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, July 30, 2022

First, do no harm

I keep thinking I'm not going to need to write any more about LGBTQ issues, that I've said all I need to say, and yet... here we are.

I'm going to start with a question directed at the people who are so stridently against queer rights, queer visibility, even queer existence.  I doubt many people of that ilk read Skeptophilia, but you never know.  So here goes:

How does guaranteeing that LGBTQ people are treated equally, fairly, and kindly, and are given the same rights as straight people, affect you at all?

It costs you absolutely nothing to say, "I'm not like you, and maybe I don't even understand this part of you, but even so, I respect your right to be who you are without shame or fear."  For example, I'm not trans; I have always felt unequivocally that I am one hundred percent male.  But when I had trans students in my classes, all it required was my crossing out a first name on the roster and writing in the name they'd prefer to be known by, and remembering to use the appropriate pronouns.  A minuscule bit of effort on my part; hugely, and positively, significant on theirs.

What possible justification could I have for refusing?

The reason this whole topic comes up once again is a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia about a rugby team in Australia, the Manly Sea Eagles, which had seven of its players refuse to play in an important match because the owner wanted the team to wear jerseys with a rainbow design meant to promote inclusivity.

Note that the jerseys pretty subtle.  There's not even any text explaining, or calling attention to, the rainbow bands.  But even that level of support was a bridge too far for seven homophobic bigots, who chose to stand down from the game instead.

The whole incident is made even more outrageous by the fact that the owner wasn't wanting the jersey design changed permanently; it was for one damn game, as a sign of solidarity with LGBTQ players and fans.  But no, seven players refused to wear them, saying it violated their "religious beliefs."

Retired Sea Eagles player Ian Roberts, who is the first rugby league player to come out publicly as gay, was devastated by the players' actions.  "I try to see it from all perspectives, but this breaks my heart,” Roberts said.  "It’s sad and uncomfortable.  As an older gay man, this isn’t unfamiliar.  I did wonder whether there would be any religious pushback.  That’s why I think the NRL have never had a Pride round.  I can promise you every young kid on the northern beaches who is dealing with their sexuality would have heard about this."

Matt Bungard, of Wide World of Sports, was blunter still.  "I don’t want to hear one single thing about ‘respecting other people’s opinions’ or using religion as a crutch to hide behind while being homophobic.  No issues playing at a stadium covered in alcohol and gambling sponsors, which is also a sin.  What a joke."

Which I agree with completely, but it brings me back to my initial question; how did wearing the jerseys, for one night, harm those seven players?  The jerseys didn't say, "Hi, I'm Gay."  They were just a sign of support and inclusivity, of treating others the way you'd like to be treated.

Hmm, now where did I hear about that last bit?  Seems like I remember someone famous saying that.  Give me a moment, I'm sure it'll come to me.

A Christian baker creating a wedding cake for a gay couple is saying, "I may not be gay, but I'm happy you've found someone you love and want to spend your life with."  Straight parents who give unconditional support to their trans child are saying, "I love you no matter what, no matter who you are and what you'd like to be called."  A straight teacher having books with queer representation is saying, "Even if I don't experience sexuality like you do, I want you to understand yourself and be happy and confident enough to express your own truth openly."

I remember when I first saw this tweet thinking, "How about creating a world where if Billy did wake up and go ask Brad to the prom, it would be no big deal?"  It costs cis-hetero people nothing, zilch, to say, "I'm fine with who you are."  And to queer kids, it would be life-changing.  Heaven knows, my life would have been different if I'd been able to ask Brad to the prom.

Not you specifically, Brad.  I'm just making a point.

Really, all it requires is the ability to say (1) "Your experience is not the same as my experience, and that's okay," and (2) "I'm committed to treating everyone with kindness, respect, and love."

Instead, far too many people are still choosing bigotry, exclusion, and oppression.  And here in the United States, there is an increasing push to codify all that hatred into law.

If you're against same-sex marriage, if you bristle at Pride events, if you refuse to use a person's chosen name and pronouns, if you think businesses should be able to deny services to queer people, I want you to stop, just for one moment, and ask yourself: how is any of this harming me?  Maybe it's time to pay more attention to the "love thy neighbor" parts of the Bible than to the Book of Leviticus, of which (face it) 99% is ignored by most Christians anyway.  Maybe it's time to put more emphasis on compassion, understanding, and acceptance than on condemning anyone who doesn't think, act, or believe like you do.

After all, Jesus said it himself, in the Gospel of John, chapter thirteen: "By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another."


Friday, July 29, 2022

The cost of fraud

My Aunt Florence, my mother's older sister, died of Alzheimer's disease.

Her children, especially my cousin Linda, took care of her as she slowly declined during the last fifteen years of her life.  She finally died in 2008 at the age of ninety, and by that time there was little left of her but a physical shell.  She was unresponsive, the higher parts of her brain destroyed by the agonizing progression of this horrible illness.  She went from being a bright, inquisitive, vital woman, an avid reader who did crossword puzzles in ink and could beat the hell out of me in Scrabble, to being... gone.

My Aunt and Uncle in better times

During this ordeal I lived fifteen hundred miles away, so I wasn't confronted every day by the terrible reality of what Alzheimer's does, both to the people suffering it and to their families.  Even so, it was my aunt's face I kept picturing while I was reading an article in Neoscope sent to me by a friend -- all the while getting angrier and angrier.

