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, December 31, 2022

The disappearing elephant

Ever heard of gomphotheres?

They're a group of prehistoric megafauna related to modern elephants with some pretty wacky-looking dental adornments.  There was Cuvieronius:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons DiBgd, Cuvieronius hyodon2, CC BY-SA 4.0]

And Stegatetrabelodon:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ДиБгд, Stegotetrabelodon11, CC BY-SA 4.0]

And strangest of all, Platybelodon:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Tim Bertelink, Platybelodon, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Illustrating that it's a good thing I'm not in charge of assigning scientific names, because I'd'a named this one Derpodon bucktoothii

In any case, these behemoths were once widespread across North America and Europe, but gradually died out during the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago), with the last species persisting a little way into the next epoch, the Pleistocene.  Probably for the best, actually.  I have a hard time keeping rabbits and woodchucks out of my vegetable garden, I'd just give up if I had to fend off these things as well.

Where it gets even more interesting is that these animals, like (literally) millions of others, had coevolved with other life forms.  Coevolution -- when the adaptations of one species effect the adaptations of an unrelated species -- can take two forms.  First, there's an evolutionary arms race, where a predator/prey relationship pushes both species to evolve (such as cheetahs and antelopes, where the fastest cheetahs catch the slowest antelopes, selecting both for greater speed).  The other is mutualism, where each of the two helps the other, like flowers that have adapted to specific pollinators, sometimes resulting in such dependence that neither species can survive without the other.

It's this latter type that happened with the gomphotheres.  They were major seed dispersers -- eating fruits of trees and shrubs, then defecating out the seeds (unscathed) after digesting the pulp.  Many of these plants still exist in North America and Europe, and all are united by having large, tough-skinned fruits, usually with hard or unpalatable seeds, and some sort of thorns or spikes on the branches to deter smaller animals from eating them.

There's only one problem -- as I mentioned earlier, all the gomphotheres have been extinct for millions of years.

So that leaves a bunch of plants without an efficient way of dispersing their seeds.  And we're not talking about exotic and unfamiliar plants, here.  If you look up evolutionary anachronisms, you'll see lots of names you recognize, including:

Some of these, like cacao, Osage orange, and Kentucky coffee tree, have only prospered and/or expanded their range because humans intervened.  The last-mentioned, for example, was found only in a highly fragmented, restricted range in the south central United States when it was first cultivated by botanists and found to be a decent ornamental tree.  In the wild, the big, leathery pods -- like the fruit of a lot of these species -- simply fall to the ground when ripe and rot, the seeds nearly all failing to germinate.  Now it's planted throughout the eastern half of the United States, although given its poor germination rate even with help, the species will probably never be common.

Unless the elephants come back somehow.

This all illustrates a point I've made before -- the biosphere is a complex interwoven tapestry.  While change is inevitable -- and the extinction of the gomphotheres isn't the fault of humanity but (likely) the changing climate -- it behooves us to keep in mind that nothing on the Earth exists in isolation.  You can't pull out one thread without making the entire thing start to come unraveled.  And too many threads pulled out, the entire tapestry falls apart.

I can only hope we learn from what we've found out about the ebbs and flows of prehistory.  While we can't halt change, we need to do a far better job of protecting what we have.

Lest we go the way of the gomphotheres.


Friday, December 30, 2022

The skein of lies

The only thing that is surprising about Representative-elect George Santos's tangled skein of lies is how unsurprising it is.

The list of his falsehoods is extensive, and include:

  • He claimed his mother's family is Jewish and fled the Holocaust.  He said her parents' surname was Zabrovsky, and did fundraising for a charity under the name "Anthony Zabrovsky."  In fact, he does not appear to have Jewish ancestry at all, and tried to dodge the lie when confronted about it by a reporter from the New York Post by saying "I didn't say I was Jewish, I said I was Jew-ish."  He'd also said on another occasion that his mother "was born in Belgium and fled socialism in Europe" to come here -- but investigative reporters from CNN found she was actually born in Brazil.
  • He stated that "9/11 claimed his mother's life."  She actually died of cancer in 2016.
  • He claimed to have gone to a prestigious prep school, but had to leave because his parents had financial problems.  The school has no record of his ever attending.
  • He claimed to have graduated from Baruch College.  The school has no record of his ever attending.
  • He claimed to have been an associate asset manager at Goldman Sachs.  The company has no record of his ever working there.
  • He claimed never to have broken the law anywhere.  There are records of his being charged with fraud in Brazil after writing checks from a stolen checkbook.  Reporters found that he'd been released on his own recognizance and then failed to show up at his court date.
  • He claimed to own thirteen properties from which he derived income, and later admitted he didn't own any at all.

And so on and so forth.  Confronted with the list of falsehoods, he called them "embellishments" and "poor choices of words," instead of what they are, which are brazen, bald-faced lies.

All appalling enough.  But what finally pissed me off enough to write about it here was an interview two days ago on Fox News, where Tulsi Gabbard (sitting in for Tucker Carlson) had some sharp words for Santos, calling him out on his lies and saying, "Have you no shame?" and "You don't seem to be taking this seriously."

