The Country is a Little More Equal Now #LoveWins

Legally-recognized gay marriage is now the in the USA. There are still things that need to be done for gay and trans rights and respect, but at least this significant step has been taken. I wish it were not a split 5-4 decision but something stronger, but beggars can’t be choosers. For now, we can say that indeed, it has gotten better.

Gay pride flags are going up, and racist flags are coming down. The progress is slow and sometimes very painful, but we can point to progress. #itgetsbetter

Ethical Chocolate: Science Deceptions and Solutions

The big news last week was that a study touted around the world for showing the supposed health benefits of eating chocolate was as a hoax. As revealed at io9, the study was done in order to show how bad things are in science journalism and what can get published and noticed today in diet and medical journals using specious statistical tools.

The way it worked is this: the author, John Bohannon, collected a rather small number of subjects to do an experiment with three groups changing or keeping their normal diets. Then data was collected from all groups and a later battery of tests were done to find any differences. The problem with a study like this is that with the small sample size and the very many different tests, the chances of finding any variable change that is “statistically significant” is rather high. Note that “statistical significance” is not the same as having a result that is large and noticeable but instead is a measure of how unlikely to get that result if there were no correlation between input and output (i.e., diet with chocolate and weight). With most papers, a result is statistically significant if the chances of getting a correlation when there is none is less that 5% (p < 0.05); but that also means that if you do twenty tests you can expect one to be statistically significant just by chance. With so many tests and so few subjects to average out any statistical fluctuations, then any positive results -are at best specious since chance cannot be ruled out. Roll the die enough and you will get snake-eyes. Heck, it’s expected, and that should have been noticed by any journal reviewer or trained science journalist.

So the fact that the study even got published, let alone got wide attention, shows there is something wrong in how things are working.

Interestingly, this has been causing not simply a reflection on issues in science and journalism, but there is a question on the very ethics of doing a fake study like this one. Continue reading

The Claimed Mummy Gospel Fragment

As has been all over the news recently, there is an alleged scrap of the first written Gospel from the Bible, the Gospel of Mark, as found inside of a papier-mache mummy. This has the potential to be a boon for New Testament studies, but there has been significant controversy about how this discovery has been revealed and how it was done. Even the mummy mask that is the source for this scrap of papyrus looks uncomfortable with how things are going.

A bit of background. Continue reading

The Decline and Fall of Classical Education? MSU and the Future

The other day a post went up by the David Meadows (a.k.a., the Rogue Classicist) about a story from Michigan State, my alma mater. It was about the story of the last person to graduate from MSU in classics. That is because in 2009 the university decided to bring down the hatchet on certain departments for budgetary reasons. Sadly, one of those was the classics department, and now they are no longer taking on new majors. A search through the course catalog shows that they are still teaching Latin, but Greek has little to no presence now. Classical studies also shows nothing.

The full article from the Lansing State Journal included a few statements from one of my professors in Greek from MSU, William Blake Tyrrell.

He said MSU was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

I can very much get behind that sentiment. It’s symbolically sad also given that the mascot of MSU is the Spartan; now Spartans have to go somewhere else to learn the language of the Spartans (or at least one of its variants).

For a bit of personal background, I took a year of Greek and Latin at MSU in my senior year because I wanted to have greater access to ancient sources, in particular related to my interests in biblical studies. By no means am I anywhere near the fluency of my professors, but I certainly believe I learned a lot from them. Strangely, that has also helped me in my physics research since I also had to look at Greek and Latin sources when examining physics concepts through the ages. So I may be a bit biased. Then again, the chopping block had also come down on the geology department, and I think that that was a poor idea as well.

