Planted evidence

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A sentient plant is usually considered to be in the realm of science fiction. Think Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors. But some researchers are open to the idea that plants are capable of emotions and the ability to feel, perceive, or experience stimuli objectively. These Proponents compare electrical signaling in plants to nervous systems in animals.

Those on the other side of the debate consider this analogy superficial and think it fails to consider the brain’s functions and complexity. The model of consciousness developed by neurobiologist Todd Feinberg and medical professor Jon Mallatt ascribes to brains a certain level of structure and ability that enable the bodies that house them to have subjective experiences. The electrical signaling system in plants lacks these distinctions, they say.

Feinberg and Mallatt compared simple and complex animal brains, and in an interview with the Genetic Literacy Project, retired biology professor Lincoln Taiz said the duo “concluded that only vertebrates, arthropods, and cephalopods possess the threshold brain structure for consciousness. Plants, which don’t even have neurons, let alone brains, don’t have” this structure. Instead, he continued, “What we’ve seen is that plants and animals evolved very different life strategies. The brain is very expensive organ, and there’s absolutely no advantage to the plant to have a highly developed nervous system.”

As to electrical signals, plants use them like a distribution center to send charged molecules to membranes, and also to deliver internal messages. When the former happens it might cause a plant’s leaves to curl since ionic movement may force water to leave the cells, changing their shape. In the latter, when an insect chomps on one leaf, this might initiate a defensive mechanism in the rest of the appendages. These types of actions can make it seem like the plant is choosing its responses, but Taiz stresses the reactions are the result of genetic coding and fine-tuning via natural selection.

Plants might curl their leaves when touched or grow more rapidly near competitors. They can even seduce and trap  insects, with the Venus Flytrap being the best-known example. But Taiz, Feinberg, and Mallatt argue there is no sound evidence that indicates plants choose their actions, gain knowledge, or suffer pain.

One study cited by plant sentience proponents involves possible conditioning of the perennial flower mimosa pudica. In experiments, its leaves defensively curl when the plant is dropped. After many iterations of this without damage occurring, the leaves cease to curl. But when the plant is shaken, the leaves again curl, which seems to rule out fatigue as the reason that response stopped.

But this is a misinterpretation, Taiz cautions: “The shaking was actually quite violent. Because the shaking stimulus was stronger than the dropping stimulus, it doesn’t definitively rule out sensory adaptation, which doesn’t involve learning.”

So it seems that thinking, acting plants are still in the domain of movies and tabloids. That’s fine by me. I don’t much care for such notions as a killer cactus or poison oak having the ability to spew its sap.

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“Psi sigh” (Parapsychology)

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Psychology professor Etzel Cardeña wrote an article last year for American Psychologist that purports to show evidence for parapsychological phenomena. To bolster his case, Cardeña referenced quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, and the block universe hypothesis, a model in which past, present, and future exist simultaneously.

As a counter to Cardeña’s claims, psychologists Arthur Reber and James Alcock penned an essay for Skeptical Inquirer, in which they opined that Cardena’s effort was the latest in a 150-year failed attempt to legitimize parapsychology. There reasons for these failures, they assert, is that every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science.

Reber and Alcock did not examine Cardeña’s data since they considered it irrelevant.  As a comparison, they noted that pigs cannot fly, so any data that points to swine being independently airborne would be the result of “flawed methodology, weak controls, inappropriate data analysis, or fraud.” They focused not so much on Cardeña’s claims but on parapsychology’s in general.

One reason they did so is because, as they noted, parapsychology is a faux field that hasn’t progressed since its inception in the 1880s. Then, as today, the overarching theme is that there is an unidentified, untraceable “more” to our universe beyond atoms, molecules, senses, people, and planets. This grandiose claim comes with zero testable or empirical evidence.

One scientific law that would need to be violated for parapsychological claims to be true is causality. Effects have causes and, with psi, there are no causal mechanisms, and none have been hypothesized. More relevant, there is no consideration of if the supposed psi effects have one causal mechanism or many. There is also the issue of inconsistency. The skeptical duo ask, “If psychokinesis affects the roll of dice in a psi lab, why not at craps tables? If telepathy exists, why are our brains not constantly abuzz with the thoughts of those around us? For allegedly existing now, the future only shows up in parapsychology lab tests.”

