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, May 31, 2018

In on the secret

In yesterday's post, we considered how a feeling of being in power can dull people's capacity for empathy and compassion.  Today, we're going to look at how a desperation to feel unique, smart, and "in the know" can lead people to believe in baseless conspiracy theories.

Which once again brings us to Donald Trump.

The day before yesterday, Trump launched into new and unexplored vistas of paranoia by claiming that Robert Mueller's investigation of the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russian agents is itself going to meddle in the midterm elections this fall -- in order to favor Democrats.

Let's start with the fact that it'd be pretty odd if Mueller did this, because he's a registered Republican.  Not that Trump accepts this, either; every other tweet claims that anyone connected to the Russia investigation must be a Democrat, and apparently, he (through his mouthpieces over at Fox News) have convinced his followers that the whole thing is just a big Democratic conspiracy.  If you don't believe me, here's the exact quote:
The 13 Angry Democrats (plus people who worked 8 years for Obama) working on the rigged Russia Witch Hunt, will be MEDDLING with the mid-term elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls. There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!
It's an open question whether Trump himself believes this, or if he's manipulating his fan base in a calculated fashion so that he and his cronies can stay in power.  What's certain, though, is that his supporters believe it.  Never mind that there's no evidence; never mind that the facts themselves argue against its being true.

It's like he's Jesus, you know?  The new bumper sticker should say, "Trump said it, I believe it, and that settles it."

Which I find pretty mystifying.  I know there's some sunk-cost fallacy going on here; these people have already put an inordinate amount of time and energy into getting this guy elected, so to admit now that it's all been a big mistake is a bridge too far.  Easier to believe that Dear Leader is being targeted by a shadowy Deep State cohort of evil doers.

But some recent research has found that there are two other reasons people fall for conspiracies.  And what they suggest is a little frightening.

A study by Daniel Sullivan, Mark J. Landau, and Zachary K. Rothschild in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people's inclination to believe in conspiracies correlates negatively with their sense of being in control of their circumstances.  People who think that their lives are controlled by unpredictable and chaotic events -- the weather, natural disasters, random crime, arbitrary decisions by leaders -- are more likely to believe that there are evil conspiracies at work.  Which makes sense; if you feel like you're in control of your destiny, it makes less sense that there are Puppet Masters pulling your strings.

But there's more to it.  According to a recent study by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty of the Johannes Gutenberg Universit├Ąt Mainz that appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a belief in conspiracy theories also correlates strongly with a need to feel unique.  The authors write:
Adding to the growing literature on the antecedents of conspiracy beliefs, this paper argues that a small part in motivating the endorsement of such seemingly irrational beliefs is the desire to stick out from the crowd, the need for uniqueness.  Across three studies, we establish a modest but robust association between the self‐attributed need for uniqueness and a general conspirational mindset (conspiracy mentality) as well as the endorsement of specific conspiracy beliefs.  Following up on previous findings that people high in need for uniqueness resist majority and yield to minority influence, [our research] experimentally shows that a fictitious conspiracy theory received more support by people high in conspiracy mentality when this theory was said to be supported by only a minority (vs. majority) of survey respondents.  Together, these findings support the notion that conspiracy beliefs can be adopted as a means to attain a sense of uniqueness.
Imhoff, writing about his and Lamberty's research in the online magazine Quartz, says:
Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses—a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge.  Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness...  [Consider] the often vocal, evangelising conduct of actual conspiracy theorists, their claims to superior insight, and their degradation of non-believers as ignorant sheep (German conspiracy theorists label the uninformed masses Schlafschaf, literally ‘sleepsheep’).
So the reason people who fall for Donald Trump's wild conspiratorial claims, and those of other big names in the conspiracy theory world (such as Alex Jones and David Icke), is largely (1) that they feel powerless in their own lives, so someone must be causing the bad shit that happens, and (2) that they have a deep desire to be one of the ones who has it all figured out.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Christopher DOMBRES, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Whether Trump believes his own lunatic tweets, then, turns out to be irrelevant.  In the minds of his followers, it creates a rather horrifying trifecta of irrationality -- revering a figure who has become a stand-in for God himself, feeling like there are powerful forces responsible for all of the negative things in the world (including the attacks on Dear Leader), and a desperation not to be duped.  And the irony is, the direct result is that they are being duped, by a guy who was in over his head from day one and has made one blitheringly idiotic move after another, all the while claiming that any negative reaction is "Fake News" and any bad outcomes are because his Grand Plans are being subverted by either the Deep State or the Democrats, depending on what day it is.

The worst part is I don't know what the hell you can do about this.  As Imhoff put it: "Seeing evil plots at play behind virtually any world event is not only an effort to make sense of the world.  It can also be gratifying in and of itself: It grants one the allure of exclusive knowledge that sets one apart from the sleeping sheep."

Which can be coupled with the observation I've made here more than once that you can't logic your way out of a belief you didn't logic your way into.


