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, June 24, 2017

The sticker price

Once again, famed medical professional Gwyneth Paltrow is promoting the latest be-all-and-end-all for your health, to wit: "Body Vibes stickers."

These are silver-dollar-sized stickers that you stick on your body to "rebalance the energy frequency in your body."  Whatever the fuck that means.  But the pseudoscience technobabble doesn't end there:
The concept: Human bodies operate at an ideal energetic frequency, but everyday stresses and anxiety can throw off our internal balance, depleting our energy reserves and weakening our immune systems.  Body Vibes stickers come pre-programmed to an ideal frequency, allowing them to target imbalances.  While you’re wearing them—close to your heart, on your left shoulder or arm—they’ll fill in the deficiencies in your reserves, creating a calming effect, smoothing out both physical tension and anxiety.  The founders, both aestheticians, also say they help clear skin by reducing inflammation and boosting cell turnover.
The stickers, Paltrow tells us, are made of "the same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals."  But herein lies the problem.  Because once you make an easily-verified statement -- i.e., veer away from vague, hand-waving bullshit about imbalanced energy frequencies -- you've kind of sealed your own fate.

And it didn't take long for NASA to respond.

Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist in NASA's human research division, was unequivocal.  "Wow," Shelhamer said.  "What a load of BS this is...  Astronauts do not have any conductive carbon material lining the spacesuits.  Not only is the whole premise snake oil, the logic doesn’t even hold up.  If they promote healing, why do they leave marks on the skin when they are removed?"

This, of course, has exactly zero impact on the alt-med crowd, who absolutely hate it when people bring up pesky stuff like "facts" and "science" and "peer review."  Richard Eaton, founder of AlphaBioCentrix, which developed the stickers, was undeterred by NASA's skepticism.  "Without going into a long explanation about the research and development of this technology, it comes down to this," Eaton said.  "I found a way to tap into the human body’s bio-frequency, which the body is receptive to outside energy signatures.  Most of the research that has been collected is confidential and is held as company private information."

Oh, no, please, Mr. Eaton.  Do give me your long explanation of the research and development.  Define such terms as "bio-frequency" and "energy signatures" using scientifically valid language.  Show me how you can "pre-program" a fucking sticker to "target imbalances."  Give me some well-controlled research showing that the things actually work through something more than the placebo effect.

Until then, don't pretend that what you're hawking is anything more than a convenient way to make money from the gullible and ignorant.

Speaking of which, did I mention that "Body Vibes" stickers cost $120 per pack of 24?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Just as a contrast, let's look at some actual science having to do with stuff you stick on your body, which coincidentally just appeared over at New Scientist yesterday.  Joseph Wang, of the University of California-San Diego, has just published research on a new technology -- a small, flexible square that you can stick on your skin, and which will generate enough power to run a mobile device, using chemicals from your sweat.

It's a biofuel cell -- a power-generating device that runs on organic chemicals broken down by enzymes in the material.  Mirella DiLorenzo, of the University of Bath, was impressed by Wang's creation.  "The most exciting application is wearable sensors that can monitor health conditions, then sweat could generate enough power for a Bluetooth connection so that the results could be read straight from a smartphone," DiLorenzo said.  "This is an amazing proof-of-concept work.  The applications will come quickly in the near future."

Those applications could include monitoring an athlete's performance by tracking lactate levels in the sweat -- which is an indication of how hard the muscles are working.

See the difference, here?  We have, on the one hand, Paltrow and Eaton babbling about quantum bio-energetic frequency vibrations as if anything they said made sense; and on the other, Wang and DiLorenzo talking about actual experimental science, producing a measurable and replicable effect, and based on a solid understanding of biochemistry.

The problem is that actual research just isn't as sexy as alt-med, which can claim any damn thing it wants without the need for verification.  You want to claim that smearing peanut butter on your face will cure your anxiety by resynchronizing your chakras and changing the color of your aura?  No problem!  No one can challenge you, because what you're claiming is that a useless remedy will fix something that almost certainly doesn't exist, which even if it does, is apparently invisible for some reason to every piece of scientific equipment available.  I.e., you're making an inherently unverifiable statement.

But I wish more people would turn to the actual science when they have questions, rather than unscientific charlatans like Gwyneth Paltrow.  Because not only are the victims of these scams wasting their money, they're not seeking effective care for actual medical conditions.

And that crosses the line from just being a bunch of harmless bullshit to being truly dangerous.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fake news agenda

If you needed something else to feel discouraged about, a study released this week in the journal New Media & Society found that fake news and political clickbait sites had twice the effect on the media landscape in the United States as legitimate sources and fact-checking sites.

Authored by Chris J. Vargo, Lei Guo, and Michelle A. Amazeen, "The Agenda-Setting Power of Fake News: A Data Analysis of the Online Media Landscape From 2014 to 2016" looks at not only the influence that fake news has on politics and culture, but how difficult it is to fight it.  The authors write:
Journalists have little ability to proactively fight fake news. Even worse, partisan media can be susceptible to its influence.  Other news organizations fight fake news. The BBC, for instance, has announced a commitment to debunk fake news that is shared widely on social media Fact-checking organizations have become another bulwark against fake news with PolitiFact,, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Snopes all fighting it on Facebook.  However, this reactive desire to thwart fake news has required traditional media to divert resources—in the form of time and attention—to fighting it.  What is worse, by being forced to respond to fake news journalists may be affording fake news websites with the ability to push topics, issues, and even attributes into the public agenda.
The worst part of all, of course, is the fact that many of these partisan media sources wield tremendous influence over voters' understanding of the issues:
The relationship between fake news and partisan media is worthy of particular attention. Instead of valuing balance, fairness, and objectivity, partisan media often frame stories in a way to advance certain political agendas driven by in-group or tribal identification.  Traditional partisan media include cable news (e.g. Fox News) and talk radio (e.g. the Rush Limbaugh Show).  The Internet has contributed to the proliferation of new forms of partisan media: partisan websites and blogs such as Drudge Report and Daily Kos.  With the emergence and popularity of social media services, partisan news coverage is more popular than ever before.  Moreover, these social media networks facilitate the spread of misinformation via automated, anonymous accounts which target users already engaged in conversation on a particular topic.
Crown that with our current administration's tendency to shriek "Fake news!" whenever there's a news story they don't like, and you have a complete political clusterfuck, and one that I see no way out of any time soon.

Lead author Chris J. Vargo isn't much more optimistic than I am.  "Fact checkers largely were independent in what they chose to cover, but their topical focus didn’t really translate very well to other media," Vargo said.  "The media landscape isn’t listening to fact checking as much as it is to fake news, which is particularly troublesome...  I think the big thing that I’m realizing across these studies is that anything can distract us."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is that exaggerated, sensationalized, or outright false headlines are much more likely to grab our attention than are headlines about the actual issues, which (by comparison) are often boring.  Add to this a heaping helping of confirmation bias -- our tendency to believe with little evidence things that conform to our preconceived notions -- and it's no wonder that the folks who detested Hillary Clinton's politics fell for the whole idiotic "Pizzagate conspiracy" last fall.

Vargo remains optimistic, however, and cites the fact that even in the face of partisan media and fake news sites, the responsible and balanced media have soldiered on even in the face of repeated attacks.  "Our study found that to a small degree, yes, fake news does influence what the press talks about." Vargo said.  "But largely, the press has the ability – and maintains the ability – to cover the issues that are most important to a society today."

Of course, covering the important issues and getting the voters to listen are two entirely different things.  Encouraging people to stop paying attention to such serial offenders as Fox News and Daily Kos, and to get their information from places like BBC, is proving to be pretty difficult.  After all, once you have a government leader convince you that 99% of what you hear on the most reliable media sources is fake, and that fact-checking sites are biased and unreliable, you are set up to believe damn near anything.

So unfortunately, I don't share Vargo's optimism.  I think the last vestiges of my positive attitude toward people's ability to think critically were shattered when Fox News persuaded the evangelical Christians to support a sociopathic serial adulterer who lies every time he opens his mouth, claiming that he was the perfect embodiment of the Ten Commandments.

