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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Out of line

The latest conspiracy theory, as if we needed another one, is that the Chinese are up to something out in the Kumtag Desert.

An article by Jesus Diaz over at Gizmodo called "Why is China Building These Gigantic Structures in the Middle of Nowhere?" shows a screen capture of a Google Earth view, with the arid expanses of eastern China overlaid with a strange pattern of white lines.  The photograph is captioned, "What the hell, China?", presumably because asking China "What the hell?" has resulted in their immediate cooperation in the past.

The author of the article, and some of the people who posted comments afterwards, speculate that the lines might be:
  • top secret military bases;
  • an evil new weather-control station along the lines of HAARP;
  • landing sites for aliens;
  • patterns meant to resemble constellations as seen from the aforementioned aliens' home world;
  • a mock-up of the streets in a major US city, to be used as target practice; or
  • magical patterns involving pentagrams and Masonic symbols.
Or maybe all of the above. They conveniently leave out my own personal favorite explanation, which is that it is:
  • Photoshopped.
But of course, I have no proof of that, and even mentioning it would probably make the conspiracy theorists decide that I am part of the conspiracy, and maybe even that I am secretly Chinese despite the fact that I am a blue-eyed blond.  (Maybe I was genetically altered, who knows?)

In any case, I find the whole thing screamingly funny, especially the part about pentagrams and Masons, because we all know how many Satan-worshiping Chinese Masons there are.  The part about the city street maps is also kind of funny, especially given the map that was posted, overlaying the Chinese line pattern with a map of Washington, DC:

The map is followed by the comment that the grid pattern "does sort of resemble the configuration of streets near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." *one eyebrow raised in a significant fashion*

Well, okay, not so much.  You'd think that if the Chinese were trying to create a mock-up of the streets of D. C. in order to "calibrate their optical targeting systems," it would conform perfectly, not just "sort of."  On the one hand, the writer seems to think that the Chinese are up to something super-technological and amazingly top secret, and in the same breath that they can't draw a straight line.  C'mon, you can't have it both ways.  If they were trying to target D. C., it'd be kind of important to get the map correct, don't you think?  It'd also be pretty easy, given that accurate street maps of major US cities have been available online for years.

And after all, if they're trying to take out President Trump, wouldn't it be easier just to program their optical targeting systems to home in on the radioactive orange glow of his skin than to build inaccurate mockups of Washington D. C. out in some godforsaken stretch of Chinese desert?

Of course, the problem with this conspiracy theory is the usual one; if you're allowed to rotate, shrink, or enlarge a random pattern of lines, you can always make it align to another such random pattern -- as long as you're content with a "sort of" fit.  I'd bet that I could take the Chinese line pattern and make it align to the streets of Ithaca, New York, if I wanted to, and also if I had technological skills higher than that of a typical kindergartner, which I don't.  It's like the post I did a while back about ley lines; if you can manipulate the data, and you're okay with an approximate match, you can always find a pattern.

So, what are the Chinese really doing out there?  Assuming, of course, that the pattern wasn't Photoshopped in by some hoaxer?  The answer: I have no idea.  But I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and state for the record that I'll bet it has nothing to do with alien landing sites, optical targeting systems, evil weather-control apparatus, or the Masons.  On the other hand, if today an alien spacecraft adorned with Masonic symbols lands in the middle of downtown D. C. during a freak tornado, I will consider myself as standing corrected.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blinding me with science

Call me naïve, but on some level I still can't quite believe we've gotten to the point in the United States where our elected officials pride themselves on ignoring science.

The latest example of this kind of idiocy is the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who in my opinion was appointed to this position in order to give him the leverage to dismantle the EPA entirely.  That he hasn't done so yet -- although steps have been taken, in the form of cutting part of the staff and muzzling the remaining ones -- is more a testimony to the complete inability of this administration to accomplish anything, good or bad, than it is to a lack of will.

But Pruitt has made it mighty clear what his attitude is.  If there was any doubt of that, consider his statement last Thursday, given during an interview on a Texas radio program: "Science should not be something that’s just thrown about to try to dictate policy in Washington, D.C."

In other words: those damned ivory-tower scientists should keep their noses where they belong, in their electron microscopes and particle accelerators and reaction flasks, and stop trying to use what they know to accomplish anything practical.

I find this stance to be nothing short of baffling.  If we don't use science -- i.e., facts and evidence -- to drive policy, what the hell are we supposed to use?  Party affiliation?  Guesses?  The Farmer's Almanac?  Our daily horoscopes?

How have we gotten here, to the point that science is considered somehow disconnected from the real world?  Where people say, "If the scientists messing around in their labs say one thing, but the folksy musings of non-scientists say something else, I'm gonna believe the non-scientists?"  Part of it, I think, is the fault of us science teachers.  The fact that a governmental leader -- of the Environmental Protection Agency, for fuck's sake -- can say something like this and not be immediately laughed into an embarrassed silence is more of an indictment of our public school system than anything I can think of.  We've for years largely taught science as a list of disconnected facts and vocabulary words; no wonder that our students grow up to think of science as something weird, hard to pronounce, and not quite real.

But it's worse than that.  Our leaders, and pundits on television and talk radio, have trained us to disbelieve the facts themselves.  Never mind such incontrovertible hard evidence as the melting of the polar ice caps (just last week, a ship made it for the first time across the northern sea route from Norway to South Korea, without an icebreaker).  Never mind the thousands of pages of worldwide temperature data, the shifting of migration times for birds, the changes to the timing of flowering and leaf-out in northern deciduous forests, and even a recent study that in the northeastern United States, snowshoe hares are no longer growing in a white coat in the winter -- they're staying brown all year, because now that there's no reliable snow cover, being white in January is poor camouflage.

But none of those facts matter when compared to the ranting of people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, not to mention Donald Trump and his proxy at the EPA, Scott Pruitt.  Ironically, Pruitt's statement, delivered last week in Texas, came as a category-4 hurricane was bearing down on the Texas coast, and has so far delivered an estimated 15 trillion gallons of water -- and it's not done yet.  It's being called a "500-year storm."

I'm trying to figure out how many storms in the past ten years have been labeled that way.  I've lost count.

And yet Ann Coulter is still discounting any possibility that this storm could be the result of anthropogenic climate change.  "I don't believe Hurricane Harvey is God's punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor," Coulter tweeted yesterday.  "But that is more credible than 'climate change.'"

Thanks for weighing in, Ms. Coulter.  I'll give your opinion serious consideration once I see your degree in climatology.

Or, for that matter, in any scientific field.

But that kind of har-de-har-har statement from a layperson is somehow given more weight than all of the academic papers, solid research, projections, and predictions -- than all of the actual facts -- generated by the smartest and best-trained people in the world.

Hurricane Harvey prior to landfall [image courtesy of NASA]

As far as Scott Pruitt, he couldn't resist the opportunity to follow up his statement about how we shouldn't "throw science around" to generate policy with a dig at President Obama, who at least listened to scientists, even if he didn't always give them the attention they deserved.  "[Climate change] serves political ends," Pruitt said.  "The past administration used it as a wedge issue."

So in this topsy-turvy bizarro world we're in, to use facts, evidence, and science is creating a politicized "wedge issue," and to ignore them is the way to create sound policy.

The whole thing leaves me wanting to scream obscenities at my computer, which I actually did more than once while writing this.

Honestly, I think the only way this will change is if the American people wise up to the extent that all of these ignorant clowns get voted out of office, or if we're struck by an ecological catastrophe so immense that it becomes impossible to deny what's happening.  I'm not secretly hoping for the latter, by the way; but our track record of waking up to reality before serious damage is done is hardly encouraging.

