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.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Straw man induction

There's a general rule of debate, and it goes something like this: you don't score any points by picking out some absurdly weak line of reasoning, characterizing your opponents as holding that view, arguing against it, and claiming victory.

This is called the straw-man fallacy, and is all too common.  It's why we have conservatives arguing that all liberals want to give away America to illegal immigrants, lock, stock, and barrel.  It's why we have liberals arguing that all conservatives want to sell us out to big corporations, and along the way, deny rights to everyone but white Christian males.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that on both sides, but this requires (1) thought, and (2) an admission that your opponents' views, when represented fairly, are worthy at least of intelligent consideration.  And that seems to be beyond a lot of people these days.

To take two examples of this -- one from each side of the aisle, to demonstrate that straw man arguments are no respecter of political leanings -- let's take a look at two different views of yesterday's eclipse.  Neither, I hasten to state, appears to be a parody, although you'd certainly be justified in thinking they might be.

First, we have a group called "Kentuckians for Coal," who actually protested the eclipse, claiming that even freakin' astronomical objects were conspiring to take attention away from the plight of coal miners.  The protest took place in Hopkinsville, which was along the path of totality, something that struck the Kentuckians for Coal as not being a coincidence.

Here's their mission statement:
Kentuckians for Coal is an ad-hoc coalition of miners, union officials, family members and coal users created to defend the Kentucky coal industry against encroachment from renewable energy industries and from economic development initiatives aimed at lessening America's dependence on coal.  Kentuckians for Coal stands against the eclipse and those who worship it.
Well, I think the eclipse is pretty cool, but "worship" goes a bit far.  And it's hard to see how you could be against clean, renewable energy.  I get that we're talking about people's livelihoods, here; but at some point, there needs to be a choice made whether a particular industry is worth saving when it's balanced against the long-term habitability of the Earth.  (And, I might add, that a lot of this would be moot if the government would step in and fund retraining of these out-of-work miners, and guarantee them jobs in the renewable energy industry, which is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States.)

A few of the signs carried at the protest read as follows:
  • A Mine Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
  • Climate Change Is a Hoax!
  • You can count on coal 24/7. You can't always depend on the sun! 
  • Still Think Solar Makes Sense?
  • Coal Never Quits
  • You Can Depend On Coal!
  • The Solar Industry Is Modernizing Us Out of Jobs!
  • Coal was good enough for my forefathers, it's good enough for me!
  • This much time and money spent for 2 minutes and 40 seconds
To their credit, the person carrying the last-mentioned sign was followed by someone carrying a sign saying, "That's what she said."

[image courtesy of photographer Luc Viatour and the Wikimedia Commons]

But lest the liberals in the studio audience start crowing about how much smarter and more sensible they are than the silly ol' conservatives, allow me to direct your attention to an article in The Atlantic by Brooklyn Law School professor Alice Ristroph, entitled, "Racial History in the Solar Eclipse Path of Totality," which says basically that the path of yesterday's eclipse was inherently biased against minorities.

Don't believe me?  Here's a sample:
It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people...  [A]n eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message.  At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one.  Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom.  The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way.
No, Professor Ristroph, what the Great American Eclipse reminded us of is that when something gets in front of the Sun, it casts a shadow.  End of story.

But that doesn't stop her from telling us about how terrible it is that the path of totality excludes minorities; in fact, the Moon seems to have chosen its path with deliberate bigotry in mind:
About a third of Kansas City, Missouri, is black, but most of the city lies just south of the path of totality. To get the full show, eclipse chasers should go north to St. Joseph, almost 90 percent white and about 6 percent black...

Moving east, the eclipse will pass part of St. Louis, whose overall population is nearly half black. But the black residents are concentrated in the northern half of the metropolitan area, and the total eclipse crosses only the southern half.
Of course, even by her own admission, her whole argument kind of falls apart when the eclipse gets to South Carolina, but by this time, any credibility she might have had is down the toilet anyhow.  So even if you got that far -- and the article is a long one -- I doubt that'd salvage whatever it was she was trying to point out.

Now don't misunderstand me.  There are huge racial inequities in the United States, and those deserve serious attention.  Likewise, apropos of the Kentuckians for Coal, the issue of displaced workers, poor communities, and lost jobs is not one we should scoff at.

