The juggling otter

Reader Kieran sent this video, and by the time you see it I’ll have gone home, for Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) has a tummy ache. Enjoy the Juggling Otter (Amblonyx cinerea), whose YouTube video says this:

The Otter at Dudley Zoo enjoys his pebble juggling while waiting for his feeding time.  Oriental small clawed otter [sic] are the smallest of the world’s 13 species. They are members of the weasel family. They are now back to their previous numbers in many areas in the UK.

Mother Teresa to become a saint on Sunday

Well, it was only a matter of time, for Mother Teresa was always on the fast track to sainthood. She died in 1997, was put on the Fast Track immediately by John Paul II (now SAINT John Paul II), and was beatified in 2003 (one of the steps to sainthood, requiring verification of a single miracle). Now, 13 years later, she’s gotten her second miracle and will be declared a full saint on Sunday. The Catholic News is probably the best source for this:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Kolkata a saint at the Vatican Sept. 4.

The date was announced March 15 during an “ordinary public consistory,” a meeting of the pope, cardinals and promoters of sainthood causes that formally ends the sainthood process.

. . . Shortly after she died in 1997, St. John Paul II waived the usual five-year waiting period and allowed the opening of the process to declare her sainthood. She was beatified in 2003.

After her beatification, Missionary of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of her sainthood cause, published a book of her letters, “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” The letters illustrated how, for decades, she experienced what is described as a “dark night of the soul” in Christian spirituality; she felt that God had abandoned her. While the letters shocked some people, others saw them as proof of her steadfast faith in God, which was not based on feelings or signs that he was with her.

The date chosen for her canonization is the eve of the 19th anniversary of her death and the date previously established at the Vatican for the conclusion of the Year of Mercy pilgrimage of people like her who are engaged in works of mercy.

We all know by now what a fraud Agnes Bojaxhiu was. She courted dictators and took money from them, she used her homes to convert the sick and dying rather than help them, she was slippery in managing her funds. If you have doubts, read Christopher Hitchens’s The Missionary Position, an attack on Mother Teresa that has never been refuted, or (if you read French) the critical paper “Les côtés ténébreux de Mère Teresa” (“The dark side of Mother Teresa”), which is free online. It’s in the journal Studies in Religion, which means it was almost certainty peer reviewed; and it has a summary in English:

The impact of Mother Teresa’s work has no religious or geographical boundaries. In the four parts of this text, we try to understand this phenomenon. We first present the method used to collect the available information and then discuss a few biographical considerations to clarify her mission and the media’s contribution to her popularity. The third part identifies four stumbling blocks on her way to canonization: her rather dogmatic religious views, her way of caring for the sick, her political choices, and her suspicious management of funds that she received. Fourth, we discuss some elements of her life related to beatification, including her “night of faith,” the exorcism to which she was subjected as well as the validity of the miracle attributed to her. In conclusion, we question why the criticism of which she has been the target has been ignored by the Vatican.

And, of course, the whole procedure for determining sainthood is just as bogus, with a “devil’s advocate” (Hitchens was one in this case!) who argues against the case for sainthood but is ignored, and specious “proof” that the saint in statu nascendi brought about two miracles. In Faith Versus Fact and on this site, I wrote about those miracles. I don’t know much about the second, but the first one wasn’t a miracle at all:

The Vatican itself, which requires a miracle to beatify someone, and two miracles to make them a saint, is none too scrupulous about the medical evidence needed to elevate someone to the pantheon. The beatification of Mother Teresa, for instance, was the supposed disappearance of ovarian cancer in Monica Besra, an Indian woman who reported she was cured after looking at a picture of the nun. It turns out, though, that her tumor wasn’t cancerous but tubercular, and, more important, she’d received conventional medical treatment in a hospital, with her doctor (who wasn’t interviewed by the Vatican) taking credit for the cure.

(See also here.)

But her sainthood was always a fait accompli, for the legend of Agnes Bojaxhiu is impervious to fact, just as Catholicism itself is impervious to fact.  And so, on Sunday, another person joins the pantheon of the two-thousand-odd existing saints who, by being canonized by the Vatican, now have special access to God, and special powers if you pray for them.

