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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Lights over Ireland

Heard about the Irish UFO?

I'd resisted posting about this one, because every single time I run into an article that says "TOTALLY UNEXPLAINABLE EXTRATERRESTRIAL OBJECT SIGHTED," it turns out not only to be explainable but 100% terrestrial.

This one, however, has me curious.  According to a report in The Drive, this incident has two things that made my ears perk up; it was simultaneously sighted, and reported, by several people, including three commercial airline pilots; and according to witnesses, not only was it going ridiculously fast (one of the pilots said it was at least Mach 2), it changed direction several times.

That last bit is the most important.  One of the most common things labeled as a UFO are meteors, but as far as I understand them, they move in a straight line because (1) Newton's First Law is strictly enforced in most jurisdictions, and (2) they're a bitch to steer.  So if the reports are correct that it changed direction, not once but several times, this raises the report to the level of "pretty interesting."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Stefan-Wp, UFO-Meersburg, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Quoting Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick, writers of the above-linked article:
Publicly available audio of conversations between the passenger planes and Shannon Flight Information Region air traffic controllers offer more detail about what happened. At 6:47 AM local time [on November 9], a British Airways 787, using the callsign Speedbird 94, radioed in to ask if there were any military exercises going on in the area, which there were not. 
"There is nothing showing on either primary or secondary [radar]," Shannon controllers told Speedbird 94. “O.K. It was moving so fast,” the British Airways pilot responded. 
She further explained that the object had appeared as a "very bright light" and had flown along the left side of their 787 before it "rapidly veered to the north" and then "disappeared at very high speed." There is no indication of concerns about a possible collision.
The Irish authorities are investigating, but it remains to be seen what there is to investigate, given that all we have is the recording of what the pilots said they saw.

As regular readers know, I've been pretty skeptical of eyewitness accounts.  Not only is the human sensory-integrative system notoriously inaccurate, so is our memory.  But here we have at least three trained pilots -- who had seen phenomena like meteors many times, and knew what they looked like -- reporting the same strange, maneuverable object simultaneously.

Astronomer Michio Kaku famously said -- and got himself in trouble with the scientific establishment for saying it -- "Ninety-nine percent of all UFO sightings can be explained as hoaxes or purely natural, and in many cases terrestrial, phenomena.  But that still leaves one percent that haven't been explained.  And I think those are worth a serious investigation."

Which I have to agree with.  And unless there's more to this story that we're being told (for example, Irish authorities denied conducting military exercises in the area where the sightings occurred, but it's entirely possible they could be hiding the truth for some reason), this falls squarely in Kaku's investigation-worthy one percent.  I'm definitely not ready to jump to "it was a visit by intelligent aliens from another world," but I'm at this point eager to hear what the experts think actually did happen in the skies of Ireland six days ago.

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

If you are one of those people who thinks that science books are dry and boring, I'll give you a recommendation that will put that misconception to rest within the first few pages: Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.

Kean undertook to explain, from a human perspective, that most iconic of all images from the realm of chemistry -- the Periodic Table, the organized chart of elements from the simplest (hydrogen, atomic number 1) to largest and most complex (oganesson, atomic number 118).  Kean's sparkling prose shows us the personalities behind the science, including the notoriously cranky Dmitri Mendeleev; tragic, brilliant Henry Moseley, a victim of World War I; and shy, self-effacing Glenn T. Seaborg, one of only two individuals to have an element named after them while they were still alive.

It's a fun read, even if you're not a science geek -- maybe especially if you're not a science geek.  Because it allows you to peer behind the curtain, and see that the scientists are just like the rest of us, with rivalries, jealousies, odd and misplaced loyalty, and all the rest of the faults the human race is subject to.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Dark hurricane

There are times that scientists use placeholder names for things they're pretty sure must exist, but haven't identified with sufficient clarity that they can say anything in detail about them.

One example -- that didn't end so well -- is the "ether."  The concept of the ether came about because once Christiaan Huygens, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, and Leonhard Euler made cogent arguments that light had many of the properties of waves, the next question was, "what medium is waving?"  In any familiar sort of wave, there's some sort of medium involved, the particles of which are moving as the wave propagates past.  So, not unreasonably, physicists proposed that there was some sort of medium permeating the universe through which light was propagating, and they called this substance the luminiferous ether.

The problem was, the ether didn't exist, as demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment.  So scientists, scrambling about like mad to save their precious theory, proposed all sorts of convoluted dodges to explain why Michelson-Morley and the ether weren't mutually exclusive, but the whole thing came crashing to the ground when Albert Einstein came up with the Special Theory of Relativity -- which did away with the need for ether.

We have a similar situation right now in physics, except that (being in the middle of it) no one knows how it's going to end -- with a confirmation of an ether-like mysterious substance, or a 21st-century Einstein who proposes a shift in our understanding that makes the entire thing collapse.  I'm referring to dark matter, which was discovered in 1978 by Vera Rubin and Kent Ford because of its gravitational effects.  But this is no minor constituent of the universe; by Rubin and Ford's estimates -- which still hold -- dark matter comprises 85% of the mass of the universe.

The problem is, dark matter, whatever it is, is "non-baryonic" in nature.  Put simply, it does not interact with other matter, and has no effect on light except for the fact that its gravity warps the fabric of the universe and can deflect light's path (a phenomenon called gravitational lensing).

So at this point, we're pretty sure it's there, but no one knows anything about what it actually is.