If you've kept up at all with the research on Alzheimer's you probably are familiar with the words beta amyloid.  It's a short-chain protein, whose function is unknown, which allegedly is directly toxic to nerve cells (and can cause other proteins to misfold, suggesting an etiology similar to Creutzfeld-Jakob syndrome, better known as "mad cow disease").  A great deal of money and time has been spent investigating the role of beta amyloid in Alzheimer's, and in developing drugs that interfere with its production -- significantly, not a single one of which has been shown to slow down the progression of the disease, much less reverse it.

It turns out this is no coincidence.  There is good evidence that the often-cited papers on the topic by Sylvain Lesné -- who wrote convincingly that a specific beta amyloid species, Aß*56, was the culprit in the devastating destruction you see in Alzheimer's sufferers -- were based on faked data.

Not even well-faked, either.  The images Lesné included from "Western blot" experiments, a commonly-used separation technique used to detect specific proteins in mixtures, were cut-and-pasted, something that can be seen not only in faint cut lines in the images but in the fact that the bands in the photographs have clearly been duplicated and moved (i.e., if you look at the edges of the bands, several of them have identically-shaped edges -- something that would be next to impossible in an actual Western blot).

It's a devastating finding.  About how the hell fraud like this got past peer review, biochemist Derek Lowe writes in Science:

The Lesné stuff should have been caught at the publication stage, but you can say that about every faked paper and every jiggered Western blot.  When I review a paper, I freely admit that I am generally not thinking “What if all of this is based on lies and fakery?”  It’s not the way that we tend to approach scientific manuscripts.  Rather, you ask whether the hypothesis is a sound one and if it was tested in a useful way: were the procedures used sufficient to trust the results and were these results good enough to draw conclusions that can in turn be built upon by further research?  Are there other experiments that would make things stronger?  Other explanations that the authors didn’t consider and should address?  Are there any parts where the story doesn’t hang together?  If so, how would these best be fixed?

There is a good-faith assumption behind all these questions: you are starting by accepting the results as shown.  But if someone comes in with data that have in fact been outright faked, and what’s more, faked in such a way as to answer or forestall just those sorts of reviewing tasks, there’s a good chance that these things will go through, unfortunately.
Lesné's apparently fraudulent research doesn't invalidate the whole beta amyloid hypothesis; other, independent studies support the toxic effects of beta amyloid on nerve cells, and have shown there's beta amyloid present in damaged cells.  But Lesné's contention that Aß*56 was causative of Alzheimer's was apparently a blind alley -- and the presence of the protein in the neurons of Alzheimer's sufferers could as well be a result of the disease as a cause.

What concerns me about this kind of thing, though, is the damage it does to the scientific enterprise as a whole.  Here in the United States, in the last twenty years, we've been dealing with the effects of a surge of anti-science propaganda on a number of fronts, most notably anthropogenic climate change and the efficacy of vaccines.  When highly cited, widely publicized work like Lesné's is shown to be based on fraudulent data, it gives more ammunition to the crowd who is already shrieking about how the scientists are making it all up to get grant money and are fundamentally untrustworthy.

And as my friend who sent me the link pointed out, there is a profit motive involved in science.  The publish-or-perish model of scientific research means that the competition for grant money is intense and often cutthroat.  Producing publishable results doesn't just get you funded, it is also the key to tenure-track research positions and the stability and prestige that come with them.  Don't get me wrong, I still strongly believe that 99% of scientists are rigorously ethical, and the vast majority of research is reliable; but when you set the system up to punish negative results, it gives the unscrupulous a hell of an incentive to cheat, and the naysayers yet another opportunity to tar all scientists with one brush.

But what haunts me most in this case is the human cost.  This disease destroys lives, and does it in a slow, agonizing, dehumanizing way.  The idea that falsified data may have led researchers down a fruitless rabbit hole, wasting huge amounts of time and money while people suffered and died, is horrifying.  I keep picturing my Aunt Florence's face, as she languished for years, her brain decaying while her body lived on, and wonder how the people who perpetrate such fraud can sleep at night.


Thursday, July 28, 2022

The scent of memory

There are two very specific scents that will always remind me of my beloved grandma, with whom I lived for a year and a half when I was eight or nine years old.

One is the flowers of the sweet olive tree.  Sweet olive is a small tree with glossy leaves and little, cream-colored flowers with a fruity, spicy smell a little reminiscent of a combination of fresh peaches and vanilla.  My grandma had a beautiful sweet olive, and when it flowered in early summer, it perfumed the entire yard.

The other is the smell of old books.  When I lived with my grandma my bedroom was in the attic, a maze-like twist of rooms and alcoves with sloped ceilings, a wooden floor, and shelves laden with what seemed to my young eyes like thousands of books.  That dusty, dry smell when you turn the cover of a book that hasn't been opened in decades immediately brings me back to that happy time that was, in a lot of ways, like an oasis of calm and happiness in an otherwise troubled and turbulent childhood.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA, Timeless Books, CC BY 2.0]

I suspect a lot of you can relate to my experience of having scents trigger memories, but it's hardly a new observation.  This phenomenon was the impetus for Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, in which the entire book begins with the protagonist having a memory triggered by the smell and taste of madeleine cake and tea.  What's been less obvious is why smell has such a strong link to memory -- for many people, stronger than any of the other senses.

