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.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dog days

As I mentioned in my last post, I have two dogs.  First we have Grendel:

Grendel is a very mixed breed.  We think that in his ancestry he has some boxer, pug, German shepherd, and (given his general build) potato.

And in case you were wondering: no, he's not a bit spoiled.

Then we have Lena:

Lena always has this chipper, alert expression, which we didn't realize until we got her home was her way of expressing the concept, "Derp."  She's one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met, but also possibly the dumbest.  She has been known to stare at a stuffed toy on a shelf for 45 minutes straight, presumably because she thought it was a squirrel, or possibly because she was simply interested in interacting with something that was on her intellectual level.

So we're totally dog people.  They're a nuisance sometimes, make a lot of noise, and a lot of the past twenty years has been one long series of carpet stains.  But we love 'em, and honestly, I can't imagine living without at least one dog.

This comes up because of two academic papers that I ran into last week that shed interesting light on dog behavior.  In the first, by a team led by Biagio d'Aniello of the University of Naples, we find out that dogs actually can smell fear -- but it doesn't make them attack, it makes them scared, too.

The authors write:
Do human body odors (chemosignals) produced under emotional conditions of happiness and fear provide information that is detectable by pet dogs (Labrador and Golden retrievers)?  The odor samples were collected from the axilla of male donors not involved in the main experiment.  The experimental setup involved the co-presence of the dog’s owner, a stranger and the odor dispenser in a space where the dogs could move freely.  There were three odor conditions [fear, happiness, and control (no sweat)] to which the dogs were assigned randomly.  The dependent variables were the relevant behaviors of the dogs (e.g., approaching, interacting and gazing) directed to the three targets (owner, stranger, sweat dispenser) aside from the dogs’ stress and heart rate indicators.  The results indicated with high accuracy that the dogs manifested the predicted behaviors in the three conditions.  There were fewer and shorter owner directed behaviors and more stranger directed behaviors when they were in the “happy odor condition” compared to the fear odor and control conditions.  In the fear odor condition, they displayed more stressful behaviors.  The heart rate data in the control and happy conditions were significantly lower than in the fear condition.  Our findings suggest that interspecies emotional communication is facilitated by chemosignals.
Which certainly squares with what I've observed in my own dogs, especially Grendel, who is (and I say this with all due affection) a great big coward.  Just last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to a pack of coyotes howling nearby, and Grendel (who was sleeping in bed with me because my wife is currently away at an art show, and that's how we both cope with her being gone) jerked awake, whimpered, and then snuggled up closer to me.  The message was clear: "Protect me from the big mean wild dogs."  Presumably he knew that the big mean wild dogs were outside and he was in the house, but he still engaged in the horizontal equivalent of hiding behind my legs.

Then there was the study by Juliane Kaminski et al. of the University of Portsmouth, wherein we find out that dogs don't just pick up on our emotions; they manipulate them toward their own ends.  The "puppy dog eyes" we get from our dogs are reserved for their human companions -- and, as I've suspected for ages, they use 'em in a completely calculated fashion to get attention and treats from us.

The experiment studied 24 family dogs, who were tested with and without their owners, and also when the owners were watching them and when the owners were present but turned away from them.  And they found that dogs produce a much greater range of facial expressions when their owners are looking at them.

"Domestic dogs have a unique history," Kaminski said.  "They have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs' ability to communicate with us.  We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is - in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human's eyes were closed or they had their back turned.  In another study, we found dogs follow the gaze of a human if the human first establishes eye contact with the dog, so the dog knows the gaze-shift is directed at them."

This behavior is remarkably sophisticated, Kaminski said.  "We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited.  In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching, but seeing food treats did not have the same effect.  The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans' attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays."

Which again squares with my experience.  I know that both of my dogs turn on the charm when they want something, and know I'm watching.  When I'm busy writing and Grendel wants attention, he comes quietly into my office and puts his chin on my leg, then just waits.  Sometimes I try to ignore him, but inevitably I look down and make eye contact, and he starts wagging, because he knows he's won.

Making me wonder sometimes who trained whom.  

Lena is at least a little more subtle.  When she wants us to notice her, she adopts what my wife and I have called her "splat pose" -- flat on the floor on her belly, legs splayed out, her long floppy ears stretched straight out from the side of her head -- a position that makes her look like she was dropped from a considerable height.  Then she stares at us with her liquid brown eyes until we give her what she wants, which is typically either food, an ear skritch, or a stuffed toy to have a philosophical conversation with.

So it's nice to know that we're not the only ones being played by our pets.  In the long haul, though, I doubt it'll change our behavior.  They're just too good at what they do.  In fact, I have to wind this up, because Grendel is currently staring at me.  I'd better go see what he wants, or he'll resort to his "Sad Eyes And Furrowed Brow" tactic, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saturday shorts

It's been a busy week here at Skeptophilia headquarters.  Our staff (me, my main dog Grendel, and Grendel's comical sidekick Lena the WonderHound) have been hard at work keeping you up to date on the latest from the Wide World of Woo-Woo.

Well, at least I have.  At the moment, Grendel is snoring on his bed in my office, and Lena is derping around outside.  I don't hear her barking at the moment, which is good, because she has been known to bark at:
  • squirrels
  • birds
  • farm equipment, which is a problem because we live next to a farm
  • our pond's resident snapping turtle, whom my wife has christened "Mitch McConnell"
  • the wind
  • a particularly threatening-looking stick
  • her own reflection
So maybe she's not that useful, after all.

But while the dogs have been wasting time, I've been combing the internet for current news stories, and I found three things that you definitely will want to know about.

First, we have the discovery of some strange stone structures in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.  Four hundred of them have been found on the ancient lava plain Harrat Khaybar, and they've been christened "gates" because that's what they look like from the air, although their actual function is unknown.

Well, there's nothing like "mysterious stone structures" to get the woo-woos going, and we're already seeing speculation that they may have been the foundations of temples or landing strips for ancient aliens.  Me, I find the latter a little far-fetched, because as you can see in the above aerial photograph, the "gates" are laid out in a vaguely rectangular fashion, which is a stupid way to design an alien landing strip since spaceships generally don't corner all that well.

I'd also recommend a little bit of caution in investigating these structures, because the desert wastes of Saudi Arabia are where the Nameless City was located in the historical document of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft, wherein ye Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred found the cursed book of ancient magic, the Necronomicon.  And considering all the trouble that caused in later historical documents such as "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," maybe we really shouldn't go poking around there, or we might wake up That Which Is Not Dead And Can Eternal Lie.

Which would suck.

Then we have a story from central California that was spotted by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, wherein we learn that photographs have been taken of not one, not two, but five Bigfoots.  The photographer, Jeffrey Gonzales, a "self-described paranormal expert," tells quite a tale of his encounter.  He'd heard about the creatures from a farmer who lives on Avocado Lake, east of Fresno, and went to investigate.  Once he got there, the creatures were easy to find. "One of them, which was extremely tall, had a pig over its shoulder," Gonzalez said.  "And the five scattered and the one with the pig was running so fast it didn’t see an irrigation pipe and it tripped, with the pig flying over."

