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.

Monday, June 26, 2017

In the dark

To further investigate our general topic of people giving woo-woo explanations to damn near everything, today we investigate: The Dark.

First, a brief physics lesson.

Things are generally called "dark" for one of two reasons.  First, there are objects whose chemical makeup results in their absorbing most of the light that falls on them.  Second, there are things that don't interact with light much at all, so they neither absorb nor reflect light -- light passes right through them.  An example of the first would be a charcoal briquet.  An example of the second would be interstellar space, which is sort of dark-by-default.

This whole thing comes up because of the discovery of an extrasolar planet, with the mellifluous name TrES-2b.  TrES-2b orbits the even more charmingly named GSC 03549-02811, a star about 718 light years away.   More interestingly, it has the distinction of being the darkest extrasolar planet yet discovered.  David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, stated, "TrES-2b is considerably less reflective than black acrylic paint, so it is truly an alien world."

Artist's conception of TrES-2b [image courtesy of of NASA/JPL-Caltech and the Wikimedia Commons]

That was all it took.  Whereas my reaction was, "Huh!  A Jupiter-sized charcoal briquet!  That's kinda cool," the woo-woos just couldn't resist wooing all over this story.  We now have the following speculations, all from websites owned by people who probably shouldn't be allowed outside unsupervised:
  • TrES-2b is made of antimatter, and we shouldn't go there because it would blow up.  We know it's antimatter because antimatter has the opposite properties to matter, so it's dark. 
  • TrES-2b is made of "dark matter," and yes, they're not just talking about stuff that's black, they're talking about the physicists' "dark matter," about which I'll have more to say in a moment. 
  • TrES-2b is dark because it's being hidden by aliens who are currently on their way to Earth to take over.  Lucky for us we spotted it in time! 
  • TrES-2b is hell.  No, I'm not making this up. 
Well. You just opened the floodgates, now didn't you, Dr. Kipping?

The first two explanations left me with a giant bruise on my forehead from doing a faceplant while reading.  At the risk of insulting my readers' intelligence, let me just say quickly that (1) antimatter's "opposite properties" have nothing to do with regular matter being light and antimatter being dark, because if it did, the next time a kindergartner pulled a black crayon out of the box, he would explode in a burst of gamma rays; and (2) "dark matter" is called "dark" because of the second reason, that it doesn't interact with much of anything, including light, so the idea of a planet made of it is kind of ridiculous, and in any case physicists haven't even proved that it exists, so if some astrophysicist found a whole freakin' planet made of it it would KIND OF MAKE FUCKING HEADLINES ALL OVER THE WORLD, YOU KNOW?

Sorry for getting carried away, there.  But I will reiterate something I have said more than once, in this blog; if you're going to start blathering on about science, for cryin' in the sink at least get the science right.  Even the least scientific woo-woo out there can read the Wikipedia page for "Dark Matter," for example, wherein we find in the first paragraph the sentence, "The name refers to the fact that it does not emit or interact with electromagnetic radiation, such as light, and is thus invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum."  (Italics mine, and put in so that any of the aforementioned woo-woos who are reading this post will focus on the important part.)

And I won't even address the "secret alien base" and "hell" theories regarding TrES-2b, except to say that it should come as a relief that the evil aliens or Satan (depending on which version you went for) are safely 718 light years away.  To put this in perspective, this means that if they were heading here in the fastest spacecraft humans have ever created, Voyager 1, which travels at about 16 kilometers per second,  it would still take them eleven million years to get here.

In any case, I guess it's all a matter of how you view what's around you.  I find the universe, and therefore science, endlessly fascinating, because what scientists have uncovered is weird, wonderful, and counterintuitive.  I don't need to start attaching all sorts of anti-scientific bunk to their discoveries -- nature is cool enough as it is.

Okay, thus endeth today's rant.  I will simply end with an admonishment to be careful next time you barbeque.  I hear those charcoal briquets can be made of antimatter, which could make your next cook-out a dicey affair.  You might want to wear gloves while you handle them.  Better safe than sorry!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The sticker price

Once again, famed medical professional Gwyneth Paltrow is promoting the latest be-all-and-end-all for your health, to wit: "Body Vibes stickers."

