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.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pet peeve

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who also happens to be a veterinarian, sent me a message saying, "They're coming for me!" along with a link to a site entitled, "Autism Symptoms in Pets Rise as Pet Vaccination Rates Rise."

The site, which I hardly need to point out is rife with confirmation bias, claims that vaccinating pets against such diseases as canine distemper, feline leukemia, rabies, and Bordetella is triggering behavioral changes similar to the ones seen in humans that have been vaccinated.  The problem, of course, is that there are no behavioral changes in humans due to vaccination; as I have described repeatedly, there is no connection between vaccination and autism (or any other behavioral or neurological condition).  None.  Nyet.  Nada.  Bubkis.  Rien.

But a little thing like no evidence and no correlation isn't enough to stop some people, particularly people with an ideological ax to grind.  The author, Kate Raines, cites a Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who has studied compulsive behaviors in dogs.  Raines writes:
Presenting the evidence from his study at the 2015 American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Dr. Dodman reported an autism-like condition, noting that “the vast majority of affected dogs were males, and many had other strange behaviors or physical conditions that accompanied the tail chasing, such as explosive aggression, partial seizures, phobias, skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues, object fixation and a tendency to shy away from people and other dogs.”  He and his associates were further able to establish that two biomarkers common to children with autism were also present in the affected dogs.
Which is all well and good, but doesn't establish any kind of correlation between those behaviors or biomarkers and vaccination.  The only evidence she brings out is anecdotal; that some dogs exhibit temporary increases in irritability or aggression following the rabies vaccine, and those symptoms "mimic the ones described in discussions of canine autism."

Oh, and there's the tired old Motive Fallacy argument; that since makers of vaccines profit from sales, they have a motive for covering up any bad side effects, which proves that said side effects exist.  The illogic of which you'd think would be apparent to anyone, but evidently not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But there is something here to explain, and that's the "autism-like condition" Dodman and others describe -- and which I am in no way trying to dismiss.  Presumably it does have some underlying cause.  Raines kind of gives away the game herself by saying that the symptoms are "idiopathic... or congenital," both of which would imply that vaccines had nothing to do with it.  I have to wonder if some of it has to do with recessive genes affecting behavior showing up in inbred dog populations; Raines mentions that Dodman was studying compulsive behavior in Bull Terriers, which (like most pure breeds) have a very tightly restricted gene pool.  (The most extreme example of this is the English Bulldog, the entire breed of which is descended, over and over, from 68 individuals selected back in 1835.)

My veterinarian friend had an interesting perspective on this.  She writes:
[D]ogs don't have autism.  Most vet research shows OCD like behavior in dogs does have a genetic component, but these dogs don't have issues with being social with other dogs, being overstimulated, or anything else, and mostly recover if you give them a job to do, like flyball or herding...  Most of it we see in high energy high drive dogs (collies, guard dogs, those sorts) that are in home environments that don't stimulate them much - so they go find their own, whether that's herding small children or licking their legs until they bleed or spinning in circles for hours.  So superficially similar to some autistic behavior, but 95% of those dogs respond very quickly to environmental enrichment, and the rest to anxiolytics.
But once again, it is unlikely that the arguments of a person who is an expert in her field will sway someone like Raines, who clearly has no particular need for evidence or logic to convince her.

So the bottom line: vaccinate your pets.  You're not going to trigger them to develop autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder, but you will protect them from horrible diseases like canine distemper, which is fatal 50% of the time even with the best veterinary care. Your pets depend on you for everything -- love, food, shelter, protection, and medical care.  If you fall for Raines's claptrap, you will fail their trust in you, and in all likelihood, put them at a significant and unnecessary risk.

And, in general, don't be swayed by emotionally-charged, fact-free arguments.  Find out what the experts and researchers have to say, and think for yourself.  Don't forget that we make our best decisions with our brains, not our guts.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Good vibrations

My stance as a skeptic sometimes makes me something of a magnet for wackos.  There are the earnest types who are driven nuts by the fact that I scoff at their favorite brand of nonsense (homeopathy, ghosts, and conspiracy theories seem to be favorites).  And then there are the ones who find my blog because Google keyword searches seem to pick up on words like "psychic" and "haunting" and miss important words like "ridiculous" and "bullshit."

As an example of the latter, my blog was linked yesterday by Christie Marie Sheldon, who has a website called "Love or Above."  I include this link some trepidation.  So for those of you who would prefer not to look at it and thereby murder scores of valuable brain cells, I will include a summary of its main points.

The headline says, "Are your vibrations helping or hurting you?"  This is followed up by: "Your personal vibration frequency could be the ONE thing holding you back from abundance, happiness, and success.  Discover how to raise it, so you can finally start living from the vibration of Love or Above."

Allow me to interject that in the interest of keeping this PG-13 rated, I will consider the obvious joke about "Personal Love Vibrations" to be already made, and we will move on.

Christie's website then goes on to say, "Ever notice how some uncannily lucky people can almost effortlessly attract good things into their lives?"  These people, she claims, are leaders, have opportunities at work, good relationships, and a healthy attitude toward money.  Myself, I just figured that people like this were smart, hard-working, and well-adjusted, but no: it's because they have a personal energy vibration score, not to mention probably a credit rating, of over 700.

All emotions, Christie explains, vibrate at a particular frequency.  Shame, for example, vibrates at a frequency of 20. (At this point, I was shouting at the computer screen, "20 what?  Hertz?   Megahertz?  Pounds per square inch?  Fluid ounces?  Furlongs per fortnight? Where are the fucking units?" This caused my dog, Grendel, to look extremely worried because he thought I was yelling at him, meaning he was presumably "vibrating at a frequency of 20.")  Apathy vibrates at 50, Desire at 125, Anger at 150.  Then we move on to more positive emotions; Willingness is 310, Acceptance is 350, and so on.  She says, if you vibrate at 1000, you are an "Enlightened Master."   I guess that at that point, you're vibrating as fast as you possibly could.  Any faster and you might just vanish in a flash of Quantum Psychic Aura Energy, or something.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

She goes on to explain that the vibrational energy of the Earth, at the moment, registers at 207 on her Cosmic Vibration-o-Meter.  This is somewhere between "Courage" and "Neutrality."  So, basically, most people average out at somewhere between "Yes, I can!" and "Meh."  Which seems about right, frankly.  But then she says that we should all be vibrating at 500 or above, because 500 is the frequency of "Vibrations of Love."

As proof of how personal love vibrations work, she presents two experiments done by people we should automatically believe because they have "Dr." in front of their names. Dr. William Braud, of the "Mind-Science Foundation" in San Antonio, Texas, found that he could extend the life spans of red blood cells by having the owners of these red blood cells "think positive thoughts about them."   And Dr. Masaru Emoto did an experiment in which he sent a variety of positive or negative emotional thoughts into glasses of water, and then froze the water, and he found that the happy water made pretty, symmetrical crystals, and the unhappy water made disorganized, ugly crystals.  Christie then asks us a poignant question: since our body is full of red blood cells and water, what kind of damage could we be doing to ourselves with negative thoughts?  The implications are staggering.  I don't know about you, but if I ever froze to death, I would definitely want the water in my body to form attractive-looking crystals.  Think of the humiliation if at my funeral, my friends and family said, "I guess it's just as well he died.  Did you see those ugly-ass ice crystals?  He must have been vibrating at 180 or lower."

