Category: Religion

Desktop Project Part 7: A new volcano parts the Red Sea. Kinda

By Phil Plait | April 1, 2012 7:00 am

[Over the past few weeks, I’ve collected a metric ton of cool pictures to post, but somehow have never gotten around to actually posting them. Sometimes I was too busy, sometimes too lazy, sometimes they just fell by the wayside… but I decided my computer’s desktop was getting cluttered, and I’ll never clean it up without some sort of incentive. I’ve therefore made a pact with myself to post one of the pictures with an abbreviated description every day until they’re gone, thus cleaning up my desktop, showing you neat and/or beautiful pictures, and making me feel better about my work habits. Enjoy.]

It probably won’t surprise you to hear I’m not exactly a Biblical literalist. Still, parts of the Bible are known to be based on actual events, so when something turns up that sounds like one of the stories come true, it’s not always surprising.

Still, I always figured the parting of the Red Sea was wholly fictional. But now something has turned up hat makes me wonder if it could’ve sparked — literally — the legend: a volcano has poked its head up from above the waters of the Red Sea.

Here’s the scene on October 24, 2007, as seen by the Earth Observing-1 satellite:

[Click to enhaphaestenate.]

That all looks pretty normal. Calm seas, a couple of islands (Haycock Island to the north (left), and Rugged Island to the south, both about a kilometer long), no biggie.

Now take a look at the same scene on December 23, 2011:

[Click to Cecilbdemillenate.]

Holy smoke! Look at that: a whole new volcano! This is happening off the coast of Yemen near a group of islands called the Zubair Group. This region is in a rift zone, where two tectonic plates are pulling apart, so volcanic activity isn’t too surprising.

And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if something like this were the genesis* of the story from Exodus. A big eruption could cause big waves, flooding, disasters on a smallish scale… and over time the story grew, had bits added to it, and next thing you know there’s an overwrought movie with Charlton Heston yelling at the water and shaking a stick at it.

To me, the story of science is always better than the ones we humans make up or embellish, though. Look at that: a brand new volcano, born right before our eyes, and all courtesy of space travel, satellites, good detectors, and a burning, unending desire to understand the world better.

There’s a revelation for you.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Religion

Tennessee legislature boldly sets the science clocks back 150 years

By Phil Plait | March 22, 2012 9:59 am

The Tennessee legislature — apparently jealous that the people running Louisiana are hogging all the laughing stock — is possibly about to pass an antiscience bill designed specifically to make it easier for teachers to allow creationism in their classroom.

The bill passed the House last year, but then a similar bill was put on hold in the Senate. Unfortunately, it was put to the Senate floor earlier this week and passed. It will have to be reconciled with the House bill, but it’s expected to pass. It’ll have to then go to the Governor to sign it into law.

Basically, the bill will make sure teachers can discuss creationism in the classroom, as well as global warming denialism. The House version states,

This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.

That whole "strengths and weaknesses" is for all intent and purpose a lie; we’ve seen it many times before. Of course science has strengths and weaknesses, but what these people are looking to do is be able to say any kind of antiscience rhetoric in the classroom and not get called on it. What the bill should call for is legislators to be tested on the strengths and weaknesses of their creationist beliefs that clearly contradict what’s known about the real world. Or, better yet, how what they’re trying to do violates the Constitution of the United States.

I would pay good money to sit and listen to that.

I also wonder how the Tennessee lawmakers would feel if, say, teachers used this potential law to teach about Islam, or astrology, or Wiccan beliefs. That would be interesting indeed.

If you want more, Josh Rosenau has a great summary, as does Cara Santa Maria at the Huffington Post, and, of course, the NCSE. It’s not clear to me that the Governor will sign this bill; Josh’s post has more on that. But even if he doesn’t, all those creationist climate change deniers will simply try again in some different way.

