“Down the no-rabbit hole” (Geologic column)

My tween daughter kept asking if we could get a rabbit, figuring the answer would either be yes or no, giving her a 50 percent chance each time she asked. After 28 or so negative replies, I gave in for reasons of peace and my sanity.

It also afforded me the chance to use our new pet as a springboard into a lesson about evolution. Southeastern Oklahoma State University biological sciences professor Stanley Rice wrote that evidence for the field rests on the convergence of multiple independent lines of evidence. He credited early 20th Century British scientist J.B.S. Haldane with noting that evolution could be disproven by means of a Precambrian bunny. The lagomorph in question was just a placeholder animal, so a cat, dog, mouse, elephant, or frog would suffice. In truth, any mammal, amphibian, or land animal appearing amongst other Precambrian fossils would be strong evidence against the current school of evolutionary thought.

Rice reminds us (or informs, for those of us who played tiddlywinks during high school biology) that the Cambrian featured lots of really cool gargantuan creatures they are still making blockbuster movies about more than 500 million years later. By contrast, Precambrian strata have no large animal fossils because no such creatures had yet evolved. If that strata were produced by a flood that wiped out large animals that had been created no later than 2,000 years prior, it should have some giant critters embedded within.

While Noah’s menagerie was floating about, its members’ less fortunate relatives would have eventually became part of the lowest fossil layers. Rice wrote that a worldwide flood would yield a fossil record with mostly fish at the bottom and primarily mammals on top, but that there would be a smattering of exceptions. Or surely at least one. He mused, “The raging flood waters would have drawn large animals down into the bottom layers. Just one. Just one Precambrian bunny. That’s all it would take.”

Alas, there is no such Darwin-defying rabbit.

Now onto rabbit food, the plants. If all plant fossil deposits resulted from a flood, one would expect wetland plants on bottom and their mountain counterparts on top. While this is largely the case, there are exceptions. Rice asks us to “consider the small wetland plants of the Ordovician and Silurian periods. None of them are the flowering plants that are the most abundant plants on the earth today. Find me a Silurian weed from, say, the aster family or the mustard family. Today, wetlands have little pickleweeds in them, from the spinach family of flowering plants. Yet somehow there were no plants that had flowers in the Ordovician or Silurian wetlands.”

The fossil record also reveals one of the strongest individual pieces of evidence for evolution, Tiktaalaik. While any fossil is, strictly speaking, a transitional one, Tiktaalik’s mix of fish and amphibian features make it the type of animal that evolution deniers long insisted would never be found. Further, researchers digging through sedimentary layers found it in the precise place one would expect it to be were it the descendant of fish and an ancestor to amphibians.

These theories work with the tiniest, most simple life forms as well. Single-celled algae called foram are housed in calcium carbonate shells, which linger once the foram cell has died. These shells come in different distinctive shapes and each represents a specific time and place in geologic history. That they appear more or less in order within strata points to evolution, whereas if they had all been wiped out in a flooded, microbiologists would find them randomly scattered.

Then there is the matter of where the surviving animals went after the flood. Endemic species like kangaroos would have had to travel from Turkey to Australia, making for two very determined marsupials. A common creationist retort is that maybe it was the distant offspring of these kangaroos that eventually made their way Down Under. But if so, this hopping ancestral line did so without leaving one fossil behind. And this scenario would had to have repeated for every endemic species, such as Antarctica’s penguins, Papua New Guinea’s cassowaries, and South America’s guanacos.

The same pattern holds true for all major animal groups that live on continents that have been separated for millions of years. But it is not true for continents that have been connected relatively recently. Rice explained, “This is why many of the animals of northern Europe and Asia are similar – and in cases, such as reindeer and elk – the same as those in North America. Only about 20,000 years ago, the Bering land bridge connected Asia and North America and allowed large mammals to migrate.”

Plants follow the same pattern. The major plant families of the southern continents are not the same as those of the northern continents. And, once again, Australia its own beast – or fern, maybe, since we’re addressing plants. It has some flora the other continents don’t.

So that’s how we know. Now If I could only get my daughter to listen to this.

“Celling it” (Mobile phones on airplanes)

Flying comes with annoyances like delays, gate changes, removing shoes, taking out laptops, and three-course meals of water, peanuts, and more water.

