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.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The attraction of the unexpected

I've always been fascinated by why people like particular pieces of music and not others.

It's extremely personal, and also rather mysterious and unpredictable.  This is why I find it funny when someone asks if I like classical music.  That's a little like saying, "Do you like food?"  I love some classical music, and some of it does nothing for me at all.  But what's eternally fascinating to me is that two people who are alike in a great many respects can come to completely opposite opinions about music.  Take my buddy Dave, for example, who is passionately fond of the Romantic composers -- Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky.  I, on the other hand, have never heard a piece of music by Brahms I've liked -- my tastes run more to the very early (Tallis, Susato, Praetorius, Palestrina, Bach) and the much more recent (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Holst).  If I had to pick one very favorite piece of music it would be Stravinsky's Firebird:


I'm hard-pressed to say why, however.  And what's the connection between that one, and the piece that had me bawling -- at age seventeen, no less -- the first time I heard it, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis?:


One fascinating piece of the puzzle was discovered five years ago, when two researchers at Wesleyan University, Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui, found that people have strong physical reactions when listening to music they love, and if you hook them up to a fMRI or PET scanner, you find that at the climax of the piece of music, the same parts of the brain light up as when they have an orgasm.

No wonder we love music so much.

That whole tension/resolution thing, with its obvious parallels to sexual response, is pretty universal to music of all sorts.  I remember this being demonstrated to me when I was in the college chorus, and the director was telling us about dynamic tension in chord progression and resolution to the tonic, and demonstrated by going to the piano and playing us a line from the Christmas carol "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."  He played, "Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn."

And stopped.

About a dozen people sung out "KING" in tones that clearly communicated, "Don't leave us hanging, bro!"

So tension/resolution is part of it.  But just this week, a paper was published in Current Biology that added another piece to the puzzle.  Apparently, we also tend to like music that surprises us -- that takes us on a path that we didn't expect.

In "Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity," neuroscientists Vincent K.M. Cheung, Lars Meyer, and Stefan Koelsch (of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences), Peter M.C. Harrison and Marcus T. Pearce (of the Queen Mary University of London), and John-Dylan Haynes (of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) found that we're grabbed by twists and turns we didn't see coming.

The authors write:
Listening to music often evokes intense emotions.  Recent research suggests that musical pleasure comes from positive reward prediction errors, which arise when what is heard proves to be better than expected.  Central to this view is the engagement of the nucleus accumbens—a brain region that processes reward expectations—to pleasurable music and surprising musical events...  Here, we demonstrate that pleasure varies nonlinearly as a function of the listener’s uncertainty when anticipating a musical event, and the surprise it evokes when it deviates from expectations.
That certainly agrees with my experience.  I love being surprised, and my favorite music (in any genre) often contains unexpected or startling rhythmic patterns.  Take, for example, the brilliant "Ring Out, Solstice Bells," by Jethro Tull:


I've played Balkan music for years -- with mutant time signatures like 11/16, 22/16, and (no lie) 25/16 -- and I'm damned if I can figure out what time signature this song is in.

And I love that.

My passion for music has been with me for a very, very long time.  My mother used to love to tell the story about how I pestered her incessantly (I couldn't have been more than three or four years old) to learn how to use the record player so I wouldn't have to ask her every time I wanted to listen to music (which was basically all the time).  She finally acquiesced -- and she was impressed that I cared enough about the music that I never damaged either the record player or one of the fragile, easily-scratched vinyl LPs that were all we had back then.  And there was one piece of music I played over and over and over and over, and my mom couldn't figure out (and of course, at that point I couldn't articulate) why I loved it so much.  This was the tail-end of the Big Band era, and my parents had several LPs from Lawrence Welk's band.  Most of them were "meh," in my opinion, but there was one that was different.

It's called "Scarlett O'Hara."  Listen for the completely unexpected key change -- not at all characteristic of Big Band music -- from A Major to (of all the weird keys...) B Major that happens a couple of times.  I used to get a visceral thrill from that moment, even at the tender age of four.


My favorite example of surprise, though, comes from classical music.  I distinctly remember the first time I listened to Bach's magnificent Mass in B Minor, and the sweet, sedate aria "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus" drew to a close, and without any warning I was launched forward into the breathtaking chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu:"


Talk about a brain orgasm.

