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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

*ding* You've got mail!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A line in the sand

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

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

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

That is, a fake.

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

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

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

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

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

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pterodactyloids:

Colugos:


Flying fish:


Sugar gliders:


and the aforementioned flying squirrels:


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Giving weight to illusion

The idea that our sensory processing apparatus and our brains are unreliable has been something I've come back to again and again here at Skeptophilia.  "I saw it with my own eyes" is simply not enough evidence by which to make any kind of sound scientific judgment.

Not only are we likely to get things wrong just because the equipment is faulty, our prior ideas can predispose us to get things wrong in a particular way.  Think of it as a sort of built-in confirmation bias; our brains are set up in such a fashion that when we've already decided what's going to happen, it's much more likely that's what we'll perceive.

This latter problem was demonstrated in an elegant, if disturbing, fashion in a paper released last week in Science called "Pavlovian Conditioning–Induced Hallucinations Result From Overweighting of Perceptual Priors," by Albert R. Powers, Christoph Mathys, and Philip R. Corlett, of the Yale School of Medicine, the International School for Advanced Studies (Trieste, Italy), and the University of Zurich, respectively.  Their research springboarded from previous studies wherein individuals who had been trained to associate a tone with an image were more likely to continue "hearing" the tone when shown the image with no accompanying tone than were members of a control group.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What Corlett's team did was to divide participants into four groups: normal, healthy individuals; self-described psychics; individuals with psychosis who did not report hearing voices; and individuals with schizophrenia who reported hearing voices.  The researchers trained all test subjects to associate a checkerboard image with a one second long, one kilohertz tone.  They not only recorded data on which participants continued to "hear" an illusory tone when shown the checkerboard in silence, they also used a protocol (how hard they pushed the button when they heard the tone, whether real or imagined) to gauge their confidence in what they were experiencing, and they looked at neuronal activity in the brain using an fMRI machine.

The results were intriguing, to say the least.  Both the schizophrenics and the self-described psychics were five times as likely to report hearing a tone when none existed than either the control group of healthy individuals or the psychotic individuals who did not hear voices.  Not only that, the schizophrenics and the psychics were 28% more confident in their perceptions when they did hear a tone that wasn't there than were the other two groups when they made a similar mistake.

Further, the schizophrenics and psychics showed abnormal neuronal activity in two regions of the brain; the parts of the cerebrum involved in creating our internal representation of reality showed strikingly different firing patterns, and the cerebellum -- the part of the brain involved in planning and coordinating our motor responses to stimuli -- showed much lower than normal neuronal activity.

"The findings confirm that, when it comes to how we perceive the world, our ideas and beliefs can easily overpower our senses," said Albert Powers, one of the paper's authors.  Which is about as succinct a cautionary statement about trusting our judgments as I can imagine.

While the researchers specifically tested the likelihood of experiencing auditory hallucinations, I find myself wondering if this study might not have wider applications.  How do our prior perceptions bias us in general?  I know I have frequently been baffled, especially in these fractious times, how two people can see the same event and come to strikingly opposite conclusions about it.  At times, I have found myself asking, "Are we even talking about the same thing, here?"  But if our preconceived notions about the world can bias us strongly enough to hear sounds that aren't there, why should any other perception be immune to the same effect?

This possibility drives me to a disturbing conclusion.  How do you convince people that what they're perceiving is not real, if that conclusion is contrary to what their senses and their brains are telling them?

I think the key, here, is always to keep focused on the statement, "... but I might be wrong."  A lot of our faulty judgments are caused not only by our coming to the wrong conclusion, but our stubborn certainty that we are, in fact, right.  A willingness to revise our beliefs -- failing that, at least to consider the possibility that our beliefs are incorrect -- is absolutely critical.

Otherwise, we're at the mercy of sensory apparatus that are easily fooled, and a brain that bases what it perceives as much on what it already thought to be true as on the actual data it's presented with.

Which seems to me to be awfully shaky ground.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Total eclipse of the brain

In ten days, people in the United States will get the best shot at seeing a total solar eclipse we've had in years.  The path of totality crosses the country diagonally from northwest to southeast, starting near the northern border of Oregon and ending in South Carolina.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Astronomy buffs and people who simply like an unusual spectacle have been excited about this for ages.  Motels in towns within the path of totality sold out months ago, especially in places like the Midwest where you're more likely to have clear skies.

The buzz about the eclipse prompted the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to make the following observation:


Well, far be it from me to argue with someone of NdGT's stature, but just because people aren't denying the eclipse doesn't mean that they're viewing it with any kind of scientific eye.  We're already having the wingnuts putting their unique spin on the event, and you should watch for this sort of thing to increase exponentially as we approach August 21.

First, we have Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, who claims that the eclipse is a sign of the approach of the End Times.  Have you noticed how every damn time there's some interesting astronomical event, the religious nutjobs claim it's a sign of the End Times, and then the End Times kind of don't happen?

Well, a zero batting average doesn't discourage people like Lotz in the least.  It's interesting that the elder Graham, although we don't agree on much, always impressed me as a thoughtful and deeply compassionate man.  His kids, though... son Franklin is a virulently anti-LGBT firebrand, who has a real talent for ugly invective.  And now, his daughter... well, let me give it to you in her own words:
The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21, nicknamed America's Eclipse. For the first time in almost a hundred years, a total solar eclipse will be seen from coast to coast in our nation.  People are preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites.  The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed...  Therefore, my perspective on the upcoming phenomenon is not celebratory.  While no one can know for sure if judgment is coming on America, it does seem that God is signaling us about something.  Time will tell what that something is.
As far as I can tell, what god seems to be signaling is that if something is in front of the sun, it creates a shadow.  End of story.

