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.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Explorer, scientist... and hoaxer

Ever heard of André Thevet?

Born around 1516 in Angoulême, France, he was educated in the convent school of that city, although his teachers recorded that as a child he was "more interested in reading books than he was in religion," which seems like a reasonable choice to me.  Be that as it may, he evidently decided religion was worth studying after all, because at the age of twenty he took his vows and became a Franciscan priest.

[All the images in the post are in the Public Domain]

He led a life that was pretty remarkable, especially as compared to most of the people of his day (even the well-educated ones).  With the blessing of Jean de Bar-le-Duc, Cardinal of Lorraine, he visited Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Palestine -- and in 1555 set out with Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, a French naval officer, to cross the Atlantic and explore the eastern coast of South America.

Now, keep in mind when all this was happening.  This is fifty years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia.  It's ten years before the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously-occupied city founded by Europeans in North America.

So no one in Europe knew much about the Americas at that point other than (1) they existed, (2) they were big, and (3) they were inhabited by people who weren't really all that receptive to a bunch of white guys showing up and saying "this is ours now."

But that didn't stop Thevet and de Villegaignon, who ended up in what is now Brazil, with their base of operations as the tiny settlement that ultimately would become Rio de Janeiro.  And this is where the story gets interesting.

Thevet was a self-styled naturalist, and he set about to document, describe, and draw all the interesting new plants and animals he found.  But the problem was, Thevet was also apparently a dedicated spinner of wild yarns.  So his book, Les singularités du France-Antarctique, has a few at least marginally accurate bits, like the sloth:


And this toucan:


But then, for reasons unknown, Thevet threw in some things like the succarath of Patagonia:


Which looks like he could use a good meal or two.  Then there's the camphruch, a sort of weird water unicorn thing (notice the webbed hind feet):


And the aloés, a sort of fish-goose mashup:


The yuanat, which apparently is the bastard child of a cat and an iguana:


And worst of all, the licorne-de-mer, which looks a bit like a giant fish with a chainsaw protruding from its forehead:


What strikes me about all of this is that I've been to South America (twice), and there's enough weird and fascinating wildlife there that you have to wonder what Thevet's possible motivation was for inventing all of this.  (I'm aware that some of this may have been quick glimpses followed by filling in the blanks in his memory with whatever came to mind.  I already noted the yuanat's resemblance to an iguana, and the saw-horn of the licorne-de-mer looks like the flat, toothed snout of a sawfish.  But still, a lot of it seems to have been spun from whole cloth.)

It's a question I've asked before -- what does a hoaxer get out of hoaxing?  Assuming there's not some obvious motivation like money?  Profit doesn't seem to be the issue here.  Thevet would likely have had precisely the same number of sales of his book, once he got back to France, with illustrations of real animals and plants as he did with all of this fanciful stuff that he'd clearly made up as he went along.  I mean, you don't need to exaggerate anything to see how bizarre the Pink Fairy Armadillo is:


Or the White-faced Saki:


Or the South American Tapir:


My guess is that he just got lazy, and decided it was more fun to sit on board ship and sip brandy and make up fanciful animals than it was tromping around the rain forest trying to see what was actually out there.

Thevet was hardly the only one who did this, of course.  The early days of European exploration were rife with examples of people coming back from ship voyages with bizarre tales of human tribes with their faces in the middle of their chests, people who had dogs' heads, people whose feet pointed backwards so their tracks would confuse anyone trying to follow them, a tribe whose members had enormous, pendulous elephant ears, and one-legged men with a single enormous foot that they used as a parasol on hot days (a legend used for wonderfully humorous effect in C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  I guess "yeah, we had a good trip and saw some cool people who looked basically like us only with darker skin" just wasn't good enough.

As amusing as all this may seem, I find this tendency maddening.  It's hard enough to figure out what's real and what's not under ordinary circumstances, but hoaxers complicate matters, and for no good reason other than a desire for notoriety.  So as much as I can chuckle at Thevet's duck/lion/unicorn, people like him set back the actual science of natural history significantly with their fairy stories.

