Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Waiting for the Reichstag fire

I'm taking a day off from our regularly scheduled programming because I am so sick at heart about what is happening in my country that I can't retreat into my usual focus on science and skepticism.  Instead, I'm reposting something I wrote almost exactly two years ago without further commentary.  I think it speaks for itself.

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Back in November of 2015, I wrote a post that got a lot of pshaw-ing by people who ordinarily would be fairly close to me in political outlook.  In it, I compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler -- and the lead-up to the 2016 election to the situation in Weimar Republic Germany in the mid-1930s.

Some of the naysayers thought I was being an alarmist -- that okay, Trump had some pretty reactionary ideas, but (1) they weren't really so far out of the mainstream of conservative ideology, and (2) if he did go off the beam too badly, we have a system of checks-and-balances set up that will rein him in.  Others admitted that Trump was an amoral sociopath who was interested in nothing but self-aggrandizement and stroking his over-inflated ego, but they argued that he wasn't going to get very far.  I had one person say to me, "There's no way that man could ever get the Republican nomination, much less win the presidency.  Calm the hell down."

I don't like being wrong any more than the next guy, but believe me when I say that this is one time I'd have been delighted to be completely off-base.

And every time I think we've reached the absolute nadir, that surely someone is going to step in and stop our slide into a true fascist dictatorship, something worse happens.  Witness the poll by the Washington Post that found that over half of the Republicans surveyed would be in favor of Trump suspending the 2020 presidential election "as long as necessary," and more specifically until he could see to it that we'd "weeded out illegal voters."

If Congress got behind the move, the support rises to 56%.


First, let's just put out there that Trump's repeated claim of "millions of fraudulent voters" has not a shred of evidence behind it.  An exhaustive study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that the incidence of voter fraud in the United States was right around 0.0003%, regardless of whether you looked at local, state, or federal elections.

Put bluntly, the president is lying for the sole purpose of whipping up fear of evil "illegals" rigging elections in order to manipulate his followers into supporting his becoming Dictator-for-Life.

And just as with Hitler, a lot of effort is going into making Trump seem superhuman.  Instead of the racial purity ideologues (although there's a measure of that, too), here what we have is the Christian evangelicals treating Trump as inviolable, God's representative on Earth.  Don't believe me?  Just two days ago, Leigh Valentine, host of Faith and Freedom on Bill Mitchell's "Your Voice America" network, said the following:
Let me tell you, whether you believe it or not, [Trump] is speaking words of life over our country and over this nation, and every word he speaks, I see the hand of God upon it.  He is a very, very smart man and he knows what he is doing.  He knows the art of the deal and a lot of this is God’s deal, let me tell you.
Then there's the story in The Atlantic this week wherein we read some pretty alarming stuff.  Back in January 2016 Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institute scholar, warned that Trump had a "fondness for authoritarian strongmen."  More chillingly, a senior White House official who (unsurprisingly) declined to be named described Trump's policy in three words: "We're America, Bitch."

If someone can explain to me how that's different from Deutschland über alles, I'm listening.

No wonder Trump is disdainful of an articulate negotiator like Justin Trudeau, and as I write this is overflowing with praise for a bloodthirsty, ruthless dictator like Kim Jong Un.

So what we have here is a president who is a wannabe autocrat and has no intention of turning over the reins of power when his term is up, and a Congress that seems to think its job is kissing Trump's ass and rubberstamping whatever he proposes.  The whole time, the state-supported propaganda mill over at Fox News is convincing the masses that as long as we do what Der Führer says (and salute at the right time, and don't do anything outright treasonous like kneeling during the National Anthem or protesting the targeting of minorities by the police), everything will be fine.  America will be great again.

Still doubtful about the parallels between where we are and Weimar Germany?

All we need is the final ingredient -- this era's Reichstag Fire.  Something calamitous that ignites a frenzy in his supporters, and allows Trump himself to say, "See, I told you so."  And at that point, the slide into catastrophe might well be unstoppable.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one -- George Zaidan's Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put In Us and On Us.  Springboarding off the loony recommendations that have been rampant in the last few years -- fad diets, alarmist warnings about everything from vaccines to sunscreen, the pros and cons of processed food, substances that seem to be good for us one week and bad for us the next, Zaidan goes through the reality behind the hype, taking apart the claims in a way that is both factually accurate and laugh-out-loud funny.

And high time.  Bogus health claims, fueled by such sites as Natural News, are potentially dangerous.  Zaidan's book holds a lens up to the chemicals we ingest, inhale, and put on our skin -- and will help you sort the fact from the fiction.

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




Saturday, May 30, 2020

Missing the target

I suppose it's natural enough, but people are always looking for a magic bullet.