This week's recommended book is one that blew me away when I first read it, upon the urging of a student.  By groundbreaking neuroscientist David Eagleman, Incognito is a brilliant and often astonishing analysis of how our brains work.  In clear, lucid prose, Eagleman probes the innermost workings of our nervous systems -- and you'll learn not only how sophisticated it is, but how easy it can be to fool.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Anesthetized by power

Watching Donald Trump and our other so-called leaders over the last year and a half has been one long exercise in horrified astonishment.  The graft, corruption, self-aggrandizement, and bullying are beyond anything I've ever seen in government in my fifty-odd years of being at least somewhat aware of what was going on.  And, merciful heavens above, the lying.  An article was going around a few days ago that had the headline, "How Can You Tell If Donald Trump Is Lying?"  My answer to that question is, "If his lips are moving."

But the one thing that has stood out the most is the utter lack of empathy and compassion.  It's in the news every single day.  Our fellow humans called "animals," and anyone who even suggests that we should come up with a humane policy for illegal immigrants is shouted down as someone who "loves MS-13" (the notorious, ultraviolent Central American gang that has established itself in the United States).  At the same time, pretending that the humanitarian crises over a lack of drinkable water in Flint, Michigan, and a lack of basic necessities in Puerto Rico, simply don't exist.  (And here, the "they're illegals" argument doesn't work; we're talking about American citizens.)

Some recent research, led by University of California - Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, has given us a lens into why this sort of thing is appallingly common.  He has studied the dynamics of power, and in particularly, how power interacts with a sense of empathy, and found something disturbing; power seems to dull a person's capacity for empathy, even in people who were empathetic to start with.

Keltner writes:
These findings suggest that iconic abuses of power—Jeffrey Skilling’s fraudulent accounting at Enron, Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski’s illegal bonuses, Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, Leona Helmsley’s tax evasion—are extreme examples of the kinds of misbehavior to which all leaders, at any level, are susceptible.  Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.  And people who’ve just moved into senior roles are particularly vulnerable to losing their virtues, my research and other studies indicate.
The problem seems to be a loss of the capacity for what psychologists call "mirroring" -- being able to imagine yourself in someone else's mind.  This ability is critical for compassion; it's why many of us have a hard time watching violent scenes in movies, because we imagine ourselves in that situation all too easily.  A 2006 study by Adam D. Galinsky, Joe C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi, and Deborah Gruenfeld showed that just priming a person's brain by having half the subjects recall a time during which they were in a position of high power, and the other half a time during when they were powerless, alters their ability to perform simple mirroring tests -- such as drawing a letter "E" on their own forehead, in the proper orientation to someone who is looking at their face.  Even recalling being in a powerful position made a person more likely to be "self-oriented" -- and to draw the E backwards with respect to everyone else.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons NeetiR, Leadership and Power, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Wilfred Laurier University psychologists Sukhvinder Obhi and Jeremy Hogeveen, and University of Toronto - Scarborough researcher Michael Inzlicht, have found something even more interesting, and considerably more frightening.  They put test subjects into an fMRI machine, and had them watch a simple video -- for example, of someone squeezing a rubber ball.  The "non-powerful group" showed strong activation of the parts of the brain that would fire if the subject him/herself were squeezing the ball; they were, apparently, imagining themselves doing the task.  The "powerful group," though, showed much less activation of those pathways.

The authors write:
[T]he main results we report are robust, and strongly suggest that power is negatively related to motor resonance.  Indeed, anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and seems to look straight through her in meetings.  Perhaps the pattern of activity within the motor resonance system that we observed in the present study can begin to explain how these occurrences take place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless, and the tendency for the powerless to expend effort in understanding the powerful.
The Obhi et al. experiment's conclusion is profoundly depressing.  Recall that the test subjects weren't actually different in their overall power level; they were all college students who had simply been primed to recall being powerful, or not.  Obhi remarked that the mirroring pathways in the "powerful group" appeared to be "anesthetized" -- and would presumably return to their baseline once the experiment was over.

What about people who are in more-or-less permanent positions of power?  Could a long enough exposure to being in a power role permanently damage the ability to feel empathy?  It's easy enough to believe that about Donald Trump, who has had the money and position to pull everyone's strings at will for decades.  But the results of the research supports the famous line from Lord Acton, that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  It'd be nice to think that the most empathetic and compassionate of us would still feel that way if we were elected to public office, but the truth seems to be darker than that.  I surmise that the individuals with the highest levels of empathy probably wouldn't run for office in the first place, but that's a guess.  But those that do seem inevitably to experience a dulling of their capacity for compassion.

As David Owen and Jonathan Davidson wrote in an article on hubris in the journal Brain in 2009:
Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence—these qualities are often associated with successful leadership.  Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.  This can result in disastrous leadership and cause damage on a large scale.  The attendant loss of capacity to make rational decisions is perceived by the general public to be more than ‘just making a mistake’.  While they may use discarded medical or colloquial terms, such as ‘madness’ or ‘he's lost it’, to describe such behaviour, they instinctively sense a change of behaviour although their words do not adequately capture its essence.
It bears keeping this in mind when we look at our own leaders -- especially in situations, such as the current administration, where it appears that the branches of government tasked with providing checks and balances on the power of the leaders has decided instead to give them carte blanche to do anything they want -- however foolish, ignorant, callous, and inhumane their actions are.


