Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Trillions and Trillions

May 16, 2022

No, this is not about government spending. It’s galaxies.

PBS’s “Nova” science series recently had a program about the universe, with casual mention of trillions of galaxies. I was like, “Wait, what?” Trillions?

Carl Sagan never actually said “Billions and billions,” the phrase associated with him. Anyhow, I had long understood that our Milky Way Galaxy has around 100 billion stars; more recently bumped up to 200 billion. Now the same Nova program says 400 billion. I don’t know where those additional 200 billion came from. Not exactly a rounding error.

I had also been under the impression that galaxies number something like a hundred billion. All these numbers in the billions I could get my head around — sort of.

The oft-invoked reference point is grains of sand. Of course, a star is rather bigger than a sand grain. And if there are, say, a hundred billion galaxies, averaging a hundred billion stars each, that would be ten thousand billion billion, or ten trillion billion, or ten sextillion stars. And that’s way more than all the sand grains on earth.

But — if galaxies number not in the billions but trillionsthat finally blows fuses in my brain. That would mean stars in the septillions. Numbers beyond sextillion I cannot register. And, indeed, Nova’s mention of trillions of galaxies does seem to be the current scientific thinking.

Googling about this also revealed that — forget sand grains — the number of stars in the universe is also roughly comparable to the number of molecules in ten drops of water. Which tells us that molecules are really really really small.

And by the way, the universe is 13.8 billion years old, which might seem a big number too. But apparently it’s actually still in its infancy, its lifespan is reckoned to be at least 100 billion years. Maybe a trillion.

But if the universe’s size, and these time scales, seem ultra-humongous, and the size of molecules ultra-small, that’s only from the perspective of our own size and lifespans. There is no universal standard of reference that says the universe is “large” or molecules “small.” In fact, those are meaningless statements. The cosmos just is what it is.

Though it is hard to envision getting trillions of galaxies out of a Big Bang that started smaller than a molecule. But I find it harder still to imagine that galactic vastness was created by some sort of pre-existing intelligent entity (never mind the question of where she came from). Seems like too much work even for an “omnipotent” god.

The Pandemic of Unvaccinated Fools

February 11, 2022

Every day the local paper reports on the county’s Covid numbers — cases, hospitalizations, deaths. Rarely does the word “unvaccinated” appear. As though hiding that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Vaccines don’t completely block Covid, but greatly reduce risks. And vaccinated people who do get “breakthrough” infections are far less likely to suffer and die.* Those now filling hospitals, and graves, are overwhelmingly unvaccinated.

A February 2 New York Times story highlighted that America’s Covid death rate far exceeds that for other wealthy nations. Not until the fifth paragraph was this connected to our lower vaccination rate. And look at the language used: “The country has failed to vaccinate as many people . . . the United States has fallen even further behind in administering booster shots . . . the country’s faltering effort to vaccinate its most vulnerable people . . . “

All making it sound like it’s the government mainly at fault. Well, our health system does have a lot of problems that have hampered our Covid response. But at this point jabs are easily available for all takers. The real problem now is not a “faltering effort” or with “administering” shots, but so many fools who refuse them. Something the article weirdly sidesteps.

The Times also recently reported a poll showing vaccinated people worry more about Covid than do the unvaccinated. Even though it’s the latter in much greater danger. Yet it’s actually logical. People who fear Covid get vaccinated. Those who don’t don’t. (They are heavily Republican.)**

And both sides actually get things wrong. Those fully vaxxed and boostered face minuscule danger; they can dial down the worrying. Their fearfulness has driven policy mistakes, especially school closures, likely harming kids (causing mental health and education deficits) more than Covid would. The other group not only refuses vaccination but also opposes masking and other precautions, thus aggravating risks. Suicidally dumb — hundreds of thousands of them dead.

This is a tragic reflection of America’s political polarization and related epistemology crisis. Too many losing the common sense to discriminate between trustable information sources and liars and quacks. Those falling for all the anti-vax nonsense out there are largely the same fools suckered by Trump’s “stolen election” lie. And so much other nonsense — it’s a whole alternative-reality bizarro world.