We may pride ourselves on being “the rational animal,” but that’s the final thing that’s bogus. How rational is Catholicism, and how rational is this phony, cooked-up way of declaring that some person gets a special telephone line to God?



h/t: J. J. Phillips

Lucy may have died by falling out of a tree

Lucy” is the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis female, dated at 3.18 million years old and discovered by Donald Johanson’s team in 1971 in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia. Lucy has become famous because, with 40% of the skeleton recovered, all in one place, she gave a remarkably complete picture of what one of our ancestors  may have looked like soon after splitting off from our common ancestor with modern chimps. (Note: we’re not sure that modern humans are really descendants of Lucy’s species).

In short, Lucy was short (3 feet 7 inches, or 1.1 meters), an adult, and had a brain the size of a modern chimp (450 cc; modern chimps are about 400 cc and  humans are about 1150 cc). She could clearly walk bipedally, as her pelvis and legs were clearly adapted for upright walking. We also have the Laetoli footprints of two hominins walking upright—probably also A. afarensis but dated even older than Lucy (3.7 mya). Nevertheless, Lucy had fingerbones that were curved, like those of apes, suggesting that her species had either not lost all traces of their arboreal past, or that A. afarensis still clambered about in the trees.

In fact, a new paper in Nature by John Kappelman et al. (reference below, free access at link) suggests that Lucy met her death by falling from a tree. Although that conclusion is a bit controversial, the evidence shouldn’t be sniffed at. What is that evidence?

  • The main evidence is the way Lucy’s bones were broken, especially the proximal end of the right humerus, or upper arm bone (“proximal” means the end of the bone closest to the body, where the bone articulates with the shoulder). What Kappelman et al. found, by looking at casts of the bone and making 3-D prints of them, is that the end of the humerus was shattered in such a way suggesting a violent concussion with the ground. This is, in fact, what we see in modern humans who have tried to break a fall by putting out their arms. Here’s a photo of the cracked humerus from the paper, with Lucy’s full skeleton to the right:

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 9.14.49 AM

The fact that these fractures remained together suggests to the authors that the cracking occurred while Lucy was still alive rather than long after death, for they’ve stayed within the joint capsule, and would likely have been scattered on the ground had they been a postmortem cracking of the bones during natural burial. It also suggests that if Lucy’s death—due to both bone breakage and organ damage (the latter possibly caused by splintering bone)—was due to a fall, she stretched out her arms after she had struck the ground (see below), and thus was conscious immediately after she struck the ground.

The head of the other humerus, the left one, also shows some fracturing too, though the damage isn’t as extensive.

  • There is other fracturing of the arms as well: the shaft of the right humerus shows spiral fracturing (“d” above), and there are suggestions of fractures in the forearms, with no evidence of healing. The clavicle (shoulder bone) also shows vertical fractures.
  • There are apparent fractures in the legs and pelvis as well: breakage in the tibia, fibula left femur (severely fractured), and in the pelvis. Here are photos of those:
Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 9.27.18 AM

Fractures of the tibia, the larger of the lower leg bones

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 9.29.50 AM

Fractures in the neck of the femur (upper leg bone)

The pelvis is really screwed up! Look at these putative fractures:

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 9.24.20 AM

  • Finally, there are other apparent fractures to the cranium, lumbar vertebrae, and mandible (jawbone).

So what happened to Lucy? Because both the arms and legs are fractured, the authors conjecture that Lucy fell considerable distance out of a tree, with the legs striking first and then the arms outstretched to break the fall. The authors give a diagram, and I’ve added the figure legend from the paper:


(From text): Figure 2 | Reconstruction of Lucy’s vertical deceleration event. We hypothesize that Lucy fell from a tall tree, landing feet-first and twisting to the right, with arrows indicating the sequence and types of fractures. a, Pilon fracture, tibial plateau fracture, and spiral shaft fracture of right tibia. b, The impact of hyperextended left knee drove the distal femoral epiphysis into the distal shaft, and fractured the femoral neck and possibly the acetabulum, sacrum, and lumbar vertebra. c, The impact of the knee drove the patella into the centre anterodistal surface of the femoral shaft. d, Impact on the right hip drove the right innominate into the sacrum, and the sacrum into the left innominate, dislocating and fracturing the sacrum and left innominate, and elevating the retroauricular surface. e, Lucy was still conscious when she stretched out her arms in an attempt to break her fall and fractured both proximal humeri, the right more severely than the left with spiral fracture near the midshaft, a Colles’ (or Smith’s) fracture of the right radius, and perhaps other fractures of the radii and ulnae. The impact depressed and retracted the right scapula, which depressed the clavicle into the first rib, fracturing both. f, Frontal impact fractured the left pubis and drove a portion of the anterior inferior pubic ramus posterolaterally, and a branch or rock possibly created the puncture mark on the pubis. g, The impact of the thorax fractured many ribs and possibly some thoracic vertebrae. h, The impact of the skull, slightly left of centre, created a tripartite guardsman fracture of the mandible and cranial fractures. See Supplementary Methods and Supplementary Video 4.

