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.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Toxic waste

If there's one word related to health issues that makes me cringe, it's the word "toxin."

This term gets thrown around all the time.  I was given a gift card for a massage for my last birthday (which was wonderful, by the way), and afterwards, the masseuse told me that I needed to drink lots of water that day because the massage had "loosened up toxins" and I needed to drink a lot to "flush them from my system."  A while back, I was buying some fresh turmeric root at a local organic grocery, and a lady smiled at me in a friendly sort of way, and said, "Oooh, turmeric!  It's wonderful at detoxifying the body!"

What gets me about the use of "toxin" and "detoxify" is that the people who use those terms so seldom have any idea about what particular toxins they're talking about.  If I was just a wee bit more obnoxious than I am -- an eventuality no one should wish for -- I would have said to the masseuse and the lady in the grocery, "Can you name one specific chemical that massage and/or turmeric releases in my body that I need to be concerned about?"

Chances are, of course, they would not have been able to; even in supposedly informative articles in health magazines, they're just lumped together as "toxins."  The word has become a stand-in for unspecified "really bad stuff" that we need to fret about even though no one seems all that sure what it is.

And then buy whatever silly detox remedy the writer of the article suggests.

This all comes up because of an article I read in Science-Based Medicine called "Activated Charcoal: The Latest Detox Fad in an Obsessive Food Culture," by Scott Gavura.  In it, we hear about people dosing themselves with activated charcoal as a "detox" or "cleanse," because evidently our liver and kidneys -- evolved over millions of years to deal with all sorts of unpleasant metabolic wastes -- are insufficient to protect us.

No, you need "activated charcoal lemonade."


I wish I was making this up, but no.  People actually are adding gritty, pitch-black charcoal to their lemonade, in order to make it "soak up toxins."

The problem here, as Gavura points out, is that activated charcoal is used in detoxification, so there's that kernel of truth in all of the nonsense.  Actual detoxification, I mean, not this pseudoscientific fad-medicine horseshit; detoxification of the sort done in cases of poisoning.  I know this first hand, because of an incident involving a border collie named Doolin that we once had.  My wife and I had visited northern California, and dropped by the wonderful Mendocino Chocolate Company, makers of what are objectively the best chocolate truffles in the entire world.  We bought a dozen truffles of various sorts and brought them home with us, babying them through our travels during high summer.  We got them home successfully, and on the first day back...

... Doolin pulled the box off the counter and ate all twelve chocolate truffles.

As you undoubtedly know, chocolate is highly poisonous to dogs, so off Doolin went to the vet to get a (real) detoxification.  One of the things they did was feed her activated charcoal.  We found this out because on the way back home from the vet, Doolin puked up charcoal all over the back seat of my wife's brand-new Mini Cooper.

Doolin survived the chocolate incident, although she almost didn't survive our reaction to (1) the thousand-dollar vet bill, (2) black doggie puke all over the new car upholstery, and worst of all, (3) not getting our chocolates.  Despite all that, she went on to live another six healthy years, thanks to modern veterinary science and the fact that she was cute enough that we decided not to strangle her.

But I digress.

So charcoal does have its uses.  But you're not accomplishing anything by adding it to lemonade, except perhaps (as Gavura writes) having the charcoal absorb nutrients from your digestive tract, making whatever food you're eating less nutritious.  Because charcoal, of course, isn't selective about what it absorbs -- it'll absorb damn near anything, including vitamins and other essential nutrients.

Facts don't seem to matter much to the alt-med crowd, however, and now there's charcoal everywhere.  Over at the webzine Into the Gloss, writer Victoria Lewis tells us about taste-testing a bunch of different charcoal drinks, and her analysis includes the following insightful paragraph about "Juice Generation Activated Greens":
I decided to drink this ultra-vegetable-filled (kale, spinach, celery, parsley, romaine, and cucumber) juice for breakfast.  It tasted exactly like a super green juice—a little salty but otherwise, totally normal.  I did end up eating some granola afterwards (juice diets have never been for me), but this one felt good and extremely healthy.
Which, right there, sums up the whole approach.  Screw medical research; if consuming some weird new supplement "feels good and extremely healthy," then it must be getting rid of all those bad old toxins, or something, even if it tastes like vaguely lemon-flavored fireplace scrapings.  It's all about the buzzwords, the hype, and the feelings -- not about anything remotely related to hard evidence.

But of course, since now we have renowned nutritionists like Gwyneth Paltrow getting on board, the whole "charcoal juice cleanse" thing is going to take off amongst people with more money than sense.

Makes me feel like I need to go eat some bacon and eggs, just to restore order to the universe.