Then there are violations of Time’s Arrow. Parapsychology asserts an ability to warp time, most glaringly when involving precognition. Psi researchers regularly love to drop the term “Quantum Mechanics” and they often do so when referencing the entanglement effect. This in an example of pseudoscience, where scientific terms are used, albeit incorrectly, to try and lend credence to a position. Now, it’s true that two spinning particles separated in space are entangled since the state of one is simultaneously aligned with the other. But this does not equate to a reversal of time; there are merely concurrent effects.

“The notion that the strangeness of the quantum world harbors an explanation of the strangeness of parapsychology is a false equivalency,” Reber and Alcock write. Indeed, this is the secular version of “I don’t know, therefore a god did it,” with quantum mechanics replacing the instigating deity.

Quantum mechanics is hellaciously complex and probably less than one percent of people fully comprehend it. That leaves ample room for confusion and in this large area is where pseudoscientists like Cardeña operate. But there’s nothing in quantum mechanics that would validate or necessitate paranormal occurrences.

Yet another law that would need to be violated for parapsychological claims to be valid relates to thermodynamics. Again, consider precognition. For the future to impact the present, this would necessitate violating the principle that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. The act of choosing a playing card, a common technique in psi research, involves neurological processes that involves measurable biomechanical energy. The choice is presumed to be caused by a future that, having no existential reality, lacks energy.

Finally, we have an Inverse Square Law violation. In supposed telepathy, the distance between the two involved persons never seems to be a factor. This is inconsistent with the principle that signal strength falls off with the square of the distance traveled. Psi researchers again employ the entanglement effect as a possible explanation, but within quantum mechanics, there is no transmission of energy between the separated particles, they are merely entangled.

In conclusion, if psi effects were genuine, they would have already landed fatal blows to vast blocks of scientific knowledge.

“Doctor’s horrors” (Jim Meehan)

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Anti-vax doctors represent a microscopic percent of their profession, but when they highlight their medical training, it may cause some with doubts to sway the wrong way. Today we will examine the claims of one of them, Dr. Jim Meehan, as well as counterarguments from the Skeptical Raptor blogger, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss.

While Meehan uses phrases like “informed choice” and “parental rights,” he is not merely an advocate for education and options, he is explicitly anti-vaccine and encourages parents to leave their children vulnerable to miserable, dangerous, and possibly deadly diseases, rather than inoculate their offspring against them.

He claims these diseases are no big deal, might even be beneficial, and are treatable with a holistic, integrative, homeopathic, or other alt-med buzzword approach. With regard to wonderful whooping cough, magnificent measles, and sensational smallpox, the deluded doc insists there are benefits of children encountering these and other diseases. But Reiss notes that Meehan leaves it unclear exactly what a child gains from contracting the likes of diphtheria, polio, tetanus, and pertussis. Such a mindset would have been unimaginable in the days of the iron lung and is only entertained today only because vaccines’ success have made these misfortunes ones that most of us were never exposed to.

Reiss writes that measles kills one victim in a thousand, while diphtheria and tetanus have a 10 percent mortality rate. So unless Meehan is presuming an everlasting paradise after death, it’s uncertain what benefits he is referring to. Polio paralyzes and kills its victims and many of the other diseases Meehan gushes over can lead to weeks of suffering followed by lifelong afflictions. Here is a modern account of measles, which Meehan considers a mild irritant that leads to a positive outcome.

Meehan also trots out the toxin gambit, which plays to anti-vaxxers’ chemophobia. He sounds the sensationalist alarm thusly: “I have seen the evidence of neurotoxicity from ingredients like aluminum, Polysorbate 80, human DNA and cellular residues from the human cells lines, upon which many of the live viruses are grown.”

Reiss notes that in about one case in a million, a person may have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine, usually because of gelatin. So it could be argued that vaccines are only 99.9999 percent safe, but that leaves them much safer than smallpox, diphtheria, and polio.

Also, always remember that the dose and form of the ingredient is what matters. Vaccines never contain elemental aluminum, as Meehan implies. Rather, they contain tiny amounts of aluminum salts in order to prompt a stronger immune response, and these infinitesimal doses are handled by the body’s natural processes. Moreover, there is no evidence that the minuscule amounts of polysorbate 80 in vaccines poses a risk. As to the small amount of DNA that may be in a vaccine, Reiss notes that if it was that easy for fragments of DNA to impact our body, gene therapy would be much easier than it is.

