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the pot calling the kettle black

by Donald Prothero on Aug 27 2014

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In our modern world, we have a strange phenomenon. When polls are conducted about which professions the public considers most trustworthy and useful to society, scientists nearly always come out at or near the top. This poll  by the Pew Research Center of 4006 American adults placed them just below the military, doctors, and teachers in terms of trust and their contribution to society. (To no one’s surprise, lawyers were considered the least trustworthy and contributed least to society). This poll by Ipsos of 1018 adults in the UK placed scientists just below doctors and teachers. (Lawyers were not included, so bankers and politicians came out at the bottom in the UK).

Historically, this has long been true. Most people appreciate the huge benefit that science brings to society in terms of the technological advances that make our lives longer and better. And despite the stereotypes, apparently most people still regard scientists as objectively seeking the truth, working hard in their labs, and trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. Unfortunately, the most common stereotypical myth, Hollywood’s “mad scientist out to destroy/ dominate the world” is still pervasive as well. (continue reading…)

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“Shark week” goes belly up

by Donald Prothero on Aug 20 2014

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A year ago, I blogged about the decline of “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel. At that time, the normally documentary-filled week that was the channel’s biggest draw all year was beginning to show signs of “jumping the shark.” As I pointed out in previous posts, the deregulation of the airwaves in the late 1980s has led to a steady “network decay” of once reputable TV channels. When cable TV first expanded into hundreds of speciality channels, they were all dedicated to a core mission, whether it be golf or history or science. As TVTropes.com explains it, all of these deregulated cable networks had to please advertisers, and soon moved into reality shows and sensationalism to attract the core audience of 18-31 year old males that advertisers covet. Discovery Channel used to run almost non-stop documentary footage, and did fine like that for over a decade. As TVTropes.com puts it:

The Discovery Channel still shows plenty of actual documentary material, despite having been decaying for almost as long as MTV has. In the late 80s the lineup was mostly serious documentaries, the most famous of which was Wings (no relation to the sitcom except for a focus on aircraft) but which also included classy repackaged BBC imports like Making of a Continent — and once a year there was Shark Week, which was just what you’d expect. By the mid-1990s, they showed an obscene amount of home improvement shows and cooking shows aimed at stay-at-home moms (enough to spawn the spin-off Discovery Home & Leisure Channel, now Planet Green) and Wings had proven so popular it had been farmed out to its own spin-off, Discovery Wings Channel (now Military Channel). Now, they’re being swamped with “guys building and/or blowing things up” shows in the vein of MythBusters and Monster Garage. And about four different shows about ghost hunters. In 2005, Discovery debuted Cash Cab, a game show that takes place in the back of a cab, leaving one unsure whether it even has a theme beyond “non-fiction”. It gets weird when you realize that they’re knocking some of their own shows off, especially Mythbusters into Smash Lab (with a focus on safety measures) and How It’s Made into Some Assembly Required. The latter has almost only done products featured in the former (though How It’s Made has been on for just about ten years, so it’s hard to find something they haven’t done). The Discovery Channel also used to contain a lot of nature, which is where the now-classic Shark Week (which they still air regularly) originated from. But it seems that explosions have taken the place of tigers ripping stuff to pieces. Most of the nature shows have since been relegated to Animal Planet. Amusingly enough, despite the slippage over the years it remains the sole survivor of the educational channels on American cable television.

(continue reading…)

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Bananaman slips again

by Donald Prothero on Aug 13 2014

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Followers of the evolution-creation wars in this country have heard about Ray Comfort, a glorified street preacher with limited education (he has no college degree) from New Zealand who runs a ministry out of Bellflower, California, called the “Living Waters.” In his appearance, he reminds me of Sonny Bono, except he’s not as smart. He is very prominent on the internet, with dozens of videos (especially his “Way of the Master” series) pushing his theology, and especially attacking evolution. His publicity and high visibility have sold lots of his books (most of which are short titles cobbled together by reprinting stuff from the public domain). Together with washed-up actor Kirk Cameron, they have been constant gadflies preaching against science and evolution, and doing anything possible to generate publicity and sales, especially challenging evolutionists to pointless debates.