Canada is convulsed by truckers protesting against sanity. Dear Abby recently had a letter from a woman whose wedding was ruined by family members stomping off angrily when masks were distributed. That’s how far the craziness has gone.

Some jerks refuse vaccination by invoking “natural bodily immunity.”*** Biologists they are not. Millions died like flies from a host of diseases (like smallpox) before vaccines were developed. “Natural immunity” my ass. Or some simply insist God will protect them. I recall a woman relating that her parents trusted in Christian Science rather than mainstream medicine. “How’d that work out?” I asked. “Badly,” she replied. “They died young.” America nears a million Covid deaths.

And I’ve had it with all the “freedom” nonsense. I’m a goddamned libertarian. But I stop at red lights — even though that restricts my driving “freedom” — because it avoids endangering people, including me. A society of laws and rules protects everyone. Those anti-vaxxers might as well be demanding the “freedom” not only to go around spreading infection, but also to ignore traffic lights — and, for that matter, to kill, steal, and rape.

These idiots are not only infecting others, they’re also crowding out hospital care for non-Covid problems — another cause of needless deaths. But meantime, there’s growing sentiment for kissing off the unvaccinated, and opting for a policy of going on with life, without restrictions, living with the virus.

* It seems the booster is what really fights omicron; vaccine protection otherwise wanes over time.

** The poll also showed younger people fear Covid more than older ones, even though the latter are more endangered. But they’re also more likely “conservative,” and that political stance drives attitudes toward Covid.

*** Though many take annual flu shots and other routine jabs without a second thought.

Noise: Noisier Than We Think

January 15, 2022

The word “noise” has a special meaning in fields like statistics. Referring to all the reasons why some result deviates from the ideal; like an incorrect prediction. It’s the concept of distinguishing noise from signal.

When people are convicted of identical crimes, with similar backgrounds and circumstances, etc., we nevertheless expect sentences to differ. That too is “noise.” But we don’t expect sentences to vary from thirty days to five years. Nor expect medical diagnoses to be very noisy, differing greatly from one doctor to another.

Such expectations are often wrong, with noise being a bigger problem than we realize. So says the 2021 book Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein.

The book refers to “stable pattern noise,” encompassing characteristics about you, different from other people’s, that make your judgments differ; and “occasion noise,” referring to extraneous factors — like your mood at a given moment — that also affect them. Perhaps confusingly, both “stable pattern” and “occasion” noise are subsets of overall “pattern noise.

And the book also differentiates “level noise” — for example, different judges being generally tougher or more lenient — from (again) “pattern noise” when they differ in how they apply that in specific cases. The authors further speak of “system noise” as encompassing the last two together. You got all that? There’s also bias. And plain old error. All told, a whole lotta noise.

Early on, the book talks about insurance underwriters — professionals tasked with setting premiums to be charged corporate customers. Too high and the insurer will lose business. Too low and it loses money. When asked to guesstimate the variance among quotes by experienced underwriters (that is, the noise quotient), insurance executives typically say 10% or 15%. In reality it’s more like ten times greater. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The authors quote one veteran underwriter: “When I was new I would discuss 75% of cases with my supervisor . . . After a few years, I didn’t need to — I am now regarded as an expert . . . Over time I became more and more confident in my judgment.”

Now here’s the key point: her confidence grew as she “learned to agree with her past self.” Not from any objective confirmation that those past judgements were, in any sense, correct.

This describes a vast range of human psychology and behavior. It is, quite simply, doing what one’s always done. With no deep consideration of that behavior’s optimality. But — if we actually tried subjecting ourselves to such examination, comprehensively, we couldn’t function. Probably couldn’t get ourselves out of bed in the morning. That has to be recognized — even while we must recognize the suboptimality.

This applies to Kahneman’s entire well-known oeuvre — Thinking Fast and Slow, etc. Showing how evolution has saddled us with many non-rational biases in our thinking. Like putting more weight on potential losses than on equal potential gains. Because, for our distant ancestors, “loss” could very well mean loss of life. So a loss avoidance bias made sense.

