Airport water fountains

I needed a drink of water in the Houston (Hobby) airport, and one good thing about America compared to, say, Europe, is that water fountains are nearly always handy in public facilities. Seeking my drink, I found this:

Now usually there are two levels: low to the ground for kids and higher up for adults. If the kid is intermediate sized, they can stoop, as I often do when the Big People’s Fountain is occupied. But here we have five different levels (or maybe four; I didn’t measure the end ones). That means that, unless there are huge crowds vying for water, so that many fountains are needed, this installation costs 2.5 times as much as the standard one.

Is there some purpose for this, or is it an artistic array designed to be attractive? I’ve never seen it before, and while it affords libations for those of diverse heights, including the Altitudinally Challenged, there is such a thing as bending down.

Here’s the timber rattlesnake!

by Matthew Cobb

The answer to James Green’s timber rattlesnake quiz was posted on Twitter by Asia Murphy (@am_anatiala) who studies mammals in Madagascar using camera traps. Here you go:


Teaching Evolution: Charles Lyell: The principles of geology

by Greg Mayer

Our fourth installment of Teaching Evolution is an extract from Principles of Geology, by Charles Lyell. Lyell was an enormously influential scientist, and a leading figure in scientific circles in 19th century Britain. His influence on Darwin was profound: in Janet Browne’s authoritative biography of Darwin, the entry for Lyell in the index of volume one goes on for 28 lines, and for 27 lines in the second volume!

In the first half of the 19th century, the links between biology and geology were much closer that they are now. Both were branches of natural history, and Darwin first made his name as a geologist, before his more biological contributions came to dominate his reputation. Lyell’s Principles were required reading for anyone involved in discussions of organic evolution. The current divorce between the academic disciplines is regrettable.

When I was helping plan a major in ecology, evolution, and conservation a few years ago, a survey of a broad range of the best undergraduate majors across the United States showed that none required any geology (though many required years of chemistry and/or physics). A notable innovation of our new major was that it required foundational work in geology for students in the biological sciences. (The major, unfortunately, was nixed by our dean before it got implemented.)

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is perhaps the greatest geologist of all time. As the American paleontologist David Raup once remarked, “Lyell is to geology what Darwin is to biology.” Lyell’s signal achievement was to turn geologists to the study of observable physical, chemical, and biological processes, and to make these processes the first choice when seeking explanations for the events of Earth history. His method may be epitomized by the phrase “the present is the key to the past”. Born in Scotland and trained as a lawyer, for most of his life he supported himself and his family by the sales of his books. A close friend of Darwin’s, he helped arrange the first publication of Darwin’s views on natural selection, alongside Wallace’s independent discovery of the same principle. Despite this, Lyell did not accept evolution until several years after the publication of the Origin. Lyell’s masterwork, Principles of Geology (1st ed. 1830-1833), which went through 11 editions in his lifetime, was informed by his wide field experience in Europe and North America. He is buried, like Darwin, in Westminster Abbey.

Lyell, C. 1830-1833. Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. Three volumes. John Murray, London. Vol. 3, Chaps. I, IV.

Study Questions:
1. What does Lyell identify as the chief impediment to the first geologists achieving a sound theory of the Earth’s history?

2. What types of studies have led to progress in geology?

3. How may the relative ages of rocks be determined? What sort of evidence does Lyell consider the most useful in this regard?

4. What does Lyell mean by a “zoological province”? How does he use this concept to help establish chronology?

[The other installments of Teaching Evolution can be found by clicking ‘MOOC’, under “filed under” or “tags”, just below.]

A mis-misconception about evolution

I may have written about this this before, but reader Ivar just called it to my attention, so it’s worth going over again.

The “Understanding Evolution” website produced by the University of California at Berkeley is an excellent resource, and is especially good for its list of “misconceptions about evolution” page.

There are eight categories of misconceptions with answers to all of them at the links. Here, for instance, is one category for general misconceptions about evolution and science.