Then there is being required to turn off cell phones in flight. Six hours cooped in a metal tube would be less taxing with access to social media, game apps, and texting. Alas, this is not to be. The implications and inferences are often that cell phone signals would interfere with the airplane’s systems.


This is a misnomer. The ban on wireless devices instead stems from possible overload of ground cell phone networks. The FCC, not the FAA is the Alphabet Soup Agency responsible for the banned in-flight use of most cell phones and wireless devices and the associated lack of access to Twitter, Yahtzee, and green bean casserole recipes. The evidence for this ground interference is lacking but the ban has nevertheless been policy for nearly three decades.


Airplanes are designed to resist foreign signals and, besides, cell phones operate on different frequencies than airliners. Placing a call to Aunt Polly about that aforementioned green bean casserole from a few miles in the air would mean that the cell phone signal might bounce off multiple towers, rather than just one.

Therefore, the concern is that too many persons placing cell phone calls on airplanes would overload the network. A non-profit called the RTCA serves as the Federal Advisory Committee for the FAA, and it released a detailed report which found cell phones pose no risk to aircraft safety.

Moreover, Boeing and Airbus routinely test their merchandise by bombarding the aircraft in order to harden them against various attacks, be they physical or electronic. If cell phones had the potential to endanger an aircraft, they would be no more allowed onboard than a time bomb, a la Airplane!

“Seedy idea” (Seed patents)

Seed patents are the subject of a nontroversy, which maintains the patents are at the center of the malevolent control of food supplies and that they hamstring honest, hardworking farmers.

Yet these patents are as legitimate as ones on inventions and on copyrights that protect music, paintings, and software. Human molecular geneticist, Dr. Layla Katiraee, explained that to disallow seed patents would enable the competition “to reverse engineer a product at a fraction of the price.”

Officials grant seed patents if the plant variety can be shown to be new, distinct, genetically stable and uniform.

While associated primarily with genetic modification, patented seeds also exist in the plant world. For example, many varieties of orchids are the result of research and experiment.

Few would suggest that the team which achieved the long-sought blue rose should not reap the financial rewards for doing so. Yet, there are those which feel it is unethical to do the same with a seed that is made sturdier or more drought resistant.

Seed piracy is a serious issue. Besides it being ill-gotten gain, it can lead to seeds being sold and planted in regions where they have not been approved and this can cause contamination. Planting them in the wrong climate or soil could lead to devastating crop loss and land damage.

Internet legend holds that GMOs contain a self-destroying terminator gene to ensure farmers have to buy a full seed supply every year. This is false, as there have never been commercially-available terminator genes.

Since GMO Seeds are not sterile, companies prevent the replanting of seeds by having their customers sign a contract whereby they obtain an annual license. Farmers agree not to sell or distribute the product in regions where the product is not registered. None of this ties the farmer to a company for any duration beyond the length of the contract. Further, many farmers buy new seeds each season anyway, even if the seeds are not GMO or are not under a licensing agreement.

Katiraee wrote that this is because “seeds are often sold as hybrids, which have the best of the traits that breeders were looking for. However, once these plants grow and produce seeds of their own, it is unlikely that the latter will have all the beneficial traits present.”

So seed patents serve to protect food supply and distribution, not hamper them.

“Indolent bystander” (Kitty Genovese)

When an assailant raped and murdered New Yorker Kitty Genovese in 1964, The New York Times reported that dozens of people witnessed the attack and did nothing to stop it.

But in the early 2000s, another Times piece found the claims in the 1964 article were exaggerated and sensationalized. Probably less than 10 people had knowledge of the attack, with three of them intervening.

But at the time, the tragedy and the supposed apathy that surrounded it, led to a burgeoning field looking into a possible Bystander Effect, including the Smoke Filled Room study of 1968. Social psychology researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley ran a series of experiments testing their hypothesis that when other people are around, bystanders are less likely to intervene.

In the best-known of their studies, the pair recruited subjects to fill out a questionnaire. The first group consisted of subjects who answered questionnaire by themselves, while the second group involved several persons filling out the form.

A few minutes into the experiment, thick smoke pored through a vent. Those by themselves, for the most part, left the room immediately and informed Latane and Darley.


