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, August 31, 2019

Sex, choice, and genes

Sometimes a piece of research makes me simultaneously think, "Okay, that's pretty interesting," and "Oh, no, this is not going to end well."

That was my reaction to the latest study of the genetics of sexuality and sexual orientation, which appeared in Science this week.  The paper, entitled "Large-Scale GWAS Reveals Insights Into the Genetic Architecture of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior," was the work of a huge team headed by Andrea Ganna of the Center for Genomic Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and looked at genetic correlations amongst almost 500,000 individuals with their self-reported same-sex sexual behavior.

Before we launch off into how this is being spun, let's look at what Ganna et al. actually wrote:
In the discovery samples (UK Biobank and 23andMe), five autosomal loci were significantly associated with same-sex sexual behavior.  Follow-up of these loci suggested links to biological pathways that involve sex hormone regulation and olfaction.  Three of the loci were significant in a meta-analysis of smaller, independent replication samples.  Although only a few loci passed the stringent statistical corrections for genome-wide multiple testing and were replicated in other samples, our analyses show that many loci underlie same-sex sexual behavior in both sexes.  In aggregate, all tested genetic variants accounted for 8 to 25% of variation in male and female same-sex sexual behavior, and the genetic influences were positively but imperfectly correlated between the sexes [genetic correlation coefficient (rg)= 0.63; 95% confidence intervals, 0.48 to 0.78]...  Additional analyses suggested that sexual behavior, attraction, identity, and fantasies are influenced by a similar set of genetic variants (rg > 0.83); however, the genetic effects that differentiate heterosexual from same-sex sexual behavior are not the same as those that differ among nonheterosexuals with lower versus higher proportions of same-sex partners, which suggests that there is no single continuum from opposite-sex to same-sex preference.
To put it succinctly, and without all the scientific verbiage: sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender are complex, and the differences we see amongst humans are not attributable to a single cause.

Which you'd expect, I'd think.  The old binary divisions of male vs. female and heterosexual vs. homosexual are so clearly wrong it's a wonder anyone still thinks they're correct.  Transsexual and anatomically intersex individuals are hardly rare; and I know for a fact bisexuality exists, because I've been equally attracted to women and men since I was aware of sexual attraction at all.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Benson Kua, Rainbow flag breeze, CC BY-SA 2.0]

But this doesn't square with how some people want the world to work, so immediately this paper was published, it began to be twisted out of all recognition.

First, there was the "we wish the world was simple" approach, as exemplified by Science News, which for the record I'm about fed up with because for fuck's sake, they should know better.   Their headline regarding the study was "There's No Evidence That a 'Gay Gene' Exists," which is one of those technically-true-but-still-misleading taglines the media seems to be increasingly fond of.

No, there is no single "gay gene."  But reread the passage from the original paper I quoted above; the gist is that there is a host of factors, genetic and otherwise, that correlate with sexual orientation.  Here's a more accurate phrasing of the paper's conclusion, from Melinda Mills, writing about the study in the "Perspectives" column of Science: "The genetic correlation identified in the GWAS of whether a person had ever engaged in sex with someone of the same sex and the more complex measure of proportion of same-sex partners was 0.73 for men but only 0.52 for women.  This means that genetic variation has a higher influence on same-sex sexual behavior in men than in women and also demonstrates the complexity of women's sexuality."

Even the lower 0.52 correlation for women is pretty damn significant, considering that correlation runs on a scale of 0 to 1 where 0 means "no correlation at all" and 1 means "perfectly correlated."

But that didn't stop the next level of misinterpretation from happening, predictably from the anti-LGBTQ evangelicals and other crazy right-wingers, who would prefer it if people like me didn't exist.  All they did is read the headline from Science News (or one of the large number of media outlets that characterized the research the same way) and start writing op-ed pieces crowing, "See?  No gay gene!  We told you homosexuality was a choice.  Now science proves we were right all along."  Add to that the alarmists who went entirely the other direction and suggested that the Ganna et al. research could be used to identify non-heterosexuals for the purposes of persecution, or even eugenics, and you've got a morass of hyperemotional responses that miss the main conclusions of the study entirely.

So can I recommend that all of you read the fucking research?  For the Right-Wing NutJobs, let me just say that if you have to lie about what a study actually says to support your viewpoint, your position must be pretty tenuous from the get-go.  And while I sympathize with the alarmists' fears, it's hard to see how the Ganna et al. research could be used for any sort of nefarious purposes, when the best genetic correlates to homosexuality numbered around a half-dozen, not all of them showed up in every LGBTQ person studied, and even aggregated only predicted correctly around half the time.

