Tag Archives: Skeptical Skepticism

The Golden Eagle Video Is Fake, But Not For The Reasons Given

Last night Julia sent me a link to a video of a Golden Eagle swooping down into a Montreal park, picking up an infant/toddler and lifting it several feet into the air before dropping it and flying off.  Since then many on the Intertubes have declared the video to be a fake while others insist it could be real, but unfortunately many of the reasons given for it being a fake or for being real are misconceptions or inaccuracies.  I’m sure the event depicted in the video is faked … no eagle picked up a child as depicted … but the reasons for it being a fake are not as many have suggested.  One of the main reasons that this is interesting is because we saw perfectly intelligent people who clearly identify as “skeptics” writing off the video as fake mainly on the grounds that others said it was fake, or where those reasons were inaccurate. In other words, this may be an example of hyper-skepticism.  The apparent fact that the video really is a fake does not ameliorate the terrible harm that has been done to Truth and Humanity from falsely labeling the fake video as fake for false, fake reasons!

Here is the video:

Some people who have discussed this video may have seen only a shorter version showing the last bit.

Here are some of the arguments given pro and con on this video’s realness, and my assessment of them.

1) It is real because Golden Eagles occasionally eat children.   Maybe. There is no particular reason that a Golden Eagle would not eat a child, though I know of no confirmed reports of this. This particular question … could or would a Golden Eagle do this … is part of a larger theme of belief in non-human animals eating humans. People are mostly divided on this issue. Lions, it is said, don’t eat humans because they don’t like the taste. However, they do now and then. Lions and other cats tend to specialize on their prey, so day to day, healthy pride lions eat one or two species of antelope (or something) as do leopards and other cats. Switching to humans is not uncommon for large predators, but once they do they are killed. So, you don’t have very many long-career human-eating large predators. The idea that a predator won’t eat a human because of some mystical exceptional property of humans (including taste) is wishful thinking. But, predators who do so immediately face serious odds against them because humans are a bad-ass species. There is no a priori reason to say that a Golden Eagle would not or could not attack and/or eat a human infant and/or toddler. It is, however, unlikely. But, unlikely events happen. Conclusion: This point does not tell us if the video is fake.

2) It is real because Golden Eagles can and do eat large prey. This is absolutely true. Golden Eagles are the (mostly) Temperate version of the large Monkey-Easting and other eagles found in many areas across the world, and they tend to specialize on largish prey. The better known (to the average Westerner) “Bald Eagle” and its sister species in Eurasia are in that size range, much more numerous, but specialize in fish, but even they occasionally take a fawn or other large non-fish (and often, they take birds). Conclusion: Plausible.

3) It is not true because Gold Eagles are rare in Montreal. True, they are in fact rare everywhere as most large territorial predators are (with some exceptions) and Golden Eagles are especially rare and “shy” of human settlements. They do live in the general area, though, and they seem to migrate from Canada to points south, so a Golden Eagle passing through is not at all impossible. Conclusion: Plausable.

4) It is not true because it is an Osprey not a Golden Eagle. I believe that this was said by a bird expert who may have seen only the shorter version of the clip. On watching the clip, I believe it is an Eagle because it looks like one. It could be an “immature” (year old, full grown) Bald Eagle, but the markings on the wing actually look like a Golden Eagle. However, telling an immature Bald from a Golden is tricky and actually requires more of a look than we get in this video. Conclusion: Nothing is disproven here.

5) It is not real because an Eagle of this size can’t lift something as heavy as an infant or toddler that high in the air. This is my personal favorite for why the video is faked, and as far as I know I’m the only person to have noted this (on various facebook posts) so far. People have argued against this saying “Eagles take large prey” and “There’s this video of them taking a wolf” and “There’s this video of them lifting mountain goats” but all that is wrong. There is one “real” video shown on Animal Planet shot from above of a gold eagle grasping a mountain goat kid that it has dragged off a cliff and “guiding” its body down as it falls, seemingly dragging it across a ravine to a cliff face. But at no point does the Eagle lift the kid. In other videos of a Golden Eagle attacking (under human command) wolves or in other cases hunting Geese does a Golden Eagle lift anything off the ground.

