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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dowsing, SLIders, and Portuguese Water Dogs

I find that one of the most useful questions to ask someone who makes an outlandish claim is, "How could that possibly work?"

I bring this up in part because of a discussion I had with a student over the practice of dowsing.  For those of you who don't know what this is, dowsing (also known as "water-witching") is the use of a forked stick, generally by a "sensitive," to find underground water.  Supposedly the stick will give a sharp downward pull if there's a source of water suitable for well-drilling underneath where you're standing.  I have found that this is the one woo-woo claim that elicits the most support when it comes up in my Critical Thinking classes -- almost every one of my students knows at least one person who will vouch for its truth.

Of course, the fact is, in upstate New York there's almost nowhere you could drill around here and not hit water, sooner or later, and most of the groundwater is pretty clean.  So dowsing would be a pretty safe proposition nearly everywhere.  But so, of course, would claiming that your dog was a "sensitive," and leading him around on a leash until he gets bored and sits down, and then drilling there because a source of underground water exerts a magnetic attraction on your dog's butt.

I hear that Portuguese Water Dogs are an especially good choice for this.

Be that as it may, I said to my student, "How could this possibly work?"  Of course, she had no ready answer for this, and neither does anyone else, but this hasn't stopped people from making one up -- that the Earth's "energies" interact with the "psychic fields" of the dowser's mind, causing the stick to move downwards.  One website even claimed that because willow trees like to grow near water, willow wood works the best for dowsing rods.  (And you laughed at my Portuguese Water Dog claim.   Please explain to me how the "willow wood" claim is any different.)

The demand of "show me the mechanism" is a pretty good first-order test for a lot of these claims, such as the recent spate of stories about people called SLIders (and we're not referring to the 90s science fiction TV series here).  SLIders are people who exhibit Street Light Interference -- street lights go off, or on, or flicker, when they walk past.  Naysayers, of course, claim this is just Dart-Thrower's Bias -- the tendency of the human mind to notice and remember oddities (times that the street light went off as you passed) and ignore all of the background noise (times that the street lights stayed on).  Believers aren't buying it, and claim that the "electrical output of the brain" is interfering with the electrical flow in the street light.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

How the electrical activity of the brain -- which, according to The Physics Factbook, runs at a total energy consumption rate of 20 to 40 Watts, or slightly less than a single typical incandescent light bulb -- could affect the activity of a 200 Watt high-pressure sodium vapor lamp running on conventional electrical current forty feet away, is never explained.  Any demand for a plausible mechanism quickly descends into the same kind of "sensitive psychic field" baloney that comes up with similar requests vis-à-vis dowsing.

The phenomenon has been looked at in the laboratory, and no evidence supporting it has ever been found.  The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has a good summary of the research, and the writer, Massimo Polidoro, concludes, "Science has never confirmed that the human mind can cause physical effects at a distance, which is what seems to be occurring in SLI...  (T)his appears to be a phenomenon that just happens at random and is not produced by one willing for it to happen."

This, of course, doesn't discourage die-hard SLIders from thinking they're doing something unusual, which makes you wonder why they don't constantly short out computers, televisions, cellphones, iPods, and so on.  You'd think that if they can affect something as simple, and powerful, as a street light, frying a laptop would be a relative cinch.  Yet even some of the pro-SLIder sites I looked at admitted that the effect had "proven difficult to replicate in a laboratory setting."

Yup, I'll just bet it is.  In any case, here's another nice thing to add to your skeptical toolkit -- "show me the mechanism."  If you think something weird is going on, you'd better have a plausible explanation for it that doesn't fly in the face of verified science.  And that goes double for all of you Portuguese Water Dogs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Straw man induction

There's a general rule of debate, and it goes something like this: you don't score any points by picking out some absurdly weak line of reasoning, characterizing your opponents as holding that view, arguing against it, and claiming victory.

This is called the straw-man fallacy, and is all too common.  It's why we have conservatives arguing that all liberals want to give away America to illegal immigrants, lock, stock, and barrel.  It's why we have liberals arguing that all conservatives want to sell us out to big corporations, and along the way, deny rights to everyone but white Christian males.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that on both sides, but this requires (1) thought, and (2) an admission that your opponents' views, when represented fairly, are worthy at least of intelligent consideration.  And that seems to be beyond a lot of people these days.

To take two examples of this -- one from each side of the aisle, to demonstrate that straw man arguments are no respecter of political leanings -- let's take a look at two different views of yesterday's eclipse.  Neither, I hasten to state, appears to be a parody, although you'd certainly be justified in thinking they might be.

First, we have a group called "Kentuckians for Coal," who actually protested the eclipse, claiming that even freakin' astronomical objects were conspiring to take attention away from the plight of coal miners.  The protest took place in Hopkinsville, which was along the path of totality, something that struck the Kentuckians for Coal as not being a coincidence.

Here's their mission statement:
Kentuckians for Coal is an ad-hoc coalition of miners, union officials, family members and coal users created to defend the Kentucky coal industry against encroachment from renewable energy industries and from economic development initiatives aimed at lessening America's dependence on coal.  Kentuckians for Coal stands against the eclipse and those who worship it.
Well, I think the eclipse is pretty cool, but "worship" goes a bit far.  And it's hard to see how you could be against clean, renewable energy.  I get that we're talking about people's livelihoods, here; but at some point, there needs to be a choice made whether a particular industry is worth saving when it's balanced against the long-term habitability of the Earth.  (And, I might add, that a lot of this would be moot if the government would step in and fund retraining of these out-of-work miners, and guarantee them jobs in the renewable energy industry, which is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States.)

A few of the signs carried at the protest read as follows:
  • A Mine Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
  • Climate Change Is a Hoax!
  • You can count on coal 24/7. You can't always depend on the sun! 
  • Still Think Solar Makes Sense?
  • Coal Never Quits
  • You Can Depend On Coal!
  • The Solar Industry Is Modernizing Us Out of Jobs!
  • Coal was good enough for my forefathers, it's good enough for me!
  • This much time and money spent for 2 minutes and 40 seconds
To their credit, the person carrying the last-mentioned sign was followed by someone carrying a sign saying, "That's what she said."

[image courtesy of photographer Luc Viatour and the Wikimedia Commons]

But lest the liberals in the studio audience start crowing about how much smarter and more sensible they are than the silly ol' conservatives, allow me to direct your attention to an article in The Atlantic by Brooklyn Law School professor Alice Ristroph, entitled, "Racial History in the Solar Eclipse Path of Totality," which says basically that the path of yesterday's eclipse was inherently biased against minorities.

Don't believe me?  Here's a sample:
It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people...  [A]n eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message.  At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one.  Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom.  The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way.
No, Professor Ristroph, what the Great American Eclipse reminded us of is that when something gets in front of the Sun, it casts a shadow.  End of story.

But that doesn't stop her from telling us about how terrible it is that the path of totality excludes minorities; in fact, the Moon seems to have chosen its path with deliberate bigotry in mind:
About a third of Kansas City, Missouri, is black, but most of the city lies just south of the path of totality. To get the full show, eclipse chasers should go north to St. Joseph, almost 90 percent white and about 6 percent black...

