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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

25 More Who Were "Ghost-Told" of a Death

In my earlier post “25 Who Were 'Ghost-Told' of a Death,” I summarized 25 or more cases of people who experienced an apparition of someone who they did not know was dead, only to soon find out that such a person had died at a matching time (almost always the same day, and very frequently the same hour and day). The cases I cited were mainly nineteenth-century reports presented to the astronomer Camille Flammarion after he had asked for readers to send him any reports they had of “a distinct impression that you saw or heard a human being, or were touched by one, without being able to refer this impression to some known cause.” I also cited a few reports from recent decades collected by Erlendur Haraldsson. I noted at the end of the end of the post that I could no doubt find many more such cases if I searched for similar cases in the classic work on apparitions, “Phantasms of the Living” by Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore.

I have now searched for similar cases in “Phantasms of the Living,” and found that such cases are reported quite abundantly in that work. A significant fraction of the 700+ cases reported in that two-volume work are cases in which someone reports seeing or hearing an apparition of a particular person they did not know was dead, only to find out later that just such a person had died on about the same day or exactly the same day (and often on the same hour and day). I found more than 75 such cases in "Phantasms of the Living," which will require several different blog posts to summarize (including this one and two others). 

Below are some cases from Volume 1 of “Phantasms of the Living.” By following the links, you can go to the exact page of each case I have given. The very diligent writers of the book checked out almost all of these cases, getting corroborating evidence. So, for example, if a husband reported seeing a particular thing, a wife might be asked to produce an account of what the husband said at the time. And if someone reported a death occurring at a particular day, public records were checked to see whether such a person's death occurred on that day.

Case #25, page 204: According to her later account, on January 3, 1856 a mother “looked round the room, and to my utter amazement, saw Joseph standing at the door...his head bandaged up.” Joseph, her son, died far away on the same day in a shipping accident that split upon his head.

Case #26, page 207: At 2 AM a man saw someone coming into his room, and the man identified the person as Robinson Kelsey. When the man called out, the figure disappeared. Upon making inquiries, the man later learned that Robinson Kelsey had died on the same hour. Although not explicitly stated, the narrative implies that Kelsey had died on both the same day and the same hour.

Case #27, page 209: In December 1881 an R. Rawlinson suddenly had a strange feeling that someone else was in his room. He found that instantaneously “every feature of the face and form of my old friend, X., arose” in his mind. Convinced that the old friend had died, Rawlinson soon found that his old friend had indeed died at the same time Rawlinson had this experience.

Case #28, page 210: On March 24, 1883 an N.J.S. saw his friend F.L. stand before him, and the figure “passed away” (the meaning of this phrase in the narrative is unclear). N.J.S. reported feeling an icy chill, and noted the time as 12 minutes to 9. N.J.S. felt sure F.L. was dead. The next day N.J.S. found out that F.L. was found dead of a ruptured aorta, at 9:00, at about the same time N.J.S. had seen the strange sight.

Case #197, page 531: While writing a letter, an I.B. in Switzerland saw appear before him a man he met in America, one he knew as Mountain Jim. After recording the hour and date of the strange appearance, I. B. later found that Mountain Jim had died on the same day.

Case #199, page 534: At five o'clock in the morning on Saturday a man was woke up a noise, and saw a lady friend of his “glide” across the room. He found out later in the week that the woman had committed suicide at five in the morning on Saturday.

Case #203, page 548: Isabel Allom saw an apparition of her mother. She said “the figure moved across the room, ascending as it went until it disappeared.” She afterwards learned that her mother died on the same day and hour.

Case #204, page 549: An E.C. reported that “I saw a figure of a friend pass before me, ascending” and that later “I received a letter that she had died that night.”

Case #205, page 549-550: A Lady Chatterton said that she was sure Father Hewitt was dead, because she had seen him “high above me in the air.” The next morning she learned that he died at the same time she saw this apparition.

Case #206, page 551-552: An R. Waller Jones said that he saw a vision of his sister in a coffin. He later learned that his sister had died on the same day this vision occurred.

Case #207, page 552: An M. A. Larcombe said she saw angels, and in front of them her friend Anne Cox. She later found that Anne Cox had died on the same day.

Case #210, page 556-557: In 1855 A G.F. Russell Colt said that he woke up to see his brother kneeling, “surrounded by a light sort of phosphorescent mist.” He said the apparition had a wound on its right temple. He soon learned that his brother had died in a military action far away, with the wound or death on the same day as the apparition was seen, and that “the death wound was exactly where I had seen it.”

Case #212, page 560: A Dr. Rowland Bowstead reported that in 1847 at 10 minutes to 1, he saw “the apparition of my half-brother” dressed in a “shooting suit” with a gun on his arm. He found out a few days later that the half-brother had died of a burst blood vessel, on the same day, at 10 minutes to 1, while dressed in a “shooting suit” with a gun on his arm.


ghost
Artistic depiction of a ghost

Below are some cases from Volume 2 of “Phantasms of the Living.” I will include the case numbers given in the book.

Case #228, page 44: In 1873 Frederick Barker told his wife that he had seen his aunt who lived elsewhere, and that she had disappeared. He found out a week later that the aunt had died on the same day Barker saw the apparition, and that she was calling out for Barker at the time of her death.

Case #229, page 45: Lieutenant General Albert Fytche stated “I saw a ghost with my own eyes in broad daylight.” He said he saw an old schoolmate in his house, who after a while could no longer be found. Two weeks later he was informed that the schoolmate had died 600 miles away,  on the same day Fytche had seen the apparition.

Case #230, page 46: Looking into a theater pit in Canada, J. Evans saw his brother “lighted up supernaturally.” After looking down into the pit, he couldn't find his brother. He later found out his brother had died in Shanghai on the same day J. Evans saw the strange sight in the theater pit.

Case #231, page 47-48: Stuart Stephens said that he saw Rudolph Gough: “I saw standing the man who I had been told was dying on the other side of the Tugela.” Later he “found that he had died at exactly the hour I fancied I had seen him.”

Case #235, page 51:  S.C. Swiney said that he was surprised to see his brother, who he thought was in India. He said “before I could recover from my astonishment, the figure had disappeared.” He later found his brother had died “about...the time I had imagined I had seen him,” on the same day.

Case #237, page 54: In 1874 Ellen M. Greany saw a school-friend of hers, only to find a moment later there was no one visible except her mother. A day or so later she found the friend had died. She said “she died the same evening and about the same time as I saw her vision.”

Case #240, page 59: Mary Ellis twice during a day “saw the face” of an old friend. She later learned that he died on that same day, five miles away.

Case #243, page 63-65: After being struck by a sudden feeling of sadness, Sebastiano Fenzi saw his brother on the sea coast, walking about outside on a day of terrible weather. After watching him pass behind a rock, the brother could no longer be seen. He later found “my brother had died just at the time when  in the morning I had seen him on the rocks,” with the death occuring 70 miles away. 

