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, January 31, 2013

Priming the paranormal

There's a familiar cliché, that "you see what you are looking for."  It's something that I think we can all relate to; our perception is often limited by what we already thought was there.  That our perceptual/integrative systems are inaccurate we've known for years; experiments have supported the conjecture that when our attention is focused, we can miss major features of what we're seeing.  (If you don't believe it, check out this amazing video -- it's less than two minutes long and will blow your mind.)  Further, when we already have preconceived notions about what we are going to see, we tend to find it whether it actually exists or not (this is the basis of the logical fallacy confirmation bias).

This latter point was the subject of a brilliant little study by Chris Jensen Romer, funded by the Society for Psychical Research, and which was just published this week.  It bounces off (and improves upon) a 1996 study by Houran and Lange, which looked at how individuals who are primed to notice "paranormal occurrences" in their houses mostly... do.

Romer's study, which is outlined in more detail here, involved five couples keeping a diary of "unusual or unexplainable experiences" that occurred in their homes over a one-month period (between October 17 and November 17, 2012).  Here were the instructions that were given to the couples who volunteered:
For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause
*Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
Of the five couples involved in the experiment, only one of them reported no experiences of any kind that fell into the categories listed.  The other four couples all reported varying numbers of odd observations; one couple said that these had occurred in the family car, but not in the home, a finding that Romer's analysis excluded as it did not fit the methodology, but which still supports Romer's conclusion quite nicely.  The other three couples all reported a great many goings-on, with one recording 22 overall "unusual experiences" -- just shy of one a day.

What's most interesting about this study is that consistently, the test subjects reported higher and higher frequencies of "unusual experiences" as the month progressed.  Although in my opinion it's still a small data set to draw any kind of rock-solid conclusion upon, the relationship looks linear -- the number of weird things you notice seems to be directly proportional to the amount of time you've spent looking for them.  This, Romer concludes, "... may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.  There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study."  It's evident that these peculiar little events happen all the time, and most of them (rightly) escape our notice; but when we're forced to notice them, we do, and then the ones we notice increase our certainty that "something strange is going on," and the whole thing snowballs.  Romer writes, "... I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer."  We only ascribe meaning to them when we're primed to -- when enough of them occur in rapid succession that we're forced to pay them more attention, when we already thought our house was haunted... or when we're asked to notice them and write them down.  After that, positive feedback takes over.

It's the psychological component of our perception that always makes me suspicious of eyewitness accounts.  People act as if we're highly accurate recorders of what we experience, when in reality our attention is selective and our memories highly unreliable.  Odd, then, that eyewitness testimony is considered one of the highest forms of evidence in courts of law, isn't it?  What Romer's study does is to cast further doubt on our ability to discern what constitutes out-of-the-ordinary occurrences -- which makes me even more suspicious of most of the alleged evidence of hauntings.

On the other hand, the whole thing has made me wonder a little about the scraping noise I keep hearing up in the attic.  Wonder if I should investigate?

Nah.  I'm sure it's nothing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Breaking news: UC scientist finds that the universe really isn't all that much like a brain

Sometimes I get really mad at the way popular media reports science.

Science does what it does by being precise.  Precise measurements of data; precise analyses of these data; precise use of words to describe assumptions, methodologies, conclusions.  Not, of course, that it is always free from error.  Like any human endeavor, its practitioners can make mistakes or draw erroneous inferences.  But this brings up the other critical aspect of science -- it self-corrects.  Bad science seldom lasts long, because peer review acts as a first-line defense, and even after publication, others in the field replicate, question, and test the conclusions that the researchers came to.

But then, of course, popular media get involved, and the first thing they often do is to muddy the waters.  They can't just report the damn story; they have to make it sound flashy and appealing, and as a result, they do a pretty good job of vaguing things up in the minds of non-scientists.

A particularly egregious example of this was published in Huffington Post yesterday.  The title of the piece immediately put my skepti-senses on red alert: "Physicists Find Evidence That the Universe is a 'Giant Brain.'"  The author, Michael Rundle, goes on to tell the reader that Dmitri Krioukov, of the University of California - San Diego, has shown that the universe has a lot in common with the brain.  The article starts out thusly:  "The idea of the universe as a 'giant brain' has been proposed by scientists -- and science fiction writers -- for decades.  But now physicists say there may be some evidence that it's true.  In a sense."

So, right off the bat, you're led to a woo-woo conclusion -- that the universe is some great big sentient intelligence, and the stars and nebulae and galaxies and all are the neurons.  Isn't that all just... cosmic?

The problem is, that isn't what Krioukov et al. are saying.  At all.  And Rundle himself hints at it, later in the article, although he sounds like he's kind of hesitant to bring it up:
The team's simulation modeled the very early life of the universe, shortly after the big bang, by looking at how quantum units of space-time smaller than subatomic particles 'networked' with each other as the universe grew.

They found that the simulation mirrored that of other networks. Some links between similar nodes resulted in limited growth, while others acted as junctions for many different connections.
For instance, some connections are limited and similar - like a person who likes sports visiting many other sports websites - and some are major and connect to many other parts of the network, like Google and Yahoo.

No, it doesn't quite mean that the universe is 'thinking' - but as has been previously pointed out online, it might just mean there's more similarity between the very small and the very large than first appearances suggest.
It doesn't quite mean that the universe is thinking?  How about it doesn't mean that AT ALL?  Let's take a look at the actual press release from the University of California about the research.  Oh, hey!  Look!  All we have to do is read the first two paragraphs:
The structure of the universe and the laws that govern its growth may be more similar than previously thought to the structure and growth of the human brain and other complex networks, such as the Internet or a social network of trust relationships between people, according to a new paper published in the science journal Nature’s Scientific Reports.

"By no means do we claim that the universe is a global brain or a computer," said Dmitri Krioukov, co-author of the paper, published by the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego. "But the discovered equivalence between the growth of the universe and complex networks strongly suggests that unexpectedly similar laws govern the dynamics of these very different complex systems."
Did you catch that?  It ain't subtle.  By no means do we claim that the universe is a global brain.  Right from one of the co-authors of the study.  So what's the HuffPost headline?  Let's take another look, shall we?  "Physicists Find Evidence That the Universe is a 'Giant Brain.'"

Krioukov et al. did a very intriguing piece of research; to show how the model of a networked system -- like the brain, or a social network, or the internet -- could have the same basic pattern, or map, as a model of the interactions between particles in the early universe.  Nowhere, nowhere does he say that the universe is brain-like in any other fashion.  But that's exactly the conclusion that Rundle would lead you to believe, isn't it?  If you don't think that this is how your average reader would interpret Rundle's article -- and especially any readers who already had woo-woo tendencies -- take a look at one of the posts from the comment section (you'll have to trust me that I copied this verbatim; there's only so many times you can write [sic] in one paragraph):
You need know the theoretical model of primordial galaxies made by Matrix/DNA Theory, where cells systems are exactly copies of those galaxies models. If neuronal cells are exactly like galaxies, the human brain must be a exactly copy of the Universe. But... we need remember that logics demands that there are living beings with brains and consciousnesses everywhere. My idea is that we are a kind of genes building some region or part of an embryo. Since our brain is shared by regions of functions, maybe the whole earth's consciousnesses is responsible by some region of Universes' embryo brain. Andromeda is responsible by other region, and so on. Finally: all humans will be one cosmic planetary mind, and all planetary minds will be one universal mind. Beautiful. You mist love and help any human being and any other lifeform conscious of this universe, because they are you and you are they, into one.
Wow.  I would feel so beautiful and universal and planetary, if I hadn't just finished slamming my forehead against the desk repeatedly.

Okay, I know people are gonna believe weird stuff.  It's kind of inevitable.  No matter what, there are going to be some uncritical thinkers out there.  But fer cryin' in the sink, we don't need the purveyors of popular media out there making things worse.  If they're going to report on science, the least they can do is not to interject their own crappy understanding of scientific principles into the freakin' headline.

All right, all right, I'll calm down, now.  I realize I shouldn't get so wound up about this stuff.  Isn't good for the blood pressure.  Maybe I should just relax and concentrate on soothing thoughts.  Maybe they'll be sent in from the "Andromeda region" of my brain.  Wouldn't that just be cosmic?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Remembrance of things past

I'm going to begin today's post with a bit of shameless self-promotion.  The wonderful site The Skeptic is sponsoring a contest to select (amongst other things) the best skeptical blog of 2012, and if you have read and enjoyed Skeptophilia, I'd like to toss aside my usual charming modesty and ask for your vote.  It takes only a moment -- click on the site link I posted above, and go down to the heading "Best Blog of 2012," and put in my website address (  I'd appreciate it immensely!


