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, January 21, 2021

World enough and time

Because I'm writing this in the last hours of the Trump presidency, and my other alternative is to become so anxious about what his followers might still do to fuck things up that I chew my fingernails till they bleed, today I'm going to focus on things that are very, very far from planet Earth.

Let's begin with the closest-to-home, three thousand light years away, which seems like it might be almost far enough for safety.

A new study of planetary nebulae -- gas and dust clouds that are what's left of stars that went supernova -- was the subject of a talk at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society last Friday.  Using the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera, astronomers were able to photograph these amazing stellar remnants panchromatically (across the frequency spectrum of light).  And what they're learning is changing a lot of what we thought we understood.

Take, for example, NGC 6302, better known as the Butterfly Nebula.  It got its name because of symmetrical "wings" of debris that were thrown out when the central star blew up.  Why it has this strange symmetry is probably due to the magnetic field of the central star, but what's most surprising is that what astronomers thought was the central star doesn't seem to be, but is simply a white dwarf much closer to the Earth that happens to lie between us and the nebula.  Wherever the actual central star is, it's a doozy; from the spectral lines of the nebula, created when light from the star is absorbed and then re-emitted by the dust plumes, its surface is one of the hottest known, at a staggering 250,000 C.  (By comparison, the surface of our own Sun is a paltry 6,000 C or so.)

The Butterfly Nebula [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA/JPL]

Then there's NGC 7027, the Jewel Bug Nebula, which is also remarkable because of its symmetry -- depending on what feature you're looking at, it shows spherical symmetry (symmetry around the center, like a basketball), axis symmetry (symmetry around a line, like the letter T), or point symmetry (symmetry across a central point, like the letter N).  It's simultaneously one of the brightest planetary nebulae and one of the smallest, and the new study confirms that it's a recently-formed object -- it's only six hundred years old.  (Of course, since it's three thousand light years away, the structure is actually 3,600 years old; but what we're seeing is what it looked like when it was a mere six hundred.)

"We're dissecting [planetary nebulae]," said Joel Kastner, a professor in the Rochester Institute of Technology's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and School of Physics and Astronomy.  "We're able to see the effect of the dying central star in how it's shedding and shredding its ejected material.  We're able to see that material that the central star has tossed away is being dominated by ionized gas, where it's dominated by cooler dust, and even how the hot gas is being ionized, whether by the star's UV or by collisions caused by its present, fast winds."

Moving farther afield, another paper presented at the AAS meeting is about a weird object in NGC 253, the Sculptor Galaxy, which is 11.4 million light years away.  It's called a magnetar, and is another stellar remnant, but this one of a supergiant star.  The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Mars Odyssey orbiter both picked up a 140-millisecond-long pulse of gamma rays which seems to have been caused by a starquake on the surface of this object, a cosmic shudder that in one burst released one thousand trillion trillion (10 followed by 27 zeroes) times more energy than the largest recorded earthquake Earth has experienced.  The quake ejected a blob of plasma at nearly the speed of light, and the acceleration is what caused the gamma rays.

The new study gives us a lens into the behavior of some of the oddest structures in the universe, and one that may also be responsible for "fast radio bursts" -- quick pulses of radio waves whose source has been a mystery up until now.  "The apparent frequency of magnetar flares in other galaxies is similar to the frequency of fast radio bursts," said astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi of McGill Space Institute.  "That argues that actually, most or all fast radio bursts could be magnetars."

Last, we go out an astonishing thirteen billion light years, which is only seven hundred million light years shy of the radius of the observable universe.  Another paper at the AAS meeting describes a quasar -- an ancient supermassive black hole that is radiating energy from infalling material, and is one of the brightest objects known -- that lies at the center of a galaxy, and now holds the record for the oldest black hole ever observed.

