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Physicalism & Materialism – John Wilkins

Materialism was a pre-socratic view that for something to be real it has to be matter – physical stuff made of atoms (which at the time were considered hard like billiard balls – fundametal parts of reality).  The reason these days the term physicalism is used is because it can describe things that aren’t matter – like forces, or aren’t observable matter – like dark matter, or energy or fields, or spacetime etc..  Physicalism is the idea that all that exist can be described in the language of some ‘ideal’ physics – we may never know what this ideal physics is, though people think that it is something close to our current physics (as we can make very accurate predictions with our current physics).

If magic, telepathy or angels were real, there would be a physics that could describe them – they’d have patterns and properties that would be describable and explainable.  A physicist would likely think that even the mind operates according to physical rules.  Being a physicalist according to John means you think everything is governed by rules, physical rules – and that there is an ideal language that can be used to describe all this.

Note John is also a deontologist.  Perhaps there should exist an ideal language that can fully describe ethics – does this mean that ideally there is no need for utilitarianism?  I’ll leave that question for another post.

Interview with John Wilkins on Materialism & Physicalism.

Here are some blog posts about physicalism by John Wilkins:

Is physicalism an impoverished metaphysics?

Every so often, we read about some philosopher or other form of public intellectual who makes the claim that a physicalist ontology – a world view in which only things that can be described in terms of physics are said to exist – is impoverished. That is, there are things whereof science cannot know, &c. A recent example is that made by Thomas Nagel [nicely eviscerated here by the physicist Sean Carroll], whose fame in philosophy rests with an influential 1974 paper that there is something like being a bat that no amount of physics, physiology or other objective science could account for.

Recent, Nagel has argued that the evolutionary view called (historically misleadingly) neo-Darwinism, is “almost certainly” false. One of the reasons is that “materialism” (which Nagel should know is an antiquated world view replaced by physicalism defined above; there are many non-material things in physics, not least fields of various kinds) does not permit a full account of consciousness; the subjective facts of being a particular individual organism. Another is that the chance that life would emerge from a lifeless universe is staggeringly unlikely. How this is calculated is somewhat mysterious, given that at best we only have (dare I say it?) subjective estimates anyway, but there it is.

But Nagel is not alone. Various nonreligious (apparently) thinkers have made similar assertions, although some, like Frank Jackson, who proposed the Knowledge Argument, have since backed down. What is it that physicalism must account for that these disputants and objectors say it cannot?

It almost entirely consists of consciousness, intentions, intelligence or some similar mental property which is entirely inexplicable by “reductionist” physicalism. [Reductionism is a term of abuse that means – so far as I can tell – solely that the person who makes such an accusation does not like the thing or persons being accused.] And that raises our question: is physicalism lacking something?

I bet you are dying to know more… you’ll just have to follow the link…
See more at Evolving Thoughts>>

Is Physicalism Coherent?

In my last post I argued that physicalism cannot be rejected simply because people assert there are nonphysical objects which are beyond specification. Some are, however, specifiable, and one commentator has identified the obvious ones: abstract objects like the rules of chess or numbers. I have dealt with these before in my “Pizza reductionism” post, which I invite you to go read.

Done? OK, then; let us proceed.

It is often asserted that there are obviously things that are not physical, such as ideas, numbers, concepts, etc., quite apart from qualia, I once sat with a distinguished philosopher, who I respect greatly and so shall not name, when he asserted that we can construct natural classifications because we can deal first with the natural numbers. I asked him “In what sense are numbers natural objects?”, meaning, why should we think numbers are entities in the natural world. He admitted that the question had not occurred to him (I doubt that – he is rather smart), but that it was simply an axiom of his philosophy. I do not think such abstract objects are natural.

This applies to anything that is “informational”, including all semantic entities like meanings, symbols, lexical objects, and so on. They only “exist” as functional modalities in our thoughts and language. I have also argued this before: information does not “exist”; it is a function of how we process signals. Mathematics is not a domain, it is a language, and the reason it works is because the bits that seriously do not work are not explored far[*] – not all of it has to work in a physical or natural sense, but much of it has to, or else it becomes a simple game that we would not play so much.

So the question of the incoherence of physicalism is based on the assumption (which runs contrary to physicalism, and is thus question begging) that abstract objects are natural things. I don’t believe they are, and I certainly do not think that a thought, or concept, for example, which can be had by many minds and is therefore supposed to be located in none of them (and thus transcendental), really is nonphysical. That is another case of nouning language. The thought “that is red” exists, for a physicalist, in all the heads that meet the functional social criteria for ascriptions of red. It exists nowhere else – it just is all those cognitive and social behaviours in biological heads…

Yes, I know, it’s a real page turner…
See more at Evolving Thoughts>>

In philosophy, physicalism is the ontological thesis that “everything is physical”, that there is “nothing over and above” the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical. Physicalism is a form of ontological monism—a “one substance” view of the nature of reality as opposed to a “two-substance” (dualism) or “many-substance” (pluralism) view. Both the definition of physical and the meaning of physicalism have been debated. Physicalism is closely related to materialism. Physicalism grew out of materialism with the success of the physical sciences in explaining observed phenomena. The terms are often used interchangeably, although they are sometimes distinguished, for example on the basis of physics describing more than just matter (including energy and physical law). Common arguments against physicalism include both the philosophical zombie argument and the multiple observers argument, that the existence of a physical being may imply zero or more distinct conscious entities. “When I lost my belief in religion I had to decide what I needed to accept as a bare minimum. I decided that I needed to believe in the physical world. I never found the slightest reason to accept the existence of anything else. To this day I am a physicalist only because I never found the need to be anything else. The principle of parsimony suggests that one should not believe in more than one needs to. Even if it does make you feel comfortable.”

 

Let’s get physicalism!

See John Wilkin’s Blog ‘Evolving Thoughts

#philsci #philosophy #science #physics

Ethics, Qualia Research & AI Safety with Mike Johnson

What’s the relationship between valence research and AI ethics?

Hedonic valence is a measure of the quality of our felt sense of experience, the intrinsic goodness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation.  It is an important aspect of conscious experience; always present in our waking lives. If we seek to understand ourselves, it makes sense to seek to understand how valence works – how to measure it and test for it.

Also, might there be a relationship to the AI safety/friendliness problem?
In this interview, we cover a lot of things, not least .. THE SINGULARITY (of course) & the importance of Valence Research to AI Friendliness Research (as detailed here). Will thinking machines require experience with valence to understand it’s importance?

Here we cover some general questions about Mike Johnson’s views on recent advances in science and technology & what he sees as being the most impactful, what world views are ready to be retired, his views on XRisk and on AI Safety – especially related to value theory.

This one part of an interview series with Mike Johnson (another section on Consciousness, Qualia, Valence & Intelligence). 

 

Adam Ford: Welcome Mike Johnson, many thanks for doing this interview. Can we start with your background?

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson: My formal background is in epistemology and philosophy of science: what do we know & how do we know it, what separates good theories from bad ones, and so on. Prior to researching qualia, I did work in information security, algorithmic trading, and human augmentation research.

 

Adam: What is the most exciting / interesting recent (scientific/engineering) news? Why is it important to you?

Mike: CRISPR is definitely up there! In a few short years precision genetic engineering has gone from a pipe dream to reality. The problem is that we’re like the proverbial dog that caught up to the car it was chasing: what do we do now? Increasingly, we can change our genome, but we have no idea how we should change our genome, and the public discussion about this seems very muddled. The same could be said about breakthroughs in AI.

 

Adam: What are the most important discoveries/inventions over the last 500 years?

Mike: Tough question. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, Newton’s theory of gravity, Faraday & Maxwell’s theory of electricity, and the many discoveries of modern physics would all make the cut. Perhaps also the germ theory of disease. In general what makes discoveries & inventions important is when they lead to a productive new way of looking at the world.

 

Adam: What philosophical/scientific ideas are ready to be retired? What theories of valence are ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history? (Why are they still in currency? Why are they in need of being thrown away or revised?)

Mike: I think that 99% of the time when someone uses the term “pleasure neurochemicals” or “hedonic brain regions” it obscures more than it explains. We know that opioids & activity in the nucleus accumbens are correlated with pleasure– but we don’t know why, we don’t know the causal mechanism. So it can be useful shorthand to call these things “pleasure neurochemicals” and whatnot, but every single time anyone does that, there should be a footnote that we fundamentally don’t know the causal story here, and this abstraction may ‘leak’ in unexpected ways.

