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.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Music and dementia

My mother's elder sister died ten years ago, at the age of 90, after a long, slow, tragic decline from Alzheimer's disease.  I remember my Aunt Florence as a bright, intelligent woman, who loved to read, had a whipcrack sense of humor, and could beat just about anyone around at Scrabble.  The first symptoms were a gradual descent into what my mom called "fogginess," but it was accompanied by worry, anxiety, and paranoia.  She lost more and more of herself to this horrible disease, and during the last few years of her life she was immobile, unresponsive, with no apparent awareness of her surroundings.

My cousin, her eldest daughter, and her family cared for Aunt Florence with a diligence and selflessness that borders on heroism.  Even after she no longer knew where she was or who was in the room with her, they talked to her, made sure she was kept warm and safe, and was hugged and shown affection every single day.

To me, dementia is one of the scariest things out there.  I can't imagine anything more fundamentally terrifying than to lose one's memory and sense of self, to have a damaged mind trapped in a withering body, to be totally dependent on others for my care.  No one should have to endure that.  I'm hopeful that research in Alzheimer's will one day find a therapy or medication that slows down the progress of the disease, or perhaps cures it entirely.

In the meantime, there's been some interesting research into palliative care.  Just last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced some research that will be published this month in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, done at the University of Utah, that considers using music as a way to alleviate the horrible anxiety that comes along with the early and middle stages of the disease.

Researchers found that the part of the brain that mediates our emotional response to music is relatively undamaged by Alzheimer's (for reasons as yet unknown).  They investigated the possibility that even people whose memories were largely gone might remember, and be comforted by, hearing familiar music.  And their results were striking.

Jace King, lead author of the study, said the response was obvious.  "When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive.  Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons EvdokiyaEscportalW Music transparentCC BY-SA 3.0]

The researchers placed the test subjects in an fMRI machine, and monitored brain activity while playing one of three things through headphones -- a selection from the patient's music collection, the same music played backwards, and silence.  The familiar music triggered dramatically increased activity in the cerebrum, and a spike in functional connectivity.

The previously quiet parts of the brain were once again talking to each other.

Norman Foster, senior author of the paper, was encouraged by these results.  "This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer's disease," Foster said.  "Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment."

It's not a cure, or even a treatment, for the disease, but anything that can alleviate the horrific anxiety that comes along with it is a blessing.  "In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max," study co-author Jeff Anderson said.  "No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient's quality of life."

Which is tremendous in and of itself.  Considering how much music affects me emotionally -- I'm the guy who wept the first time I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis -- it's fantastic that there is a way to bring some of that emotional depth back to people who are becoming progressively disconnected from their world.

So if, heaven forfend, I ever descend into that deep, dark pit that is Alzheimer's, please give me a temporary reprieve by playing some of my favorite music.  You could start with Stravinsky's Firebird.

After that, use your imagination.  I'll be thankful, even if at that point I may not be able to say so.

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This week's featured book is a wonderful analysis of all that's wrong with media -- Jamie Whyte's Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders.  A quick and easy read, it'll get you looking at the nightly news through a different lens!





Saturday, April 28, 2018

The beat goes on

I've been a language geek for a very long time, which at least partly explains how a guy who has a bachelor's degree in physics and teaches high school biology has a master's degree in linguistics.  There's something about the way communication works that is simply fascinating to me.

There's a tremendous diversity in how languages work.  On the basic level, the phonetics of languages can differ greatly; each language has a unique sound structure.  Some really different, at least to my English-speaking brain; consider Xhosa, the language spoken by over ten million people in South Africa, which has three different consonants that are clicks (usually written "c" for the dental click, "x" for the lateral click, and "q" for the palatal click).  If you want to hear Xhosa sung, check out this video of the legendary Miriam Makeba singing the song "Qongqothwane:"


Another complication is tonality -- for many languages, the same syllable spoken with a rising vs. a falling tone actually has a completely different meaning.  (English only has one consistent tonal feature, which is that a rise in tone at the end of a sentence can denote a question, but the pitch change doesn't alter the meaning, as it does in many languages.)


It can be odder than that, though.  There are whistled languages, such as Silbo in the Canary Islands.  Many examples exist -- France, Greece, Turkey, India, Nepal, and Mexico all have groups who communicate by whistling (although they also have spoken language; no group I've ever heard of communicates exclusively by whistles).  Along the same lines -- and it was recent research on this topic that spurred this post -- are drummed languages.

Linguist Frank Seifart was researching endangered languages in Colombia, and was in a village where the Bora language is spoken while the chief was away.  The chief was sent for -- by someone drumming out a pattern that meant, "A stranger has arrived.  Come home."