But the religious fringe aren't the only ones who are jumping up and down making excited little squeaking noises about August 21.  We also have the crypto-woo-woos, who warn us that the eclipse is going to be noticed by more than just humans:


Long-time readers of Skeptophilia might recall that I warned South Carolina residents about Lizard Man way back in 2011.  As far as Bigfoot, you may be questioning how there could be Bigfoot sightings down there in the Southeast -- after all, the real Sasquatch hotspot is the Pacific Northwest.  But just yesterday, an alert reader sent me an article about a sighting of Bigfoot last week in North Carolina, so it's evident that the cryptids are on the way.  The fact that they're converging on the path of totality is a little peculiar, as solar eclipses have no particular precursors that might warn an animal that one is imminent, and I generally don't think of Bigfoot as being particularly knowledgeable about astronomy.

Unless it's that Bigfoot is psychic, and is sensing oscillations in the quantum frequency dimensions.  You can see how that could happen.

In any case, I'm understandably not inclined to share NdGT's optimistic assessment of Americans' attitude toward the solar eclipse.  As I've observed before, there is no finding so solidly scientific, so evidence-based, that the woo-woos can't woo all over it.

So if you're going to head over to the path of totality in ten days, keep your eyes open, and make sure you drop me a line here at Skeptophilia headquarters if you see any Bigfoots, Lizard Men, or Apocalyptic Horsepersons.  I'll be happy to post an update, especially if you can take photographs.  As is required with such photographs, however, make sure you have your camera's settings on "AutoBlur."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Veterinarians and anti-vaxxers

Let's get something straight from the outset.

Vaccines don't cause autism.  They never have.  The "research" of Andrew Wakefield, which started that whole myth, was shown to be fraudulent years ago, and every study since then -- and there have been many -- has supported that vaccines have few side effects, the vast majority of which are mild and temporary, and their benefits outweigh any risks they might engender.

And yes, that includes the two vaccines most often cited as being dangerous, MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella) and HPV (Human Papillomavirus).

This whole thing should have been laid to rest ages ago, but there's no idea so baseless and stupid that there won't be loads of people who believe it.  Which, I believe, largely explains the bizarre resurgence of the "Flat Earth" model, a claim so stupid that anyone who believes it apparently has a single Froot Loop where most of us have a brain.

But back to vaccines.  I've dealt with this topic here at Skeptophilia often enough that you might be wondering why I'm returning to it.  Well, the answer is that the anti-vaxx movement has now expanded its focus to a different target...

... pets.

[image courtesy of photographer Noël Zia Lee and the Wikimedia Commons]

I kid you not.  Veterinarians, especially in urban areas of the United States, are reporting an increasing number of pet owners who are refusing to get their pets vaccinated.  Only one vaccine is mandated for dogs in the U.S. -- rabies -- but the others are critical to prevent devastating diseases.  The reason you hardly ever hear about a dog getting (for example) canine distemper is because responsible dog owners have their dogs vaccinated against it.  The vaccine is nearly 100% effective, and (like virtually all vaccines) safe and side-effect free.

If your dog actually contracts distemper, however, he has a 50-50 chance of surviving it, even with the best veterinary care.

There's no question which option I take for my own dogs.

The anti-vaxxers, however, don't see it like this.  Recall that this is the group of people who believe that it's better to develop "natural immunity," meaning immunity from exposure to the actual pathogen.  If a child (or a pet) has a good diet and is otherwise healthy, they say, these infectious diseases aren't dangerous.  Thus the book Melanie's Marvelous Measles by Stephanie Messenger, which tells the story of little Melanie who is just thrilled to get measles and develop "natural immunity" rather than having to go through the ordeal of getting a vaccination.

For the record, I'm not making this book up.  Although I do find it heartening that of the 511 reviews it's gotten so far on Amazon, 74% of them are one-star.

The problem is twofold.  First, this "natural immunity" carries with it the risk of horrible complications from the disease itself, a few of which are shingles (chicken pox), sterility (mumps), blindness (measles), and birth defects (rubella).  That's if they don't kill you outright.  I have mentioned before my grandfather's two sisters, Marie Emelie and Anne Daisy, who died nine days apart of measles -- at the ages of 22 and 16, respectively.

The second problem is that it doesn't take all that many people choosing not to vaccinate to give infectious diseases a foothold.  Measles and mumps are both making comebacks; to return to the original topic of pets, so is distemper, to judge from a 2014 outbreak in Texas that resulted in 200 cases of the once-rare disease.

And why are people making this decision?  As with the anti-vaxxers who are refusing to vaccinate their children, these people are trying to protect their pets against some unspecified set of ostensible risk factors.  Stephanie Liff, a Brooklyn-based veterinarian, has reported that she has clients who elected not to vaccinate their dogs -- because they were afraid the dogs would become autistic.

"We've never diagnosed autism in a dog," Liff said.  "I don't think you could."

The bottom line here is that our pets, like our children, depend on us to make responsible decisions with regards to their health, safety, and welfare.  The fact that people have loony ideas sometimes is unavoidable; but when those loony ideas start to endanger others, including animals, who have no say in the matter -- then it becomes reprehensible.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Party-line science

The latest from the "Why the Hell Are We Still Having to Fight This Battle?" department, we have: a new rule within the Department of Agriculture forbidding employees to use the term "climate change."

Yup.  Emails from the National Resources Conservation Service, a unit within the USDA, describe terms that "are to be avoided."  According to Bianca Moebius-Clune, one of the directors within the NRCS, here are some substitutes for the forbidden terms:
  • instead of "climate change," say "weather extremes"
  • instead of "climate change adaptation," say "resilience to weather extremes"
  • instead of "reduce greenhouse gases," say "increase nutrient use efficiency"
  • instead of "sequester carbon," say "build soil organic matter"
"We won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it," Moebius-Clune writes.  "There are a lot of benefits to putting carbon back in the sail [sic], climate mitigation is just one of them."

