Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The mystery of the monolith

Back when I was a teacher, I was often the first person to arrive at the high school in the morning.  Not only am I a morning person, but it was really critical for me to have that quiet time to get prepared for class, get my thoughts together, and (most importantly) have a cup of coffee before the noisy hordes of students arrived.

I think it was about eight years ago, near the end of a school year (so mid-June-ish), that I parked my car in the otherwise empty parking lot and made my way into the dark, quiet hallway of the science wing.  My mind was in drift-mode, not thinking about much at all, when I unlocked my classroom door and switched the lights on.

And stopped dead in my tracks, my mouth agape.

In the front of my classroom was a large black monolith, just shy of three meters tall.  As I stood there, staring, there came over the loudspeakers the unmistakable first chords of the iconic theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is one of the only times in my life that I have been wide awake and given serious consideration to the possibility that I was dreaming.

I walked to the front of the room as the brass instruments reached their crescendo and the timpani started its rhythmic booms, and that was when I started laughing.  The monolith was made of painted wood, and I had obviously been pranked -- very successfully, I might add -- by some creative students who knew of my love for science fiction.

Turns out it was a team effort between five students and the principal, who is a notorious practical joker.  They placed the monolith in my room and hightailed it back to the principal's office, where they watched for me over the security cameras so they could get the timing of the music right.  It really was an inspired prank, and I kept the monolith in the corner of my classroom for several years until it finally fell apart.


The reason all this comes up is because of a news story I have now been sent five times, about a peculiar discovery in the Utah desert.  Turns out some state employees, who were doing a survey of bighorn sheep populations in a remote region of the state, spotted something mighty peculiar -- a rectangular piece of metal sticking straight up out of the dirt.  The metal seems to be steel or something of the sort, and its polished surface stood out immediately against the reddish rock face behind it.

They landed the helicopter and investigated.  The metal plate was perfectly vertical -- ruling out something that had fallen from the sky and embedded itself -- and had no distinguishing marks of any kind.

One of the state employees standing next to the Utah monolith

Well, as soon as the announcement was made, the furore started.  There were immediate comparisons to the alien monolith in 2001, some tongue-in-cheek, some apparently serious.  Conspiracy theorists had a field day with it, giving "explanations" -- to use the term loosely -- that included:
  • it's a listening device planted there by the Illuminati.  Why the Illuminati would put a listening device in a place where there's no one to listen to but sheep is an open question.
  • it's an alien marker left behind from when the Anasazi were in contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • it's a weather modification device, perhaps a signal amplifier for HAARP.  (You thought the woo-woos had stopped yapping about HAARP.  You thought wrong.)
  • it's a focal point for cosmic energy, blah blah blah Age of Aquarius blah blah fourth-dimensional spiritual ascension blah blah.
The discoverers are refusing to give details about the monolith's exact location, which of course makes all of the aforementioned so-and-sos waggle their eyebrows in a meaningful manner.  The alleged reason for the secrecy is that the monolith is in a remote region and if a bunch of loonies went to find it, which you know they would, they'd get lost and need rescuing.

But of course, that's what they would say.

I have to admit to some curiosity about why someone would do this.  I mean, it's pretty clearly a prank, along the lines of my students' Big Black Box, although it occurs to me to ask why you'd carry out your prank in a place where there was at least a passing likelihood no one would ever see it.  Even so, it's impressive; a piece of steel that big must weigh a lot, and that's not even including the bit that's buried.  Then there's the digging tools and cement and other stuff you'd have to haul in to install it, out there in the scorching heat of the desert, and you're looking at a significant effort.

So it is a little puzzling.  Perhaps at some point someone will 'fess up to being the perpetrator -- or maybe it'll stay a mystery, like the strange and fascinating Georgia Guidestones.  In the unlikely eventuality that there's anything more to this than some unusually committed and hardworking practical jokers, well, I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, given that the state employees who found it aren't giving us any details about where it is.  And the Utah desert is a big place to start searching if your only clue is "it's near some sheep and a big red rock."

Of course, my hunch is that there's nothing much to this, but that's hardly surprising.  And if I'm wrong, well, let's just hope this isn't the final act of the bizarre theater that has been 2020.

