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, June 3, 2020

Keeping count

I'm fortunate to have been raised in a bilingual home.  My mother's first language was French, and my dad (son of a father of French and a mother of Scottish descent) was also fluent, although much more comfortable in English.  The result is that my parents spoke French in front of me (and also with our older relatives) when they didn't want me to understand, which was a hell of an incentive to learn listening comprehension, although -- as I found out later -- a bit of a problem when you're actually called upon to speak it yourself.

My Uncle Sidney, my mother's brother, didn't help matters much, because he was extremely fluent in the art of the French swear word.  He taught me a good many really creative expressions when I was still quite young, but I found out pretty quickly that when Uncle Sidney said, "Go ask your mother what ____ means," it was better to remain in ignorance than to incite my prim and prudish mom's ire.

Eventually, despite the impediments, I learned to speak French fairly well.  I distinctly recall, though, how baffled I was when I first learned the French counting system.

Even living in a Francophone household, it struck me as weird right from the get-go.  One through ten, no problem.  Like English, eleven and twelve have their own special names (onze and douze).  But... so do thirteen through sixteen.  Then seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen translate, respectively, to ten-seven, ten-eight, and ten-nine.

Things don't go really off the rails until you hit seventy.  Sixty is soixante; seventy is soixante-dix (sixty-ten). Then we reach eighty -- quatre-vingt -- literally, "four-twenty."

For what it's worth, ninety-seven is quatre-vingt dix-sept -- four-twenty ten-seven.

I read French pretty well, but when I hit a number with more than two digits, I still have to stop and do some mental arithmetic to figure it out.

Turns out I'm not alone.  A study by Iro Xenidou-Dervou of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam et al. found that even when you control for other factors, the language a child speaks (so the counting system (s)he learns) has an effect on the facility with which the child learns arithmetic.  The more it corresponds to a simple, regular base-10 system, the better the child is at learning math.

On the extremely logical side, we have Chinese.  In Mandarin, ninety-two is jiǔ shí èr -- "nine-ten-two."  We've already looked at French (where it would be "four-twenty-twelve").  But for my money, the winner in the what-the-fuck-were-you-thinking department would be Danish, where ninety-two is tooghalvfems, where halvfems (ninety) is an abbreviation of the Old Norse halvfemsindstyve, or "four and a half times twenty."

And don't even get me started about Roman numerals. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Дмитрий Окольников, Roman numerals!, CC BY-SA 4.0]

"The fact that they were the same in every other aspect, apart from the condition where two digits showed up, shows you that it's the language that is making the difference," said study lead author Xenidou-Dervou, in an interview with BBC.  "The effects are small, and yet this is numeracy at its most basic, just estimating a number on a line.  As adults, we're doing very complicated tasks in our daily lives, and so even small difficulties caused by the number naming system could potentially be an additive hurdle to everyday mathematical skills."

All of this brings back a subject that's fascinated me since my days as a graduate student in linguistics: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  This is the idea that the language we grow up with profoundly influences our brain wiring -- so not only does our cognitive development influence our language learning, our language learning influences our cognitive development.  I found out about a particularly cool example of this when I was reading the brilliant book The Last Speakers, by K. David Harrison, which was an attempt to chronicle some of the world's most endangered languages.  When Harrison was traveling with a tribe in Siberia, he was intrigued to find out that they had no words for "right," "left," "behind," and "in front of."  Everything was described in terms of the cardinal directions.  So right now, my computer isn't in front of me; it's south of me.  (They also have direction-related words meaning "upstream" and "downstream.")

Anyhow, Harrison was trying to talk to one of the tribal elders about why that was, and all he got from him for a time was frank bafflement.  It was as if he couldn't even quite understand what Harrison was driving at.  Then, all of a sudden, he burst into gales of laughter.  "Really?" he said to Harrison.  "That's how you see the world?  So that tree is in one place, but if you turn around, it's now in a different place?  Everything in the world is relative to the position of your body, so when you move, the entire universe shifts around you?  What an arrogant people you must be!"

I know that these days, Sapir-Whorf is kind of out of vogue with linguists, but studies like the one by Xenidou-Dervou et al. make me realize how deeply woven together our cognition and our language is.  We create our world with our words, and the words we learn shape the reality we are able to see.

Including whether we say "ninety-two" or -- in old-system Welsh -- dau ar ddeg a phedwar ugain.