But this may be about to change.  Last week a paper appeared in Physical Review D claiming that not only are we immersed in dark matter, we are currently in a stream of it (called "S1") that is blowing past us at an unimaginable 500 kilometers per second.  A team led by Ciaran O'Hare of the University of Zaragoza has been analyzing this matter stream, and have concluded that it was generated by the interaction between the Milky Way and a (now-defunct) dwarf galaxy the Milky Way devoured over a billion years ago.  But the remnants are still zooming past us, a dark hurricane light years wide in which we have been immersed without even knowing it until recently.

What the current study suggests is that we might use this to get some long-awaited hard data on dark matter.  Detectors are being set up to detect what are considered the two most likely constituents of dark matter -- WIMPs (weakly-interacting massive particles) and axions (which some theories say could exist in sufficient numbers to account for dark matter).

The problem is, there have been other attempts to find WIMPs and axions, and all have been completely unsuccessful.  In fact, the Wikipedia page on WIMPs (linked above) starts with the unpropitious words, "There exists no clear definition of a WIMP," which to my ears makes it sound like the 19th century physicists' "there's this stuff called ether, and we think it's there, but we can't tell you anything else about it."

The physicists, for their part, are hoping like hell something will come of all this, because if dark matter doesn't exist, it will punch a great big old hole not only in the General Theory of Relativity, but the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing; look at what the collapse of the ether theory led to.

Um.  The General Theory of Relativity and the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics.  A little awkward, that.

Of course, I'm a layperson, despite my B.S. in physics.  Far smarter brains than I am are still taking the search for dark matter seriously.  If I was a betting man, though, I'd put money on the likelihood that there's something major we're missing, just as we did with Relativity.  This could lead to great things either way -- which is why this invisible storm is such an exciting discovery.

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

If you are one of those people who thinks that science books are dry and boring, I'll give you a recommendation that will put that misconception to rest within the first few pages: Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.

Kean undertook to explain, from a human perspective, that most iconic of all images from the realm of chemistry -- the Periodic Table, the organized chart of elements from the simplest (hydrogen, atomic number 1) to largest and most complex (oganesson, atomic number 118).  Kean's sparkling prose shows us the personalities behind the science, including the notoriously cranky Dmitri Mendeleev; tragic, brilliant Henry Moseley, a victim of World War I; and shy, self-effacing Glenn T. Seaborg, one of only two individuals to have an element named after them while they were still alive.

It's a fun read, even if you're not a science geek -- maybe especially if you're not a science geek.  Because it allows you to peer behind the curtain, and see that the scientists are just like the rest of us, with rivalries, jealousies, odd and misplaced loyalty, and all the rest of the faults the human race is subject to.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Night stalker

Just last night my wife and I watched the Dr. Who episode "Vincent and the Doctor," from 2010 (one of the episodes of the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith).  In it, he and his companion, Amy Pond, go back to Auvers-sur-Oise, France, in 1890, where they meet Vincent van Gogh.

Well, it turns out that van Gogh is having a hell of a time, and not just because the townspeople in Auvers think he's a nut and his paintings are trash.  (Which, apparently, they did in real life.)  Van Gogh is being hunted by a giant reptilian/avian monster called the Krafayis, which kills people but doesn't eat them -- and the twist is that for reasons never explained, van Gogh is the only one who can see it.

Okay, I have to admit when I summarize it that way, it sounds pretty fucking stupid.  But it's a really good episode, and I say that not just because I've become something of a Dr. Who fanatic.  It's a seriously bittersweet story, very well written, and Tony Curran's portrayal of van Gogh is spot-on.  And if the end doesn't make you cry, you have a heart made of stone.

The reason this comes up is because by some sort of odd synchronicity, I ran into a report from the site Mysterious Universe this morning that a beast that no one has been able to describe has (as of the point the article was written) injured twelve people, not in France (that would have been too much of a coincidence) but in the village of Dapodi, in the state of Maharashtra, India.  Like van Gogh's Krafayis, whatever is doing this makes a lot of noise, attacks people out of the blue and mauls the hell out of them, then disappears.

And this is one even the skeptics can't scoff at, because whatever's behind it, the injuries are quite real.  One of the victims, 35-year-old Kailas Pawar, suffered major head injuries, required 45 stitches to put him back together, and is still in the hospital.  The people who were attacked were sleeping outdoors, common in this sweltering climate.

Shadowman [Image licensed under the Creative Commons w:User:Timitzer, Shadowman-3, CC BY 3.0]

At first, officials thought the culprit might have been a leopard, but leopards are familiar animals to people in that region of India, and the victims swore up and down that's not what attacked them.  But when it came to describing what did attack them, things got oddly vague.  According to forest ranger M. N. Hazare, who spoke with several of the victims, "We showed the injured people photographs of leopards, hyenas, and even foxes, but they could not identify it.  They only said that the animal was larger than a dog.  Leopards normally attack their prey and drag them, but this has not happened here.  A hyena does not attack people sleeping in groups. So we are not able to ascertain which animal attacked so many people...  This is flat terrain.  There is a jungle along Bhima River, about ten or twelve kilometers away.  We don’t think a leopard would have come this far away."

I must say, the attacks are odd.  Unless an animal is rabid, most animals will attack people only when they feel threatened.  It's hard to see why an animal would repeatedly maul people sleeping near homes in a decent-sized village.  The other possibility is that the animal was hungry -- but animals that will hunt, kill, and eat humans are fortunately very few in number (a few documented cases have been the result of mountain lions, polar bears, and tigers).  And besides, none of the victims were dragged away and eaten.

All the thing did is pounce, beat the poor people to a pulp, and take off.

