Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

A slice of pi

Note to my loyal readers: This will be my last post before a two-week break so I can go to my publisher's annual writers' retreat in the Ozarks.  Please keep sending links & ideas -- I'll be right back in the saddle when I return.  Look for the next Skeptophilia post on Monday, August 6!

***********************************

Sometimes you have to admire the woo-woos' dogged determination to fashion the universe into their own bizarre version of reality.

Most of us, I'd like to think, just see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe, and don't make such a big deal out of it.  If we want to believe in a Higher Power That Guides Everything, we do, and don't spend endless hours crafting abstruse proofs of the conjecture.  We're content to have a beer, watch a hockey game, and let god have some much-needed quiet time.

There are a few people, however, who just aren't content if they're not actively beating the matter into submission.  Such a person is Marty Leeds, Wisconsin-born writer, mystic, philosopher, and the origin of dozens of highly entertaining YouTube videos.

Just yesterday, I was sent a link to one of Leeds' creations, entitled, "Number Magic: Gematria."  The link was accompanied by a message stating, and I quote: "Words cannot describe the level of derp in this video."  So of course I had to watch it.  And I wasn't disappointed.

Turns out he has an obsession with the number pi.  Okay, it's a pretty cool number,  being transcendental and all, but he thinks there's... more than that.  Way more, as it turns out.

What you get when you divide the circumference of an apple by its diameter.  [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Matman from Lublin, Apple pie Pi Day 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0]

If you're unwilling to sacrifice an hour and a half of your precious time (and to be honest, I made it through about twenty minutes, and just skimmed the rest), and countless innocent cells in your prefrontal cortex that will die in agony, allow me to present to you the main points of Leeds' argument.
  1. There's this thing called gematria that was made up a while back by some Hebrew mystics who had overactive imaginations and way too much free time.   The idea behind gematria is that each letter in the alphabet (whether Hebrew, English, or other) is assigned a number, and when you add up the numbers for a word or name, you get a number that "means something."
  2. You get to decide what the numbers mean.
  3. If two words add up to the same thing, they are mystically linked.  Leeds uses a form of gematria which takes the English alphabet, splits it into two lists of thirteen letters each (A-M, and N-Z), and numbers each list from 1 through 7 and then back down to 1.  So my first name, Gordon, would be 7+2+5+4+2+1 = 21.  "Sharp" is 6+6+1+5+3, which also adds up to 21.  So you can see that thus far, we have a pretty persuasive theory here.
  4. Leeds then does a gematria addition for four words or phrases.  We have "man" = 3, "woman" = 9, "Christian" = 39, and "The Holy Spirit" = 61.  Note that he had to add a "the" to the last one to make it work out the way he wanted.
  5. So, let's look at the first thirteen digits of pi.  He picked thirteen because we had split the alphabet into two groups of thirteen letters each, which seems like impeccable logic to me, given the obvious connection between pi and the English alphabet.  Anyhow, we have 3.141592653589. It starts with 3 and ends with 9 -- giving you "39."  So right away, we can see that there's something wonderfully Christian about pi, not to mention having a man on one end and a woman on the other.  Also, 3+9 = 12, and 3x9 = 27, and 12+27 = 39. So you get your 3 and 9 back, so "man + woman" + "man x woman" = "Christian."  Or something like that.
  6. Take the middle number in the sequence (2) and the two on either side (9 and 6).  Why?   Because tridents, that's why.  Stop asking questions.
  7. If you multiply 9x2x6, you get 108, which is a very holy and important number.  Myself, I just thought it was the most convenient way of getting from 107 to 109, but what do I know?  But the Hindus liked the number 108, and plus, it's the number of stitches on a baseball, so there you are.
  8. Now, take the remaining digits of pi, and basically draw a menorah under them.  You then put them together in pairs, flip 'em around, and add 'em together.  I really don't want to go into all of how he does that, because my cortical neurons are already whimpering for mercy, so you'll just have to either watch the video or else just accept on faith that somehow all of the numbers and flipped numbers and all add up to 352.  Then, you add that to the 2 and 6 from the trident bit, and you get 360, which is the number of degrees in a circle.  Get it?  Circle?  Pi?  Are you blown away?  (Okay, he left out the 9. But still.)
  9. If you multiply the first through eighth digits of pi, you get 6,480.  If you multiply the eighth through the thirteenth digits, you get 32,400. Subtract them, and you get 25,920, which he says is the number of years for the precession of the Earth's axis to complete one rotation.  Except that according to the Cornell University Astronomy Department's webpage on the precession of the Earth's axis, the length of the precession of the Earth is said to be "about 26,000 years" -- the imprecision being because a motion that slow is almost impossible to measure accurately.   But I think we call all agree that since we're using gematria as our jumping-off point, being off by eighty years or so is plenty accurate enough.
  10. Of course, like any good performer, he saves his most amazing bit for the end, wherein we find out that the first thirteen digits of pi add up to 61, which you will recall is the number of "The Holy Spirit."  So pi "encodes" (his word) The Holy Spirit and the precession of the equinoxes.
  11. Therefore god.  Q.E.D.
Well, I hope you've enjoyed our little ramble through woo-woo arithmetic. Me, I'm planning on watching some of Leeds' other videos when I have the time.  (Two especially fascinating-sounding ones are "Pizzagate, Symbolism, and Secret Societies" and "Flat Earth Implications, NASA Lies, and Gematria."  Of course he's a Flat Earther.  You're surprised by this?)  However, I think next time I won't launch into this without something to insulate my poor brain against further damage.  I'm thinking that a double scotch might do the trick.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.  [If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Friday, July 20, 2018

