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14-10-22


Artwork from Pterosaur Trouble

Daniel Loxton Wins Victoria Book Prize

Pterosaur Trouble (book cover)2014 Victoria Children's Book Prize Winner

Daniel Loxton, author of Pterosaur Trouble (Kids Can Press) was named the winner of the 7th annual Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize worth $5000. Illustrated by Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith, Pterosaur Trouble is book two in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series. It follows the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, a majestic flying reptile, as he encounters a pack of tiny but vicious dinosaurs.

Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic, the children’s science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel previously won the 2010 Lane Anderson Award for his Junior Skeptic-based book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.

All three volumes in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series (Ankylosaur Attack, Pterosaur Trouble, and Plesiosaur Peril) are available from Shop Skeptic, as are Loxton’s books Evolution and Abominable Science! (2013, Columbia University Press, co-authored with Donald Prothero).

Get all 3 books for $45

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Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Donald Prothero
Reports of the Demise of Books
Are Greatly Exaggerated

Donald Prothero, author of over 35 books, considers claims that the future of publishing belongs exclusively to pixels over paper.

Read the Insight

Blake Smith
Of Pods and Monsters

Blake Smith defends the value of the examination of monster beliefs, arguing that “In the world of cryptozoology you, see the entirety of belief writ small.”

Read the Insight



Dr. Katherine Freese, On Demand
Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Dr. Katherine-Freese.jpg

The ordinary atoms that make up the known universe constitute only 5% of all matter and energy in the cosmos. The rest is known as dark matter and dark energy, because their precise identities are unknown. The Cosmic Cocktail is the inside story of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science—what is the universe made of?—told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter, acclaimed University of Michigan theoretical physicist Katherine Freese. Theorists contend that dark matter consists of fundamental particles known as WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles. Billions of them pass through our bodies every second without us even realizing it, yet their gravitational pull is capable of whirling stars and gas at breakneck speeds around the centers of galaxies, and bending light from distant bright objects. Dr. Freese describes the larger-than-life characters and clashing personalities behind the race to identify these elusive particles.
Order The Cosmic Cocktail from Amazon.

Rent this video for $3.95 for a 72-hour period.

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Watch the entire series for $49.

INSTRUCTIONS: Click the button above, then click the RENT ONE button on the page that will open in your Internet browser. You will then be asked to login to your Vimeo account (or create a free account). Once you complete your purchase of the video rental, you will then be able to instantly stream the video to your computer, smartphone, or tablet, and watch it for the rental period. Videos play best on Vimeo when you allow the entire video to buffer before viewing it.

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Dr. Richard Sugg
MonsterTalk # 92
Fangs That Go Bump
in the Night

We’ve all seen the vampires of cinema and pop culture. Caped aristocrats, sparkling teens, monstrous revenants—which of these best corresponds to the real legends of vampires? Richard Sugg returns to talk about his fascinating research into historic vampire cases. He’s uncovered a recurring relationship between outbreaks of vampirism and poltergeist activity, which will be the subject of his next book.


Alfred Wallace Celebration (UCLAS)

Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial Celebration at UCLA

November 15, 2014, 9am – 4pm
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA Campus

UCLA will be hosting an exciting weekend in November commemorating the life and legacy of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), the co-discoverer along with Charles Darwin of evolution by natural selection and the father of biogeography.

Distinguished Speakers
9am – 12 pm
Andrew Berry, Jared Diamond, Ed Larson & Michael Shermer
1pm – 4pm
Frans de Waal, Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes, and Wade Davis
Tickets
  • Full Day Registration: $35 ($30 tax deductible)
  • Half Day Registration: $25 ($20 tax deductible)

Registration includes coffee and light refreshments, souvenir program, field notebook and book signing opportunity. Seating is limited, register early. For assistance with registration, please call 310-206-6503.

More information

Order tickets

All proceeds will support the A.R. Wallace Fund, providing need-based financial support for field research and discovery in international settings.

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Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain

Dr. Bradley Voytek

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Of Pods and Monsters

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MonsterTalk is a free audio program about science and monsters, presented by Skeptic magazine. Discover our podcasts today!

A reader recently wrote in to Skeptic to complain about the inclusion of zombies in the content. I’m not 100% sure if this was directed at MonsterTalk, the podcast I produce, or at Skeptic itself because of an upcoming Skeptics Society lecture (scheduled for today at 2 pm at Caltech) about zombies and neuroscience by Bradley Voytek, one of the co-authors of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? I had both Bradley and his co-author Timothy Verstynen on a recent episode of my show.

