Squirrels Crossing the Street & Selective Thinking

On my way to work this last Monday I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed as if squirrels at the side of the road would wait until the van was almost upon them before rushing across the street in a mad suicidal dash.

Would it be a valid inference to conclude that the local squirrel population was hell-bent on destroying itself, or that the presence of an oncoming vehicle made them risk their lives in this manner, to become road pizza? I suspect not, fortunately for the majority of the urban tree-dwelling wildlife gene pool.

It turns out that I was engaging in a sort of self-deception known as confirmation bias, and since the sight of small animals running across the street stands out more than the vast majority that don’t rush out in front of oncoming traffic, it’s easier to notice and remember, as per the following observation by Francis Bacon:

It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.

Events that are more cognitively significant, and forgetting, for not having paid much attention to those fauna that stay off the road, is a typical example of this error.

Confirmation bias is a form of selective thinking in which one remembers, more closely considers, or looks for observations affirmative to one’s beliefs, and forgetting, dismissing, ignoring or downplaying data that contradict one’s beliefs. It’s the human tendency to ‘count the hits and ignore the misses,’ and something we all do if we aren’t careful.

Confirmation bias is one reason for many paranormal and occult beliefs, such as that of the powers of alleged psychics, who often use cold reading techniques such as shotgunning, where a lot of random guesses, some of them highly likely to be true for almost anyone (common names, numbers, dates, etc.), are made, during which the psychic relies on his or her subject to forget or dismiss the incorrect guesses and keep in mind only the ones that subjectively seem accurate, thus seeming to the subject to possess special knowledge obtainable only by paranormal means, while really relying on verbal and non-verbal feedback cues unknowingly given by the subject.

This tendency is also responsible for belief in so-called lunar effects, such as the supposed increase in hospital admissions during nights of a full moon, such things as childbirths, or injury from accident or violence. Some hospital staff will pay more notice to those admissions during a full moon, and pay little or no mind to those times during a full moon when admissions aren’t high as being the exceptions that prove the rule.

A perusal of hospital admission records over time will reveal nothing special about these nights. So if I document my observations of the road on the way to work more carefully, and go back over them later, it speaks much better for the survival instincts of the local squirrels that they aren’t risking their lives to become roadkill as much as they seem to be through casual observation. Fnord.

(Last Updated 16:20, 10/30/2009: Grammar & Verbiage Corrections)


I was looking through my comments, and found this little gem posted as a response to one of my old video entries on Out of Body Experiences. I thought it might be fun to post it here where you all can see it for yourselves and try to figure out exactly what this guy is saying. Let me know if you’re just as perplexed as my Troythuluness was. Do try not to ridicule though: the man is obviously psychologically disturbed and mental illness is not funny. Except for the deletion of personal data, this comment is verbatim:

The fact that the brain received magnetic fields does not proved that the brain “created the experiences”.
Our soul receives physical imput through our senses and the brain. It is logical that our soul reacts to the magnetic input.
This experiment does not prove that the brain can cause our soul to be on another country instantaneously, telepathy, etc.
It’s like saying “by typing in the keyboard of this computer I conclude that the keyboard is responsible to make me go to any website in the internet.”

Besides, there is a huge physical evidence of existance of ghosts (is that caused by our brains too?). Are the brains of animals useless? Only ours are good?

We are not a physical body, we are powerful “energy” beings connected in a huge multidimensional/multiuniverse network that some people call “God”.

Claudio [personal data redacted], and OBE traveler like everybody else (with different “awareness/focus levels”, that’s it).

So, what do you think? I couldn’t make any sense of it. Let me know in the comments…

(Last updated 10:04, 10/24/2009)

WTF?! The LHC & Sabotage by the Future?

Here’s something a friend forwarded to me the other day (thanks, Chris) with the original article on Fox News. I’ve heard of some wacky ideas before, and I’ll admit that my first thought was, ‘If these guys are actually claiming this, what the h— are they smoking and where can I find some?!’

But no, it seems like they’re serious…

Physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya are saying that nature itself is trying to keep the Large Hadron Collider from finding the Higgs boson, the so-called ‘god particle,’ that could explain the existence of mass in the universe.

They claim that their math proves nature will ‘ripple backward through time’ to stop the LHC before it can create the Higgs boson, like a time traveller who goes back in time to kill his grandfather. Doctor Nielsen himself says, in an unpublished essay:

One could even almost say that we have a model for God. He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.

Personally, I think that this can be chalked up to the fact that the LHC is perhaps the most complex machine ever produced by humans, and the more complex the machine, the more ways for something to go wrong, and the more frequently something will.

