Saturday, February 13, 2010

TED10 Thu AM: Science, Needles and Nukes

<-- Wednesday Afternoon Thursday Afternoon -->

Thursday morning was a celebration of reason -- my favorite part of the program.

Michael Specter

8 (out of 10) balloons

Michael Specter is a New Yorker journalist who lambasted the anti-science movement. He wrote the book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

"Belief in magic instead of science leads to disease and war." With a passion befitting Christopher Hitchens he ripped apart the movements that oppose vaccination, engineered foods and western medicine. "Science is NOT a company." As a laymen he seemed to carry more credibility than those know-it-all scientists, though he wasn't as eloquent as a Dawkins or a Harris.

In a 3-minute presentation, Graham Hill (founder of TreeHugger) reflected on a question he had asked himself last year: why couldn't he bring himself to be a vegetarian when it's so much better for his health, the animals, and the planet's climate? "I just couldn't imagine that THIS is the last burger I will ever eat." So he became a Weekday Vegetarian -- an 80/20 solution. He gets most of the benefits of vegetarianism without feeling deprived. Now I normally don't blog the 3 minute presentations, but based on the hallway chatter here at TED, his Weekday Veggie meme has spread very successfully.

In another 3-minute diversion, Jim Daly taught us all about carnivorous plants, like the Venus Fly Trap native to North Carolina. These plants are quite beautiful, and one of them is now the basis of medical ant-bacterial research – it has a compound that kills its prey’s bacteria so that the bacteria can’t digest the bug's nutrients before the plant does.

Sam Harris

9 balloons

For the first time I got to hear Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation! Sam's talk today attacked the sacred cow belief that science has nothing to say about moral values. Provocative and compelling, he offered up some great examples of how relevant the scientific method is when grappling with serious moral issues of the day such as economic disparities, pollution, and women's rights. He challenged the ethos of cultural relativity -- some behaviors are simply wrong no matter where you grew up, so we must overcome our fear of saying so. “Do we know enough to judge a father whose reaction to his daughter’s rape is to kill her?”

He offered lots of examples. Is it right to apply corporal punishment in school (as endorsed by the law in 21 states)? Science can address this question by examining the well being and educational success of the children blessed with such discipline.

How did we convince ourselves that every culture has a point of view on morality worth considering? The Taliban is ignorant on physics – how is their ignorance on human well being any less obvious?”

One example he offered was, in my opinion a bad one. Science can tell us, he said, whether it’s a good idea for people to believe that the evil eye is watching and punishing us for what we say about others. He slipped here, confusing belief and action – we cannot select our beliefs based on what is good for society, lest you invite a demand for theism – despite the utter lack of evidence of for it – simply because it tricks some people into being good on Sundays.

His conclusion: “It’s possible for entire cultures to care about the wrong things. Just admitting this will transform our society… we must converge on the most important questions about human life. We must first admit that these questions have answers.”

Nicholas Christakis

Score 8 balloons

Christakis is a Harvard professor of medicine and sociology, and author of Connected. He studies the properties of social networks such as friend counts, centrality (are you in the thick of the social graph or on the fringe), and transitivity (are your friends connected to each other). In his talk he overlaid obesity as a property to analyze, and learned that obesity clusters in the social graph. If your friends are obese, you are 45% more likely to be obese yourself. If your friends’ friends are obese, you’re 25% more likely.

Why would obesity cluster? Turns out that that are three reasons: friends are exposed to the same bad food choices based on their environments; friends encourage each other to make the same choices they make (“Let’s have muffins and beer!”); and people tend to befriend others like them.

Elizabeth Pisani

Score 7 balloons

Pisani is an epidemiologist who studies the spread of AIDS in Africa. Her presentation centered on the hidden rationalities behind the choices people make that spread HIV -- kind of like behavioral healthcare. From afar, it’s easy to dismiss the intelligence and well being of junkies and prostitutes, but a closer understanding of their circumstances yields clues as to why they share needles and engage in unprotected sex. In Indonesia, for example, anyone stopped by the police with a needle will be arrested and imprisoned, so addicts have no choice but to share. Prostitutes in that country earn close to $10 per hour, rather than the 30 cents they would other otherwise earn.

Pisani’s agenda is to encourage clean needle programs. In the UK, Australia and Netherlands, where clean needles are available, 3% of heroin addicts are HIV+. In New York, Jakarta and Moscow, where they are not available, 50% of heroin addicts are HIV+.

Pisani is particularly frustrated by the short-sighted, moralistic arguments against the distribution of condoms and needles, dismissing the notion that they encourage destructive behavior. "Pope Benedict, if you're watching this TED talk: I carry condoms and I NEVER get laid!"

Valerie Plame Wilson

Score 7 balloons

Wilson is an outed CIA agent who worked covertly to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. She explained why terrorism and accidents will likely lead to catastrophic nuclear explosions, and the Global Zero movement to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. She showed a trailer of the film Countdown to Zero, aired at Sundance and previewed by TED Thursday night.

Michael Sandel

Score: 7 balloons

Sandel is the renowned and dynamic Harvard philosopher, whom I was fortunate to have as my professor for Justice as an undergrad (watch one of his lectures below). To improve the quality of our public debates, he prescribes raising the level of dialogue from the specific issue to a discussion of the fundamental philosophies that underlie the arguments. The example he used was the controversy around Casey Martin's use of a golf cart due to his disability, and the application of Aristotle's philosophy to the question (despite Aristotle's notoriously high golf handicap).

The TED talk was entertaining (e.g. mocking Justice Scalia), but it didn't tie together as well as the full lecture presented above, and Sandel was too wimpy to broach the underlying theistic philosophies that underlie arguments against gay marriage, stem cell therapy, and women's rights.

Christopher "moot" Poole

Score: 6 balloons

Founder of 4chan, the immensely popular, anonymous, and often profane chat site. The teenage Poole talks about his accidental fame, and his commitment to preserving privacy on the internet.

Kevin Bales

Score: 8 balloons

This sociology professor founded Free the Slaves, a movement to liberate the 27 million people around the world currently enslaved. Largely an unknown phenomenon, slavery exists in many nations where, for hte most part, bandits kidnap impoverished men, women and children, often under the guise of legitimate employment. I'd have given this guy the TED Prize.

Stewart Brand

Score: 7 balloons

Brand presented the merits of nuclear power, followed by a spirited debate with Mark Jacobson. Nuclear power is clean and doesn't require the huge land resource footprint of solar power (50 square miles per gigawatt) or wind power (250 square miles per gigawatt--although he seems to have forgotten that wind farm land can still be used for agriculture). The debate exposed a lot of numbers and costs, and the answer really boils down to whether you think that nuclear power will inevitably lead to radioactive accidents or the use of nuclear weapons. If so, it's an awful choice but if not then it's a no-brainer. The audience came into the discussion 75% pro-nuclear and exited 65% pro-nuclear.

Jane McGonigal

Score: 4 balloons

Game designer Jane McGonigal asserts that the 3 billion hours per year of computer game play prepares children well for the challenges that face our species. To win today's games, one must face daunting, world-shaking challenges despite awful odds, overcome failure numerous times, and innovate.

Nathalie and I topped off the morning enjoying a picnic lunch in the sunshine with Dan Dennett (the world's pre-eminent authority on consciousness) and his wife Susan. Over salads and sliders Dan convinced us that public schools should teach comparative religion -- it's the best ammunition against in-home brainwashing.

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