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

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Scientific names, Indigo Children, and Alpha Thinkers

Most people are, by nature, categorizers.  We like to put labels on things, sort the world into neat little boxes.  For many of us, this drive is integral to our understanding of the world.

An example from my own field is the concept of species.  The definition seems simple enough: a group of morphologically similar individuals that are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.  It seems, on the surface, that given this definition, it should be trivial to determine whether two individuals are, or are not, members of the same species.

The problem is, the world is messy, and doesn't often acquiesce to our desire to paste labels on various bits of it.  The word species is actually one of the hardest to pin down definitions in biology.  Ring species, fertile hybrids, morphologically distinct populations that can interbreed, morphologically identical populations that cannot, and so on, all point up that we're trying to draw firm distinctions in a realm where those distinctions probably don't exist.  As my long-ago vertebrate zoology professor once said, "The only reason that humans came up with the concept of 'species' is that Homo sapiens has no near relatives."

It's funny how serious taxonomists get about this, however.  There are fierce arguments over whether species should be "lumped" or "split" (particularly contentious amongst birdwatchers, who often bump up their lists with no hard work if what was once a single species gets divided into two or more).  There are endless arguments even about what names species should be given, and every month taxonomic oversight groups publish lists of name changes, to the chagrin of biologists who then have to go back and alter their records.

The same urge to divide a messy reality into neat compartments pervades a lot of other fields, too, and the results are sometimes more pernicious than the biologist's need to decide whether some plant or another is a new species.  In psychology, for example, it has driven the use of diagnostic labels on groups of behaviors that might not actually be conditions in the clinical sense.  ADD and ADHD, for example, are diagnoses that even the experts can't agree upon -- whether or not they are actual medical conditions, how (or if) cases should be medicated, and inconsistencies in how they are diagnosed have all led to significant controversy.  (There's a nice overview of the arguments here.)

Then, there's the urge to relabel in order to give a previously stigmatized group a more positive spin.  The adoption of the word "gay" to mean "homosexual" in the 20th century was, in part, to find a positive word to identify people who have throughout history been the targets of the worst sorts of epithets.  In the 1990s, a group of atheists tried the same kind of rebranding, and settled on calling themselves "The Brights" -- a move that to many people, including myself, seemed so self-congratulatory as to be cringeworthy.

More recently, there have been two rather interesting examples of this same sort of thing.  One is the idea of "Indigo Children," which is an increasingly popular label given to kids who are "empathetic, sensitive, intelligent, and don't fit in well."  I can understand the difficulties that parents of sensitive children face -- one of my own sons certainly could be described by those words, and he had a hell of a time making it through the teasing and bullying that seem to be an entrenched part of middle school culture.  But labeling these kids, even with a positive term, doesn't help the situation, and might even make it worse if the label makes the child feel even more different and isolated.  Add to that a pseudoscientific twist that you often see on "Indigo Child" websites -- that "Indigo Children" frequently have paranormal abilities -- and you have a fairly ugly combination of a non-evidence-based false diagnosis with a heaping helping of New-Agey condescension.  (For a particularly egregious example of this, go here -- and note that the article begins with a statement that the easiest way to identify "Indigo Children" is that they have "indigo-colored auras.")

Just yesterday, I found another good example of this -- the idea of the "Alpha Thinker."  Eric Schulke, who wrote the article I linked and who works for the "Movement for Indefinite Life Extension," tells us that Alpha Thinkers "... are creatives, innovators, pioneers. They acutely and agilely navigate an abundance of diverse, fallacy aware thinking. The alpha thinker can’t bring themselves to live at the last outpost and not venture further. They cannot resist poking their finger through the realm of subatomic particles. They can’t stay on this side of the atmosphere. They look into biology and the elements. They want to know why we are here, why the universe and all of existence is here, how far it goes, what is out there, what the hell is going on. Alpha thinkers are the universe’s way of creating the devises [sic] needed to help bring out all of the potential in its elements."

Well, that's just fine and dandy, but how do you know if someone is an "Alpha Thinker?"  It turns out that you more or less have to wait for them to do something smart:  "It is not a college degree that signifies the alpha thinker. As the alpha thinker knows, its [sic] an abundance of fallacy-aware thinking that signifies it...  Alpha thinkers control the elements. They are cosmic titans, the leaders of humankind, the explorers of the universe setting sail with fierce urgency."

Spinoza, Newton, and Thomas Paine, we are told, were "Alpha Thinkers," which strikes me as kind of an odd trio to choose, but I guess there's no denying these three men were bright guys.  Then, we are given two curious pieces of information: (1) whether or not you are an "Alpha Thinker" can be determined by an electroencephalogram; and (2) from "historical times" until now the ratio of "Alpha Thinkers" to ordinary folks has increased from 1 in 99 to 1 in 6.

So, I'm thinking: how can you know that's true, given that the EEG machine was only invented in 1924, and most people in the world will never have an EEG done during their lifetimes?  It seems to me that the label "Alpha Thinker" is just a new way to say "smart person," and Schulke is pulling made-up statistics out of his ass in order to support his point that there's something inherently different about them.  Further evidence of this comes at the end of the article, where Schulke gives the whole thing a New Age twist by saying that "Alpha Thinkers" are here to guide us into the next stage, the "Transhuman Revolution."

Oh, and of course, throughout the article Schulke makes it clear that he's an "Alpha Thinker."  As if there were any doubt of that.

So, there you are.  Today's musings about human nature.  I suspect that all of the above really, in the long haul, does minimal damage, with the possible exception of the misdiagnosis of individuals who are actually mentally ill and who don't receive treatment because they are labeled "Indigo Children" or "Alpha Thinkers," or whatever.  But it is a curious tendency, isn't it?  I think I'll wrap this up here, because I need to go update the database of my birdwatching sightings and see if any of the scientific names have changed.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Moral relativity

Once you accept a given non-evidence-based belief system, be it homeopathy or fundamentalist Islam, I see why that would require you to disbelieve in certain realms of scientific understanding.  If you are embracing something based on faith, and it comes into conflict with rationality, one or the other has to go.  It's time to surgically remove the source of the conflict.

I do, however, find it curious how selective the surgery can be.  The same people who object to biological science's understanding of evolution are frequently the same ones who are perfectly willing to take medicines and undergo medical procedures, all of which were developed by the same scientific framework that generated the theory of evolution.  It's a little hard to see how science can be so far right in one way, and then lead you so far wrong in another.

Be that as it may, I do get why the jettisoning of fact-based science happens.  But sometimes the specific bits that get rejected are a little hard to fathom.

Most of you have probably heard of Conservapedia, the crowd-sourced wiki project begun in 2005 by Andrew Schlafly to counter the "liberal bias" he found in Wikipedia.  His idea was that everything in the project would be written and supported from conservative and Christian ideals.  As a result, the page on Barack Obama is entirely negative; the page on climate change states that, basically, it isn't happening; the page on Jesus unquestioningly accepts his divinity; and so on.

All in the name of "eliminating bias."  Oh, and did I mention that its motto is, "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia?"

But so far, none of this is all that surprising.  It's hardly to be marveled at that conservative Christians embrace conservative Christian viewpoints.  But I just stumbled a couple of days ago onto two pages on Conservapedia that really, truly, mystified me.

Because apparently they find the Theory of Relativity, and Einstein's mass/energy equivalency formula (E=mc²) to be "liberal claptrap."  (Direct quote from the page on E=mc².)

And I'm thinking, "Okay.  I can see rejecting evolution, cosmology, and plate tectonics, because all of those strongly support the antiquity of the Earth.  But what in the hell is the problem with Einstein?  All that Einstein has done is to show that matter and energy can be converted back and forth, and how objects behave when they are traveling at a high rate of speed."  Neither one, I would think, would be first on the list of Theories Conservatives Shouldn't Like.

Apparently they are, though.  The Conservapedia folks go to great lengths to say how both of them are suspect, that any "dissenting views" by scientists who doubt Einstein are "suppressed as heresy," and how neither relativity nor E=mc² has ever been experimentally verified (in fact, they state in several places on the page for the Theory of Relativity that it has been "rejected," "is not entirely successful or proven," and contains "clear contradictions").

