Forget the swallows. Why couldn’t evolution build US a better body?

I write about evolution a lot here, and there’s a good reason for that.  As Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously opined, nothing in biology makes sense without it.  But that doesn’t mean evolution itself makes sense.  It’s kind of a constant jury-rigging around a basic shape to adapt for ever-changing environmental conditions, whereas a lot of modern organisms would probably function a lot better if they were re-designed from the ground up.  Imagine throwing some snow chains and a plow on a Corvette and driving it through Alaska instead of just buying a goddamn truck like you ought to.  That’s pretty much how we got the bodies we have.  And subsequently why we hurt so much.

I’m talking about major morphological changes, not the shortening of a cliff swallow’s wingspan to better avoid speeding vehicles.  Evolution’s tinkering has taken us from lowly bacteria to the simplest swimming vertebrates and finally to the omni-talented bad-asses we are today (right?), but all that has come at a cost, which is most popularly documented in biologist Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish.  Besides humorous descriptions of how hernias form due to the weakness created in the abdominal wall by descending testicles (our ancestors didn’t have the temperature-finicky sperm that we do, so their gonads were safe within their bodies, while ours have to make the trek outside during development), he also offers a personal account of what a tragic junkyard the human knee is.  Our frequent knee problems are one symptom of a wonderful yet destructive innovation.

There are at least 12 competing hypotheses as to why man picked his knuckles up off the ground and decided to walk upright, but some advantages are tangible, such as raising the head for a greater field of vision and the freeing of the hands for other purposes, like using tools.  You can feel the negative consequences, too.  Besides knees, our ankles also tend to fall apart, but the worst disaster area is the human back.  The curves in our spines’ S-shape concentrate stress and can lead to scoliosis and spontaneously ruptured discs, a malady more or less unique to humans.  Taking a seat won’t eliminate the problem, either; it just shifts the stress concentration to the lower back.

Who thought THAT was a good idea?  From www.cedars-sinai.edu

Everyone knows we get obese because the tasty (and calorie-packed) treats we crave were harder to come by before we invented vending machines and McDonald’s, but even supposedly healthy stuff can harm our undeveloped constitutions.  While a staple in our current diets, we didn’t really start to eat wheat until the advent of agriculture, and we aren’t equipped with the proper enzymes to break down the gluten in today’s strains.  As much as 70% of humanity is lactose intolerant, as the practice of drinking milk really only became popular in Europe a couple thousand years ago.  Even tooth decay is a relatively recent blight, as the specific Streptococcus bacteria at the source may have jumped to our mouths from the rats that settled down with us in towns.

And there have been trade-offs for that big, beautiful brain of ours, the most noticeable of which is a woman’s wider pelvis, needed to push that mighty melon through.  Even then, babies are still faily helpless, and that protracted maturation period requires a huge amount of caretaking time from the parents.  A deal made within the brain itself was trading a better sense of smell for our increased color vision, as studies seem to show that we wouldn’t have been able to cram both into our craniums.  Frighteningly, the ability to bring all those brain cells into existence may also be what allows us to get cancer so frequently, as other animals don’t suffer it as often as we do.  People don’t undergo apoptosis (the process of killing malfunctioning cells, often heading off the rise of tumors) as much, which is great to allow the brain to burgeon, but not so good when something goes wrong and grows out of control.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Human beings are built as if you put a modern day, computerized automobile processing system into a Model T.  Great innovation, great performance in some areas, but not nearly as functional as if you just scrapped the old standard and designed a better frame altogether.  Our extended lifespans only further illuminate how cobbled together our bodies are, as the original engine really wasn’t meant to take us past 40.  Shit starts to break down, and we didn’t pony up for the extended warranty.  Too bad we’re stuck with what we’ve got and can’t just take the brand new ’14 Sapiens out for a spin.

Why isn’t evolution erasing roadkill?

I live in the suburbs, so dodging roadkill on the way to work is a daily fact of life.  I’m also an unbridled dork, so I can’t help but wonder when I pass the poor victims when evolution is going to kick in and give these guys the sense to stand back from the highway, or come up with some other novel deterrent.  Then I put my reasoning cap back on and remember that evolution is a slow and gradual process, grinding out over vast stretches of geologic time, and that even beneficial changes can be diluted in a large population and not take hold. Maybe our vehicular death dealers are just too new on the scene to have yet prodded any progress.

But it’s not like we haven’t observed selection in action, often times resulting from our own deeds.  The easiest example is the adaptation of bacteria to resist certain antibiotics, a topic discussed at length here on WDTM?  Bombing a bug with drugs is really no different than any other environmental pressure, and those bacteria that just happen to be better equipped to weather the medicinal storm are the ones that live to repopulate the world with more robust beasties.  Bacteria aren’t the only creepy crawlies to get a boost from our well-intentioned eradication efforts, as the recent bedbug plagues in New York City and elsewhere demonstrate.  A March study in Scientific Reports observes that 14 protein-coding genes were “overexpressed” in the heartiest populations, preventing or slowing the absorption of pyrethroid, the most common pesticide used against them.

