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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

iPads and the war on morality

Once again, conservative columnist Brent Bozell is after (1) the high tech industry, and (2) the purveyors of popular media.

Anyone who reads Bozell's column regularly is probably wondering why this is even deserving of mention, as it seems to be about all he ever talks about.  If you simply wrote out the phrase, "The Internet and the entertainment industry are destroying the morals of America's youth!" and read it every week, it would save you reading his column, which takes valuable minutes of your life that you'll never get back.

Be that as it may, I read Bozell's column every once in a while, and this morning perused his latest screed, titled "New Gadgets, New Worries."  This article was a response to the statement by Mike Elgan of PC World magazine that Apple's iPad is going to be "the children's Toy of the Year."  Predictably, Bozell treated this statement as if it were a coded way of saying, "Parents are once again tossing their children into the maw of hell."  Elgan himself refers to the iPad as a "kid pacifier" (in situations such as long car rides), and states that inevitably kids will end up monopolizing an iPad if the parent owns one; "The path of least resistance is for the parent to get the kids an iPad of their own."  Bozell responds that this will open up another avenue of assault against children using the weapon of graphically violent or sexual video material (including not only games, but actual television shows viewable on the iPad).

There are a variety of grounds on which I question Bozell's arguments (and Elgan's, too, as you'll see).

First, one has to wonder if Bozell has ever heard of the term "source bias."  Of course Elgan thinks that the iPad is going to be the Toy of the Year; he works for PC World magazine, for cryin' out loud.  It's hardly likely that an article in PC World is going to claim that this year's Toy of the Year is the frisbee.  Further, Elgan's statement about parents buying their kids iPads sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, in my opinion.  Market prices (I looked around and they seem to start at around $500) are simply out of the range of most families to afford.

But Elgan's bias and pipe dreams are minor sins against the gods of logic as compared to Bozell's.  As usual, he paints children as helpless dupes, pawns in the entertainment industry's war on morals, and parents as even more helpless -- weak-spined jellyfish who cave at every whine our kids emit.  Well, listen up, Mr. Bozell (okay, I know he probably doesn't read my blog, but just humor me here) -- I teach morals and ethics as part of my class in Critical Thinking, and in my experience the high school students I deal with have a sophisticated, well-considered sense of right and wrong.  They may be more forgiving of transgressions that were taboo when you and I were teenagers (e.g. sex before marriage), but by and large, they are respectful of authority, understand and honor commitments, and believe that telling the truth matters.  They may watch South Park and Family Guy, but they know the difference between fiction and/or satire and real life, seemingly better than you do.

And another thing, Mr. Bozell; you seem to have the attitude that if a kid begs for something, parents have no other choice than to acquiesce.  Let me suggest a radical proposal; if the regular readers of your column are alarmed at the sex and violence on television, they should turn the damn thing off.  That's what I did, when my kids were little.  Actually, I went a further step.  We live in the middle of nowhere (the original Podunk is about five miles from my home -- so I don't even live in Podunk, U.S.A., I live in the outskirts of Podunk).  This means that without a satellite dish, we have no television reception at all.  My solution:  no dish.  The question of what the kids were watching when I wasn't around became a non-issue; they could watch the TV all the time, if they for some reason enjoyed static, snow, and white noise.  We had videos and DVDs, of our choice, for them to watch on occasion.  And you know what?  My now twenty-year-old thanked me a while back for limiting their access to television when they were young -- for having the guts to make that choice, for not letting the television become a babysitter, for not exposing them to the rampant commercialism of public media, which to me is more of an issue than the sexuality and violence.

The bottom line is; kids are smarter and more moral than you think, and parents not quite the hapless dimwits you claim they are.  Give credit to someone other than yourself for some brains and ethical standards, and for the love o' pete, find a new topic to blather on about.  This one's getting old.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday blues

Today is the day on which I will not go within ten miles of the nearest mall or department store, namely, Black Friday.

Please understand that I mean no disrespect to people who love shopping.  Everyone has their hobbies, and I wouldn't expect others necessarily to participate, or even understand, mine.  Take birdwatching, for example.  I zoomed out of the door at just before 8 AM on Thanksgiving day, drove almost 30 miles, and stood on the lake shore in the freezing wind clutching my binoculars, because there'd been a report of a King Eider (a rare species of duck) at Myer's Point on Cayuga Lake.  Me and two other equally insane birdwatchers shivered in the cold for a half hour, scanning all of the hundreds of ducks bobbing out there in the lake, and finally, after all that work and discomfort... we didn't see the bird.

And, oddly, none of us felt like we'd wasted our time.  "Ha ha, these things happen, if you're a birdwatcher," was our basic response, and I've no doubt if the King Eider suddenly reappears, all three of us will rush right back without a second thought.

So people, in the throes of a pastime, will do some pretty odd things.  Add to that the bonus of getting a good deal, money-wise, and you've got a combination that leads people to engage in behavior that under normal circumstances would be grounds for a psychiatric evaluation.

