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, December 31, 2016

Crash course

As if we needed one, there's another clickbait sort-of-sciencey-or-something site that I should warn you about.

It's called the Mother Nature Network, and it bills itself as follows:
MNN is designed for people who want to make the world a better place.  Its content is engaging, non-political, and easy-to-understand and goes well beyond traditional "green" issues — encompassing topics that include family, health, home, travel, food, and community involvement. It has been labeled “The Green CNN” by Time, “The USA Today of Sustainability” by Fast Company, “Green Machine” by Associated Press, and “one of the hottest web properties out there” by NBC News; highlighted on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; selected “Best Idea” at Fortune Magazine’s Green Summit; and chosen as a “Top Pick” by Newsweek.
Well, that may be, but it makes me wonder about how Time et al. are deciding who to laud.  MNN is even a cut below I Fucking Love Science as regards to sensationalized headlines, shallow analysis of actual science stories, and the usual smattering of "the world of the bizarre" kind of articles (as an example, on of their "trending stories" is "Weird Things We Stuck In Our Bodies in 2016").

My objection, though, is not that there's another clickbaity website that exists solely to grab ad revenue -- heaven knows those are a dime a dozen, and include sites that claim to be legitimate media, such as The Daily Mail Fail.  My main beef with these places is the misrepresentation of science.  Because, heaven also knows that given the general low comprehension of actual science by the voting public, we do not need media making it worse.

As an example, check out their story from this past Wednesday called "A Whole Other Star Is On a Crash Course With Our Solar System" by Bryan Nelson.  Well, don't actually check it out unless you want them to get another click's worth of advertising money.  But let me tell you the gist, and save you the moral dilemma.

First, what the hell is with the headline?  Is Bryan Nelson in third grade?  "A Whole Other Star?"  So, it's not Part of Another Star?  Or the Whole Same Star As Before?

But we'll let that pass.  The topic does sound alarming, doesn't it?  But when you read the text, you find that we've got a while to prepare:
[I]n around 1.35 million years, that's close to what might happen.  Scientists have been plotting the course of a rogue star, Gliese 710, which currently sits in the constellation of Serpens some 64 light years from Earth.  Turns out, it's headed straight for us.
And "close to what might happen?"  What the fuck does that even mean?  Turns out Bryan Nelson isn't really sure either:
The star isn't scheduled to collide directly with Earth, but it will be passing through our solar system's Oort Cloud, a shell of countless comets and other bodies in the outer reaches of the Sun's gravitational influence.  You might think that's a safe distance, but the star is likely to slingshot comets all over the solar system, and one of those could very well have our name on it.
So a star is going to be in our general vicinity over a million years from now, and it might disturb some comets, which are likely to get flung in toward the inner Solar System, and one of them might hit the Earth.  Or not.

But that's not all:
Scientists calculated that Gliese 710 is the star that's expected to come closest to us within the next 10 million years (which is as far ahead as scientists could project), but it's not the only close encounter.  As many as 14 other stars could come within 3 light-years distance in the next few million years, and there are numerous fainter, red dwarf stars with unknown trajectories that could be headed our way too.
So we shouldn't just worry about Gliese 710, we should also worry about other stars which might or might not come close to the Solar System in the next few million years, not to mention other stars which might or might not exist and could do indescribably bad things if they do.

"Hoag's Object" -- the remnants of a collision between two galaxies [image courtesy of NASA]

I decided to do a little research, and find out where all this stuff had come from.  I found a paper in Astronomy Letters from 2010 (i.e., actual research and not hyped silliness) called "Searching for Stars Closely Encountering the Solar System" by Vladimir V. Bobylev, and it included the following:
Based on a new version of the Hipparcos catalog and currently available radial velocity data, we have searched for stars that either have encountered or will encounter the solar neighborhood within less than 3 pc in the time interval from −2 Myr to +2 Myr. Nine new candidates within 30 pc of the Sun have been found. To construct the stellar orbits relative to the solar orbit, we have used the epicyclic approximation. We show that, given the errors in the observational data, the probability that the well-known star HIP 89 825 (GL 710) encountering with the Sun most closely falls into the Oort cloud is 0.86 in the time interval 1.45 ± 0.06 Myr. This star also has a nonzero probability, × 104, of falling into the region d < 1000 AU, where its influence on Kuiper Belt objects becomes possible.
Did you catch that?  The "nonzero probability" of Gliese 710 influencing the Kuiper Belt/Oort Cloud comets is × 104.

For you non-math-types, that's one in ten thousand.

If you needed any more indication that the Mother Nature Network article was sensationalized clickbait, there you have it.

So add that one to our list of suspect media sources, along with the usuals -- Natural News, InfoWars, Mercola, Breitbart, Before It's News, and so on.  My general advice is not to go there at all.  But if you disregard this, whatever you do, don't click on "Weird Things We Stuck In Our Bodies in 2016."  You have been warned.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Ketchup claims

It goes without saying that advertisers will do or say damn near anything to sell their products, but every once in a while a marketing campaign will backfire.  That happened this week -- and surprisingly, because enough people knew enough science to call bullshit on the claim.

The company was Hunt's, maker of ketchup and various other tomato-based products.  They launched a campaign to inform customers that they were not using GMO tomatoes, and created a commercial to tell everyone about it.  "No matter how far afield you look, you won’t find a single genetically modified tomato among our vines," the video announcer says proudly.  The camera then pans across a field of tomatoes, and the announcer says, "No GMOs in sight."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is, there are no GMO tomatoes being grown anywhere in North America or Europe.  The only GMO tomato that was ever widely available was the slow-ripening "Flavr Savr" cultivar, which peaked in numbers in 1998 and a few years thereafter completely disappeared from commercial farms.  Since then, no GMO variety of tomato has ever reached the market or even been grown outside of research laboratories.

So the claim by Hunt's would be equivalent to Evian bragging that they sold only gluten-free sparkling water.  Even if there was reason to believe that GMO tomatoes had negative health effects, which they don't.

Fortunately (miracle of miracles!) the company was immediately called out on their ridiculous announcement.  One person wrote on the Hunt's feedback website, "It's terribly unfortunate you're lying to consumers, Hunt's.  GMO tomatoes are not available to the market and yet you're implying they are."  Another was even more blunt: "Way to go, Hunt's - jump on the anti-science band-wagon in order to bilk a premium from some rubes.  What's next?  Homeopathic ketchup?  I guess it's Heinz for me from now on...  I like Heinz anyway.  And science.  No fearmongering with my fries, thanks."

Of course, the underlying problem is twofold.  First, the vast majority of GMO products have been safety-tested to a fare-thee-well, and have been shown completely safe (despite the alarmist claims that get flung about periodically).  Second, we've been tinkering with the genes of both animals and plants for millennia, only doing it by selective breeding rather than direct DNA manipulation -- and we've yet to produce a crop that directly causes autism or cancer or birth defects or any of the other wild claims you hear.

And, of course, there's a third problem that is recognized less often -- that there have been direct benefits of some GMO crops that extend well beyond providing revenue to Monsanto.  GMO virus-resistant papayas saved the crop from being destroyed into commercial irrelevance by the ringspot virus; if you've eaten papaya in the United States, you've eaten a GMO.  It's hoped that a fungus called "black sigatoka" that is threatening the Cavendish banana (by far the most common cultivar) with extinction can be handled the same way; likewise the world's orange crops, under attack by huanglongbing (citrus greening disease).  Selective breeding is too slow, and requires the location of resistant strains to breed into the population -- impossible with the banana, which has no seeds and is reproduced by asexual means only, and very slow with the orange, which takes ten years or more from seedling to fruit.  Without GMO techniques, we might be enjoying the last generation of bananas and orange juice with our breakfast.

