Nice legal burn

The New York Times has responded to Donald Trump’s lawsuit threats. It’s a very nice letter. I get the impression that legal training is all about teaching you when and how to politely say “go fuck yourself”.

Re: Demand for retraction

Dear Mr Kasowitz:

I write in response to your letter of October 12, 2016 to Dean Baquet concerning your client Donald Trump, the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States. You write concerning our article “Two Women Say Donald Trump Touched Them Inappropriately ” and label the article as “libel per se.” You ask that we “remove it from [our] website, and issue a full and immediate retraction and apology.” We decline to do so.

The essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a “piece of ass.” Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.

But there is a larger and much more important point here. The women quoted in our story spoke out on an issue of national importance — indeed, an issue that Mr. Trump himself discussed with the whole nation watching during Sunday night’s presidential debate. Our reporters diligently worked to confirm the women’s accounts. They provided readers with Mr. Trump’s response, including his forceful denial of the women’s reports. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence their voices. We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.


David E. McCraw

It’s also interesting because some of us are being hit with legal threats that could also be answered in almost exactly the same way (the “national importance” bit would have to go, I probably wouldn’t suggest that there would be a “disservice to democracy”, and obviously it all would sound much more authoritative coming out of the mouth of a lawyer), so it’s good to see my opinion affirmed so eloquently.

But what if I can explain these fossil mysteries?


I was sent this link to Five Fossil Mysteries…That Evolution Can’t Explain. Challenge accepted, sir!

Unfortunately, after reading their list of five, and realizing it was Answers in Genesis, and that their ‘unexplainable’ mysteries were trivial and stupid, I felt a bit deflated. It was like being invited to a battle, showing up in my +5 armor and +3 Vorpal Sword of Fireballs and discovering my opponents were a bunch of preschoolers in diapers, armed with sippy cups. Undaunted, though, I wreak carnage upon them.

One: Life’s Unexpected Explosion
Forty major animal groups appear out of nowhere at the bottom of the fossil record. Where did this “Cambrian Explosion” come from?

This one is built on a lie by Kurt Wise: But the ancestors of the Cambrian animals have never been found. Yes, they have. The pre-Cambrian biota, however, were small and softbodied — it is totally unsurprising that the transition from small multicellular eukaryotes to large, hard-shelled metazoans would involve smaller creatures without hard body parts, and also that the evolution of hard body parts might be piecemeal. So we find pre-Cambrian trace fossils, trackways and burrows, for instance, and later we find the small shellies, an assemblage of tiny fragments — partial bits of armor, mouthparts, an occasional spike and spine — all of which were once mounted on gooey soft wormy bodies that did not fossilize.

Wise is wrong. The Cambrian is not the bottom of the fossil record, and we have traces of precursors to Cambrian forms.

Two: Those Not-So-Dry Bones
If dinosaurs died millions of years ago, how can their fossils still contain soft tissue?

Question your assumptions, Marcus Ross! What would happen chemically to proteins isolated in sealed, thick mineralized chambers, away from the atmosphere and from degrading bacteria, for millions of years? I don’t know. Apparently they’ll persist in some form for far longer than I would have expected. The fossils are known by strong physical methods to be 70 million years old; finding rare scraps of peptides imbedded deep inside them doesn’t challenge their age, since we didn’t know exactly what happens to totally isolated proteins, but should make us think harder about molecular taphonomy.

Three: Without a Leg to Stand On
Birds are vastly different from dinosaurs, even in the way they walk. How could one come from the other?

Another lie! This one cites a single article, which does not claim that birds are vastly different from dinosaurs — instead, it makes a single, narrower claim about respiration in dinosaurs. It points out that modern birds have basically immobilized the upper leg, the femur, in the body wall, and explains that the reason for that is that movement of that part of the limb would impair the function of abdominal air sacs. They look at fossil dinosaurs, and found that the femur was clearly used in walking, and therefore argue that they almost certainly lacked those abdominal air sacs, although there is evidence that they may have had air sacs elsewhere. Here, read the paper for yourself. It concludes,

We conclude that there are few data supportive of there having been an avian style lung air-sac system in theropods or that these dinosaurs necessarily possessed cardiovascular structure significantly different from that of crocodilians. These conclusions are reinforced by previously cited evidence for crocodilian-like lung ventilation in theropod dinosaurs.

Isn’t it interesting how they present a piece of the scientific literature as supporting their anti-evolution crusade, when it actually does nothing of the kind?

Four: Amazingly Preserved Leaves

When leaves die, they shrivel up and crumble. So why is the fossil record full of well-preserved, flat leaves?

But…but…not all fossil leaves are flat or well-preserved! And leaves don’t always “shrivel up and crumble” — if you’re not zealous about raking your lawn (I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be), it’s pretty easy to get damp, matted piles that preserve the leaves for a few years. You can dig in a peat bog and find preserved plant material that is hundreds or thousands of years old. Anoxic environments can do somewhat surprising things.