The news reports are already beginning to come in... apparently the parking lot of the Toys "R" Us in Nanuet, New York was already full by 10 PM on Thanksgiving night.  This means that these people are going to sleep in their cars, or (more likely) stand in line in the cold and dark, to be amongst the first to be able to shop.  Myself, I'd choose the King Eider over that in a heartbeat.  I might even choose a root canal.

What I find the most amusing about this is how we as a society let ourselves be drawn in to media-driven rituals.  I'm not even talking about Christmas and Easter and so on, because those were holidays of long standing, with religious significance and replete with traditions, long before the media got involved.  I'm more thinking of the ones that the media and corporations either created (e.g. Black Friday) or morphed so drastically from their original versions and purpose that they're virtually unrecognizable (e.g. Halloween).  And we allow ourselves to be drawn in.  We dress our kids up as Batman, Superman, the Little Mermaid, and so forth, with the traditional plastic masks with poorly-lined-up eyeholes, on October 31 because that's what the media says we should do.  As an experiment to support this, I challenge you to dress your kid up as, say, Shrek on April 17, and send him out to knock on your neighbors' door and say "Trick or Treat."  Odds are, it won't work.  Odds also are that your neighbors will begin to wonder if you yourself need to up the dosage on one or more of your prescriptions.

Once again, I'm not questioning the motives of people who participate in these activities because they think they're fun; I'm more thinking about the folks like myself who actually loathe shopping,  but they go out on Black Friday anyhow, because "that's just what you do."  For myself, I can't imagine allowing myself to be coerced into shopping.  I can barely even tolerate grocery shopping -- my idea of the proper technique for grocery shopping is to zoom down the aisles at 45 miles per hour, knocking over small children and little old ladies, while hurling various grocery items into the cart after barely looking at them to check and see if it's what I actually wanted to purchase.  Every once in a while this will mean that I buy something I really didn't intend to.  "Gerber Mashed Carrots?" Carol will ask, while putting away groceries.  "Our kids are 20 and 22 years old.  And you hate carrots."  But I consider this a small price to pay, if it allows me to beat my previous record time for completing my shopping list.

In any case, if you love shopping and deals and Black Friday, I hope you enjoy yourself.  Me, I'm sticking close to home today.  Unless that King Eider comes back.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some call me the pumpkin of love

So here I sit, in a food-induced coma, and I was reading the news (being that that's about the most active thing I could consider doing at the moment).  And lo, I ran across a story in which researchers have found that men consider the smell of pumpkins sexually arousing.

I am not making this up, and if you don't believe me, go here.  Apparently, Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago decided to do a study to, and I quote, "investigate the impact of ambient olfactory stimuli upon sexual response in the human male."  And upon much research, they found that the smell that ranked number one in the, um, ready-to-party department was... pumpkin.

Apparently, the response was especially pronounced when the pumpkin smell was combined with lavender.  And when you added the smell of doughnuts... well, it caused horniness levels that pegged the meters.  All of which made me think, "Were the guys just hungry?"

You may be wondering how they measured all of this stuff.  I know I did, so I did a little research into it.  It turned out that while the guys in the study were breathing air infused with various scents, the researchers were measuring blood flow into their naughty bits.  Blood flow increases during sexual arousal, so there you are.  And lemme tell you, that pumpkin/lavender/doughnut combination really did the trick.

My next question was, who thought of that combination?  It seems like a pretty weird trio to put together.  Did the researchers try various other combinations, and they didn't work so well, and they kept combining random scents until they found one that caused the test subject to get an erection?  "Let's see... bologna/caramel/anchovy... nope.  Cinnamon/shrimp/peanut butter... nope.  Vinegar/chocolate/bacon... nope."  Until they finally happened to hit on pumpkin/lavender/doughnut, and they found that one was, as it were, hard to beat.

The thing I found the funniest was that although the Triple Threat of pumpkin/lavender/doughnut worked the best, none of the scents turned guys off.  The reason I found this funny is that most guys could have told you that without lots of expensive research.  If a pretty, willing young woman wanted to get seriously amorous in, say, a sewage treatment facility, I suspect that most guys would not be dissuaded by a trivial little thing like an odor so bad that it's actually visible.  Now, the women, on the other hand... in my experience, women are thousands of times more sensitive to odors than guys are.  My wife will come home, and will immediately wrinkle her nose and say, "What in god's name is that smell?" and it will turn out that one of the cats puked up bits of dead rodent in five separate locations in the living room, and I didn't notice a thing.  Now, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that I am simply oblivious, but I know that other guy friends have corroborated my experience -- women are just more sensitive to smells.  This, I suspect, also explains why guys' locker rooms smell, by and large, like your face is wrapped in a bundle of dirty sweat socks, and nobody seems to mind it all that much.  I can't vouch for what the ladies' locker room smells like, having never been in there, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb in speculating that it's better.

