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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Listening to Cassandra

I like to think of myself as basically an optimistic person, and someone who looks for the best in my fellow humans.  But there are times that I think that a gigantic meteor strike might, all things considered, be the best option at this point.

Those times usually occur when people persist in a behavior that is known, for absolute certain, to be self-destructive.  And surprisingly enough, I'm not talking about climate change here, and our determination to keep burning fossil fuels despite the near-universal consensus amongst climatologists that this practice is drastically altering the Earth's climate.  What I'm referring to is two stories that both broke day before yesterday, and that leave me shaking my head and feeling like whatever happens to our species, we kind of deserve it.

The first, and more local, example of this phenomenon was described in an article in NPR Online, the title of which sums up the problem succinctly: "Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them."  The article, written by Rebecca Hersher, describes the ongoing catastrophe along the Mississippi River, wherein every single year there are destructive, often deadly, floods.

Here's a capsule summary of the problem.

Before the 20th century, the Mississippi had a habit shared by many large rivers; overflowing its banks during the rainy season.  This phenomenon had a couple of effects.  First, it brought the silt picked up along the way out of the river basin, depositing it on land.  Second, it meant that regular, minor floods -- the sort of thing one can prepare for and cope with -- were kind of a way of life.  (Why, for example, my uncle's fishing cabin in Henderson, Louisiana was built on stilts.)

But when the population started both to grow and urbanize, these floods were "mitigated" -- by installing a system of levees and spillways to "tame the river."  Mostly constructed in the 1930s and 1940s by the Army Corps of Engineers, the (well-meant) attempt to stop people from being flooded out every year had two unexpected effects.

One is that the silt that would have been deposited to either side of the river now was kept in the river itself.  This left only two places it could go -- deposited onto the river bottom, or flushed out into the Gulf at the delta.  The first raised the riverbed, and the second raised the mouth of the river; both of these had the effect of pushing the level of the river upwards.  Simultaneously, the silt that was in the river didn't end up on land, and the land itself started to subside.

Rising river + sinking land = a need for bigger levees.  So the levees were raised, making the problem worse -- and so on and so forth.  I still vividly remember being in New Orleans and walking along a footpath at the base of a levee along the Mississippi -- and looking up to see the top of a shrimp boat going past, about thirty feet above my head.

The 17th Street Canal in Metairie, Louisiana [Image licensed under the Creative Commons No machine-readable author provided. Infrogmation assumed (based on copyright claims)., MetOutletCanalDogwalkerBreechBkgrd, CC BY 2.5]

The second unexpected effect follows directly from the first.  If you build higher levees, the water level rises, so when the levees break, you don't have a minor flood, you have a catastrophic one.  This, of course, is what happened in New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, but it's inevitable that it'll happen again in the near future.

The kicker?  We've known about this problem for ages.  In 1989 John McPhee wrote an incredible book on the topic, called The Control of Nature, in which he laid out the problem clearly.  And what have we done differently since then?

Nada.  Build more levees.  Pretend we know what we're doing, and that nature won't ultimately have the last word.

The other example of humans doing idiotic self-destructive stuff revolves around something I always mention in my biology classes as the time our species did something right; the 1989 Montreal Protocol that banned the production or use of chlorofluorocarbons, a class of chemicals used as coolants and propellants that were thought to be harmless but turned out to destroy the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.  Almost all the nations on Earth signed on -- surely one of the only times in humanity's history where damn near everyone has agreed on something.

Or so we thought.  Since 2012, there's been a sudden and mysterious uptick in the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere -- up, at one estimate, by 25%.  As of the time of this writing, no one's quite sure where it's coming from.  Up until now, the CFC levels have been gradually falling (and ozone hole gradually diminishing) as the CFCs from before 1989 have broken down -- but it appears that we're not done with this problem yet.

"It is not clear why any country would want to start to produce, and inadvertently release, CFC-11, when cost-effective substitutes have been available for a long while," said NASA scientist Robert Watson, who led the studies thirty years ago that led to CFCs being banned.  "It is therefore imperative that this finding be discussed at the next Ministerial meeting of Governments given recovery of the ozone layer is dependent on all countries complying with the Montreal Protocol (and its adjustments and amendments) with emissions globally dropping to zero."

Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and an expert on the Montreal Protocol, was more unequivocal still.  "Somebody's cheating.  There’s some slight possibility there’s an unintentional release, but… they make it clear there’s strong evidence this is actually being produced...  This treaty cannot afford not to follow its tradition and keep its compliance record...  They’re going to find the culprits.  This insults everybody who’s worked on this for the last 30 years.  That’s a tough group of people."

So at least we have some folks who are on the case.  What kind of power to compel they will turn out to have, once the culprits are identified, remains to be seen.  And here in the United States, we've seen in the past year a weakening of damn near every environmental regulation we have, in favor of corporate profit and short-term expediency.  So how much help our government will be is questionable.