House of cards

One question that has been raised over and over -- both by me and to me -- is, "what would it take for the diehard core of Donald Trump's base to recognize they'd been had?"

I mean, it's hard to fathom how what's already happened isn't enough.  His disastrous, ill-thought-out punitive tariffs have damaged long-standing trade partnerships and driven exports down and prices up, hurting farming and manufacturing.  Much of what comes out of his mouth is either a calculated lie or else made up on the spot; keeping track of his verifiable falsehoods is very nearly a full-time job.  And then we had his horrifying performance in Helsinki this week, wherein he did everything but kiss Vladimir Putin on the mouth -- along with making statements that, in my opinion, should have resulted in his being arrested for treason the moment he set foot on American soil.

But his base still loves him, and even more bizarrely, the Republicans in Congress do, too.  The criticism the GOP powers-that-be gave him after the Helsinki Summit can be summed up as, "Gee whiz, we wish you hadn't done that.  Oh well."  Worse yet, Senator Bob Corker, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked a measure that would have allowed subpoena of the translator's notes from Trump's closed-door meeting with Putin -- a meeting at which, in Trump's own words, "many agreements were made," even though nobody has the slightest clue what those agreements are.


Oh, and how about the fact that the GOP shot down a demand by Democrats that Congress be allowed to question Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy who allegedly funneled millions of dollars from Russia, through the NRA, and into the Trump campaign.  Devin Nunes, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, wouldn't comment, but the only spin I can put on it is that they were afraid of what Butina would say.  Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois concurs:
The fact that we were shut down, they refused to allow subpoenas to go forward involving the gun rights group she formed in Russia and its connection to the NRA — the fact that there were so many other documents they refused subpoena.  They refused to subpoena anyone and make them answer questions.  They went along with the White House insisting no one has to answer our questions.  That sounds like they wanted to work with the White House to protect it politically and legally not get to the truth.
The GOP leaders don't spin it that way, of course.  They simply say, "We trust President Trump."

Myself, I trust President Trump so little that if he said the front lawn was green, I'd want to go outside to verify it myself.

