Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Did Dogs Become Smarter Through Domestication? An Interview with Dr. Brian Hare

by Felipe Nogueira

Dr. Brian Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Hare is a pioneer and a key expert in the field of dog psychology. Together with Vanessa Woods, Brian Hare has written about the revolution in the study of dog cognition in the fascinating book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. The book, in their own words, is “about how cognitive science has come to understand the genius of dogs through experimental games using nothing much more high-tech than toys, cups, balls, and anything else lying around the garage.”
Hare and other researchers showed many times that dogs are good at understanding humans’ communicative intentions. With the help of a brilliant experiment with foxes begun by Dmitri Belyaev in the 1950s and continuing to the present day, Hare’s research uncovered what allowed dogs to develop this remarkable skill: domestication After 45 generations, Belyaev’s foxes in the experimental group had floppy ears, curled tails, and were much better reading human gestures than the foxes in the control group. The key point is that Belyaev didn’t select for foxes better at reading human gestures; instead he selected for foxes less afraid and friendlier towards humans. As Hare and Woods note in their book: “Domestication, selecting the friendliest foxes for breeding, had caused cognitive evolution.”
In order to understand even more the limitations and flexibility of canine cognition, researchers have created dedicated laboratories, such the Duke Canine Cognition Center, created by Hare. 

Dr. Brian Hare
Nogueira: In your book, you talked about the genius of dogs. But what do you mean by being a genius?
Hare: If you’re talking about high IQ, or who is going to be recruited to work for NASA, that would make a very short book. In my opinion, the big discovery in the cognition revolution is that cognition it’s not a unique dimensional trait. Actually, it’s a whole set of skills that can vary independently and we don’t know how many there are. For instance, one can be great at math, but a terrible communicator. Regarding species, each one evolved to solve a set of problems that helped them survive and reproduce in their particular environment; dogs are no different. My book The Genius of Dogs is all about trying to understand how a species that seems utterly unremarkable can can be so successful. Dogs are successful from an evolutionary perspective because, everywhere there are people, there are dogs. It’s the most successful mammal—aside from humans and maybe cows. That’s what the book explores: do dogs have some type of genius psychologically or cognitively? Yes, they show unusual degree of sophistication and flexibility for solving problems.

Nogueira: Tell us how you started researching dog cognition.
Hare: Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist and my research supervisor at the time, was explaining to me how important gesture communication is in human development. He thought it was not only crucial to human evolution but something unique to humans. His theory was that kids developed the ability to use human gestures and to understand communicative intention. Then I told him that my dog could do the same thing. That’s when I learned what science is, because even though it was an important idea for how humans evolved, Tomasello became curious. He said to me: “I will help you to come up with a way to prove me wrong.” That’s incredible! When he discovered that he was wrong about dogs, he was excited, telling us to keep doing more experiments. People think science is about people in lab coats coming up with genius ideas, but in reality it’s a way to falsify ideas.

Nogueira: How was the first experiment with dogs?
Hare: We use a powerful, but very simple technique: we hide food in one of two containers. Then we pointed to where we hide it, trying to help the dog search for it. Great-apes are terrible at this task. They don’t show much cognitive flexibility, since they have to learn the gesture. And every time you use a new gesture, they have to learn again. In contrast, in kids around age 12 months, you can use gestures they’ve never seen before, showing a degree of flexibility that it’s not seen in great apes. With dogs we performed the same series of experiments that had been done with apes and human children. The big surprise was that dogs are more like children.

            This was a controlled experiment: dogs were not using their noses nor reacting to motion. In science, there are two steps. First, you have to demonstrate a phenomenon. If it’s gravitational waves or dogs following gesture, you have to demonstrate the phenomenon. Then, you try to explain it. Often, people are so busy trying to explain something before they even demonstrate it exists. Once we demonstrated that dogs were following a pointing gesture, we wanted to know if they, for example, just smelled the hidden food. We found that wolves, dogs and foxes all preferred to use their eyes. When they can’t get the information they need from their eyes, then they use their nose. In these experiments, we found that dogs prioritize information from their eyes and memory over their nose.

