Meanwhile, back in Muncie. . .

Home of Ball State University (BSU), the Midwest’s outpost of the Discovery Institute, Muncie, Indiana also harbors a newspaper, the Muncie Star Press. That paper always refused to take a stand on the controversy about BSU’s intelligent-design (ID) Astronomy and Physics course of Professor Eric Hedin, a course that was finally deep-sixed when the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained and the BSU President, Jo Ann Gora (a woman of remarkable astuteness), publicly announced that ID was “not science” and would not be taught as such at her school. She’s gone now, but the Muncie Star Press continues to cater to the religious populace of its region.

Here’s a letter just published in the paper. The author, Kevin Wingate, had previously written another letter arguing that ID should be taught in science classes. I’ve put in bold every statement that is wrong.


Kevin Wingate, Muncie

The late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan once famously said, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” That’s wishful thinking, not a scientifically established fact.

Many have made science their god, declaring it to be the sole source of truth or the only way we have of understanding the world. Science can help us understand God’s creation, but it cannot fully describe or explain all of reality.

The material universe is one part of reality, and the invisible world, which we do not normally perceive, is another part. Just because science is unable to detect the supernatural world doesn’t mean that it is not real.

Demons are real. People have heard them, seen them and been possessed by them. Angels are real. People have heard them, seen them and even entertained them unknowingly. Satan is real. Some have seen him face to face, and all of us have seen the results of his influence.

Jehovah God is real. Millions of people have experienced his power and presence in their lives. Many have been miraculously healed of some incurable disease. Some have had a missing body part instantly replaced.

Skeptics claim that Christianity is nothing more than superstition, a religion of blind faith. In my view, atheism is the real superstition, with no evidential basis whatsoever.

Lord, lord! Where is the evidential basis for demons, Satan, Angels, and Jehovah God (as opposed to Allah God)? More important, why did the Star Press even print this? Is it trying to show how bull-goose delusional some of its citizens are? Or are they presenting this as an honest opinion worth considering. I wish I knew. One thing’s for sure: you’d never see a letter like this in any decent big-city paper in the U.S.

Why do people buy water?

While waiting in line at the airport this morning to buy coffee, I noticed that many people were buying plastic bottles of water—at $3-4 per pop (my coffee was $2.50). And this wasn’t fizzy water, but regular still water, like Dasani, that has been filtered and may have had a bit of minerals added. Other people were walking around with bottles of water in their hand, which always reminds me of infants carrying their bottles of formula or a bunch of Linuses with their blankies.

Why do people pay, and pay big, for water that is no better, and no better for you, than water you can get from the tap? Bottled water is energy-inefficient, uses fossil fuels to make, and costs more than gasoline! And it swells landfills with petroleum byproducts.

And the airport corridor was lined with water fountains, where you could swill very good Chicago tap water for free—as much as you want! I remember some years ago when Consumer Reports had people do blind tastings of bottled still water, and included New York City tap water (which comes from the Catskills, I believe) as a control. Guess which one won for flavor? Most people, I suspect, drink bottled waters for the taste, not the health effects.

Now I can understand buying water if there are no fountains available (that’s rare in the U.S.), or if the local tap water is foul-tasting (as it was in Davis, California), or you’re overseas where the water may be injurious (in India, though, I simply add iodine tablets to tap water). But otherwise it makes no sense to me.  If you need a supply to keep yourself hydrated, there are plenty of aluminum (or plastic) water bottles around that can be refilled. And, in French restaurants, I always request “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît” (free) to accompany my food and wine. There is no need to be embarrassed for requesting tap water.

Bottled water seems to me, in general, a waste of money and resources, and it’s ecologically unsound.

Here are some of the costs (from How Stuff Works):

In a single year, manufacturers around the world use about 2.7 million tons of plastic to bottle water. Most of those bottles are a type of plastic called polyethylene terepthalate, or PET, which is produced from crude oil. To produce bottles to meet yearly bottled-water demand in the United States alone requires 1.5 million barrels of oil. That much oil could power about 100,000 cars for a year, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

And almost 90 percent of bottled-water bottles end up in the trash or on the ground, not in recycling bins. They can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and when they do, they can leak harmful chemicals into the ground, contaminating ground water — ironically inducing a new cycle of pollution that means bottled water may actually be a necessity in the United States some day. Some companies, like the Colorado-based BIOTA bottled-water company, are making a concerted effort to reduce their effect on the environment. BIOTA uses a corn-based, biodegradable plastic bottle that can take fewer than three months to degrade in a compost pile.