Which gives new meaning to the phrase "when pigs fly."  But Gonzales kept his presence of mind and fired off some photographs.  Fortunately, he remembered to put his camera on auto-blur, because this is one of the results:

Which to me only proves one thing, namely, if your photograph is grainy enough, you can find anything in it.  In fact, if you'll look immediately to the right of the Bigfoot, you'll see a huge screaming creature with hollow eyes and a gaping, round mouth.

See it?  It's a wonder the Bigfoot wasn't running for his life, with that thing around.

Last, it wouldn't be a normal week without a new conspiracy theory, and this one is a doozy:

When Melania Trump appears in public, it's not actually Melania, it's a body double.

Twitter user Andrea Wagner Barton is absolutely certain about this, and points to a video clip in which President Trump was speaking to reporters about the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and made the statement, "My wife, Melania, who happens to be right here."  Barton thought this was odd, and tweeted the following:
Will the real Melania please stand up?
Is it me or during his speech today a decoy “stood in” for Melania??
Why would the moron say “my wife, Melania, who happens to be right here...”
Seriously, watch very closely!
I did, and as far as I can tell, it's Melania.  On the other hand, that's what I would say, given that I'm probably a conspirator myself.  The conspiracy theorists disagree, however, and say that Melania hasn't been Melania for some time now.  Especially in the highly publicized video clip from Inauguration Day where her smile turned into a scowl, and the one in which the president tries to take her hand and she swats it away.

Of course, there are other explanations, such as Melania having more self-awareness than Donald does, which could also be said of many species of mollusk.  If I had to hang around with someone who made that number of cringe-worthy statements daily, I'd scowl too.

So that's our excursion in the deep end of the pool for this week.  Alien airstrips in the desert, Bigfoots carrying pigs, and FLOTUS body doubles.  I'm gonna wrap this up now, because Lena's just started barking, and I better go out and rescue her before she gets her nose bitten off by Mitch McConnell.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Mocking vs. smiting

A couple of days ago, televangelist Jim Bakker announced that he has it on good authority that god will smite anyone who makes fun of him.
When God says something to you, you don’t always know the exact time it’s going to happen.  [So] stop beating up the prophets because God says, "Woe unto you when you beat up on the prophets." 
God is speaking to his people.  The only ones who probably aren’t talking to God these days are mean people in America, people who just are anti-Christ. 
If you don’t want to hear it, just shut me off.  Especially you folks that monitor me every day to try to destroy me.  Just go away.  You don’t have to be there, you don’t have to hear it.  But one day, you’re going to shake your fist in God’s face and you’re going to say, "God, why didn’t you warn me?"  And He’s going say, "You sat there and you made fun of Jim Bakker all those years. I warned you but you didn’t listen."
What I find especially comical about all of this is that I have mocked Jim Bakker for years.  Here are a few of the things I've said about Bakker in various posts:
  • Is it too much to ask that people leave their bizarre mythology out of politics?  I mean, our political situation at the moment is surreal enough.  We don't need anything to make it more embarrassing to the world at large...  Which is a message that needs delivering to televangelist Jim Bakker.  Bakker hosted an interview with Robert Maginnis, of the Family Research Council, a far-right evangelical organization that was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 because of their stance on LGBT issues.  In the interview, Bakker opined that President Obama was showing his preference for Muslims by appointing Abid Qureshi to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (in Bakker's mind, "one out of hundreds of federal appointments" apparently constitutes a "preference").  [Afterwards, Bakker] made an even wackier pronouncement -- that our federal government is being controlled by witches.
  • [P]eople like Bakker and Wiles never let a little thing like reality interfere with their message...  Lying for Jesus, is how I see it...  [And this comes from] a guy who resigned from his first ministerial post because of a sex scandal (in which he offered to pay $279,000 to the victim to keep silent), and in a separate incident was imprisoned for five years on fraud and conspiracy charges.
  • Bakker himself said that by "blaspheming against Donald Trump," we're hastening the End Times.   Which, honestly, I can't say is a particular deterrent for me at the moment.  Considering the news lately, the Dragon With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns, the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons sound like a distinct improvement.
  • [Apropos of Bakker having a fit over Starbucks changing their holiday coffee cup design]  What strikes me about this tempest in a coffee cup is that these are, by and large, the same people who scream bloody murder about "political correctness" whenever someone objects to derogatory language being directed toward minorities, and yet they consider a change in a coffee cup design to be the moral equivalent of carpet-bombing Whoville.  So I guess their blathering about political correctness translates to "you can't take offense to anything I say, but I'm still entitled to get my panties in a twist over absolutely nothing."
So I haven't exactly been complimentary.  You'd think that if anyone has a target pasted on top of his head, it'd be me.

And yet, here I sit, unsmote.

Go ahead, Jimmy Boy, do your worst.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Bakker is constantly claiming that various awful events are due to god's wrath, most recently the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England during an Ariana Grande concert, which he said occurred because  concert-goers"literally invited the attack by mocking god."  Of course, since these claims are always made after the fact -- god never tips him off about a shooting or bombing or what-have-you before it happens, which is kind of odd if he's a "prophet" -- he can attribute them to any supernatural agency he wants, and there's no way to prove him wrong.  If he said that Hurricane Maria was caused by the god Lagomorphus, Who Doth Appear Unto Mankind As A Giant Bunny Rabbit, and that he triggered the storm by farting toward the south Atlantic, it's not like there's anything you could respond to effectively contradict him.

Other than science, logic, and common sense, of course.  But if you are fond of magical thinking, you've sort of abandoned those three in any case, so it's not like that'd do any good.

In any case, let me hereby make it clear:  Jim Bakker, I am officially mocking you.  You are a narrow-minded, hypocritical, bigoted, homophobic loon whose pronouncements are such a combination of weirdness and sheer nastiness that it's a wonder anyone still listens.  So there you are.  I invite you to use your connections to see to it that I get smote.  Who knows?  Maybe it'll happen.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Purging the experts

One of the political trends I understand least is the increasing distrust of scientists by elected officials.

It's not like this disparagement of experts is across the board.  When you're sick, and the doctor runs tests and diagnoses you with a sinus infection, you don't say, "I don't believe you.  My real estate agent told me it sounded like I had an ulcer, so I'm gonna go with that."  When you get on an airplane, you don't say to the pilot, "You damn elite aviation specialists, you're obviously biased because of your training.  I think you should hand over the controls to Farmer Bob, here."  When you have your car repaired, you wouldn't say to the mechanic, "I'm not going to do the repairs you suggest, because you have an obvious monetary interest in the car being broken.  I'll get a second opinion from my son's kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hinkwhistle, who is a disinterested party."

