Saturday, January 31, 2009


Popularity Poll

Now here's an interesting poll conducted in Britain:

More than half of the public believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a "designer" must have lent a hand, the findings suggest.

And one in three believe that God created the world within the past 10,000 years.

The survey, by respected polling firm ComRes, will fuel the debate around evolution and creationism ahead of next week's 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. ...

In the survey, 51 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement that "evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages"

A further 40 per cent disagreed, while the rest said they did not know.

The suggestion that a designer's input is needed reflects the "intelligent design" theory, promoted by American creationists as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Things are somewhat better on the young-Earth creationism front:

Asked whether it was true that "God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years", 32 per cent agreed, 60 per cent disagreed and eight per cent did not know.

There were some predictable reactions:

[Richard] Dawkins expressed dismay at the findings of the ComRes survey, of 2,060 adults, which he claimed were confirmation that much of the population is "pig-ignorant" about science.

"Obviously life, which was Darwin's own subject, is not the result of chance," he said.

"Any fool can see that. Natural selection is the very antithesis of chance.

"The error is to think that God is the only alternative to chance, and Darwin surely didn't think that because he himself discovered the most important non-theistic alternative to chance, namely natural selection."

In a bit of turnabout-is-fair-play:

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused Dawkins of evolving into a "very simple kind of thinker".

He said: "His argument for atheism goes like this: either God is the explanation for the wide diversity of biological life, or evolution is. We know that evolution is true. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

"I'm an evangelical Christian, but I have no difficulties in believing that evolution is the best scientific account we have for the diversity of life on our planet."

But this is the worrying part:

Paul Woolley, the director of Theos [a theology think-tank that commissioned the poll] said: "Darwin is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause.

"The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution."


Propaganda Lite

Well, January 30th has come and gone and the deadline for video entries in the Discoveryless Institute's Academic Freedom on Evolution Student Video and Essay Contest has not (yet) been extended again. As of the moment, only three videos are up at the contest's YouTube site, though it seems there is a delay between their posting and appearance, so I'll wait a day or two before trying to finish reviewing them all. But here is my review of the second one posted, by "CvEint2."

Video-wise, hers is less polished than the first one by Kaleigh McCormick, consisting of her talking head in various settings, only some of which, such as classrooms, have any connection with the subject matter.

As I already noted, CvEint2 makes two totally silly (and easily checkable) errors of fact in the first 45 seconds of her piece, claiming that "public schools" began teaching evolution as fact within a decade of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species and confusing Judge Jones' Federal District Court with the Supreme Court of the United States. It doesn't get any better after that.

CvEint2 gives a simplistic description of the method of science as consisting of observation, hypothesis and experiment, followed by "conclusion." In fairness, it would not surprise me at all if she has been taught this oversimplification in her limited education so far, in what Terry Prachett famously called "lies to children." Unfortunately, virtually everything that CvEint2 advocates rests on her not-yet-informed understanding of the issues.

This is her account of the "science" of ID:

Observation: that intelligent designers produce complex and "specified" information;

Hypothesis: if an object was designed it would have high levels of that information;

Experiment: use "reverse engineering" of natural objects to determine if they have complex and "specified" information, i.e. if they are "irreducibly complex" and need all their parts to "function;"

Conclusion: if they are IC, they are designed.

She admits that ID is "not proven" (whatever she means by that) but goes on to claim that evolution has "multiple gaps," giving the example of the missing "missing link." Amusingly, she doesn't state what the things are that have not been linked, though presumably she is thinking of the transitional forms between humans and their non-human ancestors, of which we actually have a plethora. As I've already noted in connection with the first contest video, gaps in evidence are not "weaknesses" in a theory in any event.

Next, following the example of the DI's contest site, she demonstrates her lack of intellectual content by putting up a graphic of this quote mine of Darwin:

"A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."
Note the period at the end, indicating that the quote is a complete thought. But here is what Darwin actually said, with the quote-mined part in bold:

This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done.

Thus, Darwin was not saying that questions in science need to have every uniformed opinion and belief, such as may be held by high school students like CvEint2, weighed in order to reach a fair scientific result. He was saying that he had many more facts in support of his theory but could not list them all in the scant 490 pages he had at his disposal in the Origin. Darwin certainly didn't, as CvEint2 claims, make his statement to "get evolution included into the debate." Darwin fully knew that he needed facts in order to succeed in getting a scientific hearing of his theory and was prepared to give them. CvEint2 demonstrates, however, her lack of understanding of that concept by resorting to a quote instead of facts and failing to go to the effort of even checking how accurate the quote is (or, in an even less flattering possibility, lying about the import of the quote after checking it out).

In comparison, CvEint2 could and did fairly state all the "facts" in favor of ID (namely that -- following Paley's watch analogy -- humans produce designed objects) within a four and a half minute video with plenty of time left over for such bogus arguments against evolution as an unspecified "missing link." The "experiments" to determine if some biological traits are IC, as I pointed out in reviewing the first video, are not facts in favor of ID but, instead are an attempt to raise conceptual arguments against evolution that can only lead to a "conclusion" of design via the "contrived dualism" that all forms of creationism ultimately fall back on.

But most lunatic of all is CvEint2's example of why ID should be included in science classes. She states that there are two leading theories about the causes of gravity: Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and the Graviton Theory. According to CvEint2, "both are taught in science courses and students are allowed to decide which one they believe is better." I won't pretend that I understand either theory but a quick perusal of the Wikipedia article on gravitons makes it clear that gravitons are an attempt to extend the "Standard Model" of quantum mechanics to produce a "unified field theory" to link all of the fundamental forces of the universe (electromagnetism, the strong atomic force, the weak atomic force and gravity) in terms of a single field. Both general relativity's description of gravity in terms of curved spacetime and the proposed graviton give identical results conforming with Newton's law of gravitation, which has tons of empiric results in its favor. ID, on the other hand, does not give "results" at all, being that, under ID, any and all empiric facts can, unlike evolutionary theory, simply be explained as "that's the way the Designer designed it."

The very best minds working today in theoretical physics, particle physics, cosmology and numerous other scientific fields, with Nobel Prizes awaiting anyone with even partial solutions to the conundrum, have not yet been able to resolve this question. But, according to ID advocates, high school students, who, like CvEint2, can't even distinguish Federal district courts from the Supreme Court, are fully qualified, after being taught just a smattering of the physics involved, to determine whether or not Einstein was right.

If this bogus "academic freedom" to reject science wasn't so tragic in the results it will have for American children and our nation's future, it would be screamingly funny.