Amusingly, on the page for E=mc², they then follow up this criticism with a bunch of evidence that completely supports its validity, and state outright that in an experiment done all the way back in 1932, mass/energy equivalency was supported to an accuracy of ±0.5%.  I guess that's not enough to count as "verification," for some reason.

Only at the end of the page on the Theory of Relativity do we get an inkling of what is going on here.  Einstein's ideas, they say, promote moral relativism:
Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic President Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of "curvature of space" to promote a broad legal right to abortion.  As of June 2008, over 170 law review articles have cited this liberal application of the theory of relativity to legal arguments.  Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common.  Moreover, there is an unmistakable effort to censor or ostracize criticism of relativity.
So, yeah.  A mathematical system describing how matter behaves at extremely high speeds has anything to do with abortion law.


In any case, I decided to do a little digging, and find out what they hell they could possibly be talking about regarding the Tribe article showing that the General Theory of Relativity was pro-choice.  And I found the source; a paper from the Harvard Law Review in 1989 called "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics," in which Tribe used Relativity as a metaphor:
The Roe v. Wade opinion ignored the way in which laws regulating pregnant women may shape the entire pattern of relationships among men, women, and children. It conceptualized abortion not in terms of the intensely public question of the subordination of women to men through the exploitation of pregnancy, but in terms of the purportedly private question of how women might make intimately personal decisions about their bodies and their lives. That vision described a part of the truth, but only what might be called the Newtonian part. ... [A] change in the surrounding legal setting can constitute state action that most threatens the sphere of personal choice. And it is a 'curved space' perspective on how law operates that leads one to focus less on the visible lines of legal force and more on how those lines are bent and directed by the law's geometry.
So, now I'm thinking, are you people just idiots?  Or what?  When conservatives branded Bill Clinton with the nickname "the Teflon president," did you throw away all of your non-stick cookware?  Do you think that a "puppet government" is run by Pinocchio, Charlie McCarthy, and Howdy Doody?  When reporters call North Korea "the Hermit Kingdom," does that mean that we should immediately round up and imprison all of the hermits?  Or possibly hermit crabs?

Do you think that rainbows literally taste like Skittles?

You know, in this blog I've deliberately taken up the cause of clear thinking, and tried to do battle with those who promote ridiculous ideas and pretzel logic.  But sometimes, honestly, the muddy water seems to run too deep.  If you are that delusional, that much of a blithering moron, I just don't know that there's anything I, or anyone else, can do about it.

Einstein showed that morals are relative.  I mean.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The doggit on trial

There's a story developing in California that has me casting a wary but curious eye in that direction.

Joseph Mastropaolo, a former biomechanics and kinesiology teacher who "found Jesus" and gave up his career to advocate for various young-earth creationist causes, has dreamed up a contest in which a YEC/anti-evolution proponent and a proponent of science and evolution would each pony up $10,000, and would then present their positions (and evidence) before a judge.  (Mastropaolo has said that he himself will fund the YEC proponent's ante.)  The judge would decide whose case merited the win, and the victor walks away with the whole $20,000.

My first thought was, "What a nitwit.  I hope he has $10,000 to lose."  The weaker sister to creationism -- intelligent design -- has already gone to trial, in 2005, in the Kitzmiller vs. the Dover Area School Board case, and even it was found to be a stance that in the words of Judge John E. Jones III, who decided the case, was "breathtakingly inane."  He said, in his decision,
ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.
Couple this with the fact that "religious freedom" statutes, which would coerce teachers to give "alternate explanations" to evolution in biology classes, have been found unconstitutional every time they have come to trial, and Mastropaolo's idea seems like a good way to lose $10,000.

But I wonder if it'll be that easy.  According to the rules of the game, the goal is to pit a "literal Genesis advocate" against a "non-literal Genesis advocate."  In other words, people like me, who consider the Book of Genesis mythology (i.e., false), might be excluded from the outset, because I don't advocate for the Bible at all, either literally or non-literally.

Second, the two have to agree on the judge.  This may or may not be a problem; for example, in the Dover case, Judge Jones is a self-professed "Republican and Christian," and yet he still decided against the School Board in his decision.

Third, and more troubling, is the requirement in the rules that the "non-literal Genesis advocate" prove his/her case before the judge, using "objective, valid, reliable, and calibrated" evidence.  This would seem immediately to favor the advocate of science, given that the amount of reliable evidence that supports young-earth creationism is exactly zero.  But the problem, I believe, hinges on the word "prove."  When is a scientific theory proven?  The rather facile answer is "never;" as a possibly apocryphal quote from Einstein goes, "A thousand experiments could never prove me right, but one could prove me wrong."  Theories are supported, but are always subject to revision with better data -- one of the strengths of science.  Proof, in the sense that we prove a theorem in trigonometry, is out of reach of the inductive scientific method.

So I can easily see the case going something like this:
Scientist: The evidence is that the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old.  For example, we see light from galaxies that are far more than six thousand light years away; if the universe were only six thousand years old, the light from those galaxies wouldn't have arrived yet.

Creationist:  God created the light en route.  You can't prove that the entire universe wasn't created, with the light already part of the way here, six thousand years ago.  Or maybe the speed of light has changed in the last six thousand years.  You can't disprove that conjecture, either.

Scientist:  But what about radioactive dating?  The geologists and paleontologists have calibrated radioactive decay rates, and they all agree with each other.

Creationist:  If all of the decay rates are changing simultaneously, the fact that they're calibrated against each other means nothing.  If everything in the world were expanding, including the meter sticks, you'd have no way to tell.  So again, the rate of decay could have been different in the past, just like the speed of light.

Scientist:  But... fossils?  Genetic homology?  Structural homology?

Creationist:  All created that way by God.

Scientist (desperately):  The Lenski experiment?  Examples of rapid speciation?  Bacterial antibiotic resistance?

Creationist (smugly):  That's microevolution, not macroevolution.  There are no intermediate forms, and no changes in "type."  Show me something halfway between a dog and rabbit, and I might be convinced.


Scientist:  *faceplant*
So, I think the whole thing might hinge on some judge demanding that the scientist (or "non-literal Genesis advocate," or whatever) be able to come up with evidence to meet every potential objection that the creationist could bring up.  This, of course, isn't possible, because the creationist just has to fall back on "god did it that way," to which there's no possible scientific answer.  (And lest you think that I'm joking about how ridiculous this can get, the picture I linked above came from a creationist site, Fish With Trish, wherein we find out that supposedly evolutionists believe in transitional forms like the "doggit (a mix between a dog and a rabbit)," and that "the purpose of fossils is to speak about death and God's judgment.")

So, I can easily see the whole thing going awry -- not because there's any chance that evolution is wrong and creationism is right, but because proponents of science and religion essentially don't speak the same language.  Their standards of evidence and proof differ; their understanding of how we know something is true or false differs; their entire way of comprehending the world differs.  It is to be hoped that a judge would side with reason, but I'm not confident enough of it to risk $10,000.

So, it'll be interesting to see what will happen.  A couple of the skeptical sites I frequent had folks pawing at the ground saying, "Lemme at him!"  So maybe someone will take the bait.  Myself, I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing.  But in my optimistic moments, I can see such a trial going very right -- which would certainly be a victory to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Straw man media

I think that mental laziness contributes more to the prevalence of media idiocy than any other factor.

I mean, let's face it.  The simplistic, single-cause vitriol poured into newspapers, magazines, and websites by the likes of Ann Coulter and Ted Rall would get nowhere if the consumers were willing to get up off their metaphorical asses and do the hard work of evaluating the actual arguments these people make.  When what they say constitutes an actual argument, that is, which is seldom.  Most of it seems to be one long free-floating ad hominem, delicately laced with unintentional irony -- such as yesterday's pronouncement by Rush Limbaugh that lesbians were obese substance abusers.

No, he apparently didn't realize why everyone else thought that this was screamingly funny.  I guess oxycodone addiction can make you a little slow on the uptake.


