Sunday, August 31, 2008


Moping Up

William at Skiing Mount Improbable has taken one for the team.

In the past, I've pointed out the dangers faced by those who clean up spills of creationist waste product. William has bravely tackled some of the most dangerous kind: O'Leary's Denyseum. This harmful byproduct of the decay of underdeveloped brain cells has been known to reduce the intelligence of bystanders by measurable amounts within seconds of unprotected contact. The sad victims of such exposure are generally kept isolated from the rest of the world, at sanitariums such as "Uncommon Descent," for their own good.

Without fear for his own safety, William waded into a giant pool of Denyseum that some fool let seep out of containment and cleaned it up. Let's all hope that William comes out of decontamination with his health intact.

We all owe him a debt of gratitude!


Fair Play

Comedian Mo Rocca wants to come up with some campaign slogans for our newest candidate. Here are some from him and the commentators at his site:

~ Sarah Palin: A chicken in every pot and a bun in every oven.

~ Sarah Palin: Her aim is better than Cheney's.

~ Sarah Palin: If God wanted polar bears around forever he wouldn't have created oil.

~ Sarah Palin: Because the Dark Ages weren't that bad.

~ Sarah Palin: A hockey mom who will beat the crap out of soccer moms!

And there is mine:

~ Sarah Palin: If you don't know what it's like eking out a living in a small town on the edge of a wasteland, wait until we've had four years in office.

Further entries welcome!

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Hidden Resources

A thought:

[R]eligion is above all the process by which individuals are persuaded to subordinate their immediate self-interest to the interests of the group. Votaries are expected to make short-term physiological sacrifices for their own long-term genetic gains. Self-deception by shamans and priests perfects their own performance and enhances the deception practiced on their constituents. In the midst of absurdity the trumpet is certain. Decisions are automatic and quick, there being no rational calculus by which groups of individuals can compute their inclusive genetic fitness on a day-to-day basis and thus know the amount of conformity and zeal that is optimum for each act. Human beings require simple rules that solve complex problems, and they tend to resist any attempt to dissect the unconscious order and resolve of their daily lives.

E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature


Storming the Castle

The Carnival of Elitist Bastards has followed Blake Stacey to his new digs at ScienceBlogs, where the results are laid before a noble but cranky king.

There is a great statement of the spirit of elitist bastardy among the entries:

I don't know how to say it more simply than this. If education is a danger to your worldview, that is hard proof that your worldview needs examining. If entertaining other worldviews turns out to be a danger to your own, your worldview is a hell of a lot more fragile than you want to admit. If studying other cultures is some kind of threat to your own, your own culture isn't worth your slavish loyalty. If exposure to people who believe they can make the world better somehow erodes your reinforced sense of self-serving exploitative entitlement and privilege, perhaps that's a clue that you need to abandon that sense of entitlement.

No, I'm not telling where -- go look for yourself! You'll find a lot of good stuff along the way!

Oh, o.k.


Friday, August 29, 2008


Veep Olympics

In a move that cannot help but liven up his campaign and shift it into high gear, John McCain has made the surprise move of selecting a political novice as his running mate:

Michael Palin!

Political insiders were stunned by the choice of the comedian and founding member of ...

What? ... Sarah who? ...

Excuse me, it seems that I made a mistake. Senator McCain has apparently chosen an obscure governor from a state with a small population and almost no sense of humor.

This woman is strongly opposed to gay rights, favoring a same-sex-marriage ban and opposing spousal benefits to same-sex partners of government employees. She has expressed support for the teaching of alternatives to evolution (i.e. Intelligent Design Creationism) in public schools but later backtracked and said that it "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum" but there should not be a prohibition against debate if it [cough] "comes up in class." And, of course, she is antiabortion.

As Nick Baumann at Mother Jones pointed out:

Unconventional running-mate choices (and a first term governor who until recently was the mayor of a town of about 9,000 people is certainly an unconventional pick) signal desperation. Confident candidates make safe picks. Candidates who are trailing and need to make big moves make unconventional ones.

The selection of Palin smacks of tokenism. Every four years, the Republican party trots out its few non-white, non-male leaders for the Republican National Convention. Many get prime speaking spots. Apparently Sarah Palin gets the Vice-Presidential nomination. The pick is clearly partly directed at disaffected Hillary voters with the idea that simply putting a woman on the ticket will win their votes. This is obviously wrong, as Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro will tell you.

Joe Klein at Time adds:

Does the McCain campaign actually think that Hillary supporters will be lured to the ticket by a militant pro-lifer who also believes in the teaching of intelligent design?

Admiral Stockdale, please pick up the white courtesy phone ...

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Good News, Bad News

Hoo boy! We're in trouble now!

A grassroots effort is being started by two Locust Grove citizens to destroy Darwinian evolution and bring God back into public schools. The citizens have formed a new organization called the Creation and Evolution Studies Ministry which aims to challenge the dominance of Darwinian evolution which is taught in public school biology courses.

It seems us evil evilutionists have been defining God out of existence or somesuch:

The main argument of the program is that evolution needs to be further defined into microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is a minor change within a species such as hair or eye coloring while macroevolution, Darwinian evolution, is a change from one species to another requiring some from of mutation.

"Evolutionists refuse to use micro and macro," said [William Nowers, one of the ministry's founders]. "They will give an example of microevolution to encompass all evolution." ...

"The basic key is in the definitions," said Nowers. "Once you define the words, the evolutionists are going to lose."

Hey, if they can destroy Darwinian evolution by simply insisting on their own definition, you don't think a little thing like the Constitution of the United States is going to stand in their way, do you?

According to Nowers, in the past 10-15 years, many states have tried to bring creation teachings into classrooms in order to present both creation and evolution equally. However, these efforts are usually defeated due to the separation in church and state. The ministry's approach may be one that cannot be defeated so easily.

"Volunteer students will carry an insert in their biology book which challenges Darwinian evolution," said Nowers. "[The insert] will have a write up and then asks questions that can't be answered by teachers."

How ... um ... diabolical! No doubt sending children to confound grade and high school teachers will destroy the scientific legitimacy of evolution and cause scientists the world over to abandon it.

Oh, and if you want to see these devastating questions that will leave teachers gibbering in confusion, Creation and Evolution Studies Ministry has a sample insert. My favorite:

If we deny a universal flood, how did marine fossils get to the tops of all the mountains?

There is much more hilarity to be had in the insert, including the authors suffering near-terminal projection while accusing "evolutionists and anti-Christians" of quote mining.

The good news is that, if this is the quality of the opposition science faces, we shouldn't have much of a problem. The bad news is, if this is the quality of the opposition science faces, we must be having a helluva problem.


Oh Canada!