And of course, Trump himself blames his shameful kowtowing to Putin on... surprise!... the media.  Two days ago, he tweeted, "The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.  I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed."  Because, apparently, the "Fake News Media" is responsible for Trump's siding with Russia, against American intelligence agencies, in full view on television.

In other words, don't believe what you've seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears.  Believe what I tell you.  Even when I tell you one thing today, and exactly the opposite tomorrow.  I wasn't wrong either time, I wasn't lying either time.  It's the media, trying to confuse matters and make me look bad.

But no group of Trump supporters baffles me more than the evangelicals.  I know I've said it before, but I simply cannot fathom how a group priding themselves on being the Pillars of Morality in America can continue to support a greedy, grasping, lying, narcissistic, ignorant bigot.  "God can work with a broken tool," I had one person tell me.  The fact is, the evangelicals as a whole still believe in Trump without question.  And that belief isn't just strong, it's got the zeal and fervor of a cult.  Consider what evangelical television host Rick Wiles said yesterday on his show:
[Rachel Maddow] was spewing out, last night, calls for revolution.  She was telling the left, ‘Take a deep breath, we’re at the moment, it’s coming, we’re almost there, we’re going to remove him from the White House.  We’re about 72 hours—possibly 72 hours—from a coup.  Be prepared that you’re going to turn on the television and see helicopters hovering over the roof of the White House with men clad in black rappelling down ropes, entering into the White House.  Be prepared for a shootout in the White House as Secret Service agents shoot commandos coming in to arrest President Trump.  That is how close we are to a revolution.  Be prepared for a mob— a leftist mob—to tear down the gates, the fence at the White House and to go into the White House and to drag him out with his family and decapitate them on the lawn of the White House.
I'd laugh if it weren't for the fact that a significant number of Americans believe he's right.

I am seriously afraid of where this country is headed.  Wiles may be right about the armed mobs, but it's not the leftists I'm worried about.  It's the right-wing fanatics -- that 30% who still, after all this, think that Donald Trump is the best man to lead our nation.  Because when this house of cards falls, it's going to fall hard.  The effective half-life of tyranny is always short, however horrible it is for the people who have to live through it.  But there is no way that Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Dana Rohrabacher, and the rest of the people running around propping up the Trump edifice with sticks can succeed for long.

I just hope the damage to our nation isn't irreparable by the time it happens.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.  [If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Thursday, July 19, 2018

Beneath the shroud

One of the most revered, and controversial, relics of the Roman Catholic Church has finally been shown to be an unequivocal fake.

The Shroud of Turin has engendered more speculation, criticism, and questioning than any other relic, and that includes things like the skull of Mary Magdalene.  The Shroud is a 4.4 meter long piece of linen cloth with the impression -- it looks very much like a photographic negative -- of a naked man showing the traditional injuries suffered by Jesus Christ during the crucifixion.

I've always suspected it was a fake, but I have to admit, it's a pretty inspired one.  The image is nothing short of creepy in its realism:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

It's generated incredible devotion -- not least from an Italian firefighter who dashed into the burning Guarini Chapel in 1997 and risked his life to save it.  While church leaders have not come right out and said it's real, they've made statements that amount to the same thing.  In 1958, Pope Pius XII approved reverence of it as "the holy face of Jesus."  More recently, Pope John Paul II called it "a mirror of the Gospel."

The whole thing began to unravel -- literally -- about thirty years ago, when scientists were finally allowed to do radiocarbon analysis on a tiny snippet of the linen cloth, and dated it to between 1260 and 1390 C.E. with 95% confidence.  Oh, but no, the True Believers said; it had more than once been through a fire, and soot would change the C-12 to C-14 ratio and throw off the dating.  Plus, the yellow-brown dye on the cloth was shown through chemical analysis to be older, and the cloth snippet was from a more recent repair job, anyhow.

So back and forth it went, with the skeptics saying the preponderance of evidence supported its being a hoax, and the devout saying it was the real deal.  But now two Italian scientists, Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli, have presented a paper at the 66th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences that takes an entirely different approach.

