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, May 31, 2019

Monster detectives

With all of the anxiety over what's happening in the government, panic about climate change and its role in the horrible weather we've had lately, and crises of various kinds all around the world, I'm sure what you're all thinking is, "Yes, but what about all the monster sightings?"

Just as I mentioned last week with UFOs, it seems like cryptid sightings are on the rise.  First, let's look at a huge winged creature that was spotted in New Boston, Michigan (near Detroit), and reported to the Singular Fortean Society:
I have seen the winged creature. Location is near New Boston, Michigan.  About 25 miles southwest of Detroit.  I was driving to work at 3:10 am the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2018. I was going east on Sibley Rd.  All of a sudden this black winged creature comes up from the ditch on the right side of the road and takes off straight up.  No flapping.  Wing span looked to be 10 ft.  It had a smooth leather look on the wings.  I didn’t see a face because it happened so quick and I was focused on how big the wings were.  This happened in a matter of 3 seconds and then it was gone.  I tried to wrap my mind around what I just saw.  Also the location was near 2 metro parks.  If you google map New Boston and zoom into Sibley Rd and I-275 then scroll east and that was my path I was driving.  And questions or additional information please text me first because I don’t answer numbers I don’t know.
The individual left her phone number (obviously), but when a member of the SFS contacted her, she didn't answer -- and has steadfastly refused to respond to messages left for her inquiring about further information.

Apparently, Michiganders have been seeing a lot of winged cryptids lately (collectively called "Mothmen" after the seminal tale from West Virginia that gave rise to the phenomenally weird book The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel, which has nothing whatsoever to do with prophecies and appears to have been written by free association.)  The SFS article linked above, by Tobias Wayland, gives more information:
[Sightings] generally take place in the evening or at night, often in or near a park, and around water.  Witnesses consistently describe a large, gray or black, bat or bird-like creature—although in a small number of cases the creature was described as insect-like—sometimes with glowing or reflective red, yellow, or orange eyes, and humanoid features such as arms and legs are often reported.  Some witnesses have reported feeling intense fear and an aura of evil emanating from the creature they encountered.
Speaking of monsters near water, next we have a group in British Columbia which is trying to locate a cryptid a bit like a sea-going version of Nessie, called "Cadborosaurus."

When I first saw "Cadborosaurus," my first thought was that it must be a cryptid that hatches from chocolate candy eggs, but it turns out it's named for Cadboro Bay, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.  A group called the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club is hot on Cadborosaurus's trail, and says that the animal they're looking for is "between thirty and seventy feet long" and has a "head like a horse."  Which you'd think would be hard to miss.

The BCSCC, however, admits that the evidence thus far is pretty tenuous.  "The only [actual remains] we’ve ever had possession of, including the 1937 Naden Harbour, Haida Gwaii carcass, has [sic] tended to look more mammal even though it’s rather serpentine in aspect," said John Kirk, BCSCC's founder.  "Cadborosaurus is a generic title that applies to all of them, but in recent years we’ve felt the mammal type found at Naden Harbour is what we’re going to call Cadborosaurus because it by far matches the description of the majority of witnesses."

Despite the previous lack of success in finding this beast, the members of BCSCC aren't giving up.  "We don’t want to prove this to anybody except for our own personal satisfaction, to ensure they are catalogued and their habitats are conserved," Kirk said.  "We certainly wouldn’t want the Cadborosaurus species to die off."

Last, we have a student named Sophie Jones at the Chicago Art Institute who is regretting choosing a project that involved making "Wanted, Dead or Alive" posters for various cryptids, and posting them all over -- along with her phone number.  She did it with the best of motives, she said, only intending for people to find it amusing.  "Being in a fine arts environment, a lot of the art you see is very heavy duty and painful or traumatic or political," Jones said.  "I wanted to do something that felt accessible and fun and friendly and engaged with an interest that I found really fascinating."


Predictably, a lot of the calls she got were tongue-in-cheek.  She even got one from someone claiming to be Mothman, but asking her out on a date.  (She politely declined.)  But some of the calls, Jones said, were serious, from people who really believe they've seen something otherworldly.  "I didn’t really ever consider that [the posters] would get noticed," she said.  "I didn’t expect that people would be seeing Mothman all over the city, for some reason."

She's tried to respond to the serious ones with helpful suggestions.  "I just don’t think the story should end there — you see a poster, you text it, no one responds," she said.  "That’s kind of a bummer.  They were so interested and willing to participate that I didn’t want to let them down."

So there you have it.  Mothman in Detroit, dinosaurs in Canada, and a well-meaning cryptid collector in Chicago.  The unfortunate part is now that I'm done here, I guess it's back to reality.  Which means reading the news.  And lately, my desire to stay well-informed has been at odds with my desire to stay sane.  All things considered, I'll stick with the monsters.

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

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

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





Thursday, May 30, 2019

In the swim

The ability to swim didn't evolve until amazingly late, especially considering that for the first two billion years, life on Earth was pretty much confined to the oceans.