As for recycling those bottles, don’t count on it:

. . . As a result, a lot of recycling companies in the United States won’t do it. Most recycling of plastic bottles ends up happening overseas, particularly in China. Those billions of bottles have to be shipped there, meaning even more energy is consumed to get the bottles to the point of recycling. And once they are broken down for re-use, manufacturers are typically not able to build a bottle out of recycled plastic alone. A “recycled” plastic bottle has far more virgin plastic in it than recycled plastic.

There are more costs as well, which you can learn about at the link.

Tap water: the Official Website Water™.


Two pieces on journalism in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Most readers know that I feel Israel, vis-à-vis its conflict with Palestine, has been given a raw deal in both world opinion and the world press. They also know that I don’t think that the country is blameless in the Middle East fracas (the settlements, for example, are unconscionable), but that they hold the moral high ground over the Palestinians, who are sworn to extirpate Israel and determined to kill civilians directly.  (Read the Hamas Charter, a document brimming with hatred and anti-Semitism, if you don’t believe me. It’s must reading for anyone who wants credibility on the conflict.)

At any rate, I spend a fair amount of time reading articles that excoriate Israel while ignoring the malfeasance of Hamas. The Guardian is especially vile in that respect, though the New York Times‘s reporting also seems unbalanced. I endure the calls of my fellow academics to boycott conferences in Israel, and for universities to divest in investments there.  All of the West, it seems, and many of my fellow academics as well, see Israel as predatory, and Palestinians as their innocent victims. In the meantime, anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in Europe (they’re a staple in Arab lands, of course).  I feel there is a connection between these things.

But I won’t fulminate today. Since I have read many, many anti-Israel and pro-Palestine pieces, I’ll ask you, if you think you’re open-minded on the issue, to simply read two pieces.  The first one is long, but, to me, worth it and meticulously researched. Both pieces show how the international press is in collusion with Hamas (or intimidated by Hamas) to produced biased reporting.

The first article, by Richard Behar in last week’s Forbes, “The media intifada: bad math, ugly truths, about New York Times in Israel-Hamas war,” is an eye-opener. Behar seems to have done his homework, and much of what he says is enlightening, particularly about the statistics about the dead on both sides. It’s not just about the Times‘s one-sided reporting in the region, but indicts nearly every other press outlet as well.

In The Tablet, a Jewish website, you can read a similar analysis (although a bit more impassioned) by Matti Friedman, “An insider’s guide to the most important story on earth: A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters.”  (The story is three pages long.) Friedman, who lives in Israel and worked there for the Associated Press, also faults foreign media for lazy reporting, collusion with or intimidation by Hamas, biases (many reporters are strongly anti-Israeli on their social media), and downright hatred of Israel. Like Behar, Friedman claims that this promotes a kind of slanted reporting that, in turn, has seriously heightened the world’s opprobrium towards Israel. His writing is very good, and I’ll give one longish excerpt:

The Old Blank Screen

For centuries, stateless Jews played the role of a lightning rod for ill will among the majority population. They were a symbol of things that were wrong. Did you want to make the point that greed was bad? Jews were greedy. Cowardice? Jews were cowardly. Were you a Communist? Jews were capitalists. Were you a capitalist? In that case, Jews were Communists. Moral failure was the essential trait of the Jew. It was their role in Christian tradition—the only reason European society knew or cared about them in the first place.

Like many Jews who grew up late in the 20th century in friendly Western cities, I dismissed such ideas as the feverish memories of my grandparents. One thing I have learned—and I’m not alone this summer—is that I was foolish to have done so. Today, people in the West tend to believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. The world’s only Jewish country has done less harm than most countries on earth, and more good—and yet when people went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose was this one.

When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth. The Jews are a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.

Some readers might remember that Britain participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the fallout from which has now killed more than three times the number of people ever killed in the Israel-Arab conflict; yet in Britain, protesters furiously condemn Jewish militarism. White people in London and Paris whose parents not long ago had themselves fanned by dark people in the sitting rooms of Rangoon or Algiers condemn Jewish “colonialism.” Americans who live in places called “Manhattan” or “Seattle” condemn Jews for displacing the native people of Palestine. Russian reporters condemn Israel’s brutal military tactics. Belgian reporters condemn Israel’s treatment of Africans. When Israel opened a transportation service for Palestinian workers in the occupied West Bank a few years ago, American news consumers could read about Israel “segregating buses.” And there are a lot of people in Europe, and not just in Germany, who enjoy hearing the Jews accused of genocide.