On a macroscopic level, a group of common mice in Germany have become resistant to the poison warfarin as a result of a horizontal gene transfer from the non-native, human-introduced Algerian mouse.  The unintentional poisoning of the Atlantic tomcod thanks to General Electric’s decades of inconsiderate PCB-dumping into the Hudson River has caused the feisty fish to develop a way to keep the chemical from binding to its cells.  And don’t forget the textbook peppered moth example which, despite flaws in the original methodology that have been corrected in later experiments, continues to show that the darkening of tree bark by industrial soot helped the varieties with more melanin blend in better and avoid the notice of predators, drastically decreasing the population of the their lighter colored brethren.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So what gives, guys?  I know there isn’t camouflage that would conceal certain raccoons from cars, but knowing that major changes can take place within a few generations thanks to our (often unhealthy) influence, where’s the roadkill resistance?  Charles Brown of the University of Tulsa may have found an example!  He describes in a Current Biology paper how his taxidermy hobby led him to notice that fewer and fewer cliff swallows were being hit by cars over the past 30 years, and further research showed that the ones who do meet their untimely ends have longer wingspans, on average, than the rest of the populations.  It might be that shorter wings make the birds more maneuverable, or maybe they’re just smartening up and staying away.

Evasive maneuvers!  From wired.com

In either case, that’s a system working and more evidence that some organisms can adapt rapidly to selective pressure, even when it’s unnaturally introduced by us.  That’s not a reason to continue our bad behavior, though.  For example, the buffed up Atlantic tomcod may be resistant to its surrounding toxins, but the things that eat it (like HUMANS) aren’t and can subsequently still get sick.  Plenty of other fish species in the Hudson have suffered.  Pest resistance obviously isn’t something we want to encourage, either.

Atlantis discovered! What, again?!

Holy crap, did you hear the news on Tuesday?  Atlantis, the largely apocryphal, long-lost sunken island first described in Plato’s dialogues (i.e. “stories”) as the doomed home of a highly advanced civilization circa 10,000 BC, has finally been discovered!  Off the coast of Brazil!  That’s not anywhere near Greece, so Plato couldn’t have possibly known about it, but hey!  It seems that two years ago a team of Brazilian scientists dredged up some granite about 900 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, which got them giddy, and now they’ve seen some bad-ass formations in the same place while tooling around in a submersible with their Japanese colleagues.  No artifacts, just rocks.  They think it’s remnants from when Africa and South America split apart 100 million years ago!  And this sounds like the home of a thriving human society… how?

Sounds more like just a rogue piece of South American continental crust.  Many islands, like Hawaii and Iceland, are basaltic in composition, as minerals in oceanic crust are denser and made up of elements like iron and magnesium, whereas the less dense continental crust (which rises higher partly for that reason) is granitic, consisting of elements such as oxygen and silicon.  Some larger islands like Greenland are granitic, as they’re just part of the continental shelf (the extended, lower elevation perimeter of a continent) that hasn’t been submerged.

Either way, they don’t sink!  Islands don’t just sit there and float around the seven seas, like we once thought the continents pushed through oceanic crust as they moved, as in early continental drift proposals.  A strange idea, akin to pushing a piece of paper through a wall, it was replaced in the 20th century by plate tectonics, that instead has both kinds of crust anchored to massive lithospheric plates that are pushed and pulled across the Earth’s surface by underlying differences in temperature.  The edges of some plates are actually sucked into the Earth at subduction zones, like where the Pacific Plate plunges below the South American Plate, giving rise in a roundabout way to the Andes Mountains.  That’s one way to get rid of a landmass, but you sure won’t find any remnants, and it’ll take a good goddamn long time.  The Pacific Plate, to continue the example, currently moves at a rate of about 3 inches per year.  Not exactly “a single day and night,” as Plato recounted.

Erosion can grind a peak down to size; but again, good goddamn long time.  Although if it’s rising faster than the erosion rate, like Mount Everest is, your sinking hypothesis is sunk.  Hawaii too keeps growing, thanks to its active volcanic origin.  Landslides can chip away at the sides, but that still won’t unmoor an island.  A far away landslide could cause a tsunami to wash away what’s on the surface, but one event, even such a powerful one,  won’t smooth a landmass down to sea level.  And if sea level itself rose to conceal something, my God, we’d fricking notice it everywhere!  Not only would there be historical records, but we could read it in the marine rock deposits left behind.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So if Atlantis is based on a probably fictional story the account of which bears no resemblance to this discovery, where did all these weird websites get their ideas?  How does someplace called “DVICE” go from this:

real atlantis

to this?

fake atlantis

Maybe because the FRIGGING SCIENTISTS BROUGHT IT UP THEMSELVES!