I'm holding out some hope that at least by publicizing these issues, people are beginning to wise up.  However, our inaction on climate change -- a phenomenon we've known about since the 1890s -- doesn't bode well.  Mostly what has happened is that the people who are brave enough to sound the warning have turned into Cassandras -- prophets who are cursed to be correct, but no one believes them.

As for me, I'm trying to maintain my optimism, but after reading these two articles, right now mostly what I'm doing is scanning the skies looking for the incoming meteor.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

When the volcano blows

A recommendation for bloggers and other commentators: if you are going to write about science, make sure you understand the damn science.  And for readers: make sure you find out about the writer's biases.

This comes up because of a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia called, "Why Volcanic Eruptions and Earthquakes are Increasing."  The whole thing pivots on the scary idea that the Earth is becoming more tectonically active, which certainly would have a major impact on humanity.  But let us begin with the most pressing question, which is: are volcanic eruptions and earthquakes increasing?

Mt. Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo [Image licensed under the Creative Commons MONUSCO/Neil Wetmore, An aerial view of the towering volcanic peak of Mt. Nyiragongo, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The answer appears to be "no."  According to the site Volcano World, maintained by the geology department of Oregon State University, there is no evidence that there's more seismic or volcanic activity lately.  Not even a slow overall increase over the past few thousand years.  The appearance that there's more rumbling going on, they say, is due to two things:
  1. The Earth is being more intensively monitored now than any other time in its history, so we're more aware of even small events than we would have been.  This information then gets relayed all over the globe, increasing laypeople's awareness of what's going on.
  2. Because of the increase in human population, the impact of these events has become much greater.  To use the example from the site, if the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland had occurred in 1500, it's doubtful that it would have bothered -- or even been noticed by -- anyone but the Icelanders.
So we start out with a problem, which is that the central claim appears to be incorrect.  And in fact, if you're talking about violent eruptions, what we're seeing from Kilauea in the last few days is peanuts compared to the eruptions of Krakatoa, Tambora,and Toba in the Indonesian archipelago (respectively in 1883, 1815, and about 75,000 years ago) and the Lake Taupo (New Zealand) eruption in 180 C. E.  And even those pale by comparison to the events that formed the Columbia River Flood Basalts, the Deccan Traps, and the Siberian Traps, the latter of which spewed out 4 million cubic kilometers of lava, an amount that beggars belief, and which is believed to have played a role in the Permian-Triassic Extinction that wiped out 95% of the species on Earth.

But never mind all that.  The next thing the authors throw out is their explanation for this increase (which, recall, isn't occurring anyhow).  And the answer is: cosmic rays.

My first inclination was to guffaw at this, but then I decided to do some research (always a good idea, especially when there's the likelihood of rejecting an idea solely because "it seems wrong").  And I found that there is a (scientific) claim out there that the timing of volcanic eruptions is correlated with sunspot minimums, because those are correlated with a higher cosmic ray flux.  The paper in question is "Explosive Volcanic Eruptions Triggered by Cosmic Rays: Volcano as a Bubble Chamber," by Toshikazu Ebisuzaki, Hiroko Miyahara, Ryuho Kataoka, Tatsuhiko Sato, and Yasuhiro Ishimine, of the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute and the University of Tokyo, which appeared in Gondwana Research back in 2011.  What the scientists propose is that for silica-rich volcanoes, the magma can become superheated, and a cosmic ray could act to trigger nucleation -- quick, explosive liquefaction.

But here's the problem.  The Ebisuzaki et al. study only looked at eleven volcanoes, all in Japan, which already seems like a pretty small sample size.  They found that nine of the volcanoes erupted during a solar minimum, and the other two nearer to a solar maximum.  But without even trying hard I went through some eruption records back to 1700 (the cutoff for their study) and found twelve more stratovolcano eruptions (volcanoes with explosive, silica-rich magma) -- Pinatubo (1991), Mount St. Helens (1980), Novarupta (1912), Santa Maria (1902), Mount Pelée (1902), Krakatoa (1883), Tambora (1815), and La Soufrière (1718, 1812, 1902, 1971, and 1979).  Of those, eight occurred during solar maximums; only two (Novarupta and the 1971 eruption of La Soufrière) were during a clear minimum.  Two eruptions, Tambora and the 1812 eruption of La Soufrière, occurred during a local maximum in the middle of a thirty-year period of overall low sunspot activity (the "Dalton Minimum").  So let's not count those in either column.

So with my additions, that brings us up to twenty-one eruptions -- eleven during minimums, and ten during maximums.

In other words, random chance -- no connection to sunspot activity whatsoever.