 

Adam: What have you changed your mind about?

Mike: Whether pushing toward the Singularity is unequivocally a good idea. I read Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near back in 2005 and loved it- it made me realize that all my life I’d been a transhumanist and didn’t know it. But twelve years later, I’m a lot less optimistic about Kurzweil’s rosy vision. Value is fragile, and there are a lot more ways that things could go wrong, than ways things could go well.

 

Adam: I remember reading Eliezer’s writings on ‘The Fragility of Value’, it’s quite interesting and worth consideration – the idea that if we don’t get AI’s value system exactly right, then it would be like pulling a random mind out of mindspace – most likely inimicable to human interests. The writing did seem quite abstract, and it would be nice to see a formal model or something concrete to show this would be the case. I’d really like to know how and why value is as fragile as Eliezer seems to make out. Is there any convincing crisply defined model supporting this thesis?

Mike: Whether the ‘Complexity of Value Thesis’ is correct is super important. Essentially, the idea is that we can think of what humans find valuable as a tiny location in a very large, very high-dimensional space– let’s say 1000 dimensions for the sake of argument. Under this framework, value is very fragile; if we move a little bit in any one of these 1000 dimensions, we leave this special zone and get a future that doesn’t match our preferences, desires, and goals. In a word, we get something worthless (to us). This is perhaps most succinctly put by Eliezer in “Value is fragile”:

“If you loose the grip of human morals and metamorals – the result is not mysterious and alien and beautiful by the standards of human value. It is moral noise, a universe tiled with paperclips. To change away from human morals in the direction of improvement rather than entropy, requires a criterion of improvement; and that criterion would be physically represented in our brains, and our brains alone. … You want a wonderful and mysterious universe? That’s your value. … Valuable things appear because a goal system that values them takes action to create them. … if our values that prefer it are physically obliterated – or even disturbed in the wrong dimension. Then there is nothing left in the universe that works to make the universe valuable.”

If this frame is right, then it’s going to be really really really hard to get AGI right, because one wrong step in programming will make the AGI depart from human values, and “there will be nothing left to want to bring it back.” Eliezer, and I think most of the AI safety community assumes this.

But– and I want to shout this from the rooftops– the complexity of value thesis is just a thesis! Nobody knows if it’s true. An alternative here would be, instead of trying to look at value in terms of goals and preferences, we look at it in terms of properties of phenomenological experience. This leads to what I call the Unity of Value Thesis, where all the different manifestations of valuable things end up as special cases of a more general, unifying principle (emotional valence). What we know from neuroscience seems to support this: Berridge and Kringelbach write about how “The available evidence suggests that brain mechanisms involved in fundamental pleasures (food and sexual pleasures) overlap with those for higher-order pleasures (for example, monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic, and transcendent pleasures).” My colleague Andres Gomez Emilsson writes about this in The Tyranny of the Intentional Object. Anyway, if this is right, then the AI safety community could approach the Value Problem and Value Loading Problem much differently.

 

Adam: I’m also interested in the nature of possible attractors that agents might ‘extropically’ gravitate towards (like a thirst for useful and interesting novelty, generative and non-regressive, that might not neatly fit categorically under ‘happiness’) – I’m not wholly convinced that they exist, but if one leans away from moral relativism, it makes sense that a superintelligence may be able to discover or extrapolate facts from all physical systems in the universe, not just humans, to determine valuable futures and avoid malignant failure modes (Coherent Extrapolated Value if you will). Being strongly locked into optimizing human values may be a non-malignant failure mode.

Mike: What you write reminds me of Schmidhuber’s notion of a ‘compression drive’: we’re drawn to interesting things because getting exposed to them helps build our ‘compression library’ and lets us predict the world better. But this feels like an instrumental goal, sort of a “Basic AI Drives” sort of thing. Would definitely agree that there’s a danger of getting locked into a good-yet-not-great local optima if we hard optimize on current human values.

Probably the danger is larger than that too– as Eric Schwitzgebel notes​, ​

“Common sense is incoherent in matters of metaphysics. There’s no way to develop an ambitious, broad-ranging, self- consistent metaphysical system without doing serious violence to common sense somewhere. It’s just impossible. Since common sense is an inconsistent system, you can’t respect it all. Every metaphysician will have to violate it somewhere.”

If we lock in human values based on common sense, we’re basically committing to following an inconsistent formal system. I don’t think most people realize how badly that will fail.

 

Adam: What invention or idea will change everything?

Mike: A device that allows people to explore the space of all possible qualia in a systematic way. Right now, we do a lot of weird things to experience interesting qualia: we drink fermented liquids, smoke various plant extracts, strap ourselves into rollercoasters, and parachute out of plans, and so on, to give just a few examples. But these are very haphazard ways to experience new qualia! When we’re able to ‘domesticate’ and ‘technologize’ qualia, like we’ve done with electricity, we’ll be living in a new (and, I think, incredibly exciting) world.

 

Adam: What are you most concerned about? What ought we be worrying about?

Mike: I’m worried that society’s ability to coordinate on hard things seems to be breaking down, and about AI safety. Similarly, I’m also worried about what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls ‘Moore’s Law of Mad Science’, that steady technological progress means that ‘every eighteen months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point’. But I think some very smart people are worrying about these things, and are trying to address them.

In contrast, almost no one is worrying that we don’t have good theories of qualia & valence. And I think we really, really ought to, because they’re upstream of a lot of important things, and right now they’re “unknown unknowns”- we don’t know what we don’t know about them.

One failure case that I worry about is that we could trade away what makes life worth living in return for some minor competitive advantage. As Bostrom notes in Superintelligence,

“When it becomes possible to build architectures that could not be implemented well on biological neural networks, new design space opens up; and the global optima in this extended space need not resemble familiar types of mentality. Human-like cognitive organizations would then lack a niche in a competitive post-transition economy or ecosystem. We could thus imagine, as an extreme case, a technologically highly advanced society, containing many complex structures, some of them far more intricate and intelligent than anything that exists on the planet today – a society which nevertheless lacks any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. It would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland with no children.”

Nick Bostrom

Now, if we don’t know how qualia works, I think this is the default case. Our future could easily be a technological wonderland, but with very little subjective experience. “A Disneyland with no children,” as Bostrom quips.

 

 

Adam: How would you describe your ethical views? What are your thoughts on the relative importance of happiness vs. suffering? Do things besides valence have intrinsic moral importance?

Mike: Good question. First, I’d just like to comment that Principia Qualia is a descriptive document; it doesn’t make any normative claims.

I think the core question in ethics is whether there are elegant ethical principles to be discovered, or not. Whether we can find some sort of simple description or efficient compression scheme for ethics, or if ethics is irreducibly complex & inconsistent.

The most efficient compression scheme I can find for ethics, that seems to explain very much with very little, and besides that seems intuitively plausible, is the following:

  1. Strictly speaking, conscious experience is necessary for intrinsic moral significance. I.e., I care about what happens to dogs, because I think they’re conscious; I don’t care about what happens to paperclips, because I don’t think they are.
  2. Some conscious experiences do feel better than others, and all else being equal, pleasant experiences have more value than unpleasant experiences.

Beyond this, though, I think things get very speculative. Is valence the only thing that has intrinsic moral importance? I don’t know. On one hand, this sounds like a bad moral theory, one which is low-status, has lots of failure-modes, and doesn’t match all our intuitions. On the other hand, all other systematic approaches seem even worse. And if we can explain the value of most things in terms of valence, then Occam’s Razor suggests that we should put extra effort into explaining everything in those terms, since it’d be a lot more elegant. So– I don’t know that valence is the arbiter of all value, and I think we should be actively looking for other options, but I am open to it. That said I strongly believe that we should avoid premature optimization, and we should prioritize figuring out the details of consciousness & valence (i.e. we should prioritize research over advocacy).

Re: the relative importance of happiness vs suffering, it’s hard to say much at this point, but I’d expect that if we can move valence research to a more formal basis, there will be an implicit answer to this embedded in the mathematics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change. And so if people are doing ethics without caring about making their theories cash out in physical terms, they’re not actually doing ethics- they’re doing art, or social signaling, or something which can serve as the inspiration for a future ethics.

Perhaps the clearest and most important ethical view I have is that ethics must ultimately “compile” to physics. What we value and what we disvalue must ultimately cash out in terms of particle arrangements & dynamics, because these are the only things we can actually change.