Ironically, CvEint2 goes on to invoke the United Negro College Fund's motto that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" in defense of teaching ID. But including unscientific claims like ID in public school science classes to assuage the religious beliefs of students is, in a very real way, treating them as second class citizens who have to be sequestered from the real world of science and kept in an intellectual ghetto of comfortable ignorance.

Waste, indeed.


Friday, January 30, 2009


Sacred Cows

Okay, this is just silly but, on a day when I'm a bit under the weather, presenting it for your delectation is one way to fill up the blog:

And I would like to suggest that vegetarians who refuse to eat meat for moral reasons - apparently the most common reason - speak to us in an interesting way about the controversy between evolution and intelligent design. ...

In my view, a vegetarian who chooses to not eat animals for moral reasons - such as those quoted in The Star-Ledger story, or among the long-ago famous -- does so because of a specific world view.

The vegetarian assumes that there is no God-given difference between humans and animals. According to his philosophic viewpoint, human beings are just smarter animals.

Interestingly, that was the view of Charles Darwin. In The Descent of Man (1871), cited in "Darwin and Human Kinship with Non-Human Animals" by the Humanist Vegetarian Group, Darwin writes:

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attractions, curiosity, intuitions, reason etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition in the lower animals."

Of course, animals do have some limited measure of emotions and will. The evolutionist says that dogs have emotions because dogs, somewhere along the line, found it advantageous to survival to acquire emotions. That ability is just further evolved in humans, they say.

By contrast, evangelicals believe that the Bible teaches that humans are made in the image of God, that they carry that divine spark, with reasoning, emotions, conscience, etc.

Evangelicals believe that humans have emotions because God has emotions, and that God stamped that "image" on humans.

And, although the Bible is silent on this, perhaps God gave dogs a limited measure of emotions just to make man's best friend a better companion.

But for the philosophically consistent vegetarian, who declines meat for moral reasons, as for the evolutionist, there is no more image of God in his human neighbor than in his dog.

And so, in a real way, if evolution is true (it's not, but if it were), the vegetarian would be the most reality-based and philosophically consistent thinker among us. (Bold in original)

Of course, if God has emotions and gave dogs emotions (whether or not to make them a better companion) then dogs too must be made in God's image. And "Darwinists" are (or should be) vegetarians, while believers in Jesus are carnivores.

Kill a cow for Christ ... but be nice to dogs for heaven's sake.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Philosophizing Science

Edge has a series of responses to the The New Republic article by Jerry Coyne that asks: "whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science." Here are samplings of a few of the responses:

Daniel Everett:

Religion is philosophically incompatible with science. Open inquiry that allows the chips to fall where they may is incompatible with both the idea of 'god's revelation of truth' and religious hierarchies governing knowledge and its dissemination. I am an atheist. I believe that theology, which I hold an undergraduate degree in, is a waste of time. ...

While science should not pretend that revelation has anything to offer us, it should not forget that it can manifest its own forms of 'revelation'. When scientists believe that they are marching towards Truth in some platonic sense, they are behaving religiously, not scientifically. The belief in Truth, as Rorty cautioned, can become the scientist's god and when it does it involves no less superstition than any other god. And many scientists share a belief in oracles, special people whose words are somehow more valuable and more likely to reflect Truth than that of other people's.

Howard Gardner:

Of course, if you believe in the scientific method and the scientific enterprise, you will have little patience for belief in revelation (whatever that is). Still, all of us, even the most extreme rationalists, harbor contradictory beliefs in our minds and we somehow muddle through. For me, the important line in the sand is not between those who believe in religion/God and those who don't; it is between those who are tolerant of others' beliefs, so long as they dont interfere with one's own belief system, and those who will not tolerate those whose belief system is fundamentally different.

Karl W. Giberson (author of Saving Darwin reviewed by Coyne in his article):

Coyne, who affirms Dawkins's approach, speaks of "theologians with a deistic bent" who inappropriately presume to "speak for all the faithful." The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration. This seems unfair to me. The great unwashed masses of these "faithful" should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who "believe" in science but are not professionals. Most Americans—and the rest of the world, for that matter— are attached to both iPods and a belief that medical science is their best hope when they are sick. They "believe" in science. What do you suppose "science" would look like, were it defined by these "believers"? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind. And yet all of these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

Kenneth R. Miller (author of Only a Theory reviewed by Coyne in his article):

[Coyne's] right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other. Coyne's complaint on such things, paradoxically, is that they must not have happened because there is no scientific explanation for them. That amounts, in essence, to saying that these things could not have happened because they would be miracles. Well, that's exactly what most Christians take them for, so Coyne's only real argument is an a priori assumption that miracles cannot happen. Make that assumption, and miracles are nonsense. But it is an assumption nonetheless, something that Coyne fails to see.

How, then, should we take his claim that scientists who profess religious faith are akin to adulterers? An adulterer, of course, is one who has taken the marriage vow of faithfulness and exclusivity, and then broken that vow to have sex with another. Have scientists who profess faith broken some vow of philosophical naturalism that is implicit in the profession?

I, for one, don't remember any such vow in my training, my PhD exam, or my tenure review—although perhaps things work a little differently at the University of Chicago.

But my favorite of the responses was this:

Lawrence Krauss:

There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists. What matters are the important questions science is dealing with, from the origin and future of the universe to the origin and future of life.

All this talk about science and religion gives the wrong impression, as it suggests reconciling them or not reconciling them is a big issue... it isn't. As I once put it to theologians at a meeting at the Vatican: theologians have to listen to scientists, because if they want to try to create a consistent theology (and while I have opinions about whether this is possible, but my opinions about this are neither particularly important nor informed) they at least need to know how the world works. But scientists don't have to listen to theologians, because it has no effect whatsoever on the scientific process.


Sowing the Seeds of Faith

Dr. Michael Egnor, apparently still being stung regularly by Dr. Steven Novella's refutations of his babblings is back turning over all the same old ground with his usual plow: bald assertions, the misrepresentation of the process of science, projection of his own faults onto Dr. Novella and logic so suspect that it is unfair to use the label. He actually reaches comic heights at times, such as in the following:

Dr. Novella is fond of the God of the Gaps sneer, in the form of "Dualism of the Gaps." ...

Dr. Novella is wrong to attribute the inference to dualism to an argument from ignorance. ...

