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, December 14, 2017

Hum analysis

Some of my readers might know about the strange, mysterious humming noises that have been reported everywhere from Taos, New Mexico to Auckland, New Zealand.  The phenomenon has been reported in so many different locales that there's a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.

Explanations have varied, and to be fair, it's probable that the same cause doesn't account for all of the various hums in the world.  The Kokomo Hum and the West Seattle Hum were both adequately explained as low-frequency sound vibrations from machinery, the one in Kokomo from the Daimler-Chrysler plant, the one in West Seattle from a vacuum pump used by CalPortland to offload cargo from ships.

Some, though, are not so easily explained.  The Auckland Hum, which was pinpointed by people who heard it at 56 Hertz, and the Taos Hum, found to be between 32 and 80 Hertz, have never been adequately explained, leaving skeptics wondering if they might not be a combination of tinnitus and people paying such rapt attention to the silence that they begin to think they're hearing something.  Neither of those has ever been recorded or detected by sound equipment, despite the fact that any sound in that frequency range audible to human ears should be easy to detect.  (Especially given that one guy who has heard the Taos Hum said it was audible from 48 kilometers away.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, however, we have some research indicating that at least some of the world's Hums are due to a fascinating, and little-understood, phenomenon; the movement of deep ocean waves across uneven parts of the abyssal seafloor producing compression waves (better known as "sound") that could, potentially, propagate a great distance relatively unimpeded.  The study, by Fabrice Ardhuin, Lucia Gualtieri, and Eléonore Stutzmann of the Laboratoire d'Océanographie Spatiale, in Brest, France studied short-period interactions between oceanic waves and the terrain across which they were passing.  The vibrations, called "microseismic activity," might generate a sound where the wave fronts meet the boundary between air and water, thus creating a humming noise.  The authors write:
Microseismic activity, recorded everywhere on Earth, is largely due to ocean waves. Recent progress has clearly identified sources of microseisms in the most energetic band, with periods from 3 to 10 s.  In contrast, the generation of longer-period microseisms has been strongly debated.  Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain seismic wave generation: a primary mechanism, by which ocean waves propagating over bottom slopes generate seismic waves, and a secondary mechanism which relies on the nonlinear interaction of ocean waves.  Here we show that the primary mechanism explains the average power, frequency distribution, and most of the variability in signals recorded by vertical seismometers, for seismic periods ranging from 13 to 300 s.  The secondary mechanism only explains seismic motions with periods shorter than 13 s.  Our results build on a quantitative numerical model that gives access to time-varying maps of seismic noise sources.
Whatever the source, the noises are ubiquitous.  As Columbia University seismologist Spahr Webb put it,  "The Earth is ringing like a bell all the time."

What is pretty certain, however, is that these phenomena are not the result of the archangels blowing the trumpets of the Apocalypse, as End Times loons have claimed.  As recently as last month, loud, horn-like sounds reported from Canada and Indonesia have been claimed to be signs of the imminent fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, despite the fact that those prophecies have been imminent for the past two thousand years, and lo, the Antichrist is nowhere to be seen.  (Nor, I might add, are they signs that we're about to collide with the planet Nibiru, which has also been on its way for some time now.)

So it remains a mystery, which a lot of people don't like.  As far as the Taos Hum, it's unlikely to be caused by oceanic waves of any sort, because Taos is not exactly beach-front property.  But I'll bank on there being some kind of rational explanation, even if we don't know what it is.

Until then, you'll either have to ignore it or else hum along.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The imaginary restaurant

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia responded to yesterday's post, about a high school biology teacher who decided to name a chemical reaction after himself with the result that it became semi-official on the internet, with an email that said, "I'd love to talk to you more about this phenomenon.  How 'bout we meet at The Shed at Dulwich for lunch tomorrow?"

Which was a little puzzling, until I clicked the link he sent, which was about how a non-existent restaurant became an internet phenomenon.

It started earlier this year when a freelance writer with the unlikely name of "Oobah Butler" decided to create a TripAdvisor page for a fake restaurant, and gave the address as the location of a garden shed next to his house in the town of Dulwich, England, which is a suburb of London.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Once the page was created, Butler and a few friends lauded The Shed at Dulwich in gushing tones.  They got a burner cellphone to be the restaurant's phone number.  They created a fake menu, each dish based upon a human emotion (my favorite one was "Lust:  Rabbit kidneys on toast seasoned with saffron and an oyster bisque.  Served with a side of pomegranate soufflé.")  They created photographs of entrées out of non-food items such as bleach tablets and shaving cream, which included the following:


Which, honestly, looks a lot like stuff I've eaten at upscale restaurants, although I assume it wouldn't taste like it.