Literally, "two on ten and four twenties."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one -- George Zaidan's Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put In Us and On Us.  Springboarding off the loony recommendations that have been rampant in the last few years -- fad diets, alarmist warnings about everything from vaccines to sunscreen, the pros and cons of processed food, substances that seem to be good for us one week and bad for us the next, Zaidan goes through the reality behind the hype, taking apart the claims in a way that is both factually accurate and laugh-out-loud funny.

And high time.  Bogus health claims, fueled by such sites as Natural News, are potentially dangerous.  Zaidan's book holds a lens up to the chemicals we ingest, inhale, and put on our skin -- and will help you sort the fact from the fiction.

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




Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Risk versus chaos

I got up this morning and with some reluctance looked at the news, and I was immediately reminded of something a former student of mine said years ago.

The subject was environmental degradation and climate change, and the question I asked the class was when Americans would be motivated in sufficient numbers to initiate a real change in our environmental policy.  What she said, near as I can recall, was this.

"It won't happen until things have gotten a great deal worse.  Nothing will change until ordinary middle-class people with houses and cars and bank accounts turn on the taps in their kitchen and no water comes out.  Until their kids can't walk to school without wearing gas masks because of the air pollution.  When they go to the grocery store and find the shelves empty.  We're all too comfortable, and when we're comfortable, it's too easy to disappear into that comfort and assume it could never be any other way."

I think we might have crossed that line, not with respect to the environment, but in the governance of the United States as a whole.

In a few short weeks we've been catapulted into chaos.  The powder keg was already there, fashioned over long careful years of preparation by the constant fear-talk of people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  That message of the Big Bad Other is, honestly, what propelled Donald Trump into the presidency, with his constant harping on illegal aliens destroying America.  Your way of life is in significant peril, they said -- all the while creating exactly the conditions that would imperil our way of life once the match was lit.

What exactly set the powder keg off was almost irrelevant; it could have been anything.  In this case, it was twofold; the lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the murder of a black civilian by a white policeman who had already been investigated multiple times for using excessive force.  It's like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian extremist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914.  That one act was the first card falling, but the entire house of cards was already there -- and in five years, twenty million people were dead and whole countries devastated beyond recognition.

And like in World War I, the people who could step in and prevent the catastrophe instead are inflaming matters and making it far, far worse.  Donald Trump, who will do anything to protect his bloated ego, was so pissed off by being mocked as "BunkerBoy" on Twitter for his escape into a protected bunker and refusal to appear publicly that he decided to stage a photo-op to prove what a tough, macho strongman he is.  He had the police attack peaceful demonstrators in front of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington D. C. with tear gas and rubber bullets, then marched out in front of it holding a Bible (upside down) and threatened to unleash the military on civilians exercising their right of assembly.

"If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence," he said, "then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore, Donald Trump (29496131773), CC BY-SA 2.0]

His loyal ass-kissers were effusive in their praise.  "No one else would have had the guts to do this," crowed former governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker.  Florida Representative Matt Gaetz said this was the start of the military hunting down "members of Antifa... like we do those in the Middle East."  Not to be outdone, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas had this to say:
Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight.  If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division.  We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction.  And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order.  No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.
And you know what "no quarter" means.

Shoot to kill.

We're on a precipice right now, and the people who could rein in this lurching, out-of-control president -- the men and women of his own party -- are refusing to do anything but throw gasoline on the fire.  The only possible solution, the only thing that might keep us from descending into chaos, is if the ordinary middle-class people like the ones my student spoke of will stand up and say "Enough."  We've got to be willing to give up our comfortable, privileged safety and risk being seen and heard by a government that at the moment is doing everything in its power to stop citizens from speaking up and acting in the cause of justice.

I'll end with a quote from Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which was written in 1935 but is frighteningly prescient:
The tyranny of this dictatorship isn't primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work.  It's the fault of Doremus Jessup!  Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. 
A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil.  But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn't be stirred up otherwise.  If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn't have been any need of agitators and war and blood. 
It's my sort, the Responsible Citizens who've felt ourselves superior because we've been well-to-do and what we thought was 'educated,' who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship.  It's I who murdered Rabbi de Verez.  It's I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes.  I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind.  Forgive, O Lord! 
Is it too late?
************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one -- George Zaidan's Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put In Us and On Us.  Springboarding off the loony recommendations that have been rampant in the last few years -- fad diets, alarmist warnings about everything from vaccines to sunscreen, the pros and cons of processed food, substances that seem to be good for us one week and bad for us the next, Zaidan goes through the reality behind the hype, taking apart the claims in a way that is both factually accurate and laugh-out-loud funny.

