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Mysteries of the tar pits

by Donald Prothero, Mar 27 2013
The "Lake Pit" in Hancock Park, with the fiberglass mammoth family on its edge. The Page Museum is in the background.

The “Lake Pit” in Hancock Park, with the fiberglass mammoth family on its edge. The Page Museum is in the background.

Two years ago this week, I began my weekly contributions to SkepticBlog. It seems amazing to realize that it has been that long, or that I’ve written over 100 essays in that time span. I now begin to appreciate how difficult and stressful it can be, and how newspaper columnists must work, always on the lookout for some germ of an idea to expand into 2000-3000 words. But it’s even harder in a science-based blog, where I’m not just flagging recent stories that I’ve encountered, but also try to write a column of substance full of background that is carefully researched, and adding some of my own scientific perspective on its importance. It’s more like the columns Stephen Jay Gould had to write for Natural History magazine, but he only did them once a month!

Given the occasion, I thought I’d indulge myself and actually blog about some of my own recently published research. I was one of those kids who got  hooked on dinosaurs at age 4, and never grew up—except when I was a kid in the 1950s, dinosaurs were not cool with every kid under 12 as they are today. I was the only kid in the school who liked dinosaurs, and I was considered a freak because I knew all about them and could pronounce their names. Now every kid over 7 can do it, apparently. As soon as I knew what a paleontologist was, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Helene treated her top boy and girl to a trip out to the Miocene fossil beds at Redrock Canyon (she was a member of the L.A. Natural History Museum, so we got to join her on a member’s tour). By the time I reached tenth grade, I had mapped out where I was going to college and what I was going to study. (I went to U.C. Riverside because it was then cheap for California residents, less than $200 a quarter, not too far from home, yet the large campus had only 4000 students but outstanding geology and biology programs with two paleontologists in the faculty). In the summer after 10th grade (1970), the La Brea tar pits were allowing volunteers to work on their new excavation in Pit 91, and I was eager to join in. As an untrained high school kid, I was relegated to the beginner’s task for all volunteers: sorting out the microfossils (tiny rodent and bird bones, snail and clam shells, insect and plant remains, etc. from the concentrated material left after they wash all the tar out with solvents). They plunked us down on a table beneath a big sycamore tree, and we each had a large lighted magnifier on a stand to see what we were doing hands-free, while we used a tiny wetted paintbrush to pick up these minuscule fossils and place them in the keeper vials. It was dull, tedious work most of the time, but every once in a while we’d find a spectacularly preserved tiny bird bone or rodent jaw, or beetle wing cases which are still iridescent, which made things interesting. I didn’t drive yet, so I had to spend almost 4 hours riding the buses down from Glendale to downtown Skid Row, and then out Wilshire Boulevard and back, just to work for about 4-5 hours a day. But it was lots of fun, and convinced me that no matter how difficult or tedious the work, I was determined to become a paleontologist. Continue reading…

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by Donald Prothero, Mar 13 2013

For those of us who have spent our lives fighting the never-ending creationism wars, small victories are precious, and give us hope that some day this will all be behind us. The Dover decision in 2005 was decisive, and the Discovery Institute has been ineffective ever since then, with no further school districts adopting “intelligent design” creationism. (Of course, creationism then morphed into the “teach the controversy/strength and weaknesses” strategy, which passed in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky). The clowns like Don McLeroy on the Texas State Board of Education who voted for all sorts of laws favoring creationism and other fundie distortions of science have been voted out of office, although not all their damage has been undone. The fundies in the Kansas State Board of Education were also voted out of office after they had embarrassed the good taxpayers of the Sunflower State enough times.

Likewise, every time another powerful creationist institution or preacher stumbles or declines, it gives us a bit of schadenfreude (“joy at the misfortune of others” auf Deutsch). A few years ago, the Institute of “Creation Research” seemed to be a powerful behemoth, which had a leading role in all the creationism battles of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But as I discovered when I visited their former headquarters in the suburbs of San Diego, they left their pathetic little “museum” behind (see this post), sold to a Jewish convert to radical Protestant fundamentalism, and relocated to Texas in 2007. Their founder, Henry Morris, died in 2006, and their master debater, Duane Gish, just passed away last week, and the ICR has fallen on hard times. Their efforts to get their master’s program accredited in their new home, fundie-friendly Texas, have failed, and they have vanished from the headlines of the creationism wars after having dominated for years. Many of the “big guns” of ICR have since moved on to other institutions, such as little Cedarville University in Ohio, where they engage in stealth creationism in geology meetings. Continue reading…

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Creationist flim-flam

by Donald Prothero, Jan 09 2013

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how creationist “baramin” taxonomy was an example of amateurs aping what scientists do without actually understanding the science, all couched in the trappings of real science and in “sciencey”-sounding language. Almost as soon as that post came out, another example came to light that was noted by bloggers on Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula and elsewhere. It starts with a silly video (complete with fancy production values and dramatic opening music) featuring ID creation “scientist” Ann Gauger, talking in front of what looks like a conventional biochemistry lab.