I'd like to say that all of this is a thing of the past, but it's the same thing that motivates a lot of claims of cryptid-hunters, isn't it?  Now, I hasten to say that this doesn't invalidate all cryptid claims; as I've said many times before, there may really be something weird and unknown to biology out there lurking in the woods, lakes, or oceans.  But we have enough trouble dealing with the inevitable tendency of people (especially under high-adrenaline conditions) to exaggerate or misinterpret what they see and hear without the added complication of hoaxers making shit up.

So I encourage you to go to South America, which is a wonderful, diverse, fascinating, and huge place to explore.  It's home to over 300 species of hummingbirds (the eastern United States has a grand total of one), and countless other birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insects, and assorted miscellany.  If you go there, though, watch out for cat-iguanas.  I hear they pack a nasty bite.

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

Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Thursday, November 14, 2019

Dimensional analysis

Adding to the long list of scientific words that woo-woos misdefine and then misapply, let's consider "dimension."

It's rising in popularity, and may soon outstrip "quantum" and "vibration" and "frequency," hard though that may be to believe.

Its misuse, of course, goes back a long way.  My wife got me the complete DVD set of the classic (i.e., terrible) science fiction series Lost In Space for my birthday a while back, a move she has lived to regret, because our son Lucas and I now constantly quote memorable lines from it, such as famous ones like "Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger!" and "Oh, my delicate back,' not to mention less-known ones like "Would you like another serving of Space Pie?" and "Golly!  They've turned him into a Cave Robot!"

But the subject comes up because of an episode I watched just a couple of days ago, called "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."  In this wonderful piece of sf cinematography, we meet a pair of aliens who look a little like the love children of John Kerry and Stephen Miller:


These aliens are ultra-powerful because they come from the fifth dimension, we're told, and have made their spaceship impregnable by using a "fifth-dimensional force field."  Even so, they're no match for Will Robinson, who makes their spaceship blow up by, basically, feeling sad at them.

I'm not making this up.

In any case, this illustrates how the incorrect use of the word "dimension" isn't of recent vintage.  Back then, but lo unto this very day, woo-woos have somehow thought that "dimension" was a fancy way of saying "place," and that therefore a creature could "come from another dimension."

Take, for example, the piece that from Before It's News called "Inter-Dimensional Invasion Begins," which a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a couple of days ago, and wherein we learn that because "dimension" means "place," creatures can come from "between dimensions," just as you could say, for example, that you lived between Hoboken and Jersey City, even though you might not want to brag about that fact.

In this article, we're told that "when studying for his B.Sc. in physics," the author learned about string theory, which posits up to eleven spatial dimensions.  This, he says, opens the door for all sorts of weird stuff:
All events ever experienced by humans throughout history either from the mundane to the extraordinary have at best been reported or recorded using the language of 4 dimensions. 3 spatial (X,Y,Z) and one temporal (time). 
That leaves at least 7 dimensions that we are only dimly aware of.  If at all.  Most people intrinsically understand the spatial dimensions (X,Y, and Z) , it is the structure of all our movements, all the things in which we interact with , it is our life’s experiential structure.  But Time is also a dimension, albeit times [sic] arrow only runs in one direction under normal Newtonian situations.  But it is a dimension none-the-less.  It is a axis of freedom in which we move, ever trudging forward ceaselessly.  To quote William Shakespeare “Time is the fire in which we burn”.  What sort of experiences and entities burn in the higher 7 dimensions?
Right!  Whatever the hell that even means.

Later, though, he answers the question, of course. Those extra dimensions provide a place for Bigfoot to hide:
I believe that all forms of what we call “Paranormal” is normal, maybe just not in our 4 dimensional reality.  The “Inter-dimensional Hypothesis” states that UFOs, aliens, shadow people, crop circles, Bigfoot, and ghostly activity are all explained by the passage of beings from another dimension occasionally crossing into our dimension and being witnessed.  The method of cross overs are not understood at this time by science.
Okay, can we just hang on a moment, here?

The trouble I have with people like this is not only do they not understand science, they can't, apparently, even read a fucking Wikipedia page.  Because if you go to Wikipedia, and search for "Dimension," you are brought to a page wherein we are given, right in the first paragraph, the following definition:
In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a space or object is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it.  Thus a line has a dimension of one because only one coordinate is needed to specify a point on it – for example, the point at 5 on a number line.  A surface such as a plane or the surface of a cylinder or sphere has a dimension of two because two coordinates are needed to specify a point on it – for example, both a latitude and longitude is required to locate a point on the surface of a sphere.   The inside of a cube, a cylinder or a sphere is three-dimensional because three coordinates are needed to locate a point within these spaces.
So saying that UFOs come from the seventh dimension is a little like saying that your Uncle Steve comes from "horizontal."