Nogueira: One of the fascinating experiments with dogs you mentioned in the book uses an opaque barrier. Could you elaborate on it?
Hare: This is the work of Juliane Kaminsky, Michael Tomasello, and Josep Call. They have placed a ball behind two barriers, one opaque and one transparent. The dog can see both balls. In the experimental condition, a human, on the opposite side of the barriers, asks the dog to fetch the ball. The amazing thing is that dogs didn’t take the ball from the opaque barrier, which the human can’t see through; they favored the ball from the transparent barrier. In the control condition, where the human and the dog are on the same side, seeing the same thing, the dog choose the balls randomly. This experiment suggests that dogs know what humans can or cannot see.
Experiment conducted by Kaminski et al [2].
Nogueira: What are the possible explanations for why dogs are so good at reading human gestures?
Hare: One level of explanation is that, since dogs have seen these gestures several times, they slowly learned them. You can test this idea by using a gesture they’ve never seen before, for instance, point with your foot. You can also use a crazy gesture, like putting an object on top of the container where the food is located. Human children and dogs follow those gestures, but chimpanzees don’t. So, this hypothesis of slow learning was ruled out. But the hard part is this: how do you know if dogs really have a sophisticated flexible strategy, a theory of mind, which would mean that they’re thinking about the thought of others individuals?. The best evidence about other animals that have a theory of mind comes from great apes and maybe corvids. Regarding dogs, in fact, we don’t have the smoking-gun experiment to rule out alternative explanations. Then, we don’t have overwhelming evidence that dogs really have a theory of mind. For instance, the experiment with the opaque barrier, when the dog knows what people can or cannot see, hasn’t been replicated. Moreover, when you are studying something like a theory of mind, you want multiple experiments where an animal shows the same set of skills. We have that with great apes, but we don’t have with dogs yet.

Nogueira: From where do these remarkable skills of dogs come?
Hare: We tested several hypotheses. The first was that they were related to wolves, which are clever and maybe are also good at reading human gestures. The other was experience: they interacted with us and have slowly learned it. Finally, we considered if it’s something that happened during domestication. The evidence is mostly in favor of domestication: selection for friendliness is what allowed dogs to become more skilled at reading and using humans to solve problems. That was a surprise: why would being selected to be friendly make you smarter?

Nogueira: How has the Belyaev’ fox research helped to answer that question?
Hare: This brilliant experiment was conducted by a group of scientists in Siberia headed by Dmitri Belyaev. They have a control and experimental line of foxes, separated from each other. The control line was bred randomly. In the experimental line, Belyaev selected foxes that were attracted to or enjoyed interacting with people and weren’t fearful. In other words, Belyaev selected friendly foxes and let them breed together. Over many generations, the experimental foxes show a high frequency of traits that Belyaev didn’t select for, such as floppy ears, curly tails, and multi-color coats. The foxes also had physiological changes related to reduction in aggression and increased friendliness. This experiment was important to our research because they have a population that was experimentally domesticated. This was a great opportunity to test the idea that if domestication really is selection against aggression and for friendliness for people. It makes sense: how can you have a domesticated animal if it just wants to attack you or is too scared to come near you? The foxes also led us to questions about psychology: Is this remarkable ability of reading human gestures and to use humans as social tools also a product of selection for friendliness? The answer is yes: the domesticated foxes acted like dogs regarding their ability to read human gestures while the control line did not; they behaved like wolves.

Nogueira: You mention in your book that, “without an experiment, we were slipping from science into the realm of storytelling.” Could you elaborate why we need experiments? 
Hare: We published a paper in Science ruling out the first two hypotheses.1 The first is that dogs’ remarkable skills of reading human gestures evolved in wolves and were inherited. Second: lots of experience gives dogs these skills. We didn’t find any evidence for these hypotheses, so by default we favored the domestication hypothesis. We didn’t have evidence for it; we only had evidence against the other two hypotheses. If Belyaev had not done his domestication experiment, we would have been stuck at that point. Belyaev’s work established the possibility of testing if domestication made dogs able to read human gestures. We did an experiment with the foxes and we were surprised: even though they were not selected to be smarter or to be better at using human gestures, they were as a result of being selected for friendliness. We had direct evidence that it was domestication that did it.2 People might think that we domesticated dogs and made them smarter, but it does not mean it’s true.

Nogueira: If it’s not true, what probably have happened?
 Hare: People tend to think we created dogs as our own image. The best evidence suggests that animals had an advantage if they were friendly to people; they will reproduce more. I was in a restaurant eating outside and there were sparrows stealing food in a few inches of my feet. Those sparrows are eating tons of food, they are fat and healthy. That’s because they’re not afraid of people. I think something like that happened with dogs. In some point of human evolution, humans created a new food resource that if you could be friendly enough and not fearful of human population you were a big-time evolutionary winner. So, a population of wolves chose us; we didn’t choose them. Since hunter-gathers competed with wolves, it does not make sense to bring animal like wolves close to your children. The wolves realized, just like the birds under my table realized, the wonderful resource is scraps around human camps. After a few generations, they would show morphological changes, like those we’ve seen in the foxes, so people could tell the difference between those and the other wolves we competed with. That would be a major selection advantage.