What was Lucy doing up there? The authors suggest that she was nesting, just like modern chimps make nests high off the ground. The height of chimp nests (8-21 meters) is sufficient to kill an animal that falls from them.

Could anything else have caused the fractures? The authors note that you could get similar fractures if the body collided with objects in a flood; if a big animal hit Lucy at high speed, or if she suffered seizures, perhaps caused by a lightning strike. But they claim these occurrences are not only uncommon, but the pattern of Lucy’s fractures is absolutely consistent with those of modern people who fall from considerable heights.  And we know that modern chimps have been killed by falling from trees.

But were there trees in that area when Lucy lived? Good question! The authors say that in the area near the village of Hadar, where Lucy’s skeleton was found, was indeed probably a “grassy woodland with sizable trees.” That evidence comes from fossil pollen, the location of the skeleton (near a water channel that probably harbored nearby trees), and isotopic evidence.

Do other experts agree? Well, not completely. Carl Zimmer interviewed several people for an article on this in the New York Times (which I just read after I wrote the above), and they disagree on whether these are even fractures, and, if so, if they resulted from a fall. And even if they resulted from a fall, maybe Lucy fell not while nesting, but for other reasons. One of the doubters is Don Johanson, who discovered Lucy. Here are some quotes from Zimmer’s piece:

But other experts said Dr. Kappelman and his colleagues had not done enough to rule out other explanations for the fractures.

Ericka N. L’Abbé, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said that when living bones break, some parts bend. A close inspection of Lucy’s bones might have revealed traces of that bending.

“The major drawback is that they didn’t look under a microscope,” Dr. L’Abbé said.

Dr. Johanson [who discovered Lucy] said it was far more likely that the fractures Dr. Koppelman attributes to a fall had occurred long after her death, as her skeleton was buried under sand.

“Elephant bones and hippo ribs appear to have the same kind of breakage,” Dr. Johanson said. “It’s unlikely they fell out of a tree.”

. . .Some researchers have argued that by Lucy’s time, our forerunners were no longer good tree-climbers, having evolved to find food on the ground. “Australopithecus afarensis was essentially a terrestrial animal,” Dr. Johanson said.

. . . .Dr. Kappelman and his colleagues considered the possibility that Lucy fell out of a nest in which she was sleeping. Chimpanzees build their nests an average of 40 feet above the ground. A fall from that height could have killed Lucy, the scientists calculated.

But Nathaniel Dominy, an evolutionary biologist at Dartmouth College, considers it unlikely. “For me, the much more likely scenario is that she was climbing for food,” he said.

Chimpanzees sometimes gather honey from hives that are far above their nests. They have to use one hand to hold on to a branch while jabbing a stick into a hive with the other.

“Lucy was just enduring the stings as a chimpanzee would. It would be intense,” Dr. Dominy said.

The upshot.  I’m not completely convinced that this represents a fall, especially in light of Don Johanson’s worries that the “fractures” represent postmortem events due to burial. But this is still intriguing, and shows that things remain to be learned from what is probably the most well studied hominin fossil of all time. If these do represent fractures sustained during a fall, it would be cool, for it would give us strong evidence that A. afarensis was still living part-time in the trees even after it had evolved the ability to walk upright on the ground.


Kappelman, J., R. A. Ketcham, S. Pearce, L. Todd, W. Akins, M. W. Colbert, M. Feseha, J. A. Maisano, and A. Witzel. 2016. Perimortem fractures in Lucy suggest mortality from fall out of tall tree. Nature, advance online publication,doi:10.1038/nature19332.

USA today gives Tom Wolfe’s book three stars out of four

This is what happens when a book reviewer is assigned a book in which he has no expertise whatsoever. Over at USA Today, Don Oldenburg reviews Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech. I’ve read the book, and its thesis is that human language is not in any way a product of biological evolution. Indeed, Wolfe has said that not only are humans not a product of biological evolution, but that only animals evolve and humans aren’t animals! (In an NPR interview with Wolfe, Scott Simon didn’t challenge him on that fatuous assertion.) Over the last decade, Wolfe has flirted with Intelligent Design creationism, and that’s clearly evident in the book. Insofar as Americans who read this book come to it with ignorance about evolution or its history, they will be not only let down, but deceived.