So the whole thing got me kind of stirred up, as measurable by the number of times I felt obliged to use the f-bomb to express my frustration.  Which you'd have predicted, given my (1) bisexuality, (2) background in genetics, and (3) hatred of popular media mischaracterizing science.

In any case, the take-home message here is threefold:
  1. The universe is a complex place.  Deal with it.
  2. Wherever human sexuality comes from, it isn't a choice.  If that offends your sensibilities or conflicts with your worldview, you might want to re-examine your sensibilities and worldview, because as far as I can tell reality doesn't give a rat's ass about what you'd like to believe.
  3. Don't trust headlines.  Always go back to the original research before forming an opinion.  Yes, reading scientific papers is challenging for non-scientists, but that's the only way you'll know your understanding is on solid ground.
So that's the latest highly equivocal piece of the nature-nurture puzzle, the outcome of which you'd probably have expected from knowing the history of the question.  As much as I'd like it if these matters were simple, I'm much happier knowing the truth.  I'll end with a quote from the inimitable Carl Sagan: "For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Friday, August 30, 2019

A new twig on the family tree

My long-ago professor of evolutionary biology, Dr. Andrew Collins, once said, "The only reason humans came up with the concept of species as little air-tight boxes is that we have no near relatives still alive."  After a pause, he added, "And it's also the reason why evolution isn't completely self-evident to everyone."

I've always remembered that -- the word "species" is an artificial construct, and is the hardest concept in biology to come up with a consistent definition for.  No matter how you define it, you come up with exceptions and qualifications (something I dealt with a while back in my post "Grass, gulls, mosquitoes, and mice"), and it's only our determination that nature should be pigeonholeable (to coin a word) that keeps it in the textbooks.

We had a lovely example of that announced this week, when we learned that a stunningly well-preserved 3.8-million-year-old skull from Ethiopia had been identified as Australopithecus anamensis.  This species had been thought ancestral to A. afarensis (the species to which the famous Lucy belonged), but the Ethiopian skull (nicknamed MRD after Miro Dora, the site where it was discovered) is the same age as the earliest clearly A. afarensis remains.

So it looks like the two coexisted at least for a while, which is actually a much more common thing than the textbook one-species-slowly-morphing-into-another model.  Take, for example, our own (much more recent) ancestry, when only fifty thousand years ago there was enough interbreeding between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and anatomically-modern humans that we still find significant traces of each of those lineages in our own DNA.  (When I had my own DNA sequenced, I was proud to find out that I had 284 clearly Neanderthal markers, putting me in the 60th percentile and possibly explaining why I eat my t-bone steaks rare and like running around with little to no clothing on.)

The current discovery, though, is awfully cool.  Here's the skull itself, and a reconstruction of what its owner might have looked like, by the amazing John Gurche:

[Images courtesy of Jennifer Taylor, Dale Mori, and Liz Russell (right); and John Gurche and Matt Crow (left)] 

As an aside, John Gurche lives in the same little upstate New York village that I do, and I was privileged to teach all three of his kids.  His son, Loren, is now a paleontologist in his own right, and even when he was an eleventh grader in my AP Biology class he so clearly knew more about extinct animals than I did that I gladly asked him to contribute every time the topic came up in class.

Anyhow, the whole thing is wicked cool.  Picture it; an African savanna with not just one, but several different kinds of proto-hominins running around, some of them quite human-like and others more similar to our ape ancestors.  I'm always a little astonished at people who find the idea of our non-human ancestry demeaning -- I think it's grand that we're connected, in a series of unbroken links extending back three billion years, to every other life form on Earth.

And the whole thing took place, for the most part, in a smooth set of small changes, almost indistinguishable without the advantage of a huge time scale.  As Charles Darwin put it in The Descent of Man, "In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some apelike creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term 'man' ought to be used."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Thursday, August 29, 2019

Social media and bad decisions

In his famous dialogue Phaedrus, Plato puts the following words in Socrates's mouth:
If men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls.  They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. 
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.  And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing.  And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows...
You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.  The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive.  But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.  It is the same with written words.  They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.
I'm always reminded of this every time I hear the "kids these days" schtick from People Of A Certain Age, about how young adults are constantly hunched over their phones and rely on Google and don't know anything because they can look it up on Wikipedia.   Back In Our Day, we had to go to the library if we wanted to look something up.  On foot, uphill, and in the snow.  And once we got there, find what we were looking for in a card catalog.

That was printed in freakin' cuneiform on clay tablets.

And we appreciated it, dammit.

