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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Ghost radio

I got an email yesterday with two links and a message.  The message said:
Wondering what you think of this.  I'm not convinced but I think it's interesting.  This guy says he's made a device that can allow two-way communication with the dead.  The messages he picks up do seem to be answering specific questions and comments he's making.  Not just random words or phrases. 
Watch the guy's video and see what you think.  I'm keeping an open mind about it, but I'm curious what you think. 
T. K.
The links he provided were to YouTube videos made by a guy named Steve Huff, selling software that is called "The Impossible Box."  He claims that this software is manipulable by the disembodied spirits of the dead, who apparently surround us.  The first link plays audio recordings of messages that Huff has received using the software; in the second, he explains to us how he thinks it works.

Here are a few of the messages he received:
  • I am the portal
  • Let there be light
  • The light will surround you, Mr. Huff
  • Blessed art thou
  • Olee's at your side
  • The devil's gonna profit from you
And so forth and so on.  The software is available for download for $49.95 (and can be purchased here).

So I watched both videos.  Predictably, like the person who sent me the links, I'm unconvinced.

The way it works, which he does get to on the second video (about halfway through), is that the software scans internet radio, and pulls out words and phrases that it then plays for you.  Allegedly, this software only turns on when the ghosts have something to say.  "There is no continuous scan of audio," Huff tells us.  "The scan only starts when the spirits want to speak."

When it comes to explaining how the programmer created code that can specifically be manipulated by the dead, he's a little cagier.  The Impossible Box contains "software with all kinds of tech," he says, giving no other real details presumably to protect his proprietary interest, but also preventing any kind of critical analysis of what's really going on in there.

The real problem here, though, is the same one that plagues attempts to demonstrate that rock musicians have engaged in backmasking -- hiding demonic messages in songs, so that when you play them backwards you hear voices saying things like "Here's to my sweet Satan."  (That one is from one of the most famous claims of backmasking -- in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven.")  As Michael Shermer points out in his TED talk "Why People Believe Weird Things," the message only becomes clear when someone tells you what the demons are saying via a caption -- just as Huff does in his video.  Before we're primed by being told what the message is, it more or less sounds like gibberish.  "You can't miss it," Shermer says, "when I tell you what's there."

The other thing that is troubling is the question of why ghosts have to have source audio in order to speak.  If they can manipulate software, you'd think they'd be able to do the same thing without having to rely on picking out words from internet radio.  He tried making a "spirit box" that used white noise instead of scanning radio, Huff says, and it didn't work.  "Spirits have a hard time forming words out of white noise as a source audio," he tells us.  "They need audio with human words to really be able to leave you sentences "

Which I find awfully convenient.  We're given garbled phrases, made up from words pulled from internet radio, and we get to decide what it is we're hearing, and then assign meaning to it.  While it's possible that we're talking with ghosts, what's more likely is that we're seeing some kind of audio version of the ideomotor effect, where our own subconscious decisions and expectations of meaning are creating a message where there really is none.

Now, let me conclude with saying something I've said before; I'm not saying that the afterlife is impossible, nor that spirits (should such exist) might not try to communicate with the living.  All I'm saying is that the evidence I've thus far seen is unconvincing, and I find the perfectly natural explanations for what is going on in The Impossible Box (and other spirit communication devices) sufficient to account for any ghostly messages Huff and others have received.  If anyone does decide to shell out the fifty bucks for the software, however, I'd be really interested to hear what your experience is with it -- and especially, if you got information from Great-Aunt Marjorie that you couldn't have otherwise got, and not just vague messages like "The light will surround you."

Until then, however, I'm afraid that I'm still in the "dubious" camp.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Anatomy of a verbal slap

A few weeks ago, a buddy and I were out for a walk on one of the local woodland trails.  It's a popular trail with bikers, runners, and hikers, running about fifteen kilometers down to Cass Park in the city of Ithaca.  To set the scene -- it's a well-maintained, broad path, and where we were was one of the widest parts of the trail, maybe three or four meters across or so, level and flat, with no obstructions of any kind, and a mown grassy shoulder on either side.

We were walking along chatting, and I heard a noise behind us.  I turned, and two runners were approaching, so we got off the trail to let them by.  Because of where we were, it was fastest to get out of the way if he stepped off to the left and I stepped off to the right; which we did, giving the two runners the entire path to themselves.  They didn't even have to slow down their pace.  But as they passed, one of them half-turned and snapped out some words to us, which I didn't catch.

I said, "I'm sorry, what?"

She gave a harsh sigh, turned around, and snarled, "It's rude to split the trail!  Learn some etiquette!"  And without waiting for a response, she and her friend took off at a run again.

I was speechless, for several reasons.  First of all, I've been a runner for forty years, and I've never heard anyone talk about "splitting the trail."  I didn't even know that was a thing.  As far as I've ever heard, unless there's a race going on, there's no particular etiquette about sharing a trail except for "get out of the way as quickly as you can and let the faster person pass."  The trail in question is heavily used, especially on nice days, and most everyone has no problem dealing with minor slowdowns and very infrequent traffic jams when several people end up at the same place at the same time.