But it is worth reflecting on the need for such a field of study in modern universities. It is not possible to have all possible departments at all universities; for example, MSU doesn’t seem to have had anything in Assyriology or anything with cuneiform studies–a script that had been used by several civilizations for thousands of years, longer than has the alphabet. And it’s not like there aren’t more things to discover in that field (I’m currently reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark before Noah who shows great passion for the subject and that the British Museum has plenty more even in its cabinets to discover and translate). Even besides having the money to fun every such academic pursuit, there also needs to be student demand. When I took Latin, we had about a full class, and the second semester was still pretty full; in Greek, the first class was relatively small and the second semester was less than ten (I think about five at the end). That won’t be reflective of all places (I have been told that here at OSU there are about 50 people in classical studies majors right now), but it is a reality that there isn’t a groundswell of student demand for dead languages.

Along with that, there is the question on how to make sure that what you learn with a degree in classics translates into making a living. Outside of academic pursuits, it is hard to directly translate ones ability to read archaic Greek into cash or employment. Is it the case then that learning these things is really just for those with the extra time and money to take the classes rather than it being something that has a demand in itself from society? Is this little more than something for the privileged?

I would like to argue that that isn’t (totally) true, and there is reason to have such studies in universities even if other possible pursuits are not also included. The primary reason is that it is really impossible to understand so much of the modern world Americans (and Europeans) live in and how it was shaped. Whether we are talking about how the Founding Fathers came to their political ideas (they read their Cicero, for one thing), or much of modern literature that is filled with allusions to Greek and Roman myth and history, or, even more fundamentally, understanding our very language. While learning Akkadian would be necessary to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, it has much less impact on our way of speech than does Greek, let alone Latin. Personally, I think I have been understood the structure of English better by learning these languages, even more so than when I have been taught modern ones.

Now, why teach the Greek myths rather than, say, Chinese ones? Why consider the poetry of Homer necessarily more highly than an African or Far Eastern authors? To this, there is not a good response. I would be hard-pressed to claim that Homer and Virgil were the best poets in the history of the world, better than what any other culture had produced. On the other hand, it is the case that in the West we are much closer to the myths of Homer than of anything from China, be it phrases such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or our awareness of the names of the Greek gods even in a non-pagan, Christian (or secular) society. My physics students know when I am referring to the Odyssey (they can just barely remember the name of the cyclopes, Polyphemus). Our heritage is still the most bound up with the Mediterranean and its ancient peoples and stories. There is still the pull from legends of Jason and his Argonauts, or the intrigue of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. It is not because these civilizations were the best ever, or even the best in their time, but because they are the ones that still echo to us in this day and age. That should be reason to know what was written by these people–they in effect made us the way we are. That isn’t to say we should not learn Chinese stories or the language, just that our cultural heritage should prioritize knowing itself.

I don’t know if petitioning MSU will have any effect, but all I can do is encourage people to know their own pasts. To be fair, learning these old languages is hard (I am no master, not by a long shot), but to understand the cultures that produced them and produced the myths and stories that make our current cultural background should be rewarding to all. And sometimes fun (my favorite sentence from Latin: malo malo malo malo). And not having people knowing this fills me with μήνιος.

Okay, time for some preposition exercises with a lion.

On the Trouble with Bruno and #Cosmos

Since its debut on Sunday before last, the new Cosmos series has garnered a lot of attention. It has been fun to some degree seeing those that are in denial of many of our more astounding scientific truths try to combat what is shown by Cosmos-host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. A FOX station in Oklahoma, for example, accidentally cut out about 15 seconds of the first episode that spoke of early human ancestors. An accident that is too easy to interpret. Clearer are the responses from folks at Answers in Genesis, who have to hate on the whole of cosmology, geology, and biology.

However, perhaps what has gotten the most flack from creationists and pro-science folks is the representation of the execution of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600. In particular, over at the NCSE blog, Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau claimed that the show was promoting the false narrative of the history of science and religion as always or primarily adversarial, how Bruno wasn’t really a scientist, that his cosmological views didn’t really cause him to get burned, and that a more nuanced approach is necessary, among other complaints. Rosenau also links and quotes from other sources that similarly claim how Cosmos screwed up the history of science.