The analogy I’d offer here is that we can think about our universe as a computer, and ethics as choosing a program to run on this computer. Unfortunately, most ethicists aren’t writing machine-code, or even thinking about things in ways that could be easily translated to machine-code. Instead, they’re writing poetry about the sorts of programs that might be nice to run. But you can’t compile poetry to machine-code! So I hope the field of ethics becomes more physics-savvy and quantitative (although I’m not optimistic this will happen quickly).

Eliezer Yudkowsky refers to something similar with his notions of “AI grade philosophy”, “compilable philosophy”, and “computable ethics”, though I don’t think he quite goes far enough (i.e., all the way to physics).

 

Adam: What excites you? What do you think we have reason to be optimistic about?

Mike: The potential of qualia research to actually make peoples’ lives better in concrete, meaningful ways. Medicine’s approach to pain management and treatment of affective disorders are stuck in the dark ages because we don’t know what pain is. We don’t know why some mental states hurt. If we can figure that out, we can almost immediately help a lot of people, and probably unlock a surprising amount of human potential as well. What does the world look like with sane, scientific, effective treatments for pain & depression & akrasia? I think it’ll look amazing.

 

Adam: If you were to take a stab at forecasting the Intelligence Explosion – in what timeframe do you think it might happen (confidence intervals allowed)?

Mike: I don’t see any intractable technical hurdles to an Intelligence Explosion: the general attitude in AI circles seems to be that progress is actually happening a lot more quickly than expected, and that getting to human-level AGI is less a matter of finding some fundamental breakthrough, and more a matter of refining and connecting all the stuff we already know how to do.

The real unknown, I think, is the socio-political side of things. AI research depends on a stable, prosperous society able to support it and willing to ‘roll the dice’ on a good outcome, and peering into the future, I’m not sure we can take this as a given. My predictions for an Intelligence Explosion:

  • Between ~2035-2045 if we just extrapolate research trends within the current system;
  • Between ~2080-2100 if major socio-political disruptions happen but we stabilize without too much collateral damage (e.g., non-nuclear war, drawn-out social conflict);
  • If it doesn’t happen by 2100, it probably implies a fundamental shift in our ability or desire to create an Intelligence Explosion, and so it might take hundreds of years (or never happen).

 

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It would be unfortunate if a whole lot of awesome stuff were to happen with no one around to experience it.  <!–If a rainbow appears in a universe, and there is no one around to experience it, is it beautiful?–>

Also see the 2nd part, and 3nd part (conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson) of this interview series conducted by Andrés Gómez Emilson and this interview with Christof Koch will likely be of interest.

 

Mike Johnson is a philosopher living in the Bay Area, writing about mind, complexity theory, and formalization. He is Co-founder of the Qualia Research Institute. Much of Mike’s research and writings can be found at the Open Theory website.
‘Principia Qualia’ is Mike’s magnum opus – a blueprint for building a new Science of Qualia. Click here for the full version, or here for an executive summary.
If you like Mike’s work, consider helping fund it at Patreon.

Science, Mindfulness & the Urgency of Reducing Suffering – Christof Koch

In this interview with Christof Koch, he shares some deeply felt ideas about the urgency of reducing suffering (with some caveats), his experience with mindfulness – explaining what it was like to visit the Dali Lama for a week, as well as a heart felt experience of his family dog ‘Nosey’ dying in his arms, and how that moved him to become a vegetarian. He also discusses the bias of human exceptionalism, the horrors of factory farming of non-human animals, as well as a consequentialist view on animal testing.
Christof Koch is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness.

Christof Koch is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology. http://www.klab.caltech.edu/koch/

The End of Aging

Aging is a technical problem with a technical solution – finding the solution requires clear thinking and focused effort. Once solving aging becomes demonstrably feasible, it is likely attitudes will shift regarding its desirability. There is huge potential, for individuals and for society, in reducing suffering through the use of rejuvenation therapy to achieve new heights of physical well-being. I also discuss the looming economic implications of large percentages of illness among aging populations – and put forward that focusing on solving fundamental problems of aging will reduce the incidents of debilitating diseases of aging – which will in turn reduce the economic burden of illness. This mini-documentary discusses the implications of actually solving aging, as well as some misconceptions about aging.

‘The End of Aging’ won first prize in the international Longevity Film Competition *[1] in 2018.


The above video is the latest version with a few updates & kinks ironed out.

‘The End of Aging’ was Adam Ford’s submission for the Longevity Film Competition – all the contestants did a great job. Big thanks to the organisers of competition, it inspires people to produce videos to help spread awareness and understanding about the importance of ending aging.

It’s important to see that health in old age is desirable at population levels – rejuvenation medicine – repairing the bodies ability to cope with stressors (or practical reversal of the aging process), will end up being cheaper than traditional medicine  based on general indefinite postponement of ill-health on population levels (especially in the long run when rejuvenation therapy becomes efficient).

According to the World Health Organisation:

  1. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%.
  2. By 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years.
  3. In 2050, 80% of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries.
  4. The pace of population ageing is much faster than in the past.
  5. All countries face major challenges to ensure that their health and social systems are ready to make the most of this demographic shift.
The End of Aging – WHO 1 – 2020 portion of world population over 60 will double
The End of Aging – WHO 2 – Elderly outnumbering Infants
The End of Aging – WHO 3 – Pace of Population Aging Faster than in Past
The End of Aging – WHO 4 – 80 perc elderly in low to middle income countries
The End of Aging – WHO 5 Demographic Shifts

 

Happy Longevity Day 2018! 😀

[1] * The Longevity Film Competition is an initiative by the Healthy Life Extension Society, the SENS Research Foundation, and the International Longevity Alliance. The promoters of the competition invited filmmakers everywhere to produce short films advocating for healthy life extension, with a focus on dispelling four usual misconceptions and concerns around the concept of life extension: the false dichotomy between aging and age-related diseases, the Tithonus error, the appeal to nature fallacy, and the fear of inequality of access to rejuvenation biotechnologies.

Aubrey de Grey – Towards the Future of Regenerative Medicine

Why is aging research important? Biological aging causes suffering, however in recent times there as been surprising progress in stem cell research and in regenerative medicine that will likely disrupt the way we think about aging, and in the longer term, substantially mitigate some of the suffering involved in growing old.
Aubrey de Grey is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation – an organisation focused on going beyond ageing and leading the journey towards  the future of regenerative medicine!  
What will it take to get there?
 


You might wonder why pursue  regenerative medicine ?
Historically, doctors have been racing against time to find cures for specific illnesses, making temporary victories by tackling diseases one by one – solve one disease and another urgency beacons – once your body becomes frail, if you survive one major illness, you may not be so lucky with the next one – the older you get the less capable your body becomes to staving off new illnesses – you can imagine a long line of other ailments fading beyond view into the distance, and eventually one of them will do you in.  If we are to achieve  radical healthy longevity , we need to strike at the fundamental technical problems of why we get frail and more disease prone as we get older.  Every technical problem has a technical solution – regenerative medicine is a class of solutions that seek to keep turning the ‘biological clock’ back rather than achieve short-term palliatives.

The damage repair methodology has gained in popularity over the last two decades, though it’s still not popular enough to attract huge amounts of funding – what might tip the scales of advocacy in damage-repair’s favor?
A clear existence proof such as achieving…

Robust Mouse Rejuvenation

In this interview, Aubrey de Grey reveals the most amount of optimism I have heard him express about the near term achievement of Robust Mouse Rejuvenation.  Previously it’s been 10 years away subject to adequate funding (which was not realised) – now Aubrey predicts it might happen within only 5-6 years (subject to funding of course).  So, what is Robust Mouse Rejuvenation – and why should we care?

For those who have seen Aubrey speak on this, he used to say RMR within 10 years (subject to funding)

Specifically, the goal of RBR is this:  Make normal, healthy two-year old mice (expected to live one more year) live three further years. 

  • What’s the ideal type of mouse to test on and why?  The ideal mouse to trail on is one that doesn’t naturally have a certain kind of congenital disease (that might on average only live 1.5 or 2 years) – because increasing their lifespan might only be a sign that you have solved their particular congenital disease.  The ideal type of mouse is one which lives to 3 years on average, which could die of various things.
  • How many extra years is significant? Consistently increasing mouse lifespan for an extra two years on top of their normal three year lifespans – essentially tripling their remaining lifespan.
  • When, or at what stage of the mice’s life to begin the treatment? Don’t start treating the mice until they are already 2 years old – at a time where they would normally be 2 thirds of the way though their life (at or past middle age) and they would have one more year to live.