But claiming the eclipse has a damn thing to do with either one is pretty fucking ridiculous, and you're not doing your argument any good by claiming that it does.

So the take-home message is, "let's keep our eye on the ball, shall we?"  If you want to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed or the problems of race and privilege, have at it.  But saying the whole thing boils down to astronomy is idiotic.  And throwing together a straw-man argument is not going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In the dark

In this line of business, it's all too common to run into something so stupid that at first, you think it's a joke.  No one, you think, no one could possibly be that gullible and/or ignorant of science.

And then you look into it, and you find that, lo and behold, (1) it's not a joke, (2) there are in fact people that gullible and ignorant, and (3) it really freakin' hurts when you do a faceplant into your computer keyboard.

This was my experience when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago entitled, "NASA Confirms Earth Will Experience 15 Days of Darkness in November 2017."  This article, by one David Vanallen, appeared on the site Reflection of Mind earlier this year, and warns us that in a couple of months, we're gonna be in for some serious shit.

He doesn't put it quite that way, however.  Here's a capsule summary of what Vanallen says NASA has "confirmed:"
  1. This November, Jupiter and Venus will come into "close proximity" of each other, being separated in the sky by a distance of only one degree.
  2. Venus will, at that point, be shining at ten times the luminance that Jupiter is.
  3. The bright light from Venus will heat Jupiter's gaseous surface, causing it to launch an "absurdly high amount of hydrogen" into space.
  4. Said hydrogen will fall directly into the Sun, arriving there at precisely 2:50 AM on November 15.
  5. The additional hydrogen will cause a thermonuclear detonation to occur on the Sun's surface, raising its temperature to 9,000 C, and turning the Sun's color to a "bluish shade."
  6. This will cause the Sun to appear dimmer from the Earth.  
  7. The effect will last until precisely 4:45 on November 30, at which point the Sun will return to normal.
That scary stuff notwithstanding, former NASA director Charles Bolden said we shouldn't be worried.  All that's going to happen, Bolden said, is a huge increase in the Earth's average temperature:
We do not expect any major effects from the Blackout event.  The only effect this event will have on Earth is an increase of 6 – 8 degrees in temperature. the polar cap will be mostly affected by this.   No one should worry much.  This event would be similar to what Alaskans experience in the winter.
Okay, now, hang on a moment.

Jupiter and Venus won't be in "close proximity."  They will just appear that way because from Earth, they'll be kind of lined up in the sky.  This is like saying that as you're standing on a beach in California watching the Sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the ocean is in danger of boiling away because it's so much closer to the Sun than it was at noon.

Furthermore, if the luminance of Venus was high enough to cause major gaseous eruptions on Jupiter, it would fry us here on Earth.  Jupiter and Venus are an average of 750 million kilometers from each other; at its farthest, Venus is 260 million kilometers from Earth.  There's this thing called the inverse-square law that shows how all of this works, but my guess is that David Vanallen never got past 8th grade physical science, so maybe he's never heard of it.

In any case, the reason Venus is brighter than Jupiter has nothing to do with its being hotter (although it is, in fact, by a large margin).  Venus is just closer to the Sun.  End of story.

[image courtesy of NASA]

As far as "absurd amounts of hydrogen" causing a thermonuclear explosion, well... the Sun is kind of one big thermonuclear explosion already.  Adding hydrogen, in however absurd amounts you like, wouldn't make much of a difference, especially given that Jupiter's radius is ten times smaller than the Sun's.  And that's the whole planet, not just some absurd hydrogen cloud it's jettisoned.

Then, the hydrogen is supposed to make the Sun heat up, which will make it dimmer, which will cause it to be dark here on Earth, which in 15 days will make the Earth's temperature rise by an amount that's four times the increase we've experienced from all of global warming put together, which will make the Arctic ice caps melt, but we shouldn't worry about it.

Because all of that is "just like Alaska in winter."

To which I just have one thing to say: What the actual fuck?

Oh, and I doubt highly that Charles Bolden, who is not only a pretty smart guy but has a B.S. in electrical engineering and a M.S. in systems management, had anything to do with any of this.