The reviews kept pouring in.  "The best shed-based experience in London!" one of them said, which you would think would have tipped people off.

But no. The positive reviews, combined with the menu and photographs, made The Shed at Dulwich rocket upwards in TripAdvisor.  (Another said, "Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit.  After a few mildly frustrating phone calls I was in.")

The phone began ringing off the hook.  Butler told the callers, "Sorry, we're booked up."  He was sent free samples by restaurant supply companies.  The Dulwich governing council called Butler about relocating the restaurant to a more business-friendly property.  People contacted him looking for employment.

At this point page for The Shed was receiving 89,000 hits a day.  It rose to #1 in the TripAdvisor restaurant category for the Greater London area.

Have I made it clear enough that this place doesn't actually exist?

This is like the Swanson conversion from yesterday's post, only more so.  Like a thousand times more so.  Of course, eventually Butler was found out, and he 'fessed up, and the page was taken down.  But not before he was receiving hundreds of calls daily, from all over the world, asking for reservations -- some of them for months in advance.

So if you needed further indication that you should view anything online with a good dose of skepticism and critical thinking, this is it.  A guy and a few friends, armed with nothing more than a burner cellphone, some photographs of household items dolled up to look like food, and a good imagination, punked TripAdvisor and thousands of eager foodies.  I don't know what would possess someone to do this, other than a warped sense of humor and way too much free time, but it does illustrate the human capacity for hoaxing.

You can't even trust webpages for highly-rated restaurants.  You see why I'm dubious about online claims for ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wikipedia, accuracy, and the Swanson conversion

I'm of two minds about Wikipedia.

I think it's a great resource for quick lookups, and use it myself for that sort of thing.  A study by Thomas Chesney found that experts generally consider Wikipedia to be pretty accurate, although the same study admits that others have concluded that 13% of Wikipedia entries have errors (how serious those errors are is uncertain; an error in a single date is certainly more forgivable than one that gives erroneous information about a major world event).  Another study concluded that between one-half and one-third of deliberately inserted errors are corrected within 48 hours.

But still.  That means that between one-half and two-thirds of deliberately inserted errors weren't corrected within 48 hours, which is troubling.  Given the recent squabbles over "fake news," having a source that could get contaminated by bias or outright falsehood, and remain uncorrected, is troubling.

Plus, there's the problem with error sneaking in, as it were, through the back door.  Sometimes claims are posted on Wikipedia (and elsewhere) by people who honestly think what they're stating is correct, and once that happens, there tends to be a snake-swallowing-its-own-tail pattern of circular citations, and before you know it, what was a false claim suddenly becomes enshrined as fact.

As an example of this, consider the strange case of the Swanson conversion.

The Swanson conversion, which sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory but isn't, is a piece of the reaction of cellular respiration.  Without geeking out on this too extremely -- and my students will attest that I get way too excited about how cool cellular respiration is -- the background on this is as follows.

Cellular respiration, which is the set of reactions by which our cells burn glucose and release energy to power everything we do, has three major steps: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain.  Each of those is made of dozens of sub-reactions, which I will refrain from describing (although like I said, they're extremely cool).  But there's one piece of it that doesn't have an official name, and that's the step that links glycolysis (the first step) to the Krebs cycle (the second step).

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, and the irony of the source of this image does not escape me]

Again, trying not to be too technical, here, but at the end of glycolysis, the original glucose molecule has been split in two (in fact, "glycolysis" is Greek for "sugar breaking").  The two halves are called pyruvate, and they're three-carbon compounds.  Before they can be thrown into the Krebs cycle, however, they have to lose one carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide), thus forming acetate, which can be introduced into the first step of Krebs.

So what's that carbon-losing step called?  Apparently, "the Swanson conversion."  It's in Wikipedia, not to mention many other websites describing the reactions of respiration.

The problem?  The name "Swanson conversion" was given to the linking step by a high school biology teacher named Swanson when his students asked him why that bit of the reaction didn't have a name, and he said, "hell, I dunno.  Let's call it 'the Swanson conversion.'"  And it stuck...

... especially when one of his students posted it to Wikipedia as the correct name.