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks.”

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-scientists-brazilian-atlantis.html#jCp

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-scientists-brazilian-atlantis.html#jCp

In a much less reported following statement, Geology Service of Brazil director Roberto Ventura Santos continued, “We speak of Atlantis more in terms of symbolism.  Obviously, we don’t expect to find a lost city in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Come on.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  From Mauritia to the “Bimini Road” to the plains of Spain (at least that’s closer), media outlets desperate for eyeballs will use any chance to turn heads with woo-woo.  These geologists played into it for reasons that aren’t totally clear.  More exposure?  Funding?  To see something more colorful when they Google themselves?  Whatever the motivation, it’s kind of messed up and unsettling that a group of scientists would willingly court crazy to get people’s attention.  It’s not like there isn’t enough of it out there already without the good guys throwing them another bone to chew apart and spew back.

If it’s not anitmatter, what is “dark matter?” Good question.

We’re clear that dark matter is not antimatter, right?  It can’t be, or it would constantly annihilate any “regular” matter that wandered by, and we’d be able to detect the effects of those mini-catastrophes.  Instead it just sits there, unseen, not interacting with light and barely ever touching the normal kinds of stuff we know.  Hard to figure a guy out with just the impression his ass leaves on a couch cushion.  More on that later.  Antimatter we understand, partly because its existence was predicted mathematically by the legendary Paul Dirac in 1928, before it was ever observed “in the wild,” an insight for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.   Once the numbers came up, we actively went looking for it, and physicist Carl D. Anderson acquired the confirmation 4 years after, separately also earning his field’s top honor.

We came at dark matter differently, as instead of predicting it, the stuff took us by surprise.  Our conception of dark matter began largely as an ad hoc placeholder for a funny observation of the outermost edges of galaxies.  According to traditional orbital mechanics, stars way out there should move much slower than the ones closer in, as there isn’t as much mass acting on them.  While that’s true, those speeds didn’t trail off nearly as sharply as calculated, a puzzling discovery made by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, the namesake of the “Oort Cloud” of comets that envelop our solar system, in 1932 (see image below).  Fritz Zwicky made a more precise observation a year later when analyzing the rotation curve for the Coma cluster of galaxies, and determined there should be more than 100 times more mass in the farthest regions than was visible.  Zwicky decided there had to be unseen (unseeable?) matter out there gravitationally pulling those stars along.  That’s a pretty big assumption.  Could something else be at play?

Rotationcurve_3from asterisk.apod.com

In 1983, Israeli physicist Mordehai Milgrom wondered if maybe the calculated mass discrepancies exist because we don’t understand how Newton’s law of universal gravitation operates at great distances, so that it’s the equation that’s wrong, and there really is no need for “invisible matter.”  It wouldn’t be the first time Newton came under fire from advancing physics.  Does relativity ring a bell?   Since Milgrom proposed his Modified Newtonian Dynamics, though, dark matter has scored a significant win with the phenomenon of gravitational lensing.  If dark matter is massive enough to change the speeds of distant stars, than it should be able to bend light, as well.  The smearing of the galaxies in the below image is due to the bending of light as it passes through the Abell 1689 galaxy cluster, as observed with the Hubble Telescope.  Thing is, without dark matter,  there just isn’t enough mass to account for all that distortion.  There must be something we don’t see.  Observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation seem to further necessitate the presence of the mysterious material.

Grav. lensfrom wikipedia

So while we can now be pretty sure that dark matter is a real thing, we’re still unable to get much of a handle on it.  Most of it seems to be where we first noticed its effects, in enormous “halos” surrounding galaxies.  Recent research suggests however that it could be strung throughout all of space, and earthbound experiments are counting on picking out a few particles to further examine its nature.  The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) of the University of California at Berkeley made waves last month when they announced three possible dark matter signatures detected in 2007 and 2008.  The CDMS utilizes silicon and germanium crystals cooled to near absolute zero, and operates under the idea that on the rare occasion that a bit of dark matter does interact with regular matter, the displacement it causes in the crystal can be measured.  The whole apparatus is buried deep underground to minimize false positive detections.  Similar experiments using water have been used to detect neutrinos, as does the new COUPP-60 dark matter experiment.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Figuring out what dark matter is proves to be a lot more difficult than showing that it is.  In addition to terrestrial detectors, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station got some attention in early April when project scientists revealed they may have evidence that dark matter is mostly made of theoretical particles called neutralinos.  How did they make that determination?  With antimatter!  The new measurements show more positrons in cosmic rays than anticipated, which some speculate are produced from the collision of dark matter in deep space.  I guess the two things have hidden connections after all.

