The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

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Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

A correspondent clued me in to what he called a “devastating commentary on parapsychology.” I agree. The review on the Magonia Review of Books meshes with what I had written in June 2014 when I looked into parapsychology, comparing then and now. It’s helpful to see an independent critique that notes the same flaws as you did. I’m not the only one who notices that the standard-bearers of parapsychology are unhelpful to their own cause. 

I enjoy the Magonia Blog review of books because the review are often in-depth and I typically learn something new whether I read the highlighted book or not. I also love to learn about what’s cooking with publishing these days, what is out there for people to access, and I’m often left to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to publish THAT!

In the review entitled Believing Impossible Things, Peter Rogerson examines Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited byEtzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz (edit: names fixed). It’s not a book I would read since it’s not aimed at me, since I’m not parapsychology expert, but for PhD level students of parapsychology. (I’m thinking that must be a pretty small audience.) Rogerson describes it as a “large, 400-plus page work [that] presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology… devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics.”

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100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong

PopSci

What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »

Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.
Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.

Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

This is a paper I prepared for an ethics graduate class and have updated (7-June-2014). I present it in conjunction with a Strange Frequencies Radio podcast appearance on Sunday June 8.

Natural disasters happen every day. The people who can help prepare society for them are not psychics or crank pseudoscientists but those who study events inside out and upside down – scientists. Those who consider prediction a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists.

It’s a great responsibility to be tasked warning officials and the public about probable natural disasters. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with achieving the primary goal, which is safety and minimizing loss of life. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989 p. 107) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and shorelines prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows or inundated with waves of debris.

For many predicted events (volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, blizzards), there is time to deliver the message and adequately prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes. There are no widely accepted precursors for quakes. Reliable prediction are long-term and large-scale — relatively unhelpful for preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media.

It’s important to distinguish between predictions from the scientific community and those arising from the nonscientific community (pseudoscientific speculation, psychics and cranks). Scientific predictions must be supported by background theory and data and withstand skeptical scrutiny to be considered credible. The foundation mechanisms, explanations, calculations and assessments are expected to have gone through the gauntlet of peer review in order to gain acceptance. If the foundation is valid, then short-term, specific predictions will be credible. Predictive successes that have followed the conventional route include volcanic evacuations (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and the island of Montserrat) and severe weather alerts. Psychic and pseudoscientific predictions are not supported by theory or data and are not credible. I’ll not be addressing the ethics of those predictions as they are in a whole other realm.

Failed predictions fall on an impact scale from low (creating public inconvenience) to high (massive death tolls) with economic losses and potential career destruction in between. The following are some notable examples that highlight the major pitfalls inherent in predicting (or ignoring predictions of) natural disasters.

The Brady-Spence Debacle

In 1976, Dr. Brian Brady, a U.S. government scientist, made a specific prediction for a huge seismic event to take place in Lima, Peru in July of 1981. While the prediction itself was remarkably detailed, the theory supporting it was completely opaque (Olsen, 1989 p. 41). Brady’s theory had not been tested or published for peer review. During the lead up years to the event, things got complicated. Egos, priorities, agendas and protocol hijacked opportunities for proper, coherent, scientific critique. Peruvian officials and the public were confused by the lack of a reliable feed of information. The unstable political situation at the time led Peruvian citizens to think that their government was using the prediction to continue military control (Olsen, 1989 p. 131; Sol & Turan, 2004). The predicted quake did not occur. But, widespread disorder, decline of tourism, decrease in property values, and general public unrest resulted in an estimated economic damage in Lima of $50 million (Mileti & Fitzpatrick, 1993 p. 55).

The lack of following scientific protocol led to the situation getting out of hand. This episode is an example of a loss of objectivity by the chief scientist, the failure of the scientific community to address a serious situation in a coordinated way, and government agencies accepting rumors and pursuing misguided agendas without accurate information.

Armero

In 1985, Columbian scientists knew that villages in the valleys around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano were prone to disaster from eruptions. Yet, money was not allotted by the government to monitor the active volcano. The data that could be collected was ignored or not taken seriously by officials. When the media reported that an eruption would produce deadly mudflows that would obliterate the village of Armero, civic leaders called these press reports “volcanic terrorism”.