Now, I'm neither a geologist nor a statistician, and if there's something wrong with my reasoning, I'm happy to correct it.  But I haven't even hit the punchline yet: the whole thing winds its way around to the claim that the Earth isn't actually warming, it's cooling.

So we're back in climate change denial la-la land, which I should have realized the moment I read them quoting Roy W. Spencer, a meteorologist who is on the advisory board of the denialist, pro-fossil-fuels Heartland Institute.  The site Skeptical Science takes Spencer's claims apart one at a time, and with far more authority than I can wield, so I suggest perusing the site.

Anyhow, the original claim looks like bullshit to me, and yet another example of someone with an ax to grind cherry-picking data that supports what they would very much like to be true.  In any case, I think we can rest assured that the cosmic rays aren't going to cause volcanoes to erupt, and that volcanic eruptions in any case have been pretty frequent occurrences throughout Earth's history.  Me, I'm more worried about the fact that we're still burning fossil fuels like mad despite a near-universal scientific consensus that what we're doing is going to jeopardize the long-term habitability of the planet.  And that seems to me more important than fretting about sunspots and cosmic rays.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Apocalypse later

Several times here at Skeptophilia headquarters we've made fun of people predicting the end of the world, be it from a collision with the planet Nibiru, an alien invasion, and the Borg cube draining the Sun of energy (no, I swear I'm not making that one up), not to mention the depredations of the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons.  Until yesterday, however, I didn't know the scale of the problem.  A friend and loyal reader sent me a list of predicted end dates -- and all I can say is, we're not out of the woods yet.

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, what with impending ecological catastrophes, wars breaking out, and sociopaths in leadership roles in government, now we have to worry about the world ending over and over.  So without further ado, here's what we're in for:
  • June 9, 2019 -- the Second Coming of Christ, according to Ronald Weinland, founder of the Church of God - Preparing for the Kingdom of God, an apocalyptic Christian sect headquartered in Colorado.  This is far from the first time Weinland has predicted the End Times; he also said Christ was coming back in 2012 and 2013, the latter of which would have been during his prison term for tax evasion.  (Weinland's, not Christ's.)  Oh, and Weinland also said that anyone who mocks him or his church would be divinely cursed with a "sickness which will eat them from the inside out."  I'm still waiting for that, too.
  • An unspecified date in 2020 -- Armageddon, if you believe the late Jeane Dixon, a self-styled prophet and professional astrologer who died in 1997, so she won't be available for commentary when it doesn't happen.  Dixon was famous for touting the few times her predictions came true (such as a well-publicized one that whoever won the 1960 presidential election would die before his term was out), while ignoring all the wrong ones (such as her certainty that the person who'd win that election was Richard Nixon).  Speaking of Nixon, apparently he believed she was the real deal, which makes me wonder why she didn't warn him not to do all the stupid shit that led to Watergate.
  • Some time in 2018, or possibly 2020, 2021, or 2028 -- Kenton Beshore, pastor of the Mariners Church in Irvine, California, says that Jesus will return within one generation of the founding of the state of Israel (1948), as hath been foretold by the scriptures.  He said that the usual upper bound of "one generation" -- forty years -- is wrong, because Jesus didn't return in 1988.  So q.e.d., apparently. He says that a "biblical generation" is more like seventy or eighty years, so we might have to wait as long as 2028 for Jesus to come back.  Or not.  He doesn't seem very sure, himself.  I guess the line in the Gospel of Matthew about how no one knoweth the hour includes Pastor Beshore.
  • 2026 -- an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, according to Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi, a Sufi prophet from Pakistan, and founder of Messiah Foundation International.  Shahi is a bit of an enigma.  He fled Pakistan upon learning that he was being accused of blasphemy, and was tried in absentia and sentenced to 59 years in prison.  He ended up in England, but disappeared from there in 2001.  Some say he's in prison in India, others that he's in hiding in England, a few devotees that he was assumed bodily into heaven, and some more pragmatic types that he simply died.  Despite all this, there are reports of his devotees seeing him "all over the world."
  • 2060 -- according to an apocryphal story, physicist Isaac Newton said the world was going to end in some unspecified fashion in 2060.  Apparently, this came from an unpublished manuscript wherein Newton was trying to put apocalyptic predictions to rest, and said that from the motions of known objects in the Solar System, the world was not going to end before 2060, which I'm sure you can see is not the same thing as saying the world is going to end in 2060.  Nevertheless, you still hear the claim that Newton predicted the end of the world in 2060, lo unto this very day.
  • 2129 -- Kurdish Sunni prophet Said-i Nursî said that according to his interpretation of the words of Muhammad, the world was going to end in 2129.  Myself, I wonder why you'd need an interpretation, if that's what Muhammad meant.  If he wanted to say that, the simple thing would be to come right out and say, "Hey, y'all, you know what?  The world's gonna end in 2129," only in Arabic.  Of course, if religious leaders were that direct, they wouldn't need prophets, ministers, et al. to interpret their words, which would put a whole industry out of business.
  • 2239 -- according to some interpretations of the Talmud (cf. the previous entry), the "period of desolation" marking the start of the End Times has to occur within 6,000 years of the creation of Adam, which apparently happened in 3,761 B.C.E., which must have come as a hell of a shock to the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, who had already been around for a thousand years by that time.  Then there follows a thousand years of "desolation," followed by the actual end of the world in the year 3239.  Although given how desolate things already are, you have to wonder how we'll tell the difference.
  • 2280 -- Rashad Khalifa, an Egyptian-American biochemist and scholar of the Qu'ran, said that from numerological analysis of the Qu'ran he predicted the world would end in 2280.  That's far enough ahead that I'm not really worried about it, and in any case (1) numerology is a lot of bunk, and (2) Khalifa was murdered in 1990 and didn't foresee that, so I think we can safely say that he wasn't worth much as a prophet.
So there you have it; eight times the world's gonna end.  And those are just the ones in the future.  The same list includes 173 dates the world has ended in the past (I shit you not) including several by such luminaries as Martin Luther, Jerry Falwell, Christopher Columbus, and Cotton Mather (Columbus and Mather each predicted the end three separate times).

