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

Friday, January 15, 2021

Dire straits

During my junior year as an undergraduate, I had to take a humanities elective as part of my degree requirements and settled upon a class in archaeology, a subject which had always been an interest of mine.  The course description sounded pretty cool, and I thought it would be a fun challenge to take on.

However, I had not reckoned with the fact that the professor, one Dr. Servello, seemed to have a screw loose.  I found this out early on when one day he caught a glimpse of some genealogical charts in my binder (part of a family tree project I was doing as an anniversary gift for my parents), and added that to the fact that I wore a St. Christopher medal, and concluded from this that I was a member of a cult.

He kept me after class that day to ask me what my cult believed.  When I protested that in fact, I did not belong to a cult, he became genuinely concerned and said, "No, no, you don't need to be afraid to tell me!  I'm fascinated by alternative belief systems!"

But the most striking thing about Dr. Servello was that he never admitted to being wrong.  About anything.  He had a nearly Trumpian ability to continue arguing his point even after having hard evidence that he'd misspoken thrown into his face.  One time he argued for a half-hour over the correct pronunciation of a Chinese archaeological site -- with a student from China.  In very short order we learned not to bother contradicting him about any of the wacky things he said, because it never accomplished anything but wasting inordinate amounts of class time.

But as in any group, in the class there was That Guy.  He felt duty-bound to challenge Dr. Servello every time he made shit up, which was usually several times per class.  But the one that stands out in my memory was the epic argument that ensued when Dr. Servello was telling us about dire wolves.

"It's one of the largest predatory mammals ever," he said, with great conviction.  "They were fourteen feet tall at the shoulder."

Simultaneously all of the two-dozen-odd students in the class gave Dr. Servello the human equivalent of the Canine Head Tilt of Confusion.  Even so, most of us just added it to our growing list of bizarre Servello-isms, and were prepared to let it go.

But not That Guy.

"That's impossible," he said flatly.

"No, no, they were huge!" Dr. Servello insisted.  "Biggest predatory mammal ever!"

"That's impossible," That Guy said through clenched teeth.  "A wolf that big could look into a second-story window."

There followed a good forty-five minute-long argument, ending with That Guy grabbing his binder and storming out of class.

I related the story to some friends later.  These friends always waited with bated breath for me to come out of archaeology class, to see what lunatic pronouncements Dr. Servello had made that day.  This one, however, was impressive even by comparison to his previous efforts.

"That," one of my friends said reverently, "is one big bow-wow."

The topic comes up because while dire wolves are not fourteen feet high at the shoulder (which, for the record, would make them taller than a full-grown male African elephant) they are a fascinating species.  They were pretty impressive animals -- adults averaged a meter high at the shoulder and a little over two meters from tip to tail -- but their skeletal morphology led taxonomists to believe they were simply larger cousins of the North American gray wolf, descended from a parental species that had crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Eurasia.  But that idea is being challenged by some new analysis of DNA from dire wolves who were trapped in the La Brea Tar Seeps forty-some-odd thousand years ago, and a comparison with gray wolf DNA supports a conclusion that the last common ancestry of the two species was around 5.7 million years ago, before the ancestors of today's gray wolves had crossed into North America.

Dire wolf skeleton in the Sternberg Museum, Hays, Kansas [Image licensed under the Creative Commons James St. John, Canis dirus Sternberg Museum, CC BY 2.0]

The research, which was the subject of a paper in Nature this week, suggests that the morphological similarities between gray wolves and dire wolves are due to convergent evolution -- the evolution of superficially similar traits in distantly-related species that are under the same selective pressures.  And of course, these two were starting out closer in structure anyhow; no one is doubting that dire wolves are canids.  But the DNA difference is striking enough that the researchers are proposing to take the dire wolf out of the genus Canis and place it in its own new genus -- Aenocyon, meaning "terrible wolf."

"These results totally shake up the idea that dire wolves were just bigger cousins of gray wolves," said paleontologist Grant Zazula, who was not involved in the new study, in an interview with Scientific American.  "The study of ancient DNA and proteins from fossil bones is rapidly rewriting the ice age and more recent history of North America’s mammals."

It is not, for the record, rewriting how big they were.  As terrible as Aenocyon was, it wouldn't have towered over an elephant.  However, it is thought to have had the greatest bite force of any canid ever, and as it seems to have been a pack hunter, could take down some of the megaherbivores of its time -- giant ground sloths, North American camels and horses, bison... and even mastodons.

But like most of the Ice Age megafauna, the changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene put the dire wolf in dire straits.  They're thought to have persisted in areas of the northern Rockies as little as 9,500 years ago, but when the big prey animals began to disappear, selection favored their smaller (now thought to be distant) cousins, gray wolves.

Which is kind of a shame.  They were impressive beasts, even if they weren't the big bow-wows Dr. Servello claimed they were.  And it's nice to clarify at least a little more of their genetics and history, turning a lens on a species we thought we understood.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Thursday, January 14, 2021

5G fantasies

A week ago, I got my first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity because I work part-time for a home health agency providing companion care to homebound seniors, and even though I'm currently furloughed because of the pandemic I still qualified -- and I certainly wasn't going to turn it down.  I'm happy to say that all I had as a side effect was some very minor arm soreness the next day, but otherwise, it was no big deal.

However, my mentioning this to a friend prompted an immediate concerned eyebrow-raise.  "Didn't you hear that the vaccine is being used to implant 5G surveillance microchips?" she asked me.  "You're not worried?"

I reassured her that no, I wasn't worried, and in any case if the FBI wants to surveil me, they can knock themselves out because it would be the most boring surveillance job ever.

First FBI Agent: What's he doing now?

Second FBI Agent: Same thing as for the last five days.  He's sitting at his computer drinking coffee and watching funny dog videos.

First FBI Agent: I thought this guy was a writer? 

Second FBI Agent: Supposedly he is.  Have you seen him actually write anything?

First FBI Agent: Well, four days ago he added three lines to his manuscript, deleted two of them, then told his wife that evening he'd been "very productive."