Doesn't matter what part of the human condition you're talking about.  Improving health, losing weight, gaining muscle, learning something new, increasing stamina, boosting libido... just listing all of the examples would be a post in and of itself.  I get it, you know?  Most of these are frustrating and difficult to cope with.  For myself, I can't tell you the number of times I've been out for a run, and at about mile three have cursed my age and poor physical condition and the entire universe that came together in such a way as to make me completely suck at running, and wished fervently that there was some kind of supplement I could take that would magically reduce my average mile-time to below eight minutes and leave me grinning cheerfully as I cross the finish line, instead of the reality of ten-minute miles being a victory and crossing the finish line sweaty and breathing hard and swearing that I will never, ever, ever sign up for a race again.

But human nature being what it is, I also tend to go home and immediately look for more races to sign up for.  People are strange.

The reality is that all of those battles we fight are battles for a reason.  They require consistent hard work to overcome.  So all the panaceas you see advertised on social media -- promising long life, six-pack abs, endless energy, and a screaming hot sex drive -- are very, very likely to be ripoffs, trying to capitalize on the natural human tendency to look for an easy solution.  It's like the old joke about the guy in New York City who asked a passerby how to get to Carnegie Hall, and was told, "Every day -- practice, practice, practice."

That was why I gave a skew glance at an announcement a couple of years ago that researchers in Australia had developed a new type font that improved memory by making it a little more effort to read.  Dubbed "Sans Forgetica," it takes the letters, slants them to the left, and creates diagonal breaks -- so it confuses the eye enough to make the brain stay focused while reading it.


"The mind will naturally seek to complete those shapes and so by doing that it slows the reading and triggers memory," said Stephen Banham, who studies typography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

And indeed, studies by Banham et al. indicated a small improvement in information retention -- 57%, over the 50% retention when the same information was written in Arial.

"When we want to learn something and remember it, it’s good to have a little bit of an obstruction added to that learning process because if something is too easy it doesn’t create a memory trace," said study co-author Janneke Blijlevens.  "If it’s too difficult, it doesn’t leave a memory trace either. So you need to look for that sweet spot."

Sounds plausible, doesn't it?

There's only one problem with the claim.

It doesn't work.

A team of researchers at the University of Warwick (UK) and the University of Waikato (New Zealand) released a paper this week about a set of four experiments with 882 test subjects, over twice the number used in the earlier study.  They made four conclusions from the data:
  • Sans Forgetica is, indeed, harder to read than Arial.
  • Asked to recall pairs of words in one font or the other, people tended to remember the ones in Arial better than the ones in Sans Forgetica.
  • When tested on recall of factual information from paragraphs written in either font, there was no significant difference in the retention between the two fonts.
  • When tested on depth of understanding of information, once again there was no difference observed.
So, to put it simply: Sans Forgetica makes reading a pain in the ass for no good reason.

Study lead author Andrea Taylor put it in a little more genteel fashion: "Our findings suggest we should encourage students to rely on robust, theoretically-grounded techniques that really do enhance learning, rather than hard-to-read fonts."

Sad to say, there's no easy road to better recall and comprehension.  Difficulties in the human condition are difficulties for a reason; if they were easy to solve, there wouldn't be so many people worried about them.  Magic bullets, unfortunately, are almost guaranteed to miss the target.

And now, I better get out there for my daily run.  Maybe mile three will be easy today, but I'm not counting on it.  All I'm honestly looking for is a marginal improvement, day to day.

Practice, practice, practice.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Friday, May 29, 2020

Bats in the belfry

Over at the site Pararational a while back an article appeared describing a cryptid I'd never heard of.  Huge, brawny, with pointed ears and enormous, leathery wings, this character haunts the forests of the Pacific Northwest. As if they didn't already have enough problems with their Sasquatch infestation.

And despite living for ten years in Seattle, I'd never heard of him. So, dear readers, meet...

... Batsquatch.


The first thing I notice, being a biologist, is that Batsquatch seems to have no... equipment.  If you get my drift.   Above the waist, he's built like a bodybuilder, and below the waist he's built like a Ken doll.  So you have to wonder how there'd be more than one of them.  Maybe they reproduce from spores, or something, I dunno.

The other thing is that he's got kind of a small head in comparison to his body, and a rather derpish expression.  Low cranial capacity, you know?  A knuckle-dragger type.  The overall impression is of a demon from the redneck part of hell, where instead of stealing your soul, they just down a six-pack of Miller Lite and then take a baseball bat to your mailbox.

Beelzebubba, is kind of how I think of him.