And it's not just a code, like Morse code; the drumbeat patterns actually mimic the changes in timbre, pitch, and rhythm of the speech the drummer is trying to emulate.  The paper, which appeared in the journal Royal Society Open Science last week, was titled, "Reducing Language to Rhythm: Amazonian Bora Drummed Language Exploits Speech Rhythm for Long-Distance Communication," and begins as follows:
Many drum communication systems around the world transmit information by emulating tonal and rhythmic patterns of spoken languages in sequences of drumbeats.  Their rhythmic characteristics, in particular, have not been systematically studied so far, although understanding them represents a rare occasion for providing an original insight into the basic units of speech rhythm as selected by natural speech practices directly based on beats.  Here, we analyse a corpus of Bora drum communication from the northwest Amazon, which is nowadays endangered with extinction.  We show that four rhythmic units are encoded in the length of pauses between beats.  We argue that these units correspond to vowel-to-vowel intervals with different numbers of consonants and vowel lengths.  By contrast, aligning beats with syllables, mora or only vowel length yields inconsistent results.  Moreover, we also show that Bora drummed messages conventionally select rhythmically distinct markers to further distinguish words.  The two phonological tones represented in drummed speech encode only few lexical contrasts.  Rhythm thus appears to crucially contribute to the intelligibility of drummed Bora.  Our study provides novel evidence for the role of rhythmic structures composed of vowel-to-vowel intervals in the complex puzzle concerning the redundancy and distinctiveness of acoustic features embedded in speech.
An amusing part of the research is that in the Bora drummed language, each message is followed by a pattern that means, "Now, don't say that I am a liar."  Seifart says that the gist is much like a parent yelling at a child, "Don't tell me you didn't hear me!"

The whole thing is fascinating -- when communicating over distances long enough that our voices won't reach, people have invented new ways to send messages -- and those new ways incorporate many of the phonetic, tonal, and syntactic frameworks of the original language.

The biologist in me, however, is curious about how this is being processed in the brain.  Does drummed speech get interpreted in the same place in the brain where spoken language is?  There's been a parallel study on whistled languages -- Onur Güntürkün, a biopsychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Bochum, Germany, who has studied how whistled languages are processed in the brain, found that there was an intriguing difference between the activity of the brain while listening to whistled versus spoken language.  Since we process melodic tones primarily in the right side of the cerebrum and language primarily in the left, Güntürkün suspected that whistled languages would activate both sides equally -- and he was right.

As far as drummed languages, Güntürkün was especially interested in how the content of messages could be conveyed by milliseconds-long variations in the rhythm pattern.  "I’m amazed that these tiny milliseconds are doing the job," he said, adding that the next step is an analysis of how the two hemispheres of the brain process drummed speech, specifically timing cues.

All of which brings home again not only the amazing processing power of the brain, but the drive in humans to communicate.  It emphasizes once again the importance of preserving these endangered languages -- not only for reasons of protecting people's cultural identities, but for what it tells us about the neurological underpinning of our own minds.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!




Friday, April 27, 2018

Stress test

I ran into a piece of research today that left me scratching my head.

It was on the topic of teaching and stress, which (as you might imagine) I'm pretty interested in.  I'm a veteran teacher with 31 years in the classroom, and I can vouch for the fact that it can be a pretty stressful job.  So I thought that "Empirically Derived Profiles of Teacher Stress, Burnout, Self-Efficacy, and Coping and Associated Student Outcomes," by Keith C. Herman, Wendy M. Reinke, and Jal’et Hickmon-Rosa of the University of Missouri, would be intriguing.
Understanding how teacher stress, burnout, coping, and self-efficacy are interrelated can inform preventive and intervention efforts to support teachers.  In this study, we explored these constructs to determine their relation to student outcomes, including disruptive behaviors and academic achievement.  Participants in this study were 121 teachers and 1,817 students in grades kindergarten to fourth from nine elementary schools in an urban Midwestern school district.  Latent profile analysis was used to determine patterns of teacher adjustment in relation to stress, coping, efficacy, and burnout.  These profiles were then linked to student behavioral and academic outcomes.  Four profiles of teacher adjustment were identified.  Three classes were characterized by high levels of stress and were distinguished by variations in coping and burnout ranging from (a) high coping/low burnout (60%) to (b) moderate coping and burnout (30%), to (c) low coping/high burnout (3%).  The fourth class was distinguished by low stress, high coping, and low burnout.  Only 7% of the sample fell into this Well-Adjusted class.  Teachers in the high stress, high burnout, and low coping class were associated with the poorest student outcomes.
So far, so good, as it looks like the researchers were merely establishing a correlation.  But study co-author Herman was interviewed for a press release when the study was published, and from what he's saying it's pretty clear they thought they'd established causation:
It’s no secret that teaching is a stressful profession.  However, when stress interferes with personal and emotional well-being at such a severe level, the relationships teachers have with students are likely to suffer, much like any relationship would in a high stress environment.  It’s troubling that only 7 percent of teachers experience low stress and feel they are getting the support they need to adequately cope with the stressors of their job.  Even more concerning is that these patterns of teacher stress are related to students’ success in school, both academically and behaviorally.  For example, classrooms with highly stressed teachers have more instances of disruptive behaviors and lower levels of prosocial behaviors.
Now, just hang on a moment.

