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How the other half lives

by Donald Prothero, Jan 29 2014


Ever since I was a 4-year-old, hooked on dinosaurs, I knew that I wanted to study paleontology for the rest of my life. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was the only kid in my school who knew anything about dinosaurs (this was in the early 60s, before dinosaurs became cool for kids). I was asked to lecture about them to the sixth graders, and so I knew I liked to teach. Once I got into college and followed the normal route to a career in paleontology through my Ph.D. at Columbia University and the American Museum in Natural History in New York, I was committed to becoming a college professor. Starting with teaching at Columbia and Vassar, then at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and then 27 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and at Caltech in Pasadena, I’ve been extremely fortunate in teaching at elite institutions with outstanding students every place I’ve worked. Most of my time has been spent in small private liberal arts colleges (Vassar, Knox, and Occidental), where the classes are small and full of dedicated, bright students who mostly want to learn and generally work very hard. I got to know every student in nearly every class very quickly, and got to be good at reading their faces to make sure they understand. I always challenged them without pushing them past their breaking point. I was  very proud of the mature, thoughtful scholarship our senior geology majors would produce after four years of the best teaching and opportunities. I’ve been nominated for teaching awards many times and won a few times, and I always have alumni and alumnae coming back and telling me how important my class was in opening their eyes or changing their lives. At small private colleges where the tuition is high, we give them their money’s worth with highly intensive, personalized education (I have involved hundreds of students in my research over the years, and about 45 students have more than 50 published scientific papers co-authored with me). We know immediately if a student is missing from class (it’s hard to hide in a class of eight, but even in a class of 32, I kept track). The college practically flipped out if a student missed 2-3 meetings in a row without contacting us—we were instructed to notify the Dean of Students for any student doing poorly on a test, or showing signs of slipping, since they don’t want anyone to drop out if they can help it. And we were proud of our high retention rate, and virtually all our students graduated in four years. (continue reading…)

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Autism and vaccines: correlation is not causation

by Donald Prothero, Jan 22 2014

Just after the beginning of the year, leading anti-vaxxer and former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy was in the news again. Several years ago, she apparently told Time magazine that her son Evan didn’t have autism, but (as doctors have long suspected) Landau-Kleffner syndrome. Then in January, McCarthy made several angry denials of this old interview. Frankly, I doubt that a source like Time magazine misquoted her—I think she’s lying again. She now claims that Time magazine inaccurately reported the facts! I think my irony meter just broke. Jenny McCarthy was a washed-up actress with nothing but a series of low-brow movies and TV shows to her credit until she became the national spokeswoman for the anti-vaxxer movement—a movement which was,  in a form of supreme irony, legendary for an inaccurate grasp of the facts, then shifting the goal posts on their demands when the mercury was removed from the vaccines and there was still no effect on rates of autism. She rejects mainstream science, yet cites biomedical science in support of her claim that her son really has autism. I think we should reject her claim outright, because she (like many anti-vaxxers) have no clue what mainstream science and medicine are about.

Now she and her anti-vaxx cohort are demanding that medicine and drug companies should “green the vaccine”! What the heck do they think the FDA is for? All vaccines must pass rigorous testing and quality control through the FDA, which has one of the most stringent standards for drugs and medicine in the world. Fat chance that she and her fellow science-denying protesters are going to help the process in any way! Meanwhile, she’s now on The View every day, giving an air of legitimacy to her form of pseudoscience. And the movement she bolstered is causing huge numbers of kids to go unvaccinated, get sick and sometimes die of preventable diseases—and, even worse, spread those diseases to and often kill infants too young for vaccination (even if their parents do believe in modern medicine). (continue reading…)

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It was Twenty Years Ago Today….

by Donald Prothero, Jan 17 2014
Damaged parking garage at Cal State Northridge

Damaged parking garage at Cal State Northridge

Twenty years ago today, January 17, was an event I shall never forget: the Northridge earthquake of 1994. Born and raised in Southern California, I’ve lived through the 1971 Sylmar quake, the 1987 Whittier quake, and many, many smaller events that most people have forgotten. The events were traumatic to anyone who experienced it, even at great distances, and for years afterwards I could remind my students about how it felt, and how it changed Los Angeles. Unfortunately, time marches on, and now that it is 20 years ago, most of my college students either were too young to remember, or were not even born yet!

