Cambridge Analytica and the Hacking of Free Will

Stephen Hawking had written in his book The Grand Design that if you give him enough time and enough computer speed (both physically impossible), he can predict all of human behavior based on our molecular information. I think we have some free will, and many things that will happen defend on chance which cannot be predicted. Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect as an example, says that minor actions/changes in the present can lead to major consequences in the future. But I do not know how much of our actions in the present are deterministic, and how much are free will/pure chance. Although I don’t think we can always determine when a butterfly will flap its wings, I think we can predict much of its behavior based on a lot of environmental reasons. And the same is true for humans because we too belong to the animal species and we too share traits common to us as a species, and even as individuals we have certain nature where our reactions to certain can be predicted with good probability.

What Cambridge Analytica did is something I have written for years, and something I knew can be and will be eventually done. For most of the last six to seven years, the question I have pondered the most is “why do humans believe and behave the way they do?” The deeper I have dived into neuroscience and psychology, the less I have believed in the concept of complete free will. As I have studied humans as a species and observed individuals and their nature, many of what we do can be predicted. At the very least, nothing about human behavior has surprised me in the last 4 years or so, not even the election of Donald Trump. We might consider ourselves to be rational species, yet we react according to our nature. It just so happens that the team we support is the team we were raised with – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion etc. Even the most moderate and rational amongst us will fall for partisanship in certain issues.

We know how certain animal species behave. And as such, we know how to manipulate their behavior and train them according to our needs. We also know the nature of our individual pets along with the general nature of their species. Therefore, how much free will do we really think other animals possess? As such, why should humans be any different because we too are an animal species. We already know how traits are transferred across generations. We can tell if a person inherited an angry nature or a calm nature from their parents or grandparents. We can make good probabilistic predictions as to how a person will react in a certain situation. And that is exactly what Cambridge Analytica did. Although it saddens me how easily voters were manipulated, as a scientist and lover of neuropsychology I am also fascinated at the use of data and understanding of human behavior to predict and influence our actions.

During the 2016 election season I was surprised and annoyed at how nearly all the negative leaks and news were against Hillary Clinton. Considering how extremely popular she was as the Secretary of State up till she declared her candidacy among liberal voters, the sudden change in attitude towards her was certainly surprising. The same voters who despised her also loved Obama, and how much did they really differ? Sure, she supported the Iraq war which he opposed, but then again Obama’s drone campaigns killed countless of innocent civilians. His attitude towards big banks and the corporate elite wasn’t exactly socialistic, regardless of what his Republican detractors said. I saw numerous memes on Facebook about how Bernie’s election would bring in liberal utopia and how there was no difference between Hillary and Trump. Even as someone whose personal beliefs aligns more closely with Bernie Sanders, such messaging and beliefs annoyed me because Presidents cannot make unilateral changes. Just like Obama struggled to keep his promises, Trump is struggling with his promises, Sanders would have struggled in a Republican-controlled Washington. As Obama loved to say and something I believe in, change and progress happens in increments and sometimes in zig-zag fashion. Although the arc of history bends towards justice and progress, such arcs bend over decades and generations. And in these great arcs of history, there would be countless examples of going backwards and forwards while eventually moving towards justice and progress. Too many people felt the primaries were rigged and that baffled me. It is as if the citizens of the oldest democracy in the world did not know how politics worked. As Bernie correctly said, if his campaign’s emails were hacked they wouldn’t have much nice things to say about Hillary. And it was within the right of the DNC to want one of their prime candidates to win their party’s nominations over someone who had never been a member of the party. Unless the elections themselves were rigged, this cannot in the remotest of terms be called rigging. Politicians say and do what they must to win. Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage and his trying to act religious are just par for the course in politics, when people who know him well say he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body and he was for gay marriage since the 90s, except when he conveniently became against it as a candidate in 2008.