After that, I don't hold out much hope for the collective brainpower of humanity.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Music and the mind

Despite being a 30-year veteran teacher of what is referred to as a "core" discipline -- science -- I have always been vociferous in my support of increasing the emphasis on arts, music, and electives.  In fact, I find the use of the word "core" a little insulting to the teachers and students in these latter subjects.  It makes it sound like science, math, English, and social studies are central to a child's education, and everything else is just peripheral fluff.

In fact, for many of us, it's just the opposite.  Think about what classes you remember from your own trip through the school system as being the most inspiring.  For a lot of us, it's those "electives" -- the subjects that are the first ones on the chopping block when funding gets cut.  Further, think about your own life as an adult.  What activities or pursuits bring you the most joy now?  With no slight meant against the math teachers, I doubt very much that most of us look forward to our leisure time so we can sit and do algebra.

Now, I'm not saying that arts and music are more important than science, math, English, and social studies; but they are easily as important.  Which, unfortunately, is not how a lot of the people involved in educational oversight see things.  And what is the most short-sighted about this approach is that the benefits of education in creative disciplines spill over into the "core" courses.

Some experimental support for this contention appeared last week in the journal Neuron, in a paper by Sibylle C. Herholz and Robert J. Zatorre called "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure."  What they found is that studying music improves the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to new information, a capacity called neuroplasticity.

Most examples of neuroplasticity only are operative during a narrow critical period in an individual's life.  In imprinting in ducklings, for example, their ability to learn who their mother is, and follow her around, only lasts for a few days after hatching.  In humans, language learning works in a similar fashion; our ability to learn language peaks in our early years, declining rapidly after age ten or so.

Which is why another appallingly stupid thing about our educational system is how we teach foreign language -- usually starting in middle school, i.e., when we first start to get really bad at learning a new language.  If we took first-year foreign language courses out of middle and high school, and started a program for preschoolers to be in bilingual classes, they'd come out fluent, without ever memorizing a vocabulary list or verb conjugation pattern.

But I digress.

Anyhow, Herholz and Zatorre looked at the effects of musical training on a lot of different modalities in the brain -- auditory, tactile, motor, and cognitive.  The authors write:
Music requires fine-grained perception and motor control that is unlike other everyday activities, thereby reducing confounding influences of other types of experience.  Also, the framework of musical training allows the study of both short- and long-term training effects...  An important higher-level phenomenon in the context of learning and plasticity is that long-term training can result not only in specific learning, but also creates greater potential for short-term changes to occur quickly.  Musical training not only changes the structural and functional properties of the brain, but it also seems to affect the potential for new short-term learning and plasticity.  Such interaction effects of long- and short-term training have been demonstrated in the auditory, in the motor, and in the tactile domain.
They also consider the role of music in developing social skills and teamwork:
Music also has some reward value beyond the pleasurable sounds and direct feedback—it also has an important role in social interactions, both in contexts of group listening and music making.  While the effects of such interactions during music making have not been investigated to our knowledge, the role of social influences and well-being on brain plasticity has been shown in other contexts.  Important aspects in the context of music and learning could include pupil-teacher interactions and imitation learning, social reward and influences on self-perception, but also negative influences like stress in professional situations and performance anxiety.
All of which makes it that much more wrong-headed to cut music programs -- and by extension, art programs and other areas where students are challenged to be creative, to work collaboratively, to express themselves, and simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience that such experiences provide.

[image courtesy of photographer Nickolai Kashirin and the Wikimedia Commons]

One can only hope that studies like this one will underscore the fact that electives and "core" subjects need to be on equal footing, especially with regards to support and funding by school districts.  Cutting program to the bone to focus exclusively on math, science, English, and social studies is completely contrary to what we know about how children learn -- and what activities enrich their lives and broaden their minds.

Now, I think I'll wrap this up -- I just got the sheet music for a piano transcription of Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes," and I can't let it just sit there unplayed any longer. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Two weeks ago I wrote about how some overzealous evangelical Christians have denounced "Fidget Spinners" as being a demonic symbol, so when you spin it, you're invoking Satan or something.  Well, these people are nothing if not versatile.  Because yesterday I found out that some of the same lot are now saying no, Fidget Spinners aren't demonic; in fact, quite the opposite.

They actually represent the Holy Trinity.

I have to say that even in my churchgoing days, when I was trying like mad to understand and believe the whole shebang, the idea of the Holy Trinity never made much sense to me.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but not; and the first one generates the other two, but actually they've all been around forever; and so on and so forth.  The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 tried to clear the whole thing up with the following statement:
[I]t is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds; and in their relations with one another, they are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire.
Which really didn't help much.  Of course, in the interest of fairness I have to say that a lot of quantum physics isn't a whole hell of a lot better.  If you put the Holy Trinity up against quantum nonlocality and Bell's Theorem in a contest of purely counterintuitive weirdness, I'm not sure which would win.

The early church fathers, however, felt pretty strongly about "trinitarianism."  Believing otherwise, or even saying "this makes absolutely no sense," was enough to get you burned at the stake.  To forestall such unpleasantness, some religious folk tried to come up with ways of explaining it in simpler terms, such as the (almost certainly apocryphal) use of the shamrock by Saint Patrick to get across the three-in-one thing.

So I suppose, given the Fidget Spinner's shape, it was only natural someone would think of this.  Apparently more than one priest or minister has made the analogy, to judge by the responses of the parishioners on social media.  Some have been impressed:
You know your priest’s sermons are on point when he compares the Holy Trinity to a fidget spinner.
Others, not so much:
Today I watched a priest use a fidget spinner to represent the Holy Trinity and felt my soul leave my body.
But no one took umbrage over the whole thing as much as Toy Adams over at Unsettled Christianity, who said that to make the comparison was heresy:
Any time folks begin to teach on the Trinity and say, “the Trinity is like….” I immediately brace myself for impact.  Too often something inaccurate is said.  The Trinity is not only beyond our grasp, but if you teach on Him using objects like shamrocks, the states of water, an egg, or a fidget spinner, you are sure to commit heresy. 
Not to be a heresy hunter, but heresy is serious.  Many pastor-types like to joke about being heretics, but, in all reality, it’s spiritually dangerous to flirt with heresies pertaining to the Trinity.
So if the Trinity isn't like a Fidget Spinner, what is it like?  Adams isn't so sure:
The Trinity is the doctrine by which we affirm God’s threeness in God’s oneness, celebrating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are of one substance; each person of the Trinity is fully God yet distinct.  To compare the Trinity to a fidget spinner (as with the shamrock) is to commit the heresy of partialism, for it undercuts the full divinity of each person, so as to indicate that each are only one part of a three part God... 
To be spiritually vibrant, we must seek to properly understand who God is.  We know that God is Trinity, but such a mystery we cannot surely comprehend.
Which to me is the difference between this stuff and quantum mechanics.  Because QM is weird, but it is comprehensible.  No one looks at Schrödinger's Wave Equation and throws their hands into the air and says, "Welp.  You just have to take this on faith because it's revealed truth.  Don't expect to understand it."  (Okay, that was kind of my reaction when I took Quantum Mechanics from Dr. John Matese back in college, but I must admit that my attempt to master physics was, by and large, unsuccessful.  Let's just say that when I was 20, studying was not near the top of my priorities list, and leave it at that.)

So anyhow, to me it all seems like a tempest in a teapot, although given my own views I really couldn't be expected to come to any other conclusion.  I guess if the Fidget Spinner strengthens your religious beliefs, that's fine by me.  And if you think it's the "Devil's Yo-Yo" (a term I did not make up), then don't mess with 'em.  Either way, my general feeling is that you'd be better off studying quantum mechanics.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Planetary spin cycle

I try not to spend too much time focusing on completely loony ideas here at Skeptophilia -- wackos are, after all, a dime a dozen, and grabbing the low-hanging fruit is kind of a cheap way to run a blog.  But sometimes I run into a claim that is so earnest, so serious, and at the same time so completely bizarre that it's kind of charming.