Why not start treating the mice earlier?  The goal is to produce sufficiently dramatic results in a laboratory to convince the main-stream gerontology community, such that they would willingly publicly endorse the idea that it is not impossible, but indeed it is only a matter of time before rejuvenation therapy will work in humans – that is to get out there on talk shows and in front of cameras and say all this.

Arguably, the mainstream gerontology community are generally a bit conservative – they have vested interests in being successful in publishing papers, they get grants they have worries around peer review, they want tenure, and have a reputation to uphold.   Gerontologists hold the keys to public trust – they are considered to be the authorities on aging.
When gerontologists are convinced and let the world know about it, a lot of other people in the scientific community and in the general community will also then become convinced.  Once that happens, here’s what’s likely to happen next – longevity through rejuvenation medicine will become a big issue, there will be domino effects – there will be a war on aging, experts will appear on Oprah Winfrey, politicians will have to include the war on aging in their political manifesto if they want to get elected.

Yoda - the oldest mouse ever to have lived?
Yoda, a cute dwarf mouse, was named as the oldest mouse in 2004 at age 4 who lived with the much larger Princess Leia, in ‘a pathogen-free rest home for geriatric mice’ belonging to Dr. Richard Miller, professor of pathology in the Geriatrics Center of the Medical School. “Yoda is only the second mouse I know to have made it to his fourth birthday without the rigors of a severe calorie-restricted diet,” Miller says. “He’s the oldest mouse we’ve seen in 14 years of research on aged mice at U-M. The previous record-holder in our colony died nine days short of his 4th birthday; 100-year-old people are much more common than 4-year-old mice.” (ref)

What about Auto-Immune Diseases?

Auto-immune diseases (considered incurable to some) – get worse with aging for the same reason we loose general ability to fight off infections and attack cancer. Essentially the immune system looses it’s precision – it has two arms: the innate system and the adaptive – the adaptive side works by having polyclonality – a very wide diversity of cells with different rearrangements of parts of the genome that confer specificity of the immune cell to a particular target (which it may or may not encounter at some time in the future) – this polyclonality diminishes over life such that the cells which are targeted towards a given problem with the immune system are on average less precisely adapted towards it – so the immune system takes longer to do it’s job or doesn’t do it effectively – so with autoimmune system it looses it’s ability to distinguish between things that are foreign and things that are part of the body. So this could be powerfully addressed by the same
measures taken to rejuvenate the immune system generally – regenerating the thyamis and illuminating senescent cells that are accumulating in the blood.

Big Bottlenecks

See Aubrey discuss this at timepoint: 38:50
Bottlenecks: which bottlenecks does Aubrey believes need most attention from the community of people who already believe aging is a problem that needs to be solved?

  1. The first thing: Funding. The shortage of funding is still the biggest bottleneck.
  2. The second thing: The need for policy makers to get on board with the ideas and understand what is coming – so it’s not only developing the therapies as quickly as possible, it’s also important that once they are developed, the therapies get disseminated as quick as possible to avoid complete chaos.

It’s very urgent to have proper discussions about this.  Anticipating the anticipation – getting ready for the public anticipating these therapies instead of thinking that it’s all science fiction and is never going to happen.

 

Effective Advocacy

See Aubrey discuss this at timepoint: 42:47
Advocacy, it’s a big ask to get people from extreme opposition to supporting regenerative medicine. Nudging people a bit sideways is a lot earlier – that is getting them from complete offense to less offense, or getting people who are un-decided to be in favor of it.

Here are 2 of the main aspects of advocacy:

  1. feasibility / importance – emphasize progress, embracement by the scientific community (see paper hallmarks of aging – single most highly cited paper on the biology of aging this decade) – defining the legitimacy of the damage repair approach – it’s not just a crazy hair brained idea …
  2. desirability – concerns about (bad arguments : on overpopulation – oh don’t worry we will immigrate into space – the people who are concerned about this problem aren’t the ones who would like to go to space) – focus on more of the things that can generalize to desirable outcomes – so regenerative medicine will have side effects, like a longer lifespan, but also people will be more healthy at any given age compared to what they would be in they hadn’t had regenerative therapy – no body wants Alzheimer’s, or heart disease – if the outcome of regenerative medicine is that then it’s easier to sell.

We need a sense of proportion on possible future problems – will they generally be more serious than they are today?
Talking about uploading, substrate independence, etc one is actively alienating the public – it’s better to create a foundation of credibility in the conversation before you decide to persuade anyone of anything.  If we are going to get from here to the long term future we need advocacy now – the short term matters as well.

More on Advocacy here:

And here

Other Stuff

This interview covers a fair bit of ground, so here are some other points covered:

– Updates & progress at SENS
– Highlights of promising progress in regenerative medicine in general
– Recent funding successes, what can be achieved with this?
– Discussion on getting the message across
– desirability & feasibility of rejuvenation therapy
– What could be the future of regenerative medicine?
– Given progress so far, what can people alive today look forward to?
– Multi-factorial diseases – Fixing amyloid plaque buildup alone won’t cure Alzheimer’s – getting rid of amyloid plaque alone only produced mild cognitive benefits in Alzheimer’s patients. There is still the unaddressed issue of tangles… If you only get rid of one component in a multi-component problem then you don’t get to see much improvement of pathology – in just he same way one shouldn’t expect to see much of an overall increase in health & longevity if you only fix 5 of 7 things that need fixing (i.e. 5 of the 7 strands of SENS)
– moth-balling anti-telomerase approach to fighting cancer in favor of cancer immunotherapy (for the time being) as it’s side effects need to be compensated against…
– Cancer immunotherapy – stimulating the bodies natural ability to attack cancer with it’s immune system -2 approaches – car-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptors and T cells), and checkpoint inhibiting drugs.. then there is training the immune system to identify neoantegens (stuff that all cancers produce)

Biography

Chief Science Officer, SENS Research Foundation, Mountain View, CA – http://sens.org

AgeX Therapeutics – http://www.agexinc.com/

Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) biomedical research charity that performs and funds laboratory research dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also VP of New Technology Discovery at AgeX Therapeutics, a biotechnology startup developing new therapies in the field of biomedical gerontology. In addition, he is Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. He received his BA in computer science and Ph.D. in biology from the University of Cambridge. His research interests encompass the characterisation of all the types of self-inflicted cellular and molecular damage that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and/or obviate that damage. Dr. de Grey is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organisations. He is a highly sought-after speaker who gives 40-50 invited talks per year at scientific conferences, universities, companies in areas ranging from pharma to life insurance, and to the public.

 

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Kind regards, Adam Ford – Science, Technology & the Future

Surviving the Zombie Cell Apocalypse – Oisín Biotechs Stephen Hilbert

Oisín Biotechnologies ground-breaking research and technology is demonstrating that the solution to mitigating the effects of age-related diseases is to address the damage created by the aging process itself. We have recently successfully launched our first subsidiary, Oisin Oncology, focusing in combating multiple cancers.

Interview with Stephen Hilbert

We cover the exciting scientific progress at Oisín, targeting senescent cells (dubbed ‘zombie cells’) to help them to die properly, rejuvenation therapy vs traditional approaches to combating disease, Oisín’s potential for aiding astronauts survive high levels of radiation in space, funding for the research and therapy/drug development and specifically Stephen’s background in corporate development in helping raise capital for Oisín and it’s research.


Are we close to achieving Robust Mouse Rejuvenation?

According to Aubrey de Grey we are about 5-6 years away from  robust mouse rejuvenation   (RBR) subject to the kind of funding SENS has received this year and the previous year (2017-2018). There has been progress in developing certain therapies .

Specifically, the goal of RBR is this:

  • Make normal, healthy two-year old mice (expected to live one more year) live three further years.
    • The type of mice: The ideal mouse to trail on is one that doesn’t naturally have a certain kind of congenital disease (that might on average only live 1.5 or 2 years) – because increasing their lifespan might only be a sign that you have solved their particular congenital disease.
    • Number of extra years: Consistently increasing mouse lifespan for an extra two years on top of their normal three year lifespans – essentially tripling their remaining lifespan.
    • When to begin the treatment: Don’t start treating the mice until they are already 2 years old – at a time where they would normally be 2 thirds of the way though their life (at or past middle age) and they would have one more year to live.

