I visited the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virgnia. The prison was built in 1866 and decommissioned in 1995, and now it is used as a museum. During its 129 years of existence the prison executed 94 inmates (85 by hanging and 9 by electrocution), but close to 1,000 other inmates died due to disease and violence. The guide that took us on the tour of the penitentiary regaled us with horrific stomach-churning tales of life in prison. From a mess hall and kitchen awash with maggots, roaches, and rats, and two and sometimes three inmates housed in 5 by 7-foot cells, to corruption, riots, escapes, beatings, stabbings, shootings, suicides, torture, dismemberments, rapes, and grisly botched executions. As we walked the hallways of the penitentiary and our footsteps echoed off its walls, we could vividly imagine the suffering that its denizens experienced for many years. The West Virginia Penitentiary was once listed in the Department of Justice’s “top ten most violent correctional facilities”. One of its nicknames was “Blood Alley”.
Tourism of the West Virginia Penitentiary can serve as a reminder of the history of incarceration in our country and how it is still transitioning to avoid cruel and unusual punishments and to focus on rehabilitation of inmates. But apart from that, this prison has become a hub for a different kind of interest: paranormal tourism and investigations!
Due to its violent past, the prison is said to be a place where paranormal phenomena are common. It has a rich lore of both inmates and guards hearing “voices” in empty rooms or seeing “shadows” or other apparitions walking the halls. Besides its regular tours, the West Virginia Penitentiary offers guided and unguided paranormal tours such as “Public Ghost Hunt”, “North Walk”, and “Thriller Thursdays”. There also are events with actors such as “The Dungeon”, and an escape room experience: “Escape the Pen: The Execution”. Paranormal investigators with their gear can also pay to stay overnight in the most haunted areas of the prison, and the prison hosts paranormal conferences with guests, speakers, vendors, music, and concessions. The prison has been featured in many programs and documentaries. When we asked our guide if he had seen any ghosts during his walks through the prison, he replied in a very matter of fact way that he has been occasionally prodded, poked, and scratched, or has had his cap swatted from his head when there was no one around, but that he has learned to ignore these events. He figured out that these are the things ghost do, so he doesn’t mind them.
So what’s a scientist (that would me me) to make of this? Well, the question is whether you regard the paranormal as a belief or as a physical phenomenon. If it is a belief, then you accept the paranormal as a matter of faith, and that’s the end of that. But if you claim it’s a real physical phenomenon, you have to produce reproducible evidence of high quality if you expect others to accept it.
For example, when you eat and the glucose level in your blood goes up, your pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which increases glucose uptake and metabolism by your organs, which brings the levels of the sugar in the blood back down. You can measure insulin and glucose concentrations in the blood. You can measure insulin release by the pancreas in response to glucose. You can show that insulin triggers glucose uptake and metabolism. You can work with isolated cells, or organs, or whole lab animals, or quantify the process in human beings. Many scientists from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and political and social persuasions, using different sources of funding and methodology, have obtained this result. This is a real physical phenomenon. It is considered settled science. The problem with the paranormal is that evidence of such quality is lacking.
The discipline of the investigation of paranormal events has not unified behind a leading theory or even a set of hypotheses to explain paranormal phenomena within the framework of modern science, and despite decades of “research” by thousands of individuals, paranormal investigation has yet to produce one battle-tested reproducible result that we can all accept as real. The reasons for this are many, and include a multiplicity of criteria regarding what constitutes a paranormal event, and how and when to detect it. Paranormal investigators who keep churning out testimonials, photos, videos, and sound recordings obtained in uncontrolled environments and in a fashion which does not rule out alternative explanations, will never convince any scientists. This is even more true today when there are many sophisticated methods of altering photographs, videos, and recordings.
But there is an even bigger problem with the whole paranormal research field. The West Virginia Penitentiary has over 100,000 paying visitors a year, which represents a sizeable source of income, and many of these visitors are drawn there not merely by the history of the prison, but by its ghostly reputation. The truth is that ghosts, or the possibility that they exist, sells. Paranormal investigators who produce videos or programs must provide their viewers what they want to see if they wish to earn any income. If they produce a string of videos or programs where they come up empty handed, their viewers will get bored and leave. If people are paying to see ghosts, you have to entertain them, you have to give them ghosts, or at least the impression that they may have felt, or seen, or heard something resembling the evidence for one.
With the commercial pressures to sell the existence of ghosts and the potential for self-delusion, dishonesty, and hoaxes, I am afraid that nothing short of capturing an actual ghost or finding one that appears or at least performs its antics regularly in the same place at the time and/or date (and can thus be studied reliably) will convince scientists that ghosts are real. Paranormal investigators may balk at these requirements calling them unfair, but I think that this is the high bar they need to clear to have their findings regarded as real.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission. Part of the information presented here was obtained from the book: Images of America West Virginia Penitentiary by Jonathan D. Clemins published in 2010 by Arcadia Publishing.
Many people decry science-based government regulation of medical products, cures, or devices as an intrusion on the freedom of the people to make up their own minds on the effectiveness of such things. In this age of heightened skepticism of government and scientists, this question is once again relevant. Why should government and scientists be the ultimate arbiters of what you can sell to people or what products they can buy and use? Why not leave it up to the consumers themselves?
With this question in mind, I visited the Museum of Quackery and Medical Frauds. This museum is located within the Science Museum of Minesota as an exhibit called “Weighing the Evidence”. The exhibit contains many bogus therapies and medical devices. In this essay, I will mention some.