Saying that teacher stress levels are correlated with student behavioral problems and poor academic outcomes is decisively not the same thing as saying that teacher stress levels caused the problems and poor outcomes.  It's a possibility; I'm certainly not at my best in front of the classroom when I'm under stress, whether or not it came from my job.  But isn't it at least equally likely that teacher stress could be caused by having a class full of disengaged students who would rather act out than study?

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Or, of course, that both the teacher stress and the student misbehavior could be caused by some third factor.  One of the biggest predictors of poor academic performance (and dropout rates) is poverty, as been shown by multiple studies (most strikingly by Lacour and Tissington in 2011).  And it doesn't stretch credulity much to imagine that classes full of students who live in impoverished conditions would cause a lot of stress to teachers, who (after all) went into the profession because they care about kids.

So the Herman et al. study doesn't come close to establishing a causative relationship between teacher stress and student behavior.  But it's way easier to throw the responsibility of reducing their stress back to the teachers, and ignore the other factors that almost certainly play a role.

I understand that no matter what, teaching has its stresses; and I preach to my students the importance of finding stress-relievers in their lives, so I'd be hypocritical not to acknowledge that it's necessary for me as well.  And Herman does seem to have his heart in the right place.  "We as a society need to consider methods that create nurturing school environments not just for students, but for the adults who work there," he said.  "This could mean finding ways for administrators, peers and parents to have positive interactions with teachers, giving teachers the time and training to perform their jobs, and creating social networks of support so that teachers do not feel isolated."

All of which I can get behind.  But the fact is, none of that is likely to improve student outcomes until the root causes are remedied.  I suspect that when public schools fail, it will prove to be -- as with many social problems -- the result of a variety of factors (almost certainly of which poverty is one).  But simply saying that if we give teachers options for stress relief, we can fix what's wrong with public schools, is facile thinking to say the least.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!




Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lost among the stars

After yesterday's post, about politics and hypocrisy, I'm inclined today to retreat to my happy place, which is: cool new scientific research.

The story this week that blew my mind comes from research by Gaia, an astronomical study agency based in the European Union.  They just released new and detailed information on a sampling of stars in the Milky Way, including the intrinsic brightness, distance from the Earth, color, and relative motion.

Astronomers were pretty enthused by all this.  "This is a very big deal," said David Hogg, astrophysicist at New York University.  "I've been working on trying to understand the Milky Way and the formation of the Milky Way for a large fraction of my scientific career, and the amount of information this is revealing in some sense is thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times larger than any amount of information we've had previously.  We're really talking about an immense change to our knowledge about the Milky Way."

It's the scale that's the impressive part, because Gaia's study provided detailed information...

... on 1.7 billion stars.

"This is the data we're going to be working on for the rest of my career.  Probably no data set will rival this," said Jackie Faherty, astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History.  "It's the excitement of the day that we see it.  It's why we were up at 5 a.m. to get here.  It's exciting to be around each other and trying to get the data all at once.  It's a day we're going to remember."

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

However, to put things in perspective, these 1.7 billion stars represent less than 2% of the stars in the Milky Way.  So if this is "hundreds of thousands of times larger" than what we had before, we were really working from skimpy information prior to this..  It's a little like trying to come up with a good idea of life on Earth by examining a platypus, a cactus, and a mosquito.  You could find out some cool stuff (aerobic respiration, photosynthesis, gas exchange, DNA & RNA, and so on) but you'd still be missing well over 99% of the details.

This is not intended as a criticism, of course.  It's an amazing leap over what we had prior to this, and is certain to give us information on the physics of stars we didn't have before.  Considering that we're stuck here on this spinning rock, 40,000,000,000,000 kilometers away from the nearest star (other than the Sun, obviously), that's pretty damn impressive.

Oh, and that's just looking at the Milky Way.  To put things even further in perspective, at current conservative estimates, there are 200 million galaxies in the universe, each of which contain on the order of 100 billion stars.  So the current amazingly exhaustive survey gives us information about 0.0000001% of the stars in the universe.

The mind boggles.  I mean, at some point, even the mathematically adept have to throw their hands into the air and say, "Okay, there are lots and lots of stars."

