Monthly Archives: March 2008

No one was being expelled here…

… even though corrupting young minds like this should be a punishable offense, not a profitable business venture! Yes, BC Tours is a real business, which, apart from conducting these tours, also sells videos and more at their website.

A question to my students (esp. those who were asking me recently about my views on religion and science): what would you do if one of these kids showed up in your class? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people here on our campus who have been subjected to such a tour – and I am really curious what they think. Of course, the guide here has a very particular notion of how children should learn to think, doesn’t he? Always ask “how do you know” – which is great thing for science students to learn – but then completely dismiss any real scientific explanation because it strays from a literal interpretation of a self-contradictory 2000 year-old collection of stories! What a recipe for life-long learning! One part that really got my goat was where the smarmy guide goes “now fossils are usually rather boring because they are piles of dead things”!! What a horrible way to close off a child’s mind to the true wonders of the real world!

Several years ago when we visited the American Museum of Natural History, our (then) kindergardener daughter couldn’t get enough of fossils after spending 3 entire days wandering among the exhibits, much of it in the Darwin exhibit. So fascinated and thrilled was she by all of it that she’s been a fossil nut ever since – to the extent of demanding a fossil-themed birthday party last year (we obliged, and her friends had a lot of fun digging up and taking home real fossils as party favors)! Tell me – shouldn’t I do everything I can to keep her away from these pious charlatans?

Monkey Trials is hot as Mr. Molly bats 300!

My good friend and co-conspirator behind the Central Valley Café Scientifique, Mr. Scott Hatfield, Order of the Molly, is celebrating a blogospheric landmark with his 300th post since launching Monkey Trials, and getting 8000+ hits in the past 3 days because he too jumped into the fray of the Great Good Friday Expulsion, kicking over some slimy rocks to expose the pious frauds behind that propaganda piece.

He will also soon be moderating a discussion here in Fresno between the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics (CVAAS) and New Covenant Church members on April 19, during the weekend-long Apologetics Symposium “In Defense of the Faith”, which will kick off with a debate on “Does God Exist” between Michael Shermer and the despicable Dinesh D’Souza. Scott, of course, thrives in the middle of such sticky wickets, being the terrific (and now quite blogacious) godly evilutionist that he is! He has demonstrated, on the few occasions I’ve seen him in action being mobbed by devout young Christians after some such moderating gig at a local church, as well as when engaging daily with the rowdy atheist throngs on Pharyngula, what real “framing” is about in his thoughtful and respectful way; unlike the NisbetMooney gang who have only talked about it endlessly while telling some of the best science communicators around to shut up! They would do well to shut up for a while themselves, and maybe even learn a little something if they only spend some time studying how Scott communicates.

Well done, indeed, Mr. Molly (the first ever)! Here’s looking forward to the next 300.

Another young girl victim of dumb-and-blind faith

And this time, it was fatal and it happened in America – in the supposedly more “progressive” state of Wisconsin, not in some rural corner of the developing world! Here’s an excerpt from this appalling news story:

An 11-year-old girl died after her parents prayed for healing rather than seek medical help for a treatable form of diabetes, police said Tuesday.

Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said Madeline Neumann died Sunday.

“She got sicker and sicker until she was dead,” he said.

Vergin said an autopsy determined the girl died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an ailment that left her with too little insulin in her body, and she had probably been ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.

The girl’s parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, attributed the death to “apparently they didn’t have enough faith,” the police chief said.

They believed the key to healing “was it was better to keep praying. Call more people to help pray,” he said.

The mother believes the girl could still be resurrected, the police chief said.

What century are they living in, again? And in what backward “leader-of-the-free-world” country?

But that’s not all – here’s what local law enforcement did:

Officers went to the home after one of the girl’s relatives in California called police to check on her, Vergin said. She was taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The relative was fearful the girl was “extremely ill, dire,” Vergin said.

The girl has three siblings, ranging in age from 13 to 16, the police chief said.