These are silver-dollar-sized stickers that you stick on your body to "rebalance the energy frequency in your body."  Whatever the fuck that means.  But the pseudoscience technobabble doesn't end there:
The concept: Human bodies operate at an ideal energetic frequency, but everyday stresses and anxiety can throw off our internal balance, depleting our energy reserves and weakening our immune systems.  Body Vibes stickers come pre-programmed to an ideal frequency, allowing them to target imbalances.  While you’re wearing them—close to your heart, on your left shoulder or arm—they’ll fill in the deficiencies in your reserves, creating a calming effect, smoothing out both physical tension and anxiety.  The founders, both aestheticians, also say they help clear skin by reducing inflammation and boosting cell turnover.
The stickers, Paltrow tells us, are made of "the same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals."  But herein lies the problem.  Because once you make an easily-verified statement -- i.e., veer away from vague, hand-waving bullshit about imbalanced energy frequencies -- you've kind of sealed your own fate.

And it didn't take long for NASA to respond.

Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist in NASA's human research division, was unequivocal.  "Wow," Shelhamer said.  "What a load of BS this is...  Astronauts do not have any conductive carbon material lining the spacesuits.  Not only is the whole premise snake oil, the logic doesn’t even hold up.  If they promote healing, why do they leave marks on the skin when they are removed?"

This, of course, has exactly zero impact on the alt-med crowd, who absolutely hate it when people bring up pesky stuff like "facts" and "science" and "peer review."  Richard Eaton, founder of AlphaBioCentrix, which developed the stickers, was undeterred by NASA's skepticism.  "Without going into a long explanation about the research and development of this technology, it comes down to this," Eaton said.  "I found a way to tap into the human body’s bio-frequency, which the body is receptive to outside energy signatures.  Most of the research that has been collected is confidential and is held as company private information."

Oh, no, please, Mr. Eaton.  Do give me your long explanation of the research and development.  Define such terms as "bio-frequency" and "energy signatures" using scientifically valid language.  Show me how you can "pre-program" a fucking sticker to "target imbalances."  Give me some well-controlled research showing that the things actually work through something more than the placebo effect.

Until then, don't pretend that what you're hawking is anything more than a convenient way to make money from the gullible and ignorant.

Speaking of which, did I mention that "Body Vibes" stickers cost $120 per pack of 24?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Just as a contrast, let's look at some actual science having to do with stuff you stick on your body, which coincidentally just appeared over at New Scientist yesterday.  Joseph Wang, of the University of California-San Diego, has just published research on a new technology -- a small, flexible square that you can stick on your skin, and which will generate enough power to run a mobile device, using chemicals from your sweat.

It's a biofuel cell -- a power-generating device that runs on organic chemicals broken down by enzymes in the material.  Mirella DiLorenzo, of the University of Bath, was impressed by Wang's creation.  "The most exciting application is wearable sensors that can monitor health conditions, then sweat could generate enough power for a Bluetooth connection so that the results could be read straight from a smartphone," DiLorenzo said.  "This is an amazing proof-of-concept work.  The applications will come quickly in the near future."

Those applications could include monitoring an athlete's performance by tracking lactate levels in the sweat -- which is an indication of how hard the muscles are working.

See the difference, here?  We have, on the one hand, Paltrow and Eaton babbling about quantum bio-energetic frequency vibrations as if anything they said made sense; and on the other, Wang and DiLorenzo talking about actual experimental science, producing a measurable and replicable effect, and based on a solid understanding of biochemistry.

The problem is that actual research just isn't as sexy as alt-med, which can claim any damn thing it wants without the need for verification.  You want to claim that smearing peanut butter on your face will cure your anxiety by resynchronizing your chakras and changing the color of your aura?  No problem!  No one can challenge you, because what you're claiming is that a useless remedy will fix something that almost certainly doesn't exist, which even if it does, is apparently invisible for some reason to every piece of scientific equipment available.  I.e., you're making an inherently unverifiable statement.

But I wish more people would turn to the actual science when they have questions, rather than unscientific charlatans like Gwyneth Paltrow.  Because not only are the victims of these scams wasting their money, they're not seeking effective care for actual medical conditions.

