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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A conspiracy of engineered failure

Robert Heinlein said, "Never attribute to conspiracy what is adequately explained by stupidity."  I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb.  It's not that conspiracies don't exist; it's more that humans aren't very good at them (e.g. Watergate), and we're much more likely to be acting from venial motives -- greed, duplicity, desire for power -- than we are to be engaging in some kind of deep and sinister plot.

That said, I'm beginning to wonder if the implementation of the Common Core isn't some kind of conspiracy.

Let's start with the fact that the Chief Operating Officer of the South Carolina Department of Education, Elizabeth Carpentier, is threatening parents who allow their children to opt out of state tests with thirty days in jail.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, asked about Carpentier's statements, declined to comment other than saying that there is "no statutory provision for parents to opt their children out of testing."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has been making some veiled threats of his own.  "It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said, regarding the implementation of the Common Core standardized exams.  "Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids...  We think most states will do [meet their targets for participation].  If states don’t do that, then we have an obligation to step in."

So the implication is that everything is just hunky-dory with the Common Core curriculum and the tests, and the only parents that will opt out are overprotective mommies and daddies who can't stand to see their kids work hard.

Oh, and those mommies and daddies might have to go to jail if they allow their kids to opt out.

So we have threats coming from the powers-that-be, but there's a flipside to this.  If the curriculum and the tests were fair measures of student achievement or teacher competence, the opt-out movement might have less of a basis for their argument.  But the implementation of these exams, and their content, has been riddled with problems.  Psychologist Dr. Charlene Williams writes:
The 6th grade ELA practice performance task for the Smarter Balance was completely inappropriate for 11-12 year olds, requiring them to toggle between several screens (on small Ipad screens), and choose multiple pieces of evidence to evaluate, select, paraphrase, compare and contrast, as well as write a multiparagraph essay. Never mind that while practicing, toggling back to the articles caused the students’ written work on the essay to be erased (lost).
Williams goes on to challenge the exams' validity on every level:
1) There is no proven Construct Validity (does your test measure what you think it measures). 
2) Cut scores are determined by an unknown (arbitrary) process - labeling children as proficient or failing appears to not be based on any scientific process.  It is not scientific to arbitrarily decide what levels of your test scores actually mean in the real world.  Scientific measurement requires cross-validation with external measures that provide evidence for your claims (like grades, or independent in-depth measures of children’s educational achievement in a a smaller sample with highly experienced evaluators). 
3) Computer adaptive tests - there have been many concerns raised about how item difficulty has been decided. Children continue to progress on these tests if they continue to get a certain number the most recent answers correct. Educational measurement specialists (true academically trained professionals) and parents and children have observed that very often items following very difficult questions are significantly easier. This raises concerns that children’s scores are artificially deflated by unscientifically determined item difficulty determinations. 
4) Inter-rater reliability - No checks exist to independently determine whether the scoring administered by these testing companies has truly reliable and valid measurements of children’s answers... The assessments are not verifiable, because they are not permitted to be subject to independent scientific evaluation.
This last point is especially troubling.  Anything we get to hear about the exam content has to be "leaked," because the people who see the exams are prohibited from discussing them.  This mandate comes not from state Departments of Education, but from Pearson Education, the corporation who designs the tests.  Educator Elizabeth Phillips, in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, writes:
I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them.  So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
But some educators care more about their students than they do about threats of repercussions by a rich corporation who is pulling the strings of upper-level administration in every state in the United States... and those educators have uncovered some frightening facts.  For example, a teacher who (understandably) wants to remain anonymous performed a reading-level analysis on a passage from the 4th grade ELA assessment, and found that it had a lexile score of 1140 -- corresponding to appropriateness for the average reading ability of an 8th grader.

The skew between the difficulty level of the exam material, and the grade for which it was targeted, prompted New York educator Stephanie Santagada to write a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo using vocabulary culled directly from the 4th, 6th, and 8th grade reading assessments:
There is a man in Albany, who I surmise, by his clamorous paroxysms, has an extreme aversion to educators.  He sees teachers as curs, or likens them to mangy dogs.  Methinks he suffers from a rare form of psychopathology in which he absconds with our dignity by enacting laws counterintuitive to the orthodoxy of educational leadership.  We have given him sufferance for far too long.  He’s currently taking a circuitous path to DC, but he will no doubt soon find himself in litigious waters.  The time has come to bowdlerize his posits, send him many furlongs away, and maroon him there, maybe Cuba?
So yeah, I'm beginning to think there's more here than simple incompetence.  The people in charge are not stupid, and one thing these people excel at is number crunching.  I flatly refuse to believe that the inclusion of a passage that is four grade levels too hard in the ELA assessment was a simple blunder.  Which leads us into into some scary territory, because that implies that the other problems may not be accidents, either.

But why would Federal and State Departments of Education, with the collusion of a lot of elected officials like our own aforementioned governor, do this?  Cuomo himself tipped their hand earlier this year, when he said that he wanted to change the teacher evaluation system -- because too many teachers were achieving high scores by the previous metric.

So the reason for all this, I believe, is that the powers-that-be are deliberately setting students up to fail, in order to show up public education itself as a failure -- in an effort to destroy the entire edifice. Replacing it, more than likely, with a network of charter schools that are run by privately-chosen (i.e. not elected) boards, and which will have a vested interest in buying in to programs, curricula, and assessments created by for-profit corporations like Pearson.

The whole thing, I think, boils down to money, and who is lining whose pockets.  So in the end, it does turn out to be venial motives -- greed and political power.

I could be wrong.  It might be that what we're looking at is the educational equivalent of the Keystone Kops, running around frantically and bonking into walls and falling over.  That's certainly what it looked like at first.  But now, with the time we've had to smooth over problems, develop exams, streamline administration, we shouldn't be seeing these kind of mistakes.  Giving so many tests might still be a mistake, of course; but the fact that the exams themselves are so deeply, fundamentally, and obviously flawed, coupled with the gag order against discussing them, has the hallmark of deliberate downward manipulation of the scores.

Which means that it is even more important for parents to defy the threats, and opt their children out, and for educators to come forward with the content and administration problems of the exams themselves.

Public education itself might be at stake.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Redemption, retribution, and justice

Yesterday, on an island in Indonesia, at midnight local time and 1 PM Eastern Standard Time, eight men were brought out into a wooded grove one at a time and were executed by a firing squad.  Each one was given the choice of whether to sit or stand, and to have a hood, a blindfold, or nothing at all.  All eight chose nothing, and to look the members of the firing squad in the eye as they died.  Three of the eight executioners had live ammo in their guns; the other five had blanks.  No one knew which guns were which.

When the prisoner was ready, the firing squad took aim at the man's heart.  The command to fire was given, and seconds later, the condemned man was dead.

The crime the eight committed was possession of drugs with the intent to distribute.  Two were members of the infamous "Bali 9" drug trafficking ring.  Each had been caught entering the country with heroin or cocaine.  Four of the men were from Nigeria, two from Australia, one from Brazil, and one from Indonesia.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Most, if not all, of the men had experienced significant personal changes during their four-year stay in prison, while their cases dragged through appeal after appeal.  One, Australian Myuran Sukumaran, spent his time painting; his final paintings were of a heart, and a haunting self-portrait with a black hole in the center of the chest.  The other Australian, Andrew Chan, and one of the Nigerians, Okwudili Ayotanze, became well known for offering solace and counsel to their fellow prisoners.  All appeared completely repentant for what they had done.

Further complicating matters, the Brazilian, Rodrigo Gularte, was a diagnosed schizophrenic, who thought animals could talk back to him and believed that electromagnetic waves were controlling his behavior.

