The swiftboating of Eric Pianka

Pianka speaks out. Nick Matzke has a good post on Pianka at the Thumb, addressing the smear campaign against him*. He links to an interview with the good Dr—what he’s saying is simple sense, common in the biological community, and he’s not endorsing mass murder…he’s talking about conservation and planning ahead. Mims is a “crazy kook” who distorted the story and turned it into screaming match.

Get used to it. This is part of the right-wing strategy to attack the academy: when scientists honestly state bad news (and there is much bad news, and it’s growing), they are going to be rabidly accused of all kinds of outrageous crimes. It’s the new McCarthyism. The majority of us do not support short-sighted policy, we don’t endorse jingoism, we are going to urge people to think before acting, we are going to predict the consequences of bad policy, and we are generally going to be critical of demagogues and fools…and that is being treated as a crime.

*Quite unlike the situation with Paul Mirecki; I can’t help but interpret this to mean you’re going to be left twisting in the wind if the right-wing mobs try to lynch you, and you admit you’re godless.

Taphonomy of fossilized embryos

There are these fossilized embryos from the Ediacaran, approximately 570 million years ago, that have been uncovered in the Doushantuo formation in China. I’ve mentioned them before, and as you can see below, they are genuinely spectacular.

Parapandorina raphospissa

But, you know, I work with comparable fresh embryos all the time, and I can tell you that they are incredibly fragile—it’s easy to damage them and watch them pop (that’s a 2.3MB Quicktime movie), and dead embryos die and decay with amazing speed, minutes to hours. Dead cells release enzymes that trigger a process called autolysis that digests the embryo from within, and any bacteria in the neighborhood—and there are always bacteria around—descend on the tasty corpse and can turn it into a puddle of goo in almost no time at all. It makes a fellow wonder how these fossils could have formed, and what kind of conditions protect the cells from complete destruction before they were mineralized. Another concern is what kinds of embryos are favored by whatever the process is—is there a bias in the preservation?

Now Raff et al. have done a study in experimental taphonomy, the study of the conditions and processes by which organisms are fossilized, and have come up with a couple of answers for me. Short version: the conditions for rapid preservation are fairly easy to generate, but there is a bias in which stages can be reliably preserved.

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In the rural fastness of Western Minnesota, a legend grows. A man so nerdly that his infamy spreads far and wide; when people see shell-less molluscs, his name leaps to their lips; when geeks and nerds gather, they all whisper the same thing: “Pee-Zee” (or, as the Canadians and Dr Who fans would say, “Pee-Zed.”)

Yes, in yet another of a string of geek honors, I have been invited to the GeekProm, to be held in the Science Museum of Minnesota on 22 April. There will be spaz-dancing, cow-eye dissections, and a talent show, and some couple will be crowned King and Queen Geek.

Obviously, I deserve to go to this. What you may not realize, O Unsuspecting Readers, is that by reading this site you too are now fully certified Geeks and Nerds. Sorry about that, but it is infectious, and you have only yourselves to blame. I’m also afraid that there aren’t any scientists interested in working on a cure, so you’re just going to have to live with your punishment…and show up to out-spaz me on the dance floor.

See you all there.

Koufax winners are announced!

It’s a marvelous list:

And yay! I’m in there! Thanks to all who voted, and look at all those great links!

How stuff doesn’t work

I am very disappointed. There is this site called How Stuff Works that I’ve run into a few times, that has nice, short, kid-friendly summaries of, obviously enough, how stuff works. I hadn’t used it much, but it seemed like a cool idea…until a reader suggested I take a look at the section on how evolution works.

It’s terrible.

The author has a very, very poor understanding of basic biology, and it looks like the essay was simply spun off the top of his head, with a few quick glances at some websites. The author, Marshall Brain, is an electrical engineer and computer scientist, and it shows, embarrassingly enough.

The whole general introduction is thin and strange and far from how a biologist would discuss it, but rather than going over everything, I’ll focus on one section as an example, a summary of “Holes in the theory“. While giving far too much emphasis to problems than is appropriate, this section has another serious flaw: his holes ain’t holes. All this section is is an airing of the author’s ignorance.

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It’s “Report a scientist to the Feds” day!

Now William Dembski, that untiring advocate of academic freedom and the open discussion of controversial ideas, has reported Eric Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security.

Could Pianka be charged with terrorism/conspiracy to commit a terrorist act? What happens if a student actually takes his suggestion to heart and kills a bunch of people? Why shouldn’t we think that Dr. Doom himself would commit the act of human destruction he is advocating? How is what he is saying any different from somebody at an airport saying that he plans to plant a bomb there.

Hmmm…anybody ever read any apocalyptic Christian literature? Did you know those guys are looking forward to Armageddon? Maybe the screeners at airports ought to arrest anyone caught carrying a Left Behind book…or a Bible. This is the crazy world to which paranoid kooks would lead us.

Although, actually, I don’t think Dembski is paranoid: I suspect there’s more a kind of vile glee at seeing a way to harass a scientist.