Be that as it may, Batsquatch has apparently been seen a number of times, starting back in 1980, and has generated reports with some regularity since then. Here's one from 2009:
Me and my friend were hiking around Mt. Shasta and out of one of the crevices, flew out this big creature.  I mean this thing was huge.  It was as tall as a man, as stocky as Hulk Hogan and had leathery wings.  I believe the wing span was at least 50 feet from one end to the other. I was holding up my camera, but was paralyzed with fear as this thing flew by. I didn’t get a picture, sorry.  What do you think this might be?  Could it have been a pterodactyl?  It was flying or gliding fast, it seemed to have a head of a bat.  Thinking about it, it doesn’t have the head of a pterodactyl, I just saw a picture of a pterodactyl and the heads are not similar.   I would think it had the head of a bat or maybe more like a fox.  The damn thing finally flew into a clump of trees and vanished.  I heard you guys might be going back to Mt. Shasta, if you do, please look out for this thing.  If you see it, you will piss all over yourself, I kid you not.
Well, yeah, I guess that'd be a natural enough reaction to seeing Hulk Hogan with fifty-foot wings.

Then, we're told of several "fake" reports of Batsquatch.  I'm not entirely sure how one vague story with no proof differs from another vague story with no proof, but the author of the website says that some of the accounts are real and some are not, so there you are.

Because the fact remains that there isn't a scrap of hard evidence that Batsquatch exists, just a lot of anecdotal reports and a sketch of a sketch.  That didn't stop the folks over at Pararational from coming up with what may be the all-time silliest explanation for a cryptid sighting that I've ever read:
(Perhaps) Batsquatch is an extra-dimensional creature that dropped through a rift and got stuck here.  If the first sighting really was in close proximity to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, it seems probably that the force of the blast may have ruptured time/space allowing something to get sucked through.  In that case, it may have flown around for a while and died in some remote location, or else found a way home.
Because, of course, "rupturing space-time" is what happens when a volcano erupts.  Probably also happens during earthquakes, thunderstorms, and early cold snaps.  You know how fragile space-time is, at least if Star Trek: The Next Generation is to be believed.

So anyway.  If you're in the Northwest, look out for Batsquatch.  Given how big he supposedly is, I don't see how you could miss him, frankly.  If you see him, maybe he won't hurt you if you offer him a Miller Lite.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Thursday, May 28, 2020

Grave conditions

When I retired in June of 2019, I made the big mistake of saying aloud, "Wow, I'm going to have so much free time now!"

Literally the week after my last day at work, we found out that one corner of our house foundation was sinking, and that if we didn't do something, the slab was going to crack, leading to the walls destabilizing.  Our house, basically, was sliding down the hill it was built on.

The upshot of it all was that we spent the next few months completely gutting our (formerly finished) downstairs so that foundation specialists could drill down, inside and outside, and install twenty-six hydraulic piers to prop the slab up and prevent further subsidence.  Pulling up the carpet and pulling down the wall coverings and ceiling uncovered a myriad other old-house problems, leading to a domino effect of increasingly costly repairs.  Almost a year later, we still haven't completed putting the downstairs back together, although I'm comforted by the fact that our house didn't fall down.

And at least we didn't find what a couple in Seivåg, Norway did when they pulled up the floor in their house to install insulation.  Mariann Kristiansen, whose great-grandfather built the house in 1914, was unaware that she'd been living on top of a Viking-era grave that archaeologists have dated to between 950 and 1050 C.E.

Amazingly enough, there were no ghosts involved.  I would have thought that a house built on a grave site would have been a perfect opportunity to bring out the ghosts, but no.  The whole thing, apparently, was handled completely pragmatically.

The grave came to light when Kristiansen found a bead of dark blue glass that at first she thought was the wheel of a toy car.  But when she poked around a little more and found an axe, she decided that her initial hypothesis wasn't correct.

It turns out that a layer of flat stones immediately beneath the house is probably the remains of a cairn built over a grave, although preliminary digging has yet to uncover any bones.  But the artifacts found are consistent with "grave goods" of the Viking era.

"I never heard of anything like that and I've been in business for nearly thirty years," said archaeologist Martinus Hauglid.  "They did a magnificent job, they reported it to use as soon as they got the suspicion that it actually was something old."

The grave site underneath the Kristiansens' house [Image courtesy of the Nordland City Council]

My first reaction was to wonder why other people had all the luck, since all we found when we ripped up the foundation was cracked plumbing and disgusting 1950s-era vinyl tile.  But a friend of mine pointed out that (1) living in upstate New York, it was unlikely that we'd find Viking graves anywhere nearby, and (2) it was probably better that we didn't find anything of the sort.  "This is going to be so expensive for that family, depending on the laws in Norway," she said.  "If you find bones here [in Canada], you’re on the hook for the cost of the archeologists, the exhumation, and reburial.  Could be 50k at least.  Not to mention the months of digging, your yard trashed, possibly your house.  A nightmare."