The whole thing brings up a lot of questions about why the judicial system works as it does.  Why do we imprison, and in some cases execute, people who have broken the law?  It seems to me that there are three answers to this question -- and they lead to different answers regarding how we should treat criminal cases.

The first is that justice is retributive.  Some of the oldest known codes of law, such as the Code of Hammurabi, are retributive in nature.  If you cause someone to lose a hand, you should lose your hand.  The basic logic is payback; "you deserved everything you got."

The second is to protect society.  By this standard, two people who commit the same crime should be treated differently depending on how much of a subsequent threat each one represents.  And this is considered in sentencing, at least in the United States; someone who is likely to commit further crimes is often given a harsher sentence.

The third is to set an example.  "See what happened?" this standard says.  "You don't want this to happen to you."  It was for this reason that floggings and executions used to be conducted in public, often in the middle of the town square.  Such events were often widely attended, as peculiar as that may seem to modern sensibilities.  The last public hanging in the United States, of rapist/murderer Rainey Bethea, was attended by 20,000, and was such a media circus that the decision was made to conduct executions behind closed doors from then on.

All of which demands that we consider how to deal with cases of serious crimes.  What the eight men  did was terrible; heroin and cocaine are horrible chemicals that destroy lives.  From the standpoint of retribution, the sentence was fair.  And the publicity surrounding the case certainly should act as a deterrent; no one could fail to be moved by the photographs of the hysterical family members of the executed men, and it's hard to imagine anyone considering bringing drugs into Indonesia not being given pause.

But there are still questions.  If the idea of justice is to safeguard society, the focus should be on rehabilitation, not retribution.  From what I've read, certainly Chan and Sukumaran were rehabilitated, and not only would have been unlikely to do anything of the sort again, but might well have been powerful spokesmen against the illegal drug trade.  Apparently a change of heart is what saved Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong from being hanged in Singapore; his sentence was changed to life in prison and fifteen strokes of the cane because he had "seen the error of his ways and had repented."

As far as rehabilitation goes, however, you have to wonder how effective that usually is even in non-capital cases.  Recidivism rates are sky-high.  A study by the National Institute of Justice of over 404,000 prisoners in the United States found that 76.6% of them were re-arrested within five years, over half of those arrests occurring within the first year after release.

Add to this the fact that the execution of drug traffickers has barely put a dent in the Southeast Asian drug trade; the region is the second biggest producer of heroin in the world (after Afghanistan).  And the people most often caught are the couriers, who are usually young, poor, and desperate.  The kingpins, the ones who are controlling the operations and getting rich from the profits, are seldom ever brought to justice.

None of that mattered.  Indonesian President Joko Widodo said from the beginning that there would be no clemency granted.  And there wasn't.

I'm not sure why this case resonated so strongly with me.  I was fairly certain what the outcome would be, so it wasn't over any particular curiosity over what would happen.  I think it may have been the personal angle -- I read articles containing interviews with Chan's girlfriend, whom he married a few months ago while he was already in prison.  I saw galleries of Sukumaran's paintings.  I read the statements by the lawyers of the eight prisoners and the pleas by leaders of their home countries to spare them.  I thought about the ethics of executing someone like Rodrigo Gularte, who had a serious mental illness.

And yesterday, while I was teaching my Critical Thinking class, eight men halfway around the world were shot through the heart.  In the final analysis, I have no real idea whether this was just or unjust, ethical or unethical.  Nor can I decide whether President Widodo should have considered any other factors in his decision to allow the executions to proceed.

All I can say is that I'm glad that I will never be in a position to make such a judgment.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bringing down the false flag

Of all the nutty beliefs I've examined over the years, the one that I have the hardest time understanding is the whole "false flag" thing.

The idea here is that the government (usually the United States government, although other countries have been accused of this as well) manufactures calamities in order to distract the citizens ("sheeple") from what they're really trying to do.  Their actual aims usually involve establishing a fascist dictatorship, disarming everyone, rounding up and executing civilians, and other special offers.

The fact that none of the latter ever happens doesn't seem to matter much.  Each time there's a new tragedy, raving wackmobiles like Alex Jones start yammering on about how it never really happened, it was just a staged event with "crisis actors" designed to divert your attention.  Maybe they really think by making all this shit up (what they would call "focusing your attention on reality") they're preventing the Bad Guys from killing us all.  Maybe they picture themselves as the dam holding back the flood, that without their brave reporting, we'd all find ourselves in FEMA death camps.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Or maybe they're just loons.  I dunno.

So, here are a few things that are said to be "false flags:"
  • The Sandy Hook massacre
  • The Columbine shootings
  • The Boston Marathon bombing
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • The Bali bombing
  • 9/11
  • The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flights MH17 and 370
  • Hurricane Sandy
  • The recent Ebola outbreak in Africa
  • The riots in Ferguson, Missouri
  • The riots and looting in Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak
  • The entire situation in the Ukraine

Yes, you're understanding this correctly; to the false-flagazoids, either (1) these events never happened, or (2) they were pre-arranged and orchestrated by the government for their own purposes.

But what about eyewitnesses, you may be asking, not to mention victims?

That you'd even ask the question means you've "drunk the KoolAid."  The so-called eyewitnesses and victims are either government plants, or else entirely fictitious.

And the conspiracy theorists work fast.  Whenever a story hits the news, you can almost set your watch and time how long it'll take before false-flag accusations start hitting the conspiracy websites.  It's only taken a day or so for the two current tragedies -- the Nepal earthquake and the Baltimore riots -- to be declared false flags by these crazies.  (Don't believe me?  Go here and here, if you can stand to.)

So as I'm considering this whole bizarre phenomenon, the thought crossed my mind; do these people believe that nothing bad ever happens unless it's caused by the government?  Or maybe that nothing bad ever happens at all, given that they seem to think that most of the awful things in the news were invented by the media?

So it occurred to me that maybe this was the common thread.  If you believe in false flags, it gives you a number of comforting fictions to fall back on:
  1. Most of the catastrophes that get reported aren't real.
  2. Even the ones that are real were staged by the government, so there's always a faceless entity there to blame if you don't like what's going on.
  3. Because you are aware of the ruse, it means that you are in the know, i.e., you're not a "sheeple."
But I think there's a fourth underlying cause, here.  If you attribute everything down to your hangnails to the Evil Illuminati, you don't ever have to look at the underlying causes of the things that could be addressed.  If Sandy Hook and Columbine were fictional, then we never have to discuss the American attitude toward guns.  If Ferguson and Baltimore were staged by the police, then we can avoid talking about race and the enculturation of privilege.  If 9/11 was an inside job, we never have to consider the role that American foreign policy has had in the instability in the Middle East, nor our support of the repressive theocracy in Saudi Arabia because of our reliance on oil.

And if we disbelieve in Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Nepal earthquake, we never have to confront the fact that the world is a big, scary, chaotic place, where terrible things sometimes just happen for no apparent reason other than the steering currents in the south Atlantic and the movement of tectonic plates under the Himalayas.  It means we can avoid dealing with our own fear, accepting our own mortality, understanding that we're always insecure, always in danger, and that none of us is going to get out of here alive.

But the blindness comes with a cost, and it isn't just the terrible cost of buying a lie instead of seeking the truth.  The worst part of all of this is that is absolves us of the responsibility of doing something to offer aid to the victims of these catastrophes.  We can sit back, secure in the superiority of our false knowledge, saying that we don't have to reach out and help anyone, because there's no one there to help.

To which I say: fuck that.  I haven't been able to find anywhere to which you can donate for the victims of the Baltimore riots -- there may be campaigns started in the next days, so keep your eyes open.  But here are two to help the victims of the Nepalese earthquake -- an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for shelters and medical aid, and one of my favorite charities, Médecins Sans Frontières.  Please consider donating to either or both.  

