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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, October 30, 2015

Scientists Have No Explanation for Ghosts

While on the “Real Clear Science” web site (www.realclearscience.com) this week I saw a link to an article entitled “Six Scientific Explanations for Ghosts” (hosted here on mentalfloss.com). Below is a discussion of why none of these explanations do anything to explain the mystery of apparition sightings or sightings of ghostly figures.

Faulty Explanation #1: Electromagnetic Fields

The first attempted explanation refers to some research by Michael Persinger in which he bombards people's brains with magnetic fields. Persinger reports people have strange mental effects when their brains have been bombarded with magnetic fields, after some weird “God helmet” has been put on their heads. But such research is of no value in explaining sightings of apparitions or sightings of ghosts at haunted houses, by people who are not wearing weird helmets that bombard their brains with magnetic fields. Such research might be relevant if there was a strong tendency for apparition sightings to occur mainly about regions with high magnetic fields, such as houses next to power plants or houses next to power transformers. But there is no such tendency.

Faulty Explanation #2: Infrasound

Infrasound is sound at a level too low for humans to hear. Supposedly if you are bombarded with infrasound, you may feel uncomfortable, and feel some mental distress. But there is no good evidence that infrasound can cause hallucinations, so it's not a suitable hypothesis to explain ghosts. The article cites some claimed evidence trying to link infrasound and a ghost sighting, but the evidence is extremely weak. The evidence (given here)  is merely that a researcher was at a lab he was told was haunted. The researcher saw something strange-looking at the edge of his field of view, and when he focused on that area the “apparition” was gone. Later he found there was some fan that was causing infrasound, and after that fan was fixed, he didn't see any more apparitions. That's hardly good evidence that the fan malfunction was causing a hallucination of a ghost (and the "edge of vision" thing reported isn't really even a full-fledged ghost sighting). Such reasoning is no stronger than this reasoning: “I saw a ghost, but then I switched to a new breakfast cereal, and don't see ghosts anymore – so my old breakfast cereal must have caused the ghost.”

Faulty Explanation #3: Mold

The third goofy explanation offered by the Mental Floss article is mold. The article says, “Preliminary research indicates that some molds can cause symptoms that sound pretty ghostly—like irrational fear and dementia.” But I doubt whether there is a single verified case of anyone seeing a ghost because of breathing in mold. This file (around pages 60 to 85) by the World Health Organization makes a comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the effects of mold. While the study notes lots of respiratory effects, it does nothing to substantiate any psychiatric problems caused by mold. The study's one comment on the topic is this statement: “"The Institute of Medicine (2004) included only a few case reports, with inconsistent findings for neuropsychiatric effects." 

Contrary to the impression you might get from watching certain TV shows that like to show ghost hunters treading around in dusty old abandoned buildings, the great majority of ghost sightings occur in ordinary places (as noted below), making the idea of mold not at all valuable in explaining such sightings.

Faulty Explanation #4: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a gas that will kill you if you breathe in too much of it. The Mental Floss article suggests that carbon monoxide can cause hallucinations, but its only reference for this is an article written way back in 1921 – an article suggesting that some family had hallucinations which went away after they fixed a faulty furnace. But if it were really true that carbon monoxide poisoning can cause ghost hallucinations, would we would not have many more recent accounts of such a thing? Again, we have reasoning no stronger than this reasoning: “I saw a ghost, but then I switched to a new breakfast cereal, and don't see ghosts anymore – so my old breakfast cereal must have caused the ghost.”

About 400 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning in the US. If it were actually true that carbon monoxide was a major cause of ghost sightings, we would have very many cases of people reporting, “I saw ghosts until I got my furnace fixed,” not merely one such case every century. If it were actually true that carbon monoxide was a major cause of ghost sightings, we would also have lots of reports of sudden, unexplained deaths associated with ghost sightings – since we know that carbon monoxide commonly kills people. But there is no tendency for sudden, unexplained deaths to occur more often when there are ghost sightings.

General Problems With Environmental Attempts to Explain Ghosts as Hallucinations

I may note that all of the preceding explanations are kind of environmental explanations suggesting the idea of some weird conditions in some place where ghosts were seen. But according to the “Spectrum of Specters” study here, 64% of respondents reported perceiving ghosts “during mundane or normal times in their lives,” not during trips to some freaky haunted house where weird conditions might come into play.

According to page 12 of this survey of people who reported seeing ghosts, 70 percent reported seeing ghosts or apparitions who were persons known to the individual who saw the ghost or apparition. But that is not what we would expect from hallucinations. Hallucinations like those reported by drug users or schizophrenics involve random content.

Faulty  Explanation #5: Someone Else Said It Was Real

The fifth explanation given in the Mental Floss article is basically just suggestibility. So if someone goes into a haunted house and says he feels a strange chill, suggestibility might explain why a second and third person also report feeling the strange chill. But this cannot explain very much. The most convincing evidence for apparitions comes from people who reported seeing apparitions, something that typically involves a single person seeing the apparition. We cannot explain individuals seeing apparitions by themselves on any kind of “me, too” theory of social contagion. We also cannot explain cases of multiple witnesses seeing the same apparition under such a theory. If we're in a haunted house, and I say, “I feel a strange chill,” you may well say, “Yes, it is kind of cold in here.” But if we're in a haunted house and I say, “Look, I see Lincoln's ghost,” you will not at all tend to say, “Yes, I see it too,” just because I reported seeing such a thing. Specific visual hallucinations are not contagious.

