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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Misery loves creativity

I have bad news for those of you who enjoy being creative: a new study has suggested that a key ingredient in crafting timeless masterpieces is unhappiness.

As a fiction writer, I've been fascinated for years with the question of where creativity comes from.  While some of the ideas that have inspired my writing come from readily identifiable sources, a lot of my stories had their genesis in the mysterious "it just popped into my head" phenomenon.  I've talked to a lot of writers about this, and many of them have had the experience of feeling as if their inspiration came, literally, from outside of their own minds.

And like many writers (and artists and musicians) I have had serious dry spells, when the inspiration simply didn't want to come.  I keep writing through those -- I've found that the best way to push through writer's block is to throw some discipline at it -- but I won't say that what I produce during those times has much of the spark I look for when I critique my own work.  The best writing comes during times when the ideas leap into my mind unannounced, from heaven-only-knows-where.

But take a look at this study, which indicates that what I may be missing in my life is a good dose of plain, old-fashioned misery.

Entitled "How Are You, My Dearest Mozart?  Well-being and Creativity of Three Famous Composers Based on their Letters," this paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics by economist and statistician Karol Jan Borowiecki of the University of Southern Denmark analyzes the letters and diaries of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt, and attempts to correlate the use of words indicating level of well-being with their productivity.

Not only their productivity in quantity, but in quality.  He looked at the timing of composition of works that "made a significant contribution to the classical canon," not just how many compositions they'd been able to churn out per month.  And the highest productivity, both in quality and quantity, came during the times these composers were most likely to use words like "sadness," "hurt," "grief," and "nervous."

"An increase in negative emotions by about 36.7 percent inspires one additional important composition the following year," Borowiecki writes.  "Since depression is strongly related to sadness, and is sometimes even defined as a state of chronic sadness, this result comes very close to previous claims made by psychologists that depression leads to increased creativity."

Factors that tended to decrease creative output were being in a happy marriage and finding a permanent position with its attendant job security.

Don't tell him to cheer up -- maybe he's working on a masterpiece.  [Image is in the Public Domain]

As an aside, I recall hearing a while back on my favorite classical music radio station that there was an inquiry done into which of the famous composers had the most happy, well-balanced lives.  Some were clearly pretty awful -- Robert Schumann, who ended his life in an insane asylum, comes to mind -- but it was interesting that the winner of the happiest life contest was Franz Josef Haydn.

He of the 104 full-length symphonies. 

So Borowiecki's result is certainly not the whole story.  On the other hand, it's made me wonder if the reason I've had the attention span of a hyperactive fruit fly recently every time I sit down to get some writing done on my current work-in-progress is because I'm enjoying the beautiful spring weather too much.  Should I tell my wife that I'm sick of her being nice to me and bringing me glasses of wine and giving me shoulder rubs, that it'd be better for my muse if she gave me the silent treatment, or just smacked me in the head every so often?  Maybe even the companionship of my ever-cheerful dog is dampening my creativity.  Maybe I should get a pet that is perfectly content viewing me with sneering disdain, or even ignoring my existence completely.

Like a cat, or something.

As interesting as this study is, I'm not sure that's the approach, frankly.  All of us creative types see ebbs and flows of our output, and the fact that I've had some unproductive moments in the last few months shouldn't concern me.  Nor, I think, should it make me seek out ways to be more miserable.  It might be that the dark side of human existence can generate beautiful works of art, writing, or music -- listen to the second movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata for a wonderful example of heart-wringing pathos -- but without joy as an inspiration, we'd never have had the "Bergamasca" from Ottorino Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, my vote for one of the most purely exuberant moments in all of classical music.

So it's a mixed bag, as you might expect.  The most creative minds weave the entirety of human experience into their works, and draw on all aspects of emotion to color what they create.  We may be no closer to understanding where creativity itself comes from, but if we can take our pain and sometimes distill it into something beautiful, at least it gives us something to carry us forward when we're at our lowest points.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: Arik Kershenbaum's The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves.  Kershenbaum tackles a question that has fascinated me for quite some time; is evolution constrained?  By which I mean, are the patterns you see in most animals on Earth -- aerobic cellular respiration, bilateral symmetry, a central information processing system/brain, sensory organs sensitive to light, sound, and chemicals, and sexual reproduction -- such strong evolutionary drivers that they are likely to be found in alien organisms?