The letter read, in part:

I cannot believe the attraction that zombies have for sane persons, especially skeptics. Please leave off all future discussions of such a childish, paranormal, boring subject matter.

I don’t work for Skeptic and wasn’t sure if the complaint was meant for me, for Bradley, or for Skeptic’s management? But I responded because it turns out I do have some strong feelings about the role of monsters and the paranormal in the skeptical world. What follows is a lightly edited version of my response to the author of this email:

(more…)

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Reports of the Demise of Books Are Greatly Exaggerated

eBooks may be popular, but they are not going to replace paper books any time soon. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

eBooks may be popular, but they are not going to replace paper books any time soon. (Image by Maximilian Schönherr, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

— Mark Twain

When I was writing geology textbooks in the late 1990s, many people came up to me and say “Paper books are dead! In ten years, all books will be electronic, and there will be no market for books in any other form.” I kept hearing those prophecies, year after year, especially when Kindle and tablet computers took off less than 10 years ago. Nevertheless, I kept on revising my various geology textbooks and they kept being printed in new paper editions. Eventually, my publishers went to publishing parallel electronic and paper editions. But here we are, almost 20 years since I heard those first dire warnings, and electronic media have not completely replaced books in paper. Vinyl and cassette tapes and now CDs have been replaced by newer audio media, VHS tapes have been replaced by DVDs and now by streaming videos, typewriters have been replaced by many generations of computers and software, film cameras by digital cameras and now by camera phones, slide rules by calculators and now by phones which do that job, and many other technologies have come and gone in my lifetime—but paper books, which have not changed fundamentally in over the 500 years since Gutenberg printed the first Bible, have not. (more…)

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14-10-15


Lecture this Sunday at Caltech

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? (cover)
Dr. Bradley Voytek
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View
of the Zombie Brain

with Dr. Bradley Voytek
Sun. Oct. 19, 2014 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall, Caltech

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

Followed by…
  • The Psychology of Magic (includes a magic show!)
    with Dr. Tony Barnhart
    Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 2 pm
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma
    with Dr. Andrew Hodges
    Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 2 pm

Read about
upcoming lectures

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INSIGHT at Skeptic.com banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Tim Farley
Challenging Psychics is Deadly
Serious Business

Tim Farley relates that "Psychic" Sally Morgan is in the news again as her representatives were apparently caught on camera physically threatening a skeptic.

Read the Insight

Mike McRae
Science On the Edge of Life

Mike McRae considers the possibility that recent Near Death Experience research reveals the existence of conscious, supernatural awareness in patients during cardiac arrest.

Read the Insight

Donald Prothero
Signs of Hope—and Despair
—on Climate Change

Donald Prothero discusses some recent highs and lows in the battle over science and climate change.

Read the Insight


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Sheldon Helms (left) with Chip Coffey (right)

Sheldon Helms (left) with Chip Coffey


Get the Skepticality App — the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society, so you can enjoy your science fix and engaging interviews on the go! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices.

SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 241
Sting Like a …

In this episode of Skepticality, This week Derek speaks with Sheldon Helms, a member of the Bay Area Skeptics, and one of the people involved in Operation Bumblebee, a scouting operation put together by Susan Gerbic to attend one of self-described psychic Chip Coffey’s big events. Sheldon provides some details about his involvement in the operation, and how two teams of skeptics worked to put together a fairly detailed event.


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Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes. Follow the RSS feed.

MONSTERTALK EPISODE 91
Demon Purrsession: Tales of Demonically Possessed Cats

Can a domesticated cat be a monster? What if it can talk, fly, predict the future and grow to enormous size? Get ready for some of the strangest lore we’ve ever covered on MonsterTalk as we interview art historian Dr. Paul Koudounaris about demonically possessed cats.

Art historian Dr. Paul Koudounaris has written some books that will probably be of interest to MonsterTalk listeners. The Empire of Death is a book about the history of Charnel Houses and Ossuaries. In his more recent book, Heavenly Bodies, you will discover astonishing works of art formed by decorating human remains. On October 16th and October 18th, Dr. Koudounaris will be giving lectures in London on his research: On the 16th he’ll be covering art and death, and on the 18th he’ll be discussing demonically possessed cats.


About this week’s eSkeptic

Among the strangest of all bizarre pseudoscientific notions is the idea that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are somehow a government conspiracy to spray us with toxic chemicals. In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero discusses how “chemtrail” conspiracy thinking fails the science literacy test.

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books.

