Both Ringel and Kovrizhin have since come out to say they were surprised by the headlines generated by their study on simulation theory because, as Ringel told New Scientist, whether or not we live in a computer simulation is not even a scientific question.
Although versions of it existed earlier, simulation theory was made popular in 2003 by Oxford philosopher Nicholas Bostrom. That year, he published a paper that basically proposed the idea that an extremely powerful computer could model the entire mental history of humankind.
Some deduced that this meant that our very existence could be that simulated model, a proposition that was made even more popular thanks to the likes of Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said that chances that we’re living in reality is only a billion-to-one, while the astrophysicist said the likelihood that we’re living inside someone’s computer is 50-50.
Working With Observables
All this talk of computer simulated reality brings us back to a fundamental idea about science: it deals with what can be observed and replicated. Simulation theory is impossible to test and is, therefore, not an area of scientific research.
“To me, both the ‘are we living in a simulation’ question and any response to it based on current computer knowledge is silly,” theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, told New Scientist. “Bostrom’s paper assumes that there is an interest from a hyper-advanced civilisation [sic] in simulating the past, that is, retroactively. Usually it’s the other way around – we look forward with computers.”
Gleiser added that trying to explore this concept using our current knowledge and technology is both risky and tricky. We don’t really know how versatile and powerful quantum computers could be once the technology is perfected, and living in a simulation could mean that we don’t really have access to the laws of physics in a “real world.”
If that’s true, we can’t begin to assume what’s possible outside the constraints of a simulated world. Remember Neo? He had no idea that the world outside The Matrix was dominated by machines. We’d be in a similar situation.
“In my opinion the question is much more fiction than science,” said Gleiser. Or more philosophy with a scientific tinge. After all, Bostrom is a philosopher, though his theory does live at the intersection of science and philosophy.
This development really draws attention to the idea that science and philosophy are predominantly trying to answer the same question: “Why?” And often philosophers grasp for science to answer parts of that question, and scientists occasionally look to philosophy to inspire the questions they try to prove. However, the fields are vastly different practices that only begin to overlap when we try to answer the most fundamental question of “How and why did we get here?”
For years, researchers have asserted that teaching young people how to thrive in the STEM industries will help them succeed in this future workforce. However, amidst a climate of science denial, some experts argue that education is lagging behind the rapid economic developments in motion all over the world.
University of Helsinki professor of pedagogy Kristiina Kumpulainen is one such expert. “Society and the demands of the workforce are changing at a rapid rate, as is our perception of what to teach children and what they need to know to survive,” she explained to Scientific American. “The school environment, teaching methods, and the content aren’t relatable or inspiring to them any longer, which creates motivational problems.”
Furthermore, according to Carnegie Mellon University STEM education experts David Kosbie, Andrew W. Moore, and Mark Stehlik, the U.S. is notably behind peer nations. Only about 40 percent of U.S. schools teach programming, and the programs of those that do vary widely in terms of rigor and quality. In one-third of U.S. states, computer science credits don’t count toward graduation requirements.
In contrast, Israel, the U.K., Germany, and Russia have all integrated computer science into their school curricula for children. And while President Obama’s 2016 “Computer Science for All” initiative was an important step, the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration and the educational priorities of the new Department of Education leadership threaten to jeopardize the program, which is already reliant upon private funding since Congress has not approved its budget.
Teaching STEM to Children
Research has shown that connecting educational experiences to real-life opportunities is an effective way to get students excited about what they’re learning. Engagement is always an educational challenge, but because young students are prone to perceiving STEM subjects in particular as boring, nerdy, or dull, there are additional hurdles in this area.
When learning happens in a vacuum, without those real-world connections, teachers have an even tougher time engaging students and inspiring them to feel passionate and motivated.
Fun STEM initiatives can help combat these problems.
Apps like Detective Dot, which teaches coding through storytelling, can make learning and applying coding and STEM skills enjoyable and provide students with positive, diverse images of children excelling in STEM subjects. Math circles have been growing in popularity, and these provide an imaginative, safe space for children to learn to love math and acquire new skills.
