Posted on December 11, 2014 * Comments

Climate change deniers often fancy themselves “skeptics.” For those of us active in movement skepticism, it’s flattering to see others try to ride our coat tails, but it’s also frustrating. Skeptics are known for debunking bogus claims (from ghosts to psychics to the Loch Ness Monster), for operating at the intersection of science and consumer protection, for standing up for the role of evidence and the rational in public discourse. Skepticism means something specific, and deniers just do not do the things that a skeptic does.

That’s what makes it so gratifying that dozens of the leaders of the skeptical movement joined together to state clearly: “Deniers are not skeptics.” Deniers are not Skeptics

Posted on December 10, 2014 * Comments

I don’t know how to say this word, so I’m just going to pretend that I know how to say it.

Posted on December 09, 2014 * Comments

John T. ScopesJohn T. Scopes

Prompted by a lacuna in Iain Ellis’s column “Mr. Mencken Went to Dayton and the Culture Wars Began,” posted at PopMatters (September 18, 2014), I was discussing what happened after the close of the Scopes trial in 1925. All along, the defense expected to lose the case, to appeal the verdict, and to win a victory at the appellate level. Accordingly, Scopes’s lawyers entered objections—“exceptions,” as they were called—to those of Judge Raulston’s decisions during the trial that a higher court might be convinced to reverse. As I explained in part 1, because Darrow was in bad odor with the ACLU after his devastating examination of Bryan, especially since Bryan died shortly after the trial, the erratic Tennessee lawyer John Randolph Neal Jr. was entrusted with the appeal instead. True to form, Neal (as Edward J. Larson writes in his Summer for the Gods [1997]) “missed the deadline for filing the bill of exceptions with the state supreme court,” thus precluding “the defense from appealing any issues relating to the conduct of the trial—including the ruling on expert testimony.”

Posted on December 08, 2014 * Comments

After my three-parter on fossils, I was sure you'd be sick of them, but there was a request (seconded by a few people) to talk about one particular aspect of paleontology that I didn’t cover yet: How do you know how old a fossil is? It turns out to be a pretty interesting question.

Misconception: Paleontologists directly date fossils.

Correction: Most of the time, fossils are not directly datable.

Posted on December 08, 2014 * Comments

Last week on Fossil Friday, I presented a fossilized animal that you had seen before—and recently! What was it? Why it was from the antilocapridae family, hailing from the Hemphillian North American Stage (about 5-10 million years ago) found in what is now Nevada.

From the University of Texas:

Posted on December 05, 2014 * Comments

H. L. Mencken, via Wikimedia CommonsH. L. Mencken

Over at PopMatters (September 18, 2014), Iain Ellis, who teaches English at the University of Kansas, devoted a column to the Scopes trial, emphasizing the role of the journalist and critic H. L. Mencken—indeed, the column is entitled, “Mr. Mencken Went to Dayton and the Culture Wars Began.” Ellis is generally reliable, although he may be paying too much heed to Mencken’s own, sometimes self-aggrandizing, tales of his involvement in the case. For example, Ellis credits Mencken with recruiting Darrow for the defense, probably on Mencken’s authority. But as Terry Teachout notes in his The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (2003), Mencken offered no such claim in the definitive account of the Scopes trial that he included in his posthumously published Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work, instead crediting Joseph Hergesheimer. Darrow, for his part, wrote in The Story of My Life (1932) that he volunteered for the defense when he heard that Bryan would join the prosecution—although there’s no reason to suppose that Darrow was immune from the temptation to overstate his alacrity to involve himself in the case, for all that.

Posted on December 05, 2014 * Comments

This week’s fossil should be quite easy to identify because you’ve seen it once before—recently! Well, not this particular fossil, but one from the same species. So my question to you is...what little prance could this tooth have come from? Where was it found? And from what time period did it hail?

Posted on December 04, 2014 * Comments

James Watson speakingIn a recent interview with the Financial Times, James Watson explained his decision to auction off his Nobel Prize medallion (won, with Francis Crick, for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA). He claimed that since his controversial comments about race in 2007, “I was an ‘unperson,’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income.” In that 2007 interview, he said he was “gloomy” about the prospects of Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really,” and attributed that difference to genetic differences. Nonetheless, in his latest interview, FT reports that Watson “insisted he was ‘not a racist in a conventional way.’”

Posted on December 04, 2014 * Comments

All previous “Thank a Teacher Thursday” posts have been about the positive inspiration science teachers can provide. And you know I believe they deserve a lot more recognition for the huge but largely invisible role they play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and building a scientifically literate society. But, hey, it’s pouring rain today and I had a crummy commute, so I’m going to go a little dark and point out that with great power comes great responsibility.

In illustration, I give you this cartoon by Zach Weinersmith:

Posted on December 02, 2014 * Comments

Are recent natural disasters evidence for the end times, global climate change….or both?  A new survey suggests that nearly half (49%) of Americans think the former and more than three in five (62%) think the latter, meaning, because the total is more than 100%, some conclude it could be both.