Higher dimensional spaces may exist, of course, although that point is controversial.  The alleged physics student who wrote the article for Before It's News cited string theory and M-theory as support for his position, even though the very same Wikipedia article says the following:
In physics, three dimensions of space and one of time is the accepted norm.  However, there are theories that attempt to unify the four fundamental forces by introducing more dimensions.  Most notably, superstring theory requires 10 spacetime dimensions, and originates from a more fundamental 11-dimensional theory tentatively called M-theory which subsumes five previously distinct superstring theories.  To date, no experimental or observational evidence is available to confirm the existence of these extra dimensions.  If extra dimensions exist, they must be hidden from us by some physical mechanism.  One well-studied possibility is that the extra dimensions may be "curled up" at such tiny scales as to be effectively invisible to current experiments.
So if Bigfoot lives there, he's not so much Bigfoot as he is Submicroscopicfoot.

Anyhow. I'll just reiterate my wish that people would learn some basic science before they go blathering on, throwing around scientific terminology as if they actually knew what they were talking about.  As for me, I'm off to get a second cup of coffee.   Maybe if I can put some in a four-dimensional Klein bottle, I'll never run out, you think?

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

Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A botanical chameleon

One of the things I love most about science is its capacity to astonish us.

You can be really knowledgeable in a field, and then the natural world slings a curve ball at you and leaves you amazed.  Sometimes these unexpected twists lead to profound leaps in our understanding -- an example is the discovery of the parallel magnetic stripes in igneous rocks along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge leading to the theory of plate tectonics -- but sometimes it's just a fascinating bit of scientific trivia, one of those little things that makes you smile in a bemused sort of way and say, "Science is so cool."

I had a moment like that yesterday.  I taught biology for 32 years and have been interested in plants -- especially tropical plants -- a great deal longer than that.  I have a fine collection of tropical plants, currently jammed into my greenhouse so tightly that I can barely walk through it because the ones who spend the summer on my deck have to be tucked away in a warm place during our frigid winters.  I have bromeliads, cacti, three species of ginger, two different kinds of angel's trumpet (one of which got to be seven feet tall last summer, and sometimes had twenty giant, peach-colored flowers all blooming at once), a fig tree and a lime tree that produce every year, and two species of eucalyptus.

Among others.

While I wouldn't call myself an expert when it comes to tropical plants, I'm at least Better Than The Average Bear.  So I was startled to run, quite by accident, into an account of a species I had never even heard of -- and even more startled when I found out how truly bizarre and unique this plant is.

It's called the "chameleon vine," and its scientific name is Boquila trifoliolata.  It belongs to a small and rather obscure family of dicots called Lardizabalaceae, which contains forty species found in two places -- southeast Asia and western South America.  (How a group of plants with common ancestry ended up in such widely separated locales is a mystery in and of itself; populations like this are called peripheral isolates and are a perennial puzzle in evolutionary biology.)

Boquila is one of the South American ones, and lives in southern Chile and Argentina.  It's a woody vine whose leaves are composed of three leaflets (thus the plant's species name).  Here's a picture:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Inao, Boquila trifoliata [sic], CC BY-SA 2.0]

It's not really much to look at, and you non-botanical types are probably tapping your fingers and saying, "So what?"  But wait till you hear what this plant can do -- and why it merits its common name of "chameleon vine."

Boquila trifoliolata has an extraordinary ability called mimetic polymorphism.  It's capable of altering its leaf shape to mimic a variety of different (unrelated) plants -- including the ones it most commonly twines up as a support.  We're not talking about small differences, either.  It can be glossy or dull, have different petiole lengths, have different leaflet sizes and shapes, and even change whether or not it has serrations or spines along the edge!  

This ability, first described in a paper by botanists Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra in Current Biology in 2014, was first attributed to genetic transfer from the host to the vine, a sort of genetic parasitism.  I'll admit that was the first explanation I thought of -- although how a plant could take up DNA from another species and only express the genes related to leaf morphology left me scratching my head a little.  But Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra were able to rule out this possibility, because Boquila can alter its leaf shape without touching the plant it's mimicking.

