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“COSMOS” concludes

by Donald Prothero, 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…)

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The legacy of the Exxon Valdez disaster

by Donald Prothero, 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…)

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How many real creationists are there?

by Donald Prothero, May 28 2014
When you break down the polls and question Americans about their acceptance of specific scientific ideas like continental drift and animal evolution, a much higher percentage are NOT creationists

When you break down the polls and question Americans about their acceptance of specific scientific ideas like continental drift and animal evolution, a much higher percentage are NOT creationists

For decades now, the Gallup Poll has surveyed Americans about their belief in evolution and creation. Year in and year out, the numbers seem to remain constant: about 40-45% of Americans appear to be Young-Earth creationists (YEC). The exact phrasing of the question is as follows:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings: human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life and God guided this process, human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life, but God had no part in this process, or God created human beings in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

For decades about 44% of the respondents agree to the last answer (YEC), another 37% chose the first answer (theistic evolution, ID creationist), and only 12% favor the second answer (non-theistic evolution). Gallup wrote these questions decades ago before there was much understanding of how the framing of a question can bias the answer, and for decades, they have kept the question the same so comparisons remain consistent. But social scientists know that polls can be very misleading, especially in the way the question is framed to force certain responses. For example, the Gallup poll only gives us three possibilities, and load two of the answers with “God”, which is an obvious bias right from the start. In addition, there is good evidence to suggest that human evolution is the real sticking point, and that most people don’t care one way or another if non-human creatures evolve or not. What if we asked people what they thought about specific scientific ideas, independent of emotional issues like “God” and “humans”?

(continue reading…)

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Holly-weird science

by Donald Prothero, May 21 2014

As I wind down the semester teaching six different classes in introductory geology and oceanography at three different colleges, I’ve found myself explaining in nearly every lecture the difference between the real world and the popular mythology that appears in the movies, television, and the cartoons. Since nearly everything the general public thinks they know about science seems to come from bad Hollywood movies and TV shows, it’s not surprising that these myths are perpetuated, and our scientific literacy is so abysmal.

This is not a new topic, of course. Physicists and astronomers have long complained how badly most sci fi movies and TV and novels mangle science (starting with the impossibility of transmitting sound in the vacuum of space, which nearly all the space movies get wrong—but explosions without sound simply don’t do it for today’s audiences). I know of some geology departments that have “Bad geology movie” nights, where they play older films and laugh at all the ridiculous things they say about the earth. (In fact, nearly every Hollywood movie gets the geology all wrong). But I’ve been a scientist since I was hooked on dinosaurs at age 4, and consequently I’ve never enjoyed movies that distort or violate the rules of science. Websites like document the wide range of stupid or silly things that show up regularly in movies or TV, and how little reality or science influences the decisions of scriptwriters. Of course, this is basic Scriptwriting 101: the story arc of the plot, the development and interaction of characters, and many other things take priority over keeping the movie within the bounds of scientific reality. I’ve been a scientific consultant on enough shows to know that what I say is only a guideline, and the story and characters take precedence over reality. Still, in many or most cases, the movie  plot would work just fine with a realistic portrayal of science, but that rarely happens. After all, screen writers tend to be no more literate about science than their audiences, so to a large extent they don’t know that all these cliched ideas are false—and most don’t seem to care, even if it is explained to them. As puts it, it’s the “Rule of Cool”: audiences will forgive gross scientific inaccuracies and completely implausible action if it makes the movie more spectacular and enjoyable. (continue reading…)

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The woman who saw beneath oceans

by Donald Prothero, May 14 2014


Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2012)

For almost 70 years we have seen the large maps and globes showing the topography of the world’s oceans and continents, and taken them for granted. The map of the world’s land topography was a hard-won accomplishment made by generations of surveyors and cartographers, gradually improved and refined during the golden ages of exploration in the 1700s and 1800s. But before 1957, over 70% of the earth’s surface was simply unknown. Maps of the world’s oceans showed a few islands on a patch of solid blue, and not much else. Whatever was beneath the ocean’s surface was terra incognita. For the longest time, people thought that trilobites still roamed the seafloor, or that the entire seafloor was a flat featureless plain. Surprisingly, virtually all of the undersea world we now take for granted was mapped by one person! Even more remarkably, that person was a woman in an age where women had few opportunities in science. And sadly, despite the fact that she mapped more of our planet’s surface than any other person in history, her name is virtually unknown except to a few scientists. Fortunately, with the May 4 episode of “Cosmos” that just aired, her name is getting a bit more publicity.

Her name was Marie Tharp, and I was fortunate to meet her and her longtime scientific and romantic partner Bruce Heezen (pronounced HAY-zen) when I was still a graduate student at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in the late 1970s. (Sadly, “Cosmos” mispronounced Heezen they way most people mispronounce it). Writer Hali Felt has produced a very enjoyable biography of this groundbreaking but underappreciated giant in the sciences of geology and geography. She was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on July 30, 1920, but she grew up in many different states, and followed a nearly rootless existence, because her father William made soil classification maps for many different state surveys. Always the new kid in town, she seldom made friends in school, but she was very bright and hardworking and did very well in her studies. As she got older, she spent a lot of time riding around with her father helping him in his work, so she learned about geology and natural history and mapping and surveying at a young age. She graduated from Ohio University in 1943 with majors in English and music and four minors. Then she got a master’s in geology at the University of Michigan at time when few women were allowed in geology, but wartime shortages of male students needed for the oil industry opened the door for her. For a while she worked at Stanolind Oil in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earning another degree in Mathematics at the University of Tulsa as she worked. (continue reading…)

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Oarfish and Earthquake Myths

by Donald Prothero, May 07 2014
The 18-foot oarfish that was stranded on the beaches of Catalina Island on Oct. 13, 2013.