Okay, once and for all. What the hell is antimatter?

Well, it’s not dark matter.  I had that argument with a a co-worker whose father is a physics university professor, so he was sure he was right.  Don’t know where the miscommunication occurred.  Truth is, even though there’s almost 6 times as much dark matter as “ordinary” matter in the universe, it’s damn hard to figure out, as it only interacts gravitationally.  Light passes right through it, hence the name.  The “antimatter” moniker is also beautifully descriptive, but this time tells us exactly what the stuff is.  It interacts with light and everything else like usual, it just happens to have the exact opposite charge.  Antiprotons are the same mass as protons, but with a negative charge; antielectrons (better known as “positrons”)… well, I’ll let you guess.  While “ordinary” guys like you and me are scarily underrepresented next to dark matter, there isn’t much antimatter kicking around these days.  The reasons why are simple and yet puzzling.

The main reason is ANNIHILATION!  FUCK yeah!  When a particle and its corresponding antiparticle meet, E = mc² takes over and the bits are transformed explosively into energy, often in the form of photons.  Why this happens is a little murky, but you can kind of imagine that particles want to have as little mass as possible, and photons have zero mass.  Non-matched particles can’t annihilate each other because something wouldn’t be conserved, like spin or charge.  The deadly doppelgangers fit just right.

The opposite can actually occur through a process called “pair production,” when a high energy photon can spontaneously turn into an electron and a positron.  Holy shit!  Being in close proximity to each other, the two particles usually, you guessed it, ANNIHILATE each other and exit as quickly as they entered, but when the pair is produced near the event horizon of a black hole, sometimes the antiparticle will “fall in” while the other one flies off into space and sticks around, a phenomenon called Hawking radiation.  Freaky!

All right, so if matter and antimatter annihilate each other as soon as they come in contact, maybe the question isn’t “where’s all the antimatter,” but why is there… anything at all?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that if both kinds of matter exist, equal amounts of each would have been created?  That’s what the standard model of particle physics predicts.  So why wasn’t there a Big Boom that blew all our matter into energy?  Maybe the antimatter is still out there, but it’s hiding.  There can’t be large chunks of it in the observable universe, or we’d be able to notice the high energy photons from the annihilation at the “boundary” with all the regular matter.  It could be beyond the observable range, so far away that the light from those regions hasn’t yet reached the Earth, but why would it all be sequestered off in a corner somewhere?

If, alternatively, more matter than antimatter was created at the beginning of the universe, there must be fundamental differences between the two things we don’t yet understand.  Current experiments trying to find out if antimatter reacts differently to gravity or if the magnitudes of its magnetic charges deviate from those of normal matter at all could set us on the path to provide a backdoor reason for why regular matter eked out its counterpart.

antimatter-img1

This universe ain’t big enough for the both of us.  Image from physicscentral.com

Even though there isn’t much antimatter, more is produced every day!  Cosmic rays smashing into the atmosphere create some through pair production.  Coming from the other side, positrons are also products of certain kinds of radioactive decay.  We take advantage of this process with Positron Emission Tomography, the PET scan that produces three dimensional images of functional processes in the body.  And if that’s not enough, we can even whip some up ourselves!  Antimatter is a not uncommon product of particle accelerators, and the wizards at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have even been able to create and isolate entire hydrogen atoms of the stuff!

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Given the tremendous amounts of energy released during matter-antimatter reactions, could we use those antiparticles for spaceship fuel or even weapons?  Well, you’d have to hold it first, and even with the best vacuums in the world, those antihydrogens don’t last very long before they find a partner to shuffle off this earthly coil with.  And you’d need A LOT of it.  According to CERN senior physicist John Eades in a 2012 Skeptical Inquirer article, if all the antiprotons EVER produced at the laboratory over its near 60 years of operation were somehow bottled and used as an energy source… it would power a sixty-watt light bulb for eight or nine minutes.  Not exactly enough to push us to the stars.  Making bombs would be an even worse proposition.  At the current viable bottling rate, you could muster enough antiprotons to make a hydrogen bomb-sized explosion in just about 10,000 times the age of the universe.

While we have a pretty good idea what antimatter is, why we don’t see much of it is an ongoing mystery.  The paltry particles we’re able to produce won’t likely even the scales anytime soon.

April 2013 Revisit: Super Coelacanths from Outer Space… or Something

Some quick hits before the main event.

Way back in February WDTM? touched on the idea of bacterial antibiotic resistance, what it means to people, and why it’s spreading.  As it turns out, it means something to sea life too, as the resistant strains produced by our irresponsible behavior are finding their way into the oceans and sickening the animals there, as reported in the May issue of Scientific American.  The ugly cycle can complete if we eat seafood tainted with the superbugs or when oceangoing people develop hard to treat infections if wounded.  Circle of life, I guess.

