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.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The illusion of truth

Because we apparently need one more cognitive bias to challenge our confidence in what we hear on the news on a daily basis, today I'm going to tell you about the illusory truth effect.

The idea here is that if you hear a falsehood repeated often enough, in your mind, it becomes a fact.  This is the "big lie" approach that Hitler recommends in Mein Kampf:
All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. 
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.  Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.  For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
But the most referenced quote framing this idea comes from Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Which is more than a little ironic, because there's no evidence Goebbels ever said (or wrote) that -- although he certainly did embody the spirit of it.

The topic comes up because of a study that appeared in Cognition this week, called, "An Initial Accuracy Focus Prevents Illusory Truth," by psychologists Nadia M. Brashier (of Harvard University) and Emmaline Drew Eliseev and Elizabeth J. Marsh (of Duke University).  And what they found was simultaneously dismaying and heartening; that it is very easy to get people to fall for illusory truth through repetition, and they can be inoculated against it by having them read the source material with a critical eye the first time, striking out erroneous information.  Doing that, apparently, inoculates them against falling for the lie later, even after repeated exposure.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons RyanMinkoff, Academic dishonesty, CC BY-SA 4.0]

What's especially frightening about the dismaying part of this study is that being taken in by repeated falsehoods even works for purely factual, easily checkable information.  One of the statements they used was "The fastest land mammal is the leopard," which most people recognize as false (the fastest land mammal is the cheetah).  The surmise is that if you keep seeing the same incorrect statement, you begin to doubt your own understanding or your own memory.

I know this happens to me.  There are few topics I'm so completely confident about that I could hear someone make a contradicting statement and think, "No, that's definitely wrong."  I'm much more likely to think, "Wait... am I remembering incorrectly?"  Part of the problem is that I'm a raging generalist; I know a little bit about a great many things, so if an expert comes along and says I've got it wrong, I'm putting my money on the expert.  (I've also been called a "dilettante" or a "dabbler" or "a light year across and an inch deep," but on the whole I like "generalist" better.)

The problem is, it's easy to mistake someone who simply speaks with a lot of confidence as being an expert.  Take, for example, Donald Trump.  (Please.  No, really, please.  Take him.)  He's lied so many times there's a whole Wikipedia page devoted to "Veracity of Statements by Donald Trump."  As only one example of the illusory truth effect, take his many-times-repeated statement that he would have won the popular vote if it hadn't been for millions of votes cast fraudulently for Hillary Clinton, and also that his electoral college win was "the biggest landslide in history" (it wasn't even close; of the 58 presidential elections the United States has had, Donald Trump's electoral college win comes in at #46).

The problem is, Trump makes these statements with so much confidence, and with such frequency, that it's brought up the question of whether he actually believes them to be true.  Even if he's lying, the technique is remarkably effective -- a sort of Gish gallop of falsehood (the latter term named after creationist Duane Gish, who was known for swamping his debate opponents with rapid-fire arguments of dubious veracity, wearing them down simply by the overall volume).  A lot of his supporters believe that he won by a landslide, that Clinton only did as well as she did because of rampant fraud, and a host of other demonstrably false beliefs (such as the size of Trump's inauguration crowd, attendance at his rallies, how well the economy is doing, and that the air and water in the United States are the highest quality in the world).

So to put the research by Brashier et al. to work, somehow people would have to be willing and able to fact check these statements as they're happening, the first time they hear them -- not very likely, especially given the role of confirmation bias in affecting how much people believe these statements at the outset (someone who supports Trump already would be more likely to believe him, for example when he's stated that the number of illegal immigrants is the highest it's ever been, when in fact it peaked in 2007 and has been falling steadily ever since).

In any case, it's hard to see how all this helps us.  The traction of "alternative facts" has simply become too great, as has the vested interest of partisan and sensationalized media.  Not for nothing do Brashier et al. call our current situation "the post-truth world."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Friday, September 13, 2019

Life in the shadows

In Michael Ray Taylor's brilliant1999 book Dark Life, the author looks at some of the strangest forms of life on Earth -- extremophiles, organisms (mainly bacteria) that thrive in places where nothing else does.  Surrounding hydrothermal vents under crushing pressures and temperatures over 100 C, buried underground below the deepest mines, frozen in Antarctic ice, floating in boiling, acidic hot springs.  Taylor himself is a veteran spelunker and got interested in the topic after running into the aptly-named snottites -- biofilms found in caves that hang downward from the ceiling and are the consistency of, well, snot.

