Category Archives: Science and Technology

Sprint reading – at what cost?

There’s a check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. There is, however, a non-magical way to read (and comprehend) more quickly. We all have so much to read these days. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read it faster? The possibility that this fond wish could actually be granted by technology is what’s driving the buzz about Spritz, a new speed-reading app that debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and will soon come loaded on new Samsung devices. (For now, you can try out Spritz on this demonstration page.) Its makers claim that Spritz allows users to read at staggeringly high rates of speed: 600 or even 1,000 words per minute. (The average college graduate reads at a rate of about 300 words per minute.) Spritz can do this, they say, by circumventing the limitations imposed by our visual system.

It is true that “our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” as cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes in his book Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read.

But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place — and quickly, quickly, others follow.

RSVP has been studied by scientists for years, and it does appear to bypass the speed limit imposed by eye movements during normal reading. But there’s another check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. When we read really fast — especially in complex or difficult material — our understanding of the text suffers. (I’m put in mind of the old Woody Allen joke: He speed-read War and Peace, he cracks, and came away with the insight that “it’s about Russia.”)

But all is not lost for those of us who would like to read faster, at least some of the time — because there does exist an “app” of sorts that has been proven to allow faster reading and complete comprehension. It’s called expertise. In their forthcoming book,Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

Expertise has its own limits, of course. Becoming an expert is a long, slow process, and each of us can develop true expertise in only a few areas. But reading with the aid of this “brain app” permits us to read swiftly and with depth and understanding — while reading with an app like Spritz allows us only to read simply, foolishly fast.

What’s new in Big Brother Technology?

Does an increase in surveillance correlate with safety in cities?

Concepts: Orwellian societies, Big Brother (from George Orwell’s 1984), Surveillance, Rights/Freedoms, control, power, dehumanisation

Using surveillance to make cities safer

Thursday, 14 Nov 2013 | 7:41 PM ET

In the final episode of our theme week on ‘Innovation Cities,’ Tom Mackenzie takes a look at the new technology designed to help make us all more secure.

Singapore may already have one of the lowest crime rates in the world, but this has not stopped authorities there to push for further innovations in security. Its one-year Safe City pilot program is testing out a range of advanced technologies in the hope of improving public safety.

Singapore’s government has worked with Accenture, the management and technology consultancy, using video analytics to help stop crime. Facial recognition technology is used on streets to identify suspects, suspected gang members, and those on wanted lists.

(Read more: Minority report: Predicting where to put your policeman)

“We’re still in the early stages of that program, but we’re hoping that there will be results showing that this technology can make a real difference to public safety in a more cost-effective way, but also in a more effective way,” Ger Daly, Global Managing Director of Defense and Public Safety, Accenture, said in a report for CNBC’s Innovation Cities.

As well as using facial recognition software, the technology developed by Accenture can scan the way we move and assess whether a crime is being committed. “Now the technology can even detect patterns, so for example people fighting or break-ins at shops,” Daly added.

“It can pick up that behavior just from the shapes and the movement of the people and generate an alert even if nobody is watching that television feed.”

(Read more: Basque Country reaches out to the elderly)

For some, the use of this kind of technology conjures visions of Orwell’s Big Brother: where our every single movement and action is surveyed by the state. But Daly argues this kind of technology is already in use. “Biometric data has become a very important part of identifying people, it can be your fingerprints, it can be your iris, but it could also be your face,” he said.

“The technology is there, today…to really uniquely identify you and me and other people just by the patterns and shape of our face,” he added. “What maybe people don’t realize is that they’re actually using it already today. All new passports have… the chip symbol. It has your personal information on it, same as what’s printed on the passport. But it also has your face as a biometric identifier.”

Tracking illegal activity and criminals using facial recognition is one thing. Being alerted to offences by sounds is another. ShotSpotter, a U.S. company, has developed innovative acoustic surveillance technology that can detect gunfire and alert authorities to its location.

