December 6, 2013 11:35 am
The wisdom of the crowd has a patchy record. Crowds have condemned innocent people to death; they have caused revolutions and brought rights to the oppressed. But when it comes to predicting global events, crowds may actually be quite smart.
How smart, exactly? The U.S. government is backing a project that aims to see just how good a mob of people might be at predicting the future. It’s basically a contest to build a predictive technology; it’s called the Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) Program; and it’s run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). The ACE Program’s goal is to “dramatically enhance the accuracy, precision, and timeliness of intelligence forecasts for a broad range of event types, through the development of advanced techniques that elicit, weight, and combine the judgments of many intelligence analysts.”
The Good Judgement Project is one of the teams competing in the ACE contest. You can sign up to participate if you think you’re a good forecaster of the future and want to play on the Good Judgement team. Here’s how they sell it:
If you are invited to join the Good Judgment Team, we can promise you the chance to: (1) learn about yourself (your skill in predicting – and your skill in becoming more accurate over time as you learn from feedback and/or special training exercises); (2) contribute to cutting-edge scientific work on both individual-level factors that promote or inhibit accuracy and group- or team-level factors that contribute to accuracy; and (3) help us distinguish better from worse approaches to generating forecasts of importance to national security, global affairs, and economics.
Basically, the Good Judgement Project is using the IARPA game as “a vehicle for social-science research to determine the most effective means of eliciting and aggregating geopolitical forecasts from a widely dispersed forecaster pool.” They’re interested in learning just how accurate crowd wisdom can be. The government is interested in accurate predictions. So the partnership makes sense.
Some of the current questions the crowd is considering include:
Will America and EU reach a trade deal ?
Will Turkey get a new constitution ?
Will talks on North Korea’s nuclear program resume ?
Here, NOVA scienceNOW dives into these kinds of crowd prediction projects:
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December 5, 2013 2:55 pm
To grow a crop of apples, an apple tree needs a balance of light, water, temperature and carbon dioxide. It also needs nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium. In nature, one of these things is always going to be in limited supply, controlling a plant’s growth. Adding more water won’t do a thing if the tree is short on phosphorus; more carbon dioxide is no use if it’s too hot. The science of crop productivity is, in a way, the science of managing limiting resources.
Modern farming techniques, such as chemical fertilizers, irrigation and greenhouses, are meant to try to control the supply of these resources. Organic farmers, who do not use chemical fertilizers, still try to manage their crops’ resources, often by spreading manure or organic fertilizers. But crop yields from organic farming tend to be lower than those from conventional agriculture. And without a steady stream of nutrients flowing from conventional farms to organic ones, says a new study by a team of French researchers led by Benjamin Nowak, organic crop yields would likely be even lower still.
In their study, Nowak and his colleagues tracked the flow of nutrients through organic farms. They found that the bulk of the nutrients used in French organic farms still ultimately came by way of conventional agriculture:
Nutrients entered the organic farms mainly through fertilizing materials (manures and fertilizers) and, to a lesser extent, through feedstuffs, fodders and straws. More than 80% of nutrient inﬂows through manures (82%, 85% and 81% for [nitrogen], [phosphorous] and [potassium], respectively) and more than 95% of [nitrogen] and [phosphorous] inﬂows through fertilizers came from conventional farming, whereas 61% of [potassium] inﬂows through fertilizers came from mineral sources. Approximately half of the fodders and straws came from conventional farming, whereas all of the feedstuffs came from organic farming.
The nutrients in the manure and organic fertilizers, the scientists say, do not exclusively come from chemical fertilizers, though much of it does. In general, roughly a quarter of the nitrogen, three-quarters of the phosphorous, and half of the potassium on the organic farms had originated at a conventional farm.
Our results suggest that organic farming strongly relies on conventional farming, especially for [phosphorus] and in the case of stockless farming. This should be of interest for future scenarios on global food production.
Organic agriculture food production rates are currently around 75 percent to 80 precent of those of conventional agriculture, but the authors suggest that, if organic agriculture takes off in place of conventional agriculture, these production rates could drop further.
“[A]ccounting for nutrient ﬂows from conventional to organic farming and, therefore, indirect reliance of organic farming on manufactured fertilizer,” the authors write, may undermine the idea of a fully organic agricultural system.
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December 5, 2013 2:07 pm
Roughly 1.1 billion years ago, America tried to rip itself in half.