Okay, whoa now.  Fox News has zero standing to call out Santos for lying.  They stood by and defended Donald Trump for lying pretty much every time he opened his damn mouth, and still largely support him (and attack anyone who opposes him).  They sided with Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway when she defended then-White House spokesperson Sean Spicer's lies about the number of attendees at the Inauguration, calling them "alternative facts."  They've been at the forefront of spreading lies and propaganda about climate change (it's a hoax), COVID-19 (it's no big deal), masks (they don't work), and vaccines (neither do they).

They do not get to stand on the moral high ground now and pretend they care about the truth.

In a very real sense, Fox News created George Santos.  Without the complete disdain they've shown for truth, without their "facts you don't like are lies by the radical left" philosophy, without the constant message of "every media agency in the world is lying to you except us," the network of easily-disproved falsehoods by George Santos wouldn't have lasted five minutes.  Members of his own party would have found out what a fraud he is, and fronted another candidate for the position.

But we're sunk so deep in the attitude that "truth doesn't matter as long as you're in power," he not only ran, but got elected.

It remains to be seen what will happen to him.  A House ethics committee is looking into his background, but whether his past actions crossed the line from "unethical" into "illegal" isn't certain.  It's probable that since in a week the House of Representatives will have a Republican majority, he'll sail into office without a problem.

Honestly, if you think Santos is shocking, you haven't been paying attention.  He's just the end of a long pattern of increasing disdain for inconvenient truths.  We haven't seen the last of his kind, either, especially given the likelihood that he won't face anything worse for his lying than a slap on the wrist.  Until we, as a voting citizenry, demand that our elected officials and the media we consume respect the truth above all, we will continue living out the famous quote by Jean de Maistre, that "A democracy is the form of government in which everyone has a voice, and therefore in which the people get exactly the leadership they deserve."


Thursday, December 29, 2022

The mystery of the Cagots

It will come as no surprise to long-time fans of Skeptophilia that I love a mystery.  And if that mystery is mixed up with questions of ancestry and human genetics, well... that's going to pique my interest but good.

This topic comes up because a couple of days ago I stumbled upon an interesting ethnic minority I'd never heard of -- the Cagots, a distinct group found in northern Spain and southwestern France (the same region where you find high proportions of Basque ancestry -- although they appear to be unrelated).  Like many minorities, they were persecuted by the majority culture, to the point that a separate Cagot culture has all but disappeared, and today people are reluctant to admit they have Cagot ancestry (if they even realize it).

The "Street of the Cagots' Bridge" (Campan, Hautes-Pyrénées département) [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Sotos, Rue du village de Campan (Hautes-Pyrénées) 3, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Where it gets really interesting is their origin.  To start with, their name varies by region -- Cagot is the most common, but they've also been called Cagous, Cahets, Gahets, Gafets, Agots, Argotes, Capots, Cacons, Cacous, Caquots, and Caqueux, not to mention about a dozen others.  This makes any kind of linguistic analysis of the name difficult, to say the least.  One idea is that the name comes from the Occitan word caas, meaning "dog," and an old version of the word "Goth" -- and comes along with a suggestion that they are the descendants of the remnants of the Visigoths who were defeated by Clovis I at the Battle of Vouillé in 507 C.E.  Illustrating the truth of the adage that "for every claim there's an equal and opposite claim," others have suggested that they're descended from people who called themselves "hunters of the Goths" -- i.e. the Saracens and Moors left behind after the Battle of Tours in 732 C.E.  Yet another claims they're descended from the Erromintxela, a group of Spanish Roma, thus linking them to another tragically marginalized group.

Typical of persecuted minorities, there hasn't been much in the way of study of these people, and by now most of them have long since been subsumed into the dominant French and Spanish cultures.  But it should be possible to figure this out; for centuries there was "forced endogamy," where Cagots could only marry other Cagots, and they were only allowed to live in self-contained communities on the fringes of towns.  (In a scary parallel to other practices of visually identifying minorities, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Cagots were required to wear a badge with a pattern of a duck's foot and/or a cloak with a yellow trim.  The reason for the association with ducks and the color yellow is unknown.)  The result of these practices of isolation is that there should be enough genetic distinctness to detect, even if the current descendants are of considerably mixed ancestry.

It immediately got me to thinking about other groups I've read about that are of uncertain origins -- three in the United States that come to mind are the Melungeons of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, the Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Redbones of southwestern Louisiana.  What little genetic study has been done -- and members of all three groups have been understandably reluctant to cooperate with scientists they perceive as being part of the prejudiced majority -- suggests that all of them are "tri-racial," with ancestry from Sub-Saharan Africa, Native American tribes, and Europe.  Members of all three groups were classified as "mulattos" or "Indians" on the nineteenth-century censuses, but census takers back then were notoriously bad about accuracy of data collection on minorities.

So like the Cagots, they are still poorly-studied mysteries with little to no certainty about their origins.