That was my reaction when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "Bibliotecapleyades."  I have to admit that I have no idea what that means.  I know that biblioteca means "library" in Spanish, and pleyades sounds a little like "Pleiades," the star cluster that is thought among some of the astro-woo-woos to be the home of the Nordic aliens, who are tall, blond, blue-eyed, and muscular.

Sort of Liam Hemsworth from Outer Space, is how I think of them.

Whether that's the origin of the name or not, I have no idea.  He doesn't mention aliens, but given the rest of the content, I wouldn't be surprised if it came up at some point.

Anyhow, this particular page on "Bibliotecapleyades" is called "Earth Changes: Future Map of the World," and goes into how "international known [sic] and respected futurist Gordon-Michael Scallion" has a vision of how the world is going to end up.  And I do mean "vision."  His ideas aren't based on science (big shocker, there) but on his "ongoing visions concerning the Earth" that he experiences "sometimes as many as ten or more in a day, lasting from a few seconds to minutes."  But instead of seeking professional help for this condition, he started writing it all down, and put them all together into a unified, consolidated picture of what we were in for.

You really should look at the website itself, preferably after consuming a double scotch.  It's just that good.  But in case you don't want to risk valuable brain cells going through it, I present below a few highlights of what's going to happen.  Forewarned is forearmed, you know.
  1. First, we're going to have a pole shift.  Scallion seems unaware that the position of the magnetic pole and the position of the rotational axis of the Earth are related but aren't the same, so he gets a little confused talking about the precession of the Earth's rotational axis (which is true; the Earth wobbles like a top, meaning that Polaris won't be the North Star forever) as somehow triggering a shift in the magnetic pole.  You get the impression he thinks when the poles reverse, the Earth is kind of going to fall over or something.  But he soldiers on ahead, saying that the Earth is going to be like "a washing machine that is out of balance in the spin cycle," and this is going to fling the poles about like damp socks.  Havoc will ensue.
  2. Africa is going to fall apart into three separate continents.  Some waterways will open up in a kind of a "Y" shape, inundating large parts of what is now dry land.  Madagascar is going to sink into the ocean.  Don't ask me why.  The Pyramids will also end up under water, but the flipside is that before then, "there will be great archaeological discoveries."
  3. The news is more positive for Antarctica, which is going to "be reborn, and become fertile land again."  In addition, the relics of the lost civilization of "Lumania" will be found when the ice all melts, and "great cities and temples will be discovered."  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  In the historical document "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, some explorers went into Antarctica, discovered big abandoned cities and temples, and almost all of them ended up getting eaten by Shoggoths.  So we might want to be a little cautious about investigating "Lumania."
  4. The tectonic plate underneath Europe is going to "collapse."  This will cause Scandinavia and Great Britain to sort of slide off the edge into the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. The Middle East will be engulfed in war.  For a change.  But this one will be a "holy war with purification of the land by fire and water," whatever that means.  I hope no one tells the End Times folks about this, because they already spend enough time yammering on about stuff like this, and I really don't want to add any more grist for their mill.
  6. North America also looks like it's in for a rough time.  California will be split up into 150 islands, and the "west coast will recede to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado."  The Appalachians will be a long skinny island.  At least here in upstate New York it looks like I'll have beachfront property.
He then ends with a disclaimer, a little like the "this preparation is not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" thing you see on bottles of homeopathic "remedies."  He says:
[N]o event or prediction is final.  Predictions are given as probabilities.  Even at this time, consciousness can alter an event, modify changes in a particular area or at the very least help us to prepare for what is to come...  One final note, the areas of change presented in the Future Map of The World should not be taken as absolute. They may differ from a few miles to several hundred miles depending on many variables.  In the end, Mother Nature and our own collective consciousness will have the final say.
Be that as it may, he provides us with a map of the world showing all of the new land contours.  I'd post it here, but I don't know how Gordon-Michael Scallion feels about the copyright on images he's created, so you'll just have to go take a look for yourself if you want to figure out whether it's time to pack up and move.  Here's a map of what the world looks like now, so you'll have a basis for comparison.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, that's our excursion into the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm not concerned.  He didn't provide a timeline for all of these catastrophes in any case, so right now I'm going to worry about more pressing issues, such as how the hell we here in the U.S. ended up with a spoiled toddler with orange spray-on tan as the president.  Frankly, compared to that, "Lumania" doesn't really bother me much.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dowsing and statistical significance

A while back, my wife and I and two friends were in a gift shop, and on a rack of books for sale I saw one called Dowsing for Beginners by Richard Craxe.  I picked it up, and flipped through a bit of it.  I was a little surprised -- I never thought of dowsing as something anyone would write a how-to manual about.

Dowsing, for those of you (probably few) who don't know about this practice, is the use of a forked stick (or in some cases) a pair of bent wires to locate everything from sources of water to lost objects.  The claim is that the dowsing rod exerts a pull on the dowser's hands, or actually turns and points toward the desired goal.  As strange as this idea is, I find that of all the odd practices I hear about from students of mine, this one is the one that they will argue the most vociferously for.  This, surprisingly, includes students whom I would normally think of as rationalistic skeptics -- students who scoff at other forms of woo-wooism.

You might wonder how this practice is supposed to work.  Explanations, of course, vary.  The use of willow branches for dowsing for underground water is sometimes explained, in all seriousness, as working because willow trees like growing near water, so the wood is magically attracted to sources of it.  Other people believe that dowsers themselves are "sensitive," so that the dowsing rod itself is only acting as a tool to focus their mysterious ability.  Dowsing for Beginners goes through some nonsense about there being a "universal mind" that everyone has access to, and it knows everything, and therefore when you practice dowsing, you're tapping into a source of knowledge that can provide you with information about where to drill for water or where you accidentally dropped your car keys.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The next question is, does it work?  The simple answer, of course, is no.  Controlled studies have shown no results whatsoever, an outcome discussed at length in James Randi's wonderful book Flim-Flam!  The fact is, my students who know "an uncle of a friend" who successfully dowsed for water are being suckered in by the fact that there's hardly anywhere in upstate New York that you won't hit water if you dig deeply enough.

A subtler problem with practices like dowsing is that a lot of people don't understand the concept of statistical significance.  A fine example of this, apropos of dowsing, is a study done in 1988 by Hans-Dieter Betz, in which six dowsers were said to "[show] an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance."  However, the Betz experimental protocol was highly suspect from the beginning -- Betz and his group evaluated 500 dowsers in a preliminary test, eliminated all but the most successful fifty, and then found that of those, six of them scored much better than you would expect from chance alone.

The flaw is not that Betz hand-picked the subjects -- if dowsing works, presumably some individuals would be better at it than others, being more in touch with the "universal mind," or whatever.  The problem is that even if success at dowsing is pure probability -- i.e., it doesn't work at all except by chance -- some people will do astonishingly well, and that fact means exactly nothing at all.  To explain this a little more simply, let's suppose that we had a thousand people take a random, hundred-question test consisting of four-choice multiple-choice items.  There is no skill involved; you just fill in a paper with a hundred random A's, B's, C's, and D's, and it's graded against an equally random key.  What's your likely score?

Well, 25%, of course, would be the likeliest outcome.  You have a 1/4 chance of getting each question "right," so you would be expected to score somewhere around a 25%.  The problem is, that's just the most likely score; that's not necessarily your score.  In fact, you might score far better than that, or far worse; 25% is just the average score.  In a large enough sample of test-takers, some people would seem to score amazingly well, and it's not that they're psychic, or brought their dowsing rods along to point at the correct answers, or anything; it's just a probabilistic effect.