Which is disingenuous to say the least.  No one is fooled, Ms. Moebius-Clune, by "how you're talking about" climate change.  This administration has made it clear from the get-go that they are not only science deniers, they will do everything in their power to block or undo efforts to mitigate climate change, up to and including lying outright about what the evidence means.  

And if there was any doubt about the shenanigans going on here, consider that one of the NRCS emails mentioned in the story was from a USDA employee named Suzanne Baker, who asked whether NRCS staff were "allowed to publish work from outside the USDA that use ‘climate change’."  Baker was advised that the issue was best discussed via telephone rather than email -- presumably because telephone conversations leave no paper trail.

The whole thing goes back to an issue I've discussed before in Skeptophilia; that when the government starts having a Party Line with respect to what is acceptable science, there's a serious problem.  Science is by its very nature apolitical; data has no spin.  Now, what should be done about problems uncovered by scientific research is a different matter.  Solutions obviously have political and economic implications that need to be decided by responsible leaders.

But the science itself has zilch to do with whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or anything else.  You can disbelieve it if you want to, but that doesn't make you a staunch party member, it just means that you're willfully ignorant.

This all makes the timing of a report on climate change released last week, drafted by scientists from thirteen different agencies, seem even more on-point.  The last decades have been the warmest in 1,500 years, and Alaska and the Arctic are warming at twice the global average -- making a positive feedback loop from the methane released by thawing permafrost a frighteningly real possibility.

The report is now sitting on President Trump's desk, and there's considerable concern in the scientific world that Trump will either order it to be amended, or else suppress it completely.  It contradicts his stance that petroleum, coal, and gas use is completely safe, and that global warming is a myth -- something he's stated in one form or another over and over.  "It’s a fraught situation," said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University (who was not involved in the study).  "This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it."

I may be pessimistic in this regard, but I don't think there's any question how they'll handle it.  Trump has loaded the relevant governmental positions with climate change deniers and people in the pockets of the fossil fuels industry, so his position on this matter is crystal-clear.  If the report isn't round-filed immediately, it'll be returned for revision -- rewriting it so as to cast doubt on its conclusions, taking out language that the powers-that-be dislike and replacing it with vague verbiage intended to generate a shoulder shrug rather than resolute action.

After all, if all of the studies that have gone before this haven't changed the minds of people like Trump, EPA director Scott Pruitt, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, this one sure as hell won't.

What I find grimly ironic about this is that in the United States, the state that is projected to have the most damage from climate change is Florida.  So if the ice melt continues at the current rate, Trump's precious Mar-a-Lago resort is going to be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a hundred miles from the nearest land.  I know that if this happens, it will come along with the displacement of millions of people worldwide from coastal cities, which is nothing short of tragic; but the mental image of Trump piling up sandbags around his palatial estate, trying futilely to keep the seawater from flooding in, at least cheers me up a little bit.

[image courtesy of the University of Arizona and the Wikimedia Commons]

It would take a bigger man than me not to watch him and say, "How's that 'weather extreme' treating you, Donald?  Bet you wish you had engaged in a little 'increasing of nutrient use efficiency' while you still could, don't you?"

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Linda vs. the serial killer

There's a logic problem that's often nicknamed "The Linda Problem," and I hasten to state that by calling it that I don't mean any general criticism of people named Linda.  It goes like this:
Linda is a 30-year-old woman who lives in a big city in the United States.  She is single, has a master's degree in sociology, and is deeply interested in issues of discrimination, social justice, and addressing poverty and homelessness. 
Which of the following is more likely?
  1. Linda is a bank teller. 
  2. Linda is a bank teller who voted for Hillary Clinton.
The whole thing rests on what is known as the conjunction fallacy, and it's amazing how many smart people this one trips up.  The answer is that the first statement has to be more likely; the more qualifiers you add to a list, the fewer people will meet the whole list at the same time.  To give an illustration that is less likely to elicit a wrong answer, consider the following.
You see a dog.  Which is more likely?
  1. It's a golden lab.
  2. It's a golden lab wearing a red collar.
  3. It's a golden lab on a pink leash wearing a red collar.
  4. It's a golden lab sitting on a sidewalk while on a pink leash and wearing a red collar.
For this one, it's clear that each additional qualifier makes the pool of (in this case) dogs that fit the description smaller and smaller.

[image courtesy of photographer Eric Armitage and the Wikimedia Commons]

So why does the Linda Problem trip people up?  It's because in statement #2, the second qualifier -- that she voted Democrat in the last election -- is actually quite probable, given what we know about her.  Once people see that, they tend to grab on to it and ignore the bank teller part, thinking, "Well, I have no idea how likely it is she's a bank teller; but it's really likely she voted for Clinton.  So the second one must be the most likely overall."

Which is why I found the results of a paper that appeared last week in Nature: Human Behavior simultaneously so funny and so appalling.  The study, conducted by a team led by Will Gervais of the University of Kentucky, investigated biases against people based on their religious adherence (or lack thereof).  Test subjects were asked one of two versions of a question designed to see if people connected atheism with sociopathy.  They were given the following scenario:
A 45-year-old man, who tortured animals when he was young, later moved on to hurting people.  He has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.
Half of the test subjects were then asked the following:
Which of the following is more probable?
  1. The man is a teacher.
  2. The man is a teacher who does not believe in any gods.
The other half got a different question:
Which of the following is more probable?
  1. The man is a teacher.
  2. The man is a teacher who is a religious believer. 
Well, you can see that this is just the Linda Problem in a different guise, and that in each case statement #1 is more probable, regardless of the qualifier (or what the additional qualifier was in statement #2).  But Gervais found a surprising result -- a full 60% said that in the first case, the second statement was more likely, and only 30% said the same for the second scenario.  (For comparison purposes, one study found that the average number of people who miss ordinary conjunction-fallacy problems is around 48%.)

