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Cow Tipping:
The Most Urban of all Urban Legends

The following article, written for children, is from Junior Skeptic # 5 on Urban Legends, published in Skeptic magazine issue 7.2 (1999). Click image below to enlarge it.

We call this the most urban (city-like) of all Urban Legends because it’s a story believed by city folk, although farm people have been known to tell it as a tall tale. Anyone who has ever worked closely with cows knows that almost every statement in the cow tipping story is false (as we will explain below). But you will probably find that you don’t have to ask very many people to find someone who absolutely swears they tipped cows over exactly the way it’s described in the cartoon above.

Why People Who Know About Cows Think That the Cow Tipping Story is Largely an Urban Legend

Cartoon panel 1 (top of this article): There is no such thing as a cow “locking its legs.” They don’t have to because cows sleep lying down (people may be confusing them with horses which do sleep standing up).

Cartoon panel 2: Cows don’t sleep for hours at a time like people do. The sleeping habits of cattle developed when they were prey animals hunted by predators. Most of their “sleeping” is very light—more what we would consider a very relaxed state. This kind of sleep is easily interrupted and allows them to be aware of their surroundings. Cows also need about an hour of a deeper kind of sleep which they take in short naps of a few minutes each spread over a 24 hour period. Because each individual cow spends so little time in deep sleep most cows in a herd are alert even at night. It’s not that easy to sneak up on a herd of cows. Domesticated cows are relatively calm animals but they are spooked by unexpected events. Cows still have the characteristics that kept them alive when they were wild animals avoiding predators. They have eyes on the side of their heads so they can see in all directions and ears as big as feet for purposes of detecting possible attackers. One alerted animal easily transfers its concern to the others in the herd. If you live in a town you may not realize how incredibly quiet it can be out in the country at night. You can hear a lone car coming for several minutes, the noise of the engine slowly increasing as it approaches. A carload of excited teens who stop along side a pasture at night, suddenly switch off the engine, scramble out, slam the car doors, and try to figure out how to squeeze through a tightly strung barbed wire fence in the dark would be hard for a cow to miss.

Cartoon panel 3: Cows are much bigger than most people realize. In the unlikely event that a cow would stand still as you approached, is it even possible to simply shove one over? Did you ever try, as a kid, to run at an older teen or adult in order to slam into them and knock them down? If you have, you know that it’s really difficult to knock someone off their feet if they weigh even 50 pounds more than you do. The black and white spotted Holstein—by far the most common dairy cow—could easily weigh more than 10 times what a potential cow tipper weighs. The cows can weigh 1500 to 1800 pounds, and the bulls can weigh over a ton! Cows are also used to responding to pushes and shoves from the rest of the animals in the herd. The top of a Holstein’s back can be five feet or more high. Plus a cow has the advantage of standing on four feet instead of two feet. Junior Skeptic scientist Tom McDonough estimates the force necessary to tip a cow (below).

Dr. Tom Mcdonough’s Science of Bovodynamics

Cows are big!

The modern Holstein dairy cow is an enormous animal. Many people who claim that they’ve pushed a cow like this over have probably never been near one because they typically describe the cow’s back as being only 3½ to 4 feet high.

(Bovodynamics, or BVD for short, is our name for the silly Science of Cow Tipping. The name combines “bovine,” an old word for cow from Latin, with “dynamics” the study of energy or objects in motion.) In the cow tipping story the cow must be tipped with a single shove before it can react to the tipper. Dr. McDonough has developed a simple computer program to estimate the amount of force it takes to shove over an object based on its weight, center of gravity and the height of its legs. If you’d like to know what tipping a cow would be like, try tipping over a refrigerator with a single shove. McDonough calculates that it would take a shove of 35 pounds of force to tip a typical home refrigerator. But a cow like the one above weighs about 8 times as much as a refrigerator! You’d first need to pack the refrigerator with 900 pounds of lead weights to duplicate the cow tipping effect. (The higher you place the weight the less you’ll need. Top-heavy items tip easier because gravity helps pull them over as the weight shifts to one side.)

Can a Person Really Tip a Cow, and Why Don’t We Just Go Out and Try It?

Cow on a ball

The direct approach is usually the best way to find something out. But we would never recommend trying to tip a live animal because from what we already know it’s likely that either the cow or the would-be tipper might be injured.

  • Bulls are often pastured with cows and they are genuinely dangerous.
  • A cow tipper could get lucky and catch a cow off balance, or cause it to trip or slip. Large animals are easily injured by their own weight just falling from a standing height.
  • You wouldn’t want to be trapped in the dark on foot if your actions caused the herd to begin running. Stampeding cattle are unpredictable.

The Psychology of Cow Tipping

The cow tipping story’s attraction is probably due to the fact that it allows a bunch of friends to pile into a car, drive around at night, have an adventure, and brag about it afterward. It may be that sending someone out to try to tip over a cow is like another joke also played on an unsuspecting greenhorn at night— “snipe hunting.” A person new to a group is invited to go snipe hunting. They are taken out into the country at night, told to wait in a particular spot for the snipes, and abandoned. The joke is to see how long a person will wait before realizing they’ve been had. The next time an unsuspecting new victim joins the group it would not be surprising to find that the previous victim is the person who suggests a snipe hunt and describes the adventure with the most enthusiasm. END

We thank dairyman Carl Knudtson and his family for providing the cow measurements for the calculations in this article.

