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, March 25, 2019

Brexit bending, and the flerfs visit Antarctica

Whatever else you can say about the woo-woos, you have to admit that they have the courage of their convictions.

Once they have settled on a favorite idea, they hang onto it with a death grip.  Nothing -- not the most convincing evidence, the most logical argument, the most precise data -- will budge them one millimeter.

I ran into two especially good examples of this in the last couple of days.  They both leave me feeling torn between frustration at their pig-headedness and a grudging admiration for their tenacity.

In the first, which I was alerted to by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, we learn that the Flat-Earthers (hereafter referred to as "Flerfs") are planning a trip to Antarctica... so they can see first hand the "ice wall that holds back the oceans."  The FEIC (Flat Earth International Conference) calls it their "biggest, boldest adventure yet."

There's just one problem with this, if you exclude the obvious one that anyone who believes the Earth is flat would have to have the IQ of a peach pit.  In order to get to Antarctica, they're going to be aboard a ship, and if the ship has even a passing chance of getting to its destination, it has to use GPS, and the GPS system...

... assumes the Earth is spherical.  Remember, after all, what the "G" in "GPS" stands for.

Unless somehow they are able to convince the ship's captain to navigate based upon the assumption that the Earth is a flat disk, in which case the U. S. S. Flerf will probably never be seen again.

I would hope, of course, that the captain would nix any efforts by the Flerfs to plot their course based on the dimensions and orientation of a disk.  Captains are usually fairly particular about having their ships not get lost or run aground or sail around in circles, not to mention having a bunch of landlubbers telling them what to do.  So I suspect that the captain will tell them to buzz right off and use his GPS, and let them have their silly fun when they get there and declare victory regardless what else happens (which you know they will).

In our second story, we have the reappearance of a woo-woo who you'd think would not be willing to show his face in public after being publicly humiliated by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  I'm referring, of course, to Israeli "mentalist" Uri Geller, who was invited to do his psychic spoon-bending shtick on live television.  But Carson, who had been a stage magician himself and knew all the tricks, did not give Geller access to any of the props beforehand.

What happened afterward was almost painful to watch.  I absolutely hate seeing someone making a complete and utter fool of himself, and even the most generous of folks couldn't see Geller's performance in any other light.  To put it bluntly, he got his ass handed to him.  After failing to bend any spoons, he told Carson he "wasn't feeling strong" that night.  And his inability to psychically detect objects hidden under cups mysteriously vanished, which Geller attributed to the "atmosphere of suspicion and distrust" that Carson was creating.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Guy Bavli, Bavli.in.denmark.2010, CC BY-SA 3.0]

It's surprising, honestly, that he was willing to go on the show at all; he had to have known what was going to happen.  Maybe by that time, he was so cocky that he figured he'd be able to wing it and still come out okay.  But the demonstration, in front of a live audience and beamed out live to television watchers worldwide, went on, and on... and on and on.  Geller just wouldn't give up.  I found myself squirming in discomfort after five minutes; I can't imagine what it was like to be him, sitting there, unable to do a thing to get out of the hole he'd dug for himself.

If this had happened to me, I don't know if I'd have ever been willing to stick my nose outside my front door again.  But Geller not only got past the embarrassment, somehow, he's actually continued to claim psychic abilities -- and perform his nonsense in front of sold-out crowds.

But now, he's topped any of his previous exploits, because last week Geller announced that he was personally going to stop Brexit -- by telepathically controlling British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Most Brits, Geller says, are against Brexit, a conclusion he has come to "psychically and very strongly."  So he can't let May and her supporters lead the UK out of the European Union.  In an open letter to May, Geller wrote, "I love you very much but I will not allow you to lead Britain into Brexit.  As much as I admire you, I will stop you telepathically from doing this -- and believe me I am capable of executing it.  Before I take this drastic course of action, I appeal to you to stop the process immediately while you still have a chance."

So that's pretty unequivocal.  But what's the most frustrating about all of this is that no matter what happens, Geller won't lose a single audience member.  If Brexit falls apart (whether or not May herself is the cause), he'll claim that his psychic powers are what did it.  If the UK follows through and leaves the EU, he won't mention it again -- and the woo-woos will conveniently forget it ever happened, just like every other time a psychic has had a conspicuous failure.

As I've pointed out before, you can't win.