Perhaps it was more understandable several centuries ago for the philosophically naive to hold to a confident assurance that science would ultimately explain the mind purely in terms of the material brain. Neuroscience has rendered that view no longer tenable. The explanatory gap is real, and our evolving knowledge of neuroscience only makes the futility of materialist attempts to close the explanatory gap even more clear. This is not, pace Dr. Novella, infering (sic) a positive conclusion from negative evidence. This is coming to accept the obvious; neuroscience has failed to show how subjective experience arises from objective matter.

That's right! Egnor's not inferring a positive conclusion from negative evidence, its just obvious to him that materialism is wrong because neuroscience can't explain the material basis for subjective experience! It's not an argument from ignorance or dualism in the gaps to appeal to an "explanatory gap" either! It's almost superfluous, after such self-contradiction, to point out that Egnor's claim that it will be futile to attempt to fill that gap is unaccompanied by any explanation of how he knows that scientifically.

It makes you wonder if Egnor can actually hold the idea of what he wants to say for as long as it takes to write it down. Sometimes it almost seems like free association.

There is oh so much more wrong with Egnor's screed but there is only so much of the cocktail of two parts ignorance and one part undeserved confidence with a dash of ego that one should imbibe before driving.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Praise Hymn

Okay, I'm ambivalent about this one.

That's the new billboard the Freedom From Religion Foundation is planning to erect in Madison, Wisconsin, Dayton, Tennessee, and Dover, Pennsylvania. Of course, they have every right to put up billboards and Darwin's image is certainly in the public domain.

The science-favoring blogosphere has been pretty critical of late of the New Scientist article that lent aid and comfort to creationists by asserting that "Darwin Was Wrong." A major thread of that criticism was that the author and editors should have realized the impact that the article and, particularly, the cover image, could have in giving creationists fodder to attack science education. But a major theme of that attack on science is that evolution is, itself, a religion. Now, sure, we know that the intent of the billboard is to advocate doing away with religion, just as the intent of New Scientist was to report on legitimate science. But, just as creationists, aided by the blinders many believers wear, can distort the message in the New Scientist article, they can certainly distort the message of "Praise Darwin."

If New Scientist can be criticized for not taking more care with their words and images why not the Freedom From Religion Foundation?

Update: Larry Moran doesn't like it much either.


Filming Propaganda

Oh, hey! It looks like the Discovery Institute will have to pay out its fabulous prize of a $500 grand-prize and at least one $250 runner-up prize in its Academic Freedom Day Video and Essay Contest. With just 3 days to go they now have two whole video entries. This is my quick review of the one by Kaleigh McCormick:

Actually, it's a pretty nice video with a decent balance of pretty pictures and pleasant music to Kaleigh's talking head. Of course, what she is saying is mostly a rehash of the "flagellum is irreducibly complex, therefore, evolution is conceptually impossible" argument of Michael Behe that fails because the flagellum has been shown not to be irreducible. In any event, the argument does not count as evidence for Intelligent Design, depending, as it does, on the old "contrived dualism" borrowed from "creation science" and rightly excoriated by Judge Jones in Kitzmiller.

Where Kaleigh really goes off the rails is in her assertion that Titan can't have any life because there is no water or oxygen in its atmosphere "which is necessary for life." Apparently, she never considered that there are anaerobic life forms here on Earth. While it is harder to imagine life without water, we have been surprised before and, in any event, she fails to consider the possibility that there may be water in places we have not been able to sample yet on Titan. She then goes on to compound her errors by stating that "Earth has the perfect atmosphere" for human and all the other life forms on Earth, without apparently considering that it might just be because life here has adapted, through evolution, to utilize the available atmosphere. To be fair, pretty smart people, like William Whewell -- well before Darwin published his results -- made the same error.

Lastly, she makes the claim that students and scientists have been prohibited from discussing or pursuing ID in classrooms and laboratories. Funny, I thought the Discovery Institute had set up the Biologic Institute as its own laboratory to do just that. Maybe that's why there has been no groundbreaking research coming out of that corner of Seattle -- the jackbooted science police have shut it down. As for classrooms, of course students are allowed to discuss ID ... in comparative religion, sociology and civics classes. They can even raise it in science classes. It's just that teachers, as government employees, can't pretend that it is science without violating the Constitution. Heck, even the Discovery Institute realizes that.

That's all I have time for tonight. The second video, by "CvEint2" is off to a rocky start. Within the first 45 seconds she makes two rather silly mistakes, claiming that within a decade of the publication of Darwin's Origin, "the public schools began teaching it as fact" (not even in British public schools, much less American schools) and that in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that ID couldn't be taught.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Awe Moments, Ewww Moments

PZ Mxyzptlk is taking comfort, or comradeship, or sly schadenfreude, or something, in the fact that the great documentarian, Sir David Attenborough, also gets hate mail from believers:

"They tell me to burn in hell and good riddance," Sir David said during an interview with the Radio Times about his latest documentary on Charles Darwin and natural selection. ...

Telling the magazine that he was also asked why he did not give "credit" to the Lord, Sir David continued: "They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds.

"I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in East Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball.

"The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs.

"I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

I like that example (I assume Sir David is referring to Onchocerca volvulus, a nematode worm transmitted by black flies, that causes "river blindness") better than Darwin's of the Ichneumonidae wasps, since the victim of the worm is human, rather than the wasps' targets of caterpillars, and Sir David is able to work in the fact that that many of the sufferers are children, for whom we have a natural sympathy and protective instinct. As an emotive argument -– and that's what it is, though in this case it is entirely appropriate, since it is in counter to the equally emotive invocation of the sense of awe we get at the beauty and abilities of hummingbirds -– it beats the heck out of dead and dying larvae.

Fight schmaltz with suffering children.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Still Wrong

Oh, look! New Scientist is reporting on the last minute insertion of creationist nonsense into the Texas science standards:

The previous text invited students to: "evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness and rate and diversity of evolution".

The altered text, introduced by creationist member Barbara Cargill, slipped the phrase "proposed transitional fossils" into the text, implying unwarranted doubt about whether transitional fossils are genuinely evolutionary staging posts as species changed. ...

Secondly, Cargill scrapped the final clause altogether, replacing it with an invitation for students to "assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in the light of this fossil evidence".

In other words, she sought to stimulate unwarranted debate about common descent, the idea that all life arose through evolution.

"This change is by far the most unscientific revision, and is completely unacceptable," says Schafersman. "There are no good arguments in modern science 'against universal common descent', which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply."

In essence, says Schafersman, "the added phrase supports an anti-evolution intent which is not scientific."

