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

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Speculation, extraterrestrial life, and Kepler 452b

Dear readers,

This will be my last post for a bit, as I'm going on a short hiatus for a (hopefully) well-deserved vacation.  I'll be away for three weeks, so my next new post will be on Monday, August 17.

This is a chance for you to check out some other great blogs and webpages, so here are a few of my favorites:

The Reason Stick
James Randi Educational Foundation

So until my return, keep reading, keep thinking, and keep hoisting the banner of logic and reason... and I'll see you on the 17th!


It is one of my dearest hopes that unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life is discovered during my lifetime.

I'm buoyed by the discovery of extrasolar planets, with new ones being identified virtually every other day.  As astronomers develop better and more sensitive techniques for detection, more and more of the planets they find are turning out to be small, rocky worlds like our own, and some are in the "Goldilocks Zone" -- that region surrounding a star where the temperature would allow liquid water to exist.  Not too hot, not too cold... just right.

The effort to prove that we're not alone in the universe has just received a nice shot in the arm in the form of a project called Breakthrough, funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner and announced this week by none other than eminent physicist Stephen Hawking:
We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.  Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean.  Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence?  Either way, there is no better question.  It's time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth.  The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment.  We are alive.  We are intelligent.  We must know.
The project will survey over a million of the closest stars for any signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The technology required for this is staggering; Breakthrough will be covering ten times the number of stars of any previous SETI project, and do so a hundred times faster.

"We will be examining something like 10 billion radio channels simultaneously," said University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who has been involved in previous efforts to locate extrasolar planets. "We're listening to a cosmic piano, and every time we listen with the telescopes, we'll be listening not to 88 keys, but 10 billion keys."

Couple that with this week's announcement of the discovery of the "most Earth-like extrasolar planet ever found," Kepler 452b, and it's been a pretty good week for people who, like me, think that Contact is one of the best movies ever.

Which is thrilling.  But of course, given the human tendency to take what we know and run right off the cliff with it, this week's announcement was accompanied by a couple of rather ridiculous articles from media sources that should really know better.

Artist's rendition of Kepler 452b and its parent star [image courtesy of NASA]

Starting with the article "Is There Life on Kepler 452b, the Most Earth-like Planet Ever Discovered?" from the site CosmosUp, the text of which should state, in its entirety, "WE DON'T KNOW."  But there's no reason not to spin a nearly complete lack of information into a lengthy article, right?  It's laced with quotes from actual scientists (who also should know better), such as the following baffling assessment from NASA's former chief operating officer, Carlos Gonzáles Pintado:
Mathematically speaking, there’s high possibility that could be intelligent life on Kepler-452b... We move in four dimensions and to get something extraordinary we have to find some ‘new’ dimensions.  Some theorists believe that the universe must have eleven dimensions and we are at the dawn, we ‘discovered’ just four and nothing more.  When we would find the other missing seven, maybe we’ll find something in the middle to break the barrier of speed of light.
Which gives me the impression that however Mr. Pintado may excel at being chief operating officer, he doesn't know a damn thing about physics.  Finding the "missing seven dimensions?"  Then finding something "in the middle of them?"  What the hell does that even mean?

And what is a "high possibility, mathematically speaking?"  2%?  50%?  98%?  The fact is, we know nothing about Kepler 452b except for an estimate of its size and distance from its parent star -- most importantly, we have no information about the composition of its atmosphere.  Even if it's in the Goldilocks Zone, what's to stop it from being like Venus -- a boiling hell of a planet, with an atmosphere made primarily of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide?

The fact is, Pintado is doing what members of scientific institutions shouldn't ever do, which is publicly engaging in idle speculation.  It's hard enough getting laypeople to understand how science works without this sort of thing.

Worse still, we have Jeffrey Schweitzer's piece for Huffington Post entitled "Earth 2.0: Bad News for God."  Schweitzer is a neurophysiologist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst, which didn't stop him from writing the following:
[I]t would be difficult to claim the unique position of universe center if other planets held life that was zipping around in anti-gravity cars traveling at the speed of light.  Clearly, if the ancients knew there was alien life, any form of life at all, the idea that the earth was the center of the universe would be more difficult to sustain.  Again, though, there is no mention of alien worlds or life beyond this little blue dot. 
None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period.  If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight.  So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story.  How could a convincing story of life's creation leave out life?  Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.
So the implication is that the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or (better) extraterrestrial intelligence, would be a serious blow to religion.  Schweitzer himself calls into question whether his own contention is true, however, in his last paragraph:
Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible...  They will create contorted justifications to support this view, cite a few passages of the bible that could mean anything, and declare victory.  Don't say I did not warn you.
So if you think that the religious will be able to argue away extraterrestrial intelligence as being consistent with the bible, why is the discovery of Kepler 452b "bad news for god?"  Or were you just trying to come up with an eye-catching, click-baity title?  Because let's face it; if the overwhelming mountains of evidence in favor of evolution hasn't convinced the biblical literalists that their worldview is wrong, then receiving a hearty "NuqneH!" from the Klingon home world won't make a damn bit of difference either.

Religion, after all, has nothing to do with evidence; it's all about revelation and internal experience.  So Schweitzer's suggestion that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will have any effect at all on the devout is probably as accurate as all of the other times people have declared that belief in a higher power was on its way out.

Anyhow, none of this should minimize the fact that we live in an amazing time, when we are taking steps toward solving one of the most fundamental questions we have -- whether life is common in the universe.  It'd be nice, however, if people would keep their eye on the ball, rather than zooming off on tangential speculations that really have nothing to do with the reality.  The reality, honestly, is cool enough in and of itself.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The origins of musical taste

I have been curious for a long time about what creates preferences in music.  Part of this curiosity is because of the important role music has had in my life.  When I was three years old, I apparently demanded that my mom allow me to learn how to use the record player because I wanted to be able to be in charge of what music got played.  My mom acquiesced -- odd, given both the request I'd made and my mom's character -- and I recall her saying, "And he never damaged a single record."

My own musical tastes are all over the map.  There is music I love and music I detest from almost every genre.  More interestingly, when I discover some new song or piece of music that sends me into raptures, it does so instantly, and with almost no engagement of the cognitive part of my brain.  I don't have any thoughts like, "Wow, it was really cool how that tune modulated from A major to C# minor, right there!"  In fact, there are rarely any thoughts at all.  It is a totally visceral experience, as if the music had played its own tune on my neurons, an ecstatic frisson like a glissando on some internal emotional harp strings.

And now, some researchers at the University of Cambridge have taken the first step toward understanding why people gravitate toward particular styles of music.  A team of psychologists led by Ph.D. candidate David Greenberg has shown that one pair of contrasting traits is a good predictor of what pieces of music someone will prefer.

Greenberg sorted people into "empathizers," people who respond primarily to the emotions of the people they are close to, and "systematizers," people who are more driven by understanding patterns and rules of the world around them.  And he and his team found that empathizers tended to prefer music that was mellow, music that was "unpretentious" (e.g. folk, singer/songwriter, and country), and music that was more accessible by virtue of being contemporary.  Systematizers, on the other hand, look for edgy music with elements of tension, strength, and energy, music that has surprising shifts, and music that is complex or cerebral.  The fascinating part is that the pattern even held true within genres; jazz enthusiasts who are empathizers tend to like mellow, bluesy, laid-back pieces, while systematizers prefer avant-garde, complex, driving tunes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Simon Baron-Cohen, a member of the team, said, "This new study is a fascinating extension to the ‘empathizing-systemizing’ theory of psychological individual differences.  It took a talented PhD student and musician to even think to pose this question.  The research may help us understand those at the extremes, such as people with autism, who are strong systemizers."

David Rentfrow, senior author of the study, put it even more succinctly: "This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self.  Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively."