But like I said, you have to almost admire their stubbornness.  It reminds me of the quote from Bertrand Russell -- "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts."

So look for updates from the Flerf mission to Antarctica and Uri Geller's attempt to stop Brexit with his mind.  Me, I'm not expecting much.  But I guess it all falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.

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I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Saturday, March 23, 2019

The execution drill

We're taking a day off from our regularly scheduled programming because of a story that upset me so much I have to write about it.

I wrestled with whether I should address this here for over 24 hours, wondering what contributing my two-cents'-worth would accomplish, and then I decided I had to speak up.  My mind keeps coming back to the story, and that's a sign that I still need to process my thoughts and (especially) my emotions on the topic.

So here I am.

The story hit the news a couple of days ago.  Apparently, in Monticello, Indiana, part of the Twin Lakes School District, the powers-that-be staged an "active shooter drill."  We do this in my own school (although we call it a "lockdown drill") -- the principal calls a lockdown, we shut and lock our doors, turn the lights off, and everyone gets into a part of the classroom that can't be seen from the window in the door.  The idea is to get used to responding to any potential threats by making it look like the room is unoccupied.

The administrators in Monticello decided to push it one step further.  They had people posing as actual shooters, armed with Airsoft pellet guns, and they forced their way into one of the rooms, lined the teachers up four at a time, made them kneel, and shot them in the back, execution-style.  People out in the hall heard screams, and the Airsoft pellets raised welts and at least in one case, drew blood.

Neither the school district nor the law enforcement officials who conducted the drill were willing to comment on what happened.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The Indiana State Teachers' Association was understandably outraged.  "The teachers were terrified, but were told not to tell anyone what happened.  Teachers waiting outside that heard the screaming were brought into the room four at a time and the shooting process was repeated," the Association said on Twitter.  "No one in education takes these drills lightly.  The risk of harming someone far outweighs whatever added realism one is trying to convey here."

Representative Wendy McNamara, who co-authored a bill requiring schools to hold shooter drills, expressed amazement that it was handled this way.  "I would never have thought in a million years that anybody would have thought that it made sense to use in an active shooter drill where teachers are unaware that they're going to be shot with a pellet gun," she said.  "That would have never crossed my mind as something we'd need to legislate."

Me neither, Representative McNamara.

It also brings up the question of who in the hell thought this was a good idea.  The principal?  The superintendent?  Was the district pushed by the sheriff's office to include this as part of the drill?  Of course, since all they'll say is "no comment," no one at this point knows for sure except the people who made the decision.

Being a teacher, of course what this brought up in my mind is how I'd respond if this happened in my school.  My first reaction is that when the guy with the pellet gun told me to kneel on the floor, I'd have told him, "Not just no, but fuck no."  But the people acting as the shooters were police officers who were armed with more than Airsoft guns.  What would have happened if I'd refused?  Is this (in a legal sense) refusing to cooperate with law enforcement?  What if I walked out?  What if I disobeyed what I was told, and yelled to the other teachers waiting to be executed that they needed to get the hell out of there?

I'd like to think if I refused to cooperate, and the policeman had said, "Do it or you're under arrest," I'd have said, "Go ahead, you asshole.  Arrest me.  I'll see you and the school district representatives in court."  But you never know how you'll react when you're in a highly emotional situation, and especially one you were not expecting.  Because -- if this wasn't clear enough -- none of the teachers were warned ahead of time that this would happen.

I do know that afterward, the first thing I'd do is to turn in my letter of resignation.  Along with a lengthy explanation of why.  If I can't trust the people in charge of my school to do whatever has the best interest of the students' and staff's emotional health in mind, I'll find other employment.

The second thing I would do is mail a copy of the letter to every news outlet I can think of.

But this doesn't alter the fundamental problems with this situation, which include:
  • We are in a place as a nation where people have concluded that school shootings are likely enough that we need to conduct a realistic simulation of one.
  • Somehow, conducting "realistic active shooter drills" is considered to be a better way of addressing school shootings than passing reasonable, common-sense gun laws.
  • Whoever designed this drill thought that traumatizing teachers was an effective way to train them in how to respond in an emergency.
  • No one is taking responsibility for this idiotic decision.
I don't seem to be getting over the outrage I felt the first time I saw this story, two days ago.  The more I think about it, the madder I get.  I'm not a big fan of lawsuits, but I hope that the Indiana State Teachers' Association sues the absolute shit out of either Twin Lakes School District, the White County Sheriff's Department, or both, on behalf of the teachers who are probably still recovering from the emotional trauma of what they went through.