I've been interested in memory as long as I can remember.  Part of the reason is that my own personal brain seems to be made up of a rather peculiar assemblage of things I can remember with apparent ease and things that I don't seem to be able to remember at all.  I recall music with no effort whatsoever; I once put a nifty little Serbian dance tune into long-term storage for over twenty years after hearing it twice (and not practicing it or writing it down in the interim).  Names, likewise, stick with me; I know more scientific names of obscure species than is useful or even reasonable, and it's not from engaging in any sort of surreptitious memorization of taxonomic lists late at night when no one's looking.  That sort of stuff simply sticks.

On the other hand, numbers.  I know people who can remember what their phone number was in houses they haven't lived in for thirty years.  I'm lucky when I can remember what my phone number is now.  In this day of passwords, PINs, and so on, there are a variety of number/letter combinations I'm expected to remember, and the maximum amount of these I seem to be able to recall is: one.  For all of the passwords where this is possible, I use the same one.  If anyone ever discovers it, I'm royally screwed.  Fortunately, it's pretty obscure, so I don't think it's likely (meaning you shouldn't waste your time trying to figure it out).

It does, however, point up something odd about memory, which is how compartmentalized it is.  People can be exceptionally good at certain types of memory, and rather bad at others.  A few things, however, seem common to all sorts of memory; repetition improves retention, memory consolidation increases after sleep, and we all get worse at it (all types) as we age.

This last one is the subject of a recent bit of research published in Nature (available here), by Zhenzhong Cui, Ruiben Feng, Stephanie Jacobs, Yanhong Duan, Huimin Wang, Xiaohua Cao, and Joe Z. Tsien, as a collaborative project between Georgia Health Sciences University and East China Normal University.  The experiments involved using transgenic mice that overproduced a neurotransmitter receptor called NR2A, and found that they were significantly poorer than normal at forming new long-term memories than ordinary mice were.  The reason, the researchers speculate, is that this receptor is involved in weakening the synaptic firing patterns from old memories.

Put another way, it seems like one of the reasons we become more forgetful as we age is that we aren't as good at getting rid of things we already have stored in there.  In an interview with The New York Times, study lead author Joe Z. Tsien compares our brains when young to a blank page, and older brains to a page from a newspaper.  "The difference is not how dark the pen is," he said, "but that the newspaper already has writing on it."

"What our study suggests," Tsien added, "is that it’s not just the strengthening of connections, but the weakening of the other sets of connections that creates a holistic pattern of synaptic connectivity that is important for long-term memory formation."

In other words, our brains really do fill up and (in some sense) run out of space.

It's a funny thought, isn't it?  One of the reasons I can't remember where I left my keys is because my brain still is determined to hang onto the name of my 7th grade English teacher (Mrs. Trowbridge).

I find this a fascinating result, partly because it contradicts my long-held belief (admittedly based on no evidence whatsoever) that no one ever gets close to the actual memory storage capacity of the brain.  Also, it brings up the questionably prudent possibility of developing technology to selectively erase memories, à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Not, in this case, to eliminate traumatic or unpleasant memories, as it was for Jim Carrey's character -- but to free up hard drive space.

In any case, this is only the beginning.  A dear friend of mine, the brilliant (now retired) Cornell human genetics professor Dr. Rita Calvo, once made the prediction that "if the 20th century was the century of the gene, the 21st will be the century of the brain."  We are, she said, right now with respect to our understanding of the brain approximately where we were in 1913 with respect to our understanding of genetics -- we know a little bit of the "what" and the "how much," but almost nothing about the "how" and the "why."

If so, we should be looking forward to some amazing advances over the next few years, and I'm sure I'll have to do a lot of reading to keep up with the research even well enough to teach competently my Introductory Neurology class.  It's exciting, however, to think that we may finally be elucidating the inner workings of our most intricate organ, and finding out how it does one of the most mysterious things of all -- storing, and retrieving, information.

Oh, and one more thing; did you vote for my blog?  I hope you hadn't forgotten.

Monday, January 28, 2013

What your clothing says about you

There's no woo-woo belief that is so silly that someone can't make it a whole lot sillier.

So, let's start with psychometry, the idea that people leave "psychic traces" on objects that they handle.  Supposedly, these traces are especially strong if the object was handled by someone in an elevated emotional state.  And the idea is that for psychically-sensitive people (whatever that means), those traces can be detected.

Okay, so not so different than the other kinds of psychic woo-woo -- clairvoyance, telepathy, precognitive dreams, and so forth.  But thanks to one of my sharp Critical Thinking students, we have the story of a woman named Roxanne Usleman, whose hobby is going to thrift stores so she can handle clothing and find out about the people who owned them.

Usleman is featured in a video (here), wherein she goes to Marmalade Vintage Clothing Store and leads the shop owner around making commentary.  Here is how she describes what she does:
[Clothes] communicate completely different than we do on the Earth, kind of a different language.  I work, like, as a translator, basically, as the information comes through I translate it into an Earth form, a three dimension form, where mortal beings can understand it...  When I was woke up in the middle of the night, the clothes are, like, speaking, and they have a history about them, a need to communicate something that happened.
 My own clothes don't seem to communicate anything much to me, except for occasionally the important messages "WASH ME" and "Don't you know how to use an iron?"  But maybe I just don't speak the "language."  Be that as it may, Usleman then goes on to feel up various pieces of clothing, and finds a dress about which she says the following:
Whoever had owned this before, when she had passed away this dress was near her when she had passed away.  So there's something she needs to talk about, it's as if the end of her life did not end in a positive way.  It was very sudden.  Whoever had gotten the dress after, and wore it, immediately gave it away because they didn't want the energy in it.
The shopkeeper then chimes in:
That is true.  I don't know who is the owner, but somebody bought this as a gift for my sister.  And she didn't ever wear it, she didn't want it, so she gave it to me.
And Usleman is just tickled pink about this, and squeaks, and says, "Ooh, so we have a verification!"

Because of course it couldn't be that the sister didn't like it because it's a butt-ugly dress.  No, it has to be the "energies."

Then Usleman says that last night she got a communiqué from a "Laura" and she wanders around the shop to find something that "Laura" owned.  And she finds yet another butt-ugly item, this time a bracelet shaped like a snake with red eyes, and says that this was once owned by "Laura."  Metal, Usleman explains, holds the "energy" of the first person who owned it even better than cloth does.  "Whoever buys this bracelet," Usleman says, "it will be unimaginable, the power.  It will bring them a lot of luck."

Fur, on the other hand, is more difficult, because "the animal is so strong in the fur that it's difficult to connect to the human."  Because of this, you don't pick a fur, the fur picks you.  If it's the wrong person for the fur, "the fur repels them, they'll pass right by it, they may not even see it."

What gets me about this, more than Usleman's dog-and-pony show (because that is pretty clearly all about publicity, and ultimately, money) is why anyone with an IQ that exceeds today's high temperature in Labrador would fall for it.  It's not, as the student who found it pointed out, like the clothing is going to speak up and say, "Um, excuse me.  Actually the woman who owned me was named Muriel, and she's still alive, and donated me to this shop because I am truly hideous."  Psychometry, especially of this sort, falls outside of the realm of the even potentially verifiable, given that clothing in second-hand shops doesn't usually come with a printed ownership history attached.

You really should, however, watch the video, which is under three minutes long.  Usleman's delivery is somewhere between hilarious and grating; she has a Valley-Girl-style flip upwards at the end of each sentence, as if she was asking a question when she's not?  You know?  And she also uses the word "like" a lot, which definitely adds to the overall effect.  Nevertheless, after doing a little research, I found out that she's apparently a hugely popular psychic, with a thriving business doing psychic readings (check out her website here).  On the flip side, however, she was one of the psychics whose predictions were analyzed by Stuart Robbins (see his report here), and he found, unsurprisingly, that "these 'professionals' are NOT capable of telling the future any better than you or I, and some of them are in fact far worse."

And yet, people still give her money for her "psychic abilities."  Which, frankly, baffles me.

So, that's today's contribution from the world of woo-woo.  I'd like to give a shout-out to the student who sent me Usleman's video; this young lady has a truly fine skeptical mind, of the kind that is a pleasure to teach.  As for me, it's time to go get ready for work.  My clothes are communicating with me.  Right now they're saying, "Hey!  You!  You can't just sit around in your bathrobe all day, messing about on the computer!  Get your lazy ass in gear!  But please take a shower before you put us on, okay?  Yeah.  Thanks."

Damn snarky clothes.  Maybe I'll switch to wearing fur, if I can find one that wants me.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The straight scoop

As part of our ongoing inquiry into why people believe in irrational, counterfactual nonsense, last week we looked at a study that showed that if people read nasty comments in an online opinion piece, it caused them to hold onto their preexisting opinion more strongly.  Today, we'll consider a study that shows that not only does an obnoxious screed not change someone's mind, facts don't, either.

R. Kelly Garrett, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, recently released the results of an investigation into how people react when they are told that something they'd just read was wrong.  He and his team gave test subjects a story about who has access to private health records, but the story had several false statements inserted into it -- for example, that hospital administrators, health insurers, and government officials had unrestricted access to your medical information.

