A long time ago, before cell phones, I was in the house, and some relatives were going to go out and do fun stuff. I was tired, so I declined to join them and instead took a nap. When I woke up, I looked at the time, and I was surprised that my relatives had not returned. I started getting an uneasy feeling. Why were they late? I went about some task I decided to perform in the house, but I could not shake off the feeling that something was wrong. Outside it was a warm, bright, summer day with blue skies, but inside I got the impression that the house had darkened and gotten colder. I tried to distract myself, but I kept looking at the time and my unease kept growing. I started getting the feeling that something bad had happened to my relatives. Perhaps they were involved in a car crash, or something else. As more time went by, my unease started transmogrifying into panic. I began to feel certain that something bad had indeed happened, and the churning of the wheels of destiny became very noticeable all around me. I was having a premonition!
Our culture is filled with stories of how people past and present knew that something had happened or that something was going to happen. These premonitions are hailed as instances where our minds are able to gain knowledge of events that are not yet known or to peer into the future to see events that have not yet happened. Some people are claimed to be gifted in the art of having premonitions, being able to have these events with a high frequency or even on demand, and they are known by many names such as prophets, oracles, mediums, clairvoyants, seers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, spiritualists, diviners, psychics and others. Stories about premonitions range from mere personal and family anecdotes to events enshrined in the holy texts of many religions.
So what happened to me that day? My relatives came back unharmed and we laughed at my freaking out over them being late.
The vast majority of premonition stories can be explained by what are called “selection and confirmation bias”. There are billions of people in this world and a good number of them have these feelings, or dreams, or inklings, or hunches about things that will happen. At the same time, there are multitudes of things both good and bad happening in our societies on a daily basis. It is easy to understand how a few of these premonitions will end up being associated with any of these events.
The vast majority of premonitions are not fulfilled and are forgotten, but (and here is the key) those that are fulfilled are remembered and assigned a special meaning thus consummating the selection bias. As to the confirmation bias, if something bad had indeed happened to my relatives, I could have ended up believing that somehow I managed to gain information of this event in a way that cannot possibly be explained. If I had been an extremely religious person and, for example, had prayed that nothing happened to my relatives, the fact that they came back safe would have reinforced in me the notion that I somehow managed to ward off anything bad happening with my praying.
The most powerful experience related to premonitions is when people act on them and prevent a bad thing from happening. For example, someone dreams that there will be a ghastly traffic accident downtown and convinces a friend not to go to town for the weekend. The friend stays home, and indeed there is a terrible traffic accident that kills several people in the area the friend was planning to visit. These types of premonitions are hailed as indisputable proof that there is something beyond our regular senses that can furnish us with this type of information. Unfortunately, these cases are nothing but mere anecdotes and cannot be accepted as evidence because they don’t rule out that the occurrence was a coincidence.
This is not to say that the brain cannot come up with ideas in a manner that we are not conscious of. Most of us have experienced trying to solve a problem with no success, and then going to sleep just to come up with the solution to the problem in a dream or during the interval when we were walking up. The brain is constantly and unconsciously tallying information and integrating it with experience, and sometimes the end result of this process enters our conscious mind suddenly. For example, a month ago we may have seen some cracks in a retaining wall down the street and forgotten about seeing them because we normally don’t walk by that wall. However, if it has rained vigorously since then, we may wake up one day with the “feeling” that the wall will fall. If the day we get this “premonition” we find out that the wall indeed did fall and killed someone, this is not proof that something supernatural happened. It was just a combination of chance and our brain doing its job.
Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence that human beings can gain knowledge of events that have not happened or of events that have happened but about which they have received no information in any way. We perceive reality through the specialized receptors that make up our senses. There is no way such receptors can detect the type of events that are involved in a premonition, and not a single instance of the so-called extrasensory perception or ESP has ever been conclusively demonstrated.
For many people whose premonitions have led them to have life-altering experiences, it is frustrating to hear scientists say these things, but it must be understood that, in the absence of a plausible mechanism by which we can gain the information that we allegedly gain when we have a premonition, the bar for proof that something real has occurred is set very high. Demanding this level of proof may strike some people as unfair and narrow-minded, but science is very conservative, and there are real risks in keeping an open mind when dealing with subjects like premonitions. Science is in the business of determining what is possible and what is impossible, and so far the evidence for premonitions has not cleared the bar.