Which I find absolutely fascinating.  It certainly seems to hold true for me -- I can be empathetic, but it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that the primary driver in my personality is a desire to understand how the world works.  I love the unexpected in music, partly because it's so much fun when I figure out what's going on and how it works -- explaining, perhaps, why I flipped when I discovered Balkan music, with its crazy rhythms and lightning-fast modulations.  Here are a few examples of music from various genres that have grabbed me by the emotions and swung me around, right from the first time I've heard them:
  • Henri Litolff, "Scherzo" from Concerto Symphonique #4
  • Alt-J, "Breezeblocks"
  • Cage the Elephant, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked"
  • J. S. Bach, Fugue à la Gigue
  • Shakey Graves and Esmé Patterson, "Dearly Departed"
  • Beck, "E-Pro"
  • Blowzabella, "Falco"
  • Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Finale from Piano Concerto #1 in D Major
  • Fun, "Some Nights"
  • Green Day, "Oh Love"
  • Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata #96 in D Major, "La Chasse"
  • Michael Franti, "The Sound of Sunshine"
  • R.E.M., "Stand"
  • Dmitri Shostakovich, Waltz #2
So that's enough to go on.  I could do this all day.  Like I said, music is important to me.  But check some of these out -- most are on YouTube -- and see if they have the same effect on you.

Greenberg's study, of course, has only provided a first-order explanation.  I suspect that there's a lot more going on here than can be explained by one pair of contrasting personality traits.  There's still a great deal to be understood about why music has such a powerful effect on the emotions, and (more specifically) why a particular piece of music will grab someone, and other ones -- even music that is similar in genre and overall feeling -- will leave the same person completely cold.  

But this study still gives us an interesting lens into personality and musical taste that we didn't have before.  Think about your own favorite songs and pieces of music, and whether you are more of an empathizer or a systematizer.  Did the pattern hold true for you?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fire and ice

I am frequently confounded by the capacity for humans to be rational and irrational at the same time.

Take, for example, the Icelanders.  Iceland has a 99% adult literacy rate.  Same-sex marriage was legalized in Iceland in 2010 -- by a unanimous vote in parliament.  In polls regarding religious belief, they have one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world.  (31% of Icelanders identify as "non-religious.")  In response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Icelandic government just this month voted by an overwhelming majority to decriminalize blasphemy -- not because they (or I) think that ridiculing someone's beliefs is nice, but because protecting free speech is more important than making sure that religion has some kind of Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card with respect to criticism.

"Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy," a government spokesperson said.  "It is a fundamental point in a free society that people can express themselves without fear of punishment of any kind, whether on behalf of the authorities or others...  The Icelandic parliament has issued the important message that freedom will not bow to bloody attacks."

And yet... there are some odd things about the place.  There has been a resurgence in belief in the old Norse gods -- Odin, Thor, Njord, and the rest -- the Germanic neopagan belief system "Ásatrú" is amongst the fastest-growing religions in Iceland.  A poll, later verified by a thorough study, found that 54.4% of Icelanders believe in the huldufólk, which usually gets translated in English as "elves."  As I've mentioned before, there have been highway projects that have been stalled because someone decided that the proposed road was going to trespass on property owned by "the secret people."

But best of all, an Icelandic woman named Hallgerdur Hallgrímsdóttir has just published a book on how to have sex with elves.  And why you should want to.

Hallgrímsdóttir says her first sexual experience with an elf happened by accident.  "I was just wandering around," she says, "in Icelandic nature, alone in this beautiful situation, and he just came to me.  He whispered some things in my ear -- dirty talk, they're quite good at that, actually."

They're "tall and beautiful," she says.  "It almost looks like their skin emits light."

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1896) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as what hot elf-on-self action is like, she waxed rhapsodic.  "It's almost like they know what you want in bed.  They don't have to ask, they can read your mind, and know better what you want than you do...  They're very flexible, so they can use positions that would not be possible for humans."

She backs this up with a series of stick figure drawings that made me choke-snort an entire mouthful of coffee, especially the one of an extremely male elf with an arrow pointing to a body part labeled "geyser."

There are both male and female elves, she tells us, and they are a pretty open-minded lot.  "All elves are bisexual," Hallgrímsdóttir says, "but guys and girls not ready for some same sex action don’t worry, no elf will do anything you don’t want to."

Amongst other things that you don't have to worry about, elf-sex-wise, are STDs and pregnancy.  You can become pregnant by an elf (or make a female elf pregnant), but you both have to want to make a baby for this to happen.  Which is pretty convenient.  

Oh, and elf semen is "glittery and shimmery."  So there's that.  She includes an "artist's rendition" of the result of a male elfgasm, which is striking not only in colorfulness but in quantity, and in (as it were) a rather impressive trajectory.

There are various other details that are, shall we say, a little too salacious for me to include here, so if you're curious you'll just have to listen to the interview with her on the link I posted above.  Suffices to say that the Icelandic tourist industry might want to plan ahead for an influx of people who are, um, hopeful in the supernatural romance department.

I'm curious to know how many people actually take her seriously.  The article says that Hallgrímsdóttir gets "a lot of flack from her countrymen" for her beliefs -- but if over half of Icelanders believe that the Hidden People exist, what's stopping Legolas et al. from seeking out illicit liaisons with their human cohabitants?  Is it that the people who believe in elves aren't really all that serious about it, sort of in the way otherwise rational people will wear a lucky hat to a baseball game, or avoid walking under a ladder?  It certainly seems odd that a populace that is as literate, well educated, and generally rational as the Icelanders would subscribe to a belief that is (to put it bluntly) extremely wacky.

But maybe all humans are like that -- masses of contradictions, all thrown together under a thin veneer of logic and reason.  Maybe I am, too, for all of my talk of skepticism and science.  Go beneath the skin, and there might well be a little pagan in all of us, however we might want to consecrate it or else expunge it entirely.  As one of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman goes, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Color me blue

There's been a recent surge in popularity of questionnaire-based tests that supposedly tell you which of four "personality colors" you belong to.  (Here's a typical example.)  You're given questions like:
When facing a big project, you are...
  • deadline-driven
  • worrying
  • researching
  • making it a group effort
And after twenty or so questions of this sort, you're sorted into one of four "color groups," a little like what the Sorting Hat does at Hogwarts, only less reliable.

I throw in the "less reliable" part not only because we are being given a schema that puts every human on the Earth into one of four categories (hell, even the astrologers admit there are twelve), but because the whole thing relies on self-assessment.  When you take these tests, you're not finding out what you're really like, you're finding out what you think you're like.

Which is clearly not the same thing.  We're notoriously bad judges of our own personalities.  In their 2008 paper "Faulty Self-Assessment: Why Evaluating One’s Own Competence Is an Intrinsically Difficult Task," Cornell University psychologists Travis J. Carter and David Dunning had the following to say:
(A)lthough the exhortation to ‘know oneself’ has a long and venerable history, recent investigations in behavioral science paint a vexing and troubling portrait about people’s success at self-insight. Such research increasingly shows that people are not very good at assessing their competence and character accurately.  They often hold self-perceptions that wander a good deal away from the reality of themselves...  (T)he extant psychological literature suggests that people have some, albeit only a meager, amount of self-insight.
And they quote Ann Landers's trenchant quip, "Know yourself.  Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful."

So trying to reach self-discovery from a series of restricted-choice questions you answer about yourself has about as much likelihood of revealing some hitherto unguessed truth as those Facebook quizzes that claim to tell you what character from Game of Thrones you are.

What is more vexing is that despite the fact that these tests are only telling you what you think about yourself, the whole "color group" thing is gaining a lot of ground in the business world as a way of improving relational dynamics in the workplace.  Don't believe me?  Check out this article over at Knoji by M. J. Grueso, who tells us the following:
Most companies use a color personality test in order to better understand these personality differences and how to make it work for everyone.  Understanding the different personalities is important not just for big companies but for us as individuals as this will make it easier for us to learn how to better deal with colleagues and clients...  Experts have determined that there are four basic personality types. Yellow, Red, Blue and Green.  And it doesn't have anything to do with a person's favorite color.  As an individual, learning our color personality is also important.  First, because it helps us to better understand ourselves and why we react to certain situations a certain way.  Second, when we understand who we are, it allows us to open ourselves to at least try to understand others as well.
Which all sounds pretty nifty.  But then I started wondering, "Who are these experts?"  And I found out that the whole color-personality thing was the brainchild of one Carol Ritberger, who is the "renowned psychologist" mentioned in the link in the first paragraph of this post...