If you live in Tennessee, you should let the Governor know how you feel, and right away. Otherwise…

Related Posts:

Antiscience bill passes Tennessee House vote
Update: Tennessee postpones education-wrecking bill
Louisiana fights back against creationist legislators
Jindal dooms Louisiana
Heroes of Dover

Louisiana fights back against creationist legislators

By Phil Plait | March 12, 2012 7:00 am

In late 2008, the Louisiana government passed a bill into law that allowed teachers to teach creationism in the classroom. Then the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education followed up by adopting a policy that allowed "outside supplemental material" to be used by teachers, in a thinly veiled but quite clear attempt to allow creationist works in the classroom.

This attack on education by the religious right had some fallout. Because of all this, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, a scientific society with over 2000 members, chose to boycott Louisiana for their annual conference. I think that was the right move, since it sends a signal that teaching antiscience in the classroom means groups that support science will take their business — and their money — elsewhere.

It also lit a fire under a young man named Zack Kopplin, a high school student and fighter for reality, who started a campaign to get the law repealed. I’m very pleased to write that Zack — who began all this as a high school student, I remind you, and is now a freshman at Rice — got 75 Nobel Laureates to sign on and endorse his effort. 75. He also has an impressive list of other supporters as well.

His website,, has lots more info on what he’s trying to do. If you live in Louisiana, and feel as I do about this, send Zack some love and support.

And when it comes time for elections, remember who wanted to educate the children of Louisiana, and who wanted to push kids through school thoroughly unprepared for 21st century life.

[Note: There was a typo in a picture I had put at the bottom of this post. Fixing it would mean redoing the whole thong, so instead I just took the image out of the post. My apologies.]

Related Posts:

Louisiana: well, that’s it then
Jindal dooms Louisiana
Louisiana: even more doomed
Louisiana: epically doomed

Zen Pencils and words of wisdom

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2012 11:37 am

I’m a big fan of Carl Sagan… of course. His books are simply amazing, and they are all worth your time reading. He had a way with words that made them not just profound, not just inspiring, but also warm and rich and enveloping.

He was a dreamer, an optimist, willing to look beyond the immediate problems we have now and see a better future, if only we could change our ways just a little bit.

I’m not the only person he affected. Zen Pencils, the nom de plume of young artist Gavin Aung Than, has been drawing web comics based on the words of wise people. He sent me a note via Twitter that he had one based on something Sagan said:

Click it to see the whole thing. Sagan’s words are wonderful, of course, but I like the added dimension Than has given them. You should check out the Zen Pencil archives to see what else he did, too, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Related Posts:

On the birthday of Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan on SETI
We needn’t be afraid of the dark (a VERY powerful video featuring Sagan)
Pale Blue Dot
What I learned from Carl Sagan

Debunking doomsday

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2012 11:48 am

In January, I was interviewed live on WHYY radio in Philadelphia about 2012 doomsday conspiracy theories. NASA astrobiologist (and my old pal) David Morrison was there as well, and we talked about some of the (wrong) ideas behind 2012 end-of-the-world prophecies, their impact, and why people believe them.

Here’s a direct link to the archived interview.

It was an interesting discussion. We took some calls from folks, including two from people who seemed to be trying to blame 2012 stuff on religious beliefs, which I think is misguided. Believing in something without evidence or despite evidence against it is human nature, and something we all need to be aware of. Religion falls under that category, as does any other belief system. Conspiracy theories and doomsday prophecies are all part of that larger umbrella. Now, you could make a point that our unquestioning tolerance of religious belief in the US supports the growth of things like 2012 belief. That would make for an interesting discussion, I think, but not one that’s easy to get into on a radio program where you need to keep things brief!

A woman called in and relayed the very sad story of her brother who joined a cult, and wound up killing himself over their doomsday beliefs. This was terrible to hear, and I wrestled with how to discuss it. The Heavens Gate cult came to mind right away, as did that of Jim Jones. I tweeted about it, saying:

"A woman called into WHYY and said her brother committed suicide over doomsday theories. Damn this stuff so much."