Just a couple of data points from our friends up north:

Barry Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, has an article arguing that the big bad "New Atheists" have recently become so loud because "they know full well that their own arguments are so weak that they have to obscure this fact with a high-decibel diversion." Frankly, I can't figure this part out:

Every faith, the dogmatic atheists say, contains a seed of violence and torment, even (or especially) among those who see in their religion a command to love their neighbours, including neighbours as obnoxious as these atheist critics.

In short, the atheists' dogmatism is as much an expression of the weakness of their position as is the dogmatism of the believers.
But it is clear (and silly) enough that Cooper thinks disputes over science can be reduced to "atheist Darwinians versus the Creationists of the supporters of Intelligent Design." Apparently, the fact that science cannot answer everything is enough to prove atheists wrong:

Wondering means tolerating mysteries. Interestingly enough, it was Socrates, not some religious fanatic so pilloried by the evangelical atheists, who said that philosophy begins in wonder.

Wonder is something enlightened atheists never could abide. No wonder they shout so much.
But when did wondering equal believing?

Speaking of which, there is this in from Edmonton: "Making a living of bullshit detecting," a sympathetic and respectful story about such skeptics as James Randi (who relates being thrown out of Sunday School as a child), Michael Shermer and Dr. Steven Novella. And nary a word about how "respectful" they are toward believers. In fact, Randi, asked "What's the harm in believing someone can mentally bend spoons or we can contact our dead loved ones through a medium, anyway?" replies:

Well, what's the harm of putting someone on heroin and supplying them for the rest of their lives?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Botched Bill

Noahs ark.2The July/August 2008 issue of Church & State, the magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has a good article by Sandhya Bathija, entitled "Eroding Evolution," on Louisiana's new and badly misnamed "Science Education Act."

Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and the star witness at the Dover Intelligent Design trial, correctly points out that the Louisiana law and the bills presently being pushed in Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan and South Carolina by the Discovery Institute "are full of creationist code language." Furthermore, the main force behind the law in Louisiana is the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a state affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

As previously noted, the law allows local school boards to approve "supplemental material" for classes on evolution. In no coincidence at all, the LLF has produced its own "textbook addendum." If it is at all representative of the materials that actually find their way into the hands of innocent Louisiana children, the law will be fertile ground for underemployed constitutional lawyers.

As just a brief glimpse into the level of this material, it prominently quotes "geologist John Woodmorappe" on supposed "weaknesses" in the geologic record. Woodmorappe is actually a pen name for a notorious young-Earth creationist and frequent contributor to Answers in Genesis, whose most famous work is Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study. It is mind boggling that the public schools in Louisiana may eventually be teaching children to consider a pseudonymous author who, when push comes to shove, denies all the basics of science, as if he is a scientific authority.

I hope some day the children subjected to this abuse sue the state's legislators and governor for malpractice.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Requiescat In Pacem


Monday, August 25, 2008



Um ...

The two overriding planetary aspects shadowing the Democratic National Convention over the next few days is a long-term conjunction of Chiron (wounding and healing) to the North Node (the ascending point where the path of the Moon crosses the path of the Sun around the Earth, from our perspective on Planet Earth). The North Node is not a planet, but in astrology it symbolizes the path of our future evolution. The conjunction of Chiron to the North Node began back in June and will continue through October.

Now you may be thinking that this is just something else that Biden should call malarkey. But hold on there! Listen to these predictions:

[T]he Convention, falling under this Chiron/Node conjunction, is opening old wounds of party issues ... rivalries between men and women, between those of different races, and between generations are rupturing as old wounds fester and come to the surface ... arguments and power struggles between various ideologies ... the ending of long-held alliances and partnerships ... things will not go smoothly ... there will be a fair amount of dirty laundry aired.
You know, some of those things are happening already!

Oh, wait a minute ... This is a Democratic convention isn't it?

Never mind!

Art by Knicki

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Once Too Often to the Wells


The New York Times has published the National Center for Science Education's answers to Jonathan Wells' disingenuous "Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution," intended to be used by unwitting child agents of the Discovery Institute to disrupt biology classes across the nation.

A concise summary of the misconceptions embodied in Wells' "tricks to play on your teacher," it should be a good resource for beleaguered teachers everywhere, as is this page from the National Academies.

To see how much it is needed, read the Times story about David Campbell, cofounder of Florida Citizens for Science and a high school teacher in that state, and the challenges he faces ... and the opportunities that are open.

Then multiply it across the country.


Evolving Politics

I'm not much for the political wars. I'm too old and jaded to expect much of either party beyond marginal differences -- not that those can't be important, this year more than most. But that's why I usually leave that stuff to those who haven't had the fire in the belly quenched and who have real talent for it (like Dana). But this caught my notice today.

Someone named Bill Sammon over at Faux News is recounting Joe Biden's "embellishments" that may prove fodder for Republican spinmeisters. If this is the best they can do (it being Faux News, I assume Sammon is a Republican spinmeister), then they are in real trouble. The "embellishments" include Biden supposedly saying he had been "shot at" while visiting Baghdad's Green Zone (hey, if I hear live fire, that means I've been shot at, as far as I'm concerned), which hasn't been "checked out" yet, and an unnamed "close Bush confidant" saying that a conversation Biden recounted having with the President "never happened," despite it being the kind of thing that could have occurred while putting heads together at some state dinner or somesuch. But the silliest one of all is this:

Biden also used unusually strong language to ridicule those who believe in creationism or intelligent design.

"I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!" the senior senator from Delaware exclaimed.

But less than six months earlier, CBS News conducted a poll that found a majority of Americans (51 percent) do believe that God created humans in their present form. Even larger majorities reject the theory of evolution, according to the poll.

After the HBO show ended, a reporter asked Biden whether his dismissal of a belief held dear by most Americans might come back to haunt him if his White House bid gained traction.

With characteristic bluntness, Biden shrugged and said yes.

Well, it is malarkey! That's no "embellishment," it is the straight truth. Anyone who believes ID is science is either a malarkey peddler or someone who has bought malarkey, hook, line and sinker -- never mind anyone who believes that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and dinosaurs and people lived together! Biden's only mistake might have been overestimating the intelligence and education of some of his fellow countrymen.

What's more important from the spinmeister's perspective, how many people who believe such malarkey and believe that it is an issue important enough to choose a President over would be likely to vote for Obama and Biden anyway? It's more singing to the choir and on an issue that's not likely to stampede any voters, the way gay marriage did or that the Republicans hoped immigration would, but didn't, in 2006.

But Sammon may be right about one thing. Maybe Americans aren't ready for a politician who has "bluntness" (read "honesty") as part and parcel of his character. We like people, like McCain, who think that "truth" is just a political luxury that can be cut out when times are tough.

What could Obama have been thinking?