The brilliant colors of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park are due, in part, to extremophilic bacteria [Image is in the Public Domain]

Taylor's contention -- that such bizarre creatures are so numerous that they outnumber all other life forms on Earth put together -- just got a boost last week from a piece of research published in the Journal of Geomicrobiology.  Written by a team from the University of Toronto -- Garnet S. Lollar, Oliver Warr, Jon Telling, Magdalena R. Osburn, and Barbara Sherwood Lollar -- it describes the discovery, 7,900 meters underground, of a thriving ecosystem of microbes in a mine 350 kilometers north of Toronto.

The life forms are odd in a number of respects.  The first is that they're anaerobic -- they don't need oxygen to survive.  The second is that they metabolize sulfur, primarily in the form of iron sulfate, better known as pyrite or fool's gold.  It's a food chain completely unhooked from light -- for nearly every other organism on Earth, the energy they contain and utilize can ultimately be traced back to sunlight.  Here, if you follow the energy backwards, you arrive at the geothermal heat from the mantle of the Earth producing reduced (high energy) compounds that can support a food web, similar to what you see in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

"It's a fascinating system where the organisms are literally eating fool's gold to survive," team member Barbara Sherwood Lollar said in an interview with NBC News. "What we are finding is so exciting — like ‘being a kid again’ level exciting."  The ecosystem is in the Laurentian Shield, one of the oldest and most geologically-stable places on Earth, so it's likely that this thriving community deep underground has been there for a billion years or more.  "The number of systems we've looked at so far really is limited, but they probably had a single origin at some point in life’s four-billion-year history."  As far as their discovery, she added, "We see only what we look for.  If we don't look for something, we miss it."

And it's a lot to miss.  The current research springboards off a 2018 report sponsored by the Deep Carbon Observatory conducted by a team led by Cara Magnabosco, a geobiologist at the Swiss technical university ETH Zurich, which estimated that some 5 x 10^29 cells live in the deep Earth.

For those you who don't like scientific notation, that's five hundred thousand trillion trillion organisms.  Put succinctly, it's a really freakin' huge number.

Considering the (to us) inhospitable conditions a lot of these organisms live under, it raises hopes of finding life in other, perhaps unexpected, places in the universe.  Astronomers talk about the "Goldilocks zone," the region around a star that has temperatures where water is a liquid, and that to host life a planet would have to have a similar mass to Earth and be orbiting a star relatively similar to the Sun.  The University of Toronto research suggests that may be placing unnecessary and inaccurate strictures on where life can exist, and that we may have to rethink our definition of what we mean by "hospitable conditions."

"We're finding we really don't understand the limits to life," Sherwood Lollar said.

Which also raises the question of whether we'd recognize alien life if we saw it.  Star Trek may have been prescient; they expanded the boundaries of what we think of as life by featuring aliens that were gaseous, crystalline, thrived at searing temperatures, could tolerate the chill dark vacuum of space, or were composed of pure energy.  While some of these -- at least at first glance -- seem pretty far-fetched, what the current research suggests is that we shouldn't be too hasty to say, "Okay, that's out of the question."

"We've literally only scratched the surface of the deep biosphere," said Robert Hazen, mineralogist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, and co-founder of Deep Carbon Observatory.  "Might there be entire domains that are not dependent on the DNA, RNA and protein basis of life as we know it?  Perhaps we just haven’t found them yet."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Thursday, September 12, 2019

A new view of the Indus Valley

It's always fun when I stumble across some research that ties together three of my fascinations -- linguistics, genetics, and unsolved mysteries.

The research in question was published this week in Science, and gives us a new lens into the mysterious Indus Valley (or Harappan) Civilization.  This civilization, which started some time around 3,300 B.C.E. and lasted for a good two thousand years, flourished in what is now the western part of India and eastern part of Pakistan, producing massive cities, temples, a distinctive form of pottery, work in tin, bronze, lead, and copper, and a mysterious script that no one has been able to decipher (in fact, some linguists don't even believe it's a written language -- possibly just a set of non-linguistic symbols).

A Harappan seal with an example of the Indus Valley script [Image licensed under the Creative Commons PHGCOM IndusValleySeals.JPG, Indus seal impression, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Considering the extent of the artifacts and archaeological sites the civilization left behind, it's amazing how little we know for sure about them.  Their affiliations to other groups who were around at the same time (especially in the Middle East), what language they spoke, what religion they practiced -- all are inferences based on relatively scanty evidence.

This latest research adds a significant piece to what we know for sure about the mysterious Harappans.  The researchers who conducted it, a team made up of scientists from Washington University, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Vienna, looked at DNA extracted from 523 skeletons in the region dating all the way back to twelve thousand years ago.  The scientists were trying to shed light on two questions.  First, where did the Indus Valley Civilization's agricultural knowhow come from -- was it a local invention/innovation, or was it brought into a previous hunter-gatherer society by an influx of migrants?  And second, what is the origin of the languages spoken in the region then and now?

