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Don’t Miss Best-Selling Author JARED DIAMOND January 5th

Dr. Jared Diamond
The World Until Yesterday:
What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

SATURDAY, Jan. 5, 2013 at 2 pm
Beckman Auditorium

Mega-bestselling author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, Dr. Jared Diamond surveys the differences between “traditional” societies and industrial or post-industrial societies, with an eye to the question: what can we learn from the former that can make the world we live in a better place for all of us? Today, citizens of industrial states take for granted metal, writing, airplanes, police and government, overweight people, meeting strangers without fear, heterogeneous populations, and so on. But all those features of modern human societies are relatively new in human history.…


In the flyer that went out in the mail announcing our Fall 2012 lecture series events at Caltech, this Jared Diamond lecture mistakenly read Sunday January 5. It should have read SATURDAY, January 5.

Order the book from Amazon

Followed by…

Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity’s expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, turned his attention to the molecular world as the place where society’s future needs could be met using self-replicating nanoscale machines…

Read about the rest of
this season’s lectures


New Admission Policy and Prices

Please note there are important policy and pricing changes for this season of lectures at Caltech. Please review these changes now.

Wonderful Phenomena Demand Wonderful Evidence

Daniel Loxton considers the surprisingly murky and complicated origins of the common skeptical slogan "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."



About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Daniel Loxton warns that skeptics may underestimate the amount of distress caused by fears of a 2012 apocalypse, especially among children. This article first appeared on Skepticblog on June 8, 2010.

Children Waiting
for the End of the World

by Daniel Loxton

As a child in the 1970s and 80s, I often had an experience which must have been even more familiar to children of the 1960s: lying awake at night, alone in my room, paralyzed with terror about nuclear armageddon. In those Cold War days, the end of the world seemed oppressive and omnipresent, especially for a child. Every Hollywood movie, every news story about the arms race and the Doomsday Clock seemed to whisper in my ear at night, “It could happen at any moment. It could happen before you wake up.”

Not every kid my age had that fear, but many did — I think probably millions. Perhaps you were one of the kids who felt yawning horror at each unexpected flash on the horizon, or relief at the sound of ordinary thunder?

I was recently reminded of those feelings when I received a kind letter from a man named Jason Guay. A child mental health therapist with Niagara Child and Youth Services, Jason wrote to share one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard during my tenure at Junior Skeptic:

Many of the children I serve suffer from mental illness and I think they deserve only the best science has to offer if they are to have a chance. Your issues of Junior Skeptic are read to my children in my social skill class and compliment cognitive-behavioural therapy nicely! They often come in with irrational beliefs (phobias/generalized anxiety) and by reading Junior Skeptic they are able find courage to challenge many of these irrational beliefs and start to think like a scientist, resulting in reduced anxiety. …

I often use the Scooby Doo issue to help ease children’s anxiety of ghosts and the unknown and it is very effective. Good job!

I have a young son of my own, so you can imagine what a letter like that feels like. But Jason went on to say something more, something I thought I should share with you.

Lately, I have had a lot of kids who come very concerned about the end of the world in 2012. … These poor children often tell me that have had countless sleepless nights, and have lower grades as a result of their worry.

I think you may be able to imagine how I — as a father — feel about that, too.

I’ve long suspected that we skeptics may underestimate the amount of distress the 2012 idea is causing. Skeptics know that the end of the world has come and gone hundreds of times, and so we feel in our hearts that this 2012 business must be a trivial issue. It’s easy to feel cavalier about fears we don’t share. It’s easy to forget what those night terrors feel like — especially for children.

Of course kids are worried about 2012. Hype about the coming end of the world is everywhere. Nor is it only kids who are concerned. In my immediate circle, I know at least three adults who are deeply worried, and others who have at least occasional moments of “what if?” unease. At a picnic yesterday, sitting there in the evening sun, a friend with a hard science degree asked, “Doesn’t it seem like there’s something weird going on with the Earth? All these earthquakes, volcanoes…?”

That’s not a dumb question. It does seem that way. I know I’m thinking a lot more about earthquakes after Haiti. But seeming doesn’t make it so, and thankfully there are ways to find out. “Well, you have an iPhone in your hand,” I said. “Why don’t you Google it right now?”

