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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Vinegar cure

There's a single question that can keep us honest with respect to many aspects of life, and that question is: "How do I know this is true?"

It only works, of course, if you answer it honestly, and are willing to consider the possibility that you could be wrong.  If all you do is say, "Because of _____" (fill in the blank with your favorite combination of: the bible, Fox News, a political commentator, a famous actor or actress, a claim I ran into on the internet), and forthwith cease thinking about it, you haven't gotten very far.

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link that was a good illustration of this principle, or more accurately, the kind of nonsense you can fall for if you don't apply it.  The link was to an article over at the site The Limitless Minds, called, "Leave A Glass Of Salt Water And Vinegar To Detect Negative Energies In Your Home."

Starting out with my pet peeve over the way woo-woos use words like "energy" (and frequency, and quantum, and resonance, and vibration, and on and on ad nauseam).  But fortunately for us, the author, Matteo Light, defines what he means right away:
This may seem a little weird at first, but it’s possible to have a reservoir of negative energy trapped in your home.  And by negative energy, I mean emotional energy that comes from humans.  It could be there from past tenants or homeowners, or from a year ago when you and your spouse were fighting a lot.
Once again, the principle applies: how do you know this "negative energy" exists?  Have you detected it on a Negative Energy-o-Meter?

No, apparently not.  In fact, the next thing Light does is criticize the scientists who would even expect such a thing:
Traditionally, science doesn’t like things it can’t touch, measure, or put into a tiny jar on the shelf to examine. 
Eventually, scientists discovered forces that exist in the world that are invisible.  One of those things is energy in its many expressions.  We usually can’t see it, but sometimes we can feel it.
How ridiculous, only believing in things for which you have evidence.  If you can imagine.

But Light says we do have evidence; a "feeling."  All you need, I suppose.

Then we're given the one fleeting nod to any kind of experimental support -- but he pulls out the tired old "nice words -- pretty ice crystals, mean words -- ugly ice crystals" research by Dr. Masaru Emoto, that has become the basis of every Quantum Resonant Vibrations of Love claim ever since.  I won't do a takedown of Emoto's claims here -- Dr. Steven Novella over at NeuroLogica did a thorough job of that in November of last year -- but I will mention two relevant points:
  • Emoto could only claim to be a doctor because he got a Ph.D. from the Open International University of Alternative Medicine, a known diploma mill that requires no coursework whatsoever.
  • His ice crystals experiments have been replicated dozens, possibly hundreds, of times, and in every case where there were appropriate controls, have generated uniformly negative results.
So we're already on mighty shaky ground, but Light soldiers on ahead to tell us what we can do to combat these invisible, undetectable "negative energies," presumably so that the ice cubes in our freezer don't form ugly shapes or something.

We are, he says, to put two tablespoons of white vinegar and two teaspoons of granulated salt into sixteen ounces of filtered water, mix it together, and put it somewhere that you'll be near.  Leave it for a day.  Once the salt has "stopped rising," it's collected all the negative energy it can, and you should move it to somewhere else in the house to de-negativize that room, too.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I'm thinking: that's it?  How do you know that?  Did you look at the water, vinegar, and salt mixture after sitting there for a day, and decide that it seemed unhappy?  Did getting near the negative-energy-saturated water give you quantum fluctuations in your chakras or something?  But of course, we're never told why we should believe this works, or even what specifically it supposedly accomplishes.  All we're told is that we should rely on our feelings, and that'll be enough.

Well, I'm sorry, but that isn't enough in science.  Scoffing about how scientists like to be able to measure stuff (or put it in a tiny jar on the shelf, as the mood strikes) ignores the fact that when it comes to establishing the truth of a claim, science is kind of the only game in town.

Of course, the claim also raises some more prosaic questions, such as: does it have to be a particular, dedicated salt-vinegar-water mixture, or will any old salt-vinegar-water mixture do?  If the latter, then why don't our houses get de-negativized by, say, a jar of pickles?  This'd be a little worrisome, though, because the contention is that the negative energies get absorbed by the liquid, so there you'd be, raiding the refrigerator hoping for a nice half-sour, and instead you'd get the Fearsome Negative Pickle Spear of Doom.

So predictably, I'm unimpressed.  I'll just stick with whatever negative energies are hanging around my house.  Thus far, they haven't bothered me any.  Also, I have a container of salt and a bottle of white vinegar in a cabinet in my kitchen, and there's no reason they can't do their thing as is.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A vote for fraud

Yesterday morning when I was reading the news, I saw a story that induced me to use say some very bad words, that for the benefit of my more sensitive readers I will leave to your imagination.

The story that generated that result appeared in The Guardian, and the gist is that disgraced British doctor and anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield is campaigning hard for an anti-vaxxer running for the Republican nomination for a seat in the Texas State House of Representatives.

Wakefield, you may remember, is the man who is virtually solely responsible for the completely unfounded claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism.  The British Medical Journal posted an editorial in 2011 that did not mince words; the title is, "Wakefield’s Article Linking MMR Vaccine and Autism Was Fraudulent."  If that's not unequivocal enough, the editorial begins with the line, "Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."

That should have been that.  That would have been that if it weren't for the fact that being caught red-handed engaging in scientific fraud didn't induce Wakefield to do what a normal human being would do in that situation, namely to admit what he'd done and retreat in disarray.  No, after the release of the paper calling him out on his fraudulent pseudo-research, Wakefield and his followers denied it -- and claimed that the doctors who wrote the paper were shills being paid by Big Pharma (which is up there with Monsanto as a stand-in for Satan) to shut down his research to protect their profits.

And the anti-vaxxer movement is still growing.  As is recurrence of dangerous and completely preventable diseases, such as the measles outbreak that happened in Wakefield's adopted home state of Texas this January.  But Wakefield evidently decided that this wasn't damage on a sufficiently large scale, so he's trying to ramrod his foolish and discredited ideas into the state legislature, so he can enshrine his false claims into law.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Wakefield is completely up front on what he's trying to do, and how he's trying to do it.  Rather than believe the scientists and the peer-reviewed studies, he says, you should trust social media instead:
Social media has evolved, as a general comment, has evolved beautifully.  It has provided an alternative to the failings of mainstream media...  In this country, it’s become so polarized now… No one knows quite what to believe.  So, people are turning increasingly to social media.
To say this makes me furious is something of an understatement.  Distrust of intellectuals in general and scientists in particular is widespread, and that is reflected in the people we've elected.  We already have a president who is a climate change denier and more than one governor and congressperson who believe that the six-day biblical creation story is supported by science and therefore should be taught in public school classrooms.  The last thing we need is more people in positions of power who deny science in favor of their own biases and/or delusions -- and who rely on getting their information from Facebook and Twitter.

Jinny Suh, an Austin mom and activist who is attempting to counter Wakefield's message, highlights how difficult this approach is to fight.  "The biggest challenge we face is," Suh said, "if you go onto Facebook or Google and you do a search for vaccines – and we can imagine a lot of new moms do this… the anti-vaxx stuff out there outnumbers the pro-vaxx stuff by quite a bit.  It doesn’t matter how you started out thinking about the topic, when a person is inundated with that much misinformation a person can’t help but start to think it’s true."

