The death of journalism

August 9, 2016 • 9:30 am

I’m on the road today (or rather, on the rail), so enjoy this video of John Oliver on the latest issue of “Last Week Tonight.”  Oliver, the true heir of Jon Stewart, demonstrates with his characteristic excitability why real journalism is dying.

And we know that’s true—at least in the United States, for many journalistic “aggregator” outlets don’t charge for access, relying either (like PuffHo), on writing slaves who get nothing but publicity for their contributions (or so I was told when HuffPo tried to exploit me), or on ad revenue. Either way, the market for serious, decently-paid journalists is dying, and when it’s gone, we’ll have clickbait and endless Kardashiana as our daily fare. The New York Times will be the last credible paper in America.

But I fulminate; let John Oliver say it in a much funnier (and more informative) way:

Curiously, this video was highlighted at PuffHo, which apparently didn’t even look at the first minute of Oliver’s rant, which includes this bit made into a screenshot:

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 3.13.57 PM

h/t: Barry

A disgraceful movie, but a good newspaper article

March 26, 2016 • 3:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

Update: The Tribeca Film Festival has pulled the film, apparently in response to widespread criticism. Details at Jezebel. Thanks to reader horrabin for the alert.


Jerry has taken note of the upcoming showing at the Tribeca Film Festival of a ‘documentary’ by the disgraced and de-licensed British physician Andrew Wakefield.(And  Orac has rather full coverage of the matter at Respectful Insolence.) Though the prominent woo-coddling is disheartening, there is a bright point amidst the darkness: the refreshingly straightforward coverage by the New York Times.  Reporters Melena Ryzik and Pam Belluck do not engage in the wishy-washy journalism of ‘controversy’, but tell it like it is.

They open their piece by calling the film’s anti-vaccination thesis “widely debunked”, describe Wakefield as a “discredited former doctor”, note that his 1988 study on the subject was retracted, which led to the revocation of his license for “ethical violations and failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest”, and further note that the festival website takes no notice of this essential context.

They also quote critics of the decision to screen the film. Some highlights:

“Unless the Tribeca Film Festival plans to definitively unmask Andrew Wakefield, it will be yet another disheartening chapter where a scientific fraud continues to occupy a spotlight and overshadows the damage he has left behind in the important story of vaccine safety and success,” Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an email. …

[Documentarian Penny Lane said] including “Vaxxed” in the documentary section “threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general…. this film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” …

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, called the decision to show the film “particularly sad” because the Tribeca festival receives attention far beyond New York.

I am delighted to see a major news source write the plain truth, and not resort to the ‘he said-she said’ format, which leaves readers at best confused, and often misinformed. As we’ve noted before here at WEIT, too often journalists, in a misguided search for ‘balance’, give voice to thoroughly discredited ideas. But sometimes, there is only one side to the story– vaccines don’t cause autism; the global climate is warming; and evolution is true.

Dawkins has a stroke; full recovery expected

February 12, 2016 • 7:30 am

This news had now become public courtesy of the Guardian, so I guess I can announce it here. On the day I arrived in Oxford (Saturday), Richard suffered a minor stroke at his home, which caused some temporary paralysis on one side but left his cognitive functions and speech intact. It was mild and caught early, so he’s expected to make a full recovery. Several of us have heard from him via an audio message, and although he sounds a bit tired, you wouldn’t know from his voice that anything was amiss. He’s at home and being well taken care of by Lalla.

Needless to say, he’ll have to cancel his appearance as moderator of my Darwin Day talk tonight (my old friend Steve Jones will be filling in), as well as the other Darwin Day talk in Nottingham and his upcoming tours of Australia and New Zealand. Join me in wishing him well. If you’re going to have a stroke, this is about the mildest form you can have, and I’m delighted that the prognosis is for a full recovery.

How to do Twitter

July 1, 2015 • 3:28 pm

by Grania

This is an accidental Master Class in how to win at Twitter. As Dire Straits said “That’s the way you do it“.

This is a real news story from Germany that Boing Boing decided to be funny about and swap around the words in the headline, for reasons of extra clickitude. (That’s a word. Now.)

So then this happened.