[NOTE: I got emails and tweets from people after I tweeted that saying that there’s no evidence this woman was telling the truth, and that she may have made this story up. That may very well be true; we have no evidence either way besides her claims. However, David hears similar stories all the time, and I myself have first-hand knowledge of lots of people who are really scared by 2012 claims. So even if the woman’s story is not true, the sentiment is relevant.]

It’s hard to convey depth and subtlety in a tweet, and I wrote that during a very short station break, so I didn’t have time to elaborate. I’m not blaming his suicide on doomsday beliefs per se (and note it wasn’t necessarily the 2012 stuff); clearly anyone who contemplates killing themself has deeper issues than that and needs to find help — by coincidence, the wonderful, wonderful Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, wrote a moving blog post related to this topic the same day.

But certainly circumstances play their role. David has said that he gets a lot of emails from people with similar suicidal thoughts due to 2012. Let’s be clear: these people need to find help; neither David nor I am qualified to help them. And perhaps if this 2012 garbage didn’t exist something else would come along to take its place in their minds. But it is here, and it is influencing these people (a couple in Utah was arrested for a homicide and crime spree, and apparently 2012 doomsday thinking played a role there).

And think of this: unlike other issues, this one has a deadline. Having an actual date on this (imaginary) event makes it seem more solid, more real. I hate to write this, but I expect we’ll be hearing more about people going through with suicide over the next few months because of these doomsday claims. How many of them might have had a chance to seek help, to live longer, if the idea of a 2012 doomsday weren’t so prevalent?

And it’s not just this terrible circumstance of people contemplating or even committing suicide; I’ve started giving public talks about 2012, and hear from a lot of folks in the Q&A after about how they’re really scared about this. Most of them are kids. The other day I chatted with some kids about it, and the visible look of relief on their faces as I assuaged their 2012 doomsday fears was amazing.

I can’t say why specific people are out there plugging 2012 by writing books and making websites; perhaps they honestly believe something will happen, or maybe they are loathesome scummy immoral mind-parasites, not caring how they affect people as long as they get money or fame. But either way they are wrong. There is no evidence that any of the 2012 claims is true, and in fact plenty of evidence they’re all wrong.

I’ll be writing more about this, don’t you fret. I’ve been putting it off a long time for various reasons, but it’s long past time for me to hunker down and give this crap both barrels of reality.

Hat tip to Ian O’Neill for the Utah story.

A planet where men evolved from apes?

By Phil Plait | February 19, 2012 7:00 am

The next time some creationist starts talking smack about evolution being impossible and that humans aren’t animals and they’re not descended from apes, show them this picture:

I was browsing uploaded pictures in the 500px app and this came up; I added the white box and fuzzed out the other thumbnails. Sometimes, coincidence is pretty funny.

MORE ABOUT: apes, creationism, humans

A case study of the tactics of climate change denial, in which I am the target

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2012 7:00 am

Over the years I have pointed out the fallacious arguments of climate change deniers when they attack legitimate climatologists like James Hansen and Michael Mann. This is, of course, like kicking at a bee hive, and whenever I do the comments section of my posts fill with lots of angry buzzing.

But now, for what I think is the first time, I find myself the target of an attack. And I have to admit, I welcome it: it’s a textbook case of denialist sleight of hand, of distraction, distortion, error, and misdirection.

Stick around for all of this. It’ll be… interesting.

Our story so far

OK, first, here’s the scoop: a few days ago, I wrote a blog post taking apart two intellectually bankrupt climate change denial articles, one in the Wall Street Journal, and the other in the UK’s Daily Mail. Both were claiming that global warming appears to have stopped in the past few years, a claim which is trivially easy to show wrong. In fact, I linked to two articles doing just that: one at Skeptical Science, and another I myself wrote. Finding actual scientists destroying that claim is not hard at all; those two links have many more links therein.

In my post about the WSJ and DM, I included a graph. It pretty clearly shows temperatures rising from 1973 to the present. And this is where the fun begins.