Besides the obviously abhorrent treatment members of these groups received, what's appalling and frustrating about all of this is that the truth is, there is no such thing as ethnic or racial purity.  Which, of course, is the basis of most of these discriminatory practices.  I look pretty solidly White Western European, but my DNA test picked up my ancestry from my Ashkenazi great-great grandfather, something I wrote about not long ago -- and my genealogical research has found ancestors who were Basque, Mi'kmaq, and Abenaki, although they're long enough ago that those didn't show up on my genetic analysis.  If you go farther back still, the concept of race gets even more ridiculous (from a genetic perspective; it obviously has extremely important historical and cultural significance).  All people of western European descent, for example, are thought to have common ancestors as little as a thousand years ago; the same is almost certainly true of other clusters of related ethnic groups.  And there's decent evidence of a genetic bottleneck triggered by a volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Toba 74,000 years ago, an event that may have reduced the entire human population of the Earth to around seven thousand people -- the size of a single small village.  If this is correct, those seven thousand people are the ancestors of everyone on Earth, over and over and over, and all of our family trees first branch out and then coalesce to a very narrow set of limbs.

What the racists don't get, and don't seem to want to get, is that the science is incontrovertible; we're all cousins, regardless of whether we look different now.

In any case, I thought the presence of a curious ethnic group in an area to which a large chunk of my mom's ancestry traces its origins was pretty fascinating.  I don't know if I have Cagot ancestry, but it wouldn't surprise me; my mom's forebears in western France were largely poor laborers and peasants.  No way to figure out for certain, though, especially given the paucity of studies on the group.

But it does bring home the fact that the ties that unite us are, in reality, far stronger than the features that divide us.  A lesson that many of us, unfortunately, have yet to learn.


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Violent moon

If I had to vote for the single weirdest place in the Solar System, my choice would be Jupiter's moon Io.

Io is the innermost and third-largest of the "Galilean moons" of Jupiter, the ones that caused so much trouble for poor Galileo Galilei when he observed them in 1610 and informed the Catholic Church powers-that-be that we aren't the center of the universe.  It wasn't until the Voyager flybys in the late 1970s that we could see it as anything more than a fuzzy dot, even in the largest telescopes; the first close-up photographs invited comparisons to a moldy pizza,  Detailed photos from the Galileo probe in 1999 confirmed the original assessment: Io is one bizarre place.

1999 photograph of Io from the Galileo probe [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

The first weird thing about it is that it is the most tectonically active place in the Solar System.  Those pock-marks on the surface aren't impact craters, they're volcanoes.  In general, the smaller a body is, the less tectonically-active you might expect it to be.  Tectonic activity is (usually) triggered by convective fluid motion in a molten mantle or core, which requires a very hot interior to keep it going.  The heat comes from two sources; the energy released by its coalescence during its formation, and the decay of radioactive elements in its interior.  If that heat radiates away faster than it's being released, eventually the body cools off and freezes, and (most) tectonic activity stops.  Heat dissipates more rapidly from a small object, so they tend to shut down much sooner.  (That's what happened to the Moon, for example.)

But despite Io's small size, something is keeping it hot enough to create hundreds of active volcanoes.  But what?

It turns out it's the proximity to Jupiter.  The giant planet's gravitational pull creates significant tidal forces, and the stretching and compressing Io experiences generates enough friction in the moon's interior to keep the insides molten.  The result: violent volcanic activity that spews liquid sulfur jets into the sky, creating plumes as much as five hundred kilometers in height.  (It's the sulfur that's responsible for Io's bright colors.)

In fact, Io actually ejects so much material from its volcanoes that it has created a plasma torus around Jupiter in its wake -- a donut-shaped ring of charged particles tracing out its orbit.

Another cool thing about Io is that it's in orbital resonance with two of the other Galilean moons, Europa and Ganymede.  Io is the innermost, and has an orbital period exactly twice as fast as Europa and four times as fast as Ganymede -- a stable configuration that has since been found in other systems with multiple moons.  So every fourth revolution of Io, all three line up perfectly!

The reason this comes up is a new study out of Caltech that has found data suggesting an enormous underground magma ocean inside Io -- planetary scientists David Stevenson and Yoshinori Miyazaki believe the presence of a hundred-kilometer-thick liquid mantle explains the extremely active surface and its anomalous magnetic field, another feature Io shares with few other small bodies in the Solar System.

What lies deeper than the mantle is unknown.  Some astrophysicists believe it has a metallic core, but that question is far from settled.

What's certain is that Io is a peculiar place -- sulfur volcanoes, seething lava lakes on the surface, continuous "moonquakes" caused by the tidal forces exerted by the enormous planet Jupiter looming overhead.  And like anything odd and unexpected, it will continue to attract the attention of scientists, and we will continue to be astonished at what we learn about one of the weirdest places in our neighborhood.


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The strange case of Frederick Valentich

As skeptics, sometimes we have to admit that there are cases when we don't know the answer to a question -- and may not ever know.

It's not that it isn't frustrating.  Believe me, I get that.  One such question that is near and dear to my heart is whether or not there is intelligent extraterrestrial life.  While speculation runs rampant -- and I've done my own share of speculating -- the fact is, we have exactly zero evidence for it.  There are equally persuasive arguments for intelligent aliens being widespread and for humanity being, for all intents and purposes, alone in the universe.  It's very hard to derive a meaningful conclusion from the absence of data coupled with a huge and largely unexplored search field, so right now -- however much we'd like to meet the Vulcans and whatnot -- the most honest answer is "we don't know."

