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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Speaking their language

A new study has shown that dogs actually understand more about human language than we thought -- and do so using the same regions of the brain that humans use when interpreting spoken words.

It was conventional wisdom that dogs picked up on tone of voice, but (for the most part) not on the words spoken -- that you could say "you stupid animal, why didn't you come the first 1,293 times I called you?" in a sweet, loving tone, and the dog would still think you're saying something complimentary.  But now a team lead by Attila Andics of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest has shown that dogs seem to understand a great deal more of what we say than we thought.

[image courtesy of photographer Noël Zia Lee and the Wikimedia Commons]

Using dogs who had been trained to lie motionless inside an fMRI machine, Andics and his team had a trainer speak various phrases to the dogs, using different combinations of praising and neutral tones with positive, neutral, and negative verbiage.  The astonishing results were that the dogs processed the intonation information in a different part of the brain than the verbal information, and the strongest positive response came from a praising intonation with praising words.

"This shows… that dogs not only separate what we say from how we say it, but also that they can combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words really meant," Andics said.

I find this surprising in one way -- that dogs have a far more advanced linguistic capacity than we realized -- but entirely unsurprising in another.  We have as a species tended to consider other animals as somehow qualitatively different from ourselves -- thus the distinction between "human" and "animal" that you still hear people use.  Very few cultures looked upon humanity and the animal world as a continuum, with humans simply being an animal species that has evolved to be smart enough to consider the question.

The sad thing is that up until recently, scientists have contributed to the problem.  I remember when I took Animal Physiology in college, and looked fairly aghast when the professor did something pretty awful to a lab animal (I won't recount what he did, out of respect for the feelings of the more sensitive members of the studio audience), he laughed and said, "You're not going to get far in this subject if you think animals should be treated the same way you'd treat humans."  There was for decades an ongoing battle over whether non-human animals experienced emotions, a debate that was finally put to rest mainly because of detailed studies of elephants.

I have always contended that the people who thought that other animals had nothing analogous to human emotions must never have owned a pet.  Our dog Grendel went into a prolonged period of mourning when his pal, our border collie Doolin, died three years ago at the grand age of 16.  And he gets really bent out of shape when my wife Carol is out of town at an art show -- and is beside himself with joy when she comes back.

"Emotionless," my ass.

But the thing about understanding the verbal content of speech, and not just the tone, did come as a bit of a surprise to me.  Even more fascinating is the authors' speculation about the source of this capacity.  They suggest that the origin of the language-comprehension ability in dogs is not likely to be due to domestication, which would have been my guess -- they say that such a complex neural firing pattern in the brain, not to mention the fact that it's shared by humans not only in structure but in function, makes it much more likely that we're looking at a deep evolutionary relationship that "links arbitrary sounds to meanings."  So language might be a far older, and far more widespread, innovation in the animal world than we thought.

So I guess I'll have to apologize to my coonhound, Lena, for telling her at ten o'clock last night that allowing herself to get sprayed by a skunk made her "a disgrace to the entire canine species, and I hope she's satisfied with herself."  I did give her a cookie after she allowed Carol and I to bathe her in a combination of water, dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide, but if Andics and his team are right, she's still probably pretty upset about the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The necessity of compassion

Yesterday I ran into the story of Sigourney Coyle, the high school student in Emmaus, Pennsylvania who is claiming she is being discriminated against because of the school's policy to allow transgender students to use the locker room and bathroom of the gender they identify with:
I am a woman, and I identify as a woman, and you can't make me change in front of someone who I don't identify with who is physically male...  Gym requires us to participate to pass high school and if I don't change I'm not allowed to participate.  So my options are to let myself be discriminated against or fail gym for not participating and not pass through high school, which would jeopardize my future...  I feel nothing against transgenders, I would just not like their rights to overrule mine.
Sigourney's mother, Aryn Coyle, tried at first to have her daughter excused from PE on religious grounds, but was told that religious exemptions only applied to the curriculum on sexuality in health class (which is a topic for a whole other post some time).

So Sigourney is painting this as her rights being trampled.  Not, of course, as a step toward treating with humanity and compassion a group of people who have been systematically demonized, ridiculed, bullied, and discriminated against.  And this stance is not because of any actual identifiable risk; according to studies conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality, the number of times a non-transgender person has been harassed or otherwise accosted in a bathroom or locker room is...

... zero.  The Advocate reports that "there has never been a verifiable reported instance of a trans person harassing a cisgender person, nor have there been any confirmed reports of male predators 'pretending' to be transgender to gain access to women's spaces and commit crimes against them."

As Elisabeth Parker put it in a pointed piece in American News X, "Despite all those transgender bathroom laws GOP state legislatures keep passing, a child is far more likely to be molested at church."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That's not the way the Coyles see it.  Their dogmatic stance that anything except straight cisgender identification is wrong is pushing Sigourney into a position where she is risking her high school diploma to make their bigoted point hit the front page of the newspaper.

Oh, and did I mention that there are no self-identified transgender students currently at Emmaus High School?  That's right: the Coyles are blowing this issue up to maintain their right to discriminate against people who may not even exist.

But just so we can end on a good note, let's take a look at what happens when you do religion right.  Yesterday NPR did a piece on Reverend Danny Cortez, pastor of the New Heart Community Church of La Mirada, California (which belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention), who back in 2014 found himself in a philosophical bind when his son, Drew, came out as gay.  He agonized over it for some time, but finally realized what he had to do.  He went into his church, and preached a sermon that should be required reading for any folks who are on the fence about LGBT issues for religious reasons.  I want you to read the entire thing, which is available at the link I posted, but here's a particularly poignant excerpt:
The last night [at a conference on LGBT Christians and their struggles], I met a man by the name of Coyote.  He approached me, thanking me for my story—I told some people about my journey.  He said, “This conference is meaningful for me and my friends because this is the only church we get to go to once a year.” 
I was like, “What do you mean?” 
He said, “In the places we live, in the small communities, there are no churches that will accept us.” 
And my heart broke.  I thought, “That really sucks.” 
So, when I was asked the question recently, “How does it feel to know that you might be terminated in a few weeks?”  I said, “I am at peace.”  I’m at peace because I know my heart has been enlarged for people like Coyote who need a church.  I know that whatever happens, compassion is giving me clarity. It’s giving me clarity in my calling; it’s giving me clarity in my purpose.  People like Coyote, they need a church.  They need to be pastored.  They need a community of people that will not judge them because of their sexual identity. 
So, I pray that as a church we would open ourselves to how God directs us, and I caution you to realize that it’s so easy to look at the word of God and merely look at the letter of the law.  But there is something underneath it, a deeper current that is only understood by the Spirit, moved by love, and drawn into compassion.  Our thoughts cannot just be about arguing the biblical text.  It must be understood in the context of love, and that means in the context of real, human relationships.  Because compassion is what gives clarity to this matter.
In fact, that's what's missing from the entire battle surrounding the Coyles and Emmaus High School; any mention of compassion, any acknowledgement that what they're talking about aren't voiceless abstractions but real living, breathing human beings who have to live every day with the pain of discrimination.  But Reverend Cortez and his family are illustrations that the same force that drove the Coyles to their narrow-minded bigotry can also open the heart and bring people to a place of acceptance they never thought they'd see.

It brings me back to a quote I heard long ago.  I've never been able to find a source for it, but it still strikes me as one of the most powerful guides to behavior there is, and it can apply to anyone -- religious, atheist, or agnostic.  It goes like this:  "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be, for everyone around you is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."

Monday, August 29, 2016

Sawney Bean and veracity of folklore

One of the creepiest legends to come out of old Scotland is the tale of Sawney Bean (or Beane), whose cave-dwelling, cannibalistic family allegedly ran amok in South Ayrshire in the 16th century.  Bean, born Alexander Bean in East Lothian, was said to be the son of a manual laborer, but had a vicious streak from childhood that was exacerbated when in his late teens he married a woman who was worse.