Nogueira: How evolution is related to those changes?
Hare: Selection against aggression and for friendliness toward people creates several changes beyond that in morphology and psychology. Once these new differences are there, selection can act on that too. The point is that these new changes were not created; humans did not think to create dogs with floppy ears, for example. Some individuals had floppy ears because selection against aggression. Then people could breed these individuals to make more floppy ears. In other words, we took the advantage of the variance created by the selection against aggression. Evolution is not any different to gravity. If I drop a ball, I can’t stop it from dropping; it’s unstoppable force. Evolution is also unstoppable. Just because you can’t see, it does not mean it’s not acting all the time. Another example is that there is a white deer that comes to eat in my front yard. Normally, deer coming near humans is a bad idea. If you live in hundred yards from my house, a deer in your front yard would soon be dinner. But where I live in the suburbs everybody think deer are cute and adorable. Where I live, there is higher proportion of deer with different color coats; there are more white and albino deer. Research already shows that deer that are invading urban areas are larger, more social and have more offspring than deer living far away from humans.*

Nogueira: This process of domestication that happened with dogs probably have happened with other animals well, which we called convergence of evolution. What do we find, for example, when we compare chimpanzees and bonobos behavior regarding aggression, attitudes towards strangers and so on?
Hare: Bonobos served as a test-case for the hypothesis that natural selection, and not artificial selection, caused domestication. We called it self-domestication: species, through natural selection interfacing with its environment, end up like a domesticated animal. When we compare chimpanzees and bonobos to wolves and dogs, many changes between wolves and dogs were found between chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzees are like the wolf of the ape family. Weather we’re talking about morphological or behavior characteristics, bonobos are really the dog of the Ape family.

Nogueira: At Skeptic, we advocate for evidence-base thinking. Since you had communicated with the public, what do you think is the best approach to shift people from faith-based thinking to evidence-based thinking, increasing, for example, the acceptance of evolution?
Hare: In US, people think that Christians have a problem with evolution, but the Catholic Church says evolution is consistent with Catholic doctrine. People love to play the “in and out” group card: science is something that other people do. If one is religious and faithful, one can’t believe in science, since science is anti-religion. That’s the typical in-out group response. People use strategies to target science, or evolutionary thinking, as the out group. As someone who studies evolution, the first thing is to notice that humans evolved to see in-out group everywhere. If you say something like “you’re religious and you’re not like me”, it’s over. As a science communicator, I’m going to say that Catholic Church has no problem with my research in order to turn-off the in-group out-group response. The entire intent of my book The Genius of Dogs is to get people who had never read about evolution and cognitive science excited to read about it, because they care about dogs. Darwin intentionally started The Origins of Species with a chapter about domestication, because he knew people were familiar with and were not threaten by it. I think we have to do the same thing.

Nogueira: Thank you for this amazing interview and keep up the fascinating research!

1.    Hare B, Tomasello M. 2005. Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 439–444.  
2.    Kaminski J, Bräuer J, Call J, Tomasello M. 2009. Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human’s perspective. Behaviour 146: 979-998 pdf/Kaminski_et_al_2009a_dogs_sensitive_humans _perspective.pdf.
3.    Hare, B Hare, B., Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for Prosociality. Annu Rev Psychol. 68:155-186:
4.    Hare B., M. Brown, C. Williamson, and M. Tomasello. 2002. “The domestication of social cognition in dogs.” Science. 298: 1634-6.
5.    Hare B., et al. 2005. “Social cognitive evolution in captive foxes is a correlated by-product of experimental domestication.” Current Biology. 15: 226-30.

* Here I corrected a minor mistake that was published in the original version at the magazine. I also corrected Figure 2's subtitle: the correct reference number is 2 (Kaminski et al, 2009). 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Reflections on Krauss’s The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

by Felipe Nogueira

In the Summer 2016 issue of Skeptical Briefs, this column featured an interview with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who briefly mentioned his new popular-science book. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far was published by Atria Books in the beginning of March. It’s about the greatest intellectual journey ever taken by humans (so far) from Plato to the discovery of the Higgs’s boson.

Krauss begins by reminding us of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. As the allegory goes, people live imprisoned inside a cave only seeing its blank wall. The only thing those inside the cave see from the outside world is that wall, which is illuminated by a fire behind them, allowing moving shadows to appear. According to Plato, the prisoners of the cave consider the shadows part of the real world to the point of giving names to them.

This Allegory of the Cave brilliantly introduces the book. As Krauss uncovers through the book, a lot of what we learn about the universe, or the greatest story ever told so far, came from humans’ investigation about the nature of light.

Newton’s curiosity about light, Krauss argues, might have been motivated because it was a gift from God. This is not a mischaracterization, since Newton devoted much more time to writing about the “occult, alchemy, and searching for hidden meanings and codes in the Bible—focusing in particular on the Book of Revelation and mysteries associated with the ancient Temple of Solomon—than he did to writing about physics.” So, Krauss thinks it’s also reasonable to conclude that Newton’s primary interest was in theology.