Image of crystal ball from Pixabay by Tumisu is in the public domain.
It’s time to lighten up my blog a bit. Every area of human endeavor develops jokes that rely on specialized knowledge, and science is not an exception. So without further ado, I present to you some of my favorite science jokes with the accompanying technical explanation.
The critic said that the problem with Freud is that none of his theories are testicle.
The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed that “slips of the tongue” or “Freudian slips” occurred because the subconscious mind would transfer thoughts to the conscious mind. He thought these slips revealed what was really in the person’s mind when they were talking. In the case above, the intended word was “testable”.
A plant biochemist walks into a gardening store. He asks the clerk, “Do you have that inhibitor of enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase?" The clerk frowns and replies, “Do you mean, roundup?” The biochemist hits his forehead with the open palm of his hand and exclaims, “Yes, sheez, I can never remember that name!”
Enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase is an enzyme necessary for plants to convert sugars to many compounds vital for life. The herbicide roundup (a glyphosate derivative) inhibits the activity of this enzyme, thus killing the plant.
Q: Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
A: No, but it makes me salivate.
Ivan Pavlov performed a series of famous experiments where he made dogs associate the presentation of food with the ringing of a bell. The dogs then would salivate in response to the sound of the bell, even if food was not presented. This is known today as classical conditioning.
Q: What are the two things all people enjoy?
A: Serotonin and dopamine
All pleasurable feelings are generated in the brain by systems of neurons that, upon activation, release the neurotransmitters serotonin or dopamine. Therefore, technically speaking, when you enjoy something you are really enjoying the release of these two chemicals which produce and maintain the pleasurable sensation.
An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one says, “I’ll have one beer.” The second says, “I’ll have half a beer.” The third one says, “I’ll have a fourth of a beer.” The fourth one says, “I’ll have an eighth of a beer.” The bartender interrupts, saying, “You guys should know your limits.” and pours two beers.
The joke is based on an exponential function that has an asymptote that approaches a limit at infinity. After the first mathematician orders one beer, it can be shown that even if millions of mathematicians successively order a volume of beer which is half of that ordered by the previous one, all these volumes added together will approach one whole beer at infinity. Therefore the one beer ordered by the first plus the total volume of beer ordered by the rest for all practical purposes equals two beers.
Werner Heisenberg and Edwin Schrodinger are driving down the highway and they get stopped by a cop. The cop says to Heisenberg, “Do you know how fast you were driving?” Heisenberg replies, “No, but I can tell you where I am.” The cop says, “You were doing 90 miles per hour in a 55 miles per hour zone.” Heisenberg replies, “Oh no, now I’m lost!” Puzzled, the cop tells them to get out of the car and begins searching it. He finds a dead cat in the trunk, and says, “Do you know you have a dead cat here?” Schrodinger answers, “Now I do!”
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that either the speed or the location of a particle can be known, but not both. Schrodinger’s Cat is a famous thought experiment meant to be critical of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics which states that particles exist not in one state, but in a superposition of possible states until they are observed. Schrodinger’s experiment linked this interpretation to a cat in a box whose life depends on the state of a particle, leading to the inference that, until the box is opened and the cat is observed, the cat is neither dead nor alive, but both. Two additional jokes based on this premise are:
Schrodinger’s Cat walks into a bar. And doesn’t.
Wanted, dead and alive: Schrodinger's cat.
A chemist walks into a candy store, and says, “Do you have some Carbon-Holmium-Cobalt-Lanthanum-Tellurium?” The clerk nods his head and hands him a bar of chocolate.
The chemical symbols in the periodic table for these elements are, Carbon (C) Holmium (Ho) Cobalt (Co) Lanthanum (La) and Tellurium (Te). A related joke based on a similar premise is:
A chemist asks an attractive woman if she is full of beryllium, gold, and titanium because she is be-au-ti-ful!
The chemical symbols are: beryllium (Be), gold (Au), and titanium (Ti).
