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, September 30, 2017

Fake news reflex

I have never been one to post political stuff on social media.

For one thing, I don't think it changes anyone's mind.  Besides the fact that most people simply rah-rah the stuff they already believed and ignore everything else, there's also the tendency of folks to read the headline only -- one study that compared clicks to shares found that 59% of the links shared to social media had not been opened by the person sharing them.

Then there's the fact that most of the time, I just don't want to get into it with people.  That may be surprising coming from someone who writes a blog that is sometimes controversial, occasionally downright incendiary.  But when I get on social media, I'm really not looking for a fight.  I'd much rather see funny memes and pictures of cute puppies than to get into a snarling match over, for example, how, where, and how much we should respect the American flag.

Which is why it was ill-advised of me to post a story from Vice that appeared three days ago, describing a move by Trump administration officials from the Department of Justice to argue in the 2nd Court of Appeals that employers should be able to fire employees for being gay.  The case in question, Zarda v. Altitude Express, originated from an incident in 2010 when skydiving instructor Donald Zarda sued his former employer, alleging that his firing had been based solely on his sexual orientation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Predictably, I found this appalling, and in a moment of pique, I posted it to Twitter, which auto-posted it to my Facebook.  Most of the responses I got shared my anger at the situation, but one of them said, simply, "Fake news."

And no, she wasn't making a joke.  I know that she's fairly conservative, and this kind of heavy-handed federal government interference in the court system runs pretty counter to the Republican narrative of small government and a hands-off approach to local and state jurisprudence, so I'm guessing that she saw that if it were true, it'd be pretty hypocritical.  (More and more, it's become clear that the current administration wants small government until they want big government, and see no contradiction at all in demanding both, practically at the same time.)

So she just called it "fake news" and forthwith dismissed it. 

It's not, in fact, fake news at all.  I know Vice is pretty strongly left-leaning, so it's reasonable to view what they post through that lens; but a five-minute Google search brought me to the amicus curiae brief filed by attorneys for the Department of Justice, and it's exactly what the Vice article described.  Failing that, there were dozens of media sources -- left, center, and right -- that carried the story, and all said substantially the same thing.

(One hopeful note; given how badly DOJ attorney Hashim Mooppan's arguments crashed and burned in front of Appellate Court Judge Rosemary Pooler, it looks likely that the strategy may have backfired rather spectacularly, as an overview of the case in Slate describes.)

So it obviously wasn't "fake news," regardless of your political persuasion or your attitude toward LGBT individuals, discrimination cases, or Vice.  What on earth could prompt someone to say that?  I know the person who made the comment is quite intelligent, articulate, and well-spoken.  We don't agree on much politically, but we've always been pretty cordial to each other despite our differences.

It's a troubling impulse.  Confirmation bias, where you accept claims for which there is little to no evidence because it fits with what you already believed, is as illogical as rejecting claims because they run counter to the talking points from your political party.

In fact, the latter may well be worse, because that immediate, reflexive, knee-jerk rejection of what you want very much not to be true makes you ignore facts that could flag when you've made a mistake -- when you have a belief that, in fact, is not correct.  It insulates you from catching your own errors in judgment, logic, or simple fact.

Which might well be comforting, but it doesn't lead to better understanding.  Me, I prefer to admit I'm wrong and correct the mistake.  As Carl Sagan put it, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

And this extends to political arguments which, although they often involve emotions and competing interests, should still be based on actual factual information.  I'll end with another quote, this one from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thus sayeth the prophecy

I have written daily on this blog for years now, and I still run into crazies that I haven't heard of before.  I guess this isn't that surprising, given that humanity seems to produce an unending supply.  But given the amount of time I spend weekly perusing the world of woo-woo, it always comes as a little bit of a shock when I find a new one.

This week it was John Hogue, who a student of mine asked about, in the context of, "Wait till you see what this loony is saying."  Hogue is a big fan of "Nostradamus," noted 16th century wingnut and erstwhile prophet, who achieved fame for writing literally thousands of quatrains of bizarre predictions.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Hogue believes that just about everything you can think of was predicted by Nostradamus. Let's start with his claim that Nostradamus predicted Saddam Hussein's rise and fall, only (because being a prophet and all, you can't just say things straight out) he called Saddam "Mabus."  How does Hogue know that Saddam is Mabus?  Let's have it in his own words:
Here, for your review are the two core quatrain prophecies about Mabus, the Third Antichrist, indexed 2 Q62 and 8 Q77 in Nostradamus’ prophetic masterpiece Les Propheties, initially published in serialized form between the years 1555 and 1560: 
2 Q62
Mabus puis tost alors mourra, viendra,
De gens & bestes vne horrible defaite:
Puis tout à coup la vengeance on verra,
Cent, main, soif, faim, quand courra la comete. 
Mabus will soon die, then will come,
A horrible unraveling of people and animals,
At once one will see vengeance,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when the comet will pass.
8 Q77
L’antechrist trois bien tost annichiliez,
Vingt & sept ans sang durera sa guerre:
Les heretiques morts, captifs, exilez,
Sang corps humain eau rogie gresler terre. 
The Third Antichrist very soon annihilated,
Twenty-seven years his bloody war will last.
The heretics [are] dead, captives exiled,
Blood-soaked human bodies, and a reddened, icy hail covering the earth.
Let us go through the milestones that [show] Saddam... to be candidate number one...
Being a dead candidate is the first and dubious milestone... Saddam was hanged at the 30 December 2006... 
[Saddam's name] can be found in the code name Mabus.  Saddam backwards spells maddas=mabbas=mabas.  Replace one redundant a and you get Mabus. 
Or if you don't like that solution, maybe Mabus is Osama bin Laden, whom Hogue refers to as "Usama" for reasons that become obvious pretty quickly:
Usama mixed around get [sic] us maaus.  Take the b from bin Laden. Replace the redundant a and you get Mabus.
If you take my first name, Gordon, and rearrange it, you get "drogon."  Replace the "o" with an "a," because after all there are two "o"s anyway, and you clearly don't need both of them.  You can get the "a" from the leftover one Hogue had by removing the redundant "a" in "maaus."  Then you get "dragon."  If you take my middle name (Paul) and my last name, and rearrange the letters, you get "a noble punt."

So this clearly means that a dragon is about to attack the United States, but I'm going to kick its ass.

Basically, if you take passages at random, and mess around with them, and there are no rules about how you do this, you can prove whatever you want.  Plus, all of the "prophecies" that Nostradamus wrote are vague and weird enough without any linguistic origami to help you out.  They make obscure historical and mythical allusions that, if you're a little creative, can be interpreted to mean damn near anything. Here's one I picked at random (Century X, Quatrain 71):
The earth and air will freeze a very great sea,
When they will come to venerate Thursday:
That which will be, never was it so fair,
From the four parts they will come to honor it.
What does that mean?  Beats the hell out of me.  I'm guessing that you could apply it to a variety of situations, as long as you were willing to interpret it loosely and let the images stand for whatever you want them to.  Me, I think it has to do with the upcoming apocalypse on October 21.  Oh, and that climate change is a lie, because the sea is going to freeze.  I'm sure that the Planet Nibiru and global conspiracies are somehow involved, too.

What I find amazing is that there are literally thousands of websites, books, and films out there that claim to give the correct interpretation of Nostradamus' wacky poetry.  Some of them take a religious bent, and try to tie them into scripture, especially the Book of Revelation; some try to link them to historical events, an especially popular one being World War II; others, even further off the deep end, try to use them to predict future catastrophes.  These last at least put the writers on safer ground, because you can't accuse someone being wrong if they're using arcane poetry to make guesses about things that haven't happened yet.