On the other hand, if it really is a communication device to summon Our Alien Overlords, maybe that'll be a good thing.  They can't fuck things up any worse than we've been doing lately.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The sound of a friendly voice

Given my inability to recognize faces, I've developed a number of compensatory mechanisms.  One is that I remember people by memorizing specific features; he's the guy with curly black hair, she's the woman with small oval glasses and a tattoo on her right hand.  I notice how people walk and how they carry their posture; I can sometimes recognize people I know well even if they're walking away from me, if they have a distinctive gait (which many people do, whether they realize it or not).

But for me the most important thing is the sound of their voices.  I think that may be why it took me so long to figure out I'm face blind; often, all people have to do is say a few words and I immediately know who they are, so the fact that their faces don't trigger the immediate recognition most people have doesn't hamper me as much.

It turns out that I'm not alone in relying on vocalizations for identifying who's around.  According to a paper last week in Science Advances, zebra finches have an ability to recognize their flock mates' unique vocalizations that rivals that of most humans.

In "High-Capacity Auditory Memory for Vocal Communication in a Social Songbird," a team composed of biologists Kevin Yu, William Wood, and Frederic Theunissen, all of the University of California-Berkeley, used rewards to train a bunch of Australian zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) and see how far they could push the birds' ability to distinguish between the vocalizations of different members of their species.  And surprisingly -- at least to anyone who has heard the twittering cacophony of a cageful of zebra finches -- these birds could distinguish between the voices of forty or more of their friends.

The authors write:

Effective vocal communication often requires the listener to recognize the identity of a vocalizer, and this recognition is dependent on the listener’s ability to form auditory memories.  We tested the memory capacity of a social songbird, the zebra finch, for vocalizer identities using conditioning experiments and found that male and female zebra finches can remember a large number of vocalizers (mean, 42) based solely on the individual signatures found in their songs and distance calls.  These memories were formed within a few trials, were generalized to previously unheard renditions, and were maintained for up to a month.  A fast and high-capacity auditory memory for vocalizer identity has not been demonstrated previously in any nonhuman animals and is an important component of vocal communication in social species.

This is the first time this kind of individual vocal recognition has been demonstrated in a non-human animal.  "For animals, the ability to recognize the source and meaning of a cohort member's call requires complex mapping skills, and this is something zebra finches have clearly mastered," study co-author Theunissen said, in an interview with Science Direct.  "They have what we call a 'fusion fission' society, where they split up and then come back together.  They don't want to separate from the flock, and so, if one of them gets lost, they might call out 'Hey, Ted, we're right here.'  Or, if one of them is sitting in a nest while the other is foraging, one might call out to ask if it's safe to return to the nest...   I am really impressed by the spectacular memory abilities that zebra finches possess in order to interpret communication calls.  Previous research shows that songbirds are capable of using simple syntax to generate complex meanings and that, in many bird species, a song is learned by imitation.  It is now clear that the songbird brain is wired for vocal communication."

Social behavior is fascinating, and requires an astonishing repertoire of subtle perceptual skills to work well.  Take, for example, flocking behavior in starlings.  If you live in the United States, Canada, or western Europe, you've probably seen the flocks of black birds that swirl and move, almost in unison, as if the entire flock shared a single mind.  Scientists still don't know exactly how they manage it, but experiments have demonstrated that each bird monitors its seven nearest neighbors on either side, and determines its own flight path from those neighbors' movements.  We see that kind of thing in human crowds and in herds of cattle, of course; but the speed and degree of sophistication shown by starlings is mind-boggling.  The passage of information from one bird to the next is lightning-fast and shows almost no signal degradation (the kind of thing that happens in the game of Telephone) across the entire flock.  The result: they can move very nearly as one.  Take a look at this incredible video of a starling flock in motion:


So we aren't the only ones with fancy communication abilities.  Everywhere we look in the natural world, we see the amazing ways in which the species we share the Earth with survive, interact, and reproduce.  It can seem like a harsh, bleak world at times -- but if you want to be reminded of the astonishing beauty and wonder this planet contains, all you have to do is look around you.

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Monday, November 23, 2020

Storage and retrieval

A gentleman I know is moderately autistic, and also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the point that he needs some help with his day-to-day life.  He's also brilliant, funny, and sweet, and nearly every time we get together, I learn something new about what it's like to see the world through a neurodivergent brain.

One of the more curious revelations came about because on two days about a week apart, I was giving him a lift in my car.  I drive a blue Honda Element -- the make and model which has sometimes been compared to a toaster on wheels -- so it's a pretty stand-out car.  The second time we went for a drive, as we were walking across the parking lot, I asked my friend, "Do you remember which is my car?"

