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

by Donald Prothero, Feb 26 2014


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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Bellybuttons and Testable science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 09 2013

What did Adam and Eve never have, yet they gave two of them to each of their children?

Answer: parents

—Old children’s riddle

A classic example of an untestable theory to explain nature was the “Omphalos” hypothesis of Philip Henry Gosse. He was a well-respected naturalist in early nineteenth-century England who had written best-selling books about natural history. He was also a very devout member of a Puritanical sect called the Plymouth Brethren. As a good naturalist, Gosse was finding more and more evidence that life had evolved (long before Darwin), but as a Biblical literalist, he felt obligated to follow creationism. Gosse resolved his problems by publishing Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot in 1857, just two years before Darwin’s book was published. The curious title omphalos means “bellybutton” or “navel” in Greek, and refers to the common theological conundrum of the day: if Adam and Eve were specially created and did not have human parents (and therefore no umbilical cord), did they have a navel or bellybutton? Many religious artists avoided this issue by painting Adam and Eve with a fig leaf not only over their genitalia, but also over their midriffs. Gosse’s answer was yes, of course Adam and Eve had navels. According to Gosse, God created nature to look as if it had a history, to look as if it had evolved, but in reality it was created quite recently. In order for the world to be “functional” God would have created the earth with mountains and canyons, with trees that have growth rings, and with Adam and Eve with a navel. No evidence that indicates the presumed age of the earth or events in the past can be taken at face value. In this manner, Gosse felt that he had solved his own dilemmas about the fact that nature appears to have evolved, yet this solution allowed him to retain his creationist beliefs.

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Should we let the clowns run the circus?

by Donald Prothero, May 22 2013


The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
—Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.

We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as 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.”

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Written in your genes—and atoms

by Donald Prothero, May 01 2013

A review of The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, by Neil Shubin (Pantheon, New York, 2013).

Popularizing science, and writing science trade books for general audiences, is a challenging business. As an author of trade science books myself, I know how hard it is to write a book that sells well. Many of my fellow scientist-writers complain that the trade science book market is vanishing as fewer and fewer people read much any  more, and those who do read a lot don’t read non-fiction/science. Only a handful of scientists (Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and just a few others) have managed to do it well for a long time. They are among the few that have reached the best-seller lists and achieved celebrity status so they are recognizable names and faces (and some have even appeared on The Simpsons, the ultimate arbiter of pop-culture status). Some of these people (especially Sagan) were attacked and scorned by their scientific peers for being “too popular” and no longer serious about their science, even though studies have shown that Sagan and Gould and the others were just as productive in their peer-reviewed science even as they reached superstar status. On the other hand, many people have cried out for the scientific community to provide us with more Sagans and Goulds who can make science interesting and comprehensible to a public that is becoming increasingly ignorant of science, or sucked into pseudoscience of UFOs and Bigfoot, or the junk science of creationists, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers. Continue reading…

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Sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate

by Donald Prothero, Apr 03 2013
The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings that used to be warehouses on the Duke campus

The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings on the Duke campus that used to be warehouses

On the weekend of March 22-24, 2013, I was privileged to be part of an amazing workshop entitled “Reporting across the culture wars: engaging media on evolution.” Hosted by the NSF-sponsored think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, it brought together some of the top names in both science and journalism, all experienced in the battle over evolution and creationism. It was organized and moderated by Lauri Lebo, the local reporter at the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, “Intelligent Design” trial who wrote a best-selling book, The Devil in Dover, about her experience, and by molecular biologist Dr. Norman Johnson of University of Massachusetts Amherst. These two organizers raised the funds to bring in a very diverse panel of experts, including Dr. Ken Miller of Brown University, one of the leading biologists battling creationism (he was the star of the Dover trial, and has beaten creationists in debates many times); Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who handles their efforts to support citizens fighting creationism in their schools; several authors of books about evolution and creationism, including yours truly, plus Dr. Michael Berkman of  Penn State, Dr. David Long of George Mason University, and Dr. Daniel Fairbanks of Utah Valley University; a distinguished group of biologists, including Dr. T. Ryan Gregory of Guelph University, Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley, Dr. Craig McLain of NESCent, and Dr. David Hillis of the Univ. Texas Austin; anthropologists, including Dr. Holly Dunsworth of Univ. Rhode Island, Dr. David Long, and Dr. Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian; and paleontologists including myself and Brian Switek of the Laelaps blog on Among the journalists were Greg Bowers of the Univ. Missouri Journalism school, Lou DuBose of the Washington Spectator, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones, as well as e-journalists such as Cara Santa Maria, the science editor of The Huffington Post (her regular podcast, “Talk Nerdy to Me”, is a big hit on HuffPo), and Danielle Lee and Bora Zivkovic of the Scientific American blog. In addition, there were local Public Information Officers (PIOs), who handle press relations for scientists, including Dr. Robin Smith of NESCent and Karl Bates of Duke University. In short, this panel brought both a lot of experience and a lot of brainpower to the discussion, with a panel ranging from freelance print journalists to e-journalists to science writers to distinguished scientists in biology, anthropology, and paleontology—and nearly everyone on the panel has their own blog.

