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, October 31, 2015

Halloween hijinks

Happy Halloween!  The day that little children are rewarded for wandering around in the dark wearing plastic masks with improperly lined-up eyeholes by being given enough sugar to induce diabetes in the entire population of China!

Which, of course, makes me sound like a grumpy curmudgeon.  To be honest, it's the crass commercialism that bugs me, not the holiday itself.  I actually rather enjoy a good costume, and have been known to don one myself, on occasion.

So I don't have anything against Halloween.  I just wish the stores would hold off on pushing candy and plastic pumpkins and the like until a little closer to the day itself.  (And the same goes for Christmas decorations, which I've already seen in our local grocery store.)

But of course, there are people who have strong feelings about Halloween.  That it's not just an innocent fun time of putting on Elsa costumes and wandering around saying "trick or treat."  That it amounts to...

... giving your child directly to Satan.

At least, that's the contention of Linda Harvey of Mission America.  Harvey warns us that that any kind of participation in Halloween is tantamount to dropping your kids straight into the maw of hell:
It's Halloween time again, and parents need to use caution and discernment about their family's participation in Halloween events.  Here's why: it's all about the spiritual safety of our children...  Halloween celebrates the spirits of darkness like no other event.  Demons are real.  So is Satan.  And these forces are more active than ever in recent times in America because we are inviting their activity in our lives.  So here’s my question about Halloween: Why hand your children to dark spiritual powers on a silver platter?  Oh, sure, maybe your smaller children only collect candy at a few houses, but down the road, what will Halloween be in their lives?  It's sure to develop into trick-or-treating with their friends, minus parents, and then... parties.  And what goes on at a Halloween party?  I've been talking for years about the dangers for years, and I have not changed my mind; the dangers are more prevalent all the time.

No, not parties!  Anything but that!  What is the world coming to?  We start with little kids in Captain America suits, and before you know it, we have teenagers holding demonic parties with satanic blood sacrifice rituals.

Slippery slope, that.

Then we had the ever-amusing Rick Wiles, claiming that even donning a costume makes you a Satan-worshiper:
You really see this present in South America, where the Catholic Church recognizes very paganistic holidays and practices.  I've traveled to some Third World nations and developing nations, and I've seen some pretty bizarre things, the locals marching down the street in their costumes, devil masks and Satan and skeletons and so forth, and you stand there and you think, "What a bunch of uncivilized pagan barbarians!"  But you realize they're lost, they're spiritually lost, they don't know the truth, they don't know god, they don't know Jesus Christ.  But then you come to America on Halloween, and you go, "What a bunch of uncivilized pagan barbarians!"  It's the same group of people!  They're worshiping their god.  And that's what we have to tell people.  They're worshiping their god, their father.  Lucifer.  That's the reason they're drawn to this day.  It's because he is their father.  
Thus weaving together fear about demons with cultural insensitivity, prejudice, and white privilege to make a picture that is far uglier than some guy wearing a devil suit.

And the whole thing wouldn't be complete without Pat Robertson weighing in:
It used to be called All Saints' Eve.  Now we know it as Halloween...  That’s the day when millions of children and adults will be dressing up as devils, witches, and goblins … to celebrate Satan. They don’t realize what they’re doing.
So anyhow, that's this year's message from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Paranoia.  Myself, I'm not going to wear a costume this year, but it's not out of any fear that I'm offering myself up to the Dark Lord.  It's more that living out in the middle of nowhere, we never get any trick-or-treaters, so the only ones I'd be in a position to scare are my wife and dogs.  My wife already thinks I'm odd enough, and my dogs would probably just give me the Canine Head-Tilt of Puzzlement and then take a nap.

Instead, I'm thinking of going with a friend of mine to investigate a claim that our high school auditorium is haunted, something I've heard more than once from people who've been there at night.  I downloaded a ghost-hunting app on my iPad, so I should be all set.  Plus, our local fortuneteller consulted her mystical future-reading device (a "Magic 8 Ball").  She asked if we were likely to detect a ghost if we went to the auditorium on Halloween night, and was told "My Sources Say Yes."  So I think we've got a sure bet, here.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ghost wardrobe

Debating endlessly over silly conjectures is nothing new.  The claim has been endlessly circulated that the medieval scholastics, for example, conducted learned arguments over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  Whether they actually argued over the issue is itself the subject of debate; it seems like the earliest iteration of the idea for which we have written evidence is in The Reasons of the Christian Religion by 17th century Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, wherein he writes:
And Schibler with others, maketh the difference of extension to be this, that Angels can contract their whole substance into one part of space, and therefore have not Extra Partes.  Whereupon it is that the Schoolmen have questioned how many Angels may fit upon the point of a Needle?
Which I think we can agree is equally silly.  Given that no one has actually conducted a scientific examination of an angel, determining whether they have Extra Partes is kind of a waste of time.

Although you may recall that Alan Rickman as the Angel Metatron in Dogma made a significant point about angels not having genitalia.  Whether that's admissible as evidence, however, is dubious at best.

So there's a good bit of precedent for people wasting inordinate amounts of time arguing over questions that there's no way to settle.  Which is why I have to admit to rolling my eyes more than once over the article by Stephen Wagner, "Paranormal Phenomena Expert," called, "Why Are Ghosts Seen Wearing Clothes?"

I have to admit, however, that it was a question I'd never considered.  If the soul survives, and some souls decide not to go on to their Eternal Reward but to hang around here on Earth to bother the living, you have to wonder why their clothes came along with them.  Clothes, I would imagine, have no souls themselves, so the idea that you're seeing the Undying Spirit of grandpa's seersucker jacket is kind of ridiculous.

Be that as it may, most ghosts are seen fully clothed.  There are exceptions; in 2011 a woman in Cleveland claims to have captured video of two naked ghosts having sex.  But I think we have to admit that such afterlife in flagrante delicto is pretty uncommon.

Wagner spoke with some ghost hunters, and turns out that there's a variety of explanations that have been offered for this.  Troy Taylor, of the American Ghost Society (did you know there was an American Ghost Society?  I didn't) said that ghosts are seen clothed because a haunting is the replaying of a deceased spirit's visualization of itself, and we usually don't picture ourselves in the nude.

On the other hand, Stacey Jones, who calls herself the "Ghost Cop," says that ghosts can project themselves any way they want to.  So what they're doing is creating an image of themselves that has the effect they're after, whether it is eliciting fear, pity, sympathy, or a desire for revenge.  Does that mean that Anne Boleyn, for example, could wander around the Tower of London wearing a bunny costume?  You'd think that she'd be mighty bored after nearly five centuries of stalking around with her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm.

Ghost hunters Richard and Debbie Senate were even more terse about the whole thing.  It's a "gotcha question," they say.  But if pressed, they'd have to say that "Ghosts appear as wearing clothes because that's how they appear to us."  Which I think we can all agree is unimpeachable logic.

I find it pretty amusing that this is even a topic for debate.  Shouldn't we be more concerned about finding scientifically sound evidence that ghosts exist, rather than fretting over whether we get to take our wardrobe with us into the next world?  As I've said more than once, I am completely agnostic about the afterlife; I simply don't know.  I find some stories of near-death experiences and hauntings intriguing, but I've never found anything that has made me come down on one or the other side of the debate with any kind of certainty.  I'll find out one way or the other at some point no matter what, and if I haven't figured it out before then, I'm content to wait.

So I suppose this falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.  But it does raise the question of what kind of clothes I want to bring with me if it turns out you do get to choose.  If I end up haunting somewhere nice and tropical -- certainly my preference -- all I'll need is a pair of swim trunks.  On the other hand, if I'm stuck here in upstate New York, which seems more likely, I want my winter jacket, wool scarf, hat, and gloves.