Which is why it's so important to get the message out there, and speak plainly.  Wakefield is a proven fraud.  He continues to lie about this and to claim that the evidence against him was falsified or cherry-picked or means something other than it does.  There is zero evidence that vaccination causes autism or any of the other horrible side-effects that he and others like him claim.  Admittedly, there have been side-effects from vaccines; no medical treatment is completely risk-free.  But they are extremely infrequent, usually mild, and temporary.

And what you get in exchange is immunity against diseases that as little as 75 years ago, used to kill huge numbers of children and young adults.  I've related before that my paternal grandfather's two eldest sisters -- Aimée-Marie and Anne-Désée -- died at the ages of 21 and 18, respectively, of complications from measles, after being completely healthy up until that time.

Wakefield is not just wrong, he's dangerous.  We do not need more anti-science voices amongst our leaders.  I don't know what the chances are for his candidate to win the nomination, but I fear that this kind of unfounded rhetoric has still not reached its peak.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Tying god's hands

Today, for what must be the tenth time, I saw the following image posted on social media:

The people who posted it apparently decided for some reason that it was acceptable to use the tragic murder of seventeen innocent people to lob some snark at the atheists, secularists, and others who believe in the separation of church and state.  But what I want to address here is the toxicity of the mindset behind the message -- apart from what would spur someone to think that this is an appropriate time to post it (and truthfully, I can't think of an appropriate time to post it).

First, I thought y'all were the ones who believed that god was everywhere, was omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient and omni-what-have-you.  What you're implying here is that a handful of people who think religion has no place in a public, taxpayer-funded institution have somehow overpowered an all-powerful god's ability to do anything to stop a crazed gunman.  (Probably explaining why the Florida State Legislature, having decided to do fuck-all about gun law reform, has decided instead to pursue a bill requiring "In God We Trust" to be posted in public schools statewide.)

So we're already on some shaky theological grounds, but it gets worse.  What the above message suggests is that somehow, god's attitude is, "if you won't pray in schools, innocent children deserve to die."  That given the choice of using his Miraculous God Powers to stop a massacre, he just stood there smirking and afterwards said, "See?  Told you something like this would happen if you didn't worship me all the time and everywhere.  Sorry, but my hands were tied."

Me, I think any deity that acts like this is a monster, not an all-loving beneficent creator.  That said, it's entirely consistent with the depiction of the Lord of Hosts in the Old Testament.  The Old Testament God was constantly smiting people left and right for such heinous crimes as gathering firewood on the sabbath, and when the Chosen People of Israel conquered a place, the word from above was "kill everyone, including children."

Don't believe me?  There are plenty of instances, but my favorite is 1 Samuel 15:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: "I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them.  Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."  So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim—two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand from Judah.
Long story short, Saul did as told, killing everyone up to and including the donkeys, but the Lord was still pissed off for some reason, and the Prophet Samuel told him so.  Apparently it had to do with the fact that Saul had spared the Amalekite King, Agag (like I said before, to hell with the children).  So Saul executed Agag, but the Lord still wasn't happy with him.

So what this shows is by posting bullshit like the above image, the people who think this kind of deity deserves worship are simply walking their talk.

The whole thing brings to memory a quote from Richard Dawkins.  I know his very name raises hackles, but it's so germane to this topic that I would be remiss in not including it:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
To which I can only say: touché.

The deepest problem, though, is the one the people who post this nonsense would be the least likely to admit; when they advocate tearing down the wall between church and state, they're absolutely adamant that it can only be for the benefit of one church.  Start talking about having Jewish prayers or quotes from the Qu'ran or some of the Ten Thousand Sayings of Buddha festooned about the walls of classrooms, and you'll have these same people screaming bloody murder.

So as usual, what we're talking about is a combination of ugly theology and complete hypocrisy.  And it would be hardly worth commenting on if it weren't for the power that these attitudes still have, and the degree to which they still influence policy in the United States.

Other than railing about it here on Skeptophilia, I'm not sure what to do.  Anyone who really believes this -- anyone, in other words, who wasn't just trying to score some points off the atheists -- has subscribed to a belief system that is very close to the definition of evil.

And people talk about us atheists being amoral.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

An explosion of understanding

One of the reasons I love science is its capacity for inducing wonder.

Albert Einstein said it best: "Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift."  Being able to look around you and think, "Okay, now I understand a little bit more of the universe" is nothing short of a thrill.

I recall having that feeling when I first learned about the Cambrian Explosion, a sudden increase in biodiversity that occurred about 540 million years ago, and which produced virtually all the animal phyla we currently have today.  I think it struck me that way because it was so contrary to the picture I'd had, of evolution slowly plodding along, from something like a jellyfish to something like a worm to something like a fish, through amphibians and reptiles and mammals, finally leading to us as (of course) the Pinnacle of Creation.  That view, it seems, is substantially wrong.  While there has been great change on many branches of the family tree of life, all of the basic branches diverged right about the same time.

Fascinating, too, that there were also a variety of branches that left no living descendants, that are so bizarre to our eyes that they look more like something from a science fiction movie.  There's Dickinsonia:

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

... and Anomalocaris, shown here as a model of what it might have looked like when alive:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

... and the aptly named Hallucigenia, which could be straight out of a fever-dream:

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

... and my personal favorite, five-eyed, vacuum-cleaner-hose-equipped Opabinia:

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

If you'd like to find out more, I encourage you to read Stephen Jay Gould's awesome book Wonderful Life, which will tell you about these four creatures and a great many more besides.

The reason I bring this up is that some new research out of Oxford University has elucidated not only the structure of these odd creatures, but the environment in which they lived.  Having fossils from 540 million years ago that were sufficiently intact to determine what they'd looked like while alive is amazing enough; but being able to determine anything about the conditions under which they lived is downright astonishing.  But that's just what Ross Anderson and Nicholas Tosca, of the Department of Sedimentary Geology at Oxford, and their team have done.

Their paper, which appeared in the journal Geology last week, described microscopic mineralogical analysis of the Burgess Shale of Canada and the Ediacaran Assemblage of Australia, two of the finest deposits of Cambrian Explosion fossils in the world.  And what the geologists found allowed them to make a guess at where the likes of Opabinia and the rest lived: warm, shallow ocean ecosystems that had water rich in iron.

The iron content allowed the formation of the mineral berthierine, which is not only distinctive in its origins, but has an anti-bacterial effect that halted decomposition and prevented decomposition.  This resulted in the phenomenally well-preserved fossils both sites are known for.

"Berthierine is an interesting mineral because it forms in tropical settings when the sediments contain elevated concentrations of iron," Anderson said.  "This means that Burgess Shale-type fossils are likely confined to rocks which were formed at tropical latitudes and which come from locations or time periods that have enhanced iron.  This observation is exciting because it means for the first time we can more accurately interpret the geographic and temporal distribution of these iconic fossils, crucial if we want to understand their biology and ecology."

The whole thing is tremendously exciting.  To not only have an idea of the appearance of these animals, but to be able to picture them in something like their actual habitat, gives us a glimpse of a world five times older than it was during the heyday of the dinosaurs.  It's breathtaking to think about.  

I'll end with a quote from another scientist -- Brian Greene, the physicist whose lucid writing about modern physics in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos inspired an equally brilliant NOVA series.  Greene says: "Science is a way of life.  Science is a perspective.  Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that's precise, predictive and reliable - a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional."

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dog days

I've always felt like I grok dog behavior better than I grok human behavior.

