Category Archives: Falsehoods and Skepticism

James Randi is dead

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James Randi, well known and influential skeptic, debunker, founder of the Committee for skeptical Inquiry, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), died on October 20th. He is most famous for debunking paranormal claims. His debunking of other falsehood was a bit weaker and less important (he rejected anthropocentric global warming for way too long, until he got a good talking to by a couple of doods who explained it to him in words of many syllables). He is famous for teaching America how to bend a spoon unmagically, and so many other tricks.

He created the “Amazing Meeting” which was a meeting in Las Vegas that was fairly amazing, but eventually devolved into an MRA meat market so everyone stopped going. (Not Randi’s fault.)

But never mind those low points (just trying to be honest here, as he would prefer). Never mind his cult status (which did more to to devolve than advance his work). James Randi was a consistent force pushing popular culture in the direction of truth and away from mysticism. He made a difference.

In the end, he did manage to predict his own death with amazing accuracy. Possibly.


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Is Forbes Magazine a Danger to Scientists?

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The other day a friend asked me, “Is Forbes Magazine legit? Should I believe what it says about climate change?”

It was a good question, since there are many outlets that have clear biases in favor of climate inaction, or even, climate reality denial.

I’m actually not sure if Forbes is a trustworthy source. I’ve seen articles about energy that are informative, and I’ve seen articles about energy that are misleading. I don’t remember off hand any articles about climate change per se.

Until now.

Roger Pielke Junior has an op ed that does damage to Forbes’ reputation, and to Roger’s reputation as well. And, unfortunately, it is a sad story. In the OpEd Roger seems to be claiming that the volunteer organization, Skeptical Science, has done damage to a short list of academics, including his father, his colleague Judith Curry, and himself. What Roger does not understand is that the criticisms that come from Skeptical Science are true. The damage to these three was self inflicted.

Here is the story.

There are two Roger Pielkes: Senior and Junior. Both are academics, and both have produced work that has been criticized by the climate science community. I’m not actually all that familiar with Senior’s work, but Junior’s work has been on my radar screen for some time, and it is an enemy ship, as it were. Junior’s main point is to contradict the increasingly well established science on the frequency, level of impact, and importance of major storms like Atlantic Hurricanes. He has variously made claims that they have not gotten stronger, that climate change is unrelated to these storms, that they are not coming with more frequency, and that their impact is not important. I believe that way down deep in his analysis, there is a fundamental flaw. He shows that the overall economic status of the US is not impacted by hurricanes, but the former is measured by GDP, and GDP increases with increasing devastation by major storms. This is because when a major storm comes along and wipes out cities or coastlines or whatever, there is so much economic activity spent on recovery that GDP goes up.

Junior has taken criticism from other academics poorly, and he has taken it personally. He has teamed up with another academic who has also been criticized heavily. This is Judith Curry. Curry’s work has been criticized by the climate community for a few reasons, but mainly this: She claims that the trend towards increasing global surface temperature is predictable by a non-global-warming scenario in which some other internal variation explains the warming. This idea, however, seems to come from a misunderstanding of the underlying stochastic (and other) dynamics of the models she has used. She is, I’m pretty sure, wrong. There may have been a time, perhaps 15 years ago, when her interpretation of the data could stay alive while more information was gathered, but that time has long past, and sadly, she has not allowed her hansom hypothesis to die an honorable death by fact.

The third element in the current drama is the organization and web site “Skeptical Science.” It is a volunteer run entity that has help from a lot of scientists and communicators. Some of my own work has been reprinted there, and I use it as a reliable and well organized source of information on climate denialism, and actually, climate change itself. If you don’t know skeptical science, you should. It is an excellent resource.

Now, here is the sad part. Rumor has it that Roger Pielke Sr. has recently become ill, and it appears that Junior is in a state of upset, possibly depression, and almost certainly in some kind of socio-psychotic episody state of some sort. I’m not qualified to diagnose so I won’t, but in the vernacular sense Junior has gone ’round the bend, and is in a mode of attacking the Skeptical Science people who, over the years, have been hard on Senior, Junior, and Curry, all three.

This is not an over the top inappropriate hardness, that Skeptical Science has produced. In fact, it is relatively toned down compared to the feelings the three deniateers have produced when they hate on science and love on the fossil fuel industry, indirectly, in their writings, their congressional testimony, and so on.