The main plank in Meehan’s rambling rants is that vaccine science is fraudulent and purchased by Big Pharma. But vaccines prevent millions of hospitalizations and their accompanying medications each year, which deprives pharmaceutical companies of a fortune.

Further, there are tens of thousands of safety studies about vaccines. This research is done worldwide and is funded by multiple sources, such as businesses, universities, and governments, including governments that run a national health insurance system, and thus have a strong incentive to find preventive and curative measures.

To believe all this is part of a plot to enrich pharmaceutical company coffers and poison our children is to assume a conspiracy on an unimagined and untenable scale. It also ignores what happens when there is an issue with vaccine efficiency or safety.

Reiss cites four examples where certain strains of a vaccine were shown to be ineffective or contain a significant side effect. Each time it made for major news and the vaccines were pulled or retested. These responses are inconsistent with a secretive cover-up aimed at making pharmaceutical executives even richer with no concern for children suffering and dying.

In fact, for all his accusations, Meehan has been unable to identify an instance where a pharmaceutical company knowingly let a dangerous vaccine onto the market. And for all his dire warnings and writings, Meehan has yet to appear in peer-reviewed journal.

 

“What’s the point?” (Cell phone horns)

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There have been hell-themed moral panics before, but the latest is the first I’m aware of that asserts the literal growing of horns by our wayward youth. Writing for Vice, Caroline Haskins tells of two Australian researchers, David Shahar and Mark Sayers, who report that these pointy appendages are protruding from the lower skulls of teens and young adults. They suspect this may be due to the horned ones continually titling their head forward and downward while continually using a cell phone.

To be clear, a substantial percentage of late teens and young adults are experiencing this devilish development, though the projections don’t actually poke through the scalp. In 2016, Shahar and Sayers looked at a group of 218 subjects between ages 18 to 30, and determined that 41 percent of them had a small enthesophytes at the base of their skulls. Enthesophytes are abnormal bony projections that normally attach themselves to tendons or ligaments, and usually result from stress applied to a bone.

The question is whether these instances are being caused by cell phone use, which the researchers say is only possibility, but which sensationalized press reports have treat as a virtual certainty. These alarming articles fail to consider other causes or look into whether the enthesophytes incident rate has mushroomed in the cell phone era.

There is nothing in the duo’s studies to suggest the ubiquitous communication devices are leading to bony appendages, or that there is a correlation for two in five young adults having them. Shahar and Sayers merely say that further research on the topic is warranted.

However, a slew of news articles embraced the narrative that the world’s youth are turning into little horned monsters. Such panics have been applied to cell phones before, be it WiFi cancer scares or the assertion that there was a condition called Smartphone Pinky. This referred to an alleged deformity caused by the way people held their phone. In fact, the “deformity” was a curve in the finger bone that has been normal in humans for millenniums.

With regard to the idea of skull enthesophytes being formed by repeatedly looking down and forward, there would be questions as to why this didn’t develop when books became common. There could also be genetic or environmental factors in play, or it could be the result of general posture, not just the position one assumes when responding to text messages about what you’re bringing to the potluck.

All this represents the latest in an uninterrupted string of moral panics surrounding developing technology. Ironically, such developments make it easy to quickly saturate a virtual universe with concocted concerns about sprouting horns – horns that most readers will fittingly find out about via their phones.

“Not a real cluster” (Dominican Republic deaths)

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If something is truly random, it will sometimes show hints of an apparent pattern. For example, 2, 12, and 22 might be part of same winning PowerBall combination, or the same defense industry worker may be picked for a drug test three times in a row.

These and similar instances sometimes lead observers to infer that these streaks or clusters are evidence of the phenomenon being nonrandom. So a frustrated lottery player may attempt to find a nonexistent way to beat the system, or a jaded employee may be convinced management has it in for him.

Clustering illusions are amusingly demonstrated by the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. In this tale, a man fires several dozen pistol rounds into the side of a barn, picks out a number of holes close to each other, and claims that’s where he was aiming. When done in real life, an observer can wrongly think there is a connection in random phenomenon, be it related to crime, economics, or sports.