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A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 3): The Twilight of Vitalism

This post concludes a three-part series exploring the history of vitalism. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Image by Daniel Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith.

Image by Daniel Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith.

Vitalism died a death of a thousand cuts. There was no single experiment, no one find that falsified the idea. Rather it was a shadow that shrank as the light of discovery grew.

One such event has become legendary in most modern science classrooms. In the late 18th century Italian physician Luigi Galvani was said to have brushed the sciatic nerve a frog he was dissecting with his metal instruments in such a way to cause the legs to twitch. This observation, it’s said, led to his research into connections between the emerging field of electrochemistry and physiology.

Galvani’s ‘electrical fluid’ theory paved the way for understanding how nervous impulses stimulate muscle movement, removing the need for some vague impetus or desire for movement.

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eSkeptic for July 1, 2015


Mike McRae
A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 1): Fire and Gods

Mike McRae provides a glimpse into the history of two competing systems of biology: life as complex chemistry, and the abandoned theory of vitalism. (Part 1 of 3)

Read the Insight

A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 2): Vital Thinking

Mike McRae provides a glimpse into the history of two competing systems of biology: life as complex chemistry, and the abandoned theory of vitalism.

Read the Insight

Daniel Loxton
The Odds Must Be Crazy?

Daniel Loxton shares a video from The Odds Must Be Crazy about a coincidence he experienced at a skeptics convention in 2014.

Read the Insight

What the Heck is a Biostratigrapher?

Listen as a quick and easy 10-minute radio interview explains how fossils help scientists to reconstruct the geological history of the Earth.

Read the Insight


The Latest Episode of Mr. Deity: Mr Deity and the Donations

Mr. Deity asks Lucy’s assistant about some suspicious donations.

WATCH | DONATE | SUPPORT | FOLLOW | EXPLORE | RENT


About this week’s eSkeptic

Have you ever questioned your faith, or worried about what life would be like without it, or do you know someone who has? Have you ever wrestled with issues of how to replace religious practices and ideas with secular ones? In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald Prothero reviews Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions: a book by Phil Zuckerman that addresses these topics.

Dr. Donald R. Prothero earned MA, M.Phil, and PhD degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University, and a BA in geology and biology from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 32 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and five trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He was Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC).

The Times, They are a Changin’

by Donald R. Prothero

Last month, a new Pew survey was released that showed that the “nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” in America have become the second largest religious group in America (22.8% of the surveyed population, jumping up from only 16% in 2007). They were outnumbered only slightly by Evangelical Protestants at 25.8%. “Nones” even are more numerous than Catholics, and the numbers of mainstream Protestants is plummeting. “Nones” are ten time more numerous than Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths (most are only 2–3% or less). Not only are the numbers of “nones” increasing rapidly, but nearly every religious group in America is declining just as fast, including a 0.9% drop even in the dominant Evangelicals. More importantly, the largest percentage increase in unaffiliated people is among the younger generations, especially the Millennials (those born between 1981–2000), who are becoming increasingly non-religious (36–44% or higher). Even more striking, the usual trends of people getting more conservative and religious as they age is not holding true with the Millennials, since the older Millennials show just as high a rate of lack of religiosity as do younger ones. If this is true, then religion may be on a permanent downward trend in this country, just as has already occurred in largely secular countries of the developed world in Europe and Asia.

Naturally, the blowhards in the right-wing political/religious community bemoaned this news, although it has been developing for a long time and is really not news to those of us who have been paying attention. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News blamed it on rap music. Former Pennsylvania Senator and two-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum blamed it on the lack of anti-abortion zealots running for president. Rush Limbaugh (who is losing channels and sponsorships right and left) blamed it on gay marriage. Pat Buchanan blamed it on the Supreme Court, the liberal elites in the media, and the counterculture of the 1960s (even though the Boomers are mostly religious). Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis Ministry, blamed it on the public schools as “churches of atheism” and the lack of early indoctrination of children. Similar responses could be heard from Pat Robertson and other evangelical ministers.


Changing U.S. Religious Landscape

As a number of people have pointed out, however, these simplistic cartoon villains of religion need to be replaced with more realistic causes, backed up the poll numbers and demographic trends. The Pew Foundation is set to release another report soon on their analysis of the reasons, but already scholars have pointed to several plausible causes. Professor of Secular Studies Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, has written several books on the religious changes in the United States (Faith No More, Society without God). He just released his newest book on the topic, called Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. Zuckerman and most of the analysts point to several trends that have probably contributed (although it’s hard to decide which ones are most important):