As Larry Moran, Ars Technica, and numerous commenters over at Panda’s Thumb pointed out, her discussion is complete gibberish that shows she had no understanding of evolution or genetics. She talks about “population genetics” and “common descent” as if they had something to do with one another. Even a second-year biology undergraduate knows the difference! Population genetics is the field that simulates the changes in gene frequencies through time in natural populations, with models of how changing selection pressures, mutation rates, etc. might affect gene frequencies over time. It is largely a mathematical modeling exercise, although its predictions have been abundantly tested and corroborated by many lab experiments. Population genetics is only a population-level process. It says nothing about the common ancestry of organisms, or their similarity in gene sequences, which is what Ann Gauger seems to think. Apparently, Gauger doesn’t know the difference between population genetics and phylogenetics, the field that does deal with the evidence of common ancestry. What the heck, if it begins with a “p” and ends with “genetics”, it must be the same thing, right? Continue reading…

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Bad taxonomy

by Donald Prothero, Dec 12 2012

One of the strangest aspects of “creation science” is their attempt to reconcile the fact that there are between 5-15 million species on earth, yet somehow they all had to fit on Noah’s ark (one pair or seven pairs of them, depending upon which version of the story you read). Such an idea might have made sense to the ancient Hebrews, who only knew of a few dozen kinds of larger mammals in the ancient Middle East, and did not make distinctions between most types of insects or other invertebrates (just as most people today call almost all insects, arachnids, and other small land arthropods “bugs”), let alone recognize the existence of microorganisms. But the modern-day “creation scientist” must be a strict literalist, and cannot take these ancient stories in the context of their times. Instead, these myths must be literally true in today’s context, and then whatever modern science has revealed in the past few centuries must be re-interpreted or discredited or ignored. It’s one of the most astounding examples of motivated reasoning, reduction of cognitive dissonance, cherry-picking, and confirmation bias one could imagine. In the case of shoehorning all of life into tiny Noah’s ark, they even have invented a name for it (“baraminology”). Quite a few creationists play at this pointless game of sophistry, arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Continue reading…

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The Rocks don’t lie

by Donald Prothero, Nov 28 2012

A review of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, by David R. Montgomery

Creationists are notorious for distorting or denying the facts of biology (evolution), paleontology (denying the evidence of evolution in fossils), physics and astronomy (denying modern cosmology), and many other fields. But some of their most egregious attempts to twist reality to fit their bizarre views are found in “flood geology,” a concoction of strange ideas about the geologic record that clearly demonstrate how little actual experience any of them has in looking at real rocks. I dissected this issue in great detail in Chapter 3 of my 2007 book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press, New York).

David Montgomery, however, devotes an entire book to the topic of geology and creationism. The title is tantalizing, making one wonder whether this is yet another creationist book disguised as real science. But the content is relatively straightforward. Montgomery is a well-respected geomorphologist at the University of Washington who has studied landforms around the world, and he makes it clear up front that he is not about to support the ridiculous ideas of flood geology. Instead, he embarks on a long narration that is part travelogue, part history, and part description of the breakthroughs in biblical scholarship that long ago led to the rejection of biblical literalism by anyone who can actually read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew. Continue reading…

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Shouldn’t scientists be making decisions about science?

by Donald Prothero, Oct 24 2012

The news recently has been full of shocking and disconcerting quotes from the members of Congress. The most outrageous is by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

When he heard this statement, Bill Nye said:

“Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest,” Nye told The Huffington Post in an email. “For example, the Earth is simply not 9,000 years old,” he continued, contradicting a remark made by Broun later in the video. “He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.”

Continue reading…

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Ship of Foolishness

by Donald Prothero, Oct 10 2012

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

—Lewis Carroll, 1872, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Every few months or so, you see a “documentary” on a cable program searching for Noah’s ark. Every other year or so, the media picks up a story where someone has “discovered Noah’s ark.” The latest incident occurred when former Baywatch actress and Playboy model Donna D’Errico was injured trying to climb Mt. Ararat. All it takes is a quick web search to discover that these foolish quests and dubious claims happen over and over again, year in and year out, just like false prophets who proclaim the end of the world in six months. The most famous of these “false alarm” discoveries occurred in 1993, when George Jammal hoaxed a documentary about “discovering” the Ark; it was later revealed he never went to Turkey, and that the “wood” he showed was a piece of pine soaked in soy sauce.

