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The $10 million Bigfoot bust

by Donald Prothero on Mar 05 2014

A few months ago, there was a big buzz of publicity for a new show on Spike TV called “The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty”. As I described in my post shortly after it began, it was a cross between a typical competitive reality show in a rugged location (like “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race”), with a veneer of cryptozoology to give it a new twist. Originally, eight teams of two people were to compete for a $10 million bounty if they found good evidence of Bigfoot, and a $100,000 “research grant” as a consolation prize for the team that did the best even if they didn’t find  Bigfoot. The series was hosted by former “Superman” actor Dean Cain, and the judges were molecular anthropologist Dr. Todd Disotell and primatologist Natalia Reagan.

Well, the show finally aired its eighth and last episode (some of which can still be watched on the show’s website). If you were watching a few episodes and want to follow it to the end, I won’t reveal everything and spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that none of the teams were very competent, so the “winner” could have been just about any of the original groups of contestants, except for those who were so completely out of shape and unfamiliar with the woods that they dropped out after a round or two. And it should come as no surprise (since it taped last summer and there were no leaks of amazing discoveries) that no evidence of Bigfoot was found—not even close! Nobody won the $10 million bounty. Instead, the final competition hiking all around the Porcupine Mountains State Park on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan hinged on whether one of the two teams didn’t bicker all the time—since the “evidence” both teams obtained was worthless. In the teaser for the episode, Disotell says they each got primate DNA! And then, after commercial, he finishes his sentence and says that it was human DNA (probably from the “hunters” themselves). (continue reading…)

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Revealing Cover of Junior Skeptic 50

by Daniel Loxton on Mar 03 2014

Cover of Junior Skeptic 50 (bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1). Art by Daniel Loxton. All rights reserved.

I’m very happy (even possibly, I’ll admit it, a little giddy) to reveal my cover artwork for our special, celebratory 50th issue of Junior Skeptic, bound inside the upcoming Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1! Stand by for more details this week, but I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that this Junior Skeptic hearkens back to the very best of the skeptical tradition—our warmest, strongest heart.

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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero on Feb 26 2014

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One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think. (continue reading…)

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Announcing Release of Plesiosaur Peril

by Daniel Loxton on Feb 24 2014

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Hi, folks!

I’m excited to announce that my brand new children’s paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril is hitting stores now (official release, March 1, 2014)! Look for it at Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca.

(continue reading…)

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Dancing into an uncertain future

by Donald Prothero on Feb 19 2014
Eager young VP students dance through the night at the after-meeting party. Photo by R. Hunt-Foster.

Eager young VP students dance through the night at the after-meeting party. (Photo by R. Hunt-Foster).

Last November, the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was held here in Los Angeles. SVP is my professional society, since my primary training and research is fossil vertebrates (especially fossil mammals like rhinos, peccaries, camels, horses, and others). My first SVP  was the 1977 meeting, the last time it was held here in Los Angeles, when I was just a beginning graduate student. Since then,  I’ve been to every meeting of SVP, a streak of 36 years in a row. It’s my lifeline, and I wouldn’t consider missing it for anything. Once a year I get to see all my closest professional friends and colleagues, people I spent months in the field with, former officemates from grad school, and find out the latest news about people I’ve known for 30 years or more. I also present my own research (I always do at least one presentation, and sometimes my name is on several more by my students), and I usually get to see my former students as they grow and thrive in their own careers. For five years (1999-2004), I was the Program Chair, running the entire meeting and producing (editing, typesetting, etc.) the abstract volume with over 600 individual abstracts. At that point, I couldn’t miss the meeting for anything, including my brother’s wedding (I told him in advance NOT to schedule it to conflict with SVP).  Most importantly, I go each year to get some positive feedback and affirmation that my 40 years  of research and scholarship is valued and means something to people who appreciate it. This is  essential when you spend the other 51 weeks of the year in a hostile department where they don’t appreciate you and try to tear you down at every opportunity.

(continue reading…)

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Hearts and minds

by Donald Prothero on Feb 12 2014

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I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st.  This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below.  He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily  set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers  recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all. (continue reading…)

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Review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook—But Not Here

by Daniel Loxton on Feb 11 2014

YAH-CoverFor much of the past year I hoped to find the time to read and review UK science teacher Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook, which had great buzz among softer atheist voices. Finally I found a moment last year to dig into the book. And loved it. It’s a brisk, wonderful read—and every bit as moving, and as laudably pluralistic, as its reputation suggested. It was an experience I really enjoyed. I wanted to tell people about it.

The question was, where?

As many readers know, I am an atheist in my personal life. At the same time, in my professional life I am an advocate for old school “scientific” skepticism (PDF). I regularly argue that the distinct and valuable tradition of scientific skepticism should be clearly distinguished from other parallel rationalist movements, and from the religious and political beliefs of individual skeptics—including my own. Skepticism is not an atheists only club. (continue reading…)

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Adjunct professors: slave labor of academia

by Donald Prothero on Feb 05 2014
A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.'s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.’s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

In my previous post, I talked about the dramatic differences between students and expectations in an elite four-year college vs. the two-year colleges. Implicit in the discussion was another topic that most of the public does not know about: the increasing use of underpaid adjunct faculty to teach courses throughout academia.

The topic finally broke through the media silence last fall when on September 1, Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years, died of heart attack at age 83, completely penniless. The original story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette soon made the national and international media as the sordid details emerged. Vojtko slaved away tirelessly at Duquesne for all those years with excellent teaching evaluations and everything else that should have resulted in rewards from the university. Instead, she got an adjunct contract year after year, working for less than $25,000 a year with no benefits. She fell further and further into poverty living on those wages, until she could no longer afford a home, and was completely broke by the time she died. When caseworkers from Adult Protective Services were called in to investigate, they were shocked that she was a hard-working professor, not some sort of bum off the street, and could not imagine how someone with a Ph.D. could have fallen so low without the usual problems with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. (continue reading…)

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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton on Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

(continue reading…)

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How the other half lives

by Donald Prothero on Jan 29 2014

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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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