Having said that, I can’t say what exactly is going on with Roger Junior other than that he is clearly upset. He has produced a large number of tweets attacking Skeptical Science and its volunteers. He has tweeted out personal and private information about Skeptical Science people and other scientists, information that was previously stolen by denialist hackers. His tweets have been, at least in part if not majority, taken down by Twitter, and his account was, at least for a time, suspended.

Roger Pielke Junior attacked volunteers and scholars who had been defending science, attacked them, and science, in inappropriate ways, and for his trouble he has been chastised by Twitter.

I and several colleagues have contacted Roger, or friends of Roger, to see if someone can talk to him, to see if someone can talk him down.

But what happened instead, is Roger published an OpEd airing his grievances in Forbes, raising the stakes, and making his attack official and sanctioned by a major publishing outlet.

This is a credibility hit for Roger, but not one that will matter to him. This is a credibility hit for Forbes. I have no idea if Forbes Magazine cares about its credibility in the science community, or in the environmental community.

Regardless of what Forbes intended, or wanted, it got this: Scientists and science communicators must now regard Forbes Magazine, or its editorial staff, as dangerous. Roger Pielke Junior, having some sort of apparent breakdown, was easily able to weaponize Forbes. That can only have happened if Forbes wanted it to happen. Stay away from Forbes, my friends and colleagues. Don’t touch it with a ten foot pole, unless your ten foot Pole is a very tall Eastern European attorney with experience in libel law.

This is a developing situation. Much of it is happening on Twitter. One of the more pertinent tweets I’ve seen so far is this one by Climate Scientists Gavin Schmidt:

And now (added) Dana Nuccitelli has tweeted this, with a link to a new Skeptical Science post addressing this issue:

And from Katharine Hayhoe:


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Native Americans Actually Do Exist

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The law works differently in different countries. If you commit a crime in one country, and jump over the border to an adjoining country, what can or might happen to you depends on the arrangements that have been made between the two countries.

Similarly, the law that applies, and the actual application of the law if any, is complicated when it comes to non-natives committing crime on native lands, which are separate nations, within the United States. I am very far from an expert on this. What I know about it comes from conversations with my friend Shawn Otto, who wrote a novel set in this boundary space between native and non-native lands (Sins of Our Fathers: A Novel, excellent story, go read it).

PZ Myers commented on something related in a recent blog post in which he notes a recent study suggesting that nearly half of non-Native Americans do not believe that Native people exist.

Recently, a host on a wildly popular podcast, who is Indian (as in from the Indian subcontinent, in Asia) took to referring to himself and his compatriots as “real Indians,” a reference to the idea that Columbus got it wrong when he referred to the indigenous people he ran into in the Caribbean as “Indians,” thinking he was in Asia while at the same time not having a very clear concept of what “Asia” might actually be.

I found that reference deeply offensive and I’m neither Asian-Indian or American Indian. Its just that Native Americans have enough trouble being taken seriously that I’m pretty sure they don’t need some over privileged Hollywood type from California suggesting that Native Americans are in some way non-real.

I grew up in Upstate New York, and later moved to the Boston area. That was, in a sense, going backwards in historical time in relation to Indians. From my own studies of regional history and archaeological work in the time period, I knew that a very large percentage of the Native cultures near Boston, and anywhere near Boston, were wiped out way early in the Colonial Period, while Native groups played a more persistent role in US history in New York and nearby areas of Canada. Putting this another way, we are not even quite sure of the full range of tribes that existed or what they called themselves, along the Massachusetts coast, while the New York area Haudenosaunee and some Algonquin groups are well known in history, and very much present both on and off reservations.

I remember moving to Milwaukee for a year, and discovering that Wisconsin had what was referred to as the “Indian Problem” by some people. It sounds a little more obnoxious than it actually was. The problem was disagreement over fishing rights and regulations in commonly held territories, and it was a problem that involved claims by Indian groups vs. claims by the state. I heard the term “Indian Problem” later, and read it in older documents, when I moved to Minnesota. The process of taking land from Indians, and otherwise pushing them out, moving them aside, or starving them off, was very recent in Minnesota. There are living people who’s grandparents had artifacts from the Dakota War(aka “Sioux Upraising” or “Little Crow’s War”). Some of those artifacts may have been body parts from Native Americans executed after the uprising was put down. In historic documents, the “Indian Problem” seems sometimes to refer to the constant threat of Indian attack in areas near Minneapolis or Saint Paul, well within the current boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area, early in the 20th century. These attacks are memorialized in stories and newspaper accounts, way post-date the Dakota War, and I’m 100% sure they never ever happened. They were used as a publicity stunt to make the idea of traveling out to the Twin Cities to stay in a hotel and take in the fresh air more exciting for New Yorkers and others out east.

