Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nazi coins from the future

In the latest from the "News Stories That Make Me Want To Take Ockham's Razor And Slit My Wrists With It," we have a claim about an odd coin allegedly found near a construction site in Mexico.

First, the facts of the situation, insofar as I could find out.

The coin is highly weathered, and has some phrases in both German and Spanish.  It says "Nueva Alemania" ("New Germany," in Spanish) and "Alle in einer Nation" (German for "all in one nation").  There's a swastika on one side and the Iron Cross on the other, and a blurred date ending in "39."  (If you want to see a video that includes shots of the coin, there's a clip at The Daily Star showing it and its finder, Diego Aviles.)

So that's the claim.  Now let's see which of the three possible explanations proffered to account for it makes the most sense to you:
  1. It's a fake.
  2. It's an obscure coin, dating from the late 1930s, and could be potentially valuable as a historical artifact.
  3. The date actually reads "2039," so it's a coin from 21 years in the future, at which point a Nazi state will rule Mexico if not the rest of the world, except that one of the future Nazis time-slipped backwards and dropped the coin, only to be found by Aviles.  Since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Nazis have been hiding out in Antarctica, from which they will burst out some time between now and 2039, to initiate World War III and take over the entire world.
Yes, apparently there are people who think that explanation #3 is spot-on.  So it's like someone reworded Ockham's Razor to read, "Of competing explanations that account for all of the known facts, the most likely one is the one that requires 5,293 ad-hoc assumptions, breaking every known law of physics, and pretzel logic that only someone with the IQ of a peach pit could think sounded plausible."

But maybe I'm being a little uncharitable, because there are people who add to #3 some bizarre bullshit about it having to do with the "Mandela effect" and parallel universes and alternate realities.

Myself, I'm perfectly satisfied when I can explain things using the regular old reality.  But that's just me.

NOTE: Not the coin they found.  This one's a real Nazi coin.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Over at Mysterious Universe (the first link provided above), Sequoyah Kennedy does a pretty thorough job of debunking the whole thing, ending with the following tongue-in-cheek comment that rivals this post for snark:
Maybe the only explanation is that the Antarctic Nazis develop time travel in the near future, go back in time to the 1930’s, and try to convince the Mexican government to side with them in WWII by giving them a commemorative coin, which won’t work, because that’s a ridiculous and insulting way to forge an alliance.  The commemorative future coin will then be thrown away and left to sit in the dirt until it’s unearthed in 2018.  It’s the only rational explanation, really.
Indeed.  And we should also take into account that the story was broken in The Daily Star, which is the only media source I know that rivals The Daily Mail Fail for sheer volume of nonsense.

So the coin may well exist, but I'm putting my money on "fakery."  Even the idea that it's a real coin from the 1930s doesn't bear much scrutiny, because Mexico and Germany weren't on the same side in World War II, so it'd be pretty bizarre to have some kind of Mexican Nazi currency lying around.

Of course, when the Stormtroopers come roaring out of their secret bases in Antarctica and Cancun, I suppose I'll have to eat my words.  Occupational hazard of what I do.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Food vibrations

Apparently, Australia being nonexistent and people selling homeopathic black holes weren't enough, so a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "iTOVi," which sells "nutritional scanners."

The website tells us that the scanner is designed to "provide a list of top oils and supplements your body has a response to."  How, you might ask?  Well, here's their explanation:
Our portable nutrition scanner allows you and your clients to receive personalized product responses at any time of day!  How? The  iTOVi scanner uses innovative and institutionally recognized technology to measure the body’s response to electronic frequencies.  The scanner records the body’s reaction to these frequencies and matches the user with products that have complimentary frequencies.
So we're on thin ice already, but it gets a lot thinner.  I went to the page on "technology" -- call me a doubter, but I always want to know how things work.  And I wasn't disappointed.  We're told that everything, biological and non-biological, vibrates at a particular frequency, including "supplements and essential oils."  The machine figures out your vibration with a technique that should sound vaguely familiar:
During an iTOVi scan the device passes small electrical currents through the skin to measure the body’s resistance to frequencies, each of which is the natural energy signature of various supplements and oils.  The passing of electrical frequencies induces a measurable response from the body which is then recorded and shown in the iTOVi report.
If you're thinking, "but... isn't that how a polygraph machine works?", you're spot-on.  Polygraph machines -- which, to be up front, are of dubious use in telling whether people are lying -- measure small changes in skin conductivity, which occur primarily because of the amount of sweat a person has on their skin.  Sweat, being weakly saline, is quite a good conductor; and since the theory is that a person would sweat more under conditions of emotional stress (such as lying), changes in skin conductivity could give interrogators a clue about someone's veracity.