Subjects in the second group, however, responded differently. Only one was an actual subject, the other persons were in on the experiment and had been instructed to take no action. Most of the time, the subject likewise failed to act.


In all, 75 percent of solo subjects intervened in the smoke, while just 10 percent of the subjects surrounded by confederates did. This seemed to confirm Latane and Darley’s hypothesis. Similar experiments yielded similar results, though not all of them as pronounced. But the differences were consistent enough that the duo concluded that there was a casual effect to the number of persons present and the likelihood of intervention.


But then in 2019, publications reported that the Bystander Effect was largely nonexistent, that a review of public conflicts showed that most people do intervene.


This research focused on public altercations captured on video. More than 1,200 conflicts were examined, in Lancaster, UK, Amsterdam, and Cape Town. In each city, intervention occurred nine times out of 10. Further, stepping in was most likely to occur if there were more bystanders.


As to the opposite conclusion being reached in the Smoke Filled Room studies, that can be explained by the study’s flawed methodology. Other than a lone subject, participants were instructed to not act. Had smoke began filling a room of 20 persons not in on the charade, some of them would have almost certainly taken action, as the results of the 1,200 public altercations demonstrate.


Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote that a better-designed experiment would have had no confederates and, indeed, that would have produced a more authentic result. The test, he noted, served as an experiment on peer pressure, but not the bystander effect it was presuming to examine.

“Fright pattern” (Wind turbines)

TURBINE

Birds often slam into buildings and powerlines but some people consider wind turbines an even more egregious threat, with their enormous blades whirring overhead.

However, these kill far less birds than almost any other contributor, and the strategic placement of wind farms can make the threat even less pronounced.  

Objections to wind turbines largely come from two groups: Well-meaning but misinformed bird lovers; and ill-meaning, informed fossil fuel fans who show an isolated, disingenuous interest in wildlife conservation in this one instance.

The key question is how many birds are being sliced and diced. Are we talking avian apocalypse or a much lower number that represents an infinitesimal fraction of feathered flyers we lose to buildings and power lines? Studies show it’s the latter, as wind turbines are responsible for the smallest number of bird deaths among all manmade causes.

There are about 50,000 wind turbines in the country and they cause an average of five annual bird deaths apiece, or a quarter of a million birds every year. The biggest killer of birds in the U.S. are members of the cat family, who take out a whopping 2.4 billion birds each year. Collisions with building windows cause the demise of another billion.

Crunching these numbers, we find that the percentage killed by wind turbines is so microscopic that it could be rounded down to zero.

Of the relatively few killed by turbines, the vast majority are songbirds, which are experiencing no population issues. Of greater concern are raptors since they exist in smaller numbers, have much lower reproductive rates, and have flight patterns that make them more likely to be near wind turbines.

Wind farm operators can be slapped with heavy fines when their product kills a bird, although since it’s impractical to avoid all deaths, a limited number of the unintentional kills are legally permissible. Whether out of concern for wildlife or the ledger book, wind farm operators embrace technology aimed at avoiding these fatal encounters.

For example, most California Condors are tagged so that when one approaches a wind farm, the turbine detects a radio transmission, which shuts it down.

A similar system employs skyward cameras to keep a lookout for eagles, with a shutdown procedure in place if the birds are in jeopardy. Radar, light, sound, and thermal cameras are additional allies in this ornithological protection plan.

But – cliché alert – an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure. The best idea is to placing wind farms away from bird migration routes and condor populations, and this trend has been embraced.

 

 

“Abrogated battery” (Electric cars)

Corbin_Sparrow

During my ninth-grade year, I spied a classmate driving, well, it’s hard to say what it was. Other than to call it a contraption so hideous it seemed a mutant offspring of a golf cart, Yugo, and lunar rover. It looked so bad that he felt the need to offer a proactive apology/explanation that it ran on electricity.

His father had procured a small fleet of them, with dreams of making his fortune from a technology that would render the internal combustion engine as obsolete as the engine had made the horse and buggy.

Even with the much spiffier electric cars of today, such futuristic fantasies have never materialized. There have been issues with a short driving range, few re-energizing stations, and a dearth of mechanics who specialize in the breed.

The cars are also blamed for environmental ails by people who don’t care about environmental ails – that is to say, right-wing types who resist any threat to the oil and gas industries. 

