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“Friendly” Atheist wonders why people don’t trust Richard Dawkins

A blogger named Hemant Mehta writes a column at patheos.com which he calls “Friendly Atheist.” On June 18, 2015 he wrote about a scientific article published in the journal Public Understanding of Science by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University, and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University. The original article is:

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment (2015)

The blog at Friendly Atheist is titled “New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers” (June 18, 2015)

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

The atheist blogger does not like the scientific results of the study, which find that Christian scientist Francis Collins is more effective at persuading people that religion and science are compatible, than New Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins is at persuading people that religion and science must be in opposition to each other. But what caught my attention here is how this blogger attributes the difference to “social prejudice” against atheists. The self-proclaimed “Friendly” Atheist is taking a page from Ken Ham’s playbook at Answers in Genesis. Young-earth creationists routinely claim to be persecuted for their views, and here is “Friendly” Atheist claiming the same thing:

The one thing this suggests for me is that scientists who are known for being atheists will have a hard time moving the public with them because of social prejudice.

The word “prejudice” means pre-judgment. No, “Friendly” Atheist is wrong. It is a case of simple judgment. When the general public sees Professor PZ Myers pulling an offensive stunt like The Great Desecration of a communion wafer, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that New Atheists are very dislikable people. If some of the public, religious or not, encounter his foul-mouthed ranting on Pharyngula, the judgment is confirmed. Word gets around. Very few voters want a Mayor or Senator like PZ Myers in public office.

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Just about every presentation of young-earth creationism I have seen features a few inflammatory quotations by Richard Dawkins, sure to provoke outrage among the Christian fundamentalists. YEC activists are savvy enough to know that Dawkins moves their target audience away from science. Richard Dawkins is the best friend that young-earth creationism has ever had.

And it’s not just the prominent New Atheists who are ill-mannered and uncouth. The “Friendly” Atheist was unable to comment on the historical Adam without including the f-word in his post:

“There Was No Historical Adam” (June 2011)

I love how some Christians are debating things that secular science figured out a long fucking time ago.

The social problems of the New Atheists are entirely of their own making. Now of course we know that the First Amendment protects free speech. Hemant Mehta is free to fill up his “Friendly” Atheist blog with insults, cuss words, profanity, and foul language. Then he can claim “social prejudice” against the New Atheists and their causes. But nobody else will be surprised if the general public (outside of his blog followers) doesn’t buy it.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that most atheists (lower case a) will inevitably be stereotyped by the uncivilized behavior of the few prominent New Atheists. None of my friends have to use the f-word when discussing a theological matter. It’s up to the mainstream atheists to distance themselves from the ill-mannered activists.

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment

The research and publication by Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund is far more interesting than the “Friendly” Atheist would have you believe. They used Francis Collins as the archetype of the religious scientist and Richard Dawkins as the archetype of the atheist scientist. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and one of the New Atheist activists.

For the relationship between faith and science, the researchers considered three philosophical models:

  • Conflict: Faith and science must be in opposition to each other.
  • Independence: Faith addresses questions of morality, while science discovers how the natural world works.
  • Collaboration: Faith and science influence and guide each other toward better results.

Scheitle and Ecklund note that “While this conflict narrative receives a great deal of attention, a relatively small proportion of the US public states that they personally see religion and science as in conflict (Baker, 2012).” Young-earth creationists and New Atheists most commonly hold the Conflict model.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is well-known for advocating the independence model with his “non-overlapping magisteria.” Theistic evolutionists hold the Collaboration model (such as Francis Collins, Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and Karl Giberson).

So here is what Scheitle and Ecklund did. They analyzed the Religious Understandings of Science (RUS) study. Respondents to the study were asked if they had ever heard of a scientist named Dr. Richard Dawkins, or Dr. Francis Collins. If not, then some respondents were given a short description of that scientist, including their position as Conflict or Collaboration between faith and science. Others were given no description (and presumably were left forever wondering why the survey would ask about that scientist). Finally the survey respondents were asked to state their preferred position; and if Conflict, which side they personally were on. Table 2 shows the results for Richard Dawkins [Scheitle and Ecklund 2015].

Table 2: Richard Dawkins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.6 14.7 -0.9
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 10.7 12.4 +1.7
Independence Gould 35.8 34.4 -1.4
Collaboration Theistic science 38.0 38.6 +0.6

The researchers say that these small changes are not statistically significant, and since I’m not a statistician I’ll take their word for it. Nevertheless, Dawkins seems to increase his New Atheist position by a small number (+1.7%), at the expense of the Gould Independence position (-1.4).

