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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.

Scam Science Journals and “The Simpsons”

Posted on Jan. 29, 2015 by | Comments (10)
Baby Maggie Simpson and Mrs. Krabappel doing science. (Original art by former "Simpsons" animator Anna Maltese, used with permission).

Baby Maggie Simpson and Mrs. Krabappel doing science. (Original art by former “Simpsons” animator Anna Maltese, used with permission).

Several times a week my email inbox contains offers to contribute to journals in subjects like engineering and agricultural sciences and in many other fields. The emails look legit, but my red flags go up nonetheless. I’m not an engineer, nor do I work in agriculture, or most other fields. I’m a geologist and paleontologist, and I teach geophysics, astronomy, oceanography, and meteorology, but I don’t work in every field of science. Clearly, my email address (which I willingly gave to legitimate scientific organizations) has been added to a compilation of scientists’ email addresses and sold and now every scam “journal” will spam me with these emails, not worrying about whether their “journal” is in my field or not.

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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Posted on Jan. 10, 2015 by | Comments (6)
Aerial view of the La Conchita landslide after the 2005 event. Photograph by Mark Reid, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Aerial view of the La Conchita landslide after the 2005 event. (Photograph by Mark Reid, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.)

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

— Will Durant

The mountain is coming down!” he shrieked. Standing directly underneath the tumbling hillside, hearing its terrible crackle and roar and watching a plume of earth spew toward the sky, the men broke and ran for their lives … He lost sight of the others as the hillside bore down. Out of the corner of one eye, he could see a house and a trailer in hot pursuit.

Los Angeles Times, January 2005

Ten years ago today, the tiny coastal town of La Conchita, California, experienced a terrible tragedy. The winter of 2004–2005 was unusually wet in Southern California. Many places in the steep mountains behind the urban belt had flooded and experienced landslides. Huge amounts of rain had fallen in the last weeks of December and the first weeks of January. In the sleepy coastal town of La Conchita, there was no reason to think that the winter rainy season would be unlike any other. La Conchita consisted of a few dozen houses with about 300 residents, located right on the coast on Highway 101 between the wealthier communities of Santa Barbara and Ventura. La Conchita was much more laid-back and inexpensive, with small beach cottages inhabited mostly by retired surfers, artists, beachcombers, and hippies who savored their pleasant beachfront life without Santa Barbara’s high prices and congestion.

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A Tsunami to Remember

Posted on Dec. 26, 2014 by | Comments (5)
Digital image showing cross section of the Java trench, and the wave heights of the tsunami (gray peaks near the shoreline). (Courtesy USGS).

Digital image showing cross section of the Java or Sunda trench, and the wave heights of the tsunami (gray peaks near the shoreline). (Courtesy USGS).

Today, December 26, 2014, is a somber anniversary. Ten years ago today, during the Christmas holidays, the southern regions of Thailand and the north coast of Sumatra was heavily populated, and also crowded with tourists seeking relief from Northern Hemisphere winters by enjoying the sun and pristine beaches. It was the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in the British calendar) when a violent earthquake struck 160 km (100 miles) off the northwest coast of Sumatra. It had a moment magnitude of 9.2, the second largest earthquakes ever recorded on a seismograph, and lasted between 8 and 10 minutes, the longest duration of shaking ever observed. The entire region vibrated by as much as 1 cm (0.5 inches), and triggered sympathetic earthquakes as far as Alaska. As the Indian plate is pushed under the Burma plate, it produces a huge subduction zone that is responsible for the island nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. The fault line of this plate boundary formed a rupture about 400 km (250 mi) long and 100 km (60 mi) wide, which was located 30 km (19 mi) beneath the seabed—the longest rupture ever caused by an earthquake. The energy released by the quake was about 550 million times more powerful than the A-bomb that wiped out Hiroshima. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Flawed Scientific Geniuses on the Big Screen

Posted on Dec. 11, 2014 by | Comments (25)
Turing-Hawking-510px

Benedict Cumberbatch, left, portrays Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (Image: STUDIOCANAL); Eddie Redmayne, right, stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (Image: Liam Daniel / Focus Features)

A review of two new movies: the Stephen Hawking biography The Theory of Everything, and the Alan Turing biography The Imitation Game.

2014 has been a relatively good year for science in the public eye. At the beginning of the year, we had Bill Nye’s victory over creationist Ken Ham, and two outstanding TV series, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, and Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. In all three cases, leading American popularizers of science managed to get a lot of publicity for good science. They also were successful in striking blows against various forms of pseudoscience, which are still pervasive in the media (especially on basic cable channels like Discovery and TLC, which ran “fake-umentaries” this year about living gigantic sharks, living mermaids, killer yetis, and even a guy promising to let an anaconda swallow him—then reneging). Now the year is coming to an end with two outstanding biopics about two of the most brilliant British mathematicians and scientists of the mid-late twentieth century, cosmologist Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), and mathematician/cryptanalyst/computer pioneer Alan Turing (The Imitation Game). In both cases, the movies are outstanding, not only in their acting, writing, directing, and cinematography, but especially their relatively accurate and sympathetic portrayal of science and scientists, with all its struggles and triumphs.