For now, all we can do is watch and wait, and hope that the chickens come home to roost in the 2018 election.  But I'm not particularly optimistic about that, either.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

If looks could kill

New from the "Why Didn't I Think Of That First?" department, we have: a guy who performs psychic healing just by looking at people.

Here I thought you had to at least do something to affect a woo-woo cure -- swing some crystals around, say a chant or two, give your patient a homeopathic pill that doesn't contain any medicine -- at least something.

Enter the Croat healer known only as "Braco."  Braco, now touring Europe, gets paid big bucks to sit on a stage for a half hour and stare at the audience.  He doesn't say a word -- just stares, then gets up and leaves, and goes backstage to collect his paycheck.  His gaze is said to have "healing powers."  "People aren't even sure what they're feeling," one attendee told a reporter at Braco's latest appearance, this past weekend in Amsterdam.  "But it is a sweetness, it is a loving energy and some people get physical healing, some just feel a sense of peace."

Braco looking soulful [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

If I had to sit there for a half hour in a dimly-lit room in total silence for a half-hour, I bet I'd feel a sense of peace, too -- I'd probably fall asleep.  But of course, that's not what his followers are talking about.  Neither do they think they're being hypnotized, which is another possibility.  They really think that Braco is doing something with his eyes, somehow affecting "energy levels" in the room.  Braco, of course, does everything he can to beef up this claim; children and pregnant women are not allowed to attend, because the "energies could be too strong," and he does not let his face be broadcast on television for more than seven-second clips, presumably to prevent some sort of electronically-transmitted overdose of Braco Stare.

Oh, and there's a new feature of Braco's shtick; if you can't get over to Europe to go to one of his shindigs, on September 6 and 7 he's going to be doing a live streaming event, wherein on the top of every hour you'll have a few seconds of Braco's gaze.  The website advertises it as "non-stop Braco gazing for all time zones."

Well, I don't know why anyone would want to miss that.

Anyhow.  I've probably now pissed off large numbers of people who think this sort of thing is just the bee's knees, so I suppose I ought to at least mention a couple of my objections, which are not so different than the problems I've had with other woo-woo claims.

 First, show me the mechanism.  If you think this guy's gaze can cure your chronic headaches, show me how that could work in such a way that it eliminates the possibility of auto-suggestion.  Another of his followers who attended the session at Amsterdam hinted at the problem when she said, "You have to have an open mind and an open heart, more or less to get this feeling."  Why on earth should this be so?  If the guy is doing something real, how could my attitude make any difference?  You'd think it'd be even more impressive if Braco cured someone who thought he was a fraud.

Second, of course, there's the fact that the whole thing flies in the face of how vision actually works; because when you see, it's not because something's going out from your eyes, it's because something's going into your eyes (namely, light reflected from the object you're looking at).  Vision is receptive, not productive.  The ancients didn't get this, and we see this in some relic expressions like to "throw a glance" at someone, and in holdover beliefs such as the "evil eye."  Certainly, the eyes and face can communicate information; a lot of work has been done on the ease with which the human brain can pick up on subtle "microexpressions," and how that effects social interaction.  But that's not what Braco's followers think is happening, here -- they really think that some "force" is leaving his body through his eyes, and traveling to you, and changing your mental and/or physical condition.  To which I say: I seriously doubt it.

In any case, if you'd like to see him (or, actually, to have him see you), you can check out his tour schedule at his website.  Be warned, however -- on his website there's a giant photograph of him, and it will look out of the monitor at you in a highly scary fashion.  I suggest putting on eye protection before clicking the link, and whatever you do, don't leave it staring at you for more than seven seconds!  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Honestly, though, like I said initially, I kind of wish I'd thought of it first.  It seems an easier way to make a living than to do what I do, which is to stand in front of bunches of high school students talking about biology all day long.  If I could make a living just by staring at people from a stage for a half-hour every few nights, I'd could ditch all the lesson plans and paper grading and so on, and have a great deal more free time than I currently have.  But Braco seems to have cornered the Psychic Stare market, so I'll have to come up with a different angle.  

Hey, I know!  Maybe you could just send me a check for a hundred dollars, and I'll gaze lovingly at your signature for five minutes.  It will communicate healing energy through the psychic link established through your signature.  You'll feel better immediately.  Trust me.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Unity in diversity

A couple of days ago, NPR ran a piece about conservatives who are leaving liberal areas so they can live amongst like-minded folks.  The article, by Vanessa Romo, is entitled "Texas Becoming a Magnet for Conservatives Fleeing Liberal States Like California," and tells the story of people like 36-year-old Tim Stokes, who is upping stakes and moving along with his pregnant wife and three children.

The reason, Stokes said, is that he is tired of "feeling like an outsider" in his hometown.  He's a Republican, has staunchly supported conservative causes, and has the sense of being marginalized in a community that is largely liberal Democrat.  And he's not alone; the article projects that by 2050, twenty million people will have left their home states to be in places that align better with their political stances and religious beliefs.

It's not that I don't understand this.  I tend to have a liberal bent (which, I'm sure, will come as no shock to regular readers of Skeptophilia), although I try to avoid politics when I can because I find arguing about it to be rather pointless.  I live in an area where liberals outnumber conservatives, although if you continue down the highway where I live toward the south and the city of Watkins Glen, the numbers flip completely.  During the last election, if you took the road past my house, you could see the blue Clinton signs thinning as the red Trump signs increased in numbers, mile after passing mile.

I get that it's nice to have like-minded folks near you.  Believe me, being a liberal atheist from southern Louisiana, I know what it's like to feel like you're on the fringe in your own home, and the situation must feel similar for conservatives in strongly liberal areas.

But I think what Tim Stokes and his family (and, apparently, a great many other people) are doing is unequivocally a bad idea.

We need to be around people who disagree with us, who challenge and question us.  I'm not saying we should seek out hostile interactions, or (worse) provoke them; but I contend that if you live in the contented, self-satisfied little bubble of only hearing the opinions you already have reflected back at you, you will never have the opportunity to suss out places where your thinking is wrong-headed -- or things that you haven't thought about at all.

Fortunately, there are influential people who are saying exactly this.  George Fuller, the (conservative) mayor of McKinney, Texas (near Dallas), said of what Stokes and others are doing, "I think instead of just trying to kind of put together pockets of the like-minded, I would think energy is better spent trying to figure out how to live and exist together and find productive solutions going forward versus insulating yourself from different thoughts and ideologies."

Norman Rockwell, Golden Rule (1961) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Which is it exactly.  If there's one thing I've found to be consistently true, it's that it's much easier to demonize someone if you have no personal contact with them.  Over and over, I've seen stories of the devoutly religious who hated LGBT individuals -- until a child or a friend came out to them.  They're forced into realizing that the labels and the hatred allow them to ignore the humanity of an entire group, and that they're being presented with a choice between love and narrow-minded bigotry.  (I realize those situations don't always end this way, and there are cases where the bigoted choose to embrace their prejudice instead; but it's encouraging the number of times it's gone the other way.)

In fact, prejudices of all kinds evaporate when you take the time to get to know people different than you are, and realize that your commonalities far outweigh your differences.  And if you segregate yourself voluntarily into a little echo chamber where everyone looks like you, votes like you, and attends the same church as you, you'll never have the chance to do what Kathryn Schulz calls "moving outside of that tiny, terrified little bubble of having to be right about everything."

