There are no living pterosaurs, and “ropen” is a stupid fantasy

I was recently getting dunned by kooks insisting that a live pterosaur had been found. I’d love to see a pterosaur, but I’m afraid they’ve been extinct for over 65 million years; I’d also like to have a conversation with my great-great grandfather, John Page Hurt of Saylersville, Kentucky (I’m pretty sure he fought in the Civil War…on the wrong side), but I think we can be realistic about the likelihood of that happening. I took a look at the pterosaur information anyway, though, and discovered something interesting. There isn’t any evidence. There’s just one fanatic.

Here’s the kind of evidence they present. You’d expect a blurry photo of some flying creature, right? Or maybe claw marks, or scattered fewmets…none of which would be particularly persuasive. But no — we don’t even get that much. We get photos like this:

Professor Peter Beach tells Whitcomb how the bright light quickly flew up from the tree

Professor Peter Beach tells Whitcomb how the bright light quickly flew up from the tree

That’s it. Not a picture of the creature, but a picture of a guy pointing to a place where he claims to have seen a glowing light. Or sometimes we get this:


A generic picture of some trees in Kentucky, where some guy said he saw a pterosaur. Twice, no less.

These stories are terrible and pointless. There is no evidence here.

And then something else emerges — all the sources sound dreadfully familiar. Here’s a list of some of the sites I found, and the authors’ names where available.

Same stories, same pedantic, boring style, same lack of understanding of what constitutes evidence. It turns out that they’re all by the same guy, Jonathan Whitcomb, who’s been busily dropping turds all over the internet to make it look like there is an active community of researchers tracking down the wily pterosaur. There isn’t. And he confesses to rampant sock puppetry!

If you had Googled something like “live pterosaur” in 2005, the first page may have included a site that included the words “stupid,” “dinosaur,” and “lies” in the URL. Yes, it was libel, and that site is probably still out there; but try searching on “live pterosaur” today and you won’t see that libelous site listed on the first three pages of Google. You will find that most of the pages are positive about the possibility of modern living pterosaurs. The few that are negative are at least not libelous.

My purpose in using the pen name “Norman Huntington” differed from that of Alice Sheldon, but is was equally valid. I got around potential bias in readers by using that name instead of my own. The difference is this: I was trying to attract attention to the basic idea of modern pterosaurs, not to my own writing ability. (In fact I altered my writing style for those blog posts using “Huntington.”)

But it’s OK that he’s playing these circular SEO games, because he’s not trying to peddle his writing commercially — it’s just so gosh-darn important that everyone know about these pathetic pterosaur stories, so he’s just got to play these sneaky games to avoid criticism and get his essential story told.

There’s another motive, too: he’s a creationist who thinks finding a ptersoaur would defeat evolution, and he’s using his book and web pages to promote the Mormon religion.

Consider Helaman 5:50, regarding the conversion of many Lamanites, after the miracle in the prison with the brother-missionaries Lehi and Nephi. Lamanites who did not see the miraculous fire believed the words of the eyewitnesses who did see it: “And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received.” Latter-day saints rejoice for those who listen to the spiritual testimonies of those who had received confirmation of the truth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as missionaries may appear, on the surface, to differ from those they teach, eyewitnesses of strange flying creatures are from various countries and cultures, appearing to differ from those who have been raised in Western countries in which universal-extinction ideas are taken for granted for dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

Greatness of the evidences, indeed.

There’s also another place where you can find the story of the living pterosaur: the wikipedia article on “ropen”. It’s pure mush regurgitated from Whitcomb’s pages; the only sources cited are from Whitcomb, with the exception of mentioning two paranormal reality TV shows, “Destination Truth” (on SyFy) and “Monster Quest” (on the History channel). It’s a completely credulous and pro-bullshit page, and is a perfect example of why I don’t let my students ever cite Wikipedia. It’s also got Whitcomb’s fingerprints all over it — he was formerly an editor going by the name “jondw”, although he seems to be an ex-editor now. The page that contributes to his PR efforts for the totally fictitious creature “ropen” still stands, though.

Didn’t see it coming

The Florida mass-murderer had a lot of problems: he was a “loner” (uh-oh, so was I!), and other kids thought he was “weird” (damn, that’s me again), and he’d also been treated in the past for mental health concerns (I was not, but there should be no stigma with getting help). Those all seem like irrelevant points to me, not associated with going on a shooting rampage, but there were other signs, which his foster family didn’t even notice.

Jim Lewis said the family is devastated and didn’t see this coming.

Maybe it’s because people don’t pay attention to the right signs. Like this one:

Victoria Olvera, a 17-year-old student, said Cruz was expelled last school year after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. She said Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend.