Like all good scientific discoveries, this one raises almost as many questions as it solves, especially about how such a massive object could have formed so early in the life of the universe.  "A gargantuan seed black hole may have formed through the direct collapse of vast amounts of primordial hydrogen gas," said study co-author Xiaohui Fan, of the University of Arizona in Tucson.  "Or perhaps J0313-1806’s seed started out small, forming through stellar collapse, and black holes can grow a lot faster than scientists think.  Both possibilities exist, but neither is proven.  We have to look much earlier [in the universe] and look for much less massive black holes to see how these things grow."

So that leaves us all the way across the universe, which is a nice comfortable distance to put between myself and the Proud Boys.  It'd be better still to have me stay here and send the Proud Boys out to the farthest reaches of interstellar space, so that their inevitable tweets about what a god-figure Trump is and what a libtard snowflake I am will take thirteen billion years to get here.

But I guess that's not gonna happen.  We all have to stay here and solve our own problems, quasars and magnetars and nebulae notwithstanding.  I'll end with a quote from Doctor Who, which seems apt somehow given the voyage through time and space we just took: "I do think there’s always a way to put things right.  If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning,  I wouldn’t eat breakfast; I wouldn’t leave the TARDIS ever.  I would never have left home.  There is always something we can do."

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

I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

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



Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The illusion of causality

Fighting bad thinking is an uphill battle, sometimes.  Not only, or even primarily, because there's so much of it out there; the real problem is that our brains are hard-wired to make poor connections, and once those connections are made, to hang on to them like grim death.

A particularly difficult one to overcome is our tendency to fall for the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy -- "after this, therefore because of this."  We assume that if two events are in close proximity in time and space, the first one must have caused the second one.  Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, likes to tell a story about his wife, who is a pediatrician, preparing to give a child a vaccination.  The child had a seizure as she was drawing the vaccine into the syringe.  If the seizure had occurred only a minute later, right after the vaccine was administered, the parents would undoubtedly have thought that the vaccination caused the seizure -- and after that, no power on Earth would have likely convinced them otherwise.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the NIH]

Why do we do this?  The most reasonable explanation is that in our evolutionary history, forming such connections had significant survival value.  Since it's usual that causes and effects are close together in time and space, wiring in a tendency to decide that all such correspondences are causal is still going to be right more often than not.  But it does lead us onto some thin ice, logic-wise.

Which is bad enough, but consider the study from three researchers -- Ion Yarritu (Deusto University), Helena Matute (University of Bilbao), and David Luque (University of New South Wales) -- that shows our falling for what they call the "causal illusion" is so powerful that even evidence to the contrary can't fix the error.

In a paper called "The dark side of cognitive illusions: When an illusory belief interferes with the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge," published in the British Journal of Psychology, Yarritu et al. have demonstrated that once we've decided on an explanation for something, it becomes damn near impossible to change.

Their experimental protocol was simple and elegant.  The authors write:
During the first phase of the experiment, one group of participants was induced to develop a strong illusion that a placebo medicine was effective to treat a fictitious disease, whereas another group was induced to develop a weak illusion.  Then, in Phase 2, both groups observed fictitious patients who always took the bogus treatment simultaneously with a second treatment which was effective.  Our results showed that the group who developed the strong illusion about the effectiveness of the bogus treatment during Phase 1 had more difficulties in learning during Phase 2 that the added treatment was effective.
The strength of this illusion explains why bogus "alternative medicine" therapies gain such traction.  All it takes is a handful of cases where people use "deer antler spray" and find they have more energy (and no, I'm not making this up) to get the ball rolling.  A friend just told me about someone she knows who has stage four breast cancer.  Asked how her chemo treatment was going, the friend said cheerfully, "Oh, I'm not doing chemo.  I'm treating it with juicing and coffee enemas!  And I feel fine!"

Sadly, she'll "feel fine" until she doesn't anymore, and at that point it'll probably be too late for chemo to help her.

Homeopathy owes a lot to this flaw in our reasoning ability; any symptom abatement that occurs after taking a homeopathic "remedy" clearly would have happened even if the patient had taken nothing -- which is, after all, what (s)he did.

And that's not even considering the placebo effect as a further complicating factor.