Secondly, even if I was up to no good, I'm not really that confident the FBI would catch on.  These are the same people who had several days before the Capitol riots where the far right was posting stuff all over Parler like, "Wow, that's really some riot we have planned for the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, isn't it?" and "Here's a list of the people who are signed up as drivers when we go to the riot where we intend to break into the Capitol and threaten lawmakers" and "Here I am in my home at 512 Swamp Hollow Road, East Bunghole, Tennessee, planning to riot in the Capitol!  I bet the FBI will never know!" and still claimed they didn't have enough warning to prevent it.  And they took days afterward to start arresting people despite the fact that numerous rioters took selfies and videoed themselves breaking shit and vandalizing the place, and then posted them online.

Of course, the fact that the rioters did that sort of thing points to general low intelligence on their part, too.  I'm not saying I'm any kind of genius, but I do know that if I was inclined to break the law, I would not video myself with my phone and post it to my Twitter with the hashtag #CriminalActivityFTW. 

Anyhow, I tried to explain to my friend that there's no way you could inject a microchip via a vaccine, and she said she'd "seen it online" and that "they said it was possible."  So I said as gently as I could that it was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but that I'd look into it, and with a very small amount of digging found out that one of the most widely-circulated claims showed a circuit diagram alleged to be of the top-secret injectable microchip, but turned out to be the circuit diagram for a Boss Metal Zone MT-2 guitar distortion pedal where they'd cropped out words that would have been a dead giveaway, like "treble" and "bass" and "volume" and "footswitch."

Just for the record, I can vouch for the fact that the nurse who gave me the COVID-19 vaccine did not inject me with an electric guitar pedal.


You know, what strikes me about all this is that the caliber of conspiracy theories has really been going to hell lately.  They're not even trying to make them plausible any more.  Back in my day, you had your Faked Moon Landing Conspiracy and your Hollow Earth Conspiracy and your Roswell Alien Conspiracy and your The CIA Killed JFK Conspiracy, which were quality.  Now?  With QAnon in charge of our conspiracies, we're being told that a pizza parlor with no basement has a pedophilia ring operating out of its basement.

So I'm issuing a challenge to you yahoos to up your game.  I mean, really.  Is this the best you can do?  Because if it is, I want a refund.

But now I better wind this up and get back to watching funny dog videos.  This novel isn't gonna write itself, and besides, I gotta make the guys in the FBI surveillance van earn their paycheck.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Preparing for the worst

I'm about halfway through the first draft of my current work-in-progress, a novel called In the Midst of Lions about a perfectly ordinary upper-middle-class guy who gets caught up in the fall of civilization.  By this point in the novel, order has pretty much collapsed, and he's in the ruins of downtown Seattle trying to find his way across the city and to a two-kilometer-long bridge and east into the mountains for safety (at least comparatively speaking).  He's taken some children under his wing, and in the harrowing scene I just wrote, is trying to get them away from a murderous warlord and his gang -- he himself barely escaped with his life after being captured and brutally beaten by them.

I hasten to interject at this point that In the Midst of Lions was in no way inspired by 2020.  I came up with idea decades ago -- in fact, I'd written a rough draft of the story back in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate.  (The current version bears little resemblance to the original, although the central idea is the same.)  I'd thought of returning to it many times, but always pushed it aside for other projects.  Then, late in 2019 -- pre-pandemic, and pre-Trump-breaking-the-Seventh-Seal-of-the-Apocalypse -- I decided to give it a go, and I'm quite pleased with the result, as dark as it is.

(If you're curious, the title comes from Psalm 56 -- "Have pity on me, O God, have pity on me... for I lie prostrate in the midst of lions that devour men.")

The reason this comes up is because of a paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that came out this week, and which looked at the correlation between people's ability to cope psychologically with the pandemic and governmental chaos, and their appreciation of zombie movies.  Entitled, "Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals Are More Psychologically Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic," by Colton Scrivner of the University of Chicago, John Johnson of Pennsylvania State University, and Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen and Mathias Clasen of Aarhus University, the paper looks at how reading books or watching movies about civilization collapsing and people being killed in nasty ways might have prepared us for 2020.

The authors write;

One explanation for why people engage in frightening fictional experiences is that these experiences can act as simulations of actual experiences from which individuals can gather information and model possible worlds.  Conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, this study tested whether past and current engagement with thematically relevant media fictions, including horror and pandemic films, was associated with greater preparedness for and psychological resilience toward the pandemic.  Since morbid curiosity has previously been associated with horror media use during the COVID-19 pandemic, we also tested whether trait morbid curiosity was associated with pandemic preparedness and psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We found that fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of “prepper” genres (alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films) exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness.  We also found that trait morbid curiosity was associated with positive resilience and interest in pandemic films during the pandemic.  Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.

You have to wonder if it works the other way, though.  Maybe living through 2020 has blunted our appreciation for horror movies.  "Okay, maybe being eaten by the living dead is horrible, but do y'all remember what happened last November?" 

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons iluvrhinestones from seattle, oceania, upload by Herrick, Zombies 79201360, CC BY-SA 2.0]

"I'm not sure that watching such movies now would be helpful for our current situation," study co-author John Johnson said, in an interview with Science Daily.  "However, my understanding of pandemics and other life-challenging events is that similar future challenges are absolutely inevitable.  The past is often forgotten too easily.  Who remembered the Spanish flu epidemic until scientists brought up that piece of history during COVID-19?  This reinforces my belief that consuming stories from books, films and maybe even video games is not just an idle pastime, but a way for us to imagine simulated realities that help prepare us for future challenges."

So we writers of scary fiction are performing a public service.  Just getting people ready for how much worse it could get, or (conversely) getting them to think, "Things are bad now, but at least I'm not being vivisected by aliens."  Now, I gotta get to work on my novel.  The last thing that happened is that the main character just saw some graffiti spray-painted on a wall, left for him by the one of the warlord's evil henchmen, saying, "You'd better run, because if I see you again, you're a dead man."

I mean, getting my readers to prepare for a catastrophe is one thing, but leaving a nice guy in that situation is just cruel.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

There were giants in the Earth

So our conspiracy theory of the day is: the US government is hiding living giant humanoids to create a race of hybrid super-soldiers.