The same can happen with much less grandiose realms of inquiry.  Which brings me to a mystery I stumbled on a couple of days ago -- the puzzle of what happened to Frederick Valentich on October 21, 1978.

Valentich was a twenty-year-old Australian man who dreamed of a career in aviation, but a poor track record with academics and some rather erratic behavior kept getting in the way.  He applied twice to the Royal Australian Air Force, and was rejected both times because of "inadequate educational qualifications."  He successfully joined the RAAF Air Training Corps, and did part-time study to try for his commercial pilot's license -- but failed the qualifying examinations in all five subjects, not once but twice.  He got a license to fly small aircraft, but didn't even do well at that, straying into controlled air space over Sydney once, and then twice deliberately flying into a cloud (his license was only rated to allow him to fly in "visual meteorological conditions") -- behavior that was on the verge of grounding him permanently.

None of this discouraged him.

Frederick Valentich shortly before his disappearance [Image is in the Public Domain]

On the afternoon of October 21, 1978, Valentich took off from Melbourne Airport in a Cessna 182L heading toward King Island, about halfway between the southern coast of Australia and the northern tip of Tasmania.  His purpose is unknown; he told a friend he was going to meet some friends, and another that he was picking up a parcel of seafood, but neither turned out to be true.  At 7:06 PM he radioed Melbourne Air Traffic Control that he was flying at 1,400 meters and was being followed by a "large aircraft with four bright landing lights."  It kept getting closer and then moving away, he said.

Melbourne asked Valentich for more information.  He said that he was having engine problems, but the aircraft was still following him.  Then there was a silence, followed by Valentich saying, "It's not an aircraft."

Those were his last words.  They were followed by what are described as "metallic scraping noises," then... nothing.

A search commenced the next day, and over four days covered over a thousand square kilometers.  Neither Valentich nor any confirmable trace of his airplane were ever found.

A variety of explanations have been suggested to account for Valentich's disappearance.  These include:
  • He was poorly qualified to fly, and in the dim light condition of early evening he became disoriented, possibly flying upside down.  The lights and the mysterious aircraft he saw were his plane's reflection in the ocean.  The problem with this is that a Cessna 182L has a gravity-feed fuel system, so the engine would have cut out quickly if he had been flying upside down.  And if he wasn't upside down, what was the mysterious aircraft?
  • Valentich staged his own disappearance.  There were reports of a light plane making a landing in a field near Cape Otway, on the south coast, but upon investigation Melbourne police found no evidence of it.  Either the reports were incorrect, or the plane had taken off again, which leaves us with the same problem as before.  And if he did land somewhere, there's the problem that his plane only had the fuel capacity to reach Tasmania, or somewhere along the south Australian shore.  So where is his plane -- and where is he?
  • Valentich did go down somewhere in the Bass Strait, and the remains simply have never been found.  An interesting analysis by pilots who've studied the case suggests that he fell prey to the "illusion of a tilted horizon" -- a sensory illusion occurring because of the mixed signals coming from the eyes and the inner ear.  Valentich may have then overcompensated, sending the plane into a "graveyard spiral" ending with his plummeting into the ocean.  As a pilot friend of mine once told me, "Rule one is 'always trust your instruments over your senses.'"  (The link to the analysis also contains a complete transcript of the conversation between Valentich and Melbourne Air Traffic Control, if you're curious.) 
  • Valentich crashed his plane deliberately -- i.e., he committed suicide.  There's no evidence that he was suicidal, although that by itself isn't disproof.  And once again, we have the problem that no trace of the crash was ever discovered.
  • And, of course: the aircraft Valentich saw was an alien spacecraft, and he was abducted.  A group called Ground Saucer Watch produced photographs taken from Cape Otway, allegedly on the day Valentich disappeared, that show "a bona fide unknown flying object, of moderate dimensions, apparently surrounded by a cloud-like vapor/exhaust residue," but the photographs are of poor quality and have generally been dismissed as evidence by skeptical inquirers.
It's a curious case, to say the least, made more curious by the aforementioned fact that he'd lied about his reason for heading toward King Island, and also that according to his father, Valentich was obsessed with UFOs and had expressed fear about being abducted.  Then, there's the following account, as related in Strange Skies: Pilot Encounters with UFOs, by Jerome Clark:
Several years after the incident, several members of a family -- an uncle, his son, and two nieces -- came forward to relate an experience they underwent on October 21, 1978.  As the story went, they were hunting rabbits on Cape Otway when one of the girls asked, "What is that light?"  Looking up, the uncle spotted an airplane (apparently Valentich's, the only one that would have been in the air at the time in question) and identified it as an aircraft light.  "No," the niece insisted.  "The light is above the airplane."  The four watched the plane and the light until it disappeared behind some nearby hills.
So what are we to make of all this?

Honestly, there's not much here to make.  Once again, we are faced with a complete absence of hard evidence.  Other than the conversation between Valentich and Melbourne Air Traffic Control, we've got nothing to go on other than anecdote.  Each of the above explanations is possible (even, loath though I am to admit it, the alien abduction one).  Certainly each one admits to arguments against.  It's likely that his plane went down in Bass Strait due to pilot error, but likely doesn't mean case closed.