What makes me facepalm the worst about all of this is that there are dozens of sites now reprinting this story pretty much verbatim, and none of the ones I looked at added, "... and anyone who believes this must have their skull filled with dust bunnies, cobwebs, and dead insects."  All of the ones I saw were posting it because, apparently, they believe that it's true.  And one of them had been shared, tweeted, and reposted over 10,000 times.

Which just goes to show that if you append "NASA officials confirm" in front of damn near anything, you can get people to believe it.  Oh, and that reminds me: I should warn you that NASA officials have confirmed that today's solar eclipse is going to cause the Earth's magnetic poles to flip, which will mean all clocks will start running backwards, which will reverse the polarity in your DNA's quantum frequency vibrations, meaning you'll start to age backwards.  Tomorrow morning, we're all going to wake up feeling younger, stronger, and healthier, which would be cool except for the fact that it will also make our neurons run in reverse, so we'll remember the future and have no idea about the past.

I'd say "remember, you heard it here first," but the last part kind of makes that impossible.  Oh, well.   Sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Shiny happy energy

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recall that a while back, I dealt with a type of energy called orgone.  Orgone, said psychologist Wilhelm Reich back in the 1930s, is a mysterious "life force energy" that causes the galaxies to turn, triggers weather phenomenon, maintains your health, and is the "psychosexual energy release" that occurs during orgasm.

Bet you didn't think all that stuff was happening when you have an orgasm.  I didn't, either.  I just thought it was kinda fun.

Be that as it may, there's only one problem with "orgone," and that's that it doesn't exist.  But as we've seen with countless other things -- homeopathy, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, President Trump's moral compass -- zero evidence that the thing you're studying actually exists is not near enough to discourage some people.

Now, the problem with orgone is that being an invisible, unmeasurable, undetectable (yet universal) energy, it's also inherently unmarketable.  I mean, what are you gonna do?  Tell someone if they pay you $100, you'll go home an have an orgasm, and then funnel the "psychosexual energy" in their direction?  I'd like to think that there's no one who's that gullible, although the fact that there are people who were willing to pay hundreds of bucks for "medicines" that you download directly from your computer into your body, I'm not going to rule anything out.

But at least the people who are orgone-proponents have recognized the difficulty of trying to sell something like that, because they've come up with a new twist, which (not coincidentally) they can sell:

"Orgonite."

"Orgonite," allow me to explain, is solid orgone.  Or a solid that's been infused with orgone.  Or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, frankly, because most of the websites hawking the stuff sound like this:
Dr Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychiatrist, researched orgone energy (also known as chi or prana) in the earlier half of the 20th century, and today’s orgonite devices are built on his findings.  While conducting his research, Dr. Reich found that organic materials attract and hold orgone energy, while non-organic metals simultaneously attract and repel the energy. 
Orgonite is based on these two principles.  It is a 50-50 mix of resin (organic, due to the fact that it is based on petrochemicals), and metal shavings (inorganic).  A quartz crystal is also added to the orgonite mix.  This is because of its piezoelectric properties, which means that it gives off a charge when it is put under pressure (resin shrinks when it is cured, so constant pressure is put on the quartz crystal). 
Due to the fact that the elements contained in orgonite are constantly attracting and repelling energy, a “scrubbing” action takes place, and along with the charge that the crystal gives off, this cleans stagnant and negative energy, and brings it back to a healthy, vibrant state.
Right!  Piezoelectric effect + orgone + chi = shiny happy energy!

"Orgonite" pyramid [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, needless to say the fact that this makes zero sense will not stop people from buying stuff like the "Fluorite and Onyx Orgone Cone" ($79.80), the "Crown Chakra Balance Orgone Pendant" ($46.55),  the "Balancing Lightworker Amethyst Orgone Pendant" ($35.90), and the "Boho Crystal Healing Festival Gypsy Orgone Spirit Jewel" ($99.75), the last-mentioned of which is clearly the most expensive because its name has more words.

Sad to say, all of this nonsense isn't going to do anything for you but lighten your pocketbook, and there's also the fact that a lot of what they're selling looks like the jewelry equivalent of Soap-on-a-Rope.  But maybe it's just that my chi is not balanced enough to appreciate how beautiful it is, I dunno.