In a meeting this month of the American Physical Society, Shawn Bishop, of the Technical University of Munich, Germany, described preliminary research of new forensic techniques to confirm past offenses of supernovae trying to gun us down.  He was able to identify iron-60, an isotope with a half life too short for any from the birth of our solar system to still be present on Earth, in fossilized ocean-dwelling bacteria that use iron-rich magnetite to navigate.  Bishop found high concentrations in the bacteria from about 2.2 million years ago, leading other researchers to suggest a known supernova from this time period in the Scorpius-Centaurus stellar association as the culprit.  Busted.  Fortunately, at over 400 light years away, the perp wasn’t near enough to give as both barrels or, as Shawn himself put it, “That we’re here talking about it means it wasn’t too close.”

If you and I aren’t the pinnacles of evolution, then what about the “living fossils” that haven’t changed for ages?  They must be doing something right.  Check that, they are still changing.  A fish called the coelacanth is perhaps the most famous example, as it was only rediscovered in the waters off South Africa in 1938, after being thought long-extinct.  As seen in April’s issue of Nature, the prehistoric beast’s genome has now been fully sequenced and it reveals that while many of its genes have been slow to change, perhaps due to a lack of selective pressure deep in the ocean where it lives, a large number of non-coding parts seem to be moving around.  Although the role of these bits in shaping physiology is not really clear, we now see that even after 4 billion years of evolutionary success, the famous fish still isn’t finished.

coelacanthThe flashback of the seven seas, via oceana.org

And now the unpleasant elephant in the room.  Climate change is real.  What can we do about it?  It’ll be a lot more difficult than fixing the ozone hole, and cooperative agreements with other nations may not be enough.  Lowering emissions and reforestation likely won’t turn the tide.  We’ll have to develop ways to recapture carbon dioxide as it’s produced.  It would be nice to be able to remove it from the atmosphere and reuse it, but we may have to settle for sequestering carbon dioxide deep underground in geologic formations.  New technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere continue to be pioneered, but they may never be economically feasible.  Some in the past have suggested the stimulation of plankton growth to naturally help, but recent volcanic observations suggest that seeding the ocean with iron won’t get the job done.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Unfortunately, in the near term, we may have to be ready to adapt to climate change before it can be completely counteracted.  We’ll have to develop engineering solutions to deal with floods and superstorms, and agricultural innovations to continue food production.  Don’t expect our “successful evolution” to come to the rescue;  people are not birds or sea urchins.  The cost of such measures is sure to be enormous.  As we deal with the new world we’ve precipitated, perhaps the best lesson is that future consequences need to be considered for all our actions.  We don’t need another global shift while we’re cleaning up the mess we already have.

A Neophyte Visits NECSS

With an extra Monday to play with this month, I’ve decided to do two separate “Revisit” posts.  The usual  look back will happen on the 29th.  This entry focuses on recounting a real life, three dimensional event, as I attended the 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in Manhattan on April 6th.  NECSS is co-promoted by the New England Skeptical Society, founded in 1996, and the New York City Skeptics, a group not much older than the conference itself.  The first NECSS took place in 2009 and boasted 400 attendees, a number that has only grown, if my shaky estimation skills can be trusted.  While the lectures span an entire weekend, 2013 was the second year in a row that I could only make the Saturday session, as other social engagements unfortunately overlapped.  I missed the Sunday in 2012 because… well, I had only found out about the damn thing shortly before it was to occur and I had no idea what I was getting into.  That and I’d have been in the doghouse had I completely blown my girlfriend off to dork out for two days straight.

When that day concluded last year, I was kind of shaken.  The legendary conjurer and debunker of flim-flam, James “The Amazing” Randi had given the final talk of the afternoon, concerning his unequivocal expose of despicable televangelist Peter Popoff, a tale recounted in Randi’s famous tome The Faith Healers.  Tears welled in his eyes as he told the stories of disabled children who, looking to be made well by his divine guidance, left Popoff’s revivals no healthier (but more destitute), as the money-hungry swindlers cackled over the radio connections they used to pump the crowd for seemingly impossible to attain information about their ailments.  I too became misty, but the sadness turned to revulsion when Randi revealed that despite his irrefutable recordings of Popoff and his crew hoaxing his revelatory, “God given ability,” the charlatan was experiencing an inexplicable resurgence in popularity.  Randi implored that we all band together to combat such debilitating deceit, and I was inspired to agree.  But what could I do?  I carried that question with me all year, and into the 2013 edition of NECSS.