First Robotics teams, Rube Goldberg contests, and other activities from similar programs are popping up across the country, offering kids a chance to work with engineers and other STEM professionals to build robots for competitions.
To further help young people prepare for future STEM careers, professionals working in those industries can partner with schools to mentor, offer their experience, and present on their work. This kind of connection can show students what working in STEM industries is like and help create exciting learning environments in science classrooms.
“Education is everyone’s responsibility. We should be making sure that students know how subjects relate to the industry,” Kerrine Bryan, founder of Butterfly Books, told Scientific American. “What they are learning at school relates to real-life things, and knowing that helps them to make important decisions, such as what further education subjects they want to study or what skills they want to go into.”
It is often thought that science is about data, but at its heart science is about stories. The universe has a story to tell, and through science we can learn a part of that story. When I write about scientific discoveries, I try to tell that story. If I tell the story well, then it becomes both understandable and relevant to readers. But there is a part of the scientific story we don’t often tell. That’s why I’ve been working on a new project.
Many of the breakthroughs in modern science come from big facilities such as ALMA, LIGO and CERN. These are massive projects that require the support of thousands of people. Everything from cooking to engineering comes together to make these facilities possible. Many facilities are also in remote locations. They have a huge impact on the surrounding communities, often entering the sacred spaces of indigenous cultures. The interactions can be filled with tension, but they also enrich this human endeavor we call science.
Part of communicating science is not just how you tell the story but also what stories you choose to tell. For about a year I’ve been working with journalist Mark Gillespie, and Canadian producers Steven Mitchell and Al Magee to develop a new kind of science show. One that will tell the stories behind the science headlines. Steven and Al have decades of experience in television storytelling, and have won several awards for their outstanding work. They also share my desire to present science honestly and without hype. Mark has worked in some of the most remote areas of the world, and knows how bring out stories that are meaningful and powerful.
For the past year we’ve been developing stories and building connections to several science facilities and their surrounding communities. The next step to making the project real is to film a “sizzle reel” demonstrating the show to the networks. It will be filmed on location at Green Bank Observatory. But that’s going to take some funding. So today we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. With your support we can make this project a reality.
1. The impossible EM drive…works? Since first hearing rumors about NASA’s physics-breaking propulsion system late last year, a paper describing their device has passed peer-review, and China claims to be testing their own version in space right now.
And yet, no one can explain how this fuel-less drive is able to violate Newton’s Third Law: everything must have an equal and opposite reaction. If we learn anything this year or next, let’s hope we can get to the bottom of this confounding machine.
2. Humpback whales have been forming mysterious “super-groups,” and we still don’t know why. Back in March, never-before-seen groups of up to 200 whales were appearing off the coast of South Africa, which is weird, because seven is usually the upper limit for these solitary animals.
The behavior could be due to changes in prey availability, or because the species has been making a surprising comeback in recent years, but the jury’s still out on this one.
3. Astronomers have found evidence of a huge ninth planet on the edge of our Solar System — but we still can’t find it, even after NASA recruited thousands of people to search for clues.
But earlier this year, we finally got an official candidate for the mysterious presence, so hopefully we don’t have to wait too much longer to discover what’s truly out there.
4. Archaeologists made a stunning discovery inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza — evidence of a strange void behind the pyramid’s north face, and an unknown cavity high up in its northeastern edge.
It’s suspected that these could represent secret chambers that have eluded researchers and looters alike for thousands of years, and archaeologists are now hoping to non-invasively scan the insides of the giant tomb to figure it out.
5. Can we please figure out the nonsense that is the Tully Monster? This ancient sea creature that’s so messed up, scientists can’t stop arguing over it.
The 300-million-year-old creature had fins like a cuttlefish, eyestalks like a crab, and a rather intimidating “jaw-on-stick,” and this jumble of body parts has seen it compared to everything from molluscs, arthropods, and worms, to more complex vertebrates like lampreys.
Here’s what it might have looked like:
6. We still don’t know what’s causing fast radio bursts — arguably the weirdest phenomena in the known Universe. They’re some of the most explosive signals ever detected in space, but they’re so confounding, some scientists have even resorted to “Aliens?”