Because despite what the conspiracy theorists would have you believe, compassion and love will always beat suspicion, hatred, and fear.

Monday, April 27, 2015

My will be done

I was raised Roman Catholic, and considered myself Catholic for the first twenty or so years of my life.  I followed the precepts to the best of my ability, went to church every Sunday and to confession regularly, and in general did everything I could to be a good Catholic.

My abandonment of the Faith Of My Fathers didn't happen all at once, with some kind of scales-falling-from-the-eyes experience that left me realizing that I was on the wrong path.  But even back then, there were some signs and portents that were indicative of the kinds of questions I'd be asking in a few years, questions that admitted no easy answers, and even seemed to stump some of the more learned of the church leaders.  And one of these had to do with the nearly constant attribution of events and decisions to "God's Will."

I recall thinking, "How do you know what god's will is?  You're so certain you know the mind of god?"  It seemed to me to be the height of arrogance.  I've always felt unsure about just about everything I do and think, especially my position apropos of the daily chaos I see around me.  To claim that my opinions, biases, and judgments are the same as those held by the eternal and infallible creator of the universe seemed to me even then to be the worst sort of spiritual pride, which as I recall is said to Cometh Before A Fall.

The Seven Deadly Sins by François-Marie Balanant (ca. 1785) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I noticed too how gentle, kind people tended to attribute gentleness and kindness to god, and harsh, judgmental people imagined god as an inflexible, rule-based micromanager.  And suddenly it occurred to me: these people are creating god in their own image, not the other way around.

In other words, they're making it all up.

It struck me as bizarre then, and it still does today, that people are so quick to put their own words in god's mouth.  I found two appalling examples of this tendency this past weekend.  So let me tell you about them, and see what you think.

In the first, we had another example of god prohibiting catering to gays, this time a company in Oregon called "Sweet Cakes by Melissa."  The owners, Aaron and Melissa Klein, refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, and were sued for discrimination.  The judge found in favor of the gay couple and fined the Kleins $135,000.

So the Kleins launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money to pay the fine.  They'd made it to $109,000 -- which is appalling enough in and of itself; didn't Jesus say to care for the poor, not the bigots? -- when GoFundMe cancelled the drive.  They cited their policy, stated clearly on their site, that you cannot use GoFundMe to raise money to pay for the repercussions of breaking the law.

And Melissa Klein wrote on her Facebook page, "Evidently Go fund me [sic] has shut down our Go fund me page and will not let us raise any money.  Satan's really at work but I know our God has a plan and wins in the end!"

So these people are so sure of themselves and their beliefs that they not only attribute what they're doing to the will of god, but claim that anyone who gets in their way must be motivated by the devil?

Not to mention the fact that was pointed out more than once to the Kleins on Twitter, namely that they had declined service to someone who they disagreed with, and then when GoFundMe did exactly the same thing to them, they claimed that GoFundMe must be doing the work of Satan.

In the second, and even more horrifying, example we have a prominent Christian preacher who felt it necessary to express his opinion about the devastating earthquakes in Nepal, which caused untold millions of dollars worth of damage, the loss of irreplaceable historical buildings, and worst of all, a death toll of 3,200 that is likely to continue rising.  Pastor Tony Miano, of the evangelical ministry group Cross Encounters, went on his Twitter (@TonyMiano) and responded to the devastation thusly:
Praying 4 the lost souls in Nepal.  Praying not a single destroyed pagan temple will b rebuilt & the people will repent/receive Christ. 
Seriously?  That's your response?  You are so certain that your opinions are a perfect reflection of your god's wishes that you are willing to say publicly that everything in Nepal will be just hunky-dory if everyone converts to Christianity and puts churches in place of the Buddhist temples that were destroyed?

It's not only the heartlessness of this comment that gets me; it's the mind-bending arrogance.  "I understand the universe perfectly," Miano seems to be saying.  "All you have to do is agree with me, and you'll be agreeing with god."

Which seems to be the same thing the Kleins were saying, and the same thing a lot of the extremely religious claim.  After all, what else are the mullahs doing in the Middle East but saying that their biases regarding the treatment of apostates and the place of women and rules regarding sexual purity are a flawless mirror of the will of Allah?

It was exactly this sort of thing that struck me thirty years ago.  Because that's the commonality, isn't it?  "Do what I say.  You're confused, whereas I know what god's opinion is about everything."

Like I said, the realization I had when I was 21 or so didn't lead to an immediate loss of faith.  I had been steeped in Catholicism too long just to give it up in one fell swoop.  So I limped along for a while, but eventually came to the conclusion first that if there was a god, it was impossible to know his will -- and finally that there was no evidence of a god at all.  The whole thing began, though, with my puzzlement over how the priests could be so sure that they knew what god wanted, not only for themselves, but for everyone else.

And nowhere, I think, does this hypocrisy show quite so clearly as in the coalescence of one's own opinions with those of an almighty deity.

The religious call this "faith."  But how is this not simply a bad case of megalomania?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

How to make yourself disappear

I've always found it intriguing how easily tricked our perceptual systems are.  Not only is this capacity for "brain failure" (as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it) the cause of most optical illusions, it also highlights how important it is to have science as a protocol, and measuring devices to collect the data.

To once again quote the eminent Dr. Tyson, "Machines don't care what side of the bed they got up on.  They don't care if they just got in an argument with their spouse.  They don't care if they've had their morning coffee.  They'll get it right."

And yet, we still walk around with the feeling that what we're experiencing is the world as it is.  How many times have you heard people say, "I know it happened, I saw it!"?  But if you want to punch another neat hole in your confidence that your brain's view of the world is infallible, consider a piece of research just conducted by Arvid Guterstam of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm.

You might have heard about earlier experiments that convinced volunteers that a rubber hand was theirs, and one that extended that perception to the entire body, creating the illusion that a mannequin was actually the participant's body.  Now, Guterstam has tricked his test subjects into thinking that their body was still there -- but invisible.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In his experiment, subjects were wearing virtual reality goggles that interfaced with a set of cameras, so that what they saw was what the camera was pointed at.  In this case, the camera was pointed at an empty space.  The experimenter and a helper then used a pair of soft brushes, and one of them stroked the volunteer's bare belly at the same time as the other, standing in the camera's field of view, stroked the air over and over in a way suggestive that there was a body there that was invisible.

If the movements of the brushes were synchronized properly, the volunteer got the distinct sensation that the camera was pointed at his/her body -- but it was completely invisible.

"We put a lot of effort into perfecting the actual brushstrokes," Guterstam said.

What is interesting is how simple the protocol was, and how convincing the illusion that resulted.  "I am very susceptible to illusions, so for me it worked," Guterstam said.  "You have a vivid sensation of having a body, but it's not directly visible.  I don't know what it would feel like to have a phantom body, but I imagine that's what it'd feel like."

The research team then performed their experiment on a group of twenty test subjects.  75% reported feeling a powerful illusion of invisibility.  "Most were surprised, and some started giggling.  It's a very unnatural, unexpected experience," Guterstam said.  "It's the first time that anyone has shown that you can embody a full invisible body."

If it's hard to believe that your brain could be so easily tricked into accepting such a bizarre view of its own body, Guterstam agrees. "The invisible body illusion is definitely pushing the boundaries of what the brain can accept as part of the bodily self," he said. "(But) it tells us that body representation in the brain is even more malleable than previously thought."

Guterstam, being a neuropsychologist, immediately thought of clinical applications of this malleability.  I, not being a neuropsychologist, immediately thought of how we could turn this into virtual reality for entertainment purposes.  If a digital camera and a pair of brushes are all that's needed to twist our perceptions of reality in such a fundamental way, how much more would it take to drop a person into a completely invented world, in which we could interact and perform in ways not limited by our actual physical capabilities?