Two recent papers, one in the journal Cell and the other in Nature, have elucidated why that might be.  One reason is that the sense of smell is so specific -- we have over four hundred different types of olfactory sensors, each responsive to different molecules, and those sensors are connected through the olfactory bulb of the brain directly to the hippocampus (a major memory center) and the parts of the cerebral cortex involved in storage of memories.

There's a lot we still don't understand, however.  In part, our responsiveness to scents seems to have an epigenetic component -- the phenomenon wherein traits can be inheritable without involving alterations in the DNA.  For example, the grandchildren of mice who were given mild electric shocks when exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms have an aversive reaction to the odor even though they were never shocked themselves.  (This may sound like a Lamarckian "inheritance of acquired characteristics" model, and in a way, it is; but epigenetic effects usually happen because the trait involved hormonal alteration of the rate of gene expression, which can affect the children -- and grandchildren -- without the actual DNA being changed.)

What it immediately made me wonder is how this affects the experience of animals with way more sensitive noses -- like dogs.  Dogs' big snouts have fifty times more olfactory receptors than our puny little noses do.

"'Big Nose'?  Who you callin' 'Big Nose,' bub?"

Not only that, a dog's olfactory processing center is forty times bigger relative to the rest of its brain than yours is.  So how does that affect what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls its umwelt -- the sensory world it inhabits?  Imagine if the olfactory landscape you were immersed in every time you took a breath was as vivid as the visual and auditory landscapes most of us experience without even thinking about it.

No wonder my dogs both sniff me thoroughly whenever I come home after being away.  Who knows what information they're gleaning about where I've been, who I've come into contact, and *gasp* what other dogs I may have said hi to along the way?

We're just beginning to parse how our sensory processing centers integrate with the other parts of the brain, and solve the old question of why (and how) the olfactory sense is such a powerful trigger to sometimes long-buried memories.  Scientists are even considering the possible use of scents as a way to decondition traumatic memories in PTSD sufferers -- if there are smells with positive, reassuring connections, being exposed to those while suffering from the resurgence of trauma might blunt the edge of the pain.  In one study, smelling an odor with pleasant associations (in this case, fresh coffee) while recounting a memory of a traumatic experience significantly lowered the emotional distress of the test subjects.

It will be fascinating to see where this research goes, as we untangle layer after layer of the complex network that allows us to perceive our world and recall what we experience.  And, perhaps, explain how after fifty years, there's still a link in my brain between sweet olive flowers, old books, and my grandma's face.


Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Redefining the primitive

One of the most interesting, and persistent, misconceptions about evolutionary biology revolves around the use of the word "primitive" to describe certain life forms.

The misunderstanding goes back to Aristotle, really.  The great philosopher proposed a concept usually known by its Latin name of scala naturae, the "scale of nature."  Often called "the great chain of being."  The idea is that life has progressed up some sort of ladder of complexity, starting with something like bacteria, then upwards through jellyfish and worms and bugs and fish and amphibians and reptiles and "lower" mammals, finally arriving at us, who (of course) being the pinnacle of creation, stand proudly at the top of the ladder.

The problem with this, as with many misconceptions, is that in some ways it's kinda sorta almost true.  Something like today's bacteria were the first life forms, and the progression of fish > amphibian > reptile > mammal is pretty well established.  The problems start when you look at life forms earlier than fish; during the famous Cambrian Explosion, most of the phyla of animals branched off and diversified in a relative flash, not only including the ones we have around today but a number of oddball groups that didn't survive.  So with respect to most modern groups of species, that smooth progression up the ladder didn't actually happen.

The problem gets worse when you try to apply the word "primitive" to current life forms.  Is a bug more primitive than a human?  Both are alive right now; each of them has exactly the same length of ancestral history.  It doesn't even work if you link "primitiveness" with "complexity."  Humans and bugs are both complex organisms, they're just complex in different ways.  Certainly, there's a difference in intelligence; most humans are smarter than most bugs.  But intelligence doesn't equal evolutionary success.  By just about any measure, insects are by far the most successful animals on the Earth.

It recalls the famous anecdote about the illustrious biologist J. B. S. Haldane.  Haldane was a zoologist but also rather notorious as an outspoken atheist, and religious people used to go to his talks to heckle him about it.  At one, during the question-and-answer period, a woman asked, "Professor Haldane, what have your studies in biology told you about the nature of God?"

Haldane thought for a moment, and finally said, "All I can say, ma'am, is that he must have an inordinate fondness for beetles."

In any case, you have to be extraordinarily careful how you apply the word "primitive."  In biology it's now used to describe traits (not entire organisms), with a very specific, restricted meaning, defined as "a trait that is shared with the ancestral form."  An example is the vascular tissue -- the internal plumbing -- in plants, which is "advanced" as compared to the trait of "lacking vascular tissue."  Vascular plants evolved from non-vascular ones, so apropos of that trait, mosses (which lack vascular tissue) are primitive as compared to ferns (which have vascular tissue). 

But it still requires caution, because it's all too easy to assume that "primitive traits are less complex" or (worse) that "if an organism is like humans, that means it's advanced," neither of which are true.  For example, take a look at the paper last week in The American Naturalist written by a team from the University of Washington that questions the notion of primitiveness with respect to something most of us take for granted -- reproduction in mammals.