With Tesla Motors now offering a reasonable alternative to traditional vehicles, we should take a closer look at claims that electric cars are worse for the environment than ones that operate on internal combustion.

The central argument is that since electric cars require an oversized battery, whose manufacturing has to be done at a separate locale than the rest of the car, another factory gets added to the mix. Further, the mining needed to procure the battery’s components adds another process. This all requires infrastructure, transportation, workers, and logistical support.

Therefore, the usual car manufacturing, combined with the battery production, more than doubles greenhouse gas emissions. Since the electricity required to charge the behemoth battery comes from a traditional power plant, electric car drivers still stamp their carbon footprint like everyone else, but are worse violators because of the battery production’s consequences.

The infrastructure argument is correct in the short term. But over time, if everyone used an electric car, it would prove beneficial because it would mean humans had moved from a fossil fuel infrastructure to an electric one.

When a traditional car and its electric counterpart leave the factory, the latter’s production has produced more greenhouse gases than the former. But by the time the cars are scrapped or otherwise reach their end, the car powered by an internal combustion engine will have contributed twice as many greenhouse gases to our environment.

The reason an electric car still contributes to environmental damage is because fossil fuel power plants  generate most of the electricity that power those vehicles. So the more electric cars that there are, the more often there is an initial uptick in ecological harm. But eventually that is more than overcome by the lack of fossil fuels burnt.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that having one large power plant fueling many electric cars means electrics on even the dirtiest grid are still far cleaner than internal combustion cars. He added that generating the electricity accounts for about 70 percent of an electric car’s total contribution to greenhouse gases.

The number a miles a motorist has to drive an electric car before he or she has made up for excess greenhouse gases from manufacturing the car varies widely, depending on the vehicle and whether a grid is powered by renewables or fossil fuels.

Dunning calculated that the number can range from 3,700 to 39,000 miles. But whenever a car passes that number, it is more environmentally friendly than an internal combustion-powered vehicle, be it a Tesla beauty or the abomination my classmate dared to be seen in.

“Iraq star” (Baghdad battery)

ISTARTWO

The Appeal to antiquity fallacy is most commonly associated with alternative medicine, but it also makes appearances in pseudo-archeology. The fallacy latches itself to a romantic notion that peoples long ago mastered technologies that we associate with the modern day. Take, for example, an Iraqi clay pot that some believe was used as a battery a thousand years before such an advancement was thought to exist.

The object in question is a small fired pot whose top has broken off. Around the broken rim are asphalt remnants, suggesting the jar’s top had originally been sealed. Inside the jar rests a hollow tube of thin copper rolled into a cylinder. At the top sits a thick asphalt plug that fits snugly into the tube.

The National Museum of Iraq housed this “Baghdad Battery” until the artifact was looted following the U.S. invasion of 2003. Archaeologists agree that it comes from sometime during the Parthian period or the ensuing Sasanian Empire. This makes the pot about 1,600 years old, give or a take a couple of centuries. If it functioned as a battery, that would make it, by several hundred years, the first such device.

The idea of it being just that was the notion of Wilhelm König, an assistant at the museum, who speculated that the jar could have been a simple battery used for electroplating pieces of art.

There are similar copper cylinders in the museum, many of which contain fragments of long-decomposed papyrus, suggesting they were used to contain and protect scrolls. For reasons unclear, König supposed that this one particular jar might have been used as a battery instead. He experimented by constructing some versions that employed terminals, wiring, and an electrolyte fluid. König’s devices managed to achieve small voltages.  

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that extracting voltage from an object like the Baghdad Battery is quite easy, as a basic battery requires nothing more than ordinary items. All the experimenter requires are two different types of metal, and if placed in an electrolyte liquid, an electrical current will flow from one piece of metal to the other. Common household items and foodstuffs will do the trick.

While König’s conjecture was that the battery may have been used for electroplating jewelry or bits of art, other people have different ideas. Some think the battery could have been connected to a religious statue, so that when a worshiper touched it, they would receive a holy shock from a deity whose name is lost to history. Another conjecture holds that its mild shock helped with pain relief.