The problem is, once you have a critical mass of consumers who think of media as being pithy sound-bites that loudly confirm what they already thought, you have dulled the whole lot of them to learning anything from what they read.  And wasn't the original purpose of news media to inform?  I sure thought it was.

I was sent an especially good example of this by a friend and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia yesterday.  The whole thing started with an article in the Boston Globe online entitled, "Report Slams State for Lack of Corrections Reform."  In the article, posted last Sunday, writer Wesley Lowery describes a recent study by MassINC, a non-partisan research group that looked into incarceration patterns over the past forty years in Massachusetts.  The group produced a forty-page report that found, amongst other things, a puzzling statistic -- that as incarceration rates climbed steeply, the rate of violent crime was falling equally steeply.

Okay, so far, so good.  But then Michael Graham, radio talk show host and GOP consultant, weighed in with "Boston Globe-Democrat Asks: Why is Crime Going Down If We're Putting So Many Crooks in Prison?"  And in this stunning piece of investigative journalism, we read the following:
So you don’t understand why prison enrollment is going up while crime is going down? You don’t see the connection between more criminals off the street and fewer crimes in your neighborhood?

Okay….

After all, if crime is going down with all the crooks in jail, why are we wasting money keeping them in jail? Let’s let them back out on the streets.

What could possibly go wrong?
So, we have three fallacies at once here:
1)  If-by-Whiskey -- defining a term however you damn well please, and acting as if that definition were the correct one.
2)  Red Herring -- throwing in an irrelevant or misleading statement to throw your opponent off his stride.
3)  Straw Man -- recharacterizing your opponent's argument as an oversimplified or ridiculous parody of its actual stance, and arguing against that.
Mr. Graham has, probably deliberately (although as with the case of Rush Limbaugh, you can never be certain if they see it themselves), confused the rates of crime and incarceration with the raw numbers of criminals in jail and on the street.  It's not an easy point; consider how tricky it is to understand the fact that (for example) right now, the number of people on the Earth is increasing, but the rate of growth is decreasing.  If all that the report found was that the numbers of criminals on the street went down as the number of criminals in jail went up, that would hardly be surprising.  But it is curious that the rate of violent crime is declining as the rate of incarceration is increasing, and that statistic certainly deserves a better answer than the ridiculous If-by-Red-Straw-Herring Man-Whiskey that Mr. Graham saw fit to create.

I think what bugs me, however, is how easily suckered the readers are.  I read the comments following Michael Graham's article, and not one recognized what was, to me, an obvious problem with it -- half of them (the conservatives) responded with a rah-rah-right-on-dude, and the other half (the liberals) with messages decrying the inequities of the American justice system and their cost to society.  Nobody, or at least not in the first few pages of comments, said, "Wait a minute.  Your argument has a hole in it big enough to float the Queen Elizabeth through."  (The ship, not the monarch.)

So, anyway, that's today's frustrated anti-media rant.  It's not like the problem would be easy to fix; clear thinking is hard work, and people seem to like easy answers.  Going har-de-har-har at a blatant straw man is certainly simpler than putting your mind to figuring out what's really going on.  I just wish so many of the media wonks weren't getting rich off of it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Know thyself

A lot of us seem to have an innate drive to understand the workings of our own brains.  The whole field of psychology, and later, neuroscience, grew out of a need to figure out how the electrical firings of the 1.5 kilograms of gray matter inside our skulls turns into everything we experience, think, respond to, and desire.  This same impulse, I think, also has been a big factor in the persistence of a lot of pseudoscience -- the popularity of astrology and divination comes, I think, as much from the human desire to know ourselves as it does from our wish to know the future.

It's also given birth to some gray-area practices, such as personality assessment tests.  I was just talking yesterday with some students about one of these -- the Alignment Test (take it yourself here), which asks you 36 questions and then places you into one of nine categories: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil.  You can then read the description of yourself, find out others (especially fictional characters) who fall into that classification, and so on.

So, naturally, I had to take the test.  And I turned out to be... *drum roll*

"True Neutral."

Here's my description:
A neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil-after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way.

Some neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run... The "true" neutral looks upon all other alignments as facets of the system of many things. Thus, each aspect--evil and good, chaos and law--of things must be retained in balance to maintain the status quo; for things as they are cannot be improved upon except temporarily, and even then but superficially.

True neutral characters are concerned with their own well-being and that of the group or organization which aids them. They may behave in a good manner to those that they consider friends and allies, but will only act maliciously against those who have tried to injure them in some way. For the rest, they do not care... If someone else is in need, they will weigh the options of the potential rewards and dangers associated with the act. If an enemy is in need, they will ignore him or take advantage of his misfortune.

True neutrals are offended by those who are opinionated or bigoted. A "hell-fire and brimstone" lawful good priest is just as offensive as a neutral evil racial supremacist in their eyes. They do not necessarily strive for philosophical balance. In fact, they may avoid philosophical considerations altogether. A true neutral may take up the cause of his nation, not because he necessarily feels obligated to do so, but because it just makes sense to support the group that protects your way of life. True neutrals tend to believe in lex talionis forms of justice.
So.  There you are, then.  Apparently, being a True Neutral puts me in good company; Han Solo, Dr. House, Severus Snape, and Niccolo Machiavelli are supposedly True Neutrals, as is a certain leafy character from Lord of the Rings:




Anyway, all in all, I'm pretty happy about this, even though I know that (1) it's based on my own self-assessment, which may or may not be accurate, and (2) dividing all personality types into nine pigeonholes is kind of silly.  After all, even the astrologers admit that there are twelve.

But it's interesting how deeply this "type theory" has affected reputable psychology.  Consider one of the most widely-used, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality assessment test whose first iteration was developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabelle Briggs Myers, in 1962.  This one divides humanity into sixteen types, based on four pairs of traits: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judgment/perception.  (If you're curious, and not sick of hearing about me, I'm an ISFP, which may be surprising.)

The problem is -- in fact, the problem with all of this is -- type theory has no particular basis in science.  As far back as 1989, research by behavioral scientists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa concluded that "there was no support for the view that the MBTI measures truly dichotomous preferences or qualitatively distinct types."  More recently, David Pittenger, a researcher in psychometrics at Marshall University, said, "Although the MBTI is an extremely popular measure of personality, I believe that the available data warrant extreme caution in its application as a counseling tool, especially as consultants use it in various business settings."  Critics have claimed that its widespread use is unjustified -- as Michael Moffa pointed out, in his article "A Critique of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator," mainly because it gives results that are unreliable.  Individuals given the MBTI twice, with a five-week wait between testing, show as high as a 50% likelihood of falling into a different type the second time they're tested.  This by itself is extremely problematic, and makes you wonder why it's still used.  It may, Moffa wrote, be simply "popular because it's popular."

Really, though, the problem is the weight that the results are given.  Human personality is a remarkably complex, changing, and difficult-to-pin-down thing, and any hope that we can classify humans using nine, twelve, sixteen, or even a hundred designations is probably doomed right from the outset.  So, as a skeptic and a scientist, I do tend to cast a wary eye on such assessments; but put in their proper light, I think they can be instructive.  It can't be denied that personality tests are kind of entertaining, and if along the way, they give you some insight into how you think, then that's all to the good.  The maxim "Know Thyself," after all, has been a guiding principle for a long time.  It is for good reason that it's inscribed on the front wall of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.


All of which probably seems pretty wishy-washy, for a guy who usually prides himself on thinking critically.  It's not my fault, of course.  All of this ambivalence is just because I'm a "True Neutral."


Not that there's anything wrong with that, right?  Being an ISFP makes up for it, right?

Of course right.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sea slugs in space

Some days, I simply do not get how woo-woos think.

In some ways, though, I understand them pretty well.  For example, who amongst us has not wished that the world was other than it is?  Telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, the afterlife, various cryptozoological marvels -- I have felt the attractiveness of all of those, and spent time thinking (and written fiction) about what it would be like if those were real.