Some of those criticisms are valid and worth mentioning. However, the primary attack on Cosmos‘s accuracy is demonstrably false, that the episode was claiming that Bruno was killed primarily for promoting the Copernican model and that science and religion are at odds. The false narrative that many are attacking is itself a false narrative. Continue reading

Astrology News on the Radio in Canada with Me

Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.

It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.

The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.

The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.

So, what is going on here?

Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!

To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.

This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.

It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.

(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)

Thoughts on the Nye/Ham Creationism/Evolution Debate

The end is Nye!

Sorry, made that joke last time, but now it seems better suited.

So last night was the much-trafficked debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and AiG founder Ken Ham. Now, I am obviously biased towards the scientific consensus; evidence tends to do that. However, I have to say that I was pessimistic about how the debate would go. I didn’t figure either side would really win, but rather it seemed there would be a lot of talking past each other. And while that happened to an extend, overall I think Nye handled things rather well.

To be less biased, check out this poll from Christianity Today, hardly a secularist haven. There, it says Bill one the debate; with nearly 25,000 votes, Bill has 92% of the vote in his favor. And this was even before was posted at Pharyngula, which likes to crash polls like this to show they are not scientific. The bias should have been expected in the opposite direction that what it is, so it seems among at least the tech savvy, Nye was perceived to be the winner.

Perhaps that was in part because Nye did well to present a slurry of observations that were inconsistent with a young earth or having a wooden boat carry itself and all animal “kinds”, while Ham did not present anything that was really evidence for earth’s lack of antiquity or why evolution doesn’t work. There was a bit about radiometric dating (I’ll get to that later), but his presentation was more focused on what he perceives to be the nature of science and how creationism is important to his world view. But perhaps the point that stands as the biggest highlight is the question from the Q&A session when Ham was asked what would convince him that he was wrong. Answer: a long pause, and basically saying he’s a Christian, so that’s that. Nye, on the other hand, clearly and concisely named several things that would be evidence against his views on evolution and geology. That must have been the most stark contrast between how these two people operate and understand things, and I’m not seeing people saying that that was a good talking point for Ham. For the record, I watched the debate at a meeting with Christians and non-believers, and while some were willing to find a better way to understanding Ham’s pause and final answer (suggesting he was at least thoughtful), it was still fairly obvious that it was antithetical to science and even good theology (and I agree).

If you want the blow-by-blow, here is one good synopsis for each part of the debate. PZ Myers also live-blogged the event. NBC’s Alan Boyle summarizes the event rather well. And you can watch the debate here if you are tempted.

Noteworthy: as of posting over 700,000 people watched this particular stream. Overall, at least a million people watched.

So, how about the arguments themselves? Now, Bill obviously focused on the science and facts that show there world to have greater antiquity that a mere 6000 years, but he did touch on something that I proposed to be the ideal method for this sort of debate: make a theological point to undermine the fundamentalist position. Nye did this in two ways: showing how millions, if not billions, of people have religious beliefs and accept evolution; and how the YEC position has to rely on the interpretation of texts and thus the interpreter’s own authority. Now, if Bill had a stronger background in the Bible and theology he could have expanded on this. It would also have helped to have Bill avoid making statements about how the Bible came about via the telephone game; it’s neither an accurate model nor something that his fundamentalist audience would appreciate. There are certainly translations issues, but we do have the books of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), so we aren’t divorced so completely from the original text. However, knowing how ancient literature needs to be contextualized would be helpful. Considering there are several creation accounts and flood legends in the Ancient Near East, all written centuries or millennia before Genesis, that should affect how one reads the book and see that there is the use of a common literary trope, not a history report. If Nye could have done more to hold the feet of fundamentalist readings of the Bible to the fire, that would have made his case even stronger to his prospective crowd he wanted to convince.