In any case, I'm doubtful that Nostradamus knew anything about Saddam Hussein, any more than he predicted World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, or any of the hundreds of other things he's alleged to have forecast.  All we have here is once again, people taking vague language and jamming it into the mold of their own preconceived notions of what it means.  About John Hogue himself, I'm reminded of the words of the Roman writer Cicero, who said, "I don't know how two augurs can look each other in the face while passing in the street without laughing out loud."

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Writing out your feelings

A paper in the journal Psychophysiology last week immediately caught my attention, as it linked a reduction in anxiety in chronic worriers with expressive writing.

The reason it piqued my interest is obvious to anyone who knows me; I'm a writer and a chronic worrier.  I always knew I felt good after meeting my writing goals, but I associated it with simple pleasure of accomplishment -- I never thought that the writing itself might be smoothing out some of my anxiety.

The paper was "The Effect of Expressive Writing on the Error-related Negativity Among Individuals with Chronic Worry," and was authored by Hans S. Schroder, Jason S. Moser, and Tim P. Moran, the first two part of the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University, and the last from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  They write:
The relationship between anxiety and enlarged ERN [error-related negativity] has spurred interest in understanding potential therapeutic benefits of decreasing its amplitude within anxious individuals.  The current study used a tailored intervention—expressive writing—in an attempt to reduce the ERN among a sample of individuals with chronic worry.  Consistent with hypotheses, the ERN was reduced in the expressive writing group compared to an unrelated writing control group.  Findings provide experimental support that the ERN can be reduced among anxious individuals with tailored interventions.  Expressive writing may serve to “offload” worries from working memory, therefore relieving the distracting effects of worry on cognition as reflected in a decreased ERN.
"Expressive writing," the authors explain, "involves writing down one's deepest thoughts and feelings about a particular event," so it is expository writing and not storytelling; but it does make me wonder if writing fiction might serve the same purpose.  Of course, Hemingway would probably have disagreed:

As would Dorothy Parker:

Be that as it may, the results were striking.  The authors write:
Our findings also build upon previous studies demonstrating the positive impacts of expressive writing by showing for the first time that this intervention can also reduce neural processing of mistakes in those who typically show exaggerated error monitoring.  That the expressive writing group had reduced error monitoring but similar behavioral performance compared to the control group further suggests that it improved neural efficiency.  We therefore conclude that expressive writing shows promise for alleviating the interfering impact of worries on cognition—as reflected in reduced error monitoring and intact performance—for those who need it most.
I would be interested to see if the effect occurred in fiction writers, and (even more interestingly) if it held consistent across genres.  There are authors who write generally optimistic, upbeat stories, that leave you with a sigh of contentment and a warm feeling in your heart.  I, however, am not one of them.  In my current work-in-progress, I just finished a scene yesterday in which (1) a child is an accidental victim of a shootout, (2) the child's father was wounded, and (3) the father's wound becomes infected in a situation where there is almost no access to medical care, with the result that he begs his friends to shoot him as a mercy killing.  This leaves his three friends in the horrific situation of whether to kill the man to put him out of his misery, as per his wishes, or to let him continue in intense pain, with a condition that will almost certainly kill him anyhow.

Not cheerful stuff.  And yet... when I was done yesterday, I felt a real sense that I'd written a powerful scene, that (while not uplifting) would grab readers by the emotions and swing them around a little, all the while inducing them to empathize with all four of the characters in the scene.  Cathartic to the reader -- and to me as well.

So anyhow, that's an interesting step that Schroder et al. could take, apropos of the therapeutic value of emotional writing.  As for me, I'm going to wrap this up, because I've got more scenes to write, not to mention more characters to do really horrible things to.  Oh, well, it was their fault, after all.  They should have known what they were getting into, wandering into one of my novels.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The goop returneth

Last week, I described a new product being offered by Gwyneth Paltrow's "alternative health" (i.e. snake oil) company "Goop," namely a "psychic vampire repellent," the advantage of which is you could never be certain if it was effective or not because it's repelling something that doesn't, technically, exist.

Much to my bafflement, instead of laughing directly in Paltrow's face, a significant portion the public is apparently thrilled by her products, so much so that she just announced that she's launching a magazine, also called "goop" (note the e. e. cummings-esque lower case, presumably meant to give the magazine some kind of frisson of daring and insouciance, an impression that is significantly diminished by the fact that it's the word "goop" we're talking about here).

In the first issue, there is a Q-and-A with (surprise!) Paltrow herself, in which she makes some statements that are so ridiculous that I felt impelled to respond to her point-by-point.  It was also to save you the pain of going to her website, which trust me, is a significant favor.

She starts out with a bang.  When asked how she thought to found the company, she said:
[W]hen my dad got sick, I was twenty-six-years-old, and it was the first time that I contemplated that somebody could have autonomy over their health.  So while he was having radiation and the surgery and everything, and eating through a feeding tube, I thought, “Well, I’m pushing this can of processed protein directly into his stomach,” and I remember thinking, “Is this really healing?  This seems weird.  There’s a bunch of chemicals in this shit.”
Well, the reason they were feeding him "processed protein" is that it would be pretty difficult to give someone, say, a tuna sandwich through a feeding tube.  And her final statement, "there's a bunch of chemicals in this shit," is just face-palmingly stupid.  There's a bunch of chemicals in everything.  Because that's what the universe is made of.  Chemicals.  Some of 'em have scary names and are perfectly safe.  Some are natural, 100% organic, and have short, friendly-sounding names, and can kill you.

Like strychnine, for example.  Tell you what: you consume a teaspoon of all-natural strychnine, and I'll consume a teaspoon of highly processed (2R,3S,4S,5R,6R)-2-(hydroxymethyl)-6-[(2R,3S,4R,5R,6S)-4,5,6-trihydroxy-2-(hydroxymethyl)oxan-3-yl]oxy-oxane-3,4,5-triol, and we'll see who's happier in a half-hour.

For you non-chemistry-types, the latter is the chemical name for starch.

Another appalling thing about her statement is that she apparently thinks that her highly scientific analysis of the situation ("there's chemicals in this shit") outweighs the knowledge of all the medical specialists who were, at the time, attempting to save her dad's life.  To me that speaks to a colossal ego issue, on top of simple ignorance.

Then she waxes rhapsodic about a "colon cleanse" she did that made her realize that alt-nutrition stuff was real:
So I was very amped up on the idea of seeing it through to completion.  My best friend did it with me and she ate a banana on the second day, and I was like, “You f%$ked it up.  All results are off.”  I felt very toxic and sluggish and nauseous on the second day, and by the third day I started to feel really good.  And in the book, some people do it for seven days, ten days, thirty days. I was like, “I’m good with the three-day introductory cleanse.”  And I remember the next day, I was like, “Oh wow, I just did this cleanse and I feel so much better, so I can have a beer and a cigarette now, right?”  It was the nineties...  But I do remember feeling that that’s where I caught the bug.  And then the Alejandro Junger cleanse was really instrumental in terms of explaining to me that, especially as detox goes, our bodies are designed to detoxify us, but they were built and designed before fire retardants and PCBs and plastic, so we have a much, much more difficult time, and the body needs some support, which is why cleanses can help.
Which fails to explain why our life expectancy and quality of health is higher now than at any time in recorded history, including back when we were living in a non-fire-retardant world for which our bodies were "built and designed," and had yet to hear about things like "colon cleanses."  Life back then was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, poor, brutish, and short," and a significant fraction of people never made it past childhood because of what are now completely preventable diseases.