The couple set up housekeeping in a deep cave in Bennane Head, a promontory between Ballantrae and Girvan on the west coast of Scotland.  There, he and his evil wife were the progenitors of quite a brood; eight sons, six daughters, and thirty-two grandchildren (many of them born to incestuous unions).  The Beans survived in their remote abode by waylaying travelers...

... and eating them.

"Sawney Beane at the Entrance of his Cave."  Note the woman in the background -- holding a severed human leg.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Local villagers knew about the disappearances, and sometimes they'd find bones and other body parts -- but apparently were completely unaware that the culprits were a crew of depraved cannibals living nearby.  The local law enforcement cast a suspicious eye on local innkeepers and pub owners, since they were often the last people to see the victims alive.  But eventually one lucky guy fought back against the Beans when attacked, survived (his wife, apparently, wasn't so lucky) and brought back a tale of being swarmed by men and women intent on murdering him.  King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) launched an attack on the family, sending soldiers in to destroy them and their stronghold.

The Beans were defeated, and those not killed in the skirmish were brought back to Edinburgh in chains.  The men were executed by having their hands, feet, and genitals chopped off, and allowed to bleed to death; the women were burned at the stake.  One daughter, "Black" Agnes Bean, who had escaped before the attack and attempted to settle down in Girvan under an assumed name, was eventually found out and hanged.

So that was the end of the Beans.  But the question that I'd like to ask is: is any of it true?  How would we know?

One reason we might cast a skew glance at the tale is how varied the different versions of it are.  Sean Thomas wrote a piece on the Bean clan in Fortean Times, a bit of which was excerpted at the site The Spooky Isles (the original article, unfortunately, seems no longer to be available):
... from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI [ca. early 1600s], whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before.  Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years.  Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership...  To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediaeval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediaeval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.
While the main part of the story itself doesn't involve the supernatural -- something that would lead me to doubt the whole thing -- there's a paranormal twist to the execution of Agnes Bean in Girvan:
Historically, Girvan was significant as the home of the Hairy Tree.  According to legend, the Hairy Tree was planted by Sawney Bean’s eldest daughter in the town’s Dalrymple Street.  However, when her family was arrested, the daughter was implicated in their incestuous and cannibalistic activities and was hanged by locals from the bough of the tree she herself planted.  According to local legend, one can hear the sound of a swinging corpse while standing beneath its boughs.
When you add to this the fact that there is an ongoing dispute amongst the people in Girvan regarding which tree in the town is the authentic "Hairy Tree," it does tend to make you wonder how much of the rest of it can be true.

Another suspicious factor is the similarity of the Bean story to an earlier tale from Scotland, that of "Christie Cleek."   Christie Cleek, born Andrew Christie in Perth in the mid 14th century, was driven to murder and cannibalism during the horrible famine that followed the ravages of the Black Death in the British Isles in the 1350s.  "Cleek" means "shepherd's crook" -- the tool Christie used to pull down travelers and pluck riders from their horses.  Like the Beans, Christie Cleek and his family lived in hiding, feasting on human flesh and striking fear into the hearts of the locals.  It has a different ending, though -- after the famine eased, an armed force was sent in to rid the countryside of the menace.  Everyone in the family was killed but Christie himself -- he escaped, and lived to a ripe old age under an assumed name.  The name "Christie Cleek" became a synonym in that part of Scotland for the bogeyman, useful for scaring children to the pants-wetting stage during late-night storytelling sessions around the fire.

So the inconsistencies and variations in the Bean story, plus the analogies to earlier tales, makes you wonder.  The most likely answer is that Bean himself (and possibly his savage wife) were real, but that a lot of the excesses attributed to them and their progeny were exaggerations.  About the veracity of the details, there is simply not enough hard documentation to be certain.

It's a gruesome and fascinating story.  Certainly a good one for a shiver up the spine.  It'd be nice to know if it was true, but as with most things in the distant past, it's probably not possible.  So like a lot of folklore, we have to let it be -- filed under the heading of "Who knows?"

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sea change

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post about how scientists are beginning to learn how to talk to the rest of us slobs.  The problem, as I see it, is that scientists are trained to be cautious, not to draw unwarrantedly strong conclusions from the evidence, and to admit up front that future studies could change our understanding.  This leads the lay public to believe that they're uncertain -- which, in many cases, is not true.

One of the fields that has been plagued by this is climate science, which has become not only ridiculously politicized but rife with misunderstandings, deliberate falsifications, and outright idiocy.  (I'm lookin' at you, Senator James "Snowball" Inhofe.)  So it was with a great deal of joy that I read Phil Williamson's amazing takedown of climate change denier James Delingpole in this week's edition of The Marine Biologist. Williamson's piece, entitled, "Two Views of Ocean Acidification: Which is Fatally Flawed?" is a point-by-point response to Delingpole, who in April published an article in The Spectator entitled, "Ocean Acidification: Yet Another Wobbly Pillar of Climate Alarmism."

Delingpole's screed was, Williamson said, so full of factual errors and misquotations that it was completely worthless.  But let me quote Williamson's own words:
James Delingpole considers that ocean acidification is a scare story that is not only ‘fatally flawed’ but also grossly over-hyped by climate alarmists, for political reasons.  To give credibility to these views, information and quotes are given from four scientists (Patrick Moore, Mike Wallace, Matt Ridley and Craig Idso).  However, those sources are unreliable: none has relevant marine expertise, and the evidence they provide is either inaccurate or incorrect.  Three other scientists (Howard Browman, Richard Feely and Christopher Sabine) who do have direct research experience are either mis-quoted or their competence is dismissed.  The wider scientific literature is not considered.  Overall, Delingpole’s arguments are based on exaggeration, false dichotomy, deliberate selectivity and bravado assertion: almost everything that could be factually wrong, is wrong.
Which is ScientificSpeak for "BAM."

So the scientists are now playing hardball.  Which they should.  We're gambling with the long-term habitability of the planet.  There is no bigger threat to security, world-wide, than what we're doing to the climate.

The positive part of this is not that the deniers are being converted.  By and large, they aren't.  The reason, of course, is money and political bias.  Consider, for example, Craig Idso (cited repeatedly by Delingpole as a reputable climate scientist), who is the science advisor for the Science and Public Policy Institute, which is funded in part by -- you guessed it -- Exxon-Mobil.  Idso is also associated with the rabidly pro-fossil-fuel Heartland Institute, and has written papers for them calling into question established climate science.

Oh, and I should add that the SPPI has also questioned the dangers of mercury toxicity, and the Heartland Institute was hand-in-glove with Philip Morris to downplay the risks to children of secondhand smoke and to fight smoking bans in public places.

Tell me again how Idso is a reliable source?

[image courtesy of NOAA]

As for Williamson, he pulls no punches at all.  Which he shouldn't.  What is heartening about all of this is that the scientists are finally calling out the deniers for what they are -- either ignorant, anti-science, or in the pay of fossil fuel interests.  At this point, the evidence is incontrovertible.  Anthropogenic climate change is real.  You can deny it if you like.

But don't expect me, or anyone who has a background in science, to take you seriously.