Table 3: Francis Collins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.4 10.3 -5.1
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 12.5 11.2 -1.3
Independence Gould 36.8 28.7 -8.1
Collaboration Theistic science 35.3 49.8 +14.5

Francis Collins makes the numbers change. The researchers state that the changes in Table 3 are statistically significant. Collins reduces the New Atheists by a small amount (-1.3%). But the big message here is that Francis Collins takes significant portions of Young-Earth Creationists (-5.1%) and Gould Independence advocates (-8.1%), and converts them to his own Collaboration model (+14.5%). And all by just a short description of his professional status and religious views. That’s remarkable!

Why is Francis Collins more convincing than Richard Dawkins?

Why does Francis Collins have more convincing power than Richard Dawkins in the RUS survey? Scheitle and Ecklund suggest:

  1. Familiarity. Although Richard Dawkins may be unknown, his Conflict position is familiar from media coverage of religion and science. Readers are neither surprised nor swayed by the Dawkins description. It follows that the New Atheists can manage to convince about 12.4% of the population that their Conflict position is correct, but that’s about all they will get.

    Francis Collins, on the other hand, presents a surprise to many survey respondents. Table 1 of the original paper notes that 21.4% of the respondents had heard of Dawkins, while only 4.3% had heard of Collins. It follows that theistic scientists can convince 49.8% of the population that their Collaborative position is correct, if we can just get the word out.

  2. Perceived credibility. Scheitle and Ecklund state, “research has shown that the US public is generally distrustful of atheists and view them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious, and minority groups (Edgell et al., 2006; Gervais et al., 2011).” This is the point that “Friendly” Atheist Hemant Mehta calls “social prejudice” in order to deflect the blame elsewhere. Yet episodes like PZ Myers and The Great Desecration at his blog Pharyngula show that this distrust is well-deserved. We never know what offensive stunt the New Atheists are going to pull next.
  3. Tone and Openness. The researchers suggest that Francis Collins’ message is more appealing to the public. Richard Dawkins’ message, and the combative way he expresses it, does not appeal to anyone not already in his camp.

I will suggest another reason: 4. The Conflict model of Dawkins, Myers, and Jerry Coyne is just plain wrong. The very existence of Francis Collins, a world-class scientist and evangelical Christian, disproves their thesis of inevitable conflict. And if he were not enough, the thousands of scientific papers published annually by religious scientists provide sufficient evidence that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science.

The “Friendly” Atheist blog of June 18, 2015 is another example of atheists vehemently rejecting science when they don’t like the results (see Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 6). In this respect the New Atheists are much like their opposite counterpart, the Young-Earth Creationists. Science does not mix well with ideology, no matter what extreme position is the source of that ideology.

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Moses, Tides, and Miracles of Timing

Bruce Parker published an essay in the Wall Street Journal in December 2014 explaining the hypothesis of Moses and tides near Suez: How Did Moses Part the Red Sea? The science of tides may have saved the Israelites from the Egyptians. Parker acknowledges that a fortuitous wind would have assisted Moses’ cause, but that Moses would be unable to forecast the wind. Samuel Bartlett had published a similar hypothesis in 1879; it’s common in this field to update older proposals with new science and technology. See my book Between Migdol and the Sea Chapter 3 Analyzing a Miracle for coverage of prior research into the Red Sea crossing.

Bay of Suez, 1856.

Wikimedia Commons: File:Suez Bay, Egypt (Justus Perthes’ Geographische Anstalt, 1856).jpg

There are reports that the French Emperor Napoleon I was almost drowned at Suez when he tried to make a nighttime return from Ayun Musa (“The Springs of Moses”) across the ford back to Suez. The Gutenberg Project has an on-line version of the Memoirs of Napoleon by De Bourienne. Search for “Suez” there to find the French Emperor’s misadventure with the tidal flats in the northern reaches of the Red Sea. There is some uncertainty over exactly what happened, and just how close Napoleon Bonaparte came to drowning.

Here is a real-time tide table for Suez, Egypt:
http://www.tides4fishing.com/af/egypt-red-sea/suez
The cycle at Suez is semi-diurnal (two cycles per 24 hours). The amplitude is about 1.5 meters (5 feet). This range matches the French account.

Here is some information from NOAA about tides:
http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/tides/tides07_cycles.html

Dr. Parker says that Moses “lived in the nearby wilderness in his early years” and thereby was familiar with the tidal patterns at Suez. Pharaoh’s chariot commanders lived along the Nile river and therefore did not know about the peculiar caravan crossing at Suez. I disagree. According to the book of Exodus, Moses lived in the land of Midian, which is east of the Gulf of Aqaba and a long way from Suez. I should think that at least one of the Egyptian commander or his officers would be familiar with the tidal ford at Suez (Clysma). If Moses had relied on the tides alone to make his escape and bring destruction on the chariot force, his careful plan would have been disrupted by just one Egyptian officer with knowledge of the tides at Suez.