But the gaffe that my friend and I committed -- which, allow me to reiterate, hadn't even required the two runners to slow down -- was apparently serious enough that we were accused of being "rude" and "lacking in etiquette."

What's oddest about all of this is my reaction to it.  You'd think I'd have gone through all the rational responses I just outlined, and would have immediately dismissed what she said as completely unreasonable.  Less charitable but perhaps still justifiable would have been laughing and saying, "What an asshole!" and forthwith forgetting about the incident entirely.  But in fact, it kind of ruined my morning.  I know I can be a bit of a golden retriever at times -- I have a tendency to want to be everyone's friend, sometimes at the expense of standing my ground even when I should -- but this seemed to go beyond even my usual desire not to ruffle feathers.

This ten-second interaction with a woman I had never seen before and haven't seen since left me feeling like I'd been slapped in the face.

It turns out I'm not alone.  We all react that way -- in fact, in some new research by a team led by Marijn Struiksma of Utrecht University, we find out that the response is so strong that it still occurs even when the insult is carried out under completely contrived, artificial circumstances.

What Struiksma and her team did was to hook up 79 volunteers to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which measures scalp conductance (and thus is a measure of the electrical activity of the brain).  They were then presented with various written statements, some of which used the participant's name and some of which used a different name.  Some were insults (e.g. "Linda is a horrible person"), some were positive (e.g. "Linda is an impressive person"), and some were neutral but factually correct (e.g. "Linda is Dutch").  And what the researchers found is that the volunteers had a strong emotional reaction to the personally-directed insults -- even knowing ahead of time that it was just an experiment, and those statements were not the honest opinion of any real person.

"Our study shows that in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment without real interaction between speakers, insults deliver lexical ‘mini slaps in the face,’ such that the strongly negative evaluative words involved that a participant reads, automatically grab attention during lexical retrieval, regardless of how often that retrieval occurs," Struiksma said.  "Understanding what an insulting expression does to people as it unfolds, and why, is of considerable importance to psycholinguists interested in how language moves people, but also to others who wish to understand the details of social behavior."

If a contrived "insult," delivered in writing to a person who knew it was just part of a psychology experiment, can create a measurable neurological reaction, how much more are we affected by nasty comments in real-life situations -- even passing ones from total strangers, like the woman who accused me of being rude on the trail because I didn't get out of her way in the fashion she required?  It all brings home how important it is simply to be kind to each other.  Yeah, maybe I should grow a thicker skin; I'll admit that I can be pretty hyper-sensitive sometimes.  But honestly, what does it cost anyone to start from the assumption that most of us are doing the best we can?  You never really lose anything by cutting people some slack.

I'll end with a quote from the Twelfth Doctor from Doctor Who.  Twelve is not my favorite incarnation of the Doctor, but man, Peter Capaldi can deliver a monologue like no one else.  And this one -- about how even in extreme situations, the most important thing is the simplest of all -- seems like a good place to conclude this post.


Monday, August 29, 2022

Divine meddling

In Paul McCaw's musical comedy The Trumpets of Glory, angels back various causes on Earth as a kind of competitive contest.  Anything from a soccer game to a war is open for angelic intervention -- and there are no rules about what kind of messing about the angels are allowed to do.  Anything is fair, up to and including deceit, malice, and trickery.  The stakes are high; the angel whose side wins goes up in rank, and the other one goes down.

It's an idea of the divine you don't run into often.  The heavenly host as competitors in what amounts to a huge fantasy football game.

While McCaw's play is meant to be comedy, it's not so far off from what a lot of people believe -- that some divine agent, be it God or an angel or something else, takes such an interest in the minutiae of life down here on Earth that (s)he intercedes on our behalf.  The problem for me, aside from the more obvious one of not believing that any of these invisible beings exist, is why they would care more about whether you find your keys than, for example, about all of the ill and starving children in the world.

You'd think if interference in human affairs is allowable, up there in heaven, that helping innocent people who are dying in misery would be the first priority.

It's why I was so puzzled by the link a loyal reader sent me yesterday to an article in The Epoch Times called, "When Freak Storms Win Battles, Is It Divine Intervention or Just Coincidence?"  The article goes into several famous instances when weather affected the outcome of a war, to wit:
  • A tornado killing a bunch of British soldiers in Washington D. C. during the War of 1812
  • The storm that contributed to England's crushing defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588
  • A massive windstorm that smashed the Persian fleet as it sailed against Athens in 492 B.C.E.
  • A prolonged spell of warm, wet weather, which fostered the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, followed by a pair of typhoons that destroyed Kublai Khan's ships when they were attacking Japan in 1274
What immediately struck me about this list was that each time, the winners attributed the event to divine intervention, but no one stops to consider how the losers viewed it.  This isn't uncommon, of course; "History is written by the victors," and all that sort of thing.  But what's especially funny about the first two is that they're supposed to be events in which God meddled and made sure the right side won -- when, in fact, both sides were made up of staunch Christians.