It wasn't until the Devonian Era, which began 420 million years ago, that swimming animals dominated the seas.  There were a few swimming species prior to that, but far and away the most common life forms were benthic -- confined to the sea floor -- or planktonic, free-floating and at the mercy of the currents.

Then, according to the conventional wisdom, something changed.  It's been nicknamed the "Devonian nektonic revolution" (nektonic means actively swimming).  But a recent piece of research suggests that it may not have been that simple.

Christopher Whalen and Derek Briggs, of the Yale University Department of Geology and Geophysics, did a thorough analysis of what is known from the fossil record, and looked at how the morphology of animals indicated whether they were swimmers, benthic, or planktonic.  And their results suggests that the "Devonian nektonic revolution" never happened -- swimming evolved in the Cambrian Era, a hundred or so million years earlier, and swimmers experienced a gradual increase as they outcompeted more sedentary forms.  Throughout that time, Whalen says, "the water column was slowly filling with larger, more actively swimming animals...  By the end of the Paleozoic, the oceans looked more like the oceans we know today."

Although some things have changed since then.  Fortunately.  Consider the six meter long, one ton Devonian top-tier predator, Dunkleosteus, surely one of the most badass fish ever evolved.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons, Creator:Dmitry Bogdanov, Dunkleosteus intermedius, CC BY 3.0]

I'm just as happy swimming in an ocean that doesn't have these mofos swimming around, thank you very much.

Another cool paper about the life aquatic comes from Arizona State University, where behavioral ecologist Nobuaki Mizumoto did some analysis on a unique fossil that captures an entire school of tiny fish, and determined that schooling behavior had evolved by the Eocene Epoch (50 million years ago) and even back then operated by the same "rules of attraction and repulsion" that govern schooling and flocking today -- keeping an optimal distance from your near neighbors, just right to avoid collisions but benefit from the predator-avoidance aspect of sticking with the group.


It's uncertain what killed the entire school, but as the fossil is in sandy limestone, it could be that an underwater dune or hill face collapsed and smothered them.  What is remarkable is that it apparently happened quickly enough that they were preserved pretty much in situ -- essentially in their original positions in the school.

Mizumoto, along with co-authors Shinya Miyata and Stephen Pratt, write:
We found traces of two rules for social interaction similar to those used by extant fishes: repulsion from close individuals and attraction towards neighbours at a distance.  Moreover, the fossilized fish showed group-level structures in the form of oblong shape and high polarization, both of which we successfully reproduced in simulations incorporating the inferred behavioural rules.  Although it remains unclear how the fish shoal's structure was preserved in the fossil, these findings suggest that fishes have been forming shoals by combining sets of simple behavioural rules since at least the Eocene.  Our study highlights the possibility of exploring the social communication of extinct animals, which has been thought to leave no fossil record.
It's unusual when a fossil allows us to infer anything about behavior -- patterns of tracks can tell us about whether an animal traveled in groups, but it's a rare fossil that gives us anything but guesses.  So this study is unique in that it gives us a window into how this tiny species of Eocene fish behaved when it was alive.

So that's our investigation into the paleontology of swimming.  Amazing how much we can tell from a careful analysis of fossils -- giving us a window into a world that's been gone for millions of years.

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

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

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





Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Reality denial

What does it take for people to look at a belief they hold and say, "Okay, I guess I was wrong?"

I ask this because there is still a sizable number of people who call themselves "climate skeptics."  The better term would be "reality deniers."  They tend to fall into two groups -- ones who agree that the Earth is warming up but deny that humans have anything to do with it, and ones who say the Earth isn't warming at all.  Lately, the evidence has been piling up so soundly against the latter claim that more of the reality deniers are ending up in the first class, but honestly, they don't have any more evidence on their side than the ones who deny anthropogenic climate change outright.

It's a little like the anti-vaxx nonsense.  How many studies, with how many thousands of test subjects, do you need before you admit that there's no connection between vaccination and autism?  Or that the risks of vaccination are far outweighed by the benefits?  The evidence is incontrovertible at this point, yet we still have people refusing to vaccinate their children -- which is why measles has been rearing its ugly head in the United States in the past few months. 

Look, on the one hand, I get it.  If you've been vocally in support of a claim, and it turns out the claim was wrong, it's kind of embarrassing to admit it.  Plus, there's the sunk-cost fallacy working against you -- if you've put a lot of energy and time supporting something (or someone), and it turns out your support was unwarranted, it can be less emotionally wrenching to put on blinders and continue your support rather than to admit you were taken in.

But honesty is more important than pride, here.  Especially since in the case of climate change, the long-term habitability of the Earth is at stake.

So at the risk of ringing the changes on a topic I've already beaten unto death:  just this week, three more studies were released showing that climate-wise, we're in big trouble.

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

First, we have a paper in the Journal of Glaciology, authored by Regine Hock, Andrew Bliss, Ben Marzeion, and Rianne Giesen, of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, looking at the rate of mass loss from glaciers, and finding that just taking into account the smaller land-based ice sheets, there will be a thirty to fifty percent loss in the next eighty years, contributing 25 centimeters to the sea level.

