I Will Not Vote For An Anti-Science Candidate

Republican Senator Marco Rubio has told Jon Karl of ABC News that he is ready to run for president.  Well, that may be, but I’ll never vote for him, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Republican.

I’m not voting for anyone, Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Socialist who denies basic science.

During the same interview with ABC, Rubio was asked his thoughts on the science behind climate change, and how states like Florida are being threatened.

“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” Rubio said.

Well, sorry, Marco.   The science is in and it is clear.  Climate change is real, and human activity is the driving force behind it.  Continuing to deny facts like this is like denying that smoking causes cancer.

This comes as no surprise, really.  It isn’t even the first time Rubio has taken an ignorant position on scientific matters.  During an interview with GQ in late 2012, Rubio claimed that the age of the Earth was practically unknowable.

“I’m not a scientist,” he said.  “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”  He went on.  “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries,” he said.

Funny how he considers scientists qualified to answer scientific questions sometimes, but apparently not in cases involving climate change.

He attempted to cover his ass in an interview with Politico later that year, saying his previous answer was trying to make the point “that is there is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth.”  Which is interesting, since he called it “one of the great mysteries” at the time.

Be that as it may, his track record is clear.  He’s not the brightest guy around, and he seems fuzzy on fundamental facts.  Was I going to vote for him for president in 2016?  Not a chance.  But his recent comments simply reminded me that there are many problems facing our country that will require critical thinking and serious solutions. The people we elect to work on these problems must live in the real world where facts and science matter. I will not be voting for any candidate in any election who, much like Marco Rubio, doesn’t accept reality.

Thanks for reading.

Book Review: “Life’s Operating Manual” by Tom Shadyac

Disclosure: I was sent a free copy of “Life’s Operating Manual” by Hay House Publishing for the purpose of this review

If you haven’t heard of Tom Shadyac, you probably have heard of his movies. Beginning in the 90s, he teamed with Jim Carrey to direct three of the star’s biggest comedies. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar and, in 2003, Bruce Almighty. Along the way he worked with Robin Williams in Patch Adams and Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor.

shadyacbookWhile Shadyac may have a knack for showcasing comedic performances, I’m not so sure that this spiritual stuff is his forte.

His book, “Life’s Operating Manual,” was born out of a documentary he produced called I AM. The book, much like the film, is Shadyac’s attempt to figure out how we have gone so wrong. He looks at war, poverty, environmental destruction and other societal ills not so much as problems in and of themselves, but as symptoms of a larger sickness. And it is only by following the directions of, yes, an “operation manual” for life, that we can begin to find out who we truly are and start to heal the world.

It’s a noble goal, and I believe Shadyac is sincere in his desire. This, after all, is a guy who, at one time, lived in a mansion and flew on private jets. After a bicycle accident and its related series of lingering injuries led him to believe he was dying, he gave away much of his money, moved into a mobile home (in Malibu, but still…) and began to teach college.

Shadyac begins to make his case by the use of line graphs, like on page 23, that show population growth, technological advancement and environmental issues, such as global warming, correlating with each other by aggregating it all into a single line. The same graph also charts morality with a second line, but it is not exactly clear how he quantifies any this data. Without knowing that, it is difficult to understand his conclusions.

graph

He defines ethical progress as laws being codified, the legal abolishment of slavery, and discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation and gender drifting away; claiming this all began around 2,000 BC. But the same chart shows that our degree of morality, while going through ups and downs, was the same in 50,000 BC as it is today. What?!? How is this possible when he just wrote that our ethical progress began 4000 years ago? I could be accused of a dim view of human nature at times, but I give us a bit more credit for our advancement. Either way, the case isn’t made one way or the other, so we are left to just kind of take his word for it. But if it is true, as the graph shows, that we are on an uptick of moral progress, why just a few pages later do we need a “true revolution;” one that will “turn things completely around”?

