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, December 12, 2018

A new view of the "eye lizard"

I am forever astonished at the level of detail we can infer from fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old.

The most recent example of this came from analysis of a fossil of Stenopterygius, an ichthyosaur that lived during the Jurassic Period (this particular fossil has been dated to about 180 million years ago).  We usually think of fossils as preserving bones and teeth, and occasionally impressions of scales or skin or feathers -- but this one was so finely preserved that researchers have been able to make some shrewd inferences about color, metabolism, and the structure of soft tissues.

Artist's conception of Stenopterygius [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), Stenopterygius BW, CC BY-SA 3.0]

We've known for a long time that ichthyosaurs are bizarre animals.  They were streamlined predators that look remarkably like dolphins, although they are only distantly related (making the two groups a great example of convergent evolution).  A number of them had an even stranger feature, which is the largest eye-diameter-to-body-size ratio of any animal known -- the well-named Ophthalmosaurus (Greek for "eye lizard") was six meters long and had eyes the size of basketballs.

Stenopterygius was a bit smaller, with an average adult size of four meters.  But up until recently, all we've been able to do is speculate on what it might have looked like, and how it behaved.  A discovery in Germany, described in a paper in Nature called "Soft-Tissue Evidence for Homeothermy and Crypsis in a Jurassic Ichthyosaur" and authored by no fewer than 23 scientists, has given us incredibly detailed information on these oddball dinosaurs.

The authors write:
Ichthyosaurs are extinct marine reptiles that display a notable external similarity to modern toothed whales.  Here we show that this resemblance is more than skin deep.  We apply a multidisciplinary experimental approach to characterize the cellular and molecular composition of integumental tissues in an exceptionally preserved specimen of the Early Jurassic ichthyosaur Stenopterygius.  Our analyses recovered still-flexible remnants of the original scaleless skin, which comprises morphologically distinct epidermal and dermal layers.  These are underlain by insulating blubber that would have augmented streamlining, buoyancy and homeothermy.  Additionally, we identify endogenous proteinaceous and lipid constituents, together with keratinocytes and branched melanophores that contain eumelanin pigment.  Distributional variation of melanophores across the body suggests countershading, possibly enhanced by physiological adjustments of colour to enable photoprotection, concealment and/or thermoregulation.  Convergence of ichthyosaurs with extant marine amniotes thus extends to the ultrastructural and molecular levels, reflecting the omnipresent constraints of their shared adaptation to pelagic life.
So from a 180-million-year-old fossil, we now know that Stenopterygius (1) was a homeotherm (colloquially called "warm-blooded"), (2) had a blubber layer much like modern dolphins and whales, and (3) were countershaded -- dark on top and light underneath, to aid camouflage -- similar to dozens of species of modern fish.

This level of preservation is extremely unusual.  "Both the contour of the body and the remains of internal organs are clearly visible," said paleontologist Johan Lindgren of the University of Lund, who co-authored the paper.  "Surprisingly, the fossil is so well preserved that it is possible to observe individual cell layers inside the skin."

"This is the first direct chemical evidence of warm blood in an ichthyosaur, because a subcutaneous fat layer is a characteristic of warm-blooded animals," said Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, also a co-author.  "Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many features in common with dolphins, but they are not related at all to these mammals that inhabit the sea.  But the enigma does not stop there...  They have many characteristics in common with living marine reptiles, such as sea turtles; but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth to their young...  This study reveals some of those biological mysteries."

Which is pretty astonishing.  I've always had a fascination for the prehistoric world, and have spent more time than I like to admit wondering what it might have been like to live in the Jurassic world.  This research gives us one more piece of information -- about a fierce prehistoric predator that shared some amazing similarities to creatures that still swim in our oceans.

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

One of the best books I've read recently is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.  I wouldn't say it's cheerful, however.  But what Weisman does is to look at what would happen if the human race was to disappear -- how long it would take for our creations to break down, for nature to reassert itself, for the damage we've done to be healed.

The book is full of eye-openers.  First, his prediction is that within 24 hours of the power going out, the New York Subways would fill with water -- once the pumps go out, they'd become underwater caves.  Not long thereafter, the water would eat away at the underpinnings of the roads, and roads would start caving in, before long returning Manhattan to what it was before the Europeans arrived, a swampy island crisscrossed by rivers.  Farms, including the huge industrial farms of the Midwest, would be equally quick; cultivated varieties of wheat and corn would, Weisman says, last only three or four years before being replaced by hardier species, and the land would gradually return to nature (albeit changed by the introduction of highly competitive exotic species that were introduced by us, accidentally or deliberately).

