Let’s do crimes!

Late last night, as we were driving back from the airport, we ran into a curious meteorological phenomenon: we entered a dense cloud of thick, chunky material that clunked into our car like a hailstorm and reduced visibility quite a bit. Only I guess it wasn’t meteorological, strictly speaking — it was the May insect hatch. Say, do you think you can read our license plate now?


I’m thinking that with our identity obscured this would be a perfect time to go on a crime spree.

I’ll put a closeup below the fold.

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This is not science

We may have the answer to all of the big problems in physics! Or not.

My money is on “not”.

Marcus du Sautoy, a very smart mathematician and the fellow who occupies the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford formerly held by Richard Dawkins, made a stunning announcement.

Two years ago, a mathematician and physicist whom I’ve known for more than 20 years arranged to meet me in a bar in New York. What he was about to show me, he explained, were ideas that he’d been working on for the past two decades. As he took me through the equations he had been formulating I began to see emerging before my eyes potential answers for many of the major problems in physics. It was an extremely exciting, daring proposal, but also mathematically so natural that one could not but feel that it smelled right.

He has spent the past two years taking me through the ins and outs of his theory and that initial feeling that I was looking at “the answer” has not waned. On Thursday in Oxford he will begin to outline his ideas to the rest of the mathematics and physics community. If he is right, his name will be an easy one to remember: Eric Weinstein.

There are a few peculiarities to this story. Weinstein is a consultant to a hedge fund, not an academic physicist. That’s not a major criticism of his theory, but the fact that he hasn’t shared his ideas with anyone other than one mathematician…that’s a problem.

This is not how anyone does science. No paper has been published or submitted for peer review, not even so much as a copy put in arxiv.

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

But wait, there’s more. He was invited to present his ideas at Oxford, but then no one bothered to let the physicists know.

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists. You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.

Oh, I remember science by press conference: I got to attend Pons and Fleischmann’s big announcement of the discovery of cold fusion at the University of Utah. We all know how that turned out.

The New Scientist article is damning.

Exciting news: all the problems plaguing physics have been solved. Dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity – one amazing insight has delivered us from decades of struggle to a new knowledge nirvana.

There’s a catch, however: I’m unable to tell you what that insight is. Neither I, nor any of my professional physicist friends, have the faintest clue. In fact, nobody except Eric Weinstein and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy are sufficiently familiar with the claims to venture an opinion.

It’s interesting that just yesterday at this conference I’m attending I was asked a good question: when we’re dealing with high level scientific explanations that are far beyond what our background allows us to assess, how do we judge whether they’re valid or not? Do we have to rely on faith in the scientific authorities?

And I told him no, that we have other means than simple faith. The methods of science are completely open — scientists show their work. You can review the papers describing their conclusions, and even if much of it is beyond your grasp, you can at least see that they aren’t hiding their procedures. They don’t say, “Here’s a miraculous leap,” they instead may show you a pile of incomprehensible math, but it’s available to study, anyway.

And then you can also expect other independent scientists, who do have the background to understand the math, to weigh in and evaluate the evidence. They can explain the steps.

It’s like someone claiming to have been up on a roof, and you don’t see how she could have gotten up there, and you have no personal desire to be up there yourself, but she can point to the ladder she climbed, and you can also see others climbing up it, so you can trust the individual rungs to work. It’s not faith-based at all, but is based on the step-by-step evidence that the procedure actually performs as promised.

And that’s the problem with Weinstein’s claims. He claims to have been tap-dancing on a high, inaccessible roof, yet so far he hasn’t shown us any way to climb up there, and no one else has even been given an opportunity to climb his ladder. So why should we believe him? That would require an act of faith, and I reject that.

I am not a physicist. I have to wait to see the ladder. And that Eric Weinstein seems to be hiding it makes me very, very suspicious.

Andrew Pontzen has written to me about his statement that ‘nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists’.

Unfortunately this statement now turns out to be wrong. Marcus Du Sautoy did in fact think to invite the Oxford physicists, sending an email to the head of department along with A3 posters; unfortunately no-one spotted the talk because, unbeknown to Du Sautoy, the email was not widely circulated or advertised on the internal web page.

So it was an error, not an intentional evasion.

It’s still bad science.

Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, you’ve got some explaining to do.

23 years ago yesterday, as my friends Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were driving through Oakland, California on their way to appear at a Santa Cruz rally against clearcutting California’s remaining old-growth redwoods, a bomb exploded beneath the driver’s seat. Judi was in that drivers’ seat and nearly died of her wounds. She lived in constant pain until cancer took her life seven years later. (Thankfully, Darryl’s injuries were not as severe.)

The bomb was a home-made nail-filled pipe bomb with a motion-sensitive trigger. (The explosion happened as Judi and Darryl were driving past a middle school’s bus stop at Park and Macarthur boulevards in Central Oakland: it’s a wonder no one else was injured in the blast.)