So that means that people's innate biases against atheists make them more likely to fall for the conjunction fallacy.  Unsurprisingly, when this test was carried out in highly religious countries -- like the United Arab Emirates -- the percentage who miss it was even higher.  In less religious countries, such as New Zealand, the percentage was lower, but the bias still exists, in that the percentage who got the question wrong was still higher than the average of 48%.

Most interesting of all, people who were themselves non-believers were less biased -- but not by much.  (52% of self-described atheists got the first question wrong, as compared to 60% average for the entire group of test subjects.)

As fascinating as this is, it's also pretty disheartening.  I know there's prejudice against atheists, but really... a serial killer?  And even my fellow atheists have that perception?  I do run into this kind of thing, usually in the guise questions like, "If you don't believe in god, how do you have any moral compass?  Why don't you go around committing immoral acts?"  My response usually is something like, "If your fear of punishment in the afterlife is the only thing that's keeping you from lying, stealing, and hurting others, then you're the one whose moral compass needs examination, not mine."

But I didn't realize how deep the bias goes.  Gervais et al. write:
The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.
Which is kind of terrible, really.  Any kind of unfounded prejudice is a bad thing, but judgments like this lead people to make some pretty hideous assumptions.  It'd be nice if the Gervais et al. paper might get people to reconsider their biases, but given the words the authors use -- "intuitive" and "entrenched moral suspicion" -- that's probably a forlorn hope.

In any case, I hasten to reassure readers of Skeptophilia that I have no dismembered bodies buried in my basement.

For one thing, my basement has a cement floor, which would make it kind of difficult.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

So lonely I could die

I just got back from a ten-day visit to my publisher, wherein I attended a writers' retreat and about 150 different meetings with other writers and staff members of Oghma Creative Media.  This was great from the standpoint both of seeing some old friends, and also networking, which is pretty critical to a fiction author.

Simultaneously, however, it made me want to curl up into a ball and whimper softly.  I am dreadfully shy and a natural-born introvert, and crowds of people, however friendly, sap my energy like nothing else.  I did kind of crash-and-burn one day, during which I was in conversation with people from, no lie, 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night without a single break.

By the end, my publisher said I looked like a lost puppy, standing there with a dazed, "where am I?" expression on my face.  He did bring me a scotch, which helped considerably.

This is why I took such interest in a paper presented last week at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, entitled, "Loneliness: A Growing Public Health Threat."  The paper described a meta-analysis done by a team led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.  What they did was first combine the results of 148 different studies of over 300,000 people, correlating social isolation with the risk of early death, and then do the same for a larger group of 3.4 million people.

The results were unequivocal.  Social isolation correlates with premature death -- and in fact is as big a risk factor as obesity!  Holt-Lunstad said in her presentation:
Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.  Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment.  Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly... There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.  With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.
Which of course got me thinking about my own situation.  I'm pretty solitary even for an introvert; I have lots of pleasant acquaintances, a few true and deep friends, but almost no social life.  The majority of the people in my life are there because of my (much more extroverted) wife, and even most of the people that I consider good friends I seldom see.

Me and one of my best friends, who unfortunately lives 230 miles away...

The problem, apparently, is worse in men than in women, probably because we guys have been told since birth that to be a strong man means to be tough, silent, and to downplay our emotions.  This comes at a cost -- for men, social isolation is as correlated with heart attack and stroke risk as smoking is, and in fact shows an actual biological marker -- an elevated level of fibrinogen, a protein involved in blood clotting.

Of course, correlation isn't causation.  It could be that the elevated risk and social isolation are correlated because both of them are caused by something else -- such as depression.  Establishing a causation was beyond the scope of this study, although it is to be hoped that the researchers will investigate that next.

The problem, both in general and for me personally, is what exactly socially isolated people are supposed to do about all this.  Heaven knows I'd like more social connections, and I suspect others like me feel the same way, but connections don't just magically appear.  They require us to put ourselves out there and be more outgoing.  Which gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Maybe a scotch would help.

Anyhow, forewarned is forearmed, and there's nothing to be lost by trying to forge a better social life for myself.  I doubt that I'll ever be extroverted no matter what I do -- but I have to say that a couple of buddies with whom I could have a beer every now and then would be mighty nice.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Spell check

If you were wondering why the Trump administration has turned out to be a slow-moving train wreck, it's not because the American people saw fit to elect an unqualified, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath to the highest office in the land: it's because Trump et al. are being cursed by witches.

At least that's the contention of Lance Wallnau, pastor, author, speaker, "spiritual guide," and writer for Charisma News, who has been something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia.  Here are just a few of the appearances Wallnau has already made:
So you can see that Wallnau's grip on reality isn't that strong to begin with.  Despite the fact that he's one of these "traditional family values" guys who thinks that social liberalism is sending America into the pit of hell, he is staunchly behind a thrice-married serial adulterer for whom money and power are the sole motivators.  And, apparently, he sees no internal contradictions in this stance, to the point that he thinks that Trump is the next best thing to the Second Coming of Christ.

And now, Wallnau thinks that his Deputy Lord and Savior is under attack.  Because, let's face it; you can't be the Chosen One and expect that all the bad guys in the world are just going to accept it.  So Wallnau thinks that Trump is being cursed by witches, presumably using spells that make the target individual sound like a spoiled and inarticulate toddler.

But there's a twist in all this; since the president is being "protected by the prayers of Christians," most of the evil magic is being deflected, and is instead striking the members of Trump's family.  This could certainly explain some of the trouble that Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner are in at the moment.  And if some of the collateral damage is striking members of Trump's inner circle, this could also make sense of the resignation of Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci, and the rumors surrounding some impending upset involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

I don't know how I feel about this.  I mean, taking down Donald Jr., Kushner, Spicer, Scaramucci, and Sessions is all very well, but it leaves so many other deserving recipients of evil spells uncursed.  I mean, come on; Kellyanne Conway?  Betsy DeVos?  Paul Ryan?  And most of all, Mitch McConnell?  If ever there was someone who needs to be targeted by the "Silencio" charm from Harry Potter, it's Mitch McConnell.  The only thing that would be better is to (1) make it permanent, and (2) add some other spell that would get rid of the slimy smirk he always wears.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So anyway, Wallnau wants his followers to rectify this oversight.  “People are praying for the president, but they’re not necessarily praying for his family,” Wallnau said.  “So right now, all those witchcraft curses that did not land on Donald Trump are trying to take out his kids, trying to take out his offspring, trying to attack anything near him.”