It seems to me that the ‘mysterious’ bad luck is really nothing mysterious at all.

This is true of any complex system, not requiring us to invoke temporal jinxes or sabotage by the universe itself in violation of parsimony, though David Overbye in the New York Times says:

While it is a paradox to go back in time and kill your grandfather, physicists agree there is no paradox if you go back in time and save him from being hit by a bus.

Oh, really? I think perhaps not. Assuming that time travel can change the past, what if in the unchanged past, he was hit by a bus? (after he sired your mother or father of course…).

Sorry, but I suspect that that probably would cause a paradox, (unless, of course, I’m wrong, and that’s what happened to begin with, and the perceived ‘alteration’ of the past is already incorporated into the time stream, and paradoxes simply aren’t possible thus allowing travel to the past).

For a more fantastical and entertaining take on some of the possibilities, I refer you to the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who episode ‘Fathers Day.’ Furthermore, Overbye continues…

In the case of the Higgs and the Collider, it is as if something is going back in time to keep the universe from being hit by a bus.

…and finally, says Dr. Nielsen…

It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck.

This ‘prediction,’ such as it is, and its implication that the Higgs boson is somehow dangerous to the Universe, seems suspiciously similar to the doomsday claims of Earth-swallowing black holes and strangelets that have come and gone. Needless to say, I’m skeptical, since I don’t believe in luck or in doomsday prognostications.

It sounds to me like an argument from final consequences, a logical reversal of cause and effect. Is it science or is it just speculation with only equations to show for it and no way to empirically verify it other than that suggested in the NYT article?

Can the method they’ve proposed to test it actually work? Or is their idea not even a hypothesis, just a mathematical model?

Even using a random number generator to ‘discern bad luck from the future’ statistically seems likely to produce the same artifacts and statistical noise I’ve come to know and love in parapsychology, but that’s not a fair comparison—I have my doubts that the researchers at CERN are given to creatively massaging their statistics in the manner of at least one of the better-known parapsychologists, like the chap who did the study on magic chocolate.

Generally speaking, most particle physicists tend to be a professionally honest lot, because if they aren’t someone else will be.

On the other hand, Nielsen and Ninomiya just might be right, though I’d wait until their research is tested & peer-reviewed, checked & confirmed by others before rendering my provisional assent. Fnord.

(Last updated 18:08, 11/5/2009)

Baloney Detection 101: Double-Blind Testing

English: Claude Bernard.

English: Claude Bernard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most important advancements in scientific methodology, dating from it’s development in the mid-19th century, is the double-blind protocol, a method of testing in which neither the experimenter nor the subjects are aware of certain key variables in the study, like the identity of the control group and the test group.

First proposed by one Claude Bernard, a physiologist, it was a radical departure from an earlier attitude that only trained scientists were qualified to conduct experiments. Double-blinding has the benefit of side-stepping the problems of experimenter biases and expectation, and is a superior method overall to single-blinded studies, and not only in medical research.

It is highly useful in the physical sciences as well, such as the incident in the early 1900s with the alleged discovery of N-Rays by René Blondlot at the University of Nancy in France: Just previously, X-Rays had been discovered, and Blondlot believed he had uncovered yet another form of radiation, N-Rays.

It turned out that when a double-blind test of the methods to produce N-Rays was covertly conducted by a visiting American physicist, Robert W. Wood, that detection of them was simply the result of subjective misperception — they did not actually exist — caused by the prior belief and expectation to see them by Blondlot and his associates.

During the double-blinding procedure, key components of the instruments thought to produce the rays were modified. Blondlot saw the rays when they should not have been there (an aluminum prism, thought to refract the rays, was secretly removed) by his own belief in how they should behave, and were not seen when they should have been (a lead screen was removed from one such test, unknown to him) had they been real.

Double-blind procedures were a revolutionary idea when first proposed, and are occasionally even done in paranormal research, though the studies have an annoying tendency when so done to produce negative results, often well within the boundaries of chance when independently conducted.

Even those with pro-paranormal sympathies at the time, when they are both honest and competent, produce such results in experiments, which sometimes leads a few of them to adopt a more skeptical stance, even if they continue to truly believe in psychic phenomena shortly after the original failed study.

In any case, double-blinding is one of the many methods of science used to ferret out the secrets of Nature, and the secrets of human test-subjects in a manner that allows a more objective examination of whether something actually works, on what, how, and to what degree. It’s was a truly remarkable development when it was conceived and even now one of the best of many scientific methods. It will likely be around much longer until a better system is discovered in that evolving social enterprise we call science.

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