What is striking about all these amazing claims that there is NEVER any further research, or follow-up. After the big splash of the hot story in the media, one never hears that they actually tested the “Ark wood” to see if it was really old, or return to the same place for more data. (Ironically, since creationists deny radiocarbon dating, they can’t very well use it for their own purposes and then reject it for all others). Most of the time we’re given some lame excuse, such as the “Ark” vanished under an avalanche after their visit, or the Turkish authorities would not allow them to return to Ararat. Surely, if they had actually found something, they would have gone back again and again and accumulated more and more evidence, as true scientists and archeologists always do. Instead, it’s a flash in the pan of media publicity, then…nothing. Lord knows these people have LOTS of money to follow the pursuit. Nearly every “Ark” story on their broadcasting or on their websites is followed by a plea for more money to continue this work. If real scientists were funded for real research at the levels these creationists are for phony research, just think of the useful discoveries we would have made by now! Instead, the money goes down the rabbit-hole of their mysterious and untaxable income, and we never get any results. Now they are taking an even bigger bite, not only out of their own flock, but out of taxpayers. Ken Ham’s ridiculous “Answers in Genesis” organization has bamboozled the Governor of Kentucky and much of their legislature to give them tax breaks and new roads and infrastructure to build a Noah’s ark replica in Kentucky, adjacent to their phony creationist “museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky. Now, no matter what you think of these matters, the State is supporting the Church, and Kentucky taxpayers who object to this expenditure of their tax dollars have no choice. Fortunately, the AiG organization is having trouble raising money for the “Ark Park” and has postponed construction indefinitely, and even attendance at the “Creation Museum” is declining and hurting their finances. (Check out this clever parody, “Koran Kountry”, that imagines a Muslim-themed park supported by Kentucky tax dollars). Continue reading…

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Foundation of a Founder of Evo-Devo

by Donald Prothero, Oct 03 2012

A review of Once we all had Gills: Growing up evolutionist in an evolving world, by Rudolf A. Raff

Autobiography is a popular genre in the publishing industry, but most are accounts of famous actors or politicians or other public figures. There are relatively few good examples of autobiographic accounts by important scientists (both past and present). Most scientists tend not to write autobiographical accounts of themselves, whether it be because they are too modest, too busy, or whether the ego-denying, self-effacing scientific culture which suppresses the first-person pronouns and the active voice (“the experiment was conducted by so-and-so’s lab”) makes us less than willing to talk about ourselves. When an autobiographical account of a prominent scientist appears, it gives us important insights into the questions of how great scientists are made, as well as how they made their discoveries. Reading Darwin’s autobiography (even if he did modify some details) has been an important source regarding events and ideas led to his discovery of evolution by natural selection. Feynman’s autobiographical books (especially Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman) are laugh-out-loud funny as this brilliant misfit gives us his quirky view of the world, amazing his professors and colleagues, and playing tricks on Army security when he was working on the Bomb in Los Alamos. E.O. Wilson’s 2006 autobiography Naturalist shows how his childhood love of collecting bugs in Alabama blossomed not only into a career as a world famous ant expert, but also to his insights about ecological biogeography and sociobiology. For historians of science, as well as people who want to understand what makes a great scientist, such rare first-person accounts are highly valuable. Continue reading…

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Cracking earth and crackpot ideas

by Donald Prothero, Sep 19 2012

Most educated people in modern society have no difficulty accepting the idea that the earth is roughly spherical, or that the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth moves around it. Nearly everyone laughs, or shakes their head in disbelief whenever you tell them about people who seriously believe in a flat earth or groups of people who still don’t accept the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus after 500 years. Yet both of these long-rejected ideas have strong adherents, mostly creationists who use literal interpretation of the Bible to deny any scientific reality that contradicts scripture. For these people to continue clinging to these long-discredited ideas, they must ignore the hundreds of photos from earth and space that show its true shape (the flat-earthers claim they are NASA hoaxes, although the other international space programs produce similar images). In addition, we now have space probes visiting all the planets on paths predicted by the heliocentric solar system, and some have looked back and taken shots that show the layout of the solar system, and the earth where it really is. But in this age of the internet, silly ideas like geocentrism can reach an audience of millions in seconds, without any fact checking or scientific peer review, which most mainstream media still practice. Any fool with a hot idea, a computer and possibly some decent graphics or animation can cook up a wild theory and instantly generate thousands of hits, and hundreds of favorable comments from those who can’t tell science from garbage. Continue reading…

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Bill Nye, our science guy

by Donald Prothero, Sep 12 2012

Compared to nearly every other industrialized country, our culture is abysmally illiterate in science. As I have pointed out in previous posts, we fall near the bottom of the developed nations in science literacy, among nations like Turkey with strong religious fundamentalist influences and a fraction of our spending on education. Many studies have shown that our science illiteracy begins partway through childhood, where kids go from excited about dinosaurs and astronomy and other topics when they begin school to way behind kids of other industrialized nations by the time they leave high school. A lot of different reasons have been suggested, but certainly we are fighting a rearguard action against a culture which values jocks and pop stars more than scientists or scholars. This is especially apparent in teen culture where science seems to move from “cool” to “nerdy” as soon as puberty kicks in. Then the social pressures seem to turn kids off, no matter how hard their high school science teachers work and try to keep their attention and interest. Continue reading…

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