However, overwhelming evidence suggest it is a scroll jar. Almost any object could be repurposed. I was in a hotel once in need of a spoon and no such utensil was to be found, nor a fork or knife, nor even a beverage stirrer. I ended up using a coffee filter housing to scoop my food. As Dunning wrote, “The fact that something can be used as something else does not mean that it was ever intended that way.”

To this artifact specifically, there are other reasons so suspect it was never a battery. First, it would have lasted as such for a short duration as to be useless. The electrolyte fluid would need to be replaced continually. Second, the object lacks terminals, and batteries need negative and positive ones that are accessible for connecting wires. If rigged as a battery, this one would have had the terminals under the fluid level and inaccessible beneath a seal. Finally, no conductive wires have ever been found that would indicate the ancients knew anything bout wiring. And lacking wires, there would be no method of connecting a battery to the device that housed it.

Beyond these points, this is the only “battery” of the time period ever found. There are no written records or artifacts showing its development beforehand or improvements after. So it is either a clay jar consistent with all the others of the time or a completely isolated innovation that used a technology that made one appearance, then lay dormant for hundreds of years.

“On Gard” (HPV vaccine)

BELT

Gardasil, a vaccine which prevents Human Papillomavirus cancer, is sometimes eschewed even by those who normally embrace vaccination. Some parents ensure that their children are fully inoculated, with this one exception. 

But Gardasil’s safety record is excellent and the refusals are based on a misinformation campaign. The HPV vaccine is part of a regimen that makes is less likely to contract one type of cancer. Avoiding smoking and excessive sun and alcohol, along vaccines and a reasonable diet and exercise program all play their part in optimal health.

With regard to HPV, it causes nearly five percent on new cancers, the same as tobacco. Skipping the vaccine, then, creates unnecessary risk. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that 11- and 12-year-olds be vaccinated against it.

But since HPV is a sexually-transmitted disease, some religious parents feel that allowing the vaccine will cause their child to be promiscuous. But this is no more reasonable than thinking that skipping the vaccine will cause chaste behavior. Then there are those who think their children are too upright to fall prey to temptations of the flesh. This assumption about their offspring’s behavior is matched only by their inflated sense of their parenting skills. Moreover, the horrific but plausible idea of the child being sexually assaulted should be enough to override this line of reasoning.

The Skeptical Raptor cited a Gardasil safety study of 200,000 young women, which showed no “evidence of new safety concerns among females 9 to 26 years of age secondary to vaccination with HPV4.”

In another study of almost 1 millions girls and young women, HPV-vaccinated subjects were compared with those who received a placebo. The authors concluded that the study “identified no safety signals with respect to autoimmune, neurological, and venous thromboembolic events after the HPV vaccine had been administered. 

Additionally, an eight-year clinical trial comparing HPV to a placebo showed no difference in adverse results.

Points to the contrary consist mainly of anecdotes over data, offenses to religious sensibilities, and whispers (or shouts) about the evils of Big Pharma. In other words, not much science and research going on.

There are no legitimate, evidence-based objections to Gardasil, which research has repeatedly shown to be safe and effective. Studies published in authentic medical journals, highlighting work done by experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology, infectious diseases, and cancer research, all bear this out.

“Frack no” (Hydraulic fracturing)

tapwater

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a procedure where workers pump high-pressure water into natural gas reserves that sit deep underground. It serves to break up the rock and make the natural gas easier to mine.

There are a few supposed issues with fracking: That it so pollutes tap water that the liquid can catch fire if a match is lit near it; That it unleashes toxic chemicals which contaminate our ground water; and that it causes earthquakes.

It’s true that holding a match next to a running tap that contains enough methane – the main ingredient in natural gas – will result in a burst of flames. However, whether this can be pinned on fracking is doubtful.

Water wells are shallow, whereas fracking takes place miles underground. There are usually several layers or rock formations between where the fracking takes place and where well water resides. There’s little if any transfer of gas or liquid between these two stratum, which are separated by many rock layers.

The burning of water can happen anytime wells are near an area housing natural gas. Mining of this gas can cause methane to move from a high-pressure area to a lower-pressure one. Also, an inadequate seal on natural gas wells may leak methane. This is especially likely to occur near old, abandoned wells.

