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.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Rock falls and sea levels

Why do we tolerate abject stupidity in our leaders?

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

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

Every year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Friday, May 18, 2018

Bugs for dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Thursday, May 17, 2018

Faces in the woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The second self

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Space mollusks

There's a logical fallacy called the Argument from Personal Incredulity.  The idea here is that you look at something from nature, and find it extraordinary -- beautiful, weird, complex, intricate, or merely bizarre.  Faced with this strange and wonderful thing, you respond, "I can't imagine how this could have come about naturally.  Therefore, it has to be the work of ______."  (Fill in the blank with your favorite deus ex machina, be it gods, aliens, or some other superintelligent power.)

The problem with this, of course, is that saying "I can't imagine how this could happen" only tells you one thing: that you can't imagine how this could happen.  It's not proof of anything else except that whatever-it-is deserves further study.

This approach also gets you into some deep philosophical waters when the extraordinary trait of the example in question is beauty.  You hear people say that gorgeous sunsets or fields of flowers in bloom or whatever are evidence for god's hand in nature, but it conveniently glosses over all the natural things that aren't so nice.  If bunnies and butterflies are god's work, then so are ticks and tapeworms, you know?  Eric Idle pointed this out in his wonderful parody of the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful," "All Things Dull and Ugly" -- pointing out that "the Lord God made the lot."

I ran into an example of this -- in a scientific journal, no less -- yesterday, with the paper "Cause of Cambrian Explosion -- Terrestrial or Cosmic?" in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology.  Written by a team of nineteen scientists, it looks at the remarkable expansion of biodiversity that occurred at the beginning of the Cambrian Era, but also considers an evolutionary conundrum -- how the octopus and other cephalopods ended up so much more intelligent than their mollusk relatives.  I'll cut to the chase and tell you their conclusion:
In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion – life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe are not an auspicious way to start.  They're both associated with the idea of panspermia, that life on Earth was seeded here from outer space, and they don't seem particularly concerned with the fact that there are other, more plausible explanations.  Wickramasinghe especially is associated with a lot of fringe-y claims, such as that the Archaeopteryx type fossil is a forgery and that the virus that caused the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic was extraterrestrial in origin.  He testified for the defense in the 1981 creationism trial in Arkansas, making statements about the "Intelligent Design" model that his colleagues called "absurd" and "ignorant."  (In fact, in papers that mention Wickramasinghe, the phrase most often associated with his name is "his claims have been completely rejected by the scientific community.")

Of course, for some people, being rejected by the establishment is a sign of being brilliant, a maverick, someone whose ideas are ahead of their time.  Their sticking to their guns turns their claims into something of a crusade.  Fewer people, it seems, conclude that the renegade in question is simply wrong.

Which is how we now have a paper in support of Wickramasinghe and Hoyle -- saying, basically, that we have found the extraterrestrials, and they are us.

The part of the paper that addresses viruses is at least looking at a problem for which the standard model has no particularly good explanation.  Viruses are odd beasts, obligate parasites that hijack a host cell and use their cellular machinery to make more copies of themselves.  Some, the retroviruses (HIV being the best-known example) actually insert a bit of their genetic material into the host's cells, rendering infection more or less permanent.  (We have dozens, possibly hundreds, of retroviral remnants in our own DNA, and they have been implicated in a variety of diseases including multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.)

But then they start talking about octopuses, and leap right off the logical cliff:
[T]he genetic divergence of Octopus from its ancestral coleoid sub-class is very great, akin to the extreme features seen across many genera and species noted in Eldridge-Gould punctuated equilibria patterns (below).  Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch colour and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene.  The transformative genes leading from the consensus ancestral Nautilus (e.g. Nautilus pompilius) to the common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) to Squid (Loligo vulgaris) to the common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form – it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.  Such an extraterrestrial origin as an explanation of emergence of course runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm.
The last bit, at least, is undeniable.  They go on to add:
One plausible explanation, in our view, is that the new genes [i.e., differences between the octopus genome and that of their nearest relatives] are likely new extraterrestrial imports to Earth - most plausibly as an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized Octopus eggs. 
Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus' sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago.
The problem here is that their entire argument rests on two things: (1) the lack of a good fossil record of the octopus; and (2) their amazing intelligence.  So we're adding the Argument from Ignorance ("I don't know the explanation, so it must be ____") to the Argument from Personal Incredulity ("It's pretty cool, so it must be ____") to the paucity of the fossil record (not only for octopuses, but for most life forms) and concluding that the octopus came to Earth via frozen eggs from outer space.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

There's also a serious scientific stumbling block about all this, and it's one the authors don't address.  It's the same problem faced by claims of human/alien hybridization; if life did evolve on other worlds, there is no reason in the world that it would necessarily encode its genetic information the same way we do.  Something like DNA or RNA is probably fairly likely; the nucleotides (building blocks) of these molecules are relatively easy to synthesize, and RNA has the unusual characteristic of being autocatalytic (it can catalyze its own chemical reactions).  But the DNA code chart -- the master recipe book by which our genetic material is decoded, and directs all of our cellular processes -- appears to be entirely arbitrary.