All it has to do is be nearby.  So it isn't a parasite at all.  The current guess is that Boquila is picking up volatile organic compounds emitted by the other plant, and those are altering gene expression, but those organic compounds have yet to be identified -- nor has any kind of specific mechanism by which that kind of alteration in phenotype could happen.

Even though we still have no idea how Boquila is managing this neat trick, the why is pretty clear.  If it's hiding amongst the foliage of another plant, herbivores can't single it out for a snack.  Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra found that when Boquila is climbing up a non-living support like a chain-link fence, herbivores actually seek it out for browsing.  But when it's camouflaged within another plant's leaves, it can avoid being seen and identified -- and, they found, browsing of its foliage dropped by as much as 50%.

Fascinating, isn't it?  And yet despite study, we haven't been able to figure out how the plant evolved this amazing (and apparently unique in the plant world) ability, nor what kind of information it's gleaning that might say, "Okay, time to change color and grow some spikes!"

So yet another example of how science is really freakin' cool.  It also illustrates how every new discovery opens up new avenues for investigation.  The crazy chameleon plant should make it absolutely clear that if you go into science, you'll never be done learning.

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

Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Been there, done that

One of the strangest and most ubiquitous sensations is déjà vu, that bizarre sense that you're experiencing something that's happened before.  The name is French and means "already seen," but for some of us -- myself included -- the experience is almost always auditory.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's absolutely convincing.  The last really striking experience I had with déjà vu occurred about three years ago, when I was talking to the seventh-grade life science teacher about some interesting concept in genetics, and I was suddenly certain that I'd had this conversation before.

I recognized it -- the exchange, where we were standing, what we were discussing, even what particular words were spoken.  It was uncanny -- and unnerving.  My perplexity must have shown in my face, because my colleague said, "What's wrong?"  I explained to her what was going on, and asked if we'd discussed this before.

She shrugged.  "I don't think so.  At least not that I recall."

But her reassurance did nothing to change the feeling.  After the discussion was over, I was still sure -- despite my rational knowledge to the contrary -- that she and I had had that exact conversation before.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons hagerman, Déjà Vu (Six Flags Over Georgia) 01, CC BY 2.0]

I've heard a few explanations of déjà vu, none of them convincing.  Certainly, the paranormal ones don't seem to me to hold any water -- that it's evidence of reincarnation, or precognition, or astral transport (the subject having visited the place in spectral form, apparently), or telepathy (you're picking up the memories of someone else).  One at least minimally plausible one is that the information our brain is receiving from the senses is out of sync with our processing, so by the time the input is integrated and interpreted the sensory parts register it as already having happened.  But even this one doesn't make a lot of sense, given what I know of neuroscience; the time for sensory processing and interpretation in a normally-functioning brain is on the scale of milliseconds, so it seems highly unlikely to me that there could be a significant enough delay in one branch of the system to account for some kind of out-of-sync reception of the signal.

Last week, though, a study from Colorado State University was published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that is the first explanation of the phenomenon I've heard that really makes sense.  In "A Postdictive Bias Associated With Déjà Vu," Anne M. Cleary, Andrew M. Huebert, Katherine L. McNeely-White, and Kimberly S. Spahr show that in the middle of an episode of déjà vu, we're actually lousy at predicting what's going to happen next (which surely should occur if we really did somehow live through this moment before), but that the familiarity of some feature of the event triggers a response in the brain after the fact that gives rise to the feeling we knew what was going to happen before it did.

The authors write:
Recent research links reports of déjà vu – the feeling of having experienced something before despite knowing otherwise – with an illusory feeling of prediction.  In the present study, a new finding is presented in which reports of déjà vu are associated not only with a predictive bias, but also with a postdictive bias, whereby people are more likely to feel that an event unfolded as expected after the event prompted déjà vu than after it did not.  During a virtual tour, feelings of predicting the next turn were more likely during reported déjà vu, as in prior research.  Then, after actually seeing the turn, participants exhibited a postdictive bias toward feeling that the scene unfolded as expected following déjà vu reports.  This postdictive bias following déjà vu reports was associated with higher perceived scene familiarity intensity.  A potential reason for this association may be that high familiarity intensity as an event outcome unfolds falsely signals confirmatory evidence of having sensed all along how it would unfold. 
"If the entire scene feels intensely familiar as it unfolds, that might trick our brains into thinking we got it right after all," said study lead author Anne Cleary, in an interview with Science Daily. "Because it felt so familiar as you were going through it, it felt like you knew all along how it was going to go, even if that could not have been the case."

