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.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday blues

Today is the day on which I will not go within ten miles of the nearest mall or department store, namely, Black Friday.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, "The day we fight our neighbors and friends to get more stuff, immediately after we gave thanks for what we already have."

Please understand that I mean no disrespect to people who love shopping.  Everyone has their hobbies, and I wouldn't expect others necessarily to participate, or even understand, mine.  Take birdwatching, for example.  I'm the guy who zoomed out of the door at just before 8 AM, drove almost 30 miles, and stood on the lake shore in the freezing wind clutching my binoculars, because there'd been a report of a King Eider (a rare species of duck) at Myer's Point on Cayuga Lake.  I and two other equally insane birdwatchers shivered in the cold for a half hour, scanning all of the hundreds of ducks bobbing out there in the lake, and finally, after all that work and discomfort... we didn't see the bird.

And, oddly, none of us felt like we'd wasted our time.  "Ha ha, these things happen, if you're a birdwatcher," was our basic response, and I've no doubt if the King Eider suddenly reappears, all three of us will rush right back without a second thought.

So people, in the throes of a pastime, will do some pretty odd things.  Add to that the bonus of getting a good deal, money-wise, and you've got a combination that leads people to engage in behavior that under normal circumstances would be grounds for a psychiatric evaluation.

The news reports are already beginning to come in... apparently the parking lot of the Toys "R" Us in Nanuet, New York was already full by 10 PM on Thanksgiving night.  This means that these people are going to sleep in their cars, or (more likely) stand in line in the cold and dark, to be amongst the first to be able to shop.  Myself, I'd choose the King Eider over that in a heartbeat.  I might even choose a root canal.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What I find the most amusing about this is how we as a society let ourselves be drawn in to media-driven rituals.  I'm not even talking about Christmas and Easter and so on, because those were holidays of long standing, with religious significance and replete with traditions, long before the media got involved.  I'm more thinking of the ones that the media and corporations either created (e.g. Black Friday) or morphed so drastically from their original versions and purpose that they're virtually unrecognizable (e.g. Halloween).  And we allow ourselves to be drawn in.  We dress our kids up as Batman, Superman, the Little Mermaid, and so forth, with the traditional plastic masks with poorly-lined-up eyeholes, on October 31 because that's what the media says we should do.  As an experiment to support this, I challenge you to dress your kid up as, say, Shrek on April 17, and send him out to knock on your neighbors' door and say "Trick or Treat."   Odds are, it won't work.   Odds also are that your neighbors will begin to wonder if you yourself need to up the dosage on one or more of your prescriptions.  But it'd still be an experiment worth running.

Once again, I'm not questioning the motives of people who participate in these activities because they think they're fun; I'm more thinking about the folks like myself who actually loathe shopping, but they go out on Black Friday anyhow, because "that's just what you do."  For myself, I can't imagine allowing myself to be coerced into shopping.  I can barely even tolerate grocery shopping -- my idea of the proper technique for grocery shopping is to zoom down the aisles at 45 miles per hour, knocking over small children and little old ladies, while hurling various grocery items into the cart after barely looking at them to check and see if it's what I actually wanted to purchase.  Every once in a while this will mean that I buy something I really didn't intend to.  "Gerber Mashed Carrots?" Carol will ask, while putting away groceries. "Our kids are 27 and 29 years old.  And you hate carrots."  But I consider this a small price to pay, if it allows me to beat my previous record time for completing my shopping list.

In any case, if you love shopping and deals and Black Friday, I hope you enjoy yourself.  Me, I'm sticking close to home today.  Unless that King Eider comes back.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Empathy training

A couple of days ago, I had a migraine.

I was fortunate in a couple of respects.  First, I hardly get migraines at all any more -- by comparison with my early twenties, a period in my life during which I was getting them two or three times a week.  Second, this one was pretty mild.  Not much in the way of pain, and no nausea.  When I used to get migraines, it came with pain so bad it felt like someone had my head trapped in a vise, not to mention gut-twisting nausea, sometimes for 24 hours straight.