Bald Eagles, which are about the same size, or a bit smaller depending on which population we are looking at, lift fish they’ve caught out of the water and fly off with them, but it is a struggle. If a Bald Eagle grabs a fish that is too big, the bird will fly just above the water dragging the fish on the surface. In some cases, the Bald Eagle virtually swims atop the water with the entaloned fish under or just on top of the water, to the nearest shore, where it drags it (with difficulty) to the land, kills it, rests for a while, then eats it. (Then spends considerable time drying off!) The fish that are too large for the Eagle to lift out of the water are significantly lighter than a human infant. Conclusion: The part where the eagle lifts the child up into the air is fake. This still leaves the possibility that an Eagle or Eagle like raptor swooped down on a child, but there was no lifting.

6) It is not real because this is not how Golden Eagles hunt their prey, for a couple of different reasons (this is an extention of #5). The large eagles such as the Golden Eagle and the various monkey eating eagles do knock large prey (like monkeys) off of branches or cliffs, pounce on them, rip them up and eat them on the spot. But they only carry off bits and pieces if they carry anything off at all. I’ve seen this in the Congo: You find a monkey killed by an Eagle, but abandoned (because humans came along). You convince the Pygmies to leave the monkey there and come back later in the day and a limb is missing. You come back still later in the day and only half the body is there. You come back even later and it is all gone. Conclusion: Not relevant, but instructive, and there is always room for a Pygmy story.

7) It is fake because the carrying-off of prey behavior is done during nesting and this eagle was not nesting. Eagles carry food to their nests only when they are feeding young that are there. There are no nesting Golden Eagles near any parks in or near Montreal, and this is not really nesting season. When the Canadians are wearing warm clothes, the only “nested” eagles are large enough to fly to the food mom or dad have killed on the ground. The Golden Eagle would have killed the infant/toddler on the spot and eaten it there… But that would not have happened because an Eagle would not try to kill and eat a small human while the other, large humans are standing around ready to stomp the Eagle. Conclusion, the Eagle in question was an idiot.

It is possible, as I suggested above, that a large raptor did swoop down and strike a kid. That is not entirely impossible. Had that happened, a lot less of the video would have to be faked! But the bit of the video where the eagle lifts the child into the air did not happen. That is faked.

UPDATE: 8) It is fake because someone admitted to having faked it. Conclusion: Assuming they are not faking having faked it, this would indicate it was faked.

This is being discussed on my facebook page, Don Prothero’s facebook page, here, here, and here.

Which is more likely to be real, Ghosts or Martians?

Do ghosts really exist?

Is there life on Mars?

Despite what one might think, what with large class sizes and the homogenization of culture caused by TV and Fast Food, the fact remains that clumps of high school students organized into classes can vary widely from one another. Each year has its own characteristics, and each classroom-sized bunch of them, taking a particular course together, can be very different from the next. A teacher I know has ended up this year with a science class with a large proportion of students who believe that ghosts are real, and while they are at it, they also seem to think there is a high probability that Bigfoot is real, and probably the Loch Ness Monster and most conspiracies one might care to mention. I don’t think it is the whole class, just a half dozen students or so, but enough that the existence of ghosts has become a background theme in the patter that accompanies the usual classroom activities such as arriving at the beginning of class, asking permission to go to the bathroom during class, and leaving at the end of class.

From "Mars Attacks" which, if you have not seen, you must see.
So the other day the question of life on Mars came up; a student had pointed out the discovery of mysterious globe-shaped objects on the surface of the distant planet. During the ensuing conversation the teacher noted how exciting it would be to discover evidence of past or present life on Mars, and further noted that such a finding is well within the range of possibilities.

“Wait a second … You are telling us that you don’t think Ghosts are real but you believe in Martians?” Continue reading Which is more likely to be real, Ghosts or Martians?

The Secular Coalition of America's Big Goof

The Secular Coalition of America is a lobbying group that represents several groups, including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Camp Quest, the Secular Student Alliance and so on. A few months ago the SCA made news, in a bad way, by appointing a former Bush White House Staffer, Edwina Rogers, as Executive Director. Many of us did not like that and we complained, and we were essentially told a) the decision is final and b) don’t worry, everything will be OK.