I can't tell you the number of times I've looked at something my fellow humans have done and thought, "Who does that?"  Or, more to the point, "What the hell is wrong with you?"  Whereas with dogs, I usually (1) can tell from their body language what they're thinking and feeling, and (2) understand why they did what they did.

Even when they are aggressive, bite or attack people, their behavior is almost always consistent and explainable -- and predictable if you can read dog body language.

Angie Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate who works at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, agrees.  Her doctoral research has to do with the human/dog bond, and using facial and body language cues to understand what dogs are thinking.  She's working with Kathy Shae, of the Paws-n-Effect Canine Training Center, to work with and observe dogs interacting with strangers, their owners, and each other, in an effort to parse the mysteries of the canine personality.

"People love their dogs and want to know what they’re thinking, but we can’t ask them," Johnston said.  "The only way we can find out what they’re thinking is by getting these different studies to try to get inside their head."

Her studies and those of her colleagues have found that dogs release oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and love, when they're with their owners.  "When you see the same hormone released in dogs and families that are released in humans and infants, it suggests that some really similar things are going on," she said.  "So, I think dogs do love us...  It’s something dogs have developed and as they have lived with us, it has grown into true love."

Shae highlighted the uniqueness of the human/canine bond.  "It’s intuitive for them, it’s nonverbal and it’s empathetic in its purest sense," she said.  "Historically, humans and dogs have been partnered for tens of thousands of years, and of the 20,000-plus species on the Earth, dogs and humans have had a unique relationship...  There’s some connection there that’s incredibly, incredibly deep.  I think we’ve lost empathy and they’ve gained empathy in an evolutionary sense, and that’s why we’re partnered."

The fact that this study, which is still incomplete and has not yet been published, was the subject of a news story this week is timely.  In the last couple of weeks, my wife and I have been perusing the listings over at PetFinder, a wonderful service that acts as a clearinghouse for animals who are available for adoption at various shelters in your area.  We met some dogs who were clearly wrong for completely prosaic reasons -- a couple of boisterous puppies who played a little too roughly for our sweet, gray-around-the-muzzle coonhound Lena, for example.  There was one tragic pit bull mix, gorgeous, but so afraid of people that he couldn't be trusted not to bite -- we had to meet him through a chain link fence, and even then he snarled and snapped at us.

Most interesting was a beautiful, blue-eyed cattle dog mix who wasn't aggressive at all, but just -- disconnected, uninterested in interacting with us.  Out on a leash, he was focused on smelling everything in our path (not that unusual), but there was something about his body language that was off.  He paid no attention at all to either of us, not just in the sense of obeying commands (that stuff can be taught), but as far as any curiosity about us.  My doggie intuition said, "No, he's not going to work out well."

Then we met a big, loping black lab/Akita mix.

He was, we were told, a little shy, especially around men.  They let him out into the meet-and-greet room, and he walked right up to me and gave me a big lick in the face.  The trainer's eyebrows went up.

"Or maybe not so much," he said.

Then we brought in Lena, so she and Big Black Dog could see if they liked each other.  They did the obligatory mutual butt sniff, and both tails started wagging.  Second box checked off.

Best of all, he was clearly focused on us, and very curious about these two strangers who were leading him around.  It didn't take us long to come to a decision.  There was something about him that just clicked.  My second sense about dogs said, "He's the one."

So without further ado, allow me to introduce:  Guinness.

We've had him for less than 24 hours, and already he's played a rollicking game of chase in the back yard with Lena (she's been in a positive depressive state since her buddy, our adorable rescue mutt Grendel, died a couple of months ago; this is the happiest I've seen her since that happened).  He's chased squeaky tennis balls 17,839 times across the living room floor (and counting).  He's already learning a few commands -- we're signing him up for obedience training soon, and hoping that brain-wise, he's inherited more from his Akita ancestry than his black lab.  He is a little skittish, still -- the shelter manager didn't give us details about his past (probably a good thing) but just said he "wasn't treated very well" by his former owners.  He startles if you reach for him suddenly, but that's another thing I can tell he'll learn to get past with some love, affection, and a safe warm home.

So I think my doggie intuition has chalked up another win.  He's a good 'un, as my grandma used to say.

But now I need to go, because he just walked into my office with a squeaky tennis ball.  Some things take priority, you know?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Great balls of ice

A famous skit from the early days of Saturday Night Live had a stereotypical married couple (played by Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner) arguing over whether a particular product was a floor wax or a dessert topping.  After a moment, Chevy Chase steps in and says, "No need to argue!  New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping."

The couple gives the camera a big smile.  "Tastes great!" one of them says, and the other adds, "And look at that shine!"

I thought about New Shimmer a couple of days ago when my younger son, who has a fantastic eye for wacko ideas, found a claim online that resolves the Flat Earth/Oblate Spheroid Earth controversy by saying no need to argue... it's both flat and a sphere.

How can that be, you might be asking?  That's certainly what I asked.  I mean, the whole raison d'être of the Flerfs (as I have come to call the Flat Earthers) is that the Earth is a flat disc with no curvature whatsoever, in many iterations bounded by an ice wall that the rest of us call the continent of Antarctica (and which the Flerfs apparently believe is what keeps the ocean from pouring off the edge).

But no, says this new claim.  The reason that the Earth looks flat to the Flerfs is that we are only living on a tiny bit of it, and a tiny bit of a sphere looks, for all intents and purposes, flat.  But in reality, we're on a sphere -- just a much larger sphere than any of us, including the astronomers, realize.

If you're having a hard time picturing this, so was I, until Nathan sent me a diagram.  So without further ado, I unveil to you the latest version of the Flat Earth Theory:

The Great Ice Ball Earth Theory.

That, my friends, is one huge ball of ice.  But it all makes sense, they say -- don't get all technical on us and claim that such a huge planet would have an enormous gravitational pull, comparable at least to Jupiter's -- because, as the diagram clearly tells you, the ice ball is "possibly hollow."

And I realize that the inset in the lower left hand corner is probably too small for you to see clearly, so allow me to elaborate.  The Earth, it claims, might be just one of many "ponds" in the ice ball.  So this could account for all sorts of things, like UFOs, which wouldn't have to cross interstellar space, they'd just have to sail around the ice ball until they found a hospitable looking "pond."

And given that this is upstate New York in February, it has actually looked a bit like we're sitting on a giant ice ball lately.  So maybe there's something to this after all.

In either case, I suppose this ends the Flat Earth/Oblate Spheroid Earth argument.  It's kind of a shame, because there were parts of it I was rather enjoying.

In any case, that's the latest from FlerfLand.  Now y'all will have to excuse me, because I'm gonna go get a bowl of ice cream.  I sure hope I have some floor wax left.  It's just not the same without it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The necessity of dissent

As soon as I saw that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had gained national attention for their outspoken and articulate statements on changing gun laws, I was waiting for the backlash to start.

Maybe I'm cynical.  A more optimistic person might have thought that people would say, "I'm glad these kids are getting involved and being vocal, even if I don't necessarily agree with what they're saying.  This kind of participation is what democracy is all about!"

A more optimistic person would have been wrong.