You don’t need to be a history professor, or a psychiatrist, to understand what’s going on. Having rehabilitated themselves against considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle East have become what their grandparents were—the pool into which the world spits. The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.

The last section of the piece, “Who cares if the world gets the Israel story wrong?”, which draws a parallel between current reporting in the Middle East and reporting during the Spanish Civil War when Orwell fought there, is very good.

I will say no more; I’m just recommending these pieces as balance for the vast bulk of anti-Israel reporting in the world press, and I’m sure people will give their opinions. But hell, I’ll put up an excerpt from the last section, too:

Orwell did not step off an airplane in Catalonia, stand next to a Republican cannon, and have himself filmed while confidently repeating what everyone else was saying or describing what any fool could see: weaponry, rubble, bodies. He looked beyond the ideological fantasies of his peers and knew that what was important was not necessarily visible. Spain, he understood, was not really about Spain at all—it was about a clash of totalitarian systems, German and Russian. He knew he was witnessing a threat to European civilization, and he wrote that, and he was right.

Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.

Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for liberal opinion at dinner parties. It is a small country in a scary part of the world that is getting scarier. It should be reported as critically as any other place, and understood in context and in proportion. Israel is not one of the most important stories in the world, or even in the Middle East; whatever the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain. Israel is a speck on the map—a sideshow that happens to carry an unusual emotional charge.

Many in the West clearly prefer the old comfort of parsing the moral failings of Jews, and the familiar feeling of superiority this brings them, to confronting an unhappy and confusing reality. They may convince themselves that all of this is the Jews’ problem, and indeed the Jews’ fault. But journalists engage in these fantasies at the cost of their credibility and that of their profession. And, as Orwell would tell us, the world entertains fantasies at its peril.

Even if you don’t agree with the message, the writing is superb.

h/t: Malgorzata ~


When did the Neanderthals go extinct?

by Greg Mayer

In a recent paper in Nature (abstract only), Tom Higham of Oxford and several colleagues report on their effort to determine by radiocarbon dating when Neanderthals went extinct. Higham et al. conclude that it was about 40,000 years ago. It’s gotten a fair amount of media coverage—more on this below—but let’s look at the science first. What’s most interesting is that they strove very hard to get accurate dates not biased by contamination of their samples by younger carbon (developing new and refined methods along the way), and that they sampled a large number of sites across (mostly Western) Europe. Here’s the basic result.

a) Sites studied; b) dates of last occupation of the various sites (expressed as a probability distribution).

a) Sites studied; b) dates of last occupation of the various sites (expressed as a probability distribution); c) detail of the overall estimate of the end of Neanderthal culture (the Mousterian).

You can see that latest dates range from about 49 to 40 KYA, with a joint estimate of the end of the Mousterian culture at about 40 KYA. There are a few caveats. First, there’s no explanation in the paper for why there are no dates in panel (b) for the 7 southern Iberian localities. These sites are of special interest, because it has been argued in the past that the latest survival of Neanderthals (ca. 35 KYA) was in southern Spain. The Spanish localities are mentioned in the 160+ page supplement, and some are said to not have produced reliable data, but others did, and, maybe the answer’s buried somewhere in the enormous supplement, but I could not readily locate it. (This by the way, is yet another example of the bad practice, characteristic of Science and Nature, of having extremely short papers with monographic online supplements that contain not just the details, but critical parts of the work. If your work is that substantial, then you should publish a monograph, not a tiny summary in Science or Nature.)

Second, many of the sites have little in the way of human remains, so the datings are of a particular cultural style, and the associated type of human is assumed (Neanderthal in the case of the Mousterian), although on fairly robust empirical grounds.

And third, the geographic sampling is sparse outside Western Europe. A claimed late refuge in the Arctic, for example, was not sampled. (There was a very late refuge, until historic times, for mammoths in the Arctic.)

What about the media coverage? It’s been very confused– see examples here and here. Media reports hail the work as showing that Neanderthals went extinct earlier than previously thought; and that we now know Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans overlapped significantly in time, thus allowing opportunities for the genetic mixing that has been now well documented (and much discussed here at WEIT). But these two claims are contradictory– earlier extinction means less temporal overlap; and the second thing is something we’ve known for quite awhile.