Unless my spirit getting stuck here in perpetuity, with no cold-weather gear, is because I've been sent to hell by the powers-that-be.  Which unfortunately also seems fairly likely.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Spooky action, weeping angels, and quantum physics

One of the reasons I get so impatient with woo-woos is that science is plenty cool enough without making shit up.

There were two examples of this from the field of quantum physics this week.  Because quantum physics is already weird even without any embellishment or misinterpretation, it's been particularly prone to being co-opted by woo-woos in their search for explanations supporting (choose one or more of the following):
  • homeopathy
  • psychic abilities
  • astrology
  • the soul
  • "chakras" and "qi"
  • auras
But you don't need to do any of this to make quantum physics cool.  Let's start with an experiment regarding "quantum entanglement" -- the linking of two particles in a state describable by a single wave function.  While this might seem uninteresting at first, what it implies is that altering the spin state of particle A would instantaneously change the spin state of its entangled partner, particle B -- regardless of how far apart the two were.  It's almost as if the two were engaging in faster-than-light communication.

There is a further twist on this, and that's where things get even more interesting.  Most physicists couple the entanglement phenomenon with the idea of "local realism" -- that the two particles' spin must have been pointing in some direction prior to measurement, even if we didn't know what it was.  Thus, the two entangled particles might have "agreed" (to use an admittedly anthropomorphic term) on what the spin direction would be prior to being separated, simulating communication where there was none, and preserving Einstein's idea that the theories of relativity prohibit faster-than-light communication.

Scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have closed that loophole.  Using an extremely fast random number generator, they have altered the spin state of one of two entangled particles separated by 1.3 kilometers, and measured the effect on its partner.  The distance makes it impossible for sub-light-speed communication between the two.  This tosses out the idea of local realism; if the experiment's results hold -- and they certainly seem to be doing so -- the particles were indeed communicating faster than light, something that isn't supposed to be possible.  Einstein was so repelled by this idea that he called it "spooky action at a distance."

To quote the press release:
With the help of ICFO’s quantum random number generators, the Delft experiment gives a nearly perfect disproof of Einstein's world-view, in which "nothing travels faster than light" and “God does not play dice.”  At least one of these statements must be wrong. The laws that govern the Universe may indeed be a throw of the dice.
If this wasn't weird and cool enough, a second experiment performed right here at Cornell University supported one of the weirdest results of quantum theory -- that a system cannot change while you're watching it.

Graduate students Yogesh Patil and Srivatsan K. Chakram cooled about a billion atoms of rubidium to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, and suspended them between lasers.  Under such conditions, the atoms formed an orderly crystal lattice.  But because of an effect called "quantum tunneling," even though the atoms were cold -- and thus nearly motionless -- they could shift positions in the lattice, leading to the result that any given atom could be anywhere in the lattice at any time.

Patel and Chakram found that you can stop this effect simply by observing the atoms.

This is the best experimental verification yet of what's been nicknamed the "Quantum Zeno effect," after the Greek philosopher who said that motion was impossible because anyone moving from Point A to Point B would have to cross half the distance, then half the remaining distance, then half again, and so on ad infinitum -- and thus would never arrive.  Motion, Zeno said, was therefore an illusion.

"This is the first observation of the Quantum Zeno effect by real space measurement of atomic motion," lab director Mukund Vengalattore said.  "Also, due to the high degree of control we've been able to demonstrate in our experiments, we can gradually 'tune' the manner in which we observe these atoms.  Using this tuning, we've also been able to demonstrate an effect called 'emergent classicality' in this quantum system."

Myself, I'm not reminded so much of Zeno as I am of another thing that doesn't move while you watch it.

See what I mean?  You don't need to add all sorts of woo-woo nonsense to this stuff to make it fascinating.  It's cool enough on its own.

Of course, the problem is, understanding it takes some serious effort.  Physics is cool, but it's not easy.  All of which supports a contention I've had for years; that woo-wooism is, at its heart, based in laziness.

Me, I'd rather work a little harder and understand reality as it is.  Even if it leaves me afraid to blink.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Risk, research, and red meat

Most people really don't understand the concept of risk.

Let me give you an example.  Let's say that there is a woman who has been identified as being at risk of having a stroke.  She goes to a doctor, who offers her one of three medications to reduce her risk of stroke over the next five years.
Medication A would increase her likelihood of remaining stroke-free from 91% to 94%.
Medication B reduces her risk of a stroke by 1/3.
Medication C reduces her risk of a stroke by 3%.
Which one should she take?

Most folks seeing this problem pick B, largely because it sounds better -- a reduction by 1/3 is a lot, right?  3% is a pretty paltry change, and 91% and 94% chances of remaining healthy are pretty close.

It comes as a big surprise to find out that all three of them are the same.

If she has a 91% chance of remaining healthy without the medication and 94% with it, her risk of stroke drops from 9% to 6%.  That's a drop of 3%.

It's also an overall 1/3 reduction in her risk.

Such mathematical monkey-business is why there's been such confusion over the WHO's recent declaration that red meat causes cancer (and processed meat, such as hot dogs and pepperoni, are even worse).   In fact, processed meat is now in "Group 1" -- "substances that cause cancer" -- along with tobacco, human papilloma virus, and asbestos.

[image courtesy of photographer Jon Sullivan and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's even accompanied by statistics that seem, frankly, pretty terrifying:
[M]eta analysis found that colorectal cancer risk jumps by 17 percent for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat consumed each day.  Meanwhile with processed meat, colorectal cancer risk increases by 18 percent for every 50 grams (1.7 ounces) eaten each day.
Holy crap, right?  1.7 ounces a day (not much) translates to an 18% increase (a lot) in your chance of colorectal cancer (a disease that is high on most people's "Least Favorite Things to Think About" list).

Add that to another study that found that "2% of hot dogs contain human DNA," and it looks like we might see a lot of people finding other things for their summer barbecues.

The problem is that all of this stuff is misleading.  First, what does an 18% increase look like?  According to the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Fact Sheet on colorectal cancer, current rates of diagnosis estimate the number of new cases at 42.4 per 100,000 each year.  An 18% increase brings that number up to a little over 50.

In other words, if 100,000 people ate 1.7 ounces of salami a day for a year, you'd expect there to be eight more cases of colorectal cancer in that group as compared to a comparable non-salami group of 100,000.

Here's another problem with the WHO information.  "Group 1" substances are said to be "known to cause cancer."  But all that means is "known to increase your risk."  It doesn't say by how much, nor what the risk was to begin with.  For example, cycling to work and swimming naked in a crocodile-infested river are both outdoor activities that are "known to increase your risk of dying in an accident."  So on the "Outdoor Activities Risk" list, these would both be classified as "Group 1."

Which one would you prefer doing?

At the risk of beating the point unto death, Casey Dunlop of Cancer Research UK cited statistics illustrating how silly it is to put tobacco and bacon in the same category.  Tobacco is a product that is toxic in any amount, confers no benefits whatsoever upon the people consuming it, and is directly responsible for 86% of lung cancers and 19% of all cancers combined.  Even assuming the worst-case scenario, daily consumption of processed meat is responsible for 21% of colorectal cancers and 3% of all cancers combined.

Puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

Oh, and about the human DNA in hot dogs thing; this doesn't mean that the hot dog manufacturers are incorporating Soylent Green into their meat.  Given the sensitivity of DNA tests, this probably means the presence of a few cells from a bit of dry skin or something.  And if you think that it's only hot dogs that have this kind of contamination, I have news for you.  The amount of extraneous cellular material (to put it euphemistically) that we consume by accident on a daily basis has not been tested, but is undoubtedly high.  If you are a pet owner, and don't think you consume dog and/or cat DNA every single day, well... either you clean your house far more frequently and thoroughly than I do, or you're living in a fool's paradise.

And amazingly enough, most of us are pretty healthy.  Funny thing, that.

Now, I'm not saying we should eat hot dogs and bacon and pepperoni with wild abandon.  Reducing your consumption of red and processed meat is definitely a good thing.  But everything has dangers; there are risks associated with every food out there.  The trick is to figure out which calculated risks are worth taking, and what the tradeoff is.

After all, as Chuck Palahniuk put it in Fight Club, "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Sesame Street vaccination conspiracy

A lot of you might have heard about the newest character on Sesame Street -- a little girl named Julia who is autistic.

It's a gutsy move by a show long known for its efforts to teach children about fairness and compassion and the effects of social stigma.  Its goal statement has included right from the beginning the intent to encourage children to "appreciate cultural diversity by modeling people who differ in appearance, action, or point of view playing together, working together, making friends, and resolving conflicts."  From its inception, there was a deliberate decision made to have minorities and people of various ages deeply represented, and not simply to have a token minority character or two.  They also never shied away from helping children to deal with difficult topics -- unusual in a kids' show.  For example, Sesame Street deliberately (and tactfully) addressed the concerns and fears children had after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

So the move to include an autistic character was perhaps to be expected from the directors of such a thoughtful and forward-thinking show.  The author of the story introducing the character, Leslie Kimmerman, wrote, "More than 20 years ago, my beautiful son received the diagnosis of autism, and my world changed instantly and profoundly.  I knew nothing about autism, and it seemed that those around me — even the professionals — didn’t know much either.  Today, happily, that has changed."

She and the others involved in the creation of the character hope that this will bring awareness and understanding, given that non-autistic children watching the show will inevitably interact with autistic children in school, and also to help autistic viewers to feel more accepted.  Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Street's senior vice president, said, "Children with autism are five times more likely to get bullied.  And with one in 68 children having autism, that’s a lot of bullying.  Our goal is to bring forth what all children share in common, not their differences.  Children with autism share in the joy of playing and loving and being friends and being part of a group."

Hard to see what's to criticize about that.  I have several friends with autistic children, and the response from them has been uniformly positive.  So imagine my surprise when I found out that the anti-vaxxers are saying that the move is actually an end run by "Big Pharma" to make autism seem normal, so that we'll continue to get vaccinated.

It'll probably come as no surprise that the person spearheading the claim is Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams, founder of Natural News.  Adams has repeatedly demonstrated that he doesn't have a very firm grasp on reality -- a quick perusal of the headlines on Natural News is usually sufficient to confirm that.  But this has revealed an uglier side of his narrative, one which the glitzy, health food polish of the site might hide.

Adams writes, "The rollout of autistic Julia is Sesame Street’s attempt to ‘normalize’ vaccine injuries and depict those victimized by vaccines as happy, ‘amazing’ children rather than admitting the truth that vaccines cause autism in some children and we should therefore make vaccines safer and less frequent to save those children from a lifetime of neurological damage."

Well, Mike, let's start out with the obvious.  (The more sensitive members of the studio audience might want to plug their ears.)

VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM, YOU ANTI-SCIENCE, IRRATIONAL, WILLFULLY IGNORANT LOON.  What they do is they protect children from devastating diseases that used to kill or permanently injure thousands every year.  Just because every scientific study done on the topic has confirmed results that run counter to the mission statement of your company does not mean that there's a conspiracy to discredit you.

It simply means that you are wrong.

But second, and more encouragingly, I think Adams may have miscalculated this time.  To discredit an attempt to "normalize" autistic children -- his words, not mine -- puts him in serious danger of alienating the very people he's dependent on for support, namely parents of autistic children whom he has hoodwinked into believing that their kids' health issues were caused by vaccination.  Even if you are a parent of an autistic child who believes that modern medicine is responsible for autism, calling a television show that is trying to heighten awareness and understanding of your child's condition a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical companies doesn't seem like it would strengthen the anti-vaxxers' credibility.

More likely, it would bring up thoughts of, "Wait, I thought he actually cared about autistic children.  If so, why is he condemning a show that is working towards seeing them treated fairly?"

So as a PR move, it stands a good chance of backfiring, which is all to the good.

But it's also a bit puzzling, even coming from a guy who shows every evidence of having spent too much time doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  Okay, in Adams's BizarroWorld, "Big Pharma" has fucked things up royally by creating vaccines that cause neurological damage in children.  If so, then why on earth would they respond by spending millions of dollars on a campaign to "normalize autism" on a children's show instead of simply making the vaccines safer?

Maybe it's because the vaccines are already safe, the scientists are right -- and Mike Adams has gone even further off the deep end than he was before, however impossible that sounds.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Defending the vegetarians

October must be International Confirmation Bias Month, or something.

First we had the conspiracy theorists saying that a probably-Photoshopped photograph of a floating city was evidence that Project Blue Beam was targeting China with a death ray.  Then religious types claimed that there was a miraculous artifact from 9/11, in the form of a bible page "fused to a melted steel beam," despite the fact that paper, being flammable, would be awfully hard to fuse to a red-hot piece of metal.  Then we had people falling for a snake-oil cure-all called "ORMUS," one version of which turns out to be peppermint-flavored dried grass clippings.  We had a hum in Taos, New Mexico that everyone is freaking out about but which probably is nothing more than tinnitus, some erosion patterns on the Great Sphinx that have convinced some scientists that it's 200 times older than it actually is, and finally people still vehemently believing that birth order determines personality despite a study of 377,000 people that says that it doesn't.

Awfully pervasive, confirmation bias.  Not to mention frustrating.  Which is why the latest example caused me to do multiple facepalms.

It all started, as so many bogus news stories do, with Fox News.  A couple of weeks ago they ran a story called "One-third of Vegetarians Eat Meat When They Get Drunk," which claims that a study shows that 37% of British vegetarians eat meat -- and then won't admit it afterwards -- when they've been imbibing.

Well, this story got some serious traction on social media, especially amongst that subsection of meat eaters who like to think of vegetarians and vegans as holier-than-thou hypocrites.  More than one has brought up the Larry Groce song "Junk Food Junkie," about the guy who leads a double life, wearing natural fibers and eating macrobiotic health food during the day, and going out secretly for a cheeseburger at night:
In the daytime I'm Mr Natural
Just as healthy as I can be
But at night I'm a junk food junkie
Good lord have pity on me
The story fit the narrative so well that it wasn't even questioned.

The problem is, it turns out that the study wasn't done by any kind of scientific team, it was done by a  "U.K.-based discount code website" called "VoucherCodesPro."  Initially, this wasn't said explicitly in the story, but very quickly (some) people caught on that we weren't talking about cutting-edge science.  We weren't, in fact, talking about science at all.   Even after Fox edited the article to include the source in the first paragraph, people still spread it all over the place, hee-hawing about how funny those hypocritical vegetarians are, and almost none of them questioning whether the source itself was valid.  An exposé over at the vegetarian/vegan blog The Avocadbro put it this way:
When you see all of these news outlets report the same thing, you have to assume at least one reporter—if not two, three or all of them—spent some time verifying the study. Apparently none of that happened.  Again, I’m still holding out a small percentage of hope that I’m wrong about this.  But I’m just some random Internet blogger.  It’s up to one of the many reporters who passed along these surveys to scrutinize their sources... How, apparently, did not a single one of these reporters, after they typed (or copy and pasted) the words “a survey by coupon website Voucher Codes Pro,” stop and think to themselves: What?  Is this a legitimate source?
Well, yeah.  Exactly.  And you should read the post over at The Avocadbro in its entirety, because it takes apart the Fox News claim one piece at a time -- leaving you questioning not only the results of the poll, but whether there was a poll conducted at all, or if the people over at "VoucherCodesPro" simply made the entire thing up.