First there's Lucian Wintrich over at Gateway Pundit, a wildly pro-Trump site that despite its established "white Christians first" agenda was granted White House credentials over respected members of the mainstream media.  Wintrich noted that one of the students, David Hogg, was the son of a man who works for the FBI.  From there, he says, there's only one possible conclusion:
Hogg appears to have been coached on anti-Trump lines...  He seems articulate and highly skilled at setting a new anti-Conservative/anti-Trump narrative behind the recent school shooting...  Allow me to point out that this type of rapid media play is rare and, only comes from well-trained political operatives and MSM commentators...  Why would the child of an FBI agent be used as a pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation?  Because the FBI is only looking to curb YOUR Constitutional rights and INCREASE their power.  We’ve seen similar moves by them many times over.  This is just another disgusting example of it.
The next to chime in was none other than Alex Jones, who under Trump has somehow recovered enough credibility to continue his blithering every day over at InfoWars.  Jones went even further than Wintrich, saying that the massacre itself was the fault of the Democrats:
Wow, we said the perfect false flag would be a white nationalist attacking a multicultural school as a way to make the leftists all look like victims and bring in gun control and a war on America’s recovery.  And now right on time what we’ve been warning of, their main card, the thing we said was imminent, appears with all the evidence.
But it wasn't just dubiously sane members of the far-right media that weighed in.  The latest to slam the survivors of the shooting was former Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, who in an interview on CNN called the students "stooges for left-wing groups who have an agenda."

Alisyn Camerota, who was interviewing Kingston, responded in astonishment, "Jack, I’m sorry. I have to correct you.  I was down there.  I talked to these kids.  These kids were wildly motivated."  But Kingston refused to back down.  The day after the interview, he tweeted about the planned rallies for gun law reform: "O really?  'Students' are planning a nationwide rally?  Not left wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy?"

So let me get this straight.  Kids this age are allowed to use guns.  Only a year older, and they're not only allowed to purchase guns, they're allowed to vote, not to mention join the military and risk their safety and lives to protect this country.  But at the same time, no way could a young adult have a valid and well-thought-out reason for holding a belief.  If they disagree with the party line, it can't be because of a strongly-held and justified opinion.  And no way in hell should they be organizing a rally or speaking to media to make those opinions known.

If they're doing any of that, they must have been brainwashed, and are being used by the leftists for their own malignant purposes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Speaking of responses, I have a great many of them, of which calling the likes of Wintrich, Jones, and Kingston a trio of goddamn hypocrites is the most succinct, and probably also the most printable.  But I'll add one more directed at them, and that's this: you better get out of the way, because these teenagers will not be silenced.  Your type has for years railed at teens as being unmotivated, lazy, and uninterested in participating in government.  I hope this shows you how wrong you are -- and perhaps, that your ignorant scorn has given these young people a voice that otherwise they might not have found.

To the teenagers themselves, I have a lot more to say.

Don't let the anger, doubt, and ridicule coming from people like this discourage you.  Any time you speak up, you will find that there are ones who will want to rob you of your right to express yourself, who will slander you and dismiss your opinions as worthless.  Speaking up is risky, but it's absolutely critical, and you will find that weathering the impotent fury of those who would deny you your voice will, in the long haul, be empowering.

To quote union leader Nicholas Klein, "First, they ignore you.  Then they ridicule you.  Then they fight you.  Then you win."

So don't give up.  You have started something, something big, and you have captured national attention, including the attention of people who disagree with you.  This is a good thing.  Speaking out can be scary, and there will be times you will regret doing it, feel that you haven't accomplished anything, that the odds against you are too great.  But there are a lot of people standing behind you who will happily add their voices to yours.

As American activist Maggie Kuhn put it: "Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.  When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Social media and social isolation

One of the reasons we have science is that our intuition is so often wrong.

We're misled by dozens of things, from simple failures of our perceptual or processing apparatus, to our preconceived notions and cognitive biases, to falling prey to others who want us to think a certain way.  Science gives us a way around all of that; its understanding relies on data and evidence.  What we thought beforehand, what someone else told us -- none of that matters.

Now, I'm not saying that science has no biases.  There is no endeavor that is completely bias-free.  However, if you want to find a way to the truth, based on the current best knowledge we have, science is the only game in town.

This comes up because of a paper released last week in the Journal of Information, Communication, Society that addresses a commonly-held belief, especially amongst those who are (like myself), "of a certain age;" that social media and the ubiquity of cellphones and other internet-connective devices are going to result in a generation of young adults who don't know how to interact with each other in person -- or, perhaps, who simply don't want to.

Note that this belief is usually founded on nothing but annoyance.  Looking around a bus stop or a doctor's waiting room, and seeing all the faces glued to their Smart Phones, it's easy to imagine that it might be true.  After all, it seems kind of logical, doesn't it?  You stare at your phone rather than connecting to the people around you.  Of course that's going to isolate you, right?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So Jeffrey A. Hall, Michael W. Kearney, and Chong Xing, of the University of Kansas Department of Communication Studies, decided to test that supposition, and their results appeared last week in the paper "Two Tests of Social Displacement Through Social Media Use."  And the results were unequivocal; frequent social media use had no effect whatsoever on social isolation in teenagers.  Those who were already isolated stayed isolated; those who were already connected stayed connected.  The authors write:
[We present] two tests of the hypothesis that social media use decreases social interaction, leading to decreased well-being.  Study 1 used the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (N = 2774), which is a national probability sample of Generation X, to test displacement over a three-year time period.  Latent change scores were used to test associations among social media adoption in 2009, social media use in 2011, direct contact frequency across years, in relation to change in well-being.  Although social media adoption in 2009 predicted less social contact in 2011, increased social media use between 2009 and 2011 positively predicted well-being.  Study 2 used experience sampling with a combined community and undergraduate sample (N = 116).  Participants reported on their social interactions and passive social media use (i.e., excluding chat via social media) five times a day over five days.  Results indicate that social media use at prior times of day was not associated with future social interaction with close others or with future face-to-face interaction.  Passive social media use at prior times predicted lower future well-being only when alone at prior times.  Neither study supported the social displacement hypothesis.
But... but... our intuition on this seemed so logical, didn't it?  On the other hand, when I think back on my own misspent youth, my memory tells me otherwise.  I was painfully shy, and to say I had no social life in high school is an understatement of colossal proportions.  This was long before the days of Smart Phones and Facebook (hell, my students think it was long before the days of Gutenberg and the Printing Press).  I can therefore guarantee that my own social isolation had nothing to do with social media, because it didn't exist.  And my guess is that if there had been social media, at least it would have given me some way of interacting, other than my preferred method of getting beaten up in the gym locker room.

Jeffrey Hall, who co-authored the study, elaborated on its results.  "It was not the case at all that social media adoption or use had a consistent effect on their direct social interactions with people," Hall said.  "What was interesting was that, during a time of really rapid adoption of social media, and really powerful changes in use, you didn’t see sudden declines in people’s direct social contact.  If the social-displacement theory is correct, people should get out less and make fewer of those phone calls, and that just wasn’t the case."

In fact, the use of social media didn't even affect who they chose to socialize with.  "What we found was that people’s use of social media had no relationship to who they were talking to later that day and what medium they were using to talk to people later that day," Hall said.  "Social media users were not experiencing social displacement.  If they used social media earlier in the day, they were not more likely to be alone later.  It’s also not the case that because they were using social media now, they were not interacting face to face later. …  It doesn’t seem that, either within the same time period or projecting the future, that social media use indicates people not having close relationship partners in face-to-face or telephone conversation."