Kershenbaum, who is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, looks at how our environment (and the changes thereof over geological history) shaped our physiology, and which of those features would likely appear in species on different alien worlds.  In this fantastically entertaining book, he considers what we know about animals on Earth -- including some extremely odd ones -- and uses that to speculate about what we might find when we finally do make contact (or, at the very least, detect signs of life on an exoplanet using our earthbound telescopes).

It's a wonderfully fun read, and if you're fascinated with the idea that we might not be alone in the universe but still think of aliens as the Star Trek-style humans with body paint, rubber noses, and funny accents, this book is for you.  You'll never look at the night sky the same way again.

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



Monday, April 19, 2021

I felt the earth move under my feet

Some of you probably recall the highly scientific 1990 nature documentary Tremors, wherein Kevin Bacon has to battle gigantic worms that can tunnel through rock, and which have evolved such sophisticated sensory organs that they can feel your footsteps and follow you until an opportune moment to pop up and eat you for lunch, yet are still stupid enough to die from running into the wall of an aqueduct or launching themselves out of a cliff face in the fashion of Wile E. Coyote being shot from the barrel of an Acme E-Z Cannon.


The reason this comes up is because of a piece of research in the journal Geology, which I can confidently assert would have reminded no one else in the entire world of Tremors, but I'm not responsible for how my brain works, and I figure if on some level you didn't enjoy free association, you wouldn't be here.  Anyhow, the paper is titled "Eruption Risks from Covert Silicic Magma Bodies," which as you can tell from the title has zero to do with giant carnivorous worms, but does have to do with the fact that there seem to be dangerous and undetected pockets of magma underground that can be located by their seismic traces.

(See the connection?  See?  The tagline for Tremors is "They say there's nothing new under the sun, but under the ground...".  I rest my case.)

What spurred the four geologists who wrote the paper -- Shane M. Rooyakkers, John Stix, and Kim Berlo (of McGill University), Maurizio Petrelli (of Università degli Studi di Perugia), and Freysteinn Sigmundsson (of the University of Iceland - Reykjavík) -- were three instances of what they euphemistically call "Unintentional encounters with silicic magma at ~2-2.5 km. in depth," which is science-speak for some people at a drill site looking into the hole and then yelling, "FUCKING HELL WE JUST HIT A MAGMA CHAMBER."  The three sites were on Krafla (in Iceland), Menengai (in Kenya), and Kilauea (in Hawaii), and in each case was a shock because the areas had been studied extensively and the magma chambers they hit hadn't previously been detected.

Magma chambers are usually found by their seismic properties; the sound waves from explosions, and the pressure waves from earthquakes, travel at a different speed in solids than they do in liquids, so by comparing how long it took for those waves to arrive at detectors in different locations, you can infer how much of the intervening material is liquid and how much is solid.  (That's a vast oversimplification, but the gist of it, anyhow.)  Given how good this technique is, geologists thought they had all of the near-surface magma chambers pinpointed, so it was a significant shock to find out that there were some out there that we didn't know about.

Another piece of this that raised red flags for me was that word "silicic" in the title.  Magma usually comes in two flavors, mafic and felsic (or silicic).  Mafic magma is high in magnesium and iron, hardens into dark-colored rocks like basalt, and when it's molten it's highly fluid, like the rivers of lava you probably think of when you picture a volcano.  Felsic magma is high in silica and feldspar, hardens into light-colored rocks like granite and rhyolite, and is very viscous and thick when it's molten -- so volcanoes powered by a felsic magma chamber often build up so much pressure beneath that blob of sticky glop that when they erupt, it's explosive.  (Examples are Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and La Soufrière -- currently erupting on the island of Saint Vincent.)

So an undetected near-surface magma chamber filled with felsic/silicic magma is not good news.  People are walking around without realizing it on top of what amounts to a giant superheated bomb.

The 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA]

"In traditional approaches to volcano monitoring, a lot of emphasis is placed on knowing where magma is and which magma bodies are active," said study lead author Shane Rooyakkers, in an interview with Science Daily.  "Krafla is one of the most intensely-monitored and instrumented volcanoes in the world.  They've thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it in terms of geophysics.  And yet we still didn't know there was this rhyolitic magma body sitting at just two kilometers' depth that's capable of producing a hazardous eruption...  So the concern in this case would be that you have a shallow rhyolitic magma that you don't know about, so it hasn't been considered in hazards planning.  If it's hit by new magma moving up, you might have a much more explosive eruption than you were anticipating."