Look, I'm not a vegetarian myself.  I think a t-bone steak with a glass of fine red wine is one of the real pleasures in life.  I have nothing against the farming of animals for meat as long as it's done humanely, and hunting as long as it's done responsibly.

But my personal dietary preferences shouldn't lead me to accept without question an accusation of hypocrisy against people who make different choices.  Especially when the accusation is based on information that is almost certainly specious.

And man, I wish there was some way that applying the "Check your sources" rule could become mandatory before being allowed to post anything on social media.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Exploding the birth-order myth

How often have you heard a friend mention an odd characteristic of a mutual acquaintance, and follow it up with a statement like, "Well, he's a middle child," leaving you both nodding knowingly as if that explained it?

Conscientious, strong-willed eldest children.  Lost, rebellious middles.  Immature, demanding youngests.  Then there's my situation -- the spoiled, tightly-wound only children, who were doted upon by their parents and had their every whim met immediately.

I know that wasn't really true in my case; far from being overprotected, my youth was more a case of free-range parenting.  After school, and all summer long, my parents' style could be summed up as "Be back by dinner and try not to break any bones.  Either yours or anyone else's."  So I knew that at least from a sample size of one, there was something wrong with the birth-order-determines-personality model.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Even seeing other exceptions here and there never left me confident enough to contradict the prevailing wisdom.  After all, the plural of anecdote is not data.  But now a pair of studies has conclusively disproven the connection between birth order and... anything.

In the first, a trio of psychologists at the University of Leipzig analyzed personality assessments for a huge sample size (they had data for over 20,000 individuals), looking for how they scored on what are called the "Big Five" features of personality -- extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and imagination.  They found no correlation whatsoever between birth order and any of those.  In their words:
[W]e consistently found no birth-order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination.  On the basis of the high statistical power and the consistent results across samples and analytical designs, we must conclude that birth order does not have a lasting effect on broad personality traits outside of the intellectual domain.
A similar, but much larger study done at the University of Illinois -- this one of 377,000 high school students -- also found no correlation whatsoever:
We would have to say that, to the extent that these effect sizes are accurate estimates of the true effect, birth order does not seem to be an important consideration for understanding either the development of personality traits or the development of intelligence in the between-family context.  One needs only to look at the “confounds,” such as parental socio-economic status and gender, for factors that warrant much more attention given the magnitude of their effects relative to the effects of birth order.
So if there really is nothing to the birth-order effect, why is it such a persistent myth?  I think there are two things going on, here.  One is that during childhood, older children differ in maturity from their younger siblings because... well, they're older.  Of course a fifteen-year-old is going to be more conscientious and articulate than his seven-year-old brother.  There'd be something seriously wrong if he weren't.  So we tend to see any differences that exist between siblings and interpret them in light of the model we already had, thus reinforcing the model itself -- even if it's wrong.

Because that's the second problem -- our old arch-nemesis confirmation bias.  Once we think we know what's going on, our confidence in it becomes unshakable.   I have to wonder how many people are reading this post, and thinking, "Yes, but for my own kids, the birth-order effect works.  So I still believe it."  It's a natural enough human tendency.

On the other hand, I think you have to admit that your own personal family's characteristics really aren't going to call into question a scholarly analysis of 377,000 people.

So that's pretty much that.  No more blaming your appreciation of fart jokes on being an immature youngest child.  And my friends and family will have to cast around for a different explanation for why I'm as neurotic as I am.  There probably is an explanation, but my being an only child isn't it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rethinking the Sphinx

Can we get something straight, here?

The statement, "Some radical ideas have proven true" is not equivalent to "if an idea is radical, it must be true."  There are many, many ideas out there that are simply batshit crazy, and the experts think they're wrong for a reason.

And you do not improve your case by bringing up the fact that "they disbelieved Einstein at first, too."

This comes up because of a loony idea that appeared over at the site Ancient Code that claims that the Egyptian Sphinx is 800,000 years old.  And no, I didn't slip and put in too many zeroes.  There are apparently a couple of geochemists over at the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine who analyzed erosion and wear patterns in the rock from which the Sphinx is built, and concluded that the only possible explanation is that the Sphinx is 200 times older than archeologists are telling us.

This just brings up two questions:
  1. You do realize that 800,000 years ago, there were no modern humans?
  2. Where did you get your degrees from, Big Bob's Discount Diploma Warehouse?
So at first I thought this was some kind of hoax.  But no, the two scientists, I. Vyacheslav Manichev and Alexander G. Parkhomenko, are apparently serious. "The absolute mark of the upper large erosion hollow of the Sphinx corresponds to the level of water surface which took place in the Early Pleistocene," Manichev and Parkhomeno write.  "The Great Egyptian Sphinx had already stood on the Giza Plateau by that geological (historical) time."

The article, which quotes extensively from their paper, describes their argument, which seems to be based on an assumption that the weathering of the rock from which the Sphinx is built couldn't have happened in 4,500-odd years.  Plus, as the Sphinx is thought to have spent at least part of that time covered in sand and thus protected from damage, there's no way all of the erosion we see can be due to processes that have occurred in that time.  We then hear about the geological history of the area around Giza, including the presence of a freshwater lake 800,000 years ago that could account for the condition of the Sphinx.

No mention is made of the fact that the builders of the Sphinx could have constructed it from rock that was already partially weathered.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But it's only at the very end of the article that they admit the worst problem with all of this:
Some might say that the theory proposed by Manichev and Parkhomenko is very extreme because it places the Great Sphinx in an era where there were no humans, according to currently accepted evolutionary patterns.  Furthermore, as it has been demonstrated, the two megalithic temples, located adjacent to the Great Sphinx were built by the same stone which means that the new dating of the Sphinx drags these monuments with the Sphinx back 800,000 years.  In other words, this means that ancient civilizations inhabited our planet much longer than mainstream scientists are willing to accept.
So, if some model of geological weathering requires that an archeological artifact be 200 times older than anyone thought, it must be all of the other archeological, historical, and biological evidence that is wrong, not something amiss with the model itself?