So unfortunately for those who like a supernatural explanation for things, it looks like déjà vu might well be another case of our brain being presented with conflicting explanations for something, and putting them together the best way it can (which in this case, is wrong).  In that sense, it's a little like those optical illusions showing forks with three prongs at one end and two at the other, or circular staircases that keep rising but end up where they started.  Your brain tries to shoehorn what it's getting into some kind of sense, and ends up with an incomplete, or outright erroneous, picture of things.

What I find funny is that even though this explanation makes good sense to me, when I experience déjà vu I am still left with the completely persuasive feeling that something uncanny has happened.  All of which once again illustrates that even us skeptics aren't as purely rational as we'd like to be -- or as we'd like everyone to think we are.

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

Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Monday, November 11, 2019

The attraction of the unexpected

I've always been fascinated by why people like particular pieces of music and not others.

It's extremely personal, and also rather mysterious and unpredictable.  This is why I find it funny when someone asks if I like classical music.  That's a little like saying, "Do you like food?"  I love some classical music, and some of it does nothing for me at all.  But what's eternally fascinating to me is that two people who are alike in a great many respects can come to completely opposite opinions about music.  Take my buddy Dave, for example, who is passionately fond of the Romantic composers -- Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky.  I, on the other hand, have never heard a piece of music by Brahms I've liked -- my tastes run more to the very early (Tallis, Susato, Praetorius, Palestrina, Bach) and the much more recent (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Holst).  If I had to pick one very favorite piece of music it would be Stravinsky's Firebird:


I'm hard-pressed to say why, however.  And what's the connection between that one, and the piece that had me bawling -- at age seventeen, no less -- the first time I heard it, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis?:


One fascinating piece of the puzzle was discovered five years ago, when two researchers at Wesleyan University, Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui, found that people have strong physical reactions when listening to music they love, and if you hook them up to a fMRI or PET scanner, you find that at the climax of the piece of music, the same parts of the brain light up as when they have an orgasm.

No wonder we love music so much.

That whole tension/resolution thing, with its obvious parallels to sexual response, is pretty universal to music of all sorts.  I remember this being demonstrated to me when I was in the college chorus, and the director was telling us about dynamic tension in chord progression and resolution to the tonic, and demonstrated by going to the piano and playing us a line from the Christmas carol "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."  He played, "Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn."

And stopped.

About a dozen people sung out "KING" in tones that clearly communicated, "Don't leave us hanging, bro!"

So tension/resolution is part of it.  But just this week, a paper was published in Current Biology that added another piece to the puzzle.  Apparently, we also tend to like music that surprises us -- that takes us on a path that we didn't expect.

In "Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity," neuroscientists Vincent K.M. Cheung, Lars Meyer, and Stefan Koelsch (of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences), Peter M.C. Harrison and Marcus T. Pearce (of the Queen Mary University of London), and John-Dylan Haynes (of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) found that we're grabbed by twists and turns we didn't see coming.

The authors write:
Listening to music often evokes intense emotions.  Recent research suggests that musical pleasure comes from positive reward prediction errors, which arise when what is heard proves to be better than expected.  Central to this view is the engagement of the nucleus accumbens—a brain region that processes reward expectations—to pleasurable music and surprising musical events...  Here, we demonstrate that pleasure varies nonlinearly as a function of the listener’s uncertainty when anticipating a musical event, and the surprise it evokes when it deviates from expectations.
That certainly agrees with my experience.  I love being surprised, and my favorite music (in any genre) often contains unexpected or startling rhythmic patterns.  Take, for example, the brilliant "Ring Out, Solstice Bells," by Jethro Tull:


I've played Balkan music for years -- with mutant time signatures like 11/16, 22/16, and (no lie) 25/16 -- and I'm damned if I can figure out what time signature this song is in.

And I love that.