And I said that deniers aren't changing their minds -- but that's not entirely accurate.  People who were in doubt, but kept their minds open and their understanding focused on the evidence, are coming around.  Just this week, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers, who for years placed himself in the doubtful column, wrote a piece called "Changing Opinions on Climate Change."  He methodically traces the evidence that has been uncovered since climate change was first made an issue in the mid-1980s, and describes how his thinking -- "There may be another explanation" -- eventually changed:
I was no longer a skeptic.  Humans were polluting the atmosphere to a point of no return.  I had finally excluded all other possibilities.  Had I flip-flopped?  Well, that is what it would be called in politics.  But in science, it is just an evolution of understanding.  I concluded that my original theory of "it could be something else" wasn't likely the case. 
As I tell my 11-year-old, "It's OK to be wrong as long as you learn from your mistakes." 
The records continue to be shattered every year.  The 15 hottest years on record have been since 2001 except for 1998.  2016 will likely be the hottest year on record, breaking the old record set in 2015, and the beat goes on.  With each year, with each major disaster, it becomes harder to be a skeptic of man-made climate change -- and that is why I am not one.
Well, exactly.  It's okay to be doubtful.  Being able to maintain a position of uncertainty for a while is a huge piece of being a skeptic.  But once the evidence is in, you're done.  To continue to cover your ears and say "la-la-la-la-la-la, not listening" isn't skepticism, it's anti-science bullheadedness.

So the tides are turning.  With luck, it won't be too late, although we still have the perennial roadblock in congress to deal with.  But it's to be hoped that once the word is passed to the public that the time for doubt and discussion is over, the pressure brought to bear on our leaders will finally force a sea change.

Friday, August 26, 2016

View from the fringe

Call me masochistic, but every so often I like to check in and see what people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones are saying.

Those two, and various others I could name, always have seemed to me to be seated right at the triple point between true belief, crass commercial pandering, and outright batshit craziness.  Far be it from me to make a determination between the three; I think both of them have some measure of all three.  (Okay, with Jones, there's a bigger proportion of craziness, but still.)  As evidence, let's see what our two pals have been up to this past week.

Rush Limbaugh went on record as saying that President Obama's latest scheme to overturn life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was unleashing hordes of lesbian farmers on the midwest.  The midwest, Limbaugh claims with some degree of accuracy, is the last bastion of the solidly conservative Republican core in the United States (although you might make the same argument for much of the southeast).  So naturally, given a largely right-leaning region, what else should someone like Obama do but search and destroy?

And what better weapon than lesbian farmers?  I guess that "learning to use heavy equipment" is now officially part of the "gay agenda."

Don't believe me?  Here's the quote:
They are trying to bust up one of the last geographically conservative regions in the country; that’s rural America … So here comes the Obama Regime with a bunch of federal money and they’re waving it around, and all you gotta do to get it is be a lesbian and want to be a farmer and they’ll set you up … apparently enough money it make it happen, and the objective here is to attack rural states.
So there you have it.

But that's small potatoes compared to the latest from Alex Jones.  He interviewed Steven Quayle (the guy who thinks that HAARP is still operational, and is what is currently creating hurricanes in the south Atlantic, because that doesn't happen every year or anything) and Gary Heavin (conservative activist and founder of the Curves fitness center chain) to discuss how the descendants of fallen angels are currently running the world.

I kid you not.  Here's the conversation:
Quayle:  Donald Trump, in my opinion, is God’s prosecuting attorney.  He’s laying out the evidence.  It’s like everything evil is swarming upon him.  I think the fascinating thing about this is that, you probably heard this, I gave a word that I really thought was an answer to prayer, God said, "Before I allow America to be destroyed by the Russians and the Chinese, now this is hard to take, I’m going to reveal the sins of America’s leaders to the people and the people’s sins before a Holy God."
Jones:  Doesn't that always biblically happen, that before a country goes under judgment, they're given warning after warning, then one really big warning? 
Quayle:  The big warning is coming.  I believe the ultimate warning is coming. 
Heavin:  Let me just...  Steve's taught me a lot about this.  You know, there's no aliens; there's demons.   And Steve has a great explanation, you know, he's taught me about this.   Where these demons come from.  We know that fallen angels rebelled against god, came down to Earth, and we know they had sex with human women.   We know that the offspring were these entities that Steve will talk about... 
Jones: That's in the bible. 
Heavin:  It's all biblical. 
Jones:  So that's why the elites intermarry, to try to keep that bloodline. 
Heavin:  Absolutely.  The idea is, Satan knew that if he could contaminate the human DNA, he could prevent the coming of Jesus, because Jesus had to be of pure DNA.  A lot of the really awful things that happen in the bible, entire cities being wiped out, driving out the bad guys, was to cleanse the DNA so that Jesus, Satan could not prevent Jesus from coming.
So there you have it.  While the militia composed of lesbian farmers attacks the country's midsection, the elite people with angelic DNA will be having lots of sex to create progeny that will go back in time and prevent Jesus from being born.  Unless Donald Trump does something to avoid the evil swarming upon him, and stop all of that from happening.

Don't forget: you heard it here first.


Anyhow.  I can totally understand why people still listen to Limbaugh and Jones; it's the undeniable attraction of listening to someone who might without provocation say something that's loony enough to be funny.  It'd be nice to get them off the air, though -- the last thing this country needs is to have more people spreading around conspiracy theories.  But since listeners = sponsors = money, it's unlikely to happen any time soon.  I can only hope that the majority of the people paying attention to what they say are not leaning back and thinking, "My god!  That makes total sense!"

Although that would explain a lot about how we get the elected officials we always seem to end up stuck with.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Messengers of god

I have a question for the religious people in the studio audience: don't you get tired of people saying that they've heard something directly from god, and then telling you exactly what god wants you to do?

Such pronouncements become increasingly common around elections, because apparently god is deeply interested in the details of American politics.  Unfortunately, though, his track record is pretty shabby, given that he told Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz that they were all going to get the Republican nomination and float their way into the presidency, and it sort of didn't work out that way.  I've was half expecting every time one of those guys got knocked out of the race to hear a booming voice from the heavens saying, "Ha!  Psych!"

But it didn't happen, more's the pity.


Now, though, we've got two people who are claiming that they are channeling the deity's political views.  The first is, unsurprisingly, Glenn Beck, who has said that he was anointed by god to warn us about what will happen if Donald Trump is elected, thus ushering in the apocalypse:
I can only do what I'm supposed to do, what I feel the Lord has commanded me to do and that is tell the truth.  He has commanded me to do my own homework.  He has commanded me to never compromise on what you truly believe ...  As I started to say in 2004, privately at least, there is a warning in Ezekiel that in those days there will be a watchman on the tower and at the gates.  That means all of us, in our own way, are watchmen on the gates, in your own life.  And if you see trouble coming, you are supposed to warn the people and, if you don't, the blood of everyone who could have heard the warning and could have done something, that blood is on your hands. 
This audience is the only hope because you are the only audience that is truly been prepared for these things at this time.  You will be our republic's last line of defense.  So what do I do?  People are telling me, 'At least just shut up.'  I can't.  I can't.  You condemn me if I continue to warn, but God condemns me if I fail to warn.
You may recall that a while back he had a war of words with Trump himself, claiming that Trump wasn't a "true conservative."  He spoke directly to the election on his Facebook page:
History shows a strong man can and always does rise.  Someone who will say "I will restore order."  Do you remember me warning of top down, bottom up and inside out?  I believe this is that moment.

Trump is that strong man.
So at least that's one thing that Beck and I can agree on, not that I needed a deity to point it out; all the good done for the world by "political strongmen."

Speaking of shabby track records.