In any case, I can't wait to see what's going to happen when the perfume manufacturers get a hold of this research.  We'll have a whole new line of ladies' scents, with names like "Chanel Eau de Pumpkinne."

It's also not without irony, nor is it probably a coincidence, that this article came out on Thanksgiving.  So enjoy your pumpkin pie... and its aftereffects.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vaa vaa vlack sheep

We humans are laboring under the sometimes false impression that our sensory organs, and the brain integrative centers that interpret the input they provide, are reliable.  We hope that they are reliable most of the time -- after all, science itself would be a massive self-delusion if the percent of wrong data our senses provide was much larger than 1%.  The error, of course, is in assuming that because our sensory organs and brain are reliable much of the time, that they are reliable all of the time.

The most common example of sensory misinterpretation is the optical illusion.  There are a number of weird, and largely unexplained, optical illusions at this page (I use several of the ones on this site in my Brain & Senses class when we discuss the visual integrative systems in the brain).  And while these illusions are charming and fascinating, there's a lesser-known one that I want to consider today.

Called the McGurk effect, this phenomenon is a type of brain confusion that occurs when what your ears are telling you and what your eyes are telling you are at odds.  Think, for example, of how much easier it is to understand someone's speech in a crowded, noisy pub if you're looking at him while he talks.  (The same thing in part explains why it's so easy to mishear someone on the telephone, when you have no visual cues to support what you're hearing.)

What if, however, what you're hearing and what you're seeing don't line up?  Common sense might dictate that since what we're talking about is the interpretation of sounds, that hearing would win -- that if your ears told you that you were hearing one phoneme, and your eyes told you you were hearing another, your brain would give more credence to your ears.

This, in fact, isn't what happens, and thus the McGurk effect.  Watch the following video (here) if you don't believe me.  In it, psychologist Dr. Lawrence Rosenblum forces your brain into a perceptual no-win situation by saying the syllable "ba" while overlapping it with a video of him saying "va."  Amazingly enough, the brain hears "va."

And the effect is quite robust -- you can't make it go away once you've understood what's going on, the way you can with many simple optical illusions.  It's instantaneous and quite unambiguous.  While watching the clip, in the segment where he's saying "ba" and we're seeing "va" over and over, I tried shutting my eyes and blocking the visual input for every other syllable.  And what I heard was... "ba va ba va ba va."  As soon as my eyes were open, my visual cortex overrode my auditory cortex, even as my prefrontal cortex was shouting at it, "Hey!  You!  You're being tricked!  Don't believe it!"

You might think that rationalists like myself would be dismayed at this, relying as we do on our brains' ability to distinguish fact from fiction, perception from illusion.  My reaction is quite the opposite.  Our brains are generally so good at picking up, sorting out, and making sense of the chaotic mishmash of sensory input we get bombarded with that the few instances that they don't work stand out.  Optical illusions, and such sensory-clash phenomena as the McGurk effect, want explanation precisely because our brains are amazingly good at detecting, interpreting, and storing information.

And that's probably why we find them so fascinating.  It's definitely why I've watched the McGurk effect video clip three times, and each time I try unsuccessfully to get the effect to vanish with a variety of tricks -- deliberately blurring my vision, concentrating on his forehead instead of his mouth, and so on.  It's also why I'll be paying closer attention to looking at my friends' faces next time I'm chatting with them in a crowded pub.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

You are a magnet, and I am steel

One of my students brought to my attention the claims of Miroslaw Magola, the Polish man who claims that metal objects spontaneously stick to his body.  (Visit his website here.)

Magola attributes this phenomenon to psychokinesis and his ability to "load his body with energy;" others have tried to explain it by saying that he is able to "concentrate and focus a magnetic field."

Upon doing a bit of research, I found that Magola is not alone in making such claims.  There's also Liew Thow Lin of Malaysia (read about him here), who not only says that metal objects stick to his body (and there are photos on the website showing him, lo, with metal objects stuck to his body) but that it's evidently genetic,  because his son has the same ability.

All of this makes me wonder how these men would manage to walk through, for example, the kitchenware section of an Ikea.  You'd think that they would become the center of a whirlwind of flying kitchen implements, rather like a scene from the movie Carrie, and would end up with paring knives and cheese graters and vegetable peelers protruding from their bodies.

James Randi, the venerable debunker of all things psychic, has investigated Magola, and apparently put paid to his animal magnetism by the simple expedient of sprinkling talcum powder on the metal object he was trying to adhere himself to.  After such a treatment, his power mysteriously vanished.  Randi has stated that his conclusion is that Magola either is making use of the natural stickiness of skin oils, or (more likely) has coated his skin with a thin layer of adhesive. 

You'd think that'd be case closed, but some people are not to be discouraged by a simple thing like a controlled experiment.  Magola, apparently undaunted by his failure, responded by making a YouTube video "debunking Randi," in which he is shown, sitting in front of a variety of metal objects, and he sprinkles talcum powder on one, and proceeds to make it stick to his hand.