An interesting pseudoscience featured in the museum is Phrenology. Phrenologists stated that distinct areas of the brain were responsible for an individual’s cognitive functions, and then they claimed that by measuring the shape of a person’s skull they could gain insight into the extent to which these brain areas underlying the skull determined a person’s behavior and cognitive abilities. The central assumption of phrenology was that any area having a dominant effect in the personality would result in the skull over that area exhibiting a bump, which they would measure. Phrenology has been debunked by scientists. The phrenology areas of the brain do not correlate to brain function, and the bumps in a person’s skull do not correlate to brain shape. Regardless, phrenology was very popular from the mid-1800s and into the first third of the 20th century, and was used for things such as defending and treating criminals, evaluating a parent’s love for a child, and matching people for marriage.
Whereas most phenologist relied on palpation, measuring tapes, or calipers to assess the “bumpiness” of the skull, others used more sophisticated equipment such as the psychograph. The museum has one such device invented and patented by businessman Henry C. Lavery which could measure a person’s skull and rate 32 different mental faculties from deficient to very superior. Needless to say, this is all bunk.
One picturesque character featured in the museum is Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was a bona fide surgeon and is most known as the inventor of the corn flake. Kellogg was also the staff physician of one of the most popular medical spas of the early 20th century, Battle creek Sanitarium. At this site he subjected his patients to all sorts of therapies that have not been validated by science such as electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, mechanotherapy, phototherapy, thermotherapy, and others. Kellogg was also a great believer in using vibrations because, according to him, they improved health and relieved constipation. To this end, he invented a vibratory chair that vibrated 60 times per second and of which a working model is featured in the museum. Again, there is no evidence that this therapy works.
There are many other bogus products and therapies featured in the museum ranging from tonics, magnets, and vibratory belts, to radio waves and lights of different colors. You may chuckle at some of the crazy claims, therapies, and devices featured in the museum, but it can be argued that at most they made people waste their money, and if the people liked them, that’s their business. The problem is that some therapies actually killed patients, and at the beginning of the 20th century the US government had limited authority to protect consumers.
For example, before the deleterious effects of the radioactive element radium became widely known, it began to be marketed as an all-natural enhancer of health that would restore vigor, improve sex life, and cure many diseases. Radium was included in a wide array of products ranging from chocolates and suppositories to toothpaste and dressings. This led to many people suffering from radiation poisoning and cancer.
One famous case was the radium girls. These were women working at factories painting the dials of watches with radium-laced paint, which they were told was harmless. As part of their work, the women would often lick their paintbrushes to sharpen them, a practice that was encouraged by their supervisors. These women developed several illnesses including widespread damage to their mandibles; a condition that became known as radium jaw. The radium girls, as they were then called, sued their employers, and the resulting trial and associated publicity led to the passing of labor safety and work compensation laws as well as the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Another famous case involved radium-laced water of which one particular brand was Radithor. The American industrialist and amateur golf champion Eben Byers was prescribed Radithor for an arm injury in 1927. He became a big fan of the stuff and over three years consumed 1400 bottles. Byers began losing his teeth and developed cancer in his mouth. His upper jaw and most of his lower jaw had to be removed leaving him severely disfigured, but his bones continued deteriorating and holes formed in his skull. He died in 1932 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His remains were exhumed in 1965 and were found to be dangerously radioactive. It has been calculated that Byers consumed more than three times the lethal dose of radium. Due to his high social profile, Byers became the poster boy for the ill-effects of radium, and its use declined thereafter.
The final case that led to strong regulation of health products and therapies were the 1937 deaths of more than 100 persons, many of them children, as a result of the ingestion of Elixir of Sulfanilamide which contained the poisonous solvent diethylene glycol. Next year congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and as a result of this a proof of safety would be required before the release of any new drug or cosmetics.
Going back to the question posed at the beginning of this post, history indicates that the average person is no match against bogus drugs or therapies cloaked in pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo backed by clever marketing campaigns. We need scientists to evaluate these things, ask questions about their safety and effectiveness, and conduct tests. We also need government to enforce the conclusions of the evaluation by the scientists. Additionally, many compounds or therapies may be safe but not effective or untested, and people want them to be labelled as such to prevent them from wasting their money. This is the function of science-based government regulation.
The photo of the bottle of Radithor by Sam LaRussa is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license. The other photographs belong to the author and cannot be used without permission.
Many years ago, I went to a staged production of Hairspray. This show was based on a 1988 movie by John Waters about a bunch of teenagers living in the city of Baltimore in the 1960s. In the staged production that we saw, the performance would stop at certain times and the author of the original film, John Waters, would speak from a lectern and tell amusing anecdotes about the movie and its actors. In the movie, the dream of the teen characters is to dance in one of the coolest shows on television, a teenage dance show called The Corny Collins Show. Due to the times, the Corny Collins Show is a segregated show where only white teens can dance except for one day a month (Negro Day) when black teens participate.
The star of the movie is Tracy Turnblad, played by actress Ricky Lake. Tracy and her friends, both black and white, spearhead an effort to desegregate the Corny Collins Show. At one point, John Waters informed us that the show featured in the movie was based on a real teenage dance show called the “Buddy Deane Show”, which ran from 1957 to 1964. This show was also segregated and only allowed black dancers every other Friday. With the Civil Rights movement at its apex, the pressure to desegregate the Buddy Deane Show mounted, but the home station that ran the show was unwilling to integrate the black and white dancers, so it just cancelled it.
At this point, John Waters interjected, “But who needs reality?” In his movie, Tracy and her friends succeed in integrating the Corny Collins show, and all the bigots get their comeuppance. Many years later, this is the moment of that function that I remember best. John Waters saying, “But who needs reality”. Being a scientist, I should, in principle, wince at that statement. After all, scientists are in the business of discovering reality. And we know how important reality is for human beings to live a life grounded in facts and evidence free of the shackles of ignorance and superstition. However, the truth is more complicated.