But it is not. Much more recently, the SCA appointed as a co-director for one of its state groups a guy who has developed a very firm reputation as a Mens Rights Advocate and overall Sexist Misogynist Creep. Or at least, so it appears.

The individual in question is Justin Vacula, and he’s been appointed as co-chair of the executive council of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the SCA. I’ve got some information below on why this is a bad move, but I want to say right away that the SCA Executive director has already stated on a blog her answer to people’s concerns:

… the Secular Coalition for America has not “hired” anyone in any state. We have a staff of seven in DC. We are staffing state coalitions in 49 states, DC and PR. The state coalitions are made up of interested groups and individuals in the states and particupation is voluntary. We are willing to work with as many affiliated and allied groups and individuals as possible. We are seeking volunteers in the states and are thankful to those that are willing to assist. We have much work to do at the National and State level and request that all interested parties please consider joining the SCA in our mission as given to us by our member organizations. Please sign up at secular.org. Edwina Rogers

When Rogers was first hired, she made a big deal out of the fact that she’d be overseeing the development of a state chapter in every state. We are now being told that the SCA of which she is Executive Direct really has nothing to do with the state chapters. The “hired” vs. “Volunteer” distinction means nothing in relation to the present question.

Vacula published a piece on Men’s Rights Activist site “A Voice for Men” in which he attacks modern feminism and equates feminists with vampires and piles on with the attacks already underway designed to silence the Skepchicks (a group of women skeptics with whom I’ve worked for a few years) in particular Amy Roth Davis See this link for details on the attack on Amy. This act and related activities by Vacula clearly place him in the camp of anti-feminist anti-women pro-sexist activists who should not be leaders in a humanist movement which does, pretty much, have liberal and progressive political values. He has also been a regular member of the famous “slime pit” which, sadly, was a product of this very blog network (though it has been expunged).

Apparently, Vacula has been criticized for being less than smart i the arguments he’s made about various legal positions, and for showing poor leadership. The details are summarized in the writeup for the following petition which I urge you to sign:

The Antiskeptics

Skeptics fight an up hill battle. This battle consists of deploying critical thinking across a range of cultural landscapes, implementing scientific thinking to solve problems, and the thoughtful evaluation of knowledge, while 90 percent of the world is out to stop you, or at least make it hard. Or so it seems. To be honest, I can’t back up that 90 percent figure with any hard facts. Sorry.

But the Skeptic faces more than just uncritical thinking, incorrect facts, or poor scientific judgment. The Skeptic must also wrestle with … The Anti Skeptic.

Of which there are several kinds.

Of late we’ve seen an epidemic of Antiskeptic activity occur within the skeptical movement itself, with people who call themselves skeptics because they find the movement interesting, who came to this party because they head there were girls here or because they thought it was a good way to look smart, or in some cases, because they encountered some annoying belief system (bigfoot or ancient aliens or something) and thought this was a good way to purge their experience of it. But they are not willing to be skeptical, or even thoughtful, about other things in their life. They want the thrills but don’t want to invest in too much of their own critical thinking. They don’t understand that skepticism does, really, have a political edge to it, not because skepticism in inherently political, but because so many political views don’t stand up to critical analysis, and because so many skeptical or scientific perspectives have been taken up by various parties and made political. When these Antiskeptics discover that their dearly held Libertarian or “Independent” (have you ever noticed that almost all “independents” have almost identical views on most issues?) perspectives are intellectually bankrupt they quickly erect the “skepticism is not political” smokescreen and try to hide there. Doesn’t work, but that’s what they do.

But I don’t want to talk about those annoying people here. Nor do I want to talk about the professional Antisketpics … the denialists such as those in the Anti-Global Warming game, who often use the word “skeptic” to label themselves although they are almost all crazy people with a chip on their shoulder and easily led by a charlatan such as Lord Monkington or Andrew Watts.