You hear this kind of thing aimed most often at social media -- that the use of Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and so on, not to mention text messaging, takes people away from face-to-face social interactions they would have otherwise had, and the current ubiquity of this technology is correlated with depression, poor relationship outcomes, and even teen suicide.  The evidence, however, is far from rock solid; these correlations are tenuous at best, and even if there are correlations, it's a long way from proven that the use of social media caused all of the negative trends.

My (admittedly purely anecdotal) observations of teenagers leads me to the conclusion that the number of truly internet-addicted kids is small, and that social, well-adjusted kids are social and well-adjusted with or without their cellphones.  And I can say from my own socially-isolated childhood that having a cellphone would probably not have affected it one way or the other -- even if I magically had Facebook when I was sixteen, I probably would still have been the shy, lonely kid who spent most of his free time in his room.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

That's not to say there aren't some interesting, if troubling, correlations.  A study published recently in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions looked at the connection between social media use and performance on the "Iowa Gambling Task," a simulation that is used to pinpoint impaired decision-making in situations like heroin addiction.  The authors write:
Our results demonstrate that more severe, excessive SNS [social networking site] use is associated with more deficient value-based decision making.  In particular, our results indicate that excessive SNS users may make more risky decisions during the IGT task...  This result further supports a parallel between individuals with problematic, excessive SNS use, and individuals with substance use and behavioral addictive disorders.
The trouble with the study -- which, to be fair, the researchers are up front about -- is that it's a small sample size (71 individuals) and relied on self-reporting for measurement of the daily duration of social media use for each participant.  Self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate -- there have been dozens of studies showing that (for example) self-reporting of diet consistently results in underestimates of the number of calories consumed, and participants have even reported calorie intakes that are "insufficient to support life" without any apparent awareness that they were giving the researchers wildly incorrect information.

So self-reporting of the number of hours spent on social media?  Especially given the negative press social media has gotten recently?  I'm a little suspicious.  The researchers say that their experiment should be repeated with a larger sample size and up-front monitoring of social media use -- which, honestly, should have been done in the first place, prior to publishing the study.

But even so, it's a curious result, and if it bears out, it'll be interesting to parse why Facebook use should be correlated with poor decision-making.  These sorts of correlations often lead to deeper understanding of our own behavior, and that's all to the good.

But now that I'm done writing this, y'all'll have to excuse me so I can post links to today's Skeptophilia on Facebook and Twitter.  You know how it goes.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Planet of doom

Here I was, thinking that the stupidest thing I'd hear all day was that windmills cause cancer and that the way to stop hurricanes is to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of one, when along comes my friend A. J. Aalto, the amazingly talented author of the Marnie Baranuik series, and asks me if I've ever heard of Planet 7x.

Well, I'd heard of the actual seventh planet (better known as Uranus) and I'd heard of Planet X, but Planet 7x was a new one on me.  A friend, she said, had told her all about it, and when I say "all" I mean it, because apparently it came in the form of a five-hour monologue while A. J. was trapped in a car with him.   "Planet 7X... is the reason for all bad things on earth," A. J. explained to me.  "He tried to explain the 'science' proving it, which hurt my head, but I was in no position to show him where he was going wrong.  I googled it just now—wow, a goldmine of woo.   Pure woo."

So naturally I had to follow suit.  And after a couple of hours of research, I think I'd amend "wow" to "what the actual fuck?"  Because this is a synthesis of about two dozen different realms of craziness, including apocalyptic prophecy, conspiracy theories, biblical literalism, Atlantis, gravity denialism (no, I'm not making that up), and various wackiness about supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, the shift of the magnetic poles, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Mayans, the Black Death, Alexander the Great, invisibility cloaks, Ronald Reagan, and the Ice Age.

Oh, but he states outright that he doesn't believe in the Flat Earth.  That would be ridiculous.

Apparently this whole thing is the brainchild of one Gil Broussard, and this is where the whole thing gets an added frisson of weird coincidence, because Broussard hails from my home town of Lafayette, Louisiana.  Not only that, apparently Broussard got the idea for Planet 7x from two University of Louisiana physicists, Dr. John Matese and Dr. Daniel Whitmire.

So it's even weirder, because I majored in physics at the University of Louisiana, and I've taken classes with both of these guys.  I took Quantum Mechanics with Dr. Matese (whose name Broussard misspells "Matisse," which I guess is understandable enough), and Astronomy with Dr. Whitmire.  And what's even weirder is that I went "aha" when I saw their names -- because I knew why they'd inspired Broussard's kooky idea.