Further, Wolfe distorts the data and history of linguistics—at least the part of linguistics concerned with what aspects of humans’ ability to speak, and their ability to use semantic language, may have a biological origin—and whether that origin involves natural selection. I’ll have more to say on that later this week; let’s just say that we have data addressing that.

Sadly, Mr. Oldenburg seems to have missed every flaw in Wolfe’s argument, and produces instead a puff piece, giving the book three stars out of four. Oldenburg has only minor quibbles, which explains the missing fourth star, but simply doesn’t address Wolfe’s solution to Big Problem: Where did language come from?

Here’s a bit of USA Today‘s puff piece:

And so begins Wolfe’s provocative and winding tale that attempts to demystify the mystery that has baffled the world of linguistics and, arguably, makes what we think we know about the origins of speech and human evolution wrong.

Arguably? That implies there’s a counterargument. Sadly, Oldenburg doesn’t give one.

[Wolfe] presents that intriguing case in his inimitable, casual-chatty, captivating storytelling style. His trademark rich reporting is unmistakable throughout his first non-fiction endeavor in 16 years, since Hooking Up, his 2000 essay collection. But The Kingdom of Speech is much more a legacy of his brilliant 1981 lambasting of modernist architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, and his fascinating 1975 assault on modern art, The Painted Word.

I’ve read Bauhaus and The Painted Word. I found both books gratuitously nasty and show-offy, and the critics found them ignorant as well.  They show neither the absorbing narrative of Radical Chic and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test nor the research that went into what I consider Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (highly recommended). As for this book, Oldenburg simply hasn’t done his homework in either evolution or linguistics, enabling him to emit stuff like this:

Wolfe starts with retelling the what-the-hell story of the Theory of Evolution [sic] from its starting gate, when “Charlie” Darwin and his British landed-gentry lads filched the theory of natural selection from far-afield naturalist Alfred Wallace. Going forward, he identifies many rogue evolutionaries gone wild, from anti-Darwinian Robert Chambers to the Darwin-cheerleader Thomas Huxley, to the first-geneticist Gregor Johann Mendel.

Wolfe’s diversions include everything from Apache cosmology to “gestural theory” (the standing man’s freed-hand gestures evolving into speech). The second half of the book focuses on pompous, nasty, but conversation-changing Noam Chomsky versus mosquito-bitten, neck-deep-in-Amazon-primitiveness, anthropologist Daniel Everett, whose life story is a splendidly cinematic read.

Seriously? Huxley and Mendel are “rogue evolutionaries gone wild”? Huxley defended Darwin, but he was in no sense a “rogue,” nor did he “go wild.” As for Mendel, does Mr. Oldenburg realize that Mendel was not an “evolutionary” but a geneticist who didn’t have an inkling about evolution?  The main lacuna here is that Oldenburg doesn’t address the book’s claims seriously. Even in the restricted space of USA Today one can call attention to the fact that there are serious problems with both the evolutionary and linguistic parts of the book. Nor does he apparently have the expertise to review the book properly (I don’t know Mr Oldenburg’s background, but if he had that expertise, he should have used it.)

Instead, Oldenburg’s quibbles are stylistic ones:

Sure, Wolfe-ish annoyances persist. Too-many repeated words (“talk talk talk it was, and endless theory theory theory”) and slam-bang semantics (“Bango!” and “OOOF!”). One of his detours — where he lists historic oddball charismatic leaders just to prove that, like Chomsky, many were in their 20s — makes you want to say, “Stop it, Tom.”

Still, he brings to this academic debate the same irreverence and entertaining quality that lit up Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — without the trippy, ‘60s, Merry Prankster craziness. You’ll find here the same manic prose, the hip rhythms and cleverly crafted arguments of the genius Tom Wolfe. Which you must read.

I wouldn’t follow the advice of that last sentence. If you want to read more incisive reviews of The Kingdom of Speech, see Charles Mann’s at the Wall Street Journal, Harry Ritchie’s at The Spectator (he calls Wolfe’s thesis “bollocks”), or Tom Bartlett’s analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Bartlett is far too credulous and uncritical about the evolutionary parts of Wolfe’s book, his fact-checking of Wolfe’s claims about Noam Chomsky (claims that, in effect, Bartlett calls “bollocks” as well) is instructive.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Send ’em in, folks. I still have a backlog, but the level of the tank is draining.