If you are still staring at this post with a furrowed brow and blank expression, or maybe an frustrated expression, it’s all full of Terminator references. Hasta la vista, baby.

White House demotes “Fox News” to simply “Fox”

January 23, 2015 • 10:45 am

Here’s a video in which Fox newsman Shephard Smith beefs about attending a White House lunch and getting an insulting placecard:

As Reverb Press notes after reporting the outrage of conservative news outlets:

The question isn’t whether dropping ‘news’ from the placecards of Fox anchors is ‘childish’ or ‘petty’. The question is: Why are bozos like Shepard Smith and Bret Baier even invited to a White House press luncheon?

And you remember this from Obama’s State of the Union address?

The gloves are clear off for Obama—or so I hope. Not that this will eliminate the Congressional gridlock during the next two years: given the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress, there’s little hope of that. Republicans will continue to produce untenable legislation against civil rights, abortion, and national health care, and Obama will continue to veto it.

I’m all for democracy, but it isn’t getting much done in the U.S.  Blame the Republicans and their hatred of the President, a hatred so deep that they can’t even compromise with Democrats.

Muncie Star-Press’s biggest stories of 2013 omit the Ball State ID affair

December 30, 2013 • 4:38 am

Reader Amy sent me the list of this newspaper’s top stories of the year. As you may remember, Muncie, Indiana was where Ball State University (BSU) canned Eric Hedin’s “science” course on Intelligent Design (ID), a victory in the battle against creationism. That story was covered extensively by the Muncie Star-Press and got national attention, not to mention riling up the Discovery Institute when President Gora of BSU unequivocally declared that ID would not be taught at BSU.

Here, then, are the paper’s top stories:

Top storiesWhat kind of paper would judge the opening of a Panda Express more important than a serious clash over science right next door?

A lame paper, that’s what.

The Discovery Institute, on the other hand, has ranked the Ball State affair as #4 in their “top 10 evolution stories of 2010”.  I’m not going to give the link, since I’m tired of giving them traffic, but you can find them at The Sensuous Curmudgeon‘s post.  The Curmudgeon is covering the DI’s entire “top 10” list, which is largely a tale of how they’ve failed push their agenda. Combining that with the failure of Texas creationists to get their views represented in public-school biology textbooks, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s removal of a donor’s plaque calling animals “God’s creatures,” I’d say it’s been a good year for evolutionary biology.

If you want a lift, reread President Gora’s short statement on the intellectual worthlessness of Intelligent Design, which contains this statement:

Teaching intelligent design as a scientific theory is not a matter of academic freedom – it is an issue of academic integrity. As I noted, the scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected intelligent design as a scientific theory. Therefore, it does not represent the best standards of the discipline as determined by the scholars of those disciplines. Said simply, to allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars.

News Flash: Non habemus papam—Pope Benedict resigns because of infirmity.

February 11, 2013 • 4:26 am

This is not a joke: according to the Guardian and other sources like the BBC, Ratzi—Pope Benedict XVI—is to step down on February 28. That’s 17 days from now. He is 85 years old.

Here’s the full text of the pope’s statement from Vatican Radio.

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

From the Vatican, 10 February 2013


This is the first time any pope has resigned since 1415 (Pope Gregory XII).

This happened only half an hour ago and I have no more news, but the Guardian is continually updating coverage on its website.

Now what happens to a retired pope?

h/t: Martin

Murdoch apologizes for anti-Israel cartoon, artist apologizes for timing

January 29, 2013 • 11:58 am

We had some some, er, “lively” discussion the other day about a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times showing Benjamin Netanyahu cementing a bunch of screaming, bloody Palestinians into a wall. The cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day, and here it is:


According to a report on the BBC News today, editor Rupert Murdoch has apologized and so, in a way, has the artist:

The Jewish Chronicle said that in a message denying it permission to reprint the cartoon, Scarfe said he “very much regrets” the timing of the cartoon.

He had apparently been unaware that Sunday was Holocaust Memorial Day.

Mr Murdoch wrote in a tweet: “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.”

(BTW, I am no fan of Rupert Murdoch.)

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said the cartoon was “shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-Semitic Arab press”.