But that's how scientists are treated by politicians.  And it's gotten worse.  Just yesterday, Scott Pruitt, who is the de facto leader of the Environmental Protection Agency despite his apparent loathing of both the environment and the agency, announced that there was going to be a purge of scientists on EPA advisory boards.

"What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisers that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt said when he spoke to a group at the Heritage Foundation, an anti-environmental, pro-corporate lobby group.  "If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way."

Well, of course environmental scientists get funding from the EPA, you dolt.  One of the EPA's functions is providing grants for basic research in environmental science.  Saying that environmental scientists can't be on EPA advisory boards is a little like excluding doctors from being on medical advisory boards.

Can't have that, after all.  Those doctors are clearly biased to be in favor of policies that promote better health care services, because then they get money for providing those services.  Better populate the medical advisory boards with people who know nothing whatsoever about medicine.

Of course, I am morally certain that the purging of trained scientists from EPA advisory boards is not simply because of this administration's anti-science bent, although that clearly exists as well.  The fight between corporate stooges like Scott Pruitt and the scientific community stems from the fact that much of what the scientists are saying runs counter to economic expediency.  You know, such things as:
  • Climate change exists and is anthropogenic in origin
  • Dumping mining waste into streams and lakes is a bad idea
  • Corporations need strictures on the impact of what they do on the environment, because they have a poor track record of policing themselves
  • Reducing the allowable amounts of air pollutants improves air quality and eases such conditions as asthma and chronic bronchitis
  • Oil pipelines have a nasty habit of breaking and leading to damaging oil spills
  • It's a stupid idea to store pressurized natural gas in unstable underground salt caverns
All of which we environmental types -- by which I mean, people who would like future generations to have drinkable water, breathable air, and a habitable world -- have had to fight in the past year.  The Trump administration's approach to environmental policy is like the Hydra; you cut off one foul, pollution-emitting head, and it grows two more.

The whole thing is driven by a furious drive toward deregulation, which in turn comes out of unchecked corporate greed.  Jennifer Sass, senior scientist for the National Resources Defense Council, nailed it:  "Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health.  There’s a reason he won’t apply the same limits to scientists funded by corporate polluters.  Now the only scientists on Pruitt’s good list will be those with funding from polluters supporting Trump’s agenda to make America toxic again."

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, agreed.  Halpern said that if Pruitt succeeds in his purge, he "would be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment."

The problem is, stories like this get buried in the ongoing shitstorm that has characterized the leadership of the United States in the last ten months.  It's another Hydra, and people simply can't pay attention to all of the horrible news at the same time.  That's what they're counting on -- that with outrages over kneeling athletes and disrespect by the president of military widows and allegations of sexual impropriety, we'll just ignore the fact that while all this other stuff is happening, our leaders are gutting every protection the environment has gained in the last fifty years.

You'd think that with the natural disasters this year -- unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods -- we'd wise up and say, "You know, maybe it's time we started paying attention to the damage we've done."  But unfortunately, we're heading in exactly the opposite direction.  My fear is that by doing this, we're making the eventual backlash from the environment unstoppable.

And it would be a Pyrrhic victory, but I hope Scott Pruitt is around to watch it happen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Uncharted waters

There's a scuba diving site off the coast of Belize called the Blue Hole.  It's a circular limestone sinkhole in the middle of Lighthouse Reef.  You're swimming along in water that's 30 to 35 feet deep, and quite suddenly the bottom drops out from underneath you -- as you pass over the edge you get the feeling that you've been launched into space.  It's disorienting; there are accomplished divers who have reported that they couldn't quite bring themselves to swim over the edge.  The bottom is invisible, 480 feet beneath you, but the sensation is that there is no bottom, that the depths keep sinking away beneath you forever.

The Blue Hole [image courtesy of the USGS]

I had something of the intellectual version of that experience while searching for a topic for today's post.  On days when nothing in the news presents itself, I usually just snoop around online until something comes up.  The keywords "weird news" are usually fruitful in this regard, and within short order I had found a possibility -- a website about Cadborosaurus, a mythical dinosaur species that supposedly accounts for sea serpent sightings off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.  (At first I misread this as "Cadburysaurus" and wondered if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs, but sadly, this was not the case.)  But while I was reading about various sightings of the mysterious sea serpent, I was distracted by a link on the Cadborosaurus article to another site, which was called "Psychic Sasquatch Revisited."

Now, that sounded more interesting than sea serpents, so I clicked on the link.  I was brought to an article by a fellow named (I am so not making this up) Kewaunee Lapseritis, which to me sounds like the name of an obscure gastrointestinal disorder.  Lapseritis has written a new book, entitled The Sasquatch People and Their Interdimensional Connection, and the website acts as if this book is some kind of cross between Earth in the Balance, Chariots of the Gods, and the bible. Here's a brief excerpt from the preface, written by a guy named Christopher Murphy:
He [Kewaunee Lapseritis] elaborates on why they are humanoid beings and their purpose here is based on 32 years (out of the 55 years researching them) interacting with the giants (and ETs).  Kewaunee draws information from 187 witnesses who also experienced telepathic communication.  Quantum physics that describe the reality of mental telepathy, invisibility, inter-dimensionalism, and other PSI phenomena, actually juxtapose psychic Sasquatch and ET behavior.
Not only that: on this website you can purchase your very own SasqWatch, a wristwatch with a band shaped like a huge, hairy foot.

So I thought, "Wow, this is pretty fertile ground. Plus, I really enjoy saying 'Kewaunee Lapseritis.'  I bet I could make a blog post about this."  Then I noticed a link on that website for yet another website.  This link was entitled, "Mayastar: Pleiadian DNA Clearing." So I clicked on that, and was brought to a website for the "Mayastar Academy of Natural Healing and Spiritual Development."

Here is only the very first paragraph of their mission statement:
The Pleiadian DNA Clearing & Activation Attunement Programme is a series of 7 attunements facilitated by the Pleiadian Light Beings of the Star Alcyone.  These activations work on an etheric level to awaken and develop the full 12 strand DNA system that is the inheritance of all humans.  This awakens additional spiritual healing capacities and talents within us which can assist us and enhance our lives in many ways.  This system clears any blockages and activates the dormant elements of your DNA coding in order to fulfil [sic] the potential of your spiritual energetic blueprint.
Sort of spiritual Ex-Lax, is how I see it.  But maybe I only say this because I'm not a Pleiadian Light Being With Twelve-Stranded DNA. 

So unfortunately for me, I began to snoop around on the website.

I very quickly found out that to go through all of the nonsense on this website would take days -- there are books for sale, crystals (of course) for sale, instructions for mystical rituals regarding "focusing energy from Ancient Egypt and the Pyramids," courses on using Norse runes for divination, something called "Rainbow Sequence Healing Techniques," and... and... and enormous amounts of other stuff.  I know that sounds lame, but I was just overwhelmed.  I was faced with a source from which I literally had too much material to write a coherent post.  I think that was the point where my brain gave a little kick with the old mental scuba fins and zoomed right out over the edge of the Blue Hole.