Saturday, August 23, 2008


The Uses of Venom

A thought:

Voltaire is the central figure of the Enlightenment, because he accepted its basic principles and used all his incomparable wit and energy and literary skill and brilliant malice to propagate these principles and spread havoc in the enemy's camp. Ridicule kills more surely than savage indignation: and Voltaire probably did more for the triumph of civilised values than any writer who ever lived.

- Isaiah Berlin, "The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities" in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

Friday, August 22, 2008



You know that balloon figure that has Bill Donahue's knickers in a knot? Well, as I suspected, it may have just been a balloon gone astray. But Tantalus Prime has the story of its origin, via Mother Jones, that may be weirder than anything Donahue could have imagined:

As the annual convention of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians kicks off on a hot July afternoon, the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University is awash in displays of irreverent reverence. Ventriloquists converse with Scripture-quoting puppets, unicyclists pedal through the halls, and a man plays "Amazing Grace" on a turkey baster. In the gym, vendors sell mysteriously materializing Communion cups, paper that dissolves in water (perfect for making sins "disappear"), and fire-spouting Bibles ($50 each, they open "with or without flames"). Visitors to the auditorium are greeted by a Noah's ark and Jesus, life-size and complete with cross and crown of thorns, made from balloons by a group of self-described "balloonatics."
Apparently this has quite a history:

Gospel magic dates back to at least the early 1900s, when the Reverend C.H. Woolston, pastor of the East Baptist Church in Philadelphia, began using candles and bells as props in his lessons. He became a sensation, especially with children, who another preacher claimed would "gather around bees around flowers." Woolston wrote the first gospel magic book, Seeing Truth, and assembled the first convention of "gospel illustrators" in 1917.

With time, missionary magic was taken up by a group of preachers who called themselves "magi-ministers." In 1940, J.B. Maxwell explained in his book Magical Object Lessons that "Objects of any kind are valuable to use in teaching lessons, but when the objects are used in such a way that a mystery results, the interest is not only more fully aroused, but also the lesson connected with the mystery is more indelibly stamped upon the mind."
But doesn't the Bible prohibit magic?

Contemporary critics have lumped magic shows in with Dungeons & Dragons and Ouija boards as another example of Satan's deceptions. J.K. Rowling's wizards inspired a stream of anti-occult critiques, including the book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick. And when two secular Scottish magicians created a TV show in 2005 called The Magic of Jesus, in which they replicated biblical miracles, a Pentecostal bishop suggested that they attempt a new trick: crucifying themselves.
As one participant says:

Laflin agrees that the Bible forbids magic, but says it's a "terminology thing." "The magic that it's speaking of is trying to speak to the dead or cast spells on people," he explains. "What I do is sleight of hand. It's literally optical illusion. It's not what the Bible forbids at all." Gospel magicians regularly assure their audiences that they don't possess real mystical powers. ("I do tricks, just tricks," Laflin tells his audience. "But the power of God is real and wonderful.") Some have eliminated the word "magic" altogether, referring to themselves instead as "gospel illusionists."
Could there be a better metaphor for organized religion than sleight of hand and illusion?

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Out and About the Intertubes

There has been a recent spate of interesting articles on religion that fall in between the extremes of "it's the source of all good" and "it sucks."

Looking Up Down Under

High on my list is John Wilkins' discussion at Evolving Thoughts why the retreat made by many believers into claims that science and religion are just competing "worldviews" risks making the privative fallacy or the Weltanschauung mistake.

John also has more food for thought in "Agriculture and the rise of religion," where he contends that that "religion proper arose along with the settlement in sedentary townships made possible by agriculture," as a means to "mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the 'costly signaling' religion requires ... from those who are more likely to cheat," a skill made necessary by the shift away from a society based on close kinship.

Conserving Faith

Larry Arnhart of Darwinian Conservatism also has a pair of good ones. In "Ross, Lincoln, and the Biblical Morality of Slavery, " Professor Arnhart responds to claims that the debate over slavery illustrates the failure of any natural morality that is supposed to be valid even in the absence of religion. Supposedly, natural morality:

... fails to explain the abolition of slavery, because it fails to see that human beings would never have recognized the immorality of slavery through their natural experience if they had not been taught that slavery was contrary to God's law.

Arnhart counters with Rev. Fred A. Ross and his book Slavery Ordained of God, first published in 1857, by every bit a believer in the divine command theory of morality as Arnhart's critics, who argued that God sanctioned slavery and "the 'self-evident truths' of the Declaration of Independence [were an] atheistic teaching of Thomas Jefferson that contradicts the Bible."

Against this, my [Arnhart's] critics appeal to what they take to be the moral universalism of biblical religion. But this appeal to biblical morality is always vague. They never explain exactly how the Bible specifies our moral norms. And in the case of slavery, they just assume without argument that the Bible is clearly opposed to slavery, and so they never respond at all to those like Ross who support their pro-slavery position with meticulous biblical exegesis.

In his second entry, Arnhart discusses how he responds to those who say that we need some cosmic hierarchy to rank the various natural desires that people seek after. One of those critics is John West of the Discovery Institute. But if West is being honest that the "Designer" is not meant to be the biblical God:

... he never explains why we should attribute any moral authority to this intelligent designer. In fact, [Michael] Behe worries about the apparent immorality of the intelligent designer in deliberately designing living mechanisms--like malaria, for example--to kill millions of innocent people. But then Behe decides that we cannot know "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity," and after all, "from the bare conclusion of design, I see no necessary major implications for our daily lives."

Religiously Scientific

Finally, there is an interview with Francisco Ayala at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin:

The United States was largely founded by people who were being persecuted for religious reasons. I think love for religion predisposes citizens in this country toward the perception of a conflict with science. On top of that, the idea is pervasive that science tends to be materialistic. ...

Materialism is a philosophical position, affirming that nothing exists beyond "matter," that which we can experience with our senses. I would say that science is methodologically materialist: it can deal only with the world of matter. But it is not philosophically materialist; it does not imply that nothing can exist beyond what we experience with our senses, as religion requires. One can accept scientific principles and also hold religious beliefs.

But, many people are ignorant of science and just assume it is contrary to their religion. Of course, the proponents of intelligent design and creationism are also spreading a lot of propaganda. The only way to deal with the problem is education and specifically science education, which is unfortunately lacking, by and large, and not only in this country.

Can I have an Amen?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Where's My Ruler?

Butteville, California's Union Elementary School District is the latest to consider transferring funds earmarked for such frippery as books and teachers and, you know, educating the children in its charge and, instead, blowing it on the ACLU's legal fees.