Faulty Explanation #6: We Want to Believe

The sixth explanation given in the article is simply that people see ghosts because they want to believe in an afterlife. This explanation is not tenable because outside of apparition sightings there is no known tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations that reflect their desires. If there was such a tendency, people might often start seeing a hallucination of a pot of gold or a pile of cash in the middle of their living rooms – but no one ever has any such hallucination. If people had a tendency to hallucinate their desires, we might also expect that men would have hallucinations of sexy, willing women, which would vanish when the men tried to get physical with the sexy apparitions. But no one ever reports having any such hallucinations. Outside of apparition sightings, there is no tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations of things they want to see.

What we see in this Mental Floss article is a common technique of skeptics: what I call the smorgasbord technique. The smorgasbord technique works like this: when you don't have an explanation for something, list a whole variety of weak explanations, and hope that your reader is impressed (because he confuses quantity with quality). We see the smorgasbord technique often when skeptics try to explain UFOs. When faced with some dramatic UFO sighting, a skeptic may say, “There are lots of possible explanations – it may have been Venus, an airplane, a meteor, ball lightning, something being tested by the military, or swamp gas.” A smorgasbord like this may seem impressive, until we individually examine each of these possibilities, and find that none of them is tenable. We should remember: six or seven bad explanations don't add up to a good explanation.

Another reason why none of these explanations work is that none of them can explain photographic evidence of ghostly anomalies. Perhaps the most common evidence are photos of misty-looking anomalies that are variously called ghostly mists, ectoplasmic mists, light forms, or plasma clouds. The phenomenon of unexplained plasma-like clouds photographed at ground level is visually documented at this site, at this site, in the book "The Orb Project" by Miceal Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann, Ph.D, and in the book "Beyond Photography: Encounters with Orbs, Angels and Light-Forms," by  Katie Hall and John Pickering.

 An example of such a thing is below, where we see three consecutive photos I took in quick succession during a single minute on a warm night when the temperature was 66 degrees F. The middle one shows a strange ghostly mist. No smoke was visible, nor could any smoke be smelled (note that the ghostly mist isn't even appearing at ground level). Since we see no sign of smoke in the first or third photo, and I neither saw nor smelled smoke, we cannot explain this as smoke. Since the night was too warm for someone's breath to appear as mist, we cannot explain the photo as the photographer's breath.

ghostly mist

I have also taken the photo below on December 22, 2014, showing a ghostly mist appearing while I was pursing my lips and pinching my nose, on a dry night when the temperature was 40 degrees, and I could not see my breath. There was no smoke or mist that I could see nearby. Why was I taking care to pinch my nose and purse my lips tightly? Because three days earlier I had photographed a similar anomaly in front of the exact same spot. 

If you do a Google search for “ghostly mist,” or look at links above, you will find many similar photos – often taken during dry weather and warm weather, ruling out the “photographer's breath” explanation.  Mya Gleny's page here offers a dazzling collection of such photos.  

Scientists cannot claim to have an explanation for ghosts until they can explain photos such as these and also the very frequent reports of visual apparitions of ghosts.  Currently they do not have a good explanation for either. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

If They Discover ET Life, Will Scientists Feel Smarter or Stupider?

Scientists recently found evidence of strange objects orbiting a distant star, leading some to speculate about the possibility that we have discovered signs of engineering by some extraterrestrial civilization. This could be a false alarm, but no one will be too surprised if one day soon the first indisputable evidence of extraterrestrial life is discovered. But if that happens, will it make scientists feel like brilliant geniuses – or will it make them feel stupider than they have ever felt before?

Two “Eureka, We're Geniuses” Scenarios

I can imagine two ways in which scientists might discover extraterrestrial life in a way that would make them feel like Einsteins. The first way would be if scientists were simply to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life or a technological civilization, without finding any evidence that there existed extraterrestrials more intelligent than us. Such a thing could occur merely by the use of advanced spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy is a technique that allows scientists to figure out what elements are associated with a distant light source, by analyzing the spectrum or pattern of lines produced when the distant light passes through a prism or something working like a prism. Using such a technique, astronomers may be able to detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet revolving around a distant star, which could be an indication of life (scientists don't think our atmosphere had much oxygen until life was widespread). They may also be able to detect elements or compounds that could be markers of civilizations.

Such a discovery would tell us nothing about how advanced a civilization was, but would at most tell us that some civilization existed. If such a discovery were made, scientists would have every reason to feel pretty smart. They would have made a long-awaited fundamental discovery, without finding anything that proved that man was inferior in intelligence to some other extraterrestrial race.

Another very different way to look for extraterrestrials is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Imagine if such a signal were found, and scientists were able to decipher or translate the signal. Then scientists would feel like geniuses. No matter how advanced the civilization turned out to be, there would be a certain type of "we're kind of on the same level” feeling, if we had managed to decipher or translate a signal extraterrestrials sent out. You may not be on the same level as Einstein, but when you read some difficult thing he wrote, and are able to understand it, you feel pretty darn smart.

Two “Oh My God, We're Dummies” Scenarios

But I can also imagine two scenarios under which the discovery of extraterrestrial life might make us feel very stupid. The first scenario is one in which we receive radio signals from extraterrestrials, but simply are not able to figure them out. This is all-too-likely a scenario. An extraterrestrial civilization might be millions of years more advanced than ours. So why would they “dumb down” their radio messages, making them simple enough to be understood by beings who only invented radio telescopes a few decades ago? It seems that if we were to receive radio signals from extraterrestrials, there is a large chance that we would spend decades knocking our heads against the wall, trying to understand the messages without success. We might feel a little bit smart for having received the radio messages, but we would feel a lot dumber because we couldn't translate the messages. Twenty years after the radio messages were received, we might see headlines like the one below.

Another possibility with a high chance of happening is that we might discover signs of some massive engineering project by extraterrestrials. We might analyze the light from some star, and find that there seems to be massive abnormalities that can only be explained by assuming that some extraterrestrial civilization has undertaken some vast engineering project millions of times more ambitious than building the Panama Canal (perhaps something involving dismantling and rearranging entire planets). Such a project could only be undertaken by a civilization many thousands or millions of years older than ours.