The are millions of human beings in this world living in societies mired in disease, poverty, disenfranchisement, exploitation, discrimination, repression, and violence. For many of these people, the hope that their condition will improve anytime soon, when viewed from any objective point of view, is nothing but a fantasy. Yet, in these societies, individuals ranging from poets, writers, painters, and filmmakers, to political and social leaders or just regular folks, articulate and visualize fantasies that their trials will end one day, and that that their wrongs will be made right.
Thus, fantasy can actually play a constructive role in our lives. Fantasy allows us to imagine a better future where good prevails over evil, and we overcome the intractable problems that burden us, to be free in that happily ever after ending, where the just are rewarded, and the wicked are punished. From fairy tales to movies such as Hairspray, fantasy can be a powerful motivator for change and a source of strength and inspiration that moves us to dream, hope, and act.
But fantasy can also be a destructive force, and we all had the opportunity to witness this on January 6th of 2021 when a mob of people stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to stop the counting the electoral college votes of the American people, to harm our elected representatives, and to overturn a fair and free election. These people had been told the lie that the election was stolen, and they believed it to the extent that they were willing to risk their livelihood, their freedom, and their lives to contravene the will of the majority of their fellow Americans. I want to clarify here that I am not making a political point. All the evidence we have indicates that the 2020 election was not stolen. This is an objective description of reality. Arguing otherwise is unreasonable.
Now we come to the crux of my argument, which I am presenting here as my opinion. Most fantasies have at their core grievances that are real. But what is the grievance that spawned the fantasy that led to the denial of the election results and fueled January 6th? The people involved in these activities had been told for years that there is a cabal of nefarious entities such as the elites, the deep state, the fake news media, liberal Marxists, environmentalists, atheists, LGBT people, and others who hate them and their way of life. And these entities allegedly seek to control or destroy them by several means including manipulating the laws, the schools, the elections, the government, and other things. This is the bogus grievance which has spawned the fantasy among these people that they are under attack, and thus they need to strike back and defeat those who threaten them before it is too late. And after they do so, they will usher in a new era in our republic where their way of life will be safe once again and the bad people will be punished.
When this fantasy is accepted, facts, evidence, and reason become irrelevant, and trust in our institutions and their safeguards against abuse of power become non-existent. This is how a fair and free election became a “fraud” where their votes were cancelled and their candidate was denied his rightful victory. This is how a call to a protest, where they were told that if they didn’t fight like hell and show strength they wouldn’t have a country anymore, was interpreted as a directive to attack the very heart of our democracy while they risked life and limb in doing so.
This is the frightening power of fantasy. When it arises out of the noblest desires of humanity for a better future, it can be a formidable constructive force, but when it arises out of fear and ignorance fed by lies and misinformation, it can become a formidable force of destruction.
The United States Capitol attack collage by Aca1291 is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. The Hairspray movie poster is used here under the doctrine of Fair Use.
I have tried to communicate a fact to my readers regarding the nature of our perception of reality in some of my blog posts, but judging from some of the replies I’ve received, I don’t seem to have gotten the point across. This may have happened because my explanation was one of several ideas I was writing about. So I’ve decided to make the perception of reality the main topic of this post. Let’s go.
As the title of this post implies, what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is fake. What do I mean by fake? What I mean is that what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are not physical realities that are “out there” and are independent from you. And here let me clarify that I am not being flippant or just “expressing my opinion”. What I am telling you is a fact that is accepted by scientists and was discovered a long time ago. This is old news.
How can this be? Is life then a dream or some other sort of mystic stuff? The answer is “no”. Let me explain.
The brain detects the reality around us through receptors present in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. When these receptors are triggered by outside stimuli, they generate an electric signal that travels by the nerves to our brain. So what our brain receives is not light, or sound, or smell, or taste, or tactile signals. What the brain receives is just electric signals. Once these signals arrive to the centers of the brain responsible for perception, these electric signals are filtered, organized, and integrated to CREATE perception. Did you notice that in the previous sentence I put the word “create” in caps and underlined it? Yes, the brain generates a perception for us that is very different from the physical reality present “out there” that generated the signals which were detected by the receptors in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. Let’s see how.
We see color, but color is just a brain-generated representation of the wavelength of the light rays that strike our eyes. The physical reality out there is that light rays have different wavelengths, but we don’t see wavelengths. In fact, if it were not for science, we would not know that light has a wavelike nature! What the brain does is create an internal representation of these different wavelengths where we perceive short wavelengths as purple and long wavelengths as red.
With regards to hearing, it’s the same thing. The mechanical perturbations in the air around us reach our ears as compression waves, and by pretty much the same process as vision the brain generates an internal representation of these waves where we perceive short waves as high pitch sounds and the long ones as low pitch sounds.
In the case of smell and taste, the receptors in our nose and mouth detect the chemical structure of compounds in the air, food, or drink, and the brain generates the different fragrances and flavors we perceive. The reality “out there” is not fragrances and flavors, but merely chemical structures.
Finally, there are receptors in our skin that send the brain a signal when, for example, they detect a difference in temperature. This signal is integrated by our brain to generate the sensations of hot or cold that we experience. The reality “out there” is differences in heat content, but we perceive this as “hot” or “cold”. Something similar happens for other skin sensations such as the compression of our skin (which we perceive as pressure) or the damage to our skin (which we perceive as pain).
This is why, as I stated in the title of this post, everything you perceive is fake. What you perceive is not a real (veridical) representation of the reality “outside” of you. And of course, the way our brain perceives reality also affects vastly more complicated things such as the emotions we experience, the convictions we have, or the actions we take.
But, if this is true, how can we even function?