So science here gives us a chance to challenge our preconceived notions, and in this case finds that our tendency to rant about "kids these days" and "it wasn't like that back in my day" turns out to be false.  The sad postscript, however, is that I don't expect this to change anyone's attitudes.  It's like the study, released last year, that not only does spanking not work to change a child's behavior, it's associated with a host of mental problems later in life, including depression, suicide risk, and drug abuse.

After that study came out -- and it is one of several studies that have reached this conclusion -- there was an outpouring of outrage on social media that "the liberals are trying to stop us from disciplining our kids" and "kids these days are disrespectful and lazy, and wouldn't be that way if they were spanked for it" and (most often) "I was spanked all the time as a kid, and I turned out fine."  Which proves that you can have controlled scientific studies out the wazoo, and it won't stop people from falling back on anecdote and personal experience and what they already believed.

Which is kind of distressing, now that I come to think of it.

Anyhow.  If I can get one person to stop and reconsider what they think, and perhaps base their understanding on hard evidence, I'll have done my job.  Now, y'all will have to excuse me, because it's been a while since I've checked Facebook.  You never know what might have happened in my absence.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tragedy and inaction

So we here in the United States are watching the funerals of seventeen more innocent children and adults, mown down by an angry white-rights extremist, and already the jockeying is beginning either to (1) claim that this has nothing to do with guns, or (2) use the tragedy to gain political capital.

I don't intend to get deeply into the first, because anyone with the sense God gave gravel can see that the outcome would have been different had Nikolas Cruz, a young man who was investigated a year and a half ago on the suspicion of being a danger to himself and others, and who was the subject of an FBI tip a month ago, not had carte blanche for buying an AR-15.

I've made the point before, but it bears mention again.  No one is coming for your hunting rifles.  No one wants to prevent you from owning a handgun to defend your home.  This is about limiting access to semi-automatic rifles whose sole purpose, aside from target practice, is killing lots of people in a short amount of time.  This is about dethroning the NRA as the de facto God of Patriotic Americans.

That hasn't stopped this kind of bullshit, originally from the site Robertson Family Values, from making the rounds of social media:

Notwithstanding the point that I question the brains of anyone who treats the yahoos over at Duck Dynasty as if they were founts of eternal wisdom, if you really can't see the difference between the guns in the photograph and an AR-15, you're part of the problem.

But this brings me to my second point, which is that the ground hasn't even settled over the graves of the murdered, and already people are scrambling to use this tragedy to drive home whatever they already claimed.  The shooter was quickly identified as a white supremacist, and the radical group Republic of Florida has admitted that he trained with them -- and pictures surfaced of him wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap.  Of course, you can't link the two, people said.  In fact, because of Cruz's last name, I saw the response more than once that "he wasn't white, he was Hispanic."  Never mind the fact that he seemed to loathe all minorities, including Hispanics.  One of Cruz's former classmates, Josh Charo, said, "He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone.  He’d be like, 'My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.'"

But the racists weren't the only ones to weigh in.  Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren jumped into the fray, claiming that if we were just more religious, everything would be hunky-dory:
Evil will always be in this world.  And evil people will always find evil ways to do evil things.  The solution isn’t to start stripping away rights.  What we ought to do is make it easier for law enforcement to engage and evaluate individuals who exhibit warning signs, like making graphic threats online, or posting disturbing images.  You know, thoughts and prayers might seem laughable to some of you.  But maybe, just maybe, more Jesus, more God, more prayer and more compassion is what we are missing.
Neglecting, of course, that her idol Donald Trump signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that makes it harder for people with a history of violent mental illness to purchase a gun.  So the "thoughts and prayers" offered after every single mass murder are as empty as always, and Tomi Lahren is a goddamn hypocrite.

The hypocrisy didn't end with the commentators.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a move that was tone deaf to the point of being barely believable, had a fundraiser in Florida the day after the shooting.  (Yes, I know it was planned in advance.  Yes, I still think it was amazingly tone deaf to go through with it.)  A woman at the fundraiser confronted him about what he intended to do about gun violence.  His response:
This is not the time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts.  We've got a lot more information we need to know...  This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings.  We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically and just pulling together.  This House and the whole country stands with the Parkland community.
I.e., more "thoughts and prayers," and otherwise, you can expect him to do fuck-all.

But of course, this wouldn't be complete without a commentary from the Emperor of Tone Deafness, Donald Trump himself, who tweeted yesterday morning, "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter.  This is not acceptable.  They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — there is no collusion."

So to Trump, the murder of seventeen people in a high school -- like everything else in the world -- is about him and his image.

The one thing that gives me hope about all of this is the response of the survivors.  In an impassioned response to Trump's use of a meeting with law enforcement in Parkland after the shooting as a grinning, thumbs-up photo-op, Emma Gonzales, a student at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting occurred, said:
Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seated funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS.  They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence.  We call BS.  They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.  We call BS.  They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars.  We call BS.  No, they say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred.  We call BS.
Another survivor, Cameron Kasky, wrote:
We can't ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises.  And so, I'm asking -- no, demanding -- we take action now. 
Why?  Because at the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience -- our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. 
But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account.  This time we are going to pressure them to take action.  This time we are going to force them to spend more energy protecting human lives than unborn fetuses.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Kasky said:
Everything I’ve heard where we can’t do anything and it’s out of our hands and it’s inevitable, I think that’s a facade that the GOP is putting up.  After every shooting the NRA sends a memo saying ‘send your thoughts and prayers.’  This is the only country where this kind of thing happens...  There is a segment of this society that will shrug this off and send their thoughts and prayers but march for hours over a rainbow wedding cake.
Kasky added, "This is something that can be stopped and will be stopped."

It's sad that seventeen-year-olds are having to step up and take action because the fifty-year-olds are so much in the pockets of lobbyists that they'll jettison their responsibility and sacrifice their integrity rather than lose money.  But at least the teenagers are stepping up.

Which should worry the hell out of the likes of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.  Because in a year or two, these kids will be voting.

And you better believe they're not going to forget this.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nuclear spy lizards

Sometimes it's reassuring to know that the wackos aren't confined to the United States, although I will admit up front that we seem to have way more than our fair share of them.

My reason for saying this is a story about a government official in Iran who has apparently been doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  His name is Hassan Firouzabadi, and he is a retired ophthalmologist who is currently Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Firouzabadi was being questioned by the press about the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, who had been head of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.  The official story was that Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in prison after being picked up by the police in January on charges of espionage.

Seyed-Emami's arrest and death are certainly suspicious.  The Wildlife Heritage Foundation has connections to Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman whose wealth predates the Iranian Revolution and who is therefore suspected of being anti-government.  The powers-that-be, however, say that Seyed-Emami killed himself because he was guilty and was afraid of punishment.

"This person was one of the accused," said Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabidi, "and given that he knew there were many revelations against him and that he himself had made confessions, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison."

Tragic, and almost certainly further evidence of the Iranian government's determination to squelch dissent, but otherwise not far out of daily business for the Middle East.  But there's another top Iranian official who was a little more forthcoming.  Seyed-Emami was not just an ordinary dissenter, nor even an ordinary espionage agent.

He was a spy who used trained lizards to detect uranium deposits and nuclear missile sites, and then passed along the information to the Israelis.