I've made the statement before that the the credulousness of the public and the greed of the purveyors of sham worldviews seem to be boundless.  The bottom of that Blue Hole apparently doesn't exist.  I find it astonishing that anyone would look at this website, regardless of his/her level of education, background in science and critical thinking, or philosophical stance, and not guffaw and say, "wow, what a load of bullshit."  But evidently "Mayastar" is a successful business enterprise, to judge by the fact that the "Academy" has had over 700 students, and their website has been "liked" on Facebook over 2,000 times.

And that's what I mean about swimming out over the edge, and the disorientation that results.   Because after reading about Mayastar, I'm thinking that Kewaunee Lapseritis's studies of psychic communication with interdimensional quantum Bigfoots sound by comparison like they're pretty well grounded in reality.  And from there, it's only a short step to believing in Cadborosaurus, even if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weighty matters

Despite all of the daily litany of depressing and/or fury-inducing news, I'm pleased to say that the scientists are still hard at work showing us more of the internal workings of the universe, giving us better insights into the nature of the cosmos even as most of the rest of us focus on the minuscule doings of one species on a tiny planet around a completely ordinary star in the edge of a spiral galaxy that is one amongst billions.

Not to denigrate my fellow humans, of course.  I rather like being human, and I'm awfully fond of the little floating green-and-blue sphere where I live.  But it's nice to know that while we focus on our petty concerns, we have people who are looking outward, not downward.

The discovery I'm referencing is the observation by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of the collision of two neutron stars.  Neutron stars are the phenomenally dense cores of exploded giant stars; their matter is so compressed that, in the famous comparison, one teaspoon of neutron star-stuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

What is stunning about this observation isn't just the thought of what it would be like to see two such dense objects collide; in fact, the collision itself is just part of what's fascinating about this event.  Other amazing features are:
  • In the moments before the collision occurred, the two stars were circling their center of mass at a rate of a thousand times per second.
  • The collision not only created gravitational waves and a burst of light across the spectrum, it's thought that such events are what create a lot of the heavy elements in the periodic table.  So yes: the gold in your ring was very likely formed in a cosmic cataclysm.
  • It is possible that the combined mass of the two stars exceeded the mass limit for a neutron star, and after the collision the stars immediately vanished -- became a black hole.  That point isn't settled yet.
The coolest part of all of this, however, is that the light and the gravitational waves from the collision arrived at detectors at the same moment -- showing that gravitational waves do indeed travel at the speed of light, which is one of the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.  Put simply: Einstein wins again.  

If that doesn't put relativity into the "proven beyond a shadow of a doubt" column, I don't know what would.

The result was a flurry of papers being published, including one in Astrophysical Journal Letters that had 4,500 authors from 910 different institutions -- which surely must be some kind of record.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, who worked on the LIGO project, said, "I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe."

So maybe it's time to take a step back from the dreary ongoing march of political news and think a little bit more about the bigger picture.  I mean, the really big picture.  The one that encompasses the entire universe in which we live.  And now, because of a cataclysmic event 130 million light years away, one piece of which we are now able to view with greater clarity and understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Merry Christmas mandate

Last week, Donald Trump addressed the "Values Voter Summit," a group of people whose Values apparently include supporting a thrice-married serial philanderer whose main claim to fame is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in the same person.

Notwithstanding the mindblowing irony of someone like Trump addressing issues of morality, the Values Voters were wildly enthusiastic about the speech.  The part that got the most rousing round of applause was when he informed the Values Voters that he was going to make it legal to say "Merry Christmas" again:
America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.  George Washington said that “religion and morality are indispensable” to America’s happiness, really, prosperity and totally to its success.  It is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence -- four times.  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they're changing back again.  Just remember that...  Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to -- very, very beautifully -- “one nation under God...”  To protect religious liberty, including protecting groups like this one, I signed a new executive action in a beautiful ceremony at the White House on our National Day of Prayer, which day we made official.

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judaeo-Christian values...   And something I've said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don't talk about anymore.  They don't use the word "Christmas" because it's not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they'll say, "Happy New Year" and they'll say other things.  And it will be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say it.  Well, guess what?  We're saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"People don't talk about" Christmas any more?  Then explain to me why this year the department stores started putting up Christmas decorations in September.  And I'm going to say this loudly, one more time, as plainly as possible:

I know a lot of liberals, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and what-have-you.  And not a single one of them gives a flying rat's ass if you say "Merry Christmas" or not.  The only two things I have ever heard any of them gripe about, apropos of the Christmas season, are the following:
  1. Saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is polite because it's an acknowledgement that not everyone thinks like you do.  It's a way of saying, "I realize you may have a different set of beliefs, and that's okay."  It's not a slap in the face to Christians, it's not a way of belittling or eliminating Christmas from the national consciousness (hell, the retailers wouldn't let that happen anyhow), and for cryin' in the sink, it's not an "attack on Judaeo-Christian values."  It's simply saying, "I recognize that my beliefs and attitudes are not the center of the whole damn universe."
  2. For the same reasons outlined in #1, Christmas displays should not be put up at the expense of taxpayers.  No one has any objection to privately-owned businesses, much less homeowners, putting up Christmas displays using their own money.  Hell, I'm about as atheist as they come, and I don't care if you want to put up a Christmas display so garish that it interferes with air traffic and then stand on your roof wearing nothing but a Santa hat shouting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season!" at the top of your lungs.  Whatever floats your boat, you know?  But if you're using tax money -- i.e. money collected from all American citizens, regardless of their beliefs -- you shouldn't be putting up displays promoting one religion (or, honestly, any religion at all).
And the whole "America is a nation of believers" thing is more than a little troubling.  What does that imply?  That by not being a believer, I'm not an American?  Or that I should just pack up and leave?  If you think that last bit is just me being alarmist, only two days ago I saw a post of a photograph of a sign in a shop window (don't know where it was taken) that said, "Here, we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.  We say Merry Christmas.  We defend ourselves.  We salute the flag.  We worship Jesus.  And if you don't like it, LEAVE."

To which I'd respond, if I had the chance: I don't honestly care what you do.  You can live at the church and surround yourself with American flag wallpaper and salute it 24/7 with a gun in each hand, if that's what you want.  But if you imply that I'm not an American -- if, in fact, you're saying I don't have a right to live here -- because I don't do the same thing, I think you're sorely misunderstanding both the Right to Free Speech and the Separation of Church and State.

What it boils down to is that 99% of non-religious people don't object to, or even care, what others believe.  They're more concerned with not having a requirement of belief rammed down their throats. Okay, there are some asshole atheists who do disparage Christianity and Christians, and would love to see religious belief eradicated.  But you know what?  If you think that assholery is limited to the atheists, you aren't looking at other groups very carefully.

But messages of tolerance and live-and-let-live don't sell well to the perpetually outraged members of the Values Voter Summit, who think that Christianity is besieged and that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So if any people of that stripe are reading this, allow me to reassure you.