This week's recommended book is one that blew me away when I first read it, upon the urging of a student.  By groundbreaking neuroscientist David Eagleman, Incognito is a brilliant and often astonishing analysis of how our brains work.  In clear, lucid prose, Eagleman probes the innermost workings of our nervous systems -- and you'll learn not only how sophisticated it is, but how easy it can be to fool.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Lovecraft, tentacles, and Area 51

I participate in a rather amusing motivational technique to keep me running regularly.  It's called "virtual racing" (the particular version of this I play is over at the site YesFit), and the idea is that you choose a location where you'd like to be running, then log your miles however you prefer -- running, walking, cycling, swimming, whatever -- and the site shows you where you are on a map, sends you pictures from Google StreetView, and every once in a while will give you a clickable link to find out more about the place you're "visiting."  Then, when you finish the race, you get a prize -- a medal or a t-shirt.

I know it's a little silly, but I love seeing my little place marker move across the map, and it's great fun to see pictures of where my avatar is.  Well, usually it is -- my most recent race was along the infamous Area 51 in Nevada, and to say the scenery is monotonous is like saying that the terrain around Mount Everest is "a little hilly."

Even so, I completed the race (a total of 97.7 miles), and yesterday, I got my reward t-shirt, with a silhouette of an alien saying, "Thanks For Believing In Me."  And in a nice little synchronicity, I had shortly after I opened the package, I found a link over at Mysterious Universe claiming that Google Earth caught photographs of the bombing range at Groom Lake (part of Area 51) showing bomb craters...

... with tentacles coming out of them.

The problem with Mysterious Universe is that I can never tell when they're kidding.  Some of their authors, notably Nick Redfern and Brent Swancer, seem like True Believers.  Others, like Paul Seaburn, tend to take a more skeptical view of things.  The jury's still out about the one who wrote the article about the tentacles, Sequoyah Kennedy, because he says that the tentacles are signs that the Lovecraftian Elder Gods are returning to Earth.

Without further ado, here's one of the photographs:

And here's a bit of what Kennedy has to say:
There’s a weird almost-symmetry to a lot of these “tentacles,” and it definitely has an organic sort of shape.  I wonder if it’s slightly differently programmed ballistics tests leaving char marks on the ground, or perhaps captured mid-flight, but I’m completely unqualified to make any judgments on that so I’m sticking with what I know—Elder Gods.
Which seems like a solid logical chain to me.  If you can rule out char marks from ballistic tests, any weird thing captured on Google Earth must be Great Cthulhu returning to subjugate humanity.

However, he does seem to realize that he's on shaky ground:
There appears to be a small hole with long eldritch tendrils reaching out of it, like tree roots or black mycelium.  It’s weird.  It could be absolutely anything, but it’s weird.
Which puts me in mind of the wonderful quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos:
I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus.  Why not?  Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds.  Well, what are clouds made of?  Water, of course.  Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore, the surface must be wet.  Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp.  If there's a swamp, there's ferns.  If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs. 
Observation: I can't see a thing.  Conclusion: dinosaurs.
Ironically, one of Lovecraft's best stories, "In the Walls of Eryx," is about an Earth man on Venus, slogging around in a swamp, while fighting -- you guessed it -- super-intelligent dinosaurs.

Myself, I doubt the tentacles in Area 51 have anything to do with Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Tsathoggua, and the rest of the gang.  Nor, as one of my friends suggested, does the sinkhole that opened up last week in front of the White House, despite the fact that casting Donald Trump in the role of an evil, depraved Elder God actually has some appeal.  (Maybe he'd be Yuck-Sothoth, or something.)

So chances are, this is another one of those things that has a completely ordinary explanation, even if (because it's Area 51, after all) we never find out what it is.  I'm certainly not going over there to find out; besides it being the most boring terrain in the world, there are signs all over the place saying "KEEP OUT: THE USE OF DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED," which is a little off-putting.  Now y'all will have to excuse me, because I'm going to go for a run.  I'm currently ten miles into the Yeti Trail in Nepal, and the t-shirt for this one is wicked cool.


This week's recommended book is one that blew me away when I first read it, upon the urging of a student.  By groundbreaking neuroscientist David Eagleman, Incognito is a brilliant and often astonishing analysis of how our brains work.  In clear, lucid prose, Eagleman probes the innermost workings of our nervous systems -- and you'll learn not only how sophisticated it is, but how easy it can be to fool.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sending my regrets

One of the most tragicomic moments in my life happened at my twentieth high school reunion.

I was painfully shy when I was young.  I brought the concept "awkward teenager" to its absolute apex.  I made some passing attempts to fit in, but those were by and large failures.  I did have a few friends -- some of whom I am still in touch with, and whose friendship I treasure -- but to say I had no social life back then is an odds-on favorite for Understatement of the Year.

Anyhow, I was at the evening dance/party for my reunion, and did what I usually do at parties: got a drink and then stood around looking uncomfortable.  While I was standing there, I was approached by a woman on whom, when we were in high school, I had a crush of life-threatening proportions.  She came up and started chatting with me, and I relaxed a little, especially after reassuring myself that we weren't teenagers any more, and that I was indeed twenty years older than I had been when I graduated.