The answer to the first question seems to be that Harappans' agriculture was an innovation of their own.  The researchers found traces of DNA from contemporaneous farming cultures no nearer than Iran, and no evidence that they got any further than that.  So it seems like the Indus Valley transition from hunters to farmers was something they figured out for themselves.

What the research uncovered vis-à-vis the second question was that there was a DNA signature from European hunter-gatherers, but not as big as expected.  The usual linguistic model is that when there's a major language shift, it's usually caused by a large influx of migrants (consider the shifts from Native languages to English in Australia and the Americas).  Here, there was not nearly the amount of European and Middle Eastern DNA to explain the shift to an Indo-European language; the Eurasians who showed up there, the Yamnaya people, were apparently present in fairly small numbers.  What's fascinating, though, is that Yamnaya DNA is disproportionally present in modern-day Indians of the highest social classes -- since social class has traditionally been hereditary in Indian culture, the surmise is that the Indo-European speaking Yamnaya were in charge, and their language ended up superseding (or at least strongly influencing) the language(s) spoken at the time.

It's kind of analogous to the influence Norman French had on Old English in the years after the Norman Invasion in 1066 C. E.  Most of our terms that have to do with governance come from Latin via French, while a lot of the basic vocabulary (pronouns, prepositions, and so on) are from the original Germanic language.  Even more interesting is that the Norman Invasion left pairs of parallel words associated with food -- the one used for the animal as it's found on the farm is from the Old English peasants who raised them, and the one for the meat as it's seen on the table from Norman French aristocracy who only came in contact with the animal after it was cooked.  (Thus cow/beef, sheep/mutton, pig/pork, chicken/poultry, and so on.)  As the Indo-European influx into India happened five centuries earlier, you have to wonder if those kinds of word pairs existed for while there, too, eventually being swamped by the higher-prestige Indo-European verbiage.

So this research gives us one more piece of the puzzle regarding a group of people about whom we've known relatively little, despite their being ancestral to the vast majority of the population on the Indian Subcontinent.  And, of course, this is nowhere near the last word on the subject.  We'll continue to uncover more, and refine our understanding of the Harappans -- a civilization that has been gone for almost three thousand years.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Walk of life

Even considering my background in evolutionary biology, there are a lot of things about the natural world that I take for granted.

For example, bilateral symmetry.  It's so common amongst animals that it's easy to think it's universal, when there's no real reason it should be.  (I recall vividly being startled when I first ran across H. P. Lovecraft's "Great Old Ones" -- who had five-way symmetry.)  What's likely is that a very long time ago, one of our successful ancestors was bilateral, and passed that characteristic down to its descendants -- which include the majority of Kingdom Animalia.

So if we ever find alien life, there's no reason to suspect that it will share some of these probably-arbitrary characteristics with terrestrial life.  Still, there are a few features that are significant enough advantages that it's likely to be found in other living things, wherever and however they evolved.  One of these is cephalization -- having the important organs, including the central nervous system and sensory receptors, near the anterior end.  Having your eyes and nose near your mouth makes a great deal of sense from the standpoint of finding food, and it's pretty likely to be a feature that shows up again and again.  (Consider flight -- such a great adaptation that it's evolved independently at least seven times in Earth's history, in birds, insects, bats, colugos, flying squirrels, sugar gliders, and pterodactyls.)

Locomotion itself is one of those abilities that is so useful that it's likely to show up wherever life occurs, but it's one of those things that's so universal we tend not to think about it, or even be aware there are exceptions.  (In fact, when I got students in my introductory biology classes to brainstorm for characteristics they thought were true for all living things, "able to move" was the most common wrong answer.)