In fact, I'll go a step beyond that; you should not only be accepting of opportunities to interact with people who aren't like you, you should seek them out.  The leaders of our country are, by and large, accelerating the polarization of the American people, pushing us into believing that anyone who isn't like you is either a hopeless idiot, or else an evil creature dead-set on destroying the very fabric of the United States.

We have to work tirelessly against this mindset.  And, for cryin' in the sink, don't you think we'd get it by now?  We're a nation that in the past has prided itself on being a "melting pot."  I'm a good example; I have in my ancestry recent immigrants from the southeast of France, Jewish refugees from Alsace, Cajuns exiled from Nova Scotia, Dutch settlers who came to New Amsterdam in the 1600s, and Scottish peasants who ended up in the hill country of southwestern Pennsylvania.  Virtually all of us are the product of such amalgams.  And yet, the way things are going, we're rapidly heading toward a society where we not only don't interact with people who aren't like us, we almost never see them.

So do yourself a favor.  Find some people of different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, or political values, and sit down with them to have a conversation over your favorite libation.  Don't just talk; listen.  Chances are good that you'll find out that this person, so different than you are, just wants the same things you want; a secure home, food on the table, a safe environment to raise children, the freedom to speak without judgment, the freedom to be who they are without fear of censure, ridicule, or violence.

And who knows?  Maybe you'll come away not only having learned something, but having made a friend.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

"Gotcha" proselytizing

A frequent reader and commenter on Skeptophilia sent me a note a few days ago, with a link and the cryptic comment, "Gordon, I think you need to take a look at this."  At first, I was a bit puzzled, because it looked like the link was to my own website -- but underneath the link was an explanation that the individual had discovered the link by accidentally mistyping the website address as  (Bet it took you a while to notice the misspelling, didn't it?  It did me.)

So, anyway, I clicked on the link, and was brought to a website that says it's going to "PROVE that the Bible is the Word of God."

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life With Bible (April 1885) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

To say that I found this a little alarming was an understatement.  Had someone gone to the lengths of purchasing a website name one letter off from mine, to catch off guard the unwary (and possibly uneasy) skeptics and agnostics who thought they were going to visit a site devoted to rationalism?  I've been the target of negative comments before, from angry believers in everything from homeopathy to hauntings, and certainly have gotten my share of hate mail from the vehemently religious contingent who are bothered by the fact that I am an atheist who is completely, and confidently, "out," and am unapologetic about teaching evolution in my biology classroom.  But this seemed kind of out there even for those folks.

Fortunately, my wife, who is blessed with a better-than-her-fair-share amount of common sense and a good grounding in technology, suggested that I try typing in  So I did.  I first tried the address for my fiction blog, but put in the deliberate misspelling for "blogspot."  It brought me to the same place.  Then I tried ""  Same thing.

So apparently, the owner of this ultra-fundamentalist website, with its babble about the Rapture and Armageddon and the literal truth of the bible, had just bought the domain name "," so that any time anyone makes that particular misspelling in heading to their favorite blog, it takes them to that site.  I was relieved, actually; the thought that someone would go to all that trouble to target me in particular was a little alarming.  (And evidently the fact that on the homepage of the "blogpsot" site, there is a link for "The World's Biggest Skeptic" is just a coincidence.)

However, you have to wonder if the person who owns the site really is laboring under the mistaken impression that this is an effective proselytizing tool.  Can you really imagine someone who is trying to check out the latest post on his/her favorite blog on, say, sewing, and lands here -- and then suddenly goes all glassy-eyed, and says, "Good heavens.  I get it now.  The bible is true, the Rapture is coming, and I'd better repent right now."

No, neither can I.

And when you think about it, the door-to-door religion salesmen that periodically show up in our neighborhoods are the same kind of thing, aren't they?  A little less covert and sneaky, that's all.  But they're trying to accomplish the same goal -- catching you off guard, getting a foot in the door, spreading the message.

Although, for the good of the order, I have to admit that the Mormons who showed up last year while I was stacking firewood were pretty cool.  When they found out in short order that I was a poor prospect for conversion, they shrugged and smiled and we chatted for a while about other stuff, and then they offered to help me stack firewood.  Which I refused, mainly because they weren't really dressed for yard work, but it was an awfully nice gesture.

Anyhow, my previous comment about its being an ineffective tool is probably irrelevant, really.  It's like spam emails.  If you send out a million emails, and your success rate is 0.1%, you've still made money, because of the extremely low overhead.  Same here; you get unsuspecting drop-ins, people who thought they were going to read a blog on cake baking or fishing or chess, and suddenly they find they're on a "gotcha" proselytizing webpage.  Most of the target individuals say no, or hit the "Back" button -- but the fraction of a percent that don't are your payoff.

The whole thing pisses me off, frankly, because it's so sneaky.  Even if it wasn't targeted at me specifically, it just seems like a skeevy way to get converts.  But to a lot of these folks, how you convert people is unimportant -- the essential thing is to convert them in the first place.  If you can grab people when their rational faculties are not expecting it, all the better -- because, after all, rationality is the last thing they want to engage.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Naps, rewards, and circadian rhythms

Even when I have gotten enough sleep, which isn't honestly that often, I have a distinct pattern in my energy level.  I tend to be an early riser, and after a barely-coherent half-hour or so in which I make coffee and answer anyone who talks to me in snarly monosyllabic grunts, I have a period of three hours or so during which I'm usually quite productive.  After lunch, there's about two to three hours of slump, when my chief concern is finding a nice quiet corner to curl up and take a nap.  (This doesn't help my 9th period class much, but they're big kids.  They can deal.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Late afternoon is usually pretty high energy, but after dinner I fade steadily.  By nine o'clock I'm ready to be reading a book in preparation for powering down for the night.  The times I'm up after ten are rare indeed.

Real party animal, that's me.

I've always been a little curious as to why this is, as it seems to have little to do with external circumstances.  One of those odd circadian rhythms, but what purpose it could serve, I have no idea.

But now a recent piece of research has found a fascinating correlation to this pattern, one that involves the "neural reward center" of the brain, located in the putamen (interestingly, this same part of the brain is involved in several disparate functions, such as motor coordination, category learning, and our perceptions of hatred and disgust).

The current study, entitled "Time of Day Differences in Neural Reward Functioning in Healthy Young Men," was co-authored by Jamie E. M. Byrne, Matthew E. Hughes, Susan L. Rossell, Sheri L. Johnson, and Greg Murray, of Swinburne University (Australia), and appeared this week in The Journal of Neuroscience.  The researchers looked at the degree of activation in the left putamen -- the aforementioned neural reward center -- in sixteen healthy male test subjects, and found out that the peak not only in activity, but the subjects' self-reported feelings of well-being, peaked in the early afternoon.

The authors write:
Reward function appears to be modulated by the circadian system, but little is known about the neural basis of this interaction.  Previous research suggests that the neural reward response may be different in the afternoon; however the direction of this effect is contentious.  Reward response may follow the diurnal rhythm in self-reported positive affect, peaking in the early afternoon.  An alternative is that daily reward response represents a type of prediction error, with neural reward activation relatively high at times of day when rewards are unexpected (i.e., early and late in the day).  The present study measured neural reward activation in the context of a validated reward task at 10.00h, 14.00h, and 19.00h in healthy human males...  Consistent with the ‘prediction error’ hypothesis, activation was significantly higher at 10.00h and 19.00h compared to 14.00h.  It is provisionally concluded that the putamen may be particularly important in endogenous priming of reward motivation at different times of day, with the pattern of activation consistent with circadian-modulated reward expectancies in neural pathways; viz., greater activation to reward stimuli at unexpected times of day. 
Put more simply, our reward centers react more strongly in the early morning and late afternoon because they're kind of surprised when things at those times don't suck.

