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Donald Prothero

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. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Dark Matter and Periodic Mass Extinctions? Not So Fast!

Posted on Dec. 15, 2015 by | Comments (24)

Dark-Matter-cover

The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

—Thomas Henry Huxley

In recent weeks, physicist Lisa Randall has been promoting her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. She even spoke about her latest work for the recent meeting of the Skeptic Society Science Salon on November 22. Naturally, any book which talks about such sexy topics as astronomy and dinosaurs is guaranteed to get lots of fawning press coverage, with little or no scrutiny from the scientific community. Nearly all the coverage and reviews of the book I have seen are either by science journalists without the appropriate background, or by astronomers and physicists. They were a bit skeptical about whether there was any strong evidence for her idea that waves of dark matter contributed to mass extinctions on earth, but could not rule it out. To her credit Randall made clear that she is proposing a hypothesis to be further tested, not a fully complete theory for which she is confident is correct. Like the good scientist that she is, Randall emphasizes that she could be wrong.

This is  not a review of the entire book, which is generally well written, and explains the complicated physics of dark matter and other topics is a clear and lively fashion. Unfortunately, the urge to tie her topic to sexy ideas like periodic extinctions and impact model for the end of the dinosaurs got the most press coverage, even if the book itself is more cautious about these topics. Still, it was a mistake to invoke the outdated and debunked ideas like the notion of periodic impacts causing extinctions, which seriously detracts from the credibility of an otherwise solid piece of science writing.

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Pilgrimage to Bigfoot Country

Posted on Aug. 05, 2015 by | Comments (15)

Last month I was doing geologic field work in northern California, and I had the opportunity to travel across the Klamath Mountains. Naturally, I saw many of the signs of Bigfoot Country. There’s a tacky “museum” and store down in Garberville near the Humboldt Redwoods, right off Highway 101, and there are Bigfoot merchandisers everywhere in the Klamaths. But the epicenter of Squatcher country (as the hunters of Sasquatch call themselves) is the Willow Creek-Bluff Creek area, in the central Klamaths.

Willow Creek is a tiny little town deep in the forests of the Klamath Mountains, with a population of only 1743. Logging has been its main source of income in the past but today it is tourism. And Willow Creek is truly Bigfoot Central. Almost every business in town caters to Bigfoot tourism. There is a Bigfoot Motel, Bigfoot Books, Bigfoot Contracting Supply, Bigfoot Rafting Company, and Bigfoot Restaurant, just to mention a few with “Bigfoot” in their business name. Every Labor Day weekend (this year on Sept. 5, 2015), Willow Creek hosts its annual “Bigfoot Daze” festival. Most famous of all is the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, with a room dedicated to its collections about Bigfoot. The exhibits are not that impressive: mostly hand-typed signs and labels, lots of fading newspaper clippings and fuzzy photographs, various casts of “Bigfoot prints,” and so on. The town also boasts numerous sculptures of Bigfoot in many places, including a more than twice-life-size statue outside the Bigfoot Museum, and redwood carvings outside the local Patriot gas station and the Visitor Information Center. There’s a Bigfoot Avenue and Little Foot Court, as well as a Patterson Avenue (and this town only has a few streets). Just like the areas around Loch Ness, and Lake Champlain (home of “Champ”), and other places in the cryptozoology lore, cryptid-tourism is big business, and supports a significant portion of the economy in a town as remote and tiny as Willow Creek.

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A New Ice Age? No, Bad Journalism Run Amok

Posted on Jul. 20, 2015 by | Comments (26)
Catastrophes (book cover)

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A few weeks ago, the internet was abuzz with claims that scientists were predicting a “new Ice Age” around 2030. Many media outlets ran misleading pictures of people walking through frozen wastelands, and other wintry scenes. Naturally, the climate deniers immediately jumped on this as proof that global warming wasn’t going to happen, or that scientists can’t get their stories straight. My email and Facebook were flooded with questions from people asking me whether it was true, and what did it all mean?