But, strangely, there is no mention of the article that Cargill cited in support of her change in the language -- the one "in which a European scientist disputed Darwin’s 'tree of life' showing common ancestors for all living things" -- namely, New Scientist's own "Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life," which has been roundly criticized for its sensationalistic approach to science:

Graham Lawton Was Wrong
Darwin Was Wrong?
Why's Graham so Glum: Lawton Critiqued
Was Darwin Wrong?
Darwin was wrong...ish
Explaining New Scientist cover
New Scientist takes the hype road
Darwin: The Genius of evolution
The Trouble With Science Journalism
Speaking of media mangling...
New Scientist take the hype road
It's such a fine line between stupid and clever
Of trees of life and straw men

Ironically, a sidebar to the New Scientist article ends:

"We've just annihilated the tree of life. It's not a tree any more, it's a different topology entirely," says Syvanen. "What would Darwin have made of that?"

Darwin's dead. The more immediate concern is what creationists would -- and did -- make of it: a weapon against science. I suppose, if we must speculate about Darwin's reaction, his words to Wallace, on finding out that the latter thought that the human brain could not have been the product of natural selection, might suffice as a hint: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child."

Bloglist "borrowed" from Adrian Thysse at Evolving Complexity.

Update: Richard B. Hoppe has picked up on this at The Pand'a Thumb.


Courting Danger

Another scientist has entered the fraught waters of the relationship between science and religion: Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. His new book, The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate has a companion blog and he will be joining Discover magazine's Reality Base blog to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion. Here's an inkling of his take on the issue:

... I consider myself something of an evangelist of science's methods and worldview. I have always been in love with science and, for the record, do not hold a belief in a supernatural deity. But, in a cosmic twist of fate, it was science that gave me a profound respect for the character of experience people have always called "sacred." Through my scientific practice, I have gained respect not for religion as a means of social organization and control, but for what happens beneath the institutions where individuals encounter the world through their own, inmost experience.

And this:

I have been rereading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion again and it makes me sad. First off, I have enormous respect for the guy. ... [A]s a science writer he is one of best. His eloquence and specificity in descriptions of biological processes as well as the process of science are a joy to read. Much of my (limited) understanding of evolutionary science has come from reading his books. But when it comes to religion as a broad human phenomenon Dawkins is, unfortunately myopic. ... Dawkin's mistake is one many scientists make when they address issues relating to human spirituality – they can't see past God. As a committed scientist I share the Dawkins' (and Einstein's) difficulty with a personal God who intervenes when asked (sometimes) ... I am no fan of supernatural explanations for the structure of the world. But to define away all that happens in people's experience of religion as being defined solely and completely by theological definitions of a supernatural creator is to miss something so vast and so vital as to blind oneself to both its power and its potential.

Dawkins has this way of defining away anything or anyone which does fit his straw man definition of religion. Ursula Goodenough is a good example. Goodenough is a well respected biologist whose father was one of the pre-eminent scholars of religion of the last century. After years of "playing it straight" as a tenured scientist she describes her self as returning to her father's questions about religion and the human sense of the sacred. In the years that followed she has written eloquently about how the narratives of science can act as gateways to this experience of a life's' sacred character. Her work is one example of a sensitive, sophisticated and nuanced attempt to place science and religious experience into a broader context. In Dawkins' book Goodenough gets a couple paragraphs which dismiss her efforts as being fundamentally irrelevant. I could only shake my head that such a smart guy could have such thick blinders on.

Welcome to the lion's den!


IDing Illiteracy

From a New York Times editorial on the Texas State Board of Education's actions last week:

We were heartened when the board beat back, by a very narrow margin, efforts to reintroduce the language on "weaknesses." But the conservative bloc immediately recouped by pushing through amendments that require students to assess the arguments "for and against" common ancestry, a core element of evolution theory, and its "sufficiency or insufficiency" to explain the fossil record. How that differs from the old language of "strengths and weaknesses" is not readily apparent.

The lesson we draw from these shenanigans is that scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education.
The problem, of course, is that creationists, by definition, are unfamiliar with the concept of a sound education.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Philosophical Fail

Having just discussed "scientism," it is only right and just to discuss what doesn't fall under that category. Here is yet another example of the kind of disingenuous pabulum that will be foisted on unsuspecting schoolchildren if the Discovery Institute's "strengths and weaknesses" ploy get widely disseminated in public education. One Lee Harvill of Stafford, Texas has a letter to the editor in the Houston Chronicle about the Texas State Board of Education's vote in favor of eliminating the phrase from the science standards:

It did not succumb to science; it succumbed to scientism and the fear that somehow admitting a weakness in the Darwinian theory would lead to the teaching of religion in public schools.

Although there are numerous scientifically based weaknesses in the Darwinian theory of gradual evolution (redundancy intended) of organisms, I will cite only one that every high school biology student should be taught.

Amphibians and reptiles have three-chambered hearts, and birds and mammals have four-chambered hearts. The gradualism part of the theory requires that the change from three-chambered to four-chambered hearts came about by a long series of micromutations. Our students should be permitted to ask: "Where is the evidence of a three and one-half chambered heart?" And, the teacher should be permitted to reply: "That is a weakness in the theory."

Creationism versus secular humanism aside, the objective discussion of strengths and weaknesses of all theories should not be discouraged in our schools.
It should come as no surprise that this supposed "weakness" is featured in the Disco' 'Tute's ersatz "textbook," Explore Evolution and even less a surprise that the "weakness" is not what it seems. The National Center for Science Education has a nice explanation of the misdirection involved.

I'd like to focus on something else, namely the confusion of Mr. Harvill about what constitutes a "weakness" in a theory. The absence of evidence for or against any particular prediction or expected result of a theory is not a weakness, unless or until there is such an absence of evidence in favor of the theory across the board that it is obvious that it should not have been called a theory in the first place but should have been classed as a hypothesis or worse. What constitutes a weakness in a theory is the existence of phenomena that it should be able to encompass within its framework and cannot. This sort of conceptual difficulty is what Intelligent Design Creationists aspire to achieve with "irreducible complexity." Of course, once confronted with conceptual pathways to the evolution of any supposedly IC trait, they immediately switch tactics and demand an empirical demonstration that such a pathway was the one actually taken, papering over the fact that the IC argument was that there was no such conceptual pathway to begin with.

It is obvious that Mr. Harvill is engaging in this same sort of game. First evoking a supposed conceptual difficulty between "gradualism" and evolution of a four chambered heart (with a visit at the old "half a wing" fallacy) and, perhaps sensing that scientists may have a conceptual answer, demanding either evidence of a particular pathway occurred or an admission of a "weakness."

