Science and society: The giant earthquake that launched a new era in geologic knowledge

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I am a geologist by training and my main interest was natural hazards. I was not able to apply my interest to earthquakes or volcanoes as I’d hoped but I did get to help the public deal with sinkhole hazards that also cause property destruction and occasional loss of life. This short film is worth watching. It was a turning point in science and society – the geologic aspect.

Great Alaska quake

There is little sense in praying to be safe from a disaster but EVERY good reason to study, plan and prepare. The average person does not necessarily have to understand seismology or even basic geology to get a benefit from science, but citizens should CERTAINLY appreciate that our advances in knowledge and, consequently, in safety and environmental regulations are based on a scientific process. You can say that about a lot of areas of life. There have been more than one instance to defund these hazard programs and even the USGS itself. How short-sighted and stupid.

This is my philosophy: Science literacy means science appreciation first and foremost. It’s really important.

Remembering the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the largest in U.S. history.

Great Alaska Earthquake 50 years ago today: What it taught science – latimes.com.

Do you Tet Zoo? Comments contain gem on Bigfoot footprints.

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Do you love animals? I mean love them in the way that I do, by examining the chicken carcass you are cleaning to observe the bones, cartilage, tendons and joints; by checking out road kill to see what it was or stopping to check out the dead bird in the yard; by pulling out your huge Wildlife Treasure animal card file just to learn binomial nomenclature? Yeah, it’s not just pretty pictures of puppies and kittens. This is science, man.

Do you know the difference between a pterosaur, a plesiosaur and a dinosaur? Do you know how to pronounce “azhdarchid” or even know what that is? (It’s only one of the most amazing types of animals that ever lived.) Even if you just want to know those things, you must not miss out on one of the must read science blogs on the web by an actual palaeozoologist! And, best of all, there is CRYPTOZOOLOGY too!

Tetrapod Zoology – the blog by Dr. Darren Naish has turned eight years old this month. Check out the year in review, it’s incredible.

Happy 8th birthday Tetrapod Zoology: 2013 in review | Tetrapod Zoology, Scientific American Blog Network.

Tet Zoo montage by Darren Naish.

Tet Zoo montage by Darren Naish.

When I say there is cryptozoology, there is sound, professional, scholarly, thoughtful, skeptical cryptozoology – in my book, the only worthwhile kind. Check out this statement from Darren that appeared in the comments explaining Bigfoot footprints, which is too good to just leave in the comments of the piece:

People who specialise on sasquatch research often argue that alleged sasquatch footprints record anatomical features that demonstrate the biological reality of sasquatch, or reveal physical parameters (size, mass, stride length) that exceed those of humans. See Krantz’s and Meldrum’s books, for example. Fact is, firstly, the footprints they have in mind represent a tiny number out of the 100s of alleged sasquatch prints that have been reported – the features concerned are most assuredly not present in all alleged sasquatch prints that people see. The majority of sasquatch tracks don’t look biologically plausible at all, at least not to someone who is used to looking at the tracks of real animals.

Secondly, it’s now been shown that all of the supposedly ‘biologically convincing’ attributes of sasquatch tracks can be explained in other ways: the ‘dermal ridges’ are identical to the ripples that appear on plaster and seem to be an artefact of the cast-making process (see Matt Crowley’s work); the supposed mid-tarsal break (= metatarsophalangeal joint) looks either like a push-up pressure ridge (you can make these yourself depending on how you move your foot and throw your weight as you walk), the result of slippage during track-making, or resemble the joint already present in a percentage of humans anyway; and the overhanging side walls of some tracks can easily be explained by sediment slumping – a familiar and expected property of the substrate in which sasquatch tracks are made.

Claims made about toe movement are often vague (ask yourself: how well has this been demonstrated? Have you even seen good illustrations of a trackway where the author demonstrates, to your satisfaction, that toe position really varies from track to track? I’ve heard people say that this toe movement is present, but I’ve never seen it really demonstrated). In any case, the argument that toe movement cannot be hoaxed rests on the assumption that fake tracks are made by inflexible wooden feet. There are reasons, however, for thinking that the tracks are sometimes (or often) made by flexible, silicone rubber tracks (cf 1991 Mill Creek case).

