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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, December 30, 2017

They Had Flourishing Minds But Broken Brains

Recently there was published a superb scientific paper describing cases of very high mental activity despite very great brain damage. Entitled "Discrepancy Between Cerebral Structure and Cognitive Functioning," the paper (authored by two PhD's and an MD) will be read by some who are merely interested in reading about weird curiosities. But a better way to read the paper is to examine its examples and ask: is the standard “mind from brain” dogma taught by neuroscientists (the dogma that minds are generated by brains) consistent with these examples? Together the examples seem to provide a very strong challenge to such a dogma.

On page 1 we learn of a case reported by Martel in 1823 of a boy who after age five lost all of his senses except hearing, and became bed-confined. Until death he “seemed mentally unimpaired.” But after he died, an autopsy was done which found that apart from “residues of meninges" there was "no trace of a brain" found inside the skull. How could the boy have seemed “mentally unimpaired” with almost no brain?

The paper then discusses a case examined by physician John Lorber, who studied many patients with hydrocephalus, in which healthy brain tissue is gradually replaced by a watery fluid. A mathematics student with an IQ of 130 and a verbal IQ of 140 was found to have “virtually no brain.” His vision was apparently perfect except for a refraction error, even though he had no visual cortex (the part of the brain involved in sight perception).

We are told that of about 16 patients Lorber classified as having extreme hydrocephalus (with 90% of the area inside the cranium replaced with spinal fluid), half of them had an IQ of 100 or more. The article mentions 16 patients, but the number with extreme hydrocephalus was actually 60, as this article states, using information from this original source that mentions about 10 percent of a group of 600. So the actual number of these people with tiny brains and above-average intelligence was about 30. The article states:

[Lorber] described a woman with an extreme degree of hydrocephalus showing “virtually no cerebral mantle” who had an IQ of 118, a girl aged 5 who had an IQ of 123 despite extreme hydrocephalus, a 7-year-old boy with gross hydrocephalus and an IQ of 128, another young adult with gross hydrocephalus and a verbal IQ of 144, and a nurse and an English teacher who both led normal lives despite gross hydrocephalus.

Lorber's cases date from several decades ago, but more recent cases have been reported of people with good mental functioning despite having almost all of their brains replaced by a watery fluid due to hydrocephalus. The scientific paper cites the cases below:

Another interesting case is that of a 44-year-old woman with very
gross hydrocephalus described by Masdeu (2008) and Masdeu et al.(2009). She had a global IQ of 98, worked as an administrator for a government agency, and spoke seven languages. In Leipzig, Germany, staff members of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences recorded a similar case. A man was examined because of his headache, and to his physicians' surprise, he had an “incredibly large hydrocephalus.” Villinger, the director of the Cognitive Neurology Department, stated that this man had “almost no brain,” only “a very thin layer of cortical tissue.” This man led an unremarkable life, and his hydrocephalus was only discovered by chance (Hasler, 2016, p. 18)

The paper informs us of cases of people who functioned well despite losing half of their brains. We are told of a 36-year-old man whose “intellect and language abilities were unimpaired” despite the fact that the left hemisphere of his brain was “almost completely lacking.” We are told of a boy who was an average student at a regular school, even though he had a “nearly complete absence” of the right hemisphere of his brain. The paper also cites cases of people who had large portions of their brain missing, but who did not notice any problem until they had seizures or headaches. The paper states this:

For example, Baudoin (1996) described the case of a 30-year-
old woman who had a large lesion on her right cerebral hemisphere. The right occipital and parietal lobes were entirely missing, as well as the inferior part of the right temporal lobe. The brain lesion was discovered only because of the patient's first seizures at the age of 30. Similarly, Duyff et al. (1996) presented the case of a 32-year-old lawyer whose brain showed a large arachnoid cyst in the right frontotemporal region that had displaced (or replaced) the temporal lobe and parts of the frontal and parietal lobes. His development had been completely normal, and no abnormalities were discovered upon neurological examination. His condition was discovered only because he had a persistent headache after a skiing accident in which he had fallen on his head.

Hemispherectomy is a surgical procedure in which half of the brain is removed. I knew that the procedure can be performed on young children suffering from seizures, with surprisingly little negative impact. But the paper also tells us on page 3 that
Although most hemispherectomies are performed on young children, adults are also operated on with remarkable success.”

 Schematic diagram of a hemispherectomy

Very interestingly, we are told that when half of their brains are removed in these operations, “most patients, even adults, do not seem to lose their long-term memory such as episodic (autobiographic) memories.” The paper tells us that Dandy, Bell and Karnosh “stated that their patient's memory seemed unimpaired after hemispherectomy,” the removal of half of their brains. We are also told that Vining and others “were surprised by the apparent retention of memory after the removal of the left or the right hemisphere of their patients.”

The paper then tells the case of Kim Peek, an autistic savant who had no corpus callosum (the “bridge” connecting the two brain hemispheres). Much of Peek's brain consisted of empty areas filled with cerebrospinal fluid. But still “he memorized more than 12,000 books, apparently verbatim.” 

On page 59 of the book The Biological Mind, the author states the following:

A group of surgeons at Johns Hopkins Medical School performed fifty-eight hemispherectomy operations on children over a thirty-year period. "We were awed," they wrote later of their experiences, "by the apparent retention of memory after removal of half of the brain, either half, and by the retention of the child's personality and sense of humor." 