It is not scientism to say that a mere lack of complete evidence of the evolution of every organism and trait fails to constitute a weakness in a theory. It is not science to tell children that any gap in our knowledge calls into question evolution, despite the massive amount of evidence we do have supporting it and the lack of any conceptual difficulties in the theory sufficient to call its basic tenets into question.

Update: John Lynch points to another treatment of Explore Evolution by Brian D. Metscher at Evolution & Development:

The latest out of the Discovery Institute is 159 glossy pages of color-illustrated creationist nostalgia ... All the old favorites are here—fossils saying no, all the Icons, flightless Ubx flies, irreducible flagella, even that irritating homology-is-circular thing. There are no new arguments, no improved understanding of evolution, just a remastered scrapbook of the old ideas patched together in a high-gloss package pre-adapted to survive the post-Dover legal environment. The whole effort would be merely pathetic if it did not actually represent a serious and insidious threat to education.


Philosophizing About Science

I had planned to review and critique Jerry Coyne's book review qua philosophical treatise qua theological discourse after a careful reading and full consideration. Unfortunately, I have been a victim of life's circumstances to a greater degree than usual of late and I won't be able to give it the attention it deserves presently. Larry Moran has given what he thinks are Coyne's salient points, while adding some of his own, and I'll just make some comments on them.

First of all, from Coyne, after admitting that some people can be both religious and scientists:

The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?
Theology is the philosophical explanation of and (attempted) justification for particular religious beliefs. A fully worked out theology is a "life philosophy" (as opposed to the more limited forms of philosophy, such as the philosophy of biology). An individual's theology is a "worldview." It somehow sounds better in German: "weltanschauung."

The problem I have with both Coyne's and Larry's views boils down to what counts as "science." It is my opinion that "science," properly understood, is not a worldview. Science is a tool -- a methodology by which humans attempt to discover the workings of the natural world. Like math, it operates on certain premises -- most famously in science's case, methodological naturalism or the assumption that natural phenomena have natural causes -- that, if false, will deliver results that do not represent "reality," even though it may still be useful as a model. The attempt to make science into a woldview (sometimes called "scientism" but equally at home in materialism or philosophical naturalism) is a valid weltanschauung but it is not the same thing as "science."

That Coyne and Larry are talking about scientism rather than science is clear. The only reason that a weltanschauung like theology needs to be made "compatible" (or in Coyne's other phrase "to harmonize") with science is if science is also a weltanschauung. If, on the other hand, science is a tool, then it need not be made to harmonize with theology any more than theology and math need to be harmonized. In short, there is only a conflict that needs to be resolved if both are answering the same questions.

Larry goes on to repeat something that we have argued over many times, namely his contention that there is a:

... fundamental conflict between science and religion; namely, that according to what we know about the natural world, humans are not special in any way and life does not have a purpose. There are very few believers who can stomach those ideas, hence their science and their religion are in conflict.
I'll just repeat in turn that Larry cites no scientific peer-reviewed papers, no empiric evidence, no narrowly designed experiments or observations directed to the question of whether or not there is "purpose" in the universe. I think there is a very good reason for that: science is not capable of answering that issue. Larry's assertion is, in fact, nothing more than his impression of what the limited results of science's investigation of the natural world means. In short, it is Larry's worldview. I was already pretty sure that Larry's worldview (which I respect, by the way, and largely share) is incompatible with theology. My objection is that "science" is not, and should not be, defined as "Larry Moran's worldview."

Finally, just a comment on Larry's claim that the difference between Ken Miller and Michael Behe is trivial, because Miller has suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is an area where God could possibly influence the events in this universe. First of all, the biggest difference between Miller and Behe is that Miller states clearly that it is his theology that he is talking about, as opposed to Behe, who pretends that it is science that supports his claim of design in the universe. That point leads us to the irony that, as far as their worldviews go, Larry is closer to Behe than Miller is, since both Behe and Larry assert that science is capable of addressing the issue of purpose/design in the universe and merely disagree over the interpretation of the results.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Schooling Labor

A thought:

The status of schoolteaching as an occupation is lower in this country than elsewhere, and it is far lower than that of the professions in the United States. Characteristically, as Myron Lieberman remarks, teachers are recruited "from the top of the lower half of the population." Upper and upper-middle class persons almost universally reject teaching as a vocation. Teachers frequently resort, during the school year or their summer "vacations," to low-status jobs to supplement their teaching incomes; they work as waitresses, bartenders, housekeepers, janitors, farm hands, checkroom attendants, milkmen, common laborers, and the like. They come from culturally constricted lower- or middle-class homes, where the Saturday Evening Post or the Reader's Digest is likely to be the characteristic reading matter. For most teachers, their jobs, inadequate though they are, represent some improvement over the economic position of their parents, and they will, in turn, do still better by their children, who will be better educated than they are. ...

The unenviable situation of the teacher can be traced back to the earliest days of our history. The educational enthusiasm of the American people was never keen enough to dispose them to support their teachers very well. ... In any case, the market in qualified labor was always a problem here, and early American communities had intense difficulties in finding and keeping suitable schoolmasters. In colonial times there was a limited supply of educated men, and they were blessed with too many opportunities to be content to settle for what the average community was willing to pay a schoolmaster. ...

[C]olonial communities sometimes had to resort to indentured servants for teachers. A Delaware minister observed, around 1725, that "'when a ship arrives in the river, it is a common expression with those who stand in need of an instructor for their children, let us go and buy a school master." In 1776 the Maryland Journal advertised that a ship had just arrived at Baltimore from Belfast and Cork, and enumerated among its products for sale "various Irish commodities, among which are school masters, beef, pork, and potatoes."

- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life


Friday, January 23, 2009



Here are some more interesting reactions to events in the Texas State Board of Education:

From the Fox News outlet in Lubbock, Texas:

"The Texas Board of Education took one step back and two steps forward today," said Dr. John West of the Discovery Institute. "While we wish they would have retained the strengths and weaknesses language in the overall standards, they did something truly remarkable today. They voted to require students to analyze and evaluate some of the most important and controversial aspects of modern evolutionary theory such as the fossil record, universal common descent and even natural selection."

According to West, these changes, to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, means that teachers and students will be able to discuss the scientific evidence that is supportive, as well as evidence that is not supportive of all scientific theories.

"Analyzing, evaluating, any additional scrutiny of evolution can only help students to learn more about the theory," said West, who is associate director of the Institute's Center for Science & Culture.