And I'm sorry, I refuse to believe that a divine being would be pro-British in the sixteenth century, and suddenly become virulently anti-British two hundred years later.

Although that's kind of the sticking point with the last example as well, isn't it?  First God (or the angels or whatever) manipulate the weather to encourage the Mongols, then kicks the shit out of them when they try to attack Japan.  It's almost as if... what was causing all of this wasn't an intelligent agent at all, but the result of purely natural phenomena that don't give a flying rat's ass about our petty little squabbles.

Fancy that.

But for some reason, this idea repels a lot of people.  They are much more comfortable with a deity that fools around directly with our fates down here on Earth, whether it be to make sure that I win ten dollars on my lottery scratch-off ticket or to smite the hell out of the bad guys.

If I ever became a theist -- not a likely eventuality, I'll admit -- I can't imagine that I'd go for the God-as-micromanager model.  It just doesn't seem like anyone whose job was overseeing the entire universe would find it useful to control things on that level, notwithstanding the line from Matthew 10:29 about God's hand having a role in the fall of every sparrow.

I more find myself identifying with the character of Vertue in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress -- not the character we're supposed to like best, I realize -- when he recognized that nothing he did had any ultimate reason, or was the part of some grand plan:
Vertue sat down on a large stone, and stared off into the distance.  "I believe that I am mad," he said presently.  "The world cannot be as it seems to me.  If there is something to go to, it is a bribe, and I cannot go to it; if I can go, then there is nothing to go to." 
"Vertue," said John, "give in.  For once yield to desire.  Have done with your choosing.  Want something."

"I cannot," said Vertue.  "I must choose because I choose because I choose: and it goes on for ever, and in the whole world I cannot find a single reason for rising from this stone."
So those are my philosophical musings for this morning.  Seeing the divine hand in everything here on Earth, without any particular indication of why a deity would care, or (more specifically) why (s)he would come down on one side or the other.  Me, I'll stick with the scientific explanation.  The religious one is, honestly, far less satisfying, and opens up some troubling questions that don't admit to any answers I can see.


Saturday, August 27, 2022

Perception and suggestion

One topic that has come up over and over again here at Skeptophilia is the rather unsettling idea that the high opinion most of us have of our perceptions and memories is entirely unjustified.  Every time we're tempted to say "I saw it with my own eyes" or "of course it happened that way, I remember it," it should be a red flag reminding us of how inaccurate our brains actually are.

Now, to be fair, they work well enough.  It'd be a pretty significant evolutionary disadvantage if our sensory processing organs and memory storage were as likely to be wrong as right.  But a system that is built to work along the lines of "meh, it's good enough to get by, at least by comparison to everyone else" -- and let's face it, that's kind of how evolution works -- is inevitably going to miss a lot.  "Our experience of reality," said neuroscientist David Eagleman, "is constrained by our biology."  He talks about the umwelt -- the world as experienced by a particular organism -- and points out that each species picks up a different tiny slice of all the potential sensory inputs that are out there, and effectively misses everything else.

It also means that even of the inputs in our particular umwelt, the brain is going to make an executive decision regarding which bits are important to pay attention to.  People with normal hearing (for example) are being bombarded constantly by background sounds, which for most of us most of the time, we ignore as irrelevant.  In my intro to neuroscience classes, I used to point this out by asking students how many of them were aware (prior to my asking the question) of the sound of the fan running in the heater.  Afterward, of course, they were; beforehand, the sound waves were striking their ears and triggering nerve signals to the brain just like any other noise, but the brain was basically saying "that's not important."   (Once it's pointed out, of course, you can't not hear it; one of my students came into my room four days later, scowled at me, and said, "I'm still hearing the heater.  Thanks a lot.")

The point here is that we are about as far away from precision reality-recording equipment as you can get.  What we perceive and recall is a small fraction of what's actually out there, and is remembered only incompletely and inaccurately.

The Doors of Perception by Alan Levine [Image licensed under the Creative Commons cogdogblog, Doors of Perception (15354754466), CC BY 2.0]

Worst of all, what we do perceive and recall is also modified by what we think we should be perceiving and recalling.  This point was underscored by some cool new research done by a team led by Hernán Aniló at the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres, which showed that all it takes is a simple (false) suggestion of what we're seeing to foul up our perception completely.

The experiment was simple and elegant.  Subjects were shown a screen with an image of a hundred dots colored either blue or yellow.  Some of the screens had exactly fifty of each; others were sixty/forty (one way or the other).  The volunteers were then asked to estimate the proportions of the colors on a sequence of different screens, and to give an assessment of how confident they were in their guess.