Parker states (emphasis added):

Timing would have been crucial. The last of the Israelites had to cross the dry sea bottom just before the tide returned, enticing Pharaoh’s army of chariots onto the exposed sea bottom, where they would drown as the returning tidal waters overwhelmed them. If the chariots were expected to arrive before the tide came back in, Moses might have planned some type of delaying tactic. If the chariots were expected to arrive after the tide came back in, he could have gotten the Israelites across and then, at the next low tide, sent a few of his best people back onto the temporarily dry sea bed to entice Pharaoh’s chariots to chase them.

The ford at Suez.

Wikimedia Commons: File:Bartlett1879-NorthernGulfSuez.png

Although the Suez Tidal Hypothesis needs no miracle of timing for the tides (since the cycle is predictable), it does require precisely fatal timing on the part of the chariot commander. It is difficult to entice an enemy to fall into a military trap, but it would require a miracle of ignorance and stupidity for that enemy to fall into the trap at just the right time as well. Without God, this is a very risky plan. If the chariots arrived at the crossing an hour too soon or too late, Moses would lose the ensuing battle and the Israelites would be slaughtered. If my family and I lived through the tidal escape scenario at Suez, I would surely fall on my knees and thank God for His deliverance.

What kind of miracle?

There is some talk on various Internet discussion groups about how the “tidal option” might eliminate the need for a miracle of timing, since the tides at Suez are predictable after a period of careful observation. “No miracles required,” they say. This suggestion shows a modern meaning of “miracle” that is not the Old Testament’s view. I take the biblical view – that a miracle is a marvelous and unusual event that turns out in the Israelite’s favor. Nevertheless, here are the problems with a “tides only” scenario at Suez:

1. The Suez Tidal Hypothesis does not match the narrative. Exodus 14 says that God sent the east wind, and the wind parted the sea. The wind did it! Although the ancient Israelites were not oceanographers, they could see that the wind somehow moved away the water and created a temporary land bridge for them to cross the yam suf to freedom.

2. Moses was not at Suez. Moses spent his exile in Midian, which is on the far side of Aqaba east of the Wadi Arabah. Cairo is 125 km in a straight-line distance from Suez, and Aqaba is 240 km as the crow flies. Moses may have passed along a caravan route through Suez, but so would have many Egyptian soldiers on their way to the turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadim (Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 9, page 218).

3. Moses has to get the Israelites across in about 4 hours. The semi-diurnal cycle means that the tides ebb and flow every 12 hours. Moses would have perhaps 4 hours to get the tribes across the ford during low tide. My Tanis Hypothesis also uses a crossing time of 4 hours, but I don’t pretend that it would be easy to complete the nighttime evacuation without something going wrong.

4. The Egyptians have to be completely unaware of the tides at Suez. All it would take is one Egyptian officer, or the chariot commander himself, to have passed through Suez and learned of the tidal nature of the crossing. In Napoleon’s time the locals knew the pattern very well. Just one person among the pursuing force could spoil Moses’s plan.

5. The chariot force has to advance at just the right time. This is probably the biggest problem, and Bruce Parker recognizes this aspect of the Tides at Suez Hypothesis. He suggests that Moses could have used delaying or taunting tactics to draw the chariots across the ford before the tide returned. It would be worth a try! In military history, commanders sometime succeed in luring their enemy into a trap, like Hannibal did at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC. Sometimes the trap horribly fails, like the attempt at a surprise night attack by the Jacobites before the Battle of Culloden in 1746. But to get your enemy not only to fall into your trap, but to blunder fatally at just the right time – that would be a military miracle.

Those who contend that Moses could easily have used the tides at Suez to pull off his escape and the destruction of the Egyptian chariot force are much too casual about the difficulties and uncertainties involved in carrying out such a plan. Of course God could make the tidal plan work, as Exodus 14 insists. I would not try it without Him.

Movie Review: Exodus Gods and Kings

Yesterday morning I caught the early bird showing of the new movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott. Regular readers of Funmurphys: the Blog already know that I have written and published a new book about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, focusing specifically on crossing the Red Sea. The book is titled: Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science (2014), by Carl Drews. This review is written from a book author’s perspective.

Spectacle and Grandeur

A good biblical epic should provide jaw-dropping spectacle and majestic grandeur. Exodus: Gods and Kings provides these in abundance! Some of the earlier scenes show the great sweep of the Nile delta, with pyramids rising along the banks of the great river, while Bronze Age citizens bustle about under the stern watch of the Pharaoh’s foremen. Ancient Egypt was a marvelous place! This movie really brings out the grandeur of the New Kingdom in all its glory.