Misconceptions about evolution and the nature of science

Not bad, eh?

However, as organizations often do why trying to convince people that evolution is true, they have to stick their noses into theology, as Berkeley does with this question and its “correction” (my emphasis).

Misconceptions about evolution and religion

  • MISCONCEPTION: Evolution and religion are incompatible.
  • CORRECTION: Because of some individuals and groups stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science (which includes evolution) and religion are at war; however, the idea that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. People of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. For many of these people, science and religion simply deal with different realms. Science deals with natural causes for natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world. Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days does conflict with evolutionary theory); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution. For concise statements from many religious organizations regarding evolution, see Voices for Evolution on the NCSE website. To learn more about the relationship between science and religion, visit the Understanding Science website.

Here are the four problems with this answer:

1.) Berkeley construes “compatibility” in several senses. The first is that many religious people accept evolution, and many scientists are religious. That of course shows nothing except that one can hold two mindsets in one’s head simultaneously. (One of them is an empirical way to judge truth about the universe, the other is a revelatory, scriptural, and authoritarian method of to judging truth about the universe. Is there nothing incompatible with becoming an atheist when you enter the lab (as all scientists do in their practice), accepting only empirically verifiable results, while at the same time accepting the most outlandish claims of religion, like the Resurrection, the dictation of the Qur’an to Muhammad by an angel, and the clearly bogus writing on divine Golden Plates left in the ground for Joseph Smith? That is dissonance, whether or not it causes mental conflict. Harboring these two methods (and the disparate “truths” they produce) in one’s mind simultaneously shows coexistence, not compatibility.

If your faith involves accepting truth claims about the Universe for which there is no evidence—and certainly the Abrahamic faiths do, as well as many others (e.g. Hinduism, most Buddhism, etc.)—then there is an incompatibility between science and religion.

2.) In fact, if you’re talking about evolution, most Americans see the naturalistic version, as taught in classrooms everywhere by real scientists, as incompatible with religion. Here are the latest Gallup poll results (2017) for the proportion of polled Americans who see the evolution of humans as requiring God’s intervention. These data have been taken fairly regularly over the last 36 years:

As you see, 38% of Americans reject human evolution outright, claiming that “God created man in present form.”

Another 38% of Americans believe that humans evolved but that “God guided the process.” These are theistic evolutionists who find evolution compatible with religion only insofar as the process involved guiding or tweaking by God.

Finally, just 19% of Americans—fewer than 1 in 5—think that “man developed, but God had no part in the process.” (Jebus, why do they use “man” instead of humans, and “developed” instead of “evolved”?). This means that 76% of Americans see naturalistic evolution as incompatible with religion. 

I’ve said before that I’m heartened at the rise of the naturalistic evolutionists, which has more than doubled from the 9% in 1982. Given the error bars, this is a real change and not a statistical fluke. I think it reflects the rise of secularism in the U.S. As for creationism and theistic evolution, the data bounce around but show no general trend over the past 36 years. Those percentages, I suspect, will finally begin to drop as the U.S. inevitably becomes full of “nones” and “atheists.”

3.) The last way the Berkeley site sees science and religion as compatible is through Steve Gould’s “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) idea,  This is taken from above:

For many of these people, science and religion simply deal with different realms. Science deals with natural causes for natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

As stated by Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, the magisteria become separate in this way:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

This is erroneous in several ways, and Gould should have known better. As I’m in the Houston airport, I don’t have time to dilate on the errors, but you can find a decent discussion of the problems with NOMA in Faith Versus Fact (buy it, please: a small price to pay for all the free reading you get here!).

The main problems with NOMA are these. As many theologians have admitted, religion certainly does make factual claims about the real world; that in fact is the basis of much religious belief and morality (think of how much of Christianity depends on the reality of Jesus, his divinity, and his resurrection, and how much of Islam depends on what’s said in the Qur’an and the hadith.) Without such factual beliefs, you can hardly call yourself a Christian or a Muslim. In Faith versus Fact I document theologians’ arguments that they do indeed make factual claims about reality.

