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Smarter than thou?

by Donald Prothero on Jul 30 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Real Time with Bill Maher", July 25, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, July 25, 2014

In a previous post, I commented on how the Religious Right got upset when “Cosmos” aired last spring. They were angry when “Cosmos” mentioned Giordano Bruno or scientists who were persecuted by religious extremists during their pursuit of truth. They recoiled in horror at  how often “Cosmos” reminded us of our cosmic insignificance  compared to the scale of the universe, or from the perspective of geologic time. They raged about the fact that “Cosmos” spent an entire episode on on evolution, and the topic of evolution came up repeatedly. And lots of pro-business types hated the episode about Clair Patterson’s lonely fight against the lead manufacturers, who were invisibly polluting the world and poisoning us all. The climate deniers hated that “Cosmos” mentioned anthropogenic global warming many times.

Nonetheless, most of the reviews for “Cosmos” were overwhelmingly positive and there’s good reason to think that it reached much of its target audience, and inspired a lot of people to think about scientific questions in a way that hasn’t  happened since the original Sagan version of “Cosmos.” I have been rejoicing at the recent resurgence in the media popularity of science and evolution lately, especially after Bill Nye’s defeat of Ken Ham, the great response to Neil Shubin’s PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish,” and of course, the huge popularity of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos”.  Finally, we have several major scientists (Nye, Tyson, Shubin) who are popular in the media, especially on trendy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” as well as national news networks like MSNBC and CNN. They are national celebrities for all the right reasons (smart, articulate, telling people the truth about science and the world), rather than being famous because of reality TV or sports or entertainment. They are becoming widely known, and doing a great job of promoting science against the tidal wave of junk science and pseudoscience in the media. There hasn’t been such high-profile popularity of scientists since the days of Sagan himself. It’s about time! (continue reading…)


TAM 2014: the mind of the science denier

by Donald Prothero on Jul 23 2014
Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

It’s been just over a week since I returned, exhausted but inspired and excited, from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014 in the South Point Hotel south of Las Vegas. The meeting was a great success, with nearly 1200 attendees, and an excellent slate of speakers including Bill Nye the Science Guy (who talked about his debate with Ken Ham and gave me a nice shout-out for helping him), Genie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and many others. This year, the theme was “Skepticism and the Brain,” so the speakers including a lot of the leading lights of psychology and neurophysiology, including Elizabeth Loftus (who  has shown that human memory is highly unreliable, and usually false), Robert Kurzban (talking about the modular mind), Carol Tavris (talking about cognitive dissonance), and many others. My friend and co-author Daniel Loxton gave an amazing talk about skepticism and why it’s important (it got rave reviews and a standing ovation). Many of the participants thought that this was one of the best TAMs ever, because it largely stuck to a consistent theme, rather than giving a scattershot slate of speakers on widely divergent topics. Plus there were the usual wild evening activities, including another installment of Penn Jillette’s inimitable Rock’n’Roll, Doughnut and Bacon party. (continue reading…)


Bigfoot and Yeti DNA: results are in

by Donald Prothero on Jul 16 2014

For years now, we’ve been hearing about Bigfoot believer Melba Ketchum and her supposed results on “Bigfoot DNA”. As reported elsewhere, the results were a bust: the analysis was done incompetently, her reasoning was full of holes and bad science, and she failed to account for a lot of organisms in her sample (such as the American opossum) that explained her “unknowns” that she was calling “Bigfoot.” Not only that, but her paper failed peer review, so she self-published it in a journal she secretly owned, so she gets money every time someone forks up $40 to go past the paywall and read it. Most competent DNA labs are busy with real science, and don’t have the time or money to waste on side trips into pseudoscience, which their grants are not paying for. (continue reading…)


Rock of ages—or ages of rocks?

by Donald Prothero on Jul 09 2014

I am leaving for The Amazing Meeting this morning (I speak at 11:00 on Sunday, if you’re attending), but I had dinner with Bill Nye last night (who is a keynote speaker at TAM). We got to talking about his victory over Ken  Ham in the debate last February 4. The week before the debate, both the NCSE and Michael Shermer and I had helped coach him on what to expect and  how to approach the event. During our session at Shermer’s house, Bill was especially interested in having me explain how radiometric dating worked, and how to  handle creationist lies about it. In the debate, Bill did the smart thing and give example after example of clear-cut things that demonstrated the earth was older than 6000 years: tree rings and the oldest trees, ice cores that have 680,000 continuous seasonal bands recorded in them, objects that are  hundreds to millions of light-years away, etc. However, he was stumped when Ham dragged out a long-debunked creationist trope about a volcanic lava in Australia dated at 45 m.y. which surrounded trees which were radiocarbon dated at 40,000 years old. In such a short coaching session, it was not possible to explain to him about every creationist distortion of radiometric dating. Luckily, the example slipped past the attention of the audience quickly, and made no difference in the long run (nor did any specific point—as I said before, the debate was about perception and winning “hearts and minds”). (continue reading…)


Unpersuadable—and unscientific

by Donald Prothero on Jul 02 2014

A review of The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr (2014, Overlook Press, New York).