Same with the dowsers.  Jim Enright, a prominent skeptic, criticized the Betz study, and showed statistically that in a group of 500 dowsers, you'd expect that six or so of them would be high scorers, just by random chance.  Enright described the Betz study not as proving that dowsing is a real phenomenon, but as "the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim."  Six above-average scorers out of a sample of 500 is simply not a statistically significant finding.

So, what we have here is a phenomenon that has (1) no empirical evidence in its favor, (2) no scientifically reasonable explanation about how it could work, and (3) a cogent argument that explains away cases where it has seemed to be successful.  However, as usual, people are more convinced by a flashy practitioner of mystical arts than they are by talk of probability and scientifically controlled studies, so I've no real hope that dowsing will become any less popular.  On the other hand, I suppose if it resulted in your finding a good site for your well, or locating your car keys, then who am I to argue?  As Alexandre Dumas famously quipped, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Flower power

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday with the note, "Maybe you need this for your dogs."  So I clicked on it, and was brought to a site called "Flower Essences for Animals."

If you're wondering what a "flower essence" is, then allow me to explain. A flower essence is made by floating flowers in water, and exposing them to the light of the sun, moon, or stars, so that the water is "potentized" -- the "energy vibrations" of the flowers are "transferred to the structure of the water." This then creates a "mother tincture" that can be used to treat physical or emotional problems.

[image courtesy of photographer Hong Zhang and the Wikimedia Commons]

And boy, the people who run this website think that flower essences can do everything but balance your checkbook.  If you understandably would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells by clicking the link yourself, I present here a few highlights:
"Flower essences (remedies) are specially prepared extracts of the flowering parts of certain plants. They work through energy fields to heal stress and disease from the inside." 
"Many other essences have been created around the world, not only from flowers, but also from gems, minerals, animals, butterflies, lakes, sacred earth sites, stars, celestial phenomena, and Ascended Masters. Many of them are very useful in helping our animal companions recover from trauma, injury, and stress. These non-flower essences are often referred to as 'energy' or 'vibrational' essences." 
"Essences heal underlying negative emotional states by 'flooding' the patient with the opposite, positive quality. For example, the essence of Holly is love. Use Holly in any situation where there is a lack of love, such as anger, jealousy, or rage. Similarly, the essence of Rock Rose is courage; it is helpful in cases of deep fears, panic, and terror." 
"Since essences act energetically, not physically, they are completely safe and non-toxic. They cannot be overused or misused, and they are compatible with all other treatments, including drugs, surgery, and holistic treatments like herbs and homeopathy. Even if you give the wrong remedy, it will not have any negative effects, but simply no effect."
This, of course, brings up a few questions, to wit:
  1. How do you make an "essence" of a celestial phenomenon?  "Here, have a few drops of Lunar Eclipse?"  Making an "essence" of an animal is even more problematic.  I know if anyone tried to dose me with Essence of Weasel, I wouldn't be happy about it.  And I don't even want to know how they make an essence of an "Ascended Master."
  2. If you are giving your pet something that is completely safe and non-toxic, can't be overused or misused, is compatible with all other treatments, and can be given to the wrong animal at the wrong time with no effect, isn't it safe to assume that the treatment itself is worthless?
  3. Lastly, who comes up with this stuff?  I mean, come on.  How on earth would putting the reproductive organs of a plant into water and exposing it to moonlight "imprint vibrational energy" into the water?  (Whatever the hell "imprinting vibrational energy" is supposed to mean.)  If you want me to believe this blather, then design me an Vibrational Energy-o-Meter, and show that the needle pegs when you put the sensor in flower essence water, and doesn't respond with plain old tap water.  Until then, this just strikes me as a way to rip off the gullible.
And believe me, it's not that I wouldn't welcome such a thing, if it worked.  I own two dogs, who between them are a walking encyclopedia of canine psychiatric issues.   One of my dogs, Grendel, is a tough-looking, barrel-chested mutt whose appearance has "junkyard dog" written all over it, but whose personality has resulted in our giving him a variety of nicknames, including "CreamPuff," "Mr. Fluffums," and "WussieDog."  He's a cuddler, not a fighter.  Plus, he's terrified of nail clippers, squirt bottles, and other hand-held devices, and runs and hides if we are holding one.  Our other dog, Lena, is a coonhound, and has a brain the size of a Cocoa Puff.  She is constantly cheerful, and has this extremely alert expression, which we did not realize until we brought her home was her way of communicating the idea, "Derp?"  When our son was home visiting last time, he looked out of the window, and said, "Um... Dad?  Lena's staring at a tree."  And sure enough, she was.  Not even looking up into the branches, searching for squirrels; staring at the tree trunk from a distance of about six feet, as if she expected it suddenly to burst into flame or something.

She stared at the tree for almost forty-five minutes, then kind of gave a canine shrug as if to say, "Well, I guess it's not going to do anything interesting today," and meandered off to bark at her own reflection in our pond.

Even given our dogs' rampant mental issues, however, I'm not going to waste my time and money messing around with flower essences.  For one thing, they're not cheap -- in the sites I looked at, small bottles of essences start at $15.99.  For another thing, I'm not eager to support people who are hoodwinking the public with pseudoscientific horseshit for which there is not a shred of hard scientific evidence.

And for yet another thing, Grendel would probably be afraid of the dropper bottle.

Friday, June 16, 2017

We'll discuss this at the meeting

Dave Barry once said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."

To which I say: amen.  We are now at the end of another school year, for which there has been much rejoicing, mostly because it'll be another two and a half months before I have to attend another meeting.  I loathe meetings almost as much as I loathe grocery shopping.  Note that I am not talking about quick, to-the-point meetings, where vital information is conveyed in an efficient fashion. I wouldn't classify those as "fun," but I recognize that they're important.  No, I'm referring to meetings such as "educational training seminars," often run by professional seminar-runners (they probably have a fancier sounding job title, but don't deserve it).  Words cannot describe how much I detest these things.  I hate having my time wasted, I hate being expected to pretend I'm vitally interested in something that is pointless, and I hate being spoken to in a patronizing fashion.  And training seminars usually combine all three.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I thought that this type of meeting was unique to the world of education, but I found out I was wrong.   I was discussing this with Carol, and it seems that nursing training seminars are run pretty much the same way as educational ones are.  Here's the way a typical training seminar runs.  If you've never attended something like this, and you think I'm exaggerating, ask a teacher or nurse and they'll happily corroborate what I'm saying.

"Hi!  I'm Penelope Farklewhite-Smythe, and today's program is called 'Making Schools Better.'  We'll be brainstorming some ideas in just a minute, but first, we'll do an icebreaker activity.  On your table are some stickers with blue, red, green, or gold stars.   Pick up a sticker, and stick it to your forehead.  And then find three people with different color stars than you have, and tell them what you ate for breakfast today!"

*five minute pause to mill around discussing eggs, bacon, and breakfast cereal*

"There, wasn't that fun?  I'm glad no one asked me what I had for breakfast, because I was so excited to come to today's training seminar, I couldn't eat breakfast!"

*overly cheerful grin, followed by a brief pause to wait for laughter, which doesn't come, except for the one person in the front of the room who feels sorry for the presenter and thinks she needs the support*

"Today we'll start by brainstorming some ideas.  I've assigned five people to each table.  Each of you has a job.  One of you will be the Scribe.  Once we've brainstormed some ideas for 'Making Schools Better' the scribe will write down each table's ideas on a piece of butcher paper.  Write in red for ideas that Help Students Succeed, green for ideas that Make Teachers Happy, and blue for ideas that Keep Parents From Voting Down The Budget.  Two of you are the Evaluators.  The Evaluators will critique the ideas.  They will rate each idea with five stars for the Most Important down to one star for the Least Important.  The last two people will be the Presenters, and will present the ideas to the rest of the faculty.  But to make it fun, you'll present each idea using only interpretive dance, and we'll all try to guess what the idea is."

You'd think that at this point, there would be guffaws of laughter, followed by the entire faculty (except the supportive person in the front of the room) standing up and leaving.  Astonishingly, this never happens.  Being obedient little sheep, we all follow right along, bleating softly, writing on the butcher paper and giving ideas four stars and doing the interpretive dances.  Never once have I seen anyone stand up and say, "This is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard, and I refuse to participate."