Oh, wait, many of those diseases are prevented with vaccines, and vaccines contain chemicals.  My bad.

She then goes on to rail a bit against people like me who demand pesky stuff like evidence before I buy into something.  This, Paltrow says, is just thinly-disguised sexism:
I really do think that the most dangerous piece of the pushback is that somewhere the inherent message is, women shouldn’t be asking questions.  So that really bothers me.  I feel it’s part of my mission to say, “We are allowed to ask any question we want to ask.  You might not like the answer, or the answer might be triggering for you.  But we are allowed to ask the question and we are allowed to decide for ourselves what works and what doesn’t work...  They don’t want women asking too many questions. It’s a very misogynistic response.
Funny thing is, we do have a way of asking questions and finding answers, which turn out to be true whether we like them or not: it's called "science."  It gives the same answers whether you're male or female, young or old, and is equally irrespective of race, religion, and ethnic origin.  A great many of we scientist-types would love it if there were more women and minorities in science, and have repeated and loudly decried both the barriers that have kept them out for years, and the terrible waste of talent that represents.

Oh, and "Goop's" anti-vampire sprays and supplements designed to use gem stone energies to realign the frequency of your chakras are not science, because there is not a single shred of evidence that they work, or are even describing anything real.

Sorry, Gwyneth, if that was "triggering for you."

She ends by talking about her vision for what her company is accomplishing:
Our mission is to have a space where curious women can come.  We are creating an opportunity for curiosity and conversation to live...  So, we know that the world follows the consciousness of women.  So we’re just trying to create this environment where, really, women again, can just feel okay about getting close to themselves and working from that place.
Hmm.  Seems to me her mission is to sell completely worthless "alt-med" crap to gullible people in order to make money.

You know, it really doesn't matter to me whether she actually believes what she's saying, or if she is coldly and calculatedly ripping off people who don't understand science.  Her company is selling useless health aids and nutritional supplements wrapped in cosmic-sounding pseudoscience, and in the process hoodwinking people with actual treatable medical conditions into thinking that they can fix their problem by drinking Water Activated With Essence of Sapphire.  So I keep hoping that people will recognize "Goop" for what it is -- yet another in the long, long line of Patent Cure Peddlers.

And that it will, in short order, pass into well-deserved oblivion.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Right in the gut

I know I've said it before, but it bears saying again: the strength of science lies in its reliance on hard evidence as the sine qua non of understanding.

I've tried to embrace this outlook myself, insofar as a fallible and biased human can do so.  Okay, so every day I poke fun at all sorts of odd beliefs, sometimes pissing people off.  But you know what?  You want to convince me, show me some reliable evidence.  For any of the claims I've scoffed at.  Bigfoot.  Ghosts.  ESP.  Astrology.  Tarot divination.  Homeopathy.

Even the existence of god.

I'm convinceable.  All you have to do is show me one piece of irrefutable, incontrovertible evidence, and I'm sold.

The problem is, to my unending frustration and complete bafflement, most people don't approach the world that way.  Instead, they rely on their gut -- which seems to me to be a really good way to get fooled.  I'm a pretty emotional guy, and I know my gut is unreliable.

Plus, science just doesn't seem to obey common sense at times.  As an example, consider the Theory of Relativity.  Among its predictions:
  • The speed of light is the ultimate universal speed limit.
  • Light moves at the same speed in every reference frame (i.e., your own speed relative to the beam of light doesn't matter; you'll still measure it as traveling at 300,000,000 meters per second).
  • When you move, time slows down.  The faster you move, the slower time goes.  So if you took off in a rocket ship to Alpha Centauri at 95% of the speed of light, when you came back from your trip you'd find that while twelve years or so would have passed for you, hundreds of years would have passed on Earth.
  • When you move, to a stationary person your mass increases and your length in the direction of motion contracts.  The faster you move, the more pronounced this effect becomes.
And so on.  But the kicker: all of these predictions of the Theory of Relativity have been experimentally verified.  As counterintuitive as this might be, that's how the world is.  (In fact, relativistic effects have to be taken into account to have accurate GPS.)

None of which we would know now if people relied solely on their gut to tell them how things work.

Despite all this, there are people who still rely on impulse and intuition to tell them what's true and what's not.  And now a study jointly conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan has shown conclusively that if you do this, you are more prone to being wrong.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks decided to look into the connection between how people view evidence, and their likelihood of falling for incorrect information.  They looked at survey data from almost 3,000 people, in particular focusing on whether or not the respondents agreed with the following statements:
  • I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not. 
  • Evidence is more important than whether something feels true.
  • Facts are dictated by those in power.
They then correlated the responses with the participants' likelihood of believing a variety of conspiracy theories.  Unsurprisingly, they found that the people who relied on gut feelings and emotions to determine the truth were far more likely to fall for conspiracies and outright untruths.

"Misperceptions don’t always arise because people are blinded by what their party or favorite news outlet is telling them," Weeks said.  "While trusting your gut may be beneficial in some situations, it turns out that putting faith in intuition over evidence leaves us susceptible to misinformation."

"People sometimes say that it’s too hard to know what’s true anymore," Garrett said.  "That’s just not true.  These results suggest that if you pay attention to evidence you’re less likely to hold beliefs that aren’t correct...  This isn’t a panacea – there will always be people who believe conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims – but it can make a difference."

I'd say it makes all the difference.  And in the current political environment -- where accusations of "fake news" are thrown around right and left, and what people consider to be the truth depends more on political affiliation than it does on rational fact -- it's more than ever absolutely essential.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Apocalypse later

Well, we survived the apocalypse, or at least the Nibiru-induced one that was supposed to happen two days ago.  Me, I had everything prepared.  Some necessities (coffee, chocolate, scotch), a few precautions (Tylenol, sunscreen, tinfoil hat), and a couple of jugs of water, which I figured would last me until I could figure out how to purify the skeeve out of the water from my pond.

But nothing happened.  I was disappointed.  Given the current situation with Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, I thought a massive planet swooping by and causing geological and meteorological cataclysms would actually be an improvement.

So naturally, once September 24 rolled around and we were all still here, everyone kind of turned and stared at David Meade, who was the guy who started the whole "September 23 is Doomsday" thing.  Any normal person in that situation would chuckle uncomfortably and say, "Well, fuck it all, I was wrong.  What a goober I am."

But David Meade is not, in any sense of the word, normal.  He said that the problem was, when he said that Nibiru was going to destroy the Earth on September 23, we'd misunderstood him.

What he actually meant was "October 21."

I kid you not.  Instead of retreating in disarray and hiding his face in embarrassment for the next three years, Meade is saying the problem was... us.  He was clear as cut crystal.  A few weeks ago he said, and this is a direct quote, "It is very strange indeed that both the Great Sign of Revelation 12 and the Great Pyramid of Giza both point us to one precise moment in time – September 20 to 23, 2017."

So it was our fault that we didn't realize that by "September 20 to 23," what he meant was "October 21."

I mean, how stupid of us, right?  It's like one of my students from a few years ago, who when asked why he hadn't turned in a major project, said, "When you said yesterday that it was due tomorrow, I didn't think you meant, like, tomorrow."

That kid has a definite future in the field of apocalypse prediction.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Meade was equally precise.  He said, "I don’t know when the Rapture will happen. I expect nothing to happen in September," which I think we can all agree is pretty much the same as saying, "I expect the world to be destroyed in September."