This, at least, is the contention of one Steven Quayle, who in has created a video with the entertaining title "GIANT REPTILIAN MAN-EATING DEMONS IN A CITY NEAR YOU (part 1)" (capitalization his) that was sent to me by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia.  If you choose to watch it, please be aware that it's over two and a half hours long.  I made it through about fifteen minutes, which I think is pretty damn good, although by that time I felt like my brain had turned to cream-of-wheat and was leaking out of my ears.  The opening shows Quayle, interspersed with science fiction movie clips and backed up by atmospheric music, delivering the following scary lines:
I believe that the big lie that is going to be placed, hoist [sic] upon the world, is that the aliens created mankind...  Most people do not understand the evil.  Most people can't even embrace the fact that this isn't about old bones.  When I say mind-blowing, it will also be heart-freeing.  If I start talking about fallen angels having sex with Earth women, they snicker.  Well, that snicker tells me they've already made up their minds.  The super-soldier program is one of the most, well, almost unbelievable, yet so believable, programs that the US military is involved in.
Further along in the video, Quayle assures us that he doesn't believe in alien overlords.  Nope.  That would be ridiculous.  The Annunaki, he says, aren't aliens, they're fallen angels.

Which is ever so much more believable.

Worse yet, they're still around.  "They [the scientists] are starting from the premise that all of the giants are gone.  We're starting from the premise that there are modern-day giants now, and they're not suffering from acromegaly or some pituitary disorder, but they're literally going to fulfill the biblical statement of Matthew 24 where Jesus says, 'Just as in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man.'"

The whole thing, Quayle says, is a "multi-thousand-year cover up."

Then, of course, the Smithsonian comes up, because no discussion of archaeological conspiracies would be complete without the Smithsonian being involved.

"It's interesting, Tim," Quayle said to the interviewer.  "There's evidence of the bias of the Smithsonian, and their contempt for out-of-place artifacts -- every time giant bones were found, it didn't matter if it was on the West Coast, the Arctic, the Antarctic believe it or not, the East Coast, the Ohio River Mounds, they always have a fabulous cutoff point, being once the Smithsonian is notified, and those bones are sent to the Smithsonian, they're never heard from again."

A giant skeleton in Brazil, or a clever example of Photoshop, depending on which version you go for

"The point has been to keep this biblically-relevant topic out of the minds of the people," Quayle adds.

Why, you might be asking, would the Smithsonian -- and other scientific research agencies -- go to all of this trouble?  After all, careers are made from spectacular discoveries like these.  If the bones were real, not to mention the Annunaki, you'd think that archeologists would be elbowing each other out of the way to be the first to publish these findings in a reputable journal.

The reason, of course, is that the government is intimidating the scientists into silence so that they can keep secret the fact that these giant dudes are still around, and are being used in sinister genetics experiments to create a race of human/giant super-soldiers.

Shoulda known.

Quayle also tells us that he won't appear on camera unless he gets the final say on video and audio edits, and that "No one has been willing to agree to that."  Which makes it kind of odd that he told us this while on camera.  And that he now has his own video production company and an entire YouTube channel of his own.

Of course, he might have been right to avoid the spotlight.  He says he's afraid for his life, that he's being followed by the Men in Black.

"I'll be lucky not to be killed one day.  People have disappeared, Tim.  People who know about this, who have evidence."

And once again, we could convince ourselves that all we have is a lone wacko with access to recording equipment -- until you start reading the comments, of which I will give you a mercifully short sampling:
  • People say that it takes place in the future.  But I think it takes place in the past.  The year is 800 after all.  And it seems to have the message that you can't beat the titans without mixing with them.  Rendering man almost extinct.  No wonder Noah and his sons were the only real men left.
  • Do you guys feel the Neanderthals are a creation of fallen angels?
  • They are from the Nephilim thats why Neanderthal DNA has only entered the human gene pool through men and why Neanderthal DNA is the source of being white.  Enoch 105 says the children born to fallen angels were white.  Anakim were white blonde giants,  Amorites were white Red heads and some were giants, then the Horites were normal sized white hairy cave men with brow ridges.  Thats why Hitler thought if he just got enough blondes to have children, sooner or later they would get a superman.
  • there's stones thousands of years old talking about the ANANANAKI
So there you have it. Giant Anananaki (if I've counted the "Na's" correctly) being hidden by the government so they can have lots of sex with Earth women, who will give birth to a race of immortal super-soldiers, as hath been prophesied in the scripture.

You'd think, though, that if the US has had this super-soldier program for decades (as Quayle alleges), they'd have brought 'em out by now.  Do not try to convince me that if Donald Trump had access to super-soldiers he wouldn't already have deployed them against the DNC headquarters.  This, of course, isn't the most powerful of the arguments against Quayle's contentions; but just based upon that, I think the likelihood of there being ferocious giant half-human, half-fallen-angel dudes is pretty slim.

I think it's much more likely that Quayle and his followers have a screw loose.

But that's just me.  And if I end up being taken prisoner by a troop of white hairy cave men with brow ridges and used in sinister scientific experiments, I suppose it'll serve me right.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Monday, January 11, 2021

Why the sad face?

Springboarding off Saturday's post about non-human animals having emotions, today we're going to look at a study that came out a couple of weeks ago in Frontiers of Veterinary Science that demonstrates that not only do animals have emotions, they've evolved to be able to play on ours.

In a paper with the rather intimidating title "The Application of Geometric Morphometrics to Explore Potential Impacts of Anthropocentric Selection on Animals' Ability to Communicate via the Face: The Domestic Cat as a Case Study," animal behaviorists Lauren Finka and Mark Farnsworth (of Nottingham Trent University), Stelio Luna (of São Paulo State University), and Daniel Mills (of the University of Lincoln) looked at an interesting phenomenon; the way human selection of animals for pets has led to the animals evolving traits that trigger a nurturing response in the owners.  A particularly interesting one is the "inner eyebrow raising muscle," which in domestic dog breeds is far more highly developed than in wild dogs, and which causes the furrowed brow "sad puppy" look any dog owners out there will no doubt recognize immediately.  My lovable rescue dog Grendel was the past master of this particular expression:

No, he was not spoiled.  Don't even suggest such a thing.