The anti-GMOers, however, are far more responsive to wild claims and fear talk than they are to facts, and every time any genetically modified crops are introduced, we undergo another round of panic.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see the response to the Hunt's claim.  Pinned to the wall by the facts, the company had to respond.  A spokesperson for ConAgra, which owns Hunt's, said the following:
Many people are interested in what's in their food, and we want to provide them the information they are looking for.  As a company, ConAgra Brands believes in giving people choice by offering foods that are made with and without GE ingredients. 
While it’s true that all tomatoes are non-GMO, there are tomato products that contain GE ingredients.  We recently updated many of our Hunt’s tomato products including diced and crushed to meet Non-GMO Project Verification standards, so look for the seal at shelf.
So claiming that their tomatoes (implying, of course, only their tomatoes) are non-GMO isn't at all misleading.

However, it's apparent that ConAgra and Hunt's isn't fooling anyone, any more than Evian would if they implied that only their sparkling water was gluten-free.  Amazingly enough, science for the win.

As for me, I'm going to go have another cup of coffee.  Made entirely without using spent nuclear reactor fuel.  Make sure you're safe -- demand that your coffee is certified plutonium-free.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Lysenko, Walker, and the dangers of state-controlled science

Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agrobiologist during the Stalin years, whose interest in trying to improve crop yields led him into some seriously sketchy pseudoscience.  He believed in a warped version of Lamarckism -- that plants exposed to certain environmental conditions during their lives would alter what they do to adjust to those conditions, and (furthermore) those alterations would be passed down to subsequent generations.

He not only threw away everything Mendel and Darwin had uncovered, he disbelieved in DNA as the hereditary material.  Lysenko wrote:
An immortal hereditary substance, independent of the qualitative features attending the development of the living body, directing the mortal body, but not produced by the latter - that is Weismann’s frankly idealist, essentially mystical conception, which he disguised as “Neo-Darwinism”.  Weismann’s conception has been fully accepted and, we might say, carried further by Mendelism-Morganism.
So basically, since there were no genes there to constrain the possibilities, humans could mold organisms in whatever way they chose.  "It is possible, with man’s intervention," Lysenko wrote, "to force any form of animal or plant to change more quickly and in a direction desirable to man.  There opens before man a broad field of activity of the greatest value to him."

Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The Soviet agricultural industry was ordered to use Lysenko's theories (if I can dignify them by that name) to inform their practices.  Deeper plowing of fields, for example, was said by Lysenko to induce plants' roots to delve deeper for minerals, creating deeper-rooted plants in following years and increased crop yields.  Farmers dutifully began to plow fields to a depth of five feet, requiring enormous expenditure of time and labor.

Crop yields didn't change.  But that didn't matter; Lysenko's ideas were beloved by Stalin, as they seemed to give a scientific basis to the concept of striving by the sturdy peasant stock, thus improving their own lot.  Evidence and data took a back seat to ideology.  Lysenko was given award after award and rose to the post of Director of the Institute of Genetics in the USSR's Academy of Sciences.  Scientists who followed Lysenko's lead in making up data out of whole cloth to support the state-approved model of heredity got advancements, grants, and gifts from Stalin himself.  Scientists who pointed out that Lysenko's experiments were flawed and his data doctored or fabricated outright were purged -- by some estimates 3,000 of them were fired, exiled, jailed, or executed for choosing "bourgeois science" (i.e. actual evidence-based research) over Lysenko.  His stranglehold on Soviet biological research and agricultural practice didn't cease until his retirement in 1965, by which time an entire generation of Soviet scientists had been hindered from making any progress at all.

Which brings us to Scott Walker.

Walker, you probably know, is the governor of Wisconsin, whose notoriety primarily comes from his union-busting, a failed presidential bid, and a narrow escape from losing his office to a vote recall.  But now Walker's in the news for a different reason; he is trying to out-Lysenko Lysenko by scrubbing from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources webpage every mention of the words "climate" and "climate change."

Fortunately, James Rowen of Urban Milwaukee has a screenshot of the original text and the changes made -- it's on the link provided in the preceding paragraph, and has to be seen to be believed.  Rowen writes:
Climate change censors driven by science denial and obeisance to polluters these days at the GOP-managed, Scott Walker-redefined “chamber of commerce mentality” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are at it again. 
Not content with having already stripped content and links from an agency webpage about climate change – deletions I documented some years ago and which I have frequently referenced – the ideologues intent on scrubbing science off these pages and sowing doubt and confusion about the consensus view of experts worldwide about climate change have edited, deleted and otherwise compressed information in order to whitewash long-standing concepts and facts off a climate change page about the Great Lakes... 
It’s a continuation of Walker’s deliberate destruction of the DNR – which we also learned he is considering completely breaking apart to further hamstring and weaken public science, conservation and pollution enforcement while further playing to corporate donors and manipulating GOP base voters to help embed partisan Republican advancement and entrenchment by propagandizing that government – and especially agencies like DNR which Walker has intentionally doomed – does not work for them.
So just like in Stalin's day, we are moving toward a state-endorsed scientific party line, which non-scientists (and scientists in the pay of corporate interests or the politicians themselves) are enforcing using such sticks as censorship, funding cuts, and layoffs.  We have not yet progressed to outright purges and imprisonment, but we sure as hell have taken a large step in that direction.

Lysenko died forty years ago, but his propaganda-based, anti-science spirit lives on.  My hope is that because of the greater transparency and freedom of information afforded by the internet, moves like Walker's scrubbing of the Department of Natural Resources website will not be shrouded in secrecy the way that Stalin's and Lysenko's actions were.  But it behooves us all to remain aware, watchful, and vigilant, because you can just as easily see it slipping under the radar -- and for the claws of partisan politics to sink so deeply into scientific research that it will, as it did in the USSR, take generations to repair the damage.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nuance and overgeneralization

A post I saw on Twitter yesterday called to mind one of my particular pet peeves, which is blaming a person's general assholery on belonging to a particular political party, religion, ethnic group, or nationality.

This particular example was referencing a comment by Hussam Ayloush, executive board member of the California Democratic Party and executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, about the wreck of a Russian jet Christmas morning that killed 92 people.

Ayloush tweeted, "I'm sad about the crashed Russian jet.  The TU-154 could have carried up to 180 military personnel instead of 92!"

The response I saw on Twitter said, and I quote: "Democratic party leader wishes for more dead in Russian crash.  Typical nasty liberal hypocrisy."

Hussam Ayloush [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, first of all, I haven't seen anyone, Democrat or Republican or anyone else, defending Ayloush's statement.  Indeed, the backlash from all sides has been pretty strident, to the point that Ayloush deleted the original tweet and followed it up with a piss-poor half-apology: "Deleted an earlier tweet I posted abt a Russian military jet that crashed on way to Syria before knowing it included non-combatants."

Because that evidently makes it okay that he wished more innocent people dead.

What galled me about the "nasty liberal hypocrisy" tweet, though, was that it somehow implies that Ayloush speaks for all liberals, a claim that five minutes of research would have put to rest.  Ayloush has made inflammatory statements before, and been roundly criticized for it -- that the United States was directly responsible for 9/11, that Islam should prevail over all other ideologies, and that the U.S. government under Donald Trump needed to be overthrown.  (If you want exact wording or citations on any of these, you can find them at the link provided above.)

It's not that you couldn't find liberals who might agree with any or all of those; it's that those are hardly standard liberal talking points.  It would have at least made a modicum of sense if the person who posted the remark had attributed Ayloush's statement with his being the director of CAIR -- a Saudi-funded group that has ties to radical Islamic extremism.

But no, this individual wanted to use it to slam liberals in general, so apparently any blunt weapon will do.

It's not just liberals that this applies to, of course.  Conservatives get tarred with one brush just as often.  All it takes is one Republican to be found in violation of an ethical standard or law, and the crowing starts immediately about how inherently crooked Republicans are.