The conversation went here and there, and after a while she blushed a little and said, "I have a confession to make.  When we were in high school, I had a terrible crush on you, but I was too nervous to ask you out."

I goggled at her for a moment, and said, "Well, that's a little ironic..." and told her I'd felt the same way, and didn't ask her out for the same reason.

We had a good laugh over it, but really, it's kind of sad, isn't it?  We're so wrapped up in our neuroses and insecurities that we become our own worst enemies -- passing up opportunities that could have been rewarding purely out of fear.  It's not that I want a different life, mind you.  I've got an awesome wife, work in a wonderful school, and am finally seeing my novels take off.

But man, I really wish I could have loosened up a little back then, and just had some damn fun.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Sureshbmani, Shyness Of angel, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This all comes up because of a study that came out a few days ago about regret.  Titled, "The Ideal Road Not Taken: The Self-Discrepancies Involved in People’s Most Enduring Regrets," by Shai Davidai of the New School for Social Research and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, and appeared in the journal Emotion.

What Davidai and Gilovich found is that regret occurs when the three subdivisions of self don't line up -- the actual self (who you really are), the ideal self (who you wish you were), and the ought self (who you think you should be).  And this gives rise to two different kinds of regret, which are processed by the brain differently; could regrets (ones about missed opportunities for doing something you wish you had) and should regrets (ones about times you didn't act according to your own code of proper behavior).

Davidai and Gilovich found that the "could regrets" have far more long-lasting impact on our personalities than the "should regrets."  Nick Hobson, writing about the research over at Psychology Today, said:
[T]he findings suggested that ideal-related regrets are less likely to elicit psychological and behavioral coping efforts, which leads people to think they are still unresolved.  In contrast, because people have a more pressing need to deal with their ought-related regrets (again, because of social pressures), they are more likely to ultimately perceive them as resolved and dealt with.
Which is certainly my experience.  Oh, there were times in my past that I acted poorly.  Sometimes, really poorly.  In fact, on a couple of occasions, I was an unmitigated shit, and I still toy with the idea of contacting the wronged parties and giving an abject apology.  But it's the things I wish I'd done that have stuck with me the most -- like my long-ago coulda-been girlfriend.

Hobson, though, says we need to be gentle with ourselves over these failings, that they're universal to the human condition:
Contrary to what you hear in the media or what your friends tell you, living life without any regrets is pretty much an impossible task.  It is completely natural to wonder what your life could have been like had you chosen another career path or had you married your high school sweetheart.  From huge life-altering decisions to trivial everyday choices—our lives are comprised of could haves and should haves.  It’s what makes us human.
Which is reassuring, and something I need to take to heart, because this fall is my fortieth high school reunion, an event I look forward to with a combination of excitement and trepidation.  There certainly are lots of people there who it'll be nice to see again.  But I know it will bring up those old longings, so well portrayed in movies like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married, that I would give a lot to be able to go back and fix the things I regret doing -- and even more, the things I regret not doing.


This week's recommended book is one that blew me away when I first read it, upon the urging of a student.  By groundbreaking neuroscientist David Eagleman, Incognito is a brilliant and often astonishing analysis of how our brains work.  In clear, lucid prose, Eagleman probes the innermost workings of our nervous systems -- and you'll learn not only how sophisticated it is, but how easy it can be to fool.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Out in the ozone

Sometimes I run across alternative health therapies that are so freakin' weird I suspect, at least for a time, that the alt-med crowd is trolling us skeptics.  The sad truth is that when I look a little harder, I find that they're almost always completely serious.  And that includes the one that I just found out about yesterday, wherein just about anything that ails you can be cured by...

... blowing ozone up your ass.

Despite the disclaimer in the first paragraph, I feel obliged to reiterate that I'm not making this up.  "Ozone therapy" is a big deal; I've found that it's recommended for sterilizing wounds, treating SARS, AIDS, Ebola (for a third time, I'm not joking), Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and various cancers.  Some treatments (as in the wound sterilization) merely wafts ozone over the affected area.  Others involve treatment with "ozonated olive oil," the aforementioned treatment of running a tube up your ass and blowing ozone therein, and (in one case) injecting a bubble of ozone directly into your vein.

The last-mentioned made my jaw drop.  A bubble in your blood vessels is known as an "air embolism," and can kill you.  It doesn't matter what the bubble is composed of.  If it migrates around until it gets into one of the arteries in the brain, you'll have a stroke.

Which means you now have an additional concern beyond a wound, SARS, AIDS, or what-have-you.

But the blow-it-up-your-ass method (known to the alt-med community by the more genteel name of "rectal insufflation") seems to be the most popular, which raises a question; how did anyone ever think of doing this?  I can't imagine being a medical researcher and thinking, "Wow, this ear infection could easily be cured if I just pump a toxic gas up the patient's butt."  Because any way you slice it, ozone is toxic.  It's O3 (normal oxygen is O2) and unsurprisingly is an unstable, highly reactive strong oxidizer. It does kill bacteria -- thus the suggestion that it'd be a good wound sterilizer -- but the problem is, the same properties that make it toxic to bacteria make it toxic to healthy cells.  Hell, single malt scotch kills bacteria, and I don't hear anyone proposing single malt scotch therapy.  (Although after doing this research, I'm seriously considering it.)