A polygraph machine [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You may have noticed that nothing in the preceding paragraph mentions "frequencies."  That doesn't stop the iTOVi people, who claim that these conductivity changes are a clue to the body's "frequency," and they derive one from the other by means of an unspecified algorithm.  We're never given any specifics -- not even the number of Hertz we all should be shooting for.

Most of the places that blather on about "frequencies" (and "energies" and "vibrations" and "resonance") seem to think that the higher the frequency the better.  I did some digging and found the website "Vibrational Frequency 101," which I read, at great cost to the cells in my prefrontal cortex, which were screaming in agony by paragraph three.  It features passages like the following:
First off, we are not just our physical body {aka matter}. We are all made up of energy – all matter is – and bound together by an energy field. We’re talking atoms, protons, and neutrons…  This is science, people! 
So, everything vibrates with an energy. And, the higher the energy, the higher the frequency.  Positive feelings and thoughts evoke a higher frequency vs. negative feelings and thoughts evoke a lower frequency. 
The energy we’re made up of connects us to all living things and the universe.  When you really break it down, we are all just balls of energy walking the planet. 
Our energy is blocked when we experience negativity, fear, or you guessed it… unhealthy substances.  Think about it.  When you consume really unhealthy food, alcohol, or drugs, doesn’t your energy feel low, or dull or blocked?  Low vibrations mean a dampened energy field. It also means a disconnection to other things, the universe, and ourselves...  Plus, a constant negative state can lead to sickness and disease in the body.
For example, "fresh organic vegetables" supposedly have "high vibrations," while deep-fried food has "low vibrations."

Look.  You can say "this is science, people!" and "institutionally recognized technology" all day long, but until you can show me, using an oscilloscope, that kale is vibrating at 14,500 Hertz and KFC is vibrating at 7 Hertz, I'm calling bullshit.  Besides, if our food really is vibrating, shouldn't we be able to hear it?  You know, like kale emits this high-pitched whistle, and KFC a low, sad buzz, or something?  But despite listening carefully to my bowl of oatmeal this morning, I heard nothing but my wife sighing in resignation at her husband doing yet another ridiculous thing in the name of scientific research, and my dog wagging his tail, the latter presumably figuring that if I was doing something weird with my food, maybe it meant he was going to get some.

In short: the entire claim is nonsense.  You, and your organs, do have a natural (or resonant) frequency, because everything with mass does.  (Think of the natural swing rate of a kid on a swingset -- it's hard-to-impossible to make the swing oscillate at any other frequency.)  But all this means is that if your body is shaken at that frequency, it'll make (for example) your spleen vibrate, which sounds painful.  It has nothing to do with "feelings" or "negativity" or, for fuck's sake, "essential oils."

And, in fact, if you really believe that higher frequencies are better for you, let's run this experiment.  You listen to a piccolo playing a high D at full volume for an hour, and I'll listen to a cello playing a low note.  Let's see who comes away from the experience with a headache.

So about iTOVi: save your money.  The whole claim is nonsense, as you might figure out if you see the notorious disclaimer on their page, "This device is not meant to treat, cure, or diagnose any illness, nor should it be construed as medical advice."  Which, as always, is a good indicator that what it's proposing is horseshit.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Diluted nonsense

Every time I think homeopathy can't get more ridiculous, I turn out to be wrong.