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Fake Pterosaurs and Sock Puppets

Posted on Nov. 24, 2014 by | Comments (10)

When Daniel Loxton and I were doing the research for our book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science, we tracked down monster myths that had been handed down over decades by many different authors. In some cases the back trail for these legends peters out after just a few decades; in other cases, the inspirations for modern cryptid legends may be traced back centuries to the myths of Indigenous Peoples or the artistic expressions of millennia past. No matter the sources, they all ended up in books which indiscriminately compiled every cryptid legend as if they all had robust, plausible histories and back-stories. As we found out, most of the pivotal “sightings” of even the best-attested cryptids were indeterminate or questionable or outright hoaxes, yet they kept on being repeated by the cryptozoology community no matter how doubtful or discredited they were. There was no quality control or careful examination of the reliability of these reports, just stockpiling them all as if they all counted equally. In the end, we recommended that the cryptozoology community needed to get their house in order and weed out the garbage accounts and obvious hoaxes before any scientist would take them seriously.

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Eine andere Welt

Posted on Nov. 14, 2014 by | Comments (44)
INSIGHT is not a political blog. However, the travelogue format Dr. Prothero has used here is inherently personal, and certain scientific topics discussed in the post (such the understanding and communication of climate science) are intertwined with political and social trends. I’ve decided to post this opinion/travel piece as written, with the note that the author’s political views are his own.—Editor.

I’ve written again and again on the old SkepticBlog site and in my book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future about the problems of science deniers in the United States. The U.S. is unique among the developed nations in the world in having a significant percentage of the population that embraces such anti-scientific ideas, despite our huge amount of money spent on education and science literacy. Indeed, we are the only developed nation in the world which has an entire major political party advocating scientific nonsense like this.

Thus, I was fortunate in the first week of November to find myself spending 7 days in Berlin, away from the political maelstrom occurring the U.S. Officially, I was presenting my research at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, my main professional meeting (and my 37th SVP meeting in a row). But instead of being isolated from the host country in a hotel, and relying on English-speaking tour guides (as most Americans do), I spent the week as a guest of my buddy from grad school, Dr. David Lazarus, a Curator at the Museum für Naturkunde (natural history museum), and his wife, Dr. Barbara Kohl. David is still a U.S. citizen, raised in Minneapolis but he has lived in many parts of the U.S.; for the past 30 years he has lived in Germany and Switzerland. Thus, he has an interesting perspective on life in the U.S. and in Europe, which I found valuable. I also immersed myself in the German lifestyle, taking public transit to my destinations, exploring the neighborhoods of Berlin, and doing it entirely with my rusty Deutsch from college. When you immerse yourself in another culture, you get a very different perspective on your own—and it’s not just better command of the language, and learning how customs are different. It can be a truly eye-opening experience.

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Woo in the White House

Posted on Oct. 27, 2014 by | Comments (17)

The news just came out that astrologer Joan Quigley died on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at age 87. Unlike most astrologers who just mess up the lives of a few ordinary people with their phony mumbo-jumbo, Quigley had the ear of Nancy Reagan during most of the years of the Reagan Administration. For seven years, Quigley had extraordinary power over the events of the Reagan White House. Although Nancy Reagan minimizes her influence, Quigley herself claimed in her 1990 book, What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, that:

I was responsible for timing all press conferences, most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One. I picked the time of Ronald Reagan’s debate with Carter and the two debates with Walter Mondale; all extended trips abroad as well as the shorter trips and one-day excursions.

White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan wrote in his 1988 book For the Record that “the president’s schedule—and therefore his life and the most important business of the American nation—was largely under the control of the first lady’s astrologer.” Once the news leaked out, the Reagans had to distance themselves from Quigley as the nation ridiculed the idea that astrology was a valid way to make executive decisions. A New York Post headline said, “Astrologer Runs The White House.” Another joke suggested that Reagan create a Cabinet post in charge of voodoo.

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Reports of the Demise of Books Are Greatly Exaggerated

Posted on Oct. 16, 2014 by | Comments (23)
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.

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Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change

Posted on Oct. 12, 2014 by | Comments (18)
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.)
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“Proof of Heaven”?

Posted on Sep. 19, 2014 by | Comments (16)

proof-of-heavenIt has been two years now since the best-seller lists in the “Non-Fiction” category were dominated by books claiming that the writer visited heaven, and then returned to write a book about it. The most famous was Dr. Eben Alexander’s tale, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which was released in October 2012, featured on Dr. Oz, on Larry King Live, on Oprah and on the cover of Newsweek. It  sold over two million copies and had been on the best-seller list for 35 weeks as of July 2013; more recent sales figures are not available, but it is no longer near the top of the best-seller list. But almost two years since the book came out, a lot of interesting facts have emerged that make the book seem less like a non-fictional account of heaven, and more like a convenient fiction to get a doctor in trouble out of his predicament and at the same time, make him filthy rich and immune to the criticism of the scientific and medical community. Now he has a website to suck in more readers, and is bragging about his next book to come out soon, called Map of Heaven.

The basic story is that Alexander, a neurosurgeon, was infected by a virulent strain of bacterial meningitis and was put in intensive care for seven days in 2008. Doctors also used drugs to induce a coma, which shuts down part of the brain. After his infection had subsided, he awoke from his coma, sure that he had experiences of heaven. He gave an elaborate account of it which takes up most of the book, complete with descriptions of millions of butterflies, and seeing his late sister in a peasant dress and having a conversation with her. He asserts that he was medically dead during this time, that his cerebral cortex was shut down, and that he miraculously came back to life with a memory of a pleasant short trip to celestial paradise.
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