When you consider the fact that this does not take into account the far greater contribution of the huge Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets -- which are melting at an unprecedented rate -- you'd be right to be alarmed.

You'd also be right to relocate away from the coast.

"The clear message is that there’s mass loss—substantial mass loss—all over the world," said lead author Regine Hock, in a press release from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks.  "The anticipated loss of ice varies by region, but the pattern is evident.  We have more than 200 computer simulations, and they all say the same thing...  Even though there are some differences, that’s really consistent. Our study compared 214 glacier simulations from six research groups around the world, and all of them paint the same picture."

The second study, released by the European Space Agency, takes data from the GlobPermafrost Project, using data from the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite program to estimate the rate of loss of permafrost from the Arctic -- and are finding that what we are seeing is the beginning of a positive feedback loop.

And don't read "positive" as "good."  Here, "positive" means something that keeps getting worse -- i.e., the "snowball effect."

The problem is, when permafrost melts, it unlocks (literally) millions of tons of carbon that had been stored in the frozen subsoil.  This not only leads to slumping (one of the factors the GlobPermafrost Project measured) but causes the release of both carbon dioxide and methane, each of which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect.

If you're not scared enough yet, the main finding of the project is that our estimates of the rate of permafrost melting were too small -- by an order of magnitude.

The last study is the one that should cause the deniers to admit defeat and retreat in disarray -- but probably won't.  The paper, which has already passed full peer review, will be released in the Journal of Geophysical Research in June.  What it does is look at the data from GISSTEMP, one of the main computer models used to predict temperature change, and backpedals the model over a hundred years to see whether it's in agreement with what the global average temperature actually did...

... and found that the model predicted the temperature to within an inaccuracy of 0.09 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We’ve made the uncertainty quantification more rigorous, and the conclusion to come out of the study was that we can have confidence in the accuracy of our global temperature series," said lead author Nathan Lenssen, a doctoral student at Columbia University, in a press release from NASA.  "We don’t have to restate any conclusions based on this analysis."

"The Arctic is one of the places we already detected was warming the most. The AIRS [Atmospheric Infrared Sounder] data suggests that it’s warming even faster than we thought,” said Gavin Schmidt co-author of a study that supported the Lenssen et al. results.  "Each of [these analyses]  is a way in which you can try and provide evidence that what you’re doing is real.  We’re testing the robustness of the method itself, the robustness of the assumptions, and of the final result against a totally independent data set."

And this result -- like all of the studies that have gone before it -- is unequivocal.

At this point, there's only one question we should be asking the politicians who are still in denial about what we're doing to the Earth.  "What would it take to change your mind?"  Because if what we've already seen from the climatologists isn't convincing, it's hard to know what would be.

And if the politicians answer, "Nothing would change my opinion, my mind is made up," it's time to vote them right the hell out of office, and elect some people who actually care about reality -- and about whether the world our grandchildren inherit will still be habitable.

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

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

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





Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Science, the arts, and creativity

'Tis the season for school budget votes, when school districts find out how much they're going to have to cut from the instructional program, and younger, low-seniority teachers find out if they're actually going to have a job in September.

It's a fraught time of year for anyone in education, and I say that even though it's been a very long time since I've had to worry about my job, and as a "core teacher" (more about that in a moment) I've never had any concerns about my subject being cut.  But when I see the effect this has on other teachers and the morale of the school in general, it breaks my heart.

What is even more troubling is the distinction being made between "core" classes and electives, sometimes called "specials."  The attitude is that the "core" -- English, Social Studies, Math, and Science/Technology -- is somehow more important than the other classes.  And calling the other classes "specials" is disingenuous at best; to quote Eric Idle's character in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, "You're not foolin' anyone, you know."  Whenever there are budget cuts, the "specials" are the first to go.  The message is that we can do without art and music and other electives, but everything else is sacrosanct.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mukul urp, CLASSROOM, CC BY-SA 3.0]

What's tragic about this is that the opposite is apparently closer to the truth.  Educational researcher Andreas Schleicher just addressed the UK House of Commons last week to bring to light this very issue -- that not only are the arts and music and so on critical because they're creative and fun and are often the high point of students' days, but they give students essential skills for flourishing in today's job market.  And since that's ordinarily the one thing the politicians accuse schools of failing at, this got some people to sit up and take note.

"I would say, in the fourth industrial revolution, arts may become more important than maths," Schleicher said.  "We talk about ‘soft skills’ often as social and emotional skills, and hard skills as about science and maths, but it might be the opposite...  the true ‘hard skills’ will be your curiosity, your leadership, your persistence and your resilience."

Schleicher also spoke out against the drill-and-test mode that is becoming the norm in the United States, and apparently in the UK as well.  He suggests that our desperation to convert everything into numbers -- what the educational policy wonks call "measurable outcomes" -- has led us to emphasize the subjects in which that's easier.  Math and science, especially, can be focused on "getting the right answer," giving you an easy metric to measure success -- if that's the kind of success you're looking for.