Which brings us to Skeptophilia's Two Questions of the Day:
  1. Does anyone actually enjoy these sorts of meetings?
  2. Do the seminar-runners actually think that this is the best way to train professionals?  Or are they really sadists who enjoy annoying the absolute shit out of everyone?
No one I have ever talked to thinks these meetings are interesting, or enjoyable, or productive.  I, and most of my colleagues, leave such training seminars so pissed off that we spend the rest of the day looking for a small furry woodland animal to kick.  I also happen to know that the training seminars our school district has participated in have cost significant amounts of money -- some of these professional seminar-runners make upwards of a thousand dollars for a full day's presentation.   Which, incidentally, answers question #2 -- I doubt they really care if it's the best way to train professionals.  I might not care, either, if I could make a thousand bucks by ordering a bunch of presumably intelligent adults to wander around in a room with stickers on their foreheads talking about breakfast.

I find it frankly baffling, however, that the professional seminar-runners remain in business, given that the general consensus is that these seminars accomplish nothing and are therefore a gigantic waste of money and time.  So someone, somewhere, thinks that these things are productive.  Maybe it's the same people who came up with the idea of "paperwork" as being the best and most efficient way of keeping track of information.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Rock wars

Because clearly the news hasn't been surreal enough lately, today we have: an Australian geologist is suing the U. S. National Parks Service because they denied him the right to remove thirty pounds of rocks from the Grand Canyon in an attempt to prove that the biblical account of the Great Flood is true.

The geologist -- although how in the hell you'd get a Ph.D. in geology and somehow still be a young-Earth creationist is beyond my comprehension -- is named Andrew Snelling.  Snelling is a bit of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia; regular readers may recall that he's the guy who (among other things) claimed that Beowulf shows that dinosaurs coexisted with humans and that an Allosaurus skeleton proves the six-day creation story.

So Snelling is a bit of a Johnny One-Note with respect to scientific inquiry; if it doesn't have something to do with the Book of Genesis, he's not interested.  And now he wants to show that the Grand Canyon was formed during the Great Flood, and is convinced that if he can only get his hands on some rocks, he'll be able to show that to the world.

"It’s one thing to debate the science, but to deny access to the data not based on the quality of a proposal or the nature of the inquiry, but on what you might do with it is an abuse of government power," said Snelling's lawyer, Gary McCaleb of the Alliance Defending Freedom.  Which is a little disingenuous; no one "debates the science," because people like Snelling aren't arguing from a scientific stance.  When you thump the cover of a bible and say, "I don't care if this was written by a bunch of superstitious Bronze-Age sheep herders, every word of it is true, regardless of any evidence to the contrary," you are not engaging in science, you are engaging in circular reasoning.  And once you're there, no scientific argument in the world is going to convince you otherwise.

Snelling, of course, doesn't give a rat's ass about any of that.  All he wants is any kind of evidence that seems to support his belief.  Candida Moss over at The Daily Beast said it well:
Dr. Snelling... is looking for evidence of a Flood, not evidence of mass extermination; and he is looking for evidence of excess water on the earth caused by rain, not the underground or heavenly pools of primordial waters that caused the flooding.  This kind of research is not just bad science; it’s also predicated on poor reading comprehension.
Because, says Moss, even the biblical account of the Flood is rife with internal contradictions, so the idea that it's literally true is literally... impossible:
Sure, the animals did go onto the Ark “by twosies twosies.”  God tells Noah to assemble a pair of each kind of animal, but then a couple of verses later he tells Noah to bring seven pairs of the “clean” kinds of animal and one pair of the “unclean” kinds of animals.  That doesn’t rhyme at all, but it’s important because at the conclusion of the story, just before the rainbow, Noah goes and sacrifices a number of the clean animals to God.  And, if Noah didn’t have seven pairs of animals, he would have saved all those species only to engage in an ad hoc mass extinction project. 
The Flood does last for “forty days and nights.”  But it also lasts for 150 days and nights.  And while the Flood is caused by rain, it is also caused by the opening of primordial floodgates positioned above and beneath the earth.  Not only is this confusing, it does mean that scientific efforts to prove the historicity of the Flood should also have to explain where all of the water above and below the earth is.  And, for this purpose, an underground reservoir probably isn’t going to cut it with one’s fellow scientists. 
All of these inconsistencies make for pretty difficult reading, which is why Christian tradition has plumped for a streamlined version that cherrypicks certain details.
Then, there's the problem that there is exactly zero evidence of a giant flood and a mass extinction.  You'd think there'd be some evidence of this -- a sedimentary rock layer at the same depth, all over the world, with millions of fossils of a wide variety of organisms.  Including, presumably, humans, since one of the cheery aspects of this supposedly edifying story is that the all-loving god drowned every human on Earth, including infants, for some unspecified "wickedness," leaving only the family of a 600-year-old man from whom all of us are presumably descended over and over and over again, thus adding rampant incest into the mix.

Interesting that this is one of the most commonly-told tales in children's Sunday school classes, isn't it?

Anyhow.  My inclination would be to give Snelling his rocks and tell him to go away and have fun playing with them.  He's not going to be able to prove anything with them that any reputable scientist would accept, nor will he find anything out from them that could change his own mind (further indicating that what Snelling is engaging in is not science).  I know it's against National Park Service rules to let anyone take away anything from the park, but consider the upside: it'd keep Snelling and his cronies quiet for a while.  And I think that's well worth bending the rules for.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

American Caligula

If you've heard of Gaius Julius Augustus Germanicus, it's probably under his better-known nickname of "Caligula" ("Little Boots"), given to him when he was a child and demanded to have a set of boots like the military officers had, so he could go stomping around giving orders.  While such behavior is at least arguably cute in a kid, it becomes decidedly less so when said kid grows into an adult and continues to do the same sort of thing.

And it becomes downright scary when such an adult toddler ends up in charge of a whole nation.

Caligula [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Caligula became the ruler of Rome upon the death of his great-uncle Tiberius in March of 37 C.E.  It'd be nice if people like him (i.e. sociopathic narcissists) suddenly had an epiphany when they found themselves in a position of responsibility, but that seldom if ever happens.  In fact, it's often the opposite.  When they gain power, it takes the brakes off entirely.  In his short reign -- only three years, ten months -- here are a few things Caligula did:
  • He had a temple constructed in his honor, containing a life-sized golden statue of himself.  He ordered it to be dressed each day in clothes identical to the ones he was wearing that day.
  • Because he was embarrassed at the fact that he was going bald, he made it an offense for anyone to look down at him from a balcony.
  • He was so angry at the fact that there was a storm and uncooperative tides during his campaign in Britain that he ordered his soldiers to flog the waves with leather whips.  Afterwards, he had them collect seashells as "spoils of the battle."
  • Upon his return to Rome, he ordered that hundreds of beautiful young people be painted gold and stood, naked, alongside the road as he passed, holding torches.  Unfortunately, the gold paint contained arsenic, and all of the would-be statues died in agony from absorbing the toxin through their skin over the next three days.
  • He had his prized horse, Incitatus, appointed to the Senate.
  • He spent lavish amounts of money on parties celebrating himself, at which attendees were commanded to make lengthy speeches in his praise.  Within months of his accession, he had blown through most of the Roman treasury, so he levied taxes on parts of the Empire he didn't like.
And that's only scraping the surface.  The man was, to put it bluntly, a nutjob, and it is honestly a mystery why the Roman people put up with him for almost four years.