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (ca. 1497) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Interesting that 173 failures in a row doesn't stop the apocalyptoids from claiming that okay, we've been wrong before, but this one's real, cross our hearts and hope to die in shrieking agony as the world burns.  Myself, I'd be a little discouraged by now.  It must be disappointing to think you're going to see the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers a week from next Tuesday, and then you have to go to work the next day as if nothing happened, which it did.  At least we only have till June to wait for the next time the world is going to end, so we won't be kept in suspense for much longer.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Rock falls and sea levels

Why do we tolerate abject stupidity in our leaders?

I'm asking this not, surprisingly, because of Donald Trump, but because of Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, a member of the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology,who claims -- and I am not making this up -- that sea level rise is not being caused by climate change, but by rocks falling into the ocean.

At the time of this writing, I have been emailed this story five times by loyal readers of Skeptophilia, usually accompanied by the words, "What the fuck is wrong with these people?"  In case you are disinclined to believe that someone can be that big an idiot, here's the actual quote:
What about the White Cliffs of Dover … [and] California, where you have the waves crashing against the shorelines, and time and time again you have the cliffs crashing into the sea?  All of that displaces water which forces it to rise, does it not?  Every single year that we’re on Earth, you have huge tons of silt deposited by the Mississippi River, by the Amazon River, by the Nile, by every major river system — and for that matter, creek, all the way down to the smallest systems.  Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up. You put it all together, erosion is the primary cause of sea level rise in the history of our planet and these people who say to the contrary may know something about climate but they don't know squat about geology... 
Keep in mind I'm talking millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of years, erosion is the primary cause of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cubic miles of sea displacement that in turn forces the sea levels to rise.
It didn't take long for a story to appear in the Washington Post estimating the size of the blob of rock you'd have to drop into the ocean to see what we're seeing (a 3.3 millimeter rise per year).  The answer: 1.19 trillion cubic meters, equivalent to a sphere eight miles in diameter.

Every year.

Put another way, this would be like scraping the top five inches of dirt from the entire United States, rolling it into a ball, and dropping it into the ocean.

Every year.  In case I haven't made that point clear.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Immanuel Giel, White Cliffs of Dover 02, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Brooks went on to say that the polar pack ice is actually increasing, and the tired old story about how climatologists in the 1980s said there'd be "global cooling," and that didn't happen:
What I'm trying to establish is that a lot of these climatologists have no idea what they're really talking about, and it's because we have not had a long enough period time with exact scientific measurement to know what the climate's going to be like fifty years from now or a hundred years from now.   The bottom line is nobody is smart enough to know with the evidence we have and the relatively small time frame we have - fifty years in the history of the planet.  That's just not enough information with which to make accurate predictions.
Of course, we do have more information than that; we have accurate proxy records going back thousands of years, and some pretty shrewd guesses going back millions.  The link between carbon dioxide and global temperature, and predictions of what would happen if we kept burning all the fossil fuels we could get our hands on, go all the way back to Svante Arrhenius in 1896.  At least Brooks has a clear understanding of how someone could be this willfully stupid, ignoring mountains of evidence and the arguments of climatologists (i.e., the people who actually understand what's going on, despite Brooks's pronouncement that they "have no idea what they're really talking about"):
Money.  Money to invest in a certain kind of resources where you might have a financial interest.  There's also politics as you're trying to cobble together the votes to win an election, that's probably part of it, too.
Which is spot-on, even if not in the way he meant it.  The ones getting rich are not the climatologists -- it's not like you routinely see climatologists living in mansions and driving Jaguars.  The ones who are getting rich are the politicians, who are being bankrolled by the fossil fuel interests, to the tune of millions of dollars annually.