Case #253, page 76: An S.H.S relates this account which will be of interest to anyone who enjoys photographs of mysterious orbs:

"About the year 1841, I was in a room with my father in our house in the Isle of Wight when he exclaimed, 'Good God, what is that?' starting up as he spoke, and apparently looking at something. He then turned to me and said that he had seen a ball of light pass through the room, and added, 'Depend upon it, Nurse Simmons is dead.' This was an old servant in London, to whom he had been sending money, in illness. In course of post came information that she passed away at the very time in question."

Case #272, page 107: Lister Ives reported hearing agonized cries from his son, even though the boy was believed to be three miles away. The boy “was killed at that very time by a fall from the rocks.”

Case #273, page 108: While on a ship, G.A. Witt reported hearing the voice of his brother calling G. by his name. He later found out that his brother had died elsewhere on the same day.

Case #279, page 114: Sarah Wight reported the following:

On five occasions in my life I have heard my Christian name uttered in a peremptory manner; as if some one was in need of my aid; and after each occasion I have learnt that a relation had died at a time closely corresponding to the call. I have never on any other occasion had any sort of hallucination of the senses whatsoever.”

Case#298, page 143: Marian Hughes reported a man had proposed to her sister, but her sister had rejected the man, who then got a job in India. In London her sister heard her name called, and looked up to see what she thought was the face of the man who had wanted to marry her, but “finding no one there became convinced she had seen an apparition announcing the death of her friend.” The sister later learned that the man had died far away “on the evening of the day she had seen the apparition in London.”

Case# 534, page 495: Arthur Bedford reported that all of his dormitory was roused by a cry of a student declaring that his father had appeared at his bedside, dripping wet, wearing a “pea coat” and high boots. It was later found that the father had died at sea, dressed like the apparition, at about the same time as the apparition.

The witnesses listed above almost all asserted or answered that the described incident was the only case they had seen anything like a hallucination or an apparition (a question routinely asked by the very thorough investigators).

I have now presented (in this post and a previous post)  a total of  50 cases of someone experiencing an apparition of someone who they did not know was dead, only to find out later the person died on about the same day (usually exactly the same day, and often on the same hour and day).  I will list 50 more such cases in later posts.  To discuss the mathematical probability of such a thing happening by coincidence will require a separate post.  I can give a preview by mentioning that we should not expect more than about 1 in 100 million ordinary people to coincidentally experience an apparition of someone who they later found died on the same day; and we should not expect more than about 1 in a billion ordinary people to coincidentally experience an apparition of someone who they later found died on the same day and also the same hour.  The existence of so many accounts of this type is therefore prima facie evidence that something much more than hallucination is going on. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Neurons and Synapses Are Too Noisy to Explain Precisely Accurate Recall

Neuroscientists typically maintain that human mental phenomena are entirely produced by the brain. But this claim is inconsistent with many low-level facts that neuroscientists have discovered. Remarkably, the facts and details that neuroscientists have learned on a low level frequently contradict the dogmatic high-level assertions neuroscientists make.

The table below summarizes this conflict.


High-level Neuroscientist Claims Low-Level Facts Discovered by Neuroscientists
Brains produce thinking” Human cognitive ability and memory is not strongly damaged by hemispherectomy operations in which half of a brain is removed to treat epilepsy seizures. 
Most of Lorber's hydrocephalus patients with brains mostly consisting of watery fluid had above average intelligence, and a Frenchman was able to long hold a civil service job while almost all of his brain was gone.
Brain scans do not show brains working significantly harder during either heavy thinking or recall, and no signal change greater than 1% occurs during such activities.
When we do accurate mental calculations, it is our neurons that are doing the work” Neurons are noisy, and synapses transmit signals with only a 50% likelihood or less– the type of thing that should prevent accurate mental arithmetic as savants can perform.
Our memories are stored in our brains” Neurons and synapses have been extensively examined at very high microscopic resolutions, and no sign of stored information or encoded information has been found in them other than the gene information in DNA.
There is high protein turnover in the synapses that neuroscientists claim to be the storage place of memories, and the average lifetime of the proteins that make up synapses is only a few weeks – only a thousandth of the lifespan of very old memories in old people.
There seems to be nothing in the human brain resembling the write mechanism like we see in storage systems such as computers.
When we remember, we read data from our brains.” There seems to be nothing in the human brain resembling the read mechanism like we see in storage systems such as computers.
There is in the human brain no position coordinate system, no indexing, no neuron numbering system, nor anything else that would seem to make possible an instantaneous recall of information from some very precise location in a brain, in a manner similar to a retrieval of data from a particular page of a particular book
Although we would expect information to be reliably transmitted across neurons during precise and accurate human recall, neurons are actually quite noisy, and transmit signals with only a low reliability.
Synaptic density studies show that the the density of synapses in brains strongly drops between puberty and adulthood, at the very time when learned knowledge is piling up.

By following the links above, you can read detailed discussions of the claims I make in the right column – except for my claims about neurons being very noisy, which I will justify in this post. 

When we talk about the noise in a communication system, we can imagine this as a kind of static that prevents the transmission from occurring without errors. A young reader may not even know what static is, since nowadays digital communication occurs with very little noise. But I experienced static frequently in my youth, back in the days long before the internet. One type of static would occur when I listened to the radio. When I tuned in to a radio station too far away, the radio signal would be mixed with a crackling noise or static that might prevent me from hearing particular words or musical notes in the transmission. In my youth there was also a problem with television noise or static. On top of a TV set there would be an antenna, and if it wasn't pointing just right, a TV signal might be rather noisy. The noise might be of a visual type, with random little blips appearing on the TV screen. Sometimes the static would be so bad you couldn't see much of anything on the TV you recognized.

The table below illustrates an example of noise in a signal transmission system.


Type of system Input Output
Low-noise system Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.” Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
High-noise system Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.” Tojo, I've a f2@eling we're Xot in K3$sas anymore.”

A neuron acts as an electrical/chemical signal transmitter. A neuron will receive an electrical/chemical input, and transmit an electrical/chemical output. But a neuron does not act as efficiently and reliably as a cable TV wire or a computer cable that transmits signals with a very low error rate. Neuroscientists know that a large amount of noise occurs when neurons transmit signals. In other words, when a neuron receives a particular electrical/chemical input signal, there is a very significant amount of chance and variability involved in what type of electrical/chemical output will come out of the neuron. The wikipedia.org article on “neuronal noise” identifies many different types of noise that might degrade neuron performance: thermal noise, ionic conductance noise, ion pump noise, ion channel shot noise, synaptic release noise, synaptic bombardment, and connectivity noise.


In a very recent interview, an expert on neuron noise states the following:

There is, for example, unreliable synaptic transmission. This is something that an engineer would not normally build into a system. When one neuron is active, and a signal runs down the axon, that signal is not guaranteed to actually reach the next neuron. It makes it across the synapse with a probability like one half, or even less. This introduces a lot of noise into the system.