I mean, you'd think the self-laudatory stuff would wear thin pretty quick, especially since the guy was far more interested in self-aggrandizement than he was in running the country.  Every speech he made did nothing but heap praise upon his own head; "No one," he said at one meeting of his inner circle, "has done more [for the country] than I have."  And instead of laughing directly into his face, all of the people in attendance just kind of nodded sagely, as if that was actually the truth.  To add insult to injury, he then demanded that each of his counselors speak in his praise -- and they did.  For example:
  • "The greatest privilege in my life is to serve [here]."
  • "I am privileged to be here -- deeply honored -- and I want to thank you for your commitment."
  • "The people all love you."
  • "We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda."
  • "Congratulations to the men and women you have gathered around this table."
  • "It was a great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year, and an even greater honor to be serving here."
Oh, wait!  My bad.  That last bit wasn't Caligula, that was Donald Trump's last Cabinet meeting, which accomplished nothing than stroking the president's turgid ego.  (If you're curious, the quotes above are, in order: Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta; Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson; and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin.)

As far as Trump himself, he was just tickled pink to receive all the adulation, because as we all know there's nothing as wonderful to receive as forced praise.  Trump ended the meeting on another self-congratulatory note -- about the only note he knows how to play, apparently -- saying, "I will say there never has been a president, with few exceptions -- in the case of F.D.R. he had a major depression to handle -- who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done.  We've been about as active as you can be, and at a just about record-setting pace."

Which, of course, ignores the fact that both his budget and his attempted revamp to health care are in serious danger, he and his cronies are under investigation for various sorts of malfeasance, and about all that he's done other than that is playing golf every weekend, turning the United States into an international laughingstock with ignorant gaffe after ignorant gaffe, and issuing executive orders dismantling every environmental protection ever passed.

You can't continue fooling people forever, though, and eventually even the ass-kissers get tired of the thankless (and potentially dangerous) job of working for a lying, amoral megalomaniac.  In the case of Caligula, the powers-that-be finally had enough, and there was a conspiracy between the Senate and the Praetorian Guard.  One evening Little Boots was caught unawares in a corridor beneath one of his palaces on the Palatine Hill, and a bunch of the conspirators hacked him to death with swords.

One has to hope that eventually there will be enough of our elected officials who see Donald Trump for what he is that they'll be willing to use the metaphorical sword of impeachment based upon his obvious lack of fitness for leadership (if not for obstruction of justice, collusion with the Russians, or outright treason).  It took almost four years for the Roman Senate to say finis to Caligula; let's hope that we don't have to wait that long for our own American Caligula to be deposed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Margins of error

One of the most important things about learning some general critical thinking skills is that it keeps you from falling for bullshit.

Both kinds of bovine waste, actually; the kind that is created more or less by accident because the person in question is a nitwit, and the kind that is deliberately generated to mislead or misinform.

I'm uncertain which kind was being produced by Fox News's Greg Gutfield in the latest diatribe intended to convince everyone that climate change isn't happening.  Gutfield talks about the concept of "margin of error" with respect to temperature measurements, and then makes the following baffling statement:
So, those are called real truths.  The poetic truth is the chaos and the hysteria, because that plays to the media.  And it makes you feel so important.  And you get to punish America for being so successful by doing these stupid deals.  But if you read the facts about the high temperatures, about the reality of our past, it is all B.S...  If you asked them what the increase was, they wouldn't be able to tell you that every single year that there's an increase, it is within the margin of error, meaning it isn’t increasing.
This is... idiotic.

Here's an analogy.  Let's say that you have a bathroom scale that has an accuracy of plus or minus one pound.  You weigh yourself every day for two weeks, and here are the weights you record:
Day 1: 165.0 lbs.
Day 2: 165.9 lbs.
Day 3: 166. 8 lbs.
Day 4: 167.3 lbs.
Day 5: 168.0 lbs.
Day 6: 168.8 lbs.
Day 7: 169.5 lbs.
Day 8: 170.3 lbs.
Day 9: 171.1 lbs.
Day 10: 171.9 lbs.
Day 11: 172.6 lbs.
Day 12: 173. 4 lbs.
Day 13: 174.2 lbs.
Day 14 : 175.0 lbs.
At first, you're dismayed, and decide you need to lay off the KFC and Hostess Ho-Hos.  But then you notice that each day-to-day incremental change is less than a pound -- i.e., lower than the margin of error for the scale.

"Hallelujah!" you shout.  "I haven't gained any weight at all!  Pass the mashed potatoes!"

Actually, of course, you've gained ten pounds, and I doubt that anyone (including Greg Gutfield) would have any difficulty understanding that concept.  In more subtle cases, statisticians have finely-honed methods for analyzing such things as error bars, signal-to-noise ratio, and linear regression; trust me that if Gutfield had asked anyone who'd passed college statistics with a B or higher, he would have had his ass handed to him.  Of course, he didn't.  People like him don't want facts and logic, they are content remaining in the realm of emotion and kneejerk confirmation bias.

And the fact that he even makes such an argument, when in an analogous situation he would not, makes me suspicious that his is the second kind of bullshit -- deliberately created in a calculated fashion to mislead the gullible and ignorant.  Which is more and more what Fox News seems to specialize in.  They are clinging desperately to the mantra they've used successfully for decades, which is "liberal = bad, conservative = good."  Along with that comes a whole host of conservative talking points, including such tried and true gems as the War on Christians, Obama is a Secret Muslim Terrorist, Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ, and Climate Change is a Big Fat Lie.

Rile up the base.  If you do that, facts don't matter, because your listeners have stopped paying attention to anything but the spin.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Look, it's not that the liberals are without bias, or that I agree with everything they say, either.  Politically I'm pretty moderate, when I'm political at all, which is as little as I can manage.  But dammit, facts matter, and I am sick unto death of supposedly legitimate media sources like Fox lying to their listeners.

Especially in the case of climate change and the environment, because the stakes are way too high.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Coffee, hallucinations, and Bing Crosby

study done by Dr. Simon Crowe of La Trobe University in Australia, has found that coffee is hallucinogenic.

That it is psychotropic falls into the "Tell Me Something I Didn't Already Know" department.  I am barely civil before I've had at least two cups of coffee.  (Some days I'm barely civil afterwards, either, but that's another matter.)  For me, it's not the buzz I'm after; being a nervous, high-strung type to begin with, who gets up at five in the morning every day whether I have to or not, it's not like I really need anything to make me more wired than I already am.  Coffee seems to have the same effect on me that turning the focus wheel on a pair of binoculars does.  Everything suddenly seems to brighten up, have sharp outlines, make sense.  I feel like I'm seeing things clearly.

Now, I'm told, it might also make me hear things that aren't there.

Dr. Crowe's team tested 92 people with varying levels of caffeine.  The test was billed to the subjects as a hearing test, who were told that they'd be listening to a three minute clip of white noise, in which there might or might not be snippets of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."  They were instructed to press a buzzer when they heard a piece of the song.  In fact, the clip had no music in it at all.  The non-coffee drinkers did occasionally imagine that they heard Crosby's voice; but the coffee drinkers were three times as likely to press the buzzer.  The effect was even more pronounced with people who described themselves as "stressed" and who drank coffee.

"If you are stressed and have a high level of caffeine, you are more likely to notice things that aren't there, see things that aren't there," Dr. Crowe said.

[image courtesy of photographer Julius Schorzman and the Wikimedia Commons]

Me, I wonder.  I suspect that part of it is that after the caffeine equivalent of five cups of coffee (the standard for "heavy coffee drinking" used in the experiment), the test subjects' hands were simply shaking so badly that they kept setting the buzzer off.  Or, perhaps, sitting still and listening to white noise for three minutes was simply beyond their capacities.

I tend to be a little frustrated by the way that popular media presents medical (and other scientific) research findings.  Let's be clear about what Dr. Crowe found: he found that people who drank the equivalent of five or more cups of coffee were likely to think they were hearing music when they really weren't.  The headline, of course, didn't say that -- it said "Coffee Causes Hallucinations," which might lead the less careful reader to conclude that your average businessman stopping at Starbuck's for a cuppa joe in the morning was suddenly going to flip out on the bus and start seeing flying monkeys.