And that crosses the line from just being a bunch of harmless bullshit to being truly dangerous.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fake news agenda

If you needed something else to feel discouraged about, a study released this week in the journal New Media & Society found that fake news and political clickbait sites had twice the effect on the media landscape in the United States as legitimate sources and fact-checking sites.

Authored by Chris J. Vargo, Lei Guo, and Michelle A. Amazeen, "The Agenda-Setting Power of Fake News: A Data Analysis of the Online Media Landscape From 2014 to 2016" looks at not only the influence that fake news has on politics and culture, but how difficult it is to fight it.  The authors write:
Journalists have little ability to proactively fight fake news. Even worse, partisan media can be susceptible to its influence.  Other news organizations fight fake news. The BBC, for instance, has announced a commitment to debunk fake news that is shared widely on social media Fact-checking organizations have become another bulwark against fake news with PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Snopes all fighting it on Facebook.  However, this reactive desire to thwart fake news has required traditional media to divert resources—in the form of time and attention—to fighting it.  What is worse, by being forced to respond to fake news journalists may be affording fake news websites with the ability to push topics, issues, and even attributes into the public agenda.
The worst part of all, of course, is the fact that many of these partisan media sources wield tremendous influence over voters' understanding of the issues:
The relationship between fake news and partisan media is worthy of particular attention. Instead of valuing balance, fairness, and objectivity, partisan media often frame stories in a way to advance certain political agendas driven by in-group or tribal identification.  Traditional partisan media include cable news (e.g. Fox News) and talk radio (e.g. the Rush Limbaugh Show).  The Internet has contributed to the proliferation of new forms of partisan media: partisan websites and blogs such as Drudge Report and Daily Kos.  With the emergence and popularity of social media services, partisan news coverage is more popular than ever before.  Moreover, these social media networks facilitate the spread of misinformation via automated, anonymous accounts which target users already engaged in conversation on a particular topic.
Crown that with our current administration's tendency to shriek "Fake news!" whenever there's a news story they don't like, and you have a complete political clusterfuck, and one that I see no way out of any time soon.

Lead author Chris J. Vargo isn't much more optimistic than I am.  "Fact checkers largely were independent in what they chose to cover, but their topical focus didn’t really translate very well to other media," Vargo said.  "The media landscape isn’t listening to fact checking as much as it is to fake news, which is particularly troublesome...  I think the big thing that I’m realizing across these studies is that anything can distract us."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is that exaggerated, sensationalized, or outright false headlines are much more likely to grab our attention than are headlines about the actual issues, which (by comparison) are often boring.  Add to this a heaping helping of confirmation bias -- our tendency to believe with little evidence things that conform to our preconceived notions -- and it's no wonder that the folks who detested Hillary Clinton's politics fell for the whole idiotic "Pizzagate conspiracy" last fall.

Vargo remains optimistic, however, and cites the fact that even in the face of partisan media and fake news sites, the responsible and balanced media have soldiered on even in the face of repeated attacks.  "Our study found that to a small degree, yes, fake news does influence what the press talks about." Vargo said.  "But largely, the press has the ability – and maintains the ability – to cover the issues that are most important to a society today."

Of course, covering the important issues and getting the voters to listen are two entirely different things.  Encouraging people to stop paying attention to such serial offenders as Fox News and Daily Kos, and to get their information from places like BBC, is proving to be pretty difficult.  After all, once you have a government leader convince you that 99% of what you hear on the most reliable media sources is fake, and that fact-checking sites are biased and unreliable, you are set up to believe damn near anything.

So unfortunately, I don't share Vargo's optimism.  I think the last vestiges of my positive attitude toward people's ability to think critically were shattered when Fox News persuaded the evangelical Christians to support a sociopathic serial adulterer who lies every time he opens his mouth, claiming that he was the perfect embodiment of the Ten Commandments.