In a discussion on an information/action agenda item, "Evolution versus Intelligent Design Taught in the Classroom," during the district's board meeting last Wednesday, trustees agreed to seek legal counsel regarding the issue.
Which is all the stranger because trustee Steve Hart reported that school funds could not be used to fund either legal counsel or the proposed program. Worse, in an extension of the old (and true) saying that "a lawyer who represents himself ...," the board president, Stephen Darger, a practicing attorney and former police officer, is encouraging this move:

I think this will be a big issue in the Supreme Court before long. Maybe it will be with this school.
Thus, Darger is looking to make the poor students in the community a "test case." Darger went on to opine, according to the news report, that in order to legally teach intelligent design in a public school the subject would have to remain entirely secular and only offer possible explanations for what evolution cannot explain. That's not what the Supreme Court said in Edwards v. Aguillard. Justice Brennan stated that the Court was not ruling out the possibility that a government agency could "require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories" be taught, leaving quite a hurdle for teaching ID successfully.

And just for icing on the cake, Hart, who proposed the move, made it clear that the board has Dover-like understanding of evolutionary theory, to go along with their understanding of the law:

What we would like to do is include [in the curriculum] a way for students to look at evolution with critical minds and become aware of things (in evolution) that are no longer accepted. Science has always excluded supernatural phenomenon. Although there are risks, this is something that would benefit the entire school.
Of course, if there are things being taught in the district's schools that "are no longer accepted," the board is already doing a poor job. More likely, we will see William Buckinghamish statements about science and ID.

So, dollars to donuts, if anything comes of this at all, you are going to have the school board consulting some free "Christian law firm" (after all, they've done such bang-up jobs in Dover and just recently in the case against the University of California -- and it being "Christian" won't give the game away at all), and community members raising money in churches to teach a purely "secular" course, and the kids being in the middle of this tug-of-war before the ACLU winds up collecting its legal fees out of money that should have been spent in the classroom rather than the courtroom.

About the only thing that may save them from themselves is the teachers:

School principal and superintendent Cynthia McConnell reported that teachers would not be legally required to teach intelligent design, or anything other than state education requirements.
Now, there's a lesson worth having in the curriculum.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Bill Donohue Says Jesus Was a Hermaphrodite!

Well, not quite.

Our old source of merriment and derision is upset at two of the blogs that have been credentialed to cover the Democratic Party Convention. In no surprise at all, one of them, Towleroad, obtains the honor of Donohue's disdain mostly because it describes itself as "A Site with Homosexual Tendencies." The other, Bitch PhD, has cover art featuring a little girl acting like most little boys and hoisting a one-finger salute. Oh, and the blog's author links to a blog called Apostropher that has pictures of Jesus balloon figures, one of which, shown to the right, apparently has a (gasp) penis!

Now, Bill, it has been many (many) years since I last studied Catechism but, if I'm not much mistaken, Jesus was supposed to be fully human and fully divine. That kind of implies that he must have had the plumbing that comes with being a male. Unless he was the above-mentioned hermaphrodite or ...

... a cross dressing (horrors!) woman!!!

Via Pharyngula


About Says It All

Robert Tyler, from Advocates for Faith and Freedom, described as a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty in the courts and spreading the Christian word that "society is increasingly devoid of the message and influence of God," and counsel to the plaintiffs in Association of Christian Schools International vs. Stearns, the lawsuit brought against the University of California for its rejection of some religiously-oriented science, history and literature courses, on the recent dismissal of the action:

[Tyler] also argues that three of the four rejected courses at Calvary Chapel fall into opinion-laden disciplines, like history, government and English literature. He said paperwork he received from UC said those courses were rejected because they were not "consistent with empirical historical knowledge accepted by the collegiate community."

"That doesn't make any sense," said Tyler. "The word 'empirical' is a scientific term of testing to determine the science. Well, you can't test history to see what was after it happened. What they are doing is throwing out the standard language, saying we don't like or agree with what you are teaching."
Right! There is no objective knowledge about history or government to be had. They can just make it up.

Oh, wait a minute, that's what people like David Barton do, isn't it?

Monday, August 18, 2008


Gilded Cages

The anthropic argument for Intelligent Design has taken a hit. Based on the notion that the physical constants of our universe have to be "finely-tuned" -- by some intelligence, of course -- to produce a locale favorable to life as we know it, the force of the claim relies on there only being a narrow band of "settings" that produce our kind of universe.

Fred Adams, a theorist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, embarked on a study to determine if universes in which the constants of nature had different values could still support the existence of stars, one obvious requirement for the formation of life like that on Earth.

In his analysis, Adams simulated conditions in other universes by simultaneously varying three parameters: the gravitational constant, which determines the strength of gravity; the fine structure constant, which sets the strength of the electromagnetic force; and a composite number that determines the rate of nuclear reactions, which keep stars shining. ...

By allowing all three of the parameters, rather than a single parameter, to vary, Adams created a simulation that may embrace a larger number of possible universes, he says. He finds that stars are stable entities in roughly one-fourth of the universes he considered. "That's a sizable amount of real estate."

Anthony Aguirre of the University of California, Santa Cruz explained:

The findings have several intriguing implications, he adds. Had Adams found that the range of parameters that allowed for stars was very small, that would have suggested that the laws of physics in our universe have been "fine-tuned" to allow for star formation ... Instead, Adams' study shows that our universe doesn't seem particularly special in that regard.

It is precisely this secondhand reflected "specialness" that creationists seek ... the "importance" of being a pampered pet of the well heeled but cranky landlord.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Goin' Crackers

Mike Haubrich of Tangled Up in Blue Guy and Steve Matheson of Quintessence of Dust have started an interesting discussion about The Great Frackin' Cracker Flap at the blog Clashing Culture, where they both contribute. Mike opens the dialogue here and Steve responds here.

Mike points out parallels between Crackergate and the treatment of a book, The Jewel of Medina, about Aisha, the child bride of Mohammed, which Random House has pulled from publication while in advanced copy stage, apparently because it might cause Salman Rushdie style outrage among Muslims. Perhaps risking outrage of his own, Steve sets out to explore what, if any, parallels there might be between PZ's act and those of another critic of American religion, Fred Phelps.

It's worth a look.