The answer is because there is a correlation between the reality “out there” and our perception of it. And we know this correlation is high because life would otherwise not be possible (if you don’t recognize the edge of a cliff as you approach it, you will die). This is a situation analogous to when you work with a computer. You create and move and delete files all the time in your screen, but the physical processes taking place in your screen are very different from the physical processes that are taking place in the hard drive of the computer (so much so that some people in information technology refer to the screen as the user illusion). However, because they are correlated, it works. Thus, at the level of our basic senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), our perception of reality although fake, is not false.
So, if there is a correlation between the sensations that our brain generates and the reality “out there”, why should this even be an issue worthy of consideration? The reason is that the correlation between reality and what we perceive is not 100% percent. There are many well-known illusions that can fool our senses because they exploit this disconnect between reality and perception. But at more complex levels, there are many biases in our perception of reality that can lead us to filter said reality and distort our perception of it to the point that it becomes false. For example, many people still accept conspiracy theories such as those denying the results of the 2020 election, the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, the 911 attacks, or the moon landing. Others accept false world views such as creationism, QAnon, or the flat Eart.
How our way of perceiving reality can lead to its distortion is an active area of research in scientific fields ranging from molecular neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience to psychology and economics.
"Five Senses" by TheNickster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
In 2021, at the ripe age of 90 years, William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek the Original Series, boarded the Blue Origin Space Shuttle with 3 other passengers and launched into space. The spacecraft followed a suborbital path that allowed its occupants to experience weightlessness and view the Earth for a few minutes before reentry. This experience profoundly affected Shatner. He says that he was expecting that going into space would be the next step to understanding the harmony of the universe and the connection between all living things. Instead, he experienced a profound grief — as if he was attending a funeral. This was because when he looked away from the warm colors and beauty of the Earth teeming with life towards space, he just saw death everywhere. Space was a black, cold, vast emptiness that stood in stark contrast to the thin layer of atmosphere that we inhabit on our planet.
What Shatner felt is not new. In fact, it has been felt by so many people travelling into space that it was given a name in 1987 by writer Frank White who christened it the “Overview Effect”. This effect causes a shift in the way people see the world. They no longer see countries but rather only a group of human beings living in one world floating in the void of space. They see life on our planet as interconnected and fragile, and in need of being preserved and protected from the damage we are causing to it. After decades of playing a character that would board a starship and boldly go off towards the final frontier, Shatner realized that he had gotten it wrong. The beauty is not up there but down here, and we should devote ourselves to our planet and each other.
If you have been reading my blog, you can probably figure out that I agree with Shatner. We have to protect our planet. For example, we have to transition to green sources of fuels to deal with global warming, and we have to address the harm we are causing the environment by dumping waste such as plastics into our oceans. However, I disagree with Shatner in one very important aspect. The future of humanity is not on Earth. Our future lies in the stars, and we should waste no time in figuring out how to get there.
Why would this be? Let me explain.
The future of the Earth is to be destroyed by the sun. Our sun is halfway through its life cycle in which it fuses hydrogen to helium, producing the heat that we all feel during the day. Eventually the amount of hydrogen will decrease to a point that the sun will begin fusing helium to heavier elements, but this will mean that our sun will expand outward and become much hotter turning into a red giant. This expansion will basically fry the Earth, boiling our oceans, and scorching our continents. And what I have just described will take place in 5 billion years. However, in practice, our planet will become inhabitable due to other effects of the sun nearing the end of its life cycle such as deoxygenation due to increased solar flux. So the time we have left on Earth is really about 1 billion years or so.
Now you are probably frowning or rolling your eyes. One billion years is a really long, long time. By then, if we have not ruined our planet, our descendants will have figured out a way to move away from Earth. Why should we worry?
Consider the following.
The furthest object that humanity has sent into space is the Voyager 1 probe. This probe is currently travelling at the hefty speed of 35,000 miles per hour, and it was launched 46 years ago in 1977. During that time, it has covered a distance of 14.5 billion miles, which is 21.6 light hours (a light hour is the distance light travels in an hour). How far away is the nearest star to Earth? The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away, which is 37,168 light hours. This means that in 46 years Voyager 1 has only covered 0.06% of the distance to the nearest star! We currently have no way of covering the humongously ginormous vast distances of interstellar space in any reasonable amount of time.
But it’s not enough to just travel to the nearest star. We need a new planet to settle in. As an approach to identifying a possible planet to colonize (an exoplanet), astronomers try to figure out whether the planet is a rocky world (as opposed to a planet made out of gas such as Jupiter) and whether it lies in the “habitable zone” of a star. This is the zone where water can exist in liquid form. Proxima Centauri has a planet in this zone but it’s probably so close to its star that it receives lethal levels of ultraviolet radiation making it unsuitable for human life. Other planets that astronomers have found in the habitable zone are orbiting stars that are dozens to thousands of light years away from Earth.
Of course, even if we find one such planet, there are myriad of other issues to resolve such as whether the atmosphere will be breathable, whether there is indigenous life compatible with our presence ranging from microbes to an intelligent species that will not want us there, etc. Finally, also consider that I have not addressed other problems such as the long-term effects of space travel on the human body.
To me the solution of these problems seems daunting and may require an enormous amount of time. However, you can argue that using science and technology we will find a way much in the same way that we have solved other problems that in the past seemed unsolvable. This may well be so, but at the moment all we have is uncertainty.
So, I agree with William Shatner that we must focus on our planet and deal with important issues such as global warming, global warming denial, habitat destruction, pollution, and other things. But we must not forget that, however long, our time on this world is finite. So in that sense, I agree with Captain James T. Kirk that we must boldly go where no one else has gone before. We must begin planning our trek to the stars because that is where our long-term future lies.
Shatner describes his experience in his book: Boldly Go.