Look at those beady eyes.  Would you trust this guy?  I didn't think so. [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This statement came, in all seriousness, from the aforementioned Hassan Firouzabadi, Senior Military Adviser to the Ayatollah.  What Seyed-Emami was doing was using the natural ability lizards have to "attract atomic waves" (whatever the fuck those are), with evil intent:
In their possessions were a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons…  We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.
Needless to say, this is idiotic.  Lizards respond to being around highly radioactive materials pretty much like any other life form does, namely by dying.  If you're trying to find out where the radioactive stuff is, there's an easier way.

It's called a "Geiger counter."

But facts seldom matter to people like Firouzabadi, who sounds like he should find some like-minded souls over at InfoWars, Before It's News, and the Flat Earth Society.  As far as Seyed-Emami, my guess is that he was tortured while in jail -- it seems pretty common practice in Iran -- and under that kind of duress, confessed to whatever they were asking of him.

Secret Agent Radioactivity-Detecting SuperLizards?  Yes, sir, absolutely.  I train them.  Now please unhook the jumper cables from my nipples.

To the rest of us, though, this is more evidence that getting into a high position in government does not necessarily mean you're smart, or even in contact with reality.  As for Firouzabadi, sounds like he'd be best off if someone patted him on the back, said, "There, there," and sent him off to resume picking at the straps of his straitjacket with his teeth.

Of course, I can say that.  I'm safely over here in the United States.  On the other hand, this is the home of Alex Jones, David Icke, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump.  So maybe I shouldn't act so superior after all.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Worm brains

New from the "Haven't These People Ever Watched Horror Movies?" department, we have: some scientists in Austria who have uploaded the brain of a worm into a computer.

The research was done at the Technische Universität Wien (Vienna Technical University), and was done by computer engineers Mathias Lechner, Ramin Hasani, and Radu Grosu.  The worm was Caenorhabditis elegans, well known to researchers in developmental biology as the favorite species for research into how cell specialization unfolds.  The brain of C. elegans only has three hundred neurons, and the connections between them (synapses) are well understood, so what Lechner et al. did was to render the worm's brain as a circuit diagram, and emulated that circuit in a piece of software.

Within short order, they found that they were on to something pretty amazing.  Because the program could learn.  The task was simple -- given a model of a pole balanced on its end, the program had to figure out how to keep the pole upright if its top was moved (by sliding the base until it was upright again).  But it figured out how to do it, and most astonishingly, without having to be shown.

"With the help of reinforcement learning, a method also known as 'learning based on experiment and reward'," Lechner said, "the artificial reflex network was trained and optimized on the computer."  Co-author Grosu added, "The result is a controller, which can solve a standard technology problem – stabilizing a pole, balanced on its tip.  But no human being has written even one line of code for this controller, it just emerged by training a biological nerve system."

Caenorhabditis elegans.  Not one of the big thinkers of the Animal Kingdom.

Of course, this opens up about a million questions.  Once this software has all the bugs worked out, does it then qualify as a life-form?  Most people, faced with this question, say, "Of course not."  I know this because we discuss the possibility of artificial intelligence in my neuroscience class, and when I suggest that a computerized intelligence would be alive, most students respond with a vehement negative.  (Oddly, they are much quicker to accept that a machine could be intelligent than that a machine could classify as alive, and are usually unable to articulate exactly why they feel that way.)

Another, and deeper, question is to what extent this type of trick could be scaled up.  Not that it would be easy; there's a hell of a difference between the three hundred neurons in the brain of C. elegans and the estimated one hundred billion in the human brain.  Because, after all, you not only have to consider the number of neurons, but the number of their potential connections -- a quantity that, after playing around with some estimates, I have concluded is "really freakin' huge."  I'm no computer scientist -- heaven knows, most days I'm doing well to remember where the "on" switch is -- but the thought crosses my mind to wonder if emulating such a complex system in a computer is even theoretically possible.

Whatever the upper limit is, the feat is pretty astonishing.  The authors write:
Through natural evolution, nervous systems of organisms formed near-optimal structures to express behavior.  Here, we propose an effective way to create control agents, by re-purposing the function of biological neural circuit models, to govern similar real world applications.  We model the tap-withdrawal (TW) neural circuit of the nematode, C. elegans, a circuit responsible for the worm’s reflexive response to external mechanical touch stimulations, and learn its synaptic and neural parameters as a policy for controlling the inverted pendulum problem.  For reconfiguration of the purpose of the TW neural circuit, we manipulate a search-based reinforcement learning.  We show that our neural policy performs as well as existing traditional control theory and machine learning approaches. 
A video demonstration of the performance can be viewed at:
So while I don't think we're going to be seeing Commander Data joining Starfleet any time soon, this could well be the first step toward machine intelligence.  This is simultaneously thrilling and scary.  Like I said in my opening sentence, all you have to do is watch bad 1960s horror movies to find out how often the super-intelligent robots went berserk and started killing everyone, beginning with the scientists who had created them (usually after said scientists said, "Stand back!  I know how to control it!").  On the other hand, even if the robots do take over, they can't fuck things up much worse than they already are.

So upon reflection, I think I'll welcome our Computerized Worm Overlords.  Even if they never get around to doing much other than keeping poles standing upright, they'll still be ahead of the yahoos who are currently running the country.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Drawing the line

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a YouTube video for my facepalming pleasure a couple of days ago, and being a generous sort, I wanted to share the experience will all of you.  The video is called "Nazca Lines Finally Solved!  The Answer is Amazing!", and is well worth watching in its entirety.  But if you understandably don't want to spend seven minutes of your life watching the video that you will never, ever get back, I'll provide you with a capsule summary and some editorial commentary from Yours Truly.

The Nazca Lines, you probably know, are a series of geoglyphs in southern Peru, which are large enough that their overall shape really can't be discerned except from the air.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The relative impossibility of seeing the pattern except from above has led to wingnuts such as Erich von Däniken (of Chariots of the Gods fame) to propose that they were made to signal aliens visiting Earth from other planets.  Why aliens would be impressed by our drawing a giant monkey on the ground, I have no idea.  It also bears mention that Nazca is hardly the only place in the world that has geoglyphs, and none of them have much to do with flying saucers.  There's the Cerne Abbas Giant of Dorsetshire, England, for example, who is really really glad to see you:

Be that as it may, the guy in the video, one Damon T. Berry, thinks the Nazca lines are trying to tell us something.  What?  Well, he starts out with a bang by saying that "the universal language is constellations."  Whatever the fuck that means.  Given that the constellations are random assemblages of stars that would look completely different from another vantage point in space, it's hard to imagine anything "universal" about them except that they're, by default, part of the universe.

What Berry tells us then is that each of the glyphs has a code that points at a particular destination.  He starts with the glyph shaped like a bird, and then talks about birds representing flight (okay, I'm with you so far), and some of the glyphs being runways for flying machines (why the hell you'd make a runway shaped like a monkey, I have no idea), and then goes into a long part about how it's significant that the bird has four toes on one foot and five on the other.

"It is a bird," Berry says.  "It appears to be a bird.  But think like an alien.  Look closer at its feet."

I'm not sure why thinking like an alien involves looking at feet.  Maybe the aliens have some kind of weird foot fetish.  I dunno.