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

To the layperson, there's something odd about physicists' search for (amongst many other things) a Grand Unified Theory, that unites the four fundamental forces into one elegant model.

Why do they think that there is such a theory?  Strange as it sounds, a lot of them say it's because having one force of the four (gravitation) not accounted for by the model, and requiring its own separate equations to explain, is "messy."  Or "inelegant."  Or -- most tellingly -- "ugly."

So, put simply; why do physicists have the tendency to think that for a theory to be true, it has to be elegant and beautiful?  Couldn't the universe just be chaotic and weird, with different facets of it obeying their own unrelated laws, with no unifying explanation to account for it all?

This is the question that physicist Sabine Hossenfelder addresses in her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray.  She makes a bold statement; that this search for beauty and elegance in the mathematical models has diverted theoretical physics into untestable, unverifiable cul-de-sacs, blinding researchers to the reality -- the experimental evidence.

Whatever you think about whether the universe should obey aesthetically pleasing rules, or whether you're okay with weirdness and messiness, Hossenfelder's book will challenge your perception of how science is done.  It's a fascinating, fun, and enlightening read for anyone interested in learning about the arcane reaches of physics.

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


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The emotional thermostat

For a variety of reasons I've decided to go back to work part time.

Retirement is great, but because the universe has a perverse sense of humor, we found out the week after I retired that our house needed forty thousand dollars of foundation work in order to stop it from sliding down the hill into our creek.  The project involved putting piers under the foundation, meaning holes had to be drilled through and around the foundation down to the bedrock.  The good news, if there's any good news in a scenario like this one, is that we caught it before any serious structural damage was done to the house.

Not that you'd be able to tell from what the interior of the formerly-finished basement looked like once they were done.  The foundation work required stripping the whole thing down to the joists, studs, and cement floor, removing all the pre-existing carpet, tile, walls, and ceilings.  All of which now has to be re-installed.

L to R: Me and my son, mid-demolition.  You can probably see the family resemblance between us.

So needless to say, we ended up with a hefty home improvement loan to pay off.  This was for me the main impetus to getting another job.  So this week I started work helping out seniors with yard work and house work, and providing companion care for people who aren't able to get out much.

I've always been inordinately worried about money.  During the time I was a single dad, I was literally down to nickels at the end of every pay period, and constantly looking for ways to economize.  Putting aside extra against eventualities like unexpected car repairs was pretty much impossible.  I've had a "poverty mentality" ever since, and even though now we're doing okay financially, I still have the constant expectation that the bottom is going to drop out.

It's all part and parcel of how my depression and anxiety seem to operate.  Reality checks (like looking at our bank statement and seeing that we do, in fact, have enough to pay our mortgage this month) don't make a dent in the panicked emotional state I seem to live in most of the time.  The way I've described it is that it's like I have two brains, an emotional one and a rational one, and they are not on speaking terms with each other.

Turns out this is a remarkably accurate description of what's going on.  A study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience by Mary Kate P. Joyce, Miguel Ángel García-Cabezas, Yohan J. John, and Helen Barbas of Boston University, entitled "Serial Prefrontal Pathways Are Positioned to Balance Cognition and Emotion in Primates," we find out that there is a part of the brain called "Area 32" (not to be confused with Area 51) which links two other reasons, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the subgenual cortex.  The subgenual cortex is connected with emotional expression; the DLPFC is essentially like a thermostat, speaking through Area 32 to the subgenual cortex and allowing emotional equilibrium.

A neurological analog to the "reality check" I mentioned earlier.

But when the DLPFC is quiet for some reason, no longer relaying inhibitory signals through Area 32, the subgenual cortex kind of stages a coup, leading to a runaway emotional reaction. 

Identifying the regions of the brain involved in certain abnormal responses is the first step toward targeted therapy.  I can speak from experience that this is really needed in the case of depression.  I've been through the wringer trying to find an antidepressant that works and doesn't give me horrible side effects -- it took three years to finally get one that seems to blunt the edge of the worst of it.  The strangest part of all this is how unpredictable it is; one person can have excellent results from an antidepressant that is either useless or actually detrimental for someone else, and honestly, no one knows why this is.

Research like this provides some hope that we may be narrowing in on what's going on.  Which is incredible news to people like me who've suffered from depression and anxiety for decades.

But now I need to get this posted and get going.  I've got to get out to my client's garden and finish cutting back her perennials.  All in a day's work.

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

To the layperson, there's something odd about physicists' search for (amongst many other things) a Grand Unified Theory, that unites the four fundamental forces into one elegant model.