And high time.  Bogus health claims, fueled by such sites as Natural News, are potentially dangerous.  Zaidan's book holds a lens up to the chemicals we ingest, inhale, and put on our skin -- and will help you sort the fact from the fiction.

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




Monday, June 1, 2020

Waiting for the Reichstag fire

I'm taking a day off from our regularly scheduled programming because I am so sick at heart about what is happening in my country that I can't retreat into my usual focus on science and skepticism.  Instead, I'm reposting something I wrote almost exactly two years ago without further commentary.  I think it speaks for itself.

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

Back in November of 2015, I wrote a post that got a lot of pshaw-ing by people who ordinarily would be fairly close to me in political outlook.  In it, I compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler -- and the lead-up to the 2016 election to the situation in Weimar Republic Germany in the mid-1930s.

Some of the naysayers thought I was being an alarmist -- that okay, Trump had some pretty reactionary ideas, but (1) they weren't really so far out of the mainstream of conservative ideology, and (2) if he did go off the beam too badly, we have a system of checks-and-balances set up that will rein him in.  Others admitted that Trump was an amoral sociopath who was interested in nothing but self-aggrandizement and stroking his over-inflated ego, but they argued that he wasn't going to get very far.  I had one person say to me, "There's no way that man could ever get the Republican nomination, much less win the presidency.  Calm the hell down."

I don't like being wrong any more than the next guy, but believe me when I say that this is one time I'd have been delighted to be completely off-base.

And every time I think we've reached the absolute nadir, that surely someone is going to step in and stop our slide into a true fascist dictatorship, something worse happens.  Witness the poll by the Washington Post that found that over half of the Republicans surveyed would be in favor of Trump suspending the 2020 presidential election "as long as necessary," and more specifically until he could see to it that we'd "weeded out illegal voters."

If Congress got behind the move, the support rises to 56%.


First, let's just put out there that Trump's repeated claim of "millions of fraudulent voters" has not a shred of evidence behind it.  An exhaustive study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that the incidence of voter fraud in the United States was right around 0.0003%, regardless of whether you looked at local, state, or federal elections.

Put bluntly, the president is lying for the sole purpose of whipping up fear of evil "illegals" rigging elections in order to manipulate his followers into supporting his becoming Dictator-for-Life.

And just as with Hitler, a lot of effort is going into making Trump seem superhuman.  Instead of the racial purity ideologues (although there's a measure of that, too), here what we have is the Christian evangelicals treating Trump as inviolable, God's representative on Earth.  Don't believe me?  Just two days ago, Leigh Valentine, host of Faith and Freedom on Bill Mitchell's "Your Voice America" network, said the following:
Let me tell you, whether you believe it or not, [Trump] is speaking words of life over our country and over this nation, and every word he speaks, I see the hand of God upon it.  He is a very, very smart man and he knows what he is doing.  He knows the art of the deal and a lot of this is God’s deal, let me tell you.
Then there's the story in The Atlantic this week wherein we read some pretty alarming stuff.  Back in January 2016 Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institute scholar, warned that Trump had a "fondness for authoritarian strongmen."  More chillingly, a senior White House official who (unsurprisingly) declined to be named described Trump's policy in three words: "We're America, Bitch."

If someone can explain to me how that's different from Deutschland über alles, I'm listening.

No wonder Trump is disdainful of an articulate negotiator like Justin Trudeau, and as I write this is overflowing with praise for a bloodthirsty, ruthless dictator like Kim Jong Un.

So what we have here is a president who is a wannabe autocrat and has no intention of turning over the reins of power when his term is up, and a Congress that seems to think its job is kissing Trump's ass and rubberstamping whatever he proposes.  The whole time, the state-supported propaganda mill over at Fox News is convincing the masses that as long as we do what Der Führer says (and salute at the right time, and don't do anything outright treasonous like kneeling during the National Anthem or protesting the targeting of minorities by the police), everything will be fine.  America will be great again.

Still doubtful about the parallels between where we are and Weimar Germany?

All we need is the final ingredient -- this era's Reichstag Fire.  Something calamitous that ignites a frenzy in his supporters, and allows Trump himself to say, "See, I told you so."  And at that point, the slide into catastrophe might well be unstoppable.