Finally, as goes claims about size, mass and stride length – again, it’s difficult to ever find any data backing up these claims. They’re usually just claims, made without the required data, and without appropriate controls and checks and so on. As anyone who’s walked on soil will tell you, sediment that is soft and pliable at one point in time can be dry and hard at another point, meaning that you might make very deep tracks at one time, and be unable to make deep tracks at another. Any claims about the mass of the trackmaker should therefore be viewed with scepticism. As for stride length, people see great length between tracks and assume that the trackmaker was walking. But, when people trot or jog, their stride length increases, enabling them to easily match the stride length we see in sasquatch trackways.

There aren’t any sasquatch tracks that have really stood the test of time. Grover Krantz stated with absolute confidence that certain tracks were indisputably genuine. In fact, they had been manufactured by a man called J. W. Parker.

Today’s Bigfootology needs beating over the head with a clue stick. This is how you do it.

Wait, there’s more…

And if you like to geek out on Sci/Fi minutia relating to biology, or want to hear smart people pronounce all this nifty nomeclature correctly, but argue about how to pronounce Twitter names, you must check out the TetZoo podcast as well.
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And, I’m happy to say that even though he is so busy, Darren now answers my FB messages or emails, unlike in 2000 when I messaged him and he STILL hasn’t gotten back to me on that…

Speculative paleozoology done by professionals (Book Review)

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all yesterdaysLast night, I simply could not read any technical stuff before bed so I browsed my Kindle looking for some entertaining reading. The thing is, I don’t really do much fiction, almost everything I have is nonfiction. Then I came across “All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals” by Darren Naish, C.M. Kosemen, John Conway, and Scott Hartman. This was it, the perfect hour’s entertainment before bed perusing fascinating artwork and professional commentary regarding speculative reconstruction of prehistoric (and modern) animals. It was a lovely blend of nonfiction with a good dollop of fiction and I very much enjoyed it.

This book shows what might possibly (very likely) is off (completely wrong) about artistic reconstructions of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs. Fun stuff. You will learn that animals are reconstructed “shrink-wrapped” and naked. It’s sort of because that’s all the evidence we have and must guess at the soft tissue adornments and coloration. But what if we got a bit creative. That’s what this book does. Fun stuff. Sometimes silly, but thought provoking. What if these animals behaved in a completely different way than we expect? Well why not draw that?

The last section is enlightening as real animals are portrayed in a way that mimics how we would interpret prehistoric animals – shrink-wrapped, with no fat or characteristic soft parts (like pointy cartilage ears), no fur, and out of context.

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Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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My latest post, regarding the rational vs non-rational response to the new cryptozoology book by Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science, went live on Huffington Post yesterday.

Cryptozoology Gets Respect While Bigfooters Behave Badly.

When critical thinkers approach the subject of Bigfoot (or cryptozoology in general) with a focus on the evidence, they are met with reproach. We are challenging much more than the claim; we challenge their belief. They will resort to what Biblical literalists will do to evolutionists – they demonize, call us names, misquote, pick at small mistakes, and take words and ideas out of context. They create an extreme position and shoot it down (called a “straw man” argument) because it’s a power play to make them feel superior. (Note that some aggressive “skeptics” will do that and it’s not fair play in that case either.) All the while, they skirt the MAJOR flaws in their own conclusions.

Bigfoot-themed and other cryptozoology blogs and forums are typically hostile to skeptics, even moderate ones like myself. They can’t understand why we even want to participate since we are going to “deny” everything. Gee, sorry for being interested in the topic and in getting a good answer for peoples’ experiences. Questioning is not denying, it’s thinking.

A while back I challenged cryptozoologists to read the book and make a fair assessment. Some seem to have read it. Three known men gave it ridiculous reviews. They only read the parts that interested them and presumed judgement on the whole book. That is intellectually dishonest and really shallow, not to mention extremely arrogant, behavior. This is why we can’t take self-proclaimed cryptozoological experts seriously. They treat their subject more like a religion, based on faith.

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Talking to kids about evolution is hard: State it clearly

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I’ve found it a bit difficult to explain the concept of evolution to a child below the age of 10. You run into a problem defining all those “things” involved – like DNA and reproduction and population and deep time. Those are tough for kids to grasp (especially “populations”, I’ve noticed). Check out this video with adorable graphics and rather easy to understand explanations. Continue reading

Nasty pseudoscience and counterproductive behavior

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I have a new Sounds Sciencey piece up. This one took a good bit of work – it’s a book review as well as an analysis of an issue in scientific circles, the labeling of fields or works as “pseudoscience”.