Which is a lot worse than a bunch of giant carnivorous earthworms.

Anyhow, that's our unsettling piece of scientific research for today.  The good news is that it's not like these magma chambers are scattered about everywhere; they still seem to occur only near active volcanoes.  So it's not like an eruption is likely to take place in the middle of Newark, or anything, which is kind of a shame, because an erupting volcano in Newark would probably be considered urban renewal.  But you never know.  Even Kevin Bacon got taken off guard by what's underground.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: Arik Kershenbaum's The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves.  Kershenbaum tackles a question that has fascinated me for quite some time; is evolution constrained?  By which I mean, are the patterns you see in most animals on Earth -- aerobic cellular respiration, bilateral symmetry, a central information processing system/brain, sensory organs sensitive to light, sound, and chemicals, and sexual reproduction -- such strong evolutionary drivers that they are likely to be found in alien organisms?

Kershenbaum, who is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, looks at how our environment (and the changes thereof over geological history) shaped our physiology, and which of those features would likely appear in species on different alien worlds.  In this fantastically entertaining book, he considers what we know about animals on Earth -- including some extremely odd ones -- and uses that to speculate about what we might find when we finally do make contact (or, at the very least, detect signs of life on an exoplanet using our earthbound telescopes).

It's a wonderfully fun read, and if you're fascinated with the idea that we might not be alone in the universe but still think of aliens as the Star Trek-style humans with body paint, rubber noses, and funny accents, this book is for you.  You'll never look at the night sky the same way again.

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



Saturday, April 17, 2021

Overlooking simplicity

In the Tao Te Ching, Chinese philosopher (and founder of Taoism) Lao Tse writes, "To attain knowledge, add things every day; to attain wisdom, remove things every day."

There are a couple of interesting pieces to this concept.  First, that knowledge does not necessarily confer wisdom.  The implication is that knowledge (by itself) is less desirable than understanding, and understanding less desirable than wisdom.  If so, this definitely has some bearing on how science is taught in public schools -- often as a list of vocabulary words and definitions that do little more than scratch the surface of what's out there to learn.

Second, that doing a mental decluttering is better than trying to figure things out by jamming more stuff in.  Here, I'm reminded of what happens in my fiction writing when I'm at an impasse.  Slamming my fists against the obstacle almost never works; what frequently does is doing something else entirely, especially something stress-clearing like going for a run or playing with my dogs.  As counterintuitive as it might be, it seems like ceasing to think about the problem at all frees my brain up to figure out a solution.

How exactly that works on a neurophysiological level, I have no idea.

Lao Tse by Nicholas Roerich (1943) [Image is in the Public Domain]

As more support for Lao Tse's observation, consider the paper in Nature this week called, "People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes," by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales, and Leidy Klotz of the University of Virginia, which looked at another facet of this same issue -- that when approaching a solution to a complex problem, people often fail to consider solutions that require removing pieces of it or ceasing to do certain actions.  The authors write:

Improving objects, ideas or situations—whether a designer seeks to advance technology, a writer seeks to strengthen an argument or a manager seeks to encourage desired behaviour—requires a mental search for possible changes.  We investigated whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components.  People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives.  Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations.  Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes when the task did not (versus did) cue them to consider subtraction, when they had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy or when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load.  Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.

We're so well-trained by years and years of education that the way to find a solution to a problem is to throw more stuff at it that we don't even think of looking at solutions that require simplification.

"Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort," study co-author Benjamin Converse said, in an interview with Science Daily.  "Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all."

Now, there's a caveat here; not all problems have simple solutions.  When I was a teacher, I used to call this the "why don't we just...?" approach.  I remember students saying, "Why don't we just use chemical reactions that absorb carbon dioxide to fix climate change?" (it's completely unfeasible to do this on a large enough scale to help), and "why don't we just pass laws protecting wilderness areas and make mass deforestation illegal?" (not only does this run afoul of private ownership and eminent domain laws, it causes problems with resource acquisition, and ignores the fact that most of the threatened wilderness in the world is outside of the United States and therefore out of our jurisdiction -- not to mention the elephant in the room of global, societally locked-in wealth inequity as the root problem).  

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

But the basic idea here is that the answer doesn't always lie in fixing things by doing more stuff, and the human mind doesn't tend to see those kinds of solutions as easily as ones that require further or more intense action.