Scattered throughout the book are dialogues that Shadyac has had with himself, as aspects of his personality called “Fear” and “Truth” duke it out with one other. My problem is that far too often they are New Age tautology that don’t seem to say a whole lot. Take this passage, one of the book’s earliest, from page 11:

TRUTH: People are not fallen. They have forgotten.
FEAR: Forgotten? Forgotten what?
TRUTH: Who they are.
FEAR: That again! Are there no other questions to ask? Fine, write your book. I won’t remain silent, you know. I will speak my mind.
TRUTH: You will speak from the mind, certainly.
FEAR: And what’s wrong with that? Our minds are what make us different. Descartes said, I think therefore I am.
TRUTH: And I say, I AM, therefore I think.
FEAR: You confuse me. What is it you want to accomplish here?
TRUTH: Nothing. It is already accomplished.

Great. So what am I reading this book for?

tomshadyacYou may have noticed the examples I have used are very early in the book. That is because I couldn’t quite make it halfway through before I put it down. I’m just not predisposed for the metaphysical, New Age-style “Truth,” I guess. If you are, you may enjoy it more than I did. Perhaps I’ll pick it up another time and try again, but I’m afraid not much changes.

The late Roger Ebert reviewed the movie I AM that this book was borne out of. He describes scenes in which Shadyac demonstrates belief that yogurt can read our minds, that our brain and heart can tell the future, and that we are all connected at the quantum level. It’s flapdoodle of the variety that was pushed on a credulous public in movies like “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” six years prior and debunked soon thereafter by a variety of people. Ebert chides Shadyac for not asking questions or being skeptical.

If this is the type of thing I missed by not reading the rest of the book, I don’t feel as if I missed out. Instead, I’ll be happy to stuff this book in a random drawer which, come to think of it, is probably where a variety of other operating manuals I’ve accumulated over the years are.

DMT and Our Brain: What the Scientists Say

If you travel around paranormalist circles as I do, or have done a fair amount of reading about consciousness and Near-Death Experience research, you may have come across some confusion online about dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  DMT is a compound that is found throughout the plant and mammal kingdom, and acts as a psychedelic drug when ingested.  Many proponents of its use as a hallucinogen say it is produced naturally in the human brain; specifically, by our pineal gland.  Others believe that is merely speculation.  But is it really true?  If not, why do so many people seem to believe it?  Let’s see if we can find out.

dmtMuch of the confusion seems to come from two sources:  Dr. Rick Strassman and Joe Rogan.  In 2000, Strassman published a book called “DMT:  The Spirit Molecule” which offered up the pineal gland hypothesis.  Furthermore, he proposed the wild speculation that DMT may provide access to everything from parallel universes to alien beings through the use of superconductive quantum computing of the human brain.  Whatever that means.  Though Strassman was clear that his hypothesis was not proven, and admitted he knew “little about theoretical physics,” it hasn’t stopped many from repeating his ideas as fact.

One of those people is Joe Rogan, a popular stand-up comedian and podcast host who fancies himself something of an expert on a variety of topics which he seems to have limited knowledge about.  He has been, at various times, a staunch moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist, as well as one who gave credence to thoroughly debunked 9/11 “truther” myths.  But he also speaks a lot about psychedelics and altered states of consciousness.  Several years ago, when prompted by a caller during a radio show interview, Rogan launched into a roughly 10 minute diatribe about DMT, how it is produced by the pineal gland and how, while using it, “literally you are transported into another fucking dimension.”  The audio of Rogan’s reply went viral, and has been repeated ad nauseam by a number of internet mystics.

Instead of merely relying on internet resources to answer our question, I decided to get more information from a couple of neuroscientists.  First, I had my friend Bobby Nelson email Dr. Indre Viskontas.  She holds a Ph.D in cognitive neuroscience and is an editor of the journal Neurocase.  She wrote that despite the fact DMT, “shares a similar molecular structure with serotonin and melatonin, a class of amines, and neurotransmitters with wide-reaching effects in the brain,” there was no evidence that it’s produced there.  She also linked us to a study that showed where small amounts have been found in urine and stool.  However, Dr. Viskontas told me later that this is “not evidence that the brain made them or that they came from inside the brain,” and that it was “just as likely that they were ingested or made by some other body part and never entered the brain.”

brainBut I wanted to get a second opinion, so I also contacted Dr. Bryan Yamamoto, a professor and Chairman of the neuroscience department at the University of Toledo, to ask the same question.  Yamamoto, who holds a Ph.D from Syracuse University, agreed with Viskontas.  He wrote, “I know of no evidence that DMT is produced anywhere in the body.  It’s chemical structure is similar to serotonin and melatonin but their endogenous actions are very different from DMT.”

