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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Poll Suggests Very Many Atheists Reject Naturalism

Darwinism is the belief that that all organisms have a common ancestor, and that the world's species arose by purely natural processes, mainly because of random mutations that were favored by “natural selection” (a term that refers merely to the superior reproduction rate of fitter organisms). Nowadays when an advocate of Darwinism hears about objections to Darwinism, he will often suggest that such objections are merely based on religion. This claim has always been very dubious, because it is quite possible to make a very detailed case against the claims of Darwinism without ever stating any religious doctrine. For example, without mentioning any religious doctrine, a writer might discuss the failure of Darwinism to explain the origin of life, the failure of Darwinism to explain the appearance of the useless initial stages of complex biological innovations, the failure of Darwinism to explain the Cambrian Explosion,  and the failure of Darwinism to explain the origin of language. 

Recently a poll appeared profiling the beliefs of the non-religious such as atheists and agnostics. An interesting finding from this "Understanding Unbelief" poll (conducted by some university scientists) is that a significant minority of atheists and agnostics seem to doubt Darwinism

Below is a finding from page 17 of the poll:

Percent agreeing “strongly” or “somewhat” with the statement “Humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms.”

Atheists/Agnostics General Population
Brazil 66 50
China 74 87
Denmark 69 59
Japan 49 68
United Kingdom 74 63
USA 80 49
Average 69 63

The results in the second column are not surprising for the USA. It has been known for a long time that roughly half of the US population rejects the textbook story about the origin of humans. What is surprising here is how the question reveals that Darwinism seems to be doubted by very substantial fractions of atheists and agnostics. It seems that a full 20% of atheists and agnostics in the US do not agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with the claim that “humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms,” and that in the UK about 25% of atheists and agnostics do not agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with that claim. Moreover, in Brazil apparently about one third of atheists and agnostics do not agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with the claim that “humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms,” and in Japan about half of atheists and agnostics do not agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with the claim that “humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms.”

This question is not actually one that exactly measures full belief in Darwinism, because the question says nothing about what caused humans to appear. Let us imagine that the question had been worded to exactly measure belief in Darwinism. Then the question might have been something like: “Do you agree strongly or somewhat with this statement: humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms, purely because of natural factors such as random mutation and natural selection?” Since this question is more specific, asking people to endorse a particular belief about what caused the origin of humans, the percentages of people answering “Yes” would almost certainly have been smaller. What the survey has revealed is that even when they are given a “human origins” statement that says nothing about causes, and matches textbook explanations, a very substantial fraction of atheists and agnostics fail to say they support the statement "strongly" or "somewhat." 

In light of such a survey, you should not believe claims that objections to Darwinism stem purely from religious belief. If that were true, we might have expected 90% or 95% of the atheists or agnostics to agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with the claim that  "humans have developed over time from simpler, non-human life forms,” rather than an average of only 69% of them agreeing "strongly" or "somewhat" with such a statement. 

On page 13 there was a question asking atheists and agnostics whether they believed in a “universal spirit or life force.” In Denmark, China the US, and the UK, the answer was “Yes” for about 18% to 27% of the atheists asked the question, and a similar fraction of agnostics answered “Yes.” 

There is a reason why the result on page 13 should surprise no one. The term “God” is loaded with historical and cultural baggage, and much of that baggage has negative connotations. The term “God” has negative connotations to very many people, but many such people are not hostile to the underlying idea of a supreme mind behind the universe. Use the term “God” in a poll question, and many people will think of things they dislike, like the image of an angry bearded figure on a throne. But many of those same people may respond affirmatively if you ask about the possibility of some Cosmic Mind or Universal Spirit or “intelligent guiding force behind nature.”  For example, in a poll of Danish citizens, 28% said "they believe there is a God," but a separate 47% said "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force," with only 24% saying, "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force." 

Therefore a conversation something like the one below is not one you should ever be surprised to hear.

Joe: Do you believe in God?
Jim: God? Angry old guy on a throne in the clouds? I don't believe in that kind of bull.
Joe: Okay, I got you. But what about some intelligent ordering principle or mind guiding the universe to a purposeful result?
Jim: Well, sure, there's probably something like that.

When do I Google search for the definition of naturalism, the first definition I get is "the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted."  Such a belief is synonymous with materialism. Page 3 of the poll states, "Only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists."  On page 13 the poll indicates that there is a substantial minority of atheists (about 10% to 30%) who believe in life after death. 

The poll had a pretty good sample size. 900 atheists and agnostics were polled in each of several countries, and in each country 200 of the general population were polled, with those 200 having characteristics matching that in the country as a whole.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Blame Mainly Authors for Junk Science (Which Is Everywhere)

There was recently published a remarkable article by Alex Gillis entitled “The Rise of Junk Science.” The story is told in simplistic “good guy/bad guy” terms in which the blame is put on a group of publishers who supposedly are not being restrictive enough in excluding poor-quality scientific papers. The story tells us that in order to make money while incurring very low operating costs, certain publishers of scientific papers seem to be doing very little peer review to exclude bad papers. A remarkable claim is attributed to a professor named Eduardo Franco:

These companies have become so successful, Franco says, that for the first time in history, scientists and scholars worldwide are publishing more fraudulent and flawed studies than legitimate research—maybe ten times more. Approximately 10,000 bogus journals run rackets around the world, with thousands more under investigation, according to Cabell’s International, a publishing-services company. 'We’re publishing mainly noise now,' Franco laments. 'It’s nearly impossible to hear real signals, to discover real findings.' "

I know of no hard facts that substantiate these claims by Franco, which I suspect are exaggerated. I also failed to find any justification in the article that there are great numbers of “bogus journals” that are running “rackets.” The only thing the article describes are scientific journals that publish scientific papers without doing much to exclude bad papers.