Why not start treating the mice earlier?  The goal is to produce sufficiently dramatic results in a laboratory to convince the main-stream gerontology community such that they would willingly publicly endorse the idea that it is not impossible, but indeed it is only a matter of time before rejuvenation therapy will work in humans – that is to get out there on talk shows and in front of cameras and say all this.

The mainstream gerontology community are generally a bit conservative – they have vested interests in being successful in publishing papers, they get grants they have worries around peer review, they want tenure, and have a reputation to uphold.   Gerontologists hold the keys to public trust – they are considered to be the authorities on aging.

 

For the lowdown on progress towards Robust Mouse Rejuvenation see partway through this interview with Aubrey de Grey!

Preliminary results from study showing normalized mouse survival at 140 weeks

Stephen heads up corporate development for Oisín Biotechnologies. He has served as a business advisor to Oisín since its inception and has served on several biotechnology company advisory boards, specializing in business strategy and capital formation. Prior to Oisín, his career spanned over 15 years in the banking industry where he served as trusted advisor to accredited investors around the globe. Most recently he headed up a specialty alternative investment for a company in San Diego, focusing in tax and insurance strategies for family offices and investment advisors. Stephen is the founder of several ventures in the areas of real estate small manufacturing of novelty gifts and strategic consulting. He serves on the Overlake Hospital’s Pulse Board, assists with Children’s Hospital Guild and is the incoming Chairman at the Columbia Tower Club, a member’s club in Seattle.
LinkedIn Profile

Head of Corporate Strategy/Development Pre-Clinical Oisin Biotechnologies and OncoSenX
FightAging - Oisin Biotechnologies Produces Impressive Mouse Life Span Data from an Ongoing Study of Senescent Cell Clearance
FightAging reported:
Oisin Biotechnologies is the company working on what is, to my eyes, the best of the best when it comes to the current crop of senolytic technologies, approaches capable of selectively destroying senescent cells in old tissues. Adding senescent cells to young mice has been shown to produce pathologies of aging, and removal of senescent cells can reverse those pathologies, and also extend life span. It is a very robust and reliable approach, with these observations repeated by numerous different groups using numerous different methodologies of senescent cell destruction. Most of the current senolytic development programs focus on small molecules, peptides, and the like. These are expensive to adjust, and will be tissue specific in ways that are probably challenging and expensive to alter, where such alteration is possible at all. In comparison, Oisin Biotechnologies builds their treatments atop a programmable suicide gene therapy; they can kill cells based on the presence of any arbitrary protein expressed within those cells. Right now the company is focused on p53 and p16, as these are noteworthy markers of cancerous and senescent cells. As further investigation of cellular senescence improves the understanding of senescent biochemistry, Oisin staff could quickly adapt their approach to target any other potential signal of senescence – or of any other type of cell that is best destroyed rather than left alone. Adaptability is a very valuable characteristic. The Oisin Biotechnologies staff are currently more than six months in to a long-term mouse life span study, using cohorts in which the gene therapy is deployed against either p16, p53, or both p16 and p53, plus a control group injected with phosphate buffered saline (PBS). The study commenced more than six months ago with mice that were at the time two years (104 weeks) old. When running a life span study, there is a lot to be said for starting with mice that are already old; it saves a lot of time and effort. The mice were randomly put into one of the four treatment groups, and then dosed once a month. As it turns out, the mice in which both p16 and p53 expressing cells are destroyed are doing very well indeed so far, in comparison to their peers. This is quite impressive data, even given the fact that the trial is nowhere near done yet.
Considering investing/supporting this research?  Get in contact with Oisin here.

The future of neuroscience and understanding the complexity of the human mind – Brains and Computers

Two of the world’s leading brain researchers will come together to discuss some of the latest international efforts to understand the brain. They will discuss two massive initiatives – the US based Allen Institute for Brain Science and European Human Brain Project. By combining neuroscience with the power of computing both projects are harnessing the efforts of hundreds of neuroscientists in unprecedented collaborations aimed at unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

This unique FREE public event, hosted by ABC Radio and TV personality Bernie Hobbs, will feature two presentations by each brain researcher followed by an interactive discussion with the audience.

This is your chance to ask the big brain questions.

[Event Registration Page] | [Meetup Event Page]

ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function

Monday, 3 April 2017 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm (AEST)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
2 Clarendon Street
enter via the main Exhibition Centre entrance, opposite Crown Casino
South Wharf, VIC 3006 Australia

Professor Christof Koch
President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, USA

Professor Koch leads a large scale, 10-year effort to build brain observatories to map, analyse and understand the mouse and human cerebral cortex. His work integrates theoretical, computational and experimental neuroscience. Professor Koch pioneered the scientific study of consciousness with his long-time collaborator, the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick. Learn more about the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Christof Koch.

Professor Karlheinz Meier
Co-Director and Vice Chair of the Human Brain Project
Professor of Physics, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Professor Meier is a physicist working on unravelling theoretical principles of brain information processing and transferring them to novel computer architectures. He has led major European initiatives that combine neuroscience with information science. Professor Meier is a co-founder of the European Human Brain Project where he leads the research to create brain-inspired computing paradigms. Learn more about the Human Brain Project and Karlheinz Meier.

 

 

This event is brought to you by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

Discovering how the brain interacts with the world.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function is supported by the Australian Research Council.

Consciousness in Biological and Artificial Brains – Prof Christof Koch

Event Description: Human and non-human animals not only act in the world but are capable of conscious experience. That is, it feels like something to have a brain and be cold, angry or see red. I will discuss the scientific progress that has been achieved over the past decades in characterizing the behavioral and the neuronal correlates of consciousness, based on clinical case studies as well as laboratory experiments. I will introduce the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) that explains in a principled manner which physical systems are capable of conscious, subjective experience. The theory explains many biological and medical facts about consciousness and its pathologies in humans, can be extrapolated to more difficult cases, such as fetuses, mice, or non-mammalian brains and has been used to assess the presence of consciousness in individual patients in the clinic. IIT also explains why consciousness evolved by natural selection. The theory predicts that deep convolutional networks and von Neumann computers would experience next to nothing, even if they perform tasks that in humans would be associated with conscious experience and even if they were to run software faithfully simulating the human brain.

[Meetup Event Page]

Supported by The Florey Institute of Neuroscience & Mental Health, the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

 

 

Who: Prof Christof Koch, President and Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, Seattle, USA

Venue: Melbourne Brain Centre, Ian Potter Auditorium, Ground Floor, Kenneth Myer Building (Building 144), Genetics Lane, 30 Royal Parade, University of Melbourne, Parkville

This will be of particular interest to those who know of David Pearce, Andreas Gomez, Mike Johnson and Brian Tomasik’s works – see this online panel:

Marching for Science with John Wilkins – a perspective from Philosophy of Science

Recent video interview with John Wilkins!

  • What should marchers for science advocate for (if anything)? Which way would you try to bias the economy of attention to science?
  • Should scientists (as individuals) be advocates for particular causes – and should the scientific enterprise advocate for particular causes?
  • The popular hashtag #AlternativeFacts and Epistemic Relativism – How about an #AlternativeHypotheses hashtag (#AltHype for short 😀 ?)
  • Some scientists have concerns for being involved directly – other scientists say they should have a voice and be heard on issues that matter and stand up and complain when public policy is based on erroneous logic and/or faulty assumptions, bad science. What’s your view? What are the risks?

John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of science, especially biology. Apple tragic. Pratchett fan. Curmudgeon.

We will cover scientific realism vs structuralism in another video in the near future!
Topics will include:

  • Scientific Realism vs Scientific Structuralism (or Structuralism for short)
  • Ontic (OSR) vs Epistemic (ESR)
  • Does the claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the world trivialize scientific knowledge? (Epistemic Structural Realism and Ontic Structural Realism)
  • If we are in principle happy to accept scientific models (especially those that have graduated form hypothesis to theory) as structurally real – then does this give us reasons never to be overconfident about our assumptions?