So give it a try.  When you're facing a difficult problem, give a shot to a Marie-Kondo-esque simplification approach.  What could you remove (or stop doing) that might help solve the problem?  Maybe a mental decluttering would help in a lot of realms other than overcoming writers' block.

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Friday, April 16, 2021

Algae aura

Can I just say that I am sick unto death of people misrepresenting science?

Some scientist somewhere makes a discovery, and it seems to take only milliseconds before every woo-woo with a favorite loony idea about how the world works is using it to support their claims.  These people have taken confirmation bias and raised it to the level of performance art.

A long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a particularly good (or bad, as the case may be) example of this yesterday, in the form of an article by Michael Forrester called "People Can Draw Energy From Other People The Same Way Plants Do," that is apparently getting passed all over social media.  So let me illustrate my point by telling you what some of Forrester's conclusions from this scientific research are, and afterwards I'll tell you about the actual research itself.

See if you can connect the two.

Forrester says that we absorb "energies" from our surroundings.  He never defines what he means by "energy," but I'm pretty sure it's not the standard physics definition, because he includes stuff about being around "negative people."  He cites "psychologist and energy healer" Olivia Bader-Lee, who says:
This is exactly why there are certain people who feel uncomfortable in specific group settings where there is a mix of energy and emotions...  The human organism is very much like a plant, it draws needed energy to feed emotional states and this can essentially energize cells or cause increases in cortisol and catabolize cells depending on the emotional trigger...  Humans can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature.  That's why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people.
We're then given specific recommendations for how to "absorb and heal" efficiently.  These include:
  • Stay centered and grounded
  • Be in a state of non-resistance
  • Own your personal aura space
  • Give yourself an energy cleanse
  • Call back your energy
I was especially interested in the "energy cleanse" thing, and fortunately, Forrester tells us exactly how to accomplish this:
The color gold has a high vibration which is useful for clearing away foreign energy.  Imagine a gold shower nozzle at the top of your aura (a few feet above your head) and turn it on, allowing clear gold energy to flow through your aura and body space and release down your grounding.  You will immediately feel cleansed and refreshed.
So all I have to do is imagine it, eh?  Given that I spent 32 years working with teenagers, I wish I'd known that "owning your personal aura space" was something that would happen if I imagined it.  Teaching a room full of tenth graders is like trying to herd hyperactive puppies.  Since I found that yelling "BACK OFF" was seldom effective, it would have been nice if all I'd had to do was to picture my "aura space" (gold-colored, of course) and the teenagers would have been repelled backwards in a comical fashion, sort of like Yoda did to Count Dooku at the end of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

But I digress.


Okay. So you're probably wondering what scientific research led Forrester and Bader-Lee to come to this conclusion.

Ready?

The discovery by a team of scientists in the Biotechnology Department of Bielefeld University (Germany) that a species of algae can digest cellulose.

If you're going, "Um, but wait... but... how... what?" you should realize that I had exactly the same response.  I spent several minutes thinking that I had clicked on the wrong link. But no. In fact, Forrester even mentions the gist of the research himself:
Members of Professor Dr. Olaf Kruse’s biological research team have confirmed for the first time that a plant, the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, not only engages in photosynthesis, but also has an alternative source of energy: it can draw it from other plants.
And from this he deduces that all you have to do to be happy is to picture yourself underneath a gold shower nozzle.

I've seen some misrepresentations and far-fetched deductions before, but this one has to take the grand prize.

I get that people are always casting about looking for support for their favorite theories.  So as wacky as Forrester's pronouncements are, at least I see why he made them.  But what baffles me is how other people can look at what he wrote, and say, "Yes!  That makes complete sense!  Algae that can digest cellulose!  Therefore aura spaces and energetic quantum vibrations of happiness!

Okay, I admit that I can be a hardass rationalist at times.  But seriously, what are these people thinking?

Not much, is my guess.

So anyhow, watch out for those negative energies.  Those can be a bummer.  But if you're feeling like your vibrations are low, don't despair.  I hear that getting into psychic communication with algae can help.

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Thursday, April 15, 2021

The mental delete key

About ten years ago, some students in my AP Biology class decided to do an experiment on false memory as their final project.

