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, November 18, 2017

Navigating the imaginary

As many of you know, I've been writing fiction for over four decades.  I won't claim that what I wrote in the first half of that period was good fiction, but it was a long period of honing my skills so that now I can (with all due modesty) tell a pretty good story.

Something my publisher has encouraged me to do in the last three years is to push into what he calls "deep point-of-view."  In deep point-of-view, the reader isn't watching the character act; the reader becomes the character.  The dialogue and narrative are so immediate that you are, effectively, seeing through her eyes and hearing through her ears.

It's not an easy skill to master, and to be honest I'm still trying to learn how to do it effectively. But when done well, it is incredibly powerful, allowing us to feel as if we are actually inhabiting the imaginary worlds that authors create.

Young Man Reading by Candlelight  (Matthias Stom, early 17th century Holland) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This connection between language and our sense of space is why I found some research published last week in the journal Neuroimage so fascinating.  The study, described in the paper "Cortical Networks for Reference-Frame Processing are Shared by Language and Spatial Navigation Systems" by Nikola Vukovic and Yury Shtyrov of Aarhus University in Denmark, looks at the way our arrays of neural structures called "cortical generators" function when we are picturing ourselves finding our way through a crowded space -- and many of the same ones are activated when we interpret either written or spoken language.

Previous research had distinguished between people who are spatially egocentric and ones who are spatially allocentric -- the first primarily mapping the world based on the position of objects relative to their own bodies, the second considering positions as relative to other objects in the surroundings (and therefore independent of the observer's own position).  After performing tasks to sort test subjects into egocentric and allocentric types, Vukovic and Shtyrov had them navigate their way through a computer simulation of a twisty tunnel.  Afterwards, the subjects were asked to match pictures to sentences describing what was happening in them.  The sentences differed, however, in point of view; some were describing action as if it were outside of the test subject ("The man walks up to the door and knocks on it"); others as if the test subject was actually inside the story ("You walk up to the door and knock on it").

During both tasks, subjects were connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which monitored the activity in various parts of the brain.  And interestingly, the egocentric people performed better on the tunnel test; even more interesting was that the regions of the brain active in egocentric people during the tunnel test were the same ones that were active when they were placed inside the story by the wording of the description.

"When we read or hear stories about characters, we have to represent the inherently different perspectives people have on objects and events, and ‘put ourselves in their shoes,’" Vukovic said.  "Our study is the first to show that our brain mentally simulates sentence perspective by using non-linguistic areas typically in charge of visuo-spatial thought."

Shtyrov, who co-authored the study, added, "Brain activity when solving a language task is related to an individual's egocentric or allocentric perspective, as well as their brain activity in the navigation task.  The correlation between navigation and linguistic activities proves that these phenomena are truly connected...  Furthermore, in the process of language comprehension we saw activation in well-known brain navigation systems, which were previously believed to make no contribution to speech comprehension."

As an author, I find this tremendously exciting.  Writers call the creation of their fictional settings "world-building," and this turns out to be true in a very deep way.  By writing so as to put the reader inside the story, we are engaging the same neural circuitry that allows us to navigate the real world. This explains the ability of good fiction to transport us, to feel as if we're right there in medieval France or imperial Japan or Mordor or Tatooine.  When we have this experience, it's because our brain is allowing us to create an inner world -- but one that, at least for a short time, can seem as real as the world around us.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Motivated reasoning

Last week there was a paper released in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences called, "Epistemic Rationality: Skepticism Toward Unfounded Beliefs Requires Sufficient Cognitive Ability and Motivation to be Rational."  Understandably enough, the title made me sit up and take notice, as this topic has been my bread and butter for years.  The authors, Tomas Ståhl (of the University of Illinois) and Jan-Willem van Prooijen (of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), describe their work thus:
Why does belief in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and various other phenomena that are not backed up by evidence remain widespread in modern society?  In the present research we adopt an individual difference approach, as we seek to identify psychological precursors of skepticism toward unfounded beliefs.  We propose that part of the reason why unfounded beliefs are so widespread is because skepticism requires both sufficient analytic skills, and the motivation to form beliefs on rational grounds...  [W]e show that analytic thinking is associated with a lower inclination to believe various conspiracy theories, and paranormal phenomena, but only among individuals who strongly value epistemic rationality...  We also provide evidence suggesting that general cognitive ability, rather than analytic cognitive style, is the underlying facet of analytic thinking that is responsible for these effects.
The first bit is hardly a surprise, and is the entire raison d'être of my Critical Thinking class.  Skepticism is not only a way of looking at the world, it's a skill; and like any skill, it takes practice.  Adopting a rational approach to understanding the universe means learning some of the ways in which irrationality occurs, and figuring out how to avoid them.

The second part, though, is more interesting, but also more insidious: in order to be a skeptic, you have to be motivated toward rational thought -- and value it.

Aristotle Teaching Alexander the Great (Charles Laplante, 1866) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This explains the interaction I had with one of my AP Biology students many years ago.  Young-Earth creationists don't, by and large, take my AP class.  My background is in evolutionary genetics, so most of them steer clear, sensing that they're in hostile territory.  (I will say in my own defense that I never treat students in a hostile manner; and the few times I have had a creationist take my class, it was a positive experience, and kept me on my toes to present my arguments as cogently as possible.)

This young lady, however, stood out.  She was absolutely brilliant, acing damn near every quiz I gave.  She had a knack for understanding science that was nothing short of extraordinary.  So we went through the unit on genetics, and I presented the introduction to the unit on evolution, in which I laid out the argument supporting the theory of evolution, explaining how it fits every bit of hard evidence we've got.

That day, she asked if she could talk to me after class.  I said, "Sure," and had no guess about what she might have wanted to talk to me about.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when she said, "I just want you to know that I'm a creationist."

I must have goggled at her for a moment -- after (at that point) two decades as a teacher, I had pretty good control over my facial expressions, but not that good.  She hastily added, "I'm not saying I'm going to argue with you, or that I'm refusing to learn the material, or anything.  I just wanted you to know where I was coming from."

I said, "Okay.  That's fine, and thanks for being up front with me.  But do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?"

She said, "Not at all."

So I asked her where the argument I'd presented in class fell apart for her.  What part of the evidence or logical chain didn't work?

She said, "None of it.  It's all logical and makes perfect sense."

I must have goggled again, because she continued, "I understand your argument, and it's logically sound.  I don't disbelieve in the evidence you told us about.  But I still don't believe in evolution."

The upshot of it was that for her, belief and rationality did not intersect.  She believed what she believed, and if rational argument contradicted it, that was that.  She didn't argue, she didn't look for counterevidence; she simply dismissed it.  Done.

The research by Ståhl and van Prooijen suggests that the issue with her is that she had no motivation to apply rationality to this situation.  She certainly wasn't short of cognitive ability; she outperformed most of the students in the class (including, I might add, on the test on evolutionary theory).  But there was no motive for her to apply logic to a situation that for her, was beyond the reach of logic.  You got there by faith, or not at all.

To this day, and of all the students I've taught, this young lady remains one of the abiding puzzles.  Her ability to compartmentalize her brain that way -- I'll apply logic here, and it gives me the right answers, but not here, because it'll give me the wrong answers -- is so foreign to my way of thinking that it borders on the incomprehensible.  For me, if science, logic, and rationality work as a way of teasing out fact from falsehood, then -- they work.  You can't use the same basic principles and have them alternate between giving you true and false conclusions, unless the method itself is invalid.

Which, interestingly, is not what she was claiming.

And this is a difficulty that I have a hard time seeing any way to surmount.  Anyone can be taught some basic critical thinking skills; but if they have no motivation to apply them, or (worse) if pre-existing religious or political beliefs actually give them a motivation not to apply them, the argument is already lost.

So that's a little depressing.  Sorry.  I'm still all for teaching cognitive skills (hell, if I wasn't, I'm seriously in the wrong profession).  But what to do about motivation is a puzzle.  It once again seems to me that like my student's attitude toward faith-based belief, being motivated to use logic to understand your world is something about which you have to make a deliberate choice.

