Talks in Belgium: April 1 and 2

If you’re in Brussels on April 1, I’m giving a public talk on the evidence for evolution. It will be delivered in English but simultaneous French translation will be offered through headphones, and the slides will be in both English and French. Admission is free.

Here’s the announcement (click on screenshot):

On the next day, April 2, I’ll be giving a science talk on the last decade of my fly work at Louvain, and that announcement is below:

Again: Is it Honey?

Reader Graham from the UK did a careful scan of the bill sported by our newly-arriving mallard hen. Comparing this year’s photos to last year’s photos of Honey, he seems convinced that it is the same duck. I’d sure like to believe that, but of course I am riddled with confirmation bias and must guard against my own wishes. Still, I think the chances are better than even that it is Honey.

Here is Graham’s comparison of the pigment markings on the ducks’ bills, with lines drawn to indicate similarities between last year (top) and this year (bottom). Right side first, then left. Graham’s notes are indented:

Last year’s dots have merged and faded but there is too much of a pattern match for it to be a coincidence.

I’m 100% certain it’s Honey.

Thanks to Graham for doing these analyses.


Caturday felid trifecta: Tattooed cats; cats sleeping weird; cat crosswalk in Sweden (and lagnaippe)

Don’t worry: no cats were actually tattooed in the making of these ink-wash drawings by a Japanese-American artist. As artFido notes:

Kazuaki Horitomo is a California-based Japanese artist who combines two of his great passions – tattoos and cats – into one. As an illustrator and tattoo artist, Horitomo is steeped in the Japanese tradition of tebori (a technique of tattooing by hand) and his illustrations reflect that. Some of our favorites works are the humorous and surreal depictions of cats performing tebori on other cats.

Horitomo’s brand Monmon Cats derives its name from monmon, the old slang word in Japanese for tattoos. Horitomo currently works at State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose. But if tattooing isn’t your thing, you can also pick up his book, or buy prints from his shop. Or you can just follow him on Instagram.

I’ll show five of his works, but there are more at the artFido site:


From CLC (Cat Lovers Community), we have a passel of cats that can sleep anywhere. I’ll again show five, but there are 18 at the site.


Atlas Obscura has one entry, Pelle Svanslös Crosswalk, showing an unusual “cat crossing” sign in the town of Uppsala, Sweden:

Its tale (or rather, lack of tail):

The road signs in front of Carolina Rediviva Library in Uppsala have something unusual: cats. On closer look, you might notice the adult cat leading kittens has no tail. He isn’t just an ordinary bobtail cat. He’s Pelle Svanslös (“Peter No-Tail” in English), a popular character from a children’s book series with the same name.

The Pelle Svanslös series—there are 12 books in total—was written by Gösta Knutsson between 1939 and 1972. As his name suggests, Pelle has no tail. A rat bit his tail off when he was a kitten. But despite this mean mishap, Pelle grows into a kind-hearted young cat. He has been loved by many Swedish children for decades.

Pelle and his feline friends live in Uppsala, Sweden, where the author also lived for many years of his life. To mark the cat’s popularity, Uppsala added some features related to the children’s literature star around the city, such as a statue, a peep-hole (his residence), and these crossing signs.

I’ve been in Uppsala twice and didn’t know about this; if I had, I’d have insisted on seeing it. Here are two illustrations from the books, showing that even a tailless cat can get the girl:


Lagniappe: Cats versus dogs summarized in one experiment:


h/t: Malcolm, Dave, Bruce

Readers’ wildlife photos

I suspect this will be the last installment here for about two weeks, but if you’ve sent in photos, never fear: I have them all here in Chicago. Today’s contribution is from Joe Dickinson, whose notes are indented:

Not technically “wildlife”, nevertheless here are some photos from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The first two are jellyfish.  I’m afraid I don’t know even the common names let alone the scientific binomials.

This handsome fellow (or gal) is an African penguin (Spheniscus demersus).

Here is a moray eel, perhaps Gymnothorax reticularis, being serviced by cleaner shrimp, probably Lysmata amboinensis.

