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

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The seven deadly words

George Orwell, in his classic book 1984, writes characters who speak a dialect of English called "Newspeak."

The "Minitrue" (Ministry of Truth) controls the public perception of what is true, perceptions that are enforced by the "Thinkpol" (Thought Police).  The Thinkpol are responsible for stopping "thoughtcrime," including "facecrime" -- forbidden thoughts as revealed in your facial expression.  Toward that end, they "rectify" historical accounts (to conform to the government's agenda regarding what happened), eliminating anything that is "malquoted" or "misprinted."  You're trained to the point of accepting the government's views based on "bellyfeel" -- how they affect you emotionally, not whether they're true.

Intercourse between a man and a woman -- preferably without any pleasure -- is "goodsex."  Anything else is a "sexcrime."  The preference of the government is that babies are conceived by "artsem" -- artificial insemination.

Someone who breaks any of these rules -- or worse, contradicts what Big Brother wants you to do or say -- is not only killed, every trace of them is erased.  They become an "Unperson."

[image courtesy of photographer Todd Page and the Wikimedia Commons]

Orwell was strikingly prescient.  If you doubt that we're heading down that road, consider the story that was broken by the Washington Post yesterday, that employees at the Center for Disease Control have been given a list by the Trump administration of seven words they are not allowed to use in official correspondence or publications.

Those words are:
  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • fetus
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • science-based
  • evidence-based
When I first read this, my initial reaction was, "This can't possibly be true."  The CDC being forbidden from using the word "fetus?"  But after some digging about, all I can say is that it appears at the time of this writing to be true.  The reports have not been corroborated by any official channels -- spokespeople for the CDC itself refused to comment -- but no one involved has stepped forward and said, "Bullshit."

I'm not sure what to be appalled most about this.  That we don't want any group of people identified as "vulnerable," because then we might have to do something about it.  That because of the Trump administration's ongoing war on minorities, we mustn't speak of diversity.  That LGBT individuals, whose rights to fair treatment are being threatened with every new judicial appointment, are guilty of "sexcrime;" and we have to pretend transgender people don't even exist.

And "science-based" and "evidence-based?"  What the fuck is the CDC supposed to base its policy on, then?  Magic?  The bible?  Prophecy?

Or just what its "bellyfeel" is?

I've tried not to engage in hyperbole about what this administration is doing, but every new thing I read drives me further toward the conclusion that they have really only one motive: consolidating power, and toward that end, shutting down resistance, eliminating free speech and the free press, rewriting the truth to conform to whatever Trump's cadre says it should be.  Everything contradictory is "oldspeak" that should be "rectified."

The result should be "doubleplusgood," don't you think?

My hope is the fact of this having been made public will give CDC employees the courage to defy this order.  People have to fight back, tell the 2017 version of the Thinkpol "No way in hell."  We have to spread this story far and wide, because you know the first thing the Trump administration is going to do is claim that this is all "fake news."

"Malquoted" and "misprinted."

I have some slim hope that this report will turn out to be an exaggeration, or perhaps simply untrue.  But given the Trump administration's record for supporting not only the right to dissent but science itself, I'm not holding my breath.  What it's looking more like is that Orwell got the details right -- all he missed was the year it happened.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Time-traveling Martian tourist for president!

I know that a lot of us have been pretty distressed by the people who have successfully been elected or appointed to positions in the federal government.  (Hell, the state governments, too, given that nearly half of voters in Alabama voted for an ultra-right-wing alleged pedophile who was removed as the state's Chief Justice for failing to follow the law, and thinks the bible should replace the Constitution.  Oh, and that only the first ten Amendments should count, thereby legalizing slavery and disenfranchising everyone but white Christian males.  I could go on and on.)

So the situation is discouraging, to say the least.  But I have good news for you, apropos of the 2020 presidential election:

Andrew Basiago has thrown his hat into the ring.

Basiago is one of those people who looks perfectly sane.  I mean, check out his official election campaign photograph:

He looks like the kind of guy you could immediately trust, right?  Basiago is a Seattle lawyer, but if you recognize his name, it's probably not because of his law practice.

If you're a long-time reader of Skeptophilia, the name will ring a bell because he's been something of a frequent flyer here.  Back in 2012, he claimed that he and President Obama had participated in "Mars training classes" in the early 1980s, and that shortly thereafter he ran into Obama on Mars.  Oh, and they got there by teleporting.  Later that year, he informed the public that not only had he teleported, he was able to time travel, and in fact had zoomed back to the 1860s so he could hear President Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address.  He stuck around until 1865 so he could see Lincoln get shot in Ford's Theater, which must have been pretty upsetting.