When Swanson found out, he at first was annoyed, but after discussing it with his students, allowed it to remain as a test to see how quickly errors on Wikipedia were corrected.  And... it wasn't.  In fact, others who have wondered, as my students did, why this step doesn't have a name stumbled on this and thought, "Cool!  Now I know what to call it!" and posted it on their websites.  And now, this name that started out as an inside joke between a biology teacher and his students has become the semi-official name of the step.

Swanson, for his part, says he uses it as an example of how you can't trust what's online without checking your sources.  The problem is, how do you check the sources on something like this?  Once the aforementioned self-referential merry-go-round has been engaged, it becomes damn near impossible to figure out what's correct.  Especially in cases like this, which is that the correct answer to "what is the name of ____?" is, "There isn't one."  All too easy to say, "Well, I guess this one must be correct, since it's all over the place."

I realize this is a pretty unique situation, and I'm not trying to impugn the accuracy of Wikipedia as a whole.  I still use it for looking up simple facts -- after all, I'm from the generation during whose childhood if you wanted to know what year Henry VIII was crowned King of England, and didn't have an encyclopedia at home, you had to get in your car and drive to the library to look it up.  I think Wikipedia, errors and all, is a pretty significant step upward.

However, it does mean that we need to keep our brains engaged when we read stuff on the internet -- and, as always, try to find independent corroboration.  Because otherwise, we'll have people believing that one of the reactions of photosynthesis is called "the Bonnet activation."  And heaven knows, we wouldn't want that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

End Times celebration

By now, you've probably heard about Donald Trump's controversial decision to grant official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, to be followed by moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The issue -- as far as I understand it -- is that both Israelis and Palestinians consider Jerusalem to be their capital, and our previous stance was that the US would remain out of that particular facet of the conflict.  The hope was that any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would involve some sort of compromise regarding the city (hard to imagine what that would be, of course).  So while we've been pretty unequivocally supportive of the Israelis, we've been cautiously neutral with regards to that piece of it.

Trump, of course, has the "bull in a china shop" approach to world diplomacy, and announced his decision last week, come what may.  This caused a lot of forehead-slapping on the part of people who've devoted their lives to bringing peace to the Middle East -- but one group, at least, was absolutely thrilled.

This, to no one's particular surprise, was the evangelical Christians, who in the last year have showed themselves as a group to be kind of unhinged.  And this time, one of their spokespersons in the political arena -- State Senator Doug Broxson of Florida -- has come right out and said why Trump's announcement was the cause of such jubilation:

It's going to usher in the End Times.

"Now, I don’t know about you," Broxson said to a cheering rally, "but when I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel."

Of course, at the same rally, Broxson also called Trump's cabinet picks as "the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest," which makes me wonder if Broxson has either lost touch with reality in general, or else his only basis of comparison is the members of the Under-90-IQ Club.

Be that as it may, what gets me most about this statement is how excited the evangelicals seem to be about the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  I mean, you'd think that even if you knew you were going to be on the winning side, you wouldn't be looking forward to it, you know?  As a friend of mine put it, "You're free to think I'm going to be condemned to burn in agony in hell for all eternity, but it'd be nice if you didn't seem so happy about it."

I suppose the reason is that the End Times cadre think that before the really bad stuff starts happening, they're all gonna be Raptured right the hell out of here, leaving us evil folks down on Earth to contend with such special offers as the Beast With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns.  Which brings up an interesting question: why does it have three more crowns than it has heads?  I remember that bothering me when I first read the Book of Revelation as a teenager.  Does it wear two crowns on three of its heads, and one each on the other four?  Or does it wear one crown per head and carry the other three around in its backpack as spares, in case one of its crowns is in the laundry?

Of course, in the same passage (Revelation 13:1) it also says that the Beast has ten horns.  As a biologist, I find that even more peculiar.  Usually the number of horns on an animal is a multiple of the number of heads.

But maybe I'm thinking too hard about all of this.

La Bête de la Mer, from Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse (ca. 1380) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm a little perplexed by the jubilation.  I thought that Jesus was pretty unequivocal about loving thy neighbor, and as far as I can see this does not entail looking forward to thy neighbor being the featured entrée at Satan's barbecue lunch.

As for me, I'm kind of hoping that Trump's decision doesn't usher in the End Times, and also that it doesn't cause the turmoil in the Middle East to intensify, because that's the last thing those people need.  Right now, it would be more to the point to try to defuse tensions, not do shit that makes the warring factions even madder at each other.