This story is a classic case of bad journalism run amok. The original source was just a re-published press release of a talk not yet given by one solar scientist, Dr. Valentina Zharkova. She works on solar magnetism, but has absolutely no training in atmospheres or climate science. It is just an initial report of a new mathematical model for the magnetic field behavior of the sun. It is not a peer-reviewed study, nor is it even published yet, so it hasn’t had the slightest scientific scrutiny. Contrary to all the breathless reporting, it shows no actual data for how much solar radiation will be emerging in 2030—just that the magnetic activity of the sun would be different. Magnetic activity of the sun does not translate into a simple prediction of how much radiation reaches the earth. And nowhere in this unreviewed press release does the scientist make the actual claim that there will be a new ice age in 2030. That was entirely made up by the media which completely misinterpreted and misreported the minimal information in the study.

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Science Affirmers

Posted on Jul. 13, 2015 by | Comments (17)

In this blog and in my book Reality Check, I’ve frequently complained about science-denying politicians pushing policies which are in direct conflict with scientific evidence and reality: the creationist agenda in public schools, distorting history to serve the religious extremists, or acting on behalf of their energy industry donors to deny the reality of climate change and attack the EPA, NASA, NOAA, the NSF, and legitimate scientific organizations. So it gives me great pleasure to praise public figures who stand up for science and science-based policy, and pass laws that benefit people and the environment, rather than powerful special interests and the science deniers of every stripe. Nowhere is this more apparent than my home state, California.

Immunizing Children

Last week, the state legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a no-nonsense measure that made childhood vaccinations mandatory except for extraordinary medical circumstances. No more will the anti-vaxxers in my state be able to use their “personal beliefs” to endanger other children through their own foolishness and believing debunked garbage from the internet. The problem was a severe one in our state, with its huge population and large number of anti-vaxxers driven by Hollywood celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. The medical community has been battling the anti-vaxxers for years with limited success, until serious outbreaks of measles at Disneyland, and other deadly outbreaks of rubella and whooping cough started killing people. But State Senator Richard Pan, M.D., who sponsored the bill, managed to get it through both houses of the Legislature by big majorities (despite a handful of GOP naysayers who thought in impinged on “personal freedom and privacy”). Then Gov. Brown signed it as soon as it reached his desk, and the bill is now law.

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It Coulda Been a Contender: A Paleontologist Reviews Jurassic World

Posted on Jun. 23, 2015 by | Comments (35)

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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Monkey Business

Posted on May. 29, 2015 by | Comments (11)

The spider monkey, a typical platyrrhine. (Image Courtesy WIkimedia Commons).

The spider monkey, a typical platyrrhine. (Image by Lea Maimone, via Wikimedia Commons. “Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey [Ateles geoffroyi].” Used under CC BY-SA 2.5 license.).

Monkeys are such fixtures of the jungles of Central and South America that we think of them as a permanent part of the landscape. But they are not. Only three groups of mammals formed the “Old Guard” that lived in South America since the end of the Age of Dinosaurs: the carnivorous marsupials; the sloths, anteaters, armadillos and their kin; and the native hoofed mammals. Yet monkeys are among the most abundant and conspicuous members of the New World mammals. Today, the New World monkeys (classified as “Platyrrhini” in reference to their flat noses) are incredibly diverse, with 53 species in 5 families, including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, woolly monkeys, tamarins, marmosets, and many more. Where did they come from?

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Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast!

Posted on Apr. 30, 2015 by | Comments (33)
Skulls of different sauropods, showing the distinction between the long-snouted diplodocines,and the short-faced brachiosaurs and camarasaurs. (From Tschopp et al., 2015, Fig. 1)

Skulls of different sauropods, showing the distinction between the long-snouted diplodocines,and the short-faced brachiosaurs and camarasaurs. (From Tschopp et al., 2015, Fig. 1)

The past few weeks have been abuzz with the media reaction to a just-published study by  Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. The study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: they resurrect the genus “Brontosaurus” for specimens that had been lumped into Apatosaurus since 1903. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods. (Even better: it was published in an open-access online journal, with access to the peer-reviewers’ comments as well!).