Anyhow, what does the fact of its having nine toes mean?  It means, Berry says, that "this is not a bird.  This is a constellation."  In fact, it's the constellation Aquila, a grouping of stars in the northern hemisphere which evidently looked like an eagle to some ancient Greeks who had just polished off their second bottle of retsina.  The nine toes correspond to the nine brightest stars in the constellation, he says.

Then he moves on to another bird glyph, this one of a hummingbird.  Berry tells us in astonished tones that this bird has the same number of toes on each foot, as if that was an unusual condition or something.  He then says, and this is a direct quote:  "The clue lies elsewhere... in the wings.  And the elongated wings are meant to draw your attention... to the wings."

I had to pause the video at this point to give myself a chance to stop guffawing.

We're then directed to count the feathers, and he comes up with eleven.  He includes the tail, but I'm not going to quibble about that because otherwise we'll be here all day.  He says that the number eleven can only mean one thing: the glyph points to the "constellation Columbia."

For the record, the constellation is actually Columba, not Columbia.  Cf. my comment about not quibbling.

The fact that Columba "has eleven stars" means there's an obvious correspondence.  Well, I have two things to say about that.
  1. Do you really think that there's nothing else in the universe that is made up of eleven parts?
  2. There are way more than eleven stars in Columba, it's just that the shape of the constellation (identified as a dove by the aforementioned retsina-soaked Greeks) is generally outlined using the brightest eleven stars, just as Aquila was with the nine brightest as earlier described.
He then goes on to analyze the monkey glyph, and once again makes a big deal about the number of fingers and toes, which add to fifteen.  This points to the "constellation of the monkey," which he draws for us.  It's fortunate that he does, because as I do not need to point out to any astronomy buffs out there, there is no constellation of the monkey.  As far as I can tell, he just took some random dots and connected them with straight lines to look vaguely like a monkey.

Whether retsina was involved, I don't know.

He finishes up by basically saying that aliens are out there and will be coming to visit us from those constellations.  At this point, I started shouting at my computer, "You can't be 'from a constellation!'  The stars in a constellation have nothing to do with one another!"  This caused my hound, Lena, to come into my office and give me the Canine Head Tilt of Puzzlement, meant to communicate the one concept she's capable of hosting in her brain ("Derp?").  I reassured her that I wasn't mad at her, that I was mad at the silly man on YouTube, and she accepted that and loped off to interact with something on her intellectual level, like a dust bunny.

Anyhow.  At the end we're told we can learn more if we just watch his longer and more in-depth production, available on Amazon Prime, but I don't think I'm gonna.  I've heard enough.  Me, I'll go back to trying to figure things out through science instead of pulling random correspondences out of my ass.  Call me narrow-minded, but it seems in general like a better way to understand the universe, even if it doesn't involve counting an animal's toes and acting like it means something significant.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The cure for passivity

Let me say at the outset that I enjoy and respect my students.  This is in no way intended to be a criticism of them as people.

However, I've noticed an issue with them this year that is pretty much across the board.  I know it's been there in previous years -- maybe I'm just becoming more sensitive to it, or maybe I have a disproportionate number of kids with this characteristic in this bunch of classes.

The characteristic is passivity.

They're extraordinarily well-behaved -- they're quiet, respectful, kind to each other and to me.  I think I've had to raise my voice maybe twice this year.  By and large they do their work, and any directed task I give them, they will happily dive into.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which they want THE ANSWER.  Few of them -- there are exceptions -- will stop and try to put together what they know to figure out the response to a question, to go out on a limb and make an educated guess, or (even more seldom) to look for evidence on their own to support their answer.  They are perfectly content to have me or another student give them THE ANSWER, which they write in the blank, and forthwith stop thinking about it.

The result is that their grades on homework, labs, and problem sets are uniformly good.  Man, they have those blanks filled in like crazy, and usually with the right answers.  The problem shows up on quizzes and tests -- especially in my AP Biology class, where it's not sufficient to know the vocabulary.  To be successful in that class, you have to understand the concepts on a deep level, not just to regurgitate, but to analyze and synthesize.  If you compare the average grade on quizzes to the average grade on homework, there's a disparity that demands an explanation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And the more I've thought about this, the more I've come to the conclusion that we in the public school system have created this problem.  We've taught them all to be passive recipients of information, to sit there and take notes, merely writing down whatever the teacher tells them to, rather than questioning it, thinking about it, trying to connect it meaningfully to what they already know.  Education has become simply the memorization of lists of terms, not the opening of new worlds, the expansion of minds.

We've forgotten, I think, that the root word of education is the Latin educare -- meaning "to draw out of."  The purpose of education is to put the person in charge of their own understanding, not to make them more dependent on some authority figure to fill their brains up with factoids.

It's getting worse, not better.  We're evaluating students (and teachers, and in some cases, whole schools) on the basis of student scores on standardized, multiple-choice tests.  We discourage thinking outside the box, emphasizing that they're to find THE ANSWER, not uncover novel ways of approaching problems.  We discourage collaborative learning -- usually, it's labeled cheating, and honestly, in the context of most classrooms, that's what it's become.  In most of what we call "cooperative learning," we enable one or two students to do most of the work, and the others to ride their coat-tails, rather than true collaboration where all minds are deeply engaged.

And upon reflection, I think a lot of it is based in fear.  Fear from us teachers that if we relinquish some control in the classroom, the students will revolt, disrupt, or (at the very least) refuse to learn.  Fear that if we don't test, test, test, we won't have any way to know if the students are mastering what we're asking of them.  And the fear runs all the way up the hierarchy; teachers don't trust the students, administrators don't trust the teachers, and the state departments in charge of oversight don't trust anyone.

I think the only way to fix this is with a complete overhaul.  Vocabulary lists and rote book work have to stop being the main way students are evaluated.  At very young ages, children are natural creative problem solvers; we need to hook into that, encourage it, start modeling factual knowledge as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  If you want to know how a car engine works, sure, you need some vocabulary.  You're not going to get far if you don't know which part is the carburetor.  But  if all your mechanic knows is the definition of the terms, and how to recognize the parts on a diagram, it's doubtful that you'd trust him/her to repair your car.

And it's not just with auto mechanics that the fundamental goal is understanding how the pieces fit together, and how to creatively work through problems you've never seen before using the knowledge you already have.

That's the goal of all education.

After all, in this age, students have a mind-bogglingly fast access to the raw facts.  If, to solve a problem, run an experiment, understand a behavior, model a cell or organism or ecosystem, they have to learn the word mitochondria, they can do that in fifteen seconds flat.  I'd far rather they understand how energy flow through living things works and forget the terminology than the reverse.

We need classes that are based in active, project-based problem solving.  Ones where sit-down-and-listen time is occasional and of short duration.  Where students figure out what they need to know, and using us (and their technology) as resources, learn the terms and definitions in a real-world context, within which the vocabulary actually means something.  Where critical thinking and evaluation of source validity counts for more than grades on a multiple-choice test.

The transition to this model for schools would not be easy.  And such classes will demand a great deal from teachers, much more than the lecture/problems/homework/test model we've been using since the 19th century.  But walking into our classrooms this day, the second Wednesday in February, will be thirteen years' worth of students with tremendous potential, and thousands of dedicated, hard-working professionals who care deeply about education.

With that kind of talent, potential, and energy, it's eminently doable.