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“Chemtrail” Fail
Are contrails really toxic chemicals
sprayed by a secret conspiracy?

by Donald R. Prothero

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 such wild Internet bafflegab, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve encountered people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well, both of whom seem to have sold their souls to commercialism. Now all they seem to broadcast is one pseudoscientific show after another. Soon there will be a low-budget Hollywood movie release, Poison Sky, that will further spread this idea. The chemtrail conspiracy mongers circulate their photos and videos among themselves, post hundreds of videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But with the way the Internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it is becoming ever more difficult to ignore them, so it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails” my reaction was: “This 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 nefarious 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 my initial rebuttal is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Do the math! 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 it will be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes fly barely 30 feet off the ground—so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!” As skeptic Kyle Hill describes it:

If the chemtrail conspiracy were true, millions of pilots would be needed to crop dust the American population. A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

The entire chemtrail conspiracy idea is a relatively recent one, and an idea that would not have become so popular without the ability of the Internet to spread ideas, no matter how ludicrous. As this site shows, it was an idea that was simmering among conspiracy theorists in the 1990s when one person in particular, William Thomas, made it popular back in 1996. By 1997–1999, he was trying to spread his ideas through interviews and media coverage and early conspiracy Internet sites, and managed to get many believers to buy in to his bizarre fantasy. Then in 1999, he was featured on Art Bell’s radio show Coast to Coast, which was conspiracy central at the time. If you wanted a quick way to reach the mob of UFO fantasists, paranormal fanatics, and conspiracy theorists, Art Bell’s show was the place in the 1990s. (Today Alex Jones wears the mantle of conspiracy central). Soon the chemtrail meme exploded far beyond William Thomas or Art Bell, and became a widely accepted idea among the people who tune in to the paranormal or the conspiracy mindset.

What are “chemtrails”? Supposedly they are different from normal contrails produced by aircraft, and allegedly they contain some sort of evil chemical with which the government is trying to poison us. Normal contrails are something we do understand, because there has been lots of research on them. Most aircraft engines leave a plume of hot gaseous exhaust from the hydrocarbons in the fuel they burn, and in the subfreezing conditions of the upper troposphere or stratosphere, those hot gases immediately condense to form long vapor clouds behind the plane as it flies. Sometimes just the disruption of the high atmospheric gases by the tips of wings will cause contrails, even without the benefit of engine fumes. If there are high-altitudes winds or the jet stream is active, they disperse quickly, but often they remain stable for many minutes in quiet air. Contrails were observed almost as soon as aircraft were able to fly at that elevation, and they are well documented in videos and photos of World War II aircraft, long before any of the current governments that are allegedly conspiring to do this were even in power.

As RationalWiki describes it:

On days when cirrus cloud formation is occurring, there is more moisture in the upper atmosphere, and consequently, contrails may linger longer before evaporating. Since cirrus clouds often precede a general overcast or haze, the casual observer could easily assume that the contrails have caused the overcast, or become the overcast. The persistence of contrails varies with weather conditions: sometimes they dissipate almost immediately, but often they will persist for hours, with crossing trails sometimes forming gridlike patterns that stretch from horizon to horizon. The “chemtrails” label is usually applied to these longer contrails, with their very persistence put forward as “evidence” that they cannot be normal contrails.

Even Indy cars with their speeds exceeding 200 mph produce contrails, another thing which shatters the silly idea that they were first visible in the 1990s in the sky.

Once you delve into chemtrail fantasists’ bizarre websites, you get a wide spectrum of different kinds of misconceptions, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods. The oddest is that people seem to think that contrails are some sort of new phenomenon, when as I just pointed out, we’ve been seeing them in the sky since planes have been flying at high altitudes. People apparently don’t remember seeing contrails when they were young, but that just testifies to the fallibility of human memory, because the photographic record of ordinary contrails goes back to before the 1930s. People don’t remember seeing contrails coming from their jetliner when they fly, but then they can’t look behind the plane in any commercial flight, so they can’t see the contrails—but they are there just the same.

Another confusion is the squishy definition of chemtrails, and how you can tell one from a regular contrail. Each “definition” gets modified and redefined as soon as the last one is explained, thus shifting the goalposts. Supposedly, contrails dissipate in minutes, while chemtrails linger for a while. Nope! The time a contrail lingers is dependent on what the upper-level winds are doing, not the chemical composition of the contrail. To prove this, we can find lots of films of contrails from World War II, and these contrails lingered for a very long time. Other definitions claim that contrails run parallel to one another, while “chemtrails” form “X” patterns or “grid” patterns. Once again, people forget how busy the skies above us are. In an area with a lot of plane traffic going in many directions, you’ll get every possible pattern of lines crossing one another. On the other hand, if you live in coastal Oregon or central California, most of the flights are north-south, so they tend to be more parallel.