I hadn't even considered that downside.  I mean, we thought we had delays and setbacks in getting our house put back together; if we'd discovered some kind of valuable archaeological site underneath the floor, it's an open question as to whether we could even legally rebuild over the top of it.  At that point, the best option might be what Carol suggested, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, after finding out about the sinking-slab problem last June: "Hmm, let's see -- forty thousand dollars to prop up the foundation, or fifteen bucks for five gallons of gas and a box of matches.  Hard decision, right there."

I pointed out that twenty years in prison for arson was kind of a downside of the latter option, which she grudgingly admitted was a valid point.

I'm hoping that the laws in Norway support some kind of compensation for Kristiansen's find and the inconvenience thereof.  Archaeologist Hauglid gives me hope that'll happen.  "I guess, they will get some reward, that is normal in Norway, that people that find old artifacts get a reward from the state," he told reporters.

So I suppose I should be careful what I wish for.  I got enough of an object lesson in that by speculating about how bored I'd be once I retired.  At least we've now covered the floor back up, so anything down there is gonna stay buried.  Unless we're, like, sitting on top of a fault line or a volcanic vent or something.  Which, considering some of the other things that have gone wrong since we started this Adventure In Home Ownership, wouldn't be all that surprising.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Wednesday, May 27, 2020

An idea takes flight

There's a fundamental misunderstanding that even some people who understand and accept evolution have, and it's called teleology.

Teleology is the interpretation of events in terms of their final purpose.  Now, there are some things you can look at teleologically; at least some historical events, for example, occurred because someone (or a bunch of someones) had a goal in mind and purposefully drove toward it.

The problem is, evolution isn't goal-driven.  As I mentioned a couple of days ago in the post on the re-evolution of flightlessness in the Alhambra rail, it's the law of whatever works at the time.  But teleological thinking sneaks in all too easily -- all you have to do is to ask your average scientifically-minded fourth grader why giraffes have long necks, and you'll probably get the answer, "So they can reach high branches in trees for food."  This conjures up the image of a herd of short-necked giraffes looking longingly up at the tender, juicy foliage out of reach, and thinking, "Wow, sure would be nice," and over the next generations, that desire to reach the end goal of more food resulted in longer-necked giraffes being born.

It's a subtler distinction than it might seem at first.  The truth is that the variation comes first; the blind forces of mutation and recombination result in baby giraffes with varying neck lengths.  But the better food being higher up means that those with longer necks survive better, passing those genes on -- so over time, the population's average neck length increases.  No goal-driven, forward-thinking forces necessary; it's all driven by what is an advantage in the environment as it currently is.  Change the environment, and you change those selective pressures, and the population (if it has sufficient variability to do so) responds.

The situation is simple enough with giraffe necks (which is why every middle-school textbook on biology uses that as an example), but what about more complex structures?  This is when the subject of things like eyes and wings inevitably comes up, often along with the intelligent-design aficionados' favorite buzzwords -- "irreducible complexity."  A half an eye or half a wing, they say, isn't good for anything, so there has to be forward thinking, teleological design involved.  Modification of an arm into a wing only makes sense if there was intent, because the intermediate forms along the way are worse than what you started with.

There are two flaws in this argument.

The first is brilliantly described in Richard Dawkins's amazing book The Blind Watchmaker, which explains in clear layman's terms why the intelligent design argument doesn't work.  He takes the vertebrate eye as his example, which is admittedly an amazing device with dozens of working parts and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of kinds of proteins, all of which have to work together in order to generate the capacity for clear vision.  As Dawkins points out, though, all of these didn't have to evolve simultaneously -- that would indeed be hard to explain.  Starting with simple light-detecting eyespots (like in a flatworm), the structure evolved to become more and more complex, more and more sensitive, and all that had to happen is at each tiny step the improvement gave the animal an advantage over the previous form.  So the ID-proponents' claim that "half an eye isn't worth anything" is actually incorrect.  An eyespot (which isn't even half an eye -- maybe five percent of one) is clearly better than no ability to detect light at all.  And after that, each refinement made it better and was selected for, until finally you have a complex structure like your own eye, capable of color vision, light intensity accommodation, focusing, and depth perception.

The second flaw, though, is a fascinating one, and is the reason this whole topic comes up in today's post.  For something to be selected for, all it has to accomplish is to confer some sort of benefit on the organism -- not necessarily the one for which it will eventually be used.  This phenomenon, called preaptation (or preadaptation), is usually explained using the example of feathers and wings in birds.  The theory is -- supported by the presence of feathers in fossils of a number of species of dinosaurs -- that feathers evolved in the context of keeping warm (and possibly protecting the skin from sun exposure), and only afterward became useful for the ability of lightweight/arboreal species to glide, and finally to fly.