Mostly what I experienced this time was visual disturbances and generalized brain fog.  When I get a migraine, lights are uncomfortably bright -- I feel like I need to wear sunglasses indoors -- and anything shiny or reflective has a halo or starburst surrounding it.  My hearing also gets terribly sensitive, and there's something about the quality of the sound that changes.  Everything has a weird, echoic sound, even my internal chatter -- the closest I can come to describing it is that it feels like my head is hollow, and there's someone in that empty space shouting at the top of his lungs.

The brain fog is a little hard to describe, too.  I honestly don't remember large chunks of the day.  I didn't feel bad enough to justify staying home from school, although I should have; heaven only knows what I told my classes.  I suspect that if I'd said anything too dopey, someone would have asked me what the hell was wrong with me (my students are just up-front and honest like that), and no one did.  But I do recall feeling a little disembodied, like I was watching someone else go through the motions of the day, but not really fully understanding what I was seeing and hearing.

Luckily for me, after a good night's sleep I felt a great deal better, although still a little foggier than usual.  But what it makes me realize is how impossible it is for someone who hasn't experienced something like a migraine to understand fully what it's like.  The painkiller company Excedrin has created virtual reality goggles that recreate some of the visual effects, and it's well worth watching; one of the non-migraine-sufferers who wore the goggles for a few minutes said, "Oh, my God, I don't even know how you function."

Of course, the same could be said about any debilitating disease.  Depression.  Fibromyalgia.  Chronic fatigue syndrome.  Chronic back pain.  Trigeminal neuralgia.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Bipolar disorder.  Multiple sclerosis.  Schizophrenia.  About this last one, Anderson Cooper spent some time wearing earphones that simulated what it was like for a person to hear voices, and what has struck me every time I've seen it is how it destroyed his ability to focus and left him completely wrung out emotionally -- even though he knew the whole time that it was a simulation.

It's why I get a little defensive when I see stuff like this:


You know what?  If you haven't experienced depression, I can almost guarantee that you don't get it.  Some of us are only alive because of antidepressants.  You can rail against "Big Pharma" all you want, but if -- as is the case with a friend of mine -- someone is only able to lead a normal life because of some medication that causes the firestorm in their brain to calm to manageable proportions, then you have no damn right to give them another thing to feel inadequate about.

And the same is true of all the other chronic illnesses, especially the ones that produce few obvious outward symptoms.  You can remedy this to some extent by talking to people who actually live with disorders like these, or better still, try a migraine simulator or schizophrenia simulator.  I can almost guarantee that afterwards you will be far less hasty to conclude that the people with these conditions need to just "suck it up and deal," or (worse) "get over it," or (worst of all) that they're faking it.

Believe me, when I was in the throes of a full-blown migraine, I would have given damn near anything to be rid of it permanently.  Sucking it up and dealing wasn't really high on my priorities list.  I was more concerned with wondering if I would ever be able to leave my darkened room for any other reason than running to the bathroom to puke.

It's all about empathy, really.  Just because you are lucky enough not to suffer from a particular illness (or, if you're extraordinarily lucky, any chronic illnesses at all), don't roll your eyes at others for doing what they need to in order to cope.  Spend some time thinking what it would be like to inhabit another person's body and brain -- perhaps a body and brain that don't cooperate as readily as yours do.

It brings back to mind something a wise family friend told me when I was about ten, after I was complaining about how hard it was to be nice to a particular classmate of mine.  "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be," she said.  "Because everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A governmental cult

Cult (n.) -- a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, often involving a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing; a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
I bring this up so that we can have a working definition right at the outset, because it's a term that has been misused (and in some places overused) to the point that it's lost a lot of its punch.  But two news stories in the past week have brought the word to mind -- apropos of the veneration with which the extreme wing of Trump voters treat the president and his cronies.