These are clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris?) with an unknown species of anemone.

These next two are sort of out of their element in an aquarium.  Nevertheless, here they are.  The first is a common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) and the other is a desert tortoise (probably Gopherus agassizii )


These are aptly named garden eels (genus Heteroconger).

This stone scorpionfish I could only ID down to family (Scorpaenidae).

The lookdown (Selene vomer) also is very aptly named.

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s Saturday, March 23, 2019, and I’m off today to the Low Countries: the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and Belgium (Louvain, Brussels, and Ghent). Posting will of course be light in my absence, but I hope to post photos from my trip. As always, I do my best. Grania has kindly agreed to cover the Hili dialogues in my absence.

It’s National Chips and Dip Day, and if I can’t have Doritos and guacamole (I haven’t had a Dorito in years), I’ll take ruffled potato chips and onion/sour cream dip. It’s World Meterological Day, celebrating the establishment of the World Meteorological Association on March 23, 1950. And, as Philomena might say, it was on that day that weather began.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous Revolutionary War speech, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson and George Washington were in the audience, and the speech is thought to have prompted Virginia to commit troops to the War.  On this day in 1806, Lewis and Clark, having reached the Pacific Ocean, turned around and headed back home. On March 23, 1919, in Milan, Mussolini founded his Fascist Political movement. In 1933, the German Reichstag passed the “Enabling Act of 1933,” which in effect made Hitler the dictator of Germany.

On March 23, 1956, Pakistan became the world’s first Islamic Republic; this is celebrated today in that country as “Republic Day”. In 1977, or so says Wikipedia, “The first of The Nixon Interviews (12 will be recorded over four weeks) is videotaped with British journalist David Frost interviewing former United States President Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal and the Nixon tapes.” Finally, on March 23, 1983, Reagan proposed his “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. It died aborning.

Notables born on this day include John Bartram (1699), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749), Emmy Noether (1882), Juan Gris (1887), Erich Fromm (1900), Werhner von Braun (1912), Donald Campbell (1921), Roger Bannister (1929), and Catherine Keener (1959). Here is Gris’s portrait of Pablo Picasso (I couldn’t find any cats from the artist):

Those who joined the Choir Invisible on this day include Stendhal (1842), Raoul Dufy (1953), Elizabeth Taylor (2011), and Joe Garagiola (2016).

Here’s “Le Chat” by Dufy:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has become positively Socratic. Should she get a Templeton Prize for her humility?

Hili: I’m starting to understand.
A: What are you starting to understand?
Hili: That it’s impossible to understand everything.
In Polish:
Hili: Zaczynam rozumieć.
Ja: Co zaczynasz rozumieć?
Hili: Że wszystkiego nie da się zrozumieć.

Two ‘memes’ from #ScienceHumor Here’s a helpful chart about risks. Why aren’t they banning peanuts?


A tweet from reader Nilou. Eagles can get lead poisoning from ingesting lead shot used to kill (or ingested by) animals lower on the food chain.

From Heather Hastie. It’s a bumper crop this year for endangered kakapos, the world’s only flightless parrot. Here’s one with its fuzzy chick (“Anchor”, Heather says, refers to Anchor Island, a place from which predators have been removed so the vulnerable parrots can thrive.)

Reader Barry wondered how cats can climb up glass, but I’m sure this is a screen:

Tweets from Matthew. This first one, showing the changes in population in different areas over twelve millennia. It’s a horse race at the end between China and India:

I didn’t realize that cockroach species could be so lovely:

I have in fact noticed the phenomenon below; look for it in your area as the snow melts:

Ceiling Cat bless New Zealand!

Tweets from Grania. Brexit first:

I’m not sure how this works, but it’s way cool:

I’ve seen these gorgeous bats: white fur and pink skin! They are Ectophylla alba, and nest in rolled-up leaves that they turn into tents.

Stuff like this buttresses my faith in our species:

Animals reacting to music

I like to end the work week with animal videos, and here’s a delightful 5½-minute series of animals reacting to music. Note the music-loving kittens at 2:43,  Paul McCartney vs. the locusts at 3:08, the concertina-loving cows at 4:19 and the green parrot at the end who, hearing the Titanic theme, plays “king of the world” before going nuts.