There are three basic modes of reproduction in Class Mammalia.  A couple of modern species are oviparous -- egg-laying (the monotremes, namely the echidna and the platypus).  Another group are marsupials, which give birth to extremely altricial (undeveloped) young, because the mothers have no placentas to interface between themselves and their babies.  Once the offspring are too big (which isn't very big at all; kangaroos are about two centimeters long at birth) they are born, and develop the rest of the way in the mother's pouch.  The third are the placentals such as ourselves (and every mammal you've ever heard of other than the monotremes and marsupials).

Egg-laying certainly is a primitive trait; it's pretty clear that the reptilian ancestors of the earliest mammals were oviparous.  But what about the presence of a placenta?  Once again, the danger is in assuming that it's the "advanced trait" because (1) humans are placentals, (2) there are currently more placentals than marsupials, and (3) somehow the placental method "seems more complicated."  These are all more like smug self-congratulation than they are science, and none are reliable indicators of the primitiveness of a trait.

The current study, in fact, suggests that the placental mode of reproduction may predate the marsupial method -- by a lot.  The researchers studied the odd multituberculates, a group of mammals that were amongst the first to diversify significantly, way back in the Jurassic Period around 170 million years ago.  They were some of the most common mammals for a very long time, finally going extinct about 35 million years ago (for reasons unknown). 

The multituberculate Sunnyodon notleyi [Image licensed under the Creative Commons FunkMonk (Michael B. H.), Sunnyodon, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The salient point here is that the marsupial mammals, including the extinct ones that have been studied, have a very distinctive pattern of bone growth that is connected to their being born so incredibly undeveloped.  A careful analysis of multituberculate bones shows they're a great deal more similar to today's placentals -- despite the fact that they branched off from the rest of Class Mammalia way earlier than the marsupials did.

So it looks like the little multituberculates had placentas and long gestation periods, and our mode of reproduction is actually the primitive one.  Meaning the marsupial lineage lost the ability to form a placenta, rather than our lineage gaining it.  Why that happened isn't known; but as we've seen, a trait doesn't need to be complex to give its owner a selective advantage.  Perhaps in marsupials, the draw on the mother's resources is lowered enough by giving birth early that it allows her a better shot at surviving -- but that's pure speculation.

Whatever it is, both modes function perfectly well.  "Evolution," as biologist Richard Dawkins put it, "is the law of 'whatever works.'"

And it all reinforces the notion that there is no "great chain of being," there's just an enormous tangled web of which we are just a single strand. 


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Seeing through the fog

There's something a little unsettling about the idea that when you're looking outward in space, you're looking backward in time.

If it seems like we're seeing things as they actually are, right now, it's only because (1) the speed of light is so fast, and (2) most of the objects we look at and interact with are relatively close by.  Even the Sun, though, which in astronomical terms is right on top of us, is eight light-minutes away, meaning that the light leaving its surface takes eight minutes to cross the 150 million kilometers between it and us.  If the Sun were suddenly to go dark -- not, mind you, a very likely occurrence -- we would have no way of knowing it for eight minutes.

The farther out you go, the worse it gets.  The nearest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.2 light years away.  So the awe-inspiring panorama of stars in a clear night sky is a snapshot of the past.  Some of the stars you're looking at (especially the red supergiants like Antares and Betelgeuse) might actually already have gone supernova, and that information simply hasn't gotten here yet.  None of the stars we see are in exactly the same positions relative to us as they appear to be to us right now.  

Worst of all is when you look way out, as the James Webb Space Telescope is currently doing, because then, you have to account not only for distance, but for the fact that the universe is expanding.  And it hasn't expanded at a uniform rate.  Current models support the inflationary model, which says that between 10^-36 and 10^-32 seconds after the Big Bang the universe expanded by a factor of around 10^26.  This seems like a crazy conjecture, but it immediately solves two perplexing problems in observational astronomy.

The Carina Nebula, as photographed by the James Webb Space Telescope [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/JPL]

The first one, the horizon problem, has to do with the homogeneity of space.  Look as far out into space as you can in one direction, then do the same thing in the opposite direction, and what you'll see is essentially the same -- the same distribution of matter and energy.  The difficulty is that those two points are causally disconnected; they're far enough apart that light hasn't had time to travel from one to the other, and therefore no mechanism of communication can exist between them.  By our current understanding of information transfer, once causally disconnected, always causally disconnected.  So if something set the initial conditions in point A, how did point B end up with identical conditions if they've never been in contact with each other?  It seems like a ridiculous coincidence.

The other one is the flatness problem, which has to do with the geometry of space-time.  This subject gets complicated fast, and I'm a layperson myself, but as far as I understand it, the gist is this.  The presence of matter warps the fabric of space locally (as per the General Theory of Relativity), but what is its overall geometry?  From studies of such phenomenal as the cosmic microwave background radiation, it seems like the basic geometry of the universe as a whole is perfectly flat.  Once again, there seems to be no particular reason to expect that could occur by accident.