Today we know that numerous of these pro-Bernie, pro-Stein news and memes on social media were made by foreign actors to target the DNC and Hillary. Many of these ads and pages were targeted towards African-Americans to turn them against Hillary and depress their turnout. Even if it took us a while to figure out what happening, this campaign of foreign agents to influence our elections worked. They used our data, our nature, and our beliefs to target us. They did so with the full understanding of how we will react when he see something on social media, and they took advantage of our rush to emotions and tribalism over sober practicality. And they will do so again. Unless speech and the entire internet itself is censored, there is not much we can do about it except training ourselves to not fall for something instinctively because it tugs at our emotions. These ads, pages, groups, messages, and memes appealed to our emotions, our deepest fears, and our strongest beliefs. Since they used our data to influence us, how much free will do we really have? The foreigners did not hack our election. They used our nature and our likes and dislikes against us. The machines who learned our behaviors through algorithms manipulated us the way we manipulate other animals. This must make us think about the concept of free will and whether we have the power to make completely rational and free decisions. And we must steel ourselves for the future because machines will only get better at learning, and corporations and politicians will use these powers to target us into doing their biddings. Just because we see something on social media doesn’t mean it is true. And even if it is, we must research the context and question why that ad/message/meme exists. Without context any topic might lose its meaning. And we would remain as guinea pigs for these algorithms. We must eschew partisanship and we must stop supporting the puritans and extreme partisans on our sides. The more we remain divided, the more we will fall for these algorithms in a positive feedback loop. Prophets and politicians have always hacked our free wills before, but machine-learning and their ever-improving algorithms are a completely different ballgame. Whatever free will and independent thinking we have as a human species, we must try our best to maintain our equanimity in the face of emotional pulls, to stay away from hyper-partisanship, and to think, analyze, and understand the context before we react to any situation or information.


Standing up for Science

Many of those on the Left mock conservatives’ anti-science beliefs regarding climate change and evolution, but is liberalism immune to pseudoscience and science denial? How much of the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, naturopathy sentiments on the Left is related to liberals’ anti-corporatist feelings or influence of New Age beliefs? Standing up for science means standing up for the scientific method and being alert to our own biases. It means studying all issues with a dispassionate, rational, and analytical mind.  For scientists to be trusted as credible sources of information and rationality, we have a higher moral obligation to be rationalists in all aspects of our lives. Passion and emotions are not necessary for empathy, but they can blind our judgment in any topic. A rational mind can also be empathetic, but without losing our equanimity or being influenced by the daily ebbs and flows of life.

“It worked for me” isn’t a scientific statement. We must understand how our nature to remember exceptions, and not the norm, can make us fall prey to low-probability events and treat them as more common than they actually are. This trait also makes us believe in miracles, follow our intuitions, or believe in anecdotes. Our intuitions might tell us nature might be better than biotechnology, but history of our species has shown that it is nature that kills us, and science and technology has improved our health and quality of life. We must understand why randomly selected, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies are important in weeding out outliers or entire populations with genetic or other variations. In the age of alternate facts, we must be aware of quackery posing in the name of alternative or traditional medicine. Just because it might not harm us (and many do harm us) doesn’t mean it is effective – one of the gold standards in pharmaceutical clinical trials. If we dismissed placebo-controlled trials and fell for anecdotes, the market would be awash with pharmaceutical drugs that “works” in many people.

Searching for ‘meaning’ is human nature. If some in the West find it in Abrahamic religions, many find it in spirituality, nature, or turning towards Eastern religions and traditions which look exotic to westerners. But not everyone of these exotic eastern people believe in their holistic treatments. For many it is an option out of poverty. Growing up in the East, I have experienced and have been subjected to many kinds of pseudoscience, and I have seen poor people turning to quacks while rich people going to cities for medical treatment. It is a privilege of not seeing these hardships and complaining about vaccines or glorifying eastern traditions which came out of necessity, and not necessarily some exotic scientific knowledge that only exists in the East. This doesn’t mean we must support pharmaceutical industry blindly. We can criticize its business practices and ask for improvement in clinical trials. We can support traditional cures that have been proven to be effective. Skepticism is the hallmark of science, but re-litigating debunked ideas regarding climate science, evolution, biotechnology or molecular biology is a waste of time and resources, while causing real harm to people’s health and lives. Similarly, celebrities waste people’s time, money, and health by becoming modern-day snake soil salespeople of unproven naturopathy/holistic/fad treatments. Finally, it is important to know that it is the dose that makes a poison. Working in a testing lab, I know very few products are devoid of harmful ‘chemicals’ like mercury or lead. They might exist in the range of parts per trillion, but exist they do.