It struck at 4:31 in the morning, in total pre-dawn darkness, on a Monday that was the Martin Luther King holiday. Luckily, it meant that most people were sleeping and fewer than usual were headed to work, so the casualties were much less than if it had hit during the peak of rush hour. Even though it had a moment magnitude (Mw) of “only” 6.7, its upward acceleration of the ground motion was 1.8 g, much stronger than many quakes of the same size, and the highest ever recorded in an urban area in North America. It seemed to last a long time, although it actually lasted only 10-20 seconds. There was another Mw = 6.0 aftershock an hour later, and another 11 hours later. It was felt strongly as far as Las Vegas, an unusually long distance for southern California quakes (which tend not to propagate very far because of the shattered, highly faulted blocks in our crustal rocks don’t transfer energy well). Contrary to the name, its epicenter was not Northridge, but in Reseda, a town to the south—and both were very close to where I now teach at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. The initial reports of the magnitude as 6.6 and the epicenter at Northridge proved to be wrong once better seismic data came in a day later. (continue reading…)

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Bigfoot meets “Reality” TV

by Donald Prothero, Jan 13 2014

I can just see it now: Mike Riley and his production team, veterans of previous “reality” TV  shows such as “Yukon Men,” “Cram”, “Tool Academy”, and many others, are brainstorming ideas for another new show. Several new Bigfoot shows have just aired on basic cable TV, so someone says “Why don’t we combine ‘Survivor’ with Bigfoot?”  I’m sure something along these lines occurred: take a classic “reality” TV format, the competition show between individuals or teams (such as “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race”), and give them a new pop-culture task to perform: finding Bigfoot. This, in a nutshell, is what Spike TV’s new show “The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty” (first aired on Jan. 10) is all about.

Just like the format of other competition “reality” TV shows, they have 9 teams of 2 people told to perform a difficult task: seeking evidence of Bigfoot in the woods of Washington and California. Each week another team is eliminated for failing to come up with something, and the race gets tougher. If any contestant comes up with good evidence of Bigfoot, they win the $10 million prize. During each episode, they follow a standard format: some sort of competition to see if they have the “skills” to do the job, and then a night search for “evidence of Bigfoot”—plus the usual footage of the contestants at the beginning and end of each competition, and a final “elimination” segment when they milk the “who gets kicked out?” storyline for the maximum amount of drama. They follow all the stereotypical conventions of this genre: spooky music, lots of reaction shots of contestants under stress, big pause before they announce the loser then cut to a long commercial break before the reveal, etc. And, like any reality show, lots of footage of the contestants arguing and bickering with each other, saying stupid things, and just plain making fools of themselves in front of millions of viewers. (Word of advice: pre-record the show and watch it later with your remote control. Almost half the time is killed by obnoxious advertisements).

(continue reading…)

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Area 51: Myth and Reality

by Donald Prothero, Jan 08 2014
The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!