I thought they'd plunged to the bottom of the Crazy Barrel with their announcement of a remedy called "homeopathic water."  This is, unfortunately, exactly what it sounds like.  It's water diluted with water, then shaken up, then diluted again and again.

With water.

So I thought, "This is it.  It can't get any loonier than that."

I was very, very wrong, and found out the depth of my mistake at Frank van der Kooy's site Complementary Medicine -- Exposing Academic Charlatans, wherein we find out that watering water down with water is far from the nuttiest thing the homeopaths make "remedies" from.

Here are a few things that van der Kooy found out form the basis of a homeopathic remedy:
  1. Black holes.  Yes, I mean the astronomical object, and yes, I'm serious.  An amateur astronomer put a vial of alcohol on a telescope aimed at the location of Cygnus X-1, the first black hole to be discovered.  My guess is that said astronomer had consumed a good bit of the alcohol first, and that's how he got the idea.  But after the vial had sat there for a while, and gotten saturated with the Essence of Black Hole, it was diluted to "30C" (known to the rest of us as one part in ten to the thirtieth power).  The homeopaths say if you consume it, it causes you to have a "drawing inward" sensation (because, I'm guessing, black holes pull stuff in).  One person who tested it said it felt like her teeth were being pulled backwards into her head.  Why this is supposed to be a good thing, I have no idea.
  2. Vacuum.  I'm not talking about the machine, I'm talking about the physical phenomenon.  I don't have a clue how you would mix a vacuum in water, nor what "diluting a vacuum" even means.  The "practitioner," however, says it's really good for treating the flu.
  3. The note "F."  Why F and not C# or Ab or something, I'm not sure, but apparently this is made by playing the note F at some water, then diluting it a bunch.  After that, it's good as a "tranquilizer" and "cardiac regulator."
  4. The south pole of a magnet.  Again, I'm not sure what's special about the south pole, but if you somehow introduce south-poliness into some water, you can use it to treat frostbite, hernia, dislocations, ingrown toenails, and "levitation."  (I feel obliged at this point to state again for the record that I'm not making this up.)
  5. Dog shit.  Supposedly, consuming diluted dog shit helps you get over feelings of self-disgust, which you would definitely need if you're consuming diluted dog shit.  It also helps if you dream about dogs, or "feel like your arms and legs are getting shorter," which I didn't know was even a thing.
  6. The Berlin Wall.  A remedy made from a chunk of the Wall -- and not to beat this point to death, but the Wall piece was shaken up in water and diluted a gazillion times -- is good for treating despair.  I could use some right now, because after reading about how many people believe this kind of thing works, I'm inclined to agree with Professor Farnsworth.

Van der Kooy has other examples, and some really amusing commentary, so I urge you to check out his website, as long as you don't mind further declines in your opinion about the general intelligence of the human species.

Once again, I'm struck not by people coming up with this nonsense -- because selling nonsense to make money has been a pastime of humans for a long, long time.  What gets me is that apparently people read this stuff, and don't have the response that I did, which is to snort derisively and say, "You have got to be fucking kidding me."  Instead, they pull out their credit cards and start buying.

So here we are again, shaking our heads in utter bafflement.  At least I hope you are.  I hope you haven't read this and said, "What's he pissing and moaning for?  This all makes perfect sense."  If that was, in fact, your response, please don't tell me about it.  Now y'all will have to excuse me, because I'm going to go take my anti-despair Berlin Wall remedy, mixed well into a double scotch.  That might actually have some effect.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Sphere factor

When Flat-Earthers ("Flerfs") talk to Oblate-Spheroid-Earthers ("Sane People"), usually the topic comes up of "what about places that are experiencing night while we're experiencing day, and vice versa?"

I know that when I was in Malaysia three summers ago, it brought home the fact that we're on a spinning ball as vividly as anything could have.  Malaysia is exactly twelve hours different from upstate New York, so when I Skyped home with my wife, I was getting ready to go to dinner while she was getting ready to go to work.  Showing her a horizon with a sunset while she was showing me a horizon with a sunrise was a little surreal.