A second example of this was the subject of a paper last week in Nature, which I was alerted to by my friend, the amazing scientist and environmental activist Sandra Steingraber.  The topic was the hypothesis that preaptation had also occurred in insect wings -- they had evolved as gill extensions in aquatic larvae, and through minor modifications widened and lengthened, and in the adult became full-fledged wings.  The embryonic structures for larval gills and adult wings were certainly homologous, so it seemed like a good guess, but hard evidence was lacking...

... until now.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Michael Palmer, Yellow mayfly on leaf, CC BY-SA 4.0]

In "Genomic Adaptations to Aquatic and Aerial Life in Mayflies and the Origin of Insect Wings," a team led by Isabel Almudi of the Andalusian Center for Developmental Biology (in Sevilla, Spain) completely knocks it out of the park by identifying the genetic basis of both wings and gills in insects -- and demonstrates that the preaptation hypothesis was spot-on.  Here it is in the authors' words:
The evolution of winged insects revolutionized terrestrial ecosystems and led to the largest animal radiation on Earth.  However, we still have an incomplete picture of the genomic changes that underlay this diversification.  Mayflies, as one of the sister groups of all other winged insects, are key to understanding this radiation.  Here, we describe the genome of the mayfly Cloeon dipterum and its gene expression throughout its aquatic and aerial life cycle and specific organs.  We discover an expansion of odorant-binding-protein genes, some expressed specifically in breathing gills of aquatic nymphs, suggesting a novel sensory role for this organ.  In contrast, flying adults use an enlarged opsin set in a sexually dimorphic manner, with some expressed only in males.  Finally, we identify a set of wing-associated genes deeply conserved in the pterygote insects and find transcriptomic similarities between gills and wings, suggesting a common genetic program.  Globally, this comprehensive genomic and transcriptomic study uncovers the genetic basis of key evolutionary adaptations in mayflies and winged insects.
As Sheldon Cooper might say, "Bazinga."

This completely dismantles the "irreducible complexity" argument for insect wings, if there was any basis for that argument left.  The evolutionary model is vindicated again.  As Almudi et al.'s research shows, the genomic basis in an organism can be modified in such a way as to give structures multiple purposes -- and that if the environment is right, one purpose (e.g. flight) can supersede another (e.g. maximizing oxygen absorption) in importance, causing the evolutionary path to take off in a different direction.

So cheers to Almudi and her team.  I read their paper while grinning like a loon just because it was such a perfect wrap-up to a conjecture I was telling my AP Biology classes about twenty years ago.  It's so gratifying to study a model that has this kind of robust predictive power -- and further reinforces my opinion that in order not to accept evolution, you have to be willfully ignorant of the actual evidence in its favor.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Ripples in the cosmic pond

I know I've said this before, so at the risk of ringing the changes on this once too many times: I find it endlessly fascinating how much we can figure out about the universe, sitting here on this little speck of rock circling a mediocre star in the arm of an average galaxy.

Three papers came out last week in Nature Astronomy that each individually might bowl you over with the scale of things; put together, they're kind of staggering. First we have a paper by a team led by Tiantian Yuan, of Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D).  Entitled "A Giant Galaxy in the Young Universe with a Massive Ring," this research looks at a very unusual object -- a collisional ring -- that is eleven billion light years away.

Meaning we're seeing it as it was eleven billion years ago.

"It is a very curious object that we’ve never seen before," Yuan said, in a press release.  "It looks strange and familiar at the same time.  It is making stars at a rate fifty times greater than the Milky Way.  Most of that activity is taking place on its ring – so it truly is a ring of fire."

"The collisional formation of ring galaxies requires a thin disk to be present in the ‘victim’ galaxy before the collision occurs," added Kenneth Freeman of the Australian National University, who co-authored the paper.  "The thin disk is the defining component of spiral galaxies: before it assembled, the galaxies were in a disorderly state, not yet recognizable as spiral galaxies.  In the case of this ring galaxy, we are looking back into the early universe by eleven billion years, into a time when thin disks were only just assembling.  For comparison, the thin disk of our Milky Way began to come together only about nine billion years ago.  This discovery is an indication that disk assembly in spiral galaxies occurred over a more extended period than previously thought."

Yes, you read that right.  The images of this object are pictures of something that existed two billion years before the Milky Way formed.