The term “blood libel” refers to myths dating back to the Middle Ages that Jews murdered children to use their blood during religious rituals.

. . . In a statement, the Sunday Times said the cartoon was aimed at Mr Netanyahu and his policies, not at Israel or Jewish people.

But Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said it had “caused immense pain to the Jewish community in the UK and around the world”.

“Whatever the intention, the danger of such images is that they reinforce a great slander of our time: that Jews, victims of the Holocaust, are now perpetrators of a similar crime against the Palestinians,” he said in a statement.

The news report details other Jewish criticism of the cartoon, but also a statement by an Israeli journalist that, while the cartoon was offensive, it wasn’t antisemitic.

Well, I thought the cartoon was in poor taste, and catered to—if it was not inspired by—antisemitic feelings, but I didn’t feel “immense pain”.  I felt the need to combat the cartoon with speech.

I am a bit worried, though, that the Jewish community may become too easily offended at legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy. I have some of those criticisms myself, but don’t think this cartoon expresses any of them.  Criticism of Israel is not automatically criticism of the Jews, though one has to be careful about crossing that line—which this cartoon did. And its publication on Holocaust Memorial Day was insensitive.

But I don’t think people are aware at the extent of antisemitism out there, especially those who aren’t Jewish. Although I’m not at all religious, I have been sensitized to the issue by having myself been called antisemitic names in my youth, including “dirty Jew” and “Yid.”  Jewish cemeteries are still vandalized, and antisemitic slogans spray-painted on synagogues. When I was in Lisbon a few months ago, I saw one Holocaust memorial defiled in this way. I have heard too many academics, discussing the question, refer to me, Jerry, as “you people.” Now what does that mean?

As one commenter pointed out, it’s a bit offensive to tell Jewish people how they should or should not feel in such a case l if you’re not one of them.

But this brings up the Danish cartoons making fun of Mohamed.  Was I—were we—telling Muslims that they shouldn’t be offended when they were published? I don’t think so.  What speech there was in favor of publishing those cartoons (and many venues didn’t say anything out of cowardice) made the point that it’s ridiculous to adhere to a religious dogma that Mohamed should not be depicted in a picture. That’s not the same thing as saying that Jews shouldn’t be offended by pictures accusing them of blood libel, of taking over the media, and so on. (Such cartoons, as I hope we all know, are daily fare in Islamic countries.) I was in favor of publishing the Danish cartoons, but also strongly opposed to that stupid anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims,” which attacked not religious belief, or the behavior it inspires, but Muslims themselves.

At any rate, do note the different reactions of the two faith communities. Did Jews go on murderous rampages after the cartoon was published, killing British citizens, storming their embassies, and threatening the life of Scarfe? No: they filed formal protests. That’s the civilized way to do it. No fatwas, bounties on Scarfe’s head, and so on. Defamatory speech is met with counter-speech. I doubt that Scarfe has gone into hiding, or has armed guards protecting him.

And Scarfe’s cartoon has been reproduced widely, unlike the behavior of the many cowardly publishers (including Yale University Press) who refused to reprint the cartoons of Mohamed.  That’s because publishers fear violent reprisals from Muslims but not from Jews.  Once again, a real difference in the behavior of the two religious communities is ignored, and Islam given a pass. Why are Israelis held to higher standards than Palestinians?

I don’t think we should rehash the whole issue in the comments, but I can’t prevent that. What I’d prefer is a discussion contrasting the Danish cartoons with Scarfe’s.

The peopling of the Americas

July 12, 2012 • 9:55 am

by Greg Mayer

The Americas were the last continents to be inhabited, and there has long been controversy about how and when it occurred. There is a general consensus that the earliest Americans arrived from northeastern Asia in the late Quaternary, but the exact peoples involved, the routes taken, when they arrived, and the modes of travel are all much debated. A paper by David Reich and colleagues, in press in Nature, presents evidence on one aspect of the question– did the first inhabitants arrive in one, or in more waves of migration? It has always seemed probable that the Eskimos, culturally and linguistically distinct from the American Indians to the south, and occurring on both sides of Bering Strait, represent a distinct migration, but were the more southern peoples the result of one, two, or more migrations?