In the past few decades, this perfectly ordinary military base in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada has taken on mythic status. Most military bases have tight security, and only authorized military personnel and their contractors are allowed on base. This particular base is top secret, with much tighter security than most military land. Not only is it surrounded by a secured perimeter and motion detectors in the ground, but the guards travel the perimeter regularly, and have video security cameras monitoring everything that comes near the fence. It is also located in one of the most remote areas of sparsely populated Nevada, more than two hours of driving north out of Las Vegas. Because there is no way to see the base from the paved road, even from the highest peaks outside the base except Tikaboo Peak (a long hard desert hike), it can only be viewed from the air or from space. Naturally, that high level of secrecy has led to all sorts of speculation about what happens there, and an entire industry of books and movies and TV shows which need only mention the phrase “Area 51” and immediately their audience assumes that there are aliens or some kinds of weird government experiments going on there. (continue reading…)

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Happy New Tap-Year!

by Donald Prothero, Jan 01 2014

For my New Year’s Day post, I thought I’d review some of the important zoological discoveries of 2013, especially regarding new species that have just been discovered. A few weeks ago, the word came out that a new species of tapir (pronounced TAY-pir, they are a pig-sized group of mammals with a long proboscis and three to four toes, distantly related to rhinos) had just been found and formally described. For most of us in the life sciences, this is exciting if not exactly earth-shaking news. As our techniques for identifying new species are getting better and better, we are finding more and more examples of creatures that were known to the local indigenous peoples, but not yet recognized by zoologists. In most cases, these new species are only subtly different from previously described species, so zoologists may have seen the creature before, but not yet recognized that it was a different species from its more familiar close relatives. In many cases, the specimens may have already been collected and were sitting in museums, misidentified. This is particularly true in the case of new species that don’t look that different externally (sibling species), but can be distinguished based on more subtle differences. In the old days, sibling species had to be identified based on things like behavior. Now, there are a number of new species recognized based on molecular differences that are not manifested in anatomical differences we can see with the naked eye. (continue reading…)

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Approaching Area 51

by Donald Prothero, Dec 25 2013


Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!

We are driving west in a black GMC Yukon Denali SUV across the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (Nevada State Highway 375), about three hours north from Las Vegas. The road itself is unremarkable—miles and miles of a ribbon of asphalt cutting across barren desert of mesquite and Joshua tree yuccas, with no signs of life anywhere. Occasionally the road rises up from the low flats to cross a small mountain range, with jagged rocks exposed on all sides, completely devoid of vegetation. During the summer, the temperatures here stay above 100°F for weeks on end, and almost no one comes through here. In the winter, the daytime temperatures are more comfortable, but at night it gets bitterly cold, especially if the desert winds are howling through the area. It’s also over 4400 feet in elevation here, so some winters are cold enough that snow will accumulate on the high desert surface, and may persist on the peaks well into the spring.

After you pass through the tiny towns of Alamo and Ash Springs (last gas station for 150 miles or more) on U.S. Highway 93, and turn west on to Highway 375, you drive about 15 miles until you reach Hancock Summit, a mountain pass over barren rock that is the highest place in the region.  You can get out of your car and look to the southwest, but all you will see is the Groom Range to your west. The military base is down in the valley beyond, and there is no other spot in any direction where you could see the base from the paved road.  You can make the strenuous hike to Tikaboo Peak to the south, and see parts of the base on the other side of the range without incurring the wrath of base security, but this isn’t much more informative. (continue reading…)

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Credential Mongering

by Donald Prothero, Dec 18 2013

This past few days, the internet has been buzzing with conflicting reports that cryptozoologist Roy Mackal has apparently passed away. I first heard about it on Sharon Hill’s Doubtful News site, and it is also reported on There is also a post from a funeral home in Illinois saying he passed away back on Sept. 13, but apparently no one in the cryptozoology community knew about it until just now. However, I can find no formal obituary for him on the web, and his Wikipedia entry still doesn’t mention it. Born August 1, 1925, he would have been 88 years old, and apparently no one has been in touch with him for a long while, but it’s really surprising that the news is just reaching us three months late. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. I never met the man, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who did, and he seems to have been open and friendly and kind—but also a complete believer in the crazy notions that the Loch Ness monster and Mokele Mbembe were real.