Why do they think that there is such a theory?  Strange as it sounds, a lot of them say it's because having one force of the four (gravitation) not accounted for by the model, and requiring its own separate equations to explain, is "messy."  Or "inelegant."  Or -- most tellingly -- "ugly."

So, put simply; why do physicists have the tendency to think that for a theory to be true, it has to be elegant and beautiful?  Couldn't the universe just be chaotic and weird, with different facets of it obeying their own unrelated laws, with no unifying explanation to account for it all?

This is the question that physicist Sabine Hossenfelder addresses in her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray.  She makes a bold statement; that this search for beauty and elegance in the mathematical models has diverted theoretical physics into untestable, unverifiable cul-de-sacs, blinding researchers to the reality -- the experimental evidence.

Whatever you think about whether the universe should obey aesthetically pleasing rules, or whether you're okay with weirdness and messiness, Hossenfelder's book will challenge your perception of how science is done.  It's a fascinating, fun, and enlightening read for anyone interested in learning about the arcane reaches of physics.

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


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Penguin walkabouts and sinking continents

One of the wonderful things about writing this blog every day is that it means I'm constantly learning stuff myself.

Today's topic is a good example, and kind of a curious one because it touches on three topics about which I usually credit myself with knowing a good deal, and those are geology, paleontology, and ornithology.  But because of my buddy and twin-separated-at-birth Andrew Butters, whose wonderful blog Potato Chip Math you should definitely subscribe to, I ended up learning some really cool stuff about three subjects near and dear to my heart.

The link Andrew sent me led me to a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society called "Ancient Crested Penguin Constrains Timing of Recruitment into Seabird Hotspot," which analyzes some three-million-year-old (Pliocene Epoch) penguin fossils found on the North Island.  Careful study of these fossils, of a species called Eudyptes atatu, led the researchers to the conclusion that penguins in general might have their origins not in Antarctica, as you might imagine (I know I did), but in the "lost continent" of Zealandia.

(If I can indulge a fourth interest, linguistics, the scientific name Eudyptes atatu comes from Greek and Maori roots, respectively, and means "good diver from the dawn of time."  Which I think is a pretty awesome name.) 

Anyhow, I don't know about you, but I'd never heard of Zealandia.  The article Andrew sent (from the site Science Alert) said that Zealandia was a former continent that basically sank.  This sounded a little suspicious to me; Atlantis notwithstanding, continents don't sink.  The edges can be more or less covered with water depending on the extent of polar ice and the sea level, but pieces of continental crust (being thick and relatively cold) just get carried along by whatever plate they're sitting on.  So they can move, split, and join, sort of like a big free-floating game of Tetris with irregularly-shaped pieces and no rules.  But you don't make much new continental crust, and what you've got pretty much is what you're stuck with.  (The Laurentian Highlands of Québec and Ontario, for example, has been around since Precambrian times, dating back 540 million years.)

So the idea of a continent (or most of it) sinking seemed pretty far-fetched to me.  But that, apparently, is exactly what happened.

A map (courtesy of NOAA) showing the former extent of Zealandia, outlined in pink

Zealandia used to be a lush rainforest -- think New Guinea or Borneo -- but subsidence gradually reduced its size, till by the beginning of the Miocene Epoch 23 million years ago, all that remained above sea level were New Zealand and New Caledonia, and the other 93% of it lay beneath the waves.  This greatly increased the distance to the nearest land mass (Australia) and effectively isolated New Zealand entirely, which is why it has such a unique flora and fauna today.

The other continent that Zealandia used to be near was Antarctica, and from their homeland of Zealandia they colonized the (at the time much closer) southern continent, which then slid away because of plate tectonics, moving to its present position near the South Pole and taking the penguins with it.  

But the fossils of Eudyptes atatu strongly point to a New Zealand origin for penguins in general, even though the only ones that have survived there to modern times are the Fiordland Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus), the Erect-crested Penguin (Eudyptes sclateri), the Snares Penguin (Eudyptes robustus), the Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), and the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor).  (You can see from the scientific names that the first three are in the same genus as the fossil species; whether they are descendants, or only cousins, isn't known.)

So that was today's opportunity to learn something about geology, paleontology, and ornithology.  Thanks again to Andrew for alerting me to the research, which I had somehow missed entirely.  Fun stuff, not least because it involves penguins, which are some of the most adorable birds in the world, if I may be allowed to interject a completely non-scientific opinion into the mix.

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

To the layperson, there's something odd about physicists' search for (amongst many other things) a Grand Unified Theory, that unites the four fundamental forces into one elegant model.

Why do they think that there is such a theory?  Strange as it sounds, a lot of them say it's because having one force of the four (gravitation) not accounted for by the model, and requiring its own separate equations to explain, is "messy."  Or "inelegant."  Or -- most tellingly -- "ugly."