Judi and her daughters after her release from the hospital. David J. Cross photo

At the time of the bombing, Judi, Darryl, and their fellow Earth First! activists in Northern California had been the targets of a campaign of sustained harassment, including death threats. Mailed leaflets featuring Judi’s face with superimposed crosshairs, for instance. A few weeks before the explosion, Judi had been run off a rural Northern California road Silkwood-style by a logging truck. The local cops told her “if you get killed, then we’ll investigate.”

The context for this was that some time earlier, a local timber company — Pacific Lumber — had been bought out leveraged-style by junk bond trader Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz  and his shell company Maxxam then started to liquidate PL’s holdings to generate cash. Among those holdings were some of the 5 or so percent of remaining old-growth redwood forests in California, which PL had previously been logging slowly enough that some people actually called the company a sustainable timber firm. Those trees started getting cut really quickly, endangering wildlife, the safety of timber workers , and the lives of people who lived downhill from the clearcuts.

Activists countered with a campaign modeled on the Civil Rights movement’s sit-ins, originally called Mississippi Summer In The Redwoods. Before long Judi and Earth First! had become central to the campaign, whose name was quickly shortened to Redwood Summer.

It was a really tense time in Northern California. Maxxam/PL managed to persuade some workers that the hippies were threatening their jobs, and the consequent conflict was ugly. That ugliness made the press fairly often. What didn’t make the press was the fact that Judi was an old-school union organizer: she identified more with the loggers than did most enviros, and she built some serious bridges between the two camps. Among other things, she got Earth First! in Northern California to renounce tree-spiking. She helped unionize a timber firm. Above all, she worked with timber workers to point out that sustainable logging meant sustainable employment, and that Maxxam’s cut and run practices meant mills would be closing as soon as the last tree was cut.

Still, those threats were out there and continuing. As horrified as we were when the bomb went off, it wasn’t particularly a surprise. What was a surprise was that the FBI arrived at the crime scene within minutes, and that the Oakland Police Department arrested Judi and Darryl before they’d been extracted from the ruins of Judi’s Subaru, charging them with transporting an explosive device.

The interior of Judi’s Subaru, the blast damage showing that the bomb was directly beneath the driver’s seat and not in the back footwell. Oakland Police photo.

The architect of this legal strategy? Mythbusters’ bomb expert Frank Doyle, then a special agent with the FBI.

Four weeks before the explosion, Doyle had run what was called a Bomb Investigator’s Training Course in Eureka in which law enforcement agents blew up cars with pipe bombs and then examined the wrecks for forensic evidence. There are two things that are especially spooky about this confluence of events. First was that Doyle, on arriving at the corner of Park and Macarthur, told his fellow first responders — four of whom had attended that course — “this is your final exam.” His statement was caught on tape.

The second spooky coincidence was that the bomb’s construction closely paralleled that of the practice bombs used at Doyle’s “bomb school.”

Doyle told the press that the damage to the car showed that it had been carried behind the driver’s seat, therefore was visible to the passengers, therefore they knew it was there and were deliberately transporting it. That lie was thoroughly shredded in a later court case, but at the time the press ran with it. Within two months all charges against Judi and Darryl were dropped for lack of evidence. You still hear people refer to them as the “people who were carrying that bomb.” The act of character assassination worked — a sentiment with which a Federal court judge and jury agreed.

Judi died of metastatic breast cancer in March 1997, leaving behind two young daughters. In 2002, that federal judge ordered Oakland cops and FBI agents to pay $4.4 million to Darryl and to Judi’s estate for violating their civil rights. During the trial agents admitted tracking Judi and Darryl for weeks before the bombing. The forensic evidence was clear. It was pretty much an open and shut case.

I am not saying that Frank Doyle had  other than an after-the-fact a role in the attempted murder of my friends, though it wouldn’t shock me if I found out that he did. But Doyle absolutely did thwart an effective investigation of that attempted murder. That’s a matter of established record. He ignored obvious leads, misrepresented evidence, and worked to frame activists for a horrible act of violence against them.

And nonetheless, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman decided to use Doyle as their go-to guy for explosives on Mythbusters. Despite the fact that Doyle tried to destroy two lives with a myth of his own concoction.

Let me be clear about one thing. Judi was not just targeted for being an environmental activist. The worst harassment, the worst threats that Redwood Summer activists received were directed at women. My friend Karen Pickett got some of those threatening letters too, and they were rife with misogyny to the point of being nearly laughable, before the bomb went off. (The accusation that women Earth First! activists were “box lunch eating lesbians” got used a lot.) One of the prime uninvestigated suspects in the bombing, a blithering godbag calling themself the “Lord’s Avenger,” claimed responsibility for the bombing and said it was in retaliation for Judi doing clinic defense at the Ukiah office of Planned Parenthood. That may or may not be true, though the Lord’s Avenger did apparently possess some interesting knowledge about the bomb’s construction.

Either way, Judi’s feminist activism definitely played a more than significant role in her being targeted. Male Earth First! activists got threats, and some of them were scary indeed. But it was the women who bore the brunt of the threats and harassment, and Judi paid the biggest price.