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recognize Garlaschelli's name.  He was the one who back in 2016 did a simple little demonstration of how the miraculous "weeping saints" -- statues of saints that appear to cry real tears -- can be faked.  So he's not a man who would be easy to fool.

And what Borrini and Garlaschelli did was to look at the Shroud through the lens of blood-pattern analysis.  Anyone who's fond of the series CSI probably knows that a trained forensic scientist can tell a lot from blood spatter, and this is no different.  The story goes that Jesus's body was wrapped in the cloth after he died, staining it with blood from his various wounds, and that's what created the image.

But the problem is... gravity.  If he was laid on his back (which seems probable), any blood dripping from the wounds would land on the cloth in a distinct way.  (The same is true, of course, if he was laid on his side, or any which way.)  And what Borrini and Garlaschelli found was that the cloth shows a completely random pattern of blood drips.  On the same side of the cloth, drips appear to be coming from a variety of directions, consistent with... a fake.  A clever, highly artistic fake, but a fake nonetheless.  Borrini and Garlaschelli write:
An investigation into the arm and body position required to obtain the blood pattern visible in the image of the Shroud of Turin was performed using a living volunteer.  The two short rivulets on the back of the left hand of the Shroud are only consistent with a standing subject with arms at a ca 45° angle.  This angle is different from that necessary for the forearm stains, which require nearly vertical arms for a standing subject.  The BPA of blood visible on the frontal side of the chest (the lance wound) shows that the Shroud represents the bleeding in a realistic manner for a standing position while the stains at the back—of a supposed postmortem bleeding from the same wound for a supine corpse—are totally unrealistic.
And yes, you read that right -- they got a volunteer to lie enshrouded in a linen cloth after having nicked his/her wrists to simulate bleeding wounds.  (They didn't, fortunately, flog the poor sucker, or do any of the various other horrible things the Bible says happened to Jesus.)

Hey, all for the good of scientific research, right?

So this should close the book on the Shroud of Turin, but of course it won't.  The Shroud apologists have argued against every other piece of evidence, so I have no doubt that they'll argue against this one, too, especially since Garlaschelli is involved.  The Italian Catholic powers-that-be hate Garlaschelli for his role in the Weeping Mary Caper.  But anyhow, it's good enough for me, and should be good enough for anyone else who is a self-styled skeptic.

But it still leaves me wondering how it was done, because whatever else you can say about the Shroud, it's really realistic.  Take a look at many 14th century paintings of people -- they're stylized, cartoonish, with zero attention to perspective.   This?  It's painfully accurate, down to the last detail.  So say what you will, whoever created this thing had some serious talent.  It's a shame he put it to use creating a fake that has duped people for over six hundred years.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.  [If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Doomsday translation

In my Latin and Greek classes, I always warn my students to avoid Google Translate.

It's not that it's a bad tool, honestly, as long as you don't push it too far.  If you want to look up a single word -- i.e., use it like an online dictionary -- it's pretty solid.  The problem is, it has a good word-by-word translation ability, but a lousy capacity for understanding grammar, especially with highly inflected languages like Latin.  For example, the phrase "corvus oculum corvi non eruit" -- "a crow will not pluck out another crow's eye," meaning more or less the same thing as "there's honor among thieves" -- gets translated as "do not put out the eye of the raven, raven."  Even worse is Juno's badass line from The Aeneid -- "Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo" ("If I cannot bend the will of heaven, I will raise hell") -- comes out "Could be bent if you cannot bend, hell, I will move."

Which I think we can all agree doesn't quite have the same ring.

But today I found out, over at the site Mysterious Universe, that there's another reason to avoid Google Translate:

It's been infiltrated by the Powers of Darkness.