You get there because you choose to accept rational argument, or you don't get there at all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duplicating the crone

A pretty common belief in many different cultures is that inanimate objects can have, or can be imbued with, supernatural powers.

It's not like I haven't dealt with this topic before, here at Skeptophilia.  We've had posts about do-it-yourself voodoo dolls, a haunted wine cabinet, a cellphone that received texts from Satan, and a child's doll named "Robert" which shifts positions by itself, not to mention "giggling maniacally."

And that's just scratching the surface.  If you start asking people you'll find everything from the common and fairly innocuous belief in good luck charms (or in items that bring bad luck), all the way up to belief that there are objects that are cursed and/or inhabited by evil spirits capable of serious damage.

So far, nothing too unusual, although still examples of magical thinking that it'd be nice for the human race to jettison.  But just recently, there's been a technological twist added to all of this medieval superstition.

What if someone used a 3-D printer to make a perfect replica of a cursed object?

Of course, it opens up the question of "why would you want to?", but as we've seen over and over, asking that is not sufficient to dissuade people from doing something.

Brent Swancer, over at Mysterious Universe, tells us about some people who decided to copy a cursed object that's been nicknamed "the Crone of the Catskills."  Here's how Swancer describes the object:
[The Crone is] a strange hand-carved statue supposedly found by some hikers stashed away and abandoned, quite possibly hidden, in a dim cave somewhere in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  The doll is creepy to say the least, with a length of filthy cord wrapped around its neck and rusty nails driven into its eyes, and it seems like the sort of thing most people would cringe at and leave lying where it was, but in this case the hikers took it home with them.
According to Swancer, the unnamed hikers lived to regret bringing it back with them, as immediately bad stuff began to happen, like bumps, thuds, and bangs, a feeling of being watched, and worst of all, "odd smells such as that of stagnant water or decay."

If you're thinking "why the hell would they have brought it home?" it bears mention that I did something kind of similar a few years back.  My wife and I were hiking in the Finger Lakes National Forest not too far away from our home, and were a good ways off the beaten path, when I stepped over a log, and noticed that on the end of the log was...

... a Mardi Gras mask.

It was in perfect condition, and in fact looked like it had been placed there only moments before.  It was in October, the weather was cool, and we hadn't seen anyone else in the woods during our entire hike, so it's not like this was exactly a well-traveled part of the National Forest.  So it was pretty bizarre, to say the least.

I said, "Hey, Carol, come take a look at this."

I picked up the mask, and put it over my face.  She regarded me with a raised eyebrow and said, "You do realize that if you were a character in one of your own novels, you'd be about to die right now?"

Undaunted, I brought it home, and hung it on the wall in my office.  I did have a bit of a turn the next morning, when I walked into the room and found the mask in the middle of the floor.

Turned out the elastic loop had come loose.  So I reconnected it, and it's remained there quietly ever since.  No bumps, thuds, or bangs, and the only bad smells are when my dog decides to roll in Eau de Dead Squirrel and then comes to take a nap in my office.

Anyhow, all of this is just to say that if I'd found the Crone of the Catskills, I'd probably have taken it home, too.  The hikers who found her donated the Crone to the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, and even afterwards it continued to do spooky stuff.  The Museum's owners, Dana Matthews and Greg Newkirk, report that after the Crone was obtained, furniture was found knocked over, there was the "smell of fetid pond water," and more than once they opened the place up in the morning to find small muddy footprints on the floor leading to and from the case the Crone occupied.

The Crone of the Catskills

So far, so good.  But the next thing that happened I have to admit I find a little baffling.  A pair of paranormal researchers, Karl Pfeiffer and Connor Randal, decided that it'd be a good idea to use a 3-D printer to make a replica of the Crone.

Havoc ensued.  The printer malfunctioned and a part of it "melted."  Other equipment broke down, or went missing entirely.  People in the room with the replica reported "a sense of dread" coming from the thing, and a "burning sensation" from touching it.

So apparently, the 3-D printer hadn't just copied the Crone's appearance, it had also copied its ghostly hanger-on.

Now, as a diehard skeptic, it's to be expected that I think this sounds a little silly.  But allow me to ask any true believers in the studio audience: how exactly could this work?

I mean, even if you accept that an object can be imbued with a "force" (whatever that means), isn't the usually accepted explanation that it's tied to the object itself?  If you made a copy of the object, you wouldn't expect a piece of the "force" to get knocked loose and attach itself to the replica.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  I didn't think that 3-D printers could make copies of ghosts, you know?

Which, honestly, is a good thing.  Just think of what would happen if you put a 3-D printer in a haunted house, and the ghosts got a hold of it and started duplicating themselves.  In short order, you'd have what paranormal researchers call "a shitload of ghosts."  It'd be a catastrophe, much like what happened in the Lost in Space episode "The Space Destructors," wherein Dr. Smith created an android who then began to create more androids, which was especially awful because the machine was programmed to make them look like Dr. Smith, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

So it'd be unfortunate if the 3-D printer did make a copy of the evil spirit haunting the Crone of the Catskills.  That being said, if Pfeiffer and Randal have any extra copies of the Crone hanging around, I'd love to have one.  I've got a nice space on the shelf in my office where she could reside.  Also, if all she does is push furniture around and leave muddy footprints on the floor, my dog pretty much has that covered as well.

I might even see if I can make a replica of my mysterious Mardi Gras mask, and we can do a swap.  I have to warn you, though, that the mask's antics are even less impressive than the Crone's.  "Falling on the floor once in four years" is really not that much of a superpower.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Advanced elegance

I think it's a natural human tendency to be awed by what we don't understand.

I know when I see some abstruse concept that is far beyond my grasp, I'm impressed not only by how complex the universe can be, but that there are people who can comprehend it.  I first ran into this in a big way when I was in college, and took a class called Classical Mechanics.  The topic was why and how objects move, how that motion affects other objects, and so on.

It was the first time in my life I had ever collided with something that regardless of my effort, I couldn't get.  The professor, Dr. Spross, was a very patient man, but his patience was up against a classical-mechanics-proof brain.  On the first exam, I scored a 19.


And I'm convinced that he had dredged up the 19 points from somewhere so I wouldn't end up with a single-digit score. I ended that class with a C-, which I think Dr. Spross gave me simply because he didn't want me back again the following semester, spending another four months ramming my poor physics-deficient head up against a metaphorical brick wall.

There's one memory that stands out from that experience, nearly forty years ago, besides the overwhelming frustration.  It was when Dr. Spross introduced the concept of the "Hamiltonian function," a mathematical framework for analyzing motion.  He seemed so excited about it.  It was, he said, an incredibly elegant way to consider velocity, acceleration, force, momentum, and so on.  So I thought, "Cool!  That sounds pretty interesting."

Following that cheerful thought was an hour and a half of thinking, "I have no fucking idea what any of this means."  It was completely opaque.  The worst part was that a number of my classmates were nodding their heads, writing stuff down, and seemed to get it with no problem.

So I was either the only dumb one in the class, or they were just better at hiding their dismay than I was.

Anyhow, I think that was the moment I realized a career in research physics was not in the cards for me.

To this day, the "Hamiltonian function" remains something that in my mind symbolizes the Unknowable.  I have deep and abiding admiration for people for whom that concept makes sense (first and foremost, William Rowan Hamilton, who developed it).  And I'm sure it is elegant, just as Dr. Spross said.  But experiencing that elegance was (and probably still is) entirely beyond me.

It's this tendency to find what we can't understand awe-inspiring that has led to the idea of the god of the gaps -- in which gaps in our scientific knowledge are attributed to the incomprehensible hand of the divine.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized what the problem with this was, at least for people who are religious:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.  We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.
Anyhow, that was a long-winded preamble as an explanation of why all of this comes up in today's post.  I immediately thought of the awe-inspiring nature of what we don't understand when I read an article yesterday about two researchers at the University of Rochester, Tamar Friedmann and Carl Hagen, who found that a method for calculating the energy levels of a hydrogen atom generates the well-known number pi.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It turns out to have something to do with a mathematical function called the Wallis product, which says that you can generate π/2 by a simple series of multiplications:
π/2 = (2/1) x (2/3) x (4/3) x (4/5) x (6/5) x (6/7) x (8/7) x (8/9)....
The pattern is that the numerators of the fractions are 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8... and the denominators 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7, 7, 9, 9...  And the cool thing is, the more terms you add, the closer you get to π/2.