The twist is that half of the group was given a "hint" -- a statement that in some of the screens, one of the colors was twice as frequent as the other.  (Which, of course, is never true.)  And this "hint" caused the subjects not only to mis-estimate the color frequencies, but to be more confident in their wrong guesses, especially in volunteers for whom a post-test showed a high inclination toward social suggestibility.

As easily-understood as the experiment is, it has some profound implications.  "Information is circulating with unprecedented speed, and it even finds its way into our social feeds against our will sometimes," Aniló said.  "It’s becoming increasingly difficult to observe events without having to go through some level of information on those events beforehand (e.g. buying a shirt, but not before reading its reviews online).  What we are looking at in our research here is how much the information you receive is going to contribute to the construction of your perceptual reality, and fundamentally, what are the individual psychological features that condition the impact that that information will have in shaping what you see and think, whether you like it or not.  Of course, we are not talking about enormous effects that can completely distort the world around you (e.g., no amount of false/imprecise information can make you misperceive a small bird as a 3-ton truck), but what our study shows is that, provided you are permeable enough to social influence (which we all are, the key here being how much), then false information can slightly shift your perception in whatever direction the information points."

What this means, of course, is that we have to be constantly aware of our built-in capacity for being fooled.  And although we clearly vary in that capacity, we shouldn't fall for believing "I'm seeing reality, it's everyone else who is wrong."  The truth is, we're all prone to inaccurate perception and recall, and all capable of having the power of suggestion alter what we see.  "Perception is a complex construction, and information is never an innocent bystander in this process," Anlló said.  "Always be informed, but make sure that your sources are of high quality, and trustworthy.  Importantly, when I say high-quality I do not mean a source that you may trust because of emotional reasons or social links, but rather by the accuracy of the information they provide and the soundness of the evidence.  Indeed, our experiment shows that your level of suggestibility to your social environment (how much you dress like your friends, or feel influenced by their taste in music) will also predict your permeability to perceptual changes triggered by false information.  This, much like many other cognitive biases, is part of the human experience, and essentially nothing to worry about.  Being susceptible to your social environment is actually a great thing that makes us humans thrive as a species, we just need to be aware of it and try our best to limit our exposure to bad information."

The most alarming thing of all, of course, is that the people who run today's news media are well aware of this capacity, and use it to reinforce the perception by their consumers that only they are providing accurate information.  "Listen to us," they tell us, "because everyone else is lying to you."  The truth is, there is no unbiased media; given that their profits are driven by telling viewers the bit of the news that supports what they think the viewers already want to believe, they have exactly zero incentive to provide anything like balance.  The only cure is to stay as aware as we can of our own capacity for being fooled, and to stick as close to the actual facts as possible (and, conversely, as far away as possible from the talking heads and spin-meisters who dominate the nightly news on pretty much whichever channel you choose).

If our perceptions of something as simple and concrete as the number of colored dots on a screen can be strongly influenced by a quick and inaccurate "hint," how much easier is it to alter our perception of the world with respect to complex and emotionally-laden issues -- especially when there's a powerful profit motive on the part of the people giving us the hints?


Friday, August 26, 2022

Written in the genes

Two years ago, I wrote about a mysterious plunge in global average temperature that occurred 12,800 years ago.  It's nicknamed the "Younger Dryas event," after the tundra wildflower Dryas octopetala, which showed a population explosion over the following millennium (as judged by pollen in ice core samples).  This plant only flourishes when the winters are extremely cold, and the pollen spike, along with various other lines of evidence, supports a rapid drop in temperature averaging around six degrees Celsius worldwide.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons xulescu_g, Dryas octopetala (41907904865), CC BY-SA 2.0]

The obvious question, of course, is what could cause such a rapid and catastrophic drop in temperature.  There are three reasonably plausible answers that have been suggested: 

  1. an impact by a comet or meteorite causing an ejection of ash into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight
  2. the collapse of an ice dam across what is now the St. Lawrence Seaway -- the temperature had been warming prior to the event -- allowing the emptying of an enormous freshwater lake into the North Atlantic, shutting off the thermohaline circulation and propelling the Northern Hemisphere back into an ice age
  3. a nearby supernova in the constellation Vela frying the ozone layer, causing a collapse of ecosystems worldwide and an atmospheric chain reaction resulting in a global drop in temperature

The discussion amongst the scientists is ongoing, but the weight of evidence seems to favor the impact hypothesis.  (The link I posted above has more details, if you're curious.)

What's more certain is that the Younger Dryas event had a massive effect.  A number of large mammal groups -- including mastodons, North American camels, dire wolves, and gomphotheres (a bizarre-looking elephant relative) -- all went extinct shortly after the event itself, whatever it was, occurred.  Humans very nearly bit the dust, too; two of the dominant cultures of the time, the Natufian culture of the Middle East and the Clovis culture of North America, both collapsed right around the same time.