In conclusion, if we subject facts to our own biases, we lose all credibility in calling out others who might deny facts. There is no eastern, western, or Islamic science. Science is the study of nature to the best of our technological abilities. As our technology and knowledge keeps improving, so will our scientific hypothesis and theories. Standing up for science means standing up for rationality and the scientific method, without subjecting it to our ideological beliefs. It means standing up for funding, resources, independent research, support for students, engineers, healthcare professionals, and everyone working in the scientific field. Turning science into an ideological battle is the very antithesis of the scientific method.


Evolution or Creationism?

A few weeks back a friend asked me if I believed in creationism or evolution. I did not answer because I do not think that a simple “yes or no” answer, without context, really answers something that is as complicated and controversial as this topic. There are many good and intelligent people who do not want to be anti-science, many who do not have an issue with microevolution, but are uncomfortable with macroevolution and speciation, especially human speciation, because of deeply held theological beliefs. A while back a friend told me that she saw on a Pakistani TV channel a debate between a scientist and a religious figure. According to her, the scientist told the religious man – “This is what science says. What you do with the information is up to you.” I will try to do that. Evolution is extremely complicated and there are numerous fields of science that confirm it. I will try to explain at a layman’s level so it is easier for anyone with school level biology education to understand.


When thinking about evolution, I think it will be easier to focus on “isolation” and “generation time” than on size of the organism. This is because many people can imagine microbes becoming different strains, but can’t imagine a large animal evolving into something else. People usually mistake ‘transformation’ or ‘metamorphosis’ with evolution. Probably that is why they wonder ‘if monkeys evolved into humans, why are monkeys still there’. This is a sad aspect of our education system. Monkeys do not turn into humans. Chimpanzees and we share a common ancestor. But how?

Mutations are always happening in our body. Some mutations are advantageous while some are not. That is where our “natural talent” for something comes from, or our individual traits like hair color or eye color. When any two groups of the same species are separated for an extremely long period of time, mutations in both groups start accumulating. Natural selection happens when a certain mutation allows that person to pass down his/her genes to his/her offspring. “Survival of the fittest” is a wrong phrase in describing evolution. The better phrase would be “survival of the one most likely to pass down his genes in this particular ecological niche”. If a small group of humans wander off to a forest where all the fruit-bearing trees are tall, eventually every individual in that group is going to be tall. Anyone who is not tall enough will be at a disadvantage for sustenance. So children who grow to be tall are more likely to survive and find mates and pass down their tall genes. It is the same way we are different races and have different features. Someone in Turkey has different features compared to someone in China. There are, and have been, many indigenous groups whose adults barely reach five feet in height. These differences in features happen because of separation of one group from the other, and inbreeding in an individual group. If Koreans only bred among themselves, they will maintain their features that will be distinctive from the Han Chinese who might breed only in their own group. These features develop over hundreds and thousands of years. Evolutionary scale for large animals like us with longer generation gap is in the millions of years. That is why our nearest common ancestor to the chimpanzees lived a few million years back. In this time, we have had other “relatives” in the hominid family. We even bred with some of them, like the Neanderthals. And that is how evolution works – slow branching out among members of a family. In our daily lives we see members of the canine families, like dogs and wolves, and we have members of the feline family like cats, lions, and tigers. Even though they are different species, we see it every day how much traits they all share. They might have evolved to be different species, but they came from a common ancestor. And therefore they share the similar genes, the way we share genes and features and traits with members of the primate family.