Which, presumably, is how imbeciles like Mo Brooks "cobble together the votes to win an election."

The cure, of course, is an educated electorate, but with the disinformation campaign going on right now, there's been so much distrust of the experts sown in the minds of laypeople that you can tell them damn near anything you want.  The first thing that the talking heads and corporate lobbyists do is to teach people to doubt the facts -- to claim that the data itself is wrong, skewed, or deliberately falsified.  The Earth's not warming, the sea's not rising, storms are not getting stronger.  Oh, and even if the Earth is warming up, all that's going to do is make the cold parts of the world nice and balmy.

Don't worry.  We're not doing anything dangerous.  Trust us.

At least one person was willing to call Brooks on his bullshit, and that was Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, who amazingly was asked to participate in the meeting of the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, despite being an actual scientist.  He and Brooks had the following testy exchange:
Duffy: We have satellite records clearly documenting a shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheet and an acceleration of that shrinkage. 
Brooks: I'm sorry, but I don't know where you're getting your information, but the data I have seen suggests — "  
Duffy: The National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 
Brooks: Well, I've got a NASA base in my district, and apparently, they're telling you one thing and me a different thing.  But there are plenty of studies that have come that show with respect to Antarctica that the total ice sheet, particularly that above land, is increasing, not decreasing.
In other words, your NASA is clearly wrong.  There are "plenty of studies" showing that my NASA is right.

The whole thing is profoundly upsetting, at least to those of us who know how to read a scientific paper.

On the other hand, at least we don't have to fret about what will happen if the White Cliffs of Dover collapse.  It'll be upsetting to the people in that part of England, no doubt, but there's no worries about the resultant sea level rise flooding Omaha or anything.


This week's recommended book is an obscure little tome that I first ran into in college.  It's about a scientific hoax -- some chemists who claimed to have discovered what they called "polywater," a polymerized form of water that was highly viscous and stayed liquid from -70 F to 500 F or above.  The book is a fascinating, and often funny, account of an incident that combines confirmation bias with wishful thinking with willful misrepresentation of the evidence.  Anyone who's interested in the history of science or simply in how easy it is to fool the overeager -- you should put Polywater by Felix Franks on your reading list.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Bugs for dinner

Every once in a while I'll run across something that is such an elegant support for the theory of evolution that I can't help but wonder how you'd explain it otherwise.

Of course, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming anyhow, and the people who disbelieve it are evaluating the world through a different lens.  But still, I'd like to know how a strict creationist would respond to a beautiful piece of research out of the University of California - Berkeley that was just published last week.

Entitled "Chitinase Genes (CHIAs) Provide Genomic Footprints of a Post-Cretaceous Dietary Radiation in Placental Mammals," the paper, by Christopher A. Emerling, Frédéric Delsuc, and
Michael W. Nachman, at first seems as if it would be of interest only to someone who's keen on population genetics or paleontology.  The authors write:
The end-Cretaceous extinction led to a massive faunal turnover, with placental mammals radiating in the wake of nonavian dinosaurs.  Fossils indicate that Cretaceous stem placentals were generally insectivorous, whereas their earliest Cenozoic descendants occupied a variety of dietary niches.  It is hypothesized that this dietary radiation resulted from the opening of niche space, following the extinction of dinosaurian carnivores and herbivores.  We provide the first genomic evidence for the occurrence and timing of this dietary radiation in placental mammals.  By comparing the genomes of 107 placental mammals, we robustly infer that chitinase genes (CHIAs), encoding enzymes capable of digesting insect exoskeletal chitin, were present as five functional copies in the ancestor of all placental mammals, and the number of functional CHIAs in the genomes of extant species positively correlates with the percentage of invertebrates in their diets.  The diverse repertoire of CHIAs in early placental mammals corroborates fossil evidence of insectivory in Cretaceous eutherians, with descendant lineages repeatedly losing CHIAs beginning at the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) boundary as they radiated into noninsectivorous niches.  Furthermore, the timing of gene loss suggests that interordinal diversification of placental mammals in the Cretaceous predates the dietary radiation in the early Cenozoic, helping to reconcile a long-standing debate between molecular timetrees and the fossil record.  Our results demonstrate that placental mammal genomes, including humans, retain a molecular record of the post-K/Pg placental adaptive radiation in the form of numerous chitinase pseudogenes.
Put more simply, the authors have discovered a fascinating correspondence:
  • Unsurprisingly, insectivorous species have genes to break down chitin, which makes up insect exoskeletons.  If an insectivorous species suffered a mutation in a chitinase gene, it would be likely to die of malnutrition, making those mutations unlikely to survive in the genome.
  • If these animals switched diets, then a mutation in a chitinase gene wouldn't be harmful.  So any mutations that occurred wouldn't kill the animal in which they occurred, and they would be maintained in the population.
  • Non-insectivorous mammals -- including ourselves -- still have these remnant malfunctioning genes, some of them tens of millions of years old, leftovers in our genomes from our distant, insect-eating ancestors.
  • Most fascinatingly, different non-insectivorous lineages -- such as (for example) ourselves and dogs -- both have broken chitinase genes, but the genes aren't broken in the same way.  The mutation that occurred in the lineage that led to Order Carnivora is different from that in the lineage that led to Order Primata.  But within an order, the chitinase "pseudogenes" are very similar.
I'd like a creationist to tell me why, if we did not evolve, we still have broken copies of a gene that would only be useful to a species that fed exclusively on insects.