It's the latter that brings the topic up, because of some fascinating new research that came out last week, led by Paula Paz Sepúlveda of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata (Argentina), which looks at the effects this wild climate reversal had on the human genome.

What the researchers did was look at the makeup of the Q Y-DNA haplogroup.  You probably already know that two bits of our genome, the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA, are frequently used for analyzing ethnic group affiliations because they don't recombine each generation -- they're passed down intact through (respectively) the paternal and maternal line.  So your mtDNA is the same as your mother's mother's mother's (etc.), and if you're male, your Y DNA is the same as your father's father's father's (etc.).  This means that the only differences in either one are due to mutations, making them invaluable as a measure of the degree of relatedness of different ethnic groups, not to mention providing a way to track patterns of human migration.

The Q haplogroup is ubiquitous in indigenous people of North and South America, so it was a good place to start looking for clues that the climate shift might have written into the human genome.  And they found them; coincident with the Younger Dryas event there was a marked drop in genetic diversity in the Q haplogroup.  It looks like the climate calamity caused a bottleneck -- a severe reduction in population, resulting in a loss of entire genetic lineages:

The YD impact hypothesis states that fragments of a large disintegrating asteroid/comet hit North America, South America, Europe, and Western Asia at 12,800 cal BP.  Multiple airbursts/impacts produced the YD boundary layer (YDB, Younger Dryas boundary), depositing peak concentrations of a wide variety of impact markers.  The proposed impact event caused major changes in continental drainage patterns, ocean circulation, in temperature and precipitation, large-scale biomass burning, abrupt climate change, abrupt anomalous distribution of plants and animals, extinction of megafauna, as well as, cultural changes and human population decline.  The diversity of the set of markers related to the cosmic impact is found mainly in the Northern hemisphere, including Venezuela, but they have also been recorded in the Southern hemisphere, in Chilean Patagonia, and Antarctica.

It's fascinating to think of our own genomes, and (of course) the genomes of other species, as being a kind of proxy record for climate; that not only gradual fluctuations, but sudden and unexpected events like impacts and volcanic eruptions, can leave their marks on our DNA.  It brings home once again how interlocked everything is.  Our old perception of humans as being some kind of independent entity, separate from everything else on Earth, is profoundly wrong.  We were molded into what we are today by the same forces that created the entire biosphere, and we can't separate ourselves from those forces any more than we could disconnect from our own heartbeats.  As Chief Seattle famously put it, "Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Icelandic travelogue

Over the last ten days I took a hiking and camping trip in Iceland.  It's a fascinating country, and earns well its nickname of "The Land of Fire and Ice."

It's my second visit; the first time I went there was in 2000, when I had only dated my (then) girlfriend, (now) wife, for a few months.  I'd signed up to go that August with a group of friends for a trip mostly focused on birdwatching, and one day over dinner a few months prior I said to Carol, half jokingly, "Hey, I'm taking a trip to Iceland, you wanna come?"  My expectation was that her response to being asked to go on a trip to a remote island in the North Atlantic by a guy she hadn't known long was going to be, "Um, no thanks... you have fun.  Why the hell do you want to go to Iceland, of all places?"

What she said was, "When do we leave?"

That was one of many moments that convinced me this was a match made in heaven.

The trip took us along the Ring Road around the entire perimeter of the island, and we saw some great birds and generally had a wonderful time.  This time, I went with a group of men associated with Mannsvolk, a German-based men's mentorship and workshop group that I first became associated with through a weekend retreat I attended in 2019.  So two weeks ago I packed everything into a new trekking backpack (my old one having seen its best days about thirty years ago), and off I went to Reykjavik.

I had been lulled into a false sense of security by my first trip, during which the weather was amazingly sunny and warm.  The locals we spoke to said that such a stretch of beautiful weather was pretty well unheard-of, even in midsummer, but of course it was the weather itself and not their warnings about how bad it could be that stuck in my memory.  This time, though, was more typical, and we only had a couple of days of sunshine and anything like real warmth.

Me at Landmannalaugar, on the nicest day we had.  Of course I took the opportunity to run around shirtless, because that's kind of what I do.

Most of the weather was cloudy, cold, and intermittently spitting rain.  The wind varied from "breezy" to "stiff gale" to "holy fuck grab on to something heavy or you'll blow away."  But there's no doubt the scenery was well worth the discomfort.  You may have heard about the recent volcanic eruption of Fagradalsfjall, one of the dozens of active volcanoes in Iceland -- specifically the cinder cone eruption at Meradalir.  Well, we hiked in and saw it.  It's one of the most grueling hikes I've ever done, over loose, basketball-sized chunks of lava rock, but when we got there... wow.

You hear it before you see it; a low, powerful thrumming noise, like a giant heartbeat.  It makes your innards vibrate.  Then you can see the steam plumes over a low rise, and smell the sulfur.  Then you get to the top of a the hill, and...

It was jetting fountains of lava into the air, and the whole surface was undulating like a pot of oatmeal bubbling on the stove.  It's almost a cliché to say that sights like this make you realize the power of nature, but man, after being here, I felt very puny.

