Posts Tagged ‘superstition


This Is Your Brain On Rationality

The excellent blog ‘Still Skeptical After All These Years‘ (SSAATY) has produced a lively discussion about human intelligence. ‘This Is Your Brain On Spirituality‘ links to ‘The Premise‘, from the book ‘The “God” Part of the Brain‘ (Matthew Alper). Jim One awakened me from my blogging slumber, and my comments are too long to impose upon his commenting space. This post is the result.

adj., Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.
– ‘The Devil’s Dictionary‘, Ambrose Bierce

‘The Premise’ is an interesting expression of the evolution of intelligence. It carries the burden of stimulating those misguided folks who take the ‘god’ part of the brain to be something that must have been created by god, or God. That article, and comments on SSAATY – especially by Anson and HLG – have a touch of specificity about the subject. Since I am required by the terms of my Birth Contract to engage in conversations on science topics, here’s my succinct explanation:

That “survival trait” of intelligence has a major component in correlation. Other components, such as memory, are also involved. Other species have intelligence. They use tools and manipulate their environment. They employ memory. The human advantage over other species is most pronounced in the inherent capacity to correlate.

Correlation is not reflex – a sensor-neuron-to-motor-neuron linkage. It is a constant activity of the brain. Watch someone wave a wand over a deck of cards, then pull a flower out of the deck: your brain will, absolutely automatically and irrevocably, establish the thought that a wand-wave makes flowers appear in unexpected places. Even a tendency to form preposterous correlations could have significant evolutionary advantages. The cost of missing a good correlation (red plant = poisonous) is disproportionate to the cost of a false correlation (animal sacrifice = good crops).

Almost all human history has involved this automatic intelligence – an ‘unthinking’ intelligence that becomes blatant as superstition. The modern (perhaps thousands of years – a short time in biology) rise of rationalism is the result of achieving a critical level of intelligence. The human (and, to a lesser extent, other species’) brain is self-aware. The progress of correlative ability has extended to something like ‘correlations of the correlations’. We now recognize that thinking in primitive ways can involve such errancies as ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc‘ – we are aware of our own fallacies.

Rationalism’s biggest success has been science – modern science, that is. The Scientific Method is to reasoning what the U.S. Constitution is to organization and governance. The Constitution is designed to work with our inherent nature, minimizing its worst propensities and maximizing its usefulness. It has checks and balances. Science is a method for limiting the brain’s tendency to form correlations willy-nilly. It also has checks and balances for the same sort of issues that the Constitution controls. It is a meta-intelligence that makes our inherent capability vastly more useful than it has previously been in human history.

Rationalism, by confining our biological intelligence, expands its social and cultural value. This is why science, medicine, and technology seem to have accelerated geometrically – it is not our intelligence which has increased dramatically, but our command of intelligence which is improved. There is a stark difference between the science of 1880 and the science of 1920 – a difference more in how intelligence was utilized than in the mere progress of results.

There is a stark similarity in the non-scientific thought of 2011 and that of 1911, or of 1011! Non-scientists can learn to do more than to merely respect the Scientific Method. Rationalism, and its companion Skepticism are vital elements of critical thinking which everyone can learn.


UFOs and Self-Delusions

This is not the first time that I have been irritated at the transparent gullibility and superstitious inclinations rampant in our culture. It’s high time that you read a small selection of my comments.

Yesterday, Huffington Post had an article about a new book, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record” (Harmony Books / The Crown Publishing Group) by journalist Leslie Kean. The book’s website states “…she presents irrefutable evidence that unknown flying objects – metallic, luminous, and seemingly able to maneuver in ways that defy the laws of physics – actually exist.” The HuffPost article was the typical promotional article, and I was limited to 35 (35!!! ackk!) words of comment.

Ms. Kean was also interviewed yesterday on MSNBC‘s ‘The Dylan Ratigan Show‘. She stressed that her book was, effectively, written by many “people from very high levels”. The “people from very high levels” are politicians, soldiers, policemen, and others who are all equally un-skilled in analysis. The forward was written by President Clinton’s Chief-of-Staff John Podesta – a nice guy, but not an expert. Ratigan was as well-prepared as we can expect – that is, minimally. He did have graphics presenting skeptical criticisms: pilots aren’t reliable witnesses; UFOs are not merely only solved or unsolvable; the unexplained is not necessarily due to aliens. Ratigan was not prepared to do more than provide a forum for Kean to respond to these points. Kean claims to be a skeptic herself, distinguished from ignorant people whom she calls ‘debunkers’.