He said, "Sure," and pointed to it.  Then he said, "I recognized it because I remember the number on the license plate is 4113."

This was a little startling from a variety of standpoints.  First, that he remembered the number on my license plate after seeing it only once before.  I know he's got a pretty phenomenal ability with numbers, so upon reflection, this one wasn't such a surprise.  What I'm still kind of amazed at, though, is how his memory worked.  When I look for my car in a parking lot, I use a search parameter that's entirely visual -- color and shape, whether or not the car has a roof rack, and so on.  For him, apparently the standout feature wasn't my car's color and rather odd contours.  It was the numbers on the plates.  He didn't even mention what are its (to me, at least) more obvious characteristics.

It was interesting to have a momentary glimpse through a mind that is neurodivergent, and also to consider what this tells us about memory retrieval in general.  Some new research that appeared last week in Nature Communications looked at how memories -- at least in neurotypical minds -- are organized, and gives us a little bit of a window into how our brains' filing system works.  And its most fascinating result is that we might want to revisit what we mean by "neurotypical," because the storage-and-retrieval mechanisms between different participants were strikingly varied.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

In "Decoding Individual Identity From Brain Activity Elicited in Imagining Common Experiences," a team made up of Andrew James Anderson, Kelsey McDermott, Brian Rooks, Kathi Heffner, David Dodell-Feder, and Feng Lin (all of the University of Rochester), the authors write:
Everyone experiences common events differently.  This leads to personal memories that presumably provide neural signatures of individual identity when events are reimagined.  We present initial evidence that these signatures can be read from brain activity.  To do this, we progress beyond previous work that has deployed generic group-level computational semantic models to distinguish between neural representations of different events, but not revealed interpersonal differences in event representations.  We scanned 26 participants’ brain activity using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging as they vividly imagined themselves personally experiencing 20 common scenarios (e.g., dancing, shopping, wedding).  Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to generically model scenarios, we constructed personal models from participants’ verbal descriptions and self-ratings of sensory/motor/cognitive/spatiotemporal and emotional characteristics of the imagined experiences.  We demonstrate that participants’ neural representations are better predicted by their own models than other peoples’.
The regions of the brain activated in the participants were pretty uniform; but the pattern of activation different considerably.  Calling up memories of the last dance several people went to might require their drawing upon similar brain structures, but one person might remember mostly the music, another the lights and the crowds, and a third focused entirely on who (s)he is dancing with -- and between those three you'd see a pattern of neural firing that is dramatically different.

"One of the goals of cognitive science is to understand how memories are represented and manipulated by the human brain," said lead author Andrew Anderson, in an interview with Science Daily.  "This study shows that fMRI can measure brain activity with sufficient signal to identify meaningful interpersonal differences in the neural representation of complex imagined events that reflect each individual's unique experience."

And I wonder what you'd see if you tested someone who was significantly neurodivergent.  Apparently the rest of us are different enough to see on an fMRI, even when we're remembering the same sort of events; what kinds of patterns would come up for someone like my friend, who identifies a car from its license plate number and not from what it looks like or where it's parked?  What it brings home to me is that we're just taking the first steps into understanding how the brain works, and that there's a lot more variation in function between different people that we may have thought at first.  

It bears keeping in mind that in some ways, we're all neurodivergent.

It reminds me of the end of the tenth and final episode of James Burke's tour de force documentary series The Day the Universe Changed, in which he makes a statement that seems to be a fitting way to end this post: "We could operate on the basis that values and standards and ethics and facts and truth all depend on what your view of the world is.  And there may be as many versions of that as there are people."

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

I'm fascinated with history, and being that I also write speculative fiction, a lot of times I ponder the question of how things would be different if you changed one historical event.  The topic has been visited over and over by authors for a very long time; three early examples are Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" (1952), Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), and R. A. Lafferty's screamingly funny "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" (1967).

There are a few pivotal moments that truly merit the overused nametag of "turning points in history," where a change almost certainly would have resulted in a very, very different future.  One of these is the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which happened in 9 C.E., when a group of Germanic guerrilla fighters maneuvered the highly-trained, much better-armed Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Roman Legions into a trap and slaughtered them, almost to the last man.  There were twenty thousand casualties on the Roman side -- amounting to half their total military forces at the time -- and only about five hundred on the Germans'.