A cottontop tamarin eating an insect [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mickey Samuni-Blank, Cottontop tamarin, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Study co-author Christopher Emerling certainly appreciates the import of this discovery:
In essence, we are looking at genomes and they are telling the same story as the fossils: that we think these animals were insectivorous and then dinosaurs went extinct.  After the demise of these large carnivorous and herbivorous reptiles, mammals started changing their diets... 
One of the coolest things is, if you look at humans, at Fido your dog, Whiskers your cat, your horse, your cow; pick any animal, generally speaking, they have remnants in their genomes of a time when mammals were small, probably insectivorous and running around when dinosaurs were still roaming Earth.  It is a signature in your genome that says, once upon a time you were not the dominant group of organisms on Earth. By looking at our genomes, we are looking at this ancestral past and a lifestyle that we don’t even live with anymore.
I'm right there with Emerling in thinking this is amazingly cool.  That's what science is about, you know?  Elucidating some small part of the universe, and in the process, leaving us awestruck.  Myself, I'm just as glad we don't eat insects any more.  Grasshoppers simply don't appeal the way a rare t-bone steak does.  But the idea that we can show that my far distant ancestors, seventy million years ago, dined on bugs -- that is pretty freakin' cool.


This week's recommended book is an obscure little tome that I first ran into in college.  It's about a scientific hoax -- some chemists who claimed to have discovered what they called "polywater," a polymerized form of water that was highly viscous and stayed liquid from -70 F to 500 F or above.  The book is a fascinating, and often funny, account of an incident that combines confirmation bias with wishful thinking with willful misrepresentation of the evidence.  Anyone who's interested in the history of science or simply in how easy it is to fool the overeager -- you should put Polywater by Felix Franks on your reading list.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Faces in the woods

One of the first things I ever wrote about in this blog was the phenomenon of pareidolia -- because the human brain is wired to recognize faces, we sometimes see faces where there are only random patterns of lights and shadows that resemble a face.  This is why, as children, we all saw faces in clouds and on the Moon; and it also explains the Face on Mars, most "ghost photographs," and the countless instances of seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, tortillas, and concrete walls.

When I first mentioned pareidolia, eight years ago, it seemed like most people hadn't heard of it.    Recently, however, the idea has gained wider currency, and now when some facelike thing is spotted, and makes it into the mainstream press, the word seems to come up with fair regularity.  Which is all to the good.

But it does leave the woo-woos in a bit of a quandary, doesn't it?  If all of their ghost photographs and Faces on Mars and grilled cheese Jesuses (Jesi?) are just random patterns, perceived as faces because that's how the human brain works, what's a woo-woo to do?

Well, a recent post at the website Crystal Life gives us the answer.

Entitled "A Visit With the Nature Spirits," the author admits that pareidolia does occur:
How do you see nature spirits in trees?  You use pareidolia, a faculty of the mind that enables you to see patterns in objects where none supposedly exist.  It’s how we see faces and shapes and animals in water, rocks, and tree trunks.  Conventional psychology regards this faculty as pure imagination, but if it is used in a certain way, it can open you up to subtler realities of which conventional psychology is unaware.
Okay, so far so good.  So how do we tell the difference between imagining a face (which surely we all do from time to time), and seeing a face because there's a "nature spirit" present?  We can't, the writer says, because even if it is pareidolia, the spirits are still there.  She gives an example:
“Trees like to express their environment,” she observes, and so create forms, such as burls, in their bark to reflect what they experience.  I could see the figures she described, although my immediate impression had been that of an energy like that of an octopus.  Atala explained that various people will see different images and aspects of the trees’ energy.  Overall her experiences of the nature spirit were more visual (she took many photographs), while mine were more kinesthetic.  It’s possible that with the pine tree, I was simply picking up certain tendrils of energy that it was extending toward me.
So, in other words -- if I'm understanding her correctly -- even if analysis of the photograph showed that the image we thought was a Nature Spirit turned out to be a happenstance arrangement of leaves and branches, it's still a Nature Spirit -- it's just that the Spirit used the leaves and branches to create his face?  (At this point, you should go back and click the link, if you haven't already done so, it includes some photographs of "Woodland Spirits" that he took, and that are at least mildly entertaining, including one of a guy "coming into rapport" with a tree.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lauren raine, Greenman mask with eyes, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Well, to a skeptic's ear, all of this sounds mighty convenient.  It's akin to a ghost hunter saying, "No -- the ghostly image wasn't just a smudge on the camera lens; the ghost created a smudge on your camera lens in order to leave his image on the photograph."  What this does, of course, is to remove photographic evidence from the realm of the even potentially falsifiable -- any alternate explanations simply show that the denizens of the Spirit World can manipulate their surroundings, your mind, and the camera or recording equipment.