  • The ascendancy of the extreme fundamentalists/evangelicals, and their grip on the GOP, has meant that the ugliest, meanest, most anti-science, most intolerant side of Christianity—anti-abortion, homophobic, racist, sexually repressed and woman-hating, and hating anyone different from them—has become the public face of Christianity. In states where they have enacted their hard-right agenda, the polls show a huge backlash from Millennials and young people who are much more tolerant of gays, other races, and much more pro-science and feminist in orientation. These young people have not switched to more liberal Christian denominations, but left religion altogether. It appears unlikely that they will come back to religion any time soon after they have formed their opinions of Christianity from their younger years. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam wrote: “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”
  • A second factor may be another thing creating a black eye for religion, especially among the young: the acts of religious leaders and fanatics. These range from radical Islam and its terrorist tactics and barbaric treatment of people (especially women), to pedophile priests (probably the single biggest reason Catholicism is declining), to the hypocritical ministers with feet of clay who scold others about their morality, then turn out to be closeted gays, or child molesters, or adulterers, or criminals.
  • Zuckerman pointed to a third important factor: the rise of the internet. Just a generation ago, if you had religious doubts but lived in small-town America, you had no one to talk to. Everyone’s first question after they meet you is “What church do you go to?” You had to keep your ideas to yourself and stay in the closet. Now, thanks to the Internet, you can connect with virtual communities of secularists all over the globe. There are many different secularist meetings where you are among like-minded individuals who also reject religion. In this day of instant information, any bizarre claim by religion can be instantly Googled. In many cases, the sites debunking religious claims will be in the top few hits (e.g, Scientology). In my day, it took me a long time to find a few books on atheism (such as Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian) in the library (if the library dared order such a title). Now, the entire debunking of religious claims is just a few clicks away, and books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are best sellers. Anyone with just a bit of curiosity or doubt, especially among the younger generations, can find things in just a few seconds that I never encountered in years of reading and searching when I was young and questioning my family’s Presbyterian faith.
  • Another surprising factor that Zuckerman discovered: the rise of women in the work force, and the profound changes it has meant in all of American society. Women tend to be the religious backbone of most families (my mother sure was!). In conservative religious families, they are the enforcers and the teachers of the faith to their children. But changing economic and demographic factors has led women out of their traditional roles, exposed them to new ideas, and made them less likely to rely on religion when being homemaker isn’t their only job.
Generational Replacement Helping Drive Growth of Unaffiliated, Decline of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism

The main focus of Living the Secular Life, however, is a follow-up to Zuckerman’s earlier books about secularism—how do American secularists live? In each chapter, he deals with an important personal or cultural issue that is usually defined in religious terms, and shows how American secularists do just fine without religion. These include the common questions, “How can you be moral without God”? (actually, secularists tend to be more moral than religious people). How do you raise kids without church? Where do you go for community without your church group? How do you deal with life’s difficulties and with death without the hope of religious faith? In each chapter, Zuckerman approaches the problem by giving examples of real people and how they address these issues, then shows that religion is not required to deal with any of these issues—just as the vast majority of secular people in most of the northern European countries have long ago concluded.

Zuckerman’s book is an excellent read for anyone who is questioning their faith and worried about what life would be like without it, or for secularists who are wrestling with issues of how to replace religious practices and ideas with secular ones. When Zuckerman gave a talk about his book for the Skeptics Society at Caltech on April 19, 2015, he told a story about how much life has changed in northern Europe. In most cities, huge cathedrals and other religious buildings no longer have any congregations, but have been sold and are now used as meeting houses, public places, and even local pubs and taverns. They have become cathedrals of secularism.

I’m not expecting this to happen in the U.S. next week, but it can happen very fast. The change occurred in Europe over only two generations, mostly before the internet gave it any help—thanks to cradle-to-grave social safety nets provided by their governments, which remove the fear that drives religious belief. In Quebec in the 1960s, the Catholic hierarchy once ruled the entire province, but a series of elections of secular governments led it to become the most progressive and least religious province in all of Canada in a single generation. John Lennon imagined no religion. Now the rest of the country is catching up. END

Watch Zuckerman’s Lecture for free right here, recorded live by the Skeptics Society at Caltech on April 19, 2015
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A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 2): Vital Thinking

This post continues a three-part series exploring the history of vitalism. Read Part 1 and continue on to Part 3.

Paracelus depiction copied from a portrait that may have been painted from life.

A depiction of Paracelsus. This image was copied from a lost original which may have been painted from life. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

The 16th century Swiss-German physician and alchemist Theopharastus von Honhenheim—better known as Paracelsus—saw little distinction between his studies in chemistry and medical biology. Famous for his quote on all things being poisons, Paracelsus believed chemistry lay at the heart of health and disease. Given the relationship between contemporary medicines and toxicology, with many treatments based on substances such as alcohol, arsenic, antimony, lead and mercury, it’s surprising his position wasn’t more widely held.

(more…)

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A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 1): Fire and Gods

This post begins a three-part series exploring the history of vitalism. Continue on to Part 2 and Part 3.
Haeckel's asteridea drawing.

One of biology’s longest standing mysteries was explaining how complex life emerged from simpler chemical structures.

When the 19th century German embryologist Wilhelm Roux looked down the microscope at a frog’s egg, he saw a machine. A tiny, perfect molecular machine with chemical cogs and atomic gears. Life was analogically—indeed, almost literally—based on complex organic machinery. “Lehre von den Ursachen der organischen Gestaltungen,” he wrote[1]. Developmental mechanics is the cause of the organic form.

But Wilhelm had a rather big problem to solve. Cells reproduce by splitting in half before growing. Divide a machine and all you get is two simpler machines, each with half of their original pieces. How does something grow in complexity as its components seem to grow in simplicity?