I'm sorry, but life is just not that simple.  If you want obvious villains and heroes, stick to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  To understand real people, with all their combinations of virtues and vices, requires a little more nuanced view -- especially if you're trying to characterize entire groups.

All ministers aren't guilty of hypocritical false piety just because Jimmy Swaggart was.  All Catholic priests aren't child molesters just because Gilbert Gauthé was.  All atheists don't hold religious people in contempt just because some do.  All religious people aren't anti-intellectual and anti-science just because some are.  If it comforts you to make blanket judgments based upon the actions of a few and forthwith stop thinking, knock yourself out -- but make no mistake about it, you will be wrong 99% of the time.

So yes, Hussam Ayloush shows every sign of being an asshole, and if I were on the California Democratic Party Executive Board, I'd want to have a serious discussion about why he's a member.  But assholery is no respecter of political party, religion, or any other demographic you want to pick.  If you want to call Ayloush out for his horrible statement, I'll be right there with you.  But when you start claiming that his ugly invective is representative of close to 50% of American citizens, I'm calling bullshit.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The dose makes the poison

One of the most fundamental concepts in pharmacology and/or toxicology is the dose-response curve, which gives a graphic representation of how the human body responds to varying doses of chemicals.  Something that is often poorly understood by laypeople, but becomes obvious if you study the topic at any length, is that there are some substances (e.g. lead) which are unsafe at any dose, and others that are necessary at low doses but toxic at high ones (e.g. table salt).  Further complicating the matter is that some substances bioaccumulate -- small doses over a long period of time can cause a toxic increase in the body tissues.  Elemental mercury, for example, doesn't get excreted readily, so even small amounts over a long period can result in harm (giving rise to "mad hatter syndrome" if sufficient quantities are ingested).  Others are water-soluble and quickly cleared by the kidneys, so it takes a great deal more to result in harm (e.g. vitamin C).

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So the subject isn't simple.  But if you're going to read anything on toxins and (especially) vaccines, you damn well better do your homework, or you're likely to get suckered by articles like the incredibly bullshit-dense "The 7 Most Dangerous Vaccines Injected Into Humans and Exactly Why They Cause More Harm Than Good" that appeared over at Natural News a few days ago.

The article, written by S. D. Wells, would be the same tired old "chemicals = bad" nonsense trotted out by damn near everyone in the alt-med world, from Vani "Food Babe" Hari to Mike "Health Ranger" Adams, except for the fact that Wells starts going into specifics about which chemicals in vaccines are bad, why, and at which doses.  Which is unfortunate for Wells, because any time these people slide over into analysis of the facts, they immediately start making claims that anyone who passed high school chemistry would know immediately are false.

Let's start with my favorite line in the whole thing, which is how the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine contains sodium chloride, which "raises blood pressure and inhibits muscle contraction and growth."  Yes, sodium chloride, i.e., plain old table salt.  He also tells us that another vaccine, Gardasil, contains this dreaded toxin at nearly 10 micrograms.  If you can imagine.

For comparison purposes, the Recommended Daily Allowance for salt is 4 grams.  To save you from doing the math, this means that the Gardasil vaccine contains 1/400,000th of the salt you ordinarily get from your food.

But in the words of the infomercial, "Wait!  There's more!"  Gardasil also contains 35 micrograms of sodium borate, which Wells tells us is a chemical used to kill cockroaches.  What he doesn't tell us is that borate is another micronutrient in the human diet, and is only toxic at huge doses -- at least huge compared to what's in Gardasil.  Again consulting the Recommended Daily Allowance tables, the RDA for boron is 1 to 6 milligrams -- about a hundred times what you get from Gardasil.

Wells doesn't just mislead and/or lie outright about the chemical constituents of vaccines, he lies about their side effects.  Gardasil, we're told, has horrific results; he says, "many girls who get the HPV vaccine beginning at age 9 for a sexually transmitted disease (diseases they dont [sic] have) go into immediate anaphylactic shock and some into comas and die."  Which is simply untrue; a study in 2012 of 189,000 girls who had been inoculated with Gardasil showed that the most common side effect was same-day syncope (i.e., they fainted), and even that was uncommon.  If that's not enough, a study of a million girls in Denmark was so side-effect free that the authors concluded that there was “no evidence supporting associations between exposure to qHPV vaccine and autoimmune, neurological, and venous thromboembolic adverse events."

But back to Wells.  Another horror he trots out is monosodium glutamate in the MMR vaccine.  If you're wondering if this is the same chemical that's used for a flavoring in Chinese food, yup, that's it.  It's also the sodium salt of one of the most common naturally occurring amino acids, and is found in tomatoes and cheese, not to mention General Tso's chicken, in quantities that are orders of magnitude more than are in the vaccination.  Then we have polysorbate 80, which Wells claims causes sterility even though it's used as an emulsifier in ice cream and a study on rats who were fed polysorbate 80 at a quantity of 0.5% of their body weight per day showed no adverse effects whatsoever.

I did get a good belly laugh at Wells's horrified statement that the swine flu vaccine contains "inactivated H1N1 virus."  After I finished laughing, I shouted at the computer screen, "How the fuck do you think vaccines are made, you nimrod?  What do you think they contain?  Holy water and magic berries?"

Then we have the wizened old claims about vaccines and mercury, even though the only vaccines that still contain thimerosal (a mercury-based stabilizer) are multivalent flu vaccines, and the stabilizer breaks down quickly to ethylmercury which is quickly cleared from the body by the kidneys.  (A lot of the confusion over mercury toxicity comes from mistaking this compound for methylmercury, which is toxic, bioaccumulates, and causes progressive nerve damage.)

And so on and so forth.  It's the same old, same old, really, but this was such an amazingly dumb example of anti-vaxx rhetoric that I thought it worth debunking.  As for me, I'm going to go look up the dose-response curve for bullshit, because I think reading Wells's article may have given me a fatal dose.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A ruling against slander

Since I spend an inordinate amount of time on gloom, doom, and despair, it should be a refreshing change for loyal readers of Skeptophilia that today I'm bringing you some good news.

You might know the name of Michael Mann, the climate scientist whose "hockey stick" graph back in 1998 sounded alarm bells amongst the scientifically literate regarding the perils of climate change.  His research used proxy records such as bubbles in ice cores to track the global average temperature over the past few thousand years, and the alarming upward trend just in the last hundred was a significant wake-up call.  Mann, who runs the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, has since that time been a vocal advocate for taking steps to mitigate global warming.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann [image courtesy of photographer Greg Grieco and the Wikimedia Commons]

He has also been the target of not just criticism, but harassment.  He has been the victim of dozens of spiteful attacks despite his standing in the scientific world -- he was one of the lead authors of the "Observed Climate Variability and Change" chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Scientific Assessment Report in 2001, was the organizing committee chair for the National Academy of Sciences' Frontiers of Science conference in 2003, was named by Scientific American as one of fifty "leading visionaries in science and technology," and has received numerous awards and honors including the Hans Oeschger Medal of the European Geosciences Union in 2012.

But such credentials, and the obvious sterling quality of his research, doesn't stop ideologues who are determined to tarnish the reputation of anyone who dares to disagree with their rhetoric.  The National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, have been especially vicious in their attacks.  But they seem to have crossed a line with a series of articles that accused Mann of falsifying research -- and, along the way, compared him to Penn State football coach and convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky.

Mann fought back, and took the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to court.  And late last week, a judge in the Washington D. C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Mann.  The judge's decision, in part, reads:
To the extent statements in the appellants' articles take issue with the soundness of Dr. Mann's methodologies and conclusions -- i.e. with ideas in a scientific or political debate -- they are protected by the First Amendment.  But defamatory statements that are personal attacks on an individual's honesty and integrity and assert or imply as fact that Dr. Mann engaged in professional misconduct and deceit to manufacture the results he desired, if false, do not enjoy constitutional protection and may be actionable... If the statements assert or imply false facts that defame the individual, they do not find shelter under the first amendment simply because they are embedded in a larger political debate.
The case will now be remanded to a lower court for trial.