“Abusive to women” — that one warrants a great big check mark in a large box at the top of the checklist. If you can’t respect one class of people, you’re probably already well-practiced at dehumanization and lack empathy.

He was in a fight so severe that he was expelled from school? There’s another sign, a propensity for violence. Unfortunately, once you’re kicked out of school, there isn’t a fallback institution where this kid’s problems could be corrected.

What else might have been a concern?

According to the family’s lawyer, who did not identify them, they knew that Cruz owned an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, but made him keep it locked up in a cabinet. He did have the key, however.

Teenagers do not need an AR-15. I can sympathize with someone enjoys target shooting or hunting, although I don’t do either, but that’s a weapon that’s not particular good for either hobby. It’s good for stroking while you have bloody power fantasies.

Mutchler recalled Cruz posting on Instagram about killing animals and said he had talked about doing target practice in his backyard with a pellet gun.

Target practice with a pellet gun? Fine. Killing animals? Bright red flashing lights and a siren going off.

“He started going after one of my friends, threatening her, and I cut him off from there,” Mutchler said.

“Threatening people” is one of those things that has been treated as perfectly fine on the internet — it’s just free speech, man, you know you can’t say anything against free speech. Unless you threaten to kill the president, of course. Then for some reason they’ll think you might be a real danger to an Important Person, so they investigate further and open a file on you. Threaten an ordinary citizen…well, suck it up, ignore it, even if he does have an AR-15 and instagrams photos of dead animals and has a history of physical abuse.

“There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus,” Gard said.

They knew.

The parents, the school administrators, his peers, they all saw it coming. They knew this kid was a powder keg ready to go off. But you don’t get to condemn guns or abuse of women as a serious warning sign — those things are OK in this culture — so they did nothing.

Well, they did nothing except abandon the kid to his own devices, where he festered and got worse. Let’s see a stronger, more active response to dangerous people than neglect.

And let’s take their damn guns away.

Regulations require you to plan ahead

No wonder Republicans hate them! Planning and responsibility — who has time for that crap? Especially when it costs money.

Who needs review and ethical approval of drug trials, after all? These are just things we put in our mouths or inject into our veins, so sure, let’s just go crazy and shoot up whatever. It can’t hurt. If a rich tech vampire endorses it, that should be good enough for everyone. Especially if they are testing it, just not on Americans — those brown guinea pigs on Caribbean islands are good enough.

Heavyweight tech investor and FDA-critic Peter Thiel is among conservative funders and American researchers backing an offshore herpes vaccine trial that blatantly flouts US safety regulations, according to a Monday report by Kaiser Health News.

The vaccine—a live but weakened herpes virus—was first tested in a 17-person trial on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts without federal oversight or the standard human safety requirement of an institutional review board (IRB) approval. Biomedical researchers and experts have sharply rebuked the lack of safety oversight and slammed the poor quality of the data collected, which has been rejected from scientific publication. However, investors and those running the trial say it is a direct challenge to what they see as innovation-stifling regulations by the Food and Drug Administration.

Yeah, that’s their motive: skip the whole structure of regulatory fol-de-rol and fast-track testing by throwing it on a non-American population. The work was done to benefit a pharmaceutical company, which was plugged in the manuscript that the author attempted to publish (conflict of interest much?) and was done on a tiny population. What work was done put subjects at risk and also had negligible statistical power, but hey, the PI, Halford, and Thiel were stickin’ it to the Man and bypassing those onerous regulations, so it ought to get extra brownie points for that.

Other researchers and experts strongly disagreed with Halford’s stance and handling of a live, attenuated virus vaccine, which can cause infections in the uninfected or severe side-effects in those already infected. “What they’re doing is patently unethical,” Jonathan Zenilman, chief of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Infectious Diseases Division, told KHN. “There’s a reason why researchers rely on these protections. People can die.”

Robert Califf, who served as FDA commissioner during the Obama era, agreed. “There’s a tradition of having oversight of human experimentation, and it exists for good reasons,” he said. “It may be legal to be doing it without oversight, but it’s wrong.”

You can read the reviewer’s comments on the paper for yourself. They are polite, professional and scathing. A sample:

4. The author presents results of 2 experiments on humans, the first one a safety study that he conducted on himself. While self-experiments are generally permitted, these still require IRB review. Please provide assurance that this protocol was IRB reviewed and that the participant signed an informed consent. Unfortunately, data on 1 person does not prove safety of a product.
5. The subsequent Phase 1 study was conducted on a Caribbean island nation. Again, no information about IRB for this study is provided, and the trial does not seem to be listed on The data for efficacy are based on self‐report on participants who were questioned by the author and other staff before and after. As the author states “self‐reported cessation of genital herpes… should be viewed with skepticism.” Agreed.
6. On Figure 8, there is an impressively small p value. However, how it was derived is not shown. Given that there were only 17 persons in this study, it is unlikely that an appropriate statistical test for performed to obtain this result.