Let us imagine that you start an open-access scientific journal with a non-restrictive publication policy. You decide that anyone who writes up a scientific experiment can publish it in your journal. Are you guilty of running a “bogus journal” and running a racket because you do not get scientists to peer-review the work submitted? I think not. You are simply someone who has started a journal with a publication policy that differs from social norms. Of course, if you claim that your journal is peer-reviewed but you do not actually engage in peer-review (by hiring scientists to review submitted articles), that would be bogus, because it would be a misrepresentation.

Peer-review of scientific papers has always been something that is a mixture of something good mixed with something that is very bad. The good done by peer-review is that some bad papers get excluded from publication. But it is not at all true that peer-review is an effective quality control system. One reason is that peer-review does not involve reviewing the source data behind an experiment.

Imagine you submit to a scientific journal a paper describing an experiment involving animals. If your paper is being peer-reviewed, the reviewer does not come over to your laboratory and ask to check the data you used to write up your paper. The peer-reviewer does not ask to see your daily log book or see photographs you took to document the experiment. Instead, the peer-reviewer assumes the honesty of the person writing the paper.

So what types of things are excluded by peer-reviewers? Things like this:
  1. Obvious logical errors or obvious procedural errors that can be detected by reading the paper.
  2. Obvious mathematical errors that can be found in the paper.
  3. Deviations from belief customs of scientists. A paper may be rejected by peer-reviewers mainly because it presents evidence against a cherished belief of scientists, or if the paper seems to have sympathy for some idea that is a taboo in the scientific community.
  4. Papers producing null results, which fail to confirm the hypothesis they were testing. Such papers are very often excluded on the grounds of being uninteresting, and sometimes excluded because a scientist would prefer to believe the hypothesis is correct. 
Because peer-review acts like a censorship system, it does great harm. Peer-review helps to keep scientists in “filter bubbles” in which they only read about results that are consistent with their world views. The scientist reading his peer-reviewed journal and reading only results consistent with a materialist worldview may be like a 1970's Soviet Union citizen reading his daily edition of Pravda, and reading only information compatible with a Marxist-Leninist worldview. The exclusion of null results (experiments that did not confirm the hypothesis tested) is a very great problem that often leads scientists to think certain effects are more common or better-established than they are, or that certain claims are better substantiated than they are. 

And since you can't very effectively police bad scientific papers without doing a detailed audit that asks to look at source data, peer-review doesn't do very much to prevent scientific fraud. A more effective system would be one in which there was no peer-review except for a certain small percentage of experimental papers which would be randomly selected to undergo a thorough audit, with the auditor allowed to conduct detailed interviews with all the experimenters, and with an inspection of the original source data. A scientist would be unlikely to commit fraud if he thought there was a 5% chance his experiment would have to face such a detailed audit.

Peer-review as it has been traditionally practiced is such a mixed bag that is no obvious evil for a scientific journal to dispense with it altogether and allow unrestricted publication for any scientist presenting a paper. That would result in some more bad papers, but also allow the publication of many papers that should have been published but were not published because of being wrongly blocked by a typical peer-review system.

It seems, therefore, that if there are many junk science papers being published, the people we should mainly blame are not publishers failing to uphold dubious peer-review conventions, but instead the scientists who wrote the junk science papers. It's rather silly to be suggesting “there's so much junk science – damn those bad publishers,” when the main person to be blamed for a bad science paper is the author of that paper, not its publisher. 

One big problem with the Gillis article is that it creates a simplistic narrative that may lead you to think that junk science exists almost entirely in junk science journals that do not follow proper peer-review standards. But the truth is that junk science is all over the place.  Very many of the scientific papers published in the most reputable scientific journals are junk science papers. 

There are several reasons why a sizable fraction of the scientific papers published should be called junk science. One reason is that very many scientific papers consist of groundless speculation, flights of fancy in which imaginative guesswork runs wild.  For example, a large fraction of the scientific papers published in cosmology journals, particle physics journals, neuroscience journals and evolutionary biology journals consist of such runaway speculation. 

Another reason is that a sizable fraction of all experimental papers involve sample sizes that are too small. A rule-of-thumb in animal studies is that at least 15 animals should be used in each study group (including the control group) in order for you to have moderately compelling evidence in which there is not a high chance of a false alarm. This guideline is very often ignored in scientific studies that use a much smaller number of animals. In this post I give numerous examples of  memory studies that were guilty of such a problem.

The issue was discussed in a paper in the journal Nature, one entitled Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience. The article tells us that neuroscience studies tend to be unreliable because they are using too small a sample size. When there is too small a sample size, there's a too high chance that the effect reported by a study is just a false alarm. 

The paper received widespread attention, but did little or nothing to change practices in neuroscience. A 2017 follow-up paper found that "concerns regarding statistical power in neuroscience have mostly not yet been addressed." Exactly the same problem exists in the field of psychology.  It is interesting that the peer-review process (supposedly designed to produce high-quality papers) totally fails nowadays to prevent the publication of scientific studies that are probably false alarms because a too-small sample size was used. 

An additional reason for junk science in mainstream journals is that a great deal of biomedical research is paid for by pharmaceutical companies trying to drive particular research results (such as one suggesting the effectiveness of the medicine they are selling).  Yet another reason for junk science in mainstream journals is that the modern scientist is indoctrinated in unproven belief dogmas that he is encouraged to support, and he or she often ends up writing dubious papers trying to support these far-fetched ideas.  Such papers may commit any of the sins listed in my post, "The Building Blocks of Bad Science Literature." 