All of which brings me back to a question I've considered many times; wondering if there's intelligent life out there.  With all of those star systems, there has to be, right?  I remember as a kid, sitting out in my parents' front yard with my telescope, and wondering if some alien kid 500 light years away was sitting in his parent's front yard looking back at me.  I still think it's unlikely any of them have made it here -- not only is the Sun kind of a wimpy star, in a backwoods arm of the Milky Way, but the General Theory of Relativity is still strictly enforced in most jurisdictions.

Warp drive notwithstanding.

Anyhow, it's pretty cool.  But I need to wrap this up, and go back out into the... world.  Where things like politics are happening.  I'll try not to be too upset about it.  Who knows, maybe it'll be clear tonight, and I can go out and look up at the stars.

And maybe, many light years away, an alien science nerd will be escaping from the ridiculous political situation on his planet, and is looking back in my direction.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!




Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sex, character, and hypocrisy

I know that I'm not exactly a model of restraint when it comes to holding my tongue about outrageous statements, but you'll have to take my word for it that I really tried with this one.

It was only after about the tenth time I saw a screencap of a woman's Twitter post, along with people sharing it and saying "fuck yeah!" and high-fiving each other that it pushed me over the edge.  Here's the image:


The layers of "I Don't Get It" here are so numerous that I don't know where to start.  But I'll try.  In no particular order:
  • The fact is, it's the conservatives who, as a group, are extremely concerned with what people do with their naughty bits.  (Yes, I know.  "Not all conservatives."  Look at the voting records of Republicans with regards to LGBTQ equity, and afterwards we'll talk.)
  • The issue isn't that he had sex.  The issue isn't even that he had sex with several women while he was married to several other women.  The issue is that he lied about it (repeatedly), paid these women off and then denied it, and this for some reason hasn't lost him one iota of support from the "family values" faction, which is more and more seeming not so much about "family values" as about "we'd make a deal with the devil if he got us what we want."
  • These same people who are (1) defending Trump, and (2) lambasting the folks who dare to criticize Dear Leader, are by and large the ones who had a two-year case of the vapors surrounding the revelation that Bill Clinton got a blowjob from Monica Lewinsky.  Or do rules of moral conduct only apply to Democrats?  (Nota bene: I am not defending Bill Clinton.  He not only cheated on his wife, he used his position of power to seduce an intern.  It was the behavior of an asshole, pure and simple.  That said, if you blast Bill Clinton and defend Donald Trump -- who did the same thing, only more often -- you are a hypocrite.)
  • No, Trump wasn't elected to be America's pastor, although given how he's characterized by the Religious Right, he might as well have been.  But how elected officials act in their private life -- whether they act with honesty and decency, whether they admit it when they screw up and try to make amends insofar as it's possible, and how their words line up with their actions -- are all indications of who they are as people.  And if you're telling me that's not important, you're wrong.  People who will lie, cheat, betray, and defraud in their private lives are highly unlikely to turn into saints after the ballots are counted.  Character does matter.  Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, or any other position on the political spectrum.
So the fact is, all of this does have to do with his presidency.  Which is obvious if you consider how Fox News, Sean Hannity, and the other Trump apologists would have reacted if President Obama had done 1% of what Trump has done, and thus far, gotten away with.  When prior to the election, Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in plain sight on 5th Avenue and not lose a single supporter, I thought at the time he was just engaging in his typical hyperbole.

Now, I see that it's the literal truth.

Look, I know we all tend to give politicians we like a bye on questionable behavior.  For one thing, the sunk-cost fallacy pushes us to stick with someone when we've put a lot of our time, effort, money, and emotional energy into seeing him or her elected.  But this goes way beyond sunk-cost.  This amounts to a significant subset of Americans -- 39%, by the latest polls -- who look at the mounting scandals, accusations, and unethical (if not illegal) behavior, and shrug their shoulders.

Or disbelieve it.  Or don't even hear about it.  (Speaking of Fox News.)

So don't start with me that this is about liberals suddenly turning into prudes, or how these allegations have nothing to do with Trump's presidency.  And if you really think that "Jordan Rachel" made a good point in her now-viral tweet, you're being disingenuous at best, and a willful hypocrite at worst.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!




Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Relics of a lost world

There are times that I get impatient with people doing what I call hypothesizing in a vacuum -- coming up with pointless "what ifs" that are unverifiable.  A lot of it seems to me to be useless mental messing-about that doesn't tell us anything new about how the universe actually works.