Both these problems are taken care of simultaneously by the inflationary model.  The horizon problem disappears if you assume that in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the entire universe was small enough to be causally connected, but during inflation the space itself expanded so fast that it carried pieces of it away faster than light can travel.  (This is not forbidden by the Theories of Relativity; matter and energy can't exceed the speed of light, but space-time itself is under no such stricture.)  The flatness problem is solved because the inflationary stretching smoothed out any wrinkles and folds that were in space-time at the moment of the Big Bang, just as taking a bunched-up bedsheet and pulling on all four corners flattens it out.

All of this will be facing some serious tests over the next few years as we get better and better at looking out into the far reaches.  Just last week a team at the University of Cambridge published a paper in Nature Astronomy about a new technique to look out so far that what you're seeing is only 378,000 years after the Big Bang.  (I know that may seem like a long time, but it's only 0.003% of the current age of the universe.)  The problem is that prior to this, the universe was filled with a fog of glowing hydrogen atoms, so it was close to opaque.  The new technique involves filtering out the "white noise" from the hydrogen haze, much the way as you can still see the shadows and contours of the landscape on a foggy day.  It's not going to be easy; the signal emitted by the actual objects that were there in the early universe is estimated to be a hundred thousand times weaker than the interference from the glowing fog.

It's mind-blowing.  I've been learning about this stuff for years, but I'm still boggled by it.  If I think about it too hard I'm a little like the poor woman in a video with science vlogger Hank Green, who is trying to wrap her brain around the idea that anywhere you look, if you go out far enough, you're seeing the same point in space (i.e. all spots currently 13.8 billion light years from us were condensed into a single location at the moment of the Big Bang), and seems to be about to have a nervous breakdown from the implications.  (Hat tip to my friend, the amazing author Robert Chazz Chute, for throwing the video my way.)

So think about all this next time you're looking up into a clear night sky.  It's not a bad thing to be reminded periodically how small we are.  The universe is a grand, beautiful, amazing, weird place, and how fortunate we are to be living in at time where we are finally beginning to understand how it works.


Monday, July 25, 2022

Finding yourself

Today's story is more of a puzzlement than anything else.  It came to my attention thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who sent me a link to a site called What3Words with the message, "People will surely be making up conspiracy theories about the secret meaning of THESE words being attached to THAT place.  So I thought you might want to get the jump on them by making up your own."

What3Words turns out to be a "universal addressing system" that divides the entire world into 57 trillion three-meter-by-three-meter squares, and gives each of them a unique address made up of three random words.  My pond, for example (or at least one three-by-three bit of its surface) is extras.equine.outsmart.  As the "About" page explains it:
The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. 
What3Words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3m x 3m square, anywhere on the planet. 
It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates. 
Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.
Which may well be true, but still strikes me as kind of weird.  Why do we need that kind of accuracy? My pond, for example, is about eight meters by twelve meters in area.  So this means that just in my pond alone, there are on the order of ten different "addresses."  If I swim across the pond, I've moved from "extras.equine.outsmart" to "ranch.speculated.dressing."  So what does that gain me?  If I order a pizza, and the delivery person can't find me when I'm eight meters away, the pizza place needs to hire a new delivery person, not use a better addressing system.

I have to admit the map is fun to play with, though.  The assignment of the words seems random to me, although there may be a deeper structure there than I'm seeing.  The site explains:
Each What3Words language is powered by a wordlist of 25,000 – 40,000 dictionary words.  The wordlists go through multiple automated and human processes before being sorted by an algorithm that takes into account word length, distinctiveness, frequency, and ease of spelling and pronunciation. 
Offensive words and homophones (sale & sail) have been removed.  Simpler, more common words are allocated to more populated areas and the longest words are used in 3 word addresses in unpopulated areas.
I'm a little disappointed at the removal of the offensive words, because that could create an opportunity for a great deal of barbed hilarity.  Just think, for example, if the headquarters of the Church of Scientology were located at "bloody.fucking.nonsense."

And it does offer more precision, especially in areas that lack ordinary street systems (the site says it's already being used by the postal system in Mongolia).  But here in the United States, I'm not sure what's to be gained, especially since (most) house numbering systems are pretty logical.  You'd expect that 101 South Street would be next to 103 South Street, and across the road from 102 South Street, and most of the time you'd be correct.

What3Words addresses, on the other hand, don't tell you much of anything.  Good luck figuring out what "huge.mutant.weasel" is next to, for example.  The nuclear power plant, probably.

To be fair, some street addresses are equally bizarre.  Not far away from where I live there's a "Gravel Road."  It probably goes without saying that it's paved.

There's also the problem of minor misspellings making a huge difference.  As I mentioned, one bit of my pond, in Trumansburg, New York, is "extras.equine.outsmart."  On the other hand, "extra.equine.outsmart" is in Salem, South Dakota, and "extras.equine.outsmarted" is in southern Peru.  At least if you're trying to find 219 East Main Street, Trumansburg, New York, USA, you won't be off by six thousand kilometers.

And since there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the choice of words, I'm afraid my friend is quite right; it's only a matter of time before the conspiracy-minded start "discovering" their own meanings for What3Words addresses.  A search for the What3Words address "all.seeing.eye" came up with nothing, as did ""  Most of the addresses I've seen are simply weird and random.  But there are bound to be some combinations that raise eyebrows, and believe me, someone is gonna find them.