Moving east, the eclipse will pass part of St. Louis, whose overall population is nearly half black. But the black residents are concentrated in the northern half of the metropolitan area, and the total eclipse crosses only the southern half.
Of course, even by her own admission, her whole argument kind of falls apart when the eclipse gets to South Carolina, but by this time, any credibility she might have had is down the toilet anyhow.  So even if you got that far -- and the article is a long one -- I doubt that'd salvage whatever it was she was trying to point out.

Now don't misunderstand me.  There are huge racial inequities in the United States, and those deserve serious attention.  Likewise, apropos of the Kentuckians for Coal, the issue of displaced workers, poor communities, and lost jobs is not one we should scoff at.

But claiming the eclipse has a damn thing to do with either one is pretty fucking ridiculous, and you're not doing your argument any good by claiming that it does.

So the take-home message is, "let's keep our eye on the ball, shall we?"  If you want to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed or the problems of race and privilege, have at it.  But saying the whole thing boils down to astronomy is idiotic.  And throwing together a straw-man argument is not going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In the dark

In this line of business, it's all too common to run into something so stupid that at first, you think it's a joke.  No one, you think, no one could possibly be that gullible and/or ignorant of science.

And then you look into it, and you find that, lo and behold, (1) it's not a joke, (2) there are in fact people that gullible and ignorant, and (3) it really freakin' hurts when you do a faceplant into your computer keyboard.

This was my experience when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago entitled, "NASA Confirms Earth Will Experience 15 Days of Darkness in November 2017."  This article, by one David Vanallen, appeared on the site Reflection of Mind earlier this year, and warns us that in a couple of months, we're gonna be in for some serious shit.

He doesn't put it quite that way, however.  Here's a capsule summary of what Vanallen says NASA has "confirmed:"
  1. This November, Jupiter and Venus will come into "close proximity" of each other, being separated in the sky by a distance of only one degree.
  2. Venus will, at that point, be shining at ten times the luminance that Jupiter is.
  3. The bright light from Venus will heat Jupiter's gaseous surface, causing it to launch an "absurdly high amount of hydrogen" into space.
  4. Said hydrogen will fall directly into the Sun, arriving there at precisely 2:50 AM on November 15.
  5. The additional hydrogen will cause a thermonuclear detonation to occur on the Sun's surface, raising its temperature to 9,000 C, and turning the Sun's color to a "bluish shade."
  6. This will cause the Sun to appear dimmer from the Earth.  
  7. The effect will last until precisely 4:45 on November 30, at which point the Sun will return to normal.
That scary stuff notwithstanding, former NASA director Charles Bolden said we shouldn't be worried.  All that's going to happen, Bolden said, is a huge increase in the Earth's average temperature:
We do not expect any major effects from the Blackout event.  The only effect this event will have on Earth is an increase of 6 – 8 degrees in temperature. the polar cap will be mostly affected by this.   No one should worry much.  This event would be similar to what Alaskans experience in the winter.
Okay, now, hang on a moment.

Jupiter and Venus won't be in "close proximity."  They will just appear that way because from Earth, they'll be kind of lined up in the sky.  This is like saying that as you're standing on a beach in California watching the Sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the ocean is in danger of boiling away because it's so much closer to the Sun than it was at noon.

Furthermore, if the luminance of Venus was high enough to cause major gaseous eruptions on Jupiter, it would fry us here on Earth.  Jupiter and Venus are an average of 750 million kilometers from each other; at its farthest, Venus is 260 million kilometers from Earth.  There's this thing called the inverse-square law that shows how all of this works, but my guess is that David Vanallen never got past 8th grade physical science, so maybe he's never heard of it.

In any case, the reason Venus is brighter than Jupiter has nothing to do with its being hotter (although it is, in fact, by a large margin).  Venus is just closer to the Sun.  End of story.

[image courtesy of NASA]

As far as "absurd amounts of hydrogen" causing a thermonuclear explosion, well... the Sun is kind of one big thermonuclear explosion already.  Adding hydrogen, in however absurd amounts you like, wouldn't make much of a difference, especially given that Jupiter's radius is ten times smaller than the Sun's.  And that's the whole planet, not just some absurd hydrogen cloud it's jettisoned.

Then, the hydrogen is supposed to make the Sun heat up, which will make it dimmer, which will cause it to be dark here on Earth, which in 15 days will make the Earth's temperature rise by an amount that's four times the increase we've experienced from all of global warming put together, which will make the Arctic ice caps melt, but we shouldn't worry about it.

Because all of that is "just like Alaska in winter."

To which I just have one thing to say: What the actual fuck?

Oh, and I doubt highly that Charles Bolden, who is not only a pretty smart guy but has a B.S. in electrical engineering and a M.S. in systems management, had anything to do with any of this.

What makes me facepalm the worst about all of this is that there are dozens of sites now reprinting this story pretty much verbatim, and none of the ones I looked at added, "... and anyone who believes this must have their skull filled with dust bunnies, cobwebs, and dead insects."  All of the ones I saw were posting it because, apparently, they believe that it's true.  And one of them had been shared, tweeted, and reposted over 10,000 times.

Which just goes to show that if you append "NASA officials confirm" in front of damn near anything, you can get people to believe it.  Oh, and that reminds me: I should warn you that NASA officials have confirmed that today's solar eclipse is going to cause the Earth's magnetic poles to flip, which will mean all clocks will start running backwards, which will reverse the polarity in your DNA's quantum frequency vibrations, meaning you'll start to age backwards.  Tomorrow morning, we're all going to wake up feeling younger, stronger, and healthier, which would be cool except for the fact that it will also make our neurons run in reverse, so we'll remember the future and have no idea about the past.

I'd say "remember, you heard it here first," but the last part kind of makes that impossible.  Oh, well.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Shiny happy energy

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recall that a while back, I dealt with a type of energy called orgone.  Orgone, said psychologist Wilhelm Reich back in the 1930s, is a mysterious "life force energy" that causes the galaxies to turn, triggers weather phenomenon, maintains your health, and is the "psychosexual energy release" that occurs during orgasm.

Bet you didn't think all that stuff was happening when you have an orgasm.  I didn't, either.  I just thought it was kinda fun.

Be that as it may, there's only one problem with "orgone," and that's that it doesn't exist.  But as we've seen with countless other things -- homeopathy, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, President Trump's moral compass -- zero evidence that the thing you're studying actually exists is not near enough to discourage some people.

Now, the problem with orgone is that being an invisible, unmeasurable, undetectable (yet universal) energy, it's also inherently unmarketable.  I mean, what are you gonna do?  Tell someone if they pay you $100, you'll go home an have an orgasm, and then funnel the "psychosexual energy" in their direction?  I'd like to think that there's no one who's that gullible, although the fact that there are people who were willing to pay hundreds of bucks for "medicines" that you download directly from your computer into your body, I'm not going to rule anything out.

