Saturday, February 28, 2009

Call for Contributors / Call for Speakers

I'm looking for a few people to help me out with this blog. I'd like to have a few real "article" posts a week covering various topics within skepticism, and particularly local issues in which there is a skeptical angle. But I need your help to do it!

It you're interested in becoming a contributor to this blog, just say so in the comments below and I'll work the magic.

Also, with the success of our Darwin Day event earlier this month, I'm working on putting together a slate of guest speakers for the coming year. I already have a few names attached, but if you know anybody who might be interested, give me their info, or send them my way! You can always send an email (about this or ANYTHING) to .

So, know anyone who is a knowledgeable speaker on science, religious fundamentalism, or an area of science often misunderstood by the public (evolution, climate change); or who has debunked conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, or the paranormal? Any magicians or mentalists out there who could tell (or better yet, SHOW) how the methods used by "psychics" are nothing more than cold reading? Any other topics that you think might be a good match for the group?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vaccines do not cause autism. Period.

It's in vogue right now to be afraid of vaccines. The UK has been dealing with this issue for a while now, and it has gotten to the point where measels, a horrible disease once essentially wiped from the face of the British Isles, is now considered endemic once again.

There have always been antivaccinationists here in the U.S., but it's only been in the last two years or so that the myth of vaccine-caused autism has really taken root and germinated here. This is in no small part due to Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey, who despite the utter lack of scientific or medical credentials have been given carte blanche to promulgate this falsehood everywhere from Oprah to the Today Show, with hardly any opposing voices heard, despite what the science tells us. This pseudoscientific nonsense goes unchallenged because we Americans like our celebrities. We like a good sob story. We like easily identifiable villians, whether they be Kim Jong Il or MMR. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth gets in the way of a good narrative.

The vaccines => autism story is just such a story, and the truth is that vaccines simply do not cause autism. Period.


David Gorski, one of the writers at the excellent Science-Based Medicine blog, just wrote an epic article debunking the autism/vaccine link. Debunking puts it lightly, actually. What Gorski does is evicerates this myth. Piece by piece, Gorski shows why every argument put forth by the antivax crowd is bankrupt.

If you have a coworker (as I do) or an uncle or a friend who insists that this link exists, or that there is controversy over the question, go read this post. It's a long article... LONG. But it is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Remember that this antivax setiment is not like believing in fairies: demonstrably wrong, but essentially harmless. No, we vaccinate against diseases like measels because they are deadly. The percentage of unvaccinated children is falling below the levels needed for herd immunity in some communities. And not just in the UK. Here. This puts children at risk; young people unable to make an informed choice for themsleves, or babies too young to recieve the vaccine, but who would otherwise not be exposed to these deadly diseases until after they got the jab.

For the extremely lazy, here's the bullet point version:
- Andrew Wakefield's study that was the flashpoint of the autism/vaccine firestorm was discrected years ago as horribly sloppy. In the last few weeks, it was found that the study wasn't sloppy at all: it was fraudulent.
- Every single replicable trial or study has shown no relationship between vaccination and autism.
- There is no known way that vaccines or their ingredients could cause the symptoms described.
- Vaccine opponents are unable to produce any evidence of their claims.
- Vaccine opponents often admit that there is no evidence to support their clain, but go on perpetualting it anyway.
- Peeps be dying! Get yr kiddies vaccinated!

I know it's a long read, but go get to it!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Join Salt City Skeptics for another night out on the town, following the Tanner Center Forum.

Many SCS members are attending the Tanner Center Forum "Evolution of Human Aggression" lectures at the U of U (for more information, see ). This forum is a great opportunity to hear directly from some of the leading minds in science including Stephen Pinker, Frans de Waal, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson.

Check out the conference scehdule ( ), but whether or not you're able to attend, join us afterward at Piper Down for more good conversation.

We MAY (emphasis on the MAY) be joined by some of the speakers from the conference. Since it's Friday night at the bar, we'll be starting a little earlier, but show up whenever you can!