How would we feel after discovering such a situation? We would feel pretty stupid. We would know that there was some other civilization with godlike technical powers vastly beyond ours. We would also suspect that the more we looked, the more such civilizations we would find. Climbing down meekly from the pedestals we have placed ourselves on, we might sadly realize our rightful places as tiny little fish in the vast cosmic ocean, not the lords of creation we once imagined ourselves to be.

Or maybe we wouldn't. Maybe we are so hooked on thinking of ourselves as the most important creatures in the universe that we will refuse to believe almost any evidence contradicting such an idea. I can imagine humans of the future refusing to believe in any evidence astronomers produce that godlike extraterrestrials exist, no matter how clear and dramatic it is. Perhaps the only thing that will convince us of our cosmic inferiority will be if spaceships bigger than stadiums begin to hover in our skies night after night.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Do 90% of Americans Believe in the Paranormal?

There is a new survey by Chapman University that claims to have determined that roughly half of Americans believe in the paranormal. The study reaches the claim that “half of Americans do believe in something paranormal.” But the methodology used to reach this claim is very faulty, and a strong case can be made that up to 90% or more of Americans believe in the paranormal (although much fewer might answer “Yes” if asked if they believe in the paranormal).

To try to determine how many people believe in the paranormal, the survey asked the respondents whether they believed in any of the seven items listed below. The percentages are the fraction that answered “Agree or strongly agree.”
Places can be haunted by spirits 41.4%
The living and dead can communicate with each other 26.5%
Dreams foretell the future 20.9%
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. 20.3%
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. 18.1%
Astrologers, fortune tellers, and psychics can foresee the future. 13.9%
Bigfoot is a real creature 11.4%

Apparently their thinking was: just add up how many people expressed belief in at least one of these seven things, and that gives you how many Americans believe in the paranormal. But it makes little sense to try to deduce what fraction of Americans believe in the paranormal from such a limited list of questions. The questions cover only a small fraction of the phenomena that can be considered paranormal. Also, the wording of some of the questions is poor. For example, “Dreams can sometimes foretell the future” would have got a higher response rate than “Dreams foretell the future.”

That raises the question: what do we mean by paranormal? When you type “definition of paranormal” in Google.com, you can get a definition that isn't too bad, but which gives particular examples that should not be included in a definition: “Denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.” Telekinesis is one of the more poorly substantiated paranormal phenomena, so if you go asking people, in effect, if you believe in “stuff like telekinesis,” the great majority of people will say no. A skeptic might want to use such a definition, in hopes of getting some survey result saying that most people don't believe in the paranormal; but using that definition wouldn't be fair.

A better definition of paranormal is found at www.meriam-webster.com: “Very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” This is a good broad definition that doesn't “poison the well” by mentioning particular beliefs. How many Americans believe in the paranormal, using this broad definition?

To answer that, we would have to ask many more questions than just the seven asked by the Chapman University survey. We would also have to ask about belief in ESP, belief in paranormal premonitions, belief in faith healing, belief that you can sometimes get what you want through intercessory prayer, belief in reincarnation, belief in demon possession, belief in any type of miracles reported in the Bible, and a large variety of other phenomena that qualify as “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.”

I may note that there is no sound intellectual basis for saying that alleged phenomena such as ESP or UFOs should be considered paranormal but alleged phenomena such as biblical miracles or faith healing should not be considered paranormal, on the grounds that the latter beliefs have been around for so long that they are not “very strange” ideas. When talking about what is “very strange” here, we simply mean outside of what scientists can explain through scientific theory. From that standpoint, the idea that a human's prayers might be answered by God (or that God may have performed a miracle) is every bit as paranormal as items such as ESP or UFOs. 
So if we did in the right way our survey designed to find out how many Americans believe in the paranormal, it might look a little like this:

Do you believe:
Places can be haunted by spirits. Yes __ No __
The living and dead can communicate with each other. Yes __ No __
Dreams can sometimes foretell the future. Yes __ No __
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. Yes __ No __
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some psychics can foresee the future. Yes __ No __
Bigfoot is a real creature. Yes __ No __
Humans can sometimes communicate through ESP. Yes __ No __
Photos can show strange things science cannot explain. Yes __ No __
Miracles were performed long ago. Yes __ No __
Faith healing sometimes produces dramatic healing. Yes __ No __
You can ask God for special favors, and have your prayers answered. Yes __ No __
There are special healers who can heal without using medicine. Yes __ No __
Some writers have written words that God sent to them. Yes __ No __
Miracles are sometimes performed in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some people get paranormal premonitions of disaster. Yes __ No __
Reincarnation sometimes occurs. Yes __ No __

Given a survey like this, I imagine that 80% or more of the American public would answer “Yes” to one of these questions. So it would seem that we should say that at least 80 percent of the American people believe in the paranormal.

But even a survey like the one above would not be complete. We should add at least one other paranormal item – one that is in the current canon of mainstream scientific thought.

I refer to the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory holds that our entire universe began in an infinitely dense point called the primordial singularity. This idea definitely does meet our definition of paranormal, which was: “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” Scientists have no explanation for the Big Bang, which is a total mystery. There are a few speculative ideas floating about as to the cause of the Big Bang, but no such speculation has gained general acceptance. I may note that the super-speculative idea of the universe beginning as a vacuum fluctuation has no actual support from anything scientists have ever observed, because no scientist has ever observed any visible object appearing as a result of a vacuum fluctuation, not even an object as big as a grain of sand. 