She ends, of course, with a sales pitch for her program, the "Love or Above Energetic Breakthrough Kit."  To show how awesome it is, she displays a photograph of herself at an event that I swear I am not making up: The "Awesomeness Fest."  There are further details, including descriptions of a technique called "Space Cleansing," but at that point my remaining brain cells were crying for mercy so I had to stop looking at the website.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard, being a skeptic, that people want to convince you.  After all, the word "skeptic" implies that there's a chance you might be swayed.  This is, in fact, true; but the difficulty, of course, is that what sways a skeptic is empirical evidence, or failing that, at least a logical argument.  When you have neither, all you have is a severe case of Doubt, which vibrates at a frequency of around 110.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Politics in the pulpit

New from the "Wow, You Really Didn't Think That Through All That Well, Did You?" department, we have: Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing into law a bill that will prevent the government from subpoenaing pastors based upon what they say in the pulpit.

This is yet another one of the so-called "Religious Freedom" laws, designed to give carte blanche to anyone who does anything as long as it's part of their religion.  Want to discriminate against someone?  Claim that your religion considers the person a sinner.  Want your kid to get out of having to learn about other cultures or other beliefs in school?  Claim that your religion considers the knowledge of such information a threat.

Or, now: want your pastor to be able to stump for a political candidate?  Claim that preventing him/her from doing so is allowing the government to "pry into what goes on in churches."

That, at least, is how Governor Abbott sees it.  Upon signing the bill, Abbott said:
Freedom and freedom of religion was challenged here in Houston, and I am proud to say you fight back from the very beginning... Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield.  You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.
Which brings up a problem that I think about every time someone starts snarling about how much better it was when we had prayer in schools.  My first question would be, "What kind of prayers?"  Because generally the religion people want in schools -- and in all the arenas of public life -- is just one religion, namely their own.  It's curious how a lot of the same people who would love to see prayers to the Christian god reinstituted in public schools pitch an unholy fit when students even learn about Islam, and would probably spontaneously combust if students were told to bow down and pray to Allah.


Which is the problem with Abbott's new law.  Are the pastors who are now protected from subpoenas based on what they preach only the Christian pastors?  Because this law could easily be invoked to protect extremist Muslim mullahs preaching "Death to America" from their pulpits.  The whole idea of separation of church and state is that you are free to subscribe to whatever religion you choose, or no religion at all, and all religions are treated equally under the law.  What Abbott clearly intends here is that Christian churches have rights that other institutions do not have.

And the reason Abbott and the bill's author, Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, came up with this is abundantly clear.  There is an increasing push by evangelical Christians to consolidate their power in order to influence political races.  They wielded considerable clout in the last presidential election; without people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. throwing their support behind Trump, you have to wonder if the election might not have gone the other way.  Some preachers went even further, and said that if you don't vote for Trump, you are committing a sin because you're going against God's Chosen One.

How a narcissistic, sociopathic, adulterous compulsive liar ever got to be God's Chosen One is beyond me.  But there you are.

Myself, I have no problem with a church getting involved with politics, as long as it brings with it the price of losing tax-exempt status.  Once churches become the religious arm of a political party, they should be paying taxes on donations the same way any other political organization does.

But Abbott would probably consider that "religious persecution."

So this is a law that is inherently unfair in intent, almost certainly will be unevenly enforced if it's enforceable at all, and is likely to be challenged in the courts in any case.  Another exercise in governmental waste of time, solely to grandstand a little and appease Abbott's hyperreligious base.

Because, apparently, our elected officials have nothing better to do.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cock-and-bull

The skeptic community (if such a thing actually exists) is all abuzz because of the recent publication in the journal Cogent Social Studies of an article by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay called "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct."  If you read the article, you'll see immediately that it's a hoax.  It contains such passages as one in which they say the "concept of the penis" is responsible for climate change, and defend that claim thusly:
Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset.  This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology.  When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
Boghossian and Lindsay, both of whom write for Skeptic magazine, do a good bit of har-de-har-harring at the fact that their spoof article allegedly passed peer review, as does Skeptic's founder, Michael Shermer.  Shermer writes:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.  Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.
In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay hint that their hoax shows a fundamental problem with all of gender studies:
The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense.  That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions.  Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Denigrating all of gender studies based upon a sample size of One Paper seems like lousy skepticism to me.  They didn't do a thorough analysis of papers published in the dozens of journals that address the subject; they found one journal that accepted one hoax paper uncritically.  Sure, it says something about Cogent Social Studies -- which, it turns out, is a pay-to-publish journal anyhow, ranking it a long way down on the reliability ladder -- but that no more discredits gender studies as a whole than the Hwang Woo-Suk hoax discredited all stem cell research.

To me, this is more of an indication that Boghossian and Lindsay, and by extension Michael Shermer, have an ax to grind.  The hoax itself appears very much like a cheap stunt that Boghossian and Lindsay dreamed up to take a pot shot at a subject that for some reason they hold in disdain.  When the hoax succeeded, they crowed that the field of gender studies is "crippled academically."

Kind of looks like confirmation bias to me.  Sad, given that these three are often held up as the intellectual leaders of the skeptic community.

[image courtesy of artist Ju Gatsu Mikka and the Wikimedia Commons]

I do think there's one important lesson that can be drawn from this situation, however, and it's not the one Boghossian and Lindsay intended.  It's that the old adage of "if it's in an academic journal, it's reliable" simply isn't true.  I recall, in my college days, being told that the "only acceptable sources for papers are academic journals."  This wrongly gives college students the impression that all journals have identical standards -- that Nature and Science are on par with Cogent Social Studies and The American Journal of Homeopathy.

This makes a true skeptic's job harder (not to mention the job of college students simply trying to find good sources for their own research).  It is incumbent upon anyone reading an academic paper to see what the track record of the journal is -- if its papers have been cited by reputable researchers, if the research they describe is valid, if its authors have reasonable credentials.  Boghossian and Lindsay did show that we are right to be suspicious of papers that appear in pay-to-publish journals.  Beyond that, what they did strikes me as a lot of mean-spirited dicking around.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heavenly message delivery service

A while back, I wrote here at Skeptophilia about a business called "After The Rapture Pet Care" that (for a small fee) would pair holy pet owners up with well-meaning sinners, so that when the holy people were Raptured up to heaven, their pets would have someone to look after them.

Well, if that wasn't goofy enough for you, one of my Critical Thinking students ran across an even goofier idea last week.  His discovery?

A company called "MySendOff" that has a program they call "Sending Telegrams to Heaven."  The idea here hinges on the fact that most of us have friends or relatives who have died, and whom we would like to contact.  As the website puts it:
[W]hat if you had something you wanted to say to [a deceased loved one]?  Perhaps you had one last pressing thing you wanted your loved one to know but time wouldn’t allow it.  You maybe feeling somewhat guilty or unfulfilled for not saying that one last thing.  Some may even feel somehow responsible for the death and feel the pressing need to apologize and tell the deceased they feel responsible.  They may go on through life with a feeling of discontentment and frustration due to this self blaming.  Another reason for contacting the deceased may be that you want to inform them of new events that happened since their passing, a new birth in a family, a wedding etc.
I'm sure at least some of my readers can relate.

So here's what MySendOff will do for you.  For five dollars per word, you can upload a message to their website.  MySendOff will then find a volunteer who is terminally ill, who will memorize the message, and when the volunteer dies, (s)he will deliver the message to your loved one.