The group was then split in three.  One-third was given, immediately after reading the article, a second article from that showed that the inserted statements were wrong.  A second group was given the correction after spending three minutes doing an unrelated task.  The third group was not given the correction at all.

Unsurprisingly, the three-minute waiting period had little effect on whether or not the reader ended up believing the false information, and the people who did not receive correction showed the strongest residual belief in the incorrect statements.  What was interesting, though, was how the data shifted when you looked at the individuals who received correction, and split those into two groups -- ones who at the beginning of the study identified themselves as supportive of electronic health records, and ones that were against them.  The ones who thought that electronic health records were a good idea were very quick to accept correction, and to learn that the scary statements about unrestricted access were false; those who already believed that electronic medical recordkeeping was a bad idea did not budge, even when shown evidence that what they'd been told was false.  Instead, Garrett said, the test subjects doubted the source of the correction itself.

 "Real-time corrections do have some positive effect, but it is mostly with people who were predisposed to reject the false claim anyway," Garrett said.  "The problem with trying to correct false information is that some people want to believe it, and simply telling them it is false won’t convince them."

That doesn't mean we should give up, Garrett said.  "Correcting misperceptions is really a persuasion task.  You have to convince people that, while there are competing claims, one claim is clearly more accurate."  He also said that it provides a cautionary note about rumors in the political arena.  "We would anticipate that systems like Dispute Finder would do little to change the beliefs of the roughly one in six Americans who, despite exhaustive news coverage and fact checking, continue to question whether President Obama was born in the U.S."

He summed up his study as showing that "Humans aren’t vessels into which you can just pour accurate information."

While this is a purely natural result -- it's understandable that it would take a lot of convincing to change someone's mind on an issue (s)he felt strongly about -- it's a little disheartening.  It's no wonder, then, that the conspiracy-theorists seem so deaf to reason, that the anti-vaxers and anti-GMO crowd don't budge even in the face of scientific study after scientific study, and that the woo-woos respond to rational argument with the equivalent of "la-la-la-la-la, not listening."  It makes the job of the people at sites like FactCheck and Snopes that much harder.

Not to mention mine.  And it also explains a good bit of the hate mail I get.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Seeing red

This morning I ran into a story in The Daily Mail that describes a new policy in Uplands Manor Primary School in Smethwick, West Midlands, England.  To wit: teachers are no longer allowed to mark papers using red ink.  All papers are to be corrected using a soothing color of green.  And while Uplands headmaster Ken Ridge denies that the decision was made because "red is negative," they're just the last in a long line of schools who have made this decision for exactly that reason.  In fact, in 2009 teachers across Australia were urged by government officials to stop using red because it is "perceived as aggressive" and could lead to students becoming "demoralized."  [Source]

Now, as a veteran educator (26 years and counting) my first thought was; how fragile, exactly, do they think that the human psyche is?  There is an increasing tendency, both in education and in parenting (which, now that I think of it, really amount to the same thing), to use an "I'm OK, you're OK, everyone's pretty doggone OK" approach.  Don't tell a kid he's gotten a question wrong; focus on the fact that he had fewer misspelled words in his answer than last time.  Don't tell a kid he's failed; tell him that he "needs some improvement."  Don't score on correct answers, score on effort.

To which I say: bullshit.

Self esteem, in my experience, doesn't come from people telling you over and over that you are competent when you're not.  It doesn't come from any number of self esteem building exercises.  It doesn't come from having your papers graded using soothing pastel tones.  It comes from striving for mastery, from achieving what you thought you might not be able to achieve, from being successful in worthwhile endeavors.  As far as I can see, all that happens when you tell a kid over and over that he's amazingly wonderful regardless of his behavior or academic performance is that he becomes insulated from the real world, develops a sense of entitlement, and decides that anything he does will be good enough for praise.  One of the most socially maladjusted teens I've ever seen came from a family where he was told, at every turn, that he was not only brilliant, that he was more brilliant than any of his peers, and that (in fact) he was so brilliant that the public schools were not doing him justice.  Having taught this young man (twice) I can say that he is plenty smart, but not so smart as all that, and there were a number of times when his "I'm so bright that you have nothing useful to teach me" attitude was shown to be, in fact, false.  This truth notwithstanding, he continued in this general frame of mind right up until graduation, and his first comeuppance -- possibly in his entire life -- came in the form of rejections from the fairly prestigious colleges he had applied to.  This devastated him (understandably) -- when had he ever been told, by anyone, that he wasn't good enough?

The sad truth about human society is that it's a pretty rough place at times.  We do our children no favors by overprotecting them when they don't win the race, when they don't pass the test; as hard as it is, it's better to say, "if it's important to you, what can you do to do better next time?" rather than "races and tests aren't important."  They say that adversity builds character; and within reason, that platitude is true.  For all of the struggle my son went through, trying to learn how to socialize in middle school, he gained more by my saying, "I love you, be strong, I know it's hard but you need to keep trying," than he would have if I'd said, "those people are all stupid, you're better than them, you don't need them."

It's a fine line.  We want (both as teachers and as parents) to see children in an environment where they can succeed.  This success shouldn't be too horribly difficult to achieve; but it's as bad to make it too easy, because then it is perceived as worthless.  How to strike that balance is no easy task for teachers, especially in these days of large class sizes and (very) heterogeneous populations.  And when kids don't succeed, it's important to understand that there are three possibilities for why that happened: (1) The teacher didn't adequately teach the concept. In my experience, this is uncommon, but it does happen, and a skilled teacher should be willing to own up and reteach if necessary.  (2) The student is placed incorrectly, and the task was either too difficult for a student of his/her ability or the student has outside issues that are interfering with his/her ability to succeed. When this happens, school administration should address either getting help for the student, or changing his/her placement.  (3) The student didn't put enough time or effort into mastery (or the right type of effort). This seems to me to be the most common of the three.

And when this happens, the right solution is not to grade in Gentle Green, or to tell the student that "your right answers were great!" and ignore the wrong ones.  The right solution is to tell the student, with gentleness and compassion, that (s)he can do better, and to give advice as to how that might be accomplished.  The genuine pleasure on the face of a student who has struggled, and then done really well on a worthwhile assignment, is a thousand times more authentic than any number of insincere positive reinforcements, gold stars for everyone, and self-esteem building exercises.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

E. coli, Mike Walsworth, and the Straw Man fallacy

I think the most maddening of all of the logical fallacies is the Straw Man.

In case you're not familiar with this particular infuriating ploy, the Straw Man fallacy is when the individual you're arguing with knocks down an oversimplified (or exaggerated, or flat-out incorrect) characterization of your position, and then forthwith declares that (s)he has won the argument.  Ann Coulter, that living embodiment of specious thinking, is the past master of the Straw Man; she is notorious for taking the weakest (or most extreme) viewpoints of American liberals, demonstrating that those are incorrect, and concluding from this that all Democrats (i.e. around 50% of Americans) are blithering morons.

But you've never seen an example of the Straw Man fallacy like the one I'm about to show you.

Zach Kopplin, a young man from my home state of Louisiana who has become a champion for the teaching of evolutionary biology in public school science classes, posted a video on YouTube, showing a discussion between Louisiana Senator Mike Walsworth and a high school science teacher on the floor of the state senate.  Walsworth asks the teacher if there are any experiments that have been done that demonstrate Darwinian evolution in action.  The teacher responds that there have, and proceeds to describe Richard Lenski's elegant experiment with the bacteria E. coli, in which a population of E. coli were sampled over decades, and the samples frozen, with the (unfrozen) remainder subjected to various environmental factors as selecting agents -- and at the end of the decades-long project, all of the bacteria, the various frozen ones and the ones that had been allowed to continue growing, were compared.  (Estimates are that in the duration of the experiment, over 50,000 generations of bacteria had occurred.)  Guess what?  The lineage had changed demonstrably, with novel genes cropping up (including one that allowed one branch of the "family" to metabolize citric acid).  There you are: evolution in action.

And then Senator Walsworth asked the teacher if any of the bacteria had evolved into a human.  (It may have been my imagination that immediately afterward, Senator Walsworth added, "Herp derp hurr!")

The teacher, of course, responded "No."  And one lady in the audience did a highly amusing forehead-smack.  But you could just about hear all of the creationists in the audience responding, "Well, ha!  There you go, then!  I guess Senator Walsworth showed you." 

You'd think that the transparency of this particular Straw Man would be so obvious that no one could possibly fall for it.  But this sort of response is frequent enough that you have to wonder if creationists attend special Straw Man Training Workshops in order to learn how to perform it as obnoxiously as possible.  I've had conversations with creationists (I won't dignify them with the name "arguments"), and have been asked questions like, "Have you ever seen a cat give birth to a squid?  Well, okay, then!  (Herp derp hurr.)"  You can trot out all of the evidence you want, all of the examples of evolution being directly observed in the field or in the lab, but if you can't show me an animal evolving, in one generation, into an animal from a whole different freakin' phylum, I'm not buying it.