Worst of all, this foolishness is now being peddled in other countries.  In fact, how I found out about it is that there is now an "orgonite network" in southern Africa, whereby lots of people are being told that in order to fix their health, all they have to do is buy colorful but expensive crap that comes along with a bunch of pseudoscientific babble.  Which, if you discount the placebo effect, is completely worthless.


So anyhow, there you have it: yet another way to bilk money from the gullible.  There's no such thing as orgone, and therefore (by extension) "orgonite" is a bunch of bullshit, too.  My suggestion is not to worry about the whole negative energy scrubbing business.  I recommend actual orgasms over orgone any day of the week, even if the former doesn't realign your chakras.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Perchance to dream

Insomnia sucks, something I am frequently heard to mutter under my breath at 3:30 AM.  I've been a bad sleeper for decades, and have not been able to figure out any particular pattern to it -- I have sleepless nights on days I've gotten lots of exercise and days I haven't, after spending several hours of staring into the computer screen and not, after drinking alcohol and not.  Nothing has really worked to alleviate it, although when I am desperate I take a Benadryl tablet, which works well even though it's something I don't like to do often.  (In fact, taking Benadryl works so well that after taking one, it's a miracle I make it back to bed before I pass out, to be found the next morning on the floor in the hallway in a puddle of drool.)

Sleep is critical to health, both mental and physical, but scientists have been working for ages to try and elucidate why.  It's known that when deprived of sleep short-term, people are groggy, irritable, and perform more poorly on every cognitive assessment there is; long-term sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, paranoia, and (ultimately) death.  Further, sleep is not the same as simple bodily relaxation; in some phases of sleep, the brain is as active as it is during wakefulness.

[image courtesy of photograph Evgeniy Isaev and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's been suggested -- and there is some experimental evidence to support it -- that sleep has something to do with memory consolidation.  It's been shown pretty conclusively that if you want to improve cognitive performance on a test, studying the night before and getting a good night's sleep works far better than spending an equal amount of time studying the day of the test.  I wish I'd known this back in college, where I was known to do things like doing my first and only studying for my 8 AM sociology midterm on the bus en route to school.

This doesn't, however, explain sleep's function in other animals, as few fluffy bunnies are known to take sociology classes.  But a study published last week in Nature: Communications has shown that sleep definitely influences memory -- even to the extent of fostering the formation of new memories while we're asleep.

The paper, "Formation and Suppression of Acoustic Memories During Human Sleep," by Thomas Andrillon, Daniel Pressnitzer, Damien Léger, and Sid Kouider of the École Normale Supérieure/PSL Research University of Paris, France, found that people form memories during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep -- but stimuli given during deep non-REM sleep actually suppress memory.  The authors write:
Sleep and memory are deeply related, but the nature of the neuroplastic processes induced by sleep remains unclear.  Here, we report that memory traces can be both formed or suppressed during sleep, depending on sleep phase.  We played samples of acoustic noise to sleeping human listeners.  Repeated exposure to a novel noise during Rapid Eye Movements (REM) or light non-REM (NREM) sleep leads to improvements in behavioral performance upon awakening.  Strikingly, the same exposure during deep NREM sleep leads to impaired performance upon awakening.  Electroencephalographic markers of learning extracted during sleep confirm a dissociation between sleep facilitating memory formation (light NREM and REM sleep) and sleep suppressing learning (deep NREM sleep).  We can trace these neural changes back to transient sleep events, such as spindles for memory facilitation and slow waves for suppression.  Thus, highly selective memory processes are active during human sleep, with intertwined episodes of facilitative and suppressive plasticity.
It's important to add, however, that experiments involving attempts to learn something complex -- such as a foreign language -- while you're asleep have all been abject failures.  The (alleged) phenomenon, called hypnopaedia, was all the rage back in the 1920s and 1930s, when people not only used it to try to learn, they used it to modify how they were perceived by others.  One such program, developed by hypnopaedia's main proponent, New York psychologist A. B. Saliger, was designed to help people get laid.  It involved listening while asleep to the following message played over and over:  "I desire a mate.  I radiate love...  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful. I have a strong sex appeal."