People seeing Grendel usually took one look at him and said, "Oh, you poor poor puppy!  Why the sad face?  Here, puppy, have a cookie."  Which, of course, led him to understand that looking sad got him what he wanted.

Evolution for the win.

The study that came out a couple of weeks ago, however, took a look at cats, which in general have less emotionally expressive faces than dogs do.  My wife's cat, Geronimo, who died a couple of years ago at age eighteen, had a spectrum of facial expressions that ran the gamut from "I'm pissed off" to "I hate you," occasionally reaching the level of "fuck off and die."  I know this is ascribing human thoughts to a non-human animal, but whenever Geronimo looked at me, his yellow eyes narrowed to slits, I always came away with the expression that he was plotting to disembowel me in my sleep.

But the current study shows that most domestic cats have a wider range of emotional communication than Geronimo did.  Interestingly, what the researchers called "pain features" -- movements of the face indicative of distress -- were often present in "baby-faced" breeds like Persians even when the animals were not actually in distress, while long-faced breeds like Siamese showed fewer "pain features" even when the animal was in pain.  I wonder if this is why Siamese cats have a reputation for being "aloof" and "independent," and Persians a reputation for being in need of pampering?

The authors write:

The ability of companion animals to readily solicit care from humans is obviously advantageous.  However, it is possible that permanently vulnerable looking individuals might have a diminished capacity to clearly indicate when care is or is not required, as well as to display other information relevant to their actual state or intentions.  Thus, if certain cat breeds are being selected to display “pain-like” features on their faces, these features may serve to solicit unwanted or inadequate attention from their caregivers.  More generally, such types of anthropocentric selection might lead to increased anthropomorphic tendencies.  If, for example, the animal has the appearance of an expression which humans find relatable on some level, even if it is not necessarily reflective of that animals' affective state, it may be used to attribute emotions or characteristics to them.  For example, “grumpy cat” a cat made famous by her coverage on social media, achieved her moniker due to her perceived “frowning” facial appearance.  However, this was likely a result of a combination of her feline dwarfism and paedomorphic [infant-like] features, rather than an expression of her irritability.
One interesting point the authors make is that one possible reason that cats in general have fewer facial cues to solicit nurturing from humans is that they've been in domestication as companions for a far shorter time than dogs have.  The human/dog relationship goes back millennia; and while cats have been used as mousers for centuries, their use as companion animals is of fairly recent origin.  In fact, a large percentage of current domestic cat breeds are under a hundred years old -- in other words, if you trace most "pure-bred" cats' ancestry back two hundred years, they all descend from a population of generic-looking felines that began to be heavily selected when people started keeping them in their homes, and expecting something more out of them than just ridding the house of rodents.

In any case, as the authors point out, the advantage to the pet is obvious.  In our case, our dogs play us like fiddles.  One of our current dogs, a lovable big galoot named Guinness, knows that to get what he wants all he has to do is put his head in my lap and just stand there.  I've tried ignoring him, but he knows that patience always gets him what he wants (usually petting) in the end.  If I make eye contact with him, the tail starts wagging, because he knows he won.

As usual.

But as my wife points out, the fact that they've evolved to yank on our heartstrings isn't entirely a one-way relationship.  We get companionship and love and lap-warming, and there's real value in that.  So really, I'm perfectly okay with being used.  A petless home would be a lot cleaner and quieter, but it would also be a lot colder, lonelier, and sadder.

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

As a biologist, I've usually thought of myself as immune to being grossed out.  But I have to admit I was a little shocked to find out that the human microbiome -- the collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on us -- outnumber actual human cells by a factor of ten.

You read that right: if you counted up all the cells in and on the surface of your body, for every one human cell with human DNA, there'd be ten cells of microorganisms, coming from over a thousand different species.

And that's in healthy humans.  This idea that "bacteria = bad" is profoundly wrong; not only do a lot of bacteria perform useful functions, producing products like yogurt, cheese, and the familiar flavor and aroma of chocolate, they directly contribute to good health.  Anyone who has been on an antibiotic long-term knows that wiping out the beneficial bacteria in your gut can lead to some pretty unpleasant side effects; most current treatments for bacterial infections kill the good guys along with the bad, leading to an imbalance in your microbiome that can persist for months afterward.

In The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, microbiologist Rodney Dietert shows how a lot of debilitating diseases, from asthma to allergies to irritable bowel syndrome to the inflammation that is at the root of heart disease, might be attributable to disturbances in the body's microbiome.  His contention is that restoring the normal microbiome should be the first line of treatment for these diseases, not the medications that often throw the microbiome further out of whack.

His book is fascinating and controversial, but his reasoning (and the experimental research he draws upon) is stellar.  If you're interested in health-related topics, you should read The Human Superorganism.  You'll never look at your own body the same way again.

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



Saturday, January 9, 2021

The origins of empathy

When I was a graduate student at the University of Washington, I took a course in Anatomy & Physiology.  The anatomy part turned out to be easier than I'd anticipated, because I've got a decent memory for names of things and also because my friends and I learned the various organs and tissues using acronyms that ranged from vulgar to outright obscene.  (One of the more printable ones: for the nerve branches of the face -- temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, and cervical -- "Tommy Zimmerman's bowels move constantly."  Okay, it's gross, but y'know what?  Writing this, thirty years later, I still remembered them without looking 'em up.)

The physiology part was more of a challenge, but however hard the course was, learning about the complexity of what was going on inside my own body was downright fascinating.

The topic comes up, though, not because of the content but because of the attitude of the professor.  In one of the labs, we were to do a dissection of a recently-killed mouse, and the professor demonstrated how to kill one humanely.  I'm not saying I was unaware that lab animals are routinely killed, nor that learning how to dispatch one humanely if you must isn't a good idea.  What bothered me was that the professor was downright callous about the whole thing, laughing as he picked up the mouse he was about to kill, saying, "Oh, well, life's tough, buddy.  Any last words?  No?  Okay, then."