But what I don't get is the seemingly complete abandonment of reason that these folks frequently exhibit.  When I am wrong about something, when I am presented with evidence or a logical argument that I am mistaken, I generally acquiesce with an apology.  But these people?

Arguing, I find, simply makes them hold on to whatever their belief is like grim death.

I had an especially vivid demonstration of this yesterday, about a claim last week that the International Space Station had captured footage of a translucent alien creature swimming past, in the depths of space.  [Source]

If you've not seen the video, you should go to the link I posted and check it out.  In my opinion it's a flat hoax, although admittedly it's quite a clever one.  Here's a still of the "creature," in false color and high contrast:


Well, like I said, the whole thing "screamed" hoax at me.  The first thing I noticed was that in the video, the view of the space station seemed "stretched," as if it had been digitally altered.  The footage didn't have the crisp lines that the high-quality cameras aboard the ISS usually provide:


There's also the problem that I'm a biologist, and I happened to recognize the "creature" in the video as being blurred footage of a very terrestrial species.  The whole thing was skilfully done, but no question that it was faked.  So, anyway, when this was posted and a link sent to me by a friend, I went to the site, and then I did what I should never do -- started arguing.  Here's a transcript of the exchange that ensued:

Me:  There are a variety of problems with this footage.  First, notice how the creature is moving.  It clearly has some kind of fins, and is using those and a rippling movement along its body to propel itself.  That wouldn't work in space.

True Believer:  Why not?  How do you know how alien creatures move?

Me:  It has nothing to do with not knowing about aliens.  It has to do with the fact that space is nearly a vacuum, so there's nothing to push against.  That kind of propulsion only works when you're going through a medium at least as dense as water.

TB:  Space isn't a vacuum.

Me:  Oh?

TB:  Scientists have proven that all sorts of things exist in space.  Vacuum energy, pair formation, plasma streams, magnetic oscillations.  Space is filled with all those and more.

Me:  You're seriously claiming that you could use scuba fins to swim through a magnetic field?

TB:  You don't know what interactions alien tissue could have with energy in space.  Aliens could have adapted to swim through plasma the way fish swim through water.

Me:  You keep saying that "I don't know."  I suspect you don't, either.

TB:  Why are you so hostile?  Why are you so desperate to prove that aliens don't exist?

Me:  I'm not saying aliens as a whole don't exist.  I'm saying this claim of alien life is a hoax.  In any case, I know what this "alien" is, and it's not an alien, unless you could use that word to describe an arctic mollusk.

TB:  What are you talking about?

Me [after brief pause to double-check photos, to see if I was remembering my invertebrate zoology correctly]:  Check out pics of "sea angels" (Clione limacina).  Pretty close match, isn't it?  If you check out vids of sea angels swimming, you'll see what I mean.  It's identical.  Seems clear that the guy who created the video simply overlaid the footage from the space station with a clip of a sea angel swimming.  In any case, it's not an alien, it's a sea slug.


TB:  You're a biologist, and you've never heard of convergent evolution?

Me:  You're seriously claiming that convergent evolution between a space creature and a sea slug explains this better than "it's a hoax?"

TB:  All kinds of similarities crop up because of convergent evolution here on earth.  There's no reason to believe it couldn't happen with alien evolution too.

Me [after swearing profusely at the computer, which of course my opponent couldn't hear]:  Look.  There's also the problem of the source of the video.  This guy, Stephen Hannard -- he posts under "Alien Disclosure Group - UK," and as far as I can tell, he's deranged.

TB:  Name-calling is part of your logical argument,  I see.

Me:  Have you checked out some of his other claims?  Last year he said that the Mars rover had spotted an alien groundhog on Mars, along with a flip-flop and a fossilized finger.

TB:  How do you know that those weren't true?  What proof do you have?

Me:  If I need to prove to you that a vaguely shoe-shaped rock is not a Martian flip-flop, I give up.


So.  Yeah.  Did you notice that every time I presented an argument, he simply dodged it?  This guy has perfected the argument from ignorance -- if we don't know what something is, it must be _____ (fill in the blank with: aliens, Bigfoot, ghosts, angels, whatever).  Once you accept that fallacious stance as logical, you become impossible to argue with.  Any evidence to the contrary is simply looked upon as special pleading, or (as with my pointing out that the "alien creature" was actually footage of a terrestrial sea slug), more support that your stance was right in the first place.

Convergent evolution, my ass.

Anyhow, that's today's exercise in frustration.  And I need to stop getting drawn into online arguments, my blood pressure is high enough as it is.  But if you see the "alien creature swimming past the ISS" posted somewhere, I encourage you to post a comment with this link.  After all, if they want to argue, they can argue with you for a change.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Muzzling the scientists

Let me say, from the outset, that I am not a particularly political person.

I do vote, and I try to keep myself informed, but I find that politics in general seems mostly to fall into two classes: (1) arguing over things that are obvious, such as whether banning same-sex marriage is discrimination; and (2) arguing over things that are so complex that it's unlikely we'll ever see a solution, such as how to balance the federal budget.

So, I find politics alternately maddening and baffling, and mostly I leave the political debates to the people who relish that sort of thing.  But what does make me sit up and take notice is when politicians begin to intrude on the realm of science -- which is what the government of Canada did, just last week.

In an article that a Canadian friend sent to me, entitled, "Canadian Government Votes Against... Science," we hear about a frighteningly common trend -- the desire by politicians to control what scientists research, publish, and discuss.  Here's what happened:

A little over a year ago, a claim hit the media that the Canadian government was "muzzling" its scientists.  At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held last February, Canadian scientists discussed the push of politicians to control what scientists were doing, particularly about controversial topics.  The government had the previous year issued a "protocol" that provided rules governing how scientists could interact with the media.  This protocol included the following:
Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines.
Naturally, scientists were infuriated by the demand that they toe the party line.  "The Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won't be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship," said Thomas Pedersen of the University of Victoria.  "I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is."

Andrew Weaver, also of the University of Victoria, was even more pointed.  He said that the desire of the government was to keep the public "in the dark."

Some politicians took notice, and there was a measure recently introduced into parliament that read as follows:
That, in the opinion of the House,

a) public science, basic research, and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making;

b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public;

c) the government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program.
The measure was defeated, 157-137.

I find this infuriating, but hardly surprising.  Here in the United States, there has been so much emphasis put on spinning science news that we have gotten to the point that a significant percentage of the public doesn't even trust the facts.  The scientists themselves have an agenda, political leaders claim.  If scientific research presents findings that run counter to the party-approved position, the scientists must be shills.

The result: to a lot of people, even the data is suspect.  At the far end of this we have articles like the one that appeared last week in Forbes entitled "Sorry, Global Warming Alarmists - the Earth is Cooling," which was such a hash of cherry-picked facts, misextrapolations, and outright lies that I barely know where to start.  Beginning with the fact that the author, Peter Ferrara, is the Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy for the Heartland Institute, which has as its stated goal "promoting climate skepticism."

Because that, evidently, is an unbiased, "skeptical" stance.

It is a frightening trend.  The problem is that if you can convince people that facts, that hard data, have a bias, you can convince them of damn near anything.  Yes, there can be productive political arguments over how to respond to a particular set of facts; but the data are either true or false, they cannot in themselves have an agenda.  And the desire of the government to control what the public knows is especially terrifying -- "Orwellian," in the words of Professor Weaver.  The fact that the Canadian parliament voted down a measure that stated that "federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public" should scare the absolute hell out of you.

I hope, for the sake of truth, that scientists in Canada and elsewhere defy this increasing demand by politicians that they should have the right to control the free flow of scientific information, and its release to the public.  It's bad enough that in many cases, governments control the purse strings, determining which research gets funding and which does not; it's worse when they want to make sure that the results of that research support the party's platform.  In the words of Carl Sagan, "The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there is no place for it in the endeavor of science."

Friday, March 22, 2013

Miraculous mathematics

I've blogged before about "miraculous thinking" -- the idea that an unlikely occurrence somehow has to be a miracle simply based on its improbability.  But yesterday I ran into a post on the wonderful site RationalWiki that showed, mathematically, why this is a silly stance.