Beck, however, is not the only person who thinks that he has a direct pipeline to heaven's political wing.  Lance Wallnau, over at Charisma News, has received a message from god that is the exact opposite of what Beck did.  he believes that Trump is the Chosen One, and in fact will drive out evil spirits once he's elected:
I believe I've heard God... 
There is a spirit assigned to destroy America.  The strategy is laid bare if you read the 51-page democratic platform.  It's the manifesto Hillary is expected to enforce when she is president.  They call this revolution a "reset!"  Read it for yourself.  Under Hillary, America will undergo the final phase of Obama's radical socialist cultural transformation with astonishing speed. Just one man stands in its path... 
With 15 candidates running, and many of them strong Christians, it didn't seem likely that Mr. Trump, the business man outsider, would go very far.  But I heard the Lord say something: "Donald Trump is a wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness."  That was the first word I heard about him.  Immediately I began to wonder what God was doing... 
As I traveled to Trump Towers I wondered, how far will this wrecking ball go?  Why would God choose Trump when so many true conservatives and Christians were already running?  Is he an interruption to God's plan or is the battle for America changing in a way we haven't caught up with?...  By putting America first and building a people movement, Donald Trump becomes a wild card that messes up the elite globalists' insider game.  Whatever you bow to on the way up the mountain controls you at the top.
Is it just me, or is it a little odd that the evangelicals are embracing a three-times-married serial philanderer who values money and power over anything else?  This is especially puzzling considering Wallnau's last statement about "whatever you bow to on the way up the mountain controls you at the top."  How can he reconcile this with Jesus's statements about it being "easier than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?"  And "give away everything you have to the poor, and follow me?"  And "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?"  And "take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions?"

Okay, I'll admit that there may be a lot I don't understand, here.  Being an atheist myself, maybe I just don't get how the true believers think.  But it does strike me as a little dangerous to listen to people who tell you that they speak with god's voice.  After all, it pays to consider how often those people will tell you that what god just said happens to agree perfectly with what they already believed.

Odd coincidence, that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medium test

Think you can communicate with the spirits of the dead?

Well, you now have a chance to prove it.

Norwegian Rolf Erik Eikerno was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a terminal disease.  But instead of simply bemoaning his fate, Eikerno saw his illness as an opportunity.  He teamed up with the producers of the television program Folkeopplysningen ("The Public Enlightenment") to set up a puzzle for any would-be mediums.

Eikerno wrote a message on a sheet of paper, sealed the paper in an envelope, and locked the envelope in a vault.  Only the show's producers have the combination to the lock.  No one but Eikerno knows what is written on the paper, nor even whether it was written in Norwegian or English, a language in which he was fluent.

Shortly before his death, Eikerno made a public statement that if he was approached by anyone in the afterlife, he'd be happy to give them detailed information about what was in the note.  The program's staff have put out the following all-call:
Can you make contact with him?  Do you know someone who may be able to do so? 
Fill out the form further down in the article if you think you know what Rolf Erik wrote before he died. 
IMPORTANT: It is possible to answer only once.  The deadline is September 25th.
This is an experiment conducted by the TV-program "Folkeopplysningen".  Will anyone make contact?  The answer will be revealed in the ultimate episode of this years season, broadcast on Wednesday October 5th.
If you think you might know what Eikerno wrote, you can provide your answer at the link I posted above.

What's interesting about all of this is that it's been tried before.  Harry Houdini left a message with his wife, who offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who could contact Houdini's spirit and tell her what the message was.  She even held a séance every Halloween -- fittingly, the anniversary of Houdini's death -- for ten years, hoping for some contact from her husband's spirit.  Nothing happened, and no one came forward with the correct message, although several tried unsuccessfully.  After ten years, his widow withdrew the offer and stopped having séances, reasoning that ten years was an adequate time for a ghost to make arrangements to contact her.  If she hadn't heard from him by then, she figured, she wasn't going to.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, Folkeopplysningen is going about things the right way.  Here's their description of the program's goals:
Every day we are bombarded with information and claims about what is good for us, what we should be careful about, and what choices we should make to live healthy, good and safe lives. 
"Folkeopplysningen" is a TV-program that investigates such claims.  We pick up subjects where there is a discrepancy between what people think they know, what commercial providers claim, and what science is telling us.  While we in the two first seasons scrutinized different kinds of alternative treatments and health related issues, we have been given free hands this year to look at any possible subject. 
We investigate everything, from finance to dieting, motivation business, cannabis, genetically modified food, ecological food and death.
So sort of a Norwegian version of Mythbusters, without the explosions.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what turns up, although I'm perhaps to be excused if I'm doubtful anyone will come up with the right answer.  I've always said that my mind is open about an afterlife -- I have no real evidence one way or the other, although I expect that like everyone I'll get some eventually.  On the other hand, the idea that if there's an afterlife, it leaves behind remnant spirits who then can interact with humans -- I'm afraid the evidence is very much against.  If there are any well documented cases of spirit survival that can't be explained either as hoaxes or human gullibility and wishful thinking, I haven't heard about them.

I also doubt if any of the well-known (and well-paid) mediums -- people like Theresa Caputo, John Edward, Sally Morgan, and Sylvia Browne -- will volunteer to try the test out.  They tend not to like those nasty things called "scientifically controlled conditions."  I wonder why that is?

But if you disagree with me, here's your chance to prove me wrong.  As always, evidence and logic are the watchwords around here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Razor's edge

So yesterday we looked at how using magnet balls in your washing machine won't get your clothes any cleaner.  Today, in a similar vein, we look at how putting your razor blades under a pyramid won't make them any sharper.

This comes up because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who, after yesterday's post, sent me an email that said, "You think that's idiotic?  Wait till you see this."  And he attached a link to a site called "Pyramid Razor Sharpener: It Actually Works!  Make Your Own In 10 Minutes!"

This is the first I've seen any pyramid-power bullshit in a while -- the last one I recall was back in 2012, when someone took a photo of one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza and found that it had a mysterious beam of light shooting upwards from it.  It turned out that the whole thing was easily explainable as a common digital camera malfunction, but that didn't prevent the woo-woos from jumping around making excited little squeaking noises about how everything they'd said about pyramids was true after all, take that, you dumb ol' skeptics, etc.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I suppose it's unsurprising that there is still a lot of latent interest in pyramids lying around, waiting for some unsuspecting nimrod to come along and pick it up.  This at least partly explains the "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" website, wherein we find out how wonderful pyramids are for sharpening razors by having the words "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" thrown at us (no lie) fifteen times.  Here are a few of the other things we learn:
  • A pyramid is a "cone shape, but with flat sides and corners."  Which is true in approximately the same fashion as saying that a cube is "a sphere shape, but with flat sides and edges."
  • Razor blades and other sharp metal objects become dull not because use wears and blunts the edges, but because of "a crystaline build-up on the blade, static electricity and dehydration."
  • It's especially hard on razors to use them for shaving, because the "repeated rubbing of the blade on the face hairs induces an ionic crystal formation of the water molecules upon the skin."
  • Pyramids work because "alignment with the magnetic field provides for the naturally present charged particles to be 'entrapped' by the pyramid and their resulting focus at the corners."  Whatever the fuck that means.
  • It can't be a different shape than a pyramid (such as a cylinder, which is like a cube shape but with flat circles on the end) because "the particular dimensions of the pyramid cause a concentration, or focus of a negative static charge at one third of its height at an equal distance from the four corners."
  • Because we're talking about static charges, here, you shouldn't build your pyramid out of something that conducts electricity.  He suggests cardboard.  (I bet the ancient Egyptians wish they'd realized this before they busted their asses hauling around all of those gigantic rocks.)
  • If you put your dull razor under the pyramid, it will become sharp because of ions.  More specifically, the "positive ions of the crystals on the blade are effectively neutralized by the negatively charged ion concentration inside the pyramid.  The crystals are stripped of their bonds and water molecules are released.  This results in the dehydration (this is the same with mummification) of the crystals, which are destroyed.  The blade is now clean and feels sharp once again."  So q.e.d., as far as I can tell.
The funny thing about all of this, besides the fact that in order to believe any of it your science education would have had to cease in the fourth grade, is that this guy doesn't appear to be selling anything.  He doesn't wind up by saying "send me fifty bucks, and I'll tell you how!" or "for a hundred bucks, I'll send you a build-your-own-pyramid kit!" or "for the low price of only $199.99, I'll send you my motivational lecture series 'Things I've Learned While Sitting Under a Pyramid,' with a bonus set of ultra-sharp razor blades as a FREE gift!"  He seems to be openly and honestly sharing something he feels to be a legitimate and scientifically-supported life hack, despite the fact that way back in 2005 pyramid power was tested on Mythbusters and found to be (surprise!) completely bogus.