"When you look at the types of tasks that British students are doing better [than other countries], they are more those that are associated with the past than the future – the kind of things that are easy to teach and easy to test," Schleicher said.  "It is precisely those things that are easy to digitise...  [But] the modern world doesn’t reward you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know."

In other words, the creativity you can bring to bear upon a problem, and your ability to see connections in disparate realms.  "Lateral thinking," it's often called.  But this is the kind of thing we educators usually fail to teach -- because it's hard to incorporate into your typical lesson, and hard to measure.  Much simpler just to keep students thinking inside the box, thinking that every problem has exactly one right answer, and (to quote another brilliant educational researcher, Sir Ken Robinson), "It's at the back of the book.  But don't look."

The saddest part, for me as a science educator, is that science itself is not usually taught as a creative endeavor.  In many classrooms, science is a list of vocabulary words and standardized solution methods, both of which could be memorized and regurgitated without any real understanding taking place.  But the truth is, the best science is highly creative, and requires a leap, questioning assumptions and looking at every piece of our understanding in the light of curiosity and exploration.

A classic example is Albert Einstein.  Before Einstein's time, physicists had been puzzled that all the experiments done to determine the speed of light found that it was constant -- that its speed didn't vary depending on whether you were moving away from or toward the light source.  How on earth could that be?  No other wave or particle acted that way.  So they came up with convoluted ways around what they referred to as "the problem of the constancy of the speed of light."

Einstein turned the whole thing on its head by saying, "What if it's not a problem, but simply inherent in the behavior of light itself?"  So he started from the assumption that light's speed is constant, in every frame of reference, even if you were heading toward the light source at 99% of the speed of light.

The result?  The Special Theory of Relativity, and the opening up of a whole new realm of physics.

To quote Arthur Schopenhauer: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit.  Genius hits a target no one else can see."

Hard to see how today's educational system, with its mania for the memorize-and-test model, will produce the next generation's Einstein.  The next generation's Einstein will be lucky if (s)he gets out of school with an intact sense of creativity and curiosity.

So Schleicher is exactly right.  We should be increasing arts and music education in schools, not cutting it.  "STEM" curricula and other "core" subjects are important, don't get me wrong; but the emphasis they get is seriously unbalanced.  And for heaven's sake, let's stop considering something real if we can test it and measure it.  I'll end with another quote, this one from writer, researcher, and professor Robert I. Sutton: "To foster creativity, you must reward success and failure equally, and punish inactivity."

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

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

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





Monday, May 27, 2019

Disaster relief

Today we have three stories from the "I Swear I Am Not Making This Up" department, all of which revolve around various natural disasters.

In the first, we are featuring a repeat performance by Mark Taylor, the self-styled "Firefighter Prophet."  You may recall that Taylor was in Skeptophilia only two weeks ago, when he claimed that Satan's followers were using chemtrails to stop us from "tuning in to God's frequency."

This time, however, he's outdone himself, which is no mean feat given the fact that most of what he says sounds like he's spent too much time jumping on a pogo stick in a room with low ceilings.  Just two days ago, Taylor felt like he had to comment on the outbreak of tornadoes in the American Midwest, and tweeted the following:
Coincidence that Missouri was hit with Tornadoes right after they signed the abortion bill?  That same line of storms had Tornado warning in DC yesterday right before Trump gave ok for declass.  The enemy is trying to intimidate.  It won’t work, your [sic] a defeated enemy!  Victory!
So, Satan is sending tornadoes to intimidate the Christians (and also Donald Trump, who is about as Christian as Kim Jong-Un), and coincidentally sends tornadoes to places that already get lots of tornadoes, during the part of the year that's the peak season for tornadoes?  You know, intimidation-wise, I think Satan would be more advised to do something unexpected, like having a volcano erupt in downtown Omaha, or a blizzard in Miami, or a hurricane in Utah, or something.  Saying, "Fear my wrath!  I will make sure that what always happens to you continues to happen!" really lacks something, evil-wise.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]

Next we have news out of Kentucky, where the "Ark Encounter" museum, designed to convince children that the mythological explanations of a bunch of illiterate Bronze-Age sheepherders somehow supersedes everything we know from modern science, has run into a legal snafu.  Apparently they are suing their insurance carriers because of refusal to pay out a claim...

... for damage from flooding.

I like to think of myself as a compassionate guy, but my exact reaction when I read this was:
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *gasp, snort, choke* HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
So you need help covering the expenses of damage from a two-day rainstorm?  I thought this particular design was good for at least forty days and forty nights.  And besides, don't they call natural disasters like this "Acts of God?"

Seems a little presumptuous to expect compensation from something like that.

Or maybe, if you apply Mark Taylor's "logic" to this situation, it was just Satan trying to intimidate Ken Ham et al.  In which case Ham should just yell, "Your [sic] defeated, Satan!  Victory!" and call it good.