For their part, MySendOff agrees to periodically contact the volunteers to check up on them and make sure they still remember the message.  And -- special offer -- if the volunteer lives a year past the day (s)he was contracted to deliver the message, your fee will be refunded, and the volunteer agrees to deliver the message for free once (s)he does kick the bucket.

It's hard to know where to start, regarding how bizarre this is.  First, there's the idea that MySendOff is somehow getting in touch with hundreds of terminally ill people to act as couriers.  Second, the company is getting five bucks a word for basically doing... nothing.  Other than passing the message to the courier, that is.  You have no guarantee of delivery, given that they're not saying you'll ever know if the recently deceased, formerly terminally ill person successfully contacted your loved one.

I mean, think about it.  The odds are very much against it, right?  Think of all the billions of people who have died.  Even if you think they're all still kicking around somewhere in the Great Beyond, what's the likelihood of being able to find one of them, amongst all the people who have ever died?  Unless the afterlife is some kind of big, IRS-style bureaucracy, where each deceased person is assigned a tracking number upon arrival, so that they can all be located quickly if needed.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I hate to bring this up, but what if the terminally ill person arrives at the Pearly Gates, only to find that your loved one is sort of... not there?  I.e., they ended up in hell?  I have to admit, considering most of my relatives, that's a great deal more likely.  Does the courier then have the responsibility to have the message handed over to someone to make a downward delivery run?

Or does MySendOff pair up sinful dead people with sinful terminally ill people, so that the message goes the right direction to start with?

Of course, for me the main frustration would be that I don't so much want to deliver a message to my deceased loved ones, I'd much prefer to ask some questions, which means that I'd like answers, something for which MySendOff provides no guarantee.  I'd especially like to chat with my grandma, with whom I was very close as a kid.  There are all kinds of things I wish I'd asked while she was alive.  How did she meet my grandpa?  (My grandma was from rural southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandpa from southern Louisiana.  They met during World War I, and I'm sure there was a story there, but I never found out what it was.)  After my grandpa died, how did she meet the Dutch expat Catholic priest for whom she became the live-in housekeeper -- a job that lasted forty years until his death at age 86?  And, most importantly, what is her secret chocolate fudge recipe, which I have tried for thirty years to replicate without success?

But MySendOff has no provisions for two-way communication, which is a pity.  I mean, it'd be nice to tell my grandma that I miss her, but if there really is an afterlife, I'm sure she knows that.

So I'm not gonna pay five bucks a word to send her, or any other dead people, a message.  Seems a little steep, frankly.  I'll just wait until I die and can carry my own messages.  It'll be too late to use my grandma's chocolate fudge recipe, but at least we'll be able to have a nice chat about old times.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Killing public schools

One comment I hear every time budgets for public education are discussed is, "You can't fix the educational system by throwing money at it."

This pisses me off on a variety of levels.  First, there's the sense that funding public schools is randomly "throwing money," as if it's inherently irresponsible to provide adequate resources for educating the next generation of citizens.  Implicit in this is that schools will just waste the money anyhow, that school boards spend their time looking for frivolous ways to spend their state and federal funding.

The worst part, however, is that this convenient and glib little quip ignores the truth of a different adage: "You get what you pay for."  If you want to obtain and retain quality teachers, ensure that they have manageable class sizes that optimize student success, and give them the resources they need to deliver top-quality education, you have to pay for it.

And it's not like if you refuse to spend tax money to fund schools, then somehow the money magically stays in your pocket.  Taxpayers will pay either for supporting schools, or for the consequences of a generation of poorly-educated, disaffected young adults whose career choices are constrained by a lack of opportunities in public schools, or who have chosen to go to college and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that will take decades to repay.

All of which is why the proposed federal education budget is such a travesty.

The Washington Post calls this "Trump's education budget," which is a little doubtful, given that Trump gives every impression of having never written anything longer 140 characters, much less an actual budget proposal.  The specifics, honestly, have Betsy DeVos written all over them.  The Secretary of Education is a staunch believer in federal funding for private and religious schools -- which she refers to as "school choice" -- and for cutting damn near everything else to the bone.

Here are a few of the provisions of this proposal:
  • cutting a total of $10.6 billion from the overall budget for education
  • cutting funding for college work-study programs by half
  • cutting over a hundred million dollars from programs supporting mental health services and programs providing enrichment, honors, and advanced coursework in middle and high schools
  • ending a program to provide student loan forgiveness for college graduates who work in public service
  • cutting $168 million from grants to states for career and tech programs
  • cutting $72 million from programs for international education and foreign language training
  • cutting $12 million from funding for the Special Olympics
  • cutting $96 million from a program for adult literacy instruction
On the other hand, it:
  • expands support for charter schools and private and religious schools by $400 million
  • adds $1 billion to programs to push school districts to adopt "choice-friendly" policies
"It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education," DeVos said.  "Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over fifty years with very little to show for its efforts."

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

DeVos, of course, is in no position to make that kind of judgment.  She has never worked in a public school, did not send her children to public school, and her main claim to fame, education-wise, is pushing a program in her home state of Wisconsin that funneled $2 billion to private and religious schools despite peer-reviewed studies showing that these programs do not work.  And the situation in Wisconsin is by no means unique -- other states have tried voucher systems, and by and large they have been a dismal flop.  Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times gives one example:
A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana’s expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program.  Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program.  In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.
So let's take those results, and make them national by mandate!  That'd be a great idea!

It doesn't take an expert to recognize the terrible effect that such a diversion of funds has on schools.  You'd think this would be enough for even the most diehard supporter of "school choice" to say, "Oh.  I guess I was wrong, then."

But no.  Data, facts, and evidence have no impact on a doctrinaire ideologue like DeVos, who honestly doesn't seem to give a damn if public schools fail.  In fact, if by her actions public schools do decline, in her mind it will just prove what she's claimed all along; that education in America is in a tailspin.

 Look, I've worked in education for thirty years.  It's not that I think we're perfect.  There's wastefulness, there is misspent money, and I have long decried the increasing focus on trivial content and preparation for standardized tests.  But the solution is not to cut funding to the bone.  Faced with revenue loss, public schools have only one real choice -- reducing staff.  Most of the rest of the line items in school budgets are earmarked or non-discretionary -- school boards have no choice in whether to include them.  The only big-ticket item that boards actually do have control over is salaries.  But since the salary per teacher is set contractually, there's only one option: lay people off.

Which means higher class sizes, cutting of electives, and loss of program.

Not that DeVos would ever admit this.  But look at the actual results of voucher programs and charter schools, nationwide -- not the spin that DeVos puts on it, but real numbers coming from studies such as the ones described by Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times article linked above.

The conclusion is unequivocal.  And the budget being proposed will, if passed, be a death blow to the schools that can withstand it least -- poor, overcrowded, inner-city schools.

Remember that next time you see Betsy DeVos smile her smarmy smile and say that she's pro-child.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Attractive paranoia

I know two people who are major conspiracy theorists.

One of them believes he's being persecuted by the folks at his place of employment, that they're getting together and deliberately making his life difficult because "they all" disagree with his political and religious beliefs.  He seriously believes that the ordinary, average folks he works with are meeting in secret to try to find new and devious ways to make him miserable.

"Why would they do that?" I ask.  

"Because of who I am," he answers, with no apparent trace of irony.