The following year, Basiago teamed up with noted wingnut Alfred Lambremont Webre to issue a dire prediction: the planet Nibiru, which makes more unscheduled public appearances than Kim Kardashian, was going to make a near pass of the Earth in the summer of 2013, causing "electrical discharges" which would fry most of humanity.  He knew this, he said, because he'd developed a tool called a "chronovisor" which allowed him to see into the future.

Well, I lived through 2013, and I don't remember any electrical discharges.  Sounds like his "chronovisor" needs recalibration.

So this guy is going to run for president.

Basiago says he's going to run on the platform of putting money into developing better time travel and teleportation technology.  There's already such a program in place (obviously, since he says he's used it), called "Project Pegasus," and he's not only going to fund it, he's going to reveal its marvels and secrets to the general public.

If he's elected, that is.  If not, I guess it'll be "fuck everybody" and he'll be back to his law practice in Seattle and writing articles about Martians for Before It's News.

Me, I'm all for him.  We've proven already that America is resilient enough to survive for a year under the questionable leadership of a man who is either demented or insane, so I'm sure we could make it for four years with a president who claims to have been to Mars.  His press release sounds so... normal:
Today, Andrew D. Basiago is running for President of the United States with a New Agenda for a New America. He has vowed that if elected President, he will lead the American people into a bold, new era of Truth, Reform, and Innovation as great as they are great. Join us in supporting Andy in his quest to establish a Presidency as honest, just, and ingenious as the American people.
Which is easily saner than any of Donald Trump's tweets.

So my general view is: "Basiago 2020!"  At least we could be sure that NASA wouldn't be defunded.  And consider some of the other people who've run for president, and the one who actually won the office.  We could do a hell of a lot worse.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hum analysis

Some of my readers might know about the strange, mysterious humming noises that have been reported everywhere from Taos, New Mexico to Auckland, New Zealand.  The phenomenon has been reported in so many different locales that there's a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.

Explanations have varied, and to be fair, it's probable that the same cause doesn't account for all of the various hums in the world.  The Kokomo Hum and the West Seattle Hum were both adequately explained as low-frequency sound vibrations from machinery, the one in Kokomo from the Daimler-Chrysler plant, the one in West Seattle from a vacuum pump used by CalPortland to offload cargo from ships.

Some, though, are not so easily explained.  The Auckland Hum, which was pinpointed by people who heard it at 56 Hertz, and the Taos Hum, found to be between 32 and 80 Hertz, have never been adequately explained, leaving skeptics wondering if they might not be a combination of tinnitus and people paying such rapt attention to the silence that they begin to think they're hearing something.  Neither of those has ever been recorded or detected by sound equipment, despite the fact that any sound in that frequency range audible to human ears should be easy to detect.  (Especially given that one guy who has heard the Taos Hum said it was audible from 48 kilometers away.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, however, we have some research indicating that at least some of the world's Hums are due to a fascinating, and little-understood, phenomenon; the movement of deep ocean waves across uneven parts of the abyssal seafloor producing compression waves (better known as "sound") that could, potentially, propagate a great distance relatively unimpeded.  The study, by Fabrice Ardhuin, Lucia Gualtieri, and Eléonore Stutzmann of the Laboratoire d'Océanographie Spatiale, in Brest, France studied short-period interactions between oceanic waves and the terrain across which they were passing.  The vibrations, called "microseismic activity," might generate a sound where the wave fronts meet the boundary between air and water, thus creating a humming noise.  The authors write:
Microseismic activity, recorded everywhere on Earth, is largely due to ocean waves. Recent progress has clearly identified sources of microseisms in the most energetic band, with periods from 3 to 10 s.  In contrast, the generation of longer-period microseisms has been strongly debated.  Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain seismic wave generation: a primary mechanism, by which ocean waves propagating over bottom slopes generate seismic waves, and a secondary mechanism which relies on the nonlinear interaction of ocean waves.  Here we show that the primary mechanism explains the average power, frequency distribution, and most of the variability in signals recorded by vertical seismometers, for seismic periods ranging from 13 to 300 s.  The secondary mechanism only explains seismic motions with periods shorter than 13 s.  Our results build on a quantitative numerical model that gives access to time-varying maps of seismic noise sources.
Whatever the source, the noises are ubiquitous.  As Columbia University seismologist Spahr Webb put it,  "The Earth is ringing like a bell all the time."