The Midcontinental Rift System nearly created a continent far different than the one we know today. A nearly 2,000 mile gash in the Earth undercut the Great Lakes. This could have been the seed for a new ocean. The rift began splitting Michigan in two, wrenching Wisconsin and Minnesota apart, and bisecting the Midwestern states. It would have been the source of new earth, as lava pumped up from deep within the planet. As new crust formed in the rift, the eastern and western chunks of North America would have been pushed apart, an ocean filling in the gap.
But, for some reason, the rift failed, says Nature:
It opened a 3,000-kilometre crack in North America and created a basin as big, perhaps, as the Red Sea — then the system shut down. The wound stopped growing and the continent remained intact.
America got to stay as one. But the scar is still there: buried beneath younger layers of boulders and sand, the copper- and nickel-rich rocks, the signs of long-cooled lava—the traces of what could have been.
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December 3, 2013 1:21 pm
The stereotype of Neanderthals as big-boned brutes is evaporating rapidly. Recent research has detailed their penchant for highly-refined tools, self-expression through art, and a love of the grill. And now a new study, led by Julien Riel-Salvatore, has found that Neanderthals didn’t just decorate their cave all willy-nilly. Rather, they laid out their homes with care, with different parts of the cave being used for different purposes in a repeated, reliable way.
This research isn’t the first to reveal Neanderthals’ interior design chop, but more evidence only adds to the argument that they, too, practiced what was thought to have been an exclusively human behavior. Riel-Salvatore and his team dug through the history of occupation of a cave in Italy that’s known as Riparo Bombrini,and they say that over thousands of years, the cave was used multiple times, often in different ways. Sometimes it was a foraging base camp, sometimes a longer term home. Depending on how the cave was being used, says Riel-Salvatore, the cave’s décor—the fire and workspaces and the room where hunted game was cleaned and prepared—was laid out differently.
When Neanderthals were living in the cave for longer periods at a time, the researchers say, they often kept a fire place, or hearth, at the back of the cave, where its warmth and light would permeate the living space. Messy or dangerous activities, like making stone tools or cleaning animals, were given their own spaces. The findings, says Riel-Salvatore and the team in the paper, suggests that “noisome activities likely took place away from the back of the shelter and that this was likely especially true for activities that generated animal refuse liable to rot and/or draw pests or carnivores to the site.”
The team also found that when the Neanderthals came back to the cave, again and again over the years, they tended to use the caves’ space in similar ways, tweaked to suit their needs, suggesting there was a method to their design schemes.
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December 2, 2013 3:23 pm
Obesity is a complex problem—the result of geography, economics, culture, class, personal choice and personal genetics—and the combination of these factors has led to more than a third of American adults being considered obese. And here’s another factor in this equation: journalist Kristin Wartman writes in the New York Times that new research is showing how diets of pregnant and breast-feeding women can bias their kids towards fatty foods. When expectant or new mom’s fill their diet with junk food, she says, it can affect their baby’s brain’s chemical reward pathways and set the babies up to seek more of the same.
The tastes you grew up with, the researchers say, tend to stick with you. “This early exposure leads to an imprinting-like phenomenon such that those flavors are not only preferred but they take on an emotional attachment,” says psychologist Gary Beauchamp. Pretty much everything you do affects the structure of your brain, and food is no different. If those foods you’re exposed to as a child—either in the womb or through breast milk—are energy-dense foods, like many junk foods, your brain will adapt to those foods. Wartman:
Mothers who were fed foods like Froot Loops, Cheetos and Nutella during pregnancy had offspring that showed increased expression of the gene for an opioid receptor, which resulted in a desensitization to sweet and fatty foods. “The best way to think about how having a desensitized reward pathway would affect you is to use the analogy of somebody who is addicted to drugs,” Jessica R. Gugusheff, a Ph.D. candidate at FoodPlus and the lead author of the study, wrote in an email. “When someone is addicted to drugs they become less sensitive to the effects of that drug, so they have to increase the dose to get the same high,” she wrote. “In a similar way, by having a desensitized reward pathway, offspring exposed to junk food before birth have to eat more junk food to get the same good feelings.”
So, add another layer to the complexities of obesity, and the realization that though junk foods tastes pretty good to all of us, for some it takes a little more to hit the sweet spot.
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