Called "Littlewood's Law of Miracles," after John Edensor Littlewood, the man who first codified it in this way, it goes something like this:
  • Let's say that a "miracle" is defined as something that has a likelihood of occurring of one in a million.
  • We are awake, aware, and engaged on the average about eight hours a day.
  • An event of some kind occurs about once a second.  During the eight hours we are awake, aware, and engaged, this works out to 28,800 events per day, or just shy of a million events in an average month.  (864,000, to be precise.)
  • The likelihood of observing a one-in-a-million event in a given month is therefore 1-(999,999/1,000,000)1,000,000 , or about 0.63.  In other words, we have better than 50/50 odds of observing a miracle next month!
Of course, this is some fairly goofy math, and makes some rather silly assumptions (one discrete event every second, for example, seems like a lot).  But Littlewood does make a wonderful point; given that we're only defining post hoc the unlikeliness of an event that has already occurred, we can declare anything we want to be a miracle just based on how surprised we were that it happened.  And, after all, if you want to throw statistics around, the likelihood of any event happening that has already happened is 100%.

So, like the Hallmark cards say, Miracles Do Happen.  In fact, they're pretty much unavoidable.

You hear this sort of thing all the time, though, don't you?  A quick perusal of sites like Miracle Stories will give you dozens of examples of people who survived automobile accidents without a scratch, made recoveries from life-threatening conditions, were just "in the right place at the right time," and so on.  And it's natural to sit up and take notice when these things happen; this is a built-in perceptual error called dart-thrower's bias.  This fallacy is named after a thought experiment of being in a pub while there's a darts game going on across the room, and simply asking the question: when do you notice the game?  When there's a bullseye, of course.  The rest is just background noise.  And when you think about it, it's very reasonable that we have this bias.  After all, what has the greater evolutionary cost -- noticing the outliers when they're irrelevant, or not noticing the outliers when they are relevant?  It's relatively obvious that if the unusual occurrence is a rustle in the grass, it's far better to pay attention to it when it's the wind than not to pay attention to it when it's a lion.

And of course, on the Miracle Stories webpage, no mention is made of all of the thousands of people who didn't seem to merit a miracle, and who died in the car crash, didn't recover from the illness, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That sort of thing just forms the unfortunate and tragic background noise to our existence -- and it is inevitable that it doesn't register with us in the same way.

So, we should expect miracles, and we are hardwired to pay more attention to them than we do to the 999,999 other run-of-the-mill occurrences that happen in a month.  How do we escape from this perceptual error, then?

Well, the simple answer is that in some senses, we can't.  It's understandable to be surprised by an anomalous event or an unusual pattern.  (Think, for example, how astonished you'd be if you flipped a coin and got ten heads in a row.  You'd probably think, "Wow, what's the likelihood?" -- but any other pattern of heads and tails, say, H-T-T-H-H-H-T-H-T-T -- has exactly the same probability of occurring.  It's just that the first looks like a meaningful pattern, and the second one doesn't.)  The solution, of course, is the same as the solution for just about everything; don't turn off your brain.  It's okay to think, at first, "That was absolutely amazing!  How can that be?", as long as afterwards we think, "Well, there are thousands of events going on around me right now that are of equally low probability, so honestly, it's not so weird after all."

All of this, by the way, is not meant to diminish your wonder at the complexity of the universe, just to direct that wonder at the right thing.  The universe is beautiful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.  It is also, fortunately, understandable when viewed through the lens of science.  And I think that's pretty cool -- even if no miracles occur today.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Blood magic

Let me tell you a story.

There once was a woman named Elizabeth Báthory, who was a countess in Hungary.  Elizabeth was very beautiful, with fair skin and long, lustrous hair, and men from all over the kingdom fell in love with her.  She married Ferenc Nádasdy, a valiant military man, and they lived happily together for years -- until he died in battle.  By this time, Elizabeth was 43 years old, and still in the prime of health, but she began to worry that she was aging and losing her famous beauty.  So she came up with a brilliant solution:

She would bathe daily in the blood of virgins.

During the next decade, Elizabeth allegedly killed 650 young girls.  History doesn't record whether it worked to keep her skin looking young.  Finally, the people in the surrounding areas rose up and demanded that something be done, despite Elizabeth's power and wealth.  Having no choice, local authorities arrested Elizabeth, and had her imprisoned for the rest of her life in Csejte Castle -- although she was never brought to trial.

She was, apparently, batshit crazy.

Blood has long been thought to have magical powers of restoration and vitality; thus the vampire mythos, and the hundreds of cultures that included blood sacrifice as part of their ritual beliefs.  The scientific world has more or less shown this all to be nonsense, with the exception that keeping your blood flowing through your arteries and veins is pretty essential to your health and vitality.  But this hasn't stopped people from believing that blood has magical powers, and there are still nutjobs running around who claim they're vampires, lo unto this very day.

And this whole wacky belief system has given rise to a new "alternative medicine" fad: the "vampire facial."

In this technique, which when you hear about it will make you wonder who the hell ever thought this could be a good idea, blood is withdrawn from your arm.  It is then centrifuged to spin out the plasma and platelets from the red and white blood cells.  The plasma and platelets are then injected into your face, in order to "stimulate new collagen growth," "get rid of wrinkles," and "revitalize the skin." 

Below is a picture of noted deep thinker Kim Kardashian getting a "vampire facial:"


And if that photograph wasn't enough to dissuade you from ever doing this, allow me to add just a couple of comments about the procedure: You are (1) poking your face full of holes, and (2) injecting fluid into those holes.  Of course your skin feels fuller.  You are also causing inflammation, resulting in the production of histamines, causing swelling.  So, okay, the wrinkles may go away for a while, rather in the fashion of pumping air into a flat tire, but as soon as the injection sites heal, the inflammation subsides, and the body reabsorbs the fluid, you're going to be right back where you started -- wrinkled, or, in the case of Kim Kardashian, dumb as a bag of hammers.

Oh, and did I mention that the cost of the treatment is $1,500?

Me, I think I'll just stick with the wrinkles, thanks.

So, that's the latest from the world of alternative medicine and "beauty treatments."  Every time I see some new thing arise on this front, I always think, "What will they come up with next?"  And I'm never disappointed, because it always turns out to be more ridiculous than the last thing.  Of course, the I-don't-want-to-get-old crew has yet to try out the Elizabeth Báthory method.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's because so many of them live in Hollywood, and virgins are hard to come by.  I dunno.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The voices of the ancestors

One of the (many) reasons I love science is that as a process, it opens up avenues to knowledge that were previously thought closed.  Couple that with the vast improvements in technological tools, and you have a powerful combination for exploring realms that once were not considered "science" at all.

Take, for example, historical linguistics, the discipline that studies the languages spoken by our ancestors.  It is a particular fascination of mine -- in fact, it is the field I studied for my MA.  (Yes, I know I teach biology.  It's a long story.)  I can attest to the fact that it's a hard enough subject, even when you have a plethora of written records to work with, as I did (my thesis was on the effects of the Viking invasions on Old English and Old Gaelic).  When records are scanty, or worse yet, non-existent, the whole thing turns into a highly frustrating, and highly speculative, topic.

This is the field of "reconstructive linguistics" -- trying to infer the characteristics of the languages spoken by our distant ancestors, for the majority of which we have not a single written remnant.  If you look in an etymological dictionary, you will see a number of words that have starred ancestral root words, such as *tark, an inferred verb stem from Proto-Indo-European that means "to twist."  (A descendant word that has survived until today is torque.)  The asterisk means that the word is "unattested" -- i.e., there's no proof that this is what the word actually was, in the original ancestor language, because there are no written records of Proto-Indo-European.  And therein, of course, lies the problem.  Because it's an unattested word, no one can ever be sure if it's correct.  The inferred word comes not from any hard evidence, but from the application of one of the most fundamental rules of linguistics: Phonetic changes are regular.