And one more chemistry joke:
Two atoms are walking down the street, and one says, “Oh dear, I think I’ve lost an electron. The second atom says, “Are you sure?” The first one replies, “Yes, I’m positive.”
When an atom loses an electron, it acquires a positive charge.
Q. Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?
A. To get to the same side.
A Möbius strip is a ribbon that only has one side.
The microbiology lab has a sign on the door which reads: “STAPH ONLY”.
Staph, is an abbreviation of Staphylococcus, a genus of bacteria that may cause infections in humans. Here it is used as a pun for “Staff”.
There are 10 kinds of people in this world, those who understand binary, and those who don’t.
Computers operate using a binary (base 2) language made up of zeros and ones. The number 2 in binary is “10”.
Basic astronomy exam trick question: How many weeks are there in a light year?
Answer: None, a light year is a unit of distance (the distance light travels in a year) not of time.
The math teacher says, “Multiplication and division are two different functions.” A cell sitting in the front of the class raises its pseudopod and says, “Not for me.”
To reproduce, cells multiply, and this involves dividing to form new cells.
A mushroom walks into a bar, sits next to a woman, and says, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” The woman gives him a dismissive look, and asks, “Who are you?” The mushroom replies, “I’m a fungi.”
Here the plural of fungus, fungi (also the phyletic classification of the Kingdom “Fungi”) is used as a pun for “fun guy”. Mushrooms are fungi.
Note: these are jokes I’ve heard or read “here and there”. I have no idea who the original authors are, or if they are copyrighted. If that is the case, and you don’t want me to feature your joke here or you want me to attribute it, please let me know.
Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt is in the public domain and was modified from the original.
A long time ago, back when I was a young teenager, my mother bought the book The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. This book is about the possession of a girl by a demon and her subsequent exorcism. My mother placed it in our book room. However, she thought that it contained things that were not appropriate for my age. So she called me over and explained that she had bought this book, but she did not want me to read it — Mom, really? Needless to say that as soon as I had a chance, I made a bee line for the book room and read the book: bad idea. The descriptions and the language in the book terrified me. I could not get the images and words out of my mind, and for about a week I did not sleep well. As soon as I turned off the light every sound and shadow in the room acquired a sinister nature, and I was be consumed by fear. At times I thought I saw things moving about my room. At times I thought I heard voices. It was really creepy, and the worst thing is that I could not tell my mother because she would figure out I had read the book! However, by the time I got to see the movie based on the book, I had gotten my act together enough to see the film without losing my composure.
Fast forward 20 years or so. I studied biology in college and later obtained a Ph.D. in Nutrition with a major in Biochemistry. I learned the ways of science and how matter and energy in this world operate based on specific physical, chemical, and biological principles. I published a weekly newspaper column entitled “The Scientific Truth” that dealt critically with pseudoscience and the paranormal. I still remembered my Exorcist-induced week of fright, but I interpreted what had happened to me under a whole new light.
What happened to me was due to the fact that human perception is not a passive event. We do not merely take input from the environment to directly construct our perception of the world around us, but rather we are constantly interpreting this input based on a set of parameters that the brain applies to make sense of reality, and these parameters can be changed by experience. That day so many years ago, I was exposed to very strong stimuli that reshaped the perception of reality by my brain. The noises and shadows in my bedroom at nighttime had not changed from the way they had always been, but my brain reinterpreted them in light of the new information obtained from reading the book and made me fear them. Fear is often a useful emotion that can keep us from harm, but when fear is too intense or not based realistic premises, it can have paralyzing and unhealthy effects.
I reasoned that my fear that night was a result of ignorance. Despite the claim that Blatty’s book was based on a real exorcism, not a single case of demonic possession has ever been conclusively demonstrated to be anything but mental illness. In the exorcisms that have taken place, objects don’t fly, lights don’t flicker, bodies don’t levitate, etc. The occurrences taking place in these events are within the realm of what’s possible when people experience mind-altering diseases. My fear that night was unwarranted. I felt a bit silly for having experienced it at all, and rolled my eyes at the gullibility of my former younger self.