Someone also saw right through the whole game.

6. Flying U.S. trial subjects to St. Kitt for the immunizations and then flying them back to the US is ethically questionable. Who is giving the immunizations in St. Kitt and who is following them medically when they return to the US? Where is the clinical protocol based? Is this an end run around the FDA?

It is true that IRBs are a pain in the butt, and sometimes you just want to scream that they are unnecessary — that you know how best to care for your subjects, you have years of experience, why do you need to document basic stuff that everyone in the field knows you have to do? Well, just imagine that a Peter Thiel gets hired by your university. That’s why we have to go through the nitpicky rigamorole, because there are bad guys looking for excuses to do stuff you would never imagine doing.

For another example of disastrous lack of planning and oversight, look south to Houston. Texans are notoriously defiant about regulations and little things like zoning, so Houston grew willy-nilly, with industry flourishing for the short term with the relative lack of demands for safety and disaster planning, and factories and chemical plants sprouting little clouds of residential housing around their dangerous facilities. I’m sure it made commuting convenient, and also helped pay for desirable amenites like schools, but still…would you want to live next door to a bomb?

In Crosby, Texas, there is a place called the Arkema chemical plant where they work with something called organic peroxides. This plant is located amid a residential and business district where, remarkably, human beings live and work. If the cooling systems in the plant fail, as they apparently have, these organic peroxides can explode. A 1.5 mile radius around the plant has been evacuated.

The state and plant owners have been lying lately about the hazards

“[The Harris County fire marshall] said that they don’t expect like a shock wave kind of explosion,” Matt Dempsey, a data reporter for the Houston Chronicle, told Maddow. “That’s in contradiction to the expert said who said we’re sitting on a powder keg type of situation here.”

“Experts on one side are saying it’s a huge thing, and I have the government officials and the company saying it might not be that big,” Dempsey continued. “It’s hard to tell for sure.”

Dempsey went on to detail a back-and-forth he’d had with Arkema’s CEO, who refused to make the plant’s inventory public and who hasn’t answered questions about whether the plant has industry standard fail-safes that deplete the stock in case of disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

Oh, no, they say, it’s safe — that big container of highly reactive peroxides isn’t going to explode if neglected and without power. It’s fine. You can trust the CEO who’s not saying anything about their safety measures or even what’s stockpiled there.

Guess what? This morning, it exploded. Twice. And there are concerns that multiple storage sites means that more explosions will occur. But don’t worry, while tons of toxic chemicals are now pouring into the flood waters, we can all hope they’ll catch fire and burn.

Still, the company said Wednesday, “the most likely outcome is that, anytime between now and the next few days, the low-temperature peroxide in unrefrigerated trailers will degrade and catch fire. There is a small possibility that the organic peroxide will release into the flood waters but will not ignite and burn. … In the alternate, there could be a combination event involving fire and environmental release. Any fire will probably resemble a large gasoline fire. The fire will be explosive and intense. Smoke will be released into the atmosphere and dissipate. People should remain clear of the area.”

The Associated Press reported that Arkema was previously required “to develop and submit a risk management plan to the Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas.”

Good luck, Texans. Your water is poisoned, your neighborhoods have been washed away, and what’s left is on fire, with clouds of sulfurous black clouds in the air. Yeee-hah!

These are human beings suffering from the consequences of generations of irresponsible neglect — where business has flourished at the expense of people’s long term health and happiness. We can blame all of this on the Republican party, which has built its popularity on this kind of contempt for government and regulation.

This is probably going to end up being the costliest disaster in American history. Who do you think is going to pay for it? Not the shareholders in the Arkema chemical plant. Not the legislators who shirked their responsibility. Not the rich capitalists who took advantage of the lax regulatory environment in Texas. It’s going to come out of the pockets of the victims.

Hurricane Harvey could be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history with a potential price tag of $160 billion, according to a preliminary estimate from private weather firm AccuWeather.

This is equal to the combined cost of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and represents a 0.8% economic hit to the gross national product, AccuWeather said.

“Parts of Houston, the United States’ fourth largest city, will be uninhabitable for weeks and possibly months due to water damage, mold, disease-ridden water and all that will follow this 1,000-year flood,” said AccuWeather president Joel Myers.