In fact, ozone is produced by electrical and gas-powered equipment (including car engines), and is considered a pollutant by the EPA.  According to the fact sheet about ozone, it "can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation.  It also can reduce lung function and harm lung tissue.  Ozone can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma."

So positive health effects?  Not so much.

An ozone molecule [Image is in the Public Domain]

After spending over an hour searching, I only found one legitimate-sounding paper that took the idea of rectal insufflation seriously.  Titled "The Effect of Rectal Ozone on the Portal Vein Oxygenation and Pharmacokinetics of Propranolol in Liver Cirrhosis (A Preliminary Human Study)" by Saad Zaky, Ehab Ahmad Fouad, and Hassan Ibrahim Mohamad Kotb of Assiut University in Egypt.  The study was published back in 2011, and the authors kind of disappeared from the world of research publication afterwards, which says something.  Also, I notice that the one major effect they mention is that in their fifteen patients (yes, the sample size was that small), they saw an increase in oxygenation in the hepatic portal vein.

Oh, did I mention that what they blew up their patients' asses was 40% ozone -- and 60% oxygen?  Funny how that might increase your blood's oxygen saturation.

Of course there were plenty of sites advertising ozone machines and ozone therapy clinics and equipment so you can "insufflate" your own ass.  But it's unsurprising those weren't exactly peer-reviewed research, given that these people are making a bundle from the desperate and the gullible.

On the other hand, the sites explaining the complete lack of evidence that this has any therapeutic effect were numerous and vitriolic.  Here's what Andy Lewis, over at The Quackometer, has to say:
O2 is what we breathe and absorb in our lungs for transport to our cells.  O3 is a highly oxidising form of oxygen that has very harmful effects on our respiratory systems.  As such, if you squirt ozone on cancer cells on a dish they will die – but then so will all cells.  Cancer therapies work, in the main, by exploiting poisons that kill cancer cells faster than non-cancer cells.  This is pretty hard in practice as cancer cells are very, very similar to normal cells.  The mere fact that a poison kills cancer cells in a test tube does not mean that it can form a therapy...  Ozone has been proclaimed as a miraculous cure for over a hundred years.  There is yet to be any meaningful evidence that it can help cancer patients.  The available good evidence so far suggests that harms will outweigh any potential benefits.
Then there's Paula Kurtzweil, at Quackwatch, who tells the story of a couple in Florida who were fined and sentenced to prison terms for claiming people with AIDS and cancer could be cured by their magic ozone machines:
Proponents of medical ozone generators believe ozone can kill viruses and bacteria in the body. While ozone is used as a germicide in the cleaning of manufacturing equipment, FDA is not aware of any scientific data that supports the safety or effectiveness of ozone generators for treating medical conditions. In fact, the agency believes that at the levels needed to work effectively as a germicide, ozone could be detrimental to human health.
"These devices keep popping up," says Bob Gatling, a biomedical engineer and director of the program operations staff in FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.  "We always tell their makers, 'Show us some data,' but no one ever pursues it." 
FDA's knowledge of [alternative medicine practitioner Kenneth] Thiefault's involvement in ozone generators dates to at least 1990, when Thiefault was interviewed during an FDA criminal investigation of one of Thiefault's associates.  This associate was later prosecuted and imprisoned for, among other things, manufacturing and selling ozone generators for treating medical conditions.  After release from prison, he returned to making and distributing ozone generators for treating medical conditions but fled the country before he could be prosecuted again.
Also from Quackwatch, here's Dr. Saul Green's take on it:
In 1991, Wells et al. reported that gaseous ozone inactivated cell-free HIV-l in cell-free culture medium.  Using escalating concentrations of ozone, they showed that a l200 ppm dose delivered into the solution for two hours, reduced the number of infectious viruses... and detectable virions about 85%.  However, there was also a significant reduction in infectivity after virus exposure to nitrogen.  Other factors influencing the rate and degree of inactivation of HIV-I by ozone were protein and plasma components in the culture medium.  (HIV is known to be inactivated by a host of relatively inactive substances.)  While ozone might be useful in rendering commercial blood products free of infectious organisms, more extensive analyses of the HIV-I life cycle was needed before ozone's usefulness as an in vivo anti-retroviral agent could be defined.  Poiesz, Wells' co-author, wrote, "No further in vitro work has been done and to my knowledge no in vivo work has been done."
The alt-med monitoring site What's the Harm? lists thirteen people who sought out ozone therapy -- one of them paid $23,000 for it -- instead of legitimate treatment modalities, and found out that it is definitely not a miracle cure.

Because they died.