The 18-foot oarfish that was stranded on the beaches of Catalina Island on Oct. 13, 2013.

Last fall, there was a big buzz across the internet when two rare events happened just five days apart: the stranding of two dead oarfish on southern California beaches. On Oct. 13, an 18-footer was found on Catalina Island, and on Oct. 18, a 14-footer was found on the beach in Oceanside. The oarfish is an amazing-looking sea creature, with a long, flat, serpentine body, a long dorsal fin along the entire length of its body, and tiny spine-like pectoral and pelvic fins. It is thought to have been the source of some of the “sea serpent” legends, since large specimens can be up to 50 feet (15 m)  long. The fact that two such strandings had happened so closely in time generated most of the buzz, since strandings are normally rare, with one or two a year at most. Once in awhile there are accidental sightings of oarfish which are apparently trying to beach themselves, such as shown in this remarkable footage.

The biggest buzz, however, was not about the unusual occurrence of two strandings in five days, but about some Japanese legend that claims that oarfish strandings predict earthquakes. This ridiculous idea managed to get coverage on a wide variety of news sites and websites, including the BBC, with almost no mention of any scientist debunking it. As usual, the credulous media ran with the story for days and not once did you hear the slightest bit of skepticism (except maybe a passing sentence or two from some biologist or geologist). (continue reading…)

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If we followed “flood geology,” we would have no oil

by Donald Prothero, Apr 30 2014

In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I detailed the problems with the bizarre view of the earth known as “flood geology.”  Originally hatched by  George Macready Price,  a school teacher with no training or experience whatsoever in geology, he dreamed it up by reading children’s books about geology. Price was a Seventh-Day Adventist, therefore he had to believe in Young-Earth Creationism. Thus, he would create elaborate explanations of how Noah’s flood could explain the entire geological record—or at least the record as portrayed in oversimplified cartoons in kiddie books. If he had ever bothered to go into the field and look directly at the rocks, he might have changed his mind.

Ironically, the entire idea of Noah’s flood explaining the rock record was disproven by creationist geologists themselves. The Noah’s flood model was widely believed before 1795, but in the early 1800s geologists began to look at the rocks of Europe in greater detail, and realized that it could not be explained by one flood or by many floods. By 1830, “flood geology” was completely dead, even though the geologists of the time were all devoutly religious and believed in the Bible. And this all happened decades before Charles Darwin published his ideas in 1859, so in no way did geologists “shuffle the fossils and the strata” to prove evolution, as some creationists claim. (continue reading…)

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“Global warming has paused”—NOT!

by Donald Prothero, Apr 22 2014
Any data set can be falsely manipulated to distort its meaning. For example, if you just plot short segments of the noisy climate data set, you could imagine a series of short-term "cooling" trends. But statistically the only valid approach is to average over the long term, when there is undeniable warming taking place

Any data set can be falsely manipulated to distort its meaning. For example, if you just plot short segments of the noisy climate data set, you could imagine a series of short-term “cooling” trends (click on the image). But statistically the only valid approach is to average over the long term, when there is undeniable warming taking place

In the spirit of Earth Day, which happens today, I’ll blog about another important ecological topic: the alleged “global warming pause”.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the climate-denier myth that “it’s been cooling since 1998″. As the post pointed out, this is based on cherry-picking the anomalously warm year of 1998 (atypical because it was an extraordinary El Niño year that brought a lot of heat from the tropical oceans into the atmosphere), then deliberately picking one or two years following and calling that “cooling”.

As the climate deniers have been called out about this lie, they’ve shifted the goalposts, and made the claim that the global warming has “paused” since 1998. As reported in Mother Jones, Fox News began playing this meme over and over again in 2012, so that soon the regular media were echoing their meme as well. But is it true? NO! (continue reading…)

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Gimme that new-time religion!

by Donald Prothero, Apr 16 2014

A review of

God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

by Dr. Karen Stollznow

Pitchstone Publishing, Durham, North Carolina
2013, 256 pp.

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.
—Mark Twain

When I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, we were given a slim little paperback book about the various religious cults and what they believed. We had all heard about the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and Christian Science, but as naïve high school kids, we knew nothing about them. It was truly an eye-opener to read all about their strange beliefs, as the book preached why they were wrong and why the Presbyterians were right. At no point did the book turn the mirror on itself, and examine the weird ideas espoused by the Presbyterians and other mainstream Christians.

Then, when I began to study comparative religions in college, I encountered a totally different perspective: the detailed (and often dry) scholarly dissection of world religions. These books were often massive, and included huge detailed sections on the mythologies and core beliefs that soon became overwhelming. It was eye opening to see what other religions reveal about the religion you grew up with, but it was also a lot of hard work. (continue reading…)

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Discovering your inner fish, reptile, and monkey

by Donald Prothero, Apr 09 2014

A review of Your Inner Fish, a three-part documentary series airing on PBS beginning on April 9, 2014

In 2008, Neil Shubin published his best-selling book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion Year History of the Human Body. Based on his experience teaching medical school anatomy at the University of Chicago, the book explored the evidence of our evolutionary past demonstrated in the peculiar jury-rigged anatomy of humans. Interspersed with the anatomical evidence of evolution were stories about his field work discovering important fossils that showed the transition from fish to amphibians (Tiktaalik), as well as other important finds. Shubin’s research is not only in anatomy and paleontology, but also in evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”), so there were many stories in the book detailing the new discoveries in genetics that explain the oddball poorly-designed way we are constructed, and how these genetic mechanisms were inherited from our ancestors. The book was named “Best Book of the Year” by the National Academy of Sciences. After his earlier career at the University of Pennsylvania, Shubin is currently the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and Associate Dean for academic strategy of the university’s Biological Sciences Division. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. (continue reading…)

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