What's oddest is that no one has been able to describe it.  You'd think being clawed to within an inch of your life would sharpen your senses pretty well, but nobody has been able to refine the description past "big animal," which you could presumably figure out just from the nature of the attacks.  Of course, the attacks occurred at night in a village where I doubt there are streetlights, and the victims were roused out of a sound sleep by being bitten and scratched, so I suppose it's understandable that during the attack, "getting a good look at the attacker" took second seat to "figuring out how not to die."  But it's still strange that none of the victims could give any sort of description.

So right now, officials in Dapodi are discouraging people from sleeping in the open, and they're trying to keep an eye out for any big animals that aren't behaving themselves.  The problem is, if it's a Krafayis, they wouldn't see it anyway, unless they happen to have a brilliant but half-mad painter handy.

Okay, maybe it's just a leopard.  Stranger things have happened, and my desire to have it be something out-of-the-ordinary is just wishful thinking.  Still, if there's a whooshing noise, and a blue police box appears, and a disheveled man in a bow tie comes out with a gorgeous red-haired woman with a Scottish accent, somebody damned well better let me know.  I'll be on the next flight to India.

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

If you are one of those people who thinks that science books are dry and boring, I'll give you a recommendation that will put that misconception to rest within the first few pages: Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.

Kean undertook to explain, from a human perspective, that most iconic of all images from the realm of chemistry -- the Periodic Table, the organized chart of elements from the simplest (hydrogen, atomic number 1) to largest and most complex (oganesson, atomic number 118).  Kean's sparkling prose shows us the personalities behind the science, including the notoriously cranky Dmitri Mendeleev; tragic, brilliant Henry Moseley, a victim of World War I; and shy, self-effacing Glenn T. Seaborg, one of only two individuals to have an element named after them while they were still alive.

It's a fun read, even if you're not a science geek -- maybe especially if you're not a science geek.  Because it allows you to peer behind the curtain, and see that the scientists are just like the rest of us, with rivalries, jealousies, odd and misplaced loyalty, and all the rest of the faults the human race is subject to.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Monday, November 12, 2018

Species, types, and the "No True Scotsman" fallacy

One of the most frustrating of logical fallacies is the No True Scotsman fallacy.

It gets its name from an almost certainly apocryphal story, in which a serial rapist and killer is being pursued by the police in Glasgow, and a Scottish MP encourages the police to search amongst the immigrant population of the city.  "No Scotsman would do such a thing," the MP said.

When the criminal was caught, and turned out to be 100% Scottish, the MP was challenged about his remark.

"Well," he said, drawing himself up, "no true Scotsman would have done such a thing!"

The crux of this fallacy is that if you make a statement that turns out, in view of evidence, to be false, all you do is shift your ground -- redefine the terms so as to make your original point unassailable.

Very few other fallacies have such a capacity for making me want to smack my forehead into a wall as this one.  Someone who commits this fallacy can't be pinned down, can't be backed into a corner, can't receive his comeuppance from the most reasoned argument, the most solidly incontrovertible evidence.  The dancing skills of a master of the No True Scotsman fallacy are Dancing With The Stars quality.

All of this comes up because of an online discussion that I read, and (yes) participated in, a couple of days ago, on the topic of the demonstrability of evolution.  Someone, ostensibly a supporter of evolution but seemingly not terribly well-read on the subject, was using such evidence as the fossil record as a support for the idea.  A creationist responded, "The fossil record, and fossil dating, are inaccurate.  You evolutionists always think that bringing us a bunch of bones and shells proves your point, but it doesn't, because no one can really prove how old they were, and none of them show one species turning into another.  You can't show a single example, from the present, of one species becoming another, and yet you want us to believe in your discredited theory."

Of course, I couldn't let a comment like that just sit there, so I responded, "Well, actually, yes, I can. I know about a dozen examples of speciation (one species becoming another) occurring within a human lifetime."

Challenged to produce examples, I gave a few, including the ones that I described in an earlier post (Grass, gulls, mosquitoes, and mice, February 9, 2012), and then sat back on my haunches with a satisfied snort, thinking, "Ha. That sure showed him."

Well. I should have known better.  His response, which I quote verbatim: "All you did was show that one grass can become another grass, or a mosquito can become another mosquito.  If you could show me a mosquito that turned into a bird, or something, I might believe you."

Now, hang on a moment, here.  You asked me for one thing -- to show one species turning into a different species, in the period of a few decades.  I did so, adhering to the canonical definition of the word species.  And now you're saying that wasn't what you wanted after all -- you want me to show one phylum turning into a different one, in one generation?

I sat there, sputtering and swearing, and not sure how to answer.  So I said something to the effect that he'd pulled a No True Scotsman on me, and had changed the terms of the question once he saw I could answer it, and he'd damned well better play fair.  He humphed back at me that we evolutionists couldn't really support our points, and we both left the discussion as I suspect most people leave discussions on the internet -- unconvinced and frustrated.  So I was pondering the whole thing, and after taking my blood pressure medications I had a sudden realization of where the confusion was coming from.  It was from the idea of a type of organism.

Most people who aren't educated in the biological sciences (and I'm not including just formal education, here; there are many people who have never taken a single biology class and know plenty about the subject) really don't understand the concept of species.  They think in types.  A bird is one type of thing; a bug is a different one.  If you pressed them, they might admit that there were a few types of birds that seemed inherently different; you have your big birds (ostriches), your medium-sized birds (robins), and your little birds (hummingbirds).  I've had students that have thought this way, and when they hear I'm a birdwatcher, they seem incredulous that this could be a lifelong avocation.  Wouldn't I run out of new birds to see pretty quickly?  When I tell them that there are over 10,000 unique species of birds, they seem not so much awed as uncomprehending.