The study mentioned above is described here. The study shows that Native American erasure from common or popular understanding in the United States is partly due to the way Native people and issues are treated by the media. Also, Natives are largely underrepresented, or absent, in educational programs, or where they appear, it is as historical figures or factors as though they existed in the past, but not necessarily now.

I actually don’t see this as a huge problem in Minnesota, and I assume it is more of a bi-coastal and possibly Southern thing. Native American presence in Minnesota is pretty out front, and I think it would be very difficult to find that more than a tiny percentage of Minnesotans think Native Americans don’t exist. Of the several individuals running for Governor or Lt. Governor in Minnesota this year, at least one is a Native American. This does not mean that the attitude about Native people is good. It probably isn’t on average. Native American reservations are often discussed in the same light as really bad urban neighborhoods, as places to avoid. At best, Native Americans are interesting or quaint.

(I note that the above mentioned Shawn Otto write the script for a brand new planetarium show in our local natural history museum, in which a kid bonks his head and ends up in an oz-like world where he learns about the history of the universe. The role is played by a young Native boy. That was helpful.)

A few years ago there was an effort by the state, I think through the Department of Education, to have more reference to Native peoples in schools. The way they did this was, in my view, not smart. Although the standard itself was somewhat better defined, they essentially required that every core course taught in the schools incorporate something about Native Americans. That’s it. Simple. This, of course, required that, say, the physical science teacher, or the math teacher, be sufficiently expert in Native American studies of some sort, to come up with something, and sufficiently enlightened to not end up doing something harmful, misleading, or hateful. There are a lot of ways to get a key bit of subject matter into a curriculum. Telling each teacher to come up with ten minutes on that topic no matter what they are teaching has never been done before, for any topic. Why this topic? Clearly, the mandate was not being taken seriously.

From the Women’s Media Center coverage of the above mentioned report:

When exposed to narratives about Native people that included factual information about present-day Native life, more accurate history, positive examples of resilience, and information about systemic oppression, respondents from all demographics showed more support for pro-Native policy and social justice issues. Information that was shared with respondents included simple statements such as “The government signed over 500 treaties with Native Americans, all of which were broken by the federal government. From 1870 to 1970, the federal government forcibly removed Native American children from their homes to attend boarding schools.” On key issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, racist mascots, and tribal sovereignty, 16-24 percent more people supported the position of tribes after being exposed to these new messages.

That large a shift in public support can easily be the difference in an election outcome, a bill’s passage, or the actions of large corporations, such as sports teams. Positive and accurate portrayal of Natives in the mainstream media has the potential to significantly advance Native rights in this country. Alongside the report, Reclaiming Native Truth released a guide for allies on how to improve coverage of Native Americans. The guide includes examples of positive messaging and questions for media makers to ask themselves, such as “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative by not taking into account or including contemporary Native peoples in my work?”

“The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes,” said Echo Hawk. “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.”

Photo above: Minnesotans learning about Native Americans at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, in Minnesota.


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Schrödinger’s Lie: A quantum leap in understanding metaphors

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Sex, Lies, and Power

When I was a graduate student, and later, teaching, at a Great East Coast University*, one of my adivsors was the famous Irven DeVore. We taught a very large introductory biology class nicknamed “Sex” but also known as “Human Behavioral Biology,” or, in the school’s tradition of naming all important courses after World War II bombers, “B-29.”

The fact was not lost on DeVore that we intended to enthrall, or at least, lock in the room four times a week, batches of 500 or so individuals who were training up to grasp in their hot little hands the very levers of power. Our job was to teach them what human behavior was all about. Clearly, that was an awesome task. And, DeVore reckoned that the best way to responsibly carry out this task was to inform the students what was actually going on, so they would be less likely to miss the point.