When I was an undergraduate, Matese and Whitmire were working on a (legitimate) theory that went by the unfortunate name of "Planet X," and in fact I heard them give a talk on it.  Their idea, which was persuasive enough to merit a paper in Nature in 1985, was that there is a large planet outside of the orbit of Pluto that periodically passes through dense parts of the Oort Cloud, thus gravitationally perturbing the orbits of comets and sending them hurtling inward toward the Sun.  This created regular spikes in cometary impacts on Earth, and were the source of mass extinctions.

Their theory hasn't stood the test of time especially well, and there's been no subsequent hard evidence that their Planet X even exists.  Furthermore, we have pretty good models for the causes of mass extinctions, largely triggered by supervolcano eruptions (e.g. the Deccan Traps and Siberian Traps) and collision by asteroids (not comets), such as the one that left the Chicxulub Crater in the Gulf of Mexico.

But what Gil Broussard has done is take Matese's and Whitmire's theory and twist it out of all recognition.  Planet 7x (I don't know where the "7" comes from; it probably says somewhere on the website, but honestly, I only got through about half of it before pooping out) is in a highly elliptical orbit, and when it comes in toward its perihelion, it does things like send "plasma discharges" toward the Earth (I have no clue why), which not only causes craters and mass extinctions, but makes the magnetic poles flip.  This is all documented in the Bible, apparently, and explains such events as: the parting of the Red Sea (why a huge planet swooping by affected only the water in one location, I have no idea); the account of the battle against the Amorites where Joshua asked for an extra long day to finish Smiting the Enemy so God made the Sun "stand still over Gibeon" until the battle was over; Sodom and Gomorrah being obliterated, and Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt; the Tower of Babel "confusion of languages" incident; all the awful shit that happened to poor Job; and the eclipse that supposedly happened when Jesus died.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you -- the next time Planet 7x is scheduled to visit in 2021, and that's going to usher in the End Times as per the Book of Revelation, so that gives us something to look forward to.  How a large planet could generate the Seas Turning to Blood and Apocalyptic Horsepersons and Dragons With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns, I have no idea, but apparently it can.

Which brings up a question I've always had; why would a dragon have seven heads but ten crowns?  By my math that means it has three crowns left over.  What would it do with those?  Put them on heads that already had crowns?  That image is appallingly asymmetrical.  Stack them on its tail?  Carry them in a dragon-sized backpack?  Maybe it doesn't wear all its crowns at once, and swaps out the spares when one of the crowns is at the cleaners, or something.  I dunno.

But I digress.

Anyhow, I encourage you to visit Broussard's website and read about it for yourself, because I can't possibly explain it fully enough for you to get the whole picture.  There are also excellent illustrations, including one of the Earth being zapped by a bolt of lightning from a very evil and threatening-looking orange planet, in the fashion of the Emperor trying to fry Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi.


So thanks to A. J. for sending me the idea, especially given that it originates with a Hometown Boy and references two people I actually know.  I'm going to need a double scotch to recover from the brain trauma of wading through the site, but that's not A. J.'s fault.

I mean, I think it wasn't A. J.'s fault.  Considering some of the stuff she writes, this could well be a diabolical plot to short-circuit important parts of my brain.  *gives A. J. a suspicious side-eye*  Maybe it's all part of a conspiracy against me.

Or maybe it's just the influence of Planet 7x approaching.  Who the hell knows.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The tipping point

There's a common comment from climate change deniers that I'm sick unto death of, and it usually takes the form of something like "the Earth's climate has had ups and downs in the past, and life has gone along just fine."

First, it's the pure ignorance of this attitude that gets me.  If you did ten minutes' worth of research online, you'd find that a number of these "ups and downs" coincided with mass extinctions.  Life survived, yes, but dramatic losses in biodiversity and overall population numbers hardly constitutes "getting along just fine."  (In fact, the largest mass extinction ever -- the Permian-Triassic Extinction, which wiped out an estimated 96% of marine species and 65% of terrestrial species -- was coincident with a huge spike in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide, thought to have been triggered by a colossal volcanic eruption.)

But second, and honestly worse, is the blithe attitude that we can continue doing whatever we want to the environment and face no consequences whatsoever.  This raises entitlement to the level of an art form; apparently, we humans occupy such an exalted niche that no matter what we do, the rest of nature is magically going to make sure we not only survive, but thrive.