You'd think this would be a case where most everyone would read this and say, "Yeah, right," and walk away, snickering softly.  But as we've seen before, people love an iconoclast.  All you have to do is claim that you've shown that the fancy-pants ivory-tower scientific experts are wrong about something, and you'll have wingnuts of all descriptions swarming to your defense.  This claim showed up on Reddit, over at the r/conspiracy subreddit, a few days ago, and here are a few of the responses posted:
As someone who has always been into history and science (and the popularly accepted ideas in those fields), lately I've been really interested in alternate, extended human timelines and alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution (which as described in The Origin of Species, is actually much rougher and less accurate than mainstream education would have you think, don't get me wrong we can watch viruses and even plants and animals adapt and "evolve" on a small scale, but Darwin's theory goes a lot further than that). 
Look into the Thunder Bolt Project, pretty interesting.  A lot of shared culture, mythology, cave paintings can be traced back to electrical events witnessed in the sky, by cultures that never spoke to one another. 
Get into any meaningful science discussion about the true nature of reality, and fairly soon the discussion will go toward "14th dimensional hyper-strings" and "wave/particle duality" or "multiverses".  Point being, is that eventually it all becomes philosophy / metaphysics.  And all of it is beyond our level of comprehension.  This is whats [sic] so frustrating in speaking to the "Bill Nye" science types.  You know the ones, with a simple childlike answer for everything.  They are truly no more inquisitive nor intelligent than the average bible thumper.  Instead of quoting John 3:16, they simply reflexively quote their overly simplistic 5th grade science book.  What's so sad is they go through their life actually believing that they have some sort of lock on the objective nature or reality. 
If all possibilities exist, then what we see as our past and the course of evolution up until this point is precisely the way things had to happen in order that we be here right now, no matter how improbable. That, I believe, is the explanation for the seemingly magical leaps in evolution and indeed the genesis of life in this universe itself.  It happened that way in order for us to be here now, and why we are here now is not a question that we can answer. 
Science and scientists want to have all of the answers, they want to have everyone just bow down and believe, they're worse than the religions, look at how they treated Einstein, first he was crazy, now everyone thinks that relativity is gospel.
The last one is the one that made me facepalm the hardest.  Not only is the author an odds-on favorite for a gold medal in the Olympic Comma Splice Event, (s)he apparently doesn't realize that Einstein has one other thing on his side besides blind devotion: evidence.

Relativity has been tested every which way from Sunday -- pressed harder, honestly, than a lot of other scientific models, because its conclusions are so counterintuitive.  And every time, the evidence has supported Einstein.

And where is the support for there having been modern, monument-building humans in the Nile Valley 800,000 years ago?


I'm waiting.

*more crickets*

Thought so.  You can't just make a claim, and then state that your explanation is the only possibility, so fiat lux and q.e.d. and so on.  It has to explain all of the relevant data, or there's something wrong with your model.

Just being a radical swim-against-the-current type isn't enough.  "Many great thinkers were criticized at first" is not logically equivalent to, "I'm being criticized, therefore I must be a great thinker."

And if any further evidence is uncovered that the Sphinx is 800,000 years old, I'll eat it for breakfast.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Four days ago, I wrote about a new study that appears to show that trans-cranial magnetic stimulation of the posterior medial frontal cortex of the brain causes a decrease in belief in god.

As I mentioned in the post, the effect was small, the sample size was small, and the whole thing is a lot flimsier than the media seemed to treat it.  Headlines like "Scientists Use Brain Stimulation to Make You Stop Believing in God" vastly overplay the actual results of the research, turning a mildly interesting psychological study into hyped, sensationalized clickbait.

But there is never a misinterpretation of scientific research so skewed that you can't respond by misunderstanding the misinterpretation, and making it way worse.  Conservative talk radio host Joe Miller, in interviewing Cornell adjunct professor of statistics William Briggs, put forth the opinion that such a technique could be used to suck religion out of the devout.

The funny thing about the piece, which is about ten minutes long and is well worth giving a listen, is that Briggs starts out by making precisely the same objections to the study that I did -- that the number of test subjects was too small to show an overall effect, that self-reporting as a means of getting data on psychology is inherently flawed, and that trying to come up with a metric for a complex behavior like religious belief is somewhere between difficult and impossible.  But instead of coming to the conclusion that because of all of this, the study probably isn't worth worrying about, Briggs and Miller went the opposite way -- that this is just the first of many attempts by evil progressives to "use any aggressive tactics" to destroy faith.

Miller also brought up the inevitable role of the "transgender agenda" in pushing such abuses of technology.  This agenda, according to Miller, involves "no parameters on sexual acts of behavior," and requires the destruction of Christianity to achieve its ends.

Notwithstanding the fact that the transgender people I know seem more concerned with living their own lives free of ridicule, criticism, and threat than they do with telling anyone else what to believe, Miller paints progressives  in general and LGBT individuals in particular as wanting to achieve a no-holds-barred attitude toward sex any way they can, up to and including "zapping people's brains with magnets" in such a way as to destroy their belief in god.  And, Miller adds darkly, along the way leaving them "incapable of adding two plus two."

So we start with a study that most likely didn't demonstrate anything of interest, and we end up with evil transgender people attaching magnets to the skulls of the devout to suck Jesus out of their brains.

What I find most interesting about this fear talk is that it glosses over one little fact that Briggs actually let slip during the interview (and Miller jetted past without a mention) -- 3/4 of the people in the United States are still Christian.  Just about every public office in the land is held by a Christian.  Despite the fact that Article VI of the Constitution states, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," one of the quickest ways not to get elected in the United States is to admit to being an atheist -- or, worse, to hint that religion might wield too much power over politics.

So the idea that even if the trans-cranial magnetic stimulation did reduce religiosity (it probably didn't), and the effect was permanent (it wasn't), you'd still have to zap something like 240 million people to produce an effect.

That, my friends, is a shitload of magnet-wielding transgender people.

But of course, it's pretty obvious why people like Miller traffic in such fact-free paranoia.  Fear tends to make people close ranks, circle the wagons, and double down on what they believe.  The surest way to get voters to espouse a view is to make them afraid of what will happen if they don't.  "Vote conservative," Miller is saying, "unless you want transgender people sneaking into your home and zapping your brain with magnets."

How someone could believe something like this is a question worth asking; but as we've seen so many times before, when you engage the emotions -- especially fear -- the logic centers of the brain pretty much go offline.

Which means that Miller has also succeeded in brain zapping, without using even a single magnet.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hums, bloops, and snores

Today I was perusing the online news and happened to note a link to LiveScience called "The Ten Top Unexplained Phenomena."  Contrary to its name, LiveScience seems to specialize in catchy little blurbs on stuff that hardly qualify as actual science, but do attract the attention because they're either about stuff that most everyone is interested in even if they won't admit it (e.g. sex) or stuff that many of us are curious about even though some of us think it's nonsense (e.g. the supernatural).  This particular "top ten list" was predictably ordinary, and listed several things as "unexplained" that I have a fairly good explanation for, such as psychic phenomena (explanation: people are gullible), UFOs (explanation: people are gullible), Bigfoot (explanation: people are gullible), and mysterious disappearances, such as that of Jimmy Hoffa (explanation: don't fuck with the Mafia).  But the last unexplained phenomenon on LiveScience's list was one I'd never heard of, so of course that caught my attention.

It's called the "Taos Hum."  The Taos Hum is, as you presumably have already figured out, a pervasive humming noise heard near Taos, New Mexico.  (Check out the Taos Hum Page if you're interested in more information, or in signing up for the Taos Hum email listserv. Of course there's a listserv.)  The Hum was featured on the television show Unsolved Mysteries a while back, wherein they tried to capture the hum on recording equipment and failed, so they instead created an audio clip that was what the hum allegedly sounds like, to people who can hear it.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

However, as anyone knows who's ever seen Unsolved Mysteries or other shows like it, they completely downplayed that the audio clip wasn't actually a recording of the real hum, but a simulation of a sound that may or may not exist in the first place.  It didn't stop them from acting all amazed and freaked out when they were listening to it, which made me want to scream, "You people just made this idiotic recording, and you're acting like it's real!  Are you crazy, or just stupid?"  But I didn't, because yelling at a video clip would make my family members ask the same question about me.