What is pretty certain, however, is that these phenomena are not the result of the archangels blowing the trumpets of the Apocalypse, as End Times loons have claimed.  As recently as last month, loud, horn-like sounds reported from Canada and Indonesia have been claimed to be signs of the imminent fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, despite the fact that those prophecies have been imminent for the past two thousand years, and lo, the Antichrist is nowhere to be seen.  (Nor, I might add, are they signs that we're about to collide with the planet Nibiru, which has also been on its way for some time now.)

So it remains a mystery, which a lot of people don't like.  As far as the Taos Hum, it's unlikely to be caused by oceanic waves of any sort, because Taos is not exactly beach-front property.  But I'll bank on there being some kind of rational explanation, even if we don't know what it is.

Until then, you'll either have to ignore it or else hum along.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The imaginary restaurant

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia responded to yesterday's post, about a high school biology teacher who decided to name a chemical reaction after himself with the result that it became semi-official on the internet, with an email that said, "I'd love to talk to you more about this phenomenon.  How 'bout we meet at The Shed at Dulwich for lunch tomorrow?"

Which was a little puzzling, until I clicked the link he sent, which was about how a non-existent restaurant became an internet phenomenon.

It started earlier this year when a freelance writer with the unlikely name of "Oobah Butler" decided to create a TripAdvisor page for a fake restaurant, and gave the address as the location of a garden shed next to his house in the town of Dulwich, England, which is a suburb of London.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Once the page was created, Butler and a few friends lauded The Shed at Dulwich in gushing tones.  They got a burner cellphone to be the restaurant's phone number.  They created a fake menu, each dish based upon a human emotion (my favorite one was "Lust:  Rabbit kidneys on toast seasoned with saffron and an oyster bisque.  Served with a side of pomegranate soufflé.")  They created photographs of entrées out of non-food items such as bleach tablets and shaving cream, which included the following:

Which, honestly, looks a lot like stuff I've eaten at upscale restaurants, although I assume it wouldn't taste like it.

The reviews kept pouring in.  "The best shed-based experience in London!" one of them said, which you would think would have tipped people off.

But no. The positive reviews, combined with the menu and photographs, made The Shed at Dulwich rocket upwards in TripAdvisor.  (Another said, "Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit.  After a few mildly frustrating phone calls I was in.")

The phone began ringing off the hook.  Butler told the callers, "Sorry, we're booked up."  He was sent free samples by restaurant supply companies.  The Dulwich governing council called Butler about relocating the restaurant to a more business-friendly property.  People contacted him looking for employment.

At this point page for The Shed was receiving 89,000 hits a day.  It rose to #1 in the TripAdvisor restaurant category for the Greater London area.

Have I made it clear enough that this place doesn't actually exist?

This is like the Swanson conversion from yesterday's post, only more so.  Like a thousand times more so.  Of course, eventually Butler was found out, and he 'fessed up, and the page was taken down.  But not before he was receiving hundreds of calls daily, from all over the world, asking for reservations -- some of them for months in advance.

So if you needed further indication that you should view anything online with a good dose of skepticism and critical thinking, this is it.  A guy and a few friends, armed with nothing more than a burner cellphone, some photographs of household items dolled up to look like food, and a good imagination, punked TripAdvisor and thousands of eager foodies.  I don't know what would possess someone to do this, other than a warped sense of humor and way too much free time, but it does illustrate the human capacity for hoaxing.

You can't even trust webpages for highly-rated restaurants.  You see why I'm dubious about online claims for ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wikipedia, accuracy, and the Swanson conversion

I'm of two minds about Wikipedia.

I think it's a great resource for quick lookups, and use it myself for that sort of thing.  A study by Thomas Chesney found that experts generally consider Wikipedia to be pretty accurate, although the same study admits that others have concluded that 13% of Wikipedia entries have errors (how serious those errors are is uncertain; an error in a single date is certainly more forgivable than one that gives erroneous information about a major world event).  Another study concluded that between one-half and one-third of deliberately inserted errors are corrected within 48 hours.

But still.  That means that between one-half and two-thirds of deliberately inserted errors weren't corrected within 48 hours, which is troubling.  Given the recent squabbles over "fake news," having a source that could get contaminated by bias or outright falsehood, and remain uncorrected, is troubling.

Plus, there's the problem with error sneaking in, as it were, through the back door.  Sometimes claims are posted on Wikipedia (and elsewhere) by people who honestly think what they're stating is correct, and once that happens, there tends to be a snake-swallowing-its-own-tail pattern of circular citations, and before you know it, what was a false claim suddenly becomes enshrined as fact.

As an example of this, consider the strange case of the Swanson conversion.

The Swanson conversion, which sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory but isn't, is a piece of the reaction of cellular respiration.  Without geeking out on this too extremely -- and my students will attest that I get way too excited about how cool cellular respiration is -- the background on this is as follows.