Frankly, I'm doubtful that caffeine is bad for you at all, at least when taken in reasonable amounts.  In the brain it acts as an antagonist to adenosine, a neural suppressant and signal for metabolic stress.  In studies, caffeine has been shown to decrease reaction time, increase endurance, reduce the risk of heart disease and kidney stones, increase short-term memory and ability to focus, and decrease the likelihood I'll strangle someone in my first period class.  These are some pretty significant benefits to health and happiness, and if because of it I occasionally hallucinate that I'm hearing clips from Bing Crosby songs, I guess I consider than an acceptable tradeoff.  (Now, if I started seeing Bing Crosby, that would be another matter entirely.)

In any case, I'm going to wind up this post with some general advice not to jump to conclusions based upon sensationalized reports of medical research in the press.  First, if you took every piece of medical advice that shows up in the media, you'd be living on bread and water (or just the water, if you're gluten-intolerant).

Second, the coffee's done brewing, and if I don't have a cup soon, I'm going to hurt someone.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Wow failure

I love science, but I really wish it would stop crushing my hopes and dreams.

I say this because it has long been my dream to live long enough to see unequivocal proof of the existence of intelligent life on other planets.  I got my start, alien-obsession-wise, when I was about seven and became addicted to the abysmal 1960s television series Lost in Space.  The aliens were pretty low-budget, judging by the fact that most of them were...

... well, human.  Like the alien cowboy, the alien pirate (complete with a mechanical parrot), the alien motorcycle gang, the alien teenage hippies, the alien Wild West gunslinger, and Brunhilde.  I'm not making this last one up.  In this not-to-be-missed cinematic tour de force, Brunhilde appears out of nowhere, wearing a helmet with wings, yo-to-hoing like mad while seated on the back of an enormous plastic horse.  In that episode, we also meet Thor, who thinks he has lost his strength and has gone all weepy, and Will Robinson has to give him a heartwarming pep talk to convince him that true strength comes from within.

If you can watch that episode without pissing your pants laughing, you have a stronger constitution than I have.

Things took a step up (well, okay, that was pretty much the only direction available) with the original Star Trek series, where they at least got rubber noses and colorful makeup for the aliens, and induced some of them to speak in cheesy faux-Russian accents to make it clear which ones were the bad guys.  But then came Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: First Contact and Cocoon and Starman and the best of 'em all, Contact -- which remains one of my top favorite movies ever -- and I was completely and permanently hooked on the idea that there might be extraterrestrial intelligence.

The problem is, the evidence for life on other planets, much less intelligent life, is kind of nonexistent.  There have been radio telescopes scanning the sky for decades, and so far there's been nothing to answer to Enrico Fermi's famous quip, "Where is everybody?"

There was one possibility, however.  It's called the "Wow Signal" -- a 72-second burst of radio waves captured in 1977 by Ohio State University's "Big Ear" Radio Telescope.  It was such an anomaly that astronomer Jerry Ehman wrote "Wow!" next to the computer printout that contained the signal, thus giving the phenomenon its name.

The spot in the sky where the burst originated -- near the star Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius -- has been repeatedly scanned, but the signal has never been repeated.

So what was it?  The hopeful amongst us (which included me) thought it might be a radio transmission from intelligent life.  The more dubious figured there had to be some kind of more prosaic explanation -- but what that explanation might be, no one knew.  So I held on to the Wow Signal as being a real possibility for the realization of my dream.

Until today.

Antonio Paris, of the Center for Planetary Science at the Washington Academy of Sciences, shot down the extraterrestrial intelligence hypothesis this week with a neat, and completely plausible, explanation of the Wow Signal as the emission from the hydrogen-rich comet 266/P Christensen -- which was in that exact location when the signal was detected.

Paris writes:
In 2016, we proposed a hypothesis arguing that a comet and/or its hydrogen cloud was a strong candidate for the source of the “Wow!” Signal.  From 27 November 2016 to 24 February 2017, we conducted 200 observations in the radio spectrum to validate the hypothesis.  This investigation discovered that comets 266/P Christensen, P/2013 EW90 (Tenagra), P/2016 J1-A (PANSTARRS), and 237P/LINEAR emitted radio waves at 1420 MHz.  In addition, the data collected during this investigation demonstrated there is a well-defined distinction between radio signals emitted from known celestial sources and comets, including comet 266/P Christensen...  To dismiss the source of the radio signal as emission from comet 266/P Christensen, we repositioned the telescope away from the comet and conducted clear sky observations when the comet was not near the coordinates of the “Wow!” Signal.  During these clear sky observations, we detected no significant radio signal at 1420 MHz.  This investigation, therefore, has concluded that cometary spectra are observable at 1420 MHz and that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a Solar System body.
To Dr. Paris, I have the following to say: "Nicely done!  Outstanding research!  I hate you!"  *grinds teeth*

So for us alien aficionados, it's one more dashed hope.  I mean, I'm supportive of science, and I appreciate the hard work and rigor, but really.  Leave me something to cling to, okay?  Because at the moment, all I'm left with is Brunhilde, and the yo-to-hoing is getting really annoying.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Taking the devil for a spin

Sometimes I think the fringe-y parts of the Religious Right stay up at night, and while the rest of us are doing something constructive like sleeping or fooling around with our Significant Others or snacking on the leftover pizza or watching reruns of Sherlock, they're surfing the web looking for things to be outraged about.

The thing is, I can't imagine how this can be much fun.  I don't enjoy being outraged, myself, and in fact sometimes deliberately avoid reading the news because I'd rather not spend the next six hours trying to fend off apoplexy.  But from the behavior of many of these folks, it seems like they positively relish the opportunity to rant and rave about the latest thing the evil secularists are doing to hasten the End Times and play right into the hands of Satan.

The latest thing to get the wacko SuperChristians' knickers in a twist is, of all things, the "Fidget Spinner."  Myself, I thought these things were innocent little devices intended to help people with attention issues concentrate by giving their hands something to do, much the way my younger son's more enlightened teachers used to let him work on making chain mail while he was listening to the lesson.  (I kid you not; in his first two years in high school, he made an entire chain mail shirt, weighing over fifty pounds, made from over 5,000 steel rings.)

So my general feeling about Fidget Spinners is that they're a clever tool to help people who problems focusing.  But no.

The Fidget Spinner is an evil device imported directly from the Pits of Hell.

Apparently what got these nutjobs in an uproar is that when you hold the Spinner, your thumb and forefinger make a circle and your other three fingers stick out, which is clearly a Satanic symbol, except when it means "okay."  The sign, we're told, represents 666, the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation:
If you grab the newest gadget released into the slave camp, what's called "a fidget spinner", you"ll notice that you're instantly making the famous 666 masonic gang sign. Now 666 isn't really the sign of the devil but is simply an equation of 6+6+6=18. Inside an ancient symbol based code (called gematria), all numbers have to be reduced to 1 digit by simply adding the digits together, so 18 is really 1+8=9... 
So when you see a "9", which is what the 666 hand symbol really is, you're seeing an ancient gang sign that shouts........."what you think is different here isn't different at all. It just looks different to give you an illusion of choice, but the outcome is always the same no matter what....and that outcome is always what we want."
No, what I'm shouting is, "This is about the only shape your hand can make when you pick something up between your thumb and forefinger, you fucking loon."

But that kind of argument never stops people like this, who call Fidget Spinners "the Devil's Yo-Yo."  Which, you have to admit, would make a killer name for a band.

I'm happy to say that there are Christians who are pointing this out for the nonsense it is.  Over at the site Hello Christian, they address the question "Are Fidget Spinners Satanic?" directly, and come to the answer, "No."  They do warn, however, that Spinners are dangerous, citing an incident wherein a boy threw his Spinner into the air and it came back down and hit him in the head.

Of course, the same results could have been achieved with a bowling ball, and I don't see anyone warning people about the dangers of those.

Anyhow: there's nothing evil about Fidget Spinners, and I hope that the wingnuts who are currently running around in circles making alarmed little squeaking noises will calm down.  It'll only be temporary, of course, because tonight they'll be back online, scouring the interwebz for another thing to freak out about.  It's a losing battle.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

False vacuum catastrophe

It's odd how enamored people are of things that could destroy the entire universe.