(Threats of law suits for saying something mean in 3 … 2 … 1 …)

No, I don’t want to talk about those annoying people either.

The Antiskeptics I want to talk about are the people who don’t even know that they are Antiskeptics, and they probably don’t even know what a “Skeptic” is. They lead their lives with a mixture of critical and uncritical understanding, a lot of received knowledge, often (but not always) woo-ish beliefs. Most importantly, though, they have a vague understanding that there is a “truth” out there that is more correct than the truths they live with, but that it is too much work, and often, against their own personal self interests, to embrace it. And, even though such folks may be unaware of a “Skeptics movement” they are at least vaguely aware that you are up to something…that you are a bit more prone to correct some belief they have, or to introduce critically evaluated knowledge into the conversation, or to mention some dumb-ass thing someone is doing with the particular disdain that comes from knowing how wrong it is. Even if done politely.

This Antiskeptic is your brother or sister or mother or child or cousin or neighbor or teacher or student or coworker. Over time, they see you coming. Subconsciously or not, they are pretty good at deflecting knowledge. In some cases, that may be why they are an Antiskeptic (rather than the other way around). They may just be good at avoiding learning something new.

And there are techniques. There’s a dance, a game, a modus operendus. I think you know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen it all before.

Here is a formulaic (literally) example of one possible interaction with an Antiskeptic. Your intent is to say something quite straight forward, like “2 + 2 = 4”

So, you say “Hey, 2 + 2 =…” and just then the Antiskeptic interrupts you and says, “I know! 2+ 2 = 3!” and then they move on to the next topic quickly. In order for you to get your “2 + 2 = 4” into the conversation you have to stop and reverse and change course and do all kinds of fixing up of stuff and that rarely goes well. This is known as the Interrupting Antiskeptic.

Then, less interesting but more common, is the Evasive Antiskeptic. Simply put, this is the person who hears what you say but then dismisses it without much fanfare, obviously uninterested in engaging in an argument.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say.

“Yeah, whatever. How ’bout them Red Socks,” is the reply.

Then there is the Watch the Monkey Antiskeptic. This is more of a technique than a type of Antiskeptic. You are making an argument and the counter argument consists of something totally unrelated but that seem really important.

“Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say

“Numbers are the hobgoblin of the Patriarchy!” is the reply. Which, of course, is true, but not really the point.

Then there is the Mine the Harbor Antisketpic. This is usually a friend you see only now and then, or a co-worker you only meet every few weeks, but they are totally on to you. With this person, almost all conversations start like this:

“I know you are going to tell me that 2 + 2 equals something other than 4, but I just think it is important to know that everybody is entitled to their own opinion.”

And thus, your critical thinking is bound to bump into that little socioculture land mine, fair or not, like it or not.

There is one other kind of Antiskpetic I’d like to mention. This is rare, and it usually requires two people who have been doing this together for a long time. Often, a married. A few years back I encountered such a couple who were ani-Vaxers, but there are other couples where this routine applies to many other aspects of life. This is where the mention of, say, two and two equaling four and stuff leads immediately to an argument between the two members of the couple, which takes off so far into the stratosphere, and does so much damage to reality, that you realize that your humble efforts to assert arithmetic have created a black hole of numerical stupidity involving calculus, trigonometry and analytical geometry (to stretch the analogy to the limit).

You say to Mary and Bob, “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4”

Mary: “Bob is so bad at math we bought a couch last month and it was two feet too long”

Bob: “I thought you told me that the couch was two feet to short! I re-ordered a shorter couch, two feet shorter than the first one”

Mary: “If it is two feet shorter than the one that is too long, then it’s going to be twice as too short!”

Bob: “No, that’s not how it works at all. Just trust me.”

Mary: “Last time I trusted you we ended up with a window air conditioner that fell out of the window after you installed it”

Bob: “That was not me, that was your brother. You’re thinking of the time I hitched up the trailer to the wrong car and we drove all the way to North Dakota without the trailer”

Mary: “No, that was the time we drove all the way to North Dakota without the kids, not the trailer. The trailer was a totally different time you screwed up”

And so on and so forth.

What is your favorite kind of Antisketpic?