The Big Bang: It doesn't get more paranormal than this
The Big Bang is really the epitome of the paranormal – a totally strange, unexplained event observed only once. It would not be as paranormal if we were to observe an entire galaxy instantly popping into existence, or an entire planet instantly popping into existence.

So we should add this last line to our survey designed to find the percentage of Americans who believe in the paranormal:

Do you believe:
Places can be haunted by spirits. Yes __ No __
The living and dead can communicate with each other. Yes __ No __
Dreams can sometimes foretell the future. Yes __ No __
Aliens visited Earth in our ancient past. Yes __ No __
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some psychics can foresee the future. Yes __ No __
Bigfoot is a real creature. Yes __ No __
Humans can sometimes communicate through ESP. Yes __ No __
Photos sometimes show strange things science cannot explain. Yes __ No __
Miracles were performed long ago. Yes __ No __
Faith healing sometimes produces dramatic healing. Yes __ No __
You can ask God for special favors, and have your prayers answered. Yes __ No __
There are special healers who can heal without using medicine. Yes __ No __
Some writers have written words that God sent to them. Yes __ No __
Miracles are sometimes performed in modern times. Yes __ No __
Some people get paranormal premonitions of disaster. Yes __ No __
Reincarnation sometimes occurs. Yes __ No __
Universe suddenly began in infinitely dense point (Big Bang) Yes __ No __

With the addition of this last line, we finally have a fairly complete survey designed to find out whether the respondent holds any paranormal beliefs, defined as “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” With the addition of this last line, the percentage of respondents answering at least one “Yes” answer would probably exceed 90%.

In short, a strong case can be made that 90% or more of Americans believe in the paranormal, in the sense of having a belief in at least one thing that is “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.” I may note that a large fraction of Americans that say they don't believe in the paranormal will actually find that they do believe in at least one paranormal thing, if they do a complete inventory of their beliefs, and ask themselves whether at least one of these beliefs is a belief in something “very strange and not able to be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world.”

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Floating City" in China Cannot Be Explained as a Mirage or Fata Morgana

Recently there was an astonishing report from China. According to the Daily Mail, “thousands of people in China claim they have seen a floating city in the sky.” There is even a video that shows this strange event.

It wasn't too long before skeptics attempted to debunk this sighting, trying to explain it as something natural and understandable. This Daily Mail story had the headline “Sightings of a 'floating city' in China are simply an optical illusion, say scientists.” The story then suggested that the sighting was an example of an optical illusion called Fata Morgana. A Fata Morgana is a rather complex form of mirage.

Is this explanation a credible hypothesis to explain the reported sighting? No, it isn't. The explanation is completely unbelievable, for some reasons I will now explain.

A Fata Morgana is a mirage that appears on the horizon, as mentioned in the first sentence of the wikipedia.org article on the topic: “A Fata Morgana is an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon.” But the video does not show a floating city on the horizon. It shows what looks like a city floating quite far above the horizon.  If you fast forward to the 55th second of the video above, you will see the image below. It is something that occupies a large fraction of the viewing area, and is far above the horizon.

Another reason why the Fata Morgana explanation does not work is that when one sees a Fata Morgana or any type of mirage, it only appears as a relatively tiny part of your viewing area. You may see a mirage that looks like an object that is one percent of the viewing area in front of you, but no one ever reports a mirage that appears as a large fraction of their viewing area. For example, someone walking in the desert may see a mirage that looks like a distant oasis, but he will never see a mirage that looks like a huge ocean ahead of him. But the video of the sighting shows a huge “floating city” that is a large fraction of the viewing area. In fact, the buildings of the "floating city" look 10 times taller than any of the buildings on the horizon, which is not at all what one sees in a mirage or Fata Morgana (which may mirror something on the horizon, but never make it look many times bigger). 

Another reason for rejecting the Fata Morgana explanation is that the “floating city” looks like a set of buildings as you would see them looking up at them from the ground, with the buildings towering above you. But the video was taken from a high location way above the ground; and if some distant buildings were somehow to be reflected up in the sky through some Fata Morgana effect, we would not see the buildings from such a “towering above you” angle. You would instead see them looking as distant buildings might look if you viewed them from a high window of an apartment building.

There is no known natural effect that can explain seeing large floating cities well above the horizon. Hilariously, the Daily Mail article claims that floating cities in the sky are a “relatively common occurrence,” which simply isn't true.

What explanations can we give for this sighting? One possibility is that the video is just a fraud. But that doesn't explain the reported fact that thousands of people witnessed the sighting. (Of course, it's always possible that both the video and the news story are frauds.) 

The Daily Mail article does mention some weird conspiracy theory called Project Blue Beam, involving the idea that “Nasa will someday simulate an alien invasion of Earth or second coming of Christ through holograms.” That, of course, is nonsense. I think that it has been included in the article so that skeptics can say, “Why of course we should believe in the sensible idea of a mirage rather than the absurd idea of some weird NASA conspiracy to project holograms.” I've seen this countless times – when you want people to pay no attention to some paranormal-seeming phenomenon, always suggest the most ridiculous paranormal explanation you can think of, so people will prefer your natural explanation, no matter how untenable your natural explanation is.

I can think of a more intelligent idea, which is simply that some mysterious unknown intelligence is trying to gradually make its presence known to us, by a series of signs that are growing more dramatic in number and more spectacular as time goes on. Such an intelligence might be divine, extraterrestrial, spiritual, extra-dimensional or angelic. Using such a theory, we might explain several different phenomena, including crop circles,  inexplicable objects photographed on Mars, various types of UFOs, and some other bizarre phenomena. Of course, it's quite a conceptual leap to suggest such an idea, but when “thousands of people” start reporting a city floating in the sky, we should not necessarily be conservative in trying to explain things. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can Quantum Biology Explain the Origin of Life?