And yet... it is shared by all life forms on Earth.  Including the octopus.  Good evidence that we all came from a common ancestor -- and a tough thing to overcome if you think that some terrestrial life forms came from elsewhere in the galaxy.

So if we have scant evidence for something, we don't engage in wild speculation -- we look for more evidence.  You can't base a valid conclusion either on ignorance or awe.  And to cherry-pick a few odd examples of creatures the Darwinian model hasn't fully explained, and use them to support your claim that life's evolutionary drivers came from outer space, is nothing more than fancily-worded confirmation bias.

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






Monday, May 14, 2018

Fast forward

In today's contribution from the Unintentional Irony Department, we have: a study out of the University of Buffalo that examined the pervasiveness of false information on Twitter, which a Twitter user summarized incorrectly, then posted the inaccurate summary...  on Twitter.

The study, which appeared in the May 11 issue of the journal Natural Hazards, looked at the responses of people who interacted with tweeted false information following Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon shootings.  What they found was interesting, if a little disheartening.  Of the people who chose to respond to the false tweets:
  • 86 to 91 percent of the users fostered the spread of the false news, either by retweeting or "liking" the original tweet;
  • 5 to 9 percent looked for confirmation, most often by retweeting and requesting anyone who had accurate information to respond.
  • 1 to 9 percent were dubious right from the get-go, and said they had information indicating the original tweet was incorrect.
So it's kind of discouraging that given tweets the researchers knew were false, only around ten percent of the people who chose to respond even asked the question of whether the content of the tweet was factually correct.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ibrahim.ID, Socialmedia-pm, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Jun Zhuang, lead author of the study, was up front about how alarming this is.  "These findings are important because they show how easily people are deceived during times when they are most vulnerable and the role social media platforms play in these deceptions," Zhuang said.  However, he also pointed out what was the first thing that occurred to me when I read the study.  "[However], it's possible that many people saw these tweets, decided they were inaccurate and chose not to engage."

Which, despite my frequently combative attitude here at Skeptophilia, is how I usually approach that sort of thing online.  I've found that posting rebuttals to total strangers seldom accomplishes anything, more often than not resulting in your being called a know-it-all or a deluded mouthpiece for the [fill in with your favorite political party] or simply a hopeless dunderhead.  So my guess is -- and it is just a surmise -- that the people who actually chose to interact with the tweets in question were (1) a minority, and (2) heavily skewed toward ones who already had a tendency to believe the claim in question.

In other words, yet another example of confirmation bias.

Which is what makes where I found out about this study even more wryly amusing.  Because I got the link to the Zhuang et al. study on Twitter -- from a tweet that said, "STUDY SHOWS THAT 90% OF WHAT YOU READ ON TWITTER IS FALSE!"

Well, as I hope I don't need to point out to loyal readers of Skeptophilia, that is actually not what the study said.  Not even remotely.  So a tweet saying that 90% of what's on Twitter is false was false itself.

And, for the record, I didn't respond to it, unless you consider this post a response, which I suppose it is.

What compounds this whole thing is the tendency of people to retweet (or repost) links after only having read the headline -- witness the Science Post article with the headline, "Study: 70% of Facebook Users Only Read the Headline of Science Stories Before Commenting," which was shared all over the place, despite the fact that the article contained no links to any studies, just repeated the claim in the headline, and followed up with several iterations of "Lorem Ipsum:"
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.  Nullam consectetur ipsum sit amet sem vestibulum eleifend.  Donec sed metus nisi.  Quisque ultricies nulla a risus facilisis vestibulum.  Ut luctus feugiat nisi, eget molestie magna faucibus vitae.  Morbi luctus orci eget semper fringilla.  Proin vestibulum neque a ultrices aliquet.  Fusce imperdiet purus in euismod accumsan.  Suspendisse potenti.  Nullam efficitur feugiat nibh, at pellentesque mauris.  Suspendisse potenti.  Maecenas efficitur urna velit, ut gravida enim vestibulum eu.  Nullam suscipit finibus tellus convallis lacinia.  Aenean ex nunc, posuere sit amet mauris ac, venenatis efficitur nulla.  Nam auctor eros eu libero rutrum, ac tristique nunc tincidunt.  Mauris eu turpis rutrum mi scelerisque volutpat.
I wonder how many people shared that article after only reading the headline.

Speaking of irony.