Now, as for why this is so... well, I tried reading the explanation, and my eyes started spinning.  And I've taken lots of math courses, including calculus and differential equations, and like I said earlier, I majored in physics (as much of a mistake as that turned out to be).  But when I took a look at the paper about the energy levels of hydrogen and the Wallis product and gamma functions, I almost could hear Dr. Spross's voice, explaining it in a tone that implies that it would be immediately clear to a small child, or even an unusually intelligent dog.

And all of those feelings from Classical Mechanics came bubbling up to the surface.

So I'm left with being a little in awe about it all.  Somehow, even though I have no real understanding of why, the same number that I learned about in geometry class as the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter shows up in the energy levels of hydrogen atoms.  Predictably, I'm not inclined to attribute such correspondences to the hand of the divine, but I do think they're (in Dr. Spross's words) "elegant."  And even if I never get much beyond that, I can still appreciate the minds of the people who can.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Hypocrisy on parade

I told myself that I wasn't going to write about Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the special election for Jeff Sessions's Senate seat in Alabama.  There didn't seem to be much to say.  Moore is, to put it bluntly, a raging bigot, only one example of which is his refusal to follow Alabama's non-discrimination rule with respect to same-sex marriage that got him suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court in May of last year.

But by now all of you know that bigotry isn't Moore's only problem.  In the last week, Moore has faced an accusation by five different women that he approached them for sex when he was in his thirties and they were all under 18.  (The youngest was 14.)  So to put in bluntly, Moore's been accused of pedophilia.

But that's not why I'm writing this post.  I'm writing this post because of the reaction of Moore's supporters.

First, there was conservative talk show host and former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh, who tweeted, "Roy Moore should stay in, stand strong, and fight hard against these allegations.  Oh...and he should ignore all these spineless Republicans hiding under their beds because of a 38 yr old accusation."  He later softened this to imply that all he was saying was that Moore deserved due process and "the voters of Alabama should decide."  But you know that wouldn't have been the message had Moore been a Democrat.

Even more blatant was (unsurprisingly) Ann Coulter, who has been doing nothing but tweeting about Moore.  As a couple of the more pointed examples, we had, "As an Alabaman said on @chucktodd yesterday, right now, all that matters is that Roy Moore will vote for a wall.  Luther Strange wouldn't & the Dem definitely won't."  Because "the wall" evidently supersedes any consideration of following the laws about age of consent and statutory rape.  But when that got her some backlash, she responded, "Hey Dems!  JFK had an extra marital affair with 19-year old Mimi Alford when he was 45 years old."

I just have two things to say about this:
  1. There is a difference between 14 and 19.  Cf. my earlier comment about age of consent and statutory rape.
  2. I'm quite sure the affair Coulter references will become a huge campaign issue the next time Kennedy runs for office.
Then there was Jim Zeigler, Alabama State Auditor, who said that his biblical values gave him no basis for saying that Moore's alleged affairs were wrong:
Take the Bible.  Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance.  Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist...  Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.  They became parents of Jesus.
So now pedophilia is okay because all it means is that your underage girlfriend might give birth to a prophet, or failing that, the Second Coming of Christ.

Then Breitbart got involved.  Two reporters for the far-right media outlet were dispatched, by none other than Steve Bannon, to try to find information to discredit the accusers.  Never mind that the five accusers did not know each other prior to this, and given the backlash that women inevitably have to face when they make allegations of sexual abuse public, they had every reason to keep silent.  (Which itself is a pretty horrifying indictment of the way women are treated in our culture.)

Nothing, however, made me gag quite as much as the reaction of ordinary Alabama voters to the Moore accusations, particularly the people who said they'd vote for Moore even if they knew for certain the allegations were true.  Consider this one:

Then, there was the poll in which we find out that 37% of Alabama evangelicals said they were more likely to vote for Moore after the accusations than before.  Because, you know, the media lies.  All of them, all the time.

Except for Fox and Breitbart.  They tell the truth.

All the time.

Oh, and Sean Hannity.  Roy Moore appeared on Hannity's show, where he said, "This is a completely manufactured story meant to defrock this campaign.  They don’t want to acknowledge that there is a God.  And we have refused to debate them because of their very liberal stance on transgenderism."

Evidently Moore doesn't know the definition of "defrock," but we'll let that slide.  More interesting is that Hannity clearly believes Moore and thinks all five of his accusers are lying.  As a result, Hannity began to hemorrhage sponsors, including coffee-maker company Keurig.  But when Keurig made the announcement, you know what the response was?

A whole bunch of conservatives announced they were going to destroy their Keurig coffee makers, Office Space-style.  As for Hannity, he said he was going to buy five hundred new coffee makers of a different brand for people who would video themselves smashing their Keurigs and post it on Twitter.  First come, first serve.

Let me make this clear: these people are destroying their coffee makers as a protest against a company that doesn't want to sponsor someone who defends pedophilia.

I'm afraid I have to agree with Alabaman Kate Messervy, who is a volunteer for the campaign of Doug Jones, Moore's opponent.  Messervy said, "Trump is president.  Nope, this won’t change Republicans’ minds.  Grabbing women by the pussy didn’t sway votes.  This won’t sway anyone."

What I keep coming back to is that this is not a conflict over political ideals.  This is a conflict over morality and decency, with the party that used to call itself the "Family Values Party" largely coming down on the side of an accused pedophile (and, in some cases, declaring that they would vote for him even if the accusations proved true).  This is the determination of people to vote for an individual who has "R" next to his name on the ballot regardless of any other considerations.

It is, to put it simple, hypocrisy on parade.  Many of these same people are horrified at the idea of two consenting adults of the same gender having sex in the privacy of their own homes.  Even more telling is the argument they made regarding why transgender people should be blocked from using the bathroom for the gender they identify with.  "What's to stop grown men coming into the ladies' room and molesting your daughters?", they said.


I grew up in the Deep South, and my parents were both staunch Republicans.  And I know they would have been appalled at the accusations swirling around Moore's candidacy.  What has happened in those intervening years?  We have a cadre of talk show hosts and right wing activists who are training the rank-and-file to disbelieve anything in the media unless it aligns with conservative talking points.  Everything else, they say, is a liberal hit job, a smear campaign, or outright lies.

And it's worked.  Hell, they even fell for the claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza parlor that doesn't have a basement.

The bottom line is that moral, decent conservatives -- and I know a good many of them -- need to stand up and say, "Enough."  I'm heartened by the fact that some have -- as just two examples, Mitt Romney, and amazingly enough, Mitch McConnell, have called for Moore to step down.  And this is what it takes.  It's not enough for the liberals to decry what's going on; the moral roots of the Republican party need to draw together and purge the party of screeching, we're-always-right bloviators like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.  The propaganda campaign by Fox and Breitbart will continue to be successful -- and we'll continue to have amoral individuals like Moore and (it must be said) Donald Trump elected to office -- until the conservatives themselves decide they're done, and put a stop to it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ancient Egyptian helicopters

I find it amusing to note how often woo-woo headlines are phrased as questions, e.g. "Did Aliens Build Stonehenge?"  "Does A Plesiosaur Live In The Hudson River?"  "Is Graceland Haunted By Elvis's Ghost?"

I live in constant hope that one day, I'll open one of these articles, and the entire article will consist of one word: "NO."  It hasn't happened yet, but it's this sort of cheery thought that keeps me going.

