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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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Autism and vaccines: correlation is not causation

by Donald Prothero on 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 on 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 on 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 on 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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Hoaxed Bigfoot Bodies Floating at the Disreputable Low End of Bigfootery

by Daniel Loxton on Jan 07 2014

Have you heard that Bigfooters finally have the proof we’ve been waiting for? At long last, after half a century of hunting, they have finally gotten their hands on a really seriously genuine Bigfoot body—again! And by astonishing coincidence, this totally completely real Bigfoot body is being offered up to the media by one of the exact same guys who gave us the previous totally real “Georgia Bigfoot” body, way back in the storied yesteryear of 2008. That case was a hoax. As the hoaxers explained, the 2008 “body” was really a costume stuffed with roadkill.

“It’s just a big hoax, a big joke,” said car salesman Rick Dyer. Dyer told Channel 2 he never intended to put it across as the real deal. “It’s bigfoot. Bigfoot doesn’t exist,” he said.

Now that same hoaxer is now back, making headlines with the claim that he shot and killed another Bigfoot. “I’m going to go down in history as the best Bigfoot tracker in the world,” he boasts—and for some reason we’re talking about it.

Make no mistake, there is a disreputable basement level to Bigfootery, and this is it. I said as much when my Abominable Science! co-author Don Prothero wrote to me a couple of days ago to ask if we should put up a post about it. “It’s really the lowest end of Bigfoot beeswax,” I replied. “I kinda hate to publicize it. I don’t think I’ll bother writing it up at this point.”

Thing is, I’m fond of cryptozoology. I’m really only interested in dealing with the better cases and the more serious practitioners. I think cryptozoologists are mistaken, but that does not mean that I want cryptozoology presented as a complete circus. To that end, for example, I made a conscious choice years ago not to record and use the many interpersonal feuds and slurs that Bigfooters hurl at each other, even though they’ve cooked up some real humdingers. It’s not my job to make monster-hunters appear ridiculous, but to attempt in good faith to find out what’s true. (continue reading…)

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New NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid

by Daniel Loxton on Jan 07 2014
Photograph of Ann Reid

Ann Reid. Photo by Chris Condayan, asm.org. Courtesy NCSE

Our colleagues at the National Center for Science Education have welcomed their brand new Executive Director Ann Reid, who began her new job yesterday (January 6, 2014). A molecular biologist, Reid is the successor to outgoing executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who held the post for an astonishing 27 years. On her retirement, Scott became the Chair of NCSE’s Advisory Council.

With its mission to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science, the NCSE is among the most essential organizations to operate within the general sphere of scientific skepticism. It is also a shining example of the power of constrained focus. I happen to know, for example, that Genie is a fellow “Bigfoot skeptic”: she is not only the Chair of the venerable Bay Area Skeptics, but also a physical anthropologist with a specific interest in pseudoscience related to her field—which is to say, Bigfoot and the Yeti (video). Nonetheless, the NCSE has never tried to tackle a broad portfolio of paranormal and pseudoscientific topics. Instead, they picked a tightly focused mandate, and made themselves a credible, reliable national voice on that topic in particular. Very often, simplicity is strength. (continue reading…)

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New Organization: The Society for Science-Based Medicine

by Daniel Loxton on Jan 06 2014

Our colleagues over at the Science-Based Medicine blog, including Skepticblog’s Steve Novella, have announced the creation of a new advocacy and educational organization, the Society for Science-Based Medicine.

The attempt to confront medical pseudoscience, examine paranormal and supernatural healing claims, and expose outright medical quackery is one of the deepest and oldest of the pillars of scientific skepticism. From homeopathy to psychic surgery, such claims will always remain priorities for skepticism, and for skeptical organizations such as the one I represent, the Skeptics Society. Indeed, I write on medical claims myself, such as in this article or this for our own free eSkeptic newsletter.

But focus is a powerful thing. Just as I frequently advocate disentangling the unique mandate of scientific skepticism from atheism and other parallel rationalist movements, so too is there a clear value in having dedicated, full-time science-based advocacy organizations that discuss medicine and only medicine. The topic is certainly large enough (large enough, indeed, for hundreds of organizations worldwide) complex enough, and sufficiently pressing in ethical urgency to deserve dedicated watchdog efforts. (continue reading…)

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Bright Horizons

by Daniel Loxton on Jan 05 2014

Happy New Year, folks! I’m settling back into work having celebrated an epic holiday season with my family, and feeling a bit like I’m going to explode. The music is on loud in here. I’m rested and happy, looking back over a fascinating year—and looking forward to the bright horizons of the year ahead.

Do you feel it? That soaring quality in the air, that sense that this is a year we accomplish beautiful, useful things? That this is a year when we will make the world a little bit better? (continue reading…)

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Happy New Tap-Year!

by Donald Prothero on 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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