I was pretty appalled.  I went into biology in large part because I have a tremendous respect for the living world.  Again, I'm not naïve; "nature is red in tooth and claw," and all that sort of thing.  I eat meat and wear leather shoes and am fully in support of (responsible) hunting, and am aware that I'm just another animal occupying his position in the food chain.

But for me, the focus is respect.  Okay, sometimes animals will die, to provide food or other resources, or to support laboratory research.  But every effort should be made to treat them kindly and humanely, to hold their lives and well-being with respect insofar as you can.  There is no excuse for a cavalier attitude toward life -- toward any life.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rama, Lab mouse mg 3157, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR]

When I voiced my opinion to the professor -- saying something like, "I know you have to kill the mice sometimes, but do you have to laugh about it?" -- his laughter grew louder, but directed toward me now. "What does it matter?" he said.  "The mouse dies either way."

I said, "That attitude makes you less sensitive to reducing the fear and suffering it experiences."

Now his laughter turned to incredulity.  "You're not going to have a very long career in biology if you think animals have emotions.  You start anthropomorphizing mice, you're going to have a rough time of it."

I decided to choose my battles (not least because he was going to be giving me my grades), and didn't argue further.  But I said to a friend later that day, "If that guy thinks animals don't have emotions, he must never have owned a pet in his life."  The bond between me and my dogs is not just because I pet them and give them dog kibble; in fact, experiments have shown that when a dog sees its beloved owner, it experiences a spike of the hormone oxytocin -- same as humans do when they're with their friends.  I've seen dogs grieve; when our lovable, hyper, eccentric border collie, Doolin, died at the ripe old age of 13, our other dog, Grendel, went into a positive decline.  He hardly ate or played.  All he wanted to do was sleep, curled up with one of Doolin's favorite toys, for several weeks before he began to get over losing his friend.

But even if I'd brought that kind of thing up, I'm sure the professor would have called it "anecdotal," if not something even more dismissive; and at that point, the oxytocin experiments were still in the future.  But this week a paper in Science by Monique Smith, Naoyuki Asada, and Robert Malenka of Stanford University has conclusively demonstrated that not only do animals experience fear and suffering, they are acutely aware of the fear and suffering of other animals.

In other words: they experience empathy, just as humans do.  And if my professor from long ago is still around, I want you to note: the experiment was done on...

...mice.

In a paper titled "Anterior Cingulate Inputs to Nucleus Accumbens Control the Social Transfer of Pain and Analgesia," Smith et al. show that exposing a mouse to another mouse who is showing overt signs of distress causes a response in the part of the brain that regulates emotional state.  The authors write, "In mice, both pain and fear can be transferred by short social contact from one animal to a bystander.  Neurons in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex in the bystander animal mediate these transfers.  However, the specific anterior cingulate projections involved in such empathy-related behaviors are unknown."

I've never really understood how a biologist could honestly believe non-human animals don't have emotions, given that (1) we're animals, and (2) damn near everything about us from our intelligence on down exists along some kind of spectrum in other animal species.  It's really just a vestige of the old "human/animal" dichotomy, that there was some kind of qualitative difference between us and the rest of the living world -- be it a spirit, a soul, or (in the case of my professor) some undefinable something that makes our suffering relevant and theirs not.  

But the Smith et al. paper puts that to rest, hopefully once and for all.  I can only hope that it will lead to more humane treatment of animals in general.  They feel emotions -- perhaps not with the sophistication we do, but that's a far cry from claiming they have no emotions at all.

And if that doesn't alter the perceptions and behaviors of the scientists, they are discounting the results of science because it's inconvenient -- meaning they hardly merit the title "scientist."

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

What are you afraid of?

It's a question that resonates with a lot of us.  I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them.  (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.)  We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.

In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears.  It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

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



Friday, January 8, 2021

The guilt of the instigators

A number of years ago, I was talking with a friend about her recent divorce from a man who was a serial philanderer and emotional abuser, and from whom she had separated more than once, always taking him back when he promised reform.  At that point my own divorce was also recent history, and I asked her what she'd come away with after the experience.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, "I think the biggest lesson I learned is, when someone shows you who he truly is, believe it."

As of the time of this writing, the attempted coup against our government by armed rioters is only twenty-four hours old, and already I'm seeing the distraction campaign by Republicans getting into full swing.  "This isn't who we are," the official GOP Twitter account said.  Rudy Giuliani said "stop the violence" after having called for "trial by combat" only hours earlier.  Ivanka Trump asked for the rioters to leave peacefully -- but when the protests started, had said they are "American patriots."  Brit Hume speculated that they were "leftist Antifa in disguise" despite the fact that there are photographs, and the ones who have been identified are all well-known far-right agitators.  Ted Cruz asked for the rioters to disperse -- but still voted against certifying the results of a legitimate, fair election later that evening.  Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham both made speeches against the riots, the move to question the election, and Trump himself.  Twitter suspended Trump's account for twelve hours, supposedly "pending review for permanent deletion."  Several Trump staffers have resigned, and several more are expected to do so in the next day.  Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy of Fox News said that Trump "acted very badly" in saying he loved the rioters and that they were "very special."

And on and on.

The problem is: it's too late.  It's way too fucking late to claim the moral high ground, to act as if they haven't supported an amoral psychopath for four years, making excuses for every insane thing he's done all along the way.  Without the support of these people he never would have been nominated, much less elected.  Especially infuriating is the sudden realization by Twitter and Fox News that they're complicit in violent insurrection -- that between the two of them, they created this monster.  Without Twitter and Fox News, and far-right commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Trump would have remained what he was -- a failed businessman and washed-up reality TV star.

And we've been warning for years that this was coming, that the lies and misinformation and polarization were going to have consequences.  I say "we" because I've been writing about the parallels between Trump's rise and Germany in the 1930s since he was nominated.  I was called an alarmist by people on both sides of the aisle.  The conservatives said Trump was a true patriot who cared deeply for the average American; the liberals said he was an incompetent but that the system of checks and balances was there to keep the reins on him.