Last, we have an actual warning sent out by the Lawrence (Kansas) Police Department, that you should not try to stop a tornado by shooting at it.

Which you would think would be obvious.  After all, air is pretty impervious to bullets, and a tornado is basically just a big spinning blob of air.  Plus, there's the problem that since it's spinning really fast, if you shoot into it, you're likely to find that five seconds later, the tornado has flung the bullet right back at you.  After all, tornadoes are capable not only of massive devastation, but of whirling quite heavy objects up into the air, which is why if your house is hit by a tornado, it not only has to withstand the strength of the wind, but being hit by an airborne Buick.  Whipping a little thing like a bullet around, and hurling it right back at Bubba and his friends, would be child's play.

It's kind of amazing to me that anyone would have to make a point of telling people not to do this.  What's next?  "If you're trapped by a flood, beating the rising waters with a stick is not going to help."  "Do not attempt to stop a lava flow by spraying it with insecticide."  "You should seek medical help rather than trying to cure your diseases by drinking bleach."

Wait.  People actually did have to be warned about the last one.  Never mind.

You know, maybe I'm remembering incorrectly, but I do not recall bizarre stuff like this happening when I was a kid.  I'm thinking that once again we have evidence we're living in a giant computer simulation, but the aliens running it have gotten bored and/or drunk and now are just fucking with us:
"Let's see what happens if we make a narcissistic, nearly illiterate reality TV star lose the popular election, but win the presidency anyhow!" 
*aliens laugh maniacally and twiddle a few knobs* 
"Oh, hell yeah!  That was great!  How about, let's have people in England attempt to generate popular support for left-wing candidates by throwing milkshakes at politicians!" 
*aliens do tequila shots, more knob-twiddling, more laughter* 
*Ha!  Did you see Nigel Farage's face?  Oh, hey, I've got one.  Let's come up with a song that's super annoying, more annoying even than "Copacabana" and "The Piña Colada Song" put together.  Only we'll target it to kids, but we'll get everyone to play it because there'll be a really stupid video to go with it.  It'll be called "Baby Shark."  That and "do do do do do" will be about the only lyrics." 
*aliens fall off their chairs laughing*
Well, I suppose as long as someone is amused by how absurd humans are.  On the other hand, our species's reputation for idiotic behavior probably wouldn't be harmed any if Mark Taylor would just shut the hell up.

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

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

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





Saturday, May 25, 2019

UFOs in Dixieland

Is it just me, or have the UFO sightings suddenly spiked?

Okay, it might well be the websites I frequent looking for material for Skeptophilia.  It's not like I'm seeing this stuff on the Mainstream Media.  On the other hand, according to Dear Leader what's in the Mainstream Media is all lies, evasions, and coverups.

So there you are.  Q. E. D.

All of these accounts come from MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, which catalogues (and attempts to explain/account for) sightings.  The first one I ran into yesterday is from Tennessee:
Both of us decided to take a break and go outside...when we saw really bright lights suddenly dim and start pulsating, and coming at us, from the southeast side of the property over the woodlands.  I stood transfixed as [a rectangular object] literally came out of nowhere, going suddenly up and then down at a terrific speed, over the tree line... 
There was a sound with it, that was a deep, low thrumming hum, which really hurt our ears.  Fiancé actually had to cover his; it was painful to him.  But then the sound eased up as it then halted, hovering above us for a few seconds, tilted to its side and then zoomed off straight to the north, so low that I watched it, till it rose up and then dipped back down.  As low as it was, I was sure it was going to crash or something.  I was shaking when we came back in, and this is not the first incident we have had since moving here these last four years.  I only lost sight of the thing when it vanished into the north.
There was a remarkably similar sighting in Alabama, but without the noise:
As husband and I were driving home from his place of work, after 9 p.m., we saw in the sky directly over and in front of our car a black rectangular object with red glowing bars of light on the short sides of the rectangular shape.  Also, there was a blinking red light following.  It was silently gliding across the sky - no noise at all.  We pulled over to get out and look, but being in the middle of downtown it disappeared behind some buildings, as if it had descended straight down.  My husband's cell phone was not working properly afterwards.  I don't currently have one so nothing else to report other than I woke continuously from my sleep throughout the night with nausea and still felt the same the next morning and throughout the earlier part of the day.
Then there's the one from Florida:
It was still blue skies with no clouds when I looked up and saw a black disc flying from the north coming over my house as it was flying.  It turned over and over from left to right about three times in a second, maybe a second-and-a-half, and did the same thing going the other direction.  It hovered in one place just south of the house for about 10 seconds and then continued south.  There was no vapor trail, no lights that I could see of any kind except for a glow of a turquoise-orange that I could see when the object was flipping over left to right and right to left... 
An aircraft doing tight turns like that would probably make the pilot pass out from the G-forces and the plane would probably fall apart if it was a normal airplane.  I was wondering if maybe the government has an experimental craft.  I have seen a stealth bomber and fighter flying overhead.  This did not look anything like that.  I lost sight of the object as it went over some trees headed southeast.  Maybe the Tampa Airport saw something on their radar.  If it's not an airplane, then I think I just saw my proof that we are not alone in the universe – even though I am intelligent enough to know that the percentages are high enough to know that we probably aren't alone anyway.
Weirdest of all is a report from South Carolina:
Noticed a really bright, red light coming from the south headed north.  I was looking for blinking lights to identify it as a plane or helicopter, but this object was round, solid red in the middle, with short gold rays coming out of it all around the circle.  It was perfectly silent and moving along about as fast as a little Cessna plane would.  As it moved directly in front of me, it was only about 700 to 800 feet from me.  The front two-thirds of the object disappeared and then a split second later the rest disappeared also.  It kind of looked like it was moving into another dimension or something, the way the front part seemed to go through, then the back of it a split second later.  I did not see it after that.  After the incident, two words have been stuck in my head, alpha and belvedere.  Don’t know what it means, if anything, but wanted to let you know.
Okay, let's think about this for a moment.