Beyond that, I can't think of anything more to say.  But maybe if enough people find out about this, it'll make it less likely that some trigger-happy administrator or policeman decides it'd be good to stage a mock shooting in the name of "realism."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Friday, March 22, 2019

Creator and creation

In today's post, I'm going to ask a question, not because I'm trying to lead people toward a particular answer, but because I don't know the answer myself.

The topic comes up because yesterday was Johann Sebastian Bach's 334th birthday, and the classical radio station I frequently listen to had an all-Bach-all-day program.  I approve of this, because I love Bach's music, and have done since I first discovered classical music when I was twelve years old.

The radio was playing one of Bach's (many) religious cantatas, which was gorgeous, but it started me thinking about one of his masterworks -- the St. John Passion.  And that's when I started to feel uneasy, because there are passages in the St. John Passion that are decidedly anti-Semitic.

The gist is that the villains of the piece are the crowds of Jews who demand Jesus's crucifixion, and who are depicted as deliberately rejecting the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.  (Which, I suppose, they did, if you accept the biblical account as historical.)  But it's obvious that the Jews are being cast in a seriously negative light.  This is consistent with Martin Luther's theology, which was even more clearly and virulently anti-Semitic.  And Bach, after all, was a devout Lutheran.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

On the other hand (and you'll find there are several hands, here), even the powers-that-be of the time didn't condone maltreatment of Jews based on the biblical accounts and the St. John Passion specifically.  The senate of the city of Hamburg, for example, issued an official proclamation in 1715 that, relative to performance of Bach's piece at Easter, "The right and proper goal of reflection on the Passion must be aimed at the awakening of true penitence…  Other things, such as violent invectives and exclamations against… the Jews… can by no means be tolerated."

The fact that they had to state that outright, however, certainly is indicative that there's something to the claim that the Passion is by its nature anti-Semitic.  And that got me to thinking about the relationship between a creator and his/her work -- and to what extent the opinions and behavior of the creator can be kept separate from the worth of the work itself.

Other examples come to mind.  H. P. Lovecraft, whose horror stories were a near-obsession when I was a teenager and who to this day influences my own fiction writing greatly, was an unabashed racist -- something that comes out loud and clear in stories like "The Horror at Red Hook" and (especially) "Facts Surrounding the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family."  The best of his stories -- gems like "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" -- are largely free of the ugly racism he apparently embraced, but in his case, saying "He was a man of his times" only goes so far, and after discovering his bigotry I've read Lovecraft with some serious misgivings.

Orson Scott Card's homophobia is another good example, although I must say I wasn't that fond of Card's fiction even before I found out about his anti-LGBTQ stance.  Even Tom Cruise, whose loony defense of Scientology makes me wonder if he is sane, is undeniably a good actor -- Minority Report and Vanilla Sky would be in my top-ten favorite movies.  But I can't watch him without remembering him losing his mind and leaping about on Oprah Winfrey's couch.

The truth is that keeping the creator and the creation separate is at best an exercise in mental gymnastics.  On the most venial level, authors like myself need to be careful about our public personae, because that (after all) is the brand we're trying to sell.  (It's why I try to keep the vehemence-level down in any postings I make about politics on social media -- a difficult thing, sometimes.)  But it goes deeper than that.  Even if our own ugly opinions or weird personality quirks don't explicitly leak out onto the page, they're part of us, and therefore part of what we create.  Separating the two is nearly impossible -- at least for me.

So we're back to where we started, with the question of how a person's flaws color the perception of their work.  And I honestly don't know the answer.  I'm sure I'll still continue to listen to Bach -- and continue to be inspired by Lovecraft's ability to tell a bone-chillingly scary story -- but there will always be a twinge of conscience there, and probably there should be.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Thursday, March 21, 2019

Space suits and straw men

Before you jump to a wild explanation for something, it's a good idea to rule out prosaic explanations first.