It’s too early to know, but this misinterpretation may be manifesting itself regarding American deaths in the Dominican Republic. Nine U.S. citizens have died there over the last 12 months, usually the result of a heart attack, though there is some concern that poisoning may be involved.

Metabunk’s Mick West, who saw the clustering illusion first-hand when he developed landscapes for computer games, writes that heart attacks are scattered throughout the population, but also correlate to demographic factors. This means heart attack numbers will generate both genuine and illusory clusters. With regard to the specific subset of U.S. tourists in the Caribbean, which type of cluster is in play?

West further makes note of the Frequency Illusion, where one pays more attention to something if they’ve heard of it lately or been impacted by it. For example, a motorist who buys a new Pontiac will likely notice other such vehicles more often than they would if they had not made the purchase.

So someone hearing of a handful of deaths afflicting those of a specific nationality in a certain place will likely draw a conclusion about what this means even if that’s not a justified reaction. West writes, “People have died of heart attacks, and even of alcohol poisoning, in the Dominican Republic before, and they will again. Is it any more common this year?

He crunches some numbers and notes that .1 percent of U.S. adults died from sudden cardiac arrest in a 12-month period. Meanwhile, about 2.7 million Americans go there each year. Assuming an average trip time of seven days, this would extrapolates to an expected 52 Americans dying of a heart attack in the Dominican Republic each year.

So while there could be something malevolent going on or some yet-to-be identified virus in the Santo Domingo vicinity, the numbers at this point support no such notion. If you have a trip planned there, go ahead. It’s likely to be as safe as always been and besides, there are clusters showing that people die unexpectedly while sitting in their living room.

 

 

“Mine your own business” (Sales rep opportunities)

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There are glitzy Internet and TV promotions that ostentatiously tout an “outstanding business opportunity,” and they deliver on that promise. But it’s the person selling the opportunity, not buying it, who reaps the profits and enjoys sustained success.

These “opportunities” mangle the usual relationship between a company and its sales representatives. Normally, companies selling products employ salespeople or contractors, who are paid a percentage of their completed orders.

But when accepting an “opportunity” rather than a job, the salesperson still completes orders but pays indirectly for doing so. An example of how it works: For $600, you can become an authorized sales agent for Bilbo Widgets. For this $600, Bilbo Widgets will provide you with leads on prospective customers, which you pursue at your expense and on your time. Since Bilbo owns the widgets, the supposed salesperson is required to spend a portion of their income buying the product and selling it to the customer for more. In the loud, proud ads, this business relationship it is pitched thusly: The customer gets a widget, the rep makes a profit, and Bilbo gets a sale.

By way of comparison, let’s see how it’s done in a traditional business. Gandalf works for Frodo Widgets, where he has an office and the same list of leads the Bilbo rep paid for. Gandalf has use of the company’s time and resources, which assist him in reaching prospective clients. Frodo gives Gandalf a commission, of which the company keeps nothing. Our working wizard puts in predictable hours and enjoys a base salary and an employee benefits package.

The Bilbo rep counters that he has the freedom of self-employment and never has to deal with a pedantic boss or overbearing co-worker. But neither do independent sales reps who hawk products from various companies and earn a commission on every sale. But they are being paid to be sales representatives, not paying the companies for this “opportunity.” Meanwhile, Bilbo Widgets has convinced its sales agents to work at his expense, on his time, and fork over $600 for the privilege. 

By contrast, an authentic company like McDonald’s allows franchisees to benefit from a time-honored, ubiquitous brand. It licenses a supremely successful name and business model, and the company provides the patties, fries, utensils, uniforms, advertising, cleaning supplies, and everything else needed to run a fast food operation. Everyone knows McDonald’s, while almost no one outside of the five people the opportunist has managed to track down has ever heard of Bilbo Widgets. Such companies, in truth, merely sell these business “opportunities” to supplement product sales, if they have any of those.

There are many organizations who run this ruse, and I’ve had long-lost friends and long-lost barely-know-thems try and pitch the products to me on Facebook. I never responded, nor likely has anyone else, but Bilbo still makes money because its profits comes from the persons who are futilely trying to sell its product.