Holodeck, here we come.

I know some of my readers are probably appalled by all this -- the idea that our mental abilities are so unreliable, so easily fooled.  Myself, I think it's kind of cool.  For one thing, I never had that much confidence in my own brain to begin with.  I've always recognized the shifting sands on which my consciousness rests, dependent as it is on my moods, focus, and level of fatigue, and even such factors as whether I've eaten lunch or had my required two cups of coffee or just caught a glimpse of an attractive and scantily-clad woman.  Now, we might be able to harness this plasticity to expand our own perception into realms that were previously inaccessible, using our capacity for "brain failures" to experience things our real perception never could.

How awesome is that?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Adam and Eve and Chris Hemsworth

Coming hard on the heels of my post a week ago about how even the blondest, bluest-eyed of us descends from dark-skinned, brown-eyed Africans, we have a group of young-earth creationists who are going through mental gyrations to determine what skin color Adam and Eve had.

I have to admit that it always struck me as odd, even when I was a teenager and fairly naïve about pretty much everything, that Adam and Eve were always pictured as white-skinned Caucasians.  They lived in the Middle East, right?

Antonio Molinari, Adam and Eve (ca. 1700) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, the same thing might well be said about a more recent religious figure from the same tradition:

Is it just me, or is Jesus's expression in this portrait saying, "Bitch, please"?

So anyway, maybe it's time for people to recognize that all of the people in the bible were most likely dark-skinned and dark-eyed, and that Jesus probably looked more like Saddam Hussein than he did like Chris Hemsworth.

But anyway.  Now we have a bunch of people twisting themselves into knots to solve the question about Adam and Eve's skin color.  Which is funny from a number of standpoints, the first and foremost of which is that they're wasting time trying to figure out what a couple of people who never existed looked like.

Let's start with Sierra Rayne, over at American Thinker, who says that this is actually an important question for the religious to resolve.  "Within the context of the current war on the Judeo-Christian faith," she writes, "the discussion is far from esoteric, necessitating a consistent interpretation within the community."  She solves the conundrum thusly:
(A)ll of the children from a couple will have skin colors lighter than the darkest parent's skin color.  Tracing this reasoning back to Adam and Eve, it would then suggest that either Adam or Eve had a skin color darker than the darkest human skin color that current exists anywhere on the planet.
I guess if you're starting out from the standpoint that gene mutations never occur, this might have some degree of reason behind it.  But as I point out repeatedly in my Critical Thinking classes, if you're constructing a logical argument, and one of your premises is false, you can prove damn near anything.

Then we have the piece over at Apologetics Press that makes the following bizarre statement:
Thus, starting with any two parents who were heterozygous (i.e., middle-brown in color), extreme racial colors (black and white, to name only two examples) could be produced in such a way that races would have permanently different colors.  Of course, it also is possible to produce a middle-brown race that will have a fixed middle-brown color.  If the original middle-brown parents produce offspring of either AAbb or aaBB, and these offspring marry only others their own color, avoiding intermarriage with those not of their own genetic makeup, their descendants will be a fixed middle-brown color.
And they back it up with a Punnett square, so it must be true:

 Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that there are way more than two gene loci that control skin color, that genes can mutate, and (of course) human populations evolve through natural selection just like every other species on Earth.

But I suppose that if they want to argue over what Adam and Eve looked like, at least it's less time that they'll have to devote to insisting that the bible be used as a science textbook in public schools.  And after all, in a previous generation, the religious argued over how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, so such silliness is hardly unprecedented.

It'd be nice, however, if they'd realize another principle of critical thinking, namely that you're not supposed to assume your conclusion and then fish around for support for it after the fact.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Giving up on convincing the pigeons

The furor over vaccinations has a long history.

The history, which is intensely frustrating to people like me who think that the anti-vaxxers' rhetoric borders on deliberate endangerment of people's lives, seems always to play out the same way.  In 1998, the now-infamous Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study in Lancet claiming that there was a connection between the MMR vaccination and autism.  The study turned out to involve only twelve patients, so there was a bias right from the beginning that was so big you could drive a tanker truck through it.  When you add the investigation by Brian Deer that uncovered the fact that Wakefield was being subsidized by a group of lawyers who were conspiring to file lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers, then... well, you get the picture.

The British Medical Journal called Wakefield's study "fraudulent."  Ten of the twelve authors of the Wakefield paper formally withdrew their support in 2004, stating, "We wish to make it clear that in [the 1998] paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.  However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health.  In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon [the] findings in the [1998] paper, according to precedent."

None of that mattered.  The anti-vaccination movement was off and running.  A claim was made that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in many vaccines, was what was causing the link between vaccines and autism (which was based on a fraudulent claim from the beginning, remember?).  Many governments caved to the hype, removing thimerosal, which had been used safely since the 1930s.  Surprisingly enough, the rates of autism were unaffected.

That apparently didn't matter, either.

[image courtesy of the Center for Disease Control and the Wikimedia Commons]

Then the claim started running about that getting "natural" diseases was better for your immune system than getting "artificial" vaccines.  Apparently the idea was that getting diseases was like lifting weights for the immune system.  In 2002, the American Institute of Medicine sponsored a study to see if this was true.  They found no support for it.

Guess what effect this had on the anti-vaccination movement?

Further studies tried to find a link between vaccination and multiple sclerosis, ALS, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and sudden infant death syndrome.  Yup... no connection.  So the anti-vaxxers decided that some children were more sensitive to vaccines, and the studies hadn't taken that into account.  Other, more extreme spokespeople for the movement started claiming that the researchers, not to mention all the doctors and nurses, were shills for "Big Pharma."  "Big Pharma," they say, wants to keep people sick (or worse, make people sick) in order to keep making profits.  And people like me, who object to policy being driven by folks who evidently have no understanding of how science and peer review are done, are just plain stupid.

But the research continued to pile up, and always in favor of the safety of childhood vaccination.  So the anti-vaxxers shifted the goalposts again.  Now they went after gardasil, the vaccine against HPV, a virus shown to be one of the main triggers for cervical, oropharyngeal, vaginal, and anal cancer.  So that was studied.  Once again: the vaccine is safe and effective.  Any side effects are extremely uncommon, and the risk is far lower than the risk of contracting the virus and eventually developing cancer.  But the claims continued to circulate; I've heard more than one parent say, "I'm not having my kid get the HPV vaccine!  It's too risky!"

So more studies were done.  No connection continued to be found.  And just last week, a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that in a study of 95,000 children, there was no link between vaccinations and autism -- being vaccinated doesn't alter the risk even in children who have a higher risk of autism from other factors.

An article about the study in Vocativ states that "this should end the debate once and for all."  But it won't.  You know why?

This is not a debate.  This is people who understand science trying to argue with alarmists who believe every damn thing a celebrity says, over the advice given by medical researchers.  This is playing chess with a pigeon -- no matter how cleverly you play, the pigeon just shits all over the chessboard and then struts around like it won.

This should have been over, as a discussion, twenty years ago.  Eliminating vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible.  The childhood diseases of the pre-vaccine period are not mild tummy aches; kids died of them.  Lots of kids.  But you know why the anti-vaxxers don't recognize that?  Here's why.

No one in the United States remembers how horrific these diseases are.  Hardly anyone dies of them any more, because nearly everyone has had the fucking vaccine.  Measles is not just "a bunch of spots," it causes sky-high fever that can leave a child deaf or permanently brain damaged.  Mumps can cause sterility, especially in young men.  Diphtheria kills you by slow suffocation.  Typhoid gives children such serious vomiting and diarrhea that they can die of dehydration, not to mention getting lovely symptoms like intestinal hemorrhage.

