In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe; natural wonders and supernatural blunders.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens


Evolution by QualiaSoup

If you’re going to watch one video about Evolution make it this one.

Are We Really Conscious?

OF the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered.

First, what is our relationship to the rest of the universe? Copernicus answered that one. We’re not at the center. We’re a speck in a large place.

Second, what is our relationship to the diversity of life? Darwin answered that one. Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution.

Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do….

John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins

It’s not a good time to be Richard Dawkins, for he alone, like the scapegoat of Leviticus, must bear the brunt of everyone’s hatred of atheism. (Sam Harris sometimes serves as a backup goat.) Even though Dawkins has never proclaimed himself as any kind of atheist “leader”—his eminence among nonbelievers was purely a byproduct of his books and talks—he is the poster child for atheism, and everyone who hates atheists, including some other atheists, comes down on him. I don’t have either the time or interest to point out all the poorly founded attacks on the man, but one that has just appeared that, as we Americans say, “takes the cake.”

John Gray is an English writer, philosopher, and an atheist who hates New Atheists. I’ve analyzed his missteps before (see here, here, and here, for instance), and he seems to be one of those atheists who doesn’t like science, claims that its bad effects are as prominent as its good ones, and has a sneaking love of religion. But in his latest article he shows yet another side of his character: pure, unabashed nastiness. And it’s nastiness with no purpose other than to smear Dawkins, whom he clearly despises. He does this by pretending to review Dawkins’s latest book—the first volume of his autobiography (An Appetite for Wonder)—but in reality levels smear after smear at Dawkins to no end except, like a spitting cobra, to spew venom….

Headlines Touting Study as Evidence for NDE, Not So Fast!

….The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

So, I anxiously awaited the results of the AWARE study. I admit I was fairly confident that the results would be negative. My major concern was that the study had been criticized for not having tight protocols – for example, some have charged that the “hidden” images were visible to ER workers and this could provide a mundane conduit for knowledge of the images to get to cardiac arrest survivors. But I hoped this did not occur or affect the results.

But wait a minute – there is no mention in the abstract of the hidden images. How can that be? I understood this to be the main outcome of the study, the one thing that would set it apart from the merely descriptive studies of the past. What happened?…


Digital Reconstructions of Hominids from the set ‘Descendenteí,’ Human Kind Lineage Project


Click through for full sequential soft tissue facial reconstruction posters from The Human Kind Lineage Project



Total Lunar Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse will take place on October 8, 2014. It is the latter of two total lunar eclipses in 2014, and the second in a tetrad (four total lunar eclipses in series).

Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, however, for a total lunar eclipse to occur, the Moon and Earth have to be on the same orbital plane with the Sun — this is known as a syzygy. During a total lunar eclipse, the Moon travels completely into the Earth’s shadow (umbra). Even though the Moon is immersed in the Earth’s shadow, indirect sunlight will still reach the Moon. As sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere it gets absorbed and then radiated out (scattered). The atmosphere filters out most of the blue-colored light. What’s left over is the orange- and red-colored light. From the Moon’s perspective the Earth’s edge appears to glow bright orange or red. This red-colored light passes through our atmosphere without getting scattered, projecting indirect, reddish light onto the Moon.

For more information:

Credit: NASA/SVS

Cool graphics explaining the ‘Blood Moon’.

God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

EVERY year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

I’m a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.

And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk….

Newsflash: Birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs in one fell swoop, but over millions of years

Dinosaurs didn’t suddenly give way to birds, a new study finds, but slowly transitioned into fowl though a piecemeal evolutionary process. Scientists have long understood that birds evolved from their more grounded brethren, but research into exactly how the transition took place has largely revolved around the search for the “missing link” that would tie the earliest known bird to his dinosaur ancestors. In the past few decades, however, paleontologists have unearthed a variety of dinosaurs with bird-like qualities, such as feathers, wings and smaller, more aerodynamic bodies, but none have quite been “birdy” enough to constitute the elusive “missing link.”

The study, which was published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, uses statistics to show that there is no single missing link, but rather a painfully slow development of certain bird characteristics. Steve Brusatte, co-author of the study and paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Live Science that “it’s basically impossible to draw a line on the tree between dinosaurs and birds.” Once the general bird form was in place, however, an evolutionary explosion took place, resulting in a hodgepodge of different bird-like creatures existing at once, “something was unlocked, and [birds] began to evolve at a supercharged rate,” said Brusatte….

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

Saul Bellow

Stewart Blows Up on GOP Over Climate Change: ‘Pushing a Million Pounds of Idiot Up a Mountain’

Jon Stewart on Monday slammed a U.S House hearing regarding climate change, comparing the Republican-led session to “pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.”

The Wednesday hearing featured testimony from John Holdren, President Barack Obama‘s adviser on science and technology. Stewart showed clips of Republicans Steve Stockman of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of California and Larry Bucshon of Indiana doubting the effects of climate change.

Stewart labeled Holdren the hearing’s “Sysyphus, charged with the impossible task of pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.”

“How far back to the elementary school curriculum do we have to go to get someone on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology caught up?” Stewart said. “Do we have to bring out the paper-machet and the baking soda so you can make a volcano?”

Click through for video.



View the TED-Ed Lesson Where do genes come from?

When life emerged on Earth about 4 billion years ago, the earliest microbes had a set of basic genes that succeeded in keeping them alive. In the age of humans and other large organisms, there are a lot more genes to go around. Where did all of those new genes come from? Carl Zimmer examines the mutation and multiplication of genes.

Seriously, if I could recommend anyone to explain this kind of thing (besides myself), it would be the great Carl Zimmer. 

Great video about where new genes come from and how we went from early organisms with just a few to the mélange of molecular instructions that we see on Earth today.

This is how evolution gets creative.