“You are all destine to eventually grasp the very levers of power,” he would tell them. “And here, we are undertaking the awesome task of learning about human behavior. During this course, there will be occasions when we will simplify the subject matter, in order to make important points. In effect, we’ll tell the occasional white lie to arrive eventually at a greater truth.”

There would be a pause.

“It is not lost on me and should not be on you, that now and then we are casting false pearls before real swine.”

Another pause. One in 15 students would then giggle. A different 1 in fifteen students would sneer. The rest would not emote, but they would dutifully write down the words.

What’s a meta for, anyway?

After my own fledging as a tosser of pearls, I departed from DeVore’s philosophy. I replaced white lies with truthful placeholders. Instead of “All genes code for proteins,” it would be “All proteins are coded for by genes, and that is the job of many but not all genes.” That was an easy one, and the placeholder there is the implication that there are other genes that do other things. A more difficult case might be “On balance, wealthy individuals have more offspring than poor ones, but half the time you measure this it will seem untrue. But, most of those times, you are measuring it wrong, and you can learn all about that in a 3000 level course we offer on Thursday afternoons.”

A white lie, in education, is a simplification that is demonstrably untrue, but used in cases where getting at the full truth involves more advanced material than appropriate for the course, or in some cases, just takes up too much time and doesn’t get you much in return.

In a sense, analogies are white lies, but with an even higher purpose.

The reason to analogize, or create a metaphor, is not to gloss over details, but rather, to bring the conversation to a more advanced understanding of something. A good metaphor causes an “aha” moment and a nudging of thinking in the direction of truth. It is not explicitly a lie, but an analogy is always in fact part lie. Usually the lies stay in the background and can be ignored, but if a given analogy is worked too long or too hard, you can almost never avoid stumbling over them.

For example, varying amounts of water running through pipes of varying sizes at varying speeds is a very good analogy for electricity when you are teaching the very basics of voltage and amperage. But this metaphor breaks the moment you realize that electricity doesn’t really slow down or speed up like water does. It breaks even more when you realize that alternating current lives outside the wire (pipe) a good bit of the time, and can actually be transmitted across vast distance of space and then picked up by another wire. Your lawn sprinkler is not a great analogy for a radio.

This aspect of analogies is often lost, perhaps sometimes willfully, though I think usually unconsciously, and can lead to arguments. This is not an uncommon way people are either wrong on the internet, or we identify wrongness in others. Or, inappropriately accuse others of being wrong.

Quantum Leap

I find this more often true in the physical sciences. For example, the use of the “quantum leap” as a metaphor is considered by most unacceptable. In physics, at the quantum level (at a very very small scale), it turns out that things (matter/energy, or particle/wave doohickeys) can not move through space or time, or energy levels, at just any old increment. There is a minimum. (See Planck’s Constant.) It is almost like everything exists in a giant four dimensional egg carton (the three dimensions of space, and a fourth of time) and everything is an egg that has to go in one of the spots eggs go in, never in between.**

In this world, the term “quantum leap” would simply mean the egg goes from one egg holding space to another, with absolutely no inbetweenness happening.

In the metaphorical use, a quantum leap means you go from one place or state to another without any inbetweenness. In some remote areas of the world where even today roads are not built, local transport was always on foot, then suddenly, it could be via bush plane. More specifically, the movement of important people or highly valuable goods went from walking to flying. That is a quantum leap in transportation.

In the TV show Quantum Leap, scientist Sam Beckett intends to “leap” across time using a fancy machine. Things go differently than planned, and one of the things that ends up happening is that he leaps across space and time but also into different individuals (I think, I never watched the show). People, especially physicists, complain about this use of the phrase “quantum leap” because a true quantum phenomenon is a quantum phenomenon because it is happening at this very very small scale where space, time, and energy increments are at the absolute minimum.

However, it is not a mistake to use the quantum metaphor for this TV show. The leap is there. The leap without the inbetween is a feature of the story. At quantum size scales, everything leaps. Here, the metaphor is used to refer to that same sort of leaping, also known as saltation.

If you think the metaphor is only correct if it is applied to objects with particle-wave duality and at scales where the you can see and feel Planck’s length, then maybe you don’t know what a metaphor is.

A Metaphor is like a your checklist of things to fix in your house this weekend. Not completely checked off.