Most of us long-term skeptics have had our share of run-ins with people who cling stubbornly to a particular dogma. We get frustrated that no amount of evidence or strong arguments ever changes their point of view. The pattern is true whether you’re dealing with religious beliefs (from creationism to various Eastern religious ideas), or paranormal beliefs (UFO nuts, psychics, ghosts, cryptozoology) or just plain pseudoscience and bad scholarship (homeopathy, past-life regression, Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers, and many others). Reporter Will Storr decided to go deep into the heart of these various fringe and non-scientific belief systems, interviewing the major figures, taking part in their rituals, and doing his best to give them a fair shake as he embeds himself into their culture. (continue reading…)


From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success

by Donald Prothero on Jun 25 2014
The "CUSS-1" ship, the first ocean drilling vessel, and the prototype for the Glomar Challenger

The “CUSS-1″ ship, the first ocean drilling vessel, and the prototype for the Glomar Challenger

Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.

—Charles Kettering

Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.

—Stephen Jay Gould

Most people hear only about the successful experiments in science. What is usually not reported is the fact that for every scientific success, there may be numerous failures and false leads and blind alleys. Most people would find this discouraging, but scientists learn early in their careers that one has to expect a number of failed experiments that can lead us to better ideas. As philosophers of science pointed out long ago, science is about testing and falsifying hypotheses. No number of positive or consistent observations can ever prove a statement true (e.g., “all swans are white”) but a single contradictory observation (e.g., the Australian black swan) can easily prove the statement false. Likewise, every failed experiment points the scientist toward a new direction or a new hypothesis or new experiment, which may eventually prove fruitful. Science is a process of trial and error, and scientists need patience, persistence and determination to reach good results after many letdowns.

Nearly every field in science can point to examples of this. Even after 35 years of doing magnetic stratigraphy, not every locality where I have done paleomagnetic sampling produced good results. The data from those unsuccessful studies are sitting in my file cabinets and the hard drive of the lab computer, but I won’t bother working on them further or try to report them in a publication. Occasionally, I’ll mention in print that a particular area (like the Chadron Formation in the Big Badlands, or the Titus Canyon Formation near Death Valley) produced no good paleomagnetic results, but further discussion is usually not worth writing up.

Likewise, looking for vertebrate fossils is usually a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Most paleontologists must spend days or weeks in a field to find anything, and sometimes several field seasons can go by with no worthwhile results. My graduate advisor Malcolm McKenna spent several years collecting his dissertation area at Four Mile Creek in northwestern Colorado before finding good specimens. Louis and Mary Leakey spent decades collecting in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and found plenty of Pliocene-Pleistocene pigs and antelopes and elephants, but not a signal human fossil until their remarkable find of “Zinjanthropus” (now Paranthropus) boisei in 1959. But if paleontologists were not so determined and dedicated, there would be few fossils in museums for us to study.

(continue reading…)


Ken Ham’s ark is going down, going down, going down…

by Donald Prothero on Jun 17 2014
The allosaur "Ebenezer" with "geologist" Andrew Snelling, Ken Ham, and racist Michael Peroutka, the donor

The allosaur “Ebenezer” with “geologist” Andrew Snelling, Ken Ham, and racist Michael Peroutka, the donor

There’s a sucker born every minute.

—Attributed to P.T. Barnum

The crazy story of Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization and their ambitious plans keeps getting stranger and stranger. Just a few weeks ago, Ham crowed about having a real Allosaurus skeleton (nicknamed Ebenezer) on display in his Creation “Museum”—a sad loss of an important specimen to science. Not only will it have no sound scientific data to accompany it, but instead it’s going to have the weird pseudoscience of creationist “flood geology” used to interpret it, and provides the creationists with something to brag about. The Creation “Museum” is having their resident “flood geologist” Andrew Snelling study the specimen—even though he doesn’t have any training in paleontology, doesn’t know one bone from another, and obtained his only legitimate training in uranium geology. As blogger Artiofab discovered, the collection was done on a ranch in Colorado by a bunch of creationist students and home-schoolers, and no one with legitimate training in paleontology, taphonomy or sedimentary geology involved or collecting proper data—just “flood geologists” with their distorted view of the geologic record.