Mann was elated by the decision.  "We are particularly pleased that the court, after performing an independent review of the evidence, found that the allegations against me have been 'definitively discredited,'" he said.

Mann has for years been on the front lines of this battle.  He's received death threats over his research -- hard to imagine, but if you consider the dogmatism of the opposition, not to mention the corporate profit motive behind it, it's unsurprising.  In a December 16 op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Mann writes:
I’ve faced hostile investigations by politicians, demands for me to be fired from my job, threats against my life and even threats against my family.  Those threats have diminished in recent years, as man-made climate change has become recognized as the overwhelming scientific consensus and as climate science has received the support of the federal government.  But with the coming Trump administration, my colleagues and I are steeling ourselves for a renewed onslaught of intimidation, from inside and outside government.
So Mann's victory in the Appellate Court is good news, but the war is far from over.  We have an incoming administration that appears poised to stall any forward motion on dealing with the causes and effects of climate change, and in fact is giving indications of disbelieving that it's even occurring.  Mann writes:
We also fear an era of McCarthyist attacks on our work and our integrity. It’s easy to envision, because we’ve seen it all before.  We know we could be hauled into Congress to face hostile questioning from climate change deniers.  We know we could be publicly vilified by politicians.  We know we could be at the receiving end of federal subpoenas demanding our personal emails.  We know we could see our research grants audited or revoked. 
I faced all of those things a decade ago, the last time Republicans had full control of our government.
The people who understand science, and who are not in the pockets of the fossil fuels industry, need to be ready to fight this when it happens.  Not "if;" I think Mann is exactly correct that we're entering another era of science denialism and corporate profits über alles.  But Mann himself is far from giving up, and neither should the rest of us.  As Mann puts it -- the future of the Earth itself hangs in the balance.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Signal out of noise

I think I share with a lot of people a difficulty in deciphering what someone is saying when holding a conversation in a noisy room.  I can often pick out a few words, but understanding entire sentences is tricky.  A related phenomenon I've noticed is that if there is a song playing while there's noise going on -- in a bar, or on earphones at the gym -- I often have no idea what the song is, can't understand a single word or pick up the beat or figure out the music, until something clues me in to what the song is.  Then, all of a sudden, I find I'm able to hear it more clearly.

Some neuroscientists at the University of California - Berkeley have just found out what's happening in the brain that causes this oddity in auditory perception.  In a paper in Nature: Communications that came out earlier this week, authors Christopher R. Holdgraf, Wendy de Heer, Brian Pasley, Jochem Rieger, Nathan Crone, Jack J. Lin, Robert T. Knight, and Frédéric E. Theunissen studied how the perception of garbled speech changes when subjects are told what's being said -- and found through a technique called spectrotemporal receptive field mapping that the brain is able to retune itself in less than a second.

The authors write:
Experience shapes our perception of the world on a moment-to-moment basis.  This robust perceptual effect of experience parallels a change in the neural representation of stimulus features, though the nature of this representation and its plasticity are not well-understood.  Spectrotemporal receptive field (STRF) mapping describes the neural response to acoustic features, and has been used to study contextual effects on auditory receptive fields in animal models.  We performed a STRF plasticity analysis on electrophysiological data from recordings obtained directly from the human auditory cortex.  Here, we report rapid, automatic plasticity of the spectrotemporal response of recorded neural ensembles, driven by previous experience with acoustic and linguistic information, and with a neurophysiological effect in the sub-second range.  This plasticity reflects increased sensitivity to spectrotemporal features, enhancing the extraction of more speech-like features from a degraded stimulus and providing the physiological basis for the observed ‘perceptual enhancement’ in understanding speech.
What astonishes me about this is how quickly the brain is able to accomplish this -- although that is certainly matched by my own experience of suddenly being able to hear lyrics of a song once I recognize what's playing.  As James Anderson put it, writing about the research in ReliaWire, "The findings... confirm hypotheses that neurons in the auditory cortex that pick out aspects of sound associated with language, the components of pitch, amplitude and timing that distinguish words or smaller sound bits called phonemes, continually tune themselves to pull meaning out of a noisy environment."

A related phenomenon is visual priming, which occurs when people are presented with a seemingly meaningless pattern of dots and blotches, such as the following:

Once you're told that the image is a cow, it's easy enough to find -- and after that, impossible to unsee.

"Something is changing in the auditory cortex to emphasize anything that might be speech-like, and increasing the gain for those features, so that I actually hear that sound in the noise," said study co-author Frédéric Theunissen.  "It’s not like I am generating those words in my head.  I really have the feeling of hearing the words in the noise with this pop-out phenomenon.  It is such a mystery."

Apparently, once the set of possibilities of what you're hearing (or seeing) is narrowed, your brain is much better at extracting meaning from noise.  "Your brain tries to get around the problem of too much information by making assumptions about the world," co-author Christopher Holdgraf said.  "It says, ‘I am going to restrict the many possible things I could pull out from an auditory stimulus so that I don’t have to do a lot of processing.’ By doing that, it is faster and expends less energy."

So there's another fascinating, and mind-boggling, piece of how our brains make sense of the world.  It's wonderful that evolution could shape such an amazingly adaptive device, although the survival advantage is obvious.  The faster you are at pulling a signal out of the noise, the more likely you are to make the right decisions about what it is that you're perceiving -- whether it's you talking to a friend in a crowded bar or a proto-hominid on the African savanna trying to figure out if that odd shape in the grass is a crouching lion.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Ridicule to the rescue

Well, if you needed any good news, a study released last week in Frontiers in Psychology found that both rational argument and ridicule can reduce people's belief in conspiracy theories.

The research, done at the Eötvös Loránt University of Sciences in Budapest, was conducted by psychologists Gábor Orosz, Benedek Paskuj, István Tóth-Király, Beáta Bőthe and Christine Roland-Lévy.  The authors write:
Conspiracy theory (CT) beliefs can be harmful.  How is it possible to reduce them effectively?  Three reduction strategies were tested in an online experiment using general and well-known CT beliefs on a comprehensive randomly assigned Hungarian sample (N = 813): exposing rational counter CT arguments, ridiculing those who hold CT beliefs, and empathizing with the targets of CT beliefs.  Several relevant individual differences were measured. Rational and ridiculing arguments were effective in reducing CT, whereas empathizing with the targets of CTs had no effect.  Individual differences played no role in CT reduction, but the perceived intelligence and competence of the individual who conveyed the CT belief-reduction information contributed to the success of the CT belief reduction.  Rational arguments targeting the link between the object of belief and its characteristics appear to be an effective tool in fighting conspiracy theory beliefs.
Well, I don't know about you, but that cheers me up immensely, especially given that here at Skeptophilia I seem to split my time evenly between arguing rationally and lobbing ridicule bombs at people who hold wacky beliefs.  Some days it feels like I'm shouting in a windstorm, and that nothing I'm doing is having the least difference.  It's heartening to find that this may not be true.

Peter Kreko, visiting professor from Indiana University and co-author of the study, was interviewed over at PsyPost and had some interesting perspectives on the study.  An important distinction, he said, is that the research supports ridiculing the conspiracy theories themselves and/or the sources of such theories, but that ridiculing the person you're talking to is not likely to work.  In fact, it can generate the backfire effect -- being attacked because of beliefs people feel strongly about can result in the True Believers doubling down on their certainty.

"Our findings go against the mainstream of the communication literature and 'common wisdom,' as well as the current affective wave of social psychology emphasizing that emotions constitute the most important factor behind shaping beliefs and attitudes," Kreko said.  "Despite the general assessment that we are in a 'post-truth' world, truth and facts do matter when it comes to refuting conspiracy theories.  Uncovering arguments regarding the logical inconsistencies of conspiracy beliefs can be an effective way to discredit them."