While $600 was the sample figure used here, some companies charge much more than that. So much more, in fact, that most persons don’t have that much money on hand. No problem, for some of these companies offer financing.

So not only do they charge you money for the right to sell their stuff, they also make money on the cash they loan so you can do so. When a company offers financing on its product, the financing is likely the company’s true business. There are a few exceptions, such as car dealerships, which makes money if they provide the financing, but also turn a profit if they sell a new Escalade for cash. Not everyone has $30,000 handy for a new ride, so financing is a legitimate option that benefits both parties.

But for the most part, a company offering financing for its product is a red flag that the business and product are illegitimate. There are many better ways to spend money. And certainly, no one should ever be buying their job.

“With a bear to cross” (Yeti)

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Last week, I was surprised to realize I had never written about Tarot cards in this forum. I corrected that deficiency and today will again address a topic I had somehow managed to neglect all this time, the Abominable Snowman.

The subject in question is a proposed bipedal ape-life creature, usually depicted as being hairier, larger, and stronger than humans. Yeti is said to reside in the vicinity of Mount Everest and the concept is so entrenched in the Himalayan region that it predates Buddhism there.

But while there are thousands of years’ worth of yarns and excited reports, there has yet to be the recovery of a live or deceased being. Nor has anyone come down the mountain with fur, skin, or bone that would belong to a mammoth bipedal ape, so all scientific signs point to Yeti being mythological. And while eyewitness reports are the lowest caliber evidence, it is even truer in these cases, as whiteout conditions and altitude sickness can come into play.

The closest thing to proof are footprint photos. There have been pictures taken of impressions made by a large beast that seem inconsistent with any known animal. However, the prints are likely made by a bear or other large creature, with the image becoming distorted by melting and refreezing snow, or by erosion and wind.

Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford, who specializes in examining cryptozoological claims, explains, “Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes.”

Likewise, there have hair and scalp specimens touted as having belonged to a crypto critter, but these too fall short of scientific validation. Examinations by anatomy and biology professionals generally reveal that the remains belong to a known animal. And even when unknown, they are close enough to a verified creature that it is much more likely that they are an undiscovered relative instead of the long-sought bipedal manlike beast.

Many of the supposed sightings are likely of the Tibetan blue bear. When the hide of such an animal was brought down from Everest in the 1970s, natives pointed to it and proclaimed it to be from a Yeti. Other animals misidentified as the Abominable Snowman might be the langur monkey or two varieties of Himalayan bear, the brown and the red.

A relatively recent find, from Bhutan, was of a hair that human genetics professor Bryan Sykes analyzed and he was unable to match it to any known member of the Animal Kingdom. Much as happened when searchers found an unknown hair in the Pacific Northeast, some cryptozoological enthusiasts were only too happy to fill in the biological blanks with their favorite fur ball. But further analysis showed that the Bhutanese hair belonged to a mutated Himalayan brown bear.

Indeed, bears are the most frequent explanation for putative Yeti evidence. From ages 2 to 4, the Asiatic black bear spends much of its day in trees to avoid predators. During this period, the treed bears train their inner claw outward, allowing an opposable grip. When walking in the snow, this could leave an impression seeming to suggest the animal has something akin to a big toe, and could be misinterpreted as an elongated humanoid foot.

Some persons seeking a more ancient answer speculate that the Yeti is a descendant of the extinct Asian ape Gigantopithecus. However, the Yeti is generally described as bipedal, and most scientists believe Gigantopithecus moved about on all fours. And its descendants likely did not have evolve to be bipedal since Gigantopithecus was so large that walking upright would have been problematic at best.

So after numerous searches for the expressed purpose of finding a Yeti, in the precise place he is supposed to live, we still have no strong evidence for its existence. What the expeditions have revealed is the mindset of the trekkers. There are many animals yet to be discovered and scavenging about for the Abominable Snowman is unlikely to reduce this number. Yeti is a captivating concept to those looking for him, but such adventurers are more drawn to the thrill of chasing a monster than they are driven by the desire to expand our zoological knowledge. The expeditioners would be much more likely to score a hit if they were to embark on a mission to find the next beetle subspecies. But that would fail to provide them with the thrill that losing a game of hide-and-seek to Yeti brings.