But people like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz made sure the checks and balances were never invoked.  They gave Trump carte blancheFox News helped matters along by making sure that any of the innumerable lies and outright insane statements Trump made never got aired, that the loyal viewers only ever saw things that painted him in a positive light.  They created a vision of a man who was a messiah, the only one who could save America from the godless evil liberals...

... and their followers believed it.

Stephen King said -- a long time ago -- "The people who have spent years sowing dragon's teeth seem surprised to find that they have grown an actual dragon."  Trump's enablers created this situation.  Each of them is as culpable as Trump is in what happened on January 6.  They are guilty of the deliberate, calculated deception of a significant percentage of the American citizenry, who were trained to discount every criticism of Trump they heard, and so now... discount every criticism of Trump they hear.

The mealy-mouthed tut-tutting about the violence in the Capitol (and in a number of state capitols as well) can not be allowed to get them off the hook for this.  I'm no expert in jurisprudence, so I am unqualified to weigh in over issues like whether the congresspeople who voted against certification of the election or who instigated the coup attempt could be expelled and/or prosecuted.  But doing nothing -- saying, "Oh, well, it's simmered down, we're okay now" -- will work about as well as when Susan Collins voted against removing Trump after he was impeached early last year, and said, "I think he's learned his lesson."

I guess he hasn't, Senator Collins.

If someone shows you who he truly is, believe it.

Undoing the damage this has done will not be easy or quick.  It'll still be with us long after the windows in the Capitol are replaced, the papers and files that were dumped on the floor are put back, the damage to furniture is repaired.  I don't envy the new administration the work they have ahead.  But if we don't want this to happen again -- which, I trust, is the hope of every American -- we cannot let the ones who did this get away with it.  And I'm not talking only about the participants in the riot.  I'm talking about the ones who created this situation, from Trump on down.  I'm talking about Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, the far-right commentators who built Trump up as a god-figure, the true believers who worship him.  I'm talking about the elected officials who coldly and hypocritically encouraged it -- some of them laughing up their sleeves in private about what a moron Trump is -- because they saw it as a way to fill their own pockets and keep their positions of power.

We need reform, and that doesn't mean accepting that the Democrats have all the answers.  They don't.  It means stopping the continual stream of self-aggrandizing lies.  It means refusing to throw away anything that doesn't immediately appeal to your biases as "fake news."  It means turning off the television and radio and depriving the media that thrives on polarization of the only thing they care about, which is cash from sponsors. 

And it means holding people accountable for what they say or do.  Every damn time.

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

What are you afraid of?

It's a question that resonates with a lot of us.  I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them.  (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.)  We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.

In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears.  It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

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



Thursday, January 7, 2021

Looking forward to cataclysm

Is it just me, or do you sometimes get the feeling that people want catastrophes to happen?

I see it every time there's a near pass of an asteroid.  Hysterical notes start showing up all over social media about how "this time it's for real" and "we better get ready" and "make your peace with God" and "how 'bout a planet-sized game of Whack-a-Mole?"  Then, when the asteroid misses by a significant margin -- amazingly enough, just as NASA predicted -- people seem somehow disappointed.

Dammit, they say.  Maybe next time will be the fiery cataclysm I've been so looking forward to.

This comes up because I'm once again seeing all sorts of buzz about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, and how the state of Wyoming is about to get blasted into the stratosphere.  Now, to be fair, Yellowstone is an active volcanic area, and previous eruptions have been pretty stupendous.  One that occurred 640,000 years ago blew a thousand cubic kilometers of rock, ash, and pyroclastic debris into the air -- for reference, this is about a thousand times larger than the amount of ash from Mount Saint Helens -- and the resulting fallout blanketed most of what is now the central United States.

I know 640,000 years seems like a long time, but it's not much geologically, and geologists consider another large caldera eruption from Yellowstone a sure thing.  Here's where the problem starts, though, because "a sure thing" doesn't mean "next Tuesday at 4:30 PM."  What it means is that there'll be an eruption some time in the next 100,000 years, give or take, and (this is the critical part) we're seeing no sign of it being any time soon in human terms.

Sapphire Pool, Grand Prismatic Spring Complex, Yellowstone National Park.  The deep blue water in the center is about 90 C and has a pH of 9.  Swimming not recommended.

The pro-cataclysm cadre got their push this time because of an announcement that the Steamboat Geyser has resumed regular eruptions after a three-year quiescent phase.  To be sure, Steamboat is pretty spectacular; its column of hot water and mud is one of the highest ever measured, jetting up to 115 meters into the air.  So having it start up again suddenly after not erupting since early 2018 is understandably going to raise some eyebrows.

What it doesn't mean, however, is that the entire caldera basin is going to go kaboom, as it did 640,000 years ago.  All it means is that underground hotspots come and go in volcanically active regions, and the plumbing system that powers geysers and hot springs shifts around sometimes.  Geologists are seeing no signs of magma movement, which would be the precursor to an actual volcanic eruption.

They're pretty curious, though, about why Steamboat has reactivated so suddenly.  One possibility is that because water in geysers and hot springs is usually laden with dissolved silica and other minerals, a slight fluctuation in temperature can cause a sudden precipitation of crystalline material (in fact, the shorelines of the Yellowstone hot springs are coated with the stuff).  This could, literally, clog the pipes and cause the pressure to release elsewhere, or to build up until it's sufficient to blast the clog to pieces.  In short, we're not sure why Steamboat is active again, but it's virtually certain it's not an imminent eruption.

Honesty compels me to use the word "virtually," and even Michael Manga of the University of California-Berkeley, who is leading the study of Steamboat Geyser, says we can't really be certain of the timing of volcanic eruptions.  After all, massive eruptions are so infrequent that we haven't had all that many opportunities to study the lead-up and see what would be the typical seismological warning signs.  "What we asked are very simple questions and it is a little bit embarrassing that we can't answer them, because it means there are fundamental processes on Earth that we don't quite understand," Manga said.  "One of the reasons we argue we need to study geysers is that if we can't understand and explain how a geyser erupts, our hope for doing the same thing for magma is much lower."