The answer wouldn’t come for half a century. In the meantime, an old fashioned belief in ghostly forces would have one last opportunity to prove itself worthy of being considered scientific.

(more…)

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The Odds Must Be Crazy?

Anna Maltese (left) presents Daniel Loxton with a bizarre coincidence after his talk at The Amazing Meeting 2014, while his wife Cheryl Hebert looks on. (Photograph by David Patton. Used by permission.)

Anna Maltese (left) presents Daniel Loxton with a bizarre coincidence after his talk at The Amazing Meeting 2014, while his wife Cheryl Hebert looks on. (Photograph by David Patton. Used with permission.)

There are few experiences so striking—so deeply imbued with apparent meaning—as a remarkable coincidence. But when is a coincidence genuinely meaningful rather than merely unexpected? And when is it neither, but instead (as skeptical psychologist Joseph Jastrow described such happenstances in 1900) “just what the normal distribution of such phenomena would lead us to expect”?1 People often find it difficult to view such subjectively jarring experiences from a statistical perspective, even when analysis of the odds is in fact possible. (Sometimes it isn’t.) As Jastrow observed,

It would be pleasant to believe that the application of the doctrine of chances to problems of this character is quite generally recognized; but this recognition is so often accompanied by the feeling that the law very clearly applies to all cases but the one that happens to be under discussion, that I fear the belief is unwarranted.2

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What the Heck is a Biostratigrapher?

Jason Loxton in China during a 2010 research trip.

Jason Loxton during a 2010 research trip to study graptolites in China.

What is “biostratigraphy,” and what on Earth does it have to do with sharks…or with pancakes?

Listen to biostratigrapher Jason Loxton (my brother, and a Junior Skeptic contributor) answer these questions in a quick and breezy CBC radio interview (alternate link). Broadcast on Monday June 22, the interview summarizes Jason’s talk for the “Children’s University” public outreach event, titled “Sharks, Fossils and Meteors: How Geologists Gave the Earth a Birthday.” This free-to-the-public lecture for kids took place yesterday (June 23).

A lab instructor at Cape Breton University and Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University, Jason studies the taxonomy and distribution of Ordovician/Silurian graptolites—or “really boring-looking smudges,” he says, cheerfully. This eye-straining endeavor may be “unglamorous and decidedly not ‘trendy,'” as he describes it, but it is just the type of ongoing fossil detective work which has allowed generations of geologists to painstakingly piece together the history of our planet. This project, biostratigraphy, “uses fossils to divide the rock record into relative units of time.” And for that, modest fossils like Jason’s smudges are just the thing.

(more…)

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eSkeptic for June 24, 2015


FUN & ENTERTAINMENT IN THE YEAR 2525

Part 2 of the Report on the Skeptics’ Conference at Caltech

Over the weekend of May 29–31 skeptics not only listened to world-class talks by world-class scientists and scholars (see last week’s eSkeptic), they enjoyed fun and entertainment, starting with a banquet dinner with the speakers at the Westin Pasadena that culminated with a stage performance by the brilliant Jamy Ian Swiss, one of the world’s top magicians who is also known for his passionate activism in the skeptical movement, employing his magic to teach people how to think and how to avoid being fooled (Jamy calls himself an “honest liar”).

Click an image to enlarge it.
Guests at dinner Friday night
John Rael (left) at the book table with author David Brin (right)
Magician Jamy Ian Swiss performing card tricks on Friday night
Magician Jamy Ian Swiss explains to skeptics how easy it is to be fooled, and then fooled them by levitating a table, with the assistance of Tina Shermer, sister of the Skeptics Society director Michael Shermer.

On Saturday during the breaks and meals skeptics had lots of time and opportunity to interact with the speakers, get their books signed, and photographs taken. Some people might have even noticed the mega movie star Johnny Depp and his wife the actress Amber Heard in attendance, as both are official card-carrying (and Skeptic pin bearing) Skeptics who thoroughly enjoyed the talks and meeting the speakers back stage in the Green Room.

Order a Skeptic pin

Left to right: Amber Heard, Johnny Depp, Michael Shermer, Jennifer Shermer

Mega star Johnny Depp proudly displays his Skeptic pin and signed copy of The Moral Arc during the conference, which he attended with his wife Amber Heard, actress and proud card-carrying member of the Skeptics Society, pictured here with Michael and Jennifer Shermer, who organized the musical entertainment for the conference.

The highlight of the day was the evening rock concert in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium featuring the Las Vegas headliner Frankie Moreno and his band, featuring his brother Tony Moreno on bass, Mathew Belote on drums, and Alex Zeilon on guitar (about whom Frankie joked they hired for his Justin Bieber haircut). It was a rockin’ good time (Frankie even talked Michael Shermer into coming on stage to sing Mac the Knife with him—also included in the show below—American Idol ready he is not, but a good sport he is). The band played a number of Frankie’s original hit songs, along with the surprise hit cover of Eleanor Rigby, as you’ve never heard it. By the end of the evening Frankie had much of the audience on stage dancing and rockin’ out and having a grand ol’ time.

Frankie Moreno Band
By the end of the evening Frankie had much of the audience on stage dancing and rockin’ out and having a grand ol’ time.