What immediately jumps out at me is that all four of these accounts are from the Southeast, which not only heavily supports Donald Trump, but also has drive-through daiquiri stands.  (And those two may not be unrelated, either.)  Now, I'm not insinuating that any of the witnesses were drunk or MAGA-types or both, but I thought it worth mentioning.

In all seriousness, I'm struck with the frequency of UFO reports -- something the third witness mentions.  Yes, it's extraordinarily likely that the vast majority of them are hoaxes, or ordinary astronomical objects, or purely terrestrial phenomena; but I agree with Michio Kaku, who says that if even 1% of all the UFO sightings are inexplicable by any conventional answer, then that 1% deserves serious investigation.


The problem is -- to quote another physicist, with a reputation not quite so far-out as Kaku's -- as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "In science, we need more than 'you saw it.'"  Given the number of sightings that have turned out to be accountable by perfectly ordinary explanations, if the only evidence you have is your eyewitness account, there's not much I can do but shrug my shoulders.  (And that's not meant to cast any aspersions on your reliability or honesty; as Tyson also has said, "There's no such thing as good eyewitness testimony.  It's all bad.")

So that's today's curiosity.  Despite the fact that I know my sightings would not be any more scientifically credible than the next guy's, I would dearly love to see a UFO.  Although I'd like to have something more interesting stuck in my head afterward than "alpha" and "belvedere."

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

Back in 1989, the United States dodged a serious bullet.

One hundred wild monkeys were imported for experimental purposes, and housed in a laboratory facility in Reston, Virginia, outside of Washington DC.  Soon afterwards, the monkeys started showing some odd and frightening symptoms.  They'd spike a fever, become listless and glassy-eyed, and at the end would "bleed out" -- capillaries would start rupturing all over their body, and they'd bleed from every orifice including the pores of the skin.

Precautions were taken, but at first the researchers weren't overly concerned.  Most viruses have a feature called host specificity, which means that they tend to be infectious only in one species of host.  (This is why you don't need to worry about catching canine distemper, and your dog doesn't need to worry about catching your cold.)

It wasn't until someone realized the parallels with a (then) obscure viral outbreak in 1976 in Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) that the researchers realized things might be much more serious.  To see why, let me just say that the 1976 epidemic, which completely wiped out three villages, occurred on...

... the Ebola River.

Of course, you know that the feared introduction of this deadly virus into the United States didn't happen.  But to find out why -- and to find out just how lucky we were -- you should read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone.  It's a brilliantly-written book detailing the closest we've come in recent years to a pandemic, and that from a virus that carries with it a 95% mortality rate.  (One comment: the first two chapters of this book require a bit of a strong stomach.  While Preston doesn't go out of his way to be graphic, the horrifying nature of this disease makes some nauseating descriptions inevitable.)

[Note:  If you purchase this book through the image/link below, part of the proceeds will go to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Friday, May 24, 2019

Listening to Cassandra

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.  Apollo fell in love (well, fell in lust, actually) with her, and gave her the gift of perfect foreknowledge.  But afterward, Cassandra decided that love affairs with the Greek gods seldom ended well, and told Apollo she wasn't interested.  Apollo was furious, but once a god gives a gift, it can't be revoked, so he just added a clause to it.

She had perfect foreknowledge, but when she told people what was going to happen, no one believed her.  Thus it was that she foresaw the Trojan War and the fact that Troy would be defeated and destroyed -- and instead of taking steps to prevent it, the people of Troy locked her up as a madwoman.

The people who understand climate and ecology are feeling a lot like Cassandra these days.

Now, though, what is being forecast isn't the destruction of a single city, but a trend that is well on its way to triggering a mass extinction.  And we had a study funded by the Smithsonian Institute released last week that highlights the trouble we're in -- a survey of the global climate that extends back five hundred million years.