Photo of bigfoot attacking biker by ( kurtz )

There is no fruit in a BLT

First, I want to say that tomatoes are a fruit. Here is a scientific definition of fruit:

Fruit noun, plural: fruits

(1) (botany) The seed-bearing structure in angiosperms formed from the ovary after flowering.


See? Tomato is a fruit.

Having said that, in common English parlance we do not call a tomato a fruit. We put the tomatoes in with the vegetables. Is this because we are unknowledgeable? No. It is because we are wise. Anyone who reads Fortune Cookies knows this:

Knowledge is knowing that a Tomato is a Fruit. Wisdom is not putting a Tomato in the Fruit Salad.

There are two things that bother me about this. First, we don’t do this with cucumbers. Cucumbers are also a fruit. Or butternut squash. That’s also a fruit. Or peppers. Fruit. We only do this “I’m a smart skeptic look how smart I am” thing with tomatoes. Why? Perhaps because of all the “vegetables” that are “fruit,” tomatoes are the most fruit-esque, more near the vegetable-fruit line, more positioned, as it were, to challenge the common knowledge. Or, maybe the “knowledgeable” who like to make fun of the villagers by pointing out that this vegetable is a fruit don’t know that a lufa sponge is also a fruit. Personally, I think it is because tomatoes are red, and so are a LOT of fruits. (Most of which are inedible, it seems, but that’s another story.)

So, the first thing that bothers me is that it isn’t taken far enough. The second thing that bothers me is that it is taken too far. Tomatoes are not fruit, they are vegetables, as are summer and winter squash, carrots, lettuce, and onions. Why? Because that is what we call them in English. Oh, the scientists? They have a different set of terms for these things. In fact, scientists have a huge big pile of terms related to plants…Achene, Laevigate, Inframedial, Staminode, and Spinescent to name a few…and among those terms there are two that look a lot like common English words and that have overlapping definitions: Fruit and flower. Just as the word “fruit” in English does not overlap with the scientific term “fruit,” the English word “flower” does not overlap with the scientific term. You do know, for instance, that those showy red flowery things on Poinsettias are not flowers. Those are just red leaves. Yet, they are flowers. When you visit Grandma at Christmas time and she’s got a big Poinsettia sitting there on the side table, you don’t say “Oh my, Grandmother, what large and pretty leaves you have there!”

So, the second thing that bothers me is this: The “fact” that tomatoes are “fruit” is not true. In English, they are vegetables. They are in the vegetable section, separate from the fruit, in the store. We treat them as vegetables. They taste like vegetables. There is no fruit in a BLT. Oh, sure, in Science Tomatoes are “fruit” … I know this because I wrote my PhD thesis in Science on Fruit so I’m a total expert on the subject. But I also wrote my PhD thesis in Anthropology of human-plant interactions. And I noticed that while the scientific lexicon and the natural language lexicon often overlap, they are not the same. I’m not big on “separate magisteria” because that’s a bunch of crap. But if we see the world as having One True Terminology, then we see the world without its culture. That would be wrong, boring, and close minded.

So, this is the thing: Science can’t communicate by standing on a box and shouting out its rules and insisting that variance between science and culture is indicative of culture being wrong. Tomatoes are not fruit, and the word “theory” means an idea that is weak. In English. Scientists and science boosters can insist as hard as they want that everyone who believes these things are wrong, and if they insist hard enough, in intro science classes an on the Intertubes, then everyone will eventually get it and use proper botanical terms and make correct reference to The Scientific Method when talking about their’ boyfriend’s chance of getting a job at the Target. Not.

Besides. Did you ever ponder the scientific meaning of the term “Vegetable? Turns out, Tomatoes are vegetables if we consider that “The noun vegetable means an edible plant or part of a plant.” Vegetarians eat vegetables, including strawberries.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a vegetable. Wisdom is understanding that a seeming contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but rather, a reflection of the cultural complexity of science and the scientific complexity of culture.

Image by Nina Matthews

I reject your reality and I substitute my own

I don’t know if this phrase …

… originally from Adam Savage or if he’s quoting someone. I think it might be his.