I thought for sure that would be the case this morning, when I took a look at an article entitled "Mysteries of Abydos: Egyptian Flying Machines?"  The article that followed (1) did not say "NO" anywhere, and (2) sadly, was serious, featuring the following photograph, a close-up of a panel from the Temple of Seti I in Abydos, Egypt:

There then follows some fairly hysterical (in every sense of the word) descriptions about how the Ancient Egyptians apparently spent a great deal of time zooming about in helicopters, because there is clearly one depicted here.  There is, according to the author, also a submarine and a Back to the Future-style hoverboard shown on the panel, as well as several other "futuristic craft."

Now, at first I was optimistically certain that this had to be an isolated phenomenon; no one, with the exception of the author of the article, could possibly take this seriously.  Sadly, I was mistaken.  I did a bit of research, and was appalled to find that this panel is one of the main pieces of "evidence" used by the von Däniken Descent Of The Gods cadre to support their conjecture that the Earth was the alien version of Grand Central Station three thousand years ago.  Amongst the ancient-aliens crowd, the Abydos helicopter is apparently hugely popular, not to mention amongst those who think that Stargate is a historical documentary.

Which may well be the same people.

The interesting thing is that the whole thing was adequately explained years ago; a French UFO aficionado named Thierry Wathelet took the time to query some Egyptologists about the panel, and put together a nice explanation.  Several of the Egyptologists, evidently fed up with all of the nonsense that has grown up around Egyptian archaeology, told Wathelet to piss off, but a few of them were kind enough to give him detailed information about how the panel had been created, and what it meant.  The simple answer: the apparent helicopter is a palimpsest -- a place where a written text was effaced or altered to make room for new writing.  The "helicopter" is a combination of (at least) two hieroglyphs, and the fact that it looks a bit like an aircraft a complete coincidence.  Wathelet quotes an email he received from Katherine Griffis-Greenberg, a professor of archaeology at the University of Alabama:
It was decided in antiquity to replace the five-fold royal titulary of Seti I with that of his son and successor, Ramesses II. In the photos, we clearly see "Who repulses the Nine Bows," which figures in some of the Two-Ladies names of Seti I, replaced by "Who protects Egypt and overthrows the foreign countries," a Two-Ladies name of Ramesses II.  With some of the plaster that once covered Seti I's titulary now fallen away, certain of the superimposed signs do indeed look like a submarine, etc., but it's just a coincidence.   Well, hallelujah, and kudos to Wathelet for putting the whole thing together, and on a UFO site, no less.  Now, if a UFOologist can summon up this kind of skeptical facility, it shouldn't be that hard for the rest of us, right?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no," and I base this on the fact that my perusal of the first few pages of the 787,000 hits I got from Googling "Abydos helicopter" seemed to be mostly in favor of the theory that the ancient Egyptians spent a good bit of their time sightseeing from the air.  So I guess my search will have to continue for an article whose headline asks a question, and the article itself just says, "No" (or even better, "What are you, a moron?  Stop fucking around on the internet and go learn some critical thinking skills.").  Until then, at least one more ridiculous woo-woo theory has been laid to rest -- at least for the seeming minority of folks who take the time to evaluate the evidence skeptically and scientifically.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The voice of truth

Having been a blogger for seven years -- the fact of which I find a little astonishing -- I am well aware of the difficulty of coming across with the right emotional tone in writing.

Especially given the fraught nature of many of the topics I address, I'm sure that my words sometimes elicit strong emotions.  (Cf. the post I did a couple of days ago on hate mail.)  In some cases, the ire is probably justified; perhaps I stepped on your toes about some dearly-held belief of yours, which is bound to raise people's hackles.

On the other hand, I am often afraid that what I'm saying will be misconstrued, not because of the words themselves, but because of the inherent deficiency of the written word in representing the writer's motivations and emotional content accurately.  It's why emails so often generate misunderstandings; it's also why people often feel freer to be nasty online than face-to-face.  When we lack the visual cues of people's facial expressions and body language, we not only are more prone to misinterpreting what people's words mean, we sometimes feel less inhibited about saying things we'd never dream of saying if the person was standing right in front of us.

But apparently you don't even need to see the person's face to diminish this tendency.  A recent experiment by Juliana Schroeder of the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley, and Michael Kardas and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, has shown that all you need to add is a voice.

In "The Humanizing Voice: Speech Reveals, and Text Conceals, a More Thoughtful Mind in the Midst of Disagreement," that appeared at PubMed a couple of weeks ago, the researchers showed that you're more receptive to viewpoints you disagree with, and less judgmental about the people stating them, if you hear those statements spoken rather than simply reading them in text form.

The authors write:
A person's speech communicates his or her thoughts and feelings.  We predicted that beyond conveying the contents of a person's mind, a person's speech also conveys mental capacity, such that hearing a person explain his or her beliefs makes the person seem more mentally capable-and therefore seem to possess more uniquely human mental traits-than reading the same content.  We expected this effect to emerge when people are perceived as relatively mindless, such as when they disagree with the evaluator's own beliefs.  Three experiments involving polarizing attitudinal issues and political opinions supported these hypotheses.  A fourth experiment identified paralinguistic cues in the human voice that convey basic mental capacities.  These results suggest that the medium through which people communicate may systematically influence the impressions they form of each other.  The tendency to denigrate the minds of the opposition may be tempered by giving them, quite literally, a voice.
Which is fascinating, if a little unsurprising.  After all, we are social primates, and we evolved in a context of living in groups in which communication was always face-to-face.  We're exquisitely sensitive to subtleties of expression (nicknamed microexpressions), often on a completely subconscious level.  Experiments have shown that we use minor cues such as pupil dilation size to make judgments about attractiveness, and the imperceptibly tiny back-and-forth movements of the eye called microsaccades can give you information about emotional state and what you're paying attention to (even if you're trying to hide that fact).

[image courtesy of photographer Lydia Icerko and the Wikimedia Commons]

And as far as voices go, small differences of inflection can provide huge cues as to what the speaker's intent was.  Consider the following phrase: "She gave the money to him."  Now speak the words aloud, but the first time put the emphasis on the word "she," then on "gave," then on "money," then on "him."

Each one has a different implication, doesn't it?

So if we're reading what someone's written, we're losing access to the cues that might tell us such important information as what the person's motivations and emotional state was when they wrote it.  It's no wonder this leads to frequent misjudgments.  We're trying to parse a person's words based on incomplete data.

This should make us a little more cautious about deciding that we know what people mean when we read an email -- or a blog post.  Clear communication is one thing, and (being a writer) I'm all for that.  But no matter how clear we are, we're never going to be able to communicate emotional depth via the written word as well as we can in person.

So if you think your favorite blogger is being an asshole sometimes, you might want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, November 10, 2017


Reports are coming in from KwaMbonambi, a village in the KwaZulu Natal District of South Africa, of a shapeshifting monster terrorizing small children.

The monster was first spotted by a seven-year-old, who reported that he was at school and was cornered by "a short man with a long beard" in the bathroom.  Instead of looking for a creepy child molester type, the boy's mother came to the only reasonable conclusion: her son was being visited by an evil spirit called a "Tokoloshe."

So I started looking through my top-secret Cryptozoology Files to see if I could find anything out about the Tokoloshe, or if this was just a one-off.

Once I looked into it, I kind of regretted opening that particular can of worms.

Apparently this is far from the first time such a creature has been seen.  Reports of a Tokoloshe visitation from Karoo District back in 2013 gave us a clearer picture.  About those sightings, local warrant officer Zandisile Nelani said, "The community says that the monster changes shape while you are looking at it."  He went on to say that the monster had started out as a man in a suit, but had changed to a pig and then to a bat.  He hastened to add that although the creature had scared a number of residents, no people or livestock had been harmed by it.

This incident reminded me, against my will of the "ManBearPig" episode of South Park, which I had forgotten about, and honestly, I kind of wish it had stayed forgotten.

As little as two months ago, there were Tokoloshe sightings in Mozambique, where the creature was accused of running around having sex with married women, but was finally captured and paraded through the village.  Here are a couple of photographs:

Because that's not fake-looking at all.