So there's something kind of endearingly earnest about this guy, even though if he thinks that water forms "ionic crystals" he really should sign up for a chemistry class.  (He did say that he'd written his "scientific explanation" of how it works in such a way as "not to sound too sciencey," and I'd say he succeeded at least as far as that goes.)  My general conclusion, however, is that you probably should stick to ordinary strops and knife sharpeners, and/or buying new razor blades when yours get dull.  Even if you built your pyramid out of scrap cardboard, you're better off recycling it and finding a different way to "neutralize your positive ions."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dirt magnets

New on the market for people with more money than sense, we have: magnetized balls that you put in with your laundry to clean your clothes better.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Called the "Life Miracle® Magnetic Laundry System," the idea is that putting magnets in your washing machine will somehow suck dirt particles off the clothes.  Or something like that.  It's hard to tell, frankly, because most of their sales pitch sounds like this:
The concept behind the Life Miracle Laundry System is that you can achieve similar results using a chemical-free, completely renewable magnetic basis, without using non-renewable petrochemicals.  Magnetic force is one of the most powerful forces on earth. In fact, the earth itself is like a giant magnet with a north and south pole. It is an amazing source of natural energy.  Even the weak magnets on your refrigerator defy the force of gravity without batteries or being plugged into any power source.  They will stay on your refrigerator, doing work and holding up papers for decades with no external power source.  Where does all this natural power come from?  From the environment around us.  It is completely renewable and totally free.  We are simply harnessing that amazing force and focusing it in your home washing machine to affect the water.
Since the Earth has such a powerful magnetic field, it's kind of strange that our clothes get dirty in the first place.  If dirt particles were pulled away from your clothes by magnets, seems like all you'd have to do is walk around and the dirt would just fall off.  Or, in the case of really dirty clothes, give yourself a good rubdown with a bar magnet.

Be that as it may, they have a great scientific explanation of how it works:
At an atomic level, everything is affected by magnetics. All you need to do it try is for yourself and see the results with your own eyes.
So there you have it.  Atomic forces you can see with the naked eye!

Later on, though, they throw in a few caveats.  In the FAQs, in fact, we're given an answer to the question of whether the magnet balls will actually get our clothes clean and bright:
That depends on your definition of “clean” and “bright”.  When comparing the usage of the Magnetic Laundry System with laundry detergent, you need to factor in a few things...  We define clean as chemical-free, non-harmful to the wearer and non-toxic to the environment, in addition to being optically acceptable.  But only you, the user and owner of the product can determine that.
So apparently whether the magnets work to make your clothes clean depends on what you mean by "work."  

We also find out that the Magnetic Laundry System gives you best results when you also use detergent:
The Life Miracle Laundry System® is a laundry detergent alternative only. Just like when using laundry detergent, separate products used for other functions must be used separately, like spot stain treatments, and whitening bleach products.  These are separate from the Laundry System just as they are separate from detergent... [and] nothing whitens like chlorine bleach, but there are few chemicals that are more toxic for the environment and health.  Bleach is very harsh and damaging to you clothes as well.  That said, if you don’t mind the tradeoffs, you can still use diluted bleach with Life Miracle Laundry System® if you choose.
Then we're told that the magnet balls also don't kill microorganisms, either:
Laundry detergent is not used to kill microorganisms, and neither is the Laundry System, but the cleaning process itself washes away most bacteria.  However, hot water will kill most microorganisms in the water, and a little bleach will do the same (although bleach works best at high temperatures).  An extremely effective natural alternative: Numerous studies show that a straight 5 percent solution of vinegar—such as you can buy in the supermarket—kills 99% of bacteria, 82% of mold, and 80% of germs (viruses).
So you still have to use detergent, bleach, and hot water.  What exactly is it that the magnet balls do, then?

Um... well... they're all-natural!  And non-toxic!  And don't pollute the environment!  And never need to be replaced!

What more can you ask for?

Until today, I didn't realize that the placebo effect applied to doing your laundry, but apparently it does.  Who knew?

So anyway.  Here again we have a good case for why we should put more emphasis on teaching science.  Anyone who has taken an introductory high-school-level physics course would be able to explain why the only way magnets would clean your clothes is if they were covered with iron filings.  For getting anything else washed clean -- especially anything oily -- you need a surfactant.

I.e., detergent or soap.

On the other hand, if they could develop magnets that attract dog hair, I'd be all for it.  As long as the magnets were "chemical-free," of course.  Can't have any chemicals around, you know.  Those things are dangerous.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Memory offload

A couple of years ago, I had a student who had what seemed to me a weird approach to figuring things out.  When presented with a question he didn't know the answer to, his immediate response was to pull out his school-issued iPad and Google it.  Often, he didn't even give his brain a chance to wrestle with the question; if the answer wasn't immediately obvious, out came the electronics.

This became an even bigger obstacle when we were studying genetics.  Genetics is, more than anything else at the introductory-biology level, about learning a process.  There are a few important terms -- recessive, dominant, phenotype, allele, and so on -- but the point is to learn a systematic way of thinking about how genes work.

But given a problem -- a set of data that (for example) would allow you to determine whether the gene for Huntington's disease is recessive or dominant -- he would simply look it up.

"What have you learned by doing that?" I asked him, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.

"I got the right answer," he said.

"But the answer isn't the point!"  Okay, at that point my frustration was pretty clear.

I think the issue I had with this student comes from two sources.  One is the education system's unfortunate emphasis on Getting The Right Answer -- that if you have The Right Answer on your paper, it doesn't matter how you got it, or whether you really understand how to get there.  But the other is our increasing reliance on what amounts to external memory -- usually in the form of the internet.  When we don't know something, the ease and accessibility of answers online makes us default to that, rather than taking the time to search our own memories for the answer.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That latter phenomenon was the subject of a study that was published this week in the journal Memory.  Called "Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet is Increasingly Taking Over Human Memory," the study, by cognitive psychologists Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone, and Aaron Benjamin, looked at how people approach the recall of information, and found that once someone has started relying on the internet, it becomes the go-to source, superseding one's own memory:
The results revealed that participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory.  Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the Internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly.  Remarkably, 30% of participants who previously consulted the Internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.
This certainly mirrors my experience with my students.  Not all of them are as hooked to their electronics as the young man in my earlier anecdote, but it is becoming more and more common for students to bypass thinking altogether and jump straight to Google.

"Memory is changing," lead author Storm said.  "Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it.  Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother.  As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."

What concerns me is something that the researchers say was outside the scope of their research; what effect this might have on our own cognitive processes.  It's one thing if the internet becomes our default, but that our memories are still there, unaltered, should the Almighty Google not be available. It's entirely another if our continual reliance on external "offloaded" memory ultimately weakens our own ability to process, store, and recall.  It's not as far-fetched as it sounds; there have been studies that suggest that mental activity can stave off or slow down dementia, so the "if you don't use it, you lose it" aphorism may work just as much for our brains as it does for our muscles.

In any case, I'm becoming more and more adamant about students putting away the electronics.  They don't question the benefits of doing calisthenics in P.E. (although they complain about it); it's equally important to do the mental calisthenics of processing and recalling without leaning on the crutch of the internet.  And from the research of Storm et al., it's sounding like the automatic jump to "let's Google it" is a habit a lot of us need to break.

Friday, August 19, 2016

I'm sure I already told you about this...

One of the most peculiar sensations in the world is déjà vu.  I typically have the auditory version -- I am completely convinced that I have had this conversation before.  Others tend to have more visual déjà vu, having a certainty that they've been in a place where they know they've never been.