Note that Na-Dene (green) and Eskimo-Aleut (red) derive in part from an Asian (black; Yoruba are African) ancestry separate from that of Amerind or First American (blue). (The Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut are not a single arrival from Asia; the Han Chinese are too genetically distant from east Siberian peoples to capture the ancestral source in this comparison.). D Reich et al. Nature, in press, doi:10.1038/nature11258

Here’s the money quote from Reich et al.’s abstract:

[W]e assembled data from 52 Native American and 17 Siberian groups genotyped at 364,470 single nucleotide polymorphisms. Here we show that Native Americans descend from at least three streams of Asian gene flow. Most descend entirely from a single ancestral population that we call ‘First American’. However, speakers of Eskimo–Aleut languages from the Arctic inherit almost half their ancestry from a second stream of Asian gene flow, and the Na-Dene-speaking Chipewyan from Canada inherit roughly one-tenth of their ancestry from a third stream.

The three migrations thus were by 1) a group the authors call First American, that gave rise to almost all of the Indians of North and South America; 2) the Na-Dene, a group also linguistically identified, that occurs in the US Southwest and a few other places in the US and Canada; and 3) the Eskimo-Aleut, who arrived most recently. These three groups had also been identified by the late linguist Joseph Greenberg (who called the first group “Amerind’).

This is actually pretty much the story as I understood it from the viewpoint of a biologist paying casual attention to the anthropological results. Media accounts (NY Times, BBC) make it sound a bit more novel and controversial than I would have thought. This could be due to my not fully grasping the state of the debates within anthropology (quite possible!), or the hyping that tends to accompany reporting of even the best scientific work.


Reich, D. et al. 2012. Reconstructing Native American population history. Nature, in press.

Mystery of Amelia Earhart solved?

June 1, 2012 • 1:27 pm

If you’re like me, you’ve been fascinated forever by the disappearance of the aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937 on a round-the-world flight.  There has been increasing evidence that she managed to make it to an isolated South Pacific island, Nikumaroro.  There are reports that a female skeleton was found there in the 1940s, and excavations have suggested strongly that the island harbored castaways. Could one of them have been Earhart? (She was flying with a navigator, Fred Noonan.)

According to ABC news, a jar of what looks to have contained freckle cream of the type used by Earhart (who didn’t like her freckles) was found on the site, along with buttons, a zipper from a flight jacket, and what may have been fragments of human bones.  Here’s the found jar (left) that looks pretty much like freckle cream:

A freckle cream jar believed to belong to Amelia Earhart was found on the southeast end of Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific Ocean. Archaeologists are finding artifacts that suggest Amelia Earhart may have survived for a time there as a castaway.

The report continues:

TIGHAR [The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery] has long been investigating Earhart’s disappearance and has conducted nine archaeological excavations on the uninhabited island Nikumaroro in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati.

“This is one of several bottles that we’ve identified from the castaway campsite that seem to be and, in some cases, are very definitely personal care products that were marketed exclusively to women in the United States in the 1930s,” Gillespie said.

The jar was found broken into five pieces, four of which were together. The fifth piece was about 65 feet away near the bones of a turtle and appeared to have been used as a cutting tool.

Fish bones and eel remains were also discovered, and the remains indicated that they had not been prepared the way natives would have prepared their food.

“This is not a Pacific Islander,” Gillespie said. “This is a westerner grabbing anything they can find and cooking it and preparing it the way westerners do.”

Gillespie said that according to recovered documentation, the partial skeleton of a female castaway was discovered in 1940 in the area along with part of a woman’s shoe, part of a man’s shoe and a navigational tool, but the artifacts were later lost.

Along with the cosmetic jar, TIGHAR found pieces of a woman’s compact, a zipper that was manufactured in the 1930’s, and a bottle of hand lotion that has been chemically analyzed to match Campana Italian Balm, which was popular during Earhart’s time.

Of course the results aren’t in (can they do DNA analysis?), but it looks increasingly as if Earhart and Noonan made it to the island, lived there a while, and then died a slow death as castaways.

Here’s Nikumaroro ; read more about it here:

The island is a coral atoll that is one of the Phoenix Islands, a remote archipelago here: