Letters to the Editor

Wildlife Apocalypse?

As a natural resource economist, I appreciated the supply and demand framework in “Wildlife Apocalypse” (July/August 2018). The trade driving animal extinctions is complex, with legal, social, and economic dimensions, and the myth foundation underlying the problem provided readers with insights to what is driving the demand that threatens some endangered species. That purely legal solutions hardly work was made obvious.

The economist in me wanted a discussion of how economics—that created the problem—is also the best tool to protect these animals. While regulatory schemes have not proven effective in providing protection, economic ones based on giving local communities some sort of defined property rights in the wildlife populations, plus benefit-sharing so that those communities have a stake in preserving the wildlife, have proven to actually make a difference. Economic and free market solutions generally have the least unintended consequences; basic market-based approaches such as taxes and tradable quota systems have produced revenues that allow governments to develop protection programs or, better yet, give local communities revenue and an incentive to value protection.

The entire article was really one on applied resource economics. I understand the economic solutions can seem complex, but there are plenty of simple examples where the free market approach has turned around a declining wildlife population. A discussion of those would have made a very interesting article even more interesting.

Thomas J. Straka
Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina

The Creationists’ Flood

In his generally effective rebuttal of creationist flood geology (Follow Up, “Response to Ken Ham … ,” July/August 2018), Lorence Collins states that the “birds” present in the Niobrara seaway chalks are actually nondinosaurian pterosaurs. Although pteranodonts and nyctosaurs did make up the great majority of flying archosaur fossils from those Cretaceous sediments, there are full blown birds present in the form of the gull-sized and -like ichthyornids, as well as the big flightless hesperornithid divers. Both were toothed avian dinosaurs that went extinct by the end of the Mesozoic. As for what killed the individual birds whose fossil remains have been found, it was probably normal attrition due to age, disease, injury, and the like; there is no need to invoke special mass mortality events.

Gregory Paul
Baltimore, Maryland
(Gregory Paul is author of the upcoming Princeton Field Guide to Pterosaurs.)

Lorence Collins replies:

Undoubtedly, Gregory Paul is correct about the presence of avian dinosaurs (with teeth) being present in the Cretaceous sediments in Kansas, but Andrew Snelling called them birds rather than avian dinosaurs, so my comment still is viable and has merit. Gregory Paul should be thanked for his knowledge and information.

In his excellent response to creationists regarding Noah’s Flood (July/August 2018), Lorence Collins makes a chemical error. Bones are not composed of calcium carbonate but rather calcium phosphate. He is still correct in asserting that this will not readily dissolve in a sea already saturated with calcium ions.

This brings me to a favorite objection of mine (being a chemist). To deposit 200 meters of chalk (density 2500 kg/m3) from a water column the same depth would require that the sea originally held a staggering 2.5 kilograms of calcium carbonate per liter of solution. Yet calcium carbonate is insoluble. If creationists can come up with a way of keeping that level of calcium carbonate dissolved, and precipitating it on demand, then I suggest they patent it immediately. The market for preventing lime-scale is huge.

Stephen Moreton, PhD
Great Sankey
Warrington
Cheshire, England, UK

Those Illusory Canals

SI readers who enjoyed Matthew Sharps’s insightful article on Percival Lowell and Mars (May/June 2018) might be interested in reading my concurrent piece “Canal Mania” in the July 2018 issue of the popular astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope. The ready acceptance of Lowell’s putative canals by numerous contemporaries must also be seen in the context of other social and economic factors at the time.

As I point out in “Canal Mania,” shipping and irrigation canals proliferated in huge numbers in Britain, Canada, and the United States during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Some 6,000 kilometers of canals were built in Britain alone during the Victorian era, along with major efforts such as the Lachine, Welland, and Erie canals, and the world-changing Suez and Panama projects. In addition, numerous irrigation ventures were underway in Lowell’s backyard, Arizona, and other southwest states, so as to tame the desert “wastelands” and promote agriculture. As a consequence, canals were seen as modern technological wonders to advance human (and why not martian?) civilization.

