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Oct 23 2011

Ick, Easterbrook.

I should probably rotate the objects of my ire more often. Way back in the days before Scienceblogs, a couple of my common targets were people I rarely talk about anymore, like George Gilder, or Gregg Easterbrook. Easterbrook is a pretentious sports writer and creationist who hates godless books and movies, who somehow managed to land commissions with Slate and Wired as a science writer (this is comparable to me getting hired to be a sports writer — Armageddon is nigh if that ever happens).

I am very pleased to see, though, that someone else shares my contempt for the guy: Tom Levenson can be provoked to peevishness by an Easterbrook column. Easterbrook’s not just bad at science, he sucks at writing. What does this mean?

A Cosmic Thought: Last week researchers announced they had found, in a South African cave, evidence of painting 100,000 years ago. The previous oldest evidence of painting was from 60,000 years in the past; the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France were made about 17,000 years ago. The latest find, in South Africa, shows both that our ancestors were experimenting with iron oxides to make permanent paint 50 millennia in the past: all that time ago, they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander. Each time anthropology makes an advance, the human experiment is shown to be older and more complex than thought. Who can say where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

Hey! I’m talking about that really cool discovery of a 100,000 year old pigment set in New Orleans this coming weekend! It really is a nifty story that shows people have been doing art for about as long as they’ve been Homo sapiens.

But I haven’t a clue what Easterbrook is talking about. I think the cave art was painted for the people of that time, and they don’t seem to have been doing it for posterity, or Gregg Easterbrook; I’m also baffled by the odd implication of a prediction of greater, older complexity of human culture far back in the past. People 100,000 years ago were fully anatomically human; I think everyone expects that their would have been cultures existing coincident with our evolution.

Let’s not even get started on his math confusion that 100,000 years = 50 millennia.

I do wish someone could explain to me how that hack continues to publish.

44 comments

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  1. 1
    Glen Davidson

    Uh, no, the universe is not found to be larger, older, and grander each time telescopes improve. The first two are fairly well settled, and “grander” is too subjective to fit it to the data.

    And wow, the more we know about humans, the more we know about humans. Who’d have expected that?

    Who can say where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

    Sure as stupidity, it isn’t Easterbrook.

    Glen Davidson

  2. 2
    Sean Boyd

    Maybe Slate and Wired are conducting an experiment to determine how long someone with no knowledge of a subject can masquerade as an aficionado.

  3. 3
    'Tis Himself

    they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

    It’s pure speculation on Easterbrook’s part that the paintings were for posterity. After all, what had posterity ever done for the artists?

  4. 4
    Monado, FCD

    I read the article. Interestingly, the paint-makers didn’t just grind and dampen the ochre, a yellowish-red iron oxide. They mixed it with mammoth fat and a bit of charcoal, then re-ground and mixed with water, using large bivalve shells as saucers. The charcoal would have given their paints shade as well as hue. Someone was thinking about it! They seem to have manufactured small spatulas for applying the paint, as well.

    It’s also evidence that people had, if not occupations, then hobbies where someone with the interest and time made the paints that everyone might use. I find myself wondering if everyone made paint at painting time or if only a few of the group did. Possibly trade was involved–e.g. some body paint for a couple of rabbits–or this was how the lame or myopic made themselves useful.

  5. 5
    KG

    I’m talking about that really cool discovery of a 100,000 year old pigment set in New Orleans this coming weekend! – PZ

    They found another one, and this time in New Orleans??!?!! Well, that certainly blows “Clovis first” to smithereens ;-)

  6. 6
    dannysichel

    As for “100,000 years = 50 millennia”… well, can we say ‘order of magnitude’?

    …didn’t think so.

    (Oh, can we give him credit for seeing sense re: climate change?)

  7. 7
    Steve

    Easterbrook is clueless on whatever topic he writes. Politics this time.

    http://andrewgelman.com/2011/10/the-most-clueless-political-column-ever-i-think-this-easterbrook-dude-has-the-journalistic-equivalent-of-tenure/

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    KG #5

    What’s particularly amazing is the part of the Mississippi Delta where New Orleans is located is only some 3800 to 4000 years old. 100,000 year old pigment must have been transported there from elsewhere. Apparently the pre-Columbian inhabitants were so sophisticated they engaged in archeological and anthropological relic commerce.

  9. 9
    raven

    they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

    This doesn’t follow at all.

    If they painted outside on rock walls or whatever, we wouldn’t know about it. In all but the driest climates it would have washed off or weathered away by now.

  10. 10
    cornbread_r2

    It hasn’t been established that the mixture in the shell was intended to be paint. It might have been glue or something else. It’s still impressive, but until they find “art” from the same time frame using this type of substance we really don’t know what its intended use was.

  11. 11
    Anders

    Ut was probably an early attempt at IVF.

  12. 12
    anchor

    @Glen: Re: “Uh, no, the universe is NOT found to be larger, older, and grander each time telescopes improve.” Right, I was going to say the same. I find it endlessly entertaining also, even as they know and understand almost nothing, such stupidity still manages the delusion they are good at persuasion (i.e. “lying”), in the conceit that they can make something up and pass it off as a fact. Do feeble minds ever notice when they make something up? If they DO notice, they must consider everyone to be beneath their intellect, which suggests that egomania also attends the condition.