The phylogenetic tree of birds (Class Aves) [credit: Dr. Gavin Thomas, University of Sheffield, UK]

I suspect that the source of this misapprehension is the same as the source of the general misapprehension regarding the antiquity of the Earth and the origins of life: the bible.  In Leviticus 11, where they go through the whole unclean-foods thing that eventually would be codified as the Kosher Law, they split up the natural world in only the broadest-brush terms; you have your animals that have hooves and chew the cud, various combinations of ones that don't, creatures that have fins and scales and ones that don't, insects that jump and ones that don't, and a few different classes of birds (which, to my eternal amusement, included bats).  And that's pretty much it.  Plants were sorted out into ones that had edible parts (wheat, figs, olives), ones that had useful wood (boxwood, cedar, acacia), and ones that had neither of the above (thorn bushes).  And these distinctions worked perfectly well for a Bronze-Age society; it kept you from eating stuff that was bad for you, told you what you could build stuff from, and so on.  But as a scientific concept, the idea of "types of living things" is pretty ridiculous.  And yet it still seems to live on in people's minds, lo unto this very day.

So, anyway, that was my brief excursion into that least useful of endeavors, the Online Argument.  It gave me a nice example of the No True Scotsman fallacy to tell my Critical Thinking classes about.  And it really didn't affect my blood pressure all that much, but it did make me roll my eyes.  Which seems to happen frequently when I get into conversations with creationists.

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

If you are one of those people who thinks that science books are dry and boring, I'll give you a recommendation that will put that misconception to rest within the first few pages: Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.

Kean undertook to explain, from a human perspective, that most iconic of all images from the realm of chemistry -- the Periodic Table, the organized chart of elements from the simplest (hydrogen, atomic number 1) to largest and most complex (oganesson, atomic number 118).  Kean's sparkling prose shows us the personalities behind the science, including the notoriously cranky Dmitri Mendeleev; tragic, brilliant Henry Moseley, a victim of World War I; and shy, self-effacing Glenn T. Seaborg, one of only two individuals to have an element named after them while they were still alive.

It's a fun read, even if you're not a science geek -- maybe especially if you're not a science geek.  Because it allows you to peer behind the curtain, and see that the scientists are just like the rest of us, with rivalries, jealousies, odd and misplaced loyalty, and all the rest of the faults the human race is subject to.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Saturday, November 10, 2018

In the mind's eye

I've always found Charles Bonnet syndrome fascinating, and it's not just because the disorder was named after a scientist with whom I share a last name.

Nota bene: Bonnet is definitely not a relative of mine.  He was Swiss, whereas my father's family comes from the French Alps.  Plus, my dad's family name was changed when his great-grandfather emigrated to the United States -- it was originally Ariey.  In that area of France in the 19th century, there were often many branches of families living in a region, and the different branches were distinguished by adding the name of the town they were from as a hyphenated suffix.  My ancestors were Ariey-Bonnet -- Ariey from the town of St. Bonnet -- but when they came over, the immigration officials couldn't handle hyphenated names, so they just dropped the hyphen and Bonnet became the last name.  Just as well.  I have a hard enough time getting people to spell Bonnet correctly, I can't imagine what a pain in the ass it'd be to try to get people to spell Ariey correctly.

But I digress.

Charles Bonnet syndrome is sometimes called having "visual release hallucinations."  It is most common in people with visual impairment, and an odd feature of the disorder is that the people who are seeing them know they're not real.  Most of the time, hallucinations of any sort are terrifying, but in CBS, the sufferer usually just learns not to worry about them.  "I know I'm seeing little elves in carriages rolling alongside me when I walk," one 86-year-old with CBS said.  "When you get used to it, it's actually sort of amusing."

CBS is most common in people with macular degeneration, the most common cause of visual loss in the elderly.  This disorder causes the death of cells in the macula, or the center of the retina (also called the fovea), resulting in holes in the visual field that make it difficult or impossible to drive, watch television, and read.  An estimated 40% of people with macular degeneration experience some level of Charles Bonnet syndrome, experiencing visual hallucinations from the simple (flashing lights) to the elaborate (a head of a brown-eyed lion staring at you).  And new research has begun to explain why partial visual loss can result in bizarre hallucinations.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons William H. Majoros, Lion-1, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This week, a paper appeared in the journal Cell entitled, "Stimulus-Driven Cortical Hyperexcitability in Individuals with Charles Bonnet Hallucinations," by David R. Painter, Michael F. Dwyer, Marc R. Kampke, and Jason B. Mattingly, of the University of Queensland.  The researchers found persuasive evidence that the weird hallucinations in CBS occur because the loss of visual acuity in the middle of the retina triggers the peripheral parts of the retina (and the parts of the visual cortex they're connected to) to overreact -- to become, in the researchers' words, "hyperexcitable."  The authors write:
Throughout the lifespan, the cerebral cortex adapts its structure and function in response to changing sensory input.  Whilst such changes are typically adaptive, they can be maladaptive when they follow damage to the peripheral nervous system, including phantom limb pain and tinnitus. An intriguing example occurs in individuals with acquired ocular pathologies—most commonly age-related macular degeneration (MD)—who lose their foveal vision but retain intact acuity in the peripheral visual field.  Up to 40% of ocular pathology patients develop long-term hallucinations involving flashes of light, shapes, or geometric patterns and/or complex hallucinations, including faces, animals, or entire scenes, a condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). 
Though CBS was first described over 250 years ago, the neural basis for the hallucinations remains unclear, with no satisfactory explanation as to why some individuals develop hallucinations, while many do not.  An influential but untested hypothesis for the visual hallucinations in CBS is that retinal deafferentation [loss of sensory information from one part of the body] causes hyperexcitability in early visual cortex.  To assess this, we investigated electrophysiological responses to peripheral visual field stimulation in MD patients with and without hallucinations and in matched controls without ocular pathology.  Participants performed a concurrent attention task within intact portions of their peripheral visual field, while ignoring flickering checkerboards that drove periodic electrophysiological responses.  CBS individuals showed strikingly elevated visual cortical responses to peripheral field stimulation compared with patients without hallucinations and controls, providing direct support for the hypothesis of visual cortical hyperexcitability in CBS.
What this highlights once again is how fragile our sensory-perceptive systems are.  Loss of input from one area is bad enough; but instead of it simply causing a missing chunk from the sensory field, it causes you to misinterpret the signals from the part of your sensory system that is still working.  