 ************************************

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one -- George Zaidan's Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put In Us and On Us.  Springboarding off the loony recommendations that have been rampant in the last few years -- fad diets, alarmist warnings about everything from vaccines to sunscreen, the pros and cons of processed food, substances that seem to be good for us one week and bad for us the next, Zaidan goes through the reality behind the hype, taking apart the claims in a way that is both factually accurate and laugh-out-loud funny.

And high time.  Bogus health claims, fueled by such sites as Natural News, are potentially dangerous.  Zaidan's book holds a lens up to the chemicals we ingest, inhale, and put on our skin -- and will help you sort the fact from the fiction.

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




Saturday, May 30, 2020

Missing the target

I suppose it's natural enough, but people are always looking for a magic bullet.

Doesn't matter what part of the human condition you're talking about.  Improving health, losing weight, gaining muscle, learning something new, increasing stamina, boosting libido... just listing all of the examples would be a post in and of itself.  I get it, you know?  Most of these are frustrating and difficult to cope with.  For myself, I can't tell you the number of times I've been out for a run, and at about mile three have cursed my age and poor physical condition and the entire universe that came together in such a way as to make me completely suck at running, and wished fervently that there was some kind of supplement I could take that would magically reduce my average mile-time to below eight minutes and leave me grinning cheerfully as I cross the finish line, instead of the reality of ten-minute miles being a victory and crossing the finish line sweaty and breathing hard and swearing that I will never, ever, ever sign up for a race again.

But human nature being what it is, I also tend to go home and immediately look for more races to sign up for.  People are strange.

The reality is that all of those battles we fight are battles for a reason.  They require consistent hard work to overcome.  So all the panaceas you see advertised on social media -- promising long life, six-pack abs, endless energy, and a screaming hot sex drive -- are very, very likely to be ripoffs, trying to capitalize on the natural human tendency to look for an easy solution.  It's like the old joke about the guy in New York City who asked a passerby how to get to Carnegie Hall, and was told, "Every day -- practice, practice, practice."

That was why I gave a skew glance at an announcement a couple of years ago that researchers in Australia had developed a new type font that improved memory by making it a little more effort to read.  Dubbed "Sans Forgetica," it takes the letters, slants them to the left, and creates diagonal breaks -- so it confuses the eye enough to make the brain stay focused while reading it.


"The mind will naturally seek to complete those shapes and so by doing that it slows the reading and triggers memory," said Stephen Banham, who studies typography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

And indeed, studies by Banham et al. indicated a small improvement in information retention -- 57%, over the 50% retention when the same information was written in Arial.

"When we want to learn something and remember it, it’s good to have a little bit of an obstruction added to that learning process because if something is too easy it doesn’t create a memory trace," said study co-author Janneke Blijlevens.  "If it’s too difficult, it doesn’t leave a memory trace either. So you need to look for that sweet spot."

Sounds plausible, doesn't it?

There's only one problem with the claim.

It doesn't work.

A team of researchers at the University of Warwick (UK) and the University of Waikato (New Zealand) released a paper this week about a set of four experiments with 882 test subjects, over twice the number used in the earlier study.  They made four conclusions from the data:
  • Sans Forgetica is, indeed, harder to read than Arial.
  • Asked to recall pairs of words in one font or the other, people tended to remember the ones in Arial better than the ones in Sans Forgetica.
  • When tested on recall of factual information from paragraphs written in either font, there was no significant difference in the retention between the two fonts.
  • When tested on depth of understanding of information, once again there was no difference observed.
So, to put it simply: Sans Forgetica makes reading a pain in the ass for no good reason.

Study lead author Andrea Taylor put it in a little more genteel fashion: "Our findings suggest we should encourage students to rely on robust, theoretically-grounded techniques that really do enhance learning, rather than hard-to-read fonts."

Sad to say, there's no easy road to better recall and comprehension.  Difficulties in the human condition are difficulties for a reason; if they were easy to solve, there wouldn't be so many people worried about them.  Magic bullets, unfortunately, are almost guaranteed to miss the target.

And now, I better get out there for my daily run.  Maybe mile three will be easy today, but I'm not counting on it.  All I'm honestly looking for is a marginal improvement, day to day.

Practice, practice, practice.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Friday, May 29, 2020

Bats in the belfry

Over at the site Pararational a while back an article appeared describing a cryptid I'd never heard of.  Huge, brawny, with pointed ears and enormous, leathery wings, this character haunts the forests of the Pacific Northwest. As if they didn't already have enough problems with their Sasquatch infestation.