The other one is more of a global conspiracy type -- there's this Shadow Government run by the CEOs of the Big Corporations, and they have Big Secret Plans for World Domination. (This guy always speaks in Capital Letters.)  He's a major fan of Zeitgeist, believes there are secret plans for a One World Government, thinks that the CIA is putting mind-control chemicals into jet fuel so we get zombified whenever there's a jet contrail, and thinks that there are Men in Black who make dissenters disappear.  Say the words "New World Order" in his presence, and he gets really serious, and looks around to see if anyone overheard.  And of course, when you point out that there's no evidence whatsoever for a Global Conspiracy, he just raises his eyebrow coyly and smiles, as if to say, "Of course there's no evidence.  You don't think they'd just leave evidence hanging around, do you?  These guys are good."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm willing to believe that the second guy has just watched too many episodes of The X Files, but it does make me wonder why conspiracy theories are so appealing.  As strange as it sounds, there's a certain attraction to paranoia.  People want there to be a huge master plan behind everything -- sinister or otherwise -- because, I think, it's more satisfying and reassuring that there is a plan.  It's a little disconcerting to think that the universe is just kinda random, that things happen because they happen, and most people are just helpless dorks with no more intentionality than billiard balls bouncing off each other.

I mean, I like The X Files as much as the next guy, but honestly I think the universe is much more like a cosmic Mr. Magoo episode.

In a recent interview in Vox, social psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, agrees.  "[Conspiracy theories are] a tool to explain reality," van Prooijen said.  "We can’t always know or understand everything that happens to us. When people are uncertain about change — when they lose their jobs, or when a terrorist strike or a natural disaster has occurred — then people have a tendency to want to understand what happened, and also a tendency to assume the worst. It’s a self-protective mechanism people have.  This combination of trying to make sense and assuming the worst often leads to conspiracy theories."

This means, van Prooijen said, that during unstable times, we should expect conspiracy theories to sprout up like mushroom after a rainstorm.  "They’re particularly likely to flourish in times of collective uncertainty in society. Particularly after high-profile incidents that imply a sudden change in society or a sudden change in reality in a threatening way.  Think 9/11, but also think of disease outbreaks [or] long-term threats like an economic crisis or climate change."

This means, too, that they're remarkably resistant to correction.  When the emotional piece is added, it makes people much more likely to dig their heels in than admit they were wrong.  And that's despite that fact that in general, most conspiracy theories are very likely to be wrong.

Robert Heinlein said, "Never attribute to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity."   I'd add to that that most people don't have the time or interest to conspire.  Conspiracy, after all, takes so much effort.  The first guy I mentioned -- the one thinks that his coworkers are out to get him -- would probably be appalled if he knew how little time and energy his coworkers actually spend thinking about him.  Sorry, buddy, you're not the victim of a conspiracy -- "who you are" is just not that important.  Most of your coworkers spend more time daily thinking about what to have for dinner that night than they do thinking about ways to make your life miserable.

Also, there's just the practical aspect of it.   Conspiracies are hard to manage, because face it, people like to gossip.  Plus, my own version of Murphy's Law is that the overall IQ and efficiency of a group is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group.  Our government isn't so much evil as it is ridiculous -- Congress as 535 Keystone Kops running about while "Yakety Sax" plays in the background, banging into each other, falling down, and having the occasional sex scandal and collusion with Russia, all overseen by President Magoo, whose job is to keep people believing the pleasant myth that his administration has got a handle on everything.

It's not that the government, or corporations, don't do bad things. They do -- sometimes really bad ones. But there's nothing more behind it than simple human greed and power-hungriness and dumbassery, with the occasional plot that is usually about as successful as Watergate. The rest of the world just keeps going on, doing what people do, and rolling our eyes at how absurd it all is.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Confirmation bias, false news, and The Palmer Report

I'm going to make another plea for something that I've requested before:

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE CHECK YOUR SOURCES.

In these fractious times, it's easy to get your dander up and post, share, or retweet links about controversial stuff without double-checking their veracity.  And you should especially check your sources if you're inclined to agree with them.  Confirmation bias plagues us all, and we are all more likely to accept a claim uncritically if we already thought it was true.

This all comes up because of an article from Business Insider about The Palmer Report.  The Palmer Report is a strongly left-leaning news website run by one Bill Palmer, and has established itself as being about as reliable as Fox News in presenting verified, accurate information.

The Business Insider article describes an incident involving Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.  Markey went on CNN and said, "Subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to [National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn and Gen. Flynn's associates. A grand jury has been impaneled up in New York."

This resulted in some puzzlement, as no one else seemed to have heard about the impaneling of a grand jury in New York, or anywhere else, for that matter.  Questioned about the claim, Markey identified the source of it as The Palmer Report.

Bill Palmer, apparently, made the claim up out of whole cloth.  But when this became obvious, did he back down, and say, "Oops, guess I was wrong"?

Of course not.  Websites like The Palmer Report have, as their motto, "Death Before Retraction."  Instead of addressing the apparent falsehood, Palmer responded with a dazzling display of circular reasoning and said by quoting The Palmer Report, Markey had "confirmed" that a grand jury had been appointed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The site has kept Snopes busy lately.  Just in the last week, Snopes has debunked false or misleading claims from The Palmer Report including that James Comey sent out a malicious tweet about Donald Trump and the alleged "pee tape" after he was fired; that Donald Trump had said that "Americans have no right to protest;" and that Trump called up CBS after Stephen Colbert's anti-Trump diatribe and "got him fired."

All of these stories are false.  But they line up very much with what the left would like to be true, so they've all gone viral.

Palmer, for his part, is unapologetic.  "Anyone unfamiliar with my work shouldn't just take my word, or anyone else's word, on its validity," he wrote last year.  "My articles include supporting source links which allow readers to easily verify the facts in question, meaning there's nothing controversial about my reporting."

Believe me because I say it's true, in other words.  And why should you think I'm accurate?  Well, I just told you I was, dammit!

All of which brings up a rather unpleasant tendency; for the left to see all of the right's claims as unfounded supposition and their own as well-sourced, fact-based, virtually self-evident to anyone with a brain.  And vice versa, of course.  The truth is that everyone is prone to bias, and we need to evaluate stuff we agree with even more carefully because of the danger of accepting it without question.

And as far as The Palmer Report and the other purveyors of fake news out there, left and right; you are muddying the waters, stirring up conflict and dissent, and making the ugly polarization that is characterizing today's United States even worse.  I have no doubt you know this already, and suspect that you don't care much.  But I will add my own voice to others in saying: if you don't know that the claim you're making is true, shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Who watches the watchers?

A nearly universal, and rather creepy, sensation is when you turn to look at a stranger -- and find that they were watching you.

This "feeling of being watched" is something we all have experienced from time to time.  I seem to notice it most when I'm driving on the freeway, and happen to glance at the car next to me.  I can remember many times when either the person in the next car was already looking at me -- or else, even creepier, they turn their head toward me at exactly the same time.

However odd this feels, I've always felt like there was a perfectly rational reason for this, and my sense was that it's yet another example of dart-thrower's bias -- the perfectly natural human tendency to pay more attention to (or overcount) the hits, and ignore (or undercount) the misses.

In this case, how many times do you glance at a car next to you on the freeway, and the person in the car is not looking at you?  We don't remember it precisely because it happens so often.  On the other hand, on those rare occasions where someone is looking at us, it stands out -- and is given more weight in our memories.