But with the exact location for one of these signals being finally pinned down last month, we might be on the brink of figuring out what’s causing them.
7. Three separate experiments have found signs of a phenomenon that goes beyond the standard model of physics, and together they’ve hit a certainty level of 4 standard deviations, indicating a 99.95 percent chance this isn’t a mistake.
If this result can be supported by further experiments, it would have profound implications for our understanding of particle physics, and force scientists to draw up a whole new branch of physics to explain it.
8. The “Alien Megastructure” star that just won’t quit. Located 1,500 light-years away, KIC 8462852 (or Tabby’s star), has been experiencing unprecedented dips in brightness — while most stars experience periodic dimming of about 1 percent, this star has clocked dips of a whopping 22 percent.
9. The US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane just landed after a record-breaking 718 days in orbit, but we still have no idea what it was doing up there.
As officials remain tight-lipped about what the unmanned drone was doing up there for so long, rumors have been circulating that the military might be testing NASA’s EM Drive in space. Can we solve two mysteries in one?
10. NASA can’t explain what made this strange, deep hole on Mars. You’d think its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has seen everything there is to see on the Martian surface during its 11-year orbit, but a snapshot taken over the planet’s South Pole has revealed something we can’t explain.
At 19.7 inches (50 centimeters) per pixel, we’re looking at a feature hundreds of meters across, so did something punch its way through, or is it the result of a massive collapse? Until we get further evidence, your guess is as good as mine.
Elon Musk seems to be making headlines every day with his spaceships and solar panels and gigafactories and colonies on mars and secret tunnels and AI labs and self-driving cars. However, there is one thing he did that might be even more noteworthy yet did not draw nearly as much attention. He didn’t like the way his kids were being educated so he pulled them out of their fancy private school and started his own.
The school’s name is Ad Astra, meaning ‘to the stars’, and seems to be based around Musk’s belief that schools should “teach to the problem, not to the tools.” ‘Let’s say you’re trying to teach people how engines work. A traditional approach would be to give you courses on screwdrivers and wrenches. A much better way would be, here is an engine, now how are we going to take it apart? Well, you need a screwdriver. And then a very important thing happens, the relevance of the tool becomes apparent.’
Musk’s decision highlights a bigger issue, how we educate people needs to change. Education today really isn’t that much different from what it was a hundred years ago. It’s still classrooms crammed full of students all learning the same thing at the same pace from overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated teachers who spend thirty years teaching more or less the same thing.
Parents should be the most concerned. From the time kids are old enough to start school until they are independent enough to make their own decisions, parents consume themselves worrying about their child’s education. It made sense, after all getting your kids a good education was always thought to be the best thing you could do to assure them a bright future. And parents all around the world go to crazy lengths to do whatever they can to make sure their kids get the education they need. They’ll move houses to be in a better school district, spend thousands of dollars a year on after-school and summer programs, and hire tutors, all to make sure little Jimmy or Sally are prepared to face the world of tomorrow.
However for parents today things have gotten even more complicated. The world that the next generation will grow up in will be radically different from anything we have seen in the past. A world filled with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, automation, virtual reality, personalized medicine, self-driving cars, and people on Mars. A world where people might not even have jobs and where society itself may be arranged in fundamentally different ways. How are parents, and society for that matter, supposed to know how to prepare them to succeed in a world that we cannot predict?
It starts by rethinking what a school is. Schools used to be the storehouses of human knowledge and going to school was the best way to learn anything. Now that is no longer the case, knowledge is no longer confined to dusty classrooms or old books. Thanks to the internet it is now accessible to anybody who wants it. All schools have to do is get them to want it.
The role of school should no longer be to fill heads with information, rather it should be a place that inspires students to be curious about the world they live in. Kids are born explorers, when they are young all they want to do is push boundaries and explore the limits of what they can do. Let’s not suffocate that curiosity by making them spend their childhoods preparing for one test after another while adhering to rigid school policies that stifle creativity and independent thought.