So, put simply; why do physicists have the tendency to think that for a theory to be true, it has to be elegant and beautiful?  Couldn't the universe just be chaotic and weird, with different facets of it obeying their own unrelated laws, with no unifying explanation to account for it all?

This is the question that physicist Sabine Hossenfelder addresses in her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray.  She makes a bold statement; that this search for beauty and elegance in the mathematical models has diverted theoretical physics into untestable, unverifiable cul-de-sacs, blinding researchers to the reality -- the experimental evidence.

Whatever you think about whether the universe should obey aesthetically pleasing rules, or whether you're okay with weirdness and messiness, Hossenfelder's book will challenge your perception of how science is done.  It's a fascinating, fun, and enlightening read for anyone interested in learning about the arcane reaches of physics.

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


Monday, September 28, 2020

Little fish

I had an interesting, and rather revelatory, experience this summer.

One of my passions is running.  Well, to be more accurate, I like having run.  While I'm out there, slogging up the hills and dripping sweat, I am most frequently asking myself why the hell I do this, when it is clearly painful, exhausting, and generally unpleasant.  But afterward I always feel better, and every time I've raced I come home and signed up for more races.

As a friend of mine put it, it's a little like the guy who smacks his head on the wall because it feels so good when he stops.

In any case, in May I signed up for the One New York Challenge, a five-hundred-kilometer "virtual race" across New York, the proceeds from which were donated to COVID research.  We had from May 15 to August 31 to finish, and there was a leaderboard that was updated daily to keep track of everyone's submitted mileage and times, so you could see how you ranked against other participants.

Well, this is where the trouble started.  Because I'm not all that great at running -- I'll be up-front about that -- but I am insanely competitive.  So every day I'd enter my miles (I run an average five miles a day, pretty much without exception), then immediately log on to the leaderboard to see how -- or if -- my place had shifted.

I ended up finishing the race way ahead of the deadline, with over a month to spare, crossing the finish line in 827th place overall (out of 6,428 participants), and in 30th place (out of 151) in my age class.

Me after finishing the 499th kilometer

So reason to be proud, right?  Not only finishing the race, but in the top fifteen percent out of everyone and in the top twenty percent in my age class.

But all I could focus on was thinking, "Holy shit.  826 people were faster than me."

Turns out I'm not alone in doing this, self-defeating as it is.  A study this week in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that we feel much better about ourselves when we're big fish in a little pond than when we're little fish in a big pond -- even if our own skill level is the same in both situations.

In "Taking Social Comparison to the Extremes: The Huge-Fish-Tiny-Pond Effect in Self-Evaluations," by Ethan Zell and Tara Lesick of the University of North Carolina, we find out that we pay much closer attention to our in-group ranking (whatever the size and skill level of the group) than we do to how the whole group ranks against other groups.  Put a different way, most of us are much happier ranking higher amongst peers who as a whole are mediocre than ranking lower amongst the elite.

And doesn't just affect our emotional states, it affects how we actually evaluate our own skill level.  The setup of the experiment involved the administration of a verbal-reasoning test to students at a variety of colleges.  Participants were given their scores, and two other pieces of information; how they ranked against other participants from their own college, and how their college ranked against other colleges.  Afterward, each volunteer was asked how they felt about their performance, and to evaluate their own verbal-reasoning ability not just against their peers but in a general, global sense.

Naturally, high scorers at highly-ranked colleges were not only happy with their performance, but felt pretty confident about their skill.  More interesting were the high scorers at low-ranked colleges, and the low scorers at highly-ranked colleges.  The former had the same glowing assessment of their own skills and performance as the high scorers at highly-ranked colleges, while the latter were generally disappointed with their skills and performance -- even when the overall scores of the members of the two groups were similar.

It makes sense, I suppose, given our long history of tribalism.  If Zog is competing against Thak in boulder-throwing, his rival's performance is right there in front of him, immediate and obvious.  It's way less obvious (and often much less important in the here-and-now) if Zog's whole tribe is made up of elite boulder-throwers or if, to put it bluntly, they suck.  I know it's always thin ice to attribute psychological tendencies to evolutionary history, but there's a good argument that the disappointment of the little-fish-big-pond experience is built into our brains by our having evolved living in small, tightly-knit groups.

In my own experience, being a mediocre racer in a very large group slowed me down for a bit, but (fortunately) hasn't stopped me.  Three weeks ago I started a new challenge; to run four hundred miles in 108 days.  (Five hundred kilometers -- 310 miles -- was apparently not enough, for some reason.)  It's for a good cause -- my sign-up money goes to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  And there's swag to look forward to when I'm done, including another badly-needed race t-shirt, to add to the 793 race t-shirts I already own.