So we're gradually figuring out some possible reasons for that mysterious phenomenon -- musical taste.

Since I'm on a roll and having way too much fun roaming around YouTube listening to music, I think I'll end with two more of my favorites, one rock and one classical.  I don't know if there's anything similar about them -- see if you can figure it out.  For now, I'm just enjoying listening.

The Kongos, "Come With Me Now:"

  
Jean Sibelius, Lemminkainen's Return:


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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Saturday, November 9, 2019

Poisoned by preconceived notions

If you needed something else to make you worry about our capacity to make decisions based on facts, go no further than a study that came out this week from the University of Texas at Austin.

Entitled "Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense At All," the study was conducted by Patricia L. Moravec, Randall K. Minas, and Alan R. Dennis of the McCombs School of Business.  And its results should be seriously disheartening for just about everyone.

What they did was a pair of experiments using students who were "social media literate" -- i.e., they should know social media's reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth -- first having them evaluate fifty headlines as true or false, and then giving them headlines with "Fake News" flags appended.  In each case, there was an even split -- in the first experiment, between true and false headlines, and in the second, between true and false headlines flagged as "Fake."

In both experiments, the subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, to monitor their brain activity as they performed the task.

In the first experiment, it was found -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that people are pretty bad at telling truth from lies when presented only with a headline.  But the second one is the most interesting, and also the most discouraging.  Because what the researchers found is that when a true headline is flagged as false, and a false headline is flagged as true, this causes a huge spike in activity of the prefrontal cortex -- a sign of cognitive dissonance as the subject tries desperately to figure out how this can be so -- but only if the labeling of the headline as such disagrees with what they already believed.


[Image is in the Public Domain]

So we're perfectly ready to believe the truth is a lie, or a lie is the truth, if it fits our preconceived notions.  And worse still, what the researchers saw is that in general, even though subjects had an uncomfortable amount of cognitive processing going on when they were confronted by something that was the opposite of what they thought was true, it didn't have much influence over what they thought was true after the experiment.

In other words, you can label the truth a lie, or a lie the truth, but it won't change people's minds if they already believed the opposite.  Our ability to discern fact from fiction, and use that information to craft our view of the world, is poisoned by our preconceived notions of what we'd like to be true.

Before you start pointing fingers, the researchers also found that there was no good predictor of how well subjects did on this test.  They were all bad -- Democrats and Republicans, higher IQ and lower IQ, male and female.

"When we’re on social media, we’re passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment," said Patricia Moravec, who was lead author of the study, in an interview with UT News.  "We’re avoiding something else...  The fact that social media perpetuates and feeds this bias complicates people’s ability to make evidence-based decisions.  But if the facts that you do have are polluted by fake news that you truly believe, then the decisions you make are going to be much worse."

This is insidious because even if we are just going on social media to be entertained, the people posting political advertisements on social media aren't.  They're trying to change our minds.  And what the Moravec et al. study shows is that we're not only lousy at telling fact from fiction, we're very likely to get suckered by a plausible-sounding lie (or, conversely, to disbelieve an inconvenient truth) if it fits with our preexisting political beliefs.

Which makes it even more incumbent on the people who run social media platforms (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Mark Zuckerberg) to have on-staff fact checkers who are empowered to reject ads on both sides of the political aisle that are making false claims.  It's not enough to cite free speech rights as an excuse for abrogating your duty to protect people from immoral and ruthless politicians who will say or do anything to gain or retain power.  The people in charge of social media are under no obligation to run any ad someone's willing to pay for.  It's therefore their duty to establish criteria for which ads are going to show up -- and one of those criteria should surely be whether it's the truth.

The alternative is that our government will continue to be run by whoever has the cleverest, most attractive propaganda.  And as we've seen over the past three years, this is surely a recipe for disaster.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Friday, November 8, 2019

To see ourselves

The brilliant Scottish poet Robert Burns packed a lot of truth in these four lines:
O, would some power the giftie gi'e us
To see ourselves as others see us;
It would frae many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
It's almost a cliché that we don't see ourselves very accurately, both in the positive and negative sense.  We sometimes overestimate our own capacities (resulting in the infamous Dunning-Kruger effect, the tendency of people to think they understand things way better than they actually do).  At the same time, we often undersell our own abilities, lacking confidence in areas where we really are talented -- sometimes through false modesty, but sometimes because we really, honestly don't realize that we have an unusual skill.