Well, that's all well and good.  I find myself highly suspicious when an alleged psychic can't demonstrate his/her powers under controlled conditions -- it fails in Randi's lab, but when he's by himself, his ability miraculously reappears.  I'm reminded of the dreadfully uncomfortable experience of watching Uri Geller have his clocks cleaned on the Johnny Carson show -- Geller, the Israeli psychic spoon-bender, couldn't so much as bend a paperclip when he wasn't allowed to provide his own props.  He attributed his failure to "the atmosphere of suspicion and pressure" that Carson had created, and followed it up by saying that he "wasn't feeling strong tonight."  That didn't wash with Carson (who had spent time as a professional magician, and knew how easy it was to bamboozle people), and it doesn't wash with me, either -- not in Geller's case, and not in Magola's.  I don't know about you, but I think it's a little puzzling that Magola can only do his funny stuff on his own terms.

All of this brings up one of my biggest criticisms of psychics of all stripes; the fact that they explain away their failures by blaming the skeptics.  "Your disbelief is interfering with the phenomenon," is something you hear all too often from Camp Woo-Woo.  My question is, "why would it?"  If whatever psychic phenomenon you pick -- let's say, telekinesis, since that's what Magola, Lin, and Geller all claimed they could do -- only works when no one suspicious is present, then all I can say is, that's mighty convenient.  It reminds me of the character of Invisible Boy on the movie Mystery Men -- he's capable of becoming invisible,  but only when no one is looking.

And, of course, I always am looking for a mechanism.  If you think you're magnetic, I want you to explain to me how it works without resorting to jargon-laden phrases that mean nothing, like "focusing psychic energy fields."  If you say you can move objects with your mind, I want you to do it while undergoing a brain scan, and see what's happening in your brain that the rest of us slobs don't seem to be able to manage to get ours to do.

I find myself in complete agreement with a character from a book by, of all people, C. S. Lewis.  His skeptical scientist MacPhee, in That Hideous Strength, says, "If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I'll  be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

To which I can only say; amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The spectrum of nonsense

If you're looking for a new job, the Roman Catholic Church has announced that it's holding a training session in Baltimore for exorcists.

I suspect you have to be a priest first, however, but I don't know that for sure.  What's certain is that you have to have your level of credulousness set on "Dark Ages."

"There's this small group of priests who say they get requests from all over the continental U.S.," Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, said, adding, "Actually, each diocese should have its own exorcist."

I'm certain that's true in the diocese I grew up in, down in southern Louisiana.  Demonic possession seemed to run rife there, with people taking off the majority of their clothes, running in the streets, throwing things, and howling.  Oh, wait... that was Mardi Gras.  Never mind.

If you're interested in becoming an exorcist, the first step, apparently, is to recognize demonic possession.  The signs, say church officials, include "scratching, cutting, or biting of the skin; profound displays of strength; and a strong or violent reaction to holy water."

No mention, I might add, was made of rotating your head a full 360 degrees or puking up pea soup.

There seems to me to be a spectrum of nonsense in this world.  There is the ridiculous-but-basically-harmless (believing your favorite shirt will bring you good luck), to beliefs that get in the way of your own life but don't hurt anyone else (buying into global conspiracy theories), to beliefs that cause widespread harm (believing that you have a mandate from god to kill others).  If you inserted a belief in demonic possession in there, it'd probably come between the conspiracy theories and the jihad against unbelievers -- wasting time with flinging around holy water delays, or perhaps prevents, the subject of the exorcism from getting the psychiatric help (s)he probably needs.

Whenever I'm critical of religion, it makes some people cringe.  "It's my religion" has been seen as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card -- you can say what you want about beliefs in other venues, but religion is some sort of "other realm" which is, and should be, free from examination by the critical lens of skepticism.  My question is:  why is this so?  If the tenets of religion are true (presumably one particular religion, as they are mutually contradictory in their beliefs), then it says something pretty profound about how the universe works -- and that profound underpinning should be reflected in all levels.  Put another way, if some religious view of the universe is correct, its effects should be detectable and analyzable, whether or not you believe in it.

But most people don't see it that way.  Beliefs that would strike people as completely ridiculous are somehow shrugged off if they've become part of an accepted religious scheme (try considering the practical details of how the whole Noah-and-the-Great-Flood story would have worked, and ask yourself, for example, how the wombats got from Australia to Palestine in time to catch the ark, and then back again when the flood was over.  Not to mention the somewhat larger question of "where did all the water go?")

Likewise our Roman Catholic Demon Evicters.  Most folks who read the story, which came out this weekend, seemed to say, "Oh, well, it's part of the Catholic religion," instead of doing what I did, which was to smack my forehead and say, "What century are we living in?"