The ability to adapt and learn something new should be valued above all else. Gone are the days where you pick a profession and just do that one thing for the rest of your life. People will need to know how to learn something new multiple times over in their lives. Not only because it will be the only way you’ll still be able to contribute to society, but also because our knowledge of the world and who we are is progressing incredibly quickly. If the last time you learned anything new was when you were in school then you will be missing out on the new ways of understandings the world that are constantly opening up.
And this is not just something that we have to worry about for the younger generation, adults will also need to be re-educated as most of the skills they acquired in school will soon be obsolete.
All active learning should be task driven. No more lessons where you jot down notes off a blackboard, rather students are assigned tasks to complete and given all the tools they might need to figure out how to solve the problem. (3d printers, virtual learning environments, interactive displays, a connection to labs and research facilities all around the world, etc.)
Passive learning should not be rigidly structured. Students should be given a topic to learn about and a variety of educational materials to pick from to help them learn, it should then be up to them which they want to use. (podcasts, videos, books, virtual tours, etc.)
Teachers become facilitators of learning. Rather than lecturing everyone, they go from student to student or group to group helping them figure out how to learn what they need to know. Teachers no longer need a deep understanding of the given topic but they should know how to learn about it. Students eventually should also be supplied with their own virtual learning assistant to answer any question they may have and help them stay on task.
Classrooms themselves will need to be redesigned. No more square boxes with rows of desks, the classrooms of the future should be innovative spaces that promote curiosity while fostering creative social interaction with peers.
The goal of education should never be to get an A or pass a test. Making students and parents obsess about grades and scores sucks away all the joy of learning. The goal should be to make students literate in all core subjects and fluent at a select few. Being able to do something that you couldn’t do before or finding a new way of understanding the world is far more rewarding than any score on a piece of paper ever could be.
In addition, education should give people an understanding that the world is not divided up into discreet subjects. Separating knowledge into columns labeled science or history or Chinese is at times pedagogically useful but everyone should realize that the world is not made up of independent subjects, they bleed into each other and none can be fully understood in isolation. Subjects are simply tools to help you understand the world.
Students should also know that no subject is beyond them. We are told lies that some people just can’t do math or can’t draw. Other subjects like physics are presented to us as too dry or too complex for most people to grasp. What should be taught is that a certain level of literacy in any subject is not only attainable by everybody but is necessary to be able to appreciate the world we live in.
Much of this may seem idealistic or unrealistic, but radical change is needed if we are going to figure out how to live in the future we are creating.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats
A leading Canadian researcher sees an opportunity for science and Canada as the United States adjusts to some recent disruptions to the status quo. Among these disruptions was a travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump in January. While that has been temporarily halted by a federal court judge due to potential issues in its constitutionality, another issue involves the current administration’s new budget policies, which cut support and funding for science-related government agencies.
While Bernstein thinks that there are several other reasons why Canada is becoming a more attractive destination for scientists from all over the world, he notes that the current political climate in the U.S. is a significant factor. “It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.
He went on to add that he thinks the U.S. should no longer be considered the default country of choice for young scientists. “It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you,” said Bernstein. “Now I think you should give pause to that. We have pretty good universities here. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”
U.S.’s Loss, Canada’s Gain
Bernstein is not alone in his assessment of the scientific community’s current opinion of the U.S. The country’s own scientists have expressed concerns over these recent developments. “We do know scientists around the world are considering boycotting meetings here,” said Rush Holt, head of the largest science membership organization in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “And they’re demanding the international science society hold their meetings in other countries other than the United States. I don’t like to see that.”
The effects of the new administration’s policies are already felt by science students, too. Iranian biologist Alireza Edraki, who’s based in Massachusetts, told Wired about how his brother’s student visa was cancelled due to the travel ban. Less than two months later, Edraki shared an update on his brother’s status: “He got so many positive responses from so many countries — he got a couple of offers from schools in Canada, Germany, and New Zealand.” Though he accepted one from a New Zealand university, Edraki expects his brother will eventually transfer to a school in Canada.