There is a long-standing tradition of the Tokoloshe (or Thokolozi) from the southern parts of Africa.   Descriptions vary.  We have the little bearded man sighted by the first grader in KwaZulu Natal, and the wild-haired demon in the photograph above; but informed sources tell me that the Tokoloshe most often appears as a brown-skinned man, hairy all over, with only one buttock.  This last feature seems a little odd, and makes me wonder if he only has a right butt cheek, only a left one, or just one huge symmetrically-placed butt cheek, the last-mentioned option bringing up other anatomical considerations that I would prefer not to think about.  

On the other hand, the photograph of the sighting in Mozambique clearly shows a guy with the standard-issue two butt cheeks.  So not sure what to make of that.

Another characteristic of the Tokoloshe is that he is said to be very well-endowed in the reproductive equipment department.  Without going into graphic detail, let's just say that he is well-endowed to the point that tighty-whities would be pretty much out of the question.  Between that and having only one buttock, getting fitted at the tailor's must be a fairly humiliating experience, and possibly accounts for his legendary ill temper.

So we have here one very odd-looking dude.  But the key feature that identifies all three of the above sightings as the Tokoloshe is his shapeshifting ability.  The Tokoloshe carries around with him a magic pebble that allows him to become invisible and look like pretty much anything he wants to; in fact, he is said to be able to take the shape of many different animals, and also to fly.  So I think we have a definite match.

Being able to look like like whoever you want would also be handy given the Tokoloshe's legendary propensity for seducing women.  If you get accused of sleeping with another man's wife, you can just say, "It wasn't me, it was just the Tokoloshe impersonating me."  Which is pretty convenient.

What should the inhabitants of the villages visited by this evil spirit do?  One possibility is to make a Tokoloshe Repellant, but the problem is that the recipe I found requires Tokoloshe fat.  Obtaining that would seem to be a bit of a stumbling block, although one site I looked at said that it might be purchased from a muti, or purveyor of traditional medicine.  You can also appease the Tokoloshe by putting out food for him, but you must remember not to put salt in it; he apparently shares with many European spirit creatures the characteristic of not liking salt.  Sometimes witches subdue a Tokoloshe, and keep him around for their own purposes, about which I will leave you to speculate.  They do this by a combination of magic and luring him with food, and keep him docile by "trimming the hair over his eyes."

As for the mom of the first grader, she was counseled by Thandonjani Hlongwane, chairman of the KwaZulu Natal Traditional Healers' Association, to pay a hundred rand to get some "strong mufti" (magic) to keep the Tokoloshe away and protect her son.  The mother has taken her son out of school, a decision supported by the chairman of the local school board, Paradise Jali, who said, “We will establish a regular prayer programme.  That is the only way we can fight this.”

Because clearly fighting one superstition with a different superstition is the best way to handle things.

So the good news for the people of South Africa and Mozambique is that Tokoloshes mostly seem fairly harmless.  Apparently even the women who have been seduced by Tokoloshes report that the experience was pretty pleasant, and in fact there are some reports that women who have had sex with a Tokoloshe will never be satisfied by sex with their husbands and boyfriends.   In either case, the bad news (other than the obvious bad news to the aforementioned husbands and boyfriends) is that there doesn't seem to be much they can do about his presence.  They only have two choices, as far as I can see: either to put out food to appease a magical spirit with enormous junk and one buttock, or to try not being so damn gullible.

I know which one I think would be more effective.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A self-portrait drawn by others

As you might imagine, I get hate mail pretty frequently.

Most of it has to do with my targeting somebody's sacred cow, be it homeopathy, fundamentalist religion, astrology, climate change denial, or actual sacred cows.  And it seems to fall into three general categories:
  • Insults, some of which never get beyond the "you stupid poopyhead fuckface" level.  These usually have the worst grammar and spelling.
  • Arguments that are meant to be stinging rebuttals.  They seldom are, at least not from the standpoint of adding anything of scientific merit to the conversation, although their authors inevitably think they've skewered me with the sharp rapier of their superior knowledge.  (Sometimes I get honest, thoughtful comments or criticisms on what I've written; I have always, and will always, welcome those.)
  • Diatribes that tell me what I actually believe, as if I'm somehow unaware of it.
I've gotten several of the latter in the last few weeks, and it's these that I want to address in this post, because they're the ones I find the most curious.  I've got a bit of a temper myself, so I can certainly understand the desire to strike back with an insult at someone who's angered you; and it's unsurprising that a person who is convinced of something will want to rebut anyone who says different.  But the idea that I'd tell someone I was arguing with what they believed, as if I knew it better than they did, is just plain weird.

Here are a handful of examples, from recent fan mail, to illustrate what I'm talking about:
  • In response to a post I did on the vitriolic nonsense spouted by televangelist Jim Bakker: "Atheists make me want to puke.  You have the nerve to attack a holy man like Jim Bakker.  You want to tear down the foundation of this country, which is it's [sic] churches and pastors, and tell Christian Americans they have no right to be here."
  • In response to my post on a group of alt-med wingnuts who are proposing drinking turpentine to cure damn near everything: "You like to make fun of people who believe nature knows best for curing us and promoting good health.  You pro-Monsanto, pro-chemical types think that the more processed something is, the better it is for you.  I bet you put weed killer on your cereal in the morning."
  • In response to the post in which I described a push by EPA chief Scott Pruitt to remove scientists from the EPA advisory board and replace them with corporate representatives: "Keep reading us your fairy tales about 'climate change' and 'rising sea levels.'  Your motives are clear, to destroy America's economy and hand over the reigns [sic] to the wacko vegetarian enviro nuts.  Now that we've got people in government who are actually looking out for AMERICAN interests, people like you are crapping your pants because you know your [sic] not in control any more."
  • And finally, in response to a post I did on the fact that the concept of race has little biological meaning: "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."
So, let's see.  That makes me a white English-only wacko vegetarian enviro nut (with crap in my pants) who eats weed killer for breakfast while writing checks to Monsanto and plotting how to tear down churches so I can destroy the United States.

Man, I've got a lot on my to-do list today.

I know it's a common tendency to want to attribute some set of horrible characteristics to the people we disagree with.  It engages all that tribal mentality stuff that's pretty deeply ingrained in our brains -- us = good, them = bad.  The problem is, reality is a hell of a lot more complex that that, and it's only seldom that you can find someone who is so bad that they have no admixture whatsoever of good, no justification for what they're doing, no explanation at all for how they got to be the way they are.  We're all mixed-up cauldrons of conflicting emotions.  It's hard to understand ourselves half the time; harder still to parse the motives of others.

So let me disabuse my detractors of a few notions.

While I'm not religious myself, I really have a live-and-let-live attitude toward religious folks, as long as they're not trying to impose their religion on others or using it as an excuse to deny others their rights as humans.  I have religious friends and non-religious friends and friends who don't care much about the topic one way or the other, and mostly we get along pretty well.

I have to admit, though, that being a card-carrying atheist, I do have to indulge every so often in the dietary requirements as set forth in the official Atheist Code of Conduct.

Speaking of diet, I'm pretty far from a vegetarian, even when I'm not dining on babies. In fact, I think that a medium-rare t-bone steak with a glass of good red wine is one of the most delicious things ever conceived by the human species.  But neither am I a chemical-lovin' pro-Monsanto corporate shill who drinks a nice steaming mug of RoundUp in the morning.  I'll stick with coffee, thanks.

Yes, I do accept climate change, because I am capable of reading and understanding a scientific paper and also do not think that because something is inconvenient to American economic expediency, it must not be true.  I'd rather that the US economy doesn't collapse, mainly because I live here, but I'd also like my grandchildren to be born on a planet that is habitable in the long term.

And finally: yes, I am white. You got me there.  If I had any thought of denying it, it was put to rest when I did a 23 & Me test and found out that I'm... white.  My ancestry is nearly all from western Europe, unsurprising given that three of my grandparents were of French descent and one of Scottish descent.  But my being white doesn't mean that I always have to place the concerns of other white people first, or fear people who aren't white, or pass laws making sure that America stays white.  For one thing, it'd be a little hypocritical if I demanded that everyone in the US speak English, given that my mother and three of my grandparents spoke French as their first language; and trust me when I say that I would have loved my kids to learn Arabic in school.  The more other cultures you learn about in school, the better, largely because it's hard to hate people when you realize that they're human, just like you are.

