Monthly Archives: August 2015

University of Tennessee Says Stop Using ‘He’ And ‘She’

University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion Wants Students To Stop Using “He” And “She.”

University of Tennessee students
University of Tennessee students

As the new school year gears up, university students are already finding that indoctrination instead of education is on tap at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where some 27,000 students are discovering the new speech codes are being pushed by a “gay rights official” at the school.

The story continues:

The goal, this official claims, is to make the school a “welcoming and inclusive” place where students won’t feel “marginalized.

Western Journalism

I’m all in favor of welcoming all genders — however many of them you think here are — and treating them equally. All are welcome here, I assure you. In fact, I’ve already stood up to be counted a time or two. Here, for example. I don’t have enough readers that I can afford to be picky. But I’m not sure I can remember to refer to you as “ze, hir, hirs, and xe, xem, xyr.”

Sorry. I just don’t think that’s necessary; and I refuse to let it take up good space in my teeny, little braincase.

So what does this have to do with science or skepticism? Hellifino! I guess I’m skeptical it’s going to do anything but make people laugh at places of education even more, and we don’t need  that.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” State Senator Mae Beavers, (R-17th District) said. “If you must interview a student before you greet the student, that’s not acceptance — that’s just absurd.” You know? For a politician that woman xoman zoman … that person has brains.

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Whale Asks for Help and Says Thanks

Whale in need of help

Last October I blogged about a wild dolphin that had asked some divers for help. They worked on it for a long time — under water — removing fishing line from it’s body and trying to remove a fish hook from a fin. The fishing line was so tangled the animal couldn’t swim well, and it’s life was threatened. They cut off the fishing line and tried to remove the hook from it’s fin, but it’s swam away before they could finish. Even so, they had untangled it; so it should be able to survive. I made this comment:

Why did it swim away before the rescue was complete? I have no idea. Maybe removing the fish-hook hurt too much. Maybe it could no longer control its fear of the icky humans. Figuring out why humans do what we do is difficult enough; reading the mind of a cetacean is even riskier.

This Blog

Here’s a story from Australia just a few days ago, about a huge baleen whale — thought to be a right whale — that seemed to ask some fishermen for help.

It was an insane sight for this group of young fishermen to behold: A massive whale swam right up to their boat and appeared to be quite friendly. However, the fishermen soon discovered that the whale was trying to send them a message: It had plastic bag caught in it’s mouth.

The bags became lodged in the whale’s mouth because they were entwined with fishing lines and stuck around his baleen. The whale was able to wave his fin as a way to ask for help, and luckily, these young men were able to assist him.

{Life}Buzz

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Note: Somebody involved had posted a video of the rescue on Youtube, and I had embedded it here. Now Youtube says it has been “removed by the user.” I’m sorry

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Since the quote above refers to the whale as “he,” I’ll do the same. However, I see no indication that anybody actually determined his gender; so I dunno. Watch as he raises his massive head for the young men to remove the trash from his mouth.

Whale signaling for help with its fin

You can see in this picture that the whale seems to be waving his fin to get their attention, after first nudging their boat. Fins are good for that, but not much good for removing tangled fishing line and other trash.

After getting the fishermen’s attention, he raises his head out of the water several times to show that he has plastic bags attached with fishing line to the baleen in his mouth. The desperate creature then raised his head to them again — longer and more closely — so they could free it from the trash.

Ron Kovacs, who was fishing in a nearby boat, said the whale emerged near him first. He tried to help it, but his boat is higher out of the water, and he could not reach the creature. “He just popped his head up so you could reach out and remove the garbage,” he said. “He tried on my boat but we are a bit higher.”

Rubbish from the whale's faceHe continued, “I made one grab for the bag but missed. He was very inquisitive and more interested in us. You could see that big eye coming out watching us. They are not dumb for sure.”

Indeed not. The whale swam from one boat to another until it found somebody who could help it. That sounds like intelligence to me. Ivan Iskenderian shows the rubbish he pulled off the whale above.

Whale saying thanksAfter the men removed the human trash from the whale’s mouth, it swam away flapping its fin, apparently showing its thanks.

Michael Riggio, 17, took pictures as his friend, Ivan Iskenderian, helped the whale.

What a wonderful experience it must have been for those young men! “It was surreal, we couldn’t believe our eyes,” Ivan said. But what a horrible experience for the whale, undoubtedly knowing how cruel and dangerous humans can be! Could you seek help from a lion?