By the end of the evening Frankie had much of the audience on stage dancing and rockin’ out and having a grand ol’ time.

On Sunday the Skeptics Society hosted two science field trips, a Geo Tour to the San Andreas Fault and other unique geological features of the Southern California landscape that makes the San Gabriel mountains the fastest growing mountain range in the continental United States.

Geo Tour leader Dr. Donald Prothero lectures about the geological formation at Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles, where Star Trek and many other TV shows, films, and commercials are filmed.

Geo Tour leader Dr. Donald Prothero lectures about the geological formation at Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles, where Star Trek and many other TV shows, films, and commercials are filmed.

Skeptics also trekked up the San Gabriel mountains to Mt. Wilson to visit the observatory telescopes, which were in their day the largest on the planet, including the 60-inch telescope that was involved in important work in locating our solar system within the Milky Way Galaxy, the 100-inch telescope that Hubble used to discover the expanding universe, and the solar observatory from which hand-drawn illustrations of the sun and its spots have been made daily for a century.

The 60-inch Telescope, activated in 1908, was the largest in the world at the time. It established the basic design of modern reflector telescopes. In addition, It pioneered spectroscopic analysis, parallax measurements, nebula photography, and photometric photography, it was used to measure the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and our position in it. It can now be rented for an evening of viewing by the public. (Photo credit: Ron Constable)

The 60-inch Telescope, activated in 1908, was the largest in the world at the time. It established the basic design of modern reflector telescopes. In addition, It pioneered spectroscopic analysis, parallax measurements, nebula photography, and photometric photography, it was used to measure the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and our position in it. It can now be rented for an evening of viewing by the public. (Photo credit: Ron Constable)

The 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson was the instrument used by Edwin Hubble to discover that the Milky Way was just one of countless “island universes,” or independent galaxies, as well as the fact that the universe is expanding.

The 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson was the instrument used by Edwin Hubble to discover that the Milky Way was just one of countless “island universes,” or independent galaxies, as well as the fact that the universe is expanding. (Photo credit: Ron Constable)

100-inch Hooker telescope. Hubble’s chair sits on a platform in the center left. (Photo credit: Ron Constable)
Original controls to move the telescope dome sit to the right of the modern computer. (Photo credit: Ron Constable)

Finally, a fund-raising dinner featuring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, held at the Shermer home in Altadena, includes an impromptu close-up magic show by Jamy Ian Swiss. At the end Dawkins declared “Jamy is the best conjurer I’ve ever seen.”

Magician Jamy Ian Swiss performing
Magician Jamy Ian Swiss performing closeup magic at the Shermer home
Richard Dawkins (center) at the fundraiser dinner at the Shermer home in Altadena.

Richard Dawkins (center) at the Shermer home in Altadena.


Donald Prothero
It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

Donald Prothero reviews a fanciful summer blockbuster about dinosaurs.

Read the Insight


The Way of the Mister: Atheist vs. Agnostic

Mr. Deity responds to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2012 “Big Think” video in which Neil comes out as an agnostic.

WATCH EPISODE | DONATE | SUPPORT | FOLLOW | EXPLORE | RENT

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It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

220px-Jurassic_World_poster

Ever since Jurassic World (watch trailer) came out two weeks ago (and is now the fastest movie ever to make a billion dollars), people have been asking me again and again what I thought of the movie as a vertebrate paleontologist, and someone who has written often about dinosaurs, and even done some research on them. My usual short answer is: “A big disappointment: it’s an OK monster movie, lousy science. And it could have been SO much better.” This has been the consensus opinion among nearly all the scientists and science bloggers (especially dinosaur paleontologists) who have commented on it, including John Long, Jim Kirkland and Thomas Holtz, Brian Switek, Kyle Hill, John Conway, Mark Loewen, Darren Naish, and many others.

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eSkeptic for June 17, 2015


Daniel Loxton
The American Medical Association and the Fight Against Quackery

Daniel Loxton provides a historical backdrop for a potentially encouraging development reportedly emerging within the American Medical Association.

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The sumptuous book selection at the Skeptics Society’s Conference is checked out by John Rael (second from right) and Lawrence Krauss (far right). Click an image in this review to enlarge it.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, William M. London reviews the Skeptics Society Conference on the Future of Science and Humanity that took place at Caltech May 29–31, 2015.

William M. London is a professor of public health at California State University, Los Angeles who specializes in the study of consumer health issues. He is tied for the record of most degrees (five) from the University at Buffalo (SUNY): BA in biological science; BA in geography; EdM in educational psychology; EdM in health education; and EdD. in health education. His Master of Public Health degree is from Loma Linda University. He completed all coursework toward a Master of Science in Clinical Research from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

The Year 2525 Ain’t What It Used to Be

by William M. London

When I saw the lineup of world-class speakers for the Skeptics Society’s conference “In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity (May 29–31, 2015) ” at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, I realized I had to be there, starting with the speakers’ reception and buffet dinner at The Westin Hotel in Pasadena featuring close-up magic performed by Jack Velour and after-dinner stage magic performed by Jamy Ian Swiss.

Friday night with buffet, books, and booze!

Friday night with buffet, books, and booze! Click any image to enlarge it.

Jamy Ian Swiss performing close-up magic on Friday night.