As proof of the danger, Wallnau cites an exorcism he once witnessed, wherein the demon was expelled from the possessed person, but instead of hauling ass back to the Pits of Darkness, the demon instead jumped into the body of the family dog, who proceeded to fling himself out of the car window as it sped down the highway.

Which brings up an important question, to wit: who the hell does an exorcism on someone in a moving car?  I'll admit that some people do drive as if they had taken classes in Hell's Driving School.  But even so, it seems like a dangerous thing to do.  Even if it wasn't the driver who was being exorcised, you'd still have the risk of sharp objects being flung around the car and the possessed person puking up pea soup all over the place.

Which would make it kind of hard to concentrate on watching the road.

But Wallnau apparently doesn't find anything at all weird about this.  He told his listeners exactly what they should say.  “We take authority over every hex, vex, spell, jinx, satanic curse, blood curse, every demon assigned to destroy the health of the president, to destroy the health of his family, to harass him, to vex him, to cause him to lose sleep.  In Jesus's name, we veto every curse that has been brought against Donald Trump and his family and his administration.”

And I have to admit that sounds pretty authoritative.  But you have to wonder why they don't do anything more productive, like praying that god vetoes Trump's Twitter account.

Anyhow, that's today's dip in the deep end of the pool.  I have to admit that Lance Wallnau is always good for a laugh, even if my chortling is tempered by the fact that he has a large number of people who actually listen to him and believe what he says, and damn near all of those people voted for Donald Trump.  All of which makes my laughter ring a little hollow.

So I think to cheer myself up I'll go practice hurling spells like "Petrificus Totalus" in Mitch McConnell's direction.  Who knows?  Maybe it'll work.  And if my aim is bad, it could still hit Paul Ryan, which would be almost as good.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Worrywarts

It will come as no particular surprise to people who know me that I can be a little neurotic at times.  I'm nervous to the point of not being able to sit still, and get seriously worked up before (for example) races, because I can so vividly envision everything going wildly wrong.  Mental images of me running out in front of a truck or collapsing with heat stroke or simply being the last person to limp across the finish line gain a life of their own, despite the fact that none of those things have ever happened to me.

Traveling is worse.  I say I love to travel, but what I actually mean is that I love being at my destination.  Traveling with me is kind of a nightmare, because I experience gut-clenching anxiety about missing a connection or losing my luggage or worse.  I still vividly recall watching with increasing horror as my wife tried to get through the immigration checkpoint on our way back into the U.S. from our first trip to Ecuador fifteen years ago.  I watched her searching her pockets and backpack for her passport, her expression gradually moving from perplexity to worry to outright panic -- and there was nothing I could do.  I couldn't go back in the line from the other side of the checkpoint and help her; even if I could, it's not like I knew where her passport was.  Images of Carol being hauled off to a windowless room with a bare light bulb to be interrogated as to why she was trying to enter the country illegally flitted through my head.

Of course, in short order she did find her passport, and disaster was averted, but it took me about three weeks to calm back down.

We also ended with nothing more than a serious adrenaline rush the time the drug-sniffing dogs flagged my backpack in Belize, although I did have to find a place to change my pants afterwards.

It's not like I have a history of terrible things happen to me.  I've never had anything worse than getting ill for a day or two, on any trip I've ever taken, and even that has been mild.

So none of this is connected to reality, not that this matters.  If no real crisis presents itself, my brain is perfectly capable of inventing various scenarios on its own.  The fact that these are highly improbable, and many of them are mutually exclusive, doesn't seem to matter.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Which is why I have now been sent a link three times by various friends and family members about a recent study showing that people who are neurotic live longer.  The study, conducted by Catharine Gale of the University of Edinburgh et al., was huge -- Gale and her team tracked 500,000 people aged 37 to 73 in the United Kingdom for six years, after giving them a personality assessment designed to determine their degree of anxiety and neuroticism.

The results were fascinating.  Even when controlled for typical risk factors -- smoking, heavy alcohol use, genetic predispositions to heart disease, cancer, or stroke -- neurotic people were less likely to die young.  Gale says:
There are disadvantages to being high in neuroticism, in that it makes people more prone to experiencing negative emotions.  But our findings suggest it may have some advantages too...  For some individuals, it seems to offer some protection against dying prematurely. 
At this point, Gale has no idea why this trend exists, so the next step is to figure out whether there's a causative link to something else, either genetic or behavioral.  Their first conjecture was that neurotic people, being worriers, might be less prone to engaging in unhealthy habits, but that turned out to be incorrect.  The percentage of smoking, drinking, and obesity among the neurotic group was not appreciably different from that of the control group.  Gale says:
We had thought that greater worry or vulnerability might lead people to behave in a healthier way and hence lower the risk of death, but that was not the case...  We now have to figure out why [this correlation] exists.
My own supposition is that neurotic people don't actually live longer, it just seems longer to their family and friends.  Heaven knows my wife, who has the patience of a saint, puts up with a great deal from my tendency toward getting anxious about damn near everything.  Amazingly enough, she still likes to travel with me, which I find a little baffling.  Sometimes I even drive myself crazy; I can't imagine what it'd be like for a normal person to put up with my continual twitching.