Even the most diehard deniers, however, are getting some serious hints that their determination to ignore science is not working out so well.  First of all, we have the fires in the Amazon, which have reached unprecedented levels in Brazil, with 74,000 acres burned to the ground already.  The cause is twofold -- the natural dry season, and the incomprehensible policy by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro of recommending large-scale slash-and-burn to "encourage agriculture."  The problem is larger in scale than just South America, however.  Environmental scientist Jonathan Foley explained why in an interview with Science News:
Some computer models... show a hypothetical scenario that when we clear rainforest, it starts to almost immediately warm up and dry out the atmosphere nearby.  When we stand in a forest, it feels cool and moist.  But when you clear-cut large areas of the forest, the air right around you gets hotter and drier, and it affects even rainfall patterns.  The worry is if you start clear-cutting more of the Amazon, in theory, a tipping point could be reached where the rest of the forest dries out, too. 
If that happens, the idea is that the Amazon could flip suddenly from being a rainforest to being a dry savanna-like ecosystem.  We’re not absolutely certain about it, but even that theoretical possibility is kind of terrifying...  Globally, about 10 to 15 percent of our CO2 emissions comes from deforestation.  If this is going back up again in Brazil, that’s going to make climate change even worse.
The only amendment that needs to be made to Foley's statement is his use of the word "if" in the last sentence.

Smoke from the 2019 Amazonian wildfires [Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA]

The other piece of alarming information this week comes from some research done at Stockholm University that firmed up a link between the salinity of the North Atlantic and climate throughout the world.  The team, made up of David K. Hutchinson, Helen K. Coxall, Matt OʹRegan, Johan Nilsson, Rodrigo Caballero, and Agatha M. de Boer, were studying the Eocene-Oligocene Transition (EOT), which occurred 34 million years ago and involved a shift from a "hothouse" to "icehouse" climate.  

The authors write:
The Eocene–Oligocene transition (EOT), ~34 Ma ago, marked a major shift in global climate towards colder and drier conditions and the formation of the first Antarctic ice sheets.  A gradual decrease in CO2 is thought to be the primary driver of the transition, causing long-term cooling and increasing seasonality through the Eocene, culminating in the glaciation of Antarctica.  Deep water circulation proxies suggest that the EOT, including the preceding 1 Myr, also marked either the onset or strengthening of an Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC).
Catch that?  An event occurring the North Atlantic is the probable trigger for the formation of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and a radical change in Earth's climate -- and, unsurprisingly, a massive extinction that wiped out 20% of the Earth's species (large mammals were the hardest hit).

What Hutchinson and his team showed is that the likely cause of this transition was the closing of a oceanic channel between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic.  The Arctic Ocean at that time had very low salinity (something the team demonstrated using the species of algae that show up in the fossil record from that time and place).  As long as the channel was open, fresh water flooded into the North Atlantic, keeping the salinity of the surface water low.  When the channel closed due to tectonic movement, the salinity of the surface of the North Atlantic spiked.  Saline water is more dense than fresh water, so this surface water began to sink, kicking off the "North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation" and (more germane to our discussion here) drawing down dissolved carbon dioxide by the metric ton.

The result: a drastic drop in temperature, Antarctica becoming an ice-covered wasteland, and a mass extinction worldwide.

How anyone can read this and not be freaking out over the spike in carbon dioxide we've seen in the last hundred years -- that appears to be the fastest carbon dioxide concentration change anywhere in the geological record -- is beyond me.  There's no doubt that there's a tipping point, as the Eocene-Oligocene Transition shows.  The only question is where that tipping point is -- and whether we've already passed it.

What's driving it all is money.  Altering our lifestyle, protecting the rain forests, and divesting ourselves from fossil fuels all require that we make sacrifices ourselves, but more importantly, that we end the chokehold the fossil fuels industry has on our elected officials.  Of course the politicians don't want anyone to understand and accept climate science, because that would mean cutting off one of their biggest sources of donations -- the petrochemical industry.

It is fitting to end with a quote from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."  The problem is, here what we're jeopardizing is not simply someone's salary, but the long-term habitability of the Earth.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Monday, August 26, 2019

The realm of the impossible

An article appeared in the July/August issue of the Skeptical Inquirer which, on first glance, you might expect me to agree with entirely.

It's entitled "Why Parapsychological Claims Cannot Be True," and is written by Arthur S. Reber and James E. Alcock, professors of psychology at (respectively) Brooklyn College and York University.  What Reber and Alcock are attempting to show is that physical law proves that claims of extrasensory perception and the like are theoretically impossible.