Church leaders added to the propaganda by telling people of the village not to fear. The poor population made no preparations to evacuate. Inevitably, the volcano erupted. That night, those who attempted to evacuate did not know where to go. Civil defense tried to get people out of the town but many refused to go – telling rescuers they were certainly mistaken. 23,000 people perished when a flood of meltwater and warm mud buried the town. Armero no longer exists, bodies were incased in dozens of feet of debris.

Government inaction in this entirely preventable situation was devastating. The situation was a heartbreaking testimony to the vulnerability of the poor to manipulation by authority  (Bruce, 2001).

Browning’s New Madrid prediction

Iben Browning was a scientist with unconventional ideas who took his claim directly to the media who gave it wide coverage. He pronounced that an earthquake on the New Madrid fault in the US Midwest would be triggered in December 1990 by tidal forces. In light of his prediction, serious social disturbances occurred. When the quake did not occur, he was ridiculed. Sol & Turan (2004) note that one can not use the defense of free speech to support predictions such as this since they create social disturbances with harmful consequences. Your speech has consequences.

Mr. Browning rejected scientific protocol and valid criticism but used the press to create a stir. While these actions were unethical if one subscribes to the ideals of the scientific community, the media also shares some blame for giving Browning’s opinion credibility it did not deserve. Several cranks persist in using this same “tidal forces” idea, unsupported by science, to gain attention from the media.

Katrina

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. A US House Committee (2006) investigated the catastrophe and found, though the forecasts were remarkably good, the right information did not get to the right people on time and decision-makers seriously underestimated the threat.

It was well known how vulnerable New Orleans was to hurricanes yet there were inadequate provisions, few acts of leadership, government ineptitude, misguided advice, and media hype of violence that together resulted in a pathetic governmental response and heightened death toll. Katrina also revealed ugly issues of race and class treatment which showed that being poor and black put one at a distinct disadvantage in a disaster situation. Previous federal government cuts for disaster preparedness had increased the vulnerabilities and taught a hard lesson about paying now or paying later.

Boxing Day Tsunami

The Sumatra-Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was an example of lack of coordinated monitoring, notification and evacuation procedures that caused an enormous and mostly preventable loss of life (Revkin, 2004). Fifteen minutes after the offshore quake that generated the deadly tsunami, U.S. scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii sent out a warning bulletin. In spite of attempts they made to contact counterparts in other countries, the calls were not answered; the information and warning did not get through. Thousands died along populated coastlines completely unaware of the incoming surge scientists knew was coming.

Back in 2003, Dr. Phil Cummings of Australia had pushed for an expansion of the tsunami network into the Indian Ocean. Formation of a study group was met with resistance from participating countries and the network was never expanded. In hindsight, it was noted that Dr. Cummings had accurately predicted the damage that would be done to Sumatra and India. This event put the new word “tsunami” into the vocabulary of many citizens around the world.

L’Aquila, Italy

Giampaolo Giuliani forecasted the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy based on radon ground emission readings – a scientifically questionable (but not outlandish) theory. Giuliani was reported to authorities for “spreading panic” by broadcasting his warnings weeks before the predicted event. Italian scientists assured the townspeople that quakes were not predicable and officials forced Guiliani to remove warnings from the internet (Neild, 2009; Mackey, 2009). When the predicted quake did not occur on the expected date, March 29, the Italian Civil Protection Agency denounced Guiliani as “an imbecile” (Israely, 2009). A quake occurred on April 6 destroying the central city of L’Aquila and killing more than 300 people.

In this case, a desperate scientist had made an attempt to do what he thought was the right thing. The government agency chose to use ridicule and censorship instead of providing a measured, coordinated response to a questionable scientific prediction. What might have been the result if a different tactic was undertaken?

In 2012, an Italian court convicted six of the scientists and a government official of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly earthquake. Were they at fault or just mistaken? What happens when scientists are held THIS accountable for a correct guess in an uncertain situation? The public will suffer.

The parties involved

Most crises are not instantly obvious. They take time to develop, sometimes from vague or contradictory signals (Boin & t’Hart, 2006 p. 49). Citizens expect public official to make critical decisions, provide direction and issue emergency warnings (Barberi et al., 2008). Because they are not experts on scientific topics, officials are vulnerable to misunderstanding and mischaracterization (Olsen, 1989, p. 38 and 139). Social scientists note “the public wants to hear things from people they trust” and “they want to hear things repeated”. Miscommunication can occur all too easily when an official speaks outside his area expertise and/or garbles the message. Constant, and correct communication is the key.