So the rather unsatisfying conclusion is that we don't know what happened to Frederick Valentich, and probably never will.

When faced with a situation like this, the best we can do is hold our opinion in abeyance, forever if need be.  I get that it's frustrating; the human mind's drive to know stuff is mighty powerful.  But as good skeptics we need to admit it when the evidence is simply inadequate to draw a conclusion, any conclusion.

And it seems like, in the strange case of Frederick Valentich, we might never have a better answer than that.


Monday, December 26, 2022

Clay magnets

One of the most wonderful things about science is the role creativity has in discovery.  Problems that have been considered somewhere between difficult and intractable have often been solved by someone who has a sudden creative insight -- how to bring together two previously disparate bodies of knowledge, or using a technique from one realm to study an entirely different one.

Take, for example, the study that was sent my way by a reader of Skeptophilia a couple of days ago.  It has to do with the technique of paleomagnetism -- the "geological clock" provided by the fact that the Earth's magnetic field flips, for (thus far) reasons unknown.  You're probably familiar with the most famous use of paleomagnetism; it was the technique that finally cinched down the plate tectonic model as accounting for continental drift.  When magma solidifies into solid rock, tiny ferromagnetic particles that were once free to move become locked into place.  When the rock was liquid, those particles could swivel around and line up with the magnetic field of the Earth at the time; once solid, that magnetic signature was frozen in place.  When geologists doing magnetometer readings of the ocean floor on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift Zone found parallel stripes of rocks with the same magnetic signature, and the rock as they neared the ridge had progressively younger radioisotope ages, they knew that there was only one explanation.  New rock was welling up at the ridge from deep in the mantle, and that was pushing the plates apart, creating strips of new ocean floor all along the ridge.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of the USGS]

Now, a new study has applied paleomagnetic techniques to a completely different problem.  A team at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has looked at the magnetic signature left in fired clay bricks -- and used it to date archaeological strata in order to pinpoint the dates of famous battles described in the Biblical Books of Kings.

Clay retains a fossilized magnetic imprint for the same reason that magma does; when the clay is plastic, the particles are free to move, but once it's fired, they're stuck in place.  What's coolest about this study, though, is how sensitive the technique has become.  Back in the 1950s, when Fred Vine and Drummond Matthews used paleomagnetism to study the sea floor, it was pretty crude.  The best they could do was say that a particular sample of rock had a magnetic field like the one we have today (shown in white on the above image) or one that was reversed with comparison to the current orientation (shown in various shades of orange).  This wouldn't be much help in archaeological settings, as the last complete polar reversal was 780,000 years ago.  Now, the technique has improved to the point that the scientists can detect tiny fluctuations not only in direction but in strength -- and that has allowed them to date strata with an accuracy of ten to fifteen years.

This has allowed the team to pinpoint firm dates of offensives against the Kingdom of Judah by Shoshenq I of Egypt (1 Kings 14: 25-26), Hazael of Damascus (2 Kings 12:18), Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15:29) and Sennacherib (2 Kings 18-19) of Assyria, and Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21).  And while some of the findings confirmed previous dates for sites, the more accurate technique has disproven other conjectures.  For example, the site of Tel Beit She'an, thought to have been razed by Hazael of Damascus, showed a paleomagnetic date between seventy and a hundred years earlier, meaning it had fallen not to Hazael but to the campaign of Shoshenq of Egypt.

It's not only the fineness of the technique I find impressive, but the fact that the team thought of using it at all.  Creativity hinges on divergent thinking -- the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem, and to apply out-of-the-box techniques in order to find those solutions.  This is an excellent example of just that -- using a technique first pioneered in studies of plate tectonics to establish a timeline of biblical archaeology more accurate than anything we've had.

Makes you wonder what crossovers scientists will come up with next.


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Dimensional analysis

As long-time readers of Skeptophilia know, it really torques my lug nuts when people take perfectly good scientific terms, re-define them however the fuck they like, and then pretend what they're saying makes sense.

The list of terms this has happened to is a long one, and includes frequency, resonance, quantum (lord, how they do love the word quantum), and vibration, to name a few.  But there's none that bothers me quite as much as the rampant misuse of the word dimension.

Part of the reason this one gets to me is that the concept of a dimension is so simple that you'd think it'd be hard to get wrong.  If you go to the Wikipedia article about the term, you will read in the very first line, "In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a mathematical space (or object) is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it."  The space we live in is three-dimensional because to define the location of a point, you need to know where it lies referent to three directions -- up/down, back/front, and right/left.

This hasn't stopped people from taking the term and running right off the cliff with it.  And it's not a new phenomenon.  I remember an episode of the abysmal 1960s science-fiction series (heavy on the fiction, light on the science) Lost in Space called "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," wherein Will Robinson was kidnapped by a pair of evil aliens who looked like the love children of Matt Gaetz and Herman Munster.

These aliens told Will they were "from the fifth dimension," which makes about as much sense as if your Uncle Fred told you he was from "horizontal."  Be that as it may, after they captured Will they revealed to him their nefarious plan, which was to use his brain to power their spaceship.  Things looked bad, but Will defeated them by (I swear I am not making this up) feeling sad at them, which caused their spaceship to blow up.