But even if many of our cognitive biases are not rational, in a narrow sense, the whole system of cognition they comprise is deeply rational. Because, again, we couldn’t function if we had to subject every daily decision or choice to conscious examination. To avoid that, evolution has given us a system of cognitive shortcuts and quick decision heuristics. (The fast thinking of Kahneman’s book title.) And it must be a terrific system because it does enable most humans to function extremely well from moment to moment — and from year to year.

One concept that has grown in my thinking is the role of contingency in human affairs — ranging from individuals to groups to whole societies and their history. I have long been mindful of this effect in my own life, with tiny causes altering its whole course. The Noise book presents much evidence for how individual and group decisions can be affected by such small contingencies. Like something so simple, and seemingly unimportant, as who speaks first in a meeting. Jury deliberations a particular focus of concern. The authors write about cascades, describing how even just one expressed opinion can trigger a succession of responses by other people, not realizing how they’d been unconsciously influenced.

A striking finding is that in making various kinds of judgments or predictions, based on various bits of information, mechanical formulas almost always do better than human analysts, even supposed experts. The key reason — humans are just too plagued by noise. And so we see growing recourse to artificial intelligence to make evaluations, like medical diagnoses.

More: when a human evaluates a set of variables to come up with a judgment, it’s not a formulaic process, yet it’s as if a formula is being applied, albeit a complex one. Studies have found that when such an actual human’s judgments are made the basis for a computer model, which is then applied to the same variables, the model outperforms the human. We may think we bring complexity and richness and insight into our judgments. But what we really bring is noise.

And more: not only do such models outperform the humans they model, studies have found that any mechanistic formula, even randomly weighted, applied to the set of variables in play, will do better than “expert” human judgments.

But supplanting human judgments with mechanistic decision methods provokes backlash. When noisiness in criminal sentencing became evident, the consequently enacted federal sentencing guidelines led to objections that this interfered with judges, well, judging. People do still value the idea of human judgment, bringing a “holistic” perspective to any decision. “This has deep intuitive appeal,” the authors acknowledge.

But, they say, their recommended “decision hygiene” strategies mostly aren’t mechanistic, not jettisoning human judgment. Instead, they mainly urge noise reduction by breaking problems down into component parts. And recognize that while reducing noise is broadly desirable, excessive fixation on it can conflict with other values. Noise is like dirt in your home — its optimal amount is not zero, because attaining zero costs more than it’s worth.

Intelligence also helps combat noise. Yes, “intelligence” is a fraught concept. But the book argues that in fact, tests of “General Mental Ability” are highly predictive of performance. High achievers overwhelmingly tend to have higher GMAs. Even within the top 1%, gradations actually make a big difference. Someone in the 99.8% GMA percentile will likely significantly outperform the 99.0% person. (My own example bears this out. I think I’m at least close to 99%, but not higher. And I feel that difference, compared to really smart people.)

Conversely, lower GMA scores are predictive of people believing in bunk like astrology and falling for fake news. Here’s a GMA test question: in a race, you pass the runner in second place. What place are you in now? Your instinctive answer is likely wrong.

But on the other hand, I’ve long believed that carefully agonizing over a decision doesn’t necessarily improve upon your initial gut response. One chapter began by asking what percentage of the world’s airports are in the United States? “Thirty percent” immediately popped into my head. Then I said to myself, “Wait, let’s think methodically about this.” America has less than 5% of global population. But some big countries are much less developed. And we have a lot of little airports. Mulling over it all, I revised my answer to 15%.

The question introduced a discussion of how one’s first instinctive response is often actually better than a carefully considered one (because the latter is corrupted by noise). The correct answer: 32%!

Don’t Look Up!

January 1, 2022

Kate, a grad student working with astronomer Randall, discovers a new comet. Will hit Earth in six months. Twice as big as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

That’s the start of the recent Netflix film Don’t Look Up. I wonder if it confuses comets and asteroids. But never mind.

Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) sound the alarm through proper channels, resulting in a meeting with President Orlean (Meryl Streep). Here the fun begins. Orlean is somewhat distracted by a media circus surrounding her, ahem, unconventional Supreme Court nominee. She’s a goofball president (her equally silly son Jason (Jonah Hill of course) is chief of staff). And they cavalierly blow off the comet thing.