Vivid enough mental images for you?

Some people do change their views, but it often takes being walloped by a metaphorical two-by-four for it to happen.  Last month there was the highly publicized story of a mom from Ottawa who was an outspoken anti-vaxxer, but changed her tune after all seven of her unvaccinated children simultaneously contracted whooping cough.

Wouldn't it be nice if people could be convinced by evidence and logic, and not by their children being at risk of dying?

So my general opinion is that if the research we already had hasn't convinced people, further research won't, either.  It's time we stop wasting resources on these people.  The evolutionary biologists learned that long ago; you don't see them doing research and publishing papers to demonstrate over and over again that the Earth is not six thousand years old.  We need to treat the anti-vaxxers as what they are -- the young-earth creationists of the medical world.

And mandate that children be vaccinated, nationwide.  No exemptions, sorry.

This discussion is over.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The appeal of the underdog

We skeptics like to think that our logic will always be convincing, that people who believe in counterfactual nonsense will come around to a more scientific way of thinking if only we point out how silly they're being.  Turn on the lights, we think, and people can't help but see more clearly.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the human brain doesn't work like that.

We have two strikes against us right from the start.  One of them is the backfire effect, the well-documented tendency of people to double-down on their beliefs when they're presented with hard evidence against them.  Shown data, facts, and a logical argument that people are wrong, and often they'll come away even more convinced that they're right... and threatened.

But a second one has to do with how people react when they see others attacked.  Many people end up espousing woo-woo beliefs because they were persuaded by some charismatic public figure, so the figure him/herself ends up being representative of the ideas.  And an attack on someone we revere often leaves us outraged on their behalf, and thinking that the ones mounting the attack are simply arrogant assholes.

Because as Robert Park tells us in his wonderful book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (which all of you should order right now and read), we love backing an underdog.  If the spokesperson for our favorite silly idea appears unfairly besieged by the establishment, we rally to the cause.

Describing the campaign of the amazingly persistent crank Joe Newman, who claimed for years that both the First and the Second Laws of Thermodynamics were false and that he'd created a perpetual motion machine that could create energy, Park writes:
An intense, handsome man in his forties, dressed in work clothes, his dark hair combed straight back, the plainspoken mechanic looked directly into the eyes of his viewers.  He declared that his Energy Machine could produce ten times the electrical energy it took to run it.  "Put one in your home," he said, "and you'll never have to pay another electric bill." 
It's the sort of story Americans love.  A backwoods wizard who never finished high school makes a revolutionary scientific discovery.  He is denied the fruits of his genius by a pompous scientific establishment and a patent examiner who rejects his application for a patent on "an unlimited source of energy" without even examining it, on the ground that all alleged inventions of perpetual motion machines are refused patents.  Not a man to be pushed around, Joseph Wesley Newman takes on the U. S. government, filing suit in federal court against the Patent and Trademark Office.  It's the little man battling a gigantic, impersonal system... 
Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of Americans is their sympathy for the underdog.  They resent arrogant scientists who talk down to them in unfamiliar language, and the government bureaucrats who hide behind rules.  Moreover, Joe Newman's claim invoked one of the most persistent myths of the industrialized world -- free energy.  Who has not heard stories of the automobile that runs on ordinary water?  Suppressed, of course, by the oil industry.  The public never tires of that story.
And just lately, we've had two examples of just this.  First, Vani Hari, the self-proclaimed "Food Babe" whose ideas basically boil down to "if you can't pronounce the name of a chemical, you shouldn't have it in your body," was systematically taken apart by analytical chemist Yvette d'Entremont in a Gawker article entitled, "The 'Food Babe' is Full of Shit."  The article is well-researched, well-written, and its logic seems incontrovertible.

And yet, Ms. Babe and her followers, the self-proclaimed "Food Babe Army," are still going strong.  Food herself has responded to her critics with a shrieking diatribe that amounts to nothing more than one long string of loose-cannon ad hominems.  Food is rather notorious for this approach; when last year she wrote a piece on her blog about how horrible it was that the air in airplane cabins wasn't pure oxygen, and within hours received 4,847,901 responses that (1) ordinary air is only 21% oxygen, and (2) if airplanes were filled with pure oxygen, they'd be explosive, she responded by taking down the post and claiming that her views were being misrepresented by a hostile cadre of shills for Big Nitrogen.

And her followers loved it.  "Go Food Babe!" one of them wrote.  "Keep fighting for the health of Americans!  We're behind you 100%."

Then we had Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose weird brand of holistic alternative medicine has raised the ire of everyone who thinks that medical modalities should be based on, you know, actual hard data.  Here are three of his claims (quoted from a wonderful article by Scott Gavura in Science-Based Medicine):
  • (On green coffee extract) — “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight-loss for every body type.”
  • (On raspberry ketone) — “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat”
  • (On Garcinia cambogia) — “It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”
This is just scratching the surface.  Oz has become rich off of telling people not to listen to their doctors, that science is actually a religion, and that all they need to do is buy his books and come to his speaking appearances and they'll know how to improve their health. 

And just last week, there was a well-meant campaign against Oz that threatens to fail spectacularly.  A group of medical researchers banded together to try to get Oz fired from his position at Columbia University, saying he promoted "disdain for science" and "quack medicine," statements which are fairly unarguable to anyone who understands how scientific research works.  But Oz, like Food Babe, isn't quelled in the least by these accusations -- and now has said that he will use his television show (of course he has a television show) to take on his critics.

"We plan to show America who these authors are, because discussion of health topics should be free of intimidation," Oz said.

It should also, apparently, be free of logic, data, evidence, and peer review.

And the sad thing is how unlikely all this is to change anyone's opinion.  My guess is that neither Food Babe nor Dr. Oz will experience the least drop in their popularity or book sales from the criticisms they've received.  Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they increase, because as Brendan Behan famously said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."

Sorry if all of this is depressing.  The human mind, unfortunately, is more often swayed by emotion than it is by logic.  But the news is not all bad.  If you'll send me $39.95, I'll send you a device that you can hook into your home wiring system that will provide for all of your electricity needs.

You'll never have to pay the electric company another cent.  I promise, cross my heart and hope to die.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It is your mind that bends

Two days ago, I was in my car on the way to a gig with my band, and I was listening to some classical music on satellite radio.  The announcer came on with some of the usual sort of background information before a piece is played.  In this case, she said, "Next, we're going to hear from one of the masters of the classical guitar."  And immediately, I thought, "it's going to be Narciso Yepes."

And she continued, "... here's Narciso Yepes, playing Bach's Lute Suite #1."

Now, it's odd that I thought of Yepes at all.  I don't know much about classical guitar players -- the two I've heard the most often are Andrés Segovia and Christopher Parkening, but even them I only listen to intermittently.  I think I have one CD of Yepes, but I'm not sure where it is and I don't think I've listened to it in years.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So the certainty of my thought is peculiar from a couple of standpoints, even if you believe that it wasn't a premonition (which, predictably, I don't).  The first is that I came up with the name of a guitarist I barely know at all, as soon as the announcer mentioned "classical guitar;" and the second, of course, is that it turned out to be right.

Interestingly (and you might consider this another synchronicity), just yesterday a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a subreddit called Glitch in the Matrix which is devoted to exactly these sorts of occurrences.  The name comes from the movie The Matrix, in which odd coincidences and experiences of déjà vu are indicative that the Machines are making minor alterations to the computer simulation inside of which we all live.  (On second thought, the reader sending me the link is not so surprising after all; it was in response to yesterday's post on déjà vu.)