Helena Matute, one of the researchers in the recent study, has written extensively about the difficulty of battling causal illusions. In an article she wrote for the online journal Mapping Ignorance, Matute writes:
Alternative medicine is often promoted on the argument that it can do no harm.  Even though its advocates are aware that its effectiveness has not been scientifically demonstrated, they do believe that it is harmless and therefore it should be used.  "If not alone, you should at least use it in combination with evidence-based treatments," they say, "just in case."  
But this strategy is not without risk... even treatments which are physically innocuous may have serious consequences in our belief system, sometimes with fatal consequences.  When people believe that a bogus treatment works, they may not be able to learn that another treatment, which is really effective, is the cause of their recovery. This finding is important because it shows one of the mechanisms by which people might decide to quit an efficient treatment in favor of a bogus one.
I think this same effect is contributory to errors in thinking in a great many other areas.  Consider, for instance, the fact that belief in anthropogenic climate change rises in the summer and falls in the winter.  After being told that human activity is causing the global average temperature to rise, our brains are primed to look out of the window at the snow falling, and say, "Nah.  Can't be."

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  To quote Stephen Colbert, "Global warming isn't real, because I was cold today.  Also great news: world hunger is over because I just ate."

The study by Yarritu et al. highlights not only the difficulty of fighting incorrect causal connections, but why it is so essential that we do so.  The decision that two things are causally connected is powerful and difficult to reverse; so it's critical that we be aware of this bias in thinking, and watch our own tendency to leap to conclusions.  But even more critical is that we are given reliable evidence to correct our own errors in causality, and that we listen to it.  Like any cognitive bias, we can combat it -- but only if we're willing to admit that we might get it wrong sometimes.

Or as James Randi was fond of saying, "Don't believe everything you think."

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

I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

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



Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Ghost wardrobe

Debating endlessly over silly conjectures is nothing new.  The claim has been endlessly circulated that the medieval scholastics, for example, conducted learned arguments over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.   Whether they actually argued over the issue is itself the subject of debate; it seems like the earliest iteration of the idea for which we have written evidence is in The Reasons of the Christian Religion by seventeenth century Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, wherein he writes:
And Schibler with others, maketh the difference of extension to be this, that Angels can contract their whole substance into one part of space, and therefore have not Extra Partes.  Whereupon it is that the Schoolmen have questioned how many Angels may fit upon the point of a Needle?
Which I think we can agree is equally silly.  Given that no one has actually conducted a scientific examination of an angel, determining whether they have Extra Partes is kind of a waste of time.

Although you may recall that Alan Rickman as the Angel Metatron in Dogma made a significant point about angels not having genitalia.  Whether that's admissible as evidence, however, is dubious at best.



So there's a good bit of precedent for people wasting inordinate amounts of time arguing over questions that there's no way to settle.  Which is why I have to admit to rolling my eyes more than once over the article by Stephen Wagner, "Paranormal Phenomena Expert," called, "Why Are Ghosts Seen Wearing Clothes?"

I have to admit, however, that it was a question I'd never considered. If the soul survives, and some souls decide not to go on to their Eternal Reward but to hang around here on Earth to bother the living, you have to wonder why their clothes came along with them.   Clothes, I would imagine, have no souls themselves, so the idea that you're seeing the Undying Spirit of grandpa's seersucker jacket is kind of ridiculous.

Be that as it may, most ghosts are seen fully clothed.  There are exceptions; in 2011 a woman in Cleveland claims to have captured video of two naked ghosts having sex.  But I think we have to admit that such afterlife in flagrante delicto is pretty uncommon.

Wagner spoke with some ghost hunters, and turns out that there's a variety of explanations that have been offered for this.  Troy Taylor, of the American Ghost Society (did you know there was an American Ghost Society?  I didn't) said that ghosts are seen clothed because a haunting is the replaying of a deceased spirit's visualization of itself, and we usually don't picture ourselves in the nude.