That’s the plot. It’s from a recent, independent study done at Berkeley, and represents actual, measured, data. Just to be clear, those points are from weather stations across the globe, and the method used to collect and analyze those measurements is described by the Berkeley team themselves (PDF). With me so far?

Apparently, William Briggs is not with me. He takes very vigorous exception to the graph in an article he wrote which he titled "Bad Astronomer Does Bad Statistics: That Wall Street Journal Editorial." I encourage you to read it, so that you can assure yourself I am not misrepresenting his arguments in any way.

I found out about this article when I saw a tweet by Dr. Briggs himself. My first thought was: Uh oh. I sure hope I didn’t make a math mistake somewhere in my WSJ post! I better read Briggs’ article and see… So I read it.

My next thought after reading his arguments was then: Ho-hum. So?

The mismeasure of an argument

Basically, Briggs accuses me of not understanding statistics, of not including error bars, of misrepresenting that points in that plot, of not displaying the plot correctly, and so on ad nauseum. His biggest claim: that those points aren’t measurements at all, but estimates.

Here’s the thing: he’s wrong. Those point are in fact measurements, though they are not raw measurements right off the thermometers. They have been processed, averaged, in a scientifically rigorous way to make sure that the statistics derived from them are in fact solid. The Berkeley team describes in detail how that was done (PDF), and does actually call them estimates, but not because they are just guessing, or using some arcane computer model. They are technically estimates, in the sense that any measurement is an estimate, but they are really, really good ones. Greg Laden tears this use of words apart, as well as pretty much everything else Briggs wrote.

Oddly, Briggs then goes on to call them "predictions" for some reason, and that they came from "models", which is just weird. It’s as if he’s trying to use a word choice that raises doubt about the measurements. But again he’s wrong. They really are measurements, not model predictions. At Open Mind, Brigg’s word choice once again is ripped apart. [Note: Briggs has left a comment there, further verifying the fact that his use of words is incorrect.]

This reminds me of one of my favorite skeptic jokes. Question: How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?

Answer: Four. It doesn’t matter what you call a tail, it’s not a leg.

There are many other places where Briggs makes mistakes that render his arguments null; for example, the error bars (what statisticians usually call "uncertainty") are in fact made available by the Berkeley team, and are small compared to the long-term rise in temperature. For another, Briggs says I should’ve shown the plot going farther into the past, because 1973 was actually a low point. However, that’s completely wrong: it’s actually a high point! As Deep Climate points out here, this actually makes the warming trend lower. So in true contrarian fashion, Briggs is contrary even to himself. It’s bizarre.

So really, there goes Briggs’ argument. His main point is wrong, so we’re done, right?

Well, no. There’s more fun to be had here.

Beside the point

If you read Briggs’ article, you certainly get the impression that because the graph I use is statistically meaningless (so he incorrectly claims), then my whole argument about global warming is wrong.

And this is where I found myself greatly amused, though in a schadenfreude sort of way.

Think of it this way: if my argument hinged on that graph, and I removed it, my argument would have no foundation, correct? It would change the tenor of the entire blog post.

Go look at my article. If you remove that graph from it, what changes? Nothing. My main point — that the WSJ and DM articles are wrong, that we have lots of evidence the Earth is warming up, that 9 of the 10 hottest years on record occurred since the year 2000, that the DM article specifically uses scientific studies and presents them as if they say the exact opposite of what they actually say — still stands.

So even if that graph is wrong and misrepresents what I’m saying — which it does not — it doesn’t matter. In fact, I used that graph as an illustration, to show how we’re warming up. I never intended it to be the basis for the argument I was making, just a way of further showing it. If you read the actual words I wrote, including the links to many, many articles backing up my position, you’ll see that Briggs has not refuted a single actual point I made.

So even if he’s right about that graph, it doesn’t matter. And he’s not right.