"Uhhh... did you ever have the feeling that you was bein' watched?"

There's another possible explanation, however, and it has to do with an oddity of our perceptual systems only recently discovered because of a peculiar disorder called "blindsight," in which an individual is functionally blind, but can still perceive some visual stimuli.

Blindsight occurs when a person's visual cortex is damaged, usually by a stroke, but his/her eyes and optic nerve are still intact.  In a dramatic study led by Alan J. Pegna of Geneva University Hospital (Switzerland), it was found that although they are unresponsive to most visual stimuli, people with blindsight still exhibit visual phenomena like "emotional contagion" -- the tendency of people to match the emotions of faces they're looking at.

Apparently, this happens because the information from the eyes does not just travel to the visual cortex, it goes to a variety of other places in the brain, including the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion.  So a person might be able to match the smile in a photograph of a smiling person -- while not, technically, being able to see the photograph.

Pegna's study showed that not only are people with blindsight able to detect the emotion in a face they are (not) seeing, they can also tell when someone is looking at them.  Scanning results of a patient with blindsight showed increased activity in the amygdala -- the part of the limbic system that controls anxiety and fear -- when he was being watched.

So the conjecture is that there may be something more to the sensation of being watched than simple dart-thrower's bias.  It might be that when someone in our peripheral visual field is watching us, it doesn't register in our conscious awareness (through the visual cortex), but our nervous and ever-watchful amygdala still knows what's going on.  And since the limbic system largely functions subconsciously, it feels as if we had some kind of psychic awareness of something we didn't actually see.

Meaning that once again, we have a rational explanation (two, actually) of something that seems like it must be paranormal.  In other words: science wins again.  I have to wonder if something like this might be responsible for some other perceptual oddities, such as déjà vu, about which I have been curious for years but never seen a particularly convincing explanation.

In any case, it's something to keep in mind, for next time you're in a crowded restaurant and you see someone across the room staring at you.  It could be that your amygdala just went onto red alert.  It could also be that people are looking at you because you're drop-dead sexy.  You're welcome to go with whichever explanation you prefer.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The geography of belief

When I first read Richard Dawkins's fiery and controversial diatribe The God Delusion, one of the points he made that struck me the most strongly is that religion is for the most part dependent not on its adherents choosing a particular schema of belief because of its appeal or its inherent logic, but because of simple geography.  Dawkins writes:
If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents.  If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.
Dawkins's point is that this is a strong indicator that specific religions are held by their followers not because of choice, but primarily because of cultural and familial traditions.  There are adult converts, of course, who are choosing a belief system, but most people who are religious belong to the dominant faith in the place where they live.  (In fact, a Pew Research poll just released last week estimates the percentage of Christians who are in the faith because of conversion as adults as less than 6%.)  In other words, for most religious people, they believe it's true not because they were convinced by the evidence, but because it's what they were told by the people around them when they were children.


And now, a team led by Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Alexa M. Tulett of the University of Alabama has shown that the same thing is true of political beliefs.

In a paper in PLOS-One called "The Political Reference Point: How Geography Shapes Political Identity," Feinberg et al. looked at the spectrum of political stances regionally, and whether geography correlates with not only party affiliation but how terms like "conservative" and "liberal" are defined.  The authors write:
It is commonly assumed that how individuals identify on the political spectrum–whether liberal, conservative, or moderate–has a universal meaning when it comes to policy stances and voting behavior.  But, does political identity mean the same thing from place to place?  Using data collected from across the U.S. we find that even when people share the same political identity, those in “bluer” locations are more likely to support left-leaning policies and vote for Democratic candidates than those in “redder” locations.  Because the meaning of political identity is inconsistent across locations, individuals who share the same political identity sometimes espouse opposing policy stances.  Meanwhile, those with opposing identities sometimes endorse identical policy stances.  Such findings suggest that researchers, campaigners, and pollsters must use caution when extrapolating policy preferences and voting behavior from political identity, and that animosity toward the other end of the political spectrum is sometimes misplaced.
Which makes it all the more interesting how fervently people believe they're correct on political matters.  Just as with religion, a person in rural Kansas who grew up staunchly conservative would likely have grown up liberal had he been raised in San Francisco.

The problem with this argument, though, is that this doesn't fix the problem that most people see their own beliefs as based on sound, well-considered thought, and everyone else's as based on indoctrination.  Instead of recognizing that all of us are more a product of our regional culture than of any kind of systematic examination of our own moral, ethical, and political matrix, it's easier (and on a lot of levels, more comforting) for the rural Kansas conservative to say, "Of course if I was raised in San Francisco I'd be liberal.  I'd have been brainwashed by the damn left wing Democrats before I had a chance to form my own opinions."  (And vice versa, of course.)

So I'm not sure where the research of Feinberg et al., and even the observations of Dawkins about religion, get us.  All of us still tend to cling like mad to our own preconceived notions (and I am very definitely including myself in that "all of us").  But if this line of thought can persuade some of us to re-examine our beliefs, and consider the extent to which we were shaped not by evidence, logic, or rational argument but by geography and family influences, it might be a first step toward not only helping us to think as clearly as possible, but understanding those of us whose beliefs differ from ours.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Unwinding the spell

If there's one thing I understand least about the whole sad spectacle of the Trump administration, it's the fact of his being embraced so warmly (and staunchly) by evangelical Christians.

Okay, I see how they'd have been put off by Hillary Clinton's pro-choice stance.  That, for many of them, is a real non-negotiable.  But most of these people are the same ones who call themselves "values voters" -- who, for example, pitched a fit when Bill Clinton got a blowjob while in office.  And somehow, these same people are able to look past Trump's serial adultery, admissions of sexual harassment if not outright rape, continual lying, and unwavering focus on money (the love of which, I seem to recall, the bible calls "the root of all evil").

In fact, they are able to look past all of this so much that just last week, Trump was the commencement speaker at Liberty University, which shares with Bob Jones University the moniker "The Buckle on the Bible Belt."  Liberty University was founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell, who also founded the Moral Majority back in the late 70s, and it's run today by Falwell's son, Jerry Jr. -- who called Trump "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again."


So Trump gave a speech that talked up how wonderful and religious he was, and how he'd Make America Great Again, conveniently glossing over the current horrific chaos he's led our government into during the last few weeks.  Here is an excerpt:
Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures.  Does that sound familiar, by the way?  Relish the opportunity to be an outsider.  Embrace that label.  Being an outsider is fine.  Embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.  The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead...  As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what is in your heart...  In America, we don’t worship government.  We worship God.
At this point, I'd have leaped up and shouted, "Define we, buster!"  But apparently most of the Liberty University graduates simply smiled and nodded -- in fact, one of them commented afterwards that Trump had given a "kickass speech."

Not everyone was so positive, however.  Twitter erupted in a storm of tweets, many of them from Christians who are outraged by the fact that a man whose most outstanding characteristic is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in one person has somehow become a spokesperson for the political arm of evangelical Christianity.