We also went near Hekla, one of the most active volcanoes in the world (although not erupting at the moment).  During various enormous outbursts over the last three thousand years, Hekla spewed out so much tephra (fragmented chunks of lava that look like coarse black sand) that it created a terrain that looks like a moonscape, where almost nothing grows but tufts of desiccated grass.

The Ash Desert of Hekla

Still, as Ian Malcolm famously put it, "Life... uh... finds a way."  Even in areas that had been hit hard by volcanism, we saw signs of the tenacity of living things.

Iceland owes its violent geology to the fact that it sits at the boundary of the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates, which are moving apart at a rate of about 9.7 centimeters a year.  This fairly extraordinary rate of stretch means that Iceland is getting larger, and as the island splits in two, subterranean magma comes to the surface to fill in the gap.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the USGS]

Interestingly, our path took us pretty much right along the plate margin (the purple line in the above map) the whole way, starting in Reykjavik in the southwest (Fagradalsfjall Volcano is the red triangle at the lower left), going up the left-hand branch of the forking split almost all the way to Krafla in the northeast.  One nice thing is that we didn't go to many of the same places I'd already seen on my first trip, but one unfortunate exception was Mývatn.

Mývatn is one of those places that fall into the "it makes a good story afterward" category.  We'd selected it as a destination on our first trip because it has a well-deserved reputation for being an outstanding site for birdwatching.  We only found out after we got there, though, that there's a reason for its popularity with birds.  It's also wildly popular with flying insects, particularly a species of midge which enjoys nothing more than flying into noses, ears, and mouths.  "Mývatn," in fact, is Icelandic for "lake of the flies," something we didn't find out until after we'd gotten there.  People in the nearby village of Reykjahlíð, in fact, wear head nets when they walk to the grocery store.  I distinctly recall talking to a local when I was there the first time, and he found out we'd come for birdwatching.  "It's the only reason you'd be here," he said, glumly.  "This is the worst place in Iceland."

Be that as it may, we stayed there a couple of days this time.  I'm happy to say that there was only one evening when the insects were truly gawdawful, but given that the reason for that was at other times the wind was howling so hard the flies couldn't find us, I'm not sure that's much of a consolation.

The various difficulties we experienced on this trip were worth it, though, to see places like Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall, with its bizarre columnar basalt formations:

And the harbor of the beautiful little village of Akureyri:

And I even got to see some birds, albeit familiar ones:

So all in all, it was a pretty cool trip.  I'm glad to be back in a place where I don't have to expend inordinate amounts of energy to (1) stay warm, and (2) avoid being blown into the next time zone, but like with most travel, the bad bits are already fading in my memory, to be replaced by the amazement of seeing volcanoes and glaciers and waterfalls, the likes of which exist nowhere else on Earth.

And I'd call that a fair exchange.


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The evolution of the anti-evolutionists

Dear readers:

I am going to take a long-overdue two-week break from writing here at Skeptophilia, so this will be my last post until Thursday, August 25.  Until I return, keep suggesting topics, keep reading, keep thinking, and keep hoisting the banner of critical thinking!




Sometimes I see a piece of scientific research that is so brilliant, so elegant, all I can do is sit back in awestruck appreciation.

Such was my reaction to Nicholas J. Matzke's paper in Science entitled, "The Evolution of Antievolution Policies after Kitzmiller v. Dover."  And if you're wondering... yes, he did what it sounds like.

He used the techniques of evolutionary biology to show how anti-evolution policy has undergone descent with modification.

I read the paper with a delighted, and somewhat bemused, grin, blown away not only by how well it worked, but how incredibly clever the idea was.  What Matzke did was to analyze the text of all of the dozens of bills proposed since 2004 that try to shoehorn religious belief into the public school science classroom, and generate a phylogenetic tree for them -- in essence, a diagram summarizing how they are related to each other, and how they have changed.

In other words, a cladistic tree of evolutionary descent.

"Creationism is getting stealthier in the wake of legal defeats, but techniques from the study of evolution reveal how creationist legislation is evolving," Matzke said in an interview.  "It is one thing to say that two bills have some resemblances, and another thing to say that bill X was copied from bill Y with greater than ninety percent probability.  I do think this research strengthens the case that all of these bills are of a piece—they are all ‘stealth creationism,’ and they all have either clear fundamentalist motivations, or are close copies of bills with such motivations."

"They are not terribly intelligently designed," Matzke added. "Some of the bills don’t make sense, they’ve been copied from another state and changed without thought."

He linked the bills to each other by doing statistical analysis of patterns in the text, much as evolutionary biologists use patterns in the DNA of related organisms, and arranged them into a cladistic tree using the "principle of maximum parsimony," which (simply put) is the arrangement that requires you to make the fewest ad hoc assumptions.