Regarding light, Newton thought that it was made of individual particles he called “corpuscles.” Other natural philosophers, such as Descartes and Robert Hooke, did not share his view, considering that light was a wave. In their support, when passed through a prism, white light splits into the several different colors of rainbow.

Even against it, some of Newtown’s discoveries about light made more sense with the “wave theory of light.” He discovered, for example, that each color of light has a distinct angle at which it bends when passing through a prism. He also showed that colored light does not change its color, regardless of how many times it passes through a prism. All of this could be explained if white light is indeed a collection of different colors, but not if light is made of different-colored particles (as Newton thought).

The debate persisted for many years involving discoveries that seem unconnected to the nature of light, such as the connection between electricity and magnetism. As Krauss points out, “These two forces seem quite different, yet have odd similarities. Electric charges can attract or repel. So can magnets. Yet magnets always seem to have two poles, north and south, which cannot be isolated, while electric charges can individually be positive or negative.” To connect these forces required the work of Michael Faraday, the greatest experimental physicist of the nineteenth century. Faraday worked for years trying to see if magnetism could induce electricity, which he showed in 1831, allowing us to use electricity the way we do today, changing the world forever:

It is hard to imagine any discovery that is more deeply ingrained in the workings of modern society. But more deeply, what makes his contribution to our story so remarkable is that he discovered a missing piece of the puzzle that changed the way we think about virtually everything in the physical world today, starting with light itself. If Newton was the last of the magicians, Faraday was the last of the modern scientists to live in the dark, regarding light
The mystery of the connection between electricity and magnetism continued until 1865, when Maxwell published his complete set of equations, connecting these two apparently unconnected phenomena together in a formal theory. He also showed that oscillating charges produce an electromagnetic wave. Then, critically, Maxwell calculated the speed of the electromagnetic wave and he found out what was almost identical to the already known speed of light. Light is an electromagnetic wave.

There was a problem, however. Maxwell’s results concerning electromagnetic waves contradicted the properties of motion already established by Galileo many years before. If a ball is thrown with a speed of 10 mph inside a car moving at 15 mph, someone outside the car would measure the speed of the ball to be 25 mph (10 mph plus 15 mph). But what if instead of a ball inside the car, we have an oscillating charge? Maxwell calculated the speed of electromagnetic waves produced by oscillated charges measuring the strength of electricity and magnetism. Then, would someone outside the car measure the speed of electromagnetic waves from the oscillating charge to be different than what someone inside the car observes? If that’s the case, the observers would measure the strength of electricity and magnetism to be different from the other’s, allowing us to tell who is moving and who is not. But Galileo had shown this is impossible; there is no experiment anyone could perform that could tell if one is at rest or moving at a constant speed. Even though it’s a profound implication, Einstein was the one who realized it. The inconsistency is not just a thought experiment or between simple suppositions; both Galileo’s and Maxwell’s results have been verified by experiment. As Krauss remind us all, “rules that have been established on the bases of experiment cannot easily be tossed aside.” That’s why we needed Einstein’s genius to reconcile those notions.

Einstein’s great solution was that, as Krauss explains, “the two different observers must both measure distances and/or times differently from each other in just such a way that light, at least, would traverse that same measured distance in the same measured time for both observers.” In Einstein’s theory of relativity, space and time measurements are observer dependent.

Motion, electricity, magnetism, and relativity are all connected. That is just the beginning. The book continues to detail those hidden realities of our world, connecting in interesting ways many other physical phenomena, from the double-slit experiment and the rise of quantum mechanics (which uncovered the individual particles that light is made of) to unification of electromagnetism and weak force to superconductivity and the Higgs’s boson.

Were it not for the progress of science—reason and experiment, instead of Plato’s pure thought—we would not uncover many parts of the hidden realties; we would still be inside of a Plato’s cave. And the job of scientists, as Krauss argues, is to see what is behind the shadows, separating illusion from reality.

As the title suggests, the story is not finished: “Every day that we discover something new and surprising, the story gets even better,” says Krauss. Every page of the book you turn, it gets better. Krauss certainly has made a great contribution by describing the hidden realities in his fascinating book.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Reflections on Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture

by Felipe Nogueira

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technologies. He has also dedicated a considerable amount of time to science popularization through his books, such as From Eternity to Here and The Particle at the End of the Universe, and debates, for example with theologian William Lane Craig.

Carroll’s latest book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself. Published by Dutton, the book came out in May 2016. With that title, it’s right to assume that Carroll covered many topics in the book. A look at the table of contents finds six parts, with topics such as “The Funda­mental Nature of Real­ity,” “Interpreting Quan­­tum Mechanics,” and “The Origin and Pur­pose of Life.” But in short, the book is about poetic naturalism.