On the other hand, there was Ham’s scientific case… Ham argued that creationism made predictions just like real science does, but his examples are both historically inauthentic and otherwise really what’s predicted by evolution and thus not in favor of creationism. For example, Ham says that the Bible tells us that all humans are of the same kind and thus there is one race. Well, evolution says all humans have a common ancestor, so that’s not really different. Ham also says how evolution is racist, as if racism didn’t exist before 1859; rather, there has been plenty of religiously-inspired racist attitude before and after. The “Curse of Ham” (not Ken, thought that is a pox on us all) was used to justify all sorts of terrible view related to racism and slavery, and it was based on biblical interpretation and bigoted attitudes. Moreover, followers of the Bible in the past were not that great and figuring out what to do with the Native Americans. There was a theological debate whether they were a separate creation from Adam and his descendants. Seems like the creation account with its global flood and thousands of years couldn’t account for two continents of people. This was “resolved” for some by claiming the American Indians were really Jews from the lost tribes, a main staple of Mormonism for example. Jason Colavito talks about this in a recent blog post.

The point here is that Ham’s model does not produce predictions like evolution does, and what he does claim to be predictions are already accounted for by evolution and in detail.

When Ham talks about radiometric dating (and he had prepared to talk about that with slides even before Nye took the stage it seems, and Nye hardly talked about this dating method in his 30-minute talk), he shows how incompetent or perhaps dishonest his cronies are. To counter the utility of radiometric dating methods, Ham talks about a layer of basalt laid in the ground by a lava flow. That lava flow went over some old tree stumps. The basalt had a date of millions of years using uranium or argon-based, but the tree, presumably at least as old if not older than the basalt, gave an age of around 45,000 years using Carbon-14 dating methods. Here is the problem: those trees had no carbon in them to date! How can I know that? Because the trees had to have been petrified. If it was still wood, it would have burned up when there was that lava flow. Moreover, the image Ham provided showed what looked like petrified wood to me. And if something is petrified, all of the organic materials are replaced by minerals and is thus mostly silicates. That is, all of the carbon has been pushed out of the tree, so there is no carbon 12 or carbon 14 to check for. At all. So no wonder they got a date of close to 50,000 years, the upper limit to what age C-14 dating can give answers; it’s been pegged at that range because of no signal. But the thing is, this data was given to Ham by Andrew Snelling, who has a PhD in geology. He must have known the trees were petrified and had no carbon in them. To date them using a method that cannot work no matter what date the trees were (again, because there was not fraking carbon in them) is either the height of incompetence or he was dishonest and had to get results to promote creationism even if they were based on a lie.

Bill unfortunately didn’t make this realization and gave an answer that wasn’t geologically feasible, and Ham also pointed out the trees were encased in the basalt, making Nye’s explanation more untenable. But it’s all based on either arrogant ignorance or right-out deception (though not necessarily by Ham, since he’s not a geologist).

But to focus on the debate, both sides were civil and professional. Since in science the debate looks like this:

the way it off Ham didn’t look like that. And he certainly didn’t give off the used care salesmen vibe that Kent Hovind did (before he went to jail for tax fraud). That is in some ways a victory for the creationist cause: it didn’t look stone age. Of course, Bill was able to make many good points to show that it was at least backward-thinking, and the question of what would change minds will perhaps be the biggest take-away rather than the number of ice core rings in Greenland. Often I think Bill gave this expression that is summarized by this new meme:

That may be a good summary right there.

So, I won’t claim Nye “won” the debate. As Joel Watts notes, each side sees their side as the one with the facts and on the side of right. However, Bill had the ability to call upon a great diversity of scientific knowledge and background, which he usually explained well (though not so well when it came to explaining sex and fish), and he made points about what we would have to have seen if we had such rapid speciation as Ham’s model claims to have. He prepared well. Ham, however, had little on that (and he even made it worse by claiming there were even fewer “kinds” on the Ark and thus making speciation problems greater by an order of magnitude), and instead he basically said that he was a presuppositionalist, starting from the Bible (that he magically knows how to interpret, including the parts that aren’t literal, like how God needs to rest, etc.).