So it was a little surprising that I reacted as positively as I did to the paper that appeared last week in the International Journal of Astrobiology called, "The Silurian Hypothesis: Would It Be Possible to Detect an Industrial Civilization in the Geological Record?" by Gavin Schmidt and Adam Frank.  The authors write:
One of the key questions in assessing the likelihood of finding such a civilization is an understanding of how often, given that life has arisen and that some species are intelligent, does an industrial civilization develop?  Humans are the only example we know of, and our industrial civilization has lasted (so far) roughly 300 years (since, for example, the beginning of mass production methods).  This is a small fraction of the time we have existed as a species, and a tiny fraction of the time that complex life has existed on the Earth’s land surface (∼400 million years ago, Ma).  This short time period raises the obvious question as to whether this could have happened before.  We term this the "Silurian Hypothesis."
You're reading this correctly; the authors are trying to parse whether we could detect the presence of an industrial civilization on Earth -- if it last existed, say, 250 million years ago.

They're not the first ones to think about this.  It's showed up in fiction, most notably in the short story "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, wherein some explorers in Antarctica discover a colossal ruin that is not centuries, or even millennia, old, but tens of millions of years old -- when Antarctica was far north of its present location and had a tropical climate, and when it was inhabited by an intelligent civilization that was decidedly not human.  Being Lovecraft, of course this discovery presages several of the main characters losing important body parts, but I still remember that when I first read this story, when I was maybe fifteen years old, it wasn't the horror element that struck me most; it was the idea that maybe 90 million years ago, the world hosted a non-human intelligence of which most of the traces had been wiped out.

Schmidt and Frank first look at the likelihood of we ourselves becoming fossils, and they conclude that the answer is -- it's not very high:
The fraction of life that gets fossilized is always extremely small and varies widely as a function of time, habitat and degree of soft tissue versus hard shells or bones.  Fossilization rates are very low in tropical, forested environments, but are higher in arid environments and fluvial systems.  As an example, for all the dinosaurs that ever lived, there are only a few thousand near-complete specimens, or equivalently only a handful of individual animals across thousands of taxa per 100,000 years.  Given the rate of new discovery of taxa of this age, it is clear that species as short-lived as Homo sapiens (so far) might not be represented in the existing fossil record at all.
So the mind-blowing outcome of this reasoning is that the vast majority of species that have ever lived left no fossil record at all -- and that our knowledge of prehistoric life is so scanty that using the word "incomplete" to describe it is a woeful understatement.

[Image courtesy of Wellcome Images and the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as our artifacts, they're not much more hopeful:
The likelihood of objects surviving and being discovered is similarly unlikely. Zalasiewicz (2009) speculates about preservation of objects or their forms, but the current area of urbanization is less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, and exposed sections and drilling sites for pre-Quaternary surfaces are orders of magnitude less as fractions of the original surface.  Note that even for early human technology, complex objects are very rarely found. For instance, the Antikythera Mechanism (ca. 205 BCE) is a unique object until the Renaissance.  Despite impressive recent gains in the ability to detect the wider impacts of civilization on landscapes and ecosystems, we conclude that for potential civilizations older than about 4 Ma, the chances of finding direct evidence of their existence via objects or fossilized examples of their population is small.
Of course, the thing is, all it would take is one single artifact; you don't need an entire city to be preserved (as it was in Lovecraft).  We've made a number of very durable things -- of which, surprisingly, glass is one of the most resistant.  Most metal objects corrode on the scale of a human lifetime, much less millions of years; and plastics, long thought of as indestructible, are likely to break down to microscopic dust within a few centuries.  Any Jurassic-era plastics would long since be undetectable.  But a single glass marble or fragment of a drinking glass, encased in sediment -- that'd definitely do the trick.

Schmidt and Frank aren't the only scientists to consider the question.  Alan Weisman, in his fascinating book The World Without Us, considers the sequence of events that would occur if humanity disappeared, and concludes that not only would life march on just fine, most of our impacts would be gone in short order.  Within three days, he says, all the lights would have gone out; the loss of electricity would have results like the entire New York City subway system, and most of New Orleans, flooding.  Structures in tropical climates -- like the Panama Canal and most cities within twenty degrees either side of the Equator -- would be overgrown and swallowed by jungle within a few decades.  Within five hundred years, Weisman says, just about all that would be left is aluminum cookware, plastic residue, some of the more durable glass objects, remnants of buildings, especially in dry climates, and monuments like Mount Rushmore.