necss

The event’s activities had expanded since 2012 to include a series of workshops the day before the conference proper.  The first was led by Julia Galef, still a member of the New York City Skeptics board of directors in addition to her position as President of the San Francisco based Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), who offered a helpful presentation on her work with the Center and their goals.  She gave several suggestions on how to keep your reason about you during a discussion, such as dissociating yourself from your argument so as to not react defensively, and she further explained how CFAR teaches these skills through seminars.  When Julia finished, I wanted to ask what kind of people signed up for these sessions, but at least two others beat me to the punch, amidst many more thoughtful queries.  I guess we’re a boisterous bunch.  The answer was not unexpected; that the participants were usually leaning toward those tendencies already.  While it’s nice to get us all on the same page and sharpen our own skills, I think we all left considering how to bring in the people who could most benefit from those techniques.

NECSS officially began on Saturday morning with a presentation by physicist Leonard Mlodinow related to his most recent book, Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.  Mlodinow’s prior popular works include a joint venture with Stephen Hawking, and another with Deepak Chopra of all people, whom Leonard playfully apologized to while looking skyward when experiencing technical difficulties with his talk.  My personal highlight here was the playing of the infamous Led Zeppelin SATANIC BACKWARD SPEAK~!  I had never actually heard it, so it just sounded like gibberish until the “lyrics” that some nutbar pulled out of the aether were shown alongside the sounds.  Suddenly, I couldn’t NOT hear them!  We’re designed to find patterns, not ignore them!  Again, another helpful lesson that drives home how fallible we all are, partly due to our biology, but one still likely destined to not reach beyond the already sympathetic audience.

During the break for lunch, I perused tables set up outside the auditorium that were helmed by groups such as the Center for Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.  There seemed to be at least twice as many in 2012.  Maybe it was a smaller room then.  More psychological effects.  I spoke to the kind gentleman at the New York City Skeptics table and asked what sort of things the organization was involved in.  He told me of lectures and meet-ups of fellow skeptics (often involving alcohol).  I’m a fan of the creature myself, so that’s cool, but not exactly what I was looking for.  “Do you guys do any kind of community outreach?”  I think he was unsure of what I wanted him to say.  I’m unsure of what I expected.  Steven Novella, neurologist and prime mover of the wildly popular and hilarious Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, was also asking the poor guy if anyone had found out the Wi-Fi password yet.  More technical problems.  Not wanting to distract him from his actual work, and realizing that we had probably reached an impasse anyway, I ceased to pursue the issue.

It seemed to me the most important points were raised in a panel discussion that included Michael Shermer, Editor-In-Chief of Skeptic Magazine, Mariette DiChristina, who holds a similar position at Scientific American, and Cat Bohannan, who studies how narrative influences cognition at Columbia University.  Led by the “Science Babe,” Deborah Berebichez, the group discussed how people tend to (wrongly) be more influenced by stories rather than data, and how the “other side” uses that to great effect while the good guys can sometimes overlook such a utility.  Debbie’s frustration was shared by everyone as she noted how many skeptics struggle to make ends meet while Deepak Chopra rakes in millions (Deepak took a beating this day).  Another member of the panel, Nathalie Molina Niño, suggested abandoning the war metaphors that we “take into battle” with us, to lessen the appearance of confrontation.  We’re all on the same side in wanting to figure out the truth, after all, we just approach it (not “attack” it) from different angles.  Shermer remarked that offering the story of how you yourself came to skepticism can often elicit empathy from suspicious adversaries listeners.  While some think the facts should speak for themselves and almost see such “framing” and storytelling tactics as cheating, I wonder if using the system against itself isn’t the worst idea in the world.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So that’s my story.  My 2013 NECSS experience was even more enjoyable than the previous year’s, and I got a further glimpse at just how hard the volunteers and everyone involved work to make this happen.  It’s clear by the crowd size and the technical problems however that as a group, we skeptically minded folks who ask for evidence of everything are still a niche group (though I guess even the most prestigious academic conferences still experience computer glitches, so maybe that point’s moot).  But the crowds do indeed seem to be growing and everyone’s enthusiasm was undeniable.  I witnessed how brilliant people are doing great things, but left still contemplating just how it is we can reach the folks outside our little circle.  Are these incremental gains enough?  Is there a way to make bigger breakthroughs?  I guess those are questions everyone else has been carrying with them forever, and ones we’ll all likely continue to shoulder for years to come.

“They needed a study for that?!” Common Sense Ideas Are the Ones Most in Need of Testing

Go to the WDTM? Facebook page and take a gander at the cover photo.  There’s a quote (sort of) from Thomas Henry Huxley that states, “Science is simply common sense at its best.”  What he really said is probably closer to “science is nothing but trained and organized common sense.”  A lot of people, scientists in particular, would disagree with that.  Einstein (maybe) said, “Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.”  Albert and others might argue that common sense, defined by some as “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study,” is the very thing that science strives to correct, as anecdotes can’t compare to the predictive power of statistics.  Then again, Merriam-Webster calls common sense “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”  A considered conclusion achieved through observation.  Sounds like science to me.  So who’s right?  Are the two ideas compatible or mutually exclusive?  If we already have a common sense idea about something, what’s the point in further studying it?