At least that's how I interpret it.  Some users of Reddit (where else?) discovered that if you typed the word "dog" into Google Translate twenty times and have it translate from Hawaiian to English, it gave you the following message:
Doomsday Clock is three minutes at twelve We are experiencing characters and a dramatic developments in the world, which indicate that we are increasingly approaching the end times and Jesus’s return.
Within hours of the message being reported on Reddit, it had vanished, which of course only made people wiggle their eyebrows in a significant fashion.

Which brings up a few questions.
  1. Who thought of putting "dog" in twenty times and then translating it from Hawaiian?  It's kind of a random thing to do.  Of course, Redditors seem to have a lot of free time, so I guess at least that much makes sense.  But you have to wonder how many failed attempts they had.  ("Okay, I put in 'weasel' fifteen times and translated it from Lithuanian, but it didn't work.  Then I put in 'warthog' seventy-eight times, and translated it from Urdu.  No luck there either.  The search continues.")
  2. Even if it's a valid message, what did it tell us that we didn't already know?  It's not like we didn't all just watch Donald Trump wink at Vladimir Putin and then commit high treason in full view on television, or witness all of the Republicans respond by issuing a stern rebuke ("Bad Donald!  Naughty Donald!  If you do that again, we'll have to roll over on our backs and piss all over our own bellies!  That will sure show you!")  So we're definitely not hurting for dramatic developments, with or without the message.
  3. Even if the message was real, isn't it far more likely that it's the result of some bored programmers over at Google sticking an Easter egg into the code than it is some kind of message from the Illuminati?
  4. Don't you think the fact that it vanished after being reported is because the aforementioned bored programmers' supervisor ordered that it be taken down, not because the Illuminati found out we're on to them?  I see it more like how the Walmart supervisors dealt with Shane:


So I'm not all that inclined to take it seriously.  Brett Tingley at Mysterious Universe, however, isn't so sure:
As always though, it’s an interesting thought to think that Google’s vast AI networks might be trying to warn us, finding obscure places to hide these warnings where their human overlords won’t find them.  When AI becomes self-aware and starts taking over, will we even know it before it’s too late, or will odd and seemingly meaningless stories like this serve as prescient warnings for those who know where to look?
Somehow, I think if AI, or anyone else, were trying to warn us of impending doom, they wouldn't put it online and wait for Steve Neckbeard to find it by asking Google to translate "dog dog dog dog dog" from Hawaiian.

So that's our trip into the surreal for today.  I still think it's a prank, although a fairly inspired one.  Note that I'm not saying the overall message is incorrect, though.  Considering this week's news, I figure one morning soon I'll get up and find out that the US has been renamed the "Amerikan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republik," and the Republican Congresspersons responded by tweeting that they're "disappointed" and then widdling all over the floor.

At that point, I think I'd be in favor of offering the presidency to Shane.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.  [If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Blazing a trail

What I find the most stunning about scientific research is the breadth and scope of what it uncovers about the universe.

Think about it.  In the last hundred years, we have gone all the way from quarks -- particles a third the size of a neutron, or an average of 4 x 10-27 kilograms -- to the largest known structure in the universe, the Virgo Supercluster, which is 110 million light years across.  We have a decent picture of what happened at each stage in the development of the cosmos, all the way back to the Big Bang, 13.6 billion years ago.  We have found out about how our DNA guides our development from a single fertilized egg, how evolution has generated the biodiversity of the nine-million-odd species on Earth, and how the thoughts you're having as you read this are encoded and modulated by tiny electrochemical signals amongst the 100 billion neurons in your brain.

It is beyond me how anyone could consider these things and not be entirely overawed by the grandeur of it all.

It's why I get a little impatient with people who say that looking for scientific explanations cheapens our sense of beauty and wonder.  "Why can't you just look at the flowers and appreciate them?" I've heard people say.  "You have to classify and name and dissect instead."  Well, all I can say is my love for flowers is only deepened by the fact that I know how photosynthesis is working to convert sunlight to chemical energy in their leaves, that the daylilies in my garden have specialized structures for attracting pollinators so they can reproduce, and that the tomatoes currently laden with fruit in my wife's veggie garden are close cousins to peppers, potatoes... and deadly nightshade.