And working to discredit them is important, Kreko says. "Conspiracy theories can be extremely harmful, they can lead to the persecution of groups. For examples, the Protocols of Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory fabricated in the early 20th century on the Jewish leaders’ plot to rule the World, played an important role in the ideological justification of the murders of the Holocaust.  Anti-science conspiracy theories are often similarly dangerous – the anti-vaccination movement is a good example.  Several hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to die each year as a consequence of non-vaccination.  Given all of these negative impacts of conspiracy theories, it is essential to have evidence-based studies on how to reduce the popularity of such theories."

To which I can only say, "Amen."  Also that I'm really happy this study was published when it was, because heaven knows most of the news lately has been bad.  Gives me incentive for continuing to write what I do six times a week.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thicker than water

People on the left side of the political aisle are currently engaging in a good bit of gloom-and-doom prognostication.  I try not to make predictions -- I've found that almost always, such attempts to look ahead don't work.  The universe always seems to have surprises in store for us -- some of them far better than we'd hoped, others far worse than we'd feared.  In any case, foretelling the future is generally a losing game.

This time, though.  I dunno, folks.  2017 is looking pretty dire.  I say that not as some kind of political pundit, which heaven knows I'm not.  I'm saying this because...

... the blood of St. Januarius didn't liquefy a couple of days ago.

St. Januarius is an interesting figure, largely because there's a huge and complex story about him even though modern historians are uncertain whether he ever existed.  The short version is that he was a third-century holy man who helped out Christians during the reign of the virulently anti-Christian Roman Emperor Diocletian, and for his trouble got shoved into a fiery furnace (that didn't work), thrown into a pit filled with wild bears (that didn't work either), and finally beheaded (that worked).  The earliest historical sources that mention him date to the sixth century, so right there it casts a little doubt on his life history, even if you don't count the miracles.

The Martyrdom of Saint Januarius (1631), by Artemisia Gentileschi [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Fast forward to 1389, when a relic of St. Januarius showed up in Naples, Italy (where he is known as St. Gennaro).  It was a vial of the saint's blood, obtained when he was beheaded in 305 C. E. or thereabouts.  Where it had been for a thousand-odd years is anyone's guess, but it was immediately revered as a holy relic, especially when it was found that the blood spontaneously liquefied three times a year.

Skeptics have speculated for some time about how the whole liquefaction thing happens.  Robert Todd Carroll, in The Skeptic's Dictionary, said that the "miracle" can be duplicated using a mixture of chalk, hydrated iron chloride, and salt water, and was due to a property of certain liquids called thixotropy -- they become less viscous the more they're shaken, stirred, or agitated.  (A common example is ketchup.)  So predictably, my thought is that it's a non-miracle that relies on purely natural physical properties of whatever it is that's in the vial.

But of course, the true believers don't like that idea.  Especially now that (gasp) the blood didn't liquefy on schedule.  They say that this only happens when a disaster is about to strike -- such as in 1631 (before an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius), 1939 (right before World War II), 1943 (when Italy was occupied by the Nazis) and 1980 (right before an earthquake struck).  Of course, those are hardly the only bad things that have ever happened, so one has to wonder how many times the blood liquefied and something awful followed, or didn't liquefy and there was a disaster.

This hasn't stopped people in Naples from panicking, of course.  The Catholic powers-that-be have tried to calm everyone, to little effect. Monsignor Vincenzo De Gregorio, Abbot of the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, said, "We must not think of disasters and calamities.  We are men of faith and we must pray."

Or, possibly, stop believing in medieval superstitions and look for rational explanations for stuff.  That could work, too.

Of course, apparently the saint has been giving us hints of disaster all year.  When Pope Francis visited the Chapel earlier this year and said the Lord's Prayer over the vial, the blood only "half liquefied."  Whatever that means.  Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe said of the event, "The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our pope and Naples."

The pope wasn't quite so sanguine.  "The bishop just announced that the blood half liquefied.  We can see the saint only half loves us.  We must all spread the Word, so that he loves us more."

Righty-o.  And now the blood didn't liquefy at all, which means St. Januarius doesn't love us at all, or (according to the legend) that something really dreadful is about to happen.

I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, however.  Given the world's current state, something really dreadful is pretty likely to happen anyhow, regardless whether some obscure saint decided to warn us ahead of time.  And besides, since the saints are supposed to be pretty powerful and able to work miracles and all, don't you think that there'd be a more direct way of warning us than having his blood liquefy?  How about the saint putting big letters in the sky spelling out "WATCH OUT THERE'S GOING TO BE AN EARTHQUAKE?"  Or having celestial trumpets blare, and the saint's deep, booming voice shout out, "There's going to be a volcanic eruption in the middle of downtown Omaha, you probably should evacuate?"  Or simply having the saint tell Donald Trump to tweet about it?

In any case, I'm willing to wait and see what 2017 has in store.  My guess is it'll be a mixed bag as always, although considering the fact that the incoming Cabinet appointments have all been selected from the Daddy Warbucks Fan Club, it could be a rough ride.  So we'll have to wait until the next scheduled liquefaction, which is in May, if the Earth isn't hit with a giant asteroid or something before then.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Myths, hoaxes, and Zardulu

Unless you avoid social media entirely, you've probably seen the photograph of a raccoon hitching a ride on the back of an alligator.  It caught on because of its sheer weirdness, and was widely circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

What you may not know is that it's a fake.  It's cleverly done, I'll admit, but it's an admitted hoax by a woman who calls herself "Zardulu," and who has been responsible for a number of photo and video hoaxes, one of the best known of which is "Pizza Rat:"

She's also responsible for a photoshopped image of a "three-eyed catfish" that was allegedly caught, and started a panic over toxins and/or mutagens in waterways:

"Zardulu," who refuses to give her name or show her face in public, agreed to an interview in The Washington Post a couple of days ago.  In the interview, which you can watch a clip of at the link provided, "Zardulu" appears wearing a creepy-looking bearded mask.  She is also completely unapologetic about suckering people.

These aren't hoaxes, she says, they are "myths," "pearls of merriment for the world to enjoy."  "Why wake the world from a beautiful dream," she says, "when the waking world is all so drab?"

She's even put out a manifesto, which would be an odds-on winner in the Pompous, Self-Righteous Artist's Statement contest of 2016.  Here's an excerpt:
All that once truthfully lived is now a mere effigy.  Images have displaced authentic human interaction.  Before the advent of the Internet, human life was already not about living, but about having.  Those who wished to exploit us produced images to dictate what we needed and desired.  While this continues today, social life has moved further, leaving a condition of having and moving to a state of simply appearing as the image. 
Zardulism is the art of creating and perpetuating myths.  Dramatic images and language created for the purpose of reawakening and following of genuine desires, experiencing the pleasure of life. 
In Zardulism, the imaginary streams into the actual and washes over it, floods it until it has been engrossed.  In a world where nothing is absolutely real, appearance becomes meaningless and our presumption of truth in what we were told is lost.
What I object to about all of this is not that some pretentious artist has found a way to weasel her way into the public eye with a publicity stunt.  She's hardly the first pretentious artist to do that, after all.  What bugs me is that she's blathering on about "living truthfully," when by "creating myths" what she actually means is "manufacturing hoaxes and bamboozling people."

To be fair, she's even-handed about other people's hoaxes.  You've probably heard of the Cottingley Fairies, the photograph that fooled the great Arthur Conan Doyle:

"Zardulu" thinks the Cottingley Fairies are awesome.  She says, "It was decades before anyone used the term hoax, when eventually the girls came forward and admitted what they had done.  I think that it is delightful.  Absolutely delightful to have given the world such a gift.  And it does indeed resonate with me particularly that the truth [did come out.]"