After that, I don't hold out much hope for the collective brainpower of humanity.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Music and the mind

Despite being a 30-year veteran teacher of what is referred to as a "core" discipline -- science -- I have always been vociferous in my support of increasing the emphasis on arts, music, and electives.  In fact, I find the use of the word "core" a little insulting to the teachers and students in these latter subjects.  It makes it sound like science, math, English, and social studies are central to a child's education, and everything else is just peripheral fluff.

In fact, for many of us, it's just the opposite.  Think about what classes you remember from your own trip through the school system as being the most inspiring.  For a lot of us, it's those "electives" -- the subjects that are the first ones on the chopping block when funding gets cut.  Further, think about your own life as an adult.  What activities or pursuits bring you the most joy now?  With no slight meant against the math teachers, I doubt very much that most of us look forward to our leisure time so we can sit and do algebra.

Now, I'm not saying that arts and music are more important than science, math, English, and social studies; but they are easily as important.  Which, unfortunately, is not how a lot of the people involved in educational oversight see things.  And what is the most short-sighted about this approach is that the benefits of education in creative disciplines spill over into the "core" courses.

Some experimental support for this contention appeared last week in the journal Neuron, in a paper by Sibylle C. Herholz and Robert J. Zatorre called "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure."  What they found is that studying music improves the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to new information, a capacity called neuroplasticity.

Most examples of neuroplasticity only are operative during a narrow critical period in an individual's life.  In imprinting in ducklings, for example, their ability to learn who their mother is, and follow her around, only lasts for a few days after hatching.  In humans, language learning works in a similar fashion; our ability to learn language peaks in our early years, declining rapidly after age ten or so.

Which is why another appallingly stupid thing about our educational system is how we teach foreign language -- usually starting in middle school, i.e., when we first start to get really bad at learning a new language.  If we took first-year foreign language courses out of middle and high school, and started a program for preschoolers to be in bilingual classes, they'd come out fluent, without ever memorizing a vocabulary list or verb conjugation pattern.

But I digress.

Anyhow, Herholz and Zatorre looked at the effects of musical training on a lot of different modalities in the brain -- auditory, tactile, motor, and cognitive.  The authors write:
Music requires fine-grained perception and motor control that is unlike other everyday activities, thereby reducing confounding influences of other types of experience.  Also, the framework of musical training allows the study of both short- and long-term training effects...  An important higher-level phenomenon in the context of learning and plasticity is that long-term training can result not only in specific learning, but also creates greater potential for short-term changes to occur quickly.  Musical training not only changes the structural and functional properties of the brain, but it also seems to affect the potential for new short-term learning and plasticity.  Such interaction effects of long- and short-term training have been demonstrated in the auditory, in the motor, and in the tactile domain.
They also consider the role of music in developing social skills and teamwork:
Music also has some reward value beyond the pleasurable sounds and direct feedback—it also has an important role in social interactions, both in contexts of group listening and music making.  While the effects of such interactions during music making have not been investigated to our knowledge, the role of social influences and well-being on brain plasticity has been shown in other contexts.  Important aspects in the context of music and learning could include pupil-teacher interactions and imitation learning, social reward and influences on self-perception, but also negative influences like stress in professional situations and performance anxiety.
All of which makes it that much more wrong-headed to cut music programs -- and by extension, art programs and other areas where students are challenged to be creative, to work collaboratively, to express themselves, and simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience that such experiences provide.

[image courtesy of photographer Nickolai Kashirin and the Wikimedia Commons]

One can only hope that studies like this one will underscore the fact that electives and "core" subjects need to be on equal footing, especially with regards to support and funding by school districts.  Cutting program to the bone to focus exclusively on math, science, English, and social studies is completely contrary to what we know about how children learn -- and what activities enrich their lives and broaden their minds.

Now, I think I'll wrap this up -- I just got the sheet music for a piano transcription of Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes," and I can't let it just sit there unplayed any longer. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Three-in-one

Two weeks ago I wrote about how some overzealous evangelical Christians have denounced "Fidget Spinners" as being a demonic symbol, so when you spin it, you're invoking Satan or something.  Well, these people are nothing if not versatile.  Because yesterday I found out that some of the same lot are now saying no, Fidget Spinners aren't demonic; in fact, quite the opposite.

They actually represent the Holy Trinity.