The interesting book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili discusses some ways in which scientists are trying to discover a relevance between quantum mechanics and biology. Although the book is largely speculative, the general idea of looking for a dependence of life on quantum mechanics is probably a sound one.

One of the under-noticed trends of the past 150 years is the gradual discovery by science of how greatly life depends on physics. While someone might have thought 150 years ago that life might arise in any old universe, we now know of a long list of physics requirements for the existence of life. For example, scientists have talked about how life would not exist if there were not a strong nuclear force that binds nucleons together in the atom; it would not exist unless such a force were balanced so as to produce large abundances of carbon and oxygen; and life would not exist unless we had a programmatic set of rules resembling the current laws of electromagnetism, with an exact balancing of the proton charge and the electron charge (as discussed here). So why should we not speculate that advanced life may has some dependence on some of the more exotic features of quantum mechanics – things such as quantum entanglement and quantum tunneling? But the case for this type of quantum dependence has not yet gelled very much.

In discussing the origin of life, McFadden and Al-Khalili refer to a startling analysis made by chemist Graham Cairns-Smith in his book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. This book can be found online here. On page 60 Cairns-Smith tries to estimate the odds of a self-replicating molecule arising by chance on the early Earth:

It would be a safe oversimplification, I think, to say that on average the 14 hurdles that I referred to in the making of primed nucleotides would each take 10 unit operations-that at least 140 little events would have to be appropriately sequenced. (If you doubt this, go and watch an organic chemist at work; look at all the things he actually does in bringing about what he would describe as 'one step' in an organic synthesis.) And it is surely on the optimistic side to suppose that, unguided, the appropriate thing happened
at each point on one occasion in six. But if we take this as the kind of chance
that we are talking about, then we can say that the odds against a successful
unguided synthesis of a batch of primed nucleotide on the primitive Earth
are similar to the odds against a six coming up every time with 140 throws
of a dice. Is that sort of thing too much of a coincidence or not?

Cairns-Smith then goes on to point out the odds that he has just mentioned are equivalent to a probability of 1 chance in 10 to the 109th power (1 chance in 10109), where 10109 is 1 followed by 109 zeros. He points out that if you had one chemical reaction per second throughout all of the Earth's history, that would be only 1015 trials, so you would need 1094 such trials per second before there would be a likelihood of success. And that would be totally impossible, since the whole observable universe is estimated to have less than 1082 electrons. 

We can do a similar calculation by using the estimated number of atoms in the ocean, which is about 1047. If we assume that every such atom was trying its hardest to achieve this result with a probability of 1 in 10109, for each of 1015 seconds of the Earth's history, that would still give you only 1062 trials (or somewhat less, since the origin of life would require multiple atoms). So given the probability mentioned by Cairns-Smith, the chance of success would still be only about 1 in 1047, or about 1 in a hundred billion trillion trillion trillion.

McFadden and Al-Khalili suggest a possible way to overcome such a difficulty. On page 285 of their book they vaguely speculate that some primordial soup might have acted like a “quantum computer” to somehow create a self-replicating molecule needed to get life started:

Our proto-self-replicator could, if it survived long enough, act as a 64-qubit quantum computer; and we have already discovered how powerful such a device would be. Perhaps it can use its huge computational resources to compute an answer to the question: What is the correct molecular configuration for a self-replicator?

But this is very woolly speculation that seems rather on the cheesy side. Even if we grant that there could somehow be some kind of effect by which a primordial soup might act  like a quantum computer – a huge leap – one is still left with the issue of how such a thing (acting like a computer) got programmed in the first place. Remember that computers never accomplish useful things unless software has been loaded into them.
McFadden and Al-Khalili concede on page 288 of their book that “any scenario involving quantum mechanics in the origin of life three billion years ago remains highly speculative.”

McFadden and Al-Khalili try their best to suggest that quantum mechanics can assist in explaining some of the origin problems puzzling scientists, such as the origin of life and the origin of consciousness. But does quantum mechanics make such mysteries easier to understand or harder to understand? We should not forget the “vacuum catastrophe” issue raised by quantum mechanics. This is the fact that quantum field theory predicts that the vacuum should be super-dense because of an army of virtual particles constantly popping into existence and out of existence.

A fundamental part of quantum mechanics is the idea of virtual particles – that short-lived particles should be constantly arising because of what are called quantum fluctuations. Even though such particles are short-lived, according to quantum field theory, there should be so many of them that they should combine to make every cubic meter of the vacuum far denser than steel. Imagine if there was some weird rule that every second a trillion insects were materializing in your living room, each existing for only a tiny fraction of a second before disappearing. Even though the lifetime of each of those those insects would be extremely short, at each instant there would be so many of them that your living room floor would collapse from the weight of all of them. Quantum mechanics predicts a similar situation, except that instead of insects it says virtual particles should be appearing in such great numbers everywhere that the universe should be totally uninhabitable, because empty space should be super-heavy everywhere. This is one of the greatest anomalies of modern physics, known as the vacuum catastrophe or the cosmological constant problem.

So rather than making our existence seem less of a miracle, quantum mechanics would seem to make our existence seem like more of a miracle. But when we have finally finished discovering all of the countless physics dependencies of our existence (something we are probably only halfway finished doing), we will probably find that quite a few of them are quantum mechanical in nature. I can think of one such quantum dependency McFadden and Al-Khalili fail to highlight (and seem to overlook completely when they state that most of the time we don't need quantum mechanics). Were it not for quantum mechanics limiting the possible orbits of an electron, electrons would be dragged into the nucleus of an atom (because of the electromagnetic attraction of protons and electrons), and there would be no elements other than hydrogen. So we do know one exotic feature of quantum feature on which life depends – the exotic feature known as quantum jumps, which require electrons to instantly change from one orbit to another in the atom. Our very existence depends on this “crazy” feature of nature. Far from not needing quantum mechanics “most of the time,” we would not exist a minute without it. I suspect we will find that other “crazy” aspects of quantum mechanics are also necessary for our existence.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Space Colonists: A Science Fiction Story

Nine-year-old Billy Davis never saw anything more impressive. It was the coolest looking spaceship he had ever seen.