But at least the people who are orgone-proponents have recognized the difficulty of trying to sell something like that, because they've come up with a new twist, which (not coincidentally) they can sell:


"Orgonite," allow me to explain, is solid orgone.  Or a solid that's been infused with orgone.  Or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, frankly, because most of the websites hawking the stuff sound like this:
Dr Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychiatrist, researched orgone energy (also known as chi or prana) in the earlier half of the 20th century, and today’s orgonite devices are built on his findings.  While conducting his research, Dr. Reich found that organic materials attract and hold orgone energy, while non-organic metals simultaneously attract and repel the energy. 
Orgonite is based on these two principles.  It is a 50-50 mix of resin (organic, due to the fact that it is based on petrochemicals), and metal shavings (inorganic).  A quartz crystal is also added to the orgonite mix.  This is because of its piezoelectric properties, which means that it gives off a charge when it is put under pressure (resin shrinks when it is cured, so constant pressure is put on the quartz crystal). 
Due to the fact that the elements contained in orgonite are constantly attracting and repelling energy, a “scrubbing” action takes place, and along with the charge that the crystal gives off, this cleans stagnant and negative energy, and brings it back to a healthy, vibrant state.
Right!  Piezoelectric effect + orgone + chi = shiny happy energy!

"Orgonite" pyramid [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, needless to say the fact that this makes zero sense will not stop people from buying stuff like the "Fluorite and Onyx Orgone Cone" ($79.80), the "Crown Chakra Balance Orgone Pendant" ($46.55),  the "Balancing Lightworker Amethyst Orgone Pendant" ($35.90), and the "Boho Crystal Healing Festival Gypsy Orgone Spirit Jewel" ($99.75), the last-mentioned of which is clearly the most expensive because its name has more words.

Sad to say, all of this nonsense isn't going to do anything for you but lighten your pocketbook, and there's also the fact that a lot of what they're selling looks like the jewelry equivalent of Soap-on-a-Rope.  But maybe it's just that my chi is not balanced enough to appreciate how beautiful it is, I dunno.

Worst of all, this foolishness is now being peddled in other countries.  In fact, how I found out about it is that there is now an "orgonite network" in southern Africa, whereby lots of people are being told that in order to fix their health, all they have to do is buy colorful but expensive crap that comes along with a bunch of pseudoscientific babble.  Which, if you discount the placebo effect, is completely worthless.

So anyhow, there you have it: yet another way to bilk money from the gullible.  There's no such thing as orgone, and therefore (by extension) "orgonite" is a bunch of bullshit, too.  My suggestion is not to worry about the whole negative energy scrubbing business.  I recommend actual orgasms over orgone any day of the week, even if the former doesn't realign your chakras.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Perchance to dream

Insomnia sucks, something I am frequently heard to mutter under my breath at 3:30 AM.  I've been a bad sleeper for decades, and have not been able to figure out any particular pattern to it -- I have sleepless nights on days I've gotten lots of exercise and days I haven't, after spending several hours of staring into the computer screen and not, after drinking alcohol and not.  Nothing has really worked to alleviate it, although when I am desperate I take a Benadryl tablet, which works well even though it's something I don't like to do often.  (In fact, taking Benadryl works so well that after taking one, it's a miracle I make it back to bed before I pass out, to be found the next morning on the floor in the hallway in a puddle of drool.)

Sleep is critical to health, both mental and physical, but scientists have been working for ages to try and elucidate why.  It's known that when deprived of sleep short-term, people are groggy, irritable, and perform more poorly on every cognitive assessment there is; long-term sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, paranoia, and (ultimately) death.  Further, sleep is not the same as simple bodily relaxation; in some phases of sleep, the brain is as active as it is during wakefulness.

[image courtesy of photograph Evgeniy Isaev and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's been suggested -- and there is some experimental evidence to support it -- that sleep has something to do with memory consolidation.  It's been shown pretty conclusively that if you want to improve cognitive performance on a test, studying the night before and getting a good night's sleep works far better than spending an equal amount of time studying the day of the test.  I wish I'd known this back in college, where I was known to do things like doing my first and only studying for my 8 AM sociology midterm on the bus en route to school.

This doesn't, however, explain sleep's function in other animals, as few fluffy bunnies are known to take sociology classes.  But a study published last week in Nature: Communications has shown that sleep definitely influences memory -- even to the extent of fostering the formation of new memories while we're asleep.

The paper, "Formation and Suppression of Acoustic Memories During Human Sleep," by Thomas Andrillon, Daniel Pressnitzer, Damien Léger, and Sid Kouider of the École Normale Supérieure/PSL Research University of Paris, France, found that people form memories during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep -- but stimuli given during deep non-REM sleep actually suppress memory.  The authors write:
Sleep and memory are deeply related, but the nature of the neuroplastic processes induced by sleep remains unclear.  Here, we report that memory traces can be both formed or suppressed during sleep, depending on sleep phase.  We played samples of acoustic noise to sleeping human listeners.  Repeated exposure to a novel noise during Rapid Eye Movements (REM) or light non-REM (NREM) sleep leads to improvements in behavioral performance upon awakening.  Strikingly, the same exposure during deep NREM sleep leads to impaired performance upon awakening.  Electroencephalographic markers of learning extracted during sleep confirm a dissociation between sleep facilitating memory formation (light NREM and REM sleep) and sleep suppressing learning (deep NREM sleep).  We can trace these neural changes back to transient sleep events, such as spindles for memory facilitation and slow waves for suppression.  Thus, highly selective memory processes are active during human sleep, with intertwined episodes of facilitative and suppressive plasticity.
It's important to add, however, that experiments involving attempts to learn something complex -- such as a foreign language -- while you're asleep have all been abject failures.  The (alleged) phenomenon, called hypnopaedia, was all the rage back in the 1920s and 1930s, when people not only used it to try to learn, they used it to modify how they were perceived by others.  One such program, developed by hypnopaedia's main proponent, New York psychologist A. B. Saliger, was designed to help people get laid.  It involved listening while asleep to the following message played over and over:  "I desire a mate.  I radiate love...  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful. I have a strong sex appeal."

Unfortunately, all that this accomplished was making the test subjects wake up even hornier than they were before.

Study author Thomas Andrillon is cautious about applications of his work to the practical world.  "The sleeping brain is including a lot of information that is happening outside, and processing it to quite an impressive degree of complexity," Andrillon said.  But as far as using this research to facilitate the development of methods to influence memory in a bigger way, he added, "We are in the big unknown...  Keep in mind that sleep is not just about memory.  Trying to hijack the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep could disrupt normal brain function."

Which I can certainly attest to, as I rarely if ever get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I don't think I've ever had the word "normal" applied to my behavior.  I have to admit that the Andrillon et al. research is fascinating, however, not least because it gives us another piece of the puzzle of why all higher animals sleep.

Now you'll have to excuse me, because I got about three hours of sleep last night, and I think I'm gonna go take a nap.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

*ding* You've got mail!

There's a quote from Winston Churchill that goes, "You have enemies?  Good.  That means you've stood up for something, some time in your life."

By that standard, I'd have gotten some serious props from Mr. Churchill for yesterday's post, which generated quite the deluge of hate mail.  I don't know where my link got posted, nor by whom, but evidently it was in a place where there are a significant proportion of people who took umbrage at my identification of Donald Trump as a liar, a racist, and a misogynist.

The responses varied from the banal to the highly creative.  Several of them invited me to do things that even thirty years ago I didn't have the flexibility to accomplish.  But I thought it'd be fun to respond to a few of them, even though all I'll probably do is generate more hate mail.

Oh, well.  I'm all about throwing caution to the wind.

[image courtesy of photographer Jessica Flavin and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's one that I thought was kind of interesting:
You really don't get it, do you?  From your picture you're as white as I am, and you're gonna stand there and tell me that you have no problem being overrun by people who have different customs and don't speak English?  Let's see how you feel when your kid's teacher requires them to learn Arabic.
Well, my kids are 26 and 29, so unless they decide to enroll in college, they're unlikely to face this particular issue.  But ignoring that for a moment -- I would have been elated if my kids had had the opportunity to learn Arabic in school.  They each took three years of French, but to say they weren't enthusiastic about it is something of an understatement.  I would welcome any opportunity my kids, or kids in general, had to learn about other cultures.  In fact, I think a lot of the hatred and ugliness we're seeing right now is largely generated by the fact that the people who are the most racist don't know even a single person who is of a different race.

Once you get to know someone, realize that they have the same dreams, needs, and desires as you do, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to hate them.

Then there was this one:
Fuck you, you left wing libtard.  We finally have a president who speaks his mind, and you can't handle it.  Well, sorry, jerkoff, but this is America, and we're taking it back whether you like it or not.
"Taking it back?"  From whom?  Or do you mean taking it back in time?  Because that's a hell of a lot more accurate.  To the 30s, when racism and sexism was institutionalized, when there were still lynchings of African Americans, when being Jewish or Italian or Hispanic or Chinese meant that you were automatically disqualified from most high-paying jobs, and when you didn't even mention it if you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

I can only hope we aren't going back there, and as a nation that we've learned the lesson that you don't gain more rights for yourself by denying others theirs, but in the last few days I've begun to wonder.

I also got an email sending me a link to a news article about the Justice Department demanding names of 1.3 million people who visited an anti-Trump website.  It was accompanied by the following cheery message:
Watch your back.  We know who you are.  There's a list of treasonous assholes like yourself, and you better be careful, because this shit is not going to be tolerated any more.
I have two things to say about this one:
  1. The "we know who you are" thing cuts both ways, to judge by the number of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were at the Charlottesville protest, who were identified from photographs, and who are now losing their jobs, facing censure from families and friends, and having their websites shut down.  Apparently a good many of them are boo-hooing the backlash, but don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
  2. For the record, I've never tried to hide.  Not my political beliefs, nor my religious ones, nor much of anything else.  So if you want to put my name on your list, knock yourself out.  Write it in capital letters and underline it three times.  Bring it on.
Last, we have this one:
You alt-left pussies make me want to puke.  I bet if you were in any real danger, you'd run home to mama.  You're pretty tough when you're sitting there on your computer, aren't you, big man?
To be honest, I don't think I'm all that tough.  I'm a wuss about pain, frankly.  But I am willing to take significant risks to stand up for what I believe in, to follow Roy T. Bennett's exhortation to "Stop doing what is easy.  Start doing what is right."

And it's interesting that I'm already a member of the "alt-left," a group that President Trump invented two days ago.  I suppose I should be honored, really.  I was expecting it to take at least a few weeks just to have my application processed.  I hope this means that my official alt-left badge, commemorative t-shirt, and decoder ring will be in my mailbox soon!

Anyhow, that's a sampler of what was in yesterday's mailbag.  For damn near all of them, I pretty much just read the first line or two and deleted them, because there's only so many times you can read "go fuck yourself."

So I guess I struck a nerve, which is to me a good thing.  At least it means people are reading what I write, and (on some level) thinking about what I'm saying.  And with this crowd, any inroads I can make in the "reconsider your beliefs" department is movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A line in the sand

Richard Dawkins wrote, "I think it's important to realize that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

After yesterday's unhinged press conference, this is the situation we are in with respect to Donald Trump and his supporters.

The subject of his speech was the violence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed when an angry young man with neo-Nazi leanings drove his car into the crowd.  The violence, Trump said, was the fault of both sides:
What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt?  What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem?  I think they do...  You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.
The "club in hands" reference is to a photograph of an Antifa member allegedly striking a police officer with a club -- a photograph that has since been shown to be digitally altered.

That is, a fake.

What is grimly ironic about this is that Trump defended the two-day delay in condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis by saying that he wasn't sure of his facts:
I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement... What I said was a fine statement.  I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.
Besides the fact that even after the delay, he still got the facts wrong, it bears mention that it took him only an hour to respond when Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned in protest from the President's Manufacturing Council.  Trump's ego was stung by the resignation -- something which evidently moves him more than seeing people marching in Nazi regalia does.  "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council," Trump sneered via Twitter (of course),  "he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

But apparently it takes way more time to decide whether to condemn white supremacists who had not only killed a young woman for protesting, but who had said, on a website affiliated with their cause, "Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad [Heather Heyer] is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness.  A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value."

This is the ideology that our president thinks is so morally ambiguous that it took him 48 hours to decide whether it was worth condemning, and then afterwards claimed was actually no worse than the beliefs of the anti-Nazi protesters.

Most media were quick to condemn Trump's speech, but as soon as it hit the news, the apologists started in with equal speed.  Within a half-hour of the story breaking, I saw the following comments posted:
  • All he's saying is that white people shouldn't be ashamed of being white.
  • I'd take the people in the march before I would the leftist whiners who are trying to tear America down.
  • The people in the march aren't responsible for what one crazy man in a car did.
  • For crying out loud, shut up and give the President a chance!
This last one is, of all of them, the one that galled me the most.  You know what?  Trump has had seven months of chances.  He has shown himself to be a dishonest, racist, misogynistic prick over and over.  The most surprising thing, in fact, is how unsurprising this last speech was.  It was totally in keeping with his prior words and actions.  All he did here is clarify his own ideology in such a way that there is no doubt any more where his loyalties lie.

So the chances are over, not only for Trump but for his followers.  It's no longer conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican.  This is about deciding whether you side with a man who has allied himself with people who wear swastikas on armbands and chant, "The Jew will never replace us!"  There is no moral ambiguity here.  If you don't repudiate him, now, you are complicit in his actions and those of his followers.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I try my hardest to listen to the people I disagree with, but at some point, there is no compromise, no way to find common ground.  After that, there is no choice but to commit to every effort necessary to stop people who are violent, amoral, and so convinced they are in the right that there is no possibility of discussion.

You might be saying, "Well, aren't you equally convinced that you're right?"  Perhaps.  But I'm not the one calling for violence against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.

This is the point where moral people have to stand up and take a hard look at what is happening here, and realize that neutrality is no longer an option.  We are fast approaching something very like the Weimar Republic of the 1930s -- waiting only for our own Reichstag Fire to plunge the nation into darkness and bloodshed.

So if you're a Trump supporter, I'm sorry if you were misled by his rhetoric.  I understand that it's easy to get swept away by the theatrics of politics, to vote for someone who turned out to be something other than you wanted.  But we've crossed a line, here.  If you still support him, if you are one of the ones crying out "give him a chance," then you and others like you are fully responsible for the horrifying place we seem to be headed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!

Because so much of the world lately seems to be immersed in hatred, violence, and just general suckiness, for today I'm going to retreat to my Happy Place, which is: cool scientific discoveries.

Today's contribution from the Happy Place comes from the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology, two disciplines that are near and dear to my heart.  While my educational background is kind of all over the map (less charitable sorts have called it "a light year across and an inch deep"), evolutionary biology has been something of a passion of mine for ages.  In getting my teaching certificate, I did as many courses as I could that focused on such things as population genetics, cladistics, and the origins of life, so I have come to think of that as being more or less my specialty within the field.

The discovery that spurred today's post comes from northeastern China, where two new species of mammal were uncovered (literally and figuratively) -- Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon.  These species were probably closely related, and appear to have been small tree-dwellers who had flaps of skin that ran from the outsides of the front legs to the outsides of the hind legs, so that when necessary, they could jump from a tree branch, fling their limbs outward, and glide like a living kite.

[image courtesy of study leader Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago]

If you're thinking, "Wait a second.  Isn't that just a flying squirrel?", you should know two things: (1) these two species were only very distantly related to flying squirrels and other rodents; and (2) they were alive during the Jurassic Period -- something on the order of 160 million years ago, when the dominant life forms were dinosaurs.  (For comparison purposes, the earliest known rodents didn't show up until 100 million years later.)  They belong to a group called Euharamiyids, one of the four branches of true mammals (the other three are the Multituberculates, which like the Euharamiyids are extinct; the Monotremes, which include egg-laying mammals such as the platypus; and the Therians, which encompass all other mammals, including us).

What I think is coolest about all of this -- besides the fact that ancient animals are simply inherently cool -- is that it's further evidence of the fact that similar selective pressures often result in separate lineages that happen upon the same "solutions" to evolutionary problems.  This is called convergent or parallel evolution, and one of the best examples of this is the evolution of flight and/or gliding.  Taking to the air has apparently evolved over and over again, resulting in the most familiar flying groups -- birds, insects, and bats -- but also in...



Flying fish:

Sugar gliders:

and the aforementioned flying squirrels:

... the latter of which were studied extensively by noted scientists Boris Badinov and Natasha Fatale.

And now, we can add two more to the list, a pair which (like all the rest) evolved aerobatics completely independently of all the others.

Anyhow, the whole thing illustrates a fundamental rule of biology, which is that there are a limited number of powerful evolutionary drivers (the most important being finding food, not getting turned into food, avoiding the vagaries of the environment you're in, and finding a mate), and a limited number of solutions to those drivers in the real world.  So it's inevitable that the same kinds of structures and behaviors will evolve over and over, even in groups that aren't very closely related.  What is most remarkable about this particular discovery, however, is how early the innovation of gliding in mammals evolved -- back when the whole mammalian clade had barely gotten started, and the dinosaurs still had 95 million years left before a giant meteor strike ended their hegemony.

And all of this ties into another field I'm fascinated with, which is exobiology -- the study of alien species.  At the moment, the number of available samples to study is zero, so we're left speculating based on what we have here on our home planet.  But the fact that we see the same sorts of patterns cropping up again and again -- bilateral symmetry, organs for sensing light and sound, defensive and offensive weapons, and adaptations for rapid locomotion -- is a pretty sound argument that when we do come across life on other planets, it will probably have some striking similarities to what we see here on Earth.

So that's our cool scientific discovery of the day, courtesy of a research team working in China.  And unfortunately I need to wrap up this post, which means I have to leave my Scientific Happy Place and return to the real world, at least for a little while.  Maybe I'll luck out and there'll be other fun and fascinating discoveries announced soon so that I can read something other than the news, which is more and more making me wonder if it might not be time for another giant meteor to press "reset" on the whole shebang.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Giving weight to illusion

The idea that our sensory processing apparatus and our brains are unreliable has been something I've come back to again and again here at Skeptophilia.  "I saw it with my own eyes" is simply not enough evidence by which to make any kind of sound scientific judgment.

Not only are we likely to get things wrong just because the equipment is faulty, our prior ideas can predispose us to get things wrong in a particular way.  Think of it as a sort of built-in confirmation bias; our brains are set up in such a fashion that when we've already decided what's going to happen, it's much more likely that's what we'll perceive.

This latter problem was demonstrated in an elegant, if disturbing, fashion in a paper released last week in Science called "Pavlovian Conditioning–Induced Hallucinations Result From Overweighting of Perceptual Priors," by Albert R. Powers, Christoph Mathys, and Philip R. Corlett, of the Yale School of Medicine, the International School for Advanced Studies (Trieste, Italy), and the University of Zurich, respectively.  Their research springboarded from previous studies wherein individuals who had been trained to associate a tone with an image were more likely to continue "hearing" the tone when shown the image with no accompanying tone than were members of a control group.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What Corlett's team did was to divide participants into four groups: normal, healthy individuals; self-described psychics; individuals with psychosis who did not report hearing voices; and individuals with schizophrenia who reported hearing voices.  The researchers trained all test subjects to associate a checkerboard image with a one second long, one kilohertz tone.  They not only recorded data on which participants continued to "hear" an illusory tone when shown the checkerboard in silence, they also used a protocol (how hard they pushed the button when they heard the tone, whether real or imagined) to gauge their confidence in what they were experiencing, and they looked at neuronal activity in the brain using an fMRI machine.

The results were intriguing, to say the least.  Both the schizophrenics and the self-described psychics were five times as likely to report hearing a tone when none existed than either the control group of healthy individuals or the psychotic individuals who did not hear voices.  Not only that, the schizophrenics and the psychics were 28% more confident in their perceptions when they did hear a tone that wasn't there than were the other two groups when they made a similar mistake.

Further, the schizophrenics and psychics showed abnormal neuronal activity in two regions of the brain; the parts of the cerebrum involved in creating our internal representation of reality showed strikingly different firing patterns, and the cerebellum -- the part of the brain involved in planning and coordinating our motor responses to stimuli -- showed much lower than normal neuronal activity.

"The findings confirm that, when it comes to how we perceive the world, our ideas and beliefs can easily overpower our senses," said Albert Powers, one of the paper's authors.  Which is about as succinct a cautionary statement about trusting our judgments as I can imagine.

While the researchers specifically tested the likelihood of experiencing auditory hallucinations, I find myself wondering if this study might not have wider applications.  How do our prior perceptions bias us in general?  I know I have frequently been baffled, especially in these fractious times, how two people can see the same event and come to strikingly opposite conclusions about it.  At times, I have found myself asking, "Are we even talking about the same thing, here?"  But if our preconceived notions about the world can bias us strongly enough to hear sounds that aren't there, why should any other perception be immune to the same effect?

This possibility drives me to a disturbing conclusion.  How do you convince people that what they're perceiving is not real, if that conclusion is contrary to what their senses and their brains are telling them?

I think the key, here, is always to keep focused on the statement, "... but I might be wrong."  A lot of our faulty judgments are caused not only by our coming to the wrong conclusion, but our stubborn certainty that we are, in fact, right.  A willingness to revise our beliefs -- failing that, at least to consider the possibility that our beliefs are incorrect -- is absolutely critical.

Otherwise, we're at the mercy of sensory apparatus that are easily fooled, and a brain that bases what it perceives as much on what it already thought to be true as on the actual data it's presented with.