... but who actually isn't a psychologist at all.  She describes herself as an "innovative leader in the fields of personality behavioral psychology and behavioral medicine," but later goes on to say that her credentials are "a doctorate in Theology and a doctorate in Esoteric Philosophy and Hermetic Science."

Which are about as related to the science of behavioral psychology as alchemy is to chemistry.

But despite having no apparent training in medical science, she claims to have the ability to do what she calls "intuitive healing:"
Our mission is to provide programs that train participants in the science and art of intuitive diagnostics, qualified to work in concert with medical practitioners in the process of healing. 
We stand at the threshold of a time of compelling change-a positive major shift is taking place, and that shift is having a dramatic impact on our lives.  We are compelled to talk about it and to seek to understand it.  It is awakening a new energy force within each of us that is causing dynamic change to occur within the physical body and the human energy system.  We are changing to forms of light that are not as we have previously known them, and are becoming more vibrant, more radiant, and more empowered.  This new energy force is changing our way of thinking and is illuminating a whole new dimension of our persona.  It is creating the need for intense self-exploration and we are being nudged, pushed, and driven to learn more about who we really are.  It is fueling the desire to better understand ourselves-its energy is assisting us in seeking to get in touch with our very souls.  We are being guided to look beyond the obvious and that which our five senses understand.  This new energy force is sensitizing us to the need to develop our thinking while our mental processing remains the same, and the way we perceive our lives is going through a radical change.  Consciousness, as we have known it, is expanding... 
Medical intuition is both an art and a science.  It is a learnable diagnostic skill that provides insight into how the body, mind, and spirit connection interrelates with one's health and well being.
I don't know about you, but if I've got some sort of medical condition, psychological or otherwise, I'd prefer to be treated by an individual with the proper training and credentials, rather than by someone who diagnoses me through "intuition" and babbles about undefined "energy forces" that are "changing our physical bodies" and "expanding our consciousness."

So the whole what-color-are-you thing (1) doesn't tell you anything you didn't already believe, (2) is only as accurate as your own ability to self-assess, and (3) was developed by someone whose grasp of science sounds tenuous at best.

Be that as it may, you'll probably want to know that I'm a "Blue."  "Blues" are tightly-wound, orderly people with good attention to detail, but who tend to be fretful, quiet, pessimistic, and sensitive to criticism. We need to be "more open about our feelings" and "more willing to try new things."

All of which would be immediately apparent to anyone who's known me more than five minutes.  So as a step toward Socrates's ideal of "Know thyself," it doesn't really get me very far, not that I expected it to.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

May Texas be safe from tigers

Well, this is it, folks.  Jade Helm 15, the two-month United States Army training exercise in Texas and New Mexico, has begun.  The guillotining of innocent civilians should begin presently.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

At least, that's apparently what a significant percentage of Texans believe.  There are numerous conspiracy theories regarding what appears to be a completely legitimate military operation, under the supervision of senior officers who assure us that every effort will be made to prevent the exercise from interfering with the lives of ordinary citizens, to the point that an article about the various angles on the conspiracy appeared in Army Times online magazine.  The author, Kyle Jahner, outlines them thusly:
  1. FEMA-sponsored dome-shaped hurricane shelters are actually being used to imprison non-sheeple who "foment insurrection," i.e., object to Jade Helm and the declaration of martial law that is soon to follow.
  2. The dead bodies of said insurrectionists are going to be carried to their final resting place in BlueBell Ice Cream trucks.
  3. The command centers for planned takeover of Texas are some abandoned Walmart buildings that were observed to have razor wire on their roofs.  (Walmart spokespeople have said that the razor wire was to prevent break-ins.  Ha.  They would say that.)
  4. The whole martial-law thing was motivated by NASA's discovery that there's going to be a major asteroid strike in September of this year, which will result not only in a great big smoking crater, but in the southern United States turning into something that resembles Mad Max: Fury Road, only better armed.  And we can't have that.
  5. The Russians are secretly funding the secessionist movement in Texas, because they'd like to see America crumble.  So the people who are against Jade Helm are actually fighting against the evil Rooskies, or something.  (Yes, I know that makes no sense whatsoever.  Don't yell at me.  I'm not the one who believes this.)
  6. Ultimately, the whole thing will lead to Barack Obama coming out with the fact that he has never intended to step down in 2016, and his crowning as Exalted Emperor Barack I.
Far be it from Texans to take any of that lying down.  So it will probably surprise no one that a group in Texas has formed a "Counter Jade Helm" citizen surveillance group, intended to keep an eye on things and report back when decapitations start occurring in Walmarts and the headless bodies are carted away in ice cream trucks.

The whole thing is being run by a guy named Pete Lanteri, a dubiously-sane former Marine who claims he founded Counter Jade Helm in order to keep an eye on things and make sure that there was someone watching what the government was up to, but whose recent behavior makes him sound like a dangerous lunatic.  When Lanteri got trolled on Facebook -- because that never happens, right? -- he responded both on Facebook and Twitter with a string of invective that certainly doesn't help his case any.  He began by closing the Counter Jade Helm Facebook page to the public with the following friendly message:
Since the huge media attention Counter Jade Helm is receiving, the fb page is being attacked by libs, conspiracy nuts, and the other 90% of useless fucking Americans.  To fix this I am creating individual state group pages closed to the public.
When a supporter responded, "They are causeing [sic] such a division in this GREAT NATION a second REVOLUTION IS NEEDED VERY BADLY," Lanteri said that basically, he couldn't agree more.  "I can't wait to kill thousands of these fucks, man!!!" he wrote.

In other bons mots from Lanteri, we have:
Here's hoping we're in a shooting war to save this country by next Fourth of July!!!!  Semper Fi Patriots!!!! 
People you should all be making lists of commies/marxists/islamists in your neighborhoods.  All the teachers, school board members, politicians etc. who are anti US Constitution need to be identified and addresses known so when it comes time to round them up we know exactly where to start looking.  They will be arrested and tried for treason!!!! 
Why can't Geraldo Rivera, aka twatwaffle, be in a church when it gets shot up? 
More dead equals more dead dems.
About African Americans in general, he had the following to say:  "War on White People continues!!!!  [Blacks are] a Failed Race."  He even attacked Pope Francis, regarding his stance that weapons manufacturers were complicit in the escalating worldwide death rate from guns, saying, "Fuck this asshole!!!  EVERY ASPECT OF AMERICA NEEDS A FUCKING PURGE!!!!"

[N.B.:  I may have miscounted the number of exclamation points, but otherwise, these quotes are as written.  And yes, apparently he does think that Pope Francis lives in the United States.]

So here we have a man who is apparently in favor of murdering members of a political party that makes up about half of American citizens, who is apparently a vicious racist, who wants anyone who disagrees with him tried for treason, and who is hoping for a violent revolution, leading a group that is monitoring heavily-armed military men engaged in a Special Ops training exercise.

Nope, I see nothing whatsoever that could go wrong with that.

So we've got to make it till the end of August without an incident, which I hope fervently will be the case.  But you know what's craziest about all of this?  If what military leaders are saying is true -- that Jade Helm really is just a training exercise -- and nothing untoward happens, all it's going to do is reinforce Lanteri's conviction that it was their vigilance that prevented the Evil Convoy of BlueBell Ice Cream Trucks from doing their dirty work.  Because you can't win with these people, you know?  No matter what happens, they never shift their ground.

Just yesterday, in fact, I saw a post on Facebook about how during Obama's presidency, the number of gun sales has increased.  The comment was something like, "Ha!  Obummer's efforts to repeal the Second Amendment and pass laws to take away everyone's guns sure have been successful!"