Ten Plagues

The Ten Plagues are depicted graphically in the film, and the result is disturbing. A week ago I would have not imagined an infestation of frogs to be all that bad, but I just about jumped out of my theater seat to see all those slimy amphibians crawling over everything! Yuck! Then there came all manner of flies, more flies than I have ever seen even in Alaska. We saw the movie in 3-D, and we were recoiling and trying to get out of the swarm. The plagues are very well done by the cinematographer.

Exodus: Gods and Kings brings out a theological point: During the Ten Plagues, a lot of people suffered greatly. According to the narrative in Exodus, Pharaoh suffered because he refused to let the Israelites go. Ridley Scott makes the point that many common Egyptians suffered as well, through no fault of their own. What kind of god would strike dead all the first-born sons? Modern Christians continue to feel uncomfortable about these episodes, and we debate various resolutions. Generally we conclude that Jesus doesn’t do things that way any more, and we follow Jesus.

God as a Petulant British Boy

God Almighty is portrayed in Exodus: Gods and Kings as a boy about 8 years old with a British accent. I can accept God speaking to Elijah as a “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19. I believe that God became incarnate in the baby Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. But the surly attitude of the God-boy in this movie was jarring, and I was left wondering why Moses would accept the commands from such a manifestation of the Almighty. At least the boy should have had more gravitas, and should have spoken to Moses with graceful majesty. Was Morgan Freeman not available?

Goblins and Chariots

There is a scene in The Hobbitt: An Unexpected Journey where Gandalf and the dwarves kill the Great Goblin and escape from the underground goblin kingdom. When my family watches this sequence at home, we usually keep a body count of goblins, yelling out the numbers as they fall. Our total usually comes out to about 140.

During the pursuit of Moses by the Egyptian army, Rameses II charges with all his chariots down a narrow mountain road after the fleeing Israelites. Naturally some careless chariot driver careens off the edge and tumbles down the mountain. Then another chariot hits a rock, and within a few moments there is a huge landslide about 30 chariots behind Pharaoh, and all the remaining vehicles in the column either tumble to their tragic and untimely deaths, or are blocked by the now-impassable road. So – Rameses is left with about 30 chariots out of the 1,000 that departed the Egyptian capital. 400,000 Israelites ought to be able to make quick work of them.

But when Pharaoh reaches the beach somehow all his 1,000 chariots have miraculously re-appeared. Someone was not counting properly! Yeah, I know it’s just a movie. But I was chuckling over the movie’s continuity error while still enjoying the action. And the action in Exodus: Gods and Kings is superb!

Crossing the Red Sea at Nuweiba, not the Straits of Tiran

At one point Moses brings out a hand-written map showing his planned route from Egypt back to his wife Zipporah in Midian. Maybe nobody else in the audience cared, but I instantly recognized the route after studying that geography for five years. Moses, generations of biblical scholars would gladly trade several chapters of Leviticus for just one glance at your map! The traditional route of the Exodus is generally agreed, but there are other proposals.

Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews 2014) Figure 11-1 with lines added in cyan showing routes from the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Copyright 2014 by Carl Drews.

My book Between Migdol and the Sea (Drews, 2014) provides a map of the Sinai peninsula in Chapter 11 (right). The traditional route is marked here in red and green. In Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Moses plans to take the cyan (light blue) route down the west coast of Sinai and cross the Straits of Tiran (dotted cyan). But he takes a detour through the Sinai mountains and gets stuck at Nuweiba instead (solid cyan). In the movie the Israelites cross the Red Sea from Nuweiba over to modern Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this scenario. An earlier scene shows Moses splashing across the “Straits of Tiran” on his way to meet Zipporah. But this strait in real life is not like Adam’s Bridge across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka, oh no! The Enterprise Passage in the Straits of Tiran today is 250 meters (820 feet) deep.[Between Migdol and the Sea, page 179] Nobody will be splashing across there.

The underwater ridge at Nuweiba is 765 meters (2,510 feet) deep.[Migdol, page 179] That would be quite a hike.

How Not to Communicate Science

This little vignette was actually pretty funny, especially for me. Rameses is getting understandably tired of the Plagues, and he calls in various advisors to learn how to stop the plagues, or at least to predict when they will end. Bad advice results in immediate execution. One of these advisors is a Scientist who has not taken the seminar on How to Communicate Science. He gleefully launches into a technical discussion of how the crocodiles churned up the water and made it turn red, how all that extra sediment caused the fish to die and the frogs to multiply. Rameses knows this already and scowls at Scientist, wondering when he’s going to come to the point. “And what comes next?” asks the Scientist happily. “Flies!” retorts Rameses in disgust, swatting at the hundreds of flies swarming around him. “Yes!” answers the Scientist, obviously pleased that his students are following the lecture.