All of this, of course, is not to say that the Hum may not exist.  There are peculiar sounds in the world, many of them without a current explanation, and not all of which have proven impossible to detect.  An unexplained hum in Auckland, New Zealand, for example, was actually captured in a recording.  It is an acoustic signal that peaks at 56 hertz, near the bottom of the range of audibility for most people, and has yet to be explained.  But this makes it all the more odd that the Taos Hum hasn't been detected on sound equipment, much less recorded -- the Unsolved Mysteries people made it sound like making recording devices detect in that range is extremely difficult, when in fact it isn't hard at all.  A typical cassette recorder isn't very sensitive in that range, no; but with professional recording equipment, it shouldn't be a problem.

Another problem is how few people actually report hearing it.  Even a website that clearly considers the Hum to be real, and suggests as an explanation something that would be worthy of an episode of The X Files -- they imply that the Hum is either of supernatural origin, or caused by some secret government technology -- admits that only 2% of Taos residents can hear it.  Most people who've allegedly heard the phenomenon, when asked to listen to recordings of various low frequency sounds and identify which is closest, perk up when they hear recordings in the 50-80 hertz range, which is definitely in the audible range for most people with unimpaired hearing.  This raises the question of why, if it's as powerful as hearers say it is (some even say they can't sleep when the Hum is going on), everyone in Taos who isn't deaf hasn't reported the phenomenon.

Still, 2% is enough people that it deserves an explanation.  I tend to lean toward the idea that it's some form of tinnitus, combined with a dose of confirmation bias -- in this case, accepting an appealing lack of an explanation, and interpreting further anecdotal reports as evidence of its being some kind of grand mystery.  Once you think that the low-pitched ringing in your ears is a real phenomenon that is audible by others, you (1) pay more attention to it, and (2) become more and more convinced that it's true every time it subsequently happens.

I also must add, however, that I've been to Taos, and not only did I not hear any humming noise, I was immediately struck by the fact that there seemed to be an inordinately large number of Purveyors of Woo-Wooness -- Tarot card readers, palm readers, sellers of crystals, and metaphysical book stores.  Even at the time, before I'd ever heard of the Hum, it seemed to me a population of people who were primed to interpret everything with a mystical twist.

Of course, I could be wrong.  It's been known to happen.  After all, the Auckland Hum was shown to be a real phenomenon, and researchers haven't been able to find anything that explains it.  There are lots of unexplained noises in the world -- the most famous being the Bloop, which has actually been recorded by subs.  Of course, with the Bloop, there's a perfectly rational explanation; it's the noise made by Cthulhu snoring.  You think I'm joking.  Apparently the most common projected origin for the Bloops recorded by subs is right near the spot where H. P. Lovecraft said, in The Call of Cthulhu, stands the majestic sunken city of R'lyeh, where the octopoid god lies snoozing peacefully.  This fact should put the quietus on storming in there with subs and recording equipment.  It's not that I'm for impeding the progress of science, mind you; it's just that we ought to be careful.  Cthulhu, as far as I've heard, is not a morning person, and resents being awakened suddenly.  He also tends to wake up hungry, and with a serious case of morning breath.

On the other hand, honestly demands that I mention that in the case of the Bloop, there's a more likely explanation than the snoring of aquatic Elder Gods.  Just last year, some scientists over at NOAA found pretty good evidence that the Bloop is the sound of Antarctic ice sheets breaking up, distorted by being transmitted for long distances underwater.  Which is kind of a relief.  As interesting as the Lovecraftian pantheon is, I'd prefer that they weren't real, given the frequency with which his main characters had run-ins with Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep et al. and ended up missing valuable limbs.

But I digress.

Assuming the Taos Hum actually is a real, external phenomenon, and isn't just a case of collective tinnitus or a resonance generated by a critical mass of woo-woos, it definitely deserves some more careful exploration.  I'd volunteer, but it's getting kind of late in the year, and Taos is one place in the United States that is even colder and snowier in the winter than upstate New York.  So I think any investigative team I lead will have to wait until spring.  Call me a wuss, but freezing my ass off listening for a sound that only 2% of people can hear anyway doesn't sound that inviting.  So I'm not planning on a trip to Taos any time soon, and if you're a Taos resident, you'll just have to deal with it for the time being.  I'll do what I can on my next visit, but until then, you'll just have to hum along or else ignore it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

ORMUS to the rescue

Ever heard of ORMUS?

I hadn't, until a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link.  And when I got it, my first thought was that ORMUS sounds like the villain from a cut-rate 1960s science fiction movie.

But no.  ORMUS stands for "orbitally rearranged monoatomic elements," even though that spells ORME and not ORMUS.  The whole thing was supposedly discovered in 1975 by healer and erstwhile Arizona cotton farmer David Hudson, who claimed that he was drying out some minerals in the sunlight, but they exploded and disappeared completely, thus leading him to the discovery of "an exotic state of matter, where the metals do not form any bonds or crystals but exist as separate single atoms" and disproving the First Law of Thermodynamics simultaneously.  Even though ingesting stuff that explodes violently is generally speaking a bad idea, Hudson said that said exotic matter was good for damn near anything.  According to RationalWiki, here's a "non-exhaustive list" of things that ORMUS can allegedly do:
  • Cure all forms of disease, including cancer and AIDS
  • Correct errors in the DNA
  • Act as a superconductor
  • Emit gamma radiation
  • Partially levitate in the Earth's magnetic field
  • Read a person's mind
  • Have a "weigh-ability" different from mass, which probably means an inertial mass different from the gravitational mass
  • Be fused into a transparent glass
  • Act as a flash powder, causing "explosions of light"
  • Make severed cat tails grow back
Notwithstanding that several of them seem mutually exclusive -- such as "correct errors in the DNA" and "emit gamma radiation" -- Hudson and his followers have insisted that the stuff is real.  This is despite the fact that Hudson himself gives every evidence of having failed 8th grade physical science; for example, he repeatedly says thathere are 1018 ergs in one gauss, which is odd because an "erg" is a unit of energy and a "gauss" a unit of magnetic flux density, which are not even close to the same thing.  So this statement is a little like trying to figure out how many minutes there are in a kilogram.

After reading the RationalWiki  article I thought, "Okay, this claim is so obviously wrong that no one could possibly fall for it."  So I did a search for "ORMUS products."

And turns out, I was the one who was wrong.  About people falling for it, at least.  I got 425,000 hits, which made me want to weep softly while banging my forehead on my desk.

First, no idiotic alternative medicine claim would be complete without an equally idiotic article in Natural News supporting it.  And this one is a doozy -- it claims that ORMUS is the "Philosopher's Stone," thus vindicating not only David Hudson but the medieval alchemists.  But here are a few of the products I found featuring ORMUS:
  • "Monatomic [sic] Gold Platinum Fortified ORMUS Elixir," which "quickly delivers trillions of monatomic particles connecting you to your subtle energy body thereby opening up a person's many acupuncture points and restoring the proper flow to these starved locations, thus bringing the body back into ease and providing the correct energetic template for future cellular regeneration."
  • "SunWarrior ORMUS Peppermint Supergreens," which appears to be dried grass flavored with mint, but which was "nurtured... in a fertile, mineral-rich volcanic soil" and thus is "enriched with trace minerals."
  • "Crown Chakra ORMUS," which allows you to "Connect with Spiritual Energy to Live by Divine Purpose and Will, Be Tranquil, Complete, Compassionate, Empathetic and Self-aware, [and] Help Illuminate the Path for Others," and thus blends the ORMUS nonsense with chakra nonsense for a nice woo-woo mélange.
  • "Mountain Manna," which combines ORMUS with homeopathy for double the fun, and claims that ORMUS has something to do with the manna from the bible.  Oh, and "Their unique energy frequencies tend to bring a holistic balance to the nervous, and cellular systems, as well as the subtle bodies," because a claim of this sort would not be complete without a mention of "frequencies."
  • And finally, "Gaia Thera ORMUS Gold," which at a whopping $530 will cure what ails you, and comes with the selling point, "Does nuclear radiation, EMF damage, Chem-trails, tumors, E. coli in your gut, some yet unnamed disease or any other uncontrolled environmental toxins scare the xxxx out of you?... Gaia Thera ORMUS Gold could be the answer... Some call it the Fountain of Youth."
And on and on and on.  Each one is laden with testimonials, meaning that there are people who are actually falling for this nonsense, and spending their good, hard-earned money on it.