The fact that we all have these experiences now and again certainly deserves some consideration. Let's take a look at three excerpts from the subreddit:
For about 5 or 6 years now (I'm 21 as of now), I've noticed that, whether it's the time that I check my phone, or it's a donation on a Twitch stream, or any number of other things, there's a decent chance that it'll be the number 619.  It's nothing I'm too worried about, but it pops up every so often naturally that it just doesn't seem like a simple coincidence anymore.  It's something that I noticed happened, and then it continued to happen long after that. 
I'll notice the time as 6:19 every once in a while, and at first I chalked it up to being stuck in the same routine, but it continued to occur after several changes in sleep schedules and school/work schedule.  Again, it's not only the time of day either, but I'll notice it in a phone number, or any number of places.  It's gotten to be like my own private joke that people or places attached to the number must mean something to me, although I never act on it... 
So any theories on my special little number?  Does anyone else have a number or idea "follow" them around like this?  Or is this an underlying symptom of a mental disorder that I've been ignorant of for 21 years?
Here's another:
One of the most terrifying experiences I've ever encountered was with my friend Gordie last summer and to this day still makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about because I genuinely can not explain what happened on any logical level.

We were driving to Mission and on the way back I noticed I had forgotten something at the store.  By this time we were in downtown Maple Ridge and considering we had nothing to do so we went back. It's about a 20 minute drive to Mission from where we were.  The clock read 3:23.

The clock reads 3:37.  Gordie and I look at each other.  And he asks me "what happened?"  Neither of us remember the drive between Maple Ridge and Mission.  We lost 15 minutes of lives and we have no idea where it went.  All we know is that in between post A and B nothing or probably something happened.

Not a single word was said.  The last thing we remember talking about was how Skyrim will never have a follow up.  Then at the snap of a universal finger. Nothing.  15 minutes gone.

The rest of the ride was very quiet and we were both very much on edge and uncomfortable.  We have both experienced something completely unexplainable but yet at the same time we experienced nothing.

I'm the grand scheme of things, 15 minutes seems inconsequential and minimal to the many minutes in our life.  But nevertheless it remains unknown as to where time went. 
My only explanation is that I passed though a wormhole and somehow ended up on the other side.
And one last one:
I had a problem with a programming question, so I googled it, and I went to the forum Stackoverflow (in which I had signed up 2 years ago).  I found an excellent answer that solved my problem, and I told myself "Oh.. So many intelligent people out there... I would have never been able to write something like that." 
And then I realized... the author of the answer is my account.  It's me... 
I am convinced this is caused by a glitch in the matrix.  Most probably, many answers on the forum are generated by the matrix, and the glitch was to attribute my username to it.  Of course, a couple of seconds after that, I was getting a vague idea that I may have written the answer (false memory), but I am not fooled!
So, given that we are starting from the standpoint of there being a natural explanation for all of this, what is going on here?

I think the key is that all of these rely on two things; the general unreliability of perception and memory, and our capacity for noticing what seems odd and ignoring pretty much everything else.  Starting with our 619-noticer, consider how many times (s)he probably looks at clocks, not to mention other sources of three-digit numbers, and it's not 619.  Once you have a couple of precedents -- most likely caused, as the writer noted, by being in the same routine -- you are much more likely to notice it again.  And each subsequent occurrence reinforces the perception that something odd is going on.

As far as the time-slip friends, I think what happened here is a simple failure of attention.  I've driven on auto-pilot more than once, especially when I'm fatigued, and suddenly sat up straight and thought, "How the hell did I get here?"  I honestly had no memory at all of driving the intervening distance.  But a mysterious time-slip is less likely than my brain being elsewhere (leaving some portion of my attention still focused on my driving, fortunately).

And the last one, the person who answered him/herself on an internet forum, certainly has to be a case of a lost memory.  I have a friend from college who has an excellent memory for details from the past, and periodically reminds me of things that happened to the two of us -- and more than once I've had to admit to him that I have no recollection of the events whatsoever.  It's disconcerting, but our memories are far less thorough and accurate than we think they are.

My own premonition-like decision that the radio announcer was going to be playing a piece by Narciso Yepes is clearly something of the sort.  Considering how often I listen to the radio, and hear the announcer give a bit of information about the next selection, it's likely I have thoughts like, "I hope she plays something by Scarlatti next!" several times a day.  Most of them, of course, are wrong, and because that's the norm, such events are immediately forgotten.  It's only the coincidental ones, the outliers, that get noticed -- yet another example of our old friend dart-thrower's bias.

But even so, I think I'll dig up that Yepes album and put it on.  Whether or not it was a glitch in the matrix, he's a pretty damn good guitarist.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Stop me if I've already told you about this

One of the most ubiquitous, but mysterious, phenomena in neuroscience is déjà vu.

We all get it from time to time -- the uncanny sense that what we're experiencing has happened before.  For some people, it's usually visual in nature; that they've seen that room, seen those people, know that particular part of the city, despite a certainty that such foreknowledge is impossible.  For me, it's most often auditory.  Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with a colleague about the discovery of some new fossils from the early Cambrian era (the age of the "Cambrian Explosion," the sudden diversification of animal life into multitudes of forms), and I had the unsettling feeling that I'd had that conversation with her already.

"Didn't we already talk about this?" I asked her.

She assured me that we hadn't.

There are a multitude of unsupported woo-woo explanations for the phenomenon -- a premonition, a memory from a previous life, even a momentary side-slip into an alternate timeline (à la the "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics).  Predictably, I don't think much of these, mostly because they have little testability and even less evidence in their favor.  So they really don't count as scientific explanations.

The problem is, science has come up pretty much empty-handed itself.  Déjà vu is so unpredictable, so quick to strike and so quickly over, that it's not like you can stick someone in an fMRI machine and just sit around and wait until it happens.  It's known that there are some medications that can increase the frequency of déjà vu -- a combination of phenylpropanolamine and amantidine, used to relieve flu symptoms, has been documented to trigger intense and recurrent déjà vu in some people.

No one is really certain why.

[image courtesy of the National Institute for Aging and the Wikimedia Commons]

Other explanations include a subconsciously-recalled memory being stimulated by a different, but similar, stimulus, creating a sensation of the event having already been experienced; and a dreamed scene producing what amounts to an "invented memory" that could be similarly triggered.

Neither of these, to me, explains the commonness, nor the power, of these experiences.  I know that memory is unreliable and plastic, but even so, déjà vu is so striking that it deserves a better explanation.

Recently, however, a study by Christine Wells et al. has shed some interesting light on this phenomenon.  Wells and her team found that a patient with severe anxiety disorder was experiencing profound and repeated déjà vu, and the researchers speculate that this is no coincidence:
Whereas previous cases with déjà vu due to MCI [mild cognitive impairment] and dementia have largely been anosognosic [not acknowledged as clinically relevant by the patient], our case is aware of the abnormal familiarity in his memory, and is in fact greatly distressed by it.  This suggests two dimensions along which déjà vu experiences can vary: awareness and distress.  In this psychogenic case, our patient is similarly aware of the unreality of his experiences and they are constantly accompanied or caused by pathological levels of anxiety...  In relation to our case, distress caused by the déjà vu experience may itself lead to increased levels of déjà vu: similar feedback loops in positive symptoms are reported in other anxiety states (e.g. panic attacks). 
It is plausible on neurobiological grounds that anxiety might lead to the generation of déjà vu.  The hippocampal formation, a structure of central importance in declarative memory and the ability to engage in recollection, is also implicated in anxiety as part of the septo-hippocampal system.  Although this report does not prove a link between anxiety and déjà vu, it does further support the suggestion that this area is worthy of further investigation.
It certainly is.  You have to wonder if even people who do not suffer from a clinical anxiety disorder might experience déjà vu more commonly when they're distressed or anxious about something.  Stress does affect health -- there's no real doubt about that -- could it also be responsible for fleeting pseudo-memories?