Anyhow, that's our news from the "Who Even Thought Of This?" department.  So I'll sign off from my comfortable office at "mango.trinkets.embedding," and am heading for a nap in my hammock over at "," which seems a little misnamed.


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Different strokes

So once again, a member of the extreme evangelical fringe of Christianity has launched a campaign against our taking pleasure in something which we are biologically hard-wired to find pleasant.

Yesterday a loyal reader of Skeptophilia alerted me to the fact that Mack Major, a Christian writer from Philadelphia, has written a book called Sex Magic: Flirting With the Demonic in which he claims we shouldn't masturbate because masturbation can "summon a sex demon."

Here's a direct quote, in case you think I am making this up:
There are such things are sex demons.  And the danger in masturbating is that one could inadvertently summon a sex demon to attach itself to you through the act of masturbating.  And once that demon attaches, it is difficult to get it to leave.  It will drive you to masturbate, even when you don’t want to.  You’ll be hit with urges to play with yourself so powerful that only an orgasm will allow you some temporary relief.
Notwithstanding the fact that if this were true, the millions of teenage boys worldwide would be keeping the sex demons busy 24/7, Major seems convinced that by engaging in what my dad referred to as "shaking hands with the unemployed" you are writing yourself a one-way express ticket to hell.

Presumably with the other hand.

Major is also vehemently against any use of gadgets for increasing your enjoyment, even if those are used with a partner.  Erotic toys provide yet another means of ingress for those pesky sex demons:
Many of you who are reading this have sex toys in your possession right now.  And whether you want to accept it as fact or not: those sex toys are an open portal between the demonic realm and your own life.  As long as you have those sex toys in your home, you have a doorway that can allow demons to not only access your life at will, but also to torment you, hinder and destroy certain parts of your life as it relates to sex and your relationships.
Which highlights yet again my disagreement with the devoutly religious over the definition of the word "fact."

Besides the scary sex demons, it turns out that pleasuring yourself can also cause volcanic eruptions, and he's not using that in its justifiable metaphorical sense.  He means literal volcanic eruptions.  He tells us all about the pornographic scenes found on the walls of Pompeii, many of which involved the god Priapus, who was depicted as a naked dude with an enormous hard-on.  And he links that directly to what happened:
He [Priapus] was really popular in the ancient city of Pompeii…  The walls of many of the homes and palaces were painted with detailed frescos of very graphic pornographic sexual scenes…  Keep in mind that Pompeii was suddenly destroyed and thousands of lives were wiped out in an instant.
So yeah, that was a really unhappy ending.  Be that as it may, it's hard to see the pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius as having anything to do with jacking off, or there'd be a major explosion underneath every adult theater in the United States every single night.  And the headquarters of PornHub would right now simply be a giant smoking crater.

My main reaction to all this is that I feel cheated.  I have never once been visited by a sex demon.  I mean, what the hell, sex demons?  What's the problem, here?  Am I not good enough?  I'm giving it my all, over here.  It's enough to make a guy feel a little inadequate.

The exasperating thing about all this is that masturbation is 100% normal, nearly everyone does it, it relieves stress, helps you sleep, and (for men) decreases the risk of prostate cancer.  What we have here is simply another way for the extremely religious to make everyone feel guilty, uptight, and anxious over something entirely harmless, and to maintain their control by convincing their followers that they're hellbound if they don't follow the leader's advice to the letter.

Major ends with one last cautionary note:
When we imagine having sex with another via masturbation, we are actually summoning the power of the spirit realm to manifest the thing we are imagining.
Don't I wish.  Manifest away, spirit realm.  Hey, I'm bi, so there's twice the manifestations I'd be perfectly happy with.  Either Jenna Coleman or Liam Hemsworth, for example, would do just fine.

So anyway.  My advice is: in the privacy of your own home, do what comes naturally, enjoy it, and find something else to fret about.  I'm guessing that even if there is a supreme deity, he/she/it has much better things to do in Universe Management than keeping track of what you do in your "Alone Time."


Friday, July 22, 2022

Modern-day Cassandras

When people think of environmental degradation, usually what comes to mind are urban areas, agricultural land either grazed bare by cattle or sheep or devoted to monoculture farming, and obviously damaged sites like mines, oilfields, and landfills.  It's a little alarming when studies are done that show that an entire country is an example of a severely degraded environment.

Especially when the country is as big as Australia.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Diliff, Koala climbing tree, CC BY-SA 3.0]

My guess is that Australia wouldn't be the first place you'd think of when it comes to ecological damage.  But a two-thousand-page state of the environment report, commissioned by the Australian government, resulted in an overall assessment that the condition of the country's ecosystems is "shocking."  Amongst the findings:

  • Nineteen of Australia's ecosystem are "on the verge of collapse."
  • Non-native plant species now outnumber native ones.
  • More species have gone extinct in Australia in the last two hundred years than on any other continent.  (Not country; continent.)
  • Two hundred species endemic to Australia -- found nowhere else in the world -- have experienced upgraded threat status in the last five years.
  • In the past ten years, there has been a record number of droughts, wildfires, record-breaking floods, and typhoons.
  • There have been six major coral-bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world.

In a dramatic example of how environmental effects don't stop at national borders, a large contributor to the problem has been climate change -- even though Australia's government has committed to cutting carbon emissions by 43% by the year 2030.  Which is lovely, but when there are countries like the United States still thumbing their noses at decreasing fossil fuel use, it's not going to make much difference.