However, it should come as no surprise that the Flerfs have an answer to that, since they have an answer to damn near anything a rational person could come up with.  But their answer to the "opposite hemisphere" issue is positively inspired:

Australia doesn't exist.

That Australia is a figment of our collective imaginations was brought to my attention by a friend who, and the irony of this is not lost on me, lives in Australia.  My comment to her was that I wished she'd told me ages ago that she was nonexistent.  I mean, friends should own up about stuff like this, you know?  It was a little hurtful that all this time, I've been talking to someone imaginary, and I didn't even know it.

So I guess that means that kangaroos don't exist, either, which is kind of a shame.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as the Flerfs, the article I linked above has some explanations (if I can dignify them by that term) of what they think is going on, apropos of Australia.  Here are some especially inspired ones:
Everything you have ever heard about [Australia] was made up, and any pictures of it you have seen were faked by the government. 
I am sure you have even talked to people on the internet who claim to be from Australia. They are really secret government agents who are surfing the internet to enforce these false beliefs. 
We are not entirely sure why the government made up an imaginary continent, or why it is trying to convince the world that this continent is real, but we can tell you that we know for a fact that Australia doesn’t really exist.
Another person said that any Australians you happen to know are "computer-generated," and said the hoax has been going on for centuries, despite the fact that CGI kind of didn't exist in the 18th century:
Australia is not real. It’s a hoax, made for us to believe that Britain moved over their criminals to someplace. 
In reality, all these criminals were loaded off the ships into the waters, drowning before they could see land ever again. 
It’s a coverup for one of the greatest mass murders in history, made by one of the most prominent empires.
So that's kind of sinister.  But what about people who claim to have gone there, and seen the place, as advertised?  They've got a response for that, too:
[T]he ‘plane pilots’ are in on this secret.  Instead of flying you to Melbourne or Sydney, they fly you to islands close nearby ‘or in some cases, parts of South America, where they have cleared space and hired actors to act out as real Australians.
Well, okay, maybe Australia doesn't exist, but what about other countries in the region?  Does Papua-New Guinea exist?  I have to admit Birds of Paradise are weird enough that they could well be a hoax.

[Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But what about Indonesia?  And Japan?  And China?  I mean, they're all way closer, time-zone-wise, to Australia than they are to us.  Why have they singled out Australia?

Then there's Malaysia, which I can verify exists because as I mentioned earlier, I've been there.  (Actually, I stopped along the way in Hong Kong, but maybe that was secretly part of South America.  I wasn't there long enough to check.)  But given the fact that the flight back -- from Hong Kong to La Guardia Airport in New York City -- had me in the air for sixteen hours, I can say with some certainty that those two places are not located near each other.

Not that I'd expect any of this to be convincing to your average Flerf, who has long ago jettisoned anything like "evidence" as a road to understanding.  Me, I'm still wondering what to do about my imaginary and/or computer-generated Australian friend.  Given that she's the one who sent me the link, it's kind of rubbing my face in it, you know?  On the other hand, if she doesn't actually exist, I probably shouldn't worry about it.


This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Superior ignorance

I've written before on the topic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that we all tend to overestimate our own knowledge of a topic (parodied brilliantly by Garrison Keillor in his spot "News from Lake Woebegon" on Prairie Home Companion -- where "all of the children are above average").

A study released last week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology gives us another window into this unfortunate tendency of the human brain.  In the paper "Is Belief Superiority Justified by Superior Knowledge?", by Michael P. Hall and Kaitlin T. Raimi, we find out the rather frustrating corollary to the Dunning-Kruger effect: that the people who believe their opinions are superior actually tend to know less about the topic than the people who have a more modest view of their own correctness.

The authors write:
Individuals expressing belief superiority—the belief that one's views are superior to other viewpoints—perceive themselves as better informed about that topic, but no research has verified whether this perception is justified.  The present research examined whether people expressing belief superiority on four political issues demonstrated superior knowledge or superior knowledge-seeking behavior.  Despite perceiving themselves as more knowledgeable, knowledge assessments revealed that the belief superior exhibited the greatest gaps between their perceived and actual knowledge.  
The problem, of course, is that if you think your beliefs are superior, you're much more likely to go around trying to talk everyone into believing like you do.  If you really are more knowledgeable, that's at least justifiable; but the idea that the less informed you are, the more likely you are to proselytize, is alarming to say the least.