So anyway.  Nice try telling me who I am, but you got a good many of the details wrong.  Inevitable, I suppose, when it's a self-portrait drawn by someone else.  Next time, maybe you should try engaging the people you disagree with in dialogue, rather than ridiculing, demeaning, dismissing, or condescending to them.  It's in general a nicer way to live, and who knows?  Maybe you'll learn something.

And if you want to know anything about me, just ask rather than making assumptions.  It's not like I'm shy about telling people what I think.  Kind of hiding in plain sight, here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elegy for a dying language

In the village of Ayapa in southern Mexico there are two old men who don't much like each other, and despite the fact that they only live 500 meters away from each other, they haven't spoken in years.  One, Manuel Segovia, is described as being "a little prickly;" the other, Isidro Velazquez, is said to be stoic and a bit of a recluse.

All of which would be nothing more than a comical vignette into small-town life, except for the fact that they are the last two fluent speakers of the Ayapaneco language.  And, in fact, they have recently decided to put their feud behind them so they can work together to preserve it.

Ayapaneco is one of 68 indigenous languages in Mexico.  It is from the Mixe-Zoque family of languages, which are spoken by people of Olmec descent.  It survived the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, but was finally done in by the institution of compulsory Spanish education in the 20th century and has been dwindling ever since.

My question of the day is: should we care?

Current estimates are that there are over 6,000 languages in daily use by native speakers (which excludes languages such as Latin, that are in daily use in schools but of which no one is a native speaker).  A great many of these are in danger of extinction -- they are spoken only by a handful of people, mostly the elderly, and the children aren't being raised fluent.  It's an eye-opening fact that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the world's people, and the other 96% of the world's people speak the other 4% of the world's languages.

Run that one around in your head for a while.

On the top of the list is Mandarin, the most widely-spoken language in the world.  English, predictably, follows.  Of the people who speak neither Mandarin nor English, a substantial fraction speak Hindi, Spanish, Russian, or some dialect of Arabic.  Most of the rest of the world's languages?  Inconsequential -- at least in numbers.

15th century manuscript in medieval Gaelic [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Linguists, obviously, care deeply about this.  Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, has stated, "... it is catastrophic for the future of mankind.  It should be as scary as losing 90% of the biological species."

Is he right?  The argument for preserving languages is mostly derived from a cultural knowledge perspective; language is a way of encoding knowledge, and each different sort of code represents a unique body of that knowledge.  It's sort of an expanded version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that states that the language you speak alters how you think (and vice versa).  That argument has its points, but it is also specious in the sense that most languages can encode the same knowledge somehow, and therefore when the last native speaker of Ayapaneco dies, we won't have necessarily lost that culture's knowledge.  We may have lost the ability to figure out how that knowledge was encoded -- as we have with the Linear A writing of Crete -- but that's not the same as losing the knowledge itself.

The analogy to biodiversity is also a bit specious.  Languages don't form some kind of synergistic whole, as the species in an ecosystem do, where the loss of any one thread can cause the whole thing to come unraveled.  In fact, you might argue the opposite -- that having lots of unique languages in an area (such as the hundreds of mutually incomprehensible native languages in Australia) can actually impede cultural communication and understanding.  Species loss can destroy an ecosystem -- witness what's happening in Haiti and Madagascar.  It's a little hard to imagine language loss as having those same kinds of effects on the cultural landscape of the world.

Still, I can't help wishing for the extinction to stop.  It's just sad -- the fact that the number of native speakers of the beautiful Irish Gaelic and Breton languages are steadily decreasing, that there are languages (primarily in Australia and amongst the native languages of North and South America) for whom the last native speakers will die in the next five to ten years without ever having a linguist study, or even record, what it sounded like.  I don't have a cogent argument from a utilitarian standpoint abut why this is a bad thing.  It's aesthetics, pure and simple -- languages are cool.  The idea that English and Mandarin can swamp Twi and Yanomami is probably unavoidable, and it even follows the purely Dawkinsian concept of the competition between memes.  But I don't have to like it, any more than I like the fact that my bird feeders are more often visited by starlings than by indigo buntings.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Stopping the rumor machine

Twenty-six people are dead in yet another mass shooting, this one in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, a small community 21 miles from San Antonio, Texas.

The killer, Devin Patrick Kelley, died near the scene of the crime.  He had been fired upon by a local resident as he fled the church, and was later found in his car, dead of a gunshot wound.  It is at present undetermined if the bullet that killed him came from the resident's gun, or if it was a self-inflicted wound.

Devin Patrick Kelley

Wiser heads than mine have already taken up the issue of stricter gun control, especially in cases like Kelley's.  Kelley was court martialled in 2012 for an assault on his wife and child, spent a year in prison, and was dishonorably discharged.  All I will say is that I find it a little hard to defend an assault rifle being in the hands of a man who had been convicted of... assault.

I also have to throw out there that the whole "thoughts and prayers" thing is getting a little old.  If thoughts and prayers worked, you'd think the attack wouldn't have happened in the first place, given that the victims were in a freakin' church when it occurred.

But that's not why I'm writing about Kelley and the Sutherland Springs attack.  What I'd like to address here is how, within twelve hours of the attack, there was an immediate attempt by damn near everybody to link Kelley to a variety of groups, in each case to conform to the claimant's personal bias about how the world works.

Here are just a few of the ones I've run into:
  • Someone made a fake Facebook page for Kelley in which there was a photograph of his weapon, a Ruger AR-556, with the caption, "She's a bad bitch."
  • Far-right-wing activists Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones immediately started broadcasting the claim that Kelley was a member of Antifa.  This was then picked up by various questionable "news" sources, including, which trumpeted the headline, "Texas Church Shooter Was Antifa Member Who Vowed to Start Civil War."
  • Often using the Alex Jones article as evidence, Twitter erupted Sunday night with a flurry of claims that Kelley was a Democrat frustrated by Donald Trump's presidential win, and was determined to visit revenge on a bunch of god-fearing Republicans.
  • An entirely different bunch of folks on Twitter started the story that Kelley was actually a Muslim convert named Samir al-Hajeeda.  Coincidentally, Samir al-Hajeeda was blamed by many of these same people for the Las Vegas shootings a month ago.  It's a little hard to fathom how anyone could believe that, given the fact that both gunmen died at the scene of the crime.
  • Not to be outdone, the website Freedum Junkshun claimed that Kelley was an "avid atheist" named Raymond Peter Littlebury, who was "on the payroll of the DNC."
And so on and so forth.

Look, I've made the point before.  You can't stop this kind of thing from zinging at light speed around the interwebz.  Fake news agencies gonna fake news, crazies gonna craze, you know?  Some of these sources were obviously pseudo-satirical clickbait right from the get-go.  I mean, did anyone even look at the name of the site Freedum Junkshun and wonder why they spelled it that way?

And for heaven's sake, Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones?  At this point, if Cernovich and Jones said the grass was green, I'd want an independent source to corroborate the claim.

So it's not the existence of these ridiculous claims I want to address.  It's the people who hear them and unquestioningly believe them.

I know it's easy to fall into the confirmation bias trap -- accepting a claim because it's in line with what you already believed, be it that all conservatives are violent gun nuts, all liberals scheming slimeballs, all Muslims potential suicide bombers, all religious people starry-eyed fanatics, all atheists amoral agents of Satan himself.  It takes work to counter our tendency to swallow whole any evidence of what we already believed.

But you know what?  You have to do it.  Because otherwise you become prey to the aforementioned crazies and promoters of fake news clickbait.  If you don't corroborate what you post, you're not supporting your beliefs; you're playing right into the hands of people who are trying to use your singleminded adherence to your sense of correctness to achieve their own ends.

At the time of this writing, we know next to nothing about Devin Patrick Kelley other than his military record and jail time.  We don't know which, if any, political affiliation he had, whether or not he was religious, whether he was an activist or simply someone who wanted to kill people.  So all of this speculation, all of these specious claims, are entirely vacuous.