Which makes me wonder about my own peculiar circadian rhythm.  I know that early-morning types like myself are in the minority, and my perkiness (at least once I've had coffee) at seven AM inspires near-homicidal rage in the typical morning-hater.  Also, I tend to be getting glassy-eyed at the point in the evening when most people are just getting the festivities rolling.

So would I show the opposite pattern in my left putamen than the test subjects in the Byrne et al. study?  Because I definitely wouldn't say my feelings of "positive affect" peak in the early afternoon.  The only thing that peaks around that time is my need for a nice long nap in the hammock.

Or, maybe, I am more productive during the morning and late afternoon because that's when I get the best payback from my reward centers.  In the early afternoon, perhaps my brain says, "Okay, if I'm not gonna get any props for working hard, why bother?  If I'm not appreciated, then screw it, I'm putting my feet up."

I'd love to volunteer for an fMRI and see what's going on in there -- whether my response is explainable from the pattern that Byrne et al. noticed, or if I'm just an aberration.

Be that as it may, the study is pretty cool from the standpoint of demonstrating a neurological underpinning to our behavioral circadian rhythms.  Any lens we can get on the workings of our brains is all to the good.  But I'm gonna wind this up, because my early-morning window of opportunity is wearing on, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to accomplish bugger-all after that.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tribalism vs. the facts

For the diehard skeptic, one of the most frustrating things about human nature is how to combat belief in the absence of evidence (or even in the face of evidence to the contrary).

And I'm not talking about religion here, or at least not solely about religion.  The current 30% or so of Americans who still support Donald Trump are a good example of an evidence-free belief that borders on religious fervor; witness a recent poll of Trump supporters wherein six out of ten said that they can't think of anything he could do that would change their approval of his presidency.

The maddening part of all this is that at its heart, skepticism only asks one thing; that you base your understanding on facts.  The idea that people can adhere to their beliefs so strongly that no logic or evidence could shift them is a little incomprehensible.

But it's even worse than this.  A new study has shown that if a person is predisposed to certain beliefs -- anything from Trump support to climate change denialism to young-Earth creationism -- it doesn't help for them to learn more about the subject.

In fact, learning more about the subject actually increases their certainty that they were right in the first place.

These were the rather dismal findings of Caitlin Drummond and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University, whose paper "Individuals With Greater Science Literacy and Education Have More Polarized Beliefs on Controversial Science Topics" appeared last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The authors write:
Although Americans generally hold science in high regard and respect its findings, for some contested issues, such as the existence of anthropogenic climate change, public opinion is polarized along religious and political lines.  We ask whether individuals with more general education and greater science knowledge, measured in terms of science education and science literacy, display more (or less) polarized beliefs on several such issues...  We find that beliefs are correlated with both political and religious identity for stem cell research, the Big Bang, and human evolution, and with political identity alone on climate change.  Individuals with greater education, science education, and science literacy display more polarized beliefs on these issues.
Put simply, your views on (for example) evolutionary biology have less to do with your understanding of the subject than they do on your political and religious identification.  Which, of course, implies that if you are trying to convince someone of the correctness of the evolutionary model, teaching them about what the scientists are actually saying is unlikely to change their perspective, and it may actually cause them to double down on their original beliefs.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So it's another example of the insidious backfire effect, and it is profoundly maddening.  It is unsurprising, perhaps, given the fact that for all of our technology and civilization, we're still tribal animals.  Our in-group identification, with respect to politics, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, trumps damn near everything else, up to and including the facts and evidence sitting right in front of our faces, and that education isn't going to change that.

It remains to be seen what can be done about this.  Baruch Fischhoff, who co-authored the study, said:
These are troubling correlations. We can only speculate about the underlying causes.  One possibility is that people with more education are more likely to know what they are supposed to say, on these polarized issues, in order to express their identity.  Another possibility is that they have more confidence in their ability to argue their case.
"Troubling" is right, especially given that I'm a science teacher.  I've always thought that one of the main jobs of science teachers is to correct students' misapprehensions about how the world works, because let's face it: a great deal of science is counterintuitive.  As Sean Carroll put it, in his wonderful book about the discovery of the Higgs boson, The Particle at the End of the Universe:
It's only because the data force us into corners that we are inspired to create the highly counterintuitive structures that form the basis for modern physics...  Imagine that a person in the ancient world was wondering what made the sun shine.  It's not really credible to imagine that they would think about it for a while and decide, "I bet most of the sun is made up of particles that can bump into one another and stick together, with one of them converting into a different kind of particle by emitting yet a third particle, which would be massless if it wasn't for the existence of a field that fill space and breaks the symmetry that is responsible for the associated force, and that fusion of the original two particles releases energy, which we ultimately see as sunlight."  But that's exactly what happens.  It took many decades to put this story together, and it never would have happened if our hands weren't forced by the demands of observation and experiment at every step.
The same, of course, is true for every discipline of science.  None of it is simple and intuitive; that's why we need the scientists.

But if people don't believe what the scientists are saying, not because of a lack of understanding or a disagreement over the facts, but because of tribal identity and in spite of the facts, there's not a whole hell of a lot you can do.

Which makes me even more depressed about our current situation here in the United States.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dowsing, SLIders, and Portuguese Water Dogs

I find that one of the most useful questions to ask someone who makes an outlandish claim is, "How could that possibly work?"

I bring this up in part because of a discussion I had with a student over the practice of dowsing.  For those of you who don't know what this is, dowsing (also known as "water-witching") is the use of a forked stick, generally by a "sensitive," to find underground water.  Supposedly the stick will give a sharp downward pull if there's a source of water suitable for well-drilling underneath where you're standing.  I have found that this is the one woo-woo claim that elicits the most support when it comes up in my Critical Thinking classes -- almost every one of my students knows at least one person who will vouch for its truth.

Of course, the fact is, in upstate New York there's almost nowhere you could drill around here and not hit water, sooner or later, and most of the groundwater is pretty clean.  So dowsing would be a pretty safe proposition nearly everywhere.  But so, of course, would claiming that your dog was a "sensitive," and leading him around on a leash until he gets bored and sits down, and then drilling there because a source of underground water exerts a magnetic attraction on your dog's butt.

I hear that Portuguese Water Dogs are an especially good choice for this.

Be that as it may, I said to my student, "How could this possibly work?"  Of course, she had no ready answer for this, and neither does anyone else, but this hasn't stopped people from making one up -- that the Earth's "energies" interact with the "psychic fields" of the dowser's mind, causing the stick to move downwards.  One website even claimed that because willow trees like to grow near water, willow wood works the best for dowsing rods.  (And you laughed at my Portuguese Water Dog claim.   Please explain to me how the "willow wood" claim is any different.)

The demand of "show me the mechanism" is a pretty good first-order test for a lot of these claims, such as the recent spate of stories about people called SLIders (and we're not referring to the 90s science fiction TV series here).  SLIders are people who exhibit Street Light Interference -- street lights go off, or on, or flicker, when they walk past.  Naysayers, of course, claim this is just Dart-Thrower's Bias -- the tendency of the human mind to notice and remember oddities (times that the street light went off as you passed) and ignore all of the background noise (times that the street lights stayed on).  Believers aren't buying it, and claim that the "electrical output of the brain" is interfering with the electrical flow in the street light.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

How the electrical activity of the brain -- which, according to The Physics Factbook, runs at a total energy consumption rate of 20 to 40 Watts, or slightly less than a single typical incandescent light bulb -- could affect the activity of a 200 Watt high-pressure sodium vapor lamp running on conventional electrical current forty feet away, is never explained.  Any demand for a plausible mechanism quickly descends into the same kind of "sensitive psychic field" baloney that comes up with similar requests vis-à-vis dowsing.