Let us get back to mutations. Our DNA has about 3 billion base pairs. Each base pair – A, T, C, G – is the alphabet of life. A combination of three of those bases code for an amino acid, and thousands of amino acids arrange themselves into a protein. When each cell in our body divides, the DNA gets replicated. But the enzyme that is involved in the replication – of adding the A, T, C, G base pairs to new strand of DNA, makes mistakes. Most of those mistakes are repaired by other mechanisms, but some mistakes still remain. Sometimes these mistakes can cause serious harm. But these mistakes do not pass down to our offspring. Only the mutations in the sperm and the egg pass down to our children. Each mature egg has divided about 30 times from the time it was a zygote, and it has accumulated about 9 mutations along the way. Each sperm has divided about 400 times for a total of 120 or so mutations. So every time a baby is conceived, the zygote already has about 130 mutations. These mutations can be completely neutral, they can be fatal, or they can introduce new genetic traits missing from the parents. If this person has many offspring, there is a huge probability of those traits being passed down. And the traits associated with the mutation become part of the gene pool. But if that person had a mutation for an IQ of a 200 but he/she did not have any children, that mutation goes out of our gene pool. Passing down such traits through breeding is what gives characteristics to certain groups.

This is microevolution. What how does speciation happen? Besides separation between groups over large periods of time, it would be easier to understand speciation by understanding generational time. It takes time for mutations to accumulate that might give an individual, and then a group, advantage in a certain geographical niche. And that time depends how fast that particular species replicates/reproduces. Viruses and bacteria replicate really fast – many in a matter of minutes. For such microorganisms, thousands of generations can be produced very quickly. If they have a high mutation rate, it might be hard to develop drugs for them because the virus can change a lot in a short period of time. That is one of the biggest problems in developing therapies for HIV. For human beings, each generation is about 20-25 years. For thousands of generations to pass, we would be looking at hundreds of thousands of years! That is why imagining evolution in higher animals is hard. It is much easier to see it in birds or frogs or even fruit flies. We have even done experiments in fruit flies to show macroevolution. And the best example might be the evolution of dogs from wolves. In about 10,000 years, we have domesticated wolves and bred them every way possible to create so many kinds of dogs! Evolution is the reason why native populations were decimated because of diseases from other continents. People in the new places did not evolve with the diseases; therefore they did not have the antibodies to protect them. Evolution is also the reason why we have so much good bacteria in our body. We co-evolved with them in a symbiotic relationship where they produce enzymes and vitamins, while they use our body for sustenance.

The three basic concepts of evolution are mutation, reproduction/generational time, and competition (or having the traits most likely to survive and breed). Obviously, this is a very short introduction to evolution, but this is the basic biological mechanism of evolution.


I asked the same friend about evolution and Genesis. As a follower of an Abrahamic faith, she said she took Adam and Eve as literal stories, and as a biologist she also agreed that evolution is true. And to give her credit she then said – “I never thought about them both at the same time. But both cannot be true. It is evolution that is true, not Adam and Eve.” Then how do so many people disagree with her? I cannot comment on a singular creationism story because over the course of human history every group has had its own creationism stories. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to debate between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Genesis, which is just one story out of hundreds. Similarly, it would be intellectually dishonest to give credence one group’s beliefs while refuting other beliefs. Let us take the story of Genesis. Officially, just about 55% of the global population follows the Abrahamic religions. And many of them do not take their Scriptures literally. And when we hear about the controversy in the West or in the Islamic world, it is either evolution or biblical story of Genesis. This ignores the fact that half the world does not believe in that story, and that there are as many creation stories as there are have been ancient cultures in this world. To those who say that children should learn “both sides of the story”, which creationism stories should we teach? Or do you only want your creation story to be taught. For some religions like the Dharmic religions of South Asia, or for animism and many others, evolution lines up even better when you consider reincarnation. For many philosophies Hinduism or Buddhism, the human body means nothing. It is the soul that is reborn in various animals and ultimately achieves a release from the cycle of rebirth. And Hinduism isn’t even a singular faith. One can find monotheism, polytheism, agnostism, and atheism within different aspects of Hinduism. Therefore, the idea that Genesis is the only other alternative to evolution seems to be hollow and intellectually dishonest. And I am not advocating other religions. My point is to show that there are countless beliefs and a lot of them have no contradiction or no opinion on creationism vs evolution. So why should we discard their views?