Kate and Randall nevertheless actually still think something should be done regarding humanity’s imminent extinction. They land an appearance on one of those morning “news” happy-talk shows. Its vacuous bubbliness deliciously rendered. Though Kate’s spiel is not exactly happy talk — after much silliness by the hosts, she manages to blurt out, “We’re all gonna die!” This killjoy is quickly gotten rid of. While Randall inadvertently manages to make a more favorable impression. Becoming a celeb — an AILF (substituting “astronomer” for “mother”).

Anyhow, it comes out that President Orlean’s been sleeping with her court pick, sending him “cooch pictures.” To distract from that mess, she has NASA organize a space mission to nuke the comet. But moments after the dramatic launch, it reverses course. Because, they’ve just learned, the comet contains trillions worth of rare minerals.

This is revealed by Peter, a billionaire tech guru, with an arresting aw-shucks false-naif persona. Mark Rylance steals the movie portraying this strange character, you can’t take your eyes off him. So Peter introduces, instead of destroying the comet, an alternate (ultra-capitalist) scheme of harvesting its riches, enough to solve all human problems. Assuming any humans will remain alive.

This film is deemed a climate change allegory — you know, humanity’s fecklessness in the face of coming catastrophe. Much commentary finds it smugly overdone. While our climate response can certainly be faulted, it’s nothing like the film’s pervasive idiocy. But I think it really sends up America’s whole current civic landscape. Evoking the movie Idiocracy, which I’ve written about. That one’s target was mainly cultural; the comet film is more pointedly political.

Of course there’s comet denialism, calling it a big hoax, to take away our freedom, our guns, or some such nonsense. The politicization explodes when, as the comet nears and is now visible in the sky, “Just look up!” becomes a catch-phrase meme. Countered, naturally, by “Don’t look up!” The parallel to anti-mask and anti-vaccine lunacy is all too obvious.

President Orlean holds a very Trump-like Don’t-look-up rally. With blatantly asinine rhetoric making this another us-against-them issue. But suddenly noticing the comet unignorably looming above, the crowd turns on her, shouting “Liar!” (If only life could imitate art.)

My wife and I agreed in foreseeing no happy ending; the planet would not be saved. Peter’s dicey scheme inevitably fails. Moments before the apocalypse, a final broadcast on the Foxlike “Patriot News” network tries to change the subject to some celebrity gossip.

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

“Intelligent Design” — Another View

November 14, 2021

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

Black holes and humanity

August 22, 2021

The force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with distance. When a star dies, there’s a lot of mass in a pretty small space, and no more force pushing outward against the gravity. So the star crushes down, becoming even smaller and denser, further concentrating the gravitational force pulling toward the center. With enough mass it condenses into a tiny nubbin, with gravitation so great that nothing, not even light, can escape. That’s a black hole.

With a ratio of mass to volume virtually infinite, the normal laws of physics cease to apply, which is called a “singularity.” Many formerly doubted this could occur in reality. Now we know it does. There may be a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Meantime, black holes’ weirdness captured popular imagination. Gravity so strong it sucks in anything getting near, while nothing gets out. “Black hole” became a useful metaphor (especially in 2017-21).

When we discovered the Universe is expanding, running that film backwards gets you to something that also has vast mass concentrated into virtually zero space — again a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This has led to speculation that the “Big Bang” and black holes are connected — that a black hole could detonate big bangs — perhaps answering the conundrum of seemingly getting something from nothing. With new universes being birthed all the time out of black holes.

You may have seen in 2019 our first photo of a black hole. We watched a great Netflix film about the scientists working on what was a massive photography project. A big problem was that a black hole is, well, literally black, no light escaping. But it does produce “Hawking radiation” in the surrounding space.

Still, getting a photo was a huge challenge because so few photons reach us across the cosmic vastness. The film illustrated this vividly by first showing a grid of squares, with one small square containing our solar system. Then it zoomed out to show that whole grid as just one square in a far bigger grid. Then it did it again. And again and again and again. I lost count, before we finally saw a grid big enough to contain both our solar system and the black hole.

That was one of two the team targeted. The other was a thousand times bigger — and a thousand times farther away.