Unfortunately, all that this accomplished was making the test subjects wake up even hornier than they were before.

Study author Thomas Andrillon is cautious about applications of his work to the practical world.  "The sleeping brain is including a lot of information that is happening outside, and processing it to quite an impressive degree of complexity," Andrillon said.  But as far as using this research to facilitate the development of methods to influence memory in a bigger way, he added, "We are in the big unknown...  Keep in mind that sleep is not just about memory.  Trying to hijack the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep could disrupt normal brain function."

Which I can certainly attest to, as I rarely if ever get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I don't think I've ever had the word "normal" applied to my behavior.  I have to admit that the Andrillon et al. research is fascinating, however, not least because it gives us another piece of the puzzle of why all higher animals sleep.

Now you'll have to excuse me, because I got about three hours of sleep last night, and I think I'm gonna go take a nap.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

*ding* You've got mail!

There's a quote from Winston Churchill that goes, "You have enemies?  Good.  That means you've stood up for something, some time in your life."

By that standard, I'd have gotten some serious props from Mr. Churchill for yesterday's post, which generated quite the deluge of hate mail.  I don't know where my link got posted, nor by whom, but evidently it was in a place where there are a significant proportion of people who took umbrage at my identification of Donald Trump as a liar, a racist, and a misogynist.

The responses varied from the banal to the highly creative.  Several of them invited me to do things that even thirty years ago I didn't have the flexibility to accomplish.  But I thought it'd be fun to respond to a few of them, even though all I'll probably do is generate more hate mail.

Oh, well.  I'm all about throwing caution to the wind.

[image courtesy of photographer Jessica Flavin and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's one that I thought was kind of interesting:
You really don't get it, do you?  From your picture you're as white as I am, and you're gonna stand there and tell me that you have no problem being overrun by people who have different customs and don't speak English?  Let's see how you feel when your kid's teacher requires them to learn Arabic.
Well, my kids are 26 and 29, so unless they decide to enroll in college, they're unlikely to face this particular issue.  But ignoring that for a moment -- I would have been elated if my kids had had the opportunity to learn Arabic in school.  They each took three years of French, but to say they weren't enthusiastic about it is something of an understatement.  I would welcome any opportunity my kids, or kids in general, had to learn about other cultures.  In fact, I think a lot of the hatred and ugliness we're seeing right now is largely generated by the fact that the people who are the most racist don't know even a single person who is of a different race.

Once you get to know someone, realize that they have the same dreams, needs, and desires as you do, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to hate them.

Then there was this one:
Fuck you, you left wing libtard.  We finally have a president who speaks his mind, and you can't handle it.  Well, sorry, jerkoff, but this is America, and we're taking it back whether you like it or not.
"Taking it back?"  From whom?  Or do you mean taking it back in time?  Because that's a hell of a lot more accurate.  To the 30s, when racism and sexism was institutionalized, when there were still lynchings of African Americans, when being Jewish or Italian or Hispanic or Chinese meant that you were automatically disqualified from most high-paying jobs, and when you didn't even mention it if you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

I can only hope we aren't going back there, and as a nation that we've learned the lesson that you don't gain more rights for yourself by denying others theirs, but in the last few days I've begun to wonder.

I also got an email sending me a link to a news article about the Justice Department demanding names of 1.3 million people who visited an anti-Trump website.  It was accompanied by the following cheery message:
Watch your back.  We know who you are.  There's a list of treasonous assholes like yourself, and you better be careful, because this shit is not going to be tolerated any more.
I have two things to say about this one:
  1. The "we know who you are" thing cuts both ways, to judge by the number of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were at the Charlottesville protest, who were identified from photographs, and who are now losing their jobs, facing censure from families and friends, and having their websites shut down.  Apparently a good many of them are boo-hooing the backlash, but don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
  2. For the record, I've never tried to hide.  Not my political beliefs, nor my religious ones, nor much of anything else.  So if you want to put my name on your list, knock yourself out.  Write it in capital letters and underline it three times.  Bring it on.
Last, we have this one:
You alt-left pussies make me want to puke.  I bet if you were in any real danger, you'd run home to mama.  You're pretty tough when you're sitting there on your computer, aren't you, big man?
To be honest, I don't think I'm all that tough.  I'm a wuss about pain, frankly.  But I am willing to take significant risks to stand up for what I believe in, to follow Roy T. Bennett's exhortation to "Stop doing what is easy.  Start doing what is right."