In the paper "Neurocognitive outcome after pediatric epilepsy surgery" by Elisabeth M. S. Sherman, we have some discussion of the effects on children of temporal lobectomy (removal of the temporal lobe of the brain) and hemispherectomy, surgically removing half of their brains to stop seizures. We are told this:

After temporal lobectomy, children show few changes in verbal or nonverbal intelligence....Cognitive levels in many children do not appear to be altered significantly by hemispherectomy. Several researchers have also noted increases in the intellectual functioning of some children following this procedure....Explanations for the lack of decline in intellectual function following hemispherectomy have not been well elucidated. 

Referring to a study by Gilliam, the paper states that of 21 children who had parts of their brains removed to treat epilepsy, including 10 who had surgery to remove part of the frontal lobe, "none of the patients with extra-temporal resections had reductions in IQ post-operatively," and that two of the children with frontal lobe resections had "an increase in IQ greater than 10 points following surgery." 

See this post for more cases of people whose minds functioned very well despite huge brain damage.  Such cases are powerful evidence against the dogma that our minds are merely a product of our brains.  Repeated countless times in mainstream literature, but never proven, such a dogma is also discredited by both the inability of neuroscience to plausibly account for consciousness and very-long-term human memory, and the inability of a "mind from brain" dogma to account for psychic phenomena such as ESP, remote viewing, and near-death experiences.  Nature never told us that minds come from brains. It was merely neuroscientists who told us that, without having sufficient evidence to support such a claim.  Don't confuse such ideologically-motivated scientist speech customs with facts.

Postscript: Alternatives to the "mind from brain" dogma include the idea of a human soul and the idea that human consciousness may have some mysterious consciousness infrastructure as its source, possibly something cosmic in scope.  When asked "Where do your smartphone games come from," a child may answer with great certainty, "From the smartphone, of course." But such games may actually come from some mysterious information infrastructure involving the Internet and remote servers, something the child knows nothing about.  Similarly, our minds may have as their main source some mysterious non-biological consciousness infrastructure we know nothing about. 

Speaking of widely held dogmas about the mind that are poorly supported by evidence, this recent article discusses how the "chemical imbalances cause depression" idea gained wide acceptance among both the public and professional experts, despite a lack of evidence for it and some powerful evidence against it.  The article says "Despite the lack of evidence, the theory has saturated society."  The article notes that people love these kind of simplistic explanations. The article says of depression, "The theory that it's caused by chemical imbalances is false."

Post-postscript:  There was recently published this case of a man with a 9-centimeter (3 inch) wide "air-filled cavity" in the right frontal lobe of his brain.  Although the paper is entitled "The man that lost (part of) his mind," the paper indicates no sign of mental damage:

An 84-year-old man was referred to the emergency department by his general practitioner having been complaining of recurrent falls and feeling unsteady over several months. He then developed a 3-day history of left-sided arm and leg weakness. There was no confusion, facial weakness, visual or speech disturbance, and he was feeling otherwise well.

The man showed good judgment in declining a risky operation that wasn't vitally necessary. But how could someone have so little damage from a giant hole in a part of the brain that supposedly is involved in language, memory, and judgment? Cases like these are inconsistent with dogmas about minds being generated by brains. 

Then there is a case in which a human managed to function well in society as a French civil servant, even though
he had almost no functional brain.

The case is discussed here. Inside a normal brain are tiny structures called lateral ventricles that hold brain fluid. In this man's case, the ventricles had swollen up like balloons, until they filled almost all of the man's brain. When the 44-year-old man was a child, doctor's had noticed the swelling, and had tried to treat it. Apparently the swelling had progressed since childhood. The man was left with what the Reuters story calls “little more than a sheet of actual brain tissue.”

But this same man, with almost no functioning brain, had been working as a French civil servant, and had his IQ tested to be 75, higher than that of a mentally retarded person. The Reuters story says: “A man with an unusually tiny brain managed to live an entirely normal life despite his condition, caused by a fluid buildup in his skull.” The case was written up in the British medical journal The Lancet (link). 

At this link a neuroscientist states the following:

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

At the URL here you can find a book chapter entitled, “Memory
consolidation, retrograde amnesia, and the temporal lobe.” Tables 4 and 5 of this paper give us detailed information on 16 cases of severe brain damage documented in the medical literature. The patients had damage in between three and ten different parts of their brain, with an average of about four or five different brain areas being damaged. The tables give IQ scores for these 16 patients, and the average score was 99 – just one point less than 100, the average IQ. But how could their average intelligence be so normal, if they had such heavy brain damage?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Blundering Backlash to the Recent UFO Revelations

Recently the New York Times reported that the US government had a secret program to investigate UFO sightings, one that was funded with 22 million dollars from 2007 to 2012. The Times story reported that the government study “produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.” The New York Times also published on the same day a detailed account of a UFO sighting. They interviewed Navy pilot David Fravor, who was asked to use his Navy jet fighter to investigate an unidentified object in the sky. Fravor reported that the object “accelerated like nothing I've ever seen.” One of the Times stories included a video link showing a cockpit video of a UFO being chased by a fighter jet – an object with no apparent wings that had a strange aura. The object was speeding very high in the atmosphere.

These revelations have provoked responses from the mainstream  establishment, responses that have often been either misleading or empty-headed. An example is this article at livescience.com by Benjamin Radford.   Radford presents an extremely biased account of UFO sightings, and claims that "UFO sightings so far provide no real evidence." This is pretty much the "total denial" tactic so beloved by skeptics, which simply involves claiming that there is no evidence no matter how high a mountain of evidence has piled up. Rather absurdly, Radford tries to discredit the recent government UFO research program by  citing the Stargate government program into remote viewing (a program that produced dramatic evidence for this paranormal effect, as described here). He contradicts himself by claiming in one sentence that the Stargate program was "soon shut down," while stating in another sentence that it ran from "the 1970s through the mid-1990s."  But you don't discredit one multi-year government program of paranormal investigation by citing another multi-year government program of paranormal investigation. One plus one equals two, not zero. 