Another claim is that they are spraying barium, or aluminum, or any other number of chemicals supposedly toxic to us. As this site demonstrates, none of these claims are true. More to the point, spraying them from 30,000 feet would be useless, since they would dissipate over a huge area and when they finally landed, they would be diluted into non-detectable, non-toxic amounts—and with the high-level winds, the odds are they’ll blow far away from where they are sprayed in the first place.

Then there are the claims that the Germans admit to doing it! This claim is easily debunked when you realize that the video footage that is used to support this claim deliberately mistranslates the German word Düppel (meaning “chaff”) to mean “chemtrail”. As this site shows, there are numerous video hoaxes about “chemtrails” all over the Internet, along with the normal footage of contrails that is misinterpreted. Apparently, hoaxing chemtrails is almost as popular as hoaxing ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot. There is also the claim that language about chemtrails got into a bill before Congress. The bill in question, HR2977, had a lot of UFO and chemtrail language originally inserted by a bunch of UFO enthusiasts, and then introduced in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who repudiated their unauthorized changes in the bill, and the chemtrail language was dropped. (Bills introducing strange notions to Congress are not unusual for Kucinich).

The list of additional weird claims and debunked hoaxes related to chemtrails goes on and on, and are addressed by this website. But ultimately it boils down to this question: why would the government be secretly spraying us for years? How have they pulled it off without even one person coming forward? Here’s where the fantasies of the conspiracy mongers take off. Supposedly, they are poisoning us to make us more docile, or to keep us compliant, or to weaken us; or the chemtrails are a secret program to combat climate change; or even weirder notions. Conspiracy nuts never ask the tough questions: if the government really wanted to poison us, wouldn’t they just put it in the water? It’s actually a very real possibility, as terrorism and security experts well know. Spraying chemicals from 30,000 feet is worthless.

If such a huge conspiracy really existed, and every country in the world, every military and commercial aircraft in the world, and every atmospheric scientist in the world is part of the conspiracy, why has it not leaked by now? Like every other outlandish claim of conspiracy theories, they envision a world where clandestine top-secret organizations are constantly pulling the strings, and not once has anything leaked about them doing it, or anyone who knows of it come forward. This, despite the fact that we get constant revelations of actual secrets from the CIA and NSA and FBI and other organizations all the time; note that no chemtrails were exposed in the Wikileaks affair or by Edward Snowden. Nor has any other person come forward in an age where journalists are constantly digging for secret information. For such a level of secrecy to exist, there would have to be an unprecedented ability for all these organizations to cover up their tracks, when in fact we have tons of evidence to show that every secret organization is only as secretive as its weakest link. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it is to be exposed—yet the chemtrails conspiracy involves the entire planet, and many governments and organizations who are bitter enemies and would love to expose the wrongdoing of their opponents. Again, from Kyle Hill:

The incognito infrastructure needed to conceal the chemtrail conspiracy would dwarf any other governmental agency. Millions of people—pilots, engineers, chemists, data analysts, and boots-on-the-ground hazmat teams—would need top-secret clearance for information that could never get out. If a chemtrail conspiracy were true, chances are you would run into a few involved in the cover up everyday. An effort to keep millions of mouths silent—to keep any information from pilots or participants out of the media—makes the NSA look like child’s play.

As well, in aviation weight is everything. Every last gram of weight in an aircraft beyond the essentials needed to fly comes with a big fuel penalty, so both manufacturers and also those who own and maintain commercial and military planes are extremely careful with adding any excess weight beyond what is needed to make the flight possible. For the airlines to agree to carry all these chemicals, there would be a huge dent on their razor-thin bottom lines to do so. This implies a huge amount of government funding to compensate, none of which has ever been documented. The military jealously guards their use of equipment and fuel, since every flight and aircraft is already phenomenally expensive, and they can’t afford to weigh down a military jet with unnecessary cargo.