The film “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” screened on the outside of the Mythbusters building in San Francisco, May 24 2013

Which raises a question. For all the criticism it has received for being sensationalist and superficial, Mythbusters essentially serves as a public face of Skepticism to viewers who have never heard of Skepticism. Yet apparently it’s no big deal for Adam and Jamie to support, employ, and publicize a man who may have helped target a feminist environmental activist for unbelievably painful harassment, and who certainly provided effective cover for the people who tried to kill her.

Darryl Cherney, who has plowed some of the proceeds from the court settlement into making a film about Judi, is trying to get Jamie and Adam to explain why they employ Frank Doyle. They’ve been reluctant to answer, even though Darryl went so far as to offer a free screening of the film on the wall of Mythbusters’ building this weekend.

Anyone concerned with the role of women in the Skeptics’ movement ought to ask them for an answer.

Help This Desert Kit Fox Study Get Moving

This Indiegogo science campaign is wonderful.

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

Desert kit foxes are in trouble. They’re shy, they’re faced with competition even when things are good from other carnivores such as coyotes, and they’re increasingly being displaced by human industry. One recent distressing example of that last: builders of the Genesis Solar Project were trying to evict a population of desert kit foxes from the construction site in the Mojave-Sonoran transition zone. The foxes suddenly started dying of distemper, which disease hadn’t been known in desert kit foxes before.

Enviro groups petitioned this year to protect the desert kit fox, Vulpes macrotis arsipus, as Threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Sadly, that petition went nowhere.

Here’s a quote from that piece of mine in the last link from Ileene Anderson, a desert biologist working with the Center for Biological Diversity, that pretty much sums up the kit fox’s situation:

At present, more than 114,000 acres of desert kit fox habitat are approved for largescale industrial solar and wind development and close to 1 million acres of desert kit fox habitat are currently under environmental review or application for large-scale industrial solar and wind development as of January 2013. Key threats from large-scale industrial energy development to the desert kit fox include habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, and loss of connectivity, as well as direct and indirect impacts resulting from reduced ability for movement, increased competition and depredation, increased in non-native cover, mortality from roads, and displacement of foxes from den sites. In addition, a recent outbreak of canine distemper centered at a large-scale solar project site in the southern California desert highlights growing anthropogenic disease risks for the desert kit fox associated with habitat loss and development. Unfortunately, industrial-scale energy development projects approved to date have not properly considered the impacts and risks to the desert kit fox and the need to avoid, minimize and mitigate those impacts and risks to protect the species’ long-term survival.

One of the problems is that there just hasn’t been a lot of baseline science done on desert kit foxes. We know a few things. They’re nocturnal. They like to eat kangaroo rats. The will grudgingly eat other prey, including jackrabbits that can weigh more than they do, but without kangaroo rats they suffer population declines. They don’t like people much, though they seem not to be bothered by low-flying aircraft. We know a few other things about their behavior and sociality, but not so much about their choices of habitat. What distinguishes a stretch of alluvial fan covered in cresosote bush that the kit foxes like enough to move into, from a seemingly identical one across the valley that they don’t bother with?

It would be good to know that kind of thing as we develop the desert. That way, we can know where the really prime kit fox habitat is, and have a better idea of how our projects are likely to affect its viability.

Duke University grad student Dipika Kadaba wants to do the fieldwork to start developing that base of knowledge about desert kit fox habitat. I’ll let her explain:

For the tl;dw folks: Kadaba and her colleagues are trying to raise funds via her Indiegogo campaign to support four biologists in the field for a summer not far from here. They’ll use small drones to survey about 200 square miles of desert for kit fox dens. They’ll then conduct ecological surveys of plots both with and without kit fox dens to see what the differences are between kit fox habitat and not-fox habitat.

They’re looking for $8,000 to conduct this study, an eminently reasonable amount. It’s a really cool project and I encourage you to check it out and consider donating. For those of you who partake of the Great Blue Evil, Dipika has set up a Facebook page for her Desert Kit Fox Project where you can keep track of what they’re doing. Update: The project also has a blog for you Facebook objectors.

There are just so many aspects of this project I like, including finally having a reason to be glad drones exist. Check it out.

Botanical Wednesday: Romania!

I’ll be boarding a plane very shortly and going totally incommunicado until I land in Bucharest sometime tomorrow morning…so I’ll leave you something pretty to look at. This is Rosa canina, the dog rose, and the national flower of Romania.


And just because I like it, here’s Salvia transsylvanica, or the Transylvanian sage.


My destination is looking gorgeous already.

Disaster in Oklahoma

Moore, Oklahoma has been completely flattened by a tornado. Homes and businesses have been destroyed, but also a couple of schools and a hospital.


And here’s a time-lapse video of this monster ripping through the countryside.

What can we do? I mentioned it to Foundation Beyond Belief — go to the “Crisis Response” link and tell them you want to contribute to the relief efforts. If enough of us do that, they’ll set something up to take your godless donations and send them to where they’re most needed. And then send them money!

Zingularity also has a post on the catastrophe.

Foundation Beyond Belief now has a crisis response page. You can make charitable donations there.

The death toll is at 51 and rising, with at least 20 dead children.