But of course, that last statement is the crux of the matter, isn't it?  "I'm not buying it."  I've already decided what I believe (note, "believe;" not "understand").  Nothing you can do can change that.  If you establish your definitions and evidence, I'll just shift my ground so that it redefines the terms.  (Yet another fallacy, the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.)  Show me experiments that support your theory, I'll ask why those experiments didn't do something entirely different, and then sit back with a cheesy grin on my face and claim I won.

The sad fact is, by some estimates 30% of Americans do think that this constitutes "winning."  And you may think this is a tad harsh, but it's my considered opinion that anyone who is that incapable of understanding the basics of critical thinking (not to mention the basics of biology, chemistry, and scientific induction) should not be entrusted to cast a vote.

Which, now that I come to think of it, explains Mike Walsworth's presence in the Louisiana senate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Which of these things is not like the other?

So, today we're going to play a version of "Bluff the Listener" (from one of my favorite NPR shows, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me").  I've got three stories to tell you.  Two of them are convincing spoofs; the third is real (well, at least in the sense that the person making the claim is serious about it).  Your task: identify which are spoofs and which is the legitimate story.

Story 1: The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, But None, I Think, Do There Embrace...

In previous posts, we've considered cases where people have believed that they were vampires, werewolves, and human/alien hybrids; here, we have a site for people who believe they're ghosts.  And apparently, even if you're a ghost, it doesn't mean that you don't need romance in your... um... life.

The site "Ghost Singles" bills itself as "The Best Dating Site for Dead Singles," and has a database of profiles you can peruse.  You enter a bit about yourself ("I am a MALE GHOST seeking a FEMALE GHOST"), an age range you're looking for (between 18 and 180 years old), and can specify what sort of death you want your prospective lover to have had (the choices are "sudden," "mysterious," "tragic," and "horrible").  Then, you are shown the profiles that fit your specifications.

For example, I looked at the profile for "DeadGrrrrl," age 94, wherein we find out the following:
Hi guys! My real name is Dorothy, and I'm from West Virginia. Do I say where I'm from as where I was born or where I died LOL?

ANYWAY, I used to like to sew, and miss it so bad! I also miss honey butter like nothing else.

I used to miss my cat until she died. That was like seventy years ago, and then she was fun to have back around. Now she disappears for like a decade at a time, then comes back for a few years. Don't ask me what a dead cat's doing. Hey, I thought they had 9 lives! lol!!

Anyway, shoot me a message! XXOO
I don't know about you, but if I wasn't married, I would be tempted.  I'm a sucker for a woman who likes cats and honey butter and says "LOL" a lot.

 Story 2: Sun, Stand Thou Still Over Gibeon

There's been a lot of hoopla over how the biblical account of creation (and subsequent history) of the Earth contradicts the scientific account.  And, as we've seen so many times, the whole thing turns on giving more credence to the words of an allegedly infallible book than to mountains of hard, factual evidence.  So if you're going to discount anything that runs counter to the bible, why not go all the way?

That's the main point of the webpage "Heliocentrism is an Atheist Doctrine."  We start out with the relevant bible verses:
"He has fixed the earth firm, immovable." (1 Chronicles 16:30)
"Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm …" (Psalm 93:1)
"Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken." (Psalm 104:5)
"…who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast…" (Isaiah 45:18)
"The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
"Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day." (Joshua 10, 12-13)
Once those foundations are laid down, we only have to consider the following to see where all of this is going:
Indeed, it was this Copernican heliocentricity concept that gradually broke the back of Bible credibility as the source of Absolute Truth in Christendom. Once the Copernican Revolution had conquered the physical sciences of Astronomy and Physics and put down deep roots in Universities and lower schools everywhere, it was only a matter of time until the Biological sciences launched the Darwinian Revolution.
And the final nail in the coffin of heliocentrism comes from Ken Ham, from Answers in Genesis:
…[S]omething well known to high-school physics students, but apparently not to bibliosceptics—that it’s valid to describe motion from any reference frame.
The only possible conclusion: if you're not a Satan-led, foaming-at-the-mouth piece of liberal atheist scum, you'll immediately return to believing that the Earth lies at the center of the entire universe, and everything, even the distant stars and galaxies, revolve around it, as is revealed in the scriptures.

Story 3:  Fetch, Fido!  Fetch!

Many of us feel a strong connection to our furry friends, and sometimes have the sense that they know what we're thinking.  My dogs, for example, have an uncanny knack for knowing when I'm about to feed them, and immediately go into a whirling, hyperdestructive vortex of zero-IQ canine energy as soon as the food bag rustles.

So it was only a matter of time before some psychic decided that canine telepathy was real, and began to make use of it...

... even going so far as to make her dogs her official business partners.

Linda Lancashire, a professional psychic from Heanor (Derbyshire, England), now employs her two poodles, Hilda and Tallulah, in her clairvoyant readings.  The dogs, whom Lancashire refers to as "The Lulas," sit on the couch while she's talking to a client, and they pick up on the thoughts that the client is having, and relay them to Lancashire by woofing and pawing at her.

Each dog has her specialty.  Tallulah, in particular, picks up on relationship issues, and has been known to communicate to Lancashire, "Listen, Mummy, this lady is not happy."  Hilda, on the other paw, is more of a specialist in money and health matters.

Lancashire and her psychic poodles have quite a following, and although she states she has "incredible integrity (about) working confidentially," she mentioned that she has clients that include celebrities, politicians, and professional athletes.

Her fee runs to £40 per hour-long session, which seems pretty reasonable, given that she has to split it three ways.

Are you ready for the answers?

Story 1:  Almost certainly a spoof.  This story was dug up by a pair of very alert students who have been some of my best investigative reporters (they were the ones, for example, who informed me about the Flying Men of Colorado).  While I couldn't find anywhere on the Ghost Singles site that explicitly stated that it was a spoof, there are enough bits that are obviously played for laughs that there's no way it can be serious, such as the fact that one of the female ghosts on the database calls herself "GreatBeyondBabe."  (The vampires, werewolves, and human/alien hybrids, however, are dead serious.)

Story 2:  Spoof.  This one was identified as a spoof by the wonderful site RationalWiki on its page "List of Examples of Poe's Law."  However, one of the websites that is cited on the Anti-Heliocentrism page -- -- is, as far as I can tell, real.  And scary as hell.

Story 3:  Real.  "Linda Lancashire" is a real person, and her dogs, Hilda and Tallulah, are real as well.  And apparently Ms. Lancashire really, truly believes that her dogs act as psychic relays, and has made them full business partners.  And the quote about Tallulah telling her about the "unhappy lady" was not made up.

How did you do?  I'm glad if you won, because it means that you show fine perspicacity and critical thinking skills.  I am not, however, going to record your voicemail message.  Carl Kasell, I'm not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Battleground Texas, and the war over public schools

"We just want teachers to teach the controversy."

"Teachers should not be indoctrinating students with either viewpoint; they should teach students how to think, not what to think."

"Present both sides of the question, and let students decide."

These are the rallying cries of the ongoing push by young-earth creationists to insinuate their views into science classrooms nationwide.  And on the surface, it all sounds Fair And Balanced, doesn't it?  It paints the scientists as the narrow-minded ones, the ones who would love nothing better than to pull the wool over students' eyes, the ones who give only their own skewed viewpoint and pretend that it is the truth.

A report was just issued yesterday by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund that shows this claim to be the bullshit it is -- that once allowed a foothold in the public schools, evangelical Christians subvert, indoctrinate, and ignore any kind of standards for critical thinking.  If you have ever been tempted by the evenhanded-appearing "teach the controversy" rhetoric, consider this.

In 2007, lawmakers in Texas passed a bill that encouraged public school teachers to include in their curricula courses about the "influence of the bible in history and literature."  Once again, this sounds like it's fair enough, doesn't it?  After all, the bible has had an immense effect on history (most of it bad, in my opinion), and ignoring the role of religion in shaping culture is absurd.  But this gave the zealots just the foothold they needed.  According to the report from TFNEF, which was authored by a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, the 57 public school districts and three charter schools that introduced bible-based courses into state-funded curricula accomplished the following:
  • Using instructional materials that teach that racial diversity can be traced back to Noah's sons
  • Implementing courses that describe the Rapture as a likely future event, and discuss whether it will occur before or after the return of Jesus and his thousand-year reign on Earth
  • Using materials that portray Judaism as a "flawed belief system" that is completed and transcended by Christianity
  • Using materials that explicitly state that the bible is the inerrant word of god, and compare conventional historical timelines with those in the bible -- concluding, of course, that the bible is more accurate
  • Using "textbooks" that explicitly evangelize -- one of them states, in its preface, "May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that 'Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.'  And may you have ‘life in His name.'"
  • Teaching that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and that evolution is a "discredited theory"
  • Implementing courses that require the extensive memorization of bible verses
  • Using such highly-rigorous support materials as Hanna-Barbera cartoons on biblical stories and a "documentary" claiming that UFO/alien sightings are angels
Outraged?  I sincerely hope so.  I also hope that this will show what I've claimed all along -- that the motives of these religious extremists have nothing whatsoever to do with balance, whatever they claim to the contrary.  They see this issue as a holy war, being fought on the battlefield of the public school system, with the minds, hearts, and souls of innocent children at stake.  We rationalists, atheists, secularists, and evolutionists are the enemy, motivated by Satan, and we are to be fought at every turn, by whatever means are necessary.