The problem, of course, is that this kind of hoax causes people to doubt everything they see, devaluing media as a whole.  I can't put it any more eloquently than Sharon Hill does, over at her outstanding site Doubtful News:
The fact is, our media system of news and information is already poisoned and rickety.  We have so much bullshit asshattery and hoaxing going on in the world today that affects peoples’ lives – their feelings towards their government, their opinions on policy and law, their choice of medical treatment, what kind of food they buy, and how they vote.  Hoaxing is not generally funny, it makes people feel foolish and angry.  They also do not necessarily learn from being conned because they often lack the foundation and skills to think critically about anything...  This artist is in no sense “brightening the world” by faking charming scenes people like or making people scared of environmental harm (the mutant catfish).  By presenting lies as not untrue, she reveals that people are dark and perverse and what may seem adorable and special is really manufactured and ugly.
To which I can only say, "Amen."  We already have enough people creating fake news to get the advertising revenue, we really don't need someone doing the same thing in the name of art.  If you want to create myths, do it the way that our great modern mythmakers and visionaries do -- people like Neil Gaiman, Alex Grey, Terry Pratchett, and Thijme Termaat -- by creating beauty, and being honest about what they're offering.  They know that the most important role of any creative endeavor is to portray the eternal truths, even in a fictional setting.

Zardulu, on the other hand, would prefer to portray banal frauds and pass them off as the truth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sunk cost and treason

There's this thing called the sunk-cost fallacy -- that once a person has put a lot of time, money, effort, or emotional investment into something, they are unlikely admit that it didn't live up to its expectations.

This is the only thing I can come up with to explain why Republican leaders are still sticking with Donald Trump, even after credible allegations that not only did the Russians tamper with the election results, Trump encouraged them to do so.  Giving a foreign power access to our government for malign purposes is, I thought, the definition of treason.  Imagine, for example, if there were evidence that Barack Obama had allowed a foreign government to manipulate election results.  These same people who are giving Trump a pass on this, or ignoring it completely, would be calling for reinstating crucifixion.

To be fair, some Republicans are aghast at this.  Lindsey Graham has been outspoken in his call for an independent investigation of the allegations.  John McCain went even further, saying that if the claims are true, it could "destroy democracy" in the United States.  Even Mitch McConnell, who has been one of Trump's biggest supporters, has joined in the call.  Much as I hate to admit agreeing with Joe Walsh on anything, he hit the nail on the head a few days ago with this tweet:

Which is it exactly.  I would think that anyone, regardless of party affiliation, would be appalled at the idea that the Russians may have influenced a national election, and would want it investigated.

But astonishingly, that isn't what's happening.  Other than a few outspoken conservatives who want the issue looked at -- if for no other reason, to clear Trump's name and get rid of any taint of illegitimacy -- most Republicans are shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Meh.  No biggie."

Now wait just a moment.  These were the same people who were chanting "Lock her up!" because of allegations that Hillary Clinton mishandled some emails.  Instead, what has been the overall response?

An increase in the positive ratings of Vladimir Putin.

I'm not making this up.  In a poll conducted by The Economist, favorable ratings for Putin tripled in the past two years, most of the increase being in the last month.  In fact, Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California made the following astonishing statement: "There’s a lot of negative things about [Putin] that are accurate but there are a lot of negative things about him that have been said that are inaccurate.  At least the other other side of the coin is being heard now...  Finally there’s some refutation of some of the inaccurate criticisms finally being heard."

So instead of people being outraged that Putin and his cronies may have interfered in the election, they're saying, "Well, maybe Putin's not so bad after all."

I can't think of anything but sunk cost as an explanation for this.  These people have already overlooked so much in the way of Donald Trump's unethical behavior, evasions, and outright lies, not to mention his blatant lack of qualifications for the job, that to admit that this finally drives them over the edge would require a huge shift of perspective.  I've never seen a candidate that elicits such an enormous emotional response from ordinary citizens; huge investments of time and energy have been put into seeing him in the White House.  For the pro-Trump cadre to say "Okay, we were wrong about him" is apparently a bridge too far.  Easier to say, "Trump's got to be right, so we were wrong about Putin."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, agrees.  He said, "The Republican base, particularly the Trump part of the Republican base, is going to regard anyone and anything that helped their great leader to win as a positive force, or at least a less negative force."

I hope that wise heads prevail and that the allegations are at least investigated.  And although I don't like Trump, I hope they turn out to be false, because the idea that the Russians (or any other country) are able to manipulate our government so boldly is profoundly terrifying.  But if they are true -- if the evidence supports the Russian hacks -- we have to act.  I'm no constitutional law scholar, but there has to be some provision for invalidating an election's results if the outcome was affected by a foreign power.

Especially if a cold, calculating villain like Vladimir Putin is responsible for it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The risks of paltering

In Richard Feynman's brilliant autobiography Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he tells the story of his experience as an undergraduate practical joker.  One day while his fraternity brothers were asleep, he took one of the frat house doors off its hinges and hid it behind the oil tank in the basement.  Of course, when the theft was discovered, everyone wanted to know which of them had pilfered the door.  Everyone denied it but Feynman:
I was coming down the stairs and they said, "Feynman!  Did you take the door?" 
"Oh, yeah," I said.  "I took the door.  You can see the scratches on my knuckles here, that I got when my hands scraped against the wall as I was carrying it down into the basement."
Knowing Feynman to be a wiseass, everyone rolled their eyes and assumed he was lying.

The door stayed missing, and still no one confessed.  (Well, actually, someone had, of course!)  Finally the president of the fraternity was so miffed that he called a general meeting at dinner time and asked each member to swear on his word of honor whether or not he'd taken the door:
So he goes around the table, and asks each guy, one by one: "Jack, did you take the door?" 
"No, sir, I did not take the door." 
"Tim: did you take the door?" 
"No, sir!  I did not take the door!" 
"Maurice, did you take the door?" 
"No, I did not take the door, sir." 
"Feynman, did you take the door?" 
"Yeah, I took the door." 
"Cut it out, Feynman, this is serious!  Sam: did you take the door..."  It went all the way around.  Everyone was shocked.  There must be some real rat in the fraternity who didn't respect the fraternity word of honor! 
That night I left a note with a little picture of the oil tank and the door next to it, and the next day they found the door and put it back. 
Some time later I finally admitted to taking the door, and I was accused by everybody of lying.  They couldn't remember what I had said.  All they could remember was their conclusion after the president of the fraternity had gone around the table and asked everybody, that nobody admitted taking the door.  The idea they remembered, but not the words!
I always use this story in my Critical Thinking classes to spur a discussion into the nature of lying.  Was Feynman, by deliberately telling the truth so unconvincingly that no one believed him, actually guilty of lying?

I didn't know until yesterday that this practice actually has a name: misleading by telling the truth is called paltering, and was the subject of a study released just last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Called "Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others," the study (by Todd Rogers, Richard Zeckhauser, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton of Harvard, and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania) shows that paltering works -- but it comes with a cost.

Professor Richard Feynman, palterer extraordinaire [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Their experiment presented volunteers with a variety of scenarios in which people are represented as lying outright, misleading by omission, and misleading by paltering -- telling the truth in such a way as to mislead.  The scenarios included negotiations for a car purchase, negotiations over the sale of a piece of property, and negotiations over the development of a piece of property for commercial use.  The results were strikingly uniform; lying outright was considered the most unethical, but paltering was close -- especially when the palter was made in response to a direct question (as it was in Feynman's case).  The authors write:
Taken together, our studies identify paltering as a distinct and frequently employed form of deception. Paltering is a common negotiation tactic.  Negotiators who palter claim value but also increase the likelihood of impasse and, if discovered, risk harm to their reputations.  This latter finding suggests that those who might view paltering as a (deceptive) strategy for claiming more value in a negotiation must be cautious.  It may be effective in the short-term but harmful to relationships if discovered.
Which is exactly what Feynman discovered.  People are much more likely to focus on the results and the intent -- they care less about the actual words spoken.  So a palterer who says after being found out, "But I told the literal truth!  It's not my fault you interpreted it wrong!" is not likely to gain much in the way of credibility.  In fact, they are generally looked upon as only a tiny notch above someone who told a bald-faced lie.