A widely discussed 2005 paper entitled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" stated the following:

"Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias."

There are very many junk-science studies in even the best science journals. Scientists know some of the ways in which the amount of junk science papers can be reduced (such as increasing the sample size and statistical power of experimental studies). But thus far there has been little progress in moving towards more rigorous standards that would reduce the number of junk science papers. 

Many science textbooks contain a great deal of junk science, mixed in with factual statements. Since textbooks do little more than summarize what is written in science journals,  a large number of false published research findings will inevitably result in a huge number of false claims being made in science textbooks. 

science textbook

"Junk" means "something of little value," and when I speak of "junk science" here I include any science paper that is of little value, for reasons such as being too speculative or too trivial or because of drawing conclusions or making insinuations that are poorly supported or not likely to be true. 

Most scientific claims must be critically scrutinized, and we must always be asking questions such as, "Do we really have proof for such a thing?" and "Why might they have gone wrong when reaching such a conclusion?" and "What alternate explanations are there for the observations?" We cannot simply trust something because it is published by some publisher with a good reputation. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Study Hints Your Brain Isn't Making Your Dreams

There are many problems with neuroscience studies that greatly affect their reliability, and should cause us to believe that a large fraction of them are false alarms. One of the biggest problems is insufficient samples sizes, a problem so bad that it led one neuroscientist to conclude that most published neuroscience studies are false. Another huge problem is the low use of what are called blinding protocols.

Imagine a study involving two different groups of subjects, either humans or animals, who differ in some way. Perhaps one group received some stimulus, and the other did not; or perhaps one group reported some tendency or experience, and the other did not. When a blinding protocol is used, the scientists analyzing these subjects will not know which group the subjects belonged to. So, for example, if 10 test subjects are given a pill, and 10 control subjects are not given the pill, then when scientists are studying data from the subjects they will not know whether the subjects got the pill or did not get the pill.

A blinding protocol such as this can be important for reducing experimental bias. For example, if such a protocol were not used, and you were a scientist asked to compare 10 subjects who you knew were given a pill and 10 subjects who you knew were not given the pill, it would be all too easy for you to show some bias in your analysis caused by your knowledge of whether or not the subjects had been given the pill.

Proper blinding protocols are not often used in neuroscience studies. But recently we had an example of an interesting study that used such a protocol. The study (called the Dream Catcher study) was about whether or not scientists could detect a brain signature of dreaming. Nine subjects went to sleep in a laboratory, each with an EEG reader attached to his or her head. The brain waves of the subjects were recorded, and at random intervals subjects were woken up. The subjects were then asked to recall any dreams they were having when woken up. From such cases a Data Team accumulated 27 cases of dreamless sleep, and 27 cases of dreaming sleep, along with the corresponding EEG readings from the brain.

The EEG readings were then given to some other people in an Analysis Team, consisting of people who did not know whether any particular case they were analyzing was a case of dreaming sleep or a case of dreamless sleep. These “blinded” analysts were asked to predict from the EEG readings whether particular cases were examples of dreaming sleep or dreamless sleep.

The result was a null result. The predictions of the analysts (using the EEG data) were not better than what would be expected by chance. The experiment is consistent with the hypothesis that your brain is not actually the source of your dreams.

A previous study by Tononi and others claimed to find some neural correlate of dreaming. In a science news article, Tononi tried to suggest that the difference was due to “trouble” in the methodology of the “Dream Catcher” study finding no evidence of a neural correlate of dreaming. But such an insinuation does not seem fair. Although it involved only 9 subjects, the “Dream Catcher” study involved 54 different cases, and a sample size of 54 is generally regarded as adequate. The “Dream Catcher” study actually involved a protocol much better than that in the Tononi study, which failed to use blinding.

The Tononi study has one claim of predictive success, but only a very dubious one. In one experiment, 84 times sleeping people (connected to EEG brain wave readers) were awoken based on some criteria in their brain waves that might predict that they were dreaming. The paper tells us that the vast majority of these observational cases were thrown away, leaving only 36 cases that were used to judge predictive success; and in that 36 the prediction was pretty good. But this “picking 36 out of 84” smells like cherry-picking to get the desired predictive success, so it is very unimpressive. Among the reasons for discarding observational cases mentioned in the Tononi study (in the Methods section for Experiment 3) is when "sleep stage could not be confirmed," but that is a most dubious procedure, since the whole idea is to show whether we can tell whether people are dreaming from their brain waves; and all the dreamers had their brain waves continuously monitored.   If there was actually a brain wave signal showing dreaming, there should be no reason to throw out most of the observational cases on the basis that "sleep stage could not be confirmed," since the brain waves in such a case would let you know what the sleep stage was. 

What I would like to see is many more neuroscience experiments using proper blinding protocols. Here is an experiment that neuroscientists have not done (to the best of my knowledge), but should be doing:

  1. Do a brain scan on 20 subjects (called Group A). Tell the subjects to think of absolutely nothing during the brain scan other than the blackness of outer space.
  2. Do a brain scan on 20 other subjects (called Group B). Tell the subjects to do some mental task, such as creating a summary total of the first 20 integers. For example, 1+2=3, 1+2+3=6,1+2+3+4=10, 1+2+3+4+5=15, and so on and so forth until a total for the first 20 integers is reached.
  3. Shuffle the brain scans, and submit them to some other “blinded” scientists who do not know whether the subjects were in Group A or Group B. Ask the scientists to predict whether the people were actively engaging in calculation, or simply thinking of the blackness of space.