But I suppose that's what you get when the "best of the best and brightest of the brightest" are in charge.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The lure of the storyteller

I've been a storyteller since I can remember.  Nicer than calling it "compulsive liar," which I suppose is what it is, not that I claim my stories are true anymore, something I was known to do as a child.  Even if you know it's not real -- maybe especially if you know it's not real -- to imagine things to be different than they are, to dream of a world different than the one you inhabit, is mesmerizing.

I had my first experience sharing a story I'd written when I was in first grade.  It was a ridiculous little thing, with equally ridiculous illustrations, about a bird that fell out of its nest and bent his beak, then had to find someone to help him straighten it out.  I was terrified when I got up in front of the class to read it... but they loved it.  They laughed at the right places, and applauded when I was done.

And I was hooked for life.

What's curious is why this drive exists at all, and why it is so common.  Almost everyone either likes telling stories, hearing stories, or both.  What possible purpose could there be to telling stories that are obviously false both to teller and listener?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

A new paper in Nature: Communications, by Daniel Smith et al., sheds some light on this uniquely human behavior.  Entitled "Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytelling," the researchers conclude that storytelling exists to pass along social norms, encourage cooperation, and enhance social cohesion.  The authors write:
Storytelling is a human universal.  From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories.  Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling.  Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller.  Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism.  These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies.  We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection.  We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.
So storytelling helps the community by teaching the social structure, and helps the storyteller by increasing the likelihood (s)he will have sex.

Which is pretty cool.

In a piece that study lead author Daniel Smith wrote for The Conversation, we find out that it's not only literal storytellers who are more likely to get lucky:
Even in modern, Western society skilled storytellers – ranging from novelists and artists to actors and stand-up comics – have a high social status.  There is even some evidence that successful male visual artists (a form of modern-day storyteller) have more sexual partners than unsuccessful visual artists.
This, Smith says, not only explains why we've become storytellers, but why we've become story listeners.  He writes:
Humans have evolved the capacity to create and believe in stories.  Narratives can also transcend the “here and now” by introducing individuals to situations beyond their everyday experience, which may increase empathy and perspective-taking towards others, including strangers.  These features may have evolved in hunter-gatherer societies as precursors to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction. 
Such narratives include moralising gods, organised religion, nation states and other ideologies found in post-agricultural societies.  Some are crucial parts of societies today, functioning to bond individuals into cohesive and cooperative communities.  It’s fascinating to think that they could have all started with a humble story around the campfire.
As a novelist, it's not to be wondered at that I find all of this pretty cool.  Not, I hasten to state for the record (mostly because my wife reads my blog) that I'm looking forward to any hanky-panky with starry-eyed groupies.  But the idea that our penchant for telling stories performs a vital function, benefiting both teller and listener, is fascinating. I'm a little curious, however, about the function (if there is any) of stories that don't tell any kind of explicitly moralistic message.  Ghost stories, for example.  It's possible that the social cohesion aspect exists for those as well -- the telling-tales-late-at-night-while-camping phenomenon -- but one has to wonder if there's a different benefit accrued from different types of stories.

Maybe telling a scary story makes it more likely that a person of your preferred gender will cuddle up to you afterwards for reassurance and comfort, and also increase the likelihood of of your getting laid.  I dunno.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.  Because I write paranormal fiction, and what the plots of my novels have mostly done is made people wonder if I was dropped on my head as an infant.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Alien cannonball

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post about a guy who claims to have had an alien mistress, today we have: a cannonball on Mars proving that there was a war there back in the day.

The origin of this claim comes from one Scott Waring, who has been something of a frequent flier, here at Skeptophilia.  In fact, he's more or less become our resident specialist with regards to unhinged claims about Mars.  Among other things, Waring has claimed that the Mars lander has snapped pictures of:
  • a flip-flop
  • a coffin
  • a fossilized groundhog
  • the shadow of a human
  • a skull
  • a hammer
  • a thigh bone
  • the rare and elusive Martian bunny
So it's not to be wondered at that I view anything Waring dreams up with a bit of a wry eye.  But without further ado, let's take a look at his evidence:

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

What this looks like to me is a concretion, which is a sedimentary rock formation in which concentric layers of a cementing material are laid down around some central core.  It can produce some weird-looking rocks; take a look, for example, at this photograph from Kazakhstan:

[image courtesy of photographer Alexandr Babkin and the Wikimedia Commons]

If I didn't know a bit of geology, I would certainly wonder about what the hell this could be, because it looks to my eye like Kazakhstan received a visit by the rare and elusive giant Martian bunny.  But no, these are just rocks.  Odd rocks, yes, but rocks.