Come to the Science March in Melbourne on April 22nd 2017 – bring your friends too 😀

March for Science! Interview with Michael Shermer

Adam Ford: G’day everybody – we’ve got Michael Shermer here today and we’re going to discuss science advocacy as well as the up and coming ‘March for Science’ which is happening on the 22nd of April. And I’m helping out with the Melbourne March for Science here in Australia.
Michael is in California. Michael is an American science writer, a historian of science and is the founder of the Skeptics Society – which I believe has about 55-60 thousand members at the moment – right?
Michael Shermer: That’s right yes.   All over the world!
Adam Ford: He has largely devoted his time at the Skeptics Society investigating pseudoscience and super natural claims – and things that rub up against the scientific view of the world. Shermer has been well known for engaging in debate on the topic of pseudoscience and religion .. and emphasizes scientific skepticism – and a famous one I think was with you and Sam Harris a while ago with Deepak Chopra – I thought that was hilarious to watch.. it was very good on your part.
We met about a year ago at a Think Inc conference focusing on Transhumanism and the Singularity and Skepticism – it’s interesting that more recently Sam Harris has covered a lot of the AI stuff recently and become sort of a vocal advocate for cautionary development of artificial intelligence there – but we might cover that later.
But in terms of the March for Science, to begin with – it may not be obvious to everybody that there exists a connection… what relationship do you see between skepticism and science?
Michael Shermer: Well I think really they are one and the same – I mean most scientists are skeptics by nature; they doubt claims until there is evidence for it.. they start with the Null Hypothesis – that your claim is not true until proven otherwise. You know, and so, and skeptics have a deep interest in science – probably if there was overlapping venn diagrams the part that is not overlapping on the skeptics side is the fact that we take a deep interest in a lot of these fringe, marginalized, borderland type claims that most scientists don’t have time to deal with. (Sorry I have a barking dog here – his name is Hitch!)
You know skeptics deal with things like ESP and psychics and UFOs and alien abductions and these sorts of things that mainstream scientists don’t have time to deal with.. or things like creationism and holocaust denial, the anti-vaccination movement, you know ‘the birthers’, ‘the truthers’… these are all claims that are being made that should be challenged – facts should be checked, evidence should be evaluated. But scientists don’t have time to do that so that’s kind of our specialty – so you might think of it as a branch of science – it’s like people that study alternative medicine, most of them are doctors, but are doctors that specialize in this because most doctors don’t have time – you know they are just busy doing their own work and research – so you know our focus is on those areas.. and really its necessary; it’s important; it’s needed – because most scientists don’t know how to respond. And some scientists have tried to face-off with creationists (for example) – and they don’t fare well because they think all they need is the science – but that’s not enough; you need to know what the arguments are that the creationists are making; why are they making those arguments? what the context is, and how to respond to that particular argument – which is not just countering with the scientific data, it has to do with the type of argument that they are making and what they really after there.. so you have to kind of know that and now you know, skepticism has been around for decades (modern skepticism) and so skeptic magazine and there are a number of other skeptic magazines around the world and groups and conferences and so it’s a whole literature and tons of books, 100s of books specializing in topics – so we had a really good literature now of skepticism that brings value to science.