Take, for example, the strange deity Bep Kororoti, worshiped by the Kaiapo tribe of Brazil.  Erich von Däniken and his ilk just love this god, and when you see a photograph of someone wearing a Bep Kororoti suit, you'll understand why:


In his book Gold of the Gods, von Däniken says that this is clear evidence of contact with an alien wearing a space suit:
João Americo Peret, one of our outstanding Indian scholars, recently published some photographs of Kaiapo Indians in ritual clothing that he took as long ago as 1952, long before Gagarin's first space flight...  I feel that it is important to reemphasize that Peret took these photographs in 1952 at a time when the clothing and equipment of astronauts were still not familiar to all us Europeans, let alone these wild Indians!...  Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his spaceship Vostok I for the first time on April 1961...  The Kaiapos in their straw imitation spacesuits need no commentary apart from the remark that these 'ritual garments' have been worn by the Indian men of this tribe on festive occasions since time immemorial, according to Peret...
Nope.  No commentary needed.  No questions, either.  Consider how this shows up on the dubiously credible site Message to Eagle:
The inhabitants of the Amazon jungle, the Indians Kaiapo [sic] settled in the State of Pará in northern Brazil, have detailed legends of sky visitors, who gave their people wisdom and knowledge. 
The Kaiapo Indians worshipped in particular one of these heavenly teachers. His name was Bep Kororoti, which in Kayapo [sic] language, means "Warrior of the Universe"... It is said that his weapons were so powerful that they could turn trees and stones into dust. 
Not surprisingly, his aggressive warrior manners terrified the primitive natives, who at the beginning even tried to fight against the alien intruder. 
However, their resistance was useless. 
Every time their weapons touched Bep Kororoti's clothes, the people fell down to the ground.
Eventually Bep calmed down, we find out, and began to teach the Kaiapo all sorts of stuff.  He also had lots of sex with Native women, apparently while still wearing his space suit, and today's Kaiapo claim descent from him.

The whole thing has become part of the "Ancient Aliens" canon, and even was featured on the show of the same name (narrated, of course, by the amazingly-coiffed Giorgio Tsoukalos).

So anyway.  The whole thing boils down to the usual stuff.  You have a god coming down from the sky, dispensing knowledge (and various other special offers) to the Natives, then returning from whence he came.   Evidence, they say, that the Kaiapo were visited by an alien race in ages past.

All of this, however, conveniently omits one little fact.  Probably deliberately, because once you point this out, the whole thing becomes abundantly clear.  Writer and skeptic Jason Colavito found out that not only did Bep Kororoti live in the sky and come visit the Kaiapo...

... he was the protector spirit of beekeepers.

For reference, here's a drawing of some traditional beekeepers, done by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1568:


Notice a similarity? Yeah, me too.

I know we all have our biases and our favorite explanations for things.  But when you deliberately sidestep a rational, Earth-based explanation for one that claims that damn near every anthropological find is evidence of ancient astronauts, you've abandoned any right to be taken seriously.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Free speech and consequences

A couple of days ago I broke my cardinal rule -- arguing with strangers about politics on the internet -- when someone posted a snarky reply to a comment I'd made on Twitter.

The comment was about a recent story featuring the spectacularly out-of-touch-with-reality Rush Limbaugh, wherein he said that liberals staged the shootings in New Zealand to make conservatives look bad.  The exact quote is, "There's an ongoing theory that the shooter himself may in fact be a leftist who writes the manifesto and then goes out and performs the deed purposely to smear his political enemies."  Interestingly, Limbaugh admits this claim is too bizarre even for Fox News: "[I]f that's exactly what the guy is trying to do then he's hit a home run, because right there on Fox News: 'Shooter is an admitted white nationalist who hates immigrants.'"

There are a couple of things that came to my mind when I heard about this, the first of which is that the word "theory" doesn't mean "some random idea I pulled out of my ass just now."  But that's a minor point, really.  The other thing that crosses my mind is that it's telling that Limbaugh thinks posing as a white-supremacist wacko and shooting immigrants would make conservatives look bad.

But anyhow, after I saw this story posted on Twitter, I responded, "It will be a good day when anyone who makes a statement like this is immediately shouted down."

Well.  You'd swear I just suggested violently overthrowing the government, or something, judging by the responses.  The one that stood out, though, was a guy who said, "Just like a liberal.  To hell with free speech.  If someone disagrees with you, they deserve to be silenced by whatever means necessary."

Which is packing a lot into a small space.  First, I wasn't saying Limbaugh should shut the hell up because I disagree with him on political matters, but because he had (1) made a claim that was demonstrably false, and (2) encouraged the beleaguered siege mentality that's becoming increasingly common on the Right.  And nowhere did I say he deserved to be "silenced by whatever means necessary."