The temperature data was derived from the ratio of O-16 to O-18 in bubbles of air trapped in ice,  amber, and bound up in calcium carbonate in fossils.  Because water molecules with the lighter isotope evaporate faster and therefore end up in precipitation -- including snowfall -- more readily, air that is enriched in the heavier isotope indicates colder temperature.  This method has been checked against other types of proxy records and shows good agreement, indicating that the technique gives a reliable indication of global average temperature.

If you take a look at the link I posted, you'll see a graph that should be alarming.  The first thing is that we're currently heading toward a frightening benchmark -- a world with no polar ice caps.  The amount of sea level rise this would engender isn't certain, but the current best estimate is about 65 meters, which would be sufficient to inundate every coastal city in the world, not to mention virtually the entire states of Florida, Delaware, and Louisiana and the countries of Belgium, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands.

Scott Wing, one of the scientists who led this research.  During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, there were alligators swimming in what are now the Wyoming Badlands.

The other thing to notice is the slope of the lines on the graph.  On a graph with time on the x-axis, the slope of the graph gives you the rate.  The current rate is one of the three highest on the graph -- and the other two correspond to the two biggest extinction events the Earth has ever experienced, the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction and the Permian-Triassic Extinction.

To quote Paul Voosen, who wrote the article in Science:
Scott Wing and Brian Huber, a paleobotanist and paleontologist, respectively, at the [Smithsonian], wanted to chart swings in Earth's average surface temperature over the past 500 million years or so.  The two researchers also thought a temperature curve could counter climate contrarians' claim that global warming is no concern because Earth was much hotter millions of years ago.  Wing and Huber wanted to show the reality of ancient temperature extremes—and how rapid shifts between them have led to mass extinctions.  Abrupt climate changes, Wing says, "have catastrophic side effects that are really hard to adapt to."
That's putting it mildly.  During the Permian-Triassic Extinction, 95% of the species on Earth died, and the cause was the eruption of the Siberian Traps, which dumped huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, jumping the global average temperature by ten degrees.

So there are two concerns, only one of which people tend to focus on.  There's the actual temperature rise, which is certainly scary enough, but more frightening still is how fast it's happening.  Yes, as climate change deniers will happily tell you, there have been climatic ups and downs throughout Earth's history.  But the one happening now is happening at a rate several orders of magnitude more quickly than anything we have on record.

Of course, this is only the last piece of a mountain of evidence supporting the validity of anthropogenic climate change and the amount of trouble we're in.  Yet still our leaders waffle and cast doubt and talk about expediency and short-term profits and how hard it would be to switch to renewable energy.

And the rest of us keep trying to call attention to the actual science, and are left feeling like Cassandra, knowing that Troy is about to fall but incapable of getting anyone to listen.

The problem is that here, we're not talking about one city's demise, but the long-term habitability of the entire Earth.

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

Back in 1989, the United States dodged a serious bullet.

One hundred wild monkeys were imported for experimental purposes, and housed in a laboratory facility in Reston, Virginia, outside of Washington DC.  Soon afterwards, the monkeys started showing some odd and frightening symptoms.  They'd spike a fever, become listless and glassy-eyed, and at the end would "bleed out" -- capillaries would start rupturing all over their body, and they'd bleed from every orifice including the pores of the skin.

Precautions were taken, but at first the researchers weren't overly concerned.  Most viruses have a feature called host specificity, which means that they tend to be infectious only in one species of host.  (This is why you don't need to worry about catching canine distemper, and your dog doesn't need to worry about catching your cold.)

It wasn't until someone realized the parallels with a (then) obscure viral outbreak in 1976 in Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) that the researchers realized things might be much more serious.  To see why, let me just say that the 1976 epidemic, which completely wiped out three villages, occurred on...

... the Ebola River.

Of course, you know that the feared introduction of this deadly virus into the United States didn't happen.  But to find out why -- and to find out just how lucky we were -- you should read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone.  It's a brilliantly-written book detailing the closest we've come in recent years to a pandemic, and that from a virus that carries with it a 95% mortality rate.  (One comment: the first two chapters of this book require a bit of a strong stomach.  While Preston doesn't go out of his way to be graphic, the horrifying nature of this disease makes some nauseating descriptions inevitable.)

[Note:  If you purchase this book through the image/link below, part of the proceeds will go to supporting Skeptophilia!]





Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dog days

The nature/nurture debate has been going on for some time -- whether our behavior and personalities are controlled by our genetics or our environment.  Most scientists believe it's both -- the differences lie in what amount and which parts of our personalities are due to each factor.

The search for answers has led to some rather startling results.  Separated-twin studies -- involving locating sets of identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in different homes -- resulted in some correspondences that were astonishing.  The weirdest one, done back in 1979, found a pair of identical twin brothers who were separated at age four weeks and didn't even know of each other's existence -- and they were both named Jim, drove the same type of car, both had tension headaches and were chronic nail-biters, were both firefighters, and chain-smoked the same brand of cigarettes.