There is at least a somewhat encouraging piece to this study, which indicated that this tendency may be remediable:
When given the opportunity to pursue additional information in that domain, belief-superior individuals frequently favored agreeable over disagreeable information, but also indicated awareness of this bias.  Lastly, experimentally manipulated feedback about one's knowledge had some success in affecting belief superiority and resulting information-seeking behavior.  Specifically, when belief superiority is lowered, people attend to information they may have previously regarded as inferior.  Implications of unjustified belief superiority and biased information pursuit for political discourse are discussed.
So belief-superior people are more likely to fall for confirmation bias (which you'd expect), but if you can somehow punch a hole in the self-congratulation, those people will be more willing to listen to contrary viewpoints.

The problem remains of how to get people to admit that their beliefs are open to challenge.  I'm thinking in particular of Ken Ham, who in the infamous Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate on evolution and creationism, was asked what, if anything, could change his mind.  Nye had answered the question that a single piece of incontrovertible evidence is all it would take; Ham, on the other hand, said that nothing, nothing whatsoever, could alter his beliefs.

Which highlights brilliantly the difference between the scientific and religious view of the world.

So the difficulty is that counterfactual viewpoints are often well insulated from challenge, and the people who hold them resistant to considering even the slightest insinuation that they could be wrong.  I wrote last week about Donald Trump's unwillingness to admit he's wrong about anything, ever, even when presented with unarguable facts and data.  If that doesn't encapsulate the Dunning-Kruger attitude, and the Hall-Raimi corollary to it, I don't know what does.

Doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course.  After all, if I thought it was hopeless, I wouldn't be here on Skeptophilia six days a week.  The interesting part of the study by Hall and Raimi, however, is the suggestion that we might be going about it all wrong.  The way to fix wrong-headed thinking may not be to present the person with evidence, but to get someone to see that they could, in fact, be wrong in a more global sense.  This could open them up to considering other viewpoints, and ultimately, looking at the facts in a more skeptical, open-minded manner.

On the other hand, I still don't think there's much we can do about Ken Ham and Donald Trump.

This week's Featured Book on Skeptophilia:

This week I'm featuring a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Sagan, famous for his work on the series Cosmos, here addresses the topics of pseudoscience, skepticism, credulity, and why it matters -- even to laypeople.  Lucid, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Real vs. fake water

In further adventures of friends and loyal readers of Skeptophilia trying to induce me to do a skull-fracture-inducing faceplant, today we have: "Real Water."

I bet you thought you were fine drinking regular old tap water.  I know that's what I thought.  But little did I know that tap water (and other sorts of water) are "damaged."  Here's a direct quote from their website:
Most of the drinking water is stripped of valuable electrons, making the water acidic and creating free radicals. 
Free radicals steal electrons from the body’s cells.  This is called Free Radical Damage and it is the cause of many serious health conditions.  They operate much like rust on a car, zapping people from their life force.
So the claim, apparently, is, "the more electrons, the better."  This comes as a bit of a surprise, because when large amounts of electrons are contributed to someone's body all at once, this is called "being struck by lightning."  The result is called "electrocution," and frequently, "death."

But that doesn't stop the "Real Water" people, who tell us that they somehow put the missing electrons back in:
E2: Electron Energized Technology adds trillions and trillions of electrons.  Thus producing stable negative ionization.  Negative ions along with antioxidants act to neutralize free radicals.  They are more accepted by the body’s aquaporins.  Channels the usher in water and cellular nutrients for increased cellular hydration.
Like many woo-woo claims, this one has a few grains of truth.  Antioxidants do exist, and they do neutralize free radicals that (left unchecked) would oxidize organic compounds.  One of the most common free radicals in living systems is the peroxide ion (O2-), and we actually make three enzymes to deal with it -- catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase.  Given that peroxide ions and other free radicals would build up and kill us without them, it's a little unlikely that we'd have evolved just to sit around until the Real Water company came along to provide us with "alkalinized water" to deal with the problem.

We also get antioxidants in our food, especially vitamins C and E, and selenium.  However -- and this is important -- extensive studies have shown that taking supplements of any or all of these has no effect on the incidence of either cancer (often attributed to free radical damage) or degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.  So the whole antioxidant craze is a conglomeration of small amounts of actual science mixed with a heaping helping of hype and outright falsehood.

Don't be fooled by how harmless this looks.  It could be hosting free radicals.  Or evil spirits.  Or something.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then there's the aquaporin thing.  Those do exist, and in fact are critical for moving water into and out of cells (water can pass through cell membranes, but slowly).  However, there is absolutely no evidence that creating "stable negative ionization," or (as the site also claims) "structuring water," makes a difference with regards to how the body uses it.  If you don't believe me, humble biology teacher that I am, maybe you'll accept the word of Stephen Lower, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University:
Any uncertainty that the chemistry community may have about the nature and existence of water clusters is not apparently shared by the various "inventors" who have not only "discovered" these elusive creatures, but who claim findings that science has never even dreamed of!  These promoters have spun their half-baked crackpot chemistry into various watery nostrums that they say are essential to your health and able to cure whatever-ails-you.  These benificences are hawked to the more gullible of the general public, usually in the form of a "concentrate" that you can add to your drinking water— all for a $20-$50 charge on your credit card. 
Some of these hucksters claim to make the water into "clusters" that are larger, smaller, or hexagonal-shaped, allowing them to more readily promote "cellular hydration" and remove "toxins" from your body.

The fact is that none of these views has any significant support in the scientific communities of chemistry, biochemistry, or physiology, nor are they even considered worthy of debate.  The only places you are likely to see these views advocated are in literature (and on websites) intended to promote the sale of these products to consumers in the notoriously credulous "alternative" health and "dietary supplement" market.
And one last thing: "acid" doesn't mean "bad" and "alkaline," "good."  In fact, one of the major functions of your kidneys is to maintain your blood pH, and if that didn't work, you'd drop dead of blood acidosis every time you drank a glass of lemonade, which (at a pH of around 3) has 10,000 times the number of hydrogen ions per milliliter as tap water does.  If you are in any doubt as to how tightly this system is controlled, let me elaborate:
blood pH = 7.6: dead
blood pH = 7.5: blood alkalinosis -- lethargy, confusion, coma
blood pH = 7.4: healthy and happy
blood pH = 7.3: blood acidosis -- gasping for breath, rapid heartbeat, headache, nausea
blood pH = 7.2: dead
So even if "Real Water" could alkalinize your blood, the result would not be better health, or protecting you from rusting, or whatever the fuck it is they're claiming.

And at $36 (plus shipping and handling) for a twelve-pack of one-liter bottles, it's not cheap.  The bottom line: "Real Water" is primarily aimed at people with more money than sense.

Anyhow.  That's today's helping of pseudoscience.  Me, I'm going to go get a cup of plain old tap water, heated up, to which has been added ground up toxin-free all-natural free-radical-busting aura-protecting seeds from the sacred plant Coffea arabica.

Better known as coffee.


Each week (more often if I find something really cool) I'll post a link to a book that should be required reading for all skeptics.  This week I'll start with a classic: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  If you haven't read this one, you should rectify that error immediately!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The turning of the tides

It's tempting to think that conditions on Earth have always been like they are now.

On one level, we know they weren't.  When people picture the time of the dinosaurs, it usually comes along with images of swamps and ferns and rain forests.  (And volcanoes.  Most of the kids' books about dinosaurs illustrate them as living near erupting volcanoes, which seems like a poor choice of habitat.)

But the basics -- the air, water, soil, and so on -- we picture as static.  It's been the basis of hundreds of science fiction stories; people go back into the distant past, and although there are (depending on when exactly they went to) often giant animals who want to eat you, you have no problem breathing or finding food.