The paucity of photons reaching us meant an ordinary telescopic photo would be, like, one or two pixels. Hardly helpful. To get a decent meaningful image would have required a camera the size of the Earth. So that’s what they built — by coordinating a whole slew of telescopes all across the planet. Each making images simultaneously. Having good visibility conditions at all of them, simultaneously, was a problem too. Somehow they succeeded. The result was an immense amount of data shipped on hardware from all those locations to a central clearinghouse where computers could put together the pieces of this stupendous jigsaw puzzle. Revealing the picture of a black hole.

Meanwhile . . . the film also focused on a group of theoreticians working with the late Stephen Hawking, he of “Hawking radiation,” the leading thinker on black holes who practically invented them. The main concern was with what they called the “information paradox.” “Information” here means more than its common parlance; it refers to what’s encoded in the structure of any physical object. In that sense, your body, for example, entails many trillions (or quintillions?) of bits of information. Throw it into a black hole and that information seemingly disappears. That bothered the theoreticians, a lot, contravening their intuition for how the Universe should operate. (This is about as well as I could manage to understand the matter.)

So they banged their heads against the mathematics. I didn’t begin to grasp the interplay between the very complex mathematics and the physical phenomena. But finally, it seemed, they did get the sums to work out such that information sucked into a black hole is not truly annihilated but is conserved in some manner.

But here is what struck me viewing this film. All the numerous people involved in these enterprises, especially the photography effort, exemplify what I see as our great human project. To understand — everything. And to use that understanding to imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment. With nothing given to us but what we seek and find ourselves. Everything else pales beside the immensity of that great human project. Membership in this species fills me with pride.

The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

They’re out there! It’s real! The government finally admits it!

Um, no.

For all the media frenzy, the actual story is a big nothingburger. The Pentagon produced a document saying reports of “unidentified aerial phenomena” by U.S. military personnel are for real. Meaning that, yes, some military people did report such unexplained sightings.

Which tells us nothing about what the explanations might be. The Pentagon says it cannot rule out extraterrestrial explanations. That tells us nothing either. Actually, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the true explanations are prosaic.

Many people have always reported witnessing all sorts of strange, seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Often their senses deceived them, something extremely commonplace. Or their stories were embellished. Or simply didn’t happen. Many people telling such tales have a screw loose. Or dishonest motives. (Another whole category is in the religious sphere.)

I always apply Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. Telling us that the simplest, most mundane explanation for anything is the likeliest. When a story is seemingly inexplicable, the likeliest explanation is that the facts are somehow wrong, or misinterpreted.

I recall seeing a remarkable UFO video. Real, not doctored. Filmed through an airplane window, it appeared to show a bright saucer-like object flying beside the plane and making weird zigzag maneuvers defying the laws of physics.

Unexplainable? Turned out to be just a bizarre reflection of a cabin light from inside the plane.

My UFO skepticism is very great. I actually consider it likely that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But the distances between stars are stupendous, and planet hopping would be a formidable challenge for even the most scientifically advanced civilization. Would they make such a prodigious journey — merely to lurk silently in our skies, doing nothing? Or, even less plausible, to abduct occasional humans for proctology exams? As if beings with the capability of traversing the cosmos would have anything to learn that way.

If UFOs were really visiting us, there’d be no mystery about it. We would know it. (Just like if there really were a God, there’d be no mystery.)

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

The ultimate political wet dream: a deadly disease that, somehow, selectively targets the other party.

U.S. Covid cases and deaths are climbing back up. Spurred by the especially nasty Delta variant. Deaths are 99.5% unvaccinated people. And most unvaccinated people are Republicans.

They’ve needlessly brought this holocaust upon themselves, by politicizing Covid, and vaccines in particular, bathing in a sea of lies, and making vaccine refusal a “freedom” issue. As in freedom to jeopardize not only your own life but your family’s and neighbor’s. (All of ours, actually; failure to end the pandemic allows further variants to emerge, potentially one that defeats the current vaccines.)

Vaccination’s alleged risks are simply lies promoted for various bad motives. Fox News creeps like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are especially culpable. But even if most of the claimed vaccination risks were real, your risk of illness and death from Covid is still vastly greater. The anti-vaxxers can’t do math.