But notice what he’s done. He’s taken what is clearly a minor point and blown it up as if it’s my main point. He’s used shady words (predictions, models) to cast aspersions, and to make someone (me!) look bad. Then, by "refuting" this minor issue he can then poison the well, strongly implying that all my arguments are wrong. That’s kind of a big no-no when trying to argue a point.

But it packages well. Watts Up With That, another denialist blog, has run with Briggs’ claims about me as well. He also makes the false claim that warming has stalled, and so on. Note WUWT also says the signers of the WSJ OpEd are "16 scientists", which isn’t true: not all are scientists, and only four have actually published climate science research. And don’t forget about the article the WSJ refused to print talking about the reality of global warming, signed by 255 actual scientists.


Denialism’s dark mirror

I will admit the irony of this attack amuses me greatly; Briggs accuses me of many things he himself is doing. That is standard fare from antiscience group: creationists, global warming deniers, and alt-medders, for example, all seem to project their own tactics on the scientists with whom they disagree. Don’t like real medicine? Accuse scientists of being in the pocket of Big Pharma (and forget about the millions being made by quacks on useless "remedies"). Don’t believe in evolution? Accuse scientists of being too dogmatic. Don’t think global warming is real? Accuse scientists of misrepresenting the data.

My favorite irony is that a lot of these global warming denialists take money from fossil fuel interests, but then routinely say to "follow the money", as if it’s the climatologists who are raking in the big bucks from shady think tanks with undisclosed bankrollers. While Briggs points out he gets no money from them, he asks where my money comes from. Think on this, Dr. Briggs; how much money would I make if I suddenly turned coat and said global warming wasn’t real? I’ll guarantee you it would be a lot more than I make now, probably with a couple of zeroes added to the end. So that argument falls a wee bit flat here.

Like all the others.

Of course, given the comments I’ve seen on my blog, on Briggs’ blog, on Watts Up With That, or in any other blog discussing global warming, I know how this will go. You can bring up the major pieces of evidence supporting reality again and again, but the denialists will ignore them and go after phantoms instead. Because if they do acknowledge the actual evidence, they lose.

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011

By Phil Plait | December 16, 2011 10:21 am

Christopher Hitchens has died.

You’ve probably heard; the web is lighting up with obituaries and stories about him. I didn’t know him personally — having only met him on two occasions, both times at skeptic conferences — and I didn’t come into his writings until relatively recently, so nothing I can say here would add substantively to what already exists. Instead, many people have written eloquent thoughts upon his death, so you should read those:

At Noisy Astronomer, Nicole Gugliucci recounts watching Hitchens in a debate with a theist, a situation that occurred often.

Steve Novella of course sums things up with his usual insight and sharp aim.

Kevin Murphy simply put up an interesting video of Hitchens acerbically and artfully dissecting, and then rewriting, the Ten Commandments.

And, as usual, it’s impossible to beat the amazing ability of The Onion to distill away impurities and make me smile ruefully with one simple headline.

… though of course, Zach Weiner manages to do so pretty well in both a web comic as well as a short tribute and imploration for us to do more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Religion, Skepticism

Holiday fundraisers

By Phil Plait | December 12, 2011 7:00 am

Winter is always a big season for charities. Christmastime is traditionally a time to give, but that means competition among charities increases, and it’s hard to separate out which ones you want to give to. And some "traditional" charities seem like they do good work, but have some pretty intolerant and bigoted beliefs they keep relatively quiet. So deciding to whom to give can be difficult.

So if you have a few bucks, here are a handful of charities I like.

Recipe4Hope is campaign to raise money for the Autism Science Foundation. I am very wary of groups claiming to research autism, since so many of them are fronts for anti-vaccination promoters. ASF, though, understands that vaccines do not cause autism, and is looking into actual scientific research. Here’s their video for this year:

100% of the donations will fund ASF’s pre- and post-doctoral autism research fellowships, helping young scientists start their career researching autism. They have a donation page set up, and the campaign runs through the end of 2011.