Waring, however, doesn't see it that way.  The rock in the first picture is a cannonball.  And from this, he has concluded that there was a war on Mars millions of years ago, which resulted in two things:
  1. the complete destruction of the Martian atmosphere; and
  2. a single fossilized cannonball.
Which strikes me as pretty bizarre.  How can he deduce all this from a single alleged cannonball?  Plus, if the warring factions on Mars possessed weapons sufficient to destroy the atmosphere, why the hell would they bother with cannons?  It'd be like Luke Skywalker et al. trying to defeat the Stormtroopers using slings, stones, and catapults.

Oh, wait.  They did that, in Return of the Jedi.  My bad.

But my feeling is still that Waring is batting zero.  A pity, really, because it would be so cool if the Mars lander had stumbled upon some evidence of Martian life.  On the other hand, maybe it's better that there are no Martian bunnies.  I have enough trouble keeping the ordinary terrestrial bunnies out of our vegetable garden as it is; it would suck if I had to worry about an invasion of alien bunnies.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bow chicka woo woo

I've said it more than once; one of my dearest hopes is to live long enough to see unequivocal proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.  A lot of people share this desire, to judge by the popularity of shows like the various iterations of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost in Space, not to mention dozens of movies, of which Stargate, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey stand out in my memory, the last-mentioned because it demonstrates the general principle that there is no idea so interesting that someone can't elaborate upon it in such a way as to make it catastrophically boring.

The fascination our species has with aliens also explains the fact that people keep seeing them.  As far as I've seen -- and I've read a lot of accounts of UFOs and so on -- they fall into two categories:
  1. People misidentifying ordinary non-alien phenomena, such as the cop who was chasing a UFO as he was driving down a winding road, and it turned out that what he was chasing was the planet Venus.
  2. Outright hoaxes.
Sad to say, I've yet to see a claim that's convinced me, although I'd sure like to.  For me, though, it'd have to be pretty persuasive -- it's all too easy to be fooled.  But if an alien ship landed in my back yard, and three-eyed blue guys from the planet Gzork came out to shake my hand with their tentacles, I'd have no choice other than to believe.

Or, as in the case of David Huggins of Georgia, who is releasing a documentary (available for streaming) on December 12 in which he claims that he not only contacted aliens, he had sex with 'em.

Amor Alien by Laura Molina [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The documentary, which is titled (I shit you not) Love & Saucers, described his repeated liaisons with an alien named "Crescent," with whom he had sixty hybrid half-human, half-alien children.  Which makes me wonder: do these aliens have litters, like dogs?  Because if each child was the product of one (1) sex act and one (1) pregnancy, they either have a hell of a short gestation period or else they are really horny.  Huggins is now in his seventies, and he said his first time having sex with Crescent was when he was 17, so that is (give or take) fathering a child a year from ages 17 to seventy-something.

Which is a lot of hot human/alien whoopee.

Despite all of this, he had enough zip left to father a human son with his human wife, Janet, although the article does say that David and Janet Huggins are now divorced.  Understandable, considering the number of times he cheated on her with his extraterrestrial girlfriend.

And apparently Crescent didn't just pay him conjugal visits in his home, she also brought him back to her spaceship.  She forbade Huggins from telling anyone about their liaisons and their children.  The prohibition apparently didn't accomplish much, because not only has Huggins made a documentary, he's written a book, and done numerous paintings (most of them highly NSFW) of him fucking an alien.

Which to me is more than a little skeevy.

Be that as it may, I have my doubts about the story on a purely biological basis.  If there was a life form who had evolved on another planet, completely separated from Earth, there is no reason to expect they would be sexually compatible with humans, including having orifices and appendages of the right size and shape, if you get my drift.  Furthermore, even if alien life is DNA based -- which is possible, as DNA nucleotides are abiotically synthesizable under the right conditions -- it is extremely unlikely that it would be similar enough to ours that we could produce viable hybrids, given that most terrestrial species can't interbreed and produce offspring.

But maybe Crescent took care of all that in her spaceship's laboratory, I dunno.

So anyway, when the documentary is available next week, I highly recommend watching it, if for no other reason the humor value.  As far as Huggins's account, though, I'm not buying it.  My guess is that it's nothing more than a prurient imagination and desire for fame and attention.  Me, I'm hoping that if the aliens do land in my back yard, they won't be looking for love.  For one thing, I'm happily married, and my wife would disapprove.  For another, my kids are grown and living on their own, and the last thing I want at this stage in my life is to be changing the diapers of a half-alien, half-human baby.