I know that I'm fighting a losing battle, here -- most people are unlikely to stop and ask the question of whether someone else's religious beliefs make logical sense, whether they are consistent with what we know about how the universe works.  They are even less likely to do it with their own beliefs.  I keep hoping that stories like the "Help Wanted: Exorcists" piece that came out this weekend will jolt people into stepping back and saying, "Hey, is all this stuff actually true?" but I think I'm fated to be disappointed once again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The drinking habits of cats

I did again what I shouldn't do, namely, read the "Comments" section on an article in the Yahoo! news.

The article, a fun little piece that came out day before yesterday, describes how engineers at MIT have figured out how cats drink.  Originally, it was thought that they curled the ends of their tongues to form a ladle (which is evidently how dogs do it).  But using high-speed photography, the MIT researchers figured out that this isn't what they're doing at all -- they're darting their tongues so fast (the cats, not the engineers) that it creates an upward-flowing column of liquid held together by cohesion.  The tongue is apparently moving at exactly the optimal speed to create an upward flow without the column breaking up.

So, I was reading this, thinking what a charming piece of research this is, with applications both to engineering and to evolutionary biology, and feeling pretty happy.  Then I scrolled down and started reading the comments.  Here is a sampler for your perusal.  Spelling and grammar are left intact, so you can get the full effect.

"This is what these scientists are spending there government funding on?  Cut em off and make em start working for there money like everyone else."

"How much of our tax dollars funded this research."

"Wait a minute.  China is holding the worlds purse strings... and researchers at our best college are studying cats drinking habits?  WTF?"

"its only money goverments love to waste it aslong they get there share line there pockets
so its no odds at all do it all the time nomatter who gets in they will always steal from the public pursemisuse taxpayers money"


Okay, enough.  You get the picture.  Now, for my response.  The more sensitive members of the studio audience may want to avert their eyes.

WILL YOU CRETINOUS, IGNORANT, ANTI-INTELLECTUAL MORONS PLEASE JUST RETURN TO THE CAVES FROM WHENCE YOU CAME, AND STOP PRETENDING YOU HAVE THE BRAINS TO COMMENT ON ANYTHING MORE COMPLEX THAN WHAT HAPPENED LAST NIGHT ON "JERSEY SHORE?"

First:  no tax dollars whatsoever were "wasted" on this research.  MIT's engineering research lab is funded by a private endowment.

Second:  knowledge of how the world works is important in and of itself.  This kind of knowledge is called "science."

Third:  the people who engage in this kind of commentary, despite the fact that they seem to have a single Froot Loop where most people have a brain, fail to take into account how many practical applications have come from pure research that seemed, at first, to have no connection to the "real world."  Here are just a few:

1)  Two researchers, George Beadle and Edward Tatum, were studying nutrition in a mold called Neurospora, and were particularly interested in why some strains of Neurospora starved to death even when given adequate amounts of food.  Their research generated the concept of "one gene-one protein" -- the basis of our understanding of how genes control traits.

2)  Charles Richet was studying how the toxin of a rare species of jellyfish affects the body.  His research led to the discovery of how anaphylactic shock works -- and led to the development of the epi pen, saving countless lives from death because of bee sting allergies.

3)  Wilhelm Roentgen was researching the newly-invented cathode-ray tube, which at that point had no practical applications whatsoever.  That is, he was playing around.  He noticed that when he activated the tube, even though it was completely covered, some fluorescent papers at the other end of the room began to glow in the dark.  He had just discovered x-rays.

4)  Alexander Fleming was something of a ne'er-do-well in the scientific world.  He did a lot of raising of bacteria on plates, and his favorite hobby was to take brightly-colored species of bacteria and paint them on agar media to make pictures.  One day, a mold spore blew in and landed on one of his picture-cultures and spoiled it.  His further messing-about with how the mold spoiled the culture led to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin.

5)  Roy Plunkett was working with gases that could be used to quickly cool vessels in scientific experiments, and after one failure he found that the vessel was left coated with a slick substance.  He eventually named it "Teflon."

And so forth.

I think the problem, honestly, is that far too many people have an erroneous idea of how science works -- that scientists clock in at 8 AM, and consult their Scientific Method Rules List, and proceed to make discoveries, then clock out at 5 PM and go home to their wives and 2.5 children.  Very little science actually works this way, going in a straight line from A to B.  Much more of it is just inquiry into a little bit of the world that strikes the researchers' curiosity -- and this is everything from the oddball experiments that never have any practical applications whatsoever to the pure research that ends up saving lives or transforming society.  Most of the best science comes from the curious, agile minds of men and women who are pursuing research to explain things they wonder about, and shedding a little light on one small piece of the universe about which we were ignorant.  The rest of us common folk should be thankful that these people are doing what they're doing, because you know what?  Every piece of technology, every medical advance, all the things that make modern society possible, were developed by scientists.

And toward that end, I do wish that the Yahoo! posters would either educate themselves, or else simply do what I do when I am ignorant on a topic -- namely, shut the hell up.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The law of small numbers

Yesterday, I had a perfectly dreadful day.