I first saw Comfort in action when he and some of his minions came to stalk the huge crowds gathered to hear Richard Dawkins speak at Caltech for a Skeptic Society event. They mingled about, trying to preach creationism, and handing out their little paperback versions of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” However, this book is no true work of Darwin. Comfort has deliberately edited the text to make it sound favorable to creationism, and added a long introduction that is one debunked creationist trope after another. Keeping with his habit of stalking scientists and secularists, I next saw him at a freethought convention in Orange County, where he snuck in without paying for the conference, and tried to interview some of the speakers. He baited P.Z. Myers into an interview, and P.Z. willingly talked to him, not caring that Comfort would selectively edit the interview to make it sound like P.Z. doubted evolution. Unlike the other big fundamentalist creationist ministers who focus on their own flock, Comfort’s approach is as a stalker and gadfly. His mission is to gather video footage that he can take back to his editing room and webmaster, and edit it down to create a “gotcha” moment and make secularists look foolish. (continue reading…)

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“Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?

by Donald Prothero on Aug 06 2014

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For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored this garbage on the internet, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve run into people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well. Now the chemtrail community circulates their photos and videos among themselves, put hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But the way the internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it’s getting impossible to ignore them any more, and it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails”, my reaction was “You can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some big government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And the fastest rebuttal I give when I run into one of these nuts is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Anything released at 30,000  feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below, and be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes must fly barely 30 feet off the ground so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!” (continue reading…)

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Smarter than thou?

by Donald Prothero on Jul 30 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Real Time with Bill Maher", July 25, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, July 25, 2014

In a previous post, I commented on how the Religious Right got upset when “Cosmos” aired last spring. They were angry when “Cosmos” mentioned Giordano Bruno or scientists who were persecuted by religious extremists during their pursuit of truth. They recoiled in horror at  how often “Cosmos” reminded us of our cosmic insignificance  compared to the scale of the universe, or from the perspective of geologic time. They raged about the fact that “Cosmos” spent an entire episode on on evolution, and the topic of evolution came up repeatedly. And lots of pro-business types hated the episode about Clair Patterson’s lonely fight against the lead manufacturers, who were invisibly polluting the world and poisoning us all. The climate deniers hated that “Cosmos” mentioned anthropogenic global warming many times.

Nonetheless, most of the reviews for “Cosmos” were overwhelmingly positive and there’s good reason to think that it reached much of its target audience, and inspired a lot of people to think about scientific questions in a way that hasn’t  happened since the original Sagan version of “Cosmos.” I have been rejoicing at the recent resurgence in the media popularity of science and evolution lately, especially after Bill Nye’s defeat of Ken Ham, the great response to Neil Shubin’s PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish,” and of course, the huge popularity of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos”.  Finally, we have several major scientists (Nye, Tyson, Shubin) who are popular in the media, especially on trendy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” as well as national news networks like MSNBC and CNN. They are national celebrities for all the right reasons (smart, articulate, telling people the truth about science and the world), rather than being famous because of reality TV or sports or entertainment. They are becoming widely known, and doing a great job of promoting science against the tidal wave of junk science and pseudoscience in the media. There hasn’t been such high-profile popularity of scientists since the days of Sagan himself. It’s about time! (continue reading…)

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TAM 2014: the mind of the science denier

by Donald Prothero on Jul 23 2014
Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

It’s been just over a week since I returned, exhausted but inspired and excited, from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014 in the South Point Hotel south of Las Vegas. The meeting was a great success, with nearly 1200 attendees, and an excellent slate of speakers including Bill Nye the Science Guy (who talked about his debate with Ken Ham and gave me a nice shout-out for helping him), Genie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and many others. This year, the theme was “Skepticism and the Brain,” so the speakers including a lot of the leading lights of psychology and neurophysiology, including Elizabeth Loftus (who  has shown that human memory is highly unreliable, and usually false), Robert Kurzban (talking about the modular mind), Carol Tavris (talking about cognitive dissonance), and many others. My friend and co-author Daniel Loxton gave an amazing talk about skepticism and why it’s important (it got rave reviews and a standing ovation). Many of the participants thought that this was one of the best TAMs ever, because it largely stuck to a consistent theme, rather than giving a scattershot slate of speakers on widely divergent topics. Plus there were the usual wild evening activities, including another installment of Penn Jillette’s inimitable Rock’n’Roll, Doughnut and Bacon party. (continue reading…)

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Bigfoot and Yeti DNA: results are in

by Donald Prothero on Jul 16 2014

For years now, we’ve been hearing about Bigfoot believer Melba Ketchum and her supposed results on “Bigfoot DNA”. As reported elsewhere, the results were a bust: the analysis was done incompetently, her reasoning was full of holes and bad science, and she failed to account for a lot of organisms in her sample (such as the American opossum) that explained her “unknowns” that she was calling “Bigfoot.” Not only that, but her paper failed peer review, so she self-published it in a journal she secretly owned, so she gets money every time someone forks up $40 to go past the paywall and read it. Most competent DNA labs are busy with real science, and don’t have the time or money to waste on side trips into pseudoscience, which their grants are not paying for. (continue reading…)