Twenty days in, I've already got 25% of the miles completed.  I'm currently 192nd overall (out of 1,716 participants) and 8th in my age class (out of 30).  Which is entirely unacceptable

Time to get out running again and see if I can pass a few of these folks.

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

To the layperson, there's something odd about physicists' search for (amongst many other things) a Grand Unified Theory, that unites the four fundamental forces into one elegant model.

Why do they think that there is such a theory?  Strange as it sounds, a lot of them say it's because having one force of the four (gravitation) not accounted for by the model, and requiring its own separate equations to explain, is "messy."  Or "inelegant."  Or -- most tellingly -- "ugly."

So, put simply; why do physicists have the tendency to think that for a theory to be true, it has to be elegant and beautiful?  Couldn't the universe just be chaotic and weird, with different facets of it obeying their own unrelated laws, with no unifying explanation to account for it all?

This is the question that physicist Sabine Hossenfelder addresses in her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray.  She makes a bold statement; that this search for beauty and elegance in the mathematical models has diverted theoretical physics into untestable, unverifiable cul-de-sacs, blinding researchers to the reality -- the experimental evidence.

Whatever you think about whether the universe should obey aesthetically pleasing rules, or whether you're okay with weirdness and messiness, Hossenfelder's book will challenge your perception of how science is done.  It's a fascinating, fun, and enlightening read for anyone interested in learning about the arcane reaches of physics.

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


Saturday, September 26, 2020

The strange tale of Christopher Round

When I was maybe twelve years old, the highlight of school was getting the monthly Scholastic Books sale flier.

It had dozens of books, at prices that seem ridiculous by today's standards -- on the order of $0.99 for a paperback.  Even back then, I loved scary stories, and it's through Scholastic that I got my first copies of collections of stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.

Back then, in 1972, I saw a book in one month's flier I just had to get.  It was called Haunted Houses, by Bernhardt. J. Hurwood, and at that point was a new release.  When it arrived a few weeks later, I read it eagerly, simultaneously scaring the absolute shit out of myself and running for the first time into such classic tales as the canine ghosts of Ballechin House, the screaming skulls of Calgarth, and the weirdly open-ended story of Nurse Black.

There was one story in the collection, though, that struck me as more sad than frightening.  It was titled "The Tragic Ghost of Cambridge University," and made enough of an impression that when I bumped into a reference to it yesterday on a website called "Ghosts that Haunt Seven Cambridge Colleges and the Stories Behind Them," I recognized it immediately -- and went to dig up my copy of Haunted Houses (yes, I still have it) that I hadn't looked at for something like thirty years or more.

It tells the tale of an academic fellow named Christopher Round, who was pursuing a degree in classics at Christ's College.  He was brilliant but shy -- one of those sorts whom you barely notice until he says something, and then it turns out to be perceptive and interesting, much to your surprise.  This was why his classmate Philip Collier -- similar to Round in intellect, but outgoing, genial, and strikingly handsome -- outshone Round in just about every way you can imagine.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons The wub, Christ's College, Cambridge - First Court 03, CC BY-SA 3.0]

No one else in their class was even close to the same caliber, but when it came to a competition, Round always came in second.  Even after graduation (both with honors -- but guess who got first place?), the rivalry continued, because both of them were accepted as Fellows of Christ's College.

Both applied for a professorship in Greek.  Once again, Collier won, and Round was forgotten.

All through this, their interactions were at least superficially friendly.  Round wasn't the combative type in any case, and it's doubtful that Collier even realized the damage he was doing.  From the outside, it looked like a perfectly ordinary relationship -- outgoing guy and his quiet, second-fiddle sidekick.

The final straw came when Round fell in love with a woman named Mary Clifford.  Mary was high society, and beautiful, and for a time it looked like things were at last going to turn in poor Christopher Round's favor.  But fate had other plans in store.  Mary's parents took her on a trip to Italy, and while traveling she bumped into a fellow Brit who was on holiday...

... Philip Collier.

When she returned, she reluctantly told Christopher Round that she'd fallen madly in love with his rival, and in fact, had accepted a proposal of marriage.  Round was devastated, but his habit of making light of his anger and jealousy once again triumphed.  He forced a smile and wished Mary well.  Relieved that he'd taken it so easily, Mary went her way, feeling like disaster had been averted.