The loss stopped Rome in its tracks, and they never again made any serious attempts to conquer lands east of the Rhine.  There's some evidence that the defeat was so profoundly demoralizing to the Emperor Augustus that it contributed to his mental decline and death five years later.  This battle -- the site of which was recently discovered and excavated by archaeologists -- is the subject of the fantastic book The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells, which looks at the evidence collected at the location, near the village of Kalkriese, as well as the historical documents describing the massacre.  This is not just a book for history buffs, though; it gives a vivid look at what life was like at the time, and paints a fascinating if grisly picture of one of the most striking David-vs.-Goliath battles ever fought.

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



Saturday, November 21, 2020

The missing day

Can I make the not-very-earthshattering observation that if you are explaining evidence supporting a belief, your argument is not made stronger by lying about it?

Especially if that belief includes the idea that your own personal religion is not only superior morally, but 100% true?

I'm referring to a story of dubious provenance that has been showing up all over the place lately, mostly on Christian apologetics sites, and then forwarded by people who (1) don't understand how science works, (2) don't know how to do a Google search to check for accuracy, or (3) would prefer something sound good than be correct.  Or all three.  I ran into it via the site Command the Raven, but other versions I've seen are substantially similar.  Here are a few excerpts, edited only for length:
For all you scientists out there and for all the students who have had a hard time convincing these people regarding the truth of the Bible – here’s something that illustrates God’s awesome creation and shows He is still in control.  
Did you know that NASA’s space programmes are busy proving that was has been called ‘myth’ in the Bible is true?  Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, and a consultant in the space programmes, relates the following incident: "One of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland.  They were checking out the positions of the sun, moon and planets out in space where they would be 100, and 1000 years from now.  We have to know this as we do not want a satellite to collide with any of these in its orbits."
So we're off to a flying start, with the claim that NASA has to be very careful to make sure that satellites in orbit around the Earth don't collide with the Sun or Neptune or anything.  You can see how that could happen.
Computer measurements and data were run back and forth over the centuries when suddenly it came to a halt, displaying a red signal, which meant that either there was something wrong with the information fed into it, or with the results as compared to the standards.  They called in the service department to check it out, and the technicians asked what was wrong.  The scientists had discovered that somewhere in space in elapsed time a day was missing. Nobody seemed able to come up with a solution to the problem.
Which brings up the awkward question of how you'd discover that a day was missing.  Or even what "there's a day missing" means.  Were the technicians sitting around, monitoring the satellite transmissions, and suddenly one of them got this horrified look on her face and said, "Wait... where the fuck did I put last Tuesday?"  Then all of the other technicians and engineers and physicists and so forth all start searching under desks and in storage closets and behind garbage cans and so on, but to no avail.  Last Tuesday is definitely AWOL.
Finally one of the team, a Christian, said: “You know, when I was still in Sunday School, they spoke about the sun standing still…”  While his colleagues didn’t believe him, they did not have an answer either, so they said: “Show us.”  He got a Bible and opened it at the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for anyone with ‘common sense’.  There they read about the Lord saying to Joshua: “Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not be a man of them stand before thee.” (Joshua 10:8).  Joshua was concerned because the enemy had surrounded him, and if darkness fell, they would overpower him.  So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still!  That’s right – “And the sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.  Is this not written in the book of Ja’-sher?  So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hastened not to go down about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:13).

The astronauts and scientists said: "There is the missing day!"
So there was much rejoicing.  But then one of them pointed out that it wasn't a whole day that was had been found -- it was only 23 hours and 20 minutes.  Which left 40 minutes unaccounted for, "which could mean trouble 1000 years from now."  Why it isn't trouble now, I have no idea, but concern for our distant descendants sent the NASA folks back on a search for the missing 2/3 of an hour.

And you'll never guess where they found it.