Not only are unvaccinated people now the ones really in danger from Covid, but the risk rises steeply with age too — and Republicans, on average, tend to be older. Furthermore, especially if you’re not vaccinated, mask wearing offers much protection. And who refuses masking? Republicans again.

So Republicanism is becoming a major health risk. Will insurers start asking for party affiliation — and charging Republicans more?

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a top official of Tennessee’s Health Department, has been fired for promoting vaccination for young people. In today’s political climate, that’s a firing offense. Similar stories proliferate in other states.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s failure to meet vaccination targets was greeted with raucous applause. These people — who call themselves “pro-life” — were cheering the march of death. “Macabre,” said columnist Michael Gerson, wondering how we got “to such a strange, desperate place.”

Remember Trump actually claiming huge credit for the “warp speed” vaccine development? That was then; now he’s silent. If Trump runs in 2024, you might think he’d want his fans vaccinated so they can live to vote for him. He could put out a video urging that. Why doesn’t he? Because he himself is trapped in the deranged alternate universe that is Trumpism.

Vaccination refusal is the apotheosis of the Republican flight from reason, decency, reality, and sanity. They’ve made war on truth; on voting rights; on immigrants; on the press; and much else. Now their war on vaccination is actually a war upon themselves.

Maybe cosmic justice.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

Though some people are called brainless, most would say they have one brain. But how many minds do you have? Perhaps a trickier question. You might say you’re “of two minds” about an issue. There’s even a phenomenon called “split personality” (or “multiple personality disorder”).

While we do talk of “the brain” as a unit, we also speak of right and left brains with differing functionalities. The left brain being more logical, the right more intuitive and creative, and so forth. But there have been cases of people losing one hemisphere, yet able to live fairly normally, the remaining hemisphere taking over the other’s duties. On the other hand, I’ve written about a stroke victim whose damage was in the right hemisphere, enabling the left to become more dominant, changing her personality.*

But it gets yet more interesting.

The two hemispheres are really quite separate physically, being connected only by a clutch of fibers called the corpus callosum. A conduit for messaging between them. Now, it’s been found some epileptics can be helped by severing the corpus callosum, keeping seizures from passing between hemispheres. The patients seemingly unharmed.

They’ve been the subject of experiments testing the effects of thusly splitting the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side the body. You can show each eye different things. In one experiment, the right eye saw a snow scene, the left a chicken claw. Next, the subject was asked to choose something related from among a group of various pictures. One hand picked a snow shovel; the other a chicken. Logical enough.

But then the subject was asked why he’d picked the shovel, which he could see he’d done. However, the speech center is in the right hemisphere, so it does the talking. And the right hemisphere was unaware of the left’s (through the right eye) having previously seen a snow picture. So he answered, “The shovel is to clean up the chicken shit.” In other words, having no access to the real reason, lodged in the other half of his brain, the half that answered made up something plausible.

This shows just how separate our two hemispheres can be. And the import can be greater than mere choosing among pictures. In one case, a man’s arm reached to hug his wife, while the other arm punched her! Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reports a patient whose right brain professed a religious belief while the left said he’s an atheist (logically enough). One can imagine two hands fighting over an election ballot.

The real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man was found to have been born without a corpus callosum. He could read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. Memorizing each too, instantly.

All this helps us regarding the problem of understanding consciousness and the self. Which in fact science has not yet cracked. The split-brain stuff reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s concept in his (optimistically titled) book Consciousness Explained. He rejected our commonplace notion of some sort of captain at the helm in our minds, the “I,” who makes decisions. Dennett said it’s more like a scrum of mates fighting over control of the wheel. And it does seem that a lot of competing and often contradictory notions bubble up out of various modules in the brain each running their own separate sequences, until one dominates sufficiently to cause an action to be performed.

Some see the split-brain experiments as showing we are all actually “split personalities.” That we really do have two separate minds co-existing within our skulls, one in each hemisphere.

But let’s remember that literal split-brain is a very special case. Most of us have an intact corpus callosum enabling the two hemispheres to coordinate. Like in a marriage, only more so. I think that normally the two hemispheres work things out. When they can’t, that’s mental illness.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/a-stroke-of-insight/