“They are still in the home,” he said. “There is no reason to remove them. There is no abuse or signs of abuse that we can see.”

If you are now even more appalled and wondering how and why death is not apparently a sign of abuse, it turns out that such parental neglect, even if fatal, is not considered so bad as long as it is faith-based! Here’s a quote from someone who commented on the above story after looking into the Wisconsin state law:

Unfortunately Wisconsin law won’t hold the parents accountable:

State statute 948.03(6) provides an exemption from the law against failing to act to protect children from bodily harm for what is referred to as ‘Treatment through prayer.’ The statute says: ‘A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing … in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

And another reader posted this follow-up:

Regarding statute 948.03(6), I have just done the research to confirm this for myself. That, together with 48.981(3)(c) and or 448.03(6), explicitly state that it is not considered child abuse nor neglect to rely solely on prayer or cultural practices (The first two) or ‘Christian Science’ (The final one) for healing a child, even to the exclusion of medical means. So, this is probably perfectly legal.

I suggest this would be a very good time to campaign for the state legislature to pass an act removing these exceptions – parents who refuse to provide available medical care for their very ill children should not be trusted with the safety of more, even if they honestly believe their rituals had healing power.

Why do I get the feeling that that police chief’s reaction might have been somewhat different had the parents been conducting “vedic” or “tantric” prayers and chants for the poor child, or holding a havan for her?

Meanwhile, in Oregon, another faithful family killed their 15-month old toddler by denying her the chance of getting antibiotics. At least in that case, prosecutors are reviewing it for legal action because the Oregon legislature threw out laws similar to Wisconsin’s offering the faith-based get-out-of-jail-free card to neglectful parents.

How can a country where people kill their own children through such ignorant barbaric faith in some god feel morally superior to other fundamentalists from other countries with slightly different but equally barbaric faiths?

Could the mulch in your suburban backyard have been absorbing hurricanes instead?

mulch-madness-320x324.jpgAnd wouldn’t that be a better use for that organic matter, in a more global scheme of things? Sure, you can make your landscape look nice, your flowerbeds and shrubbery healthy, and perhaps even more naturalistic, with some good old nature-grown mulch. What could be so bad about that? Well, it kinda depends upon where that mulch is coming from. What if it is made of wood harvested from the cypress forests on the Louisiana coast? The same forests which are probably the best buffers against the next Katrina or Rita? And what if you have no way of knowing if that bag of mulch in the hardware /garden superstore contains any of that valuable Louisiana cypress? This story in Mother Jones sure has given me much to ponder before our next trip to the garden store, which I suspect will come sooner rather than later now given the nice spring we are in the midst of (but I can put any mulch-related bad karma on to my better half’s account since she’s the one with the green thumb!).

This paragraph from the excellent article really rung my irony-meter (and you know how I like that):

After the 1920s, when loggers hacked down the last of the old growth, the timber industry more or less forgot about cypress. With levees newly in place, the Gulf of Mexico crept inland, and the second-generation cypress matured in shallow, brackish water. They grew tall but skinny, making them worthless for lumber—you might get one decent plank out of a whole log—so nobody bothered to cut them. That is, until a housing boom cranked up the demand for landscaping mulch. Between 2000 and 2004, new home construction in Louisiana soared by 56 percent. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, home construction spiked another 26 percent; in addition to mulch surrounding new construction, homeowners replaced mountains of old mulch that were washed away.

So, here’s the development cycle for you: Build new homes along the lovely Gulf coast by clearing some of the forests that keep that coast lovely and protected from hurricane damage; cut down more of that same protective forest to make mulch to make your new homes lovelier; watch all that lovely mulch get washed away along with your home when the next really big hurricane or two come along; and a couple of years later… rinse, and repeat?!!

Ain’t it wonderful how we keep coming up with new ways to unintentionally threaten our own habitats while trying to make them look prettier? O Biophilia where will you lead us next?