This does open up an interesting question, though; to what extent is it incumbent upon the recipient of information to be smart enough (or do enough research) to detect when lying or paltering is occurring?  I'm not trying to blame the victim, here; but the principle of caveat emptor has been around for millennia, and I have to admit that I tend to lose sympathy with someone who got hoodwinked when a bit of quick research could have uncovered the deception.  As with everything in the realm of ethics, there are no easy, hard-and-fast answers.  But it's nice to have a word to put on lying-by-telling-the-truth,  and it gives us one more thing to be on the lookout for in car negotiations, real estate purchases -- and political discussions.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mind over matter

Once a week, my Critical Thinking classes are required to find an example in the media of one of the concepts we've covered -- logical fallacies, biases, arguments (good and bad), pseudoscience, and ethical issues.  Over the course of the semester, my students become pretty good at ferreting out bad thinking, not to mention digging up all sorts of goofy stuff in newspapers, magazines, and online.

And this week, one of my students found a doozy.  It's a set of step-by-step instructions for learning...

... telekinesis.

Yes, telekinesis, the skill made famous in the historical documentary Carrie wherein a high school girl got revenge on the classmates who had bullied her by basically flinging heavy objects at them with her mind and then locking them inside a burning gymnasium.  Hating bullies as I do, I certainly understand her doing this, although it's probably a good thing this ability isn't widespread.  Given how fractious the current political situation is, if everyone suddenly learned how to move things with their minds, the United States as viewed from space would probably look like a huge, whirling, debris-strewn hurricane of objects being thrown about every time something about the President-elect appeared in the news.

But if you'd like to be able to do this, you can learn how at the aptly named site  But to save your having to paw through the site, I'll hit the highlights here.  You can try 'em out and afterwards report back if you had any success in, say, levitating your cat.

Polish spiritualist medium Stanislawa Tomczyk levitating a pair of scissors that totally was not connected to a piece of thread tied to her fingers [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Step one, apparently, is that you have to believe that there is no external reality, because otherwise "your logical mind will be fighting your telekinesis endeavors every step of the way."  I know this would be a problem for me.  The author of the website suggests that you can accomplish this by studying some quantum physics, because quantum physics tells us the following:
Everything we see, hear, feel, taste and smell is light and energy vibrating at a fixed frequency.  This energy is being projected from within, both individually and collectively.  Our energy projection is reflected back and interpreted and perceived as “real” via the mind through our five senses.  That is the condensed version of reality.
The problem is, quantum physics doesn't say any such thing, as anyone who has taken a college physics class knows.  Quantum physics describes the behavior of small, discrete packets of energy ("quanta") which ordinarily only have discernible effects in the realm of the submicroscopic.  It is also, in essence, a mathematical model, and as such has nothing whatsoever to do with an "energy projection (being) reflected back and interpreted and perceived as real by the mind."

But anyhow, apparently if you're inclined to learn telekinesis, you can interpret the findings of physics any way that's convenient for you.

Oh, and we're told that it also helps to watch the woo-woo documentary extraordinaire What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was produced by J. Z. Knight, the Washington-based loon who claims to channel a 35,000 year old guy from Atlantis named "Ramtha."  The author waxes rhapsodic about how scientifically accurate this film is, despite the fact that damn near everything in the film is inaccurate at best and an outright lie at worst.

Step two is understanding your "telekinesis toolkit," which includes "empathy, mindset, and energy."  They explain it this way:
Imagine feelings being the words spoken on your phone, and empathy is the signal or wire connecting you.  Your mindset is the phone itself and energy is the electricity used to run it. You have to have a phone, signal and power to communicate.  A lame phone, weak signal or low battery will make doing telekinesis nearly impossible.
I daresay it will.

Step three is finding a good mentor.  Since these mentors aren't free, let's just say that I had a sudden "Aha" moment when I got to this point.  The website tells us that the best mentors are at the Avatar Energy Mastery Institute, where we can learn the following:
You will learn all about energy, chakras, clairvoyance, out of body travel, mind and soul expansion, healing, higher-self, time travel, lucid dreaming and pretty much everything else a seeker could hope for.  I also know that Ormus from really enhances psychic abilities and speeds the learning process.
When I saw "Ormus," something in the back of my brain went off.  I knew I'd seen this before.  And sure enough, a year ago I did a post on Ormus, which is an acronym standing for "Orbitally Rearranged Monoatomic Elements."  And yes, I know that spells "ORME" and not "ORMUS," but since we're kind of disconnected from reality here anyhow, we'll let that slide.  Evidently the believers in Ormus think that taking this stuff can do everything up to and including (I am not making this up) changing your inertial mass, and I don't mean that you got heavier because you just swallowed something.  They claim that taking Ormus makes your inertial mass smaller, which would be surprising for any supplement not made of antimatter.

And taking antimatter supplements has its own fairly alarming set of risks, the worst of which is exploding in a burst of gamma rays.

So anyway.  I'm thinking that if you do all of this stuff, telekinesis is still going to be pretty much out of the question, as much fun as it could be.  But feel free to give it all a try.  Let me know, though, if you're planning on lobbing any heavy furniture my way.  The hate mail I get on a daily basis is bad enough.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Uncommon sense

One statement that completely makes me crazy -- right up there with "evolution is only a theory" -- is "scientists have been wrong before, so everything science says could be proven wrong tomorrow."

The latest person to make this infuriating pronouncement as a way of ignoring what the science actually does say is Anthony Scaramucci, aide to President-elect Trump and member of his Transition Team Executive Committee.  Here's what Scaramucci said:
I know that the current president believes that human beings are affecting the climate.  There are scientists that believe that that's not happening...  I'm not suggesting that we're not affecting the change.  I honestly don't know. 
There was overwhelming science that the earth was flat and there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world.  We get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community.  You've got a very common-sense oriented president at the top of the chain now.  Some of the stuff you're reading and some of the stuff I'm reading is very ideologically-based about the climate.  We don't want it to be that way...
What I want to do is I want to have a problem solving-oriented, common sense, solution-based administration, because that’s what the president-elect has given us a directive to do here at Trump Tower...  [Y]ou’re saying the scientific community knows, and I’m saying people have gotten things wrong throughout the 5,500-year history of our planet. 
Scaramucci hastens to add, in case there was any doubt in that regard, "I am not a scientist."

*brief pause to punch a wall*

There are so many wrong things packed into this short statement that I barely know where to begin.  First, as I've said 253,892 times before, the argument over whether climate change is (1) happening and (2) anthopogenic in origin is over, at least among the scientific community.  That's not "ideologically-based," that's as close to a certainty as you want to get.  The only arguments any more among climate scientists are how bad, how much, and how fast.