I predict that the predictive success would not actually be better than chance. The likely reason is that the human brain is not actually the cause of human thought. No one has a coherent idea as to how neurons could produce thinking or ideas. There are strong reasons for believing that fast accurate complex thought should be impossible for a brain, because of the very high noise levels in a human brain (as discussed here), and because signal transmission should actually be very slow in a brain (for reasons discussed here).

Here is another experiment that neuroscientists have not done (to the best of my knowledge), but should be doing:
  1. Do a brain scan on 20 subjects (called Group A). Tell the subjects to think of absolutely nothing during the brain scan other than the blackness of outer space.
  2. Do a brain scan on 20 other subjects (called Group B). Tell the subjects to do some task involving memory recall, such as remembering all the vacations they have ever had (or trying to recall everyone they can remember with a name beginning with the letter “A,” everyone they can remember with a name beginning with the letter “B,” and so forth).
  3. Shuffle the brain scans, and submit them to some other “blinded” scientists who do not know whether the subjects were in Group A or Group B. Ask the scientists to predict whether the people were actively engaging in memory recall, or simply thinking of the blackness of space.

I predict that the predictive success would not actually be better than chance. The likely reason is that the human brain is not actually the cause of human recall. Given the short lifetime of synapse proteins and other forms of instability in the brain, no one has a coherent idea as to how a brain could store memories lasting for decades, or how a brain could instantly recall memories without any addressing system that might allow such a thing. There are strong reasons for believing that the brain is not the storage place of human memory. 

Studies with the protocol above have not been done (to the best of my knowledge). But scientists have done studies in which people have their brains scanned while the people are thinking or recalling. Such studies show no real evidence of neural correlates of thinking or neural correlates of recall. Typically the change in signal strength from one brain region to another (which is the most important thing to consider) is no greater than 1%, about what we would expect from random variations. Such results (discussed here) are consistent with what we would expect if the brain is not a storage place for memories, and if the brain is not the source of our thoughts.  Memory and thought are very likely aspects of a spiritual aspect of man, something quite distinct from the brain. 

An interesting aspect of dreaming is how we can recall names, locations and even intellectual principles during dreaming, even though we may have never thought of such things in years.  Recently I had a dream in which I recalled the principle that you can compute the price of a bond from its yield, a principle I haven't used, read about or thought about in many years.  Nobody has a coherent detailed explanation as to how such abstract principles could ever be stored as neural states or synapse states, and it is all the more impossible to explain how a sleeping person's brain could recall such a principle. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Anonymously, Scientists Report the Paranormal as Much as Average People

For a long time, skeptics have attempted to use gaslighting to explain away observations of the paranormal. Gaslighting is when someone tries to shake confidence in an observational report by raising doubts about the mind or observational skills of the observer. A person engaging in gaslighting may try to suggest that you only reported seeing something because:

  1. you were hysterical;
  2. you simply got confused, and “mixed up” the observational details;
  3. you overreacted;
  4. you confabulated, filling in details later that you didn't actually see;
  5. you failed to observe carefully because you're not a “trained observer”;
  6. you're just a “fantasy-prone” person who confuses your imagination with reality;
  7. perhaps you hallucinated;
  8. perhaps you were intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

Gaslighting is used by skeptics of the paranormal and also by the defense attorneys of accused rapists and sex abusers.


A recent study by Dean Radin and four other scientists helps to discredit claims that reports of the paranormal come mainly from people with poor observational skills. The scientists sent an email to 254,102 people, asking them to fill out a survey about extraordinary experiences they may have had.  Many of the people who got the email were scientists. Of the people who filled out the whole survey, 283 were from the general population, 175 were scientists and 441 were “enthusiasts” who had been identified as having an interest in the paranormal or the extraordinary.

The subjects were asked to answer “Yes” or “No” to questions about a large variety of possible paranormal experiences. Large fractions of the scientists who completed the survey answered “Yes” to some of the questions. For example:

Question Percent of survey-answering scientists answering “Yes”
Felt as though you were in touch with someone when they were far away from you? 59.2%
Received important information through your dreams? 59.4%
Known something about the future that you had no normal way to know ? 48.0%
Felt as though you were really in touch with someone who died? 39.1%
Experienced your awareness traveling outside of your body ? 27.0%
Known information about past events or an individual’s past experiences without any possible way of you knowing it? 43.4%
Seen events that happened at a great distance as they were happening? 15.5%
Caused your body to float in the air for any period of time using only your mind? 10.9%

From the table above, you might conclude that large fractions of scientists experience paranormal experiences. But that assumption might not be correct. The vast amount of people who got the survey email did not answer it. So it could be that only small percentages of scientists experience such things, and that people having such experiences were more likely to answer the survey.

But the survey does seem to offer important evidence relating to whether people who are “trained observers” are less likely to report paranormal experiences than average people. The table below compares some answers given by scientists in the survey to answers given by non-scientists.

Question Percent of survey-answering general population answering “Yes” Percent of survey-answering scientists answering “Yes”
Felt as though you were in touch with someone when they were far away from you? 52.7% 59.2%
Received important information through your dreams? 43.1% 59.4%
Known something about the future that you had no normal way to know ? 47.3% 48.0%
Felt as though you were really in touch with someone who died? 41.3% 39.1%
Experienced your awareness traveling outside of your body ? 20.2% 27.0%
Known information about past events or an individual’s past experiences without any possible way of you knowing it? 35.2% 43.4%
Seen events that happened at a great distance as they were happening? 12.1% 15.5%
Caused your body to float in the air for any period of time using only your mind? 7.8% 10.9%

We see from the table above that the percentage of scientists who reported such paranormal experiences was usually higher than the percentage of non-scientists who reported such things. The “trained observers” reported more paranormal experiences than the average person. This debunks claims or insinuations that reports of the paranormal are caused by unreliable observers.