 SETI expert Andrew Siemion went on record arguing against UFOs on the basis that astronomers haven't seen them with their telescopes. That's a pretty dumb argument. The fact that some people have never observed something never discredits observations by reliable witnesses who have seen that thing. For example, I've never seen a bat in New York City, but that does nothing to discredit people who have seen bats in New York City.

Another intellectually unimpressive response to the UFO revelations was one given by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, who expressed a total lack of curiosity about the topic, saying, “Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien.” Inconsistently, he states about some UFO, “"It's a flying object and we don't know what it is,” but also states, “The evidence is so paltry for aliens to visit Earth, I have no further interest.” But if we see flying objects in our skies we cannot identify, how could this be evidence “so paltry” for extraterrestrial visits? The evidence for UFOs is not at all paltry, consisting of decades of observations by a vast number of reliable witnesses.

Tyson's statement of “no further interest” exemplifies a flaw in the attitude of modern scientists: they seem to have no interest in anything that is on their long list of taboo topics. The typical modern science PhD is a man of a hundred taboos, a man determined to suppress any intellectual curiosity he may have about a hundred anomalous phenomena he cannot explain. When such figures speak about the paranormal, they typically show no signs of having researched the topic they are speaking about.

Perhaps the most clueless response to the UFO investigation appeared in a LiveScience story entitled, “The Truth About Those 'Alien Alloys' in the New York Times' UFO Story.” This story was published as the lead article on the Scientific American web site.

The LiveScience story responded to these intriguing claims in the New York Times story:

Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes.

The LiveScience story is also responding to a statement that it quotes as follows:

One of the authors of the Times report, Ralph Blumenthal, had this to say on MSNBC about the alloys: "They have, as we reported in the paper, some material from these objects that is being studied so that scientists can find what accounts for their amazing properties, this technology of these objects, whatever they are." When asked what the materials were, Blumenthal responded, "They don't know. They're studying it, but it's some kind of compound that they don't recognize."

The LiveScience story then quotes a scientist making an absurd claim on the topic:

"I don't think it's plausible that there's any alloys that we can't identify," Richard Sachleben, a retired chemist and member of the American Chemical Society's panel of experts, told Live Science. "My opinion? That's quite impossible."

This claim is nonsensical. Given the age of the universe, some 13 billion years, astronomers assume that extraterrestrial civilizations might be very many thousands or millions of years older than our civilization. So such a civilization that might have godlike powers could not create some compound that humans could not identify? That's hilarious. You might as well argue that scientists in ancient Greece could have identified any material or compound that we manufacture today.

Below are some more inane comments from Sachleben and someone named Nyman:

"These are all very standard techniques in research labs, so if we had such mysterious metals, you could take it to any university where research is done, and they could tell you what are the elements and something about the crystalline phase within a few hours," Nyman said. Sachleben agreed. "There are no alloys that are sitting in some warehouse that we cannot figure out what they are. In fact, it's pretty simple, and any reasonably good metallurgical grad student can do it for you," he said.

Oh, really? So if there was an extraterrestrial civilization with science 2,000,000 years more advanced than ours, capable of using nano-technology to combine elements and rearrange matter in a trillion different ways we cannot imagine, using technologies we will not develop for eons, then anything they might produce could be quickly figured out by a grad student? I need not explain how stupid that claim is.

What we see here is just a glaring example of the runaway egotism and knowledge over-estimation that is sadly not rare among modern scientists. Placing themselves and their colleagues on pedestals, many scientists portray themselves as great Lords of Knowledge who have mastered the universe's secrets. But the truth is they know very much less than they think they do, and that they have learned merely the tiniest fraction of the universe's secrets.

An intelligent expert response to a report of mysterious substances obtained from UFOs would be something like this: “I would be very much interested in studying these supposedly anomalous materials, so I would like to offer my services to anyone who may have access to such materials.” 

Unidentified object I recently photographed near a building in New York 

Postscript: We have additional ignorant misinformation from the mainstream media in this article on Salon.com, which states the utter falsehood that "Historically, paranormal research has been done merely to keep pace with one’s enemies." Statements like this simply suggest that the author hasn't bothered to spend even a single afternoon researching the history of paranormal research. 

Then there's this backlash piece by astronomer Seth Shostak, who tries to suggest that witness testimony isn't useful for science, and that it "isn't terribly reliable in criminal court cases."  But we all the time send people to prison for decades based on witness testimony. So if courts take witness testimony so seriously, why shouldn't science?

Friday, December 22, 2017

He Thinks His Beloved Specks Have Cosmic Implications

Some of the discoveries of scientists are monumental, like the discovery of DNA or the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. But in other cases a scientist may find something tiny and borderline,  but that doubtful little thing may be hyped up to look as if it was something mountain-sized.

An example of such hyping might perhaps be found in a recent announcement about alleged microfossils. The controversial geological specimens were discovered in Western Australia. A UCLA press release tells us matter-of-factly that the “microorganisms” are 3.465 billion years old. The UCLA press release does not mention any controversy about whether these tiny things were microorganisms.

But researching how the story was covered on other news sites, I find there is quite a bit of controversy. For example, an article on LiveScience tells us that “other researchers have cast doubt on whether these sediments house traces of life at all, suggesting that chemical markers thought to represent biological evidence were the result of geothermal activity.” The same article says, “Billions of years of geologic changes leave behind chemical traces in rocks that often resemble signatures of biological remains, according to previous studies.”