I have to say that even in my churchgoing days, when I was trying like mad to understand and believe the whole shebang, the idea of the Holy Trinity never made much sense to me.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but not; and the first one generates the other two, but actually they've all been around forever; and so on and so forth.  The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 tried to clear the whole thing up with the following statement:
[I]t is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds; and in their relations with one another, they are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire.
Which really didn't help much.  Of course, in the interest of fairness I have to say that a lot of quantum physics isn't a whole hell of a lot better.  If you put the Holy Trinity up against quantum nonlocality and Bell's Theorem in a contest of purely counterintuitive weirdness, I'm not sure which would win.

The early church fathers, however, felt pretty strongly about "trinitarianism."  Believing otherwise, or even saying "this makes absolutely no sense," was enough to get you burned at the stake.  To forestall such unpleasantness, some religious folk tried to come up with ways of explaining it in simpler terms, such as the (almost certainly apocryphal) use of the shamrock by Saint Patrick to get across the three-in-one thing.


So I suppose, given the Fidget Spinner's shape, it was only natural someone would think of this.  Apparently more than one priest or minister has made the analogy, to judge by the responses of the parishioners on social media.  Some have been impressed:
You know your priest’s sermons are on point when he compares the Holy Trinity to a fidget spinner.
Others, not so much:
Today I watched a priest use a fidget spinner to represent the Holy Trinity and felt my soul leave my body.
But no one took umbrage over the whole thing as much as Toy Adams over at Unsettled Christianity, who said that to make the comparison was heresy:
Any time folks begin to teach on the Trinity and say, “the Trinity is like….” I immediately brace myself for impact.  Too often something inaccurate is said.  The Trinity is not only beyond our grasp, but if you teach on Him using objects like shamrocks, the states of water, an egg, or a fidget spinner, you are sure to commit heresy. 
Not to be a heresy hunter, but heresy is serious.  Many pastor-types like to joke about being heretics, but, in all reality, it’s spiritually dangerous to flirt with heresies pertaining to the Trinity.
So if the Trinity isn't like a Fidget Spinner, what is it like?  Adams isn't so sure:
The Trinity is the doctrine by which we affirm God’s threeness in God’s oneness, celebrating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are of one substance; each person of the Trinity is fully God yet distinct.  To compare the Trinity to a fidget spinner (as with the shamrock) is to commit the heresy of partialism, for it undercuts the full divinity of each person, so as to indicate that each are only one part of a three part God... 
To be spiritually vibrant, we must seek to properly understand who God is.  We know that God is Trinity, but such a mystery we cannot surely comprehend.
Which to me is the difference between this stuff and quantum mechanics.  Because QM is weird, but it is comprehensible.  No one looks at Schrödinger's Wave Equation and throws their hands into the air and says, "Welp.  You just have to take this on faith because it's revealed truth.  Don't expect to understand it."  (Okay, that was kind of my reaction when I took Quantum Mechanics from Dr. John Matese back in college, but I must admit that my attempt to master physics was, by and large, unsuccessful.  Let's just say that when I was 20, studying was not near the top of my priorities list, and leave it at that.)

So anyhow, to me it all seems like a tempest in a teapot, although given my own views I really couldn't be expected to come to any other conclusion.  I guess if the Fidget Spinner strengthens your religious beliefs, that's fine by me.  And if you think it's the "Devil's Yo-Yo" (a term I did not make up), then don't mess with 'em.  Either way, my general feeling is that you'd be better off studying quantum mechanics.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Planetary spin cycle

I try not to spend too much time focusing on completely loony ideas here at Skeptophilia -- wackos are, after all, a dime a dozen, and grabbing the low-hanging fruit is kind of a cheap way to run a blog.  But sometimes I run into a claim that is so earnest, so serious, and at the same time so completely bizarre that it's kind of charming.

That was my reaction when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "Bibliotecapleyades."  I have to admit that I have no idea what that means.  I know that biblioteca means "library" in Spanish, and pleyades sounds a little like "Pleiades," the star cluster that is thought among some of the astro-woo-woos to be the home of the Nordic aliens, who are tall, blond, blue-eyed, and muscular.