Now, onto the assertion that fracking pumps hundreds of poisonous chemicals into the ground. Water makes up at least 98 percent of fracking fluid. Another one percent consists of a proppant, which is mostly sand. The rest of the fracking fluid serves as a lubricant and what is used differs based on circumstance. Toxicity is determined by amount, not ingredient, and while there are trace elements used in fracking that would be hazardous in higher concentrations, they are used in safe numbers during this process.

As to earthquakes, in the strict definition, fracking causes these, but only ones so minor that they do no damage.  Whenever a rock cracks underground, it qualifies as a seismic event. However, fragile shale is the main kind of rock involved and fracking drills horizontally through natural gas, not through a hard rock fault zone.

Fracking the shale to break it up is unlikely to relieve any massive forces. Rather, fracking opens up shale in a stable manner, the sand holds the fractures open, and no unstable layer results. Finally, since all this takes place miles below the surface, pressures are easily sufficient to hold the ground in place.

 

“Golden deceiver” (φ)

CAT

With this year being an unfortunate exception, I have traditionally ran an NCAA Tournament pool. For the last several seasons, I have used a point-distribution system based on the Fibonacci sequence, in which any given number is the sum of the previous two numbers. When applied to a Tournament pool, this means that the sequence awards up to 8 points for a correctly naming a regional final winner, up to 13 points for calling a national semifinal correctly, and up to 21 points for picking the right champion.

The system’s originator also devised a control whereby upsets are worth more points, relative to how big a shocker it is seed-wise. The system used some fairly advanced mathematics, and being not fairly advanced mathematically, I forwarded the pool outline to a Ph.D. in the field, who confirmed that the ideas presented were sound. As if I needed more proof, the first year that I used the system, I won the pool.

The Fibonacci Sequence is frequently associated with the Golden Ratio, although there is no evidence that the 13th Century Italian mathematician was thinking about the ratio when he came up with the formula. He devised it while solving a problem that centered on rabbit populations.

The idea that Fibonacci employed the Ratio while coming up with the sequence that bears his name is one of many myths associated with the Ratio.

The Golden Ratio has the value of 1 to φ, or phi. φ is about 1.618, but like pi’s 3.14, this is an approximation since phi is an irrational number that strings along infinitely.

φ and the Golden Ratio have multitudinous mathematical applications. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning explained one such case thusly: “If you take a rectangle whose sides are proportional to the golden ratio, you can cut a square off one end of it, and the resulting small rectangle that remains is of the exact same proportions as the original. You can cut a square off of that and you’ll get a still smaller golden ratio rectangle, and you can do this ad infinitum.

Nature has discovered its applications. Dunning noted that, “A tree is most efficient if as many leaves as possible are visible and not shaded by other leaves. As a stem grows, it follows a genetic formula to know how often to produce a leaf and at what angle from the preceding leaf…Produce φ leaves per turn and no two leaves will ever shade each other.” A similar process allows sunflowers to grow with maximum efficiency.

Phi also plays a role in better acoustics and dynamics. Engineers can cancel unwanted audio waves or resonances if they design sound rooms or theatres on Golden Ratio principles.

This is all wonderful, but the Golden Ratio’s beauty has been coopted by the pseudoscientific crowd. Perhaps the best known example is the claim that the ancient Greeks who designed the Parthenon employed the Ratio, as assertion without historical or mathematical evidence. A look at the Parthenon’s design shows no employment of the Ratio, though some armchair archeologists think they have discovered it, which is mostly based on miscalculations.   

Another pseudoscientific claim is that the Golden Ratio is found throughout the human body, such as the width of the shoulders compared to the height of the head, where the belly button is in relation to the rest of the body, or the forearm’s length competed to the distance from the head to the fingertips. The glaring issue with such claims is that such proportions are different for everyone and thus, the Ratio is not in play. In the tree and sunflower cases, application of the Ratio is uniform for every such living organism.

A nearly soundproof way to tell real manifestations of the Golden Ratio from assumed ones is whether it serves a purpose that could not also be served by a similar number. A tree’s employment of the golden angle for its leaves’ distribution serves a clear purpose and requires φ. An example of a mistaken assumption is claiming that the joints in human fingers become longer at a rate that follows the Golden Ratio. Not only is this measurably wrong, but it would provide no specific benefit to people when they are filling out NCAA Tournament brackets or otherwise using their hands.