So it happened that I found myself carrying out research that involved periodic trips to a faraway town by the sea, where I worked at a small research station. In one of these research trips, I was the only scientist working at the station. After I had been working for most of the day, there was a failure in the electric grid and the lights went out towards the late afternoon. Since my workroom didn’t have any windows, and I just had a rudimentary flashlight, I decided to call it a day. I had a quick dinner and headed into town right before dusk. There I came upon some of the local fishermen who had gathered around an improvised log fire. A couple of them worked with the research station, and I sat with them. The fishermen shared some of the local stories of the town’s past, and then as it got darker, they started telling ghost stories!
For the next two hours next to the flickering light of the fire and under a sky faintly lit by a crescent moon, I heard these adults talk about things they had seen or heard during their lives. The lore included screams and moans of unknown origin coming from the mountains adjacent to the town, strange vaporous figures floating around at night, things hovering over the sea waters or lurking just beneath them, open graves with missing corpses at the local cemetery, the doom that had befallen some people cursed by an alleged local witch, etc. I alternated between being amazed and amused. I didn’t know to what extent these people were exaggerating their stories, but most of them seemed very convinced that they were true. I knew that groups of skeptics had been systematically investigating one claim after another of ghosts, witches, paranormal occurrences and whatnot for decades finding nothing that could not be explained by science. However, I did not want to be disrespectful. These fishermen were bonding and apparently having a good time, so I kept my mouth shut.
After the group dissolved, I went back to the research station. It was quite dark and the silver glow of the moon gave the surrounding landscape a surreal pale phosphorescent tinge. Inside the research station it was pitch black and the faint light of my flashlight barely helped me make my way along the corridor that led to my bedroom. The shadows created by my flashlight seemed to move in strange ways, and I became aware of noises that I didn’t remember hearing before. Was there something lurking in the darkness beyond the glow of my flashlight? Was it moving towards me? The same sensations I had experienced 20 years ago came back in full force. This time, I was older. I knew better. I was not ignorant. I was not gullible, and yet, I was caught again in the grip of fear. Inside my brain an ancient program had been activated. A program derived from our animal ancestors, created by the forces of evolution, and amplified by superstition and ignorance. A program that for thousands of years made us fear what lay beyond the cave entrance or the perimeter of the campfire, even if there was nothing there. And I could not shut it down!
Thankfully an emotion stronger than fear came to my rescue: anger. I became extremely angry because, although I understood exactly what was happening to me, I was not able to control it. As I made my way along the dark corridor to my bedroom, I clenched my fist, waved it at the darkness, and screamed, “I’m a scientist”! This sounds stupid today, but that day it worked. I was able to counteract my fear with sheer outrage at how silly I felt at being manipulated by my own brain. After a couple of hours of more fist clenching, I was able to force myself to sleep. Next day the electricity returned, and that night I fell asleep uneventfully.
What I understood after this experience, is that mere knowledge and/or conviction that something does not exist and can’t harm us does not immunize us against fearing it. We have all grown up within a culture that through oral stories, movies, books, and other means has conditioned our brains to accept at a very primal level that things like demonic possession, ghosts, and other fictitious entities or occurrences exist, can harm us, and should be feared. This conditioning can at times manipulate us like puppets and make us feel things that we are not justified in feeling from a rational point of view.
But at least now I understand this: I am a scientist.
The cover of the book The Exorcist and the poster of the movie are copyrighted and used here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use. The ghost picture by Alexas_Fotos is from Pixabay and is licensed for public use.
I have written that science can replace magical thinking, superstition, or erroneous ideas or beliefs by ever more refined and focused views of reality though observation and experiment. And this is essentially true. Science has done away with many beliefs and ideas that were not backed by facts. However, these changes rarely happen overnight, and in fact they are often met with stiff opposition. A significant number of people won’t modify their thinking based merely on piles of scientific evidence. If one of the purposes of performing science is to generate knowledge that will help people, then scientists have to take the beliefs and cultural norms of societies into account when pursuing the application of scientific knowledge. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.
A long time ago a physician friend of mine was working in the Amazon jungle. He was tasked with helping the local natives with their medical needs. At the time, an outbreak of malaria was decimating some of the local tribes. My friend told me the story of how he had traveled by boat up a river for several days and then hiked through the jungle to reach a particularly remote tribe. He contacted the tribe’s healer and explained to him that he had some medicine that could help protect the tribe against malaria, but that it was not strong enough by itself, so he needed the help of the healer. He explained that if they combined his medicine with the healer’s powers, they would be able to beat the malaria scourge that was affecting the tribe. So my friend proceeded to treat all the members of the tribe and the healer proceeded to make his potions and perform his dances and rituals, and all the individuals in the tribe affected with malaria were cured.