So using the word "dimension" as a fancy way of saying "a mysterious place somewhere" goes back a long way.  But because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I just read what has to be the single most ridiculous example of this I've ever seen.

And that includes "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."

It's an article in Your Tango called "The Theory That Claims We Visit Other Dimensions While We Sleep," by NyRee Ausler.  Which brings up another misused word that really bothers me, which is "theory."  A theory is not "this crazy idea I dreamed up just now," and nor does it mean "a guess that could just as easily be right as wrong."  A theory is model with strong explanatory and predictive power, and which fits all the available data and evidence we have at hand.  When the creationists say, breezily, "Evolution is just a theory," that is not some kind of point in their favor; all it shows is that they have no idea what the word actually means.

After all, we call it "music theory" and that's not because we think music may not exist.

But I digress.

Anyhow, back to NyRee Ausler.  It will come as no shock to find out that she answers her question, "do we visit other dimensions while we dream?" with, "Yes, of course we do."  The way we know, she says, is that the laws of physics aren't the same in dreams as they are in reality.  I can vouch at least for that much.  I dreamed last night that I was out working in my garden, and I kept accidentally digging up plants and knocking things over and generally wreaking havoc, but then when I was done not only was everything back to normal, but all the flowers were blooming despite the fact that it's currently December and the high temperature today is supposed to be 13 F.

In any case, her point that "dreams are fucking weird" hardly needs further elucidation, but she goes on to say that the reason for all this is that dreams take place in another dimension.  And then she launches into a brief description of -- I shit you not -- string theory, which is a mathematical model of subatomic physics requiring ten spatial dimensions, all but three of which are thought to be (very) submicroscopic and "curled up."  The analogy commonly used is an ant on a garden hose -- it can go along the hose (one stretched-out dimension), or around the hose's circumference (one curled-up dimension).  The string theorists claim that three of the dimensions in our universe are of the stretched-out variety, and seven are curled up so tightly that we don't experience them on a macroscopic scale, but influence quantum phenomena such as how particles interact at very high energies. 

And yes, what NyRee Ausler is saying is that when you dream, you are somehow visiting these extremely tiny, curled-up dimensions, and that's why dreams are peculiar.  Once again, acting as if these extra dimensions were places, not just mathematical constructs describing spatial coordinates.

But it gets even better than that, because she goes on to tell us what each of those dimensions are like, one by one.  I direct you to the original link if you want to read about them all, but here's one, just to give you the flavor:

The sixth dimension consists of a straight line of possible worlds. Here, you get an opportunity to access all possible worlds that started with the same original conditions, like the Big Bang Theory.  It is known as the "phase space" in a set of parallel universes where everything that could have happened in our pasts, but did not, occurred in some other universe.  The sixth dimension exists in the same space and time as the one we occupy, an overlay of our universe or a 3-D space containing every possible world.

Right!  Exactly!  What?

What made me laugh the hardest is that she tried to give her article an extra soupçon of scienc-y-ness by mentioning Calabi-Yau manifolds, an extremely complex concept from higher-dimensional algebraic geometry, because lobbing in a technical term you obviously don't understand clearly strengthens your argument.

I know it's probably a waste of energy for me to spend my time railing about this, but there are people who will read this and think it's actual science.  And that bugs the absolute hell out of me.  The thing is, her article is not just wrong, it's lazy.  As I demonstrated above, all you have to do is to take the time to read the first paragraph of a damn Wikipedia page to see that what Ausler is claiming is blatant horse waste.

But science is hard, and technical, and to really understand it requires reading peer-reviewed journal articles and learning terminology and mathematics.  Easier to blather on about string theory and dimensions and (*snerk*) Calabi-Yau manifolds as if you knew what you were talking about, and hope that enough people click on the link that the ad revenue will pay for your groceries next month.

So anyhow, thanks to the reader who sent me the article.  I did get a couple of good laughs out of it, but the overall teeth-grinding I did while reading it probably resulted in net damage to my emotional state.  Pseudoscience will be with us always, springing up like mushrooms after a summer rain.  Or like my garden on a frigid day in December, at least in my sixth-dimensional dreams.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Tell me lies

In Jean-Paul Sartre's short story "The Wall," three men are captured during the Spanish Civil War, and all three are sentenced to die if they won't reveal the whereabouts of the rebellion's ringleader, Ramón Gris.

The main character, Pablo Ibbieta, and the other two men sit in their jail cell, discussing what they should do.  All three are terrified of dying (of course), but is it morally and ethically required for them to give up their lives for the cause they believe in?  When is a cause worth a human life?  Three human lives?  What if it cost hundreds of lives?

Pablo's two companions are each offered one more chance to rat out Ramón, and each refuses.  Pablo hears the noises as they're dragged out into the prison courtyard, stood up against the wall, and shot to death.

Now it's just Pablo, alone in the cell.

Thoughts race through his head.  Now that it's just him, if he sells out Ramón, there won't be any witnesses (or at least any on the side of the rebellion).  Who'll know it was him that betrayed the cause?