And it's interesting that I'm already a member of the "alt-left," a group that President Trump invented two days ago.  I suppose I should be honored, really.  I was expecting it to take at least a few weeks just to have my application processed.  I hope this means that my official alt-left badge, commemorative t-shirt, and decoder ring will be in my mailbox soon!

Anyhow, that's a sampler of what was in yesterday's mailbag.  For damn near all of them, I pretty much just read the first line or two and deleted them, because there's only so many times you can read "go fuck yourself."

So I guess I struck a nerve, which is to me a good thing.  At least it means people are reading what I write, and (on some level) thinking about what I'm saying.  And with this crowd, any inroads I can make in the "reconsider your beliefs" department is movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A line in the sand

Richard Dawkins wrote, "I think it's important to realize that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

After yesterday's unhinged press conference, this is the situation we are in with respect to Donald Trump and his supporters.

The subject of his speech was the violence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed when an angry young man with neo-Nazi leanings drove his car into the crowd.  The violence, Trump said, was the fault of both sides:
What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt?  What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem?  I think they do...  You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.
The "club in hands" reference is to a photograph of an Antifa member allegedly striking a police officer with a club -- a photograph that has since been shown to be digitally altered.

That is, a fake.

What is grimly ironic about this is that Trump defended the two-day delay in condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis by saying that he wasn't sure of his facts:
I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement... What I said was a fine statement.  I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.
Besides the fact that even after the delay, he still got the facts wrong, it bears mention that it took him only an hour to respond when Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned in protest from the President's Manufacturing Council.  Trump's ego was stung by the resignation -- something which evidently moves him more than seeing people marching in Nazi regalia does.  "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council," Trump sneered via Twitter (of course),  "he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

But apparently it takes way more time to decide whether to condemn white supremacists who had not only killed a young woman for protesting, but who had said, on a website affiliated with their cause, "Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad [Heather Heyer] is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness.  A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value."

This is the ideology that our president thinks is so morally ambiguous that it took him 48 hours to decide whether it was worth condemning, and then afterwards claimed was actually no worse than the beliefs of the anti-Nazi protesters.

Most media were quick to condemn Trump's speech, but as soon as it hit the news, the apologists started in with equal speed.  Within a half-hour of the story breaking, I saw the following comments posted:
  • All he's saying is that white people shouldn't be ashamed of being white.
  • I'd take the people in the march before I would the leftist whiners who are trying to tear America down.
  • The people in the march aren't responsible for what one crazy man in a car did.
  • For crying out loud, shut up and give the President a chance!
This last one is, of all of them, the one that galled me the most.  You know what?  Trump has had seven months of chances.  He has shown himself to be a dishonest, racist, misogynistic prick over and over.  The most surprising thing, in fact, is how unsurprising this last speech was.  It was totally in keeping with his prior words and actions.  All he did here is clarify his own ideology in such a way that there is no doubt any more where his loyalties lie.

So the chances are over, not only for Trump but for his followers.  It's no longer conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican.  This is about deciding whether you side with a man who has allied himself with people who wear swastikas on armbands and chant, "The Jew will never replace us!"  There is no moral ambiguity here.  If you don't repudiate him, now, you are complicit in his actions and those of his followers.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I try my hardest to listen to the people I disagree with, but at some point, there is no compromise, no way to find common ground.  After that, there is no choice but to commit to every effort necessary to stop people who are violent, amoral, and so convinced they are in the right that there is no possibility of discussion.

You might be saying, "Well, aren't you equally convinced that you're right?"  Perhaps.  But I'm not the one calling for violence against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.

This is the point where moral people have to stand up and take a hard look at what is happening here, and realize that neutrality is no longer an option.  We are fast approaching something very like the Weimar Republic of the 1930s -- waiting only for our own Reichstag Fire to plunge the nation into darkness and bloodshed.