It is interesting that the survey fails to ask about some of the main types of paranormal observations. If I had got the survey, I would have had to answer nothing but “No,” except for one or two questions, even though I have had very many paranormal-seeming observational events (as described here).

The survey should have had several additional questions, including the following:

  • Did you ever have a strong impression that a thought was traveling between your mind and the mind of someone else, even though nothing was spoken, typed or written?
  • Did you ever repeatedly get in photographs some type of  anomaly that you cannot explain?
  • Did you ever see some event around your home or office that you cannot explain, such as a lamp seeming to turn on by itself, a door seeming to open or unlock itself,  or a TV seeming to change channels by itself?
  • Did you ever notice some object that seemed to have appeared in an inexplicable way?
  • Did you ever see with your own eyes some sight that you cannot explain, such as something like a ghost or a UFO?
  • Did you ever have a thought of someone, just before the person unexpectedly called or unexpectedly appeared?

If these questions had been asked, an even higher percentage of respondents would have answered in the affirmative. 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Belief in UFOs Doesn't Qualify as a Religion

These days it's a tough time for UFO skeptics. The New York Times recently released its second bombshell article on UFOs. The report begins like this:

"The strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies over the East Coast. Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds. 'These things would be out there all day,' said Lt. Ryan Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot."

Later we have an account of a pilot seeing a mysterious orb flying between two Navy jets that were only about 100 feet apart from each other:

"The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube."

So the report was of a mysterious orb flying between two Navy jets. Such an account reminds me of my own empirical experience. I have published online more than 800 photos I have taken of mysterious speeding orbs, and also more than 600 photos I have taken of mysterious striped orbs.  The cube-inside-an-orb reported by pilot Graves seems like a case of a rectangular prism inside an orb, and the striped orbs I so often photograph with chord stripes look similar to an orb with a rectangular prism inside it (a cube is one type of rectangular prism).   I had previously twice photographed a "square in the orb" effect, once in a sky orb (as shown here). 

speeding orb
A mysterious speeding orb I photographed this week

Earlier the New York Times published  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.”

LiveScience.com has got a reaction about these reports from SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. The type of comments Shostak makes are completely predictable. For years Shostak has tried to discredit UFO reports. He seems to hate the idea of extraterrestrials that are nearby, but he wants us to believe in extraterrestrials that are far away, and to help fund his efforts to search for them. Go figure.

On the LiveScience page, Shostak gives us some scrambled reasoning that UFO sightings off the US coast are what we would expect from a foreign power trying to monitor us. “Coastal regions are where you might expect to find a rival nation's advanced reconnaissance craft," Shostak said, "because incursions over the continental United States would be more obvious and easily detected.” So if China were to try to monitor us, they would put their spy drones over the ocean, not over land? That doesn't make much sense. 

Shostak also tries to suggest that maybe the UFO sightings were due to “some sort of software bug or instrument issue.” The same far-fetched explanation was suggested by astronomer Leon Golub, who states in the New York Times article, “there are so many other possibilities — bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.”

Similar weak reasoning has been used for years by skeptics to try to dismiss massive photographic evidence for mysterious orbs in photos. Skeptics will tell us that such things may appear because of camera malfunctions. This idea is completely unbelievable because digital camera technology is a proven, reliable technology that has been around for nearly 30 years. A claim of malfunctioning cameras might have had some credibility around 1990 just after digital cameras were invented. But after decades of reliable performance by digital cameras, the idea that a camera might be malfunctioning to produce something like 600+ photos of mysterious striped orbs and 800+ photos of mysterious speeding orbs (both of which I have published, as you can see in videos here and here) has no credibility. Similarly, since television is a long-established reliable technology, no one has any credibility when they make statements such as, “I see the TV says Donald Trump was elected president, so my TV must be suffering an electronic malfunction.”

As for the claim that UFOs are appearing on imaging systems because of software bugs, it has little credibility because military target acquisition software is a well-proven technology that has been around for decades, and we can hardly imagine that the Navy would let the fate of fantastically expensive military jets depend on target acquisition software that had not been well-tested. A Navy jet nowadays goes for about 60 million dollars.

As for Golub's claim about reflections, it  cannot explain the latest UFO reports, and also is worthless in explaining the phenomenon of mysterious orbs. An object seen in mid-air can never be a reflection, because there is nothing solid nearby to cause a reflection, and reflected light always disperses in the air, never forming into disks or balls. Even if we imagine some cloud of ice crystals floating in the air that might reflect some sunlight (a far-fetched scenario),  such a thing would not appear to be a solid object or orb or ball but as an amorphous cloud, and such a thing would be reported as hanging in the air rather than moving at fantastic speeds. We also cannot explain mysterious lights seen near the water as reflections, as the water scatters the light it is reflecting, rather than making it appear as a ball or solid object. Reflections can only explain things seen in mirror-like surfaces or things appearing when someone is photographing through glass (such as when you take a photo from inside a commercial jet).