So according to this expert, synapses (the supposed storage place of human memories) transmit signals with a probability of less than 50 percent. Now that's very heavy noise – the kind of noise you would have if half of the characters in your text messages got scrambled by your cell phone carrier. A scientific paper tells us, “Neuronal variability (both in and across trials) can exhibit statistical characteristics (such as the mean and variance) that match those of random processes.” Another scientific paper tells us that Neural activity in the mammalian brain is notoriously variable/noisy over time.”

This is a problem for all claims that memories are retrieved from brains, because humans are known to be able to remember things very accurately, but “neural noise limits the fidelity of representations in the brain,” as a scientific paper tells us.

Now, a neuroscientist might claim that such facts can still be reconciled with the mental performance of humans. He might argue like this:

Yes, neurons are pretty slow and noisy, but that's why human memory is slow and unreliable. Think of how it works when you suddenly see some old schoolmate that you haven't seen in twenty years. It may be a while before you remember their name. And when you remember something about that person, your memory will probably be not terribly accurate. So you have a kind of a slow “noisy” memory.

But it is easy to come up with examples of human memory performing without error in a noiseless manner. I just closed my eyes and recited the following lines without any error at a rate faster than you can read these lines aloud:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical

I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse

But that's not very impressive, for there are singers who can flawlessly sing without any errors at a very rapid pace the entire delightful song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Gilbert and Sullivan's “The Pirates of Penzance,” and the song is about eight times longer than what I have quoted. Also, in the world of opera there are singers who can flawlessly sing every note and every word of the part of Hans Sachs in Wagner's four-hour opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, an opera in which Hans is on stage singing for a large fraction of those four-hours. There are other singers who can flawlessly sing the title role in the opera Siegfried, which requires the lead singer to sing on stage for most of its three hours. There are other singers who can flawlessly sing the role of Tristan, which also requires a similar demand. In such cases we have a very rapid and flawless error-free retrieval of an amount of information that would take many, many pages to write down.

A rock singer at a funky free-wheeling concert might get away with an error rate of 2% in his memory recall of words, but opera fans are very intolerant of errors. When Wagner fans (who have typically heard an opera many times on recordings) go to something like the Bayreuth festival, they expect singers to recall Wagner's notes and words with 100% fidelity, and that is what they usually get, even when hearing roles such as Tristan and Siegfried which require a singer to memorize hours of singing.  Every time an actor performs Hamlet, he recites 1480 lines of dialog, and many such actors recall all such lines without any errors. 


neuron noise

Then there is Leslie Lemke, who according to this article in wikipedia.org "can remember and play back a musical piece of any length flawlessly after hearing it once."  It is well documented that there are quite a few Muslims who can recite the entire holy book of their religion, a book of some 80,000 words. Then there are people who flawlessly remember content that is hard to remember. According to the site of the Guiness Book of World Records, Rajveer Meena memorized pi to 70,000 digits, reciting those 70,000 digits without any errors. Lu Chao memorized pi to 67,000 digits.

How could such feats occur if memory retrieval is being performed by neurons and synapses that are very noisy? They cannot be. In these cases, human memory is acting at a reliability vastly surpassing what should be possible if memory retrieval or thought is a neural phenomenon.  A scientific paper states, "Neural noise limits the fidelity of representations in the brain."  But humans such as those I have mentioned seem to be able to recall huge amounts of learned text or song without any such problem of a degradation of "fidelity of representations." 

A similar conclusion is forced on us when we consider the accuracy of the most impressive human calculators. In 2004 Alexis Lemaire was able to calculate in his head the 13th root of this number:

85,877,066,894,718,045, 602,549,144,850,158,599,202,771,247,748,960,878,023,151, 390,314,284,284,465,842,798,373,290,242,826,571,823,153, 045,030,300,932,591,615,405,929,429,773,640,895,967,991,430,381,763,526,613,357,308,674,592,650,724,521,841,103,664,923,661,204,223

In only 77 seconds, according to the BBC, Lemaire was able to state that it is the number 2396232838850303 which when multiplied by itself 13 times equals the number above.  Here we have calculation accuracy far beyond anything that could be possible if noisy neurons are the source of human thought. 

Given the high amount of noise in neurons and synapses, which would strongly degrade the accuracy of neural memory retrieval and neural signal transmission, the facts of very accurate human calculation and very accurate human memory recall (as shown by calculation savants, Hamlet actors, and Wagnerian opera singers) are very much in conflict with the dogmas that our thinking is performed by our brains and our memories are stored in and retrieved by our brains.  This is yet another case in which the low-level facts of neuroscience defy the dogmatic claims of neuroscientists. 

Think for a moment about the implications if a synapse can only transmit a signal with about a 50% reliability, as indicated by the previously quoted expert on neuron noise. This does not at all mean that people would recall things with about 50% accuracy if memories are stored in brains; it's much worse than that. Since any act of neural memory retrieval would involve innumerable different signal transmissions through innumerable neurons, we would expect the actual accuracy to be only some tiny fraction of 50% if we were using synapses to retrieve our learned knowledge.  Similarly, if you play the game "Chinese whispers" (also called "gossip") at a school lunch table, and have everyone at the table be playing noisy music in earphones as they hear the gossip story being whispered among the players, the tenth person to receive the story will be unlikely to receive even 20 percent of it accurately. 

Let us imagine a planet in which the sky was perpetually covered in very thick clouds, so that no one had seen the stars or the local sun.  On such a planet there would be a great mystery: from where comes the heat that keeps life on the planet warm? If you were a rather clumsy thinker on such a planet, you might come up with some cheesy theory to explain the heat on your planet, and dogmatically cling to it -- maybe the theory that rocks on your planet warm the planet through radioactivity, or that heat shoots up from the hot core of the planet. But if you were a better thinker, you would say, "There is nothing anyone has observed that can explain this planet's heat -- it must come from some mysterious unseen reality."  It is something similar that we should say about our mental capabilities: that nothing we have observed can explain them, and that they must come mainly from some mysterious unseen reality. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

If Extraterrestrials Sent 'Oumuamua, They Must Have Been Very Stupid

The object called 'Oumuamua is an unusual object that entered the solar system in 2017. Two Harvard scientists (Abraham Loeb and Shmuel Bialy) have written a paper speculating that the object might have been a probe designed by extraterrestrials. This paper has triggered much coverage in the popular press. 

One unusual thing cited about 'Oumuamua is its shape. We have been repeatedly told that the object was cigar-shaped, and press coverage has repeatedly shown a visual of a cigar-shaped object. But that visual is not an actual photo. It is a speculative “artist's visualization” thing. No actual photographs have been taken of 'Oumuamua. In a recent Scientific American article, Loeb says this:


We do not have a photo of ‘Oumuamua, but its brightness owing to reflected sunlight varied by a factor of 10 as it rotated periodically every eight hours. This implies that ‘Oumuamua has an extreme elongated shape with its length at least five to 10 times larger than its projected width.