The setup was simple and elegant.  One of the students sat behind a small card table on which there were two dozen objects of various types and sizes, initially covered by a cloth.  The test subject came in, sat down, and was told (s)he would be given a memory test at the end of three minutes' time to study the objects on the table.  The cloth was removed, the timer started.

At a minute and a half in, the other student running the study -- who until then had been offstage -- came in, picked up one of the objects, and walked off with it.  Naturally enough, the test subjects focused on which object she'd picked up.

When the three minutes were up, the test subject was read aloud a series of twelve questions about the experience.  The answers to only three of them mattered -- the first one and the last two:

  • Question 1: What object did the girl in the blue shirt remove from the table?
  • Question 11: The girl who came in and removed an object -- what color was her shirt?
  • Question 12: How do you know what color her shirt was?

You've probably already guessed that her shirt wasn't blue; in fact, it was brilliant red.  But 95% of the fairly sizable number of test subjects answered "blue."  Only two test subjects said "red;" several of them said "I don't remember."

But where it got seriously interesting was how the subjects who said "blue" answered question #12.  Because the vast majority of them said, "I remember seeing it."  Once again, there were only a couple of outliers who said "Because you told me it was blue in question #1," and one or two who said, "I'm not sure."  The remainder were convinced they remembered seeing it.  When informed that the other member of the scientific team had been wearing a red shirt, several people flat-out didn't believe it and asked that she come back and prove it to them.  One of them even accused her of having changed her shirt!

This has always been one of my favorite examples of how plastic and unreliable human memory is.  "I know it happened that way, I remember it" is remarkably thin ice.  My students' clever experiment is innocuous enough, but think of the role false memories could play in a court of law -- where someone's freedom, perhaps their life, depends on the people on the witness stand remembering what actually happened.

So that's kind of sobering.  But a study this week which appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives us some encouraging news; false memories are easier to eradicate than real memories -- indicating they may be stored differently in the brain, and don't get the same weight as memories of events that we really witnessed.

[Image "Brain/Memory" licensed under the Creative Commons © Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons]

In "Rich False Memories of Autobiographical Events Can Be Reversed," Aileen Oeberst (University of Hagen), Merle Madita Wachendörfer (Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien), Roland Imhoff (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz), and Hartmut Blank (University of Portsmouth) show us a simple protocol by which people can be induced to purge their brains of false or implanted memories.  They took a test group of 52 individuals whose parents had also agreed to participate.  Without being told what exactly was going on, the test subjects were given a period during which their parents recalled with them a series of childhood memories -- but in each case, two of the "memories" were false and the rest were not.  (Examples of false memories implanted were incidents like running away from home, getting lost, or being in a car accident -- more serious and emotion-laden than what shirt someone was wearing!)

As with previous experiments, the test subjects afterward were unable to tell apart the real memories from the false ones; both seemed to exist in their minds with equal intensity.  Then the researchers tried two approaches to eradicate the false memories: (1) alerting the test subjects to the possibility that their memories were false, and were due to other sources, such as family narratives; and (2) asking test subjects to describe how they know their memories were true (a little like the "How did you know her shirt was blue?" question my students asked).

Both of them worked, and more interesting still, memories of real events were unaffected when the researchers tried the same strategy on them.  Put differently, asking people to slow down and consider their brain's fallibility, and the sources of what they think they recall, had the effect of deleting false memories but not real ones.

Even more interesting was how persistent the effect was.  A one-year followup on the test subjects found that the implanted memories were virtually all gone -- asked whether an unreal event had happened in their childhood, almost all the volunteers rejected it.

"By raising participants' awareness of the possibility of false memories, urging them to critically reflect on their recollections and strengthening their trust in their own perspective, we were able to significantly reduce their false memories. Moreover, and importantly, this did not affect their ability to remember true events," said study senior author Hartmut Blank, in an interview with Science Daily.  "We designed our techniques so that they can principally be applied in real-world situations.  By empowering people to stay closer to their own truth, rather than rely on other sources, we showed we could help them realize what might be false or misremembered -- something that could be very beneficial in forensic settings."

Very encouraging indeed.  Nice to hear that our brains aren't quite as easily duped as we'd thought.  It does make me wonder, though, how these more-easily-eradicated false memories are encoded in the brain.  Is there a neurological reason why the false memories are susceptible to a mental delete key, and the real ones aren't?  What I'd love to see is a comparison of fMRI results of people recalling real and implanted memories.