In any case, the whole thing is pretty fascinating, and I'm looking forward to seeing what more comes out of the study by Gale et al.  But now I need to wrap this up, because I have a race in three weeks and I need to start worrying about it.  What shall I fret about this time?  Maybe being chased and mangled by a Rottweiler.  I don't think I've used that one yet.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Refusing to play by the rules

As a fiction writer, I'm frequently asked where I get the ideas for my stories.  I sometimes respond, "Being dropped on your head as an infant will do that to you," but the truth is, I have no idea.  A few of them have a clear moment of origin (such as my novel Gears, the plot for which first came to me when I read a paper on the Antikythera Mechanism).

For most of them, however, the genesis is not so clear.  I've had stories that came from a single powerful image that begs explanation, such as my short story "The Hourglass," which resulted from a vivid mental image of two young men, ostensibly strangers to each other, having a peculiar conversation over pints of Guinness at a dimly-lit bar.  I then had to figure out what they were talking about, and why... and what it all meant.

A lot of my ideas pop into my head at unexpected moments, when my mind and/or body is otherwise occupied.  I've had plot lines (or solutions to plot problems) suddenly appear while showering, while on a run, while mowing the lawn, while trying to get to sleep (the latter is especially annoying, because it necessitates my getting up and writing it down, lest I forget what I'd come up with).

In any case, most of the time, the origins of my own creative expression are as mystifying to me as they are to my readers.  So the most honest answer to the question "Where do you get your ideas?" is "I simply don't know."  But a recent bit of research has elucidated at least a piece of the origin of creativity.

Apparently, you become more creative when your rational thought processes are suppressed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The study, by Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ioanna Zioga, Michael J. Banissy, and Joydeep Bhattacharya of the University of London, which appeared in Nature last month, is entitled "Relaxed Learning Constraints Through Cathodal IDCS on the Left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex," and at first probably sounds like something that would only be of interest to serious neuroscience geeks.  Here's how the authors describe their own work:
We solve problems by applying previously learned rules.  The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) plays a pivotal role in automating this process of rule induction.  Despite its usual efficiency, this process fails when we encounter new problems in which past experience leads to a mental rut.  Learned rules could therefore act as constraints which need to be removed in order to change the problem representation for producing the solution.  We investigated the possibility of suppressing the DLPFC by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to facilitate such representational change.  Participants solved matchstick arithmetic problems before and after receiving cathodal, anodal or sham tDCS to the left DLPFC.  Participants who received cathodal tDCS were more likely to solve the problems that require the maximal relaxation of previously learned constraints than the participants who received anodal or sham tDCS.  We conclude that cathodal tDCS over the left DLPFC might facilitate the relaxation of learned constraints, leading to a successful representational change.
In other words, if you suppress the part of the brain that understands and obeys the rules, you have more flexibility with regards to seeing solutions that require lateral, or "outside-of-the-box," thinking.

As an example of one of the problems the researchers gave their subjects that required lateral thinking, try out the following.

You're shown a (false) equation made of matchsticks that looks like this:

III = III + III

How can you make this a true statement with only moving one matchstick?

It turns out that there are two ways to do it, but both involve the expedient of adjusting not the numbers, but the equal or plus sign.  You could do this:

III = III = III

Or you could take any of the matchsticks and lay it across the equals sign to make an "is not equal to" sign -- one possibility of which is:

II ≠ III + III

Both, of course, require a bit of creative thinking.  As Luft put it, "[Problems like this one] are very hard because in mathematics it is not a valid operation at all – we normally don’t decompose the plus sign, you see that as an entire entity."

It turns out that we become better at seeing these kinds of solutions when we are given transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) that temporarily suppresses the activity of the aforementioned left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  Nick Davis, a professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University (and who was not involved in the research), found the study by Luft et al. to be fascinating.  "Creativity is highly prized in most areas of our lives, from work to leisure to politics and war," Davis said.  "When the [left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] was ‘cooled down’, the brain seems to have stopped applying old rules, and been more successful at finding new rules – this is the essence of creativity in problem-solving."

All of which makes me wonder if the most creative people have less activity in the left DLPFC to begin with, at least intermittently.  And also, if so-called "mindless" activities -- such as running, showering, or mowing the lawn -- naturally slow down the left DLPFC, allowing creative ideas to bubble up unimpeded.

I'd love to see that researched... maybe it's a direction that Luft and her team could go.

From there, of course, the next step would be to find a way to switch the rational, rules-obeying brain module off and on at will.  I, for one, would love that, especially now, because I'm at a point in my work-in-progress where I've kind of painted myself into a corner.  I know I'll find my way out eventually -- I always seem to -- but while you're there, operating within what Luft et al. call "learned constraints" it's pretty damn frustrating.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Bloomin' onions for Satan

As I mentioned earlier this week in my post about the "Majestic 12" conspiracy, once you've fallen down the rabbit hole of seeing conspiracies everywhere, there's no getting out.  Anyone who doesn't see the pattern is a dupe; anyone who tries to argue you out of believing it is a shill, or worse yet...

... one of the conspirators.

And the power of a conspiracy theory seems completely unrelated to its plausibility.  After all, we still have people believing that HAARP is creating hurricanes and tornadoes and blizzards and earthquakes, despite the fact that (1) it was shut down completely two years ago, (2) it never could do that stuff in the first place, and (3) if it could have done that stuff, there's no way in hell the government would have shut it down.

But logic doesn't stop people from yammering on as if what they were saying made sense.  Which is why a tweet a week ago about Outback Steak House having ties to the Illuminati has gone viral.

It all started with Twitter user @eatmyaesthetics, who noticed that if you mapped out the positions of five Outback Steak House in various cities, you could connect them with lines to form a pentagram -- a five-pointed star.  Of course, the emphasis here was on the sinister connotations of this symbol, especially when it's upside-down, which it was if you turned the map the right way.


Then the retweet machine got started, and within short order the tweet had been reposted tens of thousands of times.  Undoubtedly some of the people who retweeted it did so because of the humor value, but some of them evidently believed that @eatmyaesthetics was on to something, because people started mapping out the positions Outback in their own cities, and lo and behold, found the same scary pattern.