Today we have two contributors who sent bird photos. The first is Karen Bartelt, whose captions are below:

A little mute swan (Cygnus olor) love from central Illinois.  This was a family of six.  One juvenile has a knob on its head, but seems ok.  Spring Lake (southern Tazewell CO), IL.



The white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are migrating south. Chautauqua NWR (Mason Co,IL) had at least 1000 last week (close up).  The second shot reminds me of the old WWII movies and the bombing of Germany or Japan, where hundreds of bombers were overhead.  This shot was taken about 3 miles from my house in Tazewell Co, IL.



Speaking of bombers, these are from Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) divebombing a rival.


Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) searching for food in recently cut alfalfa.


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s August 30, 2016, and only one more day before we get into the dreaded BACK TO SCHOOL MONTH. And today is National Toasted Marshmallow Day, a confection that becomes edible only when it’s absolutely charred by fire. It’s also International Day of the Disappeared, remembering those in Latin America who were abducted without notice, and who simply vanished from Earth. I’ll proclaim it Remember Oliver Sacks Day, as he died one year ago today (see below).

On this day in 1909, the famous Burgess Shale fossils were discovered in British Columbia by Charles Doolittle Walcott; he was to work on them for another quarter century. They were brought to public attention by Steve Gould, who wound up erroneously touting them in his book Wonderful Life as largely unrelated to forms of modern life, and hence that modern species are the result of “contingency.” But that wouldn’t be true even if Gould were right about the fossil relationships: those “contingencies”, like the Yucatan asteroid strike, were really determined and not accidents: inevitable results of the laws of physics.

Notables born on this day include Mary Shelley (1797), Huey Long (1893), Ted Williams (1918), Elizabeth Ashley (1939 ♥), and Timothy Bottoms (1951). It’s also the birthday of my adopted mother, Malgorzata Koraszewska, who turns 73. Wish her a happy birthday, because Hili won’t!

Those who died on this day include Fred Whipple (2004) and Oliver Sacks (exactly one year ago today).  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is on alert; she doesn’t like to cross the open ground by the soccer field when there are kids or dogs there. Here she is in her Alert Pose:

Hili: What are those children doing over there?
A: They are playing ball.
Hili: It worries me a bit.
 In Polish:
Hili: Co te dzieci tam robią?
Ja: Grają w piłkę.
Hili: Trochę mnie to niepokoi.
I don’t have Gus or Leon for you today, but here’s a baby giraffe:
baby giraffe

NBC News tacitly accepts Heaven

I thought it was great when tonight’s substitute anchorperson on NBC News, Savannah Guthrie, said that the last segment would be about Gene Wilder, who died today of Alzheimer’s. I looked forward to seeing some of his old film clips again, and hearing about his career. And I did. But then Guthrie said something that rankled. As best I can recall, it is this statement, referring to Gilda Radner

“Gene Wilder. . . . now reunited with his wife after decades of making us laugh.”

Well, it might refer simply to the fact that they’re reunited underground, but I seriously doubt that’s the implication. No, the implication is that they’re seeing each other again in the afterlife.

Much as I liked both Wilder and Radner, and would love to know that they’d see each other again, I know that it just ain’t so. What newswriter (anchors don’t write their own copy) would say such a thing—and get away with it? The sooner that newspapers and television stop tacitly assuming that we live on after death, the better.

Gene Wilder died

I was going to end the day (late) with something lighthearted, invariably an animal video, but just got the news that Gene Wilder died. I had no idea he was 83, and the BBC said he died of “complications from Alzheimer’s disease.” He was, of course, Willy Wonka, but I’ve never seen that; I have seen the two films that garnered him an Academy Award nomination: “The Producers” (Best Supporting Actor), and “Young Frankenstein” (co-nominated with Mel Brooks for Best Adapted Screenplay).

His birth name was Jerome Silberman, so of course he was Jewish, and he was also married to Gilda Radner, another Jew. What I remember most about Wilder was how deeply he loved Radner, who died of 42 of ovarian cancer, and how movingly he wrote of their relationship and her death. Sadly, I can’t remember where I read it.

Two great comedians gone—and missed.