Google autofill reveals concern about number of earthquakes

Google autofill reveals concern about "rising" number of earthquakes

And that’s what she did, right there on the beach. Of course, my friend has the research habits to have done that without my suggestion. She also has the scientific background to feel satisfied with the answers from the US Geological Survey or this short, simple New York Times article from British Geological Survey seismologist Roger Musson. (Incidentally, the answer is “No.” Recent earthquake activity has been especially tragic, but not unusually powerful or frequent.)

But not everyone has those skills (or, for that matter, confidence in science). I don’t mean a word of judgment when I say that. When grandparents hear from their friends or grocers or televisions that the hundreds of thousands of 2010 earthquake victims are just the beginning, why shouldn’t that give them pause? When children hear the same thing, why shouldn’t they be afraid?

As I type this, some of those children are lying awake with the terrified belief that the world will end in two years. Their nightmares are like my own childhood nuclear horror, but different in one critically important respect: 2012 fears are not based on an actual danger. What’s the harm of 2012 scaremongering? Children suffering for no reason.

What do we, as skeptics, do about that? Step one is simply to internalize the same truth again and again and again: when paranormal beliefs burn out of control, people get hurt. Ordinary, smart, good people — people like your loved ones, and mine.

Skeptic magazine cover (Vol. 15 #2)

Free online: Skeptic magazine's recent cover story "A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012"

And then, we need to roll up our sleeves. With that in mind, I’d like to ask you to do something this week, something small: try to make someone feel better about 2012. Talk to a friend. Tweet a resource. Share a link.

Here’s mine: Skeptic magazine has made available our recent “A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012” cover story (by Dr. David Morrison, Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and Senior Scientist in the NASA Astrobiology Institute). It’s free in both English and Spanish translation. END



  1. Dr. Sidethink Hp. D. says:

    Declaramus :

    The world will not end Friday because the Rapture and associated subsequent happenings have not yet occurred.

    Pope Bobby II
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

  2. pando says:

    Good article on a distressing point we may be missing as adults, having forgotten our own childhood fears.

  3. Norm van't Hoff says:

    When I was a kid, in the 60’s, I walked a mile to school. I didn’t have to, I could catch a bus, but I chose to because it was more fun to walk.
    Nowadays, nobody lets their kids walk to school anymore, because they’re scared of something happening. It’s not statistically dangerous, in fact, it’s probably less dangerous now in many places than it was before, but fear levels have increased anyway.
    We are facing very real threats from environmental abuse and social neglect, but tragically, much of the energy we should be purposefully directing to making economic and lifestyle changes is being misdirected into prepping for the rapture or getting ready to fight the government. Madness.

    We are inculcating fear into the lives of our children from day one. We’d all agree it’s evil to use fear against people, but look around you, fear is everywhere, fear of violence, fear of losing medical benefits, of losing your job, of terrorist attacks, fear of pandemics, global warming. Let’s not forget that kids are also very scared their parents will split up, and in uncertain times, their family is their world. Pity the poor kids, and pity society, because they’ll later turn into maladjusted adults. To break this cycle of ever increasing fear, we will need a new, positive, and practical, vision for the future. ‘The thinking that got us into this mess, is unlikely to get us out of it’

    To put a cat amongst the pigeons, I want to say that skeptics have to take their fair share of the responsibility for delaying action on climate change. I support critical disbelief, rational thinking, logic, scientific rigor, empirical evidence and so on… But on this particular issue, skeptics treated it like a vile conspiracy theory for far too long, which didn’t help at all in the real world… so even skeptics need to continuously re-examine their judgments, lest they fall into the trap of habituated skepticism, as opposed to objective assessment.
    Norm van’t Hoff
    Green Consultant/Designer

    • Dr. Sidethink Hp. D. says:

      There is no way of preparing for the rapture.
      Those who are saved already know they will be taken and the Lord will provide
      for them in their vacation ( 1000 years) in Hebbin’

      those who do not believe in the rapture would not prepare for it.

      The church of the Subgenius does not endorse the rapture but cautions those who are expecting it soon to check out what Cthulu really has in mind for the Earthburger.

      We have a definite duty to keep the earth in good condition.