The Federal Reserve, major banks, insurance companies and other business leaders should begin to factor in the negative impact this catastrophe will have on business, corporate earnings and employment, Myers said.

That last paragraph says what is wrong with this country. Oh, gosh, the bankers, insurance companies, and CEOs are going to suffer so much! Screw ’em. They’ve been exploiting the people who are now actually suffering for decades.

Can Maher be the next guy knocked off his pedestal? Please?

Would you believe Bill Maher is claiming credit for putting the brakes on the Milo train? Of course you would. His ego is just that big.

Given all that has transpired since Friday’s show, how do you feel now about your decision to have Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest, and how those segments transpired?

Well, let’s recap. About a week ago, I went on Van Jones’s show, and somebody asked me about the booking. I hadn’t really gotten into the details of M1l0 yet. He was just getting on my radar. I said, specifically, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Then we had M1l0 on, despite the fact that many people said, “Oh, how dare you give a platform to this man.” What I think people saw was an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe, trying to make a buck off of the left’s propensity for outrage. And by the end of the weekend, by dinnertime Monday, he’s dropped as a speaker at CPAC. Then he’s dropped by Breitbart, and his book deal falls through. As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome.

Jebus. Maher gave a softball interview in which he called Yiannopoulos not unreasonable for thinking transgender women were just crashing bathrooms to rape people — he’s one of the Yiannopoulos enablers. You don’t get credit for knocking someone off a pedestal when you’re one of the people who put him up there.

Listicles get published in peer-reviewed journals!


I used a cruel headline, but this is actually a useful list: Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. It’s not just the popular media that mangle scientific language, but also more technical works sometimes slip into misleading shorthand. For instance, #1 on their list of bad terms:

(1) A gene for. The news media is awash in reports of identifying “genes for” a myriad of phenotypes, including personality traits, mental illnesses, homosexuality, and political attitudes (Sapolsky, 1997). For example, in 2010, The Telegraph (2010) trumpeted the headline, “‘Liberal gene’ discovered by scientists.” Nevertheless, because genes code for proteins, there are no “genes for” phenotypes per se, including behavioral phenotypes (Falk, 2014). Moreover, genome-wide association studies of major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggest that there are probably few or no genes of major effect (Kendler, 2005). In this respect, these disorders are unlike single-gene medical disorders, such as Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. The same conclusion probably holds for all personality traits (De Moor et al., 2012).

Not surprisingly, early claims that the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is a “warrior gene” (McDermott et al., 2009) have not withstood scrutiny. This polymorphism appears to be only modestly associated with risk for aggression, and it has been reported to be associated with conditions that are not tied to a markedly heightened risk of aggression, such as major depression, panic disorder, and autism spectrum disorder (Buckholtz and Meyer-Lindenberg, 2013; Ficks and Waldman, 2014). The evidence for a “God gene,” which supposedly predisposes people to mystical or spiritual experiences, is arguably even less impressive (Shermer, 2015) and no more compelling than that for a “God spot” in the brain (see “God spot”). Incidentally, the term “gene” should not be confused with the term “allele”; genes are stretches of DNA that code for a given morphological or behavioral characteristic, whereas alleles are differing versions of a specific polymorphism in a gene (Pashley, 1994).

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Developmental plasticity is not Lamarckism

Sometimes, people email me with good questions. Here’s one.

When I was a kid, my own visualization of evolution was Lamarckism.

But I didn’t know it. In reading Dawkins and others, I know it doesn’t exist. But it seems this article is claiming it does to some extent. Can you comment? I’m curious as to the current consensus as I’ve been reading a lot about genes that can be turned on and passed to offspring. Can you take a look?

This is a fairly common question. Looked at naively, developmental plasticity seems to be Lamarckian — we’re talking about organisms responding with morphological changes to their environment, just like Lamarck’s example of the giraffe stretching its neck. But that’s only the first step; the transmission of a distribution of traits to the next generation is purely Darwinian.

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I guess someone at Wikipedia noticed

I pointed out that their article on ‘ropen’ was biased mush from a crank, and lo! The article is now flagged.

This article is being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia’s deletion policy.
Please share your thoughts on the matter at this article’s entry on the Articles for deletion page.
Feel free to edit the article, but the article must not be blanked, and this notice must not be removed, until the discussion is closed. For more information, particularly on merging or moving the article during the discussion, read the Guide to deletion.

This article may present fringe theories, without giving appropriate weight to the mainstream view, and explaining the responses to the fringe theories. Please improve the article or discuss the issue on the talk page. (August 2014)

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The paper they don’t want you to read!