And on the other hand, Nye’s main line of argument was that creationism undermines science education and makes the US a less competitive economic power. Nye reiterated that several times, but I think Ham’s video anecdotes from scientists who are creationists undermined that fairly strongly in some people’s eyes. Nye could have undermined that testimony by saying how none of them have used their creationist views to do their science, while geologists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. all use their contra-creationist views to do good, published science. And Bill could have said how the historical sciences actually have helped us in our technology. For example, observations from astronomy are historical and they confirm general relativity; without GR, you can’t have a working GPS system. Evolutionary algorithms are used all the time for designing things, showing that the underlying idea behind Darwin’s theory has real-world application; how a creationist could say it works well in designing cars and autonomous robots but not bird wings can only be done through special pleading. Oh, and let’s not forget about vaccines for viruses that have to change to jump from farm animals or birds to humans; you can only understand that with genetics, mutations, and natural selection. But none of these points were made, and anecdotes are a powerful form of evidence to a person’s mind, even if they aren’t powerful in any statistical sense. While Nye was forceful on the need for students to learn the best science and thus exclude creationism from the science classroom, his case did receive a torpedo he would have deflected.

But Nye did do well in undermining Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science, noting how this isn’t what happens in the real world. No one saw the murder, but CSI makes a lock-solid case using circumstantial evidence all the time. Ham didn’t have any good response to this and could only repeat himself. The only way I can tease out something useful in Ham’s distinction is that he is differentiating between fact-gathering science and theoretical science. The past is given a hypothesis to explain the facts we now have, but that would all be applicable for current events. I don’t observe gravity, only its well-measured, highly-predictive effects. The ball falls from my hand with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s is the observation; gravity is the explanation. Similarly, the ratio of elements in a rock is such-and-such; the explanation is years of radioactive decay. You could claim that balls are pushed down by angels or Satan took out the argon in rocks to make them look older, but that is the far less conducive hypothesis. But the sorts of gathering facts and making explanations is done the same for current events as well as past ones; there is no distinction then between historical and observational science, except in so far as the evidence for things happening now are usually more certain and precisely measured.

Now, the last question: was it worth having this debate? I was skeptical before about this particular format, largely because this was set up in such a way to be a major cash cow from the struggling Creation Museum and their Ark Project. I am less certain of that now because, according to the reports I linked to above, the cost of the debate was much more than the ticket sales, at least by a factor of two. For all we know, Bill’s speaking fee was the price of all the tickets put together. As for publicity, creationism is already well-known and believed in the US, so I don’t think this really created much new exposure; the market is pretty much saturated, and there has been almost no movement in the numbers of who is a YEC in decades, so people knowing about this debate isn’t really going to help the YEC cause. But because Nye presented things well, it may have exposed many believers to some good science for once, and this to a group that has to be insular to the scientific and academic world. Penetrating that bubble is necessary, and I think Nye did that. So overall, I think this was a debate worth having and ultimately favored Team Science.

It wasn’t perfect, but Nye pretty much achieved his goals. Kudos.

Should There Be Creation/Evolution Debates? Thoughts on the Upcoming Nye/Ham Rumble

The end is … Nye?

Okay, so the news has been out for a while that Bill Nye, the persona behind one of the big science education TV shows of the 90s, a former vice president of the Planetary Society, and a big advocate for science literacy, will be debating what would appear to be his Bizzaro-world double, the famous creationist Ken Ham. Ham is perhaps best known for being the head of the organization Answers in Genesis and its Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The topic of the debate seems to be focused on the topic of what explains the world better: the modern scientific consensus on astronomy, geology, biology, and physics, or the position of a large number of people with little to no scientific background but have a peculiar reading of one Ancient Near Eastern text. However, in the minds of many on Ham’s side, this is really a battle between “True” Christianity and atheism. And many in the secular community look at this as the continuing fight between science and religion, which in a sense also makes this a debate about God rather than science.