Then Lauren Evans over at Jezebel threw her two cents' worth into the mix, saying, "Now that I know the truth, it's impossible to see it any other way.  And you don't get a ten-ounce steak for twelve dollars without at least a little help from the devil."

Which was tongue-in-cheek.  I think.

Then Outback itself got involved, first stating that that their official position was that they "neither would confirm nor deny" Illuminati involvement in their restaurants, following it up with a tweet that "If the Bloomin' Onion is evil, then we don't want to be good."  They added a winky-face emoji after the tweet, which could alternately be interpreted as "we're kidding, of course" or "we are an evil agency allied with the Forces of Darkness to engage in mind control via drugs sprinkled on your medium-rare ribeye steak."

All of which induced multiple orgasms in the conspiracy theory world.

But here's the thing, of course; what shape did they expect you'd get by connecting five dots with lines?  Here's an experiment I want you to run: get a sheet of paper, and draw five dots on it.  The only requirement is that no three of the dots can be in a straight line.  See if you can find a configuration of dots that you can't inscribe with a pentagram.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

So this isn't so much a conspiracy theory as it is a test to detect who failed 10th-grade geometry.  In fact, any business that has more than five locations in a city can be connected with at least a reasonably recognizable pentagram.  So if Outback is an arm of the Illuminati, then so are McDonald's, Dairy Queen, and Taco Bell.

Although now that I come to think of it, I've been suspicious about Taco Bell myself for a while.

So as usual, we've got a case of what Michael Shermer calls "You can't miss it when I tell you what's there."  The upshot is that if you like Outback, you don't have to worry that part of the money you spend for dinner is going to support the New World Order.  Your biggest concern is that there have been people whose arteries have clogged up just looking at "Bloomin' Onions," but I doubt seriously whether that has anything to do with the Illuminati.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Our alien ancestors

A friend and long-time faithful reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a few days ago to a webpage entitled, "Expert Says Humans Are Aliens -- and We Were Brought to Earth Hundreds of Thousands of Years Ago."

Now, I hasten to state for the record that this friend didn't send me this because she believes it; she clearly sent me this so I would do a faceplant on my desk so hard that it would leave a comical impression of my computer keyboard on my forehead for the rest of the day.  But I have to admit it starts out with a good question, to wit: "What if Humans are the aliens we've been looking for all along?"

To which I would answer: "What if C-A-T spelled 'dog'?"  Even if you were to entertain seriously the possibility that the ancestors of today's humans were dropped off here from another planet, which I am not for a moment suggesting you should, there's the pesky little problem of human DNA showing 70-80% homology with that of other mammal species, presuming of course that those species didn't come from other planets, too.

I mean, I'm a little suspicious about platypuses, myself, because it's hard to imagine how evolution would produce something so completely ridiculous looking.  It's not so hard to believe that aliens deposited platypuses in Australia as some kind of bizarre prank, and we humans just haven't gotten the joke yet.

But I digress.

So we're off to a rocky start, but it gets worse.  The author goes on to describe how the development of written communication is an indication that we're different from other species, and the only possible reason for this is that we're aliens.  But the problem is that you can do this with damn near any species on Earth.  For example: the archer fish of Southeast Asia has evolved the ability to spit water at insects on overhanging leaves and branches, to knock them into the water, whereupon the archer fish has dinner.  To my knowledge, no other animal can do this.

Does this mean the archer fish is also an alien?

Argument #2 goes something like, "Humans can't be evolved from other terrestrial life forms, because if you took a typical human and put him/her in the jungle, in short order (s)he would become jaguar chow, if (s)he didn't starve to death first."  But again, consider other earthly species; of course if you stick some unlucky individual into an environment that's hostile, or radically different from where it evolved, it's gonna die.  I'm guessing if you took a spider monkey and put it on the coast of Greenland, you would very quickly have a monkeysicle.  But that doesn't mean that monkeys aren't from the Planet Earth; it just means they're not from Greenland.

Oh, and then there's the argument that since we can't look at the sun directly without hurting our eyes, we must be from a planet where the sun is dimmer, or it's cloudy all the time.

For fuck's sake.

A photograph of my Cousin Fred, taken at last year's family reunion on the planet Gzork.  I told him to smile, but this is the best he could do.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then the "expert" gets on board, in the person of Dr. Ellis Silver, who has written a book called Humans Are Not From Earth: A Scientific Evaluation of the Evidence.  The first thing I did was to look up Dr. Silver's book on Amazon, and I found it had received 115 reviews, which follow the usual horseshoe-shaped distribution typical of wacko ideas; lots of 5s, lots of 1s, and not a hell of a lot in between.  In other words, either you're a true believer or a doubter right from the outset, and the book itself didn't make any difference to either group.  Here is a sampler of the reviews:
  • [T]here is not a shred of logic, science, empricism, or plausibility in this book.  It is SO bad that I'm almost inclined to think it's a hoax.
  • This author seems to have no understanding of either evolution or the scientific method.  On the bright side, whenever I go outside now and find myself squinting at the sun, I take comfort in the notion that on my home planet it's always cloudy.
  • If you're thinking of buying this book save yourself the time and money and don't.  More evidence to support my opinion: study the book cover for a few moments and tell me it wasn't made up in MS Paint in 2 minutes.
  • The author really should take a couple anthropology classes at a community college.
So not exactly ringing endorsements.  The author then goes on to cite a different "expert," one Robert Sepehr, who has written his own book (of course), this one called Species With Amnesia: Our Forbidden History.  So of course I had to check that one out.  The basic idea here is apparently that the Rh-negative blood type allele is weird, therefore we have to be the descendants of technologically advanced aliens who have forgotten where we came from and are now in the process of reinventing everything our ancestors knew.  Which, I think we can all agree, is what lawyers call an "air-tight argument."