Trump instantly reverses new sanctions on North Korea

The “President” has made a ton of ridiculous political decisions in his time, but this one, to which Grania alerted me as a tweet, has to number among the stupidest.  The sanctions were imposed just yesterday, and their reversal appears to be because our own maniac likes the DPRK’s maniac:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the decision was a favor to Mr. Kim.

“President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary and one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal aides, personally signed off on the sanctions and hailed the decision in a statement accompanying them on Thursday.

“The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome,” Mr. Mnuchin said in the statement.

The end of the SPLC?

I have the dubious honor of having criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) many times before it recently start circling the drain. (Of course, real journalists starting going after the SPLC long before I did.) Once a reputable organization fighting for civil liberties and against bigotry, it’s devolved into a money-grubbing organization whose top dogs earned monstrously huge salaries, and an organization that took in far more money than it spent on the causes for which it’s famous, that stashed money in offshore accounts, and that spent its time confecting “hate lists”, one of which, the “field guide to anti-Muslim extremists“, included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz sued the SPLC for defamation and won, getting more than a million bucks and an apology, as well as the list’s removal.)

Two weeks ago the SPLC fired, for causes that weren’t clear at the time, Morris Dees, its co-founder and the major figure and fundraiser of the organization. There was talk about harassment and bad behavior in the office, but what really happened wasn’t clear. It’s still not, but it now appears, ironically, to involve racism and misogyny—two behaviors the SPLC has battled.

This article in the recent New Yorker gives more details, and leads me to believe that the organization is now not only outmoded, but is going to die. I hope it comes back with its original mission, but they’ll need good leadership.

Read on:

Author Bob Moser worked for a while at the SPLC, and observed some of its dysfunctional culture before leaving. In fact, the racism and sexism was a standing joke at the operation:

Cameras were everywhere in the open-plan office, which made me feel like a Pentagon staffer, both secure and insecure at once. But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

During my first few weeks, a friendly new co-worker couldn’t help laughing at my bewilderment. “Well, honey, welcome to the Poverty Palace,” she said. “I can guaran-damn-tee that you will never step foot in a more contradictory place as long as you live.”

“Everything feels so out of whack,” I said. “Where are the lawyers? Where’s the diversity? What in God’s name is going on here?”

“And you call yourself a journalist!” she said, laughing again. “Clearly you didn’t do your research.”

. . .The great Southern journalist John Egerton, writing for The Progressive, had painted a damning portrait of Dees, the center’s longtime mastermind, as a “super-salesman and master fundraiser” who viewed civil-rights work mainly as a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals. “We just run our business like a business,” Dees told Egerton. “Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.”

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization—Dees and the center’s president, Richard Cohen—made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

And the bigotry?

The official statement sent by Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” Dees’s profile was immediately erased from the S.P.L.C.’s Web site—amazing, considering that he had remained, to the end, the main face and voice of the center, his signature on most of the direct-mail appeals that didn’t come from celebrity supporters, such as the author Toni Morrison.

. . . The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years.

Morris Dees (from CNN)

For me the sign that the SPLC was plummeting earthward was its demonizing of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz, who were certainly not anti-Muslim extremists: Nawaz is a Muslim and Hirsi Ali’s last book was a plan to make Islam less extremist. This smacked of mission creep: an organization that now had less to do because of the moral improvement of America still had to find a way to spend its money. It has in fact about half a billion dollars in endowment, more than does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Moser’s piece, while giving these details, is a bit marred by being more of a personal mea culpa, in which he wonders how his good intentions could have been coopted by such a dysfunctional outfit. The SPLC is, however, undergoing an outside review, and I wish them well. My advice: stop paying huge salaries to the top dogs, walk the walk by giving minority employees real power, get rid of those offshore money stashes, and, above all, concentrate on real issues of poverty and law and stop making the “little lists”.

h/t: Laurance

Templeton Prize winner spouts more nonsense in Scientific American

The other day, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College won the £1 million Templeton Prize for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” At the time I used his quotes reported by the media to show that, while Gleiser may be a good physicist, he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to talking about atheism and “the limits of science.”