More importantly for many atheists and other non-believers is the question if such a debate in principle should happen, let alone between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

Some, such as Brian Magee of AHA, Dan Arel of RDF, and biologist Jerry Coyne, are very direct in how this entire venture is wrong-headed, both in in concept and in this particular instance. Richard Dawkins has said in numerous past statements that debating creationists in general is counter-productive. Others, such as Maggie Ardiente of AHA, find there to be more than just a silver lining; rather, it is a potentially great thing to happen. At the Thinking Atheist radio show, there was a great number of perspectives on this subject, as can be heard here:

While my sense is that the secular crowds are more against this debate than for it, I think it’s worth considering first the idea of having these debates in the abstract, and then come down on the points of how the upcoming debate is good or bad, based on the Platonic Form of the ideal debate. Continue reading

The Star of Bethlehem in the News

It’s been a while since I have posted, but I have been super-busy with getting my PhD and other research-related activities. But there has been some great news when it comes to my work on The Star of Bethlehem. Over on Amazon, the reviews have been very positive, with one exception–though that person has proven to not be a charitable reader to put it nicely.

Another review went up today over at Astro Guyz. It is very positive and it is done in the light of the book by Michael Molnar on the same subject. Great to see others comparing the two and thinking I had the better argument. Speaking of arguments, a post went up over at Debunking Christianity that included my book as something worth buying for the holidays, and the comments have led to some interesting engagements. Yes, there is a comment section I think worth reading. It’s a Christmas miracles?

The biggest news for today is that an article has been published in the Columbus Dispatch, on of Ohio’s biggest newspapers. It includes a picture of me as well as bits from an interview I did with the reporter, JoAnne Viviano, a few weeks ago.

fv-star-of-bethlehem-art-gsjpvdkr-1fv-star-of-bethlehem-b-jpg

You can see my ugly mug here. It’s right next to the computer.

There has been a lot of twitter traffic for this article, and I won’t mind if it brings me more attention. Repeating bits of the post, Doubtful News also talks about the subject and promotes my book. Thank you for that, Sharon Hill.

Also coming soon, the podcast Exposing Pseudoastronomy should be putting out an interview with me (probably tomorrow). That went well, except my voice was going bad since I burned my vocal chords a couple of days before. And I am planning another interview very soon about the same subject.

So, lots of things happening about this story. Stay tuned for more as it happens on my Facebook page for the book.

A Supernova in the Milky Way within 50 Years… And it has NOTHING to do with the Star of Bethlehem!

From the press, I learned by a rather interesting new study was published from my university about observing a supernova in the next 50 years. In particular, the researchers figure that there is near a 90+% chance of such an event happening in our own galaxy! This is exciting because the last supernova recorded in the Milky Way was in 1604 by Johannes Kepler. We have been waiting way too long to not have one.

Now, don’t get your telescopes out yet. That near 100% was for seeing a supernova in infrared. There is a much smaller probability of something being notable to us in the visible spectrum. But supernovae are super-bright, producing as much light as an entire galaxy of stars. Why won’t we notice it except in lower frequencies? That’s because most of the area a supernova could go off in the galaxy is far away and there is a lot of dust in the way. Basically, if the supernova happens on the opposite side of the core of the galaxy, we haven’t a chance of seeing it because of all the dust in the way; the distance alone would make it difficult to notice for naked-eye observers. So the researchers are considering detection with modern IR telescopes and methods.

I should also mention one of the researchers, John Beacom, is a former professor of mine. His particular interest is with neutrino astronomy, and that made big gains in the wake of the 1987 supernova seen in the Large Magellanic Cloud. So a detection of supernovae in our galaxy will not only be using IR but potentially also neutrinos. Great stuff.

Not so great is how the media is running with the story. I have seen on Twitter over and over a version of the story from The Register in the UK. It’s a news outlet known for its skewing of climate research, but here they wanted to immediately compare supernovae to the Star of Bethlehem. They also make reference to support for this idea by citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Why is this wrong? Well, the first point is basic: the Gospel doesn’t say the Star was bright, let alone the brightest in the sky. That’s all based on later legend-building. Moreover, as I prove in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, there were no visible novae/supernovae around the time of Jesus, and such stellar explosions don’t fit the details of the story at all. But perhaps someone needs to tell the people at The Register that. Then again, they’re probably getting a lot of hits…