In October, on the other hand, we are definitely screwed.  "The most recent astronomical cryptography of the imminent judgments approaching begins in the week of October 21, 2017," Meade said.  "The End of Days, in my opinion (and remember we see ‘through a glass darkly’), will begin in the latter part of October of 2017...  It is possible at the end of October we may be about to enter into the seven-year Tribulation period, to be followed by a Millennium of peace."

In this context, "seeing through a glass darkly" is apparently synonymous with "talking out of your ass."

On the other hand, I have to say that the Millennium of Peace sounds kinda nice, especially given the ongoing dick-measuring contest between Rocket Man and Cheeto Boy.  So once again, I'm in the position of hoping that Meade is right, although given his previous track record, I'm not really holding my breath.

Plus, October 21 is five days before my 57th birthday, and it seems unfair that the world will end before I have a chance to get any presents.  I mean, I know everyone isn't gonna die when the apocalypse comes, but I figure that with all the chaos that will ensue, people will have other priorities besides baking me a cake.

So that kind of sucks.  Oh, well, I guess it has to happen at some point, and being that No One Knoweth The Hour With The Possible Exception Of David Meade, it may as well be October 21.  At least I'll have my supply of coffee, chocolate, and scotch ready, in case he's right.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A genetic cut-and-paste

If I had to pick one technology that I think will make the most different to human quality of life thirty years from now, I would pick CRISPR/Cas9.

CRISPR stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats," a sequence of repetitive DNA in prokaryotes (bacteria) that interacts with a gene called Cas9 to chop up and inactivate foreign DNA.  At first, it seemed like it would interest only someone with a fascination for bacterial genetics.

Then it was discovered that you could guide CRISPR/Cas9 to specific sequences in DNA using a piece of RNA as a guide.  Think of it as a pair of scissors with a laser sight.  Molecular biologists saw the implications immediately; with that tool, you could cut out any piece of DNA you wanted, insert new genes, inactivate old ones -- you veritably have a cut-and-paste function for the genetic code.

The potential applications to treat human disease are nearly endless.  Disorders where the affected individuals have an inoperative gene, and therefore lack the specific protein it produces, might have the error repaired by splicing in a corrected copy.  (Possible candidates for this are cystic fibrosis and hemophilia.)  On the other hand, disorders where the defective gene makes a damaged end product -- such as sickle-cell anemia and Huntington's disease -- might have the faulty gene cut out and discarded.

All of this is still in the future, however.  At the moment, scientists are playing with CRISPR, seeing what it can do.  And just last week, a team at Cornell University used CRISPR/Cas9 on butterflies to inactivate specific genes...

... and completely changed the color patterns on their wings.

One of the species they worked on was the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), a beautiful black, orange, and gold butterfly native to the southeastern United States.

[image courtesy of photographer Jonathan Zander and the Wikimedia Commons]

When a gene called optix was selectively inactivated by CRISPR/Cas9, the result was stunning.  All of the orange and gold regions turned velvety jet black.  White spots became a metallic silver.  Silencing a different gene, WntA, had a different result -- stripes blurred, eyespots disappeared, edges became indistinct.

Anyi Mazo-Vargas, one of the authors of the paper, calls genes like optix and WntA "paintbrush genes."  "Wherever you put them," Mazo-Vargas said, "you'll have a pattern."

They tested optix deletion on other species, and found similar results, even in species that have been evolutionarily separated for 80 million years.  Colorful butterflies come out looking monochrome. "They just turn grayscale,” said Robert Reed, who led the study.  "It makes these butterflies look like moths, which is pathetically embarrassing for them."

The fact that these genes can be inactivated, almost like flipping a switch, and have such body-wide results is nothing short of spectacular.  Of his earlier work in studying color genes in butterflies, Reed said, "It was convincing but we didn’t know exactly what these genes were doing. Without the ability to delete the genes, and see if their absence changed the butterfly wings, we didn’t have the final proof.  There’s been this frustrating wall that I’ve banged my head against...  CRISPR is a miracle.  The first time we tried it, it worked, and when I saw that butterfly come out ... the biggest challenge of my career had just turned into an undergraduate project."

Of their first success -- the jet-black-and-silver Gulf Fritillary -- Reed said, "It was amazing to see that thing crawl out of the pupa... it was the most heavy metal butterfly I've ever seen."

All of this is one more indication of why we should all be in support of pure research.  On one level, this might sound kind of silly to the layperson -- some scientists tinkering around and changing the color of butterfly wings.  But when you see where such research could lead, and the potential application to human health, it's absolutely stunning.

In my opinion, it won't be long before we're using the same genetic cut-and-paste not to fiddle with "paintbrush genes" in butterflies, but to repair genetic defects in humans.  And that would be the biggest leap in medical science since the invention of vaccines.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Living waters

Okay, this "raw foods" fad has gone too far.

Understand that I'm not talking about eating things like raw vegetables.  In general, most of us would benefit from eating more vegetables, raw or cooked, not only because it's healthy, but because growing plants for food has a lower negative impact on the environment than raising animals for food.

But there's a point where people decide that a certain word has positive connotations in all contexts, and that's what's happened with the word "raw" amongst health-food types.  This is why we have people eating meat that's not only raw, but thoroughly decomposed (they call it "high meat" and say it's "probiotic"), and a couple in Australia whose child died of an E. coli infection after drinking raw milk.

So you can see that "raw" doesn't translate to "good for you."  Nor, apparently, even to "something in an uncooked state that is usually eaten cooked." This is why there is now a company that is selling, I kid you not...

... "raw water."

The California-based company "Live Water" is now selling, for $15 per 2.5-gallon jug ($11 each if you go for the quantity discount and buy twenty or more), "Fountain of Truth fresh raw spring water."  Which is supposedly better for you than other kinds of water.  Here's the sales pitch from their website:
At the spring head fire agates and 108,000 gallons of water per minute levitate out of a lava tube.  It's been in constant offering at that exact same flow rate, since it was first measured in 1925 until now.  The water is from a time when earth was pristine, and is estimated to have matured below the surface for up to 10,000 years before surfacing.

Imagine its journey as it's flowing through vast networks of crystal lined lava tubes to the surface.  Major science has concluded that their [sic] is a body of water with a larger volume than all our oceans combined in the core of the earth.  This is the earth's way of cleansing water, and offering it back to us with a fresh new start... 
The extensive water analysis shows super high levels of natural silica.  Silica is essentially pure liquid crystals.  Silicone [sic] holds information and energy in a unique way, thats [sic] why all our devices run off of them, hence the name silicone valley [sic].  Imagine how it would feel to upgrade your brain's entire operating system to the best computer chips available.  Silica is also known as the beauty mineral, very rarely found in any food or supplements... 
In it's [sic] natural cycle water is infinitely chemically and energetically complex.  Water goes down into the soil and becomes the perfect probiotic as it passes through microbes and micro-organisms in the humus.  It picks up bio-available mono atomic elements and minerals that just can't be replicated.  We have done our best to keep it pristine. 
Okay, let's see.  Where do I start?

First: silica, silicon, and silicone are not the same thing.  Silica is, essentially, glass, so saying it's "pure liquid crystals" is nonsense, as is the idea that consuming silica would "upgrade your brain's entire operating system."  Silicon is an element, atomic number 14, which is a very common atom in most rocks.  Silicone, on the other hand, is a polymer of silicon, oxygen, and organic functional groups, and is used for (among other things) making aquarium cement and breast implants.  (You have to wonder which application gave rise to "Silicone Valley.")