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Can We Be Clear On Something? It’s STEM, Not STEAM.

by Brian Dunning, Mar 14 2013

STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The STEM fields are of special significance in the United States, as they are considered by the government to be strategically important, and because we have a shortage of experts in these fields. As a result, many government and educational agencies have STEM programs, and we’ll discuss some of those in a moment.

My purpose today is to nip a growing trend in the bud, which is the tendency for people involved in the arts to expand it to STEAM (A = Arts). Nearly everyone in my family (except me) is musical, and so I sit through a lot of fundraising presentations at concert halls, always hearing the pitch of why STEAM fields are so important. It’s in the high school newsletters, it’s in the local performing arts community brochures; it’s everywhere you look when you go to an art show. Continue reading…

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Save the Field Museum!

by Donald Prothero, Jan 02 2013

Buried in all the news of the end of the world, the “fiscal cliff”, and the holiday season was another item that probably escaped most people’s attention. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the world’s foremost natural history museums, is planning huge cutbacks in their scientific staff in the next few weeks. Details of who will be cut are sketchy, but the news raced through my professional community and made us all very upset. This is not only because many people who are our personal friends will be losing their jobs because of mismanagement at the top, but also because such a disastrous move would hurt science in many ways that the general public may not appreciate.

First, some background. The Field Museum was founded in 1893 after the Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of that year ended, and named because of a large endowment from retail mogul Marshall Field (whose stores were a landmark in Chicago until bought out by Macy’s in 2005). It is one of the world’s largest natural history museums, with not only spectacular exhibit halls of dinosaurs and modern animals and gems and minerals and everything else (such as the famous “Lions of Tsavo” and “Tyrannosaurus Sue”), but even larger research collections—almost 400,000 fossil specimens alone! It seemed that such a longstanding landmark would never have trouble, but those of us who have worked in private museums know they are always scrambling for a buck to match their costs, and they are constantly staging fundraisers and schmoozing rich donors with gala events to keep the money coming. A few years ago they seemed to be on top of the world with the coup of acquiring (thanks to huge donations from McDonalds, Disney, and other corporations, not their own money) the famous tyrannosaur “Sue” (now featured in their main hall). But their CEO and trustees apparently made some risky investments, and gambled their endowment on financial instruments that got clobbered in the recession, and now they’re hurting for money. Thanks to the bad decisions of investors, everyone else will suffer (shades of the financial meltdown of 2008).  They’ve already cut a lot of other expenses to the bone, fired a lot of the less-skilled support staff, and canceled expensive traveling exhibits. Now they’re about to cut their own hearts out and destroy the staff that makes the museum run in the first place.

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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The republican brain on science

by Donald Prothero, Aug 29 2012

A Review of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—and Reality by Chris Mooney, John Wiley, New York, 327 pages.

Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

—Stephen Colbert


Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

—Isaac Asimov


You can’t convince of believer of anything, for their belief is not based on evidence but on a deep-seated need to believe.

—Carl Sagan


Hearing the speakers at the GOP convention spout their ideas this week, I’m again reminded that an entire American political party is proudly and openly espousing views that are demonstrably contrary to reality, from claiming that rape does not cause pregnancy, to claiming that global climate change is a hoax, to even weirder idea, like the bizarre notion that the President of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim. For years, I’ve puzzled over why people can believe such weird things as creationism or other kinds of pseudoscience and science denials. In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I devoted an entire chapter to asking why creationists can so confidently believe patently false ideas, and refuse to look at any evidence placed in front of them. I’ve compared it to Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, where Alice steps through the mirror and finds that the objects and the landscape look vaguely familiar—but all the rules of logic are reversed or turned inside out. How can people continue to believe things that are clearly wrong, and refuse to change their ideas or look at evidence? Continue reading…

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WHen cold fusion was hot

by Donald Prothero, Aug 22 2012

Stanley Pons (right) and Martin Fleischmann with a publicity shot staged to show them “working” on their experiment in 1989

The first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
—Richard Feynmann

The passing of Martin Fleischmann on August 3 brings to mind one of the most famous (and infamous) recent episodes in the history of science: the cold-fusion fiasco. Those of us who were involved in science in March 1989 (or just paying attention to the news) could not avoid hearing about Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah supposedly producing nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Announced with great fanfare and huge press publicity on March 23, 1989, Pons and Fleischmann claimed that they had run simple electrochemical experiments in the lab that had managed to start a nuclear fusion reaction. Conventional nuclear physics had always argued that fusion (squeezing two or more atoms together to produce another atom) could only be produced at extreme temperatures and pressures, such as the fusion reactions that occur now to drive the heat engine at the core of the Sun. This is why nuclear fusion has only been used for hydrogen bombs and is not yet practical for nuclear energy or other peaceful uses. If Pons and Fleischmann were right, their discovery would revolutionize nuclear physics and possibly solve our energy problems with a source of energy that was cheap to obtain and not as dangerous as the various proposals for fusion reactors. The media immediately ran with the story on a massive scale, so that nobody who paid attention to the news at that time could possibly miss the message. Continue reading…

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