Reber and Alcock cite four tenets of physics that they say render parapsychological claims untenable:
  1. Causality -- all effects have definite causes that preceded them.
  2. Time's arrow -- the flow of time is one-directional, although its speed may vary from reference frame to reference frame.
  3. Thermodynamics -- energy cannot be created or destroyed, so parapsychological claims (such as the future influencing the present) require energy transfer that breaks the First Law.
  4. The inverse-square law -- the strength of a signal diminishes as a function of the square of the distance, and no such attenuation of signal strength is reported in cases of (for example) telepathy.
Certainly, these are powerful objections to many claims of parapsychology, and anyone who says (s)he has such abilities needs to have some pretty persuasive evidence backing it up.  But what I object to is that Reber and Alcock equate a claim violating science as we currently understand it with a claim being impossible even in the broadest theoretical sense.  Based on this, they say, all parapsychological claims should be dismissed out of hand.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons, John Stephen Dwyer, PsychicBoston, CC BY-SA 3.0]

There are a number of problems with this conflation.  The first is that physics itself suggests some awfully bizarre things -- witness Saturday's post about two spaceships being in a state of superposition where both of them are destroyed and not destroyed simultaneously, an outcome that appears to be entirely consistent with what we know about quantum theory and general relativity.  Simultaneity was shown to be inconsistent between reference frames decades ago; one of the more bizarre outcomes of Einstein's discoveries is that two events that appear simultaneous in one frame might appear sequential in another, raising questions about what exactly we mean by "causality."  (And that's not even considering such loony -- but theoretically possible -- phenomena as wormholes, connecting two different bits of spacetime.)

The second problem, though, is the assumption that our understanding now is going to turn out to be true ten years (or even ten days) from now, and will apply equally well to every new discovery.  Consider one of their examples -- the inverse-square law.  It is true that many physical phenomena drop in magnitude as a function of the inverse square of the distance.  (These include light intensity, radiation, gravitational force, electromagnetic force, and sound volume.)  But it was recently discovered that gravitational waves don't decrease in intensity with the square of the distance; they decrease inversely simply with the distance.  The power of a radar signal diminishes with the distance of the source raised to the fourth power.  Up to a distance of one femtometer, the strong nuclear force doesn't vary with distance at all, and after that it drops to nearly zero.

So saying that physics demonstrates that all information transmission follows an inverse-square law simply isn't true, and even if you ignore the handful of counterexamples known, it also implies some significant hubris -- that any subsequent discoveries we make will automatically conform to what we already know.

What is at the root of this is a confusion between what is improbable and what is impossible.  I would argue that there's very little in the latter category -- even such written-in-stone laws such as the speed of light being the ultimate universal speed limit have been subject to thus-far unresolved questions (consider, for example, the Alcubierre warp drive, a solution to Einstein's field equations that appears to allow apparent hyperlight speeds).  As you move along the continuum from improbable to impossible, the demand for rigorous and high-quality evidence quite rightly increases (Carl Sagan's "ECREE" principle -- "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence").  This is why it might take a lot to move me into the "true believer" column with respect to parapsychological claims, but am quite content to remain in the "undecided" column indefinitely.

As befits a good skeptic.

But no matter where you are along the continuum, you can never rule out what the next round of discoveries might uncover.  As Einstein remarked (although it may well be apocryphal) -- "A thousand experiments could never prove me right, but one could prove me wrong."

There are a good many other objections to Reber's and Alcock's argument.  One which I'll mention briefly, but which for a fuller explication you should go to the source, was outlined by Ian Wardell in his blog Philosophical Thoughts.  The gist of his rebuttal is that parapsychological claims all hinge on issues of consciousness, and we still don't have any explanation of a mechanism by which consciousness occurs -- so how can we say with confidence what its limitations are?

Again, I'm not arguing for parapsychological claims, and regular readers of Skeptophilia know all too well that I'm pretty dubious about a lot of the specific evidence these claims rest on.  But my doubt about particular bits of psi doesn't imply anything categorical about the possibility of those sorts of phenomena in general, any more than my demonstration that a purported Bigfoot femur came from a bear would mean that Bigfoot doesn't exist anywhere in time and space.

Such examples of scientific hubris always remind me of the famous quote from Lord Kelvin, one of the pre-eminent scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century, who said in 1907, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.  All that remains is more and more precise measurement."  Within twenty years of that statement, Robert Millikan showed that photons exist in discrete quanta of energy; Einstein published his paper on the general theory of relativity; Louis-Victor de Broglie showed that matter has wavelike properties; Heisenberg demonstrated the bizarrely counterintuitive uncertainty principle; and Schrödinger wrote his famous wave equation governing the role of probability in quantum phenomena.

And we're still trying to figure out the fallout from all of that stuff.

So as far as Reber and Alcock go; I'm not quite the instantaneous ally you might have expected.  My general feeling is that any time you start talking about something being theoretically impossible, world without end amen, you're skating out onto some seriously thin ice.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

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





Saturday, August 24, 2019

Order of operations

I try not to write in Skeptophilia about topics I don't fully understand -- well, at least understand as fully as my brainpower and the available information allow.  But today I'm going to tell you about a recent paper in theoretical physics that blew my mind so completely that I had to write a post about it, even though saying "I don't completely comprehend this" is a serious understatement.

So here goes.  Just don't ask me to clarify further, because the most you'll get is the Canine Head-Tilt of Puzzlement.


The paper, which appeared last week in Nature Communications, is entitled "Bell's Theorem for Temporal Order," and was written by Magdalena Zych and Fabio Costa (of the University of Queensland), Igor Pikovski (of Harvard University), and Časlav Brukner (of the University of Vienna).  The issue the four physicists were looking at was the seeming paradox of the different way that time (specifically, temporal order) fits into general relativity and quantum theory.  In relativity, the flow of time depends on your relative speed and the distribution of mass near you; in general, the faster you're going, or the nearer you are to a massive object, the slower your clock runs.  Because reference frame is relative (thus the name of the entire theory), you don't notice this effect yourself -- to you, your clock runs just fine.  But to someone observing you at a distance, the flow of time in your frame of reference has become more sluggish.

Weird enough, but that's only the beginning.  To take the most familiar example, consider two astronauts in spacecraft zooming away from each other at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.  To astronaut A, his clock is running fine, and astronaut B's clock is slow (because he's moving away from A at a high speed).  But from B's perspective, it's A that's moving; so B thinks his own clock is accurate, and A's is the one that's running slow.

And it's not that one's right and the other is somehow being fooled.  Both of them are right -- because time is relative to your speed.

As an outcome of this (and germane to the paper I referenced), what this also means is that A and B can differ in what they perceive as the time order of two events.  Occurrences that appear simultaneous to one of the astronauts might appear sequential to the other.

With me so far?  Well, the problem that Zych et al. were investigating was that in quantum theory, there's no allowance for relativistic ordering of events.  Time's arrow is one-directional, and if event X followed Y in one reference frame, it would do so on all reference frames.

Well, that's what the physicists thought -- until this paper showed a theoretical framework that suggests otherwise.

Zych et al. proposed a thought experiment involving two spaceships, one of which is near a massive object (which, as I mentioned, warps spacetime in such a way as to slow down the passage of time).  They're engaged in a war game that requires them to fire their phasers simultaneously and immediately afterward start their engine so as to dodge the blast.  The problem is, the ship near the massive object will have a slower clock, and will not be able to fire quickly enough to escape being blasted by the other ship.

So far, weird but not that hard to understand.  What Zych et al. did was to ask a single question: what if the two ships were in a state of quantum superposition before they fired?

Superposition is one of the weirdest outcomes of quantum physics, but it's been demonstrated experimentally so many times that we have no choice but to accept that this is how the universe works.  The idea is that if a physical system could exist in two or more possible states, its actual state is an array of possibilities all existing at the same time until some measurement destroys the superposition and drops the system into one of the possible outcomes ("collapsing the wave function").  The most famous iteration of this is Schrödinger's Cat, who is both alive and dead until the box is opened.


In the case of the ships, the superposition results in quantum entanglement, where the entire system acts as a single entity (in a causal sense).  Here's how the result is described in a press release from the University of Vienna:
If a powerful agent could place a sufficiently massive object, say a planet, closer to one ship it would slow down its counting of time.  As a result, the ship farther away from the mass will fire too early for the first one to escape. 
The laws of quantum physics and gravity predict that by manipulating a quantum superposition state of the planet, the ships can end up in a superposition of either of them being destroyed...  The new work shows that the temporal order among events can exhibit superposition and entanglement – genuinely quantum features of particular importance for testing quantum theory against alternatives.
So each of the ships is in a state of both being destroyed and not being destroyed, from the standpoint of an outside observer -- until a measurement is made, which forces the system into one or the other outcome.

Note what this isn't saying; it's not implying that one of the ships was destroyed, and we simply don't know which yet.  It's implying that both ships are in an entangled state of being blasted to smithereens and not.

At the same time.

The authors write:
This entanglement enables accomplishing a task, violation of a Bell inequality, that is impossible under local classical temporal order; it means that temporal order cannot be described by any pre-defined local variables.  A classical notion of a causal structure is therefore untenable in any framework compatible with the basic principles of quantum mechanics and classical general relativity.
All of which leaves me sympathizing a great deal with Winnie-the Pooh.