So 'Oumuamua may be only five times longer than its width, which would make it merely pickle-shaped rather than cigar-shaped. A pickle-shaped object is not particularly strange, and many asteroids and comets have such a shape.


There are actually three reasons for thinking that if 'Oumuamua was sent by extraterrestrials, it could only have been sent by very stupid extraterrestrials. I will now list these reasons.

Reason #1: only very stupid extraterrestrials would build a spacecraft that has the tumbling motion that 'Oumuamua has.

A scientific paper tells us that 'Oumuamua has “clear signs of a tumbling motion.” The object is apparently tumbling end over end, like some bottle spun in the “spin the bottle” game. It seems that only very silly designers of a spacecraft would design a spacecraft that had such a motion. If an object is tumbling end over end, any rocket thrust that it had would not be consistently applied in a particular direction. When the US sends rockets to Mars or the moon, they never have a tumbling motion. Instead, such rockets keep consistently pointing in a particular direction.


We can imagine a conversation between stupid extraterrestrials that might result in such a spacecraft.


Extraterrestrial worker: Uh, boss, what kind of stuff should we include with that rocket we're sending to the stars?
Extraterrestrial boss: Make it look snazzy! The shinier it looks, the better. Everybody loves a shiny spacecraft.
Extraterrestrial worker: Should we make sure the rocket always points in the direction it's trying to go to?
Extraterrestrial boss: Why bother with such details?

Reason #2: only very stupid extraterrestrials would build a spacecraft that did not head towards a life-bearing planet in a solar system it entered.

'Oumuamua came nowhere close to Earth, and showed no signs of changing its motion to come closer to Earth. 



oumuamua
Path of Oumuamua (from wikipedia.org)

We can imagine a conversation between very stupid extraterrestrials that might have resulted in such a design.

Extraterrestrial worker: Uh, boss, should we have some kind of deal where our rocket moves closer to a life-bearing planet if it finds one in a solar system it enters?
Extraterrestrial boss: That requires programming! You know guys on our planet aren't smart enough to do that kind of thing!
Extraterrestrial worker: So the rocket should just go into a solar system, and hopes it gets lucky by passing near a life-bearing planet?
Extraterrestrial boss: Sure, why not? It's not like there's lot of empty space in a solar system.

Reason #3: only very stupid extraterrestrials would build a spacecraft that did not transmit radio signals after entering a solar system.

Sending radio signals is an easy way for a spacecraft entering a solar system to send a message back to its home planet announcing what it found. Scientists made a careful check to see whether artificial radio emissions were coming from 'Oumuamua. But no radio signals were picked up.


We can imagine a conversation between very stupid extraterrestrials that might have resulted in an interstellar spacecraft without a radio system.

Extraterrestrial worker: Uh, boss, should we have some kind of deal where our rocket radios back to us what it discovered?

Extraterrestrial boss: Dummy, you haven't thought things through. Doing that means we'd have to point the radio transmitter antenna in the right direction.
Extraterrestrial worker: So why not just have the antenna move to the right direction?
Extraterrestrial boss: Because then we have to figure out what is the right direction when the spacecraft is who-knows-where pointing in who-knows-what direction. None of us is smart enough to figure that stuff out. Only a super-genius could figure that out!
Extraterrestrial worker:  So how about this? We'll just have the spaceship travel in random directions, and hope that it comes back to our planet long after it luckily passes by a life-bearing planet in some other solar system. 
Extraterrestrial boss: That's a great idea. I'm sure the spaceship will come back to our planet. It's not like there's lot of empty space between the stars.

Upon hearing this hypothetical conversation, some readers will probably think to themselves that the expert minds on our planet are much wiser, and would never think something so silly as the idea that random changes applied over a long period would result in fortunate outcomes resembling the outcomes of precision engineering. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

25 Who Were "Ghost-Told" of a Death

Camille Flammarion was one of the most well-known astronomers of his age. An 1894 magazine profile called him someone “who has done more toward popularizing the study of astronomical science than any of his contemporaries.” Flammarion's 1900 book “The Unknown” (which you can read here) is a neglected classic of parapsychology. In Chapter 3 of the book, Flammarion presents  180 cases of people who reported hard-to-explain occurrences, usually at the time of someone's death. The very long chapter is entitled, “Of Telepathic Communications Made by the Dying, and of Apparitions.”

Almost all of the cases reported by Flammarion are cases presented for the first time in his book, because they were reported in writing to the astronomer. Part of the reason he got so many accounts is that he put out a public notice in a magazine asking to be sent accounts of unusual experiences involving apparitions. We can only imagine what a flood of such accounts would come to today's scientists if they were to ask the public to receive them.

Flammarion asked the magazine readers to send him a postcard or letter answering “Yes” or “No” to two questions, and to include an account if the answer to either was “Yes.” The first question was “Has it ever happened to you at anytime to experience, being awake, a distinct impression that you saw or heard a human being, or were touched by one, without being able to refer this impression to some known cause?" The second question was, “Did this impression coincide with the date of any death?” On page 69 Flammarion tells us that he received 4280 answers, 2456 of which answered “No,” and 1824 answered “Yes.”

I will apply a quality filter when choosing which of these accounts to summarize. I will only summarize a fraction of the accounts reported in the first person by a person who either directly experienced something that seemed inexplicable or was very nearby someone who experienced something that seemed inexplicable at the time the experience occurred, rather than mentioning second-hand accounts in which someone said that a friend or relative told him about something that happened a long time ago. 

We will see two astonishing characteristics in many of these reports:

(1) It will very often be reported that the apparition of someone appeared on the same day or the same hour and day that such a person died.
(2) It will very often be reported that the apparition was effectively a notification that some particular person had died, with a confirmation soon thereafter (through word, mail or telegram) that exactly that person did die. 

Page 51-52, Case III: Not long after 1896 a distinguished musician named Andre Bloch reported to Flammarion that in 1896 his mother came to him in a state of great excitement, and said that she had suddenly seen her nephew Rene, who stated, “Yes, indeed, I am quite dead.” Later, after finishing a trip, Andre and his mother found out that the young Rene had died at the age of only 14, at the same hour and day as the apparition was seen.

Page 53, Case IV: In 1889 M. V. de Kerkhove reported to Flammarion that in 1876 while in Texas he saw an apparition of his grandfather. He found out weeks later that his grandfather had died in Belgium on the same day and hour that the sighting occurred.

Page 59, Case IX: Madame Ulric de Fonvielle reported to Flammarion in 1899 that she had seen at the foot of her bed one of her childhood friends, who said, “I am going away now,” and asked, “Can you forgive me?” The vision suddenly disappeared. The next morning word came by telegram that the friend had died the previous evening, during the same hour the apparition was seen.