Hardly something that would be mistaken for a UFO

What seems like another recent attempt to discredit UFO observations involves an attempt to categorize belief in UFOs as a religion. This attempt is made by Diana Pasulka with a new book entitled American Cosmic. In this interview she attempts to describe UFO belief as a religion. She gives this not-very-satisfactory definition of religion:

One way we can make sense of this by using a very old but functional definition of religion as simply the belief in nonhuman and supernatural intelligent beings that often descend from the sky. There are many definitions of religion, but this one is pretty standard.”

Later in the interview Pasulka states the following:

The belief that UFOs and aliens are potentially true, and can potentially be proven, makes this a uniquely powerful narrative for the people who believe in it. Is it fair to call this a new form of religion? I think so.”

The definition of religion suggested by Pasulka is not at all a “standard” definition. The problem of defining what is a religion is a difficult one, and many different definitions of religion have been proposed. Any serious attempt to define religion must be sufficiently broad so that it includes every major human religion. Human religions include systems as Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. These religions do not involve a belief in supernatural intelligent beings that descend from the sky. Theravada Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism originally did not involve a belief in any supernatural beings. A later form of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism did involve belief in many supernatural beings.

A good definition of religion would be one that covers all of these religions, and every major religion. I propose this definition: a religion is a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and life, or a recommended way of living, typically stemming from the teachings of an authority, along with norms, ethics, rituals, roles or social organizations that may arise from such beliefs. This definition seems to cover every religion I have ever learned about, and also covers some additional ideological frameworks that are sometimes classified as religions. (I mean the "or" in the definition as an "and/or.") 

If we examine religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, we will find that they are a system of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality or life (or a recommended way of living), and that they do stem from the teachings of an authority. It is also true that both Christianity and Islam are a system of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality or life (or a recommended way of living), and that they do stem from the teachings of an authority.

Now let us consider: does a belief in UFOs qualify as a religion according to this definition? It seems it does not. The first reason is that a belief in UFOs does not qualify as a “set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality or life, or a recommended way of living."

Consider the person who believes that UFOs must be some strange reality beyond human understanding. By believing in UFOs such a person has not at all adopted “a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality or life, or a recommended way of living.” For such a person is likely to have no concrete belief pertaining to what causes UFOs. Such a person will typically think something like this:

Maybe UFOs are spaceships from other planets. Or maybe they come from some other dimension. Or maybe they're time travelers from the future. Or maybe some of them are angels. I don't know whether they're here to take over our planet, or whether they're here to help us. Who knows?"

Thinking along such lines does not at all qualify as a system of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality or life, nor is it a belief about a recommended path of life. There is no standard set of doctrines shared by believers in UFOs, who are “all over the map” in their opinions about UFOs. So the mere vague belief that UFOs are some type of power beyond human explanation is too nebulous and vague to qualify as a system of beliefs.

One hallmark of a religion is the transmission of belief doctrines based on authority. If you believe in a creator of the universe based on the precise fine-tuning of the universe's fundamental constants, the sudden unexplained origin of the universe, and the improbability of chemicals ever randomly forming into something as fantastically organized as the simplest living cell, that's philosophy or philosophy of religion. But if you know nothing of such matters, and believe in a divine creator simply because you were taught that by your Sunday school or the Bible, that's religion.

But a transmission of beliefs by authority is not going on among UFO believers. There is no UFO belief authority that hands down doctrines that the faithful accept. There is nothing in UFO belief corresponding to a holy book, a church or clergy. In this regard, UFO belief fails to qualify as a religion.

Very oddly, in her interview Pasulka talks about some people investigating UFOs, and says, “Now they’re much more compartmentalized and worried about attracting too much attention or having their research distorted, so they work in the shadows and mostly independently.” Such “lone wolf” activity does not sound at all like religion, which is very much a social affair in which believers typically bond together for ideological reassurance.

The person interviewing Pasulka (Sean Illing) perceptively suggests some skepticism about her thesis, and asks the following, referring to the very social nature of religion:

I’m curious why you call this a new form of religion. Traditional religions have dogmas and rituals, and they function as an anchor for the individual and a community. I guess I don’t quite see the parallels in the case of UFOs and aliens. Am I missing something?”

That was an excellent question, and one that Pasulka does not answer convincingly, as she then mentions religions that do not match the definition of religion she earlier stated.  I classify Pasulka's  claim that UFO belief is a religion as "another recent  attempt to discredit UFO observations" because once you have called something a religion you have implied that it is mainly based on faith rather than evidence.  

But in the case of UFOs, there seems to be quite a lot of evidence. The link here shows only reports of UFOs made to one reporting agency (the National UFO Reporting Center), and only reports of sphere-like UFOs. We see more than 18 reports of sphere-like UFOs sighted during May 2019 in different parts of the US, with most of the reports mentioning a duration of more than a minute. So it seems that the spherical UFO reported by pilot Graves was not so uncommon.  In fact, the link I just gave goes to a list of more than 7000 UFOs with a spherical shape. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Biological Orthodoxy Flunks the Software Test

Our biologists have long taught the doctrine of Darwinism, preaching that biological innovations appear because of random mutations and natural selection. But there has never been any good evidence that any complex macroscopic biological innovation ever appeared because of random mutations, natural selection, or any combination of the two. Referring to speciation (the origin of new species) in an interview, the distinguished biologist Denis Noble states, "So I go along with the view that there has been no really clear proof that speciation occurred via gradual mutation followed by selection." In the book Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life by Cambridge University biology professor K. D. Bennett, this mainstream authority comments on speciation (the origin of species). He says on page 175, "Natural selection has been shown to have occurred (for example, among populations of Darwin's finches), but there is no evidence that it accumulates over longer periods of time to produce speciation in the Darwinian sense."