As blogger Artiofab commented:

As you can see from photographs of Ebenezer, this specimen no longer has its original preservation; each skeletal element has been prepared out of matrix, presumably during the more than ten years that its private owners had access to it. Have samples of the matrix been saved for future geochemical work on the depositional environment of Ebenezer? If not, then this data is gone, and Ebenezer is devoid of environmental data.Without information from the Creation “Museum”, I have no way of knowing how data-deficient Ebenezer is. Ebenezer could have field notes, photographs of the excavation, and rock matrix samples stored away somewhere. If Ebenezer has these things, then Ebenezer is useful to science. If Ebenezer does not, then Ebenezer is useless scientifically.

(continue reading…)


“COSMOS” concludes

by Donald Prothero on Jun 11 2014


Ep 1 of Cosmos, “Waking Up in the Milky Way” aired 14 weeks ago. Those TV signals are now entering the Oort Cloud of comets.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson

After 14 weeks, “Cosmos” has finally aired all its original 13 episodes (with one week off on Memorial Day weekend). Now that it’s over, we can step back and assess it for its intrinsic value, and also for its possible effects on culture.

When Episode 1 first aired, there were a mix of reactions. Most of us were overwhelmingly positive about what we saw in the first episode, with the state-of-the art special effects as they tour the universe contrasted with the deliberately crude animations that portray historical figures and events. There were a lot of nitpickers who were horrified about the small scientific errors in the first episode. True, there should be no sound in the vacuum of space, and the asteroid belt or the Oort cloud are not as tightly packed with objects as the animation suggests. But most reviewers regarded those things as minor errors which don’t detract from the overall message, and are only noticeable to the relevant experts. The nitpickers missing the point: Modern lay audiences, conditioned by generations of  sci-fi movies with dense clusters of objects and sound in space, wouldn’t even know how to comprehend something which was TOO accurate. Personally, I would have liked to have seen them be more careful about particular geological and paleontological details. I cringed when they put Early Permian Dimetrodon in the landscape of the Late Permian extinction, and other prehistoric anachronisms; I wish someone had coached them to pronounce Bruce Heezen’s name properly (HAY-zen, NOT HEE-zen); I wish they had presented a more pluralistic and accurate account of the Cretaceous extinctions, instead of the simplistic “asteroid did it—end of story” version so popular in the media, but not supported by the evidence. (continue reading…)


The legacy of the Exxon Valdez disaster

by Donald Prothero on Jun 04 2014
A bird dying of oil

A bird dying of oil

Last March was the 25th anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history: the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It was such a huge leak that it permanently changed the policies of the U.S. Government about shipping oil in U.S. waters, and changed the attitude of many Americans about the risks of huge, hard-to-maneuver supertankers operating in close to shore. More importantly, it galvanized the environmental movement for many years, and forced many Americans to reassess our voracious consumption of oil (even though this was Alaskan oil, not foreign oil). Among U.S. oil spills, only the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was worse in terms of total amount of oil leaked into the ocean.

The facts of the disaster are mostly straightforward. Near midnight on March 24, 1989, the gigantic oil tanker Exxon Valdez was carrying 55 million gallons of crude oil, pumped from up in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and then shipped from Valdez Harbor, on its way to Long Beach, California. As it was maneuvering through the rocky waters of Prince William Sound, only the third mate was awake and in control of the ship, and he was sleep-deprived. At 12:04 a.m. in the dead of night, the ship hit Bligh Reef, tore a huge hole in the hull, and immediately began leaking hundreds of barrels of oil.   (continue reading…)


The Profound Awfulness of Discovery’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives

by Daniel Loxton on Jun 01 2014

Tonight sees the premiere of a two-hour Discovery Channel Monster Week “documentary,” Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives. With its horror movie trappings, it makes a sensationalist hash out of a genuine historical mystery—the tragic deaths of nine hikers in the Ural mountains in February of 1959. Known as the “Dyatlov Pass incident,” this unsolved cold case has unusual aspects that give it something of an air of the inexplicable, leading to the rise of conspiracy theories and paranormal speculations. Notably, though the bodies of the hikers were eventually recovered by a search party, they were found scattered over a large area in states of partial undress, as though they had fled their tents in the night in a panic. Perhaps, some speculate, they were running from someone—or something? Cue X-Files theme.

I shouldn’t snark. It’s ghoulish to make hay from the untimely deaths of other people—in this case, people who have surviving loved ones today. But mystery-mongering television programs have rarely found a tragedy they weren’t willing to exploit—and distort.

(continue reading…)


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