This comes up because of a paper that was published in Nature last week, my awareness of which I once again owe to my sharp-eyed friend Andrew Butters of the brilliant blog Potato Chip Math.  In it we learn about a fossil that seems to be the earliest direct evidence we have of locomotion in an animal.  The fossil, which has been dated to around 540 million years ago, is the trail of a critter named Yilingia spiciformis ("spiky creature from Yiling"), about which the authors, Zhe Chen, Chuanming Zhou, and Xunlai Yuan (of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), and Shuhai Xiao (of Virginia Technological College of Sciences) have the following to say:
The origin of motility in bilaterian animals represents an evolutionary innovation that transformed the Earth system.  This innovation probably occurred in the late Ediacaran period—as evidenced by an abundance of trace fossils (ichnofossils) dating to this time, which include trails, trackways and burrows.  However, with few exceptions, the producers of most of the late Ediacaran ichnofossils are unknown, which has resulted in a disconnection between the body- and trace-fossil records.  Here we describe the fossil of a bilaterian of the terminal Ediacaran period (dating to 551–539 million years ago), which we name Yilingia spiciformis (gen. et sp. nov).  This body fossil is preserved along with the trail that the animal produced during a death march. Yilingia is an elongate and segmented bilaterian with repetitive and trilobate body units, each of which consists of a central lobe and two posteriorly pointing lateral lobes, indicating body and segment polarity.  Yilingia is possibly related to panarthropods or annelids, and sheds light on the origin of segmentation in bilaterians.  As one of the few Ediacaran animals demonstrated to have produced long and continuous trails, Yilingia provides insights into the identity of the animals that were responsible for Ediacaran trace fossils.
So what this represents is not just the dawn of motility, but the dawn of bilateral symmetry, and Yilingia may have been one of the earliest animals that had both.  It might not be our direct ancestor, but certainly was a close cousin to whatever was, and many of the features we now see in virtually all animals were locked in around that time.


It's awe-inspiring to look at this simple little fossil, the tracks of a critter that marched its way on the seafloor half a billion years ago, at a time when there was not a single thing living on the land, when the continents were bare rock, sand, dust, and dirt as far as the eye could see.  And even more amazing to realize that this innovation -- the ability to move -- was passed down through all that time, refined in a thousand different ways, and is the direct ancestor to our ability to walk, run, crawl, and jump.

So far from feeling demeaned by our connections to our primitive ancestry, as the creationists would frame it, I feel exalted by it -- we are linked in an unbroken chain of relationships to every living thing on Earth, and everything we can do, every structure in our bodies down to the molecular level, is directly due to inheritance that stretches back to the very first life in the primordial seas.

And if that's not a mind-blowing thought, I don't know what is.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Invasion of the randonauts

Today the following happened:
  • In the last few months I've been watching episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot, and last night I watched the amazing "And Then There Were None."  Today on Facebook, one of my friends was participating in the thing that's going around to post your seven favorite book covers, and she posted the cover of the book by the same name.
  • When I went outside ten minutes ago, the cows in the field across the street were all staring in my direction.
  • An acquaintance who moved away five years ago emailed me last night saying he was in town for a couple of days and asking if I wanted to get together for coffee.  Today I went to the grocery store, and who should be there but him.
  • I looked out of my office window a few minutes ago, exactly at the right time to see a hawk zoom by, only about ten feet from the window.
  • I noticed that my angel's trumpet plant has nine new flowers on it.  The scientific name of the plant, Brugmansia, has ten letters, and today is September 9 (9-10).

Why all this stuff comes up is because of a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday, about a new hobby some people have -- they call themselves the "Randonauts."  The gist is that these folks are trying to prove that we're either in some kind of computer simulation, or else there's some Weird Shit going on, or both.

The way they do it is that you log into a site with a random number generator (the full instructions are in the link), and it will use those to plot out latitudes and longitudes of places near you.  After doing this a bunch of times, it will spit out the set of coordinates that got the most hits.  You go there, and...

... stuff is supposed to happen.  Here are a few things people have reported when doing this:
All of this is supposed to signify that our lives are being controlled, either by some super-intelligent power or by a simulation, and this is making the random number generator not so random -- and directing us to where there are leaks in the matrix, or something.

Tamlin Magee, who wrote the article for The Outline I linked above, was only mildly impressed by her experiences, which I encourage you to read about.  Here's her conclusion:
Whatever you think of the validity of hacking reality or the nature of our possibly deterministic universe, my time randonauting pushed me to pay closer attention to my environment, to stop and notice things, like artwork, signs, symbols, nature, and objects, that I might have otherwise filtered out by default. 
Do I understand the theories behind it all?  Absolutely not.  Do I think I’m challenging a demiurgical Great Programmer, jumping into alternate dimensions or tearing apart the space-time continuum?  Probably also not.  But my trips, nonetheless, felt imbued by a strangely comforting, esoteric mindfulness.  And if only for that reason, I will be randonauting again.
Now, far be it from me to criticize weird and semi-pointless hobbies.  I'm a geocacher, after all, not to mention a birdwatcher (a hobby a former student aptly described as "Pokémon for adults").  So I'm glad Magee had fun, and in that spirit, I'd like to participate myself.

But I don't buy the conclusion any more than she did -- that you're more likely to see weird stuff when you do this than you are at any other time.  I think, as Magee points out, what happens is you're more likely to notice it.