Other places, however, would not rebound quickly.  Or ever.  Nuclear reactor sites would become uninhabitable for enough time that they might as well be considered a permanent loss.  Sites contaminated by heavy metals and non-biodegradable poisons (like dioxins) also would be, although with these there's the possibility of organisms evolving to tolerate, or even break down, the toxins.  (No such hope with radioactivity, unfortunately.)

But despite the dark parts it's a good read, and puts into perspective the effect we've had on the Earth -- and makes even more urgent the case that we need to put the brakes on environmental damage before something really does take our species out for good.




Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Arr, matey

Yesterday, we had an elderly gentleman in Spain who is building a spaceship to go to a planet that doesn't exist, and he should have known it doesn't exist because he's the one who made it up.  Today, we have: a woman in Ireland who married the ghost of a pirate, but now she's unhappy with him and wants a divorce.

The woman's name is Amanda Teague, and she lives in Drogheda, County Louth.  Teague gave up on romance -- at least the flesh-and-blood kind -- last year, and decided she might have better luck in the spirit world.  So she fell in love with the ghost of a Haitian pirate who was executed three hundred years ago, and married him this past January.

The pirate's name was Jack Sparrow.  Because of course it was.

"It is the perfect kind of relationship for me," Teague told reporters.  "There are a lot of people out there who don’t know about spiritual relationships, but it could be right for them --  I want to get the message out there."

In 2018 she wrote a book about her experience being married to a ghost.  It's called A Life You Will Remember, and is available on Amazon, where it has gotten two reviews, one five-star and one one-star.  The one-star one called it "bad fanfiction you can't put down."

She didn't just jump into the relationship without careful consideration.  "I told him I wasn’t really cool with having casual sex with a spirit and I wanted us to make a proper commitment to each other," she told reporters.  "I wanted the big traditional wedding with the white dress. It was very important to me."

So that's what they did.

The happy, um, couple

But less that a year later, the marriage was on the rocks.  The relationship wasn't successful, Teague-Sparrow says, and she wants to get a divorce.  "So I feel it’s time to let everyone know that my marriage is over," she said, in an interview in the Irish Post.  "I will explain all in due course but for now all I want to say is be VERY careful when dabbling in spirituality, it’s not something to mess with."

The article in the Irish Post seems to take Jack's side of things.  "The split is another blow for Jack," writes Gerard Donaghy, "after he was purportedly executed for thieving on the high seas in the 1700s."

You'd think he'd be over that by now, given that it happened three-hundred-odd years ago, although I'd expect being hanged is a trauma that would kind of stick with you.

What is unclear is how she'll get him to sign the divorce papers.  Or maybe they won't have to go through the official hassle, because the wedding was performed by a shaman in a boat off the coast of Ireland, so it's not certain what, if anything, Irish law would have to say about it.  Chances are they could go their separate ways and no one would blink an eye, since nobody seems to be able to see Jack except for Teague-Sparrow herself.

Anyhow, that's our dip in the deep end for today.  I wish her luck with being single again, and I hope Jack can find a nice location to haunt, perhaps accompanied by a lady ghost, since a relationship with a live human didn't work out so well.  So thanks to the loyal reader who sent me the link.  I didn't really need anything to lower my opinion of the human race further, but I know you meant well.

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

One of the best books I've read recently is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.  I wouldn't say it's cheerful, however.  But what Weisman does is to look at what would happen if the human race was to disappear -- how long it would take for our creations to break down, for nature to reassert itself, for the damage we've done to be healed.

The book is full of eye-openers.  First, his prediction is that within 24 hours of the power going out, the New York Subways would fill with water -- once the pumps go out, they'd become underwater caves.  Not long thereafter, the water would eat away at the underpinnings of the roads, and roads would start caving in, before long returning Manhattan to what it was before the Europeans arrived, a swampy island crisscrossed by rivers.  Farms, including the huge industrial farms of the Midwest, would be equally quick; cultivated varieties of wheat and corn would, Weisman says, last only three or four years before being replaced by hardier species, and the land would gradually return to nature (albeit changed by the introduction of highly competitive exotic species that were introduced by us, accidentally or deliberately).

Other places, however, would not rebound quickly.  Or ever.  Nuclear reactor sites would become uninhabitable for enough time that they might as well be considered a permanent loss.  Sites contaminated by heavy metals and non-biodegradable poisons (like dioxins) also would be, although with these there's the possibility of organisms evolving to tolerate, or even break down, the toxins.  (No such hope with radioactivity, unfortunately.)