Relax.  Chill out.  We atheists have no intention of doing to you what you'd like to do to us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe last week about "shadow people."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening.  My cats specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home décor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our two dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins. It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get my cats comply with rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Permafrost permayouth

You might have heard about people consuming pills of dried shark cartilage as nutritional supplements.  They're still widely available, in fact.  It's supposed to be anti-carcinogenic.  Why, you might ask, did people get this idea?

Because, the purveyors of shark cartilage pills say, sharks don't get cancer.  So if you grind up shark parts and consume them, you won't get cancer either.

There are just two problems with this practice:
  • Sharks actually do get cancer, something that has been known since at least 1908.
  • Shark cartilage has been tested and found to have no beneficial therapeutic value whatsoever.  It is, however, kind of critical for the shark itself, and the practice of killing sharks for their cartilage has led to widespread decline in sharks in many parts of the world.
This did not stop two of the most prominent cartilage shark spokespeople, I. William Lane and Linda Comac, from writing a book called Sharks Don't Get Cancer When the book was completely trashed by scientists and other reviewers, Lane responded by writing a second book four years later called Sharks Still Don't Get Cancer.

His publisher wisely recommended that Lane eliminate the subtitle he was planning to use, which was So Take That Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah pfffttptbtbtbtbtb.

As usual, we have people who aren't letting little things like evidence and facts stand in the way of their claim.  You can still buy shark cartilage pills in many pharmacies, including a brand called, I kid you not, "BeneFin."

I bring all this up because yesterday I ran across a story about a woman who is doing something even stupider than consuming shark cartilage to prevent cancer; she is injecting herself with bacteria so she won't age.

It's not just ordinary, garden-variety bacteria, either.  These are bacteria that had been frozen in the permafrost of Siberia for, by some estimates, 3.5 million years, and now have been resuscitated by the thaw.  A Russian professor of geology named Anatoli Brouchkov noticed that the Yakut people who live in the area have a reputation for long lifespans, so he decided that (of course) it had to be because they were drinking melted permafrost water that had the bacteria in it.

Couldn't be genetics, or diet, or anything.

So he treated some plants, fruit flies, and mice with the bacteria, which has been dubbed "Bacillus F."  Brouchkov that they "seemed to have a rejuvenating effect," although gives no details about how he knew.  How do you distinguish between a rejuvenated houseplant and a tired, listless one?  Do non-rejuvenated fruit flies fly about in a dejected fashion?

Be that as it may, Brouchkov is certain enough of his claim that he's drinking water with Bacillus F in it himself.  But an actress who calls herself "Manoush" has gone a step further; she is now injecting herself with the bacteria.

Manoush, best known for such A-list blockbusters as Zombie Reanimation, The Shrieking, Philosophy of a Knife, and The Turnpike Killer, says she started taking the bacteria because like many of us, she's not so fond of the idea of getting old.  "Aging is a disease," she says.  "It is a genetic flaw to me.  Even as a teenager I could never accept the concept of getting older one day.  I don’t care what people think. I will stop at nothing to look and feel younger.  Nothing."

Which, I think we could all agree, would leave us with no option other than injecting 3.5 million-year-old Siberian permafrost bacteria directly into our bodies.

Manoush is absolutely convinced she's now aging backwards.  Me, I'm not sure.  I'm not fond of the gray hair, stiff joints, and crow's feet I've gotten in the past few years, but I don't think the answer is to jump on some loopy idea about anti-aging bacteria.  In fact, injecting bacteria into yourself is kind of a bad idea in general; perfectly normal, ordinary skin bacteria become a serious problem if they get into your bloodstream.  A friend of mine's father, in fact, almost died of a Staphylococcus aureus infection when his thumb got skewered by a rose thorn.

Staphylococcus aureus, I should point out, is a ubiquitous part of our skin flora.  On the surface of your skin, it's harmless.  Inside you, it can result in blood sepsis, which is a quick and spectacularly nasty way to die.

Staphylococcus aureus [image courtesy of the National Institute of Health]

So as much as I'd like perpetual youth, I'm not going to get in line behind Manoush for my bacteria injection.  I'll put up with the gray hair, which I'm told makes me look "distinguished," which isn't as good as "drop-dead sexy," but I guess I'll deal.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The time-traveling drunk from 2048

As if we needed another thing to worry about, today we have: a time traveler from 2048 who has come back to tell us that next year the Earth is going to be invaded by aliens.

According to the story, which I have now been sent 14,398 times, the time traveler is named Bryant Johnson, and he showed up in Casper, Wyoming last week with a dire message for humanity in general, and the president in particular.  (Although it must be mentioned that he asked to speak to "the president of Casper," which is a little peculiar.)  According to radio station KTWO, which broke the story, Johnson was drunk at the time because being drunk helps you to time travel.

Which certainly squares with my experience with alcohol, and also reminds me of the following exchange between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Arthur: What are you doing?
Ford: Preparing for hyperspace.  It's rather unpleasantly like being drunk.
Arthur: What's so bad about being drunk?
Ford: Go ask a glass of water.
Johnson being drunk is also why he landed when he did.  Apparently he was aiming for early 2018 and missed.  Just as well; it'll give us more time to prepare for the invasion.

Johnson's not the first person who has ventured into the past to warn us about dire events.  There was John Titor, who back in 2000 and 2001 posted on a number of online bulletin boards that he was a military guy in 2036 who had come back to warn us that there would be a nuclear war in 2004 that would cause the government of the United States to fall, which would be terrifying if it hadn't turned out to be completely wrong.  And it's not like Titor's warning caused us to do anything differently; I don't see any evidence that humanity's overall derpy behavior changed in any way following Titor's pronouncements.

Then there's Håkan Nordkvist, a Swedish guy who was fixing his sink and got transported to the year 2042, where he met himself at age 70 and "had a great time," returning with a photograph of him and himself:

I find this upsetting primarily because nothing nearly that interesting happens to me when I work on the plumbing.

Then, we have the "time-traveling hipster" who shows up in a photograph taken in British Columbia in 1941:

The gist of this one is that he's wearing a style of sunglasses that didn't exist back then, which some researchers looked into and responded, in effect, "Yes, they did."  So while his clothing is pretty casual, there's no reason to believe he wasn't from 1941, although admittedly he could be a time traveler anyhow who changed his clothes so as to fit in.  You never can tell.

In any case, I'm not inclined to worry much about this latest person to show up from the future.  For one thing, it was easy enough to check up on him and see if he actually has a past.  Which he does.  And given the fact that most of us have a significant online presence whether we want to or not, it was only a matter of time before something like this appeared:

So there is apparently nothing to worry about next year, invasion-wise.