Which seems to me to be awfully shaky ground.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Total eclipse of the brain

In ten days, people in the United States will get the best shot at seeing a total solar eclipse we've had in years.  The path of totality crosses the country diagonally from northwest to southeast, starting near the northern border of Oregon and ending in South Carolina.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Astronomy buffs and people who simply like an unusual spectacle have been excited about this for ages.  Motels in towns within the path of totality sold out months ago, especially in places like the Midwest where you're more likely to have clear skies.

The buzz about the eclipse prompted the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to make the following observation:

Well, far be it from me to argue with someone of NdGT's stature, but just because people aren't denying the eclipse doesn't mean that they're viewing it with any kind of scientific eye.  We're already having the wingnuts putting their unique spin on the event, and you should watch for this sort of thing to increase exponentially as we approach August 21.

First, we have Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, who claims that the eclipse is a sign of the approach of the End Times.  Have you noticed how every damn time there's some interesting astronomical event, the religious nutjobs claim it's a sign of the End Times, and then the End Times kind of don't happen?

Well, a zero batting average doesn't discourage people like Lotz in the least.  It's interesting that the elder Graham, although we don't agree on much, always impressed me as a thoughtful and deeply compassionate man.  His kids, though... son Franklin is a virulently anti-LGBT firebrand, who has a real talent for ugly invective.  And now, his daughter... well, let me give it to you in her own words:
The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21, nicknamed America's Eclipse. For the first time in almost a hundred years, a total solar eclipse will be seen from coast to coast in our nation.  People are preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites.  The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed...  Therefore, my perspective on the upcoming phenomenon is not celebratory.  While no one can know for sure if judgment is coming on America, it does seem that God is signaling us about something.  Time will tell what that something is.
As far as I can tell, what god seems to be signaling is that if something is in front of the sun, it creates a shadow.  End of story.

But the religious fringe aren't the only ones who are jumping up and down making excited little squeaking noises about August 21.  We also have the crypto-woo-woos, who warn us that the eclipse is going to be noticed by more than just humans:

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia might recall that I warned South Carolina residents about Lizard Man way back in 2011.  As far as Bigfoot, you may be questioning how there could be Bigfoot sightings down there in the Southeast -- after all, the real Sasquatch hotspot is the Pacific Northwest.  But just yesterday, an alert reader sent me an article about a sighting of Bigfoot last week in North Carolina, so it's evident that the cryptids are on the way.  The fact that they're converging on the path of totality is a little peculiar, as solar eclipses have no particular precursors that might warn an animal that one is imminent, and I generally don't think of Bigfoot as being particularly knowledgeable about astronomy.

Unless it's that Bigfoot is psychic, and is sensing oscillations in the quantum frequency dimensions.  You can see how that could happen.

In any case, I'm understandably not inclined to share NdGT's optimistic assessment of Americans' attitude toward the solar eclipse.  As I've observed before, there is no finding so solidly scientific, so evidence-based, that the woo-woos can't woo all over it.

So if you're going to head over to the path of totality in ten days, keep your eyes open, and make sure you drop me a line here at Skeptophilia headquarters if you see any Bigfoots, Lizard Men, or Apocalyptic Horsepersons.  I'll be happy to post an update, especially if you can take photographs.  As is required with such photographs, however, make sure you have your camera's settings on "AutoBlur."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Veterinarians and anti-vaxxers

Let's get something straight from the outset.

Vaccines don't cause autism.  They never have.  The "research" of Andrew Wakefield, which started that whole myth, was shown to be fraudulent years ago, and every study since then -- and there have been many -- has supported that vaccines have few side effects, the vast majority of which are mild and temporary, and their benefits outweigh any risks they might engender.

And yes, that includes the two vaccines most often cited as being dangerous, MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella) and HPV (Human Papillomavirus).

This whole thing should have been laid to rest ages ago, but there's no idea so baseless and stupid that there won't be loads of people who believe it.  Which, I believe, largely explains the bizarre resurgence of the "Flat Earth" model, a claim so stupid that anyone who believes it apparently has a single Froot Loop where most of us have a brain.

But back to vaccines.  I've dealt with this topic here at Skeptophilia often enough that you might be wondering why I'm returning to it.  Well, the answer is that the anti-vaxx movement has now expanded its focus to a different target...

... pets.

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

I kid you not.  Veterinarians, especially in urban areas of the United States, are reporting an increasing number of pet owners who are refusing to get their pets vaccinated.  Only one vaccine is mandated for dogs in the U.S. -- rabies -- but the others are critical to prevent devastating diseases.  The reason you hardly ever hear about a dog getting (for example) canine distemper is because responsible dog owners have their dogs vaccinated against it.  The vaccine is nearly 100% effective, and (like virtually all vaccines) safe and side-effect free.

If your dog actually contracts distemper, however, he has a 50-50 chance of surviving it, even with the best veterinary care.

There's no question which option I take for my own dogs.

The anti-vaxxers, however, don't see it like this.  Recall that this is the group of people who believe that it's better to develop "natural immunity," meaning immunity from exposure to the actual pathogen.  If a child (or a pet) has a good diet and is otherwise healthy, they say, these infectious diseases aren't dangerous.  Thus the book Melanie's Marvelous Measles by Stephanie Messenger, which tells the story of little Melanie who is just thrilled to get measles and develop "natural immunity" rather than having to go through the ordeal of getting a vaccination.

For the record, I'm not making this book up.  Although I do find it heartening that of the 511 reviews it's gotten so far on Amazon, 74% of them are one-star.

The problem is twofold.  First, this "natural immunity" carries with it the risk of horrible complications from the disease itself, a few of which are shingles (chicken pox), sterility (mumps), blindness (measles), and birth defects (rubella).  That's if they don't kill you outright.  I have mentioned before my grandfather's two sisters, Marie Emelie and Anne Daisy, who died nine days apart of measles -- at the ages of 22 and 16, respectively.

The second problem is that it doesn't take all that many people choosing not to vaccinate to give infectious diseases a foothold.  Measles and mumps are both making comebacks; to return to the original topic of pets, so is distemper, to judge from a 2014 outbreak in Texas that resulted in 200 cases of the once-rare disease.

And why are people making this decision?  As with the anti-vaxxers who are refusing to vaccinate their children, these people are trying to protect their pets against some unspecified set of ostensible risk factors.  Stephanie Liff, a Brooklyn-based veterinarian, has reported that she has clients who elected not to vaccinate their dogs -- because they were afraid the dogs would become autistic.

"We've never diagnosed autism in a dog," Liff said.  "I don't think you could."

The bottom line here is that our pets, like our children, depend on us to make responsible decisions with regards to their health, safety, and welfare.  The fact that people have loony ideas sometimes is unavoidable; but when those loony ideas start to endanger others, including animals, who have no say in the matter -- then it becomes reprehensible.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Party-line science

The latest from the "Why the Hell Are We Still Having to Fight This Battle?" department, we have: a new rule within the Department of Agriculture forbidding employees to use the term "climate change."