The second paper is about an object that is even older and father away than the ring galaxy.  Titled "A Cold, Massive, Rotating Disk Galaxy 1.5 Billion Years After the Big Bang," by a team led by Marcel Neeleman of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, is estimated to be 12.3 billion light years away -- so this structure is not only the oldest disk galaxy ever observed, it also gives us incredible new data on the way galaxies in general form.

The authors write:
Massive disk galaxies like the Milky Way are expected to form at late times in traditional models of galaxy formation, but recent numerical simulations suggest that such galaxies could form as early as a billion years after the Big Bang through the accretion of cold material and mergers.  Observationally, it has been difficult to identify disk galaxies in emission at high redshift in order to discern between competing models of galaxy formation...  The detection of emission from carbon monoxide in the galaxy yields a molecular mass that is consistent with the estimate [that the galaxy's mass is] about 72 billion solar masses.  The existence of such a massive, rotationally supported, cold disk galaxy when the Universe was only 1.5 billion years old favours formation through either cold-mode accretion or mergers, although its large rotational velocity and large content of cold gas remain challenging to reproduce with most numerical simulations.
So the astrophysicists are going to be sifting through that data for quite some time.


The third, "The Recurrent Impact of the Sagittarius Dwarf on the Star Formation History of the Milky Way," by a team led by Tomás Ruiz-Lara of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, describes something pretty amazing about our own galaxy; the main disc is orbited by a dwarf galaxy (the Sagittarius Dwarf in the title) which has an elliptical orbit, so it at regular intervals pierces the disc of the Milky Way -- causing eddies that trigger a huge spike in star production.

"You have the Milky Way in equilibrium, mostly calm, and then when Sagittarius passed it was like throwing a stone in a lake," said Ruiz-Lara, in an interview with New Scientist.  "It created these ripples in the galaxy’s density, so some areas became more dense and started forming stars more efficiently...  Maybe without Sagittarius the solar system wouldn’t exist.  The timing works out, but there is no way for us to know for sure."

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA]

Gradually the dwarf galaxy is losing energy and its orbit is pulled in tighter and tighter, making these collisions and bursts of star formation more frequent.  "It’s getting closer and closer, little by little over time, and in the end it will merge with the Milky Way," Ruiz-Lara said.

Not to worry, that won't happen for another billion-odd years.  So no need to run and see if your stellar collision insurance is paid up.


It's kind of mind-boggling when you think about it, that a bunch of primates who were not so long ago loping around on the African savanna trying not to get eaten by lions have found a way to see into the farthest reaches of the universe.  Not to get cocky about it, but that's pretty spectacular.  Only a hundred years ago we didn't even know for sure how big or how old the universe is; today we're looking into the depths of space, and back in time almost as far is is physically possible.

It brings to mind the wonderful quote by Carl Sagan: "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Monday, May 25, 2020

Second verse, same as the first

One of many brilliant moments in the movie Jurassic Park is when the main characters realize that the cloned dinosaurs -- which were supposed to be sterile -- had reproduced, and Ian Malcolm has this slow smile cross his face, and says, "Life finds a way."

It's amazing how resilient life can be.  I got a wonderful reminder of this from my friend, writer and blogger Andrew Butters (whose awesome blog Potato Chip Math should have way more followers), who just a couple of days ago sent me a story about bird evolution I'd never heard of before.

Let's start with the "evolution" part first.  Ever heard of iterative evolution?  I hadn't.  It is the tendency -- apparently documented in a number of lineages -- where two separate closely-related lineages develop exactly the same adaptation independently.  If you're thinking, "Wait, isn't that convergent evolution?" you've got the gist, but there's a difference; convergent evolution is when two relatively unrelated species end up evolving similar features because of being under the same kinds of selective pressures.  The two then end up looking similar for one or two obvious traits, but in other respects they are still completely different species.  (If you want some examples with photographs, I dealt with this here only a month ago.)

Iterative evolution, on the other hand, occurs within a clade of already closely-related populations, and distinctive features evolve more than once, generating what may as well be the same species twice.  The suspicion is this occurs because of mutations in regulatory genes, where interfering in embryonic development results in the same change no matter where exactly the mutation occurred.

As implausible as this sounds, it's not at all unlikely if the two mutations in question are both losses of function, where the mutation causes a gene to switch off.  As a rather rough analogy, consider a car's engine.  Two completely separate mutations -- say, undoing the battery cables and removing the fuel pump -- will both result in the car not starting, even though the underlying cause is entirely different.

Which brings us to the Aldabra rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri subsp. aldabranus), a flightless bird native to Aldabra Island in the Seychelles.  It's the only extant species of flightless bird in the Indian Ocean.  Flying is an energy-wasteful activity if it's not conferring some significant benefits to the bird, so in the absence of predators, it's selected against.  That comes to a screeching halt, however, when predators are introduced to the habitat -- which on various islands across the world have included rats, cats, brown tree snakes... and humans.  The result is that flightless species have taken a huge hit worldwide.