So, I will reiterate what I've said so many times; this is not about rational argument.  These people are not interested in argument except insofar as it can introduce into people's minds the incorrect impression that there is doubt about evolution and the antiquity of the Earth.  In fact, these zealots cannot be argued with at all -- not by any reasonable definition of the word "argument" -- because they do not accept evidential grounds as the means to support a proposition.  And they will never, ever give up, because to them, giving up is letting Satan win.

We do agree about one thing, though.  This is war.  And it's one that that the rationalists damn well better commit themselves to winning.  There are countries in the world that are run on the precepts of religion, where questioning the paradigm is considered evil, where antiquated ideas from a human-written book are considered to be infallible.  To name a few: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mali, Algeria.

Oh, wait, that's not fair, you may be saying... that's because those governments base their laws in the precepts from the Qu'ran.  The bible is different, right?

Read the book of Leviticus, and write down how many of the statutes listed therein you'd be willing to live under as legal mandates.  Then come back and we'll talk.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Real vs. fake astrology

Astrology is not, unfortunately, limited to the western world.  People have looked to the sky for portents, not just in Europe and the Americas, for millennia.  There's a tale from Chinese history that over four thousand years ago, two astrologers, Ho and Hsi, were executed by the emperor for failing to predict a solar eclipse (that their other predictions were correct, I doubt, but that's a big one to miss given that astrologers are supposed to have their eyes in the sky all the time).

India has its own astrological tradition, based in the Vedas, the sacred writings of the Hindu religion.  And like many of these beliefs, they have persisted up to today.  Vedic astrology is still so popular that courses in it are taught in several Indian universities.  And I'm not just talking about looking at the beliefs from an anthropological perspective; no, they're taught as if they were science (which I find appalling).  In particular, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party has championed the study of astrology as science, with one of their most outspoken leaders, former Minister of Human Resources Murli Manohar Joshi, stating that he wanted to see universities come up with grant proposals for ways to "rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology in India," and then "export it to the world."  [Source]

As if we don't have enough ridiculous woo-woo ideas of our own around here already.

Now, however, Joshi and others of the BJP are trying to introduce legislation that would require astrologers to register with state authorities.  Joshi himself was the keynote speaker at the 4th International Astrological Conference in Karnataka, where he made the announcement.  The Karnataka Astrologers' Association, who hosted the conference, are fully in favor of this, which is a little puzzling; you would think that such a move would be as popular as the time that legislation was passed in Romania requiring witches to pay income tax.

But no, the KAA and other such groups are solidly behind this move.  Why, you might ask?

The answer: because this will help to sort out "real astrologers" from "fake astrologers."

I'm not making this up.  The vice president of the KAA has gone on record as stating that these fake astrologers put forth "mindless prophecies," that damage "the reputation of astrology, which is traditionally viewed as a science."

Oh.  I see.  And the "real astrologers" put forth what kind of prophecies, again?

It would be entertaining to have the KAA host a contest, where a "real astrologer" and a "fake astrologer" both make predictions based on the stars, and wait to see which one comes true.  My own analysis of the position of the planet Saturn relative to the constellation Orion has indicated that both of them would fail miserably, an outcome that would confirm my belief that all of astrology, be it Vedic, Chinese, or the horoscope from the New York Times, is patent horse waste.

Of course, the sad fact is that it's pretty unlikely that (1) the KAA would agree to any such thing, or that (2) true believers would stop believing even if such a contest had the results I predicted.  Astrology is far too subject to such errors in thinking as the dart-thrower's bias -- the tendency of people to notice the hits and ignore the misses.  And the astrologers themselves often engage in a form of the Texas sharpshooter's fallacy -- where they call attention to past correct predictions, and conveniently fail to mention all the ones they missed.  (The name of the fallacy comes from a story of a Texas man who had bullseyes painted on his barn wall, and each one had a bullet hole exactly in the center.  It turned out that he'd shot the holes first, and then painted the bullseyes around them afterwards.)

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.  Will the "real astrologers" have to present a document certifying that they've taken Vedic astrology course work at one of the Indian universities that offers it?  Will they have to undergo a rigorous exam testing their knowledge of the rules of the game?  The worst part of it all is that if this legislation succeeds, it will amount to a major world government lending credence to the superstitious beliefs of a bunch of charlatans, and further confusing the gullible public about what science actually is.

But of course, since we have the Institute for Creation Research right here in the US doing the same thing, and doing their level best to influence public policy, perhaps I shouldn't point fingers.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Memento mori

People have really weird attitudes toward death.

Note that I am not just referring to religious concepts of the afterlife, here, although as an atheist I am bound to think that some of those sound pretty bizarre, too.  I've heard everything from your traditional harps-and-haloes idea, to being more or less melted down and fused with god, to fields of flowers and babbling brooks, to spending all of eternity with your dead relatives (and it may sound petty of me, but considering a few of my relatives, this last one sounds more like a version of hell to me).  Then, of course, you have the much-discussed Islamic 72-virgins concept of heaven, which brings up the inevitable question of what the virgins' opinions about all of this might be.  All of these strike me as equal parts absurdity and wishful thinking, given that (honestly) believers have come to these conclusions based on exactly zero evidence.

But today, I'm more considering the rituals and traditions surrounding death itself, aside from all of the ponderings of what (if anything) might happen to us afterwards.  I was first struck by how oddly death is handled, even here in relatively secular America, when my mom died seven years ago.  My wife and I were doing the wrenching, painful, but necessary choosing of a coffin, and we were told by the salesman that there was a model that had a little drawer inside in which "photographs, letters, and other mementos can be placed."  There was, we were told, a battery-powered light inside the drawer, presumably because it's dark down there in the ground.

Carol and I looked at each other, and despite the circumstances, we both laughed.  Did this guy really think that my mom was going to be down there in the cemetery, and would periodically get bored and need some reading material?

Lest you think that this is just some sort of weird sales gimmick, an aberration, just yesterday I ran into an article that describes an invention by Swedish music and video equipment salesman Fredrik Hjelmquist.  Hjelmquist has one-upped the coffin with the bookshelf and reading light; his coffins have surround-sound, and the music storage device inside the coffin can be updated to "provide solace for grieving friends and relatives by making it possible for them to alter the deceased's playlist online."

The whole thing comes with a price tag of 199,000 kroner (US$30,700), which you would think would put it out of the price range of nearly everyone -- but there have been thousands of inquiries, mostly from the United States and Canada, but also from as far away as China and Taiwan.

Now, I understand that many of the rituals surrounding death are for the comfort of the living; the flowers, the wakes, the songs at funerals, and so on.  But this one is a little hard to explain based solely on that, I think.  Is there really anyone out there who would be comforted by the fact that Grandma is down there in Shady Grove Memorial Park, rockin' out to Metallica?  I would think that if you would go for something like this, especially considering the cost, you would have to believe on some level that the Dearly Departed really is listening.  Which, to me, is kind of creepy, because it implies that the person you just buried is somehow still down there.  Conscious and aware.  In that cold, dark box underground.

To me, this is the opposite of comforting.  This is Poe's "The Premature Burial."

The whole thing brings to mind the Egyptians' practice of placing food, gifts, mummified pets, and so on in the tombs of departed rich people, so they'll have what they need on their trip into the afterlife.  But unlike the Egyptians, who had a whole intricate mythology built up around death, we just have bits and pieces, no coherent whole that would make sense of it.  (And again, that's with the exception of religious explanations of the afterlife.)  As a culture, we're distinctly uneasy about the idea of dying, but we can't quite bring ourselves to jump to the conclusion, "he's just gone, and we don't understand it."

I was always struck by the Klingons' approach to death in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As a comrade-in-arms is dying, you howl, signifying that the folks in the afterlife better watch out, because a seriously badass warrior is on the way.  But afterwards -- do what you want with the body, because the person who inhabited it is gone.  "It is just a dead shell," they say.  "Dispose of it as you see fit."