West, of course, has his directions mixed up. We can be sure that anything the Discovery Institute finds to be a good thing is bad for science education.

From the San Antonio Express-News story "Evolution teaching provision fails first test":

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who voted to keep "strengths and weaknesses," said he wouldn't rubber stamp recommendations from the experts.

"This is a battle of academic freedom. This is a battle over freedom of speech," Mercer said. "It's an issue of freedom of religion."

That's from the same guy who also allowed that it was "macroevolution" that was controversial because "[m]ost people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as 'micro' evolution," but who nonetheless maintains that the creationist members of the board are "not putting religion in books." I wonder how he decides which side of his mouth to talk out of at any one moment?

Finally, there is this from the Baylor University Lariat, demonstrating the effects the kind of fiddling with the facts the board's creationists are attempting can have:

Aimee Ferguson, junior biology major from Camden, Ark., agrees. "(Evolution) was presented as a theory," she said. Having been homeschooled, Ferguson said that evolution has never been presented as fact in her biology classes at Baylor.

"If you're teaching as a theory, I think it should be presented as a theory alongside intelligent design ... I don't see a problem with that," she said.

Considering Baylor's track record, I doubt the biology department's presentation of science was so confused as to encourage the mistaking of ID as a scientific theory. I suspect that Ms. Ferguson got that misunderstanding at home.


The Politics of Stupid

Here's a funny quote about the Texas science standards fight:

It's outrageous that our highest elected education officials voted to silence teachers and students in science class," said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation [the Texas affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family]. "Despite being overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls to keep strengths and weaknesses, the divided State Board of Education ignored constituents and sided with a small group of activists.

Yeah! Only 94% of Texas scientists opposed the "strengths and weaknesses" language. Wadda they know about science, anyway?

This decision shows that science has evolved into a political popularity contest.

Ummm ... Weren't you just mentioning all the e-mails and phone calls the board members were being overwhelmed with in favor of the "strengths and weaknesses" language? If the "small group of activists" prevailed against all that political pressure, doesn't that indicate that political popularity wasn't the deciding factor? Can you manage an entire paragraph without contradicting yourself?

But I do agree with Saenz in a way. The very fact that politicians are even considering changing the standards written by experts in the field of science and education does show that creationists have mustered a lot of political popularity ... to go with their lack of scientific literacy.

The truth has been expelled from the science classroom.

Not quite yet, but I expect creationists will keep on trying.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


One Step Forward ... One Back

In the preliminary vote of the Texas State Board of Education held today, creationists on the board failed to reinsert the "strengths and weaknesses" language into the science standards.

However, some very damaging changes were made to the Biology and Earth and Space Science standards. Section 8(A) of the ESS standards originally read:

(8)(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution;

... and now reads:

8(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence;

There are, of course, no valid scientific arguments against common descent in the fossil record. This is just an opening for the misrepresentation of the Cambrian Explosion and God knows what other creationist blather.

A similar addition was made to the Biology TEKS in section 7 on evolution, which reads: "describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record."

As Steve Schafersman points out, the tempo and mode of evolution, as revealed in the fossil record, is a valid scientific subject but including "the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry" as an explanation for it is bogus:

The fact of common ancestry of all living and fossil species is not in doubt. The problem is that common ancestry does not explain stasis, sudden appearance, gradual evolution, and other tempo and modes of evolution. Common ancestry is an inference from analysis of morphological and genetic information and the fact of genetic continuity of all life (life only comes from life, not non-life, except for the origin of life early in Earth's history). The tempo and mode of evolution (i.e. sudden appearance, stasis, gradual change, transitional fossils, etc.) is explained by speciation, fossilization, fossil preservation, the completeness of stratigraphic and fossil records, and other considerations.

There were other, less significant changes made, which you can read about in Steve Schafersman's, Josh Rosenau's and the Texas Freedom Network's live blogging at the meetings.

There may still be a chance to reverse the damage done, since there will be a formal vote tomorrow and then a final vote in March. But that's a two-way street and the creationists will also have chances for further mischief.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Dueling Bozos

PZ Megahertz has the funny lowdown on Ray ("the banana is an atheist's worse nightmare") Comfort's latest evidence that you really do have to be an ignoramus to buy into the more egregious forms of creationism. (Whether Ray himself is himself a drooling idiot, or merely tailoring his message to the ignoramuses he is trying to exploit, is an open question).

But I'll see PZ's Comfort and raise him a W. Edward Murphy.

Mr. Murphy actually somehow connects his disdain for an alleged "Jewish friend" who does not share Murphy's belief that "that Israel has no right to give away their land" because "God described to Abraham the boundaries of the land He was giving to the Jews as an everlasting heritage," with his "friend's" supposed "softness on anti-Semitism," with "belief in Darwinism," with, in a neat quadruple play, "all of the moral, as well as civil, degradation we are experiencing in our nation." Needless to say, the connections are less than explicit.

He then segues (using that term very loosely) into a set of "challenges" that "Darwinists" have to answer before he'd agree (if anyone asked him) to let evolution be taught in Texas schools as fact. One of them may have been cribbed directly from Comfort:

"How did one man and one woman happen to evolve at the same time so that human reproduction could take place? Did each one evolve from a lower life form, and if so, would it not be necessary for each to develop simultaneously? Because, if not, if the first man, or the first woman were evolved more than 100 years apart, would not the first one have died before the evolution of the other? If that is so, how could reproduction have taken place?

And there is ordinary stupidity, of course, including the claim that there are no transitional fossils and the ever-popular but extremely hoary Darwin and the eye quote mine. But Murphy is capable of raising his game and showing that he is every bit the peer of Comfort:

"Since there must be an egg to produce a chicken, and since there must be a chicken to produce an egg, which evolved first, and from what?

But my favorite of all is:

"Why is a scientist like Michael Behe, prominent biochemist, Atheist, and former Darwinism advocate ignored? He stated, "If you search the scientific literature on evolution, and if you focus your search on the question of molecular machines -the basis of life - you find an eerie and complete silence. The complexity of life's foundation has paralyzed science's attempt to account for it…". (Behe M, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, 1996, The Free Press). Dr. Behe believes in Intelligent Design, but not in God.

Maybe the claim that Behe is an atheist comes from the fact that he is Catholic and therefore believes in the "Whore of Babylon" or something. One thing's for sure, Mr. Murphy has never been within spitting distance of the scientific literature.

Mr. Murphy has promised that he "might consider the advisability of teaching Darwinism as fact in Texas schools" if "Darwinism can answer even ONE of the questions that have just been posed." Meeting the condition is easy but we have to ask if we want him on our side.