Naturalism asserts, as Carroll puts it, that “there is only one world, the natural world, exhibiting patterns we call “the laws of nature,” which are “discoverable by the methods of science and empirical investigation.” He makes it crystal clear that within naturalism there is no space for the supernatural: “There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life.”

And what is the natural world made of? Our deepest understanding of reality, or in other words, our fundamental ontology is The Core Theory, a better term coined by physicist Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek for the Standard Model of particle physics. “It’s the quantum field theory of the quarks, electrons, neutrinos, all the families of fermions, electromagnetism, gravity, the nuclear forces, and the Higgs,” Carroll explains. So on our most fundamental level we have a sparse ontology, containing several different entities.

The Core Theory also 
tells us something very im­portant about the world: there is no such thing as astrology and life after death. Carroll had written about this on his blog [1], and he repeats this spectacular argument again in the book. Using our fundamental ontology, the world, including our bodies, is made of particles interacting according to equations of the Core Theory. The important point here is what kind of particles is the soul made of? If souls are made of the same ordinary particles as human bodies, there is no afterlife. On the other hand, if they are made of a different particle, this certainly would require a new physics to describe the interaction between our bodies—collections of ordinary Core Theory particles—with the soul. But every experiment ever performed says the Core Theory provides the correct description of how its particles behave at everyday energies. We know it’s not a complete description of everything that exists in the world—for example, dark matter is not included in it—but it describes everything related to human beings. If it exists, an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies would prove the Core Theory is not right at everyday energies; the Core Theory would then need to be modified to include how its particles interact with the soul. One cannot believe in the existence of the soul and also believe the Core Theory is the correct description of how particles behave at everyday energies. “There is no life after death. We each have a finite time as living creatures, and when it’s over, it’s over.” Carroll blows the hope for the soul away.

The same line of reasoning can be applied to astrology. The Core Theory particles make human beings interact with a few forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces. But the nuclear forces do not reach macroscopic scales, and gravity is too weak—gravitational force from other planets might be equivalent or even weaker than that of a person nearby. We’re left with electromagnetism, but it’s not difficult to think that any electromagnetic signal coming from other planets will be interfered with signals originated here on Earth.

This brings another important question: What about things that are not part of the Core Theory? Are they just illusions? No! These can be useful ideas to describe real phenomena that manifest at higher scales. Temperature and entropy, for example, are not part of our fundamental ontology, but they’re real; they are emergent phenomena.

This is why Carroll is a poetic naturalist, and he does a great job throughout the book of differentiating fundamental from emergent phenomena, highlighting that both are real. But poetic naturalism is bigger than that; it has space from moral values, even if they’re part of our deepest ontology and not emergent. For Carroll (although Sam Harris certainly disagrees [2]), morality is not something out there to be found and cannot be discovered by science, but it is not less important. Poetic naturalism embraces all these “views” together. In Carroll’s own words:

Within poetic naturalism we can distinguish among three different kinds of stories we can tell about the world. There is the deepest, most fundamental description we can imagine—the whole universe, exactly described in every microscopic detail. Modern science doesn’t know what that description actually is right now, but we presume that there at least is such an underlying reality. Then there are “emergent” or “effective” descriptions, valid within some limited domain. That’s where we talk about ships and people, macroscopic collections of stuff that we group into individual entities as part of this higher level vocabulary. Finally, there are values: concepts of right and wrong, purpose and duty, or beauty and ugliness. Unlike higher level scientific descriptions, these are not determined by the scientific goal of fitting the data. We have other goals: we want to be good people, get along with others, and find meaning in our lives. Figuring out the best way to talk about the world is an important part of working toward those goals.
To conclude, it’s a great book, covering a wide range of interesting topics. In fact, it’s impossible to fairly account for all the good stuff in the book in a short review like this. Go read it!



Thursday, February 1, 2018

The discovery of gravitational waves. An interview with Lawrence Krauss

by Felipe Nogueira
published in Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.2, Summer 2016

On my previous column, I briefly covered the fascinating discovery of gravitational waves. For this this column, I had the opportunity to talk about it with Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University (ASU) and author of A Universe from Nothing.  