Hardly seems fair.

At least CBS sufferers know what they're seeing isn't real, and learn to live with elves and lions and flashing lights.  Much worse are disorders like hebephrenic schizophrenia, where people have visual or auditory hallucinations -- and can't tell them from reality.  How completely terrifying that must be!

It's fascinating, however, to compare how certain we are that what we're seeing is real, and the minor changes it takes to have us see something that's clearly not real.  Once again, "I saw it with my own eyes" is a poor guide -- whether or not we're seeing elves in carriages.

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In writing Apocalyptic Planet, science writer Craig Childs visited some of the Earth's most inhospitable places.  The Greenland Ice Cap.  A new lava flow in Hawaii.  Uncharted class-5 rapids in the Salween River of Tibet.  The westernmost tip of Alaska.  The lifeless "dune seas" of northern Mexico.  The salt pans in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it hasn't rained in recorded history.

In each place, he not only uses lush, lyrical prose to describe his surroundings, but uses his experiences to reflect upon the history of the Earth.  How conditions like these -- glaciations, extreme drought, massive volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions, catastrophic floods -- have triggered mass extinctions, reworking not only the physical face of the planet but the living things that dwell on it.  It's a disturbing read at times, not least because Childs's gift for vivid writing makes you feel like you're there, suffering what he suffered to research the book, but because we are almost certainly looking at the future.  His main tenet is that such cataclysms have happened many times before, and will happen again.

It's only a matter of time.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Friday, November 9, 2018

Musical post-mortem

A few years ago, I wrote a piece in Skeptophilia about people who claim they're channeling the spirits of dead musicians, writers, and artists, so that we can get a chance to enjoy additional works by our favorite dead creative types.

So according to these folks, Beethoven is still composing, not just decomposing.

One of the folks I looked at in this post was Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), a British housewife who (despite little in the way of musical training) said she was writing -- if you believe her, a better word would be transcribing -- new works by Bach, Liszt, Chopin, and Debussy.  Some people have been extremely impressed, even baffled, by her ability; pianist Elene Gusch, who wrote a biography of Brown, said, "It would have been difficult for even a very able and well-trained composer to come up with them all, especially to produce them at the speed with which they came through."

Not everyone, however, is as taken with her compositions.  André Previn, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, said, "If the newfound compositions are genuine, they would best have been left on the shelf."

Rosemary Brown in action

So this has been one of those enduring mysteries that the believers say is absolutely convincing and the scoffers say is a ridiculous false claim.  But until now, no one has tried to do any kind of rigorous analysis of her work (or, if you believe Brown's story, the very-posthumous works of Bach et al.).

Enter Carleton University Ph.D. student Érico Bomfim.  Bomfim has undertaken a detailed analysis of Brown's compositions, with the aim of finding out if there's enough commonality with known works by famous composers to be at all confident that there's something otherworldly happening here.

"She claimed to be in touch with the spirits of those composers," Bomfim said, in an interview with  CBC Radio's All In A Day.  "She claimed to be able to talk to them, and she said that they were dictating pieces to her...  It's certainly a possibility [that it's a hoax], and that's certainly what the skeptics think about it, but the thing is, she [wrote] one piece [in front] of the cameras when BBC was recording, and it's quite a complex piece."

Bomfim believes that Brown's lack of musical training supports the possibility that her claim was true.

"[S]he didn't seem to have a very deep musical knowledge," he explained. "She just had some piano lessons, she was not a trained composer.  So it's quite hard to believe that she would be able to write that kind of piece, especially if we keep in mind that it's close to Liszt's late style."

And she wasn't just able to mimic Liszt's style.  Bomfim said that her talent for writing in the styles of famous composers was uncanny.

"To reproduce so many styles [of classical music], that never happened... There's not any other case besides Rosemary Brown.  There are many musicians that are able to imitate styles, but mostly ... it's a humorous practice, playing Happy Birthday To You in Beethoven's style.  But those are trained musicians, and they didn't show themselves to be able to write lots of new musical pieces in lots of different styles...  Rosemary Brown's case is absolutely unique, and that's why I believe it really deserves close attention from musicology."

I definitely approve of Bomfim's general approach.  No claim should be rejected out of hand, although some of them can be rejected pretty quickly (as Christopher Hitchens put it, "What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.").  Word-analysis software has become pretty good at figuring out who wrote passages of text using information such as word choice, word length distribution, and sentence structure; I know (much) less about any sort of musicological approach to the analogous question with compositions, but I would imagine the same sort of thing could be done there.

My intuition is that Rosemary Brown was a talented fake, or possibly simply delusional.  But intuition isn't evidence, and it'll be interesting to see what Bomfim comes up with.  And if it turns out that deceased composers are still writing music, no one will be happier than me.  For one thing, I hate that I've pretty much run out of new things to listen to by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Vaughan Williams.  For another, it would mean that my writing career won't be over when I kick the bucket.  It might be harder to find a publisher after I'm dead, but at least I might be able to find a competent medium to talk into being my locum.