Page 60, Case X: In 1899 Baron Deslandes reported to Flammarion that he had seen a servant suddenly state that he had seen an apparition of his mother. Days later word came word that the servant's mother had died at the exact day and hour of the apparition.

Page 62, Case XIII: M. Binet reported to Flammarion that she had seen the apparition of a young girl named Leontine, causing her to cry out, “Leontine.” She said it was a shadowy, luminous form. She later found out that the child Leontine had died on the same day and hour as the apparition appeared.

Page 72, Case XIX: Angele Esperon reported to Flammarion that at half past three in the morning, she had seen “a most distinct vision of the apparition of my brother Joseph,” who was in the military service far away. He said, “Goodbye, Angele, I am dead.” That day she received a dispatch that her brother had died far away, at three in the morning. (It is not clear from the narrative whether it was the same day.) 

Page 81, Case XXXII: M. Mine reported to Flammarion that on the day in 1887 his grandmother died at about 6:00 AM, his father went to his school to report that the young pupil (M. Mine) would not attend that day because of the grandmother's death. But, mysteriously, the school had already been told of the grandmother's death. After inquiries, one of M. Mine's schoolmates said that he had seen that morning an apparition of his dead sister and M. Mine's grandmother holding hands, and had then reported to the school that the grandmother had died.

Page 100, Case LXV: A. Nyffeley-Potter awoke to see a vision of his brother being pierced by a spear. Some weeks later he received news that his brother traveling far away had died after being pierced by a spear.

Page 101, Case LXVIII: Aug. Glardon reported this:

It has twice in my life happened to me to experience a distinct impression to have near me a person who was absent, and to mark the exact hour at which this occurred. Both times the impression received was found to coincide within five minutes with the death of a person whom I knew to be ill, but who I had no idea was so near his end.

Page 104, Case LXXV: A. Deupes reported that in bed his wife reported a man calling her name. She predicted that it would soon be reported that M. Gantier of Marseilles had died, because she recognized his voice as the one calling her. Word soon came by mail that exactly that person had died, at a date and hour matching the strange voice.

Page 129-130, Case CXX: Juliette Thevenet reported that at one o'clock in the morning a picture of her father seemed to make a sudden move. She then found out that her father had died that day, at one o'clock in the morning.

Page 135, Case CXXVIII: A Jacques C. had a true love named Martha, who he had been unable to marry, and who lived in another city. He reported Martha entering his room. When he tried to grasp her hand “the phantom disappeared.” He later found that Martha had died at the exact hour he had seen her apparition, and that she had called out his name on her deathbed.

Page 136-137, Case CXXIX: Valentine C. looked at the photograph of his friend Helene, and was astonished that it looked as if the face was animated, as if it was about to speak. The clock struck eight. He found out later that day out that Helene had died at the same hour.

Page 140, Case CXXXII: H. Poncer reported that in 1884 this happened:

As I got out of bed I saw a figure standing upright, surrounded by a circle of light. I gazed at it, a good deal moved as you may imagine, and I recognized my husband's brother-in-law, a doctor, who said : 'Warn Adolphe— tell him I am dead.'

The next day a telegram confirmed that the brother-in-law had died unexpectedly from cholera.

Page 149, Case CXLVIII: Jh. Junod related this story:

I had been asleep some hours when I was awakened (my father, my mother, and my four sisters, too) by a very loud voice calling my father, Florian. A second call was not so loud, and a third was almost a whisper. My father said, ' It is the voice of Renaud ' (a friend of his living in Paris), and, rising, he went to open the front door. But no one was there. The newly fallen snow showed no trace of any footsteps. A short time after my father received a letter telling him that his friend Renaud had been run over by an omnibus, and that, as he was dying, he had several times pronounced his name.

Page 154, Case CLV: A. Michel reported that he felt a very strong slap to his face when no one was near him. The slap created a hand-like mark that lasted for six months. At the same time that the strange slap occurred, his grandmother died.

Page 156, Case CLVII: Countess Amelie Garandine reported this story:

My sister, who was seventeen, passing along the corridor, saw under a lighted gas-burner a tall and handsome girl whom she did not know, dressed like a peasant woman. The apparition alarmed her, and she began to scream. The next morning our cook, a girl twenty-five years old, told my mother that about nine o'clock the night before, as she was going to bed, she saw before her one of her friends, a young peasant girl, whose description exactly corresponded to that of the apparition that my sister had seen. They afterwards learned that this girl had died that same day.”

Page 157, Case CLIX: Madame Adam stated the following very spooky account:

As I opened my eyes I saw my grandmother at the foot of my bed, and I cried out, 'What a pleasure, grand-mother, to see you!' She did not answer, but raised her hand to her eyes. Then I saw her eyes were gone, leaving two empty holes. I sprang out of bed and ran towards her. As I was about to clasp her in my arms she disappeared. My grand mother had died that very day at eight o'clock in the evening."

Page 168-169, Case CLXXI: A Mrs. Isabelle Allom reported that while she was attending school in France, she saw an apparition of her mother.  She later found out that her mother had died on the same day and hour that the apparition was seen. 

Page 169-170, Case CLXXII: Captain G.F. Russell Colt reported that on the night of his brother's death at a very distant location, he saw an apparition of his brother "surrounded by a sort of phosphorescent mist."  He reported that he walked right through the apparition.  Later he learned that his brother had died with a wound similar to the wound observed in the apparition. 

Page 171, Case CLXXIII:  In 1867 while listening to an orchestra concert, a woman named E.T. Taunton saw a vision of her uncle. She later learned her uncle had died at the same time as the vision occurred. 

Page 172, Case CLXXIV:  Frederick Barker reported that he saw an apparition of his aunt, one that disappeared. He later found out that his aunt had died on the same day and at about the same hour. 

Page 175-177, Case CLXXVII: H.B. Garling saw a "phantom," and exclaimed, "It is Harrison."  She said, "The specter disappeared."  Soon after this she learned that Harrison and his whole family had died of cholera. 

Page 178, Case CLXXVIII: Minnie Cox reported seeing in 1869 an apparition of her brother, who was far away in Hong Kong.  This occurred an hour after the brother's son had reported seeing his father. The next mail which came from China informed her of her brother's death, which had happened on the same day Minnie had seen the apparition.  Here we have a case of the same apparition seen by more than one person (see below for a mention of 21 such cases).

Page 179, Case CLXXVIX: Eugenia Wickham reported that in 1886 at three o'clock she and her eldest son had seen seeing an apparition of a "Mr. B." floating about a half a foot above the ground.  About 30 minutes later, someone came to report that Mr. B. had died at about three o'clock. 