Here are a few of the most acerbic comments:
  • Funny that Trump is speaking at Liberty University, a religious institute of higher education, since he is neither religious nor educated.
  • "Trump’s ‘Christian faith" is the worst of his lies.  There isn’t a shred of Christ in him.  Liberty University should call him out, not welcome him.
  • Trump speaking at Liberty University — two words his very existence shits on.
  • In Trump's Liberty University commencement speech, he'll explain how to grab 'em by the cat parts and then become president.
  • With Trump University and Liberty University degrees, you can be a preacher with a casino and three wives and date your daughter.
  • Trump at Liberty University: Lie, lie, lie until you succeed.
Which is it exactly.  The only conclusion I can come to is that people like Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Jim Bakker, and Ralph Reed are supporting Trump for one reason and one reason only; they're rich, powerful men, and under a Trump presidency they're convinced they'll become richer and more powerful.  In other words, they don't give a rat's ass for values or morals, and never have.  All they care about is expanding their own empires, and they believe that hitching their wagon to Donald Trump will further that aim.

Which is kind of pathetic, because it means that they share another characteristic with Trump: the capacity for bald-faced lies.  They have their congregations, followers, and listeners hoodwinked into thinking that they are actually committed to moral behavior.  And somehow, they've succeeded in that deception, given the fortunes they've amassed (mostly due to contributions from their flock), and the power they wield in the religious world.

Lie, lie, lie until you succeed.  The same as Trump himself.

I keep hoping that the truly moral Christians -- which, I believe, are the vast majority -- will wake up and recognize the man they're following for the egomaniacal, sociopathic narcissist he actually is.  But there, we have the sunk-cost fallacy working against us; so many of them have put so much time and effort into supporting Trump and seeing that he got elected president, that to backpedal now would be agonizing.  

But I don't see any other way that our nation can get out of the slow-motion train wreck it's currently involved in.

The whole thing puts me in mind of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his book The Great Divorce:
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.  A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.  Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good.  Time does not heal it.  The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, 'with backward mutters of dissevering power' -- or else not.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A tincture of madness

As a fiction writer, I have an understandable interest in the neuroscience of creativity.  It's a difficult field to study; getting people to be creative while simultaneously scanning their brains can be tricky.

Now, five researchers at Johns Hopkins have been able to do just that.  A recent paper in Nature by
Malinda J. McPherson, Frederick S. Barrett, Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, Patpong Jiradejvong, and Charles J. Limb entitled "Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians" has shown that creativity requires the interaction between several disparate regions of the brain -- including the ones connected with both negative and positive emotions.

What the researchers did is to take twelve jazz pianists and instruct them to improvise a piece based on emotional cues they got from a photograph of a woman with either a happy, neutral, or sad expression.  They then played their piece while in a fMRI machine, thus giving the scientists a view of what was happening in their brains as they created.

The researchers found there was a distinct difference in the patterns of brain activation depending upon the emotional content of the music the pianists were creating.  The authors write:
[T]his study shows that the impulse to create emotionally expressive music may have a basic neural origin: emotion modulates the neural systems involved in creativity, allowing musicians to engage limbic centers of their brain and enter flow states.  The human urge to express emotions through art may derive from these widespread changes in limbic, reward, and prefrontal areas during emotional expression.  Within jazz improvisation, certain emotional states may open musicians to deeper flow states or more robust stimulation of reward centers.  The creative expression of emotion through music may involve more complex mechanisms by which the brain processes emotions, in comparison to perception of emotion alone. 
More darkly, there's long been a supposed connection between being highly creative and being mentally ill.  The list of individuals who were both is a long one. Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Ravel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Vincent van Gogh, and Robert Schumann all suffered from varying degrees of mental problems, most of them from clinical depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.  More than one of these spent the last years of life in a mental institution, and more than one committed suicide.

"The only difference between myself and a madman," Salvador Dalí famously quipped, "is that I am not mad."  Two thousand years earlier, the Roman writer Seneca said, "There is no genius without a tincture of madness."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This, too, has been studied from a neuroscience perspective. A Swedish researcher has demonstrated that Seneca was right; there is a fundamental connection between creativity and mental illness.   Fredrik Ullén, of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, found a significant connection between creativity and the dopamine (pleasure/reward) system in the brain, which is the same system that is implicated in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and tendency to addiction.

Ullén administered a test that was designed to measure a subject's capacity for creative thinking -- for developing more than one solution to the same problem, or using non-linear solution methods to arrive at an answer.  He then analyzed the brain activity of the individuals who scored the highest, and found that across the board, they had lower amounts of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the thalamus -- one of the main "switchboards" in the higher brain, and responsible for sorting and processing sensory stimuli.

The implication is that creative people don't have as rigid a sorting mechanism as other, less creative people -- that having a built-in deficiency in your relay system may help you to arrive at solutions to problems that others might not have seen.

The connection between the thalamus, creativity, and sorting issues is supported by a different bit of brain research that found that a miswiring of the thalamus is implicated in another bizarre mental disorder, called synesthesia.  In synesthesia, signals from the sensory organs are misrouted to the incorrect interpretive centers in the cerebrum, and an auditory signal (for example) might be received in the visual cortex.  As a result, you would "see sounds."  Other senses can be crosswired, however -- the seminal study of the disorder is described in Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthsia is apparently also much more common among the creative.  Alexander Scriabin, the early 20th century Russian composer, wrote his music as much from how it looked to him as how it sounded.  He describes a sensation of color being overlaid on what he was actually seeing when he heard specific combinations of notes.  The colors were consistent; C# minor, for example, was always green, Eb major always magenta.  And although Alexander Scriabin's synesthesia was perhaps the most intense, he is not the only composer who was synesthetic; the evidence is strong that Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien also had this same miswiring.

The study by Ullén seems to point toward connecting these physiological manifestations with the phenomenon of creativity itself.  "Thinking outside the box," Ullén said, "may be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."

So the whole thing is, as you might expect, quite complex.  Creativity, apparently, involves not only the interaction between emotional and cognitive regions of the brain, but between separate cognitive and perceptual modules.  The next time someone asks me where I get the ideas for my novels, however, I'm not sure I want to go into all of this.  I'll probably just stick with my tried-and-true response, which is to smile and say, "I was dropped on my head as an infant."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Music of the spheres

When I went to graduate school, I think the most surprising thing for me was that we were supposed to think creatively about science.  While I had, for the most part, excelled in my science classes in high school and college, they had mostly required me only to master concepts and then be able to demonstrate my mastery on an exam.  I had never had to synthesize, put ideas together in a novel way, apply concepts from one field in an entirely different one.  Nor had I been expected to critique ideas or arguments; I had merely been expected to understand them.

So my leap into the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Washington was a bit of a rude awakening, and was (on the whole) kind of a failure.  I was not, at that point in my life, prepared intellectually for the challenge of applying scientific ideas in a creative way, largely because I'd never had any practice in doing so.

No wonder, then, that I lasted exactly one semester in the School of Oceanography

I have since come to appreciate the role of creativity, lateral "outside of the box" thinking, and pure cleverness in approaching scientific questions.  I still suspect I wouldn't be very good at it -- on the whole, I think it was a good decision to leave the educational track headed toward research -- but at least I understand now that in science, the capacity for creative synthesis is as important as pure knowledge.

I ran into an especially good example of that yesterday, in a field that has always been a source of fascination for me; the study of exoplanets.  There have thus far been over a thousand exoplanets discovered, with new ones being reported all the time.  The most exciting part is when one is found that is in the "Goldilocks Zone" (not too hot, not too cold, juuuuuussst right), where liquid water can exist, and therefore where life is thought to be far more likely.