Or maybe, you moron, he never intended to repeal the Second Amendment in the first place.  But of course, I'd never expect you to admit that.

It's like the old story about the guy who would show up at his friend's house for a visit, but before entering the house would fold his hands in a prayerful attitude, close his eyes, and say, "May this house be safe from tigers."  This went on for some time, and finally the friend had had enough.

"Come on," he said.  "Tigers?  This is Ohio, for pete's sake.  There's probably not a tiger within a thousand miles of here!"

And the guy gave him a contented smile and said, "It works well, doesn't it?"

Monday, July 20, 2015

Networked minds

I'm all for scientific advances, but sometimes I read things that are just plain scary.

This week's installment of "You Do See How Badly This Could Go Wrong, Don't You?" comes to us courtesy of a team led by Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscience researcher at Duke University.  Rahwan, Nicolelis, and their team have achieved something pretty spectacular -- they have hooked together the brains of four rats via a computer interface, and demonstrated that the conjoined brains could learn (quickly) how to team up and work collaboratively.

In other words, the four minds were pooling resources and working as a unit.

They did the same thing with two monkeys, linking them via a computer interface hooked to a robotic arm.  The trick was, one monkey could only move the arm vertically, and the other only horizontally, so they had to learn to work together to accomplish a task and get a reward.

"They synchronise their brains and they achieve the task by creating a superbrain – a structure that is the combination of three brains," Nicolelis said.  "We send a message to the brains, the brains incorporate that message, and we can retrieve the message later."

Nicolelis calls this linked group of brains a "brainet."

Other scientists were quick to point out that what Nicolelis and his group had accomplished was similar to parallel processing by computer systems.  "In order to synchronise, the brains are responding to each other," said Iyad Rahwan, computer scientist at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi.  "So you end up with an input, some kind of computation, and an output – what a computer does."

Andrea Stocco, researcher in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, was impressed by what Nicolelis and his team had done.  "This is incredible," Stocco said.  "We are sampling different neurons from different animals and putting them together to create a super organism....  Once brains are connected, applications become just a matter of what different animals can do.  We can expect a great deal more from human minds connected in this way...  Sometimes it’s really hard to collaborate if you are a mathematician and you’re thinking about very complex and abstract objects.  If you could collaboratively solve common problems [using a brainet], it would be a way to leverage the skills of different individuals for a common goal."

Which all sounds great, until you start considering the possible ways this could go wrong.  Maybe I'm a pessimist, but my first thought wasn't about transmitting my abstruse mathematical arguments to another person -- it was about loss of privacy, and (worse) the potential for one person to control another.  If it becomes possible to link two human minds together, what's to stop one of them from manipulating the other, unwittingly or deliberately?

My feeling is that once that link is established, the two minds thus conjoined would never be the same again -- even after the link was severed.

It's why I've always thought that of all the alleged psychic phenomena out there, telepathy has to be the scariest.  Think about it: would you really want someone to have access to your thoughts?  I'm pretty sure that the chaotic, bizarre, and sometimes not very nice thoughts that come to my mind aren't that far out of the norm, but I still would prefer to keep them to myself, thank you very much.

But what about the potential for speeding up information transfer?  I still remember when I saw the movie The Matrix the first time, how much I wanted one of those portals in the back of my skull.  You know, just stick a USB cable up there, and click "Download Japanese," and voilà, I'm fluent.  It'd sure be nice to gain knowledge that way, rather than by the hard work of memorization, study, and figuring things out, however it would put us teachers out of a job.

But once you become able to put stuff into brains -- whether downloaded from a computer, or accessed from another person's mind -- there arises the trenchant question of who gets to decide what information goes where.  How do you assure that what is being passed to you is true?  When we learn, the slow, painstaking way, each of our brains not only acts as a sponge, it acts as a filter.  We consider what we're learning, ask questions, make judgments.  If we're being fed information through a computer interface, at what point in the transfer process do we get to ask, "Does this make sense?"

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think these ethical questions should halt the research Nicolelis and his group are doing, and I don't mean to denigrate his accomplishment.  But as tempting as it is to rush headlong into linking up human minds into a "superorganism" or "brainet," I'm certainly not going to be the first one to volunteer.

Call me suspicious, but the only one I want in control of what I'm thinking is myself.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Shenanigans in space

Well, you knew it was gonna happen.  I mean, I didn't think it'd be this fast, but I figured it was gonna happen sooner or later.

People are already saying that NASA is faking the images from Pluto.

Yes, I know.  The question of "Why would they do that?" appears to be unanswerable.  But as we've seen before, there is nothing that is so completely idiotic that there won't be conspiracy theorists who think it's true.

First we've got YouTuber Crow777, who has put together a video calling NASA out on their shenanigans.  As proof, he shows a photograph of Jupiter he took from right here on Earth with his own telescope, and then a fuzzy photograph of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.  "If this is all real," he says, "why can I get a clearer image of Jupiter in my backyard at four hundred million miles than NASA can get of Pluto at nine million miles?... Now this is just an insult to your intelligence."

Let's start with the fact that (1) Jupiter is bigger, (2) Pluto is much further from the Sun and therefore reflects less light to a camera regardless where you are taking the picture from, and (3) they did get much clearer pictures than the one that Crow777 used for his comparison.  But those were all faked, too, apparently.  How do you know that?  Because they are.  Stop asking questions.

[image courtesy of NASA]

And Crow777 is not just a lone wacko.  Well, maybe that's not true; he's a lone wacko, but there are many like-minded lone wackos out there.  Twitter erupted with tweets under the hashtag #NASAHoax like the following:
Pluto? You all having fun with this fake cgi pic !!! #NASA #NASAHoax biggest lie in history!!!!! #WakeUpAmerica they lied about that to 
Lmao so their other fake as hell satellite is able to take a photo of the #pluto inbound satellite. #gullible much? #NASAHoax 
Then we have a whole different sort of crazy over at, courtesy of a poster going by the handle TruthIsNeverTooHorrible.  And Mr. Horrible has the following to say:
To get this mockery of the "space travel" simulated reality to terminate the show:
Pluto was the first celestial body created by the illuminati, decades before the creation of the space travel hoax, as exposed first by Last Prophet... 
Any celestial body that can not be observed with a telescope located ON Earth, is fake.  This one basic fact implies that for instance Pluto (the first example among millions) is an invention created by the illuminati.
And in the "Insanity Creates Odd Bedfellows" department, the Pluto Truthers here in the United States got some unexpected support... from hardline Muslims in Malaysia.  Apparently the consensus over there amongst the extremely devout is that the NASA photographs are "poyo" -- the Malay word for "stupid."  The images of Pluto, they said, were created using a green screen.  (Because green screening an image, and then replacing the green with black, makes ever so much sense.)  One poster on the Malay Daily Facebook page went on a lengthy tirade about how the Quran explains everything you need to know about space, including the fact that the sky has seven layers "guarded by angels who do not eat or sleep," thus making space travel impossible.

And also proving that it's not just here in the United States that we have people who would like to see ignorant superstition based on a holy book controlling science education.

Other pious Malaysians stated that it's impossible that the United States achieved this given that Russia and China are so much further ahead of us technologically and they haven't gone to Pluto, and that travel to Pluto is impossible anyhow because it's ten thousand light years away.

The news from Southeast Asia isn't all dismal, however.  The scientifically-minded countered with arguments demonstrating that the aforementioned loons are wrong.  Not that they'll do much good, given our track record for success in arguing with creationists over here in the States.  "This is why we can't be a developed country," lamented one Malaysian, while another put it more succinctly:  "RIP, brain."

But maybe NASA didn't invent the images of Pluto.  Maybe they're real... and they're still covering stuff up.  Like alien bases and buildings and stuff.  "We have discovered something shocking on the heart-shaped ice cap on the north of Pluto," says YouTuber UFOUnionTV.  "It looks very much like an alien base...  There is a perfectly-shaped building, and a road leading to this base...  The shadows have edges, they aren't round...  This is completely explained by this structure being artificial."