Not much evidence for a historical Jesus

Apart from angry letters I get from believers—or kinder ones in which they pray for my salvation—perhaps the most frequent genre of emails in my box is about the historical Jesus. While I’m about 99.9999999% sure that any Jesus person who lived wasn’t divine, the son of God, or a miracle worker, I’m not all that sure there was a real human being around whom the Jesus myth accreted.  Just looking at the evidence as a scientist, I find no evidence for Jesus’s existence as a historical person except in Scripture, and the different gospels tell different stories. Most telling is the complete absence of good evidence for Jesus from people writing during the time when he was supposed to have lived, especially the Jewish philosopher Philo, who would have been a contemporary of Jesus. If Jesus had such a huge impact on the Jews and on Palestine, why didn’t anybody notice it? Why are there no descriptions of the earthquakes and people rising from their graves when Jesus was crucified?

But my doubt angers Christians. If they can show that a historical Jesus-person exists, they think—wrongly—that they’ve gone most of the way  towards establishing Jesus as the Messiah. To even doubt that such a person existed, well, that nips their claim in the bud. (Of course, even if such a person did exist, Christians would, as Hitchens used to say, “have all their work ahead of them.”)

I know Bart Ehrman thinks there was a historical (though not a divine) Jesus, and I’ve read his “evidence,” but haven’t found it very convincing. And the other “evidence” for a historical Jesus person is either fraudulent, derived from scripture, or are second- or third-hand accounts from people who wouldn’t have been contemporaries of Jesus and are simply repeating what other Christians said. So I don’t have a firm opinion one way or another. And yes, I know that the mantra here is “Nearly all reputable scholars and historians admit that there was a real Jesus-person,” but we scientists don’t accept truth simply because there’s a consensus. In fact, I think that consensus is based on evidence that’s pitifully thin.

For a handy summary of the evidence used to adduce the existence of a historical Jesus, I’d recommend the short and easily digested post on Rosa Rubicondior, “The historical evidence for Jesus.” I can’t vouch for all the author’s claims (though what I do know is accurately represented), but there’s a handy table giving all the early writers and theologians whose words are used as evidence for a historical Jesus. At least you can see the lack of evidence in one short-ish post.

There’s also a very lively argument with the author in the comment section.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.18.35 PM

h/t: Heather

Krauss reacts to the Templeton-funded “Science and religion” project at Arizona State

This morning I posted about the Think Write Publish “Science and religion” project at Arizona State University (ASU), which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation —apparently to the tune of a few hundred thousand bucks. The project’s explicit aim is to show the public that science and religion are compatible, and the Project Leader is Daniel Sarewitz, described on the TWP site this way:

Daniel Sarewitz is Professor of Science and Society in the School for the Future of Innovation and Society, and co-director and co-founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, at Arizona State University (  He is the editor of the magazine Issues in Science and Technology (, and a regular columnist for Nature. His most recent book is The Techno-Human Condition(2011; co-authored with Braden Allenby; MIT Press).

Since my colleague and fellow nonbeliever Lawrence Krauss is also at ASU, where he’s a Foundation Professor, Director of the ASU Origins Project and Co-director of the Cosmology Initiative, I sent him my post with the links to “Science and Religion Project.”  I wasn’t particularly soliciting a response from him, but just calling it to his attention. But I got a response anyway, which I post with permission:

I am surprised that the same day I heard about this, I saw this article about a worrisome essay by the same colleague, Dan Sarewitz, that appeared to argue against curiosity driven research.  This statement blew me away:

“But I’m not really talking much about sciences like cosmology, say, or subatomic particle physics, which no one expects to have a practical application — and where it really doesn’t matter if the results are true or not.”

I think that makes his leadership of this program attempting to claim non-existent harmonies between science and religion more understandable, if, when discussing the universe he doesn’t really care about what is true or not, and therefore probably  doesn’t understand how we can distinguish between the two. Still, for someone who claims that science should be serving the public good, and not merely produce knowledge, it is disappointing that he would support people wasting time on this instead of producing good scholarship.

It’s not good PR, if you’re head of a science and religion program, to say that in some areas of science the truth doesn’t matter. It’s even worse if you’re at the same university as someone like Krauss!


UPDATE:  I now remember that I wrote about Sarewitz in a piece for Slate, “No faith in science.” In that piece I criticize him for claiming that religious faith was no different from the kind of “faith” that scientists have in something like the Higgs boson.”


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