Think of a metaphor as a list of attributes. Like this:

  • It is very small, at size scales of 6.4 X 10-34 or so.
  • Things go across space in increments of that unit size, not continuously.
  • Things go across time in increments, not continuously.
  • Things go across energy levels in increments, not continuously.

Then, you check off one item on that list, maybe two, because you are using those attributes in your sentence. Sam Beckett leaps across time and space, he does not glide gracefully through time and space like the rest of us. That sort of thing.

If, at the end of your sentence, you’ve found that you have checked off all of the attributes, and if your attribute list is pretty complete, then you have not invoked a metaphor. You have merely stated a truth. You are not using features of a thing to expound about another thing. You have simply expounded about a thing, remaining in a single meaning-generating dimension. Your metaphor has collapsed on itself and become itself. You said nothing interesting. You might make a good Wikipedia writer.

A fact used in a metaphor is like Schrödinger’s cat. You never know if it is real or not real until you use it. Then, it is either a bit of truth because that part of the metaphor is transferred between the frame of the metaphor and the frame of the object of discussion, or it is a bit of a lie because it is the part of the frame of the metaphor that you are leaving behind.

In the case of Sam Beckett, the nano-nano scale of quantum mechanics is not a feature of the TV show’s main character. His saltational behavior is. He leaps, quantumly, across time and space.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, when Schrödinger originally invoked his his famous dead-not-dead cat, he did so to underscore the abject absurdity of certain aspects of quantum mechanics. Others took this absurd joke and ran with it, asserting that it was part of actual reality, not a joke about reality. This is a case where a metaphor has bitten the writer in the ass, and so, it is appropriate that it is a cat because they are capable of biting in both real and metaphorical worlds. Also, note that Planck’s constant was originally conceived as a white lie as well, a kludge to help make the math work. Later, Planck and others realized that the apparent mathematical necessity of rounding everything off to an interval worked to solve matter-energy problems at that level not because it was a cute trick of math, but because it was a deep truth of reality. That is a little like deciding to count all your expenses and income in sums ending in two, and suddenly all the money in your wallet has become two dollar bills. Since two dollar bill is a metaphor, that leaves you with a pocket full of metaphors.


*Which shall be unnamed, because when I tell people I went to Harvard, they get mad at me, presumably, because they did not.

**Don’t take my description of quantum mechanics to the bank. But that’s roughly my understanding.


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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

Several parallel discussions inspire me to write this post partly in the hope that you will chime in.

The chance of life elsewhere in the universe just went to near zero. Or did it?

Continue reading The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets


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Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

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I don’t know much about astronomy, but I am a scientist and I know this. One key scientific concept that is rarely grasped by non scientists but at the same time drives much of science itself is variation.

Indeed, the understanding that variation is key is one of the characteristics that separates the ancients, who may have engaged in what looks like science but rarely advanced true understanding, and the moderns (to oversimplify greatly, ironically).

The moon and other celestial bodies always do the same thing, never change in their course or appearance, and once one has finished cataloguing them, there is nothing else to see.

Or is there? Isn’t there in fact change all the time? Isn’t change itself the essence of the universe? Is it not true that a star is a dynamic thing that has a birth, stages of life, a death, and from its remnants come other things? Isn’t this how astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson are able to utter such brilliances as “I am made of star dust”??? Don’t planets form, collide with things or things with them, cool, change dramatically across the surface, even break lose form their orbits now and then? Continue reading Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon


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Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”

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Yes, of course, you need a person (usually) to pull the trigger. But it is abundance of and ease of access to guns that causes the United States to be off the charts in woundings and killings from firearms. This is what the research has shown for a very long time and continues to show. Here, I’ll give you yet another example. All of the following text, and the tables, are exerted directly from the paper. Continue reading Falsehood: “People, not guns, kill people”


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Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

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Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary. Continue reading Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”


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Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”

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It is generally thought that life expectancy in the past was less that it is today for our species as a whole and in the case of industrialized countries in particular. However, this belief counts as a falsehood not because it is untrue (it is, in fact, true) but because many people get this idea wrong in a few different ways. People often:

1) confuse life expectancy with lifespan;

2) underestimate the life expectancy of many past populations; and

3) think of the past compared to the present as a dichotomy, the present being one way, the past being the other way, failing to recognize diversity and variation in life history variables across our species and across time … life expectancy is seen as a measure of quality of life (which it may well be) that has tracked the one way progress of the human condition from a widespread past condition of short-lived misery to the present and much improved condition of living long and prospering.
Continue reading Falsehood: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”


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Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

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According to one of the leading experts on the human circulatory system, blood flowing through veins is blue.