But are there any experiments that back up the idea that random mutations and natural selection can produce very complex visible biological innovations? There are not. The plain fact is that never in human history have humans observed any very complex visible biological innovation naturally appearing, for any reason at all. There are various cases of weird mutations that have occurred because of exposure to radiation, but such mutations are almost always harmful, and we never see any new complex biological innovations appearing because of such mutations. Scientists have tried bombarding fruit flies with radiation for years, and no beneficial visible innovations ever appeared because of such a thing. The longest-running experiment on evolution is Richard Lenski's experiment, but that involves microscopic bacteria, and certainly is no evidence that visible biological innovation can occur because of Darwinian evolution. Very little has resulted from Lenski's experiment, and his main claim of innovation is merely that his bacteria can now kind of eat citrate. Such a biochemical tweak isn't anything very complex.

There is another way of testing Darwinian claims: by trying to create software that makes use of natural selection and random mutations, trying to achieve software engineering effects by "the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favorable variations," to quote Darwin. When computer programmers started to try this decades ago, some of them were very optimistic. There were quite a few people who thought along these lines:

Why think of how much natural selection and random mutations have produced in the natural world: all the very complex innovations of biology such as eyes, ears, wings and brains! If we only put natural selection and random mutations to work inside the computer, we can unleash vast forces of creativity. It will be a software revolution. Instead of manually creating programs through human design and human labor, we will be able to evolve software in a Darwinian fashion.”

For decades, many programmers have attempted to get natural selection to work inside the computer. How successful have they been? We can find the answer in a recent paper by Roman V. Yampolskiy entitled 'Why We Do Not Evolve Software? Analysis of Evolutionary Algorithms.”

Yampolskiy examines attempts to create software by using Darwinian methods. He points out that there is a great deal of hype about such attempts that does not match the meager results. Talking about evolutionary algorithms (EA), Yampolskiy states the following:

"It is interesting to do a thought experiments and try to imagine what testable predictions Charles Darwin would have made, had he made his discovery today, with full knowledge of modern bioinformatics and of computer science. His predictions may have included the following: (1) simulations of evolution will produce statistically similar results at least with respect to complexity of artifacts produced and (2) if running EAs for as long as possible continued to produce nontrivial outputs, scientists would run them forever. Likewise, he would be able to make some predictions, which would be able to falsify his theory, such as (1) representative simulations of evolution will not produce similar results to those observed in nature, (2) researchers will not be able to evolve software or other complex or novel artifacts, and (3) there will not be any projects running EAs long term because their outputs would quickly stop improving and stabilize. With respect to the public and general cultural knowledge, it would be reasonable to predict that educated people would know the longest-running EA and the most complex evolved algorithm. Similarly, even schoolchildren would know the most complex digital organism ever evolved."

Later, after reviewing work in this area, Yampolskiy states that both of the predictions that should have proven true if Darwinism is correct have not proven true. He also states that all of the listed events to falsify Darwinism have occurred. Specifically, representative simulations of evolution have not produced similar results to those observed in nature; researchers have not been able to evolve software or other complex or novel artifacts; and there have not been any projects running evolutionary algorithms long term. Moreover, no one can list the name of the longest-running evolutionary algorithm or the most complex evolutionary algorithm; and no one can name any complex digital organism that ever evolved.

It is now 2019 and the “Darwinian revolution” predicted for software development simply hasn't occurred. Computer programs are still being produced by human design and human labor. There has been some progress in automatic programming by means of code generators, but such code generators don't use natural selection. The results of programs running “evolutionary algorithms” are rather trivial things that aren't very complex – things such as character strings. There is no very complex commercially successful computer program that was produced through any type of evolutionary algorithm.  Computer program using a Darwinian scheme can accomplish some useful things, but it is generally true that such programs could accomplish just as much with fewer lines of code if they were not to use a Darwinian scheme.  Our software engineers have not been able to mine any useful engineering principles from studying the ideas of Darwin, who seems to have had no knowledge of engineering or any interest in it. 

There is another way of quickly judging whether evolutionary algorithms have been a very important player on the current software development scene.  We can simply look at the computer science courses taught at major universities, and look for a substantial presence of courses on evolutionary algorithms. Such a thing will not be found. You can see here the catalog of 155 computer science courses taught at Columbia. None of them is a course on evolutionary algorithms or genetic programming.  Similarly, none of the 60+ courses on computer science taught at SUNY Stony Brook is a course on evolutionary algorithms or genetic programming. 

Yampolskiy considers some possible reasons why we still do not evolve computer programs by any kind of Darwinian process. None of his possible reasons is very persuasive, except for the last one he considers, that the “Darwinian algorithm is incomplete or wrong” and that “the inspiration behind evolutionary computation, the Darwinian algorithm itself is wrong or at least partially incomplete.” Yampolskiy concludes, “Our analysis of relevant literature shows that no one has succeeded at evolving nontrivial software from scratch; in other words, the Darwinian algorithm works in theory but does not work in practice, when applied in the domain of software production.”

This statement by Yampolskiy is mainly correct, although he errs in stating that the Darwinian algorithm "works in theory." To the contrary, we know of a very good theoretical reason why it should not work. The reason is that a random mutation is merely a micro-fragment of a biological innovation. A particular biological innovation typically requires multiple new proteins, and the gene for a typical protein requires 25,000 or more base pairs arranged in just the right way.  A single point mutation changes or adds only one of those base pairs. So the relation of a random mutation and a biological innovation is like the relation between a random keystroke (or random character) and a complex computer program consisting of 20,000 or more characters. 