I mean, think about it.  You go anywhere, and your instructions are: notice anything weird.  No restrictions.  Not even any definition of what qualifies as "weird."

My guess is that this would work in every single location in the world you might consider going to.  Because, face it, Weird Shit is everywhere.

So what we have here is a bad case of dart-thrower's bias -- our naturally-evolved tendency to notice outliers.  That, and the desire -- also natural -- that there be some meaning in what happens around us, that it isn't all just chaos.  (We took a look at the darker side of this drive yesterday.)

Anyhow, I think this sounds like it could be entertaining, as long as you don't put too much stock in your results showing that we're in a simulation.  Although I have to admit, given how bizarre the news has been lately, it's crossed my mind more than once that maybe we are in a computer simulation, and the aliens running the simulation have gotten bored, and now they're just fucking with us.

Certainly would explain a lot of what comes out of Donald Trump's mouth.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Monday, September 9, 2019

The attraction of fear

The question of the day is: why do people continue to support certifiable wackos long after their wacko status has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt?

Yes, I know, it's when the wacko is espousing a view the wacko-supporter already believes.  But this brings up a deeper question; why do people want to believe ugly counterfactual nonsense?

Unsurprisingly, this topic comes up because of Alex Jones, who is somehow still out there broadcasting on InfoWars despite recently losing an appeal in the million dollar lawsuit for defamation and personal harm filed against him by parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook Massacre, which Jones described as a hoax and/or a false flag.

So you'd think that any credibility Jones had would be down the toilet, but apparently not.  In a story sent to me by my friend and fellow writer Dwayne Lanclos, whose blog The Critical Bible gives a fascinating lens into biblical history and archaeology, we find out that Jones is going strong and still as loony as ever.  Dwayne sent me a link to an article from Media Matters for America, which referenced the ongoing and increasingly bizarre determination by Donald Trump not to admit he made a silly mistake when he included Alabama in amongst states threatened by Hurricane Dorian.  Instead of doing what any normal person would have done -- chuckle and say, "whoa, that was a screw-up -- sorry" -- he not only acted like a toddler, stamping his feet and saying, "No, I was right!  I was right!", but produced a weather map he'd altered himself with a black sharpie as evidence, and weirdest of all, just yesterday tweeted a video of him with the altered map, combined with a cat chasing a laser pointer.


As an aside, how anyone can look at any of this behavior and not think, "Trump has lost his fucking marbles," I have no idea.  But so far, all that's happened is that Lindsay Graham made a statement in an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News that "a third term is looking better and better."  And no, for the record, I didn't make that up.

Anyhow, Alex Jones decided to weigh in on the Hurricane Dorian/Alabama nonsense, and what he said you really should listen to (there's a video clip on the Media Matters link I posted above).  But in case you don't want to waste five minutes of your life you'll never get back again, here are the main points:
  • Hurricane Dorian was directed by "weather weapons" to park over the Bahamas in an effort to discredit climate change denialists (whom Jones calls "realists").
  • It was then directed toward Florida to threaten Mar-a-Lago and put Donald Trump at risk of financial loss.
  • When Trump made his idiotic gaffe about Alabama, the people operating the "weather weapons" steered Dorian away from its original path to discredit him and make him look foolish.
  • It's somehow significant that hurricanes usually originate with low-pressure cells in West Africa.  I have no idea why.
Now, to make it clear: I'm not really commenting on Jones, here.  It's yet to be established whether he believes all the conspiratorial horseshit he says, or if he's "an actor playing a role" (as his lawyer claimed in the custody case over Jones's children, which Jones ultimately lost).  And honestly, I don't really care which it is.

What concerns me are the folks who believe him, of which there is a sizable number to judge by the number of people calling in support during his show.  What in the hell can possibly be appealing about that viewpoint -- that there's some kind of vast conspiracy against Donald Trump, run by mythical people powerful enough to steer a category-5 hurricane?

Speaking of hurricanes, there's the statement by self-styled "Christian prophetess" Kat Kerr, who (1) claimed her prayers were shifting the hurricane's path, and (2) when that didn't work out so well, said that God destroyed the Bahamas on purpose.  Here's the exact quote:
The Bahamas got hit a lot. I am just gonna leak out a little information for you, that people may not even know about, but you need to know that a lot of the human trafficking goes on there, in that very place, and it’s being exposed, because God’s exposing stuff like that. 
… I’m not saying everyone on the island was involved in that, but that is a huge center, where a lot of people who are trapped in human trafficking, and those people doing it, are involved in a huge way, in the Bahamas, they use the Bahamas as part of their transport system… and they actually have tunnels — this is already gonna be in the news — they have tunnels where [they] file through there.  I think the tunnels were wiped out by the storm.
Which, now that I think of it, isn't so far off from a lot of genocidal shit God did in the Old Testament.