But what's really wildly wrong about this is claiming that there's something unique about water that has been underground for a long time (and underground water deposits don't get anywhere near the core of the Earth, I feel obliged to point out).  Deep aquifer water is often quite pure, but it's no healthier for you than any other pure water source.  And if the water, on its way to the surface, passes through soil and humus and picks up "microbes and micro-organisms," this is, in general, a bad thing.  Not only do unpurified water sources contain such special offers as E. coli, they can also contain Giardia lamblia (giardiasis is basically a month-long bout of severe stomach flu), and in some parts of the world, cholera, cryptosporidiosis, amoebic dystentery, and shigellosis.

All of which can kill you.

So the bottom line is that gulping down unfiltered, untreated water from your nearby stream is a good way to die, or at least to be awfully unhappy for several weeks.  And I certainly wouldn't trust a company whose webpage is that full of complete, grade-A bullshit, not to mention spelling errors, to adhere to safety standards well enough to be aware of whether their fifteen-buck jugs of water contain pathogens or not.

So I'll just stick with my good old cooked water, thanks very much.  There's a reason why we don't die of horrible diseases at nearly the rates we did a hundred years ago.  And I, for one, am not going to throw caution to the wind just so I can say I drink "raw water."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A ghost in the machine

Because we skeptics don't already have enough to make us twitch, now we have:

A company in Kentucky that will provide "untraceable hoaxing of paranormal activity."

The company, Kentucky Special FX, bills itself as follows:
We offer various themed special effect props, Halloween props, Halloween Decorations, Haunted House Props, Haunted Attraction Props, Christmas props, pneumatic props, animatronic props, electronic props, cryogenic CO2 and LN2 special effects, large scale magician stage illusions and optical illusions for professional custom built Halloween props and Halloween theme props for haunted houses and haunted attractions on any scale with complete in-house, ground up creations.  Our staff has in depth knowledge of the latest blacklight / UV light, electronics animation and laser special FX technology. 
Our staff has over forty years of combined experience in various fields of the special FX industry.  If you do not see an item listed that you need, please by all means, call us, as we spend a lot of our time tending to custom built orders.
Owner Mike Bisch is up front about the fact that his special effects expertise is sometimes used not to design scary scenes for Halloween, but to fool people into believing that ghosts are real.  Bisch said that he and his team are capable of "creating everything from equipment malfunctions, sudden temperature fluctuations, and appearing and disappearing apparitions for unwitting ghost hunters in haunted buildings."  He has, he says, designed paranormal hoaxes at the sites of legendary hauntings "over twenty times" without being caught out.

Bisch says he doesn't believe in the paranormal himself; unsurprising, given that he knows first hand how easy it is to fake.  Magicians are notorious for being skeptics (the best-known example being James "The Amazing" Randi).  But then he adds, "I'm a man of science."

And there I take exception.  No, Mr. Bisch, you are not.  You are a hoaxer, taking money to set up scenarios deliberately to hoodwink the gullible.  This is not science.  This is encouraging credulity, the exact opposite of what science is supposed to do.

Okay, they were scared, but at least these guys knew that the ghost is always the carnival owner with a sheet over his head.

To their credit, a lot of ghost hunters are outraged by what Bisch and his team are doing.  Sue Nielson, who has traveled to a lot of allegedly haunted places in search of evidence, said, "If we wanted a fake haunting we would stay close to home and wait for the haunted houses to start up in October."

Well-known purveyor of the supernatural Chip Coffey, who has appeared more than once on Paranormal State, was furious.  "If there is reliable, substantive, irrefutable PROOF that such activity is occurring, then it should be made public," Coffey wrote.  "No blind accusations, suppositions or conspiracy theories. PROOF ONLY!"

Which leaves me in the awkward position of disagreeing with the guy who knows hauntings aren't real, and agreeing with a "psychic medium."

Seattle ghost hunter Todd Manoli-Smith concurs.  "Not only is this degrading to the field it’s so disrespectful to the deceased who may actually be trying to reach out."

Well, I don't think my grandma, who died in 1986, honestly cares much about what Bisch is doing.  But I sure as hell do.

There's already so much in the way of background noise in this field, due to human gullibility, misinterpretation of natural occurrences, and autosuggestion that the last thing we need is someone muddying the waters further.  This will make it even harder to determine if there is reliable evidence out there -- not that I think that's very likely.  Most scientists have already given up on researching the paranormal because tomfoolery is so common; all this will do is make the rest of them throw in the towel.

Bisch, for his part, is completely unapologetic. "I can’t apologize... or I guess I could, but I won’t," he says. "I’m an asshole, I know.  But a lovable asshole, though."

Well, Mr. Bisch, you're half right.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Yesterday I found something so amazingly ridiculous that at first I thought it was a joke.

Sadly, it is not.

I told some friends about it, and said, "This is so idiotic that I considered writing about it on Skeptophilia, but I honestly can't think of anything to say about it except 'What the fuck?'"

My friends did not concur.  If this didn't make the cut for the topic of a post, they said, there was something wrong with my selection criteria.

So I bowed to the pressure  And to my pals I say: I hope you're all satisfied with what you've done.

*heavy sigh*

And that is why I am here today to tell you about:

Psychic Vampire Repellent.

Yes, I'm serious.  Worse still, this stuff is sold by Gwyneth Paltrow's undeservedly famous company "Goop," which peddles alt-med nonsense of all sorts, such as "Aromatic Irritability Treatment."  But even so... vampire repellent?

Let's hear what the website has to say about it:
A spray-able elixir we can all get behind, this protective mist uses a combination of gem healing and deeply aromatic therapeutic oils, reported to banish bad vibes (and shield you from the people who may be causing them). Fans spray generously around their heads to safeguard their auras.
Yes!  Spray it on your head to safeguard your aura!  Then you can squirt CheezWhiz up your nose to keep yourself from inhaling evil spirits!

The bottle tells you even more:
A unique and complex blend of sonically tuned gem elixirs, including black tourmaline, ruby, lapis lazuli, onyx, and garnet; oils of rosemary, juniper, and lavender; and reiki-charged crystals.
One of the many questions I have about this is: how the hell do you "sonically tune" a gem?  Do you carve little bits off it until it plays an A above middle C when you hit it with a hammer?  Then there's the issue of "gem elixirs," which you apparently make by soaking rocks in water in the hopes that their essential quantum frequency vibrations will be transferred to the water or something.

Of course, as one of my friends pointed out, there's no doubt that if you use it, you won't be troubled by vampires.  "I bet if I buy some and use it faithfully, no psychic vampires will come near me.  I BET," she said.  "I've been using my anti-alien candles and there've been no extraterrestrials keepin' me up at night, no sir."

And I can't argue with that.

Me, I think there's a whole untapped market out there.  If Gwyneth can become rich selling people spray to keep away beings that don't exist, there's no reason why I can't jump on the bandwagon.  I bet anti-Bengal-tiger spray would be a big seller here in upstate New York.  I can guarantee that it'd be 100% effective.  Unfortunately, we've already been beaten to the punch on the Bigfoot angle; just a couple of weeks ago a woman in North Carolina announced she was selling a spray called "Bigfoot Juice," although apparently the point here was not to keep Bigfoots away, it was to lure them in.  "Will attract any Sasquatch within a mile and a half radius!", the sales pitch states.

Why you would want to attract Sasquatches, I have no idea.