Finally, the idea what evolution is a “theory” so it shouldn’t be taken seriously, or that there are gaps in it are an illogical and flawed arguments. In scientific terms, “theory” is a hypothesis that has been repeatedly tested and withstood every test. Evolution is one of the strongest theories in all of science. No one ever complains about many other scientific theories that aren’t as strong as evolution. People jump into the latest fad about diet or beauty products with faux scientific principles and no one complains. Newton’s gravity breaks down as we approach the speed of light, but we still teach it in schools because for most practical purposes it works fine. Einstein’s relativity breaks down at the quantum level, but we still accept relativity because outside of the quantum level it works fine. And we have yet to fully understand quantum mechanics. From my perspective, the singular focus on evolution exists because it targets people’s faith/beliefs, not because of its scientific inadequacies. I have heard time and again support for creationism because of how “perfect” the human body is. But is it really? Besides our intelligence and our opposable thumbs, our body is hardly the best physical specimen. We are neither the strongest, nor the fastest. Our natural lifespan (before the onset of medicines and healthier diet and agriculture) is comparable or even lower compared to many other animals. And eyes aren’t the best, nor our sense of smelling or hearing. Our immune system cannot fight off emerging and zoonotic infections. Our brain hasn’t yet evolved for a long lifespan, therefore the cases of Alzheimer’s. Many of us have genetic predispositions for so many illnesses, including cancer. So how exactly is our body the “perfectly crafted specimen of a God”? We have vestigial organs like appendix which has lost its function through evolution, and which can actually cause life-threatening harm. The human body is imperfect, but it is constantly evolving and getting better.

Scientists (and me):

Scientists must also stop being arrogant when discussing creationism, evolution, or theology. People have the right to their beliefs. Many of us overstep our scientific boundaries and think religious people are stupid, or make blanket statements about beliefs that cannot be disproven by science. For example, whether there is a God or Gods/Goddesses or any supernatural being cannot be proven or disproven by science. If people want to believe in fairies and monsters, we must let them because it is their right. Science cannot quantify the supernatural; it must only stick to the natural world. Whether there is a supernatural world or not is the field of theologians and philosophers.

But on the same token, scientists must stick up for the natural world. Everything in our universe follows laws and order. Even the disorder of nature follows scientific laws. There are no miracles, but only probabilities. From everything we know about our universe, there are no supernatural phenomena in our natural universe. Scientists must stand up for the teaching of the natural world in our schools, and they must stand up against individual beliefs being taught in public schools or being passed off as science. For a scientist, evolution is the best theory of how human beings came to be. But a scientist cannot and should not answer why are we here or what is the meaning of life or what is there after life. And scientists must be humble to the fact that a new discovery tomorrow can disprove evolution. There is much to learn about evolution, just like any other topic in science. Just because we do not have the answer does not mean something is wrong. We are on the right track. If having all the answers was a requirement, then nothing could be taught in schools because science itself is evolving with new information and new understanding. But if evolution is wrong, will it prove creationism? No. Because it would bring me back to my original question – whose idea of creationism should we follow if evolution is wrong? And if evolution is wrong, we must teach in our schools whatever scientific theory replaces evolution.