The climate change denialists are a bit thin-skinned; they’ve also been exposed as a bit on the wacko side. The journal Frontiers in Psychology is about to retract a paper that found that denialists tend to have a cluster of weird beliefs (NASA faked the moon landings, the CIA was in charge of the assassination of political figures in the US, etc.) because the denialists screamed very loudly.

This outrage first arose in response to a paper, NASA faked the moon landing–Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science (pdf) which analyzed voluntary surveys submitted by readers of climate science blogs, in which the respondents freely admitted to having a collection of other beliefs, in addition to climate change denial. That paper found something else interesting, and was the primary correlation observed: a lot of denialists are libertarians. Are you surprised?

Rejection of climate science was strongly associated with endorsement of a laissez-faire view of unregulated free markets. This replicates previous work (e.g., Heath & Gifford, 2006) although the strength of association found here (r ~.80) exceeds that reported in any extant study. At least in part, this may reflect the use of SEM, which enables measurement of the associations between constructs free of measurement error (Fan, 2003).

A second variable that was associated with rejection of climate science as well as other scientific propositions was conspiracist ideation. Notably, this relationship emerged even though conspiracies that related to the queried scientific propositions (AIDS, climate change) did not contribute to the conspiracist construct. By implication, the role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science did not simply reflect “convenience” theories that provided specific alternative “explanations” for a scientific consensus. Instead, this finding suggests that a general propensity to endorse any of a number of conspiracy theories predisposes people to reject entirely unrelated scientific facts.

Oh, how they howled. Even libertarians seem to be embarrassed at being affiliated with libertarians, I guess. And conspiracy theorists, too? Why, the accusation itself is clearly evidence that there’s a conspiracy out to get them. They protested that because the respondents to the survey all found it through mainstream science blogs, all the responses were false flag operations put out by Big Climate.

What they didn’t realize was that they were generating more data to support the hypothesis. The authors of the first paper then wrote a second paper, the one that is now being retracted by the cowardly publisher, called Recursive Fury: Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere in Response to Research on Conspiracist Ideation, in which they scanned public posts and comments on the first article, and analyzed the text for evidence of conspiracist tropes (it’s a nefarious scheme, they’re out to get us, it’s an organized movement to defeat us, etc.) and found that yes, conspiracist reasoning was quite common on climate change denial blogs.

They also rebutted some claims. The claim that the authors never bothered to contact the denialist blogs to host their survey was shot down pretty easily: they had the email, and further, they had replies from denialists who later claimed they never received any request to host the survey.

Initial attention of the blogosphere also focused on the method reported by LOG12, which stated: “Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 “skeptic” (or “skeptic”-leaning) blogs were approached but none posted the link.” Speculation immediately focused on the identity of the 5 “skeptic” bloggers. Within short order, 25 “skeptical” bloggers had come publicly forward9 to state that they had not been approached by the researchers. Of those 25 public declarations, 5 were by individuals who were invited to post links to the study by LOG12 in 2010. Two of these bloggers had engaged in correspondence with the research assistant for further clarification.

Those emails were also revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request.

The squawking reached a new crescendo. Steve McIntyre wrote a strongly worded formal letter demanding that the defamatory article be removed, and accusing the authors of malice. Further, they complained that analyzing the content of blog posts and comments, public, openly accessible work, was an ethics violation.

Ludicrous as those claims are, Frontiers in Psychology is apparently about to fold to them. For shame.

You know, my university had a meeting with our institutional lawyers yesterday — I was called in to attend the information session for some reason, like having a reputation as a trouble-maker or something — and I was impressed with their professionalism and their commitment to actually defending the faculty and staff of the university. I guess not every organization is lucky enough to have good lawyers of principle.

Oh, well. All I can say is that, thanks to the denialist ratfuckers, now everyone is going to be far more interested in reading the two papers by Lewandowsky and others. I recommend that you read Motivated rejection of science (pdf) and Recursive fury(pdf) now, or anytime — they’re archived on the web. You might also stash away a copy yourself. You make a denialist cry every time you make a copy, you know.

The first author on the papers, Stephan Lewandowsky, has a few comments.

The strategies employed in those attacks follow a common playbook, regardless of which scientific proposition is being denied and regardless of who the targeted scientists are: There is cyber-bullying and public abuse by “trolling” (which recent research has linked to sadism); there is harassment by vexatious freedom-of-information (FOI) requests; there are the complaints to academic institutions; legal threats; and perhaps most troubling, there is the intimidation of journal editors and publishers who are acting on manuscripts that are considered inconvenient.