The next shot shows the Scientist on the scaffold about to be executed.

In science communication we talk about Framing the Message. Framing means to go beyond the facts; your audience wants to know why these facts matter and how they are relevant to their own concerns. In climate science, a government audience wants to know how society will be affected, not just how many degrees the temperature will increase.

Meteorite and Tsunami

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, the parting of the Red Sea is accomplished by a flaming meteorite that falls into the sea beyond the horizon. This impact causes a tsunami in which the sea draws back for the Israelites to cross, then returns in a giant wave while the Egyptian chariots pursue. In the movie God sends the meteorite at the right place and time for Moses to lead his people across, so of course this is full-on theistic astronomy. Ridley Scott does not fall into the “God of the Gaps” fallacy that seems to plague certain atheist bloggers! Good for him.

The Bible says the east wind drove back the water all night long (Exodus 14:20-21). But would a meteorite impact also work? The answer is: not likely. For the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, there were three huge waves over 1.5 hours. The wave period from drawback through the return surge was about 30 minutes. There have been some tsunamis with a longer wave period, but the basic wave cycle is measured in tens of minutes, not hours. At the Nuweiba crossing Moses and the Israelites would have to descend 2,500 vertical feet and then crank up the other side back to sea level, all in 30 minutes. The Colorado Mountain Club uses 1,000 feet per hour as a rule of thumb when climbing fourteeners (Between Migdol and the Sea, page 166). A tsunami simply does not provide enough time to make the crossing.

But the wave action is spectacular! Exodus: Gods and Kings does action very well.

Go see it!

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God’s role in crossing the Red Sea

Certain bloggers have begun to misrepresent my religious views on how God works through science and the natural forces. It’s time to post a clear statement (again).

Exodus 14:20-21 states:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
(Exodus 14:21 ESV)

We may summarize the Exodus passage as follows:
1. God sent the east wind.
2. The wind moved the water.

Part 1 is the realm of Theology since it involves Divine action. I would love to know if God used a low-pressure system here, but without further description I cannot tell.

Part 2 is the realm of Science. Wind moving water is what the COAWST ocean model calculates, and this is what I published in PLoS ONE in 2010.

If anyone wishes to replace Part 1 with a scientific statement and hypothesize how Moses knew where to stand at just the right time, they are free to submit a manuscript to their favorite scientific journal. Since the Bible says God sent the wind, I’ll stick with Part 1 as stated.

For readers of Funmurphys: the Blog who wish to know how God works through science, I recommend the following books:

“Finding Darwin’s God” by Kenneth Miller.
“The Language of God” by Francis Collins.
Anything by Karl Giberson.

These three Christians (and others) receive harsh criticism from Young-Earth Creationists and New Atheists alike. I am proud to be in their august company in one small way.

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Lake Erie Is My Laboratory

I recently published another scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. Since PLoS ONE is Open Access, anyone can read the paper without a journal subscription:

Using Wind Setdown and Storm Surge on Lake Erie to Calibrate the Air-Sea Drag Coefficient

The publication date was August 19, 2013. Here is the full citation:
Drews C (2013) Using Wind Setdown and Storm Surge on Lake Erie to Calibrate the Air-Sea Drag Coefficient. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72510. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072510

The purpose of the research was to validate the results of the COAWST ocean model (Coupled-Ocean-Atmosphere-Wave- Sediment Transport Modeling System) with actual observations of storm surge. The paper has a lot of figures that we call “spaghetti plots;” these are charts that show multiple time series on a single plot. We call them spaghetti plots because they look like a bunch of noodles stretched from left to right across the page:

Figure 11. December 2006: Wind setdown and storm surge, with experiments E4, E18, E21, and E23. From Drews (2013).

Figure 11. December 2006: Wind setdown and storm surge, with experiments E4, E18, E21, and E23. From Drews (2013).

In Figure 11, the black line represents the observations of water level taken at the Fermi power plant at the western end of the lake, and at Buffalo at the eastern end of the lake. The colored lines represent various model runs. The goal here is to get the colored lines to match the black line as closely as possible. This is done by adjusting the COAWST model parameters in a sensible manner. Adjustments include: the numerical formula for the air-sea drag coefficient, the bottom drag coefficient, the influence of waves, and the algorithm used to simulate wave action, and the presence of ice on the lake.