On hearing this, I was astonished. Did my friend really think that the superstitious rituals and brews concocted by the tribe’s healer contributed or were needed at all to cure the malaria?
Now, let me be clear on two things. First, I agree that indigenous peoples throughout the world have developed a rich and effective arsenal of products derived from plants and animals in their environment to treat different ailments and conditions. Second, I also agree that in diseases that are self-terminating (i.e. those from which most people recover) the right psychological frame of mind can go a long way towards making individuals recover faster from their ailment. Even if a treatment is not really effective in curing a person, merely believing it is can make a difference in terms of how fast a person recovers their health. However, when it comes to certain extreme diseases, both indigenous medicine and psychology have limitations, and they cannot compete with medicines designed through evidence-based science.
When I questioned my friend about these matters, he agreed with me that the healer’s traditional methods were not effective against malaria, but then he stated that that was not the issue. He explained that in tribes like the one he visited, the healer is a central figure in the hierarchy of the tribe. In the eyes of his fellow tribe members, the healer is so important in the role of protecting the tribe from dangers both real and imagined, that a healer who is perceived as ineffectual can deeply affect the psychology of the tribe and impair the way the tribe faces difficult challenges. My friend said that if he had barged right in and cured everyone, he would have delegitimized the healer in the eyes of the tribe and done a greater damage to the tribe than malaria. This is why he concocted the story about the need to combine both treatments.
I was a bit shook up by this. I understood that from a practical point of view this approach made sense, but I remained ambivalent. I asked him, what about truth, facts, evidence, and reality? My friend replied that if enough people believe something no matter how preposterous, that belief for all practical purposes becomes a reality that you have to deal with if you are interested in helping out. If you go head on against these beliefs and disavow or belittle them, you will do more harm than good.
I have thought about what my friend said over the years, and I believe it has some truth. People have deeply held beliefs that are often very important to them. From a scientific point of view, I may understand that some of these beliefs can be demonstrated to be false such as, for example, the belief in creationism, but I have to understand that the mere generation of more data and its repetition will not sway minds. And I think that this is a concept that should be applied (and is actually being applied) to the opposition against many of the initiatives that we need to implement today such as dealing with global warming or dealing with an increasing number of unvaccinated children. This is especially true in our current polarized environment, where scientists are portrayed by many with vested interests either as atheistic, liberal, socialist individuals who want the government to take over the lives of regular folk, or as individuals beholden to corporate interests who deliberately hide, falsify, or mischaracterize data.
The success of the strategy I outlined above will depend on the approach. Very conservative and religious people will be suspicious of scientists warning them of how, unless we change our behavior, we will harm the planet. However, they may be more receptive if the focus is on the concept that humanity is the steward of creation; that we should take care of what God has created. This approach will be even more effective if it is implemented by individuals who share their own beliefs.
A similar approach is also needed with people who are hesitant to vaccinate their children because they believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of these people have been swayed by stories of human suffering interpreted within the context of false or simplistic alarmist explanations. Data and facts are important in combating these false or misleading narratives, but the human side of the issue has to be addressed if scientists wish to change some minds. Scientists should acknowledge the parent’s fears and stress that the common goal of everyone is to protect children, and explain that’s why scientists vaccinate their own children. They should talk about the millions of people alive today because of vaccines, about how the world was when smallpox, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and other diseases were prevalent in our societies. Again, these arguments will be more convincing if delivered by former vaccine opponents.
The human mind is very complex. Different people perceive the same reality in different ways determined by genes, experience, and culture. Some of these perceptions will not conform to the actual veridical reality that’s out there, but as explained above, this in itself constitutes a reality that must be taken into account if we truly want science to help humanity. Whether it is helping a tribe in the Amazon or getting people to go green or to vaccinate their children, science cannot operate in a vacuum.
Photo by Agência de Notícias do Acre used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.