Mustafa al’Absi, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, thinks that the political climate in the U.S. is creating a climate of fear for scientists. “This is where the burden is: what’s going on in the air more than the facts,” he told Nature. Meanwhile, Canada remains “committed to research, science, evidence-based policy,” Federal Science Minister Kristy Duncan told CBC. “I’m proud of the investments our government made in the last budget. We had $2 billion for research and innovation infrastructure across the country. We made the largest investments in the three federal granting councils in a decade.”
Berstein is hopeful that Canada will take advantage of the opportunity before it: “We didn’t seek this particular position in the world, but the stars are aligned. And I think we’d be making a huge mistake to let it go by without jumping on it and taking advantage of it. So this is our time to be bold and to take advantage of what’s happening in the world.”
Over the past century, science has advanced considerably. It’s broadened in terms of scale and scope, as it now covers the farthest reaches of the known universe. Science has also utilized its own achievements to advance its own capabilities: consider how research has been augmented and assisted by technology, for instance.
Throughout this scientific expansion, one aspect of the process has remained the same — the method. Our concept of what science is, and does, comes from how it the approaches the realities it studies. No matter the topic of study, the scientific method begins with positing a hypothesis (a reasonable guess based on what we know or observe). This has long been the foundation of the scientific method. These hypotheses, once supported by repeated testing, become theories. A theory is widely held to be true, and remains so until disproven. We use theories to explain scientific laws. Laws are universal, always true, and cannot be proven to be wrong.
Do We Always Need Evidence?
One vital component to the scientific method has always been evidence. Evidence supports a theory, and theories explain laws. Without evidence, it would be difficult to prove anything is scientifically conclusive — at least, that’s what we’ve always believed.
“The standard view, of course, is that science relies on evidence,” says Philip Ball, former editor of Nature, who hosted a panel organized by the Institute of Art and Ideas. As science increasingly become more complex, there seems to be some areas where evidence seems lacking. In other areas, some scientists have started to wonder if evidence is even required at all.
The panel tries to address the question: what does evidence mean in science? Are we moving towards an era of science where the importance of evidence has been diminished? Are these cutting edge fields in science — particularly in physics which often deals with complex ideas like string theory and multiverses — “in danger of drifting into fantasy?” as Ball puts it.
As President Trump’s administration continues to cut communication, funding, and support for science-related government agencies, more and more scientists are banding together to protest. Initially, many took to Reddit to discuss their political ideas and concerns, but that conversation quickly grew into much more. The scientists are now a group known as Scientists March on Washington, and on April 22, 2017, they and those in support of scientific progress will, in fact, march on Washington.
Now, this march is explicitly not a partisan move. The motives for the event are rooted in valuing science and research, something that has never been questioned more than in the first days of this new administration. According to the Scientists March on Washington website, “Slashing funding and restricting scientists from communicating their findings (from tax-funded research!) with the public is absurd and cannot be allowed to stand as policy.”
The reasons behind this march are important not only to scientists, but to us all. The continuation of scientific research and communication between scientists and the general public is crucial to the overall progress of our country.
Empirical research is necessary for us to do everything from determining whether or not the food and medications we ingest are safe to figuring out how we can explore deep space. Our continued survival as a species hinges on our ability to perform accurate empirical research. It is imperative that scientists are able to do the work that determines how our climate is changing, how diseases progress and can be treated, and so much more.
Aside from research itself, the ability of scientists to communicate openly with the public about their findings is an essential part of science. If a study, funded through taxes, furthers our understanding of human health, our environment, etc., it is the obligation of that study to inform the American public about its findings. To censor and limit empirical evidence and scientific findings is to blind people to information that they have a right to access.
In addition to the necessity of empirical research and the right that people have to information, the limitations imposed by the current administration and its lack of support for the scientific community would also make it nearly impossible for scientists to collaborate with one another. From recent immigration legislation to the inability of scientists to openly share research findings or secure funding, scientific collaborations will become more and more difficult if we continue down this path.
Eliminating the possibility of collaboration between scientists inside or outside of this country hinders scientific progress, and that progress could be anything from the formulation of an innovative cancer treatment to a groundbreaking discovery in physics.