And despite living for ten years in Seattle, I'd never heard of him. So, dear readers, meet...

... Batsquatch.


The first thing I notice, being a biologist, is that Batsquatch seems to have no... equipment.  If you get my drift.   Above the waist, he's built like a bodybuilder, and below the waist he's built like a Ken doll.  So you have to wonder how there'd be more than one of them.  Maybe they reproduce from spores, or something, I dunno.

The other thing is that he's got kind of a small head in comparison to his body, and a rather derpish expression.  Low cranial capacity, you know?  A knuckle-dragger type.  The overall impression is of a demon from the redneck part of hell, where instead of stealing your soul, they just down a six-pack of Miller Lite and then take a baseball bat to your mailbox.

Beelzebubba, is kind of how I think of him.

Be that as it may, Batsquatch has apparently been seen a number of times, starting back in 1980, and has generated reports with some regularity since then. Here's one from 2009:
Me and my friend were hiking around Mt. Shasta and out of one of the crevices, flew out this big creature.  I mean this thing was huge.  It was as tall as a man, as stocky as Hulk Hogan and had leathery wings.  I believe the wing span was at least 50 feet from one end to the other. I was holding up my camera, but was paralyzed with fear as this thing flew by. I didn’t get a picture, sorry.  What do you think this might be?  Could it have been a pterodactyl?  It was flying or gliding fast, it seemed to have a head of a bat.  Thinking about it, it doesn’t have the head of a pterodactyl, I just saw a picture of a pterodactyl and the heads are not similar.   I would think it had the head of a bat or maybe more like a fox.  The damn thing finally flew into a clump of trees and vanished.  I heard you guys might be going back to Mt. Shasta, if you do, please look out for this thing.  If you see it, you will piss all over yourself, I kid you not.
Well, yeah, I guess that'd be a natural enough reaction to seeing Hulk Hogan with fifty-foot wings.

Then, we're told of several "fake" reports of Batsquatch.  I'm not entirely sure how one vague story with no proof differs from another vague story with no proof, but the author of the website says that some of the accounts are real and some are not, so there you are.

Because the fact remains that there isn't a scrap of hard evidence that Batsquatch exists, just a lot of anecdotal reports and a sketch of a sketch.  That didn't stop the folks over at Pararational from coming up with what may be the all-time silliest explanation for a cryptid sighting that I've ever read:
(Perhaps) Batsquatch is an extra-dimensional creature that dropped through a rift and got stuck here.  If the first sighting really was in close proximity to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, it seems probably that the force of the blast may have ruptured time/space allowing something to get sucked through.  In that case, it may have flown around for a while and died in some remote location, or else found a way home.
Because, of course, "rupturing space-time" is what happens when a volcano erupts.  Probably also happens during earthquakes, thunderstorms, and early cold snaps.  You know how fragile space-time is, at least if Star Trek: The Next Generation is to be believed.

So anyway.  If you're in the Northwest, look out for Batsquatch.  Given how big he supposedly is, I don't see how you could miss him, frankly.  If you see him, maybe he won't hurt you if you offer him a Miller Lite.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Thursday, May 28, 2020

Grave conditions

When I retired in June of 2019, I made the big mistake of saying aloud, "Wow, I'm going to have so much free time now!"

Literally the week after my last day at work, we found out that one corner of our house foundation was sinking, and that if we didn't do something, the slab was going to crack, leading to the walls destabilizing.  Our house, basically, was sliding down the hill it was built on.

The upshot of it all was that we spent the next few months completely gutting our (formerly finished) downstairs so that foundation specialists could drill down, inside and outside, and install twenty-six hydraulic piers to prop the slab up and prevent further subsidence.  Pulling up the carpet and pulling down the wall coverings and ceiling uncovered a myriad other old-house problems, leading to a domino effect of increasingly costly repairs.  Almost a year later, we still haven't completed putting the downstairs back together, although I'm comforted by the fact that our house didn't fall down.

And at least we didn't find what a couple in Seivåg, Norway did when they pulled up the floor in their house to install insulation.  Mariann Kristiansen, whose great-grandfather built the house in 1914, was unaware that she'd been living on top of a Viking-era grave that archaeologists have dated to between 950 and 1050 C.E.

Amazingly enough, there were no ghosts involved.  I would have thought that a house built on a grave site would have been a perfect opportunity to bring out the ghosts, but no.  The whole thing, apparently, was handled completely pragmatically.