A second factor to recall during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the doctrine of the “plurality of the worlds,” which held that most celestial bodies must be inhabited since God would not create anything without purpose. That “purpose” of course is to create rational beings on those worlds just like on ours. Though going back as far as ancient Greece, this doctrine was formalized by philosopher David Lewis, who wrote in his 1886 book On the Plurality of Worlds, “and that we who inhabit this world are only a few out of all the inhabitants of all the worlds.” Many prominent scientists and thinkers were adherents of this thesis, including Christian Huygens, John Locke, William Herschel, John Adams, and Isaac Newton among others.

In light of this widespread belief, it’s not surprising that many late-nineteenth–century people were open to claims that the other most Earth-like planet is inhabited by industrious, sentient beings who, like us, built canal networks to syphon water from the martian poles to its arid equatorial regions. Finally, it must be pointed out that not all martian “canals” were illusory, just not artificial. Most prominent among these is the giant canyon, Valles Marineris (called Coprates by Lowell), a prominent fracture zone Cerberus Fossae, and a number of windswept dust streaks crisscrossing the Red Planet.

Klaus R. Brasch
Flagstaff, Arizona

Fake Medicine and Fake News

The July/August Skeptical Inquirer contained many thought-provoking articles.  In “FDA Has Duty to Crack Down on Homeopathic Fake Medicine, says Center for Inquiry,” CFI reports on attacking homeopathy at the political top end. Awhile ago I saw some homeopathic medicines on sale in a local drug store. If I see them on sale again I could object to the store manager or to corporate in charge of the store chain or I could write a letter to the editor of our local paper criticizing the practice. Your readers could be encouraged to object at the bottom, consumer end, to the sale of homeopathic products.

In “Skepticism Reloaded,” Amardeo Sarma emphasizes the importance of skeptics relying on scientific truth and rejecting pseudoscientific claims. However, Kendrick Frazier reports on a study showing that “Lies and False News Spread Faster, Farther Online Than Truth, Study Shows.” Perhaps, keeping our status as skeptics associated with skeptical organizations under cover, we might utilize Frazier’s observations of the power of fake news and spread the news that since the FDA has not approved homeopathic medicines, they may contain contaminants harmful to one’s health.

Although one would not want the use of false news associated with skepticism, one can make a case for skeptics making clandestine use of it.

David W. Briggs
Marion, Massachusetts

We Skeptics Doing It Right?

I’ve been a committed skeptic for a couple of decades and voraciously consume each issue of Skeptical Inquirer within a day or two of its arrival in the mail. However, I have to say that the most significant thing I’ve read in years is the letter from Sharon A. Hill in your July/August issue. Much as I enjoy reading about battles against specific examples of faulty thinking, I tend to feel that something of primary importance is being left out. What does it mean to be a skeptic, and what goals should I, as well as the community I identify with, be striving to achieve?

The only thing I’m sure about is the need to resist the discrimination that like-minded people and I face in our society. But how do we do that? Beyond that, I’m unsure of many things. Should my attitude toward religion be antagonism, coexistence, or cooperation toward achieving a mutual goal? Should my attitude toward fundamentalism be different than toward mainline or liberal religions? What about non-western religions? How can I make a political impact, seeing my loyalty is not with the Right or the Left but with rational thinking itself? How can I make an impact on the people I interact with every day? And how can the skeptical community affect society at large, knowing that the vast majority of people are never going to identify themselves as skeptics?

I long for a movement that can develop a clear philosophy about who we are and what we are trying to accomplish.

Kevin Gates
Hallstead, Pennsylvania

Sharon A. Hill makes some great points that align with a feeling I’ve had for some time. I worry that too many skeptics conflate science and technology. This was confirmed by L.G. Wade’s letter, which asserts laws against GMOs are based on “false beliefs.”

While advancing our knowledge through science has revolutionized society, no rational person can claim that our technological advances have been without problems or even that their developers identified those problems before making the technology available.

A clear case in point is the use of fossil fuels to drive industrial production. This produced massive social upheaval while polluting the air and water. Today climate change is viewed as an existential threat to our civilization.

Thomas Newcomen was just looking for a better way to keep mines from flooding. It would be unreasonable to expect him to have predicted cholera epidemics as workers crowded into cities once industry was freed from reliance on wind and water power.

The straw man arguments many skeptics make about GMOs having the same nutritional value as traditional crops ignore the broader concerns about their impact on the environment and the economics of farming. This technology has given us Roundup-ready crops that have already led to the predictable development of Roundup-resistant super weeds.