In short, the chemtrail conspiracy thinking fails on the same grounds that the 9/11 Truther conspiracy fails: it assumes a level of competence and secret-keeping in a government that has never happened and never will happen. As Michael Shermer quips whenever a 9/11 Truther speaks, “You know how we know 9/11 was not orchestrated by the federal government? Because it worked.” END

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Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change

The People's Climate March, Sept. 21, 2014, in New York City was attended by nearly  half a million people

The People’s Climate March, Sept. 21, 2014, in New York City was attended by nearly half a million people. (Image by Thomas Good, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

This past several weeks have been an interesting mix of highs and lows on the battle over science and climate change. On Sept. 21, there was the largest march ever in the U.S. (almost half a million people) in New York to urge the UN to act further on climate change. The march was purely symbolic, because the actions in the UN were limited, but it is certainly encouraging to see this kind of popular support in the streets for an issue which has often been perceived as too abstract and long-term for most people to be concerned about.

As a sad irony, almost the same week as the march, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (run by a majority of science deniers, most of whom are both climate deniers and creationists) held hearings on the EPA’s new rules on carbon emissions, where they grilled the President’s science advisor, Dr. John Holdren. As Jon Stewart hilariously lampooned on The Daily Show  that week (“a hearing that they apparently held in 1971″), the climate deniers on that “Science” committee made complete fools of themselves, and said things so astoundingly stupid that even a studio audience could see right through them. As Stewart put it on the September 22, 2014 episode, “the hearing’s Sisyphus…John Holdren” was “charged with the impossible task of pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.” (Clip viewable here in Canada.)
(more…)

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Challenging Psychics is Deadly Serious Business

UK-based Sally Morgan, known by her moniker “Psychic Sally,” has become embroiled this week in another dispute with skeptics. Earlier today an undercover video was released showing rather disturbing threats being made against a skeptic from people who apparently work for the psychic performer.

— “Right, so I’m gonna hit you in a minute, I’m gonna knock you out.”
— “I don’t want any trouble.”

The video is below, but first some background is in order. A skeptic named Mark Tilbrook has been handing out leaflets outside Ms. Morgan’s appearances as a form of skeptical activism since earlier this year. These leaflets offer some questions for attendees to consider to make “sure you are not tricked or misled into something that may not be real” along with some hyperlinks to skeptical resources online.

Ms. Morgan’s team took a dim view of this campaigning and have threatened Mr. Tilbrook with legal action, according to his account in The Guardian on Tuesday. He subsequently reached out to the Good Thinking Society, a skeptical UK non-profit run by Simon Singh for help. They are offering him legal assistance, but are also taking Tilbrook’s campaign to the next level, which I will also detail below.

(more…)

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Science On the Edge of Life

Pet scan of a brain

Is anybody still at home when the lights go out?
Wikimedia Commons/Jens Maus BY-SA

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here,” said that ancient hero of hedonism and Athenian party animal, Epicurus. “And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

For some, this is of great comfort. The idea of eternity—even if it’s spent watching seasons two to infinite of Firefly—is not everybody’s cup of cocoa. For others, it’s impossible to contemplate our minds ever processing a final thought. A recently published study titled “AWAreness during REsuscitation” has reignited the discussion of what happens to our minds as we die.

(more…)

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14-10-08


The Skeptics Society Presents: Central California Classics (January 17-19, 2015)

Join us January 17–19, 2015 for a
Tour of the Central California Coast

ON THIS WONDERFUL THREE-DAY TOUR highlighting the central California coast, we will take the Grand Rooms Tour of Hearst Castle, a tour of La Purisima Mission, see hundreds of elephant seals at a rookery on the beach including huge bulls weighing up to 2½ tons, massive clusters of monarch butterflies sheltering in the eucalyptus trees, and sea otters in Morro Bay. We will visit the San Andreas fault zone at the iconic Wallace Creek site on the Carrizo Plain (weather permitting), the oil fields of the southwestern San Joaquin Valley (including the outstanding West Kern Oil Museum), and tour the spectacular geology of the Coast Ranges. Each night we will stay at the Best Western Shorecliffs Hotel in Pismo Beach, where you can walk down to the beach or stroll through this quaint resort town.

Sign up soon! This tour is already over half full!

Click an image to enlarge it.

A dramatic ariel view of the San Andreas Fault along the Carrizo Plain.
Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) at Point Reyes National Seashore, California. By Frank Schulenburg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A colorful jumble of various kinds of rocks, known as a melange, includes pillow lavas.
Best Western Shore Cliff Lodge above the beach. Every room has a balcony and ocean view.
The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle boasts the actual facade of an ancient Roman temple imported from Europe.
The Hearst Castle dining room, filled floor-to-ceiling with rare museum-quality furnishings, (and used as a model for the dinning hall in the Harry Potter films), also featuring humble ketchup and mustard bottles on the table among the sumptuous settings.
A series of volcanic plugs known as the 9 Sisters ends with Morrow Rock which sits out in the bay at San Luis Obispo, California

Click to download a 4000 pixel-wide panorama of the 9 Sisters.