So, what’s the answer?  Is DMT produced in our brain?  While some cling to evidence that suggests it is, there is also very good reason to be skeptical.  Putting together my own minimal review of the available literature, as well as the direct responses from two scientists with a level of expertise in the field of neuroscience, it leads me to believe that the evidence is limited and, therefore, the probability not so great.

But let’s face it:  few of us reading this are likely to be scientists with a sufficient amount of expertise to say one way or another.  If you still have doubts, the best thing you can do is avoid speculating or pretending to know what you don’t, and simply reserve judgment until you have more facts.  You may not have the satisfaction of knowing an answer for sure, but at least you’ll be more intellectually honest in the process.

Under the Microscope

Last night I took a few pictures, using my phone, at objects under my microscope. It’s not ideal, since I basically suck as a photographer anyway.  But I share them here in the hope that people who like weird stuff like me will enjoy them.

Let’s start with this one. This photo is of the mouth parts of a honeybee under high magnification.

Pretty cool, huh? This was the first thing I looked at after I bought my microscope that really hooked me. Don’t get me wrong, dog cardiac muscle and things like that are great too. But the honeybee was just fascinating. Here is another photo of a honeybee; this time a section of leg.

Awesome stuff. But there’s more. I also enjoy pine leaf because of how intricate something so simple looking can appear under a microscope. See for yourself.

Blades of grass, too, are kind of neat. I was grabbing just about anything I could find at this point. And though the grass blade wasn’t quite so translucent, the microscope did unveil a little of the detail we normally miss.


I then began to examine pieces of myself. That’s right! Curiosity got the best of me. I prepared a slide of my cheek cells but couldn’t get them to show up very well in a photograph. I decided to dye the slide with methylene blue. Ive gotten better views before, but this one wasn’t bad.

I wanted to find something simpler. I was thinking skin scrapings, but then it hit me…a strand of my hair! So I plucked one out, laid it on a slide, and took a peek. Pretty crazy!

Now what about my own blood? Yup, I went there as well. I had a small scab that I opened up a little for a sample. Did you know you can see your blood moving under a microscope? It’s true! This photo won’t show that, of course, but it’s still interesting.

I’ll close with one more, not of my own body, but from the pre-made slides I bought from AmScope. This, believe it or not, is rabbit testis. Poor rabbit.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the slides. To highlight some of the photos, I’ve used simple filters from Instagram. But you’ve gotten the real deal apart from that. Interesting stuff, huh? I love this microscope!

Thanks for reading.

Published on-the-go with BlogPress via iPhone

Mythconceptions: Hemispheres and Toilet Drains

This article recently appeared in Issue #10 of The Bent Spoon, “A Skeptical Magazine For the True Believer.”  Check out more cool topics by downloading issues COMPLETELY FREE at http://www.thebentspoonmag.com

Welcome back to The Bent Spoon’s look at “mythconceptions;” that is, commonly held beliefs that are actually false.  While I thoroughly enjoy reading new pieces of information that fit into this category, I get an even greater joy out of discovering something that I myself have long believed that is actually not true. Today’s topic covers one such instance.

How many of you reading this have heard of the Coriolis force, or Coriolis effect?  It’s okay if you haven’t.  Up until a relatively short time ago I hadn’t either.  Though you may not recognize the scientific sounding names, you’ll probably be familiar with the effect they are said to create.