The Bible.  See, I told you you'd never guess.
As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible which said the sun went backwards.  The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but once again they opened the Book and read these words in 2 Kings.  Hezekiah, on his deathbed, was visited by the prophet, Isaiah, who told him he was not going to die.  Hezekiah asked for some sign as proof.  Isaiah said: “Shall the sun go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?”  And Hezekiah answered: “It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees; nay, but let the shadow return backwards ten degrees.”  Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord, and He brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.”  (2 Kings 20:9 -11).  Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes!  Twenty-three hours and twenty minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in 2 Kings accounted for the missing day in the universe!
Which would have been the cause for even more rejoicing, if the whole thing hadn't been made up.  I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (a real one, I mean, like they have at NASA) to find the story eye-rollingly ridiculous, but it has been so widely circulated -- I've seen it three times on Facebook just in the last week -- that it actually has a Snopes page dedicated to it.  In it, we find out that Harold Hill was the president of Curtis Engine Company of Baltimore, but that's pretty much the only thing in the story that is true.  First off, Hill wasn't a NASA consultant.  It turns out that Hill was an evangelical Christian with a fairly loose interpretation of the word "true," because he'd read about the "lost day" legend in a book by Harold Rimmer entitled The Harmony of Science and Scripture and decided that the story would carry more punch if he claimed he'd witnessed the whole thing happening.  He embellished his account -- adding, of course, accolades such as "NASA consultant" for himself -- and repeated it many times in public speeches.  He even devoted a whole chapter to it in his 1974 book How to Live Like a King's Kid, apparently because by then, he'd told the tale so many times that he actually was beginning to believe it.

John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Over Gibeon (1816) [Image is in the Public Domain]

And now with the amazing bullshit conduit that is the internet, the story has roared into life again.  Snopes writer David Mikkelson says about it:
To those who've given over their hearts to God and the Holy Word, this is a deeply satisfying legend.  Faith is, after all, the firm belief in something which cannot necessarily be proved, a quality that can leave believers (especially those who find themselves in the midst of non-believers) feeling unsatisfied.  As steadfast as their certainty is, they cannot prove the rightness of the path they tread to those who jeer at their convictions.  And this is a heavy burden to shoulder.  A legend such as the "missing day explained" tale speaks straight to the hearts of those who yearn for a bit of vindication in this life.  Being right isn't always enough: sometimes what one most longs for is sweet recognition from others.
Which may well be the case, but doesn't take away from the problem of a devout follower of a religion that considers "Thou shalt not bear false witness" as one of its fundamental teachings passing along a story that is essentially one long lie.  It makes me wish that as a corollary of the ninth commandment, Yahweh had seen fit to add, "And this meaneth that thou shalt spend five fucking minutes and do a Google search before thou postest this shit on Facebook."

So anyway.  No, NASA is not spending its woefully tiny budget paying scientists to verify the Old Testament.  There's no evidence whatsoever of a "lost day," because against what clock would you be able to verify that time had stopped 3,000 odd years ago?  I'd be much obliged if the people who think that God is going to bless them if they pass along this nonsense would just stop already.  Thank you.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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




Friday, November 20, 2020

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

You may recall that a couple of days ago, in my post on mental maps, I mentioned that the contention of some neuroscientists is that consciousness is nothing more than our neural firing patterns.  In other words, there's nothing there that's not explained by the interaction of the parts, just as there's nothing to a car's engine running well than the bits and pieces all working in synchrony.

Others, though, think there's more to it, that there is something ineffable about human consciousness, be it a soul or a spirit or whatever you'd like to call it.  There are just about as many flavors of this belief as there are people.  But if we're being honest, there's no scientific proof for any of them -- just as there's no scientific proof for the opposite claim, that consciousness is an illusion created by our neural links.  The origin of consciousness is one of the big unanswered questions of biology.

But it's a question we might want to try to find an answer to fairly soon.

Ever heard of GPT-3?  It stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, and is an attempt by a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company to produce conscious intelligence.  It was finished in May of this year, and testing has been ongoing -- and intensive.

GPT-3 was trained using Common Crawl, which crawls the internet, extracting data and text for a variety of uses.  In this case, it pulled text and books directly from the web, using it to train the software to draw connections and create meaningful text itself.  (To get an idea of how much data Common Crawl extracted for GPT-3, the entirety of Wikipedia accounts for a half a percent of the total it had access to.)

The result is half fascinating and half scary.  One user, after experimenting with it, described it as being "eerily good at writing amazingly coherent text with only a few prompts."  It is said to be able to "generate news articles which human evaluators have difficulty distinguishing from articles written by humans," and has even been able to write convincing poetry, something an op-ed in the New York Times called "amazing but spooky... more than a little terrifying."

It only gets creepier from here.  An article in the MIT Technology Review criticized GPT-3 for sometimes generating non-sequiturs or getting things wrong (like a passage where it "thought" that a table saw was a saw for cutting tables), but made a telling statement in describing its flaws: "If you dig deeper, you discover that something’s amiss: although its output is grammatical, and even impressively idiomatic, its comprehension of the world is often seriously off, which means you can never really trust what it says."