You're Doing Fine

Here is a strange little fact about Oklahoma University:

Kerry Magruder, the curator of the History of Science Collections, said the university is one of the few in the world with a complete collection of Darwin's works in first edition.

Some, including a first edition of Darwin's report on the HMS Beagle's expedition, during which he saw the wonders of flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands, are priceless. OU is one of the few places in the world with complete copies. The work is being digitally scanned so that it may be available for scholars around the world, Magruder said.

"You can count the collections that have all the first editions on one hand," Magruder said.

Of course, there is nothing strange about any university lusting after first editions of the works of one of the greatest and most influential scientists of all time. But it just seems a bit off-kilter somehow that one of the very best such collections should wind up in a state-supported school in one of the reddest of Red States where, at this very moment, the state legislature that doles out the money to the university is considering another one of those "academic freedom" paeans to misdirection.

Well, at least for the moment, kudos to Oklahoma!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Today's the Day

... our long national nightmare is over.

But maybe not. Because we still have people like this in our country:

I want Obama to fail because his agenda is 100 percent at odds with God's. Pretending it is not simply makes a mockery of God's straightforward Commandments.

That would be the terminally ridiculous Joseph Farah of the equally ridiculous WingNutDaily.

When the rule of men conflicts with the commands of God, the Bible leaves no doubt about where we should stand.

That's why I do not hesitate today in calling on godly Americans to pray that Barack Hussein Obama fail in his efforts to change our country from one anchored on self-governance and constitutional republicanism to one based on the raw and unlimited power of the central state.

It would be folly to pray for his success in such an evil campaign.

Farah wastes a lot of breath on "showing" why the Bible doesn't inveigh believers to pray for our leaders but strangely neglects to give biblical support for the notion that God has ordered governments anchored on self-governance and constitutional republicanism. He even notes that "render unto Caesar" does not apply because "in America we don't have a Caesar," skipping over the fact that Jesus apparently didn't think a Caesar was such a bad thing.

But the real lunacy is Farah's painting of Obama as "evil." It can't just be that there is a difference in opinion about how government should be run; it has to be a struggle of good versus evil, God against Satan and his minions. And he's not, unfortunately, alone in this. I was no fan of George Bush but I never thought he was evil. Stupid, yes, but not evil. His stupidity resulted in policies that led to evil results but the man, for all his faults, and they were rampant, wanted to do what he thought best for the country. Too many on the left would do as Farah wants to do, though perhaps without the biblical trappings.

It's time that we as a nation learn that our political opponents are not the personification of evil. They are, almost to a person, decent people whose opinions simply differ from our own and who, if we both expend a little effort, we can compromise with on some issues and agree to disagree with on others.

It's time for a change.


Via Primordial Blog

Monday, January 19, 2009


An Ancient Tradition

The Beulah (North Dakota) School Board voted 4-3 to ban the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil from the local high school library.

The vote came as a result of a complaint by Keith Bohn, a Beulah vocational agriculture teacher (okay, there are a lot of jokes there but I'm piously passing them up), and Kathy Bohn, a school janitor, because:

... their son brought it home as part of an accelerated reading program.

See what being a good reader can do to you?

Keith Bohn said he didn't read the entire book, but found it unsuitably and graphically pornographic after reading some chapters and portions of it.

Well, guess what!

None of the Beulah School Board members have read the book, though some researched it, said board chairman Phil Eastgate.

Part of the procedure to remove a book is to establish a review committee of five people and ... surprise! ... they all read the book! ... and they unanimously recommended that the book remain in the library!

Beulah High School librarian Kathy Cline was chairman of the book review committee.

She said she refused to remove the book when the Bohns asked her to, instead referring them to the school's procedure.

"It's my job to keep it out there for anyone to read. I'm not willing to pull a book off the shelf because someone doesn't like it," she said. ...

Cline said the review committee looked at the American Library Association's Freedom to Read statement: "Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves."

Apparently, encouraging "critical thinking" only applies when it comes to science.

Eastgate, the board chairman, who voted to remove the book, is at least having second thoughts:

He's planning a special meeting soon when the board may look at something different than an "in or out" decision. One option is to move "Midnight" and other books to a restricted section that requires parental consent for students to read, he said.

Yeah, heaven forefend that teenagers go to a library to get something their parents don't want them to read!

After all, that's what the internet is for!


Don't Know Much Biology

It ain't just biology that the creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education are out to gut. It's Earth and Space Sciences too. Steven Schafersman, a member of the standards-writing panel, has a long report on the efforts of the young-Earth creationists, Roger Sigler and Tom Henderson, put on the panel to water down the standards as to such YEC-killing science as radiometric dating of rocks from the Earth, the Moon and meteorites; red shift and cosmic microwave background radiation evidence for the Big Bang and, generally, to make the standards less "dogmatic," wherever they refuse to pander to such scientific nonsense as a young Earth, by removing all science standards altogether.

Typically, it involves subterfuge, such as submitting secret "minority reports" to the Board, doubletalk and double dealing. It's a depressing story.

But, as always, it comes back to evolution. The standards, as written (pdf file), have the following:

(8) Earth in space and time. The student knows that fossils provide evidence for geological and biological evolution. Students are expected to:

(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution;

(B) explain how sedimentation, fossilization, and speciation affect the degree of completeness of the fossil record; and

(C) evaluate the significance of the terminal Permian and Cretaceous mass extinction events, including adaptive radiations of organisms after the events.

Naturally, the latest "minority report" finds this promlematical:

Concerning c8 Roger suggested replacing the word "evolution" with "change" in this heading only, and leaving the word "evolution" as is in c8(A).

Nearly all scientists agree that geological and biological change has taken place on Earth. The problem is that the very word "evolution" is subjective, for there are at least three broad definitions of "evolution":

• Evolution #1: First, evolution can mean that the life forms we see today are different than the life forms that existed in the distant past. Evolution as "change over time" can also refer to minor changes in features of individual species -- changes which take place over a short amount of time. We can observe this type of evolution going on in the present and even skeptics of Darwin’s theory agree that this type of "change over time" takes place. Evolution in this sense is "fact." However, it is invariably the case that when Darwinists cite some present-day observations of change within a species, they will be small-scale changes that are not easily extrapolated to explain how complex biological features arose.

• Evolution #2: Some scientists associate the word "evolution" with the idea that all the organisms we see today are descended from a single common ancestor somewhere in the distant past. This claim became known as the Theory of Universal Common Descent. This theory paints a picture of the history of life on earth as one great branching tree. Many scientists are skeptical of Universal Common Descent.