It’s neat that Huxley, often called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his aggressive defense of natural selection to anyone who would listen (and more importantly, to those who didn’t want to), is mired in this divide, as the theory of evolution itself is a prime example of how common sense can shift.  Before descent was discovered, it was only too obvious that living things have always existed in their current forms.  I mean, have you ever seen a turtle turn into a gopher?  Chickens have baby chickens, right, not baby cows?  Now, even ignoring genetic data, the evidence for evolution seems as plain as the nose on your face.  Or the similarities of animal skeletal structure.  Or the fossil record.  Or antibiotic resistant bacteria.

So it’s of the utmost importance to test everything, even the ideas that seem self-evident on first blush.  Especially those.  Some of the deepest truths of the universe are so violently counter-intuitive it may seem wondrous that we ever arrived at them.  It’s clear from our everyday experience that the Earth is stationary and flat, and that the Sun revolves around us.  You can watch it rise and set, for Christ’s sake!  And the deeper our understanding gets, the less capable our hunter/gatherer neural networks are of truly fathoming reality.  We’re built to know that if a rabbit starts running from Point A to Point B, we can intercept it in-between for a tasty snack.  It doesn’t disappear from one place and reappear in another.  Like electrons do.  Our built-in common sense simply can’t equip us for cerebral situations beyond mere survival, because there’s never been an evolutionary advantage to do so.

common-sense

The learned common sense passed down by our parents, or gleaned throughout our own lives, is easier to analyze.  If it seems like most of such ideas do hold up to critical scrutiny, then what’s the point?  Looking through LiveScience’s recently published list of “The 10 Most Obvious Science Findings” might leave you wondering who would dispute that exercise is good for you or that marijuana impairs driving performance, but they’re out there.  And you know what?  We’re better for it.  Public safety issues and possible policy decisions shouldn’t be the subject of simple “just so” stories.  Common knowledge also once held that plenty of red meat is good for you and that smoking’s harmless.  While much of traditional wisdom may end up vindicated in the end, it’s worth it to weed out the stinkers.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

I tend to fall on Huxley’s side, but I’ll even take it a step below organization and training.  At its heart, science is just a guy saying “show me.”  This pill lowers cholesterol with fewer side effects?  Show me the numbers.  Bats can use sound waves to detect prey?  Show me how.  It should go without saying that you need to see the goods before you accept anything, rather than just taking someone’s word for it.  If you wouldn’t buy a used vehicle without a Carfax, you shouldn’t buy into an idea without evidence.  That’s just common sense.

Next Thing You Know, They’ll Take My Thoughts Away: Can fMRI Read Your Mind?

Big Brother is watching you.  As cameras and information tracking become more ubiquitous in society, our definitions and expectations of privacy must necessarily adjust.  I mean, you could just drop off the grid, but then you wouldn’t get Facebook ads for that callous removal device you so desperately need.  How did they figure that out, anyway?  It may seem eerie and borderline telepathic, but the intrusive suggestions would probably stop if you could keep from Googling “ugly foot skin” every day (it’s okay; no judgment here).  But hell, then maybe they’ll just read your mind for real!  The possible application of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to consumer research has been investigated since at least 2007, and a flurry of recent studies on the emerging method have shown its powerful and perhaps frightening ability to peer into our minds and deduce our thoughts.  Has technology breached the final Orwell firewall, or can we tune out the transcranial surveillance?

Let’s first figure out what fMRI is and what it actually does.  Magnetic resonance imaging, a technique made possible by the positive charge of the protons in our bodies’ hydrogen atoms, is typically used to identify abnormal tissue (such as tumors) and holds great advantage over X-rays and CT scans in both resolution and safety.  While traditional MRI can be focused on any particular part of the body, the “functional” version is trained solely on the brain, and is so named because it uses observations of blood flow therein to determine which parts are active at a given time, although that connection isn’t exactly straightforward.  Still, there are some startling, tangible test successes that are hard to argue away.

In 2008, Jack Gallant and his team from the University of California at Berkeley mapped the brains of subjects while they viewed random images from a set database.  Armed with this blueprint, computer programs were then tasked with matching the picture to the neuronal activity when the subjects were shown the photos again.  The program didn’t always pick right, but it could get at least the basic structure down and choose similar photos.

brain-images-fmriimage courtesy of singularityhub.com

Spooky, huh?