The grave came to light when Kristiansen found a bead of dark blue glass that at first she thought was the wheel of a toy car.  But when she poked around a little more and found an axe, she decided that her initial hypothesis wasn't correct.

It turns out that a layer of flat stones immediately beneath the house is probably the remains of a cairn built over a grave, although preliminary digging has yet to uncover any bones.  But the artifacts found are consistent with "grave goods" of the Viking era.

"I never heard of anything like that and I've been in business for nearly thirty years," said archaeologist Martinus Hauglid.  "They did a magnificent job, they reported it to use as soon as they got the suspicion that it actually was something old."

The grave site underneath the Kristiansens' house [Image courtesy of the Nordland City Council]

My first reaction was to wonder why other people had all the luck, since all we found when we ripped up the foundation was cracked plumbing and disgusting 1950s-era vinyl tile.  But a friend of mine pointed out that (1) living in upstate New York, it was unlikely that we'd find Viking graves anywhere nearby, and (2) it was probably better that we didn't find anything of the sort.  "This is going to be so expensive for that family, depending on the laws in Norway," she said.  "If you find bones here [in Canada], you’re on the hook for the cost of the archeologists, the exhumation, and reburial.  Could be 50k at least.  Not to mention the months of digging, your yard trashed, possibly your house.  A nightmare."

I hadn't even considered that downside.  I mean, we thought we had delays and setbacks in getting our house put back together; if we'd discovered some kind of valuable archaeological site underneath the floor, it's an open question as to whether we could even legally rebuild over the top of it.  At that point, the best option might be what Carol suggested, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, after finding out about the sinking-slab problem last June: "Hmm, let's see -- forty thousand dollars to prop up the foundation, or fifteen bucks for five gallons of gas and a box of matches.  Hard decision, right there."

I pointed out that twenty years in prison for arson was kind of a downside of the latter option, which she grudgingly admitted was a valid point.

I'm hoping that the laws in Norway support some kind of compensation for Kristiansen's find and the inconvenience thereof.  Archaeologist Hauglid gives me hope that'll happen.  "I guess, they will get some reward, that is normal in Norway, that people that find old artifacts get a reward from the state," he told reporters.

So I suppose I should be careful what I wish for.  I got enough of an object lesson in that by speculating about how bored I'd be once I retired.  At least we've now covered the floor back up, so anything down there is gonna stay buried.  Unless we're, like, sitting on top of a fault line or a volcanic vent or something.  Which, considering some of the other things that have gone wrong since we started this Adventure In Home Ownership, wouldn't be all that surprising.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Wednesday, May 27, 2020

An idea takes flight

There's a fundamental misunderstanding that even some people who understand and accept evolution have, and it's called teleology.

Teleology is the interpretation of events in terms of their final purpose.  Now, there are some things you can look at teleologically; at least some historical events, for example, occurred because someone (or a bunch of someones) had a goal in mind and purposefully drove toward it.

The problem is, evolution isn't goal-driven.  As I mentioned a couple of days ago in the post on the re-evolution of flightlessness in the Alhambra rail, it's the law of whatever works at the time.  But teleological thinking sneaks in all too easily -- all you have to do is to ask your average scientifically-minded fourth grader why giraffes have long necks, and you'll probably get the answer, "So they can reach high branches in trees for food."  This conjures up the image of a herd of short-necked giraffes looking longingly up at the tender, juicy foliage out of reach, and thinking, "Wow, sure would be nice," and over the next generations, that desire to reach the end goal of more food resulted in longer-necked giraffes being born.

It's a subtler distinction than it might seem at first.  The truth is that the variation comes first; the blind forces of mutation and recombination result in baby giraffes with varying neck lengths.  But the better food being higher up means that those with longer necks survive better, passing those genes on -- so over time, the population's average neck length increases.  No goal-driven, forward-thinking forces necessary; it's all driven by what is an advantage in the environment as it currently is.  Change the environment, and you change those selective pressures, and the population (if it has sufficient variability to do so) responds.

The situation is simple enough with giraffe necks (which is why every middle-school textbook on biology uses that as an example), but what about more complex structures?  This is when the subject of things like eyes and wings inevitably comes up, often along with the intelligent-design aficionados' favorite buzzwords -- "irreducible complexity."  A half an eye or half a wing, they say, isn't good for anything, so there has to be forward thinking, teleological design involved.  Modification of an arm into a wing only makes sense if there was intent, because the intermediate forms along the way are worse than what you started with.