Maybe a direction for a subsequent experiment.  But at least now we have some hope of sifting out the wheat from the chaff in our brains -- and remembering more accurately what really happened, even if it's just what color shirt someone was wearing.

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thus sayeth Rick Wiles

I have a question: how completely batshit insane does someone have to be before the far-right evangelical Christians will stop listening to them?

It probably will come as no shock that I'm referring here to Rick Wiles, who runs TruNews and his mouth with equal fervor.  Wiles has appeared here in Skeptophilia before, for such pinnacles of rationality as claiming the COVID-19 pandemic was a punishment sent by God because of the United States's support for LGBTQ people, and that if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, she'd have rounded up conservatives and put them in concentration camps.

Rick Wiles on one of his frequent insane rants

So expecting any kind of reasonable statement from Wiles is probably a forlorn hope, but even by his standards this week's contribution is way out there.  On this week's TruNews broadcast, he said that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be tortured until he admits that he conspired with the Chinese to create the COVID-19 virus and release it into an unsuspecting populace.

If you're thinking, "Wait... how can it be a punishment sent by God and a deliberate creation of Fauci and his cronies at the same time?", believe me, that's only the beginning of the questions you could ask.

First, lest you think I'm making this up, here are Wiles's exact words:

You’re a liar! You know what you did, Fauci.  You worked with the Chinese Communist Party for years, and you used our own taxpayer money to work on a coronavirus with bats.  And you did it behind our back, deceiving the American people, and you participated in the creation of this virus.  And I’ll say it again, Fauci.  You should be taken to Guantanamo Bay and waterboarded until you cough up the truth, including the names of the other traitors who have helped China damage the United States of America with this virus.

The next day, in case anyone thought he might have come to his senses upon reflection overnight, he basically said the same thing again.

Now, I'll admit up-front that I don't get the evangelical mentality.  To start out with, to buy it, you have to have a completely different standard for reliable evidence than I do.  But all the same... isn't there some point where even the holiest of holy rollers will sit back and say, "Hang on a moment.  This makes no sense whatsoever."?

Because if "jumping the shark" exists in the evangelical world, Wiles has just done a double backward somersault with an aerial cartwheel over the shark.  He's claiming that the guy who has been instrumental in directing our fight against this lethal virus is some kind of mad scientist who created the thing in the first place, and that the American government needs to torture him until he 'fesses up.  Why a virologist with a lifelong career of managing epidemics and saving lives would suddenly go off the rails and create a pandemic, Wiles hasn't told us.

What possible motivation would Fauci have to do this?  Job security?  Seems like there are better ways to keep yourself in business.

But honestly, it's probably not even worth my time to try to put a rational spin on this.  Wiles and his ilk -- such exemplars of sound thinking as Greg Locke, Jim Bakker, Kat Kerr, Dave Daubenmire, and Paula White -- seem to spew out whatever their own particular biases and opinions of the moment are, then add "thus sayeth the Lord" at the end.  Doesn't matter if it makes sense; the only things that matter is keeping their place in the public eye and keeping the donations rolling in.

But you do have to wonder how people can listen to this and nod and say "Right on!"  Isn't there a point, even for bible-thumping literalists, that they will hear something and say, "Okay, that guy is a complete lunatic"?  Or does the fact that they all hate the same people -- LGBTQ folks, minorities, atheists, refugees, liberals -- mean that the listeners will just accept everything else the preachers say as if it was a pronouncement from on high?

So I'm back to where I started: I don't get it.  I know, there's free speech and all, so I know Rick Wiles et al. have the right to air their opinions.  What baffles me is that there's anyone left to listen.

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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



Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Views of the block universe

In the beginning of my as-yet unpublished novel In the Midst of Lions, the character of Mary Hansard realizes one day that she can no longer tell apart the past and the future.

She has memories of both -- if you can call a mental picture of something from the future a memory -- and they both carry equal weight in her brain.  She can determine which is which only in the rare cases where she can verify if an event has occurred yet, such as her "memory" that a building in her neighborhood had burned down, when the (intact) building itself is right in front of her.  But in other cases, such as a conversation between her and a friend, she has no way to know whether it has already happened, or will happen in the future.

For Mary, there aren't three classes of events -- past, present, and future.  There are only two: present and not-present.  A good chunk of the first part of the book is an exploration of how that would affect someone psychologically.  (A summary: "not well.")