So without further ado, here is Matzke's tree linking 65 different, but related, pieces of legislation:

In particular, he was able to show where the documents incorporated language from a 2006 anti-evolution proposal in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, and how subsequent generations had pieces of it remaining, often -- dare I say -- mutated, but still recognizable.

"Successful policies have a tendency to spread," Matzke said.  "Every year, some states propose these policies, and often they are only barely defeated.  And obviously, sometimes they pass, so hopefully this article will help raise awareness of the dangers of the ongoing situation."

So when there are iterations that are better fit to the environment, in the sense that they went further in the court systems before being defeated or (hard though this is to fathom) were actually approved, the anti-evolutionists passed those versions around to other states, while less-successful models were outcompeted and become extinct.

There's a name for that process, isn't there?  Give me a moment, I'm sure it'll come to me.

Okay, it's not that I think this paper will make much difference amongst the creationists and supporters of intelligent design.  They don't spend much time reading Science, I wouldn't suppose.  But even so, this is a coup -- using the techniques of cladistic analysis to illustrate the relationships between bills designed to force public school students to learn that cladistic analysis doesn't work.

I can't help but think that Darwin would be proud.


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Exam day

You might have seen the most recent lunatic pronouncement coming from the Christofascist right wing here in the United States, this time from noted wingnut Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado.  Boebert appeared on the show Flash Point, and in response to a question about what we should do to improve our country, she said, "Maybe we need to have some sort of legislation that requires Constitution Alive! and biblical citizenship training in our schools, and that's how we get things turned around."

It hardly bears pointing out that Constitution Alive! is a Christian ultra-nationalist approach to interpreting the Constitution, and says right on its website that its goal is "restoring America's Biblical and Constitutional foundations of freedom."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, Lauren Boebert (50764749212), CC BY-SA 2.0]

I'm more interested, though, in Boebert's "biblical citizenship" test idea.  So in the interest of seeing if she's qualified herself, I submit a short quiz I put together to test her understanding of the Bible (along with biblical references, in case you want to check my sources).  See how you score, Representative Boebert.

1. Which of the following should be sufficient to prohibit you from entering a church?
a) Having a flat nose.
b) Having a broken hand.
c) Being blind.
d) All of the above.

Answer: (d).  Oh, and guys?  You better have intact balls, too.  Leviticus 21:18-21 says, "For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken.  No man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God."

2. A guy and his wife are walking home one evening, and he's attacked by a guy with a knife.  It looks like the attacker's going to kill him, but his wife saves the day by grabbing the attacker by the nuts and giving a good squeeze.  What should he do to reward her for her valor?
a) Give her a great big kiss.
b) Buy her a nice gift.
c) Tell all his friends about how brave his wife is.
d) Cut off her hand.

Answer: (d).  Deuteronomy 25:11-12.  "When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her."

3.  Some people move in next door.  They seem nice, but upon inquiry, you find out that they aren't Christians.  What is the appropriate response?
a) Treat them with kindness and compassion, because that's what the Bible says to do.
b) Try to convert them to Christianity.
c) Stone them to death.

Answer: (c).  Deuteronomy 17:2-5.  "If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the Lord thy God, in transgressing his covenant, and hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; and it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die."

4.  Well, suppose there's an entire town where people aren't Christian.  What should you do about them?
a) Let them be -- as long as they're not hurting anyone, they have the right to believe what they want.
b) Try to convert them to Christianity.
c) Kill them all.

Answer: (c). Deuteronomy 13:12-14.  "If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the Lord thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying, Certain men... are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known; Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly."

5.  Okay, we killed all the people in the non-Christian town.  What should we do about their cattle?
a) What kind of stupid fucking question is this?  Why should you do anything about the cattle?
b) Kill them all.

Answer: (b).  Deuteronomy 13:15 goes on to say, "Destroy all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword."

6.  You ask your kid to load the dishwasher, and he rolls his eyes and tells you to go to hell.  What should you do?
a) Ground him.
b) Withhold his allowance for the week.
c) Stone him to death.

Answer: (c).  Leviticus 20:9.  "For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him."

7.  Someone treats you badly.  How should you respond?
a) Forgive him.
b) Turn the other cheek and let him hit that one, too.
c) Laugh as you're smashing his children on a big rock.
d) All of the above.

Answer: (d), even if that's hard to imagine.  Matthew 6:14, Matthew 5:39, and Psalm 137:8-9, respectively, if you don't believe me.

8.  What should the punishment be for kids who make fun of a priest's bald head?
a) Nothing.  Ignore it.  Kids do that sort of stuff sometimes.
b) Tell their parents and let them deal with it.
c) Get some vicious bears to eat the children.
d) Stone them to death.

Answer: (c).  Ha!  I bet you thought it was (d), but no.  2 Kings 2:23-24.  "And he [the prophet Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.  And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord.  And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tare [ripped apart] forty and two children of them."