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Rock of ages—or ages of rocks?

by Donald Prothero on Jul 09 2014

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I am leaving for The Amazing Meeting this morning (I speak at 11:00 on Sunday, if you’re attending), but I had dinner with Bill Nye last night (who is a keynote speaker at TAM). We got to talking about his victory over Ken  Ham in the debate last February 4. The week before the debate, both the NCSE and Michael Shermer and I had helped coach him on what to expect and  how to approach the event. During our session at Shermer’s house, Bill was especially interested in having me explain how radiometric dating worked, and how to  handle creationist lies about it. In the debate, Bill did the smart thing and give example after example of clear-cut things that demonstrated the earth was older than 6000 years: tree rings and the oldest trees, ice cores that have 680,000 continuous seasonal bands recorded in them, objects that are  hundreds to millions of light-years away, etc. However, he was stumped when Ham dragged out a long-debunked creationist trope about a volcanic lava in Australia dated at 45 m.y. which surrounded trees which were radiocarbon dated at 40,000 years old. In such a short coaching session, it was not possible to explain to him about every creationist distortion of radiometric dating. Luckily, the example slipped past the attention of the audience quickly, and made no difference in the long run (nor did any specific point—as I said before, the debate was about perception and winning “hearts and minds”). (continue reading…)

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Unpersuadable—and unscientific

by Donald Prothero on Jul 02 2014

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A review of The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr (2014, Overlook Press, New York).

Most of us long-term skeptics have had our share of run-ins with people who cling stubbornly to a particular dogma. We get frustrated that no amount of evidence or strong arguments ever changes their point of view. The pattern is true whether you’re dealing with religious beliefs (from creationism to various Eastern religious ideas), or paranormal beliefs (UFO nuts, psychics, ghosts, cryptozoology) or just plain pseudoscience and bad scholarship (homeopathy, past-life regression, Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers, and many others). Reporter Will Storr decided to go deep into the heart of these various fringe and non-scientific belief systems, interviewing the major figures, taking part in their rituals, and doing his best to give them a fair shake as he embeds himself into their culture. (continue reading…)

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From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success

by Donald Prothero on Jun 25 2014
The "CUSS-1" ship, the first ocean drilling vessel, and the prototype for the Glomar Challenger

The “CUSS-1″ ship, the first ocean drilling vessel, and the prototype for the Glomar Challenger

Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.

—Charles Kettering

Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.

—Stephen Jay Gould

Most people hear only about the successful experiments in science. What is usually not reported is the fact that for every scientific success, there may be numerous failures and false leads and blind alleys. Most people would find this discouraging, but scientists learn early in their careers that one has to expect a number of failed experiments that can lead us to better ideas. As philosophers of science pointed out long ago, science is about testing and falsifying hypotheses. No number of positive or consistent observations can ever prove a statement true (e.g., “all swans are white”) but a single contradictory observation (e.g., the Australian black swan) can easily prove the statement false. Likewise, every failed experiment points the scientist toward a new direction or a new hypothesis or new experiment, which may eventually prove fruitful. Science is a process of trial and error, and scientists need patience, persistence and determination to reach good results after many letdowns.

Nearly every field in science can point to examples of this. Even after 35 years of doing magnetic stratigraphy, not every locality where I have done paleomagnetic sampling produced good results. The data from those unsuccessful studies are sitting in my file cabinets and the hard drive of the lab computer, but I won’t bother working on them further or try to report them in a publication. Occasionally, I’ll mention in print that a particular area (like the Chadron Formation in the Big Badlands, or the Titus Canyon Formation near Death Valley) produced no good paleomagnetic results, but further discussion is usually not worth writing up.

Likewise, looking for vertebrate fossils is usually a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Most paleontologists must spend days or weeks in a field to find anything, and sometimes several field seasons can go by with no worthwhile results. My graduate advisor Malcolm McKenna spent several years collecting his dissertation area at Four Mile Creek in northwestern Colorado before finding good specimens. Louis and Mary Leakey spent decades collecting in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and found plenty of Pliocene-Pleistocene pigs and antelopes and elephants, but not a signal human fossil until their remarkable find of “Zinjanthropus” (now Paranthropus) boisei in 1959. But if paleontologists were not so determined and dedicated, there would be few fossils in museums for us to study.

(continue reading…)

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