Dinesh D'oh

Dinesh D'Souza has been interviewed for a website called News By Us: not news bias. Self-proclaimed lack of bias is always a bad sign. There is a lot wrong with D'Souza's assertions but these leap out:

I see evolution as being a scientific proposition but Darwinism I see as being an ideological proposition. We have all these scientific laws but no one calls themselves Keplerians or Newtonians so why do so many insist on calling themselves Darwinists? Their doing so puts an atheistic spin on evolution, and this spin is what the Christian community finds itself reacting too.
First of all, few scientists call themselves "Darwinists" and, even when they do, they have a specific definition that has no "ideological" import. This can be seen in the following from Stephen Jay Gould's 1982 Science paper, "Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory.":

If we agree, as our century generally has, that "Darwinism" should be restricted to the world view encompassed by the theory of natural selection itself, the problem of definition is still not easily resolved. Darwinism must be more than the bare bones of the mechanics: the principles of superfecundity and inherited variation, and the deduction of natural selection therefrom. It must, fundamentally, make a claim for wide scope and dominant frequency; natural selection must represent the primary directing force of evolutionary change.
This is not an ideology but merely a description of a particular view of the relative importance of one out of several mechanisms proposed as forces driving evolution. It is not even that creationists deny that natural selection is a real force in biology. As Jonathan Wells has said:

ID does not deny the reality of variation and natural selection; it just denies that those phenomena can accomplish all that Darwinists claim they can accomplish.
And what alternative force do creationists propose? Dr. Michael Egnor lets us in on that:

Darwin's theory [is] that all biological complexity arose by natural selection without teleology.
Anyone not terminally naive (or without a motive to lie to evade Constitutional restrictions against teaching religious doctrine as "science"), readily recognizes the proposed "teleology" as emanating from a creator God. Thus the only "ideology" that that is involved here is the theology that people like D'Souza would like to inject, selectively, into the biologic sciences. No one calls for teleology to explain the day-to-day workings of chemistry or gravity or thermodynamics. The insistence of scientists to restrict scientific explanations to natural causes is not an ideology but the consistent application of the methodology of science that has proven wildly successful.

Thus, in fact, "Darwinist" is almost entirely a label put on scientists by creationists, precisely to imply an ideology that does not actually exist as part of science. It is the height of dishonesty to first apply a different meaning to a term, only rarely in use in any event, and then claim that certain people hold a view implied by the altered term, based in the widespread use of the label by their opponents.

Next up from D'Souza is this:

Christianity had a lot to do with the origins of science. Most of the leading scientists of the last 500 years have been Christian.
First of all, correlation does not amount to causation. It is a contingent fact of history that science was largely restricted, at its beginning as an organized activity, to Western European societies that were already predominantly Christian. It is no surprise, then, that many early scientists were, at least nominally, Christians. Any attempt to imply causation is simplistic history, to say the least, especially given the fact that the same period coincides with the Enlightenment, defined by Isaiah Berlin as:

The proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences, based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge, and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters, tradition, prescription, and every form of non-rational and transcendent source of knowledge ...
The rise of science, in other words, is at least as well explained by the loosening of the power of Christianity over Western Europe as anything contained within Christian belief.

In any event, what sort of connection is D'Souza asserting anyway? For D'Souza to claim credit for science for Christianity, he seems to think that all he needs to show is that some scientists were Christians. But when it is pointed out that Hitler was a Christian, D'Souza invokes an undocumented "renunciation" of the faith by Der Fuhrer to deny "credit" for the Holocaust for Christianity. And that is despite the numerous other Christians who enthusiastically participated, in no small part due to the anti-Semitism that was a long tradition within the Christian church. In short, D'Souza has a very flexible standard of proof, depending on his desired results.

Finally, the last point I'll address is this claim by D'Souza:

[A]theists ... are rebelling against a childhood version of Christianity — one that they learned in Sunday school and catechism. Their opinion of it now is rooted in what I call "crayon Christianity." What we must also realize is that when atheists use the word "fundamentalist" it is but a big ploy. When they say fundamentalist and mount attacks against fundamentalism what they really are attempting to do is to go after traditional Christianity.
But whose fault is that? Take this from the Rev. Samuel Krouse is pastor of First Baptist Church of Colusa, California:

In the final analysis, the New Atheism presents the Christian church with a great moment of clarification. The New Atheists do, in the end, understand what they are rejecting. When Sam Harris defines true religion as that "where participants' avowed belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought," he understands what many mired in confusion do not. In the end, the existence of the supernatural, self-existent, and self-revealing God is the only starting point for Christian theology. God possesses all of the perfections revealed in Scripture, or there is no coherent theology presented in the Bible. The New Atheists are certainly right about one very important thing—it's atheism or biblical theism. There is nothing in between.
Perhaps it is D'Souza who misunderstands Christianity. Or perhaps D'Souza, Rev. Krouse and the New Atheists all misunderstand it. Maybe it is the many people who believe in evolutionary science and feel no need to claim that all good things come from Christianity, but nonetheless call themselves Christians, who are right. Or maybe Christianity is all things to all people.

What isn't all things to Dinesh D'Souza is honesty or logic or truth.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Object Lesson

Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University, has begun a "dialogue" at his blog, NeuroLogica, with Dr. Michael Egnor, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Stony Brook University and Discovery Institute shill, over the Terri Schiavo case. I put "dialogue" in quotes because it is likely to be, in fact, a one-way conversation, with Dr. Novella giving thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the medical and ethical issues involved in the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state (PVS) on the one hand and Dr. Egnor, as is his wont when it comes to evolutionary science, giving crude factual misstatements on the other, such as this one:

PVS is the medical assertion that a human being is an object, but not a subject.
I'll leave it to Dr. Novella to discuss the medical attitude toward PVS. It's worth noting that Dr. Novella also gets the legal situation correct but I'd like to just add a few words on that topic.

First of all, it is the law that governs whether or not a patient is to be treated as a "person" or as an "object" (or, as Dr. Novella points out, a "corpse"). Doctors are free to have their personal philosophical opinions about the dividing line between life and death but, ultimately, their behavior is circumscribed by the law, just as it is for everyone else in society who might be contemplating actions involving the life of others.

Contrary to Dr. Egnor's assertion, the premise of the Florida courts was not that Terri Schiavo was an "object" but, rather, that she was a "person," with a "fundamental right of self-determination subject only to the state's compelling and overriding interest." In short, she had a basic right to "liberty" that included the right to refuse medical treatment. As the Supreme Court of Florida laid out in the case of In re Guardianship of Estelle M. Browning:

An integral component of self-determination is the right to make choices pertaining to one's health, including the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment. "We can conceive of few more personal or private decisions concerning one's body that one can make in the course of a lifetime . . . [than] the decision of the terminally ill in their choice of whether to discontinue necessary medical treatment."