A scientist has used some fancy new technique to analyze these geological specimens. Some new gizmo was created to analyze the specimens, but it sounds like possibly unreliable “bleeding edge” technology; the UCLA press release calls it “cutting edge technology.” “It took us 10 years to develop the ability to make these measurements accurately," said one of the scientists.

But Science magazine tells us the following:

[Rasmussen] is concerned that the microfossils may have been badly preserved. Olcott Marshall, who thinks the rock impressions are not fossils at all, but the product of geological processes, is even more critical: “The errors produced by this analytical technique are so large” that the data are not clear enough to say there are different types of microbes in rock, she says.

We learn from the UCLA press release that the scientist making the claim that these microscopic geological specimens are 3.465 billion-year-old and are microfossils is a scientist named J. William Schopf, who has published several papers on these specimens over the course of 25 years, since 1993. He's apparently one of the scientists who spent 10 years working on these little specks. We may wonder whether someone with such a large investment of time in these speck specimens may be biased in his examination of them, more prone to regard them as biological than the evidence warrants.

Schopf's latest conclusions are based on an analysis trying to use radioactive dating to date microscopic specks. The problem with that is while radioactive dating may be reliable when used to determine the age of a skull or a big dinosaur bone, when you try to use radioactive dating on some microscopic specks, radioactive dating isn't terribly reliable – hence the previous quote that “errors produced by this analytical technique are so large.”

The latest work on these alleged microfossils should have been announced with the appropriate caution, with a headline such as “Debate Continues on Whether Australian Microscopic Traces Are Fossils.” But instead our UCLA press release has done the opposite. Not only has the UCLA press release hidden the scientific controversy, but it has announced, most absurdly, that these microscopic traces of an uncertain nature “indicate that life in the universe is common.”

Schopf claims that his research “tells us life had to have begun substantially earlier and it confirms that it was not difficult for primitive life to form and to evolve into more advanced microorganisms.” No, his research tells us no such thing. The age of the earth is believed to be 4.6 billion years old. Finding a microscopic fossil about 3.5 billion years old tells us nothing about how hard or improbable it was for primitive life to form.

Even if it were true that life on Earth arose 100 million years after it first had the opportunity to arise, this would not be a strong reason for thinking that life in the universe is common. Consider this case. You open your new pastry shop one day, and within an hour someone comes in trying to order a pizza. The chance of this happening is very low. You would be mistaken if you reasoned that the chance of such a thing happening must have been high, or else it would not have occurred within the first hour of your shop being open. You are not entitled to draw such conclusions based on the timing of a single occurrence.

The article here states the following by MIT professor Joshua Winn (referring to this scientific paper):

There is a commonly heard argument that life must be common or else it would not have arisen so quickly after the surface of the Earth cooled," Winn said. "This argument seems persuasive on its face, but Spiegel and Turner have shown it doesn't stand up to a rigorous statistical examination — with a sample of only one life-bearing planet, one cannot even get a ballpark estimate of the abundance of life in the universe."

This announcement may end up rather like the “Life on Mars” affair of the 1990's, when some scientists announced with great fanfare that some meteorite that supposedly had come from Mars had evidence that life had existed on Mars. The evidence consisted of marginal specks like the Australian specimens Schopf has studied. In the subsequent years this claim ended up being mainly rejected by other scientists.

 Hyped-up science press releases often are like this

Monday, December 18, 2017

NY Times Gives UFO Revelations, but BBC Gaslights Paranormal Witnesses

In my previous post Does the New York Times Have the World's Worst Paranormal Coverage? I discussed the dismal record of the New York Times in covering the paranormal. I stated the following:

During the past 30 years, the New York Times seems to have had the worst coverage of the paranormal given by any major newspaper. While it has outstanding coverage of politics, world affairs, sports, and entertainment, the paper will typically not cover important news about the paranormal. In the very rare cases when it does provide coverage of the paranormal, the New York Times almost always gives us coverage that is heavily biased, inaccurate, or uninformative.

But maybe there is a little hope that the New York Times is trying to improve its previously atrocious record in regard to covering the paranormal. Recently the New York Times had two decent stories on the topic.

The first story, a very important one, revealed that the US government had a secret program to investigate UFO sightings, one that was funded with 22 million dollars from 2007 to 2012. For years mainstream pundits have been scoffing at people claiming that the government was doing secret research on UFO's. People making such claims have been dismissed as “conspiracy theorists.” Apparently these “conspiracy theorists” were actually correct about secret government activity.

Besides this story, the New York Times also published on the same day a detailed account of a UFO sighting. They interviewed Navy pilot David Fravor, who was asked to use his Navy jet fighter to investigate an unidentified object in the sky. Fravor reported that the vehicle “accelerated like nothing I've ever seen.”

More details on the secret government program are given in this interesting Politico story on the program, which notes, “The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation.”

The Politico story states the following:

The “unidentified aerial phenomena” claimed to have been seen by pilots and other military personnel appeared vastly more advanced than those in American or foreign arsenals. In some cases they maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics, according to multiple sources directly involved in or briefed on the effort and a review of unclassified Defense Department and congressional documents.

But if the New York Times gives us a glimmer of hope that it may be improving its previously appalling record of covering the paranormal, we get no such glimmer of hope from the British Broadcast Company. The BBC recently gave us an appalling example of gaslighting witnesses of the paranormal.

The term “gaslighting” has recently been used in connection with all the discussion about workplace sexual harassment and sexual abuse. A wikipedia page defines gaslighting as “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” The term is derived from the Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight, in which a wife detects signs that her husband may be a murderer. The husband tries to deal with these inconvenient observations by convincing his wife that she is going mad.