The phenomenon has been looked at in the laboratory, and no evidence supporting it has ever been found.  The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has a good summary of the research, and the writer, Massimo Polidoro, concludes, "Science has never confirmed that the human mind can cause physical effects at a distance, which is what seems to be occurring in SLI...  (T)his appears to be a phenomenon that just happens at random and is not produced by one willing for it to happen."

This, of course, doesn't discourage die-hard SLIders from thinking they're doing something unusual, which makes you wonder why they don't constantly short out computers, televisions, cellphones, iPods, and so on.  You'd think that if they can affect something as simple, and powerful, as a street light, frying a laptop would be a relative cinch.  Yet even some of the pro-SLIder sites I looked at admitted that the effect had "proven difficult to replicate in a laboratory setting."

Yup, I'll just bet it is.  In any case, here's another nice thing to add to your skeptical toolkit -- "show me the mechanism."  If you think something weird is going on, you'd better have a plausible explanation for it that doesn't fly in the face of verified science.  And that goes double for all of you Portuguese Water Dogs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Straw man induction

There's a general rule of debate, and it goes something like this: you don't score any points by picking out some absurdly weak line of reasoning, characterizing your opponents as holding that view, arguing against it, and claiming victory.

This is called the straw-man fallacy, and is all too common.  It's why we have conservatives arguing that all liberals want to give away America to illegal immigrants, lock, stock, and barrel.  It's why we have liberals arguing that all conservatives want to sell us out to big corporations, and along the way, deny rights to everyone but white Christian males.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that on both sides, but this requires (1) thought, and (2) an admission that your opponents' views, when represented fairly, are worthy at least of intelligent consideration.  And that seems to be beyond a lot of people these days.

To take two examples of this -- one from each side of the aisle, to demonstrate that straw man arguments are no respecter of political leanings -- let's take a look at two different views of yesterday's eclipse.  Neither, I hasten to state, appears to be a parody, although you'd certainly be justified in thinking they might be.

First, we have a group called "Kentuckians for Coal," who actually protested the eclipse, claiming that even freakin' astronomical objects were conspiring to take attention away from the plight of coal miners.  The protest took place in Hopkinsville, which was along the path of totality, something that struck the Kentuckians for Coal as not being a coincidence.

Here's their mission statement:
Kentuckians for Coal is an ad-hoc coalition of miners, union officials, family members and coal users created to defend the Kentucky coal industry against encroachment from renewable energy industries and from economic development initiatives aimed at lessening America's dependence on coal.  Kentuckians for Coal stands against the eclipse and those who worship it.
Well, I think the eclipse is pretty cool, but "worship" goes a bit far.  And it's hard to see how you could be against clean, renewable energy.  I get that we're talking about people's livelihoods, here; but at some point, there needs to be a choice made whether a particular industry is worth saving when it's balanced against the long-term habitability of the Earth.  (And, I might add, that a lot of this would be moot if the government would step in and fund retraining of these out-of-work miners, and guarantee them jobs in the renewable energy industry, which is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States.)

A few of the signs carried at the protest read as follows:
  • A Mine Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
  • Climate Change Is a Hoax!
  • You can count on coal 24/7. You can't always depend on the sun! 
  • Still Think Solar Makes Sense?
  • Coal Never Quits
  • You Can Depend On Coal!
  • The Solar Industry Is Modernizing Us Out of Jobs!
  • Coal was good enough for my forefathers, it's good enough for me!
  • This much time and money spent for 2 minutes and 40 seconds
To their credit, the person carrying the last-mentioned sign was followed by someone carrying a sign saying, "That's what she said."

[image courtesy of photographer Luc Viatour and the Wikimedia Commons]

But lest the liberals in the studio audience start crowing about how much smarter and more sensible they are than the silly ol' conservatives, allow me to direct your attention to an article in The Atlantic by Brooklyn Law School professor Alice Ristroph, entitled, "Racial History in the Solar Eclipse Path of Totality," which says basically that the path of yesterday's eclipse was inherently biased against minorities.

Don't believe me?  Here's a sample:
It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people...  [A]n eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message.  At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one.  Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom.  The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way.
No, Professor Ristroph, what the Great American Eclipse reminded us of is that when something gets in front of the Sun, it casts a shadow.  End of story.

But that doesn't stop her from telling us about how terrible it is that the path of totality excludes minorities; in fact, the Moon seems to have chosen its path with deliberate bigotry in mind:
About a third of Kansas City, Missouri, is black, but most of the city lies just south of the path of totality. To get the full show, eclipse chasers should go north to St. Joseph, almost 90 percent white and about 6 percent black...

Moving east, the eclipse will pass part of St. Louis, whose overall population is nearly half black. But the black residents are concentrated in the northern half of the metropolitan area, and the total eclipse crosses only the southern half.
Of course, even by her own admission, her whole argument kind of falls apart when the eclipse gets to South Carolina, but by this time, any credibility she might have had is down the toilet anyhow.  So even if you got that far -- and the article is a long one -- I doubt that'd salvage whatever it was she was trying to point out.

Now don't misunderstand me.  There are huge racial inequities in the United States, and those deserve serious attention.  Likewise, apropos of the Kentuckians for Coal, the issue of displaced workers, poor communities, and lost jobs is not one we should scoff at.

But claiming the eclipse has a damn thing to do with either one is pretty fucking ridiculous, and you're not doing your argument any good by claiming that it does.

So the take-home message is, "let's keep our eye on the ball, shall we?"  If you want to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed or the problems of race and privilege, have at it.  But saying the whole thing boils down to astronomy is idiotic.  And throwing together a straw-man argument is not going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In the dark

In this line of business, it's all too common to run into something so stupid that at first, you think it's a joke.  No one, you think, no one could possibly be that gullible and/or ignorant of science.

And then you look into it, and you find that, lo and behold, (1) it's not a joke, (2) there are in fact people that gullible and ignorant, and (3) it really freakin' hurts when you do a faceplant into your computer keyboard.

This was my experience when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago entitled, "NASA Confirms Earth Will Experience 15 Days of Darkness in November 2017."  This article, by one David Vanallen, appeared on the site Reflection of Mind earlier this year, and warns us that in a couple of months, we're gonna be in for some serious shit.

He doesn't put it quite that way, however.  Here's a capsule summary of what Vanallen says NASA has "confirmed:"
  1. This November, Jupiter and Venus will come into "close proximity" of each other, being separated in the sky by a distance of only one degree.
  2. Venus will, at that point, be shining at ten times the luminance that Jupiter is.
  3. The bright light from Venus will heat Jupiter's gaseous surface, causing it to launch an "absurdly high amount of hydrogen" into space.
  4. Said hydrogen will fall directly into the Sun, arriving there at precisely 2:50 AM on November 15.
  5. The additional hydrogen will cause a thermonuclear detonation to occur on the Sun's surface, raising its temperature to 9,000 C, and turning the Sun's color to a "bluish shade."
  6. This will cause the Sun to appear dimmer from the Earth.  
  7. The effect will last until precisely 4:45 on November 30, at which point the Sun will return to normal.
That scary stuff notwithstanding, former NASA director Charles Bolden said we shouldn't be worried.  All that's going to happen, Bolden said, is a huge increase in the Earth's average temperature:
We do not expect any major effects from the Blackout event.  The only effect this event will have on Earth is an increase of 6 – 8 degrees in temperature. the polar cap will be mostly affected by this.   No one should worry much.  This event would be similar to what Alaskans experience in the winter.
Okay, now, hang on a moment.