The events varied from the truly tragic (receiving news that a former student had been killed in an automobile accident) to the awful but mundane (finding out that my son was not getting $2000 of financial aid we counted on, because the financial aid office screwed up and sent the papers to the wrong address) to the "I'll-probably-laugh-about-this-later-but-right-now-I'm-not" (finding out that my dog, Grendel, has figured out how to climb our chain-link fence, and so now has to be escorted outside on a leash every time he wants to go potty) to the completely banal (a school meeting that left me feeling like I'm ready to find another career).

All of this brought to mind the idea of streaks of bad (or good) luck -- something that you find people so completely convinced of that it's nearly impossible to get them to break their conviction that it sometimes happens.  We've all had days when everything seems to go wrong -- when we have what my dad used to call "the reverse Midas touch -- everything you touch turns to crap."  There are also, regrettably fewer, days when we seem to have inordinately good fortune.  My question of the day is:  is there something to this?

Of course, regular readers of this blog are already anticipating that I'll answer "no."  There are actually three reasons to discount this phenomenon.  Two have already been the subjects of previous blog posts, so I'll only mention them in brief.

One is the fact that the human brain is wired to detect patterns.  We tend to take whatever we perceive and try to fit it into an understandable whole.  So when several things go wrong in a row -- even when, as with my experiences yesterday, they are entirely unrelated occurrences -- we try to make them into a pattern.

The second is confirmation bias -- the tendency of humans to use insignificant pieces of evidence to support what we already believe to be true, and to ignore much bigger pieces of evidence to the contrary.  I had four bad things, of varying degrees of unpleasantness, occur yesterday.  By mid-day I had already decided, "this is going to be a bad day."  So any further events -- the school meeting, for example -- only reinforced my assessment that "this day is going to suck."  Good things -- like the fact that my classes actually went rather well, like the fact that lovely wife brought me a glass of red wine last night after dinner -- get submerged under the unshakable conviction that the day was a lost cause.

It's the third one I want to consider more carefully.

I call it the Law of Small Numbers.  Simply put:  in any sufficiently small data sample, you will find anomalous, and completely meaningless, patterns.

To take a simple model:  let's consider flipping a fair coin.  You would expect that if you flip said coin 1000 times, you will find somewhere near 500 heads and 500 tails.  On the other hand, what if you look at any particular run of, say, six flips?

In any six-flip run, the statisticians tell us, all possible combinations are equally likely; a pattern of HTTHTH has exactly the same likelihood of showing up as does HHHHHH -- namely, 1/64.  The problem is that the second looks like a pattern, and the first doesn't.  And so if the second sequence is the one that actually emerges, we become progressively more amazed as head after head turns up -- because somehow, it doesn't fit our concept of the way statistics should work.  In reality, if the second pattern amazes us, the first should as well -- when the fifth coin comes up tails, we should be shouting, "omigod, this is so weird" -- but of course, the human mind doesn't work that way, so it's only the second run that seems odd.

All of this brings up how surprisingly hard it is for statisticians to model true randomness.  If a sequence of numbers (for example) is truly random, all possible combinations of two numbers, three numbers, four numbers, and so on should be equally likely.  So, if you have a truly random list of (say) ten million one-digit numbers, there is a possibility that somewhere on that list there are ten zeroes in a row.  It would look like a meaningful pattern -- but it isn't.

This is part of what makes it hard to create truly randomized multiple-choice tests.  As a science teacher, I frequently give my classes multiple-choice quizzes, and I try to make sure that the correct answers are placed fairly randomly.  But apparently, there's a tendency for test writers to stick the correct answer in the middle of the list -- thus the high school student's rule of thumb, which is, "if you don't know the answer, guess 'c'."

Randomness, it would seem, is harder to detect (and create) than most people think.  And given our tendency to see patterns where there are none, we should be hesitant to decide that the stars are against us on certain days.  In fact, we should expect days where there are strings of bad (or unusually good) occurrences.  It's bound to happen.  It's just that we notice it when several bad things happen on the same day, and don't tend to notice when they're spread out, because that, somehow, "seems more random" -- when, in reality, both distributions are random.

I keep telling myself that.  But it is hard to quell what my mind keeps responding -- "thank heaven it's a new day - it's bound to be better than yesterday was."

Well, maybe.  I do agree with what my dad used to tell me: "I'd rather be an optimist who is wrong than a pessimist who is right."  I'm just hoping that the statisticians don't show up and burst my bubble.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The world's biggest leak

Very few figures in the news lately have been as polarizing as Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

Assange and the other senior members of WikiLeaks have, as their stated goal, the publication of secret government documents.  Their justification for this is that in their view, covert activities are inherently evil -- that any time a group of people is allowed to work under the cover of secrecy, it will always result in immoral acts.  Assange and his people are working to "remove the shroud of secrecy" from governmental dealings, and toward that end, they have published tens of thousands of pages worth of leaked government documents.  My friend, that is not a leak, that is a gusher.