Of course, "This product is not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any human disease."  Because that's not what telling people that ORMUS "could be the answer" to "tumors... and some yet unnamed disease" amounts to.

Yes, I know the caveat emptor principle.  But preying on people who evidently didn't do well in public school science classes just isn't nice.  And when you add the fact that some of the people being ripped off are probably desperately ill, it really pisses me off.

It makes me wish that there was a new arm of the FDA called the "Prove It Department."  When people make claims like this, a couple of guys would show up at their door and say, "Okay, you say that your product contains unique quantum energy frequency wavelengths.  Prove it." And if they can't, they have their business license taken away.

But that's a forlorn hope, I'm afraid.  There's a sucker born every minute, and that means that we'll never see the hucksters like these run out of business. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Floating cities and fused books

Confirmation bias really bugs me.

This is the tendency of people to accept minuscule amounts of evidence if it seems to support what they already believed.  It's a natural enough human failing, I suppose; as Kathryn Schulz points out, it's only possible for us to consider being wrong in the abstract.  When we try to think, in the here and now, of what we might currently be wrong about, it's impossible to come up with a single thing -- even if we know it's highly unlikely that we're right about everything we believe.

But still.  Confirmation bias is such an amazing fuel for woo-woo belief, it's hard not to hate it.  And I saw two examples of headdesk-quality confirmation bias just in the last two days, claims that would be immediately ridiculous to anyone who didn't already have their heads in the clouds.

I use the clouds analogy deliberately, because the first claim has to do with there being a giant floating city in China.  This particular far-fetched tale is popular amongst the crowd who thinks that what we experience is constantly being manipulated by HAARP and "Project BlueBeam" and other such mind-altering ray guns from space.  Here's the photograph that gave rise to the claim:

Now, I have to admit that it's pretty creepy looking, and that if I saw something like this, I'd be mighty freaked out.  But listen to how the source I linked above explains it:
Project Blue Beam... claims that NASA will soon attempt to inaugurate the Illuminati-sponsored Satanic New World Order (NWO) agenda under the authority of the Antichrist by using holographic image projection technology to simulate the second coming of Christ, or a space alien invasion of Earth.
There's also a bit in there about this signaling the "return of the biblical Fallen Angels."

The problem is, even if this isn't a digitally-altered photograph, there's a perfectly reasonable natural explanation -- that this is an example of atmospheric refraction, where strong temperature gradients in the atmosphere causes the air to bend light rather like a lens.  On rare occasions, this leads to the illusion that a distant object is hovering above the horizon.

But of course, understanding that requires that you know some physics.  Much easier to babble about the Illuminati and Fallen Angels.

The second claim has to do with the revelation that someone found a bible page "fused to a piece of steel beam" after 9/11.  Much is being made of the fact that the page is the "turn the other cheek" passage from the Gospel of Matthew, and that this is god sending us a personal message.

Notwithstanding the religious conundrum of why an all-powerful god would choose to make a page from the bible survive rather than all of the innocent people on the hijacked airliner, we also have the minor problem that (1) the earliest iteration of the story dates from 2011, not 2002 as mentioned in the claim, and (2) paper, being flammable, would not "fuse to steel."  It would simply burn to ash.

This didn't stop The This Isn't Really History Channel from doing a documentary about it in 2013 (and also claiming that the discovery was made in 2002 and for some reason kept secret for nine years), and from the religious passing the story around on social media as if it were some kind of miracle, rather than being evidence that god has an odd set of priorities.

You see what you want to see.  Whether it's god sending message in 9/11 debris, or floating cities heralding the beginning of the Satanic New World Order.

The whole thing is kind of maddening.  I know we all do it, to some extent; there may well be unconsidered parts of my own belief system that I am taking for granted because of the same kind of confirmation bias that plagues everyone.  I get that.  But it sure would be nice if we spent more time doing analysis of what we're claiming -- and applying a little bit of rationality to what we believe to be true.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dialing in belief

A recent study at UCLA has both atheists and the religious buzzing.

A paper called "Neuromodulation of Group Prejudice and Religious Belief" describes research at UCLA by Colin Holbrook, Keise Izuma, Choi Deblieck, Daniel M. T. Fessler,  and Marco Iacoboni, and appeared  in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience last week.  And what it seems to show that down-regulating part of the brain can decrease both bigotry and religious belief.  Here's how Holbrook et al. describe their research:
People cleave to ideological convictions with greater intensity in the aftermath of threat.  The posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) plays a key role in both detecting discrepancies between desired and current conditions and adjusting subsequent behavior to resolve such conflicts.  Building on prior literature examining the role of the pMFC in shifts in relatively low-level decision processes, we demonstrate that the pMFC mediates adjustments in adherence to political and religious ideologies.  We presented participants with a reminder of death and a critique of their in-group ostensibly written by a member of an out-group, then experimentally decreased both avowed belief in God and out-group derogation by down-regulating pMFC activity via transcranial magnetic stimulation.  The results provide the first evidence that group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, and point to a shared cognitive mechanism underlying concrete and abstract decision processes.  We discuss the implications of these findings for further research characterizing the cognitive and affective mechanisms at play.
 My sense has always been that who we are -- our beliefs, personality, fears, desires -- are a result of the interplay between electrical and chemical processes in our brains.  Change those processes, and who we are changes; the idea that our selves are somehow static, independent, unchanging whatever happens to our physical body, is simply not borne out by the evidence.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But this still strikes me as a weird result.  Measuring a complex phenomenon like the strength of a person's religious belief isn't going to be easy; we don't have a ReligioMeter that points to 99.8 when you attach it to Pope Francis and 0.2 when you attach it to Richard Dawkins.  Any measurement of the intensity of belief has to be determined by self-reporting, which can be influenced by any number of things -- up to and including the tone of voice in which the researcher asks the question.  Here's how Holbrook et al. did it:
{R]eligious belief was measured using a version of the Supernatural Belief Scale (Jong et al., 2013) modified to create two scales which mirror “positive” and “negative” aspects of Western religious belief, comparable to the “positive” and “negative” immigrant authors in the ethnocentrism measure.  The items were presented in random order and rated according to the same scale employed in the immigrant ratings.  The positive scale consisted of: (a) “There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God”; (b) “There exist good personal spiritual beings, whom we might call angels”; (c) “Some people will go to Heaven when they die”; (α = .90).  The negative scale consisted of: (a) “There exists an evil personal spiritual being, whom we might call the Devil”; (b) “There exist evil, personal spiritual beings, whom we might call demons”; (c) “Some people will go to Hell when they die” (α = .93).  An overall religiosity variable combining both scales was calculated by averaging all six items (α = .95).
Which seems like a pretty simplistic measure, if you're looking for a subtle result.  Add to this the fact that there were only 38 participants, and the scale change for subjects treated with TCMS showed a statistically insignificant reduction only in their positive religious beliefs, and you have to wonder what all the hype is about.  Might it be that TCMS is simply affecting your emotional state?