We can understand how gaslighting might work for a woman who witnessed sexual harassment or sexual abuse. The woman might be told that this may have occurred while she was drunk, or that she may be “fantasy prone,” or that memories from ten years ago are not reliable, or that she committed “confused perception,” or that she may be just remembering some vivid dream she had, or that she may be just engaging in “confabulation.” And if 10 persons witnessed some person in high power groping them or suddenly exposing his genitals to them, all ten of the witnesses may be gaslighted. Once the gaslighting has finished, we may just think of all these witnesses as crazies or unreliable observers who cannot be trusted. 


Just as witnesses of sexual harassment and sexual abuse can be gaslighted, witnesses of paranormal phenomena may be gaslighted. Such gaslighting is going on in this BBC video entitled “The Psychology Behind Paranormal Beliefs.” The video makes the misleading assertion that “Some paranormal experiences are caused by brain damage.” This is not correct in any substantial sense. Putting aside psychotic hallucinations, which no paranormal investigator regards as a paranormal experience, there is no common form of paranormal experience that is caused by brain damage.

The rest of the video attempts to suggest that there may be perceptual problems in those reporting paranormal experiences. There is no reliable evidence that this is correct. The people who report paranormal experiences are not substantially different from those who do not. The BBC page refers to an earlier BBC story also engaging in outrageous gaslighting of paranormal witnesses, trying to suggest they may have brain damage or perceptual problems. The evidence given to support these claims is extremely skimpy, and we have a case of trying to weave a fabric from a few scattered threads of evidence. 


This gaslighting of witnesses of the paranormal is every bit as deplorable as a sexual abuser's gaslighting of the witnesses of his sexual abuse or sexual harassment. There is no substantive evidence that those who report ghosts, UFO's, ESP, Bigfoot sightings, or near-death experiences have brains, minds or perception tendencies any different than those who do not.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Fake Physics Does Not Explain Real Cosmic Fine-Tuning

Marcus Du Sautoy is a mathematician who has taken over Richard Dawkin's chair as Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. While holding that chair, Dawkins committed many an error in reasoning, some of which are described here. Some equally bad errors of reasoning are committed in Du Sautoy's book The Great Unknown.

On page 221 Du Sautoy marvels at how fine-tuned the fundamental constants of our universe seem to be. He states:

What is particularly striking is how sensitive the possibility of life in our universe is to a small change in these constants. For example, if the constant that controls the way the electromagnetic field behaves in a vacuum is changed by four percent, then fusion in stars could not produce carbon....Change the cosmological constant in the 123rd decimal place and suddenly it's impossible to have a habitable galaxy.

Du Sautoy suggests what he calls an “explanation” for this mystery – the idea of the multiverse, that there exists some vast collection of universes. He says, “In the multiverse model there are lots of different universes, and in each of these universes the fundamental constants could be randomly assigned.” That is indeed the idea of the multiverse, although Du Sautoy misspeaks by referring to “the multiverse model.” In science a model is a simplified representation of a known physical reality. Speculating about unknown or unobserved universes is not at all a case of making a scientific model.

Next Du Sautoy goes off the rails, both by the very fact of referring to the multiverse idea as an explanation, and also by claiming, most absurdly, that such an idea is a simple and economical explanation. He states the following on page 222:

The multiverse theory at least has that sense of economy we are after in a good theory. The explanation terminates and does not require further explanation. The addition of these other universes is just more of the same with variations, and once you accept all these other universes you get a complete solution to the fine-tuning problem....A good scientific theory should make sense of how everything is put together, and shouldn't need to introduce too many extra characters into the story to get the narrative we experience. There is a simplicity and naturalness about the multiverse theory that makes it a strong candidate theory.

Reading Du Sautoy claim that a multiverse is a simple explanation to the problem of why our universe is so fine-tuned, I am reminded of Voltaire's famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire: that it was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. The multiverse is not at all an explanation and not at all simple. You present an explanation when you either discuss some causal factor that produced something, or you present some circumstances that allow you to say, “Now what seemed so surprising is not surprising.” In neither of these senses is the multiverse idea an explanation. Imagining some vast collection of other universes does not involve some causal factor that preceded our universe, making it have fine-tuned constants. If we imagine such a vast collection of universes, it is still every bit as surprising that our particular universe should so improbably have fine-tuned characteristics it was so unlikely to have.

Imagine if some teenager buries all the furniture in his house in buckets of honey. You could try to explain this by claiming there is an infinity of other universes, and so in at least one such universe we would expect such behavior. But that is in no sense an explanation, because it does nothing to increase the likelihood that this particular teenager would have acted the way he did. Our surprise about the teenager's behavior is not reduced, so in no sense has an explanation occurred. We can say the same thing about a multiverse as an attempted explanation for our universe's incredibly improbable fine-tuned constants. Imagining a multiverse does nothing to make it more likely that our particular universe would have such fine-tuned constants, so it is not correct to say that any explanation has occurred for our universe's characteristics.

Although he is a mathematician, Du Sautoy has ignored a mathematical rule very relevant to these considerations. The rule is that you do not increase the likelihood of a success on any one random trial no matter how much you increase the number of random trials. Each universe is like a random trial in which the success is the appearance of intelligent life. You do not increase the chance of success on any one trial by increasing the number of trials. So even if you assume an infinity of universes, that does not increase by even .00000000000000001 percent the likelihood that our particular universe would have coincidentally been consistent with life. And similarly, if I assume that there are an infinity of casinos, and an infinity of gamblers at such casinos, this does not increase by even .00000001 percent the likelihood that I will be a winner the next time I gamble at a casino.