But the most important point is that he seems to believe that free speech means you can say whatever you want with zero consequences.  Free speech refers to your right to state your opinion; it doesn't mean that you have a right to avoid the repercussions.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Simon Gibbs from London, United Kingdom, Free speech reason progress, CC BY 2.0]

As a simple example, consider people who've made disparaging comments about their bosses on social media, and gotten fired.  Sure, it was entirely within their rights to say what they said.  But the boss was also entirely within his/her rights to fire the employee.  What this guy seems to be claiming is that people bear no responsibility for the results of their actions -- odd since most conservatives claim to support personal responsibility.

To quote physicist and writer Brian Cox: "The problem with today's world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion and have others listen to it.  The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored, and even be made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense."

This is exactly the situation with Limbaugh's case; the logical consequence of publicly uttering a ridiculous statement is that he'll be ridiculed.  What I was saying is that it'd be nice if everyone hearing such dangerous fiction would recognize it as such and respond by telling him to shut up -- and by extension, encouraging his sponsors to stop advertising with him.  This isn't a curtailment of free speech.  It's the natural result of being an asshole.  In a fair world, you get your public forum taken away.  You're still free to say whatever you like; it's just that no one's listening any more.

After all, there's no such thing as "conservative truth" and "liberal truth."  There's only the "truth," and it'd be nice if more people on both sides of the aisle cared about it.

But honestly, I should have known that posting on Twitter, and then (worse) responding to someone who objected, was a fruitless pursuit.  The exchange didn't change either of our minds, it just resulted in two people being even more pissed off than before.  This is the danger of social media -- it tends either to turn into a battleground or an echo chamber, neither of which is conducive to change.

A lesson Donald Trump has yet to learn.

So I'm once again making the decision not to get in online arguments with strangers.  I just don't have the energy or patience for it.  I'll continue to try to facilitate change where I can -- such as writing here at Skeptophilia -- but I've recognized a losing battle for what it is.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Spanish replacement

It's strange to think about, but there is a point in human history at which you can divide all of the inhabitants into two categories: those who left no living descendants at all, and those who are the ancestors of every single person alive today.

Anthropologists differ as to when that date is, but it's probably more recently than most of us would guess.  It certainly happened after the Toba bottleneck, a point about 74,000 years ago when there was a massive eruption of the Toba volcano (in the Indonesian archipelago) and a worldwide climate impact that may have reduced the entire population of ancestral humans to fewer than 7,000 total.  (Nota bene: scientists are still debating how big the bottleneck was, and whether it was the volcano that actually caused it; but I'm referring to the event by its most common nickname even so.)

What's cool is that with our current ability to do genetic analysis, we can narrow in on the answers to these sorts of questions.  Just last week, some research was published in Cell giving us an interesting lens into settlement patterns in Spain -- and that only 4,500 years ago, an influx of people from Eastern Europe and Russia resulted in the replacement of nearly all of the Y-chromosomal DNA that had been there for the previous forty thousand years.


This doesn't mean that the previous inhabitants left no descendants (although that could be true) -- all we can infer with certainty is that the men who had lived there prior to the invasion left very few patrilineal descendants.  As Y-chromosomal DNA is passed only father-to-son, any male descendants a man has through his daughters would share none of his Y-DNA.  (The same is true, but with the opposite genders, about mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed through the maternal line.)