As further proof, let's go to the scientific texts written by H. P. Lovecraft about the planet Yuggoth, which supposedly orbited the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune:
Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system...  There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone...  The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light.  They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples...  The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen...
So there you are, then.

You know, I wonder if back in the day there were people who thought like this.  When the first photographs of Jupiter and Saturn and so on were taken in the late 19th century, did people say, "No, those are faked!"  I mean, you can see Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye, and see some details even with a good set of binoculars... but remember that there are people who think that the Moon is a hologram.

There probably were, but my guess is that they were laughed into oblivion.  One of the downsides of the internet is that anyone who has a computer can launch a website or a YouTube channel, and it puts everyone on an equal footing, access-wise (although hardly credibility-wise).  And given that there are folks out there for whom "I saw it on the internet" constitutes proof, it's not to be wondered at that the crazy stuff spreads a lot faster today than it did a hundred years ago.

But I live in hope that the same forces that spread bullshit like wildfire are also giving people better access to science than they've ever had before.  The availability of knowledge, free (or nearly so), to everyone -- this is also a new thing.  All we need to assure is that people have the critical thinking skills to sift the wheat from the chaff, the science from the nonsense, the Pluto from the...

... Yuggoth.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Smoke screen

When evaluating a claim, it's often as important to recognize which questions to ask as it is to understand the science behind the claim itself.  What information did the author leave out -- intentionally or unintentionally?

The reason this comes up is an online article sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia entitled, "Studies Reveal 'Smudging' Eliminates Dangerous Bacteria in the Air."  The article describes the practice of "smudging," the burning of sweet-scented dried plants, and claims that the smoke is beneficial because it kills bacteria.  (S)he cites an earlier study, published in 2007 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, which has the following passage:
We have observed that 1 hour treatment of medicinal smoke emanated by burning wood and a mixture of odoriferous and medicinal herbs (havan sámagri=material used in oblation to fire all over India), on aerial bacterial population caused over 94% reduction of bacterial counts by 60 min and the ability of the smoke to purify or disinfect the air and to make the environment cleaner was maintained up to 24 hour in the closed room.  Absence of pathogenic bacteria Corynebacterium urealyticum, Curtobacterium flaccumfaciens, Enterobacter aerogenes (Klebsiella mobilis), Kocuria rosea, Pseudomonas syringae pv. persicae, Staphylococcus lentus, and Xanthomonas campestris pv. tardicrescens in the open room even after 30 days is indicative of the bactericidal potential of the medicinal smoke treatment.  We have demonstrated that using medicinal smoke it is possible to completely eliminate diverse plant and human pathogenic bacteria of the air within confined space.
So far, so good.  Assuming that the experiment was well-controlled and that there were no obvious design flaws invalidating the results, getting rid of pathogenic bacteria is certainly a good thing.  The author of the first article sums up thusly:
The basic concept is that by burning particular plants parts and resins, the energetic blueprint or spirit/intelligence of that plant is released, producing a medicinal smoke.  The smoke is then utilized to cleanse the energy of individuals, groups, spaces or object.  Herbs like Sage, Palo Santo, Copal, and Sweet-grass are common smudging herbs that are widely used for healing and to remove unwanted energetic and spiritual buildup and also to instill blessings...  Thanks to this amazing study we now know that smudging with sacred herbs is not only soothing to the mind and spirit, it is affecting the health and even safety of the actual environment in which it is done.
Setting aside the whole "energetic blueprint" and plant intelligence nonsense, there are a few questions that come to my mind that neither the author of the original study, nor the author of the post lauding its results, thinks to ask:
  1. How many pathogenic bacteria were in the room to start with?  All we're given is the percent reduction (94%), which sounds like a lot -- but 94% of a tiny amount is an even tinier amount, and neither is significant.
  2. If there are chemicals in smudging smoke that kill bacteria, could those chemicals be toxic to humans as well?  I'm reminded of all the articles that get passed around saying, "Substance X (usually some naturally-occurring compound) found to kill cancer cells!" -- and it turns out that yes, the substance kills cancer cells, but in vitro.  Whether it kills cancer cells in a human body, and does so without killing the human, remains to be seen.  After all, consider the fact that pissing in the petri dish will probably also kill cancer cells in vitro.
  3. Are there other chemicals in the smoke besides the bacteria-killing ones that might be harmful?  In general, it seems like inhaling smoke of any kind is a bad idea.
So let's look at these questions one at a time.

For the first question, there were a lot of hyped-up articles like "There's a Time Bomb Ticking in your Household Dust" that presented a lot of scary stuff (like electron micrographs of dust mites, which look like a cross between a crab and that thing that burst out of the dude's chest in Alien) but little in the way of verifiable detail.  I did find an interesting article by Dr. Harriet Burge, director of aerobiology for EMLab P&K, a New Jersey-based indoor air quality assessment lab, and she had the following to say:
I generally do not recommend bacterial analysis of house dust except in a few unusual situations.  This is because we don't know how to interpret the results.  However, we do receive occasional requests for cultural bacterial analysis of house dust.  These analyses are done by dilution culture and data can be presented as total bacteria, general groupings of bacteria (i.e., Gram negative, Gram positive, Bacillus), sewage screens (total coliforms, Enterococcus, etc.) or species identification for the most abundant colonies.  Sewage screens usually involve presence or absence in house dust.  Otherwise, interpretation is based on the number of colonies present per gram of dust, and/or the relative composition of specific bacterial groups or specific organisms in the dust. 
Given that these requests are not rare, it seems appropriate to develop some interpretation guidelines, at least with respect to average or "usual" populations in house dust.  Unfortunately, few studies have been done documenting concentrations of total culturable bacteria or of any specific organism or group of organisms.  In my experience, these studies are rarely done because the dynamics of exposure to house dust are not clear, and because dust is not considered to contain human pathogens (or at least dust is not considered the primary source for human pathogenic bacteria).
So given that household dust isn't the most common source of transmission for human pathogens, it's unclear whether sterilizing the room would, under most conditions (i.e. we're not talking about an operating room here), lower the incidence of disease.

[image courtesy of photographer Christopher P. Michel and the Wikimedia Commons]

On to the second and third questions, which are related.  On a quick search, the first thing I turned up was a paper from Clinical and Molecular Allergy by Ta-Chang Lin, Guha Krishnaswami, and David S. Chi entitled, "Incense Smoke: Clinical, Structural, and Molecular Effects on Airway Disease" which had the following to say:
Incense smoke (fumes) contains particulate matter (PM), gas products and many organic compounds.  On average, incense burning produces particulates greater than 45 mg/g burned as compared to 10 mg/g burned for cigarettes.  The gas products from burning incense include CO, CO2, NO2, SO2, and others.  Incense burning also produces volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes, as well as aldehydes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  The air pollution in and around various temples has been documented to have harmful effects on health.  When incense smoke pollutants are inhaled, they cause respiratory system dysfunction.  Incense smoke is a risk factor for elevated cord blood IgE levels and has been indicated to cause allergic contact dermatitis.  Incense smoke also has been associated with neoplasm and extracts of particulate matter from incense smoke are found to be mutagenic in the Ames Salmonella test with TA98 and activation.
So there's that.  I tried to find any studies of white sage (Salvia apiana) and sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) -- two of the most common plants in smudge sticks -- to see if either had been studied for toxic effects.  Nothing turned up.  There was lots of stuff about expelling negative vibrations, however.  So this one falls into the "we don't know" category.

On the other hand, it's pretty clear that smoke in general -- even wood smoke -- shouldn't be inhaled.  Incompletely-burned plant material contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, organic compounds that have been identified as not only carcinogenic and mutagenic, but also directly toxic.

So in the end, we're left with more questions.  On the one hand, incense and smudging smoke smells good and seems to kill nasty bacteria, which is good.  On the other, the bacteria that it kills almost certainly would never have made you sick in the first place, and the smoke is also potentially dangerous for you to inhale, which is bad.  In the final assessment, smudging your house if you have adequate ventilation is probably not going to hurt you, but isn't really going to do much to help you, either, unless you believe in "negative vibrations."

