Cognitive Dissonance On Display

Cognitive dissonance can be a powerful thing. Many people, when faced with information or evidence that contradicts something that they’ve believed or worked on for a long time will react in some very odd, and often counter-productive ways. There are many examples on the net of people pretending that contradictory evidence simply doesn’t exist. Watch Corny’s site (again, my fave ’cause he’s just plain hilarious) for awhile, and especially read the comments to see many times many examples of this. Others will react with anger and outrage at any hint that such and such is true when it’s been so obvious for so long to them that it’s not. I suspect that many homophobes (read: closet cases) like Rekers fall into this category.

Having said that, it’s rare to see such a thing laid bare. Often you can determine when cognitive dissonance is a factor only after spending a bit of time with the person and seeing how they react to what is said. But there are times, and they don’t happen often, when a statement is made which clearly and concisely lays out exactly where the dissonance is at.

Such a statement appeared in a recent LA Times story entitled “AP IMPACT: After 40 years, $1 trillion, US War on Drugs has failed to meet any of its goals“. Needless to say it doesn’t have many kind things to say about US drug policy. But the quote that really got to me, the one that so clearly exposes a mans cognitive dissonance was a statement made by John P. Walters, the former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. the Drug Czar. In the story he’s quoted as saying the following:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

My response is “Exactly!”

But of course he is unable to face the fact that any of those “ridiculous” ideas could possibly by true. So he does what he must to prove it, at least to himself.

Here’s how his logic works: If US drug policy has not been working then all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. Since they obviously have not been wasting their time, US drug policy must be working. If US drug policy has not been working then all these people’s work has been misguided. Since it has obviously not been misguided, US drug policy must be working.

And of course if you turn it around the same logic applies. If these people have been wasting their time, then it must be because US drug policy is not working. Since US drug policy is working, they must not be wasting their time. It’s a nice little loop tied around his brain so that each one proves the other and he can always be right.

It’s Literally Nothing

Reflection Nebula NGC 1999
Source: Hubblesite.org

I’ve seen this image several times, and thanks to a lot of Terry Pratchett books and a bit of pareidolia, I always thought that this looked kind of like a silhouette of the Great A’Tuin emerging from the mists of  another universe. Still too far away and obscured by clouds to make out the elephants and the disc, you can nevertheless make out the head and the beginning of his shell. And of course the sun that orbits his mighty body is the cause of the back-lighting.

Now, quite apart from the fantastic image that I created in my own head, I always just figured that the silhouette was actually created by some kind of dense dust cloud getting in the way of the light behind it. The shape was surely an accident of history and all the dust and gas thrown off by some star or galaxy formed what looks to me like a giant turtle, and what must look to others like an amorphous blob, or as Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, says “it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter”.

Then Phil Plait pointed out that things are not as they seem.

Herschel finds a hole in space
Source: European Space Agency

This is an image of a slightly larger area of the sky viewed in the infrared. You shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at this image exactly where the original image was because it shouldn’t look even remotely the same. The dark clouds of dust and gas that usually cause what look like empty spaces in…um…space block the visible spectrum of light, but they are usually still hot, and so glow in the infrared. A’tuin should be glowing just like everything else in this image. And yet I can see clearly that he is part of the green blob at the top of the image. Why is that?

It turns out that it’s not glowing because there’s nothing there to glow. A’tuin still appears in the image because he was literally never there to begin with. The silhouette was never a silhouette at all, but a whole different kind of black hole. It’s a big area of nothingness in the middle of that bright cloud of somethingness.

This is why I love science. How quickly and completely does our universe change with just a little bit of information! Things that we could clearly see and thought we understood turn out to not only be different than we thought, but may in fact turn out to have never actually existed in the first place!

Where The Hell Have You Been, Man?

The long hiatus is over. After a multitude of family issues coupled with a deep abiding commitment to procrastination I’m finally back to posting on my blog. I’m going to start off slowly. For now I’ll just put forth an observation that I made a while back in a debate with a creationist.

The Cambrian Explosion, in which multitudes of new species began to appear in the fossil record is considered to have happened so amazingly fast (only a few million years) that many consider it a refutation of evolution all it’s own. Meanwhile, the fact that we haven’t directly observed a single speciation event* in the 150 years since Darwin is also refutation of evolution. In other words a few million years isn’t enough time for evolution to work, but 150 years is so much time that if evolution worked we’d have seen it directly by now.

* I’m going to steal another guys references here. Over at Corny’s blog (a favorite of mine…he’s hilarious) someone posted a bunch of references to directly observed speciation events. Please note that, being the lazy bastard that I am I didn’t actually go to verify any of these, so feel free to mock me mercilessly for being an evolutionist tool if these turn out to be bogus.

Sympatric ecological speciation meets pyrosequencing: sampling the transcriptome of the apple maggot Rhagoletis pomonella.
BMC Genomics. 2009 Dec 27;10:633.

Rapid evolution and selection inferred from the transcriptomes of sympatric crater lake cichlid fishes.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20331780
Mol Ecol. 2010 Mar;19 Suppl 1:197-211.

Adaptive radiations: from field to genomic studies.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19528644
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jun 16;106 Suppl 1:9947-54. Epub 2009

Evolution in the Drosophila ananassae species subgroup.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19377294
Fly (Austin). 2009 Apr-Jun;3(2):157-69. Epub 2009 Apr 12.

Ahearn, J. N. 1980. Evolution of behavioral reproductive isolation in a laboratory stock of Drosophila silvestris. Experientia. 36:63-64.

Boraas, M. E. 1983. Predator induced evolution in chemostat culture. EOS. Transactions of the American Geophysical Union. 64:1102.

Crossley, S. A. 1974. Changes in mating behavior produced by selection for ethological isolation between ebony and vestigial mutants of Drosophilia melanogaster. Evolution. 28:631-647.

Dobzhansky, T. and O. Pavlovsky. 1971. Experimentally created incipient species of Drosophila. Nature. 230:289-292.