Why Lake ErieLake Erie happens to be a near-perfect natural laboratory for conducting this kind of experiment. The lake is long, shallow, and subject to strong winds from the west that cause the lake water to slosh back and forth like a big bathtub. Since the lake is surrounded by populated areas in the United States and Canada, there are many weather stations along the coastline that provide archived meteorological data. Lake Erie is also an important seaway for international commerce, and NOAA provides accurate measurements of tides and currents at major ports on the lake. I can run simulation experiments with confidence in the observations that I am trying to match.

The paper describes two windstorms on Lake Erie: December 1–2, 2006 and January 30–31, 2008. Lake Erie is 400 km long and 90 km wide. Since I don’t have a gigantic fan big enough to blow the lake water around and measure what happens, I have to wait for nature to do the blowing instead. Fortunately for me, these windstorms occur often enough to provide several usable data sets. Better yet, there were no human fatalities in either of these storms.

The potential result of the research is a more accurate model for storm surge. When building coastal defenses such as floodwalls, it is crucial to know how high the ocean will rise when the next hurricane comes ashore. The difference between building a seawall one foot higher than the maximum surge, and one foot lower than the maximum surge, can be disastrous.

Moses Crossing the Red Sea

In 2010 I published another paper on wind setdown and storm surge:
Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta

That earlier paper reported the emergence of a land bridge in the eastern Nile delta under certain conditions of wind speed and direction. For readers of funmurphys who are interested in Moses crossing the Red Sea, the ocean model indicated that Moses would have 4 hours to lead the Israelites across the yam suf.

At the time, I suspected that the estimate of 4.0 hours was somewhat conservative; that is, the dry passage probably would have stayed open for a longer period of time. There were several factors that we did not include in the 2010 research, such as waves and a drag coefficient more suited to coastal conditions. I had a hunch that these additional factors would increase the duration of the passage. However, the rigorous nature of scientific publishing requires that scientists cannot publish more than a few paragraphs of speculation; peer-reviewed journals require concrete results supported by evidence from observations and computer models.

The Lake Erie research provided a chance for me to test my earlier hunch. I was pleased to find that my hunch was correct; but better yet, that I could provide a revised number for the crossing time. Here it is: Moses had over 8 hours to evacuate all the Israelites from Pi-Hahiroth to safety at Tell Kedua on the other side of the yam suf. Or, for scholars who are more interested in the wind speed, an east wind blowing at 24 meters per second is sufficient to hold open the dry passage for 4 hours (the 2010 paper reported 28 m/s).

Figure 13. Corrections applied to the Lake of Tanis and the Kedua Gap. From Drews (2013).

Figure 13. Corrections applied to the Lake of Tanis and the Kedua Gap. From Drews (2013).

I like this result, because it shows that there is some engineering tolerance to the solution. Although God can of course do anything He wants to do, as an engineer I am happier with a answer in which the parameters can vary a bit and still work. The 2013 paper demonstrates that the Kedua Gap is a more robust reconstruction of Exodus 14 than originally thought.

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“Proving God” on the History channel

Wind setdown and Exodus 14

On December 13, 2011, I appeared in a TV documentary titled “Proving God” shown on the History Channel. My section of the program described how scientists investigate the narrative of Moses parting the “Red Sea” in Exodus 14. Sir Colin Humphreys and I explained how the meteorological phenomenon of wind setdown matches the Biblical account. I am providing here a transcript of what I said on the program; since this blog represents Fair Use in a scholarly setting, I can only provide a limited section of the text.

Ancient Nile delta

Figure 1. Reconstruction of the Nile delta by James Rennell, based on the writings of Herodotus. The black rectangle shows the site of Drews and Han's proposed crossing site at the Kedua Gap (30.9812 North, 32.4553 East). This is Figure 2 of Drews Carl, Han Weiqing, 2010 Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481.

Narrator: Atmospheric scientist Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research believes Humphreys may be onto something.

Carl Drews: Wind setdown occurs when a strong wind blows over a period of time across a surface of water; and gradually the water moves in the direction of the wind, and pulls away from the shoreline, and so the surface of the ocean moves down. So what you have there is a section of dry land where there was formerly sea bed.

Narrator: Accessing the power of supercomputers, Drews has studied the effect of wind setdown in locations ranging from the Nile, and coastal England, to a pair of such episodes in the Great Lakes in 2006 and 2008.

Carl Drews: Wind setdown is observed about every 5-10 years on Lake Erie. You have these strong storms that come from the west, and they cause storm surge at Buffalo; but on the Toledo side, which is the upwind side, the large sections of the lake will be completely dry. The water will have disappeared over the horizon!

