Parting the Red Sea

September 23, 2010 • 6:27 am

PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science) is an open-access journal with an unusual mission:

Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLoS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.

In practice, what this means is that if the reviewers or editors can’t find anything technically wrong with the paper, they’ll publish it, even if the results are completely trivial or irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of science.  And, it seems, even the “rigorous peer review” sometimes fails, as in the case of the putative “missing link” Darwinius, which was rushed to print, apparently without much rigor on the part of reviewers.  It proved to be controversial and almost certainly not a link between the two major branches of primates.

I go back and forth on whether this journal is needed, or useful.  Sometimes data that are good but not earthshaking need a home.  On the other hand, there are plenty of second- to fifth-rate journals that will publish nearly anything, including the kind of paper that PLoS ONE handles, so why do we need another one?  Many scientists, I think, regard PLoS ONE as a place to give extra cachet to those almost-unpublishable papers.  Rather than putting them in Nutting’s Bird Journal, we can put them in PLoS ONE and hope that some of the glitter of the other PLoS journals, which publish much better stuff, rubs off.

PLoS ONE’s reputation was, however, tarnished by its publication of the Darwinius paper, implying that even its vaunted “rigor” was negotiable if the discovery was sufficiently buzz-worthy.  And now that reputation has slipped a huge notch.  For, as many of you know (see the post at Pharyngula), the journal has just published a paper modeling how the Red Sea might have parted to allow the Jews to leave Egypt.

The paper, “Dynamics of wind setdown at Suez and the eastern Nile Delta” is by Carl Drews and Weiquing Han from the University of Colorado at Boulder.   It’s long, technical, and boring, but the upshot is that high winds, blowing for a sufficiently long period, could have driven shallow waters in the Nile delta back, exposing a reef that was about 2 meters underwater.  The exposure could have lasted long enough to permit a “mixed group of people” (aka Israelites) to cross a temporary land bridge.  Then, when the winds abated, the waters would rejoin, presumably drowning anyone in pursuit.  The paper uses mathematical modeling, hydrology and satellite mapping to show that the exposure of mud flats could have occurred in two locations with 100 km/hr winds.

This is a not-so-transparent attempt to give plausibility to the story from Exodus 14 of Moses parting the waters.  But why on earth would two scientists want to show that one part of a fictitious story is plausible?  Well, check out author Carl Drews’s website,  Christianity and Evolution. Although Drews is a theistic evolutionist who doesn’t like intelligent design, he’s also a devout Christian who spends a lot of time trying to reconcile science with the Bible.  He even has a credo, “What I believe“, which includes this:

I believe that the Holy Bible is the true word of God. I believe everything that the Bible says about itself. The Bible is divinely inspired and divinely passed through history over thousands of years. The witness of the Bible is essential for understanding our faith, and for living out our lives in service to Jesus Christ. The Word of God is our Rock, the foundation upon which our Christian faith is based.

I believe that the Bible never requires me to bear false witness about God’s creation. [Drews’s emphasis]

I reject the idea that evolution and Christianity are always and must be in opposition to each other. I reject the notion that if the scientific theory of evolution is true, then Christianity must be false. I reject the idea that people who accept evolution must be atheists. I reject the idea that the scientific theory of evolution fundamentally denies the idea of God the Creator. I reject the idea that evolution and Christian faith are inevitably in conflict with each other and cannot be reconciled.

Next to these great beliefs, a biological theory seems pretty unimportant. That impression is correct. Do I “Believe in Evolution” like I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Absolutely not! I accept the Theory of Evolution like I use the Quadratic Formula; they are both useful for a certain class of problems that I sometimes have to solve. I certainly do not place my eternal life and soul in the care of a scientific theory or a mathematical formula. I am no atheist. I place my entire being in the hands of God Almighty through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Do you sense here a motivation for the paper? Anyway, it’s a ludicrous endeavor, and shame on PLoS ONE for publishing it.  If that journal is in the business of publishing scientific tests of fictitious Bible stories, let’s see some papers like these:

  • An investigation of whether any natural force could make the wheels simultaneously fall off the chariots of an entire army. After all, Exodus 14 says, “And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians,  and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily. . “
  • A refutation of the idea that the wind posited by Drews and Han could have produced the scenario given in the Bible, which calls for waters rising above the reef on both sides: “. . and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”  After all, the diagram of Drews and Han shows no “wall” of water on either side, but waters lower than the “crossing” reef on both sides, but which gradually rise up with distance on one side and not the other—the scenario a strong wind would produce.
  • A scientific study of whether there is historical evidence for a mass exodus of Jews from Egypt to the Sinai around 1200 BC.  Oh, wait—that’s already been done.  There isn‘t any evidence.

Given the lack of historical evidence for an Exodus, why is PLoS ONE in the business of publishing papers supporting its likelihood, especially when the scenario of Drews and Han doesn’t correspond at all to the scenario described in the Old Testament?  After all, if you’re going to support a story, how can you justify picking those parts of the story that could have happened, and ignoring those that couldn’t? What about those walls of water on either side of the Israelites?

This is a huge embarrassment for the journal.  But I predict that, rather than apologizing for their bad judgment, the editors will—as they did for Darwinius—defend their actions.  And that will open the floodgates for a whole host of Jebus-scientists to publish “technically sound” defenses of the Bible.

Don’t miss Exodus 14 in The LOLcat Bible.

73 thoughts on “Parting the Red Sea

  1. It proved to be controversial and almost certainly not a link between the two major branches of primates.

    It is strange that the “controversial” part isn’t to be found in the research paper. It is also strange that those who criticize the reviewers persist in erring on this point without checking their facts, even after having been told.


    1. The Journal of Human Evolution has just published a paper by the same group that full-bore claims Darwinius has a haplorhine, in a possible transitional position. I don’t accept this position, as there is equivocal evidence, but this paper directly makes the claim that was not made in the PLoS ONE paper.

      Is this journal also discredited now? Were the reviewers careless? Or do you withhold judgment on these things when there’s no media hoopla? Please elaborate.

      1. Yes, while I absolutely agree with Jerry on this shameful Red Sea drivel (which I hope gets retracted), I think the jury is clearly still out on Darwinius. Jerry is free to disagree with the placement of the fossil, but simply publishing a result that Jerry disagrees with is no tarnish.

        Disclaimer: Among other things, I’m an academic editor of PLoS ONE, although I handled neither the Darwinius nor this Red Sea mauscript.

        1. My plaint about the Darwinius stuff was that I didn’t think the piece was properly reviewed, especially since the editors probably realized that it was gonna be a big p.r. splash. Maybe the phylogenetic placement will eventually turn out to be right, but there wasn’t enough evidence at the time to support the authors’ contentions. And a lot of people, including bloggers, saw big problems to begin with. I was curious why the reviewers didn’t catch it. Yes, reviewers are sometimes biased, and sometimes don’t do their job, but regardless—the “technical rigor” (in terms of a solid phylogenetic analysis that included fossil primates) wasn’t there. I criticized the journal for the Darwinius piece, but didn’t dismiss it entirely.

          This time is more serious. This is not just a matter of reviewing, it’s whether the subject is sufficiently serious to even merit a paper of this type. It’s whether a story known to be fictitious should nevertheless be subject to serious scientific inquiry. Somebody at PLoS ONE fell down. And, unlike the Darwinius case, this piece (at least to me) tarnishes the journal in a major way.

          By the way, I haven’t singled out PLoS ONE uniquely here—I’ve been equally critical of other journals that have published bad stuff. I would say, though, that PLoS ONE has some major damage repair to do.

          1. I believe John Hawks was the PLoS editor for the Darwinius paper. Will be interesting to see him respond to your criticisms.

  2. I won’t defend the publication of this BS paper, but let’s not disparage the entire journal. You already note that you don’t think much about the journal, so this crap paper supports your mindset. However, I think the same attacks could be made about Science or Nature. Many papers are over-hyped (like Darwinius was), and crap papers, which demonstrate peer review is not foolproof, get published (cold fusion). PNAS has published insane papers but I do not recall that PNAS as a journal was trashed like PLoS ONE gets trashed.

    1. I very much agree with Lorax on this. The comparison with PNAS, which publishes a range from very good to very bad, is excellent. So this was a crappy paper. It gets unwarranted publicity due to a few blogs jumping on it and then dies. If PZ and now Jerry hadn’t bitten it would have just died unnoticed, the fate of many, perhaps most, more mainstream publications.

      In defense of the PLoS model, in an era where research budgets are stretched, I would note that publishing in these journals is a bargain – somewhere around $1300 as I recall for as much color as you want – as compared to putting a paper with a lot of color figures into a more mainstream journal where costs can run to several times that. This can be an important factor for many people (especially those early in their careers) and was a part of the rationale in establishing these journals.

      Nature, Science, Cell are at the top of the journal heap (at least in my field) and there is a natural tendency to believe their articles. However most people are not going to be publishing in those journals on a regular basis, and there are perfectly valid studies that need a home (the research has, after all been paid for, and if it’s not published loses its value.) So it would seem incumbent upon the reader, as well as the reviewer, to evaluate the data presented. Such critical evaluation, after all, is a large part of what journal clubs are supposed to be teaching students. I have less of an issue with publishing rubbish of this sort (which I see an undesirable but inevitable, and in any case self correcting in the long term, side effect of the review process) than not providing an outlet for sound but perhaps unfashionable data (which in the long term may filter upwards.)

      1. SWH wrote:
        If PZ and now Jerry hadn’t bitten it would have just died unnoticed, the fate of many, perhaps most, more mainstream publications.

        Since the story was featured on many mainstream TV news shows and in a wide variety of newspapers, I doubt that it would have died unnoticed, at least by the general public. And this general public gives the story credence because it has the veneer of “science” attached to it.

        1. Yep, I heard about this from not from P.Z., but from the news. It’s all over the place! Given that, I think it’s appropriate to address it lest the authors say the paper has the approbation of the scientific community.

          1. OK guys – I saw it here and on PZ’s site. I didn’t see it on the BBC or on CNN or my local – bible belt – newspaper. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – it just means that I didn’t see it. I gave up watching TV news a long time ago because it’s just so devoid of news in this part of the world. That being said I still think it’s down to the reader to assess the data. Sadly expecting critical thinking of most journalists might be a losing proposition.

            1. When the journals fall to the same depravity as TV news, will your answer to that be to stop watching them as well.

              At some point it is prudent to fight for quality.

  3. This is like that similarly ridiculous paper in the Virology Journal a few weeks back about “Our Lord Jesus” curing a woman of influenza.
    Mind you, if PLoS is really opening up its publication for the justification of fictional events, why stop at religious stories?
    Finally I may have a venue to publish my controversial paper “On the biomechanics of equine assisted egg reconstruction”. This paper will be the first positive proof of Ricky Gervais’ hypothesis on the inadvisability of using all the Kings horses and all the Kings men to put Humpty Dumpty together again. As Gervais suggested: “I don’t know why they used horses in the first place. If I was asked to come up with the perfect egg crushing device, it would be a hoof!”

  4. My first reaction was that it was some kind of bad-taste joke. When, thanks to PZ, it became clear what it was and since I had derived small pleasure from PLoS, I was happy to unsubscribe.

  5. For that matter, I’d like to see scientific evidence that a putrid corpse (such as Lazarus’s) can be reanimated; or historical evidence of a zombie invasion of Jerusalem in the early part of the first century (as reported to have happened the moment Jesus gave up the ghost); or scientific evidence that, long after having been buried after execution by crucifixion, a human being is capable of inviting somebody to fondle his intestines through the gaping wound in his side (as Jesus asked Thomas to do).

    Or, while we’re on the subject of Exodus, that plants can talk if they’re on fire, and whether or not the instructions they give for turning a magic wand into a snake really work. And are the wands themselves capable of speech when they assume their snake form? I don’t think that was adequately addressed in the original source.

    What would really interest me — but I’m sure PLoS wouldn’t publish — is what can drive an otherwise-rational adult to not only think that the zombie story of the Gospels is true, but that it’s good to be a zombie yourself. After all, that’s the point of the whole thing: eat the zombie flesh masquerading as stale bread, and on Judgement Day™ your own rotted corpse will be amongst the rest of the dead who shall be raised incorruptible after the trumpet sounds.



  6. Given the lack of historical evidence for an Exodus

    There’s quite a lot of evidence that is negative evidence. Mostly the fact that the Egyptians controlled the Sinai desert, Judah and Israel through their Canaanite proxies at that time. And the Egyptians had studded the entire region with forts, all one-day’s walk from each other. Partially because they were at war with the Hittites during the time frame in which Exodus would have had to have happened and partially because the occupied the entire “promised land.”

    Further, there is a lot of evidence that the pyramids were built by farmers who’d work on them during the annual flooding of the fields. There is also a decided lack of evidence for any large-scale migration in the Sinai.

    Further, the Exodus story conveniently ignores the Sea People that wrecked havoc during that period. They’re the ones that destroyed a number of the Canaanite coastal city-states, helped topple the Hittites and established a number of cities in their population migrations.

    All-in-all, if you address the region through the process of science (archeology) you find a decided lack of evidence for the events of Exodus. However, you do find a lot of evidence that it was impossible based on the biblical events described.

    1. The archaeological evidence is conclusive: The Jews were never in Egypt, there was never an Exodus, and and no Jewish conquest of the land of Israel. In fact, the Jews were still polytheists when the first Passover was supposed to have happened. Jews and Christians wishing to pretend otherwise would do well to absorb the facts presented by Ze’ev Herzog, Israel Finkelstein, William Dever, and many others.

      Because there was never an Exodus, an attempted physical proof of the parting of the Red Sea is beyond silly.

      William Dever, a Christian biblical archaeologist who got into the business to prove the truth of the Biblical account, tells about how his research into the Bible’s historicity  led to his loss of Christian faith in “Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t, How Scholarship Affects Scholars”:

      About 15 years ago, in my archaeological work I began to write about ancient Israel. Originally I wrote to frustrate the Biblical minimalists; then I became one of them, more or less. The call of Abraham, the Promise of the Land, the migration to Canaan, the descent into Egypt, the Exodus, Moses and monotheism, the Law at Sinai, divine kingship—archaeology throws all of these into great doubt. My long experience in Israel and my growing uncertainty about the historicity of the Bible meant that was the end for me.

      Herzog’s Ha’aretz article trying to introduce these facts as firmly but gently as possible to Israeli citizens is worth reading in full. Of course, Israelis and Christians are in deep denial—and no doubt always will be—about the fact that all major Old Testament stories are discredited by archaeological findings.

      Deconstructing the walls of Jericho
      Ha’aretz, Friday, October 29, 1999
      This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells. …

  7. I need to see a paper published on how goat muscle tissue can miraculously regenerate after being eaten if their bones are tied up inside their skins overnight. This journal may help revitalize the religion of the Norse!

  8. Weird–is there something going around? I just read this over at Pleiotropy:

    “Can you imagine what would happen in the creationist community if creationists could get their papers published in a scientific journal without peer-review? I can. There would be much rejoicing, I think the correct term is. And now they can, in WebmedCentral.

    WebmedCentral is post publication peer review: the papers are first published and then reviewed online as readers can add their comments. I am not kidding.” (Bjorn Ostman at Pleiotropy)

    Post publication peer review, huh? Somehow that doesn’t quite seem like a great idea (isn’t that what blogs are for?).

    1. This isn’t really a problem and as you say it’s pretty much the equivalent of a blog post. Creationists have never been prevented by peer review from airing real results – in extreme circumstances they can always publish their ‘findings’ in book form (as the Discovery Institute tends to do).

  9. This is very disappointing. There is huge pressure on scientists & doctors to publish from what djunior doctors tell me, & there are plenty of journals who are willing to publish case studies because it is a whole lot easier from the ethics point of view than a long & complicated process if you want to study a group of patients. No one reads half this stuff – but if they get it published they can wave it about. What concerns me is publishing propaganda in what ought to be a serious journal. I have no problem with small increments of knowledge getting into print, what might seem trivial to one person, if it reveals something new that we did not know before. PLOS ONE had begun to get noticed with regular articles featuring in news items. They seem to have plumbed the shallows here…

  10. The Red Sea paper is a stinker, and PLoS ONE should be ashamed. They should be similarly mortified by the medical woo BS they’ve published on acupuncture (see Orac’s blog). As an occasional editor of papers for P1, Hawks’ comments come off a tad defensive…
    The Gingerich et al. reply in JHE(which Hurum just sent unsolicited and unfinished to a huge email list, which lacks page numbers for the quotes from the Wiliams et al paper) makes some valid points in response to the criticisms by Williams et al. (JHE) and Seiffert et al. (Nature). But their new minimalistic cladistic analysis includes no other fossils and just one strepsirrhine primate (Lemur catta). Add a living mouse lemur, a fossil adapid and the primitive anthropoid Aegyptopithecus (and perhaps an omomyoid OTU) — and Paup it again. In other wods, let the fossil record inform this phylogenetic debate.

  11. A couple of little problems:

    As states above, the Egyptians controlled Sinai. Wouldn’t they have retrieved their “property”?

    There have been many searches for evidence of the “Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness [Sinai]” and no evidence has been found. The scientific conclusion has been drawn: No Israelite exodus from Egypt to Palestine.

    If the F-ing wind is enough to blow the water away to a depth of 2m, do you think it might make walking across many miles of exposed sea bed just a little difficult for a large party of people including women, children, old folks, baggage, pack animals? Think: Hurricane force winds, folks; storm surge.


    1. Absolutely, this is the really bizarre part of the story. No one of any competence now takes the story of the patriarchs or the story of the exodus seriously. So why try to show that there is a plausible explanation for the crossing of the reed sea, the Red Sea, or the Nile delta? Crazy.

      1. I think the point of the Red Sea crossing story was that it was impossible, except for God’s intervention. God delivers the Israelites by doing the impossible.

        That’s why it’s just a story.

        Trying to show that it was actually possible and compatible with scientific principles of course jars with the story, both by diluting the details into something not very impressive and by just missing the point. If it’s natural, then “God” is not necessary.

        1. This is basically what happened in the in the past – some people tried to justify their faith by turning miracles into real, natural phenomena. I can’t remember the name of the movement, but it had pretty much the same results. It’s continued through the years, leading to some nice papers such as the one that had Jesus walk on the Sea of Galilee as it was frozen in a freak storm and he just walked on the ice.

    2. I am an atheist, but I have to defend PLOS One here. While the underlying aim of the article might have been trying to “prove” the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, there is still something useful in attempting to find historical and physical evidence for how legends and myths got started. Many civilizations have flood myths, and there are several instances of mass flooding and tsunamis that probably turned into these myths over time. But the proof of real floods don’t mean that Noah’s Ark is a true story. Likewise, the possibility of certain wind and geological formations causing a brief reveal of dry land is far from proving the story of Moses. Drews only mentions Moses once, and that’s in the abstract. The editors do not let a religious theory be expressed. I think the outrage expressed here is piling on.

  12. Dammit…I just completed a writing project and the very last reference is from PLoS One.

    That’s gotta go.

    Don’t want the entire project to be tainted. It’s like a big old turd in the punch bowl.

  13. There is a sense in which fundamentalists of all stripes who wish to be scientifically credible are obliged to show that their beliefs are in conformity with our best scientific understanding. So far,so good,in fact. But after that, it is all downhill, as you correctly point out: they are always engaged in cherry-picking, just choosing those bits and pieces for which they think they can find a scientifically looking account. And for the rest, all those very embarrassing pieces? To hell with the rest!

    But all that fundamentalist-wants-to-be-taken-seriously-sciencewise stuff in scientific magazines? What does all that apologetics has to do with scientific research agenda? Nothing!
    OK, there are some cases where discussion of otherwise obscure or half-mythical Bronze Age documents – as evidence of what really happened, not as manifestations of the beliefs of the authors – is appropriate, namely, in the context of real Bronze Age events. Hence an archaeologist is well within her rights to study, say, ancient reflections of the very important Thera/Santorini eruption, but then the research agenda is the reconstruction of poorly known events and conditions of that era.

    It has been very different with “biblical archaeology”. Its best practioners arrived in Palestine with a spade in one hand and the Bible in the other hand and with some understanding of both taken separately. The worst have understanding of neither but a truly amazing capability for creating confusion.

    It has to be said that there are people who have began their personal journeys in that intellectual mist, but learned to see more clearly, thanks to scientific studies. An interesting and, I think, rather representative case, of these more enlightened attitudes would be Robert Cargill who attacks in the links below the recent looney stories of Noah’s Ark and tells his own story:
    Needless to say really, but Cargill’s bildungs narrative makes sense only on the assumption that religious faith and science do contradict and conflict. Cargill has felt the pain and is not whining about it, quite the contrary. Why is it that some atheist cum secularist cum humanists want so desperately to “save” the religiously minded from such a Bildung when it is plainly obvious that learning to think scientifically and rationally inevitable creates such challenges?

        1. John McCain says he saw one in the Grand Canyon, to my knowledge he didn’t specify to which arm it had loosened itself from.

  14. Thanks taking this up. I had a go at it on Secular Cafe yesterday — mostly because it pissed me off to see public resources go toward “testing” one of the old apologetic arguments about one of the less plausible Bible stories.

    1. It came on TV last night, illustrated, of course, not with diagrams with isobars etc, but with footage from the second Cecil B. DeMille film. The outcome is doubtless going to be that people who have never heard of PLoS ONE will now say, “You see, the Bible is TRUE!”

  15. “And that will open the floodgates for a whole host of Jebus-scientists to publish ‘technically sound’ defenses of the Bible.”

    Maybe that would be a good thing? Everyone could then read for themselves how absurd those defenses get, and we might get a Ben Franklin effect: “Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s Lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect precisely the reverse of what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself. In a word, I soon became a thorough Deist” (Autobiography, p. 66).

    1. The problem is that most people will lack the technical expertise to know when they are being BS’ed. All that matters to them is that “It was published in a scientific journal, so it must be true” – nevermind that when they hear science they don’t like, such considerations go out the window. That kind of person is never the soul of consistency.

  16. I urge everyone with a beef to register, log-in, and rate this paper.

    It takes some doing, and you have to sign up for at least one “alert”, but it’s worth it.

    Complain here for fun. Complain THERE for effect.

      1. Oh, I’m very sure there’s much quality information in the paper that needs to be carefully considered. It would egregious to dismiss out of hand a paper about a Biblical miracle as irrelevant and embarrassing.

        Thank you for sharing your concern.

  17. This kind of speculation has been going on for years. At one level there is some potential value, ie, perhaps the occasional blowing back of the Nile delta was known in the folklore, so when the ‘escape’ story was being assembled, this was one more well know plot device to attach to it.

    But it still doesn’t help the Bible believers who actually think about it because it does not match the details of their story. So they either have to accept that there story got key stuff very wrong, or deny this as some other ‘attack by science’

  18. I think the chariots or the axles were manufactured at one factory. A design and production flaw that could lead to wheels falling off in say most of the chariots. Remember there were no warranties and no recall.

  19. I think the “floodgates” scenario misses two key points:

    1) The majority of biblical literalists are inherently hostile naturalist explanations for Biblical miracles. They tend to regard such work as scientists trying to “explain away” the bible. See the comments on this interview with Doron Nof an oceanographer that has published research in the same vein (including providing an oceanographic “explanation” for the parting of the Red Sea) as the Drews and Han paper for many years:,000-years-ago/2008-11395_3-6060618.html

    2) This is hardly a new thing. There is a long history of scientists publishing speculative scenarios to explain events described in the bible:

    -an atmospheric optical illusion inspiring the story of the sun standing still in Joshua (Camuffo 1990)

    -various explanations for the destruction of Jericho from natural radioactivity (Blake 1967) to earthquakes (Ken-Tor et al. 2001) to schistosomiasis(!) (Hulse 1971)

    -the true identity of Manna as plant or insect exudates (Harrison 1950, Danin 1972)

    -the destruction of Sodom due to geological events (Clapp 1936, Harris and Beardow 1995)

    -catastrophic flooding of the Black Sea as the origin of the flood narrative (Ryan et al. 2003 and other papers)

    -Jesus walking on floating ice in Galilee (Nof et al. 2006)

    Without providing the full citations here (some searching on Google Scholar will turn all of these up quickly) I will note that while all of these apparently went through some fashion of peer-review, many appear in specialty journals (Journal of Paleolimnology, Economic Botany).

    But consider David Hughes speculation that the Star of Bethlehem was “a a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces” which allowed him to calculate that Christ had been born “around October 7 BC”; findings published in Nature 264:5586 (513-517) 1976.

    Note that I am not advocating the validity of any of these, which seem to me largely hokey and untestable. In fact as a taxpayer I am especially frustrated that Nof’s wacky papers on the parting of the Red Sea and Jesus walking on Galilee thank NASA, NSF and the Department of Defense for funding.
    Still, I think the Drews and Hans paper is not some kind of clarion call just another peep from an established but dubious line of quasi-scientific inquiry.

  20. “… and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”

    Drews has all the answers on his youtube posts. The Red Sea parting has to do with a “bend in the body of water” (!)

    As expected, “Adding comments has been disabled for this video.

    Shockingly, note the National Science Foundation’s imprimatur at the end of these videos.

  21. “After all, if you’re going to support a story, how can you justify picking those parts of the story that could have happened, and ignoring those that couldn’t?”

    Because sometimes parts of a story are true and parts false?

    This is something obvious to anyone who has ever heard a friend or relative tell a story of some past event they also witnessed (i.e. anyone not raised by wolves) or who has even a small interest in history. As an example of the latter, historians don’t doubt the existence of the siege and battle of Alesia and consider Caesar’s account reasonably accurate though few serious historians credit the Gauls with the quarter million men Caesar claimed the relief force had. The profession of history would come to a screeching halt if Jerry’s razor above were applied.

    1. Your comment ignores the fact that the Jewish people were never slaves in Egypt, which means that there is no need to explain how the Red Sea could “part”.

      1. No, my comment addresses a specific point about the nature of thruth in historical accounts. I was addressing the misconception Jerry’s remark evidenced. I put that carefully, since if he believes that stories of the past must either be true in every aspect or false in all he’d be an idiot, rather like the Biblical literalists who do hold that view. I doubt he does believe it, but nuance gets in the way of rhetorical flight and he’s not one to trip himself up on mere accuracy or reason.

        Your particular complaint evidences the same misconception Jerry showed. That the Jewish people as a whole were not slaves in Egypt (if indeed there was such a thing as ‘the Jewish people’ at the time) does not mean that no people were who upon making their way out of Egypt founded what became ‘the Jewish people’.

        It is, I suppose, possible the entire Bible is entire conscious invention, but I don’t know that any folk who actually study it, even those who are not themselves religious, consider that to be the case. If it is not the case, then it is far from certain that stories such as that of the Exodus contain not a whit of truth, which is to say history, in them, even if greatly embellished – a virtually universal human trait in the telling and retelling or stories.

        No, my comment addresses a specific point about the nature of thruth in historical accounts.

        Your comment though, falls prey to the same misconception Jerry’s remark evidenced (I put that carefully, since if he believes that stories of the past must either be true in every aspect or false in all he’d be an idiot, rather like the Biblical literalists who do hold that view).

        1. The Bible has about as much documentation of historical fact as Harry Potter does — and searching for such “facts” in either entirely misses the point in exactly the same manner.



        2. Mike from Ottawa wrote:

          I was addressing the misconception Jerry’s remark evidenced. I put that carefully, since if he believes that stories of the past must either be true in every aspect or false in all he’d be an idiot, rather like the Biblical literalists who do hold that view.

          Do you seriously think that anyone holds that view? Not even literalists do, though they may claim to. The Bible is so full of contradictions that it is impossible to believe the entire thing literally.

          Because sometimes parts of a story are true and parts false?

          This doesn’t seem to follow from what you quote from the original post. This isn’t a matter of sorting out the truth from exaggeration of an historical event. The authors set out to invent a scenario that would support the biblical story. In doing so they ignored everything, including hard evidence, that didn’t support their conclusion. This is a far cry from an historian who is trying to get at the truth about how many soldiers the Gauls had. One is scholarship while the other is religious apologetics. The original post merely wondered how they could justify picking a few kernels from the story that might actually be possible while ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Obviously, they can’t.

        3. Mike from Ottawa: “That the Jewish people as a whole were not slaves in Egypt (if indeed there was such a thing as ‘the Jewish people’ at the time) does not mean that no people were who upon making their way out of Egypt founded what became ‘the Jewish people’.”

          Actually, Ancient Egyptian history is known in a lot of details, and there’s no mention in it of Pharaoh and his whole army drowning in the Red Sea while giving chase to a horde of escaping slaves, around 1200 BCE.

          So, yes, we can dismiss the whole Exodus scenario out of hand.

          1. Egypt’s own records aside, there aren’t any accounts of the Exodus story from Egypt’s neighbours. Even if Egypt did try and cover the whole thing up out of shame or erase it from history (as they attempted with the detested radical Pharaoh Akhenaten), the idea that none of Egypt’s neighbours heard a single thing about the instant demise of Pharaoh and his legions is laughably implausible.

            It’s not just nosy neighbours we should consider – what of Egypt’s enemies? Egypt was powerful, rich and had many foes. The slightest hint that Pharaoh and his entire army had perished all at once would have had spies flooding in from all corners to confirm the stories and, later, invaders ready to take great advantage of the situation. Leave out the lack of a non-Biblical record of the Exodus – any subsequent assault on a weakened Egypt would have been recorded in glorious detail by the attackers!

            Finally, the loss of an entire slave class would have had a noticeable if not devastating impact on Egypt economically. Imagine the impact on industry, trade, society etc. if a Confederate state, for example, was divested of all its slaves instantly, overnight. Imagine any large economy suddenly being denied its labour force – the only result, initially at least, is chaos.

            Exodus, if it happened at all (and there’s little to even suggest a massive slave-class of Hebrews there to begin with), must have barely registered on the Egyptians’ radar, let alone warranted column inches on a papyrus. If it happened as described, the loss of a massive free labour force, an entire armed force and a head of state could quite possibly have destroyed the Egyptian empire. But Egypt didn’t even blink.

            1. And how would the slaves have been able to escape? Put in the words of the old spiritual, why would a pharaoh “let [those] people go”? If we are going to try to naturalize the entire account, then surely we have to completely dismiss the biblical plagues as nothing but myth. But what apart from supernatural calamities of such scale would cause a pharaoh to willingly part with a huge enslaved labour force? There is no suggestion at all in the bible or elsewhere that the Jewish slaves could have organized and effectively fought a determined opposition from the Egyptian army, so how are they supposed to have gathered up and marched to the Red Sea without anyone stopping them?

              The whole story is a nice myth, but it is nonsense as history.

  22. I tend to support PLoS ONE because I support the idea of open-access journals in general. Especially when work is publicly funded, it should be published in open access journals.

    It’s happened about a hundred times that my work has been stymied because I couldn’t access large sections of the scientific literature, due to them being locked up behind paywalls. And journals aren’t cheap.

    I’m sure there are other ways of funding journals that don’t prevent the public from having free access to humanity’s store of scientific knowledge.

  23. I see ceiling cat approves. Now why do I get the uneasy feeling that Charlton Heston is looking for his rifle in that image?

  24. Followers of this blog may be interested to know that a lively discussion has taken place in the comments section of the Drews & Han manuscript, including replies from the authors themselves, and a statement from the PLoS ONE editorial office.
    I believe that this is a clear demonstration of the benefits of the PLoS ONE model: publishing sound science in a open access, and open discussion mode.

    Etienne Joly
    member of PLoS ONE academic board.

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