Me, I'm a little disappointed.  The way things are going, I would welcome our Alien Overlords.  Given the news I read daily, however, I have to wonder why the aliens would want to come here, because as far as I can see, there's no particular evidence of intelligent life here on Earth anyway.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Course correction

I suppose you could say that everything I write here at Skeptophilia has the same overarching theme; how to tell truth from falsehood, how to recognize spurious claims, how to tell if you're being had.  But helping people to do this is an uphill struggle, and just how uphill was highlighted by a meta-analysis published last week in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which had the rather dismal conclusion that we debunkers are kind of fucked no matter what we do.

Of course, being academics, they didn't state it that way.  Here's how the authors phrased it:
This meta-analysis investigated the factors underlying effective messages to counter attitudes and beliefs based on misinformation.  Because misinformation can lead to poor decisions about consequential matters and is persistent and difficult to correct, debunking it is an important scientific and public-policy goal. This meta-analysis revealed large effects for presenting misinformation, debunking, and the persistence of misinformation in the face of debunking.  Persistence was stronger and the debunking effect was weaker when audiences generated reasons in support of the initial misinformation.  A detailed debunking message correlated positively with the debunking effect.  Surprisingly, however, a detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.
Put more simply, the authors, Man-pui Sally Chan, Christopher R. Jones, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dolores Albarracín of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that when confronting misinformation, a detailed response generates some degree of correction -- but makes some people double down on their incorrect understanding.

So it's yet another verification of the backfire effect, which makes it a little hard to see how we skeptics are supposed to move forward.  And the problem becomes even worse when people have been taught to distrust sources that could potentially ameliorate the problem; I can't tell you how many times I've seen posts stating that sites like Snopes and are flawed, hopelessly biased, or themselves have an agenda to pull the wool over people's eyes.

It's like I've said before: once you convince people to doubt the facts, and that everyone is lying, you can convince them of anything.

[image courtesy of photographer John Snape and the Wikimedia Commons]

"The effect of misinformation is very strong," said co-author Dolores Albarracín.  "When you present it, people buy it.  But we also asked whether we are able to correct for misinformation.  Generally, some degree of correction is possible but it’s very difficult to completely correct."

The authors weren't completely doom-and-gloom, however, and made three specific recommendations for people dedicated to skepticism and the truth.  These are:
  • Reduce arguments that support misinformation: the media needs to be more careful about inadvertently repeating or otherwise giving unwarranted credence to the misinformation itself.
  • Engage audiences in scrutiny and counterarguing of information: schools, especially, should promote skepticism and critical thinking.  It is beneficial to have the audience involved in generating counterarguments -- further supporting the general idea of "teach people how to think, not what to think."
  • Introduce new information as part of the debunking message: give evidence and details.  Even though "misinformation persistence" is strong even in the face of detailed debunking, there was a positive correlation between detailed information and correction of misapprehension.  So: don't let the backfire effect stop you from fighting misinformation.
It may be an uphill battle, but it does work, and is certainly better than the alternative, which is giving up.  As Albarracín put it: "What is successful is eliciting ways for the audience to counterargue and think of reasons why the initial information was incorrect."

I think the most frustrating part of all this for me is that there are biased media sources.  Lots of them.  Some of them (so-called "clickbait") post bullshit to drive up ad revenue; others are simply so ridiculously slanted that anything they publish should be independently verified every single time.  And because people tend to gravitate toward media that agree with what they already thought was true, sticking with sources that conform to your own biases makes it unlikely that you'll see where you're wrong (confirmation bias), and will allow you to persist in that error because you're surrounding yourself by people who are saying the same thing (the echo-chamber effect).

And that one, I don't know how to address.  It'd be nice if the fringe media would act more responsibly -- but we all know that's not going to happen any time soon.  So I'll just end with an exhortation for you to broaden the media you do read -- if you're conservative, check out the arguments on MSNBC every once in a while (and give them serious thought; don't just read, scoff, and turn away).  Same if you're a liberal; hit Fox News on occasion.  It may not change your mind, but at least it'll make it more likely that you'll discover the holes in your own thinking.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It takes balls

A new restaurant has opened up in the pricy Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo, and it specializes in broth and sushi made from fugu.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular culinary item, fugu is Japanese blowfish.  If you have heard about this stuff, most likely it's because it is wildly poisonous if not prepared correctly.  Correct preparation means removing all of the poisonous parts, especially the testicles of the male blowfish, one of which could easily kill an adult.  Don't worry, the website tells us; the reviewer ate some fugu sushi in ramen broth and didn't die.  He goes on, in fact, to tell us that if risking your life to experience the "pleasant, meaty texture" of fugu once wasn't enough for you, you can also order it deep-fried, and furthermore, they sell "canned fugu," which I'm thinking is never going to replace tuna.

I doubt, for example, that when I meet some friends for lunch at our local café, that I would order a fugu melt even if it was on the menu.

[image courtesy of photographer Jarek Tuszynski and the Wikimedia Commons]

In Japan, you have to have a special license to prepare fugu.  Apparently, if you prepare it correctly, it greatly decreases the likelihood that you'll die.  The poison, tetrodotoxin, is one hundred times more poisonous than potassium cyanide.  It is a sodium channel blocker, and as a result paralyzes the muscles, including the heart and diaphragm -- all the while leaving you conscious and aware of the fact that you're dying.  It is only found in particular tissues in the fish, and all of those tissues have to be scrupulously removed in order for the fugu to be safe to eat.  You can imagine, with something that toxic, it doesn't take much of a mistake to kill you -- it's difficult to be sure you've got every last tiny scrap of the poisonous tissue.  This is why in order to serve fugu in Japan, you have to pass a rigorous licensing exam, to show that you know how to cook so as not to kill your customers.

My question is, why would you take a chance like that in any case?  I like risk as well as the next guy, but I'm perfectly happy exercising that part of my personality by skinnydipping and riding rollercoasters.  I'm not so much interested in eating the Toxic Testicles of Death.  

I wish I were making all this up.  In Japan, fugu is considered a delicacy, a word that should immediately raise your suspicion level.  In my opinion, the word "delicacy" is used only to describe food that, under normal circumstances, would never be consumed by anyone who was not participating in a fraternity initiation.  Other foods I've heard described as delicacies are hákarl (Icelandic fermented shark meat, which is described as having "a very strong ammonia-like taste") and lutefisk (a Norwegian fish product produced by soaking whitefish in lye; it is served with a mustard sauce that informed sources tell me "smells exactly like vomit").

On the other hand, in the interest of honesty, I must admit that when I was in Malaysia a couple of years ago, I tried durian, a fruit with such a strong odor that cutting one open is illegal in hotel rooms and on public transportation.  Food writer Richard Sterling describes it as having an "odor... best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock."  Despite this, and probably because my sense of smell is shot after 30 years of working in a biology lab, I tried it... and thought it was delicious.  (The closest I can come to describing the taste is a cross between raspberry yogurt and almonds, but that doesn't really do it justice.)

I wouldn't come close to hákarl or lutefisk, however.  I'm an adventurous eater, a trait I've developed from years of overseas travel, but I do have my limits, and rotten fish is one of them.