My passion for music has been with me for a very, very long time.  My mother used to love to tell the story about how I pestered her incessantly (I couldn't have been more than three or four years old) to learn how to use the record player so I wouldn't have to ask her every time I wanted to listen to music (which was basically all the time).  She finally acquiesced -- and she was impressed that I cared enough about the music that I never damaged either the record player or one of the fragile, easily-scratched vinyl LPs that were all we had back then.  And there was one piece of music I played over and over and over and over, and my mom couldn't figure out (and of course, at that point I couldn't articulate) why I loved it so much.  This was the tail-end of the Big Band era, and my parents had several LPs from Lawrence Welk's band.  Most of them were "meh," in my opinion, but there was one that was different.

It's called "Scarlett O'Hara."  Listen for the completely unexpected key change -- not at all characteristic of Big Band music -- from A Major to (of all the weird keys...) B Major that happens a couple of times.  I used to get a visceral thrill from that moment, even at the tender age of four.


My favorite example of surprise, though, comes from classical music.  I distinctly remember the first time I listened to Bach's magnificent Mass in B Minor, and the sweet, sedate aria "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus" drew to a close, and without any warning I was launched forward into the breathtaking chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu:"


Talk about a brain orgasm.

So we're gradually figuring out some possible reasons for that mysterious phenomenon -- musical taste.

Since I'm on a roll and having way too much fun roaming around YouTube listening to music, I think I'll end with two more of my favorites, one rock and one classical.  I don't know if there's anything similar about them -- see if you can figure it out.  For now, I'm just enjoying listening.

The Kongos, "Come With Me Now:"

  
Jean Sibelius, Lemminkainen's Return:


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Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.





Saturday, November 9, 2019

Poisoned by preconceived notions

If you needed something else to make you worry about our capacity to make decisions based on facts, go no further than a study that came out this week from the University of Texas at Austin.

Entitled "Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense At All," the study was conducted by Patricia L. Moravec, Randall K. Minas, and Alan R. Dennis of the McCombs School of Business.  And its results should be seriously disheartening for just about everyone.

What they did was a pair of experiments using students who were "social media literate" -- i.e., they should know social media's reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth -- first having them evaluate fifty headlines as true or false, and then giving them headlines with "Fake News" flags appended.  In each case, there was an even split -- in the first experiment, between true and false headlines, and in the second, between true and false headlines flagged as "Fake."

In both experiments, the subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, to monitor their brain activity as they performed the task.

In the first experiment, it was found -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that people are pretty bad at telling truth from lies when presented only with a headline.  But the second one is the most interesting, and also the most discouraging.  Because what the researchers found is that when a true headline is flagged as false, and a false headline is flagged as true, this causes a huge spike in activity of the prefrontal cortex -- a sign of cognitive dissonance as the subject tries desperately to figure out how this can be so -- but only if the labeling of the headline as such disagrees with what they already believed.


[Image is in the Public Domain]

So we're perfectly ready to believe the truth is a lie, or a lie is the truth, if it fits our preconceived notions.  And worse still, what the researchers saw is that in general, even though subjects had an uncomfortable amount of cognitive processing going on when they were confronted by something that was the opposite of what they thought was true, it didn't have much influence over what they thought was true after the experiment.

In other words, you can label the truth a lie, or a lie the truth, but it won't change people's minds if they already believed the opposite.  Our ability to discern fact from fiction, and use that information to craft our view of the world, is poisoned by our preconceived notions of what we'd like to be true.

Before you start pointing fingers, the researchers also found that there was no good predictor of how well subjects did on this test.  They were all bad -- Democrats and Republicans, higher IQ and lower IQ, male and female.

"When we’re on social media, we’re passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment," said Patricia Moravec, who was lead author of the study, in an interview with UT News.  "We’re avoiding something else...  The fact that social media perpetuates and feeds this bias complicates people’s ability to make evidence-based decisions.  But if the facts that you do have are polluted by fake news that you truly believe, then the decisions you make are going to be much worse."

This is insidious because even if we are just going on social media to be entertained, the people posting political advertisements on social media aren't.  They're trying to change our minds.  And what the Moravec et al. study shows is that we're not only lousy at telling fact from fiction, we're very likely to get suckered by a plausible-sounding lie (or, conversely, to disbelieve an inconvenient truth) if it fits with our preexisting political beliefs.

