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Last Friday, a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma killed scientist Tim Samaras, as well as his son and a colleague. The three were tracking the storm in a vehicle — storm chasing, if you will — as part of their ongoing efforts to deploy probes that could capture high-resolution video from inside a tornado. (Samaras' team was one of many practicing a type of science that can basically be described as Twister in real life.) Chasing storms was an important part of what Samaras did. National Geographic reports that tornadoes only developed in roughly two of every 10 storms Samaras tracked, and the probes were only useful in a fraction of the tornadoes they were deployed in.
Samaras' death is tragic, but he wasn't some untrained yahoo out running around on county roads in a tornado for fun. He was there to do a job; a job that would, eventually, help other people survive. That said, if a situation kills experts, you probably don't want to be that untrained person trying to navigate it on your own.
Which brings us to a key point. After a handful of people who survived the Moore tornado credited their survival to driving away from it, people in Oklahoma City apparently responded to Friday's storms by trying to do the same thing. For some, it worked. But others were killed or injured when traffic on highways in the tornado's path ground to a complete halt, clogged with cars full of people who were (either accidentally or intentionally) trying to flee the storm instead of hide from it.
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This image shows fewer than 400 of the 1600+ dire wolf skulls found in the La Brea Tar Pits — natural seepages of asphalt that trapped thousands upon thousands of animals over centuries. Like most of you, I was familiar with what the tar pits were. But, until I visited last week, I hadn't really had a grasp of just how many animal remains have been found there. Seriously, the place is lousy with bones. As in, chunks of partially excavated asphalt look more like jumbles of bone held together with some hardened goop.
For the record, dire wolves really did exist, and they really were larger than modern wolves — but not as much larger as you might imagine from reading Game Of Thrones. There's a lot of overlap in the Bell Curves here, with the average dire wolf probably having been about the same size as the larger specimens of modern grey wolves.
Meanwhile, there are people trying to breed a dog that fits the fantasy of pet dire wolves — really big, really wolfy, and yet somehow well-behaved. It is not, however, terribly like the real-life dire wolf, in looks or genetics.
Scientific American has a great video that quickly explains the basics of tornado formation — facts that also help explain why some parts of the country, including Oklahoma, are more prone to tornadoes than others. You'll also learn about worst tornado in recorded history, which killed more than 700 people.
The photo above was taken near Moore, Oklahoma yesterday. My father lives in Oklahoma City (thankfully, outside the path of this monster), and this shot comes from a friend of a friend of his, who wished to remain anonymous.
I have a personal Facebook account, which I use to keep up with friends and family. Like many of you, I've also discovered that this gives me a peek inside the psyche of those friends and family — and one of the things that I saw was an interest (and sometimes belief in) conspiracy theories. It wasn't limited to the Right or the Left. And it definitely wasn't limited to people I love but consider a little "off", if you know what I'm saying.* Over and over, I saw perfectly rational, sane people, supporting and spreading ideas that, to me, seemed a little nuts.
And that made me curious: Where do conspiracy theories come from? The answer, according to psychologists and sociologists, is not "Glenn Beck's fevered imagination." In fact, the category "people who believe in conspiracy theories" can't even really be separated into The Other in a nice, neat way. If you look at the data, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are us. And those theories grow out of both historical context, our feelings about ourselves and the wider world, and the way that our brains respond to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. Here's a short excerpt from my most recent column for The New York Times Magazine:
While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.
Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.
*This joke is totally going to get me into trouble. Dear friends and family: Trust me, you are not the one I'm referring to here.