Friday, February 13, 2009


Following yesterday's festivities, here's a not-so-well-thought-out counter-point from Ray Comfort (who I mentioned in my last post as one of the founders of, ahem, "crocoduck theory"), who it seems has written an entire book on this bizarre strawman interpretation of evolutionary theory.

Let's play spot the logical fallacy. How many can you identify:

Darwin Day & the Fossil Evidence for Evolution


Last night's Darwin Day event was a resounding success! We easily had at least fifty people -- FIFTY -- in attendance.

Of course, the space I'd reserved really should only have accommodated no more than about 30. So space was tight, and due to the unusual floor-plan, some people were left crowded in the anteroom standing-room-only style. Sorry about that! I'll need to find a larger space for any future guest speakers if the turnout to this is any indication. But we're all friends now, so no worries about getting a little cozy, right?

Alan Rogers, our guest speaker, was originally going to present on the "Evolution of the Debate Over Evolution." But his presentation evolved (sorry), and he instead gave a talk entitled "Does Evolution Make Big Changes."

For those that are interested, a PDF of the presentation slides is available here.

It's interesting that Dr. Rogers chose the subject of fossil evolution, as I was working yesterday on a huge post on that very subject. Below is my post, edited to incorporate additional information from his presentation yesterday.

First, let's start with a bit of fun:

The thrust of Dr. Roger's presentation was a refutation of progressive creationism. I'd not heard that specific term before. It's a form of Old-Earth creationism that accepts the earth's geologic timeline and fossil record, but posits that though species may change into other similar species (e.g., coyotes, wolves and foxes may have a common ancestor), they cannot change from one major "kind" to another (e.g., amphibians could not have evolved from fish).

In progressive creationism, god originally created several "kinds" of organisms which have evolved into all of these species we see today, but are unable, for some unstated reason, to change beyond some unstated threshold.

Where the lines between one "kind" and another lies I suppose depends on the progressive creationist you ask. Are bears and foxes of the same "kind?" Bats and lemurs? What about turtles and alligators? Carrots and plums? Each of those pairs is FAR more alike than they are different, and yet there is no denying that they are also all quite distinct.

According to creationists, the fossil record fails to show an evolutionary relationship between species or "kinds." This argument reaches it's ridiculous extreme in Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's silly "crocoduck." The misconception here is that creationists expect to see a "tweening" fossil: something that looks half like an ancestor, and half like a decedent. But it's important to remember that every animal, every "transitional" form is itself a fully-evolved species that is not, from it's own perspective, on its way to becoming anything. A duck's lineage may have encountered innumerable different environmental conditions, developed unique traits, lost them again, and developed new ones on its way to becoming a duck. We HAVE found numerous "crocoduck" transitional fossils between therapod dinosaurs and birds. Take for instance, this cute little guy:

He's a bird-like dinosaur, about the size of a turkey, and he'd gladly rip your face off. You may have heard of him before: velociraptor. Though thanks to Jurassic Park, that name is often mistakenly applied to his big sister, Utahraptor. At the time of the first Jurassic Park film, we didn't know that Utahraptor had any feathers. But since then, we've learned that they not only had feathers, but were likely covered in them and may have looked something like this. Mei long. Deinonychus. Archaeopteryx. Rahonavis. Dozens upon dozens of bird-like therapods and and therapod-like birds. That's a lot of crocoducks.

The evidence continues to mount showing not only that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but in many ways, birds are dinosaurs. (For a decent sumamry, check out the Wikipedia articles on Origin of Birds and Bird Evolution.)

In last night's presentation Dr. Rogers focused not on bird evolution but on whales. Since whales are mammals, they must have evolved from land mammals, right? Well, shouldn't we see transitional forms in the fossil record, becoming more and more adapted to aquatic environments?

Yes, we would expect to see transitional forms like this.

And guess what? We do! Indohyus. Pakicetus. Ambulocetus. Rodhocetus. Dorudon. Just this month, a new important fossil in the whale lineage was announced: Maiacetus (you can even read the original paper describing the discovery and its implications).