Further, the realm of “purposes, meanings, and values” does not lie solely (or even mainly) in religion. There is an entire tradition of secular and humanistic ethics, starting with the ancient Greeks and going through Spinoza, Mill, and down to Peter Singer, Anthony Grayling, and John Rawls in our day—none of whom use God in confecting their ethical philosophy. (See a list of atheist philosophers here.) Likewise, many people, including lots of believers, derive meaning and purpose (whatever those are) from their life on this planet. It’s beyond me how Gould could dissimulate in this way. He wasn’t stupid by any means, nor ignorant of philosophy. All I can surmise is that he wanted his book to endear him to America. You don’t make many friends by claiming that science and religion are in conflict. On the other hand, you make tons of friends by showing that they’re compatible and even loving friends.

NOMA is a con, pure and simple.

4.) In my view, UC Berkeley, or any science organization like the National Center for Science Education or the DoSer program of the AAAS, has no business telling religious people what is or is not compatible with their belief. That, too, is a tactic designed to spread acceptance of evolution, but such groups should keep their noses out of theology. Give people the facts, and let them decide themselves; but do not tell them what is and is not in conflict with their religion. That puts these organizations in the position of adjudicating what is and is not “real” religion, and what religions do and do not say—and that is theology. You can surely clarify what evolution means and how it works, and dispel the errors of creationism, but that’s where the job of science-education organizations should stop.

And for combatting the views above, well, there are plenty of scientist/antitheists like Richard Dawkins and me. I try not to mix messages too much: in a talk about the evidence for evolution, for instance, I try not to go after its incompatibility with religion, except to dispel creationism. The incompatibility is the subject of a different talk.

Spot the timber rattlesnake!

by Matthew Cobb

This was posted on Tw*tter by James Green (@jameskelangreen), who’s from Texas and describes himself as “Nature Fanatic. Tree Guy. Mediator between man and nature. Polyamorous. Godless.” Somewhere in James’s pic is a timber rattlesnake… I’ll post the answer in a couple of hours.


Readers’ wildlife (and astronomy) photos

I’m in Las Cruces, New Mexico, staying with old friends, and I have had, beside convivial conversation, a fajita fix and a cat fix (there are two: one is a calico and the other a feisty tuxedo tom). Photos later.

I see from a very brief scan of the news that talks with North Korea actually look propitious, that Trump is getting ever deeper into trouble (I still predict he won’t last his first term) and two German rappers with anti-Semitic lyrics in their songs won the country’s hip hop music award, something that would never stand in the U.S. So it goes.

I take off today for six days on the road, with a few goals in mind but nothing fixed.  All this is to say that posting will be VERY light, at least by me, until the 25th, when I return here for two days before flying back to Chicago. The Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) abides. But I have a few minutes today to do a readers’ photo post.

Today we feature Aussie posters, the first being Tony Eales from Brisbane. As usual, readers’ notes and IDs are indented:

I recently went on a work trip to outback Queensland to a town called Winton. In my spare time I went looking for interesting local  wildlife to photograph. My prize find was a large wolf spider (Lycosidae). Volker Framenau is working on revising the Australian Lycosids when he can get funds. The family is apparently a mess with many misplaced at the genus level. He said it could be Hoggicosa sp or possibly an undescribed Portacosa sp. which is a new genus first described last year.

From reader Tim Anderson, who sent wildlife and planetary photos:

While being taken for a walk by Paddy the Magnificent Hound, I came upon a family of Black Kites (Milvus migrans). These raptors are very common all over eastern Australia. In some places they are so common that they displace the Australian Raven as the general scavenger.