So that's why it was with an almost visceral sense of wonder that I read a paper last week about the detection of a neutrino that originated four billion years ago in one of the most powerful energy sources in the universe -- a blazar.


Artist's depiction of a blazar [Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA/JPL]

A blazar is an active galactic nucleus, powered by a supermassive black hole, which spews out a jet of particles propelled at very nearly the speed of light.  It'd be significantly unfortunate for any planetary systems that the jet is aimed toward; that's why the ones we know about are really far away, so we can analyze the jet and its source without being fried to a rich crispy golden-brown.

This all comes up because of a paper that appeared in the journal Science last week.  A team of scientists analyzing data from the IceCube particle detector, buried a kilometer deep underneath an ice sheet in Antarctica, detected a neutrino with an energy of nearly 300 trillion electron volts.  Naturally, a particle that energetic immediately attracted attention, leading to the question of where it had come from and what had given it that hard a kick.  Tracing its origin from the angle at which it hit the detector, they determined that it had started as part of a jet of gamma rays and other particles from a blazar with the euphonious name TXS 0506+056, 3.7 billion light years away in the constellation Orion.

The IceCube collaborative team write:
Neutrinos interact only very weakly with matter, but giant detectors have succeeded in detecting small numbers of astrophysical neutrinos.  Aside from a diffuse background, only two individual sources have been identified: the Sun and a nearby supernova in 1987.  A multiteam collaboration detected a high-energy neutrino event whose arrival direction was consistent with a known blazar—a type of quasar with a relativistic jet oriented directly along our line of sight.  The blazar, TXS 0506+056, was found to be undergoing a gamma-ray flare, prompting an extensive multiwavelength campaign.  Motivated by this discovery, the IceCube collaboration examined lower-energy neutrinos detected over the previous several years, finding an excess emission at the location of the blazar.
Astronomer Regina Caputo, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, was less measured in her response, but what she said illustrates the fact that understanding deeply what's going on doesn't decrease your wonder or enjoyment.  "This is crazy, the sky is erupting," Caputo said to reporters.  "I almost couldn’t believe it; the universe is revealing itself in ways we have never imagined before."

So the whole thing is kind of stunning.  It leaves me yearning for more.  I mean, think of it; a hundred years ago, we didn't know about any of this stuff.  Five hundred years ago, we had no idea what the brain did, what matter was made of, and we still believed that the stars were pinpricks of light all equidistant from the Earth (which was, of course, at the center of the universe).

Considering what we could do in the next hundred years absolutely boggles the mind.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.  [If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Monday, July 16, 2018

Mice, rats, and sunk costs

One of the most difficult-to-fight biases in human nature is the sunk-cost fallacy.

The idea is the more time, effort, and/or money we've put into a decision, the less likely we are to abandon it -- even after it has been proven a bad choice.  It's what makes people stick with cars that are lemons, investments that are financial disasters, marriages that are horrible, and politicians who have proven themselves to be unethical and self-serving, long after cut-and-run would, all things considered, be the most logical course of action.

The tendency is so ubiquitous that it's often taken for granted.  You even see it in far less logical scenarios than the ones I mentioned above, where there could be at least some rational reason for sticking with the original choice.  A good example is games of pure chance, where gamblers will keep on wasting money because they are certain that a losing streak is bound to end.  "I'm already a thousand dollars in the hole," they'll say.  "I can risk five hundred more."  Here, sunk-cost makes no sense whatsoever; the lost thousand is not an investment that could pay off in any sense of the word, and losing streaks in games of pure chance are not bound to do anything.

That's why they're called "games of pure chance."