Nogueira: Can you explain briefly gravitational waves and general relativity? 
Krauss: General relativity is a theory of space and time. Einstein showed that matter affects the properties of space and time around it; space curves, expands, and contracts because of matter. A massive body affects the space around him and, when it moves, the massive body produces a disturbance of the space that can propagate out, like a ripple when you throw a stone in the water. In 1916, Einstein showed that such disturbance would propagate out and would be a wave, a gravitational wave. Just like electromagnetic waves happen when you jiggle a charge, a gravitational wave is a disturbance of space. That means the properties of space changes when a gravitational wave goes by. If there are gravitational waves in this room right now, the distance between my hands would be smaller, but my length would be longer, then in instants later, this changes: my length would contract and the distance between my hands would be longer, and so on. Einstein thought that gravitational waves would never be observed. He also retracted gravitational waves later on 1937, when he tried to solve the equations of gravitational waves and came up with an answer that didn’t make sense. He submitted the paper to Physical Review and it was rejected. He got upset, since he had never been peer-reviewed before. He said that he had sent the paper to be published, not to be reviewed. But it served him well, because before he could submit elsewhere, he and someone else realized the mistake in the paper and the final published version is correct. Thus, for a brief time, Einstein though gravitational waves didn't exist.

NogueiraEinstein also changed his mind about the cosmological constant, didn't he?
Krauss: He introduced the cosmological constant, because he thought the universe was static and he thought the cosmological constant would make the universe static. In fact, he was wrong on both grounds. The universe is not static and because of that Einstein said it was a big blunder to have the cosmological constant included. But it was a big blunder anyway, because a cosmological constant does not result in a static universe. It generally results a universe we live in now, which is exponentially expanding.

NogueiraAbout five years ago, we discovered the Higgs Boson. It was a major discovery as it's this discovery of gravitational waves. I have the impression that there was more excitement with this current discovery than with Higgs Boson. Is this impression correct? 
Krauss: I think it got more advance notice and I am partly responsible for that. But everything related to Einstein somehow capture the public imagination. Einstein predicted gravitational waves 100 years ago and Higgs predicted the Higgs' particle 50 years ago. The real difference is that the discovery of the Higgs boson is a major discovery of something very important in the Standard Model, but it doesn't guarantee that will be more discoveries or that would open up new windows beyond that. The discovery of gravitational waves was something like the telescope was just turned on: it was the first time that we had a machine that could do this, and we're pretty well certain that we will be able to use this over the next century as a probe of the universe. It's quite possible the machine that discovered the Higgs reveals to us more, but it's no guarantee. In contrast,  knowing that we have gravitational waves, it tell us that we will be able to see a lot more about the universe than we saw before.

NogueiraWhat kind of ideas might be tested using gravitational waves?
Krauss: We never measured general relativity in a strong regime near an event horizon, where space is highly curved. We never measured strong gravity gravity has always been week.  With these results, it looks like general relativity applies in those domains. So, we can extrapolate it to domains where space is curved and rolling like a boiling sea, and not as gentle ripples. This will be a good test of general relativity. As we probe the physics close to the event horizon, we'll learn the nature of black holes.  And who knows what else we'll learn? Every time we opened up a new window in the universe, we were surprised. So, I'll be surprised, if we are not surprised.

NogueiraA story circulated in Brazilian newspaper saying that this discovery would make time travel possible in 100 years. Time travel was also addressed by Kip Thorne at LIGO’s press conference. What can you comment about it?
Krauss: It has nothing to do with time travel. It means that we can explore general relativity in a regime where gravity is very strong and fields are very massive. But it doesn't tell us that we will be able to do time travel in any way; who said that doesn’t know what they're talking about. Kip Thorne was in an event called Einstein Legacy at ASU, which can be seen online [1]. Thorne made it clear he doesn't think time travel is possible, even though he spent time writing papers to see if it was possible.

NogueiraRegarding the non-scientist population, how can this discovery have an impact or to be relevant for them? 
Krauss: These two black-holes collided in a second and they emitted an energy equivalent three times the mass of the sum. This is more than the energy emitted by all the stars in the visible universe during that moment. Those kinds of things can amaze you. As I say, it tells us a little bit of what we came from and where we are going; it enhances our place in the universe. So, from a cultural perspective, it's part of the beauty of being human. It's not going to produce a better toaster, but the technology used on the experiment could be used on other things.

NogueiraHow LIGO experiment was done?
Krauss: The experiment is amazing. In order to detect gravitational waves, there are two arms perpendicular from each other in a detector. If a gravitational wave comes by, one arm will be shorter and the other will be longer, alternatively. To measure the length, a laser beam is emitted and travels until it reaches the end of the arm, then it bounces back. This is done in both arms. If one arm is shorter, the laser will take less time to travel it than in the other arm. That sounds easy, but they have to able to design a detector that can measure the difference in length between two four-kilometer long tunnels by a distance of one ten-thousandth the size of a proton. It's so small the quantum mechanical vibrations of the atoms in the mirror they used are much bigger than that. It's like measuring the distance between here and the nearest star with accuracy of the width of a human hair. It's an amazing bit of ingenuity, perseverance and technology; it's really beautiful!          