So if you're a Trump supporter, I'm sorry if you were misled by his rhetoric.  I understand that it's easy to get swept away by the theatrics of politics, to vote for someone who turned out to be something other than you wanted.  But we've crossed a line, here.  If you still support him, if you are one of the ones crying out "give him a chance," then you and others like you are fully responsible for the horrifying place we seem to be headed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!

Because so much of the world lately seems to be immersed in hatred, violence, and just general suckiness, for today I'm going to retreat to my Happy Place, which is: cool scientific discoveries.

Today's contribution from the Happy Place comes from the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology, two disciplines that are near and dear to my heart.  While my educational background is kind of all over the map (less charitable sorts have called it "a light year across and an inch deep"), evolutionary biology has been something of a passion of mine for ages.  In getting my teaching certificate, I did as many courses as I could that focused on such things as population genetics, cladistics, and the origins of life, so I have come to think of that as being more or less my specialty within the field.

The discovery that spurred today's post comes from northeastern China, where two new species of mammal were uncovered (literally and figuratively) -- Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon.  These species were probably closely related, and appear to have been small tree-dwellers who had flaps of skin that ran from the outsides of the front legs to the outsides of the hind legs, so that when necessary, they could jump from a tree branch, fling their limbs outward, and glide like a living kite.

[image courtesy of study leader Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago]

If you're thinking, "Wait a second.  Isn't that just a flying squirrel?", you should know two things: (1) these two species were only very distantly related to flying squirrels and other rodents; and (2) they were alive during the Jurassic Period -- something on the order of 160 million years ago, when the dominant life forms were dinosaurs.  (For comparison purposes, the earliest known rodents didn't show up until 100 million years later.)  They belong to a group called Euharamiyids, one of the four branches of true mammals (the other three are the Multituberculates, which like the Euharamiyids are extinct; the Monotremes, which include egg-laying mammals such as the platypus; and the Therians, which encompass all other mammals, including us).

What I think is coolest about all of this -- besides the fact that ancient animals are simply inherently cool -- is that it's further evidence of the fact that similar selective pressures often result in separate lineages that happen upon the same "solutions" to evolutionary problems.  This is called convergent or parallel evolution, and one of the best examples of this is the evolution of flight and/or gliding.  Taking to the air has apparently evolved over and over again, resulting in the most familiar flying groups -- birds, insects, and bats -- but also in...

Pterodactyloids:

Colugos:


Flying fish:


Sugar gliders:


and the aforementioned flying squirrels:


... the latter of which were studied extensively by noted scientists Boris Badinov and Natasha Fatale.

And now, we can add two more to the list, a pair which (like all the rest) evolved aerobatics completely independently of all the others.

Anyhow, the whole thing illustrates a fundamental rule of biology, which is that there are a limited number of powerful evolutionary drivers (the most important being finding food, not getting turned into food, avoiding the vagaries of the environment you're in, and finding a mate), and a limited number of solutions to those drivers in the real world.  So it's inevitable that the same kinds of structures and behaviors will evolve over and over, even in groups that aren't very closely related.  What is most remarkable about this particular discovery, however, is how early the innovation of gliding in mammals evolved -- back when the whole mammalian clade had barely gotten started, and the dinosaurs still had 95 million years left before a giant meteor strike ended their hegemony.

And all of this ties into another field I'm fascinated with, which is exobiology -- the study of alien species.  At the moment, the number of available samples to study is zero, so we're left speculating based on what we have here on our home planet.  But the fact that we see the same sorts of patterns cropping up again and again -- bilateral symmetry, organs for sensing light and sound, defensive and offensive weapons, and adaptations for rapid locomotion -- is a pretty sound argument that when we do come across life on other planets, it will probably have some striking similarities to what we see here on Earth.

So that's our cool scientific discovery of the day, courtesy of a research team working in China.  And unfortunately I need to wrap up this post, which means I have to leave my Scientific Happy Place and return to the real world, at least for a little while.  Maybe I'll luck out and there'll be other fun and fascinating discoveries announced soon so that I can read something other than the news, which is more and more making me wonder if it might not be time for another giant meteor to press "reset" on the whole shebang.