 But again, what I wonder is not about Kerr herself, because she's obviously a wingnut, but the people who hear this and go, "Yes, that makes sense!  Hallelujah!"  What could possibly be attractive about a god who destroys an entire fucking country to stop some human traffickers?

Then there's Rick Joyner, head of MorningStar Ministries, who says that Christians need to arm themselves because there's going to be a civil war, and they have to be ready to take out pretty much anyone who isn't a straight white conservative Christian:
We were meant to have militias throughout the country to defend our communities …  I think there is going to be a militia movement that unites and supports and is open about what they are doing and they are going to be trained and prepared to defend their communities. 
If Christians don’t get involved in things like that, [the] wrong people will get in,  Christians need to get in to set the course.  We’re not just going to attack other races; we’re here to defend and support.  Christians have to get engaged in it.  Jesus himself said, "There is a time to sell your coat and buy a sword."  That was the weapon of their day." 
We are entering a time for war and we need to mobilize.
So once again, I'm wondering who hears this, then looks around them and thinks, "Yup, that seems right to me."

Most blatant of all was the exchange between Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post and a devout conservative Catholic, and David French of the National Review, in which we find out that Ahmari believes Christians in the United States are literally in danger of being rounded up and killed.

Despite the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider themselves Christian, and Christians are the vast majority in every elected position in the country.

Ahmari said:
Now there are people who are called to [martyrdom], and they’ll face it when it happens, and they should.  And there are also religious people here … priests and so forth, who are called to this sort of heroic life.  But we shouldn’t want that for all Christians while we have political agency...  We should try to forestall the Colosseum.  So that means not Bernie Sanders.
And he wasn't talking about some kind of metaphorical martyrdom, e.g., being pushed out of majority status.  He actually thinks that if Trump doesn't win, we atheists are going to start rounding Christians up and shooting them in the street.

French, for his part, found the whole thing amusing, which it would be if people weren't taking it seriously -- and basing their actions, and their votes, on this kind of fear.   "Do you think Bernie Sanders would bring the Colosseum?" he said.  "He doesn’t even have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell."  But during the q-and-a period that followed their debate, it was obvious that yes, Ahmari thought that -- and so did some of the audience.  One woman said, "I think socialism is the Colosseum.  Rounding up Christians."

Which also shows that there are people who need a refresher on the definition of "socialism."

Fear is a powerful motivator, and heaven knows Fox News and the extreme right talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson have been pushing the fear-message for years: you're at risk, anyone different is evil, prepare to defend yourself, there are sinister forces at work.  And I suspect that part of it is that there is bad stuff in the world, a lot of it random, and it might be more comforting that there's a reason behind it all -- even if the reason is horrible -- than thinking that the universe is simply a chaotic place where sometimes awful things happen to good people.

But still.  I don't see why the people who listen to all of this stuff don't suddenly wake up one morning and go, "Man, this is a terrible thing to believe about my fellow human beings, and a terrible thing to believe about the deity I think controls everything."  But they don't.  Somehow, bafflingly, some folks respond by doubling down their support for a president who seems to be progressively losing his mind, conspiracy theories claiming that The Forces of Evil can steer a hurricane solely to discredit climate change deniers, fear talk about arming yourself against people of other beliefs and other races, a conviction that liberals want nothing more than to round up and kill Christians, and a view of God as a vindictive being who'll destroy several islands in the effort to take out a few bad guys.

And that I truly don't comprehend.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

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





Saturday, September 7, 2019

Is there in truth no beauty?

Today's post is about an odd little piece of research that appeared in the journal Cognition this week, tying together a number of disparate realms -- mathematics, music, art, and the neuroscience of perception.

The study, by Samuel Johnson and Stefan Steinerberger (of the University of Bath and Yale University, respectively), looks at the fascinating question of how our perception of beauty carries across different expressions of the human creative impulse.  I've been interested in this topic for some time, especially with respect to music.  (Artistically, I have the aesthetic sensibilities that God gave gravel, and when my wife and our cultured friends talk art, I usually just keep my mouth shut and nod sagely.)

But the perception of beauty in music has intrigued me ever since my first realization that some pieces of music that thrilled me to the core left other people completely cold, and vice versa.  I have a good friend who, while we agree on many things, has about as opposite tastes to me in classical music as one could possibly have.  He adores Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, whereas I don't really care for any of them, and in fact could live happily forever without hearing a piece of Brahms's music again.  My tastes run more to Bach and Scarlatti... and Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev.  (What the link is between those two groups of composers, I have no idea.)