Recognizing that one has the inherent right to make choices about medical treatment, we necessarily conclude that this right encompasses all medical choices. A competent individual has the constitutional right to refuse medical treatment regardless of his or her medical condition. (Citations omitted)
Naturally, difficulty arises when a patient, like Ms. Schiavo, is not competent or even able to express herself. It is commonplace in such situations for the individual's right to self-determination to be exercised on his or her behalf by either natural guardians (spouses, parents or other next-of-kin) or court-appointed guardians. For example: parents decide on medical treatment for underage children and next-of-kin decide the treatment to be given to someone rendered unconscious in an accident. Again as Florida's Supreme Court said:

The primary concern ... is that this valuable right [to self-determination] should not be lost because the noncognitive and vegetative condition of the patient prevents a conscious exercise of the choice to refuse further extraordinary treatment.
It becomes even more difficult when the natural guardians disagree as to what path the incompetent would want to pursue. Then the courts have no option but to adjudicate the issue in the same manner as they do all the other disputes that arise in society (through the taking of testimony and other evidence and through logical inference), with the aim not to determine what the best course of medical treatment would be but what the person would want done if she was able to make the choice. Many thousands of hours of testimony, legal argument, judicial consideration and appeals went into making the best possible determination of what Ms. Schiavo would have wanted done to and for her in her situation. The detailed decision of Judge George Greer gives a hint of all the care the courts gave to Ms. Schiavo's rights as a person.

Dr. Egnor might feel that it was the better "treatment" of Terri Schiavo to keep her alive artificially but that's not his decision to make ... precisely because she was never treated as an "object."

P.S. Dr. Novella has posted again on the Schiavo case, reviewing the publically-available medical evidence that makes it clear that she was in a persistent vegetative state with essentially zero chance of improvement, much less "recovery."

Friday, August 15, 2008


Applying the Test

Rush Limbaugh:

Well, this is what it is - my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine.


I am asking.

Rush Limbaugh:

Oh, what is my theory? This is it (clears throat). My theory that belongs to me is as follows (clears throat at great length). This is how it goes. The next thing I'm going to say is my theory. Ready?



Rush Limbaugh:

My theory by R. Limbaugh. Brackets Mister, brackets. This theory goes as follows and begins now:

"Ladies and gentleman, my theory that I just explained to you about why -- you know, what could have John Edwards' motivations been to have the affair with Rielle Hunter, given his wife is smarter than he is and probably nagging him a lot about doing this, and he found somebody that did something with her mouth other than talk."

So, marriages are endangered because the wife is smarter than the husband? Then what are we to make of Limbaugh's three divorces?

... Other than that, after some 30 years of trying, he has been unable to find any woman stupider than himself?

Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Irony Curtain

Ow ... Ow ... Ow wee ow ow!

Speaking to reporters about the situation in Georgia, Sen. John McCain denounced the aggressive posture of Russia by claiming that: "in the 21st century nations don't invade other nations."

That one hurts!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Crackerjacks Prize

In no surprise to anyone not in the throes of one hysteria or another, the campus court case against Webster Cook and his friend, stemming from Cook's taking a communion host from a Catholic service, ended without either of them being expelled from the University of Central Florida and, in fact, resulted in no punishment at all.

[A] panel of four students and two administrators, voted unanimously to dismiss all charges against Webster Cook and his friend Ben Collard, saying there was no hard evidence that the two did anything which would merit expulsion or suspension.

Certainly, there was no evidence that they had done anything that could justify an expulsion or suspension in the face of the inevitable lawsuit.

Cook still faces impeachment from the student Senate based on his allegedly lying to a university official about his status in the student government.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Lonesome State

Retired University of North Texas associate professor of English, Dr. Edra Bogle, is running for the Texas State Board of Education. As this article demonstrates, she is a candidate worthy of support, not least because she is running against an incumbent who has supported dentist Don McLeroy, the chairman of the board, who has said that there are two systems of science:

You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system ...
Professor Bogle has a notable quote of her own. Speaking of the latest creationist ploy, teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory and letting the students "make up their own mind," she said:

I'm not sure an 11th grader with two semesters of science can decide.
Which is, of course, the point of the creationists. Given a choice between something they don't really understand and their parents' beliefs, the creationists are counting on the kids choosing the latter as long as they are told there is some sort of scientific doubt about the former.

Good luck, Texas!

Monday, August 11, 2008


The Dog Ate My Homework

Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars has a post up about the trial court's decision in the case by the Association of Christian Schools International and Calvary Chapel Christian School against the University of California claiming that UC's rejection of various courses prepared and taught by the plaintiffs as "approved courses" for admission requirements is unconstitutional. The ACSI and Calvary Chapel had already lost their own motion for summary judgment against UC and UC's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim that the university's admission policies violated the free speech, free exercise of religion and equal protection provisions of the Constitution, as well as amounted to an establishment of a religion by the state, was granted.

That left only the plaintiff's claim that, even if the policies as written are not unconstitutional, they have been applied in an unconstitutional manner. At the request of both parties, UC was allowed, in an unusual procedure, to bring a second summary judgment motion seeking the dismissal of the remaining claim. In essence, the writing was on the wall and even the plaintiffs didn't want to go through the cost of a trial to just wind up thrown out of court.

Ed notes that the attorneys for the plaintiffs showed serious incompetence in the case. Specifically, the court explained that, as an educational institution, UC "necessarily facilitate[s] some viewpoints over others in judging the excellence of those students applying to UC" (e.g. Shakespeare is a better writer than Danielle Steele). That is permissible as long as such decisions are not based on animus and there was a rational basis for rejecting the course. Apparently, plaintiff's attorneys did not know that the case law includes an attempt to punish disfavored viewpoints within "animus." Quite apart from bringing into doubt their grasp of the language (okay, "animus" didn't start out as English but it's in pretty common use within it), that shows a lack of the basic lawyering skill of research.

But it didn't stop there. The court also excluded much of the plaintiff's expert testimony on the grounds that they disclosed the exact nature and scope of that evidence 10 months and more late, only after their claim that the admission policy was unconstitutional on its face was dismissed. Missing a discovery deadline in Federal court by a day is a major no-no for a lawyer, much less missing it by 10 months. What was their excuse? They did not prepare for the "as-applied" challenges because they did not expect the Court to reach those claims because they expected to win on the claim that the policy was unconstitutional on its face.

This raises a serious conundrum. If they truly expected to win on the facial claim, their competence at judging the strength of legal arguments is called into serious question since, in fact, the claim was so weak as to be dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, where the plaintiff's claim is given every benefit of the doubt. If they they knew it was weak, why weren't they preparing all the other possible avenues of attack as well? If they didn't pursue the "as applied" claims before because they knew that those claims were even weaker than the facial claim, why did they pursue them after the facial claims were dismissed? Maintaining frivolous claims can get you severely sanctioned in Federal court.

Their excuses have a distinct aroma of eau de canine about them.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Hanging Them

The Framing Wars are off and running again. Matt Nisbet, as he is wont to do, touched off the latest round by attacking PZ Myers ... with somewhat suspicious timing, as PZ is off enjoying himself in the Galapagos (the bustard!). The Pharyngulistas have responded in PZ's absence, as have Afarensis, Larry Moran, Mike Haubrich and Greg Laden, among, no doubt, many others in the blogosphere.