In protecting their commercial rights, GMO seed companies have taken legal action against farmers who follow the traditional practice of saving seeds. They have even taken legal action when GMO crops interbreed with other crops, including old varieties harvested by subsistence farmers.

When we move from advocating facts, evidence, and reason to being cheerleaders for technology, we undermine skepticism as surely as the postmodern philosophers Professor Sidky (in his cover article in the March/April 2018 SI) complained about.

Gary Dale
West Hill, Ontario, Canada

We hope readers will also have noticed Amardeo Sarma’s essay, “Skepticism Reloaded,” in the same issue; it discusses these and other issues, goals, practices, problems, and ideals of the skeptic movement. —Editors

The Pathology of Jihad

Islamic Jihad has gone beyond making “direct contact with modernity” (“The Anatomy and Pathology of Jihad,” Special Report, July/August 2018), it’s a thoroughly modern movement. The jihadists not only employ the latest communications technology and turned the West’s hi-tech aircraft into weapons, the modern jihad has little in common with the old caliphate, which never tried to impose Universalist Islam.

Islamic Jihad is an expression of the Enlightenment impulse to “change the world,” which spawned Democracy, Communism, Fascism, and the post-Christian values of Neoliberalism.

The error is not “sacralizing” democratic values—that’s expected from a nontheistic religion—but in trying to impose Western values on cultures that have no indigenous, underlying experience with the Western faith of progress.

C.J. Michiels
Los Angeles, California

Changelings

I enjoyed Stuart Vyse’s column “The Enduring Legend of the Changeling” (July/August 2018) and noticed a small error in the text, which I hope he won’t mind me pointing out. While Clint Eastwood did indeed direct the 2008 film Changeling, he was not, as stated in the article, involved in the earlier 1980 Canadian horror film The Changeling, which was directed by Peter Medak.

Martin Stubbs
London, England

Falsely Equating

In his reply to a question in the July/August issue Benjamin Radford writes on p. 29, “Israel and Iran want to blow each other off the face of the Earth … .” While the leaders of Iran have called Israel a “cancerous tumor” that they want to eradicate, I have seen no evidence that Israel wants to “blow Iran off the face of the earth.” In fact, Israel had good relations with Iran until Muslim religious fanatics took over the government.

In recent years, as lies are spreading much faster than truth, I have seen an increasing amount of information distortion where two things that have little in common are declared to be equivalent. In this case Radford falsely equates Iran’s goal of destroying Israel with Israel’s goal of defending itself against Iran.

John Grant
Baltimore, Maryland

Benjamin Radford replies:

I was not attempting to accurately characterize the complex relations between Israel and Iran in the context of a passing sarcastic rhetorical question in a column on UFO conspiracy theories. The point was that the two countries have long been enemies, and regardless of any declarations or hyperbolic threats neither country has destroyed the other. In April 2018 Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, stated that any Iranian attack on Tel Aviv would be met with a responsive strike on Tehran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened a military attack on Iran—in the absence of an offensive strike on Israel—should that country attempt to block the Baab al-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea.

Object Orientation

Concerning the Curious Christmas Light problem (Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2018): I enjoy the occasional articles providing explanations for apparently anomalous phenomena, but I believe the solution given in this case is erroneous.

The article gives geometrical constructions (lines S from shadows) which roughly converge to give an estimate of the sun’s position (B). It then drops a vertical line V and concludes that the mystery glowing spot is directly beneath the sun.

But I believe gravity does not affect the light trajectory —so the ideas of vertical and beneath are irrelevant.

Instead, the lens flare hypothesis predicts that the flare image A lie within the same plane as the sun B and the camera axis. The latter is normally the center of the image C, located by the diagonal lines. This gives a discrepancy of 30 degrees.

Unless the image has been cropped, in which case the analysis can be re-done with the true center.

Ian Bryce
Chief Investigator, Australian Skeptics
Sydney, Australia


Wildlife Apocalypse? As a natural resource economist, I appreciated the supply and demand framework in “Wildlife Apocalypse” (July/August 2018). The trade driving animal extinctions is complex, with legal, social, and economic dimensions, and the myth foundation underlying the problem provided readers with insights to what is driving the demand that threatens some endangered species. That …

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