Predictions have a way of leaking to the press. The media can be an effective and critical means to deliver warnings and will look to experts for information and confirmation. Scientists, however, have not traditionally been open to making themselves available to address the public. One can argue that it is their ethical obligation to be accessible in such a situation and they MUST do so to establish and retain their place as a credible source of information. Otherwise, alternate, not-so-credible sources step in to fill the void.

New electronic media means word-of-mouth takes on a whole different scale as warnings from credible and non-credible sources are passed instantaneous around the world. “Prediction” via email or social network platforms is popular. Likely unaware that a warning is scientifically baseless, and without an easy way to judge its credibility, a receiver feels that she is doing a good deed by passing on a warning of impending doom. Warnings like this can cause undue concerns and economic effects.

The elemental question in predictive scenarios is: when is the evidence adequate to make a prediction to the public? Many prognosticators feel they have potentially life-saving information and are overcome with a moral obligation to inform the public regardless of protocol. They can’t seem to adequately assess the potential fallout if they are wrong. The public, however, considers costs of all kinds and is not always compelled to follow scientific advice. The public may be misled by a manufactured scientific controversy (such as vaccine dangers or global warming).

Science gets accused of oppressing unorthodox ideas that may form the basis of innovative prediction theory. The punishment for a scientific maverick can mean the end of a career. Desperate scientists with unorthodox ideas, rejected by their peers, will put forth their ideas to the community who will listen – the media and public.

The modern public generally has veneration for science and scientists (Posner, 2004 p. 97; Barberi et al., 2008). Yet, science can not deliver absolutes or provide guarantees. The prediction scenario must take public perception into account or the prediction will cause harm whether the event occurs or not.

The world’s most vulnerable population is the poor. Keys et al. (2006) asserts that expensive warning systems are a hard political sell if it is just to save the poor populations.

Governments and citizens will hesitate to undertake precautions that are expensive and time consuming. The public, however, is influenced by seeing others in the community (or, these days, online) taking a warning seriously (Mileti & Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 87). Where the people are poor, uneducated or distrustful of government (Bolin, 2006 p. 129), there can be a reluctance to accept an “official” warning to evacuate. People who feel they are in control of their lives take action to survive. Those who feel their lives are controlled by an external force will passively await whatever fate will come. Fatalistic attitudes, especially as a result of religious beliefs, are still encountered today, most notably in poor populations (Quarantelli et al., 2006 p. 19, and Bruce, 2001 p. 19). Leaders must be forthright to convince citizens to take the most reasonable course of action. Compassion for personal human concerns must be displayed for a warning to be heeded. Government must be prepared to follow through with obligations to the population whether the event occurs or not.

Conclusion

Many predictions are valid attempts to do the right thing under uncertain circumstances. There are social and political reasons why a prediction is taken seriously or completely ignored. The media and public may give a baseless prediction credence where the scientific community does not.

When the public, media and politicians become involved, a prediction becomes socially complex. Warnings must be delivered in relation to social conditions (Rodrigues et al, 2006b p. 486).

Government and scientists have an obligation to learn from historical events and not repeat mistakes. Even false alarms do not diminish future response if the basis and reasons for the miss are understood and accepted by the public (Sorensen & Sorensen, 2006 p. 196-7). Therefore, authorities should be willing to prepare their citizens without hesitation if the prediction is supported by science.

Science has an established process to be followed for a theory to gain acceptance. Scientists should be discouraged from short circuiting this process and appealing directly to the public. However, the scientific community must evolve its process to include modern technology and the new media in consideration of basic human needs and various responses to life-threatening events.

References
Barberi, F., M.S. Davis, R. Isaia, R. Nave, T. Riccia (2008). “Volcanic risk perception in the Vesuvius population.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 172: 244 – 258.

Boin, A. and P. ‘t Hart (2006). “The Crisis Approach”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 42-54.

Bolin, B. (2006). “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 113-129.

Bourque, L. B., J.M. Siegel, M. Kano, M. M. Wood (2006). “Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Disasters”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 97-112.

Bruce, V. (2001). No Apparent Danger. NY, Harper Collins.

Bryant, E. (2005). “Personal and Group Response to Hazards”. Natural Hazards, Cambridge Univ Press: 273-287.