After much soul-searching, Pablo decides he can't do it.  He has to remain loyal, even at the cost of his own life.  But he figures there's nothing wrong with making his captors look like idiots in the process.  So he tells them that Ramón Gris is hiding in a cemetery on the other end of town.  He laughs to himself picturing the people holding him, the ones who have just killed his two friends, rushing off and dashing around the cemetery for no good reason, making fools of themselves.

His captors tell him they're going to go check out his story, and if he's lying, he's a dead man (which Pablo knows is what will happen).  But after a couple of hours, they come back... and let him go.

He's wandering around the town, dazed, when he runs into a friend, another secret member of the rebellion.  The friend says, "Did you hear?  They got Ramón."

Pablo asks how it happened.

The guy says, "Yeah... Ramón was in a friend's house, as you know, perfectly safe, but he became convinced he was going to be betrayed.  So he went and hid out at the cemetery.  They found him and shot him."

The last line of the story is, "I sat down on a bench, and laughed until I cried."

It's a sucker punch of an ending, and raises a number of interesting ethical issues.  I used to assign "The Wall" to my Critical Thinking classes, and the discussion afterward revolved around two questions:

Did Pablo Ibbieta lie?  And was he morally responsible for Ramón Gris's death?

There's no doubt that Pablo intended to lie.  It was accidentally the truth, something he only found out after it was too late.  As far as his responsibility... there's no doubt that if he hadn't spoken up, if he had just let the guards execute them as his two friends did, Ramón wouldn't have been killed.  So in the technical sense, it was Pablo who caused Ramón's death.  But again, there's his intent, which was exactly the opposite.

The questions don't admit easy answers -- as Sartre no doubt intended.

All lies are clearly not morally equivalent, even barring complex situations like the one described in "The Wall."  Lies to flatter someone or protect their feelings ("That is a lovely sweater") are thought by most people to be less culpable than ones where the intent was to defraud someone for one's own gain.  And as common as harmful lies seem to be, some recent research came up with the heartening results that we lie far more often for altruistic reasons than for selfish or vindictive ones.

A recent paper in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, by Jennifer McArthur, Rayanda Jarvis, Catherine Bourgeois, and Marguerite Ternes, found that while lying in general is inversely correlated with measures of honesty and conscientiousness -- unsurprising -- the most common motivations for lying were altruistic reasons, such as protecting someone's feelings or reputation, and secrecy (claiming not to know something when you actually do).

So maybe human dishonesty isn't quite as ugly and self-serving as it might appear at first.

Note, however, that I'm not saying even the altruistically-motivated lies McArthur et al. describe are necessarily a good thing.  Telling Aunt Bertha that her tuna noodle olive loaf was delicious will just encourage her to inflict it on someone else, and giving people false feedback to avoid hurting their feelings -- especially when asked for -- can lead someone astray.  But like the far more serious situation in "The Wall," these aren't simple questions with easy answers; ethicists have been wrestling with the morality of truth-telling for centuries, and there's never been a particularly good, hard-and-fast rule.

But it's good to know that, at least when it comes to breaking "Thou shalt not lie," that for the most part we're motivated by good intentions.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Enough already

I'm beginning to think that the aliens who are running the computer simulation we've all been trapped in for the past few years have gotten bored and/or stoned, and now they're just fucking with us.

I say this because of recent developments in American politics, which was weird enough already.  By now you've undoubtedly heard about Donald Trump spending a couple of weeks hyping up a "big exciting announcement" both on his bizarre site "Truth Social" and on Twitter (now that Elon Musk has seen fit to allow him to reprise his award-winning role as Cheeto von Tweeto).  A lot of folks thought it might be some sort of serious political strategy move, such as revealing who he had chosen as his running mate for the 2024 presidential election.  This, of course, could have been a bizarre spectacle as well; speculation was running rampant that he would choose Kari Lake, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, whose campaign slogan was, "I DID TOO WIN!  YOU'RE A BUNCH OF BIG STUPID LOSERS!  WAAAAAAAH!"

Which makes me wonder how these people don't see the contradiction between their shrieking at the education system as fostering an "everybody gets a gold star" mindset, and at the same time stating that their favorite candidate in an election should be declared winner despite getting way fewer votes.  Cognitive Dissonance "R" Us, these people.

But I digress.

Anyhow, by now you know that Trump's "big exciting announcement" was that he was selling NFT digital trading cards of "art" (I use the term loosely) of himself dressed up like a superhero, a cowboy, a prizefighter, and so on, at $99 a pop.  My first thought was, "Who in their right mind would spend their hard-earned cash on this?  This is the dumbest idea he's come up with yet."

"Ha ha," said the aliens running the simulation.  "A lot you know."  All forty-five thousand cards sold within twelve hours.

This didn't stop the good folk of the internet from lobbing enormous ridicule bombs Trump's way.  One wag called the cards "MAGA the Gathering."  Another labeled them "Brokémon Cards."  Then the digital artists got involved, and created their own, more realistic Trump trading cards, such as the following:

Then we had the fight between one-time allies Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have been sparring over support for Speaker of the House candidate Kevin McCarthy.  Boebert suggested that she might have qualms about supporting McCarthy's bid -- evidently she thinks he's too moderate -- and Greene retorted that Boebert had turned her back on not only McCarthy, but Donald Trump and the Republican party.