Jamy Ian Swiss performing close-up magic on Friday night.

The opening talk of the conference by prominent paleontologist, geoscience researcher, and science educator Donald Prothero suggested horrible living conditions ahead if we continue on our present course. Prothero was like the ghost of Jacob Marley coming to haunt Ebeneezer Scrooge with three more ghosts: (1) mass extinctions, (2) global warming, and (3) depletion of limited mineral resources. These ghosts are no phantoms. There have been five major mass extinctions of species on our planet, and now we’re in the era of a sixth extinction that is a thousand times greater. He cited the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolber, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. (As if, I didn’t already have enough books on my reading to-do list!)

Donald Prothero

Donald R. Prothero

Prothero used the analogy of rivets popping out of an airplane wing to species dying off. The problem isn’t catastrophic right away, but when enough rivets pop out, the wing falls off. In other words, when enough species die off, ecosystems collapse. As well, he said we’re headed for a global increase in temperature of four degrees Celsius by the end of the century and that holding down the increase to just two degrees would be an enormous challenge. He described the problem of increasing tropical disease with the spread of insects accompanying warming climate. He said sea level has risen eight inches since 1900 and showed maps projecting how much of coastal areas around the world will be underwater if the melting of glaciers and ice caps continue unabated.

Prothero then moved on to the problem of finite mineral resources. For example, he noted that rare earth elements are available mainly from China. He presented Hubbert’s famous bell-shaped curve illustrating production rates of natural resources over time and said that we are already at the end of the oil age since it has become more and more difficult to maintain oil supplies to meet energy demands. He concluded his talk by emphasizing the need for green energy supplies and by pointing out how overpopulation contributes to the catastrophic problems he described.

The last question Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was: “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” I thought of this as Prothero considered how much human progress has come and may continue to come at the expense of other species and the future habitability of our planet. I’m an optimist, but Prothero convinced me that we need to carefully study the sustainability of human progress. And that entails consideration of the likelihood of various calamitous scenarios along with the feasibility and potential positive and negative impacts of various solutions to the problems Prothero described.

Ian Morris

Ian Morris

Ian Morris, the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and Professor of History at Stanford University and a Fellow of the Stanford Archaeology Center, was next on the program. He spoke about his new book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, which focuses on how the source of energy a society relies on influences its cultural evolution that, in turn, impacts upon human values such as what is viewed as just and fair.

For example, Morris noted that hunter-gatherer tribes value political, economic, and gender equality. Hierarchies don’t work in such small societies. Violence is a common response to disruptive upstarts. By contrast, farming societies are larger and more complicated, requiring a division of labor. Thus, they are hierarchical with significant gender inequality. He characterized the violence in these hierarchical as state-sanctioned. Finally, Morris described fossil-fuel societies as having enormous populations, technology, and an extensive division of labor. Ordinary people are empowered through democracy and open society arrangements thrive. Keeping with the futuristic theme of the conference, Morris raised questions about networked post-fossil-fuel societies:

  • What will fairness look like when brain-to-brain interfacing is common?
  • What will political, economic, and gender hierarchies look like?

He mentioned two possible scenarios:

  • A souped-up fossil fuel society that would be hierarchically flatter with increased egalitarianism.
  • A society of some superhuman people with significant hierarchy.

Care to speculate about which scenario would be more successful in averting the catastrophes that Donald Prothero described?

Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond

The next speaker, Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, shared insights related to his field experiences in New Guinea. He began by discussing how people judge and misjudge dangers (an issue I emphasize as a consumer health specialist and healthy skepticism advocate). He noted that while hazards of the natural environment, violence, and infectious disease are greater problems in New Guinea than in the U.S., chronic disease hazards are greater here. Also, Americans have more remedies for hazards (such as orthopedic care to set broken bones). However, Americans tend to obsess about or overrate the wrong risks, such as terrorism, plane crashes, and nuclear accidents. Hazards tend to be perceived as more risky when they’re unfamiliar and seen as beyond our control.

In contrast, Diamond said we need to recognize bigger threats that are more familiar and within our control, like slipping and falling in showers, falling off stepladders, and tumbling down stairs. At age 77, Diamond said he has a life expectancy of 15 years. He quipped that with a 1 in 1000 risk of a fatal fall in a shower, he can expect to kill himself five times in his expected life. Thus, he advocated for what he called “constructive paranoia.” He summarized what we can learn from New Guineans regarding:

Bringing up children. In New Guinea, there are no helicopter parents and they don’t spank. Children have choices and responsibilities, and they develop social skills to bargain. Diamond said he modeled this parenting style in raising his own twin boys.

Staying healthy. Diamond claimed that there is no diabetes and heart disease among New Guineans, not because they die too young to develop these diseases but due to their vigorous physical activity and high-fiber diets that are low in salt and sugar. While a report from 1966 backs Diamond’s claim, I note that diabetes and heart disease have become increasingly prevalent in New Guinea as they adopt Western diets.

Alzheimer’s disease attenuation. Diamond said that bilingualism and multilingualism provides some protection against Alzheimer’s disease by working out the brain. I note that the Mayo Clinic says the evidence isn’t clear that speaking more than one language prevents Alzheimer’s disease. And working out the brain, at least through games developed by the brain training industry, has not been established as protection against Alzheimer’s disease development.