On page 187 Flammarion discusses some reasons why the accounts he has presented cannot be dismissed as hallucinations. He states:

"If cases of this kind had been hallucinations, illusions, freaks of the imagination, there would have been a much larger number of them reported that had no coincidence with a death than with such a coincidence. Now it is just the contrary....I requested people to be so obliging as to furnish me with all kinds of cases, whether there was any coincidence with death or not. There are not more than seven or eight percent of cases of apparitions without such coincidence.  The opposite thing would have occurred had we been dealing with hallucinations."

He is correct, because the first question he asked the public to respond to was: “Has it ever happened to you at anytime to experience, being awake, a distinct impression that you saw or heard a human being, or were touched by one, without being able to refer this impression to some known cause?" The second question was, “Did this impression coincide with the date of any death?” 

Flammarion was not the first to publish accounts like the ones cited above. In the long report of the the London Dialectical Society reporting on its investigation of the paranormal, which makes fascinating reading as a whole, we find on page 160-161 the following eyewitness account of a transparent apparition by Cromwell Varley:

"One night in my room there were a great number of loud raps.  When at length I sat up in bed, I saw a man in the air -- a spirit -- in military dress. I could see the pattern of the paper on the wall through him...The spirit informed me that when at school in France he was stabbed. This fact was known only to his eldest surviving brother and his mother. It had been concealed from his father on account of the state of the latter's health. When I narrated this to the survivor, he turned very pale, and confirmed it."

There is no reason to think that sightings of apparitions is merely a "way back when" type of thing.  In 1975 the little-known writer Celia Green was able to get 1500 recent first-hand accounts of apparitions, and published 400 of them in a book. In the same year Erlendur Haraldsson asked 902 people in Iceland, "Have you ever perceived or felt the nearness of a deceased person?" 31% reported "yes." The next year a survey of 1467 people in the US asked, "Have you ever felt that you were really in touch with someone who had died?" 27% answered "Yes."  Below is a quote from the abstract of a paper entitled "Alleged Encounters With the Dead: The Importance Of Violent Death In 337 New Cases" by Haraldsson: 

"Personal encounters with the dead are reported by 25% of Western Europeans and 30% of Americans. Three hundred thirty-seven Icelanders reporting such experiences were interviewed at length. Ninety percent of them reported sensory experiences (apparitions) of a deceased person; 69% were visual, 28% auditory, 13% tactile, and 4% olfactory. Fewer than half of the experiences occurred in twilight or darkness. In half of the cases the experiencer was actively engaged or working. Disproportionately prominent were apparitions of those who died violently and crisis apparitions observed close to the time of death of the person who was perceived, although in the majority of cases, the percipient did not know that the person had died."

It is interesting that he notes a prominence of people seeing an apparition at the time of someone's death, before they even knew the person was dead.  This is similar to what we have seen so often in Flammarion's cases cited above.  The term "veridical near-death experiences" is used for cases in which someone observes or learns something during a near-death experience that is subsequently confirmed (such as details of his medical resuscitation efforts).  Many examples can be read here. We can use the term "veridical apparitions" for these cases in which someone effectively learns in a seemingly paranormal way of a death he was not aware of.  


veridical apparition

Below is an example of such a veridical apparition, an eyewitness account from page 20 of Haraldsson's paper:

"A little later I see him again and close to me, and think again this cannot be and I must be hallucinating and try to shake it off. I felt a strange feeling going through my body and I look behind and see his face. Then I felt sure he must have died. I went home and told them. They said of course that I was talking nonsense. The next morning there came a telegram announcing his death. We did not have a telephone."

Below is another example, an eyewitness account from page 11 of Haraldsson's paper:

"I was having a pleasant trip, stayed at Blanda for two nights, or rather was going to. I was not in any hurry. All of a sudden I sensed my grandfather right there with me. I instantly knew that he had passed away, went to the post office and called. It was confirmed that he had died the day before."

Below is another example, an an eyewitness account from page 13 of Haraldsson's paper:

"Suddenly I see the bedroom door opened and on the threshold stands Jacob, with his face all covered with blood. I look at this for a good while unable to speak or move. Then he disappears and I felt as if he closed the door behind him. I became my normal self, call my husband and tell him about the incident: “I can swear that something has happened at the sanatorium.” I telephone in the morning and ask about if everything is not alright with Jacob. 'No,' said the nurse, 'he committed suicide this night.' ”

Below is another example, an an eyewitness account from page 18 of Haraldsson's paper:

"When I had been shovelling for a while, I suddenly felt Karl Kristj√°nsson standing in front of me in one of the stalls in the stable and he says something rather peculiar: “You were lucky, you did fine,” and that was all; then he disappeared. That evening his death was announced on the radio. While pondering about the incident and trying to figure it out, I learnt that he had suffered a heart attack and been brought to the Reykjavik City Hospital where he died. I had been admitted to that hospital a year earlier after suffering a similar attack. I luckily recuperated and could go home, whereas he died."

On page 19 of the Haraldsson paper we are told that in many of the cases it was reported that an apparition was seen by more than one person at the same time. Haraldsson tried to interview the people who had seen the apparition at the same time as someone else. He reports on page 19,  "In 21 instances out of the 30, the witnesses verified the respondent’s description of the case." Such a result is quite inconsistent with the hallucination theory of apparitions, for under such a theory no more than one person at a time should see an apparition.  

I have not even mentioned here any cases from the massive two-volume work "Phantasms of the Living," which would probably have in its 1000+ pages quite a few other additional cases of veridical apparitions. Quite a few additional cases not discussed in this post can be found in this paper.  I therefore think it will be easy to one day write a sequel to this post,  one with the title "25 More Who Were Ghost-Told of a Death." 

Postscript: Such a sequel post is now available here

Sunday, February 3, 2019

In "The Orville" Sci-Fi Show, Believers Are the Bad Guys

On the Fox TV channel, Seth McFarlane's series The Orville is well into its second season of science fiction. For those of you not familiar with this show, I can concisely summarize it in this way: it's a Star Trek clone. The characters wear uniforms that look like the uniforms in Star Trek. Just as in the Star Trek series, we see the adventures of a large spaceship (called the Orville after Orville Wright) that travels from solar system to solar system with incredible speed and ease, like some jet traveling around from city to city. It's a very entertaining show with some good production values and special effects.

As in Star Trek, the crew is composed of members from different planets. In the series, interstellar travel is so easy that when some crew member has a personal need to return to his solar system, the ship's captain (played by Seth McFarlane) sometimes says that's no problem, and the whole star-ship (the Orville) goes to that planet. This kind of “interstellar spaceship as personal taxi cab” idea is quite contrary to physical reality as we currently understand it. Given the fact that the nearest solar system is four light-years away, humans will be lucky if they can ever travel from one solar system to another in less than ten years (since traveling at even a half of the speed of light seems to tax the limits of engineering possibility). As in Star Trek, the crew members of the Orville almost never seem to change their dress when they go into extraterrestrial planets that might have vastly different atmospheres and temperatures, and they conveniently find that the residents of these planets can always speak perfect English without even an accent. 