I remember this last bit happening to me.  I have one ability my wife calls my "superpower" -- I remember melodies, essentially indefinitely.  The craziest example of this happened when I was taking a Balkan dance class when I was in my early twenties, and heard a tune I really liked.  I was going to ask the instructor what the name of the tune was, but clean forgot (so remembering other things is not really my forté).  But I remembered the tune itself, after hearing it only a couple of times while we were learning the dance that went with it.

Fast forward thirty years.  I was at Lark Camp, a week-long folk music gathering in the Mendocino Redwoods, and I was heading to lunch when I heard a fiddler and an accordion player playing a tune.  My ears perked up immediately.

There was no doubt in my mind.  That was "my" dance tune.

Turns out it's a Serbian melody called Bojarka.  (If you want to hear it, here's a lovely live performance of it by flutist Bora Dugić.)  I had remembered it, without trying or even playing it again, for thirty years.

What's funny is that I never thought there was anything particularly unusual about this.  With no context, I always simply assumed everyone could do it.  It was only when I started playing with other musicians that I found that my musical memory was pretty uncommon.  (It bears mention, however, that my remembering a tune doesn't mean I can play it perfectly.  Technically, I'm an average musician at best.)

This all comes up because of a recent study that looked at how our close friends think of us -- and even more interestingly, what their brains look like when they're doing it -- and suggests that our pals are way more aware of our core strengths, flaws, talents, and personalities than we might have thought.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons FOTO:FORTEPAN / Korenchy László, Portrait, woman, mirror, reflection, smile, headscarf Fortepan 29523, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In "The Neural Representation of Self is Recapitulated in the Brains of Friends: A Round-Robin fMRI Study," which appeared this week in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Robert Chavez and Dylan Wagner of Ohio State University took a group of eleven close friends and had each of them think about first themselves then the ten others, one at a time, evaluating each on the degree of accuracy of forty-eight different descriptors (including lonely, sad, cold, lazy, overcritical, trustworthy, enthusiastic, clumsy, fashionable, helpful, smart, punctual, and nice), and while they were doing this task an fMRI machine was recording how their brains responded.  The results were nothing short of fascinating.  The authors write:
Using functional MRI and a multilevel modeling approach, we show that multivoxel brain activity patterns in the MPFC [medial prefrontal cortex] during a person’s self-referential thought are correlated with those of friends when thinking of that same person.  Moreover, the similarity of neural self–other patterns was itself positively associated with the similarity of self–other trait judgments ratings as measured behaviorally in a separate session.  These findings suggest that accuracy in person perception may be predicated on the degree to which the brain activity pattern associated with an individual thinking about their own self-concept is similarly reflected in the brains of others.
So while everyone doesn't see you completely accurately, in aggregate your friends have a pretty clear picture of you.

"Each one of your friends gets to see a slightly different side of you," said study lead author Robert Chavez.  "When you put them all together, it is a better approximation of how you see yourself than any one person individually."

So Robert Burns's famous quip is both true and misleading; the way others see us is largely accurate, but if you take a large enough sample size, it agrees pretty well with how we see ourselves.  We may not be so unaware of our own foibles and unusual skills as it might appear at first, and it seems like our attempts to hide who we truly are from our friends aren't quite as successful as we like to think.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Thursday, November 7, 2019

The social context of animals

One misperception about the world that has proven to be awfully persistent is that there's some kind of qualitative difference between humans and the rest of the natural world.

Even our signature ability -- problem solving and rational thought, i.e., intelligence -- is a difference in degree and not in type.  The other primates show tremendous ability to problem solve, and "higher-order thinking" has been seen not only in our near relatives but in corvids (crows and ravens) and octopuses (which seem to be the brainiest invertebrates by far).

And before we start congratulating ourselves on being the smartest beings on the planet, it must be said that we're also the only ones using what intelligence we have to completely destroy the place.