Not that the Australians themselves have done everything right, mind you.  Many of the exotic species -- most notoriously, the European rabbit -- were brought in deliberately.  Previous governments have been much less eco-friendly than the current one, usually citing budget issues as an excuse not to do anything.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with one of my environmental science students years ago.  The question I threw out to the class was, "What would it take for governments to take action on environmental issues, specifically carbon emissions and climate change?"  Her answer was, "Things will have to get a great deal worse.  Bad enough that ordinary people have their lives drastically changed.  When the food starts running out, when the heat starts killing not just poor people in third world countries but middle-class folks right here in the United States.  I hate to put it this way, but until it's bad enough that people living right in our neighborhoods are dying because of it, we'll just keep on doing what we've always done and pretending everything's okay."

I think she's spot-on.  The problem is, once it gets to that point, it's too late to do anything to halt it.  As the Australians have found out, as the Americans and Western Europeans are finding out, once entire countries are sweltering in a pressure cooker, there's not much you can do other than try to survive it -- and accept that some won't.

Of course, developing countries and the third world has known that for decades.  Right now, Pakistan, India, and large parts of central and northern Africa are experiencing record high temperatures as well.  Unlike the United States and Western Europe, though, this is nothing new.  It seems like every year they have a new record-setting heat wave, people die, and it barely is a blip on the radar in the industrialized world.

Yet another reason why we think we're immune to the effects of what we've been doing to the climate for the past hundred years.

It's profoundly maddening when you think about the fact that scientists and environmentally-conscious laypeople like myself have been sounding the alarm about this for decades.  I'd like to hope that this new report out of Australia will shake a few people up, but our history of ignoring the experts leaves me feeling like this will get shoved under the rug, too.

Remember the character of Cassandra from Greek mythology?  She was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and was given a blessing and a curse by the god Apollo -- that she could see the future, but when she told people about it, no one would believe her.  Even after Troy was sacked and burned, and her parents killed -- just as she'd predicted -- still people discounted what she said.  The environmental scientists are like modern-day Cassandras, telling people what the models said would happen, and even after the models have proved correct over and over (in fact, when they were wrong, it was usually because they underestimated the effects), people still shrug their shoulders and pretend nothing's wrong.

I'd like to find a positive way to end this post, but I'm fresh out of ideas about how to do that.  The situation is dire.  Our only hope -- slim as it is -- is to elect politicians who place the global environment in first place on the priorities list.  Until we do that, I'm afraid the Cassandras will continue their fruitless prophesying, and the rest of us will continue our slide into the pressure cooker.


Thursday, July 21, 2022

I contain multitudes

One of the things that even folks conversant in the evolutionary model sometimes don't know is the extent to which we are composite organisms.

On the gross level (and I mean that in both senses of the word), there is the sheer number of cells in us that are not human.  The adult human body has about 10 trillion human cells, and (depending on who you talk to) between 1 and 3 times more bacterial cells -- intestinal flora, bacteria hitching a ride on our skin, in our mouths, in our respiratory mucosa.  Most of these are commensals at the very worst -- neither harmful nor helpful -- but a significant number are in a mutualistic arrangement with us, which is one of several reasons why the overuse of antibiotics is a bad idea.

Then there are the little invaders we can't live without -- namely the mitochondria, those tiny organelles that every high school biology student knows are the "powerhouses of the cell."  What fewer people know is that they are actually separate organisms, descended from aerobic prokaryotes that colonized our cells 2.5 billion years ago (give or take a day or two).  They have their own DNA, and reproduce inside our cells by binary fission the same way they did when they were free-living proto-bacteria.

Mitochondria [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of photographer Louisa Howard]

But that's not all. If you're a plant (I'm assuming you're not, but you never know), you have three separate ancestral lines -- your ordinary plant cells, the mitochondria, and the chloroplasts, which are also little single-celled invaders that now plants can't live without.  But even that's not the most extreme example.  The microorganism Mixotricha paradoxa is a composite being made up of five completely separate ancestral genomes that have fused together into one organism.

It's amazing how much these relationships alter behavior, sometimes in ways that blur the definition of the word "organism."  Is Mixotricha one organism or five?  Unsurprisingly, given their history of anticipating scientific discoveries, Star Trek gave a hard look at this question with the character of Jadzia Dax.  Dax is a Trill -- an individual produced by the fusion of a humanoid host and a long-lived symbiont.  Although the symbiont can survive after the death of the host, and go on to fuse with another one, the personalities remain blended, and the symbiont brings to its new host all the memories, skills, and traits it accessed from previous ones.

Weird stuff, but not so far off from what we see down here on Earth.

But back to humans, if you're not already so skeeved out that you've stopped reading.  Because it's even more complicated than what I've already told you -- check out a paper by geneticists Cedric Feschotte , Edward Chuong and Nels Elde of the University of Utah, in which we find out that even our nuclear DNA isn't entirely human.  Feschotte et al. have shown that ten percent of our thirty-thousand-odd genes and three-billion-odd base pairs...

... came from viruses.