But despite the dark parts it's a good read, and puts into perspective the effect we've had on the Earth -- and makes even more urgent the case that we need to put the brakes on environmental damage before something really does take our species out for good.




Monday, December 10, 2018

I'm a rocket man

As a fiction writer, I have to admit that my characters often feel very real to me.  I've said more than once that I feel like I'm getting to know characters more than I am inventing them, and there have been times that a story has taken off in an entirely new and unexpected direction because some character has seemed to grab the keyboard out of my hands and written him/herself a different part.

Despite that, I'm well aware that I'm indulging in a bit of whimsy.  I may not know what the source of creativity is -- for myself or for anyone else -- but that's a far cry from my thinking that Tyler Vaughan, the reluctant hero and cryptid-chaser from Signal to Noise, is really out there looking for Bigfoot in the Oregon Cascades.

That's a distinction that seems to have escaped Lucio Ballasteros, an 87-year-old writer from Ourense, Spain.  Ballasteros wrote a series of science fiction novels about a planet called "10/7" where a race "like humans but more highly developed" lives.  And he was so enamored of the idea that now Ballasteros has...

... built a spaceship to go to the planet himself.

Ballasteros's spaceship, in progress

The spaceship, built of aluminum and methacrylate, has cost Ballasteros over 100,000 Euros (about $114,000) of his own money to construct, so he's nothing if not determined.  Also, the guy is 87, which makes it doubly impressive, because he's doing the building himself.  Me, I hope that when I'm 87 I have that kind of energy, although I also hope that I'll use it for something other than building a spaceship to fly to a planet that technically doesn't exist.

Ballasteros says you can find out a lot more about the project over at his site Despertar ("Wake Up"), although I'm afraid much of it was lost on me because my Spanish is kind of limited to "sí," "no," "gracias," and "una cerveza, por favor."  But I did find a translatable page about Ballasteros at the news site El Ideal Gallego, which was helpful, even though Google Translate does leave much to be desired.

Be that as it may, I found out that Ballasteros said that the construction is finished "except for some engines," which seems like kind of an important part.  He sounds a little unsure of whether he's ready to take off even if the engines are installed, however.  In order to go to 10/7, "Humanity would have to evolve psychically and spiritually."  And I have to admit, he's got a point.  I'm not sure our current state of affairs would be anything to brag to an advanced extraterrestrial civilization about.

He also said that the whole thing was going to be powered by several 280-watt solar panels.  Well, I did a little bit of figuring, using Ballasteros's estimate of the mass of his spaceship at 1,180 kilograms.  I assumed that "several" solar panels was five, which would mean the maximum power output is 1,400 watts.  (For comparison purposes. this is about the same power draw as twenty ordinary incandescent light bulbs.)  The escape velocity on the surface of the Earth is 11,186 m/s, so for a 1,180 kilogram spaceship, this would require the expenditure of 73,800,000,000 joules of energy.

Which his engines would have expended after 53,000,000 seconds or so, which is about a year and a half, assuming that 100% of the energy is used for the purposes of thrust.

I hope he's not in a hurry.

Oh, and if you're wondering why the planet is called "10/7," Ballasteros is happy to explain.  "The planet 10/7 is the planet God-Man, in which I projected myself when I was young and have lived," he says.  "It is attributed to the rebellion of the angels; God could have punished them temporarily on the planet 10/7, where 10 represents the unity of God and 7 represents the seven dimensions of the human being."

Right!  Sure!  What?

So I'm not optimistic about Ballasteros's chances of a smooth liftoff and safe arrival at 10/7.  But other than that, I suppose this falls into the "no harm if it amuses you" column.  And all in all, he seems happier messing about with his spaceship than I am, sitting here wondering whether Donald Trump is going to open the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse before Congress can get off their asses and impeach him, or if he's simply going to sit around tweeting dick jokes about people he doesn't like as a way of showing everyone how presidential he is.

Which, honestly, makes me tempted to ask Ballasteros if he has room for a passenger.

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

One of the best books I've read recently is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.  I wouldn't say it's cheerful, however.  But what Weisman does is to look at what would happen if the human race was to disappear -- how long it would take for our creations to break down, for nature to reassert itself, for the damage we've done to be healed.

The book is full of eye-openers.  First, his prediction is that within 24 hours of the power going out, the New York Subways would fill with water -- once the pumps go out, they'd become underwater caves.  Not long thereafter, the water would eat away at the underpinnings of the roads, and roads would start caving in, before long returning Manhattan to what it was before the Europeans arrived, a swampy island crisscrossed by rivers.  Farms, including the huge industrial farms of the Midwest, would be equally quick; cultivated varieties of wheat and corn would, Weisman says, last only three or four years before being replaced by hardier species, and the land would gradually return to nature (albeit changed by the introduction of highly competitive exotic species that were introduced by us, accidentally or deliberately).

Other places, however, would not rebound quickly.  Or ever.  Nuclear reactor sites would become uninhabitable for enough time that they might as well be considered a permanent loss.  Sites contaminated by heavy metals and non-biodegradable poisons (like dioxins) also would be, although with these there's the possibility of organisms evolving to tolerate, or even break down, the toxins.  (No such hope with radioactivity, unfortunately.)

But despite the dark parts it's a good read, and puts into perspective the effect we've had on the Earth -- and makes even more urgent the case that we need to put the brakes on environmental damage before something really does take our species out for good.




Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wings over Illinois

What the hell is going on in Illinois?

Recently there have been no fewer than five separate reports of bizarre goings-on involving winged cryptids, all but one of which was sighted near Rockford.  My first thought was to wonder if Illinois had gotten the jump on Oregon and legalized psychedelic mushrooms first, but apparently this is not the case.

The first, as reported over at Phantoms and Monsters, was of a pterosaur along the Vermilion River near Danville.  Here's how the incident is described:
As he stood on the bluff looking out onto the river, he noticed a large shadowy figure gliding downstream towards him.  As it got closer, the bizarre creature became more defined.  He observed, what he described, a 'pterodactyl' gliding about 4-5 feet above the surface of the river.  DF [the eyewitness] estimated that the wingspan was approximately 25 feet, as it covered half the width of the river.  The huge flying being looked exactly like the images of the prehistoric flying dinosaur.  Long beak with a long ray on the head.  Dark gray leathery-skinned body and wings, with a long tail that flattened on the end.  It made little sound, but cast a shadow on the river as it flew just below the height of the bluff.  The water swirled as it glided past.  The beast continued gliding downstream until DF lost sight of it.  He stated that it never flapped its wings.  DF's first reaction was to get back to his house and tell his wife what he had seen.
What puzzles me here, as in many of these cases, is why he didn't think to try to take a photograph.  Almost everyone has his/her cellphone at all times; if I'd seen a supposedly-extinct creature fly past, and kept it in view long enough to watch it "gliding downstream," I'd have gotten as many photographs of it as I could.

But maybe he was so shocked that he didn't think of it till afterwards.  Or maybe he's one of the 1% who isn't constantly accompanied by a cellphone.

Gargoyle on outside portal to Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Dorevabelfiore (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Then there's the person near Rockford who saw a "black winged humanoid" while standing on her deck one evening:
I was stargazing as I often do, when I was startled by the sudden furious barking of a neighbors [sic] dogs.  As I turned and looked towards the direction of the barking it was at that moment I saw an all black 7ft in length man with huge bat-like wings flying across the park that borders along my backyard.  It then descended to approximately 5 to 6 ft above ground.  It pulled or folded its wings in slightly and then glided along the paved path that runs through the park.  It continued gliding through an easement between two houses disappearing from my sight.
Afterwards, she heard a terrifying screeching noise coming from the woods in the direction the thing had gone.  The next day, a neighbor showed her that one of the posts of his chain-link fence had been bent at a 45-degree angle, and the woman mentioned seeing the flying humanoid thing.  A kid who overheard them laughed and said all she'd seen was a heron fly overhead, and she said, "A heron can't bend a fence post," which is true, but as a logical chain of reasoning, I don't think it really amounts to much.  Despite this, she says the only possible conclusion is that she saw...

... "Mothman."

Also near Rockford, we have an account from a woman who says she saw a humanoid walking, then suddenly taking flight:
The eyewitness 'KJ' states it was approximately 6am and that she was on the outside porch.  All of a sudden she observed a human-like being walking in the yard of a house on the corner of Bruce St. and Woodlawn Ave. in Rockford, IL. (about 1 block away).  The being suddenly produced a large set of wings and took flight, gliding over the back gate of the property.  It then disappeared into the trees and foliage on the next block.  There was enough morning light available for an excellent observation...  She described the being as tall and dark, almost black.  The wingspan was very broad.
The third sighting -- also near Rockford -- was of a creature that cryptid aficionados have christened, I shit you not, "Deerbat:"
I'm not sure how to describe this but what we saw was frightening.  The corn parts about 8 feet in front of my car, Idk if you have ever seen a deer jump out of corn but its like a horse hop.  This thing was the size of big buck but was completely black.  Mind you my headlights are focused right at the stretch of road and corn area, so the whole scene was well illuminated.  As it proceeded to jump out of the corn it opened these huge set of wings and remained airborne.  It flew right in front of my car and did this zig zag flight pattern incredible fast.  Almost like a fly or bug would do.  After the quick zig zags it shot straight up in to the air.  I mean shot like out was placed in a canon [sic] and blasted in the sky.
Then there's the old lady in Rockford who was shooting the breeze with a friend on her front porch, when they saw a gargoyle:
During a conversation, the friend stopped talking and began to stare across the street.  SS [the eyewitness] looked in the same direction, and noticed a dark gray winged humanoid slowly flying near a large tree.  SS stated that it seemed like the being 'was in slow motion' as it glided toward the tree.  The friend said 'do you see that?'  The witnesses were close enough to notice that it had small cat-like ears and intense red eyes.  There were no other facial features visible.  It was quite muscular throughout the body and had 2 defined legs, and had arms that attached to the wings. 
She stated that the winged humanoid was 7ft in length with a wide wing span.  The wings were like those of a bat with a leather-like membrane.  Apparently the being perched in the tree, but again took flight.  This is when SS's husband took notice.  The winged being was gliding towards a pair of large pine trees, as it's [sic] legs were 'kicking up and down' while in flight. 
The being flew between the 2 pine trees, and then suddenly 'vanished.'  SS said 'gargoyle,' and her friend acknowledged 'yes, a gargoyle.'
This brings me to an awkward question, which is: how could a seven-foot-tall, highly muscular humanoid, fly?  Flying requires a tremendous amount of exertion per unit mass, which is why most flying animals are small, or at least very lightweight for their size.  A physicist over at Yale did some analysis and found that an adult male human would have to have a wingspan of 6.7 meters (21 feet) just to get off the ground, and he admitted that this wasn't even taking into account the extra mass that the wings themselves would contribute.

Which, honestly, I find rather disappointing, as I've always wanted to have wings.  Big feathery wings coming up from my shoulders.  It'd make putting on a shirt difficult, but given that I have a penchant for running around half naked when the weather's warm anyhow, I'm willing to make that sacrifice.

But alas, no.  Having to port around 6.7-meter-long wings would be too much of an inconvenience, however fun flying looks.

So I'm a little dubious about all of these beastly goings-on in northern Illinois, and am inclined to agree with the scoffing teenager who thought people were seeing herons.  At close range, herons do have a pterodactyl-like-look, and in dim light, the brain can play some serious tricks on you.

But anyhow, if any of my loyal readers live in Illinois, I'd advise you to keep your eyes peeled and your cellphone camera apps at the ready.  Because if there are any more weird sightings of flying humanoids, I want to see photographs.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker.  This book is, in my opinion, the most lucid and readable exposition of the evolutionary model ever written, and along the way takes down the arguments for Intelligent Design a piece at a time.  I realize Dawkins is a controversial figure, given his no-quarter-given approach to religious claims, but even if you don't accept the scientific model yourself, you owe it to yourself to see what the evolutionary biologists are actually saying.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Friday, December 7, 2018

The ECREE principle and the lost polar pyramids

I'm often asked why I am so confident in my disbelief of all of the ideas I lump together as "woo-woo" -- ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot, UFOs, conspiracy theories, crystals, homeopathy, and so on.

That question contains two misleading words: "confident" and "disbelief."  As I've mentioned before, in the absence of evidence either way, I'm anything but confident.  If there is no particular scientific reason that something is impossible -- for example, as in the case of Bigfoot -- I am perfectly willing to sit there not knowing whether it's real, forever if need be.  I might doubt a particular sighting of Bigfoot, based upon the circumstances, but I am in no way saying the the whole phenomenon is impossible.  As a scientist, any level of confidence in the complete absence of evidence is an absurd stance.   I neither believe nor disbelieve in Bigfoot; it is, at this point, a possible, but unproven, assertion, and I am content to leave it that way indefinitely until such time as hard evidence is uncovered.

On the other hand, there are cases in which I lean toward disbelief because the claim is so outrageous (although again, perhaps not scientifically impossible) that my sense is that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim, not on me to disprove it.  Here, the ECREE Principle comes into play -- Carl Sagan's dictum that Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.  Yes, I know this isn't some kind of scientific law, it's only a rule of thumb, but taken as such, it works pretty damn well, keeping us from demanding the same level of evidence for every claim regardless of its plausibility.