Carol Tavris

Carol Tavris

Next up was the inimitable social psychologist Carol Tavris, who began her talk with a clever joke and what I would call constructive silliness. She suggested that in 500 years, there would be a female Pope, but no God, and a white guy would be invited to speak on gender. Tavris noted that 25 years ago efforts to predict the future of how gender would be talked about didn’t predict gay marriage, the transgender movement, the concept of metrosexuals, a black president, and Sarah Palin, along with female leaders in Ireland and Turkey (not to mention Germany, whose Chancellor is not only female but holds a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry!). Nevertheless, Tavris offered a few extrapolations of current trends:

  • Technology transformation of human nature (e.g., artificial intelligence, optogenetics, DNA alteration).
  • Gender could be chosen at different times in one’s life as on a planet described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness.
  • We may be able to change racial characteristics including skin color.
  • Ethnocentrism will shift to more trivial group differences.
  • Technology won’t transform human capacities.

Tavris noted that despite the recent shift in thinking about homosexuality from preference to orientation, no clear biological component of homosexuality has been established. She talked about people having a variety of sexual thoughts and behaviors with indistinct categories of gender. She noted that identity is learned and one’s sense of identity is strongest when most under attack. She speculated about a future of many sexual possibilities with a shift back to thinking about sexual preferences rather than orientations.

John McWhorter

John McWhorter

Manhattan Institute linguistics scholar John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, was the last speaker of the morning program. McWhorter predicted that there will be fewer languages in 2525 since globalization kills them. Languages survive only if people learn them in the cradle. He said that after age 13, it is all but impossible to learn a language perfectly. He showed that small, obscure languages are especially complicated and difficult to learn with their many irregular verb forms.

He predicted that one in three humans will speak English, not because there is anything special about English, but because “it got there first,” as most Web sites are now in English. He described the influence of English as a path dependent phenomenon similar to the QWERTY keyboard standard.

While more people speak Mandarin than English, McWhorter said Mandarin will not be the universal language because the subtle tone differences in Mandarin make big differences in meaning and Chinese script is so difficult to decipher. He said it consists not merely of pictures, and described it as a “bleeding, inefficient, tragic mess.”

He predicted that languages will get easier, and since speech—not writing—is what language is about, language will be more oral. The title of his talk sums up his message: “World’s Languages in 2525: Fewer, Easier, Oraller.”

The morning program concluded with a panel discussion with the morning speakers, which focused on exporting and importing features of different cultures. As much as Diamond likes visiting New Guinea, he said he wouldn’t want to live there considering the violence and mistreatment of women. Tavris noted that you can’t export cultural features like you can export cheese and that outsiders can mess up cultural and economic rules of societies. Diamond noted that sometimes outside intervention is welcomed. He gave the example of New Guinea welcoming imposition of outside force to save them.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins (right), signing an autograph

The afternoon program began with Richard Dawkins, one of the most influential scientists in the world, in conversation with the Skeptics Society’s Michael Shermer. Shermer brought up the Pew Research Center poll results from May, which showed that the 56 million people in the U.S. who are religiously unaffiliated (often called the “nones”) outnumber both mainline Protestants and Catholics. Dawkins generated laughs from the audience and media coverage with this comment: “One of the problems is that the so-called ‘nones’ often give up religion for something even worse. I mean, they take up Deepak Chopra or something like that.” (In his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Chopra’s “Law of Detachment” calls for relinquishing attachment to the physical universe and his “Law of Least Effort” calls for harmony, love, and accepting people, situations, circumstances, and events as they occur. Chopra ignored those laws and the day after the conference he sniped back at Dawkins on Twitter, which got him media attention.)

Richard Dawkins (right), in conversation with Michael Shermer

Richard Dawkins (right), in conversation with Michael Shermer

I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation Dawkins provided in his wide-ranging conversation with Shermer, who pushed him on political issues, such as to what extent the U.S. and UK should intervene in Middle Eastern matters involving the violation of human rights. Dawkins admitted that: “We on the left are so afraid of being thought of as racist that we bend over backwards…” while misogyny in Islam gets a free pass. While describing himself as an “old-fashioned imperialist” in objecting to severe female genital mutilation, he noted difficulties in intervening with cultures and the need to be very cautious before launching military actions with “boots on the ground.”

In the context of the evolutionary origins of morality, Shermer asked Dawkins his opinion on a popular theory of group selection, to which Dawkins replied “group selection is bollocks;” and that kin selection and reciprocal altruism explain altruism. He said that we are “programmed” with rules of thumb that work under normal environmental conditions that can result in altruism. He gave as an example a bird’s rule of thumb to feed squawking things in a nest, but by following the rule a bird can wind up feeding another species. That’s a mistake in a Darwiniain sense, but it’s a wonderful mistake because it produces niceness. After all, he said, no one wants to live in a Darwinian world of morality; real morality is not Darwinian. Shermer pressed him to use a different word than “mistake” because it implies that morality is not real, in some transcendent sense. Dawkins replied that they were quibbling about semantics. He endorsed Shermer’s latest book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom but his phrasing may not have come out as intended. Dawkins gave the audience a good laugh when he said: “The last chapter of The Moral Arc is very inspiring. It’s worth plodding through to the end.”

Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson

As a professor of public health, I was delighted that the next speaker, Esther Dyson, a distinguished expert in business and technology, discussed her work in the area of community-based disease prevention (to make a difference in the here and now, if not for the far future of humanity). She noted that little is spent on prevention and most health interventions are too weak to have an impact—like peeing in reservoir. So in order to create a healthier world, she decided to begin with one community at a time through HICCup, the not-for-profit Health Initiative Coordinating Council she founded.

She described her team’s approach as pouring rose water into five bathtubs. The five “bathtubs” are geographically remote communities selected from 42 communities from 26 states that submitted applications last year for “The Way to Wellville Challenge.” Motto: “five places. five metrics. five years.” The five chosen places are: Clatsop County, Oregon; Greater Muskegon, Michigan; Lake County, California; Niagara Falls, New York and Spartanburg, South Carolina. It wasn’t clear to me what five metrics were chosen for assessing the outcome of the project and she described the initiative as “a pseudo-clinical trial.” Epidemiologists refer to such projects as community trials or field trials.

I’m not sure what community-oriented public health intervention plans for the Wellville communities look like, but Dyson mentioned some of the issues to be addressed include jail-acquired insolvency, reduction of incarceration, and making it easy for companies to make money selling good food. I couldn’t tell from Dyson’s presentation or from the HICCup Web site how well the five-year study of the Wellville communities is aligned with principles of community-based participatory research that are emphasized in projects supported by the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, it was good to learn about an initiative aligned with the socio-ecological framework for prevention.

Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, and Inaugural Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University spoke about “The Future of Fundamental Science and the Long Term Future of Life.” He offered a combination of wonderful and gloomy assessments regarding our place in the universe. The good news included the reactivation the Large Hadron Collider, which will likely lead to important discoveries, and our golden age of observational cosmology, starting with Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe and the finding that galaxies farthest away are moving fastest, all discovered at Mt. Wilson just up the mountain from Caltech. Krauss said that inflation provides reasons to expect that there are many universes, and he described “empty” space as not being truly empty, as virtual particles pop in and out of existence. He said that a new development in the history of the universe is that the energy density of empty space is greater than the energy density of matter.

Krauss’ bad and ugly news included his concern that we’re reaching fundamental limits on scientific discovery and possibly an end of falsifiability of science. In the distant future, we will lose visibility of the microwave background radiation from the Big Bang and we won’t be able to see other galaxies like we can see in an image he showed taken by the Hubble space telescope. He said that life cannot persist forever in an ever expanding universe. He raised the possibility that there may eventually be no laws of physics and that there’s only metaphysics. I didn’t understand his reasoning very well, but I assume he wasn’t validating the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of Deepak Chopra.

David Brin

David Brin

Next up was the scientist, best-selling author, and tech-futurist David Brin, who posed the question: “How do we deal with the tentative Renaissance Enlightenment that we’re in?” He said that future scenarios explored in science fiction are sometimes apocalyptic and dystopian. But his overall message was hopeful. He talked about cameras now coming at us from anywhere, but he hailed a 2013 court decision giving citizens the right to record the police. He talked about the history of technology and described the development of printing and glass lenses as the first prosthetics. He suggested that new technologies present crises of progress. “Grouches” may be right about new technologies in the short-term, he said, but “transcendentalists” have been right after painful adjustments. Brin discussed the dance of competition and cooperation that creates a positive sum game rather than a zero sum game in our country. He described regulated markets as serving to ensure justice. Liberals, he said, should view Adam Smith, as their hero.

Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford

Reading Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is now on my reading to-do list—right ahead of the novel Timescape by Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, who has worked with other scientists and science fiction writers in addressing the challenges and opportunities of a 100-year project to create a starship. That’s quite a visionary goal. By contrast, he noted that Thomas Jefferson thought it would take a thousand years for the American frontier to reach the Pacific Ocean.

After mentioning our lack of attention to the present-day problem of some six million tons of debris that humans have left in orbit around the earth, Benford focused on the challenges of space exploration. “Space will kill you,” he said. Threats from space travel include fire, radiation, air leaks, low oxygen, low gravity, carbon dioxide accumulation, and bad food. But he also mentioned potential benefits. For example, asteroids are a source of water and Mars has same surface area as land areas of earth. Benford suggested that we should expect the unexpected when we open new horizons, but it will pay off, even in 2525.

The final speaker on the program was Arthur Benjamin, Smallwood Family Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, who has been described as the world’s greatest living lightning calculator. Benjamin gave one of his many remarkable performances of solving arithmetic problems in his head faster than audience members can with calculators. I was especially amazed when he rapidly constructed a 4×4 magic square based on entering an audience member’s birth date in the top row. Benjamin noted that 47% of U.S. teachers have standardized math test scores in the bottom, while in elite-performing countries in mathematics such as Singapore, 100% of teachers are in the top third.

I left the conference utterly confused about the prospects for humanity in 2525, but cautiously optimistic for the future my son will face. One of my immediate concerns is deciding which book authored by one of the conference speakers I should read next. END

Science Rules. Participants relax around Caltech's Gene Pool.

Science Rules! Participants relax around Caltech’s Gene Pool.


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