We usually think of viruses as pesky little parasites that cause colds, flu, measles, mumps, and so on, but they're more than that.  Some of them -- the retroviruses (HIV being the best-known example) -- are capable of inserting genetic material into the host's DNA, thus altering what the host does.  Certainly, sometimes this is bad; both AIDS and feline leukemia are outcomes of this process.  But now Feschotte, Chuong, and Elde have shown that some of our viral hangers-on have had their genes repurposed to work in our benefit.

These stowaway bits of DNA are called endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), and some of them seem to be associated with cancer.  Others have been implicated in multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.  But what the researchers found is that not all of them are deleterious; the gene that allows us to digest starch, and (even more importantly) the gene that triggers the fusion of the developing embryo to the placenta, seem to have viral origins.

"We think we’ve only scratched the surface here on the regulatory potential of ERVs," Feschotte said.

All of which is pretty amazing.  And it definitely gives one pause when you stop to think of how we define the word "organism."  Am I a single organism?  Well, not really.  Besides my regular human cells, I've got trillions of mitochondria, each with their separate bacterially-derived genome; and ten percent of what I think of as "my DNA" came from viruses, at least some of which has then been modified into genes that I depend on to survive.  So humans -- and all living things -- are looking more and more like composite colonies of symbiotic life forms, representing a web of interrelationships that is so complex that it's mind-boggling.

So, to hell with the weird, exotic life forms from Star Trek.  I'm too busy being blown away by how bizarre and cool the life here on Earth turns out to be.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The house of cards

I was first introduced to the idea that human history has been shaped by climate swings back in 1990, with British science historian James Burke's prescient two-part documentary After the Warming.  In part one, he tracks the (natural) ups and downs that have occurred because of gradual shifts in the Earth's orbit and rotational axis; in part two, he then looks at the effects humans are having because of our out-of-control burning of fossil fuels and use-it-once-then-throw-it-away culture of consumerism.  From my standpoint now, thirty-two years after the documentary was released, his predictions seem nothing short of uncanny, right down to the United States's steadfast determination not to do a damn thing to address anthropogenic climate change.  But he even got a lot of the more specific effects spot-on.  For example, he predicted the crazy spate of Atlantic storms that caused billions of dollars of damage and resulted in the NOAA running out of hurricane names and having to switch over to "Alpha," "Beta," and "Gamma," even getting it right down to the year it occurred (2005).  Watching it now, it's almost like it was made today by someone with a slight penchant for bending the truth, not by someone three decades ago for whom all of these were merely shrewd forecasts.

If I have one criticism of Burke, it's that he gives the impression that everything in history boils down to the climate.  Part one, entertaining and enlightening as it is, is kind of a ninety-minute long exploration of the single-cause fallacy.  That said, it's still a sobering cautionary tale.  We can't discount the effects that shifts in the climate can have on humanity.  Right now in the central and southern United States we're trapped in a heat wave that has already broken records in an area that's accustomed to summer heat; simultaneously the much-more-poorly-prepared people of western Europe are not only facing record high temperatures but droughts and wildfires.

It remains to be seen how long it'll take before the climate naysayers will finally, grudgingly, admit that we've been right all along.

Another of Burke's oversights is an interesting one; although he considers other natural phenomena, he doesn't look at the effects of volcanic eruptions on the climate.  It may be because these are drastic, but usually short-lived; long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recall a piece I wrote a while back on the effects of an eruption in Iceland in the sixth century C. E. that was the principal cause of "the worst decade in history" -- a series of plagues, famines, and catastrophically cold winters that killed an estimated sixty million people.  It took nearly a hundred years for the effects to abate, and when they did, they led into an unusually warm period (probably because of the injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the eruption).  An even bigger eruption, this one in Indonesia about seventy-four thousand years ago, is thought by some scientists to have nearly caused the human species to go extinct -- the "Toba Bottleneck" may have reduced the entire human population of the Earth to under ten thousand individuals.  (This conclusion, however, is still under serious debate amongst scientists.)

The reason all this comes up is because of an article at the site Yale Climate Connections sent to me by a loyal reader, which describes the historical impact of an eruption I'd never heard about -- the eruption of the Alaskan volcano Mount Okmok in 43 B. C. E.  

The caldera of Mount Okmok [Image courtesy of photographer Christina Neal and the USGS]

It was another massive one, with global effects.  Tree ring analysis from the White Mountains of California give evidence of the second-coldest winter on record.  Written accounts from Rome describe cold, dry summers that caused agricultural failures several years running; in Egypt, it manifested as the loss of the annual floods of the Nile River three times in a row, resulting in devastating drought and famine.

This, in turn, contributed to the collapse of the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, then ruled by the famous and charismatic Queen Cleopatra VII.  

It's a little alarming to see how quickly the climate can change, and the havoc such changes can wreak.  It's why people like me have been sounding the alarm for decades, urging caution instead of what we've been doing, which is blundering about as if everything around us is permanent, as if we're guaranteed a clement climate and plenty of food and water.  All you have to do is to look at history to realize how precarious things are.  While I won't go as far as James Burke did in attributing damn near everything to the climate, there's no denying that in many ways the interlocking systems of our planet have the fragility of a house of cards.  Some things -- such as volcanic eruptions and orbital shifts -- we can't do anything about.  But once you see the effects of climate change on the history and habitability of the Earth, I don't see how you wouldn't come away absolutely convinced that we better do everything we can to protect the part of it we can do something about.