Joern Haufe | Getty Images

(Read more: Cities take some decongestant)

In 2011, the Minneapolis Police Department used ShotSpotter to great effect. “The system that we have of integrating our public safety cameras with ShotSpotter… [was] able to help us identify and catch the suspects in a homicide,” Commander Scott Gerlicher said this week.

“When we had a drive by shooting at a local convenience store, the ShotSpotter audio system captured the shots and our camera, which happened to be located at the corner where this incident occurred, also captured video tape of the vehicle actually doing the shooting,” he added.

With rapid advancements in security technology, are we nearing a future when police officers on the ground become redundant? “Technology has its limitations and it’s not meant to replace police officers,” Gerlicher said.

“But I think it’s been proven time and time again that technology, if used appropriately, can greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of delivering police services to a community.”


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How science goes wrong

Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself

A SIMPLE idea underpins science: “trust, but verify”. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.

But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.

Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (see article). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.  [read fullContinue reading

Unreliable Science and the deception of ‘statistical power’

Trouble at the lab

Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not

Oct 19th 2013 |From the print edition – Read full length here

I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry.

To err is all too common

It is tempting to see the priming fracas as an isolated case in an area of science—psychology—easily marginalised as soft and wayward. But irreproducibility is much more widespread. A few years ago scientists at Amgen, an American drug company, tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer, often co-operating closely with the original researchers to ensure that their experimental technique matched the one used first time round. According to a piece they wrote last year in Nature, a leading scientific journal, they were able to reproduce the original results in just six. Months earlier Florian Prinz and his colleagues at Bayer HealthCare, a German pharmaceutical giant, reported in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, a sister journal, that they had successfully reproduced the published results in just a quarter of 67 seminal studies.

The governments of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, spent $59 billion on biomedical research in 2012, nearly double the figure in 2000. One of the justifications for this is that basic-science results provided by governments form the basis for private drug-development work. If companies cannot rely on academic research, that reasoning breaks down. When an official at America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) reckons, despairingly, that researchers would find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters of all published biomedical findings, the public part of the process seems to have failed.  Continue reading

The misconduct of science

WOLLERAU, SWITZERLAND – Scientific fraud, plagiarism, and ghost writing are increasingly being reported in the news media, creating the impression that misconduct has become a widespread and omnipresent evil in scientific research. But these reports are more an example of sensationalist media latching on to a hot topic than a true account of the deterioration of scientific values.

This illustration is by John Overmyer and comes from <a href=""></a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.
Illustration by John Overmyer

Far from being the norm in scientific research, fraud and cheating are rare exceptions, and are usually quickly identified by other scientists. And the public seems to understand this. Indeed, trust and confidence in scientific research have not been seriously undermined by reports of misconduct. Nor have these rare incidents curtailed scientific progress, which is so valuable to humankind.

To be sure, even a few cases of scientific misconduct are too many. Scientists are expected to be beacons of hope in the search for knowledge – and clever enough not to try to get away with cheating. Preventive mechanisms are in place to hold responsible the few who take the gamble. But, while the scientific community – including academic and professional institutions, agency heads, managers, and editors – is often reluctant to handle cases of misconduct rigorously, the reputation of science as a whole is at stake, not just that of a person, institution, journal, or national science entity.



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Science is not the enemy of the Humanities

Steven Pinker for The New Republic

(and read the response here: Crimes against Humanities – now science wants to invade the Liberal Arts

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

We don’t have to fantasize about this scenario, because we are living it. We have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of. This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in BookforumThe Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review OnlineThe New Atlantis, The New York Times, andStandpointContinue reading

We have a duty to put our faith in science, not trample on it

Will Hutton, The Observer, 25 May 2012

The patron saint of the British Industrial Revolution was Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher and crusading apostle for science. His passionate advocacy of the scientific method and belief in science’s ability to banish superstition – allowing nature to be harnessed for humankind’s betterment – was light years ahead of his time. The Royal Society was founded 34 years after his death as the scientific academy he wanted to create.