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

In writing Apocalyptic Planet, science writer Craig Childs visited some of the Earth's most inhospitable places.  The Greenland Ice Cap.  A new lava flow in Hawaii.  Uncharted class-5 rapids in the Salween River of Tibet.  The westernmost tip of Alaska.  The lifeless "dune seas" of northern Mexico.  The salt pans in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it hasn't rained in recorded history.

In each place, he not only uses lush, lyrical prose to describe his surroundings, but uses his experiences to reflect upon the history of the Earth.  How conditions like these -- glaciations, extreme drought, massive volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions, catastrophic floods -- have triggered mass extinctions, reworking not only the physical face of the planet but the living things that dwell on it.  It's a disturbing read at times, not least because Childs's gift for vivid writing makes you feel like you're there, suffering what he suffered to research the book, but because we are almost certainly looking at the future.  His main tenet is that such cataclysms have happened many times before, and will happen again.

It's only a matter of time.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]




Thursday, November 8, 2018

Windows of the soul

I find the science of personality fascinating, not least because we're only in the earliest stages of any kind of comprehensive understanding.  What makes human beings act the way they do is certainly some kind of mix between genetics (nature) and environment (nurture), but in what proportion, and to what extent the two influence each other, are still mysteries.

The situation isn't helped much by "type tests," the best-known of which is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Research has conclusively demonstrated that the MBTI is unreliable -- the same person at different times can end up with entirely different results -- meaning that as a psychiatric tool, it's fairly useless.

Of course, maybe I'm only saying that because I'm an INTP.


So it's not surprising that psychologists and neuroscientists are eager to find more reliable ways to measure personality, especially with respect to the "Big Five" traits (neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience).  And they may have gotten an unexpected leg up with some recent research indicating that where you fall along those five spectra can be given away by your involuntary eye movements.

In their paper, "Eye Movements During Everyday Behavior Predict Personality Traits," which appeared earlier this year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers Sabrina Hoppe (of the University of Stuttgart), Tobias Loetscher (of the University of South Australia), Stephanie A. Morey (of Flinders University), and Andreas Bulling (of the Max Planck Institute) found something fascinating; when a headset kept track of the eye movements of forty-two test subjects as they went about their daily business, an artificial-intelligence program could determine where they ranked on various personality scales with astonishing accuracy.

The authors write:
One key contribution of our work is to demonstrate, for the first time, that an individual's level of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and perceptual curiosity can be predicted only from eye movements recorded during an everyday task.  This finding is important for bridging between tightly controlled laboratory studies and the study of natural eye movements in unconstrained real-world environments...  The proposed machine learning approach was particularly successful in predicting levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and perceptual curiosity.  It therefore corroborates previous laboratory-based studies that have shown a link between personality traits and eye movement characteristics. 
[O]ur work... shed[s] additional light on the close link between personality traits and an individual's eye movements.  Thanks to the machine learning approach, we could automatically analyze a large set of eye movement characteristics and rank them by their importance for personality trait prediction.  Going beyond characteristics investigated in earlier works, this approach also allowed us to identify new links between previously under-investigated eye movement characteristics and personality traits.  This was possible because, unlike classical analysis approaches, the proposed machine learning method does not rely on a priori hypotheses regarding the importance of individual eye movement characteristics... 
[I]mproved theoretical understanding will assist the emerging interdisciplinary research field of social signal processing, toward development of systems that can recognize and interpret human social signals. 
Such knowledge of human non-verbal behavior might also be transferred to socially interactive robots, designed to exhibit human-like behavior.  These systems might ultimately interact with humans in a more natural and socially acceptable way, thereby becoming more efficient and flexible.
Which is absolutely fascinating, and of course raises the question of why my neuroticism and introversion would affect the tiny, involuntary movements of my eyes, but answering that was beyond the scope of this study.  Of course, we already knew that the small, back-and-forth movements of the eyes called microsaccades can give you information about what a person is thinking.  A highly amusing experiment a few years ago monitored test subjects in a crowded pub with head-mounted cameras.  The only instructions were that the person should try to keep focused on the person next to them, with whom they were having a discussion.

Well, a few minutes in, the researchers sent in a gorgeous, scantily-clad individual of the test subject's preferred gender to walk by, and even when the subject made a heroic effort not to look, the microsaccades gave him/her away.  While they were focused on the person they were talking to, their microsaccades were going, "Oh dear god that person is drop-dead sexy look that way look that way LOOK THAT WAY."

So the Hoppe et al. study is a fascinating refinement of what our eyes give away about us.  It does make me wonder, however, how this could be used to reveal information the individual would prefer not to reveal.  If an AI program can successfully determine a person's personality from nothing more than eye movements, it's another potential blow to privacy -- however astonishing the results may be to people who, like me, are fascinated with the intricacies of the human brain.

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

In writing Apocalyptic Planet, science writer Craig Childs visited some of the Earth's most inhospitable places.  The Greenland Ice Cap.  A new lava flow in Hawaii.  Uncharted class-5 rapids in the Salween River of Tibet.  The westernmost tip of Alaska.  The lifeless "dune seas" of northern Mexico.  The salt pans in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it hasn't rained in recorded history.

