Year: 2018

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

You may have heard that humans only use ten percent of their brain, and that if you could unlock the rest of your brainpower, you could do so much more. You could become a super genius, or acquire psychic powers like mind reading and telekinesis. This “ten-percent myth” has inspired many references in the cultural imagination. In the 2014 movie Lucy, for example, a woman develops godlike powers thanks to drugs that unleash the previously inaccessible 90 percent of her brain. Many people believe the myth, too: about 65 percent of Americans, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In another study that asked students what percentage of the brain people used, about one third of the psychology majors answered “10 percent.” Contrary to the ten-percent myth, however, scientists have shown that humans use their entire brain throughout each day. There are several threads of evidence debunking the ten-percent myth. Neuropsychology Neuropsychology studies how the anatomy of the brain affects someone’s behavior, emotion, and cognition. Over the years, brain …

Peru ends conversation of ‘roadless wilderness’ in its Amazon rainforests

Biodiversity reaches its zenith in south-east Peru. This vast wilderness of 2m square km of rainforests and savannahs is formed of the headwaters of three major river basins, the Juruá, Purús, and Madeira. Nowhere on Earth can you find more species of animals and plants than in this corner of the Amazon that rubs up against the feet of the towering Andean mountains. These forests are also home to a culturally diverse human population, many of whom still live in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. In 2012 I spent a hectic few days in the exhausting Madre de Dios region, literally Spanish for “Mother of God”. I was there at the invitation of the Peruvian tourist board, which wanted to raise awareness of the region’s potential. In the lush lowland rainforests our team of ornithologists recorded more than 240 bird species in a few hours. These included the Rufous-fronted Antthrush, a near-mythical sighting among birders and one of a number of vertebrate species discovered by scientists there in the second half of the …

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

As the Milky Way was growing, taking shape, and minding its own business around 10 billion years ago, it suffered a massive head-on collision with another, smaller galaxy. That cosmic cataclysm changed the Milky Way’s structure forever, shaping the thick spirals that spin out from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. Two new studies — one published earlier this month, another still under peer review — describe the evidence for this previously unnoticed event. “This is a big step forward,” said Elena D’Onghia, an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin who is unaffiliated with the new research. “It’s interesting because we can finally see what the history of the Milky Way is.” To uncover evidence of the collision so many eons later, astronomers have to work like galactic archaeologists, sifting through myriad sources of surviving information to piece together a story consistent with the available evidence. Both research teams relied on data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, which has spent years gathering exceptionally rich biographies of millions of stars — …

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

In the early days of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty … of a rich country inhabited by starving people.” Would any head of state today voice this view? A 2013 poll recorded that only 36% of Americans had “a lot” of trust that the information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. High-profile leaders, especially on the political right, have increasingly chosen to undermine conclusions of scientific consensus. The flash-points tend to be the “troubled technologies” – those that seem to threaten our delicate relationship with nature – climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetic therapy and geo-engineering. The polarisation in these public debates constitutes an implicit threat to the quality of decisions that we must make if we are to ensure the future well-being of our planet and our species. When political colour trumps evidence-based science, we are in trouble. Could it be that this increasingly dangerous ambivalence towards science in politics is related to our continued misgivings over its cultural …

What Is an Argument?

What Is an Argument?

When people create and critique arguments, it’s helpful to understand what an argument is and is not. Sometimes an argument is seen as a verbal fight, but that is not what is meant in these discussions. Sometimes a person thinks they are offering an argument when they are only providing assertions. What Is an Argument? Perhaps the simplest explanation of what an argument is comes from Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. …an argument is an intellectual process… contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. This may have been a comedy sketch, but it highlights a common misunderstanding: to offer an argument, you cannot simply make a claim or gainsay what others claim. An argument is a deliberate attempt to move beyond just making an assertion. When offering an argument, you are offering a series of related statements which represent an attempt to support that assertion — to give others good reasons to believe that what you …

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

It’s easy to say “be more skeptical” or “exercise better critical thinking,” but just how do you go about doing that? Where are you supposed to learn critical thinking? Learning skepticism isn’t like learning history — it’s not a set of facts, dates, or ideas. Skepticism is a process; critical thinking is something you do. The only way to learn skepticism and critical thinking is by doing them… but to do them, you have to learn them. How can you break out of this endless circle? Learn the Basics: Logic, Arguments, Fallacies Skepticism may be a process, but it’s a process that relies on certain principles about what constitutes good and bad reasoning. There’s no substitute for the basics, and if you think you already know all the basics, that’s probably a good sign that you need to review them. Even professionals who work on logic for a living get things wrong! You don’t need to know as much as a professional, but there are so many different fallacies that can be used in so many …

A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked

A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked

In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently? Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you? Today, 16 questions like this comprise the vark questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.  (“I learned much later that vark is Dutch for “pig,” Fleming wrote later, “and I could not get a website called vark.com because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!”) …

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception. These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a new study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things. First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?” Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer. The third finding reported in the study is by …

When Leaving Your Religion Means Losing Your Children

When Leaving Your Religion Means Losing Your Children

Chavie Weisberger was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, N.Y., and was forced to marry a man she barely knew when she was 19. The couple had three children, but when she began to question her faith and sexuality, she and her husband divorced – and she almost lost her children. The case is highlighting how New York courts handle divorce and custody issues for the state’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. While Weisberger’s case was reversed on appeal last August – she has now regained full custody of her children – it brings to light the issues that arise when secular courts decide child custody in the religious community. People who leave the Hasidic community are often shunned by their family and friends, but they also are often forced to fight for their children, says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, a social services organization that provides social and financial services for those transitioning to a secular lifestyle. “Time and time again, the argument of best interest of the child, as interpreted as …

Using a Sphere to Talk to Mars?

It’s hard to send a message from Mars. When the Curiosity rover, currently active on the surface of the red planet, has something to tell NASA back on Earth, it formulates its communication in binary code and beams it our way. Noise inevitably creeps in during the long transmission, so that the message received by NASA is different from the one the rover sent. At that point it’s a game of telephone, as NASA engineers make their best guess about what Curiosity was trying to tell them. The situation from Mars is an exaggerated version of what happens whenever a message is communicated through any noisy channel — be it from a flash drive to your computer or an air traffic control tower to an airplane. In each case, the receiver has to estimate what the sender meant to say. One way to ensure that the message gets through is to use a geometric way of packaging information called a “spherical code.” A spherical code is a way of translating a message written in one …