And Jupiter:

This is an image of Jupiter taken on a very hazy night in Cowra, NSW. The atmosphere hereabouts is currently full of dust and smoke because local farmers are burning off the stubble to get ready for the next wheat crop.
I imaged the planet with a 9.25″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and an ASI224MC camera on an Skywatcher EQ8 mount. The image was captured as a video file, then decomposed to 182 still frames, then stacked with Autostakkert!, processed with Registax using the “wavelet method” (don’t ask me how that works, I just press the buttons), and finally colour adjusted with Photoshop.

Thursday: Hili dialogue

by Grania

Good morning!

A noteworthy marker from today in history – the cartoon show The Simpsons made its debut in 1987 as a 2 minute short on The Tracey Ullman Show. I suspect it is safe to say that no-one thought it would still be running 31 years later. Whether it should still be running 31 years later is another question.

NASA TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) lifted off yesterday evening. It has its own website here if you want to follow its journey.

Other stuff from Twitter today.

A niche joke, both funny and painful to academics

In Ireland: Cows making like gazelles. Please note the grey skies that pass for “a lovely day” here.

The perils of asking for a cappuccino.

From the World Of Cats on the Internet today:

Gus’s staff Taskin sent us this picture of Gus exploring. It’s now snowless enough for him to roam, but he muddied himself terribly. In fact, Taskin says that this is the dirtiest Gus has ever gotten. He then proceeded to go back in the house and lie down on the harpsichord bench, getting it muddy.

And possibly the strangest thing you’ll see today (or not). Dozhdlivaya Istoriya (A Rainy Story) – a cat tale from the Soviet Union.


Finally, a bit of flattery in the feline world.

Hili: Why do people like quackery, pseudo-science and conspiracy theories so much?
A: Because they lack the feline perspective.

In Polish:

Hili: Dlaczego ludzie tak uwielbiają szamaństwo, pseudonaukę i teorie spiskowe?
Ja: Z braku kociej perspektywy.

Hat-tip: Barry

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ morals

Here’s the new Jesus and Mo strip, called “say”. The accusation is quite familiar to many of us; not only are we, as secularists, not supposed to have any “grounding” for our morality, but are also said to be arrogant and evincing morally superiority.

Well, if “morally superior” means that we think about how to behave and the consequences of different behaviors and standards, then we are morally superior to those who take their morals directly from scripture or revelations.

Fortunately, many believers (Islam is an exception compared to other Abrahamic faiths) derive most of their morality from secular considerations, something that Plato proved thousands of years ago. His discussion, the Euthyphro argument, is one of the great contributions of philosophy to social thinking. And although Plato framed it in terms of the question “is piety something the gods love because of its quality, or is piety simply taken to be what the god gods love?” the argument can be framed in terms of morality rather than piety.

This leads to the realization—if you’re rational—that when we judge morality, most believers (with the exception of crazies like William Lane Craig) think that God dictates a morality that isn’t just arbitrary, according to his will, but conforms to what seems good a priori. That is, there’s an extra-god morality to which the deity adheres. The conclusion: morality is independent of god. This can be shown by asking a believer the question: “If god told you to murder an innocent child,” (as he did with Abraham and Isaac), “would you do it?” If the believer is horrified and says “Hell, no!”, then that person adheres to standards of morality independent of god.

Most of you know this, but I’m sitting in the Panama City airport with an hour on my hands before flying to El Paso, and so you get to hear the Euthphro argument once again. Whenever someone tells me that philosophy is of no use at all, I simply point out that this realization about ethics—the death blow to religiously-based “morality”, really—came from philosophy.

CUNY law students won’t be disciplined for disrupting talk because the disruption was “limited”

Last week I reported how law students at the City University of New York (CUNY) disrupted the talk of  Josh Blackman, an associate professor of law (and expert in Constitutional law) at the South Texas College of Law at Houston. Blackman was invited by CUNY’s Federalist Society and was, ironically, scheduled to talk about free speech.