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Reflections on Earth Day

Posted on Apr. 22, 2015 by | Comments (7)
Earth, the "pale blue dot", the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image courtesy NASA).

Earth, the “pale blue dot”, the tiny green planet in a vast cosmos. It is our only home, and if we foul it, we will never get another chance. (Image created by Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC; courtesy NASA).

Today is the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. Originally proposed by activist Denis Hayes in 1969, it quickly gained momentum and was officially inaugurated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson the following year. Nelson chose the date because it was late enough in the spring that people would be able to hold outdoor rallies and it would not conflict with most campus spring breaks or the Easter and Passover holidays. It also happened to fall on the day after the birthday of famous conservationist John Muir. (Although Nelson didn’t know it, it also fell on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, a fact which the anti-environmentalists used to claim that communism was behind environmentalism). It is now the largest secular holiday in the world, with observances in over 200 countries involving millions of people.

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The Eruption that Created Frankenstein

Posted on Apr. 11, 2015 by | Comments (5)

The year 1815 was an important one in history. On January 8, the Battle of New Orleans ended the War of 1812—even though it was fought AFTER the treaty ending the war had already been signed in 1814. (Communications across the Atlantic were very slow in those days.) In February, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the isle of Elba, raised another huge French army, took control of France, and ruled for 100 days. Then he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, and ended up in his final place of exile on the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he passed the remainder of his days. Soon the French throne returned to the royal family with the rule of Louis XVIII. Less known at the time was the publication of the first geologic map by the humble canal engineer, William Smith, which has been called “the map that changed the world.”

April 10 was also the 200th anniversary of a momentous event in geology, and in human affairs: the eruption of Mount Tambora. It is the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, much bigger than the enormous eruption of Mt. Krakatau in 1883, or the much smaller eruptions of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or Mt. Vesuvius in 71 A.D. Mt. Tambora is on the island of Sumbawa, in the Indonesian Archipelago, east of Java. Indonesia is home to hundreds of active volcanoes. (Krakatau is west of Java, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra). There was an even larger eruption of Mt. Toba in northern Sumatra 71,000 years ago, which  nearly wiped out humans on this planet, but there are no historical records of this ancient event.

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Loch Ness Silliness

Posted on Apr. 07, 2015 by | Comments (4)

The legend of the Loch Ness monster is one of the most popular and enduring of all the tall tales of cryptozoology—and ironically, one of the most easily debunked as well. In our book Abominable Science!, Daniel Loxton and I laid the entire myth to rest about as conclusively as one can debunk something. Yet it still manages to drum up publicity on a regular basis, routinely appearing in news items that demonstrate how bad ideas just won’t die—and how journalists manage to keep paranormal and pseudoscientific ideas going, rather than doing their jobs as reporters, checking facts, and viewing their sources critically.

One recent  news item can be listed as a classic “Journalism 101 FAIL.” A regional paper called The Scotsman ran an article claiming to  have found the fossil of Nessie’s “great granny.” It is full of head-slapping howlers that make any geologist or paleontologist cringe at the ignorance of the reporter who ran the story. Loch Ness monster enthusiast Gary Campbell is featured (as he has often appeared in other silly Nessie stories from supposedly reputable news organizations), along with Dr. Evelyn Gray and archeologist Cait McCullagh, a curator at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Following Campbell’s lead, The Scotsman makes a big fuss about a Devonian fossil fish called Pterichthyodes milleri, from the Old Red Sandstone in the area, collected by the pioneering fossil collector Hugh Miller back in the 1830s and resting in the collection of the Inverness Museum. Apparently ignorant of every aspect of paleontology and geology, Campbell and the gullible reporter claim this fish is an ancestor to “Nessie,” offering “evidence that she exists and that her relatives populated the Highlands in prehistoric times.” Instead of using the fossil animal’s proper name, they’ve nicknamed it “Pessie.”

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