Happy birthday, Carl Sagan!

November 9, 2011

I’m proud to share a birthday with the late great science communicator, Carl Sagan. In honor of Carl, here’s a collection of great Carl-related videos:

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The fall of SETI

April 28, 2011

It is the end of an era. The U.S. government is retiring its space shuttle program and now due to a lack of funds, SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is being forced to mothball their Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California. This is a great loss as SETI remains arguably the most likely means of us making contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe

If you wish to donate to this important organization, visit their donation page.

Perhaps no one is better at conveying the importance of this endeavor better than Carl Sagan, the author who gave us the SETI-centered novel Contact:

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New skeptic videos

April 10, 2011

Okay, so NECSS 2011 is over and it was a big success. There will be a NECSS 2012. So now I can hopefully get back to business as usual shortly. But in meantime, here are some great videos to enjoy.

First up is a new animated video for Tim Minchin’s beat poem, “Storm”:

Also, NECSS this year ended with George Hrab performing his song, “Death from the Skies” featuring Phil Plait. While the video of that performance hasn’t surfaced yet, they also performed it the night before at the post NECSS Day 1 Drinking Skeptically. And that performance can be seen here:

And finally, there’s this new animation of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”:

Though to be honest, I still prefer the one featuring movie clips:

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Reports of bacteria from space mildly exaggerated

March 8, 2011

By now you may have heard that we’ve found evidence that we’re not alone in the universe. It was reported several days ago that alien microbes born in outer space had been found in meteorites on Earth. However, according to NASA, that story is not entirely accurate…which is to say, it’s not at all accurate:

The US space agency formally distanced itself from the paper by NASA scientist Richard Hoover, whose findings were published Friday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology, which is available free online.

“That is a claim that Mr Hoover has been making for some years,” said Carl Pilcher, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

“I am not aware of any support from other meteorite researchers for this rather extraordinary claim that this evidence of microbes was present in the meteorite before the meteorite arrived on Earth and and was not the result of contamination after the meteorite arrived on Earth,” he told AFP.

“The simplest explanation is that there are microbes in the meteorites; they are Earth microbes. In other words, they are contamination.”

This response at least seems far less political than their sheepish initial response, which PZ Myers harshly criticized. But I am glad that Myers took a moment to acknowledge his desire to see the discovery of life from elsewhere other than Earth as one of the tough things I’ve experienced in the three plus years since I abandoned my belief that aliens have already visited Earth is always being viewed as someone who doesn’t want to find evidence for life elsewhere in the universe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Statistically, the odds of other life–even other intelligent life–are almost certain and as Carl Sagan said, if it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.

And now that we’ve detected water elsewhere in our own solar system, that increases the odds significantly that we’ll find evidence that at least single-celled life live or once lived not far from us. And given such discoveries, I’ll even speculate that I wouldn’t be surprised if such evidence emerged within the next five years. Of course that’s just my baseless speculation and time will tell if it proves accurate.

Also check out Phil Plait’s more detailed piece on this non-news story here.

And just for fun, here’s what you get when you mix Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot with an Old Spice commercial:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 2.7.11

February 8, 2011

1. FBI investigating Scientology for human trafficking – A recent profile on ex-Scientologist and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis in the New Yorker also discussed an ongoing FBI investigation into the allegations of abuse by Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, and the enslavement of members of  the Sea Org:

The laws regarding trafficking were built largely around forced prostitution, but they also pertain to slave labor. Under federal law, slavery is defined, in part, by the use of coercion, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, and psychological abuse. The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one’s employer; and not having control over identification documents. Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members…

And speaking of Scientology…

Tom Cruise

2. Is fictional Unitology in ‘Dead Space 2’ related to Scientology? – The videogame’s creative director says the similarities are just a coincidence, saying the inspiration came from Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”, but his dismissal seems less than convincing given the similarities.

3. One flu vaccine to rule them all? – Researchers may have found a universal flu vaccine to end all flu vaccines. Though it’s worth noting that the trial had only 22 subjects, but bigger studies are in progress.

4. That time of year again for another ‘invisibility cloak’ story – Every year there’s another story about an invisibility cloak on the way with the requisite reference to Harry Potter. Here’s the latest one about a cloak that hides objects, rather than people, and without the use of metamaterials.

5. 1 in 8 U.S. biology teachers are creationists– This is a shocking statistic. Roger Ebert had an appropriate response to this on Twitter, analogizing this to the hypothetical statistic of 1 in 8 math teachers believing 2+2=5.

6. Florida court sides against anti-vax mom in custody battle – This is great news to hear a court rule so decisively against a parent specifically because their anti-vaccine beliefs directly endanger that child’s life. Hopefully, this will help set a precedent in all U.S. courts.