I had a neat hole punched in that perception last week when I read Peter D. Ward's book Out of Thin Air.


Ward is a paleontologist at the University of Washington, and his contention -- which is well-argued and supported by a wealth of evidence -- is that the oxygen content of the atmosphere has varied.  A lot.  It's at about 21% at sea level now, but hit a staggering low of 13% immediately after the Permian-Triassic extinction, comparable on today's Earth to being at an altitude of 12,500 feet (think the High Andes).  Humans time-traveling back then would have a seriously difficult time breathing, and life was probably confined to areas that were near sea level -- and those areas would be completely isolated from each other by higher ground in between where there was not enough oxygen to survive.

There were times when it was much higher, too.  Ward says in the late Carboniferous Era, the oxygen content suddenly spiked to around 30%, which explains why coal formation stopped; at 30% oxygen, dead plant matter will combust with little encouragement, resulting in little left behind to form coal seams.

If you'd like to find out more, I highly recommend Ward's book, which is not only an argument for the fluctuating-atmosphere model, but is a good overview of the major events in Earth's history.

Parasaurolophus skeleton [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I had another blow delivered to the static-Earth perception from a study that was published last week in Geophysical Research Letters, called "Is There a Tectonically Driven Super‐Tidal Cycle?", by Mattias Green, J. L. Molloy, H. S. Davies, and J. C. Duarte, which considered the possibility that even the tides haven't always been as they are today.

What their study did was to look at a model of the dispersal of tidal energy, and they found that when all the continents were joined into a single land mass (Pangaea), which last happened at the end of the Permian Era a little over 250 million years ago, it represented a tidal energy minimum.  This meant that the tides were smaller than today, and that the majority of the (single) ocean was effectively a stagnant pool of water, with little vertical mixing of nutrients.  Stagnant, low-nutrient, low-oxygen water generally has little biodiversity -- a few species that can tolerate such conditions do exceptionally well, but the rest die out.  So this could be yet another reason that the cataclysmic Permian-Triassic Extinction happened, in which (by some estimates) 90% of the species on Earth became extinct.

What the Green et al. study suggests is that we're near a tidal maximum.  As the press release about the study put it:
In the new study, scientists simulated the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates and changes in the resonance of ocean basins over millions of years. 
The new research suggests the Atlantic Ocean is currently resonant, causing the ocean’s tides to approach maximum energy levels.  Over the next 50 million years, tides in the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans will come closer to resonance and grow stronger.  In that time, Asia will split, creating a new ocean basin... 
In 100 million years, the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and a newly formed Pan-Asian Ocean will see higher resonance and stronger tides as well.  Australia will move north to join the lower half of Asia, as all the continents slowly begin to coalesce into a single landmass in the northern hemisphere... 
After 150 million years, tidal energy begins to decline as Earth’s landmasses form the next supercontinent and resonance declines.  In 250 million years, the new supercontinent will have formed, bringing in an age of low resonance, leading to low tidal energy and a largely quiet sea, according to the new research.
It's a little humbling to think about, isn't it?  The processes that shape the continents, drive the tides, control the chemistry of the atmosphere, will keep chugging along long after we're a paleontological footnote in the textbooks of our far distant descendants.  It's not that what we're doing now isn't critical; in the short term, the out-of-control fossil fuel burning is doing things to our atmosphere that will certainly cause us grievous harm, not to mention the short-sighted pollution of the very resources we depend on.

But if we do succeed in wiping ourselves out, which lately has seemed increasingly likely, the processes that govern the Earth will keep on going without us.  So will natural selection; the survivors of the current mass extinction will evolve into other "forms most beautiful and most wonderful," as Darwin put it in The Origin of Species.

Not that this will be much consolation to us, of course.  But I do find it comforting, in a strange way.  However important we think we are, on the scale of the natural world, we're pretty tiny.  Whatever damage we do, eventually the Earth will recover, with or without us.  And the atmospheric, geological, and tidal ups and downs will continue -- world without end, amen.