Let's start with the less egregious of the two -- an Alabama pastor, Earl Wise, who said in an interview with The Boston Globe that he would vote for accused sexual predator Roy Moore for Senate, even if the allegations against Moore were proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

In a tirade that combines "tone-deafness," "misogyny," and "excusing pedophilia" into a truly nauseating confection of venom, Wise said:
I don’t know how much these women are getting paid, but I can only believe they’re getting a healthy sum.  If these stories were true, the women would have come forward years ago...  There ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff.  How these gals came up with this, I don’t know.  They must have had some sweet dreams somewhere down the line...  Plus, there are some fourteen-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for twenty.
So now what a child looks like determines the age of consent?

Make no mistake about it; if we were talking about a Democrat here -- hell, if we were talking about a non-Trump-supporting Republican -- Wise would be recommending crucifixion.  This is a man who thinks that two men in a committed relationship getting married is "an abomination," but a grown man targeting children is "championing conservative religious values."

If you think that's bad, wait till you hear about the other one.  Mark Lee, a Trump voter who participated in a panel discussion on CNN, was talking about how wonderful the president is, how he's "draining the swamp" and "helping the little guy" even though mostly what the president seems to be doing is appointing unqualified cronies to public office, lining his own pockets, and tweeting messages that sound like they came from a petulant and rather stupid fourth grader.  But all of that pales by comparison to a statement Lee made later in the discussion: "If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, 'Hold on a second.  I need to check with the president if it's true.'"

Okay, what?

Isn't the whole idea of traditional, conservative Christianity that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority?  Because it sure as hell sounds to me like in Mark Lee's mind, Donald Trump has somehow usurped that position.

What I'm most curious about this is what could possibly be the motivation.  Are these people simply siding with the person they think will give them what they want -- pro-life legislation, anti-LGBTQ legislation, conservatives running the courts, religion in school (only the right religion, of course), the Ten Commandments in every government building?  Because that's pretty Machiavellian, but at least I can understand it.  To some extent, most of us make deals with the devil when we vote -- there is seldom anyone who is 100% aligned with our beliefs and interests.

My fear, however, is that this goes way, way beyond pragmatism.  This kind of thing, especially the statement by Mark Lee, smacks of the same kind of single-minded veneration the people of North Korea are supposed to have for Dear Leader.  No, of course the president couldn't be wrong.  About anything.  It's the kind of thinking that inspired this:


Cf. the definition of cult above.

There's a real danger when people start claiming to know the Mind of God.  As Susan B. Anthony put it, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."  It is far more dangerous, however, when people believe that some flesh-and-blood human is the embodiment of the divine -- and infinitely more so when that person has shown himself to be venial, corrupt, greedy, lecherous, and dishonest.

I'm not at all sure what to do about this.  Once you've ceded your will to anyone or anything else, there's not much anyone can do to help you.  I keep hoping that Robert Mueller will step in and put a stop to the miasma of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism our government has become, but I know that these people won't go down without a fight.

And what absolutely terrifies me is that the Earl Wises and Mark Lees of the world will be right there in the front, very likely well-armed, fighting for the man they've turned into a god.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pet warp

In recent posts we have dealt with sending a binary message to extraterrestrial intelligence, helicopters in ancient Egypt, and a creature in southern Africa that looks like some bizarre three-way cross between a human, a bat, and a pig.  So I'm sure that what you're all thinking is, "Yes, Gordon, but what about pet teleportation?"

At this point, I should stop being surprised at the things that show up on websites such as the one in the link above, from the site Mysterious Universe.  In this particular article, by Brent Swancer (this is not his first appearance here at Skeptophilia, as you might imagine), we hear about times that Fido and Mr. Fluffums evidently took advantage of nearby wormholes to leap instantaneously across spacetime.