I’m not going to mention any names. All I’ll say is this: A person I know visited a major research center last year and saw a demonstration of organ removal and some other experimental stuff. A person also visiting asked the famous high-level researcher doing this work if blood was ever blue. What he said was not recorded in detail, but it was very much like this statement I found on the Internet:

… human blood is red as soon as it is oxygenated. Blue blood flows through veins back to the heart and lungs…..
[source: Some Guy on Yahoo Answers]

My friend was disturbed by this, as s/he had been teaching high school students for years that blood is not blue. Her understanding of the situation was that people thought blood was blue because standard anatomical drawings and models depict arteries as red and veins as blue, and because if you look at your veins they are blue. Obviously veins are not clear, but if you don’t think that out you might assume that you were seeing blue blood.

Continue reading Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!


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Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality

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As is the case with any good falsehoods, one can never really be sure what the falsehood may actually be. In this case, there are two falsehoods: 1) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, we can not assume that there is a causal link from one to the other. This is the way the statement “Correlation does not imply causality” or some similar version of that aphorism generally means, and this is an admonishment we often hear; and 2) When we see a statistical correlation between two measurements or observations, there probably is a causal link in there somewhere, even when we hear the admonishment “Correlation does not imply causality” from someone, usually on the Internet. To put a finer point on this: What do you think people mean when they say “Correlation does not equal causality?” or, perhaps more importantly, what do you think that statement invokes in other people’s minds?
Continue reading Falsehood: Correlation Implies/Does Not Imply Causality


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Mythbusters on Head-on Collisions

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I’m sure you all have cable and/or satellite setups and thus see the Mythbusters, which is clearly one of the best things on TV, as they produce them. But I am always a couple of years behind because I watch them on Netflix. Two more seasons were released on Netflix very recently, so I’ve been watching them, and I thought one of the Myths addressed was worth bringing up.

Here’s the Myth: Continue reading Mythbusters on Head-on Collisions


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That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood

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Update: Long after I penned this essay, Cambridge MA (which is not Boston but is near and different from Boston) renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.”

The photograph above is of the Columbus Statue in the North End, doused with red paint in 2006.

Columbus Day has become a holiday of disdain, and there are many people who feel it should be taken off the books. It is a little like the Martin Luther King Jr. day maneno in reverse. If you were a progressive thoughtful American you’d have supported having a state-wide Martin Luther King Jr. day, and probably also a street named after the highly influential slain civil rights leader. If, on the other hand, you were a Republican and/or racist white supremacist type (and there are a lot more of those than gentile people like to admit) than you’d have come up with some lame excuse for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. day or a Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in your state or town. When the Federal version of MLK day was being debated in congress, it was the likes of Jesse Helms who opposed it. Numerous states resisted adding MLK day, and it was not until the year 2000 that all states in the US celebrated the only US holiday for the birth of a famous person who was not white by actually taking the day off.

Continue reading That Columbus Day is Evil: A truth and a falsehood


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How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?

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The original post generated a lot of comments, including from expert historians who strongly disagreed with my post. I put those comments at the bottom of the post so you can see them. I am sticking to my story that the consideration of people murdered as witches should include the 13th century, and does not for reasons having more to do with quirks of the practice of history than to the behavior of the Europeans at the time. I also maintain that typical estimates accepted by historians are by nature conservative.

Now, on to the original post:
Continue reading How many people were killed as Witches in Europe from 1200 to the present?


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How long is a human generation?

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How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)

More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.

A Biological Generation


…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”

A Dynamic Generation


…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.

Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.

In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.

A Cultural or Societal Generation


…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

  • Lost 1914
  • Greatest 1923
  • Silent 1935
  • Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
  • Generation X 1968
  • Generation Y 1975
  • Generation Z or I 1992

(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)

Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.

Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.


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Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.

In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.

The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:

Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.

And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.

I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.

So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.

Fox, Robin.Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Lutz, Catherine. Reading National Geographic

Teh Wiki. Generation.

Teh Wiki List of generations.


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