Which brings us to the Lost Polar Pyramids.

Any time I hear someone mention the word "pyramid," my skepti-senses are automatically activated, because so much patent nonsense has been claimed about them.   You have your Pyramids-As-Energy-Collectors crew, not to mention your Egyptian-Pyramids-Were-Built-By-Aliens crew and your Curse-Of-The-Pyramids crew, all vying for the craziest phenomenon to attribute to what honestly are just piles of rocks, albeit very impressive ones.   And now, we have the claim that human-constructed pyramids have been discovered in Alaska and Antarctica.

If you read the articles in question, you'll find that mostly what the writers do is to show you some photographs and say, "Wow!  Isn't this weird!  Pyramids in the polar regions!  They have to be artificial constructs."  In the case of the Alaska article, we have testimony from a retired intelligence officer named Douglas Mutschler that he and others detected an "underground pyramid" while monitoring the seismic waves from a Chinese nuclear detonation.  The author supports this claim with an aerial shot showing something with a vaguely squarish contour that is so hard to see that in the article, you have to be told where in the photograph to look.  In the Antarctic article, all we're given is some photographs with pointy-topped rocky structures, and we're told they're manmade pyramids.

(Let's for the moment ignore the fact that the Alaska article also goes into something the author refers to, with unintentional comic effect, as the "Alaska Bermuda Triangle," a region bounded by Juneau, Anchorage, and Barrow where allegedly planes tend to disappear.  This is a whole different argument, involving a whole different set of assumptions and implausibilities -- so we'll concentrate for the time being simply on the "human-constructed pyramids in the polar regions" claim.)

Ob Hill and McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Alan Light, Ob Hill and McMurdo Station, CC BY 2.0]

So, back to the ECREE principle.  Is the idea of a set of manmade pyramids in Alaska and the Antarctic an "extraordinary claim?"  Given the small population of Alaska, and the absence of an archaeological record of large-scale building there, not to mention the nonexistence of a human population in Antarctica until the mid-20th century, I'd say we have here a pretty outlandish idea.  Is it impossible?  Maybe not.  But a fuzzy aerial shot, the twenty-year-old testimonial of one man, and some random pictures of pointy mountaintops are just not sufficient grounds for accepting that there's something weird going on.  As I've pointed out before, there are many examples of purely natural geological formations that have straight lines, right angles, polygonal cross-sections, and so on.  If you want me to believe that what I'm looking at is some mysterious artifact of a mysterious culture, built in an entirely unexpected place, what we currently have has not met any sort of minimum standard for evidence.   You'd better head on back to your alleged pyramids and bring us back something better if you want the scientific world to sit up and take notice.

But of course, in the case of the Antarctic pyramids, there's a good reason that we might not want to know if they exist, because you H. P. Lovecraft fans probably recall what happened when scientists found an ancient city in Antarctica in "At the Mountains of Madness."  Of the two people who survived, one ended up in an insane asylum because of the horrors he'd seen.  The rest of the team variously got dissected, had their heads bashed in, or got eaten by Shoggoths.  And heaven knows, we wouldn't want that to happen.

But I digress.

In any case, what we have here is an excellent example of why I find most woo-woo claims lacking.   It is not, as I mentioned, because I don't think that there are weird things in the world; it's that if you bring a weird thing to my attention, you'd better have a pretty convincing argument to back you up.   Otherwise, like our Alaskan and Antarctic pyramid hunters, your story will just get filed in the folder labeled "Maybe, But I Doubt It."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker.  This book is, in my opinion, the most lucid and readable exposition of the evolutionary model ever written, and along the way takes down the arguments for Intelligent Design a piece at a time.  I realize Dawkins is a controversial figure, given his no-quarter-given approach to religious claims, but even if you don't accept the scientific model yourself, you owe it to yourself to see what the evolutionary biologists are actually saying.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Thursday, December 6, 2018

Music and cognition

When educational budgets are cut -- which they are, every year -- inevitably what is hit the hardest are programs for the arts, music, theater, and other electives.

This is ridiculous, and I say that as someone who is in his 32nd year of teaching science, a so-called "core" subject.  And I don't mean to criticize the importance of having a good "core" education; we all need to be able to read and write, do mathematics, understand the history of humanity, and have a basic and broad grasp of scientific principles.