Then there's the "scientists get things wrong" trope.  First, of course scientists get things wrong.  They're human, so they make mistakes, fall for their own biases, and on rare occasion become so wedded to their theories that they falsify results.  But the point here is that this is why science exists.  It gives us a rigorous way to catch this kind of stuff, to self-correct, to make sure that errors aren't perpetuated.  Some errors do persist -- to pick one that actually did (i.e. not Scaramucci's "the Earth is flat" bullshit, which was disproven in the time of the ancient Greeks and not widely accepted by the learned after that time), there's the geocentric model and its cousin, the idea that heavenly objects move in perfect circles.  That one did take a while to knock to pieces, but it's significant that the resistance didn't come from the scientists, it came from the religious authorities.  But the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and especially Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler left no room for argument.  Confronted with the data, the model has to change.  And far from being a weakness in the scientific approach, its ability to self-correct is its greatest strength.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then there's the subtlest mistake in Scaramucci's statement, which is that Trump's adherence to "common sense" is some kind of virtue, that common sense should win over science.  The problem is that common sense is sometimes wrong -- our intuition doesn't always steer us in the right direction.  Here's a simple example from physics:
Someone shoots a gun held perfectly level/parallel to the ground.  At the same moment that the gun is fired, a bullet is dropped from the same height.  Which bullet hits the ground first?
Intuition -- i.e. common sense -- usually leads people to figure that since the dropped bullet travels a much shorter distance, it must hit the ground first.  It's hard to picture the real situation, which is that the fired bullet actually travels in an arc, and drops vertically at exactly the same rate as the dropped bullet does.  In fact, the two bullets hit the ground at precisely the same time, something that has been demonstrated in every high school physics class in the world (although hopefully using something other than an actual gun).

This is why we need a rigorous system for determining whether a claim is true.  Our common sense is what's flawed, leads us astray.  Science catches its own errors, and has a stepwise process for winnowing out poor data and bad thinking.  It doesn't work 100% of the time -- nothing does -- but it's by far the best thing we've got.

Oh, and about the "5,500 year history of our planet:" *brief pause to punch a wall again*

So I don't recommend that you listen to the clip, which you can access at the link I posted above, both for your knuckles' sake and your wall's.  But if you do, you will be listening to one of the best examples of political doublespeak I've ever heard.

So for fuck's sake, let's listen to the scientists instead of the talking heads like Anthony Scaramucci blathering on about common sense and ideological climate science and the flat Earth.  It's time to trust the people who actually know what they're talking about.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I contain multitudes

One of the things that even folks conversant in the evolutionary model sometimes don't know is the extent to which we are composite organisms.

On the gross level (and I mean that in both senses of the word), there is the sheer number of cells in us that are not human.  The adult human body has about 10 trillion human cells, and (depending on who you talk to) between 1 and 3 times more bacterial cells -- intestinal flora, bacteria hitching a ride on our skin, in our mouths, in our respiratory mucosa.  Most of these are commensals at the very worst -- neither harmful nor helpful -- but a significant number are in a mutualistic arrangement with us, which is one of several reasons why the overuse of antibiotics is a bad idea.

Then there are the little invaders we can't live without -- namely the mitochondria, those tiny organelles that every high school biology student knows are the "powerhouses of the cell."  What fewer people know is that they are actually separate organisms, descended from aerobic prokaryotes that colonized our cells 2.5 billion years ago (give or take a day or two).  They have their own DNA, and reproduce inside our cells by binary fission the same way they did when they were free-living proto-bacteria.

Mitochondria [image courtesy of Louisa Howard and the Wikimedia Commons]

But that's not all.  If you're a plant (I'm assuming you're not, but you never know), you have three separate ancestral lines -- your ordinary plant cells, the mitochondria, and the chloroplasts, which are also little single-celled invaders that now plants can't live without.  But even that's not the most extreme example -- the microorganism Mixotricha paradoxa is a composite being made up of five completely separate ancestral genomes that have fused together into one organism.

But back to humans, if you're not already so skeeved out that you've stopped reading.  Because it's even more complicated than what I've already told you -- geneticists Cedric Feschotte , Edward Chuong and Nels Elde of the University of Utah have just published a paper in which we find out that even our nuclear DNA isn't entirely human.  10% of our 30,000-odd genes and three-billion-odd base pairs...

... came from viruses.

We usually think of viruses as pesky little parasites that cause colds, flu, measles, mumps, and so on, but they're more than that.  Some of them -- the retroviruses (HIV being the best-known example) -- are capable of inserting genetic material into the host's DNA, thus altering what the host does.  Certainly, sometimes this is bad; both AIDS and feline leukemia are outcomes of this process.  But now Feschotte, Chuong, and Elde have shown that some of our viral hangers-on have had their genes repurposed to work in our benefit.

These stowaway bits of DNA are called "endogenous retroviruses" (ERVs), and some of them seem to be associated with cancer.  Others have been implicated in multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.  But what the researchers found is that not all of them are deleterious; the gene that allows us to digest starch, and (even more importantly) the gene that triggers the fusion of the developing embryo to the placenta, seem to have viral origins.

"We think we’ve only scratched the surface here on the regulatory potential of ERVs," Feschotte said.

All of which is pretty amazing.  And it definitely gives one pause when you stop to think of how we define the word "organism."  Am I a single organism?  Well, not really.  Besides my regular human cells, I've got trillions of mitochondria, each with their separate bacterially-derived genome; and 10% of what I think of as "my DNA" came from viruses, at least some of which has then been modified into genes that I depend on to survive.  So humans -- and all living things -- are looking more and more like composite colonies of symbiotic life forms, representing a web of interrelationships that is so complex that it's mind-boggling.

So, to hell with the weird, exotic life forms from Star Trek.  I'm too busy being blown away by how bizarre and cool the life here on Earth turns out to be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ghost repellents

For today's topic I owe a hat tip to my friends over at the Society for Psychical Research.  The SPR is a group of people interested (as I am) in claims of the paranormal, and who approach the topic in exactly the right way -- looking at evidence, veracity, and overall logical consistency as the best way to sort the grade-A beef from the bull's other, less appealing product.

As an example of the latter, a couple of days ago they posted a link to the site The Week in Weird wherein we find out about a device someone's invented that is supposed to "blast unwanted paranormal entities out of your home."  The Thailand-based company Super Boondee is selling the "Trisaskri Ghost Repellent," which is supposed to work as follows:
When you’re ready to clear your home of negative entities, you simply flip the switch on the Ghost Repellent box, which activates a low-level electromagnetic field, condenser microphone, and infrared camera that work in unison to detect paranormal activity.  Super Boondee calls this the “phenomenon receptor”.  When the machine detects an anomaly, it automatically fires off a “Wave Killer” radio blast that they claim is enough to force the nasty phantom to abandon its chosen haunt.  Much like those sonic-rodent repellents, the box will simply continue to drive off ghosts no matter how many times they attempt to return.
Because hard-headed skeptics like me always want to know how the thing does what it's supposed to do, I was pleased to see that "Super Boondee" even provided us with a helpful schematic diagram:

Okay, my first question is: what the hell is an "inaudible receptor?"  Not to mention a "phenomenon receptor?"  I have a B.S. in physics, which doesn't make me an expert or anything, but at least I'm fairly confident that I know more about physics than the average guy on the street.  And what this schematic looks like to me has about as much scientific validity as the explanations you hear from Geordi LaForge about how he can't beam up the away team until he realigns the force phase energy conduits so that they are synchronized with the warp field frequency interfaces, which will take at least until right after the last commercial break to fix.

Here's a close-up of what the inside looks like:

So that's pretty impressive.  Colorful wires hooked to stuff, so it has to work, right?

If you're wondering how much it would cost to purchase one of these ghost-chasers to test for yourself, wait no longer: one can be yours for only $1,500, plus another $140 for overseas shipping.  My own opinion is that I can think of many better uses for $1,500, which include using it to start a fire in my wood stove.  I try to remain open-minded and all, but from what I've seen this has "ripoff" written all over it.

But by all means, if you want to put the "Trisaskri Ghost Repellent" on your Christmas wish list, go for it.  And please let me know if you tried it, and whether you got any results in the form of ghosts fleeing from your house like rats from a sinking ship.  My natural state is usually to scoff, but there's nothing that succeeds like success.

And do let me know what an "inaudible receptor" is.  I'm figuring it's sort of the auditory version of a camera designed to take photographs of invisible stuff, but I could be wrong about that.  It certainly never came up in any of my college physics classes.