As for Du Sautoy's claim that the multiverse idea is a simple and economical theory,  this is certainly the exact opposite of the truth, for nothing could be less simple and less economical than imagining some vast collection of other universes, each with a different set of fundamental constants. Du Sautoy has previously told us that the cosmological constant seems to be fine-tuned to something like one part in 10 to the 123rd power. So his multiverse presumably needs to consist of more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 universes. Calling a theory requiring such a thing simple and economical is every bit as fatuous as calling the Pacific Ocean “dry” or the Sahara Desert “wet.”


On page 223 Du Sautoy attempts to suggest that a multiverse theory is better than imagining a designer who fine-tuned the universe's constants, because “a designer who fine tunes the constants raises as many questions as it answers.” But, of course, exactly the same objection can be made to the infinite clutter of a multiverse, which raises far more questions than it answers, such as the question of where this vast collection of universes came from, and why all these universes happened to have the characteristics they have. And it is not a valid procedure to judge an explanation on whether it raises as many questions as it answers. All kinds of successful theories (such as the atomic theory) raised as many questions as they answered.

Du Sautoy suggests that a multiverse is a better explanation because it's not supernatural. But he's wrong – there's nothing more supernatural than a multiverse. The Merriam-Webster defines supernatural as “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.” A vast collection of universes (each with different physical constants) outside of our universe is just such a thing.

On page 225, Du Sautoy states, “Although at the moment there is no way of testing the multiverse theory, there is no a priori reason why it will always remain untestable.” This is completely false; there is exactly such an a priori reason. It is the fact that we could never verify that there existed even one other universe with some set of physical constants different from our own.

On the same page, Du Sautoy states the following:

The multiverse theory, although potentially untestable, does come with a mechanism, inflation, by how these multiverses arise. And we do at least have evidence for one of these multiverses: our own universe.

The second statement is a clumsy misstatement, and the first statement is misleading. According to multiverse terminology, a multiverse is some collection of many individual universes. Our universe is therefore not a multiverse, but a universe. Our universe is no more evidence for a multiverse than a single tree is evidence for a forest.

As for the claim that inflation theory provides a mechanism for creating universes, this is not true in any relevant sense. Certain versions of the theory of cosmic inflation (itself a speculation designed mainly to explain evidence for a certain type of cosmic fine-tuning) imagine that our universe is kind of like a bubble in a larger cosmic reality that pops out bubble universes, kind of like a hot soup pops out bubbles. But this cosmic inflation theory has no mechanism for creating other universes with random physics and random physical constants. The “bubble universes” of the theory of eternal cosmic inflation should have the same physical constants as our universe. This point was made by Columbia University multiverse critic Peter Woit, who states the following:

Claims are often made that the theory of inflation provides evidence for a multiverse with different physics in each universe. If one looks into actual models of inflation one finds that again, no theory of the sort has been claimed.

Woit reiterates the same point here, stating “models of inflation...are not models that lead to the kind of multiverse of different physical laws.” Over the years, Woit's “Not Even Wrong” blog has been great about exposing the misstatements and malarkey of multiverse theorists. Woit now uses the term “Fake Physics” to describe such theories.

Moreover, since the cosmic inflation theory is a speculative theory for which there is no solid evidence, it can hardly be used to back up claims of a multiverse, no matter what it predicts or describes. Trying to do that is very much like a person trying to substantiate his claim of a vast horde of invisible fairies by saying that his other theory of a fourth-dimensional magic kingdom provides a mechanism for the appearance of such fairies. You do not substantiate one speculation by referring to another speculation.

Although perhaps sympathetic to his naturalism, Woit was scolding biologist Jerry Coyne, who recently had a post enthusing that maybe the multiverse can help us explain the appearance of human beings such as us. In a post with the misleading title "New evidence for the multiverse -- and its implications," Coyne states:

Further, it means that the evolution of humans was inevitable somewhere. In one of those universes that permitted the evolution of life, it was inevitable that a thinking hominin would evolve.

We may ask here: why does Coyne feel the need to drag in a multiverse (a vast collection of universes) to help explain the appearance of humans such as us? This is not at all what anyone should be doing if he felt that he had an adequate Darwinian explanation for human beings. On the other hand, someone who did not have an adequate Darwinian explanation for human beings might, in an act of utter desperation, try to imagine an infinity of universes to help explain human origins. But the problem is that exactly the same “it would happen at least once in an infinity of universes” reasoning can be used to justify a belief in fairies and leprechauns.

All these attempts to explain our universe's fine-tuned constants through imagining a vast collection of universes are guilty of a fallacy we may call the lucky numbers fallacy. This is the fallacy of assuming that some favorable set of physical constants would be sufficient to make the universe habitable for beings such as us. Having favorable physical constants is a necessary condition for a habitable universe, but not a sufficient condition. You need something much more than such lucky numbers. For a universe to be habitable, you also need favorable laws of nature, which act programmatically to help create favorable conditions for life. Such laws act like intelligent programming. If there were an infinite set of random universes, we would not expect that any of them would have such a favorable set of laws like those in our universe. There would be no reason why any random universe would have laws resembling intelligent programming.

As for Coyne's idea that a multiverse might help explain humans, it is completely mistaken. Human minds have many characteristics that we cannot explain as being a result of natural selection or brain activity. As discussed here, human mental characteristics such as empathy, spirituality, mathematical ability, abstract thinking, musical ability, aesthetic appreciation, and artistic creativity are ones that do not have any survival benefit to organisms in the wild, so we cannot explain them by evoking natural selection. The most basic things such as consciousness and life-long memory cannot be explained by brain mechanisms. Besides having no plausible theory to explain human memories lasting for decades, scientists lack any explanation for how neurons could be producing human consciousness. Human minds have characteristics that can only be explained by imagining something beyond the brain: something such as soul or spirit. So no matter how many combinations of matter that might occur in an infinity of universes, not one single one of them would ever be sufficient to explain the human mind. You can't multiverse your way to explaining minds such as ours.