‘Lying for Jesus?’ – Richard Dawkins on getting expelled from Expelled

Much of the internets (at least the reality-based, rational, irony-rich segments) have been rolling with laughter over the kerfuffle on good friday in Minneapolis when PZ Myers was expelled from the audience of the IDiotic documentary Expelled despite being featured – and thanked – in the film itself, and even as his companion Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s rottweiler, was allowed in. You have probably caught the story somewhere by now for even the New York Times picked it up (too bad the Daily Show / Colbert Report appear to be on hiatus next week!). Now we have Dawkins’ own account of the incident as well as a trenchant critique of the film itself. Not to be missed!

I have to say that, once I’d picked myself up from the floor after all that ROFL-ing friday night upon reading PZ’s comic account, I was inclined to chuckle and move on…

Until, that is, a couple of Pharyngula’s sciblings started trying to throw PZ and Dawkins under the bus over this silly business! While I am not surprised that those self-proclaimed master “framers” of science, Matt Nesbit and Chris Mooney are upset at these two atheist gadflies kicking up such a ruckus without even actually misbehaving – I am puzzled that they want PZ and Dawkins to shut up even in the face of such blatant (if incompetent) targeting by the ID goons! Surely, at least in this incident, N&B ought to be telling their religious friends that they shouldn’t be overreacting to mild-mannered atheists (who, in this case, had bent over backward in consenting to be interviewed under false pretenses by the producers of this film), rather than trying to shove the atheists into a closet?

I therefore have to now share the following videos with you. Watch and tell me – how threatened are you by these two science geeks?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c39jYgsvUOY&hl=en]

So I have to ask, once again, why can’t these master framers try to actually “frame” atheists like Dawkins and PZ in better humanistic light to their religious pals? Why not tell the religious that they really have little to fear from these atheists, other than gaining some sound scientific knowledge, and even getting an occasional guffaw out of their irreverent wit, rather than tell scientists to shut up for fear of offending the pious? And how much duller our lives would be if people like Dawkins and PZ shut up?

Resurrecting Jackrabbits (Citizen Science Watch: Easter Edition)

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the January 2008 issue of The Oryx, Dr. Joel Berger (of the University of Montana and the Wildlife Conservation Society) published an interesting short article on the likely local extirpation of white-tailed jackrabbits from the Yellowstone region – a cautionary tale about the potential problems of undetected extinctions and their potential ramifications cascading up through food webs. The current issue of the journal is freely accessible, so at least for now you can read the whole article here, and I’ve put the abstract below the fold. The paper itself has become a cautionary tale for a different reason however – because it appears that the jackrabbits weren’t really extirpated after all, as shown by a number of local people! Bully for citizen science – and a little egg on the face of the scientist. Now isn’t that a good easter story?

Oryx (2008), 42:139-142 Cambridge University Press

Copyright © Fauna and Flora International 2008

doi:10.1017/S0030605308001051

Short Communications

Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA

Joel Bergerc1

Abstract

Large protected areas are often considered natural yet outside pressures may compromise ecological integrity. This paper points to a problem in assessing ecological baselines: what if species’ extirpations go undetected? I present a data set spanning 130 years that demonstrates the loss of white-tailed jack rabbits Lepus townsendii from two National Parks in the well studied 60,000 km2 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA. While these extirpations have been unnoticed until now, an ecological consequence may be elevated predation on juvenile ungulates. A critical challenge we face is how to apply better the concept of shifting baselines to the restoration of functional relationships when species’ losses are undetected.

(Received November 29 2006)

(Reviewed February 09 2007)

(Accepted May 01 2007)

Key Words: Ecological baseline; extirpation; Grand Teton; Lepus townsendii; protected area; white-tailed jack rabbit; Yellowstone

Correspondence:

c1 Northern Rockies Field Office, Wildlife Conservation Society and Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812 USA. E-mail jberger@wcs.org

The White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is a not-inconspicuous-sized small mammal likely to be an important prey species for the canids (coyotes and wolves) of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. And in parks as well known, well-protected, and well studied by scientists as these, something as large as a jackrabbit shouldn’t really disappear unnoticed for too long, right? Yet, somehow, that is exactly what happened – or so Berger argues in the article: this species did go locally extinct, without raising much of a scientific eyebrow and that this may in turn have led to the coyotes shifting prey to eating young elk instead! Berger “chronicled L. townsendii disappearances by collating historical information, unpublished and published notes, and queries to professional biologists and naturalists who have (or had) worked in the Yellowstone Ecosystem for up to 5 decades (Appendix). I also checked records and queried databases of the American Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences, the Chicago Field Museum, the Burke Museum (Seattle), the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Museum of South-west Biology (Albuquerque).