There are two flaws in this argument.

The first is brilliantly described in Richard Dawkins's amazing book The Blind Watchmaker, which explains in clear layman's terms why the intelligent design argument doesn't work.  He takes the vertebrate eye as his example, which is admittedly an amazing device with dozens of working parts and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of kinds of proteins, all of which have to work together in order to generate the capacity for clear vision.  As Dawkins points out, though, all of these didn't have to evolve simultaneously -- that would indeed be hard to explain.  Starting with simple light-detecting eyespots (like in a flatworm), the structure evolved to become more and more complex, more and more sensitive, and all that had to happen is at each tiny step the improvement gave the animal an advantage over the previous form.  So the ID-proponents' claim that "half an eye isn't worth anything" is actually incorrect.  An eyespot (which isn't even half an eye -- maybe five percent of one) is clearly better than no ability to detect light at all.  And after that, each refinement made it better and was selected for, until finally you have a complex structure like your own eye, capable of color vision, light intensity accommodation, focusing, and depth perception.

The second flaw, though, is a fascinating one, and is the reason this whole topic comes up in today's post.  For something to be selected for, all it has to accomplish is to confer some sort of benefit on the organism -- not necessarily the one for which it will eventually be used.  This phenomenon, called preaptation (or preadaptation), is usually explained using the example of feathers and wings in birds.  The theory is -- supported by the presence of feathers in fossils of a number of species of dinosaurs -- that feathers evolved in the context of keeping warm (and possibly protecting the skin from sun exposure), and only afterward became useful for the ability of lightweight/arboreal species to glide, and finally to fly.

A second example of this was the subject of a paper last week in Nature, which I was alerted to by my friend, the amazing scientist and environmental activist Sandra Steingraber.  The topic was the hypothesis that preaptation had also occurred in insect wings -- they had evolved as gill extensions in aquatic larvae, and through minor modifications widened and lengthened, and in the adult became full-fledged wings.  The embryonic structures for larval gills and adult wings were certainly homologous, so it seemed like a good guess, but hard evidence was lacking...

... until now.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Michael Palmer, Yellow mayfly on leaf, CC BY-SA 4.0]

In "Genomic Adaptations to Aquatic and Aerial Life in Mayflies and the Origin of Insect Wings," a team led by Isabel Almudi of the Andalusian Center for Developmental Biology (in Sevilla, Spain) completely knocks it out of the park by identifying the genetic basis of both wings and gills in insects -- and demonstrates that the preaptation hypothesis was spot-on.  Here it is in the authors' words:
The evolution of winged insects revolutionized terrestrial ecosystems and led to the largest animal radiation on Earth.  However, we still have an incomplete picture of the genomic changes that underlay this diversification.  Mayflies, as one of the sister groups of all other winged insects, are key to understanding this radiation.  Here, we describe the genome of the mayfly Cloeon dipterum and its gene expression throughout its aquatic and aerial life cycle and specific organs.  We discover an expansion of odorant-binding-protein genes, some expressed specifically in breathing gills of aquatic nymphs, suggesting a novel sensory role for this organ.  In contrast, flying adults use an enlarged opsin set in a sexually dimorphic manner, with some expressed only in males.  Finally, we identify a set of wing-associated genes deeply conserved in the pterygote insects and find transcriptomic similarities between gills and wings, suggesting a common genetic program.  Globally, this comprehensive genomic and transcriptomic study uncovers the genetic basis of key evolutionary adaptations in mayflies and winged insects.
As Sheldon Cooper might say, "Bazinga."

This completely dismantles the "irreducible complexity" argument for insect wings, if there was any basis for that argument left.  The evolutionary model is vindicated again.  As Almudi et al.'s research shows, the genomic basis in an organism can be modified in such a way as to give structures multiple purposes -- and that if the environment is right, one purpose (e.g. flight) can supersede another (e.g. maximizing oxygen absorption) in importance, causing the evolutionary path to take off in a different direction.

So cheers to Almudi and her team.  I read their paper while grinning like a loon just because it was such a perfect wrap-up to a conjecture I was telling my AP Biology classes about twenty years ago.  It's so gratifying to study a model that has this kind of robust predictive power -- and further reinforces my opinion that in order not to accept evolution, you have to be willfully ignorant of the actual evidence in its favor.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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