Colin Humphreys: It’s been observed that the difference in height between one end of Lake Erie and the other can be as high as 16 feet. Absolutely staggering, right? You’d expect Lake Erie to be level water, but in a strong wind, blowing for many hours – 16 feet difference!

Reconstructing the event

Narrator: Harnessing data gathered from NASA satellites, Carl Drews creates an ocean model and terrain map of the Gulf [of Tineh], to examine the possible effects of such a storm.

Parting the Sea at the Kedua Gap

Figure 2. Wind parting the waters at the Kedua Gap. The east wind creates a temporary land bridge at Tell Kedua in the eastern Nile delta. This is Figure 1 from Parting the waters: Computer modeling applies physics to Red Sea escape route, press release by University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, September 21, 2010. (©UCAR, Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller.)

Carl Drews: I used geological maps, geological surveys, and sediment cores to reconstruct the configuration of lagoons and rivers that were [present] during the Exodus period. Then I ran this on the ocean model with a supercomputer and applied a digital wind to this, a wind blowing at 63 miles per hour. It would be difficult to walk into that kind of wind, but it’s possible. You can make forward progress.

[break]

Narrator: Combining the Biblical account of the crossing with the scientific modeling, Drews constructs a timeline that matches the conditions described in Exodus: the perfect storm.

Carl Drews: The Bible says that this occurred over a night, so – wind blowing for 12 hours suddenly stops, and I find that the waters part, and stay parted for a period of 4 hours. Then they rush back together again.

Narrator: But even given 4 hours to cross the exposed land bridge, it would have been impossible for 2 million Israelites to traverse the Red Sea and escape. Does the scientific evidence disprove the Bible account?

Carl Drews: That would be a lot of people to get through a small space in just 4 hours.

Colin Humphreys: This number is unbelievably large! A lot of people think the Exodus story is made up.

[Humphreys goes on to explain that the word ‘eleph in ancient Hebrew (Strong’s Concordance H505) can mean “thousand”, or it can mean a “company” of soldiers – about 10 fighting men. This re-calculation leads to a total number of 20,000 Israelites of all ages, a much more manageable group of people.]

Narrator: If Humphreys’ new calculation is accurate, it bolsters the case that the Red Sea miracle really did happen.

The return surge

Narrator: From cosmology, and archaeology, to oceanography, researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines have launched a global search to discover quantifiable proof of God. Sir Colin Humphreys and Carl Drews are looking for evidence that will prove that the events described in the Bible actually occurred. Using precise calculations, along with complex computer modeling, each man has detailed a perfect storm scenario which they claim could have caused the parting of the Red Sea, just as described in the book of Exodus.

Tidal bore on the Qiantang river, China.

Figure 3. Tidal bore on the Qiantang river, Hangzhou, China. This image is from Wikimedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tidal_bore_at_the_Qiantang_river,_Hangzhou.jpg.

According to their theory, a phenomenon known as wind setdown caused winds of rare duration and force to peel back the waters long enough for the Israelites to make their way to freedom across an exposed land bridge. But the book of Exodus also describes the sudden destruction of the Pharaoh’s army as they chased the Israelites across the sea bed. To explain this, Drews and Humphreys point to the opposing natural force that can follow extreme cases of wind setdown.

A bore wave. The term defines the phenomenon where a tide returns displaced water with such force that it forms a giant wave of enormous power.

Carl Drews: When the wind stops, suddenly that water comes back again, and you would get these walls of churning water, thundering in! and crushing anybody who is left in the passage there.

Narrator: Drews’ calculations reveal that a wind setdown powerful enough to part the Red Sea would have unleashed a bore wave of staggering magnitude.

[break]

Narrator: Whether invoked by the hand of Moses, or the natural reaction to wind setdown, a bore wave of this force would have obliterated the Pharaoh’s army in an instant.

Carl Drews: Suddenly they hear this roaring in the distance! Then they look up, and what looks like a mountain of water is bearing down on them from both sides, and from the back.

Colin Humphreys: It sweeps these people back into the sea, which is precisely what the book of Exodus says. So even this little detail in the Exodus fits what we know from modern science.

Theology – faith and science

Narrator: But while these natural phenomena offer a scientific explanation for the events described in Exodus, that alone does not prove God.

Anglican cross

Figure 4. Anglican cross. From Letterkenny Cathedral, by Scolye17 at Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celtic_Cross_Letterkenny.jpg

Carl Drews: It could be that Moses got very, very, very lucky. It could be that he was a very, very good weather forecaster.

Colin Humphreys: So you may say, Why do we call this a miracle? The reason is because of the timing. They would have been slaughtered!

Carl Drews: It’s a very unlikely event, to happen on a certain night just when you need it. If Moses is that lucky, we should all bet on Moses! (he chuckles)

Colin Humphreys: So I think it’s the timing that shows the hand of God at work.