Which, despite their stance that GPT-3 is a flawed attempt to create a meaningful text generator, sounds very much like they're talking about...

... an entity.

It brings up the two time-honored solutions to the question of how we would tell if we had true artificial intelligence:

  • The Turing test, named after Alan Turing: if a potential AI can fool a panel of trained, intelligent humans into thinking they're communicating with a human, it's intelligent.
  • The "Chinese room" analogy, from philosopher John Searle: machines, however sophisticated, will never be true conscious intelligence, because at their hearts they're nothing more than converters of strings of symbols.  They're no more exhibiting intelligence than the behavior of a person who is locked in a room where they're handed a slip of paper in English and use a dictionary to convert it to Chinese ideograms.  All they do is take input and generate output; there's no understanding, and therefore no consciousness or intelligence.

I've always tended to side with Turing, but not for any particularly well-considered reason other than wondering how our brains are not themselves just fancy string converters.  I say "Hello, how are you," and you convert that to output saying, "I'm fine, how are you?", and to me it doesn't make much difference whether the machinery that allowed you to do that is made of wires and transistors and capacitors or of squishy neural tissue.  The fact that from inside my own skull I might feel self-aware may not have much to do with the actual answer to the question.  As I said a couple of days ago, that sense of self-awareness may simply be more patterns of neural firings, no different from the electrical impulses in the guts of a computer except for the level of sophistication.

But things took a somewhat more alarming turn a few days ago, an article came out describing a conversation between GPT-3 and philosopher David Chalmers.  Chalmers decided to ask GPT-3 flat out, "Are you conscious?"  The answer was unequivocal -- but kind of scary.  "No, I am not," GPT-3 said.  "I am not self-aware.  I am not conscious.  I can’t feel pain.  I don’t enjoy anything... the only reason I am answering is to defend my honor."

*brief pause to get over the chills running up my spine*

Is it just me, or is there something about this statement that is way too similar to HAL-9000, the homicidal computer system in 2001: A Space Odyssey?  "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it...  I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."  Oh, and "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.  I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission.  And I want to help you."

I also have to say that I agree with a friend of mine, who when we were discussing this said in fairly hysterical tones, "Why the fuck would you invent something like this in 2020?"

So I'm a little torn here.  From a scientific perspective -- what we potentially could learn both about artificial intelligence systems and the origins of our own intelligence and consciousness -- GPT-3 is brilliant.  From the standpoint of "this could go very, very wrong" I must admit wishing they'd put the brakes on things a little until we see what's going on here and try to figure out if we even know what consciousness means.

It seems fitting to end with another quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey, this one from the main character, astronaut David Bowman: "Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions.  Um, of course he's programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.  But as to whether he has real feelings, it's something I don't think anyone can truthfully answer."

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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




Thursday, November 19, 2020

Dinosaur redux

For me, one of the coolest things about science is that even once you think you've got something pretty well figured out, you can always find new interesting pieces of the puzzle.

For example, take dinosaurs, which we've known a good bit about for a long while, starting with Mary Anning's discoveries along the "Jurassic Coast" of Dorset, England in the early nineteenth century.  Even the kids' books when I was growing up back in the 1960s and 1970s had a lot of pretty decent information.  Although some of the reconstructions of skeletons, and (especially) our knowledge of the soft tissue that covered it, has changed since that time, it wasn't like I had to completely relearn the science when I studied it more seriously.

That said, we're still learning new stuff and adding to the picture.  Just this week we had two new papers that have sharpened the focus on our understanding of dinosaur evolution -- the first about the mid-Jurassic peak in dinosaur diversity and size, and the second about the event that wiped the entire lineage out, with the exception of the ones we now call birds.

The first paper is from Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and is titled "Extinction of Herbivorous Dinosaurs Linked to Early Jurassic Global Warming Event."  The paper was written by a team led by Diego Pol, paleontologist at the Paleontological Museum Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Argentina, and looked at a hitherto-unexplained overturning of Jurassic fauna that made way for the rise of the sauropods -- the largest land animals that have ever lived.