So the whole "human vs. animal" distinction I still hear people talking about is really pretty meaningless.  Every difference you can come up with between humans and our non-human relatives is a shared in some way with other animals, even if it's not to the same degree or expressed the same way.

Our sense of having a bunch of special characteristics got another blow last week from two studies out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, one of Vulturine Guineafowl (Acryllium vultinurum) and the other of golden shiner fish (Notemigonus crysoleucas).  And both of them point at the same conclusion -- another feature of the human species we like to consider unique to humanity, complex social structure, isn't unique to us at all.

The first study is called "Multilevel Society in a Small-Brained Bird," authored by a team led by Damian Farine.  The title of the paper sounds like an unwarranted cheap shot until you see a picture of the bird itself:


You have to admit that this is a pretty spectacular brain-to-body-size ratio.  And frankly, the bird's actual name -- "Vulturine Guineafowl" -- isn't all that complimentary, either.

Be that as it may, Farine's team found that the interactions of these highly social birds were way more complex than they looked.  The four hundred individuals in the population they studied consisted of eighteen subgroups made up of between thirteen and sixty-five individuals each, and even though there was some mixing of the groups during feeding and roosting, overall the cliques were remarkably stable.  Guineafowl preferentially associate with certain individuals, and make long-lasting bonds with each other that are not apparently based on one of the two usual reasons -- sex/pair bonding and kinship.

In other words: guineafowls have buddies.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a social structure like this has been described for birds," said Danai Papageorgiou, lead author of the paper.  "It is remarkable to observe hundreds of birds coming out of a roost and splitting up perfectly into completely stable groups every single day.  How do they do that?  It’s obviously not just about being smart."

Had to get in another dig about brain size, didn't you, Dr. Papageorgiou?

The other study, titled "Individual and Collective Encoding of Risk in Animal Groups," was authored by a team led by Iain Couzin, and studied an animal generally considered to be even less intelligent than guineafowl -- a schooling species of fish called a golden shiner.

What the researchers did is to generate "startle events" in schools of shiners by squirting a compound into the water called schreckstoff (which literally translates to "fear stuff" -- gotta love German words), which is produced naturally by the skin of individuals when they're injured.  This chemical acts as a pheromone-like signal that there's danger nearby, and generates alarm behavior in the entire school.

The surprise came when the researchers found that the strength of the startle event wasn't a function of the amount of schreckstoff in the water, it was a function of the physical structure of the school.  If the school itself was spread out, a small amount of schreckstoff generated strong startle behavior.  When the fish were close to their schoolmates, they didn't startle nearly so easily.

The comparison to the human phenomenon of "courage in numbers" is obvious.

"Making each individual more sensitive to risk can lead to an excessive number of false alarms propagating through the group," said study lead author Couzin.  "On the other hand, strengthening social connections allows individuals to amplify information about risk, but buffers against the system becoming overly sensitive."

So other animals -- even fish and small-brained birds -- share a great many features with ourselves.  This comes as no surprise to evolutionary biologists, who see all of life as on a giant connected spectrum anyhow.  But these two studies suggests there are more commonalities between humans and other animals in terms of social complexity than we realized.

"We have traditionally assumed that intelligence resides in our brains, in the individual animal," Couzin said.  "But we have found the first evidence that intelligence can also be encoded in the hidden network of communication between us."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The problems with falling back

Here in the United States we've just gone from Daylight Savings Time back onto Standard Time, and like a lot of us, it's playing hell with my circadian rhythms.

I'm a morning person, which you'll know if you've ever noticed the timestamp on my Skeptophilia posts.  This means, of course, that by the evening I'm pretty wiped out.  The result is that we have to make sure any social engagements we have are over by nine o'clock, or my wife will look over and find me curled up on the floor in the corner, asleep.

Which may explain why we don't get invited to many social engagements.

Anyhow, a lot of people look forward to the "Fall Back" in November, because it gains them an hour's sleep (for one weekend, at least), and until their bodies adjust to the new schedule they don't feel like they're getting up so damned early.  I have exactly the opposite response.  The "Fall Back" is worse for morning people than for night owls, because now we're waking up even earlier (by the clock), and now it's eight o'clock, not nine o'clock, that our brains start to shut down.  The "Spring Forward" in March is actually easier on me, because it brings the clock into closer sync with my natural body rhythms, even though I do lose an hour's sleep.