Is that it Dad?” asked Billy. “Is that really, really it?”

That's it, son,” said Dad. “That's the spaceship that's gonna take us to live on another planet.”

Billy, Dad, and Billy's mom loaded their things into their private cabin in the ship. It would take a few months to get to the distant star, but such a travel time was pretty amazing considering that the star was 18 light-years away. The relatively short journey was possible only because of the warp-drive engine of the starship, which meant that its effective travel speed was many times the speed of light. The genius physicists of the generation before Billy's had found a way to cheat on the laws of nature, by using a warp drive that effectively shrunk the space in front of the starship. by creating a series of spatial mini-warps as the ship traveled toward the star.

I can't wait to become a real space pioneer, kind of like Daniel Boone,” said Billy. “I want to learn all about being a space pioneer, so I can help out,” said Billy. “But how can I do that?”

Why don't you use the holographic simulator?” suggested Mom.

Billy went to the spaceship's holographic simulator, which could convincingly project a 360 degree simulation of a vast variety of landscapes. He requested a program that would let him practice cutting down trees and building log cabins, just like Daniel Boone. For many days he practiced with the simulation, until he finally got the hang of it.

I'm done, Mom!” exulted Billy. “Now I know how to build us a house when we get to that planet.”

That's great, Billy,” said Mom, glad that her son had found some activity to help relieve the boredom of the interstellar voyage. “But what about food, Billy? We'll need to grow food somehow on that planet.”

Billy went back to the holographic simulator, and requested a simulation to help him learn the basics of farming. He learned how to plant crops. He also learned how to irrigate crops and harvest them. Finally after days of practice, he announced his new skills to Mom.

I'm done, Mom!” exulted Billy. “Now I know how to grow us some food when we get to that planet.”

That's great, Billy,” said Mom, glad that her son had found some way to stay out of trouble. “But what about predators, Billy? We'll need to be able to protect ourselves from predator animals that attack us on that planet.”

Billy went back to the holographic simulator, and requested a simulation to help him learn how to defend himself from predators. He learned how to use a bow and arrow to kill attacking animals. He learned how to use a shotgun to shoot dangerous animals. Finally after days of practice, he announced his new skills to Mom.

Finally the ship arrived at the distant planet. Billy, Dad, and Mom got on a landing craft that would take them down to the surface of the planet.

So we're really the first humans ever to land on this planet?” asked Billy.

You bet,” said Dad. “No human has ever set foot on this planet.”

This is going to be the toughest adventure I've ever had,” said Billy. “But I'm ready for it.”

When the landing craft landed, and Billy and his family got out, Billy couldn't believe what he saw.

Dad, what is that?” Billy asked.

That, my son, is our new home,” said Dad. “It's a gleaming 15-story luxury apartment building with elevators, a gym, a heated swimming pool, a variety of restaurants, and a huge ground-level supermarket well-stocked with 5000 varieties of tasty food, not to mention full-wall holographic screens in every apartment.”

But I thought we were the first humans to get here,” said Billy.

We are,” explained Dad. “But this planet was pre-colonized twenty years ago by a spaceship of robots and nanobots. They got things all nice and ready for us, so that everything would be ridiculously convenient for us.”

Aw Dad,” said Billy, lowering his head. “This isn't gonna be much fun.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Don't Be Too Swayed By a PhD

Many people think that once you have heard a PhD issue an opinion on something, you should yield to that person's assertion on the topic. But that is a dubious attitude. There are several reasons why it can be unwise to be greatly swayed by someone's opinion on something merely because he or she is a PhD, particularly if that person is talking about some general topic.

Reason #1: Today's PhD's are typically very specialized experts who have no special qualifications for speaking outside of their narrow subject matter.

Universities virtually never grant PhD's in large broad topics. They instead grant PhD's in specific fields such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, or something else. So a PhD who speaks outside of his exact field usually has no more authority on that topic that any layman knowledgeable on the topic. For example, when physicist Michio Kaku writes a book entitled The Future of the Mind, he is no more qualified to speak about it than a well-read layman, since it is a topic outside of his PhD, which is in physics. Similarly, when Stephen Hawking warns us about the dangers of artificial intelligence, we should pay no particular attention to his view, since computer science is not his area of expertise. The average computer programmer is more qualified to speak on such a topic than Hawking.

Even if a person is a PhD, it doesn't necessarily mean that he is qualified to speak on all topics relating to what he got a PhD in. Modern science is incredibly specialized. A 35-year-old biologist may have spent most of his career researching insects, and may not be particularly qualified to speak of the relation of the brain and the mind. An astronomer may have spent most of his career studying extrasolar planets, and may not be particularly qualified to talk about the universe’s origin.

Reason #2: You don't have to study a topic for many years to get a PhD – some people put in more time studying a topic to get only a bachelor's degree in it.

Many people think that you have to study a topic for 7 years or more to get a PhD. That is not at all true. Most graduate schools will admit candidates who have got a bachelor's degree in a topic different from the topic they are studying in graduate school. So a person can study Art History for 4 years, get a bachelor's degree, and then get admitted to a graduate school that will give him a PhD degree in Economics. Getting that degree may only require three years of study. The person will then have to do more work to get his PhD, but most of that work will probably be research work or thesis work, not taking courses. By the time the person is granted a PhD, he may have spent less time actually taking courses in his PhD topic than someone might have put in taking four years to get a bachelor's degree in some particular major.