Cellular respiration, which is the set of reactions by which our cells burn glucose and release energy to power everything we do, has three major steps: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain.  Each of those is made of dozens of sub-reactions, which I will refrain from describing (although like I said, they're extremely cool).  But there's one piece of it that doesn't have an official name, and that's the step that links glycolysis (the first step) to the Krebs cycle (the second step).

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, and the irony of the source of this image does not escape me]

Again, trying not to be too technical, here, but at the end of glycolysis, the original glucose molecule has been split in two (in fact, "glycolysis" is Greek for "sugar breaking").  The two halves are called pyruvate, and they're three-carbon compounds.  Before they can be thrown into the Krebs cycle, however, they have to lose one carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide), thus forming acetate, which can be introduced into the first step of Krebs.

So what's that carbon-losing step called?  Apparently, "the Swanson conversion."  It's in Wikipedia, not to mention many other websites describing the reactions of respiration.

The problem?  The name "Swanson conversion" was given to the linking step by a high school biology teacher named Swanson when his students asked him why that bit of the reaction didn't have a name, and he said, "hell, I dunno.  Let's call it 'the Swanson conversion.'"  And it stuck...

... especially when one of his students posted it to Wikipedia as the correct name.

When Swanson found out, he at first was annoyed, but after discussing it with his students, allowed it to remain as a test to see how quickly errors on Wikipedia were corrected.  And... it wasn't.  In fact, others who have wondered, as my students did, why this step doesn't have a name stumbled on this and thought, "Cool!  Now I know what to call it!" and posted it on their websites.  And now, this name that started out as an inside joke between a biology teacher and his students has become the semi-official name of the step.

Swanson, for his part, says he uses it as an example of how you can't trust what's online without checking your sources.  The problem is, how do you check the sources on something like this?  Once the aforementioned self-referential merry-go-round has been engaged, it becomes damn near impossible to figure out what's correct.  Especially in cases like this, which is that the correct answer to "what is the name of ____?" is, "There isn't one."  All too easy to say, "Well, I guess this one must be correct, since it's all over the place."

I realize this is a pretty unique situation, and I'm not trying to impugn the accuracy of Wikipedia as a whole.  I still use it for looking up simple facts -- after all, I'm from the generation during whose childhood if you wanted to know what year Henry VIII was crowned King of England, and didn't have an encyclopedia at home, you had to get in your car and drive to the library to look it up.  I think Wikipedia, errors and all, is a pretty significant step upward.

However, it does mean that we need to keep our brains engaged when we read stuff on the internet -- and, as always, try to find independent corroboration.  Because otherwise, we'll have people believing that one of the reactions of photosynthesis is called "the Bonnet activation."  And heaven knows, we wouldn't want that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

End Times celebration

By now, you've probably heard about Donald Trump's controversial decision to grant official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, to be followed by moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The issue -- as far as I understand it -- is that both Israelis and Palestinians consider Jerusalem to be their capital, and our previous stance was that the US would remain out of that particular facet of the conflict.  The hope was that any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would involve some sort of compromise regarding the city (hard to imagine what that would be, of course).  So while we've been pretty unequivocally supportive of the Israelis, we've been cautiously neutral with regards to that piece of it.

Trump, of course, has the "bull in a china shop" approach to world diplomacy, and announced his decision last week, come what may.  This caused a lot of forehead-slapping on the part of people who've devoted their lives to bringing peace to the Middle East -- but one group, at least, was absolutely thrilled.

This, to no one's particular surprise, was the evangelical Christians, who in the last year have showed themselves as a group to be kind of unhinged.  And this time, one of their spokespersons in the political arena -- State Senator Doug Broxson of Florida -- has come right out and said why Trump's announcement was the cause of such jubilation:

It's going to usher in the End Times.

"Now, I don’t know about you," Broxson said to a cheering rally, "but when I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings [applause] where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel."

Of course, at the same rally, Broxson also called Trump's cabinet picks as "the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest," which makes me wonder if Broxson has either lost touch with reality in general, or else his only basis of comparison is the members of the Under-90-IQ Club.

Be that as it may, what gets me most about this statement is how excited the evangelicals seem to be about the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  I mean, you'd think that even if you knew you were going to be on the winning side, you wouldn't be looking forward to it, you know?  As a friend of mine put it, "You're free to think I'm going to be condemned to burn in agony in hell for all eternity, but it'd be nice if you didn't seem so happy about it."