So as befits a cautious scientist, Manga is saying "we're not sure."  But from what we know of volcanoes, it doesn't look at all likely.  So the pro-cataclysm crowd will have to kick at the gravel in disappointment and look for the next opportunity for a large part of the surface area of the Earth to be covered in flaming debris.  

Better luck next time, guys.  Cheer up, maybe there's an asteroid out there heading our way.

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

What are you afraid of?

It's a question that resonates with a lot of us.  I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them.  (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.)  We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.

In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears.  It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

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



Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Canine illusions

I've always had a fascination for optical illusions.

The enjoyment of bizarre trompe-l'oeil is connected to a persistent theme in my fiction; how do we know what's real?  If something occurs that challenges our notions of how things are, by what criteria could we know if we're seeing reality -- or if it's a malfunction in our frequently errant sensory-perceptual systems?

My favorite optical illusions are ones where even once you know what's going on, your mind just won't accept it.  Our brains, apparently, are very prone to hanging on to a solution to a perceptual anomaly even once it's been conclusively demonstrated that they've got it wrong.  The best example of this I know of is the checker shadow illusion:


In the above image, which square is darker, A or B?

If you know anything about optical illusions, you've probably guessed that they're the same darkness, and you'd be right if you did.  But I'd bet cold hard cash that even once you know the two squares are the same darkness, you can't actually see it that way.  (In fact, if you doubt they are of equal darkness, use some scraps of paper to cover up everything but a vertical strip of the image, to eliminate the green cylinder and most of the checkerboard.  The fact that they're the same will be obvious.  Then remove the paper, and voilà -- you'll be back to seeing A as darker than B.)

Another fine example of this phenomenon is the hollow-face illusion, which seems to occur because our brains have a finely-developed ability to see nuances of other human faces, but the concept of an inside-out face is so far out of anything we typically experience that we just can't process it.  Check it out:


A lot of optical illusions have to do with the fact that we often interpret what we see based upon comparisons, and those comparisons persist even once we know they're inaccurate.  (That's the key to the checker shadow illusion; because we think square B is in shadow, it must be intrinsically lighter in color than square A.)  It's also what made the infamous blue dress/white dress illusion so maddening; apparently it works because we judge something's color not only by the intrinsic frequencies of the light striking our eye, but by comparison to the color(s) surrounding it.  So someone who focuses on one part of an image and judges the rest of the image based upon that will come to a different conclusion than someone who does the same thing but starting with a different part of the image.

A lot of size-based illusions work in a similar fashion, such as the Ebbinghaus-Titchener illusion, in which the question is to determine which of the two orange circles is larger:


You've undoubtedly already guessed that they're the same size, but it's a remarkably persistent illusion even when you know that.  The right-hand circle looks larger because we're judging its size by comparison to the small dots surrounding it; and the opposite holds for the left-hand circle.

The topic of optical illusions comes up because of a cool study out of La Trobe University (Australia), led by psychologist Sarah Byosiere.  Byosiere became interested in optical illusions a few years ago, and wondered whether humans' advanced brains made us fall for them more easily -- we're always calculating, comparing, weighing options, which brings with it some pitfalls -- and whether other animal species might not be fooled.

So she decided to test dogs.  Using copious amounts of dog cookies, she trained some dogs to interact with a touch screen, rewarding the dogs if they touched their noses to the larger of two circular shapes shown.  Once they got good at it, she threw the Ebbinghaus-Titchener illusion at them.

And they fell for it.  Apparently dogs think the right-hand circle is larger, too.

What's even more fascinating is that dogs didn't fall for the Delboeuf illusion...

 ...which you'd think would work precisely the same way.  Getting tricked by the Delboeuf illusion is apparently pretty ubiquitous in humans, which is why restaurants have discovered that a medium-sized entrée looks like a more generous serving in a small plate than in a larger one.  But dogs presented with two plates of food, which differ in the plate size but not in the quantity of food, showed no preference whatsoever for the smaller plate.

As a side note, however, I do wonder if the apparent failure of dogs to get taken in by the Delboeuf illusion isn't because of faulty experimental design.  I know my own dogs don't seem to respond to portion size in their (equal-sized) food bowls.  I can fill one to overflowing and put only a handful of kibble in the other, and my dogs will generally go for whichever bowl is closer.  "Oh, well, I can always go for the other bowl once I'm done with this one," seems to be their general attitude, along with "Any food is a good thing."

Byosiere and her colleagues have expanded their research into other illusions, and I encourage you to go to the link I posted and check out what she and others have done.  She's also started a citizen-science effort called “What the Fluff!?” to study how animals respond to an illusion you probably have seen on YouTube -- where a pet owner holds a sheet up in front of them, and drops the sheet while simultaneously ducking out of sight, and seeing how the pets respond to their owners' apparent vanishing act.  "We’re asking owners to do this at home with their dogs," Byosiere said.  "We’ll be analyzing the footage and seeing if we can make any conclusions about object permanence and violation of expectation in that kind of magic trick."

So if you're inclined, try playing some mind games with your pets, and send her your results.  I may try it with my dogs and see what happens.  My guess is Guinness might fall for it and try to figure out what happened, but our hound Lena, who shows the level of energy and intelligence usually associated with a plush toy, would probably not notice if I mysteriously vanished.  Or if she did notice, she'd kind of shrug and go, "Oh, well, I'm sure he'll be back at some point" and resume the very important nap she'd been taking before I started bothering her.

Either way, it might be interesting to see how they respond.  If you try it, let me know in the comments section what your results were.  And now, I'm off to play a round of Confuse-a-Dog.

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

What are you afraid of?

It's a question that resonates with a lot of us.  I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them.  (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.)  We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.

In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears.  It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

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



Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The necessity of representation

This past weekend, I got into two apparently unrelated conversations with online acquaintances that at their basis amount to the same thing.

The first revolved around the one and only television series I am at all dedicated to, which is Doctor Who.  I've been a near-fanatical Whovian since my wife persuaded me a few years ago to watch a selection of iconic episodes like "Blink," "Silence in the Library," "Turn Left," and "Empty Child," resulting in my being hooked for life.  The conversation I got into, which honestly crossed the line into a heated argument, had to do with the choice three years ago of Jodie Whittaker for the Thirteenth Doctor, replacing Peter Capaldi (and a string of eleven other white males stretching back to the series's beginnings in 1963).