A recent episode of the series was a slander against a minority group. The minority group is believers in astrology. Not to be confused with astronomy (the scientific study of stars and other astronomical objects), astrology is the belief that stars and planets exert a mysterious influence on human destiny. Although I am not a believer in astrology, I am well aware that believers in astrology have never had the slightest resemblance to how they were depicted in the episode of The Orville entitled “All the World Is Birthday Cake.”

In the episode, the main members of the Orville's crew arrive on a planet in another solar system. They find that the planet is run by believers in astrology who put people in concentration camps if they are born under the wrong astrological sign. Two of the Orville's crew members are found to have been born under such a sign, and are sent to a concentration camp. Near the climax of the episode, we see the crew members tied to poles. They are just about to be executed by the evil believers in astrology. Then, through some technological magic arranged by the good guys, they are saved from execution.

None of this has the slightest basis in anything that has ever happened. There is no case of a government ever having had a state religion based on astrology. There is no case of people ever being killed, injured or imprisoned by an astrology believer because they did not believe in astrology or were regarded by an astrology believer as being born under the wrong astrological sign.

Below is a comparison between astrology as depicted by The Orville and the historical reality.


Depiction in The Orville Reality
Astrologers put people in concentration camps or try to kill them because of reasons pertaining to astrology. There has never been any significant persecution or violence performed by astrologers based on anything having to do with astrology.
Astrologers have caesarian sections so that a baby won't be born under a bad astrological sign. They do not do such a thing, and do not believe any of the 12 zodiac signs is a bad sign to be born under. 
Astrologers think that people born under a particular astrological sign are dangerous or inferior. Astrologers do not believe that any of the 12 astrological signs is “bad.” They may think that there are pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses in each of the different astrological signs.

The episode I just discussed is one of several episodes of The Orville in which religious believers are depicted as murderous oppressors. In the Season 1 episode "If the Stars Should Appear," there is a theocratic dictator, Hamelac, who "violently imposed rule and religious adherence through his government"; he was "especially concerned about finding, torturing, and then killing suspected members of the Reformers" (according to this summary). The Orville has recurring appearances of a race called the Krill,  who worship a deity named Avis who they believe has instructed them to kill all other races except their own.  

There is no historical parallel for the Krill, but we can imagine an episode of The Orville that would be strongly based on historical reality. In the episode the captain of the Orville and some of his crew members would travel to a planet on which atheists had declared that all religious belief was forbidden. They would find that very many thousands or millions of people on the planet were being put in concentration camps or slaughtered because they held a religious belief. Such an episode would be strongly rooted in the historical reality that massively occurred under the communist Soviet Union, communist Cambodia and Maoist China. But I don't imagine we will ever see such an episode on The Orville.

Before 1700 some of the worst persecution in history was committed by religious zealots, who committed atrocities such as the Albigensian Crusade, the burning of witches, the burning of heretics, the Spanish Inquisition, and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. But since 1900 the number of people who have been killed or put in prison or concentration camps by religious zealots (for religious reasons) is much smaller than the number of people who have been killed or put in prisons or concentration camps by atheist zealots (as part of an attack on religion). For example, in the wikipedia.org article “Persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union,” we read, “The total number of Christian victims under the Soviet regime has been estimated to range between 12-20 million.” We read details such as these:

  •  “In the years 1917–1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested; 95,000 were put to death, executed by firing squad.” 
  • "During the purges of 1937 and 1938, church documents record that 168,300 Russian Orthodox clergy were arrested. Of these, over 100,000 were shot."
Similarly, a CIA document refers to attacks by the Red Guard in Maoist China that "spared no religious group in China." 

The most recent episode of The Orville was a very charming one about a romantic relationship between a woman and a robot. It's episodes like that which make the series worth watching.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Science-Flavored Guesswork Known as Phylogenetics

Our scientists often give us visual displays designed to impress us with their grasp of nature. Such visuals should often be taken with a large grain of salt. An example is the type of “composition of the universe” pie graph that claims the universe is about 72% dark energy, 23% dark matter and 5% regular matter. As discussed here, the case for dark matter is wobbly. Moreover a 2016 study has cast doubt on the research used to make the claim that the universe is 72% dark energy, raising doubts about whether dark energy even exists.

Another type of scientific visual we should have little trust in are those visuals showing a kind of “tree of life” that supposedly shows how one type of life evolved into another. Such visuals are generated using what is called phylogenetics, which involves attempts to compute the ancestry of living things from studying their genomes.

There is a gigantic amount of data involved in the genome of a single organism. Comparing the genomes of many different organisms for similarities becomes a task too data-intensive for a person to do in his own head or on paper. When you get into the task of estimating hypothetical inheritance trees, the number of possibilities becomes so gigantic that the task becomes something so difficult that it is often handled by computers.

The idea of doing computer analysis on genomes may sound very impressive, but there are several reasons why this type of analysis does not in general provide convincing evidence that some species  had a particular ancestry.

1. Phylogenetic programs assume common descent rather than prove it.

The computer programs used for phylogenetic analysis are not programmed to analyze the likelihood that a particular set of species share a common ancestor. Instead, such programs typically assume from the beginning that such species do share a common ancestor, and the programs busy themselves with trying to compute the most probable inheritance tree that can link such species. 

2. Phylogenetic programs compute a “most likely” tree of evolution, but such a tree is not a likely “tree of evolution.”

One must be careful to distinguish between the concept of “most likely” and “likely.” “Likely” means having a probability of greater than 50%. But “most likely” means more likely than any other possibility. It is very common for a “most likely” possibility to be unlikely, with a probability of less than 50%. For example, if you choose a random word from a book, the “most likely” choice is the word “the.” But such a choice is not a likely choice, and has a likelihood of less than 10%.

In the case of a phylogenetic software, it will not produce an inheritance tree that is likely to be correct. It will merely produce an inheritance tree that may be the “most likely” among many different alternatives that the software explores. But such a tree may still be very unlikely to be accurate.

3.With any complicated inheritance tree problem, there is a “combinatorial explosion” that prevents phylogenetic programs from being able to try all possibilities, so the software resorts to a fragmentary exploration of the solution space.

Anyone who has studied computer science knows that when there are many variables or data points, the number of possible arrangements increases exponentially. A classic example is what is known as the traveling salesman problem. If a salesman has to travel to 20 cities, then the total number of possible travel routes is roughly 20 factorial, which is too large a number to compute.

Given more than 200 species, the possible number of inheritance trees to be considered becomes so great there is no possible way for any computer program to compute all the possibilities. So phylogenetic programs typically resort to a shortcut. They simply allow you to try a certain number of possibilities, and rate each one for its likelihood. The one with the best rating is singled out as the winner. But that's not a method that should inspire confidence. The winner is unlikely to be the actual inheritance tree for the set of species, whenever there are many species being considered.