But only a few weeks later, Round was walking back to his flat past the Fellows' Swimming Pool when he heard a noise.  Coming from the other direction was Philip Collier -- staggering drunk.  As he watched, Collier stumbled and fell in.  Although a good swimmer while sober, Collier was flailing, and reflexively Round looked for some way to help him.  There was a long wooden pole with a hook on the end lying along the hedge, used for catching things out or pushing them along the surface of the pool, and he picked it up, intending to hook Collier's clothing and help him out.

Then he thought, "Why should I do this?"  And before he could stop himself, he struck Philip Collier in the temple with the hook, and watched as his rival sank beneath the water and drowned.

Round expected to shine now that the man who had eclipsed him his entire adult life was dead, but it didn't happen.  Instead, he was consumed with remorse.  Mary Clifford, for her part, didn't go running back to him; it's uncertain if she was so sunk in grief herself that she couldn't think of romance, or if she perhaps suspected Round's role in Collier's death.  No legal investigation was ever launched.  Collier's death was ruled as accidental, so there was no worry about a hangman's noose looming in the future.

But Christopher Round was never to be the same.  He threw himself into academics, but even without Collier there to outshine him, he was not able to stand out.  He lived the rest of his life in obscurity, and his role in his rival's death only became known because he wrote out a full confession, with instructions that it was only to be unsealed fifty years after his death.

But his sad, remorseful ghost still haunts Christ's College, especially the grassy lawn by the swimming pool where Philip Collier died.  To this day, students see his stoop-shouldered figure at night, dressed in nineteenth-century garb, walking heavily along the pool, and finally disappearing without trace behind the yew hedge.

Good story, isn't it?  It's a staple in the "true tales of hauntings in Britain" books and websites, often alongside the more famous tales I alluded to at the beginning of this.

But there's just one thing more you might want to know.

It's fiction.

I'm not saying this because I'm being my usual snarky, skeptical self.  The tale of Christopher Round and Philip Collier is the subject of a novel called A College Mystery by Alfred Ponsford Baker, published in 1918, and there is no indication anywhere in the book that Baker thought it was a true story.  Worse still, for those who want it to be real, is the fact that there doesn't seem to be a mention of the story anywhere before the publication of Baker's book.  And a thorough scouring of Christ's College records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows no one named Christopher Round or Philip Collier, not only as Fellows (which surely would have been recorded -- especially Collier, who supposedly was appointed as Professor of Greek) but even as students.

So what is conveniently left out of the account in Hurwood's Haunted Houses -- and just about every other recounting of the story of Christopher Round -- is that the whole thing comes from a work of fiction.

It's funny how the urban legend tendency works, isn't it?  Something that might have started as an up-front made-up story that no one really takes seriously grows through accretion and somehow gains the veneer of veracity.  And once that happens -- once it's told somewhere as a True Tale of the Supernatural -- few people even think to check into the story's antecedents and see if it holds any water.

Just as well.  Christopher Round's sad, ill-fated, and ultimately tortured life is better off as a fictional tale, and even the murder victim Collier doesn't come off as very praiseworthy.  Makes a good story, though -- even if the whole thing seems to have sprung from the mind of a British novelist.

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

Author Mary Roach has a knack for picking intriguing topics.  She's written books on death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and war (Grunt), each one brimming with well-researched facts, interviews with experts, and her signature sparkling humor.

In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Roach takes us away from the sleek, idealized world of Star Trek and Star Wars, and looks at what it would really be like to take a long voyage from our own planet.  Along the way she looks at the psychological effects of being in a small spacecraft with a few other people for months or years, not to mention such practical concerns as zero-g toilets, how to keep your muscles from atrophying, and whether it would actually be fun to engage in weightless sex.

Roach's books are all wonderful, and Packing for Mars is no exception.  If, like me, you've always had a secret desire to be an astronaut, this book will give you an idea of what you'd be in for on a long interplanetary voyage.

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


Friday, September 25, 2020

Neurobabble

Confirming something that people like Deepak Chopra and Dr. Oz figured out years ago, researchers at Villanova University and the University of Oregon have shown that all you have to do to convince people is throw some fancy-sounding pseudoscientific jargon into your argument.