Almost every successful Anglo-Saxon inventor and industrialist during the next 250 years – from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Faraday – paid tribute to his inspiration. He was the Enlightenment man before the Enlightenment, and one important reason why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain.

Francis Bacon’s spirit will be sorely lacking in Harpenden today. Take the Flour Back is organising a day of “mass protest” around one small field where researchers from government-funded Rothamsted Research are growing a strain of wheat that resists being eaten by aphids. So far, so good – it could hugely boost wheat yields. The trouble is that this variety of wheat has been developed in a laboratory with scientists blending the seeds’ genes with a gene that gives the wheat a smell that frightens off the insects in a way that could never happen in nature. Take the Flour Back wants the wheat, now a foot tall, uprooted and the threat of its pollen contaminating the surrounding countryside removed. Continue reading

Will science ever answer the Big Questions?

Unless the pursuit of dreadfulness results in a tie, each year will possess its own worst book. But identifying the winner in this dubious competition poses difficulties. Surely even a well-read literary editor of The New Republic must wonder whether among all those inevitably unturned pages lurks something even more atrocious than his favorite candidate. How then could Leon Wieseltier select THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Norton, $25.95), by Alex Rosenberg, as the “worst book” of 2011?

Although the award is almost certainly misplaced, what inspired it is readily understood. The book expands the campaign of militant modern atheism, the offensive launched against religion by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Rosenberg’s broadsides attack a wider horizon. Since atheism is thought to be territory already secured, the targets now in view are the Big Questions, questions about morality, purpose and consciousness that puzzle softheaded people who muddle over them. Science brings good news. The answers are now all in. This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism” — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor. Continue reading

Stem-cell medicine: more hope than just hype?

Alice Park, The Economist 

THE unrelenting pace of scientific accomplishment often outstrips the progress of moral thought, leaving people struggling to make sense, initially at least, of whether heart transplants are ethical or test-tube babies desirable. Over the past three decades scientists have begun to investigate a branch of medicine that offers astonishing promise—the ability to repair the human body and even grow new organs—but which destroys early-stage embryos to do so. In “The Stem Cell Hope” Alice Park, a science writer at Timemagazine, chronicles the scientific, political, ethical and personal struggles of those involved in the work.

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent: they have the ability to change into any one of the 200-odd types of cell that compose the human body; but they can do so only at a very early stage. Once the bundle has reached more than about 150 cells, they start to specialise. Research into repairing severed spinal cords or growing new hearts has thus needed a supply of stem cells that come from entities that, given a more favourable environment, could instead grow into a baby. Continue reading

Why scientists are smarter than politicians

TIME, Jeffrey Kluger, 30 Sept 2011

One of the best things about being an artist is that nobody can tell you you’re doing things wrong. There’s no true or false in a Picasso painting, no yes or no in a Mahler composition. That, of course, is how it should be. The opposite is true for science — and that’s how it should be too. The scientific method is defined by the search for the irreducible truth. The riddle of a disease isn’t solved till you’ve isolated the virus; no particle is fully understood till it’s been successfully smashed. It’s not for nothing that recent news of a neutrino that may have traveled .0025% faster than light is causing such a stir.  If that vanishingly tiny anomaly can’t be resolved and disproven, a century of physics could collapse.

But the stone walls between art and science aren’t nearly as thick as they seem; indeed, in some ways they’re entirely permeable. That’s a lesson we badly need to learn if we’re going to make sound policy decisions in an era in which science and politics seem increasingly at odds.

In the Oct. 3 issue of TIME, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall of Harvard University made a plea for greater deference to reason in the still-young but already-ugly 2012 presidential campaign. Randall lamented “the fundamental disregard for rational and scientific thinking” in a political culture in which Texas governor Rick Perry can dismiss evolution as “merely a theory that’s out there,” and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann can traffic in poppycock about the HPV vaccine causing mental retardation. Continue reading