In one such instance, Swancer tells us, a woman had been taking a nap with her kitty, and got up, leaving the cat sleeping in bed.  Ten minutes later, she went back into the bedroom, and the cat was gone.  At that point, the phone began ringing.  It was a friend who lived across town -- calling to tell her that the cat had just showed up on their doorstep.

Another person describes having his cat teleporting from one room in the house to another, after which the cat "seemed terrified:"
All the fur on his back was standing up and he was crouched low to the ground.  He looked like he had no idea what just happened, either.  That was about 10 minutes ago.  He won’t leave my side now, which is strange in itself, because he likes independence, but he is still very unsettled and so am I.
And Swancer tells us that it's not just cats.  He recounts a tale by "the great biologist... Ivan T. Sanderson," wherein he was working with leafcutter ants and found sometimes the queen mysteriously disappears from the ant nest.   "Further digging in some cities within hours," Sanderson tells us, "brought to light, to the dumbfoundment of everybody, apparently the same queen, all duly dyed with intricate identifying marks, dozens of feet away in another super-concrete-hard cell, happily eating, excreting and producing eggs!"

However, in the interest of honesty it must be said that Sanderson might not be the most credible witness in the world.  He did a good bit of writing about nature and biology, but is best known for his work in cryptozoology.  According to the Wikipedia article on him (linked above), he gave "special attention to the search for lake monsters, sea serpents, Mokèlé-mbèmbé, giant penguins, Yeti, and Sasquatch."  And amongst his publications are Abominable Snowman: Legend Come to Life and the rather vaguely named Things, which the cover tells us is about "monsters, mysteries, and marvels uncanny, strange, but true."

So I'm inclined to view Sanderson's teleporting ants with a bit of a wry eye.

What strikes me about all of this is the usual problem of believing anecdotal evidence.  It's not that I'm accusing anyone of lying (although that possibility does have to be admitted); it's easy enough, given our faulty sensory processing equipment and plastic, inaccurate memory, to be absolutely convinced of something that actually didn't happen that way.  A study by New York University psychological researcher Elizabeth Phelps showed that people's memories of 9/11 -- surely a big enough event to recall accurately -- only got 63% of the details right, despite study participants' certainty they were remembering what actually happened.  Worse, a study by Joyce W. Lacy (Azusa Pacific University) and Craig E. L. Stark (University of California-Irvine) showed that even how a question is asked by an interviewer can alter a person's memory -- and scariest of all, the person has no idea it's happened.  They remain convinced that what they "recall" is accurate.

Plus, there's a little problem with lack of a mechanism.  How, exactly, could anything, much less your pet kitty, vanish from one place and simultaneously reappear somewhere else?  I have a hard time getting my dog even to move at sub-light speeds sometimes, especially when he's walking in front of me up the stairs at a pace I can only describe as a cross between a "plod" and a "waddle."  In fact, most days his favorite speed seems to be "motionless."


Given all that, it's hard to imagine he'd have the motivation to accomplish going anywhere instantaneously.

As intriguing as those stories are, I'm inclined to be a bit dubious.  Which I'm sure you predicted. So you don't need to spend time worrying about how you'll deal with it when Rex and Tigger take a trip through warped space.  If they mysteriously vanish only to show up elsewhere, chances are they were traveling in some completely ordinary fashion, and the only thing that's awry is your memory of what happened.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Messages to the stars

Much has been made of the fact that our television and radio signals are expanding outward from the Earth at the speed of light, so the first things that alien civilizations might see from us are 50s music and bad television shows.  The most memorable example of this is the brilliant and absolutely hysterical movie Galaxy Quest, in which the aliens not only intercepted our television signals, but thought they were documenting historical facts.  It led to the following exchange:
Gwen DeMarco (played to the hilt by Sigourney Weaver):  "They're not all historical documents.  I mean, surely you don't think that Gilligan's Island... 
Captain Mathazar:  "Oh, those poor people."
The truth is, any alien civilization who intercepted our signals would have to have their radio telescopes pointed exactly in the right direction, and because of the inverse-square law (the intensity of a pulse of electromagnetic radiation decreases proportionally to the square of the distance covered) the telescopes would have to be mighty powerful, if they had any hope to keep up with the antics of Gilligan and the Skipper.  The immense distances to even the nearest stars are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to any alien hunters -- or, worse, anyone who dreams of voyaging there.