Here’s another paper you can read: The Taphonomy of Plant Macrofossils. This is a non-problem. Here’s the conclusion from that paper:

Experiments with individual plant organs and modern vegetation have demonstrated that the leaf-rain potentially contributing to plant fossil beds reflects trees within only short distances of the area of deposition. Separate sedimentary facies in fluvial, paludal and lacustrine environments preserve plant macrofossil assemblages which reflect varying biases in the level of transport (autochthonous to allochthonous deposition) and hydrodynamic sorting (Figure 7 .5).Different vegetation types within any landscape will have a varied proportional representation in these sedimentary facies, reflecting proximity to depositional sites, the mode of deposition of both plant parts and sediment, and the energy of transport. Each ‘flora’ present within an exposure of particular facies will represent a subsample of the total vegetational mosaic, in some cases strongly biased towards individual plant communities, in other cases containing elements from several communities.

In consequence of these observations, plant macrofossil studies of palaeovegetation must (where possible) sample from within discrete bedding planes and consider sedimentary facies when attempting floristic reconstructions of palaeovegetation. While the potential sources of bias are great, observations of modern plant fossil sedimentary analogues allows predictive models to be constructed that allow palaeovegetation reconstructions to account for sedimentary facies, biofacies and differential dispersal (and small-scale variation through seasonal effects?). Such applications of taphonomy are reliant on careful and systematic stratigraphic sampling and result in a finer resolution of the palaeocommunity. Previous approaches of treating single plant fossil localities as a ‘flora’ must be abandoned in favour of such an approach.

Kurt Wise thinks that finding all the leaves neatly flattened (they aren’t) is compatible with the idea that they were fossilized in a catastrophic, world-destroying flood 4000 years ago. He’s an idiot.

Five: Tracks But No Trilobites

Why do we find lots of trilobite tracks in lower rock layers, but we don’t find any trilobite fossils until higher up?

This one is hilarious. I will quote Kurt Wise directly. Why do older rock layers have only trace fossils (trilobite tracks), while more recent Cambrian layers feature whole preserved exoskeletons (see also One: Life’s Unexpected Explosion)?

Such a worldwide pattern of fossil layers suggests that a global catastrophe, such as the Bible describes, once struck the world. What if, when the “fountains of the great deep were broken up” (Genesis 7:11), the spreading waters surprised the trilobites living on the ocean bottom? As the water became muddy, trilobites scurried about in terror, leaving their tracks behind them. Then as a layer of mud covered their tracks, they climbed through the mud and left tracks on the next layer—repeating this process until they finally succumbed in exhaustion and were themselves buried and preserved.

Ah, hydraulic sorting and differential mobility, those familiar old canards. This also explains why clams are found in more recent layers than Kimberella — they were better at climbing. We also have insight into trilobite culture: they must have held great reverence for their ancestors, since while scurrying about in terror, they still found time to excavate all of the bodies of their dead and haul them to higher ground with them. Clearly, they were god’s creatures.

Sorry for all the slaughtered toddlers. Also clearly, I am not one of god’s creatures, since I have so little reverence for religious idiocy.

I get email

It’s been a strange couple of days. The Trump camp is going down in flames, and I think they’re lashing out in frustration at totally irrelevant people, including me. I’ve had a sudden surge of off-the-cuff email from people angry about something, and they’re just randomly yelling at me. Dozens of emails all at once, all carping about something — transhumanism is good! You’re a goddamn cultural Marxist! Of course women and black people are biologically different from white men…and inferior! Are you Jewish? — it’s just gotten weird. Here’s one example; apparently, everything is my fault.

Richard Carrier

Your social justice warrior bullshit is making the entire atheist community look bad. If Richard Carrier hadn’t participated in the same kind of thin skinned, self-righteous bullshit you’re practicing right now, I would feel sorry for him.

Sent from my iPhone
Roger Ward

This is so typical. None of the current emails include a specific reference to anything, or even so much as a link or a quote — it’s all just furious blaming for something that has annoyed someone somewhere, and that something has provoked them into targeting me.

Which actually makes me kind of happy. I’m glad to steal the credit for social justice ‘bullshit’ anytime.

I’m also amused at the assumptions. There is an atheist community, and they’re looking bad, because someone is demanding equality and respect for all of its members? I don’t think the problem is one old nerd cocking an eyebrow and criticizing the normally uncriticized bad behavior of a few people, guy.

Any biologists looking for a job?

My university is hiring for a full-time, tenure-track biology position. Take a look at our job ad:

Duties/Responsibilities: Teaching undergraduate biology courses including cell biology, genetics, electives in the applicant’s areas of expertise, and other courses that support the biology program; advising undergraduates; conducting research that could involve undergraduates; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the biology program, the division, and the campus.

We’re looking for a cell biologist who can also teach genetics…hey, hang on there. Those are the courses I teach! Are the other faculty conspiring to replace me?* It’s a cunning plan they had, then, to put me on the search committee to find a new person to bump me off. They probably thought I’d never expect it if it was happening right under my nose.

Oh, well, I’ll accept my fate gracefully. If you think you’d fit in at a liberal arts university where teaching is your primary responsibility, and you know your cell biology and genetics, apply! We’ll be reviewing applicants starting on 10 November, and will be doing initial phone interviews in early December.

*Actually, it’s more about flexibility. With a small department, everyone needs to be able to wear multiple hats, and I’m the only guy teaching genetics right now, and have been the only guy for over a decade. We like to have a backup for everything. So it’s more like I’m a potential single point of failure.