Of course, even fermented shark and lye-soaked whitefish only put you in danger of tossing your cookies, or perhaps having your friends and family seriously question your sanity.  Fugu adds the frisson of possibly killing you.  It is the Russian roulette of delicacies.

Me, I don't see the appeal.  Maybe fugu tastes really great, I don't know.  The point is, so does dark chocolate, and you're not risking paralysis, coma, and death from eating it.  Still, I'm sure that people will continue to eat fugu, and people will continue to die.  In fact, in 2015 five men in Wakayama were poisoned when they specifically asked to eat fugu liver, which is one of the toxic bits.  The restaurant was closed, although it seems like this is more a case for a Darwin Award than it is for a citation against the chef.

So if I ever get to visit Japan, which I very much hope I will, I'm not going to try Death Sushi.  I don't really need a boost to my machismo that badly.  I'll stick with dark chocolate, or if I'm ever in Southeast Asia again, pig-shit gym-sock fruit, which really was pretty tasty.

Monday, October 9, 2017


We've had psychic vampire repellent.  We've had people selling "raw water."  We've even had jade eggs that women are, for some reason, supposed to insert into their vaginas.

So the whole alt-med community has really been working overtime lately.  Which is why I shouldn't have been surprised when a loyal reader sent me a link to something called "Amino Neuro Frequency Patches."

I know how you feel, dude.  [image courtesy of photographer Alex E. Proimos and the Wikimedia Commons]

What are "Amino Neuro Frequency Patches," you might ask?  I know I did.  Here's what the website says:
ANF is a revolutionary holistic approach to pain and inflammation.  Practitioners examine the body following the nerve paths and focus on finding the root cause of the patient’s problem.  They apply ANF discs to the skin to reduce pain, remove inflammation and prevent it from spreading via the nervous and lymphatic systems.  They use the discs in conjunction with manual therapy.
I'm guessing the "manual therapy" they're referring to is writing out a check to pay for the discs, and the course you're supposed to take before you're allowed to use them.  (No, I'm not kidding; you actually have to sign up for an online course before they'll send you your patches.)

So how could this possibly work?  The website explains that, too:
It uses a combination of frequency emitting wearable devices, the ANF Discs.  Each disc is applied directly on the skin and activated by the body heat.  They transmit a unique range of frequencies through the neurons in the body.  The nervous system picks up these frequencies, starting a self-healing and self-regulating process.  By improving the nervous system signaling directly at the cellular level, the effect of the treatment is much faster and has remarkable durable results.  The ANF Therapy does not require the use of any drugs or chemicals...  The connection from the patch to the body is made through the nervous system and the seven layers of bio energy the body naturally produces, the patch providing the signal to promote cellular communication to reduce stress and anxiety while restoring imbalances, as an example.
Okay, first, let's get something clear.

Frequency isn't some kind of hand-waving, Cosmic Connection To The Quantum Energy Field concept.  (Now that I think of it, neither are "quantum," "energy," and "field.")  Frequency means the number of times something oscillates in a given amount of time.  It's measured in units called hertz, which is an oscillation per second.

So a kid on a swing has a frequency.  A guitar string has a frequency.  Light has a frequency.

Your intestines do not have a frequency, unless something is making them vibrate, which sounds painful.

Of course, that hasn't stopped people from claiming that they do.  Here's a concise list of some alleged frequencies of different things:
Genius Brain Frequency 80-82 MHz
Brain Frequency Range 72-90 MHz
Normal Brain Frequency 72 MHz
Human Body 62-78 MHz
Human Body: from Neck up 72-78 MHz
Human Body: from Neck down 60-68 MHz
Thyroid and Parathyroid glands are 62-68 MHz
Thymus Gland is 65-68 MHz
Heart is 67-70 MHz
Lungs are 58-65 MHz
Liver is 55-60 MHz
Pancreas is 60-80 MHz
Colds and Flu start at: 57-60 MHz
Disease starts at: 58 MHz
Candida overgrowth starts at: 55 MHz
Receptive to Epstein Barr at: 52 MHz
Receptive to Cancer at: 42 MHz
Death begins at: 25 MHz
Fresh Foods 20-27 Hz
Fresh Herbs 20-27 Hz
Dried Foods 15-22 Hz
Dried Herbs 15-22 Hz
Processed/Canned Food 0 Hz
The amusing thing about this is the implication that the faster something vibrates, the better it is.  If you think that's true, I propose an experiment: I'll sit for an hour listening to someone play the cello, and you sit for an hour listening to someone play the piccolo, and we'll see which one of us has a headache afterwards.

And I have to admit that I burst out laughing when I saw that a can of asparagus doesn't vibrate at all.  How this is supposed to translate into "bad for you," I don't know, although I will agree to the extent that canned asparagus is one of the most disgusting things the human race has ever created.

So once again, we have some completely unscientific horseshit being passed off as serious medical advice.  My recommendation: don't trust anyone whose knowledge of actual scientific terms convinces you that they failed high school physics.  Good rule of thumb, that.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Voodoo in the brain

I'm sure you've heard about the placebo effect, but have you heard of the nocebo effect?

If you know a little Latin, you can guess what it means.  Placebo is Latin for "I will please;" nocebo for "I will harm."  The nocebo effect occurs when you expect something to cause you unpleasant symptoms, and even though what you've consumed is harmless, you experience the symptoms anyhow.

We've known about the nocebo effect for some time.  It gained prominence due to investigations of "voodoo curses," where someone was cursed through a voodoo ritual, and lo and behold, the cursed individual sickens and dies.  Skeptical researchers don't credit this with voodoo actually working; they have come to realize that when a person thinks they're going to become ill, perhaps even die, the expected outcome manifests in the body.

[image courtesy of photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen and the Wikimedia Commons]

A recent study gives us an even better lens into the nocebo effect, and how the brain influences health.  Any medical researcher will tell you that people in clinical trials of medications will often stop taking the pills they were given, usually citing unacceptable side effects.  What is less well known is that a substantial fraction of the people who end up dropping out of the trial actually were receiving an inert substance.

So the control group, in other words.  They were taking a sugar pill, but because they expected to have side effects from the medication, they went ahead and had side effects anyhow.

The most recent study, which was published in Science last week, was the work of four researchers at the University Medical Center of Hamburg, the University of Colorado, and Cambridge University, and had the unwieldy title, "Interactions Between Brain and Spinal cord Mediate Value Effects in Nocebo Hyperalgesia," and it had a fascinating result:

People in the control group of pharmaceutical clinical trials are more likely to have spurious unpleasant side effects if they're told the medication is expensive than if they're told it's cheap.