But the Aldabra rail has survived somehow, and a recent paper has demonstrated that the flight-capable parent species, the white-throated rail, which is found on various islands including Madagascar, has on Aldabra evolved flightlessness at least twice.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Charles J Sharp creator QS:P170,Q54800218, White-throated rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri cuvieri), CC BY-SA 4.0]

In "Repeated Evolution of Flightlessness in Dryolimnas Rails (Aves: Rallidae) After Extinction and Recolonization on Aldabra," which appeared in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, by Julian Hume (of the Natural History Museum at Tring) and David Martill (of the University of Portsmouth), we read about incontrovertible evidence that the flightless subspecies evolved again after the first population was wiped out.

The authors write:
The Aldabra rail, Dryolimnas cuvieri subsp. aldabranus, endemic to the Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles, is the last surviving flightless bird in the Indian Ocean.  Aldabra has undergone at least one major, total inundation event during an Upper Pleistocene (Tarantian age) sea-level high-stand, resulting in the loss of all terrestrial fauna.  A flightless Dryolimnas has been identified from two temporally separated Aldabran fossil localities, deposited before and after the inundation event, providing irrefutable evidence that a member of Rallidae colonized the atoll, most likely from Madagascar, and became flightless independently on each occasion.  Fossil evidence presented here is unique for Rallidae and epitomizes the ability of birds from this clade to successfully colonize isolated islands and evolve flightlessness on multiple occasions.
This inevitably brings up the question of whether the two populations -- before and after the Pleistocene inundation -- are the same species.  This is a harder question than it sounds.  First, and most superficially, since the canonical definition of species is "a group of morphologically similar individuals all of which are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring," it's impossible to tell if these are the members of the same species because the pre-inundation birds are all dead.  But it's not even as simple as that, because when you look closely, you find that species is in contention for being the mushiest definition in all of science.  There are scads of nearly-identical populations that can't interbreed, very different looking-ones that can, and ones that show a continuum of types between two extremes, making the question of "where do you draw the line?" a real problem.  (I dealt with this here a long time ago, if you're curious.)

So whether they're the same species or not is probably a meaningless question, a bit like drawing an arbitrary line on the ground and then arguing about why something falls on one side of the line or the other.  But the phenomenon itself is fascinating; that two virtually identical populations could evolve twice in the same place is kind of amazing.  It's almost as if when the first population was destroyed, Mother Nature said, "No, we need some flightless rails here," and the flight-capable parent species recolonized the island and evolved flightlessness a second time.

[Nota bene: no, I don't actually believe Mother Nature guides evolution in some kind of conscious fashion.  So don't yell at me, I was just being flippant.  Evolution is completely non-goal-oriented; it's the law of whatever works at the time.  So for the benefit of the serious and literal-minded readers, I should probably go back and rewrite the preceding paragraph, but I'm not gonna because I still think it's funny.]

Anyhow, this is a pretty cool example of a process that until now I had honestly never heard of.  It does reassure me that life will indeed find a way despite the idiotic and self-destructive things we're currently doing to the Earth's biodiversity.  We might be long gone by then, victims of our own short-sighted greed, but evolution will afterwards continue to do its thing -- producing a new set of endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, to quote Darwin.

Some of which, beyond all expectation, may look a great deal like the ones that vanished.  And I find that a comforting thought.

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This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one: acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman's The Bird Way: A New Look at how Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.

It's been known for some years that a lot of birds are a great deal more intelligent than we'd thought.  Crows and other corvids are capable of reasoning and problem-solving, and actually play, seemingly for no reason other than "it's fun."  Parrots are capable of learning language and simple categorization.  A group of birds called babblers understand reciprocity -- and females are attracted to males who share their food the most ostentatiously.

So "bird brain" should actually be a compliment.

Here, Ackerman looks at the hugely diverse world of birds and gives us fascinating information about all facets of their behavior -- not only the "positive" ones (to put an human-based judgment on it) but "negative" ones like deception, manipulating, and cheating.  The result is one of the best science books I've read in recent years, written in Ackerman's signature sparkling prose.  Birder or not, this is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in biology or animal behavior.

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




Saturday, May 23, 2020

Diagnosing what ails you

When I was a kid, my parents had a set of books called The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Modern Medicine.  Now, this was circa 1972, so keep that in mind when you read the word "modern," but for the time, they were exhaustive.

Now, I was fascinated by biology even back then, at something like age twelve, so those medical encyclopedias were a source of real curiosity for me.  Not just the pages with the naughty bits -- being right on the cusp of puberty, those were really fascinating -- but all of it.  All the systems and organs and tissues and all the different ways things could go wrong.