Hinman, L. M. (2005). “Hurricane Katrina: A ‘Natural’ Disaster?” San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego, CA. Sept. 8, 2005.

Israely, J. (2009) “Italy’s Earthquake: Could Tragedy Have Been Avoided?” Time Retrieved April 7, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1889644,00.html.

Johnson, B. F. (2009) “Gone and Back Again”. Earth (07 Apr 2009) Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1fe-7d9-4-7.

Keys, A., H. Masterman-Smith, D. Cottle (2006). “The Political Economy of a Natural Disaster: The Boxing Day Tsunami, 2004.” Antipode 38(2): 195-204.

Mackey, R. (2009). “Earthquake Warning was Removed from Internet”. NY Times News Blog (The Lede) (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/earthquake-warning-was-removed-from-internet

Mileti, D. S. and C. Fitzpatrick (1993). The Great Earthquake Experiment. Boulder, CO, Westview Press.

Neild, B. and G. Deputato (2009) “Scientist: My quake prediction was ignorned”. CNN.com (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/04/06/italy.quake.prediction.

Olsen, R. S. (1989). The Politics of Earthquake Prediction. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ Press.

Posner, R.A. (2004). Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Oxford Univ Press.

Quarantelli, E. L., P. Lagadec, A. Boin (2006). “A Heuristic Approach to Future Disasters adn Crises: New, Old and In-Between Types”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 16-41.

Revkin, A. C. (2004). “How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly”. New York Times. December 31, 2004.

Rodriguez, H., E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes (2006a). Handbook of Disaster Research. NY, Springer.

Rodriguez, H., W. Diaz, J. Santos, B.E. Aguirre (2006b). “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty: Science, Technology, and Disasters at the Crossroads”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 476-488.

Scanlon, J. (2006). “Unwelcome Irritant or Useful Ally? The Mass Media in Emergencies”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 413-429.

Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006). “A Failure of Initiative”. Washington, D.C., US House of Representatives.

Sol, A. and H. Turan (2004). “The Ethics of Earthquake Prediction.” Science and Engineering Ethics10(4): 655-666.

Sorensen, J. H. and B. V. Sorensen (2006). “Community Processes: Warning and Evacuation”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 183-199.

USGS (1999). “Most Recent Natural Disasters Were Not the Century’s Worst, USGS Says.” News release – US Dept of Interior, USGS (Geologic Hazards) (30 December 1999).

* I use the term prediction throughout this post since I am referring to the cases where a particular event was said to occur within a discrete time frame in a certain location. Please see this post in which I distinguish forecasting from prediction.

Originally published on this blog on 28 Mar 2011

No, you are not the new Jane Goodall: My Twitter exchange with Melba Ketchum

I had a discussion with Melba Ketchum today on Twitter regarding her continued claims that Bigfoot will be proven true.  Some of it spilled over to Facebook – her favorite communication outlet. I was surprised she responded and it went on for quite a while. For those of you who missed it, good for you. But here it is mostly in its entirety (a few other tweets weren’t worth adding); see what you can glean from this.

For background, note that my site, Doubtful News, has been critical of Melba’s work with good cause (melba ketchum | Doubtful News). I also wrote a chronicle of the history of her project for Skeptical Briefs (which you can see here The Ketchum Project: What to Believe about Bigfoot DNA ‘Science’ – CSI) and in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m not some lone skeptic picking at her claims. She has the entire scientific community against her. She revels in being the maverick, persecuted, pulls the Galileo gambit. I find it distasteful.

This is the first time she responded to me in public. She should totally stop doing that.

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Defending the faith of cryptozoology

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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Facts? You keep using that word, Bigfoot hunters.

You are Not Entitled to Your Own Bigfoot Facts” is my latest piece up on Sounds Sciencey. It’s a continuation on this piece which still gets a lot of hits on the site.

In this one, I take to task some self-styled Bigfooters who consider speculation as “fact”. It gets pretty silly…

Self-styled Bigfoot researchers make claims that suggest they know more about Bigfoot than Bigfoot might know about himself. They can tell me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, and how he communicates. They tell the public that Bigfoot makes those sounds they hear at night. They find locations where a Bigfoot passed through or slept or built a shelter. These researchers even know about Bigfoots’ “culture”—what they do with their dead relatives, how they can fool humans. But apparently they don’t know enough to catch one.