Jupiter and Venus won't be in "close proximity."  They will just appear that way because from Earth, they'll be kind of lined up in the sky.  This is like saying that as you're standing on a beach in California watching the Sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the ocean is in danger of boiling away because it's so much closer to the Sun than it was at noon.

Furthermore, if the luminance of Venus was high enough to cause major gaseous eruptions on Jupiter, it would fry us here on Earth.  Jupiter and Venus are an average of 750 million kilometers from each other; at its farthest, Venus is 260 million kilometers from Earth.  There's this thing called the inverse-square law that shows how all of this works, but my guess is that David Vanallen never got past 8th grade physical science, so maybe he's never heard of it.

In any case, the reason Venus is brighter than Jupiter has nothing to do with its being hotter (although it is, in fact, by a large margin).  Venus is just closer to the Sun.  End of story.

[image courtesy of NASA]

As far as "absurd amounts of hydrogen" causing a thermonuclear explosion, well... the Sun is kind of one big thermonuclear explosion already.  Adding hydrogen, in however absurd amounts you like, wouldn't make much of a difference, especially given that Jupiter's radius is ten times smaller than the Sun's.  And that's the whole planet, not just some absurd hydrogen cloud it's jettisoned.

Then, the hydrogen is supposed to make the Sun heat up, which will make it dimmer, which will cause it to be dark here on Earth, which in 15 days will make the Earth's temperature rise by an amount that's four times the increase we've experienced from all of global warming put together, which will make the Arctic ice caps melt, but we shouldn't worry about it.

Because all of that is "just like Alaska in winter."

To which I just have one thing to say: What the actual fuck?

Oh, and I doubt highly that Charles Bolden, who is not only a pretty smart guy but has a B.S. in electrical engineering and a M.S. in systems management, had anything to do with any of this.

What makes me facepalm the worst about all of this is that there are dozens of sites now reprinting this story pretty much verbatim, and none of the ones I looked at added, "... and anyone who believes this must have their skull filled with dust bunnies, cobwebs, and dead insects."  All of the ones I saw were posting it because, apparently, they believe that it's true.  And one of them had been shared, tweeted, and reposted over 10,000 times.

Which just goes to show that if you append "NASA officials confirm" in front of damn near anything, you can get people to believe it.  Oh, and that reminds me: I should warn you that NASA officials have confirmed that today's solar eclipse is going to cause the Earth's magnetic poles to flip, which will mean all clocks will start running backwards, which will reverse the polarity in your DNA's quantum frequency vibrations, meaning you'll start to age backwards.  Tomorrow morning, we're all going to wake up feeling younger, stronger, and healthier, which would be cool except for the fact that it will also make our neurons run in reverse, so we'll remember the future and have no idea about the past.

I'd say "remember, you heard it here first," but the last part kind of makes that impossible.  Oh, well.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Shiny happy energy

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recall that a while back, I dealt with a type of energy called orgone.  Orgone, said psychologist Wilhelm Reich back in the 1930s, is a mysterious "life force energy" that causes the galaxies to turn, triggers weather phenomenon, maintains your health, and is the "psychosexual energy release" that occurs during orgasm.

Bet you didn't think all that stuff was happening when you have an orgasm.  I didn't, either.  I just thought it was kinda fun.

Be that as it may, there's only one problem with "orgone," and that's that it doesn't exist.  But as we've seen with countless other things -- homeopathy, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, President Trump's moral compass -- zero evidence that the thing you're studying actually exists is not near enough to discourage some people.

Now, the problem with orgone is that being an invisible, unmeasurable, undetectable (yet universal) energy, it's also inherently unmarketable.  I mean, what are you gonna do?  Tell someone if they pay you $100, you'll go home an have an orgasm, and then funnel the "psychosexual energy" in their direction?  I'd like to think that there's no one who's that gullible, although the fact that there are people who were willing to pay hundreds of bucks for "medicines" that you download directly from your computer into your body, I'm not going to rule anything out.

But at least the people who are orgone-proponents have recognized the difficulty of trying to sell something like that, because they've come up with a new twist, which (not coincidentally) they can sell:


"Orgonite," allow me to explain, is solid orgone.  Or a solid that's been infused with orgone.  Or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, frankly, because most of the websites hawking the stuff sound like this:
Dr Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychiatrist, researched orgone energy (also known as chi or prana) in the earlier half of the 20th century, and today’s orgonite devices are built on his findings.  While conducting his research, Dr. Reich found that organic materials attract and hold orgone energy, while non-organic metals simultaneously attract and repel the energy. 
Orgonite is based on these two principles.  It is a 50-50 mix of resin (organic, due to the fact that it is based on petrochemicals), and metal shavings (inorganic).  A quartz crystal is also added to the orgonite mix.  This is because of its piezoelectric properties, which means that it gives off a charge when it is put under pressure (resin shrinks when it is cured, so constant pressure is put on the quartz crystal). 
Due to the fact that the elements contained in orgonite are constantly attracting and repelling energy, a “scrubbing” action takes place, and along with the charge that the crystal gives off, this cleans stagnant and negative energy, and brings it back to a healthy, vibrant state.
Right!  Piezoelectric effect + orgone + chi = shiny happy energy!

"Orgonite" pyramid [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, needless to say the fact that this makes zero sense will not stop people from buying stuff like the "Fluorite and Onyx Orgone Cone" ($79.80), the "Crown Chakra Balance Orgone Pendant" ($46.55),  the "Balancing Lightworker Amethyst Orgone Pendant" ($35.90), and the "Boho Crystal Healing Festival Gypsy Orgone Spirit Jewel" ($99.75), the last-mentioned of which is clearly the most expensive because its name has more words.

Sad to say, all of this nonsense isn't going to do anything for you but lighten your pocketbook, and there's also the fact that a lot of what they're selling looks like the jewelry equivalent of Soap-on-a-Rope.  But maybe it's just that my chi is not balanced enough to appreciate how beautiful it is, I dunno.

Worst of all, this foolishness is now being peddled in other countries.  In fact, how I found out about it is that there is now an "orgonite network" in southern Africa, whereby lots of people are being told that in order to fix their health, all they have to do is buy colorful but expensive crap that comes along with a bunch of pseudoscientific babble.  Which, if you discount the placebo effect, is completely worthless.

So anyhow, there you have it: yet another way to bilk money from the gullible.  There's no such thing as orgone, and therefore (by extension) "orgonite" is a bunch of bullshit, too.  My suggestion is not to worry about the whole negative energy scrubbing business.  I recommend actual orgasms over orgone any day of the week, even if the former doesn't realign your chakras.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Perchance to dream

Insomnia sucks, something I am frequently heard to mutter under my breath at 3:30 AM.  I've been a bad sleeper for decades, and have not been able to figure out any particular pattern to it -- I have sleepless nights on days I've gotten lots of exercise and days I haven't, after spending several hours of staring into the computer screen and not, after drinking alcohol and not.  Nothing has really worked to alleviate it, although when I am desperate I take a Benadryl tablet, which works well even though it's something I don't like to do often.  (In fact, taking Benadryl works so well that after taking one, it's a miracle I make it back to bed before I pass out, to be found the next morning on the floor in the hallway in a puddle of drool.)