As a quick illustration of this -- and believe me, I could write about this stuff all day -- we have Grimm's Law, which describes how stops in Proto-Indo-European became fricatives in Germanic languages, but they remained stops in other surviving (non-Germanic) Indo-European languages.  One example is the shift of /p/ to /f/, which is why we have foot (English), fod (Norwegian), Fuss (German), fótur (Icelandic), and so on, but poús (Greek), pes (Latin), peda (Lithuanian), etc.  These sorts of sound correspondences allowed us to make guesses about what the original word sounded like.

Note the use of the past tense in the previous sentence.  Because now linguists have a tool that will take a bit of the guesswork out of reconstructive linguistics -- and shows promise to bringing it into the realm of a true science.

An article in Science World Report, entitled "Ancient Languages Reconstructed by Linguistic Computer Program, a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of California - Berkeley has developed software that uses inputted lexicons to reconstruct languages.  (Read their original paper here.)  This tool automates a process that once took huge amounts of painstaking research, and even this first version has had tremendous success -- the first run of the program, using data from 637 Austronesian languages currently spoken in Asia and the South Pacific, generated proto-Austronesian roots for which 85% matched the roots derived by experts in that language family to within one phoneme or fewer.

What I'm curious about, of course, is how good the software is at deriving root words for which we do have written records.  In other words, checking its results against something other than the unverifiable speculation that historical linguists were already doing.  For example, would the software be able to take lexicons from Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Provençal, and so on, and correctly infer the Latin stems?  To me, that would be the true test; to see what the shortcomings were, you have to have something real to check its results against.  (And for any historical linguists in my readership whose hackles got raised by my use of the words "unverifiable speculation" -- c'mon, you have to admit that what you're doing does have the inherent upside of being unfalsifiable.  If you think a particular Proto-Indo-European root reconstructs as *lug and your colleague thinks it's *wuk, you can argue about it till next Sunday and you still will never be certain who's right, as there are very few Proto-Indo-Europeans around these days who could tell you for sure.)

But even so, it's a pretty nifty new tool.  Just the idea that we can make some guesses at what language our ancestors spoke six-thousand-odd years ago is stunning, and the fact that someone has written software that reduces the effort to accomplish this is cool enough to set my little Language Nerd Heart fluttering.  It is nice to see reconstructive linguistics using the tools of science, thus bringing together two of my favorite things.  Why, exactly, I find it so exciting to know that *swey may have meant "to whistle" to someone six millennia ago, I'm not sure.  But the fact that we now have a computer program that can check our guesses is pretty damn cool.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The trials and tribulations of Pope Francis

I have it on good authority that the new pope, Francis I, is either a spy in league with extraterrestrials, or else is an emissary of the Antichrist who will oversee the destruction of Rome.  Or possibly both at the same time.  It's hard to tell, frankly, because my source for this, an article called "Pope Francis: His Jesuitical, Extraterrestrial, 'False Prophet,' and Political Identities," doesn't seem all that certain itself.

And I have to admit that "good authority" may be a bit of an exaggeration, here.  This article was authored by none other than Alfred Lambremont Webre, who has previously claimed that President Obama has visited Mars, that the Earth would be bombarded by "fourth dimensional energy" on November 11, 2011 resulting in all of us being able to engage in "fourth dimensional sex," and that there is a brown dwarf star on the way that will reach its closest approach this year in July and which will trigger "massive electrical discharges" that will result in a catastrophic flood.  (None of us can see the approach of the star except for Alfred, apparently, because the government is hiding its approach from us with chemtrails.  He himself saw it using a "chronovisor," which is a machine that allows him to see the future.)

So, as you can see, he's not exactly the most credible witness right from the get-go.  Be that as it may, let's give him a chance, and hear what he has to say in his rambling diatribe.  Um, article.

Well, first, we have the obvious relevance of the date Pope Francis was elected:
March 13, 2013, the date of Pope Francis I nomination, was the 16th anniversary of the Phoenix Light, a massive space craft that overflew Phoenix, AZ. on March 13, 1997. March 13, 1997 is a significant event in the Exopolitical community that follows the Extraterrestrial presence on Earth.
Don't expect me to believe that's a coincidence.  Alfred either.  You just know that the College of Cardinals was sitting there, on the first day of the conclave, and one of them said, "Hang on... let's wait till tomorrow to decide.  Because then we'll be voting him in on the sixteenth anniversary of a random UFO sighting.  That will send a message, won't it?"  And all of the other cardinals said, "Amen, Your Holy Eminence, that sounds like a dandy idea."

Then, we have a bit about the "Prophecies of St. Malachy," about which I've previously written.  The last pope in the prophecies was one "Petrus Romanus" (Peter the Roman), who was supposed to be the Antichrist's right-hand man, and was going to be in charge of the church during the Tribulation.  So, there's lots of speculation as to whether Pope Francis is actually Petrus Romanus, even though he's not really Peter from Rome, he's Jorge from Argentina.  But hey, close enough, right?  After all, Alfred doesn't even touch on a much greater likelihood, which is that Pope Francis is actually George Bluth from Arrested Development:


Then we have a long, confusing bit about how Pope Francis, in his previous life as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was a Jesuit.  First of all, the Jesuits are somehow connected with research into extraterrestrials, so that's significant.  Don't ask me how.  Secondly, we all know how the Jesuits are an evil secret organization bent on world domination.  Alfred then tells us all about the "Jesuit Oath," which includes the following lovely passage:
[I] declare and swear that His Holiness, the Pope, is Christ's Vice-Regent and is the true and only head of the Catholic or Universal Church throughout the earth; and that by the virtue of the keys of binding and loosing given to His Holiness by my Saviour, Jesus Christ, he hath power to depose heretical Kings, Princes, States, Commonwealths, and Governments, and they may be safely destroyed. Therefore to the utmost of my power I will defend this doctrine and His Holiness's right and custom against all usurpers of the heretical or Protestant authority whatever, especially the Lutheran Church of Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and the now pretended authority and Churches of England and Scotland, and the branches of same now established in Ireland and on the continent of America and elsewhere and all adherents in regard that they may be usurped and heretical, opposing the sacred Mother Church of Rome. I do now denounce and disown any allegiance as due to any heretical king, prince or State, named Protestant or Liberal, or obedience to any of their laws, magistrates or officers. I do further declare the doctrine of the Churches of England and Scotland of the Calvinists, Huguenots, and others of the name of Protestants or Masons to be damnable, and they themselves to be damned who will not forsake the same.
The problem is, the "Jesuit Oath" is a hoax.  It was a bit of anti-Catholic vitriol passed around by Protestant fear-mongers in the early 20th century (the same era that produced the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion).  So, really, these two pieces of nasty nonsense constitute two of the first-ever-recorded conspiracy theories.  The evil Catholics are trying to destroy the world!  No, wait, it's the Jews!  No, wait, its both!

In any case, the whole thing is wrapped up with aliens, somehow.  In a passage that should be enshrined forever in the Annals of WTF, Alfred writes:
One hermeneutical interpretation would have "the dragon" of the Book of Revelations identified as "Extraterrestrial civilizations that the False Prophet (putatively Pope Francis I) promotes to humanity. This role of a Jesuit Pope, promoting "Official ET Disclosure" along with other major institutions such as the United Nations and the major space-faring and extraterrestrial knowledgeable nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, would certainly fulfill one dystopian view of extraterrestrial "Disclosure", that of a false flag extraterrestrial invasion such as was predicted by Dr. Wernher von Btraun [sic] on his death bed and related to Disclosure Project witness Dr. Carol Rosin.
Oh.  Okay.  What?

So.  Anyway.  I know that regular readers of this blog know me well enough to realize that I'm very far from a Catholic apologist.  I think a lot of the Vatican's policies are repressive, backwards, and medieval, and there's no indication that Pope Francis is anything but a party liner in this regard.  And there are, apparently, some questions to be asked about the new pope's past, especially his alleged complicity with abuses by the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983.  But other than that -- for cryin' in the sink, leave the poor guy alone.  He's barely had a chance to do anything yet, good or bad.  It seems a little premature to conclude that he's going to sell us out to the extraterrestrials.  Or the Antichrist.  Or the evil Jesuits.  Or whoever.  My guess is that he'll just continue the same policies of the last pope, pretty much, and things will go on in the church as they always have.