In each place, he not only uses lush, lyrical prose to describe his surroundings, but uses his experiences to reflect upon the history of the Earth.  How conditions like these -- glaciations, extreme drought, massive volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions, catastrophic floods -- have triggered mass extinctions, reworking not only the physical face of the planet but the living things that dwell on it.  It's a disturbing read at times, not least because Childs's gift for vivid writing makes you feel like you're there, suffering what he suffered to research the book, but because we are almost certainly looking at the future.  His main tenet is that such cataclysms have happened many times before, and will happen again.

It's only a matter of time.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]



Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Aliens in New Zealand

There's a reason that scientists don't put much faith in eyewitness accounts, and it's not just because of hoaxers and liars.

Eminent astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson tells a story about a policeman who was driving on a winding mountain road at night, and called in to his dispatcher with a frantic account of pursuing a UFO.  The light in the sky, he said, was bright white, and was bobbing and weaving as he followed it.  Nothing natural could move that way, the policeman said.  It had to be a spaceship from another world.

It turned out that the policeman wasn't chasing a spaceship at all, he was chasing... the planet Venus.  It was low over the horizon, and as the policeman maneuvered his car along the winding road, it appeared to move back and forth.  He was so focused on the combination of keeping the "UFO" in sight and not running off the road that he honestly didn't realize the apparent bouncing about was because of his motion, not the "UFO's."

So, as Tyson put it, we need something more than "I saw it."  In science, that simply isn't enough.

Which is why the "eyewitness account" that hit the news last week from a 70-year-old New Zealander is not really carrying much weight with the scientific world.  Alec Newald gave an interview in which he finally made public a claim that in 1989, he was driving from Auckland to Rotorua, and was abducted by aliens...

... for ten days.

"I was like what the hell is going on here?" he said.  "I was driving the car and it felt like a tonne of bricks had landed on me, like someone had poured cement on me.  I felt like I was pushed into the seat of that car.  I was paralyzed, I couldn’t turn the wheel or apply the brakes or do anything."

Newald says he lost consciousness, and woke up in a "cavernous space filled with blue flashing lights."  At first, he thought he'd died and this was the afterlife, although why the afterlife would have blue flashing lights is a bit of a mystery.  Maybe heaven has KMart-style Blue Light Specials, I dunno.

Shortly afterwards, Newald said he became aware that he was basically incorporeal, further supporting his guess that he was in spirit form.  "I was just like a wispy ghost with no form at all," he said.  "I found I could maneuver myself by moving my consciousness forward or sideways."

But that was only the beginning.  Newald felt a "tap on the shoulder," which is itself a little odd as I wouldn't think an incorporeal ghost would have a shoulder to tap.  But he turned, and found himself confronted by a strange sight.
Looking up, I realized we were being approached by three aliens, the tallest of them looking like my escort from earlier on.  The second one was just a little shorter and was male as far as I could tell. The third was smaller, much smaller, and walked ahead of the other two.  He, for want of a better word, was slightly built with a roundish head and rather unusual, squinty eyes which were well-spaced and placed rather lower down than are our own.  He had a very small mouth, but I did not notice any ears or much of a nose.  His physical appearance, however, was of almost no consequence, for I was immediately struck with an almost overpowering feeling of his presence.  I cannot say it was hypnotic, if anything, the opposite. It was as if his energy was being projected and absorbed by my body.
He then was told to step into a machine, which would "build a body" for him -- and that the aliens were trying to modify their own bodies so they could exist on Earth.

Alec Newald's drawing of one of the aliens he saw during his abduction experience

Newald says the aliens kept him for ten days, showing him around the place.  They were entirely friendly, and at the end of the time, he was returned back to Earth, and found himself back in his car on the way to Rotorua, as if no time at all had elapsed.  But despite the fact that this crazy experience had left him back where he started, he didn't find it so easy to deal with.

"It's a very hard pill to swallow," he said.  "Try absorbing that and continue to live your life as if nothing has changed...  Perhaps an even bigger surprise was, with the exception of a few, the more I tried to share this information the harder my life became.  I was ostracized by people you might have expected support from.  In fact, even before I tried to share any of the things I’d learnt, my life started to become more than difficult.  It became impossible to continue on as before."

Okay.  So here's the problem.  Alec Newald might have been abducted by aliens.  I am of the opinion -- and I'm up front about the fact that it is just an opinion, based on what I think is a logical argument but no facts whatsoever -- that life is probably very common in the universe, and chances are, there's a good bit of intelligent life out there, too.  It's possible, but less plausible, that some highly advanced civilization crossed interstellar spaces to Earth and kidnapped a dude in New Zealand for study.

But in order to be confident that this actually happened, scientists and skeptics need more than Mr. Newald's account.  It just doesn't meet the minimum standard for evidence that would be considered a reliable support for a scientific claim.  Note that I'm not saying Mr. Newald is lying; but as Tyson's story of the Venus-chasing policeman shows, our sensory-perceptive and cognitive systems are not exactly 100% reliable.  "Trust your eyes" is not what a skeptic should be saying; closer to the truth is "don't trust anyone's eyes, especially your own."

So unfortunately, I'm not jumping to the conclusion I've seen more than once in media sources that wrote about Alec Newald's claims, that this represents an unshakable support for intelligent alien life visiting the Earth.  I don't know what happened to Mr. Newald -- whether he really did get kidnapped by benevolent extraterrestrials, or he had some kind of dissociative experience, or is conflating a dream with reality in his memory, or is simply making it all up.  What I do know is that this account doesn't change the situation with respect to alien intelligence -- there's just not enough to this claim that it should be taken as proof one way or the other.

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

In writing Apocalyptic Planet, science writer Craig Childs visited some of the Earth's most inhospitable places.  The Greenland Ice Cap.  A new lava flow in Hawaii.  Uncharted class-5 rapids in the Salween River of Tibet.  The westernmost tip of Alaska.  The lifeless "dune seas" of northern Mexico.  The salt pans in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it hasn't rained in recorded history.