  13. 13
    screechy monkey

    This is a standard Easterbrook trope*: scientists just discovered something previously unknown, therefore Jesus.

    *I used to read his NFL columns before I realized they’re all the same. I know, I know.

  14. 14
    Amphiox

    Well, that’s approaching 20X the YEC maximum age of the all creation and counting.

    At least Easterbrook admits that.

    And the next time Easterbrook comes up with another such “article”, I think PZ should do a sports themed blog post, just for the heck of it.

  15. 15
    'Tis Himself

    Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander.

    I suspect Easterbrook was thinking about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

    The image covers 11 square arcminutes. This is just one-seventieth the size of the full moon, smaller than a 1 X 1 mm square of paper held 1 meter away. The image was taken in a section of the sky with a low density of bright stars, allowing viewing of dimmer, more distant objects. The image contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies. Some of the galaxies in the image were formed less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

  16. 16
    Pteryxx

    *shrug* It’s already neat to see your artwork still intact and admired after a year, or ten years; or to see your kids or your apprentices look at it. I daresay the artists didn’t need to expect their work to last THIS long to be interested in its longevity.

  17. 17
    puppygod

    @raven

    This doesn’t follow at all.

    If they painted outside on rock walls or whatever, we wouldn’t know about it. In all but the driest climates it would have washed off or weathered away by now.

    That was always my impression – most probably so-called cavemen painted a whole lot of stuff. It’s a pity, but only those painted in the caves had any chance of surviving. Millennia of exposure to the elements eradicated pretty much anything that is not hidden in a cave or made of the stone. Actually, material culture of so-called cavemen was probably much richer and diverse than we can imagine. It’s just that stuff made of, say, woven grass had no chance to last even decades.

  18. 18
    erikjensen

    I like Easterbrook’s sports writing. The problem is that he doesn’t shift gears when writing about science. Things that are generally acceptable in sports writing (hyperbole, bias, selective memory, changing your mind without evidence or apology, etc.) are not acceptable when writing about science.

  19. 19
    Ring Tailed Lemurian

    Let’s not even get started on his math confusion that 100,000 years = 50 millennia.

    I suspect that the reason he thinks that 2,000 years = 1 millemium stems from him not understanding all that Y2K “New Millenium” stuff. Idiot.

  20. 20
    brilliantmistake (@brillmiss)

    With respect to Tom Levenson, John Tierney holds the title of worst science writer in the land. Sure, he’s not a creationist, but the climate change denialism and sexism make up for it. Plus, he gets his idiocy published in the NY Times, thus compounding my rage aneurysm when I read his stuff.

  21. 21
    muttabuttasaurus

    The absence of porn from cave paintings leads to the conclusion that the art was not done by modern humans.

  22. 22
    Phalacrocorax, z Třetího Světa

    where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

    … where no man has gone before.

  23. 23
    Olav

    Off topic, but I think PZ would do fine as a sports writer, bringing a unique (scientific/biological) perspective and refreshing lack of respect for the most idiotic aspects of sports culture. He would also probably find more interesting sports to write about than those that everybody else is already covering.

    I am still wondering what regular physical activity he has chosen for himself after his heart problems and weight loss adventure. Must keep those bones moving, old man.

    (My sport is non-competitive long distance cycling. It’s wonderful. It’s something I can literally do all day. All the run-and-jump sports are not for me. Neither is anything that involves a ball.)

  24. 24
    Therrin

    I am still wondering what regular physical activity he has chosen for himself after his heart problems and weight loss adventure.

    Airport visiting?

  25. 25
    peterh

    We’ve gone in roughly just the last 100 years from not knowing we’re a tiny member of a so-so galaxy (indeed 100 years ago, there as no knowledge of galaxies) to having now run the score to approximately 100 billion galaxies. With exponential expansion of the playing field, fundies just can’t seem comprehend their inability to keep up.

  26. 26
    Prophegandist

    1 millennium = a ton of years
    1 ton = 2000 pounds
    100000 years/2000 pounds = 50 millennia

    I can do Easterbrook math too!

  27. 27
    otrame

    The paintings were most intended for use in shamanistic ceremonies of one kind or another.

    @ 21
    As for porn, I am most familiar with the rock art of the Trans Pecos area of Texas and I can offer this, as an example

  28. 28
    otrame

    I meant “most Likely” in the first sentence.

    Damn it.

  29. 29
    PZ Myers

    The absence of porn from cave paintings leads to the conclusion that the art was not done by modern humans.

    Look up the Venus of Willendorf and other Venuses. They were discerning modern humans: they insisted that their porn be 3-dimensional. Clearly, we have taken a big step backwards.

  30. 30
    Iris Vander Pluym

    I do wish someone could explain to me how that hack continues to publish.

    I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I strongly suspect it would also explain Michael Lind at Salon, and David Brooks at the New York Times.