So, anyway, I'm willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt for the time being.  And given that I'm an atheist, I think that's pretty generous, don't you?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sneak thievery

Having dealt with such issues in recent posts as the ethics of resurrecting extinct animal species, and the difficulty of addressing the problems with the American educational system, I want to look today at an even more serious problem: penis theft.

At this point, you are probably thinking, "Did I just read what I think I just read?"  I know that's what I thought when I came across the article on AlterNet entitled "Penis Snatching On the Rise -- Africa's Genital-Stealing Crime Wave Hits the Countryside."  So, yes: you did just read that.  And yes, it's what it sounds like.

Well, sort of.  My first guess would have been that for some reason, better left un-thought-about, there was a cult of some sort that was stealing the body parts off of corpses.  If that's all it had been, it would have merited little more than a quick retch before moving on.  But no, it's weirder than that.  These people believe that somehow, guys are being relieved of their favorite body part magically, while they're still alive.

For example, the author of the article, Louisa Lombard, tells of a Sudanese traveler going through the Central African Republic town of Tiringoulou.  The traveler stopped for a cup of tea, and after receiving it, shook hands with the tea seller.  The unfortunate tea seller felt "an electric tingling," and at that point realized that "his penis had shrunk to a size similar to that of a baby's."  There was an outcry from the alleged victim, which led to a small-scale riot, during which a second man fell prey to the same fate.

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase "going off half-cocked," doesn't it?

Anyhow, it'd be nice to think that there would be at least one voice of rationality in the crowd who would demand that the two supposed targets drop trou and prove that they had been de-privated, but I guess no one thought of that.  Everyone just sort of said, "Oh, okay.  That makes sense."  And alas for the poor traveler, he was subjected to a "harsh interrogation" and was eventually shot to death for his magical crimes.  And as far as the leader of the armed rebel group who governs the town, and who oversaw the traveler's execution, he tells a different story; he said that the man wasn't killed, that he "mysteriously vanished from his holding cell."

And lest you think that this weird belief is confined to central Africa, allow me to point out that Singapore has had outbreaks of, um, dewangification as well.  Check out, if you dare, this article, entitled, "The Great Singapore Penis Panic and American Mass Hysteria," which is about an epidemic of "koro," a condition in which men suffer "a catastrophic loss of yang energy," causing their penises to shrivel away.

Well, needless to say, there's no such thing as any of this stuff.  So, for any of you guys in my readership who has read this post hunched over in a protective half-crouch, and with a horrified expression on your face, fear not.  There's only one thing I know of that can cause a similar effect:


And fortunately, it's temporary and reversible.

What I find astonishing about all of this is how credulous people are, and how seldom it ever occurs to anyone to say, "Prove it."  You claim that you're a psychic, and can accurately predict the future?  Prove it.  You claim that you can communicate with the spirits of the dead?  Prove it.  You claim that someone magically caused your willie to shrink?  Prove it.  The burden of proof lies with the person making the outrageous claim -- not, as in the case of the poor Sudanese traveler, with the one trying to defend himself from it.

But, apparently, such an approach is sadly uncommon in the world, and not only in such undeveloped, poverty-stricken areas as the Central African Republic, but in the urban First World streets of Singapore.  As always, there's just one solution to all of this, and that's education in science -- the only thing I know of that is successful at eradicating myth, irrationality, and superstition.  But given that here in the United States we still have a significant percentage of the population who believe in horoscopes, homeopathy, and young-earth creationism, maybe I shouldn't point fingers.  After all, none of those ideas is any more scientifically supported than the claim that someone can magically steal a guy's penis by shaking his hand.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Raising the dead

In the iconic movie (and book) Jurassic Park, scientists use genetic technology -- and samples of blood from the stomachs of mosquitoes preserved in amber -- to recreate various dinosaur species.  With, of course, terrible results, being that in science fiction, nothing good ever comes out of scientists trying to "play god."  Various people were messily devoured, and the ones that escaped (barely) were left to ponder if it was possible for scientific research to go too far.

We seem to be at the point of finding out.

Not, of course, that it will be dinosaur-era animals, at least not at first.  Way too little DNA is left intact in fossilized remains from 65-plus-million years ago to pull a Jurassic Park-style trick and resurrect, say, the Pteranodon (always one of my favorites).  But we will, in, short order, see the first reborn extinct species created in a lab.

The best candidate for the winner in this Race to Raise the Dead is likely to be the Gastric-brooding Frog, a bizarre amphibian species from Australia that gets its name from the females' behavior of carrying their tadpoles around in their stomachs.  The frog was declared extinct in the wild in 1979, and the last captive individual died in 1983.


The technique is simple to describe, and immensely difficult in practice; obtain DNA samples from preserved specimens, insert that DNA into the fertilized egg cell of a related species that has had its own DNA removed, and hopefully this zygote will begin to divide and develop -- into an individual of the species that donated the DNA.

Of course, a million things can go wrong.  The role of genetic switches in development is still a new area of research; it's known that your DNA when you were an embryo was different than your DNA is now, especially with regards to which segments were being actively transcribed and which were not.  In order to get this technique to work, the nucleotides in DNA not only have to be in the correct sequence, the genes encoded therein have to turn on and turn off in a tightly-orchestrated fashion in order to produce a normal individual.

The hurdles, however, haven't discouraged scientists in this field.  The research team working on the Gastric-brooding Frog, led by Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, has actually gotten the genetically altered embryonic cells to divide, apparently in a completely normal fashion, which has encouraged other groups working toward the same goal.  In the United States, a group called "Revive and Restore" is trying to bring back the Passenger Pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America, which was driven to extinction by overhunting in 1914.


And Ben Novak, of the Passenger Pigeon "de-extinction" project, believes that it is only a matter of time.  "This whole idea that extinction is forever is just nonsense," he said, in an interview in Forbes.  "Someone could make a major breakthrough in next two years."

Me, I'm of two minds about this.  As a biologist, I have to say that the whole idea is just tremendously cool.  The idea that I could one day see a formerly extinct animal, alive and well, is just thrilling.  I'd give a lot to see a Thylacine, a Carolina Parakeet, a Moa, a Kaua'i O'o, or a Giant Ground Sloth.  And what about more remote animals, ones from further back?  How would you like to be eye-to-eye with a Brontops?


Of course, the more distant in the past you reach, the more difficult the procedure becomes.  Not only has any DNA from prehistoric animals had longer to degrade, often to the point of there being no useful fragments left, there's the problem of finding a related species in whose eggs you could do the insertion process.  Whether Gastric-brooding Frogs and Passenger Pigeons will return soon is a matter of conjecture, but it is nearly certain that seeing a Brontops stomping around in your garden is a far more remote possibility, one which may never be realized.

Then, of course, there are the inevitable ethical issues surrounding resurrecting extinct species.  The time of the Passenger Pigeon, for example, is long past -- when there were thousands of square miles of trackless forest in the eastern half of North America.  This bird only survived well in huge flocks (tens of thousands of individuals), which "darkened the skies when they flew over," according to accounts of people who saw them.  One, two, or even a couple of dozen of birds would be nothing more than a curiosity -- it would not be the same as truly reintroducing the species, a goal that is probably impossible due to the changes in the ecosystem.

But still, it's a fascinating idea.  For me, the coolness factor outweighs my ethical qualms, which probably isn't a good thing to admit.  Be that as it may, it is absolutely stunning how far science has come since the last Passenger Pigeon closed her eyes in death in 1914.  The ways in which the world has changed are far deeper, and more meaningful, than the visible alterations in the landscape.  And it looks like very soon, one of the laws we thought was an absolute -- extinction is forever -- may be overturned.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bargain basement miracles

You know, the quality of miracles has really gone down, of late.