It's different, however, if you are sending a specific message to a specific star, which is what a group called Sónar did last month.  Last Thursday, a spokesperson for Sónar revealed that they beamed a binary message containing scientific and technical information about us, and 33 short musical compositions, directly toward Luyten's Star (also called GJ273), a red dwarf with a planet circling it that is thought to be in the habitable zone.  So if anyone's living there, in a little over twelve years, they'll get our signal -- and twelve years after that, we might get a response.

As exciting as this is, there are a couple of problems with this venture.  The first is that the planet in the habitable zone, GJ273b, orbits its star in only eighteen days -- meaning that it is very likely to be tidally locked (the same side of the planet faces the star during its entire revolution).  In my mind, this significantly decreases the likelihood of there being complex life, as the light side would be too hot and the dark side too cold for water to be in its liquid state.  (It does bring up a possibility that life could exist in the crescent-shaped slivers on either side of the planet that are in constant twilight -- something that would make for an interesting set of problems to investigate in a science fiction story.)

The other issue has more to do with safety than feasibility.  No less a mind than Stephen Hawking has advised against our advertising our presence to alien species, out of pure self-preservation.  "One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like [Gliese 832c, another candidate for hosting life]," Hawking said.  "But we should be wary of answering back.  Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus.  That didn't turn out so well."

Any civilization capable of going to the stars, Hawking said, would be so far ahead of us that they would probably consider us hardly sentient at all -- like a human views the ants in an anthill.

Humorist Dave Barry didn't even like Carl Sagan's idea of sending a plaque with information about Earth out on the spacecraft Pioneer 10.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As he wrote in his wonderful book Bad Habits:
(W)hen they decided to send up Pioneer 10, Carl sold the government on the idea that we should attach a plaque to it, so that if the aliens found it they'd be able to locate the Earth.   This is easily the stupidest idea a scientific genius ever sold to the government...  (I)t's all well and good for Carl Sagan to talk about how neat it would be to get in touch with the aliens, but I bet he'd change his mind pronto if they actually started oozing under his front door.  I bet he'd be whapping at them with his golf clubs just like the rest of us.
In fact, he even thought the choice of the art work on the plaque was ill-advised:
(The plaque) features drawings of... a hydrogen atom and naked people.  To represent the entire Earth!  This is crazy.  Walk the streets of any town on the planet, and the two things you will almost never see are hydrogen atoms and naked people.  Plus, the man on the plaque is clearly deranged.  He's cheerfully waving his arm as if to say, "Hi!  Look at me!  I'm naked as a jaybird!"  The woman is not waving, because she's clearly embarrassed.  She wishes she'd never let the man talk her into posing naked for this plaque.
I'm of two minds about all this.  It has long been my deepest wish to live to see the day that we have unequivocal proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  (The behavior of my fellow humans in the last year has called into question whether we even have intelligent life down here, but that's beside the point.)  On the other hand, attracting the Borg to come in and assimilate the whole lot of us isn't all that appealing.

The good news is that even if there is intelligent life on the second planet of Luyten's Star, it'll be 25 years or so before we could even potentially hear from them, and unless they have access to warp drive or wormholes, it would take orders of magnitude longer for them to get here.  So I'm not losing any sleep over Sónar's message.

I have to admit that sending some music and scientific stuff is a pretty good choice for an introduction, however.  Otherwise, they'd be judging us as a species based on Fibber McGee and Molly and The Beverly Hillbillies, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.  Eventually they'd get to The Gong Show and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Real Housewives of New Jersey, and at that point the aliens would probably just target us with their photon torpedoes and be done with it.

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.