As shown in this post's table, we see many astonishing examples of fine-tuning both in the universe's laws and fundamental constants. We cannot explain away these things through infinitely extravagant multiverse speculations that Woit has recently labeled “Fake Physics.” Fake Physics does not explain real cosmic fine-tuning. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

He's Off on a Wild Goose Chase to Help Save a Sinking Paradigm

The leading doctrine concerning how memory is stored is the doctrine that memory is stored by a process of the strengthening of synapses of brains. But what we know about the lifetimes of proteins in synapses contradicts this doctrine. Humans can remember old memories for as long as 50 years. But as far as we know, the proteins in synapses have lifetimes no longer than a few weeks. How could memories be stored in synapses that have their parts being constantly replaced? That would be like storing an essay written on leaves on a table, when the wind is frequently blowing away the leaves, and replacing them with other falling leaves -- not something suitable for long-term information storage. 

This paper finds that synaptic proteins turnover at a rate of about 17% per day. This paper says that a study of 90 synaptic proteins found an average lifetime of only about 12 days, with the most long-lived one lasting only 48 days. 

Such a fact is extremely troubling to those who think that long-term memory is stored in your brain. So what do you when there is a troubling fact that contradicts your theory of memory? You ask the government for lots of money to look for something that might help out your bad theory, even though that there is no evidence that the thing you are looking for exists.

That seems to be what is going on in the case of National Institute of Health Project # 1R01MH112152-01A1, described here. Some $610,745 has been granted to Richard L. Huganir of Johns Hopkins, so that he can look for “exceptionally long-lived proteins” in synapses. Given what we know about the extremely short lifetimes of synapse proteins, this seems to be like getting lots of money from the government to look for flying rats.

Below is an excerpt from the grant proposal:

Most of the individual proteins that are known to make up the synapse will turnover, being degraded and replaced within hours to a few days. Therefore the question remains as to what physical substrates underlie the persistence of long-lasting memories. One possibility is that exceptionally long-lived proteins (LLPs) reside in synapses and act as molecular anchors to maintain the synaptic strength or a network property that defines a given memory.

The grant proposal admits that there is no evidence that any such “exceptionally long-lived proteins” exist in synapses, for it says, “no studies to date have addressed whether such proteins exist at synapses and contribute to the establishment and maintenance of long-term memories.”

Given the known extremely short lifetimes of synaptic proteins, we should characterize this research project as a wild goose chase. It seems to be kind of a desperate shot-in-the dark to try to save the materialistic paradigm's claims about memory. No doubt our neuroscientists are troubled by the idea that because of synapse proteins with very short lifetimes, the brain is simply not up to the job of storing memories for years. That would seem to mean we could only explain human 50-year memories by supposing that our minds must involve something more than the brain, such as a soul or some mysterious immaterial consciousness infrastructure.

There is no reason to think that Huganir will find any synapse protein that can last for years.  Let's suppose you were to make the very surprising discovery that some protein in synapses lasts for years. We would still know that almost all the proteins in synapses are very short-lived. So the discovery of such a long-lived synapse protein would be futile. It would be like trying to explain the persistence of a much-used book supposedly lasting 50 years – a book made almost entirely of gossamer spider-web pages – by finding that every twentieth page is not made of flimsy short-lived gossamer but of paper. That doesn't do you much good in explaining how most of the book's information could persist for 50 years.

I may note an irony here. Human observers have got much evidence for astonishing things that cannot be explained by modern science: things such as extrasensory perception, apparition sightings, mysterious orbs with highly repeating stripe patterns, and near-death experiences. Such things challenge the dogmas of the materialistic  paradigm. If you were to ask for a half million dollars for a government grant to investigate further such things which have already been extensively observed, you would be turned down quickly, and you would be told: not one cent for such research. But if you seem to be in service of prevailing dogmas, you will have no problem getting a half million dollar grant to go on a quixotic quest looking for something that has never been observed, which is what Huganir has got. I guess the rule is: there's no government research money for anything that might challenge the materialistic paradigm, but plenty of government research money for any project that might help patch one of the many holes that have sprung up in such a paradigm, which are threatening to sink the paradigm. 

The government seems to have been very generous in giving lots of grants to Huganir, who we can assume is mainly involved with projects with a larger chance of success than this one.

Postscript: The latest and greatest research on the lifetime of synapse proteins is the June 2018 paper “Local and global influences on protein turnover in neurons and glia.” The paper starts out by noting that one earlier 2010 study found that the average half-life of brain proteins was about 9 days, and that a 2013 study found that the average half-life of brain proteins was about 5 days. The study then notes in Figure 3 that the average half-life of a synapse protein is only about 5 days, and that all of the main types of brain proteins (such as nucleus, mitochondrion, etc.) have half-lives of less than 15 days.

See this post to see Huganir's results. He got the result I predicted, basically the same result as the June 2018 discussed above. He found that virtually all synapse proteins are very short-lived, and the paper gives no clear evidence of any synapse proteins that last for years.  But the press release announcing the study announced the exact opposite of what the data found, in an outrageous case of the "press release doesn't match the scientific paper" phenomenon that is shockingly common in modern academia. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

How to Get Your Weak Scientific Theory Accepted

Imagine you create some scientific theory, and you want the theory to be generally accepted in some corner of the academic world. You might think that this is an incredibly hard task, requiring that you both come up with a new theory and somehow marshal convincing evidence showing that the theory is correct. But it may not be so hard. The world of scientific academia is often not a world of dispassionate judges weighing evidence with great objectivity. It is often a world in which sociological effects, psychological effects and ideology play a large role. So the path to getting the academic world to accept your theory may not be so difficult, and there are techniques you might use to get even a very weak or dubious theory accepted by the academic world.