What Johnson and Steinerberger did, though, was to link up people's views of the aesthetic merit of art and music with their perception of beauty in mathematics.  Don't laugh, you non-math types; if you do any digging amongst the writings of mathematicians, you'll find plenty of references to theorems or proofs as being "elegant" or "beautiful," and a while back I did a piece on the claim that Euler's Identity, one of the most curious statements of mathematics, was so beautiful that it is a proof of the hand of the divine.  (To see how far mathematicians will engage in such aesthetic commentary on mathematical theorems, Paul Nahin calls Euler's Identity "the gold standard for mathematical beauty," and Keith Devlin of Stanford University states, "Like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler's equation reaches down into the very depths of existence.")

So it's not far-fetched to claim that some people see the same kind of beauty in mathematics that many of us do in art and music.  And Johnson and Steinerberger wanted to find out if there's a connection between the three.

They took four theorems from mathematics -- the sum of an infinite geometric series, Gauss’s summation trick for positive integers, the pigeonhole principle, and a geometric proof of a Faulhaber formula.  They used four pieces of music -- Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 4, D 780 (Op. 94), Bach’s Fugue from Toccata in E Minor (BWV 914), Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (Op. 120), and Shostakovich’s Prelude in D-flat major (Op.87 No. 15) -- and four landscape paintings, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California and A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie by Albert Bierstadt, The Hay Wain by John Constable, and The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church.

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California by Albert Bierstadt (1864) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Test subjects were then assigned a series of three rather strange tasks -- to match the music to the mathematical theorems based on how similar they were aesthetically; to pair the art and the theorems the same way; and to rate each of the theorems and the pieces of art and music on nine criteria (seriousness, universality, profundity, novelty, clarity, simplicity, elegance, intricacy, and sophistication).

My immediate reaction to reading this was that I can't see any connection between artistic, musical, and mathematical beauty, at least in the sense that you would look at a landscape painting and be immediately struck the same way as you were by Gauss's summation trick.  I understand finding beauty in each realm, but I can't fathom how they could be connected in any sort of one-to-one correspondence.

But strangely, they seem to be.  The correspondences drawn between art and math and between music and math were remarkably similar across test subjects, as were the rankings given to each, especially on the criteria of elegance, profundity, and clarity.  Whatever it is that gave me such a frisson of wonder when I first came across the formula for the sum of an infinite geometric series -- and yes, that did actually happen, because it's freakin' cool -- causes a consistently similar reaction in people not only seeing art or listening to music, but seeing particular pieces of art or hearing particular pieces of music.

"Laypeople not only had similar intuitions about the beauty of math as they did about the beauty of art but also had similar intuitions about beauty as each other," Johnson said.  "In other words, there was consensus about what makes something beautiful, regardless of modality."

"I’d like to see our study done again but with different pieces of music, different proofs, different artwork,” said Steinerberger.  "We demonstrated this phenomenon, but we don’t know the limits of it.  Where does it stop existing?  Does it have to be classical music?  Do the paintings have to be of the natural world, which is highly aesthetic?"

Which are excellent questions.  For myself, I have incredibly eclectic tastes in music (as evidenced by putting my iPod on "shuffle," and inducing musical whiplash by going directly from a Bach partita to Nine Inch Nails).  Is there some correspondence there -- are other aficionados of Stravinsky also more likely to listen to Linkin Park?  Is there a connection between people who love mathematics and particular styles of music?

And what's going on in our brains when these judgments are being made?

As with much good scientific research, the Johnson/Steinerberger study raises as many questions as it answers.  We still don't know where aesthetic perception comes from, nor why it varies so much from person to person.  But as this study shows, there are some remarkable (and unexpected) similarities in how we perceive beauty.

And that is, in and of itself, kind of beautiful.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Loewen's work is an indictment not specifically of the educational system, but of our culture's determination to sanitize our own history and present our historical figures as if they were pristine pillars of virtue.

The reality is -- as reality always is -- more complex and more interesting.  The leaders of the past were human, and ran the gamut of praiseworthiness.  Some had their sordid sides.  Some were a strange mix of admirable and reprehensible.  But what is certain is that we're not doing our children, nor ourselves, any favors by rewriting history to make America and Americans look faultless.  We owe our citizens the duty of being honest, even about the parts of history that we'd rather not admit to.

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





Friday, September 6, 2019

Color my world

I'm guessing that every amateur philosopher has wondered if we all perceive color the same way -- for example, if what I perceive as "red" is the same as what you call "green," but we've just learned to both call it green.