Whatever political or partisan affiliations a person may have, it cannot be argued that science is not important. Though it’s easy to forget, nearly every aspect of our daily lives is the result of scientific research. From the food we eat to the cars we drive to the air we breathe, everything that we do is affected by science, and we can’t turn our backs on it now.
According to the authors, “Improving the reliability and efficiency of scientific research will increase the credibility of the published scientific literature and accelerate discovery.” If the measures suggested in this manifesto are adopted by both the scientific community and its supporters, the future could hold greater possibilities of innovation and discovery.
Currently, scientific research standards and expectations are falling short. In this manifesto, Ioannidis highlights how “low sample size, small effect sizes, data dredging (also known as P-hacking), conflicts of interest, large numbers of scientists working competitively in silos without combining their efforts, and so on, may conspire to dramatically increase the probability that a published finding is incorrect.”
One large difficulty that is presented in the manifesto is the human tendency to find order in chaos, like faces in clouds, so while a set of data might not be particularly significant, unintended bias can drastically affect the results of a study.
The authors note in the manifesto that biomedical research is particularly flawed. They cite a “meta-research” analysis that determined that 85 percent of research efforts in that field are wasted. According to that analysis, “This pattern—initially promising findings not leading to improvements in health care—has been recorded across biomedical research.”
Not only do these flaws within the scientific community impact the advancement of knowledge, they affect those who fund and support scientific research. If funds and efforts are wasted or misdirected, not only will science not progress, future research funding could be eliminated.
What Can Be Done
It seems that this fundamental issue within scientific research as a whole is insurmountably large. How is it possible to resolve an issue that spans across all scientific fields? The team that wrote the manifesto has its own suggestion on how to put science research back on track.
The report breaks science into four major categories: methods, reporting and dissemination, reproducibility, and evaluation and incentives. These researchers think that improving upon each of these segments in specific ways could reduce cognitive biases and conflicts of interests, improve training and support, increase collaboration in science, encourage transparency, improve the quality of reporting, and diversify peer review.
These concrete and clear actions are an important blueprint for progress that was previously absent. The authors of the manifesto suggest that, while these measures are not meant to be all-encompassing, if they are continually enacted, evaluated, and revised, meaningful change within the scientific community will be possible. That change will then have an impact on the world at large.
“When we are doing science, we are trying to arrive at the truth. In many disciplines, we want that truth to translate into something that works,” said Ioannidis in a press release. “But if it’s not true, it’s not going to speed up computer software, it’s not going to save lives, and it’s not going to improve quality of life.”
The cornerstone of any scientific discovery is fact.
Unfortunately, like other fields and industries, science is just as susceptible to sensationalism. And factors such as commercial and institutional pressure to get published by high-profile journals, and high competition for academic prestige, are slowly eroding the legitimacy and objectivity of scientific research.
It’s a pressing concern that needs to be discussed. And to put the spotlight on this, University of California, Merced researchers created a computer model simulating what happens when scientists compete for jobs and academic prestige.
In the simulation, lab groups received greater rewards for publishing findings deemed ‘novel.’ They had to work harder to be more rigorous about their methods, leading to lower academic output, but improved quality of research. No one intentionally cheated or fudged the results, but over time, effort decreased to its minimum value and the rate of false discoveries rose. The possibility of passing on these shoddy methods to the next generation of scientists working in the lab also became evident.
Announcing something novel and attention-grabbing is incentivized because it captures human interest; which, in turn, gives scientists more support to further their research from grants. This however, runs the risk of lowering the credibility of science because it prompts scientists to embellish or skew papers to gain attention, instead of committing to rigorous methods of research and scientific integrity.
“Scientists are just humans, and if organisations are dumb enough to rate them on sales figures, they will do discounts to reach the targets, just like any other sales person,” says Vince Walsh from University College of London in an interview with The Guardian.
If we want to ensure the credibility and integrity of scientific research and study, then incentives must shift to that kind of science. This means institutions must move away from evaluating scientists quantitatively and instead focus on science that is meaningful and reproducible.
Shining a light on these issues, the researchers believe, will prompt conversations that will spur action on an institutional level.