I'd heard a number of explanations of the phenomenon -- that it was memory being triggered subliminally by another sense, or that it came from the fact that our sensory processing and cognitive processing were running at different speeds, so the by the time everything was integrated it created a false memory of an experience that had already occurred.  Neither of those has ever sounded all that convincing to me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Nor, I must add, did all of the woo-woo explanations, such as the idea that déjà vu was precognition, or a visitation by a ghost, or the recollection of an experience from a previous life.

Now, cognitive neuroscientists Josephine Urquhart and Akira O'Connor of the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) have devised an experiment that gives us at least a window on what might be going on -- by creating a situation where déjà vu can be induced.

The setup is simple and elegant.  You give your test subjects a list of words to memorize, and include several that have to do with sleeping -- bed, blankets, dreams, pillow.  "Sleep" itself is not included.  After studying the list, you ask the subjects if there were any words on the list beginning with the letter "s" (there weren't).  Afterwards, you ask them if the word "sleep" was on the list.

They know it couldn't have been, because they all answered in the negative regarding there being words beginning with "s" -- but when asked the question, most of the test subjects experienced an eerie sense of déjà vu, that the word "sleep" actually was on the list -- or, perhaps, on another similar list they'd seen before, somewhere else.  Urquhart and O'Connor write:
Déjà vu is a nebulous memory experience defined by a clash between evaluations of familiarity and novelty for the same stimulus.  We sought to generate it in the laboratory by pairing a DRM recognition task, which generates erroneous familiarity for critical words, with a monitoring task by which participants realise that some of these erroneously familiar words are in fact novel...  The key omission in [prior] déjà vu generation procedures... is the provision of information allowing the participant to make an evaluation of unfamiliarity or novelty to clash with the experimentally-generated familiarity.  In these procedures, there was no objective standard by which participants could verify that the stimuli provoking familiarity had in fact not previously been encountered.
Interestingly, when the subjects were being tested, they were simultaneously being monitored by an fMRI scanner -- and when the feelings of déjà vu were the most intense, the areas in the brain involved in memory (such as the hippocampus) were not very active.  Instead, the frontal cortex -- the part of the cerebrum responsible for decision-making -- was lighting up like mad.

O'Connor and Urquhart believe that the explanation for this is that déjà vu comes from our memory's error-checking procedure.  When we are forming memories, the frontal cortex is doing a continual spot-check to make sure that what is being placed into memory is accurate.  When an error is noted, it's brought to our attention.  Most of the time, the error is something that can be resolved quickly -- with a conclusion of "okay, that's not the way it happened."  But when the memory being analyzed is close in content to something else, especially something that the conscious brain knows can't have occurred, it generates a conflict that is what results in the sensation of déjà vu.

This is still a tentative finding -- there is a great deal we don't understand about memory and sensory processing, so concluding that the phenomenon of déjà vu is explained is probably premature.  But to my thinking, this is a hell of a lot better explanation than anything else I've heard.  O'Connor and Urquhart are going to continue trying to explore the phenomenon.  As a mysterious sensation that is nearly universal to all humans, it certainly begs explaining.  But look for more studies coming down the pike.  And don't forget: you heard it here first.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Death planet approaching

A couple of days ago, I looked at the fascination we have with things that are dangerous -- tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, supernovas.  Today we are going to consider the fact that this fascination is apparently strong enough that if there are no horrible natural disasters forthcoming, people feel the need to make one up.

This comes up because of a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia wherein we find out that in South America, they have their own version of Nibiru, the fabled tenth planet (or ninth, if you agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson and leave Pluto out of the mix) that visits the inner Solar System every so often, sowing chaos and destruction.  Sort of like the way your least favorite relatives come to visit, bringing along their horribly-behaved children, resulting in a thousand-dollar bill from the plumber just to get the toy cars unstuck from the u-bend in the toilet and the wads of LaffyTaffy out of the bathroom faucet.

Turns out that the South American version of Nibiru is called "Hercolubus."  And over at a site called the Alcione Association, we find out that Hercolubus is on its way, and boy, are we in for it:
Hercolubus, a planet so called by the sages of antiquity, is a gigantic world, 5 or 6 times bigger than Jupiter. In the past it put an end to the Atlantean civilisation and it is approaching Earth again. 
The impending approach of this heavenly body to our solar system will happen soon, so that everybody will be able to see.  It will bring about great upheaval in all corners of our planet.
Well, we wouldn't want any corner to feel left out, so I suppose that's fair enough.
In its present encounter, the progressive approach of Hercolubus will bring about all type of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves, which will become more and more frequent and intense until total devastation comes about.  When Hercolubus moves near the Earth, its gigantic gravitational force will attract the molten magma towards the Earth’s surface so that earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions will increase in number and will reach unheard-of magnitudes.
What strikes me about all of this is that these people really don't understand how gravity works.  Do they think that the gravitational pull on liquids is stronger than on solids, for some reason?  It reminds me of the explanation Tom Weller gave in his phenomenal spoof of middle school science textbooks, Science Made Stupid (and if you haven't read this, go immediately to this site and read it, but don't try and drink anything while doing so or you'll be buying a new computer).   He explains the tides thusly:
We sometimes speak of the tides causing the oceans to rise or fall. Of course, this is a fallacy.  Actually, it is the land that rises and falls. 
As the Earth rotates, the moon's gravitational attraction is greatest first on one side, then the other.  Land masses, being rigid, are pulled up or down accordingly.  Oceans, being liquid, are free to flow back to their normal level.
We then find out that "Hercolubus" is going to cause the pole to shift.  We can already see it starting, because the ice caps are melting, or something.  Because clearly the ice melting at the poles will affect the magnetism of the core of the Earth, which will in turn cause the whole planet to turn turtle, kind of like a kayak capsizing.


The reality is scary-looking enough.  [image courtesy of NASA]

So how are we going to escape all of this bad stuff?  Apparently, what we all need to do is to learn how to do astral projection:
Along the course of history, different people with Awakened Consciousness have told about such cosmic phenomenon.  A very clear and current example is the little book entitled ‘Hercolubus or Red Planet’ written by V.M. Rabolu, the great Colombian researcher in esotericism. T hat book can be qualified as a ‘document about the future written with full consciousness’. 
Based on his direct and conscious experience, its author, V.M. Rabolu, teaches us in his book the systems to eliminate our psychological defects and the techniques for astral projection as the only existing formulas to face the forthcoming times.
So I guess the idea is that when "Hercolubus" comes and everything on Earth kinda goes south, we can just astral project ourselves right the hell out of here.  Although that does bring up one problem; isn't the idea of astral projection that your soul goes away somewhere, and your body gets left behind?  It'd be a little inconvenient if your soul goes for a vacation on, say, Neptune, and comes back to find that your body has been obliterated by all the molten magma being pulled around by Hercolubus's crazy strong gravity.

You can see how that would kind of be a bummer.

Anyhow, here's one more thing for all of us to worry about.  The whole Nibiru thing seems to have calmed down some, especially now that 2012 has come and gone without the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse showing up.  But Hercolubus seems to run on its own timetable, so I guess we're not out of the woods yet.  My advice is to work on "eliminating your psychological defects."  Then, even if V. M. Rabolu is wrong about Hercolubus and the Earth flipping over and everything, at least you'll be less defective, which sounds like a good thing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chemtrail survey

One of the problems with scientists being understood by laypeople is that they don't speak the same language.

I'm not just talking about technical vocabulary, here, the ability to throw around words like photophosphorylation and anisotropy and eigenstate.  I'm talking about how they each use fairly simple words -- words like theory and hypothesis and proof.