Sleep is critical to health, both mental and physical, but scientists have been working for ages to try and elucidate why.  It's known that when deprived of sleep short-term, people are groggy, irritable, and perform more poorly on every cognitive assessment there is; long-term sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, paranoia, and (ultimately) death.  Further, sleep is not the same as simple bodily relaxation; in some phases of sleep, the brain is as active as it is during wakefulness.

[image courtesy of photograph Evgeniy Isaev and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's been suggested -- and there is some experimental evidence to support it -- that sleep has something to do with memory consolidation.  It's been shown pretty conclusively that if you want to improve cognitive performance on a test, studying the night before and getting a good night's sleep works far better than spending an equal amount of time studying the day of the test.  I wish I'd known this back in college, where I was known to do things like doing my first and only studying for my 8 AM sociology midterm on the bus en route to school.

This doesn't, however, explain sleep's function in other animals, as few fluffy bunnies are known to take sociology classes.  But a study published last week in Nature: Communications has shown that sleep definitely influences memory -- even to the extent of fostering the formation of new memories while we're asleep.

The paper, "Formation and Suppression of Acoustic Memories During Human Sleep," by Thomas Andrillon, Daniel Pressnitzer, Damien Léger, and Sid Kouider of the École Normale Supérieure/PSL Research University of Paris, France, found that people form memories during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep -- but stimuli given during deep non-REM sleep actually suppress memory.  The authors write:
Sleep and memory are deeply related, but the nature of the neuroplastic processes induced by sleep remains unclear.  Here, we report that memory traces can be both formed or suppressed during sleep, depending on sleep phase.  We played samples of acoustic noise to sleeping human listeners.  Repeated exposure to a novel noise during Rapid Eye Movements (REM) or light non-REM (NREM) sleep leads to improvements in behavioral performance upon awakening.  Strikingly, the same exposure during deep NREM sleep leads to impaired performance upon awakening.  Electroencephalographic markers of learning extracted during sleep confirm a dissociation between sleep facilitating memory formation (light NREM and REM sleep) and sleep suppressing learning (deep NREM sleep).  We can trace these neural changes back to transient sleep events, such as spindles for memory facilitation and slow waves for suppression.  Thus, highly selective memory processes are active during human sleep, with intertwined episodes of facilitative and suppressive plasticity.
It's important to add, however, that experiments involving attempts to learn something complex -- such as a foreign language -- while you're asleep have all been abject failures.  The (alleged) phenomenon, called hypnopaedia, was all the rage back in the 1920s and 1930s, when people not only used it to try to learn, they used it to modify how they were perceived by others.  One such program, developed by hypnopaedia's main proponent, New York psychologist A. B. Saliger, was designed to help people get laid.  It involved listening while asleep to the following message played over and over:  "I desire a mate.  I radiate love...  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful. I have a strong sex appeal."

Unfortunately, all that this accomplished was making the test subjects wake up even hornier than they were before.

Study author Thomas Andrillon is cautious about applications of his work to the practical world.  "The sleeping brain is including a lot of information that is happening outside, and processing it to quite an impressive degree of complexity," Andrillon said.  But as far as using this research to facilitate the development of methods to influence memory in a bigger way, he added, "We are in the big unknown...  Keep in mind that sleep is not just about memory.  Trying to hijack the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep could disrupt normal brain function."

Which I can certainly attest to, as I rarely if ever get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I don't think I've ever had the word "normal" applied to my behavior.  I have to admit that the Andrillon et al. research is fascinating, however, not least because it gives us another piece of the puzzle of why all higher animals sleep.

Now you'll have to excuse me, because I got about three hours of sleep last night, and I think I'm gonna go take a nap.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

*ding* You've got mail!

There's a quote from Winston Churchill that goes, "You have enemies?  Good.  That means you've stood up for something, some time in your life."

By that standard, I'd have gotten some serious props from Mr. Churchill for yesterday's post, which generated quite the deluge of hate mail.  I don't know where my link got posted, nor by whom, but evidently it was in a place where there are a significant proportion of people who took umbrage at my identification of Donald Trump as a liar, a racist, and a misogynist.

The responses varied from the banal to the highly creative.  Several of them invited me to do things that even thirty years ago I didn't have the flexibility to accomplish.  But I thought it'd be fun to respond to a few of them, even though all I'll probably do is generate more hate mail.

Oh, well.  I'm all about throwing caution to the wind.

[image courtesy of photographer Jessica Flavin and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's one that I thought was kind of interesting:
You really don't get it, do you?  From your picture you're as white as I am, and you're gonna stand there and tell me that you have no problem being overrun by people who have different customs and don't speak English?  Let's see how you feel when your kid's teacher requires them to learn Arabic.
Well, my kids are 26 and 29, so unless they decide to enroll in college, they're unlikely to face this particular issue.  But ignoring that for a moment -- I would have been elated if my kids had had the opportunity to learn Arabic in school.  They each took three years of French, but to say they weren't enthusiastic about it is something of an understatement.  I would welcome any opportunity my kids, or kids in general, had to learn about other cultures.  In fact, I think a lot of the hatred and ugliness we're seeing right now is largely generated by the fact that the people who are the most racist don't know even a single person who is of a different race.

Once you get to know someone, realize that they have the same dreams, needs, and desires as you do, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to hate them.

Then there was this one:
Fuck you, you left wing libtard.  We finally have a president who speaks his mind, and you can't handle it.  Well, sorry, jerkoff, but this is America, and we're taking it back whether you like it or not.
"Taking it back?"  From whom?  Or do you mean taking it back in time?  Because that's a hell of a lot more accurate.  To the 30s, when racism and sexism was institutionalized, when there were still lynchings of African Americans, when being Jewish or Italian or Hispanic or Chinese meant that you were automatically disqualified from most high-paying jobs, and when you didn't even mention it if you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

I can only hope we aren't going back there, and as a nation that we've learned the lesson that you don't gain more rights for yourself by denying others theirs, but in the last few days I've begun to wonder.

I also got an email sending me a link to a news article about the Justice Department demanding names of 1.3 million people who visited an anti-Trump website.  It was accompanied by the following cheery message:
Watch your back.  We know who you are.  There's a list of treasonous assholes like yourself, and you better be careful, because this shit is not going to be tolerated any more.
I have two things to say about this one:
  1. The "we know who you are" thing cuts both ways, to judge by the number of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were at the Charlottesville protest, who were identified from photographs, and who are now losing their jobs, facing censure from families and friends, and having their websites shut down.  Apparently a good many of them are boo-hooing the backlash, but don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
  2. For the record, I've never tried to hide.  Not my political beliefs, nor my religious ones, nor much of anything else.  So if you want to put my name on your list, knock yourself out.  Write it in capital letters and underline it three times.  Bring it on.
Last, we have this one:
You alt-left pussies make me want to puke.  I bet if you were in any real danger, you'd run home to mama.  You're pretty tough when you're sitting there on your computer, aren't you, big man?
To be honest, I don't think I'm all that tough.  I'm a wuss about pain, frankly.  But I am willing to take significant risks to stand up for what I believe in, to follow Roy T. Bennett's exhortation to "Stop doing what is easy.  Start doing what is right."

And it's interesting that I'm already a member of the "alt-left," a group that President Trump invented two days ago.  I suppose I should be honored, really.  I was expecting it to take at least a few weeks just to have my application processed.  I hope this means that my official alt-left badge, commemorative t-shirt, and decoder ring will be in my mailbox soon!