Adam Ford: Yeah – and there’s going to be a Science March – I think skeptics should come along and help support this! Now this is happening not only in Washington – but there are groups all over the world who are getting involved. And it seems as though it’s going to be quite large – in terms of how large science marches can get – it may be the largest one yet – we’ll see ok!
Yes so I’m just wondering – there’s been quite a lot of controversy in the media of what counts as real facts and what counts as knowledge that can be trusted, policies that can trusted – so when people are going to this march for science – what do you think they should be listening for? How can they get the most out of it and make it the best possible science march?
Michael Shermer: Well know one knows because we’ve never done done this before! There was a Reason Rally in Washington DC that I participated in – that’s more of an Atheism type march. This (the march for science) is pure science – it’s not an atheism thing; religion has nothing to do with it; we just love science – and I think it’s really more instead of what happens at the march – it’s the idea that people are interested in that, and they care about that – and passionately enough to send a signal to Washington and politicians and really everybody – that we live in an age of science! There’s nothing more important the scientific method for determining what’s true – and so in an age of #alternativeFacts and ‘fake news’ stories and that sort of thing, we need science more than ever! And yes we have to get past this idea of science as guys in lab coats with beakers or particle accelerators – you know I mean all of us should be reasoning scientifically – that is it’s science and reason, it’s logic, it’s critical thinking, it’s just evaluating any claim whether it’s made by a politician or an economist or a religious leader .. anybody – if it’s a factual claim, its fair game for skeptical evaluation by anyone. I would like to think that we live in an age of science – we are all scientists in a sense that we should all be training how to think scientifically.
Adam Ford: Certainly! Alan Adler who was one of the stars of M.A.S.H. going years back (I used to watch that when I was a kid) said like science is a meticulous expression of human curiosity – so in a sense like we innately we are “proto-scientists” you know – sticking things in our mouths, tasting them and trying out new things in the world – some of the theory of science is a little bit unintuitive though – and I don’t think we are natural born scientists in the extreme sense…
Michael Shermer: Ahh yeah – that’s true! A couple of things – I have a new born, so it’s been kind of fun watching little Vinnie run experiments (Adam: Congratulations!) Thankyou! He’s a cute little guy – but they put stuff in their mouths, they drop things , they pick things up, they’re touching things – what they are doing is – the theory of Alison Gopnik (the developmental psychologist) – is that they’re like little scientists running experiments. Okay if I pick this up and drop it, what does it do? Where does it go? It’s called ‘object permanence’ – they’re little scientists. They also intuit the way the world works – figuring out how gravity (and things like that) which does not always turn out to be right. So our intuitions about the world (for example) – if you go outside it looks like the sun is rising, the sun is setting – the stars are stars are rising, the stars are setting – you don’t feel the earth move, you see the sky move. It feels like the earth is flat and stationary – everything goes around it – well we know that’s wrong – but that’s an intuitive idea. Same thing with evolution – it’s not intuitive; you don’t see species change – what you see is species staying the same in a human lifetime. So, it’s an inferential science – you have to infer from the fossils, from DNA, and so on – that evolution happened over long stretches of time – but in terms of the way our minds work from out senses, it’s counter intuitive – same thing with most of quantum physics – a lot of the esoteric sciences, you know, they are counter-intuitive. So that does take effort and training and practice, schooling and so on – there is a reason you should get a degree in science – because we learn something about these things over the centuries.
Adam Ford: Not everybody has a degree in science, not everybody has the time or the inclination to go through a degree in science – how can people, without a very mature scientific understanding of the world – still combat things like ‘alternate facts’ – how can find a position to stand in where they are in a position to judge the veracity of ‘alternate facts’?
Michael Shermer: It’s not hard, it’s not difficult at all – you just have to ask a few probing questions like ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘how do you know that’s true?’, ‘who said that?’, ‘what were their sources?’, ‘have their sources been double checked?’, ‘have they been fact checked?’ – you know these are just really basic like journalism type questions that any first year journalism student learns – that you can’t just read the newspaper and expect that that’s the truth – you got to know ‘what are the other sources?’, ‘what’s the source of that fact, and that fact?’ You’ve got to have more than one source, and cross check and fact check and things like that – so in fact its really just a matter of thinking critically in terms of asking questions; critical questions – just like ‘well that’s interesting – how do you know?’, ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘what’s the site?’ – ‘well you know I read it on the interweb’ – well most of the stuff is not fact checked on the interweb – Alex Jones’ ‘Info Wars’ – he talks about the aliens are running the government – you know whatever – down the rabbit hole you go with some of these websites – particularly the conspiratorial minded ones – you don’t have to have a degree in science that there’s something fishy going on there – you’ve just have to ask ‘come on, does that really work?’, ‘does that really fit with the way we know the world works?’ – its basically questions like that – we call it a baloney detection – Carl Sagan called it ‘the baloney detection kit’ – we’ve since published something along those lines called ‘the baloney detection kit’ at skeptics.com – Carl stated in his great book ‘Demon Haunted World’ just asking questions, you know – kicking the tires before you buy the car – just asking really basic questions like the ones I just said – so that – just start right there – by challenging the authority. ‘How do you know?’
Adam Ford: Absolutely! So – I might ask – sometimes I think it’s a bit counter productive to get too political in some of the interviews I do, because I’m not a political scientist – but.. what are your views on the current state of politics in America and Britain – do you see a promising horizon in the future?
Michael Shermer: Well, yeah – I’m an optimist – you know despite the last year of political upheaval; and everyone is all panicky and worrying – just calm down everybody – tranquillo; everything is going to be ok – we have spent centuries building civil societies – no one person can destroy it all; it’s not the end of the world – for all these things: artificial intelligence, terrorism – you know, these are not existential threats – I don’t think there are any (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons) anything that can destroy civilization – so you know just carry on in an optimistic way – continue making progress no matter who’s in power. I think there’s enough checks and balances in place to keep things stable.
Adam Ford: Well there are a certain amount of checks and balances to keep things stable. But you know, I can’t avoid the possibility that things could go pear shaped – so biasing the odds of achieving the kinds of futures we want is something that I think is worth doing – but also on that topic – we can use science to help us shape our understandings of how to do the most good in the world. Some people call this ‘science philanthropy’ – there has been successes in medicine in improving lives a lot over the years – and successes in other areas of science has had huge impacts. What areas of science and engineering do you think are both under-funded and under-populated and worth throwing resources at?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think that Social Sciences dealing with human problems like crime, racism, conflicts, civil wars – the kinds of things that kill people I think should be right up there with medicine. With public health we should have economic public health and political public health and conflict and peace studies – there are people that do this but I think they are under funded compared to say some of the medical professions or physics – which is all great – I don’t want to take any money from anybody just put more money into the social sciences, particularly the psychological sciences that study these kinds of human problems that we still need to work on. I mean we’ve wrote this book ‘The Moral Arc’ about moral progress over the last 500 years – I document there has been a lot of moral progress – we have a long ways to go – yeah so we need to keep working on it, and figure it out what it is we’ve been doing that is right and do more of that; and what it is we’ve been doing wrong and do less of that – and really that’s what social scientists do for a living – they try to figure out the cause of different things that we want to study – it’s not just a correlation but maybe there’s a causation there as well. There’s techniques to determine that – so I’d say more funding for that.
Adam Ford: Ok, what’s your view on funding basic fundamental science as opposed to applied scientific research?
Micheal Shermer: I think it’s both – I don’t think it’s fair to say one is more important than the other – I mean most of the applied research comes out of theoretical science – you have to have the theories first – you have to have the fundamental understanding of the laws and principles of nature that you then later manipulate through applied technologies and so we need both – so that’s why all the big companies: IBM, Google, Apple – they have their own research labs too; they have their professional scientists working there; all the pharmaceutical companies – they have their own professional scientists and their own laboratories – they know we have to make discoveries before we make products.
Adam Ford: The Effective Altruism movement has grown in popularity over the years. Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker … Peter Singer has definitely been involved, Stephen Pinker said it was one of the world’s best ideas. Have you any thoughts on the Effective Altruism movement?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think it’s great – I’m totally behind it – that and the animal rights movement and the application of the moral principles we have developed over the centuries: civil rights, civil liberties and so fourth – protections for those who can’t protect themselves, like animals – I think all of that’s important and the current movement that Peter Singer is pushing for, and I support it – mostly when I make my end of year donations, if there’s so many good charities I don’t know which one to pick – I just go to his website and he has a list – these are the ones we’ve spent years studying that we think save the most lives – or your dollar will go the farthest – and I just give my money to him – well his org (Adam: is it ‘The Life You Can Save’) – yeah the Life You Can Save – yep and it’s also a consciousness raising effort, which is the kinds of things that Gandhi did and Dr King did of just making people aware that we should be even thinking about those sorts of things – like what’s the value of life – how much money do you have to spend to save one life? Well it depends well if you talk about mosquito nets to prevent Malaria – it’s pretty cheap – a couple of bucks goes a long ways – you know, vitamins, water, just basic needs – that’s why I very much respect the Gates Foundation; they’re really going after to be solved which can be solved like within 6 months a year, a couple of years, 10 years, thirty years – you know, not pie in the sky stuff, like we’re going to build libraries for everybody – you know that was great – you know Carnegie did that, Rockefeller Foundation and all the things they did they’ve done over the last century – they are all good – but you know I like the idea – well let’s just save some lives right now
Adam Ford: Like pulling glass out of feet that are getting harmed today rather than worry about the long term future?
Michael Shermer: Yeah that’s right – well I mean both is good but you know if you want some bang for your buck that’s the best way to do it – to go for that – Effective Altruism – those kinds of moves that they make that are immediate and measurable – that’s why Gates is so good – he’s a scientist – well he is a technologist – he likes to measure things – you know I want quantitative measurements. So if we spend 100 million dollars in Africa on this problem, can I see a difference next year? I want to see the graph, I want to see the pie chart, I want to see the slice of the problem getting smaller – they’re projecting the end of poverty as the UN has defined it – $1.25 a day or less for extreme poverty, $2.50 a day or less for regular poverty – they are projecting the end of that – it will be zero percent by 2030 – that’s only 13 years from now – that’s unbelievable! Thousands of years of ‘we’ve always had the poor with us’ – before 1900 it was about 80% of the worlds population was poor, was living in poverty – now it’s about 10% – that’s a huge, huge improvement – and it’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticed, but you know the activists who hew and cry that things are bad and getting worse – I think it’s good to have people like myself and Stephen Pinker, Peter Singer and others that are more optimistic say ‘Hey wait a minute – we have a lot of work to do but we’ve come a long ways’.
Adam Ford: Absolutely yeah – it’s good to report that achievements have been made. Unfortunately in the news people like to watch horror and they seem to not necessarily like – but if it bleeds it leads they say – and people are attracted to.. are paying attention to news snippets that have something to do with something that’s wrong in the world. And it’s unfortunate that people loose track of what’s going right – because what’s going right in the world helps reinforce us to work in the direction of made what’s right in the world happen – okay so yeah I think people miss out on a lot when they have this constant negativity bias in selecting the type of news that one sees.