But the whole thing still strikes me as a colossally silly idea.  I'm in agreement with whoever compared Daylight Savings Time to cutting the top off of a blanket and sewing the piece onto the bottom to make it longer.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jamain, Sleeping man J1, CC BY-SA 3.0]

A study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association looks at some of the physiological and neurological repercussions of jerking around our body clocks.  In "Are Daylight Savings Time Changes Bad for the Brain?", Beth A. Malow, Olivia Veatch, and Kanika Bagai conclude that the answer is "Definitely yes" (thus breaking Betteridge's Law, that says that any headline that asks a question can be answered by the word "No.").

The whole idea of Daylight Savings Time was about saving energy, and eleven years ago a study by the Department of Transportation found that the energy savings accrued from the change is a whopping 0.02%.  On the other hand, in the days following the March "Spring Forward," Malow et al. found that:
  • a dramatic jump in the number of strokes;
  • a 5% increase in the number of myocardial infarctions;
  • a reduction in sleep duration among high school students that persisted for weeks after the transition;
  • overall lower quality sleep (as measured by the amount of deep sleep) in just about everyone for at least two weeks after the transition.
This is on top of the fact that most of us sleep like crap anyhow, and it's having terrible effects.  Another study that came out this week, this one in Nature Human Behavior, found a strong link between sleep duration and quality, and the severity of anxiety and stress.  One sleepless night, the researchers found, causes a 30% jump in anxiety -- and like the Daylight Savings Time study, the ill effects persist for days or weeks afterward.  So it's not enough just to say "I'll sleep tomorrow night;" you need adequate sleep every night.

And most of us aren't getting it.

"We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain," said study senior author Matthew Walker, a University of California-Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.  "Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic, so long as we get it each and every night...  Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake."

"Deep sleep... restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety," said study lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley's Center for Human Sleep Science.  "People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety.  Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain."

We need to start looking at adequate sleep (both in duration and quality) not as a luxury, but a necessity, both for physical and mental health.  Unfortunately, our society isn't structured this way.  The students I used to work with were, almost without exception, chronically sleep deprived, from the demands of school, extracurricular activities, jobs, family, and some effort to have a social life.  But any serious look at rectifying this situation is usually greeted with a shrug and a comment like, "Yeah, I remember I hardly slept when I was that age."

The subtext -- "I got through it, so you can" -- is poisonous.  As my wife puts it, "Just because we've always done it this way doesn't mean it's not a really, really stupid idea."

At least there's hope, from the time-switch perspective; the Malow et al. paper tells us that there are only four states -- Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland -- that aren't currently considering proposals to switch to a permanent clock.  Whether it's Daylight Savings Time or Standard Time doesn't matter; the problem is the clock change twice a year.  If those proposals are evaluated using the best available science (I know, our current government doesn't exactly have a sterling track record for making policy decisions based on science, but maybe wiser heads will prevail, this time at least), then there'll be one less thing to worry about with regards to getting adequate sleep.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Girding your loins

In the latest from the False Sense Of Security department, we have guys' underwear that contains a mesh of tiny silver threads to protect their naughty bits from electromagnetic radiation.

It's not like this doesn't have precedent, I guess.  When you get a dental x-ray, the technician always drapes your torso with a lead apron to protect the rest of you from being irradiated.  The difference, of course, is that x-rays are high-energy ionizing radiation, while the radiation that Wireless Armour inventor Joseph Perkins is trying to protect us from is low-energy EM radiation in the radio and microwave regions of the spectrum, which has not been shown to cause ill health effects (at least not in the intensity that most of us are exposed to).

Perkins, who in his promotional over at IndieGoGo says he has a background in physics, states that there has been a 59% drop in sperm count in men exposed to the EM radiation from a standard laptop, a number I seriously question -- the studies I've seen haven't shown any such thing, although there is some indication that proximity of the testicles to a cellphone in call mode for an hour can cause a decrease in sperm motility.  A study in Norway of guys working near radio transmitter aerials did show that they had lower than expected fertility, but this is a level of radio wave exposure that most of us never see.  There doesn't seem to be any connection between using a laptop or cellphone in ordinary ways and a drop in sperm count, or even an overall lower fertility level.  I mean, think about it.  Given the ubiquity of laptops and cellphones and so on these days, if they were actually causing this kind of drop in fertility, we'd be seeing a pretty serious crash in the number of pregnancies in technological countries.