Since a mutation is merely a micro-fragment of a biological innovation,  there is no way that nature could ever have a filtering effect by which complex innovations are produced because good mutations are accumulated. Such a thing is no more possible than writing a computer program that creates useful computer programs (or useful books or essays) by generating random characters and then "accumulating the good characters" while "discarding the bad characters."

biological innovations

The fact that biological orthodoxy has flunked the software test should not come as a surprise to anyone who considers how the actual process of producing complex innovations bears no resemblance to the imagined process by which Darwinian processes supposedly produce biological innovations.  Our evolutionary biologists attempt to persuade us that very complex biological innovations appear because of an accumulation of countless tiny changes, each of which is individually rewarded. Nothing like that occurs when software teams produce complex new innovations. It is not at all true that software developers "release to production" each day's code changes,  thinking, "Each little change I make in a work day will benefit the system." 

Instead a new software release is always a very orchestrated affair in which many different code changes (almost always from different programmers) must be combined in a very coordinated way to produce a total effect that is beneficial, with many complex interdependent parts being brought together (by an experienced software release coordinator) in just the right way to produce a benefit, often in a way so that multiple "chicken or the egg" mutually dependent dependencies are very carefully resolved.  Darwinism has never credibly explained how such huge amounts of orchestration and coordination could be produced through natural selection, which is the mere fact that fit organisms reproduce more.  

An example of biological functionality with mutually dependent dependencies is the cardiopulmonary system in mammals, and the related organs it depends on. Capillaries and veins and hemoglobin molecules are useless without hearts, which are useless without such things. Hearts also require oxygen from lungs. But the lungs require a constant flow of blood from the hearts.  And the hearts won't keep beating steadily without the autonomic inputs of the brain, which itself requires the heart to keep it bathed in fresh blood.  Also, the heart won't have energy without a digestive system, which itself requires constant blood from the heart. So it's "which came first, the chicken or the egg" mutually dependent dependencies all over the place, and we can imagine no credible sequence of gradual mutation-driven innovations by which such interdependent things could have originated. 

Another example of such a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" problem has been pointed out by biochemist Michael Denton. After discussing in great detail various aspects of feathers, he states the following:

Every aspect of the feather’s origin challenges Darwinian scenarios....Which came first: the cellular condensations that created the barb, or the apoptosis that separated them into discrete filaments? Only if both developmental processes are in place can the adaptive end of a branched feather be realized. 

Denton also calls attention to the difficulty of explaining the origin of red blood cells that have no nucleus (called enucleate cells). He states this:

There is no known intermediate type of cell midway between the enucleate cell and the nucleated red cells of any other vertebrate species....Where there is an empirical absence of transitional forms, envisaging plausible hypothetical intermediates invariably proves impossible. And so it is here.

If we attempt to produce a Darwinian result using a computer, it may help to clarify a logical flaw in the Darwinian account of how complex things originate.  Any competent computer programmer could create a function that provides a random stream of characters, producing output such as "ewqiqwe23023nsdagdsogsd" or "gsdib9witb3252bfeyery" every second. Now let us suppose that we try to use such a stream of random characters to produce useful works such as essays, blog posts, and computer programs.  Following Darwinian ideas, and the frequent suggestion in Darwin's writings that biological innovations are produced by accumulations of favorable random changes,  we will try to do this by "accumulating the good stuff" and "discarding the bad stuff."  Will this work to produce useful works such as essays, blog posts, and computer programs? It certainly will not.  It also will not work to create a stream of random words (randomly getting a line from a list of 100,000 words), and then following a principle of "accumulating the good stuff" and "discarding the bad stuff," or a principle of "accumulating the useful stuff and discarding the useless stuff." 

darwinism flaw

Why will such an attempt always fail? It's because at the character level and at the word level there is no way to distinguish between something good or bad, or something useful or not useful. All characters are equally useful, and all common words are equally useful.  So at the low level of individual characters and individual words, there is no way to apply any "survival of the fittest" or any filtering effect which allows "good letters" to accumulate into good literary works, or "good words" to accumulate into good essays or good computer programs.  Similarly, since a random mutation is only the tiniest fraction of a biological innovation (such as a millionth), without any intrinsic property of being good or useful in the sense of providing a survival benefit, there is no way for nature to produce complex biological innovations by "accumulating the good mutations" and "discarding the bad mutations." 

But it is rather easy to think otherwise. You might reason: if some biological innovation is useful (in the sense of producing a survival benefit), and the innovation is caused by 100,000 little point mutations, are not each of those mutations also useful? But to think that is to commit a fallacy called the fallacy of division, the fallacy of assuming that parts of a whole must have some property of the whole.  The parts of a whole do not necessarily have some property possessed by the whole. For example, while a college textbook is heavy, individual pages of that book are not heavy. 

If we commit the fallacy of division, we may reason that since some useful biological innovation built from 100,000 mutations is useful (in the sense of providing a survival benefit), therefore the individual mutations that built it are also useful in providing a survival benefit, and that nature can accumulate such mutations by "saving the useful mutations" and "discarding the useless mutations."  But after more careful thinking we realize that such a thing cannot occur, because the individual mutations do not have any property of being useful in the sense of providing a survival benefit, and such usefulness only arises late-in-the-game from incredibly complex and hard-to-achieve combinations of very many such mutations, combinations that are incredibly unlikely to occur by chance.  A principle of "good stuff piles up" works for the owners of ski lodges hoping to explain how they got nice snow accumulations, but such a principle is basically worthless for explaining the origin of cars, bridges, computers, ships, and complex biological innovations.