The captain Kirk photograph by NBC Television is in the public domain. The William Shatner photograph by Super Festivals is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Even though my youth was spent in several Latin American countries, we had our share of visits by rock and roll bands, and my friends and I didn’t miss the chance to go see them. In this way I got to see bands like The Hollies, Santa Esmeralda, Van Halen, and Queen, and solo performers such as Donna Summers, Joe Cocker, and Peter Frampton. Besides the big international bands and singers, we also had our fill of concerts by local bands. And because we were young, we also partied a lot and danced to the rhythms of the waves of rock and roll, disco, punk, and new wave genres that over the years washed over our musical landscapes. What all the foregoing had in common was the fact that we were exposed to very loud sounds, so much so, that we often woke up the next morning after a concert or a party with our ears ringing. And we considered this to be cool!
What can I say? We were ignorant, and no adult had the good sense to call us out on our folly. Now fast forwards 40 years, and what do we have? Tinnitus and hearing loss! How does this happen? Let’s look first at how hearing takes place.
Sound waves reach the ears and make the ear drum vibrate. On the inside surface, the ear drum is attached to a small bone called the malleus, which is attached to another bone called the incus, which is in turn attached to yet another bone called the stapes. The stapes is connected to a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea. These bones have the function of amplifying the sound waves. Vibrations of the ear drum transmit through these three bones to the cochlea, where they are detected. The way this happens is that the cochlea is filled with fluid, and when the stapes vibrates upon the cochlea, it creates waves in the fluid that travel the length of this organ. The cochlea has hair cells which are moved back and forth in response to the waves travelling through the liquid, and these cells have specialized projections called “stereocilia”. Some of the hair/stereocilia structures are sensitive to waves of longer wavelengths (low pitch) such as those produced by the sound of a drum, while others are sensitive to waves of shorter wavelengths (high pitch) such as those produced by the sound of a whistle. When stimulated by these sounds, the stereocilia create an electrical signal that travels to the base of the nerve cells where they are relayed to neurons, which transmit the signal to the brain. The brain integrates these signals from both ears and creates the sensation of sound.
Evolutionarily speaking, the human ear is not designed to deal with very loud sounds, just the opposite. The ears of our animal ancestors, as most other animals, had to detect the faint sounds of a stalking predator or of a prey slipping away. In nature, loud sounds are the exception rather than the rule. Prolonged exposure to very loud sounds has a destructive effect on the hair cells of the cochlea. There are about 16,000 of these hair cells in this organ, and when one of these cells dies, it cannot be replaced. In fact, by the time a hearing test detects a hearing loss, about 30-50% of the cells in the cochlea have been damaged or have died.
Loudness is measured in a unit called a decibel, but this unit is not linear. Regular human speech is 65 decibels, while busy urban traffic at 85 decibels is four times louder than human speech, and the common loudness of a rock concert at 115 decibels is ten times louder than human speech. Continuous exposure to 85 decibels for 8 hours can produce hearing loss, while at 115 decibels, this can happen in one minute. Consider then that the loudness of some rock concerts has been measured at more than 140 decibels! It has been estimated that by 2050 there will be 50 million people suffering hearing loss from exposure to very loud music. Additionally, in many people when the brain ceases to receive the inputs from dead cochlear hair cells it creates a buzzing sound called tinnitus, which can range from barely perceptible to a debilitating loud sound.
Hearing loss can create communication problems at work and with family, friends, and acquaintances leading to emotional problems and social withdrawal. As if that were not enough, hearing loss has another consequence: dementia! Epidemiological studies have found that individuals with hearing loss are at a greater risk of dementia. The good news is that wearing hearing aids does not only allow you to hear better, but it also reduces your risk of dementia by half. Unfortunately, only 14% of adults with hearing loss wear hearing aids.
So, to wrap this up, if you attend concerts and other events in an environment with loud sounds, please wear ear plugs. Losing your hearing is not cool (take it from me, I learned it the hard way). Also, if you experience difficulty hearing well, get yourself tested for hearing loss, and if you have it, please wear hearing aids. Not being able to communicate well with others and developing dementia is also not cool. Today’s hearing aids are barely detectable, so don’t fret about that. Science has provided us with the understanding and the technology to deal with hearing loss. Accept this gift of science, and wear the hearing aids!
The image by Cenveo is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
When it comes to scientists, one of the most recognized names in our world is that of Albert Einstein. Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, is the creator of the theory of relativity which led to the prediction of amazing things such as deflection of light by gravity, gravitational lensing, black holes, gravitational waves, and the expanding universe, all of which have all been proven by many observations and experiments. Einstein ushered in a revolution in physics. He clearly was a genius, but in some aspects the way his mind worked was no different from that of any average human being.
Deflection of Light
Both Newton’s theory of gravitation and Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that light would be deflected by a strong gravitational field, but Einstein’s theory predicted that light would be deflected by an amount roughly double of that predicted by Newton’s theory. In 1919 during a solar eclipse, it was observed that indeed light from stars close to the sun was deflected by an amount compatible with Einstein’s theory. This result, which made Einstein a worldwide sensation, has been verified with increasing accuracy many times since then. But what is less well known is that Einstein had originally made a calculation error which led him to find a deflection value no different from that predicted by Newton’s theory. This meant that the observation of the deflection of the light of stars by the sun would have disagreed with both theories. Thankfully, by the time the observation was made, Einstein had corrected his mistake, and the actual magnitude of the deflection agreed with his theory.
Einstein had figured out that, according to his theory of relativity, the strong magnetic field of a star could act as a lens and amplify the light of other distant stars behind it. But he realized the effect would be very small and fleeting, so did not deem it worthwhile publishing anything about it. However, in 1936 an amateur scientist named Rudi W. Mandl also figured out that this was one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory. He contacted Einstein who agreed the effect was indeed predicted by his theory and, after some pestering, consented to write an article about it. Einstein wrote the article acknowledging Mandl’s contribution, but stated in it that there is no chance of observing this phenomenon. At the time Einstein wrote this, he was thinking in terms of stars because the realization that there were distinct galaxies beyond our own was relatively new, and astronomers had not yet understood the real vastness of the universe. But astronomers eventually figured out that entire galaxies could act as gravitational lenses, and the first example of such a lens was discovered in 1979.