On the other hand, Stacey Jones, who calls herself the "Ghost Cop," says that ghosts can project themselves any way they want to.  So what they're doing is creating an image of themselves that has the effect they're after, whether it is eliciting fear, pity, sympathy, or a desire for revenge.  Does that mean that Anne Boleyn, for example, could wander around the Tower of London wearing a bunny suit if she wanted to?  You'd think that she'd be mighty bored after nearly five centuries of stalking around with her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm, and would be ready for a change.

Ghost hunters Richard and Debbie Senate were even more terse about the whole thing.  It's a "gotcha question," they say.  But if pressed, they'd have to say that "Ghosts appear as wearing clothes because that's how they appear to us."  Which I think we can all agree is unimpeachable logic.

I find it pretty amusing that this is even a topic for debate.  Shouldn't we be more concerned about finding scientifically-sound evidence that ghosts exist, rather than fretting over whether we get to take our wardrobe with us into the next world?  As I've said more than once, I am completely agnostic about the afterlife; I simply don't know.  I find some stories of near-death experiences and hauntings intriguing, but I've never found anything that has made me come down on one or the other side of the debate with any kind of certainty.  I'll find out one way or the other at some point no matter what, and if I haven't figured it out before then, I'm content to wait.

So I suppose this falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  But it does raise the question of what kind of clothes I want to bring with me if it turns out you do get to choose.  If I end up haunting somewhere nice and tropical -- certainly my preference -- all I'll need is a pair of swim trunks.  On the other hand, if I'm stuck here in upstate New York, which seems more likely, I want my winter jacket, wool scarf, hat, and gloves.

Unless my spirit getting stuck here in perpetuity, with no cold-weather gear, is because I've been sent to hell by the powers-that-be.  Which unfortunately also seems fairly likely.

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

I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

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



Monday, January 18, 2021

Android dreams

In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Phantasms," the android Commander Data continues to pursue his lifelong dream of experiencing what it's like to be human by creating a "dream program" -- a piece of software that activates when he sleeps, allowing him to go into a dreamlike state.  The whole thing goes seriously off the rails when he starts having bizarre nightmares, and then waking hallucinations that spur him to attack the ship's counselor Deanna Troi, an action that leaves him relieved of duty and confined to his quarters.

Of course, being Star Trek, the whole thing has to do with aliens, but the more interesting aspect of the story to me is the question of what an artificial intelligence would dream about.  We've yet to figure out exactly why dreaming is so important to our mental health, but it clearly is (this was the subject of what might be the single creepiest TNG episode ever, "Night Terrors").  Without REM sleep and the dreams that occur during it, we become paranoid, neurotic, and eventually completely non-functional; ultimately we start hallucinating, as if the lack of dreams while we're asleep makes them spill over into our waking hours.

So being that the question of why exactly we dream isn't satisfactorily solved, it's going even further out onto a limb to ask what a different intelligence (artificial or otherwise) would dream about, or even if they'd need to dream at all.  Our own dreams have a few very common themes; just about all of us have dreams of being chased, of being embarrassed, of stressful situations (like the "teaching anxiety" dreams I used to have, usually involving my being in my classroom and having my students misbehaving no matter what I tried to stop it).  I still get anxiety dreams about being in a math class in college (it's always math, for some reason), and showing up to find I have an exam that I haven't studied for.  In some versions, I haven't even attended class for weeks, and have no idea what's going on.

Grieving or trauma can induce dreams; we often dream about loved ones we've lost or terrifying situations we've been in.  Most of us have erotic dreams, sometimes acting out situations we'd never dream of participating in while awake.

So although the content of dreams is pretty universal, and in fact shares a lot with the visions induced by psychedelic drugs, why we dream is still unknown.  So it was with considerable curiosity that I read a paper that showed up in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness this month called, "Neural Network Models for DMT-induced Visual Hallucinations," by Michael Schartner (Université de Genève) and Christopher Timmermann (University College London), who took an AI neural network and introduced input to it that mimicked the kind of endogenous (self-created) visual input that occurs during a hallucination, and watched what happened.