Scientists must also understand that humans are a spiritual species. Our intelligence and self-awareness makes us ask questions that a study of the natural world will never be able to answer. For me personally, as a formerly religious and a currently spiritual person, this hasn’t been an easy journey. If someone truly believes in the Abrahamic religions’ story of Genesis, the question “if Adam and Eve are not real, then…” can be a very tough one. It certainly is an extremely scary thought, because it goes to the foundations of these religions. And I do not have an answer to give others for such deep and personal questions. I didn’t grow up in an Abrahamic faith, but I have faced my own share of questions in the last 10-12 years. It has been a torturous journey, from being quite religious to finally coming to terms that religion and science cannot be compatible. For the simple fact that every religion is different from another religion, and picking and choosing parts from one religion and not from another to make it compatible with evolving scientific theories is too intellectually dishonest for me. 10 years later I still do not know what is true; all I am sure of is what is not true. I am slightly less peaceful than before, but I am definitely happier than before. I might not know the answers to our existence, but at least I feel I am no longer self-righteous and stubborn about my theological beliefs. Every person has gone through or will most likely go through these questions. And scientists must respect these philosophical and spiritual journeys. When it comes to evolution, I have come across six reactions – 1. Completely reject evolution; 2. Accept microevolution but reject random macroevolution and instead believe in intelligent design; 3. Accept evolution of other species but not in humans; 4. Rather than taking Adam and Eve literally, try to find the meaning of their existence in the earliest of humans;  5. Call one self somewhat religious but not take Scripture literally and accept that it is written by men; 6. Accept science, reject religion and/or its doctrines. And I think nearly everyone falls in one of those six categories. And I am quite sure most think their category is the Right or True one.

This essay won’t change anyone’s mind. But I hope it makes some people think. And hopefully a few of that subgroup will allow their children to accept what is taught in a public school science classroom, rather than tell these kids that science is wrong. That is how change takes place. As far as the future goes, I am confident evolution will be accepted the way heliocentrism has been and many other issues. Without wanting to bring more controversy to this topic, there have been many “self-evident” beliefs and actions, practiced for centuries, that are no longer considered true. Religions have ‘re-interpreted’ many former beliefs to ‘evolve’ with changing times. I am confident evolution will reach that stage very soon. The foundation of modern biology is built on evolution. And for a society to progress, it cannot treat scientific theories as a choice. By the middle of this century I can foresee evolution being accepted in even the most conservative societies of today. In modern biology and medicine, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Do you “believe” in science?

I do not like the question – do you believe in this/that scientific theory? that is a stupid question to ask. the questions should be – do you understand this/that scientific theory and its strengths and weaknesses and how the scientists came to a consensus to formulate this theory? if you think it is weak, do you think that is because of a lack of scientific studies, or because it goes against yours or your group’s economic/social/political/religious interests? and if you have an alternate theory to a different topic, is your theory based on empirical data, or is it based on stories your parents told you while you were growing up?
that is how the questions should be phrased.


so if space-time is a sheet of paper, mass causes the sheet to bend, which in turn bends light and also increases the distance traveled in time along the plane of the bent sheet. so based on wormhole theory, time-travel would be bypassing the curvature of space-time due to mass, and instead going straight ahead on a flat plane of space-time? but that wouldn’t mean you traveled in time before things happened in the present. whatever has to happen on the curved space-time happens, you are just on a separate plane and on a separate time. so 1 year on my time would be 5 years on a normal plane. so I didn’t really travel to the future as much as I reached there “faster” on my personal “time”. I think I am starting to get a hang of this…

Science – Its a way of life

Being a scientist is a way of life. It does not matter if your transcript shows you have science classes, or if you degree says its “Science”. It does not matter if you have a doctorate or a diploma. A scientist is someone who uses the scientific method in his/her life. I don’t think a person can be a successful scientist if he/she does scientific experiments in a lab but does not use the scientific method in private life. It is a way of life – a life of observing, questioning, analyzing, reasoning, and coming with logical answers. One can be an Einstein without the PhD and be a great scientist and remembered forever. One can be a PhD but a creationist – a “scientist” who won’t be known outside of a tiny niche. It is a way of life one has to be willing to live every moment. You cannot turn it on and off. Either you are a scientist, or you are not. There is no in-between. Sure, science does not always provide easy answers. Many things which science shows us logically might make us uncomfortable. It sure makes me uncomfortable many times. But one must have the will power to put aside the discomfort and trust in the power of knowledge rather than seek comfort in blissful ignorance. Scientific facts aren’t eternal, but the scientific method is. Give this way of life a try – a life of infinite discoveries and unlimited knowledge. Science – a way of life for the curious mind.