Because Blackman had written a National Review article praising Jeff Sessions for trying to rescind DACA and ACA (acts I disagree with, as well as with Sessions’ politics), the students considered him a racist purveyor of “hate speech,” and acted accordingly. They lined the hall with chanting protestors carrying accusatory signs and trying to shame the attendees. (That would be a disruption at my university since it’s inside an academic building). They then proceeded to stand in front of the auditorium with signs, disrupting the first bit of Blackman’s talk.

And it was disruption. As Blackman wrote on his own website:

Much to my surprise, when I entered the room after that rude welcome, there were only about five people in attendance. Moments later, the protestors with signs filed in and surrounded all four sides of the room. About a dozen of them were standing directly behind me.

The President of the Federalist Society Chapter asked the students standing behind me to move to the back of  the room. They refused. I didn’t raise any objection. Had they stayed there, and not made any noise, it would have been fine with me.

The protestors called out: “Shame on You.” “I don’t understand how CUNY allows this.” “There are students that are directly affected by this hate speech.” “Legal objectivity is a myth.” “You still have an opportunity to leave.”

A few students in attendance clapped as I began to speak. “Well thank you very much to CUNY for having me,” I said. In unison, they yelled out, “CUNY is not having you.” “You are not welcome.” Another shouted out something about “white men and those who support white supremacy.” An African-American student who was attending the event replied, “I am not white.” A protestor, holding a sign that said “Josh Blackman is not welcome here and neither is the Fed Society” asked, “then why are you here? Why aren’t you with us?”

The students continued their demonstration for at least eight minutes and then exited, though you can see from the video below that at least one student continued to brandish a sign throughout the entire talk. Although there were only five people at the beginning of the talk (others likely dissuaded by the protestors), Blackman said that attendance by the end was about 30.

According to the CUNY Law School handbook (see below), this disruption was a conduct violation subject to University sanction.

Here’s the video of Blackman’s entrance and entire talk if you want to watch the entrance and then the eight minutes of protest.

Were the students punished or even admonished by CUNY? No way! In fact, according to the dean of the law school, their disruption, since it lasted only eight minutes (not including the inside-the-building “greeting” which may or may not be considered disruptive), was “a reasonable exercise of protected free speech” and “did not violate any university policy.” The dean was wrong on both counts. As Inside Higher Ed reports (my emphasis):

Via email on Sunday, Mary Lu Bilek, dean of the law school, said that the protest was reasonable because the disruptions ended relatively early in the time frame of the appearance.

“For the first eight minutes of the 70-minute event, the protesting students voiced their disagreements. The speaker engaged with them. The protesting students then filed out of the room, and the event proceeded to its conclusion without incident,” Bilek said.

“This non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy,” she added. “CUNY Law students are encouraged to develop their own perspectives on the law in order to be prepared to confront our most difficult legal and social issues as lawyers promoting the values of fairness, justice, and equality.”

Well, now we’re on a slippery slope where what is considered a “disruption” depends on how long it lasts. But what happened to Blackman was by most people’s lights a disruption of his talk, since it prevented him from beginning to speak when and how he wanted. Let us be clear: if a student stands up and yells at a speaker for even 30 seconds during their talk, that is a disruption, and one that should be punished, at the very least by removing the student from the venue and by recording the act in case it happens again, requiring more severe punishment.

David E. Bernstein, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law, agrees in a post at The Volokh Conspiracy called “CUNY Law needs to fire its dean“:

Some free-speech provocateurs should consider disrupting the first eight minutes of each of CUNY law school’s classes this week, including by forcing the professor to run a gauntlet of protesters threatening to block entry into their classrooms. After all, we now know that the law school’s official position is that eight minutes of disruption is “a reasonable exercise of free speech.” Meanwhile, Dean Bilek should be fired, and the Department of Education should investigate whether CUNY, a public institution, is violating the First Amendment rights of its guest speakers and students by giving disrupting students carte blanche, at least for eight minutes. The joke is that Dean Bilek is an ABA [American Bar Association] site visit team member, helping determine whether other law schools should get or keep the necessary accreditation, something she clearly is not competent to do.