So what are we to make of the media claims? Well, the new work doesn’t say much at all about genetic mixing– it occurred whether Neanderthals were all gone by 40 KYA (as this latest work proposes), or survived in Spain till 35 KYA (as some earlier authors had claimed). Higham et al. estimate that there was an overlap of several thousand years of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, plenty of time for interbreeding. If the Spanish localities really are a late survival of Neanderthals, that would just add a few thousand more years of opportunity. Now, it will be of great interest to learn (if we can) exactly when and where the interbreeding occurred, but the new paper just adds constraints to the timing– it doesn’t suddenly make interbreeding now seem plausible.

I normally go see what John Hawks has to say about paleoanthropological matters, especially as in this case, since I felt perhaps I was missing something. I looked, but he hasn’t posted in a few weeks– he must be on vacation. I expect he’ll have something to say when he returns.


Higham, T et al. 2014. The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature 512:306-309. (abstract only)

h/t Barry Lyons

Good morning!

This is the best morning music ever.  I am not a diehard or knowledgeable fan of classical music, which, given the circles I run in, sometimes makes me feel left behind, but there is much of the music I love, and one of them is Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé (1912), a beautiful ballet. In fact, I like much of Ravel, which some, I’m sure, will see as a moral weakness—a penchant for romantic rather than intellectual music.

Nevertheless, this bit from the score, “Lever du jour” (“Sunrise”) always moves me, and it perfectly evokes a sunrise. I love the flutes being birds. I hope you enjoy the five-minute excerpt from the score.

I’m not sure which version this one is (it’s not given in the YouTube notes), so let us know if you recognize it.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Out in Idaho, Stephen Barnard is trying to take the perfect bird pictures. He sends three species today.

First, a diving Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni):

Barnard Swainsons Hawk

Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis):

Sandhill crane Barnard

An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with a rainbow trout:


And moar Swainson’s Hawks:




And reader Ken Phelps sends some unusual macro photography:

I thought you might be interested in these photos of some ants eating a dead Bumblebee. They were taken with a Canon 5D2, a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, and Canon macro twin flash.

If you know the species of the ant, weigh in below.



Thursday: Hili Dialogue

I’m off to see the Pittsburgh, the wonderful Pittsburgh of PA. Posting may be light the next couple of days, but, like Maru, I do my best. Meanwhile, in Dobrzyn, Andrzej takes the mickey out of editor Hili:

Hili: I’m delegating authority.
A: For what?
Hili: You take the decision about opening a can.
A: Of tomatoes?
Hili: No stupid jokes, please.


In Polish:

Hili: Deleguję władzę.
Ja: W jakiej sprawie?
Hili: Podejmij decyzję o otworzeniu puszki.
Ja: Z pomidorami?
Hili: Bez głupich żartów.

Hacker cat!

Have a roaming moggie? If you know how to hack, your cat can be your best friend. See how in this video:


h/t: redlivingblue

The Thinking Atheist’s book

Just a quick note: Seth Andrews, who hosts “The Thinking Atheist,” one of the best and most popular podcasts for the godless, wrote a book about his deconversion from evangelical Christianity to atheism.  I met Seth at the “Imagine No Religion” meeting in Kamloops; he was a great guy and gave a fascinating talk about how the tropes of secular, popular culture are appropriated by Christians to create a self-contained parallel world for their youth.  After years as a Christian broadcaster and d.j., Seth’s faith slowly waned, largely because he read the books of the New Atheists.

I’ve just become aware that Andrews’s Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason was published in December of 2012. It wasn’t on my radar screen for some reason, but a reader called my attention to geologist and science writer Don Prothero’s positive review of the book in the latest issue of the online Skeptic. Here are two excerpts from Prothero’s review, which is called “The Thinking Atheist Confesses.

The latter part of the book is full of his shrewd observations on religion and atheism. Among the gems are his list of the different categories of believers he’s come to know (the Feeler, the Theologian, the Folklorist, and the Foot Soldier), and his answers to the common questions he gets from the many believers who cannot accept his atheism. As someone who grew up in a slightly different Protestant tradition (Presbyterianism) and grew out of his family’s faith also, I can relate to many of Andrews’ experiences—as can most people who were raised in strictly religious families and have found their way out of their religious shackles.

. . . Andrews’ book is a short but very enjoyable read. It is especially of interest to anyone who has made a similar journey from faith to non-belief, or wishes to understand how this process works.

And the Amazon reviews, and ratings, are pretty impressive:

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 4.08.23 PM

I’ll definitely be reading this.



Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ family values

Today’s Jesus and Mo depicts the convergence of sharia law and right-wing Christianity:



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