I suppose the reason is that the End Times cadre think that before the really bad stuff starts happening, they're all gonna be Raptured right the hell out of here, leaving us evil folks down on Earth to contend with such special offers as the Beast With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns.  Which brings up an interesting question: why does it have three more crowns than it has heads?  I remember that bothering me when I first read the Book of Revelation as a teenager.  Does it wear two crowns on three of its heads, and one each on the other four?  Or does it wear one crown per head and carry the other three around in its backpack as spares, in case one of its crowns is in the laundry?

Of course, in the same passage (Revelation 13:1) it also says that the Beast has ten horns.  As a biologist, I find that even more peculiar.  Usually the number of horns on an animal is a multiple of the number of heads.

But maybe I'm thinking too hard about all of this.

La Bête de la Mer, from Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse (ca. 1380) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm a little perplexed by the jubilation.  I thought that Jesus was pretty unequivocal about loving thy neighbor, and as far as I can see this does not entail looking forward to thy neighbor being the featured entrée at Satan's barbecue lunch.

As for me, I'm kind of hoping that Trump's decision doesn't usher in the End Times, and also that it doesn't cause the turmoil in the Middle East to intensify, because that's the last thing those people need.  Right now, it would be more to the point to try to defuse tensions, not do shit that makes the warring factions even madder at each other.

But I suppose that's what you get when the "best of the best and brightest of the brightest" are in charge.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The lure of the storyteller

I've been a storyteller since I can remember.  Nicer than calling it "compulsive liar," which I suppose is what it is, not that I claim my stories are true anymore, something I was known to do as a child.  Even if you know it's not real -- maybe especially if you know it's not real -- to imagine things to be different than they are, to dream of a world different than the one you inhabit, is mesmerizing.

I had my first experience sharing a story I'd written when I was in first grade.  It was a ridiculous little thing, with equally ridiculous illustrations, about a bird that fell out of its nest and bent his beak, then had to find someone to help him straighten it out.  I was terrified when I got up in front of the class to read it... but they loved it.  They laughed at the right places, and applauded when I was done.

And I was hooked for life.

What's curious is why this drive exists at all, and why it is so common.  Almost everyone either likes telling stories, hearing stories, or both.  What possible purpose could there be to telling stories that are obviously false both to teller and listener?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

A new paper in Nature: Communications, by Daniel Smith et al., sheds some light on this uniquely human behavior.  Entitled "Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytelling," the researchers conclude that storytelling exists to pass along social norms, encourage cooperation, and enhance social cohesion.  The authors write:
Storytelling is a human universal.  From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories.  Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling.  Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller.  Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism.  These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies.  We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection.  We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.
So storytelling helps the community by teaching the social structure, and helps the storyteller by increasing the likelihood (s)he will have sex.

Which is pretty cool.

In a piece that study lead author Daniel Smith wrote for The Conversation, we find out that it's not only literal storytellers who are more likely to get lucky:
Even in modern, Western society skilled storytellers – ranging from novelists and artists to actors and stand-up comics – have a high social status.  There is even some evidence that successful male visual artists (a form of modern-day storyteller) have more sexual partners than unsuccessful visual artists.
This, Smith says, not only explains why we've become storytellers, but why we've become story listeners.  He writes:
Humans have evolved the capacity to create and believe in stories.  Narratives can also transcend the “here and now” by introducing individuals to situations beyond their everyday experience, which may increase empathy and perspective-taking towards others, including strangers.  These features may have evolved in hunter-gatherer societies as precursors to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction. 
Such narratives include moralising gods, organised religion, nation states and other ideologies found in post-agricultural societies.  Some are crucial parts of societies today, functioning to bond individuals into cohesive and cooperative communities.  It’s fascinating to think that they could have all started with a humble story around the campfire.
As a novelist, it's not to be wondered at that I find all of this pretty cool.  Not, I hasten to state for the record (mostly because my wife reads my blog) that I'm looking forward to any hanky-panky with starry-eyed groupies.  But the idea that our penchant for telling stories performs a vital function, benefiting both teller and listener, is fascinating. I'm a little curious, however, about the function (if there is any) of stories that don't tell any kind of explicitly moralistic message.  Ghost stories, for example.  It's possible that the social cohesion aspect exists for those as well -- the telling-tales-late-at-night-while-camping phenomenon -- but one has to wonder if there's a different benefit accrued from different types of stories.

Maybe telling a scary story makes it more likely that a person of your preferred gender will cuddle up to you afterwards for reassurance and comfort, and also increase the likelihood of of your getting laid.  I dunno.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.  Because I write paranormal fiction, and what the plots of my novels have mostly done is made people wonder if I was dropped on my head as an infant.