Anyhow, that's a sampler of what was in yesterday's mailbag.  For damn near all of them, I pretty much just read the first line or two and deleted them, because there's only so many times you can read "go fuck yourself."

So I guess I struck a nerve, which is to me a good thing.  At least it means people are reading what I write, and (on some level) thinking about what I'm saying.  And with this crowd, any inroads I can make in the "reconsider your beliefs" department is movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A line in the sand

Richard Dawkins wrote, "I think it's important to realize that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

After yesterday's unhinged press conference, this is the situation we are in with respect to Donald Trump and his supporters.

The subject of his speech was the violence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed when an angry young man with neo-Nazi leanings drove his car into the crowd.  The violence, Trump said, was the fault of both sides:
What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt?  What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem?  I think they do...  You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.
The "club in hands" reference is to a photograph of an Antifa member allegedly striking a police officer with a club -- a photograph that has since been shown to be digitally altered.

That is, a fake.

What is grimly ironic about this is that Trump defended the two-day delay in condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis by saying that he wasn't sure of his facts:
I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement... What I said was a fine statement.  I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.
Besides the fact that even after the delay, he still got the facts wrong, it bears mention that it took him only an hour to respond when Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned in protest from the President's Manufacturing Council.  Trump's ego was stung by the resignation -- something which evidently moves him more than seeing people marching in Nazi regalia does.  "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council," Trump sneered via Twitter (of course),  "he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

But apparently it takes way more time to decide whether to condemn white supremacists who had not only killed a young woman for protesting, but who had said, on a website affiliated with their cause, "Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad [Heather Heyer] is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness.  A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value."

This is the ideology that our president thinks is so morally ambiguous that it took him 48 hours to decide whether it was worth condemning, and then afterwards claimed was actually no worse than the beliefs of the anti-Nazi protesters.

Most media were quick to condemn Trump's speech, but as soon as it hit the news, the apologists started in with equal speed.  Within a half-hour of the story breaking, I saw the following comments posted:
  • All he's saying is that white people shouldn't be ashamed of being white.
  • I'd take the people in the march before I would the leftist whiners who are trying to tear America down.
  • The people in the march aren't responsible for what one crazy man in a car did.
  • For crying out loud, shut up and give the President a chance!
This last one is, of all of them, the one that galled me the most.  You know what?  Trump has had seven months of chances.  He has shown himself to be a dishonest, racist, misogynistic prick over and over.  The most surprising thing, in fact, is how unsurprising this last speech was.  It was totally in keeping with his prior words and actions.  All he did here is clarify his own ideology in such a way that there is no doubt any more where his loyalties lie.

So the chances are over, not only for Trump but for his followers.  It's no longer conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican.  This is about deciding whether you side with a man who has allied himself with people who wear swastikas on armbands and chant, "The Jew will never replace us!"  There is no moral ambiguity here.  If you don't repudiate him, now, you are complicit in his actions and those of his followers.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I try my hardest to listen to the people I disagree with, but at some point, there is no compromise, no way to find common ground.  After that, there is no choice but to commit to every effort necessary to stop people who are violent, amoral, and so convinced they are in the right that there is no possibility of discussion.

You might be saying, "Well, aren't you equally convinced that you're right?"  Perhaps.  But I'm not the one calling for violence against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.

This is the point where moral people have to stand up and take a hard look at what is happening here, and realize that neutrality is no longer an option.  We are fast approaching something very like the Weimar Republic of the 1930s -- waiting only for our own Reichstag Fire to plunge the nation into darkness and bloodshed.

So if you're a Trump supporter, I'm sorry if you were misled by his rhetoric.  I understand that it's easy to get swept away by the theatrics of politics, to vote for someone who turned out to be something other than you wanted.  But we've crossed a line, here.  If you still support him, if you are one of the ones crying out "give him a chance," then you and others like you are fully responsible for the horrifying place we seem to be headed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!

Because so much of the world lately seems to be immersed in hatred, violence, and just general suckiness, for today I'm going to retreat to my Happy Place, which is: cool scientific discoveries.

Today's contribution from the Happy Place comes from the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology, two disciplines that are near and dear to my heart.  While my educational background is kind of all over the map (less charitable sorts have called it "a light year across and an inch deep"), evolutionary biology has been something of a passion of mine for ages.  In getting my teaching certificate, I did as many courses as I could that focused on such things as population genetics, cladistics, and the origins of life, so I have come to think of that as being more or less my specialty within the field.

The discovery that spurred today's post comes from northeastern China, where two new species of mammal were uncovered (literally and figuratively) -- Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon.  These species were probably closely related, and appear to have been small tree-dwellers who had flaps of skin that ran from the outsides of the front legs to the outsides of the hind legs, so that when necessary, they could jump from a tree branch, fling their limbs outward, and glide like a living kite.

[image courtesy of study leader Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago]

If you're thinking, "Wait a second.  Isn't that just a flying squirrel?", you should know two things: (1) these two species were only very distantly related to flying squirrels and other rodents; and (2) they were alive during the Jurassic Period -- something on the order of 160 million years ago, when the dominant life forms were dinosaurs.  (For comparison purposes, the earliest known rodents didn't show up until 100 million years later.)  They belong to a group called Euharamiyids, one of the four branches of true mammals (the other three are the Multituberculates, which like the Euharamiyids are extinct; the Monotremes, which include egg-laying mammals such as the platypus; and the Therians, which encompass all other mammals, including us).

What I think is coolest about all of this -- besides the fact that ancient animals are simply inherently cool -- is that it's further evidence of the fact that similar selective pressures often result in separate lineages that happen upon the same "solutions" to evolutionary problems.  This is called convergent or parallel evolution, and one of the best examples of this is the evolution of flight and/or gliding.  Taking to the air has apparently evolved over and over again, resulting in the most familiar flying groups -- birds, insects, and bats -- but also in...



Flying fish:

Sugar gliders:

and the aforementioned flying squirrels:

... the latter of which were studied extensively by noted scientists Boris Badinov and Natasha Fatale.

And now, we can add two more to the list, a pair which (like all the rest) evolved aerobatics completely independently of all the others.

Anyhow, the whole thing illustrates a fundamental rule of biology, which is that there are a limited number of powerful evolutionary drivers (the most important being finding food, not getting turned into food, avoiding the vagaries of the environment you're in, and finding a mate), and a limited number of solutions to those drivers in the real world.  So it's inevitable that the same kinds of structures and behaviors will evolve over and over, even in groups that aren't very closely related.  What is most remarkable about this particular discovery, however, is how early the innovation of gliding in mammals evolved -- back when the whole mammalian clade had barely gotten started, and the dinosaurs still had 95 million years left before a giant meteor strike ended their hegemony.

And all of this ties into another field I'm fascinated with, which is exobiology -- the study of alien species.  At the moment, the number of available samples to study is zero, so we're left speculating based on what we have here on our home planet.  But the fact that we see the same sorts of patterns cropping up again and again -- bilateral symmetry, organs for sensing light and sound, defensive and offensive weapons, and adaptations for rapid locomotion -- is a pretty sound argument that when we do come across life on other planets, it will probably have some striking similarities to what we see here on Earth.

So that's our cool scientific discovery of the day, courtesy of a research team working in China.  And unfortunately I need to wrap up this post, which means I have to leave my Scientific Happy Place and return to the real world, at least for a little while.  Maybe I'll luck out and there'll be other fun and fascinating discoveries announced soon so that I can read something other than the news, which is more and more making me wonder if it might not be time for another giant meteor to press "reset" on the whole shebang.