First, a definition. The Coriolis force, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, is “an effect whereby a mass moving in a rotating system experiences a force (the Coriolis force) acting perpendicular to the direction of motion and to the axis of rotation.”  It continues, “On the earth, the effect tends to deflect moving objects to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern…”

While this force is important in the formation of cyclonic weather systems, it is also pointed to as the cause for toilet and sink drains in the Southern Hemisphere draining clockwise, while drains in the Northern Hemisphere spiral counter-clockwise.

The problem?  That is simply not true!  It’s a classic case of mythinformation.  The truth is the Coriolis effect has nothing to do with how sinks and toilets drain because the direction water spirals down in sinks and toilets is determined not by gravitational pulls, what Hemisphere you happen to live on, or anything of the sort.  Instead, it is determined by plain old ordinary structural conditions.

In their textbook, “The Atmosphere: An Introduction to Meteorology,” authors Lutgens, Tarbuck, and Tasa (2006) write, “…a cyclone is more than 1000 kilometers in diameter and may exist for several days.  By contrast, a typical sink is less than a meter in diameter and drains in a matter of seconds. On this scale, the Coriolis effect is miniscule.”  It’s the shape and how level your sink, toilet, etc. is that causes the direction of the water drainage, not your position on the globe!

I thought about this myself and concluded that, if this is true, the sinks and toilets in my house might just drain differently from one another.  If they did, the idea of water drainage being affected by the Coriolis force would be, well, flushed right down the drain.

So, that’s exactly what I did and, wouldn’t you know it, that is precisely what happened.  I filled two sinks and flushed two toilets.  While the toilets each flushed in a counter-clockwise spiral, the sinks did the exact opposite; draining in a clockwise manner.  How foolish of me that, for years, I believed in the effect of the Hemispheres on our drains while concrete evidence to the contrary was there in front of me all along.  I just never paid attention.  But, at the same time, it was very satisfying to know the truth.

It is the moment of enlightenment that I had myself regarding this issue that I hope to bring to you with some of the “mythconceptions” I write about here from time to time.  Maybe you’ll even be inspired to fill a couple drains and flush a few toilets to check it out for yourself.  We’re all wrong about stuff here and there.  We’re human.  But knowing the truth is great.  One of my favorite things in life are those simple moments of time where I stop and realize, “Everything I thought I knew was wrong…and it’s awesome!”  

If you’re anything like me you’ll agree.


REFERENCES:

http://www.snopes.com/science/coriolis.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_effect

Spontaneous Human Combustion!

This article appears in issue #2 of The Bent Spoon, “The Skeptical Magazine For True Believers.”  To download or subscribe to this FREE monthly e-zine, which is filled with fun and informative articles, please check out this website.  Oh, and contributions are welcome.

There are few topics in the paranormal world that draw the attention of the curious quite like Spontaneous Human Combustion(SHC).  We’ve heard about it on television programs like Unsolved Mysteries, read accounts in articles online and elsewhere and maybe, just maybe, heard it happened to the friend of a friend of a friend we know.

The idea that a human being can just burst into flames is an intriguing one because it sounds like it can happen to any one of us.  And since so few of us know much about the makeup of our bodies, it is simply a scary enough thought to make it seem like a real hazard.  The good news is that there is absolutely no evidence to back up SHC being a real phenomenon at all.  Furthermore, the people who continue to postulate its existence have built their case on a mountain of unscientific theories, made up words, and heavy doses of fallacious logic.

At one time, excessive drinking was thought to lead to SHC.  A 17th century story concerns a German who combusted due to consuming a large amount of brandy.  And in Charles Dickens’ 1852 novel Bleak House, the author used SHC to explain the death of a heavy drinking character.  Of course, there is simply no possible way this could ever happen.  The amount of alcohol one would have to consume would poison you long before your body could be be considered even remotely flammable.  Furthermore, if heavy drinking is all it takes for a human being to spontaneously combust, Mardi Gras and New Year’s celebrations would be rife with reports.

But the best known, and perhaps most often cited case of SHC was that of Mary Reeser; known in popular culture as the “Cinder Lady.”  Her remains, discovered on July 2nd 1951 in her apartment, were little more than ash and a left foot.  The fire was confined largely to the area in which she had been sitting.  For instance, her chair was destroyed, and yet objects across the room, while slightly damaged, were mostly recognizable.