Today, I was in an internet argument with someone (can you believe how many people on the internet are WRONG???) and I used a phrase like that. Then I instantly lost the argument. Here’s how it went:
Continue reading I reject your reality and I substitute my own

Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon. I know that many self-declared skeptics prefer to … ah … believe otherwise, or as they would perhaps say, they have deduced from pure principles using sound logic that Skepticism is rational behavior and there is nothing cultural about it. But they are wrong, and that is trivially easy to prove.


Sarah Moglia is the event specialist for the Secular Student Alliance1 and has written an interesting piece on “Why [she doesn’t call her]self a Skeptic” in which she asserts that there are people who call themselves “Skeptic” who are not, at least sometimes, and there are those who are rather “skeptical” (as we like to define it) most of the time but don’t bother with the label. She does not name names; I’ve made the same observation and I’m not going to name names either either. But we both have had plenty of opportunity to observe, and even a practicing Skeptic would not toss aside our unattributed observations.

Unless, of course, said practicing Skeptic simply does not want to accept our shared conclusion and wishes to use the lack of naming names in favor of their argument. It’s a matter of choice, really: Believe Sarah and Greg, and maybe make a few of your own observations, or insist on clearly enumerated cases as evidence within the same blog post that makes the assertion. You can call it either way. Demand the highest level of proof or assume that well meaning observers who prefer not to name names but may have made valid observations. It’s your choice, as a skeptic, to pick one way or another.

And the fact that it is a choice is evidence that skepticism has a cultural aspect.
Continue reading Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What is it, and should we fund it?

Skeptics love to hate CAM. And often, with good reason. Alternative medicines or medical treatments, as is often pointed out, become “mainstream” when the available science suggests that they work, so it is almost axiomatic that “alternative” means “unproven” and it is probably almost always true that the kinds of things that end up as “alternatives” come from sources with poor track records. For instance, one of the most common forms of alternative medicine used over the last several decades is Extra X where X is some substance we know the body uses, and that we know a deficiency of is bad. The idea is that if something is good at a certain level, loading it on by a factor of anywhere from two or three to several hundred over the usually consumed amount must be REALLY good. If a substance is used in the body for something we like … an immune system function, tissue repair, muscle energetics, etc. … then consuming vast quantities of it MUST be good. And, in some cases, this turns out to be true. There are times when consuming huge quantities of potassium is medically indicated, for instance. But this does not mean that a daily intake of seven or eight hundred bananas is a good idea. It turns out that loading huge quantities of vitamins and minerals has very little or no positive effect and it can be rather harmful in some cases. (Though there may be some exceptions.)

Continue reading Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What is it, and should we fund it?

Mythbusters Cannon Ball Firing Mishap Animated

TV show Mythbusters has apologized after an experiment it conducted to measure the speed of a cannonball went wrong, leaving a trail of destruction across a California suburb. Instead of hitting its intended target, the cannon misfired, sending a six-inch ball of lead careening through one house, damaging another before ending up lodged in a minivan. No one was injured.

OMG. I so wish it was my house hit by the Mythbusters Cannon Ball!!!!!

Anyway here’s one of those zany animations of the event:

Continue reading Mythbusters Cannon Ball Firing Mishap Animated

Ladies, Richard Dawkins knows how to protect you from being raped in an elevator

Recently, Richard Dawkins said (full quote below) that a woman should not be concerned about her own safety if she finds herself in an elevator (under some sort of threat, presumably), because it is trivially easy to get out of an elevator if you are under attack. I’m sure Richard is a very smart guy and maybe he’s right, but there is evidence to the contrary that women can just leave the scene if they are uninterested in being raped or groped.

For example:
Continue reading Ladies, Richard Dawkins knows how to protect you from being raped in an elevator

Shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER!!!!

And thus, structurally, Richard Dawkins, or his distant cousin Richard D. Poe (I am still not sure) has shut down the argument that the Elevator Guy acted inappropriately when he asked Rebecca Watson over for a cuppa joe at four O’clock in the AM, in an elevator, while she was on her way to bed.
Continue reading Shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER!!!!