Me, I like the Viking approach.  When I die, I'd appreciate it if my family and friends would stick me on a raft, set it on fire, and launch it out into the ocean.  That's probably all kinds of illegal, but it seems like a fitting farewell, given that I've always thought that Thor and Odin and Loki and the rest of the gang were a great deal more appealing than any other religion I've ever run across.  But if that turns out to be impractical, just "dispose of me as you see fit."  And fer cryin' in the sink, I am quite sure that I won't need a reading light or surround-sound.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Amodal nudity

I am endlessly interested in human perception.  The way our sensory systems, and the sensory-integrative parts of the brain, work is one of the most fascinating parts of biology -- and one of the least understood.  And it only gets more interesting when you combine it with that topic that everyone thinks about and pretends that they don't: sex.

I started considering the connection between sex and perception because of an article on the James Randi Educational Foundation's website called "The Lurking Pornographer: Why Your Brain Turns Bubbles into Nude Bodies."  In it, we find photos that lead to the rather startling conclusion that when a swimsuit-clad individual has the swimsuit covered up by strategically placed blank space, our brain makes the executive decision that the person in the photograph is naked.

Don't believe me?  Take a look:

And lest you think it's just because men are sex-obsessed, it works for photographs of guys, too:

The author of the article, Kyle Hill, explains this effect as the "lurking pornographer" in the brain; that the brain is always "looking for the body parts we are trying to cover up" as an outcome of the pressure to reproduce.  I wonder, though, if it might be simpler than that; my guess is that this is just a form of amodal completion, where the brain tries to fill in the gaps in incomplete images in the way that requires the least assumptions.  A simple example is the Kanisza triangle:

That you have a white triangle overlaid on top of a triangular outline and three black circles is a simpler explanation than having three V-shaped bits and three black Pac-Man shapes all laid out just so as to appear to make two triangles.  But amodal completion, like any inference based on incomplete information, can also get it wrong.  Consider the horse(s) and cat(s) in the following drawing:

Two horses (in the left-hand drawing) and two cats (in the right-hand one) are merged into one by the brain "forcing" a wrong interpretation -- amodally completing the two animals into a single, extra-long horse and cat because of trying to fill in the missing pieces in the simplest possible way.

Likewise, when we have no other information about a person -- all we see is skin -- inferring a swimsuit seems like a jump.  The easier solution is that they're running around naked.  And of course, the fact that this stimulates our brains in a different way makes us stick with that solution once we've arrived at it.

It's like our neural network is hardwired with a perceptual form of Ockham's Razor, especially when the simpler solution is one that's kind of fun to look at.

Still, there's no doubt that most of our brains are obsessed with sex.  The three chemicals that mediate the majority of the sexual response -- dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphin -- are a mighty powerful cocktail, and none of them have much to do with thinking.  Interestingly, dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that is involved in addiction -- which may explain why the "sex drive" is called a "drive."

Oh, and about all of the claims that men think about sex twice as much as women do; there may be something to it.  According to recent research by Dr. Ananya Mandal, the preoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus, which is one area of the brain involved in sexual response and mating behavior, is 2.2 times larger in men than in women.  Size apparently matters -- in that respect, at least.

Anyhow, I thought all of this was pretty cool.  It's always interesting to find out why we do what we do.  It's why I found Desmond Morris' classic book The Naked Ape so fascinating when I first ran into it, at age 17 -- I'd never before considered human behavior from the standpoint of looking at humanity as if we were just another animal species.  And far from being demeaning, that perceptual shift leaves me feeling interconnected to the rest of the natural world in a far more intricate way.  We have reasons for doing what we do, just like every other living thing on Earth -- including the birds and the bees.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gulag Earth

As I've mentioned before, teaching a class in Critical Thinking means that I have a perpetual source of weird stories to write about.  Properly trained and motivated, high school students are outstanding at ferreting out bizarre news, crazy websites, and insane YouTube videos -- and (which should be cheering) are quite good at recognizing nonsensical beliefs for what they are.

It was an alert student who found a site two days ago entitled, "Is the Earth a Prison For Your Soul?"  Just from the title, I guessed that it was going to be a Christian website, and the "prison" idea would be a metaphor for our being stuck here because of Adam and Eve believing the talking snake and eating the Evil Apple of Doom and all, and how we can be paroled if we just accept Jesus as our personal savior.  I've seen lots of those sorts of websites before, and if that's all it had been, I wouldn't have thought it merited a post.

It turns out I was wrong.  The originator of this post thinks that the Earth is a prison.  Literally.
Are we condemned to a sentence of solitary confinement within our own cell like body's [sic]?

Condemned, not only to be trapped here on earth, but to never know our true nature,or even our alleged crime. To know nothing from start to finish...

We are all as surprised to be alive as the next person, not knowing death, it is as if we have all found ourselves here and no-one really has any experience of anything other than being alive here on earth. No real knowledge of a 'before' or an 'after'.

It is like a global case of amnesia. If we only know life what do we really know of death?...

It is interesting to think that the Van Allen belt provides an excellent barbed wire enclosure to us on earth, a planetary force field keeping us in... Our moon is a handy guard house.

Perhaps 'aliens' exist as a kind of 'drone maintenance crew' keeping our prison functioning and making sure we can't escape. Perhaps that explains their 'lack of empathy' perceived by many alleged insiders like 'Mad man across the water' and others.

My first reaction is that if you spent your entire life in Newark, you might be justified in concluding that we live in a penal colony; but if not, you have to admit that there are lots of nice places down here.  Cozumel, for example, has way too high a proportion of bikini-clad women and fruity drinks with umbrellas to qualify for "gulag" status.  And if the Van Allen belt is a "barbed wire fence," it's a pretty flimsy one, given that satellites pass across it on a daily basis, and every space mission that's gone more than 60,000 kilometers from the Earth's surface has successfully gone right through it.  And that includes the ones that landed on the "guard house" moon, and found that there were no security guards, or even night custodians, up there.

So, okay, he got a few details wrong, but let's give him a chance.  Maybe he can tell us why we got sent to prison in the first place.  After all, there has to be a reason that our souls have been exiled here, right?  Well, it turns out that it's because we're kind of... dumb:
If aliens exist then is their 'not contacting' us a kind of cruelty ? After all these alleged sightings and contacts, the fact that we have been treated with such contemptible disdain perhaps points to our guilt in their eyes ?... They don't save us from our hellish ignorance because that is what they think we truly deserve ? Perhaps our lesson is 'cooperation'...

Is communicating with 'off world entities' really communicating with the 'before and after' ? If we truly got to talk with an off world entity wouldn't we then know who we were and what we are doing here... Perhaps we will never communicate off world until we have worked out these things for ourselves ? Perhaps no communication to and from our prison is allowed.
So... the reason that the aliens won't get a hold of us is because they're giving us the silent treatment?  That explains so much!  All the absence of evidence in the woo-woo world is deliberate!  The ghosts are refusing to show up whenever skeptics are around in order to make laughingstocks of true believers; Bigfoot runs away shouting "neener-neener-neener" every time someone brings out a camera that is not set on "blur;" the Loch Ness Monster dons a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak every time the underwater sonar is turned on.  It's all a deliberate campaign to frustrate the absolute hell out of humans, to teach them a lesson!

The writer ends with the following chilling thought:
 Perhaps if we really knew who we are and where we are we'd be more cooperative with each other less inclined to follow the bankers usury system of citizen slavery. Perhaps we are all still just mining gold for the Annunaki.
Ah, those damn Annunaki.  I shoulda known they'd be behind all this.

So, anyhow, there you are.  You are actually an alien convict, in a world where everything is set up to be as frustrating as possible in order to teach you a lesson.  I guess this does explain a few earthly phenomena, such as the IRS, tailgaters, slow internet connections, the DMV, spam email, Justin Bieber, annoying commercial jingles, and people who read over your shoulder.  There are some holes in the theory, which include pleasant things like chocolate, red wine,  mid-afternoon naps, and sex, and why if this is a prison colony no one ever gets time off for good behavior.  But I guess that not even the best model ever explains everything.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

And now, for an inspirational message from the Church of Satan...

New from the "Be Careful What You Wish For" department, Florida governor Rick Scott is currently trying to figure out what to do about a rally in favor of his policies scheduled for Friday, January 25...

... by Satanists.  [Source]

Now, don't misunderstand.  Scott isn't a Satanist himself; far from it.  He's a staunch conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian.  In fact, it's pretty certain that sneaking Christianity back into public schools was his motivation for signing into Florida state law a bill that would give local school boards the power to authorize "inspirational messages" during school functions -- even if those messages were explicitly religious in nature.  Supporters crowed that this was the first step toward their ultimate goal: reintroducing daily prayer into public school classrooms.

Well, the Christians, as it turned out, weren't the only ones who were happy about this.

Neil Bricke, spokesperson for the Florida-based Satanic Temple of America, thinks that the bill (SB98) is an awesome idea.  In a statement released yesterday, Bricke said of Scott's policies, "The Satanic Temple embraces the free expression of religion, and Satanists are happy to show their support of Rick Scott who -- particularly with SB 98 -- has reaffirmed our American freedom to practice our faith openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school."

Bricke also announced that he and his fellow Satanists are planning a rally in favor of Scott on the 25th.

Well, to quote the Church Lady, isn't that special.

I'm not entirely sure how to think about this.  I mean, I'm not a theist, but I don't believe in Satan, either.  If you go to the Satanic Temple's website, you will find the following statement of belief:
The Satanic Temple believes that God is supernatural and thus outside of the sphere of the physical. God’s perfection means that he cannot interact with the imperfect corporeal realm. Because God cannot intervene in the material world, He created Satan to preside over the universe as His proxy. Satan has the compassion and wisdom of an angel. Although Satan is subordinate to God, he is mankind’s only conduit to the dominion beyond the physical. In addition, only Satan can hear our prayers and only Satan can respond. While God is beyond human comprehension, Satan desires to be known and knowable. Only in this way can there be justice and can life have meaning.
Hail Satan!
So it's not like I can exactly say, "Right!  Exactly!  You go give Governor Scott what-for!" to them, either.  In fact, when I look at websites like this one, and also the home page of the "Church of Satan," mainly what I think is, "You people are just as loony as the evangelical Christians."

I guess, in the long run, though, it's a good thing that Bricke et al. are doing this.  Because it might remind conservative Christians in Florida and elsewhere why we have separation of church and state in the first place. 

The whole point is that there is no place in public schools for people to ramrod religious belief down students' throats, and that doesn't just apply to religious beliefs you happen to disagree with.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how political and religious leaders in Florida respond to the whole thing.  Rick Scott has spoken cautiously in public -- although I'll bet he has had a few choice words to say in private.  "This is a great country," Scott's press secretary wrote in a press release.  "Everyone has a voice."

Yup.  I'm sure that Governor Scott is just thrilled that this happened.  Being an evangelical Christian himself, he must be tickled pink to find himself garnering the support of members of the Church of Satan.

So keep your eye on Florida next week.  Maybe other groups will turn up.  Maybe we'll have believers in the Norse myths, out there invoking Thor and Loki and all.  Maybe some Mayans will show up and call for the Second Coming of Quetzalcoatl.  They might even get a few Pastafarians.

It'll be a party!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Aqua metal jewelry, and the lure of vague claims

One of the most common ploys by companies advertising sham health products is making claims that seem on the surface to be scientific, but upon scrutiny turn out to be (1) vague, and (2) present no plausible mechanism by which they could work.

Consider Phiten jewelry, the newest thing in useless sports enhancers (now that PowerBalance bracelets have lost some of their luster given that they don't work).  This company, brought to my attention by an alert student of mine, sells "aqua titanium-infused" necklaces, bracelets, joint braces, and sports tape.  Also "aqua gold-infused."  Because, you know, titanium is strong, and gold is handsome, and, um, we'd all like to be handsome and strong, right?  Of course right.  So there you are.

Once again we have the endorsement of various sports figures, including Carmelo Anthony, Justin Verlander, C. J. Wilson, Kara Goucher, and Curtis Granderson, all of whom have photographs on the website wearing these various pieces of useless costume jewelry, but looking tough and athletic.  The implication being that the costume jewelry is why they're tough and athletic.  There's a lot of exciting-sounding hype, too:
The core of Phiten technology is in our Aqua Metals – metals that are broken down into microscopic particles dispersed in water. Every product features Phiten technology: from our signature necklaces, performance apparel, to our sports care items like body supports, tape and lotion. We tailor our products for everyone, from hardcore athletes to weekend warriors, to get them through the daily grind and to support a healthy and active lifestyle.
We are then told how "Aqua Titanium" is made -- apparently by taking pure water and titanium (correctly identified as an "insoluble metal") and dissolving said insoluble metal in the water via the "Aqua Titanium manufacturing process."

Ah.  It all becomes clear now.

As far as Aqua Gold, we're given a bit more information:
Gold tends to be the most effective metal in a variety of practical applications. For example, gold makes up the more sensitive components in computers because of its non-corrosive properties and excellent conductivity. Sound systems use gold in their connective wiring to insure the most faithful sound reproduction in the timeliest manner. Even in medicine, gold is used in its colloidal state as a vehicle for absorbing and transporting proteins and antibodies respectively in a nanoparticle form. 
Righty-o.  Because gold is used in stereo components, it obviously will help you to pitch a baseball faster.  I get it.

The overall characteristic of this website, and others like it, is a pervasive vagueness.  Nowhere are you told how on earth this is supposed to work.  I went to their FAQ page, thinking, "Well, the most FAQ I would have is, 'how the hell does wearing a necklace make you better at baseball?'"  But of course, that Q must not be A'd quite as F as I expected, because nothing nearly that specific shows up on the page.  Instead, we're told how to order, what forms of payment they accept, how to care for your Aqua Titanium Necklace once you've been suckered into buying one, and what their returns and exchanges policy is.  They do have a link with a list of some published papers, but an exposé in Wired found that only one of the papers listed was peer-reviewed, and that one showed completely equivocal results -- and the rest were sponsored by the "Society of Aqua Metal Research," a group that is employed and sponsored...

... by Phiten, Inc.

So, the whole thing is, once again, a great big scam, just like Power Balance bracelets, and copper jewelry for relieving arthritis, and magnet therapy, and so on and so forth.  None of it has the least basis in actual science.  So my advice: buy one of their necklaces if you think it looks nice.  But don't count on it boosting your performance, athletic or otherwise.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Gaia Hypothesis, and the danger of models

Scientists use models -- partial representations of reality, often expressed mathematically -- to explain the universe.  Both working scientists and science teachers often explain those models using analogies. 

This has a good result and a bad result.  The good result is that the use of model, analogy, and metaphor makes science accessible for non-scientists.  You don't have to understand piles of abstruse mathematics in order to get a glimpse at the weirdness of quantum theory; the story of Schrödinger's Cat makes it abundantly clear.  In my own teaching, I use analogy all the time: antibodies are like trash tags; transpiration in plants is like a very long chain attached to the underside of a trampoline; the Krebs Cycle is like a merry-go-round in which two kids get on and two kids get off at every turn.

The downside, however, is twofold.  The first problem is that it's easy at times to think that the model is the reality.  The goofier the metaphor, the easier it is to avoid this pitfall; I've never had a student yet who thought that the Krebs Cycle really was a merry-go-round (although I did have a student of mine start her essay on antibodies on the AP exam, "So, antibodies are trash tags...").  But with sophisticated, complex models, it's tempting to think that the model is, down to the level of details, what is happening in the real world.

The second downside is that some people will grab the model and run right off the cliff with it.

All of this comes up because a friend of mine asked me what I thought about the Gaia Hypothesis.  I know that this friend is a sharp, smart, and solid thinker, so I didn't wince, which is what I usually do when someone brings this subject up.  Because I can't think of an idea in science that has fallen so prey to the model vs. reality blur as this one has.

Gaia was dreamed up by two scientists of high repute -- James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis -- way back in the 1970s.  The central idea of Gaia is that the Earth's biosphere acts as an interlocking set of self-regulatory systems, and they work together to maintain the homeostasis of the whole in much the same way as organ systems do in an organism.  Lovelock and Margulis identified a number of features of the biosphere, including the carbon dioxide levels, nitrogen levels, oxygen levels, oceanic salinity, and average temperature, that all seem to work through a complex pattern of negative feedback to keep the Earth's systems within a range that is comfortable for living things.  Using computer simulations, Lovelock and Margulis showed that even with a simple model, they could create a "world" that remained stable, and for which the living things played a role in regulation.

All of this is well and good, and Lovelock and Margulis were completely clear about what their model did (and didn't) mean.  (If you're curious, here's the Gaia homepage, run by Lovelock and other scientists working in this field; Lynn Margulis, tragically, died in November of 2011.)

The problem is, lots of people think that the scientists who developed the Gaia Hypothesis meant way more than they actually did.  Part of it was Lovelock's rather inadvisable choice of a Greek goddess' name for christening his model, which brings up lots of images of personified deities, Mother Earth, and New Age Earth spirits.  This particular twist really irritates fundamentalist Christians; take a look at this site, where we find that the Gaia model encourages "radical environmentalism and ecofeminism," because it runs counter to the biblical passage about god giving man "dominion" over the Earth.