Reason #3: In the Internet age, anyone can get specialized information almost as easily as a PhD can.

I remember about 35 years ago, I used to go to the MIT library to read cosmology journals that were only available in relatively few places (I wasn't a student, just a curious layman).  Back in those days if you wanted to study the intricacies of some knowledge specialty, you might have to be a student or professor at a university, or perhaps someone willing to go read at a place like the MIT library. But now the situation is totally different. Anyone can read up the latest theoretical physics and cosmology papers for free at the http://arxiv.org/ server. Anyone can get tons of other specialized information online. With this democratization of information, we need not regard PhD's as being such special knowledge lords. The average American citizen today has more access to information on any particular subject than a well-connected PhD had a few decades ago.

Reason #4: You can become a PhD even if you have poor judgment.

Although PhD stands (because of obscure historical reasons) for “doctor of philosphy,” there is no test for judgment or wisdom to become a PhD. Having a title such as corporate vice-president is hard to get unless you have fairly good judgment, but a person with extremely poor judgment can get a PhD if he takes the courses and does the research.

Reason #5: Having a PhD doesn't guarantee that you now are thoroughly knowledgeable about the topic you got the PhD in.

I know someone who is a certified nursing assistant – someone with a CNA licenses. Periodically her employer must fill in a form that asserts she has been working as a nursing assistant. If that form isn't filled out periodically, she will lose her CNA license. But consider the case of a PhD. Even though becoming a PhD involves learning so much more complicated, there is no recertification requirement. Once a PhD, always a PhD. What happens is that many people get a PhD in some topic, and then hit the wall of the tough job market for PhD's. So a PhD may often become employed in some totally different industry. One example is that many physics PhD's end up getting jobs doing financial analytics on Wall Street.

What this means is that merely from the fact that someone has a PhD in a topic, you cannot tell whether they are currently thoroughly knowledgeable about that topic. For example, an author who claims to have a PhD in neurology may have been working the past 10 years in some entirely different field. Of course, if someone is both a PhD and a professor in some particular topic, you can assume he is currently very knowledgeable about it.

Reason #6: The narrowness of a PhD's studies may make him not particularly qualified to be speaking on general topics that require a great breadth of knowledge.

Let's consider a broad philosophical question such as: is there evidence of some paranormal influence or supernatural influence on the material world? Consider what you have to study to really be able to answer that question negatively in an authoritative way. You would need to have a good deal of knowledge of world religions, to be able to knowledgeably evaluate various claims of supernatural influence made by various world religions. You would need to study philosophy, to judge the validity of philosophical arguments for a divine creator. You would need to know a lot about physics, to adequately evaluate the claim that the fundamental constants of the universe and the laws of the universe are fine-tuned. You would need to also know a great deal about cosmology, to adequately evaluate claims that the universe’s sudden beginning is evidence for a divine creator. You would need to know quite a bit about chemistry, to properly evaluate the claim that the origin of life was too improbable to occur by chance. You would need to know about biology and evolution, to properly evaluate whether claims of intelligent design in earthly life can be plausibly overcome through Darwinian theory. You would need to know about neurology and psychology and philosophy of mind, to evaluate claims that the origin of human consciousness required some agent beyond that which evolution could have provided. You would also need to know quite a lot about parapsychology, to evaluate claims that certain observed anomalous phenomena (such as near-death experiences) are evidence of some paranormal realm or reality. In short, you would need to get a depth of knowledge about a wide variety of deep topics before you could authoritatively answer such a question.

Now if there were such a thing as a PhD in General Studies or a PhD in Philosophically Relevant Studies or something like that, that might be proof that someone can speak authoritatively on such a topic. But a PhD merely suggests that someone has mastered one of the many topics someone must master before speaking authoritatively on such a topic. The same type of situation holds for questions such as the future of man. To speak authoritatively on the topic, you might need to master history, sociology, computer science, genetics, international affairs, and several other deep subjects. But a PhD would at most show that you were well-versed in just one of these topics.

Reason #7: The opinions of PhD's may be heavily influenced by group norms or thought customs of clannish sociological groups they become parts of.

We often tend to think of academics as impartial judges, weighing issues of truth objectively like some judge considering a case. But we should remember that a PhD is very often under the strong influence of some little academic subculture that he becomes part of when he gets a PhD. For example, imagine you enter into graduate school at Dartmouth, studying evolutionary biology. It will become clear to you very soon that you are supposed to start acting like a Dartmouth evolutionary biologist, conforming to the expectations of your peers and superiors. This is a small geographically isolated subculture, a cozy little club with its own little list of taboos and norms that you will be expected to follow. If you don't follow such norms and avoid such taboos, you will be unlikely to find yourself with the academic position that you desire. So, quite probably, you will do what is best for your career, and start repeating the same “party line” being pushed by your superiors. Similarly, if you study for a PhD in economics at the University of Chicago, you will be pressured in numerous ways to start thinking and writing like a typical University of Chicago economist, rather than someone who advances economic opinions very different from those typically voiced at that institution.

Sociological factors such as these mean that a PhD is often someone who may be more like a corporation spokesman than a really independent thinker. What we often get from PhD's is a kind of “official party line” of some relatively small elite group that the PhD wants to be part of. If you spent 70,000 dollars to get a Yale PhD in say, neurology, would you start voicing opinions contrary to what your other Yale PhD neurologists are saying – or would you want very much to fit in with that little club, and meet the group norms of that cozy little clan? It is because of sociological reasons such as this that the opinions of PhD's are often not particularly enlightening. Such opinions are often just fancy rehashes of the local thought customs in the ivory towers of some academic institution. It might be better in many cases for you to seek out the opinions of well-informed independent-minded individuals who stand outside of some little academic culture where peer pressure, local thought taboos and group norms have such a strong effect.