And that's after five hundred years.  Which is 0.001% of fifty million years -- and even that time span doesn't bring us back to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


What's fascinating about this study is that Schmidt and Frank aren't trying to tell us that there have been ancient civilizations in previous eras; they're simply considering the question of whether it'd be detectable if there had been.  And the answer is: probably not.  Even such factors as an industrial civilization's impact on the climate and the chemistry of the atmosphere might not leave traces that would still be discernible a hundred million years later.  The authors end their paper thusly:
Perhaps unusually, the authors of this paper are not convinced of the correctness of their proposed hypothesis.  Were it to be true it would have profound implications and not just for astrobiology.  However most readers do not need to be told that it is always a bad idea to decide on the truth or falsity of an idea based on the consequences of it being true.  While we strongly doubt that any previous industrial civilization existed before our own, asking the question in a formal way that articulates explicitly what evidence for such a civilization might look like raises its own useful questions related both to astrobiology and to Anthropocene studies.  Thus we hope that this paper will serve as motivation to improve the constraints on the hypothesis so that in future we may be better placed to answer our title question.
Which is it exactly.  Science isn't just the description of what we know, it also asks questions like "What would the universe look like if X were true?"  The ability to create a model of some version of reality, and then see if the predictions of that model line up with the evidence, is a powerful tool for understanding.

So as bizarre as it seems, apparently it is likely that even if there were a highly advanced industrial civilization that got wiped out by the Permian-Triassic Extinction 252 million years ago (along with damn near everything else; paleontologists Jack Sepkoski and David Raup, who specialize in studying the cheerful topic of mass extinctions, have estimated that the Permian-Triassic event obliterated 95% of the species on Earth), we would probably not have a single detectable trace of it left.

But maybe, just maybe, there's an Eldritch Cyclopean City still awaiting discovery somewhere.  Like Antarctica.  If so, though, I'm not going to be the one who explores it.  When that happened in Lovecraft's story, it resulted in a number of people having their brains sucked out by Shoggoths.

Which could seriously ruin one's day.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!




Monday, April 23, 2018

Fuzzy thinking, alarmism, and GMOs

There's a fundamental problem when elected officials are charged with creating laws and policies surrounding issues that they simply do not understand.

This is where we currently stand with GMOs.  GMOs, or "genetically-modified organisms," get a great deal of negative press from the all-natural folks, who have nicknamed GMO crops "frankenfoods," claiming that they cause everything from allergies to autism.  Of course, that by itself is ridiculous; modifying genes isn't going to result in the same risks and benefits every time you do it, because (and it pains me to have to point this out) different genes do different things.  A papaya that has been genetically modified to be resistant to ringspot virus is not going to resemble in any way a strain of corn that produces the caterpillar-killing BT toxin.  The only commonality is that both of them were the result of humans tinkering with DNA.

Another problem, of course, is that we've been tinkering with DNA for a long, long time, which makes the USDA's definition of GMO sound a little ridiculous.  The USDA says that genetic modification is "The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods."  It's the "more traditional methods" that's a little funny; because by that definition, not only is virtually every food you eat a GMO (unless you're subsisting on wild nuts, berries, and roots), so is your pet dog.  Selective breeding -- which has been done for millennia -- is one of those "more traditional methods" the USDA is referring to, as evidenced by the fact that typical store-variety tomatoes, corn, apples, broccoli, oranges, and soybeans (sorry, tofu-eaters) occur nowhere in the wild.  Nor does this guy:

Trust me, this is not a product of natural selection.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So we've got a problem right at the outset, which is that a scientifically-correct definition of GMO includes genetic modification by artificial selection, which means that pretty much everything in the grocery store should be so labeled; and if you include only recently-developed genetically engineered crops, you're throwing together all sorts of products whose only similarity is how they were created.

That's not even the extent of the problem, however.  At the end of last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would not label as GMO anything created using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing protocol.  The press release gave a rather bizarre justification for this decision:
Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests.  This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.  The newest of these methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.
Did you catch that?  The USDA won't regulate crops that "could otherwise have been developed" by traditional techniques, and ones that are "indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods."  Which, actually, is pretty much every GMO ever created.  How do you figure out whether a particular strain "could otherwise have been developed" or not?  So we've gone from labeling every damn product in the store to labeling nothing at all.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think CRISPR/Cas9 has phenomenal potential, not only for developing disease-resistant strains of crops that are currently seriously threatened (including, unfortunately, chocolate, oranges, and bananas), but in curing genetic diseases in humans.  And as I said before, it's scientifically inaccurate to regulate -- or even label -- all genetically modified food products the same way, as if the means by which they were produced is the only relevant issue.  My research into the topic has demonstrated to my own satisfaction that the vast majority of GMO foods are completely safe for human consumption, and a great deal of the fear-talk about them comes from people who don't have a very good understanding of what genetic modification is, or how it works.