What’s Included?

Tour package includes: charter bus, all hotel accommodations, breakfast and lunch each day, guided tour narration and guidebook, all admission fees, and a tax-deductible contribution to the Skeptics Society of $100. Seats are limited to about 52 people on a single tour bus, so the tour should fill up fast.

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OUR NEXT SCIENCE LECTURE
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain

Sun. Oct. 19 2014 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.


Missed Dr. Steven Pinker’s lecture?
Watch it free online (for a limited time)

WHY IS SO MUCH WRITING SO BAD, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do people write badly on purpose, to obfuscate and impress? Have dictionaries abandoned their responsibility to safeguard correct usage? Do kids today even care about good writing? In his latest book the Harvard linguist, cognitive scientist, bestselling author (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature) and chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, Dr. Steven Pinker, answers these questions and more… Continue Reading.


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Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Barbara Drescher
The Logic of Causal Conclusions: How we know that fire burns, fertilizer helps plants grow, and vaccines prevent disease

Barbara Drescher explains in detail that while it is true that “correlation does not (always) imply causation,” correlation does nevertheless play an important and complex role in causal inference (inferring that X causes Y).

Read the Insight

Blake Smith
Who Invented Pasteurization?

Blake Smith examines the history of pasteurization as a case study in the accretive process of invention—and reflects on the extraordinary interconnectedness necessary to push the boundaries of human accomplishment forward.

Read the Insight


Follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog

NEW SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN COLUMN ON MICHAELSHERMER.COM
Infrequencies

Michael Shermer is often asked if I has ever encountered something that he could not explain. In his October 2014 ‘Skeptic’ column for Scientific American, Michael recounts an unexplained experience so mysterious (which one might call the supernatural or paranormal) that it shook his skepticism.

READ THE POST

FOLLOW MICHAEL SHERMER ON TWITTERFacebookInsight

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MonsterTalk # 90
The Robot Apocalypse

When the robots take over, will we all be forced to speak bocce? Author and robotics engineer Daniel H. Wilson visits MonsterTalk to discuss the nature of robots and the risk of a robot apocalypse. Steven Spielberg has purchased the rights to produce a film version of his New York Times bestseller, Robopocalypse.

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Who Invented Pasteurization?

People have a habit of trying to tie inventions to the work of some single genius, but that is not how inventions are created, and not how discoveries are made. This is the first in a series of posts that will examine the process of creation, the nature of the inventive process, and why history inevitably tries to give credit to a single person when inventions are never the result of a single person’s work.

Recently I was researching on the medical efficacy of silver as a part of werewolf research, as one does. To my surprise I came across a news clipping that was shockingly discordant with my vague understandings of the history of food preservation.

MODE OF PRESERVING MILK FOR LONG VOYAGES
Sir,— As the season of the year is now arrived when hundreds of mechanics are induced to cross the Atlantic in the hope of bettering their fortune and to those who may carry young families with them, milk may be an important article of diet, perhaps the following extract from an old newspaper of the date of 1822 setting forth a simple and easy method of preserving it may be of importance; more particularly as I perceive from your last monthly list of new patents, that a method of preserving animal milk has just been patented whether the same or a different method remains to be seen: —

“Provide a quantity of pint or quart bottles (new ones are perhaps best); they must be perfectly sweet and clean and very dry before they are made use of. Instead of drawing the milk from the cow into the pail as usual, it is to be milked into the bottles. As soon as any of them are filled sufficiently they should be immediately well corked with the very best cork, in order to keep out the external air and fastened tight with packthread or wire, as the corks in bottles which contain cider generally are. Then on the bottom of an iron or copper boiler spread a little straw on that lay a row of the bottles filled with milk, with some straw between each to prevent them from breaking and so on alternately until the boiler has a sufficient quantity in; then fill it up with cold water Heat the water gradually until it begins to boil and as soon as that is perceivable draw the fire. The bottles must remain undisturbed in the boiler until they are quite cool. Then take them out and afterwards pack them in hampers either with straw or sawdust and stow them in the coolest part of the ship. Milk preserved in this way has been taken to the West Indies and back, and at the end of that time was as sweet as when first drawn from the cow.

I am, Sir, yours,
J. Elliott
March 30 1835

(more…)

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