So there you have it.  It turns out that the universe is a weird, weird place, where our common-sensical notions of how things work are often simply wrong.  Even though I'm far from an expert -- I run into the wall pretty fast when I try to read actual papers in physics, or (for that matter) in most scientific fields -- I find it fascinating to get a glimpse of the actual workings of the cosmos.

Even if it blows my tiny little mind.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone interested in astronomy -- Finding Our Place in the Universe by French astrophysicist Hélène Courtois.  Courtois gives us a thrilling tour of the universe on the largest scales, particularly Laniakea, the galactic supercluster to which the Milky Way belongs, and the vast and completely empty void between Laniakea and the next supercluster.  (These voids are so empty that if the Earth were at the middle of one, there would be no astronomical objects near enough or bright enough to see without a powerful telescope, and the night sky would be completely dark.)

Courtois's book is eye-opening and engaging, and (as it was just published this year) brings the reader up to date with the latest information from astronomy.  And it will give you new appreciation when you look up at night -- and realize how little of the universe you're actually seeing.

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






Friday, August 23, 2019

Big bird

There's a peculiar fascination that people have with things that are oversized.  It's part of the fascination with dinosaurs, supermassive black holes, supervolcanoes, massive meteor strikes, megacyclones, and the like, with the added frisson that those can also kill you in nasty ways.

But just size can be impressive, irrespective of the likelihood of getting eaten, blown away, disintegrated, or whatnot.  Take, for example, two fossil bird species discovered last week in New Zealand.

The first is a parrot, dubbed Heracles inexpectatus, an accurate moniker given that it translates roughly to "unexpected bigass critter."  H. inexpectatus stood a meter tall, and the scientists who discovered it said that its bill was such that it could "crack open most food sources," which seems to me to be code for "that could easily include your skull."  While most parrots are fruit and seed-eaters, carnivorous parrots are not without precedent -- the kea, a large parrot species also from New Zealand, not only eats baby seabirds, it's been known to attack sheep and take bites of fat from their backs.

H. inexpectatus, being over twice as big, could have done a great deal more damage than that.  With H. inexpectatus, if Polly wants a cracker, you better fucking well give Polly a cracker or Polly will turn you into the next item on the menu.

The good thing (from our standpoint, anyhow) is that H. inexpectatus went extinct 19 million years ago.  So that's one less thing to worry about, nasty-death-wise.

Then there's the even larger penguin fossil, also from New Zealand, that was discovered by a team from Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.  This beast, dubbed Crossvallia waiparensis, stood 1.6 meters tall and weighed 80 kilograms -- in other words, outsizing a good many human beings.

[Image courtesy of the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand]

Being a writer of speculative fiction, this immediately put me in mind of the enormous albino penguins in H. P. Lovecraft's brilliant novella "At the Mountains of Madness," in which an expedition to Antarctica ends very, very badly for 90% of the characters.  In the story, the penguins themselves aren't dangerous (although they seem to be at first) but start acting bizarrely when something appears that is -- namely, Shoggoths, one of Lovecraft's more nightmarish creations, a blob-like shape-shifter whose favorite hobby is pulling people's limbs out of their sockets.  So even though no one is killed by an enormous penguin in the story, seeing this picture did give me a shudder.

Although Paul Scofield, senior curator of the Canterbury Museum, said, "When the Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today – Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates."  Which is kind of the way Lovecraft described things.  So if you go to Antarctica and get dismembered by a Shoggoth, you can't say you weren't warned.

In any case, like the humongous parrot, the humongous penguins are no more.  They were around even earlier than H. inexplicatus, having reached their peak during the Paleocene Epoch, between 55 and 65 million years ago.  Generally, clement climate and plentiful food leads to animals evolving to become larger, so it's speculated that this is what was going on with MegaPenguin and SuperParrot.  Whatever the cause, though, they're pretty impressive.

So that's our cool science story for today.  Something to keep in mind when you feed the chickadees.  The little twittering feathery guys at your bird feeder may not look very impressive now, but in the past, they had some cousins that could kick your ass into the middle of next week.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a must-read for anyone interested in astronomy -- Finding Our Place in the Universe by French astrophysicist Hélène Courtois.  Courtois gives us a thrilling tour of the universe on the largest scales, particularly Laniakea, the galactic supercluster to which the Milky Way belongs, and the vast and completely empty void between Laniakea and the next supercluster.  (These voids are so empty that if the Earth were at the middle of one, there would be no astronomical objects near enough or bright enough to see without a powerful telescope, and the night sky would be completely dark.)

Courtois's book is eye-opening and engaging, and (as it was just published this year) brings the reader up to date with the latest information from astronomy.  And it will give you new appreciation when you look up at night -- and realize how little of the universe you're actually seeing.

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