As Tirzah Duren put it over at Real Clear Science:
Mandatory labeling of GMOs makes no sense both from the technical side and from the practical.  The definition of GMOs is misunderstood even by the organization who made them.  This lack of understanding translates into a sloppy policy that does little to inform consumers.  Examining the regulation of GMOs highlights a truth, which is the government cannot regulate what it does not understand...  [T]he major shortcoming on GMO regulation... is that the people making the rules do not understand what they are making rules about.
And neither, unfortunately, do many of the consumers.  I'm reminded of the situation a few years ago where freeze-resistant strawberries were developed by splicing in a gene for a natural antifreeze protein produced by certain species of fish, and people flipped out, because they believed of one or more of the following:
  1. They thought the strawberries would taste like fish.
  2. This meant that the strawberries were no longer vegan.
  3. They thought the strawberries were produced by some bizarre half-plant, half-fish creature in a lab.  (No, I'm not joking.)
It also gave rise to foolishness like this:


Note that saying that all GMOs are safe is just as ridiculous to say that all of them are harmful.  Each one has to be evaluated and tested on its own merits and risks.  But this kind of alarmism, fear-talk, and elevation of the naturalistic fallacy into the law of the land is simply ignorant, not to mention encouraging us to think with our emotions rather than with our brains.

Anyhow.  I suppose it's no surprise that having a citizenry that is largely ignorant of science results in the election of leaders who are largely ignorant of science.  It's still a little disheartening, though -- especially when those ignorant leaders are charged with developing policy regarding issues that they clearly don't understand.

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This week's featured book on Skeptophilia should be in every good skeptic's library: Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.  It's a no-holds-barred assault against goofy thinking, taking on such counterfactual beliefs as psychic phenomena, creationism, past-life regression, and Holocaust denial.  Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, is a true crusader, and his book is a must-read.  You can buy it at the link below!



Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nazi coins from the future

In the latest from the "News Stories That Make Me Want To Take Ockham's Razor And Slit My Wrists With It," we have a claim about an odd coin allegedly found near a construction site in Mexico.

First, the facts of the situation, insofar as I could find out.

The coin is highly weathered, and has some phrases in both German and Spanish.  It says "Nueva Alemania" ("New Germany," in Spanish) and "Alle in einer Nation" (German for "all in one nation").  There's a swastika on one side and the Iron Cross on the other, and a blurred date ending in "39."  (If you want to see a video that includes shots of the coin, there's a clip at The Daily Star showing it and its finder, Diego Aviles.)

So that's the claim.  Now let's see which of the three possible explanations proffered to account for it makes the most sense to you:
  1. It's a fake.
  2. It's an obscure coin, dating from the late 1930s, and could be potentially valuable as a historical artifact.
  3. The date actually reads "2039," so it's a coin from 21 years in the future, at which point a Nazi state will rule Mexico if not the rest of the world, except that one of the future Nazis time-slipped backwards and dropped the coin, only to be found by Aviles.  Since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Nazis have been hiding out in Antarctica, from which they will burst out some time between now and 2039, to initiate World War III and take over the entire world.
Yes, apparently there are people who think that explanation #3 is spot-on.  So it's like someone reworded Ockham's Razor to read, "Of competing explanations that account for all of the known facts, the most likely one is the one that requires 5,293 ad-hoc assumptions, breaking every known law of physics, and pretzel logic that only someone with the IQ of a peach pit could think sounded plausible."

But maybe I'm being a little uncharitable, because there are people who add to #3 some bizarre bullshit about it having to do with the "Mandela effect" and parallel universes and alternate realities.

Myself, I'm perfectly satisfied when I can explain things using the regular old reality.  But that's just me.

NOTE: Not the coin they found.  This one's a real Nazi coin.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Over at Mysterious Universe (the first link provided above), Sequoyah Kennedy does a pretty thorough job of debunking the whole thing, ending with the following tongue-in-cheek comment that rivals this post for snark:
Maybe the only explanation is that the Antarctic Nazis develop time travel in the near future, go back in time to the 1930’s, and try to convince the Mexican government to side with them in WWII by giving them a commemorative coin, which won’t work, because that’s a ridiculous and insulting way to forge an alliance.  The commemorative future coin will then be thrown away and left to sit in the dirt until it’s unearthed in 2018.  It’s the only rational explanation, really.
Indeed.  And we should also take into account that the story was broken in The Daily Star, which is the only media source I know that rivals The Daily Mail Fail for sheer volume of nonsense.

So the coin may well exist, but I'm putting my money on "fakery."  Even the idea that it's a real coin from the 1930s doesn't bear much scrutiny, because Mexico and Germany weren't on the same side in World War II, so it'd be pretty bizarre to have some kind of Mexican Nazi currency lying around.

Of course, when the Stormtroopers come roaring out of their secret bases in Antarctica and Cancun, I suppose I'll have to eat my words.  Occupational hazard of what I do.

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This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.




Friday, April 20, 2018

Food vibrations

Apparently, Australia being nonexistent and people selling homeopathic black holes weren't enough, so a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "iTOVi," which sells "nutritional scanners."