One of the most exciting planetary systems so far discovered is called "Trappist-1," and is about forty light years from Earth.  Trappist-1 has no less than seven Earth-sized planets, at least a few of which are thought to be in the habitable zone.  But the coolest thing about the Trappist-1 system is that an astrophysicist has explained the relative rates of revolution of the seven planets...

... using principles of harmony in music.

Artist's conception of the Trappist-1 system [image courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope and NASA/JPL]

What's funny about this is that famed astronomer Johannes Kepler nearly drove himself insane trying to show that the orbits of the planets in our Solar System were connected somehow to the "five Platonic solids" -- cube, octahedron, tetrahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron -- thereby proving that there was some divine order in the heavens rather than (as it appeared) the planets all orbiting at different distances in a seemingly random fashion.  He wrote a book called the Mysterium Cosmographicum (Secret of the Universe) elaborating on this theory.  (Kepler had evidently never heard that Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit, because the full title of his book is 46 words long, which is why everyone just calls it the Mysterium Cosmographicum.)

In any case, Kepler's attempt at forcing the Solar System into a pattern based on the five Platonic solids was a complete flop, and it was only after he abandoned this idea that he made the discovery for which he became famous -- that planets travel in ellipses, not circles, and that regardless of the distance they are from the Sun, their orbits sweep out equal areas in equal times.

In a discovery that would have warmed the cockles of Kepler's heart, a team of astronomers, led by Daniel Tamayo of the University of Toronto-Scarborough, just published a paper last week in Astrophysical Journal Letters suggesting that while the orbits of planets have nothing to do with the five Platonic solids, they do have something to do with the phenomenon of resonance -- when the oscillation of one body influences the oscillation of another.  Tamayo found that the seven planets around Trappist-1 are in stable orbits because they are in a resonance pattern that resembles the relationships between frequencies of notes in a chord.  For example, the second planet in the system completes five orbits in the time taken for the innermost planet to make eight; the fourth planet makes two revolutions every time the third one makes three; and so on.  The combined effect of this is to make the entire system operate in a regular, predictable fashion.

The coolest part of this is that Tamayo turned the periods of revolution for all seven planets into musical notes, with the relationships between the pitches representing the ratios between the period length.  You can hear his recording of the musical representation of the Trappist-1 system at the link above.

You'll be listening to the actual music of the spheres.

"I think Trappist is the most musical system we'll ever discover," said Matt Russo, who is a member of Tamayo's team as well as being a musician, and who designed computer simulations of planetary systems in musical resonance (and ones that were not) to see if they remained stable over time.

Tamayo compared resonance in a planetary system to musicians in an orchestra.  "It's not enough for members merely to keep time," he said.  "Simulating the formation of a system in its birth disk is analogous to an orchestra tuning itself before playing.  When we create these harmonized systems, we find that the majority survive for as long as we run our supercomputer simulations."

So there you have it; a melding of music and astrophysics.  I find myself in awe of this sort of research, mostly because I can't imagine my coming up with an idea this creative myself.  So maybe it's best I decided on teaching and writing as a career.  I may not have much of a facility for connecting disparate concepts myself, but I certainly love to tell others about the delightful research of people who do.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

An anodyne against despair

Yesterday, I was discussing with one of my colleagues how important it is to find things that lift your spirit.  The world has been replete with dismal news lately, and it's all too easy to decide that everything's hopeless -- to become either cynical or despondent.  I know I have to fight that tendency myself, especially considering the topics I frequently address here at Skeptophilia.

It's essential to take a moment, every so often, to step back and recognize that however terrible current events have been, there is still great love, compassion, and wonder in the world.  So I thought I'd take a day off from the continual stream of WTF that the news has become, and consider a few examples of what beauty we humans are capable of.  Think of it as an anodyne against despair, a way to inoculate yourself against losing hope.

Dalai Lama Mandala I, pen/ink/watercolor, by Carol Bloomgarden [image used with permission]

First, take a look at this video by the Dutch artist Thijme Termaat.  He spent two and a half years creating a progressive set of paintings, condensed it into a three-minute video, set it to a piece from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, and named it Timelapse.  Take three minutes and be amazed.


When I was in Boston a while back, I went to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, and I lucked out and saw some work by the incredibly creative Rachel Perry Welty.  The piece that absolutely captivated me was a twelve-minute video called Karaoke Wrong Number, wherein she took four years' worth of voicemail messages she'd received by accident (i.e., the person had called her number but thought they were leaving a message to someone else entirely), and lip synced to them.  I stood there and watched the entire piece three times in a row -- it's mesmerizing.  The incredible thing about it is that she's able to shift her facial expression and body language to match the voice and message of the person -- it's funny, wry, and at times absolutely uncanny, and illustrates Welty's sheer creative genius.  (You can watch a five-minute clip from it at the link above.)

If you don't mind crying, take a look at Kseniya Simonova's stupendous feat of drawing in sand on a light box that brought the whole audience to tears in Ukraine's Got Talent.  It shows the effect of the German invasion on the people of Ukraine during World War II, and packs an emotional punch like nothing I've ever seen before.



If after that, you want to see something that is pure whimsy to cheer you up, you need to watch the amazing musical marble machine created by Martin Molin of the Swedish band Wintergatan.  Molin created a wild Rube Goldberg machine, powered by a hand crank and 2,000 marbles, that plays a tune he wrote.  It's one of those things that you watch, and you just can't quite believe it's real.


If you want to blow your mind further, have a look at this short little video showing one of the crazy three-dimensional sculptures of Japanese mathematician and artist Kokichi Sugihara.  Sugihara specializes in creating optical illusions out of paper -- in this case, a structure that seems to induce marbles to roll uphill.  The weird thing to me is that even when he shows you how it's done -- which he does, about halfway through -- I still can't see it any other way.  It's so cleverly done that my brain simply can't handle it.


Last, for sheer exuberance -- if you're like me, it'll make you laugh and cry at the same time -- check out the short film "Where in the Hell Is Matt?", made by Matt Harding.  Harding set out to film himself dancing in as many different spots on Earth as he could get to, often joined by children, adults, and dogs, all simply expressing how wonderful it is to be alive.  It's set to the heart-wrenchingly gorgeous song "Praan" by Garry Schyman.  The music and the spirit of Harding's project could not blend together more perfectly.


So there you are.  Even when things are bad, people are still creating beautiful, funny, and whimsical things.  They still care about bringing joy into the world, despite the constant barrage of pain, discouragement, and bad news we're subjected to on a daily basis.  I don't know about you, but when I see things like this, it reminds me that humanity isn't as hopeless as it may seem at times.  It recalls the last lines of the beautiful poem "Desiderata," by Max Ehrmann, which never fails to bring me to tears, and which seems like a good place to conclude:
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. 
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.  You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. 
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.  Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.  And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.  With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Weasels in charge

In case you still needed something about the current state of affairs in the United States to be distressed about, two days ago the Trump administration announced the firing of the majority of the members of the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Review Board.

This board is exactly what it sounds like; it's made up of actual research scientists who have the academic background to evaluate environmental policy and make sure it's based on reliable research.  But that, apparently, is no longer the focus.  Now, the only thing that matters is whether policy is based on what's best for industry.

Especially the fossil fuels industry.

J. P. Friere, spokesperson for EPA chief Scott Pruitt, was up front about it.  "The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the implication of regulations on the regulated community."