The funny thing is that there's nothing in this situation that specifically breaks the laws of physics.  (It's not accidental that I made the character of Mary a high school physics teacher.)  In 2019 I wrote about the peculiar and unresolved problem of "the arrow of time" -- that virtually all physical processes are time-reversible, meaning that they work equally well backwards and forwards.  A simple example is if you watched a video of a pool ball bouncing off the bumper of a billiards table, then ran it backward, there would be no obvious way to tell which was which.  (If you had a longer video, you might be able to tell, because friction with the table would bleed away energy from the ball, causing it to slow down -- so the forward version is the one that shows the ball slowing down, and the backward version is the one in which it speeds up.  This is the approach of the arrow of time problem from the angle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; if you want to know more, you can check out my post linked above.)

So in terms of physics, it's mystifying why we perceive an arrow of time, when it seems like there's no reason we shouldn't have equal access to both past and future.  "Time is an illusion," Albert Einstein said, "but it is a remarkably persistent one."

Things get even weirder when you start looking into physicist Hermann Minkowski's idea of a block universe, where the three dimensions of space and one of time are mapped onto a three-dimensional solid.  Picture it as a loaf of bread that you can slice at any angle.  The angle of the slice is determined by the relative speed of your reference frame in comparison to the reference frame of what you're looking at, but what it leads us to is that the present loses its simultaneity -- two events that are simultaneous in one reference frame might occur sequentially in another.  Pushed to its ultimate conclusion -- and it must be interjected at this point that once again, there is nothing about Minkowski's ideas that breaks any known law of physics -- this means that an event that is in the past for me might be in the future for you, and therefore all of temporal sequencing is relative.  Minkowski showed that you can model the universe as a block within which exists not only everything in space, but everything in time.  The fact that we haven't gotten to events in the future is no more remarkable than the fact that we haven't gotten to some locations in space yet.  They're still out there, they still exist, even if we haven't seen them.

Kind of casts a harsh light on the concept of free will, doesn't it?

In any case, the topic comes up not because of physics, but because of an article by science writer Eric Wargo over at the site Inner Traditions called "The Amazing Reality of Dream Precognition."  It's an unfortunate choice of titles, because the article is well written and way less woo-woo than it sounds.  Wargo is seriously trying to figure out if people have access to the future, specifically through dreams, and has a project going to do some citizen science and have a large number of people record their dreams, then sift through them to see if there are examples of actual precognition.

It's an interesting idea, although there are some difficulties.  One is that Wargo claims that a lot of dream precognition is symbolic in nature; for example, you might dream of seeing a photograph of a friend shattered into pieces, and soon after she is injured in a terrible automobile accident.  But this requires that we rely on our own interpretation of the symbols after the fact.  And if there's one thing I've learned from ten years of writing here at Skeptophilia, it's that humans are really good at remodeling what actually happened to fit with what they think happened.

That said, Wargo is going about things the right way.  One of the things that has plagued serious research into precognition is that you only know a dream (or thought) is precognitive after the event has occurred, at which point there's always the possibility that your memory of the allegedly precognitive event has been contaminated by your knowledge of what really happened.  Also, there's the unfortunate fact that there are lots of cases of outright falsification.  If the records are made beforehand, this reduces the likelihood of this sort of thing, although it still requires that there be some kind of rigorous standard for keeping track of when the records were written down relative to the event they allegedly predicted.

So the idea is interesting, to say the least, and I need to keep in mind that my inclination to say "this is impossible" is itself a bias.  Even the lack of a mechanism for precognition -- something about which I've written before -- sort of evaporates if Minkowski was right about the block universe.  It still might not explain how you and I, both on the same planet moving at the same speed in the same reference frame, have access to different slices of the spacetime loaf, but at least it takes away one of the most consistent objections, which is that the future is fluid and therefore precognition would constitute looking at something that has no physical reality.

Reminds me of the "fixed points in time" in Doctor Who.  Maybe the truth is that everything is a fixed point in time, not just big events like the eruption of Pompeii.

So I'll be interested to see what Wargo comes up with.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about the whole thing, as counterintuitive as it may seem to me.  If he can come up with actual evidence of precognition, dream or otherwise, it'll force me to re-evaluate a good chunk of how I think the world works.  And my character of Mary Hansard in In the Midst of Lions may turn out to be a rather alarming case of Plato's belief that "art mimics life."

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

If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

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