The whole thing puts me in mind of China Miéville's amazing (and terrifying) short story "Details," in which a woman admits that cracks in sidewalks and stains on walls and patterns in carpet that happen to resemble faces are just random and meaningless -- but at the same time, they are monsters.  Here's how the main character, the enigmatic Mrs. Miller, describes it:
"For most people, it's just chance, isn't it?" Mrs Miller said. "What shapes they see in a tangle of wire.  There's a thousand pictures there, and when you look, some of them just appear.  But now... the thing in the lines chooses the pictures for me. It can thrust itself forward. It makes me see it. It's found its way through."
It does bear keeping in mind, though, that however wonderful Miéville's story is, you will find it on the "Fiction" aisle in the bookstore. For a reason.

Of course, it's not like any hardcore skeptic considers photographic evidence all that reliable in the first place.  Besides pareidolia and simple camera malfunctions, programs like Photoshop have made convincing fakes too easy to produce.  This is why scientists demand hard evidence when people make outlandish claims -- show me, in a controlled setting, that what you are saying is true.  If you think there's a troll in the woods, let's see him show up in front of reliable witnesses.  Let's have a sample of troll hair on which to perform DNA analysis, or a troll bone to study in the lab.  If you say a house is haunted by a "spirit," design me a Spirit-o-Meter that can detect the "energy field" that you people always blather on about -- don't just tell me that you sensed a Great Disturbance in the Force, and if I didn't, it's just too bad that I don't have your level of psychic sensitivity.  Also, for cryin' in the sink, don't tell me that my "disbelief is getting in the way," which is another accusation I've had leveled at me.  Honestly, you'd think that, far from being discouraged by my disbelief, a ghost would want to appear in front of skeptics like myself, just for the fun of watching us piss our pants in abject terror.  ("I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do believe, I do believe...")

In any case, the article on Crystal Life gives us yet another example of how the worlds of science and the paranormal define the word "evidence" rather differently.  The two views, I think, are probably irreconcilable.  So I'll end here, on that rather pessimistic note, not only because I've reached the end of my post for the day, but also because I just spilled a little bit of coffee on my desk, and I want to wipe it up before the Coffee Fairy fashions it into a scary-looking face.


This week's recommended book is an obscure little tome that I first ran into in college.  It's about a scientific hoax -- some chemists who claimed to have discovered what they called "polywater," a polymerized form of water that was highly viscous and stayed liquid from -70 F to 500 F or above.  The book is a fascinating, and often funny, account of an incident that combines confirmation bias with wishful thinking with willful misrepresentation of the evidence.  Anyone who's interested in the history of science or simply in how easy it is to fool the overeager -- you should put Polywater by Felix Franks on your reading list.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The second self

It's a source of some amusement to me how certain we are of what comes in through our sense organs.

"I saw it with my own eyes" is treated as if it were as good as proof, even though we know our brains are easy to fool.  Consider optical illusions (here's a website that has a great sampler of illusions, along with explanations of what's going wrong with the sensory-integrative system when you look at them).  I tend to agree with Neil DeGrasse Tyson that "optical illusion" isn't what we should be calling them.  "We should call 'em brain failures," Tyson said.  "Because that's what they are.  You look at a funny, clever line drawing, and your brain can't handle it."

There was another blow to our confidence in what we're experiencing from a study that was just published two days ago in Nature.  The paper, titled "Illusory Body Ownership of an Invisible Body Interpolated Between Virtual Hands and Feet Via Visual-Motor Synchronicity," by Ryota Kondo, Maki Sugimoto, Kouta Minamizawa, Takayuki Hoshi, Masahiko Inami and Michiteru Kitazaki of the Toyohashi University of Technology in Toyohashi, Japan, describes an experiment wherein test subjects shown a very simple optical illusion ended up feeling as if they were controlling a mostly-invisible whole-body second self.