The specific area that Diego Fernandez-Duque, Jessica Evans, Colton Christian, and Sara D. Hodges researched was neurobabble, in particular the likelihood of increasing people's confidence in the correctness of an argument if some bogus brain-based explanation was included. Fernandez-Duque et al. write:
Does the presence of irrelevant neuroscience information make explanations of psychological phenomena more appealing?  Do fMRI pictures further increase that allure?  To help answer these questions, 385 college students in four experiments read brief descriptions of psychological phenomena, each one accompanied by an explanation of varying quality (good vs. circular) and followed by superfluous information of various types.  Ancillary measures assessed participants' analytical thinking, beliefs on dualism and free will, and admiration for different sciences.  In Experiment 1, superfluous neuroscience information increased the judged quality of the argument for both good and bad explanations, whereas accompanying fMRI pictures had no impact above and beyond the neuroscience text, suggesting a bias that is conceptual rather than pictorial.  Superfluous neuroscience information was more alluring than social science information (Experiment 2) and more alluring than information from prestigious “hard sciences” (Experiments 3 and 4).  Analytical thinking did not protect against the neuroscience bias, nor did a belief in dualism or free will.  We conclude that the “allure of neuroscience” bias is conceptual, specific to neuroscience, and not easily accounted for by the prestige of the discipline.  
So this may explain why people so consistently fall for pseudoscience as long as it's couched in seemingly technical terminology.  For example, look at the following, an excerpt from an article in which Deepak Chopra is hawking his latest creation, a meditation-inducing device called "DreamWeaver":
About two years ago I got interested in the idea that you could feed light pulses through the brain with your eyes closed and sound and music at a certain frequency.  Your brain waves would dial into it and then you could dial the instrument down so that you would decrease the brain wave frequency from what it is normally in the waking state.  And then you could slowly dial down the brainwave frequency to what it would be in the dream state, which is called theta, and then you even dial further down into delta.
What the hell does "your brain waves would dial into it" mean?   And I would like to suggest to Fernandez-Duque et al. that their next experiment should have to do with people immediately believing claims if they involve the word "frequency."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons NascarEd, Sleep Stage N3, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Then we have the following twofer -- an excerpt of an article by Deepak Chopra that appeared on Dr. Oz's website:
Try to eat one of these three foods once a day to protect against Alzheimer’s and memory issues.  
Wheat Germ - The embryo of a wheat plant, wheat germ is loaded with B-complex vitamins that can reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  Sprinkle wheat germ on cereal and yogurt in the morning, or enjoy it on salads or popcorn with a little butter. 
Black Currents [sic] - These dark berries are jam-packed with antioxidants that help nourish the brain cells surrounding the hippocampus.  The darker in color, the more antioxidants black currents [sic] contain.  These fruits are available fresh when in season, or can be purchased dried or frozen year-round. 
Acorn Squash - This beautiful gold-colored veggie contains high amounts of folic acid, a B-vitamin that improves memory as well as the speed at which the brain processes information.
Whenever I read this sort of thing, I'm not inclined to believe it; I'm more inclined to scream, "Source?"  For example, I looked up the whole black currant claim, and the first few sources waxed rhapsodic about black currants' ability to enhance our brain function.  But then I noticed that said sources were all from the Black Currant Foundation (I didn't even know that existed, did you?) and the website blackcurrant.co.nz.  Scrolling down a bit, I found a post on WebMD that was considerably less enthusiastic, saying that it "may be useful in Alzheimer's" (with no mention of exactly how, nor any citations to support the claim) but that it also can lower blood pressure and slow down blood clotting.

So I suppose that the only way to protect yourself against this kind of nonsense is to learn some actual science, and be willing to read some peer-reviewed papers on the subject -- which includes training yourself to recognize which sources are peer-reviewed and which are not.

But doing all this research myself leaves me feeling like I need some breakfast.  Maybe a wheat germ, black currant, and acorn squash stir-fry.  Can't have too many antioxidants, you know, when your hippocampus is having some frequency problems.

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Author Mary Roach has a knack for picking intriguing topics.  She's written books on death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and war (Grunt), each one brimming with well-researched facts, interviews with experts, and her signature sparkling humor.

In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Roach takes us away from the sleek, idealized world of Star Trek and Star Wars, and looks at what it would really be like to take a long voyage from our own planet.  Along the way she looks at the psychological effects of being in a small spacecraft with a few other people for months or years, not to mention such practical concerns as zero-g toilets, how to keep your muscles from atrophying, and whether it would actually be fun to engage in weightless sex.

Roach's books are all wonderful, and Packing for Mars is no exception.  If, like me, you've always had a secret desire to be an astronaut, this book will give you an idea of what you'd be in for on a long interplanetary voyage.

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


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Listening to Cassandra

Yesterday's post, in which I skated backward through geologic time into the deep past, alluded to a few really bad times the Earth has been through.  Episodes of trap volcanism, which make the biggest volcanoes you can think of look like wet firecrackers.  Mass extinctions.  Asteroid collisions.

Bad as 2020 has been, the planet has seen worse.

A lot worse.