NogueiraIs this the last prediction to be discovered regarding general relativity? Even such, we know it's not the final answer. Why is that the case? 
Krauss: Gravitational waves were the last aspect of general relativity that needed to be tested directly; it's completely right.  And so is quantum mechanics; it has been tested so much that it's a fundamental theory. But we know that quantum mechanics and gravity don't work together. In very small scales, where quantum mechanics ideas are important and gravity is strong, the two don't go together; we know something has to give.    

NogueiraFor you, what would be the next most exciting discovery in physics? 
Krauss: The waves that have been seen are interesting, but for me it's much more interesting waves from the earliest moments of the Big Bang during inflation. We thought we had discovery it in the last year. We can look for their signature in cosmic background radiation coming from the big bang. If we can detect their signature, we will be able to probe the physics of the very early universe - the nature of quantum gravity itself. LIGO's detector is not sensitive to those waves from the big bang, but we might build big detectors in space that could be sensitive. I’ve written a paper with Nobel-prize winner Franck Wilczek showing that if you can measure gravitational waves from the Big Bang, they will prove gravitational waves is a quantum theory.  

NogueiraI know you have an upcoming book. What can you comment about it?
Krauss: It's called The Greatest Story Ever Told So Far and will come out probably on March 2017*. It's the story about the greatest intellectual journey humanity has ever taken, all the way from Plato to the Higgs. My last book discussed the question "why is there something rather than nothing" and this new one address the question "why we are here?" The new book was built up on a lecture with the same title, which is also available online [2], but of course there is a lot more on the book than in the lecture. The book also talked about the future based what we know with the discovery of the Higgs.   

[1] Einstein's Legacy, Celebrating 100 Years of General Relativity: An Origins Project Panel.

* Update: the book has been published. My review of the book was also published at Skeptical Briefs. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reflections of a A Scientist in Wonderland

published in Skeptical Briefs volume 25 number, Summer 2016.
by Felipe Nogueira

Edzard Ernst is a medical doctor and the worlds first professor of alternative medicine. I always thought that his story is quite interesting. For years, Ernst has been a strong skeptical and critical voice of the often extraordinary claims done by alternative medicine proponents. In his blog he posts in a daily basis critical analysis of alternative medicine studies. In his 2008 book Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Simon Singh, Ernst had explained the history and evidence about different alternative medicine therapies, from acupuncture to homeopathy to chiropractic. However, this skeptical scientist had started his medical career as a homeopath. How that happened? How did he change his mind?  

The answers to those questions and other interesting details of Ernsts career are written in his latest and excellent book. A Scientist in Wonderland was published in January and is a memoir of searching for the truth and finding trouble, as the subtitle says.

Ernst went to medical school in Germany. I was amazed to know that he actually wanted to be a musician, rather than a doctor. Even after he finished medical school he recognized this passion: "I still felt much more like a musician than a doctor". Around 1970, Ernst had difficulties when he was looking for a job as junior doctor, but he found in the only homeopathic hospital in Germany.

He worked in different places in Germany, including in the University of Munich, but it was in London that he had his first job as researcher, in a blood rheology laboratory at St George's Hospital. For the first time, he felt in the right job, because he was working with several intelligent people, going to conferences and publishing papers. Medical school was focused on clinical medicine; he didn't learn to be a scientist there. Working in that laboratory, he begun to realize that science of medicine was really important. With enough time to think, read, and learn, for the first time he questioned clinicians' most basic assumption that if a patient feels better, the cause is the treatment. Differently, a medical scientist is trained to be skeptical, to doubt, and to question this kind of assumption. In Ernst's own words, "An uncritical scientist is a contradiction in terms: if you meet one, chances are that you have encountered a charlatan. By contrast, a critical clinician is a true rarity, in my experience. If you meet one, chances are that you have found a good and responsible doctor".

The job as a researcher was good, but Ernst missed clinical activities. He changed jobs a couple of times, until he found a place where he could do research and clinical activities, in Munich. The research was so productive that he achieved a PhD without difficulties. At that time, around 1981, he published his first paper on alternative medicine.
It was in 1992 that his life was about to change dramatically as he saw an advertisement of the chair of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. After one year, he was nominated for that task.  The mission of his research team was to conduct rigorous research into the efficacy, safety and cost of complementary medicine. However, as one can expect, alternative therapists don't want that. Enrst wrote, "Some offered the opinion that alternative medicine should not be scientifically scrutinized at all."

Ernst promised he would investigate the most popular alternative therapies in UK. For his surprise - and to my own as I read the book - spiritual healing was a common alternative therapy. At that time, there were more healers than chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, homeopaths and herbalists combined and almost the same number of mainstream physicians. Ernst and the healers agreed with the experimental methods to be used and the trial would test healers efficacy for chronic pain.