The authors write:

Using two deep convolutional network architectures, we pointed out the potential to generate changes in natural images that are in line with subjective reports of DMT-induced hallucinations. Unlike human paintings of psychedelic hallucinations—the traditional way to illustrate psychedelic imagery—using well-defined deep network architectures allows to draw parallels to brain mechanisms, in particular with respect to a perturbed balance between sensory information and prior information, mediated by the serotonergic system.

In our first model, NVIDIA’s generative model StyleGAN, we show how perturbation of the noise input can lead to image distortions reminiscent of verbal reports from controlled experiments in which DMT has been administered.  In particular, the omission of noise leads to a smoother, painterly look of the images, illustrating a potential hypothesis that can be conceptualized with such models: as a 5-HT2A receptor agonist, DMT induces a state in which environmental (i.e. exogenous) sensory information is partially blocked—gated by the inserted noise—and system-internal (endogenous) signals are influencing conscious imagery more strongly.  Contents of immersive imagery experienced in eyes-closed conditions during DMT administration would thereby correspond to the system’s prior information for the construction of a consciously perceived scene.

If you're ready for some nightmares yourself, here's one of their images of the output from introducing psychedelic-like noise into the input of a face-recognition software:


For more disturbing images that come out of giving AI hallucinogens, and a more in-depth explanation of the research than I'm giving here (or am even capable of giving), I direct you to the paper itself, which is fascinating.  The study gives a new lens into the question of our own consciousness -- whether it's an illusion generated by our brain chemistry, or if there really is something more there (a soul, spirit, mind, whatever you might want to call it) that is in some sense independent of the neural underpinning.  The authors write:

Research on image encoding in IT suggests that ‘the computational mission of IT face patches is to generate a robust, efficient, and invariant code for faces, which can then be read-out for any behavioural/cognitive purpose downstream’ (Kornblith and Tsao 2017).  The latent information entering the NVIDIA generative model may thus be interpreted as activity in IT and the output image as the consciously perceived scene, constructed during the read-out by other cortical areas.  How this read-out creates an experience is at the heart of the mind-body problem and we suggest that modelling the effects of DMT on the balance between exogenous and endogenous information may provide experimentally testable hypotheses about this central question of consciousness science.
All of this points out something I've said many times here at Skeptophilia; that we are only beginning to understand how our own brains work.  To quote my friend and mentor, Dr. Rita Calvo, Professor Emeritus of Human Genetics at Cornell University, with respect to brain science we're about where we were with respect to genetics in 1921 -- we know a little bit about some of the effects, and a little bit about where things happen, but almost no understanding at all about the mechanisms that are driving the whole thing.  But with research like Schartner and Timmermann's recent paper, we're finally getting a glimpse of the inner workings of that mysterious organ that lies between your ears, the one that is allowing you to read and understand this blog post right now.

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

I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

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



Saturday, January 16, 2021

Inventing Glastonbury

It must come as a shock to woo-woos to find out that some of their favorite wooful phenomena were actually invented by humans for purely down-to-earth reasons.

Take, for example, the Ouija board.  A lot of paranormal enthusiasts claim that the Ouija board is some kind of portal to the spirit world -- and an equal number of religious types think it's the gateway to hell.  Using it, they say, is just asking to be possessed by an evil demon.  Unfortunately for both contentions, the Ouija board was invented as a parlor game by a toy manufacturer named Elijah Bond in 1890.  Even the name is made up -- Bond stuck together the French and German words for "yes" and decided it would make a catchy name.  Which it is.  Better than the words for "no," anyhow, because "Nonnein" sounds kind of silly.

So finding out that the Ouija board was invented purely to make money is a little deflating to those who think it's some kind of tool for accessing the supernatural.  Which makes me wonder how the woo-woos are going to deal with the claim by archaeologists that the hype over Glastonbury is a 12th-century fabrication.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons IDS.photos from Tiverton, UK, Remains of Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset (3049676967), CC BY-SA 2.0]

If you're not up to date with woo-woo mysticism and don't know what the deal is over Glastonbury, it's a town in England that is considered to be one of the most "spiritual" places in the world, right up there with Ayers Rock in Australia, Sedona, Arizona, and Salem, Massachusetts.  Supposedly, Glastonbury is the place where Joseph of Arimathea fled after Jesus's crucifixion, and when he got there he thrust his walking stick into the ground, where it took root and now flowers every Christmas.