Another consequence of the theory of general relativity was the possibility of the existence of black holes, but Einstein was also dismissive of these entities, and he published an article in 1939 using his own theory to argue that black holes did not exist. In the decades after Einstein’s death in 1955, the evidence for the existence of black holes accrued until 2019 when a black hole was photographed for the first time.
Einstein’s theory of relativity included the possibility of the existence of gravitational waves, but he confided to some colleagues that he was skeptical about their existence or the possibility that they would ever be detected. He followed this by another article where he specifically examined the math behind such waves, but in this article, as was pointed out to him by other scientists, he made a calculation error. Two years later, he published another article where he corrected his previous error and finally laid down the correct mathematical framework for describing gravitational waves. However, Einstein remained skeptical about the reality of such waves.
Two decades later, in 1936, Einstein revisited the issue of gravitational waves in another article where he argued that the math really did not favor of the existence of such waves after all. He sent this article for publication in a science magazine, but the magazine sent the article to a reviewer who found a mistake in Einstein’s calculations. When Einstein redid the calculations, he found that the math did support the existence of gravitational waves after all! Still, the whole notion of the existence of gravitational waves was too outrageous for Einstein to accept. Untill the day of his death, he remained skeptical that these waves were anything but a mathematical construct, and even if they were real, he thought that they would be so faint that it would be impossible to detect them. The first gravitational waves were detected in 2015.
Expansion of the Universe
In 1917, Einstein wrote an article where he used his theory of general relativity to examine the universe. To his surprise, he found that the math indicated that the universe would expand forever. However, astronomical knowledge at the time indicated that the universe was supposed to be unchanging, so Einstein came up with a mathematical solution. He included a “cosmological constant” in the calculations, which prevented the universe from expanding forever. Other scientists challenged Einstein on this notion to the point that he conceded his original math without the constant was right, but he still doubted the reality of his conclusions. It was only after Edwin Hubble demonstrated in 1929 that the universe is indeed expanding that the prediction of Einstein’s theory were found to be right.
The above reveals how one of the greatest minds that humanity has ever seen worked. Einstein made mistakes. He was unsure about the implications of his theory. He changed his mind several times. He doubted or dismissed the existence of some of the very things that he is credited with predicting, and he sometimes even lacked the vision to imagine future realities.
This is how real science works and what real scientists are like. Science is messy. Scientists screw up. They vacillate, they change their minds, and sometimes they are unable to grasp the real consequences of the very things they propose. This IS normal, and is something that happens to everyone. But in the current poisoned climate where scientists on the “wrong” side of the culture wars are attacked for making mistakes, flip-flopping, or saying the wrong thing during an interview and so forth, one wonders if, for example, the discoveries that Einstein made would have been possible if he had been subjected to the scrutiny and slander that some scientists are subjected to nowadays.
The photograph of Albert Einstein by Orren Jack Turner obtained from the Library of Congress is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 and the copyright was not renewed.
I recently watched a documentary about how from 1994 to 2004 a person impersonating a police officer called dozens of fast-food restaurants in over 30 states and convinced the managers of the places to strip search one of their employees. The caller would vaguely describe an alleged female employee of the restaurant and claim she was suspected of stealing money from a customer. The manager would then bring in the employee that most closely resembled the description, and then the caller would give them the option of performing a strip search there or of being taken to the police station. The caller talked calmly, fluently, and used a very authoritative voice. He had a great command of psychology, and during the grueling sessions, which often went on for hours, he was able to manipulate otherwise decent law-abiding citizens into performing and submitting to lewd unlawful acts.
The most dramatic of these events was that of Louise Ogbron, an 18-year-old employee of a Kentucky McDonalds restaurant who was strip searched by an assistant manager and her fiancé, but in her case the whole ordeal was recorded by a security camera. This video, which shocked the nation, was played in a lawsuit brought by Ogbron against McDonalds, in which she won a settlement.
Whoever the caller was, he destroyed lives. Many of the managers and associated people who conducted the strip searches were fired and shunned by their communities, and some were brought to trial and convicted. Many of the women who were strip searched suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A man suspected of being the caller was arrested and brought to trial, but he was acquitted by a jury.
Most people are puzzled by occurrences such as these. How can average people be manipulated by a mere phone call into carrying out or enduring these acts? Why not just refuse and hang up the phone? Why not just say no to being strip searched?
And this brings us to the famous Milgram experiment.
In a series of experiments begun in 1961, Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, researched how people react to authority figures. The subjects (all men) under study in the experiment were asked to participate in what was described as a “learning task”, which investigated the effect of punishment on learning. The task involved the subject and a confederate of the experimenter who were seemingly sorted at random into being a “teacher” or a “learner”. However, the subject was always selected as the “teacher”. The teacher and the learner were then seated in separate rooms, but they could hear each other over a microphone. The learner was allegedly connected to an electrode, and the role of the teacher was to read words out loud, which the learner was supposed to memorize. The teacher would then ask the learner to repeat the words, and if the learner failed to repeat them correctly, the teacher was supposed to deliver electric shocks of an intensity that increased with each mistake.
The learner did not really receive any shocks but pretended to receive them, and he would also make mistakes on purpose. At the 75-volt level, the learner started screaming. This screaming became louder with increasing intensity of the shocks, and the learner would complain that his “heart was bothering him” as the 300-volt level was being reached. After the 300-volt level was reached, the learner went silent. As the subject (teacher) delivered shocks of increasing intensity that elicited louder screams, the experimenter would prod the subject to continue if the subject had any qualms about delivering the shocks, reassuring him that the shocks did not inflict any permanent damage and that it was necessary for the study.