A Scientist in Wonderland explains why the best way to evaluate the efficacy of treatments is through a randomized controlled trial. In this kind of experiment, participants are separate randomly at least in two groups: the intervention group (the therapy to be tested) and the control group. If the therapy to be tested is a drug, the control group is given a pill that doesn't have any effect, a placebo. However, when a non-drug therapy is being tested, the "placebo" isn't that straightforward. We can't simply do nothing in the control group, patients need to be given something that looks like the therapy being tested but with no effects. Thus, when the trial is done, scientists use statistics in order to compare the difference between the groups. "Any effective treatment - effective beyond placebo that is - will generate a specific effect plus a placebo effect", Ernst explains.  

The spiritual healing trial ended up with four groups: healing by one spiritual healer; placebo-healing by a trained actor; healing by a healer in a cubicle hidden from the patient's view; and, placebo-healing with no human present in the cubicle. During the study, Ernst witnessed a pain relief so intense that one of the patients stopped using his wheelchair. Remarkably, the pain reduction was due to placebo effect, since the results showed that all groups have considerable pain reduction with no statistically significant difference between them. Ernst and his colleagues published the paper trial with a clear conclusion: "a specific effect of face-to-face or distant healing on chronic pain could not be demonstrated".

Readers will also learn in Ernst book that the importance to investigate alternative treatment is not only to know if it works or not, but also to know if it's safe or not. The patient might be harmed by the treatment directly, which can happen, for example, with acupuncture when the therapist causes a pneumothorax. Every treatment has its risks, even homeopathy that has no active substance in its pill. Why? Because patients might seek a not established treatments rather than an effective one. Moreover, one of Ernst' research showed that half of homeopaths would recommend against MMR vaccine. Thus, alternative therapists might produce considerable harms and we must not neglect that. 

Ernst has received several awards due to the quality of his research. However, for alternative medicine proponents, quality of research is not important. What is important is to defend alternative medicine, even in the absence of evidence. Speaking out the truth about the available evidence, Ernst criticized statements from alternative medicine promoters, such as the famous Prince Charles. At the time, the Dean of Exeter University questioned Ernst: do you always have to be undiplomatic? It certainly appears, for this question alone, that the Dean is more worried with being political rather concerned with the truth and possible harms of alternative medicine. What if the evidence from alternative medicine research is undiplomatic itself? It turns out to be case, as Ernst put it, our critical analyses of alternative medicine, once acclaimed locally, nationally and internationally, seemed no longer wanted.

What about ethics? Ernst doesnt let anyone forget that this is critically important in medicine. Doctors occupy a position with authority and power, and patients are vulnerable and often theyre suffering. Ernst is brilliant as he wrote: 
when science is abused, hijacked or distorted in order to serve political or ideological belief systems, ethical standards will inevitably slip. The resulting pseudoscience is a deceit perpetrated on the weak and the vulnerable. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who come after us, to stand up for the truth, no matter how much trouble this might bring.
In fact, the fight with Prince Charles generated much trouble. Despite the fact that Ernst and his team had published more papers in peer-review medical literature than the rest of the Exeter University together, disagreements with Prince Charles culminated with Ernsts team being isolated and with no funding. Eventually, the situation became so terrible that the team was disbanded and Ernst had to take retirement. He wrote, The doctor and scientist may still be full of questions, but the musician in me breathes a sigh of relief that the performance, with all its impossible demands and fiendishly difficult passages, is finally over.

Ernst closes the book with a brief summary of the most important conclusions from his research regarding the efficacy of acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, and homeopathy. A Scientist in Wonderland must be given to anyone that promotes alternative medicine. The book mentions important principles regarding treatments evaluations. The book shows the amount of trouble a team of scientists can face when their research findings contradicts beliefs and opinions of people with power. Moreover, it shows the importance of the truth.

Id like to thank Edzard Ernst for having written this fascinating book about his career, but also for having the courage to stand up for the truth and for being the example of a scientist we need in all fields, especially in alternative medicine. Ernst is, as Harriet Hall has said in her review of the book on the Science-Based Medicine blog, a true hero. He continues to be one of our leading warriors in the battle to defend science and conquer unreason. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Medical error - the third leading cause of death in the US

by Felipe Nogueira

Published two days on the British Medical Jorunal, study estimates that medical error is the third leading cause of death on US.

Most common causes of deaths in the United States in 2013:

1 - Heart disease: 611k
2 - Cancer: 585k
3 - Medical error: 251k
4 - COPD: 149k
5 - Suicide: 149k
6 - Firearms: 34k
7 - Motor vehicles: 34k

2013 Causes of death in the US. Source: BMJ [1]

It gets worst: according the authors,  medical error is not registered on US death certificates.

The  authors conclude that "the system for measuring national vital statistics should be revised to facilitate better understanding of deaths due to medical care" [1].

[1] Makary MA, Daniel M. Medical error-the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ 2016;353;i2139.