In "Survival of Late Pleistocene Hunter-Gatherer Ancestry in the Iberian Peninsula," by Vanessa Villalba-Mouco, Marieke S. van de Loosdrecht. Cosimo Posth, Pilar Utrilla, Johannes Krause, and Wolfgang Haak, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History working with the University of Zaragoza, the authors write:
The Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe represents an important test case for the study of human population movements during prehistoric periods.  During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the peninsula formed a periglacial refugium for hunter-gatherers (HGs) and thus served as a potential source for the re-peopling of northern latitudes...  Western and central Europe were dominated by ancestry associated with the ∼14,000-year-old individual from Villabruna, Italy, which had largely replaced earlier genetic ancestry, represented by 19,000–15,000-year-old individuals associated with the Magdalenian culture.  However, little is known about the genetic diversity in southern European refugia, the presence of distinct genetic clusters, and correspondence with geography.  Here, we report new genome-wide data from 11 HGs and Neolithic individuals that highlight the late survival of Paleolithic ancestry in Iberia, reported previously in Magdalenian-associated individuals.  We show that all Iberian HGs, including the oldest, a ∼19,000-year-old individual from El Mirón in Spain, carry dual ancestry from both Villabruna and the Magdalenian-related individuals.  Thus, our results suggest an early connection between two potential refugia, resulting in a genetic ancestry that survived in later Iberian HGs.  Our new genomic data from Iberian Early and Middle Neolithic individuals show that the dual Iberian HG genomic legacy pertains in the peninsula, suggesting that expanding farmers mixed with local HGs.
A different study, also published last week in the journal Science, added another piece to the puzzle.  "The Genomic History of the Iberian Peninsula Over the Past 8000 Years," by a team of scientists far too lengthy to list working at over a dozen research institutions, examined the DNA of 271 individuals and came to some fascinating conclusions about the settlement of Spain:
We assembled genome-wide data from 271 ancient Iberians, of whom 176 are from the largely unsampled period after 2000 BCE, thereby providing a high-resolution time transect of the Iberian Peninsula.  We document high genetic substructure between northwestern and southeastern hunter-gatherers before the spread of farming.  We reveal sporadic contacts between Iberia and North Africa by ~2500 BCE and, by ~2000 BCE, the replacement of 40% of Iberia’s ancestry and nearly 100% of its Y-chromosomes by people with Steppe ancestry...  Additionally, we document how, beginning at least in the Roman period, the ancestry of the peninsula was transformed by gene flow from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.
This influx pushed the Iberian farmers, who before had occupied the entire peninsula, into the mountainous northeastern parts of Spain -- and they are, apparently, the ancestors of today's Basque people, who are not only genetically distinct but who speak a language thought to be unrelated to any other existing language.  "The Basque country is a really difficult place to conquer; there are quotes from French rulers in medieval times saying that this is a nasty place to get in an army," said population geneticist Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University in Sweden, who was not part of either of the present studies.

Iñigo Olalde, a postdoc in the lab of population geneticist David Reich at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who is himself Basque, and who participated in the second study, agrees.  "The present-day Basques look like Iron Age people from Iberia," Olalde said.

What I find most fascinating about this is how we can use genetic analysis as a lens into a time period from which we have no written records at all, and make inferences about the movements of people who before had been entirely a mystery.  There's a lot we still don't know, of course, including how this genetic replacement took place.  "It would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that Iberian men were killed or forcibly displaced," Olalde said, "as the archaeological record gives no clear evidence of a burst of violence in this period."

This opens up the potential for using this technique to study other time periods that are historical enigmas -- like the European "Dark Ages," between the Fall of Rome and consolidation of the Holy Roman Empire with the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 C.E.  Amazing that genetics, which tells us about who we are here and now, can also be seen as a history of where we came from -- a continuous record of information back to our earliest ancestors.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Monday, March 18, 2019

The Gaia Hypothesis and the danger of models

Scientists use models -- partial representations of reality, often expressed mathematically -- to explain the universe.  Both working scientists and science teachers often explain those models using analogies.

This has a good result and a bad result.  The good result is that the use of model, analogy, and metaphor makes science accessible for non-scientists.  You don't have to understand piles of abstruse mathematics in order to get a glimpse at the weirdness of quantum theory; if you read last week's post on the Wigner's Friend Paradox, you've seen an example.  In my own teaching, I use analogy all the time.  Antibodies are like trash tags.  Transpiration in plants is like a very long chain attached to the underside of a trampoline.  The Krebs Cycle is like a merry-go-round in which two kids get on and two kids get off at every turn.

The downside, however, is twofold.  The first problem is that it's easy at times to think that the model is the reality.  The goofier the metaphor, the easier it is to avoid this pitfall; I've never had a student yet who thought that the Krebs Cycle really was a merry-go-round (although I did have a student of mine start her essay on antibodies on the AP exam, "So, antibodies are trash tags...").  But with sophisticated, complex models, it's tempting to think that the model is, down to the level of details, what is happening in the real world.

The second downside is that some people will grab the model and run right off the cliff with it.