All of which is fascinating and suggestive.  It's further evidence of what a friend of mine once said -- she's a retired professor of human genetics at Cornell, and she said if she were going into research now, she'd go into neurology instead of genetics.  "Right now, in terms of our understanding of the brain, we're where our understanding of genes was in the early 20th century.  We know a little about what's going on, mostly descriptively, but little real comprehension of how it's all happening.  The 20th century was the century of the gene; the 21st will be the century of the brain."

But I've told you that quote before, haven't I?  I'm sure I've used that quote before.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The derp is strong with this one

Here we go again.

First, we had people who believe that J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is actual history.  Next, we had people who think that H. P. Lovecraft's pantheon of elder gods is real.

Now we have people believing that people time-traveled backwards (or forwards; sources differ on that point) from the Galaxy Far Far Away, all for the purposes of including Master Yoda in a medieval manuscript.

First the facts, okay?  There's a 14th century manuscript called the Smithfield Decretals, which are some of the expositions of Pope Gregory IX on points of canon law, written in France and then brought to England and illuminated.  It currently resides in the British Library, and its graceful calligraphy and odd illustrations are what prompted a use of one of the images from it in a newspaper interview with Julian Harrison, the Library's curator of pre-1600 manuscripts.  Interestingly, Harrison has quite a following; his blog, Medieval Manuscripts,  gets an average of 36,000 hits a day, and his Twitter feed has over 24,000 followers.

Who knew the Medieval Period had so many fans?

But anyway, Harrison made an offhand comment in one of his posts about the image of Yoda in the Smithfield Decretals, and it got picked up in the interview.  So, without further ado, let's take a look:

Other than the fact that his expression is not so much "wise Jedi master" as it is "derpy and confused," I think we can agree that this is quite a match, yes?

Apparently, so do the woo-woos.  This thing has been popping up all over on sites like Mysterious Universe and CosmosTV, prompting thousands of people to comment.  And while some of them are undoubtedly posted for the humor value, I'd say a good 3/4 of them have the ring of truth.  Here's a sampler.  (Spelling and grammar are as written, so you can get the full effect):
  • The Force is real.  I've felt it and am still learning how to control.  With a powerful Master you can transcend time and space.
  • Because of Quantum Mechanics and the Many Worlds Theory scientists now believe that everything is possible somewhere.  So why is it crazy to say there's a universe where Yoda exists.  And if that universe intersects with us, that could explain this.
  • Art imitates life.  George Lucas didn't make up everything.  These monks who drew this had to have a model right?  This is too close to be a coincidence.
  • The Jedi religion has more morals than the Christians.  Master Yoda is somebody I would follow not a priest.  Maybe him appearing here will show people were on the Dark Side.  Look at the world and you have to agree.
  • Mocking something doesn't make it not true.  Their is no reason this couldn't really be Yoda.  Just because something is wierd it doesn't mean that you can just pretend it doesn't happen.
Yes, of course!  Wierd real Yodas!  Intersecting universes and the Force because of quantum mechanics!  Ha ha!  Please tell me you people don't know where I live!

And learn some critical thinking skills, they should.

Anyhow.  I'm always amazed at how little it takes to set these people off.  And, of course, given that the trailer for the next installment of the Star Wars saga was just released, and has been inducing multiple orgasms in the crowd who (1) wanted to become a tie-fighter pilot, (2) dreamed about owning a light saber, (3) had the hots for Luke and/or Leia, and (4) went into a prolonged period of mourning when Obi-Wan died, I suppose it's not going to die down any time soon.

And honestly, I have to admit that I'd take Yoda over Sauron and the Elder Gods, if I had the choice.

Friday, April 17, 2015

All in the family

Racists have cast about for years for some sort of scientific basis for their horrible worldview.  Evidence that their race is the superior one in intelligence, physical strength, or vigor, or simply support for their contention that interracial marriages are bad in a biological sense.

Of course, the problem for people who turn to science is that science often provides answers whether you end up liking them or not.  And inquiries into a biological basis for race have shown that any real genetic variations between different ethnic groups are tenuous at best.  Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the leading specialists in human population genetics, says:
Human races are still extremely unstable entities in the bands of modern taxonomists…  As one goes down the scale of the taxonomic hierarchy toward the lower and lower partitions, the boundaries between clusters become even less clear.  There is great genetic variation in all populations, even in small ones. 
From a scientific point of view, the concept of race has failed to obtain any consensus… the major stereotypes, all based on skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection.
Now, let me make it clear that this doesn't mean that there are no differences between racial groups.  It's just that those differences are primarily social and cultural, not biological, which neatly kicks the legs out from underneath some of the racists' primary arguments.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And it's been known for years that lumping together all dark-skinned Africans as "black" is ignoring the fact that there's more genetic variability on the African continent than there is in the entire rest of the world put together.  The Zulu and the !Kung people of southern Africa, for example, are more distantly related to each other than a typical white American is...

... to a person from Japan.

And just last month, Iain Mathieson of Harvard University punched another hole in racist genetics when he released his research team's findings that the genes for white skin are only about 8,000 years old.

According to Mathieson et al.:
(M)odern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes.  And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin:  They lacked versions of two genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today... 
Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin.  The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.
The reason the two light-skin genes took hold in northern latitudes is thought to be vitamin D synthesis -- while having dark skin is an advantage in equatorial regions, from the standpoint of protection from ultraviolet skin damage, dark skin inhibits endogenous vitamin D production in areas with low incident sunlight.  So once the mutations occurred, they spread rapidly, but only in regions at high latitude.  This explains why even distantly-related equatorial groups have dark skin (such as the Bantu and the Australian Aborigines), and even distantly-related high-latitude group have light skin (such as the Swedes and the Inuit).

And apparently the gene for blue eyes is of equally recent vintage.  The earliest genetic evidence for the gene HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes, is in southern Sweden from about 7,700 years ago.  The gene's provenance might date back to 10,000 years ago, but certainly not much before that.

So all of us descend from dark-skinned, brown-eyed people.  Sorry, white supremacists.

Of course, given that there is good evidence that around 70,000 years ago, an eruption of the Toba Volcano in Indonesia caused climate shifts that killed nearly all of our ancestors -- best estimates are that there were only 10,000 humans left on Earth after the bottleneck occurred -- we're all cousins anyway.  After that event, those 10,000-odd survivors can be put into two groups; the ones who left no descendants at all, and the ones who are the ancestors of everyone on Earth.

It'd be nice if we could count on people using science to inform their behavior, but we don't have a very good track record in that regard, do we?  I mean, think about it; we're still pushing the fossil fuel industry as the world warms up and the climate destabilizes around us.  So unfortunately, even when we have direct and incontrovertible evidence that what we're doing isn't reasonable, we usually continue doing it.

And I guess the argument that the genes for white skin are 8,000 years old is going to gain no traction whatsoever with the people who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

But still, it'd be nice, wouldn't it?  Just as the first photographs of the Earth taken from the Moon changed a lot of folks' perspective on our place in the universe, it'd be wonderful if research like this could alter us from "those people... they're not like us" to "we're all one family, and we're all in this together."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

E.T. called. Your lunch is ready.

It's okay to be ignorant, as long as it doesn't become a way of life.

Even the best educated of us don't know stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Socrates, after all, had a point when he gave his famous answer to followers who asked him, "How can you be so wise?"  "If I am wise," he said, "it is because I alone of men realize how little I know."