Yup.  Emails from the National Resources Conservation Service, a unit within the USDA, describe terms that "are to be avoided."  According to Bianca Moebius-Clune, one of the directors within the NRCS, here are some substitutes for the forbidden terms:
  • instead of "climate change," say "weather extremes"
  • instead of "climate change adaptation," say "resilience to weather extremes"
  • instead of "reduce greenhouse gases," say "increase nutrient use efficiency"
  • instead of "sequester carbon," say "build soil organic matter"
"We won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it," Moebius-Clune writes.  "There are a lot of benefits to putting carbon back in the sail [sic], climate mitigation is just one of them."

Which is disingenuous to say the least.  No one is fooled, Ms. Moebius-Clune, by "how you're talking about" climate change.  This administration has made it clear from the get-go that they are not only science deniers, they will do everything in their power to block or undo efforts to mitigate climate change, up to and including lying outright about what the evidence means.  

And if there was any doubt about the shenanigans going on here, consider that one of the NRCS emails mentioned in the story was from a USDA employee named Suzanne Baker, who asked whether NRCS staff were "allowed to publish work from outside the USDA that use ‘climate change’."  Baker was advised that the issue was best discussed via telephone rather than email -- presumably because telephone conversations leave no paper trail.

The whole thing goes back to an issue I've discussed before in Skeptophilia; that when the government starts having a Party Line with respect to what is acceptable science, there's a serious problem.  Science is by its very nature apolitical; data has no spin.  Now, what should be done about problems uncovered by scientific research is a different matter.  Solutions obviously have political and economic implications that need to be decided by responsible leaders.

But the science itself has zilch to do with whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or anything else.  You can disbelieve it if you want to, but that doesn't make you a staunch party member, it just means that you're willfully ignorant.

This all makes the timing of a report on climate change released last week, drafted by scientists from thirteen different agencies, seem even more on-point.  The last decades have been the warmest in 1,500 years, and Alaska and the Arctic are warming at twice the global average -- making a positive feedback loop from the methane released by thawing permafrost a frighteningly real possibility.

The report is now sitting on President Trump's desk, and there's considerable concern in the scientific world that Trump will either order it to be amended, or else suppress it completely.  It contradicts his stance that petroleum, coal, and gas use is completely safe, and that global warming is a myth -- something he's stated in one form or another over and over.  "It’s a fraught situation," said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University (who was not involved in the study).  "This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it."

I may be pessimistic in this regard, but I don't think there's any question how they'll handle it.  Trump has loaded the relevant governmental positions with climate change deniers and people in the pockets of the fossil fuels industry, so his position on this matter is crystal-clear.  If the report isn't round-filed immediately, it'll be returned for revision -- rewriting it so as to cast doubt on its conclusions, taking out language that the powers-that-be dislike and replacing it with vague verbiage intended to generate a shoulder shrug rather than resolute action.

After all, if all of the studies that have gone before this haven't changed the minds of people like Trump, EPA director Scott Pruitt, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, this one sure as hell won't.

What I find grimly ironic about this is that in the United States, the state that is projected to have the most damage from climate change is Florida.  So if the ice melt continues at the current rate, Trump's precious Mar-a-Lago resort is going to be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a hundred miles from the nearest land.  I know that if this happens, it will come along with the displacement of millions of people worldwide from coastal cities, which is nothing short of tragic; but the mental image of Trump piling up sandbags around his palatial estate, trying futilely to keep the seawater from flooding in, at least cheers me up a little bit.

[image courtesy of the University of Arizona and the Wikimedia Commons]

It would take a bigger man than me not to watch him and say, "How's that 'weather extreme' treating you, Donald?  Bet you wish you had engaged in a little 'increasing of nutrient use efficiency' while you still could, don't you?"

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Linda vs. the serial killer

There's a logic problem that's often nicknamed "The Linda Problem," and I hasten to state that by calling it that I don't mean any general criticism of people named Linda.  It goes like this:
Linda is a 30-year-old woman who lives in a big city in the United States.  She is single, has a master's degree in sociology, and is deeply interested in issues of discrimination, social justice, and addressing poverty and homelessness. 
Which of the following is more likely?
  1. Linda is a bank teller. 
  2. Linda is a bank teller who voted for Hillary Clinton.
The whole thing rests on what is known as the conjunction fallacy, and it's amazing how many smart people this one trips up.  The answer is that the first statement has to be more likely; the more qualifiers you add to a list, the fewer people will meet the whole list at the same time.  To give an illustration that is less likely to elicit a wrong answer, consider the following.
You see a dog.  Which is more likely?
  1. It's a golden lab.
  2. It's a golden lab wearing a red collar.
  3. It's a golden lab on a pink leash wearing a red collar.
  4. It's a golden lab sitting on a sidewalk while on a pink leash and wearing a red collar.
For this one, it's clear that each additional qualifier makes the pool of (in this case) dogs that fit the description smaller and smaller.

[image courtesy of photographer Eric Armitage and the Wikimedia Commons]

So why does the Linda Problem trip people up?  It's because in statement #2, the second qualifier -- that she voted Democrat in the last election -- is actually quite probable, given what we know about her.  Once people see that, they tend to grab on to it and ignore the bank teller part, thinking, "Well, I have no idea how likely it is she's a bank teller; but it's really likely she voted for Clinton.  So the second one must be the most likely overall."

Which is why I found the results of a paper that appeared last week in Nature: Human Behavior simultaneously so funny and so appalling.  The study, conducted by a team led by Will Gervais of the University of Kentucky, investigated biases against people based on their religious adherence (or lack thereof).  Test subjects were asked one of two versions of a question designed to see if people connected atheism with sociopathy.  They were given the following scenario:
A 45-year-old man, who tortured animals when he was young, later moved on to hurting people.  He has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.
Half of the test subjects were then asked the following:
Which of the following is more probable?
  1. The man is a teacher.
  2. The man is a teacher who does not believe in any gods.
The other half got a different question:
Which of the following is more probable?
  1. The man is a teacher.
  2. The man is a teacher who is a religious believer. 
Well, you can see that this is just the Linda Problem in a different guise, and that in each case statement #1 is more probable, regardless of the qualifier (or what the additional qualifier was in statement #2).  But Gervais found a surprising result -- a full 60% said that in the first case, the second statement was more likely, and only 30% said the same for the second scenario.  (For comparison purposes, one study found that the average number of people who miss ordinary conjunction-fallacy problems is around 48%.)

So that means that people's innate biases against atheists make them more likely to fall for the conjunction fallacy.  Unsurprisingly, when this test was carried out in highly religious countries -- like the United Arab Emirates -- the percentage who miss it was even higher.  In less religious countries, such as New Zealand, the percentage was lower, but the bias still exists, in that the percentage who got the question wrong was still higher than the average of 48%.

Most interesting of all, people who were themselves non-believers were less biased -- but not by much.  (52% of self-described atheists got the first question wrong, as compared to 60% average for the entire group of test subjects.)

As fascinating as this is, it's also pretty disheartening.  I know there's prejudice against atheists, but really... a serial killer?  And even my fellow atheists have that perception?  I do run into this kind of thing, usually in the guise questions like, "If you don't believe in god, how do you have any moral compass?  Why don't you go around committing immoral acts?"  My response usually is something like, "If your fear of punishment in the afterlife is the only thing that's keeping you from lying, stealing, and hurting others, then you're the one whose moral compass needs examination, not mine."