I have mostly stayed away from the framing issue. As an attorney, it is, perhaps, more obvious to me than most that there are valid and invalid uses of rhetoric. At its best, rhetoric is the organization of facts and arguments in a logical way and expressing them in a clear and forceful manner as to maximize their impact on the audience. There is nothing sinister or wrong about that. Any scientist who cannot express the results of his or her work clearly and logically will, at the very least, blunt the dissemination and use of those findings.

One of the most important preconditions for success in this sort of "good" rhetoric is that those seeking to persuade must be clear in their own minds what message it is that they want to convey. In these framing spats there appear to be at least four possible messages that are at issue:

~ The popularization of science with the general public, particularly aimed at increasing the acceptance of evolution in opposition to creationism;

~ The increase in general of the use of reason and logic in the public sphere and the equipping of the public to enable it to resist manipulation by special interests, such as politicians, marketers and peddlers of woo;

~ The advance of secularism in government; and

~ The advance of atheism.
Of course, there can be lively debates over how much any one of these aims supports, or is supported by, any of the others. But if the messenger is not clear about which of these is meant to be conveyed at any time, how can the audience be? If someone wants to argue that atheism supports secularism that, in turn, supports the use of reason and logic and thus supports evolution over creationism, then why not make that argument eminently clear so the audience can examine it?

That does not always happen. A recent case in point is the first episode of Richard Dawkins' The Genius of Charles Darwin. While the show was, overall, excellent, there was some confusion in the message, I thought. Dawkins made numerous mentions of how evolution occurred "without God," as if that was a scientific conclusion. Certainly, Darwin's explanation of adaptation took the wind out of the best argument for the existence of God by demonstrating that there was a naturalistic pathway to the same results. But the very nature of science makes it impossible for it to conclude that God does not exist (a point Dawkins at least pays lip service to) or that any such God had no involvement in the development of life as it exists today. Similarly, in a show supposed to be about Darwin and his science, why are we informed of the fact that learning evolutionary theory made Dawkins an atheist? Is that too supposed to be a scientific conclusion rather than a philosophical choice? Perhaps such an argument can be made but Dawkins did not even try to do so in this show and that is bad rhetoric.

Over all, in a program aimed at an audience less sensitive to issues of atheism versus religionism, it is a minor failing but it is, nonetheless, a mixed message. Dawkins and the "New Atheists" are hardly alone in that. Nisbet is almost comically oblivious to his own Mixmaster. Barely are the accusations against the New Atheists of "ideological porn, sophomoric rants that feed our dark sides and ... unfair stereotypes" out of his pen than he says, without trace of irony, "[t]he addictive nature of their rhetoric radicalizes us and leads us to an ever more closed off conversation ... " Physician heal thyself.

More importantly, Nisbet seems to have lost the thread of his own original argument, as I understood it. In the beginning the intent was that atheists, particularly those who are scientists, should stop equating acceptance of science with acceptance of atheism, as that would tend to close religious believers off from acceptance and support of science. Framed that way, there is a certain force to the contention. Now Nisbet has gone beyond that. Unlike the position of E.O. Wilson that Nisbet appeals to -- where Wilson argued that scientists (not atheists) and evangelicals should "put aside our differences for the time being and not fuss with each other over evolution" -- Nisbet appears to be arguing for atheists, and only atheists, to paper over the differences they have with believers. Wilson argued that both sides must engage in a different dialogue in pursuit of different goals, not that one side play nice to the other concerning their core differences. That's not framing, it's faking.

PZ's recent review of Ken Miller's Only a Theory shows that he can be and is grateful for and respectful toward Miller's fine work on behalf of science and science education, without pretending they have no philosophical differences -- precisely Wilson's prescription. Nisbet is obviously demanding more. If he expects PZ or Dawkins to suddenly commence displays of sweetness and light toward religion, not only is he a poor judge of character for a supposed expert in communications, he is displaying exquisite contempt towards religionists and their ability to detect hypocrisy in the unlikely event such advice would be adopted. On the other hand, if he really wants to follow Paul Kurtz's advice, which does not seem to entail burying the differences but, rather, playing up the areas of agreement, Nisbet would be better advised to emphasize where the "militant" atheists' aims coincide with believers of Miller's stripe than to play up their differences or what he sees as the excesses of the New Atheists.

If Nisbet wants to also emphasize those he characterizes as "friendly atheists," that is his business ... though some of them might not want the faint whiff of Stepin Fetchit that goes with the honor.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Celebrities in New York

The kindly overlords of Seed magazine let some of their minions out of the blog mines for an afternoon in New York in the pleasant confines of Social Bar & Grill.

Here are a few pictures. First up is Coturnix from A Blog Around the Clock:

Ed Brayton from Dispatches From the Culture Wars was holding court in the back like a proper New York Don:

Brian Switek of Laelaps was there with an unidentified hanger-on:

But the Paris Hilton of scienceblogdom, Professor Steve Steve, set the place atwitter by dancing on the tables:

A grand time was had by all!

Friday, August 08, 2008


American Education

Rick Kellogg of Wildomar, California has graced the Letters To the Editor page of The Californian with a unique way of judging the value of a scientific theory.

Most of Mr. Kellogg's missive is the usual blather: there's been a lot of (unspecified) positive evidence for Intelligent Design in the last few years; opposing pseudoscience means you are afraid of it; evolution is a secular religion; and evolutionists are persecuting anyone who so much as criticizes the theory.

But he is really onto something with this:

An acquaintance of mine who teaches science in a local public school has discovered a novel way of handling this problem. When he gets to the unit on evolution, he picks students to read aloud from the textbook. After a few sentences, you can hear chuckling in the classroom. Soon, it turns to outright laughter. He allows the students to discuss it openly, and when it's all done, the consensus is that evolution is a big joke, and he didn't have to say a word.
What a clever method of judging worth Mr. Kellogg and his friend have stumbled on! Let's do this across the board! Let's have children, without any benefit of instruction, decide whether a Shakespeare was a great writer or just giggle bait. Why bother with doctors when you can have kids read a few pages out of a medical book and decide whether or not it's worth doing that operation. Presidential elections will no longer be necessary ... we can just have children who have never heard of the candidates pick the winners after reading out a few sentences of their biographies.

Best of all, before long, the entire American economy can be run by having them read "Would you like fries with that?"

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Political Giants

Mervyn Storey, a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland from the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the legislature, has called for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. In a statement that might sound eerily familiar to Americans, Mr. Storey said:

This is not about removing anything from the classroom – although that would probably be the ideal for me – but this is about us having equality of access to other views as to how the world came into existence and that I think is a very, very important issue for many parents in Northern Ireland.

That's the bad news. The worse news is that Mr. Storey is the Legislative Assembly's Education Committee chairperson.