(continue reading…)

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Noah’s reality check

by Donald Prothero, Dec 11 2013
The grandiose "artist's conception" of the Ark Encounter. Already, many of these elements have been canceled due to problems in fundraising

The grandiose “artist’s conception” of the Ark Encounter. Already, many of these elements have been canceled due to problems in fundraising

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the problems that creationist minister Ken Ham is having with his proposed “Ark Encounter” project, to be built near his Creation “Museum” in northern Kentucky. Fundraising for the “Ark Park” is woefully behind schedule so his organization is trying to finance it with junk bonds. In the meanwhile, his original Creation “Museum” is losing more and more money as fewer visitors bother to show up to a carny act that is five years old and has nothing new to offer. His organization may have risen rapidly to become the loudest and biggest of all the major creationist ministries in the United States, but now it looks like they’ve gone beyond their level of competence. Not only do they mangle science with their “Museum”, but it appears they mangle finance as well.  (continue reading…)

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by Donald Prothero, Dec 04 2013

Our ancestor? Not likely...

Our ancestor? Not likely…

This past week I’ve been getting all sorts of questions from  people about the strange study just reported in the British tabloid The Daily Mail. Some scientist in Georgia claims that humans are formed by hybridizing apes and pigs. At first, I thought it was a hoax or some outrageous parody or Poe, or possibly an example of the media distorting the original results beyond all recognition, because it’s so crazy that it’s hard to imagine any legitimate scientist making that claim. But a little digging shows it’s not a hoax or parody: there is a crackpot scientist out there who had made the claim, and naturally the media loved it and published it without any fact-checking (as usual).

First, the assertion: a Georgia geneticist, Dr. Eugene McCarthy (a sad coincidence that he has the same name as the groundbreaking anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate in 1968) claims that humans have evolved by hybridization between a boar and a female chimpanzee. Anyone trained in genetics or evolution will immediately do a double-take reading this, because it so far off the edge of crazy that it cries out to be examined further. So you click on the link, and what do you find? Is there a ton of genetic data, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal, that would allow us to take the claim seriously? No, not even close. Not only is it a wild claim made on a personal website without any peer review (the classic sign of crackpot science), but the evidence is not genetic at all, even though the author claims to be a legitimate geneticist! Once you go to the original link, you find that it’s a list of superficial fleshy similarities between the soft tissues of pigs and humans: naked skin, thick skin, sweating, protruding cartilaginous nose, eyebrows, heavy eyelashes, short thick upper lip, earlobes, and a long list of minor similarities in the skeleton and rest of the anatomy. Anyone who is a vertebrate anatomist familiar with phylogenetics will immediately notice that these are highly correlated characters that all occur together when a a lineage becomes less hairy, or else they are symplesiomorphic features shared by most placental mammals. What the list doesn’t  point out is all the huge and fundamental differences in the skeleton he doesn’t mention, especially the unique “cloven-hoofed” even-toed hands and feet of pigs with the “double-pulley” astragalus bone, which unites them with all other artiodactyls (the “even-toed” hoofed mammals), a feature seen in no primate or any other organism on earth; and the huge differences in the skull, braincase and ear region that allow any competent anatomist to immediately distinguish a pig from any primate. Once again, it’s a classic case of someone not trained in a given field (anatomy and phylogenetics) dabbling in someone else’s orchard, cherry-picking data he doesn’t understand, and ignoring everything that flatly contradicts his ideas. Surprisingly, the one thing I would expect  him to list—the low-cusped bunodont dentition of pigs and primates—isn’t mentioned (again, it’s convergent evolution since pigs and many primates have an omnivorous diet, as do bears and peccaries, who also convergently evolve bunodonty). As P.Z. Myers pointed out (he calls it the “MFAP hypothesis”, “monkey fucked a pig”), it’s very similar to the long-discredited “aquatic ape” theory of Elaine Morgan—cherry-pick a handful of superficial anatomical characters associated with loss of body hair in apes and tell a just-so story, ignoring all the rest of the evidence.  (continue reading…)

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