I know I've been asked that probably dozens of times in my neuroscience classes, and my answer was always the same: it's possible, given that I can never see the world through your eyes and brain, but it's pretty unlikely because of the homology that exists between all human brains.  The fact that the visual/perceptive apparatus in your body is awfully similar to the one in mine suggests that we both perceive the world substantially the same way.

You can never prove it, though, which is why this question will keep coming up during late-night sessions in freshman dorms, lo unto the end of time.

Even though I'm making light of it, color perception is still quite a mystery.  It's known that most people (excluding the colorblind) have three different kinds of "cones," which are the cells in the retina that distinguish color, peaking in the red, blue, and green regions of the spectrum.  A few humans -- predominantly women, because the genes for the cone pigments are on the X chromosome -- are tetrachromats, and have a fourth type of cone, making their color acuity considerably more sensitive than the rest of us, and probably explaining the times my wife has said to me, "You actually think that shirt matches those pants?"

Then there's the mantis shrimp, a marine arthropod that is weird in a great many respects, not least because they have between twelve and sixteen different kinds of photoreceptors.  You have to wonder what the world looks like to them, don't you?

[Image is in the Public Domain]

This topic comes up because of a paper that appeared this week in the journal Cell, called "Color Categorization Independent of Color Naming," by a team led by Katarzyna Siuda-Krzywicka, a neuroscientist at Sorbonne University in Paris.  And what this research shows is that our ability to categorize colors -- to determine, for example, that vermilion and scarlet are both shades of red -- is independent of our ability to assign names to colors.

I know, pretty weird, isn't it?  The way that Siuda-Krzywicka and her team approached it was to give two different tasks to people, the first of which required you to identify by number which patches of color in a sample were shades of the same color (i.e., #1 and 2 are the same color, and they're different from #3), and the second of which was to identify what color a particular sample actually was (i.e., #1 is a shade of blue).  Neurotypical people can do both pretty well, with allowances for the aforementioned differences in color sensitivity between individuals.

Where it got interesting was that they included in their study a subject called "RDS" who had suffered an ischemic stroke involving his left posterior cerebral artery five years ago, damaging part of the left occipito-temporal region of his brain.  This stroke interfered with his ability to read and identify certain objects, but its effects were most pronounced in his ability to recognize colors.  When Siuda-Krzywicka's team tested RDS, a fascinating pattern emerged.

Task #1, where subjects were asked to do color categorization -- determine which patches were shades of the same color -- RDS did quite well on, and in fact was very close to the average for test subjects of his gender and age.  However, he was really awful at task #2, trying to figure out what color the patches actually were.

In other words, he could tell that ultramarine and azure were both shades of the same color, but he couldn't figure out that they were both shades of blue.

What this indicates is something very curious; our ability to name colors and our ability to recognize color categories are independent of each other.  You can impair one without affecting the other.

The most fascinating part is that the researchers noted that many of the times RDS did get the color name correct, it was because he used his relatively intact ability at categorization, plus his knowledge and memory, to arrive at an answer.  "This is the same color as blood," he said, "and I know blood is red, so this must be red as well."  Naming colors had to be done with a cognitive, logical process, not an automatic recognition as it is done by the rest of us.

It reminds me of my issue with recognizing faces, about which I've written here before.  Although I'm essentially face-blind, I can recognize people sometimes -- putting together what I remember of their hairstyle, coloration, whether or not they wear glasses, and even the way they stand or walk.  But it's nowhere near automatic; it's a logical sequence ("he's the guy who's tall and thin, wears wire-rim glasses, and has curly blond hair"), not an instantaneous recognition.  And it's easily foiled if a person changes hairstyles, wears more (or less) makeup than usual, or -- as I found out last year in one of my classes, when I at first didn't recognize a student I'd taught all year -- simply wears a baseball cap.

This research gives us a bit more information about the sometimes non-intuitive mechanisms by which we perceive the world.  The brain is a complex and fascinating machine.  As a former student once put it, "My brain is so complicated it can't even understand itself."  But it could be worse -- think of what it must be like to be a mantis shrimp.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a classic: James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Loewen's work is an indictment not specifically of the educational system, but of our culture's determination to sanitize our own history and present our historical figures as if they were pristine pillars of virtue.

The reality is -- as reality always is -- more complex and more interesting.  The leaders of the past were human, and ran the gamut of praiseworthiness.  Some had their sordid sides.  Some were a strange mix of admirable and reprehensible.  But what is certain is that we're not doing our children, nor ourselves, any favors by rewriting history to make America and Americans look faultless.  We owe our citizens the duty of being honest, even about the parts of history that we'd rather not admit to.

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