9.  As a good Christian American, can I own slaves?
a) What?  Are you kidding?  Owning slaves is inherently immoral!  I don't care what your religion is!
b) Yes, as long as they're Canadian.

Answer: (b).  Leviticus 25:44.  "Both thy male and female slaves, which thou shalt have, shall be from the countries that are around you; of them shall you buy your male and female slaves."

10.  How much authority does Lauren Boebert have to talk about the Bible, religion, and such matters?
a) Zero, because she has the IQ of a Pop-Tart.
b) Zero, because someone as clearly sociopathic as she is has no standing to preach morality and ethics to anyone.
c) Zero, because she's female.

Answer: Well, they're all correct, honestly, but the biblically-supported one is (c).  1 Timothy 2:12.  "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

So in telling you to sit down and shut the fuck up, Representative Boebert, please don't take it personally.  I'm just trying to make sure that I'm living up to my "biblical citizenship training."


Monday, August 8, 2022

Razor's edge

It's a perpetual source of puzzlement for me why more people don't look at ridiculous claims and think, "Okay, how the hell could that possibly work?"

This comes up because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who, after my post last week on homeopathy, sent me an email that said, "This makes homeopathy look like Nobel-Prize-winning science."  And he attached a link to a site called "Pyramid Razor Sharpener: It Actually Works!  Make Your Own In 10 Minutes!"

This is the first I've seen any pyramid-power bullshit in a while -- the last one I recall was back in 2012, when someone took a photo of one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza and found that it had a mysterious beam of light shooting upwards from it.  It turned out that the whole thing was easily explainable as a common digital camera malfunction, but that didn't prevent the woo-woos from jumping around making excited little squeaking noises about how everything they'd said about pyramids was true after all, take that, you dumb ol' skeptics, etc.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ricardo Liberato, All Gizah Pyramids, CC BY-SA 2.0]

So I suppose it's unsurprising that there is still a lot of latent interest in pyramids lying around, waiting for some unsuspecting nimrod to come along and pick it up.  This at least partly explains the "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" website, wherein we find out how wonderful pyramids are for sharpening razors by having the words "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" thrown at us (no lie) fifteen times.  Here are a few of the other things we learn:
  • A pyramid is a "cone shape, but with flat sides and corners."  Which is true in approximately the same fashion as saying that a cube is "a sphere shape, but with flat sides and edges."
  • Razor blades and other sharp metal objects become dull not because use wears and blunts the edges, but because of "a crystaline [sic] build-up on the blade, static electricity and dehydration."
  • It's especially hard on razors to use them for shaving, because the "repeated rubbing of the blade on the face hairs induces an ionic crystal formation of the water molecules upon the skin."
  • Pyramids work because "alignment with the magnetic field provides for the naturally present charged particles to be 'entrapped' by the pyramid and their resulting focus at the corners."  Whatever the fuck that means.
  • It can't be a different shape than a pyramid (such as a cylinder, which is like a cube shape but with flat circles on the end) because "the particular dimensions of the pyramid cause a concentration, or focus of a negative static charge at one third of its height at an equal distance from the four corners."
  • Because we're talking about static charges, here, you shouldn't build your pyramid out of something that conducts electricity.  He suggests cardboard.  (I bet the ancient Egyptians wish they'd realized this before they busted their asses hauling around all of those gigantic rocks.)
  • If you put your dull razor under the pyramid, it will become sharp because of ions.  More specifically, the "positive ions of the crystals on the blade are effectively neutralized by the negatively charged ion concentration inside the pyramid.  The crystals are stripped of their bonds and water molecules are released.  This results in the dehydration (this is the same with mummification) of the crystals, which are destroyed.  The blade is now clean and feels sharp once again."  So q.e.d., as far as I can tell.
The funny thing about all of this, besides the fact that in order to believe any of it your science education would have had to cease in the fourth grade, is that this guy doesn't appear to be selling anything.  He doesn't wind up by saying "send me fifty bucks, and I'll tell you how!" or "for a hundred bucks, I'll send you a build-your-own-pyramid kit!" or "for the low price of only $199.99, I'll send you my motivational lecture series 'Things I've Learned While Sitting Under a Pyramid,' with a bonus set of ultra-sharp razor blades as a FREE gift!"  He seems to be openly and honestly sharing something he feels to be a legitimate and scientifically-supported life hack, despite the fact that way back in 2005 pyramid power was tested on Mythbusters and found to be (surprise!) completely bogus.

So there's something kind of endearingly earnest about this guy, even though if he thinks that water forms "ionic crystals" he really should sign up for a chemistry class.  (He did say that he'd written his "scientific explanation" of how it works in such a way as "not to sound too sciencey," and I'd say he succeeded at least as far as that goes.)  My general conclusion, however, is that you probably should stick to ordinary strops and knife sharpeners, and/or buying new razor blades when yours get dull.  Even if you built your pyramid out of scrap cardboard, you're better off recycling it and finding a different way to "neutralize your positive ions."