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Today’s edition of being scientifical: UFO research and homeopathy

Ever on the lookout for scientifical examples, here are two that I thought were interesting.

The first relates to my interest in amateurs being scientifical. UFO researcher Budd Hopkins presented the results of a study he conducted at a conference about UFO abductees. According to Robert Sheaffer (Skeptical Inquirer V. 35 No. 3 May/June 2001 p 25-27), he was roundly taken to task. Hopkins devised an image recognition test supposedly to determine if children were being abducted. He also conducted a Roper poll to find out how many Americans believed they have been abducted. His research lacks the basic protocol of credible research. Why? Hopkins is not a scientist. Read More »

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing.Read More »

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed.Read More »

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here.Read More »

Paranormal-themed nonfiction TV: A list

I was writing an article when I realized I needed a clear idea about when this whole amateur investigation reality-television thing became popular. So, I started a list. (I’m a good Googler.) Here is a list of TV shows (series) that portray the paranormal as real or examine it as possibly real. Some are reality-type shows, some are documentaries. (Therefore, I have also included some shows on here of a skeptical nature.) Some are not wholly paranormal-themed but they contain an element that suggests a particular subject or event is beyond that which is currently accepted in the scientific community. I realize the line can be blurry.

Since one of my areas of interest is how the media promotes a view of science and the scientific to the public, I think the popularity of these shows is important. There is some research into how paranormal/supernatural themed shows affect the public belief in the paranormal, but there is LITTLE to NO research on how reality-type shows affects this or, regarding my interest, how the public perceives the “scientificity” of these shows.

I cataloged 125 shows ranging in premier dates from 1949 to some upcoming ones on the horizon. Read More »

Buell and PRS to offer classes for the credulous

I once went to a presentation by the Paranormal Research Society, held at a local Pennsylvania State University campus. It was not sponsored (nor endorsed) by the university but by a student activities group. I chuckled softly to myself when Ryan Buell flubbed information about some very famous “ghost” photographs. His background on parapsychological history seemed thin. I was thoroughly unimpressed. (I’ve since watched the show and was even more unimpressed.) I’m sure he’s better now, being under the tutelage of Lorraine Warren, clairvoyant/demon enthusiast. PRS has announced that in response to tremendous public requests, they will be offering educational webinars.

“PRS will begin hosting and offering classes and lectures on paranormal research and various topics through the means of online webinars. PRS will offer both individual lectures and web courses, as well as invite outside experts/researchers to offer classes.”

Color me skeptical about the seriousness of such a venture…
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The big difference between earthquake prediction and forecasting

I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.

A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).

These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting.Read More »

It “appears as if” the world is ending

Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Read More »

The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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Paranormal investigators doing good, but going wrong

There are so many ghost hunting groups wandering around in the dark that they trip over each other. I attempted to count paranormal investigation groups and gave up at around 1500 without even searching Facebook. We all have our opinions about what they try to do – find evidence of life after death. Those of us aware of how scientific methodology and answering a question works in practice are critical of their equipment, and, dare I say, pseudoscientific, activities.  However, I might surprise some of you by saying that they also do a lot of good.

Many paranormal investigation groups will state explicitly and foremost that their goal is to aid people who have had a frightening, confusing experience. I’ve concluded that most do think they are doing a positive thing by either validating an experience for someone or by explaining it through objective (and more often subjective) evidence.

They also support causes such as historic preservation and cemetery preservation/restoration. They enjoy teaching people about cultural landmarks and memorable characters of the past. They encourage curiosity and imagination. Can’t say those aren’t worthy efforts; let’s give them that.Read More »

Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

I’m off inside my own head these days…

My main project is my Masters’ thesis in Science and the Public. I started gathering data this summer; fall will be consumed with crunching data, making sense of it and writing it up. I’ll graduate in February, barring any unforeseen disasters.

The hardest part about a thesis is formulating a research question and designing a low-cost, reasonable study that will appropriately answer that question. It took me months to work that out. This was an important struggle because it teaches you that science has rules. These rules are pretty wicked to follow if you want to do it right – you must be perfectly clear about what you are asking and the results you expect to get. No ambiguities allowed. Everything must be defined. You must do the work. No shortcuts.

I’ve decided to focus on something that means something personal to me and can answer a question that hasn’t been addressed before in this context.
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