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.

Percent.

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.

Um...?

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.