But that's not the be-all-end-all of education, or at least it shouldn't be.  I mean, consider not what gets you a job, what allows you to do mundane chores like balancing your checkbook, but what actually brings joy to your life.  What are your hobbies, things you spend your spare time doing, things you'd spend much more time doing if you had the leisure?  My guess is very few of us fill our free time doing chemistry experiments, even admitted science nerds like me.  No, we paint, sculpt, garden, play an instrument, sing in the choir, play or watch sports (or both), cook elaborate meals, write stories.  And while those do take a basic 3-Rs education -- I wouldn't be much of a fiction writer if I had a lousy vocabulary or didn't know how to write grammatically -- for many of us, our real fascinations were discovered in the classes that go under throwaway names like "electives" and "specials" and "optional courses."

So cutting these subjects is, for many students, taking away the one thing about school that makes it tolerable, and robbing them of the opportunity to find hidden talents and undiscovered passions that will bring them joy for a lifetime.

But a recent study has shown that it's more than that.  Research by Katherine Sledge Moore and Pinar Gupse Oguz of Arcadia University, and Jim Meyer of Elmhurst College, has found that music education correlates strongly with the development of flexible intelligence -- and that those gains translate across disciplines.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jacob Garcia from Reus, Spain, The Cello Player, CC BY 2.0]

In "Superior Fluid Cognition in Trained Musicians," published two weeks ago in Psychology of Music, the researchers found that the degree of experience a person has in playing music (or singing), the higher they score on a variety of metrics -- episodic memory, working memory, attention, executive function, and processing speed.

It's hardly surprising when you think about it.  As the researchers put it, fluid intelligence skills "are highlighted in musical training," which involves "quickly comprehending a complex symbolic system, multitasking, reasoning, and more."  I can say from personal experience that performing music -- not just playing it at home for your own entertainment -- takes those skills up an additional notch.  I have been a performing musician for years.  (If you're curious, I play flute in a Celtic dance band called Crooked Sixpence.)  Being up on stage requires that you think on your feet, and often make lightning-fast alterations to what you're doing.  As an example, most of what my band plays are medleys of three or four tunes, and we almost never plan ahead how many times we're going to play any one of them (nor who'll be playing melody and who'll be playing harmony).  Our fiddler, who is more-or-less in charge of the band, just gives me a wiggle of the eyebrow if she wants me to take a solo, and says "hep!" if we're switching tunes.  Sometimes the inevitable happens -- the fiddler and I will both jump to harmony at the same time, or something -- but almost always, one of us will recognize it in under two seconds and slip right back into playing melody.  Despite the complexity of what we do, the times we have a real crash-and-burn on stage are very few and far between.

So this study is spot-on.  And its conclusions are further evidence that we should be expanding arts and electives programs, not cutting them.

Not, honestly, that I expect it will have an effect.  Sorry to end on a pessimistic note, but the educational establishment has a long track record of completely ignoring research on developmental psychology in favor of "we've always done it this way."  The most egregious example is our determination to start foreign language instruction in 7th or 8th grade, when we've known for years that our brain's plasticity with respect to learning new languages peaks around age three or four, and declines steadily thereafter.

Or, as one of my students put it, "So we start teaching kids languages at the point they start to suck at it."

A close second is that researchers have been saying for years -- with piles of evidence to support them -- that children need recess or some other unstructured play time in order to improve overall behavior and attitudes about being in school.  Not only that, but recess time correlates with better scores on tests, so like music, it's an investment that pays off across the board.  Nevertheless, schools across the country have been gradually reducing unstructured leisure time, in some places to twenty minutes or less per week, in favor of devoting more time to preparing for standardized tests.

Now there's a way to make kids look forward to going to school in the morning.

I'd like to think that this new research will influence educational establishments and (especially) budgetary decisions, but I'm not holding my breath.  Any change on that count is likely to be very slow to come.  But still, every piece of evidence counts.  And anything we can do to foster the development of fluid intelligence, positive attitudes, and confidence in children is movement in the right direction.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker.  This book is, in my opinion, the most lucid and readable exposition of the evolutionary model ever written, and along the way takes down the arguments for Intelligent Design a piece at a time.  I realize Dawkins is a controversial figure, given his no-quarter-given approach to religious claims, but even if you don't accept the scientific model yourself, you owe it to yourself to see what the evolutionary biologists are actually saying.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Send in the clones

I'm not sure if it's heartening or discouraging to find out that the United States hasn't cornered the market on counterfactual lunacy.