The first step is to get some scientific paper published describing your weak theory. This is not particularly hard to do, because there are ways to make weak ideas seem rather impressive-sounding. The first way (very commonly used) is to load almost every paragraph of your paper with dense, all-but-impenetrable technical jargon. Such jargon will impress lesser reviewers of your paper.

The second way to make your weak theory sound rather impressive is to load up your paper with obscure mathematics. You need not worry that anyone will complain that the mathematics were irrelevant, for almost no one makes such a complaint about scientific papers, even when the mathematics is absurdly extraneous. The all-but-incomprehensible math in your paper may impress some peer reviewers of your paper, giving them the impression that your weak theory is a weighty intellectual contribution.

Once your paper is published, you will need to start leveraging the popular press, so that some articles about your theory will appear in magazines and online web sites. The first step is to get your college or university to release a fawning press release trumpeting your weak scientific paper and claiming that it is a stunning breakthrough. This is very easy to do. The writers of university press releases are a very compliant lot, and will be unlikely to challenge your extravagant claims. The rule for university press releases seems to be that it is okay to trumpet utterly far-fetched claims, as long as such claims somehow seem to shed glory and prestige on the university.

Then you may have to reach out to some science journalists to get them to write about your weak scientific paper. This is not very hard to do. Today's science journalists are very often docile and compliant “pom-pom journalists” eager to repeat any claim you may make to have achieved a “stunning theoretical breakthrough.” There will be very little chance that the science journalists you contact will subject your claims to much critical scrutiny.

Having got some press coverage, you now need to reach out to a few of your pals in the academic world, to get them to make supportive comments about your weak theory. This will probably not be very hard, as the world of academia has countless “I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationships. If you have been a professor for many years, you probably know quite a few people who owe you favors, such as people whose books you favorably commented on.

You can then start using authority techniques, by calling your weak theory “science.” Using such verbiage will be like sprinkling magic fairy dust, and will cause many a person to start treating your weak theory with great respect. If someone objects, claiming that science is best defined as facts that have been determined by observation and experiment, and that there are no such facts substantiating your weak theory, you can respond by presenting an alternate definition: the much looser definition (recently stated by a scientist blogger) that science is simply whatever scientists are working on. Of course, under such a definition every weak theory published in a scientific journal is “science.” 

weak theory

The next step requires audacity. The idea is to start claiming that your theory is starting to achieve mass acceptance among your little tribe of scientific peers. There are various artful expressions you can use to make such a claim. For example, you can say that “a consensus is starting to emerge” that your theory is correct, or that “a growing number of experts” are adopting your theory. No one will be likely to challenge these claims, which are hard to verify.

The next step requires even more audacity. At some point you can stick your neck out and claim that there is now a consensus of experts in your field who believe that your theory is correct. Such a claim will be difficult or impossible to verify, but it will have enormous force and power from the sociological perspective of the bandwagon effect. If people hear such a claim repeated enough times, then your theory will get all kinds of new supporters who never would have adopted it, but who will now adopt it just because they want to run in the direction they think the herd is running. No one wants to be in defiance of a consensus of experts. So countless people will flock to your weak theory the moment they hear that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your theory, even if no such consensus has really developed. Claims that a consensus of experts has agreed on something often are kind of self-fulfilling claims that help cause such a consensus to appear because of a sociological bandwagon effect.

This step may fail, and you may fail to get people to accept your claim that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your weak theory. But if you get people to accept such a idea, even if a consensus does not yet exist, then your work is almost done. The bandwagon effect will continue, the snowball effect will keep rolling, and your theory will have triumphed in some little corner of the academic world.

There may still remain many who think that your theory is pure nonsense. But since you have now got something you can claim to be a consensus of experts, you can now make use of a technique that is incredibly popular in the academic world: the technique of nonconformity shaming tactics. You could employ this technique, by calling your weak theory “science,” and demonizing all who oppose it as “anti-science.” Few will object in the academic world, where the term “anti-science” is shamelessly employed with reckless abandon, such as by those who call anyone preferring not to consume gene-spliced food as “anti-science.”

Your efforts in this regard will be enormously more likely to succeed under two cases: (1) if your weak theory allows scientists to enhance their prestige by triumphally claiming that they have solved some long-standing mystery; (2) if your weak theory allows scientists to claim they have an explanation for some event or phenomenon that does not fit in with their claims that everything can be explained by random physical processes. In the latter case, there will be a kind of “ideology boost” that will make your theory 300% or 400% more likely to be accepted than if it had no ideological relevance. Your fellow scientists will show almost infinite tolerance for accepting silliness in theories that seem to help them evade what they most dread: that there may be spirits or souls, or that the universe or life may be the result of intentional purpose.

Yes, given the very strong influence of sociological and ideological factors in the success of academic theories, you could use all of these tactics to get the academic world to adopt your weak theory. But you would not be a very honest person if you did that. It would be much better to not do such things as I have mentioned here, and to have greater intellectual integrity, even at the price of having less success in getting people to adopt your theory. And it is much better to honestly admit your ignorance about some great mystery than to get the academic world to accept some very dubious theory of yours about that mystery, some theory that does not warrant belief.