Even more bizarrely, Mr. Storey wants "the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre to include creationist arguments that the distinctive rock formation was formed less than 6,000 years ago."

Richard Dawkins has weighed in:

We live in a democracy and anyone can get elected. I think it's sad that people with ridiculous views do get elected because it suggests that the electorate is not sufficiently well-educated to see through them.

Should we Americans feel comforted by the fact that we don't have a corner on the market for loopy legislators?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Greased Poll

The Undiscovery Institute is kvetching about a poll reported in the Toronto Sun that supposedly showed that 58% of Canadians believe in evolution. Specifically, the DI's Gofer General, Casey Luskin, cries foul because the only options given were whether humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years or whether God created people in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Luskin, for once actually has a point separate and apart from the top of his head, as far as that goes. The restricted options do render the poll's results of limited interest. What's interesting is what Luskin delivers himself of next:

[W]hat about those Canadians who believe in some form of God-guided evolution, where God's guidance doesn't just mimic natural processes but involves tangible action in the real world (i.e. God didn't use purely neo-Darwinian material processes to create life)? Again, those folks, whose views, under a scientific translation, would be quite compatible with intelligent design, are given no place in the poll.

Say what? Intelligent design is a "translation" of belief in God's tangible action in the real world into "science"? But wouldn't that really make ID a sciencyesqueish theology?

Who'd have thought it?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


See Who Salutes

Lizzie Buchen has a cute article at MSNBC, "Pandas: Evolution's big fat (adorable) mistake?" The trope is that:

... the giant panda a favorite animal of creationists, who argue that the panda's survival proves the existence of God. How is it, they ask, that such a species could have "evolved" to be so poorly suited for survival and could have lasted these "alleged" tens of thousands of years without a little help from a higher power?

Among the supposed failings of the panda is their inefficient diet, given their short, carnivore-suited intestines, requiring them to eat almost a fourth of their weight in bamboo every day; and their poor mating success, due to the male's penis being disproportionately small, the rarity with which females go into heat, and the fact that males do not instinctively know how to mate.

I'm not so sure that creationists are actually falling all over the panda. After an exhaustive search (I get exhausted after about 10 minutes, so judge for yourself how thorough it was), I found one creationist site that floated one of the arguments and another one that denied it was true.

Needless to say, the conditions the pandas "suffer from" are not what they seem. Indeed, the impression only comes because most peoples' familiarity with pandas comes solely from zoo specimens and news reports about them:

So it's true: Pandas did not evolve … in zoos. They evolved to find their own food and seek out their mates in dense bamboo forests after being raised by their real mothers, not by zookeepers. The panda's weaknesses in today's world—from its failure to reproduce in captivity to its yawn-inspiring lifestyle — is a product of its natural history, not a malicious joke of an intelligent designer.

I'll let you discover the explanations with Ms. Buchen. But there's one I can't resist giving -- about the panda's penis:

[Conservationist Megan] Owen says it's not a big deal. "They get the job done ... It's definitely a struggle to get correct positioning, but if they're motivated, they do what they need to do."

Words of hope and inspiration for millions!

Monday, August 04, 2008


Playing the CD

In Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, the article by J. Michael Plavcan, "The Invisible Bible: The Logic of Creation Science," discusses the psychological theory of "cognitive dissonance." Since the term is so often misused, a review is in order. Cognitive dissonance is "a term that refers to the phenomenon whereby disconfirmation of a strongly held conviction actually reinforces belief and leads to increased proselytizing activity."

The theory was put forth and tested by Leon Festinger and others (1964) in an elegant study of a modern space-alien cult that predicted the end of the world at a specific time and date, Briefly, the theory holds that when people hold a belief in which they have made a substantial public and personal commitment, and when that belief is disconfirmed, their adherence to the belief will actually be strengthened, and they will vigorously proselytize it in order to reduce the "dissonance" between the belief and the disconfirmation. The disconfinning evidence is explained away with some sort of internal rationalization, and group reinforcement is used to uphold the behavior.
To strictly meet the model, the belief by the adherent must be to something that produces a clear and absolutely falsifiable prediction. Furthermore, the adherent must do more than just express belief but must form a greater commitment, such as giving away all one's possessions, severing ties with family and quitting one's job in anticipation of the end of the world. Most religionists in general and most creationists don't fit in this category, though many might have some less pronounced traits in common with true suffers.

But, then again, so might we all.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Reading the Bible Literally

A thought:

A man got religion, and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said, "Imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him." The man studied his Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him. Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way.

- Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter VII


Of Rocks and Hard Places

And so it begins!

As you brave few who follow these mental drippings doubtless know, the state legislature of Louisiana has perpetrated a boondoggle for constitutional lawyers entitled the "Louisiana Science Education Act."

The law allows local school boards to approve supplemental material for science teachers as they present lessons on evolutionary biology and global warming, among other topics. The state school board has the authority to ban certain materials, a power that critics of the bill hope will keep discussions of biblical creation and intelligent design out of the public school science curriculum.

As is immediately obvious, the legislature put the state board and its staff squarely in the cross hairs. Now the New Orleans Times-Picayune is reporting the first squirming of the state educational bureaucracy.

[Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Linda] Johnson said her priority is to keep the state Department of Education out of court. She added that she does not believe the legislation gives the state power to require local school boards to notify the state of what materials are approved at the local level. She said she would like to see the state board publish a list of recommended materials. The board's additional tasks, she said, will be to consider the protests of individuals or groups that oppose some action of a local board.

In other words, she is hoping that the focus of disputes over the law will be between the local school boards and those trying to maintain separation of church and state, while the BESE sits back and acts like a referee and general counselor to the school boards.

Not likely!

The relevant portions of the law read as follows:

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. ...

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

One reasonable, at least, interpretation of the law is that local boards must ask for permission ("upon request") to take advantage of the law, which the BESE must first approve ("shall allow") but over which the BESE has ultimate control. I'd argue that the overall scheme of the law places the onus for creating the "environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking" on the BESE. Contending that the local boards are not required to notify the state of what materials they intend to use seems to me a bureaucratic dodge of responsibility.

It won't do them much good in any event. Under any interpretation, the BESE has veto power over local approvals of supplemental materials. All that needs to be done is for an opponent of any inappropriate supplemental material to put the BESE on notice of its use and any refusal by the board to exercise its power and prohibit it will be state action that will justify suit against it.

The BESE, in no surprise whatsoever, will not be able to devise rules and regulations for the local boards before the opening of the new school year. Thus, any initial rush to take advantage this legislation is likely to be a free-for-all. The hope the BESE has of staying out of court will come about if and only if opponents of creationism are satisfied that no creationist materials are approved. But doing that will frustrate the political forces that instituted this law in the first place.

Scylla and Charybdis would be more fun.

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