Scientists understand that “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). The claims of Kean and other credulous folks are exceptional. They are not default – a priori – claims. ‘Oh, there isn’t a good explanation, so the most bizarre explanation must be true’ is an exceptional claim for which no exeptional evidence is offered.

A number of ‘UFO’ photos were published by HuffPost. I reproduce the first two here, under copyright Fair Use for scholarly analysis. My analysis will require more than 35 words. It will demonstrate that Kean cannot be a skeptic, because she is incapable of allowing for the possibility of explanations that are in plain sight. Photos 1 & 2 “photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft” contain obvious evidence of the exact nature of the ‘disc’.

Photo 1 is an enlargement of Photo 2.

The Huffpost caption for Photo 2 is: “Backing up from the close-up of the disc in the previous image to see it in context, the larger photograph shows the object over a lake (the darker area) with the terrain to the left. The sun is reflecting off its upper surface. This UFO was photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft of the Costa Rican government flying above it. The camera ran automatically under the fuselage, shooting the terrain every 17 seconds; the disc appeared only in one frame. Extensive scientific analysis has been performed on this image of an opaque disc with no visible means of propulsion. © Collection of Bernard Thouanel

It is an incandescent reflector lamp in a fixture, within the aircraft.

Note these features:
1. The reflector surface’s circular edge is visible as a dark line at the bottom and left edges of the disc. Mirrored surfaces will appear dark when reflecting light away from a viewer.
2. The glass bulb protrudes almost spherically so that the dark line (1) is visible through the glass.
3. A hemispherical filament shield, typical of projector lamps, is the dark round spot at the apex of the shadow ‘V’.
4. The support for the filament shield curves upward from the shield to the base (neck) of the bulb. It is not illuminated.
5. The shadow ‘V’ is precisely the shadow seen in a conical reflector.
6. A light lazy ‘Z’ just outside the left edge of the bulb is a common sheet-metal shape for the supporting fixture; the lazy ‘Z’ is the end of this ring of sheet metal, perhaps exposing the cut bare metal that is otherwise painted a dark color.
7. The focus varies within the image; it is better at the bottom and fairly poor at the top. Focus of a distant object, outside the aircraft, would not vary.

The seeming coincident of capturing an external object during a once-in-17-seconds exposure from a speeding aircraft is resolved by noting that the lamp would be inside the aircraft, where focus could be highly variable. The camera would be shooting through a window. The lamp would have been turned off, since the support for the filament shield is not illuminated. Another light source, turned on inadvertently for a few seconds, illuminated what may have been the only shiny object in the camera bay. It appeared as a result of a reflection in the window for (perhaps) only one frame.

I understand that, in a situation which may produce bewilderment and consternation, it is easy to mis-identify something. I have witnessed exactly that in my only encounter with a UFO.

I arrived home after sunset and stepped out of my car onto the driveway. There was a moderately loud throbbing sound. I tried to locate it, but there was no apparent direction. The sound seemed to come from all around. In a minute, I noticed the source of the sound: a large, cigar-shaped glowing object in the sky. It was moving appreciably. I recognized it immediately as a UFO.

I went to the front door and called for the Kids’ Mom and My Favorite Daughter to come outside. They noticed the throbbing as readily as I had. I intentionally allowed them to be puzzled by it briefly. Then I directed their attention to the sky.

They were astounded. It was absolutely inexplicable to them. It was not inexplicable to me. I allowed them to only become slightly concerned, and I identified the Unidentified Flying Object.

It was especially easy for me to do so, because I had encountered this UFO earlier in the day. It had followed the highway as I passed by, driving from Springfield to Joplin. It was the Goodyear Blimp. Our house was near the Joplin Airport, and it was orbiting near our house in preparation for landing.

The throbbing sound of the blimp’s engines was reflected by houses and trees, to seem omni-directional. The glowing cigar shape was due to illumination of the bottom of the blimp’s envelope by city lights. The top of the shiny envelope was not visible, because (with low specularity) it reflected city lights upward.

I do not accept, in a situation which is clinical and unemotional, that a ‘skeptical’ person would be oblivious to obvious evidence. When Kean looks at a photo, in an unthreatening and unemotional setting, and cannot see a light bulb, it demonstrates that she is bringing bewilderment and consternation with her.

♥ Help for Haiti ♥


Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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