Back in biblical days, god really knew how to conjure up a miracle, didn't he?  Consider the following:
  • God makes Balaam's donkey talk (Numbers 22:21-31)
  • Jesus feeds "a great multitude" with five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21)
  • Joshua makes the Earth stop rotating so he can finish a very important battle (Joshua 10:13)
  • Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44)
  • Moses parts the Red Sea and drowns lots of Egyptians (Exodus 14:1-30)
  • God smites the crap out of Sodom and Gomorrah, and turns Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for having second thoughts (Genesis 19:24-26)
  • God makes the entire Syrian army go blind, and then cures them all a few minutes later (2Kings 6:18-20)
And so on.  That's just a few.  And I think I am not alone in saying that any one of these -- not all, mind you but one -- would be sufficient to convince me that I really should reconsider my stance as an atheist.


But these days?  Yesterday, on Glenn Beck's website The Blaze, Billy Hallowell posted a piece called "3 Real-Life 'Miracles' That Took Place on the Set of The Bible."  Most of you have probably heard about the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey production that dramatizes the stories of biblical times, which debuted on March 3 and which has received critical acclaim (most of the critics I read acclaimed, "Meh").  But now Hallowell -- and others -- have put forth a stunning statement: that there were some genuine miracles that occurred during filming, miracles that not only prove god's existence, but show that he is 100% in favor of Burnett & Downey's film.

So, what are these miracles?  Hallowell tells us all about them:
1)  When they were filming the scene where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, the "wind literally picked up on its own."
2)  Burnett and Downey had hired a "snake wrangler" to round up any poisonous snakes that might be in the set area and potentially threaten cast or crew.  Before they were going to film the crucifixion scene, the "snake wrangler" found 48 snakes.
3)  During the filming of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, an "irreplaceable" piece of Jesus' costume came loose and floated away.  It was later found and returned by a kid who lived nearby.
And I'm thinking: that's the best you can do?  The wind "picking up on its own?"  (Because apparently under normal circumstances, the wind only blows when it's encouraged to.)  Some snakes... in a freakin' desert?  A kid returning a prop when everybody in a hundred-mile radius knew there was a movie being filmed?

As miracles go, those aren't exactly Grade-A quality, you know what I mean?  They're more "KMart Blue-Light Special."

You have to wonder, with all of the increasing disdain for religion you see in Western society, why god is insisting on playing coy with us.  It's a bit like the UFO cadre who believe that crop circles are aliens trying to communicate with us, and prove to a doubting populace that extraterrestrials are real.  You'd think, being super-intelligent aliens and all, that deciding to land in Times Square would occur to them as, on the whole, a more convincing alternative.  Likewise, if god really is invested in proving to humanity that he exists, the wind blowing is just not doing it for me.

Okay, yeah, I know the biblical passage about god being the "still, small voice" (1Kings 19:11-13).  But you know, that just won't wash.  God was sure as hell not a "still, small voice" when he smote 50,070 people for looking at the Ark of the Covenant (1Samuel 6:19).  So, what's going on, here?

Now, mind you, I'm not saying that god smiting fifty-thousand-odd people day after tomorrow would be a good thing.  That's a whole city's worth of people, for pete's sake, and there are no cities that have no redeeming features, even if you include Newark.  But some of the less smiteful miracles would sure do a lot to convince us doubters.

In any case, Hallowell's article ends with the line, "What do you think — mere coincidences or evidence of God’s intervention? You decide."

Okay, thanks, I will.  And my decision is: coincidences.  And in the case of the wind, it was: the wind.  If those are what pass for miracles these days, all I can say is that heaven's Quality Control Department sure is slacking.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Digital fingerprints

I've always been fascinated with patterns.  Starting with a love for geometric patterns when I was a kid, I remember finding out about the Fibonacci sequence, and then its connection to the Golden Ratio, in 8th grade -- and feeling like I'd touched something magical, some fundamental superstructure of the universe.  Then I discovered tessellations, and thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.  Then on to M. C. Escher, Penrose tiles, fractals, the Mandelbrot set...
 
 
We're all pattern-finders, really.  That's how the human brain works.  It's just that some of us are a little more obsessed than others.
 
Patterns exist all over nature, however chaotic it may appear, and those patterns apply to our behavior, as well.  We may think we're spontaneous and unpredictable, but our actions leave traces -- and those traces form patterns.  And if you analyze enough of the traces, you can make some pretty shrewd guesses about who left them.  This is the basis of a lot of forensic pathology work, and is the fundamental idea behind some fascinating new research out of Cambridge.  [Source]
 
Researchers at the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre developed software that can be used to analyze digital traces left by users -- in this case, Facebook "likes."  58,000 Facebook users agreed to be part of the study, and gave the study group demographic profiles as well as access to their Facebook accounts.  After that, the software went to town, coming up with correlations between a variety of demographics and which pages users had "liked."
 
And here's where even the researchers got a surprise.
 
Just from the Facebook "likes," the software achieved:
  • 88% accuracy at determining gender
  • 95% accuracy at telling African Americans from other ethnic groups
  • 85% accuracy at telling Republicans from Democrats
  • 82% accuracy at determining religious affiliation
  • between 65% and 72% accuracy at determining relationship status
  • between 65% and 72% accuracy at determining whether the user engaged in substance abuse
  • 60% accuracy in determining if the user's parents were divorced
  • "high" (but unstated, in the sources I read) accuracy at detecting such traits as extroversion, emotional stability, and openness
  • a correlation between liking "Curly Fries" and high IQ (no, I didn't make that up)
Pretty stunning, eh?
 
The researchers made a point of checking to see if there were any "red flag" sorts of "likes;" but it turned out that in fact, there weren't, for the most part.  The software was quite good at determining sexual preference -- and yet, according to the study, less than 5% of homosexual users had "liked" such pages as "Gay Marriage."  (And, it's to be hoped, a good many progressive heterosexuals had "liked" that page as well.)  It was the aggregate of all of the person's "likes" that counted, not one or two specific ones.  It was the overall pattern that allowed the software to be so eerily accurate.
 
Of course, this opens up new avenues for data mining -- for good reasons and bad ones.  Expect targeted advertisement software to get a lot more sophisticated soon.  There could be more dire results, too.  "Similar predictions could be made from all manner of digital data, with this kind of secondary ‘inference’ made with remarkable accuracy -- statistically predicting sensitive information people might not want revealed," said Michal Kosinski, director of the study team.  "Given the variety of digital traces people leave behind, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control...  I am a great fan and active user of new amazing technologies, including Facebook.  I appreciate automated book recommendations, or Facebook selecting the most relevant stories for my newsfeed.  However, I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life."
 
So, naturally, I had to go check out some of the things I'd "liked" on Facebook.  And no, unfortunately, "Curly Fries" wasn't one of them.  Here are a few of mine:
 
Music:
  • Beck
  • J. S. Bach
  • Fun
  • Angélique Kidjo
  • Fiona Apple (okay, I have pretty eclectic musical tastes)
Books:
  • Foucault's Pendulum
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Watership Down
Movies:
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Vanilla Sky
  • The Matrix
  • Ruthless People
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • I "Heart" Huckabee's
  • Dogma
  • Memento
  • Scotland, PA
Television:
  • The X Files
  • Arrested Development
  • Seinfeld
  • Northern Exposure
Activities:
  • Scuba Diving
  • Wine Tasting
  • Travel
  • Writing
  • Music Performance
Other:
  • Kolibri Birdwatching Tours
  • This American Life
  • George Rodrigue (an artist I really like)
  • Cthulhu
  • The Tattoo Page
  • Americans Against Protestors at Military Funerals
So, okay.  I'm not seeing a pattern here.  I guess that's not surprising, really.  This software is taking metrics on the entire sample, and coming up with a best guess -- however good the human brain is at ascertaining patterns, that kind of subtlety really requires a computer.  So other than a few obvious ones (anyone who makes a point of "liking" Richard Dawkins is pretty certain to be an atheist), it's no wonder that I don't see anything particularly pattern-like in my group of "likes."
 
Also, of course, the problem may just be that I don't "like" "Curly Fries."