Sort of Liam Hemsworth from Outer Space, is how I think of them.

Whether that's the origin of the name or not, I have no idea.  He doesn't mention aliens, but given the rest of the content, I wouldn't be surprised if it came up at some point.

Anyhow, this particular page on "Bibliotecapleyades" is called "Earth Changes: Future Map of the World," and goes into how "international known [sic] and respected futurist Gordon-Michael Scallion" has a vision of how the world is going to end up.  And I do mean "vision."  His ideas aren't based on science (big shocker, there) but on his "ongoing visions concerning the Earth" that he experiences "sometimes as many as ten or more in a day, lasting from a few seconds to minutes."  But instead of seeking professional help for this condition, he started writing it all down, and put them all together into a unified, consolidated picture of what we were in for.

You really should look at the website itself, preferably after consuming a double scotch.  It's just that good.  But in case you don't want to risk valuable brain cells going through it, I present below a few highlights of what's going to happen.  Forewarned is forearmed, you know.
  1. First, we're going to have a pole shift.  Scallion seems unaware that the position of the magnetic pole and the position of the rotational axis of the Earth are related but aren't the same, so he gets a little confused talking about the precession of the Earth's rotational axis (which is true; the Earth wobbles like a top, meaning that Polaris won't be the North Star forever) as somehow triggering a shift in the magnetic pole.  You get the impression he thinks when the poles reverse, the Earth is kind of going to fall over or something.  But he soldiers on ahead, saying that the Earth is going to be like "a washing machine that is out of balance in the spin cycle," and this is going to fling the poles about like damp socks.  Havoc will ensue.
  2. Africa is going to fall apart into three separate continents.  Some waterways will open up in a kind of a "Y" shape, inundating large parts of what is now dry land.  Madagascar is going to sink into the ocean.  Don't ask me why.  The Pyramids will also end up under water, but the flipside is that before then, "there will be great archaeological discoveries."
  3. The news is more positive for Antarctica, which is going to "be reborn, and become fertile land again."  In addition, the relics of the lost civilization of "Lumania" will be found when the ice all melts, and "great cities and temples will be discovered."  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  In the historical document "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, some explorers went into Antarctica, discovered big abandoned cities and temples, and almost all of them ended up getting eaten by Shoggoths.  So we might want to be a little cautious about investigating "Lumania."
  4. The tectonic plate underneath Europe is going to "collapse."  This will cause Scandinavia and Great Britain to sort of slide off the edge into the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. The Middle East will be engulfed in war.  For a change.  But this one will be a "holy war with purification of the land by fire and water," whatever that means.  I hope no one tells the End Times folks about this, because they already spend enough time yammering on about stuff like this, and I really don't want to add any more grist for their mill.
  6. North America also looks like it's in for a rough time.  California will be split up into 150 islands, and the "west coast will recede to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado."  The Appalachians will be a long skinny island.  At least here in upstate New York it looks like I'll have beachfront property.
He then ends with a disclaimer, a little like the "this preparation is not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" thing you see on bottles of homeopathic "remedies."  He says:
[N]o event or prediction is final.  Predictions are given as probabilities.  Even at this time, consciousness can alter an event, modify changes in a particular area or at the very least help us to prepare for what is to come...  One final note, the areas of change presented in the Future Map of The World should not be taken as absolute. They may differ from a few miles to several hundred miles depending on many variables.  In the end, Mother Nature and our own collective consciousness will have the final say.
Be that as it may, he provides us with a map of the world showing all of the new land contours.  I'd post it here, but I don't know how Gordon-Michael Scallion feels about the copyright on images he's created, so you'll just have to go take a look for yourself if you want to figure out whether it's time to pack up and move.  Here's a map of what the world looks like now, so you'll have a basis for comparison.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, that's our excursion into the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm not concerned.  He didn't provide a timeline for all of these catastrophes in any case, so right now I'm going to worry about more pressing issues, such as how the hell we here in the U.S. ended up with a spoiled toddler with orange spray-on tan as the president.  Frankly, compared to that, "Lumania" doesn't really bother me much.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dowsing and statistical significance

A while back, my wife and I and two friends were in a gift shop, and on a rack of books for sale I saw one called Dowsing for Beginners by Richard Craxe.  I picked it up, and flipped through a bit of it.  I was a little surprised -- I never thought of dowsing as something anyone would write a how-to manual about.