If you're thinking "These people must be really suggestible to fall for something like that," think again.  The illusion was remarkably consistent across test subjects of different ages, genders, and intellectual abilities.  The authors write:
Body ownership can be modulated through illusory visual-tactile integration or visual-motor synchronicity/contingency.  Recently, it has been reported that illusory ownership of an invisible body can be induced by illusory visual-tactile integration from a first-person view.  We aimed to test whether a similar illusory ownership of the invisible body could be induced by the active method of visual-motor synchronicity and if the illusory invisible body could be experienced in front of and facing away from the observer.  Participants observed left and right white gloves and socks in front of them, at a distance of 2 m, in a virtual room through a head-mounted display.  The white gloves and socks were synchronized with the observers’ actions.  In the experiments, we tested the effect of synchronization, and compared this to a whole-body avatar, measuring self-localization drift.  We observed that visual hands and feet were sufficient to induce illusory body ownership, and this effect was as strong as using a whole-body avatar.
So as weird as it sounds, people had a convincing sense of operating another body simply if they watched gloves and socks mimicking their movements -- and even if they knew ahead of time that this was all that was going on.

It's astonishing to what extent the illusory body can replace our actual body as a source of input stimuli to the brain:
An entire invisible body ownership is induced when participants observe a paintbrush moving in an empty space and by defining the contours of an invisible body through an HMD [head-mounted display] from a first-person perspective while receiving simultaneous touches on the corresponding parts of their real body.  The illusory ownership of an entire invisible body reduces autonomic and subjective social anxiety responses caused by standing in front of an audience.  In contrast, an illusion of missing body parts through illusory ownership of an amputated virtual body can be induced by eliminating a virtual (visual) body part and not applying physical touches to the body part corresponding to the missing part.  This illusory experience of amputation decreases corticospinal excitability of the illusory amputated body part.
So not only can we be convinced that we have a mostly-invisible second body, we can be convinced that our mostly-invisible second body has had its arm amputated.

The whole thing is profoundly humbling, and a little scary.  It has to make you wonder what part of our ordinary perception of the world is illusory -- how much of it is inaccurate, incorrect, misperceived, or just plain made-up.  Your brain does this on a minor scale all the time -- take the visual blind spot that we all have, located approximately twenty degrees on the outside of straight ahead in each eye's visual field.

If you've never experienced this phenomenon, it's easy to demonstrate.  You can do it with either eye -- I'll give you instructions for doing it with your left eye, but if you want to do it with your right eye instead, simply reverse all the directions right-to-left.
  1. Draw a dark dot and a plus sign on a piece of paper, about ten centimeters apart (you don't have to measure).  The plus sign should be on the right, the dot on the left.
  2. Close your right eye, and place the plus sign right in front of your left eye.  Gradually move the piece of paper away from your face, keeping your left eye on the plus sign.
  3. At some point -- usually about thirty centimeters or so away from your face -- the dot will seem to vanish.  At that point, the light from the dot is falling on the spot where your optic nerve strikes your retina, a point where you have no visual receptors!
With both eyes open, it's easy to understand why we aren't aware of them; your left eye covers for your right eye's blind spot, and vice versa.  But why don't you experience a hole in your visual field with one eye open?  After all, even with one eye open, none of us feel like there's a floating blank spot out there in our peripheral vision.

The answer is that our brain basically makes stuff up, and fills in the hole.  It makes some assumptions about what we're seeing -- and that's what we perceive.  Never mind that there's really no light actually being sensed from that area; your brain just says, "Oh, well, I'll bet that's what's out there."

So "I saw it with my own eyes" is really a pretty crappy benchmark for accuracy.  I'll end with another quote from Tyson, this one taken from a talk he did on UFOs, and which seems a fitting way to conclude:
There's a fascinating frailty of the human mind...  We know, not only from research in psychology but from simple empirical evidence... that the lowest form of evidence that exists in this world is eyewitness testimony.  Which is scary, because that's the highest form of evidence the court of law...  So now, it wouldn't matter if you saw a flying saucer.  In science, even if you have something less controversial than a flying saucer, and you come into my lab and say, "You've got to believe me, I saw it," and you're one of my fellow scientists, I'm going to say, "Go home!  Come back when you have some other kind of evidence than 'you saw it.'"  Because the human perception system is rife with all kinds of ways of getting it wrong.  But we don't like thinking of it that way.  We have high opinions of our human biology -- when in fact, we should not.

This week's recommended book is an obscure little tome that I first ran into in college.  It's about a scientific hoax -- some chemists who claimed to have discovered what they called "polywater," a polymerized form of water that was highly viscous and stayed liquid from -70 F to 500 F or above.  The book is a fascinating, and often funny, account of an incident that combines confirmation bias with wishful thinking with willful misrepresentation of the evidence.  Anyone who's interested in the history of science or simply in how easy it is to fool the overeager -- you should put Polywater by Felix Franks on your reading list.