This is all confirmed in a new Scientific American interview with Gleiser conducted by Lee Billings, an associate editor who writes about cosmology and physics. Read on, but don’t waste a lot of time:

It’s the usual pap espoused by scientists who are also “spiritual” in the way Templeton likes: touting the limitations of science, saying there are other ways to answer the Big Questions, and, especially, dissing atheism.

One of the most disingenuous parts of the interview, and a sure sign of thoughtless accommodationism, is the call for “humility.” Of course, that call applies only to atheists and scientists, not to believers:

[Billings] Right. So which aspect of your work do you think is most relevant to the Templeton Foundation’s spiritual aims?

[Gleiser] Probably my belief in humility. I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know. So that’s one answer to your question. And that has nothing to do with organized religion, obviously, but it does inform my position against atheism. I consider myself an agnostic.

It always sounds good to tout “humility”, doesn’t it? The thing is, scientists are already humble, because we’re forced to be. Yes, there are arrogant scientists (Lynn Margulis comes to mind), but as far as practicing science goes, you’re always looking over your shoulder asking “What if I’m wrong?” “How can I make sure that there are no flaws in my work that others might see?” You don’t become famous by being loud (although sometimes that helps); you become famous by being right. And the more arrogant you are, the more likely others are to replicate your work.

Do you know this famous quote by Thomas Henry Huxley?

“Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads or you shall learn nothing.”

Gleiser’s double standard for humility becomes clear when he goes after atheism but doesn’t go after believers:

Why are you against atheism?

I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, “Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.” And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that. This positions me very much against all of the “New Atheist” guys—even though I want my message to be respectful of people’s beliefs and reasoning, which might be community-based, or dignity-based, and so on. And I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality.

I’ve already discussed this cockeyed view.  The idea that atheism is “belief in nonbelief” is a Deepity, for it sounds profound but upon examination proves shallow and, indeed, stupid. Atheists don’t “believe in nonbelief”: they reject acceptance of gods because there is no evidence for gods. That’s all there is to it, and, contra Gleiser, it’s absolutely consistent with the scientific method. In fact, the refusal to accept “truths” when there’s no evidence for them is the hallmark science—although there is no formal “scientific method.”

In contrast, Gleiser’s own agnosticism is simply a chickenshit way to avoid conclusions that he’d draw in any other area of science. If one posits that there are aliens living on Mars, but we find no evidence of them after repeated scans of the planet, and no signs of life from sending up biological probes, then you’re being unscientific. As Vic Stegner used to say, “The absence of evidence is evidence of absence—if that evidence should be there.”

As I wrote in Faith Versus Fact:

In science, if there should be evidence for a phenomenon but that evidence is consistently missing, one is justified in concluding that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Examples are the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, as well as paranormal phenomena like ESP or telekinesis. Seeking evidence for such things, the skeptics always come up dry. It is the same with God, though theologians will object to comparing God to Bigfoot. The philosopher Delos McKown had a more parsimonious answer for God’s absence: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

And I said this after examining Barbara Forrest’s convincing argument that the success of methodological naturalism implies an underlying philosophy of philosophical naturalism (i.e., “there are no gods”):

Although Forrest wrongly implies that science can’t examine the supernatural, her overall argument makes sense. If you spend your life looking in vain for the Loch Ness Monster, stalking the lake with a camera, sounding it with sonar, and sending submersibles into its depths, and yet still find nothing, what is the more sensible view: to conclude provisionally that the monster simply isn’t there, or to throw up your hands and say, “It might be there; I’m not sure”? Most people would give the first response—unless they’re talking about God.

Gleiser’s agnosticism is of the second variety.