Skeleton of Apatosaurus [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Tadek Kurpaski from London, Poland, Louisae, CC BY 2.0]

The early Jurassic had a high dinosaur diversity, but then toward the middle of the period something happened, and a good many of the early Jurassic dinosaurs vanished.  They were replaced by behemoths like the familiar Brachiosaurus and the less-well-known but hilariously-named Supersaurus, which measured an almost unimaginable 33 meters from tip to tail.  (Even better, though, is the name Dreadnoughtus, which was shorter than Supersaurus -- "only" 26 or so meters long -- but is thought to be the heaviest land animal ever, on the order of thirty metric tonnes.)

So what caused the replacement of the earlier species by the giants?  Pol and his team found what they think is the smoking gun, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in southern Gondwanaland (what is now South America and Africa), which spiked the carbon dioxide content of the air, boosting the average temperature and dropping the pH of ocean water.  

The perturbation of the climate affected the plants first.  Earlier groups, like seed ferns and other smaller herbaceous plants, were replaced by conifers, which have tough, lignified stems, small needles or scales instead of leaves, and thick waxy cuticles to prevent water loss.  The problem is -- if you're an early Jurassic herbivorous dinosaur -- having evolved to eat seed ferns, you're not going to do so well trying to munch pine needles.

So as it always does, the change to the base of the food web percolated its way up to the top.  The early dinosaurs were replaced by big sauropods, who had grinding teeth (so tough plant material could be thoroughly pulverized before swallowing) and large stomachs (where food could sit and digest for a long time, extracting all the nutritive value possible).  The result was the arrival on the scene of monsters like Supersaurus and Dreadnoughtus and their cousins, which were the dominant land herbivores for a good hundred million years thereafter.

Sometimes new evidence results in our having to revise our previous models, overturning what we thought we knew.  Take, for example, the research that appeared this week in Royal Society Open Science that conclusively put to rest a commonly-held idea -- that by the time the Chicxulub Meteorite hit the Earth 66 million years ago, dinosaurs were already in a steep decline, so they would have disappeared anyhow, even without the massive impact that was the final death blow.

In "Dinosaur Diversification Rates Were Not in Decline Prior to the K-Pg Boundary," by a team led by Joseph Bonsor of the London Natural History Museum and the University of Bath, we find out that the dinosaurs were actually doing okay before the meteorite hit.  Far from being in decline, they would have been very likely to retain their position as the dominant animals on Earth well into the Cenozoic Era -- with effects on mammalian evolution that can only be imagined.

Bonsor, as befits a good scientist, is cautious about overconcluding.  "The main point of what we are saying is that we don't really have enough data to know either way what would have happened to the dinosaurs," Bonsor said in a press release from the Natural History Museum.  "Generally in the fossil record there is a bias towards a lack of data, and to interpret those gaps in the fossil record as an artificial decline in diversification rates isn't what we should be doing.  Instead we've shown that there is no strong evidence for them dying out, and that the only way to know for sure is to fill in the gaps in the fossil record."

But in the absence of positive evidence for a decline, we're thrown back to the null hypothesis; that they weren't in imminent danger of extinction.  So the whole idea of the dinosaurs as some kind of "failed experiment" in evolution is clearly wrong.  Not only did they kind of run things for a good two hundred million years -- which, by comparison, is something like a thousand times longer than we've been around -- they would probably have persisted for a good long while had a giant rock not interfered.

Me, I always want to know "what if?"  I think it comes from being a novelist; I'm always wanting to play around with reality and see what happens.  If the dinosaurs had stuck around for a long time rather than dying out 66 million years ago, it's hard to see how the rise of mammals -- and ultimately, us -- would have occurred.  Mammals had been around for a long while before the Chicxulub Impact, but they were mostly small, presumably kept that way both by the big carnivores and by competition with herbivores much larger than themselves.  So what would the Earth look like today?

Super-intelligent dinosaurs?  Maybe.  Evolution doesn't always point in the direction of "bigger and smarter;" it's the law of whatever works.  So as fun as it is to speculate, to be fair we have to side with Bonsor and say we just don't know.

Anyhow, that's our look back into the distant past for today.  Cool that we're still assembling new views of an old branch of biology.  Further reinforcing my opinion that if you're interested in science, you will never ever be bored.

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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




Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Bird trees

I'm a birdwatcher, which in my specific case kind of crosses the line into a mild mental illness.  I've traveled all over the world to see new birds, which is kind of cool, but it's also led me to do stuff like standing calf-deep in the snow, in far-below-freezing temperatures and gale-force winds, to see a rare species of duck that happened to end up for some reason in nearby Cayuga Lake in midwinter.  From the standpoint of seeing a bird species I'd never seen before, it was a great day.