There can be no doubt the case was perplexing.  A physical anthropologist named Wilton Krogman investigated at the request of the local police chief and later wrote, “I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself.”  Continuing on, “I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself.  In fact the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed. […] I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen.  As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear.  Were I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something about black magic.”

Creepy, yes.  But no longer mysterious.

But the FBI had already reviewed the case and concluded that Reeser’s body had been incinerated by “the wick effect.”  Mrs. Reeser was an avid smoker, and fond of taking sleeping pills.  In fact, her son, who was the last to see her alive, reported that she was sitting in the chair, wearing flammable nightclothes, with a cigarette in hand.  She reportedly told him she had already taken two sleeping pills, and planned to take two more shortly.  The FBI hypothesized that Mrs. Reeser had fallen asleep while smoking, and set fire to her clothes.  “Once the body starts to burn,” the FBI wrote in its report, “there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”

Granted, this solution sounds nearly as incredible as the very idea that a human being can spontaneously combust.  But the truth is that “the wick effect” as an explanation for SHC cases has been proven time and time again in replicable experiments.  And if you look at the details of a number of reputed cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, similarities abound.  Frequently, the person killed is a heavy smoker (or has come in contact with flame), is wearing flammable clothes, and is either on sleeping pills or under the influence of alcohol.  If you put fire together with flammable substances, and couple that with a person who is impaired, results can often be deadly.  Human fat acts as a fuel source.  Often in the literature of SHC, human remains are reported to have been found mired in a brown, greasy substance.  That substance, inevitably, is fat.

So, as we can clearly see, the more often cited case of SHC was proven to be quite explainable when the methods of science were applied by trained professionals.  But the belief that humans spontaneously combust does persist.  Why?  For that we turn to the man who is perhaps the most tireless proponent of SHC, Larry Arnold.

Larry Arnold

Mr. Arnold bills himself as the “Director of Parascience International” which, as best as I can tell, is largely a one man operation based out of a house in Harrisburg, PA.  Having had the chance to interview Arnold before, and following him online, I am aware of his “theories” for the existence of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

The first thing he posits is the existence of a subatomic particle which he calls a Pyrotron.  He believes it is a “high-powered particle” that “zips through the spaces between the quarks that make up the atoms.”  He thinks it is possible that, “on rare occasions a rogue particle scores a direct hit with a quark and sets off an internal chain reaction.”  Oh, and he also says this is all based on quantum physics.  Which, of course, it isn’t.  It is a made up name for a particle that does not exist and has never been shown to exist.  It is all speculation with no basis in fact that shows an immense ignorance of cellular life and spontaneous nuclear fusion.  I would bet that Mr. Arnold has no better understanding of quantum physics than do most laypeople, and is invoking the name of this serious scientific study in an effort to make his argument sound credible in much the same way that ghost hunters and psychics do.

He also theorizes that kundalini, an untraceable, unmeasurable “bio-energy” that, when “out of balance,” acts like a “quasi-plasma-like ball” that can reduce the human torso to ash.  Again, this is just ridiculous.  These aren’t “theories” in the scientific sense.  They don’t even count as hypotheses because they can’t be tested.  In other words, it is nonsense that is far more complicated than it has to be, since natural explanations has already taken care of the details.  It is unnecessary to invent particle names, or appeal to unknowable, untraceable energy fields.

When it comes to Spontaneous Human Combustion, the urban legends can’t be verified, believers speculate instead of investigate, and the best science available disproves its very existence.  But don’t expect this to sway Mr. Arnold, or other proponents of SHC.  Arnold himself states, “…I have nothing I can take into a scientific laboratory and reproduce under controlled conditions.”  But when you theorize before you have facts you will twist facts to fit theories instead of base theories on facts.  And that, as the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes would say, is a capital mistake.

This is reprinted from The Bent Spoon, “The Skeptical Magazine for True Believers,” issue #2.