So anyhow.  If you have a chronic disease, and (for some reason) decide that the best treatment would be to insufflate your rectum with toxic gas, I would exhort you to reconsider.  There is no reliable peer-reviewed research that it provides any benefits whatsoever, and (cf. the word "toxic" in the previous sentence) can kill healthy tissue.  Now, y'all will have to excuse me, because I think I need some single malt scotch therapy after all.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Cherry-picking DNA

It is a frequent source of perplexity for me when people read about scientific research, and because of their own biases (1) claim that it says something it clearly doesn't say, or else (2) deny it completely.  After all, as eminent astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

I ran into a particularly good (or appalling, depending on how you look at it) example of this yesterday over at Science Online, the news outlet for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in article by Michael Price, entitled, "‘It’s a Toxic Place:’ How the Online World of White Nationalists Distorts Population Genetics."  Price interviewed Jedidiah Carlson, a graduate student in bioinformatics at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, about how the recent explosion in personal DNA analysis had been hijacked by white supremacists.

Carlson discovered the problem when he was looking online for a 2008 paper in Nature that analyzed hundreds of thousands of point mutations in people of various ethnic groups, and found that the paper had been linked in the notorious neo-Nazi site Stormfront.  Shocked but curious, he clicked the link, and found himself in a darker realm of genetic research -- using DNA evidence to support the bogus ideas that (1) races are little water-tight compartments except for cases of deliberate "race mixing," and (2) that people of western and northern European descent are superior to everyone else on the planet.

Norman Rockwell, The Golden Rule (1961)

Carlson started searching through Stormfront and other white supremacist sites, and found that this is an increasingly common phenomenon.  "People will grab figures from scientific papers and edit them in several different ways to make them look like they support the white nationalist ideology," Carlson said.  "For instance, in [the] 2008 Science paper, researchers published a figure with a plot inferring regional ancestry of dozens of different populations around the world.  Based on the genetic compositions of hundreds of individuals, the figure divided the populations into clusters that revealed patterns in their ancestral population structure.  So [people on the forums] take this plot and add some subtle text like 'The genetic reality of race,' with no context showing what the scientists were actually looking at, and ignoring the fact that there’s a continuum among the individuals.  Then they turn these images into memes and try to make them go viral."

They don't just cherry-pick data; they cherry-pick entire studies -- as long as there's some conceivable way to twist them around to support their ideology.  "They’re interested in anything that would reinforce traditional, discrete racial categories. Intelligence is probably the number one topic that they gravitate toward," Carlson said.  "And anything pertaining to history of human migrations, or things that play into traditional classifications of racial phenotypes like facial morphology or skin color.  There was a paper on lactose tolerance in Europeans and that turned into this weird viral YouTube trend where white nationalists were chugging bottles of milk, presumably to flaunt their European heritage."

I don't know about you, but that strikes me as a weird thing to be proud of.  "Look how well I digest milk" is not something you often hear people say.  I mean, my Louisiana heritage is probably why I love Cajun cuisine, wherein the Four Major Food Groups are onions, garlic, hot peppers, and grease,  but I have no desire to video myself eating a bowl of gumbo, and doing the Fists In The Air Of Victory afterwards.

Carlson himself has become something of a target, after his observations about the use of genetic research by white supremacists was the subject of an interview in The Atlantic.  It was a shock to him, however, to find how virulently they responded to his central claim, which was that the supremacists were warping the conclusions of the research to support their bigoted worldview, and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.  "When they finally saw it, the first few comments were actually rather celebratory, as they saw the article as evidence that the 'liberal, biased, Jew-controlled media' are nervous about the growth of white nationalism.  About me, there were comments like, 'He says he’s a grad student, but he’s probably never even seen a principal component analysis plot,' which is ironic because that’s about half of my dissertation.  And it was pretty alarming seeing my name on the site.  After that, I took a break from doing this work for a while for my own mental health."

His alarm is understandable.  These people are unstable, prone to violence, and usually well-armed.  It's not stopping Carlson, however, although he does acknowledge that fighting this kind of bias is an uphill battle at best.  "I don’t think engaging them directly will work," he says.  "In an argument between a logical person and illogical person, the logical person is always going to lose because the illogical person isn’t playing by the same rules.  The misappropriations and misinterpretations run so deep that you’ll just get shouted down and personally attacked, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.  But I think there’s growing recognition that we as scientists bear some responsibility for guiding the public interpretation of our work."

Of course, that's not easy.  You put the data out there, analyze it as rigorously as you can, state your conclusion as clearly as you can, and hope for the best.  The science deniers of the world will always find a way to get around it, either by claiming the data is faulty, the analysis is in error, the scientist(s) who did the research were paid shills and are trying to fool everyone for their own nefarious purposes, or (if none of these work) simply by ignoring the study entirely.  We've seen it over and over with climate change deniers and young-Earth creationists, both fundamentally anti-scientific views of the universe.  The same is true here; the white supremacists have their conclusion already figured out -- that they're better than everyone else based on their ancestry and skin color -- and the research needs either to fit that model, or it's rejected as "liberal, biased, [and] Jew-controlled."