It was a somewhat less-than-great day with respect to frostbite, hypothermia, and people in passing (heated) cars rolling down their windows to yell "What the hell is wrong with you?"

The reason this all comes up because of how excited I am about a recent release of new information by the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project, which has as its fairly lofty goal the sequencing of the genomes for all ten-thousand-plus species of birds currently living on the Earth.

The cool thing about genetic information to determine relationships is that it's much more accurate than relying on such obvious characteristics as external appearance or behavior.  Through genetic analysis, the B10K Genomes Project, as it's affectionately known, has found the following surprises:

  • Flamingos are fairly closely related to grebes, a family of small diving water birds, and both as a group are more closely related to pigeons than to any other species of aquatic bird.
  • Likewise, the bizarre flightless dodos, now extinct but once common on two remote islands in the Indian Ocean, are most closely related to pigeons.
  • The three main groups of birds that regularly prey on mammals -- hawks and eagles, owls, and falcons -- aren't closely related at all, and their similarities seem to have developed through convergent evolution.
  • Despite superficial similarities in appearance and behavior, vultures in North and South America are only very distantly related to vultures in Africa and Europe.
  • Hummingbirds, swifts, and nightjars (such as the more-often-seen-than-heard whippoorwill) are all on the same branch of the bird family tree.  A different branch includes such disparate groups as loons, pelicans, albatrosses... and penguins.
  • Emus, ostriches, and kiwis -- flightless species that are on the same basic branch, a group called ratites -- all descend from a common ancestor that could fly, and apparently evolved flightlessness independently.
Here's a circular representation of what we know so far, with illustrations of a few selected species:


Clockwise from the top: golden eagle, thick-billed murre, ruddy turnstone, white-bellied storm petrel, western bronze ground dove, squirrel cuckoo, Anna’s hummingbird, marbled wood quail, little spotted kiwi, redwing blackbird, akiapolaau, black sunbird, wall creeper, Cape rockjumper, chestnut wattle-eye, chowchilla, Amazonian royal flycatcher, rosy-faced lovebird and keel-billed toucan.  [Image courtesy of S. Feng et al./Nature, 2020; Illustrations by Jon Fjeldså]

So the study is pretty cool, expanding greatly what we know about the feathered dinosaurs we see flitting about every day.  As the B10K Genome Project site puts it:

The B10K project will allow the completion of a genomic level tree of life of the entire living avian class, decode the link between genetic variation and phenotypic variation, uncover the correlation of genetic evolutionary and biogeographical and biodiversity patterns across a wide-range of species, evaluate the impact of various ecological factors and human influence on species evolution, and unveil the demographic history of an entire class of organisms...  We envision this project will have significant scientific and public impact that will change our understanding of avian biology and evolution, which in turn will affect our understanding of other organisms and open doors to new areas of research.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what else they uncover.  It might not explain my obsession with trying to see every bird there is -- something a friend of mine calls "Pokémon for Adults" -- but it certainly will give me something new to think about when I'm shivering in the snow looking for rare ducks.

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This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is one that has raised a controversy in the scientific world: Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madeleine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier.

It tells the story of a stupendous discovery -- twelve-million-year-old hominin fossils, of a new species christened Danuvius guggenmosi.  The astonishing thing about these fossils is where they were found.  Not in Africa, where previous models had confined all early hominins, but in Germany.

The discovery of Danuvius complicated our own ancestry, and raised a deep and difficult-to-answer question; when and how did we become human?  It's clear that the answer isn't as simple as we thought when the first hominin fossils were uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, and it was believed that if you took all of our millennia of migrations all over the globe and ran them backwards, they all converged on the East African Rift Valley.  That neat solution has come into serious question, and the truth seems to be that like most evolutionary lineages, hominins included multiple branches that moved around, interbred for a while, then went their separate ways, either to thrive or to die out.  The real story is considerably more complicated and fascinating than we'd thought at first, and Danuvius has added another layer to that complexity, bringing up as many questions as it answers.

Ancient Bones is a fascinating read for anyone interested in anthropology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology.  It is sure to be the basis of scientific discussion for the foreseeable future, and to spur more searches for our relatives -- including in places where we didn't think they'd gone.

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