Now, I'm not saying it isn't an interesting result.  Certainly, the effect on prejudice (which was greater) is fascinating in and of itself.  But both religious and atheist media are giving the impression that "if you turn off part of the brain, you lose your religious convictions," and each crowing about it for different reasons, and both seem not to have read anything more than the abstract of the paper itself.

If there's one thing that becomes clear when reading psychological research, it's that isn't simple.  We're only at the very beginning of understanding how the brain works.  That there exists a neurological underpinning to religiosity seems very likely -- just as there's almost certainly a neurological underpinning to believing in conspiracy theories.  It's just that we don't know what it is yet.

And the idea that we can now turn such beliefs on or off with a switch is entirely premature.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Stellar anomaly

Given that my interests are pretty well known to my friends and family, whenever anything interesting happens on the Bigfoot, ghosts, or aliens scene, I'm sure to be sent the relevant links more than once.

This time it's aliens, with the discovery of an anomalous light-dimming pattern in a star with the euphonious and easy-to-remember name of KIC 8462852.   You probably know that light-dimming is one of the main ways that astrophysicists locate exoplanets -- if a telescope on Earth detects a periodic dimming of the light from a star, it is likely to mean that a planet is in transit across it, temporarily blocking its light.  From the period and the extent of the dimming, inferences can be made about the size of the planet and its distance from its home sun.

But this time scientists have found something odd, because whatever is causing the dimming of KIC 8462852 is not acting in a regular or predictable fashion.  And whatever it is seems to be large.  Even a Jupiter-sized planet only blocks 1% of a star's light.  This star is undergoing an irregular diminution of its light... of up to 22%!

[graph of light intensity over time, after Boyajian et al.]

The most mysterious thing about the phenomenon is its lack of periodicity.  At the moment, scientists simply don't know what this means.  And idle speculation, without a good model for what's going on, is not usually fruitful in science, so the astronomers and astrophysicists are being circumspect.  Here's what astronomer Phil Plait had to say:
The authors of the paper went to some trouble to eliminate obvious causes.  It’s not something in the telescope or the processing; the dips are real.  It’s not due to starspots (like sunspots, but on another star).  My first thought was some sort of planetary collision, like the impact that created the Moon out of the Earth billions of years ago; that would create a lot of debris and dust clouds.  These chunks and clouds orbiting the star would then cause a series of transits that could reproduce what’s seen.
Plait admits the downside of this idea, which is that dust and debris should emit infrared light as it's warmed by the star it surrounds, and we're not seeing that.  Others have suggested clouds of comets...  or an alien megastructure.

Seriously.  Years ago Freeman Dyson proposed that a sufficiently advanced civilization could disassemble planets to build a huge sphere around its star, thus capturing (and utilizing) virtually all of the star's emitted energy.  (Dyson spheres show up all the time in science fiction, most famously in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Relics," and in Larry Niven's book Ringworld.)  A partially-constructed Dyson sphere, or one that had been damaged, might be expected to have the irregular light-dimming profile we're seeing in KIC 8462852.

But even the people who work at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) are being cautious.  There are other possible explanations that have to be ruled out before we can say with any kind of confidence that we're looking at something other than a purely natural phenomenon.  Recall that the discovery of pulsars back in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell was at first thought to be evidence of an alien signaling device -- in fact, the first pulsars to be detected were nicknamed LGMs (Little Green Men).  Fairly quickly, of course, it was found that there was a completely natural explanation for the observation.

As Jason Wright, astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, put it, "We have to keep in mind Cochran's Command to Planet Hunters: Thou shalt not embarrass thyself and thy colleagues by claiming false planets."

But SETI, quite rightly, is already requesting radio telescope time to study the phenomenon.  If this is evidence of an intelligent alien civilization, there should be a way to support this with additional evidence.  Until then, it's premature to state with confidence that this is anything other than an unexplained stellar anomaly.

It hardly needs to be added that I would be beside myself if it turns out we are looking at extraterrestrial intelligence.  Finding evidence that we are not alone has been one of my dearest desires since I was a child, probably explaining why I have various posters in my classroom featuring aliens, including Fox Mulder's famous UFO poster from The X Files with the legend, "I Want to Believe."  But I, like Plait and Wright and Tabetha Boyajian, the astronomer who discovered the anomaly, want to move forward cautiously here.  There is a long list of weird observations that have at first been touted as evidence of aliens and other fringe-y claims, and have not borne up under additional study.  The best I can say at the moment is that this one looks hopeful -- and certainly deserving of intense further investigation.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The science of beauty

I got a curious response to my post yesterday about finding out that my previously-held explanation for why people become conspiracy theorists was probably wrong.

Here's the email:
Dear Mr. Skepto, 
You sound pretty worried that you don't have an explanation for everything.  People aren't always explainable!  They do things because they do them.  That's it.  Some people believe weird stuff and some people like the explanations from science.  Just like some people like the Beatles and some people like Beethoven.  It's silly to wear yourself out trying to figure why. 
Do you worry about why your loved ones love you?  Maybe it's some chemical thing in their brain, right?  Do you tell your wife that's what love means?  Maybe it's a gene or something that's why I think flowers are pretty.  If so, the explanation is uglier than the flowers are.  I'd rather look at the flowers. 
All your scientific explanations do is turn all the good things in life into a chemistry class.  I think they're worth more than calling them brain chemicals.  I'll take religion over science any day.  At least it leaves us with our souls. 
Think about it. 
L. D.
Well, L. D., thanks for the response.  I find your views interesting -- mostly because they're just about as opposite to the way I see the world as they could be.

But you probably already knew that.

There is a reason why musical tastes exist.  We're nowhere near the point in brain research where we could discern the explanation; but an explanation does exist for why Shostakovich's Waltz #2 gives me goosebumps, while Chopin's waltzes do nothing for me whatsoever.  Nothing just "is because it is."

And I can't fathom how knowing the explanation devalues your appreciation of the thing itself.  Me, I would love to know what's happening in my brain when I hear a piece of music I enjoy.  We're beginning to get some perspective on this, starting with a 2011 study that found that the neurological response to hearing a piece of music we love is similar to the brain's response to sex.

Cool, yes?  I think that's awesome.  How would knowing that make me appreciate music less?

Or sex either?

I find flowers even more beautiful knowing that their shapes and colors evolved to attract pollinators, and understanding a bit about the chemistry of photosynthesis.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Understanding light refraction doesn't make me shrug my shoulders at a rainbow.  And even love -- which L. D. evidently thinks lies entirely in the mystical realm -- is made no less by my knowledge that its underpinning has to do with brain chemistry.  It's like that old song with the verse:
Tell me why the stars do shine
And tell me why the ivy twines
And tell me why the sky is blue,
And I will say why I love you.
A more scientific type added a verse, to wit:
Nuclear fusion is why the stars do shine.
Thigmotropism is why the ivy twines.
Rayleigh scattering is why the sky's so blue,
And testicular hormones are why I love you.
Which I think is a good deal more realistic than attributing it all to souls and people "doing things because they do them."

In short: science itself is beautiful.  Understanding how the world works should do nothing but increase our sense of wonder.  If scientific inquiry isn't accompanied by a sense of "Wow, this is amazing!", you're doing it wrong.  I'll end with a quote from Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who in his 1988 book What Do You Care What Other People Think? had the following to say:
I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with.  He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree.  But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is.  But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull."  I think he's kind of nutty. …  There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower.  It only adds.  I don't understand how it subtracts.