The problem is, the Glastonbury Thorn doesn't flower at Christmas, it flowers in the spring, like most hawthorns.  No, the faithful say; that's because the current thorn isn't the real thing, which was cut down as an idolatrous image during the Puritan era following the English Civil War.  Even so, there are people who take the whole thing awfully seriously, which is why the current tree (planted in 1951) has been repeatedly vandalized.

Then there's the King Arthur connection, because Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly where the Once and Future King was buried after his death at the hands of his cousin Mordred in the Battle of Salisbury Plain.  There's even an inscription on a stone cross in the Abbey that allegedly has an inscription dating back to the fifth century, and which mentions King Arthur by name.

In addition to all this, or perhaps because of it, Glastonbury (or more specifically the hill Glastonbury Tor that stands nearby) has been identified as being the world's most powerful convergence of "ley lines," lines of spiritual force that allegedly encircle the globe.  "[T]he landscape as a whole," we're told, "is imbued with a beauty, mystique and numinescence which has made it well loved over many centuries, and the haunt of many advanced souls."

So with all of this romantic folklore surrounding the spot, it's no wonder that people make pilgrimages to Glastonbury every year.  Which makes a paper published by a group of archaeologists at the University of Reading all the more devastating.

Because the study has shown that all of the mystical trappings surrounding the place were the invention of some twelfth-century monks who were trying to find a way to raise money when their monastery burned down.

Archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist and her team have spent years looking at both the documents and the structures that supposedly play into the legend.  And she has concluded that after the fire, which occurred in 1184, some enterprising monks decided to cash in on the increasing popularity of the Arthurian mythology (Geoffrey of Monmouth's seminal Historia Regum Brittaniae had only been completed some 46 years earlier, and was still immensely influential).  So they started a rumor that Glastonbury was where Arthur was buried, and that he'd been buried there because it was where Joseph of Arimathea planted his walking stick.  "Look!" they said.  "There's a hawthorn tree up on that hill!  That's the ticket!"

And thus the legend of the Holy Thorn was begun.

[Nota bene: yes, I know twelfth-century monks wouldn't have used the phrase "that's the ticket."  However, considering that they would also have been speaking Early Middle English, I think I'm allowed some poetic license, here.]

Anyway, Gilchrist and her team said that the stone cross was also the product of the same enterprising brothers, and had been fabricated to resemble earlier Anglo-Saxon and Celtic stone crosses, with the clever addition of an inscription mentioning Arthur by name.  And when they rebuilt the monastery, they made sure to make it of materials, and in a style, that made it look far older than it actually was, so the pilgrims (and the profits) kept rolling in.

As they still do, lo unto this very day.

It's kind of unfortunate, really.  I've always loved the Arthurian legends -- I grew up with tales of Merlin and Gawain and Morgan le Fay and the rest of them, not to mention my discovery during my teen years of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, which led to Much Rejoicing.  The idea that the whole thing might be some twelfth-century hoax is kind of sad.

You have to wonder how all the woo-woos will respond.  My guess is, they won't.  They'll ignore the current study just like they've avoided anything remotely factual in the past, and keep on claiming that ley lines and the rest are real.  They haven't based anything on evidence yet, so why start now?

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Friday, January 15, 2021

Dire straits

During my junior year as an undergraduate, I had to take a humanities elective as part of my degree requirements and settled upon a class in archaeology, a subject which had always been an interest of mine.  The course description sounded pretty cool, and I thought it would be a fun challenge to take on.

However, I had not reckoned with the fact that the professor, one Dr. Servello, seemed to have a screw loose.  I found this out early on when one day he caught a glimpse of some genealogical charts in my binder (part of a family tree project I was doing as an anniversary gift for my parents), and added that to the fact that I wore a St. Christopher medal, and concluded from this that I was a member of a cult.