The topic came up because of rumors (thus far unsubstantiated, as far as I've seen) that Jodie Whittaker may be leaving the show at the end of this season.  I mentioned how disappointed I'd be if this was true, and how much I liked her portrayal of the character -- that she'd be in my top three Doctors ever -- and this brought up the same "the Doctor is male" nonsense I first saw popping up all over the place when she was chosen.

The choice of a woman, this fellow said, was "virtue signaling."  So, actually, was the choice of an American-born Black actor (Tosin Cole) to play one of the Doctor's current companions, Ryan Sinclair, and British people of Indian descent both for another companion, Yasmin Khan (played by Mandip Gill) and also the most recent regeneration of the Doctor's arch-enemy, the Master (played with brilliantly insane glee by Sacha Dhawan).  The whole thing, said the man I was talking to, amounted to the writers of Doctor Who saying "Look at us, how enlightened we are, having a bunch of people of different races in prominent roles."

My response was that Doctor Who has long been on the cutting edge of representing people of all configurations -- three early examples being in 2005 the character of Captain Jack Harkness giving new meaning to the word "pansexual," two years later the Tenth Doctor pairing up with Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyewan) as companion, and a bit after that, the fantastically badass couple Vastra and Jenny, not only a lesbian romance but an interspecies one.

Nope, he said.  That was virtue signaling too.

At that point I told him I thought all he was doing was making excuses for maintaining the illusion of a straight white male hegemony despite the fact that it doesn't accurately reflect the reality of who is actually out there, and he told me to "fuck off with my leftist agenda" and the conversation ended.

The other, marginally less frustrating conversation centered around my novel released a year ago, Whistling in the Dark.  I was asked a question about Dr. Will Daigle, one of the main characters both in this book and in its sequel Fear No Colors (scheduled for release in March).  The reader said she liked the character just fine, but why did I "choose to make him gay?"  It had nothing particular to do with the plot, she said; nothing he does in the book couldn't equally well be done by a heterosexual person.  Then she asked the question that made me realize immediately the parallel with my earlier discussion with the disgruntled Doctor Who fan: "Did you feel like you had to include a gay character to be politically correct?"

Whenever I'm asked about why I wrote a character a particular way, my usual reaction is to say, "I didn't make the character that way.  The characters come to me the way they are, and I just write it down."  But I realized that the reader's question went way deeper than that, that she wasn't asking me why I gave the character of Aaron Vincent green eyes or the character of Rose Dawson long gray hair she wore in a braid.  She was asking me about inclusion and representation, not just how I visualize characters.

So I said to her, "Okay, tell me some reasons why Dr. Will shouldn't be queer."  And she sputtered around a bit and said, "Well, I didn't mean that, of course."  But having already had my blood pressure spiked by a bigot earlier that day, I decided I'd made my point and withdrew from battle.

I found the whole thing profoundly frustrating, both because of the self-righteousness of the people I was talking to (especially the first one), and because they were seemingly blind to two things.  First, representing diversity isn't just "nice;" it's reality.  As far as the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, I'm reminded of the wonderful quote from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "When I'm sometimes asked, 'When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?' and I say 'When there are nine,' people are shocked.  But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."

Second, representation is important.  How many of us have looked up to characters from fiction, especially ones we found as children, and formed our attitudes of what is right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable, based upon their actions?  Being a white guy I can't speak to the racial and sexist aspects of this, and wouldn't presume to claim a visceral understanding of those perspectives; but as someone who is queer and who hid it (literally) for decades, I can say with some assurance what a difference it would have made to me if there had been positive LGBTQ role models in the books, television, and movies I'd been exposed to when I was a teenager.  Honestly, the only LGBTQ character I can remember from those days is the character of Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) from the brilliant sitcom Soap, but those of you who recall the show will probably remember that Jodie's homosexuality was almost always played off as a joke -- it never came up in any other context than generating a laugh.

Hardly something that would establish queer identity as normal and positive in the eyes of a bisexual fifteen-year-old boy growing up in a conservative, religious culture.

Myself, I've had just about enough of the phrases "politically correct" and "virtue signaling."  In what context is it wrong to avoid being offensive, to include people of all races, ethnic origins, religions (and lack thereof), and sexual orientations?  To create fictional characters who represent the length and breadth of diversity that actually exist in the world?  To break stereotypes like "white men have to be in charge" and "queer people should stay hidden"?

If you want to ask why when the time comes the Fourteenth Doctor should be played as (for example) a Black lesbian woman, you better be prepared to answer the question of why the character shouldn't be.

Anyhow, those are some early-morning thoughts about representation and inclusion.  I wish I'd thought to say all this to the people I was arguing with, but I tend not to be a very fast thinker (thus would make a lousy debater).  It took me a couple of days to let it all stew, and I decided instead to write about it here.

But maybe I'll send a link to this post to my two adversaries, if later on I'm feeling like kicking a hornets' nest.

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What are you afraid of?

It's a question that resonates with a lot of us.  I suffer from chronic anxiety, so what I am afraid of gets magnified a hundredfold in my errant brain -- such as my paralyzing fear of dentists, an unfortunate remnant of a brutal dentist in my childhood, the memories of whom can still make me feel physically ill if I dwell on them.  (Luckily, I have good teeth and rarely need serious dental care.)  We all have fears, reasonable and unreasonable, and some are bad enough to impact our lives in a major way, enough that psychologists and neuroscientists have put considerable time and effort into learning how to quell (or eradicate) the worst of them.

In her wonderful book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, journalist Eva Holland looks at the psychology of this most basic of emotions -- what we're afraid of, what is happening in our brains when we feel afraid, and the most recently-developed methods to blunt the edge of incapacitating fears.  It's a fascinating look at a part of our own psyches that many of us are reluctant to confront -- but a must-read for anyone who takes the words of the Greek philosopher Pausanias seriously: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

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