As I commented in the post about the dolphin, it’s dangerous to extrapolate human emotions, feelings, and reasons to members of another species; but they can’t be too different. After all, cetaceans — dolphins and whales — are large, complex mammals, as we are. And as I said then, “it seems to me this is one more in a long line of incidents showing how intelligent and sentient some non-human animals are.”

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Gruesome but amazing behaviour of Eleonora’s falcon

Eleonora’s falcon
Eleonora’s falcon

Gruesome but amazing falcon behaviour

From Professor Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution Is True, this post by Matthew Cobb tells of some gruesome but practical behavior by a population of Eleonora’s falcon off the coast of Morocco.

It seems this hawk captures smaller birds for her chicks, but doesn’t kill them immediately. Instead, she imprisons them alive until they are needed for food. Click the link above to let Professor Cobb tell the story.

Incidentally, I recommend Why Evolution Is True for liberal, skeptical readers with a wide range of interests. It’s on my daily reading list. And his book of the same name is one of the best books I’ve read for presenting the evidence for evolution.

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Dawkins Debunked? Guess Again!

Professor Richard Dawkins is highly respected worldwide as a scientist, an outspoken atheist, and author of The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and a dozen or so other best-selling books about biology, biography, and atheism. On February 13, 2009, he was part of a team of scientists invited to take part in the dissection of a giraffe’s neck to study its recurrent laryngeal nerve. Such a dissection had been done on a giraffe only once before that we have record of, in 1838. So it was good to be able to do it again on a giraffe that had died in a  zoo.

As expected, this nerve — two nerves actually; one on each side — was found to go from the animal’s brain all the way down its long neck to the area of its its heart, just missing the larynx by about an inch. Then it wrapped around a major artery (a different on one each side), and ran back up to control the larynx at the top of the neck. Altogether, the nerve is about 15 feet longer than necessary, which exposes it to a variety of unnecessary dangers.

Dawkins says we expect imperfections from evolution.

Dawkins points out that this is exactly the kind of thing we expect from evolution, and he explains why. The giraffe inherited its incredibly long nerves from its fish ancestors, where the arrangement was practical because fish have no necks.  As fish morphed into amphibians, then reptiles, and finally birds and mammals, the arrangement became less and less practical. But evolution can’t change something like that just because it’s no longer the best arrangement; evolution has to work with what it has. When a problem is serious enough, it can lead to the extinction of a species. This is one reason why an estimated 99% (at least) of all species that ever lived live no more.

Dawkins points out several reasons why no intelligent designer would have created the giraffe that way. It’s the kind of thing one would only expect to find if evolution were true, as it is.

In the video below, Rick Gerhardt, who is both a conservation biologist and a Christian apologist, discusses Dawkins’ video and tries pitifully to debunk it. He specializes in avian ecology and has special interests also in beetles and snakes. The kinds of of arguments he makes here don’t sound like a scientist of any kind, but they sound exactly like the kinds of arguments I read from ignorant creationists all the time.

You be the judge. I say, “Shame on Rick Gerhardt for trying to debunk good science.”

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Guinea Worm to Die while President Carter Still Lives

At least, that’s his wish.

On June 16, I wrote about Dracunculus medinensis, also known as the “guinea worm” or the “dragon worm.”

Today I heard President Carter say (toward the end of the video above) that when he started his eradication program, there were 3.6 million cases of guinea worm and now we are down to 11 cases.

President Carter will be 91 in October. He recently had a small cancer removed from his liver, and he still has four small melanomas in his brain; but he hopes the last guinea worm will die before he does.

I hope so, too.

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Bill Maher: Atheism a Religion? N-N-N-N-Noooooo!

Language Warning: It’s Bill Maher, so you know there’re going to be a couple of words I personally wouldn’t use. But it’s worth watching, because he destroys the phony claim that atheism is a religion.

I have never understood the claim. Atheism is the absence of religion. An atheist is an a-theist, or non-theist. A person without a god. That’s all. “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position,” he says.

I am NOT an atheist because I believe there is no god, although I do believe that. I am an atheist because I DO NOT BELIEVE any god exists or has ever existed. To quote Maher again, “Religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman, controlling power; and atheism is precisely not that.”

In answer to the claim that atheism is a religion, he says, “No. N-n-n-n-No!”

Ouija Boards: No, We Don’t Believe

Skeptics always knew Ouija boards couldn’t work. Here’s proof.