Narrator: Both Drews and Humphreys agree that the evidence of God is not in the natural events themselves, but rather in their miraculous timing. Ultimately, it is beyond the powers of science to explain how a once-in-a-lifetime storm occurred at the exact place and time to rescue the Israelites.

[break]

Narrator: While their work has narrowed the divide between science and the Divine, these scientists admit that, for the moment, faith is needed to span the last gaps.

Carl Drews: The scientist should be humble and realize when their science cannot go into the supernatural. We only study the natural. So I study the movement of the wind and the water. According to the Bible, God sent the wind at the right time and told Moses to be there.

Further reading

Purchase “Proving God” on DVD from the History channel:
Proving God DVD

Our original scientific paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE:
Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta, by Carl Drews and Weiqing Han, August 30, 2010.

A story by reporter Anna Maria-Basquez in the Denver Catholic Register that explores the theology behind the research:
Boulder scientist’s research affirms parting of the Red Sea, December 15, 2010.

An article that I wrote for Weatherwise magazine to explain the research to a general audience:
Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea? January/February 2011.

Other news coverage:
Parting the Sea.

Proving God” was produced by Karga Seven Pictures for History.

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Three Quotes About The Character of The Irish

“The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.”
Samuel Johnson

“The Irish are often nervous about having the appropriate face for the occasion. They have to be happy at a wedding, which is a strain, so they get depressed; they have to be sad at funerals, which is easy, so they get happy.”
Peggy Noonan

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark, and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”
Edna O’Brien

Starting My Weight Loss Regimen (Again)

I have gone back on a low carb diet which I have found to be an effective way for me to lose weight (although I have to be careful, sometimes I think I have lost some weight and I turn around quickly to find it following along behind me).

I read Gary Taubes “What It It’s all Been a Big Fat Lie” in the New York Times in 2002 and it completely changed my perspective on dieting.  He came out with “Good Calories, Bad Calories” in 2008, and I recently re-read it to help me recommit to a low carb regimen. On page 454 he offers what he calls his “inescapable conclusions” based on fifteen years of research:

  1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease or any other chronic disease of civilization.
  2. The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostasis—the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on your health, weight and well-being.
  3. Sugars—sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically—are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.
  4. Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.
  5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behavior.
  6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.
  7. Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance—a disequilibrium—in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of fat tissue reverses this balance.
  8. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated—either chronically or after a meal—we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.
  9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
  10. By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.

Practical Advice From Keith Hennessy

Keith Hennessy had a great blog post on “Oil Spill Crisis as Opportunity” where he makes the following suggestion for new legislation:

Imagine that the President proposes new legislation targeted at the problem of engineering safety in deepwater drilling.  Imagine his legislation contains five provisions:

  1. Require that all deepwater wells have a relief well in place before production begins.
  2. Mandate requirements for double piping and a list of other industry engineering best practices.  The prior best practice for engineering safety becomes the legally mandated minimum.
  3. Mandate that each deepwater drilling operation be insured for at least $20 B of environmental damage before production can begin.  Insurers will therefore require further engineering stringency to protect themselves.
  4. Raise the legal liability cap for any drilling platform to $50 B, just to be safe.
  5. All new wells must meet all of the above requirements, and all existing wells must cease production until they meet them.  (The details here might need some work.)

He makes this suggestion after offering the following analysis of current energy consumption usage patterns and the limits of battery technology:

If you are focused on carbon emissions, then oil, coal, and natural gas naturally group together as “fossil fuels” and are the combined source of the problem.  If you are focused on energy, then oil is one issue (transportation), and coal and natural gas are another (electric power).

We use almost no oil to produce power in the U.S., and electricity powers only a tiny fraction of our transportation, despite recent increases in hybrid and natural gas vehicles.  Yes, they’re growing at a rapid rate.  But the overlap between oil as one type of energy source vs. coal and natural gas as another is vanishingly small.

Someday when battery technologies improve, the fuel and power worlds will blend in the U.S., and there will be strong and direct economic relationships between the production of electric power and the use of oil.  Until that day, from an energy perspective, “fossil fuels” conflates oil with coal and natural gas in a way that is at best confusing and at worst misleading.  Substituting biofuels for oil or making vehicles more fuel efficient has almost no effect on the amount of coal or natural gas we use.  “Produc[ing] wind turbines,” “installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses making solar panels” are quantitatively irrelevant to our use and production of oil.  All the windmills and solar panels you could imagine will not reduce our dependence on oil as a transportation fuel.

He has a great chart and more details, go read the whole post.