But what evidence would it take to convince a creationist that evolution had occurred (or in the case of progressive creationists, that is occurred between ill-defined "types")?

I'm willing to bet that for most creationists, the answer is no amount of evidence. The beauty of the "no transitional fossils" argument is that it can be applied infinitely: Any time a "gap" is filled with a newly-discovered fossil, the creationist, rather than seeing a closing gap, will now see TWO gaps that need filling. If he asserts that there is a gap between species A and species C, then you discover species B, now you have a gap between A & B and B & C. Isn't that handy?

In addition to the fossil evidence for evolution, Dr. Rogers talked about the molecular evidence. If fossils show a reasonable and convincing path for evolutionary change, then the molecular and genetic evidence is a blaring neon sign stating "evolution has occurred here!" But I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Darwin Day?

First: One last reminder about the Salt City Skeptics Darwin Day Spectacular, tonight at Fat's Grill... Okay, now that that is out of the way...

Today is the day that we gather together with our families to celebrate the birth of, you know, some dude... Not a savior or a God or a legend. A man. Is it totally arbitrary for us to have a holiday or festival based around this one guy on this day every year?

Pretty much, yeah. We could have just as easily declared June 22nd "Evolution Day" or October 7th "Heliocentrism Day." We don't celebrate Galileo Day or Jonas Salk day.

So, why Darwin Day?

Darwin was not, as is often mistakenly reported, the first to come up with the idea of what we now call "evolution." The idea that species have changed over time to become other species (including humans) dates back at least to Anaxamander in the 6th century BC.

Indeed, Darwin was not even the first to develop an evolutionary model based on natural selection. That credit goes to Al-Jahiz, an 8th century biologist from what is now Iraq. Al-Jahiz postulated that:
"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."
That's about as concise a definition of natural selection as I can imagine. And this was 1300 years ago!

But Darwin's own realization about natural selection came at a time when people were eager for knowledge. During the 19th century, enlightenment ideals of free inquiry were coming to fruition, and the way science was practiced was shifting from "armchair philosophy" to a more methodical, procedural method of whittling away at null hypotheses.

Darwin's simple insight was at odds with a growing fire-and-brimstone brand of religion, particularly in the United States. No idea since the Kepler's heliocentric model of the Solar System had so inspired the wrath of religious fundamentalists, who insisted (and continue to insist) that the Genesis creation account was literally true. The rift between what science shows to be true and what Biblical literalists contend has grown and grown in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Speices, a rift that has been exacerbated by developments in astronomy, cosmology, genetics and geology that, time and again, fly in the face of biblical claims.

Darwin himself has thus become a lightning rod of criticism from religious fundamentalists, who maintain that his ideas preclude the existence of a deity. Indeed, religious fundamentalists have attempted to discredit natural selection and evolutionary theory by branding it as a dogma: "Darwinism."

Which calls into focus even clearer the question posed above: Why Darwin Day? Isn't celebrating Darwin playing in to the hands of those who claim that "Darwinism" is akin to religious dogma?

Well, sure. I suppose it is to some extent... But so what? Anyone who "celebrates" Darwin Day surely looks at February 12th as a celebration of science in general, and not a day to worship a mere mortal.

Darwin Day is about what Darwin represents: The scientific enterprise; But Darwin represents the scientific enterprise; courageously pursuing knowledge no matter where the evidence leads; challeging notions of our world and universe based on tradition rather than evidence.

That's why Darwin Day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One week until Darwin Day

Just a reminder to put the Salt City Skeptics' Darwin Day Spectacular on your calendar!

Join as at 7:00 at Fat's Grill in the heart of Sugarhouse. Just so there is no excuse for not being there, here be a map:

View Larger Map

We'll have a guest speaker, Alan Rogers, presenting on the Evolution of the Debate over Evolution.

It's looking like we'll have a great turnout, with 38 people so far RSVPing 'Yes' on either the Facebook or Meetup event pages.

Hope to see you there!