As an example, consider the kerfuffle over the activation of the Large Hadron Collider, instrumental in the search for (and ultimately discovery of) the Higgs boson.  There was concern, mostly on the part of non-scientists, that the energy released by the collisions within the LHC could cause some untoward effects.  Since one of the metaphors used to describe what was happening therein was "recreating the conditions that were present at the Big Bang" (a statement that in any case is incorrect by several orders of magnitude), people wondered if the activation of the machine might generate mini black holes -- or possibly a new universe, which would expand and tear our universe apart from the inside.

So looking for reassurance, the scientists were contacted, and asked if this was possible.  And that's when the trouble started.

Scientists, for the most part, are extremely careful to differentiate between the words "possible" and "likely."  So they said, sure, it's possible.  Given that we haven't ever achieved collision energies this high, lots of things are possible, including some we probably haven't foreseen.  You can't rule out an eventuality that depends on data we don't have yet.

Well, at that point, the media was off to the races.  Headlines saying "Scientists Admit It's Possible the LHC Will Destroy the Universe!" began to appear.  Only after the hue-and-cry began did the scientists say, "Now, wait just one minute.  We didn't say it was likely.  In fact, it's extraordinarily unlikely."  But by that time no one was listening, because most people were too busy wailing about how we were all gonna die and it was the physicists' fault.

I'm happy to say, though, that not only did we not die when the LHC was activated, the scientists are beginning to learn how to talk to the rest of us.  Witness, for example, the rather annoyed-sounding paper that appeared in Environmental Research Letters a few days ago, entitled, "Quantifying Expert Consensus Against the Existence of a Secret, Large-Scale Atmospheric Spraying Program," by Christine Shearer, Mick West, Ken Caldeira, and Steven J. Davis.  If you're thinking, "wait, this can't be about what it sounds like," well, yes, it is:
Nearly 17% of people in an international survey said they believed the existence of a secret large-scale atmospheric program (SLAP) to be true or partly true.  SLAP is commonly referred to as 'chemtrails' or 'covert geoengineering', and has led to a number of websites purported to show evidence of widespread chemical spraying linked to negative impacts on human health and the environment.  To address these claims, we surveyed two groups of experts—atmospheric chemists with expertize in condensation trails and geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution—to scientifically evaluate for the first time the claims of SLAP theorists.  Results show that 76 of the 77 scientists (98.7%) that took part in this study said they had not encountered evidence of a SLAP, and that the data cited as evidence could be explained through other factors, including well-understood physics and chemistry associated with aircraft contrails and atmospheric aerosols.  Our goal is not to sway those already convinced that there is a secret, large-scale spraying program—who often reject counter-evidence as further proof of their theories—but rather to establish a source of objective science that can inform public discourse.
So this brings up a couple of points.  First, these folks are going about this the right way.  None of this pussyfooting around about how "we can't prove it" or "without evidence, we can't say it's impossible;" Shearer et al. are saying, "No, you loons, there are no such things as 'chemtrails.'"

Second, didn't you just love the comment about how conspiracy theorists "often reject counter-evidence as further proof of their theories?"  That, I believe, is what is referred to in scientific circles as a "mic drop moment."


But third, I have to wonder who the 77th atmospheric scientist was, the one who had found evidence of chemtrails.  I'd like to talk to that guy, wouldn't you?

Be that as it may, I think the scientists are figuring out that you can't just assume that everyone gets the way evidence and proof (and disproof) are used in science.  They're becoming bolder about saying things like, "Evolution is a fact," "Anthropogenic climate change is happening," and "Homeopathy is pseudoscientific bullshit."  Unfortunate though it may be, using the more cautious diction that is necessary in a scientific paper just doesn't work when communicating scientific findings to the masses.

Anyhow, that paper cheered me up immensely.  Given that common-sense considerations -- such as the fact that jet contrails would be a really crappy toxin delivery device -- don't seem to dissuade the True Believers, it's time for the scientists to come together and say, "Um... NO."  Not, as they pointed out, that it will convince the True Believers -- but because it will let anyone still on the fence know that there is no discussion about this amongst people who aren't certifiable wackos.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Looking down the gun barrel

I have to admit to a fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.

I've read book after book on earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes.  I've told my students that if I hadn't become a science teacher, I'd have been a storm chaser, thus combining two of my favorite things -- meteorology, and things that are big and powerful and can kill you.

I suspect I am not alone in this.  Look at the common little kid fascination with dinosaurs, and which ones tend to be the favorites -- not the peaceful herbivorous dinosaurs, but creatures like the T. rex and the Velociraptor and the Deinonychus, which would happily tear you limb from limb.  Look at the disaster movies, stretching all the way back to such flicks as The Poseidon Adventure.  Look at Twister and The Day After Tomorrow and The Perfect Storm.  Look, if you dare, at Sharknado.  What are they now up to, Sharknado 5 or something?

If not, they should be.

I think this is why a couple of days ago there was an article in The Daily Mail called, "Death Rays From Space: Bursts of Energy From Black Holes Could Wipe Out Life on Earth WITHOUT Warning."  Which brings up a number of questions, the most important of which is, what kind of warning would you expect a black hole to give?  Do you think that a few hours before giving off a Burst of Energy, the black hole is going to post something on Twitter that says, "Beware! I am about to wipe out all life on Earth! #DeathRaysFTW #SorryNotSorry"?

Be that as it may, it turns out that The Daily Mail actually got something right, an eventuality that ranks right up there with the fabled monkeys typing out the script to Hamlet.  There are stars which are capable of giving forth incredible amounts of energy in a very short amount of time.  They're called gamma-ray bursters, and are every bit as scary as they sound.  These things give off as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will release in its entire ten billion year lifespan.  That, my friends, is what the astrophysicists refer to as "a shitload of energy."

And there's one only 7,500 light years away.  I say "only" not because that's an insignificant amount of distance, but because that's close enough that if the thing was aimed toward Earth and went off, we'd be fucked.  Called Wolf-Rayet 104 (or WR-104 for short), it's thought to be a good candidate for a core-collapse supernova followed by a long-duration gamma-ray burst.

Of course, there's no particular reason to get all bent out of shape about it.  WR-104 is thought to stand a good chance of doing its thing not day after tomorrow, but some time in the next hundred thousand years.  And even then, it's pretty certain that the gamma-ray burst would be emitted in narrow jets from the magnetic poles of the star -- thus, it would only be a problem if we were literally looking right down the gun barrel, which most astronomers think we aren't.

WR-104 [image courtesy of the Keck Telescope and NASA]

That, of course, doesn't stop The Daily Mail from waxing rhapsodic about how we're all gonna die, or at least get converted into the Incredible Hulk or something.  It's happened before, they say -- a gamma-ray burst is what caused the Ordovician extinction, 450 million years ago, that wiped out 85% of all marine life.  It's only later in the article that they admit that this conjecture is "impossible to prove," and even more reluctantly mention that "in a galaxy like ours, a gamma ray burst will happen once every million years, and it would need to be pointing in the right general direction to hit us... So, are they going to kill us?  Probably not."

Is it just me, or do they sound... disappointed by this?  Myself, I would think that the idea that the Earth is unlikely to get fried by high-intensity gamma rays would be good news.  But I guess this goes back to what I started with; there's something about dangerous stuff that is attractive.  The idea that the universe is big and scary makes us appreciate even more living in our safe houses, where we are very unlikely to be eaten by velociraptors.

Myself, I think it's the raw power that these kinds of things wield that is the source of the fascination. I remember, as a kid growing up in southern Louisiana, there was something pretty exciting about being in the bullseye of a hurricane.  I distinctly recall standing in my parents' garage during the approach of Hurricane Carmen in 1974.  Just before closing the garage door and retreating inside, my dad and I watched in awe as tree branches and garbage cans flew through the air, rain fell sideways, and lightning struck every ten seconds.  It was scary but thrilling.  (The aftermath -- being without electricity for two weeks, losing everything in the fridge and freezer, and cleaning up all of the damage was distinctly non-thrilling, but the storm itself was pretty exciting, at least to a kid.)