The results of the experiment horrified Milgram.
Despite the learner’s increasingly louder screams, 65% of the subjects keep delivering shocks up to the maximum 450-volt level even after the learner went “silent” when the 300-volt level was reached. Many of the subjects experienced serious distress as a result of what they were asked to do, nonetheless a large number of them complied with the experimenter’s requests. Milgram surmised from his experiments that when prodded by a person whom people believe to be an authority figure (in this case the experimenter), many individuals will comply with their instructions even if they go against some of their strongest moral imperatives against harming fellow human beings. Other researchers at the time also repeated experiments similar to Milgram’s and obtained more or less similar results.
The methodology and conclusions of Milgram have been criticized, and national experimental guidelines enacted in the seventies have rendered these types of experiments unethical, so they cannot be reproduced today. But more benign forms of the experiment have been conducted with similar results. It is because of this that some people argue that the acts performed or endured by people in the strip-search phone hoax in response to what they thought were the requests of a policeman (an authority figure) can be explained in the context of Milgram’s experimental results.
The original context of the Milgram experiment was about people hurting other people when prodded by an authority figure, but I wonder if this prodding can be employed in more subtle ways. In present times, we are faced with the reality that large numbers of people have decided to forgo reason and accept misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracies such as those related to the antivaccine movement, the denial of the results of the 2020 election, or the bizarre QAnon world view. And these people have their trusted messengers whom they revere and whose utterances they accept as true. Could it be that these people view these trusted messengers as authority figures? Could it be that when these authority figures tell them to essentially disavow or ignore common sense, they somehow feel it’s OK to do it even though something inside them tells them that what they are accepting is inaccurate or wrong?
I don’t know if this is true, but in view of the results of the Milgram and other similar experiments, it is certainly a possibility to consider.
The image by Nick Youngson from Pix4free is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
One of the accusations that I often hear nowadays is that a given person arguing for something is biased. Those who promote conspiracy theories use this very epithet against anyone who dares to criticize them, and likewise, those who dismiss conspiracy theory proponents argue that they are the ones who are biased. In the popular mind, a “bias” is a negative thing to have, and the condition of being biased is synonymous with not being able to know the truth. The “bias” label is particularly contemptuous when levied against a scientist. After all, scientists are in the business of discovering the truth about the way matter and energy behave in the world around us. How can scientists discover the truth if they are biased? In popular culture a biased scientist is as blind as a bat incapable of echolocation, and whatever science they do will not reflect reality.
Let’s first address this issue by stating the obvious. We are all biased, and most of the time the biases we have are not something we have consciously chosen to have, but rather they are a consequence of the way the wiring of our brain has interacted with our particular life experience and the stimuli to which we are currently exposed. But being biased is not something that is necessarily negative. In fact, as it turns out, bias has a useful function! It allows us to simplify the complexity of our world in order to gain a measure of control over it. A bias allows us to quickly take action rather than be paralyzed by a multiplicity of seemingly equivalent alternatives. From this point of view, bias actually has a survival value and may have played a role in the successful evolution of our species.
The downside of bias is, of course, that you will blind yourself to the truth. Thus, to avoid bias, some people suggest that we should keep an open mind. However, this suggestion, although well meaning, is misguided. If you keep your mind too open, people will dump a lot of trash into it. The proper way to deal with bias is not to keep an open mind. The proper way to address bias is to strike a balance; what I call “finding the Goldilocks zone”. This entails accepting that we are all biased, that we can’t help being biased, and that, in fact, a bit of bias can be a good thing, while at the same time taking steps to counter the excess bias in ourselves through thought and action.
Now let me tell you how scientists do this.
But before I do that, let’s state that science has a healthy inbuilt bias. Science has a bias for established science. The majority of scientists believe that accepting something as true when it is false, is a greater evil than rejecting something as false when it is true. This is because established science has at least grasped some aspects of reality. If other scientists want to replace established science with a more complete description of reality, then the burden of proof is on them. This bias for established science is needed to protect science from error.
Thus, you may ask: If scientists are biased for established science, how can they discover anything new?
The answer is by using anti-bias protocols. For example, scientists will analyze or score the results of some experiments in a blind fashion. This involves the person doing the scoring or the analyses not knowing the identity of the different experimental groups. In clinical trials this involves the patients not knowing which treatments they received or even both the patients and the doctors not knowing which treatment is which (double blind protocol). Scientists will also seek to reproduce each other’s observations or experimental results. If an observation or an experimental result cannot be reproduced, then it will not gain traction. Finally, some funding agencies will devote a certain amount of their resources to funding scientists with unorthodox views to promote the debate of alternative views in a scientific field.
But how can non-scientists counter their biases?
First of all, you have to be exposed to all the facts. For example, if you listen only to conservative or liberal media, you will not learn about some issues or views. You need to listen to the other side. However, this does not mean that you have to force yourself to listen the conspiracy-laden drivel coming out of far right or far left media. Instead try to locate a moderate news source or a news source that leans slightly towards the opposite side of the political spectrum that you favor. The idea is not to open your mind to what these news outlets have to say, but rather to become aware of the issues they are covering, why they find them important, and what their arguments are. Avoid insulating yourself and living in an “echo chamber”.
Second, try to identify a person from the other side who holds views different from yours and sit down to have a talk one day. But when I say “person”, I don’t mean a nutjob who spews far-out nonsense and will engage you in a shouting match. Choose a reasonable person. There are quite a number of these out there. A rule of thumb to choose a reasonable person is to look for someone who, despite disagreements, accepts that “the other side” has made valuable contributions and is necessary to the debate. Nothing beats discussing issues with an individual who disagrees with you but also respects you.