Assange is not, apparently, limiting his targets to those on American soil; his next goal, by his own words, is to "out Russia."  Assange told reporters for a Moscow newspaper, "We have [compromising materials] about Russia, about your government and businessmen. But not as much as we'd like ... We will publish these materials soon."

Assange's actions bring up a variety of questions.  First of all, is his premise correct -- that a government (or any agency) working in secrecy is bound to commit immoral acts?  This seems to me to be an overgeneralization -- although I will admit that secrecy does lend itself to bringing out the worst in humans (witness the actions of the "40 Group" and its covert operations in Chile to prevent duly elected president Salvador Allende from taking office in 1970 -- the results of which were not public knowledge until many years later).

On the other hand, are there some things that a government should keep secret from its people?  I believe the answer to be yes; if an informant tells the CIA about the location of a bomb hidden in the middle of an American city, it would be idiotic to then make the name of the informant publicly known.  Of course, like many things,  it's a fine line -- it's hard to tell when secrecy to protect legitimate government interests in the safety of its people crosses into secrecy as its own raison d'ĂȘtre.  And since the very people who are engaging in the covert acts are often the ones who are making the decisions about what the people "need to know," it does lead to the possibility of abuses.

Myself, I tend to think that unless there is a pressing and immediate reason to the contrary, openness is better than secrecy.  And while I think that Assange's wholesale outing of top-secret documents is foolhardy at best, and treasonous at worst (Assange himself refuses to set foot on American soil for fear of being arrested and charged with espionage), I think that someone needs to keep tabs on the government other than people in the government.  I'm glad that I live in the United States,  but I'm also not fool enough to think that our government always does the right thing.  "My country, right or wrong" -- but let's man up and admit it when we're wrong, okay?

Lastly, you simply have to admire Assange's guts.  The guy, to put it bluntly, has brass balls.  Some people have criticized him, saying that his actions aren't the selfless crusade against big government that he claims, but are the actions of a petty, narcissistic egotist who simply wants to be the center of the world's attention.  I find this a little hard to believe -- the kind of attention he's getting is definitely not the kind that most of us crave.  In fact, if I were him, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night for fear that some Secret Service operative had his sniper rifle sights trained on my sorry ass.  (And now, of course, he also has the Russians to worry about.  I hope for his sake that he doesn't take on the Israelis -- they'll take him out.  Those Mossad dudes are some mean mofos.)

In any case, keep your eye on Assange and his crew.  Whatever you think of his actions, or his motives, he never fails to provide interesting news.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The fallback plan

This weekend (actually, at 2 AM on Sunday), most of the United States will return from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time.  My general response is, "Yippee."  (You will have to imagine my sarcastic tone, here, as I realize that it doesn't carry well in print.)

Daylight Saving Time began during World War I, and was devised both to save on the fuel required to power indoor lighting, and to allow farmers longer to work their fields during the summer.  (Why the farmers would have cared what the clock said, I have no idea -- it's not as if most farmers punch a time card.)  We spring forward by an hour in March, then fall back in November, except for Arizona, which doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time at all (which makes for serious confusion in the Mountain Time Zone, in which Arizona has the same time for half the year and is an hour different for half the year.  This is probably done to discourage illegal immigrants, who will not know how to set their watches and then will fail to show up for the interviews for all of the millions of lucrative jobs they are attempting to steal from tax-paying American citizens.).

There has recently been a push to eliminate Standard Time (i.e., to stay on Daylight Saving Time for the entire year).  I, for one, am all for it.  I live in the frozen north, where the winter days are all too short, and by December I am going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark.  If we stayed on Daylight Saving Time, at least I'd have a half-hour of light (if you can dignify the gray, washed out stuff upstate New York sees in the winter with the name "light") after I got home.  It would also eliminate the jerking around of people's sleep schedules, which plays hell with their health.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (here) found that the incidence of heart attacks nearly doubles in the first three days after switching the clocks; a 2008 Australian study (here) found that the three-week period following going onto Daylight Saving Time has the highest incidence of suicides; and the number of traffic accidents in northern areas jumps by 8% (Canada) to 11% (Sweden) immediately after the time change. 

Besides the hard scientific facts, there remains the much more trenchant reason to eliminate the time shifting; it's simply a stupid idea.  It may or may not have been a stupid idea when it was conceived -- I don't know enough about early 20th century economics to make an assessment.  However, it's a stupid idea now.  My mother used to get pissed off by it every year, mostly because we had about twenty clocks, all of which had to be set manually when the time shift came.  It was especially bad in fall, because several of these clocks were of the old-fashioned, pendulum clock variety, which would break if you turned the hands backwards, so instead of simply twisting the minute hand 360 degrees counterclockwise, you had to turn them eleven full circles forward.  In the case of two of them, which had a gong that rang every half hour, you had to pause while the gong chimed before you proceeded on to the next half-hour mark.

You can see why she was pissed off.

"It's such a ridiculous idea," I recall her saying.  "It's like cutting the top off a blanket, and sewing the piece onto the bottom to make it longer."