In 1886, spiritualists in Ohio invented a new device described as a “talking board” or “spirit board.” They said they used it to communicate with spirits of dead people.

When businessman Elijah Bond began selling them as Ouija boards in 1890, they were supposed to be innocent parlor games, unrelated to the occult; but spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized their occult use again during World War I.

The Ouija board is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet and the numerals 0–9, as well as the words “yes”, “no”, and sometimes “hello” and “goodbye.” It may also have various symbols and graphics. It uses a planchette (a small wooden or plastic pointer) as an indicator with which to spell out a spirit’s message during a seance. Participants place their fingers on the planchette, and it moves around the board to spell out words. Spirits are said to do the moving.

Ouija boardsThe scientific community has always criticized the paranormal and supernatural beliefs associated with the Ouija boards. They say the action of the device is just unconscious movements of the user’s hands.

Some Christian preachers warn that using Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession. They say the spirits controlling the movements are actually demons; not dead people.

This stuff is nonsense, of course.

There are no spirits of any kind moving the planchette. No dead people. No demons. No nothing. The users are doing it themselves, unconsciously.

The video shows that the spirits couldn’t talk to the users when they were blindfolded. We knew that already, because, after all … spirits aren’t real. Dead people can’t communicate. They can’t do anything. Because they’re dead. And demons are just a bad fairy tale. But not everybody understands that.

Every time supposedly paranormal or supernatural effects have been scientifically studied by appropriate experts under controlled circumstances, they have failed. The evidence is so overwhelming that we should consider it convincing. There are no paranormal beings or powers or effects. There is no supernatural. There is only nature.

But that’s OK, because there’s more wonder in nature than any of us could ever experience, no matter how hard we try.

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Exoplanets: Crash Course Astronomy

On July 9, I posted a gif of Pluto and Charon orbiting their mutual center of mass, located in a point of space between them. I said this about the video:

We usually think of a satellite orbiting its primary. In this case, it would be Charon, the tiny dot, orbiting Pluto, the larger dot. But we’ve always known this is not really the case. The two objects orbit each other. More accurately, they both orbit their common center of mass (or center of gravity).

Here’s a simulation from Bad Astronomy showing the same principle. This represents a planet and a star instead of a moon and a planet, but they work exactly the same way. The center of mass of the system is called the barycenter. Phil Plait, the “Bad Astronomer,” describes it this way:

barycenter animation

As you can see in the animation, the planet makes a big circle and the star makes a small one. And if you watch closely you’ll see they’re always on opposite sides of the barycenter; when the planet is on the left of its orbit, the star is 180° around on its right.

This wobble in the star’s movement was used to detect most of the first exoplanets, or planets of other stars than our sun. The first two were found in 1992. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1995, that the third was discovered. Now we’ve identified almost 2,000 for sure, ranging in size from smaller than Mercury to several times as large as Jupiter. About 3,000 more probable exoplanets are waiting for verification.

There may very well be more planets in the universe than there are stars.

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Jamie Raven-Illusionist

This guy is good!

Click the link below for an even better trick. (Sorry I can’t embed this one.)

Click here for an even better one.

I really enjoy good magic tricks like these. They seem to bend and twist our minds as we try to understand what just happened. Jamie Raven is probably the best I have ever seen. Among other unbelievable things, he changes real money into play money just inches from the judge’s eyes, and (by extension) from our’s.

Jamie Reagan - MagicianEveryone was awed! Both male  judges said, “These are not tricks. This is real magic.” It surely looked like real magic to me, too.

As skeptics, we know beyond any reasonable doubt, this is NOT real magic. It’s not even unusual. In principle, it’s so common we have a name for it that everybody knows. It’s called sleight of hand. Jamie Raven just does it exceptionally well.

How does he do it? I have no idea. I wish I could figure it out.

Think. What seems more likely:

  1. That a man has supernatural powers, yet he just uses them for amusement?
  2. Or that he has invented and honed a few tricks for 20  years until he got really, incredibly, uncommonly, extraordinarily good at them?

Number 2 is more reasonable and more likely, of course. The guy has studied and practiced until he has become an expert. He may be the only person in the world who can perform those particular tricks. I dunno.

But I am certain they are illusions.

He makes no claim to having actual magic powers, of course; so nothing I’m saying is a criticism of him. I just keep reminding you because this guy is so good and his illusions so incredibly convincing.

Enjoy the shows, but don’t be mislead too far by your imagination.