The funny postscript to all of this is that when I did 23 & Me a few months ago, purely out of curiosity, I was honestly disappointed that my DNA didn't have any particular surprises.  My ancestry is primarily French, Scottish, Dutch, German, and English, and my DNA said that my ancestry is... French, Scottish, Dutch, German, and English.  I'd have been delighted if there'd been a random West African or Southeast Asian in there somewhere, as unlikely as that seems given my appearance.  Race is primarily a social, not a genetic, construct, as research by groundbreaking population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza showed decades ago.  We're all mixtures, and if you go back far enough, we're all related.

So if you like to see races as neat little compartments with hard-and-fast boundaries, that's up to you.  But the bottom line is that you're wrong.  The view supported by science -- that the boundaries between ethnic groups are fluid, and almost all of us have diverse ancestry -- is true, as Tyson said, whether or not you believe it.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Discrimination and brain scans

Today we have two stories that are interesting in juxtaposition.

The first is out of North Bend, Oregon, where two high school students reported ongoing harassment not only from students, but teachers and administrators, over the fact that the students are LGBT.

One of the students, Hailey Smith, describes an incident that is horrifying. "The discrimination wasn't an isolated incident and it didn't just come from students," she says.  "When I told the principal that my civics teacher called me out in front of the whole class and said same-sex marriage was 'pretty much the same thing' as marrying a dog,' the principal told me 'everybody has the right to their own opinion.'  The next day, the teacher apologized, but as I walked away, he said 'don't go marrying your dog.'"

Violence toward the two students went unaddressed.  The second student, Liv Funk, says she was harassed by several other students, and once was ambushed outside school, where she had "I fucking hate homos" yelled at her -- and then was hit twice with a skateboard.  Funk brought this to the attention of Jason Griggs, the school resource officer.  Instead of making sure she felt safe in her own school, and seeing that the students who attacked her received consequences for their actions, he turned the blame against Funk.

"Mr. Griggs said being gay was a choice, and it was against his religion," Funk reported.  "He said he had homosexual friends, but because I was an open homosexual, I was going to hell."

The story ends as happily as this sort of thing ever could.  The students brought these incidents to the attention of the ACLU, who filed a lawsuit against the school.  Both Griggs and the principal, Bill Lucero, have been fired.

Which they should be.  As school administrators, it is your job to protect the rights of the students who are in your charge.  All of your students, regardless of race, ethnic origin, religion, or sexual orientation.  If you can't do that, find another job.

It is also most decidedly not your business to bring your own religion into the picture.  You are free not to pursue homosexual liaisons if your religion tells you not to.  Whether anyone else does is, frankly, none of your damn business, and it once again brings up the open question of why so many people on the religious right are so incredibly concerned with what other consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their own homes.  With regards to sex, most of us just do it in whatever form we enjoy; these people seem absolutely obsessed with how everyone else is doing it, and often focus on that question with a dogged determination that suggests they spend most of their time thinking about it.

Which is, honestly, a little skeevy.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Benson Kua, Rainbow flag breeze, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The second story comes from the University of Li├Ęge (Belgium), where a neuroscientist named Julie Bakker studied diffusion tensor imaging brain scans of 160 children and teenagers who were transgender -- to use the medical term, had gender dysphoria, where they felt that they were the opposite gender from their anatomical sex.  And she found that these young people had brain structures that are consistent with the gender they feel they are, not the gender their reproductive organs would suggest.

Bakker was clear on what this implies.  "Although more research is needed, we now have evidence that sexual differentiation of the brain differs in young people with GD, as they show functional brain characteristics that are typical of their desired gender," she said.  "We will then be better equipped to support these young people, instead of just sending them to a psychiatrist and hoping that their distress will disappear spontaneously."

So what LGBT people have always claimed is once again shown to be exactly correct; that sexual orientation and gender identification are not a choice, but a result of a fundamental difference in brain wiring.  It makes as much sense to discriminate against LGBT people as it would to discriminate against someone based on their eye color.

More to the point, since 99% of the anti-LGBT sentiment you hear comes from very religious people; if these individuals are wired that way, doesn't that mean that (in your worldview) God created them that way?  Funny how this implies that your all-loving God has created millions of people specifically for you to hate.

I'd like to think that this will open people's eyes a little, but I may be overly optimistic to think that.  People like Lucero and Griggs, the school administrators who gave tacit approval to harassment and violence against LGBT teenagers, clearly aren't going to let a little thing like a peer-reviewed scientific study change how they see the world.  I will say, though, that people like them will eventually be seen for who they are.  Just as we now look on the people who thought that other races were inferior, who sanctioned slavery and violence and discrimination, with well-deserved disdain, I can say with some confidence that the bigots of the world -- regardless of their target -- will one day be labeled as being on the wrong side of history.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Listening to Cassandra

I like to think of myself as basically an optimistic person, and someone who looks for the best in my fellow humans.  But there are times that I think that a gigantic meteor strike might, all things considered, be the best option at this point.

Those times usually occur when people persist in a behavior that is known, for absolute certain, to be self-destructive.  And surprisingly enough, I'm not talking about climate change here, and our determination to keep burning fossil fuels despite the near-universal consensus amongst climatologists that this practice is drastically altering the Earth's climate.  What I'm referring to is two stories that both broke day before yesterday, and that leave me shaking my head and feeling like whatever happens to our species, we kind of deserve it.