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Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

November 19, 2010

The Centre for Inquiry Canada is beginning a new skeptical campaign featuring bus ads and various educational events. It’s called the “Extraordinary Claims Campaign”, named after the quote that is often attributed to Carl Sagan. This is a campaign I hope gets brought to the U.S.


Symphony of Science – ‘The Unbroken Thread’ (ft. Attenborough, Goodall, Sagan)

January 6, 2010

For Carl…

November 9, 2009

I’m proud to share my birthday with the late, great Carl Sagan and I figured I’d honor the 75th birthday of this great skeptical mind with a little tribute:

“Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise. Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated.”
-Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World, p 25)

“Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudoscience is that science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfection and fallibility than does pseudoscience (or inerrant revelation).”
-Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World)

Carl Sagan YouTube Playlist 1

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
-Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World)

Carl Sagan YouTube Playlist 2

“The method of science is tried and true. It is not perfect, it’s just the best we have. And to abandon it with its skeptical protocols is the pathway to a dark age.”
-Carl Sagan

Steven Novella’s awesome article on celebrating Sagan’s birthday.

Watch full episodes of Cosmos on Hulu here.

10 Neat Facts About Carl Sagan.


Why I think honest science cannot be reconciled with religion & religion is largely to blame for science illiteracy

July 15, 2009

Science kicks magic in the nuts cartoonAfter a number of blogs now discussing Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s (M&K) position in their blog and in their latest book as well as discussing the continuing scientific debate over whether science necessarily conflicts with religion, whether scientists should bluntly criticize religion, and whether outspoken scientific atheists are responsible for increasing the scientific illiteracy by alienating believers, I decided to summarize my position. This comes after what I feel was latest PZ Myers’ complete demolishing of M&K’s position and Jerry Coyne’s review of their book.

Okay, so here are my thoughts right now on the issue.

I’ve heard enough straw men, ad hominem attacks, false dichotomies, and other logical fallacies from Mooney in the past week than I can stomach. In my opinion, Mooney’s lost credibility. And for someone claiming to be a better communicator and advocating for a less confrontational approach, he’s not off to a good start. And I’m still waiting for a rational response to Ophelia Benson’s questions that doesn’t involve just calling her a militant or “New Atheist” and calling it a day.

I can’t believe that Mooney et al have gotten so far with this particular criticism without backing up their very opening premise that being nicer equals being more persuasive with any evidence at all. What they’re doing seems to be taking their opinion of simply not liking the more aggressive approach and simply asserting that it’s not effective. There’s no research answering this one way or the other, though it seems to me quite apparent that those actively challenging religion have done far more for atheism and persuading people towards reason than their critics. For instance, I met a guy last night who credits Sam Harris for his apostasy. Further, I really think reports of Dawkins’ nastiness are GREATLY exaggerated and that to true believers, it’s impossible to politely disagree with them without causing offense. If they can’t present evidence, then this is just their opinion and they should not pretend it’s anything more than that.

Further, I think M&K missed PZ Myers’ whole point of  the incident that’s been dubbed Crackergate.  His point wasn’t that a communion wafer is not literally transubstantiated in Jesus’ flesh. That part goes without saying. I think his point was that while the religious can tell their own sheep what is and isn’t sacred, the rest of us are under no orders to respect their beliefs in any way and that they have no right to threaten non-believers’ lives over their idiotic superstitions. At least that’s what I got out of the whole affair. I would be curious to know though if M&K even bothered in their book to mention the context, how Catholics like Bill Donohue organized to actively intimidate, bully, and threaten the life of the kid in Florida that started the whole incident.

Then their’s M&K’s appreciation on their blog of this video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson questioning Richard Dawkins’ approach:

And while I love Neil Tyson to death, I find his “felt you more than I heard you” complaint rather vague. What does that really mean anyway? Dawkins is not at all the “angry”, “militant”, “evangelical”, “bigot” he’s accused of if one simply reads what he says or listens to him speak. Dawkins, like everyone else, doesn’t have the magical power to turn off his readers’/listeners’ personal biases/expectations and control how they choose to interpret or misinterpret his message. All he’s got is the ability to carefully choose the words that he uses the best he can. If people read more into what he says than is actually on the page, that’s not his fault. I’ve yet to ever hear Richard Dawkins lose his temper or show anything other than the appropriate level of respect to those he speaks to. And that includes what he says in The God Delusion and in the many, many videos I’ve seen of him speaking at public lectures and in the Q&As.