All of this comes up because a friend of mine asked me what I thought about the Gaia Hypothesis.  I know that this friend to be a sharp, smart, and solid thinker, so I didn't wince, which is what I usually do when someone brings this subject up.  Because I can't think of an idea in science that has fallen so prey to the model vs. reality blur as this one has.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA/JPL]

Gaia was dreamed up by two scientists of high repute -- James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis -- way back in the 1970s.  The central idea of Gaia is that the Earth's biosphere acts as an interlocking set of self-regulatory systems, and they work together to maintain the homeostasis of the whole in much the same way as organ systems do in an organism.  Lovelock and Margulis identified a number of features of the biosphere, including the carbon dioxide levels, nitrogen levels, oxygen levels, oceanic salinity, and average temperature, that all seem to work through a complex pattern of negative feedback to keep the Earth's systems within a range that is comfortable for living things.  Using computer simulations, Lovelock and Margulis showed that even with a simple model, they could create a "world" that remained stable, and for which the living things played a role in regulation.

All of this is well and good, and Lovelock and Margulis were completely clear about what their model did (and didn't) mean.  (If you're curious, here's the Gaia homepage, run by Lovelock and other scientists working in this field; Lynn Margulis, tragically, died in November of 2011.)

The problem is, lots of people think that the scientists who developed the Gaia Hypothesis meant way more than they actually did.  Part of it was Lovelock's rather inadvisable choice of a Greek goddess's name for christening his model, which brings up lots of images of personified deities, Mother Earth, and New Age nature spirits.  This particular twist really irritates fundamentalist Christians; take a look at the misleadingly named site Environment and Ecologywherein we find that the Gaia model encourages "radical environmentalism and ecofeminism," because it runs counter to the biblical passage about god giving man "dominion" over the Earth.

Even ignoring the objections of the wacko biblical literalists, I suppose it's natural enough that people could misinterpret Gaia.  The whole thing is just so... suggestive.  And misinterpret it they did, first thinking that because Lovelock and Margulis said that the Earth was like an organism, that they were saying that it was one; and then grabbing the analogy and leaping into the void with it.  As an example of where this can lead, take a look at Truth and Reality: The Metaphysics of Gaia, wherein we find passages like the following:
The GaiaMind Project is dedicated to exploring the idea that we, humanity, are the Earth becoming aware of itself.  From this perspective, the next step in the evolution of consciousness would seem to be our collective recognition that through our technological and spiritual interconnectedness we represent the Earth growing an organ of self-reflexive consciousness.  While we believe that the Earth is alive, and we are part of it, we also affirm the Great Spirit of Oneness found at the heart of all the worlds great spiritual traditions.  What is most important may not be what we believe, but what we find we all share when we put our thoughts aside to go into meditation and prayer together.
I think I can say with some confidence that this is light years away from what Lovelock and Margulis had in mind.  Consider the chain of... I can't call it "logic," what is it? -- to get from Lovelock and Margulis to this stuff:
  1. The Earth has interlocking systems that self-regulate, keeping conditions in homeostasis.
  2. Organisms do, too.
  3. So the Earth is like an organism.
  4. Many organisms have organs that allow them to sense, and respond to, their environment.
  5. This is called "awareness."
  6. Some organisms have a second feature, rather poorly understood, of self-awareness, of the ability to see themselves, their interactions, and their internal mental states.
  7. This is called "consciousness."
  8. Consciousness is a feature of intelligence, a fairly recently-developed innovation amongst living things on Earth.
Ergo: The Earth is becoming conscious. It'd really be nice of you to pray about it, because that'd help the process right along.
It's all a matter of keeping your head screwed on when you read this stuff; where does the science end and the woo-woo start?  It's always best to go back to see what the scientists themselves said on the topic.  While being a scientist isn't always a guarantee against fuzzy thinking, I'd put more reliance on the ability of your typical scientist to tell fact from fiction than that of someone whose main contribution to the discussion is rambling on in some random blog on the topic.  (Irony intended.)

Still, the use of models is, on the whole, a good thing.  It gives us something to picture, a way to frame our understanding of what is going on in the real world.  You just have to know how far to push the model, and when to quit. It is, in other words, a starting point.  And if along the way it can piss off some creationists, it's all good.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

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






Saturday, March 16, 2019

Acting out

When I was (much) younger, I acted in a couple of low-key theater productions.  I won't say it was a bad experience, and I think I played my roles reasonably well, but to say I suffer from stage fright is an understatement of considerable proportions.  Frankly, it's a wonder I didn't hyperventilate and pass out as soon as I walked out on the stage.