Now, even the most die-hard proponent of the personality-is-inborn explanation wouldn't claim that the kind of car you drive is genetic.  Some of these similarities are clearly due to the Law of Large Numbers -- in a big enough sample size, you'll find strange coincidences that don't really mean anything profound.  Add to that Dart-Thrower's Bias -- our tendency to notice and remember outliers -- and the Two Jims aren't really that hard to explain.  (And, of course, out of the thousands of pairs of twins studied, the media is going to point out the one that is the oddest.)

But still.  Consider some of the other similarities.  While cigarette brand choice is certainly not genetic, addictive behaviors have an inheritable componentSo does anxiety, which accounts for the headaches and the nail-biting.  And to be a firefighter, you have to have physical strength, courage, and an ability to take risks -- all features of personality that could well have an origin in our DNA.

Last week, a paper appeared in Scientific Reports that supports a strange conjecture -- that dog ownership is partly genetic.  The research, which came out of Uppsala University (Sweden), looked at the concordance rates of dog ownership between identical twins (which share 100% of their DNA) and fraternal twins (which share, on average, half of their DNA).  And the data were clear; the concordance between identical twins is far higher, supporting a large degree of heritability for dog ownership.

"We were surprised to see that a person's genetic make-up appears to be a significant influence in whether they own a dog," said Tove Fall, professor of medical epidemiology and lead author of the study.  "As such, these findings have major implications in several different fields related to understanding dog-human interaction throughout history and in modern times.  Although dogs and other pets are common household members across the globe, little is known how they impact our daily life and health.  Perhaps some people have a higher innate propensity to care for a pet than others."


"The study has major implications for understanding the deep and enigmatic history of dog domestication" said Keith Dobney, Chair of Human Palaeoecology in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, who co-authored the study.  "Decades of archaeological research have helped us construct a better picture of where and when dogs entered into the human world, but modern and ancient genetic data are now allowing us to directly explore why and how."

My sense of why I have dogs is that I've somehow become convinced that my house just isn't filthy enough.  The entryway from our back yard was once off-white linoleum, but years of tracking by various dogs we've owned has left it way more off than white.  And I'm assuming the indoor-outdoor carpeting in our basement has been tan all along, but who knows?

Of course, we own dogs for more than just the random carpet stains and pieces of dismembered squirrel.  They're sweet, cuddly, love to play, and have a boundless enthusiasm for enjoying life that I can only aspire to.  Every time we lose one -- inevitable, given their shorter life span -- it leaves me grieving for months.  And while I've sometimes contemplated not replacing them when they're gone, within the year I'm already perusing PetFinder looking for another rescue puppy to give a home.

Unsurprisingly, given the Fall et al. study, my parents were also major dog lovers.  My dad had a little terrier named Max whom he adopted while working for the post office as a letter carrier.  He had a walking route, and Max would meet him every morning and follow him the entire way.  My dad started bringing snacks for him, and eventually Max's owners said, "You know, we don't have time for him anyway, would you like to take Max home?"  My dad agreed -- and his canine pal spent the rest of his life following him around, even after Max had gone complete blind from cataracts.  In fact, Max would walk behind my dad, keeping track of where he was by sound and smell, and when my dad stopped Max would keep going till he bumped into my dad's leg, then stand there, nose pressed against him, until he started walking again.

Old habits die hard.

Anyhow, this gives us a new perspective on dog ownership, and the strange relationship between our genes and our behavior.  But I need to wind this up, because Guinness wants to play ball, and track more mud around the basement.  You know how it goes.

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

Back in 1989, the United States dodged a serious bullet.

One hundred wild monkeys were imported for experimental purposes, and housed in a laboratory facility in Reston, Virginia, outside of Washington DC.  Soon afterwards, the monkeys started showing some odd and frightening symptoms.  They'd spike a fever, become listless and glassy-eyed, and at the end would "bleed out" -- capillaries would start rupturing all over their body, and they'd bleed from every orifice including the pores of the skin.

Precautions were taken, but at first the researchers weren't overly concerned.  Most viruses have a feature called host specificity, which means that they tend to be infectious only in one species of host.  (This is why you don't need to worry about catching canine distemper, and your dog doesn't need to worry about catching your cold.)

It wasn't until someone realized the parallels with a (then) obscure viral outbreak in 1976 in Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) that the researchers realized things might be much more serious.  To see why, let me just say that the 1976 epidemic, which completely wiped out three villages, occurred on...

... the Ebola River.

Of course, you know that the feared introduction of this deadly virus into the United States didn't happen.  But to find out why -- and to find out just how lucky we were -- you should read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone.  It's a brilliantly-written book detailing the closest we've come in recent years to a pandemic, and that from a virus that carries with it a 95% mortality rate.  (One comment: the first two chapters of this book require a bit of a strong stomach.  While Preston doesn't go out of his way to be graphic, the horrifying nature of this disease makes some nauseating descriptions inevitable.)

[Note:  If you purchase this book through the image/link below, part of the proceeds will go to supporting Skeptophilia!]