Presumably at some point we'll know more about Kelley.  At the moment, we don't.

So please please please stop auto-posting these stories.  At the very least, cross-check what you post against other sources, and check out a few sources from different viewpoints.  (Of course if you cross-check Breitbart against Fox News, or Raw Story against ThinkProgress, you're gonna get the same answer.  That's not cross-checking, that's slamming the door on the echo chamber.)

Otherwise you are not only falling for nonsense, you are directly contributing to the divisiveness that is currently ripping our nation apart.

As the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman put it: "You must be careful not to believe something simply because you want it to be true.  Nobody can fool you as easily as you can fool yourself."

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tut tut

Most of you are probably familiar with the famous "King Tut's Curse."

The story goes that when British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the hitherto undisturbed tomb of King Tutankhamen, the "Boy King" of Egypt during the 18th dynasty, it unleashed a curse on the men who had desecrated it -- resulting in the deaths of (by some claims) twenty of the expedition members.

Tutankhamen was the son of the famous "Heretic King" Akhenaten, and died at the age of eighteen in 1341 BCE.  Some archaeologists speculate that he was murdered, but current forensic anthropology seems to indicate that he died of a combination of malaria and complications from a badly broken leg.

King Tutankhamen's death mask [image courtesy of photographer Carsten Frenzl and the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, shortly after Tut's tomb was opened, people associated with the expedition began to die.  The first was Lord Carnarvon, who had funded Carter's expedition, who cut himself badly while shaving and died shortly thereafter of sepsis from an infection.  While it's easy enough to explain a death from infection in Egypt prior to the advent of modern antibiotics, the deaths continued after the members of the expedition returned to London:
  • Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, was found smothered in a Mayfair club.
  • Bethell's father, Lord Westbury, fell to his death from his seventh-floor flat -- where he had kept artifacts from the tomb his son had given him.
  • Aubrey Herbert, half-brother of the first victim Lord Carnarvon, died in a London hospital "of mysterious symptoms."
  • Ernest Wallis Budge, of the British Museum, was found dead in his home shortly after arranging for the first public show of King Tut's sarcophagus. 
And so on.  All in all, twenty people associated with the expedition died within the first few years after returning to England.  (It must be said that Howard Carter, who led the expedition, lived for another sixteen years; and you'd think that if King Tut would have wanted to smite anyone, it would have been Carter.  And actually, a statistical study done of Egyptologists who had entered pharaohs' tombs found that their average age at death was no lower than that of the background population.)

Still, that leaves some decidedly odd deaths to explain.  And historian Mark Benyon thinks he's figured out how to explain them.

In his book London's Curse: Murder Black Magic, and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End, Benyon lays the deaths of Carter's associates in London -- especially Bethell, Westbury, Herbert, and Budge, all of which were deaths by foul play -- at the feet of none other than Aleister Crowley.

Crowley, the self-proclaimed "Wickedest Man on Earth," was a sex-obsessed heroin addict who had founded a society called "Thelema."  Thelema's motto was "Do what thou wilt," which narrowly edged out Crowley's second favorite, which was "Fuck anything or anyone that will hold still long enough."  His rituals were notorious all over London for drunken debauchery, and few doubted then (and fewer doubt now) that there was any activity so depraved that Crowley wouldn't happily indulge in it.

Aleister Crowley, ca. 1912 [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

One of Crowley's obsessions was Jack the Ripper.  He believed that the Ripper murders had been accomplished through occult means, and frequently was heard to speak of Jack the Ripper with reverence.  Benyon believes that when Crowley heard about Howard Carter's discoveries, he was outraged -- many of Thelema's rituals and beliefs were derived from Egyptian mythology -- and he came up with the idea of a series of copycat murders to get even with the men who had (in his mind) desecrated Tutankhamen's tomb.

It's an interesting hypothesis.  Surely all of the expedition members knew of Crowley; after all, almost everyone in London at the time did.  At least one (Budge) was an occultist who ran in the same circles as Crowley.  That Crowley was capable of such a thing is hardly to be questioned.  Whether Benyon has proved the case or not is debatable, but even at first glance it certainly makes better sense than the Pharaoh's Curse malarkey.  Whether Benyon's explanation is right in all the details or not  is probably impossible at this point to prove, rather like the dozens of explanations put forward to explain the Ripper murders themselves.  But this certainly makes me inclined to file the "Mummy's Curse" under "Another woo-woo claim plausibly explained by logic and rationality."

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Grammar wars

In linguistics, there's a bit of a line in the sand drawn between the descriptivists and the prescriptivists.  The former believe that the role of linguists is simply to describe language, not establish hard-and-fast rules for how language should be.  The latter believe that grammar and other linguistic rules exist in order to keep language stable and consistent, and therefore there are usages that are wrong, illogical, or just plain ugly.

Of course, most linguists don't fall squarely into one camp or the other; a lot of us are descriptivists up to a point, after which we say, "Okay, that's wrong."  I have to admit that I'm more of a descriptivist bent myself, but there are some things that bring out my inner ruler-wielding grammar teacher, like when I see people write "alot."  Drives me nuts.  And I know it's now become acceptable, but "alright" affects me exactly the same way.

It's "all right," dammit.

However, some research just published in Nature last week shows, if you're of a prescriptivist disposition, eventually you're going to lose.

In "Detecting Evolutionary Forces in Language Change," Mitchell G. Newberry, Christopher A. Ahern, Robin Clark, and Joshua B. Plotkin of the University of Pennsylvania describe that language change is inevitable, unstoppable, and even the toughest prescriptivist out there isn't going to halt the adoption of new words and grammatical forms.

The researchers analyzed over a hundred thousand texts from 1810 onward, looking for changes in morphology -- for example, the decrease in the use of past tense forms like "leapt" and "spilt" in favor of "leaped" and "spilled."  The conventional wisdom was that irregular forms (like pluralizing "goose" to "geese") persist because they're common; less common words, like "turf" -- which used to pluralize to "turves" -- eventually regularize because people don't use the word often enough to learn the irregular plural, and eventually the regular plural ("turfs") takes over.

The research by Newberry et al. shows that this isn't true -- when there are two competing forms, which one wins is more a matter of random chance than commonness.  They draw a very cool analogy between this phenomenon, which they call stochastic drift, to the genetic drift experienced by evolving populations of living organisms.

"Whether it is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English – and indeed other languages – is that the language changes,” said Joshua Plotkin, who co-authored the study.  "The grammarians might [win the battle] for a decade, but certainly over a century they are going to be on the losing side.  The prevailing view is that if language is changing it should in general change towards the regular form, because the regular form is easier to remember.  But chance can play an important role even in language evolution – as we know it does in biological evolution."

So in the ongoing battles over grammatical, pronunciation, and spelling change, the purists are probably doomed to fail.  It's worthwhile remembering how many words in modern English are the result of such mangling; both "uncle" and "umpire" came about because of an improper split of the indefinite article ("a nuncle" and "a numpire" became "an uncle" and "an umpire").  "To burgle" came about because of a phenomenon called back formation -- when a common linguistic pattern gets applied improperly to a word that sounds like it has the same basic construction.  A teacher teaches, a baker bakes, so a burglar must burgle.  (I'm surprised, frankly, given how English yanks words around, we don't have carpenters carpenting.)

Anyhow, if this is read by any hard-core prescriptivists, all I can say is "I'm sorry."  It's a pity, but the world doesn't always work the way we'd like it to.  But even so, I'm damned if I'm going to use "alright" and "alot."  A line has to be drawn somewhere.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The persistence of belief

Two studies published last week were profoundly discouraging to people like me, who spend a lot of time trying to promote skepticism and critical thinking, and squelching loopy claims.

The first was a study of American beliefs done at Chapman University.  The study found that:
  • 55% of the Americans surveyed believed in ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis
  • 52% believed in ghosts, hauntings, or evil spirits
  • 35% believed that aliens visited the Earth long ago and influenced ancient civilizations
  • 26% believe that aliens are still visiting the Earth
  • 25% believe in telekinesis, the ability to move objects with your mind
  • 19% believe that psychics can foresee the future
  • 16% believe Bigfoot is real
Only a quarter of the people surveyed held no paranormal beliefs whatsoever.