Remember this: when you hear the opinion of Professor X of the Y Department at Z University, what you are hearing may be little more than a restatement of the thought customs (the ideological norms) of the Y Department at Z University. Such customs may be as disposable as the current fashion customs of the Kardashian clan.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sweeping Under the Rug So Many Observations

My previous post was a science fiction story called The Ocean Deniers of Centralia that told the tale of an extraterrestrial planet that was inhabited only by a small kingdom (Centralia) at the center of a great continent that made up most of the planet. The scientists in the kingdom made assumptions about nature based on their limited experience, dogmatically concluding that the whole planet was as dry as their kingdom, and that water never existed in large bodies. But over a period of more than a century, explorers would occasionally report some utterly anomalous experiences – experiences involving encounters with distant oceans and seas (bodies of water which, according to the dogmatic assumptions of Centralian scientists, should not exist). These anomalous reports were totally rejected by the scientists of Centralia, who dismissed the people reporting the experiences as frauds, liars, fools or people suffering from hallucinations.

The story is an allegory. The scientists of Centralia represent typical scientists of modern academia. The explorers reporting the anomalous experiences represent those who have reported various types of paranormal experiences. For well over 150 years, humans have reported very anomalous experiences. Such reports have included apparition sightings, experiences with ESP, near-death experiences, experiences with seances and mediums, sightings of UFOs, photographs of orbs, premonitions of disaster that some came true, precognitive dreams, and a wide variety of other phenomena that include various types of remarkable spiritual experiences. The person who has one of these experiences often feels as if he is coming into contact with some great previously undiscovered reality, and may often feel like some explorer who has encountered some great ocean or sea that is unknown to the vast majority of his countrymen.

But despite the fact that such experiences have been reported for such a long time by such a large number of people, these experiences have been entirely rejected by most mainstream scientists. They have dismissed the people having such experiences as frauds, fools, liars, or people having hallucinations. The modern-day scientists who dismisses all this evidence (delivered by so many witnesses over such a long period) is quite similar to the scientists of Centralia in my story, who refused to accept reports of distant seas and a distant ocean despite abundant testimony. Just as the scientists of Centralia became overconfident in my story -- assuming all of the reality on their planet was like the dry, dusty reality they understood – many scientists on our planet have become overconfident and dogmatic, proclaiming that reality consists only of a material reality like that they are familiar with, and precluding (without any sound basis for such an exclusion) the possibility of a vast unknown spiritual reality as important as our known material reality.

The professor responds to a report of the paranormal

In my story the scientists of Centralia do more than just refuse to believe eyewitness testimony – they also refuse to believe photographic evidence. Does this part of the story break the allegory? Not at all. Our modern scientists refuse to accept some evidence for the paranormal that is either photographic or as good as photographic, in the sense of being something much more than just anecdotal. Our scientists typically refuse to accept innumerable photographs and videos of anomalous lights or UFOs in the sky; they ignore photos that often appear to show what looks either like apparitions or ghostly mists; they pay no attention to huge crop circles that suddenly appear, with some very hard-to-explain characteristics; and our scientists generally pay no attention to countless very dramatic photos of anomalous orbs in the sky and indoors, which often show orbs with bright colors, or orbs making extremely dramatic motions, or orbs appearing in great dramatic colorful swarms. 

Our modern scientists also typically dismiss and belittle laboratory experiments for ESP which have repeatedly been very successful, which have met all the standards of good experimental science, and which produced results so dramatic that they cannot be explained as being due to coincidence (results that confirm a great abundance of anecdotal reports of ESP, such as those gathered so systematically by Louisa Rhine). In trying to explain away such evidence, our scientists sometimes invent ridiculous “swamp gas” types of explanations similar to the goofy explanation made in my story by one of the Centralian scientists (the one who tried to explain a photo of an ocean as being a photo of clouds).

How can we understand this strange refusal of so many scientists to give the paranormal the objective consideration it deserves? We can only understand this by considering sociological factors. Scientific academia is very much a clannish subculture, and particular subcultures have their group norms and group taboos (for example, wearing a Yankees baseball cap is taboo among Red Sox fans, and wearing pink flowery shirts is taboo in biker gangs). The paranormal has become a group taboo in scientific academia, just like making certain types of statements about gays or abortion are group taboos within particular political groups. Any member of a subculture who flaunts that subculture's group norms and group taboos is subject to severe sanctions by other members of that group, which work to enforce group conformity. Call it the iron hand of peer pressure.

There is a fascinating new article on BBC.com about anomalous abilities of blind people to apparently detect objects they cannot see. The article includes a video of a blind man walking down a hall filled with obstacles, and not bumping into anything (the man claims to have seen nothing). This article is calling this ability “blindsight,” and as long as that term is used the ability may attract some interest among scientists. But sooner or later someone will probably start saying, “This is actually clairvoyance, it's paranormal.” Then probably scientists will stop paying much attention to it, using their perennial excuse that “things like that can't happen.”

Yes, it is just as if we are living in the benighted kingdom of Centralia depicted in my story, where the “official party line” of a small overconfident elite somehow drowns out a large body of compelling evidence conflicting with that dogma. I'm not a cartoonist, but I can imagine an editorial-style cartoon that might illustrate how mainstream scientists typically handle reports of the paranormal. The cartoon would show two scientists next to a rug. One scientist would be holding a page prominently marked, “Latest evidence of the paranormal.” That scientist would be smiling, and would say to his fellow scientist, “Don't worry, we'll just sweep this under the rug once again.” To the left of the scientists, we would see that there was a bump in the middle of the rug.

And that bump in the rug would be as tall as an NBA basketball player.