Furthermore, they have pinpointed the areas in the brain that are responsible for the foul-up.  The authors write:
Value information about a drug, such as the price tag, can strongly affect its therapeutic effect.  We discovered that value information influences adverse treatment outcomes in humans even in the absence of an active substance.  Labeling an inert treatment as expensive medication led to stronger nocebo hyperalgesia [negative side effects] than labeling it as cheap medication.  This effect was mediated by neural interactions between cortex, brainstem, and spinal cord.  In particular, activity in the prefrontal cortex mediated the effect of value on nocebo hyperalgesia.  Value furthermore modulated coupling between prefrontal areas, brainstem, and spinal cord, which might represent a flexible mechanism through which higher-cognitive representations, such as value, can modulate early pain processing.
Which is kind of amazing.  People who experience unexpected side effects are often labeled as hypochondriacs -- i.e., that they know perfectly well they feel fine, and are making up or exaggerating their symptoms out of fear or a desire for attention.  What's really happening appears to be far subtler.  Because of an expectation of harm, the brain actually manifests the symptoms the person feels they're likely to have.  Labeling the medication as expensive increases the subject's sense of having put something unusual into their bodies, resulting in more anxiety and worse side effects.

For me, the most interesting thing about this is the interaction of the brainstem and spinal cord, two parts of the central nervous system that are usually regarded as controlling completely involuntary responses, with the prefrontal cortex, often considered the most advanced part of the human brain -- the part that is associated with reasoning, decision making, and logic.  The fact that a freakout (to use the scientific terminology) in the prefrontal cortex activates a response in the brainstem is astonishing -- and also explains why people who experience the nocebo effect can manifest actual measurable medical symptoms.

And why some of them die.

All of which brings home once again how incredibly complex the brain is.  We're living at an exciting time -- the point where we're finally beginning to understand the thing in our heads that artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky called a "three-pound meat machine."  And, apparently, how easy it is for the machine to get fooled.  Kind of humbling, that.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The girl who loves bugs

After this week, I think we all need something to cheer us up, so today I'm going to tell you about: an eight-year old girl whose passion for entomology led her to co-author an academic paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Sophia Spencer, who is from Ontario, worked with Morgan Jackson, who curates the insect collection at the University of Guelph, to write the paper.  The topic is a fascinating one; how to use social media to make science more accessible and understandable to the public.  The entirely appropriate outcome: the hashtag #BugsR4Girls trended on Twitter.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole thing started when Sophia's mother became concerned that teasing from the other kids in elementary school would discourage her from her love for bugs.  So Sophia's mom wrote the following, to the entomological department at the University of Guelph:

The result?  The Entomological Society of Canada got wind of this, and put out a tweet that said, "A young girl who loves insects is being bullied & needs our support.  DM your email & we'll connect you!  #BugsR4Girls."

The response was immediate and overwhelming.  Sophia got tons of support from scientists, and ultimately got into a conversation with Morgan Jackson.  Together they came up with the idea of authoring a paper on the topic of how to use social media in the interests of science -- so that other children who love scientific pursuits won't have to put up with what Sophia did.  She writes:
It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs.  It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers… If somebody said bugs weren’t for girls, I would be really mad at them…  I think anything can be for anybody, including bugs.
To which I can only say: amen.

The happiest conclusion of all this is that Sophia's bullying problems at school have all but evaporated.  When her peers saw the response she got -- not to mention the amazing honor of being a co-author of an academic paper at age eight, which has to be a record -- all of a sudden, Sophia said, she's become "cool."  The kids who teased her for loving bugs now line up to take a look in her microscope and ask her to identify weird and interesting insect life they come across.

All of which supports a contention I have had for years; one of the best ways to find happiness is to discover a true passion, something that you love to do or to learn with no particular thought of utility.  I know my two obsessions -- music and running -- have pulled me up many times after bad days at work, or just general glumness.  Kudos to Sophia for persisting in the pursuit of hers -- and to Morgan Jackson, and the other scientists who responded, for making sure that a girl who loves bugs has an opportunity to fly.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sounding the dog whistle

Given the other news this week, I think a lot of people have missed the story about a vote on a resolution in the United Nations, to wit, that countries "that have not yet abolished the death penalty... ensure that it is not imposed as a sanction for specific forms of conduct such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations... ensure that it is not applied on the basis of discriminatory laws or as a result of discriminatory or arbitrary application of the law... [and] ensure that the death penalty is not applied against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities and persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, as well as pregnant women."

The good news is that the measure passed, 27-13.

The bad news is that the United States was one of the 13.

This puts us in the company of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and China.  The Trump administration has not addressed why the United States voted "no," and at the time of this writing, there is no explanation on the State Department website.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Call me cynical, but this sounds like a dog whistle to the Religious Right to me.  The current administration has made it clear that they are determined to undo every specific protection LGBTQ individuals have, and to place the Bible ahead of the Constitution in determining the law of the land.  No surprise, given Mike Pence as vice president; he went on record as saying that prohibiting same-sex marriage was an "enforcement of god's law," and that if made legal, it would trigger "societal collapse."

My general feeling is that if all it takes to make your society collapse is giving official recognition to the expression of love between two people who happen to be of the same gender, then your society was kind of a house of cards to start with.

A significant number of the members of Trump's cabinet are evangelical; in fact, it was revealed two months ago that five members of Trump's advisory staff -- Pence, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, and Rick Perry -- attend a weekly Bible study session in a room in one of the government office buildings on Capitol Hill.  Reverend Ralph Drollinger, who runs the study group, is well known for this sort of thing; he runs Capitol Ministries, whose stated purpose is to "evangelize elected officials and lead them toward maturity in Christ."  About Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Drollinger said, "He will go out the same day I teach him something and I’ll see him do it on camera and I just think, 'Wow, these guys are faithful, available and teachable and they’re at Bible study every week they’re in town.'"

Predictably, no one in the administration sees any potential breakdown of the separation of church and state in all this.

But back to the United Nations.  I'm well aware that UN resolutions have no teeth, so even if the United States had voted to support the measure, it wouldn't have made a substantive difference in the way LGBTQ individuals, atheists, and the ex-religious are treated.  But as a symbolic gesture, it sends a hell of a message.  The fact is, we are siding with countries where I, as a blogger who has been openly critical of Islam, would be jailed and flogged at best, and at worst hauled out into the public square and beheaded.

If some member of the faithful didn't murder me first, as has happened over and over to atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.

Oh, but wait: you know what else Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, China, and the United States have in common?  They're all on the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Huh.  Funny thing, that.

In any case, I sincerely hope I'm wrong, that there was some other subtlety I'm missing that triggered the "no" vote.  It's hard for me to stomach the idea that I live in a country whose administration honestly wants to see gay people and atheists killed.  I shouldn't be surprised, however; the current favorite for Jeff Sessions's old Senate seat in Alabama is Roy Moore, who said that "Homosexual behavior is crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it."

Moore currently is leading his opponent, Doug Jones, by an eight-point margin.  So maybe it's not that outlandish after all.

So until proven otherwise, I'm sticking with my initial conclusion that all of this is about Donald Trump reinforcing his image among the Religious Right as a godly man. I suppose this is understandable enough; heaven knows his actual behavior would never lead you to that conclusion.