He kept me after class that day to ask me what my cult believed.  When I protested that in fact, I did not belong to a cult, he became genuinely concerned and said, "No, no, you don't need to be afraid to tell me!  I'm fascinated by alternative belief systems!"

But the most striking thing about Dr. Servello was that he never admitted to being wrong.  About anything.  He had a nearly Trumpian ability to continue arguing his point even after having hard evidence that he'd misspoken thrown into his face.  One time he argued for a half-hour over the correct pronunciation of a Chinese archaeological site -- with a student from China.  In very short order we learned not to bother contradicting him about any of the wacky things he said, because it never accomplished anything but wasting inordinate amounts of class time.

But as in any group, in the class there was That Guy.  He felt duty-bound to challenge Dr. Servello every time he made shit up, which was usually several times per class.  But the one that stands out in my memory was the epic argument that ensued when Dr. Servello was telling us about dire wolves.

"It's one of the largest predatory mammals ever," he said, with great conviction.  "They were fourteen feet tall at the shoulder."

Simultaneously all of the two-dozen-odd students in the class gave Dr. Servello the human equivalent of the Canine Head Tilt of Confusion.  Even so, most of us just added it to our growing list of bizarre Servello-isms, and were prepared to let it go.

But not That Guy.

"That's impossible," he said flatly.

"No, no, they were huge!" Dr. Servello insisted.  "Biggest predatory mammal ever!"

"That's impossible," That Guy said through clenched teeth.  "A wolf that big could look into a second-story window."

There followed a good forty-five minute-long argument, ending with That Guy grabbing his binder and storming out of class.

I related the story to some friends later.  These friends always waited with bated breath for me to come out of archaeology class, to see what lunatic pronouncements Dr. Servello had made that day.  This one, however, was impressive even by comparison to his previous efforts.

"That," one of my friends said reverently, "is one big bow-wow."

The topic comes up because while dire wolves are not fourteen feet high at the shoulder (which, for the record, would make them taller than a full-grown male African elephant) they are a fascinating species.  They were pretty impressive animals -- adults averaged a meter high at the shoulder and a little over two meters from tip to tail -- but their skeletal morphology led taxonomists to believe they were simply larger cousins of the North American gray wolf, descended from a parental species that had crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Eurasia.  But that idea is being challenged by some new analysis of DNA from dire wolves who were trapped in the La Brea Tar Seeps forty-some-odd thousand years ago, and a comparison with gray wolf DNA supports a conclusion that the last common ancestry of the two species was around 5.7 million years ago, before the ancestors of today's gray wolves had crossed into North America.

Dire wolf skeleton in the Sternberg Museum, Hays, Kansas [Image licensed under the Creative Commons James St. John, Canis dirus Sternberg Museum, CC BY 2.0]

The research, which was the subject of a paper in Nature this week, suggests that the morphological similarities between gray wolves and dire wolves are due to convergent evolution -- the evolution of superficially similar traits in distantly-related species that are under the same selective pressures.  And of course, these two were starting out closer in structure anyhow; no one is doubting that dire wolves are canids.  But the DNA difference is striking enough that the researchers are proposing to take the dire wolf out of the genus Canis and place it in its own new genus -- Aenocyon, meaning "terrible wolf."

"These results totally shake up the idea that dire wolves were just bigger cousins of gray wolves," said paleontologist Grant Zazula, who was not involved in the new study, in an interview with Scientific American.  "The study of ancient DNA and proteins from fossil bones is rapidly rewriting the ice age and more recent history of North America’s mammals."

It is not, for the record, rewriting how big they were.  As terrible as Aenocyon was, it wouldn't have towered over an elephant.  However, it is thought to have had the greatest bite force of any canid ever, and as it seems to have been a pack hunter, could take down some of the megaherbivores of its time -- giant ground sloths, North American camels and horses, bison... and even mastodons.

