The Fallacy of Complexity

By Doug Marman

Even the simplest organisms are amazingly complicated. This is why scientists who focus on the origin of life often study complexity. They try to find ways that intricate patterns can emerge from simple algorithms. They hope that this will give us clues on how cellular life evolved. This is a fallacy.

The mistake comes from confusing complexity, in general, with the specific kind of intricacies we find in living things. There is so much vague thinking about this subject that many scientists think that generating any kind of complexity can help solve the mystery of life. Countless hours have been wasted on this pursuit.

Professor Sharon Glotzer talks with some engineering students. Photo from University of Michigan.

A recent article raises this issue again. “A ‘Digital Alchemist’ Unravels the Mysteries of Complexity” describes the fascinating work of Sharon Glotzer and her 33-person team, at the University of Michigan.

Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”[1]

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The Reproducibility Crisis of Psychology and What It Is Trying to Tell Us

By Doug Marman

Over the last few years, a raging crisis has hit the field of psychology: Most published studies can’t be replicated by others. For example, 100 experiments published by highly respected psychology journals were recently tested and only 36% produced results in agreement with the original reports.[1] This is called the “reproducibility crisis.”

It’s a complicated problem. It isn’t caused by fraud, except in rare cases. Many factors are involved, as explained by this article. For example, designing psychology experiments is more difficult than it sounds, and drawing conclusions often involves complex statistical analysis. Even the experiments aimed at reproducing experiments have been found wanting.[2]

This has created a rift among psychologists, with half saying that the problem is more about the way reproducibility tests are run, with the other half feeling “the academic ground give up beneath their feet.” This led one reporter to ask:

“Crisis or not, if we end up with a more rigorous approach to science, and more confidence in what it tells us, surely that is a good thing?”[3]

No, I don’t think that is the answer. In fact, I believe it will make the reproducibility problem worse. The rigorous approach of traditional science is part of the problem. It is time to put a spotlight on how objectivity can interfere with psychology experiments. Otherwise, we are going to continue casting doubt on valid scientific experiments.

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Understanding Our Holographic Universe

By Doug Marman

A sketch of the timeline of the holographic Universe. Time runs from left to right. The far left is blurry because space and time are not yet well defined. Patterns from those early formative times shaped the development of stars and galaxies in the Universe today (far right). Credit: Paul McFadden.

Scientists from the UK, Canada, and Italy, recently announced the first empirical evidence that our universe is “holographic.” Unfortunately, the meaning of this is often confused. Even the scientists who published the report seem to be getting it wrong.

For example, one of the authors of the study, Kostas Skenderis, explained it this way:

“Imagine that everything you see, feel, and hear in three dimensions (and your perception of time) in fact emanates from a flat two-dimensional field. The idea is similar to that of ordinary holograms, where a three-dimensional image is encoded in a two-dimensional surface, such as in the hologram on a credit card. However, this time, the entire Universe is encoded.”

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How Can Anything Be Half Alive?

By Doug Marman and Alan Rayner

(This article has also been published on BestThinking.com: https://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/genetics_and_molecular_biology/how-can-anything-be-half-alive-)

A new understanding of biology shows that life originates in a community and that individuality evolves when beings work together.

Cells that spawned all of life on our planet appear to have lived in hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Cells that spawned all of life on our planet appear to have lived in hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Recently, we published a paper showing a new way of looking at the foundation of life: as a relationship between a lifeform and its habitat. If we use this lens, the origin of life suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Now here comes a new study that’s been reported in The NY Times, Smithsonian.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Independent and others, that identifies the genetic makeup of the cells from which all life on this planet descended. These mother cells are called the “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA). But the microbiologists who reported this news went on to say that it appears as if LUCA was only “half-alive.” How can anything be half-alive?

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