Boebert fired back with something that I am quoting here verbatim, because otherwise you flat out won't believe me: "Well, you know, I’ve been aligned with Marjorie and accused of believing a lot of the things that she believes in.  I don’t believe in this, just like I don’t believe in Russian space lasers, Jewish space lasers, and all of this."

*brief pause while the aliens running the simulation take another long toke*

Then there was Lavern Spicer, unsuccessful candidate for Representative of Florida's 24th District, who spoke out vehemently against people introducing themselves including the pronouns they wish others to use for them, and made two statements on Twitter -- one, that there are "no pronouns in the Bible," and the other that "Jesus didn't use pronouns."

Is it just me, or do these people honestly have no idea what a pronoun is?

Here's just one example of a passage from Lavern Spicer's pronoun-less version of the Bible, from Luke 6:32:
If Lavern loves people loving Lavern, that is no credit to Lavern. For even sinners love people loving sinners.  And if Lavern does good to people doing good to Lavern, that is no credit to Lavern either.  For even sinners do good to people doing good to sinners.

It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode about the guy who always talks about himself in third person, and George Costanza picking up the habit.  "George is not happy." 

In any case, I'd like to put the aliens on notice that we down here on Earth are getting kind of fed up with all this.  I mean, enough already.  I know it must be fun watching us, especially the marginally rational fraction of humanity skittering about trying to figure out how in the hell to make sense of the insane chaos we're immersed in, but really.  Y'all have had your laughs at our expense.

Time to put the bong away, shut off the simulation, and call it a day.


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Mammals down under

Sometimes all it takes is one new discovery to send scientists back to the drawing board.

Of course, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson correctly points out, scientists are always at the drawing board, or should be.  "If you're not at the drawing board," he says, "you're not doing science."  But still, it does seem sometimes like things are pretty well figured out, and then...

... boom.

There was a "boom" moment in the field of mammalian evolution this week, delivered by a paper in the journal Alcheringa: The Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.  The authors -- led by the brilliant paleontologist and polymath Timothy Flannery, of the University of Melbourne -- describe a fossil find that would seemingly be of interest only to people fascinated by minutiae of paleontology; a jawbone of a tribosphene, a proto-mammal with distinctive triangular, three-pointed molars, from the early Jurassic Period in Australia.

The problem is, it kind of shouldn't have been there.  Tribosphenes, which are in a group that is ancestral to both marsupial and placental mammals, were thought to originate in Laurasia, the northern half of the (at that point, split) supercontinent Pangaea.  (Laurasia comprised land that is now found in North America, Europe, and Asia.)  Australia, on the other hand was part of the southern half of Pangaea, called Gondwana, along with Africa, Antarctica, and South America.

This origin for the tribosphenes was considered so certain that they used to be called boreosphenes -- from the Greek word Βορέας, which was the name of the god of the north wind.

Guess it's a good thing they changed the name.

Eomaia, an early tribosphene mammal from China [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (, Eomaia NT, CC BY-SA 3.0]

There's no doubt that there were tribosphenes in Laurasia, too; one of the earliest, Tribactonodon, can be found in the Lower Cretaceous Durlston Formation in England.  (Others have been found in Mongolia and in Portugal.)  The idea was that they started in Laurasia and only later spread southward to Gondwana -- so Australia's iconic marsupials originally started out much farther north.

The discovery of a tribosphene in Australia sixty million years earlier than that indicates that some rethinking may be in order.

"I was re-analyzing these fossils that turned up in Victoria from the age of dinosaurs," Flannery said, in an interview with Australian Geographic.  "And then I started looking more widely for similar sorts of fossils found elsewhere and it turned out all of them were in the southern hemisphere and all are Jurassic or Cretaceous in age [from 199–66 million years ago]...  And we realized the thing that unites all these Southern Hemisphere fossils is they have these very strange, complicated molars that let the animals puncture shear and crush, all at the same time, what they were eating.  I resisted the conclusion as long as I could, but the evidence is compelling.  These shrew-like animals from Australian are actually the ancestors of both the earliest placentals and the earliest marsupials."

"We’ve been able to show that the relevant fossils that look like they are anatomically likely to be close to the common ancestor of marsupials and placentals are found exclusively in the southern continents and are from an older time period than the oldest mammal similar fossils seen the north," said Kristofer Helgen, who co-authored the paper.  "And that indicates these groups of mammals had their ancestry in the southern continents at an earlier time period and then later colonized the northern continents.  It absolutely turns our previous understanding on its head."

Which is tremendously exciting.  Far from being frustrated by stuff like this, these are the moments scientists live for -- when they find out that our previous understanding is incomplete, skewed, or flat wrong.  That's when the real process of discovery happens, and often when we gain a lens on a bit of the universe we weren't seeing clearly.

It's why I get so profoundly frustrated with the ridiculous attitude, "why study science?  It could all be proven wrong tomorrow."  To me, that's a completely backwards way of looking at it.  The truth is that science, unlike just about every other path to knowledge humans have ever utilized, has the ability to self correct.  When scientists find out a bit of our understanding is wrong, they neither throw their hands up in despair, nor do they double down on the error; they take steps to fix it.

And isn't that better than remaining in a state of error, incomprehension, or ignorance?