But even so, that still leaves a lot of possibilities.  My friend already has her anti-alien candles, so that one's out.  How about NoGhost Strips, for people who are sick of living in haunted houses?  Or CurseAway, if you think you're the victim of evil voodoo?  The possibilities are endless.

I don't see that Gwyneth has trademarked any of these, so I think we're good.  On the other hand, she already has "Moon Juice Sex Dust," which is "designed to ignite and excite sexual energy in and out of the bedroom," "Turn Back Time" age-reversal tonic, and "Chill Child Kid Calming Mist," which contains "cleansing sea salt."

Actually, I wouldn't mind having a bottle of the last one.  There are three girls in my study hall this year who talk and giggle constantly, and I would love to run up to them and spray all three of them directly in the face with Magic Salt Water, yelling, "Chill, Child!  Chill!" and laughing maniacally.

Nah, better not.  Not only would it most likely not work, I'm guessing their parents would object, as would my principal.  He'd probably make me double my dose of "Aromatic Irritability Treatment" for the rest of the school year.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The return of Nibiru

The world is going to end again.

This is what, two dozen times that the world has ended?  I've lost count, honestly.  But a success rate of 0.00% isn't the least bit discouraging to the Apocalyptoids.  If anything, it encourages them.  Their history of failed predictions means that the next one has to be correct.  This time, they think, this time Lucy won't pull the football away when we try to kick it.

The latest prediction from the End-of-the-World cadre was described over at the site Mysterious Universe, which has that name because Bullshit Universe doesn't have quite the same gravitas.  I'm pleased that from his tone, the author of the page at least seemed to realize that he was telling us nonsense, although it bears mention that other recent Mysterious Universe articles have been "My Very Own Hyperdimensional Resonator" and "Green UFOs Appear in South Africa and Spain."

So right off the bat, we're talking about a source that may not be all that reliable.  But being that this is what we do, here at Skeptophilia, I forged ahead.

The end of the world this time is going to be because the Yellowstone Supervolcano is going to erupt.  But what you probably don't know is that (1) it's going to erupt because of the infamous planet Nibiru, and (2) all of this serious shit is coming down on September 23, 2017.  Yes, as in this coming Saturday.  So we don't have long to prepare, not that there's much we could do about it anyhow.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The main proponent of this idea is one David Meade, who has said that Nibiru is not in orbit around the Sun.  No, that would be ridiculous.  Nibiru is actually in orbit around the Sun's invisible binary twin, and therefore is zooming toward us at incredible speed -- a speed, Meade says, that will "'take it from not visible in any telescope' to 'holy crap, there it is' in only a few days."

Which, of course, brings up the question of how Meade knows about it, if it's not yet visible in any telescope.

Oh, that's because of the masking effects of the Earth's atmosphere, Meade says.  If we only had a telescope that was above the Earth's atmosphere, we'd see Nibiru approaching.

Which, of course, we do. The Hubble.  But we haven't let little things like factual accuracy bug us before, so why start now?

Anyhow, when Nibiru gets close enough, the Yellowstone Supervolcano will go "boom."  Which will, according to Meade, "split the United States in half."  There will be tsunamis (yes, I know, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is nowhere near the ocean.  Stop asking questions), earthquakes, and high winds, and worst of all, the entire electrical grid will go down.

"This will allow our enemies to take advantage of us," Meade says.  Which honestly seems like it would be the least of our concerns at that point.

Of course, there's no theory crazy enough that someone can't add to it in such a way as to make it way crazier.  In this case, the someone is William Tapley, who has been something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia, most recently because of claiming that Donald and Melania Trump are members of the Illuminati, and that a Budweiser commercial aired during the Superbowl that featured a cute puppy was a coded Satanic message that the world was going to end.

Which of course, it didn't.  As usual.

Anyhow, Tapley, who calls himself the "Third Eagle of the Apocalypse" (what happened to Eagles #1 and #2, I have no idea), is really excited about this whole September 23 thing, although he's not really too keen on Nibiru.  Tapley says that the End Is Nigh because on the 23rd, both the Moon and the Sun will be in the constellation Virgo, which clearly is a reference to Revelation chapter 12, in which we hear about "a woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon under her feet and a crown of seven stars on her head."

So the only possible answer is that the Tribulation, Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ, and so on are about to happen.

But even Tapley isn't all.  There's Antonio Mattatelli, "one of the most famous exorcists in Italy," who says that recent floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are a sign of the start of the End Times, because apparently that stuff has never happened before.

Anyhow, there you have it.  A consensus of three experts that once again, the world is ending.  I don't know about you, but I am sick unto death of having these predictions of apocalypse, and then nothing happens.  If this time we get to September 24, and there have been no Apocalyptic Horsepersons, no Scarlet Whore of Babylon, no Antichrist, no Beast With Seven Heads, and (most of all) no Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers, I'm gonna be pissed.

So go ahead.  Come at me, bro.  Let's see what you got.

I dare you.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ground state

Are you bothered by your psychic abilities?  Do you find yourself unable to tune out others' thoughts?   Is the color of your aura clashing with your favorite shirt?

Maybe you need to do some psychic grounding.

Honestly, I can imagine that it might be inconvenient to be psychic, if such things actually existed. Especially if you were telepathic.  Consider what it would be like if you really could read the minds of the people around you.  I don't know about you, but my mind is a continuous jumble of random thoughts, most of them inane, weird, and/or irrelevant.  There is frequently musical accompaniment, usually consisting of whatever song I heard on the radio on the way to work.  And like most people, I also often have thoughts that I hope fervently never leave my skull, because of the sheer embarrassment potential.  If my thoughts really could be recorded, sequentially, they'd probably sound something like the following:

"I'm hungry...  What did I do with my pencil?...  Do I have a faculty meeting tomorrow?...  Slip slidin' away, slip slidin' away...  Wow, she's really hot!...  Is 'occurred' spelled with one 'r' or two?...  I'm cold...  Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go...  Did I remember to remind Carol to pick up dog food today?...  Geez, that guy is wearing a dorky-looking hat..."

And so on.  I would think that being telepathic would be at best highly distracting, and at worst the mental equivalent of being trapped 24/7 in a noisy bar.  (A feature I worked into one of my characters -- the telepathic detective Callista Lee, in Poison the Well, due for release next month.)  I know that there are people I have to interact with on a daily basis that I already want to scream "dear god, will you please just shut up!" at, and that's just from hearing what they say out loud.  If I could hear their thoughts, too... well, let me just say that this could well be at the heart of some seemingly unpremeditated homicides.

Be that as it may, if this is you... help is on the way, in the form of the aforementioned article, which was written by someone who signs his name only as "Nathaniel." 