Have a look: The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe.

Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.

gordin_coverI describe how this plays out through the book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel  Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Those new to the skeptical community may come in through a very different door than I did. Many are interested in specific topics they want to dig into right away. There is so much current info – websites, blogs, podcasts – to digest, it seems like they are unaware of some of these classic fringe ideas. This is a good one to learn and know. It can teach us many things. Having researched the concept of “pseudoscience” before, I found myself cringing a bit whenever the word was casually used. I hesitated to use it myself because it’s poorly defined and has no objective criteria on which to judge a field or piece of work as legitimately scientific or non-scientific. But it IS clear that the word and the concept is very useful in a social sense. We can disparage fields or works or people by labeling them in this way. It clues others in that this thing is nonsense and not worth pondering. That’s a hazard but for the most part, it works pretty well. There is little sense is taking astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, etc. seriously in terms of how nature works. But it is worth taking seriously if we are talking about the public perception of science.

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There is something alive down there. Troglobite!

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Several years ago, I put a downhole camera into a borehole that I suspected was drilled into a network of rotten rock, riddled with widened fracture and small caves, possibly a cavern (karst). The system was fed by surface stream leakage but sustained by what was estimated to be a very extensive hydrogeological system across the watershed (possibly more than one).

While the camera was decending, I noticed a void space in the rock possibly about a 6-8 inches across. Right after that feature, I found a white, multi-legged critter along the borehole wall who seemed not at all enthused that I was invading its space with light and movement. Shocked, I watched it retreat out of view. The camera resolution was not very high and I had no way to collect it for study. I did have the low res video, though. Later, I was able to determine it was a cave isopod, a troglobite. The closest known cave entrance was about 6 miles away. How did its ancestors get there? At that moment, I was the first person to see this creature ever. Its presence, a pleasant surprise, told me there was an actual ecosystem under there of which I previously had no idea existed.

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Science appreciation class

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Several years ago, while learning about the problem of science illiteracy, I discovered something of critical importance: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

Kids aren’t going to do well in high school science classes (or even choose to take those classes) if they feel no love for science. It is too late to instill that into them, perhaps. Besides, only a VERY small percentage of the kids would actually go on to become scientists. They probably don’t need biology, chemistry and physics knowledge to succeed in their eventual careers.

Yet, there is tremendous VALUE in knowing how science works. There is also a critical value in appreciating WHY science is one of humanities’ greatest inventions. It’s the process that produces the most reliable knowledge. It’s the best way we know how to learn what’s true about nature.

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Bad pharma and research bias: A talk by Ben Goldacre

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Today, I’d like recommend a TED talk by Dr. Ben Goldacre. His book Bad Science is one that I consider a must for every skeptic’s library and should be a must read for any student of science.

Ben has a new book out in the UK (the US edition is scheduled for later in 2013) called Bad Pharma.

In this talk, he describes precognition research by Daryl Bem‘s and then focuses primarily on academic medicine and publication bias. Continue reading

Better living without chemistry?

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My latest article for my Sounds Sciencey column is about chemistry. Or, more precisely, how it is viewed by the public.

There is this thing you might see on labels of products ranging from baby health goods to fertilizer: “CHEMICAL FREE”. But what does that even mean? I say it’s meaningless and is harmful for consumers.

Over the last 4 decades, the idea of chemistry has gotten a terrible reputation. People just don’t like chemicals. Yet, they certainly don’t understand that EVERYTHING we eat or drink or use in our showers or on our bodies is made of chemicals. Everything we use or wear is derived from a chemical process. To be without chemistry is to not exist. Our bodies run on chemistry.

The word “chemical” has been hijacked to mean “toxic”. And “toxic chemicals” has become a buzz word for environmental and health movements against everything from fracking to vaccines. That’s dangerous. In order to be an informed consumer and citizen, when talking science terms, you need to understand what you are actually advocating for or against. When you say “toxic chemicals,” what science-trained ears perceive from you is “this person is not scientifically literate”.

So, I advocate not to fall into the hype of “chemical-free”. Check out my piece and see how we got here as a society and what can be done about it.

Bad Reaction: The Toxicity of Chemical-Free Claims