Part of my problem is that I was never able to get past a feeling of "this is me out there on stage" -- to let go and become the character.  I've talked to some amateur (but dedicated) actors since that time, and one and all they say that once they get out under the lights, the fear evaporates, and they are able to be their character --who is, after all, not the guy whose knees are knocking together because he's terrified of being in front of an audience.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Comedy and tragedy masks without background, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This perception of good actors sinking themselves into their characters is apparently exactly what happens, to judge by a recent paper in Royal Society Open Science by Steven Brown, Peter Cockett, and Ye Yuan of McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), called, "The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: An fMRI Study of Acting."

In this study, actors were directed to portray scenes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and then were hooked up to an fMRI scanner and then asked questions about how they would act in a variety of specific situations if they were the character.  And what they found was pretty intriguing:
[This is] a first attempt at examining the neural basis of dramatic acting.  While all people play multiple roles in daily life—for example, ‘spouse' or ‘employee'—these roles are all facets of the ‘self' and thus of the first-person (1P) perspective.  Compared to such everyday role playing, actors are required to portray other people and to adopt their gestures, emotions and behaviours.  Consequently, actors must think and behave not as themselves but as the characters they are pretending to be.  In other words, they have to assume a ‘fictional first-person' (Fic1P) perspective.  In this functional MRI study, we sought to identify brain regions preferentially activated when actors adopt a Fic1P perspective during dramatic role playing.  In the scanner, university-trained actors responded to a series of hypothetical questions from either their own 1P perspective or from that of Romeo (male participants) or Juliet (female participants) from Shakespeare's drama.  Compared to responding as oneself, responding in character produced global reductions in brain activity and, particularly, deactivations in the cortical midline network of the frontal lobe, including the dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortices.  Thus, portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a "loss of self."
Which is fascinating.  It also makes me wonder what would happen if the same experiment were performed on individuals who weren't trained actors, and especially on people (like myself) for whom acting is a seriously trying experience.  Is the problem that we can't deactivate our dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortices enough to get absorbed into the part -- so we can't "let go" enough to stop being ourselves?

Steven Brown, co-author of the study, thinks that's exactly what's happening.  "It looks like when you are acting, you are suppressing yourself; almost like the character is possessing you," Brown said, in an interview in The Guardian.  "The deactivation associated with a reduction, a suppression, of knowledge of your own traits I think conforms with what acting may involve...  Actors have to split their consciousness, they sort of have to monitor themselves and be in the character at the same time."

So it's not simply a loss of self; it's a selective switch-off of the parts of your self that motivate your actions and feelings.  There's always the supervisor there, making sure things don't go too off-kilter, but apparently it's difficult to act convincingly if you don't on some level stop being yourself.

This also brings to mind cases of actors who did seem to lose themselves entirely.  Andy Kaufman comes to mind, best known for his role as the hapless Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi.  The boundaries between Kaufman the actor, Kaufman the comedian, and Kaufman the created fictional character seemed blurry right from the outset.  He was famous for strange stunts like challenging audience members in his stand-up comedy routine to wrestle him, reading out loud for two hours from The Great Gatsby instead of performing his shtick, and (once) inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies after the show -- which enough people took him up on that it required 24 buses.

While no one ever did an fMRI on Kaufman -- when he died in 1984, the fMRI had yet to be invented -- I really wonder what was happening in his prefrontal cortex.  You have to wonder if those regions involved with the sense of self turned off while he was acting, and stayed off.

In any case, the whole thing is interesting, both from the standpoint of human behavior and that of neuroscience.  And once again it makes me realize how fluid our perceptions are -- and that our sense of self is, truly, a creation of our brain's biochemistry.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is an entertaining one -- Bad Astronomy by astronomer and blogger Phil Plait.  Covering everything from Moon landing "hoax" claims to astrology, Plait takes a look at how credulity and wishful thinking have given rise to loony ideas about the universe we live in, and how those ideas simply refuse to die.

Along the way, Plait makes sure to teach some good astronomy, explaining why you can't hear sounds in space, why stars twinkle but planets don't, and how we've used indirect evidence to create a persuasive explanation for how the universe began.  His lucid style is both informative and entertaining, and although you'll sometimes laugh at how goofy the human race can be, you'll come away impressed by how much we've figured out.

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