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The gist of shutting down your psychic abilities lies, apparently, in "grounding" yourself.  Nathaniel says that you can do this in the following ways:
  1. Stop noticing weird stuff. Nathaniel refers to this as the "11:11 effect" -- how you notice when a digital clock reads some time that is peculiar, and once you've noticed it, it jumps out at you every time it happens.  He seems to seriously consider this a psychic ability, and in fact says that training yourself to notice such things more is a way to amplify your abilities if you want them to increase. 
  2. Tell yourself you're not going to be psychic any more, until you say otherwise.  It's important to include the last part, because if you don't you could risk losing your abilities permanently.
  3. Don't give psychic readings for yourself or others, and don't mess with "power objects" like crystals or Tarot cards.
  4. Create a "psychic shield" for yourself to stop negative people from throwing destructive stuff at you.  There's a site that tells you all about how to do this, but I must admit that I still don't see how this could work, as it seems like all it amounts to is visualizing yourself as surrounded by a shield.  Whether this could help with negative aura energies, or whatever, I don't know, but I suspect it might be less than successful if what the negative person had thrown was, for example, a brick.
So anyway, all of this seems to me like a lot of hooey -- if it really was this easy to gain and lose psychic abilities, all of us would be doing it all the time, constantly picking up each other's thoughts, and I would really have to watch myself when I see Really Hot Girl or Dorky Hat Guy.  Just as with last week's post on weird coincidences, most of what Nathaniel is describing is just wishful thinking, combined with dart-thrower's bias -- the tendency all of us have to notice seemingly odd stuff (such as when the clock reads 11:11) and ignore irrelevant background noise (such as when it says 5:48).  Our attention to such things doesn't make us psychic -- all it reflects is that evolutionarily, it's better to give attention to something that turns out to be unimportant than to ignore something that turns out to be critical to our survival.

So, honestly, I found Nathaniel's advice to be a bit of a disappointment.  I'd hoped for more concrete advice -- something along the lines of, "To avoid picking up the thoughts of those around you, fashion yourself a tinfoil hat.  Make sure that you use at least three layers for best effect, especially if you are using the cheap generic shit and not genuine Reynolds Wrap."  But maybe it's better that way. If I had to go around all day with a tinfoil hat, I'd be the one people were thinking "dorky" about -- even if, at the time, my "psychic shield" was keeping me from hearing about it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Funny you should say that...

Do coincidences mean anything?

This was the subject of a fantastic, and sadly little-known, movie -- I 'Heart' Huckabee's.  The main character (played by Jason Schwartzman) has the bizarre coincidence of seeing, in a big city, the same very tall African man several times in different places.  Freaked out by this, he hires two "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to figure out if it really was a coincidence, or if it has some kind of significance beyond that.

In other words, if there is a coincidence, maybe even what seems to be a wildly improbable, weird, eye-opening one, does it have any meaning in the Cosmic Sense?  Or is it, to quote one of my favorite songs -- Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw" -- "a twist of fate, a shot in the dark, a roll of the die, the big wheel, the big ride?"

One of my students has been paying more attention to the little coincidences lately, and his claim is that they happen way more than is attributable to chance.  The whole thing came up yesterday because in my AP Biology class we were talking about the low caloric content of celery -- giving rise to the claim that you use more calories chewing celery than you get from eating it.  He then told me that only two periods earlier, the same topic came up in a different class... and then went on to tell me, excitedly, how "that sort of thing is always happening to me!"

Of course, if he thought that I was going to be willing to attribute coincidences to some sort of Larger Purpose At Work, perhaps due to the influence of a deity who liked celery, he was barking up the wrong tree.   My opinion is such things are simply the dart-thrower's bias -- we tend to notice the hits (in this case, the times when the same topic comes up twice) and ignore misses (all of the millions of things that don't get mentioned twice).  As a result, we tend to overestimate wildly how common such coincidences are.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That's not to say that there aren't some peculiar ones.  I have had the experience myself of thinking about a song, turning on the radio, and the song is playing.  Take that minor mystery, and turn up the gain, and you get people whose dreams have come true, who have had premonitions of disaster and not taken the plane (or train or boat or whatever), and whose lives have been saved.  Is this true ESP, or the hand of god, or something more prosaic?

I'd opt for the latter, and I suspect that you knew I'd say that. In my opinion, for there really to be something "going on" here, there'd have to be some cause for it, some discernible mechanism at work.  I'm willing to entertain the idea -- momentarily, anyway -- that some supreme being who honestly cares about us might wish to intervene on our part, and save us from calamity via a vision, premonition, or dream.  But that opens up the troubling question about why said deity didn't bother to let the 235 other people who died in the plane crash know, so that they, too, could escape death.  That a deity exists who selectively warns some folks about impending doom while allowing others to perish is a pretty scary idea, and such a deity would have to be capricious to the point of evil.

How about the more benign explanation, that some of us are simply more "in touch" with the sixth sense than others, and therefore all those folks who died simply weren't wired to be aware of the coming catastrophe?  Again, there's that pesky lack of a mechanism.  Not one experiment designed to detect ESP of various sorts has succeeded, which is (to say the least) a bit troublesome to those who believe in such things.  Some of those true believers respond that lab conditions, run by skeptical scientists, are not conducive to the psychic energy field, and it's the lack of belief by the researchers that is interfering with the outcome.  I respond; that's mighty convenient.  Sounds like special pleading to me.

To quote Carl Sagan, from his masterful book The Demon-Haunted World (which should be required reading in every public school science program in America):
Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best.  If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish. They’re shy, we’re told, and some of us believe it.  In twentieth-century parapsychology laboratories, there is the ‘observer effect’: those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi.  What they need is darkness and gullibility.
So, we're left with the conclusion that coincidences happen just because -- they happen.  Given that we dream every night, and daydream every day, and listen to radios and read newspapers and such pretty much constantly, coincidences are bound to happen, just by the statistics of large numbers.  It doesn't make them feel any less weird when they do occur; but sooner or later, you're going to dream something, and a few days or weeks later, it will more or less "come true."  There are only so many things we dream about, and only so many kinds of things that happen in our lives, and given a large enough time axis, eventually those two will coincide.

I hope -- honestly, I do -- that I haven't just taken the magic out of your perception of the world's weirdness.  My own view is that I'd much rather know the truth than to believe a pretty falsehood.  And really, the idea of a god who selectively dabbles in the affairs of humans isn't even that pretty, when you think about it.  So if I've made the world seem a little more prosaic and dull, I sincerely apologize.  And if I get into my car in a half-hour or so, and turn on the radio, and hear Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw," it will serve me right.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Keeping your eye on the Baal

Illustrating the general principle that loopy ideas are not restricted to one religion, race, or ethnicity, today we have: a rabbi who claims that Donald Trump's presidency was predicted in the Old Testament.

The gentleman's name is Jonathan Cahn, and this isn't his first foray into the lunatic fringe.  Cahn made a name for himself by claiming that 9/11 was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah, and warned that rebuilding on the site of the attack directly contravened god's will, and would lead to us all being the target of the divine "smite" function.  Another time, he went around saying that because America was still doing all sorts of naughty stuff, we were going to get smote again (this seems to be a common theme with him), only this time he picked an actual day, September 13, 2015, on which the aforementioned smiting was supposed to take place.

When September 14, 2015 rolled around, and lo we were all still wandering around unsmot (yes, I know that's not the correct term, but it should be), neither Cahn nor his followers seemed unduly upset by his failure.  In fact, shortly after the non-apocalypse occurred, Cahn appeared on Pat Robertson's television show The 700 Club, and in a moment of unprecedented lucidity, Robertson asked Cahn why the predicted catastrophe didn't happen.

"You can’t put God in a box or He’ll get out of it," Cahn said. "God doesn’t work in exact dates."

Except that Cahn claimed god had given him an exact date.  A little awkward, that.

It didn't slow Cahn down, however.  In an interview last week on the television program It's Supernatural, Cahn described how Bill Clinton's presidency, Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and Trump's eventual win was simply repeating a pattern from the history of the Israelites:
We are replaying an ancient mystery, where we are right now, and it is amazing and it’s true and it’s real.  In the Bible, there is a king who rises up and he is the first one who pioneers, who is pushing, Baal worship.  And the name is Ahab …  He is the first one to actually champion from the throne Baal worship, which is the offering up of children.  Now, could there be parallel?  Well, there is.  There is a man who rises as president, he is Bill Clinton, he is going to follow the template of Ahab.
Righty-o.  After all, Ahab was defeated in battle by an Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, reigned for twenty-two years despite that, and eventually was mortally wounded by an Aramean arrow, so I think we can all agree that the parallels to Bill Clinton are obvious.