The James Randi Educational Foundation has an annual Season of Reason campaign which raises funds to keep JREF operating. Donate $100 (or sign up for $25/month or more) and they’ll send you a SurlyRamic ornament! The JREF has really ramped up their educational efforts over the past couple of years, and your donation will go toward teaching people the critical thinking that is so, well, critical to making important decisions.

I already wrote about Astronomers Without Borders recently, and while the Sky Safari campaign is over, they’re still accepting donations! AWB does great work, reaching out across the world to educate people about the night sky, trying to unite everyone through a love of astronomy.

Foundation Beyond Belief is a secular group that picks 10 needy causes every quarter and gathers funds for them. They don’t necessarily exclude religious charities, but they do choose them based on compatibility with humanist goals, and they have a specific program called Challenge the Gap, which promotes finding common ground between theists and atheists, something I obviously think is a noble and worthwhile goal.

Got some charities you like? List them in the comments!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Religion, Skepticism

In the Constitution We Trust

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2011 5:42 pm

[UPDATE (20:00 Eastern time): Sigh. The bill passed.]

[UPDATE 2 (23:00 Eastern time): I have been told that this bill, even when passed, does not have the force of law. It’s what’s called a House Concurrent Resolution, and basically is used to express a sentiment of the legislature. I might then argue it’s not unconstitutional, but then why did several House members say it would be (see the link provided in the post below)? Making law really is like making sausages. Anyway, even if the argument about it being unconstitutional is not a good one, this bill was still a colossal waste of time, and meaningless. There is simply no good, real reason to have done this, and the fact that so many thought it was a good expenditure of time, and that so many signed it, makes me sad.]

I found out about this too late to do much about it, but just in case you hadn’t heard, The US House of Representatives is voting tonight on a bill to make reaffirm "In God We Trust" the official motto of the US.

This is pretty shocking. Well, it’s not shocking in that everything the Republican-majority House has done in the past few months has been pretty antireality, but this is such a clear violation of the First Amendment that it’s, well, shocking. That Amemndent to the US Constitution says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

There are many cases where the interpretation of this simple statement is not terribly clear, but this ain’t one of them. Passing a bill saying the official motto of this country is a religious one is clearly making a law about the establishing of religion. It is putting a religious belief above non-religion, for one. It is also putting a monotheistic belief above pantheism, for another. While some people might think pantheism is silly, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this bill violates the Establishment Clause.

And it’s not just me saying that; several dissenters in the House feel that way as well.

This country, you may have noticed, is a mess. A lot of this is due to the government itself, but we’re at the point that we need the government to fix it. There are ways they could help: jobs bills, increasing science funding, and so on. Instead, they’re wasting time and making us look foolish by violating the very principles upon which this country was founded.

We are not a Christian nation. The majority of this country may be religious, but that is all the more reason to make very, very sure our laws are free from religion. The immediate reason is that we want everyone to be free to practice religion or not according to their own beliefs or lack thereof. But also, remember, just because one religion has the majority now doesn’t mean it always will. There could come a time when some other religion, or some other version of it, has control. Making laws based on religion now will make it easier to make laws based on some other religion then.

It’s a bad, bad idea.

I know that the current House has no clue about this sort of thinking, but we the voters do. Any Congressperson who is inclined to vote YES on this bill should first remember the very first thing they did when sworn in as a Representative of the American people: uphold and defend the Constitution. This bill is the antithesis of that oath, in spirit if not in letter.

[UPDATE: Note that I originally said this bill would make this the official motto; it is actually to "reaffirm" it. Either way, it’s a waste of time and still a violation of the Establishment Clause, as the dissenters pointed out.]

Tip o’ the quill to Tim Lloyd on Google+.

Related posts:

Are the Ten Commandments really the basis for our laws?
We are not a Christian nation
Evolution is the coin of the realm
Texas State Board of Education confirms irony is dead
Pray for the First Amendment

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Religion

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