The website tells us that the scanner is designed to "provide a list of top oils and supplements your body has a response to."  How, you might ask?  Well, here's their explanation:
Our portable nutrition scanner allows you and your clients to receive personalized product responses at any time of day!  How? The  iTOVi scanner uses innovative and institutionally recognized technology to measure the body’s response to electronic frequencies.  The scanner records the body’s reaction to these frequencies and matches the user with products that have complimentary frequencies.
So we're on thin ice already, but it gets a lot thinner.  I went to the page on "technology" -- call me a doubter, but I always want to know how things work.  And I wasn't disappointed.  We're told that everything, biological and non-biological, vibrates at a particular frequency, including "supplements and essential oils."  The machine figures out your vibration with a technique that should sound vaguely familiar:
During an iTOVi scan the device passes small electrical currents through the skin to measure the body’s resistance to frequencies, each of which is the natural energy signature of various supplements and oils.  The passing of electrical frequencies induces a measurable response from the body which is then recorded and shown in the iTOVi report.
If you're thinking, "but... isn't that how a polygraph machine works?", you're spot-on.  Polygraph machines -- which, to be up front, are of dubious use in telling whether people are lying -- measure small changes in skin conductivity, which occur primarily because of the amount of sweat a person has on their skin.  Sweat, being weakly saline, is quite a good conductor; and since the theory is that a person would sweat more under conditions of emotional stress (such as lying), changes in skin conductivity could give interrogators a clue about someone's veracity.

A polygraph machine [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You may have noticed that nothing in the preceding paragraph mentions "frequencies."  That doesn't stop the iTOVi people, who claim that these conductivity changes are a clue to the body's "frequency," and they derive one from the other by means of an unspecified algorithm.  We're never given any specifics -- not even the number of Hertz we all should be shooting for.

Most of the places that blather on about "frequencies" (and "energies" and "vibrations" and "resonance") seem to think that the higher the frequency the better.  I did some digging and found the website "Vibrational Frequency 101," which I read, at great cost to the cells in my prefrontal cortex, which were screaming in agony by paragraph three.  It features passages like the following:
First off, we are not just our physical body {aka matter}. We are all made up of energy – all matter is – and bound together by an energy field. We’re talking atoms, protons, and neutrons…  This is science, people! 
So, everything vibrates with an energy. And, the higher the energy, the higher the frequency.  Positive feelings and thoughts evoke a higher frequency vs. negative feelings and thoughts evoke a lower frequency. 
The energy we’re made up of connects us to all living things and the universe.  When you really break it down, we are all just balls of energy walking the planet. 
Our energy is blocked when we experience negativity, fear, or you guessed it… unhealthy substances.  Think about it.  When you consume really unhealthy food, alcohol, or drugs, doesn’t your energy feel low, or dull or blocked?  Low vibrations mean a dampened energy field. It also means a disconnection to other things, the universe, and ourselves...  Plus, a constant negative state can lead to sickness and disease in the body.
For example, "fresh organic vegetables" supposedly have "high vibrations," while deep-fried food has "low vibrations."

Look.  You can say "this is science, people!" and "institutionally recognized technology" all day long, but until you can show me, using an oscilloscope, that kale is vibrating at 14,500 Hertz and KFC is vibrating at 7 Hertz, I'm calling bullshit.  Besides, if our food really is vibrating, shouldn't we be able to hear it?  You know, like kale emits this high-pitched whistle, and KFC a low, sad buzz, or something?  But despite listening carefully to my bowl of oatmeal this morning, I heard nothing but my wife sighing in resignation at her husband doing yet another ridiculous thing in the name of scientific research, and my dog wagging his tail, the latter presumably figuring that if I was doing something weird with my food, maybe it meant he was going to get some.

In short: the entire claim is nonsense.  You, and your organs, do have a natural (or resonant) frequency, because everything with mass does.  (Think of the natural swing rate of a kid on a swingset -- it's hard-to-impossible to make the swing oscillate at any other frequency.)  But all this means is that if your body is shaken at that frequency, it'll make (for example) your spleen vibrate, which sounds painful.  It has nothing to do with "feelings" or "negativity" or, for fuck's sake, "essential oils."

And, in fact, if you really believe that higher frequencies are better for you, let's run this experiment.  You listen to a piccolo playing a high D at full volume for an hour, and I'll listen to a cello playing a low note.  Let's see who comes away from the experience with a headache.

So about iTOVi: save your money.  The whole claim is nonsense, as you might figure out if you see the notorious disclaimer on their page, "This device is not meant to treat, cure, or diagnose any illness, nor should it be construed as medical advice."  Which, as always, is a good indicator that what it's proposing is horseshit.

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This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.