• Evolution #3: Finally, some people use the term "evolution" to refer to a cause or mechanism of change, the biological process Darwin thought was responsible for the branching pattern. Darwin argued that unguided natural selection had the power to produce fundamentally new forms of life. Together, the ideas of Universal Common Descent and natural selection form the core of Darwinian evolutionary theory. "Neo-Darwinian" evolution combines our knowledge of DNA and genetics to claim that random mutations in DNA provide the variation upon which natural selection acts in a completely unguided fashion. It is this form of evolution that is the most controversial meaning of evolution.

Only the first definition is objective. The other two have never been demonstrated and are ideological, and as such, provide insufficient guidance for textbook publishers. The word "change" will help publishers be more objective. (Emphasis added)

Isn't that lovely? Not only is the "evolution" that every major scientific organization and virtually every scientist knowledgeable in biology agree is overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence called "unobjective" and "ideological," but the tiny minority of scientists who disagree, motivated all-but-exclusively by religious belief, is suddenly inflated to "many scientists." And the only "change" in organisms that publishers are supposed to endorse in their textbooks is the kind that can happen in "over a short amount of time" and, therefore, fit within the YEC timeframe of an Earth no more than 10,000 years old.

The good thing about these minority reports is that, if the creationist Board members can get one more vote and implement some distorted set of standards, the reports will make powerful evidence, in the inevitable court cases, of the motivation of the Board to inject old-style "creation science" into Texas' public schools.

Remind me again ... why was the serpent made to go on its belly?

Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars


Starting To Come True

Today can come on no more fitting day than the day before tomorrow.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Racing For the Bottom

It's definitely pile on Louisiana time.

There was the article "The Latest Face of Creationism in the Classroom" in Scientific American by Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott a while back that highlighted the creationist intent of Louisiana's misnamed Science Education Act. Among many other things, it pointed out:

A statement by a member of the Livingston Parish School Board who supported the Louisiana bill is instructive. After saying "both sides—the creationism side and the evolution side—should be presented," he explained that the bill was needed because "teachers are scared to talk about" creation. How plausible is it, then, that the law's provision that it is not to be "construed to promote any religious doctrine" will be honored in practice? As conservative columnist John Derbyshire commented, "the Act will encourage Louisiana local school boards to unconstitutional behavior. That's what it's meant to do."

Louisiana's business community has taken note of the article:

Many worry that Louisiana's notoriety for its positions on science education will impact not only the future of Louisiana's students, but the economic future of the state.

"For Louisiana to be identified internationally as having passed anti-science legislation is an economic catastrophe," Monroe attorney Charles Kincade said. "Future high-wage jobs will require excellence in science and math. Louisiana will suffer not only educational isolation, but economic isolation as well." ...

"Businesses that have left Louisiana have cited poor science and math education as a state problem," Kincade said. "This legislature and this governor have made an already poor educational system worse. Our children deserve to be taught real science."

Louisiana's best hope is that the Texas State Board of Education, poised to consider new science curriculum standards come next March [Update: according to the Teach Them Science website, the vote has apparently been moved up to the SBOE's next meeting during January 21-23, 2009], will make that state an even bigger laughingstock and take the heat off.

Lastly, there is this piece by James Gill in the Times-Picayune:

The impetus for the act came from peddlers of the fallacy that evolution and creationism are of equal scientific validity and that fairness requires students to weigh the competing claims of Darwin and Divine Providence. It was profoundly anti-intellectual, a denial of scientific truth.

The Education Department committee that drew up the rules for implementing the act did its best to head off the danger. The rules forbade biology teachers to "teach creationism or intelligent design or advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created mankind."

They also decreed that "Religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking."

That would have had the effect of thwarting the real intent of the legislation. Any doubt about that intent was removed when the religious faction had a fit over the committee's rules, which Mills denounced not only as "hostility" but "a cheap shot."

When the rules came up for approval by BESE, those paragraphs designed to ensure that science education stuck to provable fact were excised.

I've said it before: the surprising thing isn't that creationists are dishonest; it's that, with all the practice they've had, they aren't any better at it.

Update: And a bit more:
Education officials have defended the revision, arguing that it already includes language barring the use of materials that promote any religious doctrine. But Patsye Peebles, a retired science teacher who served on a committee that helped the education department draft the original policy language, thinks otherwise. "The creationists got what they wanted. We will have to redouble our efforts to educate our teachers and get them to teach good science," Peebles says.


Object Lesson

The State of Louisiana doesn't have the best record on maintaining the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The ACLU sued the state over:

... the constitutionality of a general appropriations measure, House Bill 1, which was signed into law in July 2007 by former Governor Kathleen Blanco. Among other things, the measure directed taxpayer earmarks in the amounts of $100,000 to one church in Bossier City and $20,000 to another church in Shreveport. The ACLU lawsuit initially covered those two grants and was later expanded to include an additional six earmarks to other houses of worship in Louisiana. The challenged grants were not subject to any oversight or competitive bidding process and the bill offered no purpose or justification for them.

In October of 2007, U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance of the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction against disbursing the funds appropriated under the Bill on a finding that the unrestricted earmarks:

... "fall within the core proscription of the Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment that protects religious liberty. Judge Vance also found that "these non-neutral, direct money grants of taxpayer funds to favored houses of worship are clearly unconstitutional."

A settlement has now been reached whereby the state of Louisiana agreed to stop funneling taxpayer-funded grants to certain selected churches.

This agreement restores important constitutional protections to Louisiana's infamous earmarking process. No longer will government officials be allowed use taxpayer dollars to fund their favorite churches," said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "And while we are gratified that the state agreed to end this practice, we will remain vigilant to ensure that Louisiana is held to its constitutional responsibilities."

Similar to the aftermath of the Dover Intelligent Design case, the settlement also calls for the state to pay for the ACLU's costs and attorneys' fees.

I hope the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and all the local school boards in the state are listening.

Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars


Darwin News

Science News has a special web edition that includes expanded versions of articles from the magazine's print edition plus two additional features, all commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Here are the links:

Darwin's Evolution, by Tom Siegfried

Evolution's Evolution, by Rachel Ehrenberg

Molecular Evolution, by Tina Hesman Saey

Step-by-step Evolution, by Sid Perkins

Computing Evolution, by Patrick Barry

A Most Private Evolution, by Susan Milius

There is also an "interview" with Darwin.

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How to Support Science Education