So the ubiquity of the sunk-cost fallacy is undeniable, but what's less obvious is why we do it.  Sticking with a bad choice is rarely ever advantageous.  But despite its dubious benefits to survival, what seems certain is that it's a very old behavior, evolutionarily speaking.  Because researchers at the University of Minnesota have just shown that sunk-cost decision making not only occurs in humans, but in...

... mice and rats.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rasbak, Apodemus sylvaticus bosmuis, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In a paper entitled "Sensitivity to 'Sunk Costs' in Mice, Rats, and Humans" that appeared last week in the journal Science, neuropsychologists Brian M. Sweis, Samantha V. Abram, Brandy J. Schmidt, Kelsey D. Seeland, Angus W. MacDonald III, Mark J. Thomas, and A. David Redish showed that even our very distant relatives engage in sunk-cost errors.  The authors write:
Sunk costs are irrecoverable investments that should not influence decisions, because decisions should be made on the basis of expected future consequences.  Both human and nonhuman animals can show sensitivity to sunk costs, but reports from across species are inconsistent.  In a temporal context, a sensitivity to sunk costs arises when an individual resists ending an activity, even if it seems unproductive, because of the time already invested.  In two parallel foraging tasks that we designed, we found that mice, rats, and humans show similar sensitivities to sunk costs in their decision-making.  Unexpectedly, sensitivity to time invested accrued only after an initial decision had been made.  These findings suggest that sensitivity to temporal sunk costs lies in a vulnerability distinct from deliberation processes and that this distinction is present across species.
In both the experiments with humans and rodents, the setup was the same -- the subject navigates a maze looking for rewards (a food pellet for the mice, and hilariously, a video of kittens playing for the humans, showing that cat videos really are an incentive for us) which are scattered randomly through the maze.  Each time a reward is encountered, the subject is told how long it will take for the reward to be delivered (a tone the mice and rats are trained to associate with wait time, and a countdown timer for the humans).  Because the rewards are plentiful and some of the waits are long, what would make logical sense is to abandon a reward if the wait time is too long, so more time could be spent searching for rewards with short wait times.

But that's not what happened.  Both the rodents and the humans would often stick with rewards with very long wait times -- and the ones who said, "Screw it, this is too long to sit here twiddling my thumbs" all gave up early on.  The longer the test subject stuck with the wait, the more likely they were to hang on to the very end, even at the cost of a considerable amount of time that could have been spent foraging more productively.

"Obviously, the best thing is as quick as possible to get into the wait zone," said David Redish, who co-authored the study.  "But nobody does that.  Somehow, all three species know that if you get into the wait zone, you’re going to pay this sunk cost, and they actually spend extra time deliberating in the offer zone so that they don’t end up getting stuck."

What this research doesn't indicate though, its why we all do this.  Behaviors that are common throughout groups of related species -- what are called evolutionarily-conserved behaviors -- are thought to have some kind of significant survival advantage.  (Just as evolutionarily-conserved genes are thought to be essential, even if we don't know for certain what they do.)  "Evolution by natural selection would not promote any behavior unless it had some — perhaps obscure — net overall benefit," said Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioral ecology at Oxford, who was not part of the study, but praised its design and rigor.  "If everybody does it, the reasoning goes, there must be a reason."

But what that reason is remains unclear.  We have to leave it at "we're not as logical as we like to think, and our motivation for decision-making not as based in solid fact as you might expect," however unsatisfying that might be.

But it is something to consider next time we're weighing the benefits of sticking with a decision we already made -- whether it's the wait time for downloading a kitten video, or continuing our support for a politician.

***********************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current state of the world's environment.  The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a retrospective of the five great extinction events the Earth has experienced -- the largest of which, the Permian-Triassic extinction of 252 million years ago, wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.  Kolbert makes a persuasive, if devastating, argument; that we are currently in the middle of a sixth mass extinction -- this one caused exclusively by the activities of humans.  It's a fascinating, alarming, and absolutely essential read.