So anyway, I'll just beseech you once again to read the whole article before you evaluate it, and evaluate the whole article before you share it.  Ask questions.  Look for supporting information.  Consult such fact-checking sites as Snopes and PolitiFact.  Consider source bias -- and the natural tendency to confirmation bias we all have.

Because the last thing we need is more people blindly fast-forwarding fake news.

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






Saturday, May 12, 2018

Firing the watchmen

One of the most maddening things about this administration -- and there are many options to choose from -- is the insidious way they're hamstringing scientific research.

It's not just science denial.  That's bad enough.  Claiming that climate change, evolution, and the documented harmful effects of pollution are false has led to dreadful policy choices and (in the case of ecological malfeasance) put innocent lives at risk.

But they've found a sneakier way to deflect people's focus on reality; simply pull the plug on the projects that keep track of it.

This was done, to little fanfare and nearly zero coverage by the press, last week, to NASA's Carbon Monitoring System.  The project, which cost an estimated ten million dollars a year, not only kept track of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but studied sources and sinks for carbon worldwide (including methane, which is an increasing concern from thawing permafrost, and which has a higher greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide does).

So the powers that be have moved past arguing that the models are wrong, or the data flawed; they've simply stopped us from gathering the data in the first place.

[Image courtesy of NASA]

Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University, called this an "ironic" time to shut down the system.  There are two new, and more sensitive, carbon monitoring devices scheduled for launch -- one this year (to be mounted on the International Space Station), and one next (the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory), and these will now be tabled.  So Jacob finds it ironic because the funding is cut just before we added some tools to our kit that would allow far more refined measurements of the carbon levels in the atmosphere.  Me, I don't think it's ironic at all, I think it's pure cunning.  Stop the scientists from bolstering the data and their atmospheric models.  Prevent them from producing integrated theories that might make predictions leading to potential strategies for dealing with climate change.  It's like firing all the watchmen, and then acting surprised when your store gets robbed.

Or, as Paul Voosen put it, writing for Science:  "You can't manage what you don't measure."

There's no doubt about where this is all coming from; the pro-corporate, pro-fossil-fuel leanings of the current administration have never been in doubt.  Along the way, they've made sure that the voices of industry (Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Rick Perry, Doug Domenech) are appointed to influential positions, and the voices of science are ignored, defunded, shut down, silenced, and harassed.  If you doubt the last-mentioned, look into the track record of Texas Representative Lamar Smith -- who, fortunately, is retiring this year, but who has spent damn near his entire career fostering doubt about climate change and other environmental issues, and making the lives miserable of any scientist who dares to claim the opposite.  Oh, he gives lip service to caring; earlier this year, Smith said he'd be fine addressing carbon dioxide levels and climate change -- but only if we do it by replacing fossil fuels with fusion technology.

Which doesn't exist yet, and which may not even be possible on a sufficient scale to provide the nation's energy needs.  And we'd only find out if it was feasible through scientific research, which Smith and his cronies have systematically shut down.

So the fossil fuel CEOs make money hand over fist, and then they buy the votes of politicians like Smith who are more concerned with their bank accounts than with the long-term habitability of the Earth.  And the scientists -- who, of all of us, have the most reason for sounding the alarm, and evidence to back them up -- are being sidelined.

All of this leaves me feeling helpless.  I know that optimists keep talking about a "Blue Wave" that's going to come in November and sweep away all of the elected officials who have become nothing more than Trump's professional ass-kissers.  Me, I'm not quite so sanguine.  Not only do we have a powerful, deeply entrenched corporate/industrial superstructure that is tickled pink by the environmental deregulation, pro-business tax legislation, and defunding of research, there's the dictatorship-style State-Sponsored Media that Fox News has become, presenting only the cheerful party line coming from the White House and ignoring anything that could be considered a criticism of the Dear Leader's agenda.  So you've got the rich and powerful pulling the strings, and a deluded and ignorant slice of Americans never hearing what the actual effects are -- and voting the same lobby-bought politicians back into power over and over and over.

I keep hoping that people will wake up, but I'm reminded of what one of my Environmental Science students wrote, many years ago, and which seems a fitting, if depressing, way to conclude: "It'd be nice if humans based their decisions on science, but that's not what most people do.  In this case, it's going to take something really horrible to bring people to their senses -- not just one drought, one storm, one killer heat wave.  People are so sunk in short-term expediency and long-term self-delusion that it's going to take a global-scale catastrophe for them to frown, and say, 'Wait.  Maybe this was a bad idea.'  And not only does that mean that it'll come at the cost of millions of lives, it may not happen until it's too late to do anything to stop it."

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia is Flim-Flam!, by the grand old man of skepticism and critical thinking, James Randi.  Randi was a stage magician before he devoted his career to unmasking charlatans, so he of all people knows how easy it is to fool the unwary.  His book is a highly entertaining exercise in learning not to believe what you see -- especially when someone is trying to sell you something.