And in the even-more-final assessment, what we really should be doing, even more than burning dead plants in our houses, is asking questions.  Not simply buying whatever you read at face value -- in other words, recognizing that there are questions to be asked -- is the first step.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Mass eviction notice

Buoyed by the success last month of Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara, who conducted an exorcism of the entire country of Mexico, a Catholic priest in Scranton, Pennsylvania is now suggesting that we do the same thing for the United States.

Monsignor John Esseff, who has been a priest for 62 years and an exorcist for 35, says that "Such exorcisms … have helped bring awareness that there is such a thing as sin influenced by Satan...  The devil has much to do with [influencing people in] breaking the law of God."

William Blake, Satan Smiting Job (1826) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Right.  Because things in Mexico are ever so much better since Íñiguez and his intrepid team of Satan-fighters expelled all the demons from the country.  Notorious drug cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera escaped from jail last week, almost certainly with help, and is now in hiding.  A "killing surge" in the city of Monterrey three weeks ago left 25 people dead. Ruben "El Menchito" Oseguera Gonzalez, son of the Jalisco Cartel's leader, was arrested for the third time last week after already being arrested and released twice for complicity in "two cases of forced disappearance."  Officials have said, basically, that everyone knows he's guilty, but he almost certainly won't be tried and found guilty because of the culture of corruption, coercion, and fear that exists in the Mexican judicial system.  A study just found that Mexico has a gun-seizure rate twice that of Iraq -- and yet the violent crime is on the increase, with 2015 looking to set a record, just as 2014 did.

So the exorcism really worked well.  It's no wonder that Monsignor Esseff wants the United States to follow suit.

And if we can't get our act together to have a country-wide expulsion of demons, local bishops could still do a piece-by-piece exorcism.  "Every bishop is the chief exorcist of his own diocese," Esseff said.  "Any time anyone with the authority uses his power against Satan, that is powerful.  Every priest and bishop has that power...  During the exorcism of a diocese, the bishop calls on the power of Jesus over every court, every single institution, every individual and every family.  The whole country would have such power if bishops would exorcise their dioceses."

What strikes me as most bizarre about all of this is the seemingly complete lack of awareness by people like Esseff and Íñiguez that their Get Thee Behind Me Satan routine has no effect whatsoever. I mean, this is a lack of connection to reality on a truly colossal scale.  You'd think that the first time you had a flat tire, and you prayed to god to expel the demons from your steel-belted radials, and nothing happened, you'd go, "Huh.  What a goober I am.  I guess this doesn't work."

But no.  They keep doing their rituals and prayers and so forth, and nothing continues to happen, and they are for some reason completely undaunted by this.

When it comes to true disconnect with reality, though, they've got a good precedent in the bible itself.  "Truly I tell you," Jesus says in Matthew 17:20, "if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

Either that's simply not true, or else mustard seeds are setting the bar for faith higher than they appear to be.  Because the faithful pray for stuff all the time -- ordinary stuff, not mountains moving around -- and a great deal of it doesn't happen.

But "god works in mysterious ways."  Which, I suppose, covers damn near every failure I can think of.

So we'll see, over the next few weeks, if American bishops take Monsignor Esseff's advice and exorcise the United States.  I suppose the whole thing falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  Myself, I'm not expecting anything to change much.  Life will go on, crimes will still happen, Donald Trump will still be running for president.  Just showing that some demonic entities are harder to get rid of than others.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Postcards from Pluto

I spend a lot of time, here at Skeptophilia, railing at unscientific, irrational views of the world.  Today, I'd like to celebrate a major accomplishment of humanity: this morning, virtually as I'm writing this, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons is making the closest-ever pass of a spacecraft to Pluto.

The magnitude of this feat isn't obvious at first.  Pluto is a small target -- its radius is estimated at about 1,180 kilometers -- and it's so far away that it's hard to picture.  Pluto's average distance from the sun is about 6,000,000,000 kilometers, although its orbit is so eccentric that it varies from a perihelion of 4.4 billion to an aphelion of 7.3 billion kilometers.  So how amazing a feat is this?

Let me give you an analogy.  This is like hitting an object the size of a tennis ball with an object the size of a speck of dust -- from 175 kilometers away.

Thus far, the information that has been coming back has been breathtaking.  Already we have seen that the surface of the planet is rusty-red in color and has a pattern on its surface shaped like a heart; that it seems to have ice caps of some sort; and that on its surface is a mysterious dark formation that's been nicknamed "The Whale," whose structure is as yet undetermined  We stand to learn more about Pluto's composition and history, and the characteristics of its moon Charon -- which, at a radius of about 630 km, is over half as big as the planet itself.  (In fact, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted this weekend, "Pluto’s primary moon Charon is so large that their mutual center-of-mass lies not within Pluto but in empty space.")

Pluto, as seen from New Horizons on July 11, 2015 [image courtesy of NASA]

But even tiny Pluto -- one-sixth the mass of the Earth's Moon, and one-third its volume -- has four other moons.  They've been named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra, after other denizens of the Greek underworld (Charon, you'll remember, is the ferryman who brings dead souls across the River Styx).  Its surface seems to be made predominantly of various kinds of ice, including frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide.  It's lightweight for its size -- its density is only about 2 grams per cubic centimeter, only twice the density of liquid water -- leading astronomers to conjecture that it has a rocky core, and a mantle composed primarily of liquid water and water ice.  If this is correct, Pluto may have the highest percentage composition of water of any object in the Solar System.

Pluto and Charon -- July 11, 2015 [image courtesy of NASA]

And the fun won't end with its closest pass this morning.  The probe is designed to keep sending back data for another sixteen months.  After that, it will continue sailing out of the Solar System, following Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, and now zooming out into interstellar space, some 12 billion kilometers away.

Some naysayers -- and there are more than you'd think -- have asked why we put time, effort, and (lots of) money into such endeavors.  So we find out the composition of a celestial body five-some-odd billion kilometers away from us.  So what?  What good does it do us?

I think the reason is that knowledge, in and of itself, is a worthy goal.  Always looking at the profit motive -- what benefit will it bring? -- is ignoring the fact that the inspiration gained from reaching for, and achieving, a lofty goal has a worth that can't be measured in dollars.  How many young minds were inspired by previous successes in pure science -- the discovery of how DNA works, the first humans to reach the Moon, the uncovering of countless bizarre fossil animals by paleontologists, the first manned submarine to descend into the Marianas Trench?

And what did those minds go on to accomplish?

I look at the images coming back from New Horizons with nothing but a sense of wonder and curiosity.  Such missions represent one of humanity's most fundamental drives; the thirst for knowledge.  So when you see the images that are coming back from the furthest reaches of the Solar System, don't just think of them as pictures of a distant denizen of our Solar System.  Think of them as symbols of the highest aspirations of the human mind and spirit.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sunspots and ice ages

If there's one feature of media that drives me the craziest, it's the practice of appending the words "scientists claim" to any damn thing they want to in order to give it unwarranted credibility.

Take, for example, the story that appeared over at RawStory (and also, in similar forms, at The Telegraph and The Daily Mail).  Entitled "'Mini Ice Age' On the Way In 15 Years, Say Scientists," this article takes a piece of legitimate and interesting scientific research and puts a sensationalized spin on it that, if I were one of the researchers, would impel me to write a rebuttal comprised of a single sentence: "I DIDN'T SAY THAT."

First, a little background.  The number of sunspots, which are electromagnetic storms on the surface of the Sun, has been observed to fluctuate on a cycle of about eleven years, but also to be subject to a second (much longer-period) cycle of 370-odd years.  This is the proximal cause of the Maunder Minimum, a time of low sunspot activity that lasted from 1645 to about 1715.