But I didn't realize how deep the bias goes.  Gervais et al. write:
The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.
Which is kind of terrible, really.  Any kind of unfounded prejudice is a bad thing, but judgments like this lead people to make some pretty hideous assumptions.  It'd be nice if the Gervais et al. paper might get people to reconsider their biases, but given the words the authors use -- "intuitive" and "entrenched moral suspicion" -- that's probably a forlorn hope.

In any case, I hasten to reassure readers of Skeptophilia that I have no dismembered bodies buried in my basement.

For one thing, my basement has a cement floor, which would make it kind of difficult.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

So lonely I could die

I just got back from a ten-day visit to my publisher, wherein I attended a writers' retreat and about 150 different meetings with other writers and staff members of Oghma Creative Media.  This was great from the standpoint both of seeing some old friends, and also networking, which is pretty critical to a fiction author.

Simultaneously, however, it made me want to curl up into a ball and whimper softly.  I am dreadfully shy and a natural-born introvert, and crowds of people, however friendly, sap my energy like nothing else.  I did kind of crash-and-burn one day, during which I was in conversation with people from, no lie, 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night without a single break.

By the end, my publisher said I looked like a lost puppy, standing there with a dazed, "where am I?" expression on my face.  He did bring me a scotch, which helped considerably.

This is why I took such interest in a paper presented last week at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, entitled, "Loneliness: A Growing Public Health Threat."  The paper described a meta-analysis done by a team led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.  What they did was first combine the results of 148 different studies of over 300,000 people, correlating social isolation with the risk of early death, and then do the same for a larger group of 3.4 million people.

The results were unequivocal.  Social isolation correlates with premature death -- and in fact is as big a risk factor as obesity!  Holt-Lunstad said in her presentation:
Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.  Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment.  Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly... There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.  With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.
Which of course got me thinking about my own situation.  I'm pretty solitary even for an introvert; I have lots of pleasant acquaintances, a few true and deep friends, but almost no social life.  The majority of the people in my life are there because of my (much more extroverted) wife, and even most of the people that I consider good friends I seldom see.

Me and one of my best friends, who unfortunately lives 230 miles away...

The problem, apparently, is worse in men than in women, probably because we guys have been told since birth that to be a strong man means to be tough, silent, and to downplay our emotions.  This comes at a cost -- for men, social isolation is as correlated with heart attack and stroke risk as smoking is, and in fact shows an actual biological marker -- an elevated level of fibrinogen, a protein involved in blood clotting.

Of course, correlation isn't causation.  It could be that the elevated risk and social isolation are correlated because both of them are caused by something else -- such as depression.  Establishing a causation was beyond the scope of this study, although it is to be hoped that the researchers will investigate that next.

The problem, both in general and for me personally, is what exactly socially isolated people are supposed to do about all this.  Heaven knows I'd like more social connections, and I suspect others like me feel the same way, but connections don't just magically appear.  They require us to put ourselves out there and be more outgoing.  Which gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Maybe a scotch would help.

Anyhow, forewarned is forearmed, and there's nothing to be lost by trying to forge a better social life for myself.  I doubt that I'll ever be extroverted no matter what I do -- but I have to say that a couple of buddies with whom I could have a beer every now and then would be mighty nice.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Spell check

If you were wondering why the Trump administration has turned out to be a slow-moving train wreck, it's not because the American people saw fit to elect an unqualified, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath to the highest office in the land: it's because Trump et al. are being cursed by witches.

At least that's the contention of Lance Wallnau, pastor, author, speaker, "spiritual guide," and writer for Charisma News, who has been something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia.  Here are just a few of the appearances Wallnau has already made:
So you can see that Wallnau's grip on reality isn't that strong to begin with.  Despite the fact that he's one of these "traditional family values" guys who thinks that social liberalism is sending America into the pit of hell, he is staunchly behind a thrice-married serial adulterer for whom money and power are the sole motivators.  And, apparently, he sees no internal contradictions in this stance, to the point that he thinks that Trump is the next best thing to the Second Coming of Christ.

And now, Wallnau thinks that his Deputy Lord and Savior is under attack.  Because, let's face it; you can't be the Chosen One and expect that all the bad guys in the world are just going to accept it.  So Wallnau thinks that Trump is being cursed by witches, presumably using spells that make the target individual sound like a spoiled and inarticulate toddler.

But there's a twist in all this; since the president is being "protected by the prayers of Christians," most of the evil magic is being deflected, and is instead striking the members of Trump's family.  This could certainly explain some of the trouble that Donald Jr. and Jared Kushner are in at the moment.  And if some of the collateral damage is striking members of Trump's inner circle, this could also make sense of the resignation of Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci, and the rumors surrounding some impending upset involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

I don't know how I feel about this.  I mean, taking down Donald Jr., Kushner, Spicer, Scaramucci, and Sessions is all very well, but it leaves so many other deserving recipients of evil spells uncursed.  I mean, come on; Kellyanne Conway?  Betsy DeVos?  Paul Ryan?  And most of all, Mitch McConnell?  If ever there was someone who needs to be targeted by the "Silencio" charm from Harry Potter, it's Mitch McConnell.  The only thing that would be better is to (1) make it permanent, and (2) add some other spell that would get rid of the slimy smirk he always wears.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So anyway, Wallnau wants his followers to rectify this oversight.  “People are praying for the president, but they’re not necessarily praying for his family,” Wallnau said.  “So right now, all those witchcraft curses that did not land on Donald Trump are trying to take out his kids, trying to take out his offspring, trying to attack anything near him.”

As proof of the danger, Wallnau cites an exorcism he once witnessed, wherein the demon was expelled from the possessed person, but instead of hauling ass back to the Pits of Darkness, the demon instead jumped into the body of the family dog, who proceeded to fling himself out of the car window as it sped down the highway.

Which brings up an important question, to wit: who the hell does an exorcism on someone in a moving car?  I'll admit that some people do drive as if they had taken classes in Hell's Driving School.  But even so, it seems like a dangerous thing to do.  Even if it wasn't the driver who was being exorcised, you'd still have the risk of sharp objects being flung around the car and the possessed person puking up pea soup all over the place.

Which would make it kind of hard to concentrate on watching the road.

But Wallnau apparently doesn't find anything at all weird about this.  He told his listeners exactly what they should say.  “We take authority over every hex, vex, spell, jinx, satanic curse, blood curse, every demon assigned to destroy the health of the president, to destroy the health of his family, to harass him, to vex him, to cause him to lose sleep.  In Jesus's name, we veto every curse that has been brought against Donald Trump and his family and his administration.”

And I have to admit that sounds pretty authoritative.  But you have to wonder why they don't do anything more productive, like praying that god vetoes Trump's Twitter account.

Anyhow, that's today's dip in the deep end of the pool.  I have to admit that Lance Wallnau is always good for a laugh, even if my chortling is tempered by the fact that he has a large number of people who actually listen to him and believe what he says, and damn near all of those people voted for Donald Trump.  All of which makes my laughter ring a little hollow.

So I think to cheer myself up I'll go practice hurling spells like "Petrificus Totalus" in Mitch McConnell's direction.  Who knows?  Maybe it'll work.  And if my aim is bad, it could still hit Paul Ryan, which would be almost as good.