I mean, on one level I get it.  The sheer power of the natural world is pretty awe-inspiring, and as I've mentioned before, if I hadn't become a mild-mannered high school biology teacher, I definitely would have been a a tornado chaser.  That same love of extreme danger (especially when it's not you experiencing it) explains shows like The Deadliest Catch and the innumerable quasi-documentaries wherein divers swim around in chum-filled waters and still seem surprised when they're attacked by sharks.

But on a larger scale, there's a real curiosity about things that could wipe out pretty much everything.  A while back, I wrote a piece about people sounding gleeful that we might be looking down the gun barrel of a gamma-ray burster (we're not), and over and over we've heard alarmists suggesting that CERN was going to create a black hole that would eat the Earth (it's not).  But that doesn't begin to exhaust the ways in which we all could die in horrible agony.

Which brings us to the concept of the false vacuum.

Sounds harmless enough, doesn't it?  Well, this is in the long tradition of physicists giving seriously weird things cutesy names, like "strange quarks" and "glueballs."

The idea of the false vacuum is that the universe is currently in a "metastable state."  What this means is that we're currently in a locally stable configuration, but if something destabilizes us a little bit, we might find ourselves suddenly plunging into a more stable state -- a "true vacuum."  The situation, then would be similar to that of the little ball in the graph below:

As long as nothing disturbs the status quo, the ball is stable; but if something gives it a push up the hill in the middle, it'll crest the hill and find itself rushing downward into a more stable position -- the "true vacuum."

Why this concerns anyone but the physicists is that the result of our reconfiguring into a true vacuum would be that a bubble would form, rushing outward at the speed of light, and destroying everything in its path.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics suggests that from the mass of the Higgs boson and the top quark, an estimate could be made of just how likely this is.  Writer Robert Walker concludes, from the research of Joseph Lykken and others, that the answer is "not very:"
[I]f it could happen, then you’d expect it to have happened already in the first 1/10,000,000,000th of a second along with the other symmetry breaking when gravity split off from the other forces, when it was tremendously hot... 
Since that hasn’t happened, the false vacuum has to be very stable, or else, probably as we find new physics we find out that it is not in a false vacuum state at all. 
And yes, on the basis of the measured mass of the Higgs boson, the false vacuum has to be very stable.  Joseph Lykken says that an event that triggers a patch of true vacuum, if the theory is correct, happens on average once every 10, 000, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years. 
That means it is nothing to be worried about.
Walker, who is a mathematician, says that the likelihood of a true vacuum bubble occurring in any given century is less than the likelihood of purchasing tickets for twelve consecutive Euromillions lotteries, and winning the jackpot for all of them.

So "don't worry about it" seems to be an understatement.

However, that hasn't stopped the alarmists from freaking out about it, probably largely due to the fact that if it did happen, it would be pretty catastrophic.  Also, because a lot of them seem to feel that the physicists (for this, read "mad scientists") are actively trying to trigger the creation of a true vacuum, which would be an idiotic thing to do even if it were possible because they'd be the first ones to get vaporized, and wouldn't even have the pleasure of standing around rubbing their hands together and cackling maniacally for more than about a microsecond.

But then there are the ones who think that it could happen accidentally (again, because of CERN, of course), and the physicists are simply being reckless, not suicidal.  I tend to agree with Walker, though.  I'm way more worried about the idiotic things humans are currently doing to the environment, and our determination to slaughter each other over things like who has the best Invisible Friend, than I am about triggering the Scary Bubble of Death.

Anyhow.  That's our Terrifying Thing That Can Kill you for today, along with some soothing words about why it's not very likely.  Now you'll have to excuse me, because I'm gonna go have a pint of beer and watch Twister for the 17th time.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Liar liar

In my youth, I was quite an accomplished liar.

I say "accomplished" more to mean "I did it a lot" rather than "I did it well."  I honestly don't know how well I lied -- it might be that people in general didn't believe what I said and were simply too polite to call me out on it.  On the other hand, I did get away with a lot of stuff.  So apparently I was at least marginally successful.

What I lied about tended to be exaggerations about my past -- I rarely if ever lied out of malice.  But I felt my own circumstances to be boring and bland, a sense compounded by the fact that I've always suffered from serious social anxiety, so I think I felt as if building up a fictional persona who was interesting and adventurous might assuage my fear of being judged by the people I met.  Eventually, though, I realized that all I was doing was sabotaging the relationships I had, because once people found out I wasn't who I said I was, they'd be understandably pissed that I hadn't been straight with them.  So I dedicated myself to honesty, a commitment I've tried my hardest to keep ever since then.

On the other hand, I became a fiction writer, which means now I make up elaborate lies, write them down, and people pay me to read them.  So maybe I haven't progressed as far as I'd thought.

Kang Lee and Victoria Talwar of the University of Toronto have been studying lying for some time, and they've found that the propensity of children to lie increases as they age.  Presumably, once they develop a sense of shame and a better impulse control, they find themselves sheepish when they transgress, and lie to cover up their feelings or escape the consequences.  In a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, Lee and Talwar gave children of varying ages a task while a music-playing toy played behind them, and told them not to peek at the toy:
When the experimenter asked them whether they had peeked, about half of the 3-year-olds confessed to their transgression, whereas most older children lied.  Naive adult evaluators (undergraduate students and parents) who watched video clips of the children’s responses could not discriminate lie-tellers from nonliars on the basis of their nonverbal expressive behaviours.  However, the children were poor at semantic leakage control and adults could correctly identify most of the lie-tellers based on their verbal statements made in the same context as the lie.  The combined results regarding children’s verbal and nonverbal leakage control suggest that children under 8 years of age are not fully skilled lie-tellers.
Lee considers this behavior a completely normal part of social development, and in fact, says he worries about the 10% of older children in his study who could not be induced to lie -- because telling the truth 100% of the time, without regard for others' feelings or the consequences thereof, might not be the best thing, either.

But the tendency to lie doesn't vanish with adulthood.  A study by Robert Feldman, of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found that 60% of adults lied at least once during a ten-minute conversation.

"People tell a considerable number of lies in everyday conversation," Feldman said about his study.  "It was a very surprising result.  We didn't expect lying to be such a common part of daily life...  When they were watching themselves on videotape, people found themselves lying much more than they thought they had... It's so easy to lie.  We teach our children that honesty is the best policy, but we also tell them it's polite to pretend they like a birthday gift they've been given.  Kids get a very mixed message regarding the practical aspects of lying, and it has an impact on how they behave as adults."

Of course, all lies aren't equally blameworthy.  Telling Aunt Bertha that the knitted sweater she made for your Christmas gift is lovely probably is better than saying, "Wow, that is one ugly-ass sweater, and I'm bringing it down to the Salvation Army as soon as I get a chance."

[image courtesy of Aunt Bertha and the Wikimedia Commons]

As for the kind of thing I did as a kid -- saying that I'd spent my summer vacation riding musk oxen in the Aleutian Islands -- it's kind of ridiculous and pointless, but other than distancing one from one's friends (as I described before) probably isn't really very high on the culpability scale, either.

But lying to hurt, lying for personal gain, lying to gain or retain power (I'm lookin' at you, Donald Trump) -- those are serious issues.

Unfortunately, however, even the less serious lies can cause problems, because there is the tendency for small lies to lead to bigger ones.  A study by Tali Sharot of University College London found out that our amygdala -- the structure in the brain that appears to mediate fear, shame, and anxiety -- actually fires less the more we lie.  The first lies we tell elicit a strong response; but we become habituated quickly.

The more we lie, the easier it gets.

So the old adage of "honesty is the best policy" really does seem to apply in most circumstances.

Unless, of course, you're a fiction writer.  Then the rules don't apply at all.  Now you'll have to excuse me, as I've got a herd of musk oxen to attend to.