Which makes it even more incumbent on the people who run social media platforms (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Mark Zuckerberg) to have on-staff fact checkers who are empowered to reject ads on both sides of the political aisle that are making false claims.  It's not enough to cite free speech rights as an excuse for abrogating your duty to protect people from immoral and ruthless politicians who will say or do anything to gain or retain power.  The people in charge of social media are under no obligation to run any ad someone's willing to pay for.  It's therefore their duty to establish criteria for which ads are going to show up -- and one of those criteria should surely be whether it's the truth.

The alternative is that our government will continue to be run by whoever has the cleverest, most attractive propaganda.  And as we've seen over the past three years, this is surely a recipe for disaster.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

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





Friday, November 8, 2019

To see ourselves

The brilliant Scottish poet Robert Burns packed a lot of truth in these four lines:
O, would some power the giftie gi'e us
To see ourselves as others see us;
It would frae many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
It's almost a cliché that we don't see ourselves very accurately, both in the positive and negative sense.  We sometimes overestimate our own capacities (resulting in the infamous Dunning-Kruger effect, the tendency of people to think they understand things way better than they actually do).  At the same time, we often undersell our own abilities, lacking confidence in areas where we really are talented -- sometimes through false modesty, but sometimes because we really, honestly don't realize that we have an unusual skill.

I remember this last bit happening to me.  I have one ability my wife calls my "superpower" -- I remember melodies, essentially indefinitely.  The craziest example of this happened when I was taking a Balkan dance class when I was in my early twenties, and heard a tune I really liked.  I was going to ask the instructor what the name of the tune was, but clean forgot (so remembering other things is not really my forté).  But I remembered the tune itself, after hearing it only a couple of times while we were learning the dance that went with it.

Fast forward thirty years.  I was at Lark Camp, a week-long folk music gathering in the Mendocino Redwoods, and I was heading to lunch when I heard a fiddler and an accordion player playing a tune.  My ears perked up immediately.

There was no doubt in my mind.  That was "my" dance tune.

Turns out it's a Serbian melody called Bojarka.  (If you want to hear it, here's a lovely live performance of it by flutist Bora Dugić.)  I had remembered it, without trying or even playing it again, for thirty years.

What's funny is that I never thought there was anything particularly unusual about this.  With no context, I always simply assumed everyone could do it.  It was only when I started playing with other musicians that I found that my musical memory was pretty uncommon.  (It bears mention, however, that my remembering a tune doesn't mean I can play it perfectly.  Technically, I'm an average musician at best.)

This all comes up because of a recent study that looked at how our close friends think of us -- and even more interestingly, what their brains look like when they're doing it -- and suggests that our pals are way more aware of our core strengths, flaws, talents, and personalities than we might have thought.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons FOTO:FORTEPAN / Korenchy László, Portrait, woman, mirror, reflection, smile, headscarf Fortepan 29523, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In "The Neural Representation of Self is Recapitulated in the Brains of Friends: A Round-Robin fMRI Study," which appeared this week in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Robert Chavez and Dylan Wagner of Ohio State University took a group of eleven close friends and had each of them think about first themselves then the ten others, one at a time, evaluating each on the degree of accuracy of forty-eight different descriptors (including lonely, sad, cold, lazy, overcritical, trustworthy, enthusiastic, clumsy, fashionable, helpful, smart, punctual, and nice), and while they were doing this task an fMRI machine was recording how their brains responded.  The results were nothing short of fascinating.  The authors write:
Using functional MRI and a multilevel modeling approach, we show that multivoxel brain activity patterns in the MPFC [medial prefrontal cortex] during a person’s self-referential thought are correlated with those of friends when thinking of that same person.  Moreover, the similarity of neural self–other patterns was itself positively associated with the similarity of self–other trait judgments ratings as measured behaviorally in a separate session.  These findings suggest that accuracy in person perception may be predicated on the degree to which the brain activity pattern associated with an individual thinking about their own self-concept is similarly reflected in the brains of others.
So while everyone doesn't see you completely accurately, in aggregate your friends have a pretty clear picture of you.

"Each one of your friends gets to see a slightly different side of you," said study lead author Robert Chavez.  "When you put them all together, it is a better approximation of how you see yourself than any one person individually."