Note that I’m not advocating any particular punishment of the students. But surely it can’t be consistent with free speech and university policy to disrupt a speaker. Indeed, that was the law school’s position before the talk. As IHE reports: “The law school sent a campuswide email stating that Blackman had a right to speak, and that protests were welcome, but not if they disrupted his appearance. At the beginning of his lecture, a law school official came to the event, repeated that message and then left.”

I too wouldn’t advocate any punishment except for the university police removing the disrupting students from the room and the university recording in the students’ files that they disrupted a talk. If a student then does it again, then you have to drop the hammer a bit.

Bernstein put this as an addendum:

Let’s take a look at page 85 of the law school’s student handbook: “II. Rules of the university (1-11) and law school (12). 1. A member of the academic community shall not intentionally obstruct and/or forcibly prevent others from the exercise of their rights. Nor shall she/he interfere with the institution’s educational process or facilities, or the rights of those who wish to avail themselves of any of the institution’s instructional, personal, administrative, recreational, and community services.” Also this: “5. Each member of the academic community or an invited guest has the right to advocate his position without having to fear abuse—physical, verbal, or otherwise from others supporting conflicting points of view.” The disruption didn’t violate any university policy, Dean Bilek? Have your read the student handbook?

Videos and a photo from Tara Tanaka

Earlier today my travelogue included a meeting with Tara Tanaka, a reader who’s contributed lots of videos to this site (her Vimeo page is here; her Flickr site is here).  While chatting, she asked me if I’d seen her two videos from earlier this year. I hadn’t, so am putting them up here. Her notes are indented; be sure to enlarge the videos by clicking the four arrows at the extreme bottom right.

First though, we have a short video she just sent me, one that was filmed the day we all met at St. George Island. This one is called “A most beautiful migrant: scarlet tanager.”

I drove two hours to St. George Island State Park before sunrise to see birds that had just crossed the Gulf of Mexico in their migration north, and the one bird that I really wanted to see was a male Scarlet Tanager. I did have to do quite a bit of running to get this angle, but I was thrilled to have gotten this clip in beautiful light.

And here’s her photo of a bird we all saw together, a Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea). What a lovely beast!

I went to St. George Island State Park yesterday at sunrise hoping to see the most recent migratory arrivals. A special treat was this male Cerulean Warbler feeding high in an oak.

This one is called “Great Egrets to Wood Ducks”:

I set up my blind on the edge of the swamp, and was hoping to get some photos of the Wood Storks that had been coming in the late afternoon to feed. Instead I was treated to the graceful construction of the only Great Egret nest that I can see from the yard, as well as many Wood Ducks very close. The Wood Ducks are so skittish that I couldn’t quickly switch back and forth between the two, as I had to move the lens slowly enough that the ducks didn’t see the movement in the blind.

This one is called “The Price of Protection”, and shows the necessary violence of nature. Like Tara, I found it hard to watch but still fascinating:

I was eating breakfast last July overlooking our backyard swamp, and saw an enormous spray of water out in the cypress trees. I grabbed my binoculars and saw that it was one of our alligators with one of our recently fledged, still naive Wood Storks that had been hunting for food in the shallow water. I grabbed my digiscoping gear and ran out in the yard to video the behavior. The bird was already dead, but it was still hard to watch. I hoped that the parents weren’t watching.

The rookery couldn’t survive without the alligators that patrol the swamp, keeping raccoons from raiding the nests. If you’ve ever been to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm or Gatorland near Orlando, you know that birds understand that nesting over alligators keeps them safe from most predators. Unfortunately the draw for the alligators is that some birds fall – or are pushed by their siblings from their nests when they’re young, and then there are some like this unfortunate stork that fledge, but are not yet savvy enough to keep an eye out for alligators.