And I don't think that there's any evidence for that. People, even here in the tech-crazy industrialized world, still seem to be making babies just fine, regardless of what kind of underwear we guys prefer.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jacklee; original photograph by Phillip from Miami, USA., BoxerShorts-20070901, CC BY-SA 2.0]

But that doesn't stop Perkins.  His silver-wire-mesh boxer briefs are critical to "keep your troops from getting fried," a phrase that I didn't make up and plays off of every guy's worst nightmare.  The underwear works on the principle of a "Faraday cage," a mesh of conducting wires that blocks electromagnetic radiation, as long as the holes through the mesh are smaller than the wavelength of the radiation.

So Perkins's Wireless Armour would work for radiation in the radio and microwave regions of the spectrum, as advertised.  The problem with the whole concept, though, is that the radiation that strikes our bodies under normal circumstances is of extremely low intensity -- according to Lorne Trottier, writing for The Skeptical Inquirer in 2009, "The photon energy of a cell phone EMF is more than 10 million times weaker than the lowest energy ionizing radiation."  Citing a great many controlled studies (and mentioning a few poorly-controlled ones), The Skeptic's Dictionary states, "(T)he likelihood that our cell phones, microwave ovens, computers, and other electronic devices (cause negative health effects) is minuscule."

There is, of course, the problem with laptops causing skin burns -- not from the EM radiation, but from the fact that the heat from the underside isn't dissipating well.  An article from the National Institute of Health warns against having a laptop against your skin for long periods of time with no heat insulation between it and you.  They describe "(a) 24-year-old man (who) presented with an asymptomatic reddish brown pigmentation on the thighs...  After an extensive work-up, burning caused by use of a laptop was observed...  Burning was induced in 3 days by using laptop for 4 h daily."

But silver mesh boxer briefs aren't going to protect you from heat.  Silver is quite a good heat conductor, so if anything, having silver threads in your underwear would make the problem worse.

That's not to say that Perkins's original claim is wrong, of course.  His Faraday-cage skivvies would protect you from the effect of high-intensity radio or microwave radiation, should you ever be exposed to such.  If you were, for example, standing in front of a high-output radio transmitter, and were wearing your Wireless Armour boxer briefs, your "troops would not fry."  The rest of your body, however, would heat up in the manner of last night's leftovers in the kitchen microwave, until you were piping hot on the inside.

Your junk, however, would remain nice and cool, if that's any consolation.

If you'd like, though, Perkins's IndieGoGo page has a place where you can contribute, and receive your very own pair of anti-EMR underwear.  The price varies between £14 (about $23) for a pair with mesh in the front only, and £24 (about $32) for "360º protection."  This seems steep, but remember that they do contain woven silver thread, so I guess they're not cheap to manufacture.

The whole thing strikes me as unnecessary, though, and I think I'll stick with my previous three-pairs-for-ten-dollars boxers from Target, and simply make a practice of avoiding high-output radio transmitters.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Monday, November 4, 2019

The problem with Hubble

In my Critical Thinking classes, I did a unit on statistics and data, and how you tell if a measurement is worth paying attention to.  One of the first things to consider, I told them, is whether a particular piece of data is accurate or merely precise -- two words that in common parlance are used interchangeably.

In science, they don't mean the same thing.  A piece of equipment is said to be precise if it gives you close to the same value every time.  Accuracy, though, is a higher standard; data are accurate if the values are not only close to each other when measured with the same equipment, but agree with data taken independently, using a different device or a different method.

A simple example is that if my bathroom scale tells me every day for a month that my mass is (to within one kilogram either way) 239 kilograms, it's highly precise, but very inaccurate.

This is why scientists always look for independent corroboration of their data.  It's not enough to keep getting the same numbers over and over; you've got to be certain those numbers actually reflect reality.