Dowsing, for those of you (probably few) who don't know about this practice, is the use of a forked stick (or in some cases) a pair of bent wires to locate everything from sources of water to lost objects.  The claim is that the dowsing rod exerts a pull on the dowser's hands, or actually turns and points toward the desired goal.  As strange as this idea is, I find that of all the odd practices I hear about from students of mine, this one is the one that they will argue the most vociferously for.  This, surprisingly, includes students whom I would normally think of as rationalistic skeptics -- students who scoff at other forms of woo-wooism.

You might wonder how this practice is supposed to work.  Explanations, of course, vary.  The use of willow branches for dowsing for underground water is sometimes explained, in all seriousness, as working because willow trees like growing near water, so the wood is magically attracted to sources of it.  Other people believe that dowsers themselves are "sensitive," so that the dowsing rod itself is only acting as a tool to focus their mysterious ability.  Dowsing for Beginners goes through some nonsense about there being a "universal mind" that everyone has access to, and it knows everything, and therefore when you practice dowsing, you're tapping into a source of knowledge that can provide you with information about where to drill for water or where you accidentally dropped your car keys.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The next question is, does it work?  The simple answer, of course, is no.  Controlled studies have shown no results whatsoever, an outcome discussed at length in James Randi's wonderful book Flim-Flam!  The fact is, my students who know "an uncle of a friend" who successfully dowsed for water are being suckered in by the fact that there's hardly anywhere in upstate New York that you won't hit water if you dig deeply enough.

A subtler problem with practices like dowsing is that a lot of people don't understand the concept of statistical significance.  A fine example of this, apropos of dowsing, is a study done in 1988 by Hans-Dieter Betz, in which six dowsers were said to "[show] an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance."  However, the Betz experimental protocol was highly suspect from the beginning -- Betz and his group evaluated 500 dowsers in a preliminary test, eliminated all but the most successful fifty, and then found that of those, six of them scored much better than you would expect from chance alone.

The flaw is not that Betz hand-picked the subjects -- if dowsing works, presumably some individuals would be better at it than others, being more in touch with the "universal mind," or whatever.  The problem is that even if success at dowsing is pure probability -- i.e., it doesn't work at all except by chance -- some people will do astonishingly well, and that fact means exactly nothing at all.  To explain this a little more simply, let's suppose that we had a thousand people take a random, hundred-question test consisting of four-choice multiple-choice items.  There is no skill involved; you just fill in a paper with a hundred random A's, B's, C's, and D's, and it's graded against an equally random key.  What's your likely score?

Well, 25%, of course, would be the likeliest outcome.  You have a 1/4 chance of getting each question "right," so you would be expected to score somewhere around a 25%.  The problem is, that's just the most likely score; that's not necessarily your score.  In fact, you might score far better than that, or far worse; 25% is just the average score.  In a large enough sample of test-takers, some people would seem to score amazingly well, and it's not that they're psychic, or brought their dowsing rods along to point at the correct answers, or anything; it's just a probabilistic effect.

Same with the dowsers.  Jim Enright, a prominent skeptic, criticized the Betz study, and showed statistically that in a group of 500 dowsers, you'd expect that six or so of them would be high scorers, just by random chance.  Enright described the Betz study not as proving that dowsing is a real phenomenon, but as "the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim."  Six above-average scorers out of a sample of 500 is simply not a statistically significant finding.

So, what we have here is a phenomenon that has (1) no empirical evidence in its favor, (2) no scientifically reasonable explanation about how it could work, and (3) a cogent argument that explains away cases where it has seemed to be successful.  However, as usual, people are more convinced by a flashy practitioner of mystical arts than they are by talk of probability and scientifically controlled studies, so I've no real hope that dowsing will become any less popular.  On the other hand, I suppose if it resulted in your finding a good site for your well, or locating your car keys, then who am I to argue?  As Alexandre Dumas famously quipped, "Nothing succeeds like success."