"Deregulation" is, of course, a euphemism for "giving carte blanche to the corporations to do whatever they damn well please."  Don't consider air and water quality; don't consider standards for protecting the ecosystems; don't even consider whether the industry in question is reasonable or sustainable.  Hell, Pruitt himself has made a point of visiting several coal mines and has promised to restore coal mining to its former prominence -- never mind that besides the danger to coal miners and the communities near mines, and the environmental damage, the rising market share of natural gas and renewable energy makes it nearly impossible that coal will ever regain its status as a viable energy commodity.

I.e., Pruitt is lying.  But that's becoming status quo for this administration.  In fact, it's beginning to seem like the best way not to get hired by Trump or his cronies is to tell the truth.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And it should come as no surprise that the person behind the dismissal of the Scientific Review Board is none other than Lamar Smith, who is the odds-on favorite for winning the Congressional Corporate Stooge of the Year award.  This is the same man who is funded by the fossil fuels industry, is hand-in-glove with the climate-change-denying Heartland Institute, and was responsible last year for the harassment of any government employees involved in making sure that legitimate science was used to drive policy.  With no apparent sense of irony, Smith said, "In recent years, Science Advisory Board experts have become nothing more than rubber stamps who approve all of the EPA's regulations.  The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government.  The conflict of interest here is clear."

How he could accuse someone else of conflicts of interest without being struck by lightning, I have no idea.  But that's what he did.  With a straight face, unless you count the obnoxious smirk he always wears.

Worst of all, they're getting away with it.  Pruitt and Smith are planning on hiring replacements for the fired members who are industry- and deregulation-friendly.  The message is, don't base policy on science, or even on what is good for American citizens; base it on whatever pours the most money into the pockets of corporate interests.

What is happening right now in Washington DC is going to take years to repair, if it's repairable at all.  We are at a tipping point with respect to a lot of things; climate change, biodiversity loss, air quality, collapse of fisheries.  Throwing away the regulations -- which were our last, best hope for mitigating some of the damage our species has caused -- is sure to push us past the point of no return.

Not that Smith and Pruitt care.  In their view, short-term profits and political expediency never take second seat to caring for the environment that is keeping us alive in the long term.  Especially when Donald Trump has put weasels in charge of the hen house.

I honestly don't know how these people can sleep at night.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Subversion, suppression, and dissent

Of all the worrisome trends I'm seeing in the world in general, and the United States in particular -- and there are a lot to choose from -- what has me the most freaked out is the move toward intolerance of dissent and suppression of free speech.

Let's see what we have, just in the past week:
  • The Justice Department prosecuted journalist Desiree Fairooz for laughing at a particularly absurd thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during his confirmation hearing.  Fairooz was found guilty and is now facing a possible one-year prison term.  For laughing.
  • The FCC has launched an investigation of Stephen Colbert for his acerbic comments about President Donald Trump, which included a statement that "the only thing Donald Trump's mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's cock-holster."  Colbert is likely to be fined for obscenity.
  • Across the Atlantic, Stephen Fry is under investigation by Irish authorities on charges of blasphemy -- which yes, is still a punishable offense in Ireland.  Fry was being interviewed, and was asked by the interviewer what he would say to God if he had the chance.  (Fry is a prominent and outspoken atheist.)  Fry responded, "I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’  How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault.  It’s not right.  It’s utterly, utterly evil.  Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"  A complaint was lodged against Fry, and if convicted he could face a fine of €25,000.
  • In Saudi Arabia, yet another atheist has been sentenced to death simply for being open about his beliefs.  Unless the courts intervene -- and it is unlikely that they will do so, given that Saudi King Abdullah declared atheists to be terrorists three years ago -- some time in the next few weeks Ahmad Al-Shamri is likely to be taken out into Deera Square in Riyadh, forced to his knees, and publicly beheaded with a sword.  Despite this, the Saudis are still our staunch allies, and (with no apparent awareness of irony) are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
And that's just in the last week.  The trend is increasingly toward jailing (or worse) anyone who speaks up, anyone who holds unpopular opinions, and (especially) anyone who ridicules the people in power.  As Voltaire put it, "To learn who is actually in power, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."

At the same time, there is a huge push by the people who are on top to consolidate that power -- in part, by giving the impression that because there is dissent, they are the persecuted ones.  Here are a few recent examples of that:
  • Ken Ham, the science-denying founder of Answers in Genesis and the driving force behind the "Ark Encounter" theme park, got his knickers in a twist over the demand by American Atheists spokesperson Amanda Knief that a bench with a plaque saying "Men who will not be governed by God will be governed by tyrants" be removed from government property.  But replacing it with a plain old secular bench?  That, to Ham, is a direct slap in the face to Christians everywhere.  "Atheists don't want freedom of religion," Ham snarled.  "They want freedom from Christianity.  They want their religion only in public... Atheists, like many against free speech, are intolerant & bullying people with their religion to remove Christian symbols...  I encourage people to educate the public that atheism is a religion, an anti-God intolerant religion out to impose their religion on culture."
  • Lizette Franklin, of Kinross, Scotland, has launched a campaign against UK discount store Poundland for a promotion called "OMG," that puts the acronym on signs for price reductions.  Poundland says it stands for "Oh my goodness," but Franklin isn't buying it, and is trying to get Christians to boycott the store.  "To me it expresses the name of the Lord and can be taken as disrespectful," Franklin said.  "If it was to mean 'Oh My Goodness' they should have written it out...  I am an absolute fan of the store.  But when I saw this I was really in shock.  It was as if the name of the Lord has been made fun of and disrespected all over the store.  It is as if the name of the Lord was being used in vain to promote prices and this is revolting to say the least.  This is disrespectful to us as Christians and should be removed at once."
  • State Representative Rick Saccone of Pennsylvania, who recently announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, has said that he was motivated to run for office because "God has set out a plan for us.  He wants godly men and women in all aspects of life.  He wants people who will rule with the fear of God in them to rule over us.  And if they don’t, then the evil side will take over and the government will control and run over the good people and so they have to stand up, that’s just part of it.  If you don’t have good people in government, then you’ll have bad people in government—and when bad people are reigning over us, the people will not be happy."  You may recall Saccone as the fellow who in 2012 sponsored a bill, which was ultimately (and fortunately) unsuccessful, to call that year "The National Year of the Bible" and to have "In God We Trust" posted prominently in all public schools.  Because, apparently, having it on our currency is simply not enough.
And so forth.  The general sense is that just being free to believe what you want is not sufficient; the symbols and slogans of that belief have to be everywhere, both private and public, or "religious freedom" is being trampled on.  Free speech is also great -- as long as that free speech doesn't criticize or ridicule the dominant paradigm.

There can be no challenge to the hegemony of the ones in power.

This, however, is the ideology of fascism.  If you can't criticize the government, if examining ideas is characterized as blasphemy, if (especially) the people in charge are convinced that they are ruling because it's the will of God -- you've taken a dangerous step toward totalitarianism.

We who believe in actual free speech can't let ourselves be cowed.  It's time to take some chances and risk vocal dissent.  We can't let the people running the governments in the world think that just because they can silence someone's voice, they've won.  


I'll end with a quote from George R. R. Martin, who put the words in the mouth of his iconic character Tyrion Lannister.  "If you tear out a man's tongue, you are not proving him wrong.  You are only showing the world that you fear what he might say."