This all comes up because of some new information about one of the biggest scientific questions known -- the rate of expansion of the entire universe.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA]

A few months ago, I wrote about some recent experiments that were allowing physicists to home in on the Hubble constant, a quantity that is a measure of how fast everything in the universe is flying apart.  And the news appeared to be good; from a range of between 50 and 500, physicists had been able to narrow down the value of the Hubble constant to between 65.3 and 75.6.

The problem is, nobody's been able to get closer than that -- and in fact, recent measurements have widened, not narrowed, the gap.

There are two main ways to measure the Hubble constant.  The first is to use information like red shift and Cepheid variables (stars whose period of brightness oscillation varies predictably with their intrinsic brightness, making them a good "standard candle" to determine the distance to other galaxies) to figure out how fast the galaxies we see are receding from each other.  The other is to use the cosmic microwave background radiation -- the leftovers from the radiation produced by the Big Bang -- to determine the age of the universe, and therefore, how fast it's expanding.

So this is a little like checking my bathroom scale by weighing myself on it, then comparing my weight as measured by the scale at the gym and seeing if I get the same answer.

And the problem is, the measurement of the Hubble constant by these two methods is increasingly looking like it's resulting in two irreconcilably different values.

The genesis of the problem is that our measurement ability has become more and more precise -- the error bars associated with data collection have shrunk considerably.  And if the two measurements were not only precise, but also accurate, you would expect that our increasing precision would result in the two values getting closer and closer together.

Exactly the opposite has happened.

"Five years ago, no one in cosmology was really worried about the question of how fast the universe was expanding.  We took it for granted," said astrophysicist Daniel Mortlock of Imperial College London.  "Now we are having to do a great deal of head scratching – and a lot of research...  Everyone’s best bet was that the difference between the two estimates was just down to chance, and that the two values would converge as more and more measurements were taken.  In fact, the opposite has occurred.  The discrepancy has become stronger.  The estimate of the Hubble constant that had the lower value has got a bit lower over the years and the one that was a bit higher has got even greater."

The discovery of dark matter and dark energy, the first by Vera Rubin, Kent Ford, and Ken Freeman in the 1970s, and the second by Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter in the 1990s, accounted for the fact that the rate of expansion seemed wildly out of whack with the amount of observable matter in the universe.  The problem is, since the discovery of the effects of dark matter and dark energy, we haven't gotten any closer to finding out what they actually are.  Every attempt to directly detect either one has resulted in zero success.

Now, it appears that the problems run even deeper than that.

"Those two discoveries [dark matter and dark energy] were remarkable enough," said Riess.  "But now we are facing the fact there may be a third phenomenon that we had overlooked – though we haven’t really got a clue yet what it might be."

"The basic problem is that having two different figures for the Hubble constant measured from different perspectives would simply invalidate the cosmological model we made of the universe," Mortlock said.  "So we wouldn’t be able to say what the age of the universe was until we had put our physics right."

It sounds to me a lot like the situation in the late 1800s, when physicists were trying to determine the answer to a seemingly simple question -- in what medium do light waves propagate?  Every wave has to be moving through something; water waves come from regular motion of water molecules, sound waves from oscillation of air molecules, and so on.  With light waves, what was "waving?"

Because the answer most people accepted was, "something has to be waving even if we don't know what it is," scientists proposed a mysterious substance called the "aether" that permeated all of space, and was the medium through which light waves were propagating.  All attempts to directly detect the aether were failures, but this didn't discourage people from saying that it must be there, because otherwise, how would light move?

Then along came the brilliant (and quite simple -- in principle, anyhow) Michelson-Morley experiment, which proved beyond any doubt that the aether didn't exist.  Light traveling in a vacuum appeared to have a constant speed in all frames of reference, which is entirely unlike any other wave ever studied.  And it wasn't until Einstein came along and turned our entire understanding upside down with the Special Theory of Relativity that we saw the piece we'd been missing that made sense of all the weird data.

What we seem to be waiting for is this century's Einstein, who will explain the discrepancies in the measurements of the Hubble constant, and very likely account for the mysterious, undetectable dark matter and dark energy (which sound a lot like the aether, don't they?) at the same time.  But until then, we're left with a mystery that calls into question one of the most fundamental conclusions of modern physics -- the age of the universe.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]