Sunspots in September 2001 [image courtesy of NASA]

Thus far, this probably would merit nothing more than a "So what?" from everyone but astronomy buffs.  Why would popular media even report on something like sunspots?  But the Maunder Minimum, at least in part, coincided with low temperatures in Europe -- the article in RawStory refers (correctly) to the Thames freezing over in winter during that period (although, as you'll see, even that is only one cherry-picked piece of the truth).

So to put it bluntly, the whole purpose of this story is intended to cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change.  "Damn scientists!" you're left thinking.  "Can't even decide if the temperature is rising or falling!"

The problem is, this is a flaw in the media's reporting, not in the science itself.  Let's take this claim apart at the seams, okay?

First, let's look at the basis of the claim -- that the Maunder Minimum predicts extremely cold temperatures.  All it takes is a quick trip to Wikipedia to find out that it's not that simple:
Note that the term "Little Ice Age" applied to the Maunder minimum is something of a misnomer as it implies a period of unremitting cold (and on a global scale), which is not the case.  For example, the coldest winter in the Central England Temperature record is 1683-4, but the winter just 2 years later (both in the middle of the Maunder minimum) was the fifth warmest in the whole 350-year CET record.  Furthermore, summers during the Maunder minimum were not significantly different to those seen in subsequent years.  The drop in global average temperatures in paleoclimate reconstructions at the start of the Little Ice Age was between about 1560 and 1600, whereas the Maunder minimum began almost 50 years later.
If you want to go a little deeper than Wikipedia -- and you should -- check out this cogent and well-written summary of the problem with correlating sunspots and ice ages by Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics and a director of research at the University of Reading.  Lockwood writes:
There is very little evidence that the lower global mean temperatures between 1400 and 1800 were caused by solar activity - there's more evidence it was associated with volcanic activity and/or internal oscillations in the climate system...  Much of what has been written in the media and on the internet fails to appreciate the difference between regional and global climates.  My research looks at a potential link between low solar activity and cold European winters. That's a regional and seasonal effect and not a global effect.
If that wasn't unequivocal enough for you, Lockwood goes on to say, "What's more, there's no evidence that summers in the Maunder minimum were any colder than usual.  This is not a 'Little Ice Age' - it is not an ice age of any shape or form."

Second, let's check and see if the scientists cited in the RawStory article actually said anything about an ice age starting in fifteen years.  The lead researcher, Valentina Zharkova of Northumbria University, presented her findings at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales last week, and a summary appeared in  Here are a few relevant paragraphs:
It is 172 years since a scientist first spotted that the Sun's activity varies over a cycle lasting around 10 to 12 years.  But every cycle is a little different and none of the models of causes to date have fully explained fluctuations.  Many solar physicists have put the cause of the solar cycle down to a dynamo caused by convecting fluid deep within the Sun. Now, Zharkova and her colleagues have found that adding a second dynamo, close to the surface, completes the picture with surprising accuracy. 
"We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs, originating in two different layers in the Sun's interior.  They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different, and they are offset in time.  Over the cycle, the waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun.  Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that our predictions showed an accuracy of 97%," said Zharkova... 
Looking ahead to the next solar cycles, the model predicts that the pair of waves become increasingly offset during Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022.  During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030-2040, the two waves will become exactly out of synch and this will cause a significant reduction in solar activity. 
"In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other – peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun.  Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other.  We predict that this will lead to the properties of a 'Maunder minimum'," said Zharkova.  "Effectively, when the waves are approximately in phase, they can show strong interaction, or resonance, and we have strong solar activity.  When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums.  When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago."
Is it just me, or did she say nothing about "ice ages?"

But the Maunder Minimum was cold, right?  Couldn't we still see a drop in temperatures if the predicted minimum occurs?  To answer that question, let's go back to Lockwood:
Statistically, we found a significant link between the occurrence of cold winters in the long CET record and solar activity.  By "significant" we mean that there was only a five per cent chance that we were being fooled by a coincidence...  In a paper with scientists from the Met Office's Hadley Centre, we used an energy balance model to show the slowing in anthropogenic global warming associated with decline in solar irradiance to Maunder minimum levels.  We found the likely reduction in warming by 2100 would be between 0.06 and 0.1 degrees Celsius, a very small fraction of the warming we're due to experience as a result of human activity.
Which hits on the central point.  My suspicion is that the hype surrounding the Maunder Minimum and sunspots has one purpose: to reassure us that our activity isn't going to warm the Earth further, and push the climate more out of whack than it already is.  "Don't worry," the media tells us.  "Keep burning your fossil fuels.  The Earth is going to be just fine.  In fact, we might be heading into an ice age!"

And because few people read any deeper than what appears in popular media, they're left with the further impression that the scientists don't know what the hell they're talking about.  We hear about global warming, and then there's an article where "scientists claim" that everything is cooling off.  Is it any wonder that laypeople throw their hands in the air and stop listening?

Which, of course, is what a lot of the powers-that-be want.  Altering the status quo is expensive, and requires unhooking our government from the influence of the fossil fuel industry.  No way can we have that happen.

No way.

Easier to slip into the media misleading stories that subtly cast doubt on the research itself, along with those nasty little words -- "scientists claim."  After that, they can sit back and let natural cynicism and distrust do the rest.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The illusion of understanding

I've written before about the Dunning-Kruger effect, the cognitive bias that gives rise to the perception that everyone you ask will verify being an above-average driver.  We all have the sense of being competent -- and as studies of Dunning-Kruger have shown, we generally think we're more competent than we really are.

I just ran into a paper from about thirteen years ago that I'd never seen before, and that seems to put an even finer lens on this whole phenomenon.  It explains, I think, why people settle for simplistic explanations for phenomena -- and promptly cease to question their understanding at all.  So even though this is hardly a new study, it was new to me, and (I hope) will be new to my readers.

Called "The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth," the paper was written by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil of Yale University and appeared in the journal Cognitive Science.  Its results illustrate, I believe, why trying to disabuse people of poor understanding of science can be such an intensely frustrating occupation.

The idea of the paper is a simple one -- to test the degree to which people trust and rely on what the authors call "lay theories:"
Intuitive or lay theories are thought to influence almost every facet of everyday cognition.  People appeal to explanatory relations to guide their inferences in categorization, diagnosis, induction, and many other cognitive tasks, and across such diverse areas as biology, physical mechanics, and psychology.  Individuals will, for example, discount high correlations that do not conform to an intuitive causal model but overemphasize weak correlations that do.  Theories seem to tell us what features to emphasize in learning new concepts as well as highlighting the relevant dimensions of similarity...   
The incompleteness of everyday theories should not surprise most scientists.  We frequently discover that a theory that seems crystal clear and complete in our head suddenly develops gaping holes and inconsistencies when we try to set it down on paper. 
Folk theories, we claim, are even more fragmentary and skeletal, but laypeople, unlike some scientists, usually remain unaware of the incompleteness of their theories.  Laypeople rarely have to offer full explanations for most of the phenomena that they think they understand.  Unlike many teachers, writers, and other professional “explainers,” laypeople rarely have cause to doubt their naïve intuitions.  They believe that they can explain the world they live in fairly well.
Rozenblit and Keil proceeded to test this phenomenon, and they did so in a clever way.  They were able to demonstrate this illusory sense that we know what's going on around us by (for example) asking volunteers to rate their understanding of how common everyday objects work -- things like zippers, piano keys, speedometers, flush toilets, cylinder locks, and helicopters.  They were then (1) asked to write out explanations of how the objects worked; (2) given explanations of how they actually do work; and (3) asked to re-rate their understanding.

Just about everyone ranked their understanding as lower after they saw the correct explanation.

You read that right.  People, across the board, think they understand things better before they actually learn about them.  On one level, that makes sense; all of us are prone to thinking things are simpler than they actually are, and can relate to being surprised at how complicated some common objects turn out to be.  (Ever seen the inside of a wind-up clock, for example?)  But what is amazing about this is how confident we are in our shallow, incomplete knowledge -- until someone sets out to knock that perception askew.