4. Too few living species have had their genomes analyzed for phylogenetic programs to be very reliable.

According to this government web site, “more than 250” animal species have had their genomes analyzed. The problem for phylogenetic programs is that this is but a tiny fragment of the total number of living species, which has been estimated as 8 million. Consequently, we don't have the data to be reliably calculating an inheritance tree based on so few genomes. Perhaps after very many thousands of genomes have been cataloged, such analysis may be more reliable.

5. We don't have any DNA data for even 1% of the species that previously existed.

The reliability of phylogenetic programs is proportional to how much DNA data we have for extinct species that lived long ago. But we have very, very little DNA data for species that lived long ago. The half-life of DNA is only 521 years, meaning every 521 years half of the DNA information will disappear. So we have no DNA information for species such as dinosaurs. There is no truth to the idea that dinosaur DNA has been preserved because insects that bit dinosaurs have been preserved in amber.  That's a fantasy of a "Jurassic Park" movie. When phylogenetic programs try to place dinosaurs in a phylogenetic “tree of life,” they must use guesses about what the DNA of dinosaurs looked like. Similar guesses must be made about almost all of the species being considered.

6. We should have little confidence in phylogenetic programs, given their extremely complicated algorithms that are anything but straightforward.

A document on molecular phylogenetics says this: “The likelihood calculations required for evolutionary trees are far from straightforward and usually require complex computations that must allow for all possible unobserved sequences at the LCA nodes of hypothesized trees.” The same document shows an equation for calculating likelihood, the type of equation used by such a program. It looks as complicated as one of the more complicated equations used in Einstein's theory of general relativity. See here to look at  some of the extremely complicated math involved.

When computer programs are based on extremely complicated algorithms, there will very often be bugs in the program – either because of an error in the complicated algorithm or because of a failure in accurately translating the complicated algorithm into computer code such as Java. For example, a recent study found bugs in software used to analyze brain scans, and estimated that thousands of scientific studies using such software may be inaccurate. The more complicated an algorithm, the greater the likelihood it will not be accurately implemented in bug-free computer code.

A paper entitled “The State of Software in Evolutionary Biology” reviewed various computer programs used in phylogenetics, and concluded “the software quality of the tools we analyzed is rather mediocre.” A later paper entitled "The State of Software for Evolutionary Biology" stated, "The software engineering quality of the tools we analyzed is rather unsatisfying." It is a huge problem in science that software programs used for scientific analysis are often written by scientists who dabble in computer programming, and the quality of their work is often second-rate.  We should no more expect high-quality code from a scientist dabbling in computer programming than we should expect to get high-quality house-building and plumbing from a professional musician who dabbles in making houses. 

7. We should have little confidence in phylogenetic programs, because there is no way to test the output of such programs.

As a general rule, our confidence in a type of software should be proportional to the degree to which the software has passed tests. For example, if some baseball prediction software were to predict that a particular player would have a batting average next season of .314, and the player did produce exactly such a batting average, and the same type of prediction succeeded for other players, that would be a good sign that the software was reliable. But in the case of phylogenetic software, there is no way to test its outputs. Although certain types of consistency checks and statistical checks can be applied to the output of phylogenetic software, we have no way of verifying that a "tree of life" or an inheritance tree produced by such software is historically accurate. Anyone in the software industry knows that untested software is not something you should have much confidence in.

8. Lateral gene transfers cast doubt on the reliability of  phylogenetic estimates.

Here is a quote from a 2016 scientific paper:

One of the several ways in which microbiology puts the neo-Darwinian synthesis in jeopardy is by the threatening to “uproot the Tree of Life (TOL)” [1]. Lateral gene transfer (LGT) is much more frequent than most biologists would have imagined up until about 20 years ago, so phylogenetic trees based on sequences of different prokaryotic genes are often different. How to tease out from such conflicting data something that might correspond to a single, universal Tree of Life becomes problematic. Moreover, since many important evolutionary transitions involve lineage fusions at one level or another, the aptness of a tree (a pattern of successive bifurcations) as a summary of life’s history is uncertain.

The paper then goes on to say this:

Students of animals and plants have long accepted that incomplete lineage sorting, introgression, and full-species hybridization pose difficulties for the sorts of trees that Darwin might have had us draw. But it is microbes, with their promiscuous willingness to exchange genes between widely separated branches of any “tree,” that have most seriously jeopardized the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

9. Disagreement about mutation rates undermines the reliability of phylogenetic estimates.

The output of a phylogenetic program may rely on some estimate regarding a rate of mutation. But there is great disagreement about the rate of mutation in the past. A scientist quoted in Nature News says this about the “DNA clock” used in phylogenetics:

The fact that the clock is so uncertain is very problematic for us,” he says. “It means that the dates we get out of genetics are really quite embarrassingly bad and uncertain.”

10. Phylogenetic estimates based on microRNAs or fossils conflict with other phylogenetic estimates.

The quote below is from a 2012 article published in the mainstream publication Nature:

A molecular palaeobiologist at nearby Dartmouth College, Peterson has been reshaping phylogenetic trees for the past few years, ever since he pioneered a technique that uses short molecules called microRNAs to work out evolutionary branchings. He has now sketched out a radically different diagram for mammals: one that aligns humans more closely with elephants than with rodents. “I've looked at thousands of microRNA genes, and I can't find a single example that would support the traditional tree,” he says. The technique “just changes everything about our understanding of mammal evolution.”
The mainstream scientific paper "How reliable are human phylogenetic hypotheses?" gives a troubling answer to such a question.  It tells us that "phylogenetic hypotheses regarding humans and their fossil relatives" have "never been subjected to external validation." When the authors tried to do such a validation, they found that "phylogenetic hypotheses based on the craniodental data were incompatible with the molecular phylogenies."   This led them to conclude that "existing phylogenetic hypotheses about human evolution are unlikely to be reliable." 

Below is a visual from a 2016 paper "A new view of the tree of life." In this paper this visual comes underneath a headline "A current view of the tree of life."  You may notice that the strange shape has no actual resemblance to a tree, although it looks a little like some erupting fireworks sparkler stick that I would use as a young boy on the fourth of July.  



No doubt computational phylogenetics will continue to be very popular. Although such analysis seems to add little to our knowledge, it's a nice easy way to make a living if you are an evolutionary biologist. Rather than having to do the messy and frustrating work of trying to dig up fossils, an evolutionary biologist can just comfortably sit in an office and crunch genome data. It's a lot easier than writing software, where there is typically the requirement that your computer work must actually achieve some useful innovation. A scientist specializing in phylogenetics can just grind out hypothetical “trees of life” or “ancestry trees” year after year, with very little disturbance from people objecting to his work or analyzing his methods. So if you are an evolutionary biologist making a living doing such comfortable work in a clean office, you will vigorously defend the value of what you are doing. The last thing you want is to have to go out in the mud and get your fingernails dirty.