So there's some strange attraction to the dangerous things in the universe.  Even if for most of them, we'd like to observe from a safe distance.  Like gamma-ray bursters.

Not to mention sharknadoes.

Monday, August 15, 2016

No wands for you!

New from the "So Weird I Couldn't Possibly Make It Up" department, the owner of a magical tools store in England is refusing to sell wands to Harry Potter fans because he says the wands he sells are real magic wands.  Like, that can cast spells and everything.

Richard Carter, owner of Mystical Moments in Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire, is miffed that he is being approached by customers who want one of his hand-made wooden wands not because they plan on using it for witchcraft, but because they fancy themselves candidates for Gryffindor.  So apparently you have to subscribe to the right brand of fiction to be able to buy a wand.

"J.K. Rowling has obviously done her research but Harry Potter is for children," Carter told a reporter for The Telegraph.  "It has done nothing for business."

Well, obviously not, if you refuse to sell them your wands.  But it's kind of hard to imagine turning away customers throwing cash in your general direction as being a sound business strategy.

"You wouldn't believe how many real witches and wizards there are knocking about," Carter went on.  "You would be amazed.  They know they can come here in reveal themselves without people thinking they're mental...  I don't have customers who have been Harry Potterfied.  If I had someone come in wanting a wand just because they liked Harry Potter I would not sell them one, not matter how much money they were offering."

Which brings up how Carter could tell the Harry Potterfied people from the Potterless variety, since I'm guessing that once the word got out that he wasn't serving the Potterfied folks they wouldn't just walk in and announce what House they got sorted into.  But Carter is way ahead of any people who are thinking of sneaking:

He can tell the Potterfied customers by their aura.

Apparently he can also recognize the ones who intend to use the wand for evil purposes.  No Harry Potter fans or dark witches and wizards, that's Carter's motto.

So that goes double for you, Bellatrix Lestrange.


He seems like he's got a knack for making some pretty cool items, however.  He picks different woods for different uses -- oak for strength, chestnut for love, elm for balance, mahogany for spiritual growth.  Oh, and yew for immortality, because that's always a possibility, even considering that the Sorcerer's Stone is kind of out of the question.

He makes the wands on a lathe, but claims he has no background in wand-making at all.  "I have no training in woodwork.  I use spiritual guidance and don't know how any of the wands will turn out.  All you need for them to work is faith."

It bears mention that my son works on a lathe as part of his job every day -- a glass lathe, not a woodworking one, but same principle.  And he says, "Working on a lathe and expecting the spirits to tell you what to do sounds like a good way to lose a hand."

Carter's been lucky so far, apparently, because as of the time of this post he has both limbs attached and is still doing his thing.  And after making the wands, he anoints them with oil, and then puts them into a locked cabinet until the right witch or wizard comes along.

Predictably, local Hogwarts fans are a bit ticked off.  Slaithwaite Harry Potter enthusiast Mariella May said that Carter's refusal to sell wands to J. K. Rowling fans is like "McDonald's refusing to sell Happy Meals to sad people."  Which is an apt, and strangely hilarious, comparison.

Not everyone has had such a shoulder shrug of a reaction, though.  Fantasy author G. P. Taylor suggested that the shunned fans should take Carter to court.  Which opens up the possibility of Carter defend himself to a judge regarding how he discriminates on customers based on whether or not he approves of their aura.

See what I mean about this being way weirder than anything I could have made up?

So that's our dip in the deep end for today.  Me, I kind of admire Carter for his purity of purpose.  Isn't that supposed to be one of the guiding principles of good magic, or something?  Everything in balance, don't try to take advantage for your own gain.  So however weird it sounds to a doubter like myself, I hope that the publicity he's getting helps his sales -- only to bonafide witches and wizards, of course.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Linguistic brain atlas

Well, folks, I'm going to be away for a little while again... and I'll be out of wifi and cellphone range (for those of you who know my general attitude about technology, you can probably imagine what a respite this will be for me).  I'll be back with a new post on Monday, August 15.  See you in a few days!

*****************************************

Science is amazing.

I know, I know, I say that every other day.  But there are times when I read the science news and am completely overwhelmed by how cool it all is, and am frankly astonished by our ability to parse the way the universe works.

The most recent research that provoked that reaction is a paper that appeared in Nature this week entitled, "Natural Speech Reveals the Semantic Maps that Tile Human Cerebral Cortex," by Alexander G. Huth, Wendy A. de Heer, Thomas L. Griffiths, Frédéric E. Theunissen, and Jack L. Gallant.  And what this research has done is something I honestly didn't think was possible -- to create a "brain atlas" that maps how words are organized in the cerebrum.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The scientists did this by having subjects in an fMRI machine listen to the MOTH Radio Hour, a compelling storytelling program that the researchers thought would be riveting enough to keep people's interest and their minds from wandering.  And while they were listening, the fMRI mapped out which words and groups of words triggered responses in tens of thousands of spots all over the cerebral cortex.

"Our goal was to build a giant atlas that shows how one specific aspect of language is represented in the brain, in this case semantics, or the meanings of words," said study author Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.  As science writer Ian Sample of The Guardian put it:
The atlas shows how words and related terms exercise the same regions of the brain. For example, on the left-hand side of the brain, above the ear, is one of the tiny regions that represents the word "victim."  The same region responds to "killed," "convicted"," "murdered" and "confessed."  On the brain’s right-hand side, near the top of the head, is one of the brain spots activated by family terms: "wife," "husband," "children," "parents."
Further, as many words have more than one definition, the researchers were able to map how context influences meaning and changes the site of brain activation.  The word "top," for example, can mean a child's toy, a woman's shirt, or can be a relational word that describes position.

The study's authors write:
We show that the semantic system is organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals.  We then use a novel generative model to create a detailed semantic atlas.  Our results suggest that most areas within the semantic system represent information about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts, and our atlas shows which domains are represented in each area.  This study demonstrates that data-driven methods—commonplace in studies of human neuroanatomy and functional connectivity—provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.
The research is groundbreaking.  Lorraine Tyler, cognitive neuroscientist and head of the Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain at Cambridge University, described it as "a tour de force" -- a phrase scientists don't use lightly.  There is already talk of using the research to allow people who are unable to speak for reasons of illness or injury, but whose other cognitive processes are undamaged, to communicate with speech-production software via a brain/computer interface.  What other applications might come up are mind-bending even to consider.  Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, said, "There are so many implications... we are barely touching the surface."

So once again, it's science for the win.  It's heartening to think, in this age where I'm often afraid to open up the newspaper for fear of finding out what new and unusual ways we've come up with to be horrible to one another, that we are capable of elegant and beautiful research that elucidates how our own minds work.  As Carl Sagan put it, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

The paper's authors write:


We show that the semantic system is
organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals. We then use a novel generative model to
create a detailed semantic atlas. Our results suggest that most areas within the semantic system represent information
about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts, and our atlas shows which domains are represented in
each area. This study demonstrates that data-driven methods—commonplace in studies of human neuroanatomy and
functional connectivity—provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.



W
e show that the semantic system is
organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals. We then use a novel generative model to
create a detailed semantic atlas. Our results suggest that most areas within the semantic system represent information
about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts, and our atlas shows which domains are represented in
each area. This study demonstrates that data-driven methods—commonplace in studies of human neuroanatomy and
functional connectivity—provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.
We show that the semantic system is
organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals. We then use a novel generative model to
create a detailed semantic atlas. Our results suggest that most areas within the semantic system represent information
about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts, and our atlas shows which domains are represented in
each area. This study demonstrates that data-driven methods—commonplace in studies of human neuroanatomy and
functional connectivity—provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.