And while M&K are quick to celebrate Carl Sagan, I fail to see how Sagan’s approach was any less critical of religion than Dawkins:

The bottom line is though that the reason I side with the Myers side (though not dogmatically, as I’ve been accused) is that, again, science is more than just a body of knowledge but a process for determining reality. If you’re willing to just accept fairytales as reality for no good reason and you’re not only comfortable with that but comfortable promoting that kind of thinking as a viable means of determining truth, then I’d say that is undermining the very foundation of science. And if you’re willing to accept one form of irrational belief system just because you happen to find it comforting, where do we draw the line? What meaningful difference is there between a creationist who says their inexplicable magical god MUST have caused the universe and someone like Francis Collins who says it’s merely his personal belief that his inexplicable magical god created the universe? We’re still left with, “god dunnit,” which has already been established to not be any kind of solution at all.

Science works because it’s based on observation and there’s a whole process for weeding out nonsense. Faith is a competing system for determining truth, one that is not based on anything that is actually viable. If faith ever led to any truth at all, it’d just be because if you play the same lottery numbers enough, they’re bound to hit some sort of wins occasionally by sheer statistical probability.

Now why is this debate important in the first place? I think Carl Sagan said it best in his book, The Demon-Haunted World:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”


News From Around The Blogosphere 12.22.08

December 23, 2008

Do You Like Secs? – We go by many names: atheists, (most) agnostics, humanists,  secular humanists, brights, freethinkers, non-theists, pastafarians. Ron Lindsey suggests Secs, short of Seculars. I still prefer atheist myself but as far as names go this isn’t terrible, certainly not worse than “Brights.” And it certainly opens doors for great puns.

Why atheism may be the best way to understand God – My favorite excerpt:

As a writer, I worship clarity. If I need someone else to explain what I’ve written, I consider that a failure of the first order. God should surely do better. So why do the sacred texts of all religions always require someone to explain what they mean?

PZ Myers nominated for Moore Award – Apparently, this is an ironic award created by some Right-Wing nut that’s named for its first recipient, Michael Moore, which is intended to simply honor people who have said things that said Right-Wing nut happens to not like, you know, “The Left” or as O’Reilly would call them “Secular Progressives.” The candidates are so freakin’ random that Rosanne Barr is also nominated. Has anyone ever heard about her in the last 10 years? I’m voting for PZ. He deserves to get this bullshit award.

Bionic Sex Chip

Scientists are developing an electronic ‘sex chip’ that works by stimulating the pleasure centres in the brain.

. . .

‘A few years ago a scientist implanted such a device into the brain of a woman with a low sex drive and turned her into a very sexually active woman. She didn’t like the sudden change, so the wiring in her head was removed.’

. . .

He calls his device, which is a modified spinal cord stimulator, the Orgasmatron. The name is taken from the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper.

A new study published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality suggests that teenagers who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are at a higher risk of becoming pregnant or knocking someone up than their straight peers.

Two actors and their woo – Orac looks at the recent news stories surrounding Jim Carrey and Jeremy Pivens.

Rom Com Dumb

A study out of Heriot Watt University (safety school!) in Edinburgh has determined that people who consider themselves fans of romantic comedies have unrealistic and potentially harmful views about relationships.

I can see that. At least the chick flick Rom Coms (as opposed to dude-friendly Rom Com’s ala Judd Apatow) tend to emphasize destiny as a prerequisite or the absurd notion that “You complete me.” Seriously, if you need another person to “complete you” then you’ve got serious problems and should seek professional help because in all likelihood, they won’t always be there. Admittedly though, I kinda have a small soft spot for 1  film used in the study, Serendipity, despite the absuridity of its destiny message and the despicable nature of its characters leading to the cancellation of not just 1 wedding but 2.

AND NOW FOR A MOMENT OF SCIENCE:

scientist-use-in-case-of-emergencyTrigger Found For Embryo Cell Differentiation – “The mechanism whereby embryonic cells stop being flexible and turn into more mature cells that can develop into specific tissues has been discovered by scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The discovery has significant consequences towards furthering research that will eventually make possible medical cell replacement therapy based on the use of embryonic cells.”

Genes May Influence Popularity – “A groundbreaking study of popularity by a Michigan State University scientist has found that genes elicit not only specific behaviors but also the social consequences of those behaviors.”

Same Genes In Snails, Humans Tell Right, Left – “Biologists have tracked down genes that control the handedness of snail shells, and they turn out to be similar to the genes used by humans to set up the left and right sides of the body.”

Selflessness Has Neuropsychological Connection – “All spiritual experiences are based in the brain. That statement is truer than ever before, according to a University of Missouri neuropsychologist. An MU study has data to support a neuropsychological model that proposes spiritual experiences associated with selflessness are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain.”

A B Kovacs of Skepchick is now Director of Operations for the JREF!  Congratulations A!