A similar study by the same group in 2011, this time with video, took it a step further.  After building a brain “dictionary” with the help of hours of clips, the computer model was told to reconstruct from scratch what the subjects saw as they were shown random, never-before-used youtube videos.  Check out the results for yourself and see how well they did.  If that’s not invasive enough for you, an experiment from late last year even applies the same kind of technique to reading people’s dreams.

If advertisers try to utilize fMRI, can the long arm of the law be far behind? In a paper published this month, Anthony Wagner and his team describe how they used digital cameras to take 45,000 pictures of a person’s life over a several week period.  When shown their own photos and those of the other participants while under the watchful eye of the fMRI, researchers were able to distinguish whether the person remembered the image 91% of the time, effectively confirming what they had done in the past.  Is there hope such a procedure could be used in criminal cases to place someone at the scene of a crime, or to show a suspect has knowledge only the particular perpetrator could have?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Before you break out the tinfoil hat and line your living room with lead, look at what all those “mind-reading” examples have in common.  The people who had their thoughts pinched had to first submit to having their brains observed during a certain activity so that the computer programs would know what to look for in the future.  You can’t zap the memories out of someone’s head without them first lying still in a big metal tube for long periods of time.  That’s a little easier to avoid than Facebook.

But what if the court orders it!  Present-day polygraphs are inadmissible evidence in the U.S., and the forecast for fMRI lie-detection doesn’t seem any better.  Anthony Wagner’s further studies show that if a person tries to fool the system by intentionally thinking a familiar scene is foreign (and vice versa), an examiner is no more likely than chance to discern the truth.  The Fifth Amendment really is inalienable!

While we continue to see that fMRI technology can be used to guess general conditions, as with a new study that allows observers to know when a person is in pain, your particular thoughts and memories remain off limits for the time being.  Unless of course you just cant resist sticking your head in that tube.

What’s the Big Deal About Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)?

It’s a topic that continues to make headlines and draw visceral reactions.  California’s much discussed Prop 37, a measure meant to require retailers and food companies to label products made with genetically modified ingredients, was dealt a high profile defeat in November of last year.  Similar legislation has failed to pass in other states, though Oregon currently bans the production and import of genetically modified salmon.  Why the concern?  While GMO companies like Monsanto have undeniably done some shady business dealings, does that affect the safety of the products or the production methods?  Are the doubts rooted in science or sentiment?

The first commercially sold genetically modified food, a tomato that takes longer to ripen after picking, hit the market in 1994.  A year later, several food products that were resistant to herbicides or disease joined them.  In the year 2000, scientists were able to increase the nutritional content of a food for the first time, with the creation of golden rice, although its production has been (unnecessarily?) delayed until just now.  Overall though, the practice has been hugely successful, as about 85% of American corn and as much as 91% of soybeans are derived from genetically modified crops.  In fact, the Grocery Manufacturing Association estimates that 70% of items in American food stores contain genetically modified organisms. Betcha didn’t even know.

But really, if you get right down to it, our food crops have been genetically modified since Roman times, and more scientifically since the 1700′s.  The process of selective breeding, through which particular animal and plant individuals are bred to emphasize specific traits, is so ubiquitous that many of our most important crops, including wheat, rice and corn, wouldn’t exist in their current forms without it.  Not to mention broccoli, cauliflower, bananas, ad infinitum.  We’ve been deliberately altering the course of animal and plant evolution for centuries, but few people bat an eye when it’s done in a field.  Why the outcry when it’s done in a lab?

manipulateWell that’s not deliberately manipulative and meant to elicit negative emotions at all, is it?  Image with an agenda from nutritiondenver.com

The answer may lie in the language of GMO opponents, who often refer to the products as “Frankenstein food.”  Marry Shelley wrote her famous tome in 1818, an early example of the European Romantic era, a time characterized by reactionary thought against the Industrial Revolution and the increasing rationalization of nature.  Many balked at recent scientific advances, thinking that man had decided to play God, a theme no more evident than in the novel where a modern Prometheus creates his own man.  Of course science and progress has continued since then, and such concerns almost seem silly in hindsight.  How will our GMO mania appear to our descendants in two hundred years?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

We shouldn’t let knee-jerk reactions and queasy feelings dictate progress and public policy.  There are certainly issues with genetically modified crops that need to be monitored, such as the possible hastening of antibiotic resistance and the introduction of allergens to other foods, but that’s why better regulation and testing from the Food and Drug Administration is needed, rather than labels meant to scare people away from already approved products.

It also goes to show that the American right wing doesn’t hold a monopoly on anti-science ideas, as Chris Mooney and others have suggested.  Unfounded objections from Greenpeace and similar organizations illuminate that U.S. liberals can be just as hard-headed and fact-evasive in certain situations.  See also the opposition to nuclear power.