Even ignoring the objections of the wacko biblical literalists, I suppose it's natural enough that people could misinterpret Gaia.  The whole thing is just so... suggestive.  And misinterpret it they did, first thinking that because Lovelock and Margulis said that the Earth was like an organism, that they were saying that it was one; and then grabbing the analogy and leaping into the void with it.  As an example of where this can lead, take a look at this page, wherein we find passages like the following:
The GaiaMind Project is dedicated to exploring the idea that we, humanity, are the Earth becoming aware of itself. From this perspective, the next step in the evolution of consciousness would seem to be our collective recognition that through our technological and spiritual interconnectedness we represent the Earth growing an organ of self-reflexive consciousness. While we believe that the Earth is alive, and we are part of it, we also affirm the Great Spirit of Oneness found at the heart of all the worlds great spiritual traditions. What is most important may not be what we believe, but what we find we all share when we put our thoughts aside to go into meditation and prayer together.
I think I can say with some authority that this is light years away from what Lovelock and Margulis had in mind.  Consider the chain of... I can't call it "logic," what is it? -- to get from Lovelock and Margulis to this stuff:
1) The Earth has interlocking systems that self-regulate, keeping conditions in homeostasis.
2) Organisms do, too.
3) So the Earth is like an organism.
4) Many organisms have organs that allow them to sense, and respond to, their environment.
5) This is called "awareness."
6) Some organisms have a second feature, rather poorly understood, of self-awareness, of the ability to see themselves, their interactions, and their internal mental states.
7) This is called "consciousness."
8) Consciousness is a feature of intelligence, a fairly recently-developed innovation amongst living things on Earth.

Ergo: The Earth is becoming conscious.  It'd really help if you prayed about it, because that'd help the process right along.
It's all a matter of keeping your head screwed on when you read this stuff; where does the science end and the woo-woo start?  It's always best to go back to see what the scientists themselves said on the topic.  While being a scientist isn't always a guarantee against fuzzy thinking, I'd put more reliance on the ability of your typical scientist to tell fact from fiction than that of someone whose main contribution is rambling on in some random blog on the topic.  (Irony intended.)

Still, the use of models is, on the whole, a good thing.  It gives us something to picture, a way to frame our understanding of what is going on in the real world.  You just have to know how far to push the model, and when to quit.  It is, in other words, a starting point.  And if along the way it can piss off some creationists, it's all good.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Don't read the comments

I've said it before; whenever I look at a news story, especially one on a controversial topic like climate change, prayer in schools, or evolution, I always regret reading the comments section.  The comments mostly seem to be written by screaming extremists.  If I had a nickel for every time I saw the words "idiot," "moron," and "dumbass" in reader comments, I'd be a rich man.  Instead, I always come away feeling like there's no hope for the human race.

Turns out that I'm not alone.  A recent study at the University of Wisconsin (described here, in an outstanding article written by Chris Mooney; but if you want to read the original paper, the link has been taken down, for some reason) looked at how people react to reading comments from other readers.  Each of the 1,183 volunteers read a blog post on the dangers of nanotechnology; the control group's version had a comments section that was neutral/civil, but the other half read one where the comments were steeped in fire and vitriol.

The results, if unsurprising, should be worrying to anyone who has an interest in seeing the public respond rationally to media.  The researchers found that across the board, the people who read the nasty comments responded by becoming more extreme in their own viewpoints.  If you already (prior to reading the post) thought that the risks of nanotechnology were minimal, you became even more sure of your position.  If you were already worried about the risks, you became more sure of that.  The audience, in other words, polarized, but not because of the facts -- the information presented was the same in both cases -- but because of watching how others responded.

This is entirely explainable based on the way our brain works.  Given emotional activation, the rational centers of our brain get out-shouted.  We react with a sort of mob mentality if we basically agreed with the comment; "Yeah!  You tell him!  Go get him!  Wish I'd thought to say that first!"  If we disagreed with the comment, our fear/anxiety centers are activated; we feel that our stance is besieged, and we double down on our beliefs because we feel they've been threatened.

Notice that in neither case do we respond logically.

This is a troubling result.  For one thing, in issues of public policy that involve science -- such as what to do about climate change, and whether intelligent design deserves equal time in public schools -- we should be striving to discuss things more rationally, not less.  The tendency of the human brain's logic centers to shut down when presented with emotionally-charged responses to media makes it even harder to keep these discussions in the realm of fact.

It's one of the inevitable downsides of the internet.  Back when I was a kid, if you didn't like a news story, you had the option to write a letter to the editor, which was tedious and time-consuming, and there was no guarantee your letter would be printed even if you sent it.  Now, anyone can respond to a news story... and does.  Regardless of whether they know anything factual about it.  They have the right to free speech, dammit, and they're gonna exercise it.  And the University of Wisconsin study shows that this is, on the whole, not a good thing for anyone.  As study co-author Dietram Scheufele said, reading the comments section of an article is like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."

The whole thing reminds me of a quote from the late great writer and thinker Isaac Asimov:  "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'."

Friday, January 11, 2013

The argument from design

I received a response to a recent post in the form of an (actually quite friendly) email that posed a question I've been asked before, and that I thought might deserve a post of its own.  Here is an excerpt of the email:
Many atheist/skeptics base their disbelief on a lack of evidence for a deity.  If God exists, there should be evidence in the world around us.  A universe created by an omnipotent power should be different than one that was created by random processes.  If you're being honest, you have to admit that the universe we live in seems pretty fine-tuned for life, isn't it?  Scientists have identified dozens of fundamental numbers whose values are just right for the existence of matter, space, planets, stars, and life.  If any of those numbers were any different, life couldn't exist.  Doesn't it look very much like some intelligence set the values of the dials just right so as to produce a universe that we could live in?
This argument has been widely trumpeted by Christians who are not biblical literalists -- who may, in fact, accept such empirically supported models as the Big Bang and organic evolution, and who buy that the Earth is not six thousand years old, as the biblical chronology would have you believe, but six-some-odd billion years old.  But despite these non-fundamentalists' buying the whole scientific process (which is all to the good), they still can't quite let go of the idea that a higher power must be behind the whole thing.  And the "fine-tuning of the universe" is one of their main arguments.

It's called the strong anthropic principle.  The universe is such a hospitable place, they say, that god has to have set it up just for us.  But there's just one flaw in the whole thing; the central contention, that the universe is hospitable... just isn't true.

I mean, it all sounds very nice, doesn't it?  God created the universe with us in mind, and this produced awesome places like Maui and the Florida Keys.  The problem is, even here on our home planet, things aren't all that... friendly.  Much of the Earth's land surface has a climate or topography that makes it pretty unsuitable for human life.  (Being that it's midwinter in upstate New York, I'd throw my own home town into that category.)  Even some of the more congenial places, places that are warm enough and have enough water and fertile soil to keep us alive, are prone to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and mudslides.  And if you leave the Earth, things only get worse; most of the universe is damn near a vacuum, and what's not is filled with black holes, quasars, asteroid belts, supernovae, neutron stars, and Wolf-Rayet gamma ray bursters -- the last-mentioned being capable of emitting an outburst of radiation so powerful that it could blast an entire solar system into oblivion.

Yes, well, what about the fact that all of the fundamental constants are set just right to produce matter?  This was the subject of Sir Martin Rees' book Just Six Numbers, in which he describes what the universe would be like if fundamental constants such as the curvature of space, the fine-structure constant, Planck's constant, the speed of light, and so on, were different -- and all of these alterations produce a universe that would be inhospitable to the formation of stars and planets, much less life.  And because we can't at the moment see any other reason why the constants are what they are -- i.e., there is no fundamental principle from which they can be derived, they seem arbitrary -- Rees and others argue that this is evidence of fine tuning.

I see two problems with this.  The first is that it is an argument from ignorance; because we have not yet come up with a unified theory that shows why the speed of light is three hundred million meters per second, and not (for example) 25 miles per hour, doesn't mean that we won't eventually do so.  You can't prove anything from a lack of knowledge.

Second, it seems to me that the strong anthropic principle is a backwards argument; it's taking what did happen, and arguing that there's a reason that it must have happened that way, that if it weren't designed, it wouldn't have happened that way.  It's as if I were dealt a straight flush in poker (an exceedingly unlikely occurrence) and I argued that because it's unlikely, someone must have rigged the deck.

All we know, honestly, is that it did happen, for the very good reason that if it hadn't happened that way, we wouldn't be here to talk about it.  This is called the weak anthropic principle -- even if the fundamental physical constants are arbitrary, there's no design implied, because in a universe with different physical constants, we wouldn't exist to discuss the matter.  The only place such arguments are possible are universes where life can occur.  Physicist Bob Park summarizes this viewpoint with the Yogi Berra-like statement, "If things were different, then things would not be like things are."  Put that way, it's hard to see how it's an argument for a deity, much less an omnipotent one with our best interests in mind.

Anyhow, that's my response to the Argument from Design.  Like I said, the person who wrote to me was really quite friendly about the whole thing, which (although we disagree about some fundamental ideas) is certainly an improvement from the spittle-flecked responses I sometimes get that suggest Satan is, as we speak, sharpening up his torture equipment with me in mind.  So, for that, I'll just say, "Thanks for writing."  Civilized discussion is, as always, the goal around here.