Only one review for Sepehr's book stood out:
  • [T]his author is obviously creating multiple Amazon accounts to leave favorable rankings and reviews on his books.  Click on the hyperlinks of the names of the people leaving five star reviews; all of them have left reviews on Sepehr's books only, all 5-star, and most left on the same day!  The author's credentials seem nonexistent, and with 5 minutes of research I could plainly see that the majority of praise for his work online is fake.
So there's that.

On the other hand, my mother was Rh-negative, meaning she has not just one, but two Rh-negative alleles, so she's alien on both sides of her family.

Which, now that I think about it, explains a great deal about my mother's relatives.

In any case, the whole thing seems to be a non-starter, which is kind of a shame.  I'd love nothing better than to discover that I'm an alien, especially if it meant that at some point my extraterrestrial cousins would whoosh down on their hyper-light-speed spaceship and pick me up to return to our home world, light years away from Donald Trump.  But I suppose that's too much to hope for, even if I do have at least some Rh-negative alien DNA.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Majestic 12, anachronistic typeset, and Cigarette-Smoking Man

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia said, "You haven't yet written about my favorite conspiracy theory -- Majestic 12."  There was a brief moment in which I wondered whether "Majestic 12" might be some kind of sequel to Ocean's Eleven, but then I realized that they've already done that (they're up to what, now, Ocean's Seventeen, or something?), so it had to be something else.

It turns out that Majestic 12 is a code name, which makes it cool right from the get-go.  The story is that during the presidency of Harry Truman, a secret committee of scientists, military leaders, and government officials was formed in order to investigate the Roswell incident and to keep tabs on the aliens.  Since that time, thousands of pages' worth of documents have been "leaked" from this alleged committee, most of them dealing with covert operations by the CIA, and giving highly oblique references to UFO sightings.  A few of the documents have hinted at darker doings -- alliances with evil aliens, and a secret intent to use technology of extraterrestrial provenance to further our military goals and monitor our enemies.

The original members of Majestic 12 were allegedly the following prominent individuals:
  • Roscoe Hillenkoetter (first director of the CIA)
  • Vannevar Bush (president of the Carnegie Institute, amongst many other titles)
  • James Forrestal (Secretary of the Navy)
  • Nathan Twining (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
  • Hoyt Vandenberg (Air Force Chief of Staff)
  • Robert Montague (Commander of Fort Bliss)
  • Jerome Hunsaker (aeronautics engineer at MIT)
  • Sidney Souers (first executive secretary of the National Security Council)
  • Gordon Gray (Secretary of the Army)
  • Donald Menzel (astronomer at Harvard)
  • Detlev Bronk (chair of the National Academy of Sciences)
  • Lloyd Berkner (prominent physicist)
And because no good conspiracy would be complete without throwing around a few well-known names, the Majestic 12 were supposedly advised by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Wehrner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Cigarette-Smoking Man.


Oh, wait, the last one was fictional.  Silly me.  The problem is, so are the documents.  The FBI has done a thorough investigation of the various Majestic 12 files, and declared them "completely bogus."   Of course, they would say that, claim the conspiracy theorists; the government's response is always "deny, deny, deny."  However, there have been independent studies done, by reasonably objective and disinterested parties (for example, Philip J. Klass, noted UFO skeptic and debunker), and virtually all of them think that the whole thing is a hoax -- probably perpetrated by Stanton Friedman, William Moore, and Jaime Shandera, three UFOlogists who are more-or-less obsessed with the Roswell Incident.  In fact, Moore and Shandera were actually the recipients of some of the Majestic 12 documents -- sent to them by an "anonymous source high up in the government."

How did the skeptics come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a hoax?  One of the main pieces of evidence was the simple, pragmatic matter of how the documents were typed.  In many cases, it's possible to date a document simply by looking at the font, spacing, and ink -- these changed with fair regularity, and even a discrepancy of a couple of years can be enough to prove a document to be fake.  In the case of a number of the Majestic 12 documents, there were font changes and space-justification that were impossible in the late 1940s and 1950s -- the first typewriter capable of this was invented in 1961.

An amusing sidebar: when Philip Klass was investigating the Majestic 12 claim, he offered $1000 to anyone who could produce government documents that had typefaces matching the ones found in the Majestic 12 papers.  Who popped up to claim the prize?  None other than Stanton Friedman, prime suspect as the chief engineer of the hoax.  As skeptic Brian Dunning wrote, "Don't take the bait if you don't want to be hooked."

One of the frustrations with debunking conspiracy theories, though, is that once someone believes that a conspiracy exists, there always is a way to argue away the evidence.  One of the most popular ones is argument from ignorance -- we don't know what the government was doing back then, so they could have been doing anything.  As for the typewriters -- oh, sure, the first typewriter capable of justification (the IBM 72) was released to the public in 1961, but maybe the Big Secret Government Circles had access to it fourteen years earlier.  Who knows?  (And by "who knows?", of course what they mean is "we do.")

And as far as my aforementioned "objective and disinterested" investigators -- in the conspiracy theorists' minds, there is no such thing as an objectivity.  Anyone who argues against the theory at hand is either a dupe, or else a de facto member of the conspiracy.  Between this and the argument from ignorance, there is no way to win.

But wait, you may be saying; what if the government was engaged in covert nasty stuff?  How would you know, given that the government would certainly deny their involvement, claim it was a hoax?   Well, first, I'm sure that the government is, in fact, engaged in covert nasty stuff.  I just don't think this is it.  We fall back on Ockham's Razor yet again -- what is the simplest explanation that adequately accounts for all of the known facts?

So, anyway, I think we can safely say that the Majestic 12 papers are fakes.  Which is, no doubt, exactly what Cigarette-Smoking Man wants us to think, and will make him smile in that skeevy way of his, and walk off into the night until the next episode.