So Robert Burns's famous quip is both true and misleading; the way others see us is largely accurate, but if you take a large enough sample size, it agrees pretty well with how we see ourselves.  We may not be so unaware of our own foibles and unusual skills as it might appear at first, and it seems like our attempts to hide who we truly are from our friends aren't quite as successful as we like to think.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

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





Thursday, November 7, 2019

The social context of animals

One misperception about the world that has proven to be awfully persistent is that there's some kind of qualitative difference between humans and the rest of the natural world.

Even our signature ability -- problem solving and rational thought, i.e., intelligence -- is a difference in degree and not in type.  The other primates show tremendous ability to problem solve, and "higher-order thinking" has been seen not only in our near relatives but in corvids (crows and ravens) and octopuses (which seem to be the brainiest invertebrates by far).

And before we start congratulating ourselves on being the smartest beings on the planet, it must be said that we're also the only ones using what intelligence we have to completely destroy the place.

So the whole "human vs. animal" distinction I still hear people talking about is really pretty meaningless.  Every difference you can come up with between humans and our non-human relatives is a shared in some way with other animals, even if it's not to the same degree or expressed the same way.

Our sense of having a bunch of special characteristics got another blow last week from two studies out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, one of Vulturine Guineafowl (Acryllium vultinurum) and the other of golden shiner fish (Notemigonus crysoleucas).  And both of them point at the same conclusion -- another feature of the human species we like to consider unique to humanity, complex social structure, isn't unique to us at all.

The first study is called "Multilevel Society in a Small-Brained Bird," authored by a team led by Damian Farine.  The title of the paper sounds like an unwarranted cheap shot until you see a picture of the bird itself:


You have to admit that this is a pretty spectacular brain-to-body-size ratio.  And frankly, the bird's actual name -- "Vulturine Guineafowl" -- isn't all that complimentary, either.

Be that as it may, Farine's team found that the interactions of these highly social birds were way more complex than they looked.  The four hundred individuals in the population they studied consisted of eighteen subgroups made up of between thirteen and sixty-five individuals each, and even though there was some mixing of the groups during feeding and roosting, overall the cliques were remarkably stable.  Guineafowl preferentially associate with certain individuals, and make long-lasting bonds with each other that are not apparently based on one of the two usual reasons -- sex/pair bonding and kinship.

In other words: guineafowls have buddies.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a social structure like this has been described for birds," said Danai Papageorgiou, lead author of the paper.  "It is remarkable to observe hundreds of birds coming out of a roost and splitting up perfectly into completely stable groups every single day.  How do they do that?  It’s obviously not just about being smart."

Had to get in another dig about brain size, didn't you, Dr. Papageorgiou?

The other study, titled "Individual and Collective Encoding of Risk in Animal Groups," was authored by a team led by Iain Couzin, and studied an animal generally considered to be even less intelligent than guineafowl -- a schooling species of fish called a golden shiner.

What the researchers did is to generate "startle events" in schools of shiners by squirting a compound into the water called schreckstoff (which literally translates to "fear stuff" -- gotta love German words), which is produced naturally by the skin of individuals when they're injured.  This chemical acts as a pheromone-like signal that there's danger nearby, and generates alarm behavior in the entire school.

The surprise came when the researchers found that the strength of the startle event wasn't a function of the amount of schreckstoff in the water, it was a function of the physical structure of the school.  If the school itself was spread out, a small amount of schreckstoff generated strong startle behavior.  When the fish were close to their schoolmates, they didn't startle nearly so easily.

The comparison to the human phenomenon of "courage in numbers" is obvious.

"Making each individual more sensitive to risk can lead to an excessive number of false alarms propagating through the group," said study lead author Couzin.  "On the other hand, strengthening social connections allows individuals to amplify information about risk, but buffers against the system becoming overly sensitive."

So other animals -- even fish and small-brained birds -- share a great many features with ourselves.  This comes as no surprise to evolutionary biologists, who see all of life as on a giant connected spectrum anyhow.  But these two studies suggests there are more commonalities between humans and other animals in terms of social complexity than we realized.

"We have traditionally assumed that intelligence resides in our brains, in the individual animal," Couzin said.  "But we have found the first evidence that intelligence can also be encoded in the hidden network of communication between us."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

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