So what do you think the most exciting thing is in developments in STEM is? What do you think think is the most exciting news in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or engineering (as some people like to say)?
Michael Shermer: Oh well I think it’s definitely the application of technologies through smart phones, and iPads and laptops through the internet and reversing the classroom; essentially you can get your classroom lectures online for free! Not just the MOOC courses – the online video recordings of professors giving lectures (you know there’s 1000s of them now) but like the Khan Academy videos – these are short little 5 minute, 8 minute tutorials on very specific things, you know, math, algebra, english literature history, there’s 1000s of them now – I think the Gates Foundation is backing them too – that is getting beyond the idea that you have to have a brick and mortar building with kids sitting in rows – like little soldiers – because the fact that the original classroom was designed in a way to impose order on children and teach them to be good citizens and soldiers for the nation. I mean it was really Nationalism kind of movement – it’s not that I’m against having classrooms – I’m a professor, I have a class where I will be lecturing for hours in a classroom with 25 students sitting there taking notes – that’s fine, that’s good – it’s not the only thing – you can get any kind of education you want now, right now! I can too – I take teaching company courses when I’m out riding my bike or commuting the LA traffic – I listen to lectures – they are about 30 minutes – by the best professors in the world that go to the studio and this company, record these lectures professionally and they’re great – you know I take stuff on Shakespeare, taking courses on ancient history – there’s 100s of courses like that – I would never have the time otherwise to just sit down and take a class.. but if you’re just driving, or if you’re out walking, hiking, working out or cycling (in my case) why not get information – and it’s super cheap, it’s unbelievably cheap (Adam: Yes some are for free, it’s incredible!) – even podcasts! You know I’m a latecomer to doing podcasts thing as a guest being interviewed but folks are listening to it – and it turns out there are some really good podcasts – they’re totally free – and they’re unscripted conversations, like you and I are having – they just talk – and I learn a lot from people I’ve either never heard of or have heard of and have always wanted to read their book or whatever – or just didn’t have time – and here he is, he is just talking for the next hour and a half – in the case of Joe Rogan – 40 hours on a particular topic – you know it’s great – and it’s free! Again one of those projections in the future – at some point person on the planet will have access to the internet and virtually all knowledge will be free and immediately accessible on a hand held device – that’s gotta change the world!
Adam Ford: Yeah I know – I mean the more rationally and I guess informed people are, the more likely I think people will be able to make better informed decisions (Michael: Hopefully!) – I suspect it will be the case but there are still a lot of ideas on the internet that don’t have a lot of basis in proof so my next question is – what kinds of ideas that some people loosely define as ‘scientific’ are ready to be thrown out, retired, or put to rest? and why the hell are they still in currency?
Michael Shermer: First of all the internet is like the printing press – we don’t want to ban certain sites, just like we don’t want to ban books – it’s a bad idea. The new technologies bring side effects that are unwanted – in this case non-fact checked sites that just spew, not just spewing hate but false information – which in many ways is even worse – I mean the hate, the bigotry stuff you can see it – it’s obvious and anybody that has a brain and a heart can ignore it – but the information that’s not quite true – not crazy stuff like ‘Aliens are running the world.. lizards living in Mexico…’ you know – no one believes that – it’s more of the stuff that you know ‘I heard that whatever..’ is some political thing – we get back to the problem of baloney detection, we have to have certain critical questions that we ask before we accept things as true – and that’s what we’re here for – that’s what you do, that’s what I do – we’re all out there pushing back, push back, push back – and that there is many people who are aware that there you can’t just believe everything that you read on the internet.
Adam Ford: Okay – on the theme of being scientifically minded – in what ways have you personally updated your belief based on new evidence – what have you changed your mind about? (it could be something that happened yonks ago, or recently)
Michael Shermer: Well both, I used to be a born again Christian and a creationist and I abandoned both of those beliefs when I saw the facts didn’t support it. More recently, I used to be always in favor of the death penalty – mainly out of sympathy for the victims families – but then that always kind of went against my libertarian beliefs because I’m always hesitant about having the state having too much power; I was always slightly conflicted about that. Then when I was writing ‘The Moral Arc’ I really looked into the literature on ‘does it deter crime?’ – no, ‘does it deter homicides?’ – no. Because most of these crimes and homicides are committed in acts of emotional outbursts – usually there’s some moralistic component to it – it’s not a thought through rational calculation by a rational agent saying ‘okay I can get the Rolex watch, I can steal the car but I might face the death penalty’ – there’s no calculations like that anyway. And worst of all the corruption of the criminal justice system and too many people have very likely been put to death and are sitting on death row who don’t belong there – we know that for sure 100% over 200 have been exonerated through DNA alone – these are mostly rape homicide cases where there’s a rape case still in the archives that can be tested using DNA introduced in the 90s and that’s changed everything. And it’s come out that not only that but also a lot of police departments and criminal justice systems are not very efficient – not just corruption but also relying on things like eye-witness testimony which is not reliable. I’d like to air on the side of keeping too much power from the state – the power to kill people – the death penalty, also I’m sympathetic to the victims families yes but prison is a pretty rotten place to be and maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing that the person who killed your loved one is at least rotting away on one of these hell holes – maybe it would feel better … I don’t know, there’s just too many problems with the death penalty. Gun control – I think we should have some gun control – some background checks – just basic stuff that most people think is reasonable – I used to be against those, now I’m for those. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.
Adam Ford: Awesome! Well next question would be: what invention or idea do you think will change ‘everything’?
Michael Shermer: Yeah – that was one the Brockman Edge.org questions – I can’t remember what my answer was now – but I think it was the scientific method – the way of science – it’s already been invented but just keep doing more of it. Obviously some big ones like the internet a game changer for sure. But the problem is I don’t even know what we don’t know – if you asked that question of Homo Erectus 2 million years ago, it would be ‘oh I think better stone tools are going to change everything’ – they’re not thinking ‘I need more bandwidth’ for my internet – they don’t even know what they don’t know – we didn’t even know about the internet say 25 years ago – 50 years ago, whatever. There was no such thing.. yeah well you know if in 50 years 125 – I don’t know, I really don’t – I think that one big thing would be .. you know my next book is called ‘Heavens on earth – the quest for immortality’ – I’ve been reading a lot about radical life extension, cryonics..
Adam Ford: You know that’s an interest of mine – I don’t believe in immortality – but I certainly think that radical life extension is possible in theory, in principle, it’s just that I don’t think we have any clear signs of it happening within our lifetimes – but it might happen in our lifetimes – and I’m open to that and I’ll certainly be all for it. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Aubrey de Grey and a number of other people – that have pretty concrete predefined testable theories about whether this will work or not.. so lets see.
Michael Shermer: So I mean in terms of what would be a break through – it’s not getting people to live 200 years, 500 years or whatever – I think it’s getting more people to live quality lives into their 80s, 90s and even into their 100s – the maximum life span is about 125 – no one’s ever going to make it past that and there are genetic reasons for that – that we can’t yet solve involving the telomeres and all that – but instead of worrying about that, let’s just link certain problems like alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease – the things that take you out or make you miserable at the end of your life, you know.. (Adam: Extending health-span) yes.. instead of living from 80-90 or 90-100 bed ridden, miserable and unable to walk – that’s not living – so that would be a goal for people that do that kind of research to aim for – you know I mean people I interviewed for my book say ‘sure, don’t you want to live to be 500?’ – my response is just get me to 100 without being senile, bed ridden with tubes in my stomach and just completely out of it – I don’t want to live like that – I’m not worried about 500 years – I just want to get to 100 and have a good healthy life…
Adam Ford: See how you feel when you get to 100, and the new generations of medicine are out and about then – then you can decide whether you want to continue to live – if you’re miserable and sad you may not want to continue – and that’s the thing, it’s a useful technology to give people choice about whether they want to continue to exist or not – and I think that’s interesting.
Micheal Shermer: Yeah well the polls on it show that most people say that they would not want to live beyond usually about 80 to 85 years – and you know, I think they are just not thinking this through carefully – they are thinking they are going to be bed ridden or whatever – of course, no one wants to live like that – but in fact if you were healthy and said well ‘you have a death sentence, you are going to die a week from tomorrow – but if you take this pill you will live an extra year – would you like to do that?’ – ‘Oh, yeah of course’ – yeah and so take it forward another year and make the same offer ‘yeah, I’ll take one more year’… and one more year, and one more year! As long as you’re healthy and reasonably happy .. of course we can see if we can op that – no ones going to go ‘no, I’m done’ – well unless your suicidal – the average healthy, happy person is not going to say ‘I’m done now’ – because of some philosophical, metaphysical notion of ‘we should only live as long as is normal or natural’ – well what that means is most of us would have been dead long ago anyway because there is very little natural in modern medicine – the whole point of medicine is to overcome those natural problems that disease and just entropy – just the assault on the body and brain that we are learning to reverse or avoid.
Adam Ford: Have you interviewed Liz Parrish at all? (Michael: no, I don’t know Liz) – well this is something interesting – there are a number of people who are interested in rejuvenating the telomeres (with the aid of telomerase) without causing cancer – there are some people who seem to be making some in-roads – but I don’t know what kind of test need to be done to justify whether they have made any success – and whether they will take 30 years to do the test or not. But it is interesting that there are people working on that problem knowing that if you just do it in a hap-hazard way you might end up causing disease – like causing cancer.
Michael Shermer: That’s right pleiotropy .. (Adam: Antagonistic pleiotropy?) .. yeah that’s right – so you have to be careful about that – but I was encouraged to see that it looks like drinking beer might be good for oneself so maybe Aubrey de Grey is on to something there – you know he loves beer (Adam: he certainly does) – and so do I so hey okay!
Adam Ford: Well the last joint question is: What are you most concerned about and what are you most optimistic about with reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine or mathematics)?
Michael Shermer: Well, I guess more broadly – first, concern about Islamic terrorism, and fundamentalist religion and in general and Islamic terrorism in particular – I don’t think it’s an existential threat – they’re not going to take over the western world – that’s not going to happen – you know but it can cause a lot of carnage and that’s a concern. The continued reduction of nuclear weapons I think is important – I want to look forward to more of that. In terms of STEM and continuing to promote science – is just we don’t want any setbacks. This idea that political ideology or economic ideology or religious beliefs trump scientific facts… no, no, no, no, no! We have to change our beliefs to fit the facts and not vice versa – that’s a deep rooted human problem within our nature to want to be right regardless of the facts, in the teeth of counter evidence – it’s called cognitive dissonance, the more you commit to a particular belief and you confront facts that contradict it the more likely you are to spin doctor the facts rather than your beliefs and that’s a very human problem – every body does it – you know so I think that’s an area we need more work on – not just understanding how it works, we know how cognitive dissonance works, but what to do about it – so long as we’re working on that. So that’s what I’m optimistic about!
Adam Ford: And I’m optimistic about the Science March!
Michael Shermer: Yes right I’m not it – lets go, let’s do it!
Adam Ford: So I hope people get involved and show to the world just how interested people are in science. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again! So I hope we cross paths again!
Michael Shermer: Oh we will, well definitely when my book comes out next January we’ll do another conversation.
Alright take care, cheers!

March for Science – 22nd April 2017!