I mean, that's the way it seems lately.  All I have to do is read the news -- something I've been trying not to do often, because it was having horrible effects on my mood -- and I see dozens of examples of people from my country who fervently believe stuff despite, or in some cases because of, there being no evidence whatsoever.

Or sometimes, even if there's powerful evidence supporting the opposing claim.  Amazing how squalling "fake news" has allowed people to resist even looking at opinions that they'd very much like not to be true.

But I guess people fall for loony claims the world over.  If I had any doubts of that, they were eradicated by a story sent to me by a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia, which tells about how apparently there are a large number of people in Nigeria who think their president is an evil clone.

I'm not making this up.  President Muhammadu Buhari, who has been the leader of Nigeria since 2015, is gearing up for re-election in 2019, and this seems to have kicked into high gear a claim that Buhari isn't Buhari.  The fact that he was in London for treatment for an undisclosed illness last year was enough to convince a significant number of people that while he was overseas, Buhari was killed and swapped out for either a Sudanese lookalike named Jubril, or an evil laboratory-created clone who has nothing but wicked intent for the people of Nigeria.

President Muhammadu Buhari, or at least so he says [Image is in the Public Domain]

Of course, Buhari claims it's all nonsense.  Also of course, it's had no effect whatsoever.  "It’s the real me, I assure you,” Buhari said in a press conference last Sunday in Poland, where he was attending a United Nations climate conference.  "I will soon celebrate my 76th birthday and I will still go strong."

Which, you have to admit, is exactly what either a Sudanese duplicate or an evil superintelligent clone would say.

The flames were then fueled by Buhari's enemies, who had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by trashing Buhari's credibility.  Nnamdi Kanu, who belongs to a group called Indigenous People of Biafra, has trumpeted the claim on his pirate radio station, Radio Biafra.  And the more Kanu and Buhari's other rivals spread the rumor around, the harder it is for Buhari to say, "Oh, for fuck's sake, are you people serious?" and have anyone listen.

He's still in there swinging, though.  At his news conference, he said, "One of the questions that came up today in my meeting with Nigerians in Poland was on the issue of whether I’ve been cloned or not.  The ignorant rumors are not surprising — when I was away on medical vacation last year a lot of people hoped I was dead."

Well, hoping someone's dead is not really the same thing as thinking he's a laboratory-created clone.  But the fact is, Buhari hasn't really been all that popular, and he's been accused of giving favors to people of his own ethnic group (the Fulani) and ignoring the plight of other groups, especially Christian ones.  Worse, his detractors say he's turned a blind eye to the depredations of Boko Haram, which is still terrorizing the northern part of the country.  The economy has pretty much tanked, with estimates of the ranks of the unemployed up around the ten million mark.

So it's not like Buhari's rivals don't have ammunition enough for criticizing his rule.  Which is probably why there are no fewer than 79 people running in the election, which even exceeds the electoral chaos we typically have here in the United States.  The problem is, it's not like his opponents are squeaky-clean, either; one of the favorites in the election is former vice president Atiku Abubakar, whose motto seems to be "help people when it's expedient and kick 'em in the balls when it isn't."  Abubakar's reputation for the carrot-and-stick approach is evident in the fact that Olosegun Obasanjo, who was himself president of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007, went from saying "If I support Atiku for anything, God will not forgive me" in August and singing his praises last week.

Which makes perfect sense, considering Abubakar's likelihood of winning the election and his penchant for taking revenge on people who criticize him.

So the whole thing is a mess, and is not being helped by the wacky claims about Buhari, or Evil Clone of Buhari, or Jubril of Sudan, depending on which version you went for earlier.

And you know, maybe that would explain a lot about our own political mess.  These elected officials aren't really human beings.  They're holograms that have been sent in by a race of aliens determined to bring down our civilization by making our leaders appear to have lost their marbles.  The problem -- from the aliens' point of view, anyhow -- is that it doesn't seem to be working.  Every time some person in government says something completely outlandish, or idiotic, or outright false, a good third of Americans say, "Exactly right!  You tell 'em!"

So maybe it's my fellow citizens who are holograms.  I just don't know any more.  At this point, I'm ready to throw in the towel and welcome our Alien Overlords.  Can't be any worse that what we've been enduring.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker.  This book is, in my opinion, the most lucid and readable exposition of the evolutionary model ever written, and along the way takes down the arguments for Intelligent Design a piece at a time.  I realize Dawkins is a controversial figure, given his no-quarter-given approach to religious claims, but even if you don't accept the scientific model yourself, you owe it to yourself to see what the evolutionary biologists are actually saying.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]