It’s quite curious, but understandable, that while Gleiser says that “I have no evidence for God or any kind of god,” he still says he’s an agnostic, and at the same time goes after atheists while keeping his mitts off of religionists. After all, it is the religionists who believe in stuff without any evidence, and Gleiser implicitly admits that. So why does he call out atheists but not believers? The answer is one word: Templeton.

Finally, what are the limits of science? Clearly they involve things that science can’t address because they involve issues not resolvable by empirical examination. Those issues are fewer than we think (for instance, science might be able to provide answer to “why do we find some things beautiful and other things repulsive?”), but we already know that science can’t fully resolve issues of subjective preference—like moral questions. If you decide what your moral preferences are (e.g., “it is best to maximize well being”), then you can approach the question empirically: what actions do maximize well being? But if that’s not your goal, and you have some other subjective morality (e.g., “abortion is immoral because it involves murder”), then science can’t answer that. (I do point out, though, that if the anti-abortion argument rests on the existence of a unique soul in humans, science might be able to tackle that.

I know very few scientists who would say that science can answer every question. It can’t, and sometimes we need clear-thinking input from philosophers and those trained to think logically. So when Gleiser emits the following bromides, I’ll just note that secular humanism, with no need for woo or “spirituality”, would arrive at the same conclusion:

. . . But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, only because earlier you referred to the value of humility in science. Some would say now is not the time to be humble, given the rising tide of active, open hostility to science and objectivity around the globe. How would you respond to that?

This is of course something people have already told me: “Are you really sure you want to be saying these things?” And my answer is yes, absolutely. There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way. So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.

How you prioritize things like the value of lives versus the value of cars can be largely a subjective weighing of issues, but even then science can help resolve these questions once you specify an desirable trade-off between dollars and lives or dollars and convenience.  So no, science can’t by itself solve “all the problems of the world”. But it’s a damn sight better than religion in solving the problems of the world! Again, it’s understandable that Gleiser directs his ire at science and not religion. Why not indict Catholicism for saying it not only didn’t help solve the AIDS crisis, but made it worse? As Rebecca Goldstein told me, “Moral philosophy is a throughly secular enterprise.”

Gleiser is a Templeton flack, and I have nothing but contempt for his disingenuous attacks on atheism and science. Well, if he’s not disingenuous, he’s a very sloppy thinker.

Finally, why did Scientific American publish this article? The magazine is supposed to be about science, not science and woo. And the article is misleading and irrelevant, appealing only to believers who want to think their faith is consistent with science.

Here’s a photo of Gleiser from Australia’s Eternity News, which also had the headline below his photo:

h/t: Dave

HuffPost pushes erotic astrology

What is it with the Leftist media now? The other day Greg pointed out how the New York Times is growing soft on astrology (see here and here), dramatically increasing the number of columns it’s published on the topic, with almost all of those columns being either neutral or slightly positive.

Now HuffPost has this (click on screenshot to read the nonsense). It’s written by the site’s romance, sex, and relationship columnist.

Oy!  Some excerpts:

“Although we may no longer treat illness through medical astrology, it provides invaluable insight into each of the 12 zodiac signs’ physicality ― and yep, how they like to get down,” Kelly said.

For the fun of it, we spoke to Kelly [“Aliza Kelly, Allure’s resident astrologer and the host of the podcast Stars Like Us.”] and fellow astrologer Lisa Stardust to find out more about each sign’s supposed erogenous zone. Read on to see if yours matches your turn-ons.

[Note: Always ask your partner where they like to be touched before making assumptions about their preferences based on internet listicles!]

I love the Woke admonition to always get affirmative consent before using astrology!

Here’s my “sign zones”, which isn’t accurate at all:

It turns out that HuffPost has a daily astrology column and a lot of articles about how to shop/behave/have sex/etc. based on your zodiac sign:

Head here for more astrology content and here to read your daily horoscope.

I am curious whether a weakness for astrology is part of the Woke Left’s playbook, or if it spans Right and Left. I don’t much care: astrology is not just nonsense, but marginally harmful nonsense, and there’s no caveat in this article that this is mere fantasy.

Ceiling Cat help me, I couldn’t resist leaving a comment based on the article’s subtitle. You can too!