In each place, he not only uses lush, lyrical prose to describe his surroundings, but uses his experiences to reflect upon the history of the Earth.  How conditions like these -- glaciations, extreme drought, massive volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions, catastrophic floods -- have triggered mass extinctions, reworking not only the physical face of the planet but the living things that dwell on it.  It's a disturbing read at times, not least because Childs's gift for vivid writing makes you feel like you're there, suffering what he suffered to research the book, but because we are almost certainly looking at the future.  His main tenet is that such cataclysms have happened many times before, and will happen again.

It's only a matter of time.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Birds of unusual size

Because today is election day, and if I stress any more about the results I'm going to burst into flame, today at Skeptophilia headquarters we are focusing on: enormous birds from Madagascar.

There has been a lot of research recently on "Elephant Birds," which (as you might expect from the name) were not your average chickadee.  They belong to the family Aepyornithidae in the clade Palaeognathae, which also includes ostriches, tinamous, cassowaries (better known as the Australian Badass Death Bird), and kiwis.  The name "Palaeognathae" means "old jaw," because they retain the structure of the palate and jaw closer to their reptilian ancestors.  (All the other birds are in the clade Neognathae -- "new jaw.")

Elephant Birds' closest living relatives are kiwis, which is kind of amazing given the fact that the largest species was four meters tall and weighed an estimated 650 kilograms, while kiwis look like bizarre walking footballs with feathers.  Sadly, the Elephant Birds were all extinct by 1,200 C.E., and no one knows exactly why, but overhunting by humans is a definite possibility.

Reconstruction of Aepyornis maximus [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Acrocynus, Aepyornis maximus 01 L.D., CC BY-SA 3.0]

The most recent study was of the brain cases from fossilized Elephant Birds, and from this they concluded that the whole group was likely to be nocturnal animals that had poor vision and relied largely on their sense of smell.  It makes sense; the same is true of kiwis.  The logic behind the conjecture is explained in the paper "Nocturnal Giants: Evolution of the Sensory Ecology in Elephant Birds and Other Palaeognaths Inferred from Digital Brain Reconstructions," by Christopher R. Torres and Julia A. Clarke, of the University of Texas at Austin.  The authors write:
Palaeoneurological studies can provide clues to the ecologies and behaviours of extinct birds because avian brain shape is correlated with neurological function.  We digitally reconstruct endocasts of two elephant bird species, Aepyornis maximus and A. hildebrandti, and compare them with representatives of all major extant and recently extinct palaeognath lineages.  Among palaeognaths, we find large olfactory bulbs in taxa generally occupying forested environments where visual cues used in foraging are likely to be limited.  We detected variation in olfactory bulb size among elephant bird species, possibly indicating interspecific variation in habitat.  Elephant birds exhibited extremely reduced optic lobes, a condition also observed in the nocturnal kiwi.  Kiwi, the sister taxon of elephant birds, have effectively replaced their visual systems with hyperdeveloped olfactory, somatosensory and auditory systems useful for foraging.  We interpret these results as evidence for nocturnality among elephant birds. Vision was likely deemphasized in the ancestor of elephant birds and kiwi.
A study earlier this year, by James P. Hansford and Samuel T. Turvey of London's Institute of Zoology, revised what we know about the group's taxonomy.  Their paper, "Unexpected Diversity Within the Extinct Elephant Birds (Aves: Aepyornithidae) and a New Identity for the World's Largest Bird," which appeared in Royal Society Open Science in September, identified a new species, the aptly-named Vorombe titan.

So this is all pretty impressive, considering that we're talking about a group of extinct birds whose most recent common ancestor with anything that's still alive was sixty million years ago, only five million years after a giant meteorite ended the dinosaurs' hegemony.  Another cool thing is that given how recently they became extinct -- only eight hundred years ago, give or take -- they're a possible candidate for a Jurassic Park-style resurrection.

Which would be amazing.  Of course, I'd prefer it to happen somewhere other than upstate New York.  We have enough trouble with fluffy bunnies in our vegetable garden, much less 650-kilogram ostriches on steroids who come out at night and hunt by their sense of smell.  And remember that these things are kissing cousins to the cassowaries.  We can't rule out their being ill-tempered, as well.

So maybe it's just as well they're extinct.  For one thing, if they were still around, it'd only be a matter of time before Donald Trump decided to train them to protect the borders, and the next thing we knew there'd be hordes of FX-17 Giant Flightless Tactical Assault Birds running amok in Arizona.  And heaven knows we don't want that.

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

In writing Apocalyptic Planet, science writer Craig Childs visited some of the Earth's most inhospitable places.  The Greenland Ice Cap.  A new lava flow in Hawaii.  Uncharted class-5 rapids in the Salween River of Tibet.  The westernmost tip of Alaska.  The lifeless "dune seas" of northern Mexico.  The salt pans in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it hasn't rained in recorded history.

In each place, he not only uses lush, lyrical prose to describe his surroundings, but uses his experiences to reflect upon the history of the Earth.  How conditions like these -- glaciations, extreme drought, massive volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions, catastrophic floods -- have triggered mass extinctions, reworking not only the physical face of the planet but the living things that dwell on it.  It's a disturbing read at times, not least because Childs's gift for vivid writing makes you feel like you're there, suffering what he suffered to research the book, but because we are almost certainly looking at the future.  His main tenet is that such cataclysms have happened many times before, and will happen again.

It's only a matter of time.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]