We just have to admit to the problems -- and commit to finding solutions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A winning smile

I've been told I have "resting scowl face."  I can't tell you the number of times I've been walking down the hall in the school and a student has said, "Boy, you look pissed off," or at the very least, "He's on a mission."

It gets worse when I'm concentrating.  My wife has told me that when I'm performing with my band, I have a knitted brow and that my eyes look... "intense."

She always tries to phrase things kindly if she can.

The odd thing is that I honestly enjoy performing, so it's not that I'm having a bad time.  I have a hard time explaining why I do scowl so much of the time, because I'm really not an angry person.


On the other hand, I just realized I was scowling when I wrote that.

The reason all this comes up is some recent research into the connection between facial expressions and endurance while running. Noah E. Brick, Megan J. McElhinney, and Richard S. Metcalfe, in a paper called "The Effects of Facial Expression and Relaxation Cues on Movement Economy, Physiological, and Perceptual Responses During Running" that appeared in the Journal of the Psychology of Sport and Exercise last month, found that deliberately relaxing your facial muscles and smiling while on a run actually helps you to move with more economy, resulting in less discomfort and an overall improvement in performance.

As a runner, I found this fascinating.  I'm sure, given that I scowl a large percent of the time anyway, that I must look positively furious while I'm running.  I don't have much photographic evidence of that, however, because there's a natural tendency to mug for the camera when you pass a race photographer.  But I honestly can't imagine the smile lasting for much more than a second or two after the shutter clicks.

What is coolest about this is that the researchers didn't just ask runners for their perceptions before and after, they had them breathe through a mask that measured their oxygen uptake (a good measure of the efficiency of your muscles).  They had four groups -- one that maintained a neutral expression, one as genuine a smile as you can muster under those conditions, one that was instructed to scowl, and one that concentrated on relaxing their entire upper body.  (The last-mentioned group was instructed to pretend that "they were holding a crisp with both hands while they were running and trying not to break it.")

Okay, so maybe I don't scowl the whole time.

The results were astonishing.  The smiling group was 2.8% more efficient than the scowling group, and 2.2% better than the neutral group.  (The relaxed group fell in between the two.)  While this may not seem like much of an improvement, it's equivalent to six weeks of consistent jump training (plyometrics).  And, I might add, it's a hell of a lot more pleasant.  The authors write:
The improved RE [respiratory efficiency] is toward the lower end of the 2%–8% reported for short-term training modes (e.g., Moore, 2016) but is greater than the smallest worthwhile change for RE (2.2%–2.6%) suggested by Saunders, Pyne, Telford, and Hawley (2004).  As such, the improved RE can be considered a real and worthwhile change.  Furthermore, the lower VO2 when smiling is equivalent to the 2%–3% improvement noted by Turner, Owings, and Schwane (2003) following six-weeks of plyometric training in distance runners, and the 1.7%–2.1% observed by Barnes et al. (2013) after 13 weeks of heavy resistance training in male cross-country runners.

So I'm gonna try it.  My first race isn't for a couple of months, given that we're still in the third of the seasons in upstate New York's "four-season climate" (the four seasons are: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Fucking Winter, and Road Construction) and the roadsides are covered with a nice layer of dirty slush.  But I can always try it while I'm training on the treadmill at the gym, although it might make my gym buddy wonder what's wrong with me.

What I find most fascinating about this is to speculate about the cause.  You have to wonder if it's because our expressions are so tied to our emotions -- that perhaps wearing a scowl puts your body on alert for danger, resulting in a combination of discomfort and an increase in adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (which would boost the rate at which you burn fuel without necessarily giving you anything back in the form of speed or endurance).  That's all just guesswork, however.

In any case, it's worth a shot.  So if you see a skinny blond guy running down the road in upstate New York wearing a goofy grin, I'm not high, I'm just running an experiment.  Literally.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Silpho Moor mystery

Pieces of one of the most enduring mysteries in UFO lore have allegedly been discovered in the National Archives of London.

Called the "Silpho Moor Crash," the incident occurred in November of 1957, when two men who were hiking on Silpho Moor in North Yorkshire, England, saw "a red light falling from the sky" and went to investigate, despite the fact that every time someone does this in a science fiction movie, they end up being messily devoured by evil aliens.  Fortunately for the two men, this did not happen.  Instead, they found a saucer-shaped object made of metal, eighteen inches in diameter, which upon opening was found to contain thin copper sheets covered with "unidentifiable hieroglyphics."

The Silpho Moor artifacts, including the "hieroglyphic sheets" (lower right)

The objects were much talked about, and eventually (sources indicate in 1963) they were sent to the London Science Museum for expert analysis.

After that, they were "lost to history."

It's kind of weird how often this happens.  Somebody gets amazing evidence of some hitherto-unproven apparition -- UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, Donald Trump's integrity -- and then after a little bit of buzz and maybe a few blurry photographs, it mysteriously disappears.  The conspiracy theorists waggle their eyebrows suggestively about this, and say that of course the evidence disappears, because the powers-that-be don't want ordinary slobs like you and me to have proof of any of this stuff.

Why the powers-that-be would care if we proved the existence of alien intelligence (for example), I have no idea.  As far as I've seen, the powers-that-be are much more interested in destroying the evil, cunning environmental scientists' conspiracy to defeat a beleaguered but plucky band of heroic corporate billionaires.  I can't imagine they give a rat's ass whether UFOs exist, except insofar as these would really be undocumented aliens.

Be that as it may, the Silpho Moor artifacts were lost -- until now.  Maybe.  Just last week, some people digging around in the London National Archives found, hiding in an old cigarette tin, some shards that are supposedly from the Silpho Moor Crash.

What seems odd to me is that every photograph from the actual crash shows an intact object that looks like an almost comically stereotypical flying saucer, and everything in this latest discovery is just a bunch of broken-up metal.  I suppose the scientists back in 1963 could have hacked the thing apart, but isn't it funny that there's no record of that?

Anyhow, the objects were discovered by an exhibit developer named Khalil Thirlaway, who brought them to the attention of Dr. David Clarke, a journalism professor at Sheffield Hallam University.

"He [Thirlaway] opened the tin box and took out the pieces, it was an amazing revelation - it had just been sitting there for half a century.  There must be a lot of it still out there, sitting in someone's attic, or maybe these are the last remaining pieces...  I thought it was a prank, but the question remains -- who went to all that trouble at great expense and what did they gain from it?  It has been described several times as Britain's answer to Roswell, and I don't think that's too great an exaggeration."

Well, yes, in the sense that it's a sketchy set of evidence for an incident that no one is sure has anything to do with alien intelligence anyway.  But at least now the fragments are out in the light of day, and with luck some scientists will get involved and analyze them.

Still, I wonder what they'd find that could prove it one way or the other.  Metal fragments are metal fragments, whether they come from outer space or not.  Despite what Geordi LaForge would have you believe, an extraterrestrial spaceship would not be composed of whatsisium and thingamajite, because the periodic table is kind of full-up with elements we already know well.  So I don't see any way to differentiate between an alloy from Earth and one from the Klingon Home World.

But that's something we can worry about later.  At least the objects were relocated.  Myself, I'm all for submitting hard evidence for study, whether or not it turns up anything significant.  Otherwise, you're back at the level of personal anecdote -- which is the worst form of evidence there is.