      Chthulu will be really ticked off if we use up all the tasty fossil goo in the first layer

      Pope Bobby II
      69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
      Reformed Church of the Subgenius

    • Mac Lankford says:

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Norm. It is my belief [I so hate to use that word, but that’s all we’re left with even after carefully being skeptical, is it not? Hopefully it is a more accurate belief than that of someone not trying to assess the facts.] that there are skeptics with a desire to get at scientific reality and there are skeptics with other agendas.

      This second group uses the vocabulary of skepticism, but goes only in the direction of their pre-conceptions or hidden agendas. With respect to global warming, those invested in oil and other fossil fuels have done a lot of damage clouding up the science, for obvious reasons.

      I would comment further that in the States there is another group with a huge investment in the “de-bunking” of global warming science. Many fundamentalist christians have refused to take this issue seriously. I suspect their motivation is as follows: if scientists are right about this global crisis, then they might also be right about the most frightening issue of all – evolution. Then the one touchstone that allows them to not think, the literally-interpreted bible, would have to be discarded. They, and so many others of us humans, are afraid of there being no purpose other than what we can create ourselves. Self-responsibility in the extreme is as scary as it gets. I understand this; until it becomes exciting, it is frightening to wake up each day knowing you are where the buck stops.

      • Bob Pease says:

        I posted for many years on newsgroups such as
        I have learned that a much larger group than SBC and other Fundamentalist
        Types claim reservations about evolution.
        Although I haven’t checked lately, I recall that around 70 % of adults in U.S.
        claim reservations about evolution which does not allow for Intelligent Design
        or direct Creation or Divine interference at some juncture.

        The Literal truth of the BIBLE and the regard of it is a Fundamental Cornerstone
        of Christian Eschatology ( with no small amount of dispute about WHO is entitled to interpret it correctly) is a cornerstone of faith to many Christians and others who envision the World To Come as the reign of Christ on earth forever.

        Lately I won’t discuss evolution anybody who is among the “unwashed”
        because their minds are made up already that “liberals”( I’m considered as “Radical Left” by those who classify such things) are somehow lockstep pseudo-intellectuals.

        The first question I used to get was usually
        “if Man come from a monkey then how come is they still monkeys?? ”

        In Summary, I don’t think there is much chance to decelerate the existing
        global warming (and associated social problems of food distribution ) as long as the
        Anti-Science mentality of Religious fundamentalism and “New Age” Magickal
        thinking characterize EuroAmerican ideology.

        At present it is my estimation that the most likely cause of death of the “younger” generation will be
        the consequences of Civil Disorder caused by availaibility and distribution of food
        because of Climate change.

        Yet I am trying to remain optimistic that Anti-Science won’t completely take over
        and that Consumerism and its Sacrament of Marketing will somehow be replaced with better stuff.


    • Daniel Loxton says:

      To put a cat amongst the pigeons, I want to say that skeptics have to take their fair share of the responsibility for delaying action on climate change. …on this particular issue, skeptics treated it like a vile conspiracy theory for far too long…

      Yes, I agree. I’ve argued that “reluctance to accept mainstream climate science is skepticism’s greatest failure”—a failure that exposes our very limited ability to responsibly address mainstream scientific controversies beyond our traditional paranormal subject matter.

  4. Sally Redondo says:

    Great article, which I enjoyed until reading: “not everyone has those skills (or…confidence in science). …When grandmothers hear from their friends or grocers or televisions that the hundreds of thousands of 2010 earthquake victims are just the beginning, why shouldn’t that give them pause?” Do you think it’s accurate and fair to identify older women as reliably ignorant and simple-minded? I am a lifelong freethinker and skeptic. When I was 49 years old my daughter gave birth. Did I lose my skills and confidence at the moment my granddaughter was born, despite my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering, and my BS and MS degrees in Biological Science? This comment was not intended to make older women readers feel excluded or mocked. Sexist language is so common that few pause to think before using it.

    • Daniel Loxton says:

      Quite right; my apologies. I was thinking of one grandmother in particular when offering this example, but I might better instead have written “grandparents.” I will make that change at the original Skepticblog post, and ask our webmaster to make that same small change above.

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