Berger’s analysis of the above data suggested that the jackrabbit disappeared from the region by the 1990s. He also used analyses of coyote scat samples from the 1930s to the late 1990s to show that the jackrabbit disappeared from the coyote’s diet over that time period. So he concluded there was a local extinction (as was also concluded in a WCS workshop on jackrabbits in the Grand Teton in 2005), and went on to speculate about the potential effects of coyotes shifting to young elk as prey. He rounds off the brief article by discussing the potential for reintroducing jackrabbits to the parks to potentially help in “the establishment of dynamic ecological processes that were intact prior to extirpation“. And points out the problem that the local extirpation may have left us with unreliable baseline data so that we may not actually know what the ecosystem was like prior to this extirpation – therefore we need to use shifting baselines in an adaptive management framework. “At a broader level the problems of species disappearance in the two parks in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is not likely to be a unique episode restricted to this well studied region. A critical challenge we face is therefore how to apply better the concept of shifting baselines to the restoration of functional relationships when species’ losses are undetected.

All well and good, the paper was reviewed and published in the Oryx, and the story was picked up not only in the blogsphere (e.g., here and here) and science outlets, but even the mainstream media, including NPR; but there was a problem. A few days after the paper was reported in the media, a local ornithologist saw a couple of jackrabbits in Yellowstone, and a handful of other locals furnished other evidence that they were not exactly extinct yet! All this has left Joel Berger with “egg on his face”, and he now promises to publish a retraction in the next issue of the Oryx. Yet, he stands by his “study’s broader point – that the rabbit’s decline may have forced predators to turn to other food sources“. More unfortunately, he leaves himself, and scientists in general, open to accusations of bias, hidden agendas, and worse.

Here are my lessons from this cautionary tale:

  1. Extinction (like most other negatives) is damn hard to prove, even on a local scale. The counterpoint, as seen in the infamous saga of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s “rediscovery”, is that non-extinction is equally hard to prove! So we should strive to use all means available to get the most reliable data.
  2. Scientists, even prominent ones, can make simple mistakes. In this case, it seems Berger drew upon a variety of evidence to analyze the status of jackrabbits – yet somehow failed to ask for the most direct data: current field observations!
  3. Standard peer-review can fail to catch some of these mistakes immediately. This article was peer-reviewed, yet no one apparently asked for more direct evidence from the author!
  4. Its funny how many of us accepted the conclusions of the paper and ran with the “cautionary tale” perhaps because it fits so nicely with our conservation paradigms – yet all Berger (and the rest of us) had to do was to ask ordinary people who live in the area if they’d seen the jackrabbits! How often, and why, do we forget that?
  5. Nevertheless, science remains (and must remain) open to non-peer review as well, so that even amateurs can point out the errors of the most eminent among us scientists. This is where citizen science has a crucial role to play, so we should all, especially in conservation biology, strive to use every possible set of eyes and ears to monitor wildlife and the environment. And given that many people are fascinated enough by nature to spend plenty of their own time and money watching wildlife, why not get some useful data out of their efforts as well? Isn’t that a real win-win?
  6. And finally, scientists must be prepared to enjoy the occasional egg on their faces! Afterall, isn’t the scientific method, ultimately, about us hurling empirical eggs at each other’s pet hypotheses? So why should we keep the fun of that to ourselves? Why not share it with the public?


Joel Berger (2008). Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA Oryx, 42 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0030605308001051