Saturday, July 14, 2018

David 1, Goliath 0

There's been so much bad news lately that I've several times felt like I needed to avoid all forms of media not to go into a full-blown, crashing depression.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that we're in a downward spiral.  Our leadership is the most corrupt, dishonest, self-serving bunch of politicians that I can remember, and I'm 57 years old.  The driving force in our government at the moment is corporate interests über alles.  We're progressively alienating all of our allies, disregarding science, passing legislation that trashes the environment, and in general paying attention to nothing but short-term expediency and lining the pockets of the already-wealthy.

So today, I want to tell you about some good news.

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia might recall that over the last five years, I've become involved in a fight right here in my home county against storing liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in unstable salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake.  Salt cavern storage has been tried before, with disastrous consequences.  Explosions, collapses, and contamination of rivers and streams have been documented over and over, and here in New York, the county and state governments seemed bound and determined to ignore what the geologists were saying -- that the caverns underneath the lake were unstable on a huge scale, and that only fifty years ago there'd been a humongous ceiling collapse that, if the caverns had been filled with natural gas, would have caused a massive explosion, followed by the southern end of the lake becoming so saline that it would no longer be usable as a source of drinking and agricultural water.

We not only live in an area of great natural beauty, but the Seneca Lake wineries and farms are a huge money-maker for residents in the area.  Risking this for no good reason other than putting money in the pocket of Crestwood Midstream -- a Texas-based petroleum company -- makes no sense whatsoever.

So a lot of us began protesting.  At first, with letter-writing campaigns and often fiery debate in town, county, and state-level meetings.  Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a local resident and highly acclaimed ecologist, writer, and activist, became one of the most determined opponents of Crestwood's plan, and was tireless in her efforts to block the project.  The low-key methods had no effect, however, and so we were forced to kick it up a notch.  We organized blockades of Crestwood's Seneca Lake site -- resulting in hundreds of us being arrested, and a number were sent to jail.

I was one of the ones arrested -- although I was never jailed.  I had three court appearances, and the charges were eventually dropped.

[Photograph by Carol Bloomgarden; used with permission]

The protests and civil disobedience stretched out over years.  But eventually, people started to listen.

And just last week, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation unanimously voted to kill Crestwood's plan to store LPG underneath Seneca Lake.

Basil Seggos, commissioner of the DEC, was unequivocal.  "The record is compelling that the permitting this proposed gas storage facility on the western side of Seneca Lake is inconsistent with the character of the local and regional Finger Lakes community," Seggos said, as part of his 29-page decision.

"This is truly a great day for our region,” said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Gas Free Seneca, which formed seven years ago to combat the project.  "Don’t ever let anyone tell you that David can’t beat Goliath."

Look, I know we need energy, and that a switch to renewables can't happen overnight.  But continuing to support fossil fuels -- with its history of pollution and fostering climate change, not to mention spills, explosions, and fires -- is simply unconscionable.  We should be finding ways to cut back on fossil fuel use by becoming more efficient and looking for clean energy sources -- not foisting expanded storage on a community whose residents either didn't want the project or didn't understand its dangers.

So this is one win for the little guy, and a ray of hope in what has been a very, very dark time in our nation.  At least in our neighborhood, scientific research and plain good sense triumphed over corporate interests.

Which should be encouraging to others fighting in the hundreds of other David-versus-Goliath scenarios currently being played out.  You can win.  But only if you're determined to put yourself on the front lines -- and never, ever give up.

**********************************

The Skeptophilia book-of-the-week for this week is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.  If you've always wondered about such abstruse topics as quantum mechanics and Schrödinger's Cat and the General Theory of Relativity, but have been put off by the difficulty of the topic, this book is for you.  Greene has written an eloquent, lucid, mind-blowing description of some of the most counterintuitive discoveries of modern physics -- and all at a level the average layperson can comprehend.  It's a wild ride -- and a fun read.