One awful event I didn't mention, however, is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.  It occurred about 56 million years ago.  The gist is that over a period of maybe fifty thousand years, there was a spike of carbon dioxide injected into the atmosphere -- over 44,000 gigatons (that's 44 trillion tons) of excess carbon dioxide.  The result was a greenhouse-effect temperature surge that was on the order of five to eight degrees Celsius, on average, worldwide.

The results were catastrophic, starting with the extinction of close to half of the species of foraminifera, single-celled organisms that form the basis of the oceanic food chain and whose calcareous shells were literally dissolved away by increasingly acidic water.  Life eventually bounced back -- it always seems to -- leading to diversification amongst a number of mammalian lineages, including ungulates and carnivores.

But for a while, things were pretty unpleasant.  Unbearably hot, a choking, acrid atmosphere laden with carbon dioxide and methane, and oceans like a sweltering vinegar bath.

Scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory just published a paper this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looks at why this sudden and catastrophic event occurred.  What they found out has two conclusions, one of interest only to folks who like geology, and the other which should terrify the absolute shit out of every human being on Earth.

Let's deal with the tame one first.

In "The Seawater Carbon Inventory at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum," the researchers, Laura Haynes and Bärbel Hönisch, found that the cause of all this global havoc was a series of volcanic eruptions in what is now the North Atlantic.  The Mid-Atlantic Ridge had only recently formed, and North America was still in the process of separating from Europe.  Today the processes at the Ridge are relatively slow and steady -- London is moving away from New York City at about 2.5 centimeters a year -- because the area at the junction is made up of thin, fragile oceanic crust that is easy to tear apart.

But back in the Paleocene Epoch, the rift was forming underneath, old, cold, thick continental crust, and when that opened up, it was sudden and catastrophic.  Upwelling lava burned through deep layers of sedimentary rocks, not only coal seams but limestone.  Carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere at a phenomenal rate.  If that wasn't bad enough, disturbance of sea floor sediments caused a massive ejection of methane, which is not only toxic but is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right.

The result: a huge ecological shift causing a mass extinction.  "If you add carbon slowly, living things can adapt," said study co-author Bärbel Hönisch, in an interview with Science Daily.  "If you do it very fast, that's a really big problem."

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Which brings us to the second conclusion.  This is the part you should really pay attention to.

The estimated rate of carbon injection that caused all this havoc was on the order of one gigaton per year.  (Estimates from the available evidence are between 0.3 and 1.7 Gt/year, so somewhere in the vicinity of one Gt/year is a ballpark average.)  The current measurements of the rate of carbon injection into today's atmosphere are around 10 Gt/year.

Ten times higher than during the catastrophic Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event.

I don't like to keep ringing the changes on the same topic, but dammit, we need someone in power to take charge of this situation and at least make a passing attempt to do something about it.  This "Meh, we've always used fossil fuels and it's been fine" attitude is seriously imperiling the long-term habitability of the Earth.  The data from today's atmospheric scientists and climatologists are unequivocal; analogous events in the past (the colossal Permian-Triassic Extinction has also been linked to a massive carbon spike) should be an indicator of where all this could lead.

People cite "economic catastrophe" as a potential result of unhooking ourselves from fossil fuels, and use that as a justification for jamming the brakes on any move toward renewable energy.  My response is, if you want to see a fucking economic catastrophe, just keep doing what you're doing.

Economic catastrophe will be the least of our worries.

More and more, people who are warning about the ultimate outcome of climate change -- both actual scientists, and also concerned laypeople like myself -- are seeming like Cassandra, the woman in Greek mythology who was given the power of perfect foresight, but simultaneously cursed to have no one believe her.  I don't know what it will take for elected officials to start listening to today's Cassandras.  Increasingly it's seeming like the only option is voting out damn near every politician currently in office.

The problem is that the political system is propped up by corporate money, with the result that rich donors and lobbyists have a stranglehold on the country.  How to solve that piece of the problem is beyond my ability to parse.

All I can do is keep sounding the alarm, and hope that someone --anyone -- influential is finally listening.

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

Author Mary Roach has a knack for picking intriguing topics.  She's written books on death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and war (Grunt), each one brimming with well-researched facts, interviews with experts, and her signature sparkling humor.

In this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space, Roach takes us away from the sleek, idealized world of Star Trek and Star Wars, and looks at what it would really be like to take a long voyage from our own planet.  Along the way she looks at the psychological effects of being in a small spacecraft with a few other people for months or years, not to mention such practical concerns as zero-g toilets, how to keep your muscles from atrophying, and whether it would actually be fun to engage in weightless sex.

Roach's books are all wonderful, and Packing for Mars is no exception.  If, like me, you've always had a secret desire to be an astronaut, this book will give you an idea of what you'd be in for on a long interplanetary voyage.

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