The first, and more local, example of this phenomenon was described in an article in NPR Online, the title of which sums up the problem succinctly: "Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them."  The article, written by Rebecca Hersher, describes the ongoing catastrophe along the Mississippi River, wherein every single year there are destructive, often deadly, floods.

Here's a capsule summary of the problem.

Before the 20th century, the Mississippi had a habit shared by many large rivers; overflowing its banks during the rainy season.  This phenomenon had a couple of effects.  First, it brought the silt picked up along the way out of the river basin, depositing it on land.  Second, it meant that regular, minor floods -- the sort of thing one can prepare for and cope with -- were kind of a way of life.  (Why, for example, my uncle's fishing cabin in Henderson, Louisiana was built on stilts.)

But when the population started both to grow and urbanize, these floods were "mitigated" -- by installing a system of levees and spillways to "tame the river."  Mostly constructed in the 1930s and 1940s by the Army Corps of Engineers, the (well-meant) attempt to stop people from being flooded out every year had two unexpected effects.

One is that the silt that would have been deposited to either side of the river now was kept in the river itself.  This left only two places it could go -- deposited onto the river bottom, or flushed out into the Gulf at the delta.  The first raised the riverbed, and the second raised the mouth of the river; both of these had the effect of pushing the level of the river upwards.  Simultaneously, the silt that was in the river didn't end up on land, and the land itself started to subside.

Rising river + sinking land = a need for bigger levees.  So the levees were raised, making the problem worse -- and so on and so forth.  I still vividly remember being in New Orleans and walking along a footpath at the base of a levee along the Mississippi -- and looking up to see the top of a shrimp boat going past, about thirty feet above my head.

The 17th Street Canal in Metairie, Louisiana [Image licensed under the Creative Commons No machine-readable author provided. Infrogmation assumed (based on copyright claims)., MetOutletCanalDogwalkerBreechBkgrd, CC BY 2.5]

The second unexpected effect follows directly from the first.  If you build higher levees, the water level rises, so when the levees break, you don't have a minor flood, you have a catastrophic one.  This, of course, is what happened in New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, but it's inevitable that it'll happen again in the near future.

The kicker?  We've known about this problem for ages.  In 1989 John McPhee wrote an incredible book on the topic, called The Control of Nature, in which he laid out the problem clearly.  And what have we done differently since then?

Nada.  Build more levees.  Pretend we know what we're doing, and that nature won't ultimately have the last word.

The other example of humans doing idiotic self-destructive stuff revolves around something I always mention in my biology classes as the time our species did something right; the 1989 Montreal Protocol that banned the production or use of chlorofluorocarbons, a class of chemicals used as coolants and propellants that were thought to be harmless but turned out to destroy the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.  Almost all the nations on Earth signed on -- surely one of the only times in humanity's history where damn near everyone has agreed on something.

Or so we thought.  Since 2012, there's been a sudden and mysterious uptick in the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere -- up, at one estimate, by 25%.  As of the time of this writing, no one's quite sure where it's coming from.  Up until now, the CFC levels have been gradually falling (and ozone hole gradually diminishing) as the CFCs from before 1989 have broken down -- but it appears that we're not done with this problem yet.

"It is not clear why any country would want to start to produce, and inadvertently release, CFC-11, when cost-effective substitutes have been available for a long while," said NASA scientist Robert Watson, who led the studies thirty years ago that led to CFCs being banned.  "It is therefore imperative that this finding be discussed at the next Ministerial meeting of Governments given recovery of the ozone layer is dependent on all countries complying with the Montreal Protocol (and its adjustments and amendments) with emissions globally dropping to zero."

Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and an expert on the Montreal Protocol, was more unequivocal still.  "Somebody's cheating.  There’s some slight possibility there’s an unintentional release, but… they make it clear there’s strong evidence this is actually being produced...  This treaty cannot afford not to follow its tradition and keep its compliance record...  They’re going to find the culprits.  This insults everybody who’s worked on this for the last 30 years.  That’s a tough group of people."

So at least we have some folks who are on the case.  What kind of power to compel they will turn out to have, once the culprits are identified, remains to be seen.  And here in the United States, we've seen in the past year a weakening of damn near every environmental regulation we have, in favor of corporate profit and short-term expediency.  So how much help our government will be is questionable.

I'm holding out some hope that at least by publicizing these issues, people are beginning to wise up.  However, our inaction on climate change -- a phenomenon we've known about since the 1890s -- doesn't bode well.  Mostly what has happened is that the people who are brave enough to sound the warning have turned into Cassandras -- prophets who are cursed to be correct, but no one believes them.

As for me, I'm trying to maintain my optimism, but after reading these two articles, right now mostly what I'm doing is scanning the skies looking for the incoming meteor.


This week's book recommendation is a brilliant overview of cognitive biases and logical fallacies, Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly.  If you're interested in critical thinking, it's a must-read; and even folks well-versed in the ins and outs of skepticism will learn something from Dobelli's crystal-clear prose.