That's where the trouble started.  Because I was an imaginative child, I lived up to the maxim of a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing.  I could find a good reason why I had damn near every disease mentioned in the The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Modern Medicine.  If I coughed a couple of times... well, it could be tuberculosis.  Or pleurisy.  Or lung cancer.  (Being a twelve-year-old, I didn't smoke.  My father did, although he quit cold turkey right around that time and never had another cigarette.  Still, how much exposure to smoke was... enough?)

I even remember being in the shower and convincing myself that I had a swelling in my armpit (I didn't), and forthwith deciding that I was going to die of Hodgkins' lymphoma.  "Prognosis is poor, even with prompt treatment," said The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Modern Medicine.  So that was it, then.  So young, with such a promising future... cut short by a horrific disease.

Well, of course, it turned out I didn't have any of the above.  I did start to get migraines when I was sixteen, but that didn't take any great insight to figure out given that I had weird visual disturbances, crashing headache, sound and light sensitivity, and horrid nausea, sometimes for twenty-four hours at a time.  But that set of symptoms -- which the Medical Encyclopedia correctly informed me was typical of a migraine -- is the single time I ever self-diagnosed using the books and got it right.

Turns out I'm not the only one.  According to a paper in The Medical Journal of Australia, even today's online resources -- sites like WebMD -- only give the right answer one-third of the time.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

A team of researchers from Edith Cowan University decided to test thirty-six different online "symptom checkers" using forty-eight (anonymous) case files for which the actual answer was known, and found that the top diagnosis from the websites was correct only for a third of them.  Even if you gave them the leeway of considering the top three diagnoses, they still only hit it half the time.

The authors admit there are limitations to their study, beyond the fairly small sample size.  None of the patients had comorbid conditions -- underlying diseases that contributed to the symptoms that presented (such as circulatory failure in the feet having as its ultimate cause poorly-controlled diabetes).  And there are a wide variety of other symptom-checking websites out there, some of which may work better than the relatively poor showing these ones made.

But still.  What this indicates is that if you've got symptoms that worry you, see a doctor.  Now, yes, I know, doctors make mistakes.  They're human, and while a great many are awesome, some are certainly slipshod and careless.  So don't start regaling me with horror stories about misdiagnosis.  I have a friend who damn near died of post-operative peritonitis which was misdiagnosed as, of all things, a urinary tract infection -- so I get it.  Yes, it happens, and it's awful and tragic when it does, and sometimes crosses the line into true medical malfeasance.

But as Carl Sagan points out in his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, if you're going to be fair, you have to consider the hits along with the misses.  How many people are treated daily in your average city hospital -- and of those, how many suffer the effects of significant medical bungling?  By and large, modern medicine has done astonishingly well.  At the present time we have the longest average life span the human species has ever enjoyed, and diseases that were a death sentence only a hundred years ago are now completely curable.

So please, please don't rely on self-diagnosis.  Your ten minutes of online "research" is not equivalent to your family medical practitioner's ten-plus years of education and experience.

After all, I probably did myself more damage worrying over whether I had chronic myelogenous leukemia or myasthenia gravis or Creutzfeld-Jakob syndrome than any benefit I gained from finding out about them.  I'm now 59, and have been pretty healthy overall.  I don't even get migraines any more.

But if something does go wrong, I'm gonna go to the doctor, not go running to find out what WebMD might have to say about it.

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This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is six years old, but more important today than it was when it was written; Richard Alley's The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future.  Alley tackles the subject of proxy records -- indirect ways we can understand things we weren't around to see, such as the climate thousands of years ago.

The one he focuses on is the characteristics of glacial ice, deposited as snow one winter at a time, leaving behind layers much like the rings in tree trunks.  The chemistry of the ice gives us a clear picture of the global average temperature; the presence (or absence) of contaminants like pollen, windblown dust, volcanic ash, and so on tell us what else might have contributed to the climate at the time.  From that, we can develop a remarkably consistent picture of what the Earth was like, year by year, for the past ten thousand years.

What it tells us as well, though, is a little terrifying; that the climate is not immune to sudden changes.  In recent memory things have been relatively benevolent, at least on a planet-wide view, but that hasn't always been the case.  And the effect of our frantic burning of fossil fuels is leading us toward a climate precipice that there may be no way to turn back from.

The Two-Mile Time Machine should be mandatory reading for the people who are setting our climate policy -- but because that's probably a forlorn hope, it should be mandatory reading for voters.  Because the long-term habitability of the planet is what is at stake here, and we cannot afford to make a mistake.

As Richard Branson put it, "There is no Planet B."

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