. “I know that some of them know nothing about IIT and probably didn’t know what they were signing,” he said. . .
The online backlash was immediate. On X (formerly Twitter), scientists derided the letter as a “childish” product of “intellectual dishonesty.” It was called “shameless mudslinging” and a “hit” job. One scientist complained that cancel culture had now come for ideas. Others suggested that the letter had been motivated by politics or even financial interests. The conflict spilled over into dueling edits on Wikipedia, concerning whether IIT should be tagged as a pseudoscience. At least one scientist who signed the letter says that he received an email warning of “personal and professional consequences.” Lau himself complained that an angry mob was out to get him, and was in turn accused of playing the victim. . .
Seth told me that claims of pseudoscience risk giving ammunition to people who are already skeptical. Chalmers agreed: “If funders look on and they say, ‘This is a field where half the people are calling the other half pseudoscientists,’ I worry that this could have implications for everybody.” On social media, he went so far as to compare using the “pseudoscience” tag to dropping a nuclear bomb in order to settle a regional dispute.
Lau, who lives in Japan, called this talk of nuclear war “unhinged” and insensitive. . . Lau does feel bad that the letter sowed such chaos, but he stopped short of expressing regrets. “I stand by everything,” he said. On our last call, he was still insisting that the scientists who work on IIT are the ones who should be soul-searching. “If one-third of the community told me my work is pseudoscience, I would do some reflection,” he said. “Oh?” I asked. “Maybe I would get angry first,” he acknowledged, “but then I would reflect.”
Coincidentally, I once tried to replicate some of Lau’s neuroimaging research as part of my undergraduate thesis. Not only did the effect not replicate, the results I got were the opposite of what was reported using their methodology. Unfortunately my paper’s publication was later killed during anonymous review, and I was too busy after moving to grad school to submit somewhere else.
Overall, this wave of media is what the original authors wanted—and indeed Hakwan Lau has stated explicitly that his goal is reducing funding for IIT. Mission accomplished, most likely. But as David Chalmers pointed out:
“If funders look on and they say, ‘This is a field where half the people are calling the other half pseudoscientists,’ I worry that this could have implications for everybody.”
5/10. The only original new genre that has come out of AI art (from what I’ve seen) is making subliminal messages with the click of a button. Which strikes me as, at best, a somewhat mixed-blessing.
6/10. The New Atlantis points out that, while there continues to be rampant online speculation about gene editing, and imaginings of some glorious transhuman future, we humans are not going to edit our “germline” for a long time now. Because all around the world, governments have quietly banned gene editing for reproductively-transmitted human improvement. Including China, by the way.
While scientists and ethicists were busy talking, governments across the world have outlawed human germline engineering. This does not mean the practice will remain prohibited forever—laws can change—but it does mean that we already have a political consensus. . . As of 2020, seventy countries, including the United States, have passed laws restricting or outright prohibiting heritable gene editing of embryos.
Perhaps to the moral relief of the people who invented the technology.
Jennifer Doudna, one of the principal inventors of CRISPR, wrote in her 2017 book A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution about a nightmare she once had. At the time, Doudna had been thinking about the use of CRISPR in pigs to make their organs safer to transplant into humans. In her dream, she was asked into a meeting with a pig-faced Adolf Hitler: “Fixing his eyes on me with keen interest, he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology you’ve developed.’”