It is our response to ignorance that counts.  And it seems to me that when people are asked for information about which they are ignorant, they generally have one of two reactions:
  1. They act like it's perfectly okay to be lazy enough not to want to know the answer.  This is the "oh, well, I'm not good at science" thing I sometimes hear from students.  (My usual answer -- "Work harder, then" -- seldom has any result except their looking at me like I have three heads.)
  2. They start making stuff up.  This often happens when the person in question is one of those types who has to know everything, or when the answer that's being sought is so critical or so interesting that (s)he just can't bear saying, "I don't know, and we may never know."
As an example of the latter, consider the recent odd astronomical discovery that the dwarf planet Ceres has two mysterious bright spots that show up intermittently on NASA photographs.  

[image courtesy of NASA]

The writer of the news article linked above, Mariette LeRoux, seems a little put out that scientists aren't explaining the spots.  All we know, she said, is that the spots "behave differently," as if they are not being caused by the same phenomenon.  Federico Tosi, who analyzes data from the Dawn probe's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, said, "For sure, we have bright spots on the surface of Ceres which, at least from a thermal perspective, seem to behave in different ways."

Which summarizes the observations, and tells us exactly nothing beyond that.  And that is what scientists should do, given that this is all they have at the moment.  They're still trying to find out more, or come up with a model of what could explain the spots, so they're not falling upon one horn of the dilemma.  But they're also not just inventing wild ideas when they have almost nothing to go on, and thus are avoiding the other horn of the dilemma as well.

Which is more than I can say for the woo-woos, who are having a field day with this.  Here are a few of the "explanations" (if I can dignify them by that word) I've seen on such sites, since the observation was made a month ago:
  • The spots are a signaling device that was placed on the surface of Ceres to keep an eye on us and relay information to our Alien Overlords to let them know when we were getting too uppity.  Prepare for an imminent invasion of the Earth.
  • Ceres is a hollow artificial sphere, inside which is a fantastically old civilization.  This enormous spacecraft has been battered over the eons by meteorite impacts (see all the craters?) and finally the external hull has cracked, and we're seeing light leaking out.
  • This is an Illuminati base to which our leaders periodically teleport.  Why any Illuminatus would want to go to Ceres -- which, last I checked, was cold, colder even than upstate New York -- is beyond me.  You'd think if they were having a convention, they'd choose Hawaii or Costa Rica or somewhere like that.
  • Ceres is a giant weapon that is heading for the Earth, and these are the targeting lasers.  Yes, I know that Ceres has been in a completely stable, nearly circular orbit since its discovery in 1801, but silly things like "facts" never discourage these people.
So anyhow.  We start with "there are two mysterious spots on Ceres" and end with alien superweapons.  All of which makes me want to take Ockham's Razor and slit my wrists with it.

But on a happier note, there's a second story this week that reinforces science's stance that it's always better to be patient in our ignorance, and look for natural answers, than to jump to ridiculous and outlandish ones.  Some aberrant signals that have been picked up by the Parkes Radio Telescope, and that were being considered by the UFOs-and-Aliens crowd as possible candidates for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence, were shown to be...

... coming from the microwave oven in the observatory's staff break room.

(Note: these are not the Fast Radio Bursts I described in my post last week; but some completely natural, earthly source may be the explanation for those, too.)

To demonstrate this, astronomer Emily Petroff ran the microwave oven three times, each time opening it before the timer went off.  And each time, the radio telescope recorded a peryton -- an odd, narrow-band signal.  Petroff writes:
The two ovens responsible for most or all of the observed perytons are from the same manufacturer (Matsushita/National) and are both in excess of 27 years of age though still working reliably.  Our tests point clearly to the magnetron itself as the source of the perytons since these are not detected unless the oven door is opened. 
Further, our analysis of the peryton cluster of 23rd June 1998 implies the perytons are a transient phenomenon that occurs only when the magnetron is switched off.  That we have observed perytons from at least two ovens over 17 years suggests that they are not the product of an unusual failure or fault but are inherent to, and long-lived in, at least some common types of oven.
So there you have it.  How to steer between a state of lazy ignorance and a state of absolute certainty. Navigating your way past these obstacles is critical if you want to know the real answer -- and neither make up loony ideas, nor simply shrug your shoulders and accept being permanently ignorant.

Because, after all, isn't accepting your ignorance, and ceasing your efforts to find out answers, that much more awful state called "being stupid?"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pharmacies, the FDA, and homeopathy

It seems like mostly what I cover in this blog is bad news.

People believing crazy stuff, bizarre actions people take (or refuse to take) because of their superstitious beliefs, mind-bending cases of illogic.  But today, I want to deliver some good news to anyone who thinks that rationalism and evidence should carry the day:

The FDA is finally moving toward taking a stand on homeopathy.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Next Monday and Tuesday, April 20 and 21, 2015, from 9 AM to 4 PM Eastern Daylight Time, the FDA has actively solicited input from stakeholders regarding the preparation and sales of the preparations that homeopaths refer to as "remedies" but the rest of us call "water" and "sugar pills."  These stakeholders include, but are not limited to, "consumers, patients, caregivers, health care professionals, patient groups, and industry."  The hearing is to be held at the FDA White Oak Campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, and required preregistration (which unfortunately closed two days ago; I didn't find out about this until yesterday).  However, you can watch a live webcast of the proceedings if you're so inclined (information about how to do this can be found here).

Even if the opportunity to present publicly has passed, you can still voice your opinions to the FDA review board in writing until June 22.  Here are the questions they are trying to resolve:
  • What are consumer and health care provider attitudes towards human drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic?
  • What data sources can be identified or shared with FDA so that the Agency can better assess the risks and benefits of drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic?
  • Are the current enforcement policies under the CPG appropriate to protect and promote public health in light of the tremendous growth in the homeopathic drug market? Are there alternatives to the current enforcement policies of the CPG that would inform FDA’s regulatory oversight of drugs labeled as homeopathic? If so, please explain.
  • Are there areas of the current CPG that could benefit from additional clarity? If so, please explain.
  • Is there information regarding the regulation of homeopathic products in other countries that could inform FDA’s thinking in this area?
  • A large majority of human drug products labeled as homeopathic are marketed as OTC drugs. These products are available for a wide variety of indications, and many of these indications have never been considered for OTC use under a formal regulatory process. What would be an appropriate regulatory process for evaluating such indications for OTC use?
  • Given the wide range of indications on drug products labeled as homeopathic and available OTC, what processes do companies currently use to evaluate whether such products, including their indications for use, are appropriate for marketing as an OTC drug?
  • Do consumers and health care providers have adequate information to make informed decisions about drug products labeled as homeopathic? If not, what information, including, for example, information in labeling, would allow consumers and health care providers to be better informed about products labeled as homeopathic?
If you are a medical researcher or health care provider, it's crucial to get information to the FDA that would give them leverage to remove these worthless "remedies" from pharmacy shelves.  It's critical, however, that any submissions not be simple rants.  Make them evidence-based, and specific to the questions for which the FDA is seeking information.  Sharon Hill, over at Doubtful News, directs you to frame your responses thusly:
If you are in the medical profession, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU SPEND SOME TIME TO SUBMIT COMMENTS.  If you have pertinent info as an educator, parent, or consumer, your voice is needed also...  You can submit either electronic or written comments to or Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.  Organize your comments to identify the specific questions or topic to which they refer and be sure to reference the docket number.
Let me reiterate what I've said before: there is no scientific evidence that homeopathy works, and no logical mechanism by which it could work, given that the dilutions involved result in there being not a single molecule of the original active ingredient left by the time the preparation is sold.  There is no reason these quack cures should be sold in pharmacies, even with any number of disclaimers on the label, given the potential for uninformed or misled consumers to take them rather than seeking out legitimate medical help.

And high time for the FDA to take a stand on this.  Let's make sure that they get the information necessary for it to be the right stand.