It was such a robust result that Rozenblit and Keil decided to push it a little, and see if they could make the illusion of explanatory depth go away.  They tried it with a less-educated test group (the initial test group had been Yale students.)  Nope -- even people with less education still think they understand everything just fine.  They tried it with younger subjects.  Still no change.  They even told the test subjects ahead of time that they were going to be asked to explain how the objects worked -- thinking, perhaps, that people might be ashamed to admit to some smart-guy Yale researchers that they didn't know how their own zippers worked, and were bullshitting to save face.

The drop was less when such explicit instructions were given, but it was still there.  As Rozenblit and Keil write, "Offering an explicit warning about future testing reduced the drop from initial to subsequent ratings. Importantly, the drop was still significant—the illusion held."

So does the drop in self-rating occur with purely factual knowledge?  They tested this by doing the same protocol, but instead of asking people for explanations of mechanisms, they asked them to do a task that required nothing but pure recall -- such as naming the capitals of various countries.  Here, the drop in self-rating still occurred, but it was far smaller than with explanatory or process-based knowledge.  We are, it seems, much more likely to admit we don't know facts than to admit we don't understand processes.

The conclusion that Rozenblit and Keil reach is a troubling one:
Since it is impossible in most cases to fully grasp the causal chains that are responsible for, and exhaustively explain, the world around us, we have to learn to use much sparser representations of causal relations that are good enough to give us the necessary insights: insights that go beyond associative similarity but which at the same time are not overwhelming in terms of cognitive load.  It may therefore be quite adaptive to have the illusion that we know more than we do so that we settle for what is enough.  The illusion might be an essential governor on our drive to search for explanatory underpinnings; it terminates potentially inexhaustible searches for ever-deeper understanding by satiating the drive for more knowledge once some skeletal level of causal comprehension is reached.
Put simply, when we get to "I understand this well enough," we stop thinking.  And for most of us, that point is reached far, far too soon.

And while it really isn't that critical to understand how zippers work as long as it doesn't stop you from zipping up your pants, the illusion of explanatory depth in other areas can come back to bite us pretty hard when we start making decisions on how to vote.  If most of us truly understand far less than we think we do about such issues as the safety of GMOs and vaccines, the processes involved in climate and climate change, the scientific and ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells, and even issues like air and water pollution, how can we possibly make informed decisions regarding the regulations governing them?

All the more reason, I think, that we should be putting more time, money, effort, and support into education.  While education doesn't make the illusion of explanatory depth go away, at least the educated are starting from a higher baseline.  We still might overestimate our own understanding, but I'd still bet that the understanding itself is higher -- and that's bound to make us make better decisions.

I'll end with a quote by John Green that I think is particularly apt, here:

Friday, July 10, 2015

A conspiracy of denial

I find it interesting how reluctant rational people are to saying to the irrational, unscientific ones, "You're wrong."

You'd think it'd be clear, right?  Science provides us with a straightforward protocol for establishing whether a particular model works.  There is hard evidence -- the theory is supported.  No evidence, or worse still, evidence against -- the theory must be revised or abandoned.  In practice, producing and interpreting the evidence might be difficult, time consuming, costly, or all three, but in principle, the idea is simple enough.

So why do even skeptics have such a hard time coming out and making an unequivocal statement that people like climate change deniers and creationists and anti-vaxxers are not just wrong, but wildly, dangerously wrong?

Some do, of course.  There have been some scathing papers written on the subject.  But the further you get from the science journals themselves, the more people tend to waffle, and say things like, "Well, that's your opinion" or "More research needs to be done."

My sense is that it's to avoid accusations of bias, of being controlled by special interests.  Tolerance of a variety of viewpoints has morphed, somehow, into the toxic attitude that we can't come right out and say that a blatantly incorrect claim is, simply, wrong.  Add into the mix the tendency of politicians to pander to the most vocal of their supporters, and you might have an explanation for why we have a 97% consensus (or higher) amongst scientists that climate change is real and anthropogenic in origin, but 56% of the majority party in the United States Senate are climate change deniers -- and a significant percentage of the minority party has chosen to remain silent on the matter.

[image courtesy of Victor Komyenko and the Wikimedia Commons]

But a recent study by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, and several other social psychology researchers at the University of Western Australia has shown that there is another reason that even skeptics are reluctant to speak up.  Their paper, "Recurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial," was published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, and it makes an interesting claim: unscientific claims, such as the denial of climate change or humanity's role in it, go hand in hand with conspiratorial thinking.

In other words, the rejection of science because of ideology is often coupled with a strong belief that the opposition is in cahoots with, perhaps even in the pay of, the unscrupulous, greedy, or outright evil.  We see it with the anti-vaxxers -- the countless scientific studies showing that vaccines are safe and effective were sponsored by, and therefore biased by, "Big Pharma."  The scientists who can demonstrate hard data supporting anthropogenic climate change are either falsifying the numbers so they can scare people and thus get grants from funding agencies, or are (in the words of Ted Cruz) "driven by politicians who have always supported more government control."

And of course, those who accept evolution are the worst of all, because they're just being controlled by Satan himself.

The study by Lewandowsky et al. studied blogs that had mentioned an earlier paper by the same researchers entitled "NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science" that had appeared three years ago in the journal Psychological Science.  This paper tried to show that people who exhibited conspiratorial thinking were more likely to hold unscientific views on other topics.  Considering the subject matter, the paper got a lot of mentions in blogs (both positive and negative).  So Lewandowsky et al. realized that this was, in itself, an excellent data set to study.

They sorted the commentary into two groups; comments that had come from climate-denial sites, and criticisms that had been made of the paper in legitimate science journals.  Conspiratorial thinking was broken down into the following subcategories:
  • Survey responses were scammed by "warmists"
  • “Skeptic” blogs were not contacted
  • There was no presentation of intermediate data
  • Different versions of the survey were used, thereby biasing the results
  • Control data was suppressed
  • Access to authors' websites was blocked
  • Global activism and government censorship has suppressed dissenting views
These were differentiated from criticisms that had to do with methodology, data analysis, and research protocols.

The comments were given (without sources) to undergraduates, who were asked to distinguish which criticisms had come from scientists, and which from climate change deniers.

The results were unequivocal.  Not only did the test subjects correctly identify which were which, but they recognized even subtle differences between a legitimate critique and accusations of conspiracy.  Climate change denial, it turns out, correlates across the board not with legitimate scientific criticism, but with conspiratorial thinking.  "I do not recall ever having seen such a strong effect in thirty years of behavioral research, and I have certainly never encountered ratings that favored the extreme end of the scale to the extent observed here," Lewandowsky said.  "Conspiracism, by definition, is not skepticism. Hence it is important to show that self-anointed 'skeptics' are not skeptical...  The [climate change denying] blog content was identified not only as conspiracist, but also as lacking in scholarly incisiveness.  This is very important because it shows that conspiracism isn’t 'a price you pay for skepticism'—on the contrary, conspiracism detracts from scholarly critique."

Me, I find this an unsurprising result.  And it explains why the politicians, even the ones who are reasonable and rational, have been unwilling to stand up and say "bullshit" to the likes of Ted Cruz and James Inhofe.  In politics, the ideal is to be unbiased, to listen to all sides, and not to be beholden to special interests.  It's risky to take a stand -- especially when powerful and vocal people are likely to accuse you of being a shill, a part of the evil conspiracy to fool the honest citizenry.  Easier to stay silent, to pretend that there still is a debate on the topic, than to come right out and say, "You're wrong."

Of course, the climate itself will eventually force our hand.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."  Here, we have a darker twist on this aphorism -- the climate will continue to change, the world to warm, regardless of how many snowballs idiots like Senator Inhofe throw onto the floor of the Senate.  2015 is already shaping up to break the temperature record -- set, by the way, in 2014.  Just in the first six months of the year we've had unprecedented droughts in California, floods in Texas and the Midwest, deadly heat waves in Pakistan -- and in March, three months past the solstice, Antarctica had its warmest day since records have been kept -- 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded at Esperanza Base on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Reality, it seems, has no particular problem with being part of the conspiracy.