  31. 31
    Monado, FCD

    The various Venuses, some of which look very modern-art, could also be religious icons of the Mysterious Source of All Life.

    It’s Easterbrook who visits airports, where he explains to the staff that heavier-than-air flight is impossible, since it’s not in the Bible and Darwin didn’t know how to build an aeroplane.

  32. 32
    Crissa

    If the universe isn’t found to be older and grander each time telescopes improve, I think Edwin Hubble (if he were still with us) would disagree.

  33. 33
    Tim

    While it is true that Hubble’s initial determination of the “Hubble” constant did show the age of the universe to be less than the (then best-determined) age of the Earth, subsequent studies of globular star clusters showed the age to be between 10 and 18 Gyrs. The COBE project narrowed that down to about 15 Gyrs, and WMAP narrowed it down to 13.72+-.13 Gyrs. Evidently, our estimates of the age of the universe have been decreasing as we get better data.

    In the time of Einstein, the prevailing ideas of the universe were that it was infinite in extent and static in state. To a great degree of precision, it has been shown that the geometry of the universe is flat. This year’s Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to the scientists who showed that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating in its expansion. A flat geometry combined with an expanding universe tells us that the it is finite in extent (granted, the expansion will continue asymptotically to infinity, but that won’t be for another couple of days).

    As for the grandeur, I shall leave that to the eye of the beholder.

  34. 34
    Holms

    Not really sure what the fuss is about here. Granted, the 100k=50k thing was weird, but was most likely just a silly error along the lines of 3^2=6… a brainfart. You can proof read all you like, but little things slip through all the same.

    Aside from that, the meaning you took from his last paragraph [i.e. that complexity increases the further back we look] appears to be simply a matter of how you parse that sentence. I read it as ‘as anthropology advances 1. we learn more about ye olde humans and 2. the complete picture gets more detailed.

  35. 35
    Tom Levenson

    (a) Thanks, PZ, for the shout out.

    (b) brilliantmistake (@brillmiss) at 20: I agree that Tierney is the worst science writer. As is Brooks when he invokes his bizarre notions of science to justify the rule of dead pale males. As is Easterbrook every week…and so on.

    That is to say: the worst science writer is like the dread pirate Roberts. There isn’t just one. ;)

  36. 36
    Monado, FCD

    Cornbread, that they put in charcoal, which would change the shade but not the stickiness, suggests to me that it was a pigment. I suspect they were painting themselves or each other if not rocks, sticks, and walls.

  37. 37
    drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon

    PZ, don’t sell yourself short!

    I think you would be a GREAT sports commentator. I’ve always thought that the only pre-req for NFL commenting is the ability to state the blatantly obvious. I’m picturing a MST3K type of thing…

  38. 38
    Raiko

    I think he really believes that the change of the millenium (2000) really meant that 2000 = “millenium”. Maybe he should have googled it.

  39. 39
    Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis

    Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander.

    Wow, it is stars all the way back!

    Except of course, that it isn’t.

    @Tim,
    why do you say that a flat universe with accelerating expansion is of finite extent?

  40. 40
    Tim

    Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis

    Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander.

    Wow, it is stars all the way back!

    Except of course, that it isn’t.

    @Tim,
    why do you say that a flat universe with accelerating expansion is of finite extent?

    My apologies, I should have said that a flat universe with accelerating expansion for a finite time is of finite extent. Though, to be fair, as long as the expansion is positive (increasing in volume), it doesn’t really matter if it is accelerating.

    More to your point, the “wall” at z~1000 makes the visible part of our universe even smaller still!

  41. 41
    Davide Castelvecchi

    Strangely few people seem to have picked up on Easterbrook’s recent butchering of cosmology:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/degrees-of-freedom/2011/10/16/on-the-physics-nobels-the-atlantic-gets-dark-energy-all-wrong/

  42. 42
    Predator Handshake

    drewl @37:

    I would watch all of the sports if they had commentary like that. I’m imagining Fred Willard’s character from Best in Show bumbling around trying to make sense of it all; I got a taste of it over the weekend catching the American coverage of the Rugby World Cup. You’d think a simple call like not giving up the ball wouldn’t need to be explained every time it happens, but you’d be wrong.

  43. 43
    A.farinosa

    Egads! Just the first sentence of that excerpt would get a dredge of red ink from a grammar school teacher.

    Last week researchers announced they had found, in a South African cave, evidence of painting 100,000 years ago.

    Gee, Why did those scientists wait so long (100,000 years) to finally tell us about their discovery?

    The rest of the snippet has a few more bits of his garbled and irritating “style”.

    The latest find, in South Africa, shows…

    Yah, we know where it is! You mentioned that just two sentences ago. Maybe embellish the locale with something like “20 miles North of Cape Town” for specificity or “where the elephants roam and the cheetahs bound” for color.

    You’d think someone who writes for a living might actually have basic a command of syntax and structure. It’s really not that hard: subject – verb – predicate; next sentence.

  44. 44
    noisician

    twenty miles north of Cape Town
    where the elephants roam and the cheetahs bound

    hey, that’s nice! is that from something?
    or is it an unintentional poem??

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