But like most of the Ice Age megafauna, the changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene put the dire wolf in dire straits.  They're thought to have persisted in areas of the northern Rockies as little as 9,500 years ago, but when the big prey animals began to disappear, selection favored their smaller (now thought to be distant) cousins, gray wolves.

Which is kind of a shame.  They were impressive beasts, even if they weren't the big bow-wows Dr. Servello claimed they were.  And it's nice to clarify at least a little more of their genetics and history, turning a lens on a species we thought we understood.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Thursday, January 14, 2021

5G fantasies

A week ago, I got my first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity because I work part-time for a home health agency providing companion care to homebound seniors, and even though I'm currently furloughed because of the pandemic I still qualified -- and I certainly wasn't going to turn it down.  I'm happy to say that all I had as a side effect was some very minor arm soreness the next day, but otherwise, it was no big deal.

However, my mentioning this to a friend prompted an immediate concerned eyebrow-raise.  "Didn't you hear that the vaccine is being used to implant 5G surveillance microchips?" she asked me.  "You're not worried?"

I reassured her that no, I wasn't worried, and in any case if the FBI wants to surveil me, they can knock themselves out because it would be the most boring surveillance job ever.

First FBI Agent: What's he doing now?

Second FBI Agent: Same thing as for the last five days.  He's sitting at his computer drinking coffee and watching funny dog videos.

First FBI Agent: I thought this guy was a writer? 

Second FBI Agent: Supposedly he is.  Have you seen him actually write anything?

First FBI Agent: Well, four days ago he added three lines to his manuscript, deleted two of them, then told his wife that evening he'd been "very productive."

Secondly, even if I was up to no good, I'm not really that confident the FBI would catch on.  These are the same people who had several days before the Capitol riots where the far right was posting stuff all over Parler like, "Wow, that's really some riot we have planned for the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, isn't it?" and "Here's a list of the people who are signed up as drivers when we go to the riot where we intend to break into the Capitol and threaten lawmakers" and "Here I am in my home at 512 Swamp Hollow Road, East Bunghole, Tennessee, planning to riot in the Capitol!  I bet the FBI will never know!" and still claimed they didn't have enough warning to prevent it.  And they took days afterward to start arresting people despite the fact that numerous rioters took selfies and videoed themselves breaking shit and vandalizing the place, and then posted them online.

Of course, the fact that the rioters did that sort of thing points to general low intelligence on their part, too.  I'm not saying I'm any kind of genius, but I do know that if I was inclined to break the law, I would not video myself with my phone and post it to my Twitter with the hashtag #CriminalActivityFTW. 

Anyhow, I tried to explain to my friend that there's no way you could inject a microchip via a vaccine, and she said she'd "seen it online" and that "they said it was possible."  So I said as gently as I could that it was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but that I'd look into it, and with a very small amount of digging found out that one of the most widely-circulated claims showed a circuit diagram alleged to be of the top-secret injectable microchip, but turned out to be the circuit diagram for a Boss Metal Zone MT-2 guitar distortion pedal where they'd cropped out words that would have been a dead giveaway, like "treble" and "bass" and "volume" and "footswitch."

Just for the record, I can vouch for the fact that the nurse who gave me the COVID-19 vaccine did not inject me with an electric guitar pedal.


You know, what strikes me about all this is that the caliber of conspiracy theories has really been going to hell lately.  They're not even trying to make them plausible any more.  Back in my day, you had your Faked Moon Landing Conspiracy and your Hollow Earth Conspiracy and your Roswell Alien Conspiracy and your The CIA Killed JFK Conspiracy, which were quality.  Now?  With QAnon in charge of our conspiracies, we're being told that a pizza parlor with no basement has a pedophilia ring operating out of its basement.

So I'm issuing a challenge to you yahoos to up your game.  I mean, really.  Is this the best you can do?  Because if it is, I want a refund.

But now I better wind this up and get back to watching funny dog videos.  This novel isn't gonna write itself, and besides, I gotta make the guys in the FBI surveillance van earn their paycheck.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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