My mom and I often disagreed, but this is one case where I think she was spot on.  If you ask most people why we still have the bi-annual time shift, they'd probably say, "Because that's the way it's always been done."  I'm sorry, that's just not a good enough answer.  My wife has a poster in her office, showing a guy running away from the bulls in Pamplona.  The caption reads:  "Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean it's not a really stupid idea."

Exactly.  So, while I'll be forced to fall back with the rest of the United States (except for Arizona; don't tell the illegals), I don't have to be happy about it.  I promise not to commit suicide, and I'll do my best not to have a heart attack or a car accident, but I rather expect that we're in for a grumpy few days next week.  Be forewarned.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nine out of ten doctors recommend this blog!

According to a new study, alcohol is worse than heroin.

At least that's what the headline says.  (Read the original story here.)  Of course, when you read the actual story, you find out that that's in fact not what the study says -- or at least, is far enough away from what the study says to create a distinctly false impression.

What the study (originally published in the highly respected journal Lancet) did was to rank various legal and illegal drugs (and it correctly classified alcohol and tobacco as drugs) in order of the overall harm done to society.  In terms of sheer numbers, alcohol came out the clear favorite -- considering all of the deaths due to drunk driving, to heart and liver disease from overconsumption of alcohol, to loss of careers, marriages and friendships from alcoholism, no drug has the impact on society that alcohol does.

I'm not disputing the above facts at all.  However, what I object to -- as usual -- is the way the media, in their typical sound-byte fashion, has created a mistaken impression.

Re-read the headline.  If you read that -- and nothing else -- what would you think?  I don't know about you, but what I would take away from that is that to an individual it is worse to drink alcohol than to take heroin.

I know that the article's contents then go on to correct that impression, and I also agree with the statement that anyone who only reads the headline of an article deserves, on some level, to be misinformed.  But what I object to is that in order to sell subscriptions, or obtain readers, the members of the media will craft eyecatching, and often misleading, headlines -- and the public leaves with seriously erroneous information.

Consider, for example, the headlines when it was discovered that altering the levels of a single enzyme, telomerase, could extend the lives of roundworms by a factor of ten.  This is pretty impressive -- equivalent to a human living to be 800.  Of course, the article detailed that (1) the effect had yet to be demonstrated in humans, and (2) elevated levels of telomerase are thought to predispose tissue to becoming cancerous (cancer cells being, for all intents and purposes, immortal).  But what did the headline read?  "FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH ENZYME DISCOVERED."

I realize that a headline that said, "We found something that makes roundworms live longer" would not sell magazines.  But still, in the interest of not taking advantage of the credulous public, it seems to me that it would be better to err on the side of caution.

Back to the alcohol vs. heroin debate.  My main problem with this one is that people, in general, don't understand the concept of risk in the first place -- witness the number of people who are afraid of flying as compared to the number of people who are afraid of driving, and then compare the actual risk (number of people killed in the activity divided by the number of people who participate in the activity).  It reminds me of the comment by economist Dan Gilbert -- he showed a photograph of an airplane crash, a terrorist attack, a burning building, and a swimming pool, and asked which didn't belong.  "It's the swimming pool," he said.  "It's the only one up there which has a significant risk of killing you."

The misassessment of risk (and its partner, the misassessment of gain) is, for example, why people play the lottery and visit casinos.  It's why people accept high but familiar risks (driving) but refuse to take small but dramatic risks (flying).

It's also why I find the alcohol/heroin headline appalling.  While the overall damage done by alcohol to society is clearly greater than that done by heroin, compare the actual risk (percent likelihood of harm) of consuming alcohol as compared to taking heroin.  The likelihood of any given individual coming to harm from drinking is actually quite small, whereas everyone who takes heroin comes to harm from it.  Let me repeat that: the risk for alcohol is small (but non-zero); the risk for heroin is 100%.  Is that the impression that this headline gives?  Of course not.

I realize that it's not the media's fault if their readers are too ignorant to understand the subtleties of a particular story; their job is to inform the already-reasonably-well-educated, not to educate the foolish.  But that said, I think it's also incumbent upon them not to take advantage of the gullibility of the public when it comes to the types of thinking that almost everyone is bad at -- e.g., understanding risk.  The danger, to me, is not just that people leave misinformed -- it's that they sense that on some level they're being lied to, and end up distrusting not the sensationalism of the media, but the source of the study itself, i.e., the scientists.  The scientists themselves were clear about what their study did and did not accomplish; if the media garbles that, either accidentally or through a deliberate desire to misrepresent, it's hardly the scientists' faults.

It's always important to read the news with a critical eye -- as I always say to my classes, there's no such thing as unbiased media.  Even what stories they decide to cover implies a bias, in that they are making the decision of what warrants coverage and what does not.  But beyond that, the misrepresentation, and misunderstanding, of statistics is so common that it behooves us all to read a little more carefully when we see the word "data" -- whatever the headline of the article might have claimed.