The Death of Ahab (Gustave Doré, 1865) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Such logic apparently doesn't occur to Cahn, who said that this casts Hillary Clinton in the obvious role:
Just as Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a champion of Baal worship, so too is Hillary Clinton an advocate of female power and advocate of abortion.
What about Trump, though?  Well, Cahn has that all figured out:
Donald Trump is a modern day version of Jehu, who was raised up by God to become king and to slay Jezebel.  He’s a warrior, he’s a fighter, he fights with everybody.  His name is Jehu…  He’s used by God, but he’s the most unlikely person.
Well, I can't argue with the last bit, anyhow.

So Cahn said that Trump's win was inevitable, because the same pattern was playing out as with Jehu, who in 2 Kings 9:33 tramples Jezebel's mangled body underfoot, as befits a righteous man of god:
When the warrior meets the former queen, the warrior will defeat the former queen and there will be a downfall and that’s exactly what happened.  He wins and Jehu heads to the capital city.  Why does he head to the capital city?  To drain the swamp!  Absolutely.  And Jehu, specifically, is ending Baal worship, which is the offering up of children.  So even Trump puts as his agenda, we want to dismantle this, which leads to the next thing and that is when he goes there, he actually destroys the Temple of Baal in the capital city.  Now the Temple of Baal was built by Ahab, so he starts dismantling the system of killing children.  Well, one of the first things Trump did was sign the the executive orders to try to dismantle it.
And instead of laughing directly into Cahn's face, which is what I would have done, the host of It's Supernatural, Michael Brown, just nodded sagely as if what Cahn had said made perfect sense.

I know people have tried to explain it to me on more than one occasion, but I still can't quite fathom how the Religious Right ended up supporting Trump with such fervor.  I remember the days of Jerry Falwell, Sr., and the founding of the "Moral Majority," which decried the loose morals and general cupidity of secular society.  Here, forty-some-odd years later, we have the same cadre of evangelicals embracing a man who has built his entire life on loose morals and cupidity as if he were the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.

But even by those standards, Rabbi Cahn seems to be taking things a bit far, not to mention twisting reality around like a pretzel in trying to shoehorn modern events into the mold of history.  The problem is, this sort of thing only works when you selectively ignore certain facts and focus on others, are willing to interpret things metaphorically when it suits your purpose, and in general stretch the truth to fit your prior assumptions.

And it must be said that when essayist George Santayana uttered his famous statement that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," I really don't think that's what he had in mind.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Anxiety leakage

Following hard on the heels of a prominent athlete claiming that depression was basically self-inflicted and/or voluntary, we have a paper in Scientific Reports that unequivocally demonstrates the biological basis of anxiety.

The paper, entitled "Neural Circuitry Governing Anxious Individuals’ Mis-allocation of Working Memory to Threat," details research by Daniel M. Stout (of the University of California-San Diego), Alexander J. Shackman (of the University of Maryland), and Walker S. Pedersen, Tara A. Miskovich, and Christine L. Larson (of the University of Wisconsin).  The authors write:
Heightened levels of dispositional anxiety confer increased risk for the development of internalizing disorders, including anxiety and co-morbid depression.  These debilitating psychiatric disorders are common and existing treatments are inconsistently effective, underscoring the need to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms governing individual differences in risk... 
Building on prior behavioral and electrophysiological work, functional MRI (fMRI) was used in the present study to quantify neural activity while subjects performed a well-established emotional [working memory] task... The results of our mediation analyses suggest that the amygdala promotes the mis-allocation of [working memory] resources to threat-related distracters.  The amygdala is sensitive to a broad spectrum of emotionally salient stimuli, including threat-related facial expressions.  In addition, there is clear evidence that anxious individuals show amplified or prolonged amygdala responses to threat-related faces, even when they are task-irrelevant, consistent with our results.  Anatomically, the amygdala is well positioned to prioritize the short-term retention of threat-related cues...  
[I]t has become clear that information can enter [working memory] via either perceptual encoding or retrieval from long-term memory.  From this perspective, [working memory] reflects the temporary allocation of selective attention to recently perceived items or the temporary re-activation of representations stored in [long-term memory]...  This suggests that intrusive memories may reflect the mis-allocation of [working memory] resources to distressing material held in [long-term memory].
Put more simply, in anxious people, threat-related long-term memories "leak across" into the working memory, the short-term memory system we use to keep track of everyday occurrences.  This is mediated through increased activity in the amygdala, a part of the limbic system of the brain long known to have a connection to anxiety, stress, and obsessive behavior.  In an interview with PsyPost, study lead author Daniel M. Stout explained this in more detail:
Anxiety and depressive disorders are very common, challenging to treat, and pose an enormous burden on public health. Having an anxious personality is associated with developing future psychological disorders. 
We were interested in this topic because we do not fully understand why individuals with an anxious disposition, like those with an anxiety or depressive disorder, experience high levels of emotional distress in the absence of immediate threat, and spend an excessive amount of time thinking about potential dangers in objectively safe situations. 
These types of symptoms are particularly pernicious because they inflict their damage when we need to be focusing on the task-at-hand or at times when we don’t want them to (e.g., during a meeting at work, talking to loved ones, when trying to fall asleep at night).  If we can understand what underlies these symptoms, and the brain mechanisms involved, we may be better able to reduce the suffering that many people with high levels of anxiety report. 
Earlier work by our group using EEG technology suggested that this might reflect problems with how anxious individuals process threat-related information in working memory.  Working memory is a short-term memory system that guides on-going thoughts and behaviors.  It is the memory system involved in helping us remember things while we do a task, like remembering a phone number while dialing it. 
If threat-related information gains access to or ‘contaminates’ working memory, it can exert a negative influence on our thoughts and actions.  For instance, viewing an e-mail informing you that a bill is due can result in increased anxiety and intrusive thoughts about financial troubles; triggering a chain-reaction of uncontrolled worry that spans the entire day. 
One other important aspect of working memory is that its capacity is limited, so we can only hold a finite amount of information online in working memory at any given time.  So, if your working memory is ‘working’ on the worry-related thoughts, then less working memory capacity is available to attend to tasks important for your job or activities you are trying to complete.
Which certainly squares with my experience.  I have a good deal of social anxiety, and it doesn't seem to matter that I objectively, rationally know that I'm safe, that none of the people in the room are judging me or dislike me (or, honestly, are probably thinking about me at all).  The sensation is of having two brains; the rational one, that says, "These are your friends, there's no reason to freak out," and the emotional reptile brain that says, "I AM FREAKING OUT."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The fact of Stout et al. showing the neurological underpinning of anxiety is a real step toward developing ways to manage it.  I'm lucky in that my anxiety is fairly mild, and hasn't impacted my day-to-day all that much (unless you count the fact that I basically have no social life).  For some people, anxiety is crippling, resulting in an inability to hold down a job, attend school, interact with anyone, and (in some cases) even get out of bed in the morning.

This fMRI study shows how such a disorder can occur, and what is happening in the brain during an anxiety attack -- allowing a much more targeted approach to treating it.  It's to be hoped that other researchers will take this study and run with it.  Because there's no other way to put it: anxiety sucks.