If that's not discouraging enough, compare that to a Gallup poll this year that found only 19% of the Americans surveyed believed that evolution exists and operates through purely natural forces.  So yes: apparently more Americans believe Carrie is a historical documentary than believe in non-god-driven evolutionary biology.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then we had a paper called "Poor Metacognitive Awareness of Belief Change," by Michael B. Wolfe and Todd J. Williams of Grand Valley State University, that appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.  This study found that yes, you can sometimes change people's opinions with the facts.  They gave people (actual) studies to read showing that spanking is a lousy method of discipline -- it simply doesn't work, and has a number of well-documented bad side effects on children.  (And don't even start with me about "I was spanked as a child and I'm fine."  If that's true, I'm glad you turned out okay, but you should appreciate the fact that you were lucky -- the research is absolutely unequivocal about the negative effects and poor efficacy of spanking.)

And some people did change their minds.  Which is encouraging.  But when the subjects were questioned afterwards, the researchers found that the ones whose stance changed tended to misremember their original beliefs.

In other words: they reported that their beliefs hadn't shifted much, that apropos of their new position, they knew it all along.

The authors write:
When people change beliefs as a result of reading a text, are they aware of these changes?...  [T]he relationship between the belief consistency of the text read and accuracy of belief recollections was mediated by belief change.  This belief memory bias was independent of on-line text processing and comprehension measures, and indicates poor metacognitive awareness of belief change.
Which is frustrating.  The implication is that most of us have such poor self-awareness that we don't even notice when our opinions change.  I suppose it's natural enough; it's hard for all of us to say, "Okay, I guess I was wrong."

But for cryin' in the sink, learning how to admit error is part of growing up.  The world is a complex, counterintuitive place, and we have fallible sensory organs and brains, so of course we're going to get it wrong sometimes.  Because of that, we have to learn not only to admit error, but to examine our own beliefs and biases with a high-power lens.  If you don't periodically look at your own most dearly-held beliefs and ask, "Could I be wrong about this?  How could I tell?  And what would that mean?", you are stumbling around in the dark with no clear way of figuring out where you've made a mistake.

So we skeptics have to toil on.  I'm not saying I'm right about everything -- far from it -- but I will maintain that skepticism, logic, and science are the best ways of sifting fact from fiction.  It's disappointing that we're still a nation where every other person you meet believes in haunted houses, but there is a remedy.  And if, as the second study suggests, the people we convince end up saying, "Meh, I never really believed in ghosts in the first place," I can accept that as the next best outcome to an outright admission of error.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Living the dream

Last night I dreamed I was in my classroom.  It wasn't my real classroom, however -- it looked like a 19th century lecture hall.  Wooden desks, old cabinets containing jars with ground-glass stoppers, various pieces of equipment of uncertain purpose, some of which looked like (and may in fact have been) torture equipment.  My son lived in an apartment above my classroom, with his wife, which is especially curious because he's not married.  I was teaching a lesson on the reproductive systems of monkeys, but my students weren't listening.  Also, my son kept coming out on the balcony (of course there was a balcony) and interrupting my lecture to ask me questions about the rules of rugby.

After that, it got a little weird.

Neuroscientists have been trying to figure out the physiological function of dreams for years.  The contention is that they must be doing something important, because they're so ubiquitous.  Judging from my own dogs, even other species dream.  Sometimes they have exciting dreams, with muted little barks and twitching paws, often ending in a growl and a shake of the head, as if they're killing some poor defenseless prey; other times they have placid dreams, eliciting a sigh and a wagging tail, which ranks right up there amongst the cutest things I've ever seen.

But what purpose dreams serve has been elusive.  There's some contention that dreaming might help consolidate memory; that it may help to eliminate old synaptic connections that are no longer useful; and that it might function to reset neurotransmitter receptors, especially those connected with the neurotransmitter dopamine.  But last week, some neuropsychologists at Rutgers University have found evidence of yet another function of dreaming; making people less likely to overreact in scary situations.

Tom Merry, "Gladstone Dreams About Queen Victoria's Dinner" (1886) [image courtesy of the Wellcome Library Gallery and the Wikimedia Commons]

In "Baseline Levels of Rapid-Eye-Movement Sleep May Protect Against Excessive Activity in Fear-Related Neural Circuitry," by Itamar Lerner, Shira M. Lupkin, Neha Sinha, Alan Tsai, and Mark A. Gluck, we learn that people who have been deprived of REM (rapid eye movement, the phase of sleep where dreaming occurs) are more likely to experience extreme anxiety and PTSD-like symptoms than people who have been REMing normally, as well as higher activity in the amygdala -- the part of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and anger.

The authors write:
Sleep, and particularly rapid-eye movement sleep (REM), has been implicated in the modulation of neural activity following fear conditioning and extinction in both human and animal studies.  It has long been presumed that such effects play a role in the formation and persistence of Post-Traumatic-Stress-disorder, of which sleep impairments are a core feature.  However, to date, few studies have thoroughly examined the potential effects of sleep prior to conditioning on subsequent acquisition of fear learning in humans.  Further, these studies have been restricted to analyzing the effects of a single night of sleep—thus assuming a state-like relationship between the two.  In the current study, we employed long-term mobile sleep monitoring and functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to explore whether trait-like variations in sleep patterns, measured in advance in both male and female participants, predict subsequent patterns of neural activity during fear learning.  Our results indicate that higher baseline levels of REM sleep predict reduced fear-related activity in, and connectivity between, the hippocampus, amygdala and ventromedial PFC during conditioning.  Additionally, Skin-Conductance-Responses (SCR) were weakly correlated to the activity in the amygdala.  Conversely, there was no direct correlation between REM sleep and SCR, indicating that REM may only modulate fear acquisition indirectly.  In a follow-up experiment, we show that these results are replicable, though to a lesser extent, when measuring sleep over a single night just prior to conditioning.  As such, baseline sleep parameters may be able to serve as biomarkers for resilience, or lack thereof, to trauma.
Which I find pretty fascinating.  I had sleep problems for years, finally (at least in part) resolved after a visit to a sleep lab and a prescription for a CPAP machine.  Turns out I have obstructive sleep apnea, apparently due to a narrow tracheal opening, and was waking up 23 times an hour.  I'm still not a really sound sleeper, but I feel like at least I'm not sleepwalking through life the way I was, pre-CPAP.  I also suffer from pretty severe social anxiety, and although I'm not convinced that the two are related, it is curious that the researchers found that a lack of REM ramps up anxiety.

However, even after fixing my apnea, my nights are still disturbed by bizarre dreams, for no particularly apparent reason.  I don't dream about things I'm anxious over, for the most part; my dreams are often weird and disjointed, with scenarios that make sense while I'm dreaming and seem ridiculous once I'm awake.  But what does it all mean?  I am extremely dubious about those "Your Dreams Interpreted" books that tell you that if you dream about a horse, it means you are secretly in love with your neighbor.  (I just made that up.  I have no idea what those books say about dreaming about horses, and I'm not sufficiently motivated to go find out.)  In any case, it's highly unlikely that even a symbolic interpretation of dream imagery would be consistent from person to person.

On a bigger scale, however, there is remarkable consistency in dream content from person to person.  We all have dreams of being chased, falling, flying, being in embarrassing situations, being in erotic situations.  But when you slice them more finely, the specifics of dreams vary greatly, even with people who are in the same circumstances, making it pretty unlikely that there's any kind of one-to-one correlation between dream imagery and events in real life.

So the study by Lerner et al. is fascinating, but doesn't really explain the content of dreams, nor why they can be so absolutely convincing when you're in them, and entirely absurd after you wake up.  But I better wrap this up.  I gotta go do some research in case Lucas wants to chat with me, because I might be able to hold my own when the topic is monkey junk, but I know bugger-all about rugby.