And finally, learn to identify the characteristics of bias. Sweeping generalizations, innuendo, exaggerations, hearsay, judging the many by the actions of the few, the creation of strawmen, ignoring weaknesses in arguments, not seeing the forest for the trees, and attacking the person instead of the argument are all things that signal an emotional and irrational approach to issues that is indicative of a person who is biased and therefore unable to correctly grasp reality. Ask yourself if you are exhibiting these traits when you engage in arguments. Ask others who will tell you the truth if you are exhibiting these traits.
So to wrap it up, a little bias is acceptable and even healthy, but too much bias can mess up your perception of reality. When it comes to bias, try to find the Goldilocks zone.
The image “Goldilocks tastes the porridge” from the New York Public Library is used here under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication ("CCO 1.0 Dedication") license.
2020 Election Redux: My Opinion is as Valid as Yours! When Do We Declare Someone to Be Unreasonable?Read Now
I have debated many conspiracy theorists on Twitter. In the majority of the cases the arguments they put forth are a mishmash of innuendo, hearsay, selective quoting of the evidence, exaggeration, misinformation, and ignorance. After some back and forth where I rebut their claims with evidence and facts, we reach a point where these individuals argue that in the end, it’s my opinion against theirs, and that I have my trusted sources and they have theirs. The implication is, of course, that both are equivalent. But when it comes to certain issues, nothing could be further from the truth. Take for example the notion that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and that Mr. Trump really won by a landslide.
Although this may seem like a political issue that I should not be discussing in a science blog, I have already explained that the questions “Who won the election?” and “Was the election fraudulent?” are both scientific questions because they can be answered with evidence. Thus, in my exchanges with 2020 election conspiracists I present the facts:
Out of 64 cases that Trump and his allies brought to federal courts, he lost 63. Conspiracists claim that most of these cases were dismissed on technical or procedural grounds without considering the merits of the cases, but this is not true. Only 20 of these cases were dismissed before hearing the merits, whereas 30 cases were dismissed after considering the merits of the case, and 14 were withdrawn by Trump and his backers before the hearing of the merits. In several of the cases the courts, which also included Trump-appointed judges, issued stinging rebukes of the unsupported claims of election fraud. A group of prominent conservatives has systematically reviewed the claims brought about by the Trump campaign and their allies in each of these lawsuits and found them to be unsupported by the evidence.
The Department of Justice led by Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, found no evidence of election fraud. Neither did the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. Multiple audits and recounts of the results in swing states affirmed that Mr. Trump lost. A Michigan Republican state senator, Ed McBroom, led an 8 month investigation into the legitimacy of the Michigan election and found no evidence of fraud. A GOP-backed review of the Arizona election found that indeed Biden had won. Official examination of voter fraud claims in Georgia did not reveal any fraud of a magnitude to overturn the election. The Trump campaign employed a research firm to review voting data from six swing states, but the firm did not find anything that would have overturned the result of the 2020 election. Trump was told he lost by some of his inner circle of advisers, but he ignored them.
There were no major problems with drop boxes for mailed ballots. The expansion of postal voting did not lead to widespread fraud. Mail-in-ballots are secure and widely used in the United States even before the 2020 election. There is no evidence that Biden received more than 8 million excess votes in the 2020 election. A scientific study analyzed statistical claims of alleged systematic voter fraud in the 2020 election, and found them to be unconvincing. The movie “2000 Mules” which posits that people aligned with Democrats were paid to illegally collect and drop ballot boxes in several swing states has been conclusively debunked. The type of affidavits claiming voter fraud presented by Trump and his allies to the courts were mostly hearsay, guesses, speculation, or ignorance of election procedures, and could not be taken as proof of voter fraud.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has been suspended from practicing law in New York for making false claims about the 2020 election. Another Trump layer, Jenna Ellis, was censured in Colorado for making false claims about the 2020 election. Trump’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, who is being sued by a voting machine company, Dominion, for claiming that the company stole the election from Trump, is arguing that “No Reasonable Person’ Would Believe Her Dominion Conspiracy Theories Were ‘Statements of Fact’.”
The Dominion lawsuit has also uncovered that the talking heads and executives of the Fox News channel did not believe the election fraud claims of Trump and his allies, but nevertheless they kept giving them airtime to avoid losing viewers. Thus, all the people who relied on Fox News as a trusted information outlet for commentary on the election fraud issue were willfully deceived by individuals who did not believe that what they were communicating to them was true. But there is still a majority of Republicans who think that the election was stolen and that there is solid evidence for it.
So far the evidence indicating that there was no fraud in the 2020 election of a scale that would alter its outcome is truly formidable. Nevertheless, election conspiracy advocates dismiss the investigations carried out by election officials, elected representatives, watchdog groups, the media, and government agencies as biased or indecisive, and they dismiss the court case results as not being based on merits. They also label any Republicans involved (many of whom voted for Trump) “RINOS” (Republicans In Name Only), while claiming that others are not to be trusted because they are part of the “Deep State”, part of the “fake news” media, etc.
There is a criterion to decide whether someone is acting reasonably or not. This involves asking them, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the person cannot answer this question and commit to changing their mind if the evidence is produced, then we can assume that this person is being unreasonable. The opinion of an unreasonable person is not equivalent to that of a reasonable one, and this is not a trivial point. When unreasonable persons act and/or sway others to act based on falsehoods, this can lead to dire consequences such as the storming of the Capitol on January 6th 2021 by a mob enraged over an election that was never stolen.
Being reasonable matters.
Image by El Sun from Pixabay is free to use for commercial and non-commercial purposes.